Losing Dad

Dad and me in 1962

We buried dad on mom’s 89th birthday this October.  That day worked best with family travel schedules, and mom was okay with it.  Eight immediate family members gathered for a graveside service. We did not hug or get too close, the reality of Covid-19 altering life rituals and gatherings.

Dad lived in a nursing home for almost six years due to increasing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. His health declined although his mind stayed sharp.  He watched hours of CNN news, and before Covid-19 hit, he regularly played Bingo and attended other activities, tooling around in his electric wheelchair. 

So when the call came from my sister, I wasn’t surprised that my 91-year old father had died (peacefully and in his sleep).  What shocked me was the instantaneousness of grief, how visual and audio memories of him in younger, healthier years started parading through my brain.

I’ve known dad 58 years; he’s been a constant in my life.  Quiet and mostly in the background, he was smart, steady, loyal and hard-working.  My dad, Robert Milton Hartman, was also complex.

He worked hard at a low-paying job – 47 years as a plumber for the same company – and he excelled at it.  Customers would call the business asking for him to come out to their farm or home because they knew he’d do the job right. 

He was fastidious about certain things, like washing the family Buick EVERY Saturday afternoon until it gleamed, and trimming the edges of the lawn just so. He preferred certain foods, like potato salad, just like his mother made it.

Dad also struggled with depression on and off for much of his adulthood and took a passive stance to his health, deferring to mom to manage doctor appointments and medications.  He refused counseling. He was maddening that way.

Church and faith were vital to him and yet he lived with fear that he’d done something to prevent salvation and the Christian’s assurance of eternal life.  This tormented him and so we did not talk with him about death or his last wishes.

He did not like to take risks, his life seemed quiet and small, less than his potential.  He refused to ask for a pay raise because “if that’s what they are paying me, that’s what I’m worth.” 

And yet, in grief I think of daddy as kind, gentle, and easy to be with.  His quiet love for his family dominates.

Warm and vital memories surface:

  • Sitting up with me as I retch over the toilet with some bug, or patting me to sleep at night when darkness scared me.
  • Leading hymns at church, first blowing the worn, trusty pitch pipe, then leading our congregation in his clear tenor voice.
  • Arriving home every work night at 6 pm sharp to relish my mom’s home cooking, eating dessert every single night.
  • Popping corn in the old electric skillet and slicing crisp local apples on Sunday afternoons.  
  • Fixing our family cars with his keen mechanical skill, taking pleasure in driving on road trips. 
  • Recalling, at my wedding, a little incident when as a child I bit him, in fear, on a roller coaster. Everyone was cracking up.
  • Helping my spouse and me with plumbing projects in the homes we owned.  He soldered copper pipes with ease and perfection.  And when our garbage disposal backed up just a few days after his death, I commented to my family that “dad would know how to fix this.”
  • Gently holding my children as babies when he and mom came to visit.
Dad and my daughter in 1998

And while the circumference of dad’s world was mostly in our rural Ohio community, he and mom flew to Nigeria in 1998 where we lived at the time.  He walked the crowded markets, visited our friends and bravely tried local foods like melon seed soup and pounded yam. 

So many memories.

I lived several states and sometimes a continent away in adulthood, and while I visited when I could, it doesn’t seem like nearly enough, nor do the phone calls I made to him in the nursing home. I did my best given my life, work, and family.

After his death, my sister and mom removed his belongings from the nursing home.  Seeing his phone hit me hard.  He loved having a phone; it was his lifeline to those he loved and it was especially vital during the the last months when the pandemic prevented any visitors.   When I’d call, he often answered with “Hello, Brenda!”  I can’t erase his number from my phone and I still have his voicemails. Here’s one: “Brenda, it’s Dad, I just wanted to call and tell you I love you, and thank you for calling.  You can call me back if you want to but you don’t have to.”

I’ve been listening to Colin Hay’s “Dear Father” a lot. (It’s a marvelous song.) These lines I’ve selected especially get to me, as I grieve daddy, honor his life, and reflect on the ways he lives on in me.

“Dear father, I’ve got your photographs.
Thank God for photographs, hip, hip, hooray. 

Dear father, I can’t let you go just yet
and I still can’t forget you walking around.

Dear father, you’re starring in my dreams,
and you’re stealing all the scenes, where did you go?

Dear father, you’re in my reflection now.
As I reach out and touch you now, where did you go?

Dear father, I’ve got your photographs.
Thank God for photographs, hip, hip, hooray”

Brenda Hartman-Souder, December 2020

Covid’s Still Here and Winter is Coming

I’m writing this just before Thanksgiving.  The news includes photos of Americans traveling for the holiday despite rising Covid-19 infection rates and pleas to limit or cancel family gatherings.  Three weeks after the election, President-elect Biden and his team are now formally authorized to begin their transition. The weather here in Syracuse is predictable: cold and often gloomy with snitches of sunshine.

In conversations with friends and clients, I hear about so much stress directly resulting from the pandemic. Parents of young children must constantly respond to shifting realties while trying to hold it all together.  They’re stretched to the max sorting out the risks of day care and school, or working from home while tending to children learning remotely and trying to safely maintain social connections. Some folks are largely isolated and long for the familiar social holiday events.  Some are choosing not to visit family members and friends because of health risks and advice from health experts.  Some have lost income or jobs. Some have friends or family members with Covid. Promising vaccine news helps some to be more hopeful.

At first I drafted a blog post that basically said, in a nice way, “Suck it up, you all!  Get over your grumbling and make the most of this.”  But it didn’t sit right and I realized I was doing what I advise clients not to do: avoid grief, fear and anger.

And so for the past weeks, with Covid-19 numbers rising and our city back to partial shutdowns and restrictions, with a fractious election, and winter’s long haul coming, I’ve let myself feel scared, sad and angry.  I don’t want to head into five cold months without the usual events, gatherings, and rituals.  I’m tired of only chilly walks with friends when I’d rather have them in my home. I worry about older or immune-compromised family members and friends, about their physical and also emotional wellbeing.  I am angry about the patchwork and ineffective governmental response and our inability to stem the spread. I could go on and on, and sometimes I do!

Acknowledging how challenging life is allows me to accept it a little more. And paradoxically, it also permits me to more fully be with family, friends and clients as they express grief, frustration and anger.

I’m learning, again, that when we allow ourselves to experience our emotions, (without taking them out on others) there’s more space to discover our resourcefulness and creativity, and to trust in our ability to endure.

We cannot Pollyanna our way through this particular time but we are going to get through it. We have to allow ourselves to be human with the full palette of complex and shifting emotions. When we do so, we are more likely to learn about ourselves in hard times and what we’re capable of.

Several resources:

A family member sent an article that seems up-to-date, hopeful and science-based. It’s called “The Sane Person’s Winter Covid Survival Guide” by Susie Bright.  It’s got strong language, and you might not agree with all of it, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there.  Read it here if you are looking for help making decisions about whether or not to socialize, and how to do it as safely as possible, through the months ahead.

If your threshold for risk is different from others in your life, it’s important to find your own basis for making decisions, getting comfortable with them, (even if they are hard) and also letting go of judgment when others make different choices.  For reading on this that may be helpful, I recommend Sheryl Paul’s blog post:  How to Navigate COVID-19 – Let Me Count the Ways.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, November 2020

Autumn Reflections #2: Work & Life in Haiku

Virtual sessions with
clients who dig deep, work to
change what’s possible.

Shifts takes time, patterns
hard to break, pain underneath.
Deeper still: hope, peace.

================

My mom is voting 
for the very first time in 
her eighty-nine years.

(She lives in a swing state.)

================

Daughter essential,
works checkout, guest services.
Masked, gloved, eyes smile.

================

Son’s college on “pause,”
online only for two weeks.
Works, eats, draws in dorm.

“Covid Dashboard,” such 
power to determine fate
of college students.

=================

Spouse paints, transforms rooms.
Fresh paint inside lends repose
to outer chaos.

===================

Biking the canal,
leaves in fiery farewell.
Tires crunch. Breathe deep.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, September 2020

From poets.org:  A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression.

Photo by Chris Lawson, Unsplash

Autumn’s Short Reflection #1

Dear Readers,

I have blog post drafts that don’t seem appropriate in the context of this autumn, 2020.  I don’t know about you, but I can easily feel that I am a little boat tossed about in a wild sea.  There are few calm days; almost every day is filled with news of upcoming elections, of political ploys, Covid-19, wildfires, hurricanes, economic struggle, loneliness and isolation. (And that might be a short list!)  

While stories of hope, beauty, courage and community building may be more difficult to find, they’re present, like treasure in the bottom of the sea, and we may have to work a little harder to find them and allow them to balance out the blaring, often negative headlines.

I persist in believing that whatever happens this fall, and into the winter and beyond, we are more sturdy and resilient than we know. If we are feeling tossed about, we must go deeper to get anchored, must find and use all available internal and external resources to manage and maybe, at times, even do well in this season of chaos and uncertainty. 

So I’m going to post short, quickly written poems that reflect my own process and observations for the next while. I hope you can find something in here to relate to.

Today’s is about my little side garden, because nothing calms me more than watching life’s trustworthy cycles through the lens of tending to soil.

September 2020

Last days to comfortably sit
on porch or patio,
the breeze cool,
the angle of light slanting,
whispering “darker, colder, slower.”

The tomato plants are browning
the cucumbers have been pulled,
the beans are barely producing.

But the zinnias remain colorful and lush,
orange, magenta, pink and poppy-red.

And the snow peas are racing
up their trellis
as if fully planning to beat
the first frost
with sweet, plump pods.

The garden is clueless about Covid.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, September 2020

Transitions: Taking My “Baby” to College

In mid-July, my son receives his email from the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Office outlining their complicated and lengthy protocols to safely bring new and returning students to this university campus in August 2020.  

Suddenly it’s real. After four months of shutting down, staying home, washing hands, wearing masks and being really careful, my 18-year-old is preparing to move into a dorm and start college with thousands of other students.

My heart lurches in my chest – this is my baby – heading off to college in a pandemic.  He’s had enough disappointments this year – cancelled high school musical, cancelled Spanish trip to New York City, cancelled theater workshop, cancelled prom, cancelled typical high school graduation. He’s philosophical but also cynical, the cynicism protecting future potential disappointments, and he muses, “ Isn’t it likely that just as I settle down into college life, this too will be cancelled by sending students home?”

It’s a bet he’s taking, after considering a gap year, and his father and I respect his choice.  And since he’s planning on going, our task is to help him shop for college necessities, to enjoy these last weeks together as a family under one roof, and to hold sorrow and excitement in some simmering stew in my heart.

I remember my dad and mom driving me to college in 1980.  I was the last of three daughters to go and the college I chose was 350 miles from home.  I remember being irritated and embarrassed that my mother cried; what was the big deal?  Now of course, I understand.  Boy do I understand.  Already, tears well up at odd times – tears of pride that he’s an honors student and going to the school of his choice. (And only one hour away!) Tears of sadness and fear.  I know how much we’ll miss him.

Transitions are hard.  Many of us like routine, predictability, and stability;  when those are shaken, we get shook up.  Add the current pandemic, the racial protests, the erratic and unpredictable leadership from our elected officials, and this transition has the potential to really rock the boat.

Here’s what I’m doing, to the best of my ability, in this transition:

  • Maintaining the routines and practices that help sustain and ground me – still rising early for meditation, exercising and working in the garden, then getting enough rest and connecting with friends.
  • Doing my best to prepare for the transition while also knowing that I won’t think of everything.  There will be bumps, emotions will swell.  I’ll figure it out.
  • Soliciting support from family and friends; we’re all in this together when it comes to transitions.
  • Giving myself time to process emotions – to feel joy, excitement, sadness, fear. Allow them to be, knowing they will ebb and flow and eventually quiet down.

Someone turned the calendar on the side of the fridge to August.  Viscerally and immediately, more anxiety kicks in.  I know that underneath is grief, joy, worry, hope – the whole lovely mix of emotion.  I remember this when my daughter left for college. 

Most of the “stuff” on the “what to bring to college lists” has been purchased.  We’ve got a move-in day and time and by 2 pm in two Sundays we’ll be driving away, leaving our 18-year old in his dorm, ready as he can be to start school in a pandemic.

He continues to go about his summer routine:  moving lawns and working at a local pool.  Lounging in the living room recliner as he plays a game on his iPad while also listening to something on his phone.  Vacuuming the house every week, washing up the supper dishes every night. Hanging out with friends, socially distanced, of course, and ordering takeout.  Drawing some.

I find that I cannot fathom how quiet and different the house will be without him here.  How weird it will be.

Greg does a few final fun activities with friends, transfers his mowing jobs to his dad, and buys a few last things.  Then he begins a week-long required quarantine before arriving on campus next Sunday.  We plan a final family evening with a take-out meal of his choice.  I refrain from telling him things that are my anxiety, not his,  “Don’t let your laundry sit in the washer, don’t forget to order your books, are you sure you don’t want to take a fan?”

Sleep, or rather, the paucity of it, tells me I’m grieving.  I’m more than grieving.  I’m happy, sad, scared, excited.  We’ve been planning for this for a long time. 

Courtney Martin, who writes a terrific blog called the examined family, says this in a recent post about sending her 3-year old back to pre-school following months of quarantine and social distancing:  “We’re just like that, us humans. We can have more than one emotion at a time. In fact, as my daughter was reminding me, we mostly have more than one emotion at a time. Especially during times of transition and trauma. We are grateful to be free and weirdly miss our confinement. We are in love and filled with loathing. We are generous and selfish, independent and so needy, wise and dumb as a box of rocks. Growing and regressing, empowered and resentful, so brave and so scared. All at once.”

Yup.  Even though he’ll come home on breaks, and this year it’s possible he’ll come home even earlier, I know from sending my daughter off four years ago, that it’s never the same.

But for now, the reality of my last child, my 18-year old son, leaving for college and next steps in his promising life, are registering in my body, my emotions, my mind, and in the daily tick tick tick of days as we march toward move-in day.

And now…

I already miss him, his essence, his presence, the way he flops down on the recliner with his phone and iPad, his intensity in philosophical conversations, his smile, his willingness to do the dishes every night without complaining.

Move-in went fine – first stop a Covid19 test, and then a quick unload/make your bed/snap a photo – parents were only allowed a half hour in the dorm.  And then we were driving away and we all started a new phase of life.

The Monday after drop-off I woke early, early – unable to sleep any longer, so aware that he wasn’t here, so pleased he gets to start college, so full of mama-emotions and also relief that we are freer now to do the next things in life.  I’ll be sad for awhile; I remember this with my daughter.  And the sadness will hang out with acceptance, and joy and hope and a bunch of other emotions I’m not sure how to identify yet.

He did it, and we accompanied him.  (And yes, he does need a fan!) Nothing is certain, and it wouldn’t be even if Covid19 were eradicated, but the virus heightens the uncertainty.  He’s taking it one day at a time and so are we.  In the meantime, our home feels diminished, it’s quieter, muted, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, August 2020

Sheryl Paul, on her website Conscious Transitions, writes terrific blog posts about transitions.