Life arrives whether you are ready or not. My life has done nothing BUT arrive for the last three years; however, despite the pain and subsequent healing from illness, profound loss and coming of age as an adult ready to turn the corner into "middle age," my overall outlook is one of gratitude.
I'm ready to start growing again. Both of my parents have passed in the last twelve months and it has been a coming of age that I have dreaded my whole life. I did not know what to expect. I was sure that it would be the end of me as they were my best friends and my touchstone of who I have always been. I had no idea that our relationship in spirit would be the spiritual chainmaille that would hold and stabilize my life instead of destroy it. In life, they supported and loved me, in death they are interwoven throughout my DNA and my days with a strength and a resilience of love and devotion that I feel deeply. It is a profound experience of joy in loss as in spirit I am more found and more authentically myself than I expected or ever could have hoped to be. Do I miss them? Immensely. Do I feel them with me despite the very one sided conversation that occurs in my heart, oh yes, and I am grateful.
It is with this learning that I am writing a book about the experience of both the touch and go of losing not one but both parents in less than seven months and the interweaving of memories that have solidified my understanding of who I am and who I am growing to be. Much of the writing that I have been doing has been a celebration of the love and legacy given to me by my parents. But, in turn, a lot of it is the realizations that have happened in their physical absence. I would love to share an excerpt and I thank you for the opportunity as I begin one of the greatest challenges yet in writing my first book.
Touch and Go
By Amy Kunstle
Evening is approaching and the sun has slipped behind the mountain. I sit quietly in my mother’s room with her presence so intimately around me, but so profoundly absent. I try not to hyperventilate. My throat is tight. My heart painful. I fight for gratitude as I look around at the stations of care. Gloves, bed pads, medicine, pill cutters, a pulse oximeter. Her slippers waiting open to possibility beside the bedside table. A book, marked but left unfinished. Dried flowers in a vase that stands like a sentinel waiting to be relieved of his duty. Gone. Sue has left the premises. I run down my mental list: I’m grateful she isn’t suffering. I’m grateful she had a peaceful death. I’m grateful we were with her. I’m grateful she didn’t have to do this anymore. I’m grateful she’s with God and out of pain. I’m grateful. I’m grateful that I didn’t die when she did, I really expected to. I’ve dreaded this with my whole heart my entire life.
Gratitude. It has always been comforting before. But, tonight, it is cold company. I never expected for her to face this illness. We watched her mother, our grandmother, yellow and die of pancreatic cancer, but never did I imagine that I would watch my own mother travel this road. How could life do this to her? Wasn’t it enough that she had to walk the painful, slow loss of my father to dementia? Place him in Memory Care? Surely it was enough to close down and sell her beloved home built together with love and move to a smaller townhome? She was starting to make a life. Defining through therapy who she was, who she wanted to be. She was just getting started creating a life of her own choices even with the new reality of taking care of a husband as he slipped further into his own world.
So many things to do. So much to live for. She wasn’t done. Even as the hospice nurse told her that the doctor had placed orders for her to be supported on hospice as there was no hope, she still wanted a second opinion to determine what else could be done. My Mom. A fighter to the end. Unbelievable stamina in the middle of such pain and weakness; she woke up the first day on hospice at home and asked a simple question. Where are you? I need directions. We sat up straight and declared every day a Sue holiday. She could do whatever she wanted. She could stay in bed and watch her shows or get up and we could go out to lunch. She could wear a nightgown or her clothes. We would fix anything she thought she could eat and change our minds if she wanted to. Her rules, her life.
It just happened so quickly. Less than a week and she was gone. The Great Mystery slipped over her and she passed out of our care into God’s. How to even make sense of this? How to say goodbye? How to negotiate the conflicting feeling of such relief for her peace and such mourning for her loss? No safe harbor. Just a minute at a time away from the last time together.
My mother. Forty nine years of focusing on where she was, what we were going to do and all the things I wanted to talk to her about. And now, all I wanted to do was talk to her about exactly where she had gone and how we were going to get through this. Nobody tells you how silent the void is. How final the last conversation about absolutely nothing could be with all of the little things said filling the space of the inevitable coming. And then, nothing. Nothing to bridge the silence except more silence and memories.
The hardest thing of all was facing the agony of trying to tell my Dad that his beloved was gone. How to part the veil of dementia and help him understand once with honesty, love and dignity what was his right to know. My Mom was gone. And then, how to meet his hopeful eyes and questions each visit asking where she was. Could there be any more painful process? My heart could only break so many times before I became someone I didn’t recognize.
Slowly, I walk around the room thinking through the tasks to be done and decide to leave everything. It is irrelevant. Mom doesn’t need a single thing taken care of for the first time in months and I feel absolutely heavy with grief. I simply want to go to bed. Sink down into nothingness and try to stay there. My chest hurts. I feel a new painful place that is as if somehow her beautiful soul has decided to make its new home nestled in my heart. I turn out the light and close the door.
As I walk into the kitchen, my first thought is what to fix for dinner. I automatically run through what would be tempting for my Mom and then stop myself. I can make anything without any thought to restrictions, spiciness, seeds, fiber, odors. I sit in her chair and cry. She is all around me and so painfully gone. I pour a glass of wine and then pour it back in the bottle. How can I possibly drink a glass of wine by myself? Our little ritual of a small glass as the day dimmed was so her and I’m just not ready to do it without her. I open the refrigerator door and take out a package of spinach tortellini, fresh basil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts and garlic. I set a pot of water to boil while I wash and dry the basil. I measure olive oil, grate cheese, skin the garlic and combine with handfuls of basil leaves pulsing pine nuts and salt into the gorgeous green slurry. I add the tortellini to the pot and set the timer for seven minutes. Slowly I bring a bright pool of virgin olive oil to temperature in another pan and brown a package of nut cakes to enrich the dish to create a meal that we love that we haven’t had in weeks as every element would have been wrong for my mother.
Madeline wings into the room. “What’s for dinner? Something smells fabulous!” I point at the stove and she inhales with a smile of joy. “That looks delicious, I’m starving.” She wanders to the window singing. How can she be so all right? Part of me is grateful and part of me is puzzled. Her practicality is her saving grace yet her love for my mother was so real and so connected. I am physically in pain making this meal that my mother would have enjoyed before she got sick. I can’t wait to have something different but it feels so sad eating something she could not have and enjoy it. The timer goes off and I drain the pasta, turn the nut cakes and take out a bag of salad to mix with dressing and sunflower seeds. Again, how I love those seeds and what a mixed bag it is to have them again without worrying.
We sit down together. Her chair is empty. We talk about the day, pass the dishes, try to be ok. John asks if we have a date for her service. I can’t talk about it. I’m just so ready to have this day over so I can put on my pajamas, pull my sleep mask over my eyes and escape. I don’t want to be awake anymore. I don’t want to have to think about any of this. I just want to be nothing for awhile. It will all find me the next morning. I pray to God that I will just sleep through the night and have some respite. Please, just let me sleep.
First light. A perceptive change in the quality of the light behind the curtains as the sun draws closer to the horizon and the Earth turns to begin a new day. My first thought is “Oh, Mom.” Same thought as the last few days following her passing. Another day in an unknown number of days stretching forward with no new memories. I try to stretch without waking the menagerie of cats and dogs around me, but know my time is coming to rub little furry heads, scratch warm bellies and receive my raspy welcome lick or nip of the day on my nose peeking out from under the covers.
“Oh, Mom.” My mind repeats it. “Father, you are lucky. You have shown her paradise and she is in your care. And I am holding the memories of her close as I learn to live without her.” I pray every day that God will hold her and care for her and fill her days with joy. I imagine her zipping around the early morning moon, watching the sunrise and coming to me with tenderness as I summon her again with my mind’s lament, “Oh, Mom.”
I picture her. My mind turns away from the last time to a different time.
She is in bed in 1975, curled up under a flowered bedspread next to my Dad who is snoring to beat the band. I only have an idea what that might look like because I would never have peeked and taken the chance of waking her. It’s 6:00 in the morning and it’s Saturday! The color TV is right outside of their bedroom, but, I know I can watch more cartoons undetected if I choose the small black and white TV in the kitchen. I pad down the stairs in my shortie pajamas and fluffy blue slippers with my soft, cream comforter wrapped around me and curl up under the kitchen table to watch the early morning shows.
Saturdays are golden. They are soaked in honey, dripping with endless possibilities honeycombed into the structure of what I do. Each Saturday is one delicious drop of pleasure after another as I turn inward into my own beat. Free from a schedule, wide open to ramble and walk my own walk. Even at seven years old, I hate to be reined in. No schedules, no school bells, Saturday is wide open and I’ve got things to do.
Around seven, I hear her coming up the stairs of our tri-level home. She peeks under the table and says good morning. Before long I smell toast browning in the oven. Buttered on one side, it is an English throwback and the only way my Mother eats it. I crawl out from under the table and slather my piece in homemade apricot jam. My Snoopy juice glass is clean and waiting and I fill it up out of the Tupperware container of reconstituted frozen orange juice. Mom putters around, feeds the cat, makes coffee and gets the paper. She asks if I would like to go to Schnarres and visit my adopted grandmother Mrs. Gould and Aunt Phyl. The answer is easy. This is my beat and of course I’d like to go, heck, I’m already there in my mind.
The morning takes on a faster pace. I turn off the TV, wash my dishes, run upstairs and start my stack of records. At the moment, I’m obsessed with a continuous run of Neil Diamond’s Taproot Manuscript, Marty Robbins Gunfighter Ballads, the soundtrack to Camelot and the Golden Records Disney Sleeping Beauty story. My sister is still sleeping and my Dad is getting ready for Saturday customers at the shop. I know I’m about to get in trouble for waking up my sister, but, I have work to do. Every doll must be woken up, dressed, fed breakfast and set to rights for the day. My pile of carefully clipped pancakes from my Duckwalls Rainbow Pad are placed on plates and my children are ready to enjoy their breakfast.
“Amy!” “It’s time to go!” my Mom calls from the garage. I quickly pull on my Toughskins, red T shirt and a poncho. I cram my feet into my tennies and am out the door and into the car. I hate the smell of new cars. Everyone thinks it’s cool to be a car dealer’s kid and drive new cars, but, we can never break in the new car smell before it sells and we get a new one. Yuck. This one is tiny and I can’t see out of the little triangle window which makes me car sick. My Cool Seat slips as I buckle myself in and the vinyl squeaks under my rear. I watch my Mom in the rearview mirror. She looks great. Her black curly hair is brushed and shiny with a small piece of pink tape holding down the side on her right ear. I know a curler rests close to her temple taming a relentless curl that she will never win. She will fight that battle later, and my thoughts drift into focus on how to make the most of my time.
We pull into the alley behind my grandmother’s gift shop and carefully park the car looking for stray cats as we wedge our car next to my Aunt’s. My Mom knocks on the door while I peek in the mail slot. My grandmother opens the door a crack. “Password?” she says in a stern voice. “Post Toasties!” I reply in the same stern voice. She laughs and we quickly walk in and assess the situation. Two customers already, my Aunt Phyl is monitoring our arrival and their progress working around the jewelry cases. I take a quick right through the curtains to the store room and take a quick assessment of the new shipments. Gold sticky stars, red lacy ribbon, new cards, fuzzy animal figurines, so many things to consider with my small allowance. Aunt Phyl has been making bows and the ribbons dangle tempting me to try my hand. I know I’m not supposed to touch it and I move on and find Mom.
She is standing at the counter talking to my Aunt Phyl. “May I do my errands?” I ask. “Do you have your money?” she inquires, as if she didn’t hear me shake down my plastic bear before we left. “Yes, could I have my allowance?” I tease. My Mom hands me a quarter and I’m gone. “Be careful! Be back to pick up the lunch order by 11!” she calls. I wheel out the door and make a beeline to the bakery. The door jingles and I behold the glory that is well beyond my means. Cookies, breadsticks, rolls, cakes frosted with autumn leaves, honeymooner doughnuts filled with cherry jelly, cream puffs, cupcakes, my stomach growls and my mind floats. “What can I do for you today, Amy?” Barbara, the most beautiful bakery lady in the world, smiles down at me. She smells like doughnuts and looks like heaven as she hands me a soft, squishy potato roll in a zigzagged wax paper. “Thank you! I love potato rolls! I gush. “I would like a honeymooner, please!” I say, with reverence. Oh my gosh. A honeymooner. A glazed doughnut filled with a red cherry center. My favorite doughnut in the world. They are expensive but they are worth it. Barbara smiles at me, gives me my white paper bag and takes my nickel. I am on my way.
Glistening with sugar glaze, I lick my fingers as I walk past the coin shop, the embroidery shop, the book store, the movie theater and finally the pharmacy. I round the corner and throw away my bag while I ponder exactly how I’m going to wash my hands to be able to touch the fabric at Dincler’s fabric store. I lick my fingers again, wipe them on my pants, decide that’s why they are called Tough Skins and call it good. I open the door and head straight for the remnant box. It is only half full today. I’ve already looked at all of these pieces of fabric and rejected them. Darn, I desperately want to make a fall dress for my Barbie doll and I have nothing left from the last time Grandma made dresses. Then the lady behind the counter notices me and reaches behind the door and pulls out the most beautiful piece of fabric I have ever seen. It is a veil, red with gold glitter dots. She smiles at me and says it was left over from her daughter’s dress and she thought I might like it. I can’t even imagine how much it costs and I am really sorry I bought a doughnut when I could have just eaten a potato roll. She GIVES it to me. I cannot believe my luck. I practically kiss her feet and skip out the door and head straight to the embroidery store.
The door is open now and the small skeins of embroidery floss are laid out in an ascending order of rainbows. One skein is particularly beautiful, it is a rainbow of pastels and I am instantly enamored. Friendship bracelets made with this would most certainly be the best for securing a good spot at the lunch table at school. I can see the colors winding from one to the other as I hand crochet the bracelets. I buy one skein and look at my Lucy watch. 10:45. I am in trouble. I have to pick up lunch at the Pantry at 11:00. I still need to go to Nettie’s for my candy and Chinn’s for my Tab soda. I move. Trotting down the street I am stopped in my tracks by the flowers in Huber’s window case. Beautiful fresh daisies smile at me and remind me that I haven’t bought flowers for my Mom in at least a month. I open my green beaded coin purse. One quarter, one dime, three pennies and my skate key. Shoot. I calculate. I have Mom, Aunt Phyl and Mrs. Gould. There is no way I am walking into that store with flowers for just one person. I have to decide. I open the door and Mr. Huber looks bored. It’s a kid. A cheap kid. I ask him how much it would be to buy three daisies. He says fifteen cents. I calculate again. My cousins are coming over in the afternoon. We are having a tea party and I need a nickel’s worth of Spanish peanuts, a nickel’s worth of wedding mints and a bag of cinnamon bears. One quarter minus fifteen cents equals ten cents plus ten cents and three pennies. No cinnamon bears. Oh well, it’s been a month. I buy three daisies and really make him wish I hadn’t come in by asking for them to be wrapped separately. Ha. He’s probably not going to see me for awhile anyway.
10:55…I am in so much trouble. I run in hand flowers around and hug each of my ladies and jingle out the door. In the door at Netties and I am stopped dead. Maple sugar candies. Fresh maple sugar candies shaped into leaves and pilgrims. Oh no. These are our favorites and I do not have enough money to buy a box and my other goodies. No time, no money. I look at the jars. I think about my doughnut of regret. I rack my brain on what we have at home for a tea party. MUNCHKINS! We have MUNCHKINS from Dunkin Doughnuts! We can have tea, Munchkins and each have one maple sugar candy. We can pretend that we are Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace from Little House and it’s Christmas time and we each get a piece of sugar candy and a little white cake. This is going to be great. I buy the candy and burst into Schnarres. No money left for a pop, I take my Mom’s lunch money and race down the street to stand in line for pick up at the Pantry.
Shawna waits on me and she is beautiful. Her hair is purple and I want to be her. I think about my box of watercolors and imagine myself painting my hair in the bathroom. She startles me with our lunch bag and I pay her blushing ten shades of red. The gift shop is empty of customers and we sit down and open steaming containers of red chili and flour tortillas. There is POP! Aunt Phyl has bought icy cold Tabs for all of us and I am so happy. The door jingles and Mrs. Gould goes to wait on a customer. I show Aunt Phyl my maple sugar candy and tell her my plan for a Little House Christmas party. She laughs at me and says Uncle Richard will bring the girls over at two. I simply cannot wait.