I’m sitting here looking at the snow thinking… (I know – never a good thing right?) Years ago, around this time (probably a few weeks sooner..) the dreaded day would come when the truck arrived outside of my dad’s clothing store with our delivery of Christmas boxes. The doorbell to the stockroom would ring and parked outside would be an 18 wheeler truck filled with 108 (the most I remember) boxes of boxes.
We’d (my dad, brother and I) would have to find enough room in the stockroom to put them all – so they’d go upstairs and anywhere else we could fit them until they could be unpacked, folded together, ribbons and tissue added and then delivered to each department. It was the most anxiety-provoking of days – worse than black Friday or the day after Christmas when we had the perfect storm of store returns and sales.
Yesterday I was on the phone (for over an hour) with a woman who does grief and eldercare consulting nationally. She told me about the importance of storytelling and playing the stories of the people we love who have died – completely through from beginning to end because they always have good, funny parts in them. She told me that sometimes when we experience grief, we get to the tough part and just stop at (or get stuck with) the sadness instead of going all the way through the story to the end.
The anxiety-provoking truck of boxes filled with boxes is the worst of the Christmas box story.
The funniest was the year we decided to pull a joke on my dad and wrap all of his Christmas gifts in boxes from other stores – we had Talbots boxes, Macy’s boxes, Cherry and Webb boxes, Wilsons of Wickford, Narragansett, and JC Penny. It was funny to watch him as he became more frustrated upon opening each box – “why didn’t you just stay on the island?” he asked. We continued laughing as all of the boxes stacked up on the floor. It was at that point he stopped and looked at us – and then looked at the labels on the clothes. He realized that the majority of the labels (except for the ski clothes) were from his store.
Fast forward to several years later when we were unwrapping gifts one Christmas in Florida. He unwrapped a gift from friends of ours to see it in a Leys box. We all started laughing as the store had been closed for years – “are those things still around?” he asked.
After mom died, I was packing up her apartment at Blenheim and was at the post office sending something to my brother. The man behind the counter saw the name on my card and asked “are you THAT Leys?”. I said, “no, not the red-haired ones, we’re the other side of the family”. “I sure miss that store,” he said “I can’t find a Barracuta jacket anywhere!” – When he said it, I realized I missed all of those fun times; even the boxes of boxes. But I’m glad the stories and great memories are still with me.
On this day – it’s about the funny quirky stuff. If mom was still alive the stress would have started about a month ago – just before her birthday. The phone would ring and she would say “I can’t find my calendar. Your father and I have driven to the local bookstore but we can’t find it anywhere. The one place we checked that I thought would have it was already sold out.”
The calendar she was referring to was the Sierra Club Wilderness Calendar – because she loved the photography. It had to be the spiral bound one – so she could flip it over quickly if she needed to. AND – it had to be the one with the large boxes (for days) so that she had enough room to list all of the appointments that she and dad had. “Okay I’ll take care of it.” I’d tell her; and while still on the phone with her I’d grab my computer, go to amazon.com or Sierra Club (#sierraclub), search for the calendar, order and pay for it and make arrangements for her to have it in two days.
By this time she’d be talking about something else and when there was a break in the conversation, I’d tell her “okay it’s on the way”. “What’s on the way?” she’d ask. “Your calendar,” I’d tell her. “Susan Ann!” she’d say, I could never quite figure out if she was frustrated that I had arranged for it that fast or if she was happy that I had saved her some time trying to find it. What was important was that it was on the way. As the years went on, she would call and ask “can you order a calendar for me?” “Sure” I’d say and by the time we hung up from speaking with one another, she would know when the calendar would be coming. But she’d still double check – “it’s the spiral bound one right?” “Yes” I’d tell her.
The week that it arrived she’d spend her initial time looking at all of the photographs. When I was with her she told me what it was she liked about each one. The next week, she’d spend time putting in everyone’s birthday, making notes of appointments and (my favorite) adding her sketches of all of the holidays and birthdays.
Then in 2017 when we moved to RI from Florida, we packed the calendar but couldn’t find it once we arrived. This wasn’t good as I had finally (because I’m slow like this) realized that mom’s calendar and pencil was the exact equivalent of my MacBook pro. So I went to Amazon, looked up previous orders, changed the address to Rhode Island and (“bam!”) another one was on the way. By the time it arrived though, we had already (finally) found her old one so she had all of them (2 for 2018 and her 2017 one) next to her chair.
A few weeks ago when I was with my brother, I told him I had found her calendars about a month or so before visiting him. And because I’m neurotic like that – I took pictures of some of her sketches. And yes, I even thought of ordering a Sierra Club calendar (which would be totally nuts as everything even related to a calendar, appointment or important date is so streamlined on my MacBook (and color-coded and synced to my phone and watch) that this is a totally crazy idea. Right?
This is Nate. He’s my guy, named after the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. For the last threeish years, Nate and I had been living with my mom in Florida and taking care of her. She had two cats of her own, Trey and Callie (pictured below). Trey is the oldest, a Maine Coon cat who thinks he owns the world, Callie is a little diva (who’s a year younger than Nate) and then Nate, who sort of has a personality of his own and is probably one of the most affectionate cats you will ever meet. He is a master at headbonking.
Mom and I had made a deal that if I found a new career endeavor in New England, she would move back with me as she wanted to see her friends and watch the leaves change in the Fall. Hearing her discuss this made my job search more focused as I wanted this wish to come true for her.
A few months later, I was hired and we made plans to move. Initially, she wanted to live with me but then decided that it would be better for her to be in an assisted living place closer to her friends in our hometown. I decided I would stay in the town where my new job was and then commute back and forth to visit her on the weekends.
Originally, because it was only a few days, I left Nate at home to guard the fort on the weekends I would visit her. But as mom became iller and I was spending more time with her, I decided to keep Nate with me. Together, we would drive to and from Mom’s normally listening to books on tape or podcasts along the way. He seemed to be a lot more relaxed everytime we listened to “This American Life” so it became a thing.
From our visits and conversations during the week, I thought mom was getting better. This thought was short lived however as, on a Friday when I spoke with her, I heard her coughing and realized this wasn’t the case and that the pneumonia she had developed was still present. I decided that Nate and I would head out earlier than we usually do the next morning and also called the staff and asked them to check on her that Friday night.
Early on Saturday morning, her nurse called to tell me that when she had arrived to give mom her medications, she had died.
It was news I never hoped (and wasn’t ready) to hear.
After making calls and asking for help from a friend, Nate and I got in the car and headed south to mom’s.
The next month was a foggy blur as I emptied out mom’s apartment while taking time to have a few big ugly cries as I wasn’t ready for her to leave. And while Nate and I spent time getting things together, Callie and Trey were definitely struggling.
Callie is a rescue cat (her story is here). A beautiful and also very affectionate little girl who had a tendency to sleep with mom on her pillow above her head. Mom would go to bed and she would tell me “the next thing I know, Callie’s on the pillow kneading before settling down and purring while finding her comfortable spot to spend the night”.
And because she was a girl, every time one of the guys got close to her, she would growl wanting to make sure she had her space and her “mom time”.
Trey was the master of the house. He was “mom’s cat” and had been part of our family for several years. Even before they settled in Florida full time, Trey had traveled with them back and forth to Rhode Island. At one point, during one of their flights, she had opened his carrier to pet him during a layover at Dulles International when he decided to push by her hand and take a nice long walk along the concourse.
Mom, not wanting to scare him, followed him from behind until she could finally get close enough to grab him. Hearing her tell the story was hilarious and Trey had many events like this but usually did really well between living in Florida during the winters and on their boat with them during the summer.
But when mom died, he was lost. And while I knew that cats grieve when their owners die, I never realized how bad this grief process could be until I watched Trey for several days after her death.
The morning I arrived, mom had died but was still in her bed. What was reassuring to me was that she looked the way she always had whenever I arrived early in the morning; resting quietly looking content.
Trey was lying across the doorway to her room. It almost seemed like he didn’t want anyone to enter and didn’t want her to leave. And he didn’t move – as the nurse, and subsequently, the funeral home director went into and out of the room, he stayed exactly where he was – lying fully sprawled out, blocking the doorway, watching everything.
When the funeral home director came back with the gurney, I picked Trey up and took him to mom’s chair in the living room. I think he liked that he could still smell her presence so he stayed there… watching everything like a hawk with those big Maine Coon Cat eyes of his.
Callie, initially had hid under the bed but then followed us into the living room where her “people” were.
The following days were the worst as Trey and Callie realized that mom was no longer there. I’d watch as Trey jumped from the top of her bureau (where the clothes she had worn most recently were still in a pile) and then to her bed; he was clearly looking for her. Callie had settled into the floor of her closet where she slept on top of her shoes.
A day later, it was early in the morning when I decided to take a shower. I had closed the door when I could hear the feverish scratching of paws against the door and loud yowling. When I turned the shower off, I grabbed a towel and opened the door to see Trey – it was like you could actually see the sad, disheartened, “oh, it’s only you” look on his face.
A few days later, my brother arrived. Together we discussed Callie and Trey and keeping them together or separating them. Because Trey had been the only cat my parents had had for several years before rescuing Callie, we decided that Trey would go back to Florida with Scott and Callie would move in with Nate and I as they seemed to get along pretty well.
The next few weeks also seemed trying for Callie and Trey as furniture was donated (along with antiques and books and other belongings). What had been their home had transitioned to suitcases, duffel bags, and boxes which subsequently were taken to different places. The emptier the room became, the more confused they all appeared to be.
Because of this transition and the grief they had, I paid a lot more attention to what I was doing and made sure that we developed as consistent a routine as possible for them regarding spending time together, feeding and bedtime. I also made sure that some of mom’s clothes were available for Trey to lie down on.
On the last day, I put Callie and Nate in their carriers and took them to my car. Trey and I were the last ones to leave mom’s room. I made sure we had a conversation and a prayer about mom watching over us in heaven and then thanking Trey for being so brave before we closed the door behind us.
A few weeks later Scott returned to take Trey home with him. Watching them together going through security at the airport, I knew that both Trey (and Scott) would be happier together but I cried as I watched them leave. Trey had endured probably one of the toughest times in his life but I knew he would be happier having all of Scott’s affection to himself and being in warm, sunny Florida where he could watch the birds play outside while watching the world go by.
And Callie and Nate have settled in well together here in our home – adjusting to their new place.
This is my favorite bench overlooking the intercostal waterway near Sarasota, Florida.
If you’re like me, sometimes stress can get to you. Without warning you may feel tense, frustrated, hopeless, angry, resentful…like an internal bomb is about to go off and you’re not sure why, what caused it, and what the best coping strategy is.
My recommendation, is to find a bench like this one and start with the basics.
Figure out which emotions you need to let go of; and the positive emotions you would like to replace them with. Like all things, there is an ebb and flow to life; this is true in this situation as well. Here’s the other thing – only you know how to navigate the ebb and flow of you feel.
Only you know what emotions you need to let go of; and which are the best ones to “take in”. AND – take them in, don’t just say them, FEEL them. Life is short, there’s no time to fool yourself or diminish your potential.
Here are just a few suggestions you may want to consider:
Breathe out anger; breathe in calmness
Breathe out frustration; breathe in serenity
Breathe out fear; breathe in faith
Breathe out self-centeredness; breathe in love
Breathe out shame; breathe in hope
Breathe out sadness; breathe in joy
Breathe out pain (no matter what type it is); breathe in strength
Breathe out vindictiveness; breathe in compassion
Breathe out loneliness; breathe in trust
Breathe out turbulence; breathe in contentment
Most importantly just breathe, take the time you need to redirect your emotions and your thoughts to make them work for you instead of against you and, most importantly, remember it’ll all be okay.