2021 Treasures

BEHIND THE SCENES: I’ve had a WordPress “new post” blank screen up on my computer for . . . let’s just say “a long time” . . . trying to think of a title for my end-of-year blog post. Finally, I realized the ridiculousness of such extreme writer’s block, and so, after deciding the title will come to me sometime before I publish my post, I’m going to just start and see what happens.

What a year two years it’s been. In my 2020 end-of-year blog post, I mentioned that 2020 “might very well be the worst year of our lives,” with a pandemic that separated us from each other and to some extent, kept us from living our lives in a way we were accustomed.

Little did we know what 2021 would hold. I summarized the year in my annual Christmas letter. Rather than re-hash the year, you can read about it here.

In the last couple of months, I’ve become better acquainted with an online friend, Corinne Westphal. Though I hope to have the pleasure of meeting in person one day, for now, I’ve been happy to be a part of her writing community. After purchasing her book, Unearthing Your Treasures: Journaling Toward True Self, I joined her NaNoWriMo-Lite group on Facebook in November. As a result, I began a memoir, something I’ve thought about doing for many years and managed to write over 12,000 words. That’s more writing than I’ve done in the last couple of years!

Now, with November passed, Corinne continues to hold what she calls “Tasters,” where writers from all over the world join via Zoom to sprint and sometimes share their writing. Yesterday, she led a “Celebrating 2021” Taster that I unfortunately was not able to “attend.” But, she shared some of her prompts on Facebook. I thought they’d be perfect to summarize my thoughts on 2021. So, thank you, Corinne!

How have events of 2021 changed your relationship with:

  • You partner and/or family
  • A friend or friends
  • Co-workers
  • Yourself

What was a significant moment or experience that occurred for you this year?

  • Why is it significant?
  • Was it a learning moment, a challenge, an accomplishment, a setback, or a realization?
  • How did it affect you and/or your family, and what did you learn from the experience?

2021 was a year of many changes, but the biggest one, the one that changed me the most, was the death of my father on February 1, 2021, after a long and hard-fought battle with prostate cancer.

One of the weapons he used to fight this battle was to think positively–never fully accept that he was dying. Being a believer in the power of positive thinking, at first I found his strength and determination reassuring and admirable. Even in his last months, I, too, believed if he could continue to deny the seriousness of his illness, focus only on healing, he might miraculously make another comeback, as he’d done many times over the twenty years of his cancer.

But as he weakened, and as treatment after treatment of chemotherapy and radiation failed to do anything but weaken him further, I began to have doubts, and wanted to have “end of life” conversations with him. I wanted to tell him how I appreciated that he chose me over his blue Jaguar, that I always admired his goodness, about how he was my rudder and how I would miss him.

But “end of life” conversations would leave an opening for the negativity that he resisted, I believe, until the moments before his last breath.

A part of me regrets not being able to say those things to my father at the end of his life, but a part of me also believes he must have known some of it. I told him often that I loved him. But I never talked in much detail about how I appreciated the father he’d been or that he was, and will continue to be, a “little voice” that guides much of my life.

My father’s death changed me in two ways. First, it taught me not to wait for “end of life” conversations to tell loved ones what I want them to know. So much of my life, I’ve hesitated to express my feelings about some things to some people. Death has taught me the finality of “it’s too late.”

Second, it reinforced the brevity and speed at which my remaining life is passing. My father was 24 years older than I. When I think about how quickly the last 24 years have flown by, and when I think about how the next 24 years will fly even faster, I realize and understand that there’s no time to waste. No time to waste hesitating to say what I want to say. No time to waste putting off spending time with those I love.

It’s one reason we chose to move from Dallas, Texas to Avon Lake, Ohio–to be closer to my children and grandchildren.

Corinne’s next writing prompt question was:

If we were to create a time capsule representing life in 2021, what object(s) might you choose? And why? Can you choose something that represents something positive? (This is for generations 100+ years in the future.)

In our two, going on three pandemic years, social media has both held us together and torn us apart. I’ve been grateful for Facebook to keep up with family and friends, especially when it hasn’t been possible to physically be with them. But, Facebook and Twitter have also been terribly divisive, and although I could fill a whole other post with my opinions of how social media has torn us apart, I’ll just leave it at this: social media is both positive and negative. It all depends on how you use it.

So, I tried to focus on how social media has impacted us positively and chose the following symbol:

With the isolation of the pandemic, and more recently for me, with moving away from many of my friends, Zoom has been a wonderful way for me to stay in touch. I’ve enjoyed happy hours, birthday parties, many conversations, and now, writing camaraderie via Zoom. I even get to “see” my co-workers back in Dallas for our weekly meetings, although that’s via Teams.

Technology can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse–so much so I’ve come close to cutting it out of my life completely.

BEHIND THE SCENES, PART II: Wouldn’t you know–a title for this post just came to me. (I knew it would!)

2021 was one of the most challenging years of my life. But thanks to Corinne Westphal’s writing prompts, I managed to find the silver lining–the treasures of 2021.

May you, too, find the silver lining, the *wabi sabi, the treasures–even during challenging times.

Happy New Year to all!

*Wabi sabi is a way of looking at the world with a kind of quiet insight; to find beauty, even in imperfection.

Wabi Sabi for Writers – Richard R. Powell

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Christmas Letter 2021

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Twenty Years

It seems like only yesterday. Cliché, yes, but true. Even before the 20th anniversary of this most tragic day, “twenty years” has weighed heavily on my mind.

When my father died in February, after his hard-fought battle with prostate cancer, I realized how quickly the 20+ years since his initial diagnosis had flown. I thought about who I was twenty years before, about how my life had changed.

My kids had grown up and now have children of their own.

I’d traveled around the world and been married and divorced. I’d become a published author. I’d lived in three different towns.

Still, the time between my dad’s prostate cancer pre-diagnosis of his death passed in a blink.

I began to think about how quickly the next 20 years would pass, which lead Steve and me to make some difficult decisions about how we wanted to “write” what could possibly be the last good twenty years of our lives. (Though I’ve told Steve many times I plan to live beyond 100!)

And that’s how we ended up moving from Dallas, Texas to Avon Lake, Ohio. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Wow, what a big move. What brought that about?”

“We wanted to be closer to our kids and grandkids,” I’d reply.

Silently, I’d think to myself, “Twenty years.”

In the week leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, again, I’ve thought about how quickly those years flew by . . . about where I was and who I was at the time. Shortly after 9/11, I wrote an essay titled “The Second Airplane.” It describes a tiny part of how the world changed after that second airplane hit the World Trade Center.

What it didn’t describe was how it changed me personally.

As I learned stories about the sacrifices of heroes and stories about final messages to loved ones, I was left a lesson about what matters in the end.

Love. Despite our differences.

There were countless heroes, many unsung and known. From the firefighters who rushed into the buildings, to the police who directed people to safety, to the paramedics who treated the injured, to the passengers who took down Flight 93, to the countless every day people who helped others at risk to their own lives. All sacrificed themselves to save others, not knowing anything about the politics, religion, or any other characteristic we so often use to divide ourselves from others. The only thing that mattered was helping a fellow human being.

Then, there were the heartbreaking final messages. You know what struck me most? In the final moments of their lives, what really mattered was not the need to know they’d been loved. Instead, their final words were to express love–to assure those who were left behind would know how much they’d been loved.

Nothing else mattered. Not the differences. Not the arguments from the night before. Not missed deadlines. The final words were expressions of love.

That’s how 9/11 and twenty years has changed me.

It would be idealistic of me to think I’ll never have differences. Believe me, I have many differences with those I love! But what changed in me is the sound of a little voice, just beyond any thoughts of disagreement or misunderstanding. It pushes its way to the forefront of my mind and whispers:

“In the end, it doesn’t matter.”

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End of a Chapter

Have you ever read a book you couldn’t put down? A book with chapters you hated to end, yet you couldn’t wait to turn the page to the next chapter?

In two days, with a final cross of a threshold and the tiny “click” as we close the front door to our home one last time, we will end a chapter that has been a book unto itself–full of all that makes days upon days upon years a life–the start of our marriage, the births of four grandchildren, the deaths of my parents, four family weddings, hundreds (if not thousands!) of walks to “our” beautiful neighborhood pond, and, oh yes, 15 months of isolation caused by an historic pandemic—a time when we were grateful to be “trapped” in the house with a spouse who didn’t make us feel “trapped.”

When our happy seven-year chapter comes to an end on July 31, we will drive off into the sunrise on a liminal journey to a place where we will begin to write our new chapter, in Avon Lake, Ohio.

Ohio?!?

I can hear the single-word question even through the dense ethernet.

Nothing at all against Ohio, but I never thought I’d find myself living there. The reason for the move is to be closer to my kids and grandkids, and it was a tough and emotional decision to choose between the Cleveland area where my son and his family live, and Arlington, VA, where my daughter and her family live. In the end, the affordability of Cleveland won, but I’m grateful to be but a 5 hour drive away from Arlington—so much closer than we’ve been in Dallas.

The difficult decision of where to live was preceded by the rather intimidating decision of whether to leave Dallas at all. My sister and her husband are here, another sister and my brother live in Tulsa, with another sister in Santa Fe. In a few months, two of my siblings will become grandparents for the first time.

Steve has lived in Dallas for almost 40 years—perhaps the most definitive years of his life. His mother, sister and brother-in-law live here.

We both have great jobs in Dallas – (blessed to work for companies that have agreed to let us continue our jobs from home!)—and many friends we’ve made over the years.

But life is full of tough choices, and, especially after the death of my father in February, I’ve realized how quickly life passes and what a brief time we have left. I’ve seen in the last year how quickly the grandkids are growing up and changing, and I know from raising my own kids that there will come a time when their friends and activities will (how shall I say this?) make spending time with “Grandma and Pops” less of a priority.

So, as hard as it is to leave Dallas, I’m drawn to the life sustenance of my kids and grandkids, and I’m very grateful that Steve is, too.

Which brings to mind the bittersweet mental meanderings I had when I moved from the house where I raised my children—a house I lived in for 20 years—from my kids’ infancy to their entrance into colleges. I wrote a haiku then, and used it in my book, The Red Kimono:

My house is empty

But memories will remain

Echoes in my heart

I wrote this haiku after walking through my empty house, recalling all that had made it a home. As my footsteps echoed through each room, those memories echoed in my heart.

Tomorrow, the movers will come. I imagine walking out. We’ll close the door for the last time and will end yet another chapter in our lives . . . to begin another.

This home I have loved

I close the door one last time

and recall the past

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Holding On and Letting Go

On Sunday, as Steve and I often do, we wrote on a writing prompt for ten minutes. The prompt was “Days Gone By.” With thoughts of my father still wrapped around my mind, here’s what I wrote:

Tomorrow will be one week since my father died. My father died. The words still feel like a hammer to me, an unreal, cold, hard hammer.

Days gone by. One might think I’d write about the last few days, the days since his death, but they are a blur, an ongoing feeling that a part of me missing, like my breath has been sucked into a place of never and forever.

The bigger, more meaningful days gone by are of my father’s final days, as he left us in increments, hour-by-hour. We prayed he’d let go to end his suffering, yet wanted him to cling to life, knowing that once he crossed over, he’d be gone from our lives forever, leaving the very gaping hole I’ve felt over the last week.

I remember saying to my siblings early on in the week, “He’s already gone.” We were no longer seeing definite signs of response, of his knowledge that we were there with him. Perhaps he squeezed our hand, or raised an eyebrow when a familiar song played, or we said something that might stimulate his thoughts—“Dad, Chuck is here now,” or “Andi is on the phone,” or “Aunt Carol wants to talk to you,” or “We love you very much, Dad.”

But was it just a coincidence that his eyebrow raised? An involuntary twitch that made him squeeze our hands? We clung to hope that he knew, but we simply don’t know.

I chose to believe that as his soul began to depart in his last few days, it hovered over all of us, even as it lingered inside his pain-filled body, as unsure it wanted to depart as we were of our preparedness to let him go, and he saw our tears and felt our love mixed with pain, and he knew.

The Day After My Father Died

For the last few days, I’ve continued to think about the dichotomy of holding on and letting go, and it brought to mind what 20/20 hindsight has taught me about parenthood:

The hardest part is finding the line between holding on and letting go.

In my father’s final days, we all experienced this tug-of-war, even my father.

On Monday morning, after giving my father his pain medication, my brother, sister and father’s wife, stepped out of his bedroom to have a quick breakfast in the dining room, only 20 feet away.

After my brother said a beautiful prayer before eating, my dad’s wife went back to check on him.

In those few short minutes, my father had passed away quietly.

I hadn’t yet made it to his house that morning, so when my brother called to tell me, I was heartbroken and filled with guilt that I hadn’t been there. When I learned the details of the morning, that my father had passed alone, I suddenly realized that was exactly how he wanted it.

We loved my father and didn’t want to let go. Most of all, we feared seeing him struggle at the end.

After months of fighting every minute to hold on to a life he loved, on the morning of February 1, 2021, in his few minutes of solitude, he crossed the line between holding on and letting go.

I believe it was his final act of love.

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