One Year Ago: My Sister

My sister and my niece arrived at the hotel for Mike’s funeral on January 27. We all went to dinner, and my sister said that she was there to help in any way she could. She sounded sincere, but given her history of being unreliable, I had my doubts.

“Just help me with the kids,” I said at dinner when they arrived in town. “That’s what I really need right now. Mom has been such a huge help these last few days, and she needs a breather. I don’t ask for help often, but I’m asking you, I’m looking you in the eyes to say that I need help with the kids over the next few days while I handle all kinds of funeral-related things. Can you do that?”

“Anything,” she said. “I’ll keep the kids busy. We’ll have fun.”

My mom had been eager for a haircut, and she had been so helpful and strong over the previous days that I wanted to treat her. I called a local salon and made a cut-and-color appointment for her. I told my sister at dinner that night that I would need her to help me with the kids while I took mom to get her hair done the next day.

“Great,” she said. “I’m here for you. No problem.”

On the 28th, the kids, my mom, my sister, my niece and I went to lunch then headed back to the hotel. I told my sister that I would pull up to the front of the hotel and she and my niece could get the kids out of the car because my mom and I needed to get to the salon.

“What?!” my sister yelled. “It’s my birthday! I’ve invited friends to celebrate with me! I can’t watch your kids on MY BIRTHDAY! That’s not fair!”

(Side note: She was turning 37 years old – not a milestone, and she wasn’t a child. Even with all the other stuff going on in my life, I didn’t forget about her or her birthday. I ordered a birthday cake for her, and the kids bought her a small present and flowers. She wasn’t forgotten, but this wasn’t her day either. Also, we were raised that birthdays, after you reached 16 years old, weren’t really big deals.)

I got out of the car, walked over to her side and whispered in her ear. “We talked about this yesterday. I need help with the kids over the next few days. I want to treat our mom to a few hours in the salon. Please…” I begged.

“Whatever,” she said and walked into the hotel. “I can’t believe you’re asking me to do this ON MY BIRTHDAY!”

Fast forward a few hours and my mom and I returned from the salon – and the bakery with her birthday cake. My sister was nowhere to be found. My 16-year old niece was alone in the hotel room with Ethan and Lauren. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.

“With her friend,” she said, rolling her eyes. “She just keeps saying it’s her birthday and she’s going to do what she wants.”

Right after we left, my sister’s friend arrived and she dumped the kids with my niece. She hadn’t so much as checked on her daughter or my kids in the last several hours.

I was furious. Trying to take my mind off things, I started looking at my Facebook feed. There were several posts from my sister about how she was “partying” on her birthday, and how any friends in the area should stop by, and how excited she was to be with friends her birthday. There was also a check in from her “friend” at the hotel – “Partying with J on her birthday, so glad she’s in town to celebrate with me!”

I was pissed. She was in town because MIKE DIED. This wasn’t Party Town. This was the Grief Train. She was there because she was supposed to be helping after the loss of her brother in law. She was staying in a hotel room – paid for by my mom – to attend the funeral for my husband. It took everything in my being to NOT reply to the friend’s check-in: “Glad you’re having fun. I’m preparing the funeral of MY KIDS’ DAD, which is why she’s in town….”

I knew that I would lose it if my sister and I were together much that day. A group of college friends were coming into town and had texted to ask if I was interested in going to dinner with them. I needed the escape.

Dinner with friends was nice. We laughed. We cried. We told stories about Mike and caught up on each other’s lives. I was touched that they all came in for the funeral from faraway places, and it was nice to spend time with them before things got crazy with the viewing the next day.

When I got back to the hotel, my sister was on a rampage in the hotel lobby, waiting for me. “I can’t believe you didn’t have dinner with me ON MY BIRTHDAY!” she said. “I can’t believe you WENT OUT ON MY BIRTHDAY! I would never do that to you on your birthday!”

“No,” I said. “You would just make my husband’s funeral miserable. Today wasn’t about you – we’re here because Mike died. We’re going to see my children’s father tomorrow. He’s dead in a box.”

“But it’s my BIRTHDAY…” she screamed after me as I walked to the elevator.

I left her in the hotel lobby. She would never change. Selfish when she was a kid, selfish now. I just couldn’t take her ridiculousness. Tomorrow will be one of the toughest days of my life, I thought.

Finding help – I hope

I met with the new therapist last night. (Man, it was a cold night with -25 degree wind chills… If this wasn’t for Ethan’s benefit, I would have stayed home in my sweat pants under a down blanket!)

New therapist (D) is awesome.

Her office was filled with kid stuff, toys and books and games. It was very different from Ethan’s previous therapist’s office, which was cold and not kid-friendly with its diplomas on the wall and mismatched dorm-like furniture. I was also relieved to see two other kids coming out of another office – the boy was about Ethan’s age and the girl was maybe a year younger. Proof that this place GETS kids and knows how to work with them. (Never really saw kids at the old therapy place – no one under teen years.)

We sat down and she asked me to go over the timeline of events starting with Mike’s death last year.

“Actually, I think it started before that,” I said.

I recounted for her what’s happened in two years – Lauren’s birth (Ethan was no longer the only child), finding out Mike was drinking and lying and hiding it (lots of tension and arguing in the house), my dad’s death (Ethan let out a piercing, heart breaking howl when the Marine presented my mom with the American flag), neglect when Ethan was left alone with Mike (Mike drank until he passed out and forgot to feed or care for Ethan), my mom moving in with us, more tension at home as Mike was dropped from the outpatient rehab center, the loss of my job and the drinking ultimatum I gave to Mike, going to court, Mike being taken to the hospital and moving in with his parents a few states away, relocating the family to another state, Ethan starting a new school, Mike dying.

I explained to the therapist that Ethan’s behavior is very different at home and school. There’s no anger at home. There isn’t impulsive behavior or inappropriate outbursts when he’s with me or my mom. I talked to her about my belief that Ethan is processing his grief and losses, and he’s worried when he’s not around me or his grandma. I told her others want to diagnose him as ADD/ADHD, but that I wanted to hold off until I thought Ethan could process and deal with the grief issues. She nodded, she understood my theories.

D listened to everything, taking notes, asking occasional questions. She asked about his previous therapy experience and what was discussed. I told her that the former therapist never broached the subject of death or grief. Instead he concentrated on helping Ethan get along with his peers – necessary yes, but not helping the underlying problem. D was mortified.

“This kid’s been through a lot,” she said. “Grief and loss are major parts of his life. We’ll work on it.”

Ethan has his first appointment with her in one week. Fingers crossed.

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On a related note, it’s been a tough week for Ethan. He’s been in trouble at school for outbursts and anger and arguing with teachers.

Last night, I was on my way to pick him up from the after school program when the director called. Ethan was having a panic attack, she told me. He was yelled at for pushing a kid while playing tag and he lost it. They couldn’t calm him down.

Luckily, I was minutes away from the school. When I got there, Ethan was in a quiet, dark room across the hall from the rest of the kids. He had his head down and was sobbing. One of the program leaders was talking to him, rubbing his hair.

I asked him what was going on, what happened. He lifted his head and said that it’s almost the time when his daddy died last year.

We sat in the dark room and cried together for a few minutes. I gathered his things in the other room, and we left.

Right or wrong, I’m not going to lecture or yell at him for misbehaving this week. He has enough on his seven-year old mind this week.

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Late last night, I got an email from one of my mom friends. This mom knows the anniversary is coming up. Her daughter is in Ethan’s class:

During prayers tonight, I asked the girls if there was anything special they wanted to pray for and KL said, “I would like to pray for Ethan.” I said that was a great idea but asked if she had any reason and she said, “He just looks like he needs a friend, mom.” So I told her maybe she should try to be a better friend if it looks like he needs a friend.

I fear that Ethan’s anger and outbursts will alienate kids (and their parents), leaving him without friends or a support system. I only hope the other moms and kids in the class show this kind of compassion as we continue to move through these tough times.

It’s a good reminder not to judge others: you just don’t know what they’re going through.

Parenting is hard.

Grandparents card (alternatively titled “I have no use for assholes in my life”)

How do I tell Ethan that his dad’s parents are assholes?

Ethan is seven years old, and completely naïve about the tension between the former in-laws and me. He doesn’t know that we’ve never liked each other. Doesn’t know that even his dad didn’t like them. Doesn’t know about the foul behavior at the funeral (WTH steals a crucifix from the coffin?!) or that there hasn’t been any meaningful outreach from them since January.

And most of the time it doesn’t matter. They were never a major part of his life. He saw them once, maybe twice, a year, and they never really engaged with him, just watched him play from across he room. They’ve never called to talk to him or came to a school function or sporting event.

But last Wednesday, Ethan’s school had a grandparents’ day. My mom went and had a lovely time playing games and enjoying snacks with her only grandson. Ethan made a very sweet card for her – and he also made one for Mike’s parents.

He brought it home and asked if we could send it to them.

Truth is, they moved and I don’t have their new address. Super truth: I could get the address if I really wanted to… IF I REALLY WANTED TO. But I don’t want to.

I grew up with one set of asshole grandparents, too. I saw them on occasion, and my parents never swayed me in one direction or another in terms of my feelings for them. I knew some of the horrible stories about their behavior during my mom’s childhood, but my parents were cordial to them.

(SIDE NOTE: My dad’s mom was an amazing grandma, and I miss her very much. My mom’s grandparents – my great grandparents – were incredible, too. From these three amazing people, I learned what “good” grandparents were, how loving they could be. What a real grandma and grandpa can and should be.)

When I was an adult I chose to cut off ties to my mom’s parents completely. There were two situations that made me realize that these were not people I wanted in my life:

  • My grandmother spread a horrible lie about Mike and his behavior at my cousin’s wedding. Not only was the situation untrue, but the person who was supposedly the victim of Mike’s outburst was not even at the wedding.
  • My grandmother confronted me at the funeral of my grand grandfather, wagging her finger in my face and screaming, “Who do you think you are?” simply because I went over-and-above to find his favorite flowers. (All of the yellow roses in the area were gone – sent to California for the Rose Bowl. I made a few calls, worked some of my professional contacts, and found yellow roses for the funeral arrangements.) This woman went on to accuse me of performing sexual favors to get an internship at one of the world’s top companies in my field.

That was it. When they sent holiday cards, I marked them “refused, return to sender.” They were not invited to my wedding, not informed when Ethan was born, not invited to any celebrations.

I realized in my twenties that genetics does not make someone worthy of the title “grandma” or “grandpa” (or any other familial title…). Someone genetically linked to you might be a good match for a kidney transplant, but that doesn’t make them a nice, loving person. And you DON’T have to surround yourself with assholes – genetically linked to you or not.

(SIDE NOTE: About three years ago, my parents patched up their relationship with my mom’s parents. I was as polite as necessary when forced to be around them, but I did not go out of my way. I did not attend the funeral of my mom’s mom a few years ago, who was the major source of the drama and conflict. And while I do not have a strong desire to have a close relationship with my mom’s dad, he will be spending Christmas at my house, as she requested. I still do not call him “grandpa” as that is a title he does not deserve – I only refer to him by his first name, even to his face. My kids call him “great grandpa” and when they are older, they can decide for themselves if they want a relationship with him.)

That’s kind of the approach I have with Mike’s family. I won’t proactively reach out – I have no reason to. Hell, I have NOTHING nice to say to them. They know where I am, how to get in touch with me and the kids. Ethan and Lauren will know the stories when they’re older. They can decide for themselves if they want to (try to) have a relationship with them.

Until then, I have a grandparents’ card on my kitchen island.

Burial

There’s a cemetery on the grounds of Ethan’s school. It’s right next to the playground, just off the school’s parking lot. It’s creeped him out since he started there earlier this year (just weeks before his dad died).

Late last week, Ethan got in trouble during gym class and had to miss recess as a punishment. It was halfway through recess when a school aide came into Ethan’s class to let his teacher know that the kids would be coming in early. “There’s a burial going on and we want to respect the family,” said the aide in explanation.

Ethan’s eyes grew wide, tears filled them, and he freaked out. He got up from his desk and ran to the other side of the room. He started sobbing, wailing. He was uncontrollable.

His teacher, who was widowed about five years ago, hugged him close. She ended up sending him to the principal to calm down before his classmates saw him all red-faced and blotchy from crying.

This caused chaos to the rest of his week. He couldn’t get over the burial that had taken place days before (even though he didn’t see it). He was acting out in class, being disruptive and argumentative.

When his teacher told me about this, Ethan and I were on our way out-of-town. Ethan and I had a deal that if he was good all week, he could spend the night with me (without Lauren or my mom) and help me get set up for homecoming the next day – which I would be working as part of my obligation to my alma mater. Obviously, he had a tough week, and usually I’m a hard ass about this kind of thing, but I couldn’t punish him for being sad. When there was a funeral right there.

We left the school and walked to the car on Friday afternoon. Ethan was crying – probably because he thought he wouldn’t be allowed to go with me. He climbed into his seat and I sat on the floor of the backseat, just below his feet. We talked about how sad we were about the deaths of my dad and Mike. We hugged. I told him how much he meant to me. Then we went to homecoming. Ethan, too.

Since then, he’s mentioned the cemetery every time we pulled up to the school.Things like this are hard. It sucks that there’s a cemetery right next to the school. But there’s nothing we can do about that – the grave yard existed YEARS before the church or the school. There aren’t many burials, and I don’t remember there being any since Ethan started school there.

I doubt any of his classmates were fazed by the burial last week, but Ethan was. Most kids probably don’t give the cemetery a second thought. It’s just part of the school grounds. But it’s a constant reminder to a little boy who lost his dad and grandpa within years of each other.

It’s tough.

His Death is Real

Know what makes death real?

Reviewing the computer-generated image of the tombstone, or as they call it “cemetery memorial.”

The cemetery gave me a choice of two memorial companies for Mike’s tombstone. I went with the local one – they do everything in same small town as the cemetery. Seemed nice to support a local business that keeps jobs in the community and has been around for 60+ years.

The woman who answered the phone was very nice. I explained what I wanted – simple, cost-effective, not flowery or over designed. Just his name and dates. No chiseled angels or flowers. No fancy shape. No “best dad and husband ever!” Just tombstone-y. Basic.

We settled on a grey stone (cheapest option) with no special carving. Since it was a single grave (meaning, I didn’t buy plots next to him), it was actually much less than I anticipated. Of course, like everything in this death business, there’s a hidden fee. In this case, a $300 cost for  the “foundation” – it’s a cemetery requirement, not even sure what it is, but it’s not negotiable. The sketchy thing is that unlike paying for the grave plot (paid to the city) or the tombstone (paid to the mom-and-pop company), the foundation payment is due to some dude – not a corporation, just a dude.

This whole thing can be done by email and snail mail. Crazy. The company just sent the image by email. Of course, there’s a mistake. Mike’s date of birth is wrong. My fault. Thank goodness for seeing the proof!

Still, even with the wrong date, there’s something final about it. Something more than going to his showing or the funeral mass or burying him. Seeing the image of a grave marker with his name and his dates makes this very, very real. And final.