Upon the Death of my Mother-in-Law

Carmela

Her name was Carminella.  She was born in a small town in Abruzzi, in Italy, and she came to the United States when she was still a teenager and spoke no English.  Can you imagine the amount of bravery it would take to do such a thing?  To move to a new country, by yourself, knowing that you would not be able to communicate with the most of the people there?

The fear she must have felt did not stop her.  She came.  She built a life for herself.  She married a man from Sicily, and they had two children.  First my late husband, Tony, then his beautiful sister, Mary Ann.  They were the best parents they knew how to be.  I never met Tony’s dad – he died a little less than a year before we met – but I saw much of Tony’s mom in Tony.  I’ve written before about his work ethic and the difficulty he had relaxing.  He got those traits from his mom.

When Carmela (as she preferred to be called) lost her husband, she was lost herself for a time.  I understand that.  When someone is so deeply entwined with your life and you lose them – however you lose them – you have to rediscover who you are without that person.  It’s a painful process.  Tony’s mom was reluctant to sell the house that the two of them bought with the money they earned working at Polaroid, but it truly was too large a house for her to maintain on her own.  She agonized over the decision – as she did over many decisions, much like Tony — but she finally did sell the house and move into a condo not far from there. 

It ended up being a good decision for her, however long it took her to make it.  She made new friends there.  She did things she’d never done, like take yoga.  I still remember the day Mary Ann called Tony to tell him that.  The yoga was big news, but the bigger news was that she’d worn pants.  Tony’s mom never wore pants, she was always in a skirt.  Always neat and pretty.  She was so pretty – Tony and Mary Ann both got their good looks from her.

I have said this before, but she was unfailingly generous to me.  Even this year, as she was dying, she remembered my birthday.  I have a beautiful opal necklace that she gave me, a scarf that she made for me and one she bought for me in France, and – most precious of all — memories of her kindness.  The memories that are harder are the ones of talking to her the day after Tony died, and how broken she sounded.  Of hugging her when I visited in July and feeling how frail her body was, and hearing and seeing how my presence there, without Tony, cracked her open.

These next few weeks were always going to be hard ones for everybody who loved Tony.  Three weeks from today will be the one-year anniversary of his death.  I dread that date so much.  It’s a strange thing.  It’s just a date on the calendar, December 21st, but it will never be just that to me again.  It’s like my own personal Pearl Harbor Day.  There is before, and there is after. 

Today is a new day with a before and after.  My sweet mother-in-law tried so hard, and she fought so valiantly against the cancer that had taken over her body.  I am grateful that she is no longer suffering.  I will always miss her.    

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Family. Friends. Love. Compassion. Understanding. Voice.

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These are the things I am most grateful for this year.  Tomorrow will be my first Thanksgiving without Tony, and yet I find I have so much to be grateful for.

Our first Thanksgiving, we were renting a room in a house with two other people we barely knew.  We arrived in San Diego in early November.  Both of our housemates were leaving for the day, so we had the kitchen to ourselves.  I remember that our one housemate, Wendy, was really sick and while we were cooking dinner she was hanging around waiting for her ride and coughing and sneezing.  Tony never did all that well around people who were sick since he hated being sick himself (unlike most of us, ha ha), and he was pretty upset that she wasn’t – I don’t know – hiding out in her room or at least keeping a bigger distance between her germs and our dinner.

I love Thanksgiving.  That first year with Tony was difficult, not because we didn’t have a nice day, in the end; but because I think it’s always a challenge to change holiday traditions.  He was used to having stuffing that included sausage but very few vegetables and no fruit.  I was used to having my mother’s stuffing, with celery, apples, cranberries, mushrooms, onions, etc.  I agreed to try the sausage if he would agree to let me include other things too; and it ended up being delicious.  I wouldn’t have expected it, but I really liked it.

In many ways, that story is almost a metaphor for this year.  It’s not that I’ve liked it.  In many ways I’ve hated it.  I have pushed my way kicking and screaming through a grieving process that was – and still is – so much harder than I could ever have imagined.  I have changed and adapted the traditions of my life because I have had no choice.  I have not written or looked at a screenplay since Tony died.  But I did, yesterday, become a NaNoWriMo winner and am well on my way to having written my first novel.  As painful and horrible as this year has been, writing this novel has been a gift.  An awakening, not just of my creativity but of my mind and body and spirit.  I have reconnected with my immediate family in ways that I could not have anticipated.  My closest friends have become even closer.  I have made new friends.  I have found my voice, and my passion, in advocating for suicide prevention and mental health awareness through this blog, my novel in progress, and the jewelry I am making and selling.

There’s a reason I am calling my jewelry company Metamorphosis Jewelry.  This year has been a long, slow, painful change for me.  At the beginning of the year I cocooned, wrapping my friends and family around me like a blanket.  Staying hidden and wondering how my life became so very dark and small.  The cocoon changed me.  I think I’m out of the cocoon now, still a little unsure of myself.  Still wondering what the future holds for me.  Still missing my husband, and wishing he had been able to see through his own darkness. 

I am sad.  I am happy.  I am determined.  I am so, so very grateful for my wings.

Our Veterans Deserve More Than This

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Today is Veterans’ Day.  Today we honor the men and women of our Armed Services, those who keep us safe and voluntarily lay down their lives to protect us and others around the world.  There has been a small amount of attention paid lately to the suicide rate among veterans, and while some may disagree, I think that we are undervaluing the lives of those veterans if we talk only about their military service and avoid talk of the lingering trauma that they carry with them when that service has ended.

Our veterans kill themselves at least two times as often as civilians do, and that number is underreported (like overall suicide rates) because families can pressure coroners to list another cause of death if they fear the stigma of mental illness.  There are also states (including large ones like California and Texas) that don’t report information on veteran suicides; and suicides that are not counted as such because they are things like single-car accidents or drug overdoses, manners of death that are open to interpretation if there is no note.  That’s not taking into account homeless veterans, who are often completely left out of reporting.

If we focus on flags and anthems and uniforms and glory today, we need also to think about war and violence, and the trauma suffered by the people who see it.  If you’ve never experienced it, it’s easy to dismiss something like post-traumatic stress as a myth or a question of mind over matter.  It’s not that easy, though.  I am on medication for PTSD right now, because it helps me sleep without the horrible, violent nightmares I was having after Tony died.  I cannot imagine the nightmares that must haunt the dreams of those who have seen combat.  Who have killed.  Who have seen their friends die in front of them, who have seen up close what war really is, and what it does.

Marching bands and flags are an important part of Veterans’ Day; but I hope that when you pause today to honor our veterans you will take a moment to think about the fact that when the military battles are over, many of them continue to fight battles that are unseen, unreported and often fatal.  That is a kind of heroism that is rarely celebrated, but requires a level of courage that must be recognized.  Our veterans deserve better than a celebration of their service that fails to acknowledge that the war, for many of them, rages within without ceasing.