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Monday, June 15, 2015

Organization or Lack Thereof

I was having a bit of a rough day yesterday.  Really the whole weekend.  But mostly yesterday, I think.  And if you're reading this, please...I swear this isn't a cry for help or anything, just telling you what I was feeling.  I don't need reassurance, just to vent. 

Anyway, the recitals in particular, and dance preparations in general have been harder emotionally than I would have thought.  It feels wrong to me to see my children achieve success and to mourn it because their mother isn't here to share it with, but that's what I was feeling.  And that feeling felt wrong and I just had to sort of...think myself though it.

Leslie is the one who never stopped trying to find a dance studio that would take Lily in, and give her a chance to do something that incorporated her two greatest strengths...love of music, and love of movement.  Sooooooo much movement. 

So seeing Lily on stage (Leslie was always backstage helping get Lily ready to go on, but never got to enjoy from the crowd), and feeling the warmth of the crowd (no snickers, no mocking, no laughter) and see the hands waving silently in accommodative applause was at the same time such a happy feeling, and also so empty.
anxious...I'm pretty sure she's "visualizing" right here.

And Leslie was also the one who danced when she was young and always tried to help Emma with her hand movements and technique, and to see Emma, so poised on stage, her dancing so beautiful and graceful and her face just emoting...joy...was such a happy feeling but again...so empty.

I was telling a friend that I think what I've struggled most with of late is the loss of that...sounding board/partner/bestfriend that were all represented by Leslie.  I make friends relatively easily when I try, but I don't often try, and for twenty years Leslie has represented, for the most part, the only friend I really felt like I needed.  And now she's gone, and the person I want to text pictures of the girls to, or tell about "this thing that Lily just said" or brainstorm some social issue that Emma's dealing with...is silent.  And she can't really be replaced.  And I have friends I can talk to, and I have family members who care about me and my family and who I can tell things to, but it's not the same, and I've really been missing that.

So the recital happened and I wanted to text pictures and send messages and I couldn't.  Or...I could, but I couldn't send them to the person whose life revolved around those kids exactly the same amount as mine did...and does.

Sunday had been a series of personal failures.  They were all more or less trivial, but taken in the aggregate just pushed me into a funk that I struggled with until the end of last night when i finally switched off the light and let sleep claim me.

I suck at organizing.  Maybe I actually don't "suck" at it.  I just don't do it.  I'm not practiced at it.  That part of the partnership was Leslie.  She required it.  I just went with it; flew by the seat of my pants.  But her organization allowed me to succeed at flying by the seat of my pants because there was rarely ever any reason for me to have to do so, and my ability to react to whatever was left over unaddressed allowed her not to stress out that every last detail wasn't completely planned out.  We fit.

So now I have to start organizing.  Especially now, since the vacation is Friday, and it was just one thing after another on Sunday and they were all just a little too much.

Emma asked for mac and cheese for lunch.  I started boiling water and realized I was out of mac and cheese, and groceries weren't coming until Wednesday.  So I switched gears on the fly, and made hot dogs, but after grilling them realized we were out of hot dog buns.  Then we were invited to a pool party after the recital and the only swim suit I could find for Lily was too big (and we're going to the BEACH!).  Later I had to feed Emma supper but realized I had nothing made, and I'd have to make her eat frozen pizza for the second night in a row because there really wasn't anything else I could make quickly.  I hadn't cleaned the minivan's carpets or started packing...there'd just been too much to do that weekend.  Emma left the performance in a surly mood because people had been talking about a cast party scheduled for today, but nobody had told her...and she felt left out...only to realize the cast party information had been sent to me the week before in an email, and I was the reason she didn't know.

And I felt like I wasn't treading water anymore.  I felt like I was going under.  I remember thinking...well...this is it, I made it two months before complete system shutdown.  Laundry wasn't done yet, some stuff was folded, not put away.  My kitchen island was a nightmare, papers everywhere.  My dining room was the same.  The plants that got sent home with us from the funeral were slowly turning brown as I brain farted my way through the occasional waterings that were slowly killing them with my too-casual neglect.

All of which is maybe an overdramatization, but it was how Sunday felt to me.  I post these blogs and people I think get the impression that I'm super dad.  And I do try.  I try to do my best, and I think for the most part my best is pretty fucking good.  Maybe great.  But I doubt and struggle and question and all the stuff that isn't necessarily the stuff of weekly blog postings.

I had a rough time last week too, around the time of Kennywood.  And I got through it by making lists and tackling the things on the list one at a time.  I got through it with the help of friends and family...offering rides, or errands, or an ear.  And so I started my list for the vacation and last night I steam cleaned the van carpets (holy shit, if you've never done that...it's like they're new again) and started talking to Emma about packing and making plans for laundry and the week.  And I feel more on track again.  But it's not my forte.

So here's your Leslie story...

Six weeks after Leslie died, her office offered a memorial service on campus for her work friends who hadn't gotten to go to the viewings or funeral, and so I headed up with my in-laws and parents to sit in and shake hands, give/receive hugs and remember Leslie.

I called off work that morning, so I was at home when the truck showed up in the cul-de-sac.  School was still in session, and Lily's bus hadn't arrived yet to pick her up, but I looked out the window as I passed the front door, anticipating it.  It looked like maybe the neighbors had hired a grass contractor, because the truck had a lawn mower and some shovels in it.  I got Lily ready for school and we walked out to greet the bus.  It was my friend Jimmy in the truck he'd bought the week before.

I scowled at him and motioned questioningly to the bed of his truck with my head.

"What's uh...what's going on here?"

And he confessed that he'd sort of fucked up the "surprise" but a bunch of people were coming over to mow the lawn and lay mulch and do outside stuff that they knew I hadn't gotten an opportunity to tackle.  And I felt uncomfortable, but grateful and after chatting briefly went back in the house to get ready for the memorial service.  A half hour later two more people had joined Jimmy.  One was Jen, a former dance mom whose daughter was friends with Emma, and whose mother had been bringing Leslie communion at home for months.

"You know, Leslie set this all up months ago," she told me.  I had NOT known.  "She felt bad that so much had fallen on you and didn't want you to have to do all the outside work too.  She organized it months ago and this was the first free time we all had."   

And I let all that sink in as I drove to the memorial.  Even dead, she was still taking care of me.  She remains more organized than I am even from the fucking grave.  It's sweet and sad and so Leslie.  And when I got home the yard was mulched, and flowers were in the pots in front of the house, and shrubs were trimmed and trees pruned and it was more than I knew I'd have done.  More than I would have thought to have done. 

And I know I don't have to learn to be Leslie, but I do need to be more organized.  And I know that I can't just accept the duties associated with Leslie's share of the partnership overnight because that post has been vacated.  I know I need to ask for help.  I know I need to open myself more to friendships. 

These are things Leslie and I talked about when we learned she was dying...ways for me to succeed...open up more, ask for help, and accept help when it's offered. 

So last night I started making my lists and tackling things one at a time and today I feel better again.  Back to myself.  But maybe slightly better organized.  At least for today.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Dowden Brake

We went to Kennywood last week.  I think I thought it would be easier than it was.  I mean, I always stress out about Lily getting in and out of Kiddieland, and getting on and off of rides, and potential potty accidents and/or meltdowns or whatever, and not having Leslie with me, I knew that stuff was going to be harder.  I psyched myself up, stressed out, but ultimately felt mentally "prepared" for it. 

And instead of Emma's friend's mom going with us (as was our tradition), her dad attended, and idea that Emma's friend's mom had so as not to rub in the...momfulness of her friends and her...momlessness (my words, not hers).  It's something Emma and I have talked about.  It concerns me that she might pull away from friends whose mothers are really active and involved in their daughters' lives in favor of those who are less pervasive (not a big deal...everyone parents differently) or not around at all in their kids lives (more of a big deal for me) especially her core group of friends whose mothers are, like Leslie was, very..."visible".  Caring Place starts next week...

So anyway, the dad and I are friends, and the girls mostly ride by themselves anyway, so I felt like I was about as prepared as I could be.

But not emotionally, I guess.  This was to be the first Kennywood visit without Leslie.  I was going to write this whole preachy "firsts/lasts" post about how all these..."events" are occurring now that Leslie's gone, and each one is the first (insert event) since she passed.  First mother's day, first birthday, first vacation, first Christmas, all these "events" that I'm dreading because each one just shoves Leslie's death back in our faces and makes us confront her absence instead of just enjoying the event itself.  And the post probably could have been summed up in a couple paragraphs (like these), but I'd probably have drawn it out to five pages because that's what I do.  But I'll just cover it briefly here.

A friend of mine said something about how we had an awful lot of events like that lately, and I know what she meant (mother's day, Leslie's birthday, memorial day, first day of summer visit to kennywood, beach vacation (in a week and a half)) but I was just like..."No escaping it.  There are never NOT events."  Every day has some new thing that we're doing for the first time without Leslie.  And it sucks.  I mean, I spent damn near literally every day of the past 20 years with her.  We did a lot of shit in that time, today might be the first time...making tacos without her, or first time going to the pediatrician, or some other seemingly trivial ridiculous thing...but it's going to take a while to exhaust all those shitty little milestone "firsts" and certainly much, muuuuuuch longer before we stop mourning the "last" time we did (insert event) with Leslie...

But I had sort of forgotten about the Kennywood thing.  And Kennywood..well...Kennywood was very special to Leslie.  And the more I started preparing for it, the more memories crowded for space in my brain and started to press against my heart...

It started with the last time we went to Kennywood together, which, I think I probably blogged about.  Lemme find the link and I'll come back to write more...*hold music plays*...

Okay...I didn't.  I wrote about the first trip to Kennywood here:  "The Amusement Park".  And it references the Dowden Brake (the story of which will follow in THIS blog, in Leslie's own words, with embellishment from me) and has tons of pics.  It was three years ago.

Then I wrote about it the year before last here:  "Summer Is Coming".  Leslie was in remission then.  We thought.  Her hair was growing back in.  She was starting to look more like "herself" again.  It's actually kind of hard for me to look at and realize that the final cancer shitstorm was on its way.  But I have to compartmentalize that stuff and just revel in her joy at the park.

Back to the now (or the...last week)...and the weather forecast called for rain, and so I was looking for rain ponchos because last year at this time, Emma and Leslie were making a day of it, and Lily and I had headed for home (and her bedtime) while the adventurers stood in line for thrills.  Leslie bought rain ponchos because it was raining on them, and she stashed them away after they got home. 

I...get rid of crap.  Leslie...kept crap.  So a couple of $3 plastic rain ponchos?  Possibly I threw them away.  But I had to first look in all the usual places...her car (side pockets, glove box, center console), her "office" (all over the effing place), and finally...the coats in the coat closet.

And the first coat I reached into the pockets of maybe had a bit of change and a receipt for gas or something and...a tissue.  A wadded up used tissue.  Ugh.

And I stopped and thought and remembered...she always reused those fucking tissues.  She'd blow her nose, wad it up, and stuff it in her sleeve, or her pants' pocket...or her coats.  And I was like "Leslie, throw those in the garbage, they cost like...a cent per tissue...we have more, just get a clean one." and she would ignore me and continue doing it just as her mother had (and continues to do) before her.  So four coats into my search for a rain poncho I had four wadded up kleenexes in my fist.  Four for four.  And I showed it to Emma and we remembered how she always had a tissue...clean or used...in her pocket, and I stood there, tears in my eyes...over a fucking kleenex.  (In the end I found one poncho, in the bin where we keep gloves and hats and stuff...it makes sense.  I probably should have started there)

That was the first sucker punch, and honestly the day was really great, and Lily was good, and she had fun, and Emma had fun, and we ate awful food and rode for hours, but throughout the day there were many little aftershocks...so many Kennywood memories, watching Leslie ride with the girls, taking pictures of them together...and listening to her re-tell the story of the Dowden Brake.
so awful i barely finished it in five minutes.
 And I thought...I'll never hear that story again.  And it was one of the few she always told (because I'm the story teller guy) and I always laughed at and enjoyed...but somehow never really quite understood well enough to tell myself.

So I was talking to that same mutual friend, Bec (who talked to me about events) about the Dowden Brake and the story...and lamenting the fact that I didn't really KNOW the story to tell it.  She and Leslie corresponded via email daily, and Leslie had told HER the story, and she offered to share that and the other emails with me.  And...well it's just such a gift, these previously unheard words exchanged between friends...it's like being able to hear her voice all over again.  So I thought instead of trying to recreate the story of the Dowden Brake I'd let Leslie do the talking, providing only a little color commentary here and there. 

"The Dowden Brake"

From Kennywood's website:  "The park was designated a national historic landmark in 1987. One of the most popular additions to the park was a new steel-looping coaster the Steel Phantom in 1991. The Steel Phantom's top speed was 80 MPH, its longest drop was 225 feet and it featured 4 loops."


From their discussion June of last year:

Leslie:  Our kid's school went on strike in the beginning of the school year, so they get out late...June 17th.  We celebrate by taking them to a local amusement park the day after.  I love it...not so much for Jim.  He is not much of a rider.  

Bec:  Oh is that Kennywood that you go to?

Leslie:  Yes, it is Kennywood!  It is a huge family tradition with me...went every year.  Once out of highschool I went there to work for the summer.  It was a blast!!  Jim is not as big of a fan of riding.  Emma so far loves it, and Lily does pretty well.  I have not really pushed her much beyond the Kiddie Land.  She is just so tiny. I will be sure to send some pics.

Bec:  You worked at an amusement park?? That would be so much fun! What did you do there? 

Leslie:  It was so much fun to work at Kennywood!  We worked like everyday and worked very long hours...it was great!  I worked a laugh in the dark kind of ride - Noah's Ark; the Turnpike cars; and then I was on the inaugural team for the Phantom's Revenge roller coaster.  That was their baby!  Then one evening during a major thunderstorm, there was an incident where I somewhat broke their multi-million dollar baby...so I was demoted back to the Turnpike Cars.  It was fun none the less!!

Bec:  I'm laughing so much at the thought that you broke a multimillion dollar roller coaster! How on earth did you do that??

Leslie:  I figured that would make you laugh!!!  I didn't actually break it...it is a roller coaster.  I did not set a brake appropriately (much longer story), and the coaster did not make it through a loop and it went backwards.  Now I need to mention that there was no one on the coaster at the time.  Ultimately, it kept going back and forth till it ran out of steam and it finally stopped on the tracks in a huge ravine...so they needed to get a crane and take it back up one car at a time.  They were not happy!! 

Yeah...the way she told it to me, the head engineer or maintenance guy commanded that she be fired on the spot.  Like...in her presence, with spittle flying and angry jabbed finger-pointing.  They demoted her instead.  To "The Turnpike".

Picture the scene in Nemo:

NEMO:  Dad, dad...can I go play too? Can I?
MARLIN: I would feel better if you go play over on the sponge beds.  (insert video of baby fish crying on a soft bed of sponge) That's where I would play

That's the turnpike...the sponge beds of Kennywood.  So Leslie's days at the Steel Phantom came to an end.  THE INAUGURAL TEAM!!

Some additional color commentary...

During a thunderstorm, they had shut the ride down.  The policy was to run empty cars through after a shut down to sort of test it out prior to starting the ride back up again.  But the brake had to be set differently to run the cars empty than to run them full.  Meaning, I believe, the extra weight of the riders meant having to set the brake a little more aggressively so that the ride didn't run too fast.  Leslie left the brake in the position you'd have it in for riders...and it was too much brake!  The loss of momentum through the loop was enough to get the empty cars caught in the bottom, slowly rocking itself to immobility and uselessness with no means of removing the car from the track...except to bring a friggin' crane in to pick it up and move it.

They had to redesign the brake system...to...forgive me, my love...idiot-proof it.  And when they completed the redesign it was informally dubbed the "Dowden Brake" to memorialize the "idiot" who had prompted its...proofing. 

She told that story every year.  And I miss the sound of it.  And laughing with her about it.

Cross another first off the list.  First Kennywood without Leslie.

At the end of next week we're going to Myrtle Beach to the exact same condo that we spent last year's vacation in.  But this will be the "first family vacation without Leslie".  We'll have fun, but I expect it will be sad as well.  For all of us.











Monday, June 1, 2015

Cleaning House

Emma's dance teacher asked me about Emma this weekend via email.  She said Emma seems a little withdrawn and, knowing what's going on with us she just wanted to see if there was anything she could do to help and ask if Emma was okay.  Essentially, when she (or anyone who isn't personally close with Emma) asked if Emma was okay, Emma would say she was "fine" which makes sense.  And she recognized that since she wasn't in Emma's circle of trust that fine might range from "holding on by the skin of my teeth" to ..."fine".

I answered her email and then spoke to Emma the next day as we were driving over to my folks' house to eat.

Leslie was very active with dance.  She was a "dance mom" and she took great pride in being a dance mom.  She liked being able to provide help to Emma by way of what dance experience she had (point your toes, your facial expression is flat, you need to work on your flexibility, etc.) and Emma took her instruction well.  During recitals she was hyper active, doing buns for the girls, makeup, helping with costume changes.  She was a fixture.

And it's that time of year.  The recitals are coming up and Leslie's not here.

I explained to her dance teacher that Emma has been amazing throughout this, but that I sometimes think it's the big things...the huge events (funeral, viewing, Lily's communion) that we are so prepared for, we shine.  We KNOW it's traumatic.  We KNOW it's sad.  We KNOW this is forever.  And it sucks, but we know it, and we need to get through it so we can start rebuilding our lives.  But this ...piddly little shit...man, it hits you out of left field.  And she's struggling.

So I asked her how she was doing with dance, and she said, "Oh, I'm good!" so glibbly that I knew she hadn't understood me, so I asked again, "No, Em, I mean...how are you doing with mommy not being here for dance?"  And the car got very quiet and Emma started to cry.

Enough time passed that I asked, "Are you thinking about it?"  And she nodded. 

Emma is struggling with her mom not being around.  Something that exacerbates it is that most of Emma's dance friends' moms are exactly the same way with their kids as Leslie was with Emma, and their presence in their daughters planning and practice magnifies Leslie's absence. 

We talked a little bit about how the little things, not the big things, seem to be hardest to handle, but I didn't have any answers for her, and some of the things we talked about, that I won't share here...at least not in this post, are things I don't have helpful, practical answers for.

That night Emma broke a glass at my folks' house that she wouldn't have broken if she'd listened to what I'd told her, and I yelled and then later made peace with her, but later at bedtime, Emma struggled to sleep.  She always struggles to sleep when she thinks about Leslie.

She came downstairs as I folded the remaining laundry.  (I gave it every opportunity to fold itself, I swear I did, but at 11:30 I finally took matters into my own hands).  I turned on some soft music and covered her in a blanket while I worked, and then talked to her a little bit.  I explained my problem.

I think I've talked about this in the blog before, but essentially, when I think about all the things Leslie will never see or do, I am incredibly sad.  Seriously, even typing that out makes my eyes fill, and I haven't even THOUGHT of anything in particular, just the concept of her not being there.  And what I said was, when I start doing that, it almost feels like self-pity, and so I trigger myself and change the direction of my thoughts toward things Leslie DID do with us.  And even though it's still sad, it's a bittersweet sort of sad.  Happy memories made sorrowful by circumstance.

When I asked Emma whether she was thinking about happy memories or the future, she told me that she'd been thinking about the recital and vacation and that when she'd realized it, she tried thinking happy thoughts instead and she just couldn't sleep. 

And the immediate thing that came to mind was, "Try not to think about your mother."  But I didn't say that, because that feels...wrong.  It feels unhealthy.  It feels like avoidance and compartmentalization.  So I told her that.  I told her that I don't want her to avoid thinking about her mom, even though it makes it hard for her to sleep, but that I knew her mom would want her to be able to sleep, so if she was able to channel her thoughts toward something else at bedtime, to carve out some time during the day, maybe after school, to just think about her mother and be sad...or happy.

She said, "I talked to mommy.  She was with Pup-pup (Leslie's mom's father)."

I said, in an attempt to be amusing, "Was he his usual grumpy self?"

"No...he was happy...because he's finally with his wife (who died of cancer, he was never really the same afterwards, Leslie said)."
 
And I finished folding laundry and took her upstairs and got into bed with her and rubbed her hair and stroked her arm until I started to nod off.  And then I told her I loved her always and forever, and she eventually fell asleep.

And maybe that IS the right advice.  Think about your mother.  But try to channel your thoughts toward other things until it's not counter-productive to think about her.  That seems cold and clinical.  I don't mean it to be.  I mean...I want her to think about her mom, but I want her to set aside time to do it.  And maybe I even send her outside to our makeshift memorial after school...a not-chore...but "did you feed the cat?  do your homework?  talk to mommy?"  I'm not sure.

But Emma's science grade dropped dramatically this past quarter.  I talked to her about needing her to not use her time in school to focus on her grief.  I told her (I swear it was very supportive) that we need to use thoughts of mommy as a source of inspiration, not of giving up.  I went on to explain what a fighter mommy was, and that if she found herself thinking about mommy during science, then maybe she needed to think about what it was that mommy would be telling her about school..."Be strong, Emma.  Do your best, baby.  Show them your teeth.  Show them your fight.  Don't let my death inspire you to give up.  Let it straighten your spine.  You're my daughter.  Show them the daughter of a fighter is a fighter too."

And I looked around my bedroom.  I've been doing really well.  I don't really cry.  I'm not typically sad.  I've got this grieving thing nailed!  Except...except that as I looked around the bedroom I started to focus on what was there on Leslie's dresser, on the floor, in the closet, on her nightstand.  The clutter that would ordinarily have driven Leslie AND me insane remains untouched.  Medical supplies and bills, get well cards, prayers, gifts, snacks, People magazines to occupy time during hospital stays.  It's a mess.  And I haven't touched it.  Or looked at it.  In two months. 

And it occurred to me that yeah...I'm doing awesome...because I'm not really allowing myself to think about Leslie or about the tasks ahead.  I'm avoiding it and compartmentalizing it in the exact way that I found myself almost suggesting, but then rejecting when I spoke to Emma, because I knew it wasn't the right answer.  And when my gaze lingers too long on her dresser...I shut that line of thought down, and that can't be right. 

I'm not even talking about the really hard bit of this...when I eventually start cleaning OUT the dresser.  When I start giving clothes to Goodwill.  When I start giving Leslie's jewelry to the kids.  When I try to figure out what to do with all the Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and Birthday and Anniversary cards and pictures that that woman ferreted away in each and every drawer of each and every bureau, nightstand, dresser, or desk...instant shut down. 

I need to find a way to start processing Leslie's death.  And maybe that means taking a break from the treadmill or guitar that I use to fill the silence of the house when the kids fall asleep.  Maybe it means confronting Leslie's ghost myself when it's productive to do so.  Maybe it means cleaning the dresser, even if it's bit by bit over many long sad nights, letting myself think about Leslie and using her voice in my head to focus on doing something positive instead of avoiding or compartmentalizing. 

I know what she'd tell me if she was healthy.

"This house is a fucking mess.  You need to start cleaning up."