Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Amazing What 1/20th of a Century Can Teach You

I'd been in love before, but I'd never been loved like this.

I'd been willing to put aside my own wants and needs before, but I'd never known how easy self-sacrificing love could come.

I used to sleep.

I'd never changed a diaper before. Ever.

I'd never held a baby for more than on average 7.2 seconds before handing it off to someone else.

I'd never known how exciting it could be to create something using just popsicle sticks and pipe cleaner. (With all due respect to all residence hall programs and every Resident Assistant I've ever supervised.)

I'd never had anyone just look at me like he does, with eyes of pure trust and love.

I'd never been through a workout as strenuous and tiring as carrying a sleeping toddler through a zoo in the summer.

I'd never known how utterly [bleep]ing annoying some cartoons are (looking at you, Cailou).

I'd never known that staying up night after night to hold someone's hand and tell them it's going to be okay while giving them a rescue inhaler or breathing treatment would not be tiring in the least bit.

I'd never known that the way to quiet an unruly toddler was to play a DVD of Doctor Who.

I'd never known how truly cool sticks and rocks are.

I'd never known that the human body can truly subsist on chicken strips, French fries, and grilled cheese sandwiches if need be. Or due to an incredibly finicky palate.

I'd never known that just sitting still is apparently a biological impossibility for some.

I'd never known that just the sound of crying could hurt so much.

I'd never known that taking a bath and washing one's hair is seen as a human rights violation and requires the corresponding screams for rescue.

I'd never known that one of the two most important holidays was Fathers' Day.

I've been learning these lessons and so, so many more for than half a decade now.

Five years later, this kid still rocks my world.

Happiest of birthdays, Malakai Joseph.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Heart Needs a Rescue Inhaler

I swept the floors yesterday.

Making a bold statement like this and putting it out there on the Internet for all to see might seem like bravery to some. But to the vast majority, it will probably elicit a response something between the extremes of "" and "OHMERGAWDAMANTHATDOESHOUSEWORK." (Parenthetically, as a stay at home dad, I actually do most of the cooking and cleaning. If my sweeping excites you, I can only imagine your ecstasy at discovering I clean the bathtub on a regular basis.)

But for me, sweeping the floors stands a milestone because of the emotional turbulence of the past few weeks.

It's something routine.

And "routine" is something that has been sorely missing since March began and my mom died.

When I shared the story of my exuberant broomwork experience with a friend, they made a remark which just cried out for an internal editor to have redlined out before they could utter it:

"Well, I'm glad to see you're getting over it and things are getting back to normal."

Insert awkward silence in our conversation.


I have asthma. I've had it since I was a kid. Growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s/1980s, though, asthma wasn't something that was routinely diagnosed. "Seasonal allergies" is what my wheezing and struggle to breathe would be filed under, and my pediatrician (whose surname should have been Mengele) and my parents both hoped I would just grow out of it. It wasn't until college (!) that I was given the most beautiful gift of health imaginable: a little red tube with a cylinder of life inserted in it.

Unlike my wife (and Kai), my asthma has never been so extreme that it required multi times a day monitoring and inhaling. It comes and goes. It strikes without warning. No, I don't know what can trigger it. Yes, there are some obvious things - pollen, cut grass, animal dander - which can and often do require me to give my lungs that little extra oomph needed to get through it until my body regulates itself. You don't simply "get over" having asthma.

But it's something which has been with me my whole life, and will never leave fully.


"Normal" is never going to be the state my life will be in again. Ever. If things were "normal," then my sons wouldn't have to rely just on photographs to know what their grandparents - my parents - looked like. If things were "normal," I'd have two more people to get frustrated with because they would lavishly shower both of them with toys and trinkets they have no need of - because that's what grandparents do. If things were "normal," my mom and dad would still be here on this side of Paradise.

Things can get routine again. And they will.

But never "normal."

I'm going to go about my days throughout the rest of my life, and at some point, something's going to trigger tears. Heartache. A need to mourn. No, I don't know what will trigger it. It will come and go. It will strike without warning. Yes, there are some obvious things - holidays, photo albums, milestones in my life and my kids' lives - which will require me to give my heart that little extra oomph needed to get through it until my soul regulates itself.

But this hole in my life is going to stay with me, and will never leave me fully.

I'm not going to grow out of either things which will cause my lungs and heart to constrict and make me struggle to find words and catch my breath.

Things can get routine again. And they will.

I just have to keep puffing away.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mourning for Dummies

This dummy is in mourning. Respect the rights of the Mannequin American.

Now having buried my grandparents and my parents, I sadly think I am something of a pro when it comes to what to say and not to say during a funeral or visitation. Not as a speaker; if you are looking for someone to deliver the eulogy, I'm calling a moratorium on my speaking, because none of you had damn well better go anywhere anytime soon. I'm referring to what can and should be said as a mourner to the survivors in the family who are there to say goodbye to their loved one. Yet going solely off my first-hand experiences - a lot of people apparently don't have the first freaking clue how or what to say, sometimes embarrassingly and humorously so. Therefore, in the spirit of education (and because Lord knows I need to find more humor and less biting sarcasm these days), I present to you...

What Not To Say At a Funeral Or Visitation
(Or at the very least, stuff that can be said a lot, lot less)

(CAVEAT: this is meant to be a little tongue in cheek, a little therapeutic, and a little genuine. It is not meant as a dig at anything anyone has done or said to me. So if you find yourself on the side of "Yep; I did that," don't worry. We're still friends. Until I remove you from Facebook or Twitter.)

"What Happened?" You may think you are the first person to ask this question, and for you, it may in fact be the first time you hear the details of the death of the person in question. But bear in mind that for the person you're asking, it may be the tenth straight time in a row they have retold this story. And while I applaud your willingness to seek out the truth from a first-hand source and not go straight for the rumor mill, please. You're there to express condolences to the surviving family, there to share in the grief, and there to help with the beginning of a cycle of closure. Let's leave the bandage on and not keep continually ripping it off to check the wound. Deal? If you really want to know, ask later.

"How are you feeling/holding up?" With the immediate comment "That's probably a dumb question, isn't it?" If I have to explain why not to ask this one, I can't help you. You may be wanting to genuinely check on the mental and psychological health of a friend or loved one, but come on. If you do ask this question, be prepared for an emotional deluge to potentially come pouring out. You can probably guess how they feel. Again: ask later. It's the struggle of living after a death when issues truly rise to the forefront. From the time of making the arrangements to the time when the body is interned, there are goals. Things to do. It's when everything is said and done that your mind can really start to do a number on you. So, as a friend, ask later to do a mental checkup.

"If there's anything I can do..." Here's a little secret: there's a lot you can do, but nine times out of ten, we're usually so scattered and out of it that we don't know what day it is, let alone what we need. Or we try to shoulder it all and say "I'm good; thank you; I'll let you know" as a diversionary tactic to avoid admitting we need something. Food is always welcome, even if we may not have the strength or desire to eat for days at a time. Just be creative. Deli trays are wonderful, but there's only so much pre-sliced meat and cheese one can consume before they swear off sandwiches forever. Frozen meals, gift cards to restaurants, or other "delayed dining" options are great for when hunger finally sets in but the drive to cook is still absent.

"I don't know if you remember me or not..." I can state with no hesitation that odds are, I probably do. And in another set of circumstances, I probably could remember you more clearly. If you are attending the funeral or visitation, odds are you knew the deceased. So with that in mind, even though it may be repetitious, please feel free to introduce yourself and how you know me, because I probably barely remembered deodorant or underwear when getting dressed that morning. I'm not advocating name tags like it's a speed dating event, but err on the side of caution and brain farts and simply state who you are and what our connection is.

"They're in a better place;" "They're not suffering;" or any combination thereof. Okay. This one is tricky. As the person being told this, I don't want to just shout out "I know. I know. But I'm here, I'm dealing with them being gone, and no amount of being thankful for Paradise is going to replace the Hell I am currently in," because the person saying it probably is genuinely expressing something they think will give me solace and comfort. SPOILER ALERT: peace, when/if it comes, will come slowly and in bits and pieces (har). I have to admit: during my mom's funeral, I wasn't thinking about what she might be doing, what street of gold she was getting lost on, or if she regretted not taking harp lessons while still alive. I was focused on me, the loss I was feeling, and how it was going to affect me and my family.

What for me helped a great deal at my mom's funeral (and I only use hers as an example, because most of my dad's is almost blocked from my memory) was the non-inclusive list of the following items:

I got hugs. Lots of hugs. From friends old and new, who were there to support me. And in their support, I got to excise some tears. They cried because I was crying because they were was a snotty cycle of cleansing.

I got texts and emails with blanket offerings. If I needed to chat. To yell. To swear. To cry. To sit quietly with. To share coffee. Craft beer. Things that spoke to me and what would almost be a normal, every day occurrence that happened to coincide with us working through the pain.

I got laughs. If in the midst of pain you can find a friend - one you've not seen in a while or one who helped talk to you during the 12 hour drive to the funeral - who can share a smile with you, that is far better than any smoked meat tray.

I got memories. Stories of my mom as a teenager. Stories of me growing up. And memories of this coda for my mom's life (see; I'm not so bitter and pissy that I can't even now recognize the idea of forever in Paradise).

Every person's coping skills and mechanisms are going to be different. Not everyone drinks coffee (their loss), not everyone might want to smile for days or weeks to come, and some people may genuinely have a joyous idea about the funeral JUST! BEING! AWESOME! since the deceased is in Heaven.

All I suggest is that you think. Think about what you would want said and done for you if you were the person standing there choking back a maelstrom of emotions because you had lost someone special.

And then do that. Pay it forward.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Past Behind

Grief sucks. Just saying.

The past few weeks have been nothing but a blur of emotions, highway markers, late night and early morning road trips, and probably more coffee than would ever be okayed by a physician. On top of trying (and failing miserably) to process a flood of thoughts and feelings I genuinely have no frame of reference to compare to, I've been trying to wrap my mind around the fact that both of my parents are now gone.

Before I continue writing and you continue reading, let me just toss out this one caveat about this blog entry: I know that many, many well-meaning people will sincerely and genuinely make a comment about my mom and dad in heaven, reunited with their families, being in the presence of God, and so on. And while I do believe this and draw some small amount of comfort from it, right now I also don't give a damn. My parents are dead, and I'm pissed. I'm human. So if my failing to mention something beautiful about Paradise in this post will potentially cheese you off, please go watch kitten videos on YouTube instead.

When my dad passed away five years ago, it ripped a hole in me that I wasn't expecting. There are so many things that go unsaid between fathers and sons, things which are spoken of in volumes through glances or understanding moments of silence between them. For about three months after Kai was born, after my dad had been gone for six months, I still almost by rote started to dial his office number, just so I could tell him something amazing/ridiculous/cute/frustrating that Kai had done that morning. But I couldn't. I was never able to share any of these moments with my dad, since he died before Kai was born.

In the last few months before my mom died, she finally got the hang of FaceTime, so I was able to "chat" with her with Eli in my lap so she could see how often he tried to grab the phone to eat it. It was cute, since it meant he got to hear her voice (and my sister's) while she watched him learning to eat solids, fail at crawling, and drool like a waterfall. The idea that right now, at this moment, I can't continue to do that with her is beyond my  understanding.

Grief sucks hard. Just saying.

I keep waiting for the One Cathartic Moment (TM) where all my emotions will come flooding out. But it hasn't happened yet, and I feel like this lead weight is just trapped inside my chest.

There have been moments - small, quiet moments - where the circumstances of my new life has hit me like a ton of bricks, and - again - the reality that she is gone, they are both gone, seems almost too much to bear:

Like how when I went to go buy a tie for her funeral and left with a new suit instead. and I paid for it with the gift card she gave me for Christmas, and I realized that it was the last gift card she'd ever give me...

Like how in a few weeks when Kai turns 5, it will be the first birthday when he doesn't get a gift from her...

Like how Eli will never, ever get a birthday or Christmas gift from her...

Like how I almost laughably thought "Well, traveling for the holidays will be a lot easier now," and then it hit me that Kai will never have another Christmas at her house and how Eli will never have a Christmas ever at her house...

Like how the only photos Eli will have of the two of them were taken during the first three months of his life. And that's it...

Like how Kai won't be signing a birthday, Mother's Day, or ay other card for her again, and how Eli never will...

Grief is pure shit. Just saying.

I'm trying to wrap my mind around how every comment, every thought, every...everything...surrounding my parents will now be in the past tense. That how the headstone sitting in the cemetery with both their names chiseled into it is a marker of an ending. That I can't, no matter how desperately I may want to, I can not grab and hold onto it, dragging it into the future with me. That it would eventually become a millstone I choose to hang around my own neck, purposefully willing myself to be weighted down by my grief, hanging on to a past that should stay behind and become memories that inspire joy, not pain.

I recently remarked that I was in many ways thankful that I was still a stay-at-home dad now, because if I were in an office environment, I'd go nuts. As it is, I have two wild and crazy boys to all but forcibly shake me out of the stupor I would otherwise allow myself to be in. I have to be in the here and now for them, and not in the past.

When I was delivering the eulogy at my mom's funeral (which, parenthetically, I'm not sure what the crap I said; I know what I wrote down, but I have no idea what I said), at one point, Eli sneezed. Or cooed. Or made some kind of baby noise, whatever. What I do remember is looking over at where Ashley was trying in vain to make him sit still, and I made a comment aloud (...oops...) that was something along the lines of "Thank you for the sign of life."

"Thank you for the sign of life."

Grief is a bitch. I hate that I feel this way, I hate that it makes my heart hurt, I hate that I feel like so much of me will never be healed.

But in the midst of changing the verb tenses of the stories I share about my parents, I have to - I have to - keep part of me moving. Going. Looking for those little signs of life that don't overwrite the past, but underscore it as a foundation of which to grow on.

One day, the pain will be what I leave behind.

One day.

Just saying.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Eulogy: Words Spoken About My Mom, Patsy Lemmons

Five years ago, when I wrote this to read at my dad's funeral, I could never have imagined that so soon afterwards I would be doing something similar for my mom's funeral. For those who have asked, here is the original text as I wrote it, as it was read, minus any last-minute ad libs, stops to drink coffee, or pauses to catch my breath before I broke down in tears or threw up.

As we gather here today to celebrate the life and legacy of someone we knew as a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a childhood friend, a fellow dancer - no matter how long you may have known my mom - Patsy - or in what capacity you may have known her, there is one thing about her we can all agree on:

She was short. It's true. You may not have noticed it, but it's true.

It was especially obvious when she and my dad would be seen side by side. Sometimes you just had to look at them and wonder "How did THOSE two ever work?"

My mom was short.

When my sister and I each hit puberty, it probably bugged her, because she no longer could claim to be the second tallest person in our house. Maybe this partially explains her love of the pets she chose: squirrels, rabbits, shitzus - to their perspective, she was kind of a giant.

My mom was short.

It was comedic to see her driving, given how disproportionately large the cars always were they we're the right size for my dad, but not so much for her. When she would get out of bed in the morning, she had to kind of do this hop down motion to get out of the king-sized bed she and dad shared. And why on earth we had cabinets above the fridge or stove remains a mystery to me to this day.

My mom was short.

One of my favorite memories of my mom in the last five years was one time when she came to visit us in Columbia. Kai was maybe two years old, and he wanted to play with CiCi - in a bounce house. So picture if you will: my mom, crawling on an inflatable bounce house, while this hyper energetic toddler runs around her, shaking the inflatable house so much, it made it impossible for her to stand up. The most humorous part was that this was a bounce house with proportionate inflatables for kids under three - and yet she looked like it was made for her as well.

My mom was short.

But her stature did not define her.

My mom may have been short, but she was not small.

She was not small in her love to others, nor in how she expressed it. GIFTING was her love language. There were always mountains of presents under the tree at Christmas for people who weren't family members. It's taken me a lifetime to try and understand that this was how she showed love. The gesture of gifting itself was not small, but the love she had behind every gift she bestowed dwarfed what the actual gift was. Her love was not small.

She was not small in her devotion to the aforementioned pets. Unless it happened to be a bird. She was not a "crazy cat lady;" instead she was a "crazy dog lady." Moreso in that her dogs were always a little crazy, but they only reflected the level of love and devotion she showed to them. Protective. Loyal. Forgiving. These words describe both my mom and the legion of furry companions she had. Her devotion was not small.

She was not small in her faith. Literally nothing more needs to be said there. As a kid, I came to hold a disdain for Wednesday mornings, autoharps, and televangelists back when they were not creepy. But this petite woman drove a stake that was larger than life itself into the ground, claiming her faith as a fulcrum that everything else would swing on. Her faith was never a mustard seed.

She was not small in the love shown to her. Especially from my sister. When my dad passed away, if we can be perfectly honest with each other, I think many of us in this room may have held out fear, anxiety, and dread anticipation that my mom would not be far behind. But the little woman who taught my little sister how to love passed her dogged determination to her, and Lea Anne day in and day out did for her in person what none of us could have done. If anything, WE were gifted with an extra five years of my mom's presence simply because my sister never showed her small love.

A friend of mine, in response to hearing of my mom's death, posted on my wall on Facebook a bible verse I'd never read before. It's not a passage we usually hear tossed out when a loved one dies, so that's why it stuck with me.

Deuteronomy 33:25 - "May the bolts of your gates be iron and bronze, and may you have the strength you need for every day."

May you have the strength you need for every day.

Day in this verse translates in Hebrew to YOWM - meaning "now."

May you have the strength you need for every now. Every moment.

It refers to a period, a time of light - the day - in which no darkness is found.

May you have the strength you need for this time of light and not shadows.

YOWM means to be connected with the sovereignty of God.

May you have the strength you need, for God is with you.

My mom was small.

The promise of this verse - only ten words long - is not small.

I personally imagine an explosion of light and laughter took place as my dad, her parents, her grandparents, and various pets throughout the decades greeted her in Paradise only a few days ago. I imagine a banquet table laden with coffee, canned Coca Cola (to be drunk with a straw), and pimento cheese sandwiches as she shared stories with them of being there to watch her grandsons be born, of watching her family - once distant and spread apart - being brought together, and how we never, ever have been able once to get the washing machine in the laundry room to drain properly.

And in this and in other heart-deep memories, I will have the strength I need for these coming days.

And in your memories of my mom, may you find you have the strength you need for these days.

And may none of our memories be small.