I wrote fiction for NaNoWriMo 2019 because my memoir writing has been in a slump. During November, I noticed a February writing workshop in Portland, Oregon with two of my favorite memoirists, Pam Houston and Stephanie Land. Their topic? ”Getting the hard thing, the meaty thing, the painful thing, the unspeakable thing down on the page in a way that others can have emotional access to it.”
My mother passed 34 years ago succumbing to hypothermia on a frigid February North Dakota day. February also claimed the life of my step-brother who passed unexpectedly four years ago. The last straw was two years ago when my father passed on February 2nd. February has weighed heavy on my bones since my mother’s passing, but I once my father passed, the gloves were off. I dubbed the month FuckUary.
So when I saw the title of the workshop ”Getting It Onto the Page, Getting It Out In The World,” I didn’t hesitate. I signed up and made my travel plans.
I’m under no illusion that the skies will open and writing nirvana will commence, but I’m open to being a sponge. This weekend, I’m reclaiming February from the clutches of grief.
Regardless of the outcome, that will be a win in my book.
I tried writing a post for Thanksgiving yesterday, but I finally gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty to be thankful for, yet I was filled with a sense of melancholy that I found hard to express.
This is that time of year when my thoughts inevitably turn to days gone by and those no longer with us at the Thanksgiving table. The memories surround me. I ate the Thanksgiving dinner my wife prepared at the sturdy ball and claw oak table that was my paternal grandmother’s. The same table where she changed my diapers, taught me to play Crazy 8s and Go Fish. The table that bears the dice dimples from countless games of 6-5-4 with my father.
I know I’m blessed to have had so many happy memories of holidays spent with loved ones. Lots of people are not so lucky, which I was reminded of when I saw a blog post from Sark called Happy Thanks~Grieving While Wildly Living. She beautifully captures the complex emotions many of us feel and shares her “love and transcendent wishes for people to be able to deeply grieve while wildly living.” Thank you Sark for helping put into words what I could not.
So on this, the day after Thanksgiving, I’m filled with gratitude for all that has happened over the last year and memories of past Thanksgivings. I also recognize that grief will sometimes sit beside me at the table and I’m okay with that…it reminds me of those who have loved me. I live wildly as their legacy.
I’ve learned grief isn’t something you get over, it’s something you learn to live with. You never know when a new wave is going to strike without warning.
My guilty pleasure is The Voice, and I usually watch it when I’m walking on my treadmill. Today I watched the Top 13 perform, and when I heard contestant Marybeth Byrd was going to sing the beautiful, heartbreaking “Go Rest High on That Mountain” by Vince Gill, I was immediately transported back to the days following my father’s death. I was one of the family members giving a eulogy, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through it.
Every morning and evening that I drove his Subaru Forrester the 30 minutes to and from town, I had this song and one other on repeat so I could embrace and settle into the grief. It helped. I did some gut-wrenching, ugly crying and was able to deliver the eulogy my father deserved.
Which brings me to today, nearly two years later. When Marybeth’s tribute package rolled, she spoke of her beloved Grandfather who passed the night before she left for her blind audition. Marybeth no sooner began the song when grief rolled through me again. I damn near fell off my treadmill.
I recently attended a book reading by my friend Gordon M. Berg, author of Harry and the Hurricane. The book details the true account of his seven-year-old father living through the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. His father rarely spoke of his experience, and Gordon only learned the details after his death, when his mother told him.
Gordon ended his talk imploring us to ask our loved ones “What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, and how did you get through it?” That is one of the many questions I wish I had asked my father.
Who is someone you’d like to ask that question? Do it…before it’s too late.
This isn’t the blog post I had planned to write for this NaNoWriMo month. I wanted to get a jump on my writing early in the month, instead I received a late night call about the unexpected death of a family member, earily similar to the call I received three years earlier about the brother of the deceased.
Life is like that. We have plans, then life makes other plans for us.
Our family has experienced a lot of loss in the past three years, and dealing with death is never easy especially when it seems random and unexpected. In death as in writing, we search for meaning. We mine our memories and remember the good times, the earlier years, the days of innocence.
The truth is, none of us are getting out of this life alive. That doesn’t make anyone’s passing any easier for those of us left behind. Death sucks.
Needless to say, I’m way behind in my writing goals this month, but that’s okay. I was where I needed to be ~ with my family, mourning an unexpected loss. But I refuse to concede NaNoWriMo defeat so I’ll keep plodding along, stringing one word after another and I’ll be happy with however many I end writing, because it will be more than what I started the month with.
My heart is in North Dakota today as they lay my Uncle Lester to rest at the Veteran’s Cemetary.
My mom’s youngest brother, his handsome military photo and those of his brothers in uniform graced a wall of honor at the home of my grandparents. It was that wall and their service that inspired me to join the military.
Rest in Peace Uncle Lester, and give Mom a hug from me. ❤️
Growing up I didn’t name inanimate objects and I’m not sure I knew people did that until my daughter named her first car. Turns out a lot of people name their possessions.
At one point over the past year and a half, I remember giving her a name. I was attracted to her curvy, voluptuous figure and she seduced me with her deep sexy voice. We began our journey slowly, my fingers unsure and my hands untrained. With practice and discipline, we began to make beautiful music together and my partner called me her Cello Bella.
I turned in my rental cello yesterday and was caught by surprise when tears came to my eyes. I hadn’t expected that. I had made peace with my decision to focus my limited time on writing. As I caressed her one last time and expressed my gratitude for being my musical companion for the past year and a half, I wracked my brain trying to remember what I named her.
“You took good care of it,” the technician said after the inspection.
“Thank you, she was my baby,” I replied.
After finishing up the paperwork, I drove away and was glad I couldn’t remember her name because leaving her would have been that much harder.
Today marks the one year anniversary of my Father’s passing. It’s been a year of firsts in what I’ve come to call my grief hibernation. I lost my Mother when I was 30 but that was different. I lost her to mental illness long before she walked out of a North Dakota state hospital on a frigid February day and died of hypothermia.
Pa was my rock, my go-to guy through out-of-state moves, joining the military, marriages, a miscarriage, the birth of my daughter, divorces, coming out, and finally marrying my partner. My Father fought for and won custody of my brother and I during the era where children were assumed to be the mother’s responsibility, regardless of mental state.
“Guess what I did Pa?”
He was never quite sure what I would say next, and inevitably, he would respond, “You did what?!”
Whether it was joining the Marines, skydiving, signing up to run a marathon, or getting a promotion, he was always my biggest fan and cheerleader. This was the guy who water-skied in the Missouri River for 12 straight months without a wet suit so clearly I was my Father’s daughter.
My Pa had prepared for his passing by writing his own funeral service and obituary in 2008. After writing them, he called each person he listed as pallbearers, asked them permission to include them, and then proudly read them his newly written obituary. To say my father was a character is an understatement. He ended his obit with “P.S. If you want to put in that he loved to gamble at Prairie Knights you can, also he loved to dance in his younger days.”
My Father also planned for his granddaughter and I to deliver eulogies. How on earth would I be able to stand in front of an audience of friends and family and talk about his life without sounding like a blubbering fool?
I listened to the song “Dance With My Father” on repeat and boo-hoo’d my way through the days until “the day” arrived. I really wanted the eulogy to talk about what he meant to me as my Father, but I knew everyone in the room had lost someone very special to them, for so many different reasons. So this is the eulogy I wrote and read:
On behalf of the family, thank you all for coming to help us celebrate the life of our Father, Don D. Sinness (as he liked to call himself).
My Pa impacted and touched the lives of so many people and a stranger was a friend he just hadn’t met and talked to yet. He had a great sense of humor and he loved to make people laugh.
He had this uncanny ability to uplift a person’s spirit just by being present and listening. The next time he saw you, he’d focus on how you were and what was going on in your life, even though he himself was often fighting a medical battle.
My Pa had charm, character, and compassion. He was many things to so many people…a fatherly figure with support and advice, a shoulder to cry on when you needed it, a brother and uncle who loved his extended family, a compassionate ally to transgender co-worker, a fun dancing partner to kick up your heels with, the old Goat roper you loved to party and smoke cigars with, a Grandpa who loved to play 6-5-4 and made you feel like the center of his universe, a best bud you looked forward to catching up with every day, a fellow MDU retiree you could reminisce with, a guy you knew you could count on to do what he could to help if you were having trouble, a loving partner and caregiver to his wife of nearly 45 years.
To us, his wife, kids and grandkids, he was our Rock of Gibraltar and we will miss him terribly.
One of the last things Pa said to me was “It’s time for you to be a brave Marine now.” Pa, it sucks that you’re not here anymore but I’ve got this. Thanks for being my Pa.
Father. Grandfather. Rare Gem.
My Rock. Confidante.
Love You Much. Miss You Always.