The Citrus Peeler

This past weekend I sobbed because of a citrus peeler.

You’re right. It really wasn’t the fault of the peeler. But the sobs snuck up on me when the peeler was in my hand, so it’s a convenient excuse.

Wait, you don’t know what a citrus peeler is?

A citrus peeler is a plastic tool used to help peel citrus fruits. I know, you got that from the name. It has a sharp cutting hook on one end that can be used to slice through the skin of an orange, or in my case yesterday a grapefruit. The other end is a thin, slightly curved, flat piece of plastic which can be used to peel a section of peel away from the fruit. You use the cutting edge to make slices down the sides of the fruit, then peel the sections away with the peeler.

A blue plastic citrus peeler.
My citrus peeler.

Do you need a citrus peeler to peel an orange or grapefruit? Of course not.

However, my father used to swear by his peeler. From the first time he brought one home around the time I was ten years old, he rarely peeled an orange without it. He enjoyed his citrus peeler so much, he bought an extra just in case his trusted peeler broke.

When I was a teenager, Dad would grab his citrus peeler and an orange at night when we sat on the couch to watch Jeopardy! together. We would share the orange while I shouted out answers, trying to beat the contestants. Sometimes, mouth full of fruit, I would frantically wave my hand at the television, moaning when I knew the answer but the contestants got it wrong. Dad would laugh and shake his head.

If you ever make it on the show Neecie, don’t bring any food.

Yesterday, I sat watching a movie, a half peeled grapefruit in my lap, sticky citrus peeler in my hand, and it hit me. I eat fruit this way because of my father. Without warning, the memories of shared snacks came at me.

Grief is sneaky like that. You can be perfectly calm, doing something mundane like peeling a grapefruit, and all of a sudden you find yourself unable to breathe because your insides are being twisted by a crushing vice. I feel as if it waits for you to delude yourself into thinking you’re managing. You’re in your routine, coping as best you can, not mired in overwhelming feelings of loss, and BAM! Like a coiled cobra, grief lashes out and strikes, the venom paralyzing you in a heartbeat.

Which is how I found myself crying over a grapefruit yesterday, holding a sticky citrus peeler. And once the floodgates opened, they didn’t close.

After Dad’s death in December, I knew eventually I would have a melt down. I thought it might happen on his birthday in January. When it didn’t, I thought maybe I’d break down when I next visited his grave. I never expected it to happen on a Sunday afternoon in March while I peeled a grapefruit.

I’m sure it will happen again. I wish I could say that it won’t. But grief doesn’t work in neat, predictable patterns. Next time it may be something other than the citrus peeler. I hope it is, because I’ve cried enough tears over that!

 

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The Peace Lily

A white peace lily flower stands amidst dark green leaves.

I have heard other people talk about receiving visits from loved ones who have passed away. I always hoped family members might send me a sign after their death, but I never imagined my sign would come from a houseplant.

I am not a gardener. In truth, I am a plant murderer. I confess to being known as the cause of death for multiple species. My sister Caroline sent me a basket of plants as a gift when I turned 25, and friends placed wagers on how long the plants would survive, varying from three months to two years. All five plants were dead and gone within a year.

Despite my best efforts, I simply do not have the ability to keep plants alive. Something was different with the peace lily.

My peace lily, a sympathy gift from colleagues, arrived on New Year’s Eve, two days after the death of my sister Mary Jane. I was sitting in my dining room watching the sunset creep across the sky when the doorbell rang. I peeked outside and saw the plant. Three tall white flowers stood like sentinels above the waxy green leaves, obscuring the face of the delivery man.

My sister Mary Jane loved flowers. She sent bright floral arrangements to our mother each spring. She was a regular at a local elementary school’s annual plant sale, always looking forward to getting her pansies and peonies in the ground. Mary Jane once arrived with  carnations at my house, along with bread and milk, when I was too sick to shop. After a devastating diagnosis of brain cancer in her mid-50’s, she told me flowers from friends and family brought her sunshine and renewed faith when she had doubts.

Opening the peace lily card, I stared at the brilliant white flowers and wondered who would send ME, the plant murderer, such a glorious gift. The poor plant. The full lush emerald leaves could not know their days were numbered in the house of doom. I was appreciative of the thoughtfulness behind the gift but feared I would never be able to honor Mary Jane’s memory and keep this fine plant alive.

I performed the usual tasks, watering it and talking to it regularly. My sister Sandy helped move it to a larger pot where its roots had room to grow. Determinedly, I gave it every advantage I could in my efforts to help it survive. The plant was a link to Mary Jane, a means to somehow remain connected to her spirit. When I looked at the plant with its flowers still managing to stand at attention, I felt renewed faith I might endure the great grief and pain of losing one of my five sisters.

The first additional flower bloomed in late March, on the day our Uncle Bart died. I entered my house with tears in my eyes, having received the news on my way home, and saw the new white blossom opening above the leaves. A shiver ran through me, and I felt my sister’s presence as I exhaled a prayer of thankfulness.

It’s just a flower on a plant. It doesn’t mean she’s here.

But it doesn’t mean she’s not.

The flowers kept coming that year. The second flower arrived the same day Mary Jane’s granddaughter turned two. The third opened on my sister Susan’s birthday. The fourth appeared on Mary Jane’s wedding anniversary. When I saw two blossoms the day Mary Jane’s husband passed away from a rare cancer six months after Mary Jane’s death, I sobbed for an hour. Surely she was telling me they were together again. It was what I wanted to believe, and gave me comfort in my grief.

Somehow, my plant continued to survive – thrive you could say! Over the next year, I continued to discover flowers on meaningful days. Each time a new blossom appeared, I once again felt Mary Jane’s presence. The flowers served as reminders of the beauty which can still be found in darkness and grief, and faith which can help us weather overwhelming loss.

The peace lily is often given as a sympathy gift because the white flowers symbolize the departed soul finding happiness as it transitions from the physical to the spiritual world. During the year following her death, whenever a new flower bloomed, I felt I had received a message from my sister telling me her soul was at peace.

I have managed to keep this peace lily, Mary Jane’s peace lily, alive for almost five years now. Sometimes months will pass without a new flower. Then, when I am convinced it will never bloom again, Mary Jane sends me a reminder to keep the faith. The flowers always materialize on meaningful days. Last year, the only time the plant produced a blossom was the day our Uncle Tony passed away. This year I discovered a flower on what would have been her husband’s birthday.

I cannot explain why the flowers appear when they do. Folklore says peace lilies bloom when they are happy or content. I am skeptical any plant could be happy in my house, but I am willing to believe Mary Jane’s soul is indeed content. I know she is with me and my sisters when we share memories of our times together. And if I need a reminder to have faith our souls will meet again someday, new flowers ascend above the thick green leaves. These white flags of peace stand as the sentinels I saw when I first glimpsed the plant, watching over me and providing encouragement to soldier on.

Because I’m Happy (At Least, I’m Trying)

This year has not been a happy year for me. Sure, there have been moments of laughter and joy. But if you look at the year as a whole, I have been depressed, cynical, sarcastic, moody, and angry. I know I have not been myself and recently I’ve been hit upside the head by what is really happening.

Since my femur fracture in January, and throughout the subsequent months of rehabilitation, I have not bothered with much beyond the basics when it comes to my daily habits. Most days, if I’ve been able to get out of bed, pee, and get dressed, I’ve been content to call the morning a success. Bonus points for the days I’ve managed to shower!

I am not a vain person, but I have been blessed by the hair gods. My hair is thick and pretty much does whatever I ask it to do. Every now and then I find a stray gray, but nothing that makes me want to rush to color it. As I dried my hair on Wednesday while preparing for a work event, I realized it had been at least six months since I took the time to dry and style my hair. Unless you count a pony tail as a style, my hair hasn’t had much of a style this year.

Friends and family know I can be counted on for lipstick. I don’t wear much makeup, but I always have at least four or five lipsticks with me. A few years ago at a family reunion, I provided various shades to all my aunts and many cousins before we took the group photo. Yet, I can count on one hand the number of times I have worn lipstick in 2016.

I love music. There are over 6,000 songs in my iTunes library. I am usually singing or humming, and most of the time I don’t realize it. This always makes for interesting times at work when I am not aware I am singing at my computer while people are trying to do work around me. But since January, I have rarely listened to music. Even sadder, today I realized I have not even opened iTunes on my computer since I moved in August except to download audiobooks from the library onto my iPod.

For the past twenty five years, I have treated myself to new perfume at Christmas. Since 1998, my signature scent has been “Happy” by Clinique. I like the scent because, well, it makes me happy. Friends say it’s “very Dee.” Wearing one spritz per day, it takes me about a year to finish a bottle. Today, I looked at the bottle of perfume I purchased last December and realized I have not worn any perfume this year.

I am an extrovert and draw energy from being around other people. Every time I have completed a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory, my scores on the extroversion/introversion scale have been the same – total extroversion, not a single introversion answer. I draw energy from being around other people and seek out social opportunities. I nurture friendships and do my best to connect with others on a regular basis. Some people tease me for having too many friends. Not this year. I haven’t gone out to happy hour since last December. When I have free time, I don’t call friends or seek out opportunities for socialization.

These observations made me realize I am falling back into the trap of withdrawing from the world and nurturing my relationship with grief. I have a comfortable relationship with grief. I stoically cultivated it four years ago as I trudged through the “year of funerals.” Fourteen funerals in thirteen months can do that to a person. I became good at sitting alone with my thoughts, ignoring the habits which bring me joy and make me feel nourished and alive.

I’m walking down that path again now and I need to turn back before I go any further. This year, I am not grieving the loss of loved ones or friends. Rather, I am grieving a further loss of independence and mobility due to my injury, the loss of my ability to manage daily pain to a level which does not interfere with my daily routine, the loss of my ability to drive independently, and the loss of trust in some of my Personal Assistant staff.

When I am mired in grief, my daily habits change. Priorities shift. I compromise, trying to balance what I would like to do, what I need to do, and what I actually have the energy to do. Instead of practicing daily gratitude, I engage in destructive list making. I expound on all that is negative, ignoring all the good still surrounding me.

Today, I pledge to make a shift in my daily habits. I will resume my daily writing. I will start wearing perfume and lipstick again. I will practice daily gratitude. I will schedule time with friends and reach out to those I have been avoiding. I will enroll in that writing class I have been considering. I will submit that essay I have been working on. I will sing songs that always make me happy.

Because sometimes when you pretend to be happy, you find out you really are happier than you think you are. And Straight No Chaser singing one of my favorite songs really does make me very happy.

 

I Wonder about Dwayne

Each November when I was younger, my mom would tell me about her experiences in 1963 on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. She kept newspapers from the day, and told me it was the kind of event that caused an imprint on your brain.

When something like that happens, you always remember where you were and who was with you.

Fifteen years ago, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I had an appointment to have some car repairs completed at 8:00 AM. My plan was to have the work done early that morning so I could make it to work by 10:00.

I sat in the lobby of Warren Tire in Waterford, NY, listening to the radio while working on the daily newspaper crossword puzzle. Dwayne was behind the counter, answering the phones and asking me more than once if I wanted a cup of coffee. Just before 9:00, the radio station interrupted the music with a special news report.

Dwayne and I looked at each other in wonder. Almost in unison, we said, “Did he just say a plane hit the World Trade Center?”

Dwayne dove for the television remote. We watched in horror as the picture came up. I reached for my phone to call my student intern. Just as she said hello, Dwayne and I watched the second plane slam into the South Tower.

I don’t remember much of the phone call. I don’t remember when I started crying. I don’t remember the other mechanics coming into the waiting area to watch the television.

I do remember at one point realizing that Dwayne was standing next to me, with his arm around me, holding me as I sobbed. He kept handing me tissues as the tears ran down my cheeks, apologizing if some of them had his greasy fingerprints on them. I might have told him that was the least of my worries.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. In the nursing home where I worked, every common room television was tuned to coverage of the unfolding tragedy. Residents and staff sat and stood around in horror. Very little work was done.

My sister and nephews came to work that night to give me a ride back to my car. As we drove, I stared at the clear blue sky amazed at how strange it was to not see any planes or contrails overhead. The silence in my neighborhood felt oppressive. It was a gorgeous late summer evening but instead of hearing children laughing and playing, there was stillness.

Like most of my friends, I moved through the next week in a daze. I checked in with others to see how they were coping. I went to work every day, but often came home to realize I couldn’t remember anything I had done that day. I watched the news occasionally until it became too much and I started crying again.

In early October, my car was due for an oil change. I went back to Warren Tire. Dwayne was behind the counter, once again. This time we greeted each other as friends. Dwayne wasn’t just the man who answered the phone. He was the one who gave me a hug while we watched a tragedy unfold. We both knew people who had died that day. We both had friends and family who were still suffering.

Our bond remained for the next year. Each time I stopped in, Dwayne and I would catch up on how we were coping, how our friends were doing. President Kennedy’s assassination was my mother’s imprinted event but September 11, 2001 was mine.

A couple years later, Dwayne moved to a new job. Then I found a new job and a new mechanic near my new worksite. Life moved on as it often does.

But every year on September 11, I always remember Dwayne. I wonder how he is doing, where he is now, and how life is treating him. And I always say a prayer of thanks for the comfort he gave me on a Tuesday morning in 2001 on the day the world changed.

Promises Fulfilled

Dear Mary Jane,

I have started this letter four times. Each one has ended up in the trash. After your death, I read an article describing the therapeutic value of writing letters to those you are missing. I have found writing to be therapeutic in the past and since you are part of the reason I started this blog, I feel I owe you an update.

It has been three years since I promised you I would write. Three years since we sat holding hands, listening to Handel’s Messiah on the radio in your Hospice room. Three years since I had to call the other sisters at 2:30 AM to tell them you were gone.

It took me almost two years to realize I had to stop cultivating my relationship with grief. I was not aware of the depth of this relationship and its impact on my routines until the morning in March 2013 when I noticed how much I missed singing. I wasn’t singing because I had stopped listening to music. The recognition hit me like a bolt of lightening, shocking me out of my stupor. No music. No singing. Nothing which would elicit an emotional response for which I was not prepared. Sure, I cried and laughed, felt pain and happiness. But I had convinced myself I could control when and how deeply I felt these emotions. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this was to avoid music, the one outlet I always relied on to process and express emotions.

Of course this approach did not work. All it did was delay the inevitable meltdown. So there I sat last March, heaving wracking sobs, knowing I needed to change my tactic. Running from emotions, denying myself the gift of melody and song was not helping me. Ignoring the hurt didn’t allow me to break out of grief. And I wanted to live, not continue to mope.

I started to journal again, not every day but it was a start. I was just getting into the swing of things when I was hospitalized. My near death experience which afforded me a brief visit with you, ignited a spark within me. I left the hospital knowing I had been given a second chance, knowing you were expecting me to do something with it, knowing I couldn’t continue to waste time.

I remembered my promise to you, and started to research writing courses. Could I do it? Could I really be a writer? Was writing my purpose? How would I know? Doubt plagued me. Fear paralyzed me.

Then I thought about your strength and determination. You never stopped living even when faced with a death sentence due to cancer. You traveled, maintained your daily exercise routine and continued to make music with the community choir and orchestra. It was time for me to take action just as you had. The memoir writing class, the photojournalism class, the blogging challenges – all have helped me make progress in keeping my promise to you.

I am no longer paralyzed with fear. I don’t have all the answers, and remain doubtful about many things. But I do know I am indeed a writer. I have been writing over 500 words each day for more than 100 days. Next year after my trip to Australia I will fulfill my promise to you and start the book. While writing may not be my pupose, it excites me and makes me feel connected to others.

Two months before your death, you told me how much you enjoyed your involvement with the community choir and how you planned to sing with them as long as you were able. Your simple reason has remained with me:

“After all, it’s hard to be sad when you’re singing.”

Mary Jane – I’m singing again. All the time – just as I used to. In the car, in my office, walking down the street – everywhere. Although the music sometimes makes me cry and fills me with sadness, I promise to never stop singing again. Singing doesn’t take away the pain of missing you. It doesn’t keep the tears from falling. But it connects me to you and reminds me how important it is to remain among the living, celebrating life while I can.

Three years ago, the last song I sang to you at your bedside was “Beautiful World (We’re All Here)” by Jim Brickman. I still cry when I sing it, but not tears of grief and loss. Instead, I cry tears of gratitude – thankful for the second chance I have been given. I promise to continue to make the most of this opportunity, to continue to seek my purpose. I will do my best to capture your story and your spirit in words.

Thank you for continuing to be my inspiration. I always wanted to grow up to be like my big sister Mary Jane, and I still think that is a good goal. I miss you but I know your spirit is here with us when we gather as sisters. I will keep writing, keep singing, keep telling our story.

I love you.

Denise