I had forgotten my journal and so for the ten days I was at my sister's I didn't write about it except for on this blog. I started writing in it today but could only get so far. For some reason I feel like it would make more sense to type out a timeline here to help me remember.
Thursday April 17, 2008 -- My sister died. My niece called me around 10:30am to tell me and we both cried in disbelief and I asked her what could I do and she said, "Call Gammo (my mother, her grandmother) and call Papa John (Jen's dad)." I said of course and we hung up. Then I did what I think is the hardest thing I've ever had to do: Call my mom and tell her her daughter was dead and then call my sister's father and tell him his daughter was dead. (Something else I hope you never experience.) I threw clothes into a bag and flew north, arrived to Jen's house full of friends and family, stopping first at the front door to have a three way hug with my niece and nephew and many tears. That night I went to an AA meeting with my brother in law and his brother. I know it's "anonymous" but it was part of my experience.
Friday April 18 -- Jen's core group of friends came over and we began to plan the next few days, scheduling services, writing down all that needed to be done and who needed to do it. My niece and nephew drifted in and out of the room, but about half way through our meeting, my nephew sat next to me at the table and just listened for a while. It was nice to have him sit there. There were lots of tears and much passing of the kleenex box and there were also many laughs and good stories. I spoke to my mom often on the phone and wanted here there so much, but knew I had to be strong too, for her and for Jen's kids and husband. I wrote an obituary with a 1.5 hour deadline to make the Sunday and Monday papers, which I did with Peter's help. Mid-afternoon we went to the funeral home to discuss what needed to be done there as well as taking items to put into Jen's casket. (See previous entry regarding caskets at the funeral home.) Grace, my niece, picked out clothes for Jen -- the Aloha shirt she always wore to parties, nice pants and some jewelry, beanie babies, photos and Puss-Puss.
Puss-Puss is the stuffed cat that Jen has had almost her whole life, her security blanket. She keeps it under her pillow and it went under her pillow in the casket. When Jen started chemo last fall and I was working out when would be best for me to come help -- on the chemo days themselves or a few days later -- she said to me at the first chemo day, "You're my Puss-Puss." That was a powerful thing for her to say to me and I knew I needed to be there for each chemo day and I was. The rest of that afternoon was about phone calls and emails and then going to my nephew's lacrosse game. Jen L O V E D going to lacrosse games and cheering Matthew on. Their team won 8-3 and there were tons of people who came to the game in support of Matthew and Jen. Also that day Grace called friends and family to be pall-bearers and helped get rooms for people coming in from out of town at the hotel where she works. What a girl.
Saturday April 19 -- Grace and Peter (my bro-in-law) and I took the dogs to get washed and then went to a cemetery to find a spot for Jen. We talked to a sales guy who clearly misunderstood what industry he was in. So cheerful and chatty. My niece referred to him as a "tool." Good call. But it was brutal and I worked so hard to protect Peter and Grace from said tool, turning all conversation back to me in my "producer hat" so they wouldn't have to deal. Yes, I was grieving too, but I knew I had to play both roles. We went and looked at some spots with a friend who showed up who's wife was buried there. Then, after glancing through the casket list that Peter had picked up, I asked if we should see about wooden caskets here. I left Grace and Peter in the car and dealt with the tool on my own, shielding them from his cluelessness. There was a book of pictures and I took it out to them and they picked one and we all felt good about it and we ordered it. All without Peter and Grace having to talk to that dude again. Then we went to the mall, met Matthew at Macy's and bought him a nice suit, then found a dress for Grace, all the while I was fielding phone calls from friends and family. We picked up the clean dogs and went home. More phone calls and I can't remember what else that day. Matthew and his friend Trevor were hanging out, eating pie, watching Jackass.
Sunday April 20 -- Mom flew in from Maui and Grace and I went to pick her up early at Monterey airport. She was in a daze having been dealing with my very sick stepdad, setting up all kinds of home health care and live in help while she was gone. She was overwhelmed and spent the morning listening to all that had been going on. At 1pm we went to meet with Father Paul about the services and there were quite a few tears and many laughs as well. I had taken copious notes and when we got back to the house, talked with Jen's friend Kathy who was going to do programs. Matthew had also started scanning pictures for a slideshow he would make for the vigil on Tuesday night. The core group of friends came over for another meeting to continue planning, I put on my producer hat and we worked on stuff but needed to be done as Peter needed the house back. It was that afternoon that I knew (for the first time in my life) that my mom couldn't do anything. My mom is someone who *does* when things are nuts. Not this time. She was exhausted from the tragedy and grief and from taking care of my stepdad at home for the previous two weeks. She slept and slept. Wow. My circle of protection extended to her immediately and I knew my job was even bigger. We finished up the meeting at Jen's house and moved down to Lori's house to continue working on the program, etc. I just cried and cried on the drive over to her house, letting out more of all that I had been feeling, then got to Lori's and walked into her kitchen and just hugged her and she was so wonderful and hugged me back and we had a good short chat (with other friends in the other room) and she comforted me and we hugged some more. Then she poured me a large glass of wine and we all got back to the task at hand.
Monday April 21nd -- Details day. Mom worked on a photo shop picture of Jen for the programs (this one). We made decisions on a few things still needed for the services (readers, greeters, which parts of scripture to chose, etc.) Mom and I went to the funeral home to drop off a few more things for Jen's casket and then mom wanted to see Jen. (You read about that here.) Then we all went to the cemetery again, luckily Mr. Tool was not there, but another guys was. We named him Gomez for some reason. He was a geek and still a bit too chatty, but somewhat more easy to deal with than the first guy. We looked around and found an okay spot, but then decided to go to the other cemetery in town, just to see. We all drove over and found a great spot that we all loved. Just to the right of the decorative plum tree:
We finalized the money part then went home. Matthew continued working on the slideshow and his friend Kylie helped out. I called and finalized more details on the phone and made an appointment with Father Paul the next day to finalize the mass info. During the afternoon Matthew showed us a few versions of the slideshow and I sobbed the whole time. We found perfect music for it too -- Aloha 'Oe by Amy Gilliom.
Tuesday April 22 -- The morning was full of finalizing programs and I met with Father Paul to get him final details, taking the computer and music with me for them to set up the slideshow. Leis and flowers arrived from Hawaii and Mom put out the flowers around the house. Matthew was creating a collage of pictures of Jen for the entry way of the church. Friends of Jen's were feverishly printing programs and photos all day. The evening arrived and we all got dressed and went to the church. Pallbearers arrived to bring the casket into the church, then everyone who wasn't family were asked to leave for a few minutes while we had a very short viewing of my sister. There were only ten or so people there and I took photos (Peter asked me to). It was brutal. My sister looked good ("good") thanks to a friend of hers who did her make up at the funeral home. We all cried and arranged leis on Jen and Grace and I made sure Puss-Puss was under her pillow. All very haunting and beautiful and hard. Then the casket was closed and people started arriving for the vigil/rosary. The service was lovely and many people, varying in age from 20 to 80 got up to say amazing things about my sister. Then it was over and we went home, staying up to talk a bit before collapsing into bed.
Wednesday April 23 -- The funeral mass, the burial, the party. I think about 350-400 people showed up to the church. My uncle and aunt (my mom's brother) from Portland who I haven't seen since Kurt and I got married in 2001. Good friends of mom's from Maui as well as mom's first cousin Molly. Amazing support. Betsy had flown in from Hawaii the night before and brought so many three-strand pikake leis for us all and Jennifer too. Wearing that lei, plus the tuberose lei from Dana was almost too much during the ceremony. The mass was beautiful, then me, mom, Peter, Grace, Matthew and Kurt I got into the limo and we all proceeded to the cemetery for the burial. On the way there we were laughing a lot, Peter saying that Jen played a trick on him at the mass -- his fly was down! We laughed and told other stories. But on the return to the church in the limo, we were quiet and low and sad. Then we all went to the house and changed into beach clothes and headed down for great food and the awesome paddle out let by Matthew. (More photos of that to come later.) Mom and Kurt and I escaped around 5:30 and went back to the house and just relaxed. Peter and the kids went to the hotel to sit in the hot tub with other family (Jen's Elliott family) and friends.
Thursday April 24 -- down day. Wiped out. Exhausted. A few phone calls, some puttering. Josh and Kate and their kids and John John Elliott came by for some hang out time. They played Wii and mom and I tidied up some closets and bathrooms of Jen's. That night we all went to Matthew's lacrosse game and cheered our guts out. Then the other team started a fight, big brouhaha and then the game was canceled, but Matthew's team wasn't at fault. Amazing game. That night also, Matthew had to send in his official "YES" to Chico State. Matthew will start there in the fall. He's IN!
Friday April 25 -- Kurt and I took mom to the airport then had breakfast on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey and then returned some clothes of Jen's (that she had in a "return" pile from way back) to a store there. The down time was beginning to hit me and I was very weepy that morning. The rest of the day was a few more follow up phone calls, tying up loose ends and generally doing some more tidying up. Peter had an appointment to go to so Kurt and I ran some errands, picked up more flowers from FedEx, bought milk and laundry detergent and picked up the death certificates. The afternoon was chill out time, then for dinner Grace and Justin (her boyfriend) and Kurt and I went to Jen's most recent favorite restaurant. Then Kurt and I stopped at Lori's again to drop some things off, have a glass of wine and chat for a bit, then said good-bye.
Saturday April 26 -- Kurt and I left around 8am. Matthew had spent the night at a friends and we didn't see him after dinner so no hugs, just notes for each other. Saying good bye to Peter and Grace was so hard. Kurt and I drove to San Jose and dropped off the car and Sloane drove us to the train station. We got on board and wended our way south on the Coast Starlight. There were tears and more tears and a few laughs and Kurt and I talked a bit about our own futures, making sure we don't forget about our own lives in the midst of all that has been going on for so long with Jen, with Kurt's mom, with my stepdad. We got home late Saturday night.
Sunday April 27 -- I watched a lot of stuff on tivo. Good, mindless crap...I also went grocery shopping and spent a lot of time watering the plants and hugging and kissing the kitties. Talked to my mom once or twice.
Monday April 28th -- trying to feel like there is a groove to return to, but really I think I'm making a new groove. Talked to mom once or twice, then Kurt and I went to see Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Nothing like stupid funny to make you feel a tiny bit better. Kurt went to play volleyball and I stayed home and watched The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, all the while so sad that at one very funny point in HIMYM I couldn't call Jen and laugh with her about it.
Which brings me to today and writing this all up. I had to get it out, to look at it some more. Now I'm going to go take a walk, breathe, get some sun, feel alive.
I have been to a few funerals throughout my life.
My grandfather died when I was about seven, but kids weren't allowed to go. I remember it being very confusing for me as no one seemed to talk about what was happening and kids were shuffled off to the side. A friend's mom died in a car accident when I was in 7th or 8th grade, then my step-grandfather died when I was in high school and that was a huge funeral. In 1993 my grandmother died and I helped my mom a bit with plans back then. GrandmaJane was the first close family member to go and I was just devastated. I still get choked up sometimes when I think about it. My stepbrother died in Dec. 1999 and while there was no official ceremony, we did gather at my other stepbrother's house with family and friends. My good friend Mary's mom died not long after that and I went to it to support Mary. In 2001 when Kurt and I were engaged, his cousin Bev died and we flew to Boston for her funeral. That was the first time I met all of Kurt's family, so there was this strange level of mourning and joyfulness as our wedding was only two months later. Then my dad's funeral in 2006. You can read about that in the earlier parts of this blog.
For most of those funerals I was a guest or too young to really be involved. For Jen's funeral, I was in the very center of it all and I found when the actual services started, I had already been crying and directly dealing with her loss for so many days that I was calm and less teary. I realized that for those people who are guests at the funeral, they may have not fully expressed their grief until they get to the funeral. I hugged many good friends of Jen who cried in my arms and I was dry eyed, just hugging back. I remembered being at other funerals and wondering how could the family be so stoic? Now I know. It's not stoicism, it's just that when you are in the center of it, the grief is ongoing. And there were moments when we would make jokes about stuff, and that felt okay too because I know Jen would have if it were someone else's funeral we were putting together. Please don't think I mean that in a disrespectful way--the laughing part. Here's a prime example of what I mean:
We were talking with the priest about the services (me, Mom, Peter, Grace and Matthew) and he was going through all the readings usually done at these things. He got to one point in the mass and said, "We usually do the readings from the beatitudes at this point, you know 'blessed are the meek,' etc." And I refrained from saying "Blessed are the Greek." Then Peter goes "Blessed are the Greek?" And we all laughed and Father Paul laughed too and I had to go on about makers of dairy products in general. We all agreed we would have to have that reading and we warned Father Paul that we would be laughing at that point. It was great.
Life is life and there are funny things to laugh about even in the midst of grieving for your sister/mother/daughter/wife. Thank god for that.
The night before, at the vigil, people could come up and speak about Jennifer. I was first so speak but hadn't been able to sit down and write anything specific about Jen because there is too much and it is way too soon on some levels. But Sarah had posted this poem/story on her site and I immediately loved it and decided to read it for Jen at her vigil.
A Parable of Immortality
by Henry Van Dyke
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch until at last she hangs
like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says,
" There she goes! "
Gone from my sight . . . that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar
as she was when she left my side
and just as able to bear her load of living freight
to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment
when someone at my side says,
" There she goes! "
there are other eyes watching her coming . . .
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout . . .
" Here she comes! "
This morning I got an email saying that one of the photos I took in Washington DC last fall was chosen to be published on Schmap, an online map and travel guide.
I'm a published photographer!
Here's the specific page it shows up on: East Coast - Museums
I'm pretty pleased with myself.
Kurt and I are going back to Los Angeles today. My mom left yesterday. After the rush and bustle of planning and having the funeral services the quiet was good, but put the sadness and grief right back in the spotlight. I know I can distract myself really well with work. But while doing this work, I didn't stop myself from being sad, I didn't pretend I wasn't feeling what I was feeling. Yesterday and today and tomorrow and tomorrow there are no distractions from the grief of regular life without my sister.
Jen's A #1 thing in life was being a great mom and she and her husband raised two amazing, wonderful kids. They are the kind of kids I hope we might come close to having, smart, funny, curious, opinionated (in a polite way) and able to talk and be comfortable with anyone, any age. They are both able to hang out, have fun and be perfectly comfortable with a two year old as well as an 80 year old. I am looking forward to seeing where they go and what they do. And that makes me sad because Jen won't be here for all of that.
And along with the kids theme, I get soooooooo sad thinking that our kids won't have Jen as an auntie and Jen was going to be a great auntie. I was really looking forward to that. Way back in my 20s, when my niece and nephew were babies, I looked forward to getting married and having kids too, so the cousins could know each other and grow up together. Alas, Kurt and I didn't find each other until 2001 so that plan was not to be. And now that her kids are grown, Jen would have been able to visit more easily whenever we have kids. Oh man that makes me sad sad sad.
Life moves forward.
Here I go, back to Los Angeles, back to no more IMing with Jen about random things and serious things. No more quick phone calls to confirm how I might cook something.
Oh, I was going to add a few more "no mores" but I can't right now. I don't want to work that hard coming up with them all. There will be plenty and they will all be showing up in my heart soon.
Yesterday was the memorial mass, burial and then a big beach celebration. The best part for me yesterday was that my nephew had told people to bring their wetsuits and boards and they would paddle out and throw flowers for my sister, his mother. The word went out and during the party it was time to "SUIT UP!" and they did, then paddled out, made a circle holding hands and then Matthew said a few words, they threw flowers into the ocean and splashed in celebration. It was awesome.
I have more pictures but the internet is slow here at my sister's so I'll load up more another time.
We are having a rosary/vigil tonight, then memorial mass and burial tomorrow.
My mom did the photoshop.
It's been five days since my sister died and nothing prepares you. I've seen and heard things I never thought I would have to see and hear. I've listened to my 20 year old niece call friends of her mom and ask them to be pallbearers. I had to walk to the far end of the room and pretend I was doing something else. A day later I watched her from the kitchen window as she greeted a good friend of her mom's in the driveway with a thank you note that her mom had written to this friend but never delivered.
I listened to my brother in law of 23 years tell the story of how his wife, the love of his life, died in his arms just days ago. Seeing the anguish and guilt and devastation come through with no filters. He so desperately wishes he could have done more. But he was with her every hour in those last days and with her, trying to get her to be more comfortable right until the last minute. How could he have done more?
I've watched my 18 year old nephew be assigned the task of finding pictures for a slideshow and some poster board collages and spending hours and hours going through photo albums, marking pictures and scanning them, them putting them together in powerpoint, then showing us one version (me sobbing the whole time) and then revising it, then showing us again and it was even better. He was so proud and had worked so hard.
We five (me, my mom, bro-in-law, niece and nephew) went to two cemeteries today, deciding on a site for my sister. It was surreal and I kept tearing up. We found a beautiful spot and it was a gorgeous day and we all laughed a lot as we talked. But the silences were so loud.
I went with my mom to the funeral home today and we were only going to drop off a few things to have put in the casket and suddenly my mom wanted to see my sister though she was in no official state of preparedness to be seen. The woman said, "Ummm, well, I don't have much help at the moment and she's only on a table with a sheet..." (The woman was so kind.) My mom said, "It's okay." And I know my mom well enough to know she meant it. The woman said "it's very clinical, the floor is cement, it's downstairs, etc etc." My mom said she wanted to. The woman left and came back a few minutes later and took us down into a very clinical room and there she was. My sister. I've never seen a dead body before. I had wanted to see her so I'm glad it was just me and my mom. I cried and my mom cried, holding my hand saying "There she is." And we looked at her, then my mom just started crying and turned to me and put her arms around me and cried. Then she turned to Jen and just talked to her and stroked her cheek and her hair (which had grown in a lot) and and her hands and she looked right at her lifeless face, with one hand gently on Jen's cheek and said over and over, "Wake up my Jenny, wake up. Let's go home." I just stood back and watched and cried and cried. Jen and I were not that affectionate, general hugs and that's about it. So I looked at her closely and cried and looked at her toes, which were sticking out from the sheet and they had bright red polish on the nails. That made me smile. I touched her feet and her hands and looked at her face which was her face, but which wasn't actually her. It was her but she wasn't really there.
I think Werner Herzog said something like "The Poet must not avert his eyes." I have made it a point to see and hear all I can in these very few days. I had to stop and write these specific things out because they are so powerful and important and somehow so beautiful.
It's been 2 1/2 days since my sister died. I feel like I've lived about two life times since then. At least about three weeks anyway.
I am so grateful now for all the producing I've learned and done over the last 15 years. That kind of training is GOLDEN in times like these. I'm not blocking my grief--there is a box of kleenex here with my name on it in big letters--but the automatic scheduling and organizing skills that kick in are keeping me going. Along with the knowledge of the service I'm giving to my sister and her family in working hard to make this go just right. Do I cry with each new friend who drops by? Damn right I do, and every time I talk on the phone with my mom. (She arrives tomorrow having had to deal with getting my stepdad squared away before coming here.) And every time I talk to Kurt. (He's in Texas until Tuesday night helping his mom get home from the nursing home. He'll be here for the funeral on Wednesday.)
I am also so grateful for the amazing circle of friends my sister has who are rallying like mad, bringing food, fending off any unwanted approaches, dealing with little details that get in the way. It's like having a team of angels holding us up while we grieve and plan and grieve.
We were looking at caskets yesterday and it was like every scene in a movie you've ever watched. My niece was appalled at them. I said we were going to look at other options today and she said "Yeah, can we find something that doesn't look like 'Elvis slept here.'?"