I’ve been thinking a lot about my late father, known here as Paco, recently.
I wish I could say that I am browsing old photos or remembering family holidays but, instead, I am mired in dealing with trying to settle insurance claims and begin the work needed to file his final tax returns and other estate sort of things.
Unfortunately, some of the issues are medical and it is bringing me back to a place of feeling helpless to alleviate Paco’s symptoms and not being able to get timely and accurate information about his condition.
It’s difficult and energy-draining and makes me feel like crawling into bed and pulling the covers over my head.
I’m not doing that.
I am trying to shepherd my energy and steel myself to chip away at all the work. It’s going to take a long time to get through it all.
One of my most important priorities for the year-end holiday season has been sending greetings to a wide range of people from all the different eras of my life. For some of the people on my list, it was the only time of year we would be in touch. The task of preparing the cards was quite elaborate, choosing the right card for the each recipient, deciding on a brief handwritten note or a longer printed letter, even matching the postage stamp and Christmas seal to align with the religious beliefs of the person.
My accustomed process has been abandoned over these last few stressful years, with other family members helping and sometimes with me abandoning cards altogether and just sending letters, no longer personalized as I had been wont to do back in the day.
This year is one of the difficult ones.
It’s hard for me to send cards with a note telling about a death, which I need to do again this year because of Paco. We are being advised to mail extra early this year because the US mail is slower than it used to be. Also, we hope to travel over the holidays and I need to get everything done before we leave.
Despite all that, I haven’t started on my list yet.
Part of it is that it is difficult to muster energy to do things, especially emotional things like writing. It’s a common aspect with grief but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
The other block I was having was knowing that I needed to write to some of the people on my parents’ Christmas card list to let them know what has happened. I knew there were some people who probably didn’t even know about Nana’s death, let alone Paco’s, as the last time some on the list would have heard from them was four years ago when I helped put together a letter to send out.
I had promised myself not to start on my own cards until I had taken care of Nana and Paco’s friends but it was difficult to get going on that. I wound up drafting the letter in the middle of the night-before-last when I couldn’t sleep. Today, I printed and addressed envelopes and brought them to the mailbox. I’m hoping that all of them will get delivered, as I don’t know if any of the recipients may have moved.
Theoretically, I could be working on my own cards and letters right now, but, instead, I’m writing this post. I’m not sure if it is procrastination or if I have used up my energy for the day.
My 96-year-old father, known here as Paco, died in mid-September, but I have been struggling to write about him. A good share of that is that the writing/analytical/organizational part of my brain has been too busy with all the phone calling and notes and paperwork that follow a death, which are by turns taxing and emotional and fraught. I’ve also been trying to find peace after so many months of complex medical and care situations which I found both exhausting and traumatic. I’ve also taken a week to attend a reunion residency with the Boiler House Poets Collective at MASS MoCA, which has been helpful both in reconnecting with family history as we are from the North Adams MA area and reconnecting with myself as a poet after so many months of sneaking in poetry time only intermittently.
But in this post, I will try to tell you more about Paco and our family.
People have asked me how my Irish-American father came to be known as Paco, which sounds more Spanish. My firstborn daughter E was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. As she was learning to talk, she couldn’t manage to say “Grandpa” and – after a few instances of calling him “Bucco” – settled on Paco as his name. This became his name with all the other grandchildren and often for other family members. It was natural for me to use it here on the blog.
It was a revelation for me seeing Paco interact with his grandchildren. Because my younger sister and I are only two years apart, I didn’t remember my father as a dad to young children. Unlike so many men of his generation, he reveled in playing with very young children and singing to them. One of the great blessings of our family life is that Nana and Paco retired near us when E was three and before T was born. Having them be so close by all those years was wonderful with walks and outings and school events and concerts, theater, and dance recitals, games and carousel rides and countless volleys of ping pong in the basement. Nana and Paco gave us so much love, care, and support for so many years; it was natural that we would provide the same to them as they grew older and developed health problems.
Paco had served in the US Navy as a SeaBee in World War II and Korea. The SeaBees were the Construction Battalion – CBs, get it? – and Paco was drafted before he could finish high school. Most of the SeaBees were older men, already established in various trades, who took Paco under their wing and taught him what they knew. The skills he developed there in electrical work set the stage for his career. Paco didn’t talk much about his service when we were growing up but, in his later years, he got some SeaBee caps which he would wear out in public. I was always amazed at how many people would comment, thank him for his service, and share their own stories of service by themselves or family members. Those tributes continued into his last days. One of the first things Hospice did after admitting him was to bring a certificate and a memorial quilt square to him. We are also applying for a service medallion to be added to his memorial in the mausoleum.
Paco worked for 43 years for New England Power Company, the last 23 as Superintendent of the Upper Deerfield River in southern Vermont/western Massachusetts. I wrote the poem “Hydro Superintendent” about him for his 90th birthday. We lived in a house that was owned by the company and often visited the powerplants and reservoirs. One of his biggest accomplishments as superintendent was overseeing the construction of Bear Swamp, a pumped storage plant built inside a mountain. Paco knew every detail of that project, which brought in contractors from as far away as Japan and Switzerland. It was so much fun walking through a giant tunnel to get to the huge powerhouse with its two turbines that could generate electricity and then reverse to pump water back to the upper reservoir. I started my interest in renewable electricity and energy storage technology young, thanks to Paco.
One of the things I admired about Paco was his work ethic. He always worked hard to get the job done right but he was also part of the team, even when he was the leader. He would help the crews do emergency work rather than just ordering them to come in. He hired the first Black and the first woman into his stations which had previously been staffed entirely by white males. (Point of information: Rural New England was not very racially diverse at the time. Some areas still are not diverse now, decades later.) He was always compassionate and understanding when employees encountered personal or family difficulties. He was also not one to “toot his own horn.” I found out how well-regarded he was by his staff through others, not from him.
We admired Paco even more when we discovered he had accomplished so much with undiagnosed dyslexia. When his youngest granddaughter S was diagnosed with an inherited form of dyslexia, Paco discovered at age 80 why he had always secretly struggled with reading and writing. S and her family launched the Paco Project to raise funds for Learning Ally to help others with print or visual disabilities access the world of books. We are proud to direct donations to Learning Ally in memory of Paco.
Paco was also proud to finally become a high school graduate. I applied for his diploma through Operation Recognition, a program which awards diplomas to veterans who left school before completing their course of study. In 2008, the same year that eldest granddaughter E graduated from high school, Paco received his diploma from Drury High School in North Adams, Massachusetts, the school that he and Nana, as well as I and my sisters, had attended.
Paco’s ancestors came to the United States from Ireland but he had never visited. Nana was too claustrophobic to consider flying, but after her death in spring 2019, my two sisters took Paco to Ireland to visit.
We were blest that all four of his grandchildren got to see Paco over the summer. We were especially grateful that granddaughter E with spouse L and great-granddaughters ABC and JG were able to visit from London UK. Because of the pandemic, we had not been able to see each other, but in August, just before the final and more precipitous portion of Paco’s decline, they were able to make the trip.
There were a few days during Paco’s last week where he was very agitated but we were fortunate to have some calmer moments. T was the only one of the grandchildren nearby enough for one final visit, which wound up being the day before he died. It was one of the most heartbreakingly tender encounters I have ever seen. T sang Irish songs to Paco and held his hands, which were still a bit restless from a medication side effect. She talked to him and I know that he could hear her because he was able to respond a bit. I admit that I couldn’t help but cry and that I am crying now as I try – and fail – to find the words to convey how special that last hour between them was.
It also happened that all three of Paco’s daughters got to spend time with him, both alone and in various pairings, on the day of his death. It was not clear that this would be his final day, so it was not that it had been planned, but I’m grateful that it turned out that way. I’m also grateful that in his last few days, I was finally able to sing to my father, something that my sisters had been doing but that I struggled to do. I sang both verses of “Over the River and through the Woods” to get to Paco’s favorite lines, “Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!” (Paco loved all kinds of pie.) I sang the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” because it is comforting to me and several beautiful Irish hymn tunes. Occasionally, I would get too choked up to continue singing but I usually managed to get through. On that last day, Paco could not respond but Hospice told us that the sense of hearing tends to remain and can even sharpen as the other senses are shutting down. My younger sister was alone with Paco when he died but I arrived soon after for my very last good-bye.
I have been so moved by the many people who have reached out to me during Paco’s decline and since his death. There have been so many kind words, both written and spoken – remembrances, prayers, thoughts, stories, expressions of gratitude for a long life well-lived. I was very touched when a friend that I made through Facebook but whom I have never met in person added my father to her Kaddish prayer on Yom Kippur. It has been the love I first learned from my parents but now experience through so many family and friends that has kept me going through all of this, even during the most difficult times. I thank all of you.
Last week, I went to the hair salon for a haircut with Diane, who has been my stylist since 1983. I told her about Paco’s death and she gave me a hug and told me that she had something to show me. It was her new puppy, who was sweetly asleep in his crate. She told me his name was Leo.
As anyone who has dealt with it will tell you, mourning is a process.
Likely, a lifelong process that has different impacts over time.
As this TED talk explains, grief is not something you move on from, but something that you move forward with.
It’s been a bit over three months since my mom’s death. Much of that time has been busy, with a lot of things that needed my attention, although I have often felt that my brain was full of holes and I wasn’t thinking clearly.
I kept hoping that I could clear out some mental space and feel that I could organize my thoughts better – and maybe even feel a bit creative, which is important as I have some poetry commitments coming up.
Instead, I’m just feeling overwhelmed and sad. I don’t feel like thinking or deciding things. I can make myself do important things, but it is difficult to feel I am doing them well.
I’ve been talking with some wise friends who have helped me to realize that where I am now is not unusual.
That mourning is personal and unpredictable and meanders through the terrain of life as it will with no apparent timeframe.
I think I have cried more in the past week than any week since Mom died. I know that is okay, even though it seems sort of backwards.
I am blessed with family and friends to help me while I am in this frame of mind and am trying to muster the energy to ask for help when I need it, although even that can be difficult when organized thought feels like so much work.
But I’m okay. Really. Please don’t worry about me.
Our Smith College Alumnae Chorus tour of Slovenia was only a few weeks after the death of my mother, known here at Top of JC’s Mind as Nana. One of the things that was comforting to me was saying prayers for my mom at the various churches we visited. Sometimes, I was even able to light a candle in her memory.
In prior tour posts, I have shared some photos from some of the churches we visited, but I wanted to share a few more. The ceiling from the chapel of Ljubljana Castle:
Most of the churches we saw on our trip had kneelers that were built into the wooden seats. I loved the curves of these pews from the Ljubljana castle chapel:
A cross silhouetted against Lake Bled in the entrance to the Mary of the Assumption:
The beautifully painted Stations of the Cross there:
InTrieste, the organ and a bit of the rose window, which was a later addition to Saint Just, when technology had progressed enough to have that large an opening in the wall:
Catholic altars contain relics, but one seldom sees them in such a conspicuous way:
A crucifix at St. George in Piran that had been restored from one of the older iterations of the church. I was struck by how contemporary designers have recalled this centuries-old style in their own work:
The main altar:
And the ceiling above the chancel:
There were two churches that I visited that were not part of the official tour. Because I was there as a pray-er rather than a tourist, I don’t have photos inside the churches, but they remain close to my heart. One was in Trieste, near the amphitheater ruins. Nana’s ethnic heritage was northern Italian, so it was special to be able to spend some quiet time in the church there. The other was when I went to Mass on our last morning in Ljubljana. It was comforting to be there as part of the congregation, even though they were speaking a language I didn’t know. All the same, I felt that the prayers in my heart were understood.
Besides my private prayer pilgrimage, I also silently dedicated my performances of the Duruflé Requiem to my mother. This requiem is based on chants from the early church and is sung in Latin, as it would have been before the Second Vatican Council. Much of it is spare and meditative, beautiful but difficult to perform because the individual vocal lines are often exposed.
The most moving of these text for me is the “In Paradisum”, which is the final commendation of the deceased to God at the end of the funeral rite. The text translates:
May the Angels lead you into paradise:
may the martyrs receive you at your coming,
and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.
May the choir of Angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor,
may you have everlasting rest.
At my mother’s funeral, this was the point at which I was most emotional, so I worried that I might have difficulty singing through it, especially as Duruflé sets the first stanza for sopranos only. I found, though, that it was comforting for me to bring my mother to mind at that moment, making the traditional prayer even more meaningful. In the powerful silence after we very quietly finished the piece, I could find peace.
Where I’ve been was a topic I addressed in a recent post. The short answer is Slovenia. I have done a number of posts about the trip with more to come.
The long answer, aside from my physical location at home, is in the ozone. Well, not literally. Or in a fog. Not literally that, either.
I’ve been juggling a lot of things for a long time, primarily caretaking for various people. After my mom, known as Nana here at TJCM, passed away in May and after the immediate busy-ness of the funeral and the bunch of paperwork and phone calling that needed to happen, I had hoped that I could be more organized and not feeling like my mind is scattered most of the time, but no. At least, not so far.
A friend reassured me that it is still early days, that my sense of clarity will return, but that it takes a long time.
Admittedly, it doesn’t make sense to reorganize my life now anyways. We are in the final weeks of having daughter E and granddaughter ABC in residence. We expect her visa to come through sometime soon and then she will need to move to London within 30 days. I am expecting that, when they leave after 2+ years of living here, there will be another period that is like mourning, too.
So, I guess it may be a long time before I feel like I can think, plan, write, organize, as I used to.
I have often written posts about my parents, known here as Nana and Paco. I’m sad to tell you that Nana passed away last week. After months of declining health due to congestive heart failure, she had a few days of rapid decline and died peacefully with my older sister with her and the rest of the family able to gather quickly for some final time together with her.
Over these last few days, my sisters have been staying at Paco’s apartment and taking care of him, while my spouse B and I have been tending to preparations for the funeral, which will take place mid-week.
We are very fortunate that this week is a week off for my son-in-law L, who was able to fly here from London to be with daughter E, granddaughter ABC, and all of us.
I admit that my mind has been richoting from one subject to another. Now that the funeral plans are all in place, I’m hoping I can calm my mind a bit, but it remains to be seen.
With so much happening, I’m not online very much, so I may not be able to keep up with responding to comments. Please know that I appreciate all the thoughts and prayers that you send on behalf of Nana and our family.
This was our first Christmas season without Grandma (my mother-in-law) who passed away in March.
It was also a quiet Christmas for a number of reasons which I won’t enumerate here.
It was sometimes difficult to navigate the season, trying to balance happy memories of how much Grandma loved Christmas, especially decorating, with how painful it was that she wasn’t able to be here with us.
I think each of us had at least one crying jag in the process.
Some things just felt right, though, such as putting the carol singers that she made for us on the cupboard filled with her teacup collection that now sits in our dining room, instead of on the mantel in the living room.
And making her pecan puff recipe.
I am also thankful that last year, our daughter E and her husband L were here celebrating Christmas with us. It was a precious time.
Today, my mother-in-law, known here as Grandma, would have turned 85.
Instead of buying flowers or her favorite truffles from a local sweets shop and making plans for her birthday dinner, we are faced with the six-month anniversary of her death and the beginning of a new season without her.
We have already been through the first Easter and Mother’s Day without her.
On August 15th, we didn’t buy flowers in remembrance of her and Grandpa’s wedding anniversary.
In the months ahead, there will be the first Thanksgiving without her and the first Christmas and the first Valentine’s Day.
We won’t be bringing her flowers on March 17th to celebrate Evacuation Day, an inside family joke that originated with Grandpa’s years as an elementary school principal.
A few days later will be the first anniversary of her death.