This morning I was cleaning out my dresser drawers.  We were donating it to the thrift shop up the street and everything needed to be out of it.

I pulled out all the clothes from the bottom drawers and moved my way to the small top jewelry drawer.  I’m embarrassed to say how thick the layer of dust was on top.

Hoarders would have a field day with the content of that drawer.

But there among the old papers, Mother’s Day cards, hair clips and broken watches and Lego pieces…

There was this:

21st Birthday

21st Birthday

 

When I turned twenty-one, my parents gave me 21 presents.  Some were small and silly, some were amazing.  This was one of them.  Inside was a letter from my dad to me.  One that I forgot existed.

I opened up the letter, reading it for the first time in I have no idea how many years.

image
image(1)

 

January 18, 1993

Dear Alysia,

Perhaps it is impossible for any person who is not a parent to understand what it means to have a child.  Your birth twenty-one years ago was the greatest moment of my life.  Holding you in my arms, looking into your eyes, changed the entire world for me.  It changed my past and my future because it gave my life new meaning.  I was amazing that the emotional import of becoming a parent for the first time was so overwhelming.  If you are lucky enough to have a child someday you will be surprised at how different the intensity and the quality of the rush of love is that accompanies your first child’s birth.

No matter what you do in life you have already given me more pleasure than I could have ever hoped for.  You know that I will always stick with you through good time and bad forever.

Even though it’s probably impossible for a daughter and a father to ever forget their “roles” in each others lives I hope we can continue to become regular friends who can learn from each other, disagree with each other, and still know like all true friends that we can depend on each other.  Unfortunately I never had the chance to be an adult friend to my father.  If I had I’m sure the relationship would have had its stormy moments as I was an independent minded young man who perceived most advice as nagging. But in the end it would have worked out because your grandfather’s values were just like mine.  Loved was the underpinning of our relationship.  I wish he could have met you and known you because he would have seen that his life and love had been passed to a great young woman.

I admire you for all you have done in your 21 years.  I look forward to you seeking a happy and fulfilling life.  Don’t let life’s hard knocks get you down.  All children carry some of their parents inside their heads and hearts forever both the good and bad. I hope you will always cherish the special moments you and I have had and will have for many years to come.  I certainly have cherished them all.

Welcome to the adult world – happy birthday.

I’ll love you always,

Dad

Sometimes being a hoarder has its perks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I have some letters to write to my own children.  For them to hide away somewhere and pull them out when they need it most.

Oh and I love you always too Dad.  And I miss you every day. Thank you for being inside my head and my heart.

Love, Alysia

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime.
So, let me say before we part:
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you.
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you’ll have rewritten mine
By being my friend.

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea.
Like a seed dropped by a sky bird
In a distant wood.
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better
But because I knew you…
Because I knew you…
I have been changed for good.” – For Good from the play Wicked

 

“It’s grief… it hits you. It’s like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability. You feel like a three legged table. Just suddenly… the Earth isn’t stable anymore. And then it passes and becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes.” — Liam Neeson on his wife Natasha Richardson’s sudden death from traumatic brain injury five years ago from (his 60 Minutes interview)

It’s a funny thing.  Grief.

Funny is the wrong word.  Sneaky.

When I was thinking of a song title for my last post, I googled “father and son songs”.  And of course, Father and Son by Cat Stevens came up right away.

Cat Stevens was one of my father’s favorite artists.  I have memories of driving to school in his Volvo, listening to Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits on the tape deck.

I clicked on the YouTube Video that accompanied the google link:

And I started to sob.

It wasn’t just the song that reduced me to tears in front of the keyboard.

Cat Stevens looks like my dad did when I was a kid.  He wrote words that would have come out of my dad’s head.

It was an immediate transport back in time.  Back to memories that are still fresh and raw.

I don’t really know how to explain these waves of grief, even 15 years later.  I think about him all the time in different ways.  Sometimes it’s just a news story on TV and I want to talk with him about it.  Sometimes it’s a memory that I can’t quite see in my head and I want to ask him what happened.

Sometimes it’s hearing about a friend battling cancer and me wishing I could do a million things differently all over again.

Those times come in and out.  It’s a brief twinge and then it’s gone.

And then there are moments when the grief feels all consuming. I get stuck.  Mired in a hole of what ifs and what should and shouldn’t have been.

Today could have been one of those days.

But I stopped and looked again at the photo that started it all.

photo(22)

And I remembered that these are the times that need my focus now.

I can choose to let the grief send me down the rabbit hole.

Or I can choose to let the grief push me to see how important and precious these moments are.

Because a boy and his dad, reading a book about boats and engines?

That’s a really big deal.

It’s not time to make a change,
Just sit down, take it slowly.
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to go through.
Find a girl, settle down,
if you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.

All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,
It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it.
If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them you know not me.
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.” – Father And Son by Cat Stevens

16346_1269904274332_6985207_n

This is the story of our dog Rocko.

She wasn’t our dog to begin with.  My mother, father and sister got her when she was just a few weeks old.  She was the smallest dog in the litter and had to stay a while before she could go home with them. Rocko was their fourth dog and the smallest by far.  The only full breed.  A short-legged short hair Jack Russell Terrier.

My sister named her Rocko after the Nickelodeon show “Rocko’s Modern Life“.  The main character was named Rocko and he had a dog.  My sister just combined the two.

She was so tiny.  We purchased a cat collar for her and still had to add another hole so it wouldn’t slip off her neck.

My dad was getting sicker.  In the past, my parents had never let any dog upstairs in the house.  But Rocko came up to keep my dad company and slept on his pillow.

She liked to burrow and seek our warmth and we’d find her under blankets and in laps.  She would just curl up and sleep, resting her head on your feet or your leg.

Over the next year my mother and sister got two more dogs, rescuing them from shelters.

My dad died the November after they got Rocko.

I moved back home.  It was my mother, my sister, me and six dogs.

As she aged, Rocko became more aggressive towards the other dogs.  Apparently this happens sometimes with Jack Russells, but we didn’t know.  We spent a lot of time making sure the dogs were separated when we were out.

I came home one evening.  My mother and sister weren’t there.  All I saw was a trail of blood that looked like something out of a horror movie.  Somehow the dogs had broken through the gates meant to keep them apart.  Rocko had attacked three of the other dogs, two severely.  My mother came home and took the injured dogs to the vet.  The next day, Rocko went there to be sequestered.

She needed to go.

I couldn’t take her.  I was in the legislature living in a hotel half the year and half the year I was home.

Tim and I were dating at the time and in his true white knight fashion he agreed to take her in his house in Massachusetts until we could find a home for her.  A “foster dog” situation.

On a cold winter afternoon, I drove her down to be with Tim.

I called a bunch of Jack Russell Rescue places.  Had a few leads on places with our requirement : no other dogs.

But I couldn’t pull the trigger to let her go.

So she stayed. For 13 years.

There when I moved in…

There when we got married…

And there through the arrival of all three of our children.

Pregnant with baby number one

Rocko would sleep wherever we were but she was particularly fond of under the covers at the foot of our bed.  Until I found a tick in our bed and moved her on top of the covers under her own special blanket.

She was part of my favorite new parent story ever.  Gerry was a terrible sleeper when he was a baby.  I had finally nursed him back to sleep after a long middle of the night awake stretch.  He had fallen asleep on my arm and I had to pee. Not wanting to move him, I wriggled out of my nightgown and went to the bathroom naked.  I tip-toed quietly to the bathroom, did what I needed to do, and walked quietly into the dark.  As I made my way to the bed I heard a huge THUD.

I screamed and flipped the light on, thinking it was Gerry falling off the bed.

It was Rocko hopping down to find me.

Staring at naked me in the bright light was Tim and now a wide awake – and now crying – Gerry.

She is also part of one of my scarier moments as a parent.  A now toddler aged Gerry was jumping around on our bed and landed on her tail.  Rocko turned around and snapped at him.  Not biting, but enough of a reaction that we started the search again for another home for her.  Again, we couldn’t pull the trigger.  But for the next seven years, she was never left alone with any of the kids.  And she never slept on the bed again.

**********

We said goodbye to Rocko last week.

She had dementia.

She would sleep all day and walk around all night.

She had “dry eyes” meaning her eyes didn’t produce tears.  For several years Tim put drops in her eyes to ease the pain, but she was now completely blind.

And deaf.

She had fallen down the stairs too many times because she couldn’t see.

She slept on Tim’s side of the bed on the carpet under his nightstand and never left that spot.

We carried her out to pee. And even then she would pee or throw up in the house.  She peed on her water bowl and barely ate.

She didn’t know when we were there or even sensed where we were.

She was getting worse.

I shook the whole time that Tim was away with her at the vet.

We know she went peacefully.

Her last picture. Excuse my knee in the way.

**********

When Tim got home and the kids were asleep, I sat down with him on the couch and sobbed.  I didn’t even know these tears existed for her.

“It’s like I have nothing left of him now,” I cried into Tim’s lap.  “I have the green chair and the coat and that’s it.  That dog…she…”

I just curled up in Tim’s arms and cried.  Just as I had 14 years ago at the cemetery after burying my dad.

“We’re never getting rid of that chair, are we?” Tim said.

I shook my head no and laughed through the tears.

“I loved her too, you know.” Tim said quietly.  He had been her primary caregiver for 13 years now.  As we had more children, more dog responsibilities fell to him.  This was his pain as much as mine.  We sat together on the couch quietly remembering Rocko.

**********

Telling the kids was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a parent.

I googled “how to tell your autistic child about the death of a pet” and didn’t get much.  The “Rainbow Bridge” poem just doesn’t work for our not very religious, incredibly literal family.

So we told them the truth.

Their reactions matched their personalities exactly.

Gerry said he wished he didn’t have feelings so it didn’t hurt so much.  Howie went between being very sad and saying “poor Rocko” and then saying he was happy he wouldn’t be annoyed by her toenails clicking on the floor anymore.  Lewis got very very sad and kept saying “I am sad that Rocko died.”

They all wanted another dog instantly.

This will be a process.  For us all.

**********

Goodbye Rocko.

You weren’t a great dog.

But you were our dog.

Our memory dog.

I slipped your collar into the pocket of Dad’s coat.

We will miss you.

A huge thank you to the incredible doctor at the Northern RI Animal Hospital for being there for us all. You were my lifeline.

[Rocko]
Goodness no
[High-Pitched Voice]
Rocko’s Modern Life
[Deep Voice]
Rocko’s Modern Life
{Silly Sound Effects}
[High-Pitched Voice]
Rocko’s Modern Life” – Theme Song to Rocko’s Modern Life

I took another sip of my wine and I opened the coat closet.

I was spending the evening gathering up blankets, shoes, and sheets to donate to a clothing drive for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.  The Girl Scout troop in our town arranged for a large truck to be at our high school in the morning and I wanted to help fill it.

I found sweaters that were still packed up from our move six years ago.  Crib sheets that were of no use to us anymore.  Winter boots that my kids had outgrown years ago.  All into the box.

The posting came on Facebook that what they really needed were jackets.  The weather was about to get quite chilly and no power means no heat.

So out came another empty box.  And to the coat closet I went.

I moved some winter jackets around and some rain coats.  The ones that still fit my kids went to one side.  The LL Bean pullover fleece that I hadn’t worn in years came out.  As did a button down Gap jacket.

And then there it was.

My dad’s old gray Black Diamond fleece coat.

It’s been hanging in one coat closet or another of mine for almost 14 years now.  One of three articles of clothing that I have of his.

I don’t wear it.  Ever.  It hasn’t been washed since he died.

It just hangs there in the closet.  No matter what season, that coat stays.

I can still see him in that coat even after all this time.  It’s that soft heather gray color with black trim around the collar.  It was an in-between season coat – not quite warm enough for a winter coat but too warm for early fall and late spring.

A “mud season” coat I guess.  Going by Vermont seasons.

He had a gray Black Diamond vest that was just like it and he wore that all the time when he was sick.  When I think back to the memories of him those last months, he’s in that vest.

I don’t know where that vest is now.

And really I never understood the vest anyway.  How does that keep you warm?  I need something that covers me…something that envelopes me.  Something I can feel secure in.  Like a big fleece hug.

The big fleece hug hung there in the closet.

It was begging me to donate it.  It makes sense, right?  After all these years it should go to someone who really needs it. To someone from the hard hit areas of Long Island where my dad grew up.  Or to someone from the city where he first taught.

And considering how much he gave to others in his life and how much he taught us to give back, shouldn’t I give up this coat so that someone else can use it? So that a father can wrap it around his daughter to keep her safe and warm?

I pushed the coat aside and pulled out a 3T sized raincoat.

I closed the coat closet door.

The memories are starting to fade after all these years.  Some days I feel him so close, other days he’s so far away.  I try to remember things but I can’t.

It’s just a coat.  But I still need it.

I take the 3T raincoat and put it on top of the box.  I slip some money into the pocket of the LL Bean pullover fleece, hoping to bring a “Hey! Found money!” smile to whomever wears it next.

Tomorrow I’ll put the boxes in the car and bring them to the high school.

I sit here now in the dark with another glass of wine.

The coat is just on the other side of the wall.

It will stay with me for a while longer.

And oh I couldn’t understand it, for I felt I was rich
And I told them of the love my mamma sewed in every stitch
And I told them all the story, mamma told me while sewed
And how my coat of many colors, was worth more than all their clothes.

But they didn’t understand it and I tried to make them see
that one is only poor, only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors, my mamma made for me
Made just for me.” – Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton

Take a moment to donate what you can to relief efforts on the East Coast.  My family and my friends who are like family need your support.  If you can’t donate money, find a drop off location for coats, blankets, shoes, and non-perishable items.

Please.

Tuesday evening, I asked Tim if he could have dinner with the younger boys so I could take Gerry out.

It had been a hard day for Gerry and I wasn’t sure why.  He came home in a mood and with every question he either yelled at me or started to cry.

Lots of “you don’t remember what it’s like to be in school all day” and “I just want to be left alone” and “don’t leave, I need help with my math homework” and “stop helping me!”.

So Tim sat with Howie and Lewis while they didn’t eat their hot dogs and macaroni.  I took Gerry to the diner up the street.

We sat together in a booth facing the TVs.  The evening news was on.  Normally, I don’t let him watch the news because it’s just too graphic and sensationalistic.  I didn’t have much choice here, though, since two screens were staring right at him.

Luckily the news was fairly benign that night.  Stories about the missed call at the Packers/Seattle football game, a quick blurb about a close mid-air collision at a Chicago airport, and clips from the presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

Gerry’s not much of a talker when we go out.  But this time the questions didn’t stop.  He asked about the football game which led to a discussion of unions and strikes and their impact, especially for students and teachers in Chicago.  We talked about the safety of airline travel, and he shared his knowledge of planes and how they fly (clearly learned from his father and his iPad flight simulator).

And we talked about the election.  He asked if he could stay up and watch the speeches and debates this year.

“Because the last time I voted in first grade I wasn’t very informed.  I just picked a name.  This time when I vote I want to know the issues.”

Every once in a while, he would stop talking to take a bite of his maple syrup soaked pancake.  And then he’d stare back up at the TV screen and ask another question.

Looking at him, I let my mind transport back to the dinner table when I was his age.  We had a small black and white TV on the counter near the table and we’d watch the evening news while we ate. We’d talk about the stories and discuss their implications and what it meant for us and the world.  And as we cleared the table, Jeopardy would come on and we’d yell out our answers in the form of a question to see who would get the higher score.

As I tuned back into the conversation at the diner, that strange feeling of came over me for the one millionth time.

I am happy that I am able to continue this connection with my own child and so thrilled with his thirst for knowledge and desire to learn more about his world.

I am sad that my dad isn’t here to see his grandson love the same things that he did.

I am angry that he left this earth way before his time.  I want him here at that booth with Gerry telling him about the world and giving me that gentle hug around the shoulders that said he was proud of me without the need for words.

Just when I think the sadness and pain and emptiness has faded, a moment like this in the diner comes along and I am right back there again.

I am grateful for his legacy carrying on in the grandsons he never met.

Spitting image

But I am missing him terribly today.

And there’s a heart that’s breaking down this long-distance line tonight
I ain’t missing you at all
Since you’ve been gone away.
I ain’t missing you
No matter what I might say.” – Missing You by John Waite

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,660 other followers