What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do ~ Dana

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A good friend of mine texted me last week to me know that her father passed away. He had been sick for a long time and over the course of his illness, she and I had many conversations about this process of losing a parent to cancer. When I told another friend the news, she said to me, “Oh, she’s lucky to have you. You must have known just what to say.” But the truth is, I didn’t. I don’t.

Having lost my father just over a year ago, I definitely know what NOT to say. I’ll give you the top three: 1. “Don’t worry. It gets better with time.” Here’s the thing: no it doesn’t. I’ll never have a daddy again. There is nothing better about that. Ever. It felt so dismissive when people told me this, as if in just 6 months I would just be over it all. 2. “I know exactly how you feel.” I understand the sentiment behind this one, but truthfully, no one knows exactly how you feel. Everyone’s relationship with their father is very different. Some people are close with their father, some aren’t. Some carry around anger and resentment. Some have tremendous guilt or regrets. I know how I feel, but that doesn’t mean that any one else feels the same way. 3. “Just be happy that you have your daughters.” This one bugs me because it ignores the gray areas in life. The happiness that I have in my daughters is unrelated to the sadness that I still feel about losing my dad. Absolute joy and gut-wrenching grief CAN actually exist together, thank goodness.

But what TO say, then? I don’t know what to say to my sweet friend because I know that there was nothing that anyone could have said to comfort me. Every sentence I thought of saying to her seemed so empty and superficial compared to the hurt that I could hear in her voice. So I hugged her, and told her how sorry I was. And I meant it.

Then I did for her what so many did for me and my family when we were in the midst of hospice and funeral planning: I brought food. During those horrible days, I cannot even remember who brought what, but our friends descended on my parents’ house, bringing homemade cookies, BBQ’ed chicken and hamburgers, chicken salad from Costco, croissants… it was a cornucopia of goodness that made our lives so much easier. There was so much to be done, especially when we brought my dad home, that we absolutely did not have time to cook, and there were only so many meals that we could stomach from the local fast food joint. I remember just crying after one of my mom’s friends from church literally brought us boxes of food. Their gifts of food nourished our bodies and our souls. It was just one less thing that we had to worry about.

The recipe I made for her is a simple, but delicious pasta dish that travels well and can just be microwaved or heated on the stove. I threw in a green salad, some Italian bread from a local bakery, and a bottle of wine, packed it all up in a Trader Joe’s bag, and sat with her in her father’s house. I’m including the recipe here. It’s a staple in our home, especially in the fall and winter. Try it for your family, and try it for a friend in need. Win-win.

Pasta e Fagioli

Ingredients:

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, quartered, then halved
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
2 cups water
3 ½ cups chicken stock – 2 14 oz cans or homemade (click here for our recipe)
1 Tbsp dried parsley
1 ½ tsp dried basil
1 ½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
1 15 oz can cannelloni beans (or white beans)
1 15 oz can garbanzo beans
½ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese (plus more for garnish)
½ lb ditalini pasta (or elbow macaroni, cellentani, or other curved pasta)

Directions:

1. In a large pot over medium heat, cook onion in olive oil until translucent. Stir in garlic and cook until tender. Reduce heat, and stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, water, broth, parsley, basil, oregano, salt, beans, and Parmesan. Simmer 40 minutes.

2. Add pasta and continue to simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Serve with extra Parmesan for garnish.

Suffer Well ~ Dana

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We’re just a couple days away from Mother’s Day, a day to honor and celebrate moms, and grandmas, and aunts who raised us, and the women we know who are doing a spectacular job of mothering. It’s a day of breakfast in bed, made by dads or other moms, and little hands, a day of flowers and jewelry, a day of sappy cards, maybe a day at Disneyland, or a day just relaxing in the back yard.

But for many, Mother’s Day is also pretty tough. I’ve watched Facebook over the last few days. A good friend and teammate is reeling from the loss of her grandma, the matriarch of their family, just two weeks ago. A friend of mine from junior high, who lost both her mother and grandmother three years ago, posted a picture of Winnie the Pooh, her mom’s favorite character, and talked about how hard this time of year is for her. My volleyball coach from 9th and 10th grades posted pictures of his mom with his children, with the sentiment that it has been 5 years that she’s been gone, but that it seems so much longer. My cousin texted me, “Mother’s Day sucks” as she will be “celebrating” the third Mother’s Day without her mom. And this year, Mother’s Day, May 11th, will be the one-year anniversary of the death of my father. Big, heavy sigh.

It’s quite the tightrope walk, isn’t it? On Mother’s Day, I will wake up with a heavy heart. I will remember each and every detail of May 11th, 2013. I won’t dwell on it, but it will still be there. On these days, it’s like we’re wearing sunglasses. We see our lives unfolding before us. We will experience joy, honest, true joy, on this holiday… but all through the lens of feeling loss. It’s a tightrope walk between joy and suffering. Those of you who know loss know that this is true. Suffering. And yet, my girls will have cards and presents for me. I will be so loved and cherished. And I will gush all my love right back on them. We will meet my mom at the cemetery. We will cry. But then we will go back to her home, where we were on this day last year with him. But this time we will swim in the pool. We will build the new desk she bought for her office. I’ll remember the time I bought her the Mother’s Day card that read: You’ve been just like a mother to me. Oops. And we’ll laugh. And give her presents.  And eat good food. And maybe make homemade ice cream.

Because that’s what we have to do. We have to suffer well. My cousin said that my dad would be mortified if he knew I was going to have a crappy Mother’s Day because of him, but I also think that there would be a part of him that would be happy to be missed, oh so dearly.  So we suffer well.

Many of my friends have told me that after 3 years, after 10 years, after 15 years, they still miss their parents, that once the first year is over, it isn’t necessarily “all better,” like society tells us it will be. But life doesn’t have to be all better. We learn to experience joy, to love our children, to laugh at movies, to enjoy our partners.  So we suffer well.

We know that our loved ones are “in a better place.” We take solace that they are in heaven where there is no more pain. We rejoice that we will one day be reunited with them. And yet, the hole that they have left in our hearts is still vacant, never to be filled.  So we suffer well.

 

Two to Tango ~ Dana

Last weekend I completely stepped out of my comfort zone and, at the age of 38, performed the Argentine Tango in my first dance recital.

Here’s how it all came about. A very good friend of mine is a professional ballroom dancer. In fact, he and his professional partner recently came in 3rd in the world in an international competition in Amsterdam. I met Jaime when my husband bought us West Coast Swing dance lessons for Valentine’s Day before we had kids. Since then, Jaime and I have danced on and off, just for fun, in my living room and have become dear friends. This last October, we were talking about my birthday and how I was struggling with the recent loss of my father.

“Remember the part in the movie Evita when the couples are dancing the tango, clinging to each other in their sadness after her death?” I asked him one night. “Can you just come and dance with me? Can I just cling to you and cry and tango?”

Without a second thought, Jaime said to me, “I’ll do one better. I will choreograph a tango and you and I will dance it in honor of your father at the studio’s showcase in January.” I sobbed.

Now, let me represent my Long Beach State Volleyball girls and say that I can dance… up in the nightclubs. If you were out dancing on Second Street in Long Beach some time between 1995 and 1998, we probably danced together, especially if you were at Belmont Station. You would have noticed us, me and my 6 foot and above teammates. But let me be the first to tell you that dancing out there is WAY different than dancing in the ballroom. Way. Poor Jaime. There’s probably nothing worse than trying to get the nightclub dancer out of a girl. And to be honest, I didn’t realize just how much I really needed to learn.

The first day that I came to the studio, it was pouring rain. Jaime was waiting in the dance room, dressed in slacks, and a vest and tie. He began teaching me the Argentine Tango and I cried. A lot. Over the next weeks and months, we met every Wednesday. Every Wednesday he showed up for me, taught me, let me cry, and demanded my best, for me and for my father.

Luckily I understand what my body is doing, but at almost 40, it can be hard to make my knees do what I want them to. When did start to move like an old lady? My favorite thing that Jaime says to me is, “Ok, do it again, but this time don’t make it look like you’re in pain.” Damn it.

All week long I had been filled with emotion: love for my dad, sorrow for missing him, gratitude for Jaime’s friendship, nervousness for wanting to do well.  Saturday night, when I couldn’t sleep, I found Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 on television. Near the end, as Harry is preparing to face his enemy, he is surrounded by his parents, and others, who have died. He looks at his mother and says, “Why are you here?” and she looks at him with love and says, “We never left.” I looked into the darkness, hoping to see, perhaps, my dad sitting in the leather club chair across the room. I whispered, “Are you still here, too?”

Sunday was our big day. With perfectly coifed hair and gorgeous makeup, I stepped onto the dance floor with my darling friend. We danced to “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla, a beautifully sad and mournful tango song.

Fast, sharp, explosive steps and kicks, followed by slow, passionate accents and movements, characterize the tango itself. I can still hear Jaime’s voice from rehearsals, “Slow, slow, quick, quick, up… and… fast, swivel, swivel, swivel, stop!” And so goes the dance of grief. There are times of rage, of desperation, of explosive pain; and there are times of quiet sadness, of nostalgia. And it’s often surprising to me how intertwined they all become.

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So I had my dance. I had my Evita moment and clung to my partner in sorrow. And it was life-changing.  My family and my friends, who have been so unfailingly supportive the last eight months, surrounded me once more. And by becoming vulnerable, by opening my wounded heart for others to see, I invited in healing. I invited in love. By allowing them to carry me through the hard days, I find the strength to carry on.  And I was again reminded that love goes on living, long after the body dies.

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And to Jaime, thank you. Thank you for your generosity of spirit. Thank you for your grace and elegance. Thank you for your professionalism and your amazing talent. And mostly, thank you for sharing all of that with me, dear friend. I love you.

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