Of An Age

My great-grandfather died of cancer when I was four. I remember running around the funeral home with my first cousin once removed; I only know that’s his full title because we come from a family with overlapping generations due to surprise-40 babies. He was only a year older than me at the time. Neither of us knew much about death. We knew we liked to run in circles and laugh.

As a freshman in high school, a classmate’s mom died. It rocked our small community. On the day of her funeral, there was also a bomb threat at the school. I don’t know if that was so we could all go to the funeral or because someone didn’t want to finish their midterms. It snowed.

I sang at the graveside service for a boy who passed away in his eighth grade year when I was a sophomore. We sang the Alma Mater. I don’t remember the words now.

My first cat died during the week of finals my junior year of high school.

During my senior year of high school, my maternal-paternal great-grandparents passed away within three months of each other. A severe stroke in August, pancreatic cancer on Halloween. I remember answering the phone hanging on the wall, my fingers twisting in the cord, standing in my best friend’s kitchen after spending the night. I was wearing my cheerleading uniform; we had a competition later that day.

My great-great grandmother didn’t pass away until the summer after my freshman year of college. She already had knitted Christmas gifts, still six months away. At the funeral home, I learned that my first cousin once removed was friends with the brother of my high school into college boyfriend. The world felt small, safe.

While pregnant with my daughter, my sorority grandma’s dad died. Despite being on bed rest, I went to the funeral. Always go to the funeral. While pregnant with my oldest son, a sorority sister died in a horrific car crash. My husband accompanied me to the funeral home. I wish the casket hadn’t been open; I can still see the marks from the fire, the bruising, the way her pink suit didn’t cover the marks of what took her away from us at such a young age.

Rose.

And then the deaths speed up and blur together. Prior to adulthood, they were separate entities, easily recalled because of their rare occurrence. A gentleman from church. An acquaintance’s mom. The father of one of my husband’s Army battalion members. My childhood dog. Friends’ mothers, grandmothers, mothers-in-law.

My step-grandfather who I didn’t call a step-grandfather; he was just grandpa. A note about that one: Our sewer backed up into our first owned home on the same day. That’s not hard to forget, the two awful things smashing into one.

Maddie.

And then the deaths got worse, more personal.

My beloved grandfather, suddenly. My husband’s aunt, after a prolonged battle with ALS. His uncle, lung cancer. Three in three months. It felt like a cruel joke but no one was laughing. Death, death, death. Funeral, funeral, funeral.

That same summer, a friend. Too young. The anger began to build.

A reprieve.

My second cat.

And then my most cherished grandmother. And my other grandmother. And then, nearly myself. Waves crashing atop one another; it’s hard to breathe through prolonged, sustained, never-ending loss.

It’s been almost a year since Biz left us. A picture of the six of us, impossibly young, still sits on my desk. This, the one that surprised me more than my grandfather’s heart attack; the only one for whom I did not attend a funeral, a memorial, anything. Sometimes it feels like she’s still walking among us, still here now.

Today a friend from the old guard, the early days of blogging. She beat the odds once, so knowing now that she’s gone-gone feels like an untruth, like maybe we’re waiting for a punchline. But she’s gone. And we’re still here.

It’s the friends dying that feels unsettling. Don’t misunderstand me. I spent five days last week hoping and praying my husband’s grandmother wouldn’t leave this Earth just yet. I’m not “okay” with losing my elders, the two generations responsible for my existence, my moral compass, my memories, parts of my future.

But losing those in my generation—my acquaintances, my friends, my kindreds, my loves—I don’t suppose that gets easier.

I remember watching my dad put on his suit. I don’t remember who died, just someone he knew as a child or a teen or a young adult or an older adult. I remember the lines on his face. I knew they weren’t best friends, but I knew it still pulled at him in ways that I didn’t understand. Not at that age.

I do now.

We are of an age now. We speak their names and bow our heads. They remain parts of us. Forever.

Current Thoughts of a Firefighter’s Wife

I don’t often write about my role as a firefighter’s wife anymore as it isn’t the main narrative in my life. For various reasons, I distanced myself from focusing on it as doing so caused excess anxiety.

Honestly, I struggle the most on the days my husband works his 24 hour shift. He remains a stabilizing, calming factor in my life. Moreover, even though I no longer listen to the scanner when he works, if I let it, my mind will run away with worst case scenarios. I try to stay busy when he works so I don’t have time to dwell on “What If.” One (ex-) therapist didn’t understand the rise in anxiety while my husband worked his shift. She didn’t last long.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a retired firefighter with my husband the rest of the department.

I’ve wanted to go with him every time over the years, but until August I worked a day job that didn’t let me escape for three hours midday. Until this year, I also didn’t have a local childcare option if the kids didn’t have school on the day of a funeral. Now that I set my own work schedule and have childcare when I need it, I can attend with my husband.

As we gathered in the garage at the fire department, a fellow firefighter commented on my presence in a positive manner.

“This is what we’re missing these days: our families,” my husband replied.

One other firefighter wife attended.

I sat with our department, all dressed in their Class A uniforms, and watched as a beloved wife said her final goodbyes. I listened as a grown son told a room full of loved ones and firefighters how his dad was his hero. To say my heart felt heavy would be a gross understatement.

I sat in the funeral home knowing I might someday sit in that very same funeral home to say goodbye to my husband surrounded by a bunch of firefighters in their Class As. I also realized I will attend many, many more funerals over the years—not just for those firefighters who came before, but for the men who work, day in and day out, with my husband. The ones who joke with me at the VFW after a funeral, who love our sons.

At the cemetery, I stood alone as the firefighters stood in their two lines during the military rites and the final goodbye.

Last night, the two of us watched Burn, a documentary about the Detroit Fire Department. I can’t decide if it’s a must watch or a must avoid for fire spouses, but it definitely ranked as highly informative and well done. I didn’t know that the DFD fights the most fires per year of any city in the country. Detroit is literally burning down, with 95% of the fires they fight (as of release in 2010) being arson. That’s not okay.

In the documentary, we saw how one firefighter lives life as a paraplegic after a devastating collapse at a fire. I also learned that bath tubs fall through ceilings and air conditioners fall out of windows, neither a thing I’ve ever considered. The saddest part, however, was a man who loved his wife oh-so-much and couldn’t wait for his retirement to live his life with her; she died shortly before his last day of work.

I don’t know what life holds for me as a firefighter’s wife. The unknown of it all kind of pokes at places I don’t like to go very often anymore. I choose to live in the present as much as my tricky mind lets me. But yesterday made me think a lot about the fire department family, my personal skill set, and that previously mentioned setting of my own schedule. I may write more about being a firefighter’s wife this year as a new project seems to be forming itself. We’ll see.

For now, if you know my husband is working a 24 hour shift, maybe just check in on me or send me funny gifs or dog videos. I’m working hard on my coping techniques to remain in safe spaces while he’s gone, but sometimes they fail. Over the past year, I’ve realized how I need to ask for help when I need it. So. Here I am.

Current Thoughts of a Firefighter's Wife

He’ll Always Have Her

I looked up from my steaming cup of coffee and watched his little face crumple.

“What’s wrong, Booey?”
“I miss Big Mamaw,” he sobbed over his cereal bowl.

I quickly rounded the breakfast bar and pulled him into my arms. I made eye contact with my husband with one question in my eyes. Where did that come from?

She’s been gone over a year and a half now.

A year and a half.

Saying that knocks the wind out of me. We’ve lived through two of her birthdays, two Christmases. I’m coming up on my second birthday without her. She always made sure to send my card first. I don’t normally keep cards, but I didn’t toss the last birthday card she sent me in 2014. Maybe I was cluttered and running behind. Maybe I knew.

I miss her hand-writing.

The boys spent the weekend at The Farm, the culmination in a three week tour of their grandparents. They’d told me stories of riding the quad out the back 40 with Papau and taking a walk back the hollow with YiaYia—both of which take them right past my Grandma’s old home. And so when I looked at my husband with the question in my eyes, I figured the close proximity to her space conjured up some memories and feelings.

“It’s okay to feel sad, to miss her, to cry. I still miss her and cry sometimes too.”

He nodded and held me close. In fact, he didn’t let go for quite some time. I just let him hold on to me while I held him tightly. Sometimes we need to feel safe and secure in our emotions, our grief, our memories; we need to know we’re supported even when we’re not smiling and joyful.

If I’ve learned anything since losing Grandma, it’s that grief is not linear. Even for kids. Maybe especially so for kids because nothing kids do is linear. Two steps forward, eight steps sideways, do a little dance, growth spurt, emotional regression, oh hey! New phase!

We adults like to pretend we have our ish in line. I grieve in the proper order, all five steps, one after the other. Don’t mind me. I’m not crying in the corner. Chin up, buttercup.

Except that’s not true either. I’ll be fine for weeks at a time and then I’ll pull out the pink tablecloth to bring some Valentine’s Day cheer to the dining room and find myself sitting on the floor, clutching it in my hands while holding it to my face. Absentmindedly looking through old photos to find something fun to share for Throwback Thursday only to be sidelined by photos long forgotten, taken with my early high school camera; were we all ever that young?

He'll Always Have Her With Him -stopdropandblog.com

Oh, but I’ve yet to find a picture of her with my youngest son and it breaks me in two.

I’m thankful my sons feel safe enough to share openly regarding their own grief. It makes me feel less alone in my own grief, I suppose. I want to be one of those faithful women who accept death for what it is, who rejoice that my Grandma is no longer in pain, but I selfishly want her here with me. With us. I want to sit down at her table in her home, not at her table in my home. I want to eat her macaroni, not my macaroni that is her macaroni. I want to call her when the Cardinal birds return to my yard. And the hummingbirds. And the stupid red-winged black birds.

But she’s gone. And we’re here. All trying to make sense of it in our own ways.

I told my Dad about Booey’s breakdown. We both figured it was caused by the close proximity to her home over the weekend. And then my Dad said, “She’s in his permanent memory. He’ll always have her with him.”

I smiled as the tear fell from my eye.