Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Rose By Any Other Name...



"I know not how to tell thee who I am."
~William Shakespeare

     There is no word to describe what you are, or who you have become, after the loss of a sibling. If you lose a spouse you are a widow or a widower.  If you lose your parents you become an orphan.  But if you lose a sibling, or, as it is in my case, all three of your siblings, you just become the girl who's brother died.  The poor girl who's sister passed away.  The woman who tragically lost all three of her siblings.  There is no word in the English language to describe my loss and often times I struggle to find the words to express how I feel. 



     In many ways, siblings experience a double loss; the loss of their sister or brother and the loss of their parents. Surviving children do not only lose a sibling, they also lose the mother and father they once knew.  Everything changes.  I know this from experience.  Though I'm sure my parents did the best that  they could after my oldest brother died tragically at the age of 18, our whole family was changed forever. 

One of the few photos of my brother Bryan and I.
   
  I was only six years old when my brother Bryan died. I was the youngest of four.  My sister Lynn was 20, my brother Scot was 14.  They grew up with a completely different set of parents than I had. Growing up, I often heard the phrase "BC" which stood for "Before Cathi."  It was often used when stories were told about family trips, activities and traditions.  Fun times.  Happy times.  Times that I didn't experience.  As a child, I thought this to be funny.  As an adult I came to realize that the phrase wasn't so much "BC" but more so "AB~After Bryan." I had missed out on how outgoing and adventurous my parents once were. My childhood was entirely different than that of my siblings.

     Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that I had a terrible childhood or a disadvantaged youth. If anything, I was spoiled.  What my parents weren't able to give me emotionally they gave me financially.  I didn't want for anything.  Except that I did.  The emotional separation from my parents during my formative years profoundly influenced my life. Just as it had completely changed our family.  Experiencing death as a child becomes a lifelong experience of processing and understanding the loss, and all of the changes that come with it. 

     I have experienced the death of two different siblings, at two diverse times in my life, and in two contrasting sets of circumstances. Though I was only young when my oldest brother died accidentally, I was 36 when my sister died of breast cancer.  While these two death experiences were entirely different, they impacted my family and me in immeasurable ways.  My understanding and reaction to these deaths contrasted greatly.  

My sister Lynn on her 40th birthday.

     As much as I mourned for, and missed my sister, I still felt sorrier for my parents, for her husband, for her two young boys, for everyone but me.  I thought, "I'm just the sibling,"  their grief was, and should be,  more profound than mine.  I put on a brave face.  I grew up with grief. I knew the role I had to play.  I had to be the strong one.  I had to be there for my parents, who had now lost two of their four children.  I was now married with children of my own.  I couldn't imagine how I would ever manage or cope with the death of one of my own children, let alone two.  My parents were suffering and it was tragic to see.  My grief had to take to the sidelines.

     On September 19th, 2016, two years ago today, tragedy struck my family yet again.  My brother Scot, the only surviving sibling I had, died due to complications from surgery.  Ironically, he had fought and beat cancer just five years earlier. Another devastating blow to our family.  He was 54 years old.  Husband and father of four. 

My favourite picture of Scot.
     The death of my only remaining sibling hit me hard.  Harder than the other two had.  It was an extremely difficult time in my life.  How could I remain strong in the face of this unexpected tragedy?  I felt like I didn't deserve to feel so shattered, especially in the shadow of my parents' immeasurable loss.  

     My brother was the co-keeper of my childhood.  The only one who could relate to what we went through as a family.  He was the only other person who knew what it was like to grow up with our parents, in our home.  His death had me feeling so much more than grief. I could think of only the hard times ahead.  Of the times when my brother wouldn't be by my side.  When my parents began to age and needed care, or when they themselves died.  I was confused and I was angry.  Scot's death was something I could not come to terms with.  Because of this, I knew that I could no longer be the strong one.  

     Being the bookish person that I am, I sought answers in the form of a book.  Sadly, I discovered that there were more books on losing a pet than on losing a sibling.  A handful of books existed for surviving children after a death in the family, but they were geared toward young children.   Many books dealt with losing a parent, a child or a spouse.  There was no handbook for me.  No resource or information on how to heal myself and come to terms with my varied emotions.  This time, I needed to ask for help.  

     For the first time in my life, I sought council and began seeing a therapist.  I realize now, that I should have done this long ago.  I have been given tools to help me become better, not bitter.  I have been shown how to accept my feelings, deal with survivor's guilt and reduce my anxieties over what will happen next.  I have learned to be more mindful and, of all things, grateful.  I have learned that I will never "get over" the loss of my siblings. I must instead move on and through.  I have created a wonderful life for myself in spite of the missing pieces in my life.  Perhaps I am even strong like those well meaning mourners at my brother's funeral asked me to be for my parents. They are now aged 89 and 90.  Their health is failing as is their will.  I am their only living child.  It is a role that I did no want but can not change. 

     My siblings have left my life, but not my heart.  Today, on the second anniversary of Scot's death, I pay tribute to all three of my siblings in a way that he would have loved.  I got a tattoo.



Scot had several and never would he have believed that I too, would adorn my body with one.  It is totally not me, but somehow it is truly fitting.  The semicolon indicates a pause in a sentence.  It is not an ending, rather a sign that my story continues.  Each of the birds symbolizes one of my siblings; Bryan, Lynn and Scot. They are no longer with me, but they remain a part of my story.  Though sometimes I feel as if I were, I am not alone.  I will do my very best to live on for them with love and gratitude on my journey.



Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Tiny Happy Things...

    


    A few things have happened in the past weeks to make me once again reflect on life.  Sadly, as has been the norm, they are not positive things.  

    One thing I know for sure, to steal one of Oprah's catch phrases, is that life is too short.  Too short for negativity, too short for what ifs, too short for regret.  

     When I lost my job at the school board, I thought that it was a terrible thing. I didn't recognize at the time, that it was  merely a turning point. I took a year to wallow in self pity.  Then, at the age of 43, I reinvented myself and went back to University.  It was the beginning of my reinvention.  Not only did I become a teacher, I subsequently became a baker and a high end jewelry sales person (which made me realize that I was never cut out for sales).  I worked hard at jobs that I didn't necessarily like, but they were a means to an end. I took the fork in the road, not sure of where it would lead.

     Finally, I was rehired in a field that I had come to love, in a place that felt like home.  I've been there just shy of four years, but have experienced a few bumps in the road.  I still love my job, I always will, but life has taught me that it is just that. My job.  There are good days and bad days, but I choose to focus on the good. I love my job. I'm so happy to have it. I refuse to let the negativity that surrounds it seep into my life.

    Instead, I choose to focus on the good.  To use the much quoted phrase, Carpe Diem (yes, Rick, I think of you each time I say it or hear it).  I choose to do that which makes me and my family happy.  Because in the end, that is what matters. That is what will be remembered.

     Yesterday was "National Siblings Day." A Hallmark holiday I know, but seeing all of the posts on Facebook of the happy siblings made me miss mine. Made me long for what never was and what could have been.   Not one of my three siblings lived past the age of 54.  I am soon to be 49.  As I reflect on that I can't help but wonder,  why should I out live any of them? What if I only have five short years, or even less, left to live?  What if we did indeed live like the song says, like we were dying? 

     When I think in terms like that, I realize that negativity and petty disappointments have no room in my head. Instead, I choose to focus only on the good.  Even when it snows in April, summer always follows.  The sun continues to rise each and every day. I choose to make the most of every opportunity.  I'm going to watch reality television with wild abandon.  I'm going to read trashy gossip magazines (and not just pretend to peruse the headlines in the line up at the grocery store). I'm going to knit and read until my heart's content.  Yes, there will still be bad days, but when they come, I will allow myself to eat dessert first.

      I am becoming increasingly more aware of what is really worth my energy.  Perhaps that is something that comes with age and not wisdom.  Whatever it is, I owe it to my siblings to find out.  



Sunday, February 11, 2018

Stranger things...


    A week ago today I did something that may have put me into the "Crazy Cat Lady" category.  It was not only erratic behaviour on my part but, to some extent, it was quite treacherous.  The irony of it all is that the journey began because of this blog.  

Life is strange and the universe works in mysterious ways.  Of that, I have no doubt.

     A week ago, the woman from the rescue organization where we adopted Sophie reached out to me.  She had read my post about Luigi and that began my madcap adventure.  

     To make an incredibly unbelievable story short, I drove several hours through this...



Ended up here...

Lucknow is a community
 located in Bruce County, Ontario
 (population 1,121)

Met up with someone in the parking lot of the
 Lucknow Library....
(I told you this story was unbelievable!)


And came home with this...


His story is almost as unbelievable as my journey.  

     At just a few weeks old, he was found tangled in a hockey net.  He was abandoned by his mother and siblings and was close to starvation when he was cut out and rescued.  This photo was taken shortly after he was taken in...

    The woman from the rescue organization, whose name is Kathi (I know, right?), nursed him back to health and brought him to the Pet Value in Kincardine.  He had been there since January 3rd with no applicants for adoption when she messaged me. 



As fate would have it, I was headed up to "Carpe Diem" for a weekend of family, friendship and fun (there might have been wine also, because, let's face it, all good stories involve alcohol).


     No one in their right mind would agree to drive three and a half hours in a snow storm to get a cat, but how could I say no when I was already more than half way there? So, in spite of the snow which had been relentlessly falling all through the night, I woke up last Sunday morning at the cottage and started the trek to pick this little fellow up and bring him home to become a part of our family.  I had to pull over a few times to gather my wits and get my bearings, but I made it (thanks to my guardian angels, who would all agree that I have lost my marbles but know all too well that life much too short for things like snowstorms to get in the way of a great adventure). 

     We arrived back home, safe and sound, just before dark and in time for the Super Bowl festivities.  Betting on who would win the coin toss and whether or not the first commercial would be for food or beverage took to the sidelines as we tried to come up with just the right name for our new family member.  


His name is Stanley and he has made himself at home.


 "Animals are the bridge between us and the beauty of all that is natural. 
They show us what's missing in our lives,
 and how to love ourselves more completely and unconditionally. 
They connect us back to who we are, and to the purpose of why we're here."
 ~ Trisha McCagh

Friday, January 12, 2018

Luigi


"What greater gift than the love of a cat." ~ Charles Dickens

Yesterday we said goodbye to a dear and treasured member of our family.

Luigi nestled in a box in our neighbour's garage, April 2011.
    Luigi came into our lives just when he was needed the most.  A stray, he seemingly appeared out of nowhere and followed my neighbours home from a walk.  From that day on he managed to secure a place in my heart and in our lives.  My husband, who was never a lover of cats, allowed Luigi into our home and he immediately became a part of our family.

    Relegated to the basement upon first arriving (that didn't last long) my kids created a warm and inviting space for him.  He was their first pet and Luigi had many lessons to teach them.

Luigi's first night in our home.

     It didn't take much time for Luigi to become a treasured member of our family.  Before long, we couldn't have imagined our lives without him.  He was a great comfort, a happy distraction and the perfect companion.  He showed up for family meals, first day of school photo shoots and was always there to welcome you at the door.  He greeted us in the morning with a soulful hello and a head bump.  He settled in with us in the evenings while we watched our favourite shows, purring all the while in someone's lap. And no matter where he was in the house, he'd come running when he heard the rustle of the cereal box in the off chance that he'd be rewarded with the remnants of milk in your bowl.   


    

     From the start, it was evident that Luigi was a special cat.  His arrival was timed perfectly with the loss of my job as an elementary school librarian.  It was a job that I had loved dearly and I was blindsided by the loss of it.  I found myself lost without a job to go to each day.  My husband and kids were wonderful, but they went off  to work and school leaving me to wander aimless and without purpose around our house.  It would become obvious later on that Luigi came into my life just when I needed him most.  

"It takes a cat to heal a woman's wounded heart." ~ Esther Child

     He intuitively knew where he was needed.  He had a way of changing the energy in the house.  Instead of being sad and moping I became transformed by his presence.  He made me smile and when I needed comfort he was there to purr in my lap. Luigi was a constant companion as I struggled to find my path again.  He seemed to have the ability to change my negative energy into something peaceful and calming.   

"A cat can make you feel well rested when you're tired or turn a rage into a calm just by sitting on your lap.  His very nearness is a healing song." ~ Shannon Hale




    After taking a year to feel sorry for myself, I decided to go back to school.  In 2012, at the age of 43, I was accepted into the Faculty of Education.  It was a year of self discovery and growth and as one can see from the pictures below, Luigi was my constant adviser.  He helped me find my path again and always knew when his support was needed.




      Though Luigi wasn't the most active cat, he preferred lounging in a patch of sun or laying in a lap, he was known to provide some comic relief around our house.  He loved to help you open presents, fold laundry and take out the recycling.  Curiosity was one of his many adorable character traits. He taught my children empathy and unconditional love.

 



     Luigi was best known for his cuddling abilities.  On mornings when I didn't have anything pressing to get up for he was the worst influence.  Often keeping me pinned in my bed for longer than was appropriate for a wife and mother of three.  He seemed to put things into perspective.  Napping was an essential part of daily life and it was better when it was a shared activity.  He would often lay on the kids until their legs went numb.  No one wanted to get up and disturb his resting spot, or perhaps they just enjoyed his company enough to make the sacrifice.  







     Through the years, Luigi and his comforting ways would come to touch us all.  Personally, he saw me through many of my most trying and difficult times. While I once again found employment in a field that I love, politics veered me off my path for a grueling eight month period.  During this time I found myself pushed to the brink and my limits were tested.  At the end of a long and tedious day of walking a picket line Luigi was there to comfort me and my sore feet.  He honestly seemed to know right where he was needed and when.  




   As if being on strike wasn't difficult enough, I also lost my brother during this time.  Predeceased by my other two older siblings, this was a loss that came unexpectedly and hard.  There were days when I felt that I just could not go on to bear another thing.  I fell into a dark and deep depression that pushed away many of my closest friends. Sometimes I felt like I would never smile again.  Yet somehow, the love of my family and this special cat brought me out from the depths of my despair.  I honestly don't know what I would have done without him and the support of my family. Together they helped me once again find my happy place, at home with them.



      After the loss of my brother, we decided to adopt a rescue dog.  We knew the love and companionship an animal could bring into our lives and we were ready to open our hearts once again. Unannounced to Luigi, Sophie arrived  in September of 2016.  Upon her arrival she brought with her a bit of chaos and, for a time, turned our household upside down.  Throughout the transition, Luigi remained unfazed.  He didn't mind the dog and the dog didn't mind him.  While they were never ones to cuddle and interact, they cohabited and shared the love our family had to give them.  

They loved to watch me make supper every night.

I do believe that Luigi was the boss of this relationship.
     We were blessed to have Luigi in our lives for just short of 7 wonderful years.  In those years he brought us so much and gave me comfort and strength when I absolutely needed it the most.   He was a cat like no other and will forever remain in our hearts. As we said our goodbyes yesterday our hearts were broken. Mine is heavy as I write this, but I know that I will carry him with me always.  He was that special and we loved him with all of our hearts. We absolutely did.