One year ago

My life changed one year ago today. I just didn’t recognize it at the time.

On April 24, 2017, I received a call from the ER nurse at the hospital in my hometown telling me that my dad had arrived at their doors weak and out of breath. The diagnosis came shortly after: Advanced Congestive Heart Failure.

Mom, meanwhile, was en route to the local nursing home. Following one too many falls, she needed intensive physical therapy to attempt to regain strength in her legs.

One year later, Dad is gone. Mom remains in the nursing home, confined most of the time to a wheelchair.

For eight months following that crazy day in April 2017, I lived primarily in Illinois– caring for Dad as he underwent a series of treatments and procedures and visiting Mom at the nursing home and keeping a constant check on her care, bills, appointments, and so on.

Since Dad’s passing on January 17, I’ve adopted a new role. Several roles, actually. Primary caretaker of my mom, of the farm, of the many everyday details that enable my family to continue on. Fortunately, I had eight months of practice to know what to do. Still, I feel lost much of the time. And sad that the bond Dad and I strengthened during those months together is now a memory.

I spend a lot of time on the road between Alabama and Illinois. Sometimes, I fly, but more often, I drive. using the time in the car to reflect on things.

On Monday of next week, I’ll hand in my semester grades. Tuesday, I’ll hit the road to return to Illinois. To see my mom. To check on the farm. And to figure out what comes next.


A new emotion

On January 17, one week before his 82nd birthday, Dad passed away from complications during a cardiac procedure. As deeply as I’ve felt these past three weeks, I’ve waited until now to try to put those feelings into words.

I have done some writing in the aftermath of losing Dad, but mostly for others . . .

An obituary for the local papers that gave tribute to Dad’s life, his accomplishments and passions.

Memories I jotted down to share during the memorial mass.

Class assignments and correspondence as I’ve attempted to maintain contact with my students, despite the numbness I experienced when I stepped back into the classroom.

The days move very slowly since losing Dad. Mornings and evenings are the hardest, I find.

I wake up and begin to remember that everything has changed–Dad is no longer here on earth, even though he often occupies my dreams. He won’t be calling out to see what’s for breakfast when I’m back at the farmhouse or phoning me in Birmingham to let me know that he sold some bushels of grain and wants to show me a new piece of ground that’s for sale when I head back to Illinois.

At night, I’m fine as I read student papers or watch a movie with Bruce and the girls. Then, the papers are put away and everyone in the house goes to bed. I sit alone and think, and remember, and mourn.

Friends who have lost a parent tell me that the feeling is indescribable. I think they’re right.

Grief is a new emotion, one that’s different than depression. When I think of Dad, I feel immense gratitude for the time that we spent together and all of the qualities that made him who he was–his wit, curiosity, strength, compassion, love.

Depression is a feeling of hopelessness and emptiness. Grief–if I can sufficiently describe what I’m feeling–is another kind of loss. It’s an absence that makes the ones left behind wish they had just one more day with someone who changed the way they experienced the world. My memories of Dad bring me a sense of hopefulness in this life and in what lies beyond.




Another generation

My op-ed about farm succession is in today’s LA Times:

These many months of driving between Alabama and Illinois to assist my parents and learn what I can about farming for another generation have been difficult, but also a blessing. I’ve learned more about my family–both the one that raised me and my husband and daughters–than I thought possible.

The print version of the essay, by the way, should feature an aerial view of our family farm!

Muddling through mania

Joe called my parents’ house last night. Dad was already asleep, so I picked up.

“Mary Ann?” the man on the other end of the line asked.

“No, this is her daughter,” I replied.

Within seconds, my brother had been handed the phone and began a 20-minute rant. He was manic, speaking at an extremely rapid pace, one thought blending into another:

“I’m in Colorado Springs, at a concert, he’s about ready to begin another set, I love you, how are the kids, are Mom and Dad ok, remember when we were kids, I haven’t touched drugs since 2014, I love you, September 16 I had a major heart attack, thought I was gonna die, I’m sorry everybody is disappointed in me, I never meant to do anything wrong, I love you, I never really hurt anybody, I hope I see Mom and Dad again before I die, . . . ”

The conversation went on and on, and I found myself attempting anything to end it.

At least half of what Joe uttered was untrue. Some was complete nonsense. The last bit was based loosely in reality.

As I’ve written before, my brother is mentally ill, bipolar with signs of schizophrenia. But he’s also a long-time addict, liar and abuser. It’s not easy to reconcile these many sides of Joe, or to forgive and forget.

I’ve spent 53 years trying to survive as his sister. I’m tired. I imagine Joe is tired, too.


I’m sitting in the Birmingham International Airport waiting for my flight to Chicago. The past ten days have offered a break from caregiving in Illinois, tending to my dad’s needs since he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and handling the logistics of Mom’s stay at the nursing home. Bruce and the girls and I had a great time in B’ham, going to our favorite restaurants, traveling to the river with Helena and my friend Suzanne (whose brother kindly lets us stay at his river house when it’s not otherwise occupied), and cuddling on the couch.

This time was different than my last visit home roughly four weeks ago. I’m no longer sure that I’m making the right choice, being away from my husband and kids for such long periods of time. On the surface, everything seems nicely orchestrated. I’ve taken Family Medical Leave from my job, and I’ll be back to my “real life” come January when the Spring semester gets underway. But that time is looking (and feeling) further and further away. I miss Bruce, Celia and Helena desperately, and seeing them for a week to ten days once a month no longer seems enough.

It’s funny how we’re led to believe that we can make the right choices in life, one at a time. Going with your heart–or gut–doesn’t really work when you’re feeling two conflicting ways at once. I am terribly torn. Dad is very, very sick and his prognosis is uncertain. I’ve become his go-to person for vetting medical advice, ensuring that he isn’t retaining too much fluid or exhibiting signs of trouble that might necessitate a trip to the emergency room.

Simply put, there is no one else who can do what I’m doing. My brother, Joe, is living in a homeless shelter in Colorado Springs, where he is slated to stay until a space opens up at yet another rehab facility in the state. I know this because five voicemail messages awaited me when I went into my office this past week.

“Hi Sis,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that I’m in Colorado to make a fresh start.”

Maybe that’s Joe’s intention at the moment, but I’ve seen his plans fall through again and again since trying drugs for the first time at age 13. I wanted to shout into the phone: “Good luck! Thanks to you, I’m the sole caregiver for Mom and Dad! I don’t give a damn about your ‘fresh start’!”

I know this time will pass. I will, God-willing, have many years to spend with my husband and daughters–to travel, take long walks, share our dreams. But right now, that future seems much too far away. At least 600 miles–the distance that separates Birmingham from my hometown.



What’s in a name?

Many societies privilege particular ways of referring to individuals and share unspoken laws about which terms are proper for referring to men, women, and children as well as specific members of one’s own family. I came across an article today that addresses how women’s names are NOT spoken in Afghanistan, a practice  stemming from a tribal tradition that doing so exposes a wife or mother to visibility by other men. The same underlying logic influences conventions for dress. A body exposed, like a name revealed, dishonors a woman–but perhaps more importantly, the man/men to whom she belongs.

I’m of two minds on the perspective presented in Mashal’s article. On one hand, I would be appalled to be called “My Goat” or “The Household” rather than by my given name, “Cynthia.” I like to think that people who speak or see my name recognize the things I have accomplished and the person I have striven to become through my beliefs and actions.

On the other hand, I acknowledge the ethical barriers to intervening in the practices of another culture, of assuming that our Western perspective and attitudes are the best and should be the lens through which we judge others.  For example, I have taught many women over the years who cover their heads with a hijab and just about every inch of their bodies, few of whom I would describe as oppressed or diminished by the practice.

Corpse Hotels

I admit to leaning towards the morose in my interests. Since traveling to the Netherlands and learning about a rising trend towards sustainable funerals there (and elsewhere around the globe, I discovered), I have become increasingly intrigued with modern accommodations for the deceased–and the living who remain behind. In today’s NYT, I came across a story about an innovative practice in Japan–in Tokyo, specifically–for addressing the needs of small families who have lost a loved one: corpse hotels.

Since crematories are too few to accommodate the needs of an aging Japanese population and traditional funeral homes often offer too expensive and elaborate services for a small family facing the death of a loved one, some unique hotels have sprouted up to fill the gap. According to the article (and accompanying video clip), Japanese tradition dictates a night-long wake in the deceased’s family home followed by cremation in a nearby facility on the following day. But with space in Tokyo at a premium, forcing families into smaller high rise condos and apartments less welcoming of corpses, and overbooked crematories requiring waits of a week or more in some instances, an alternative intermediate resting place for the deceased and family members has become necessary.

These spaces provide “rest” of two kinds–for the deceased awaiting cremation and for family members seeking a comfortable environment for paying last respects and remaining with the departed until final rites can be performed.

While this business venture is certainly market-driven and provides an opportunity for profit among those behind corpse hotels, I think that the services provided are likely appreciated by the families who utilize them.