Tiger lilies

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Tiger lilies can be found everywhere at this time of year, at least where I’ve lived and traveled. I don’t remember ever being fond of those flowers, but the symbolism behind them for me is real and telling.

This flower propagates in moist to wet soils, so is commonly found around ditches but since it is easy to grow, even an indifferent gardener can produce a stunning grouping in the plainest of landscaping.

That was my Dad,

He didn’t have much talent for gardening, treating it more like a task than a pastime, hence the variety of standard greens in our front and back yards: evergreens, cedars, shrubs, anything that required minimal care and trimming.  Ironically, in his later years, he was meticulous in his attention to the two orchids sitting in the bay window of the condo that he shared with my Mom.

But those orange beauties took on a new meaning while I was in grade school. That was when they served another purpose besides taking on the role of royalty in my father’s garden. During the first week of class, Dad would exit out the back door in the morning, garden clippers and aluminum foil in hand. He would head straight for the lilies, making a clean cut and retaining the large part of the stem before he wrapped a few choice blooms in the foil and handed my brother and I each a bunch. He reminded us that “the polite thing to do was to bring our teacher some fresh flowers.” We never questioned his instructions nor his advice.

I don’t remember if those lilies made it to the teacher’s desk or the staff room, but that act of kindness that I learned early on served me well. They were just a snippet of the things my father taught us, things that seemed minute, but weren’t. Those little gestures provided us with a glimpse into my father’s heart, small meaningful actions that meant so much.

So in the lazy days of summer when I spot those fiery orange bunches along a roadside or in someone’s well-cultivated garden, I can’t help but think of my Dad, trimming those flowers and instilling in us the art of giving. And for that, I am so grateful.

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My Second Mother – A tribute

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I consider myself lucky because more than twenty-five years ago, I gained another Mom. She became my mother-in-law, but from the day that we met when my husband took me to Prince Edward Island (PEI) to meet his parents, she had already stolen my heart. Louise was one of eight children and the oldest of the girls.  She met my father-in-law and married on the Island before they began life as a military family only to return to PEI after retirement and build a home on a piece of land left to her. It’s across from Kelly’s Pond, named as such in 2005 and previously owned by her grandfather Joseph Kelly in 1886.

There are deep family roots in PEI on both my husband’s parent’s sides. We travel there every summer with my daughter, Carolyn, who is now a young woman in her twenties. But unlike the Wizard of Oz, this place is real and dare I say, magical. From my first visit in the summer of 1993, I’ve always referred to the Island as “God’s country,” and if you’ve ever had the chance to visit PEI, you will understand why.

Today we remember Louise. It is now twelve years since we lost someone whom we loved very much and who impacted my life in a very significant way.

My husband is one of two children, but you’d never think so the way Louise treated me. When I first arrived on the Island that summer in August, I was welcomed with open arms both by her and by my father-in-law. To this day, I cannot think of what they didn’t do to make my first visit to their home so special.

I remember having tea at the Delta hotel with Louise while my husband golfed with his Dad. We hadn’t spent time alone yet, and she was anxious to know how I had met her son, but she shared some memories of him growing up. I kept thinking to myself how I was so fortunate to have met such a warm and gracious lady who touch my heart in such a short time.

It is fitting that Louise’s death anniversary falls on a day that we celebrate mercy and kindness. Louise was all of these things. Over the years, I’d find her baking cookies or squares to bring to someone who was ill or for a funeral reception down the road at her parish. She’d visit the sick and reach out to others who were in need. All of this was in addition to what she did for her family and always with a smile. There was no one purer of heart I knew than Louise.

There were a few Christmases I spent in PEI, which meant I was away from my family. I missed them, and Louise knew. She sat with me and didn’t say much. If only I could have expressed what a great comfort she was at that time.

Louise treasured every moment she spent with Carolyn. Being a grandmother was one of Louise’s greatest joys. She left too soon to see Carolyn become an accomplished highland dancer, share in her high school and university graduations and other precious times.  But I am beyond grateful that she was my daughter’s “Nanny” for whatever time we were blessed to have her.

Every year when we arrived at the house, Louise would be waiting for us. Even as a baby, our daughter would reach for her with outstretched arms, and as she grew, she’d take her grandmother’s hand and disappear. We’d spot them later in the back garden walking through the vegetable patch where Carolyn learned early on how to pick fresh vegetables including a lesson in digging for potatoes.

There are so many things about Louise that I will cherish. Her hugs were the best. She had a way of making everyone feel special. She was kind. She called us, just to say hello. She wrote, “love Mom” on many of the birthday cards she gave me to make me feel like family. These are just a few examples, but there are so many more. Louise made sure we knew we were loved. Each of us.

Louise has left a legacy of greatness to follow. I will forever be honoured to have had her in my life for the time she was my other “mom” and for the love that she showered on me.

 

 

Birthdays

 

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My baby album is like no other I’ve seen. It’s rectangular, and the pages are secured like a scrapbook and embellished with silk tassels. The actual jacket is made of black lacquer with the front cover featuring both a map of Japan in red and of Korea in white. But that’s not all. To the right is a beautifully painted peacock with a train of eyespots, each one perfectly painted.  The edge of the album is finished with ferns and branches, all in all, making it a stunning keepsake.

I didn’t mention the best part. There’s a built-in music box that plays a beautiful and poignant piece, not much of a lullaby but more of a classical tune. I don’t recognize it offhand but will have to do some research.  Over the years that mechanism has worn out so that only a few chords are forced out before it stops working. I also keep promising myself I’ll have it fixed.

The pages of that album have been turned many times, either by myself and my parents, though nowadays only by me. The pictures are a mixture of spontaneous shots along with others that resemble more of a portrait. They have always evoked a bittersweet feeling of years gone by, of how those moments were so precious and so fleeting. But now there’s a new feeling of missing my parents along with a sense of gratitude that those times are recorded in priceless images forever.

There aren’t many of my birthdays that I failed to celebrate with Mom and Dad. Regardless of whether they were in town to join me or call me from a distance they’d check-in early and sing me a two-part harmony of Happy Birthday. I looked forward to hearing their duet every year. It’s something I miss the most now on my birthdays, as well the salutation on my card from Dad. It read without fail: “To my first-born.” And sometimes, “I loved you the first and have loved you the longest.” I still read those words from time to time.

My birthday was the day my parents welcomed me into the world. So it made sense that they would always want to be nearby to share other ones with me. I know that now because I have a daughter and feel the same way. And although Dad was at sea and only saw me sometime after I was born, I never felt his absence when I poured through those snapshots. He made sure of that, then and afterward.

Over the years, I studied those black and white pictures often, and every time I did, I only felt love. Pure love. That’s the ultimate gift from my parents when they first held me in their arms and for the time that they were here. In the end, our roles reversed, and I was the one they depended on, the one who held them.

They say there is more clarity in black and white photos, that the subject can be the focus and that their emotions come alive. I would agree. My baby album photos, in black and white, are telling of the joy, the happiness and, the love present.  There is indeed clarity in simplicity.

I like to think that my parent’s  expectations of me were met, that I am good at sifting through to what really matters, to discard the unnecessary and focus on the preciousness of each moment because time has no boundaries on love and those slices of life mean so much more with every passing day.

To wish for those who have lost someone, the chance to unwrap the priceless treasures which we keep in our hearts and souls, to remember with gratitude all that we have been blessed with and to carry on and not waste a moment more of the time we have left.

Moving forward..

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As I approach a second Father’s Day without my Dad, I know I’ll survive, just as I did the first. I will always feel some sadness, in spite of the passage of time, but how I choose to face these moments is my choice. Recently, a brief trip to the bookstore put things into perspective in a “Dad” kind of way.

With titles such as “Everything an awesome father wants to know,” Dreams from my father,” and “Promise me, Dad” there are books that seem to cover the whole gamut of fatherhood and to remind me, once again, that I no longer have a father. One book in a pile off to the side was called “Picking Up the Pieces: Moving On After a Significant Loss.” That’s when I thought of Dad and how he dealt with the losses in his life.

On Dad’s 11th birthday, his mother died of a massive heart attack. Every birthday that followed reminded him of this loss. He never spoke much about her, only that he returned from the movies to find his mother gone. That must have been devastating.  Not long after, Dad left home to train as a ship’s apprentice rising quickly through the ranks to become a sea captain. Hard work became his focus from early on and his way of surviving.

Until he crossed paths with my Mom. Meeting and marrying my mother, building a life together, and having a family meant everything to my father. It didn’t mean that he forgot about his Mom, but that he continued to live.

My grandfather, Vincente, visited us in 1971. He was 83 years old, and every moment with him was precious. Sadly, a month after he returned home to the Philippines, he passed away. I was heartbroken because even in that short while we developed a special bond. But I was even more saddened for my father.

I would never know how Dad felt. How could anyone? Losing the final parent must have been so painful. It was for me when I lost him. But instead of focusing on his grief, he chose to share how happy he was that we met our grandpa and how much his father’s visit meant to him.  Dad was comforting us while he grieved.

He was our strongest advocate. When learning how to ride a two-wheeler, he’d run beside me, his hand gripping the back of the bike, all the while cheering loudly. When he finally let go, and I was pedaling by myself, I glanced back and there he was, smiling at me. No words. That was Dad, back then, and in so many ways later on.

After Mom died, it was my turn, to comfort, to guide, and to listen. My father was in such deep grief and felt so lost. His growing illness took the best parts of him, and we were often unable to console him.  I had to make some difficult decisions for him during that time, and I would ask myself, “What would Dad have done?” He would have done what was best for me.

Sometimes looking beyond the grief and focusing on what is meaningful and manageable is needed. Dad did that in his tragic loss, but perhaps not intentionally. To cope and survive, he chose to work and venture out early on.

Dad did experience periods of darkness. But he was blessed with many silver linings, which brought hope to the shadows. He had us. He loved and was loved.

In spite of the losses that he suffered, which brought pain and sadness in his life, Dad chose to be grateful. Being grateful meant more than just words but by action. A grateful action comes from the heart.

I like to think that some of Dad’s practicality and meaningfulness have become a part of us, his children. Through all the sadness, loss, and emptiness in losing him and my mother, there is still life to live and love to give.

Since Dad taught me through so many of his actions, I’ve moved forward too. I’ll never forget him but moving on means I carry on his legacy of gratitude and hope in whatever I am blessed to receive or encounter.

 

With wishes for a Happy Father’s Day and prayers and blessings for those who are no longer with us.

 

“Gratitude helps us to see what is there instead of what isn’t”…. (Annette Bridges, author)

Two years without you, dear Dad..

May 23, 2017 seems like yesterday. That was the day we said goodbye to our father, the day he left us for good. With his growing dementia, we had already mourned him, but that was a different kind of loss.

Each day after that was another one without a father and the anchor in our life. He was our last living parent, and with him gone, we were truly “adult” orphans.

But as someone who has experienced the loss of a parent, I am so grateful to have had my father in my life for as long as I did. Dad was there, plain and simple. And as the oldest, he would remind me on each birthday I celebrated that I was his “firstborn” and that he had “loved me the longest.”

We had our battles over the years, sometimes with our emotions running deep. And it was as a teenager that I realized my father wasn’t perfect. I found it difficult to accept this fact. Why couldn’t he be the perfect Dad?

What was perfect was my father’s love for me, for us. That love knew no bounds, no limits. It was a father’s genuine and unconditional love for his children.

If I remember all those countless chats with Mom that I still hold close to my heart, I remember with equal fondness, the quiet and unspoken moments with my father. Sometimes the words weren’t important. Sometimes words weren’t necessary. The magic of Dad was knowing when those words mattered and when they didn’t. And he did.

In our saddest and happiest moments, hugs said it all, to support us, to let us know it was okay and that whatever seemed impossible, wasn’t.  That was Dad.

I like to think I was able to do the same for you, Dad, to comfort you and make sure I held your hand, especially in your last hours. Your grip wasn’t that familiar firm and strong one, but you still held on. Your journey to your heavenly home was peaceful, and I am so thankful for that.

We still miss you. I still miss you.

But over time, the pain from our grief has softened in accepting our loss.

Dad set aside his grief to finalize the grave marker for Mom, making sure that there was an inverted vase to leave flowers. He would trudge carefully over the uneven ground to the gravesite tightly grasping a bunch of blooms. It broke my heart to see how his sadness clashed with their beauty.

Now with Dad no longer here, I choose the flowers carefully for my visit to the cemetery. Instead of the stock colours and species, I want them to say so much more. That’s what Dad did when he brought Mom flowers when she was alive. That’s what he did when he shuffled slowly to her grave, beauties in hand. It was his love that made the difference, and so I choose love as well.

Until we meet again, Dad, and with all my love…

Thank you, once again, to the staff from the Palliative Care Unit at Elizabeth Bruyère Hospital in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada).  Your care and compassion touched our hearts as Dad journeyed his last weeks with us. We are ever so grateful.

 

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Nana: The Mom before

When I think of my dear mom and all the memories I have of her, one fact remains true: My grandmother is the cornerstone of how my life unfolded and how my siblings and I came into being. Without her, there would have been no Mom of mine. In honour of Mother’s Day, here is my insight into a grandmother’s love.

Family ties lie deep within our being and are a permanent part of ourselves.

March 23. That was my maternal grandmother’s birth date, the day that she graced the world with her presence. And as long as I can remember, my Nana had a role in my life right from the beginning.

She was present at my birth and helped mom care for me, because, at that time Dad was a sea captain and was away for months at a time.

Still finding my feet, Nana often took me to morning mass. Cleary, I don’t remember the masses, but I have a distinct memory of holding a hand and dragging my small legs to someone’s patient stride. Later on, unlike many children my age, I seemed to know a lot of prayers, all because of Nana.

Her hugs were the best. The laughter with her was bottomless. The connection was magical.

Besides Mom, Nana was the next female constant in my life. She loved me unconditionally and had the freedom to spoil me just because she was a grandma. She was my biggest fan and a lifelong friend. Through the best of times and the not so best, Nana always knew what to say. After all, Nana’s always make it better.

We shared each other’s hopes and dreams. Her dreams were simple: to be surrounded by people she loved and to cherish every moment with them. Possessions, accomplishments, recognition – those things weren’t important to her, but family was. Family was everything.

Having lived through two World Wars, Nana had many stories of the hardships she faced especially during WW II. Our “first world” problems today pale in comparison to what she experienced: living under house arrest with five children, managing with little food and having their home bombed. Through all this Nana and my grandpa found great courage and faith to survive the trials they encountered.

So time she spent with family and her friends was precious. If she had any regrets, it would be not spending enough time. “Life is short,” she would tell me. “Whatever you do, don’t waste it.”

Each of us has a special gift to share, and Nana reminded me of that. She disliked reading music but instead played the piano by ear. I would sit next to her while she brought so many songs to life on those keys: Oldies like Let me Call You Sweetheart, the Anniversary Waltz, and It’s a long way to Tipperary were just a sampling of what we would sing together. To this day I still remember the joy brought to all who were lucky enough to experience her gift of music.

The years passed and as they did, our bond grew stronger. In spite of the distance that separated us, we always took the time to connect. Each time I spent with her was precious, but having Nana hold my baby daughter and share in our joy was something I will never forget.

I am grateful to have many memories of my Nana: How she prayed quietly with my grandfather which always followed in contrast with a lively “Happy Hour”; arriving to visit and seeing Nana’s outstretched arms, reading her telling expressions because I just knew what she was thinking; and seeing that twinkle in her eyes that said so much more.

I am grateful for the lessons that she taught me, of being charitable towards others, being forgiving and most important having faith and trust in God. “God comes first,” she would say.

My life changed when Nana died twenty years ago.  I lost my soulmate in a sense, someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Her gifts to me were irreplaceable. She was irreplaceable.

I’m thankful for having Nana in my life. Without her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And even more important, I wouldn’t have had the precious mother whom I loved so much. Nana used to tell me “You’ll only have one mother,” but she failed to add I would only have one grandmother.*

The treasures close to our heart are the ones that are with us forever. Those are the ones that we will always have with us throughout our lives.

Thank you, Nana, for being my treasure.

 

Still missing you Mom. Love you always.

 

*My father’s mother died when he was 11 years old, which is why Nana was the only grandmother my siblings and I knew.

 

New life

I think of them often, all who have gone before me. And in this change of season, this journey of cherishing takes on a new form.

If spring is about rebirth and renewal, then grieving doesn’t quite fit in with the new blooms and the restoration of life around us. But maybe it does. Like the crocuses that push their way to the light only to make way for more everlasting blooms, we process our burden of loss so that we can let go and find new life in all the awakening that surrounds us.

The heat of the sun warms us. Its warmth is like a comforter that removes the chill from our body. This feeling of warmth is encouraging. When the winter has been unforgiving, we long for the spring and the change it brings.

As we peel away the layers of protection from the frigid cold, the physical ritual of ridding ourselves from the tangible may similarly apply to how we face death and grief. Reaching to the core of our pain takes time to process, heal and let go. We begin to feel differently, possibly lighter and less overwhelmed.

True warmth softens our grief.  A hug, a smile, a listening ear – all of these actions enable a connection, however small, to bring comfort to us.

As spring begins, we allow ourselves to remain open-minded to what lies ahead. We become renewed.

Spring creeps slowly into our space, bringing us more daylight and less darkness. Can we strive to accept the renewal happening around us? The buds, the blooms, the crocuses push their way forth, the traces of grass appear more as the melted snow unveils the ground. This acceptance doesn’t mean that our grief, sadness or sorrow vanishes at the advent of spring, but allowing this light into our life awakens us and gives us hope.

Spring and rebirth of the dormant is a reminder that we all have an opportunity to be renewed regardless of our grief journey.

How does a flower grow? Upright and towards the light and never looks down to see its shadow [i]. In grief, there is an opportunity to be renewed, but we need to accept the change that accompanies our grief. No matter what our suffering has been, are we open to renewal, even just a little, as we strive towards cherishing our loved ones gone?

[i] Kahil Gibran. Song of the Flower.

As Holy Week approaches, I leave you with these thoughts and wish you a wonderful and blessed Easter.