Monday, July 30, 2012

Love and Loss at the Olympic Level

I took a sabbatical from blogging. More about that another time.

Unlike most Americans eagerly anticipating the cascade of events which constitute the Olympic games in London, I harbor mixed feelings. 

On the one hand, there is the pomp and circumstance, the sheer pageantry of the games; the Olympic flame lighting the night sky of opening night, the parades of international athletes, the stirring music of the awards ceremonies. There is the games' symbolism; artificially inflating athletic events to represent the pride of entire nations. There is the international flavor of the games; the vicarious opportunity, encouraged by gushing media attention to the gems and exotic treats of the host country, to mentally “travel” to new places. Beneath, lies the slightly unsettling (to me at least) attention placed on physical prowess rather than intellectual agility. This thrilling spectacle called “the games” can make one forget that, at its base, they are about physical excellence, not intellectual ability. Though, I admit that something deeper than muscle mass,speed, or agility may be involved.

On the other hand, the Olympics make me ill-at ease, not because I am competing (I'm not) and not because I don't know people competing (I do, although distantly). My unease is not because I haven't played a companion role to “the games” before (I have; in fact I played a major role for the 1984 Olympic Torch Relay for the state of Colorado). Nor is it because I don't enjoy the spectator sport of watching swimming or gymnastics (I do.) No, it is because the return of this summer's Olympic Games marks the moment in time four years ago when life, for me, took a stomach-turning somersault into a new dimension.

She died.

One moment I am enthralled by the Olympic opening ceremony spectacle in Beijing, China; thrilling, along with the world that Friday night, to the vivid colors, the thousands of drum-beaters, China's militarily-perfect choreography that announced its entrance on the world stage. The next day I dive into the sporting schedule, thrilled over swimming, gymnastics, cycling; riveted to our TV screen, time and reality revolving around which featured sport is up. The morning of the third day, a Sunday, the phone rang. It was my husband's birthday; and coincidently also my deceased father's birthday.

I had just switched on the TV to join the day's event schedule, after retuning from church. The phone rang. I picked it up carelessly; thoughtless, oblivious.

“Janice? It's your sister, Lynn,” her tone was still-sounding, muffled. “Jerol has been trying to reach you.”

“Lynn,” I say “What's....

“Mother's dead.” Two words.

Whether she paused, or it was that the stadium bedrock of my life began to move, I am still not sure. Time and every other reality stopped. “We've tried...your cell phone is off.”
“How...when...” I stutter, shock tumbling my words I stare at the TV screen where cyclists are rushing along the race course. “Why...What?” My voice breaks as I switch instinctively to journalisic terms. The sound of my voice is not mine. The ringing in my ears intensifies and I sit down.

“She didn't show up for church...” My sister's voice sounded gentle, calm. Jane and Ryan went over to the house right after services and found her, still in bed...”

“Was she...?”

“No. She sat up...then she laid back down. They called 911 and Jerol...” My sister-in-law is the church organist of the country church where every sacrament of my life had been celebrated. Of course she couldn't just walk out of church. Of course she didn't send my teenage nephew over alone.

“Was it...the aneurysms?” We had learned earlier in the summer of aortic aneurysms. Two. “But not so big. Not to worry.”

“Probably.” said my sister, the nurse.

“She sat up...then she laid back down...” I spoke the words out loud, trying to envision the event. It was physical, it was human, it was life; it was my Mother's Olympic event. And when she had done that, my Mother died. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. At home. Not exactly alone.

Thus was set in motion a spiral of events and circumstances that continue to this moment. As luck would have it, the day before my Mother laid back down and died, the microwave had died. Until my sister's call, this had been the extent of my angst that day; irritating, but not life-altering. Two hours after receiving the news, undoubtedly in shock, I got in a car and drove four miles to Sears to select a new microwave. I know now that I should not have been selecting an electronic appliance, let alone driving a 2,500 pound car down the road by myself. But habits of caring for a family fly in the face of death. I was intellectually aware that my departure the next day to do funeral plans, would leave my family with precious little in the way of food preparation and a microwave would be necessary.

Unable to cry, the weight of grief pressing on my chest, already hopelessly mired in trying to get the airlines to issue me an open-ended plane ticket, I wandered the appliance aisles. Nearly speechless, caring wads of balled-up tissue, I was unable to comprehend the energy-efficiency ratings and price tags. How much time passed, I am not sure, but eventually I bought a space-saver microwave. The service person carried it to the car. He asked if I was OK, shook his head at my answer, shut the door, and stood there watching me drive away. I'm sure he supposed I would crash before leaving the shopping center.

Arriving home, I remained numb; then began to rage at the airlines that would not confirm my ticket. It was a spectacle played out against the evening's televised coverage of the Olympic games. My son tried to comfort me and took over the fight about my ticket with the airlines. I made a birthday dinner, I lit the candles on the birthday cake, I sang happy birthday to my poor husband, who now shared the date of August 10th with both my Father and my Mother; a birth day and a death day. My husband held my hand. My daughter hugged me. Late that night I packed, then sat down on my bed, exhausted. It was an Olympian effort to lie down on the bed to sleep, as my Mother had to die.

The next day I boarded a plane and flew to Minneapolis to drive to northern Wisconsin to help plan my Mother's funeral. The backdrop for the ensuing days? The Olympics, of course. As plans were drawn up, as extended family were notified and our families arrived, as grand children milled about, as I wrote the eulogy, as people came and went, as graveside final rites were administered, as mountains of food disappeared, there were the games. The backdrop to our sorrow; track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming. Following the funeral and the thank you notes, we begin the impossible task of closing down a life, generations of our family in one country place and as it turned out, for me to close the Wisconsin chapter of my life. 

After the rest left, I stayed on with my sister to clean out the refrigerators, to deal with the plants, to find a home for the cat, to create a plan to end home as we had known it to be. The games ended before our task did. Finally, we too, extinguished the lights in the home of our parents, and on an August day a week after the end of the Olympics, we packed our bags and went home as well. Within a few days the world, which had been economically disintegrating around our grief, experienced a drastic change of it's own.

In the space of that single Olympic month, not only did my Mother suddenly die, but the world's economy collapsed, and I lost my contract marketing job.

Over the course of the following 18 months, not only did I travel endlessly back and forth across the plains between Colorado and Wisconsin to empty the family home, I searching endlessly for a marketing position that has yet to materialize. And in those months my daughter graduated high school and left for college. My son graduated college, got married and he and my daughter-in-law left on an overseas Fulbright. In short order, I learned that “the place” to which I had always thought I would return to write, would not become “the place” with our name on it.

For me, the arrival of the last Olympics heralded the death of a beloved Mother, the seismic shift of the family order, the death of a dream, the loss of economic security, and a profound sense of being set adrift in the world. Struggle became my companion, grief my condition, and loss the daily dose of humility. But perhaps my most important lesson is more Olympic in nature. Now that the time for “The Games” is upon us again, I have come to realize that the most important lesson learned is personal. Were I a swimmer, it could be said that now – finally – I have come up for air after a long time under-water. But I am not an Olympic swimmer; I am a long-distance survivor. I have learned Olympic endurance.

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