Tag Archives: grief

Mitzi

We were lying side-by-side on soft green moss in the shade of an old pine. Me on my back, hands cupped behind my head. She so close I could hear her breathing. I talked about things bothering me at the time as she stared into my eyes. Though young, I realized how lucky I was to have her. She blinked. Such long eyelashes. But I didn’t love her for the long eyelashes, or for the perfectly white teeth, not even for the way she adored me.

She was still looking into my eyes when she burped, wagged her tail twice, and continued chewing on a stick.

I loved her because she was my dog.

Mitzi was a collie. I was nine when we went as a family to meet the litter. I don’t remember whether we picked her or she picked us, but in short order we were on our way home. Mama and Daddy in the front seat while in the back seat my sisters and I fought over whose lap the fluffy puppy should ride home on.

It would take a long time to tell about her lifetime and anyone who’s loved a dog knows the telling doesn’t do it justice. You have to have felt it. As a puppy she was constantly hugged and kissed. As she grew up she became our best friend. And in her old age she earned the respect of family and friends as an intelligent, faithful old girl. We treated her like a member of the family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

During her life Mitzi accompanied us kids on hundreds of trips to the pasture, ran countless miles behind our bikes, and joyfully ratted us out during games of hide-and-seek. She was a happy constant when we returned from school. Not only did her tail wag, her entire backside swayed vigorously when she saw us hop from the school bus. Many families have several dogs over the years. My family did too and we loved them all, but for me that collie puppy was the dog. Thirteen years into her life, I was then twenty-two, and that happy old collie was still the dog.

When she fell ill it happened fast. I went to work but called home to check on her. Mama hesitated, sniffled a few times, and told me Mitzi died. Back in those days, in spite of regular vet trips starting with her spaying and continuing with regular vaccinations, heartworm prevention was not what it is today and sadly Mitzi was a victim.

I hung up with Mama and went directly to tell my boss that I needed to go home. When she asked why, I said there had been a death in the family. My phrasing had nothing to do with dishonesty. It was the genuine reason. I’d heard she had a dog too so surely she would understand.

She expressed condolences and asked who died. When I said “my dog” there was a slight pause before she giggled and said she couldn’t let me go home for that. With no one to easily cover for me I’d have to stay. Undaunted, I left her office and immediately talked to my coworkers who agreed to cover for me, no problem they said. I returned to tell my boss I’d made arrangements for coverage but she repeated no, I had to stay.

I left.

There was nothing I could do when I got home. Daddy had already buried Mitzi at the edge of the same pasture she played in all her life. Nothing I could do, but to stay at work with that sense of grief would have been pointless. It was Friday, so on Monday I’d talk to my boss about it again. If I still had a job.

It was an emotional weekend. We cried, laughed, talked about Mitzi and talked to Mitzi. Family and friends called to say they were sorry. They treated her death as though she’d been a member of our family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

Early Monday morning I learned from coworkers that my boss had been very unhappy about my leaving on Friday after she’d told me to stay. I started working and awaited my fate, but my boss didn’t come in that day. On Tuesday she was back.

I tried to read her face as she walked towards me. She said nothing as she handed me the envelope and walked away. I looked at it, puzzled she’d said nothing, and ripped it open expecting my dismissal letter. It contained nothing official, just a small card from her to me.

A sympathy card.

I learned later just why my boss missed work the day before. Sadly, her own dog had been hit by a car over the weekend and hadn’t made it. My boss was understandably upset and stayed home that Monday. She told upper management her absence was due to a death in the family.

Because that’s exactly what it was.

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

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Have A Seat

This was the second Thanksgiving since Daddy died. Mama’s house is full of sad reminders that Daddy is no longer with us but the most glaring is his empty leather recliner. “Daddy’s chair” still sits in the same room, in the same corner, in the same position that it has for years.

Thanksgivings past, Daddy would have supervised Mama’s cooking. He would have asked repeatedly what time we were to eat, then grumbled with a smile that whatever time she’d said was too early, or too late, depending on which he hoped might aggravate her the most. It would have been fun to hear him playfully pester her again.

But that empty leather chair reminded us that no, he was not there.

As we helped ourselves to turkey Daddy would have commented “Is that all you’re going to eat?” or “Did you leave any for me?” depending on how full he deemed each plate. He would have eaten dessert in his chair, hidden the TV remote in his pocket, and dozed off only to suddenly pop up and respond to questions asked from across the room. How comical it would have been to again hear him alternately snore, then comment on the various conversations going on in the room.

But that empty leather chair reminded us that no, he was not there.

Daddy also had a second recliner out on his screened porch. It had been on the same part of the porch and in the same position for years. He’d sit there on nice days to discuss life with neighbors, friends, or his grandchildren. Not long ago we threw that old recliner away. Years of “Daddy” had worn it out. The empty space left after hauling away the old chair smacked us in the face.

After Thanksgiving dinner the other day all of the grandsons headed out to sit on the porch where they’d grown up listening to Daddy’s stories. My son Evan hadn’t been on the porch since before the old recliner was removed. I wondered if he’d notice and how he might be affected by the giant void left after taking away Daddy’s “throne”.

The grandsons were out there a long while. I suppose they talked about whatever five cousins who grew up spending hours with their grandfather in that space might talk about. Finally they came back into the house. I asked Evan if he had noticed that the old recliner was gone. He very quietly said yes, it felt weird to them all, and that they had “moved some things around”.

Not knowing exactly what he meant, I went to see for myself. In addition to Daddy’s recliner there have always been several plastic lawn chairs out there for use when friends and family visit. The chairs stay lined up along one side of the porch. I opened the porch door and saw the line of white plastic chairs positioned as usual, but one was missing.

While they talked together out there, the grandsons had moved one plastic chair from the row and placed it where Daddy’s recliner always sat. They put it on the same part of the porch and in the same position as his old chair. Those five young guys spent time that afternoon in a place where each alone, and together, had spent time with their grandfather over the years.

It would have been like old times for them if Daddy had again been holding court from his recliner, lecturing, advising, or laughing over his own dirty jokes. It was obvious that his absence bothered them all.

But that empty plastic chair reminded them that yes, he was still there.

Stuart M. Perkins

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I Had a Slice of Fruit Cake

Mama grinned when I brought up Daddy’s past fruit cake project to her a few days ago. She instantly recalled the many details he had described to us before, during, and after production of his masterpiece.

“My lands.” Mama said. “That fruit cake was all he talked about for a while.”

She also remembered my promise to Daddy that I would eat a piece of his fruit cake on Christmas day. The sight and smell of fruit cake are enough to make me retch, but Daddy had been so proud of his cake and so eager for me to taste it that I finally gave in and promised a Christmas day tasting. At the rate Daddy was already eating his culinary work of art, I was sure the thing would be gone by the holidays and I could then shake my head and tell him I was sorry to have missed it – while silently cheering.

When Daddy suddenly passed away a few months before Christmas, the fruit cake and all of our inside jokes associated with it were soon forgotten and replaced by the sad details of the loss. It was only a week or so ago that I remembered my insane promise to taste the awful thing and reminded Mama.

“Mama,” I began, “I know Daddy had some fruit cake left. Do you know where it is?”

“You don’t want it do you?” she asked. Her eyes widened as she looked at me and grinned just imagining my reaction to tasting the cake.

I reminded her that each time I visited them Daddy asked if I wanted a slice. He and I would joke about what I considered to be a downright awful cake. My answer to his question was always an emphatic “no” until I finally broke down and agreed to taste a piece on Christmas day. Daddy has been gone for four months now, but for what it was worth I intended to keep my promise.

Mama said what remained of the fruit cake had been put in the freezer. My sister Vicki soon presented me with a large chunk of Daddy’s masterpiece, still wrapped in wax paper and aluminum foil, and tucked inside a fruit cake tin.

My feelings were mixed. The sight of the fruit cake reminded me of the crazy conversations and silly jokes that Daddy and I shared about his making the thing. The sight of the fruit cake also struck me with shivers of disgust. But, I had promised to taste it, so taste it I would.

But maybe later…

We all knew Christmas would be odd, sad, and definitely not the same without Daddy. Unfortunately it turned out to be all of those things. Although Mama knew I was going to taste the fruit cake, I didn’t want it to become a big production so I didn’t mention it to anyone else. I would just discreetly fulfill my promise before the day was through. Admittedly, I planned to put it off as long as possible. Fruit cake is not fun.

Mama’s house filled with more and more family members as the day wore on. Periodically, she grinned and asked me, “Have a slice of fruit cake?”

“Later.” was my standard response, usually accompanied by a dry heave.

The first holiday after someone passes away is hard on any family. Each of us had to again process losing Daddy when faced with his absence. We missed the jokes he would have told, the snappy one-liners he would have had ready, and the simple sight of his empty chair was enough to upset some. In spite of the void, everyone tried to make it as normal a Christmas as possible, especially for Mama who is still struggling with major complications from her knee replacement surgery earlier this year.

I was afraid that memories stirred up by my fruit cake tasting might upset Mama, but she seemed fine. In fact, she found humor in knowing that the last thing in the world I wanted to taste, regardless of the day of the year, was fruit cake.

As the day wound down I summoned the necessary courage to remove the lid from the fruit cake tin. I began unwrapping the cake and wondered how I might be able to cut a tiny slice without actually having to look at it. The sight of those unnatural neon colored fruits was not appealing. A particularly ugly red one fell out just as I finished unwrapping.

I took a deep breath and tried to cut a paper-thin slice, not easy to do with a heavy cake chock full of bizarre fruits and too many nuts. For fear the smell alone would cause me to lose my courage, I quickly popped a piece of the cake into my mouth and chewed as rapidly as possible. Just as I finished swallowing the hateful concoction, I heard Mama call my name.

“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she asked, laughing when she saw the look on my face. She continued grinning as I washed the cake down with several gulps of water.

“I had a slice of fruit cake.” I confirmed as I exhaled and wiped the vile crumbs from my face.

I have never mixed turpentine, cake batter, and a splash of Drano together, but I believe it would taste exactly the same as fruit cake.

Daddy would have enjoyed the look of misery on my face and would have compared my rapid chewing to “a possum eating briars”. Mama got a good laugh out of the tasting in spite of the emotional reminders. I felt good that I had fulfilled my promise to Daddy and was glad that Mama had not gotten upset.

That came next.

The family made it through the day with only a few spoken comments about Daddy’s absence. Even Mama had been able to talk about him some without completely losing control – until my sister Donna gave her a gift.

A few months ago Donna asked Mama if she could take some of the flannel shirts Daddy had always worn. Donna planned to make a quilt from the material. Even though Mama knew the plan, she hadn’t expected it would be her Christmas gift.

Mama opened the box Donna handed her and saw the quilt. Naturally, she was instantly upset. It was a beautiful quilt in its own right, but as Mama examined patch after patch that came from shirts she had seen Daddy wear on a daily basis, it was more than she could handle. She cried heavily as she held the quilt, occasionally touching one patch or another and softly saying words most of us couldn’t understand.

“I love it.” Mama said through her tears, “But I can’t look at it anymore right now.”

Everyone understood and after a few silent minutes the conversations slowly began to flow again. A grandchild or two gave Mama a hug and we all continued opening presents.

I can usually manage to make Mama laugh, or at least smile, regardless of the situation. In this case I knew there was nothing I could say that would give her any relief or distraction from her upset, so I thought I’d try being practical rather than comical for a change.

“Mama, do you want some water?” I asked. “Is there anything that’ll help?”

Her eyes were still teary and her face was still red but a partial grin showed itself when she responded.

“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filed under death, Family, fruit cake, fruitcake, grief