This has been a solemn holiday season for me. A contemplative Christmas or New Year's Eve isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and there is a gift wrapped up in the sorrow. I spent quite a bit of time this holiday, and some sleepless nights around the time of Dad's death and funeral, reflecting on priorities and goals.
I have a long-standing interest in living more mindfully and to that end, I've been working on letting go of habits and things that get in my way. Over the last couple of years, for instance, our eating habits have changed as we have tried to eliminate processed foods and cut way back on sugars and simple carbs, and increase vegetables and other healthy foods.
We continue to work on de-cluttering to make the house more peaceful and easy to maintain. In 2017, we set ourselves a list of seven financial goals, met every one of them, and ended the year with no debt other than our mortgage. Even that we took a healthy chunk out of. For the last month or so, I have done a lot of reading on consumerism and frugality and began gearing up for a big change in the new year by unsubscribing from advertising emails and canceling our Amazon Prime membership.
My husband and I have agreed that starting tomorrow, it will be a year of no shopping for us. Obviously we will continue to buy groceries and maintain our cars and fix things that break in the house. I’m talking about discretionary spending. So for 2018, we will be buying no clothing, no shoes, no accessories, no cosmetics, no kitchen items, no gadgets or electronics, no furnishings, no books, no shrubs or trees, no non-necessary household goods. I’m announcing it publicly because I know about myself that when I do that, by god I stick with it. And I was delighted to find a Facebook group all taking the same challenge! Our hope is that having a shopping ban for a full year will be enough time to change our relationship to spending and acquiring things. Because let’s face it, we have plenty of stuff. I’m pretty good at getting rid of excess but new purchases always slide in. Sometimes rapidly. We intend to continue to winnow our belongings to free up space and time in our lives. But for this year, we are going to avoid what feels like an inevitable creep of acquisition.
By the time 2019 rolls around, I am hoping we will have a better handle on discerning the difference between wants and needs. Wants are endless and there is always the next thing to buy in search of happiness. I know intellectually that material goods won't deliver fulfillment, but we are bombarded by the message that the next new thing will fill a void, make us better people, bring us joy and win us the admiration of others. Never mind that all the research on consumerism shows definitively that it just isn't true. With any luck, we will be able to use this year to permanently step off the consumer merry-go-round. I suspect it will be a challenge, but I hope I will learn a lot about myself and about peace this year.
Yesterday we made the trek up to my father's funeral. I dug this old Navy charm bracelet out of a little box of keepsakes I have. Dad gave it to me when I was a kid and I wanted to wear it one last time. When we arrived at the funeral home, I was taken aback by the sight of the open casket. It was a custom my father didn't care for. In fact, he and I sat outside at his father's funeral, both wanting to remember the man as he was when living. But Dad's wife must have taken some comfort in it, and I don't begrudge her that. She and I have had a pretty hostile relationship the last many years and that just seemed to fly away in the face of our shared grief. When she hugged me, weeping, I had yet another burden removed from my heart.
The graveside service, in the bitter cold, was a military one. My sons and brother served as pallbearers, my brother-in-law (an Episcopal priest) performed the service, and the sound of a passing train in the distance merged with both the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace and then the bugle playing Taps. The flag covering the casket was folded and presented by a Naval officer to my dad's wife and all the military men attending saluted the flag and my father. Afterwards, a soldier offered me a casing from one of the bullets fired during the gun salute. My dad's wife, his kids, and their families gathered at a hotel following the service, to have a drink in his memory. I went with bourbon, knowing he'd approve.
My father would have loved everything about his funeral, including that his kids were all there in his honor. Dad rests now in a family section of the beautiful Lexington cemetery, buried in his dress uniform and surrounded by ancestors from the past couple of centuries. It suits him, and I'm glad he's at peace.
but toward the end of November my Dad's wife let us all know that if we wanted to see him again, it should be soon.
My older sister and I drove up with our spouses and my younger stepdaughter (who wanted to meet him). My Dad's cancer had metastasized to his spine and he was failing quickly. Dad also had advanced Alzheimer's and the previous time I had visited, he still knew me but was confused by the presence of my new husband. Still, he was affable and we had a nice visit. It was a marked change, however, from the visit before that, when he could talk about his dementia and share memories. On this most recent visit at the beginning of the month, it was clear that he did not really know who we were. And let me tell you, in spite of all my training in neurocognitive decline, I was not prepared for the gut punch of not being recognized by a parent. I kissed him on the cheek and told him I loved him and he said, "Well, I love you, too!" And that was about as coherent as he got on the lunch visit. Still, several times I looked up to see him intently studying my face and it appeared as if he was aware that I was familiar but couldn't place me. I am glad we went, because a few days ago, he slipped away.
My father was a complicated man. When his parents divorced, his mother walked away from him believing she could better find a new husband without a young son in the way. Raised in a strict military household by a father who married four times in total, Dad went to the Naval Academy and then on to MIT for a master's degree in mechanical engineering.
I know, we look like a perfect little 1960's suburban family. Dad struggled with alcohol dependence his entire adulthood and life was often chaotic. When drinking, he wasn't able to suppress his rage and my mother either couldn't or wouldn't protect us. When he wasn't drinking, though, he was a great dad. He was very bright and had a fantastically quick wit.
And he was also affectionate and very involved in his kids' lives. After my parents divorced, when I was ten, we visited on alternate weekends and holidays. For a while, this involved him driving about 500 miles each way to pick us up to spend a couple of days with him.
When he got stationed in Hawaii, I spent a summer and we got out to hike, camp, and go to the beach every weekend. In fact, we grew up hiking and houseboating and generally getting outdoors as much as possible. I credit him in large part for my love of nature.
Dad remarried quickly after the divorce and the family merged. My stepbrother and stepsister (who my father adopted) became my brother and sister.
When I went off to boarding school in Switzerland, a perk of his new job, he surprised me on parents weekend by flying unannounced from Saudi Arabia just to spend a couple of days with me. I had been homesick and was thrilled by the visit. He came back in June to see me graduate.
But we became estranged around the time of my first marriage, when I was 25. I needed to talk about the hard parts of our childhood and apparently he had a need NOT to talk about it. My letter to him went unanswered, he skipped my wedding, and we did not speak for four years. But at my brother's wedding, he sat down with me to acknowledge the abuse and ask forgiveness. That's a remarkably healing thing and it lifted a burden from my heart.
We had a great relationship from then on. I visited when I could and we were always happy to spend time together.
He was tickled when I got pregnant, and happier still when I gave each of my sons family last names as their middle names. He doted on his grandsons until he was no longer able to do so. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about ten years ago, but the signs were there for a few years before that.
His funeral is this Thursday. This wouldn't have been my choice for returning to my blog, but you take what life hands you. And what life handed me was a sometimes furious and brutal/sometimes happy and tender father. I know one thing about him beyond a shadow of a doubt, though - he loved me and my sons fiercely. He never failed to say so. I miss him terribly but I have that fierce love stored in my heart.