Endings and beginnings

Craig and Karen.

Craig and Karen Potts

It’s been a rough year. My sister recently lost her husband, Craig Potts, father to their only son, Chris. And the pain is still raw. Craig’s death came just a few months after we lost our mother, Hazel: two dearly-loved souls passing in just three month’s time.

 

Hazel Coffey.

Mother Hazel

 

Though we’ll always have fond memories of their personalities and the years spent together, it’s still difficult to believe that we’ll never see them again in this life. Both are endings that are hard to bear–and yet, what choice do we have? We take deep breaths and live one day at a time.

Changing with the seasons

Endings–and beginnings–are on my mind. Just this morning, I took my daughter to the airport for a flight to her junior year in college. And later today, my son and his friend, who boarded in our home during an internship, will pack up and leave the house to drive south into their senior year of college. It will be quiet around here without their comings and goings; the washer and dryer will get a rest, and the meals I cook will shrink again to portions for two: my husband and me.

Yet every ending is a beginning: the beginning of life without the ones we’ve lost, the beginning of new adventures and relationships, of news from children and friends, of chapters we’ll add to our own lives. A while ago, as I sat writing this, the high school bus stopped on the street outside to take this year’s students–no doubt some new–off to their second week of classes.

While beginnings are hopeful, they aren’t often easy, obscured as they are with distractions of the unknown: What challenges will come? Will the good times outweigh the hardships? You can try to live right, make lists, load up your phone calendar, invest in the latest technology, you can plan and you can pray, but nobody’s ever going to develop an app that shows you the future.

The day to day

Autumn leaves in the sun.As for me and my writing endeavors, I start the new season with a plenty of unknowns. I recently invested time interviewing with literary agents. It went well, though I’m still waiting for something concrete. Meanwhile, I continue to work on my second novel–talk about beginnings and endings. My goal is to finish it by the end of the year, and I wonder: Will I get there? Will it be what I envisioned? If only there was an app for that.

Outside, the summer is coming to a close, my days of writing on the patio numbered for the year. The high in Portland will climb past 80 today, but the morning was brisk, and the trees, already tinged with red, tell us what’s coming.

What will the future bring? How will I handle it? How will we all handle it? Yet another ending offering a place to begin…

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Tribute to a love affair

Clayton and Hazel in sunset.My sisters and I lost our mother last week, and my father lost his wife of nearly 66 years. I wasn’t going to write about it. The emotions are too raw; it seemed I would always be able pick up the phone and call her—“Hi, mom!”—or hop in my car and drive over there. Who else can love you, so unconditionally, like mom?

Now, as I move through each new day, I keep thinking: am I really, in this life, never going to see her again? Or share a meal? Or hear her voice? It seems impossible, surreal… like I said, raw.

Clayton and Hazel Coffey on their wedding day.

 

But it occurred to me: there’s also a love story here that brings a smile to my face, the love affair between my father and mother. I confess I haven’t put much thought into it over the years—who does with their parents? But sitting with dad just the other night made me pause and take it to heart. It was the day after mom had passed and we were eating dinner together, a solemn meal over a beautiful bouquet of sympathy flowers, and I asked dad to tell me again how they’d first met.

 

I’d heard stories about their courtship, of course. The one about the drive-in movie is a family favorite, when a teenage Clayton finally built up the courage to turn to Hazel and say “I like you,” and Hazel responded, “I like you too.” But I didn’t remember how they first made contact. It was risky to ask about it, so soon after my mom’s death. I didn’t want to cause him more heartache. But he didn’t seem to mind the question, and while the story he told was brief, he delivered it with a smile.

Hazel at 16He said he’d seen my mom in the school library (they both went to Portland’s Franklin High) and decided to ask her out. So he had a friend who knew her call ahead to tell her about him, then he telephoned with the big question: Would she go on a date with him? As they spoke over the phone, so the story goes, my mom couldn’t place Clayton and wasn’t even sure she’d seen him before. But the mutual friend had reassured her he was a good guy, so she said yes to a double date then hurried to tell her sister Bobbie and mother Bessie. All three—Hazel, Bobbie and Bessie—were curious: would Hazel know this mystery boy when she saw him?

Clayton Coffey in uniform.

 

Scheming together, the three came up up with code words Hazel would use as she left on the date. If she’d seen him before, she’d say “Goodbye,” if she hadn’t, she’d say “Goodnight.” The conclusion of dad’s little story went like this: On that fated evening, when he arrived and Hazel came out, ready to go, she shot a big grin back to the house and said “Goodnight!” –she’d never seen him before!

 

Hazel and Clayton with a young Amelia and Macklin.

 

That was the beginning of a relationship that lasted nearly seven decades. Within two years, they were married, my father at age 19 and my mother, 18, babies really, though dad had already been in the army in post-war Germany.

 

Sisters in brown outfits, circa 1968.

Coffey daughters (clockwise from upper left) Karen, Sally, Linda, Marcia

 

Over the years they had daughter after daughter, and their life together brought great joy, but also pain and grief. For the sake of my parents’ privacy, I’ll skip the details. What matters now, what really strikes me, is the incredible endurance of their love.

 

Hazel Coffey.

Mom wasn’t well for quite some time before her passing. When she was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, we considered options for memory care, but my father’s wishes were to keep her at home, with him. It wasn’t easy, especially for dad, but with help from his four daughters and an absolute angel of a great-niece, Melissa, we were able to make it work, and mom was well cared for. Then, about two weeks ago, she suffered a stroke. We all knew the end was near, and as we said our goodbyes, I told mom what I truly believe: that God has a place, reserved just for her.

 

It was during those days that I finally understood the depth of my parents’ love. They’d been through so much together, good times and bad, but what I saw in the end was how their relationship had evolved through tumultuous times from youthful attraction to everlasting devotion.

There was a moment I’ll never forget that I’m blessed to have witnessed. It was after the stroke, when mom could barely speak, and dad, in a chair by her bed, began to sing to her. Dad was famous in our household for singing over the years, often striking up tunes with us kids or one of his brothers, so I eased back, away from the bed, to sneak a few pictures. The funny thing is, as he sang, I realized, I’d never heard the song before.

Hazel grasping Claytons hand.

 

“Remember this one?” he’d asked my mom before launching into the tune. I had no doubt she understood. She looked him square in the eye and did what had to have been difficult for her after the stroke: she lifted a pale, weak hand and grasped his.

 

What my father proceeded to sing was a love song, nothing short of heartbreaking. It was written, I found out later, by Floyd Tillman and popularized by Patsy Cline. I’ll leave a link with Patsy Cline’s rendition below. There really isn’t much more to say. Once you hear it, the same words dad sang to mom, you’ll understand.

Patsy Cline “I Love You So Much It Hurts”

Where did the years go?

Empty suitcase.So, it’s down to this. Empty suitcase, empty Kleenex, empty nest. But how can empty be the right word, when I’m so filled with emotion? My husband Ed and I are back home now after delivering our “baby” to college–more than 1700 miles away. Chicago may feel distant, but her brother is even farther, having left just this week to study abroad in Nottingham, England. I haven’t checked the exact miles, but it’s eight hours ahead of us, so he’ll often be sleeping while we’re awake and vice versa.

Empty seats at the table

So here, we are: braced for a Thanksgiving missing both of them. Continue reading

Father’s Day, Mine, Yours

The meaning of father–of dad–is different for all of us, as individual as our own experiences. Was your father a role model? Nurturing? Or something else altogether, perhaps troubled or abusive or never around? The inventory of Father’s Day cards covers a wide spectrum. You’ll find a few that are gushing sentiment… next to others from “across the miles.” Still others take a lighter tack, highlighting sports or beer, camping and hunting or tinkering with cars and carpentry–all things my own father has enjoyed over the years.

Clayton and Hazel Coffey.

Continue reading

Look Forward, Graduate, But Don’t Forget to Look Back

Sometimes I think I’m too sentimental, the sort of person who can get teary-eyed in a 30-second commercial. Maybe it’s age or menopause, though the truth is, I can’t remember when I wasn’t this way. This week it’s coming at me like gale-force winds. “You’re about to be empty nesters!” I keep hearing, and, yes, it’s true. Our little birds–who aren’t so little anymore–are leaving the nest in their own gusts of wind. Continue reading

Mother’s Day, Heavy and Light

How do you write about Mother’s Day when it stirs so many emotions? I think of friends who lost their mothers this year, others who went through it years ago, and still others, like me, whose mothers get more fragile with each passing day. Losing a parent, I realize, is one of those things you just don’t believe will happen until it does.

Close up of mother Hazel at 16.My mother’s name is Hazel and in her youth, she was beautiful and feisty and fun. Continue reading