9 years later

You’ve been gone 9 years today.

9 whole years.

That boggles my mind.

When I think about your diagnosis, the treatments, and the end…it hurts almost worse now than it did at the time.  At the time I was so in the situation, and such a newbie in the family. I didn’t know all the people who were throwing their arms around me and praying over me. Shedding tears that fell on my skin.

I didn’t really know you.

I have pictures and stories, but because you were diagnosed in that one year I had with you before marrying your son, you were always surrounded by friends and family. I can count on one hand the times we spent as a normal “family” in the time after Cortney and I were engaged.

But it’s more than others got.

I have never ever forgotten how lucky we were to have you at our wedding.

Every single happy moment in our lives since then have had a small ache because you were missing it.

What would your reaction have been to each pregnancy announced by your children? What about the adoption of your grandsons? How would you have comforted your children through child loss? How would you have danced with your daughter at her wedding?  Or rejoiced to see your son marry his high school sweetheart?  How proud would you have been of the graduations and degrees we are all racking up?  Your your son-in-law’s first children’s book? How would you have gotten along with your kids in-laws?  What things would you teach your grandchildren?

I can’t help but see you in my own boys.  It makes me smile and breaks my heart.

I have forgotten your voice, your laugh, even what you looked like outside of photos. But I have never forgotten the twinkle in your eye. I see it in Cortney, Cody, MacKenzie, and all of your grandkids…especially Charlie.

This morning I was lying awake thinking about how proud of Cortney you must be. He is such a wonderful dad and husband. He is handy and smart. And he is a business owner. Just like you.

Sunday we all sat on MacKenzie and Dave’s new lawn and beach and had peach pie for your birthday. I looked at each member of the family and tried to see what you would see. I got choked up. Gosh. If there is bragging in heaven, you must do it heavily.

Today I took Eddie and Charlie to the flower shop. We ordered a lovely arrangement of happy flowers to go in front of the church on Sunday in your memory. We will be on nursery duty, but I hope people enjoy them. I hope they make people smile, the way you always did.

After the flower shop, we went to the bakery (or the donut shop, as Eddie calls it). Eddie and I have been coming here on August 14 for the past three years. Today Charlie was with us. I showed them some pictures of you. Eddie asked me why you looked so different at our wedding and I explained cancer to him for the first time. I also showed him your marina photo. He said, “now THAT looks like daddy!”  That made me smile.

We sure do miss you.

Each of us differently, of course, but the pain is still there.

9 years or 900 years…I think it will still hurt.

For now we see the joy in that hurt. The pain means there was a lot of love there.

Love and laughter.

Pops - Formal - Anchorage

Lost

2013-08-11 12.36.54

Eight years and 3 months ago Cortney and I sat in these chairs for the first time. They were wedding shower gifts from someone. A couple’s wedding shower. I don’t want to tell that story (or maybe ever because it’s sort of embarrassing), but Cort’s dad had a lot to do with that shower since it was held at the marina where Cort’s dad and stepdad slipped their boat and it was all the boating people Cortney had grown up with plus both of our families and our wedding party.

We still have these chairs eight years later.

I’ve sat in them numerous times, but this summer I have found myself in one or the other almost daily. They are on the back patio and they are the perfect chair to lean back and read or watch the boys play in the backyard. It has quickly become my favorite spot.

At one point this summer I put my book down, breathed in deeply, and thought about my father-in-law.

I didn’t know him long, but whenever I went with Cortney to the marina to visit with him and his stepmom (they were there in all of their free time), he was sitting in a chair just like mine under a specific tree by the docks.

The first time we ever sat in these chairs.

The first time we ever sat in these chairs.

I have thought of him often this summer as I plant myself in my chair.

Each time the wind blows, I close my eyes and try to feel his presence. I look at my children–his grandchildren–and I try to imagine what he would be like with my kids. How would he laugh as Charlie runs at full speed with his curls flopping around behind him? How would he play with Eddie?

And I don’t know.

I can’t remember.

I try so hard to squeeze my eyes shut and imagine his face…but it’s fading.  We have his picture out, yes, but it’s hard for me to actually remember him from my own mental photo albums. I remember seeing him when Cort and I were dating. I remember telling him about our engagement. I remember all the times we were along for doctor visits. I remember the events before he physically changed from himself into The Cancer Patient.

But I don’t remember him.

Before I knew him, with Cort's stepmom

Before I knew him, with Cort’s stepmom

I stare into the eyes of those photos we have living in our computers.

I see Cortney and his brother Cody and their Grandma Sluiter the most in those eyes and cheeks and chin and nose and smile.

When I look from this photo to one of my boys my eyes burn, and my heart hardens.

Why do I have to search for similarities and guess at their relationship with each other?  Why will I never ever get to see them together?  Why can’t I remember his laugh, damnit?

The only picture we have of us with ALL our parents

The only picture we have of us with ALL our parents

Already he was slipping away in that photo. He is so small and not the same man in the physical sense. By that time, I had already started to forget what he was like before Cancer.

And it had only been four months since his diagnosis.

He was always in his chair after that and surrounded by friends and family. He was never ever alone.

This meant as a newbie to the family I never ever spent one on one time with my father-in-law. But I knew he was a great man who everyone loved.

always the goof.

always the goof.

I never knew him in the normal, every day way.

I can’t remember anything other than moments that were touched and tainted and special and beautiful because we knew he wouldn’t be around for more of those moments. But they were not private moments. At least not many of them.

There were always other people around.

Cortney says his dad could tell a great story.

I don’t know.

Cortney says his dad was a good listener.

I don’t know.

Cortney gets tears in his eyes and talks about how much his dad would love to be a Papa.

I. Don’t. Know.

Laying Cort's dad to rest in his favorite place.

Laying Cort’s dad to rest in his favorite place.

Lots of people see my last name and ask me if I am related to him. I proudly say he was my father-in-law.

People often smile and simply say, “he was a really, really great man.”

I nod. I know.

But I don’t know.

I miss him.

Not because I knew him, but because I didn’t.

And hell yes, I am bitter about that because I should have known him.

He died two months after Cortney and I were married, eight years ago today.

It doesn’t get easier to have him gone. The weight still presses on my chest thinking about “never” and “forever”.

But just in case “never” and “forever” don’t mean what I think they do, I have a seat saved for him in the backyard to watch his grandsons laugh and play.

a {tardy} father’s day letter

Dear Cortney,

006

Almost four years ago you became a dad.  You were sort of nervous, if I remember correctly.  Although I was sort of preoccupied at the time, so I hope you’ll forgive my lapse in memory.

Listen, I know.  Father’s Day sucks for you.  I has for almost eight years now.

Father’s Day 2005 was the last time you celebrated your dad while he was with us.  We had been married less than 24 hours and it was pretty emotional since we all knew it was his last one.

After we opened our wedding gifts, we celebrated Father’s Day.  I know it was awkward.  Your mom and stepdad were there as were all my siblings and my parents.  Not exactly a nice, intimate way to have your last Father’s Day with your dad.  I’ve always felt bad about that.

The next three Father’s Days were meh.  We celebrated my dad and your stepdad, but there was always something hanging in the air.  Something big and ugly, while at the same time there was something missing.  A big hole.  It was all just…wrong.  Icky.

Then you became a dad.

047

And you were amazing.

You didn’t always know what to do, but you always did what was best.

But Father’s Day still had a lump of ugly.  I tried, babe.  I really did.  I didn’t want you to forget your dad, but I wanted you to feel celebrated.  I know I failed in lots of ways.  Some of that was because I tried to force conversation about your dad.  Other times I was sick and depressed and your day sucked because my brain sucked.  And sometimes I just wanted too much out of the day.  I wanted more than you wanted.

Of course, you became a daddy all over again last year.

001

You were much more ready this time.  Much calmer.  You even joked and laughed with the docs and nurses during my surgery.

You still didn’t always know what you were doing, but you did know that it was Ok to not have all the answers.  That everything…and everyone…would be Ok.

001

Again you were amazing.

I think Father’s Day got better last year.  I am not really sure why–whether it’s because I am in a better place or because time helps us know each other’s needs better or because I just listened better.  I don’t know.

DSC00515

What I do know is this…I wish Father’s Day didn’t have to have that piece of suck stuck to it.  I know that won’t ever go away.  It’s hard to watch you smile through the pain.  I know you LOVE being a dad. I also know the biggest hurt in your heart is that your dad isn’t here to see and experience your being a dad.

I know that today, while you loved having Charlie wake you up, having Eddie and I pull in with Starbucks for you, getting gifts that your sons thought of on their own, and having Eddie yell HAPPY…what day mom? FATHER’S DAY, DADDY!

I know you love that Eddie announced he wanted to get you a Flash T-shirt and even though I told him I didn’t think that they would have that at Target, they did.  And Eddie has said, “I told you, mom” about a thousand times since we bought it on Thursday.

But I also know that every time the boys make you smile, something hurts in your heart at the same damn time.

You have no idea how I wish I could make that go away.

I don’t want you to forget your dad…I want him to be here with you.

I know that is impossible, but I am sick of it being impossible.  I am sick of the one thing that I want to gift you to be out of reach.

I am sick of saying “He sees you. He knows.” And I am sick of you having to nod and be Ok with that even though you will never be Ok with that.

001

Mostly I am sick of seeing the sadness in the smile.

There should never be sadness in a smile.

I know the sadness will always be there and even though I rage against it because I can’t change it for you…even though I give God stink-eye from time to time, I know too that even though there is sadness, there will also always be the smile.

I strive to make sure there is always a smile in front of the sadness.

005

Even if that smile is totally forced because our life is crazy…and our kids crazier.

I love you, Cortney.

I hope the boys and I did a good job of making you smile yesterday.

sluiternationyearbookphoto

green undies and what is missing

“You know,” he told Eddie as he dried him off and helped him into his Green Lantern underwear, “Papa Steve had green underpants too.”

A smile spread across Cort’s lips and the rare twinkle appeared in his eye as he shared this small piece of memory with his oldest son.

“He called them his Green Hornets,” he finished with a smirk tugging at his dimples.

As Eddie and I giggled, I saw that elusive twinkle in Cort’s eye gleam brighter for just a second it go out with a snap.

I swallowed hard as a lump caught in my throat and tears burned in the corner of my eyes.

It was ridiculous that a brief recollection about underwear would make me miss him so much.  Would remind me of what Cort was missing so much each and every day.

I know these things should make us smile.  And it does make us smile.

But it’s also a stinging reminder of what is missing.

Cort has fathered two sons…just like his dad.

I’ve heard him call Eddie his Number 1 son and Charlie his Number 1 Young Son…just like his dad did with him and his younger brother Cody.

He’s told Eddie lots of little things…like the green undies…about his dad and each time it is bittersweet.

He is a dad without a dad.

I take for granted the fact that I can call up my mom with funny stories about the boys and jog her memory about mothering littles.  I get to hear her tell me about her perspective from when she was in the trenches like I am.

Cort doesn’t get his dad’s perspective on raising boys.

I cry to my mom about the tough parts of motherhood and ask questions about how she and my dad did it.

Cort remembers as best as he can and gets his mom’s input, but he doesn’t get to ask his dad what was tough about being a father.

Last summer I sat back with my mom at a cottage my parents rented for the family. It was one of many cottages we had frequented as a family when my brothers and I were little.  She and I talked about how relaxing is different with small kids around.  We joked and cracked a beer as I watched Eddie run around with his uncles while Charlie entertained his aunts.

Cort doesn’t get to kick back with his dad and a beer on the family boat they spent weekends on when he was a kid.  He doesn’t get to recall the trips to various marinas up and down the West Coast of Michigan.

As children life looks a lot different to us.

I have found one of my favorite activities to do with my parents is remember all the memories we made.  My parents are always amazed at what my brothers and I remember…and how our memories compare to what they experienced alongside us.

Cort doesn’t get to do this with his dad.

My relationship with my mom changed when I became a mother.  It was subtle and slight, but there was a shift.

We had a new connection.  A new something-in-common.

We were both mothers.

She has much she can share with me and I have much I can learn from her.

Cort never had that shift with his dad.

He never got to share the sameness.

He never saw his dad as a Grandpa and, maybe more difficult, his dad never got to see Cort as a Dad.

Cortney is not a story-teller by nature.

I am still learning stories about his childhood–mostly from his sister and his mom, but sometimes from him.

When his memories are sparked,  the twinkle in his eye gleams, and the dimple in his cheek deepens, I know it will be a memory about his dad.

Even if it’s about the Green Hornets.

*************

Cort and I have decided to start a Relay for Life Team in Memory of Papa Steve.  I have never done it before, but I think you can join our team, donate, or…um…I am not sure.  Our goal is $250 and my personal goal is $100.  So far it’s just me on the team, so I have some work to do.  Anyway, this is the link to my page if you are interested in helping out.

a new song

“Sing to me, mommy,” he whispers in the dark.

“Sing me a new song.”

The twin mattress makes him seem so small.

“Ok, Eddie.  This one was your Papa’s favorite.”

He nuzzles his head close to me and I smell his hair.

Gone is the sweet baby smell of lotion and Johnson & Johnson.

It has been replaced with the smell of shampoo and toddler.

Sweat and dirt and spaghetti O’s and sweetness.

I was once told when he was only weeks fresh that his smell would be with him forever.

That he would always smell like Eddie.

It’s true.

Under all those boy smells, I could still find that scent he was born with.

I smiled and I began to softly sing,

Cracklin’ Rosie, get on board
We’re gonna ride til there ain’t no more to go
takin’ it slow.

I paused.

I was thinking about the rest of the lyrics–and the man who loved them–when a small hand touched mine.

“Again, mommy.  Sing my Papa’s song again.”

Three lines were enough.

I sang them again.

This time I could hear him whisper some of the words into his memory.

“Again.”

A third time I sang the lines.

“Again, mommy.”

“You sing to me, Eddie.”

“My Papa’s song?”

“Yes.”

Caklin’ Wosie boad
wide aw night
slow.

“I like your singing, Eddie.”

“Thanks, you, mommy.  You lay by me for a little bit longer?”

In the glow of his nightlight I look around his new room.

Everything is Big Boy sized now: the dresser, the chair, the toy box.

I even bought him his first package of toddler underwear this past week.

Then I look over at the little creature pressed into my side.

Hair standing up like chickens sleep in it.

A hint of chocolate by one of the corners of his mouth.

Scrapes and boo boos from tumbling off his bike or rolling down the grassy hill in our yard.

And the longest lashes I have ever seen framing two bottomless dark pools staring at me.

We look at each other for a long time in the quiet darkness.

Under this new Big Boy uniform he is growing into, I start to see hints of my baby.

Chubby cheeks.

Sleepy, long blinks.

And the soft squeaking sound as he sucks his pipey.

I see my baby wrapped in a Big Boy.

I whisper, “I love you Eddie.”

He smiles behind his pipey and rubs Lamby to his nose and sleepy eyes.

“I love you too, Mommy.”

*************

this day

we try so hard to not be sad on this day.

he didn’t want that.

so we celebrate his birthday…five days before this.

we talk about how he had a funny comment for everything.

…how he could make anyone,  anyone laugh.

…how he could pull of things anyone else would get scolded, yelled at, or arrested for.

…and no one would be mad.

we marvel at how much Eddie is like his Papa already.

And we smile.

But today…

no matter how hard we try,

we cry.

We remember the day.

We remember how he waited and held on until Cort and I made it to say goodbye…

before rushing Cort to the ER to have an appendectomy.

We remember everyone who packed in his house to hold vigil.

We remember how he fought so hard…

but couldn’t beat the cancer.

And we remember all the good things…

and let our hearts weep that he’s not here anymore.

He died two months after becoming my father-in-law…

…four years before becoming Eddie’s Papa.

Long before he ever became sick, he firmly believed that we are being carried through the hard times.

And because of that, I am posting his favorite poem today.

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was only one.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints,
so I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you the most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.'”

Eddie and his Papa

Six years.

And it doesn’t get easier.

This day is just…

hard.

*************

To read Cort’s letter to his dad, go here.

To read Cort’s sister’s letter to her sons about their Grandpa, go here.

Bittersweet

August 9th is one of the most bittersweet days on our calendar.

One hundred and two years ago, Cort’s great grandfather, Edward, was born on this day.

Fifty-five years ago, Cort’s dad, Steven, was born on this day.

These great men had a special bond.  Steve shared something with his Grandpa that none of his other seven siblings did.  They worked the farm together, and  had the most special grandfather/grandson connection.

Both of these men are now celebrating their birthdays in heaven.

Each year, Grandma Sluiter and whoever is around get together and have lunch to celebrate her father’s and her son’s birthday.

We laugh and we smile at the lives of these great men.

And two years ago on this day, we dressed Eddie in his Papa Steve’s baptismal outfit and had him baptized on his namesakes’ birthday.

baptism

Edward Steven Sluiter's Baptism Day

Grandma Sluiter also gave us a copy of her father (Edward Koops)’s baptism certificate.

We are so very lucky to have Eddie.  He is a constant reminder to us of his Papa Steve both in looks and personality.  He is a blessing to our family in ways I don’t know if he will ever understand.

But it’s for those very reasons that this day is so sad.

As special as it has become, sometimes I wish this was just another day.  Just another parent with a birthday that we go to see.  Another card and gift to run out and get like we do for my parents and Cort’s remaining parents.

I see now the blessings Steve gives us from heaven, but I would much rather him be here with us.  Maybe I am selfish.

Happy birthday, Pops.  I can’t begin to tell you how much we miss you.

on writing and stuff

The past two weeks have been spent writing my face off.  I wanted to share a piece I am particularly proud of, but first the back story of this piece.

It all started with this blog post that I wrote on Exploded Moments for a prompt from The Red Dress Club (before I was part of the leadership) called a day at the beach.  I liked it and got lots of good feedback, but I felt like it wasn’t quite right and I wanted to turn it into a poem.

I wrote a new draft of it in poem form and brought it to my writing group.  They did NOT hold back.  In fact, I was the last to go for the day, and on my drive home I wanted to punch a few of the in the mouth.  I asked Cort to please pick up Eddie and I went straight home to work on the piece because I was so crabby.

They totally misinterpreted what I was trying to say.

I realized, though, that that was my problem as the writer.  Writers don’t follow their work out into the world explaining what they meant.  The work has to stand on it’s own.

So I rewrote.

And took it back.

There were still issues, but this time instead of grumbling, I listened more closely to what my group said.

Today I read this for them.  I think I nailed it, but you tell me.

*************

Ashes

I didn’t belong there. Yet
I did.

I was family too. But
so new.

I don’t remember who drove the boat.
(does it matter? It wasn’t him.
Not anymore.
Not ever again.)

Three siblings sat on the bow of the fifty foot Sea Ray:
the last ride with Pops.

a widow clutched a metal box.

a pastor held his robes against the breeze.

and I
sat alone
in a small corner
with the extra line and hooks

apart.

The boat—set in a low idle—
calmly made its way
through
the
still waters of the channel to
the Big Lake
and I
searched the pier for
empathy.

*************

This is the picture that originally jogged my memory and inspired the poem…

spreading the ashes

heading out to spread Pops' ashes Labor Day weekend, 2005. Cort, Cody, and Kenz on the bow

I do have more pieces from the past two weeks, but I am still working on them to send away in my portfolio.

What do you think of this one?  Does it seem the two weeks was worth it?

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