Sunday, March 13, 2011

It's In The Cards

Verna had a maternal and spousal bucket list she tackled before she died with the ferocity of a Lioness.

One of the items was writing greeting cards to the kids and her other loved ones. The bulk of the cards were for Miguel and Maya. Each will now receive a card on their birthdays until they are 18; each will get one upon graduating from high school and college (please God); and they will have one to share with their future life partners should they take a leap into matrimony.

Verna started the cards last summer before she went on hospice. She sat in her electric recliner in the living room, I to her right on the sliding recliner, as she composed words the kids would receive after she died.

Verna was inspired to do the cards by our friend, Amy, who wished her late mother (breast cancer, 2001) had left her something for her to read and experience in the future.

I was slightly nervous and giddy during Verna’s first writing session because she asked me to read the cards as she finished them. She’d set a goal of writing 3-4 each day.

She didn’t want me to analyze or correct the cards; just read what she wrote and give her a general response. And I wouldn’t have wanted any other role--passive listener--for I learned the hard way that being a know-it-all is not healthy for a romantic (or any) relationship.

Many, many years ago, during my freshman year of college, while I was taking nine hours of Hebrew each week as an undergrad at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my girlfriend at the time, Cindy, enrolled in a Hebrew class at the University of Connecticut. She was so excited to share with me her first paper, written longhand in Hebrew.

How did I reward Cindy, who was bursting with pride at her significant accomplishment? I circled the mistakes and corrected her as if I was the teacher (or parent) and she was the student (or child). I will never forget the deflated look on her face and the justifiable anger she felt toward me that day.

So there was never a question for me that I was just going to read Verna’s cards to the kids and respond (but not criticize) only if asked. I barely made it through the first sentence of her first card before tears streamed down my face.

A sledgehammer to the gut as I realized Verna was writing cards the kids would read after her death, which we both knew last May would probably be sooner than later.

But, still, she wrote more than 50 cards. She wrote them while fairly lucid and she wrote them while whacked on a cocktail of painkilling drugs that should’ve felled an army of stallions. She insisted on writing even when her handwriting blurred and her mind grew foggier and foggier and her short-term memory dimmed.

When I volunteered to be her secretary so she could dictate her words to me and conserve her energy, she was emphatic, “No, I want them to see what I was going through.”

She also slipped a savings bond into each card, $100 for birthdays and holidays and $500 for marriage.

I’ve read many of the cards at least once and they are amazing. The legacy and gift Verna has given the kids is truly remarkable.

For Maya’s Christmas card this year, Verna wrote, “I’ll bet you were a good little girl this year and you’ll get whatever you want. What I love about Christmas are all the lights and decorations. I also loved going to Christmas Mass with Grandma. Christmas is not just about getting presents, but about remembering what the holiday is about.”

Verna wrote in Miguel’s Christmas card, with a black puppy, wearing a Santa hat, inside a coffee cup on the front, “I love you. I certainly loved Christmas time. After Grandma Chela (her mother) died in 2008, I loved bringing her Nativity scene into our home as part of our family tradition.”

She wrote in Miguel’s Hanukkah card, “Have you already listened to Adam Sandler’s The Hanukkah Song? Maybe with the money in this card you could buy a new Hanukkah menorah. I know Daddy loves his tin menorah, but it is really getting beat up and is becoming a fire hazard. Believe it or not, I finally was able to sing along in Hebrew when Daddy was lighting the candles. It took me about 15 years. I am sure it won’t take you that long.”

Re-reading the cards is so hard because they remind me again and again that Verna is dead. But the heartbreaking joy comes from knowing that the kids get a gift, Verna’s voice from beyond, at least four or five times a year.

She poured so much of herself into writing the cards. She did a fair amount of Internet research so she could write about her world when she was 15, 16, 17. “What major world events happened in 1981?” she asked me.

While I was caught off-guard and clueless, she found the answers by punching up Google or a similar site.

Verna forgot she wrote Maya a 5th birthday card, so she ended doing another. Maya loved getting two from Verna, one adorned with her favorite princess, Belle, and the other with rainbows, hearts, and sprinkles.

“I want to hang them in the bedroom so I can see them forever,” Maya said.

On Miguel’s 13th birthday card, Verna wrote, “I know you are excited that you can officially watch PG-13 movies. But, remember, Daddy is the one who decides what movies you get to watch.”

Still mothering from beyond the grave.

In her birthday card to her father, who turned 82 on March 5, she apologized for dying first. He broke down and lowered his head to the table as he read it. Tears clouded my eyes as I watched him.

So reading the cards will never be easy, but I will cherish, and I think the kids will, too, the memories Verna shared, the life lessons she imparted, the jokes she cracked, and the love she offered as her ultimate gifts while she lay dying.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steven,
    I'm a friend of Verna's through BAYS, as well as the BAYS President. I hope you got the BAYS t-shirts and the DVD that Laura filmed before she, too, died. I check out your blog from time to time. This one really touched my heart. Love to all of you.