0123: She was Supposed to Go Home on Monday


Content warning: The following story contains references to someone losing a parent to cancer, which may be triggering for some readers.

"She was Supposed to Go Home on Monday," Nathanial Garrod

As I entered the convalescent hospital for the umpteenth time, I leave the crisp March Friday morning outside and I am welcomed momentarily by the smell of popcorn before the scent of piss mingled aggressively. Putting the popcorn maker near the front of the hospital was a noble effort, but not quite enough. After over a year of treatment, recovery and relapse, my mom has been in the convalescent hospital since Thanksgiving. 

I visit my mom every day. She is insistent that I stay homeschooled, my family finds a middle ground by signing me up at a local high school for ninth grade independent study. So every day, I come to the hospital. I do my work. I spend the afternoon at the library. I go back to my aunt and uncles house. And repeat.

I turned my CD player off as I headed down the hall towards my mom’s room, watching the Tupac CD slowly stop spinning. 

The friendly nurse, Mary, was on shift as I passed the nurses station.

“How’s she doin’?” I asked Mary.
“Why don’t you go in and find out for yourself?” she said.
“You’re answering a question with a question. It must be pretty bad,” I said.

Mary smiled cryptically.    
“Inspiring,” I said sarcastically, while walking away.

When I walk in to my mom’s room, I think about how she has visibly aged several years in the last few days.

“How was breakfast?” I asked.
“It was good…I guess.” She paused. “It was just the usual pancakes. Hey, can you wipe up the syrup that’s dripping off the table? It’s right there on the corner.”

I pulled the table away slowly, and grabbed a napkin. I was looking for the dripping syrup, but couldn’t find it. Strange.

"It’s right there by your hand,” she said her voice showing a little desperation. I looked again, but still did not see it.

Mary walked in.

“Can I talk to you for a minute, kiddo?” She asked me.
“Yeah, sure. What’s up?” 

She motioned for me to follow her as she headed towards the nurses station.

“I’ll be right back mom,” I said, but she was already zoning out. I shook my head and followed the nurse over to her station.
“What’s up?” I repeated.
“She’s been like that since late last night,” she said.
“Like what? Delusional?”
“That’s what the reports say.”
“Is it bad?” I asked.
“That depends on your definition of bad.”
“You know what I mean,” I said. I was getting tired of people skirting the truth. Not that that had really been an issue. More like people being over-honest. I brought myself back to the moment, where the nurse had just finished letting out a big long sigh.

“She probably won’t be alive next month.”
“Oh! I’ve heard that one before!” I exclaimed, a sardonic smile breaking across my face.
“Yeah, but this time it’s serious.”
“Oh? As serious as it was at Thanksgiving? What about Christmas? Valentines day?” I started yelling: “So what is it now? My mother isn’t going to live to see another April Fool’s day? What?”
"Chill out, kiddo,” Mary said in a stern voice.

“Chill out? Chill out? How can you expect me to chill out when I’ve heard people tell me my mother is going to die every month since November?”

“Relax. Just go for a walk.”
“A walk?”
“Yes. A walk.”
“Now?” I questioned.
“Yes, now. Leave”
“Let me tell my mom.”
“Okay,” she said, turning back to her paperwork.

I walked back into my mom’s room. She was sleeping again. I walked over to her side and shook her.

“I’m gonna go for a walk, mom. I’ll be back a little bit later.”
“Okay,” she said.

--

It started raining lightly as I left the hospital. I walked and watched the rain fall. I ended up by the creek, walking along a recently developed paved path. I stared at the creek and thought about how powerful the water was. There was so much of it, and it moved so quickly. The rain fell around me, increasing in steadiness. I kept walking.

An overpass crossed the path. I sat against a rock, rain falling around me but not on me. Bicyclists pass by, but for the first time in my life, I feel truly, completely alone.

Mom was doing worse. It was obvious. The Cancer was getting to her. The Cancer was… The Cancer was taking her.

I stand and run to the railing between the path and the creek.

“WHY?!” I scream into the rain and wind.
“Why?” I mutter to myself, sobbing.

I kept walking, pushing the hospital out of my mind. I put one foot in front of another. I kept moving forward. I find myself, after many steps, at the apartment my mom and I once lived in. I miss it. All it has been for months is storage. I kept walking. One foot moves. Then the other. Repeat. I sit at the mall for a few minutes, or maybe a few hours. Time is a blur. I walk to the library. I try to put the hospital out of my mind, but it is the only thing on my mind.

--

The weekend passes. Saturday is not notable. Sunday, I go to church with my aunt and uncle. Everyone wants to know about mom. We visit the hospital, but my mom is asleep the whole time.

It’s Monday morning. I wake up. I wake up on my own, not with an alarm, or my aunt playing a grating hymn CD at full volume. It is silent, save for the sound of my uncle eating Grape Nuts. I pour my own Grape Nuts. We sit together in silence. My aunt is usually still home at this time.

She is not home. And then…

A key is in the front door lock. The dead-bolt turns. The key moves out. Aunt Catherine is home? I am confused. The key goes into the knob lock, which pops quietly. The door opens. I feel a gust of cold air. This is weird. Weird. She comes over and hugs me. I know what it is. I think. Aunt Catherine kneels by my chair. I know. My Uncle Bob is quiet. I know. I want another bite of cereal. I know.

“Sweetie,” she grabs my hand. “Your mother is dead.”

“I know” is what I say in my head. “Oh,” is what I say out loud. Funny how that always turns out different. She hugs me again. It is a strong hug. Like you would hug someone who lost the only person who raised them, and you are next in line to care.

“Finish your breakfast, and we’ll go down to the hospital.”
Things are moving quickly. I talk to people. Hug people. Move stuff. I am here. I am there. It blurs by. By the end of the day, we have emptied the room of my moms stuff. It seemed like a monumental accomplishment, yet the entire apartment was next. So much stuff.

It is night, and I am alone in my room. My mother is now gone. One by one, the tears start rolling down my face. 

It does not feel like it, but my mother is gone. I turn the light off, and pull my blankets close. The tears still roll down my face. They quantity multiplies, and the speed increases. I will never be able to hug her again. Or talk to her. I will never be able to listen to her advice or lectures again. I can’t argue with her. Or read to her. Or listen to her reading to me. I will never be able to watch a movie with her, or make dinner for her or go on a walk to the library with her. That part of my life is over.

So I cry.
Before I know it, I am asleep.


IMG_1342.JPG

About the art:

I was lucky enough to meet Nathaniel a couple years ago in Oregon, and the dude has such a lively personality. It's so heartwarming. We mostly interact on the internet these days, but he's always full of positivity and support, which is in credible for today's pretty cynical culture (myself included).

Nathaniel's story stands out to me a lot because I know I felt a lot of these emotions when I lost my dad to cancer not long ago. So as I read his wonderful narrative, I felt myself aligning perfectly with much of the circumstances he explained.

When it came to making the art, Nathaniel didn't have a direction. So I wanted to make something that was bright, flowy, and had black contrasting letters. The quote comes from the Saul Williams song, "Tao of Now," which is a constant reminder that we don't necessarily lose people when they die. We keep their memories in our lives even after they are gone. The defiance of the statement has always stood out to me and its oddly comforting, so I hope it has the same impact on Nathaniel.

I'm thankful that we had Nathaniel's story to close out our March stories because it's a beautiful narrative for a heartbreaking story, but one that reminds us to keep those we love and lost close to us in both physical form and in memory.

- Craig. 

0122: Nothing More


Content warning: The following story contains references to someone losing a parent to cancer, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Nothing More," Stacy Oliver-Sikorski

I stand in my kitchen, feet bare and hair pulled into a tight ponytail, watching as the timer on the microwave counts down to zero. Warm, sweet air fills my lungs as I pull the oven door open, reaching for the aluminum Bundt pan and placing it on a wire cooling rack. I pace the floor tiles around the granite topped island waiting the requisite ten minutes before inverting the cake pan over the wire rack and saying a silent prayer that the cake will slide out easily.

I learned to bake at my mother’s side, though if I’m being honest, I learned only through the happenstance of being present. I didn’t ask questions or take notes; I barely acknowledged what she was doing as I chattered incessantly to her about school, friends, and books. When I called her in June 2008 to ask what would happen if I substituted lemon juice for all the liquid in a cupcake recipe that I found, she said, “Well, you would have lemon cupcakes. Is that what you want?” It was. 

Weeks later, she called me at work to tell me that her recently developed pain and accompanying limp weren’t the result of a herniated disc as she’d assumed. Instead, it was an effect of lung cancer – small cell carcinoma, specifically -- that was already metastasized to her bones. She told me not to come home for the surgery she was going to have to replace her femur with a titanium rod, that the six-hour drive wasn’t worth it. I went anyway. 

I spent too long deciding whether to tell my supervisor about my mom’s declining health. I was new to my job – we both were, as part of a new housing and residence life program – and I was afraid of being perceived as weak or unwilling to fully commit to my new role. I crumbled and told her only because it became obvious I was going to be making the drive to my mother’s house on a regular basis and would need help managing my on-call responsibilities. And then I had to tell the next four supervisors over the subsequent three years in that same job. Each showed varying levels of empathy and understanding in their responses; only one could be described as kind. I don’t think any were intentionally unkind; they simply didn’t know where to place this emotionally charged situation at a place that was run purely as a business. And because many of them supervised me for short periods of time – weeks or months – there was no inherent relationship or trust. Balance wasn’t a concept I could pursue or adequately advocate for at a time when I most needed it and so I settled for living askew.

It was a hard place to work, a place where few people assumed positive intent and often worked strategically against each other rather than toward a common goal. Being new and unused to such a divisive work environment, I lacked stability and self-confidence. Watching my mother’s health rapidly change from hundreds of miles away, I lacked control. And so I spent three years feeling adrift, never able to find a place where I was sure of myself or the future.

After my mom died in June 2011, I found that place. I found it in my kitchen. Baking became my refuge and the kitchen was the place where I started to once again build confidence and control. Things in the kitchen made sense in a way that my personal life and work life didn’t. I understood why eggs are best beaten into a recipe at room temperature. Measuring flour by weight rather than by volume was logical. Piping meringue into sweet, crisp kisses on baking sheets was a methodical form of art. I scoured the Internet for recipes and for the answers to my questions that my mom was no longer able to provide. And I took the products of my labor to work, where I shared them with colleagues and students, a baked sweetness to balance the raw bitterness. 

It’s been more than five years since my mother died and I left that job. For me, grieving and healing meant leaving and moving a physical place. Since then, there have been new kitchens, each better than the last. And while they look different, they remain the place where I feel most myself and most centered. Each time I open the oven door and feel the heat rush over my face as I lean in to examine my latest creation, I pause to breathe deeply and say a silent prayer.  


IMG_3623.JPG

About the art:

Stacy's story resonated with me in a number of ways.  Walking a fine line in a new role while balancing a stressful family dynamic is a challenge I have faced this year with the loss of my grandmother to lung cancer.  

Her experience at work is also significant, and echoes many others I've heard in my short time within our shared field.  Reading Stacy's story reminded me of a song that I'd recently heard: Nothing More, by the Alternate Routes.

"We are how we treat each other and nothing more."

It was such a simple statement that captured so much.  It means empathy.  It means focusing on the people first.  It means thinking before acting, considering the human impact, and seeing beyond the "business" of our purpose.  When you work with people, regardless of the "bottom line," empathy and compassion will always win out. 

I'm so glad Stacy shared her story, because it sheds light on the human side of our work.  Yes, we empathize with students daily (and sometimes we feel too much for and with them).  But that compassion deserves to be extended to ourselves and our colleagues, especially in these difficult and uncertain times in our nation  We are adults, and we are the caregivers more often than not.  But we also need to be empowered to seek support, ask for help, and when all else fails, trust ourselves to find a better place.  

- Beth Paris

Tattoosday 009: Keep You


Content warning: The following story contains references to the loss of a father to cancer, which may be triggering to some readers.

"Keep You," Craig Bidiman

My dad died one year ago today.

Exactly one year ago yesterday, I was in Portland, Oregon, digging through records at Everyday Music and Music Millennium because that morning, my father, Wayne Bidiman, told me to go have some fun on my last day in Oregon.

See, I had just flown out to Oregon from Boston a week earlier because my mom told me that dad's health had taken a turn for the worst. I was unemployed, depressed, and struggling to find work. So I didn't have the money to drop on a cross country plane ticket to get home. Luckily, I have some amazing friends and family members who fronted the money for me.

The trip was weird. I hadn’t been home in 10 months, so to go home with the purpose of saying goodbye to my father felt odd. I showed up, he seemed fine, and we laughed a lot.

He still felt immortal to me.

For those who don’t know my father, he was a train of a man. Wayne the Train—that’s what me and some of my friends call him. He survived lung cancer two times before this, 4 heart attacks, a stroke (or two?), diastolic heart failure, deep vein thrombosis in his legs, sleep apnea, diabetes, and whatever else was thrown his way.

I actually have no real memories of my father being healthy.

But the dude never complained. Not that I ever heard.

I would ask him, “how you doing today, Wayne?”
He’d often respond, “I’m surviving.”

So that’s how I respond to people when they ask me how I’m doing.
It’s something that has stuck with me over the years.

He never complained but we could tell he was in pain.

As the days went by, I watched him slowly deteriorate. I would spend chunks of the day asking him about mortality, and what it felt like to be on the way out. And he was very honest with me. Then again, that was never anything new. He was a quiet man, but when he spoke, we listened.

He told me, "don't worry about death, sweetheart. Worry about living a good life." Dude lived a good life—he was on the cusp of his 74th birthday, and had no regrets.

We tried to keep him comfortable, but as a large man with weak legs, it was hard for him to get around those final days. He kept telling me I didn’t need to worry about him—which was ridiculous. But I always listened to my father, so I tried my best not to worry.

But those final days were definitely filled with doubt about how long he’d truly be around.

Music has always been present in my family—granted, it wasn’t necessarily the punk, hardcore, post-rock, etc. that I listen to today. BUT I was exposed to a lot of Beach Boys, Elvis, Conway Twitty, and my dad’s favorite, Marty Robbins.

Dad used to spin his old records when I was growing up, but that’d before I really cared about vinyl or really knew what they meant. Yet, for the last three years or so, I’ve become quite the vinyl collector. One of my dad’s favorite records is Gunfight Ballads, by Marty Robbins. It’s an old one—somewhat uncommon in the used shops, where most of the Marty Robbins pieces are those missing his crowning accomplishment, “El Paso.” But Gunfighter Ballads is full of songs that I remember because dad always played the album for me and used to tell me the stories behind all of the songs.

I grew up listening to Marty Robbins. He was a storyteller in his music. And I am also a storyteller in my music. Strange how that works!

So, back my last day in Oregon during that final week with my dad when he told me to go have some fun with my friends. So I went up to Portland and had brunch with a few friends and went record shopping at Music Millennium and Everyday Music. In a stroke of brilliant serendipity, I came across a used copy of Gunfighter Ballads for $1. I was stoked! I knew this would put a smile on dad’s face on my last day with him.

I also came across the album, Destrier, by Agent Fresco—which was one of my favorite albums of last year, and it is actually album about losing someone—so stumbling upon it was pretty cool, and it’s still the ONLY TIME I have ever seen it in the wild. So I bought it as well.

And as I left Music Millennium, where I apparently had no cell phone reception, I was flooded with text messages and missed calls from my siblings.

I knew what they were going to say without even checking them.
So I immediately drove back to Salem to be with the family.

When I got back home, I walked in with the records in my hand and showed the Marty Robbins piece to my dad—he was pretty lethargic at this point, but when he saw the cover, he immediately knew what it was. I saw a smile form on his mouth and he told me it was “a good one.” Always one to downplay how he really felt.

After that, he didn’t say much for the rest of the night. Just a few nods. Some creaky smiles. And eventually, he quietly, and without complaint, passed away.

Now, to the tattoo—I got this specific picture of my dad tattooed (in neo-traditional style) on my calf because it is an image of my father that was always on our wall when I was growing up.

The image is of my father’s 1959 Army enlistment photo. It’s old. Dude was old.

This is the image that my tattoo is based on. The image of the tattoo was taken a week after getting the tattoo. The one you see in the main image was taken yesterday, nearly two years since i got the tattoo.

This is the image that my tattoo is based on. The image of the tattoo was taken a week after getting the tattoo. The one you see in the main image was taken yesterday, nearly two years since i got the tattoo.

It’s one of those images that has been cemented in my brain since childhood. So I wanted to immortalize this on my skin. I got the tattoo while in Massachusetts almost a year before he died, so he was able to see it the couple times I flew home before he died.

He said it was his favorite tattoo of mine. I have many of them. And clearly he was biased!

The banner reads, “KEEP YOU,” which is an homage to the Pianos Become the Teeth album of the same name. The album is the third in a trilogy of the band’s lead singer processing the loss of his own father. Keep You is the absolution from the loss. A light at the end of the grief experience.

This album features a track titled, “Repine” (video above). And in the song, there is a line that repeats, “Your wick won’t burn away, your wick won’t burn away.” This line has stuck with me ever since I first heard it. And at this point, my partner has even gotten sick of me singing it.

But the line is so important to me. It’s the idea that the memory of my father’s life will never fade away. No matter how much I grow up now that he’s gone, he will always live on with me and I will continue to burn on in his memory.

Check out the original version of the song, "Farewell, My Father" by clicking this image of my first album,  Into the Fire.

Check out the original version of the song, "Farewell, My Father" by clicking this image of my first album, Into the Fire.

Music has always given me a release. I'm a pretty outgoing and fun-loving guy, but my music is where things get a little more serious, real, and sad. But I need that release.

Six years ago, I wrote a song for my dad. It is called, “Farewell, My Father.” It’s an instrumental song. For someone that loves words and uses LOTS of them, I had no words for this song. I wrote it shortly after dad’s lung cancer appeared the second time and I had no idea what to write. So I kept it void of words. Ever since writing the song, it became one of my favorites to start off my live sets.

The song structure mirrors the progression of my emotions regarding the news of my dad’s condition. Give it a listen above!

I titled it, “Farewell, My Father” all those years ago because it felt like my farewell to him—even though he was still there with me. But over all the years he struggled with his health, I felt like I was slowly losing him and this song was there with me to keep me somewhat comforted in those fleeting times.

It wasn’t until that final week with my dad that I finally had to say farewell to my father.

The album art for my new EP,  Farewell . Photo: Katy Weaver. Art direction: Nevan Doyle

The album art for my new EP, Farewell.
Photo: Katy Weaver. Art direction: Nevan Doyle

So, I’ve written an EP for my father.
It is called, Farewell.

Farewell was successfully crowdfunded by over 150 people and we raised over $6,000 to make sure that we could press this album on vinyl, which has sort of been a dream of mine.

The overwhelming support has made me feel pretty great about releasing this new project as an homage to his memory. This will be another form of creating a permanent fixture of my memory of my father. The music will live on even after I’ve died. Weird to think about, but valid and somewhat enlivening.

Farewell will feature five tracks.

It will include the first song I was able to write about my father that actually contained words. This song is called, "Active Ghosts," (you can see a live video of me performing it above), and it focuses on my regrets with my relationship with my father. It also centers on his strength as a man who never gave up, and what I learned from being around that strength.

There is also a pretty personal spoken word piece that focuses on a number of aspects of my relationship with my father. I wrote it rather quickly, but made some edits along the way, and it serves to connect all of the other songs together.

Another song encompasses my struggles with depression and suicidality, explicitly through the lens of dealing with the loss of my father. This song serves as an interlude for the EP, in which I ask the listener to be proud of your survival in life. A lyric in this song is represented on the shirt you can snag!

The final track on the album will be a remake of “Farewell, My Father,” which I’m simply retitling, “Farewell,” for this release. I always had the vision that this song would be bigger and more expansive. But I never had the abilities or wherewithal until now. Adding multiple elements to the song has made it completely come alive to me. And I am so glad that we decided to end the EP with it.

The Farewell EP actually features a spoken word cover of “Enamor Me,” by Pianos Become the Teeth. I am covering this track because it is the track on the Keep You album that most reminds me of my relationship with my father. It's full of minor details that fill up memories, many that I try to reflect in my own writing. It also carries a weight of reflection that feels both jovial and tragic.

The repetition of the line, “I don’t feel any closer to you here,” stands out to me so much because it’s a tragic line—it’s a line that reminds me that even though I continue to live with the memories of my father, I will never be any closer to him. I may be able to feel his existence in my life, but I will never see him again.

Losing someone is never easy and it feels even harder when it's someone that has given you a home and a family and brought you into the world. Granted, I am adopted, but my father never treated me like anything less than his own son and for that, I am eternally grateful.

All in all, music has been an integral part of how I process grief, and tattoos are how I mark that grief into permanence. Tattoos are essential to my identity. They tell my story, and I love sharing these stories with people because why else would I put them into my skin? If you aren’t willing to share your ink stories, then why do you have them?

At least, that’s my perspective. I know some people are much more reserved than me when it comes to sharing personal information, but I figure if I’m willing to share, perhaps more people will be willing to do so in the future.

I’m in a much different place than I was a year ago when my dad was deteriorating. I am no longer unemployed. My depression still comes and goes, but it’s incredibly manageable—especially because of the artistic ventures I’ve been busy with lately. The music helps, the painting helps. Work helps. It’s helped me pass the time.

While I haven’t been back home since dad died, there are moments when I deeply miss him. And I’m genuinely unsure what it will be like when I go home for the first time. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Chances are, I will struggle with the true reality of him being gone. But through this tattoo, and through my music, I can keep him as close to me as possible.

Thanks for reading, friends.


About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!