Mom and Dad, around 1952

Mom and Dad, around 1952

When the cancer had eaten its fill,
Little was left of Dad.
He was diminished
And oh, he had been handsome
Just ask Mom
She recalled wistfully his dark hair
And fine looks vaguely reminiscent of Elvis
A real catch
To me, he was ruddy and practical
Middle aged paunch and square glasses
But the disease made us both liars
He was shrunken

I was fourteen, the years in my life
Equal to the months in his death
I was fourteen, primed for my moment
In the spotlight of adolescence
But really of little use or effect
In our current circumstance
Which was dire
My brothers were older
Practically men
I couldn’t drive to hospital visits
Or take on part time work
Fourteen was a nuisance who still needed tending
Who couldn’t be trusted
Or leaned upon

When the end could not be postponed
There arose the matter of clothes
My brothers were excused
Because they could drive
Because they could work
Practically men
So this was my job
After all, what fourteen-year-old girl
Doesn’t like to shop
For clothes?
We spoke in a secret language:
Easter is coming, said Mom
And Dad needs a new suit
She knew the code
The clerk knew
I knew

I sat on a stool in the corner
Watching the arrayal
Knowing the casket was ready
A drape of ivory satin
A touch of dogwood carving
Our clerk was equal to the task
Offered up tweeds, checks, herringbones
Double breasted and single
How do I look? asked Dad
So I pictured him dressed and
Resting against that satin pillow
Forever after
In charcoal
Or navy

When the suit had been procured
Wine-colored and plaid
It was the 1970’s
Just ask anyone
We turned our attention to dresses
From the only posh shop in our rural town
A real treat
This time there was no secret code
After all, what would be the point?
We’d grown tired of pretending
And asked for something funereal
The sales girl was honored

You might wear this outfit again
She suggested helpfully
And oh, I scoffed
What woman would wear again a dress
That had seen her husband sent to the life beyond?
We would burn them
Mom’s sedate black and white-jacketed ensemble
With mine of light blue and green
Burn and bury the memories
Salt the earth afterward
But of course we didn’t
There would be no fire
No liturgy
No rite

When those days had passed into the past
Little was left to say
We were exhausted
And needed to move ahead
As survivors must
The funeral clothes occupied awkward space
Between artifact and awful reminder
My brothers, who had simply called on existing garments
Lost their leisure suits to merciful obsolescence|
Mom’s widow costume reverently wrapped in white tissue
Put away, neither seen nor forgotten
My blue and green frock donated to charity
But there is plaid
In Heaven




At the risk of jumping the shark, I’m going to uncharted territory with today’s post. 

In this blog, I’ve written about everything from love and marriage to invasive medical procedures and bull semen.  I’ve revealed my thoughts on parenting, work, family, human nature, fashion faux pas, the tragedy of cat nip addiction, and my spectacular inability to master any form of choreographed dancing.  But one topic I’ve never discussed is my tendency toward depression.  It’s not that I’ve hidden this part of my life, and it causes me no shame.  Rather, I choose when and to whom I talk about a condition which I share with approximately 18 million American adults.

My goal here is not to provide you a comprehensive course on depressive disorders.  You can go to to WebMDWikipedia, or Google, for all the basics.  Instead, I want to write about my personal experiences, and how my life has been affected by the presence of such a stubborn condition.

Specifically, my type of depression is dysthymia—-a chronic condition characterized by consistently low moods.  I am not bi-polar.  I am not self-destructive.  I am not a substance abuser.  And I am generally thought to be a jolly, if not downright silly, person.  So how can I be depressed?  See, depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Our brains shift out of balance for lots of reasons—-falling in love, grief, extreme anger, terror, guilt, worry—all of these feelings happen because chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin have stopped working and playing well together.  When that happens, our brains are capable of resetting the balance and restoring order to our universe.  With depression, however, the brain cannot accomplish the reset by itself.  The feelings associated with depression (sadness, isolation, hopelessness, guilt, fatigue, apathy, anxiety, etc) become troublesome, and in the case of clinical or major depression, overwhelming.  Dysthymia (like other forms of depression) is more common in women and can develop into episodes of major depression, especially when paired with other health problems or stressful situations. 

I want it known that I’ve had a pretty sweet life.  All around me are folks who shoulder burdens much heavier than my own.  But I remember my first episodes of depression occurring after my dad’s death.  Cancer took him when he was 46 and I was 14, and chaos ruled our home during that time.  From the outside my family appeared to be adjusting to the loss and moving on; but trust me:  each of us carries individually relevant scars.  For me, they take the form of anxiety issues.  Experiences that cause me stress can transform my dysthymia into full-blown depression. 

It was years before I realized what was happening.  Hot flashes, obsessive thoughts, sleep problems, weight gain, guilt—both justified and undeserved—and worry, worry, worry.  The worst thing was knowing I was unable to control these feelings.  They seemed to live and breathe as they wreaked havoc in my mind and body.  Eventually I sought help, and a combination of medicine and behaviors keeps me from spinning off into outer space.  But  I live with it every single day of my life.

So how does it feel?  Most days I’m absolutely fine.  Don’t forget that in spite of my depressive tendencies I’ve worked, enjoyed a long and loving marriage, raised two fine kids, and maintained friendships.  I am, without doubt, a people person and a social creature.  But sometimes I do all those things through a slight haze.  And if I’ve recently had to deal with something stressful or I’ve had reason to be anxious, then that haze thickens into a heavy fog.  It feels like I’m trying to walk through waist-deep cement.  It’s a daily battle to accomplish simple chores like housework or cooking.  It’s realizing things that used to make me happy and satisfied no longer interest me, and I grieve their loss.  Thoughts are hard to control, and I ride a pendulum between nervous energy and deep apathy.   I might not make the best choices, I might act impulsively, or I might find it difficult to act at all.  Here are the words of an anonymous sufferer, in response to the question “What does depression feel like?”: 

Depression feels like a circle of guilt, worthlessness, inability, weakness, and fear. All wrapped up in silence and fog. You don’t function like you used to, you can’t think like you used to, you can’t participate like you used to and you let down those depending on you like they used to. You live in a circle of fear and guilt and your brain constantly reminds you that you no longer measure up and there’s no point in trying anymore.

The good news is I’ve learned to adapt and to adjust.  Yes, I take medications.  But more than that, I respect my condition and keep a watchful eye on it.  Remember when I said I’m generally known to be a jolly person?  I’ve always been a laugher, and since I know that laughter is a natural antidepressant,  I laugh every day— not just because I like the giddiness, but because it helps me maintain a positive outlook.  Reruns of FRIENDS and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics work magic, as do intriguing conversations with interesting people, innocent flirting, great music, being social, and enjoying family time.  I write.  I make jewelry.  For awhile, I baked away the blues and really gave Betty Crocker a run for her money!  Especially helpful is having a husband who understands and is fiercely supportive of my needs.  During low periods I don’t watch sad movies, read scary books, or listen to news reports about tragic events.  Instead, I fill my mind with things that are happy and positive.  I also read devotional books, talk to God, and meditate on the Psalms.  That King David could really turn a phrase.

I also leave my own head and turn my thoughts outward.  My dysthymia (with its episodes of anxiety and outright depression) has actually made me more empathetic and less judgemental.  If people are incapable of knowing the twists and pivots of my mind, if they can’t feel what I’m feeling on a given day, then how can I know and feel them?  We are really, truly, all in this life together, and just as I’ve had to reach out for a strong shoulder or an attentive listener, I am determined to be those things for others in need.

Some studies have suggested that creative types (like me) are more susceptible to depressive disorders.  Perhaps it’s because we are a bit more aware of, or in tune with, or at the mercy of, our emotions.  The term tortured artist was coined for a reason.  But I’m certainly not looking for sympathy.  After all, I’m not the only person who struggles to manage anxiety or depression.  If the statistics are correct, anywhere one hundred people are gathered, at least 10 of them are suffering.  Life has dealt those of us living with depression similar hands, and even though we have to play them wisely, we’re still in the game.  Don’t you doubt that for a minute!


 I was 13 when my dad got sick.  Barely noteworthy at first, the situation became suspicious when Dad was still visiting doctors several weeks later.  One day he’d seem fine, going off to work as a lineman for the electric company just as he’d done my whole life; the next he’d be sick at home,  something which had rarely happened before.

It was Easter time, and Mom became increasingly distracted.  No one said much, but I overheard words like pleurisy and diverticulitis.  I didn’t know what those things were.  I was aware of cancer, but no one was mentioning that.

When the doctors in our town were unable to determine just what was making him sick, they sent my dad to see a specialist in Hershey.  I was left in the care of my 15- and 17- year old brothers for a few days while Mom and Dad made the trip.  At first I was thrilled–we’d never, ever been left alone like that before– surely it meant our parents were finally ready to admit we were all grown up! 

It took only a little while for me to become annoyed with my brothers who were, after all, not the boss of me.  But my whining annoyed my brothers as well, and one day after I complained that they wouldn’t let me do something or other one of them snapped, “You brat, our dad is in the hospital dying and all you can think about is yourself!”

And that’s how I found out that my dad was going to die.

A year later, the disease had ravaged him.  As a young married man, my dad had been strong and handsome, unaware that the neighbor girls watched from their porch while he worked shirtless around our yard.  He’d coached Little League, hunted and fished, wrestled with two sons and steadied his only daughter on pony rides at the county fair.  Mostly, he’d been the love of my mother’s life. 

Now, at the age of 46, he had the look of a little old man:  sallow, wrinkled flesh; thin, graying hair; shuffling steps. . . Dad had consented to several experimental treatments and suffered terribly in his attempts to spend just a little more time on Earth with us. 

Since Mom was a registered nurse, she saw to his needs at home as best she could, monitoring the permanent shunt and IV bag which delivered a continuous chemo drip to his diseased liver.  She treated him with respect and tried to help him maintain some connection to the life he’d had before.  In the late fall, Mom bundled him up and accompanied Dad into the crisp, autumn woods for a final day of hunting.  Although she’d never hunted before, she carried his gear and her medical bag, making sure he rested frequently and changing the IV whenever it ran out, right there in the woods.  At the end of the day Dad had two pheasants to bring home, and the photo I took later showed a mere ghost of that young man the neighbor girls watched, his body barely there but his eyes shining as he held up a plump pheasant in each hand.  On his back was the corduroy pack Mom had sewn so he could carry around his needed IV bag, its tube secured to the shunt in his forearm.

The rest of us coped as best we could; my brothers accepted more and more responsibility around the house, and that year in school I entered the junior high science fair with a project called Radio Isotopes and Intra-Arterial Infusion: a Treatment for Liver and Colon Cancer.  With his blessing, I displayed copies of Dad’s actual liver scans, which had been provided to me by his surgeon at Hershey Medical Center.

When Easter arrived again, Mom told me that Dad needed a new suit.  “Nothing he has fits anymore,” she explained, “and he needs something nice to wear to church Easter morning.”  I was asked to go along to Robinson’s Men’s Shop and help pick out the new suit.

Later in the store, I watched as Dad struggled to try on suits–he was weak now, and walking with a cane.  Mom helped him dress and undress again, while a kind store clerk brought clothes to the fitting room for him to examine.  Everyone was so somber and Mom was struggling to keep herself from crying, when I realized we were not there that evening to choose a new suit for church; we were there to choose the suit Dad would wear in his casket.

 I caught my mother’s eye, and her look confirmed my hunch.  She knew, I knew, Dad knew, even the store clerk knew what business we were doing right then, and we continued our sad task with this unspoken awareness.

Sitting on an uncomfortable stool near the dressing room, I watched as Dad came out several times and asked about each new suit, “How do I look?” 

So I’d picture Dad in his casket, wearing that suit, and form an opinion. 

“Not that one, Dad,” I’d say, convinced I was doing the most important thing I could for him at that moment.  He had lost his health, his youth, his dignity; the least I could do was help him find a handsome jacket and pants.

It was a wine-colored suit with a plaid pattern that we picked that evening, and he did wear it to church on Easter morning–the last Sunday he felt well enough to attend services.  Two months later he passed away.

As I looked at him there in the casket, dressed for ever after in the suit we’d selected, I told myself we’d done a good job.  I will never forget that suit, or how my Dad looked in it.  It was the most important outfit I’ve ever picked out.

These are my parents Joan and Herk, about 1950. They were beautiful young people yet to be married and have children.

Here's Dad with the two pheasants he bagged on his last hunting trip. The iv bag hanging to the side was attached to a permanent port in his arm, and delivered a constant chemo drip to his diseased liver. He wa 46, and died about six months later.