Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas 2014 in pictures


Messy cookies 

Christmas morning chaos 

Christmas Day turkey "American-style" cooked by our neighbors 

More messy cookies 

Our tree, wondering how long to keep it up

Some of our favorite ornaments 

Old and new presents 

Christmas artwork 

Bring on 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Attending a funeral via Skype

What they need on their side:

  • a lap top, tablet, or iPad with Skype installed
  • a good internet connection at funeral home, portable internet for cemetery
  • depending on device, any additional equipment to be better seen or heard
  • power supply and perhaps extension cord
  • someone willing to carry you around, park you in a good place, and check on you from time to time
  • someone who will introduce you and will welcome the other mourners to interact with you

What you need on your side:

  • whichever device gives you the best picture while using Skype
  • a headset if needed
  • a good internet connection 
  • tissues 
  • a glass of water or tea (or something stronger)
  • an extremely good reason why you couldn't be there in person 

We started from the viewing. I felt like it was my own viewing with people peering down at me not realizing that I was live and then getting a shock when I moved and said hi. We were positioned in a U with my mother receiving first condolences with me on her right placed on a stand at the foot of my father's casket. my sister and her family stood at the head of the casket opposite me. This configuration worked very well as I could see and hear all the nice things that were said to my mother and she could direct the visitors to me and then to my sister.

Attending a funeral service or viewing via Skype, you get a very distinct one-on-one experience with each and every mourner which is intense, but then after awhile you can just observe. Not too many people will bother you after that leaving you free to mourn in your own way. You can disconnect your microphone and even your camera or move out of range if you need a moment of privacy. This way you only need your game face on for short bursts of time and then you can return to your default face. Many of you may not know that I suffer from a severe case of BRF, so my default face naturally set into frozen shock, so still that some people didn't realize I was on a live feed. That was mixed with intermittent off-camera crying jags when people just assumed I had gone to the bathroom.

When attending funeral services via Skype, you cannot avoid people you don't want to interact with if they really, really want to talk with you. It's like the worst family reunion ever and is one of the downsides. They can just scoop you up and get right in your "face". It's the virtual version of your weird cousin backing you into a corner to tell you about the lady at work he thinks is his girlfriend, but he is actually stalking . It's not as if you can escape to the bathroom. Well, actually you can escape to the bathroom, and it'll be really comforting because it'll be your own bathroom where you can wash your face and regain your composure. You can, out of camera view, send a message to your sister to come and save you. She won't actually save you, and after seeing who is monopolizing you may send back the message "sucka!",  but you can always try.

Another downside of attending funeral services via Skype is that you cannot interact with someone who doesn't want to talk with you - good for them, not so good for you. It's not as if you can chase them down. Well, you could but you don't want to abuse your holder. You can only try to will that person telepathically to join you from across the room. In my experience, it doesn't work, but you can give it a try. Perhaps your powers of telepathy are stronger than mine. You will not be able to force your sister to talk to you. You will not be able to escape your ex-fiancé you haven't seen in 18 years or his mother who keeps repeating how beautiful you are. (Actually, I am touched that they came.) Worst of all, you will not be able to hug your mother.

You are at the mercy of the holder. When you want to say your good-byes, you have to politely remind your holder where to direct you. Prepare to see a lot of ceilings, floors, and a lot of fingers, chests, and crotches depending on the height at which you are parked. I was parked for most of the viewing on a planter, so at eye level with my mother when she was standing. Later I was seated on a chair, hence the crotches.

Prepare to hear the same things over and over again. I found them comforting not annoying - So sorry for your loss. Your father was a wonderful man. It's wonderful you could make it. Isn't technology amazing? Couldn't get a flight, huh?

Be prepared for people to think you are uncaring for not attending the funeral in person. Don't explain how you spoke to your father a few hours before his death. Don't tell them that you were planning to visit at Easter. Don't mention the fact that "I love you" was the last thing you and your father said to each other. Don't tell them that your mother wants you to come later when things die down. Just tell them the truth, in my case that there were no flights to get me there on time and that my eight-year-old is ill. Apparently, no flights at Christmas and a child sick with pneumonia are sufficient excuses for the few people who did ask for an explanation. 

The whole experience could be improved and the funeral director plans to make some changes. The best option would have been if I could have watched a live stream from a camera or two and then used Skype for interacting. The funeral home was quite large, and they stream to other rooms so there's no barrier to streaming to a long-distance mourner.

Remember that at different points of the event you may be too loud or too quiet for others. The older folks may have a problems with where to look, where to talk, etc. Be aware that sounds you make may be amplified. Disconnect the microphone if you need to blow your nose, sob, or talk to someone in the room with you.

If you are interested in memorializing the event, learn how to take a screenshot prior to the event.

Use holders that you feel comfortable with and who are comfortable with the technology. I didn't have a problem with this at all as a few first cousins stepped up to help with one providing all the devices and getting everything prepared. Thank your holders now and later for their assistance. I am forever grateful.

Attending funeral services via Skype will help relieve the feelings of disappointment and guilt that you may have for not being able to be there. It allows friends and family to express their sorrow to you in person. Most importantly it gives you the opportunity to participate in the rituals of death and departure. Taking part in the viewing, religious services, grave side services and the wake if possible will help you. It will relieve some of the shock, help you come to terms with the reality and to start to think about your new reality without your loved one. You certainly want to be there to support your family members, but be a little selfish. Use the opportunity to get what you need from the experience.

My father had a huge turn out at the viewing Friday evening and the funeral Saturday morning. He was a member of several "old fart" organizations as we always called them plus he served in the military and was a devout Catholic. The priest was fantastic. He welcomed Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He said things such as - I know you are waiting and hoping to wake up from this nightmare. And - For those of you who are not Catholic, know that the church was an important part of the deceased's life and that your presence in his church for his service honors him.

One of the speakers at the viewing, however, went too far saying it is not important how we live our lives, good or bad, we shall all go to heaven if we accept Jesus into our hearts. Another group led the mourners in saying the entire rosary, something most of us could have done without after 4 hours of heavy mourning (3:00 a.m. for me). The only person who would have appreciated the rosary was my father, a fact not lost on us. 

My husband who is not American commented on the functionality and practicality of the viewing. It usually works something like this. Your loved one is on display a day or two prior to the funeral. Sometimes the casket is in a separate room and mourners can close the doors and take a moment alone. Sometimes the casket is in a large room where everyone mingles. Some families do both. It may be a peculiar thing to say but my father looked very nice. He looked like himself. He died on Sunday so my mother had him dressed in his formal church outfit. He had his rosary with him, a military flag, pictures of all of us, his favorite hat, and a letter from my niece and nephew. The family had a private viewing a few hours before the regular viewing. After that my family basically stood for 4 hours welcoming a steady stream of mourners. This gives people a chance to express their sympathy and say good-bye in a more personal environment. For the family, it amortizes the mourning process, allowing you to have more time with your loved one and the visitors than just at the funeral where there really isn't time to talk.

Lots of people declared their willingness to step up and help my mother get through this. My father who was one of eight children had an estranged brother and sister. They hadn't spoken for years, but they were there. I thought my mother-in-law would have mercy and call me, but that hasn't happened.

The day after my father died, I got a post card from him from our favorite breakfast joint with an invitation for breakfast with him. Today, we got our last mail from him - our Christmas cards. I guess I am not handling it all very well.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Santa and our little atheists


I am pretty sure I used to believe in Santa Claus. I used to believe in god too – thanks Catholic school. I believe in neither now.

I am pretty sure my belief in Santa was short-lived. I have no memory of believing, but I do remember not believing. Plus my sister is four years older than me, and she probably filled me in. We moved to a new house when I was in kindergarten, and I distinctly remember my parents talking about Santa coming down the new fireplace, etc. and I didn’t believe then. That’s young, I think. I was 5.

This year I have a student who still believes in Santa. He’s 9. I haven’t had such a young student in ages. It was such a pleasure to listen to him describe how Santa brings him and his brother presents on Santa Claus Day at the beginning of December and how the magic star brings them presents again on Christmas Eve. He had magic and wonder in his eyes. It was sweet.

I wonder how he’ll feel when he figures it out.

I don’t recall any traumatic moment of finding out that Santa did not exist. I mean, I went to Catholic school, so I knew all about the Saint Nicholas part of the story and the Jesus part of the story as well. Santa in the red suit never visited our school, and I only remember one time I sat on Santa’s lap after the local Christmas parade. In fact, a successful Christmas means you don’t see Santa. He comes to your house when you’re asleep.

Misiu played Santa this year for the village Santa Claus Day party. Last year it was one of the moms. Two years ago it was the least drunk guy from in front of the local shop. Rosie cried that year and said Santa smelled bad. I am happy to report that Misiu did a wonderful job. He talked to the kids, danced with them, sang some songs, gave them their presents, and posed for pictures. Only one child cried, but it is understandable for a one-year-old. We told our girls that Santa was Daddy, but Rosie was still a bit scared. She said with tears in her eyes, “That doesn’t look like Daddy.” She cheered up when she heard Santa talking with Daddy’s voice. Misiu said it was a million times better than the last time he played Santa 20 years ago at college when he had a massive hangover.


We didn’t introduce the concept of Santa to our kids, and for the longest time I wasn’t even aware that Poland celebrated Santa Claus Day as a separate day. When our nanny found out that the kids didn’t get anything under their pillows, she took Santa Claus Day into her own hands and surprised them each year. Then they went to pre-school and the fascination grew. I tried to limit discussions about Santa, you know, to limit how much I had to lie to them. I still feel guilty about it and a little underappreciated as well, as it wasn’t Santa who went to 3 stores to find “Beautiful Hair Barbie” or whatever her name is in English, but me, Mom –without extra assistance from any magic reindeer.

I hope that my children don’t experience any long-term damage from the web of lies surrounding the childhood magic of Christmas. I find it fascinating that my children are interested in mythology and religion as legend, don’t believe in god, but yet believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. Every year we watch a cartoon which states explicitly that there is no Santa Claus and that we each honor the spirit of Saint Nicholas every time we do something nice for someone or give someone a present. They have noticed that the presents are wrapped in “our” wrapping paper and that they get the presents they asked for after writing letters to Santa.


When my kids ask me something, I usually give it to them straight. They know how babies are made, they know where meat comes from, they know that their friend’s dog didn’t go to live on a farm, they know that Mommy isn’t too busy to play Barbie, but that mommy simply doesn’t like playing Barbie. My friend said that it was cruel of us to tell our kids that god doesn’t exist. I never told them that god doesn’t exist. I just didn’t tell that god exists. I tried to do the same with Santa but it just didn’t work out. Oh well, they’ll figure it out sooner or later.

Friday, December 26, 2014

No idea

I have no idea why we human beings took the story of Saint Nicholas and made up the idea of Santa Claus, the jolly man who delivers presents to good children all over the world. Santa Claus visited us and judging from the mess of paper and ribbons strewn about, we must have been very good this year. I am a perpetuator of the myth.

I may not understand Santa Claus, but I do know why we made up the concept of heaven - the better place we all go after we die. Heaven helps us wrap our heads around the concept of death and give it a deeper meaning. It's also a bit of wishful thinking. No, wishful thinking is too weak a term. For many people it is absolutely necessary thinking. Believing that our loved one is waiting for us in heaven or that our loved one is not alone but surrounded by family in heaven - well, that's a pretty tempting concept. Unfortunately, that's a concept I don't believe in.

We explained to the girls that Grandpa died, first in English and when they seemed to not understand, we explained again in Polish. It wasn't a language problem. It was a death problem. They asked when Grandpa died, how and where. We told them the truth - that Grandpa was at home, out working in the camper, when he had a heart attack and died. Rosie asked, "So when we go there to visit, Pap won't be there anymore?" I answered yes to which she replied that she didn't understand. And how can I explain it to her any better than that when I myself do not understand? I cannot imagine that when I go there next time, my father will not be there to greet me. 

"Where'd he go?" Rosie asked. Here is the moment I decided to tell my children the truth. I may have caved on the whole Santa thing, but this is much too important. I simply told her, "I don't know." Because I do not know and nobody knows. That is the mystery of life of death.

"Grandpa went to a better place, heaven, where he is watching us and waiting for us," may be a more satisfying answer not only for the kids, but it's just not something I can latch onto.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Nothing good can come of a 6 a.m. phone call

Years ago when my Grandmother was still alive a 6 a.m. or even a 3 a.m. phone call meant that Gram had gotten her time zones mixed up or she had called the wrong granddaughter. Since she passed away, 6 a.m. phone calls can only mean something (as Rosie says) “very not good” has happened.

When the phone rang at 6 o’clock this morning,  I just repeated to myself, “Let it be a wrong number. Let it be a wrong number.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t. How I wish it had been.

My father passed away unexpectedly.

He was prepared with all the necessary paperwork and insurance policies, but he certainly wasn’t ready. Nor am I.

I am at least able to say that I spoke to him a few hours before his sudden death. My last words to him were “I love you, Dad” and his were “I love you, too”.

Today has been a very hard day, here so far away.

I came home this afternoon only to find a post card, just delivered, from my father. It’s from a local restaurant where my father likes to eat breakfast and hold court with his local friends. He wrote in his careful script – “You are invited for breakfast. Love, Mom and Dad”.