Barbarella
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I dug right down to the bottom of my soul... And cried. ’Cause I felt...nothing.

— A Chorus Line

“Your phone is ringing,” David said. “It’s your mom. Here.” Disoriented, I took hold of the small glowing slab and mumbled, “I didn’t hear anything.” My iPhone buzzed in my hand. Right, I remembered, I’d silenced it last night before setting it on the nightstand beside David’s pillow. The buzzing stopped. I inched closer to the clock near my head and tried to focus on the blurry green numbers: 6:13. It was Friday morning, an hour before my mother usually bored-dialed me from her car on her way to work. As far as I was concerned it was still night — we’d gotten in late, and David had drawn the shades of our hotel room so we could sleep in. My phone buzzed, blinding me as the word “Mom” again appeared on the screen.

“Mom?” I croaked.

“Barb?” She sounded frantic, but I wasn’t alarmed — I’d heard that tone in her voice plenty of times. I asked her what was wrong. “It’s Pop Pop,” Mom said, her voice breaking. Words cascaded from her mouth, something about her father having died, that there was supposed to be a “do not resuscitate” (as decided by Mom and her sisters a few years ago, the last time Pop Pop was at death’s door) but that, when the hospital called Mom’s sister for a decision, she was distraught and overwhelmed and gave them the go-ahead to revive him, which they did, prior to placing him on a ventilator, which was the only thing keeping him alive now. “And I don’t know what to do,” she finished.

I let out my breath, long and slow. “If I was down there, I’d come over and give you a hug.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in L.A.,” I said. “The cooking class I signed us up for? Remember I told you for David’s birthday I was going to try to show an interest in his favorite hobby?” I sighed once more and sat up. “Look, it doesn’t matter. What do you mean, you don’t know what to do?”

Mom couldn’t decide when to go back to New Jersey, or if she even wanted to. She vacillated between emotions — anger for the resuscitation, fear of judgment if she chose not to go, lament for any pain her father might be in, and grief over his impending loss. As I listened, I felt sympathy for Mom, for her grief and the agony of her decisions. When my mother reached a stopping point, I offered her one of the truths I hold close to my heart: “There is no ‘right thing to do.’ There’s only what’s right for you. What do you want to do?”

After hours of telephonic conferences with her sisters and daughters, Mom decided she would go — but not until Tuesday. That way, she wouldn’t miss her grandson’s seventh birthday party on Saturday, and she’d have a few days to prepare herself.

I hardly knew my grandfather. It was only two years ago that I wrote about having forgotten he was still alive. The rest of the extended family on my mother’s side — save for my Aunt Jane, who continued to reach out to me over the years — are names and faces, many of which I would have difficulty matching up. Relationships simply do not exist. This is not good or bad so much as just the way things are. How could I mourn the loss of something I didn’t have? I felt for my mother. But that’s where my feelings ended.

On Facebook, I noted how curious I found the concept of scheduling someone’s death — the polar opposite of the Caesarean section, to appoint an hour at which life support will be withdrawn. Friends posted comments, offering their condolences. I found this interesting, considering I hadn’t indicated how I felt about it. All I’d said was that he was scheduled to die and that the concept of scheduling a life-ending appointment was strange. People assumed I was upset.

There’s a protocol to life and death. When babies are born, you’re supposed to congratulate the parents. You rush to the hospital to tell them their offspring is gorgeous, and if you’re related or a close friend, you come bearing gifts. When someone dies, you’re supposed to express sympathy to the survivors. If you can, you attend the funeral. If not, you send flowers or food along with a note that informs the grieving how sorry you are for their loss. And if you were related to the deceased, you’re supposed to be among the grieving. I’ve never been one to abide by convention for convention’s sake. I either feel it or I don’t. I either want to or I won’t. In this regard, I am sure I have repeatedly disappointed my family.

They pulled the plug on Friday, exactly one week after my early-morning phone call from Mom. It took half an hour for Pop Pop’s heart to stop. At the wake in New Jersey, my mother was surrounded by her sisters, in-laws, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Her four daughters remained in San Diego.

The day after Pop Pop died, my sister Jane said she was thinking of sending a fruit bouquet. She asked if I was interested in doing the same. I thought about it for a moment. “I think it’s a nice gesture,” I said. “It’s thoughtful of you to make it. But it doesn’t feel right for me, so, no, I’m not interested.”

As the eldest, Jane had a stronger connection to both our grandfather and the grievers. For me, reaching out now felt disingenuous. I really tried to feel something, some buried tenderness from fond memories; but no matter how deeply I searched my soul, I couldn’t bring myself to care. I did not want to be involved.

Jane called me the following day to say that Jenny, our youngest sister, went ahead and ordered the fruit. “She signed your name to the card,” Jane said.

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Comments

snackycakes420 Feb. 4, 2009 @ 4:12 p.m.

I always liked the saying, "There is no right or wrong, there are just the consequences of your actions."

I also get annoyed at sometimes having to fake enthusiasm or concern just because it seems like the "right" thing to do.

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Barbarella Fokos Feb. 4, 2009 @ 5:16 p.m.

Fake anything is an unnatural and uncomfortable position for me to be in. I'm happy to know that you can relate, and I like that saying, thank you for sharing it.

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heatherangel Feb. 4, 2009 @ 8:30 p.m.

Barb- Just to be clear, we understand this article represents your perspective regarding Pop Pop’s death. We know you’re just doing your job, but if you really felt for your mother, as you claim, then you wouldn’t have been so unnecessarily disrespectful in exploiting her grief and confusion about losing her father. We respect Mom, Pop Pop, and our relatives on the East Coast who also mourn his loss. We get that you feel you are not supposed to care, but Mom deserves better than this.

Your sisters Heather and Jenny

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david Feb. 4, 2009 @ 10:46 p.m.

Heather,

How dare you presume to tell Barb how she should behave based on how you think she "really feels." I happen to know for a fact just how much Barb edited herself out of respect for her mother. What she didn't include in her next column about her visit to the emergency room is that it turned out to be the stress of this tragic situation that sent her there.

Barb never said that she was not supposed to care -- in fact, she admitted she felt she was "supposed" to, but that she didn't. She reported the facts. In this case the facts are that while other people such as yourself and Jenny had the audacity to suggest to Barb what she should, or should not be feeling (for your Mom or otherwise) or should or should not do, she was struggling with her own very personal and very real emotions which you obviously care nothing about. You are probably also unaware that Barb spent heart-wrenching hours on the phone with your Mom trying to help her sort out her emotions while I was researching airline fares on the internet for her.

The truth of the situation in which you were involved was that Jane asked Barb if she wanted to chip in to send a fruit basket. For personal reasons that you cannot possibly understand, Barb said no. Yet, despite Barb's very specific directive to not include her, her name was signed to the card, because you and Jenny thought that it was "the right thing to do." I offer this analogy, by way of explanation:

Suppose I thought that women should not be allowed to vote (which, of course, is not true but merely used here for the sake of analogy) and there was a petition circulating among my sexist friends to that effect. I call you up and say, "Hey Heather, would you like to sign this petition to take the right to vote away from women?" You say, "No. I don't want to be a part of that." However, I think you are wrong. I think that you should oppose allowing women to vote -- I think it's the RIGHT thing to do and that you are wrong -- so I sign your name to the petition anyway. Would you be o.k. with that?

The truth of the situation is that Barb cares very deeply about her family. She cares about you, Jenny, Jane, your Mom and your Dad -- more than you can possibly know. Not a day goes by that family is not at the forefront of her mind. She loves you all very much. However, in this particular case, she didn't have a relationship with your grandfather. You may have had a different relationship with him, one that inspired you to express your condolences, but Barb would have felt awkward and disingenuous pretending that she did, which is why she asked that her name not be signed. And I think the fact that her wishes were ignored was incredibly insensitive and disrespectful.

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heatherangel Feb. 5, 2009 @ 12:53 a.m.

Odd analogy. Signing a petition that eradicates women's right to vote vs. signing your name to a card that's meant to comfort your mother and her relatives as they grapple with the loss of Pop Pop? I wasn't aware of the depth of her objections. Being so intent to NOT participate seems to suggest more than just apathy toward your lack of a relationship with a grandparent, since most of us acknowledge that this kind of gesture is often more about the living than the dead. So no, this is not something I understand. I don't know how Barb "really feels;" that's clear. I wish I did. When Barb doesn't explain these personal reasons, then you're right that I cannot possibly understand. Barb knows how much I love her, and vice versa. She also knows how much I value my family, so I'm sure she anticipated this response. She's aware, I hope, that I am quick to come to her defense in many instances (as you are), yet in this case, I was saddened today to see even an edited version of my mother's grief-stricken and confused conversations when the wound must still be pretty raw.

Comments like these normally irritate me in so many ways, so I'll stop now and just wait until Barb and I speak with one another.

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Sarah111 Feb. 5, 2009 @ 10:27 a.m.

I don't mean to step on anyone's toes here, but it seems to me like you and your family aren't seeing eye to eye primarily on what sympathy cards/flowers/sentiments are actually for.

To you, since you didn't feel personal grief over Pop Pop's passing, you decided to opt out of the ceremony surrounding his death. But I think the point is that to your family, the ceremony surrounding his death wasn't for him, it was for them.

The grandmother of a friend of mine recently passed. I'd never met her, yet I sent flowers for the funeral. I didn't send them because I was personally affected by her death, and I didn't send the flowers to her. The flowers were sent to my friend, and his family, and the sentiment I was extending was not grief over his grandmother's passing but sadness at his grief.

So if you're saying that you were unaffected by the grief that your family was going through and didn't want to send a fruit basket to them, that's one thing. You never did mention to whom the fruit basket was even going, after all. Maybe it was only going to the side of the family with whom you have no contact. I still have my reservations--I think in times of grief, family should come together even if there hasn't been strong ties to that point because it might foster those ties going forward. But if you're saying that you didn't send something because you didn't feel for Pop-Pop himself, you erred more on the side of selfishness than self awareness.

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happymom Feb. 5, 2009 @ 10:44 a.m.

Barb, I read your column and enjoy it but in this case you are sadly mistaken. It was no sweat off your back to have your name signed to a fruit basket to at the least acknowledge your grandfather's passing. As we age and grow we should get a little wisdom and realize the whole wide world is not only all about me, me, me. Ah, I can hear you now, "but my world is"! The bottom line is this man is where your mom came from and if she wasn't here you wouldn't be and for that reason alone deserves a little respect and sympathy.

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MsGrant Feb. 5, 2009 @ 1:04 p.m.

Displays of bereavement are for the living, and are acts of kindness. To proactively decline from such is unkind and in poor taste, and sends a very negative message.

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angelp Feb. 5, 2009 @ 1:15 p.m.

I think Barbarella is right in her feelings. We should support her and her family during this time. Death affects people differently. Who are any of us to say what is wrong or what is right. I stand Behind Barbarella and her pure honesty. She is brave to lay it out on the line for all to read. Luv ya G :)

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david Feb. 5, 2009 @ 2:17 p.m.

Ms Grant, happymom and Sarah: I agree that expressions of sympathy are for the living, not the deceased.  I don't know why you would think that Barbarella doesn't care enough about her mother to comfort her in her time of grief, as seems to be implied by your comments. Barb cares very much about her mother's feelings and grief.  She counsels, comforts and consoles her mother in many ways that a communal fruit basket never could, and she was in communication with her mother during this difficult time.  

It doesn't matter whether someone thinks it would have been "no sweat off her back" or the "right" thing for Barb to do. Just because her way of offering comfort is not the way that you might choose, does not make your way the only correct approach, nor does it make Barbarella wrong for choosing a different option. Everyone has the right to reach out in whatever way they feel is most appropriate. Barb expresses her sympathy and care in other ways.

In this case, however, what was wrong was for Heather and Jenny to disregard Barbarella's expressed wishes. Barb asked that her name not be signed and Heather and Jenny did so anyway, when Barb's name was not theirs to sign.

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happymom Feb. 5, 2009 @ 2:33 p.m.

It's not a matter of right or wrong, it's about common decency. Analogy: a friend or acquaintace's mother passes away at a young age due to some awful disease like breast cancer. The deceased did not affect your day to day life though it is compassionate behavior to send condolences or express sympathy. p.s. I do not have an issue with Barb just trying to let her know, hey in the bigger scheme of life with daily financial and emotional struggles and the world full of tension signing your name to a card is the "small stuff" - don't sweat it, save your sweat for the gym!

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david Feb. 5, 2009 @ 3:08 p.m.

Not to belabor the point happymom, but the issue is not about Barbarella's sympathy for her mother. It is about someone else forging her name on a card when she specifically directed otherwise. Common decency dictates that this is something one should not do.

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David Dodd Feb. 5, 2009 @ 3:23 p.m.

I'm not sure that I would care about someone adding my name to a sympathy card, but I can certainly understand why it would bother someone else. Common decency also includes making a call and asking permission before jotting someone's name on something, even a sympathy card. The point to me isn't whether it's right or wrong to not participate in a ritual; this is a personal choice and should be respected as such. The point is, if someone expressly proclaims a desire not to do something, then the decent thing to do is to respect it.

When my grandparents passed, I did not attend the funeral nor send a card to my parents. I loved my grandparents very much, and my own parents have never said a word about my non-participation. I had my reasons, and they respected me enough to not worry about it. When my own parents pass, my children can participate or not, it's their choice.

I won't question my children about that decision, I have no problem with their actions or lack thereof.

Barbarella, you have the obligation to act upon your feelings and beliefs, and that outweighs any obligation to do anything out of someone else's sense of right and wrong. And regardless of good intentions, someone signing your name to that card was an act of selfishness. Forgive them, for apparently they know not what they have done.

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MsGrant Feb. 5, 2009 @ 5:17 p.m.

Common decency dictates you sign the card (or allow the signing of your name in your absence) acknowledging the death of your mother's father, not adherence to a stubborn insistence that you're somehow "different" and therefore above traditional societal displays of condolence.

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bardo Feb. 6, 2009 @ 8:53 a.m.

I don't think that it's "common decency" to acknowledge the passing of a distant relative by signing (of all things) a friggin' fruit basket. What does a fruit basket truly say - how can it show any empathy at all? It's a fruit basket. Make a phone call instead.

However, I think in the case, Barb went out of her way just to prove a point. Which means that she went out of her way to make the whole thing about her, which was wrong. Yes, we get the point, you are different, and "real", but look how much drama you've caused just by trying to prove a point - which is really very meaningless in the grand scheme of things. I can't speak for you, but I'm guessing right now you're not feeling too great about upsetting your family. Because I'm sure you have a big heart. And now all of this, for what? Just to prove a point? And not a very important one at that.

As for that very ill-fitting analogy - if it were about something truly important, such as a woman's right to vote, most of us would have a very different opinion. But we're talking about - and let's be clear - THE APPEARANCE OF A NAME ON A FRUIT BASKET. who cares? It was no sweat off your back. You didn't have to do or say anything.

I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings here. I enjoy Barb's writing and will continue to do so. And I don't think anybody was trying to be heartless here. The world and our actions are not black and white. But it is impossible to not have an opinion about the right and wrong way to handle something. One thing I've learned - stand up for what you believe in, but also (just as important) - learn to go with the flow, especially about small things like this. Creating unnecessary drama over small things is just as bad as not standing up for the important ones.

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Barbarella Fokos Feb. 6, 2009 @ 9:43 a.m.

Thank you everybody for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate all of your opinions.

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magicsfive Feb. 6, 2009 @ 10:11 a.m.

I think we all love barb very much and should respect her decision on how to deal with her family situations as she sees fit. After all, it is HER situation and not ours. I think everybody who commented made good points. We are all very different people. Have a great day! xoxo

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happymom Feb. 6, 2009 @ 10:20 a.m.

sending you sincere best wishes at this difficult time Barb.

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rickeysays Feb. 6, 2009 @ 6:40 p.m.

happymom, are you sending best wishes to Barb on the "difficult time" she is having with her sisters? because if you read all the above, she certainly isn't have a difficult time with pops dying.

i think someone should send a sympathy card to her sisters and put her name on it.

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NotQuiteADiva Feb. 9, 2009 @ 8:42 p.m.

Oh, dear! Strange how when it comes to dealing with death there are all kinds of weird rituals that we are expected to observe, most of them being trite and pointless, yet whoa-be-it if you happen to disregard any of them! On another note, why is it that most sisters everywhere suck? :/

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