04/07/2012 09:40 am ET Updated Jun 07, 2012

Draping Grief

My mother insisted I have drapes made. They got hung while I was at work and I rushed home as soon as I could leave the office to see how they looked because I'm 50 years old and have never before had real drapes. I was either too broke or still in my wanna-be bohemian stage to consider properly covering the windows. But my mother kept pushing, said she had the perfect decorator and then offered up the cash. So I went for it.

The first thing I noticed, though, was not the drapes' appearance but their sound. When I opened the front door, I heard quiet. When I closed the front door, I heard a "swish" that sounded very expensive, like I was inside a Mercedes. I wasn't sure I liked that and I wasn't sure why. When I walked into the middle of the living room, I figured it out. My home had been silenced. Sound-proofed. Absorbed.

I lifted one panel and couldn't believe how heavy it was. Nubby off-white linen, lined on the back with white cotton, trimmed with Moroccan-like red, green and blue beads, hanging from my 12-foot ceilings to the floor weighs about 20 pounds. Why did I do this again?

"Drapes will warm up your place," said my mom, who approaches everything as though she still lives in Kokomo, Indiana.

"Mother, we're in the South. It's warm and sunny here."

"Well, I always freeze to death when I visit you," she said.

I live in a 1920s condo building in an historic in-town neighborhood in Atlanta. One of the main reasons I bought the unit was the windows. They run floor to ceiling and are surrounded by 6-inch white molding. The top half of each window has 12 panels; the bottom is one smooth pane of glass. They offer a spectacular view: huge old money homes and stately trees in the foreground with Midtown Atlanta's modern skyline soaring behind them. Who wants to cover that up?

"You'll be safer. No one can see in," my mother says.

By the way, I've never been afraid here. Well, maybe that first week when I dreamed a man was standing over me with a cold sharp knife and I pressed the panic button on my key fob to scare him away, sending off a screeching sound loud enough to wake up my mother in the suburbs. He ran for one of my unfettered windows and raised it to jump out, only to find a crowd of women in business suits below waiting to capture him. I woke up then and felt very safe.

Today I'm feeling cocooned by all the warmth and security and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. When I pull the plastic "wands" to close these 80 yards of fabric, I'm ending the day, shutting out the noise, finding calm before I sleep.

But the dining room valences may have to go. They just hang there, limp, with improperly hemmed bottom folds that pucker rather than flair. I invited over my friends Geo and Janet for a glass of champagne to toast my new vault-like pad. Geo, who has an opinion about everything, particularly what I buy at Nordstrom, says the valences bring the mood of the room way down. Janet moved her head as though considering what Geo said and stayed quiet. The next day my friend Monica, a seamstress herself, walked in and bee-lined for the darned things. "They need a seam," she said. "If they had a seam the bottom would make a statement. Or put little wooden rods through the bottom folds so they stand out." Bingo. I love Monica. "I knew I should have had her make the drapes," I was thinking. But then later that afternoon, my former stepdaughter Lauren, who is 16, came over and waltzed all dreamy-like toward the valences, not noticing that the furniture had a new feng shui arrangement or that she was walking on a new rug. "I love those!" she said, pointing up to the droopy things. "You do?" I asked. "I think the fabric is really pretty," she said.

The condo facelift, started in the depths of winter and finishing up just as the cherry blossoms, dogwoods and azaleas burst open in all their pinks, was a distraction for my mom and a new beginning for me. We'd had a very rough year. My mom, a dynamo of energy and youthfulness, was seized by a painful muscular inflammation phenomena called polymyalgia rheumatica, for which the dangerous steroid prednisone is the only known relief. My dear and brilliant father died in the fall after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease. And my love of nearly four years ended our relationship right after my father's memorial service. Yep, his timing sucked and I'm still struggling with that forgiveness thing.

"I need a project," my mom had said after the holidays were behind us and nothing was ahead but January. "Your father was my project for the last 59 years."

"I know you do, mother," I replied. "But does it have to be me? Can't you volunteer or something?"
"Well, you do need drapes," she said. "They'll make you feel better."

And likely block out any chance at life, I thought.

It was Dad who brought me and my love, we'll call Curt, together. We used to joke that we met in the Psych Ward of the old folks hospital, but it was true. Dad was there getting his Alzheimer's meds re-evaluated and Curt's mom was in for depression. Every night after work, I'd stop by to check on Dad and wheel him outside to the courtyard where it was easier to pretend he wasn't in the crazy people's hospital. Curt and his mom hung out in the courtyard, too. I was instantly intrigued by how tall, handsome and distinguished-looking he was, but also how he would jump up to open doors for the other confused souls in the Ward and speak to them with respect even though they were wandering around in nightgowns with their backsides showing. Apparently his mother saw something in me, and she told him every night he should ask me out. On my last visit, he did.

"I picked you out for him," his mother told me later with a big grin.

Maybe Curt felt my dad's passing was the permission he needed to end us once and for all, a complete conclusion to that traumatic period in my life. Together we were either wildly happy or terribly tumultuous, adding to the chaos my father's illness was creating in my life. I was caught up in a swirl of stuff - crazy stupid love but also anger, sadness and a big dollop of denial.

The weekend of Dad's dying, and it was a long 36-hour letting go, Curt was there. He slept in a chair just like the rest of us, waiting, aching, crying. And after it was over, Curt drove me, my mom and sister to the funeral home and helped us interpret what the funeral director was telling us because suddenly we couldn't comprehend the spoken or written word.

Dad fought death, terrified of it. He never made his peace with the higher power. A devout kid who became a religion major in college, he got sideways with God during World War II and was convinced God and the Devil might actually be one in the same. So he went on to become an historian and university chancellor, ministering the power of education with great kindness and compassion to a flock of students and faculty. He didn't return to the church but took me to the one behind our house a handful of times during my youth so I could see what it was like. "Your father would fall asleep during my sermons," the retired pastor of that church told me the other day, "but I knew him well and I can say he lived closer to God than most people in my congregation."

I mourned with my windows wide open. I let in everything that comes with grief. I poured through dozens of family photos albums and saw the Dad I'd lost sight of during his illness -- a dashing soldier, my mother's loverboy, a young professor, a cigarette-smoking, middle-aged college administrator in God-awful green checked polyester pants, a distinguished scholar in cap and gown, a parent with his daughters in front of the Christmas tree and beside some palms during Florida vacations. All the while, I played the CDs from his collection - Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Chopin, some gospels. I read his last lecture over and over because it explained what he'd learned in life. I watched a video interview I'd done with him more than 20 years ago. And I padded around in his red and black checked flannel bathrobe, the one he had at the nursing home with his name still taped inside the collar.

I soaked up my dad and let who he was permeate who I hope to be. I long to be as good and kind. As smart and successful. And yes, I'll admit, as important and well regarded. But mostly to make a contribution to the world with my gifts. One day, sitting in my favorite chair by one of my unadorned windows, it struck me like a slap in the face that my dad was one of those super humans and I wasn't. He grew up during the Depression and some years didn't have a coat to wear during bitter-cold Indiana winters. His mother died when he was just nine from an addiction to morphine. His dad was a mostly out-of-work carpenter. That my dad rose from this and went to college is a close to a miracle. But what is Divine Grace is that he went on to graduate school in Boston and got a PhD, married my mother, taught at an all-Black college in Mississippi, had my sister, moved back to Indiana to run the Kokomo "extension" of Indiana University, had me, and then turned the extension from a few classrooms in an old mansion to a four-year degree granting institution with a sprawling campus. Thousands of people, thanks to my dad, got to go to college and make better lives for themselves. And while he was doing all of that, he was championing civil rights and other social justice issues in our small factory town. He was labeled a communist and worse during some of those battles, but he always did what he knew was right, and eventually that got him fired as chancellor.

At his memorial service, held in that same mansion (now restored) where he began his 30-plus year career at IU-Kokomo, the current chancellor acknowledged how my father started it all, had laid the foundation and built the framework to make the Kokomo campus what it is today. Well over a hundred people turned out to honor him: former students, faculty and staff he'd hired, friends and fellow soldiers from the social justice wars, some now in wheelchairs.

His convictions lost him his beloved job, but he stayed on as a professor of history. I'm convinced that his tremendous grief and shame over this led ultimately to his brain deterioration. "IU-K and I are all mixed up together," he had said at his retirement dinner in the late 1980s. "And you may interpret that however you wish."

My mom, sister and I made sure to honor this "mixed up togetherness." After the service, we took some of his ashes to the campus and spread them around the modern sculpture of the "Phoenix Rising from the Ashes" that he had commissioned and placed there back in the 1960s.

My dad continues to rise in my heart. He and my mom gave me the perfect start in life - love, a sense of security, good health, a happy home, good friends and neighbors, opportunities to experience theater, art, music, intellectual debate, and a college (IU!) education. Now more than ever, I want to honor my dad's contributions and extend them through me. There's a lot of pressure in this, and it can be too much to bear sometimes -- for me and those I love.

I've come to see that this innate seriousness created an ever-widening gap between me and Curt. When it was time for Dad's memorial service in Indiana, Curt said he couldn't go because he was too busy at work, even though the service was on a weekend. I tried to believe that was okay and drove up without him. Each time I called to tell him how it was going, what it was like seeing all those friends and relatives from my past, driving by my childhood home we'd had to sell a few years ago, saying goodbye to my hometown once and for all, Curt was distant, said little. On the long drive back to Atlanta, while I was crying and navigating a rainstorm, he called to tell me he wouldn't be joining my family the next day for Thanksgiving after all.

My dad was gone and so was Curt. Somehow I limped through Thanksgiving. Christmas is a blur. I wasn't sure how I'd survive winter because it's always been a low point for me. I sought refuge in work but I also reached out for comfort from true friends, and they delivered it right up. Nearly every weekend we gathered around the outdoor fire pit, where I gradually released the pain and watched it burn. The fire warmed up me and my friends to speak the words each of us had kept inside for days, maybe years. Steamed emotions seeped out, and some boiled up and spewed over the edge, but none of us ever tried to run from the heat or burn each other with it.

And while the grief was vaporizing in that safe place, I was transforming. I vowed I would not go backwards, not in my work and not to Curt, and this opened me up to seeing things very differently. I began looking out for myself and what I wanted to do with the next 15 years of my life. I began making peace with things my family members were doing that I did not like and could not control. I started loving people for who they are and most days stopped wishing they'd be different. I paid attention to what the world was telling me and I tried hard to accept these messages rather than re-write them. This gave me a tremendous amount of energy (and relief), and I gathered up a lot of power to work around, not push through, the inevitable brick walls.

As it turns out, my mother was right (as usual). The drapes were the catalyst for a complete metamorphosis. Rather than close me in, they allowed me to be open to what was good for me and to shut out what was damaging. They helped me make my home - and myself -- a place of peace and comfort. This Easter weekend, I'm grateful to be able to see the divine love that is outside my windows and within me, rising, transforming, being reborn.