Marking milestones were important when my children were growing up…With death and the journey with grief that follows, milestones are less defined and certainly not celebrated, with the exception of various cultures/beliefs that have maintained traditions around remembering the dead and supporting the bereaved.
Five months ago. That was my last blog post. Two days before my mother died. I haven’t had the emotional energy to share and process online what has been fermenting in my mind, my heart. Yes, brief Instagram™ posts have popped out, but they are snippets of my internal landscape. Today is my first attempt to take my small, personal experience and offer what has been unfolding—to let you know that your personal experiences matter. That your grief matters.
I didn’t expect her journey to last this long. But it has. Three weeks have passed since the heart “event” that tipped the scales in favor of dying “sooner” versus living “longer.” Three weeks of decline with brief rallies. From spending her days in her chair, engaging with company between long naps and eating small meals, to being bed bound. She spends the hours in deep sleep, sometimes restless, no longer outwardly responding to my voice. I accept after each visit it may be the last time I experience her warm skin against mine. But no phone call awakens me in the wee hours...
She is tiptoeing toward Death as she would a vaguely familiar lover. And Death gently reaches out to her, rubbing her feet, her hands, leaving them cold. Death strokes her cheek with a soft, open palm. At first she leans in, like a cat accepting the caress. Then she pulls away, not ready to fall into these arms. Her eyes open and look into mine and she says, “My darling girl.”
The day comes when you are the daughter, not the chaplain. You are grateful for your experiences and for the lessons other daughters and sons have taught you when you walked beside them. Relieved that you invited families to trust the journey of their loved ones and to practice self-care, so that you too can hear the echo of your own words as you sit and watch your mother meander from this world toward the next.
I’ll be honest, Thanksgiving was not easy this year. Oh, it ended on an upbeat note as I enjoyed dinner with my daughter and her boyfriend at his extended family’s home, but it began with the ever present reminder that my ninety-year old mother is declining and any expectations need to be set aside in order to meet her where she is in any given moment. I am on my own grief journey with her through Alzheimer’s and what a holiday looked like last year, or the year before, or a decade ago, can not be reproduced in 2017 like a Facebook memory.
I am in relationship with Grief. There are days we get along well. Grief offers me reminders of the past. I am appreciative. Grateful. I realize how far I have come on my journey. We even share a laugh and I go about my day. And Grief? Well, I’m not sure what Grief does the rest of the day. Probably settles into my belly for a nice nap.
Life tumbles around me. I listen. I grieve. I rant. I laugh. I mourn. I plan. I let go. I hate. I love. I move forward. I take a step back. I ignore. I stumble. I am strong. I weep. I wither. I tell my story. I withdraw.
Surrender. Trust. Two words loaded with meaning that based on personal experience can trigger the gamut from deep resistance to relief. In the ebb and flow of my own life I have been able to surrender and trust less often with grace than with a dirty stare and a “I don’t think so…I’ve got this covered” stance.
I tend to be an "English Garden" style of writer. Wanting to ponder each word’s placement, making sure the color, texture and sound are pleasing and balanced. Perhaps it is my English heritage, my desire to have order in my life, my perfectionism or the many other reasons I can devise that keep me pouring over a poem, a blog post, an email even, well beyond when it is time to say “done!” However, on my Sunday morning walk yesterday, once again my teacher, Nature, suggested I try to loosen up. So I am going to be vulnerable and brave and write this blog post in one go with one edit before I post.
On Mother’s Day I had brunch with my mom at her assisted living. She turned ninety the week before and her family and friends gathered to celebrate. Fifty-seven years old and I still have a mother. For this I am thankful. I have been blessed with two children, now adults, so am also called “mom.” As a recent newcomer to Facebook, I took the time to scroll through the posts of friends, to “heart” and post comments for their remembrances and gratitude of mothers, grandmothers, children. It seemed important to acknowledge both the joys and the losses.
To say “yes” and not “no” (my usual first response) when offered time away at the beach by a dear friend. Solitude. Dropping down through the curtains of rain, down through the coast range to that sweet point when suddenly (and yes it always seems to take me by surprise) the ocean comes into view. Shoulders drop and my lips taste the salt even with the car windows closed. The sky feels more blue than gray and I turn the wipers off. Instead of driving straight through to Manzanita, I pull over and take photos knowing I can’t capture the magic, but at least I might be able to pixelate the moment into a memory potion one day.
My time has wavered between chronos (sequential) and kairos (indeterminate) time the past five or so weeks. I am in the midst of a leave of absence from my work as a hospice chaplain. There was the “preparing to leave time,” which was focused on easing the transition for my co-workers and patients during my absence. A drop into a vacation to New Mexico for ten glorious days which at times felt other-worldly.
A few weeks have passed since my last post. Preparing for a workshop, a presentation, precepting a new employee…time slips by. Work is busy. I grow tired. Sleep in late and skip my morning walks. I think ahead to my upcoming vacation. Get lost in daydreams. Scurry down Facebook rabbit holes (usually related to poetry at least!) I become annoyed with traffic. Wish the rain would stop for more than a day. Hear a story about refuges and feel guilt for my petty whining. I forget to be present to my day, my moments.
It was relentless. The images. The words. The jabbing at how my beliefs have been shaped by my limited white perspective. I saw the movie I Am Not Your Negro Saturday night with my daughter. The movie is a compilation of an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, who died in 1987, plus excerpts of interviews and lectures he gave against a backdrop of decades old and recent news events. It is raw and his words were prophetic.
Sometimes I wake with the oddest thoughts and this was what popped into my head Sunday morning: happiness is hard work. I assumed these thoughts were stirring from somewhere deeper and wondered where this might lead as I reflected. The day before I had read this quote from Abraham Lincoln “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Then I read in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening a reflection about misery and the two seemed to intertwine. Both focus on attitude and where we focus our energy.
As I hear my story, I see it is only one perspective, one small journey. Yes, it is important. Important for my own healing and growth. But I also need to step away from my story so I don’t become self-focused forgetting there is a larger narrative. If I lose sight of the larger narrative, then I am not willing to reflect on my own prejudices, see that alongside my own indignities there is also privilege.
The world outside my window is locked in ice. Inside my head is mired in the dregs of a head cold. For once the frozen landscape is convenient. It offers the excuse I need to take care and rest—a long afternoon nap yesterday, sleeping in this morning. It is barely afternoon and I am ready to doze again. Despite my best efforts to be more of a human “being,” I still slip into the rut of human “doing” as easily as worn soles slip on glazed sidewalks.
Most of my friends and co-workers have bid “good riddance" to 2016, even amidst births, memorable vacations, graduations, and other life milestones. Maybe that extra leap day tipped the scales. Maybe it was the election and other turmoil around the globe. I know I felt heaviness both personally and in a community context. My divorce was finalized in February after 33 years of marriage, my mother’s unfolding Alzheimer’s disease increased use of blackout curtains to conceal her memories, and on the 29th of December my pug companion of 15 1/2 years took his last breath.
December 17th, my father’s birthday. My dad would have turned 93 this year if he had lived so long. He lived to 63, barely. Funny how grief can linger submerged for a decade or two or even close to three and then bob to the surface for no apparent reason. Or maybe there is a reason—a mother with Alzheimer’s who, as she drifts farther out in a sea of old memories, brings my father up a lot, stirring my own recollections. She still gets peeved with him for “leaving” so long ago, knowing it wasn’t a choice.
“My life is bland.” Those were the words offered by the elderly woman whose life had gone from being an independent, city-dweller, theater-goer, to needing care for all her basic needs and more. The words echoed in my mind throughout the day. Who wants to live a bland life?
Ever have a bee buzzing around your ear. You move away concerned it might sting you, only to have it follow. Back and forth, back and forth you tussle until you resign to let it go. Soon, the buzz becomes part of the melody of the day and the fear subsides as you realize the fear of getting stung was greater than the actual risk. Following the path of the bee, listening to the melody was a gift waiting to be accepted. That gift was freedom from the fear.
It might reach 65º in Portland today. Seriously. This is November. Skies are blue, air is warm. If it wasn’t for the bare trees and rotting tomatoes left on the vine, I might be fooled into thinking I had fallen asleep for six months and woken to spring. That and a self-imposed deadline circled on the calendar at the end of the month.
I shouldn’t be amazed. I’ve participate in and lead enough groups to know that if the table is prepared, the ambience welcoming and I step aside and make room for the Holy, people show up for themselves and each other. Yet once again as I reflect after the Grief and Loss workshop I led, I am in awe of the courage shown by six women to step into the unexplored spaces of their hearts and share with honesty what flows out through their pens.
The shifting of seasons, especially the autumnal equinox seems to stir something in me. Like the winds readying to undress the trees, I felt my summer begin to fall away a few weeks ago. The list of projects, activities, planned hikes and trips to the coast—many were left undone. All seemed attainable as summer approached, then life remained busy, weekends passed and now—October is here.
The season is post Labor Day and though it is a Friday afternoon, the crowds one saw in August have dissipated, as if blown inland. The gulls, maybe in anticipation that their easy prey of organic fish crackers and gourmet sand-crusted hotdogs have left with the crowds, are gathering at the water’s edge.
I find a deep spiritual connection when I am at the beach. I walk along the coastline as the tide flows in and out. The waves seem to chase each other back and forth—some racing toward me, while others recede into the background. Since I’m not a tidal expert, without looking at the longer shoreline, I can’t tell right away if it is high or low tide, if the beach is being revealed or masked. When I am in the midst of those waves grabbing at my ankles all I can see is the present moment. Feel the water swirling around me-the warmth of water kissed by summer sun or the cold Pacific undercurrent.
Funny how old memories will resurface at unexpected times. Maybe it is the sweetness of the blackberries this summer that stirred my recollection of these unfolding memories two years ago. Spring of 2014 blossomed into a summer of unanticipated challenges.
As I age I come back to concepts of beauty and aging again and again. Images in magazines and on TV focus on a few external cultural ideals—usually with youth or maintaining the illusion of youth in mind. I will readily admit to comparing myself to these photoshopped standards from time to time to my own detriment. And I’m not talking about the young 20 and 30-somethings (I’m realistic enough to know that would be ridicules) but to the women in my own age category. As is often the case though, nature and my work offer me corrective examples of “beauty.”