Funny how Grief will turn our heads and hearts toward the past before we step into the unknown. Five years ago: my mother still living, and I, struggling with her fading. Five years ago: still married, the hard decision to divorce loitering in the shadows waiting for courage to arrive. Five years ago: mired in stress, I drew solace in my work as a hospice chaplain. Five years ago: the trees gathered my heart in, knowing I was a sojourner in spirit if not yet in body. Knew I would be returning over and over to them for guidance and healing.
“I am a becoming.” In philosophy “becoming” means the process of coming to be something or of passing into a state. That one sentence was all that sputtered from my pen the other night as I meditated in preparation for my eight-week sojourn home. I am a becoming. It didn’t make sense. But then much of what has been unfolding in my life the last six months has less to do with making sense and more about letting go. Less about analyzing loss and more about holding Grief’s hand and saying “yes” to the journey.
The last few weeks I’ve been scattered. My focus, my usual gift of staying on task, gone. Blogging at least once a month. Gone. Sitting and reading a book for more than five minutes. Gone. Thankfully being able to sink into music-still here. To find solace in walking and swimming-still here. See, this Friday is the first anniversary of my mother’s death—her “deathiversary.” I know it’s coming. I’ve even planned a ritual for the day. But still the scattering of my thoughts like forest fire ash on wind-soaked days has caught me off guard. I’ve given up on most of my “to do” list, choosing instead to tumble into this day, this week, this moment.
The fulcrum of the winter solstice has passed and the subtle lengthening of days has begun. It is as gentle as a lover’s gaze, this passing between dark and light. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, we had clear skies and the crowning, full moon was visible as the rains and winds that pounded our streets and drummed our hearts the day before had scampered out of town.
In two weeks Day will shake off sleep and stretch arms open earlier each morning. Night will shake off my shoulders minute by minute as I wake to walk with the rising sun. Winter solstice is close. The tipping point between longest night and shortest day.
My pace was smooth and measured. I matched my breath to my footfalls. Breath—we all breathe the same air. How does air quality not concern us all? In. Out. Toward center—my interior. Questions arise. What is my responsibility? Long stretch of path on the outer edge—my exterior. How do I join with others? And so it went as I considered the resource of air. And then my feet pressed to the ground. Earth. Our forests. And images of my beloved ocean. Water. Air, earth, water. Three of the vital elements for our lives, all our lives, in order to be sustained.
Autumn is present again in the Pacific NW where I reside. It was generous in allowing summer to take an encore bow and the first week was warm after an initial spat of rain. But cool nights, the need to grab a jacket when heading out, and sound of tires rolling against wet pavement is our autumn norm and droplets of rain wind down the window panes as I write this. I find comfort in the repetition of the four distinct seasons where I live, though no two are identical from year to year. Cyclical yet linear. Moving in a wide sweep. Inhales and exhales. Inching forward through this “thing” we have named time. It is this and more.
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.