Faith, Grief, Trauma, Uncategorized

A Chain of Seemingly Small Moments

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My toes uncurl slowly under the warmth of a spotlessly white duvet. Oxygen finds its way down into my churning stomach continuing onward into my clenched calves. My shoulders gradually melt, freeing my neck for the first time in hours.

It’s been a long day.

The day began well and according to plan: write, pack, eat, hug boys, issue last-minute reminders, pick up rental car, drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. The first five list items checked off, Ricky chauffeurs me to the rental car place. More snow on the road than expected or wanted. My maternal instincts clash with Ricky’s manhood as I ask him to slow down. Once alone in my car chill seeps into every crevice while snow streaks across the highway under an overcast, lonely, Winter sky.

Bundled up in layers, I feel warm though. Emotionally strong again. Yet still a bit shaky. Or perhaps just stronger than the days leading up to this trip. You see the moment I announce to anyone–my therapist, friends, family, radome readers, God–I feel better, then I am guaranteed almost one hundred percent of a set back. And boy, did I get one after writing about my suitcase dream.

Well it took three friends to convince me to not back out of going up to seminary for a week-long intensive class. Part of an entire group of extended people supporting me on this trip.  Including Ricky delaying his return to campus for a night, my niece flying in to stay with my younger son, a friend at the ready for an airport run, my tuition and books paid for by an assortment of sources, and my sons willing to triple up on their chore lists.  Yet my bed seemed so much safer. With its early morning green tea and dark chocolate and computer and flow of words from my head to the screen. More enjoyable and predictable than learning about post-modern Christian mission.

Reading a sermon by the wonderful Barbara Brown Taylor*, I heard change is difficult. The blind don’t always enjoy seeing. The lame sometimes resent walking. And in my case, the grieving may feel internal emotional collapse safer than living. I identified with the blind man of Mark 10:46-52, one of the many Jesus restored from seperation to life. Joyous in my healing as this man was. Yet fearful in my unknown future.

Clasping my healing more than clutching my fear, I drove Northwest through Iowa. Winter weather, evident across my adopted home state, not such a big deal. But also not fully comfortable either. Slower speed for sure because as the weather experts like to say the day was one of “normal winter driving conditions.”  Which out here means blowing snow, patches of ice, packed snow on the road, and often only one open lane. After a few hours of highway driving I was grateful to finally reach the interstate with its state troopers and salt trucks and rest areas.

winter-landscape-2571788_1920The interstate’s pavement almost immediately caused me to maintain my slower speed. It’s wet surface cautioning us travelers like an electronic billboard. Pre-treatment, salt, and sand no longer evident. Washed away by wind, tires, and vehicle spray.

The touch of the tires to pavement felt odd as my car wiggled in a wind bent on mopping the prairie clean. Forcing me to right the tires again and again and again. Before I could slow down even more the treads lost their grip. The car skidded this way and that. My hands tightened on the wheel fighting reality for control. Finally I gave into the pull of the ice. The other lane of parallel traffic not a safe option. My car headed for the shoulder. Landing me a half-mile south of exit 197 on northbound I-35. Facing the large, interstate green sign announcing the upcoming exit to Mason City, Iowa. Into a deep ditch. Next to acres of dormant farm fields. Into a foot of snow, the top layer blowing hard and steady. Below zero, wind chill factor weather surrounding me. Tires spinning with the whine of a leashed and whimpering dog. Too jammed into the snow to rock the car. Stuck now. Gasping for air. Tears freezing on my cheeks.

A black pick-up truck pulled over almost immediately just ahead of me. Sat there, idling. Hazards flashing. Finally backing up just above me on the shoulder. A man got out. Oh crap, I thought, Friend? Possibly not.

He approached the car. My window came done, the startling cold jolting me out of my shock. Tear-filled words spewed out of my mouth uncontrollably. Stuff like, I can’t die. I’m the only parent now. My husband died seventeen months ago. I have a child still at home. I’m going to be a pastor if I ever get to seminary. My words covering my other truths: I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed. I want to hide. Run home. 

Unruffled, my stranger nodded reminding me of Tony’s calm in the face of my many messes. His clear thinking when mine muddled with fear or fatigue. His voice at the other end of the wireless waves. There for me.

Terry from a small town nearby tells me he’s calling a tow and the trooper.  Taking charge because obviously I am not in a good space.  Needing help, reassurance, and hope, he steps into my glaring vacancy. I allow it.

He trudges back up the ditch to his truck. I call the car rental company. Give up because the wait is forever. Call my friend, already at seminary, who tells me to call 911. Reminding me I don’t know this guy. So I do. Talk to Nancy who thinks my car has been called in but will check and call me back. She does, reporting Frank’s Towing is on its way. By this time I’m cold, tired, hungry, and lonely. So I plod, sinking deep into the snow with every step, up the shoulder to Terry’s car and get in. “What towing company did you call?”

“Frank’s,” he replies.

“Yah, that’s what 911 said,” I say.

Then we “shoot the breeze” as people do in these parts. We look like we could be related but he doesn’t know his ancestry. He’s Baptist. An NIV Bible sits on his dashboard. Four kids. A wife who teaches special ed. Does something in finance. “I get the Gospel reason why you are sitting here,” I eventually say, “But don’t you have a job or someplace to be?” He’s off today he tells me since its MLK day.

The trooper shows up. Checks on us. Leaves. Frank’s arrives and does their stuff. Terry oversees the work telling me there’s no need for me to be out in the cold. He then follows me to Frank’s shop in Hanlontown, Iowa. Right on Iowa 9 a few minutes from the interstate. Snow blowing steady through the surrounding frozen fields and over the road like swirling stars.

The car isn’t running well. Bumped along the entire five-minute drive. Frank, who I find out isn’t Frank, thinks the snow needs to be cleaned off from underneath the chassis. I wander into the waiting area seeking warmth. The resident dog kisses me. The owner’s wife says, “You’re not pissed as hell! You’re just all smiles.”

I am smiling at this point. I am not hurt. My immediate needs are outsourced to others. Responsibility resting elsewhere while I recuperate for the rest of my journey.

The wind roars hard outside. Winter light wanes a bit. Inside the shop however life bubbles creating a coziness of sorts. Complete now with a snoozing dog. Terry and Frank’s wife share where they live in this neck of the woods by who used to live on their property. Relationships defined by people but also by land out here. Terry of course seems to know the former owners of every acre. The northern Iowa rural parlance batting about the place wraps me in memories of my own kin now mostly gone.

Three mechanics scrape off a lot of snow from underneath my car. They figure out the all-wheel drive is not engaged which explains a lot. Scares me further in an after-the-event way. “After-nerves” I used to call these feelings in my previous performing life. Then they continue to fuss with the car filling it up with windshield wiper fluid, explaining my all-wheel drive system to me, offering to back the car out, and then sending me on my way. Meanwhile the rental car company assures me over the phone they will pay for the tow. Eventually they decide to not charge me for the car.

iceland-2184824_1920The twenty-eight mile drive from Frank’s to the gas station right off the interstate at Albert Lea, Minnesota is dicey. Dusk further inhibits visibility as the wind blows harder sending more and more snow across the lanes and cars into the ditch. The truck drivers loading up on snacks at the gas station say its bad and will only get worse with night fall. Men and women, years on the road showing in their wrinkled skin and missing teeth, share their hard truth which I accept. If I were you, Ma’am, I’d find a hotel room for the night. 

The hotel down the way has a room. The manager says, “You’ve been here before. I remember you.” As if January retreats in Albert Lea, Minnesota are now part of my year. One year ago, still a complete mess from Tony’s death, I holed up here while facing similar weather. Alone and afraid.

I unload slowly. The cold, wind, and my haphazard packing make the process difficult. Eventually I settle in. Eat, finally eliminating some of my shaking. Call the boys carefully avoiding the truth of my day. Crawl into bed. Write because it’s the only thing I know how to do when things get really bad.

And today was bad. Could have been worse. If I hide in denial, my body reminds me of this truth as it contracts. Balling my insides up. Squeezing my stomach up through my esophagus landing in my throat once again.

Yet the emotions bubbling up through my heart into strings of words embrace not fear and tragedy, but goodness. For a few hours in this divisive world we now all inhabit, it did not matter who we voted for or which version of the Bible we read or even if we all believe in God or what level of education we obtained or where we are heading and why. What mattered was a bunch of people willingly helped me, a stranger in their midst. A vulnerable, sobbing, scared, middle-aged widow woman shaking with adrenalin again. Wondering why the hell she ever thought going to Minnesota in January was a good idea. Or attend seminary. Or do anything outside of her seemingly safe, small box of life. Let alone provocatively become a pastor!

I cry into my pillow for a good two hours before sleep finds me. Wordless emotions flow out finding a warm nest in my rented bedding. Sleep, when it comes, is fitful and intermittent. I wake every few hours to the rumble of diesel engines left to run in neutral through the freezing night. Their drumbeat piercing the air keeping company with my heart.

In the morning, we the stranded stand at the lobby windows wondering what to do. I wait. Watch. Wonder. Pray. But eventually, I get back in the car. Drive like a granny, slow and shaky. My chest clenching, welling up for a grand and explosive anxiety attack. I tell the universe all I really need right now are dry roads, safety, and my frozen finger tips to warm up.

My requests granted, I arrive at seminary safe and somewhat sound. Finish out my week as planned. Even have some time with my widowed, pastor Aunt whose presence alone reminds me I can complete what I begin here. On Saturday, after driving on wonderfully dry roads, Ricky picks me up at the rental car place and once home sweeps out the garage of the accumulated winter grit. Paul tells me of all the chores he did and all the project ideas he’s had in my absence. And at some point, I realize how many people in small and large actions it took for me to be gone six days. Creating a chain of seemingly small moments, one not holding me in place, tethering me to my past and to my fears. But an emotional chain forming a kind of human train. Connecting me to our home yet sending me forward and out into the world.

“Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well...”

Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSV) 

 

*Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Courage to See” in Mixed Blessings. 

Photos courtesy of Pixabay.

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Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

A Dream Full of Grace

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The other day my therapist shared something with me. In her opinion, I am most likely done with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. EMDR is a therapeutic intervention method used to realign the brain after a traumatic event. The method stops the reeking of emotional havoc occurring as the brain continually tries to make sense of what happened. Sense out of the senseless in other words. Which is what Tony’s death was. So my brain has been on overdrive for months.

My therapist’s professional observations mirrored my current experience. I feel good, even great some days. Free much of the time from the waves of emotional and physical pain, memory lapses, what-ifs of guilt, creeping agitation of anxiety attacks, and intrusive flashback scenes. Replaced most days by the everyday tasks of life accompanied by droplets of tears here and there.

At home that evening however, a funkiness settled on my heart. Maybe I was tired at the end of my seemingly endless day. Maybe I was fighting off a cold. Maybe the encroaching holidays infected my mostly healing wounds. Maybe my therapist was wrong.

Standing in the middle of our once shared bathroom, I talked to Tony about it. Talking out loud to my no-longer-living-in-any-human-way husband. Not for the first time either. In an act bereaved people do, not just me…or so I’m told in hushed whispers by those who know loss. Quietly, because it sounds kind of kooky.

But here’s another truth for me anyway. There’s always this moment when talking to Tony that I somehow begin talking to God at the same time.  Which gets really confusing to explain to others so mostly I don’t. But I was talking to Tony or God or both wondering if it might be okay for me to feel healed enough. Not fully well. Not ever the same. But perhaps slowly moving ahead with my life. Leaving this intense and all-encompassing time of trauma and grief. Entering now into a phase of healing grief, the kind with some sort of future. And what did he or God or they think about the possibility?

When I told this part of the story to my therapist the following week she asked, “well, what did Tony say?”

I think I giggled. No judgement on her part. Just curiosity and acceptance of my humanness complete with quirks.  So I told her. “Nothing…at first.”

But the next morning after talking to Tony or God or both in the bathroom, I had a dream. You know, one of those early morning dreams we all have at dawn. After we wake up, assess the time, and go back to sleep for a few coveted minutes. Between our first false start and the real beginning of our day.

In my dream we were coming back from a trip. Just us without the boys. From someplace overseas because it was time to go through customs. Only I couldn’t find my luggage. We only had Tony’s green, Samsonite bag. The one my mother gave him for Christmas or a birthday years ago but somehow I used more than he.

Tony said, in the dream, he would go find my bag. So, I got in line holding onto his bag. Well rolling it really since it’s one of those. Standing, grasping the handle of his bag. Waiting both for Tony to come back and for the line to move forward. But not too quickly, the line I mean, because Tony still needed to return.

But Tony didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

I craned my neck looking for him not wanting to leave our place in the long, snaking line. Still there was no sign of him in the busy airport. He just seemed to disappear. Evaporate. Slip away. Like the day he died.

People swirled around me in the line. Holding Tony’s bag now somehow in my arms. Clutching it with angst. With disbelief. Using the arms I was so denied of the minutes before he slipped away. My arms rendered futile in the violent rushing of water out-of-control. My arms aching for months with the pain of being refused the only action they wanted so very much to do that day. Reach out. Touch. Grasp. Bring him back to safety. Hold him. Hold on. Cling.

Now in my dream becoming really angry. Because I didn’t want this baggage. The contents felt emotional and familiar and heavy and isolating. I didn’t want to be here among strangers in this strange place wondering what to do next.

I woke up. Passing slowly from dream to day. To a new morning. To reality. Bewildered. Puzzled. Confused.

Of course, I thought about the dream all day. How could I not? Through homework and work and parenting and running our household the dream stayed by me. Poking at me for meaning. Remembering at some point I recently searched through a few boxes stored in the basement from Tony’s office. Looking for something I couldn’t find. Once again triggered by what closing his business had been like for me. A surreal experience. Full of every emotion possible. Emotions experienced daily in the course of a mere few hours as I sifted through every detail of his work trying to understand what needed to be done.

So that’s what the dream meant to me. A remembrance of being left alone. Carrying the baggage of Tony’s work when least capable of doing so. Or so I thought…

Until I began having visions of what the dream could really mean. These came to me in a billow of sensations and images. The first vision was that inside the suitcase was not pain and burdens. No! Inside the suitcase were gifts Tony left us. Not tangible gifts like a souvenir t-shirt or coffee mug or all the jewelry he showered on me over the years. But love and lots of it. And all the little and big things Tony taught me about our emotional lives and about trauma recovery. And the assurance that he believed in my resilience in the face of his tragic death. And his ongoing support for my writing and in my call to ministry and in my ability to mother our children. I tenderly held this vision to my heart, keeping it close as I went about the rest of my day.

Later, as the day quieted, another vision formed in my mind’s eye. And in my heart as well for this vision took my breath away! The end of the dream, the one I woke before seeing, was simply this: Tony walks out of the airport onto the sidewalk and into a bright and sunny day. He walks alone rolling my suitcase, taking it with him wherever he is going now without me. Without us. Without the boys.

And I realize wherever Tony is going in my dream, he’s taking my stuff with him. Not my clothes and shoes and toothbrush. Not my half-read novel or my new dress or my favorite shoes. But my stuff. You know, that mental-health-clinical-slang term meaning the products of our emotional wounds. The lacerations living in our limbic systems dictating our lives like autocrats. That stuff. Rolling away behind a man I spent two decades loving. Its earthly weight following him willingly while releasing me from my fears, shame, and insecurities. Freeing me from this unwanted cargo for the rest of my earthly life.

Leaving me behind, yes. Painfully yes. Ever-so-painfully-yes. The world twisting around me as I journey on alone. Not knowing how to transition at this point from being a traumatized, grieving widow to a healing one. Often unsure of myself. Seeking Tony’s permission only to alleviate my guilt for feeling good. Yearning for his take on things so that I don’t have to claim liability for my past, current, or future mistakes. Offloading the resilient power, he of all people, knew I would not lose.

My shoulders eased as the vision faded. A bit of the load from all these many months lifted. Space, once taken up by pain in my stomach and in my heart and in my mind, opened. I breathed fully into my reclaimed body and into my evolving thoughts. Understanding fully that there are still gifts and dreams waiting to be remembered, unpacked, and incorporated lovingly into my life now from this symbolic suitcase of Tony’s I currently clutch.

And…I have something else as well. Actually need something else before I wholly realize the contents of Tony’s suitcase. I have this one, amazing, life-restoring act of wild and disruptive grace. Scaffolding me forward with gifts and dreams in hand. Moving me on. Propelling me into a living light without my stuff. Wow!

So I guess I have my answer.

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay. 

Advent, Faith, Stories

Postcard Angel

 

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Lit Advent Candles

 

In December, a postcard arrived in the mail. It was an everyday postcard. Nothing marked it as special or holiday like. Except the message.“Happy Advent,” it read.

I smiled remembering a moment with a friend. The Sunday school classroom we shared emptied of active and noisy four-year-olds. In the new quiet I spoke of my love for the season of Advent.  The getting ready for hope found in a mere babe born to the have-nots of their time. Finding comfort in the liturgical color blue, so like the winter Midwestern sky at dawn and dusk. Enjoying the daily lighting of a growing line of flickering candles helping me mark the busy days turned to weeks leading up to Christmas. Singing hymns full of ancient tones which never fail to resonate with my own earthly and human longings.

This Advent however, I was not hopeful. Our children were unhappy at school, Tony’s work and commute were stressful, and many family members needed our help. I was worn out, feeling stuck, and just waiting for the frantic holiday season to end. Hope was not on my holiday menu.

The postcard’s arrival however gently nudged me into this quiet season so often lost in the chaos of December. It’s simple message stirred in me something I was having trouble grasping in my overwhelmed state of heart and mind. With the help of my dear friend now living far away, I remembered the calm, reflective, emotional state I longed for. Hope in the unexpected form of a postcard fed me. And I was transformed into a lowly shepherd keeping watch over my family flock with the words of the angels rising in my ears, “Do not be afraid.”

As we moved through December into January,  the winter snow continued reflecting an Advent blue at dawn and dusk in January’s sky. The light reminded me of the slow and steady movement it takes to make good and lasting change in our lives. Advent hope came with me in a way it had not in previous years. Hope did not follow the traditional liturgical calendar. But it came in a predictable sequence of waiting, wondering, and realizing nonetheless. Living in our own Advent, Tony and I reexamined our life together finally accepting the necessary uprooting needed to be closer to Tony’s work and for new schools for our children.

January gave way to February. The blue evening sky appeared out my window later and later each evening. The darkness yielded to the increasing light of an awakening world. I was calm once again. My heart embracing our own small portion of this universe. My face turning toward the future full of unknowns yet also brimming with hope. My voice humming as I packed for our journey. My song gathering strength note by note before spreading out into embodied praise: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.”

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Dawn

 

A version of this piece was originally published by The Lutheran Digest in December of 2012.  Photos are courtesy of Pixabay. 

Faith, Grief, Thanksgiving, Trauma recovery

Invitation Home

 

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You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;

The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,

And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

-Isaiah 55: 12 (NIV)


Isaiah 55 contains an invitation home.  The prophet speaks for God to a dispersed people in exile longing for their homeland, way of life, loved ones, peace, and God. God’s invitation for a redemptive journey from forced exile includes a celebration so great that all of nature waits to erupt in praise and thanksgiving.

My sons and I live in an exile of sorts. It’s called trauma. Its name is grief. Sudden loss catapulted us into a heart-ripping wilderness, a vast and unfamiliar terrain. We found ourselves transported into this emotional and physiological desert, far from our previous internal identities and the externally tangible home we once knew.

Day by day I accept God’s invitation out of this exile for myself and for my sons. We travel home together along a path toward healing, joy, and peace. Our map however, like any human trauma course, shows a lengthy journey with many forced stops along the way. Yet countless people pray for us, feed us, teach us how to survive panic attacks, and heal our minds’ need to flash back to the first moments of our banishment. These many loving acts are like shouts along the race route of our marathon. Cheers for each milestone we conquer. Songs of support when we want to give up. Sounds which lead us, through others’ innate human joy and accumulated peace, back to our own. All raised up for us by a multitude of modern prophets repeating God’s invitation whether they themselves believe in God or not.

This Thanksgiving I give quiet thanks for all our figurative mountains, hills, and trees. They have surrounded us in our unasked for expedition these last fifteen months.  We call our varied and beautiful landscape not mountain, hill, or tree but family, friend, pastor, therapist, teacher, classmate, school, doctor, stranger, faith community, colleague, and neighbor. Their collective energy to me now is as glorious a view as the sight of any majestic mountain bursting into song.

 

*Photo courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com

 

Grief

Grief Is Not a Weakness

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Isn’t it funny how certain emotions are viewed as weaknesses? Funny maybe isn’t the word. Perhaps odd fits this scene better. Or even tragic. And before you resist my thoughts here, think about it a minute.

Another person’s pain mirrors our own. Not as an exact replica, per se. But as an unspoken acknowledgement only with one person feeling profoundly more than the other. The one feeling less standing in a form of emotional recognition called compassion or in its lesser cousin called empathy. Or posing in opposition to compassion as avoidance or dissociation. If called compassion or empathy, the one feeling less takes on the responsibility of pain’s witness. Holding the world accountable for another’s suffering. But if avoiding or dissociating, the witness asks the sufferer to take on the witness’s discomfort, adding weight to an already heavy heart.

We all know pain. We all know some form of broken-heartedness. We all know the ravages of grief, distress, and suffering upon our souls, in our hearts, and running rapid throughout our minds in the silence of night. We know because we are human. And even if our pain and grief remain small in comparison to another’s, we recognize how deep this pain called grief can go. Our imaginations take us there in quiet moments when no one is looking. When the future may seem full of unexpected traps. Life presenting once more as out of our control.

And we don’t always want to go there, to these dark places within us. To past traumas, both resolved and unresolved, or the possibility of future ones. The mirror of another’s grief unmasking the vulnerability we carefully protect with layers of busyness both actual and manufactured and other forms of protectant donned as costume, masquerade, or illusion.

I remember a man in Bermuda shorts standing next to me on the beach at Peck’s Landing as we waited for the dive team to find Tony. An older man, heavy set with a voice betraying his allergies. His voice an impetus to my aversion during my months of shock of certain voices in a certain timbre. “There’s really no hope, you know,” he said.

I turned quickly away from him searching out my point person on the first responder team. Someone who’s name I no longer remember. My mounting emotions mingling with anger. “Who is that man?”

“He used to have my job. He just retired.”

“Get rid of him or I will implode.”

My vulnerability became my voice on the day I met grief. And while it has taken months for me to say vulnerability no longer poses certain risk factors to my well-being and that of my sons, I still claim it as the beginnings of a new kind of inner courage. One born out of the moment when all the unnecessary layers of life vanished. Washed away beneath a dangerously unmarked treacherous river as I shook from within. Falling into a fragility which kept me company for months.

I say, there is an incredible strength in grief and beauty worn in mourning. The kind of strength called courage. Mourning which can only be called love. To apply weakness to this time and to these feelings is to shame the throbbing tenderness of life itself.

Another first responder, someone who tried so very hard to bring life back into Tony’s beautiful body, said goodbye to me with tears in his eyes on that day which changed everything. And then he hugged me with a fierceness I will never forget. Showing me the other side of courage. Giving me his vulnerability in his eyes and in his arms. Sharing a moment of unmasked emotion as I recognized in him what would become my truth.

 

*Art courtesy of Pixabay

Grief

Point by Point Again

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Some scribbled thoughts from our first year of grief. Drafted May 10, 2017 between what would have been Tony’s fifty-fourth birthday and the nine-month anniversary of his death.

We live simply now in this time of grief. Simple food. Simple schedule. Simple wants. The heaviness slowly lifts. The agitation calms bit by bit. It is almost nine months.

In July of 2016 I wrote a blog piece on church spires. Steeples directing my way home point by point as I wound my way through small Iowa towns in waning summer light. I never posted those words. They lie in wait. Neglected. Unrevised. Upended by all that was to come in August.

Now I think people do. Point us home that is. To however we now define home. A place of refuge and therefore a source of strength. A place of solace and of love. “Where we do the hard, emotional work of relationships,” as Tony used to say although maybe in more casual language.

Yesterday Paul had another endoscopy, this time with a pill camera. I had a long hour wait, alone in the starkness of a recovery room, its sterility surrounding my vulnerability. One of the many, many, many times I miss Tony just being a few miles away at work. Available if necessary. Waiting as a form of prayer for a call of “all went well.”

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“ASK” on urban sign.

 

My anxiety swirled, lodging in my pained arms and in my inability to breath. I texted two friends. But loving words encapsulated in bubbles were not enough. I wanted a human voice. I called another friend. She talked me through my fears even as her aging father held a tantrum in the background. Her father and I bookending her giving soul in the heavy emotions of my grief and his growing dementia.

The grabbing of hands, giving and receiving hugs, making eye contact, hearing voices over the phone, sharing thoughts transformed into words, brief smiles exchanged, sometimes even a laugh or two, these are the points which lead me in healing day by day. Often moment by moment.  Holding me together when I don’t know where my life’s destination truly is.

Today I rise early mixing waffle batter for Paul’s breakfast. I would rather hide in bed with my words and green tea and dark chocolate nursing my spring cold. But I force myself to parent. Because I wasn’t very good at it in the beginning of our trauma. My mind and body raging with shock. Lost between points in an abruptly chaotic universe.

I hope the boys forgive me when they are older or perhaps now. For the food that wasn’t cooked or even in the house. For the many hours I took refuge in my bedroom. For the words I did not have to share. For not understanding what they needed in their own pain. For putting my oxygen mask on first and theirs second. For so many things I know about or don’t. The decisions and gestures I left undone.

My point people remind me to forgive myself too. For everything. For last words never said. For not understanding what was happening that day on the beach. For only being able to gasp for breath the year before Tony died, the one filled with all that surrounded Ricky’s then mysterious illness. I lift these along with all my inadequacies up and out of myself each evening before bed. Giving them over to the universe and to the mystery of God. Unable to carry any extra luggage now in this journey called life.

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Field of Barley at Sunset

*Photo and image credits: Pixabay.com

 

Grief

Small Swirl of Sadness

It’s eleven in the morning. I’m sitting opposite a Volkswagen service department man at our local dealership. I’m not supposed to be here right now. My day’s script with accompanying task list reads differently. But apparently my writers spent the night in revisions forgetting to send me this new draft at dawn. A draft placing me just about now in this chair off of Highway 1 in Iowa City, Iowa.

We’ve been living off-script since Tony died. Still I create lists, plans, and expectations for each day. Being organized makes me feel all is well. Yet organizing grief is a misnomer. More often than not this multi-layered emotional experience infused with its copious practical matters thwarts my plans. Every seemingly small event includes more paperwork, takes more time now, and lumps up my throat. I’m beginning to believe the trauma expert’s two-year healing prediction offered to me early on in grief when I batted it away, unable to accept the road ahead.

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Iowa Downtown

 

Today’s change, the part of the script in which I was to be zipping down Interstate 80 toward lunch with a dear friend, was replaced with a scene involving the mystery surrounding my defunct email address. I had some head’s up on this one. Knew already the computer people, far more skilled than I, were working on it. So the phone call asking me to come downtown to their shop wasn’t too out of line with my day. A small change to be accommodated. What surprised me on my drive downtown, sent my heart racing really,  was the check engine light glaring at me from my dashboard.

The computer people found all sorts of information about my email domain. Information formed early in the history of The Men’s Center. Information I did not know or really even cared about until now. Standing in the waiting area of their shop I learned how to reinstate my email with the help of a number of people working in far away countries across wireless air waves. The check engine light however forced me to reschedule lunch.

A ten minute drive later I find myself at the service check-in desk staring at the man behind the computer. It’s been all business up to this point. Masking perhaps what he thinks of me. I’ve been clear, maybe a bit demanding, in what I need which is a loaner vehicle. Tony’s classic Mercedes not currently well either. It’s engine light coming on too and the air conditioning ka-poot. Not having an appointment for this interchange may be part of the problem as well. Coupled with what could be construed as my sense of entitlement. Masked desperation (mine) the truth.

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Check Engine Light

 

The car is under Tony’s name in the service man’s computer. Of course it is. I never did anything with the cars but drive them and take care of some routine stuff like getting gas. I tell this stranger to remove Tony’s name and why. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he says.

Good. He got that one right, I think. The many faceless computer people I spoke to on the phone today forgot this small moment of acknowledgement, a courtesy. Then looking deep into his screen he says, “I sold you that car,”

“The one I’m driving? In Cedar Rapids?”

“Tony was a counselor,” he states looking up at me.

“Yes. It was unexpected.”

Days later I remember. I wondered aloud, maybe even complained about having to look at a car on the north side of Cedar Rapids, ninety miles from where we were living at the time. But Tony felt he was getting a better deal out of the area and really liked the salesman. I acquiesced. We desperately needed a new car. Bugs having taken up residence in the back seat of our station wagon. Feeding off the crumbs deeply embedded in the universe existing underneath where the cushions meet forming a crevice. Multitudes of food particles leftover from the early childhood years of our children.

Now our former salesman turned service department guy clicks away at his keyboard. His eyes reading the screen. Yet a shift in his face muscles and posture, almost imperceptible, shares something with me as the room’s air parts for just a second. I take an instinctive, singular, sharp breath in. Through my mouth. Sucked in with a bit of noise from the wind of it. Realization flooding me just prior to my intake of oxygen or perhaps a recognition of something deeper than words.

He assures me my car is safe to drive until the scheduled check next week. Maybe he is less business like now. Maybe softening. Hoping if necessary there could be service people of all kinds willing to work with and for his loved ones in his stead. Or maybe I just imagine all this. Once again wondering if molecules of emotion are to be trusted or not. But then knowing they are. Floating human truths to be paid attention to.

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White car but not the one I bought.

 

Nothing else runs on schedule for the rest of my day. I throw it all to the wind. Go car shopping all by myself for the first time ever. Find finally what I want which is really not to see another check engine light until I’m way out of seminary. Along with heated seats and a white exterior because Tony was so very safety conscious. And I can’t bear to hear his admonishing voice in my head if I pull out of the car lot with any other color. Then I shop at a different grocery store, the one Ricky works at on the weekends. Get lunch giving into my hunger for once, and buy hot, homemade Mennonite pretzels for Paul. Once home crawl back into bed writing on my day-off from words and during the afternoon hours instead of my usual early morning reverie.

But what stays in my heart this particular day, one of so many in our ongoing complicated grief, is this: Someone Tony knew for just a brief blip on life’s timeline saddened knowing he no longer is here on this plane of existence. And I take great solace in this small knowing and others like it. Glimpses of others’ sense of loss and possibly their own approaching mortality. Their emotional release, although often cloaked, creating a molecular communion of sadness of sorts swirling in the air.

Uncategorized

Uncomfortable Realities

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Us, circa 1996

 

We were naive or maybe it was just me. Living as we did in Chicago among many. In a neighborhood full of old Swedes, lesbians, and Lebanese merchants. Working in a neighborhood populated by Palestinians, Latin Americans, and Lithuanians. African-American, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and Polish co-workers. Our inter-cultural, inter-ethnic, inter-racial relationship was not a big concern heading into marriage. Student loans and a honeymoon destination were.

The next state we lived in was a different story, far different. All of a sudden we had to demand tables away from the kitchen door. People made comments on how dark baby Ricky was compared to my fairness. Along with dead deer hanging from trucks in the fall was a growing number of confederate flags.

I began to understand a few things. Things not comfortable. Things we needed to be careful of.  Things I wanted to run away from. Most of all my own naiveté.

My true education into our country’s reality began with my marriage to a man not white. An immigrant. A Pacific Islander with a Spanish last name. Sure my many experiences working with people from all over the world both in New York City and Chicago helped. But working with those who are different than ourselves is far, far, far different than living on the other side of truth. Alone in public I was still white with all that comes with being so in this country. With Tony I darkened.

I hyphenated my last name because I understood this reality. I told people it was because I was thirty and career-wise already known by my maiden name. And there was verity in my words. But the other truth, the ugly one, was I knew now. I understood. Even if my understanding could not compare to Tony’s or his family’s. I understood more than my white family and friends. And this information about how things are in our country shaped my decision.

In between my name change and Tony’s death, many other large and small incidences occurred to Tony and to us. Happenings I began not sharing because explaining these realities to white friends and family became work, their disbeliefs needing comforting I was and am still unwilling to provide.

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United States Passport

 

But I will share one recent occurrence here. A couple of weeks ago the boys and I reentered our country, the United States of America, after sojourning in Europe. We went to new countries, visited family, and escaped a bit of our grief. Now we waited in the customs line first for the check-in kiosk and then for an officer.

The customs officer was dark, maybe Latino, not-white. He looked at us in the eyes. He said pointing to the large black X on our customs tickets, Xs’ I had not noticed in the rush and fatigue of traveling, Xs’ never before appearing on our customs tickets when reentering our country.

“From now on you will get this mark. We have to check everyone with the last name Rodriguez.”

We remain a family of color. Meaning we also continue to be seen as suspicious by others.  Worth extra attention because of our country’s shared historical story heightened now by a spinning, ill-informed ideology that continues to dictate who is possibly dangerous and who is not.

And we as a family continue to be suspicious of others when we are treated differently or with mistrust. Because suspicion works both ways.  Because I’ve learned having watched loved ones suffer in ways I do not. Because I have to go there, to that dark truth that is all of ours to own.

The cruel discriminatory legacy of color, of differences, of bias, of religion, and of fear continues in this country. In big demonstrations, tragic political stances, and heightened paranoia. But also our collective story of discrimination continues through the many seemingly small actions and occurrences encompassing a day. Small actions many of us who are white do not see or do not comprehend or do not speak up against. Our ignorance bliss in its unearned freedoms. Until for some reason we too are marked in someway, maybe with a large black X. And then our true education as to what it means to be an American begins or my case continues.

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Grief

Warts and All

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My doctor hurries. I persist. Grief emboldens me. I cling to my agenda. Pointing to my forehead I ask,”What is this?”

A scabby, bumpy thing popped out of my forehead sometime during the months before Tony died. The months in which I kept wondering if after the death of our dog, the death of Ricky’s dear friend, and the ongoing downward spiral of Ricky’s health what could be next. No time or energy during those trembling months for attending to myself.

The growth lives right in my very Swedish receding triangular hairline. The same hairline some of my first and second cousins have both male and female. Some families get identical tattoos. We just use our hairline to mark us as clan.

I pick at it in the beginning of this pain, in my ongoing angst. Sometimes ripping it off in anger only for it to grow back. Mocking me with its presence. Now at ten months into keeping grief my thinking clears enough helping me plan ahead once again and think about my own health.

“Looks like a basal cell,” she replies.

“What’s a basal cell?”

“Skin cancer,” she says as if this is a non-issue, “We’ll get you a referral.”

Shit. The last thing I need is skin cancer. But I look like the token poster child for the disease not interested in excessive use of sun block and hats until about two years ago. Skin cancer and osteoporosis popular among we fair-eyed, northern European types. So I suppose it is to be expected. Then given the stress inherent in grief, my cells are doing who knows what. Still skin cancer belongs on the list of things I do not want and cannot imagine adding to my long roll of issues to cope with.

Once home I call every dermatologist in town. Pleading. Begging. Pushing. I’m waitlisted everywhere. Still I persist, grief making me more adamant especially when my health may be compromised. Magically while trying to find an appointment at the University’s clinic, a space opens on the scheduler’s screen. “Oh!” she says, “I have an appointment now available tomorrow at 9:00 with Dr. So and So.”

“I’ll take it!” I scream. Relief floods my cells. Maybe even the ones in question.

The next morning I take off warning my younger son he may be late for school but then again what else is new? University rush hour swirls around my journey. An accident slows traffic even more. I’m running late. Parking in the wrong parking garage, I face what seems like a mile walk to the dermatology clinic through a labyrinth of walkways. The clinic moved since last time I was here with Ricky’s awful eczema which was in truth Lyme’s Disease but that’s really a whole other story and his to tell about.

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I finally check in finding a chair to slump in only to realize I left my cell phone in the car many walkways and floors away. Neither son can get a hold of me. And I don’t believe I’ve been away from my cell (just in case!) for more than a few minutes since Tony died. Except for the time in the first fall of our grief when I lost my already battered phone, freaked out, and then found it beneath our mailbox.

My heart begins pounding with worry. For what brought me to this appointment in the first place. For what could happen if I am not just a phone call away. For what happened to us in August of 2016 creating my hyped vigilance in caring, in making sure all is well, in overseeing our grief.

Later after staring at the white walls of the exam room, waiting for eons, fighting mounting anxiety with deep measured breaths and therapeutic self-talk, the doctor arrives. He looks at my growth with a large magnifying glass breathing and making non-verbal communicative sounds under his breath. Finally he says, “I don’t think it’s cancer. I think it’s…(something I now don’t remember and probably could not pronounce.) I can freeze it off or I can cut it off and biopsy it.”

‘Biopsy it! I’m it,” I reply, “I am truly a single parent. Take it off. Biopsy it.”

I also tell him he mustn’t scar me which in the middle of all this angst reveals I am still concerned about topical issues. After I week or so I find he hasn’t to my relief. My skin smooth and clear.  New bits of hair filling in my receding triangle leaving me to wonder if I lost more hair during the shock of Tony’s death than I first imagined.

After a few more days the doctor calls with my results. His typical doctor call etiquette remains non-committal. I hold my breath at the stop light along the river’s construction zone. Finally he says, “It’s a wart.”

“A wart,” my voice pitch mounts as visions of those Scandinavian warty trolls roll across my mind’s eye. “You mean I could have just used Compound W?”

“Well if it grows back you can try an over-the-counter medicine,” he replies.

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Another week passes. I laugh at the entire situation until the bill arrives. My procedure not fully covered because of our medical insurance deductible. My wart removal’s initial cost is one thousand dollars!  Obviously I am not emotionally healed yet. The old me would have researched the growth. Maybe even experimented with wart removal first before seeing a doctor. But I am still highly reactive. Measured thought remains a dream away.

More time goes by. The wart does not return. Another bill arrives. The cost of wart removal sinks by two hundred dollars or so. A small gift I think.

However in the same swirl of taking care of myself leading to the wart’s removal, I schedule a bone density test for August. In this week between what would have been our twenty-second wedding anniversary and the first anniversary of Tony’s death, I am upgraded from osteopenia to osteoporosis in my wrist and hip. My doctor puts me on medication to strengthen my bones. The ravages of my grief finally rearing an ugly head now at twelve months. Grief taking hold somewhere in my body playing on an already weakened area. Physical and emotional health responding to one another. Playing off each other. One a pinch. The other an ouch. Not so separate as we all tend to think.

Still I’m thankful for good care in all realms of our life this past year. Good care leading to emotional healing, trauma relief, medical diagnosis, and solid treatment plans. All helping us repair, rebuild and live despite it all.

And for me, well with good care there is this added benefit, a “bonus feature” as Tony used to say. One I hadn’t thought of until recently when I almost stumbled into the face of it while rediscovering with my sons the living world outside our grief. One brought home to me by warts and weak bones. A possibility which because I receive good care remains in the realm of my anxious imagination. A thought which when entertained out loud would have made my late and dear husband laugh.

The avoidance of becoming an ancient, warty, humped over troll.

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Warty troll on the street in Reykjavik, Iceland.

 

 

 

 

 

Grief

Patron Saint

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Saint Anthony of Padua is for Roman Catholic Christians the patron saint of lost or stolen things. I wonder today while walking, spying the blooming orange day lilies in the ravine’s ditch, touching the bulbous flowers of the milk weed plant,  if this Saint can help me find myself again now amidst the many layers of my muck. Or if my own saint Anthony can from where ever he now resides.

Tony heard for years about the Lutheran Christian belief of saints and sinners. That we are both held in opposition, a paradox catapulting between one to the other minute by minute in our daily lives. One loving act quickly followed by shaming words. One promise kept while another not. Our humanness embraced and forgiven by an understanding, compassionate, and loving God without one request from us. Grace we call this incomprehensible mysteriousness.

But at almost eleven months I still feel lost. Not like at first when I could barely move or think. But lost yet. Steeling myself each day for come what may. Still making phone call after phone call tying up Tony’s affairs. Still supporting both boys through tragic grief compounded by medical issues compounded by feelings of unsuccessfulness as school for both of them this past year tenuous, arduous, hazy. Still weeping at odd moments.

I think somewhere in Tony’s things lies a St. Anthony medal. I wonder if I should pull it out. Even though I don’t believe in Saintly elevation. Rather preferring taking my worries and dreams right to the Trinity. But over the years understanding why many want and cling to faith mediators. Thinking maybe at the end of the day it does not really matter where we fall in embracing Saints or saints.Wondering too if Tony’s medal has the symbolic capability of showing me I will find myself again.

IMG_20170617_183143_817A friend reminds me of Erik Erikson’s famous and lovely and ringing true Eight Stages. Death flings me back into the adolescent stage of identity versus role confusion.  I struggle again and with great emotion figuring out who I am alone. No longer attached on every living level possible to another person except in memory and in two tall, young almost men sleeping soundly right now. Moving differently in grief, my body betraying my state. One not associated with a partner. Alone. Misplaced. Confused.

Stay focused I tell myself since grief makes me more aware of others’ attention issues and my own ability to get side tracked. Remember your strength my braceleted wrist reminds me. Remain curious Tony in my memory reiterates. All that glitters is not gold I say to the boys. And in a remembered haze from the early days of this hell I think a pastor friend told me to keep my eyes on the cross and not in a sin salvation kind of a way. But in a there is life after death both for the living and the deceased kind of a way. Or the salvation of the cross frees me from my living bondages, grief able to overtake me. Own me without something bigger to focus on, believe in. Or maybe that’s just what I want to think he meant.

Slowly and on better days than this one, I find I still love a good dress, sharing a finely prepared meal, the obtuse humor of friends and family, chocolate colored dogs, my extended family strewn across the world, dark chocolate for breakfast, my boys even when they are goofing off or leaving trails of stinky socks around the house, the fragrance of laundry hung on the line, pulling onions out of my garden with a pop(!), the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the seasons in our little corner of Iowa, Minnesotan Scandinavian idiosyncrasies, Spirit-filled worship services, the close knit chords of hymnody, meeting a friend for lunch, and a whole host of other joys embraced before and now after.

Somewhere in this mix of loves and grief is me. Not so lost as I sometimes think. A saint in my own right, Lutheran Christian style. Forgiving my own sins of omission and otherwise during this time of keeping grief. Focusing on healing trauma, walking with and through sudden loss, noticing my emotions whether they be feelings of abandonment, guilt, loss, or being untethered. At the same time entering fully into an unfolding future looking hope straight in the face. Living on with joy flowing from sorrow in another of life’s many paradoxes.

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