Grief, Uncategorized

Flushing

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For weeks last fall my toilet was a manual affair. Requiring more interaction than desired. Cover off. Splayed on the chair next to the towel rack. Displaying the inner workings of this most necessary of household contraptions. Mineral deposits dripping like sand inside the tank. Gurgling loudly without porcelain quieting its function. Running on at times. Reminding me of its maladies.

Flushing, a wet experience. My pointer finger dipping into tank water (clean of course!). Latching onto a plastic loop. The one attached to function’s brain. Finger drawing up for a second. Releasing a  “swoosh,” into the air.

Finger now dripping tank water. Searching for a towel. The ones right above the toilet. Decorative Filipino and Swedish handiwork displayed for show. Wrinkling their starched white beauty with common desperation.

My sons using this toilet. Lured by proximity to the kitchen.  Screaming in disgust. Me reminding them of their own bathroom.

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Toilet broke. That long piece reaching from handle to inlet valve collapsed or snapped or something. My mind sunk knee-deep in Old Testament doings. Abraham passing wife Sarah off as his sister (not once but twice!). The entire population of biblical prophets both major and minor screaming at Israel and me for that matter No time for a repair man or giving friend. Wondering aloud in the deepening night of approaching winter why dealing with toilets now my responsibility.

Waning tolerance for wet flushing. Wandering around local hardware store on another errand. Not thinking straight. Maybe looking for something else. Like deer whistles or yard waste bags or answers to grief’s deep questions. Eyes spying toilet replacement parts. Maybe it’s time, I think. A hardware man helps. Shows me different handles. “Is it hard to replace?”

“Noooooo,” he chuckles, “Just remember to twist counter-clockwise.”

Nodding. Smiling. Admitting internally my lack of counter-clockwise skills. Cognitively challenged whenever we pass food at the table, play a board game, and now apparently fix toilets. My sons, victims of my inability. Passing food to the left instead of the right when eating with and as white people.

At home, peering into the tank. How hard can this be? Except the directions on the package read like a foreign language. Words saying break off a piece at the end of the rod. At one of the notches. Twisting off the nut inside the tank. The one holding the outside handle in place. The hardware man, right. Changing the handle is not hard.

IMG_0466Getting it to work however not easy. The rod now too short. Barely fitting inside the plastic hook of the loop connected to what might be the flush valve. Broke off too much leaving me with more days of wet flushing.  Until I have time to return to the hardware store. Buying a different handle this time. A cheaper one because who knows how many handles this task in my hands requires. But this new one stays in the package. On the floor. Next to the toilet. For a week, maybe more.

Instead Ricky and I drive in hard rain for two days. Me, telling God we can not be hurt or die in the endeavor. Leaving town now always full of yet to be therapeutically eradicated anxiety issues. Taking Ricky to his Lyme Disease doctor in Minnesota. Sort of at the last moment. In order to make this trip work, holing up for days. Working ahead for work and school. Tired from working, driving, and holding it all together for everyone.

Arriving home late from this trip. To warm food prepared by my niece. To all is well in our absence. Thankful to be out of the rain. Off the slick roads. Settling back into the safety of our day-to-day, grieving lives.

Maybe it was all these things. The angst, drive, disease, trauma, grief, and countless, breathless days. But as night grew later and morning rise earlier, I said “What the hell.”

Tearing open the neglected package. Setting to work. Not heeding directions this time. Accessing  my inner-plumber. New-found resolves flowing. Ability budding. Slipping arm of handle contraption through tank hole. Bending it a bit. Fitting through the plastic loop. Twisting on the nut, counter clock-wise of course. Tentatively applying pressure to handle. Wondering fate in anticipatory quiet.

Viola! Eureka! The toilet, even before lifting hand from handle, expels with glorious surge. Flooding relief within me. Stresses disappearing in toilet’s surging water. Replacing toilet’s top. Washing hands of everything wrong in my life. Embracing everything well.

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Month’s later, admitting a lingering small issue. Ghost reminding me of my inequities. Water running on for barely a minute. Whenever the wind blows. Stopping before it begins. Hinting of things to come. Me, clinging to my success. Because by gum as my dad used to say, the toilet works. Flushes hard. Handle unattractive. But-by-gum-it-works!

To be continued…

Photos courtesy of me this time!

 

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Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

Easter Understanding

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Sitting in a church pew Easter Sunday. Seats at a premium this morning. Finding space third row from the Baptismal font.  On the right almost under the organ pipes.

Swarms surround us. Decked out in Spring’s cold glory. Small limbs buzzing from early morning chocolate bunnies. Syrupy smells poured over church-basement pancakes wafting up sanctuary stairwell.  Scents floating off potted lilies celebrating this day. Distracting our noses.

Me, quietly book-ended by sons. Lanky height towering over shrinking self. Our hearts cradling family varients. Arriving on time for once. Not participating in today’s service. Missing one person in body, spirit, love. Forced imbalances creating new holiday traditions. Because of loss. Because of illness. Because human essance demands continual, dynamic change. Life ever flowing somewhere. Living in all directions. Forward one of many routes. Options include straight back and up above. Existence following verticals and subverticals as well like feeds and streams.

During Lent this year understanding the movement of Lot’s wife. Looking back froze her future. Into crumbling salt. Comprehending this can happen to us. So far doesn’t. Ongoing therapy eradicates salt. Revisiting the past orients us into living. Discovering alternatives. Lot’s wife perhaps wanting choice too. Deciding to resist orders. Ones requiring forced obligation in ancient womanhood. A constricted soul experiencing momentary freedom. Salt worth its weight. Me, not so interested in salt. Embracing all directions.

Sitting this Easter day surrounded by young men I once birthed. Now generating warmth and whispering commentary. Feeling in my heart truth inherent in hymn’s text, “Death hath lost its sting!”* 

Where life is after death, still unclear about. Not important to me. Clasping today’s truth: there is life following death. On earth and whatever and where ever after is. Tony, there. Smiling. Laughing. Eyes bright with delight. Wonder. Love.

He, also living among us. Enclosed in sons’ DNA. One wearing his clothing. The other donning his smile. Both purporting his people wisdom. Our loved one exhisting within memory, healed clients, love-infused family, and friends. In every-man, proverbial sayings. Some framed, sitting on my nightstand. Others remembered at odd moments. Memory creating a chuckle, smile, or sigh.

“That’s goodness”

“What just happened here?”

“How’s that working for you?”

“Get in the pit”

“Write a new narrative”

“Do you want to be seen or do you want to be noticed?”

“Don’t forget your toolbox!”

“Write a new narrative.”

“That’s your humanity”

 

Tony uniting fully in Emmanuel–God with us. Joining clouds of witnessing saints billowing on before us. We on earth walking on foot. As human. Not salt. Not yet vapor.  Bound with all condensed water masses. Together in one, big, holy, mystery. Called the body of Christ. Perhaps we finding home on earthly knee-caps. Tony residing on a cheek. Near the smile. Head in the clouds.

Down below rejoicing today in life. Tony’s on earth. His life now. Ours then. Ours now. Embracing what we do not know. Accepting God’s command to love one another during this time. Gradually opening out. Accepting all directions. Leading into the world loving friends and family again. Love wafting like flower’s scent. Replacing trauma’s reactions and sorrow’s emotions.

Holding grief near still. Naming it as love of another form. One creating salty, healing tears. Sliding down cheeks this bright, vibrant day. Love resurrecting life.

 

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*Quote from the hymn, Thine is the Glory. Text by Edmond Budry. Tune by George F. Handel, adapted.

**Photo found on http://www.pixabay.com

 

 

 

 

Grief, Trauma recovery, Uncategorized

Feeling Good Feeling Guilty

 

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My friend, a pastor of many years and talents, told me something. Wisdom strongly spoken in soft words. Repeated a minimum of three times. Three times I remember in the intense aftermath of Tony’s death. Each time sitting on our front stoop in widow’s black. Away from despair’s chaos. Smashing the phone against my right ear. As if I cannot hear.

My friend said I will experience both sorrow and joy during grief’s extended stay.  Capable of two contrary moods even in this condition. Frozen sensations in emotion and body holding court in my shallow breath. Sorrow and joy breaking free from time to time. Occurring in oscillation within seconds of each other. My feelings running a curving, switch back mountain path. Driving lost on a series of one-ways. Playing one of my sons’ video games. Grief holding sorrow and joy close in a paradox of extremes.

He was right. In the beginning sorrow dug deep. Joy jumped high. To the outer limits of these internal experiences. As if using mind altering substances. A more intense version of the coffee-caffeine-red-wine cycle of my twenties.

Glimmers of joy or a wave of feeling good or even slightly good hit. I felt relief. Sort of like having a really bad headache, finding pain reliever, popping two in my mouth. Fifteen minutes later sensing an easing of contracting muscles.

In grief not lasting. A few minutes later, maybe even seconds, spinning down again. Accelerating back toward the starting point. Returning to a frozen dark hole. Believing I couldn’t feel good right now. Or ever again. Tony gone. Soul pining. Sons’ in pain.  Extended family gasping. Who was I to feel good even for a few stolen moments?

Guilt sprouting from a flash of transient relief. A flash unrecognizable at first. Relief already foreign in just a few days’ time. A stranger in pain’s palette. Joy’s occasional visit yo-yoing my heart through an old-fashioned clothes wringer. Squeezed back and forth. Cranked up and down. Wrung in and out.

Fleeting waves occurring while driving. Bringing harmful distraction to a new height. Alone always. My inner self allowed out in the closeness of my car. With only the music blaring. The same song over and over again for months. From a CD found in Tony’s car. Cranked the moment Paul pealed out the door on school days. Squashed seconds before he climbed back in hungry and tired.

Guilt in living. Not saving. Not dying. Here loving two precious children. Closer to men than boys. Finding flashes of our family’s future hidden here and there. Momentary smiles. A shared laugh. Whispered, I love you’s. 

Me, often walking wooded paths alone. Step by step. Accepting crunchy, fallen leaves sweeping across my sauntering feet. Fall’s sunshine spilling on my upturned, searching face. Listening to the gurgle of a running stream heading toward winter.

A myth, my guilt was. One of trauma’s many. A way of making sense of an incomprehensible day. My brain getting it wrong. Needing a new draft of the story. Or two or three. Rewrites occurring weekly in my therapist’s office. Sitting on her sagging, puffy, brown couch. The tick-buzz of the EMDR machine keeping time with my slowly, healing heart.

Acknowledging after a time I need fleeting moments of relief. If I am to survive Tony’s sudden, trauma-laced, death. Allowing tenacity’s strength to return. Reemerge. Live into widowhood with love from before and now. Choosing life as Moses tells the Israelites. For my children’s sake. For mine as well. Finding strength to continue. Rebuild. Thrive.

Certain my late, EMDR-trained, husband approves. Pushing me to do so through mountains of molecules separating life from death. Grief’s guilt for me, an evil. Like all evils, not easily eradicated. Exorcised out again and again in the light of God’s new day. Sorrow, in time, becoming momentary.  Bowing to the light. Night passing into morning. Joy strengthening. Joy exchanging places with sorrow. Joy here to stay.

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EMDR: Short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. A healing technique trained clinicians use with survivors of life’s many traumas.

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Deuteronomy 30:19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live (NRSV).”

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Grief, Uncategorized

March 13, 2018

Stomach flips. Throat clenches. Tears sprout. Heart hurts. Upon waking my body knows. Nineteen months today.

Before the house wakes, walking a path. Beating the searing sun. Morning breeze caressing my face.

Following steps strolled when we were an us. Heads bent in discussion. Sometimes holding hands. Small moments alone. Life full of others, loved and served.

Yesterday three walking a canyon trail. Quiet in exchanged words. Desert sun sweating. Me, following two dreams. Creations. Miracles. Life moving in tandem. Sadness and future.

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Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

Love

wheel-1684264_1280When it came time for our oldest son to attend Sunday School, I balked. My late husband was no help. The concept of Sunday School, a foreign affair. Tony being a product of parochial school. In his mind, we simply attended worship on Sunday. Religious education taken over by nuns during the week. Except there were no nuns at the private Montessori school Ricky attended.

At the time the trappings surrounding God, Christianity, Jesus, and what seemed to me the veneration of Jesus’ violent death made me uncomfortable. My other reservations pressed harder on my heart though. The Sunday school teacher was functionally illiterate and used inappropriate-for-young-children theology.

My mother calmly clarified things for me one day. “All young children need to learn is God is love. The rest can come later.”

A seemingly simple statement at first. Yet one centering me through many years of my own questioning and parenting the budding spiritual explorations of our children.

I think a lot about life, faith, and God since Tony died. Sudden death forces the living to recalibrate every moment of every day especially in the beginning months of loss. At first, I lived in trauma’s shock. Forced to make decisions as my mind struggled to form even the slightest neural connection. My body shook for any number of reasons—left over adrenalin, fatigue, and lack of food being the most common. Our children felt neglected or in losing their father they also lost the me they once knew.

Early one morning during the first fall of our grief I hid once again in our bed. A place rendered only mine now. In a few harrowing minutes on an otherwise bucolic day. Seeking refuge beneath the warm covers from all the overwhelming post-death tasks. The weight of blankets keeping me tethered to the earth when nothing else seemed to.

Curled up, I remembered a few things. Bits of wisdom lost for months in trauma’s chaos. What I knew from my years as an early child development specialist claiming some  brain space once more. Along with hearing Tony speak of his clinical work for over two decades. And from learning about and from God. A sense of clarity permeated my thinking for once in these otherwise arduous days as time ticked in internal and external tumult.

My job now, as I saw it, was to love. Love our sons Ricky and Paul first and foremost. Love myself. And in loving the three of us through this unbelievable time, loving God as well. Sort of like the well-known verse from the Gospel of Mark known as the “Greatest Commandment.” Only in my reality used in tandem instead of in a linear line of love.

Love looked at first like me re-teaching my mind and hands how to cook. Because we were all hungry. And the food coming in from church, friends, and neighbors didn’t always fit our collective, complicated, food sensitivities and allergies. And because my sons needed the reassurance of my presence in the kitchen every evening. Like before.  And we all needed cooking smells filling, what seemed to us, an empty home.

And slowly all the wonderful works of attachment theorists, Bowlby and Ainsworth, once embraced crept back into my thoughts. Combined with this quirky need to read Tony’s professional library. Particularly his book Facing Heartbreak along with texts on love, relationships, and trauma. Once again awed by how modern human development theory, research, and healing protocols mirror God’s message through scripture.

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Now, after twenty-one years of marriage, twenty years of parenting, and eighteen months into grief and trauma recovery, I know love sustains me. Through four simple words formed into two directives. Reminded of each time I open our refrigerator, a well-worn magnet catching my eye. Beautiful words centering me as a woman, parent, child development specialist, writer, widow, seminarian, and human being. Words I see every time I drive Interstate 35 near Lakeville, on the outskirts of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Wearing this road thin because of seminary, work, family, and doctor’s appointments. Words right there on the West side of the road. On a simple billboard as if stating the obvious.

“Love God. Love Others.”

Words holding my heart each time. An abiding command anchoring me here on earth when I so often want to fly away or hide under the covers. Weaving my life with others through relationships. Some old, some new, and some yet to be born. Centering my soul like a plumb line in the ongoing restructuring and rebuilding of human existence.

30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:30-31).” NRSV

 

“Wheel” courtesy of Pixabay. 

 

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.

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. 

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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Uncategorized

A Widow’s Wreath

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Wreaths for sale.

Last December, amid all that this season brings under normal circumstances and what the first December brings to we who grieve, a display outside my local grocery store sent me whirling down into some unforeseen weird widow expectation. There along the outside wall right before the entrance door where no one could possible miss this exhibition stood wreath after wreath on tiny green stands. In previous Decembers I would have given this display a mere glance being fully buffeted by my typical December angst. But this year, four months into my widowhood as if the universe compelled me, I stopped to decipher the sign. It read “Cemetery Wreaths.”

Oh shit,” I thought standing there in the cold, waning light of dusk, “I’m suppose to put a wreath on Tony’s grave.

It took me days to work through whether or not I really wanted to put a wreath on Tony’s grave. My answer continually turned up as “no.” I didn’t want to be Tony’s widow in the first place so why in the world would I ever want to decorate his, well really our, gravestone.

Then I wondered if I didn’t place a wreath on the grave how it would look. Would it seem like I just didn’t care? Or was being sloppy in my responsibilities? The old me, pre-widowhood, would have said with a note of scorn “Don’t worry about it. No one is even looking at your husband’s gravestone. They are all too busy with the season or too young to think about it.

But my own reasoning of an era now past in my life did not stop the internal niggling that somehow I was screwing up.

Niggling brought thoughts of perhaps I was being a bit selfish and really what would it take for me to buy and place a wreath in the cemetery this first Christmas. But the temperatures dropped to way below zero and it snowed and really when it came right down to it, I didn’t want to learn how to do this gravestone decorating thing. So I procrastinated.

I figured out however over the course of many days, my thinking slowed by my grief, that if I indeed placed a wreath on Tony’s grave I would need both a wreath and a wreath stand. But the stand at the grocery store was twenty dollars for something one of the boys could make if they were so inclined. Instead armed with a hobby store coupon I bought a wreath stand for a few dollars thinking, perhaps reasonably, that the stand might not survive the season. If it did survive the cold, snow, or human hands then I would have it for the next wreath needing holiday that I may or may not know about.

Of course I couldn’t find the stands in the store. After searching the entire place because really no one needed to know my mission, I was forced to ask a clerk for assistance. Then I had to put on a “this is common and normal, this asking for a cemetery wreath stand,” face so that I wouldn’t break out in tears which would crack my veneer of privacy and throw the clerk for a social loop.

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Wreath stands for sale.

Once purchased, I threw the stand onto the back floor of my car. There it lived for days staring up at me every time I collected the grocery bags. “Buy a wreath,” it seems to say until loaded bags of food squashed its insistent message.

By the time I finally convinced myself to buy a wreath most were sold out. Eventually I found a ragged, half-priced, slightly brown circlet at a local hardware store and tossed it in my trunk.  Still the wreath and the stand stayed put in my car for another week void of their final resting place as  I drove around town doing errands or running my son here and there or attending meetings or generally avoiding the cemetery.The evergreen aroma made my car smell festive at least.

After Advent service at church one night, I talked with another recent widow I know. We stood in the dark and  cold parking lot talking of things only widows talk about. She too did not know about the wreath thing. But she had put a pumpkin on her husband’s grave in October. My insides screamed, “A pumpkin! Am I supposed to decorate for every holiday?” More evidence of the weirdness of my condition.

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I polled my mother and aunt (both seasoned widows) on the wreath. Each put wreaths on their husbands’ graves through some program at their perspective cemeteries. So actually someone at the cemetery buys and places wreaths on each gravestone while my mother and aunt just send checks in. I like the sounds of this program but seems I picked a cemetery without this added bonus feature not knowing this perk should have been part of my decision making process.

Assured by both women that whatever I did was fine, I felt a bit better. But the wreath still gnawed at me. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was if I had developed a brain glitch over the whole custom. I couldn’t shake what felt like an expectation coming out of nowhere. I wondered what I would say if my mother-in-law asked me if I had put a wreath on her only son’s grave. I would want to be truthful but also knew I did not traverse nor did I expect myself to know her cultural expectations at all during this time of bereavement.

Maybe however the expectations I sensed were not all external. Maybe some of this stuff haunting me was coming from within like my need to do well in my new, unexpected, and unwanted role. As if falling down on this job, that of widowhood, dishonored Tony and our love for each other. I felt guilty but wasn’t quite sure of the crime.Guilt that the parts of my life that were bringing me joy and solace now took precedence over things that were beginning to feel compulsory. And I began to feel not “good enough.” Not good enough as a widow and therefore as a wife. Grief saturates the mind in ways no one prepares for making for odd and sometimes irrational thoughts and conclusions. I just didn’t trust my own thinking in this matter.

People stepped in.  My mother reminded me that in our faith Tony wasn’t at the gravesite anyway He is with God whatever that truly means. A friend who had worked with Tony asked me if he would care about a wreath. “No,” was my answer. He thought such rituals receptacles for empty actions developed to please others. My therapist laughed with outright joy as I told of my anxiety over the cemetery wreath. Her advice was to blog about it which at the time I thought a bit crass but now you can see I am doing exactly what she suggested. Tony himself would have found my dilemma wonderfully humorous which in turn would have given rise to a few words of blustery irritation on my part. Regardless of others’ support of my inaction, something didn’t seem quite right during this season so fraught with grief triggers.

So finally one less cold day when the temperature soared into the low teens, I caved as if needing to cross a task off my perpetual “to do” list. I drove to the cemetery on my way but really in the opposite direction of a monthly meeting with women friends in ministry. I love with a whole heart these women who early on in this expedition into the bowels of sudden, traumatic, and complicated grief sat in my living room and somehow understood my pain or maybe were just willing to imagine it. Then they dared to remind me as the weeks passed and I gradually awoke from the clouds of shock and sorrow that my mind was created to think and feel, not just feel. On this day my meeting with these friends would be my reward for doing what I was avoiding or still didn’t fully understand and of course didn’t want to do.

Off I went loosing my way within the labyrinth of old narrow roads which course through our final resting place. Heading toward the woods which line our joint plot I found Tony’s grave under a new landscape of snow and winter sky making it almost unrecognizable. Quiet permeated the cold as I set about my business as if it was business, alone in this place so full of other people’s memories thinking I did not want to be here now or ever.

Then the stand wouldn’t stay put on the sloping, frozen ground. It kept falling over, the earth unwelcoming to its spindly little legs. Giving up I retrieved the now weary, worn looking wreath from its hiding place. A trail of needles followed the wreath and I from from my car to the grave like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I managed to set the two together, the stand and its partner. But the wreath’s weight combined with the slope of the hill continually knocked the duo over until I leaned these bedfellows against the stone itself. Now the duet covered my name carved so precisely into our grave stone unsettling my nerves with its frankness. I stood back not really admiring my work but glad to have accomplished this arduous task.

But I wasn’t done yet.

It was a last minute addition, a thought welling up from deep within, the reason for the smooth grave stone top instead of the rough stone look. In my car I grabbed a stone bigger than my hand. It was one of many I had found in Tony’s office and hauled home along with business records, lamps, and computers. This one sat on the sill along the bank of windows lining one wall overlooking the heart of downtown. I crunched back down the slope placing the blue grey stone wrapped in a single cream line on top of the gravestone like I had seen in Jewish cemeteries. I realized I didn’t know the meaning of this practice but that it made visceral sense to me now, more so than the wreath. The stone, like all the stones in Tony’s office and in our home and in our gardens, came from places we had visited–Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, and even I suspect countries in Europe. Tony was forever lugging stones home like a scavenger and using them as paper weights, door stops, garden borders, and objet d’art. I didn’t know where this stone hailed from, but I knew it reminded me of our family’s life together, our voyage both with Tony present and with Tony’s love still surrounding us.

And I know my late husband would appreciate this gesture. The wreath, a topping. But the stone and the many which now live in a basket in our mudroom waiting to be put in a place of remembrance signify what we built as a family on a foundation of love. Love fraught with all the ins and outs loving relationships bring to us. Yet, love none-the-less.

And the wreath? Maybe I will next year and maybe I won’t. I do hope and pray and truly think the boys and me will have found many, many ways to celebrate our love together by next year which might be seen at the sight of Tony’s grave and then again might not. And that I, with more months of healing, more therapy, and more acts of resilience will have found my way as a widow that is true to who I am in this life and what our love as a family was and still is. Wreath or no wreath.