Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On Grit, Gratitude, & Grace

Today I’m featured in the Staff’s Picks section of Elephant Journal writing about gratitude in time for Thanksgiving.  Head here to read the piece.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December 17, 2014- A New Blog

It has been almost a year and a half since I last wrote on this blog.  In my mind, this blog was complete.  And yet, there was a lack of finality to it.  Grief has no finality, though it does have evolution and change, while this blog does have finality simply because I have stopped writing on it.   But I haven't stopped writing.  I have started a new blog on various other topics and reflections.  It's called Studies in Hope: A Close Reading of the Everyday.  I thought it fitting to announce this new birth on what would have been Dan's 38th birthday, today- December 17th.

The writing I have done here kept me alive during the darkest time of my life.  I have yet to go back and reread it all myself, but I will one day.   But it wasn't just the process of writing that saved me; it was also the process of sharing my writing and my pain with strangers and friends alike.  Having never been a "blogger" before, I have been surprised by this.  I am so thankful to the readers who emailed me, encouraged me, or told me that my writing was helping them in their own journey.  I met friends through this blog- some have become close.  They began as strangers sending me an email and are now people I get together with, or am in contact with regularly.

Below this post, I have posted one final post-  one that I feel is a proper last post.  It is something I wrote for an essay contest with the given theme, "After the Unhappy Ending" this past September.  It is a compendium or collection of vignettes that tries to create a new narrative around a season of life where I found myself without one.  In the end, the narrative isn't found in my life events, but rather in the writing form itself.

The two poems I leave you with explain how I feel about my silence from now on here on this site.  Not only words, but silence as well, can depict grief and loss- and perhaps even better.  As Longfellow says below- silence isn't about hiding grief or compartmentalizing- it is truly about "sanctifying."  To echo Dickinson's words, "To fight aloud, is very brave," but sometimes it's "gallanter" to carry on with your pain and your fight unobserved, without articulation, in a living sepulchre of the heart.

And though at times impetuous with emotion        45
  And anguish long suppressed,
The swelling heart heaves moaning like the ocean,
  That cannot be at rest,—
We will be patient, and assuage the feeling
  We may not wholly stay;        50
By silence sanctifying, not concealing,
  The grief that must have way.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow- from By the Fireside, Resignation- the last two stanzas of a beautiful poem he wrote after the death of his young daughter.
To fight aloud, is very brave - 
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Calvary of Wo - 

Who win, and nations do not see - 
Who fall - and none observe - 
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love - 

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go -
Rank after Rank, with even feet -
And Uniforms of snow.
Emily Dickinson

Afterward: A Compendium

After you die, I google a photo of Jackie O at JFK’s funeral to see what she wore so I can look the part of the graceful young widow at your funeral.  Then I cancel the appointment at the car mechanic I made for the following day.   

At the funeral, a friend awkwardly asks what I will do now, and offers up a visit to her home in another state.  “Yeah…maybe I’ll do some traveling,” I say.  Later, I almost chuckle at the ludicrousness of this reply.

After you die, I stop taking my vitamins and flossing my teeth.  They both seem so silly.   I’d forced you to get your teeth cleaned a day before you left for the trip you die on.  You have two cavities that are going to be filled when you come back.  I pack your vitamins in one of those little plastic cases with the days of the week that old people use for their pills.  You are 33 when you drown in Lake Geneva, Switzerland.  Our daughter is 21 months old.

I lose at least ten pounds from being unable to eat those first few weeks.  I drink nutrition drinks and tell my actress friend, who is very funny and with whom I’ve shared common struggles with body image issues in the past, how much weight I’ve lost.  “Well…you’ve finally done it,” she says slowly with a deadpan face.  We both laugh. 

When the inspector for the life insurance policy, a man in his late 60’s who looks like a tired traveling salesman, comes and asks me questions at our small kitchen table while our daughter naps, I take notes for a possible writing piece.  He looks a bit confused.  He notices me writing down everything he says as he writes down everything I say.  How long have we lived here, been married?  “A lot of plans down the drain,” he says.  “So many of the people I meet are nice- and you think, why?”  He guesses that you were gentle and I ask how he knew.  “I figured by the instrument he played.”  The cello.

The morning I apply for social security survivor benefits, I sit on the step outside our complex waiting for a ride.  An early morning runner- young 40’s, in his running gear and with his coffee coming in the main entrance comments self-righteously on my sad expression, “You look like it’s going to be an unpleasant day.”  “Because my husband just died and I’m about to complete a very unpleasant task,” I answer back, but only in my mind.  I just sit there and let him walk away with that smug “runner with coffee who got up early” look.  Why didn’t I say anything?

I start writing.  I sit on my knees on the floor with the computer on the bed and create a blog to document all of it because if I don’t, I am sure I will implode from the pain.   The keening in the shower isn’t cutting it.  The sidebar reads, “I started this blog a couple of weeks after learning of my husband's sudden death at the age of 33. The primary goal has been to get me through each moment, hour, and day, but I also hope that someday my daughter and I can read through it and learn something together- about my dear husband-her father, and about death, and about life. You can email me here.”  I write feverishly multiple times a day, while she naps or plays, after she goes to sleep.  A friend of yours gets part of it published on the New York Times website and I gain a large and loyal readership- many grievers like me- and lots of emails to respond to.  Your friend says, “Who knows, you might wind up on Oprah.”

And then I wait, because it feels like everyone, including him, is expecting this narrative to end like it does on film: I will get up one day, an upbeat melodic song will play loudly as I get a makeover, or pack my bags to start a new life, and maybe drive across a bridge as the camera pans out. 

After you die, I start seeing a grief counselor on a weekly basis.  “We grieve who we are,” she says.  So I write and I read.  I try to uncover the narrative, or rather anti-narrative, of our life together.   I puzzle over clues looking for foreshadowing - some way I could have seen this coming.  There is that time I tell you I don’t want to get pregnant a second time just yet with you traveling- because I don’t want to be a pregnant widow.  “What?”  “You think I’m gonna die?” you ask.

“The thing about literature, students…Are you paying attention?  The thing about literature is that you know when something’s coming.  Always there are signals.  Anticipation trumps surprise.  In life, however…I scare easily these days,” writes professor and writer Roger Rosenblatt in Kayak Morning- a book about the loss of his young daughter. 

I take our daughter raspberry picking in August and apple picking in the fall. 

I fill my eco-friendly grocery bags with books from the library and make photocopies of pages with favorite quotes.  I read about children and grief, countless memoirs of loss- pretty much any kind of suffering will do.  I read Joyce Carol Oates’ and Joan Didion’s stories of their own anti-narratives, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ accounts of the thousands of dying people she sat with, and I read stories of near-death experiences by Dr.’s and little children, and hundreds of pages on heaven.  I read theology and science, C.S. Lewis and Stephen Hawking.  I panic if I do not have one or two of these with me at all times.  These stories and words are the scaffolding that shades the deconstruction of my life.

I tell the story- this story- with its shocking ending to anyone who will listen.  I listen to the sound of it leaving my mouth.  “My husband just died.”  “How?”  “He was a cellist.  He was touring the world, finally living his dream.  On his day off he drowned in Lake Geneva, Switzerland.  He knew how to swim- we don’t know what happened.”

The narrative: I am the unpopular girl in school growing up, a nerd, a late bloomer.  I fall in love and marry a brilliant musician.  I go to graduate school for writing; we live on a pretty street in Brooklyn; we have our first baby.  He dies. 

His story: he struggles to make it in the music business for eleven years, works long hours at a day job he loathes and afterwards plays gigs until one or two am, lugging his keyboard and cello around New York City.  Nine months after our daughter is born, he gets a dream offer with a rock star, quits his job and starts touring.  He travels around the world, plays at Radio City and the Beacon, on The Late Show, The Tonight Show, and Saturday Night Live.  This living his dream is one of the things people like to point to as they try to think of things to say to me to fix this: “It’s the quality, not the quantity of his life.”  “He did more in 33 years than a lot of people get to do in their whole life.”  “Aren’t you glad he got to live his dream before he died?” 

I keep writing.  I write about our last goodbye.  I reenact it in our hallway, opening the door, closing it.  I write about the reenactment.

I attend a benefit concert given by the musicians you played with- holding up a tweed dress in Anthropologie beforehand to see if it says, “young widow at a benefit concert.”  Later I sit in the balcony of the music hall in Williamsburg with my head on the table, dramatically sobbing while those girls in tank tops and heels wait for the concert below.

The cashier at Whole Foods tells me how she has another job after this one. “I’m a single mom so…” she adds.  “I am too,” I hear myself say, and it is the first time I understand that and it sounds incredulous and I feel like a fraud- a little bit the way you do when you tell the receptionist at the pediatrician’s your newborn’s name for the first time.  I buy fresh flowers there weekly because I love to have fresh flowers in my house.  That cashier always looks frazzled. 

I keep your brown shoes, well worn and shaped by the contours of your feet, by the door for a long time after you die.  I receive your luggage back from Europe and wash all of your clothes.  I water your cello weekly as you’re supposed to do, but eventually I find a program at Julliard where I can loan it.  Their curator, a snobby looking man wearing a bow tie looks at it and tells me most of their students already have nicer cellos, but a visiting faculty member can use it.  I bring the empty case home.

I meet with your old boss from your day job in the city.  On 57th street he hands me an envelope of money they’ve collected for a college fund for our daughter.  “You know, time does heal,” he says with certainty before he heads back to the office. 

After you die, I make a huge to-do list the size of a poster on our daughter’s large roll of drawing paper and tear it off and tape it to my bedroom wall.  “Close bank account”, “change car title”, but also “Buy cute new outfit for daughter so I can get professional picture taken.” 

And I do. I have the most beautiful but haunting photo of her sitting on a bench turning around and staring into the camera printed on postcards with the word, “Thank you.”  I go through the overflowing basket of sympathy cards and send out hundreds of thank you notes.

After you die, I take long walks beside the Hudson River, pushing our daughter in the stroller.  I look for signs of any kind: hawks gliding slowly overhead, dragonflies, butterflies, or rainbows.  Dozens of butterflies crash into the windshield of your friend’s car on the way home from the cemetery the first time I go.  I still have dirt under my fingernails from your grave.   Your friend says he doesn’t believe in signs anymore.

I paint our daughter’s toenails for the first time.   She wants blue.  I put together a play kitchen from IKEA for her at midnight in our bedroom for her second birthday.  On Thanksgiving we stand on the Upper West Side at six am to watch the Macy’s Parade. 

I make a sensory bin of dried split peas with plastic dinosaurs for our daughter. I drink Guinness with your friends at an Irish pub on your birthday.  “We miss you and love you…cheers.” 

I watch other friends who struggled to get pregnant or suffer miscarriages- have their babies.  “Congratulations…he’s adorable!”  Since I am in my early thirties there are so many of these stories with their expected arc and finish.  Wedding and birth announcements abound- the celebratory stage of life…the early narrative. 

I write.  I read.  We don’t have television when you die, and I don’t get one for a long time.  I watch Arrested Development on my computer, and Korean dramas.  I need some distraction.  I never watch the last season of Lost though.  That was something we watched together.  I don’t know how it all turns out. 

After you die, I build a tremendous snowman while our two-year-old watches me in my long down coat, sweating.  I yell at the tweens who knock the carrot nose out later calling from afar, “She just made it…” and I point to our daughter in her lavender hand me down snowsuit.  I also lie down in the snow and make snow angels in front of our apartment building.  I stay there for a while- feeling the cold, staring at the sky from a parallel position, which we rarely do, feeling something like peace.

“The grief will become integrated.  You’ll reinvest what he gave you,” my therapist says. 

I find a financial advisor and meet with him.  I meet with a lawyer and create a will and choose guardians and executors.  I meet with other people who are supposed to know things like the cerebral pastor of a large church in New York City.  I record our profound theological conversation on suffering and death, but never listen to it.  I email a girl with cerebral palsy we know, and ask her to tell me what she makes of it all.  She says she’ll definitely get back to me later, but never does.  She uses a special keyboard because she is paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

I send another widow a necklace with the word hope typed on a single silver charm.  The artist on Etsy who made it sends me the same one as a surprise.  Of course, I’ve told her the story.  I get the surprise package on New Years Eve.  I put the necklace on.

After you die, I throw our daughter a Valentine’s party, and sing to her before bed.  I potty- train her.  I take apart her crib- the screws that you placed in there- and put together a new twin bed.  The tall wooden pieces of the crib lean discarded against the wall while she jumps excitedly on her big girl bed.

I visit churches and sit in the back row. I seem to get the best writing ideas during the sermon, so I pull out my writer’s notebook and appear to be studiously taking notes.  I plant impatiens in boxes on our balcony and add a little fairy house to our daughter’s delight.  I drink Boddingtons on the balcony in the summer heat.

I order your headstone and choose the words, “Be not afraid, only believe.”  Our daughter sprinkles rose petals there on the yearly anniversary.  We release balloons because that is what people do. 

We visit the library weekly.  “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life,” says Dietrick Bonhoeffer right before the Nazis hang him.  “It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between,” writes poet and naturalist, Diane Ackerman.

I write on the blog- hundreds of entries.  I press the keys on my Mac so hard a few of them lose their letters.  I respond to emails from readers.  I sign them always, “Hope, Julia.” 

“Whoever survives must tell his story.  That is his duty,” writes Eli Wiesel.

“Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor,” says Kafka.

I watch two seasons of Downton Abbey in one day.

I select a preschool for our daughter, make snowman cookies, homemade play dough, and throw her a Princess and the Pea themed party when she turns three.  On her first day of preschool, she tells me she hears your voice telling her to have a good day.  We move to a new town.  She has tantrums that leave us wrestling each other, or me sitting with head in hands on the kitchen floor.

I throw a “Pancakes and Pajamas” party with a surprise visit from the ice cream truck when she turns four, and a fairy house building party for five. She gets her own library card on her fifth birthday after school. 

I have a cookie decorating party for our daughter and her friends at Christmas.  We go to see the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center.  The physical strength and grit masked by grace and toe shoes moves me to tears.  We go again the next year.

I have my first panic attack on the way to the dentist. 

I see a new therapist after my old one moves.  “I’m so tired of being in survival mode,” I tell her.  “What does that mean to you- to be in survival mode?” she asks.  Therapists and their damn questions.  I go home and begin a twelve-page piece to answer the question for her and for myself, but I never finish it.  She also tells me to get a haircut and update my resume.  I do both, but I never go back. 

I tell the gynecologist checking my breasts that I’m just really trying to stay alive for my daughter.  “Sounds like a good plan,” he chuckles.  I get EKGs, cat scans, MRIs because I’m sure I’m having a heart attack or a brain aneurysm.  It doesn’t seem like a great narrative- husband dies, then wife dies too- but neither did the first part.  I no longer trust the archetypes.

After you die, for a long time your empty cello case is next to my bed in the new house.  But every morning when I’m half awake and open my eyes and see its shape and shadow over me, my heart jumps.  I think it’s a person.  I move your cello case to another corner. 

I take our daughter to gymnastics, swimming lessons, piano, and birthday parties in warehouses of bounce houses and recycled air that makes me dizzy.

I clean out my walk-in-closet and make it a “prayer closet.” I sit on a floor pillow and say nothing.   “Faith is what makes things bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys,” writes Madeline L’Engle. “You might find sober people who don’t pray, but all the happy ones have some kind of regular meditative or spiritual practice,” says Mary Karr’s mentor in “Lit.” 

I take a yoga class and tears silently stream down my face during a chest opener.  I sign up for more classes. 

I buy vitamins.  I floss my teeth, and at the suggestion of my hygienist, I even buy a Waterpik. 

I take a sketching class online and keep an illustrated journal.  It is the first time I’ve drawn in my life and it’s like those dreams where you find a room in your house you never knew you had.  I go to the church where we were married on what would have been our ten-year wedding anniversary and sit on the curb and sketch the church while it drizzles.  An overweight black man who is singing while waiting for a bus comes over saying, “I’m nosy.”  I explain that I’m new at sketching but it’s my ten-year wedding anniversary.  I was married at that church, and my husband tragically died- and he moseys away very, very quickly.

I read Flannery O’Connor and take a mindfulness class at the YMCA where I meet a 92-year-old Catholic named Gladys who asks me if I’d like to meet with her for spiritual direction after she hears the story.  She tells me to stop praying in the closet and sit near a window or go outside.   In an email she writes, “Remember T.S.Eliot?What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning./ The end is where we start from.”

I read a book by a Quaker about the Serenity Prayer and Gladys tells me to say it twice a day.  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I use exclamation points when wishing people well, on Facebook or otherwise for the first time in years, “Happy Birthday!” instead of “happy birthday.” 

On our daughter’s first day of kindergarten, I walk slowly down the labyrinth of hallways to the PTA breakfast after I drop her off and think, “I can handle this.  I have buried my husband.”  Our daughter is already reading at a third grade level.  We read Peter Pan, The Little Prince, and The Chronicles of Narnia together.   

I pray, journal, and read poetry after I drop off my daughter each morning.  “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life,” says Robert Frost, “it goes on.”  I meet new people and don’t tell them the story, unless they ask.  I buy fresh flowers weekly.  I write my last blog entry on the third anniversary of your death. 

But I keep writing.  This is the only way I know.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Speed of Light

On the eve of your death I am watching town fireworks the day after the fourth of July.

I am overwhelmed by the crowd of families around us on blankets with glo-sticks and cotton candy as we wait for darkness in the still, hot, summer air.  There is a Korean family next to us on a blanket- the little girls are calling their dad, "Appa," thanking him for the ice cream he has brought back from down the street.  If you were here, I would be relaxed instead of feeling on the verge of a panic attack.  You would've gotten Audrey her ice cream and a water for me.  I would be excited- like all of these other families.  Instead, I am isolated, always watching others' lives.

The past week has been draining.  I realized later- that one week ago, last Saturday, the day I had a panic attack and went to the ER for a cat scan, convinced I was dying of a brain aneurysm, was the date of the last day that I saw you.  The day you left for the trip.  The day we said our casual goodbye.  The day you came back in while I was pulling myself together in the kitchen before feeding our baby lunch- hearing the door unlock once more- "I guess I won't need these keys...I'll just leave them here."  "Bye..."

Every night this week I've been panicking about the anniversary of your death.  It is the first year I made no plans with other people.  It is the first year I am in a new home- one you never lived in.  Simultaneously, our daughter started kindercamp this week- a camp for all the kids in town entering kindergarten in the fall.  It's been a tough adjustment for me- leaving her at this new school where I drop her at the door and don't have any real idea what's going on for a few hours.  Our 21 month old- for that is when it feels she was last ours- is almost five years old Dan.  She is heading for kindergarten.

So, every day this week I've dropped her off, spent some time crying at home, and desperately tried to find the "right thing to do" for this year's anniversary.  Maybe go away for a night- someplace quaint and reflective- I thought.  But no matter how much I researched- nothing felt right.  And the days passed.

So here we are.  We will spend the day simply- Audrey and I.

The fireworks were loud and if one looked up, they truly appeared to be falling on us- rays of falling light dissolving just before they touch us.  Tears fall down my face at their beauty and light and fallenness.   It's Audrey's first time seeing fireworks- besides the NYC ones we could see in the distance from our old balcony.  The ones she watched with me on that balmy night calling out "Bue!  Bue!"  because she wanted more blue.  And I told you via email and you wrote back, "I'm glad Audrey liked the fireworks- Appa wishes he could've been there with her."  Something like that.

"We used to call our apartment, "The apartment," she says as I am pushing her in her stroller up the hill to the fireworks this evening.  "Now we call it the old apartment."

"That's right," I say.

Is this how you measure time?   Is this how you measure three years.  "The" apartment becomes the old apartment.  But what does it really mean?  This human unit of measurement...change?  It has felt irrelevant to me since you left us.  I have seen it, not as a spiral or a climbing line, but a flat plain- one in which I see the past, present and future all laid out in space together.

The movie theater where we saw our first movie together.  It's been replaced by a strip mall.  The kids shoe store where we bought her her first sneakers together- has gone out of business.   So has the luggage store where I bought the first suitcase for you for your tour.

They replaced the booths at Whole Foods with small tables and there is a tall counter with cafe stools looking out the windows at the Hudson.  The pizza place that you liked with the extra large slices is changing ownership and name from Pizza Gallery to Frankies or something.  The Barnes and Nobles closed and is now a Michael's craft store.

I'm a member now of a lot of strange groups on Facebook with names like "Hope for Widows," and "Gone without Goodbye."  I carry Xanax in my purse, but I still let the toothpaste clog by not closing it all the way.

The Office had its last season this past spring.  Arrested Development had another season of episodes released on Netflix.  I thought it was a bit of a train wreck, and lost some of the natural wit it had before.   Oh, there was another Lord of the Rings movie, released sometime around your birthday. I thought about going.

The floral flannel pajamas that you got me for my last Christmas present have lost most of the flannel now- the fuzzy part- but they're very soft.  The mole on my right leg above my knee is gone- I had to have it biopsied and taken off.  I have a lot more grey hair.  Tonight at the fireworks Audrey is hanging on me, and I say, "Stop, I'm an old lady," and she says, "No, you're not!"  "You're right, I'm a young woman," I respond.  "Well, you are 37," she says.  "Soon you'll be 40!"

Patti Griffin has a new album out.  I might like to get it.  Travis has a new one too I think.  A little while after you died, Fran released a solo album and dedicated it to you.  Cool right?  I still don't do a great job hand washing dishes.  I see what you mean now that it is me that puts away the dry dishes and discovers dried stuff still stuck on.

Your brother got married.  Mine's engaged.  Dov and Charles had baby boys and named them Daniel.  Alice had a fourth.  Mercy had a third and so did my friend Sam.   Your old bandmate got married.  He asked me for some music of yours to play while guests were being seated or something.  Of your two close remaining bachelor friends one got married last month, and the other is engaged.  I've been invited to all of these weddings, but couldn't bring myself to attend one yet.

I still have your bottle of hot sauce in the fridge.

Audrey's gotten a first, second, and third hair cut.  We sprinkled the hair from the first on your grave.  She's also been to the dentist numerous times.  The last time the hygienist showed me one of her bottom front teeth that is ever so slightly loose.

Our bank got rid of deposit slips all together.  I do the drive through now like a pro.  We've changed churches three times.  We live in a different house.  In a different town.  Did they have the iPad when you were alive?  Audrey's quite proficient at games on my parents' Kindle.   I broke down and finally bought a TV after we moved.

The next World Cup is just one year away.

I used to enjoy the sound of a ringing phone.  Now I do not.

This is how I measure time.  Before.  After.  How long.

But this past week I feel as though I've gone somewhere else for a while and returned.  A distant star and in some sci-fi Twilight zone kind of way, I've been away just long enough that when I return - the light years it took me to travel back have stolen time from me.  I am not 34 anymore.  I'm 37.  I live in the suburbs- our 21 month old is almost 5 years old.  I feel the same, but everything else has aged.

I keep this word and its definition open in a window on my iphone all the time.  Antipodal: related to or situated on the opposite side or sides of the earth.

The fireworks are beautiful and seem fitting for the eve of your death.  They are powerful and the sound is a bit faster to reach me than the light.  Because I hold my ears, the sound is muted and the lights become visualizations of our love and grief.

The light takes time to travel in our vast universe.  As a result, we are often looking at the past- the sun eight minutes ago, the dim red dwarf four years ago, the light from the edge of our universe-14 billion years ago- almost three times longer than our planet has existed.

How do I measure time- this time- three years.  The years were spread out like playing cards the day I heard the words, "Dan is dead."  They have already been there.  I reach them now.  That is all.  The rawness of my pain for our family is now a chronic inflammation that I've accepted just as the aged or infirmed often do.

I sit beside Audrey in her bed in the dark as she tries to get to sleep after staying up so late past her bedtime tonight.  "Can you tell me any stories about appa when he was a little boy?" she asks me.  I tell her about the few stories I know and she reminds me, "Remember how you said he climbed up to the kitchen cabinets and ate sugar out of the sugar bowl with a spoon?  Did he really do that?"  "Oh yeah, he did.  I forgot about that."  She laughs a good, long laugh.  Then she hums the tune to a song I've been singing/writing for a few months.  "What are the words to that song anyway?" she asks. "I don't know, I haven't really written them.  Maybe tonight or tomorrow night for Appa's memorial I will finish it since it's for him."

"Maybe he can hear it like some secret kind of message," she says.  "Maybe."

This sitting in the dark with our daughter, I realize, is a much holier way to remember you this year than any I could have planned, I will remind myself to stop trying so hard to plan things and let them happen organically.

It is three years now.  Just after midnight.  It is different.  It is the same.  I have had three years to process your death, but I still don't understand or believe it, especially when I hear myself say it out loud to others.

When Audrey was an infant in "the old apartment," people with babies who were 18 months wanted the two to play together and it seemed so outrageous to me.  The 18 month olds seemed like giants to me.   My baby was 7 months old.  But there wasn't even a year difference and in no time, they seemed to be proper playmates.  It was similar when you died, and I met widows who were three, four years "out," as we say.  These women were light years away from me, to use an appropriate cliche just this once.  Light years.

The funny thing about measuring the distance to the edge of the universe is that by the time you figure it out, the universe will already have expanded a great deal making your number untrue.

It is three years though.  I am mostly tired.  I still say, "My husband died a couple of years ago," because it doesn't feel like old news to me.  Friends tell me they "still" think of you- which tells me that the time passing for them has felt a different amount.  And as for God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years, like a day."  (2 Peter 3.8)  This would probably sound about right to most of the widows I know.

Trying to measure time is like looking through the glass darkly- at the dark night sky to the universe beyond.  I cannot trust our standard of measurement.  Because it's late, and I am tired and not fit for writing, I will end here.  If much of what I've written makes no sense to you, it's not because I'm deeper or more profound- I'm exhausted and it probably doesn't make sense- though I would've liked to pretend it's the former.  In closing... "these three remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love."  1cor 13  Forget about the years.  Somehow, love makes it through the wormhole, a song breaks through the boundaries "like a secret kind of message", and a little girl laughs at a father she has no memory of, in the dark.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day 2013

This is the third time.  It is brutal.

I haven't felt it helpful or complex enough to say, "It's not fair; it's just not fair," in the past three years.  But on this day, I think those words a lot.

Unless your young child has lost a parent, you cannot imagine the kind of searing, puncturing pain one feels.  It goes a level or two deeper than your own pain.  You are helpless.  You cannot provide what they desire, all that was lost.  Some widows online today salute the women who they say are doing both jobs- mother and father.  I don't see it this way.  I can only be Audrey's mother.  She is missing her dad.  There is no way I can fill that gap- all of the many things you were going to do with her...I cannot teach her Korean, or piano, or tune her ukelele or build something amazing with Legos, or kick around the soccer ball, or explain how the World Cup works, or do any of the things that you would do because you are you and real, living people do surprising things we can never predict.

I am only her mother.  And I am the keeper of the stories she asks to hear over and over again- how she pooped all over the first time while you were changing her diaper in the middle of the night, the first song you wrote about peanut butter and jelly as a little boy, the way we met and if you were silly.  I am the messenger, "I know your dad would've been so proud of you on your preschool graduation.  I know he is right now, somehow."  "I know your dad thinks you're so pretty in your ballet costume, I just know it."  The answerer of questions, "Would appa like this game?"  "Would appa have laughed while I did this?"  "Would appa have liked me in my ballet recital?"  Or this one, "Did appa love me?"  many times, including today after leaving the cemetery- which she did not want to leave today.

I throw words into the gaping hole..."What do you think?  Of course he loved you!"  My voice is ridiculously enthusiastic.  "He ADORED you!  He was totally crazy for you- coo koo for you!  There was no one he loved more...you were like a gift to him!"

This is my paltry offering today.  And it is- so, very paltry.  What words in the human language can one really genuinely use to depict someone's love for someone else?  The exact way he gazed at her in the delivery room?  The way I caught him taking photo after photo of himself holding you in front of every mirror in our apartment, smiling this tired, goofy smile.  The worried look on his face as you dug into the icing on your cupcake at your one year old birthday party.

In the very beginning- oh so long ago- I worried so much about your pain- reading book after book on children and grieving.  Though too complex for both our minds- yours and mine- you experienced his loss in a very real way.  It was evident when they returned his suitcase and you searched for him happily in the apartment, saying, "Appa???  Appa??"  Or when weeks later, you started talking and saying what he did while he lifted you in the air on his legs.  Or reenacting a game he played with you on your first airplane ride by yourself quietly.  But I was told, in the books, by my counselor, about regrieving: "She will regrieve the loss with every stage of development."  I assumed I would be so much stronger by this regrieving.  But I am not.

The memories you had of him faded away.  It's hard to ascertain if you have even one single direct memory.  "But just because I can't remember him, doesn't mean I don't miss him," you tell me one day.

I have always wanted, partly through these words, to be the keeper for you Audrey - to record the stories and memories and somehow gift to you your father as best as I could.  But words utterly fail- to recreate any semblance of the actual person.  And you have forgotten.  So, I convinced myself this entire past year- after we moved and your memory seemed to dissipate more rapidly- I tell myself, this is OK- as long as you just know two things- he was a great man, and he loved you greatly.  I even came across a photo he took of you opening your first Easter basket.  In some of the eggs he had decided to write special notes to you.  And there it is, in his own handwriting, for you to see.  And I pray this before we leave this morning- that the knowledge of his love would not be a source of sadness for you, but a source of strength.

The simple answer to your question that rings in my ears all day today is, "Yes."  But it is not enough.

"I will miss him forever..." you say as you sit in my arms on the dirt of his grave this morning.  "Forever..." you repeat.

These moments are the purest expelled pain that I have ever known.

It's a lonely job being this keeper.  I carry the knowledge of what two other people are missing for them.  She doesn't know just how much she is missing...you are mostly a flat character to her though I try so hard to make you round.  Do you know all that you're missing - watching your daughter grow up each day, month, and year?  I don't know if you do- so I carry that too.  

I am always alone.  But removed.  Hearing her sweet voice and surprised to hear mine always answering, in a calm tone, with seemingly wise words.  When she can't fall asleep at night and tells me that when she looks through the album it makes her miss him so much and wish he could play with her, and maybe she can have another dream with him in it like the one she had almost 2 years ago- when he was going to read to her, but disappeared.  The one where he told her, "I promise I'll be back."  Close your eyes, who knows- maybe you will.  Go to sleep now.  Tonight I am asking is there any keeper of these stories?  Of these words and moments?  Because, I think, they are just too painful to bear alone.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Compassion Versus Pity

Even though someone grieving sudden loss is in such great shock- it's amazing how, at least for me, everything from even those first days- is so crystal clear.  And in the last 2-1/2 years, I have often reflected on the comfort I have received from others, as well as the things that weren't so comforting (which are not worth dwelling on).  

I will always remember a friend, with tears streaming down her face- as I played some of your music in my bedroom a week or so afterwards- saying, "What a loss...what a loss..."  

I remember a newer friend (and a military wife), from our church at that time, visiting me with her small child, and after some pretty normal introductions, her eyes meeting mine and saying, "I'm sorry Julia..." holding me and crying.  I remember the exact intonation of her voice.

I remember another acquaintance from that church approaching me at IKEA at a playgroup months afterwards.  "I never got to tell you personally- I'm so sorry for your loss."  She looked me right in the eye and said that.  It taught me it is never too late to say those words, and if you haven't- even it's years afterwards- it is more appropriate than not saying anything.  It will not "reignite" sadness.  I promise.  

I think about a friend from college I hadn't seen in years, the guy who was the "funny guy" in our college fellowship,  at the funeral - and at some point, I was walking- very, very slowly as I hadn't eaten in days- to the restroom downstairs from where the service had been held.  He came up to me and asked me if I wanted him to carry me.  Because he was always so funny, it seemed like he was joking and I chuckled, "No... it's OK."  But he repeated his offer and was serious.  I declined, but I often think of this.  "Do you want me to carry you?"  

Of course there are so many others who comforted me in many ways with words or actions or both- old friends and new friends, my parents of course.  I'm getting dangerously close to sounding like I'm accepting an Academy Award, but I think it's worth saying- what we do and say, matters.  It makes a difference.  People are changed by our words and actions.  They remember.  I remember.  

It is helpful to think of in terms of compassion versus pity- two very different things.  The griever, if at all discerning- can always tell the difference.

Writer Matt Litton: "While pity shows a lack of respect for other human beings, compassion has its roots in a deep respect for others.  Pity is an emotion; compassion is a connection.  Compassion sees the other as equal.  Compassion happens when we care for another person enough to make his or her problems our own."  

True compassion, I realize now, is rare.  Compassion- with suffering.  Suffering with.

Henri Nowen puts it like this: 

"Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate.  Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.  But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering.  What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.  Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.  Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.  Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human."  

Some people will tell you time will heal.  Many will try to find some way to relate and empathize by telling you stories of their own trials- even though they often have nothing to do with yours.  Others will emphasize how strong you are- because they don't want to believe you're just like them, and this could happen to them- and then they'd have to be "strong."  Those who get it, follow Nowen's cue above- they cry with us, sit silently with us, shake their heads in confusion with us; they walk beside us and maybe even offer to carry us.

How to Help a Grieving Friend or Acquaintance

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him.12When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky.13Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.
Job 2:11-13

As a part of my closing thoughts, I wanted to include a list of things anyone can do to help someone who has suffered a tragic loss.  So many people asked me what they could do for others they knew in similar situations, and I emailed one friend this list and she suggested I publish it here.  I must preface it by saying everyone grieves differently, and people at different stages in the grief process would need help in different ways- but I think this is still a good starting point.  This was again, taken from an email I wrote a friend just off the top of my head.  I hope it might be useful to anyone who still reads this blog and wants to be of comfort to others.  No one who is grieving should expect all of the below from any one person or friend.  But in true humility- will accept any help offered at all and get what she/he needs from various sources.  What follows is the list from my email.

  • Write her a letter/card about how you'd like to be there for her and how you are thinking about her and wanting to help in any way. Receiving mail is always so nice.  The letter you first sent to me, for example, made me cry/was touching, but also uplifted me to know people were still thinking of us.
  • Offer babysitting if you can- (if that's practical for each of you)
  • If she's in the latter stages- invite her and her twins over for lunch or dinner on a Sunday (or other day- weekends are nice since families usually do family things on weekends and it can be very quiet and hard to think of things to do alone)- set a date- though- I hate when people tell me they want to have us over and then keep saying how busy they are and pushing it back.  And canceling is the worst.  everything in a widow's life is so delicately balanced- that's the last thing she needs.  Make sure your husband is there if he can be- it's nice for the kids who've lost their parent to be around a male figure and I hate feeling like friends tell their husbands to go so I don't feel sad/awkward.  I'd rather be around an intact family- not just women all the time.  In the earlier stages, I much preferred people coming to see me, rather than invites to their homes.  I actually received many invitations, but had little energy to attend these.  Meet people in the early stages of grief where they are.  Don't make them come to you- unless perhaps you will pick them up and drop them off at home.
  • Give her a gift card to a grocery store.  (not sure how her finances are- but this can be very helpful if she wasn't working esp)
  • Give her a gift card to a hair salon to get her hair cut and volunteer babysitting so she can actually go do it.  It's really annoying to widows when people keep telling them to take time for themselves when there is none.
  • Volunteer to go over her house with a bottle of wine or some goodies after her twins are asleep one night just to chat- night time is lonely and the time she used to catch up with her husband probably.  People grieving, esp. in the earlier stages, really need to retell the story again and again to process it.  Be someone who can sit and listen quietly in those early days, without needing to interject about yourself, pass judgement, or give advice.
  • Volunteer to help her with phone calls/errands related to the death paperwork- sometimes that can be so very hard (going to the DMV to change the car title,etc)  Or just anything else that is overwhelming her.  
  • If there are any other death-related things she hasn't done yet- buy a headstone, etc.  You could ask if she needs company on those kinds of errands.  It doesn't matter if you don't know her that well- sometimes that might be easier for her than someone she's close to.  
  • Offer to drive her to the cemetery- no one really offers that- but if he's buried- sometimes it's hard to go alone or drive because you're so upset. 
  • Make her a meal or buy something pre-made from Whole Foods type place.  Having the energy to make meals daily is one of the most difficult tasks for me...esp. earlier on.
  • Get a fun toy for the twins- it lifts a mom's spirit to see her child happy.
  • Send her a book or two.  A few books I found really helpful: CS Lewis: A Grief Observed   Grace Disguised by Jerry Sitter   Lament for a Son,  On Grief and Grieving, On Death and Dying.  You could tell her another widow you know recommended them so she doesn't feel you're just throwing books at her if you either recommend them or ship them to her from amazon.    
  • Finally- share your own life- highs and lows.  In the very early stages, someone suffering traumatic loss can't really think of anything but that loss and pain- and does not want to hear about anyone else's problems.  *But- later on, it gets extremely tiring always feeling like you're receiving or like people feel or you feel you have nothing to offer others.  Actually, and I believe this is very important-  the widow has a valuable perspective and a lot of wisdom won the hard way, and she'll feel useful if she can use it.
  • I think those are all things I would really appreciate or did appreciate- but every person grieves differently so of course I can't say for sure that these are exactly what she'd want.  It also depends on how far out she is.  If she's still in the early months- the gifts, gift cards, meals are nice.  A little later on, someone to talk to is nicer.  And throughout, better than gifts, things dropped off, etc. is always time spent with people- since it's such a lonely, isolating road.