Happy Holidays!

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a holiday. That’s why I’m writing about it now. The holidays have been so fraught with emotion for me that I’m not capable of effectively writing about them in the moment.

I grew up near the ocean. It was always there in the background, either lapping or roaring. That’s how grief is, too. Always there. In the background. An ocean of grief, either lapping or roaring. If grief comes in waves, then the holidays are most certainly rip currents. I remember being taught from a very early age what to do if I was ever caught in a rip current. A rip current is a swift, narrow flow of water moving perpendicular to and away from the beach. It can literally take you out to sea, away from the stability of the shore. You may suddenly find yourself slapped about by a tumult of waves, bobbing up and down, coming up for a gasp of air but just as quickly pulled back down. With eyes squenched shut and cheeks taut with breath held, you’re catching only glimpses of the shoreline with each bob and weave. Everyone’s first instinct is to try to swim back to land. Everyone’s first instinct is wrong. In so many cases, that decision is fatal. If you struggle, fight against it, you might die of exhaustion. The key is not to struggle. You can do one of two things. You can change direction and swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current, or you can just let it carry you until it has lost its power so that you can calmly make your way back to the beach. I think it’s good practice for grieving through the holidays, too. Change direction, or ride it out. I also think there should be grief signal flags like maritime signal flags. The holidays: storm warnings ahead, dangerous conditions. My holiday ship would be flying the delta flag, a field of blue with a yellow belt above and below it, signaling, “Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty.”

The first holiday that came up on the calendar after Paul died was Easter. As a Christian, there is no other holiday with greater meaning or comfort, and no greater reason for hope than this one, but at the time, I was numb to all of that. In fact, that first Easter Sunday after Paul died, I didn’t even go to church. I had been at the hospital all night with Paul’s family. His mother had a very mild, cardiac event and was hospitalized overnight. Likewise, I did not go to church on Easter Sunday this year either. Instead, I was just stepping off a plane from my Camino experience in Spain. So, Easter Sunday at church without Paul sitting beside me is still an unknown experience. Yay, there’s that to look forward to.

The next major holiday on the calendar was Thanksgiving. That one was blessedly normal. Honestly, I didn’t even give it a second thought. Why? I was anxiously anticipating our wedding anniversary and Christmas which nearly coincide with each other. I was already so focused on how I was going to manage those holidays that Thanksgiving was little more than a speed bump in the road. So, you might be thinking that I did well to get through Thanksgiving relatively unscathed, and it’s true. I did. But Thanksgiving, filled with family, quieter and less commercialized than Christmas, has always been my favorite holiday. So, while I did indeed get through it, I didn’t enjoy it, and that was hard, not enjoying my favorite holiday.

Paul and I were married 11 days before Christmas. It was a simple, lovely wedding. It was an unseasonably warm, 72 degrees, that day. The morning was overcast with a sprinkling of rain, but by the time I was walking down the aisle at two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was out and it was a spectacular, late fall, Lowcountry day. I loved our Christmas time wedding. It’s such a festive time of year anyway. There is so much to celebrate. It’s when the church celebrates the birth of Christ, and the church’s celebratory mood is on full display, hung with greenery and garlands punctuated by the brilliant red of holly berries and poinsettias. We, in turn, were celebrating the birth of our marriage and were looking forward to building a life together with the same jubilance and excitement of children in anticipation of Christmas morning.

I knew our first anniversary without him was going to be difficult, and I really tried to get out of the rip current of emotion rushing toward me, threatening to sweep me away, by swimming in a different direction. I, in fact, went backward in order to go forward. I knew I had to go back to where we started. I knew I needed to move forward from a place of strength. In a way, I was revisiting our life, going on a tour of a place and time that created what we knew as us. Reflecting on it now, it turned out to be a critical, turning point in my healing process.

Paul and I met at a local, historic plantation. It’s where we got to know each other. We spent a lot of time there in the beginning of our relationship, walked the garden paths, talked about the flowers, trees, and history, smiled and laughed and shared ourselves, our stories.

So, I planned to take the day off from work and spend our anniversary there. Just me and Paul and our memories. However, it was not the spectacular late fall, Lowcountry day that our wedding day was. It was reasonably warm, but it was raining, a constant slow dripping all day long. I went anyway, umbrella in hand and rain boots on my feet. Amazingly, the plantation and gardens had been transformed by the rain. It made the whole experience other-worldly as if I had stepped through a portal in time and space.

In the rain soaked garden, the light looked different, the greens of the leaves and trees were clearer and sharper in contrast to the mossy grays and muted, tawny, December browns of the rushes and marsh grasses. There was no breeze. It was so quiet. The only movement was that of birds taking full advantage of the opportunity to bathe and preen, and dine on a smorgasbord of stranded insects.

Only the puddles registered my steps as I strode through pathways crowded with the heavy water logged limbs of blooming camellias. The light coating of water like slip glaze on pottery had given the flowers a pearl-ized, translucent quality casting them in a sheen, a glow.

I didn’t see a single other visitor to the gardens that entire day. You might think that felt lonely, but it didn’t. I felt very close to Paul, and enveloped in His creation as I was, I felt very close to God, too. As I stepped out from a pathway to a point where I could see across the rice fields and river beyond, I was greeted with the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”. I had not heard or thought about this hymn in years, but it was with me all day. God, in His mercy, was singing over me.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such gracious judgement given.

There is plentiful redemption
through the blood that Christ has shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be illumined,
by the glory of the Lord.

(Frederick William Faber, 1862)

I had some of Paul’s ashes with me. I had no plans for when or where I might let them go. I just walked and remembered and waited for the moment because I knew it would come. And it did. I rounded a hedge row on to a rise that overlooked the river. The rain had slowed to a mist, and as I swept my arm and hand across my body to launch Paul’s ashes heavenward, a breeze caught him and carried him out over the marshes and river to be forever part of the landscape that he cherished and that shaped the early foundation of our relationship.

The next 11 days leading up to Christmas produced a lot of anxiety. For one thing, I had to do the Christmas shopping by myself. Paul and I always did this together. I spent a Saturday going from store to store with crying fits in the car in between. It was miserable. In contrast to my experience revisiting the place where we met, I didn’t feel close to Paul at all. In fact, I felt as far away from him as I could possibly be, but I was riding it out. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I opted, again, to swim in a different direction. Good move.

I hosted family dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. This included Paul’s family and my family. It also, blessedly, turned out to include a friend from my work family. She was alone for the holidays. Her husband needed to be with his ailing parents, her grown children were splitting the holidays between their families and the families of their respective significant others and so she was by herself on Christmas Eve. I saw a little of myself in that situation and reached out to her to come join our family for Christmas Eve dinner and was so glad I did. It was wonderful to have her there. We got in the kitchen and cooked together and talked and laughed and smiled. She fit right in with our crazy, blended family, and it was good.

On Christmas Day, my son and I got up and opened presents. We visited with Paul’s parents. The morning was quiet and peaceful. The sadness was there, but I just looked it right in the face and accepted it. Then, we joined some other family members and friends to cook and serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House. Ronald McDonald House Charities provide lodging, resources, and support to families of sick children who are receiving treatment far from their homes. It’s a beautiful thing, and it provided me with both distraction from my own feelings and a necessary perspective on my grief and the grief of others.

This past Father’s Day was our second without Paul. It was tough. I don’t really remember the first one being that hard, and I thought that was strange. It seems like all of the firsts would be more difficult, but here’s why I think that’s not actually the reality of it. During that first year, a holiday was no different from any other day because they all sucked. Every day was a difficult day, holiday or not. But then, somewhere along the way, everything gradually starts getting better, and the bad days start to stand out from the other days more so than they did before. Suddenly, holidays become like land mines, like islands of grief in an otherwise relatively calm, navigable sea.

There is a lot of really good advice out there about how to survive the holidays when you are grieving. And you can certainly do just that. You can survive the holidays. But you can also use the holidays as an opportunity to grieve, grow, and heal. I think I did a little of both.

Malia

To be like Ruth.

Paul was not worried about dying, but he was worried about those he was leaving behind including his parents who are now in their 80s. I reassured him, “You made me a Dunn, and nothing is going to change that. I’m going to take care of these people,” and that’s exactly what I am doing not because I have to, not out of some sense of obligation or because it’s what Paul would have wanted but because I love them with the same deep, abiding love with which I loved Paul. They are my family and always will be. They have loved me as their own daughter. I may not be blood of their blood, but I am heart of their heart.

My husband came from a family of three boys. One night, we were all sitting around the dinner table as we frequently did, and Paul’s mom and dad were regaling us with stories of the challenges of raising three boys close in age to each other and how the risk of adding yet another boy to the raucous mix made trying for a girl a deal breaker. Then, one of them commented, “But then came Malia…” and my husband finished the thought with, “….and Mama got the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl she’d always wanted.” We all grinned at each other because we all knew it was true. I was so young when I married Paul and joined their family, and yet his parents were still young themselves. I could easily have been their natural child. No matter. They have surely and truly loved me as their natural child.

What’s more is that they possess memories of Paul that no one else has. He is alive in their memory. They tell stories about his childhood, adolescence, and the years before I met him. They keep me connected to Paul in ways that no one else can. I look at their faces, and I see Paul. His nose, his mouth and full lips, his narrow chin, and his deep brown eyes looking back at me. He’s there, in the slightest expressions in their faces, in their gestures, the way they walk and talk, the way they smile. I remember the same was true of my grandmother. Her daughter, my mother, died when I was twelve. My grandmother held my mother in her memory, in her face, her hands, her voice and her laugh, and as long as my grandmother was alive, I enjoyed that connection. She told me stories of my mother’s childhood and added dimension to my own memories by filling in details from her own perspective of the events.

When my grandmother died, a cord was cut. She took all of her memories with her, but sometimes shared memories can have a Droste effect becoming like a picture inside a picture inside a picture so that those we loved, but who are no longer with us, continue to live in our memories generation after generation. The memory becomes recursive. Now, I am remembering my grandmother remembering my mother, and one day, I will be remembering my husband’s parents remembering Paul, and I will be the one passing those memories on and keeping the connection alive.

***

In the Biblical book of Ruth, we learn about Elimelek and his wife Naomi who migrated to Moab because of famine in their homeland, Judah. Elimelek died, but their two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. (Sidebar: Orpah is actually Oprah Winfrey’s real name.) The Book of Ruth goes on to say that after about ten years both of Naomi’s sons also died so she decided to return to her own family in Bethlehem in Judah because she heard that the Lord had come to the aid of His people and provided food in that region. Naomi encouraged both of her daughters-in-law to also return to their own families. Initially, both Orpah and Ruth pleaded to be allowed to remain with Naomi, but at Naomi’s urging, Orpah turned back and returned to her own family. Only Ruth remained. She begged her mother-in-law to allow her to remain with her. Ruth pledged, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” and so she did. Now, Ruth has her own book in the Bible. There’s only one other woman with her own book and that’s Esther. Esther was a typical Jewish girl who through God’s providence became Queen of Persia and is credited with saving her entire race. She clearly earned her Biblical standing. So, what did Ruth do to earn hers? Ruth was loyal and obedient as she navigated the series of changes life handed her. She, a foreigner, returned with Naomi to Judah, remarried a man named Boaz and produced a son named Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David. Yes, that David, King David, whose offspring led to Jesus.

I can really relate to Ruth and her desire to remain with the family that God blessed her with, but it’s more than that. It’s about how faith and obedience go hand-in-hand. Ruth was obedient at every turn in her very difficult life. Obedience is not a word often used in our culture today. It has taken on some sort of uncomfortable connotation, but I think that both the word and concept have gotten a bad rap. Obedience is about turning control over to someone else, submitting the outcome to someone else and acknowledging that someone else knows better even if the outcome doesn’t seem better to us. I know. Really difficult stuff here but so important to a right relationship with God that bears fruit. It took me years to learn this. No, it took me years to even get a glimpse of what obedience looks like, sounds like, acts like. It took me years more to fully realize its potential, and yet I still lose my grip on this fundamental understanding. It’s like trying to grab a fish. You struggle to catch hold of its slimy, wriggling, flapping body. You finally manage to lasso it with your hands, and then it just slides right out of your grip.

Here’s how I discovered what Godly obedience is all about, but let me start with what it’s not. It’s not about following the rules. Yeah, I was shocked about that, too. I am a natural born rule-follower, and I think that’s what made my road to obedience longer and harder. I was outwardly clean but inwardly rotten, rebellious. I wasn’t following the rules because I wanted to or more importantly because God wanted me to. I was following the rules because that’s what good people do, and I was, of course <insert eye-rolling>, a good person. For me, that kind of thinking was literally the road to hell, to separation from God. So, one day, I just started playing a little what-if game. What if I do a thing not because I want to? What if I am obedient not because it’s a rule or a law or an expectation based on my race, gender, social station, or family dynamic? What if I do a thing because it’s what God wants me do, and it pleases Him? It’s life changing, friends. It’s trans-formative, and it’s hard.

I’ve also learned that, for me, when it comes to obedience, the train never pulls into the station. There is no arrival at success. There are many failures. It is an ongoing process. Case in point. Six years ago when life changed as it so often does, and I arrived at a new workplace I was unhappy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand why God stuck me there. I protested. I pouted. I dug in my emotional heels. I was not obedient. I didn’t embrace God’s will for my life. In a lot of ways, I was lost. Now, as I’m about to embark on a new journey in a new workplace, I left my work family with this:

A love letter…..

I have a confession to make. My first year at OMS was really hard for me. The transition was difficult. OMS was so VERY different from my previous school district, my previous position. You see, I had been really comfortable where I was. Maybe even too comfortable. As a 20 year veteran, I suddenly found myself with a lot to learn, and that was a little hard to take. My confidence was shaken. I have another confession. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to like OMS. In my mind, instead of getting on with it, I wanted to keeping comparing it to what I missed so dearly in my former school and district. I was being stubborn and willful. I prayed to God and asked Him what in the world was He thinking? What purpose could He possibly have placing me here? I am embarrassed to say I wasted precious prayer time asking why, why, why. I’m also embarrassed to say it took me awhile to see that God was showing me why, every single day, in every single one of you. You won me over. You stole my heart. You made me love you, and I do love y’all.

I have learned so much from each of you. Y’all have inspired me to strive in my teaching, empowered me to press on, and comforted me through some of the darkest days of my life. You’ve picked up my slack when I just couldn’t rise to the occasion and celebrated with me when things went well. You’ve laughed with me when I allowed my silliness out to play, and cried with me when there were no words left to speak. You are among the finest teachers and human beings I have known. I will remember everything you have taught me. I will miss you dearly, and I thank God for the time I’ve spent with you all. Gosh, darn it, OMS! You made me love you!

I’m there in the picture with my work family, yet another family God blessed me with. These days, through all the changes and challenges that life has to offer, I want nothing more than to be an instrument of God’s will and trust all the consequences to Him. I’m doing my best to be obedient, to be like Ruth.

Malia

Ding! Times Up? The Challenges of Being a Widow of a Certain Age

A man gave me a compliment……and I fell apart. It wasn’t untoward. It was actually a very nice compliment, but it wasn’t just that. I want to make sure I describe this compliment accurately because it has everything to do with my reaction to it. It wasn’t “Nice dress” or “Your hair looks great today” or the casual “Hey, beautiful” or even the dreaded cat call. It was a compliment with an encouragement. I had just been to a workout, and in passing, the man said I “looked great” and whatever I was doing I should “keep doing it”. See? Nothing to it. Right? I thanked the man, wished him a nice day, got into my car, and dissolved into a salty sea of my own tears. They came hot, heavy, and plentiful, and I felt ridiculous.

My body has only ever belonged to my husband. I don’t mean belong as in a possession or property. I mean belong in the sense that I was suited or matched to Paul. That with him I was in my rightful place. He was my home. I was part of him. I was his missing rib. In Mark 10:8, this relationship is described this way, “And the two shall become one flesh; so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” One flesh. Exactly. Marriage is the emotional reintegration of the flesh to the original configuration of man created by God. I am finding it hard to think of myself as a single being.

I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that in my previous posts. I teach middle school, and middle schoolers are not known for their tact. Anyway, one of my eighth graders recently asked, “Hey, Ms. Dunn, you gonna get back in that dating game?” The world ground to a halt, screeching and crunching on its axis. I expelled an audible breath of air like I had just been punched in the chest. I literally had no response for that. I was lost for words, and that is rare.

Recently, I was shopping with an elderly family member, a man. Another man in the store approached us and briefly spoke with me. Moments later my family member said, “Malia, that man was flirting with you!” The tone in his observation implied two things: a) that I was somehow unaware of the flirtation, and b) incredulity that I did not respond in kind. My response to my family member’s comment was a hearty “Hmph” and “Phssh”. To that he added, “Come on, you’re still a good looking woman.” Suddenly, I felt like I had an expiration date stamped on my forehead. The implication of the entire exchange was that I should consider another relationship quickly while I am still viable. Do you feel like punching someone in the nose right about now because I do! I mean what the hell?! What fresh, new kind of hell is this where I better get on with it before I am no longer marketable?

All of these are pretty overt examples. I could provide countless more examples of the subtle pressure that exists in conversations with friends and family about the brother whose wife died last year, the friend who never married, and the single, church member whose name comes up over and over and over again. Enough already. When I ignore or politely decline these suggestions, these advances really, I inevitably get this response, “But you’re so young. You’ll find someone else.” For the life of me, I am not even sure what that means. I am not even in contact with a universe where that makes sense to me. I mean I understand people who remarry. What I don’t understand is how it’s somehow a foregone conclusion related to my age, or how a relationship with someone else will provide some kind of relief to those who love and care about me. I know people mean well and want me to be happy, but again this means that people think I can’t be happy or fulfilled unless I’m in a relationship or married?? This leaves me feeling confused and hurt as if I am not sufficient on my own. Is this the way it is for all single people or just widows of a certain age? Is there a constant, subtle pressure on singles to find someone? Uugggghhhhhh.

Just a few weeks before Paul died we were out together, and we saw a friend of ours whose wife died of cancer two or three years ago. He was with a lady. They were holding hands and smiling warmly at one another. I was surprised. It looked awkward to me. No, it didn’t look awkward. It felt awkward, out of place, out of time. It stirred feelings in me that made me uncomfortable. Our friend and his wife had been young sweethearts, married for more than 30 years, and were utterly devoted to each other. You never saw one without the other. Later, on the car ride home, it was still bothering me so I talked to Paul about it. I said it was so strange to see our friend with someone else. I was having trouble reconciling it. I told him it seemed disloyal. Paul disagreed. He said he was happy for our friend, and that it was right for him to share his life with someone else if it made him happy. I grabbed his hand and held it tight. I told him I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to do the same if and when I was ever in that position. Paul said, “Well, that’ll be something you have to decide for yourself, but I think it’s fine.” The rest of the car ride home was very quiet, uncomfortably so. Did I ask Paul about it because on some deep level I wanted his blessing? Did his response represent how he really felt, or was he already taking care of me and my future?

I have no idea what the future holds. I do know that I place no expectations on myself one way or the other in terms of dating or marrying again, and I need others to do the same, to have no expectations or to assume what I will do. I am enough, and God’s grace alone is sufficient. What I have, what I don’t have, what I am and what I’m not, where I am in this place and time, it’s all God’s grace, and it is sufficient for me.

2 Corinthians 12: 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Peace, Malia