For 536 days, a figurative storm of grief has raged inside of me. Today, a literal storm is raging outside as Hurricane Dorian takes its best shot at the east coast.
My son and my in-laws are with me, safety in numbers. My father-in-law is sitting at our piano playing tenderly; old gospel favorites like Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and so many more. He’s never had a lesson, not a single one. He plays by ear in a very old fashioned way, constantly improvising as he goes with lots of trills and warbles and using the sustaining, or damper, pedal all the while. Each hand toggles rapidly holding notes in a rich, sweet melodramatic vibrato. I’ve heard him play these same songs maybe hundreds of times over the years but never the same way twice. It’s always new. Always new. Now, isn’t that rare and beautiful!
The wind is really howling now, gusting up to 80 miles per hour. The house creaks and groans but remains steadfast. Trees and limbs are down and smaller debris is everywhere. Even the tallest, strongest trees are being tossed about like waves on a turbulent ocean. They billow, flap, and snap like sheets hung on a line near some windswept prairie. Fascinating, really. Frighteningly beautiful and captivating to watch. Warning: This post may be a bit of a rambler as my thoughts and emotions today are equally tossed by the wind. It’s also a little lengthier, too. Apparently, we’re having a deluge of water and words!
There are two groups of people in my world now. People who know Paul died, and people who don’t. However, there is a challenge that’s the same within both of these groups. In the first group, there are many people who know how grateful I am for the time Paul and I had, for the support that I have received and for the way I have grown through my experiences, but there are some who just feel sorry for me and not in a good way. I am uncomfortable with the way some people pity me. With the latter group, it’s a look of pity on their face the first time they learn about my husband’s passing. It’s a look I know all too well, and it nearly always transports me to that other period of grieving in my life when my mother died.
The day my mother died was a normal day. It was a Wednesday. It was March; St. Patrick’s Day, in fact. My father was away, out of town on his annual fishing trip. My mother woke me up to get ready for school. There’s nothing really significant or extraordinary to remember about that morning because it was just like any other morning in our household. That part actually amazes me. It amazes me that the day your life will change forever can just start like that, like it’s just an ordinary day.
I am aware that a child’s memories are often perforated with gaps and oddly pieced together like a misshapen quilt, but I do remember that I was wearing a green, button-down shirt of my mother’s. The style of it was very on trend for the time, 1983. It was a Ralph Lauren mens’ style, button-down dress shirt; light seagrass-green cotton, crisply ironed with starch. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a fresh pair of Sperry Topsiders, and an Aigner purse completed the look. I remember feeling very grown that I could share clothes with my mom. I was twelve.
I left the house and walked toward the bus stop that was located on the street behind our house. I went out the front door and circled back cutting through a neighbor’s yard. My mother was always waiting at a back window for one final wave goodbye. For the life of me, I can’t actually remember the moment that she waved to me that day. I can only assume she did because it was our ritual.
My mother worked as the bookkeeper at my grandmother’s shop. Every day, she left for work after I left for school. It was an exciting day at school that day because we were having a science fair. The projects were lined up on tables in the gym at a neighboring school. One of my friends had her project set up on the next row over from mine. She and I along with other students, teachers, and a handful of parents were milling around, chatting and looking at the displays, anxiously waiting to see the ribbons that would be pinned to the winning projects. My friend and I knew each other from dance, tennis, and girl scouts as well as school. We went on beach vacations together, camping trips, and were regulars on the weekend sleep-over circuit. Our parents were friends, too. We are, in fact, still friends today, and I am so grateful for that sustaining friendship.
Suddenly, my friend’s mother, who was also my mother’s friend, arrived. She was stopping in to see how we were doing. I remember her looking a little wind-blown, wearing a rain coat and carrying an umbrella. The weather that day was early-spring squally, stormy with heavy rain (cats and dogs as we say in the south), lightning and thunder. Unknown to any of us at the time, my mother, driving to work in the storm, had hydro-planed on standing water in the road. She lost control of the car, crashed, and died. She was not wearing her seat belt. My father told me that she was killed instantly, that she did not suffer. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t believe him, but I needed proof. So, one day when I was home alone after school, I snuck into a box of legal documents and found her death certificate. It verified what my father had told me.
I remained at school all day. Remember, my father was out of town. My extended family needed time to notify him and time for him to travel home. I rode the bus home as always. I got off the bus and was making my way to the cut-through by the neighbor’s house. I heard a sound, in the background, but kept walking only mildly aware of the noise. Then, I heard it again, more insistent this time, a car horn. It got my attention. I turned to see my father’s car. I ran to it and hopped in. I don’t envy what my father had to do that day, to tell his only daughter that her beloved mother was dead. In fact, what I saw and experienced in that moment has won him an extraordinary amount of grace in the years hence, but that, my friends, is for another post. There was someone else there. Someone who opened the car door and tried to help comfort me, contain me really, but I don’t know who that was.
We made our way home and arrived to a house full of people, relatives and neighbors, where every adult was wearing the same look on their faces when they saw me. In my whole life, no one had ever looked at me that way because they never had cause or reason to. By all accounts, I had lived a charmed childhood with very little disruption or strife, a much doted on only child. The look on their faces is seared in my memory. The glassy, knowing eyes, up-turned cheeks, the down-turned corners of their mouths, lips pressed together, full of sadness and love. Poor little girl. I had the distinct impression that my sadness was making their sadness worse. For many of them, it seemed the mere sight of me, the thought of what I had lost was more than they could bear so they just looked away, looked down, averted their gaze, or looked right through me. My perception was that they thought of me as weak, helpless, to be pitied. The poor-little-girl look on their faces incensed me, made me want to punch them in the nose. Later on, I was whisked away from the television as the local, evening news told the tragic story of my mother’s death, her devastated family, and the twelve year old daughter she left behind.
Tragic. Tragedy. Over the next few weeks and months, I heard those words over and over, usually whispered between adults who thought I was out of ear shot. My mother was the oldest child with three siblings. She was well-loved by our family, friends, and neighbors, and her family was well-known in the area. And, truly, I am only now beginning to understand the full impact on those adults as I am now an adult struggling with loss myself. They lost a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a neighbor, a friend. They were all grieving in different ways, and I was internalizing all of it. I didn’t feel like a participant in the grief. I was an observer, a witness. Looking back on it now though, I have such compassion for all of them. The spitting anger and indignation has been replaced with empathy. It was awful for all of them, and many of them are still dealing with the emotional aftermath to this day. I am so very sorry for their loss. I truly am.
As I grew older, I met new people who didn’t know my mother died. In order to avoid the look, I simply would not offer that information about myself to anyone because my perception was that it completely changed the way they thought of me. So, sometimes I am also uncomfortable with those that don’t know that Paul died. Truthfully, my discomfort is with myself because even though I am spared the look, it is bothersome to me that they don’t know something so fundamental about me and my life to the point that it feels dishonest for me to keep that part of myself hidden. It feels disingenuous, unauthentic, not my true self. I don’t like the mask anymore, and yet, I still have a tendency to want to guard that part of myself in an effort to control people’s perception of me. It’s quite the internal wrestling match these days as I have moved to a new job, and there are a lot of new people in my life that I am just getting to know. I have to do better. I want to do better by sharing myself fully.
Ok, so here it is. Here’s the big moment that all this rambling is leading up to. The nitty-gritty as it were. Sharing my weakness, making myself vulnerable to people’s perception and even their unwanted pity is an opportunity to share the power of God’s love and the saving Grace that is the personhood of Jesus. His perfect love and strength are revealed fully in my weakness. Earlier in my life, I might have missed, no, I know I missed opportunities to share my faith because I was selfish and wanted to control how others saw me. No more. People, God has worked a miracle in my life! He has used my pain and suffering, my tragedy, to speak to me, and, hopefully, to speak to you. He has transmuted my sadness into gratitude, growth, healing, and joy. He can do that for you, too!
Check this out from Psalm 84:6, “Who passing through the vale of tears, makes it a well.” A vale is a valley; a valley of tears. I have cried that many tears and more for my mother and for Paul, and it makes me think back to the Camino when I was walking in the rain for hours. That’s what a valley of tears must be like. Tears falling like a never-ending, drenching rain; a soaked-to-the-bone, clothes-sticking-to-you, pouring-water-out-your-shoes, shriveled-skin-on-hands-and-feet rain of tears! At the time, I didn’t understand. I just did it. I just kept walking. But now, I know what that valley of tears feels like in my heart and on my skin. Because of that experience, I can really connect with what God is saying to me. And, get this, I misread the next part! At first, I read “…makes it well” as in makes it all better. Gee, thanks God! That’s what we want him to do, right? Make it all better! But that’s not how God works (at least not in my life!) and thank goodness for that. Upon rereading, I realized that this is what the verse actually says, “….makes it a well.” A well as in a source of water, life-giving water, a fountain of joy! The New Living Translation states it like this, “When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs. The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.” And commentators agree that it speaks to our loving God’s power to turn adversity itself into a blessing. Showers in the desert can turn a barren landscape into a garden. So, too, resolve and faith together commute disadvantage, disaster even, to benefit.
The full verse contains even more riches, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion. O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!”
Now, doesn’t that just blow you away?! I don’t know about you, but today I know for certain that the mighty rushing wind of God’s Word blowing through my soul is stronger than any hurricane raging outside my window.
Blown away by God’s love, Malia