Message in a Bottle

More than a year ago, my son sent me an audio file of a phone conversation he had with his father about a week or so into his dad’s diagnosis. He sent the audio file to my phone, but I never listened to it…..until today. My phone was trying to download an update but couldn’t. The error message said I needed to review some large attachments in order to clear out some space for the new update. I was dutifully reviewing the files and deleting, and there it was. A modern day message in a (digital) bottle washed up on my emotional shore.

My husband and our son talked for about 12 minutes mainly about his diagnosis and the amount of time he had left. At the time, I was struggling to make sense of his diagnosis and our treatment options. I was desperate for anything that would give us some more time. My husband was concerned that I was not fully in touch with the situation, that I was in denial about how much time he had left. He was partially correct. I thought he might have months left to live. In actuality, he only had weeks. He knew it. I think I knew it, too, but couldn’t fully accept it. Recently, I have been feeling like I am once again at that same crossroads, the cosmic, cognitive space where the paths of acceptance and denial intersect. There is something that’s been tugging at my heart, something that I know, but I can’t seem to see my way clear to fully accepting where this grief process goes next.

My son and I were talking about this and he said, “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what you are capable of, and I don’t want you to get stuck in grief.” Uh-oh. An arrow straight to my heart. A ripple of panic through my body.

In a recent comment conversation with a fellow blogger, I admitted, “Breaking through is a good way to describe what I feel like needs to happen next, but I really question whether I have the mettle necessary. I am reminded of days on the farm when I was warned by adults not to help the baby chicks as they struggled to emerge from the shell. I felt so sorry for them. I wanted to help so badly. Just a little bit! But, no, I was told that if they were not strong enough to emerge from the shell, they would not be strong enough to survive to adulthood. Yes, indeed.”

Well, folks, leave it to my husband to tell it like it is. In my digital message in a bottle, Paul said….

“Mom’s been a trooper. She’s just…like I said…I appreciate you talking to her because she needed to…she needed to hear it, and from you, and, and realize that, yeah, it’s time, as much as all of us hate to do it, move on. It’s time to move on. She’s only going to listen to me…and you.”

Holy smokes…..that message was recorded in February 2018, given to me over a year ago, and heard for the first time by me today. Amazing. Now, I have no idea what moving on looks like, but I heard my husband loud and clear. I have done my best to love, honor, and obey him in all things. This next chapter can’t and won’t be any different.

People say that time heals all wounds. No, it doesn’t. God does. Reading His Word has taught me the truth about grief and healing, and I am standing on His promises. Paul was a gift to me, and I am grateful. My cup is full and overflowing with precious memories, and I rejoice in them. I will continue to use my experience with grief to tell others about God’s Grace in my life. I consider it a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God has comforted me and still has more work for me to do. I know this because He is daily equipping me for the task.

In their book Grieving with Hope, Samuel J. Hodges IV and Kathy Leonard warn that choosing to remain stuck in your ways will result in grief becoming your identity. Yikes. No, thank you.

The Bible also provides an appropriate warning in Isaiah 17:5-8, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord.  They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope and no future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green and they never stop producing fruit.’” Yes, thank you, because being a stunted shrub sounds like no fun at all.

Moving on with hope, joy, and peace in the midst of my grief, Malia

Requiem

*This is a difficult post that discusses addiction and suicide. Please be cautious about reading this material if you are sensitive to these topics.

Just one, short day after I wrote the grief-bomb post, a member of our extended family took her own life. Because I was immediately needed to support my loved ones, I found myself, unfortunately, in close proximity to the incident itself. I have registered the accompanying shock-waves like a seismograph as they have rolled through my emotional landscape. Shock, horror, disgust, anger, pity, indignation. Sadness. Sadness. Sadness. In the midst of this thick, hot stew of unreconciled emotions that have been difficult to manage because they don’t seem right to me, I struggled most with my feelings of anger. I felt ashamed and guilty for feeling angry with someone who was clearly hurting and in so much emotional pain that taking her own life seemed like the only solution. I asked myself, Where is my love? Where is my compassion? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feel anything other than anger in this moment?. I prayed to God to remove what felt like heart of stone inside my chest.

I hesitated to write about this so soon as there are so many people surrounding this situation that are hurting so badly, and I want to be respectful and courteous. I am torn to pieces, but I can’t. I can’t not write about this. I know, grammar. Whatever. The impulse to write about this is overriding whatever polite sensitivities I might have. And you know what? Screw politeness. Being overly polite, keeping secrets, not talking about it is killing people. Literally!

Transparency saves lives.

So, here goes……She was a lovely person, so kind, so giving. She wanted to help everybody. She was a give-you-the-shirt-off-her-back kind of person. Her family loved her dearly. Her fiancé loved her dearly. She was positive and vibrant with a radiant smile. She had a generous heart. She grew up in a sweet, loving family, a family of five. She has a brother and a sister and many nieces, nephews, and cousins who enjoyed spending time with her. She was funny and adventurous, a free-spirit.

My own relationship with her was rocky at best, and I never really understood why. We were very, very different people. We were always cordial, but we had to agree to disagree on just about everything. I didn’t feel comfortable around her, but she was never anything but kind and welcoming. There was something about her that I could never quite put my finger on. I didn’t trust her, but I had no logical reason to feel that way and it confused me. I could never make sense of how uneasy I felt around her. Unfortunately, it makes perfect sense now. There was a part of her that was always hidden. She was in pain, but she hid it. She was depressed, but she hid it. She was battling addiction, but she hid it. The truth is I never really knew her at all. I never had the opportunity. Her life and mine didn’t intersect until she was in the final stages of depression and addiction. The addiction kept her true self locked inside a prison of stigma, shame, and fear. The version of her that I knew was altered by addiction and over-compensated for everything, and I think my codependent radar, engineered by my family’s own experience with addiction, was just constantly ringing the emotional alarm every time I was around her. My subconscious perceived her as dangerous and signaled my flight response. That leaves me with feelings of regret and heartache that I didn’t get to know her. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed, “Please forgive me for missed opportunities to reach out with kindness and compassion. I am so sorry that I couldn’t bridge the gap between us.”

This is perhaps what addiction is best at, best at making everyone surrounding it think that everything is okay so that it can continue to do its dirty work in secret. Concerned friends and family members are the greatest threat to addiction. They are addiction’s first targets to be eliminated at, unfortunately, any cost.

She was trying. She was trying to break free and had periods of sobriety. AA chips were here and there throughout the house. Stacked Bibles with copious amounts of handwritten notes are evidence that she was reading and studying God’s Word. She was trying. And she had won many a battle, but in a fraction of a second, the impulse to escape won the war. And that’s what it was. An impulse. There was no indicator that that day was different from any other. There were none of the typical behavior patterns leading up to a suicide. No plan. No note. Just a single impulsive moment that ended everything.

Several days ago, we celebrated her life at a memorial service. The service was very well done. It helped me reconcile those unresolved feelings of anger and guilt, feeling guilty about feeling so angry. Two of her nieces and a cousin spoke beautifully, tenderly, about how much she meant to them. Through them, I was able to get a glimpse of her before addiction and depression overtook her. Through them, God opened the eyes of my heart and restored my sense of compassion, replaced my heart of stone with a heart of love. As they shared precious memories of her in a time before I met her, I could see her happy and free. She was so precious to her family. Her love changed their lives for the better, made them the people they are today, and the loss of her will never be made whole in their lifetimes. And then something amazing and powerful happened.

Her sister spoke. Up until that point, everyone’s comments had been in the polite category, very proper and nicey-nice. Everyone had talked about how wonderful she was, how much they loved her, and how much she loved them. Her family loved her dearly, dearly. Her sister boldly affirmed everything everyone had said about her. She was indeed all of those things, beautiful, wonderful, caring, kind, loving, giving, compassionate, fun and adventurous, but she was also broken and in pain. Her sister openly talked about unhealthy choices. She again affirmed that all of those wonderful things about her sister were true and right and good, but it was also true that her sister suffered and struggled her entire life with depression, substance abuse, and maintaining her mental health.

She was suffering from depression and addiction, and she lost her life because of it. Her sister courageously called every elephant in the room by name, and then extended a life line to us all. “If you are hurting, if you are struggling with addiction or depression, we are here for you. The church is here for you. You are not alone. We are with you. Let us help you.” It was fantastic. It was beautiful. It was amazing. She was amazing. She spoke eloquently about how she could love her sister and her sister could be a loving person while, at the same time, her sister was at the mercy of addiction and mental illness. In a stunning moment of power and truth, her sister proclaimed that there’s no shame to this. There’s no stigma to this. She was a beautiful person who suffered and because she was in so much emotional pain she took steps to rid herself of the pain. She just called it all out but still had all this love and respect and honor for her sister. It.was.powerful. And I am thankful for her brave words spoken in understanding, compassion, and love.

In closing, this requiem, this final act or token of remembrance for her, is truly the least I can do. I only pray it could have been more.

Speak the truth in love, brothers and sisters. Transparency saves lives, Malia

I need to build a bomb shelter.

Sometimes grief is like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re never quite sure what grief-bomb may be falling next. Lately, it’s been like a bombardment. Air raid sirens are wailing, and I can hear the sharp, clear, high-pitched, hissing whistle of the bombs as they fall and hit their target leaving craters on my heart, pock marked like the moon.

At my new job, there are many people who are new to me, but some who already know me and some others still who knew both me and Paul. On a recent morning in the cafeteria, I was talking with just such a person, a friend of my husband’s from childhood. In fact, they lived across the street from each other. She told me how she moved from Indiana into the neighborhood and met Paul one day when they were both standing at the end of their driveways. As she was telling me this, she made a motion with her hand as if waving. Suddenly, I had a bird’s eye view of the two of them, standing in their driveways on opposite sides of the street, waving, smiling, saying hello. I could see Paul grinning, his dimples, his chuckle, the sparkle in his eye. I could see his personality, how welcoming and inclusive he was of everyone he met. Well. Let’s just say I had a moment. A grief-bomb. I felt panicky. I knew I needed a safe place to compose myself but didn’t know where to go. I needed to be alone for a just minute or two. My office was too far away. I ended up (where else?) in a bathroom. Some bomb shelter, huh? Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to reel it back in. I am particularly moved and wistful when I talk with someone who knew Paul before we were us. They are a treasure trove. The same is true of people who knew me before my mother died. They not only contain memories of those I lost. They also contain memories of me, who I was in my previous life when those I loved were still with me. Through these treasure-trove people I can access that part of myself that was also lost. John Pavlovitz beautifully writes about this loss of self in losing others in his post here.

I was just about to begin the first set at a recent tennis match when my opponent said, “Is he here for you?” I looked around to see a man leaning on the fence. He was watching, looking out across several matches that were in play. “No, not for me,” I said with a sigh. “Definitely not for me.” FfwwwhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeueeeeeuuuuuuuueBOOM! Grief-bomb. I didn’t win that match by the way. Paul used to come watch all my tennis matches. He was there, supporting me, cheering me on, listening when I was frustrated over a silly loss, and celebrating a win or hard fought loss. He was always there. I was so proud of that, that I had a partner who took pride in me.

A new friend, someone who never met my husband, saw a picture of my son and said, “He looks so much like you!” The day our son was born I labored for 14 hours. Even only seconds old, it was clear to everyone in the room that I had just labored for 14 hours to produce a clone of his father. It didn’t bother me a bit, but I think the nurses felt sorry for me to have labored so long with absolutely no evidence that I was his mother at all! One of them leaned in close to me, I promise I’m not making this up, and said, “Oh, honey, he has your eyelashes.” That’s it. Our son has my eyelashes. Anyone who knew or saw my husband would never say that he looks like me. I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard someone say that our son looks like me. The only reason someone would ever say such a thing is if his father wasn’t present. And he’s not. Paul’s not here. As if I needed another grief-bomb as a reminder.

I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror today and something caught my eye. The weather has changed here so as I was rushing out the house this morning I grabbed a sweater and pulled it on against the brisk morning air. Turns out it’s the little, black cardigan I was wearing the day of Paul’s visitation. I was frozen in place looking at myself in the mirror, remembering the way I looked and feeling the way I felt that day at the funeral home. Will the bombing never stop?

***

In Grief’s Waiting Room.

I’m not well. I want to get better. I need help to do that. I make an appointment. I arrive at the office. I wait, and I wait, and I wait. Where am I? In grief’s waiting room, and praying to hear someone call next!

There is a poem by John Milton that I never tire of reading. It is lovely, full, and rich. Milton wrote it when he was going blind. It is a great comfort to me because Milton proposes that even waiting is useful to God when it is done with patience and faith.

When I consider how my light is spent/Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,/And that one talent which is death to hide/Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent/To serve therewith my Maker, and present/My true account, lest he returning chide;/”Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”/I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent/That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need/Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best/Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state/Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed/And post o’er land and ocean without rest:/They also serve who only stand and wait.

Grief is at once both an extraordinary and fundamental life experience. I wish I didn’t understand it the way I do. I wish it didn’t feel like an old bathrobe, but it does. It’s worn and faded with holes in it, and well, it’s starting to stink. It’s ugly. It’s beautiful. It’s too big. It’s too small. It fits. It’s comfortable, but it’s time to let it go. No, maybe I’ll just keep it. Or maybe I will burn it.

Knowing this second year might be more difficult, I began the year by choosing some words that captured my intention, words to guide me and help me stay focused during times like this when I am feeling out-of-sorts. A fellow grieving blogger calls this feeling unsettling. The words I chose, remember, release, emerge, have also become a way to gauge my progress. The remembering is going well. I can enjoy my memories and share them. I have also been able to release my grip on some of the security blankets I’ve held so tightly. However, this emerging business is tougher. I’d say right now my little grief engines have stalled. I’m tired. I need to rest.

There was a time when I could not project myself into the future; my being into the future. Think about that. I didn’t know what I looked like in the future. I could not produce an image of that in my mind. I couldn’t see myself waking up in the morning. I didn’t know what that looked like. I couldn’t create an image of myself at a point, at any point, in the future. We don’t even realize it, but we see ourselves in the future in our mind, at an appointment, an event, at work, even doing everyday tasks as in ‘I need to wash clothes when I get home this afternoon.’ There’s an image or a feeling attached to that. Our brains do this for us without us even being aware. It’s our continuous, ongoing, narrative stream of life and living. In the weeks and months after Paul died, I was no longer cognitively capable of this. Nowadays, the multi-verse lives inside me, a network of alternate timelines lay stretched out across my mind. My imagination can choose any one of them, and in a blink, I’m living out another of my life’s possible scenarios. In one of the alternates, weeks or months after Paul died, I drove out to the beach, walked into the ocean, and never came out. In another of the alternates, we found the cancer sooner. We had longer to say to goodbye. In yet another, there was no cancer at all. We lived out the fullness of our lives together. But perhaps we did that anyway.

***

This is my favorite time of year in the south. That probably sounds strange since it’s not filled with the picturesque beauty of spring flowers in bloom or the long, gorgeous sunshine-filled days of summer, but it’s lovely in its own quiet, subtle ways. The softer temperatures and cooler breezes, hushed colors, and fuzzy, autumn light signals to me that it’s time to rest, to think deeper, to ponder, to move a little slower but not before we are gifted with the last fruit of summer, the persimmon.

Photo credit: Christine Allston Seabrook

Persimmons are beautiful, glowing yellow-orange orbs that hang like miniature lanterns from their branches. The harvest may be late, but it is, oh, so, sweet. They are worth the wait. They can be eaten as-is or used in all the ways that fruit can be used. My favorite is permission cake. Here’s a recipe:

Persimmon & Caramel Upside-Down Cake

Topping

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 medium-sized persimmons, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

Cake

  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup milk
  1. Heat over to 325 degrees/F. Spray bottom and sides of 8- or 9- inch square pan with cooking spray.
  2. In 1-quart saucepan, melt 1/4 cup butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in brown sugar. Heat to boiling; remove from heat. Pour into pan; spread evenly. Arrange persimmon wedges over brown sugar mixture, overlapping tightly and making 2 layers if necessary.
  3. In medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In large bowl, beat 1 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup butter with electric mixer on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one a time until smooth. Add vanilla. Gradually beat in flour mixture alternately with milk, beating after each addition until smooth. Spread batter over persimmon wedges in brown sugar mixture.
  4. Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on cooling rack 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat whipping cream on high speed until it begins to thicken. Gradually add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, beating until soft peaks form.
  5. Run knife around sides of pan to loosen the cake. Place heatproof serving plate upside down over pan; turn plate and pan over. Remove pan. Serve warm cake with whipped cream. Store cake loosely covered.

***

This is also the time of year that people of the Jewish faith celebrate Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths, some times called the Feast of Tabernacles. It’s a harvest celebration, a time to thank God for his gracious provision. It is also a time to remember the Hebrew peoples’ journey from Egypt to Canaan when they lived in small booths. During the feast days, the faithful are encouraged to construct small, temporary shelters that are decorated with plants, palm fronds, and different kinds of fruits. As a young child, Jesus would have celebrated this holiday with his family and community members.

As always, God is right on time with His presence in His Word, in my mind, and in my heart. God has surely provided for me, and I am thankful. He is my shelter from grief-bombs and from all of the assaults that are the result of living in a broken world. I, too, am on a journey that is difficult and God in His mercy and grace provides me with rest, comfort, and provision just as he did for the Israelites on their long, desert journey.

***

I’ll leave you with Romans 8:25 from the New Living Translation because I love how God’s word speaks truth to me in my moment of need. “But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.” So, what about me? Am I willing to wait on the promises of the Lord? Do I say ‘I don’t deserve this’? Do I say ‘This isn’t how it’s supposed to be’? No, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. All is exactly as God intended, and I am content with his Grace. Content with his Grace in my brokenness, in my pain and suffering, in my grief, and I am thankful. There’s also this from Psalm 61:4, “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” The Lord’s Word and loving kindness are my shelter and my stronghold. The bombs may fall, but I will shelter in the safety of His love.

Confidently patient, Malia