Sunday Dinner #2

I’m getting good at this!

For my next adventure in cooking, I prepared Filipino chicken, rice, steamed asparagus, pear salad, biscuit, and honey-bun cake.

This Filipino chicken recipe is iconic in our family. Paul’s mother picked it up while they were living in Japan in the late 1960s, and it has been a family favorite for over 50 years. Think about that. Three generations of this family have sat around the dinner table and enjoyed this meal together. They have smiled, laughed, and argued, listened, celebrated, mourned, have been sad, worried, excited, angry. This meal is what connects us today to the memory of all of those moments in time.

***

The dish itself is easy and delicious, warm and steamy goodness; rich, salty and sweet. And it’s classically Filipino with an adobo sauce as the base. The recipe calls for two packs of chicken; drumsticks, thighs, and breast. However, Paul and his mother always used a large-ish pack of thighs, bone-in and skin on. Really, you can use whatever you want, but you do need the skin as it provides the fat that keeps the chicken tender. My only added advice here is to adjust the amounts of liquids to make sure that you have enough to cover, or nearly cover, the chicken. In this particular instance, I chose a pack of 10 thighs and found that I needed to double the recipe in order to have enough liquid in the pot.

In a large pot, I added 2 cups of water, one-half cup of soy sauce, one cup of vinegar, two or three whole bay leaves, black pepper, and half a bulb of garlic, sliced. Then, I added the chicken and covered the pot. After about an hour and quick phone call to Paul’s mom for moral support(!), I needed to reduce the amount of liquid. So, I uncovered the pot and let it cook for another hour until the liquid was reduced by about three-fourths. Just use low to medium heat settings and adjust as needed based on the amount of time you have.

***

Ok, let’s take a little time-out to have a serious talk about rice. That’s right. Rice. For my readers in the American south, I know I am opening a can of worms here. (What other readers are there you ask? Well, at last count, the little blog that could is being read in 47 countries around the world. Eeek!)

Rice culture in the American south, specifically in the Carolinas, has a long, long history, and southern households and their cooks have developed very specific habits and methods, to a nearly religious level, around cooking, serving, and eating rice. In fact, many southern brides receive the traditional gift of a rice spoon as a wedding gift.

The rice historically grown in the Carolinas was a long-grain, non-aromatic, white rice. Over the years, my family has grown more fond of the aromatic rices like jasmine and basmati.

Now, there are many questions that can immediately tell us a lot about a person based on their response, questions that place people in categories or camps. Which direction the toilet paper roll faces, for example, is one of those questions. I am not even going to weigh in on that one for fear of losing readers!

But the rice question is this, “How do you cook rice?” The two camps are as follows:  steamed or boiled. Each camp is full of devotees. I have never in my life heard someone say, “Either way. It doesn’t matter” because, well, it most certainly does matter. These two versions of rice are hardly even comparable!

The only way to cook rice is in pot. Judge me as you wish.

Two cups of water to one cup of rice, a thick pad of butter, and 10 minutes covered on low to medium-low heat makes the perfect pot of rice. Every time. Finesse points include bringing it to a hard boil just before turning down the heat and covering, and do not, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, do not lift the lid. Once it is covered, you must not uncover until it is finished. In our household, getting a little too close to the pot would result in a sharp rebuke, “Don’t open the lid!” You might even get a light slap on the hand if it looked like you might be considering lifting the lid. I’m not kidding. When finished, the rice should be forked before serving.

***

Asparagus is a perennial that grows really well in the south. A well-tended bed will produce for many years. It grows like a weed as we say. I have even seen it growing wild in roadside ditches down country lanes bordering long forgotten homesteads and farms. We like it lightly steamed so that it retains its crunch and nutty, earthy flavor. A vegetable basket in a large pot over medium-high heat works well. Add water until it is even with the bottom of the basket. Cover the pot and start a five minute timer once you see the first curls of steam rising. Then, remove from heat and serve immediately.

***

Pear salad. Another icon at our family’s dinner table. Begin with a couple of outer leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce as the base. Add a half of a pear, a dollop of mayonnaise, a maraschino cherry, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. I don’t know the origins of this little dish nor have I ever had the inclination to ask. I almost prefer to think of it as uniquely ours. It is just so dear and precious to me. It really is delightful. Trust me.

However, if you choose to use anything other than Duke’s mayonnaise, I am not responsible for the outcome.

***

And finally for dessert…We were celebrating a birthday so I made a cake, honey-bun cake. We make this cake in a casserole dish, and it is hilariously and lovingly known in our family as buh-donka-donk cake (because if you are not careful, it will give you a buh-donka-donk butt!).

First, mix one box of yellow cake mix, 8 ounces of sour cream, three-fourths cup of oil, four eggs, and one-half cup of sugar until all ingredients are moist, about two minutes at a medium speed. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Combine one cup of light brown sugar, one-half cup of raisins, and two teaspoons of cinnamon and lightly swirl mixture into the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. While the cake is still warm, pour a mixture of one cup of powdered sugar, two tablespoons of milk, and one teaspoon of vanilla over the cake.

Paul made this cake for us many times. He got the recipe years ago from one of our finest friends who got the recipe from his good friend and neighbor. Connection. Making and sharing these recipes and food keeps us connected, physically and in spirit.

As we enjoyed the meal, we talked about all the people we loved who were connected with the recipes and the food. We smiled and laughed remembering them, the time we shared with them, who they were, and the impact they had on our lives and us on theirs. I am so grateful for everything Paul and I shared and particularly grateful that Paul left me such a beautiful (culinary) legacy of love!

This. This is what I love about food, recipes, and sharing meals with others. It’s a way to remember and honor the lives of those we love. It’s an active, living memorial.

Food + memories = joy, Malia

Sunday Dinner #1

Let’s get cooking! This is the first in series of posts that will feature meals that my late husband made for his family and friends throughout our lives together. He was a great cook and really enjoyed it. I also think it was his way of providing for us. It was part of his love-language, and oh, boy, did we feel loved!

My reasons for this adventure in cooking are threefold.

First, it’s a growth goal for me on two fronts. For one, it’s a sort of last hold-out in terms of what daily life looks like without Paul. I have really resisted cooking for myself and others because it is a daily life-task that wholly belonged to Paul. Stepping into a role that was so completely his domain would be full acknowledgement of his absence and a major milestone in my grieving and healing process. Also, we’re moving into a new season of family life with the birth of my second niece, the marriage of my son, and the anticipation of grandchildren in years to come. Our little family is growing! I want to cook for myself and my growing family. I want to share big family meals together, cherish our memories of Paul, and make some new memories of our own.

Second, it’s a way to memorialize Paul and preserve a beautiful aspect of our family life for future generations. Each meal has memories and love attached them; the food, the smell, the taste, the table-scape, the dishes. Food and love, passed around the table.

Finally, it’s therapeutic. Cooking has benefits all its own, the ability to heal a broken heart. A New York Times article from many years back, “Cooking is therapy:  Making meals helps reduce stress, heal a broken heart, among other benefits”, aptly describes the many benefits of spending time in the kitchen.

Now, I am not pretending for a second that any of these meals are gourmet or as healthy as they could be. They are not going to cure your psoriasis or lower your blood pressure. I am simply serving up memories for myself and my family, home-cooked goodness that satisfies and soothes and honors the person we loved. It’s home-cooked healing, comfort for a grieving heart.

For this particular Sunday Dinner, I prepared red rice with pork chops, green peas, cinna-minny apple sauce, biscuits, and cheesecake with a blueberry sauce for dessert. I prepared the meal just like Paul. I did it the same way I watched him do it hundreds of times over so many years. Going through his motions in making the meal was really comforting to me. I felt like I was close to him, like I was spending time with him again, and like I was preserving a part of who he was and what he meant to us.

***

First, I browned the pork chops in a bit of oil on medium-high heat. Next, I removed the pork chops and set them aside. Then, I added stewed tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, a cup and a half of water, and one cup of rice. Finally, I placed the pork chops back in the pan, covered it, and let it cook on medium-low for about 30 minutes. A frequent variation for us was to use kielbasa style sausage in place of pork chops.

Side dishes included green peas, apple sauce sprinkled with cinnamon, and biscuits.

I baked a cheesecake for dessert. Cheesecake was not in Paul’s repertoire, but I wanted to include it because it’s a recipe that a member of my GriefShare group gave me. Each time I bake it, I remember and honor the members of my GriefShare group, how much we shared and supported each other, and the loving care I experienced with them at a time when I was really vulnerable.

***

This cheese cake is so easy! Crust is optional. You can grease/butter the pan, and sprinkle it with crushed graham crackers for a light crust.

For the filling, simply mix together two and one-quarter pounds of cream cheese, one and one-third cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 4 eggs.

Bake at 200 degrees for three and one-half hours. No need for a water bath. Give it the ol’ jiggle test before you remove it from the oven. Let it cool. Then, place in the refrigerator overnight or at least for several hours.

For this cake, I made a blueberry sauce, but it could be topped with any fruit. I have used whole, fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries in the past. The blueberry sauce was quick and easy. I heated two cups of blueberries, half a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and half a cup of sugar over medium heat until bubbly. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of cold water and added it to the blueberries. The cornstarch mixture thickens the sauce. Finish by stirring in one-half teaspoon of vanilla.

Honestly, this first cooking adventure was so much fun! I found both joy and satisfaction in cooking for my family.

***

In other news, it seems that everyone has a New Year’s post of one kind or another, but this is not my new year. My new year begins the day after the anniversary of Paul’s passing, March 18. However, my thoughts are already wandering in that direction, anticipating the marking of the second year without Paul, and, oh goodness, acknowledging new possibilities. I have no idea what that looks like, but I know I have grown tremendously and more than ever I am looking forward. Just that. Looking forward.

My friends, healing is the new grieving, Malia

Five Gold Rings

This is, after all, the fifth day of Christmas. Can’t you just hear the familiar, well loved carol echoing in your memory? That favorite refrain that everyone joined in on even if they couldn’t remember the other gifts of Christmas?

Big inhale! FIIIIVVVVVE GOLD(EN) RINGS! BOM, BOm, Bom, bom…..So, today, on this fifth day of Christmas, I give to you full disclosure.

Beware. This post might qualify for Longreads. I’m kidding, but, truly, if you haven’t discovered Longreads yet, give it a whirl. It’s an online magazine, hosted on WordPress, of long-ish essays, investigate reports, interviews and profiles from a wide variety of writers on human interest type topics.

But, seriously, you might have to take a snack break, or two, at some point during this post.

This Christmas has been like a game of Hi-Lo on The Price is Right. Desperate for anything to take the edge off the seeping, creeping grief, the highs have been the low-hanging fruit like trivial distractions and general busy-ness, and the lows, well, there’s a strange sort of safety and comfort there because the lows feel like my baseline.

I think this is what my son meant when, a few months ago, he said he was worried about me getting stuck in grief, stuck like feet that have sunk a little too far into the pluff-mud that pervades our Lowcountry landscape. The effort it takes to retrieve your foot is surprising and always more than your brain anticipates, or estimates, that it will take. So, there’s an initial jerking upward motion which gets you nowhere and then a more sustained slowwww-pull that finally begins to yield some of your leg and foot back from the netherlands. You end up losing your balance because as you pull up on your foot, the mud actually, unbelievably, pulls back with nothing less than a sucking, gulping sound like hisseellluuppp. And it’s gross, soft, wet, sticky, and somehow coarse at the same time. And it stinks, of dead fish, rotting leaves and grass, and sulfurous gasses. Yep, being stuck in grief is just like that, and yet, it is comfortable, soothing even in a primal way. I know. Weird.

***

I wonder if my posts have seemed as frenetic as I have felt during this holiday season. Actually, the recent unpleasantness started before the holidays began. Looking back, as I am wont to do, I can see that the anxiety was already building ahead of Thanksgiving. Grief was doing its dirty work before I was fully aware of it, but that is nothing new.

So, you may wonder, have I been happy? sad? lonely? Well, the truth is I have been all of that and so much more. I have laughed, smiled, cried, celebrated, and mourned. I have done the flash dance around the flashbacks and felt the burn of anger sweeping through my body. I have been irritable, frustrated and downright apoplectic. I have cried. A lot. More than I have cried in months. Grief has, once again, been a full-on, sensory experience. My body has felt twisted and wrung out like a rag as I have cried until the tears could no longer form even a single drop. I have been elated and joyful and miserable in the same breath. I have experienced waves of grief and anguish so intense that I felt nauseous, sick to my stomach, the way actual waves can make one seasick. At times, I have been withdrawn, not really feeling up to socializing. I’ve had great difficulty committing to events, but I have also enjoyed being active, taking long walks with friends in the neighborhood, playing tennis, attending a couple of drop-ins as well as turning down both casual and formal invitations, electing instead to retreat to the safety and comfort of the house.

Ugh. The house. My job allows me substantial time off during the holidays which is wonderful, but it has also been a challenge. This is the first Christmas that my son has not been staying with us, with me, while on a holiday break from school. He and his fiancé have their own place nearby, and I have spent a lot of time with them, but it’s not the same as having him under the same roof. I mean, this is all good. Every good parent, whatever that means to you, desires for their child to live independently, to forge their own life, but the house has been quiet during the holidays this year, too quiet. It’s been a lonely house. This is actually the first time I’ve ever felt this way about my home, and it’s freaking me out. I’ve noticed a little tendency in myself to try and fill up the emptiness with noise like having the TV or radio going in the background (sometimes both!), playing the piano, running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and doing other noisy chores. Therapeutic vacuuming is a thing! However, mopping and dusting make no noise at all so those chores have gone undone.

I struggled, too, to get the Christmas decorating finished. Our ornaments are actually memories that have taken shape and form and hang from the branches of the tree. They could be connected like a dot-to-dot of our lives. The oldest ornament belonged to my mother when she was child. It is nearly 70 years old. There’s also one that Paul made when he was in kindergarten. It is 55 years old. There are several that commemorate the year we married and others that celebrate our son’s first Christmas and so on. Each and every ornament is the embodiment of a memory collected through years of family life, holidays, vacations, places and homes we’ve lived, friends and family members we have loved. I hung about a fourth of the ornaments, if that, and then just quit, just gave up. I couldn’t do it. That’s not like me at all, and I was disappointed in myself.

One day I came home and found my father-in-law and my son working together on overhauling the boat motor in the garage. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. It was hot, dirty work, and they had been at it for awhile. My son’s shirt was too heavy and was soaked in sweat and covered in grease so he had gone upstairs and grabbed one of his dad’s old t-shirts from the boxes of clothes that I had stored away; a red t-shirt that I must have seen Paul wear 1,000 times. Not quite Golden Boy status but close. (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference.) So, when I pulled up in the driveway and caught a glimpse my son bent over, working on the boat in that t-shirt, my heart stopped, my mouth gaped opened because I actually thought I was looking at his dad. Paul was back, working in the garage alongside his father as he had done so many times before. He was there; his shoulders, his arms, his hair. His intent gaze, concentrating on his work, his hands, his fingers. I did a double-take. I had to look twice. I blinked hard and then crumbled in the face of reality. An emotional implosion followed. I felt stunned like a small bird that had just smashed into a clear pane window; stunned out of awareness, knocked out of time, careening into another space and time, an alternate universe where Paul was still alive. That night I dreamed that Paul was indeed alive. He was standing in the yard. I was a distance away and started moving toward him. I was elated but confused. I kept saying, “Wow! This is great. I am so glad you are here, but I don’t understand how this is possible. How can you be here, standing here in the yard, while the 30lbs of ash in a box upstairs is also you?”

Oh, dear goodness, this grief is deep and complicated, and exhausting. I breathe deep and sigh heavily as I continue to try to write it out, to express it, to extricate myself from it, to exorcise it, to be dispossessed of it.

I (almost) hesitated to share all of this because it feels like wallowing. I’ve tried everything in my grief toolbox and nothing is working. I feel ridiculous that I can’t get ahold of this. Snap out of it! But grief is slippery, slick. The harder I try to get-a-grip on it, the tighter I squeeze my hand around it, the faster it slips through my fingers.

On a recent Sunday, I was at church and absolutely fell apart, had to leave early actually. I could not contain myself. That has not happened in a long time, and it completely took me by surprise. It’s almost as if my entire grief experience thus far got compressed into this one holiday season, why?

Now would be a good time to grab a snack.

Here’s why. I *think*. Last Christmas, I was focused on just that Christmas. Just the one. As if I thought there was only going to be one Christmas without Paul, and all I had to do was just get through that one. I am shocked to discover this year that there will actually be many Christmases without him. Well, duh. And I’m not naïve. I realize families and relationships can and will change along the way. Who knows? I may even share a Christmas with someone else one day, but the realization that every Christmas for the rest of my life will not include Paul, physically include him, has completely overwhelmed me.

A friend of mine, a widow for nearly 20 years and happily remarried, shared with me that every Christmas she steals away for a quiet moment to remember and mourn for her first husband. That made my heart stop. I was taken aback by the reality of it all but also comforted, and I am so very thankful when others who have walked this path are willing to share their experiences and their heart with me.

Author and speaker, Jesse Brisendine, says that ‘grief is not a life sentence’. He tries to help people flip the switch on grief from despair to healing and honoring. I agree with so much of what he writes and shares, but I also see the other side. In a way, grief is a life sentence. Grieving is the commitment we make to continue living life without the person we loved. It’s the price, but the price to value ratio is up to us and how we choose to live out that life sentence. It can be done with hope and joy, or it can be done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s like being in a prison cell with the key to the lock hanging clearly within sight and reach on a nail on the wall. We can let ourselves out. I can let myself out. What holds me back?

Go get another snack.

What holds me back is fear. Another precious friend of mine, who is also a widow and very much on this journey with me, recently remarked that the thought that life might just be going on without those we love here is really scary. Yes, it is. It is absolutely rock hard, stone cold terrifying. It is overwhelming to me and makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Fear is the first emotion that God’s people experienced after the fall. Genesis 3:10 reads, “And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy asserts that God gave us fear to keep us safe. God gave us fear because he knew we needed it. Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is Gold Ring #1.

I have found great comfort in that short verse from Genesis; a verse I’ve read and heard a thousand times. I guess I was always so taken with the imagery of God walking in His garden that I never noticed those two little nuggets of wisdom that follow after their being afraid. First, they were afraid because they were naked, physically naked, but they were also emotionally exposed, fearful of their flaws being revealed and the possibility that their true selves, their true nature, might be rejected. Second, what does the verse tell me happens if I hide from the Lord as Adam and Eve did? If I hide from the Lord, He will come and find me. He will find me in my lowly state and protect me. He found Adam and Eve, assessed their state, and then banished them from the garden. Why? Not for punishment as it may have seemed to them from their perspective but for their protection. Because they had eaten from the tree of good and evil and now existed in a sinful, fallen state, if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have remained in that sinful state for eternity. In fact, the Lord placed cherubim around the tree of life and a flaming sword waving back and forth to keep them from it, to keep them from the danger of remaining in a sinful state, which is death, forever. Thank you, Jesus!

To say our modern life is increasing our fear and anxiety is not quite correct. Surely life was more stressful during, say, the middle ages. The constant threat of crop failure literally meant the death of one’s family by starvation. My stress, even in the difficulties I have faced, pales in comparison. So, if life is just as stressful or less so(!), than it has ever been, if there’s nothing new under the sun, then why is fear and anxiety more prevalent or perhaps not more prevalent but taking a greater toll on the human heart and soul? Because we are unplugged. Yes, un-plugged. We are disconnected from our fellow man, and it is damaging us. Worse than that, we are stiff necked about it. Our eyes are covered with scales and our ears are stopped. It’s a way of hiding. It’s Adam and Eve all over again. The solution is connection. The way around it is to have the courage to share our vulnerability and own it, to open our hearts to others. Connection is Gold Ring #2.

***

The tearing of robes or clothes is a common gesture throughout the Old Testament that is symbolic of mourning, pain of loss, or great distress. I was curious about the history of this practice, but apparently its origins are unclear as it’s been going on since before written language.  Rabbi Aron Moss concludes, “But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’-that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us. So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact. From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth; that souls never die.”

And in a stroke of metaphorical genius, the Old Testament prophet, Joel, encourages, no implores, us to “…rend your heart not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity.”

Rend means to tear or wrench violently. Render is to provide or give, and of course, the more familiar surrender meaning to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent, submit to an authority, give up or hand over, and to abandon oneself entirely. The Lord wants us to turn our hearts over to Him, to tear our hearts open wide so that God’s light can shine into all the dark places. Surrender is Gold Ring #3.

***

2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

***

As I’m rounding out the second year without Paul, I can affirm that the second year is harder. I think it might be because the first year I was just trying to survive, but that’s not enough, right? We’re meant to live. We’re called to live and live fully, and that’s the hard part about the second year. Trying to live again. In a recent sermon, my pastor described the seven-fold gift of the spirit including piety, wisdom, understanding, council, might, fear, and knowledge. My pastor asserted that being FULLy alive is God’s standard for human living. Grabbing the brass ring or taking a shot at the brass ring is a phrase that has been used since the late 19th century and refers to striving for the highest prize or living life to the fullest. Striving to live a spirit filled life is Gold Ring #4.

In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden, asserts, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Salinger’s gold ring represents a striving for maturity. I may not be a kid, but I am a child of God. May it please Him that I continue to mature in faith and good works even though I may fall off from time to time. Growth is Gold Ring #5.

Luke 1:46-49 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Really, what more then is there to say? I’m sure I’ll think of something, Malia

The cookie post…as promised!

I’m ready to start cooking again. This is a huge step for me. I have to confess, however, that again is a stretch because Paul was always the cook in our household; great big breakfasts, warm soups and stews, casseroles, meat and three, salads, and rich desserts. Since Paul passed away, I have had little interest in food let alone cooking. I have resisted, outright refused to cook anything, because, well, that’s not my job. No, I’m not doing that. That’s Paul’s job. It’s not my place. That’s what he loves to do; arms crossed, pouty face, forehead furrowed making the shape of the number 11 right between my eyebrows and a stomp of the foot for good measure.

When Paul and I met, all I could do in the kitchen was scramble some eggs and wash dishes. As a child, I was a picky eater. My family still gives me a hard time and tells stories of my epic, picky eating escapades. They love to tell the story of how my grandmother would prepare these enormous Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, and my mother would sneak off to the kitchen and make me a cheese sandwich because that, literally, was all I would eat.

Paul was a wonderful cook and encouraged me to try all kinds of foods. In general, I really appreciate food and enjoy trying a wide variety of cuisines. Paul made trying new things an adventure. He made it fun! He introduced me to foods from cultures around the world, something he developed an interest in when his family lived in Japan during the 1960s. We loved to try new and different restaurants, some fancy but most them not. We were always delighted to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in some back water town serving up unique and delicious dishes. Meals were more than just sustenance. They were a heartfelt, shared experience full of stories, smiles, laughter, sometimes arguing, and good old fashioned conversation about the world and our place in it.

I do believe Paul got his love of and knack for cooking from his mother. She is also an excellent cook. Some of the most warm, joyful memories in the life of our family are set at Paul’s parents’ kitchen table. Love was passed around the table alongside piping hot bowls of home cooking; everything made-from-scratch as they say. Many of the dishes that Paul made for us he learned from his mother, and some of them his mother learned from her mother. His mother’s family were upcountry, subsistence farmers descended from early, English and Scottish settlers to the Carolinas. They either raised or grew everything they ate, mostly chicken and pork, beans, and summer vegetables like corn, peas, squash, butter beans, and tomatoes. This is where Paul picked up his love of gardening, too. He was a green thumb to be sure, and we enjoyed home grown vegetables from Daddy’s garden for many years.

I am sure to many of y’all cooking is just a normal part of everyday life. It might even be a chore, but for me, cooking again for my family and myself is a growth goal, a milestone in my grief and healing process. It’s also a way to memorialize my husband both for myself and future generations. There are just certain meals and dishes made in our family that will forever remind us of Daddy’s cooking. My son was really pleased when I told him I was ready to start cooking, even more so when I told him I was going to cook Daddy’s entire catalog, all the best loved meals he made for us throughout the years and that I would document it with photos and recipes. He said, “Oh, Mom. It’s a time capsule.” Yes, sweetheart, it is.

I keep promising cookies so here we go…I figured I would start this cooking adventure with Paul’s signature cookies. He made these every year during the holidays, a dark chocolate twist on the traditional chocolate chip cookie. They are rich, delicious, and different. Disclaimer here:  I’m not sure where Paul found this recipe. It was not his recipe and is not mine. We just always called them…

Those dark chocolate cookies that Daddy makes.

1 bag 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips (Paul liked the Ghirardelli brand best!)
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Melt the bittersweet chocolate chips and butter together in a double boiler.

I don’t own a double boiler so I improvised (a pot inside another pot that was filled with water), and it worked just fine.

Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until thick and stir in the chocolate mixture.

Combine the flour and baking powder and stir into the chocolate mixture. Finally, gently stir in the semi-sweet chips and walnuts.

Cover the mixture and place in the freezer for at least an hour.

Set oven to 375 F. Use a greased cookie sheet or line with parchment paper or foil. Bake 12-14 minutes or until a shiny crust forms on top.

***

Speaking of kitchens. I was in the kitchen with some friends of mine recently, a couple who have been married for a long time. They a both wonderful people and even more wonderful together. As conversations go sometimes, there was disagreement between them which became a little argument, maybe not even an argument, just bickering really. As they were going back and forth across the topic, I faded to the background and just watched, marveled really, and listened and smiled and wondered a) how many times Paul and I bickered like that, b) what a privilege it is, and c) that I would give anything to have an argument with Paul even over something trivial.

It’s interesting. I didn’t have a Pollyanna attitude about it. I didn’t feel the impulse to provide the staid, old chestnut, advice on the subject. I didn’t feel compelled to tell them to stop arguing, stop taking each other for granted or admonish them with ‘Does it really matter? It’s a petty argument’ and ‘Let it go!’ No, what I wanted to tell them was to enjoy it. Enjoy every aspect of the other person and the relationship. Disagreeing with someone you love is a privilege and a gift. Sharing yourself, your whole self, your thoughts, feelings, and opinions especially when they are not in congruence with your partner is a privilege and to be highly esteemed. What I really wanted to say was, “Well done. Carry on. Argue it out, and love each other well before, during, and after.”

Share everything, especially with those you love, Malia

All aboard! The holiday struggle-bus is pulling into the station, and I’ve got a ticket to ride…

…also making stops at Nostalgia Boulevard, Lonely Street, and my personal favorite (hmph!), Anxiety Avenue.

Hold on to your hats. This one is going to be a humdinger. My fellow bloggers, grief-specific and otherwise, are all weighing in on the holidays so I’ll dive in, too. Dive into the holiday deep end that is.

I have a distinct memory of the summer I dove off the diving board at the pool for the first time. I was ten. Now, certainly I had been jumping off the diving board for quite some time, feet first, but diving in head first was a different story. I was terrified of going in head first. I had so, so many failed attempts that it was becoming a spectator sport for my fellow swimmers and sunbathers, children and adults alike. There she goes. Will she do it this time? Oh, I think she will! There I was poised at the end of the board, all ten toes wrapped around the edge, in position, knees bent, arms overhead, hands crossed just so in order to break the surface of the water to protect my head from the force of the impact. This is it! I think she’s really going to do it. Some of them would even call out to me. You can do it! Go ahead. That’s right! You’ve got it this time! I would lean forward, begin to feel the pull of gravity, past the point of no return, and then change my mind at the last second; half stepping off, half jumping, half falling, arms wind-milling, eyes closed, face pinched tight. Then, one day when I was poised once again to take the plunge head first, someone suggested that I didn’t have to use force. I could simply allow myself to fall forward into the water. That suggestion changed everything. I got into position. My friends, neighbors, and swim team comrades must have sensed something was different this time because they began to gather around the edge of the pool at the deep end to cheer me on. And.I.did.it. I allowed myself to simply fall forward, head first, into the water. Also known as a dive. As I was making my way back up to the surface, even from within the cocoon of the water surrounding me, I could hear the muted, muffled sounds of everyone cheering.

So here goes.

Nostalgia (Boulevard) is more than just memories. There is a different quality to it, a sadness that borders on melancholy. It is sweeping and broad, equatorial, and leaves me listless like a sailboat held hostage in the Atlantic doldrums, at their mercy until another fickle wind arrives. Nostalgia leaves me impossibly longing for that which I have had and enjoyed but can never have again. And I am lonely. The phone calls and check-ins have tapered off as everyone said they would, and I understand and it’s okay, but it’s still a hard pill to swallow. Then, there’s the mistress of ceremonies, anxiety. Let’s take a peek into her knack for choreographing my day….

I wake and go about my business getting ready for work, but my mind is already beginning to worry and spin. I’m finishing up in the shower…. Turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water. Nope. Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off! I manage eventually to move on, get dressed, and make it to the kitchen, but I’m stuck. Move, move. It’s time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Me, still not moving. My feet will not advance. Sharp breath. Time to go! I make it to the back door. Open the door, open the door, turn the knob, Malia, turn the knob!

I share this because I want others to know what anxiety can feel like and what it can do, how it affects a person AND how well some people (yes, I am referring to myself) can hide it. I also share it so that others who have had similar experiences, and I know you are out there, know that you are not alone.

I know and fully understand that most of this is the holiday affect. I am grateful that I don’t live with this all the time. I have the reassurance of experience that tells me it’s temporary, a symptom brought on by grief. As difficult as the holidays are, anniversaries are harder, and folks, I’ve hit the grief jackpot, an anniversary smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Yay. So, yesterday was, or maybe I should say would have been? Ugh, verb tenses, like pronouns, are now a complete mystery to me. Anyway, it was our anniversary, our wedding anniversary. Twenty-eight years ago yesterday, Paul and I married. The memory of it is so quick and sharp that I can recall how the air smelled; woody, damp pine, oak, loamy soil, cedar, and smilax combined with salt-marsh and fallow fields and tea olive. It was a typically warm-ish, Lowcountry December day. The day began with scattered rain showers, but by 2 o’clock, it was sunny and breezy. I remember looking behind me to see my long veil was blowing sideways in the wind as I entered the church.

Yesterday was a weird day for me emotionally. I tend to be a bring-it kind of girl. Last year’s holidays were my first without Paul. Of course, it was going to be difficult. I was expecting it to be difficult. So, I had a plan and hurled myself forward through the holidays like I had the grabbed the ball at the 50 yard line and was making a charge for the end zone. In contrast, this year feels like a football field full of quick sand. I have frequently found myself sucked into the trance of a thousand-yard stare. On this day last year, I was compelled to spend the day at the place where Paul and I first met. This year, I didn’t feel called to do that. It might be a sign of growth and progress, or it might be avoidance. With grief, sometimes these two opposites actually appear the same.

***

Marcus Amaker is the poet laureate of Charleston. He is brilliant and kind and a true artist. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to meet him and for my students to work with him. I was reading his poetry recently when I came across a poem he wrote on December 14, 2017, mine and Paul’s 26th wedding anniversary, the last one we celebrated together before he passed away. I don’t know how Marcus did it, but he channeled our relationship perfectly.

(…and you will be beautiful)

There
will
be
a
day
when
I
won’t
need
mirrors
because
looking
into
your
eyes
will
be
the
only
reflection
I’ll
need
to
see
myself.

***

The light of my countenance is a little dimmer these days. I find the weight of my smile has become too heavy. I just can’t hold up the corners of my mouth anymore. They keep falling. When I am alone, I let my entire face fall and the saltwater tears pool up to the brim of my eyes like buckets that are only a single drop from completely spilling over. In my ocean of grief, emotions swell as waves do. They rush toward the shore of my daily life and recede. Also, like the great oceans of the Earth, the surface may appear relatively calm, but there’s so much more happening below; great, swirling gyres of currents strong enough to move water around the entire planet. The emotions below the surface are equally powerful and forceful enough to drive mood and affect.

My mind is jumbled and out of sorts. It feels like this might be a little setback. I am reminded of another poem, the first poem I have a memory of, the first poem that taught me what a poem is, Fog by Carl Sandburg. We learned it in school in perhaps second or third grade. I was taken with it and read it over and over again.

Fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Sandburg could easily be describing grief. Who knows? Maybe he was…..

The sadness comes/on little cat feet.

Or

The fog of grief comes/on little cat feet.

….and if Sandburg was describing grief then there’s good news in the poem, too, in that grief like the fog, moves on.

***

When Paul was in the hospital, we had many pet therapy visits. We were grateful for the distraction, grateful for the opportunity to smile. We missed our own dogs who were back at home. Pet therapy visits made the whole room feel warmer, more relaxed. We cherished those visits and were so thankful. Once I was feeling strong enough, I knew it was something I needed to do for others in return.

Each week, I visit patients throughout the same hospital with my dog, Beatrice. She and Paul had a special bond, the way dogs seem to have a way of attaching themselves to a particular human even within a family. She and I worked hard for months to earn her certification. I thought she would make a good therapy dog, but she truly amazes me with her ability to connect with patients and how much she herself enjoys the work. She’s a very social, gregarious, and energetic(!) dog, but when I put the little vest on her she gets all serious and professional. She’s ready to go to work! Her demeanor changes with each room we go into. She reads the patient and responds accordingly. I have watched her lean in to patients, comforting them with her body weight. She gently creeps up closer to them, nuzzling into their arms and shoulders and sometimes even rests her head under their chin. She sees doctors and nurses and staff in the hallways and immediately drops and rolls over signaling an invitation to rub her belly exposing her softness and her trust. We frequently hear comments like That’s the first time I’ve seen that patient smile since she was admitted and Thank you so much. This made my day and This is exactly what I needed and This is as alert as I have seen that patient in days.

The experience never fails to provide me with perspective. It always clears the junk out of my head and heart, bringing laser sharp perspective. There’s nothing quite like it for practicing presence and gratitude. Time and grief are suspended. There is only the moment. Only the now, and it is such a welcome relief to lay down the burden of grief and share a moment of joy with others in the need of the same.

On my rounds, I often visit the children’s hospital including pediatric oncology. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being at a loss for words, especially not in this post, but it is hard for me to describe what it’s like to visit with a child who is fighting cancer. Their ability to take joy in the moment is inspiration to my soul. Beatrice and I walk in and the children’s faces just light up with smiles. I can’t see their smiles because they are hidden behind the masks they wear to protect what precious little is left of their weakened immune systems, but I know they are smiling because I can see the light shining through their eyes and their cheeks raised into little apples and the edges of the masks as Beatrice greets them with her warmth and her happy, wagging tail. Experiences like this bring focus and clarity about life, what’s really important, and the true nature of beauty. In these experiences, there is no past. There is no thought of the future. Only the present. Only that moment. Not five minutes ago. Not five minutes from now. Only that moment. And, in that moment, there is also eternity in the sense that all concept and awareness of the passage of time is lost. Time both stops and stretches on forever in all directions. When I leave the hospital, I find that my own cheeks hurt from smiling so much. It’s not a cure for grief, but it is a band-aid for sadness. Job 5:18 comes to mind, “For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”

At the end of this long and emotionally exhausting day, when I was questioning all that had transpired and all that lay ahead, I looked into the sky and….saw a shooting star. I was astonished. It was a rare gift in our section of the night sky. I mean we do have meteor activity it’s just that our coastal skies are often cloudy and this particular evening the moon was quite large and bright. I was also near the city so light pollution should have precluded being able to see any such activity, but there it was.

This has been a lengthy post. Apparently, I had stored up a lot of stuff that needed to be expressed. I realize that I should perhaps post more often!

The next post will be lighter. I promise. In fact, the next post will be about cookies 😉

Until then, Malia

Why ‘don’t look back’ is the worst advice ever: The power of reflection to propel us forward.

Don’t look back.

Have you ever received that advice? I think a lot of times it’s given in the context of walking away from a painful situation as in a messy divorce or a crappy job, but what I’ve learned is that nothing we experience in life is either all good or all bad. It’s just a question of what we take from it as we’re moving forward.

I have lately had the chance to spend time walking, both literally and figuratively, down memory lane. I visited with a life-long friend and reminisced about my childhood. I reconnected with someone who I started my career with over 25 years ago. And, now, the holidays are upon us. They always make me wistful, thinking of Thanksgivings and Christmases past. In other words, I’ve done a lot of looking back. In a way, it has been like taking a tour of my life to this point.

I also returned to the city of my birth and located the home my parents lived in when I was born. I used a stack of old photos that my parents took in the late 60s and early 70s as my guide. I returned to those places and imagined what it must have been like for my parents, newly married, far away from their homes and families, and welcoming a baby (me!) into their lives. I could feel the love, the love they had for each other and the love they had for me. It was like looking into a crystal ball and seeing myself in the past. It was quite the experience!

Reflection is a key element of growth and moving forward. For me, periods of intense, long-view reflection almost always precede the beginning of a new phase, the next chapter. Taking time to look back is what actually allows me to cross the existential boundary between what was and what will be. It is good to look back even if some of it producing pangs of discomfort, pain, or even embarrassment. It’s important to acknowledge all of our phases and stages of development as being part and parcel of who we are today. It’s all valid. It’s all worthy. Because all of it has contributed to the person I am today and the person I am going to be when I wake up tomorrow.

***

I’ve been traveling again. This time to the south pacific, Oahu, Hawai’i. While there, I had the opportunity to hike the Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail. The All Trails app grades it as “hard”, and I agree! A 1,600 foot ascent over 2.5 miles following a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides, a shorter distance but a much more difficult incline than my Camino experience. However, the internal, emotional experience was quite similar. There were moments when I wanted to stop. Several sections were so vertical, and the trail in such poor condition due to recent rain, that ropes were needed to safely climb higher towards the summit.

What kept me going? Taking time to stop and take in the view, taking time to reflect on how far I had come and using that as inspiration to carry on. And, oh my, was it worth it. The further I trekked, the higher I climbed, the better the view. The perspective changed from each vantage point. With the completion of each new (and difficult) section, I could see more and more of the rich landscape surrounding me.

The further I went the more difficult the trail became but the greater the reward when I stopped to look back, and, thank goodness, I did. Oh, what I would’ve missed if I didn’t! The summit was but a moment. The real joy in this journey was in the periods of rest and reflection. This. This is life. Stopping periodically to look back, to reflect on how far we’ve come, is good. It is healthy. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it can be used to propel us forward.

My advice? Take time to reflect…and carry on, Malia

The good, the bad, and the ugly. This post has it all!

Well, the seasons have changed again, and Paul is still not here. I’m beginning to think he might not be coming back.

I know how this sounds, but every day when I wake up, I am a little stunned that he’s still not here. You know when you’re waiting on someone, and they are obviously running late, but they haven’t called or texted? You’re watching the time, and it’s getting later and later and later. The tension and irritation grows as the minutes pass. There might even be a sound that goes with it like Ugh, Grrrrrrrr, or a T-sk sound created by the slightest suction of the tongue pulling against the back of the front teeth. Mm-mm. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I get irritable like this without even realizing it. It sneaks up on me. I think to myself, “Why am I feeling so grouchy today?” Oh, yeah, it’s because my husband died <insert eye-rolling emoji AND sarcasm>.

It’s really the residue of what was once outright anger. It’s a side-effect of grieving, and it usually means I need to stop, breathe, and practice some mindfulness and gratitude.

Here are some other side-effects I’ve noticed. Honestly, these should be printed somewhere in a similar fashion to the little insert of indications and warnings that goes along with a new prescription. Maybe they could give them out at funeral homes? Anyhoo, here is your official side-effects pamphlet for living with grief.

  1. Nothing seems scary anymore…and that’s, well, a little scary. Seriously, I’m scared that nothing scares me. I’m desensitized. As in, “Oh, a hurricane might blow the house down? Well, ok. Hot lava flowing down the hillside? Eh, I’ll be fine. I have basal cell carcinoma? No problem. Let’s get on with it. Intensive reconstructive surgery on my face? I got this. Nah, no problem. I’ll drive my own self home.” Yeah, my react-o-meter ain’t workin’. Sometimes I am just expressionless, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve never been a particularly expressive person to start with. The Stoics would be proud of me as I am currently the poster child for their movement.
  2. A weird sense of death-humor. It’s hard for me to describe this, but some things about death and dying and life in the aftermath are just so absurd that they are, well, funny. If I wasn’t laughing, I’d be crying? The day of Paul’s visitation at the funeral home was his birthday. Yes, he died just days before his 59th birthday. So, what are you gonna do, right? Well, I’ll tell you what I did. I served cake. At his visitation. At the funeral home. Balloons, too. See what I mean? Death-humor. In this case, I think the humor is a way to reclaim some of death’s power to rule our emotions. Renowned science-fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, wrote this, “Death isn’t funny. ‘Then why are there so many jokes about death?’ Jill, with us – us humans – death is so sad that we must laugh at it.”
  3. The misguided conception that I am now somehow entitled to a free pass from any more trauma or loss. I’m just going to leave this here because we all know this isn’t true, but after a tremendous loss, I have found it all too easy to fall into the “I don’t deserve this” trap which is born out of that false sense of entitlement. For help with this, I look to Job, perhaps the most famous suffer-er of all. How did he handle it? Let’s see….
    • Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from the heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then, Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
  4. The instinct to shoot back when people are being (in my judgment) petty. I want to spit out, “Sit with me and our only son at the bedside and watch the love, the only love of your life brutally gasp for air, and then come talk to me.” I know this comes from a place of unresolved trauma, sadness, and anger, and it is my issue not theirs. We can never, should never, judge or invalidate what others are going through based on a comparison to our own journey, and I have to remind myself of that (too) frequently. It signals the need for a gut check, a heart check, a spirit check. I always feel guilty after these little impulses, and I take it as a red flag that the counselor and I have some more work to do.
  5. A persistent problem with pronouns. We, our, us, ours. I use all of those to refer to myself. Other people evidently have this same pronoun problem as I am often referred to as “y’all”. I still say “my husband” instead of “my late husband”. I still say “my in-laws” instead of saying “my former in-laws”. I still refer to my son as “our son”. He is OUR son, but it’s awkward when I say “our son” and I’m the only parent present in the conversation. I mean, it’s a little thing, right? This pronoun problem. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? No, certainly not. But it is bothersome. It’s another reminder of a life I no longer live. Sometimes it’s a jolt in an otherwise smooth day. It also makes me question my progress. I grow impatient with myself when I make these little, lingual slips of the tongue. Have I really come as far as I think I have? Shouldn’t I be past this? Sometimes I correct myself mid-conversation, but that can be embarrassing. Sometimes, I don’t have the emotional strength to correct myself so I just go with it.

So, I guess about now in your post-reading progress you are thinking this girl better get to the good in this good, bad, and ugly combo. Sheesh!

Someone I love recently commented on how I’ve “come out of my shell” since Paul passed away, how I’ve “blossomed”. These comments really got me thinking. What is this “shell” that I was tucked inside, carrying around? What do shells do? They protect. What is a flower before it becomes a blossom? A bud. Buds, too, are covered, tightly wrapped, in a protective shell, or sepals, while they receive all the nutrients they will need to finally bloom, the flower ultimately becoming so full that it breaks the protective shell because it’s impossible to contain the flower. It must bloom. Some flowers go from bud to bloom in mere days, others take years. Someone else I also love but don’t get to spend enough time with commented on my “depth”. I mean I certainly realize that I have grown, changed, but I think the heart of these comments about just how much I’ve grown and changed are very close to a truth about the relationship I had with Paul and even more so about a fundamental characteristic of myself that may need some examination as I move forward. I am, by nature, a nurturer, a caregiver. My devotion to my husband and my family was complete and utter. I believe it’s also why I excel in my profession as a teacher. I have a tendency to fully invest myself in the betterment of others, commit completely to their growth and improvement, sometimes to my own detriment. Paul was an empath. It left him vulnerable to the tumultuous emotional lives of others. The hurts hurt him more. The aggression and violence present in the world often overwhelmed him. He needed, no, he took, a great deal of care. These days, I am fully invested in myself. Allowing for myself what I have always poured into others. I am discovering that no one is neglected or diminished in this process. In fact, I *think* my growth has inspired, encouraged, and empowered others, and that’s a win-win!

The View from Here

Back in the summer, my pastor relayed a fantastic story about perspective. It echoes in my ears and heart every time I’m having a perspective moment, a moment in life that forces me to see things in a different light and consider my place in the larger picture. I must have reflected on the story 100 times between then and now. It revolves around Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Jerome painted by Filippino Lippi in the 15th century. The painting was long valued for its content by some, the artist’s use of color and brushstroke by others, but throughout history, critics have agreed that the perspective was poorly executed. The background looks as if the hills, rocks, and trees might topple out of the painting. The saints’ stature looks awkward and lurching. Then, 600 years later, along comes art historian Robert Cumming. He was studying the painting and thought that perhaps it was not the painter’s perspective was wrong. Perhaps it was our perspective that needed correction. Lippi had created the painting as an aid to prayer. It was never meant to be viewed from a standing position. It was meant to be viewed from a position of prayer, by one who is kneeling.

***

I recently watched an interview that sparked a moment to once again stop and consider perspective. Anderson Cooper was interviewing Stephen Colbert. Neither man is a stranger to grief and grieving but what struck me was Stephen’s realization that he was “grateful for that which I wish had not happened” and his rhetorical question, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Now, that’s perspective, and reminiscent of another griever I know who said…“Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” Job 13:15

Growing and blooming, Malia

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