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

Sweet Somethings in My Ear

Paul was famous for leaving us notes; peeking out at me from the bottom of my sock drawer, a note by my phone to remind me of an early morning meeting. I would often get to work and find that Paul had tucked a note in my bag. When I travelled, there was always a note hidden in my suitcase.

Paul was always in my corner. He knew just what to say and just when to say it. This week, I was cleaning out my work-space in preparation for moving to my new position, and I found these, amazing and poignantly relevant to my current situation:

It wasn’t just notes. About a year before Paul died, I awoke one night because I heard something, someone talking. It was Paul. He was close to me, right up next to me, his head on my pillow, his chin nuzzled into my neck, and he was saying something. Once I realized that he was the one who was talking, still half asleep and with my eyes still closed, I mumbled, “What are you doing? Who are you talking to?” He replied that he was talking to me. A little more awake, blinking my eyes trying to focus, I turned to see Paul propped up on his arm looking at me and smiling. Brow furrowed, I argued, “But I was asleep. Why are you talking to me while I’m sleeping?” His response was this, “I am filling your mind and heart with all the things you need to hear. I am telling you all the good things you need to know about yourself.” Many nights after that I would wake to the sound of Paul’s voice in my ear. “You are so beautiful. You are strong. You are smart. You are kind. You take care of your family. You love us so well.” And the list goes on and on. Paul was my very own, live action affirmations-while-you-sleep tape.

The summer before Paul died we did very little. We hardly even left the house. He had no energy at all. He just wasn’t feeling well the majority of the time. He had very little appetite and wasn’t sleeping well. He stopped doing things he liked to do like cooking and fishing. We were seeing his doctors regularly, almost weekly(!), and there had definitely been some changes in blood work. For one thing, he was diagnosed with diabetes and started some medication to help with that, but there was nothing whatsoever that indicated he had cancer. I also distinctly remember a talk he had in the yard one day with his dad. I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation, but I remember his dad walking away shaking his head and saying, “Nah, you’ll be fine. It’ll just take some time to get your new medications right and start eating a little differently.” “What was all that about?” I asked. “Awww, nothing,” Paul said, “It’s just hard for my dad to accept that I’m not feeling well, and with my health problems, well, I may not always be around like he assumes.” I told Paul that I realized that he had been feeling poorly lately, especially with the diabetes diagnosis and trying to get medications adjusted, but that he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I was scheduled to go to California on a work trip for about three days in that following December, just months before Paul died, and he literally refused to allow me to go. I was shocked. Never in all our time together had he ever put his foot down and told me he wouldn’t allow me to do something. I pushed the issue, complained that I couldn’t understand why he felt so strongly about me not going. It was an awkward situation because I had already committed myself to the trip, but in the end, I had to let my supervisors know that I couldn’t go after all. His behavior was so out of character for him that I was more perplexed than angry. There was just no way he would deny me unless it was extraordinarily important to him so I acquiesced and let the matter go.

A month after he died I came across a forgotten letter saved on the computer. I hadn’t read it before. The letter had never been sent and was addressed to an old friend of the family who we had not seen in a couple of years, but the content was broad. It could have been written to anyone, all of us.

“I truly believe God’s grace, prayer, and a positive attitude have been the deciding factors…I just wish he would have given us more time together but it isn’t for me to question to God’s motives, only to be thankful for them and I am THANKFUL.” (his emphasis)

It’s interesting to note that while Paul was a prolific note writer, I had never known him to write letters like this one. It was lengthy, two typed pages. He began the letter by explaining that he chose to write instead of call because he thought it would be easier than talking on the phone. Our friend had significant hearing problems and great difficulty understanding what people were saying especially on the phone. Think about that. If not for that, we might not have this precious letter.

Looking back on it now, in total, it seems like he was preparing us for life without him, right? And it begs the question…did he know? Paul was perceptive, intuitive, in all the ways I am not. In a lot of ways, his perception was extra sensory. Yes, I know what I am suggesting here, but he knew things before, saw ahead, realized. That first week in the hospital he would say he had days to live or weeks to live to the indignant disbelief and hearty protest of me and our son and contrary to what his doctors were indicating as well, but he already knew.

One day we were sitting with Paul in the hospital room. He had been alert and lucid that day. He had lots of visitors and family in and out all day long. I was talking to someone else, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, I can’t remember, but suddenly Paul had my attention. He was waving at something out the window. We were on the 8th floor. I caught our son’s eye who was now also looking at this dad. “Who are you waving at, Daddy?” Paul had the biggest smile on his face. He pointed and continued waving, “Doris and Marshall! They’re right there. See them!” Doris and Marshall were his beloved aunt and uncle and people of deep faith. They passed away a year apart from each other over 10 years ago.

Again from Paul….

February 18th 2018 “Woke this morning to the question, ‘How are you feeling?’ being asked by a nurse. I gave her a typical answer given by a typically healthy person…I’m alive and it beats the alternative or I’m on the right side of dirt. I’ll never say that again. Tears. Vicki & Tom came to visit. Argued w/M about when I was going to die, I’ve always got to have my side! I’d argue about dying sooner just to win!”

As the days went on, he was short tempered with those closest to him, putting distance between us. Apparently, that makes the final parting easier. At the time, I was confused and perplexed by it, but now I understand. He was testing us to see if we were ready to let him go. He was restless most of the time, often delirious, and when he did rest, it was fitful. He would move, mutter, and talk in his sleep. He would sometimes even smile and laugh and carry on conversations. Occasionally, we would recognize what he was saying or what he was laughing about as a memory of an event from long ago. His life was flashing before his eyes. He was reliving moments from our life together. There were also astonishing bursts of energy and seemingly super human strength. I understand that now, too. They are all hallmarks of the dying process, by-products of what was happening to his body, his mind, and his spirit.

At this point, you may be thinking how terrible for her or I feel so bad for her having to go through all of that or something similar. You might even be thinking what some people actually say out loud. That it’s better for someone to die suddenly. That it’s somehow easier on all involved. I have experienced loss both ways. I was present during the dying and death of my husband. My mother, on the other hand, died suddenly in a car accident. There’s nothing good, easier, or advantageous about any of it. And, yes, you can argue it both ways. You can say that in one circumstance a loved one didn’t have to suffer or in another circumstance that the dying and the loved ones had a chance to say goodbye. The truth is that death and dying are a natural part of the life process and either way the resulting grief is difficult, life changing, and an opportunity to learn and grow and should be seized as such in whatever form that looks like for you.

Father’s Day is upon us, again, our second without Paul. He was a good daddy. He loved our son and understood him in ways I never will because they shared the bond of maleness. My mind and heart are full of distinct moments when I’ve thought and felt that our son needed his dad and that I was a poor substitute. Our son has his own precious collection of notes from Dad. They are equally poignant and relevant, and I’m thankful that Paul is able to continue to offer guidance to his son in that way. I am thankful for the sweet somethings that Paul left behind.

Our Heavenly Father, too, left notes for us in the form of His word, the Bible. Much of the Bible is a collection of letters left behind by Holy Spirit-filled men who were inspired by God. It’s God’s love letter to His children. The Bible is our notes from Dad. It’s every bit as poignant and relevant to us in the world today and provides guidance to His loved ones. If you are missing the father in your life this holiday, as we are, remember that we always have a father in God.

A child of God, the father to us all, Malia

About Paul – About Us

On February 12, 2018, I took my husband, Paul, to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. Three days later he was diagnosed with stage 4 adenocarcinoma. Cancer. Rare and aggressive, and on March 18, he passed away. He was brave and strong and faithful to the end.

When I met Paul, I had just turned 18. He had just turned 30. Now, I know what you are thinking because it’s what everyone thought. But thirty years later, our relationship had endured and born fruit, real fruit in our precious son and spiritual fruit in our own lives, and, hopefully, also in the lives of others. So, in that way, one of the first things he taught me, or tried to teach me, was not to be sooooo concerned with what everyone else thought and to chart my own course, our own course. That lesson has served me well. When I met Paul, I had never been west of Atlanta. That was the second lesson. Get out there! Learn new things, have new experiences, enjoy the world! He certainly did. Whether it was gardening in his own back yard or exploring new places, we always enjoyed it more when we were together. He was interested in and fascinated by the world…nature, science, history, people, how things worked. One of our first great adventures together was white water rafting. It was a beautiful summer day in Tennessee. I was excited but also nervous, and by the time we were in the raft and heading for the rapids, I was more than nervous. I was scared. He looked over at me, and it must have been written all over my face because he nudged me and said “Hey, you’re ok. It’s fun!”, and it wasn’t long before I was having the time of my life.

When I was with Paul, I was always having the time of my life. That’s how he was. He made everything more fun. He lit up the room. He had the easiest smile, and holy smokes, those dimples! One day during our hospital stay, a nurse asked how we met. We were telling her how our story began, and she turned to me and said, “You must have been helpless!” and the truth is, I was helplessly in love with him. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. His family took me in, and loved me as their own. His friends took me in, and loved me as their own.

Paul had a generosity of spirit that belied the personal struggles he had endured. He was always so quick to offer encouragement to others. He encouraged me in everything. He gave himself to others so completely. He loved working with kids. He was patient and understanding and lifted others up. He even offered encouragement to his doctors particularly students and young residents. He was intuitive and perceptive, and he had a powerful gift for changing others’ perception of themselves. He had that ability, that amazing ability to make people feel better about themselves. WOW!

He had a quick wit. Cancer took everything from him, his very life, but it could not take his sense of humor. He retained that until the end. He often had his doctors and nurses smiling and laughing. He drew people to him. Doctors, nurses, and technicians came to his room “just to visit”. He was always so easy to be around. Near the end, he woke only briefly from time to time. It was on one of these occasions that he asked for our son, but he had gone home for just a little while to shower and change clothes. I told Paul that he wasn’t there, but he would be back soon and that he was “stuck with me” in the meantime. Paul said, “It could be worse.” I replied, “Yes, I suppose it could be worse.” Not missing a beat, he responded, “There could be two of you”, and smirked. That was Paul, flattering but always reeling you back in.

Paul was not afraid of dying. He was tired of the struggle, and he was ready. He was sad about leaving us. He was worried about how we would manage without him. His last piece of advice to me, the last thing he had to teach me was this… “Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.”

Fred Rogers said, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.” And Paul certainly did that. Scott Hamilton, four time cancer survivor, said “We are designed for struggle. We’re better off. We are more in touch with who we are as individuals in the struggle much more than we are in our good fortune.” I have discovered that true healing has occurred when you can be thankful for the suffering, and I am thankful!

Introduction

“Paul had a generosity of spirit. He drew people to him. He was always so easy to be around and had such a great, if a little wicked, sense of humor! Paul loved to cook and go fishing. He loved being out on the boat, rivers, and beaches of the Lowcountry where his soul shined. He loved music, all kinds of music, but what he loved more than anything was his family. He was a devoted father to Aaron and an adoring husband to his wife of 26 years, Malia.”

That’s an excerpt from my husband’s obituary and this blog is about the grief process, but a death and the subsequent grief can take many forms. My mother died when I was twelve years old. My husband died. Those are physical deaths, but there are other types of death. The death of a relationship, divorce or uncoupling. The death of a dream, a career, a beloved pet, and we grieve those losses in ways very similar to the physical loss of a loved one.

This sharing so openly is not easy for me. I am by nature an introvert, not expressive. My friends and colleagues would tell you that I am a very private person, but writing this blog feels like a very necessary element of the grief and healing process. The transparency may be raw and painful at times, dear reader, but my hope is that something I write, something I share will somehow help someone else along the way.

Yours truly, Malia