This annual New Year’s Day post needs a musical overture. So, I’m going to set it to another selection from the soundtrack to my grief, “Morning Has Broken”, except in my mind, I have lately come to think of it as ‘Mourning’ Has Broken.
“Morning Has Broken” is a song made popular by Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf Islam) version of it that was released in 1971. What I didn’t know until recently is that it was actually written by Eleanor Fajeon as a poem. The poem was then set to an old, Scottish tune and published as a hymn for the first time around 1931. When it appeared as a poem, its title was listed as “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)”. Paul’s birthday frequently falls on the first day of Spring. The hymn was included in our church’s hymnal, and Paul and I sang it together on more Sunday mornings than I can count. The song is sweet and nostalgic, reminiscent of the simple but magnificent gift of each new day. It’s a call to gratitude.
Here are the lyrics, but my guess is that you are already humming the tune.
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven Like the first dew fall on the first grass Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Mine is the sunlight Mine is the morning Born of the one light Eden saw play Praise with elation, praise every morning God’s recreation of the new day
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Just in case you haven’t caught on yet…I love words. I always have. Before I could actually write, I would pretend to write by making excessive scribbles across pages and pages of newsprint paper that was sold in bulky pads at the grocery store. Then, I would spread them out before me or paste them to the walls in my room. Thinking back now, this must have seemed very strange to my parents, but they also must have understood my internal drive because when I was five, I was gifted with a pint-sized but fully functioning typewriter. To this day, it is one of the best gifts I have ever received. It was magical because while I was well on my way to using letters to put words together to express my thoughts, the typewriter was very nearly able keep up with my mind where my hand was not.
I believe words have power. I have always been cautious and deliberate with the way I choose my words when writing, of course, but also in talking with others. The old adage “Mean what you say and say what you mean” could be my life’s motto.
Google provides a fascinating look at the way we use words through their Google Books Ngram Viewer. An N-gram is a word particle, word, or group of words that we can track through text or speech. Your phone’s predictive text feature uses information about N-grams to offer you choices about what you want to type next.
Google Books Ngram Viewer gives us a visual that shows us a word’s use over time. I’ve been toying lately with the words mourning and grieving to help me delineate where I am in this process. I hear and read the word grieving a lot, but I noticed that the word mourning is not as widely used and I was curious about that. Check out the Ngram Viewers for these two words.
When I look at this graph, my eyes go to the lumps and bumps, peaks and dips. Notice that the peak for the occurrence of the word mourning occurs around 1860. I immediately thought of the American civil war. Then, there’s the upward trend that appears to have begun sometime between 1980 and 1990. The war on drugs? The gulf wars? The rise of opioid deaths? Or all of the above?
Take a look at the Ngram Viewer for the word grieving.
So, like me, you might thinking, “Whoa, Nellie! What happened between 1960 and 1980?”
Well, I’ll tell you. In 1969, physician Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her landmark book about grief, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, & Their Own Families. Through this book, she introduced her theory of the five stages of grief now known as the Kubler-Ross model and with that we, as a society and culture, had a new framework for understanding and discussing grief.
The word mourning seems more intense to me than the word grieving. Mourning is a noun while grieving is a verb, an action. A-ha! Mourning is a place and space. Grieving is something I do. Mourning seems to take place for a specific, but not given, period of time and according to the definition is marked by deep sorrow.
I am ready now to leave that period of deep sorrow behind. So, I quit. I officially quit mourning.
On a recent Friday morning drive to work, I had a complete and total meltdown. Like butter in a hot pan.
Lately, my life has been like one of those cinematic devices used to show the passage of time on TV shows or in movies. You know the ones where they put the progress of days or months or even years on a loop set to music that features fast moving, split screen images of typical, daily events like the person brushing their teeth, going to work in their car, on the train or bus, eating dinner, going to bed, and rising the next morning to repeat the whole process again. And it loops. Over and over again.
Clearly, I had been on autopilot. Just trying to plow through the most difficult days of the year; those days leading up to the now second anniversary of Paul’s illness and death. The meltdown, my friends, was epic. That’s what you get you keep shoving the feelings down instead of letting them go as they bubble up. I know better, but so many things about this second year have been harder. I was tired of wrestling with the grief all the time; thought I could just put it in a box for a little while, please God, just a little while. But I paid the price.
And you know, after that meltdown I felt better and have continued to feel somewhat better. This next part amazes me still, but I promise you it actually happened. As I was sitting in the car desperately trying to compose myself, there on the radio was one of our favorite songs, “I Can See Clearly Now”, originally written and performed by Johnny Nash in 1972 but made more popular when performed by Jimmy Cliff in 1993. It’s one of a slew of songs that make up the soundtrack to my grief . The comprehensive list of songs is fodder for another post. Turns out that people sing about grief a lot. There might be something to that.
Paul was teenager in 1972 and just discovering his love for music of all kinds. In 1972, I had not yet had my second birthday, but this song was always a touchstone for both us. When it came on the radio that meltdown morning, I was stunned, and my tears were stopped in their tracks. Clearly, God had allowed me a message from my husband, and it gave me the courage to continue with my day.
“I can see clearly now” was so popular and sing-songy. I’m sure many of you are humming it now and know the lyrics by heart, but here they are just in case you don’t. They are, in my opinion, lyrical genius in a nearly Rogers & Hammerstein kind of way. The beat is reminiscent of the Caribbean and marries perfectly to the message.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day Oh what a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I did indeed make Sunday Dinner for my family recently. But the meal itself was actually just a typical weekday meal for our family back in the day. You know the day; the day we went to work, rushed through homework while Daddy cooked, ate together, piled the dishes in the sink and breezed out the door to baseball, boy scouts, church, a school event, or just went for an early spring stroll down wide sidewalks and long streets all the while chasing fireflies in the gloaming before the street lights start their losing battle against the dark of night.
No recipes this week. Just meals from memory. Meals I know by heart.
I started by making Paul’s Pimento Cheese. This is one of those dishes that is made a little different and tastes a little different every time, but it’s always good. Use whatever kind of cheese you like. Be creative. Use different cheeses every time you make it. We certainly did. You can shred the cheese yourself from a block or wheel or buy it already shredded. Finely or coarsely shredded makes little difference. Use as much or as little cheese as you need based on the number of people you are serving. This time I used 2-3 cups of cheese, but I have made as much as eleven pounds at a time. The secret to Paul’s Pimento Cheese is that it doesn’t even have any pimientos in it! True story. Instead of pimientos, Paul always used roasted, red peppers. The charring on the roasted peppers adds a smoky flavor to the cheese that makes all the difference. Many people say it has a certain flavor that they just can’t put their finger on. The roasted, red peppers are the source. Again, there’s no right or wrong amount here. I just keep adding peppers until it looks like it has enough. Add 2-4 tablespoons of Duke’s mayonnaise to get the ball rolling and then add some more a little at a time until it’s a good consistency; sticky and scoop-able but not wet. If it’s wet, you’ve gone too far. No matter. Add some more cheese and the day is saved. The final ingredient is another one that makes Paul’s Pimento Cheese unique, a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. It amps up the flavor of the cheese. Serve with crackers of your choice. A hardier cracker works best.
The main course was roast pork loin, mashed potatoes with gravy, butter beans, and a cornbread muffin. Nothing makes me feel like a straight-up 1940s housewife like a roast in the oven. I poured a little olive oil in the bottom of a casserole dish and rolled the loin until it was smeared on all sides. Then, I coated the loin in salt, black pepper, and red pepper. I covered it with tin foil and baked it in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. Always use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat. I like an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees for pork. I let the roast rest before serving to soak back up all the juices that were expelled during cooking.
For homemade mashed potatoes, peel and cut up the potatoes into roughly one-quarter to one-half inch pieces. You can use any type of potatoes and you can leave a bit of the peel on, too, if you like. Bring the potato pieces to a hard boil, and use a fork to test for softness. When fully cooked through, drain the water off by using a colander, and transfer the still hot, boiled potatoes to a bowl. Add salt, butter, and milk to your liking, and beat with a hand mixer to your desired thickness. Use caution with the milk or your mashed potatoes will be potato soup. In a fix, we have been known to use half-and-half, cream, or even sour cream instead of milk. You can use a store bought gravy, or you can use the liquid from the roast thickened with corn starch or flour to make a gravy. We did either depending on how much time we had.
Fresh butter beans are best but sometimes fresh frozen beans are all that’s available. They work, too. Our family always starts a pot of beans with a piece of what we call fat meat or salt meat. In the south, this is mostly referred to as fatback, but I have found that to be a general term used to describe any hunk of mostly fat that has been salt cured. Some people just use a couple slices of bacon or a ham hock. Either way, it adds flavor and a little oily moisture to the beans. Bring to a boil and simmer as long as you like but make sure the water doesn’t boil away.
Cornbread muffins instead of biscuits are especially good when the meal is hardy or heavy. The sweetness and lightness of cornbread balances out the weight of a more savory entrée.
For dessert, I made strawberry shortcake. Strawberries are ripe in the fields at this time of year so it seemed like a natural choice. I cored and sliced the strawberries and placed them in a lidded bowl. I added one tablespoon of sugar, stirred, and placed in the refrigerator to chill. The moisture from the berries combine with the sugar and makes just enough of a light syrup to soak into the cake or bread you choose. In this case, I chose an egg-white, or angel food, cake for my base, and then stacked with strawberries and homemade whipped cream.
Paul had an aversion to store bought whipped cream in a tub or aerosol can. He said they were phony or fake so he would always take the time to make it by hand. It’s not hard. It just takes a little time.
Use a pint or a quart of heavy whipping cream depending on how much you need. Pour into a larger bowl than you think you need or you’ll end up with cream splattered all over everywhere including you. Trust me. Use a hand mixer on the highest setting and let it roll until the cream is thick enough to scoop and stick to a spoon without falling off when turned over. Some people add a teaspoon or two of sugar while mixing, but our family does not.
On nights like this, I always pause for a moment and look at my family all gathered around our table, talking, laughing, smiling, sharing their lives with each other, the big moments and the small, eating, enjoying, remembering, and it all just feels so right. I am so grateful. The gifts my husband gave me continue to bear fruit in my life and in the lives of those we love. It makes me want to shout, “Look, honey, I’m doing good! I’m really doing good!”
We now resume our regularly scheduled grief (uh, I mean healing!) programming.
Just in case my Sunday Dinner posts have given you the false impression that I have it all together, here’s a Monday dinner post complete with picture of glorious meal making <insert sarcasm and eye-rolling emoji>. Yep, that’s right, a fried egg, shredded cheese, a days old biscuit….and ice cream. Embarrassing. But I told you. Keeping.it.real.
My grief has a tendency to pile up. It piles up in great banks like snow lining both sides of a winter worn street, like Saharan sand dunes moving across the globe through eons of time and then seemingly, suddenly arriving tall and looming on the landscape. Grief piles up one pebbly grain and flake at a time until it reaches a hinge, a tipping point, and then crashes heavy upon my heart and psyche.
Many of you may be familiar with the Native-American naming tradition. Think *Dances-With-Wolves*. In that tradition, people are given names that are construed from their nature or based on characteristics of their personality. I became aware of this tradition when I was young while reading and listening to Native-American stories where the characters had wonderfully descriptive names that revealed their inner-self and piqued the readers’ interest regarding how they received their name. But these names are not just based on personality, and they are not static. In the Native-American naming tradition, a person’s name can change based on their life experiences. As one learns, grows, and changes, their name can change to reflect their evolving identity. Native-American names are also typically connected to nature, maintaining our connection to the world around us, and connected to their tribe, emphasizing the value of connection with others.
A lesser known and understood aspect of the Native-American naming tradition is that they often have a spiritual or sacred name that is known only to themselves and their tribe’s spiritual leader. These hidden names allow the person to maintain their core identity in the face of life’s inevitable degradations or even trauma. Hmmmm, very interesting.
When the grief piles up, my world view is disrupted. My perception is distorted. It’s like looking at the world reflected in a cracked mirror. Everything seems more intense. It’s the atmosphere, the look of the sky when the light is slanted from a certain direction, the trees, the direction of the wind, and the birds. The birds outside my bathroom window make peculiar early morning chirps and trills that grate and hack away at my nerves. The sound of it makes me physically wince. If I were Native-American, my current name would be Angry-With-Birds.
Starting with February 12, there are a string of dates that are tattooed on my skin in invisible ink, fused to my insides. These dates are stuck in my teeth. I use my tongue to pry and pick, but I can no more unstick these calendar dates from my psyche than I could a handful of the sticky, gummy fruits clinging to the teeth in my mouth. They feel like boulders, rocky outcroppings, cleaving to my emotional landscape. The world is different on these dates. I don’t like the look of the air. I don’t like the feel of the car as I’m going down the road. I continuously have to remind my shoulders to stay down otherwise I find them crowding my neck and reaching for my ears and chin.
This time of year the triggers are everywhere. My senses remember everything. My body recorded everything in my muscles, bones, and tissues. Every moment of the last 35 days of Paul’s life is carved into the very fiber of my body and being; the memory of them communicated from one cell to another like a biological game of telephone until it was transmitted throughout my entire body. The right combination of sensory input and I instantly feel dread and foreboding. The input is too much. I feel crowded all the time. I want to tell everyone to just please hold still, put my finger to my lips and “shhhhhhh”. Just, everyone, please hold still and be quiet.
I actually have a startle response when I’m like this. I am startled by normal things that should not be startling; a phone ringing, a door closing, someone walking by me. I am sound sensitive; hypersensitive to physical stimuli, too much talking, too much movement. I say to myself, “This is crazy!”
Is there such a thing as a grief hangover? Because I think that’s what this is.
And, my dreams! My dreams have been, well, memorable. I have had a series of anxiety dreams.
In one dream I am frantically tearing the house apart looking for my computer but can never seem to find it. I keep looking in the same places over and over again thinking that it absolutely must be there, but it is not.
In a second more telling dream, I am driving around town in my car, however, there is something wrong. It is not driving properly. At first, I can’t figure out what is wrong but then I realize I have a flat tire. So, I’m driving around town on a flat tire, and I keep saying to myself, “Oh, no, I have a flat tire!” But I keeping driving on the flat tire anyway, and I’m asking myself, “Why am I driving on a flat tire?” I know I have a flat tire and yet I just keep on driving around. I just continue on my way saying, “I know I have a flat tire. Why am I driving around on a flat tire? This is weird. I shouldn’t be doing this. Why can’t I stop driving?” I never stopped or pulled over to get it fixed. It didn’t even occur to me call anybody for help. I just kept driving around. Analyze that! Why don’t ya’?! Ha!
And then this one. I dreamt that Paul was back. He was an old man, very sweet looking, gray-haired and a little hunched over and….he was pregnant. Weird. I know. My response to this in the dream was so typical of me, ignoring the absurd and going into full-on problem solving mode, logical, rational, calm, resolved. I was saying to him, “Well, this really shouldn’t be possible. I’m not sure what we’re going to do, but we’ll work it out.” If you’ve got any ideas about that one, let me know! Or, wait, maybe I don’t want to know. Nevermind.
This post has been in the queue for well more than a week. I’ve written it in small chunks as the days have drifted by. I’m not sure why it has been so hard for me to, first of all, write it, and then second to that to “put it out there”. I suppose the strong emotions are interrupting the flow of thoughts like debris clogging a pipe.
I’ve been really busy in the last several weeks, really preoccupied and distracted. I’ve struggled with motivation and felt a little paralyzed at times. This is all normal, of course, and I understand all of it, but it is still a struggle for me to accept and be ok with not being ok. I have to ramp up the positive self-talk and keep coaching the voice in my head to go easy on me.
My mind and my heart have often remembered the Camino during this recent episode. I remember that sometimes the path was smooth. Sometimes it was rocky. Sometimes I could see the horizon, fresh, clear, and hopeful, but sometimes I was hemmed in by trees and villages unable to see what was over the next rise or around the next turn. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had companions. Sometimes the direction was certain, but sometimes I was confused about which way to go. Sometimes the wind was at my back, warm and comforting, and sometimes the wind was in my face, bracing and cold. Sometimes I was energized and eager, and sometimes I was tired, frustrated, and aching. Sometimes I struggled up hills and steep inclines, and sometimes I enjoyed the respite of a gentle downhill slope.
So, now. Now I know why I was led, called, to the Camino. It’s laid out now in my soul, a road map to grief and all its many twists, turns, hills, and straightaways. Thank you, Lord, for showing me The Way.
And, just in case you’re wondering, there are more Sunday dinners to come.
*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
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 hersister 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
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
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….
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.
In a previous post, I shared that I am going on a
pilgrimage. I am going to walk the last 110km of the Camino de
Santiago through northwestern Spain to reach the tomb of St. James, the
Apostle. My trip starts today, but this journey started, well, years ago.
Grieving is a spiritual journey, and God set me on this path from a very young
age. My mother was killed in a car accident when I was twelve. That is when my
journey with grief began. It’s a tough road to be sure. Grief is wrought with
challenges, but I’ve come to understand and even value that grief offers us the
opportunity to know ourselves, and God, more fully.
God put this trip on my heart months ago. I am really
interested in this idea of travel as an element in the healing process. What is
it about travel that has the capacity to soothe the soul, offers clarity, and
lays the ground work for moving forward? Does travel provide some sort of
filter or framework for understanding and processing? It certainly does provide
out from our everyday lives to focus on healing and recovery.
It wasn’t long after my husband died last year that I began
feeling like I needed to get away (readrun away!). I felt like I needed a
retreat, to be quiet for long stretches of time, to reflect and contemplate,
and to explore the inner world in order to take a complete emotional inventory.
A pilgrimage is the perfect way to do just that. The idea of a pilgrimage is
nothing new. People have known throughout history the value of walking for the
maintenance and growth of our spiritual selves and our personal relationship
with the Lord. They have walked across Europe and around the globe to visit
sacred sites. I will be following in their footsteps.
It is said that the true purpose of a pilgrimage is to find
who we are in the eyes of God. It’s also true that I have wrestled with my
identity throughout the grief process. I am eager to use this trip as
opportunity to see myself, my new identity through God’s eyes, who he wants me
to be moving forward. The fact that this trip involves a lot of walking is
appropriate. I had always related walking to exercise but have learned that
walking is a powerful activity for the mind and spirit as well. It has been an
important part of my healing process. In an early post,
I mentioned a daily, mindfulness walk. The mindfulness walk gives me time to
focus my thoughts on gratitude, areas where I am falling short, and prayer for
areas of need. It also gives me time to enjoy memories and rejoice. I find strength
with each step and finish feeling refreshed and empowered.
The Bible has a lot to say about walking. Genesis describes
Adam and Eve hearing the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the
cool of the day. Can you imagine that? The Lord God himself walking in the
garden, walking in our midst. In Deuteronomy, we are encouraged to walk in His
ways. Isaiah says to walk in His paths. In Jeremiah, the same encouragement
comes with an added condition and promise that if we walk in all the ways in
which He commands us, it will be well with us. Micah reminds us to walk humbly
with God. Ephesians and Colossians implores us to walk in a manner worthy of
the calling with which we have been called and to walk in a manner worthy of
the Lord. In the Psalms we are told to walk in His truth and walk in the light
of His countenance. Finally, in perhaps the most well-known Biblical reference,
also found in Psalms, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death. I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they
comfort me.” This rod and staff business has always interested me. When I read rod, I think of the old saying spare the rod, spoil the child. So, if
the rod is the rod of discipline, then how does it comfort me in this context of death, mourning, and grief? Very
interesting. When I read staff, I
think of a walking stick, or Moses’ staff, the staff that sheep herders use to
support themselves as they walk but also to guide and protect their flock. Very,
very interesting. So, God is going to comfort me through the grief process with
discipline, support, protection, and guidance. I like it.
Psalm 126: 5-6 “Those
who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying
seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”
Friends, I have sowed in tears. I have gone out weeping. I am carrying seeds to sow, and I am leaning on God’s promise that I will return with songs of joy bearing the fruit of a closer walk with Him.
Friends, this post will be difficult for all of us. If
you’ve had a very recent loss, it’s probably not the best time to read this one.
Save it for later when you’re stronger. I am not even sure I should be sharing
this. I don’t know who it will help. Maybe you, but maybe just me. I do know that I feel called to share it, and I am very
sure that it is a necessary part of the healing process.
Modern medicine has essentially removed death from our everyday lives. People today don’t experience the number of personal losses to death that people did even 100 years ago. Death used to be common place in our homes due to wars, illnesses that now have readily available treatments and cures, accidents, and the prevalence of livestock in people’s everyday lives. We had so many rituals and social structures around death that supported and ushered people through the process. Mourning jewelry that contained images and remains were prevalent. People do still wear mourning or remembrance type jewelry, but it is typically disguised as regular jewelry so that no one but the wearer knows that it contains ashes, a lock of hair, or is actually a finger print or the impression of the electrical impulse of a heart beat from an electrocardiogram. Death has become something to be handled discreetly, privately. I believe that has made it more difficult for those who are grieving, and we are all grieving. We need to talk about it! Candidly. But we don’t. People don’t talk about it when they have been witness to the final moments of life. It’s painful. It’s intensely personal. It’s packed with conflicting emotions that are difficult to describe in words. Perhaps it’s not considered polite to share the contents of that experience. Honestly, manners—superficial, defined social structures—don’t matter that much to me anymore. People, feelings, experiences, being totally present, deeply listening, understanding, and questioning are the things that I care about and pour myself into these days. Transparency, vulnerability, truth. These are the conduits to healing.
The last two weeks leading up to Paul’s last day had been a constant effort to keep him comfortable. The cancer was pervasive. It was everywhere, lungs, brain, abdomen, colon, liver, intestines, everywhere. Our chief concern was, of course, managing pain. We soon arrived at a crossroads where, in order to manage the pain and keep him comfortable, we would have to relinquish his ability to remain conscious. This was an insanely difficult decision-making process for us to navigate. We knew every choice we made about the medications that were being used could mean that we were interacting with the essence of what made Paul Paul for the last time. Some of the drugs being used to manage pain could, in fact, lead to his death. During this time, Paul would have what we described as long pauses. There would be periods of time when he would just stop breathing. We would all huddle close to him thinking that the moment had come. Then, after up to two or three minutes (an eternity!), he would start breathing again. These long pauses happened multiple times a day for days on end. It was traumatizing. Because our son and I would frequently take turns going home to sleep, shower, changes clothes, and walk dogs, there were several times when a period of long pauses occurred when one of us was not at the hospital. When this happened, we would call the one who was not there and stay on the phone while we hurried to get back to the hospital terrified that we might miss Paul’s final moment. Like I said, traumatizing.
He had not been conscious in over a week. The Paul we knew was gone, but his body remained. It was hard to understand what was keeping him tethered. A member of the palliative care team explained that sometimes the dying have a need for privacy in their final moments. So, our son and I left the room for several hours at a stretch, both of us, for the first time since Paul was admitted to the hospital, but it only seemed to agitate him. Even unconscious, Paul rested more comfortably when we were in the room. I asked a member of our palliative care team why Paul was lingering when it was so difficult. I just didn’t understand how his body could possibly be enduring. I think what I was really asking was why Paul had to suffer. I know now that to be human is to suffer. We are human. Suffering is the human condition. For the rest of my life, no matter what happens to me, no matter who I love or who loves me, in my last breaths, I will be in that hospital room with Paul in his last moments. I will see what I saw. I will hear what I heard. I will feel what I felt, and as brutal as that was, it was a privilege.
The palliative care team member I was speaking to was an older doctor, and he gently explained to me, in the most beautiful way, something that had never occurred to me before. He said that, in his career, he had been present at countless deaths and countless births. He said that not all people arrive easily. For some, the birth process is difficult, a struggle, and that the same is true of the death process. For some, it is difficult. It is a struggle. I’m not sure why that had never occurred to me. Again, I think it might be because we as a society do not talk and share enough about the ubiquitous human experience that is the dying process. It makes sense, though, right? Birthing is called labor. There is pain. Then, so, too, dying is also a labor, and some labor more than others just as in the birthing process. Paul was in labor, struggling to be born into the next life, and we were witnesses, but after talking with the doctor, I saw myself as a coach as well and began to think about what Paul needed from me, how I could come alongside him as his partner in the process instead of merely his care-giver and advocate.
On morning of the last day, I arrived at the hospital early. Our son had been with Paul through the night and headed home for a little while. Shortly after our son left, Paul’s breathing became labored and noisy, loud. It was difficult to be in the room. It was brutal.
I sent this message out to family and friends. “We are on
our knees this morning. This road is very, very difficult. But we are not
alone. We feel the love and prayers of family and friends near and far. Any
strength you perceive in us, I have to tell you is not us, but Him. I am
running on His Grace alone. There is nothing left but His Grace. Everything
else has been stripped away. We are laid bare in the pain and struggle of it. I
have honestly never experienced anything worse than this, and yet I rest in the
comfort of my Savior’s embrace. We love you all.”
In desperation, I cried out to God to be merciful. This was my prayer that day, “Please, Lord God, have mercy on your servant, Paul. He belongs to You. He has always belonged to you, Lord, and now I am begging you to have mercy. I am thankful for the days you have given us. I am sorry for the many ways I have fallen short. Please, Lord, be merciful.” Then, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Paul, the way a wife talks with a husband. I told him that we were trying everything we knew to keep him comfortable, but we were failing. I told him that we could not heal him, but God could. After 30 years of complete and utter love and devotion, I told Paul for the last time that I loved him but God loved him more. Yes, God loved him more. That was an important realization for me. I had always thought that I loved Paul most and best, but that was actually never true. God always loved him more. I also talked to Paul about all the wonderful, fun, sad, difficult, normal, extraordinary things we had done together. We were always together, but this was different. He would have to do this last thing on his own, and I told him I knew he could do it. He had to go on ahead of me, and he had to do it by himself.
Our son arrived back at the hospital about noon, and the labored breathing continued throughout the day. In the evening, he was suddenly quiet. The three of us spent the rest of night together peacefully. I awoke at about 1:30 in the morning. I don’t know why because on the surface nothing had changed. Paul was still quiet and peaceful. So, I just sat there with him holding his hand. The pace of his breath quickened, and I spoke with the nurse about a medication change. She administered the medication, but his breathing continued to be erratic. I woke our son up. He and I surrounded his dad with love and joy and gratitude and saw him traverse the threshold from this world to his eternal home.
When it comes to cancer, everyone prays for a miracle. Well, we did have a miracle. It was not a happy ending in the traditional sense as in a cure, but it was a peaceful, dignified ending. The miracle is that, given what we were facing, Paul died peacefully and with dignity surrounded by family, friends, and so much love.
I have used this picture in a previous post, and you may have thought, as I did, Why am is she (am I) smiling? When I saw myself in this picture, that was my first thought. Why am I smiling? Initially, I didn’t have an answer for that question. Over time, I realized why. For me, the hardest part was watching Paul in pain, watching Paul die, and that part was thankfully, blessedly over. I could not even cry. I felt so ridiculous, not being able to cry, but I was so happy for Paul, that the pain and suffering was over. My grief was delayed by relief. I recently saw a picture of another young widow, an acquaintance of mine from high school. Her husband died of cancer, 49 years old. In the picture, the day of her husband’s funeral, she is smiling, just like me. I know why.