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

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