Cloudy with a chance of a …(grief) hurricane.

For 536 days, a figurative storm of grief has raged inside of me. Today, a literal storm is raging outside as Hurricane Dorian takes its best shot at the east coast.

My son and my in-laws are with me, safety in numbers. My father-in-law is sitting at our piano playing tenderly; old gospel favorites like Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and so many more. He’s never had a lesson, not a single one. He plays by ear in a very old fashioned way, constantly improvising as he goes with lots of trills and warbles and using the sustaining, or damper, pedal all the while. Each hand toggles rapidly holding notes in a rich, sweet melodramatic vibrato. I’ve heard him play these same songs maybe hundreds of times over the years but never the same way twice. It’s always new. Always new. Now, isn’t that rare and beautiful!

The wind is really howling now, gusting up to 80 miles per hour. The house creaks and groans but remains steadfast. Trees and limbs are down and smaller debris is everywhere. Even the tallest, strongest trees are being tossed about like waves on a turbulent ocean. They billow, flap, and snap like sheets hung on a line near some windswept prairie. Fascinating, really. Frighteningly beautiful and captivating to watch. Warning:  This post may be a bit of a rambler as my thoughts and emotions today are equally tossed by the wind. It’s also a little lengthier, too. Apparently, we’re having a deluge of water and words!

There are two groups of people in my world now. People who know Paul died, and people who don’t. However, there is a challenge that’s the same within both of these groups. In the first group, there are many people who know how grateful I am for the time Paul and I had, for the support that I have received and for the way I have grown through my experiences, but there are some who just feel sorry for me and not in a good way. I am uncomfortable with the way some people pity me. With the latter group, it’s a look of pity on their face the first time they learn about my husband’s passing. It’s a look I know all too well, and it nearly always transports me to that other period of grieving in my life when my mother died.

The day my mother died was a normal day. It was a Wednesday. It was March; St. Patrick’s Day, in fact. My father was away, out of town on his annual fishing trip. My mother woke me up to get ready for school. There’s nothing really significant or extraordinary to remember about that morning because it was just like any other morning in our household. That part actually amazes me. It amazes me that the day your life will change forever can just start like that, like it’s just an ordinary day.

I am aware that a child’s memories are often perforated with gaps and oddly pieced together like a misshapen quilt, but I do remember that I was wearing a green, button-down shirt of my mother’s. The style of it was very on trend for the time, 1983. It was a Ralph Lauren mens’ style, button-down dress shirt; light seagrass-green cotton, crisply ironed with starch. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a fresh pair of Sperry Topsiders, and an Aigner purse completed the look. I remember feeling very grown that I could share clothes with my mom. I was twelve.

I left the house and walked toward the bus stop that was located on the street behind our house. I went out the front door and circled back cutting through a neighbor’s yard. My mother was always waiting at a back window for one final wave goodbye. For the life of me, I can’t actually remember the moment that she waved to me that day. I can only assume she did because it was our ritual.

My mother worked as the bookkeeper at my grandmother’s shop. Every day, she left for work after I left for school. It was an exciting day at school that day because we were having a science fair. The projects were lined up on tables in the gym at a neighboring school. One of my friends had her project set up on the next row over from mine. She and I along with other students, teachers, and a handful of parents were milling around, chatting and looking at the displays, anxiously waiting to see the ribbons that would be pinned to the winning projects. My friend and I knew each other from dance, tennis, and girl scouts as well as school. We went on beach vacations together, camping trips, and were regulars on the weekend sleep-over circuit. Our parents were friends, too. We are, in fact, still friends today, and I am so grateful for that sustaining friendship.

Suddenly, my friend’s mother, who was also my mother’s friend, arrived. She was stopping in to see how we were doing. I remember her looking a little wind-blown, wearing a rain coat and carrying an umbrella. The weather that day was early-spring squally, stormy with heavy rain (cats and dogs as we say in the south), lightning and thunder. Unknown to any of us at the time, my mother, driving to work in the storm, had hydro-planed on standing water in the road. She lost control of the car, crashed, and died. She was not wearing her seat belt. My father told me that she was killed instantly, that she did not suffer. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t believe him, but I needed proof. So, one day when I was home alone after school, I snuck into a box of legal documents and found her death certificate. It verified what my father had told me.

I remained at school all day. Remember, my father was out of town. My extended family needed time to notify him and time for him to travel home. I rode the bus home as always. I got off the bus and was making my way to the cut-through by the neighbor’s house. I heard a sound, in the background, but kept walking only mildly aware of the noise. Then, I heard it again, more insistent this time, a car horn. It got my attention. I turned to see my father’s car. I ran to it and hopped in. I don’t envy what my father had to do that day, to tell his only daughter that her beloved mother was dead. In fact, what I saw and experienced in that moment has won him an extraordinary amount of grace in the years hence, but that, my friends, is for another post. There was someone else there; someone who opened the car door and tried to help comfort me, contain me really, but that would be like trying to contain an atom bomb. I was an emotional mushroom cloud. I can still hear myself screaming. I can still see my contorted face. I can still feel the strength of my father’s arms, elbows and shoulders, holding me not to comfort but to keep me from exploding through the roof of the car.

***

We made our way home and arrived to a house full of people, relatives and neighbors, where every adult was wearing the same look on their faces when they saw me. In my whole life, no one had ever looked at me that way because they never had cause or reason to. By all accounts, I had lived a charmed childhood with very little disruption or strife, a much doted on only child. The look on their faces is seared in my memory. The glassy, knowing eyes, up-turned cheeks, the down-turned corners of their mouths, lips pressed together, full of sadness and love. Poor little girl. I had the distinct impression that my sadness was making their sadness worse. For many of them, it seemed the mere sight of me, the thought of what I had lost was more than they could bear so they just looked away, looked down, averted their gaze, or looked right through me. My perception was that they thought of me as weak, helpless, to be pitied. The poor-little-girl look on their faces incensed me, made me want to punch them in the nose. Later on, I was whisked away from the television as the local, evening news told the tragic story of my mother’s death, her devastated family, and the twelve year old daughter she left behind.

Tragic. Tragedy. Over the next few weeks and months, I heard those words over and over, usually whispered between adults who thought I was out of ear shot. My mother was the oldest child with three siblings. She was well-loved by our family, friends, and neighbors, and her family was well-known in the area. And, truly, I am only now beginning to understand the full impact on those adults as I am now an adult struggling with loss myself. They lost a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a neighbor, a friend. They were all grieving in different ways, and I was internalizing all of it. I didn’t feel like a participant in the grief. I was an observer, a witness. Looking back on it now though, I have such compassion for all of them. The spitting anger and indignation has been replaced with empathy. It was awful for all of them, and many of them are still dealing with the emotional aftermath to this day. I am so very sorry for their loss. I truly am.

 As I grew older, I met new people who didn’t know my mother died. In order to avoid the look, I simply would not offer that information about myself to anyone because my perception was that it completely changed the way they thought of me. So, sometimes I am also uncomfortable with those that don’t know that Paul died. Truthfully, my discomfort is with myself because even though I am spared the look, it is bothersome to me that they don’t know something so fundamental about me and my life to the point that it feels dishonest for me to keep that part of myself hidden. It feels disingenuous, unauthentic, not my true self. I don’t like the mask anymore, and yet, I still have a tendency to want to guard that part of myself in an effort to control people’s perception of me. It’s quite the internal wrestling match these days as I have moved to a new job, and there are a lot of new people in my life that I am just getting to know. I have to do better. I want to do better by sharing myself fully.

Ok, so here it is. Here’s the big moment that all this rambling is leading up to. The nitty-gritty as it were. Sharing my weakness, making myself vulnerable to people’s perception and even their unwanted pity is an opportunity to share the power of God’s love and the saving Grace that is the personhood of Jesus. His perfect love and strength are revealed fully in my weakness. Earlier in my life, I might have missed, no, I know I missed opportunities to share my faith because I was selfish and wanted to control how others saw me. No more. People, God has worked a miracle in my life! He has used my pain and suffering, my tragedy, to speak to me, and, hopefully, to speak to you. He has transmuted my sadness into gratitude, growth, healing, and joy. He can do that for you, too!

Check this out from Psalm 84:6, “Who passing through the vale of tears, makes it a well.” A vale is a valley; a valley of tears. I have cried that many tears and more for my mother and for Paul, and it makes me think back to the Camino when I was walking in the rain for hours. That’s what a valley of tears must be like. Tears falling like a never-ending, drenching rain; a soaked-to-the-bone, clothes-sticking-to-you, pouring-water-out-your-shoes, shriveled-skin-on-hands-and-feet rain of tears! At the time, I didn’t understand. I just did it. I just kept walking. But now, I know what that valley of tears feels like in my heart and on my skin. Because of that experience, I can really connect with what God is saying to me. And, get this, I misread the next part! At first, I read “…makes it well” as in makes it all better. Gee, thanks God! That’s what we want him to do, right? Make it all better! But that’s not how God works (at least not in my life!) and thank goodness for that. Upon rereading, I realized that this is what the verse actually says, “….makes it a well.” A well as in a source of water, life-giving water, a fountain of joy! The New Living Translation states it like this, “When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs. The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.” And commentators agree that it speaks to our loving God’s power to turn adversity itself into a blessing. Showers in the desert can turn a barren landscape into a garden. So, too, resolve and faith together commute disadvantage, disaster even, to benefit.

The full verse contains even more riches, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion. O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!”

Now, doesn’t that just blow you away?! I don’t know about you, but today I know for certain that the mighty rushing wind of God’s Word blowing through my soul is stronger than any hurricane raging outside my window.

Blown away by God’s love, Malia

Untitled (because I can’t think of a good one right now)

The fog of grief. Widow-brain. Whatever we choose to call it. It’s real, and it comes and goes. It is not limited to the time immediately after a loved one’s passing. It makes it harder to do even the most ordinary things. When the fog rolls in, my mind is constantly wandering off course, like a diversion to a stream. When reading anything, a book, instructions, directions, a magazine, I sometimes I have to read aloud just to maintain my focus, concentration, attention, and I usually have to read something two or three times before it sinks in.

I can’t find anything in the house. I can’t find my keys, my shoes, my bag(s), my hair clips, my water bottle, my phone. I miss appointments. I forget to take my medicine. I forget to eat. I forget what day it is! I have always thought of myself as an organized, got-my-sh*t-together kind of person, but now I know the truth. All along, it was Paul, taking up my slack and letting me think I had everything in order. Apparently, my whole life has been a lie! <insert smirk>

Case in point. At a recent yoga session, my instructor was patrolling the room, quietly making adjustments here and there, squaring hips, turning joints, re-positioning shoulders. She arrived at my mat where I was working on my very best down-dog ever, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, goody! She’s about to give me some one-on-one, personal attention, some corrective feedback, encouragement or praise even (yippee!),’ and then she leaned in and whispered, “Did you know your pants are on inside out?” This, friends. This is my life on grief.

***

Grief Dreams:  Waiting at the Foot of Jacob’s Ladder, or When Paul Comes to Visit

Genesis 28:10-12 “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”

Grief dreams are apparently pretty common. I checked on that just to make sure I am not going crazy because I have them nearly every night or at least I do lately anyway. I try not to over-analyze or put too much stock in what dreams mean. I try to take them at face-value. As far as I can tell, they are a normal part of grieving. Just another cog in the wheel of grief and healing.

Sometimes I dream that it is morning. I am awake and busy with little household chores, but Paul is still in the bed snoozing, sleeping late. Other times, I dream that I am lying beside him. In the dream, I am awake, and he is asleep beside me. I can feel the weight of him next to me, the warmth of him. I can hear him breathing softly. I can even feel his sharp elbow or his round hip fitting into my side like a puzzle piece.

Some of the dreams are just random and seemingly meaningless. In one recent dream, we were riding in our truck. The side view mirror was smashed, and there were multiple dings in the windshield. He was upset about it, but I told him we would just call the insurance company and tell them the truck had been vandalized. But some of the dreams, and their meanings, are completely obvious like one dream where I walked in the door from work and Paul was standing in the kitchen. I threw my stuff down and walked into his embrace. I woke up from this dream because I could feel the smile on my face. I could feel his stubbly beard on my chin and cheeks. It was one of those sweet, pressing kisses with a smile underneath followed by a mu-wah! It was a happy, smiling, chuckling kiss. I said, “I’m so happy to see you!” I could feel his hands and his warmth. I’m smiling just writing this. I could breathe again. I had forgotten what that was like, to have air in my body. I breathed a sigh, an ahhhhh. I was whole again. My eyes were shining bright, sparkling with tears just at the edges and corners like liquid glitter.

In another dream, I was calling out the window and door to a neighbor for help. I called her once, twice, three times. Her name was Rose, but we don’t have a neighbor named Rose. My middle name is Rose. Paul was on the couch apparently dead as he was pale and limp. Rose kept calling out to me saying she was coming, but she never did. Then, she was there but her body wasn’t. I went to the couch and Paul had changed color. He was alive but delirious and laughing lightly in a silly kind of way, and then I woke up.

Finally, in a very recent dream, Paul and I were much younger. We were living in a different city. We were in the kitchen, and Paul was leaning against the counter near the sink, one foot propped in front of the other with hands flat on the counter, fingers forward, elbows out at 90 degree angles. He was relaxed. I was making one of my famous speeches. I was tense and was enumerating a list of reasons he should stay, as in stay in our marriage. I don’t know why he was leaving. There had been no apparent argument. We were not angry with each other. He was just leaving, leaving me. I was making a persuasive argument of all the reasons why Paul should stay with me. Some of the reasons I dogmatically listed were things like for the sake of our families, our son. I asked him to be more patient with me, acknowledged that I had made mistakes in the past, but I was improving all the time. I asked him to give me time to learn and grow and that if he looked back across all the time that we had been together he could see the progress that I had made. When it became apparent that none of my persuasive points were going to change his decision, I turned to the practicalities of how and when he would be leaving. The gears ground and the transmission groaned. The dream began to slip, and I found myself in the space between waking and sleeping. In that half-world, I thought to myself, “That was dumb. I should have told him the real reason I didn’t want him to leave. The main reason for him to stay is that I love him and don’t want him to go. It’s the only argument that matters.” Then, I thought, “I’m going to tell him that when we wake up.” In the half-world, I have found that I can choose to re-enter a dream or rise to consciousness. In this case, I rose to consciousness. Reality roiled in my stomach. I sat up on the side of the bed and said a very.bad.word. I had the impulse to scream and throw things but was so spent from the fitful sleep that I didn’t have the energy to do so. This, friends. This is my life on grief.

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon our hearts.” Aeschylus

***

It can’t be.

It can’t be late summer. It can’t be the start of another school year, but it is. I am constantly amazed that the sun rises, amazed by the beginning of each new day. Not because of the miracle that it is, not the gift of it which I am grateful for, not its beauty which is undeniable, not because of any of those true and worthy aspects. I live in a constant state of astonishment that life goes on. None of this is supposed to be happening without Paul. It shouldn’t be possible. It can’t be, but it is and how dare it be so. I’m indignant, resentful even. It’s gone too far. There have been too many days without him. This thought makes me feel panicky, forces me to catch and hold my breath. Did I think he was coming back?

This feels like a change, some weird transition in the grieving process, new territory, an emotional no-man’s land. I’m adrift. Last summer, I was teaching summer school in order to make up for days I had lost during Paul’s illness and after his passing. That was not the case this summer, and I found myself with a lot of unstructured time. It has made me unsettled, restless. Paul and I truly relished our summers together, in the boat, on trips, or doing absolutely nothing at all. I have tried to fill my days with meaningful activities, but the down times have felt lonelier than ever before.

I’ve had a recurrence of flashbacks. They are different from memories. Memories are allowed in, invited. Flashbacks are decidedly uninvited. Memories have associative triggers like a song on the radio, a smell, a place, an article of clothing. Flashbacks may or may not have apparent triggers and often appear to have no trigger whatsoever. They are an emotional transporter. They beam me into a traumatic moment or experience, and I have a full-on sensory experience. These flashbacks to the time during Paul’s illness and death are more a symptom of my state of mind, a red flag that I’m slipping, that the scales are tipping in the other direction. Uh-oh. Here I go again. So, what to do about it? Turn away from the darkness and turn toward the Light, the Light of the world, Jesus, and His word.

Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”

Psalm 4:6 “Many are saying, ‘Who will show us any good?’ Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!”

Like this late summer beauty, I am flying toward the Light. My path may not be the straightest. I may struggle and flap and fly in circles along the way, but I will still strive because the Light is the only place to be.

Malia