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

Happy Holidays!

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a holiday. That’s why I’m writing about it now. The holidays have been so fraught with emotion for me that I’m not capable of effectively writing about them in the moment.

I grew up near the ocean. It was always there in the background, either lapping or roaring. That’s how grief is, too. Always there. In the background. An ocean of grief, either lapping or roaring. If grief comes in waves, then the holidays are most certainly rip currents. I remember being taught from a very early age what to do if I was ever caught in a rip current. A rip current is a swift, narrow flow of water moving perpendicular to and away from the beach. It can literally take you out to sea, away from the stability of the shore. You may suddenly find yourself slapped about by a tumult of waves, bobbing up and down, coming up for a gasp of air but just as quickly pulled back down. With eyes squenched shut and cheeks taut with breath held, you’re catching only glimpses of the shoreline with each bob and weave. Everyone’s first instinct is to try to swim back to land. Everyone’s first instinct is wrong. In so many cases, that decision is fatal. If you struggle, fight against it, you might die of exhaustion. The key is not to struggle. You can do one of two things. You can change direction and swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current, or you can just let it carry you until it has lost its power so that you can calmly make your way back to the beach. I think it’s good practice for grieving through the holidays, too. Change direction, or ride it out. I also think there should be grief signal flags like maritime signal flags. The holidays: storm warnings ahead, dangerous conditions. My holiday ship would be flying the delta flag, a field of blue with a yellow belt above and below it, signaling, “Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty.”

The first holiday that came up on the calendar after Paul died was Easter. As a Christian, there is no other holiday with greater meaning or comfort, and no greater reason for hope than this one, but at the time, I was numb to all of that. In fact, that first Easter Sunday after Paul died, I didn’t even go to church. I had been at the hospital all night with Paul’s family. His mother had a very mild, cardiac event and was hospitalized overnight. Likewise, I did not go to church on Easter Sunday this year either. Instead, I was just stepping off a plane from my Camino experience in Spain. So, Easter Sunday at church without Paul sitting beside me is still an unknown experience. Yay, there’s that to look forward to.

The next major holiday on the calendar was Thanksgiving. That one was blessedly normal. Honestly, I didn’t even give it a second thought. Why? I was anxiously anticipating our wedding anniversary and Christmas which nearly coincide with each other. I was already so focused on how I was going to manage those holidays that Thanksgiving was little more than a speed bump in the road. So, you might be thinking that I did well to get through Thanksgiving relatively unscathed, and it’s true. I did. But Thanksgiving, filled with family, quieter and less commercialized than Christmas, has always been my favorite holiday. So, while I did indeed get through it, I didn’t enjoy it, and that was hard, not enjoying my favorite holiday.

Paul and I were married 11 days before Christmas. It was a simple, lovely wedding. It was an unseasonably warm, 72 degrees, that day. The morning was overcast with a sprinkling of rain, but by the time I was walking down the aisle at two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was out and it was a spectacular, late fall, Lowcountry day. I loved our Christmas time wedding. It’s such a festive time of year anyway. There is so much to celebrate. It’s when the church celebrates the birth of Christ, and the church’s celebratory mood is on full display, hung with greenery and garlands punctuated by the brilliant red of holly berries and poinsettias. We, in turn, were celebrating the birth of our marriage and were looking forward to building a life together with the same jubilance and excitement of children in anticipation of Christmas morning.

I knew our first anniversary without him was going to be difficult, and I really tried to get out of the rip current of emotion rushing toward me, threatening to sweep me away, by swimming in a different direction. I, in fact, went backward in order to go forward. I knew I had to go back to where we started. I knew I needed to move forward from a place of strength. In a way, I was revisiting our life, going on a tour of a place and time that created what we knew as us. Reflecting on it now, it turned out to be a critical, turning point in my healing process.

Paul and I met at a local, historic plantation. It’s where we got to know each other. We spent a lot of time there in the beginning of our relationship, walked the garden paths, talked about the flowers, trees, and history, smiled and laughed and shared ourselves, our stories.

So, I planned to take the day off from work and spend our anniversary there. Just me and Paul and our memories. However, it was not the spectacular late fall, Lowcountry day that our wedding day was. It was reasonably warm, but it was raining, a constant slow dripping all day long. I went anyway, umbrella in hand and rain boots on my feet. Amazingly, the plantation and gardens had been transformed by the rain. It made the whole experience other-worldly as if I had stepped through a portal in time and space.

In the rain soaked garden, the light looked different, the greens of the leaves and trees were clearer and sharper in contrast to the mossy grays and muted, tawny, December browns of the rushes and marsh grasses. There was no breeze. It was so quiet. The only movement was that of birds taking full advantage of the opportunity to bathe and preen, and dine on a smorgasbord of stranded insects.

Only the puddles registered my steps as I strode through pathways crowded with the heavy water logged limbs of blooming camellias. The light coating of water like slip glaze on pottery had given the flowers a pearl-ized, translucent quality casting them in a sheen, a glow.

I didn’t see a single other visitor to the gardens that entire day. You might think that felt lonely, but it didn’t. I felt very close to Paul, and enveloped in His creation as I was, I felt very close to God, too. As I stepped out from a pathway to a point where I could see across the rice fields and river beyond, I was greeted with the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”. I had not heard or thought about this hymn in years, but it was with me all day. God, in His mercy, was singing over me.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such gracious judgement given.

There is plentiful redemption
through the blood that Christ has shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be illumined,
by the glory of the Lord.

(Frederick William Faber, 1862)

I had some of Paul’s ashes with me. I had no plans for when or where I might let them go. I just walked and remembered and waited for the moment because I knew it would come. And it did. I rounded a hedge row on to a rise that overlooked the river. The rain had slowed to a mist, and as I swept my arm and hand across my body to launch Paul’s ashes heavenward, a breeze caught him and carried him out over the marshes and river to be forever part of the landscape that he cherished and that shaped the early foundation of our relationship.

The next 11 days leading up to Christmas produced a lot of anxiety. For one thing, I had to do the Christmas shopping by myself. Paul and I always did this together. I spent a Saturday going from store to store with crying fits in the car in between. It was miserable. In contrast to my experience revisiting the place where we met, I didn’t feel close to Paul at all. In fact, I felt as far away from him as I could possibly be, but I was riding it out. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I opted, again, to swim in a different direction. Good move.

I hosted family dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. This included Paul’s family and my family. It also, blessedly, turned out to include a friend from my work family. She was alone for the holidays. Her husband needed to be with his ailing parents, her grown children were splitting the holidays between their families and the families of their respective significant others and so she was by herself on Christmas Eve. I saw a little of myself in that situation and reached out to her to come join our family for Christmas Eve dinner and was so glad I did. It was wonderful to have her there. We got in the kitchen and cooked together and talked and laughed and smiled. She fit right in with our crazy, blended family, and it was good.

On Christmas Day, my son and I got up and opened presents. We visited with Paul’s parents. The morning was quiet and peaceful. The sadness was there, but I just looked it right in the face and accepted it. Then, we joined some other family members and friends to cook and serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House. Ronald McDonald House Charities provide lodging, resources, and support to families of sick children who are receiving treatment far from their homes. It’s a beautiful thing, and it provided me with both distraction from my own feelings and a necessary perspective on my grief and the grief of others.

This past Father’s Day was our second without Paul. It was tough. I don’t really remember the first one being that hard, and I thought that was strange. It seems like all of the firsts would be more difficult, but here’s why I think that’s not actually the reality of it. During that first year, a holiday was no different from any other day because they all sucked. Every day was a difficult day, holiday or not. But then, somewhere along the way, everything gradually starts getting better, and the bad days start to stand out from the other days more so than they did before. Suddenly, holidays become like land mines, like islands of grief in an otherwise relatively calm, navigable sea.

There is a lot of really good advice out there about how to survive the holidays when you are grieving. And you can certainly do just that. You can survive the holidays. But you can also use the holidays as an opportunity to grieve, grow, and heal. I think I did a little of both.

Malia