Five Gold Rings

This is, after all, the fifth day of Christmas. Can’t you just hear the familiar, well loved carol echoing in your memory? That favorite refrain that everyone joined in on even if they couldn’t remember the other gifts of Christmas?

Big inhale! FIIIIVVVVVE GOLD(EN) RINGS! BOM, BOm, Bom, bom…..So, today, on this fifth day of Christmas, I give to you full disclosure.

Beware. This post might qualify for Longreads. I’m kidding, but, truly, if you haven’t discovered Longreads yet, give it a whirl. It’s an online magazine, hosted on WordPress, of long-ish essays, investigate reports, interviews and profiles from a wide variety of writers on human interest type topics.

But, seriously, you might have to take a snack break, or two, at some point during this post.

This Christmas has been like a game of Hi-Lo on The Price is Right. Desperate for anything to take the edge off the seeping, creeping grief, the highs have been the low-hanging fruit like trivial distractions and general busy-ness, and the lows, well, there’s a strange sort of safety and comfort there because the lows feel like my baseline.

I think this is what my son meant when, a few months ago, he said he was worried about me getting stuck in grief, stuck like feet that have sunk a little too far into the pluff-mud that pervades our Lowcountry landscape. The effort it takes to retrieve your foot is surprising and always more than your brain anticipates, or estimates, that it will take. So, there’s an initial jerking upward motion which gets you nowhere and then a more sustained slowwww-pull that finally begins to yield some of your leg and foot back from the netherlands. You end up losing your balance because as you pull up on your foot, the mud actually, unbelievably, pulls back with nothing less than a sucking, gulping sound like hisseellluuppp. And it’s gross, soft, wet, sticky, and somehow coarse at the same time. And it stinks, of dead fish, rotting leaves and grass, and sulfurous gasses. Yep, being stuck in grief is just like that, and yet, it is comfortable, soothing even in a primal way. I know. Weird.

***

I wonder if my posts have seemed as frenetic as I have felt during this holiday season. Actually, the recent unpleasantness started before the holidays began. Looking back, as I am wont to do, I can see that the anxiety was already building ahead of Thanksgiving. Grief was doing its dirty work before I was fully aware of it, but that is nothing new.

So, you may wonder, have I been happy? sad? lonely? Well, the truth is I have been all of that and so much more. I have laughed, smiled, cried, celebrated, and mourned. I have done the flash dance around the flashbacks and felt the burn of anger sweeping through my body. I have been irritable, frustrated and downright apoplectic. I have cried. A lot. More than I have cried in months. Grief has, once again, been a full-on, sensory experience. My body has felt twisted and wrung out like a rag as I have cried until the tears could no longer form even a single drop. I have been elated and joyful and miserable in the same breath. I have experienced waves of grief and anguish so intense that I felt nauseous, sick to my stomach, the way actual waves can make one seasick. At times, I have been withdrawn, not really feeling up to socializing. I’ve had great difficulty committing to events, but I have also enjoyed being active, taking long walks with friends in the neighborhood, playing tennis, attending a couple of drop-ins as well as turning down both casual and formal invitations, electing instead to retreat to the safety and comfort of the house.

Ugh. The house. My job allows me substantial time off during the holidays which is wonderful, but it has also been a challenge. This is the first Christmas that my son has not been staying with us, with me, while on a holiday break from school. He and his fiancé have their own place nearby, and I have spent a lot of time with them, but it’s not the same as having him under the same roof. I mean, this is all good. Every good parent, whatever that means to you, desires for their child to live independently, to forge their own life, but the house has been quiet during the holidays this year, too quiet. It’s been a lonely house. This is actually the first time I’ve ever felt this way about my home, and it’s freaking me out. I’ve noticed a little tendency in myself to try and fill up the emptiness with noise like having the TV or radio going in the background (sometimes both!), playing the piano, running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and doing other noisy chores. Therapeutic vacuuming is a thing! However, mopping and dusting make no noise at all so those chores have gone undone.

I struggled, too, to get the Christmas decorating finished. Our ornaments are actually memories that have taken shape and form and hang from the branches of the tree. They could be connected like a dot-to-dot of our lives. The oldest ornament belonged to my mother when she was child. It is nearly 70 years old. There’s also one that Paul made when he was in kindergarten. It is 55 years old. There are several that commemorate the year we married and others that celebrate our son’s first Christmas and so on. Each and every ornament is the embodiment of a memory collected through years of family life, holidays, vacations, places and homes we’ve lived, friends and family members we have loved. I hung about a fourth of the ornaments, if that, and then just quit, just gave up. I couldn’t do it. That’s not like me at all, and I was disappointed in myself.

One day I came home and found my father-in-law and my son working together on overhauling the boat motor in the garage. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. It was hot, dirty work, and they had been at it for awhile. My son’s shirt was too heavy and was soaked in sweat and covered in grease so he had gone upstairs and grabbed one of his dad’s old t-shirts from the boxes of clothes that I had stored away; a red t-shirt that I must have seen Paul wear 1,000 times. Not quite Golden Boy status but close. (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference.) So, when I pulled up in the driveway and caught a glimpse my son bent over, working on the boat in that t-shirt, my heart stopped, my mouth gaped opened because I actually thought I was looking at his dad. Paul was back, working in the garage alongside his father as he had done so many times before. He was there; his shoulders, his arms, his hair. His intent gaze, concentrating on his work, his hands, his fingers. I did a double-take. I had to look twice. I blinked hard and then crumbled in the face of reality. An emotional implosion followed. I felt stunned like a small bird that had just smashed into a clear pane window; stunned out of awareness, knocked out of time, careening into another space and time, an alternate universe where Paul was still alive. That night I dreamed that Paul was indeed alive. He was standing in the yard. I was a distance away and started moving toward him. I was elated but confused. I kept saying, “Wow! This is great. I am so glad you are here, but I don’t understand how this is possible. How can you be here, standing here in the yard, while the 30lbs of ash in a box upstairs is also you?”

Oh, dear goodness, this grief is deep and complicated, and exhausting. I breathe deep and sigh heavily as I continue to try to write it out, to express it, to extricate myself from it, to exorcise it, to be dispossessed of it.

I (almost) hesitated to share all of this because it feels like wallowing. I’ve tried everything in my grief toolbox and nothing is working. I feel ridiculous that I can’t get ahold of this. Snap out of it! But grief is slippery, slick. The harder I try to get-a-grip on it, the tighter I squeeze my hand around it, the faster it slips through my fingers.

On a recent Sunday, I was at church and absolutely fell apart, had to leave early actually. I could not contain myself. That has not happened in a long time, and it completely took me by surprise. It’s almost as if my entire grief experience thus far got compressed into this one holiday season, why?

Now would be a good time to grab a snack.

Here’s why. I *think*. Last Christmas, I was focused on just that Christmas. Just the one. As if I thought there was only going to be one Christmas without Paul, and all I had to do was just get through that one. I am shocked to discover this year that there will actually be many Christmases without him. Well, duh. And I’m not naïve. I realize families and relationships can and will change along the way. Who knows? I may even share a Christmas with someone else one day, but the realization that every Christmas for the rest of my life will not include Paul, physically include him, has completely overwhelmed me.

A friend of mine, a widow for nearly 20 years and happily remarried, shared with me that every Christmas she steals away for a quiet moment to remember and mourn for her first husband. That made my heart stop. I was taken aback by the reality of it all but also comforted, and I am so very thankful when others who have walked this path are willing to share their experiences and their heart with me.

Author and speaker, Jesse Brisendine, says that ‘grief is not a life sentence’. He tries to help people flip the switch on grief from despair to healing and honoring. I agree with so much of what he writes and shares, but I also see the other side. In a way, grief is a life sentence. Grieving is the commitment we make to continue living life without the person we loved. It’s the price, but the price to value ratio is up to us and how we choose to live out that life sentence. It can be done with hope and joy, or it can be done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s like being in a prison cell with the key to the lock hanging clearly within sight and reach on a nail on the wall. We can let ourselves out. I can let myself out. What holds me back?

Go get another snack.

What holds me back is fear. Another precious friend of mine, who is also a widow and very much on this journey with me, recently remarked that the thought that life might just be going on without those we love here is really scary. Yes, it is. It is absolutely rock hard, stone cold terrifying. It is overwhelming to me and makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Fear is the first emotion that God’s people experienced after the fall. Genesis 3:10 reads, “And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy asserts that God gave us fear to keep us safe. God gave us fear because he knew we needed it. Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is Gold Ring #1.

I have found great comfort in that short verse from Genesis; a verse I’ve read and heard a thousand times. I guess I was always so taken with the imagery of God walking in His garden that I never noticed those two little nuggets of wisdom that follow after their being afraid. First, they were afraid because they were naked, physically naked, but they were also emotionally exposed, fearful of their flaws being revealed and the possibility that their true selves, their true nature, might be rejected. Second, what does the verse tell me happens if I hide from the Lord as Adam and Eve did? If I hide from the Lord, He will come and find me. He will find me in my lowly state and protect me. He found Adam and Eve, assessed their state, and then banished them from the garden. Why? Not for punishment as it may have seemed to them from their perspective but for their protection. Because they had eaten from the tree of good and evil and now existed in a sinful, fallen state, if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have remained in that sinful state for eternity. In fact, the Lord placed cherubim around the tree of life and a flaming sword waving back and forth to keep them from it, to keep them from the danger of remaining in a sinful state, which is death, forever. Thank you, Jesus!

To say our modern life is increasing our fear and anxiety is not quite correct. Surely life was more stressful during, say, the middle ages. The constant threat of crop failure literally meant the death of one’s family by starvation. My stress, even in the difficulties I have faced, pales in comparison. So, if life is just as stressful or less so(!), than it has ever been, if there’s nothing new under the sun, then why is fear and anxiety more prevalent or perhaps not more prevalent but taking a greater toll on the human heart and soul? Because we are unplugged. Yes, un-plugged. We are disconnected from our fellow man, and it is damaging us. Worse than that, we are stiff necked about it. Our eyes are covered with scales and our ears are stopped. It’s a way of hiding. It’s Adam and Eve all over again. The solution is connection. The way around it is to have the courage to share our vulnerability and own it, to open our hearts to others. Connection is Gold Ring #2.

***

The tearing of robes or clothes is a common gesture throughout the Old Testament that is symbolic of mourning, pain of loss, or great distress. I was curious about the history of this practice, but apparently its origins are unclear as it’s been going on since before written language.  Rabbi Aron Moss concludes, “But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’-that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us. So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact. From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth; that souls never die.”

And in a stroke of metaphorical genius, the Old Testament prophet, Joel, encourages, no implores, us to “…rend your heart not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity.”

Rend means to tear or wrench violently. Render is to provide or give, and of course, the more familiar surrender meaning to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent, submit to an authority, give up or hand over, and to abandon oneself entirely. The Lord wants us to turn our hearts over to Him, to tear our hearts open wide so that God’s light can shine into all the dark places. Surrender is Gold Ring #3.

***

2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

***

As I’m rounding out the second year without Paul, I can affirm that the second year is harder. I think it might be because the first year I was just trying to survive, but that’s not enough, right? We’re meant to live. We’re called to live and live fully, and that’s the hard part about the second year. Trying to live again. In a recent sermon, my pastor described the seven-fold gift of the spirit including piety, wisdom, understanding, council, might, fear, and knowledge. My pastor asserted that being FULLy alive is God’s standard for human living. Grabbing the brass ring or taking a shot at the brass ring is a phrase that has been used since the late 19th century and refers to striving for the highest prize or living life to the fullest. Striving to live a spirit filled life is Gold Ring #4.

In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden, asserts, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Salinger’s gold ring represents a striving for maturity. I may not be a kid, but I am a child of God. May it please Him that I continue to mature in faith and good works even though I may fall off from time to time. Growth is Gold Ring #5.

Luke 1:46-49 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Really, what more then is there to say? I’m sure I’ll think of something, 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