Grief Work

photo (44)

“… even out of unspeakable grief, beautiful things take wing.” – AR Torres, “The Lessons of Loss”

“Wow it looks like it snowed!” shouts Hunter, and indeed it does, the hillside covered in white as far as the eye can see. But it is mid-May, the temperature in the 70s, and we are walking a wooded hillside trail in Twin Lakes park. It is not a late snowstorm, but an effusive, magnificent display of giant white trilliums. Tens of thousands of the three-petaled, yellow-centered ephemeral wildflowers blanket the forest floor, which just weeks ago was mostly brown leaf litter. We walk up a trail until we are immersed in the flowers, surrounded by beauty. Wow, the wonder on display overwhelms my senses, warms my heart.

My heart wasn’t warm when I woke and started this day. Unexpectedly, as I rushed through my morning trying to get ready for a busy weekend, with a sick child and too much to do and too little help, I realized I was angry again at my wife for passing, and leaving me with a life upside down and overwhelmed. And then I realized on the long drive to the park that tomorrow was Mother’s Day. This would be the boys’ second Mother’s Day without their mom, and I had to fight back the tears of sadness remembering the conversation I had with my youngest son about how he felt having to make a Mother’s Day card in school. Anger and depression, two emotions I thought I had worked through, but here they were, back again, sigh. And that seemingly step backwards in my grief work put me in a bad, fowl mood. Good lord, hadn’t I done all this, hadn’t I processed all these emotions more than once already? Hadn’t I earned the right to move on and just be happy now? And really, I am going to lead others on a Healing Hike, when clearly I haven’t healed myself?

I know all about grief, from an academic perspective. I have attended the group therapy and counseling sessions and read the books and marked the anniversaries and performed the ceremonies, and I understand what needs to be done. I know I have to accept the reality of my loss, I know I have to experience the pain of grief, and I know I have to adjust to my new environment without my wife, and I believe I have done most of this. But I also know that the wheel of grief spins between the five stages, denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance, and I know firsthand that that wheel can land on any of those stages at any time. I just thought I had a better handle on it, almost two years hence. I understand what I have already done, and I thought I was tough enough now to start helping others, to start sharing what I have lived and learned. I’m feeling like a hypocrite as I pull into the Twin Lakes parking lot.

But as I step out of the car, the birds are singing, and the treetops are filled with colorful spring migrants, brilliant scarlet tanagers, orioles and warblers. And then I come to the trillium display, and my heart does melt, and I know this is the place I need to be today.

photo (43)

Grief is hard, its emotions baffling, and the jumping between stages and the gulf between where you are some mornings and acceptance seems impossible. That is why it is called grief work. You really do have to work at it. But I have discovered many things that have helped me, and I want to share these things with others who are hurting.

I know that nature can help; she certainly helped me through my grief. In nature, the cycles of life and death are on crystal clear display, all the time, as are the regenerative powers of nature.  Even after catastrophes, it seems unlimited. And I know the emotional connection I feel with the earth and Mother Nature is real too, felt deeply inside, and in my special places and in times of quiet contemplation in my backyard.

I know that performing ceremonies, marking my grief and working through the emotions that accompany anniversaries and special dates is important, for it lets the trapped emotions free. And I know that sharing my feelings with others helps tremendously, too, for the same reason of feeling the emotion and then letting them go.

 

It is a diverse group that sits amongst the trilliums. Folks who have lost their spouse to suicide, to cancer, who have lost a child to a sudden heart attack, a young boy who has lost his dad but still sees a snowstorm in the white wildflowers. I can feel their sadness, and sometimes the tears flow like the intermittent rain that follows us today.

But I like the rain, I like walking in the rain, it clears my head, and I like the fact that the rain has brought these flowers. This group doesn’t seem to mind the rain today, either. We have all been through hell, a little bit of rain doesn’t seem so bad. Loss of any kind has the tendency to strip away the bullshit, to get down to the bone and marrow of what is important, to re-focus your life and priorities, as many folks share when they tell their tales of moving forward after their losses. It is inspiring.

It is funny too, we have stopped along the trail, in this patch of white, next to an old fallen tree covered with giant mushrooms. Mushrooms, the forest janitors, cleaning up the death and decay of the forest, but also preparing the soil for the next generation of trees and wildflowers. We all marvel at the intricate patterns and beauty in the mushrooms, and the juxtaposition of the mushrooms and trilliums is beautiful, too. Death is a part of life. So teaches Mother Nature, everyday.

photo (42)

We move to Reflection Island, a memorial area designated for quiet reflection and meditation. The area has a butterfly garden, a healing water pond (loaded with tadpoles, as Hunter points out!) dedicated to the memory of unborn children, a Mother’s Grotto in honor and memory of all mothers, a Father’s encounter deck overlooking the lake in honor and memory of all fathers, and a Contemplation Walkway honoring all whose names appear here. The whole area has a peace and energy to it, what a wonderful feature of the park!

We had planned on spending some time here in quiet, individual contemplation, but the rains return, heavier this time. So we move into the covered gazebo, as the rain patters and the thunders lightly rolls, and a wood thrush sings his flute-like song. Sitting in a circle in this perfect setting, the sharing just comes naturally. We share stories of our losses, our challenges, what we have overcome and what we still struggle with. I feel so much more normal after haring everyone’s tales, and sharing a few of my own. Tears are mixed with memories and even laughter, but there is a genuineness amongst all; again, loss strips us down to what is important, and it is important to share these stories. “Grief shared is grief diminished.” I am honored to be a part of this group, and they are helping me too; my melancholy from this morning, and trivial worries and fears, are absorbed in the real love and healing felt amongst these brave souls.

photo (41)

The rain lets up in time to walk back to our starting point, where we gather at a deck along the lake. Everyone picks a flower, something that reminds them of their lost loved one, and we say a silent prayer of remembrance in their honor. Deb offers a closing prayer, and we set our flowers adrift on the reflective glass water. I close with a reading about the first time I realized I could experience joy again after my wife died, and we end our letting go ceremony with hugs, cookies and brownies.

Ceremonies were never something I appreciated in my younger years. I viewed them as something archaic, something that didn’t really apply to my life. But a wise person pointed out to me that I could create my own ceremonies, and I have taken this to heart, especially in my travels with grief. It has been a tremendous healing tool for me also.

photo (40)

And so the next day, we walk in the Race for the Cure, as has been our family tradition for fifteen years. We started this tradition to honor mothers and breast cancers survivors, long before it got too personal when my wife was diagnosed with the disease. Last year was the first year we marched in her honor, and it was emotionally charged and draining. This year is a little easier, because I am more on my feet finally.

But after the Race we head out to my wife’s grave, for a tombstone dedication ceremony. Beautiful words are spoken and memories shared, under the flowering dogwood, and I ask everyone to plant a vision of Debbie in the garden of their memory. I share my vision of Debbie, because I know from my my experience with my dad’s death 32 years ago, his tombstone so close to my wife’s here in Plum Creek, that memories fade. I want my boys to keep a memory, all their own, of their mom. I know this ceremony is painful for them, and certainly it was hard for them to make the Mother’s Day cards in school and write the notes that they have brought with them. But they need to feel the pain of loss, they need to experience it, if they are to heal. There is no way around, only through. And it will be worth it when the memories they keep evoke smiles, not sadness.

I want them to heal. Their mom wants them to heal. She wants them to grow and love and experience all that this beautiful life has to offer. She wants them to keep their beautiful memories of her love alive inside of them, too. You can’t keep the pain buried, it will only comes out later, and prevent you from loving the present.

photo (37)

And so we all shed some tears, we all feel some pain, we all wrestle with the confusing and heart-breaking emotions of grief, all in our own ways, all wherever we are at this time in our own wheel of grief. But we have so many tools to help us navigate, from counseling to prayer to meditation, walks in the woods with the trillium and mushrooms, to gatherings in the woods and at the Race and in the cemeteries, where we give life the ceremonies we need to work through the grief. And when we have done our grief work, we too will come to acceptance and live again, just like spring does every year, when the trilliums and dogwoods bloom again after the long, cold winter.

PS – Two days after the ceremony at the cemetery, my oldest boy pulls me aside in private and thanks me for what we did on Mother’s Day. I know Debbie, God, is guiding us again, all we have to do is listen, and trust that traveling through the pain will be worth it.

photo (39)photo (38)

Advertisements

Dirt and Sky, Part II

Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing. -William James (1842-1910)

sunbeams-through-trees

Okay, I am back this morning, finally…

Yesterday I let myself be dragged down into the depths of worry and despair.  A depressing conversation about my health insurance options, a similar discussion about my life insurance, the realization that there are a ton of legal obstacles standing between what I want to say and actually saying it in a book, and a mild case of writer’s block.  Sigh, poor, poor pitiful me, and isn’t the world in a terrible place?

That attitude carried over into my personal relationships yesterday, leaving a sour taste, and before I went to bed I realized that the joy that had been so profound recently… was gone.

And that truly is a reason to sigh.

I recognized instantly my fear – fear of the uncertainties in front of me, fear of not having a well laid plan, fear of the unknown – all of my usual fears, built up and made worse than they actually are by years of habit, years of not trusting myself, and I so easily  slipped right back into those patterns yesterday.

In this past year, grief has forced me to confront so many of my fears, to look them straight in the eye.  Death was always one of my greatest fears, and the fear of losing a loved one seemed insurmountable.  So I chose not to look at it.  I gave it power by avoiding it and not letting myself recognize that it was only my fear, and that others, like Debbie, didn’t have it.

Fear is the opposite of joy, the opposite of love, and fears come in all shapes and sizes, some bigger than others.  But if death can be reckoned with by some folks, certainly figuring out life insurance and how to write again is surmountable.

And I know now, in my heart, that I want to live joyfully.  Like I have been these past couple of weeks; not fearfully, like I had for so many years.

So I decided I wanted my joy back.  I didn’t know how right then, and I was too tired to try at that point anyway, but I threw out a prayer for a joyful return, and then went to sleep…

And sleep I did, right through my normal 5 a.m. wakeup time.  Hmmm, that’s weird, I know I set my alarm, but the clock is flashing and three hours slow, like the power went out.  But no other clock in the house is doing that…

I was kicking around possibly sleeping in anyway, so I guess that has been decided for me, and now it is too late to get my run in before the kids need up and readied for school.  But to be honest the extra sleep felt really really good – maybe I needed it.  I certainly handle things better when well rested.  So I will run later after the bus picks up Trevor.

Running always calms me, always resets me, always slows me down, especially my racing mind; maybe someday I will actually be able to outrace my mind!  But that is not necessary today, I just need to feel my muscles moving and my heart pumping and my lungs filling deeply.

And the endorphins kick in, and I settle into a meditative pace.  And I leave the subdivision to run through the woods of a local park.  The grass is still wet with morning dew, and the bright sunshine on this clear crisp day is a long way from burning the moistness off; it seeps through my shoes and socks.

The sensation awakens me.  I notice the dampness, I appreciate the slightly chilled air, the golden sunshine, the birdsong.  And then it hits me like a ton of bricks – I hadn’t noticed it before…

I have been up for a couple hours, mindless going through my routine, getting the kids ready, small talk at the bus stop, making plans for the rest of my day, not really feeling anything, like watching a movie.  I didn’t even notice this gorgeous day…

Tell me, what is more joyful than a morning like today?  Bright sunshine, no humidity, white puffy clouds and the energy of fall migration in the air, the promise of colorful leaves and campfire smores, the slowing down of fall?  How many times had I driven to work the past 25 years longing to do what I am doing today, walking my boys to the bus stop and then going for a run?  How is it that I am so wrapped up in my thoughts and worries as to not recognize the gift of this morning before this?  I am ashamed…

But I forgive myself quickly, for the day is too bright, the joy is too real.  I can feel the water enveloping my feet, my breathes are fresh and clear, and the blood courses vibrantly through my body.   I am alive!

I strikes me now that there really is only one true “sin”, the sin of not really living, of just blindly running through it.  And sin is not the right word because it is really just a forgetting – forgetting that simply living our joy every day is enough.  It is so easy to get distracted, so easy to get caught up in our worries and fears.  But this comes with a steep price – you might not notice the sheer joy of the moment.

I grew up near the woods I am now running through, and I pass a clump of sumacs in a field.  I remember as a boy climbing into a similar clump of small trees, and just sitting there.  I had entered a new world, a world that completely changed its perspective from the wide open fields around it.  This world was bounded by the tangles of stems and trunks, and formed a green universe unto itself.  I entered by worming through a portal at the base of two of the larger trees, and then I was just still, taking it all in.  Soon this new universe accepted me, and it came alive with its own presents.  The sounds in here were different, filtered by the leaves, and the light more muted with no direct sunlight, and it had different insects and vegetation.

It was peaceful, too, self contained, and I was filled with the anticipation of new discoveries.  And as I was still, just observing, just being with this new universe, a common yellowthroat entered too.  Since I was now a part of this world, it did not mind my presence, and flitted through the undergrowth, its natural habitat, right up to me.

What a handsome bird, bright yellow breast and leaf green back, broken by a jet black mask from bill to wings!  And so alive, a bundle of energy, always moving, its aliveness brilliant as it stared into my eyes from only a couple feet away.   And we connected, this tiny creature and I, and I felt his aliveness, and I felt his joy, innate joy, in being alive…

I feel it again, right now.  And no kidding, as I round a bend on my path in the woods, the sunbeams burst through the canopy, the diagonal white translucent spears piecing the morning fog from cloud to earth, the perfect picture of God and joy and sunshine and renewal and Jesus laughing and common yellowthroats and dew on the grass and fresh air in my lungs.  I run into the sunbeams.  And I laugh, I laugh out loud, and I raise my hands in joy, pure joy!

I am back, back to my place of joy, back to where I asked to be last night.  And the worries are put in their place, they will be taken care of when the time is right.  And the words flow freely this morning.  And I wonder, how did my clock get messed up?   For had I run at my normal time, well before dawn, I would have missed the sunbeams…

 Common Yellowthroat

Live Laugh Love

Life is short, so live it.  Love is rare, so grab it.  Fear controls you, so face it.  Memories are precious, so cherish them.  We only get one life, so live it!

dance naked

My neighbor passed away today, unexpectedly.  She was 70, and had experienced some health problem recently, but it was still a shock to hear the news; I just talked to her walking her dog yesterday.

Her husband was out of town, and called a neighbor to check on her when she didn’t answer his calls.  My other neighbor, 88 years old, made the terrible discovery and had to be the bearer of such halting news.   He was clearly upset when I ran into him, just an hour or two after, and before the authorities had even arrived.  88, health problems of his own, his own mortality now thrust front and center, visibly distraught.

I always thought that when you reached his age, you had already made your peace with your own demise, without any effort, like hair turning gray.  Clearly that is not the case.  We must all struggle with the inevitable, and age has nothing to do with it.  Some of us are forced to confront this much earlier than others, but even living a good long life doesn’t mean you ever want to let go; life is good, and there is so much beauty, even in the struggle.

But our bodies have limits, and the rules of biology and physics must be honored, and life and death is the realm of the gods, not us mere mortals.

What is up to us is how we react to these limits.  Once again I am humbled and awed by the courage and acceptance that Debbie displayed when faced with these inevitabilities…

I stopped down tonight to visit my distraught neighbor, his first night joining me in the Gibralter Drive Widowers Club.  The house will be quiet tonight, too quiet; it will feel like everything is wrong.  And it is; you just don’t spend 90% of your years with someone and then suddenly adjust to their absence.  It won’t feel real; he will be trapped somewhere between a bad dream and disbelief; we always think we have one more day.  There is not much that needs said at this time, because we both know what it feels like; and sometimes you just need to sit with those feelings for a while.  So we embrace and I honor his wishes to be alone tonight, and I certainly understand that, too, as memories of my first night alone flood back…

I stop in to see how my other neighbors are doing, too – you just don’t live next door to someone for 41 years and not feel the loss, too.  He and his wife graciously welcome me into their home, clearly happy for the company tonight.  We talk; about our neighbor and his wife, all the good times they shared, all the changes they have seen over the years.  We share a beer and memories, the memories of what makes life special – pride in 59 years of being married to your sweetheart (and a big 60th anniversary coming up in December!), pride in raising their two boys, pride in their hard work and accomplishments throughout their working careers, pride in their neighborhood and their humble house full of love.

Stories.  They are what make us human, what makes us unique.  In the end, it is all that we have; but it is all that we need, if we have written ours in full, if we have truly lived.  I am honored to have shared tonight in my neighbors’ stories, and the spark in their eyes recounting these cherished memories does not go unnoticed.  Indeed, it burns as bright in the eyes of someone who is 88 as it did the days they were made.

I can’t help but imagine a time much earlier, bodies young and muscular and functioning perfectly, hearing and eyesight still good, the new lime green carpeting in a brand new house full of dreams lit up in the hopes and dreams of an evening sunset streaming through the front picture window, just like tonight’s…big smile.

Life is precious, even if you are 88.

And life is short.

So write your story, everyday.  Visit your elderly neighbors and relatives while you can, while they are still here to share their hard-earned wisdom.  Comfort those who need a shoulder, if you have a shoulder to give.  Enjoy every sunset, especially the ones that light your dreams and memories.  Smile until your face hurts, cry when tears need shed.  If you are lucky enough to love someone, tell them.  And when times are good, sing out loud, no matter how off key, and dance, dance naked and rejoice!

Live, laugh, love…

Grace, Courage, and Dignity

It has taken me an entire year to digest the events that unfolded over the days from Trevor’s ninth birthday party up until Debbie’s passing on July 8th, 2012.  It was an extraordinary eight days, the most amazing spiritual experience I have ever had, and it is a story that needs told, that needs shared.  That is why I started this blog, because these big issues, life and death and all meaning in between – they are easier to bear when shared.

Time has diffused and distilled this account – it was too raw to even be touched at first, but it has cooled to the right time.  I don’t know how time and fading memory have shaped this account and I know that others who shared in this incredible week will remember things a bit different, but this is what has remained with my heart, where it matters.

And this is my account – I strongly encourage others who remember this week to post their thoughts, their feelings, what remains in their hearts today.  “Grief shared is grief lessened”, that is why I am writing and sharing, and this blog has been a tremendous healing tool for me; I have found a voice I didn’t know I had.

Please add your voice, your perspective, your tale, and we can all remember and perhaps even rejoice, grieve and heal and, most importantly, honor Debbie, who taught us all so much…

Debbie Last

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
The unknown is frightening
I’m right here, my love
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying
I’m right here, my love

July 2, 2012 – 5:30 am – Good lord it’s still dark, the first hints of gray are just now on the horizon, and the birds haven’t even started singing yet; why is Deb waking me up now?   I know we have a big day planned; it is my first non-duty vacation day of the year, despite the year being half over, and we are both exhausted from hosting a 9th birthday party the day before for little Trevor, so we agreed to sleep in a bit today.

And we both went to bed excited about our plans – a celebratory chocolate chip pancake breakfast at Pamela’s in the Strip, followed by some shopping and then an afternoon Pirates game at PNC Park.  We have never been to Pamela’s, and life was way too busy this month; we didn’t get a chance to properly celebrate Deb’s 45th birthday on June 5th or our 19th wedding anniversary on June 12th, so today is to be a catch up day.  Debbie always enjoyed the simple things in life, and wanted just a pancake breakfast with her boys for her birthday and anniversary.

But Deb is not excited about the world famous greasy cakes now.  In fact, something is wrong, terribly wrong.  She has been up a while, it is obvious she is upset, and has been crying; she has a bag packed.  A dark foreboding comes over me, as if the day should be getting darker, not lighter.  “We need to go to the hospital” Deb says, her voice cracking, trying desperately to be strong.  But her bottom lip quivers, betraying her fear…

Deb’s cancer went Stage IV in August of 2011.  I study statistics, study the odds, study the studies; I knew immediately what that really meant.  I knew there was only a 20 percent chance she would survive two years, less than 10 percent chance for five; especially since the cancer had spread to her liver.  The day in August when she received the Stage IV news, when she showed up at the batting cages where Trevor and I were working to rectify his batting slump, when I saw that look of terror on her face – that day will remain one of the worst days of my life.

But Deb is a fighter, she is so strong, she has an incredible faith and she has an army of prayer warriors, and the best doctors in the state are on her side.  She is consulting with a nutritionist and drinking green tea and green veggie shakes and seeing an energy healer and visiting the old sacred places in the high New Mexico desert with her good friend, and has been to the world’s best MD Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston – she is doing everything she can to fight, and she is doing everything right.  Surely she will be the one to beat those small odds if anyone can…

But the news at the hospital is not good; I don’t need to be told, it is etched in the furrowed brows and slightly hushed tones and more gentle mannerisms that the harried hospital staff and caregivers display around us that is more telling than anything they say.

And Deb’s belly.  Since April it has started to swell; it was not very noticeable at first, a muffin top that too many American girls sport now anyway, but completely out of the ordinary to someone who rocked a six pack abdomen her whole life up until kid number two.  By the time of Trevor’s party, Deb had taken to wearing a sweatshirt tied around her waist to hide the bump, which was now in the 3-4 months pregnant size.  I wonder if the party guests understood why she was wearing a sweatshirt around her waist when it was 90 degrees and sweltering outside…

But of course that is how Deb is – she is very prideful about her appearance, the good pride, the kind that comes from hard work and appreciating all that she has in her life and the pride that comes from doing a good job, from doing the right thing, including taking care of your appearance.  Even when you have cancer.  Even when your hair falls out four times through chemo.  Even when you are really, really sick, but you want the all the attention of the day to be focused on your beautiful little nine year-old and you want him to have the best birthday party ever, as every one of his birthdays has been.

The news that Deb is in the hospital shocks most people.  Again, on the outside, her sunny ever present smile and pleasant disposition never even remotely hinted at her internal turmoil.  And so to see her in a hospital bed, connected to IVs and in a hospital gown and now mostly wearing her pink coyote hat, this is not the image that most expect when they stop up to the hospital.  And her belly, it has now swelled to 7 months pregnant…

Of course there is a battery of tests, lots of confusing information, and Deb’s regular doctor is out of the country on vacation, adding to the mess.  There are people in and out of the tiny little hospital room, it is always crowded, and people close to Deb have come in from out of town.  It is chaotic, and everyone struggles to make sense of how this can be happening, here, now, right now, when just a couple of days ago we were all laughing and celebrating and everything was fine.

I can only speak for my own struggles to come to grips with it, and I am sure everyone was at a different place on the spectrum during this time.  But at first it is a very detached scene, surreal, with a dreamlike quality, slipping in and out of focus and in between hope and despair.  And at this point the prevailing expectation is that things will get better for a while and Deb will come home.

But that is not what I feel now, a couple of days later, and not what I sense from Deb.  Her belly is huge now, 9 months pregnant.  Her vitals are still okay, so I go home to sleep (okay, to rest, sleep is very difficult) the first two nights she is in the hospital.  And that is another surreal experience, pedaling my bike home from the hospital at dusk because I have lost my driving privileges at the most inopportune time that could ever be imagined.

I am pedaling hard, making my heart beat harder just to know its still there, making myself sweat, making myself breathe faster to quickly get rid of the toxins, trying desperately to come to grips with what is happening so fast, trying to come to grips with everything that I knew would one day come but until it is actually upon you, you cannot even imagine how you will react, trying to out-pedal my fears, which are roaring like the giant trucks on the highway right behind me, ready to overtake me, ready to flatten this crazy guy riding a bike along the highway in the dark now.  They are just so much bigger, so much faster, than I can ever be…

Can you taste my kiss?
I’m right here, my love
I wish life was endless
I’m right here, my love
But living costs something and pay it we must
But I will keep your kiss
I’m right here, my love

There is a sense of calm that begins to emerge out of the chaos the next day, believe it or not.  Do not think this is an easy calm, for we are discussing topics that are life’s hardest – palliative care versus hospice, more aggressive chemo or none at all, whether to install a drain to relieve the swelling, which is now 10 months overdue pregnant.  One would think the chaos would escalate, but it does not.  It is a duty calm; it is important.  And it is calm because Debbie is so calm.

Certainly she understands the gravity of the situation.  In a rare private moment Deb confides in me that she knew way back in April that she was getting worse and would not be recovering.  In the time since then she has continued her heroic fight, but she has also worked with God and herself on acceptance.  She is truly not afraid.  It is clear now, with her calm amidst all this chaos, that acceptance and peace have been earned.  I am amazed and humbled, but keep it to myself.  Others who know and love Deb are not ready for this yet.

But she declares it with a grace and courage and conviction that can only come from having truly made her peace when the doctor tells her that there is nothing more that can be done, and that she is dying, and that it is only a matter of time.  Debbie stares at the doctor, her belly bloated but her smile still there, and with the utmost calm and conviction, tells him that “that’s okay, because I am alive now, and it’s beautiful  Life is beautiful.”  My mom and I, the only others in the room with Debbie and the doctor, are stunned and blessed at the same time…

Debbie doesn’t see the behind the scenes discussions amongst the family with the doctors and staff; things are just happening too fast, the news and the numbers are incomprehensible.  The hurt and the anger and the confusion is palpable.  We have the discussions again, because these are hard issues.  The oncologist is blunt and curt, directly to the point, perhaps because he is not Debbie’s normal doctor and hasn’t fallen under the spell of her smile, or perhaps because he has studied the charts and the numbers and the options and is staring right back at the insurmountable wall that modern medicine cannot climb when faced with cancer at this point.  But other hospital staff exhibit extraordinary patience and caring; I recognize that they do their jobs with love, and I am thankful, it is one less burden that we have to bear.

Since it is a holiday today, most people go home for the night, including the boys, who are well taken care of by my brother- and sister-in-law.  Only Deb’s parents and her sister Diane and I remain at the hospital.  It is clear to Diane and I now that we will need to stay at the hospital for as long as Deb is here.

It is the Fourth of July.  We roll Deb into the family room in a wheelchair, her belly huge, her discomfort felt by all of us, but mostly by Deb.  She does not complain however, but her smile is forced, and it doesn’t appear often now, usurped by the pain.  Two walls of the corner room are windows, allowing for a panoramic view, and the room is ours tonight, no one else around.  The hospital is quiet on the holiday, too quiet, visitors reduced to only those most directly affected by their loved ones illnesses and a skeleton crew.  We attempt small talk, but it is hollow.

There is a weird silence that fills the room.  Fireworks are exploding all around us, far off on the horizon, like watching a battle from the command center, far removed from the carnage.  Normally this would be a joyous time, celebrating the birth of our nation and summer and fun, feeling the thunder rumbling through bones and the seeing the lightning flashes reflected in wide open eyes, sharing ohhhs and ahhhs.  But not tonight; there is a heaviness in the room as thick as the fireworks smoke that certainly fills the air.  It is a silent movie, and the fireworks are not real tonight.  No body-thumping thunder, no smell of acrid smoke, no lightning flashes that light up the sky with excitement; just a sterile empty hospital room.  We watch detached, as if in a bad dream.  Deb asks to go back to her room…

Can you feel me tremble?
I’m right here, my love
Does it feel like you remember?
I’m right here my love
The future’s assured in the pulse of our blood
I can feel you tremble
I’m right here, my love

It is a bad night.  Deb is in serious discomfort and pain, drifting in and out of consciousness like the waves of a bad fever.  She needs help going to the bathroom and is tangled in tubes and IV drips and ill-fitting hospital gowns.  But Diane and I attend to her every need, keeping her as comfortable as we can.  There is very little rest for any of us.

It is agreed that a drain will be installed into Deb’s belly in the morning.  And when the procedure is done it does do a world of good, relieving the pressure and the discomfort Deb has been feeling the past few days.  It relieves pressure on us, too – her swollenness was to the point where we cringed to look at her, wondering how she could possible bear this burden.  Of course she is back to smiling her pretty smile, even with tubes protruding and the overall situation unchanged.  We are able to talk with her again without the obvious pain that she tried to hide but that her slight grimace and lack of smile gave away.  It is a small gift, and allows everyone, mostly Deb, to rest a bit.

But we are clearly not out of the woods, and everyone is unsure what to do next, and there is a permanent surrealness that has settled in, especially for Diane and I, as we have not slept in days now.  Visitors come and go, and Deb comes and goes too, drifting in and out of consciousness, and our reality ebbs and flows between the adrenaline which is keeping us on our feet and the bone-tired physical drowsiness that is constantly trying to drag us down to unconsciousness.

The nights are the worst.  Diane and I take hour and a half shifts, trying to grab cat naps in the public lounge in between sitting in the uncomfortable chairs next to Deb in her too small room, stuffed to the gills with the plethora of medical equipment, and the bright flowers and gifts have taken a back seat to the seriousness of the situation.  In the lounge the periodic screams of suffering from another older cancer patient pierce the normal beeps and blips and alarms of hospital equipment, and in full consciousness it would create an atmosphere of foreboding.  And perhaps the screams register somewhere in our foggy brains, but mostly they have been reduced to the background noise that lulls us to sleep for 45 minutes at a time. Diane no longer even hears the screams.

But we take care of Deb.  We get her to the bathroom while she can, clean her messes when she can’t, always keeping her pink coyote hat on her head when she tries to pull it off in her moaning delirium, mindfully and respecting her hard earned pride.  We sit by her as she weaves in and out of a coma, the cancer and the drugs suspending her halfway between life and death.

She always knows someone is near her.  And in the daylight her extended family and friends take on the same roll.  She is surrounded at all times by love, and is comforted as best we can, even if her semi-coma lends doubt as to whether she knows we are there.

And it is an honor to take care of her, a true honor.  I have watched others take care of people who are dying, wondering where in God’s name does the strength come from to do so?  I was just a teenager when I watched my mother take care of my father as he struggled with this same evil disease, as the cancer racked his body and robbed him of his pride and whittled him down to 80 pounds of bones and bedsores.  And I watched Debbie nurse our cat Mickey through his last two weeks, tenderly changing blood-stained furry bandages and making him as comfortable as possible.

Now I understand, I know where the strength comes from.  What I didn’t understand before is that this strength is a gift, a gift from those who are dying, a gift from God, a gift to the caretakers.  And there is incredible beauty in serving those who can no longer help themselves, and this beauty outshines the mess.  Diane agrees with this, and we talk extensively about this later, and it is a lessen that we will both keep close to our hearts, and it is a bond that Diane and I will forever share, and a tribute to Debbie…

And bigger gifts are yet to come.  Out of this chaos, out of the confusion and mess, out of the biohazard and sterility, between the screams and the prayers, where all of these things stand side by side in the oncology wing of any hospital, somewhere between the hard cold facts of science and the comfort of bedrock faith, between biology and Spirit, somewhere between Life and Death, emerges a miracle…

Just after sunrise I awake from a brief sleep, sticking to the vinyl chair next to Debbie. When my eyes adjust and I shake off the exhaustion, I realize she is awake and smiling at me.  “Hi!” she chirps, with a little wave and that beautiful smile. I am shocked; where is the coma, the delirium?  Instantly any drowsiness disappears, and adrenaline puts every nerve ending on alert.

I hold Debbie’s hand and look deeply into her eyes; she is there.  We talk in hushed tones, with a respect reserved for sacred places.  The small talk is quickly replaced by heartfelt conversation.  I ask if she is okay; she is; if she is afraid; she is not.  She tells me she knows she is dying.  My memory retreats to the dark places that all couples who have shared 27 years have; I bring up a specific fight that I wish now I could take back.  She remembers and offers forgiveness before I can even ask.  I start bringing up another episode, but she squeezes my hand and stops me; I am forgiven for all my shortcomings.  But did I love her enough?  Her journey will be cut short, way too short, it is not fair, it wasn’t supposed to end this early and had we known would we have done things different?   Could we have loved each other more?

Deb stops me, tears streaming down my face, but hers still calm and peaceful and smiling.  She starts telling me about her best memories, the birth of our two sons and the pure pleasure she took in being a mom and raising them; we reminisce about some of the wild, out of control times with friends at bars and concerts; and we are suddenly whisked back to the perfect glow of a week without work and duty, where we laid in bed in our new house and made love the entire week, and just talked and read and only got up to do the bare minimum for Jake and then immediately rushed back into the comfort and peace of each other.  We gaze at each other like we did when we first met, when the spark and promise of love was all we needed. Mutual smiles, shared comfort, the tears are just tracks now, real, true forgiveness, real, true love, and peace, genuine genuine peace…

I know enough from my research and reading about death and dying to know what is happening here, and I know that this gift is not just for me.  I practically run through the hospital to find Diane, whisking her hurriedly into Deb’s room, and leaving just as quick, shutting the door behind me.  And I am working the cell phone frantically, getting people up here.

It is amazing, in hindsight, how everyone Deb wanted and needed to see was on their way.  Her sons, her mom and dad, both of her brothers, my mom and sisters, and they all arrived staggered but in perfect order, as if being guided by the Grand Organizer.  Everyone gets 20 or 30 minutes with Debbie; what gifts or goodbyes she gave them, what gifts they gave her, are I am sure forever etched in each other’s hearts.  But the way this morning played out, the perfectness and the organization and the heartfelt gifts and the peace and the love that happened in Room 6523 at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville PA – it was truly a miracle.

I have read extensively of these awakenings, from a scientific and medical perspective, and from a spiritual perspective.  They are not uncommon; in fact Kubler-Ross estimates that around 50% of the dying patients she has spent her life studying experience them.  We can measure increases in brain waves, in areas of the brain associated with beliefs and emotions, and there are changes in body mass and a rejuvenation that “normal” disease progress doesn’t allow.  Kubler-Ross cannot explain it any better than science, but she, a scientist and a spiritualist, is 100% sure that they are gifts from the dying, to the living, a comfort to those left behind.

Perhaps these souls have straddled the divide between death and eternal life, and know the comfort that awaits them – that explains their calm and serenity.  Yet they continue to want to comfort those that they love, they are hesitant to leave those that they will always love, those who will be left behind temporarily, even though they know where they are going is better.  So they muster up a reserve of spiritual strength that science cannot explain, to say goodbye, and to offer whatever gifts their recipients are willing to receive.

And so Debbie blessed us all one last time…

Can you sit closer?
I’m right here, my love
Now watch me pass over
I’m right here, my love
We did not give in and we did not give up
I’ll watch you cross over
I’m right here, my love

Deb’s awakening lasts only a few hours, soon she is tired and falls back into a semi-comatic sleep again, and the fire in her eyes from the morning does not return.  Deb does not get any better, but those of us around her have changed, we are calmer and even a bit refreshed.  But there is still so much work to do.

It is agreed that Debbie will be released in to hospice care and taken home.  This is what she wants, we all know it now.  As with anything involving hospital bureaucracy, it is a maze of confusion and phone calls and organizing that is herculean.  We are all on full alert now, and all the family members are around, and we are working as a team.

Getting Deb home is tough, and it hurts to see her carried into her house in such a frail condition by the beefy ambulance driver.  Of course Deb tries to make light of the situation, but the loss of strength is now a permanent feature that she has to consciously fight; when she does drift to sleep there is an uncharacteristic frown of exhaustion.

The confusion of being left alone at home, caring for a dying loved one, without any professional help until the morning, sets off a panic.  We have been given cryptic instructions for administering 6,000 types of medications all the way up to morphine, and we are unfamiliar with the oxygen machine and the hospital bed and the portable toilet and all monitoring all that needs monitored.

It is a MASH unit right after a battle at 210 Gibralter Drive, but we are here out of love for a spouse a sister a daughter a friend; once again out of this chaos Love rises.  Everyone’s strengths are utilized, and the curtain goes up between the family room and the dining room for privacy, and computers are fired up and spreadsheets emerge to chart the medications and the internet is humming on cell phones as we track which drug is which and when it should be administered and who can run to the store for more Ensure and pick up a pizza on the way, will you, and can someone make sure the boys are okay, I haven’t seen them all day and oh my god just a couple of hours ago we were all a mess but the Great Organizer has shown up again and after many frantic phone calls and very patient medical providers, there descends a sort of equilibrium over the Walko household as the last of the days’ light filters into night.  Enough organization that I am able to lie in a bed sometime after midnight, for the first time in a week , knowing that Debbie’s family is gathered close to her for the night.  We all get some very fitful but so needed rest, however brief, sleeping on leaky air mattresses and uncomfortable sofas and the too thin carpet.

In the morning the situation is not good.  Deb takes only a few sips of Ensure, and has not urinated in over a day; I know from the hospice folks what this means, and call them out first thing.  And indeed, the hospice worker confirms that the situation is dire, and we are instructed to keep the morphine up as needed.  Two hours, two days, two weeks – the timetable of passing will forever be a mystery.  Once again we are left to ourselves.

Later in the morning it is obvious that Debbie is entering the final stages of dying.  Every breathe is labored and uneven; she is not responsive.  We struggle with when and whether to give her more morphine.  Everyone is summoned.  And just like a few days before, when Debbie gathered everyone to say her last goodbyes, we are all gathered around her bedside.

Debbie’s hospital bed is in the middle of our living room, so there is room for everyone to circle her.  The room is bathed in light, from the sunlights and sliding glass door that leads out to the deck, to the designer window that looks out over the woods and is flooded in green.  White butterflies flit through the green, and it again is peaceful.

We are all together, Deb’s entire family, my entire family, but we also experience this separately.  Everyone reacts to this in their own way, the culminations of years of experiences and beliefs that are as different as fingerprints.  Some pray traditional prayers passed down for generations; others sit in silent reflection and personal prayer; some keep busy checking on the kids and taking care of everyone’s physical needs, which don’t abate even in these dire times. Some weep openly, others in silence.

But we share many things in common too.  We all want to hold on to Debbie, and the jockeying for position has reached a lineup that allows everyone access to touch Debbie.  Her mouth is now open and her eyes are partially rolled back into her head, and there is a quiet fear that has joined us, too; we don’t know when death actually occurs.

This is not my first experience with this moment.  When I was fifteen, on an early May evening, I had a feeling that I should not go to bed, despite it being a school night. Mom was okay with this for some reason.  And I went and sat next to my dying father, and I watched his breathes quit coming, and I watched what was left of him sink into the same type hospital bed as his soul left his cancer riddled body…

And now I am faced with the hardest part of the inevitable – do I bring the boys out to be with the mother as she passes?  It is a horrible dilemma, it is true torture.  I am so glad that I was with my father when he passed, but I was older; I don’t know how this will affect a 9 year old and a 12 year old.  I look around at the worried faces who are gathered around Debbie; I am kneeling, holding Deb’s hand, asking her what to do one last time, but she doesn’t answer.  I look up to the faces around me, pleading for help, pleading for advice – do I bring the boys out or not?  No one can help me, for there are no right answers; I must make these decisions on my own.  And although I don’t know it at the time, it is this precise dilemma that is the single parents’ greatest crisis, it is why we can’t sleep, why it is so hard – the decisions I make alone will affect my kids deeply.

I decide to talk honestly with Jake; I tell him his mom is dying.  Would he like to be there while she passes, or at least come and say goodbye?  Jake opts for the later, and kneels by his mom and says a prayer and tells her goodbye like he is telling her good night.  All of our hearts break…

Trevor is different; he is younger, he is more sensitive, he carries on Debbie’s gentleness and her big heart.  I truly do not know what to do with him.  I pray silently outside his door for a sign, for guidance. And when I enter his room he is asleep.  I decide this is a sign that he should not be there when mom leaves.  But I carry him out to see mom one last time, and again we say a prayer and he gives her one last kiss, and the scabs and scars of the heartbreak of just a few minutes ago when Jake said goodbye are torn open again in fresh agony.  It is the hardest thing I have ever done…

And then there is a long period where nothing happens.  Deb enters into a period of suspension between life and death, and nobody has any idea how long it will last or what we should do.  So we continue our vigil, waiting for signs.

And then Deb’s parents’ priest arrives.  His simple entrance breaks the pall, and his authority on these matters lifts everyone.  He is serious but not somber, and his faith that this is okay is comforting to all.  Especially to Debbie.  Last rites, given before, are given again, and we all join in prayers of the sacrament.

There is a sense that Debbie has been waiting for this.  But Father Joe knows that those gathered around are in need too.  His spirit is light, almost jovial – not what I expected.  After the sacrament, he even makes jokes, lightening the mood, trying to make everyone feel better, trying to make everyone happier.  Just like Debbie would have. Just the escort she was waiting for.

Debbie passes five minutes after Father Joe leaves…

I do not remember how I felt right then; I do not remember what went through my mind, what I felt in my heart.  It is like a dream again, and I am in a tunnel, and reality is at one end of that tunnel and the unknown at the other.  I am pulled in both directions at once, and caught in the middle, suspended in a state of disbelief.  I can hear crying and wails, and I think I am even making some of those sounds.  But it is like a scream that you cannot hear…

I don’t know how much time passes, a minute, five minutes, an hour, before I am pulled from the tunnel into reality.  From my knees, at Debbie’s bedside, I ask everyone for some privacy, for one last moment alone with my wife.

And the tears are unstoppable.

And my wails fill the house.

And the screams fill the space in everyone’s tunnel.

And it echos out into the yard and into the trees and the green, where the white butterflies fly.

And I hold her one last time, and I sit with her until the wails stop, until the tears are no more, until I have to let go…

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
Thunder and lightning
I’m right here, myl ove
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying

I’m right here, my love

The evening Deb died there was a spectacular sunset, and a cool breeze swept away the oppressive summer humidity that had added to the pressure of that week.  A line of thunderstorms had rushed through earlier, though we barely noticed. In its wake was a 15 degree temperature drop and a refreshingness that was palpable.

I sat on the bench that Deb and I made, in the yard that I have molded to my dad’s plans, looking at the house that Deb and I made into a home.  The days’ confusion is gone, thankfully.  It is a Sunday night.  No more coroners or medical supply people or pizza delivery persons; no more crying relatives and friends, all with the best intentions but also wrestling with and adding to the confusion.

Death is not an easy topic.  Dying is not something we like to discuss.  It is shrouded in sadness and pain, and mostly, fear.  And these are all appropriate, and necessary – for we all need to work through these issues, as we inevitably experience the death of loved one, and as we inevitably will experience our own death.

All of these emotions that we carry through the process of dying teach us something.  As I sit on the bench in the Evening’s Light, filtered through the trees, the cool breeze lifts up my spirit and carries me along with it.  I know, certainly, that this loss will hurt, it will hurt bad, and it will affect me in ways that I cannot even begin to fathom.  I know this will haunt my boys for the remainder of their days, and I know that so many special people, people that are so close to me and meant so much to Deb, I know they are hurting in ways that only they understand.

But there is a calm tonight, a calm that I cannot explain and that I certainly did not expect.  Perhaps it is because I am emotionally spent, spiritually carried through an adventure of epic proportions.  I am tired, exhausted, and completely hollow; I have nothing left.

But at this moment I do not need anything.  At this moment my boys are okay; they have constructed offerings and tributes to their mother that will forever touch my heart.  They are still kids and glimpses of still being kids as they play in the yard bring me strength.  And my sisters and I have said our prayers and constructed our own offering to Deb and her spirit; and it is good, the acknowledgement coming from the Spirit that flows through the cherry trees now, the wind that takes away our sadness, at least for this moment, the sound of only the leaves rustling and the sense that even though things change, it is all okay.

“If life was found to be agreeable, then so should death be. It comes from the hand of the same master.” – Michelangelo

redbud

I’M RIGHT HERE MY LOVE – written by Scott Miller, duet performed by Scott Miller and Patty Griffin

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
The unknown is frightening
I’m right here, my love
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying
I’m right here, my love

Can you taste my kiss?
I’m right here, my love
I wish life was endless
I’m right here, my love
But living costs something and pay it we must
But I will keep your kiss
I’m right here, my love

Can you feel me tremble?
I’m right here, my love
Does it feel like you remember?
I’m right here my love
The future’s assured in the pulse of our blood
I can feel you tremble
I’m right here, my love

Can you sit closer?
I’m right here, my love
Now watch me pass over
I’m right here, my love
We did not give in and we did not give up
I’ll watch you cross over
I’m right here, my love

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
Thunder and lightning
I’m right here, myl ove
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying

I’m right here, my love

Post Script – Jake and Trevor and I went downtown, by bus, in August, to Pamela’s, and to a baseball game, just like we planned.  And mom and mom’s hat went with us.  And the aroma of the world’s best pancakes and ballpark hot dogs and the laughter of children and the sound of life, beautiful life, floated on the summer breeze…

Over-wrought , Overwhelmed

“I felt the kind of desperation, I think, than cancels the possibility of empathy…that makes you unkind.” – Sue Miller, While I Was Gone

phone

The home phone hasn’t worked in months now.  Called the cable company a few weeks earlier, they said nothing is wrong on their end, which is good because I would have to take a precious vacation day to sit and wait for a service call “sometime between 9 and 2.”  Was told to get a new phone, so a trip to the store is added to my list.

There is no division of labor anymore for me, I have to do everything, including all the things that Deb used to do as a stay at home mom.  The problem is that ten hours of my day are not spent at home, but working, including travel time.  I just don’t have the time to do everything, and most days we eat dinner right before bed, if we eat at all.  The boys video chairs are surrounded by candy wrappers and empty Red Bull cans and boxes of cereal, the cat hasn’t been fed in days (which actually worked out because he at least ate the 2-day old puke that no one cleaned up), and the snake is now over a month without a mouse.

The pressure mounts; it’s not the big ticket items, like grief and big losses, that cause the most – there are support groups and sympathetic ears at the ready if you need a shoulder to sob on for those big things.  No, it’s these little things, like a phone that doesn’t work, the Easter baskets still not put away, the piles of clothes that never get put away, the dripping shower, all the dozens of little things, things that are small and easy to fix, if you have the time, that really add up, that build to the crushing weight.  No one wants to lend a shoulder to hear you bitch about a thousand little things.  I don’t blame them either, and frankly, I would get sick of hearing it too – but that is what the single parent’s day consists mainly of, these things undone…

So Friday night I had to leave work early because the home phone is still not working and neither of the boys would answer their cell phones, and nobody answered the door when I sent a neighbor over.  I figured they were fine, and they were, they were outside, believe it or not.  But I’m not getting enough done at work – there are thousands of things left undone at work – and that means I will now have to somehow find time this weekend to make up the work – my big presentation is Wednesday and I am far from ready.  Add it to my list.

So I bring home the new phone and plug it in and it doesn’t work; I yell at the kids to fix the phone problem, they supposedly of the technologically gifted generation.  But that is as useless as talking to the cable company about my phone.  My kids are completely helpless and lazy, the product of a stay at home mom who did EVERYTHING for them and has now left them, completely dependent on me.  The anger rises…

I just wanted to come home and plant some trees that I bought earlier in the week, enjoy the remainder of another beautiful day that is again sacrificed to duty, maybe even enjoy the sunset, or catch a bit of the Penguins game and a beer while lounging on the couch a bit later.  The phone situation steals an hour from that plan…

And also of course, as usual, none of the boys’ chores are done.  So I set Jake to mowing (he was supposed to do it Thursday) and of course he is doing a crappy half assed job, and throws the mower down and breaks it.  And a huge fight erupts, yelling and screaming and cursing for the whole neighborhood to hear and threatening to kill each other, and I truly just want to fly away and never come back and go somewhere where there aren’t any kids and the constant “dad dad dad” that follows me like a tormentor, where there are no unreasonable deadlines and constant pressures to do more quicker and faster and better with all new systems all the time and everything in my job changes all the time, I want to go somewhere where the phones work and the house isn’t falling apart and needing constant maintenance and upkeep, and where the dishes and the laundry and the homework do themselves, and where, after a long long week of literally four consecutive 18 hour days because of work and kid crap in the evenings, where I can just come home on a Friday evening and relax a bit and plant some trees and dig my fingers in the ground and enjoy my first moments of relaxation and non- rushing and sunshine all week, that is all I wanted…

But instead we fight.

Single parenting IS the hardest job ever, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, friend or foe.  And no one understands that – except other single parents.  And we are not allowed to bitch about it – except to other single parents.  And everyone around us is sick of us complaining about it…because mostly we complain about these little things, and they don’t understand why, it’s not that bad…

But nobody understands what it is like to go over a year without a full night’s sleep, to constantly do a half-assed job on everything because you just don’t have the time to do things right, including making vital decisions that affect my kids well being.  Who knows the ramifications of my sleep deprived decisions now?  Who knows what unknown damages I am inflicting on them because I don’t even have the time and energy to take care of myself, let alone needy kids?  Who knows whether tonight’s fight will be brought up again some time in the future as it’s recounted to a counselor? Some kids come from privilege and wealth and every opportunity and two parents, and they still grow up to a mess.  And some kids come from disadvantages far worse than having only one parent and grow up fine.  Who’s to know what is important and when???  Certainly not the stressed out single parent…

So we keep plodding along, us single parents, doing the best we can.  Some days it seems fine, it seems like maybe we can do this.

And some days the wheels completely fall off and the whole world seems it is crashing down, like tonight.

Tonight is a low water mark, a breaking point for me.  Tonight I cannot do this.  I am killing myself trying to do everything and getting only 4 or 5 hours of sleep each night.  I have reached my depths, and something has to give…

Tonight I just want to cry, to throw in the towel, yell “no mas”, walk away, lock myself in my room and sleep for 100 hours, maybe forever, or at least until this weariness, this chest-crushing weariness, this zombie inducing haze of too much all the time, the over-wroughtness of over-responsibility, until it all goes away, sleep until it is all gone or at least until a fairy godfather takes care of everything for an extended period of time so that you can rest, and even crosses a few things off the ever growing to-do list (like the shower that has been dripping for three months or getting the phone working again), maybe even become human again, and remember what it is like to see and think clearly again, not rushed and hassled, and maybe even have some extended leisure time that is measured in hours not minutes and that doesn’t end with jumping right back in to the pressure cooker again, and maybe, just maybe, even having some extended time just for you…

And on top of this, Sunday we are supposed to go to the Caring Place, for a quilt making ceremony to honor mom.  I do not want to go.  We just did a very emotional and heavy tribute to mom last weekend at the Race for the Cure, and I have not emotionally recovered from that (because I have no time to address grieving issues) and right now I am so pissed at Deb that I want to explode.  She up and leaves and moves on to betterness and happiness, while I am left in hell…not fair that we go honor her, again, while I’m left picking up all the goddamn pieces at the base of an insurmountable mountain…

I don’t know what else to do except keep moving forward, even as my kids grades fall because I don’t have the proper time to work with them and help them with their homework, as they almost burn the house down because the 9-year old is hungry after school and tries to cook instead of waiting for dad to feed him when I get home at 7 o’clock, even as they miss half of the activities in school because I just can’t be at two places at once, even as their hearts break because they don’t have a mom on Magnificent Muffins with Moms day and they ask to go in late that day but dad has to drop them off early because he’s got an early conference call, even as son #2 is the worst pitcher on his team because I just don’t get home early enough to practice with him in the daylight, even as my kids are wearing shoes a size too small or don’t have a proper fitting coat in the winter because I don’t have time to go shopping, even as their old man falls sound asleep in their band and chorus concerts, because he is just bone tired, completely exhausted, and has absolutely nothing left in the tank…I just want to run away…

But as much as I want to run away – I won’t, at least not yet.  Maybe I will quit my job on Monday.  I don’t know what else to do.  I am exhausted, totally exhausted, haven’t had any extended time off since Christmas and the few vacation days I did take were mostly to get chores done.  But patterns need broken now; clearly we cannot go on like this…

I think back to the previous Friday night, when I finally got home, just as exhausted and just as in need of some down time.  I just wanted to sit on the couch for a while – but the boys reminded me that I promised to take them to Carnival night at the school…sigh…

Respite will not be arriving anytime soon, I know that.  And most nights I can dig a little deeper; most nights I can peel myself off the couch after only five minutes of rest, the first time since 5 am that I’ve sat down, and get up and go to Carnival night, and things are okay.  But I am worried about the nights where I get home and pick a fight because I am just at rope’s end, and the exhaustion just seems insurmountable…

For A Christmas Dancer

“And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up?” — Charles Dickens

Picture 244

Well there is no way around this, there is only through it…Christmas…

Debbie loved Christmas.  She loved planning for it, would start before Halloween; she loved decorating and baking and shopping for it, getting the tree up and the house ready and getting the kids excited.  Debbie smiled all year, but at this time of year it took on an even brighter glow.

I can’t say I shared in Deb’s Christmas enthusiasm, certainly not starting in October, but by Christmas Eve, after getting home from work, usually a few hours earlier than normal and with a few days relief from duty on tap, I’d finally let the Christmas spirit in.  Although the house had been decorated for weeks, it often felt like I was seeing it for the first time on Christmas Eve – I’d actually have the time to appreciate the extra effort put in to the stockings hung with care above the fireplace, the smell of cookies and other goodies baking, the beautiful tree that took two days to decorate, each ornament carefully placed to let those who bought the special decorations know how much she appreciated it (and also to keep them from becoming Boo’s Christmas presents!), and to feel the love that Deb planted throughout the house.

And the Christmas Eve party itself was always an exercise in Martha Stewart perfection – every menu item carefully planned and choreographed with the drinks and the festivities and the theme of pure joy.  And though the juggling act of keeping sixteen appetizers warm, all the drinks filled and the laughter and smiles non-stop would have left most exhausted and frazzled, this was the pinnacle of Deb’s love – this was her best dance, and she pulled it off with a grace and ease that would leave all applauding, a standing ovation every time.

Deb still found the energy to clean the entire house after the party in preparation for Santa’s arrival, and then we’d get the boys gifts’ together (this was usually the first time I even knew what they were getting) and she’d spend half an hour perfectly placing them under the tree while I nodded off.  And finally before going to bed in the wee hours, the plate of cookies had to have just enough crumbs and lip marks on the residual glass of milk to make believers out of even the most skeptical of boys.

Morning would come too early, but Deb was always just as excited as the boys.  And her payoff was just simply the smiles and excitement of two young boys romping through the most anticipated morning of the year, with all their wishes fulfilled perfectly.  It was truly a work of art; Christmas was Deb at her very best, a ballerina dancing a pirouette of pure joy.

Christmas will be different this year.  Christmas is not my dance; I will do my very best to make sure the boys have the best possible Christmas I can give them, and in the end it will be enough.  My boys have impressed me beyond my wildest imagination with their ability to handle the challenges they have been given, and they have lifted me up on angel’s wings too many times to count the last six months.  They won’t find perfection under the tree this Christmas morning, but they will certainly find all the love I can muster for them, and they will understand in time that it is good enough, though it will not be even remotely close to the splendor of Christmas’ past.

Christmas won’t be the same this year – it will never be the same again – and when the last present has been unwrapped there will still be a gaping hole in our celebration, in our hearts, a hole that no one, no thing, can ever fill…

I worry how the boys will deal with this.  I try to recall my Christmas’s after dad died, but I can’t, those memories have been lost.  I can still remember some Christmas’s from before dad died, though, when Santa was magic and still real; they are good memories, memories of waking up before dawn, of my sister riding her rocking horse in the glow of the Christmas tree, her hair flailing and her silhouette visible to the neighbors across the street still putting toys together for their own kids.

And I remember most that Santa brought me a train set every year, even though I didn’t ask for a train set, I didn’t want a train set; but dad did.  He loved trains, and wanted to share that love with his son.  So its funny, the gift dad got for himself is the one I remember the most out of all those years of presents; and for that I am now grateful, even if I wasn’t at the time.

I have only one gift that I want to give the boys. I want to convey to them this Christmas how much their mom loved them.  And I want them to keep that in their hearts always.

So I’ve asked the boys to write down a favorite memory of mom from Christmas, something that we can share, and reminisce about, something we can hold on to when it sinks in sometime, in the quiet part of the day, when it becomes too obvious that it is just us boys this Christmas.  I hope we will share these memories, and that we will laugh, and we will cry, and we will hold on to each other and to the memories of this beautiful woman, best friend, wife, the most loving mother a boy could ever ask for.  And then we will burn our gifts, and let the offering waft up to the heavens; I want this to be something we do every year.

I will share the stories of mom’s Christmas dance, of what the boys didn’t see; of the love and effort and caring that she put into even the tiniest of her Christmas preparations, of the thought that went in to each gift, and how she got blacklisted from Target for taking things back too many times even before Christmas, trying to get it just right.

I will share that Christmas represented mom giving her all, her unconditional love, to her beautiful boys.  A child doesn’t understand love, but cannot thrive without it.  My boys are doing so well, are such strong spirits and good souls, because Debbie loved them with all her heart, unconditionally, the way only a mother can.  She may be physically gone now, but that will always be Debbie’s gift to them, and to me, and it needs to live on in our hearts.

And I will share that Deb’s presents were wrapped in her hopes for everything that the boys could ever want, fulfilled.  Her decorations were put up far in advance to prepare their hearts to graciously receive gifts, and she steadfastly kept them on the right track in preparation for this day, for it’s gifts are worth the straight and narrow way, and the wait.  And her Christmas Eve party was her glorious way of sharing this love with all those she cared about.

But mostly this Christmas I will share with the boys the grace and beauty of mom dancing her most glorious dance, her Christmas dance, the dance of her love for her two boys, which she lived her life to learn, to share and to pass on…

For a Dancer – Jackson Brown

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know

Merry Christmas, Debbie…Love you, Always and Forever

Oh Very Young

“And the patches make the goodbye harder still.”

There is a hill, with picture perfect views of rolling hills and farms, where patriarchal oaks and stately sycamores stand guard over stones that fade and crack.  A creek flows at the base of this hill, and a newly planted dogwood anchors a slight apex in the hill, a corner halfway between my past and my present.

Tonight I sit cross-legged in the past, in front of a stereo, playing records, with skips and cracks and pops and all, a young boy marveling over the intricate artwork of album covers with names like “Teaser and the Firecat” and “Madman Across the Water.”  I pour over the lyrics of my dad’s records as the songs play, and the poetry comes alive with the full emotional power of music; it moves you.

It moved my dad, who passed on his own love of music by his example, which I emulate now.  A Cat Stevens disc finds its way into my cd player; Cat was one of dad’s favorites, and I understand why, for even forty years later his music is still relevant, still strikes an emotional chord.  It must be the truth then…and the truth of Cat’s lyrics are a double whammy on this hill…

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim Blue fading up to the sky
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will
(You know he never will)

And the patches make the goodbye harder still

Halfway from my dogwood is a stone on this hill that I have been visiting for over thirty years.  Only thirty-seven; I understand it now from an angle that was impossible to a teenager.  Thirty-seven is Oh Very Young; what did you leave me this time, dad?

You left me music, and music bridges, music heals, music connects.  Thanks.  It still connects me to you, dad, even after all this time.

And you left me dogwoods, dad, your favorite tree, my favorite tree; and now there is one here, on our hill.

There is more connecting, dad.  At the top of this hill, just passed the dogwood, there will soon be another stone, another Oh Very Young.  This one was only forty-five, this one was even closer to me, this one still hurts.  I don’t understand why, or what to do next, but maybe you do, now.  Maybe you can help me figure it out as I traipse this dogwood divided trail of 37 to 45 steps between my past and my present.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind
And if you want this world to see a better day
Will you carry the words of love with you
Will you ride the great white bird into heaven
And though you want to last forever
You know you never will
(You know you never will)

And the goodbye makes the journey harder still

The dogwood stands dormant now, in late fall, leaves gone, sap retreating to the depths and protection of the inner trunk and roots, preparing for the barren days and long nights of winter, and those protections are necessary to survive the cold.  But there are buds on the ends of the branches, too, for the dogwood knows winter doesn’t last forever.  Maybe by springtime we will all be able to enjoy the creamy white blooms, cantilevered in perfect symmetry to this hill.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?

My youngest boy comes and gives me a big hug; he doesn’t know why dad is crying; but he sits in my lap, and we listen to Cat Stevens together…

http://touch.dailymotion.com/video/x7d3nm_cat-stevens-oh-very-young-live-hq_music