five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.  That’s one year.  I buried my mom a year ago today – right about now.  I have known a lot of loss and pain in my life.  I’ve lost pregnancies, been divorced, buried a husband and my father.  I’ve been through plenty of tough times.  I thought I had a pretty good handle on grief.

I had the bright idea to start blogging my journey through grief on a day by day basis – I thought that I could somehow write a primer that might help others through coming to terms with the loss of their parent.  I was so arrogant as to sit down and write out a timeline of topics that I would write about – the lessons that I would teach myself about grief on my timetable.  I can laugh at the audacity now.

I didn’t write all of those blogs.  I didn’t write many of them.  I found the list not so long ago and threw it away.

When you are grieving, sometimes the minutes creep by so slowly that you think morning will never arrive.  Sometimes you open your eyes and realize it’s Friday and you haven’t finished the Monday to-do list.

The only way out is through.  I made it through five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.   I made it through a year.   I’ll make it through the next one, too, and the one after that.  Such powerful lessons of love I have learned.

I didn’t write those blogs, but I filled journal after journal.  One day, perhaps soon, I’ll read them through.  Perhaps there will be something of value to share. Perhaps they’ll make good kindling for next summer’s campfires.  Only time will tell.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, for me at least, has been  a time to process the changes.  I’ve let go of so many ideas that no longer served me.  When something irritates or annoys me, I ask myself if it would matter in a year.  If not, I do my best to let it go and use my energy for something more productive than worry.

I’m back to singing silly songs at inappropriate times (but not in court).  My smile isn’t a mask hiding sadness or depression – it’s real these days.  I no longer have to stalk joy like it’s a rare animal in a dark jungle.  Joy sits on my shoulder and sings again.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes – measure in love.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life
How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love
Seasons of love
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life
Of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died
It’s time now to sing out
Tho’ the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends
Remember the love
Remember the love
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love
Seasons of love
Seasons of love
Songwriters: Jonathan D. Larson
Seasons of Love lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

 

 

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Embracing the Dark

My “brand,” for want of a better term, has been “comfort and joy,” but the truth is that I have been doing my best to load heavy on the “joy” part.  I find joy in colors – in wild, bright, nearly-neon shades of pink, orange and green.  I have teacups in every color of the rainbow.  I wear eyeglasses that are splashed with many colors.  I love color.

I’m currently listening to “Learning to walk in the Dark:  Because Sometimes God Shows up at Night“, by Barbara Brown Taylor.   The author’s soothing voice is a reminder that life isn’t always colorful.  We have spent generations filling our world with light – chasing away the darkness.  We’ve lost the ability to take comfort in dark things – dark places. Her voice came at me through several podcasts in a short time.  On an impulse, I turned in an Audible credit and downloaded the recording.  I’m so glad that I did.

I’m the first one up in the house most mornings.  I flip on every light switch I pass, filling the house with the artificial sunlight emitted from all of those high-efficiency LED light bulbs.  The author asked questions, and I pondered, “When was the last time that I truly sat in the dark?  When did I last watch the night sky and watch for the stars to appear?”

It seems that August and September each lasted about 10 minutes. Here I sit, already part way through the month of October. My beautiful summer garden has begun to turn brown around the edges.  The petunias are bearing their last blooms; the herbs are going to seed.  Winter is Coming (sorry).  With Winter comes long nights.  With my windowless office, it is far too easy to arrive at work in the dark and leave in the dark.  I must be intentional, some days, to glimpse the sunlight at all.  The vibrant orange roses I purchased a week and a half ago have finally turned brown.  I rinsed the apple-green vase and stored it away.

Emotions can be dark, too.   We can confront dark emotions without being consumed by them.  I’m amazed by the videos of dangerous creatures – night creatures – like wolves and bears and foxes that make their way into backyards and play in the pool or on the trampoline.   I find delight in watching their apparent joy.  Had those homeowners been frightened by the beasts and turned on the security light, flooding the yard with artificial sun, the animals may have scurried away into the forest.  Instead, they sat back and allowed something magical to happen, and those videos have brought happiness to thousands, like me, who will never experience the sight.

In the wake of my mother’s death last year, I pursued joy like a drug.  I purchased yarn in bright colors, hoarded away in quantities it will take many months to deplete.  I asked for (and received – thank you, darling) a room painted a yellow (called “joyful,” no less) in which I could sit and do happy things while looking out the window at happy colors.  Honestly, the room hasn’t received much use.

No, I’m not currently depressed.  I’m just coming down off of an artificial high.  I’ve never used recreational drugs, but I’m told that some so completely deplete serotin – the happiness hormone – that it’s difficult to feel happy after coming down from the high. Those same substances, administered by a professional, can be used to combat serious issues like PTSD. Like those drugs, “Joy,” I think, is best in small doses.  It’s much more special that way.  Seeking out joy is hard work.  An item is only novel a time or two, then unless it is connected to a special memory, it begins to lose its magic.  It becomes another pretty thing to sit on a shelf and dust.

Instead of running from garden to lake seeking perfect sunrises and sunsets (filled with fuschia and orange), I’m going to take a look around at all of the perfect,ordinary, taken-for-granted blessings.  There is beauty in ritual – in the mundane.

I’m not swearing off of joy – I’m just trying to find a rhythm – to get back to appreciating the ordinary.  To enjoy comfort while at the same time allowing darkness  – sadness, melancholy and longing – to creep in where I can watch them from a safe distance.

My dear aunt and uncle in Arkansas recently sent me a gift – a video of my mother and her siblings in 2009.  One sister had already taken up residence in heaven – but the rest of them sat and told stories about growing up – about Christmas and toys and the poor family who stole milk from the cows because their children were hungry.

That DVD sat on the table in the foyer for more than a week.  I was afraid of it.  I don’t know if I was afraid of seeing my mother’s face and hearing her voice.  I don’t know if I was afraid that she might say something about me and my failures as a daughter.  I can’t truly describe the nature of my fear.  I just know that I felt it.

After moving the disc from one room to another, I finally popped it into the computer, sat back with a pot of tea, and watched it end to end.  I allowed the tears to come.  I allowed the grief to come into the yard and bounce on the trampoline.  I allowed myself to laugh at the funny parts, too.

Like the wild animals playing on the swingset, though, dark emotion is a wild creature that for those of us who have found our way back from depression must be respected for the wild thing that it is.  Like the woman filming the black bears, I can watch sadness from the safety of the kitchen window, but it would be foolish to invite it into the house and give it a place at the table.

I would never go out into the yard if a bear was there, but I might brave the night to see how close I could get to a fox or a raccoon.  I would face fear of the dark for the potential experience of seeing something special up close.

If you never go out into the dark, how will you ever see the stars?

 

 

 

 

 

My Life as a Plant

I just returned from a weekend camping in a place with absolutely no internet connectivity.  My cell phone did not work.  Zero bars.  Nada.  No Facebook.  No weather.  No checking my calendar or sharing pics on Instagram.  The only purposes my handy dandy pocket computer served were alarm clock, music player and e-reader.

Our 18-year-old son is old enough, now, to spend a weekend without Mom and Dad here to manage him.  He wasn’t alone, though.  It was closing weekend of the musical theater show he has been rehearsing for all summer long.  He’s a busy guy.

I had intended to ask my son to water my plants while I was gone, but I forgot, and by the time I arrived  home, a few were just beginning to droop.  I don’t generally keep indoor plants because I have a tendency to kill them, but for a few brief months every year, my back deck becomes a tropical paradise filled with a riot of colors.  I “visit” the plants nearly every day.  I pinch this one back here to encourage more blooms and I move that one a little to the left so that it gets more sunlight. Sometimes, though, I get busy and I forget a day of watering.  Earlier this summer, a combination of a badly-planned container and failure of a drip-watering system led to a “dead” planter.  I had my husband drill a bunch of holes in the bottom of an old aluminum tea kettle that was my mother’s, and I filled it with vines and flowers.  It was lovely.

I went out to the deck one night to commune with my flowering friends and found the kettle plants wilted and dead-looking.  The soil was crispy.  The leaves were crinkly.  The situation looked pretty hopeless.  I cried a little.  I had “built” that container as a tribute to Mom, who I lost in November, and in that moment, my irrational mind felt that I had let her down (again).

My husband said, “just throw the plants out and buy new ones.”  It was tempting.  Instead, though, I soaked the container thoroughly.  I used my garden shears to cut back the completely brown parts and I moved the kettle from the hook where it hung “crooked,” as if pouring a cup of tea to a shelf where it could sit flat (and was much easier to water).

I began watching the kettle planter each day.  On Day 2, it looked a little better.  The leaves that had still been green, but were wrinkled instead of full and lush had filled back out. The extremities on the vines though, continued to wilt and grow brown.  I pulled out the shears once again and cut back a little more.

By Day 3, the “core” of the planter was beginning to look healthy.  There were no flowers anywhere, but the greenery was looking healthier.

By Day 7, new runners were beginning to appear from the vining plants.  By Day 10, a few buds had appeared on the the plant with the tiny white flowers.

Now, two full weeks after the disaster, three of the four plants have made a brilliant recovery.  They almost look as if they had never been nearly killed. I say “almost,” because if you look closely, you can see the scarring on some leaves.  There are some brown parts, too – but if you view the kettle from a distance, you would never know that it was nearly a lost cause.  The fourth plant, with it’s delicate leaves and tiny fuschia blossoms, though, isn’t faring as well as its neighbors.  Perhaps it is the diminutive size of the leaves.  Perhaps this plant wouldn’t have thrived in the same container as the other three even without my unintentionally-caused drought.  It’s surviving, but it isn’t thriving.

While running on a narrow trail through the forest this weekend (without music), I began thinking about the plants in Mom’s kettle.  When you neglect a plant, or when it goes through a crisis, it begins to shut down.  It conserves precious resources for its core.  It keeps its center alive for as long as possible.  Humans do this, too.

It was just about a year ago when Mom told me that her cancer was “alive” again, and that she would need radiation treatments to knock it back down.  In the weeks leading up to that day, I had celebrated my 50th birthday.  I was joyful.  I was celebrating life.  If I were a plant, I would have been “blooming all over the place.”

As the illness progressed, it took her mind.   My own soul began to wilt a little.  My extremities began to wither – I stopped seeking out people and conversations.  A leaf began to die here and there.  She became sicker and died.  People soon stopped sending cards and notes.  The flowers people sent died. The houseplants that people sent to the funeral died, too.  I suppose the fact that I hadn’t watered them had something to do with it.  We entered the longest winter ever, and I had my own “dark night of the soul.”

With Spring came hope.  I waited impatiently for the last chance of frost to pass so that I could plant new life in the containers that still held the wilted remains of last year’s flower garden.  The trails called me, too.  I began running again on paths through woods and meadows.  I began smiling more.  As the pots and kettles and gutters filled with living, blooming things began to fill my life with color, my mood lifted.  I began reaching out.  I even invited people long gone from my life for coffee and conversation.  I, too, began to bloom again.

I recognize my plant-like nature.  When there is a “trauma” in my environment, the “extremities” are the first to go.  I stop doing the extra things that bring me into contact with others.  I stop “vining” – reaching out for new places to connect and grow.  I stop blooming – whether my blossoms are written words or photographs of pretty teacups.

My grief is not over.  Most days I am happy, but once in a while I will forget for a moment that Mom is dead.  I reach for the phone to call her, or spot something I would love to send her.  Those moments are no longer enough to ruin me for the day.

By late Winter, if I were a plant, I would have looked pretty sad.  I imagine I was there, with my long, flowing fronds, once lush and green, now hanging sad and brown.  Someone would come along and offer a word or encouragement and my “core” plant would lap it up.  At work, I would have an opportunity to help someone, and they showed their appreciation through kind words or referrals that brought me more and more to life.  Each act of kindness – each “touch,” whether physical or through the magic of the internet – was like a drop of rain to my parched soul.

Running through the Mohican State Forest this weekend, I was in awe of the resilience of plants – especially the trees.  In some spots, I was forced to climb tree roots as if they were a staircase.  In other places, I saw trees that had been blown over completely and started to grow again in a new direction.  Trees don’t give up and stop growing because there is a storm.

I don’t picture myself as a tree.  I’m far too fickle.  I’m more like a vining plant with long colorful fronds that blooms brightly once in a while.  As I heal, my fronds are filling out and buds forming.  as I hit “publish,” I will have put out my first blossom in a long while.

So, today I will be like a plant.  I will bloom where I’m planted while sending out vines, seeking new places to experience and erupting in an occasional flower that, when wilted, sends seeds out to land in someone else’s waiting, fertile soil of their imagination.

It’s a Small, Small World.

My husband and I took our 17-year-old son to Walt Disney World at Christmas time this year. We toured Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios together the first day. My husband decided to enjoy some relaxation while our son and I went to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center the second day. My son’s name is Matt. We rode several rides and watched several attractions together. I wanted to ride “It’s a Small World” – and he didn’t. We waited together through about half of the 45 minute queue, and when he made it abundantly clear that he would rather be eating lint, I allowed him to exit the wait when we came upon a gate that would allow him to escape.

I waited another 30 minutes alone, surrounded by people, and watched their interactions. The park was terribly crowded. It was still early in the day, so children weren’t having full on meltdowns yet, but it was lunchtime, and there were plenty of hungry little people. I started to feel a little sorry for myself, waiting all alone, and then I realized that I don’t need to make my son miserable to have a fabulous time.

I came to love that ride because my mother loved it. I came to love it more this year, riding alone, because it brought a plethora of beautiful colors and a whirlwind of motion into what had become a dark night of the soul- my journey of grief after Mom’s death in November.

I sat next to someone else’s child. He saw tears streaming down my face and said, “don’t cry.” I smiled and laughed through my tears and said back, “they’re happy tears.” I’m not sure that they were until that moment, but at the moment I made the claim of happiness, I was determined to be in love with that moment – and I was.

Winter in Ohio can be a hard time to create happiness – at least for me. The ground is covered with dirty snow or thick ice. The trees are barren. The birds are somewhere warm for the winter. It’s dark by the time I leave my windowless office to cook dinner, and the dining table looks out over the deck that is covered in dead leaves instead of containers overflowing with flowers in a hundred different hues.

My world got a lot smaller when Mom died. I lost the person I phoned when I needed to talk about what was bothering me. I lost my frequent destination for my Tuesday “day off.” My world got “small.” I wrote about losing her daily for a short while, until someone I don’t even know in “real life” said something that I decided made me feel like reading my words was a burden to other people. I stopped writing, and my world became still smaller.

I came to the realization a little over a week ago that my world had become too small – too dark. I set out to change it. A friend shared social media invitations to a class teaching African dance. I signed up, even though I knew that when I arrived, I wouldn’t know a single soul. I did something so far outside of my comfort zone – dancing – in public – in stretchy fabrics. I didn’t hide when, later in the evening, my friend showed up and started filming and sharing “live.” Just by being there, my world got a little bigger.

The following weekend, instead of sitting inside the house and doing the same old thing, I got my husband into the car and drove to the “Great Big Home and Garden Show.” We don’t have any home improvement projects on the agenda for this year, but I wanted to see the gardens. They didn’t disappoint. There were tulips and daffodils and hyacinths – a riot of color. There were trees in bud, and although I was in a giant building, I could almost feel myself outside beside a running brook in one of my favorite parks. Almost. I felt my world expand a little more.

When I moved to my present home nearly two decades ago, I never built a new network of close friends.  While I don’t mean to minimize the importance of the male friends and mentors in my life, I’ve reached an age where I’m looking to build my connection with other women.

I don’t go out and “do” things with women. Now that I have become a “woman of a particular age,” –  now that I am the involuntary matriarch – I see clearly how important that network of strong, wise women is to have. Only by reaching out and by sharing our joy and sorrow can we truly live a full life.

This is the “year of yes,” to quote Shonda Rimes. This is the year that I will grow my world by doing things that I don’t usually do – by saying yes to new experiences and learning new things. It is a small, small world – but it doesn’t have to be.

The cookie story

I haven’t felt much like Christmas this year. We decided to spend Christmas Day with Mickey Mouse this year since Mom isn’t here anymore and the family seems to be heading in 12 different directions this year. The only decorating I’ve done was to pull a small tree out of a box already decorated and “fluff” it a bit along with putting a strange crèche I found up on the piano. Five minutes. Done. Boom.

While going through a box of Mom’s things, I found a binder full of family recipes. I didn’t think I was up to the task of making the butter cookie cut outs I made with Mom or the chocolate molasses cookies that she sent us boxes of for every special occasion. I decided to make something emotionally easier – my aunt’s “dunkin platters.”

I assembled all of the ingredients on the kitchen island and went off to search for my kitchen aid mixer. I stepped into the storage area and found it right outside the door – not where I expected it to be – but very handy indeed. It was filthy, but I figured it must have gotten dusty when my husband blew in insulation a couple of weeks ago.

I put the full pound of butter on the stove to melt and then I set about cleaning up the dirty mixer. I grumbled under my breath that the last kid to put it away had left something sticky on the base. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it didn’t want to leave. The bread hook and wire whip were in the bowl, which was odd because I don’t store them together. They looked nasty, too, so I stuck the, into the dishwasher. Next, I checked the mixer bowl for any stray dog hair, since we share our home with 3 of them now. Instead of hair, I found a layer of dead bugs in a variety of shapes and sizes. I shivered a little and then tried to shake them into the trash. They weren’t leaving. It took tons of hot water, soap and elbow grease to make that bowl sparkle. I was more than a little annoyed.

The beater was attached to the stand. I wanted to clean it, too, since it may have touched the bugs. It wouldn’t come off. As I wrestled with the mechanism, more dead bugs fell out of the mixer head. I pinched myself to make sure this wasn’t just a bad dream. Ouch! It wasn’t. It was then that I realized this wasn’t my mixer (thank goodness). It was Mom’s. Those bugs had probably been there for years.

I was still a little queasy. I wasn’t sure that cookies still sounded good, but the full pound of butter was now melted. Waste not, want not..

I have to eat strictly gluten free, so baking cookies required ordering certified gluten free oats and gluten free corn flakes, along with gluten free flour. These were not cheap cookies to make, and they required planning. I was committed now. I went in search of another navy blue kitchen aid mixer. It took a while, but I found it, right where my husband told me he had put it.

I followed the recipe, heated the oven, and lovingly plopped spoonfuls on the ungreased tray. 10 minutes later I found a single 11 x 14 inch cookie instead of 18 3-inch rounds. I decided I needed a smaller spoon. I eventually worked out the right size, timing and temperature for the gluten-free version of these treats. After baking for most of the afternoon, I put two on a plate and made a cup of instant coffee, because Mom always have me a cup of instant to dunk fresh cookies into.

I haven’t cried in a day or three, but when I put that coffee-covered cookie into my mouth, the dam burst. I cried until the tears ran down my shirt, and then I cried some more. It was then that it hit me – these cookies are Christmas for me. Mom made cut outs all year long. They weren’t special. I only got these once a year – on Christmas Eve – and I would eat the dunkin platters because they were my favorite. My aunt who made them is still living, but she has memory problems. I haven’t had one of these cookies in at least 20 years. Suddenly, I was 8 years old and sneaking into a corner with a handful of my favorite cookies before someone else could eat them.

I really needed that coffee. Those cookies are sweet! I guess my adult self prefers slightly less sweet, which is a good thing because even after giving some away there remains a huge box.

I’m leaking a little again. It’s alright. The best memories, sometimes, are the ones that run down your face.

Ask Me Anything

I always thought I knew a lot about my mom’s life.  She told scores of stories.  I can tell you about the day that her old dog, Shep, died.  I can tell you about the day my dad proposed to her – and that she didn’t answer him right away.  I can tell you about the day that she received the phone call that there was a baby girl waiting to be adopted, and she could pick her (me) up that same day.  I thought I knew a lot.

One day, my still-sharp 88-year-old mother’s brain changed.  She couldn’t tell me the familiar stories anymore.  During her final illness, on days she couldn’t quite place who iI was in her life, she asked me questions that led me to pose my own questions about what shaped her early life  – questions that she could no longer answer.

I don’t know if my mother ever had a boyfriend before she married my dad at the age of 37.  I don’t know what she dreamed of when she was a teenager.  I don’t know a lot of things. Looking back, I don’t think that I know a single story about Mom’s life between ages 10 and 25 or so.  There are still family members alive who might be able to tell me their own stories about her during those years, but nobody can tell “her” story.

As we cleaned out her apartment last weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder why she kept certain things.  although I never saw her journaling, a part of me hoped that I would find a box of notebooks – diaries – hints at who my mom had been before she was my mom – and who she was when nobody was watching.

I wonder sometimes how much my children really know.  Once in a while Matt, my youngest, appears shocked when he learns some bit of my history – some part of my life prior to the year 2000.

I wish that my mother had written her story.  I do keep a journal most days, so my life from age 50+ is theirs for the reading if they should choose to to do some day.  The years before, however, the years who made me who I am – flaws and all – are locked away in my head except for the little glimpses I tell in my stories.

Maybe some day I will tell my children to “ask me anything,” and record those answers in writing or on video.  How I wish Mom had said to me, “ask me anything” in those months leading up to the end of her life.  There are so many things I would love to know now – not that they would change a thing – but things that would help me to understand why things were the way they were.

There were things that were hinted at but never spoken.  There were times when I asked Mom about first-hand memories that were vivid to me that, according to her, “never happened.”

I’m not certain that I have the courage to tell my children to “Ask me anything” and give them the answers while I am still living.  Perhaps, though, the revelation of that information might help them to understand me and the experiences that made me who I am.  Perhaps the joys and sorrows and traumas don’t matter to anyone else.  Perhaps, though, my daughter, or my great-granddaughter some day far in the future would hear my memories and realize that I, too, questioned my worth at times, and that I spent 50 years or so worrying too much about what others thought.

Perhaps some day I will write my own story.  Parts are interesting – other parts heartbreaking or downright boring.  What might be boring to me might explain to my daughter why I am quirky about certain things.  If she ever wishes she had asked me a certain question, perhaps she could find the answer.

So, kids, when I am gone, look for the name of the document and the password hint.  In the meantime, ask me anything, and I’ll do my best to answer now – or in the future.

 

 

Day 8 – Sometimes You Just Have to Feel It

Sometimes the lesson is simply indescribable. You just have to feel it. Any attempt to find the words to describe those profound, deeply-felt changes will pale in contrast to the realization.

This is as close as I can come: The depth of the feeling of being very sad about a change – like death – is in direct proportion to how hard we resist the change. As long as I dwell in the past, wishing things could have gone differently or that I had said something or did something else, I will continue to feel sadness.

When I accept that Mom is gone, and that it happened just the way that it was always going to happen, the sadness eases. It’s out of my control. It always was.

The words make it sound much simpler than the feelings do. You’ll have to trust me on that one.