Good tidings of comfort (and joy)

Happy Christmas Eve from the beach. The husband, the man child and I decided to make the 1100 mile trek from Vermilion, Ohio to Cocoa Beach Florida for Christmas for the second year in a row. For them, it was merely a chance to catch some sunshine and play in the sand. For me, it was personal. I had an important visit to make.

Last year, the loss of my mother was very fresh. I spent more time in tears than enjoying the sunshine. I couldn’t bear to allow myself a peek of happiness. It just didn’t seem right. I got up before the sun every morning and sipped my coffee and watched the waves lap at the sand and wept.

I walked the beach and picked up seashells – but only the broken ones. I told myself that they were more interesting, but I think there was a part of me that believed at that moment that I didn’t deserve the perfect beautiful ones.

On our last morning at the beach, I found a spot just above the high tide line. I sat in the sand and imagined my mom beside me there, sitting in a low sand chair in her homemade red bathing dress with the white jacket with a beach blanket pulled up over her legs and her feet buried in the sand. I don’t think she was ever here at Cocoa Beach in her life, but I imagined her here in death – sitting in her chair and watching the waves, the gulls – the children with pails and shovels. Contented smile on her face. I went back at sunrise day after day and talked to her here on the the beach. I said all of the things that I couldn’t say in the last weeks of her illness when the very sight of me, for reasons I will never know, would make her angry. The angry old woman was gone, and Mom was back, sitting there beside me.

On our last morning, I had to say goodbye. I drew a heart in the sand and burned the location into my memory so that I could find it again, and there I set up her chair, in my mind, for the last time. She wanted the chair close enough to the water that the waves would wash over her feet sometimes. As I turned to walk back to our campsite, I saw her give me a little wave. “Go have fun,” she called. “I’ll be right here waiting. I’ll be just fine.” As I made my way up the stairs over the dunes, the hot tears spilled down my cheeks.

It’s been a year, today, since I left Mom’s memory there on the beach. I’ve pictured here there in the sun many times over the past year. The memory of that imaginary scene has given me great comfort. When it came time to plan this year’s vacation, I knew that I must return.

We arrived Saturday evening after dark. I woke up the following morning, planning to watch the sun came up, but I burrowed deeper into the covers instead. When I finally made it down to Mom’s spot later that morning, there was a family there, catching tiny crabs in the rocks. I didn’t talk to Mom. Instead I joined the hunt for tiny crabs, and then I walked along the beach and picked up the most beautiful sea shells I could find. Some were broken, but mostly they were intact – whole and beautiful – a far cry from my ‘haul” last year.

This morning I finally made it to the beach before the sun rose. It was magical. I ran 4 miles. I ran along the tide line. A wake surprised me and got my shoes soaking wet and I didn’t even care. I was having a wonderful time. I kept running in my squishy shoes, singing along to my music and telling every passerby “Good morning,” or “Merry Christmas.”

My favorite song came on my playlist and I danced a little. I made it back to “Mom’s spot.” I took a reed that I found in the rocks and drew a picture in the sand and took a photograph. I told myself that my year of grieving was over. I sat in “our” spot, ready to talk to Mom and tell her that I was okay and then, like the wave that had soaked my running shoes, a rogue wave of grief hit me. It was the knock you on your butt, throat-punch kind of grief that hits out of nowhere and it left me a little breathless for a moment. I sat on the big rock and just let the tears flow. I felt a tingling on my right hand, and I heard my mom tell me, “I told you I would be just fine.” I smiled through hot tears.

Just as the wave that soaked my running shoes receded back into the sea, the rogue wave of emotion slipped away. It ebbed and flowed as I sat there, listening to Mom. She told me, “I’m still Mary Christmas, and now Franny Claus is here too,” referencing nicknames that she and her sister, who just joined her in Heaven last month used during the holidays.

I know that Mom’s not on the beach in her chair anymore. This next year I imagine that I will think of her trying to roller skate on streets of gold and fishing in a beautiful lake in Heaven’s version of the Swiss Alps that she always wanted to visit and never had the chance.

I made my way back to the campground where husband and man child were waking up. Husband saw me and asked if I was okay. The answer was “I’m fine. I’m happy sad.” He knew what I meant.”

When I drew “Joy” in the sand, I set an intention to live more joyfully. I had no way to know that seconds later I would be weeping. I read somewhere that grief is a gift. In order to grieve, we must first have loved. Oh, how I loved.

Although I’ve cried intermittently since that episode this morning, my heart is not sad. I’m smiling through the tears. I got the distinct feeling that when I go back to the beach tomorrow, it’s going to be just me and the seagulls and the other “morning people.” I don’t have to drive 1100 miles next Christmas to talk to my mom.

To my friends who are hurting this Christmas, “you are not alone.” Honor your loved ones in the way that gives you the most comfort. There’s no right way to grieve or wrong way to grieve. Grief has no timeline.

I’m still intending to live the next year joyfully. Joy and grief can co-exist. They play together quite nicely. I still love Christmas at the beach. Maybe by next year, I’ll learn to do a cartwheel in the sand.

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12/5/2018 – A Christmas Card from Home by Way of Heaven

This morning began with a series of text messages.  Texting is not my preferred mode of communication, and I don’t use it often, so when a series of “dings” occurred in rapid succession, it was a sure sign that something was amiss.  Indeed, My Aunt Fran went to heaven this morning.

I sent a short message of condolence to my cousin and read the same from other cousins as they came across my screen.  I brewed a cup of coffee and sat in the quiet living room, not quite sure how to feel.

I grew up with many loving aunts and uncles, but Aunt Fran was a favorite. She taught Sunday School and Children’s Church.  She had a room in her basement full of little toys that she would give out as rewards for good behavior. For many years, she regularly cut my hair while I sat on a chair in her basement and she even allowed us to roller skate on the concrete floor.  Sometimes Fran would “kidnap” me for a day. Friendly’s Ice Cream Parlor was a short walk from her home, and we would go together and she would buy me a sundae that was so big that I couldn’t finish it.  Aunt Fran bought me my very first tea set, long gone now, but I remember it well.

Aunt Fran was a talented story teller.  Whether the story was from the Bible or from her youth, Fran had a rare talent for making even the ordinary exciting.  I particularly remember her re-telling of the story of David and Goliath.  She played each role, picking up smooth stones and putting them into a pouch for her imaginary slingshot, and then carefully fitting each one into the pouch to slay the giant.  A day with Aunt Fran was magical.

Mom and Fran were constant companions during the years that they shared at the Apostolic Christian Rest Home in Mansfield.  Each had her own small apartment just across the street the other.  Fran couldn’t see, and Mom had a hard time walking.  Mom was Fran’s eyes, and Fran was Mom’s legs.  They were a good team.  They complemented each other; they needed each other.  Even when Mom’s illness had progressed to the point where she could no longer truly care for herself, she wouldn’t leave Fran.

When cooking a big meal became too much for Mom several years ago, I began cooking Christmas dinner and transporting it to Mansfield, where we would serve up a feast in Mom’s small apartment.  We always invited Aunt Fran, and she always came down the hall, usually bearing gifts, which were often treasures from her own apartment that she no longer used for herself.  I use one such gift – a cast iron skillet – daily, and the lamp made of pink Himalayan salt glows in my study.

In the final year or so that Mom and Fran spent together, Fran’s hearing was failing, and her mind wasn’t working as before.  Last Fall, I was staying a few days with Mom prior to bringing her home with me because Mom had grown too weak to get herself in and out of bed.  She became very sick the night before we were to leave for my home, and I had to call an ambulance.  I called Fran’s apartment, too, but there was no answer.  Although I asked other family to let Fran know what had happened, she was convinced that I had stolen Mom away in the middle of the night without even letting them say goodbye.  No amount of persuasion by myself or others involved could ever convince Fran that I had, in fact, wanted her to know what was happening and even had tried to reach her.  As far as I know, Fran never forgave me.  I had never known Fran to be angry, but angry she was.  That night, I not only knew I was going to lose Mom, I lost my Franny, too.

Forgiveness is a lesson that took me more than 50 years to understand.  I’m doing much better with it, but I still struggle with forgiveness regularly.  It’s easier to understand it than to master it.

I struggle often to let go of the hurt that I cause myself with other people’s words and deeds so that I can just love them – unconditionally – regardless of if they apologize or even feel bad for their “wrongdoing.”

I struggle to forgive myself for the times that I fail – whether it’s the dumb thing I did in second grade, or one of the times that I failed so completely that people I love won’t forgive me even though I’ve apologized.  I struggle to let go of that pain, too, and just love them – unconditionally – regardless of if they return that love or even acknowledge my existence.

When I am having those particular struggles -the ones where I struggle to forgive myself – I slip into a mindset where nothing I do is good enough.  I don’t write because “who else would ever want to see it.”  I don’t post pictures of my knitting or of my teacups because “people will just think I’m looking for attention.”  I don’t play the piano because I’m rusty and I make a lot of mistakes, and I struggle to get on the treadmill because I’m slower than I was in 2016.  Forgiveness is the key to happiness, if you ask me, because letting go of pain frees up so much energy to just enjoy life and to just enjoy living.

This morning I forgave Fran for being angry with me, and I forgave myself for not foreseeing that my failure to reach her myself would cause hurt so deep that it would destroy a 50-year bond.  I allowed myself to weep, and to imagine Fran and Mom, reunited.  I believe that Fran, moments after her death, was restored to perfect health with perfect hearing and a sharp mind, and that she understood perfectly when Mom told her that I had, in fact, tried to phone her.

I made it to the office this morning a little late, but pretty much on time.  All day, my memories have kept spilling out my eyes and down my cheeks.  I’m not one given to loud crying generally, but my eyes have grown very leaky since I reached “a particular age.” It’s one of many reasons why I don’t bother with makeup.

When I arrived at the office, my mail was piled on my desk.  On the top of the pile was an envelope with a handwritten address.  A bright red cardinal appeared on the postage stamp in the upper right corner – a lone pop of color on a black and white document.  It’s said that the sighting of a cardinal is a message from a loved one in Heaven.  I saw a post to that effect on Facebook yesterday, so it must be true!

I looked at the return address and saw Dalton, Ohio 44618.  Home!  No matter how long I am in Vermilion, which I love, my heart screams “home” when I think of Wayne County.  In the envelope was a beautiful letter from a beautiful lady who has always been special.  We haven’t seen or talked in more than 30 years, but today, just when I needed a lift, her letter landed on my desk on a morning when I was down, not only because my aunt died, but because the stubborn needle on the scale just won’t budge no matter how strictly I diet or how many miles I run right now.

She shared some of her memories of my parents which I had forgotten about, but which flooded back.  She told me how much she’s enjoyed reading the little blog posts that I share.    She talked about my writing about struggles and transparency and told me that I make a difference.  She put a smile on my face.

I keep coming back to that cardinal on the stamp, and the idea of a message from a loved one in Heaven. The letter left Dalton, Ohio, a mere 50 or so miles away, on November 28th and arrived here on December 4, a day when I wasn’t in the office.  I didn’t personally receive the letter until I got to my desk on December 5- six days after the letter left “home.”.  The pony express would have been faster!  That dear lady closed her letter with “God’s grace and blessing on [my] journey.”  In God’s perfect time, a letter landed on my desk at least 4 days late, carrying with it a message of love and hope and friendship.  I feel like it also carried with it a message of forgiveness from Fran, and perhaps a “hi, I miss you,” from Mom, stuck to the letter with the glue on the cardinal stamp.

My friend from back home had no idea what I would be struggling with on THIS day on the day that she mailed the pretty Christmas card with the beautiful letter inside.  She simply listened to the call she felt to reconnect.  In doing so, she made a difference.  In this day of instant messages and texts and emails, it is such a thrill to open a card or letter and read a message meant just for *ME*.  Had she emailed, instead, I never would have received the message with the red cardinal at just the moment that I needed it.

It is possible to smile through tears.  I know, because I’m doing it right now.

Love,

Be

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.

 

 

How Do You Love Me? (Sorry, Elizabeth)

(With all apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806  1861

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

I had this conversation with a good friend the other day.  We both have spouses whose “love languages” differ from our own.  It’s so very easy to get caught up in mentally listing all of the ways that we show love to our significant others.  On a regular basis, I show love by saying it (words of affirmation), and by reaching out to rub a back or hold a hand (loving touch).  I cook dinner on a regular basis (acts of service), and I buy little remembrances (gifts).  Over time, my primary love language has shifted from “gifts” to “words” or “touch.”   (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, pick up a copy of Dr. Gary Chapman’s wonderful book, “The Five Love Languages.”  In a nutshell, we each have ways that we tend to express love.  We feel most loved when we receive love in our own “language.”

When a couple speaks different “love languages,” it’s easy for one or the other to feel taken for granted.  That’s where I think we get into trouble sometimes.  Instead of recognizing the things our partner does for us, we keep a list of the things that we do that “go unappreciated.”  Or worse, we keep a mental list of what we’ve done for others expecting them to reciprocate in kind, and we miss it when they express love in their own way.

My husband is an “acts of service” guy through and through.  He does the laundry and cleans up the kitchen.  He mows the lawn, builds things, paints rooms, and makes coffee.  There is literally nothing that I have ever asked him to do for me that he has flatly refused to do for me.  He does these things because they need to be done, but HE does them because he loves me and because they free up my time to do other things (like help run the family business, or write in my blogs).

My husband is not big on gifts, which caused a big problem early in our marriage.  I felt unloved when I didn’t get my birthday, anniversary or valentine’s gift – especially because I invariably would buy one for him.  what was even worse was that instead of getting excited about the gift, he acted like he could have not cared less (which truth be told, was often true!)  It wasn’t until I read The Five Love Languages that I realized why he didn’t “care enough” to buy me gifts and why it hurt me so when he didn’t.  We learned to adapt.  I either buy my own gift or give him a list to choose from.

How does he love me?  This weekend he hung an antique mirror for me.  He installed shelving in the pantry.  He helped me clean the house on Friday evening.  On Saturday, he went for groceries with me.  On Sunday, he worked very hard putting things away for winter and cleaning while I had fun doing some recreational shopping.  He also told me that he loves me.  He wrapped his arms around me while I slept.  He made the coffee.  The list goes on and on.

Here in Ohioland it was Sweetest Day on Saturday (for those of you in other parts of the country, that’s like a bonus Valentine’s Day- it’s a flowers and candy and fancy dinner kind of holiday).  We talked about the fact that Saturday was Sweetest Day on Wednesday or Thursday.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  Saturday is Sweetest Day – I know you think it’s a Hallmark holiday, right?

Him:  Yes.  I do.  I will buy you something if you want me to.

Me:  That’s okay – I’ll find something for myself.  Is that okay?

Him:  That’s perfect.

My sweetest day gift consisted of chocolate and a wonderful bar of sweet smelling french-milled soap – my favorite indulgences.

Once in a while, he surprises me and picks out a gift for me, and when he does, he knocks one out of the park.  The gifts are perfect every time.  In the meantime, I will count the ways he shows me he loves me, and forget about keeping score.