Category Archives: Reflections

On Choosing Life

 

 
After three years, and several “phases” of lingering at the love room door with my aunt, I began to lean forward instead of backward. I still loved our time together, was still paying attention to, and grateful for, little whispers of her presence. And yet – I began to feel a need to lift up out of the fog of grief. I needed a life. I was, after all, still here. I spent time reading about what others had experienced of loss and holding on, and letting go. The following is a little letter written at the beginning of the fourth year without my aunt.

1/31/14
Lately I’m reading more memoirs of grief to see what people have said about this rarefied time when we (those of us left behind, and what’s left of our beloveds) still show up, somehow together, still hanging on.

There are some interesting observations: sleep changes (check); dry mouth (check); sinus issues (all those tears, waiting to be shed); and a “romance” with the lost one, so much brighter than the prickly, tedious chore of loving someone who’s alive. Well…I guess I have been doing that with you, with all these little notes left at the love-room door.

But what is real, anyway? Even the sharpest intellect, the bravest soul, might feel the presence of the beloved after they’re gone. Isn’t the web we make together real? Isn’t the rupture a loss? Wouldn’t part of us still be intertwined, and regret the tearing away?

Another note – that the more people who share the loss, the gentler it becomes. There are more folks to hold up the “presence,” and the absence, of the beloved. Could that be why this is so constant for me? I am carrying you, and your loss, mostly by myself. And could you be insistent on leaving a little footprint on a heart – specifically mine? Could you have worried you’d be forgotten?

One more important point – that the survivor, the traveler of that gray desert landscape, has to finally choose to live, to fling open a door, a heart, to what is still here. What courage that must take. But also common sense, for who could stand facing a whole life that was gray, drab, halfhearted?

Can I let the silky love-room walls flutter around my shoulders, catch my eye, and still walk toward what is mine alone?

I hope that your way forward, if such a thing exists, is gentle and kind. I hope you can settle into rest. I hope you are swimming in love – that gigantic, quivering sea that is so much more than we know. I hope you can see that I’m happy; that things are okay; that I still love the world, even though you’re not in it anymore; that my breath still sighs with love for you every once in a while.

But I am choosing to move ahead. I don’t think this will shut you out; but it could move me toward what we were always about – the deep and thriving resilience of following what’s real. I still want to live. I have lessons to learn, hands to hold, mornings to love. Skin and organs and thoughts. I am something you’re not anymore. Here.

On the Hard Work of Love

 

This morning, Bodi and I walked out into yet another frigid day. It was minus 16 degrees. It took us a while to leave the house. I had to snuggle him awake. And set out his food. While he ate, I put on silk long-underwear, my fleece overalls, a fleece vest. Then the full-length down coat was buttoned all the way up; my fuzzy winter aviator hat, pulled on tight. The woolen scarf, wrapped tightly around my neck and lower face, came next. Then, the insulated winter boots, with the bright orange ice-grippers pulled over the bottoms. Then I put on Bodi’s warm winter doggie coat; and then his booties. He’s never so happy about this, but he submits anyway. Wearing them, he won’t have to stop every few steps and hold up a frozen paw, or try to chew ice balls from between his pads, or lick away the road salt that burns his skin. Once his booties were all velcrod on, I tucked his package of snacks in one of my pockets, his leash in the other, and pulled on my own down mittens. Then out we went, into the pink snow as first light colored up the sky. It was a lot of work just for a doggie walk. But this is what love does.

It struck me that even after a beloved dies, the work of love continues.

In scrolling through the Letters from the Love Room book, I spotted the word “work” mentioned 120 times. The work of love. The work of grief. The work of holding on, and of letting go. The work of going forward.

So many times, I wasn’t very good at the work of loving Aunt Min. I had a lot of hopes, some of them based on fact. I knew my aunt cared about me. I expected to be pretty good at loving her. I expected her to be pretty good at loving me. But it wasn’t always easy. I wish I could ask her now, across the fading love room threshold, how she thinks we did. I still have some regrets – I wish I’d trusted myself more, and maybe set some limits on how much I did. I wish I had been able to ask her how she felt about being so near her end-time. Knowing my aunt, I’m pretty sure she was working at love too. In the last year, there were ways she softened, gave up a bit of her fierce independence and let me make choices she might not have made on her own.

These tensions and struggles and accommodations were not the best parts of our love room together, but I think they were some of the most instructive, and strengthening. They were the ways I learned about what it takes to be human, to be open and vulnerable, to do the work of real relationship.

In his conversation with On Being radio host Krista Tippett, writer Alain du Botton described this work: “Love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each others’ needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is.” And, he says, “we’re going to do out best.” This “acceptance of ourselves as flawed creatures,” is what love really is.

Psychologist Therese Rando talks about work, too, as a primary challenge of dealing with loss: “Grief is work. It requires the expenditure of both physical and emotional energy. It is no less strenuous a task than digging a ditch or any other physical labor…..Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable.”

In these years after Min’s death, the work of love has become intertwined with the work of grief. The work of relationship continues on. But it’s a luminous and rarefied work these days, not taking as much effort, tinged with the sweetness of memories that are constantly teaching me what love is, and preparing me for the work of continuing  to love the world.

Back at home now after our walk, I sip tea and make some notes. Bodi has licked ice balls from his fuzzy legs and is sighing into sleep next to me. The sun has slipped through trees and is lighting up the walls; the sky is blue, the air a bit warmer – up to 3 degrees! Oh, there is so much to love.

I am constantly being taught, refined, ground down, transmuted into a version of myself that can bear, and share, more love. For this, I am ever grateful.

On Forgetting

 

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll forget you. Certainly, my memories have changed some, shifted with time. I can’t quite recall exactly how you sounded when I talked with you, or how it felt to hug your little bird-like body close to my heart. And I’m afraid of that. Afraid of losing all that I have left. I wonder where you are now, though the question feels too tender and scary to ask. Still, there’s something I trust about our togetherness that overrides the fear. Even this cold morning, you were there.

12/17/17
This morning I walked out into the cold but glowing early day. It was only 4 degrees as light started to seep into the sky. I was bundled up, hurrying to stay warm, but then had to stop and stare. I was captured by the “glow” – the clear sky just shrugging off darkness, the first rosy- lavender blush of light, the snow lit up all around me. The air, the colors, so rarefied and pure.

At the lake, the whole big stretch of snow-covered ice was white. Ducks crowded at the little stream where it poured into the lake, the only open and moving water left. Mallards and mergansers jockeyed for space, sharing body-warmth. Steam puffed up from the water all around them.

I thought about moving away – about seeking out warmth and easier winters, and how much I’d miss this rare and quiet light, the cold wonders of an early winter day in Maine. And about how some things get inside us, become part of who we are. So that no matter where I go, or how long I stay away, these winter mornings walking through snow, stunned by first light blushing over the world, have seeped into my cells, taken residence in my heart.

I am forever marked by the wonder. I may move away, but I can never forget. Just like I’ve been stamped by the wretched mysterious impossibility of losing you, and of the happy sweetness of having been close while you were still here.

Small Bits of Happiness

 

Ultimately, grief never “wins.” No matter how wrenching the loss, how impossible it feels to navigate the new territory of a world without our beloveds, joy always brings us back home. We are made for wonder, made for joy. And it will capture us for small moments, bringing us back to life.

The following are two little “happiness” moments that recently captured me.

 

11/29/17
A glorious walk this afternoon with Mary Lou and our dogs. We start out in sunny warmth, then smudgy glowering clouds roll in, spit snow and rain. The sky is a patchwork of light and dark.  And the dogs are wild. Gatsby finds an old tennis ball, and rolls over and over and over it, his short 12-year-old legs pumping the air. He is having so much fun. And Bodi runs off through the fields and into woods, comes back much later licking his chops, having eaten something dead and disgusting. The dogs are old, but they can still have fun.

Mary Lou and I laugh at the vagaries of aging, so many things falling apart! We laugh at our cuckoo dogs who glory over disgusting things to eat, or old rotten tennis balls, getting as smelly as possible, and how much work it will be to clean them up.

The land is sear – the beaten grasses flaxen in a new and whipping wind – the hills sooty, the fields wide open. The dogs run as we laugh, chasing each other in loopy circles. All of us are crazed with the sheer beauty of it all. All of us are happy-wild.

 

12/3/17 evening
Bodi and I walk out in the near-dark after sunset. There is still a tinge of light, but all the colors have bled out of this day. The road is silent under the starlit sky. Orion, the Dipper, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades hang overhead, waiting for the moon. The ragged winter-beaten grass crunches under our feet.

We feed the horses apples as the Great Moon slips above the horizon. There is no sound but us – the horses, huffing and crunching and stomping the ground; Bodi peeing on the fence post; my breath, puffing up toward the moon. Bodi and I walk back across the field in its light. It feels like swimming in silver.

I am just another animal, making my way through the silver-blue secrets of a big-moon night – the horses and Bodi and I, finding our way, watching our feet move over the colorless ground.

We are beheld, beloved and moon-blessed and stunned. What more could we want? What more could any of us want?

All These Familiar Things

 

On a recent trip to Louisiana, I found more links to family, and place. Over several years of going back, grief has softened some with these renewed connections. Even though my aunt is gone, even though so many people are gone, they linger all around me. The following is a little journal entry from my latest visit.

 

9/23/17 a.m.

A longish and good and sweet walk on the levee in early morning heat.

So many things are familiar – hawks, scolding from the woods; little blue herons, sinking down into a damp field; the muskrat hole in the muddy bank of a ditch; white silky-petaled mallows blooming all along the batture edge; rising sun shining on water in the low woods. And heat – the suffocating, clinging, womb-warm, prickling heat. Cicadas drone in trees. A few walkers nod greetings on this early morning.

Here I am, again, stricken with the spell of such longing and sweet love – my body so happy; my bones and skin and organs so surprisingly at home. Here, I was so welcomed and loved, just because I was born. I am swamped with a cellular happiness, a visceral and maybe even genetic joy. For so many years, so many generations, this is where we’ve belonged.

All my people
have sprouted up here.
All my people rise up inside me,
and feel so right at home.

After a while, flush with the heat, I walk back through town, and pass the old man with the pink hat who sits on the porch in his red flannel shirt. We wave at each other, and I imagine that he wonders about me – where Bodi is, why I haven’t been here for months. But he is also just glad to lift a hand and be noticed; to be remembered. We notice and remember each other.

Near the car, I stop to watch swirling vultures over the orchard woods – floating, turning, slipping away. Suddenly, a hawk drops down from an orange tree, settles on the emerald ground, looking around for breakfast, then sails back up into another small tree to hide. The buzzards come back, circling and shifting. I just stare and stare.

On Holidays, and Left-Over Love

11/21/17

For some reason, you’ve been close by lately. Just a little glimmer, a little warmth – like the pale winter sun slipping over the bed as I sit for my morning tea and note-making.

Have I called you back? With the book, and with all my thoughts as I get ready to go south for a while?

Are you peeking in? Do all of you who have moved on shift a little closer in the holiday times? Do the walls around realities and time – here, and now, and the past – thin a bit so we can lean toward each other fondly?

My mom so loved holidays. I think of her as I get ready to cook – her hands, chopping up veggies for a roux, arm reaching over to stir something sizzling in a pan. All those little chores my body remembers as I press a knife down on the chopping board.

And the phone call I’d make to tell you hello, see what you were up to for the day. I can still hear your voice. I wonder how long that will be true.

Down South, I know the Louisiana family will be gathering around. Some of them are working on holiday food baskets for local folks in need. They’ll be busy with details, then gathering to eat. You might be keeping an eye on them, too. You might know that they’re still doing okay.

It’s nice to feel you around. But I’m not sure how much I need you these days. Maybe I’ve inhaled, absorbed, digested, so many bits of you that you’ve settled into my cells, and I will just keep carrying you around. But it’s still so sweet, to feel you nearby. If holidays exist wherever you are, then I’m sending you much joy, Little Honey. You’re still a pale, warm sun I can settle into, and love.

 

On Loving This Tattered World

 

12/11/16 (late afternoon)

 

After breakfast in the motel room, then a little levee walk, I sit on packed powdery sand at the river and watch the water churn. I take in as much wild and roiling beauty as I can, then drive off to Spahr’s for lunch with my sister, where we share yummy alligator chips and fried shrimp. We chit chat while we eat. She tells me her problems. Her cats have fleas. She has fleas. The whole house has fleas. And her health is a mess. Both knees need to be replaced. And she’s breathless, again. And time-challenged. She said she’d call at 10 a.m. At 11:30, I gave up and called her. She was just getting ready to ring me up, she said.

 

After lunch, I sit outside in the swing and watch the bayou. The birds flit in and out of trees. A pelican sits atop a piling; I think it is a wood-carving, until it moves, rises up, to settle in another spot. Some egrets flap away.

 

An older man steps out the back door, walks carefully across the stubbly ground, takes photos of the water, the birds. We chat about the beautiful day. He says when he was a child, some 60 years ago, he and his father would come out here to boat. It was always lovely. But it was only this time of year – heading into winter – when they could get through the mat of water hyacinths to fish. It’s such a special place, he says.

 

Driving home, I think about love – about my quirky, snarky sister, and this gorgeous and piecemeal place, this tattered world, and oh, how gloriously, stupendously, I love it all. What can we do, but love it all?

On So Many Small Scraps Of Love

 

4/30/17 a.m. (in Louisiana)

You’re still around, sometimes. This morning the batture and marsh are emerald green. Crows circle on thermals. A red shouldered hawk sails up, then settles in the top of a tree, squawking. Gulls swirl around and over each other.

On my walk into town, I pass an old man sitting on his porch. He’s there everyday lately – settled into his over-stuffed chair, his small bag of bones flanneled-wrapped, a cap on his bald head despite the almost 80 degree-warmth. I wave at him, and he waves back. Most days, we see each other, and wave.

It makes me think of my childhood, of sitting on the old Hahnville porch with Grandma and Major, and sometimes you, your bare feet propped on a column, all of you commenting on who’s passing by on the road. Your neighbors’ habits so familiar you’d know who to expect, where each driver must be going – so if you needed a ride, you just walked out to the road and flagged one of them down.

You knew that place, and its people, so well they were like your own internal compass – you could count on them. That must have been fun for you, to come back from the anonymity of living in D.C. and Europe – and to settle right back in like you were one of them – which, of course, you always were.

I think about all the little bits of meaning we squeeze into the million tiny tasks of a life. Me, chopping stuff for salad before a big feast; my mom, cooking something yummy when we were kids; Nanette smoking meat and making jambalaya. Every movement an art, a body comfort, so many little scraps of love. If we don’t have time to savor all these small, tasty bits – to watch the red shouldered hawk sail in and out of trees, or to wave at an old man on his porch – what’s the point of a life?

On A Little Magic, Once In A While

 

 

9/4/17

Today is your 7-years-gone anniversary. I’m not sure if you even care, or remember. Maybe you’re beyond memories now, beyond any fondness for this place, and time.

But I did think of you.

All last night, it rained. The first rain we’ve had in months that lasted more than a few minutes, or a few drops. This morning, everything was heavy and dripping. Renewed.

And the sky was stupendous – blue, with layers and layers of clouds. A dark smudgy background of flat, unmoving clouds, with brilliant white-gold wispy clouds swirling in front. And the sun, squeezing through all those layers, lighting them up. There was something so unusual about it all that I stood still on the damp road, and just stared at the sky. Small winds curled the dark and light clouds around each other, the dark bit slow and steady, the bright wisps curling and swirling in a kind of vortex. It made me think of tornadoes, how they start; how warm and cool winds twist around and around. I wondered if the sky was shaping itself into something serious. Then the white clouds formed a kind of circle, drifted, then circled again, until after a while I was looking into a well of light and dark. It was like an aperture – the eye of some kind of celestial camera, opening, closing, opening, blinking. I thought it might be you, keeping an eye on me. A little magic, just for this day. You, and this sky, winking at me, saying hello, letting me know that even though things are different now – you, gone for so long – you’re still saying hello. I both thought that, and dismissed the thought, for after all, how long can you have that kind of magic and miracle, anyway. I’ve certainly been blessed, enough.

But it was sweet, and a part of me believed it – knew it was true – that you were there, sending love.

After a while, the clouds shifted, let go, and I could walk away. But it was pretty fun, to think of you there.

Now, in the bedroom, sun shines through the window prism and small rainbow bits slip over the bed, the ceiling, Bodi’s little sleeping self. And even though the sky is solid blue, I wonder if anyone else saw what I did – that special aperture, you looking through.

On the Twisty Trail of Loss

 

In a few weeks, it will be the 7th anniversary of Aunt Min’s death – I don’t know how it will feel, but every year is different. Sometimes, it feels a little lighter. Most of the time, I feel pretty good. I am so grateful to have found a new way into our family, and so grateful to have been welcomed. And I’m happy to have rediscovered, and fallen in love with, Louisiana. But there are still hard days. Sometimes, especially as I age, it seems that life is chock-full of loss, and the “job” of getting older can be learning to live “without” so much. The following are a couple of letters written recently to my aunt. (Yes, the letters continue, sometimes surprising me.)

 

8/6 a.m.
Thinking about things loved and lost: Mom, and Daddy; the Upper Ridge house; my daughters, and the ways we were together when they were young; the so-many things I used to be; and you, Sweet One. I still don’t know if I’m willing to give you up. How can I give up all the light, sweet honey that has saved my life? Does that come at a cost, that juicy, golden food? Possibly, if it keeps me going back to a table that was cleared along ago.

But I’m afraid to let go – what am I, without all of you?

 

8/19 a.m.
Its been almost 6 years since you’ve been gone. It’s still hard, even though I know I’ve moved on, at least a little.

How long can I be sad, I wonder. How long can I live inside the bubble of grief, where everything new and real and bright seems like too much trouble, or too far away?

The place I keep trying to run away from, to leave, might not be this town, or this state, or the wearied circle of the same old wonderful friends, but the small gray enclosure that the love room has turned out to be. Can love rooms pale and grow tired? Eventually fail to give enough nourishment and liveliness to support a real life after a while? After this long, long while?

Maybe it would be easier if I were in Louisiana, with our people, even though none of them is you. Or maybe that would be just another extension of waiting for you. Its hard to think that, for I so love and long for that nourishment – that sweet food of being there.

But….I’m trying to see…what it would take…to be free. Though I’m not even sure I really want that, if it means giving up on the light you used to be. I’m just tired of the not-quite-darkness – the opaque barrier between me, and the lively rest of the world.

Sometimes, the glorious wrenching love room seems so much more appealing than the drudging, gritty tedium of everyday life. But – isn’t it a dream, really? Aren’t you, now, just a dream?

I’m starting to get mad. I don’t know who I’m angry with – myself, or you. Maybe I’m mad at the world that didn’t offer any bright thing in my small childhood life until you came along – which wasn’t very often, just enough for me to fall in love with you, know there was something to reach for. So I did. And it saved me, at the time.

But now – what? I have to let go? How would I do that?