Category Archives: grief

no words, only beauty

I got the news– her father passed away.  Cancer.

The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces.  The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.

There are no words to comfort.  Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently.  It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.

I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.

I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how? I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.

What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty.  People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.

But there was poetry.  There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope.  There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds.  There were birds, so many birds.

The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.

 

Alan (4)

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water was everywhere

DSC_0336I remember the rain, the gentle yet relentless rain, a percussive background to your rattled breaths. You were leaving, and water was everywhere.  Tapping against the window.  Filling your lungs. Running down my cheeks. Even my dreams were of a tidal wave.

Later that day, the sun had set but the rain persisted. There were beads of water clinging to the body bag as you rolled from your home into the car that took your body to the scientists that could learn from you, and from the terrible cancer that never flinched.  One of your final mandates had been to hang  Christmas lights, and the lights stayed on continuously during our vigil through your final days.  The droplets on the plastic bag reflected the glow of multi-colored orbs, a million tiny rainbows glimmering in the darkness

Its raining in San Antonio today, two years after you died. I stand outside and let a few drops of rain kiss my face.

I have lost you, but still, there is snow and ice and rain and steam and babbling streams and crashing waves. I seek waterfalls in the desert, I soak in my bathtub in the quiet of the night. I breathe billowy puffs of air in the cold. The water still holds me, and and clings to my sadness with the light of a million tiny rainbows.

 

JANELLE MARIE SHINER

8/29/53-12/13/11

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a sweet contradiction

The holiday season harbors a sweet contradiction.  We gather around full tables.  We feast until our stomachs protest, until we collapse on the couch in a food coma.  We eat and we drink and we enjoy the bounties of the year, the gifts of our family and friends.  It feels good, so very, very good.

And it is a simultaneously a season of longing. quiet moments masking an internal cacophony of regret and longing and grief and sadness.  We miss the ones who are far away, the ones we have lost.  The ones that are gone, the ones that were never here. We want things to be different, we want what we cannot have. 

This Thanksgiving I remembered my friend, who died 17 years ago in a car crash. She has now been dead as long as she was alive. I was mourning her absence, feeling the echoing hole that her departure left inside of me so many years ago, and in that moment of missing her a turkey vulture soared above me, the Great Purifier. Call it God, call it science, but there is a mysterious force around us and above us.  Something which takes the dead and decaying and turns it into life, into that which sustains us. And in a strange dance we can transform grief into merriment, our losses into the joy and essence of life

Life is an undulation, it is a gentle swaying between the dark and the light.  A step forward, a slide backward. So we gather for another holiday.  We hold each others hands while old songs play on the radio and we laugh about the days which live on in our memories and collective recollections. We are sad, but our grief allows us to feel more poignantly the joys of what we do have.  We can taste the sweetness of pie and the tartness of the cranberries and we can take it all in, every bite.  In this way we honor the ghosts that haunt the quiet moments, but embrace the living, embrace our life.

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Ozark butterfly, July 2013

i have my mother’s feet

The combination of emotional suffering and regular exercise has given me what feels at times like superhuman strength.  I have endurance, I have grit, I can hike for miles on end. I ran marathons in my twenties, but this feels different.  I can dig down deeper.  I have removed the limitations of my mind, and I am healthy.  My body can carry me far if I get out of her way.

I spent last weekend hiking and backpacking 30 miles in the Grand Canyon.  It tired me, but it seems as though I could have gone further.  I could have done more. I wasn’t spent. But even so, the milage did take its toll, and my feet were blistered, my muscles protesting for several days after the trip.  The first evening after returning to work and to my regular life, I eased my swollen feet into the tub and did a double take.

I saw my mother’s feet.

Well, not the feet that flew around her kitchen, making dinner.  Not the feet that walked the beach in Mexico.  They were the feet she had when she was dying.  Puffy, tender.  Like a baby’s. I would put lotion on those feet and ease them into her trousers when she was too weak to do so.  I rubbed them when they were sore and set Epsom salt soaks to ease the discomfort. She would lean on my arm as she walked, hesitantly and slowly, the pain in her face evident.  I couldn’t cure her, but I could care for her, and every slipper I slid on her feet and every pillow propped beneath her swollen legs was done with a frantic enthusiasm of a daughter that had to do something, anything.

We got pedicures about a month before she died and she went to the morgue with pink toenails tipped in white. She looked cherished, and she was. My toenails have canyon dust wedged beneath them, appendages ragged from hiking, swollen due to inflammation from long exercise rather than a failing lymphatic system.  I think I’m far from my death bed;  I’ve never felt more alive. But still, if you squint in the bathroom , you can see them there, my dying mother’s feet peeking above the bathwater.

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Galveston, August 2011

She doesn’t visit me often in my dreams.  I don’t hear her voice echoing in the quiet. She feels far away, she feels gone.  But I have visions like this one, where she and I are a circle, an ouroboros. My legs, her feet. My eyes, her smile.  I am not superhuman. I am just a person, fleshy and messy and powerful and weak. I am living, I am dying. I carry my mother with me, and she carries me forward. Her death is part of my life, as my life was part of her death. We ended, and we have only just begun.

We are one.

released from optimism

I sort through the vestiges of a past life.  A fifth grade report card.  Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter.  Photographs.

I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles.  I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?

Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.

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Chacala, Nayarit. Age 16.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism.  I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.

But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement.  It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now.  I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.

The now is the only place where I find peace.

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Sierra Ancha Wilderness. October 2013.

 

the blessing of being alive

DSC_0043Sometimes, I feel as if nothing I do matters.  I have struggled and fought and I have failed.  Oh, have I failed, in a million small ways, and in a few pretty large ways too.  Some days I feel weak and worthless.  But yesterday helped me see a bit clearer.

Yesterday, I attended a memorial service for a patient.  Her name was Angie, and she died at 45 from breast cancer.  The ceremony was held in a garden space, where a stand of trees stood proudly in the middle of barren desert.  In this oasis we were sheltered us from the Arizona sun, still so unrelenting even in late September. Native voices and drumming sliced through the air, carrying our prayers of healing and sobs of grief high in to the heavens.  We honored the four directions, the circle of life and all its infinite passages.  We held hands, a rainbow of humans from all walks of life, touched by this one woman. Years of addiction had scarred the hearts of some, yet there, under the shade trees, there was healing and love and hope for all of us. We were united in grief, united in being alive.

In this sacred space, I received kind words of gratitude for the care I gave to this woman while she was alive. I felt her community honor me as a healer to the sick and a friend to their loved one. Her case worker and strongest supporter during the last year of her life presented me with a print of a dragonfly, a symbol not only of the community where she lived but as symbol of transformation, of rebirth. It was how Angie wanted to be remembered.  She is now in the spirit of the dragonflies. She is liberated and omnipresent and I believe she is still here.  In a way, her illness gave her the medicine to be everywhere and everything, to transform from a homeless crack addict to an inspiration, a visionary, a healer.

I felt some apprehension about attending the service, as it promised to crack open my own barely contained well of grief (which it did). And sometimes it is hard to accept gratitude. I want to cast aside the humble thanks of others and say “its only my job.”  But it’s not “only my job.” It is a blessing and an honor and a calling. I couldn’t save Angie from cancer, nobody could. At times I couldn’t even lessen the pain.  But I walked beside her, I was at the door of her final passage.  I was a part of humanity’s best side, the wide embrace, the soothing words that call forth light in the darkness.  I was part of an easing of her burden, part of her finding wholeness even while she was dying. I was part of a miracle.

We all know about the shadow side of our civilization.  We slaughter, we rape, we decimate, we wreak havoc on the earth. Sometimes, I can’t bear being a human, can’t face being a tiny limb of the global curse. But yesterday, I felt honored to be alive, to be a person, to be a part of a community wider than my own mangled thoughts, my own voice pleading in the darkness.

A single wave is meaningless, yet the collective tide can carve canyons and move mountains.

I am honored to be part of this mysterious force.

the lesson of Yellowstone

If you have been there, you understand.  You have breathed the sulfurous aroma near the geysers and gasped at the wildlife and crunched lodgepole pine needles beneath your feet and smiled, transfixed the intoxicating combination of the timeless and transient in this very special place. I was recently in Yellowstone with my family, and it is everything that has ever been said and more. It is that great.

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The visitation happened at the Mud Volcano. It was a relatively warm day, and between the geothermal heat and foul odors belching from fumaroles, it wasn’t entirely pleasant to stand near the features. My 7-year-old niece was crying from the bad smells, while the older girl, a Chinese exchange student, said wistfully “I wish I could see a bison right now!”

And then he appeared, a solo bull, lumbering towards the Black Dragon’s Cauldron, emerging through the steam from the mudpot. He approached the banks of boiling, murky water and stood silently appraising his onlookers, the only perceptible movement being an occasional swish of the tail. The chatter of the crowd died off  to murmur and an occasional, breathy oh, wow.  

His eyes were shiny, black orbs, and I felt as though he was gazing at my very soul. I saw myself as if through the eyes this enormous creature, a survivor, one of the few of his kind which continue to roam in the wilds of the American West.  In the act of releasing that which I loved the most, have been driven nearly mad with sadness. Loss has broken my heart into a million pieces that rattle like bones in the quiet of the night.  I am not often the stoic bison, gazing upon the loss of my kind with an accepting tail swish.  I am hurt, I am angry, I fight futile wars which leave me depleted and even more brokenhearted.  

But still, somehow, I am okay. And so are you. This is the message I received from the bison on that hot afternoon in Yellowstone.  Change is constant, loss is inevitable, and sometimes even the earth beneath our feet can feel unstable, volatile. Our vision may become clouded by the smoke from fiery destruction, the steam from cooking up a new life, a new beginning. Sometimes, our heart hurts. But in the end, we somehow find wholeness in our losses.  We have, as living beings on earth, inherited the legacy of courageous survival.