Tag Archives: loss

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)

he gave me a backpack, he showed me the way

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His last gift to me was a backpack.  A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room.  If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed.  Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.

How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate.  In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years.  I had more suffering to do.  I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.

Oh, and I have risen!  Nature has soothed me.  Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly.  From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.

a survivor

I have become preoccupied with survival.  The art of endurance, of strength, of balancing precariously between life and death and miraculously making it.  I pour over manuals to learn and re-learn wilderness navigation techniques, insurance against getting lost. I do presses and pull ups and push ups in the rediculously-early morning, a rehearsal in pulling myself up and out of impending disaster.  I lose myself in memoirs of surviving avalanches, plane crashes, sinking ships. I run down city streets to prepare myself for climbing mountains. I tie myself on to ropes and learn to climb on delicate foot holds, squeeze precarious handholds, and fall, when necessary, safely, gracefully.  I practice breathing deeply, so when I feel fear building up I can just as easily let it slide away, the back and forth of waves crashing on a beach then being pulled back to sea.  The study of survival is a preoccupation which eats up, in its various permutations, most of my free time.

My degree of obsession seems funny to me because I am already a survivor. I have fallen, bruised and bloodied, to the lowest levels and climbed back up again. I have lost myself in the darkest realms and found my way back to the light.  I have worked through searing pain. I have made it, am making it, again and again.

Survival isn’t an endpoint, but a gateway. It only matters if there is a promise of life beyond the blackness of the rabbit hole. Every battle needs its prize. So perhaps these survival exercises I perform in relative comfort are more than preparation for future challenges.  They help me relive the story of my life and unleash the wisdom loosely folded in the challenges and the failures and the victories of my past.   In the consuming rituals of knot tying, trip planning, pushing and pulling and repairing and strengthening, I am reminded daily that I am a warrior, and mine is a life worth fighting for.

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Anna’s Hummingbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, February 2014

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.

the harvest of now

It is a special time of year. The nights lengthen, and the earth gives up her bounty in a brilliant harvest.  Even the moon seems more generous, hanging close to the horizon like low hanging fruit.

Blessings are running thick for me these days. Last week, my writing was featured on FreshlyPressed and since then I have had hundreds of new visitors to my blog.  I am honored and I am humbled by the kind words from so many people around the world.  With a simple click from an editor at wordpress.com, these precious and unsolicited gifts came my way.  Thank you all, for visiting and sharing and encouraging and most of all for reading.  I hope you will continue to do so for many years to come.

A few days after my post went live on FreshlyPressed, a stray cat strolled into my living room, rubbed against my legs and claimed me as her own.  In a breath my household expanded from one cat to two, and I smiled, knowing the world can be full of tremendous, spontaneous joy.  And the following afternoon my father and stepmother arrived at their new home in the desert to stay.  I have family living nearby for the first time in nearly a decade. It is wonderful.  It feels like a wrong has been corrected.

There is a lot in pop culture about happiness- how to seek it, and how to keep it.  To me, it seems to be a blend of luck, suffering, patience and courageous truth-seeking. I had to suffer and lose in order to open my arms wider to all the joys in life. Today, things are simple. My days are quiet and calm and full of beauty in a million small ways, and in some larger ways too.   But to get here I had to speak my truth to my lovers and my friends and my husbands and my parents. I had to disappoint, I had to dismantle, I had to be brave. And I had to be patient, for everything circles around eventually. 

I can say with sincerity that things are good, life is good, and I am happy.

soupbone

Soupbone, my new baby