A Little Bit Blue.

Funny thing about grief: it finds its own way.

It barges in sometimes, an unwanted, boorish intruder with a booming voice and bad body odor, and forces you into a confrontation. You’ve barred the door and closed the curtains and turned off the porch light, but that doesn’t matter. It’s here, and it WILL BE HEARD.

I was minding my own business this weekend, trying to find my desk under all of the stacks of mail and paper, when I found it.  The Book.  It’s a nondescript hardcover, coffee-table sized, with writing on the spine and section dividers.  It is the book that was prepared by my family’s law firm to provide personal portraits of my mother, father, and sister to people who never knew them.  It was intended to show them as special people who were loved, who were important, and who are deeply missed.  It does a pretty good job of it.  There are photographs, excerpts from our depositions and testimonial letters from family and friends.  It touches on highlights of their lives and then devotes the end of the text to their sudden deaths.

I had brought it down from the shelf a few months ago when Number Young Son had some questions about the train crash.  Having been so young at the time, neither of the boys have read the newspaper articles or seen this book.  Their knowledge of the crash has come from me and their dad. I hoped that maybe the book could fill in some of the holes and answer some of their questions.

Of course I had to open it.  I just thumbed through it, pausing to read a few lines here and there.  The tears welled up and spilled, and my throat was tight, but it was more of a release than anything else.  Reading those heartfelt words about my Pa, my Momma and my goofy sister made me cry good tears.  But even those tears just drip into the void.

I’ve done that ‘grief work.’  Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy — it’s not. It’s horrible, brutal, cruel, painful, exhausting, punishing work.  It’s as tiring as hard physical labor. It drains every last bit of energy, spirit, ambition, and hope right out of you. It robs you; it takes you down to the raw nubs of your most naked inner self and leaves you with nothing.  I have spent way too much time there, thanks.  No need to go back.  These days, I have a sort of inner governor that kicks in when the going gets rough – it keeps me from the deep end of that drowning pool.

But that is not to say that I don’t mourn.  Believe me, I miss my parents with every cell in my body.  I miss my sister the same way.  I ache for their voices and yearn to be wrapped in their hugs. But fifteen years after the fact, the jagged edges have been worn smooth.  The peaks and valleys are there and the road is still bumpy in spots, but I’m no longer picking splinters out of my heart.  My sadness is a still, deep well.

So when I saw an item shared on my Facebook feed, a link to a post entitled Mourning My Mom, Before and After Facebook, I had to read it.  The author talked about how different it might have been had Facebook been around when her mother passed away in 2002.  I won’t summarize it here — you can read for yourself — but she made some great points and made me think about how we mourn and how people offer comfort.

I could write at length about my grief and mourning.  I could, but I can’t.  I can’t, because I still have some kind of block that prevents me, like that governor inside, from taking it too far. Self-preservation, I suppose. But that can be so frustrating, when I know that each time I write about it, talk about it, and read about it, it gets a little easier for me.  I really want to scream and holler and throw things and Get It All Out. Then I would feel so much better, right?

That’s a myth, though.  A pipe dream.  I could never get it all out.  It’s part of me now, and it’s changed me.

In the article, the author says, But grief is illogical. It never feels resolved.  She’s right about that.  I want to spit every time I hear someone use the term ‘closure.’  Like you can close the door on that part of your life, and it’s done.  Pfft.  Maybe there are people who can, but I haven’t met one.  I can’t close that door because there’s a big boot stuck in it.  Grief, that paragon of perfect timing, is not about to be shut behind that door.  It is going to show up unannounced and unwelcome, for the rest of my life.  When you least expect it, expect it.

I’m no expert.  I’m not here to tell anyone how it’s done.  I’m not here to wear my loss like a medal or trot it out as a trump card at the pity party.  It’s fact, and it’s my life.  Even my siblings, who had the same loss I had, don’t experience the same mourning in the same way.  I don’t want to carry it around as an excuse for what I do or don’t do.  In reality, it’s there; sometimes I spend time thinking about it, but most times I don’t.  When it was new and fresh and ugly, there was a part of me that wanted everyone to know, so they could understand the person pretending to be me.  I wanted justification.  I wanted reasons.  I wanted something.  Anything.

So I guess this is rather a pointless post.  I’m blue now, but it won’t last forever. I’ll pause and reflect and savor warm memories of the way Momma pushed up her glasses and how she answered the phone in her sing-song voice; how my Pa would perch on the stool in the dining room, peeling apples for the pies she made; and the taste of Wendy’s World-Famous Potato Salad.  I’ll wipe some tears and bite my lip.  I’ll think about what could have been.  I’ll wish I could wake up from this bad dream that’s lasted fifteen years.

And then I’ll be thankful to be as far down this road as I am, and I’ll pray I don’t have to walk that stretch again.

Thanks for listening.

 

 

photo credit perfect_hexagon

A Remembrance or Two.

photo credit: The National Guard

 

I remember April 19, 1995.  I remember where I was when I heard that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, had been bombed, resulting in the deaths of 168 innocent people and injuries to nearly 700 more.  I was stunned.  Finding out that it was a domestic terrorist act was even more of a shock.

I remember so many thoughts and emotions during those initial days; one morning about a week later, words came and I wrote them down.  I never gave it a title, just the date:

4/28/95.

From the soil of hate and vengeance
sprang an evil unforgiving,
Which sowed acts of pure maleficence
And death among the living.

It was in the hearts of cowards
that this wicked plan was hatched;
The result of their conspiracy
was tragedy, unmatched.

Broken lives and broken bodies,
broken spirits there abound
And for those who lost their loved ones,
broken hearts are all they’ve found.

In the midst of this disaster
stand the hearts and hands that mend:
Easing pain, allaying suffering,
bringing comfort and a friend.

It is through the tears of empathy
that we see beyond despair
And stand resolute and strengthened
by the faith that bonds us there.

If we think there’s more to living
than this brief time here on Earth –
If we look on death as not as much an end
as a rebirth,

Then the hope that’s deep within us
gives us peace and springs anew –
And we’re blessed with understanding
what it is we’re here to do.

Fast forward six years, to the horror of four coordinated attacks on September 11, 2001, claiming 2,977 victims and injuring several thousands more  Everyone knows what happened that day and how our country changed as a result of it. 

photo credit: PeterJBellis

Again, I was stirred by words that came to mind, and I revisited the 1995 piece. 

9-11-2001

From the soil of hate and vengeance spawned an evil unforgiving
Deep within the hearts of cowards it was hatched,
Manifest in purest malice, sowing death among the living –
A conspiracy of tragedy unmatched.

Broken hearts and broken bodies, broken spirits, broken lives
Heroes fallen, image burned into our minds –
Though grief and sorrow haunt us, human dignity survives,
What was rubble now becomes the act that binds.

In the middle of disaster, dust and ashes, twisted steel
We have empathy to see beyond despair,
Forgetting for a moment how detached we used to feel —
Standing strengthened by the faith that joins us there.

If we know there’s more to living than this brief time here on Earth
Then within us hope and peace will spring anew
If we look on death as not as much an end as a rebirth –
Then we’ll understand what we are here to do.

I remember trying to explain to my young sons about what happened; of course, there was no way to explain ‘why.’  I’m sure most, if not all, parents found it difficult.  You want to comfort your children and make them know they’re safe.  You want to keep the bogeyman and nightmares away — but sometimes, you can’t.

Number Young Son, six at the time, was frightened when he’d hear an airplane near our home.  There is a small private airstrip nearby, and we see and hear small planes on a regular basis.  It took a long time to convince him that planes weren’t going to crash into our house.  I remember Number One Son being very angry about it and wanting to hurt the bad men who hurt the people in those airplanes and buildings.

Time has eased the memory, as it is wont to do, but the utter shock of that day still rings in my ears.  Personally, it brings back memories I don’t want to entertain.  I pray we never experience that kind of a day again.

photo credits: The National Guard and PeterJBellis

On Love and Loss and Runaway Dogs.

Prince is such a good guy.

Had a moment last weekend that both surprised and shook me.

Our dear friends are on vacation right now, and they got word on Sunday that their dog, a handsome boxer named Prince, had run off.  The gate had been left ajar, and the noise and fireworks from a neighboring party had frightened him.  He is an old dog, half blind and half deaf, who is on regular medication.  We love that dog, so we went to help look for him.  Other friends and family members were already in the area, canvassing in a radius of a few miles from his home.

Mr. Stuck and I touched base with other searchers and then drove slowly around, up and down driveways and in and out of neighborhoods, calling for Prince.  We had dog treats and water and flyers with his photo and some contact numbers.  We spoke to several people, but nobody had seen him.  There had been a sighting earlier that morning, but he was skittish and wouldn’t come when called.  He was within mere feet of the caller, and he knew her — but he was scared and ran off.

As we drove around, our route doubled back upon itself, took us down unmarked roads, and would have gotten me lost had I been alone.  Fortunately, though, Mr. Stuck has uncanny skills when it comes to navigation, and he knew precisely where we were at all times.  In fact, as we drove down yet another dirt road, he pointed out a driveway and said, “That’s where Jon lived.”

“Jon?”  I said.  “Jon who?”
“Jon! You know, your friend, Jon?”

I was puzzled at first, and then I realized what he was saying to me; I realized where I was.  ‘Jon’ was my late friend Jon, who died in 1994 at the tender age of 32.  We had just passed the driveway where my friend Jon’s parents had lived, the house I had visited so often, in happy times and sad.  It was a big house for a big family; like me, Jon was the youngest of seven children.  The house sat up on a bluff and looked down over the water; it was a very lovely home, and I enjoyed visiting whenever I could.

I had Mr. Stuck drive past again, because it looked so different.  I couldn’t see the house from the end of the driveway, but I knew he was right.  He said, “It’s all overgrown now — it’s been 20 years since you’ve been there, I’m sure.”  He was right, but the address was there on the sign, and I knew that address — I had written so many letters to Jon when I was in college, how could I have forgotten?

The search for Prince was pushed out of my mind for a moment while I digested what I had seen and tried to steady myself amidst the onrush of memories.  How could I have forgotten, indeed.  I had driven past the main road from which the driveway branched numerous times on my way to our friends’ home, only a mile or two beyond, and yet I had never ventured down the old road to the old house.  Maybe it was a subconscious effort to protect myself, to save my heart from remembering that painful loss.  I decided it was an unforgivable travesty of our friendship that I did not even remember where he had lived, and I have been beating myself up ever since.

Recently, I had begun allowing some of those memories back out of cold storage after reading a post in Boles Blogs about Kaposi’s Sarcoma.  It brought back so much of the times in the 80’s and early 90’s where many of my friends and acquaintances became infected with HIV (called HTLV at the beginning) and subsequently succumbed to full-blown AIDS.  I don’t like remembering that time; it was harsh and ugly and heartbreaking.  Whispers mentioned friends from college and from my social circle who were ill or who had died.  There was a lot of fear and a lot of unknowns back then.

I remember the phone call.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and my apartment looked out over the water.  I was happy to hear from Jon, but immediately noticed something different in his voice.  “What’s wrong?”  I asked.  Jon told me that he and his partner, Carl, had recently been tested, and they both came up positive for the HTLV antibody.  “That only means we’ve been exposed to the virus, not that we’re sick,” Jon hastened to explain.  “We have no symptoms, and we’re fine.  Don’t worry about us.”  My heart was leaden with the news.  Nobody really knew about this ‘gay cancer’ that had recently been making the news.  All anybody knew was that it was taking gay men down with frightening speed, and it was not a nice way to die.  It was a disease associated with suppression of the immune system, which meant that any and all opportunistic infections could swoop in on someone who couldn’t fight them, and that person would die.

I was scared for my friends.  I read as much as I could about AIDS and its treatments, its victims, its politics.  People were (rightly) terrified to get this disease — a death sentence — which was thought to be passed along on dirty needles or via exchange of bodily fluids, but nobody knew for certain.  Families turned their sons away, friends no longer hugged, and a deep suspicion fell on gay men.  Blood banks clamped down and denied donations from anyone suspected to have been exposed.  Dentists and health workers began donning masks and gloves to deal with people for fear of exposure.

It wasn’t long after the phone call that Jon’s partner, Carl, became sick.  He could no longer lift his arms; he lost a lot of weight; he became very weak; and developed lesions.  He also developed thrush in his mouth.  It was horrible to see him wasting away, frail, miserable, and terrified of dying.  He had constant diarrhea and pneumonia, and seemed to contract any infection that came around.  His parents came from Ohio to Washington State to bring their son home to die.  They put a few of his things in a bag (just a few — they didn’t want to touch anything for fear they’d get sick, too), carried him to the car, and drove away.  They didn’t even let Jon and Carl say goodbye.

All letters were returned, unopened.  At some point, one came back stamped, “DECEASED.”

Jon eventually developed AIDS, although that is not what ended his life.  He lived a very long time in final stage AIDS, which was pretty rare back then.  It is difficult for me to reconcile my memories of my lively, wickedly smart and funny friend with his sad, final years.

Mr. Stuck and I spent about four hours looking for Prince, calling for him down many dirt roads.  On one of those roads, I found something I hadn’t been looking for — a hard little knot of memories buried deep inside.  Prince was found several hours after we drove home, safe but tired and hungry.

I will write more about Jon, because his friendship was a stalwart place in my life, and because he deserves to be remembered better.  He taught me many lessons through his living and his dying, and I am forever grateful to him.