Glazed Over.

Crazing, they call it,
This fine lacework of surface flaws,
Brittle, tenuous,
Smooth to the touch.

These spider web cracks betray the fault.
Passing eyes may not notice
The mark of unbearable stress,
But it’s there.
It’s always there.

Walk a little faster,
Keep your eyes fixed on what’s ahead,
And hope that your forward momentum
Is enough.

Because when it isn’t
And your pace slows
And your heart quickens
And your smile fades
And your breath catches
And the fissures widen
And the dam breaks

That’s when it shows.

That’s when they notice.

9-30-14 RLP

 

 

photo credit Tim Regan

The Big Five-Oh.


Next year, I’ll be 50.  Half a century – you know, Nifty Fifty – ripe fodder for jokes about ‘Old-Timer’s Disease’, gag party gifts like adult diapers and Geritol, and paybacks for all the ribbing I gave my sisters as they reached that golden age.  

Fifty isn’t old.

Fifty isn’t traumatic.

Fifty isn’t the end of the world or the end of my life.  At least, I hope it isn’t.

But fifty is the number of years my sister Missy was given on this earth, and as I approach that birthday, my head and heart are filled with a certain apprehension – what if my life stopped right here?  Am I ready?  Would I fight it, or would I accept it?  Would I be strong enough?  I confess that because my sister Wendy died just a week shy of her 43rd birthday, I could think of nothing else when I reached 42.

When my sisters died, I was an adult, and so were they.  I am sure it is much more difficult for people who lost their brothers or sisters as children – I cannot even imagine, and I cannot speak for them.  Children tend to blame themselves when things like abuse or divorce happen; I suspect that they would also blame themselves if they lost a sister or brother.  I did not have that guilt; as a grown up, I knew it wasn’t my fault.

Still, the sad regret is there – the what ifs…the if onlys… the second-guessing…the replaying of events in my head.  And it’s not just family whose passing makes me compare my lifespan to theirs.  My friend Jon was only 32 when he perished in a house fire.  My dear friend Shirley was 47 when she succumbed to a pulmonary embolism (blood clot).  At each of those ages, I looked in the mirror and asked the questions for which I had no real answer.  I suppose this is a normal part of grieving and moving on.

Life offers no guarantees.  Today I talked with a friend about people who overcome extreme personal adversity, such as the loss of limbs or a grave illness, to live their lives not defined by, but in spite of, those circumstances.  We talked about how attitudes toward death can determine how we live.  We agreed that even for people like us, who do not live under the cloud of a serious disease or catastrophic injury, life holds no promises.  We talked about how life can change – or end – in a moment.  Can we ever really be ready?

So, at 32, with young children, I was grateful, but still checked my smoke detectors.  

At 42, I looked at my own family and was thankful that my sister’s passing would leave no children motherless. 

At 47, I thought about Shirley and how much she had done for others all of her short life. 

And when 50 comes, I will think about Missy and what a terrific grandma she would have been, and I will cherish every moment with my family.

Because sometimes, it feels like borrowed time.

photo credit tawest64

A Patchwork of Memories.

quilt
Memory quilt

5/21 Daily Post: Bittersweet Memories.
You receive a gift that is bittersweet and makes you nostalgic. What is it?

The monumental task of clearing out my parents’ home after their deaths was made even more difficult by the tragic circumstances under which we’d lost them.  Nothing was normal about it, and every little normal thing in the house just reinforced that.  What to do with the contents of a house that grew from small to huge as the family itself grew large?  Where do you start, in a house where most of their 55-year marriage was nurtured and against which all of our childhoods were staged?  We did our best to evenly distribute the “things,” the mementoes of youth, the heirlooms, the books, the spoons.

When it came to their bedroom, it was another matter.  Here was the heart of the house.  Here is where the window stayed open, even on the coldest nights; here is where the ‘workin’ things’ that resided in my Pa’s pockets would tumble onto the nightstand: washers; marbles; screws and nuts of various sizes; a bit of string or wire; a fuse; a flashlight bulb; a butterscotch candy; a hose clamp; a wire nut; some coins (he always jingled the coins in his pocket); and maybe a broken piece of something he intended to repair.  Here were Mother’s ubiquitous safety pins and headscarves and the jewelry she seldom wore.

My parents’ bedroom was normally off-limits when I was a child; without express permission from one or the other, I had no business in there.  I am glad that my parents taught us to respect their privacy; we kids always knew that while we were loved and important to them, they put one another first.  A happy marriage makes for a happy family.

It was difficult to dismantle that room, probably more so than any other part of the house.  Aside from the closets and dressers filled with clothing they no longer wore, there were memories stashed everywhere — everywhere: Birthday cards.  Letters.  Dad’s WWII memorabilia.  Photographs.  Reminders of the early days of their marriage and family, when money was tight and they scraped to get by.  Gifts that we kids had proudly made for them; baby clothes; items that they had kept from when their own parents passed away.  Each drawer, box, and bag spilled more memories.

When we got to the clothing, we knew that most of it would be donated to charity; however, there were a few things we wanted to keep that were meaningful to us.  Those of us who could wear Mother’s lovely wool coat or her favorite blouse were able to choose those things.  There were plenty of Dad’s heavy, plaid flannel shirts to go around.  The clothing with tears or stains that was not going to be given away we set aside for the rag bag.

One of our cousins, who was very close to our family and our parents, is a very talented seamstress.  With great love for our family, she offered us a priceless gift: she would make each of us a quilt from our parents’ and sister’s clothing.  If we would select the items and cut the squares, she would help us lay out the pattern and she would do the piecework, with custom embroidery.  We would select the fabrics for the backing and the binding; a friend of hers would do the quilting.

IMG_20130521_210717_361
windmill pattern

Each quilt (she made SIX of them!) was crafted with loving care.  We chose our preferred fabrics and colors and cut the pieces.  She helped us lay them out, and she pieced them together.  There were scraps of Dad’s work jeans; mom’s aprons; the daisy-printed sheets we all remembered; my sister’s blouses; a red handkerchief here; and a tee-shirt there; all affectionately combined to make a quilt that would warm our bones and our hearts.

The relationships we had with our family reflected in the items we selected to use.  Each quilt is an original; none looks like any other.  Each quilt mirrors its owner and honors its subjects.  Each is embroidered with a brief note of provenance: my cousin’s name, the date, why it was made, and for whom.  She made us promise to use the quilts, not box them up and leave them in a closet.

I have kept my promise.  Mine is no longer stiff and new; it is soft and shows wear on some of the seams.  Some of the squares were made with fabric that was thin to begin with, and those have now worn through, showing the backing behind.  I sometimes look at each square and sigh as I remember Dad in his flannel shirt or Mom in her headscarf; I finger the fabrics deliberately as my mind wanders down that path.

This gift was truly the most heartfelt and bittersweet of anything I have ever been given.  At once it represents sorrow and joy; fun and work; and family and love.

A Damned Stupid, Blubbering Mess.

open journal

Excerpts from the first year.

************************

19 Oct 8:45pm. 
Saw the therapist today.  I hope this is all normal.  Sometimes I feel I’m going crazy.  She tells me I’m not.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ll ever get through this.

20 Oct 9:30pm.
I wonder what my husband thinks?  I don’t want to bore him – if he asks me how I am, I guess I’m just the same.  Every day.  Nothing changes.  Will my marriage survive?  Will I?  He’s got to be tired of this.  I am.  And my kids probably wonder who I am anymore –  certainly not the Mommy they used to know.

22 Oct 10:10pm.
I always seem to do this before bed, don’t I?  What a nice way to go to sleep.  But it’s the only time I have to myself – and since I’m always thinking of it anyhow, I guess bedtime’s as good as any.  Any quiet time for me is painful.  Sometimes noise is easier – but I frustrate so easily now – I’m a real shrew.

25 Oct 9:15pm.
Going to bed early tonight.  Hope it helps.  I’m always so tired.  The therapist says grieving is hard work and wears you out.  I agree.  I could stay in bed all day most of the time if I had the chance.
Mom, I can hardly stand it without you.
Dad, I miss you so much — I try to hear your voice in my head so I don’t forget what it sounds like.  I am so terrified that I will.
Wendy, it feels so awful to lose you — you were so young and full of life — I wanted you to grow old with me and still be shuffling in the kitchen and ‘popping’ your cheek.

27 Oct Weds pm.
I didn’t work today.  Guess I tripped and fell.  I’m a mess.  A damned stupid, blubbering mess.  I’m so tired.  Maybe I’m coming down with something.  Isn’t it funny that my pen from the funeral chapel fits so nicely in my journal?  Why is that funny? Boy, if someone reads this someday they’ll probably have me committed.

********************

It feels strange reading these pages again.  Almost voyeuristic.  Can I be a voyeur of myself?

Happy Mother’s Day, Momma.

Back in the day. That’s me in the front.

5/12 Daily Prompt: Hi, Mom!
Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. Wherever in the world you are, write your mother a letter.

Hi, Mom.
It’s been a long while since I’ve heard from you: 14 years and a couple months.  I can actually remember the very day, because it was my birthday.

Things are pretty good here.  I”ll try to catch you up.
Daughter Dearest is a good mother with two lovely little girls of her own; they always put a smile on my face.  The boys are fine young men; I’m sure you’d be proud of them.  One’s in college and the other graduates high school next month.  They all have the world at their feet.  I love that they have the same sense of humor you have — silly and smart.  They sing songs and change the words for fun.  They make up words and aren’t afraid to make fun of themselves.  And they have good hearts, all of them.  They have compassion and kindness and respect for other people.

I wonder how you managed with all of us, your ‘passel of kids.’  Sure, the older ones helped a lot with the younger ones, but you still had to supervise and make sure the household ran as smoothly as possible.  You cooked our hot breakfasts, the wonderful homemade soups, the freshly-baked breads and pies, and my personal favorite: the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  What I wouldn’t give for a nice Sunday dinner at Mom’s.

Now that I’m older, I can appreciate your sacrifices so much more.  Some of them I never knew, but that was your way.  You always worked behind the scenes, talking to Dad on our behalf, fixing things, and helping us along.  Your own dreams were replaced by the dreams of your children; you wanted nothing more than for us to be healthy, happy, and kind.  You taught us to be thankful for the life we have, to work hard, and to keep a song in our hearts.

My mother on my wedding day.
My mother on my wedding day.

We all come to the point in our lives where we look or sound like our parents.  I remember you talking about that.  I laugh when it happens to me, when I cry out in frustration, “Oh, peanuts, popcorn, and Cracker Jack!”  Or when I hear a song on the radio and sing your lyrics instead.  Or when I stand at the stove with my hand on my hip and realize that I must look exactly like you from behind.

Oh, and I have a confession: yes, it was I who dug down into the chest freezer for those tubs of frozen berries.  I would only take a few at a time, so nobody would notice, and I’d replace the tub where I had found it.  They were so good, I couldn’t help myself.  Yes, it was I who found those large packs of Wrigley gum that Dad had confiscated from my sisters and stole one piece at a time — again, so nobody would notice.  Yes, I smoked cigarettes out my bedroom window.  I thought I was getting away with it until my sister found the butts and turned me in.  Well, that and the small burn in the window sheers.

I know I was a mouthy brat as a kid.  That hasn’t changed much.
What also hasn’t changed, and never will, is my love and respect for you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

wreath 3-15-00 cropped
Rest in peace, Momma.

 

Help! Help!

help me

Having dinner last night with friends, and Mr. Stuck declares that on Saturday night, I must have been having a bad dream, because I was yelling, “Help! Help!” in my sleep.  I don’t remember doing it, and I don’t remember the dream, thankfully.  When I yell like that, I’m normally struggling or fighting against the dream, and the yell comes out despite the strangling paralysis of sleep.

Mr. Stuck says, “It’s not a good way to wake up, let me tell you.”

I was afraid of this.  Opening that journal opened up the corresponding emotions that had settled like silt on the floor of my heart.  Now they are stirred up, and God only knows what will come of that.

photo credit UmmZ

The Grief Journal

journal60

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.
~ William Shakespeare

 

I found my grief journal the other day.

You would not think much of it if you saw it: a nondescript brown book with a small illustration on the cover. It is not very big, but it holds a whole lot of me.

When I bought the book in happier times, its intended use was journaling, which is exactly like blogging, only different. 😉  I never got around to using it that way, and it sat, unopened, for a long time.

In a rare moment of lucidity during my worst times, I decided that I should find the book and use it. I eyed it warily for a long while, not sure if I was really ready to put pen to paper. It seemed like more of a commitment than I could handle. My head was so messed up that I was not sure what to do from one day to the next.

It was difficult at first to write what I felt. I never had had trouble doing that before, but this time was different. I tried to reserve for myself a few moments before I went to sleep to jot down the day’s events and feelings. I thought that would be sufficient. I did not expect entries to ramble for several pages, and I did not anticipate struggling to express myself, but both were common.

Sometimes I would skip weeks at a time because what I was feeling was the same — every hour, every day, every week. Why write it down?

‘Today I was miserable. Again. Cried. Again. I hate my life. Still.’

Other times, I filled the pages with my dreams and nightmares. I wrote about family dynamics and how they changed; I wrote about how I felt like an observer in my own life; I wrote about how helpless and hopeless I felt.

I also wrote about Mr. Stuck and about how his love and support kept me afloat when I was sure I was drowning. I wrote about how grateful I was to him for standing by me in the worst of times. I wrote that if I could get through this – if we could get through this – nothing could tear us apart. I know not everyone has someone like him in their lives, and that is a shame, because he was the one who kept me from stepping off into that abyss. I would not be where I am today without him.

Reading that journal brings many hard memories back. It is difficult to read both in content and because my handwriting is very sloppy in spots. I can only read so much before I need to do something else.

I have wanted to burn that book many times over the years, but I am glad I never did. It gives insight to my journey. It also fills in some of the blanks of my memory. I never finished filling the pages; I kept the journal for several months and then abandoned it. In a way, I wish I had continued. I think I stopped because I was in counseling and I had a safe place to open up.

I will post some excerpts in the future to help illustrate my thought processes back then. A grief journal is a good thing for many people; it sure was for me. There is therapy in being able to form your thoughts and feelings into some kind of narrative.  Like they say, the first step in fixing a problem is identifying it.  At first, it was hard to find my way.  I could not put words to what was in my head and my heart.  Being able to do that was progress for me; it meant that I could name it and own it.

I see plenty of blogs out there that read like a grief journal does, and I am glad that those bloggers can use this medium to help themselves heal.  A blog is so much more public than a little book tucked into a nightstand; but it brings with it a community of people who commiserate with you and help you along.  Everyone has his own story of loss, of pain, of struggle.

With a grief journal, you do not know about everyone else out there who has walked through the fire; with a blog, you can reach them.

Everyone Has a Story – Here is Mine.

Saluki on 3.15.13 passes 3.15.99 crash site.

Amtrak Saluki passes March 15, 1999 crash site on March 15, 2013. Inset: memorial plaque.

 

“Take a deep breath,” she said.

Just over two years ago, my friend Bobbi Emel asked if I would be interested in guest posting for her website, The Bounce Blog.  Bobbi’s blog is a great resource for personal development and a great read, as well: she’s a psychotherapist in Los Altos, CA, who specializes in helping people cope with grief, stress, and anxiety.  I guarantee you’ll find something interesting and helpful there.

Bobbi and I are childhood friends, and when we reconnected through Facebook a few years back, we were able to catch up on the years in between.  When she asked me if I’d like to share my grief story on her blog, I was honored to do so.  So here is my story.

The article is called, Resilience: “Sometimes Life Hands You a New Normal.”

More here on Wikipedia.

 

photo credit Buddahbless  (Imagine my surprise to find this very photograph.)

Tossing and Turning: Dreaming is Hard Work.

Like a Bad Dream

The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to their dream.
~Joan Didion

 

I don’t know about anyone else, but I dream a lot.  All the time.

Many years ago, when I was a teen, my friend Jon suggested I keep a pad of paper next to the bed so I could write my dreams down immediately after I woke.  Eventually I got so practiced at it that I could barely wake, not even open my eyes, and jot down words and phrases that would evoke the dream later.  For years, I faithfully wrote down my dreams.  Most were odd, at least in comparison to Mr. Stuck’s, which are usually about hunting or fishing or something normal.  Nightmares were infrequent and most often the result of a television show or movie I had watched.

As expected, when my life went sideways, so did my dreams.  I was miserable and shattered during the day, and I began having nightmares nearly every night.  I dreamed that certain family members would die in spectacularly gruesome fashions.  I dreamed that I saw my grandfather tumble down some cellar stairs to his death.  I dreamed that I had blood on my hands as I rubbed my face, but when I looked in the mirror there was no blood.  My therapist, who used the Jungian style of analysis and dream interpretation, would discuss my dreams and nightmares with me quite frequently and ascribe them to the ‘mind work’ my brain was doing while I slept.  My dreams were manifestations of my subconscious struggles.

Right or wrong, I must admit that many of my dreams certainly seemed to be exactly that.

Those few that weren’t nightmares were often strange dreams of futility.  One dream was that my siblings and I were trying to raise my mother’s chair to get her in and out easier.  The others were using plastic plant pots, magazines and old cardboard boxes, but I used a stool and it worked.  In another dream, my mother and sister were walking arm in arm, just a few feet from me.  They didn’t see me at all, and they didn’t hear me when I yelled out to them.  I would say that most of the ‘good’ dreams had a theme of vehicles or a journey of some kind.  I was on the move — by ferry, by motorcycle, by bus, by plane.

Apparently, I was going somewhere, but in my dreams, I never knew where.  They always seemed to have an element of peril; I was lost, or falling overboard, or being chased, or stumbling into a scary situation.  I came to think of these dreams as my path through the fire.  I wrote down those I remembered and tried to make sense of them.

I have to keep moving, I thought.

The nightmares continued for weeks, then months, with similar frequency.  I would stay awake as long as possible so that I didn’t have to go to sleep and have another nightmare.  I would keep Mr. Stuck awake by talking, crying, and shouting in my sleep.  When it got to be too much, I went to the doctor for sleeping pills.  When I took them, I slept so hard that I didn’t dream, or if I did, I didn’t recall them, thankfully.  The pills left me groggy, so I reserved them for weekends only.

Rest was non-existent.  Sleep was merely a way to pass the hours of the night. Either I tossed and turned restlessly and woke in terror without the pills, or I was passed out cold for 8 hours and woke dazed with them.  But no rest.  I would wake up drenched in sour sweat.  The stress level was so high that I was always on edge.  It felt as if I was on the rim of an abyss with a mad compulsion to step off.

I wondered if this is what it felt like to go crazy.  I had known people from work who seemed to be a little ‘off,’ and some would talk to themselves or hear voices.  Was this what was happening to me?  I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t rest.  I was exhausted all the time, and not sleeping was not helping.  I felt leaden; everything was heavy.  My brain felt heavy, too.

I missed a lot of work during those days.  I felt as if I existed in a place between living and dead, asleep and awake.  It took a couple years for my nightmares to subside; they never really went away, but they came less and less frequently and they were more subdued.  I think it was important for me to go through that period; I do believe that those dreams came from whatever my psyche was working through at the time.

Looking back at the dreams I jotted down, I can see the journey I was on.

photo credit Keoni Cabral

 

I Feel Your Pain.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?

~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’

Sad

 ‘I feel your pain.’

Shortly after President Bill Clinton uttered those words in 1992, they became a catch phrase, often spoken mockingly or in jest.  Obviously, Clinton did not literally feel the pain of the AIDS activist whose comment prompted his response.  Nevertheless, it helped portray him as a compassionate person who had empathy for the common folk.

Of course, it is quite impossible to feel someone else’s pain, because we are all unique, and so are our responses to events and situations.  Two people can experience exactly the same thing but have completely different reactions.  We can sympathize by comforting and reassuring someone who is going through a rough time in her life, or, if we have also been in that situation, we can empathize, sharing our own experience with it.  Compassion, earned by shared suffering and the desire to alleviate it, is a building block of love and friendship.  It is a hallmark of caring.  You never show compassion for someone you care nothing about.

When you suffer – through injury, loss, or physical or emotional pain – you learn truths about yourself.  Among other things, you find out what you can manage; you learn to prioritize; and you attain a new perspective.  Life changes for you; you gain depth of understanding and a renewed appreciation for happiness.

Fourteen years ago, I skipped along through life like most of us do, concerned about my own situation: my husband and kids, my job, and my social circle.  I was healthy and happy, and life was good.  I did not give it a lot of thought because that is how it had always been for me.  I could not truly appreciate how fortunate I was.

In a moment, all of that changed.  Life pulled the rug out from under me, and I tumbled into another reality.  The truths of my situation changed, and I was completely overwhelmed.  My journey back to normal (whatever that is) started that day, although I did not know it then.

I stand before you today a different person than I was those fourteen years ago: a stronger person.  I now know that I can take whatever life throws at me and still come through.  My priorities reflect what really matters.  I am still on that path I started that day, but now I am counting my blessings, not the least of which is greater understanding.

photo credit Megadeth’s Girl