Category Archives: Loss

Cancer in a COVID World

There are moments when the veil seems
almost to lift, and we understand what
the earth is meant to mean to us — the
trees in their docility, the hills in
their patience, the flowers and the
vines in their wild, sweet vitality.
Then the Word is within us, and the
Book is put away.

Mary Oliver, The Veil

They called her Barbie, an apt moniker for her given name. A real-live Barbie doll, she was tall, gorgeous, voluptuous, blonde. But she also carried herself with the elegance of a Barbara. Moviestar glamour. Dressed to the nines and turning heads. She made you feel important when she bestowed her attention on you. She was all yours. Her eyes held an almost mischievous twinkle, while her gorgeous, wide-mouthed smile lifted on one side only. Her laugh was sensuous, subtle.

Dad emailed on Monday. ​

“Good morning, kids. Our dear Barbie passed through the veil last night about 9:15 pm Seattle time. She never woke up again since she went to sleep Thursday evening. It was a very blessed and peaceful passing. No more pain and trauma to her little body.”

There are five of them, my dad and his siblings, stair stepping, like a single slinky, one child pouring into the next: girl-boy-boy-girl-girl. Trisha, Bill, Maynard—my father, then Barbara, and Pammy, the youngest. Maybe it was their humble beginnings, growing up with working class parents in a small mountain town, poor, but happy. Maybe it was my grandparents’ tough love or the necessity of relying on family, but whatever the reason, my father and his sibs are tight. Throughout life’s adversities, into their 70s and 80s now, they’ve remained best friends and one another’s fiercest champions. They have faced and conquered everything together.

Until pancreatic cancer.

The last time I saw her was six months ago when I flew up for Grandma’s funeral. Six months and a lifetime ago—before the coronavirus pandemic. The matriarch of our clan lived until she was nearly 104; those are some great genes I’ve inherited. At times immortality seemed a real possibility. I hadn’t seen Aunt Barbara since diagnosis, but there were photos. Plus I know how this disease ravages and torments. Reassurances from my family, however, emphasized Barbara’s resilience. Her spirits were fully intact, her faith strong, her smile as radiant as ever. 

Chic in a pale silk pantsuit and leather ankle boots, she wore a floor-length fur draped over her shoulders to ward off the chill. Still strikingly beautiful, cancer had chiseled her porcelain features into a sharp likeness, a sculpture of herself, without rounded curves. The gauntness in her face pained me, but when I wrapped my arms around her fragile bird bones, I felt the wracking of her body reverberate through mine, and the tears I would not show her collected under my closed lids. ​


I pictured a photo of Barbara, circa 1970-something snapped as she posed seductively next to a white Jaguar parked on the beach in Southern California. The blue sky merged with blue ocean. Her Breck girl hair whipped in the wind. With savvy sophistication, she embodied the beauty I aspired to in my little girl hero-worship.   

We spent days circled up on sectionals, recliners, and pulled-up kitchen chairs. Hours of conversation, catching up on years worth of life, reminiscing about the past. Barbara was there for much of it, though sometimes, succumbing to exhaustion, she’d curl up on a stretch of couch, unwilling to miss anything. Her husband, Richard would unfold a soft blanket and tuck it around her edges, pat her gently while continuing the conversation. Even if she drifted in and out, she was still there, dammit.

She was still there.

 I noticed with amusement through the waning of the hours that she wasn’t the only one who dozed. At some point or another, every one of my elders nodded off. With arms folded, chin dropped to chest or sitting erect and perfectly still, eyes closed. With opportunity, a head might loll back, the mouth open slightly. Upon waking, the process of re-orienting played across their faces. The catnaps obviously granted these septa- and octo-genarians a second wind, for their stamina far outpaced mine. 

Wiped out by 10:00 pm on my last night, I retreated to the quiet darkness of Aunt Trisha’s bedroom. Intending only to rest my eyes, I crashed hard despite the cascading laughter coming through the walls. Blearily I roused when light flooded the room through a crack in the door. 

I jumped up, seeing it was Barbara.

“You’re not leaving, are you?”

“No,” she whispered. “Just getting my coat. Go back to sleep.”

“But, don’t go without saying goodbye,” I said urgently, emphatically. “I’ll get up. I want to see you before you go.”

She eased the door shut with a soft click and I laid my head back down, fighting to stay alert. I kept my focus half-cocked toward the door, intuiting how like her it would be to slip out quietly so as not to wake me. I later emerged to find everyone still chatting leisurely around the dining table, except for Barbara. Richard had taken her home.

Time was up.

Tomorrow morning I’d leave for the airport and I knew I would not be back to say goodbye. Considering it had taken me years to make it up to Seattle from my Midwestern home, the crushing knowledge landed: I would not see her again in this lifetime.

Not in person, at least. She did appear in a small window on my computer screen. The lock-down birthed a weekly Monday family Zoom, a calamitous Brady Bunch-style cacophony of technical gymnastics that proved to be quite entertaining. Close-ups of foreheads, noses, and blank walls, interference and background noise, competing conversations both on and off the digital airwaves.

“Can you hear me?”

“We can’t hear you. You have to click unmute!”

“I can’t see anybody.”

“Can you see me?”

“I can see you!”

“Who said that?”

A scan of the familiar, beloved faces revealed our shared genetics. Dad and Uncle Bill, ruggedly handsome, channeled my beloved Grandpa, Shorty he was called, gone some 22 years. I compared my sisters faces with my cousins, finding the same eyes, cheekbones, smiles. Across the generations, across the country, we gathered in this virtual space, in real time, in a way we never could in a physical sense. We compared notes about work, school, developments from state to state, how we were all coping. We scheduled around Barbara’s chemotherapy treatments and she attended as many as she could, bantering along with the rest of us.

Between one Zoom and the next, she was admitted to the hospital in horrible pain. The tumors overtaking her digestive system had obstructed nutrients and were beginning to prohibit organ function. She’d been there before—deathly ill, touch and go, but she’d always rebounded. This time there would be no rallying. 

Even knowing the eventuality, it is never palatable. It is never acceptable.

But here it was.

Barbara found Richard, the love of her life, when she was nearly 50, when she’d seen enough of the world to know what she wanted. A devoted, adoring couple, they built a rich, beautiful life, though 25 years was not nearly long enough. They fully intended to ride out any challenge as they always did. Now, they were being told there was nothing left to try. Palliative care and end of life decisions had to be made and as excruciatingly difficult as that was, navigating it through a global pandemic held heartbreaking ramifications.

Visits were allowed, but only Richard and Pammy. The other sibs were too high risk themselves, and in my father’s case, too far away. Restrictions and time limits applied. My first thoughts were stories of nurses who, acting as proxy, held the hands of dying patients when their loved ones couldn’t be with them. In my mind is burned the stark image of an elderly husband outside the window of his wife’s hospital room, desperate to comfort her through the glass separating them. I’d heard of FaceTime death vigils, FaceTime confessions, FaceTime farewells.

Through my personal losses, I’ve learned the most brilliant epiphany of approaching death is the invitation to embrace life fully. The mundane becomes holy. The simple act of breathing, a gift. To love and be loved, a sacrament. 

For Barbie, and Richard, and everyone who loved her, the most significant blessing came when she got to come home. She would not be isolated in a sterile hospital.

She would not be alone at the end of her life.

Once settled, on one last morning of lucidity, she was showered with texts and emails and videos and songs from her large family. She talked with her siblings and gave them the goodbyes they desperately needed. 

On the small screen of a phone held close to her face, my dad told his little sister how much he loved her, then asked tenderly, “Barbie, are you afraid?”

“Oh, nooooo,” she cooed peacefully.

It was permission. If she could walk into the next world without fear, her family could let her go. 

She died on Sunday night. On Monday afternoon, our next Zoom began with the usual fits and starts as folks logged on, checked their mics, adjusted camera angels. Simultaneous greetings and conversations zig-zagged across the gallery. The geometric family tree took shape as new people blinked into existence in their individual cubicles. There were jokes about how Richard’s love of Jack-in-the-Box tacos required a detour on the way home from the hospital, followed by the question, “Jack-in-the-Box has tacos?” followed by incredulous laughter. There was good-natured ribbing from Richard to Pammy about in-laws who get into their fridge and overstay their welcome. 

Then we got down to the hard stuff. 

“What can we do for you?” everyone asked Richard.

“I can’t believe it,“ he said. 

“It doesn’t seem real,” Pammy sobbed despondently. She’d lost her best friend.

With minimal detail, they told us how once home from the hospital, they’d never left Barbara’s side. When she took her last breath, they were there. They said she passed three days nearly to the minute after slipping into unconsciousness.

“I’m so proud of her,” Richard said and rubbed the stubble of his unshaven chin.

His understated grief not only triggered my own, but the empathy I felt for him brought me to the ugly cry. I covered my mouth with my hand and let the tears come. Lately, my emotions are scrubbed up raw. Tender, like new skin. My nerve endings fire all the time. I feel everything without a buffer, as if there are no more desensitizing layers laid down with busy, distracted, numbing activity.

The pandemic has stripped me clean. 

This, too, might be a gift, though it hardly seems so when it hurts this badly. Everything shines with meaning now. Grief begs me to take it in and absorb the simple, extraordinary presence of love, wherever and however it shows up.

The funeral will be live-streamed via teleconferencing software, much like our family Zooms. Music, prayers, memories will be shared. A eulogy. A slideshow. Through the window of our computer screens we’ll view the service from our living rooms. We’ll reach out for comfort through the interwebs. We’ll mourn together while we’re apart which seems nearly poetic in its brutality. We cannot be together, even to commemorate our beloved’s life, yet nothing can keep us apart. The connection is stronger and resonates beyond any tangible barrier. It cannot be severed by cancer or COVID or even death.

At the end of his email to me and my seven siblings, Dad wrote, “Life is so short. Forgive each other. My parents are gone, a younger sibling is gone. Our lives will be over in a moment. Be thankful for every day that God gives you breath.”

In these moments I’m comforted, when I see beyond the veil. Brief, fleeting moments of unobscured truth. Nothing can separate us, for we are never apart. Not here, not now. Not ever. 

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Filed under Aging, Cancer, COVID-19, Family, Grandparents, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Pandemic, Siblings

Resurgence of Hope

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
and the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

I read once that Canadian geese are monogamous, that most couples stay together all their lives. Considering the brutality of life in this wild world, I find that to be an inspiring example of devotion, applicable to the human condition, particularly in our postmodern reality.  

My husband and I have, on day 13 of the COVID-19 quarantine, brought our two goslings out to the country for a change of scenery. This is our fourth spring out at the farm. Well, that’s what we call it. Although we raise no livestock nor harvest any crops, my husband and I christened the 22 acres we bought in the rolling countryside of Steedman, Missouri “the farm.” 

It was Steven’s idea, owning property, a dream of his for years. I’m not sure what shifted from casually keeping an eye out for good deals to hunting in earnest for a prize parcel. Maybe the fact our youngest would be heading to high school or the approach of his 50th birthday, but his vision became a quest. 

Property moved quickly and several times choice lots were sold before he could make his move, so I wasn’t surprised when he called me one Sunday from an open house.

“I think this is it, but I have to make an offer now.”

“I trust you,” I said, and meant it.

Still, a purchase that large, sight unseen left me a bit unsettled. It was his dream, I reassured myself; it didn’t matter much what I thought. I knew my husband worried about pleasing me, so I was determined to reserve judgment. We wound around a rural two-lane highway for miles before turning off the asphalt onto a gravel county road. We passed the stares of grazing cattle and a herd of goats that ran for the fence. After a mile or so, Steven rounded a corner and drove up the hill to park the truck in front of a green metal house and carport which sat overlooking a grassy meadow. The view showcased an open field sloping down to a small pond flanked by walnuts and maples and oaks. Spreading out from the clearing, thickets of woods covered the swells and ravines of the terrain. In the heart of winter, the trees were bare and the forest floor, a bed of leaves. I’d adjusted my expectations, but I could not have possibly known it would feel like coming home.

That first spring, the place greened up like Jumanji as Missouri is wont to do when a sunny day follows drenching March rains. Weekends found us driving out to work on the cabin, making it livable with paint and flooring and furniture. We slept with the windows open, the cool breeze carrying in nocturnal sounds of the wildlife that seemed unperturbed by our presence. 

A pair of geese made their home near the pond, and judging by their protective behavior, closely guarded their future family. One night we were awoken by horrible, guttural shrieks. The primal quality of the squalor struck my heart before my mind was able to identify its origins. I heard ferocious terror, the sound of survival in the endlessly shrill honking. Come morning our fears turned prophetic. A predator had invaded the nest and our geese were gone. We were left wondering if the parents had been injured or even killed in the attack, but we knew for certain, there would be no babies. 

The second year Steven built a nesting box out in the pond, safe and elevated away from prowling raccoons and foxes and skunks and out of reach of foraging turtles and snakes and muskrats. But the geese missed our offer of a safe haven and rebuilt their nest in the same long grasses on the bank of the pond. That year, our anxious anticipation of babies was suspended by the sudden absence of the parents and abandoned, broken eggshells.  

Last year, we watched, hopeful the couple would discover the stilted rubber tub, but it remained empty. Neither did they return to the pond. No geese, no eggs, no tragedy. But my disappointment felt like loss. Sadness filled the void where their presence had been the two years before.

This year, busy travel schedules, illness, and weather have kept us away. Additionally, amidst global crisis, we’ve submitted to the confinement that saw our 25th wedding anniversary come and go, any plans postponed indefinitely. But in truth, the lack of overt gestures and social pronouncements pales compared to the surprising gift of this pandemic: time together.

We’ve come out to the farm with our brood to hunker down, but also to expand into our wide open spaces. We play games and solve puzzles and cook food and watch movies. We have conversations and we take walks.

As Steven and I set off this morning, he stops me short. 

“Shhhh, look!” he says, pointing down the hill to the lull of meadow between road and pond.

I squint, shielding my eyes as I make out the silhouettes of two geese. The male stands guard, stock still. In profile, his head is raised, his long neck extended. He is a sentry. The female bends over, feeding in the grass. I bring binoculars to my eyes, adjusting the dial until the image swims into focus. Two fluffy balls hop near the mother’s feet. Goslings. 

“We’ve got babies!” I say excitedly to Steven, handing him the binoculars. “They’ve got to be the same geese, right?”

Lest we doubt these geese are ‘ours’ and mistake the sight for a mere coincidence, the father, sensing our watch, suddenly ushers his little family toward the safety of home. Mama noses the little ones along, scooping them up from behind with her bill as they bob and trot fuzzily through the grass. Daddy brings up the rear and disappears into the marsh at precisely the same place as the years before, where previously the nest lay empty.  

Tears well in my eyes, a daily occurrence it seems lately. I experience a cocktail of emotions: the resurgence of hope after loss, a resilience borne of grief, holding steadfast in the face of uncertainty. The dignity of the natural world teaches me a simple lesson: Life will go on. My mate and I will follow our instinctual path. We will protect and provide for our family.

We’ll be all right, I think as I take my husband’s hand and walk down the road into the morning sun. 

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Filed under Babies, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Loss, Marriage, Motherhood, Pandemic

The Way Home

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I went to church this morning—on my couch. A dutiful daughter, I spent the first half of my life in religious prostration, and then I left. But detachment from dogma meant disconnect from community and I wandered, people-less into my middle-age. In recent years, I sometimes sat, shyly, noncommittally, on the back row of a new church I discovered, an un-church. The Unitarian Universalists. 

The UU church, nurturing spirit and service, brings a solace of words and music and familiar faces to my living room via Zoom on this second Sunday of social distancing. Congregants come like moths to the chalice flame. Greetings scroll up from the chat box as joiners bask in the warmth of shared hearts and minds, if not bodies.

Sensitive to surrounding energy, I’m challenged at the best of times to recognize what is mine and what is not. I get that from my mother, I suppose, an empath who could not witness a child harshly disciplined in the grocery store without weeping. My body picks up stray vibrations like a musical instrument and amplifies emotions I cannot name. In this time of global crisis, the volume is deafening. 

Reverend Molly reads poetry. The words are gentle hands untying the knots that bind my chest, loosening the resolve I wear as armor. Awareness of my unawareness blooms; I’ve been holding my breath and I didn’t even know it. With room to expand, distress spirals up toward the open air and I am crying. Copious tears trace their way slowly over my cheekbones and drip off my jaw.

I cannot stop, but even if I could, I would not. This grief is my prayer. 

On day 8 our family has cut our losses, nursed our disappointments, regrouped, and hunkered down for the duration. Cancellations and interrupted routines require precarious adjustment. Intimately, we hover protectively over our own. Sydney, 20, with Down syndrome, who suffered a near fatal pneumonia when she was 2 is particularly at risk. Melissa, 35, is 3 years out from breast cancer, including the full-on assault of chemo. I worry that her immune system is not fully recovered. And Jeremy, 33, is a physician’s assistant, on the front lines, testing and treating by day, returning home to his wife and 3 babies at night. I wonder if his PPE will last and if it can protect him from harm. 

Our fears are mitigated by gratitude for good fortune and blessings abundant: the opportunity to work from home, continued income, food, and shelter, and togetherness. All shall be well for us. What I feel today is bigger than myself.

The overwhelming scope of collective human experience rises in my throat like a coyote’s mournful cry in the night.

I have become those who are ill and those whose very lives are forfeit. I am their loved ones who rail at the injustice of their loss. I am those whose businesses are failing, finances lost, futures uncertain. I am everyone who is alone and afraid. Boundaries and borders blur. I am more than the inhabitant of this one small life. I am everyone.

How can it be true that this intensity is not mine? I think perhaps it belongs to me more than ever.

For in it, I sense a seismic shift; the world will simply not be the same on the other side of this. And what hangs in the balance, could this be the answer we’ve been praying for? Might it be the transcendence we’ve searched for? The salvation of humankind? 

There’s meaning here, an invitation. As the centrifugal force pinning us to our lives suddenly stops, radical change isn’t only possible, it is inevitable. It feels like a reckoning, a nudge as we lurch and tilt toward a tipping point, hanging on by our fingernails, poised to cascade over the edge into a cavernous unknown. But in freefall, we grasp and clutch with fear only to find it is in the letting go that we are safe. And finally, fully alive.

Spirit of hope, help me.
I can’t seem to find my way back to your realm.
I’ve been wandering in labyrinths, running into dead ends,
facing down monsters, losing my way.
Ariadne’s thread only tangles my feet and leaves my fingers raw.

Spirit of hope, ground me.
I’ve lost my bearings on what’s real, who I am, how I got here, why it matters.
Unreality makes a poor compass.
I remember to look up lest I get caught off guard,
but such preparations mean little to a soul suffering vertigo.

Spirit of hope, steady me.
Maybe the only way forward is to stay still.
Perhaps if I rest my bones exactly where I am instead of
scrabbling for purchase, searching for loopholes, willing myself on,
perhaps the dust will settle enough for a path to reappear,
a path that needn’t be tended or beautiful, just barely discernible.

Spirit of hope, guide me.
You dwell in the turn around between inhale and exhale,
a moment of trust that pulls me into the future.
I’ve been looking for something more grand, more obvious,
more compelling.
Help me recognize the promise and the flickering signs of life,
of love, of hope.
Help me remember that my body already knows the way home.

Lindasusan Ulrich

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Filed under Breast Cancer, Down syndrome, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Loss, Motherhood, Pandemic, Stress

Just Breathe

Re-posted from March 6, 2014

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
I am, I am, I am.”

Sylvia Plath

There’s a stillness that descends on the hospital late at night, softening the harshness of bright lights and the sterility of hard floors. Sounds are muted and voices are hushed. Sydney is the only patient in the sleep lab tonight located at the end of a long, empty corridor. It’s dark in her room but for a night light and the glowing dots of the medical devices she’s hooked up to. I shift uncomfortably in the reclining chair next to her bed and wonder how I’ll make it until morning. It occurs to me that my father-in-law spent more nights this way than I can count during the fourteen months of my mother-in-law’s battle with cancer. It also occurs to me that the last time I sat in the dark next to a hospital bed was with him, the night before she died.

But here and now, Sydney is well. We’re only here one night, for a sleep study. Multi-colored wires trailing from the electrodes glued to her head are gathered in a rainbow ponytail and plugged into a large unit sitting on the bed next to her pillow. A smaller unit is strapped to her chest emitting various cords that coil and disappear under the blankets, connected to her legs and other body parts. The tubing for the cannula in her nose and a sensor that protrudes over her mouth like a tiny microphone tucks behind her ears and tightens under her chin. More sensors are taped to her face at her cheeks, temples and chin. It’s an alarming sight if you don’t know what you’re looking at.

My girl knows the drill, though, having undergone sleep studies in the past, the last when she was seven. She put up very little resistance then. Now, as a fourteen-year-old, she may have protested a little more, but overall, she succumbed to the awkward and uncomfortable preparation for the test without complaint, this ever-accommodating child. While I can’t imagine being able to drift off while rigged up like this, Sydney is sleeping the peaceful sleep of the innocent as cameras and monitors record her CO2 and oxygen levels, her heart rhythm and other vitals, as well as her gross motor movements. She’s my good sleeper, always going down easy and sleeping through the night.

Sydney at seven

Her first sleep study was when she was just a week old. Sydney came exactly on her due date and though we had no suspicions of Down syndrome, her birth wasn’t without incident. Labor came hard and fast, but since she was my third, I stubbornly paced at home awhile and insisted on taking a bath and shaving my legs before I let Steven convince me to make the 30 minute drive to the hospital. I guess I pushed it too far because once there, frenetic activity ensued and nothing much went according to the beautiful birth plan I’d created, including the epidural I requested. In between painful contractions I noticed a conversation between nurse and doctor and sensed some concern. When a neonatologist showed up, I knew something wasn’t right. In my delirium I heard talk of meconium. Before I could make sense of it, she was here and I caught a brief glimpse as the doctor handed her to a nurse who whisked her quickly away to a warmer. She seemed blue and for a few terrifying moments it was silent. There were no cries from my newborn, no talking from the medical personnel huddled around my daughter, and no words from my husband.

“Was she blue?  She looked blue to me. Didn’t she look blue to you?  Is she breathing?!” My questions came at him, one after the next.

Face hidden behind the surgical mask, Steven’s eyes conveyed thinly veiled panic as they widened and followed our baby across the room in response to my questions.

I later learned she was under fetal stress, meconium was present and they didn’t want her to breathe before her lungs were suctioned to be sure she wouldn’t aspirate. It seemed interminable, but after a few moments, she took her first breath and pinked up. Relief flooded my body as I reached for my baby with a primal instinct. A kind neonatal nurse, Leann (I’ll never forget her), brought Sydney to me, but gently told me she had to go to the neo-natal intensive care unit.

“We’re not what you expect,” she’d said as she patiently eased my baby from my reluctant grasp.

Sydney spent 14 days in the NICU. About halfway through Steven noticed her stop breathing intermittently. He watched her intently for hours as she lay in her isolette connected to a pulse ox, heart monitor, central line, oxygen, IVs and various tubes and wires. He saw her little chest rise and fall, then pause. Nothing. Stillness. Several seconds would pass before she took another breath.  Because of her daddy’s vigilance, Sydney was found to have sleep apnea and she went home on a monitor.

In newborns sleep apnea is an underdeveloped neurological issue in which the brain fails to signal the body to breathe. The monitor is a safeguard, set to alarm when no breathing is registered for an interval of 20 seconds. Adhesive electrodes stuck to the bare skin of Sydney’s chest were attached to lead wires that plugged into a bulky metal box. Not to be disconnected except during bathing, we lugged that thing everywhere for nine months.

Inconvenient?  Sure, but the reassurance was worth it. I had always checked my babies’ breathing when they slept, feeling for the whispers of air moving in and out of their tiny nostrils. Sometimes they were so still I’d wonder, “Are they alive?” and nudge them, relieved only when they moved grudgingly in response. With Sydney, the monitor was my 24/7 electronic sentry, always on duty.

Once off the monitor, we didn’t worry about her central nervous system regulating her breathing, but we did look for obstructive sleep apnea—not uncommon with Down syndrome—where a variety of factors contribute to air flow blockage. Like tonsils. Sydney’s are enormous and though not chronically infected, they nearly close off her throat when she sleeps. Recently, snoring, gagging, and even lapses in her breathing warranted another sleep study.

“Why do I have to stay at the hospital, Mom?” she asked me earlier today as we packed her pillow and blanket along with her iPad.

“The doctor wants to watch you sleep. So we can see you breathing.”

Now, I look at my slumbering little teenage daughter across the darkened room. When she fills her lungs, I can see her breathing. When she snores, I can hear her breathing.  But I can’t actually see her breath, the air that moves in and out of her body. How fragile this invisible, delicate stream, and yet, how powerful. The physical exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide is miraculous in and of itself. We are purified and nourished in every moment, taking in what we need, releasing what we do not. But more than the mere breath itself, there’s a universal energy that flows like a river through the landscape of the body and through all creation, connecting us with everything that breathes, the very force that animates the inanimate.

In all wisdom traditions of the world, the breath is sacred. In Sanskrit, prana, the original life source. In Native American culture, the Divine Breath, the divine spirit in all living things. In Christianity, God’s breath of life, breathed into man’s nostrils by the Divine. In Buddhism and Taoism, Mindful Breath, the path to enlightenment. In Hebrew, the Nephesh or soul, an animated, breathing, conscious and living being. In Sufism, breath is the source which keeps body and mind alive, body and mind connected.

Our constant companion from birth to death, breath is there . . .  until it is not.

I witnessed Sydney take her first breath and come fully into this world as a living being. I also witnessed my mother-in-law take her last breath and quietly ease out of the physical world. The thought fills me with a rush of profound awe and deep gratitude. Life is incredibly valuable. A gift in every moment. Every breath.

“Just breathe, Lisa,” I think, closing my eyes and turning my focus inward.

{Inhale}

{Exhale}

{Inhale}

{Exhale}

My mind quiets and I am bathed in stillness. It is here I come to commune with the sacred. Here, I connect to the source which unites all life. It is here, I find everything I need.

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Filed under Childbirth, Down syndrome, Family, Gratitude, Letting Go, Loss, Motherhood, Parenting, Special Needs

Love in the Stitches

The older I get, the more I’m drawn homeward. When the weather turns cold, my craving for soup on the stove, a fire in the hearth, and time to knit begs to be slaked. Chilly temps find me cruising arts and crafts stores, feasting on colors and textures of yarn, imagining new projects. Winter sends me digging for my stash.

On hands and knees with the bedspread flipped up, driven by this seasonal hunger, I drag out baskets and totes of knitting supplies, including fifty years of my mother’s accumulation I inherited after she died. Unlike my messy stockpile, hers is meticulously organized: stitch holders, markers, and gauge rulers, and dozens of pairs of needles—aluminum, plastic, wooden, double point, circular—all collated by size and labeled. Dog-eared pattern books date back to the 1950s. Her handwriting marks their pages. Expensive skeins of alpaca wool, unused, leave me to wonder at her plans.

I was eight when she taught me to knit, my first undertaking, a self-portrait: painstaking and earnest. My stitches were tight, my fingertips sore from pushing and prying the work tenaciously hugging the needles. Though rife with mistakes, the baby booties provided my first taste of accomplishment. Booty, that is; I never finished the pair. My mother lost the pregnancy when her fourth child, a boy, was still born. We didn’t talk about it much and it wasn’t until I was a mother of four myself that I realized the magnitude of her loss. I wish I’d asked her about it when I had the chance.

The last thing she made me was a pair of fingerless angora gloves featuring intricate latticework. With skills far surpassing my own, she remained ever my teacher, sharing new techniques like a sweater pattern with knit-in pockets, a gorgeous moss-stitched cardigan she made for her mother (a knitter, as well), who was newly widowed and alone. When my Grammy died, the sweater passed to me. I gave it to my daughter who wrapped herself up during breast cancer in three generations of maternal safeguarding.

With my derriere in the air, I reach past balls of leftover yarn to find what I’ve been searching for: a not-quite-finished, nearly-forgotten afghan I started decades ago. Comprised of individual squares with unique patterns of cable twists, tweeds, and herringbone, it is, in effect, a knitted patchwork quilt.

Threading the yarn through my fingers, I deftly cast on, sliding the right needle behind, wrapping the yarn and pulling the stitch through. Reading the pattern, I begin to knit. K4, YO, SSK, (K1, K2 tog, YO, SSK) 6 times, K3. As natural as breathing, the rhythm is soothing. My hands know the way. Like my mother’s: lightly spotted with age, blue veins under thin skin, taut tendons like a puppeteer’s strings making the fingers dance. When I knit, my mother is close. More than that, when I knit, I become my mother. I’m comforted by her presence.

I lay out the completed blocks. Placing right sides together, (unconsciously holding the darning needle in my teeth as she did), I whip stitch piece after piece together until a flowing blanket is formed, a mosaic of complexity. Like a lifetime, the whole is comprised of many parts; seasons of joy and pain, of blessings and loss, merged into a single work of art.

I stand back and take it in, gratified by having fashioned something so lovely. Aware, too, that the doing of it fulfills me as much as the finished product itself. Yet, I’m most rewarded in the giving. Creating a beautiful object that brings joy to others is immensely satisfying. An intimate expression of love, the creation carries the giver’s very essence. This afghan will keep my family warm now and long after I’m gone. My mother knew this. And she taught me well.

Published November 29, 2018 in COMO Living Magazine

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And So This Is Christmas … Let The Grief In

Image by Pixabay

It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. All my albums — traditional, classical, contemporary, instrumental, pop — are on shuffle and iTunes is creating our playlist. The music stays pleasantly in the background of my awareness until I hear the opening phrase of Happy Xmas.

“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”

The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause my work. I close my eyes and listen to the familiar, comforting melody.

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Exquisite Grief

And when she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the sun.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

And now it’s happened: I’ve lost my mother. She laid down her broken body—soft and comforting still, but no longer up to the task of moving her through the days — and died. She laid down her weary head, the short-circuiting neurons in her brain finally quiet, and slept.

In her own bed, under her lovely floral quilt, she drifted away and left physical concerns behind in the vessel housing them. Her breathing stretched, the silence between each ragged inhalation hung with anticipation. Her pounding heart slowed and faded to a quiver, like the fluttering wings of a little bird, until it beat no more. My sister quoted Shakespeare: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” For Mom, the pace has ceased its forward motion; there are no more tomorrows. And in retrospect, the petty becomes hallowed. “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow . . .”

I knew it was coming, or rather, that she was going. For months, I mourned her absence even in her presence, trying to absorb everything and indelibly imprint her image on my memory. The days, finite and measured, poured like sand through the hourglass as I watched them go. I knew I would lose my mother, but I didn’t know it would bring me to my knees.

I didn’t know how heavy grief could be, that I’d drag myself under its weight from my bed each morning, pulled into motion only by the slipstream of routine. Even then, fatigue would leave me to endure the hours until I could curl up again, alone. I didn’t know the world would be too loud and too bright and too fast, its audacity for going on as if the cosmos hadn’t shifted unforgivable. I didn’t know I’d hide from my neighbors or seek solace nightly in wine or toss and turn restlessly in my sleep, dreaming of something just out of my grasp. I didn’t know it would feel like depression.

I didn’t know it would hit this hard, losing my 71-year-old mother to multiple sclerosis. I didn’t think I was entitled to the same bereavement as my friend who lost her 21-year-old son, full of potential, to a heroine overdose; or my friend, whose 5-year-old grandson was taken by a brain tumor before his life had even begun; or my sister, whose husband died of kidney cancer when he was 47, leaving a young son fatherless. Because Mom had been ill for decades and because I’d planned for the end of her life, because she’d become increasingly distraught and difficult, because she suffered, because she was at peace and ready, because I believe her death to be merely a transition—for all these reasons I thought my sorrow would be tempered. I know now, it matters not if the death is tragic or abrupt or expected, if the life has been long or interrupted; grief pierces and reverberates through all who have loved and lost.

I didn’t know it would lodge in my body, that I’d tamp down and swallow my emotions. That staying busy would be a coping mechanism. That avoiding reminders and seeking distractions would keep me functionally numb, but one handwritten note could unravel my hold. I didn’t know it would be a physical urge, this need to cry, and when unleashed, the intensity would crash over me in waves, plunging me under and washing me to shore only when the tide went out. I didn’t know I’d be a private mourner, that I’d get through the memorial with only a few tears, but in the dark of night, in my husband’s arms, I’d finally weep unabashedly, like a child.

I didn’t know people could show such tenderness, that when I returned home I’d find my friends had cleaned my house and left plants and flowers and cards and nourishing food. I didn’t know their generosity would humble me profoundly, that every thought and prayer, every gesture, every act of service would soften the pain and blur the edges.

I didn’t know I could miss my sisters so terribly, the airport goodbyes a severing. I didn’t know we would merge into the embodiment of the best of our mother, that separation would feel unnatural, impossible even. I knew the sacred experience of nurturing the exodus of our mother’s spirit from this world would bring us closer; I didn’t know escorting her body under a full moon to the teaching hospital where she would donate her brain for research would be just as holy.

I knew we’d draw comfort from each other, but I didn’t know heaving sobs punctuated by belly laughs could be so cathartic, that the somber ceremony of scattering her ashes at the ocean’s edge on a cold, overcast day could suddenly turn uproariously funny when one sister, attempting a dramatic toss into the wind, tripped and fell into the freezing surf. I didn’t know we would celebrate our mother’s magnificent life with champagne toasts, crying as we sang along to Helen Reddy and Anne Murray and Karen Carpenter.

I knew we were strong women, that working hard was inextricably woven into who she raised us to be. But, I didn’t know we could clean out her apartment in 3½ days, a whole life summarized in the boxes we carted to my sister’s garage. I didn’t know evidence of Mom’s bravery and integrity would manifest in the intimate task of settling her affairs; not only proof of her creative, tenacious resilience—the hallmark of her personality, but also, signs of her mental decline no one could see.

I knew she was loved by many, not only friends, but those to whom she bonded with fierce loyalty, her chosen family. I didn’t know I’d dread the task of calling each one to deliver the news, that the words would stick in my throat. I didn’t know that their lives would also be bereft without her and I’d be compelled to comfort them, even as my own heart was breaking.

I knew the daily texts would stop, that I wouldn’t hear her voice exclaiming, “Hi, honey!” on the other end of the phone, that when she came to visit it was the last time. I didn’t know when I logged into her account and shut off her electricity the sudden realization of its permanence would take my breath away. I didn’t know I’d question if I should have done more and agonize over whether I’d been enough. I didn’t know I’d ache for her forgiveness.

I knew she’d stay close, that we would feel her; I didn’t know she would come to me when I was exhausted and spent, in the dream-like trance of half-sleep, and spread comfort like warmth through my chest, or when I was quiet and contemplative, in a cool breeze, gently caressing my face and answering my question, “Is that you, Mom?”

I didn’t know the previous contentment with my pretty little life would now feel like complacency; that restless whispers would become clamoring discontent, catapulting me into change and insisting I choose a different path. I didn’t know this transformation was not hers alone; it was mine as well. I know now I’ll never be the same, but therein lies the gift: the pain that shattered my carefully crafted day-to-day, leaving me to ponder my purpose and revisit the very meaning of my existence, has allowed me to create the reality I was born to live.

I know now losing my mother hurts like hell; her absence incarnate is like a light gone out and it will be dark for a while. But in the darkness, I awaken. Holding hands with divinity, I glimpse that I, too am divine. My loss is not diminished by this blissful epiphany, and surprisingly, I’m glad. I don’t want its sharpness blunted. I welcome the overflowing experience, brutal one moment and glorious the next. I did not know, I could not know I would cherish my grief, a grief made exquisite because I loved her so. As I love her now. As I will forever more. This I always knew.

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Eulogy To My Mother

When she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

William Shakespeare

Wallow High School Senior Photo 1961

Patricia Ann Lyman Pullen-Jones, a 1943 New Year’s Eve baby, was from Bozeman, Montana. And Wallow, Oregon. And Monmouth and Salem and Coquille, Oregon. And Fort Collins, Colorado and Fort Meade, Maryland and Davis, California. From Phoenix, Arizona and Thousand Oaks, California, and for a short time, Taos, New Mexico. For the past 17 years, she was from her beloved Portland, Oregon.   She was from moving more times than anyone could count, except perhaps the faithful who, by her side, lifted mattresses and refrigerators and filing cabinets onto U-Hauls trucks. Pat was from making a home wherever she went; from a plethora of house plants suspended in macramé slings, sunflower artwork, ‘Bloom Where You Are Planted’ needlepoint, and The Desiderata with its burned edges, decoupaged onto a scalloped walnut plaque that hung in every living room in every house in every city. She was from a cat on her lap and a book in her hand.

Patsy was inescapably from her family: her mother, Katherine Ivannie Moore; her father, John Williamson Lyman, her big brother, J.W., who died at ten when she was only four years old, from her sister, younger by two years, Katherine Gwen and her baby sister, Doris Jane. She was from small towns and Rainbow Girls, and the newspaper her father owned (and where she worked); from a high-brow, journalistic lineage; from writers, from poets, from intelligence. She was from class.

Patricia was from skipping a grade and attending St. Paul School for Girls in Walla Walla, Washington, and from returning home to Wallowa High School and the friends she’d grown up with. From ballet and piano and theatre and baton-twirling and reporting for the school paper. From sewing her own prom dresses and covering her shoes with satin to match. She was from talent.

She was from marrying her high school sweetheart who called her Trisha, and following him across the country as he became an officer in the army, from putting him through veterinary school. And after 11 years, painful divorce. From single motherhood and singing her babies to sleep and kissing their fevered foreheads. From teaching them responsibility and manners and the names of wildflowers. She was from mama bear and don’t-mess-with-my-kid and you-and-me-against-the-world. From second chances and late-in-life babies who waited until the right time to come.

She was from three marriages and four children; Lisa Charmaine, Stephen Maynard, Heidi Ann and Sarah Elizabeth; from ten grandchildren, Melissa and Jeremy Buehner, Sydney and Haley Kent, Charles, Bronson, Isabella and Joseph Pullen, Gabriel Rabbat and Holden Collins, and one and a half great-grandchildren, Ashton and baby boy (or girl) Buehner yet to born, and with whom she dances now, whispering, “I’m your Grammy.”

Patricia was from tradition. From ham and twice-baked potatoes and peas and cheese on Christmas, from jello molds and casseroles, from lace tablecloths and felt wall-hangings. From putting in the Thanksgiving turkey and going to a movie with her kids while it roasted. She was from knitting needles and spinning her own wool; from handmade slippers and sweaters and hats and gloves. From oral traditions and stories and poetry. From re-finishing furniture and re-wiring electrical circuits and re-building computers. She was from re-cycling before re-cycling was en vogue. From flushing the transmission, replacing the starter, and installing the windshield-wiper motor on her car. From cabinets full of tools; from YouTube tutorials.

She was from Nordstrom style on a Goodwill budget and holding her chin up and pulling herself up by her bootstraps. She was from fortitude and determination and stick-to-it-iveness and elbow grease. She was from mind-your-own-business and what-goes-around-comes-around and create-your-own-reality.

She was from kisses on the lips and hugs that consumed, from frequent I love you’s and a mother’s intuition. From mothering the motherless, filling the void of their need and taking them as her own adopted children. She was from mother-love big enough to extend to her nephew, Njuguna and nieces, Randee and Cierra, acting as fierce protector and advocate, and never letting go. From making sure they stayed safe and connected, that they felt important and most of all, loved.

She was from teaching: her children, her students, her friends, and everyone around her. From standing with those who could not stand on their own. From liberal politics and feeding the hungry and sending money she didn’t have to women in war-torn and developing countries.

Pat was from loving everyone she met, and all those she met, falling head over heels in love with her. From loud, open-mouthed laughs and saying what’s on her mind and not caring what anyone thinks and swearing a blue streak. From cups of ice filled with Jim Beam and Diet Dr. Pepper, with no lid. She was from spills, and spilling over.

She was from classical music and a quiet life and simplifying. She was from tech savvy and Facebook and the internet. And texts made indecipherable by autocorrect. From many connections with many people, in her physical space and in cyber space. From loving the ones around her, and missing the ones who were not.

Pat was from MS, from nerves worn thin and the world too loud, from skin too sensitive and a heart too full, primed for love, and always broken wide open. From a cane that sat in the corner she refused to use. She was from living and dying on her own terms.

Where she was from is clear to anyone who loved her, and she will be missed immeasurably, but now, it’s about where she’s going. A place of light, brilliant and radiant, as vast as the ocean, as tall as the mountains. She’s returned to the ‘one-ness’ as she often said. She’s not left us, she is merely in non-physical form and in her death, in her own transcendence, she brings healing to her family; spontaneous, exhilarating, joyful healing that washes clean the wounds of human experience, leaving only love.

Love of a purity and magnitude beyond words. Love that is larger than we can comprehend. Love that she herself has become, encompassing and holding us in her embrace. We feel her in the breeze across our face. We feel her in the birds that swoop and soar. We feel her in the full moon as she rises over the blue planet. And if we are lucky, we see her in our dreams.

Format from the poem Where I’m From by George Ella Lyons.

The blue planet with her mountains
Now as always be my territory.
The blue planet with her rivers
Now and always be my hunting ground.
The blue planet with her cities
Now and always be my home ground.
The blue planet with all my goals
Now and always be my victory!


The Grandmother of Time, a Woman’s Book of Celebrations, Spells and Sacred Objects by Zsuzsanna E. Budapest

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Just Like That

Melissa

Aaaaaaand just like that, Christmas is over.  The preparation, the anticipation, the actualization; come and gone for another year.  My beautiful live tree adorned in sparkling red and gold is dead, morphed into an endearing Dr. Suess caricature; its pliant needles turned brittle and sharp, its majestic branches drooping sadly, ornaments lowered to the floor in resignation.

But, I’m in no hurry to take it down, even if it is a 10’ fire hazard.  I want to sit with it a few more days, turn on the lights and gaze at all the pretty decorations in my house; pretty things that hold pretty memories.  The presents have been opened.  The food has been devoured.  The kids have gone home. But the lights can wait to be wound around plastic spools, the garland to be coiled into plastic tubs and the tree to be hauled out to decompose. I’m not quite ready to let go.

All our children were here this year – the ‘little girls’ who still live under our roof, and the ‘big kids,’ who grew up and left years ago. Melissa and Jeremy were 9 and 7 when I married Steven and we celebrated our first Christmas as a new family.  They were 14 and 12 when Sydney was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome an unexpected turn of events, and 18 and 16 when Haley came along, her very presence an unexpected turn of events.  As older sibs, they were a huge help, stepping up to the responsibilities of dealing with their younger sisters’ special needs.

And just like that they’re 28 and 26, bringing their significant others home, growing our family and adding more people to love.  Melissa lives, with her partner, Jey, here in Columbia, For now.  She didn’t always, and one day she will spread her wings to fly far and wide. But that day has not yet come.  Jeremy recently landed in Oklahoma City with his wife, Carly; albeit temporarily.  The 450-mile stretch that separates us now is a much smaller distance than the 1300-mile span it used to be.  I’m hanging on to every day that they’re close by.

Because of it, we don’t often get Christmases together.  It’s been four years since the last so I wanted to make this a big one and the preparations started early.

“Are you sure you want to spend that much on a tree?” my husband asked, checking the price tag on a gorgeous Balsam Fir.  He craned his neck to look up, “I’m not sure it’ll even fit.”

“Honey, the kids are coming home,” I reminded him. “I want it to be special.”

Of course he gets it; he shares my inclination to go all out.  It’s the same drive that lead him to the roof for 12 hours in 30 degrees, hanging brand-new LED lights, clip by clip as he inched along the gutters and peaks, only once sliding to the edge and nearly plummeting to the ground (thank God for the satellite dish).  Tons of work, more than a little frustration, but the result was magical and breathtaking.

The tree went up in the corner of the living room; a few inches lopped off the top left just enough room for a delicate illuminated star.   Fragrant evergreen scent, full of promise, permeated the house,  We trimmed the tree while listening to Pandora’s “Traditional Holiday” station and took turns identifying the crooners; Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin.  We shopped; at the mall and at our computers. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped.  We got out the good dishes.  We baked and we cleaned.  We stayed up late and got up early, exhaustion crowding excitement, knowing it would be worth the effort.

And then they were here.  Melissa and Jey came from their little house downtown, and Jeremy and Carly drove seven hours on the interstate, stopping regularly because my daughter-in-law is 33 weeks pregnant.  Their first, a boy, will arrive shortly before their third anniversary.  And just like that, my boy will become a father.  7 lbs. 1 oz. at birth, he now towers over me and swallows me in bear hugs.  I can picture him holding his tiny infant son in those arms, just as I held him.

Our time together didn’t disappoint; it was full and rewarding.  We told stories.  We played games.  We ate and then ate some more.  We watched ‘Home Alone,’ 1 and 2, the kids reciting the classic line in unison – “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.”   And ‘Christmas Vacation’ with Chevy Chase, the hilarious spoof of stereotypical holiday foibles; both funny and touching as we recognize ourselves in Clark Griswold, a hard-working family man determined to create the perfect holiday for his clan.  We love him for his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting obstacles and catastrophic property damage, and for his vulnerability that reveals itself in the midst of calamity.  Locked in the freezing attic, he bundles up in a woman’s fur coat then stumbles across a box of old film reels.  Before we know it, he’s projecting black and white movies onto a sheet, frustration and mayhem forgotten.  The juxtaposition of a grown man lost in childhood memories, wearing his mother’s turban while a sentimental tear slips down his cheek captures the complexities precisely.

We also watched our own home movies.

“Mom, look. I found some old videos,” Jeremy yelled from the guest room, emerging with a crate of VHS cassettes, my handwriting on the labels: ‘Melissa and Jeremy 1988.’

“Let’s watch ‘em!”  He said with his typical enthusiasm.

We dimmed the lights and gathered around the big screen. I loaded the tape into a borrowed VCR.  It disappeared, sucked inside with a click.  The play button lit up, images sprang to life on the screen and just like that, it was 25 years earlier.

A three-year-old girl in pink sponge rollers eats tortilla chips out of the bag on a couch with her best friend.  She wears panties and nothing else, watching King Kong from 1976 with Jessica Lange.  She says to her baby brother blocking the TV, “Germ-y, get out-uh-our way!” leaning around him, intent on the images in front of her.

She sits on the floor of a horse stall in her grandpa’s barn.  A new litter of puppies was born in the hay and a squirming puppy licks her face as she holds it.  Giggling she says, “He likes me!”

A toddler in diapers sports a blond mullet, the back long and curly.  He wears top-siders with no socks.  In the sunshine he climbs into his Little Tikes car and walks his feet ala Fred Flinstone to make it go.  Hands on the wheel, he steers his yellow and red cozy coupe down the sidewalk and off the curb, lodging it against a parked car.  He cries in a bitty voice, “Mama, I stuck!”

He holds his hands out to catch a ball and it hits him in the face, bouncing off.  Exploding with laughter, he runs to chase it then heaves it back with all his might.  Not quite in control, he jumps up and down then trips over his own feet, yelling, “My turn!  My turn!”

A young woman in mom jeans, the waistband hiked up under her armpits, bends to speak in a loving voice to her babies.  She wears her hair like Dorothy Hamill with a perm.  She has clear eyes and a soft face; she is self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin.

Time bent.  I couldn’t get my bearings as I glanced from the wide screen TV to the kids watching themselves, and to their partners watching their loved ones as children.  They’re all laughing and taking delight in the obvious evidence of personalities, even early on.

Melissa was thoughtful and a little shy; content. Her easy-going nature radiated visibly and she smiled easily and often.  She was innocent and sweet and unassuming.  Her motto was, life is great—I’m happy to be here.  She was pure, authentic.

Jeremy couldn’t sit still or stay quiet; his exuberance was uncontainable.  He lived large and loud, grabbing on to every moment and demanding attention.  Whatever he felt, he expressed.  His motto was life is great—what’s next?  He was eager, energetic.

Then just like that, my daughter is putting herself through college, returning to school with purpose, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology.  She’s an honor student with scholarships and awards, a leader, a camp counselor, a nanny, possessing rare qualities for working with children and teenagers.  Babies love her, children flock to her and adolescents confide in her.  She’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world.  She is pure and authentic.

And just like that, my son is saving lives in his profession as a paramedic.  He responds to people’s worst nightmares; accidents and overdoses and violence, guiding them through crises, ministering to body, but also to mind and spirit.  His medical skills combined with his compassion make him a calm force and a steady presence.  He’s a husband and provider and soon to be a parent.  He’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world; he is eager and energetic.

This is how I know it to be: life flies past in a moment.  And still, I take it for granted. Still, I assume there will be 25 more years until the realization hits; we don’t know what lies in the days ahead.  Just like that things do change.  And I am brought up short.  I’m in awe of the gift of my family.  My family, here, now, together.

We posed in front of the giant tree, me in the middle, surrounded by the ones I love the most:  Jeremy with his arm around his wife, Carly holding her beautiful belly and within it, our grandson; Melissa seated in front of her girlfriend, Jey, whose hands were placed gently on her shoulders; the little girls at our feet in their Christmas pjs, and Steven, my partner, my love, standing ever-present behind me.

Just like that it’s 2014.  I can’t stop or even slow down time, but I can hold on loosely—I’m not letting go.  I can take it all in and savor it and relish it.  And I guess I can go ahead and take the tree down.

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Making Tear Soup

Tear Soup“Are you going to Colorado tomorrow, Mom?”

Sydney stands in front of the refrigerator and asks the question for the third time this morning.

“No, honey.  Two weeks, remember?  In two weeks.”

I gently nudge her out of the way to open the door and place the milk jug on the top shelf.

“Two weeks. Yes.” She repeats to herself. “So, not tomorrow?” she asks, stepping towards me.

“Nope.  Not tomorrow,” I say, bending around her to put the oatmeal in the cupboard.

“Where’s Dad?” she asks, following me to the sink where I rinse breakfast bowls, our conversation a déjà vu of earlier when I ladled the hot cereal into these same bowls.

“Dad’s at PaPa’s, remember?”

“At PaPa’s?”

Sydney typically wants reiteration of our comings and goings—repeating the schedule outloud makes her feel secure—but lately, she’s been needing extra reassurance that her Dad and I will be around.  Lately . . .  since her grandmother died of leukemia.

“Yes, at PaPa’s house. They’re watching movies and having dinner,” I answer, placing the dishes in the dishwasher.

“Having dinner?”  She echoes.

“Mm-hmmm,” I reply, looking below the sink for the dishwasher detergent.

Sydney clears her throat, then coughs into her elbow.

“Um, Mom?  Is Dad coming home tonight?”

I take a deep breath.  Patience, Lisa.

“No, remember?  Dad’s staying the night to keep PaPa company so he’s not sad and alone.”  I pour soap into the dispenser, shut the lid and press the start button.

“Because MeMe’s dead, right?” she adds.

There it is.  I wipe my hands on a dish towel and come close, bending down to look at her.

“Right, honey. MeMe is dead.”

Her eyebrows shoot up and her eyes open wide.  She pushes her glasses up on the bridge of her nose, sniffs, and tucks the hair behind her ears.  But she doesn’t cry.  She hasn’t cried.

Children grieve differently than adults, and differently from each other. Refamiliarizing myself with the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who in 1969 first proposed the five stages of griefdenial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, reminds me that the phases can be in any sequence, intermittent or overlapping, or even skipped altogether. As a parent, I need to help my children with their grief work as well as tend to my own.

Both girls have been a bit stoic—they can’t possibly understand that their lives have changed irrevocably—though I expect when Thanksgiving and Christmas and their birthdays come around, MeMe’s absence will trigger a new level of realization.  And especially with Sydney, I wonder how much she can conceptualize about the permanence of death.  They both loved their grandmother and will undoubtedly miss her, but it’s been concerning to me they don’t seem more upset.

A package from a dear friend arrived like a long distance hug. Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss, written by Pat Schweibert is a consoling story of Grandy who, after suffering a big loss sets out to make tear soup from scratch. Haley and I cuddled up on my bed and read how Grandy chose her largest pot to make her soup because she would need plenty of room for all the feelings and tears to stew in over time.

“. . .  she slowly stirred all her precious and not so precious memories into the pot. Grandy winced when she took a sip of the broth.  All she could taste was salt from her teardrops.  It tasted bitter, but she knew this was where she had to start.”

As I read this sweet but profound metaphor, my own tears began to flow.  Haley had voiced sadness, but hadn’t cried yet.

“I want to cry but I can’t.  I feel like my emotions are locked up in a drawer and I can’t find the key,” she confessed precociously.

Page after page, the book poetically and artfully validated the human experience of bereavement.  Paragraph by paragraph, the words described our unique, acute experience of losing MeMe, and as we read, Haley found her tears.  “Tear Soup is helping us cry,” she said, laying her head on my chest, letting her tears fall on my shirt.  Together, we made tear soup of our own.

As I’m putting the girls to bed that night, Haley says, “Mommy, I miss MeMe.”

Matter-of-factly, Sydney says, “We have the same name: Sydney Kay Kent, Linda Kay Kent.”

“Yes, Sydney,” I say.  “You are named after her.”

Haley asks,  “Why aren’t you sad, Sydney?” her chin quivering.

Sydney answered calmly, “Well, I feel a little bit sad.  I heard Mom cry and I heard Dad cry and PaPa.  But I heard MeMe say, ‘I love you.’  And . . . I danced for her.”

Which was true.  After two hours of greeting friends at the visitation, Sydney had kicked off her shoes and pirouetted across the room to “Wind Beneath my Wings,” closing her eyes and moving expressively to the music in front of the podium which held vases of overflowing yellow daisies, a framed picture of Mom and a small wooden box holding her ashes, beautifully hand-crafted with a ceramic angel atop it and a plaque that read:

“Linda Kay Kent,

June 25, 1944  –  September 7, 2013”

Haley’s eyes squeeze shut against her now-copious tears as she says to her sister, “Don’t you know you’ll never see MeMe again?”

I sigh thinking, no, she doesn’t know.  Sydney doesn’t understand and might not ever.

But then Sydney says this: “Mom, every morning I wait for the bus. I feel her.  MeMe’s in the wind.”

Elusive as it seems, she’s onto something.  Maybe Syd is keeping her MeMe close in subtle ways that we can’t quite grasp, sensing her presence with a calm knowing; sensing her everywhere.  Maybe she doesn’t feel the same sense of loss because for her, MeMe isn’t completely gone.

Wrapping my arms around both my daughters, I reach for the same reassurance; for myself and for them.  Although I miss her, I take comfort in the thought that if I look, I can yet find her; in the wind through the trees, in the birds as they soar, and in the sun’s glorious rays that break through the clouds.  If I listen I can hear her voice and her laugh and feel her live on in my heart.

Our tear soup will be brewing for a long time.  The loss is painful, the memories are sharp and bittersweet, but the love shared is bigger than all of it.  We’re going to be alright.

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Filed under Down syndrome, Family, Grandparents, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Special Needs