When I was growing up we moved a lot, big moves crisscrossing the country. Perpetually the new kid, I never stayed long enough to feel like I fit in. Then, I married a man whose childhood was the opposite of mine, who grew up in a small north Missouri town of Mayberry charm. It seemed like the ideal for many reasons and though I could not give it to my oldest two children, Columbia is the only place my youngest two remember.
A dream come true for me, raising the kids in the same town, the same schools, the same neighborhood, the same house, felt like a second chance for me, too. Like coming home.
But now it’s time to go. Change is hard, even when it’s the right thing. Objectively, I marvel at our human tendency to reverberate with surprise or even shock when life takes a turn. Why, exactly, are we so astonished? After all, the only constant in life is change. But subjectively, I am taken aback at every shift and feel it deeply, personally. Even when it’s my own choice.
Binge watching TV, a pastime for which I previously had little time, and a guilty pleasure I’m loathe to acknowledge, has opened a portal for me during the pandemic, a passageway to another world. Once Upon a Time has been my alternate realm (except for the period I resided within the universe of Schitt’s Creek—almost completely comprised of two adjoining motel rooms–where I voraciously gobbled up all six seasons, the final episode leaving me a sobbing mess in disbelief that it ever was allowed to end).
Contemplative by nature, the isolation of this COVID year has forced constant and not always welcome introspection. Magnetically drawn to the tales of Storybooke, the fictional town inhabited by intersecting celebrities of the make-believe power set (and not just characters from the Brothers Grimm, mind you, but also those of C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, and the numerous Disney creators of Mulan, Jasmine, and Anna and Elsa), I’ve been intrigued by my own intrigue. I have always loved stories, but why such attraction to these fairy tales and their creative twists? Magic, true love, mystical powers, light in the dark, good versus evil, the epic tales contain the stuff of classic yarns. A harmless escape into fantasy, I decided it was. A much needed exit from the chaos of this reality into the multiverse of the Enchanted Forest. A rising hero, a vanquished villain, a happy ending, the clear cinematic themes provided structure. Closure. There’s something satisfying in watching the formulaic saga repeat itself: Innocents, the undeserving victims of circumstance are trapped under a curse cast by a malevolent force seeking to retain brutal control by exerting their powers. Dire straits intensify until certain doom awaits and all hope is lost. Or is it? Because in that precise moment the miracles occur, triumph at the last moment by an unforeseeable savior. A potion, a spell, a token. True love’s kiss. No matter how dark, light always prevails. Love wins the day.
There’s something satisfying in the formulaic saga.
I thought perhaps I’ve been charmed by the childish simplicity. Real life isn’t so black and white. Upon a closer look, however, I saw that neither is life in that pretend place. When peeling back the layers of vile atrocity, no matter how black the heart, no scoundrel began their sojourn as such. Pain, abandonment, betrayal–these drive the bad guy’s blood lust for revenge and destruction. Moral devastation amplifies their rage aimed at those who have what is desired but remains out of reach. And even the good guys sometimes succumb to hopelessness or jealousy. They, too, can lose their way, pouring gasoline on the fire in their fight for justice, learning that the end cannot justify the means. I think even children can tease out the truths embedded in these stories. Especially children.
Maybe my deep dive into the fairytale world isn’t just escapism. Maybe it’s a way for me to process what I’m seeing around me: the age-old struggle of humankind for equity, collectively caught in a violent tug-of-war, “others,” perceived as enemies, dominated and killed. The battle for the soul of humanity is still happening today. For all the advances of technology, in the Information Age, we’re not much different than in the Dark Ages, when kings hoarded wealth and peasants starved. When the elite few sustained their power by climbing on the backs of the working masses.
Even children can tease out the truths in these stories.
I feel in my bones, though, the longing to evolve, to purge ourselves of ugliness and petty, selfish greed, to emerge outside the rigidity of our own thinking into a collaborative, peaceful co-existence. But how do we get from here to there? I suppose the answer lies within each heart and mind. In every choice. As we co-create the world around us, moment by moment, this synergy of choice operates on free will. And like the characters in Storybrooke, we all possess both lightness and darkness. At any given intersection, the possibility exists to take a different fork in the road.
Even then, happy endings aren’t static. They don’t last forever–that was never the point. As perfect as they might feel, our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season. Life is transient. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. The afterlife notwithstanding, the physical limitations of our kingdom on earth offer the inevitable exchange of heartache for the gift of having loved in real time. For every summer, there is a winter. The leaves turn. The snow falls and signals the chapter’s end. And life waits patiently, dormantly, until it renews itself in spring and a new chapter begins.
Our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season.
My Auntie Gwen reached the apex of her winter last week and arrived at the end of her story. She was ready, she told me, at peace. “I’m so looking forward to seeing my mom,” she said. ”And Jesus.”
Aunt Gwen is the third of four siblings now gone. My mother, Pat, died five years ago, and their older brother, J.W., back in 1948 when he was only 10. My Grammy and Grampy, Katie and John, died in 1998 and 1990 respectively. Only Auntie Dee remains earthbound. For now. The family history is written in letters and journals and essays. It’s preserved in my DNA. It lives in my memories, passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions like the one that begins, “Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, there lived a Little Old Man and a Little Old Woman and their Little Dog Turpy in a Little Old House by the field where the hemp stalks grew.” I clutch at a past that’s slipping away to die with those who lived it. Perhaps this is why I am compelled to take up the pen and tell their stories.
Katherine Gwen Lyman was born in Bozeman, Montana on May 14, 1946 and grew up in Wallowa, Oregon. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and a Master’s in Special Education and School Counseling, she spent her career as a beloved teacher of students with disabilities. An avid vegetarian and lover of birds and wildlife and flowers, she was never without a feline companion. Auntie Gwen was my first musical influence, pulling me into her lap to sing as she played the piano. I watched her fingers trill on her delicate flute, amazed and enthralled at the beauty of her embouchure.
This is why I am compelled to tell their stories.
She was a free spirit, a true bohemian, with long, sleek hair and John Lennon glasses, favoring embroidered tunics and leather sandals. With no make up, no fingernail polish, and no shaved underarms, she seemed exotic to my church girl sensibilities, just wild enough. Once Mom drove us south from Phoenix to Tucson to vist her adobe cottage in the middle of the desert. When she didn’t answer we went around to the back to peer in a curtain-less window. And there she was, sitting in Sukhasana (cross-legged) on her meditation cushion, eyes closed, face serene. Completely nude.
We visited her when she lived in Eugene and Seattle and San Francisco, though not in Hilo, Hawaii where she married a gentle bearded man named Guha. They both wore long, native leis, a symbol of their love, over white muslin. His easy-going ways tempered her high energy, and they lived their bliss for a time before parting ways. Later, she lopped off her hair in an asymmetrical cut that became her signature style, short enough to showcase the long beaded earrings she’d made herself. There would only be one more love, though they never wed. Joel, another beautiful man, this one with olive skin and dark curls brushed with silver, was mellow and generous. Another uncle to cherish. But again, only for a time.
Auntie Gwen lived alone after that, but she was rarely lonely, filling her time with friends and family and travel with her widowed mother. She adored her nieces and nephews and loved watching us grow up. She endured her share of physical challenges, an aneurysm that left her without the sense of smell, breast cancer, knee surgery, chronic back pain. But these ailments never dampened her joie de vivre. She was a true optimist with an effervescent smile that lifted right up into her twinkling eyes as if to say, “Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
She told me my mother always accused her of being a “Pollyanna,” the caricature imbued with excessive cheerfulness and based on the heroine in a book of the same name, authored by Eleanor Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was brought to life on the big screen in 1960, with Hayley Mills playing the irrepressibly sunny orphan. A nearly life-sized doll with a dimpled grin and blond curls, wearing a gingham dress and MaryJanes was launched on the retail market to coincide with the Disney film. Either my mom or Gwen owned one because we found it, sitting upright in a corner, green eyes staring, when cleaning out my Grammy’s house after she died. My bet is on Auntie Gwen.
“Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
In her own defense she’d said, “What’s wrong with that? I like seeing the up side of things.” I admit, I myself am slightly suspicious of those with unyielding positivity. But of all her eccentric idiosyncrasies, because of (or maybe even in spite of) an inherently strong personality—a trademark feature of all the women in my family, I find Auntie Gwen’s rejection of gloom admirable. Something I will always seek to emulate. After all, it was her steady stream of buoyancy that kept her afloat her whole life.
She died comfortably and peacefully in her home on Friday, January 8, 2021, surrounded by love, my brother holding one hand and her dear friend, the other. My sisters and I held her in our hearts from miles and miles away. Our goodbye, like too much of this past year, was remote. On Zoom. Auntie Gwen promised if we would hang bells, she would ring them. With quivering chins and welling eyes, we promised to hang them and watch for the sound of her eternal optimism, an omen of her tangible presence and a spark of magic in our ordinary days. And a reminder that “not so long ago and not so far away” a new story has begun.
*Reading given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, online, August 9, 2020
“Always have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
In what do I place my trust? This profound, existential question is, for an inherently trusting person, difficult to quantify. Before the pandemic, I trusted my alarm to go off, my car to start, and my phone to keep me on task. I trusted there would be money in the bank, food in the fridge, and job security for my partner and myself. From the sturdiness of my home and the safety of my Midwestern burg, I trusted the sun to rise and set on another ordinary day.
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.”
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, we christened our 22 acres in the rolling countryside of Steedman, Missouri “the farm.”
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.
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
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 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 hooked up to her. I shift uncomfortably in the reclining chair next to her bed and wonder how I’ll make it until morning when 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.
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 from under my bed 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 neatly labeled. Her handwriting mark the pages of dog-eared pattern books dated back to the 1950s. Unused skeins of expensive alpaca wool leave me to wonder at her unfulfilled intentions.
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. iTunes shuffles our collection of eclectic albums, creating the playlist that plays pleasantly in the background. Until the opening phrase of Happy Xmas catches my ear.
“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. I close my eyes to listen. Such a familiar, comforting melody.
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.
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. Lisa splits her time between Columbia, Missouri, where she lives with her adult daughter who has Down syndrome and Steedman, Missouri, where she lives with her husband on their farm in the country.