Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Seasons of Loss


"Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends… Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."  ~Joan Didion

They say things come in threes, but three deaths within one year is arduous. Last May when Grandpa Crawford passed away at 96, I wrote this in my journal:
May 2014, a major stroke, Newton the first, lying in a hospital bed, unable to swallow, breaths slowing, in out, in out, body shutting down. So many advances in medicine, in technology; still, nothing to do but say goodbye. Family swarms the hospital room, surrounding him, pressing in to voice all the words bubbling up, to show him, somehow, how much his life matters, to release him with all the love he shared.
Son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren shattered, like seeing a hundreds-year-old forest gutted.
Without him, who are we?
Without him, how will we hold anything together? How will we continue to build?
Body laid to rest, but Newton the first lives on in hearts, minds, a million memories.
From him, how much we learned. 
Halfway across the country at the time, I said goodbye over the phone and mourned alone. Though expected, that death was a blow to our family; however, we knew he had lived a long, full life, and he left a legacy of land, loving kindness, hard work, gardening, positive attitude, service, and family. Life changes, and his passing brought about much change to our family and lives. For instance, my girls and I traveled to Missouri together to see family for the first time in five years that August for Crawford Camp, and I began to reevaluate everything in my life. 
Our extended family had barely begun to process this loss and adjust to the changes when we discovered that my dad, Newton Jr. had lung cancer and was suddenly on hospice. Although we had known his health was declining from being a heavy smoker for forty plus years, we had no idea that things would take such a dramatic turn for the worst. I decided to return to the family farm for the winter holidays and for a semester. Although we weren’t ready when Dad passed away on January 4th, at least we had a chance to heal any wounds, tell him in person what he meant to our lives, and say goodbye.
It was difficult. Once again, we were grieving and processing and reexamining our lives. Once again, our lives had changed, including our roles in the family circle. Additionally, he was the most intelligent man that I had ever met, and it was hard to imagine such a brilliant mind and creative spirit lost to us and this world. Nevertheless, we trudged onward, doing what we could, some of us handling it better than others, all of us trying to help each other through it.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion quotes from a letter a friend wrote saying, “The death of a parent, he wrote, ‘despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean's bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections’."
Just a few months later, we were still in the middle of dismantling my dad’s collections and belongings, still in the middle of mending our hearts and rebuilding our lives when we received word that our mother’s youngest brother David died unexpectedly.
This time, there were no goodbyes. No last words. No sharing of how much he touched our lives. This time, he was simply gone, and we are eviscerated.
On Tuesday, April 28th, I was in the middle of grading the first of ten essays that I had been putting off when the phone rang and Mom told me the news. I screamed NO and have continued that silent scream inside. My whole world stopped, and all I could do was wail and write. After I posted David’s eulogy, I forced myself to finish grading the papers about Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily before we drove to Uncle David’s house where I slept in his bed with his three dogs, Harley, O. B. (Otter Bear), and Lucky. Harley and O. B. are large dogs with completely different personalities, Harley frisky and friendly with O. B., David’s silent shadow, sensitive and scared. Lucky is a small terrier mix that had joined David’s pack along the way. These dogs had been spoiled by David, and they lamented with us. Already, his home, without him in it, felt empty, hollow, and we struggled with seeing his shoes and clothes he would no longer wear, his uneaten food, and the games he would no longer play with us.
I had the most difficulty with this funeral, partly because of three in a row and partly because it didn’t look like him in the casket and also because of how close I was to him. And I think many family members can relate.
The relatives who spoke at the funeral ended up sharing a common theme: that David had a hospitable, kind, and generous heart, that he was creative, talented, and brilliant, and that we honor him by continuing his heritage. My mom said that God gave her brother a special spirit of love, and that is so true. David had a heart that blessed others. 
And the last song at the funeral, “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler, was beautiful and perfect for many reasons, and the lyrics spoke to our hearts:

Did you ever know that you're my hero
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle
For you are the wind beneath my wings
It might have appeared to go unnoticed
But I've got it all here in my heart
I want you to know, I know the truth, of course
I know it
I would be nothing without you
After the graveside visit, a local church prepared a lunch for our extended family. Then, we returned to David’s home to clean and pack. One of the last things UD did was prepare two decks of cards per family so that we would be ready to play Dragon Joust, the game he invented. Always, he was thinking of others.
That evening, back in Texas County, we watched Laina perform in the Cinderella ballet, and it was both good and hard to have a positive focus that evening.
Lexi had flown up for the funeral and was staying with us for a few days, so we went to church with my mom on Sunday morning. As part of the preacher’s message, he repeatedly mentioned the will of God, and tears coursed down my cheeks because I cannot believe that it’s God’s will to take UD so soon. A third time within a year that we have lost such a kindhearted, original, and clever man, and as we are left with even more to adjust to and process, we wonder how we will go on and who will remember the family stories of old and the fundamentals of the English language. The only way that I can understand this is that we live in a broken world and sometimes bad things happen; it doesn’t necessarily mean that it IS God’s will; however, God WILL work good from it and already is.
I am reminded of what UD used to tell me when I asked what path I should take when I faced a choice. He would say, “Wherever you go, there God is.” So, whether or not people want to view it at God’s will (and I don’t), God IS here and will bring good out of this loss. This I believe.
Now that it’s the next week and back to regular programing, it feels like the funeral ceremony was rushed. It’s over, and we’re supposed to be okay now and supposed to “move on,” but I’m not ready.
Joan Didion also wrote, ““We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy…”
Still, we are eviscerated.
I feel like the world is muted, dimmed, and I am weighted down with sadness, sick to my stomach that such a sweet soul, gifted mind, and creative man is gone, and constantly on the verge of breaking down. My head aches, and my chest is heavy. And the thought of facing the future hurts my heart and all I can do is mindlessly play Candy Crush, clicking on colored blocks to demolish them until I reach a prescribed goal, nothing that I have to choose or care about.
Joan Didion wrote, “Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. ‘A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,’ Philippe Ari├Ęs wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes toward Death. ‘But one no longer has the right to say so aloud’.” 
Now it’s time, society tells us, to resume “normal life,” except our normal life is gone because that life included the ability to pick up the phone at any time and call UD. It included uploading photos to Facebook that I knew my uncle would love and that he would save on his computer for our yearly family calendar. It included family events like our annual Crawford Camp where UD would join us as well as the possibility that he would publish his plays, that he would see Lexi dance professionally, that he would celebrate with me when I find a full-time job. It included my daughters and nieces able to look forward to UD arranging the flowers for their weddings one day. It included hour-long phone conversations about lesson plans or life and movie marathons of Broadway musicals or old movies like Bringing Up Baby or Court Jester. It included Bridge tournaments with UD always rushing straight to three no trump and Scrabble games where he played all seven letters for a Bingo. It included David having a chance to read a new book and watch the recent movie, The Last Five Years. It included a future with UD in it.
I perceive all the things he left undone, and I am paralyzed.
So many things in the course of a day remind us of UD. Every time we glance at the family calendars around the house. Whenever I take a photo that I know he would have loved. Every time we reach for the phone to tell him about something or to ask for his advice. Whenever we plan the upcoming family gatherings, even ones like my nephew’s graduation from high school this weekend. Every time I start to send him an email to share my writing. Whenever we look at our parents who have lost their younger brother and can’t imagine how they endure it.
Ultimately, we all appreciated David, but I don’t think we realized what a huge part of our lives he was.
So “moving on” includes more than picking up where we left off when we got the phone call that shattered our world last Tuesday. It means picking up the pieces of our broken world and being strong enough to reshape them into something new. Yes, it can be good, but it will be different and it will be without him. And that hurts. And that will take time to process and reconcile. It will take time to heal.
In the meantime, we need to be there for each other like he was for us. This heartbreak is a reminder to enjoy our moments and each other, to tell our loved ones how much they matter and how glad we are to share our lives with them. It is a reminder to laugh and love more, to put down the screens and connect.
The past two days with family and friends have been full.
And maybe it seems like I'm being repetitive, belaboring the point, but the fact is that I am still in shock and disbelief. I am still mourning. I don't want it to be true, and I have to process this. To make matters worse, UD IS the one who I would normally turn to when processing something of this magnitude in my life.
I have, perhaps, been guilty in the past of lack of compassion and empathy towards a grief-stricken person, if only to wonder how and why. Now I know. I am reminded of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness”:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

I know that I have to “move on” and that good will come from this and that I WILL be okay. I know that UD would want that for us. I know in my head and heart that UD would want us to "move on" and to “live and love as hard as you know how and make this moment last," but it still FEELS wrong. He won’t hear about this hurt or that birth. We are making new memories, which is good, but we are making new memories without him, and this hurts. It feels wrong. Like I should feel remorse for laughing so hard when playing Spades with Sonny, Sarah, Lexi, and Laina during the past two days. Guilt for enjoying the sunshine with my family, the long country drive with my mom, and the BBQ dinner that Jill, Sarah, and Christin prepared for us Sunday night. Repentance for posting photos on Facebook that UD can no longer see. 
I know it doesn't make sense, and I know he wouldn't want me to feel that way and that he would help me through it. But, it doesn't change HOW it feels.
At the same time, those moments with my family, friends, and loved ones over the past two days have brought some healing with the laughter. Lucky has a new home with Jill’s family, and it was bittersweet to snap photos of Lucky with his new pack. I still feel ill. I still want to weep. My heart still hurts. But I am loving and living. The Broadway song “Seasons of Love” from Rent discusses measuring our “five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes” each year by moments of love, and UD mastered that. We will “remember the love,” always.
Grandpa Crawford, Dad, and Uncle David all taught us so much. Part of our healing will come by carrying on their lessons, love, values, and traditions. Part of it will come with time, and another part through our connection to each other. However, we need to be allowed to get there in our own way and time. Finally, Joan Didion wrote about the death of her spouse that “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible.” It’s okay that we are not yet ready to let go, that we are still devastated, inconsolable. There are seasons of loss that shape us. In the end, we choose how, though to build something meaningful takes work, and to do something well, which is what UD taught us, we must give all that we are and not settle for less. However, in the midst of loss and after, we can remember to see and embrace love.