Thursday, November 19, 2015

Holiday Blues

Dear UD,
I stand here, looking at the next month and a half, and I am paralyzed. All that’s left of 2015 is the holiday season, and for us, that means my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lexi’s 21st birthday and New Year’s Eve, not to mention several other family birthdays.

Flip the calendar back one year and the landscape changes drastically. 

A year ago today, I prepared for our much anticipated trip to visit Lexi, and in many ways, you were part of my unforgettable birthday celebration and our adventures in Manhattan. We experienced a NYC Thanksgiving, five people and a toddler scrunched around the table in a kitchen the size of a closet. Dinner was delicious, and the whole day was lovely and perfect. That evening after watching a movie in plush recliners, we walked to 85th street and took pictures of the apartment where you lived for years, right on the edge of Central Park.

A year ago, we planned and packed, selling or donating most of our furniture to return home for the holidays. Christmas on the farm with family, surrounded by loved ones. Photographs with Dad for the last time. Huge meals, stockings and presents around the Christmas tree, kids jumping on the trampoline in the cold, games of Spades, Bridge, Cribbage, and Scrabble, 10 siblings, 20 cousins. 

A year ago, Lexi’s 20th birthday and New Year’s Eve celebrations with you and Britt. You treated us to opening week of Into the Woods at the movie theater, and we all loved it. Afterwards, we ate birthday cake and played Broadway around your dining room table until the ball dropped. We clinked glasses, sipped our sparkling apple cider, and welcomed in the New Year with kisses and hugs. Love and laughter. The first day of 2015, we woke up to family and you, cooking omelets for each of us.

I didn’t know then that it would be the last movie with you, the last time we’d play the game you created. I didn’t know then that Dad would be gone in just four days. Yes, he was on hospice. Yes, he was shrinking and struggling for breath, but he hid how bad the pain was, and we thought we had more time. More time with him and definitely more time with you. I didn’t know then that you would leave us, suddenly, near the end of April.

Last holiday season….so many memories that I cherish. I look back and smile.

I look forward and weep. How do we move forward into this first holiday season after such loss?

Just yesterday, someone mentioned decorating Christmas trees, and suddenly, I remembered the I love NYC ornament that I bought for you last November and gave you last year for Christmas. Gut-punched, I realized that you would never get the chance to put it on your tree.

I talked to a sister and cousin, both also missing you so much. The prospect of putting together a family calendar without you is unthinkable. How do we do this?

Instead of Christmas songs, I’ll put on some Muddy Waters and B. B. King. Eric Clapton and Etta James will sing me a bedtime lullaby. And, I’ll think of you and Dad.

The activities, the busyness, I can do that. I can continue on, do the traditions, but the emotional part, the joy and peace and love that belongs to this season, I don’t see how I can get there this year.

What I can do is choose my focus.

A new baby in the extended family, and what a sweet blessing.

A sister off the streets, on a bus headed home for the holidays.

Gracie, a calico kitten, purred and bounced her way into my sister’s home. 

My daughters, intelligent and talented, bold and beautiful—together for this holiday season. 

So, I reach my way through paralysis and take a small step.

UD, I will sing a song for you and Dad, raise a toast to you, play a game you taught me, think of you…always.

Love, Rach

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

24 Hours

Dear UD,
Too many times I reach for the phone to call you. I want to hear your voice, your deep, infectious laugh, and I want to hear your thoughts, your wisdom and insight. Or if nothing else, I just want to talk to you, to tell you everything and hear you say that it will be okay. To hear you say that I’ll be okay.

Especially this past week when I received so much bad news in such a short amount of time.

A sister left rehab and was living in a van (now sleeping in a laundry mat), homeless and ill on the streets of San Jose.

I didn’t get the full-time faculty position, even though I was one of the top two. One phone call and I’m right back where I started—an adjunct with no job security, no health insurance, no stability. I don’t know how I will make ends meet, once again, and I just have to trust God. Still, the stress presses on me, and I feel scared and alone.

One of my best friends had to go to the doctor for tests this week, trying to find out why she’s having attacks of intestinal pain.

A brother in law in surgery and a sister with a hurt back from a fall on Halloween.

Laina home from cheer practice in tears from her flyer’s leg slammed onto her forearm, maybe a torn muscle.

One of the family dogs run over. An accident. One of the grandkids left behind. For a moment.

It’s been so hot, even though it’s November, and my electric bill is, again, so high. I get my paycheck, pay the bills, buy gas and groceries, and the money’s gone.

Mizzou, in the news this week, with hunger strikes, protests, threats of violence, and racial unrest.

And then, Friday the 13th and Paris. Horrific acts of terrorism. Hundreds of people enjoying an evening out with family, friends. Now over 100 dead, more injured, even more psychologically scarred.

The whole world in mourning.

What happens when there’s too much negative too quickly? When we are bombarded by bad? Boom, boom, boom.

Are we like a sponge? Do we soak it all in?  And expand, expand, expand? So that we are stretched so thin and stringy that there’s no room for something good? Does it become part of us or do we, eventually, explode? And what will that explosion look like? Who will it hurt?

How do we help each other through? Before, during, after such tragedy? So many bombs both personal and worldwide?

Perhaps we need to, every day, put on the armor of God as Ephesians 6:10-18 tells us.

I think of Mandela’s words from Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Still, I wish you were here to listen, UD. To share the burden. To help process it all. To remind me that it will be okay. Or that if it’s not okay, that I can handle it.

Imagine that you’re walking through a storm, you’d tell me, but the storm can’t touch you. Or, you’d say, imagine that you’re walking through a pit of rattlesnakes, but you have on tall, heavy boots, so the vipers can’t bite you. They can’t hurt you.

I wish you were here to show me the way through with your spirit of love. To tell me: you’ve got this.

Love, Rach

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tectonic Plates

Dear UD,
Last night I dreamt of you again, and of Dad, and the family farm, the rolling beauty of the Ozarks—
snatches of dialogue, mirror distortions, only pieces, images remain
yet I wake up heavy with sadness,
longing to hear your voices again.

Everything reminds me of you or Dad or you and Dad. Everything.
Even dreaming because I think of the first sentence of your favorite book.
From Rebecca: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Last month we went to the World Premiere of “Sherlock in Love” at the Cocoa Village Playhouse, so of course, I thought of you who loved anything to do with theater and of Dad who loved anything to do with Holmes. I wanted so much to call you up, afterwards, so we could do our thing. Analyze the play, the acting, the scenery, the atmosphere. Dissect the writing and costume and ending. Share the connection, the moment.

I hadn’t realized how much you brought to my life, how much I relied on you, how much I’d miss you. You were a huge part of my creative process for writing, teaching, living, and I don’t know how to fill the void that opened when you died.

Last night, Halloween, I watched one of the movies about a massive earthquake that destroys so much in one terrifying day. Scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time, partly because it’s too realistic, but also because it shows what so many are going through right now.

Tectonic plates shift shift shift. We don’t even know. We can’t see or feel anything. Until it’s too late. Until the earth shifts again and breaks apart, displacing and demolishing everything in its path.

I’ve heard of so many friends and family and even strangers who have recently experienced this devastating rearrangement in one way or another. For me, in the past two years…

My ex made a decision that impacts me and our daughters. Shift.

Grandpa died at age 96, leaving land and legacy. From my earliest memories until May 2014, he was part of my life, yet now he’s gone. Shift.

Dad died on January 4, 2015, leaving us without him and his knowledge and brilliance. Our roles in the family transformed. Shift.

And then you, Uncle David, on April 28. Another shift and my world broke apart, displacing, annihilating, obliterating.

Everything in pieces.  

We are left to put the pieces back together, to rebuild, restore. It’s been six months now, and I’m trying, working, processing. But it’s difficult to do it without you, to sort the pieces, to process the emotions.

Like this morning, UD, when I realized it’s a new month, and I turned the page of the last family calendar that you will ever make for the family. That hurts. Then, I turned the page of the Lexi-Laina calendar that you made special for us, and I see the November images you chose, the photographs I took of Lexi and Laina during our trip to New York City last Thanksgiving. The girls smiling in Central Park with the backdrop of autumn leaves. The girls huddled together against a brick wall in Uptown NY. The girls standing in front of the strong iron gates of Columbia College where you earned a Masters in Clinical Psychology once upon a time. The memories are bittersweet. Lovely because the three of us were together. Lovely because you were part of our vacation in many ways. Lovely because we will always have our NYC trip. Sad because it’s a year later yet you are not here anymore.

November is my birthday month, and I can’t help thinking of last year when I was in NYC with my girls, and we had the most magical day. It began with a special breakfast of coffee and gluten-free muffins that Erin fixed for me. After that, Lexi, Laina, and I rode the subway all the way to the end and took the Ferry to Staten Island and back, viewing Ellis Island, the shorelines of Manhattan and New Jersey, Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty along the way. Next, we took the subway to Greenwich Village where we ate lunch at Jekyll and Hyde, which I loved and which was possible thanks to your generous birthday surprise. After our delicious meal, we walked around the area until Lexi had to return to school for class. Then, Laina and I went to Chambers Street where tourists asked us for directions. We walked to Wall Street and St. Paul’s Cathedral and visited Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorials and Museum. I teared up just walking to Ground Zero, and being inside the museum was challenging. 

We ended the day by eating NY pizza at Kesté Pizza before taking the train back. I will never forget that extraordinary birthday and how loved I felt because of you, my girls, and my friend.

At this moment I’m not looking forward to this birthday or the upcoming holiday season. Too much loss. Shift. Shift. Shift. Too much change, and the tremors shake us. Another shift, and we stand amidst the ruins of our lives and wonder how to go on.

Everything is different.

Thus, I am led to the awareness that part of reconstructing and renovating the devastation in our lives is to create new traditions, new relationships, and new ways of processing. The problem is where to start. When I stand here overlooking the destruction, I am paralyzed.

I feel alone and lonely. Like if I let go of the grief I will be empty. As if the void left from these losses will fill me up until I am nothing. No one.

The truth is I cannot do it alone.

So, I surround myself with others who understand. For instance, I talk to my cousin every week because, like me, she knows loss, and like me, she knows you, UD. We have that bond, and nothing can break strength that emerges from a battlefield. Also, I joined a grief share group where I can leave behind my responsibilities and roles, where I can simply be a girl who lost her grandpa, dad, and uncle, where I can lament and learn new ways of coping.

The truth is that I must rebuild on a solid foundation, on something that will never be destroyed, will never be taken away, will never leave me.

My faith leads me to that foundation as I turn to God and the promises in His Word. Like the promise to “never leave nor forsake.” Or the hope we can have because of Him in this life and the next. He is a God I can count on even if I don’t understand the whys or the ways. His love is fierce and forever. And, He is here, close, and all I have to do is ask. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8. So, God I ask you to heal my heart and restore my life.

The truth is that I need a change in perspective. From negative to positive. From masks to authentic self.

I know this, though it’s hard to do right now. Too many triggers snap me back to deep sadness or throw me into anger or fling me into heartache. Underlying everything, I am exhausted and stressed—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually.

Enter November, the month of thanksgivings, the month where I normally join others in 30 days of gratitude. I can’t, or won’t, do so again this year. I’m not there yet, though I want to be. I miss you and Dad too much. I miss me with you guys in this world, in my life. And if I am going to rebuild in this new world, the one without you, then I need new ways. I am rebuilding not only my life but also myself.

Therefore, I am going to start a new November tradition in honor of you, Dad, and Grandpa. Grandpa had a sweet spirit and always looked for the best in everyone and everything, and you and Dad both loved life in unique and interesting ways. So, I am going to look for and share a thing of beauty every day this month.

A Thing of Beauty is combining gratitude with seeing things in a new way and with authenticity; it’s living in the moment and acknowledging what is (good and bad) and reinventing what life gives us. This reminds me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann” where the narrator sees beauty and connection in the eyes of skunks. This I feel I can do. I can look at what is, whether I like it or not, whether it’s ugly or bizarre, and find beauty or create meaning out of the muck. Like a lotus flower, I can find a way to blossom out of the mud.

As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment.” A Thing of Beauty is just that: to approach life with the “openness” and sense of “wonder” in order to reveal meaning.

Lamott also writes that “It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” My heart and spirt have been battered by this earthquake in my life, and my hope is that this activity will renew my heart and spirit and touch others in the process.

UD, I think you would love this idea. I can imagine what you would say, and this month, I will hold you and Dad close as I choose A Thing of Beauty each day. My first choice is the memories I hold of you, Dad, and Grandpa. I’m smiling as I remember enjoying family events at your house, fishing in our pond with Grandpa, or watching road movies with Dad. One of the last movies I watched with Dad was About Time, and the protagonist shares that “We're all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.” As I focus on these positive memories, I am filled with contentment and love in this moment. All three of you taught me so much, and I have become who I am because of you. I consider it a privilege and am grateful. Your love enfolds me and stays with me no matter what, and that is A Thing of Beauty. 

Love, Rach