Death

Three Weeks an Orphan

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Three weeks ago this past Saturday, I became an orphan. My beautiful mother slipped from my arms into eternity’s embrace, and with a soft kiss goodbye, my siblings and I became parent-less adults.

A bitter mid-western winter rendered beautiful in all its stark solemnity this Missouri that she so loved. The place of her birth, and now the setting of her long sleep. We gathered in her presence, where we comforted and were comforted in return.

We climbed a steep and rocky hill, braced ourselves against a bone-chilling wind, and whispered each our own secret farewell. Gloved hands taking turns resting briefly against claret lacquered walnut. Fingers plucking a white blossom momento. A little boy’s kiss blowing toward the sky. Toward heaven.

A daughter who was the last one to leave them alone, her mother and brother reunited, side by side.

Three weeks ago.

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Giving Thanks

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“You know our hearts, You know our needs.”

These are the words my brother Jim used every year in his Thanksgiving prayer. Our family seated around the table in the house he and his wife rebuilt after the tornadoes of 2003, we bowed our heads as he spoke. The smell of roasted turkey and his world-famous gravy filled the air, and the counter was full of goodies: my sister-in-law’s pumpkin pie and haystacks, my mom’s infamous fudge, and my fruit salad. If we were especially lucky, there might be venison slow roastingĀ  from a recent bow hunting trip.

My favorite part of the meal came just before we actually ate. Jim would go around the table, asking us each to mention something from the past year that we were thankful for. Sometimes someone would say something funny. Sometimes someone would say something serious. I loved the power of reflection, of tradition, of acknowledging our human-ness – that whatever we were thankful for was maybe something we could not have accomplished on our own. I loved that he made an effort to bring thanks into our Thanksgiving celebration.

“It’s just not the same.”

It has been seven years since I sat around his Thanksgiving table, and six years since the accident that took him too soon. Our family dynamics have changed a lot since then. People have moved, and moved again. My nephews have graduated college, and I married and have a son of my own. Still, I confess, I find myself in a love/hate relationship with this holiday of Giving Thanks.

I struggle with wishing things could be the way they were. I struggle with trying to make something new. I struggle with missing my brother. But, today, his words are on my mind, “You know our hearts, You know our needs.”

“What are you thankful for this year?”

This year, finally, I can say that I’m thankful for everything. I’m thankful for all the days we were able to spend together. All the games of dominoes, all the leftover turkey and cranberry sandwiches. All the times we both brought a secret stash of cranberries to make sure there was enough. The tryptophan semi-coma aftermath of 11 people searching for a piece of couch or chair to fall into while waiting for the gumption to get up for dessert. Again.

I’m thankful that, finally, I think the fog of my grief has cleared enough for me to realize that while I cannot recapture those days, I can share the essence of them with my son. The prayer, the food, the stories, and in a few years, maybe even the dominoes. Most importantly, I can share the love of family, and the tradition of taking the time to reflect and give thanks.

My son will never meet my brother in this world, but I will do my best to make sure he knows him. This year, when my little family of 3 gathers around our table, we will give thanks. Thanks for our past, our present, and our future. And, I will tell a little boy about his uncle who made the world’s best gravy and played a mean game of dominoes.

Grief’s Journey

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I remember the night I got the call. You know, the kind of call that none of us wants. There had been an accident, and he was gone.
Not a day of my life had gone by without him in my world. The youngest of my 3 older brothers, he was 12 years old when I was born, and he was the quintessential “big brother.” Loving, overprotective, funny, and artistic, he won every thumb war and tickle fight. He looked out for me, wanted the best for me, and brought Technicolor to my little world.
In the days after the call, in the gathering of friends and family, the laughter and the tears, the shock and disbelief, I recall having a strange quietness inside of me. It was a stillness of sorts, as I hugged my sister-in-law and nephews, my siblings and cousins, as I held my mother in her grief. I realized we all were grieving a different person. The boys, in college and on the verge of adulthood, lost their father. My sister-in-law lost her husband of 20+ years, my siblings and cousins lost their best friend.
My mother. Well, my mother lost a sweet-smelling new born baby, a towheaded darling toddler with her own azure eyes, a tender-hearted 6 year old who fell asleep writing to Santa Claus, a scrappy adolescent, a charming yet rebellious teenager who grew into a hard-working, generous man. She lost her youngest son.
And, me? I felt (still) like I had lost a constellation of sorts. Something in my life that had always been true, that made the world, in all its fog and pain and dust, a bit more navigable.
I wasn’t angry with God, but I did question His timing. Jimmie was fairly young, had a wife and two boys who still needed him. If God had to take someone, why not me? I was single at the time and not yet a mother. Not as many people needed me. Mine was not a big life. I wasn’t a constellation.
My brother’s own words comforted me. He had always believed that, “when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go, and that’s all there is to it.” It’s just that, it seemed impossible that a heart so big and a personality so bright could just disappear. One minute we’re waving good bye in our own special way as I leave on what I think will be my “big adventure” in the Pacific Northwest. The next minute, I have to remind myself to breathe because I’m not sure there’s any oxygen left in the world.
Eventually, the services were over, the visitors had gone, and I was free to grieve in my own way as I resumed my journey over the mountains. It seemed disrespectful to be starting a new life when the life of one I held oh, so dear had ended.
I was surprised in the things that brought me comfort. Pulling off to the side of the road the first time I heard one of his favorite songs on the radio, I cried and screamed, and then I laughed. That almost felt wrong, too. But, I knew he would want me to laugh.
I prayed. But, I didn’t really know how to pray. My heart hurt. My soul hurt. I asked God to please, just help me. Help my family. Help us to survive.
I tried desperately to retrieve that voicemail message that I knew I had deleted 2 days too soon. Every time I picked up the phone to call him, the pain seared as my brain caught up with reality, again. The human in me wanted to know the why. And, of course, the only real answer was that one that the child in each of us despises, “just because.” Of course, that doesn’t really seem like an answer, at first. Then, as it wore me down and won, as reality so often does, this reviled answer and I began to make peace. There are simply some things that we cannot and will never understand. We can only choose to live with them, side by side on the journey.
I read that C.S. Lewis, who lost his wife to cancer, came to the conclusion that the pain we feel in our grief is born of the love and joy we share in life. This pain of mine, then, this “just because” became, eventually, a beloved companion. I could not have the memories without the pain, and the memories are worth it. They are worth every sharp edge, every subtle shadow, every short breath, every tear. They are worth it because my brother was amazing, and he loved me. And, I love him, still.