Grief

Heartbeat

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A small crystal clock that once belonged to my mother sits on my nightstand. One classy thing amongst my scattered clutter — 16 books, 2 hair clips, my son’s Legos, and a winged Skylander.

But.

When the world is quiet.

When I’m quiet.

I hear the tick tock beat of time slow and steady.

Her clock. From her nightstand.

Now mine.

In the quiet, she speaks to me of time and timelessness.

Tick Tock

Tick Tock

I’m still here with you.

When I lay in the stillness of night, I imagine her listening to the same the tick tock beat,  and wonder what she thought about.

Then I realize that, at least sometimes, it would have been me.

And I smile.

Thinking of her thinking of me.

Tick Tock

Tick Tock

 

 

 

The Language of Motherhood

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My husband and son, at the beginning…

My earliest memory of my mother is of her hands. Strong, soft and sure, one holding me fast by the arm while the other sudsed me up with a soft cotton washcloth. I was sitting in the kitchen sink. It was stainless steel, cramped, and cold against my back, even though it was summer. But she had me, and wasn’t going to let me go.

Now, looking back over the last 40 years, I can see my mother’s hands over and over again. Brushing my hair, scrubbing the floor, rolling out dough, pulling weeds, holding her Bible, ironing with steam, sewing a button on, making sandwiches, tucking me in, wiping away my tears, pointing the way, holding my hands and waving goodbye…

Sometimes, often in fact, during my own journey through motherhood, I wish I was more like her. She was a doer, always busy, always with a goal in front of her – she didn’t rest until her work was done. Our house was spotless. Her hands were always busy and full.

Sometimes, when I was young, I would get frustrated. Why can’t we just relax and have fun once in a while? I would ask. Because there’s work to be done, she would say. Won’t it feel good when we’re all done?

Now, I wake up in the morning, feed the cats, feed the dog, feed my son, get my son ready for school, and get myself ready for work. I get dressed and while I’m curling my hair, I see that the bathroom could use a sweeping. I should plan on going to the laundromat tonight after work, but my son has a music concert, so it will have to wait. Backpack? Check. Lunches? Check. I pull out of the driveway…did I make the bed? Uhm…maybe not. Geez, the flower bed needs weeding…I sure wish I was more like mom.

I look at my son in the rear view mirror, and we share a smile, my hands gripping the steering wheel in a tight turn into our busy, busy day. We laugh and talk. At the stoplight, I reach back and we hold hands for a brief moment, our secret signal to one another that everything will be alright. Then, we move on.

We get home at the end of our day, and I fix supper, we eat and do a few chores, and then there’s this precious window of opportunity – about 45 minutes before my little boy has to go to bed. The bathroom floor still needs swept, but I don’t do it. Instead, I sit on the couch with my son, and we read. Or tell stories. Or play Legos. Or watch Green Lantern. Or have a tickle fight. Or just snuggle.

The time goes by, and we say our prayers…a tuck here and a tuck there, and he’s off to sleep.

It’s 8 o’clock. I go into the bathroom. I forgot the broom. Why can’t I be more like mom?

I indulge in a pity party. Mom was a better mother than I’ll ever be. She worked so hard and loved so much.

Then, I hear her whisper in my ear. You love just as much. You work just as much. You are everything just as much, just different. You are just what you are supposed to be.

I came to realize that my mother’s love language was acts of service. Every jar of pickled beets, and every starched blouse; every hot meal, and every clean floor said I love you.

My love languages are words of affirmation and physical touch. So, every conversation about my son’s day at school, his favorite Skylander or Pokemon, and every snuggle on the couch says I love you.

So, mom and I are different, but the same.

Our love is different, but the same.

Our mothering is different, but the same.

It’s easy to compare ourselves with others, especially those we hold in high regard. It’s also easy to use that comparison as a way to tear ourselves down instead of building ourselves up without seeing the good that we do. We come to equate different with wrong.

Try to see yourself with loving, truthful eyes. That’s the way those who love you see you, and it’s the way your children see you, whether your bathroom floor needs swept or not 😉

 

 

 

 

The Perks of Persistence

My five-year-old son is a Skylanders rock star. We bought him the system when he was 4, even though it’s recommended for ages 6 and up. I was skeptical. My husband was hopeful. My son was ecstatic.

In a single Saturday, he had mastered the controller, XP’d multiple levels-up, and knew his characters’ full bios and credit histories. Okay, that last part is a joke. But seriously, he threw himself into it, taking my “we never give up!” mantra to heart as his characters fell off the ledge or into the lava. Again. And again.

That was quite a while back, and in the last few months, my heart and my family have taken a few blows. We’ve known need. We’ve known loss. And, we’ve known grief. That last part needs to be put into present tense, doesn’t it? We know grief. Grief is the unwelcome guest with a one way ticket to your innermost being. You don’t outgrow your grief. You learn to bear it; to live with it. Over time, it becomes a companion, and the relationship you share is the one you make it into. I learned this once. And now, I find myself retracing my steps as I walk the path once more.

The days and weeks and now, months, since my mother’s passing have been exhausting. In an ideal world, we would be allowed to be alone in our grief, to wrestle it out in our hearts and minds. But, that’s not realistic. We’re given 3 days, or 5, filled with planning a party you don’t want to have to give, sorting through baubles and valuables while you have a chance to do it  with family, cleaning, packing, visiting her favorite restaurant one more time, then it’s back to work. Back to the routines of the life that carried on while you were out with a shattered heart. As many of you know, it’s not easy.

Ten weeks after my mother passed, my brother and I locked the door on her house for the last time, finally done with the sorting and packing and cleaning. I remember closing my eyes and sucking in a deep breath, hoping to capture any stray memories that lingered, wanting to take everything with me.

The next Saturday, I spent home with my son, greedily soaking him in. “Mommy, will you play Skylanders with me?” His blue eyes, so much like hers, shining at me.

We sat side by side, and played, laughed, and laughed some more. Then we got to a hard part. Like, a really hard part that challenged even my coordination. Our characters had to jump onto a series of rotating gears that were spinning in orbit around our destination, which held the switch that when flipped, would defeat our enemy and reward us with treasure.

It just so happened that my character was the only one of our two that was equipped with the special ability required to take this challenge to task. So, I went for it, and failed, plunging off the third gear or so. (There were a lot of gears.) Each time I tried, I fell off. Sometimes it was early on, and sometimes I would be sooo close, and fail. I was tempted to give up, but that’s not something I wanted to do in front of my son. I tell him that we never, ever give up. So, I kept trying.

I was frustrated. I felt like a dork. This is a kids’ game. Why is it so hard?

Somewhere around my 19th attempt, I made it. At first, I didn’t realize it, but my son started jumping up and down, and screaming, “Mommy is AWESOME!” and it sunk in. I did it!

“Wow!” I said. “That was really hard! I had to do it so many times!”

“Yeah,” my wise-beyond-his-years son replied. “But, the last time was easy!”

Boom.

It’s easy to give up. We’re tempted to every day, aren’t we? We’re tempted to give up on our dreams, on our futures, on keeping up with, well, everything. Oh, and we have good reasons, don’t we? We’re tired. The world is cruel. Our dreams don’t seem to come true. We hurt. We grieve. When we fall of the gear, we don’t want to try again, and again. Experience has taught us that we can try, but we’ll fail. Epically.

But, what if?

What if we’re not done? What if the lesson Experience is trying to teach us isn’t a one-time lecture. What if our professor is more complicated and intellectual than that? What if he is trying to get our attention with an object lesson, and if we skip out of class before he’s done, what will we have learned?

Never give up. Persevere. Our challenges don’t go away. Life is full of them. But, as long as we keep trying to navigate, seeking a path that will get us through, we’ll make it. The journey won’t always be easy, but the victory will be sweet.

James 1:2-4 “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”

Hang in there. We’re all in this together.

Walk it one step at a time. Just keep walking.

What we Leave Behind

 

20140714_095551In the past, my mother had expressed concern over what she had to leave for her children. I remember her being disappointed that she didn’t have a lot of “valuables” to pass on, or a large inheritance to divide amongst her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

I would try to reassure her with words like, “Don’t worry mom, you’ve done so much already.” Or, “Mom, that’s not what matters.”

Still, for my generous mother who was a child of the depression, she was worried about supplying our needs far into the future – a future that she would not be able to reach into to help solve our problems.

My mother had known depths of need in her life that most of us are never burdened with experiencing. And she survived. And she made sure we did, too. It may not have always been fun, and it most definitely may not have always been pretty, but we did it. She did it.

Even after giving her family the greatest of gifts – love and inspiration, courage and strength, she worried. Mothers worry 🙂 What kind of legacy could she leave?

A few nights ago, I found my mother’s legacy in the words of my five year old son. As I was tucking him in for the night, stories read and songs sung, it was time for prayers. What had been a nightly request for grandma to feel better had turned into a nightly request for God to tell grandma hi, and that we love and miss her. That night, at that point, shiny little tears started pooling in my baby’s eyes.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I ask.

“I miss grandma,” he answers with the tiniest of sniffs and the biggest, bluest eyes. He looks at me, questioning. Hurting.

“I miss her, too,” I answer as I wrap my arms around him. “Why don’t you tell me something you miss about grandma?”

I smile to myself and in the milliseconds before he forms his answer, I anticipate a flood of responses. Grandma always had Tootsie-Rolls in her candy dish just for him. She and Uncle Jon always had a bird feeder that needed filling, or a hole that needed “dug” with his little plastic gardening set. Freshly baked cookies with milk in his special blue dinosaur cup. Happy memories.

“I miss her loves!” The words burst out and hang in the air, a look of desperate longing in his little face.

My heart is full of surprise and amazement at the depth and authenticity of my son’s wise-beyond-his-years words. He’s walked beyond the Tootsie Rolls and plastic shovels, Christmas presents and quarter bribery for his good behavior into the heart of the matter – into what really matters.

I held him in my arms and agreed that grandma gave the best loves.

“You know, grandma’s loves are up in heaven. That’s part of what God takes with Him when we die. So, all those loves are still there for you.”

He smiles a missing-his-first-tooth little boy smile and starts to blow kisses to heaven, giving some of the love back that had been poured in.

My mother left a legacy greater than riches or material security. She left a legacy of love that will reach far into the future for generations to come. What will you leave behind?

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.

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 roasting  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.