Tag Archives: grief

What to say when someone dies

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No one really knows what to say to someone when their loved one dies.  You can say, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” and maybe that’s true.  Maybe you actually know what to think or pray on that person’s behalf.  Personally, I’m never sure. 

You can tell them that you’ll be there for them—that you’re their middle-of-the-night-phone-call friend, and promise to sleep with the phone near your bed.  You can write them a With Sympathy card and let Hallmark say something in lofty cursive and sign your name with love.  Or make a digital card with organ music to have a more flashy effect.  You can go to the funeral and wake and talk about all the good memories of their loved one, memorialize them with a slide show, give a toast, even ease the pain with some good jokes. 

You can bring them soup.  Bone soup, if you’ve been there.  If you know how hard it is to eat when you are in emotional triage.  It gets physical fast.  And every bite needs to hold health.

You can use social media to show support, post by post.  But do you “Like” an announcement of death?  Do you “Share” it?  Do you “Comment?”  It’s all a way of observing your friend’s loss.  But in the same place you share about what you ate for breakfast? 

You can give them books:  A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, in which the minister rages against the loss of his beloved wife, himself, his God, and Who Dies, by Stephen Levine, especially Chapter 8, where he goes deeply into Grief as an ultimate vehicle of liberation, saying, “We are dropped into the very pit of despair and longing…an initiation often encountered along the fierce journey toward freedom, spoken of in the biographies of many saints and sages.”  But most people are not open to that journey in the first place, and certainly not when their hearts are shattered into splintered shards.

The truth is, and it hurts in the worst way…that ultimately, the mourner will be alone in their grief, and who wants to say that?  Who wants to bear the news that soon…people will stop Thinking, and Praying, and Liking, and Sharing, and Commenting, and bringing soup, and sending cards and emails and books.  Even the phone calls and texts will fall away.  The unspoken reality is:  People go back to their lives and you are alone.  You are in a club that you never wanted to be in.  And that’s when you watch Renee Fleming singing “Walk On” over and over on youtube as loud as you can.  And eventually…you do.  You absorb the grief.  And you start to see the “golden sky” she’s singing about.  But you never get over your loss.  Never.222

There is the opportunity, however, to use it.  If you’re in the club, you might as well be a steady and gracious club member.  I’m in the club.  And recently, one of my dear friend’s beloved husband dropped dead out of nowhere.  She’d lost her grandparents in their old age.  No one else.  She was bereft.  She asked me to write her a list of things that would help her, based on a phone call we’d shared.  Her mind was in a triage fog, my words were helpful to her, and she wanted to remember them. 

Here is what I wrote.  I offer it to you, if you are a new member of this club.  You are not alone.  And I offer it to you if you are one of those people wondering what to Think, Pray, Say…do: 

Hello, beautiful.  I am thinking of you non-stop.  Thank you for calling on me to be in your circle at this impossible time.  I am not afraid of this, so I’m glad you called me in.  I will be there for you.  The books you asked for should be there by the end of the week.  I will write some of the points I made on the phone here, since you asked for them.  If my words on the phone were helpful, it’s only because you are open to them.  I truly hope they help.  Here is what has helped me and some of the people I know who have been through deep loss: 

  • First of all:  Breathe.  I mean it.  That’s your most important tool to stay in the present, out of fear, and to sustain yourself.  You will find yourself holding your breath.  Try to stay aware of your breath no matter what and keep breathing…in…out…in…out.  Deeply if you can.  Little sips when deep is too hard.
  • Lean into Love.  Wherever you can find it.  In your God.  In friends and family.  In yourself.  Let it hold you for now.  Call on friends and family to give you what you need.  You cannot offend anyone right now.  Let us know what you need and tell us how to give it to you.  “Bring me dinner, please.  Come sit with me.  Read to me.  Sing to me.  Rub my back.  Draw me a bath…” 
  • That said, be careful who you bring into your circle.  Stay away from people who say things like, “He’s in a better place,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”  They’re trying to help, and maybe those things are true, but right now you need people who are not afraid to hold the space for your pain.  You need to find the people who feel easy and safe and not necessarily wise.  Keep your circle small for now.  It might be that you call on people very different from the ones you habitually have in your life.
  • Make sure to eat.  Even if you want to throw up.  Please, eat.  And drink a lot of water.  You don’t want to block your natural energy flow.  Your body actually knows how to handle this immense pain.
  • Lie in bed with your feet up. 
  • Take a walk if you can, every day.  Even if it’s short.  Just get outside.
  • Take Epsom Salt baths.  Lavender oil helps.  Keep some in your purse, put a few drops on your palm, rub your hands together, then cup your hands to your nose and breathe deeply when you need grounding.
  • Write.  If you can.  Just a little bit.  If you have it in you, at some point sooner than later, it’s incredibly useful to write down your vision of what was “supposed to be.”  I heard those words come from your deepest place of sacred rage and I believe that to write that story, as fully fleshed out as possible, would be an important step in one day sending off that “supposed to be” into the sea of surrender.  So that you don’t have to hold it anymore and you can live into your future.  Letting the supposed-to-be go doesn’t mean that you do it injustice or that it no longer exists in dreams and heart.  But it’s important not to have it become armor of some sort.  It’s not time now to surrender it.  But I do believe that it would be helpful just to write it out with great details as a way to honor it.  And one day…yes, to let it go.  Writing is the most transformational and therapeutic tool I know and I think it should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of wellness.  Keep a journal by your bed.  It helps.
  • When the terrifying, claustrophobic, impossible thoughts come, do not let them multiply.  Literally put up a wall that keeps them on the other side.  They are not your friend.  There is no making sense of this loss.  Unless your thoughts are loving and forgiving and helpful, banish them.  If you have to shout “NO!” then do it.  What you let into your mind should feel and act like the very best friends and family who would never let you entertain fear, but only shower you with love.  Love yourself.  There is no thinking your way through this.  This is a time to really find what it is to just…be.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  In out in out.
  • There is no check list right now.  There is nowhere to get.  There is no goal other than to fully live in the present moment.  You can’t skip steps with triage, grief, or healing.  Grief attacks at will, it seems.  Be gentle with yourself if you feel graceless around it.  You have to feel it to shed it.
  • Go slowly.  Be careful.  The only real wisdom I have gleaned from Grief is this:  Grief is one of our greatest teachers because it doesn’t allow for hiding places.  When we open to our sorrow, we find truth.   Your tears then, are truth.  Honor them.

That’s enough for now.  The main thing is to be gentle with yourself.  I love you so.  And the love you two shared will never ever go away.  He is Love now and he is all around you and in you.  If you can’t feel him, feel Love and you will be feeling him.

Hope that helps.  You can do this.  I am here for you.  I promise.  If only just to listen to your tears and let you know you are not alone.

Love, 

Laura

In honor of Dr. Nick Gonzalez 

205

 

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Haven Winter Series #2

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.51.25 PMThis is the second post in a series I’m calling I Gave Myself the Gift of a Haven Retreat. So Now What? Every winter I hand my blog over to other writers for a few weeks to explore a theme. Today, Carol writes about what the future holds after her stroke and Emily writes about writing through grief. If you’d like to come on a Haven Retreat, here’s our 2015 calendar:

February 25- March 1 (only a few spaces left)
June 3-7 (filling fast)
June 17-21 (filling fast)
September 9-13
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25
April 29- May 3- Haven joins the fabulous luxury guest ranch Ranch at Rock Creek for an activity-based retreat that will blow your mind!Click here for more info.

You do not have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker…

Living the Life We Are Given: CTA- Etiology Unknown
By Carol Wooten

I didn’t choose my life purpose, it chose me. A sudden vice like pain at the right occiput hijacked my attention away from the conversation I was having with friends at a summer patio birthday party. Interesting, their words sounded as if they were coming from a TV in the next room at a cheap motel. If I made a BIG effort I comprehended them. More compelling was the absence of the feeling of knowing we take for granted. Was I was leaning over or sitting upright on the picnic table bench?

“Would you like to go inside? “ asked Pam.  “Yes,” I said. However I couldn’t get my body to follow the intention to stand up. Blessed to be in the presence of nurses, all of whom had been in Vietnam, two came to my side. Each supported an elbow lifting and guiding me up right. OK, standing up. Now what about walking. My left foot felt rooted. It required a nudge from Pam’s toe to prompt it to slide forward. I stepped right, nudged, slid left foot, stepped right. One slow careful step at a time.

To safety – the living room couch. Only it wasn’t safe. I was swamped by forceful dramatic waves of nausea. My friends, some former group members, will think I’m drunk, I mused. I did my best to keep every part of me still even my lidded eyeballs as if I could prevent the waves of upheavals. My friends kept me overnight, thinking it must have been the heat or too much to drink. I was right. They called my husband to tell  him I would spend the night. They brought me to the ER at 6 AM after I toppled to the floor. They saw me try to crawl to the bathroom: my left knee, arm, torso failed to support me or to move. I collapsed on my tummy, felt like a beached whale. I suspected I had had a stroke.

The CT Scan confirmed my intuition: a blood clot blocked a tiny artery in my cerebellum. Blood thinner was given, followed by an extensive diagnostic work up - CVA: Cardio Vascular Accident, etiology unknown. It was 1985. I was 38. Then came rehabilitation.

My attention wandered. I did my best to graduate from Stand Up class, brush my teeth, dress myself in sweats: ADL’s.  Activities of Daily Living filled my day. Exhausted after dinner, but not too tired to swap stories with friendly fellow patients in the “dining room.” Jack’s wife, an attractive well groomed woman, told me she was a figure skating champion and teacher. He worried she would have to take care of him and lose time on time on the ice. He wondered if he’d fly fish next summer. Arnold, an accountant who worked so hard to get his thin body to stand. He failed to graduate from the Stand Up class. He refused to join us in the dining room. I understood why.

Each patient at Saint Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco had a private room. Mounted on the wall at the end of each hospital bed was a TV over which hung a crucifix.  If this were a movie, I’d have changed the channel by now. Who wants to be stuck in a Grade B melodrama? Not me. A Jewish woman from New York City, a former high school history teacher, a new Psychotherapist.  “I” planned to build a thriving practice and a dynamic career in the non profit sector by age 40. Then my husband of six years and I would have our first child. Maybe another or I’d get a PhD. Looking at the crucifix I understood “I” was not in charge.  “I” had to surrender, welcome this thing called stroke.  IT became my teacher. Now, my work is Keeping Hope Alive for other folks with strokes by passing on hard won lessons.

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
–Joseph Campbell

Gift of Haven
By Emily Janowsky

Paint with beauty and boldness on the page, Laura’s words echo in my mind as I recall the four days we spent in that serene Montana wilderness, basking in the warmth of a cozy lodge and the nurturing, supportive atmosphere that can develop quickly given the right conditions – in this case, ten diverse but like-minded, creative women and a very skilled and encouraging facilitator.

Show me how big your brave is.  Why is it I somehow hear this exact phrase of the Sarah Bareilles song when scanning through my pre-set radio stations.  You could say it’s just a coincidence.  After all, I’m in the car a lot, shuttling my kids around and doing errands, and the song does still get a lot of airtime even though it’s been more than a year since its release.  But I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.

I don’t believe it was a coincidence that my plans to celebrate my mom’s birthday fell through on the exact day I first saw Laura’s announcement on Facebook that she had limited spaces available for her Haven retreat a short month away.  And of course, that retreat would be held on my mom’s 75th birthday, a milestone to which I’d ascribed a huge amount of meaning, feeling inspired to mark the day in a significant way given she couldn’t do so herself.

Show me how you big your brave is.  I hear my mom’s voice, gentle but strong, and see the love in her face.  She was always there, behind me or beside me, offering words of encouragement and support.  You can do it, Emmaline.  I heard this voice for forty years and it became enmeshed in my psyche.

You got this, I tell myself, trying to fill the void that has existed since my mom’s death three years ago.  I’m learning to give these words the same weight I gave hers, and it hasn’t been an easy process.

“Brave” is a word Laura uses frequently to describe the women who come to Haven.  I have to admit, there were times in the beginning when I didn’t feel brave.  Most of us had come alone, called to retreat for different reasons, whether a major life event or simply a gift to oneself.  We came with our stories, our experiences and perspectives, and a willingness to share them.

Is everyone a writer, even at some level?  We all have stories within us.  What compels some of us to share them on the page?  For me, I’ve always loved hearing others’ stories, have always been drawn to memoirs and biographies over other genres like fantasy, mystery or sci-fi.  The human experience is what interests me, and as I get older, I find myself more willing to share my experience with others.

My mom’s death from cancer three years ago and the ensuing grief have shaped me as significantly as any other major life event.  I know that would surprise many people, but losing her is right up there with becoming a mother myself.  In fact, I’d put those two events at the top of my list in terms of transformative life experiences. So, I guess it’s no surprise that I find my writing focused on grief, loss, healing, life and death.  I was a grief rookie who now considers herself an advocate for the grieving process, with lessons learned that I want to share in the hope of helping others.

Being at Haven was a gift because I left the retreat restored, energized and even more committed to my writing project: Grief, Grit & Grace.  Yes, it takes bravery and courage and discipline to make this project a reality.  But I view it as both the final stage of my grief journey and a way to honor my mom’s life.  I got this.

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Haven Winter Series #1

Every winter I do a writing series where I open up my blog to other writers to explore a theme. This year I asked my Haven alums to consider submitting a piece about what it took to get themselves to the retreat, what their blocks were, and how it has informed future decision making when it comes to creating possibilities for themselves in the field of their dreams.

The theme is: I Gave Myself the Gift of a Haven Retreat. So Now What? So Now What?

If you’d like to come on a Haven Retreat, here’s our 2015 calendar:

February 25- March 1 (only a few spaces left)
June 3-7 (filling fast)
June 17-21 (filling fast)
September 9-13
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25
April 29- May 3- Haven joins the fabulous luxury guest ranch Ranch at Rock Creek for an activity-based retreat that will blow your mind!

Click here for more info.  You do not have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker…

So now I hand my blog over to the first two writers in this series: Suzanne Brazil and Christie Coombs.

Now What?
By Suzanne Brazil

I woke up the last week of March 2014 and checked Facebook from my phone in bed. My talented, funny sister had started a blog. WTF?! How dare she? The big sister in me was proud but the 48-going-on-49-year-old wannabe writer in me was enraged! I was the writer in this family. At holidays, around the lunchmeat and hardening cheese tray, I got to act fake-modest whenever someone asked “when are you finally going to make us all rich by writing a bestseller?”

When, indeed…

Aside from anger, my overwhelming emotion was fear. Had I wasted all my time, all my talent, all my possibilities? I had been writing on and off my entire life but never believed I could “be” a writer. What could I do about it now? Truth was I wrote a lot of different things when inspiration struck but I finished little and submitted less.

I remembered attending a Romance Writers of America conference years ago. I didn’t write or read romance novels but it was cheap and it was nearby. I didn’t attend as a writer or author. I attended as a voyeur, a writing mouse in the corner waiting for a crumb of inspiration to fall from the plate of a “real writer.”

Something sparkly shimmered around the edges of my memory. I realize it’s the feeling I had being around other writers. I threw back the covers and headed for Google. I searched for classes, conferences, magic fairy writing mothers. Then I searched for retreats and Laura Munson’s website popped up. Her name was familiar. I’d just finished her memoir and the part about relying on forces outside her control for happiness resonated with me. I emailed for more information.

On April 8 Laura sent me a personal email. Eating lunch in my car, I read it and cried. I called my sisters and my best friend and read them the encouraging, loving email from a REAL FREAKIN’ NY TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR.

On April 15, David, Montana mountain retreat guru, called and described this magical place where I could figure out if, how, why and what I wanted to write.

Then he casually said “I’ll put Laura on…” Again, WTF?! We talked for 45 minutes. I cried, she consoled. I lamented lost time, she pointed out a path forward. I downplayed accomplishments, she uplifted efforts.

I decided in April to give myself the gift of a Haven Retreat. Now what?

April  – Take a one-night writing class in the city. I’m from the suburbs. I don’t drive to the city.

May  – Take a six-week fiction class in the city. Begin a story via emails to my BFF about my mid-life crisis.

June – I now drive to the city weekly for class. Start a website. Start a blog. Start contributing to other blogs.

July – Finish fiction class. Take another. Write, revise and perform a Live Lit piece in the city.

August – Turn emails into a finished first draft of my first novel.

September – Haven… #Heaven….then home.

October – Helpful Haven Mavens critique a story about my mom. I submit. Attend another class. I’m blogging, guest blogging, publishing book reviews, interviewing published authors.

November – Based partly on Laura’s critiques, begin revision process of novel with confidence. Apply and get accepted to Novel in a Year program.

December – Query, submit and publish guest essay on popular website. Today, receive an email from publisher. Mom story has made it to final selection round for anthology.

Now what? Can you afford not to go?

Now What?
by Christie Coombs

My heart was gaping and yearned for distraction.

The hole that was torn wide open with Jeff’s death on September 11, 2001 had healed somewhat with time.  It’s true that my heart will never be completely healed.  I still feel the loss of my husband every day, but I’ve learned to live without his physical presence in my life, not because I wanted to but because I had to.

And I learned to let someone else in — even though it took me nearly 8 years.  I discovered love again.  It was a different kind of love that I felt for Jeff, but it was definitely real love.  I don’t believe love can ever feel the same anyway.  The man I was seeing seemed to understand the trauma I felt losing Jeff in such a surreal tragedy, and that made him special to me in his own rite.

Then in August, 2012, after being together for 3+ years, the man I loved, trusted and felt safe with, ended “us,” leaving my heart wide open once more. The words ‘I can’t do this anymore’  rang through my head like a broken record stuck on the most ear-piercing verse. There I was, left reeling. Alone. Feeling completely empty again.  But I would persevere, because I had to, and this time, because I wanted to.  (Somehow we’ve even managed to maintain a friendship of sorts, even two years after the breakup.)

I was determined to be ok.  I had survived worse – much worse.

So with my “month from hell” upon me — the anniversary of 9/11, my birthday and Jeff’s birthday, all within a week, our anniversary a few weeks later, and facing the empty nest with my youngest having gone away to college – I plunged back into life. I decided to do things for ME, that would make me feel ok with not being part of a couple.  I did it for 8 years, and I thrived.  I could do it again.  To help get there, I searched for an adventure.

I heard about Haven retreats from a facebook friend. I had always wanted to go to Montana, and I needed something to re-invigorate my writing.   So I took a huge leap of faith, jumped out of my comfort zone without looking back, and booked a Haven retreat.

My flight left Boston on Jeff’s birthday – September 18. Mid flight of the first leg I realized that I booked my car out of one airport, while I was landing at another. Ooops.   After some begging to the rental agent on the layover, I was able to fix that snafu. While checking in, I noticed my license had expired … 3 days prior, on my birthday. I prayed the agent wouldn’t notice. I think he did, but opted not to pay attention to it since he knew I was in a bind already trying to get a car. My little travel mess-up meant that I would drive two hours to Whitefish, but I was fine with that. I wanted to see Montana, not just go there. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, stopping on the way to take pictures and soak up the stunning Montana scenery.

Walking Lightly, where Haven is based, was amazing. I was greeted by David, a truly kind soul who walked me upstairs, and told me to choose my room. The decision was easy – I chose the room with a picture window over-looking the small lake. Haven had just become my Heaven. Any nerves I had were gone. I felt my burdens lift. Meeting the wonderful women I was spending the next four days with confirmed that this was just the distraction I needed. Over the course of that time, we wrote from the heart, pouring out the details of our lives that defined us, tormented us, amused us and excited us, with Laura Munson, our writing mentor, at the helm. We laughed, we cried, we laughed some more, we encouraged each other and we constructively critiqued each other’s written word.  We became friends – Walking Lightly Sisters in Writing friends.

Since then I’ve gone on another Haven retreat, this one in Los Cabos, Mexico. It was very different from Montana, but the women, fellow Cabo Wordshakers, were equally inspiring, as was Laura, and the environment. I came home with more new friends and a renewed appreciation for my own writing.

Through Haven, I gave myself the best gift ever, one that I knew I truly deserved – the gift of self-recognition, acknowledgement, and time for myself.  And in return, Haven gave me confidence in my writing, and courage to face, rather than run from, that which we can’t control.

 

 

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You Are Arriving

This is for all the brave people who have joined me at Haven Retreats, and for those who have yet to come.  The journey is everything.

There are a few poems that have kept me together in the last little while of my life as I’ve gone through the end of my marriage.  This one is at the top of the list.  Whatever end you might be coming to– the end of a relationship, the end of a job, the end of your family as you know it, empty nest…read this and know you are not alone.  The video is a wonder too.   yrs.  Laura

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

– by David Whyte

 

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Holiday Haven: Musings on Comfort and Joy

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Now booking Haven Retreats 2014…give yourself the sacred gift of creative self-expression in Montana…
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“A toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.”

The holiday season can be for many people…let’s just say:  fraught.  Maybe your life hasn’t gone the way you imagined.  Maybe you’d planned to spend Christmas Eve with a spouse, fireside, toasting to the future over your grandmother’s secret egg nog recipe.  Maybe you had dreams of children gathered around a beautifully set Thanksgiving table, drooling over the cooked beast, begging to hold hands and make sweeping statements of gratitude for another year of your endless bevy of sage advice.  Maybe you fell hook-line-and-sinker for the Holiday card photo that would be yours until death did you part—only this year, there’s only one parent in it, and you can’t find your camera anyway, and your kids refuse to pose.  Maybe you strung up your heart on the one small square box that would await you under the tree, filled with a tiny trinket with your name on it from someone called, Forever Yours.  Maybe your adult children and your grandchildren chose to go to the in-laws for Christmas and you’ve heard SHE makes better gravy than YOU, never mind her croquembouche !   My God…maybe you’re alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years.  Maybe your traditions never got a chance to birth.  Maybe the last time you felt that holiday cheer was when you were little and you’re far from little these days.  Maybe you want to beam yourself back to a time in your life that was more fair, simple, abundant, safe.  Or at least call someone who could remember that time with you fondly.  Only maybe, all those people are gone now.  

Don’t worry.  I’ll stop.  It’s not my goal to depress you.  But I’d like to think it’s my job to provide you some comfort and joy.  So here goes:

Whoever you are, wherever you are, the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little.  And before we get too far into the season, I’d like to help your heart hearth make its way to 2014 whole.  Fortified.  Happy to be beating whatever shape it’s in.

There are all sorts of ways to make the holidays sacred without focusing on what’s missing.   You can get a turkey from the grocery store (a lot of them give free birds this time of year), make soup out of it, and bring it to the local shelter.  You can invite friends you know are alone to sing carols at the local nursing home and gather for a meal afterward.  If your kids are elsewhere for a holiday, you can celebrate it with them on another day of your choosing and make it just as special.  You can make a Gratitude Tree out of branches, put it in a vase in the middle of the kitchen, and write notes of thanks on pieces of paper and hang them like ornaments—one per day until you ring in 2014.  You can read to kids at your local library some of those books your mother read to you and you read to your kids, or wanted to read to the kids you never had:  Truman Capote’s “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” “A Christmas Memory,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,”  Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Whales.”   You can gather up every holiday song you ever loved and blast them from the rafters of wherever you currently call home and sing your heart out. 

candleA toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.  You may tell yourself that it does.  And where will that get you?  On the Polar Express to the Holiday Blues.  Let’s step away from that train wreck and into the sacred.  Because no matter how you shake it, the truth is:  There is no shortage of sacred this time of year.  It’s everywhere.  You just have to receive it as the gift it is.  And there’s no re-gifting the sacred.  It comes to you, often when you least expect it, and it fastens you to reality like nothing else can, because it’s all yours.  No one can feel it for you.  Or take it away.  You can stand in a holiday-bedecked Lincoln Center, dripping in holly and cedar bows in the height of Handel’s Halleluiah chorus, standing next to everybody who’s ever been in your Christmas Card from the year you were born…and feel nothing.  You can hold hands around a cooked beast, candle-light dancing on the faces of generations of loved ones and generations of china, crystal, and silver…and feel empty.  You can stop in a snowy field in the middle of the night and watch steam funnel from the noses of draft horses, sweating from the sleigh ride they just took you on where you sang Jingle Bells, and drank hot-buttered-rum and someone quoted Robert Frost…and feel heartless.

So it’s time to stop bowing at those altars, especially this time of year.  If the magic happens…good for you.  As long as it’s something not nothing…full not empty…heartful not heartless.  Otherwise, let’s change the way our holiday minds think.  Let’s look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy.  And let’s create that safe haven around us.  It begins with us.  Not who stands or sits next to us and in what hallowed hall.  Not who toasts with us.  Sings with us.  Eats with us.  Gives us gifts.  Receives ours.  We can take those Action verbs and send them up the chimney.  And we can replace them with a Being verb.  It’s possible to actually BE comfort and joy.  Not wait for it.  Of course it’s powerful (and yes, comforting and joyful) to take that Being and share it with loved ones in celebratory holiday moments.  But again, it has to start with us.  Whether or not you have a faith base, the truth is plain:  Our heads don’t bow on their own.  We bow them.  And whatever we’re bowing them to, especially at holiday time, let’s let those altars be ones that truly fill the heart hearth with comfort and joy.  Not expectation for the future or grief over the past.

This simple bowing to this simple altar is better than any tradition ever has been or will be.  Because it’s free.  It’s un-fraught.  It’s as simple as lighting a candle.  Not as a window-sill vigil for family lost or never gained.  But as an act of pure delight in the exact moment of your heart and breath.  This exact moment.  Right now.  Take a flame to that wick.  Sit quietly and watch.  Smell the wax warm and watch it pool and dare yourself to stay long enough to see it flood and drip.  Don’t clean it up.  Maybe put your finger into its stream and wonder at the fact that you can take the heat.  That it’s still friendly flame.  Just you and a lit candle.  All of a holiday winter’s night. prints

 

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A Pilgrimage for a Dog

St. Ignatius mission-- Montana

 

A few weeks ago I had two thriving dogs—a black lab and a golden retriever.  Both around seven years old.  Both run free in my Montana land.  Both have wagging tails and healthy appetites.  Then I went away for a week to lead a few writing retreats.  When I returned, my black lab was emaciated.  She must have gotten into a gut pile, I figured. The hunters leave the guts behind in the fall and they melt this time of year, back in the woods near where I live and where my dogs play.  Maybe she’d swallowed something rotten that had messed with her system.  But she had zero appetite and that’s odd for her.  “Maybe it’s pancreatitis,” my friend the vet tech suggested.  She’s never sick.  Has the constitution of an ox.  Both of them do.  Well I’m sorry to say that you can tell where this is going.  Cancer.  “Ziggy has final stage cancer,” the vet told me with tears in his eyes.   He also doubles as my son’s baseball coach and is the father of one of his best friends.  “She’s not in a lot of pain now.  But she’s so tired.  I think the right thing to do is put her down.”

When I announced this to my kids, they both got mad before they got sad.  “How can we play with a life?”  “Who are we to decide when a creature dies?”  I couldn’t argue with them.  I agreed.  I called my vet, bawling.  He said that we could wait it out.  But with that waiting, comes quite often loss of dignity.  Urination and defecation in places she would normally be too polite to consider.  Seizures. Organ failure.  He promised that it’s painless.  Calm.  The right thing to do.

So after a few days of enthroning her in the kitchen on her dog bed, the kids lying next to her while she slept and they pretended to do their homework, crying most of the time, I kissed her, and said, “Want to go in the car?”  She came slowly, but surely, wagging her tail, skin and bones and a bloated stomach where the tumor throbbed and ruled…I put her into the car (she couldn’t jump in, though she tried), and drove her to town.  She looked out the window the whole way. I was glad for that.

Inside, we sat in a waiting room where she tried to get into it with another lab, but collapsed supine on her dog bed.  Then we went to the examination room, the same place I’d gotten wellness checks, and discussed ear infections, worms, gotten the cancer diagnosis.  My vet friend described the protocol.  I held her head in my hands.  She lay there, not moving, as if she was already half gone. He inserted the needle in her leg. I said, over and over, “May you journey well, may you journey well, may you journey well…” and suddenly I felt this sharp, nerve twinge in my left hand where it met with her head.  So intense that for a moment, I thought I’d been given the injection– not Ziggy.

It took two seconds.  “She’s gone,” the vet said.  That quick. She was that ready to leave her body.

My yogi friend says that the soul leaves the body from two places—the feet or the head.  You want the latter.  I told him the blast of energy I felt.  He said, “It was her soul.  Good.  It left through her head.”

I took a road trip after that.  Drove to a small mission church about a hundred miles from where I live in Montana, in a town called St. Ignatius.  I cried most of the way down, along the 30 mile long Flathead Lake in the sun, the water sparkling, thinking about souls.  Dog souls.  People souls.  Souls.  And I got to the church.  No one was there.  I went up the steps and opened the tall doors.  No one.  Murals all around.  Light casting across the pews.  Holy week this week, I realized.  Palms on the altar.  

I put in a quarter and lit a candle and knelt and cried.  Didn’t know what to say other than thanks.  To this beautiful vessel of love and light that lay by my feet for at least two written books and many moments of emotional life-wrestling.  Then I sat in a pew, opened the hymnal, found a few hymns that I knew, and sang.  Quiet at first, but I was alone.  So I sang louder.  Loudly. Very very loudly.  Angels and John the Baptist and Jesus and Mary looking down at me.  Dogs barking in the background.

Then I went to a bird sanctuary.  It’s spring.  Holy week even in the world of migration, and maybe especially there.  I sat on a rock in a boggy field at Ninepipes and watched blue herons fly and land.  Fly and land. Fly and land.  Long legs.  Long beak. Such trajectory and grace.  Then I drove home along the other side of Flathead Lake.  “How was it?” my children asked me.  They meant the death.

“Peaceful,” I said.  “Death does not have to be scary.”  I paused and braved the next sentence because when you’ve held an animal while it passes, you feel unafraid.  ”And souls live on.  I’m sure of it.”

Pilgrimage.  Sanctuary.  Souls.  The question is:  can we feel them?  Can we believe in what we can’t see?  Can we receive holy mystery?  I did that day.  And I’d like to keep receiving it.  Ziggy’s gift.

Ninepipes bird sanctuary-- Montana

 

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Long Ago: Community Entry #6

A time to work...a time to listen.

“When I am writing I am far away and when I come back I have already left”

– Pablo Neruda

Further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing this week.  If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June and September retreats are now booking.

Please enjoy this powerful entry to my “Long Ago:  Community” series/contest.  Submissions close Feb. 1.  Winner announced mid-Feb.  Thank you to all who are sharing and reading and commenting.  We can build community from far and wide.  yrs. Laura

Chosen, bAnnette Baesel

I was twelve and stood in a sky blue coatdress feeling very small among somberly dressed adults at the edge of my father’s open grave. A slim silver crucifix lay on top of the simple oak casket. An only child, I stood with my small hand nestled inside my mother’s. She trembled from the cold wind that blew out of the March sky and the grief that had come from nowhere into her life descending like a twister from a Midwestern sky. I felt lonely and afraid yet at the same time comforted by the strength and love that flowed from the family and friends who gathered around my mother and me. These people stood around us like an army ready to do battle in our names. They were the promise that we would survive.  This circle of guardians was a reflection of the life my parents had created for themselves, a life filled with decent, fair-minded people who, just like them, treasured and nurtured true friendship and supportive love.

Years before that day at my father’s grave, there was a half-moon high over our rose-colored, one-story tract home.  It was a warm Californian summer night. I smelled orange blossoms from the small grove down the street, mingled with the heady aroma of gardenias from our neighbor’s well-tended yard.  I was five years old, small and skinny. Mom and I waited at the side gate while Dad drove the long, pink Oldsmobile into the garage. His teeth flashed white in the dark as he smiled and walked towards us. Mom took my hand in hers. We walked into the backyard and I heard the gate clang shut behind us.  My entire universe was within my sight, my parents, our tidy backyard with the big leafed mulberry tree, the light from the kitchen window, and the brilliant starry sky.

We walked out from under the spreading branches of the mulberry tree.  Mom sat down on the top step leading to the back porch of the house. She gathered me up into her arms and looked up to the sky. “Look at all the stars, Annie,” she said. I obediently looked up at all the twinkles. She continued, “You know, you can make wishes on stars? And sometimes they come true.” I nodded, liking the idea quite a bit. With a bit of a hug and a kiss to my forehead she said, “Your Daddy and I wanted a baby for so long.   We wished and wished for a little girl.  Finally one day, a little star was given to us…you.”

After twelve years of marriage and trying to conceive, they adopted me, a three-day-old baby girl. Mom would tell of crying tears of joy the entire seven miles from hospital to home, saying, “Oh, Jimmy, she is so beautiful.”  When they got to the house, she ran to the bedroom to undress me and to stand arm in arm with my Dad staring at the miracle of a beautiful, naked baby on their bed, their own child.  That sense of being chosen shaped much of how have I lived my life. Our close-knit family was comprised of people related by blood and people my parents chose to make family. They knew to nurture all those relationships like prized orchids. They took nothing and no one for granted. So when I stood next to my father’s grave with  my numb and bewildered mother I was a little less afraid because of the presence of all those that stood with us, stood for us.

My father’s death at age fifty-two following heart surgery was unexpected.  My mother was cast adrift.  She was suddenly without her smiling Jimmy,her anchor, her light-hearted partner. She was a single mother with only a part-time job and large medical bills. She was faced with sleeping in an empty bed for the first time in twenty-five years.  She was stunned, angry, and afraid.  Our community of family and friends supported us in ways I only fully came to appreciate later as an adult.  They sheltered me from just how badly damaged she was until I was old enough to understand.

Through gestures and actions both small and large they got my mother through the first couple of years helping her find herself and her direction. She gradually regained her smile and found a new path into the future. Our community of loved ones kept laughter in our lives, even at a time when it seemed hard to find something to laugh about. These were conscious, deliberate decisions on the part of our family and friends.  They chose to support us, to remain as close as we would allow, to help us remember the good times, and face the bad times.

Thirteen years ago, with the support of my adoptive mother, Maxine, I made the decision to search for my birth family.  Unlike some, I was not looking for the “missing piece,” as I have never felt incomplete or discarded.  Rather, it was the simple importance of family connection and community that drove me to search for my birth family at the age of forty-three.

With a few facts my mom remembered of the circumstances of my birth, I found my older half-siblings, a sister and a brother. Despite the passage of years and circumstances surrounding my adoption, our coming together was immediate, intense, and joyous.  There were long late-night phone calls, even longer emails and letters, and the sharing of many photos.  My birth mother, Betty, was relieved to find out that the daughter she had to give up was safe, loved, and happy. Yet she was not ready to meet me. I understood. I was content with the relationships that I was building with my siblings and the eight nieces and nephews that I acquired almost overnight. I believed that time would take care of the rest.

Eventually, my birth mother and her second husband made the long emotional journey to my home. We shared many secrets, shed tears together, and began to forge a relationship.  When several years later, I planned a visit to California to visit my adoptive mom, my birth mother emailed me to say she was ready to meet my mother.

A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the common area of the senior apartments where my adoptive mom made her home. Good King Wenceslas was playing on the stereo system and the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies floated through the air. Mom and I held hands while we sat nervously on the small love seat next to the fireplace.  We saw the car pull into a guest parking space.  Mom could not wait. She rose with remarkable speed given the arthritis in her knees and walked outside.  I stayed behind a few steps. Betty walked across the small palm-lined parking lot towards my mom, followed by her husband a few paces behind.  Under a big blue Southern Californian sky my two mothers embraced. They stood with their arms around each other looking into each other’s eyes. Betty said in a whisper, “Thank you for taking care of her.”  My mom gently responded with tears on her cheeks, “Thank you for letting me.” It was the intersecting of two worlds, two lives, through me. My sense of being chosen was never stronger. I had been, in fact, chosen twice. Once by my adoptive parents when they chose to make a family with me, and now a second time when my birth mother chose to reconnect completely with me, my mom, and my family.

The following years brought a sad, slow decline in my adoptive mother’s life as she battled poor health and dementia.  As heart wrenching as it was, she and I never doubted the love and connection we had with one another. Nor did we ever feel abandoned by our pieced-together family that surrounded us. We navigated the unwelcome and unchartered waters of her last few years by the light that shone from the many lanterns lit by our loved ones.  In her last days in hospice, we were surrounded by pictures of her beloved Jimmy.  I would sit holding her hand like I had so many times before. We listened to the Big Band music of her early days with dad.  Long after she could no longer speak or perhaps hear I would talk of memories, of family, and of friends. At the end, as it had been in life, it was the family we chose to create that gave us the strength and courage to fight the battle and face the unknown.

She died in the middle of the night.  When I left her for the last time, I walked out under a star-filled Florida sky not unlike the one she and I had sat under so many years ago back in California. I remembered how once upon a time she had wished upon the stars for a little girl. Now, it was me looking up to the stars in thanksgiving and grief. It was me wishing on the stars for her safe passage. It was me giving thanks to the stars for choosing to bring us together. As I walked to the car, I knew that family waited for me at home to wrap their arms around my aching heart with love and support. I knew that I would grieve. I would heal. I would grow stronger. I would remember. I would remember that I was chosen.

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Breaking Point: #20

I am going to end this Breaking Point series with two stories of grief:  beginning in resistance, denial, anger and a final facing of the truth…and ending in Glacier National Park, a place I hold dear.  And a reminder that nature (or God if that is your belief) can hold us when we can’t hold ourselves.  “Let go and weep.  I will not leave.”  Thank you to all who have bravely contributed and to all who have bravely read and commented and shared with others.  It is Springtime now. 

yrs. Laura

 

Submitted:  by Laurie Wajda who blogs here.  You can get her ebook here.

Tribute to a Friend

It was 4pm. In all reality it was 5, but the recent time change had stolen an hour so the shadows were reaching their peak. I rolled down the sleeves of my jacket as a chill hit the air, and stood in my own eternity looking at the stone. It was 4:02.

The mist that had started to rise as I passed through the gate was growing denser with the twilight hours. It swirled up slowly, engulfing my ankles, and lulled across the grass, around and over and between each epitaph. Surely my imagination, but as the earth’s pores let out its steam, the pungent odor of decaying flesh filled the air. I stood fixated, pulling tight the coat around me as if to ward off some unseen evil.

I patted the two Michelob Lights I’d shoved into my pockets and settled myself directly in front of…it.

It was my best friend’s birthday, and I was bringing her a beer. The sad part?   I brought two, opened them both, and placed one at the foot of her headstone.  It had been two years since I’d been to this place.  I had to laugh as I looked around and said, “Well, kiddo, you haven’t changed a bit.” And then my head hit my knees and I cried like a baby.

I don’t know if I went there that day out of guilt or loyalty: Guess I never will. But nevertheless, there I sat.

“Listen… I know I haven’t been here in awhile. Well, I haven’t been here at all… A few times but … it’s not like I could forget your birthday or something.”  Phil Collins flashed throughmy head. No Reply At All. “Jesus. Listen to me talking to a rock.” I took a swig of beer and waded through my myriad of thoughts.

“Ya know – I read your name on that damn thing and I still don’t believe it. I feel psychotic sitting here but we always said the big 2-1 would be a hell of a party.  Some party…

“It’s not like I forgot you or anything…  It’s just that, well, it all feels so superficial…   I’d come here, drop off a flower and sit and cry… what’s the point?  It’s not like I’m here for a visit with some tea and a chat, right?

Listen, Kate, You were my best friend – always were, always will be. You were the person I talked to and trusted and partied with – and then you just up and died and I had no one to tell.   I can’t come here.  Just to look at a damn stone with your birth-date on it?  I can’t do it… I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

Before any tears fell I got up to leave. Hands shoved in my pockets, I slowly backed away. I turned my back on that stone, that grave. And then I walked toward the gate, never looking back.  I knew at that moment I would never return.

I left the beer bottles there that day. One full one and one empty one, standing side by side. They stood there together like old buddies saying I’m sorry and I forgive you and Happy Birthday all at once.

When the groundskeeper swept them up the next day, I’m sure his only thought was that a local drunk had left his garbage once again. He would never know that those two bottles stood for years of friendship and laughter.  For vacations and smiles and tears and
understanding. He would never know that those two bottles were a tribute to a friend.

Submitted by: Kaye Dieter  

“The River”

Glacier National Park’s Rocky Mountain Front borders the east edge of the North Fork of the Flathead River that winds its way past my childhood home.  These mountains rise rugged over the grassy, tree-dotted valley that holds this river that has been a friend to me for over 30 years, a friend that listens, always listens.  Even before I sensed it was listening, I was drawn to the river.  Before the sadness.  Before the tear drops would not fall, then carrying the tears that could not be contained, unnoticed and without a grudge, in its welcoming mass flowing cold, clear and comforting, away from where I stood on its rocky edge.

I have come to this place since I was seven years old.  Back then it was pure joy to be a seven-year-old girl with an hour, or afternoon on a hot Montana summer day, with time to be oblivious to everything but what absorbed me from my inner-tube portal.  Tied to a log in the mainstream of the river, my rubber craft allowed for enough interruption in the current that, if I sat silent and still, was usually rewarded by a glimpse of a bull trout lying heavily on the grey-green limestone river bottom.  The inlet, where the water flowed slowly in a clock-wise direction, and the spring glacial silt settled to cover the rocks, is where I drifted facedown, delighting in the newly hatched frogs that hopped from the muddy shore, and the minnows as they zipped, zigzagging through the mesmerizingly spaced grassy reeds.  I was keenly aware of the large water beetles swimming haphazardly, and then colliding bluntly, into whatever happened to be in their paths.  Any innocuous leaf or silent stick that was unfortunate enough to bump into the last 1/3rd of my foot (it required too much effort to keep it out of the glacier-chilled water), was unfairly accused of being one of the clumsy little monsters, and was reflexively kicked at. If the water beetles were monsters, then the slimy green-black leaches were blood-sucking snakes that brought terror into my inlet water world.

From the idyllic age of seven, the dependable nature of the four seasons initiated me into early adulthood sooner, and later than I would have liked.  The river saw it all, and listened the whole time.  When I had to leave the river is when I needed it the most because that is when the sadness became my constant, demanding and meddling companion.

During the winter months of November, December and January the river struggles to flow as the slushy islands of ice glob onto its edges.  By early January it is no longer a black ribbon meandering quietly between soft snow banks, it has become just another cold, hard surface for snowflakes to settle on.  But under the deep layer of snow, on top of the thick glass ice, the subdued river is still listening.  Then, as an 18 year old, I kick and glide, kick and glide down its unobstructed path, the snow greedily snatches the tears falling from my eyes, and the water below murmurs quietly.  I listen.

The river says softly, “Let go and weep, I will not leave. Even though you must leave again, when you return I will be here, and will always listen. I know you and I also feel your sadness. I knew and miss her too. I saw her watching you from the high bank.  Making sure I wasn’t playing too rough with you, admiring my graceful form in the varied shades of light, and paying me the highest compliment by putting my likeness on canvas.  Her protective gazes over you were over me too. So please, let go, weep, collapse, remember, weep some more, and when you are able, remember and smile.”

 

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Breaking Point: #7

I am hosting an end-of-winter series featuring stories from the trenches of pain.  My hope is that in sharing these breaking points, we will feel less alone.  Thank you all for your bravery.  You are helping the world to heal.  To participate and for more info go here.

yrs. Laura

Submitted by: Laura Cassidy
My breaking point has come a few times in my life. I’ve always thought too much and felt too much, and writing was my survival skill for dealing with my pain so I was able to dodge the breaking point so many times.

I’ve had writers block since 1996. I was deeply in love with someone and he died in an accident when I was 22. I was devastated and felt I couldn’t or wouldn’t go on. I did, but nothing felt as close or connected and I didn’t do anything except drift for years. I started going to counseling and got everything out over three years.

I got myself a beautiful bouvier dog, and a year later I met a guy who seemed like the guy I would spend forever with, little did I know that he had a mountain of baggage that would later on cancel out a lot of bliss.

My dog got cancer and was put down, a year later we had a child. His dad died a few days after my child was born, his friend died a year after our child’s birth; and then he had a break down, ran off with a young girl, had another kid and got totally hooked on booze and drugs. He caused a lot of pain and suffering to me and my child first and then he disappeared. I had a partial break down. I laughed heartily at a joke that read:

” Grow your own dope, plant a man.”

It was just what I needed to see at the time. I had fantasies of pounding him into the ground, but instead I stood back and watched
him self destruct on his own and kept myself and my child from the danger zone.

I continued counseling; I ended up falling for my counselor and it felt mutual. After several years I told him. He kept seeing me for two years. Nothing happened but it felt like an emotional affair. I couldn’t stand going any longer but I couldn’t stand to leave.

I told him it was too much mental and emotional torture for me. He tried to dismiss it or get me to admit it was all only transferrence. My breaking point began then… I decided the only way to exit was to do something to make him not want to see me again. I contacted him too many times, knowing that would really piss him off and  he’d never want to see me again. It worked.

It had been a year and I felt myself slowly ebbing into a deeper and deeper breakdown… I kept myself going for my child but in my mind I kept feeling torn apart by all the loss, pain and unrequited love, leaving me feeling broken, torn and similar to ooze on the floor.

There had been too much loss and despair. Almost connecting and fulfilling a deep need but never completing the circle. Wanting to detach and never connect again.

Then a dear friend who was so close and we had shared so much, turned on me because her antisocial husband decided I had to go, because I couldn’t understand why an ipod their kid left here, but found shortly after was fussed over for three weeks.

I was told we were never friends, I was only a helper for years… their kid never liked my kid etc. I said I would miss them anyway and I was told we would never be missed…

That was it for me, I broke down and thought I can’t take anymore! Since age five, I couldn’t stand the agony in life. Sure there was joy and ecstasy in life but the losses and pains seemed to touch me too deeply and my child was taking after me in that department. She said to me, ‘Mommy, I think people just leave and that’s all they do. Right?’

I didn’t know what to say to her, so I paused and then said, sometimes but the good people and the right people for us always stay…

For me what’s been most heartbreaking are the losses and the betrayals and the fact that I offered my heart fully to those who served me with a hearty helping of pain and loss. What I learned from it and what strengthened me was that all our love is on the inside and no one can take that away from us.

All our feelings and thoughts can be chosen and let go of. Writing helps, music helps and good friends help. What kept me going was the ability to express the anguish, anger, fear and contempt for all the ins and outs of the pain and loss and finally a return to love, where home is in the heart and it really truly is.

Everything starts on the inside of us and goes outward and forms an exchange or not. No one can take away all our love, hope and faith or our warm inner sanctuary. That’s what’s helped me get through several mini breaking points and one big huge breaking point.

 

 

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Breaking Point: #2

Supple Weidner Ward

Supple Weidner Ward March 5, 1936 – April 28,1968

I am hosting an end-of-winter series featuring stories from the trenches of pain.  My hope is that in sharing these breaking points, we will feel less alone.  Thank you all for your bravery.  You are helping the world to heal.  To participate and for more info go here.

yrs. Laura

Submitted by: Lauren Ward Larsen, author of Zuzu’s Petals: A True Story of Second Chances (In The Telling Press, 2011) who blogs here.

“The Day Dad Died”

April 28, 1968. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. Not even this gross water sprout hairdo—a tight ponytail Mom has centered on the top of my head—can ruin my mood. I’m wearing my favorite dress, the white hand-me-down from Pam Eldridge, who lives down the street. It has a big fluffy skirt, tiny black roses all over, and it even ties in the back with a big bow. I have my favorite storybook, Hansel and Gretel, all ready to go. Santa gave it to me this past Christmas. It’s really big.

Today is going to be great! I’m going with my best friend, Debbie, to visit her aunt, who lives in Maryland. Her mom is driving. I’ve never been allowed to go on a trip like this without my parents going too. It’s just for a day, but still. I don’t think the other kids in my kindergarten class have been allowed to go away without their parents.

Debbie’s mom blows the horn of her light blue car and I’m flying through the front door of our house before Mom can remind me to use good manners. I yell good-bye to her as I go. (Dad left earlier this morning. He likes to fly his small airplane on the weekends, so he’s already hanging out with his buddies at the local airport.)

We drive for two and a half hours, eating snacks in the car and pretending to read the words that go with the pictures in my book. Finally we arrive at the University of Maryland, where Debbie’s aunt is a student. The whole day is amazing! We walk around campus among all the grown ups. We eat at the university cafeteria where the college students eat. We visit Debbie’s aunt’s apartment and play with the stuffed animals on her bed. My favorite is the five-foot long lime green snake. Debbie and I slap each other with the snake, his silly red felt tongue hanging out of his mouth as his head whacks our bodies.

The ride home that evening seems to take a long time. When Debbie’s mom drops me off outside our home, I’m both exhausted and exhilarated. I burst into the house ready to share all the details of my adventures with Mom and Dad. And then I freeze.

Uh-oh. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m in trouble. Why else would Mom be waiting for me in the living room with that weird look on her face, sort of mad, sort of sad, but also sort of confused?

But why are her friends here? There’s Nancy, who lives around the corner from us. And Evelyn, who lives right down the street (she’s the mother of Pam, who gave me this great dress). And Susan, Mom’s best friend, who is single and spends a lot of time with our family. They’re all sitting quietly around our small living room, Mom in the old orange wingback chair. None of this makes any sense to me, but one thing is certain: I’m in trouble. I can see it in Mom’s face. I can hear it in the uncomfortable silence of the room.

“Lauren, would you come into the kitchen with me for a minute?” Mom says. It’s more a statement than a question. I quietly follow her. When we round the corner to the kitchen, she turns to me.

“Your father had an accident while flying his plane today.” Her voice is calm, almost flat. “Daddy is dead, Lauren. Do you understand what that means?”

“Yes,” I lie. “Can I go upstairs now?”

I walk in a daze to my brother’s room, where I find my three siblings staring blankly at the television screen. I sit down and stare with them. None of us says a word. My adventures in Maryland are already forgotten.

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