Sunday, December 1, 2013
When people asked last week what I was doing for Thanksgiving, I was aware that my response felt so ordinary: a three hour drive north to my baby brother's. We've gone enough years in a row now that I can't remember when this became our family tradition. I take it for granted, while at the same time holding deep gratitude for its existence. There were some years where we didn't talk, let alone sit at a common table and hold hands in grace to offer a communal thank you.
Three generations formed the circle around the table, and three different families of origin were represented there. Two of my three brothers, one to my left and one on the right just on the other side of Walt, laughing and pitching shit and embodying that combination of child and adult unique to sibling relationships.
Our missing family members were there in other ways. The absent brother and a daughter/niece via phone. Our mother in the cherry pie I'd gotten up early that morning to bake. Our father, the good parts, in the eyes and voices of my brothers.
The food honored childhood traditions while incorporating the creations of a new generation. Turkey and stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Cranberries made from scratch by my middle brother. Green bean casserole. Rolls and butter. A small creamed corn casserole just for my youngest brother, a remnant of our childhood that only he enjoys. Pumpkin pie to go with the cherry. Phyllo-dough roll-ups filled with kale and mushrooms.
We played Mexican Train as we always do now when there's a sibling gathering. A game that takes hours to complete, and that brings out a competitiveness we don't often reveal. There is grumbling and laughing and some swearing, and there is fun in its most satisfying form.
So when the phone call came on Friday morning, I received the news from the nest of that profoundly ordinary yet powerfully extraordinary love.
Alex had died Thanksgiving night. One of the two cats we got last winter. Apparently a stroke, he collapsed and was gone in minutes. Our fifteen-year-old pet sitter was with him. Her mom, who made the call, had decided not to ruin my Thanksgiving, to give me as much time not knowing as possible. The drive home was one of the longest ever on a road we've traveled hundreds of times. Traffic was bad, but mostly I was afraid I'd get home and find Bunkie gone, too. My friend said he was hiding under a bed, and not eating. Bunkie who was fearless and who had an endless appetite. Bunkie who had never been away from his brother, and who was now alone.
Grief is the ultimate paradox: simple and complicated in their most extreme forms. Loss. Sadness. Emptiness. The pain surprisingly physical. Many-layered—new grief seems to attach itself to old grief and be flavored by it. Unresolved grieving finds outlet in new loss, magnifying it exponentially. Grief allowed to live on the surface teaches the new grief, like a kind old dog with a puppy, and somehow softens its impact.
And therein lies the biggest gift of Alex's death. My grief for him is clean. It burns like snow on bare feet, but it does not threaten to avalanche. Even though the third anniversary of Kathleen's death is just a couple of weeks away, and I am reminded more deeply of her loss now, this new grief seems a separate thing.
Maybe I've finally reached the place in life where losing loved ones is familiar. There is a loose pattern to grieving, and I know if I'll allow the sadness its voice, it will lose much of its bite. The initial impact is not influenced by the length or type of relationship. I also know there are gifts to be found in this time that cannot be experienced in any other arena.
As I was on the phone Friday morning hearing the news, I became aware that everyone in the house stood in a circle before me. Looks of love and concern filled the space between us, and held both Walt and me as we struggled to absorb the impact.
A young woman, no stranger to loss already, had her first experience being present at a death. She got to learn that she could not only survive the pain and shock of it, but she did so in the arms and hearts of people who love her and who are more concerned about her well-being than anything else.
Walt, determined to soften my pain, insisted on burying Alex himself. I stayed inside holding Bunkie.
Bunkie ate on his own this morning for the first time since Alex died. He hasn't been back under the bed since yesterday morning when I pulled him out to let our sitter see him. Right now he's curled, purring, in my lap. I breathe a prayer of gratitude that he's not going to grieve himself to death, and that he seems to have chosen me as an acceptable substitute for his brother.
The world has not yet settled itself back into ordinary. The aftershocks are frequent (I see Alex out of the corner of my eye constantly), but lessening in intensity with each one. The reminder that death comes on its own terms stays fresh, making life in this moment all the more precious. The warm bundle in my lap. Good coffee. Rain tapping out music on the window. Toby snoring peacefully in another room. Walt doing the same at the other end of the house. Brothers in my life in all the best senses of the relationship. Friends who offer love in ways that constantly magnify the meaning of the word. This breath I take in, and release, softening my heart with each contraction and expansion.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Retirement has become a regular topic of conversation in our household. I bring it up. Often. Walt, who could retire in another year and a half, loves his days as a teacher of math to middle school kids. He got his 35 year pin a couple of years ago, and he seems to gain more satisfaction with his job every year. I'm really grateful for that. Because it's not his retirement I'm wanting. It's mine.
I feel much like I did when I was twelve. I can barely see that girl across the half-century gap that separates us, but I remember her unhappiness. No longer a child, not quite a teenager, not wanting to be there (wherever that was), but not sure where exactly she did want to be. Adulthood beckoned like big city lights, offering freedom, independence, adventure unrestricted by authority. Childhood had not been so great, but a stubborn part of her held out hope it wasn't too late to recover at least some tendrils of the uncomplicated joy she believed she'd missed out on.
She would look in the mirror and be confused by what she saw. Still expecting the braids and bangs and freckles that had defined her younger face, not yet able to see the sophisticated beauty she hoped her adult face would bring, nothing seemed quite right. A seventh-grader, barely surviving the seas of junior high after the quiet pond of elementary school (which she longed to be away from), she endlessly compared herself to flashing schools of town girls. They seemed confident, comfortable, and oh so worldly. Everything she was not.
Caught between the past and the future, the present offering nothing her soul longed for, she waited. She made a friend. She resisted her family. She wrote and read her way into her deeper truer self.
Fifty years later, retirement beckons in the same way adulthood once did. I see retired friends enjoying freedom, and exploring new adventures with energy I get to experience only one month out of every year. I'm at the end of a career I never expected to practice for so long and which has never fit quite right, like a beautiful dress bought one size too small. With the stubborn hope that has sustained me over the decades, I start every new school year searching for spiritual gifts and some answer that will finally make that dress fit.
Looking in the mirror is just as confusing as it was all those years ago. While my face never did morph into sophisticated beauty, it did become a friendly face that people often believed they'd seen before and felt comfortable with. A pretty face with an easy smile. And she's still in there, that younger adult, just harder to find behind the wrinkles and jowls and eyes that show everything whether I want it revealed or not.
I want to do more than just wait out these next few years. It might be only two. It might be three. Or it might be more depending on the bottom line financially. But unlike when I was twelve, there is not the luxury of the appearance of unlimited time. However, maybe I can borrow from the wisdom that kept her safe and whole enough to get to the freedom and independence she sought:
Rely on friends for comfort and fun and true mirroring. Resist whatever seeks to kill dreaming and hope. Embrace the one thing that has remained constant from the time squiggles on a page became a magic door; read and write the way through.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Often when I'm outside in these shortening days I can hear geese calling even when I can't see them through fog that seems to be the handmaiden of winter darkness. Come join us, I hear. Vestigial wing buds twitch and burn beneath my skin.
A morning driving in later than usual, late enough that the thickly clouded sky reveals both texture and form, I realize that beneath the myriad shades of gray flickers the faintest fire of pink. In the west. Not the east where one would expect to see a sunrise. I look behind me to be sure, and the east is as gray as the down of a goose. The pale blush stays with me for most of the trip to school before it's absorbed by sky mountains of thick moisture.
Even in these days when Persephone has returned to Hades and her mother's grief leaves the world to fend for itself, surprising bits of color manage to survive. Nasturtiums glow orange and gold. Geraniums offer flecks of magenta and salmon. Even roses unfurl hopeful reds into gray days.
Occasionally a strong wind will swoop out of nowhere, first tickling the tops of trees, and then scouring everything in its path below. Blizzards of leaves fill the air, along with maple seeds rotoring madly to the ground. Nakedness follows in its wake: trees stripped, the air empty and clean, my defenses breached.
Always this time of year fills me with a formless longing. This year is no different. Except the quality of yearning has shifted.
Before, I thought I knew what my wings would carry me to if I could only find a way to release them. That destination changed from year to year, but there was always some concrete missing thing or person or accomplishment that I believed I was destined to find. And that I believed would once and for all be my ticket to a life in the sky.
I finally know that it's not that simple. There will be no one event to release me from this sense that I'm missing something important. This feeling that life is passing me by and I'm approaching the end and I'll get there without having done what I came here to do. I feel more fully alive in these days of darkness in which everything is magnified like the flare of a dying star. Maybe that's enough. Each day received as a gift, approached with a sense of adventure, spent thoughtfully. Maybe the longing itself is an offering of love meant to be accepted and treasured and explored.
Monday, November 11, 2013
When I opened the card from Walt on Tuesday, birthday morning, the weekend ahead contained all the elements for a perfect romantic getaway. A drive down the Oregon coast on a school day (we both took personal days). Breakfast, our favorite traveling meal, at a new place en route. The promise of all the shopping my heart desired along the way. Things at home left in the capable and loving hands of our favorite critter sitter and her family. Our destination a highly rated bed and breakfast that looked like a European chateau in the website picture.
The first bump in the road happened on Thursday night. Out of the blue we lost water pressure. We're on a well. It was after hours. There was no one to come help us until morning. Which would have delayed our departure by who-knew-how-long. Some time after I went to bed, the pressure returned, so that by the time we left on Friday morning, it was as though nothing had happened.
Our breakfast restaurant, a place Walt found on the internet, was clearly a local fixture, slightly grimy and packed to the door with people who all seemed to know each other. It was a seat-yourself place, depending on people to be honorable. We'd gotten a late start and were both hungry, so leaving wasn't a good option. We resigned ourselves to waiting. Tables emptied with surprising speed, and soon we found ourselves standing alone with just one other couple who had walked in just before us. A table came open. The woman of the couple asked her husband if he'd mind sitting at the bar, and then told us to take the table. That one small act of kindness stayed with me for the rest of the weekend. Plus the breakfast was good.
The drive was fun. We chatted about things we never seem to have time for in our busy day-to-day: retirement, vacations, house needs, school, holidays, family. We shopped. We laughed. We held hands. So when we finally arrived at the bed and breakfast we were in a happy state of mind and looking for the magic to continue.
My first sight of the place was breathtaking. A turret and cedar that glowed in the late afternoon light. It did truly look like something out of a fairy tale. The innkeeper was warm and welcoming, the living room beachy comfortable, the dining room cute and inviting. Walt had reserved the Heather Room for us. The walls were a beautiful shade of purple. We could see the ocean from the windows.
The next morning Walt began the conversation with his disappointment in the room. I was relieved. There was no way I was going to be disappointed with something he'd worked so hard to provide for the sole purpose of pleasing me. There was no one big thing, but so many little things. The bed and pillows were uncomfortable. A strong mildew odor permeated the air. The noise from the highway that separated us from the ocean kept us from hearing the waves crashing. Perhaps things to be expected from a standard mom-and-pop beach motel, but not from a very expensive B&B that promoted itself as a retreat from the cares of the world.
Breakfast that first morning was good, and we set out on our day with good energy and high hopes. Despite my lingering bronchitis and Walt's newly developing sore throat. A long satisfying walk on the beach in mild still air. More shopping. A stop for coffee that turned out to be exceptionally good during which a man with shoe-polish black hair curling around his face struck up a conversation. It was his dog that opened the door. A sweet terrier-sized mutt with huge paws that he told incredible tales about: a mixture of Saint Bernard and corgi, trained by the queen, drug sniffing and recently took down a large man by the throat. I couldn't quite figure the guy out. He was clean and articulate, although his stories were wilder than any a child might tell. He was vain enough to color the mop of hair his hat barely contained, although it might have been a wig. The missing front tooth further complicated the picture. I was enjoying the experience and the dog, although I could feel Walt at my side wanting to get us both away from there. Finally, the point of the conversation became clear: he tried to sell me a necklace made of beads found at some archeological site for a price far below their true value because he needed gas money. I let Walt pull me away, feeling weirdly more alive and richer for the conversation.
The rest of the weekend was much the same. Huge disappointments (our second breakfast of cold and undercooked vegetable hash and over-poached eggs) absorbed, laughed at, moved on from. Delightful surprises (two baldies dancing in the air overhead as we drove home) received with gratitude and awe. The time together an adventure we'll treasure forever, as much because of the challenges as in spite of them.
What better way to start a new year than knowing we can roll with it all, finding love and adventure anywhere we're together. Even in the later years of life, understanding it's possible to achieve new levels of contentment and acceptance and wonder unconnected to circumstance.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Last weekend I was feeling that sense of rightness and ease and joy that comes from physical movement and a choice to release expectations. Exploring Vashon Island with five friends for our second annual retreat at Lavender Hill Farm, we'd been to breakfast, the farmers' market and on a long hike through gorgeous terrain full of fall's glory. We'd finally found Wingehaven Park, a tucked-away beach that was the site of a former estate, and were spread out, each woman engaged in her own reflective communion.
As we walked back toward the stairs that led us to the narrow beach, two things happened simultaneously. I heard a loon cry. A bald eagle flew directly overhead. Both birds are voice of God for me, and to get them both at the same time on a day full of love and laughter and acceptance—it was overwhelming in the best way possible.
We watched the eagle for a long time before making our way back to the cars. Six women (Sandy, Sally, DJan, Jann, Linda), all of a certain age, brought together last year by a desire to meet blog friends whose words spoke to our hearts strongly. Returned to our place this year by some undefinable pull (and a shared spirit of adventure) and joined in a comfortable sisterhood more like that of lifelong friends than internet acquaintances.
Everything glowed last weekend. Even more brilliant by contrast in the sharp gray air, reds and oranges and golds radiated from dying deciduous leaves. The small-town family feel of Vashon infused every interaction (a sign on the trail to the beach said dogs off leash only if they don't bother others). The returned-home ambience of Lavender Hill where the six of us settled in almost like we'd never left. The faces of women who have suffered much and have found ways to live in joy and gratitude, including giving ourselves the gift of time together.
In the week that's followed, gifts have continued to swirl around me like leaves blown away to make room for next year's buds. An abundance that I'm so grateful for—both for its presence and for my ability to recognize it.
Yesterday was a perfect illustration. A day spent with my brother, Mark, working in his space at an antique mall, cleaning and rearranging everything except the furniture. Five hours of hard work spent in mostly quiet camaraderie reflective of our adult friendship, one of the greatest treasures of my life. A dinner after, arranged by Mark, with our two brothers and their wives. Our fourth annual dinner celebration of my birthday—an accidental tradition that is the only time we're all together in the course of a year. I sat in the midst of people who have known me longer than anyone, so happy to listen to the conversations, so grateful that in spite of odds that might have sent us in an entirely different direction, we love each other. And would do anything for each other. A return home to Walt who hadn't joined me because he wanted to surprise me with the new computer I'm working from right this minute.
I turn 62 on Tuesday. It is a time of life full of loss, so like the autumn I love best. And just like autumn, a time full of bright promise and the flaming, unmistakable glory that leaves no doubt that I live held in the wings of holiness and love. I can hardly wait to see what comes next.
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Days, weeks, months careen by. I have a vivid memory of writing birthdays on the calendar last January and hanging it in my kitchen, savoring the unflipped pages like money in my wallet. It seems impossible that was ten months ago and it's time to order a new calendar already.
Walking in the bright and balmy glory that is autumn here, watching salmon spawn in the Lewis River, I feel all the seasons at once. The new life of spring exists in the eggs being laid and milted over. Remnants of summer whisper from the warm breezes. Winter's bones are just beginning to show in the branches of big leaf maples whose leaves provide the quintessential fall delight as I kick my way through. My habitual dread of the cold gray days of winter is tempered by my vision of spring on the other side.
The school year just started. Yet seven weeks have passed. The kids already don't look like the pictures I took of them on the first day. And in scanning the school calendar, the end of the year is just a series of events away: conferences, Thanksgiving, conferences, Christmas, Presidents Day, MLK Day, Spring Break, testing, June12. In that light, retirement will be here far sooner than it feels most days when I'm surrounded by small voices making large demands and having to make a thousand important decisions on the fly.
However the velocity of time seems to increase as I age, leaving me breathless and sometimes afraid, I'm discovering it's not as linear as days on a calendar. Opportunities and relationships I thought irretrievably gone circle back around. Struggles I thought would never end fade away in the turning, and reappear on the next rotation, but often transformed. Parts of myself, the wounded ugly unbearable parts, I thought safely buried in the past, push to the surface, rowdy children demanding to be heard.
And friendships. Oh friendships. That's where I'm seeing the circular nature of time the most these days.
A book group. Four of us met regularly for over a dozen years. More than a year ago we stopped meeting without warning or explanation. None of us tried to get things going again, and I figured we'd run our course. I've missed our conversations, although they were rarely about books—or maybe it's because they were rarely about books. I've missed the women and wondered about their lives. There has been some contact, but nothing like the intimacy of our Sunday afternoon gatherings. A week ago a message on my phone informed me we're starting up again the beginning of next month. I'm ready and eager to meet who we are now, both as individuals and as a group.
A blog group. A year ago six of us met each other for the first time. Bloggers who had connected in pairs and had conversations about wanting to meet others in that circle, we made the gathering happen. On a gorgeous sunny weekend in a magical Victorian house overlooking the Puget Sound, we felt in many ways like we'd known each other forever. We talked about making it an annual event, but at the end of the first weekend, no one was willing to commit to the future. I figured it was a one-time gift, savored the memories, and felt a much stronger connection to these women as I read their blogs. Then a few weeks ago an email came asking if we wanted to meet again. In a matter of hours we all said yes. Next weekend we'll see each other in person for the second time. In every way that matters, we are old friends of a certain age who know and see deeply into each other, and hold dear what we see.
A writing group. After years of trying to find a group of writers to work with, late last summer four of us came together with a common desire for the accountability of a committed circle and a common love of writing. The thing I love most about us, aside from the joy of writing with other women, is that each of the other women is an especially treasured friend. The family of my heart: one a sibling, one a cousin, one a daughter. Watching the group form into its own entity is a wonder, a gift of great measure. We meet today for the fourth time.
There's so much more: childhood friends, my brothers, my husband, a cherished cousin, students, parents of students, colleagues. The relationships ebb and flow, like the ocean, always present and forming the horizon line of my life. Some seem pulled out beyond my reach, until one day the tides bring them to my shore once again. Some manage to become the ocean itself, being sustenance and security—being there always. Some are pulled or drift away, floating somewhere beyond my sight, on the other side of the great circle.
Here's what's different in this last third of my life: I recognize the magic in time's flexibility. As long as I stay open, no relationship is ever over. No possibility is ever extinguished. Nothing really ever ends. As time seems to run out, I'm thinking it may being doing something else entirely. If it can go from the linearity of childhood to the circles of this stage, I wonder if time might not simply take on a new form in the next leg of the journey.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
For a while it felt like we were alone, except for the gently smiling, soft-footed nurses. Then there was a flurry at the double doors leading to surgery. A gurney was pushed through, escorted by three people in caps and scrubs. A woman's head nearly blended in with the blankets that swaddled her and I was just about to turn away as they turned the corner right in front of me, feeling like I shouldn't be observing someone in this way, when I noticed her foot.
One small perfect pink foot emerged from the blankets. Striking—startling—in both color and nakedness. They took her several curtains away from us, so I was left with only that image of her exposed foot that seemed both intimate and vulnerable.
A short while later, the scene was replayed, in almost identical detail. A woman, eyes closed, as pale has her blankets, wheeled out of surgery, with her exposed foot the only sign of real life. I couldn't get the vulnerability of those feet out of my mind. How that one exposed part seemed more intimate and naked than if the women had been completely uncovered.
She, too, was wheeled far away from us. While I sat praying for both women, marveling at this strange world we were visiting, a third gurney came through the doors.
This time it was a man and he was talking to his escorts. No bare parts were exposed. There was gravel in his voice, and something else I didn't figure out until later. He was wheeled into the space next to ours. I listened as a doctor explained the procedure and the man responded through a druggy haze. I heard nurses offer food and comfort. It was during the time they spelled out what the remainder of his time in post-op would look like that things got interesting.
Hospital rules say patients in day surgery have to have another person present to hear after-care details and to provide a ride home and to be with the patient for the first 24 hours. The man next door was alone. His girlfriend had to work and was unable to be there. She couldn't get off work until early evening, which would leave him sitting on the ward for five more hours. She'd only started the job three days before and he wasn't going to risk her losing that job by asking her to come get him.
He said he'd left on his own before. This clearly wasn't his first rodeo. The nurse insisted that hadn't happened at this hospital. He insisted it had. And he was going to leave this time, too.
Over the course of their conversation it became clear this man was alone. He had no family, no friends, no one besides the girlfriend who also was not available. He fully intended to leave the hospital by himself, by bus or cab, he didn't seem too concerned which.
On my way back from the bathroom, I glanced into his face peering balefully through the opening in his curtain. Surprisingly young, he looked like a fledgling raptor, all hunger and sharp talons and fierceness but fuzzy around the edges. I smiled. He did not.
By the time Walt and I left it was apparent the man was going to get his way. He would be required to sign a form saying he was leaving against medical advice. I guessed a nurse would call a cab for him, someone would wheel him to it, help him inside, and then he would be back in the world. Wounded. More alone than not. Tough.
Even in a situation where vulnerability is inherent in physical frailty and the medical world's attempts to repair, where drugs weaken most of our usual defenses, this man managed to maintain a wall. No pink foot exposed to the world for this guy, even in the most extreme of circumstances. For one irrational moment (until I remembered why I was there in the first place) I considered offering to take him home. I wanted to step into his cubicle and hold his hand and tell him he could choose another way. I wish I could have reached in and pulled his blankets gently away, exposing one perfect foot.