"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Going Slow

My new chiropractor was walking me out to the front desk, noticed how I was walking, and stopped to give me one last bit of homework. "You're throwing your hip," she said. "Let that right leg push back."

I'd just spent one of the most amazing hours I've ever experienced in the presence of a healer. The right side hip area pain that's been my regular companion for over two years now had reached the point where I couldn't walk anywhere without limping. Clerks in stores would stop me and ask if I was alright.

The pain would ebb and flow, even stay away for short periods of time, but never left completely. In the weeks since Kathleen's death it has moved in to stay, refusing to be distracted or appeased or calmed. I hurt. All the time.

I found Susan in the sort of roundabout way that made it clear she was exactly where I was meant to be. From the moment she walked into the adjustment room, the air was filled with her gentle chatter. She's a chiropractor, but started by wanting to know about my psoriasis, and from there went into a discussion about fish oil and inflammation. Before she'd even seen me stand or asked about my pain, she was writing down homework for me.

Her focus on inflammation was the final confirmation I was in the hands of the healer I'd been praying for. I've know for a while there was a connection between the psoriatic arthritis in my hands, and the inflamed SI joint that has me walking like Chester from Gunsmoke. When she started talking about coming at the inflammation from all angles, including the inside out, I nearly laughed. In early December I had done research on anti-inflammatory diets, but never got farther than thinking it might be a good idea for me to try.

As she showed me how she wanted me to walk, I said, "That would mean I'd have to slow down - a lot. I don't know if I can do that."

She reminded me I've been protecting that pain for so long, my whole gait is wrong, and I'm going to have to retrain that leg. "It's good you want to walk," she said. "That will help loosen things up. Just remember, going slower will get you there faster."

That stopped me in my wobbly, and by that time very tired, tracks. Going slower to arrive faster. I know she meant the healing of my leg, but I heard so much more. I have to return to the classroom in the fall - have known since Thanksgiving. The time between now and then seems beyond precious to me - my last months of freedom to finish my book, enjoy the solitude, find whatever healing I can. I've felt like I needed to fill every second of every day with meaning and productivity so as not to waste a bit of my time. In a hurry, needing to move faster than the calendar.

"Going slower will get you there faster."

And just in case I didn't quite get the message: I'm now eating anti-inflammatory foods as part of the inside out approach to my pain. Coffee is not on the list of permissible foods. I love coffee and have started my day with two or three cups, with cream in recent years, for most of my adult life. Slow seems to be the only speed I'm capable of today. My brain is muddled and trying to figure out what happened.  The cup of organic decaf I was allowed this morning seemed like coffee, but the results were nothing like what coffee usually delivers.

Since I can only do slow, and have a date with ice every two hours, I'm going slow today. Trying not to crane my neck too hard toward the future to see if I am in fact getting anywhere I want to be faster.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Reunion, 1994
Flipping through the pages of my notebook yesterday, I scanned for a specific story I knew I'd written, and that I thought would fit with the new direction of my book. I didn't find that story there, but what presented itself gave me chills, and brought me a sense of peace and closure. In a class last year we were given the prompt to write a letter to someone we wished to empower. Once that was done, we were to continue with what their response might be. This is what I wrote - months ago:

To my daughter,

If I could give you the answers, I would, but even if I could, I know at this point in my life my answers won't work for you.

I know life hasn't been easy for you, beginning with a mother who gave you away, then growing up the only child of color in a remote Alaska town, then throwing everything stable away with a Mexican boy at the end of one wild summer.

What none of us knew then was the inner demons you fought - some chemical aberration that allows you to fly higher than humanly possible, then exacts payment in depths few can survive.

Even with all of that, I wish I could give you the certainty that you are loved. Not one day goes by that both of your moms don't pray for your happiness. I risk speaking for the mom who did what I could not, knowing how hard she's worked to keep you safe, knowing she loved you enough to give you me.

Even with your illness, even with your wounds, even with the mess you've made so far of the life you have - you are loved. Deeply and without condition. It's not too late to do one thing to move closer to the gifts you came her to express. The one thing - the only thing I've ever asked of you - is that you tell the truth.

In that, healing can and will happen. In that, you can be helped, even in the worst depths of the chemical chaos that cannot be completely compensated for. If you could say, I'm ill, I need help, I believe you would then be able to absorb the love that has the power to heal.

I hold you in my heart - have always held you there. Maybe if you would trust us both with the truth, we could finally be a mother and daughter whose love for each other holds them both firmer when the ground shakes.

I love you.


Dear Mom,

I would if I could. I can't. If I tell you the truth of myself, I will lose the one thing I've clung to since I knew I had another mom - the possibility that if you had raised me, I would be okay. I don't care that you couldn't - I don't blame you, I'm not mad - but I know you would have helped me be okay.

I can't bear the thought that you know I'm mentally ill. I'd rather pretend and be only your cute loving daughter who shops and cooks and plays with kittens with you.

I know how much I've hurt you. I'm so so sorry. But this is the best I can do. A phone call here. An e-mail there. 

And the hope that my own daughter, with the help of my second mom whom I hate so often and can never love enough, will be spared both the life that forced you to give me up and the life of insanity I created that nearly ruined her chances. I raised her, but really my other mom is the one who made sure she had what she needed to be ready to face the world.

So we share that, you and I, the not being able to raise our own daughters. And I do know how much you love me - have always known that. 

The truth is - that truth you're always pushing me to tell you - the truth is I would be so much worse, so much less stable, so much more wounded  if I didn't have two mothers to love me instead of one. I know that on my good days, which we both know grow fewer and fewer. But when the time comes, when I don't know anything else clearly, I will always remember your love.

I love you,


The last picture she sent me, sometime last fall.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Grace has been showing up in a no-accidents way in the last few days. The word seems to be appearing everywhere. That's probably why when my cat, Grace, sidled onto the crossword I was trying to finish, instead of bumping her off like I usually do, I sat and studied her.

I've always loved grace - as a word, as a concept, as a name. If I'd had another daughter, she would have been  Grace. I had to be satisfied with a cat to carry the name so I could say it and be with it on a regular basis.

As I watched the old, half-Siamese cat purr and shed and try to watch me back through eyes that rarely track in the same direction, I laughed at how many different ways she's actually like the grace of God.

She's always there. No matter how much I ignore her or how often I shoo her away, she's always right under foot, or under chin, or following me from room to room.

There is a soft warmth to her love and it's given without regard to my mood or my desires one way or the tother. She is also capable of inflicting pain, kneading away with claws that have lost their capacity to retract well. Often she is completely silent, almost invisible. Other times she's louder than the coyotes traveling through at night and impossible to miss.

John Ortberg says, ". . . grace always and only consists of what will help someone come home and be immersed in the love of the Father." Which means sometimes grace appears as pain. Or loss.

Anne Lamott's experience of grace led her to say, "I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us."

My favorite discovery is this by Samuel Rutherford, "Grace grows best in winter."

In these weeks of grieving I've been aware of something missing. For the first time in my life I'm not blaming God for this pain, or for my daughter's death, or my nephews, or the death of Christina Green. I don't understand, but I don't blame. I would choose for them all to be alive, for the pain their deaths have caused to be erased, but I don't get to choose. I only get to choose whether I'll rest in God's grace, which is abundant in my life beyond anything I've ever experienced. And I can choose to allow that grace to flow through me once the thawing of spring arrives.

In the meantime, I hold a bony old cat with claws stuck in my shirt and whisper, "I love you, Grace."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


The subject line said simply, mom. The late afternoon e-mail from my youngest brother could have been about our mother or his mother-in-law, both of whom are fragile. Since the law of threes is one away from being fulfilled, I expected the news to be bad. What I didn't expect was the feeling of almost overwhelming irritation that swooped in when the news involved social services, an insurance company, and a time limit, all of which required my attention because I hold the PoA for our mom. Mom was fine, but that didn't make me feel any better.

I went to bed fuming, just a couple of notches away from ranting and raving, and completely puzzled about why the feelings were so strong over something that, at the most, a month ago would have elicited a shake of my head and a rueful grin at the way my baby brother operates.

Sleep managed to overcome my state, until the phone rang at 2:00 A.M. The voice saying it was a wrong number was not that of a stranger, but that of my cousin who hung up before I could ask what was wrong. I thought about calling her back, but didn't want to wake up any more than necessary, so instead spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, falling back to sleep just before my alarm went off at 4:30.

I stayed in bed, settled into real sleep, until the phone rang at 5:30, and rang and rang and rang. So I stumbled into the kitchen to hear a recording tell me Walt had a late start today. When I found him outside and told him about the call, he looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. When irritation found its way to my voice and I mentioned I'd hoped to get some sleep, I got the same blank look. When I took a breath, and was just an exhale from making everything his fault, he took me in his arms and just held me.

A few minutes later as I sat here reading a second no-more-helpful e-mail from my brother, hearing Walt rummage in a drawer for a thing he'd put there himself, listening to cats yeow and Toby demand attention - and wanting to scream at all of them to shut the f***k up and leave me in peace, I realized the problem wasn't with any of them. In fact that was a pretty normal morning for us. The only not normal event was the way I was feeling.

Then I received an email from my friend Jan who often sends me links to amazing blogs. The one she sent me today was nothing short of miraculous. Jen Gray talks about grief, applying her own experience to the Kubler-Ross stages. It was what she said about the anger stage that went straight to my soul: I would have to say Im more irritated and impatient than angry.Not so tolerant of things that normally would roll off my back. 

And then the rains came. Somehow seeing those words, understanding that I've just found myself in a new room of this house called grief, broke my heart all over again. It was like all the prickliness of the previous hours left me more vulnerable than before. A vulnerability that was held and honored by messages from friends (and my sweet husband), a series of surprise gifts of love spread over the morning, from people who couldn't have known their words were exactly what I needed today. 

This storm has blown over, leaving me tired, beyond tired, and for the moment at least, free of irritation. Feeling sad, not just for my loss, but for all the senseless loss that seems so abundant right now. And feeling more certain than ever that love will win in the end. That love does in fact win every single time one person opens her heart, every time one person returns unkindness with a gentle hug, every time a choice is made for peace.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Another Battle Lost

The soldier handed my sister-in-law the triangle of a flag he'd just moments before pressed against his heart, thanking her for her son's service to his country. As I stood in the damp and cold Pacific Northwest winter air, leaning into my seated brother, trying to offer him warmth, I reflected on how we found ourselves in this place just a week into the new year.

Joe, 26, always troubled, often trouble, bright and charismatic, put a gun to his temple while his girlfriend was upstairs in a friend's house, and killed himself on the first day of the new year. My brother and his wife came home from their Christmas travels to the news of her son's death.

The shock of Kathleen's death had just begun to scab over when Frank shared the news. Two suicides in one family, weeks apart, both by young people who had every resource at their disposal and who were loved.

Joe had a military funeral because he served in Iraq. His service there was neither exceptional nor exemplary. His life was neither of those things. Yet his funeral was packed with people who loved him, whose hearts were broken by his death, whose lives are left with huge holes because he's gone.

I have no answers. Only questions. And deep deep sadness.

I wonder at the pain these two young people were feeling that made living seem so unbearable. I wonder at the paradox of them trying to numb their pain with drugs and alcohol, yet those substances smoothing the road to their deaths. I wonder how they could not feel enough love to ease the pain and make staying worth the struggle.

And that's what makes me the saddest. They were loved and they couldn't feel it. They were not alone, yet they got so lost inside, they didn't understand. There were choices, many other choices than the one final and irretrievable one they made, and none seemed possible to them.

I know pain. I've experienced my share of suffering and loss. I've considered taking the path Kathleen and Joe did. I come from a family where alcoholism (both maternal grandparents), suicide (my biological father, the one I never met, shot himself on Father's Day) and denial (my mom escaped into dementia ten years ago with no obvious physical explanation) are standard methods for escaping pain.

Yet here I am at almost-sixty, healthy and thriving. The pain of losing my only child eased by the love and connection I feel from every single person in my life. I don't know why I'm here, and they are not - all those who chose oblivion over the messy wonder that is life. I only know that their passing leaves me with a more tender heart and a renewed determination to shine what light I've been given as brightly as possible.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Frost Heave

The ground of my front flower bed is soft, fertile, well-worked. For most of the year it supports a soul-satisfying and always shifting array of color, texture and fragrance. From crocuses to hyacinths to yarrow to lavender to bee balm. The alchemy of combining rich soil, warm sunlight and rain results in a treasure chest that rivals any collection of jewels anywhere.

For the short time the soil lays fallow in our climate it remains soft and receptive, waiting for warmth to return. But once in a while Arctic air moves down from the north bringing such intense cold that the moisture that once offered gentle liquid sustenance transforms into a harsh frozen solid.

Crystalline trees form and grow upward, strong enough to hold rocks and a complete layer of soil. What was once a smooth and serene surface becomes a terrible forest straight from a fairy tale enchantment. It takes over the landscape with the promise that even when the magic kiss of the sun breaks its power, its effects will remain. Nothing will be left in quite the same place. The soil will be even more porous than before, more tillable.  The newly unearthed stones will be removed in the spring planting, leaving the ground cleaner and even more receptive.

The ice forest reflects light on the grayest of days, but offers no warmth. Its harsh beauty, capable of drawing blood, refuses to hide anything, exposing everything.

There is no way to prevent an Arctic blast or the resulting frost heave, beyond the creation of protective layers so thick they keep the cold out at the expense of allowing any life in at all. And so I stand in this frozen forest, kept warm enough in the quilt of the many prayers and kind words and shared stories offered in these last days to surrender to its cold cleansing fire knowing it will leave the soil of my heart even more fertile than it was before.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you who have left messages of comfort and shared your stories and offered prayers. You are warm sunshine in this frozen landscape of grief and I will be forever grateful to each and every one of you.