"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

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.


DJan said...

So beautiful, through the pain and suffering, such beauty comes through your writing, Deb. I am so sorry for your loss, but it's one of those that, as you said so perfectly, feels clean. Sending you hugs through the ether.

Sandi said...

Oh Deb! My heart breaks for you and Walt, losing Alex in this way. Your words are a gift to me, and I am heartened by them. "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." Truly, a gift . . . no less painful, but contained and focused, as perhaps all grief should be.

I came to this post buried this morning, in renewed grief. The beginning of the holidays without.

Your post makes me yearn for the ability to relax into that softened heart. It's there, buried under the avalanche.

I needed to read this today. I miss you, and love you, so much.

Linda Myers said...

Another loved one, another loss. Part of the cycle of life.

Thinking of you.

Terri Tiffany said...

I am so sorry for you about Alex. But I love the way you are seeing grief. It's part of our lives, now more as we age, isn't it? So happy you had a good Thanksgiving with your family.

lily cedar said...

I'm sorry Deb. But you're right, grief does bring it's own lessons and gifts.

Barb said...

Oh, sadness. The loss of a loved presence. I've experienced that fleeting view of a departed soul from my peripheral vision. Perhaps there is only a thin veil, and sometimes we can see through it? I came to wish you happy holidays, but now I send hugs to you from CO.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

"Grief is the ultimate paradox: simple and complicated in their most extreme forms."

Indeed. Beautiful post, Deb. Sorry for this loss.

Linda Reeder said...

Such wonderful writing! Such a sad impetus to your beautiful words. My condolences for your loss.

Pam said...

So sorry Deb.
Grief is such an overwhelming emotion.
One is at its mercy sometimes and I feel for you, for the losses you have expressed and experienced.
So glad you have the strong support of your husband and brothers, and that you could all share some time together for Thanksgiving.

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I'm sorry for your loss, but I'm inspired by the comfort you are finding in family, friends, and your surviving cat. All the best.

marlu said...

So beautifully written.
Thank you for such a calming piece to consider.

Retired English Teacher said...

I'm so, so sorry to hear about the loss of your beloved pet while you were gone. Grief over pets truly does sting. I think it because they are so intertwined in our daily habits that we miss their presence so greatly when they leave us. Yes, we love them for the comfort they give, and for the devotion, but there is something else about a pet that is hard to explain that makes the hole they leave behind so empty.

Holidays bring so many emotions to the surface. They bring so many expectations, and comforts. They also remind us again that the one we lost is gone. We need to softened hearts this time of year. We need them so badly. Thanks for writing this beautiful post. Again, I'm sorry it was the loss of Alex that inspired it.

yaya said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope Alex's brother will be ok and you too. It was thoughtful of your neighbor to wait until Thanksgiving was done before calling. I'm glad you had a nice day with family.

Dee said...

Dear Deborah, so much pain when a loved one dies. Pain and grief and the heart like a stone for a while. My favorite poem is about death. It's "After Great Grief a Formal Feeling Comes" by Emily Dickinson. In that poem she captures the essence of grieving.

This past year it's spoken to me three times as three close friends--Jim, John, and Herb--died.

The death of any good friend brings with it both memory and grief. But the death of someone with whom we lived in a home that is made home by their presence brings not only memory and grief but the deep down awareness that life has turned on its axis again and we are in a different place that is no longer inhabited by the one we loved.

Then it is that we must embrace both past and present and look toward the future with a trust that "all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be exceedingly well" as Julian of Norwich said so many centuries ago.

And so I trust that you and Walt and Bunkie will make new memories that will stitch the present to the past and make a quilt of love. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deb, that is so sad and by the sounds of it, it was an untimely death. I hope the memories soften the grief as you go forward.
I can empathise with your feeling that you may have reached the point where losing loved ones is familiar. I am there too. It is a balancing act at times, keeping emotions in check and you are right, there are some riches to be had in the experience.X

Laura said...

such a beautiful and gentle expression of grief and how it transforms in itself and transforms us over time. I'm so sorry about yet another loss in your life, AND this as you well know is intrinsically part of life. I've learned of several deaths of childhood friends parents, and pets and strangers in the past two weeks alone… and celebrated our daughter's birthday… love and loss are part of a whole… yet knowing what we know does not erase the pain as you've taught here Deb, but it can soften it, at least sometimes.