"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

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Grief Lessons

It’s been a year since Mark died. Before his death I would have said I knew grief, knew how to grieve, knew what lay ahead. I would even have said, I think I did say, you can never truly prepare for a grieving time. But, despite previous experiences with grief, and the surprises it brings, I was completely unprepared for the deep muck of this last year.

Mark died on May 27. I left for Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago a little more than a month later. In that time between, the grief I could feel took the form of gratitude that he was no longer suffering, and a renewed closeness with my two remaining brothers as we moved forward into a world without our middle brother. My anticipation of the pilgrimage in front of me, and the shock that carries us through the early days of loss, kept the hard work of grief at bay. I also believed I had done a large part of the grieving in the two years I watched Parkinson’s Disease and Fronto-temporal Dementia steal my brother away bit by bit. I expected I might do what was left of that work on the Camino during the long hours of walking alone. 

The Camino, however, had other plans for me. What I felt more than anything else as I walked those miles was joy and a sense of aliveness and a complete occupation of my whole self. Or I was tired beyond thinking and road weary and hot. There was no space for grief.

Twice on the Camino I felt Mark’s presence as though he was walking with me. Both times I felt that magical combination of sadness and joy that is the knowing of loss ameliorated by the grace of a spiritual gift.

The first time was fairly early in the walk. I was alone, crossing a field, headed to a bright yellow arrow painted on a fence post. Hanging from the post, laminated and attached with a zip tie was this sign: 

So how long does a man live, finally?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret, and ask so many questions –
Then when it comes to us
The answer if so simple after all

A man lives as long as we carry him inside us,
For as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams
For as long as we ourselves live,
Holding memories in common, a man lives

B.G.C. 1930-2017

I read it several times, took pictures of it, read it again, and moved forward with tears brimming. That afternoon I texted the picture to my brothers, hoping they might find comfort there as I had. 

The second time Mark joined my Camino was four weeks into my six-week pilgrimage. I had been walking with a couple and a single woman for a couple of weeks. We were in the last village before O’Cebreiro, the last big climb of the walk. I had been nervous about this climb for months, and although I had managed every challenge of the Camino so far, I was still concerned. Our albergue was right next to a small church at which there was to be a pilgrims’ mass that night. My walking companions retired early, so I found myself sitting in a pew next to several younger pilgrims whose English was limited. I watched the priest arrive – a young man with dark unruly curls, smiling and radiating joyful energy as he set up for the mass. I smiled as he got out his phone and set it on the altar next to the traditional paraphernalia. As had been my experience previously, most of the mass was in Spanish, and a small part was in English. The phone, it turns out, was for music. Which the priest played between each part of the mass. 

So I sat in the semi-dark of a very small church, surrounded by pilgrims and the local women who seemed to find their way to every pilgrims’ mass and the fragrance of candle smoke and ancient stone. I was relaxed, delighted, completely present in that time and space. The next song on the priest’s play list was Silent Night. It took a minute to register that that was what I heard, and when it did, the tears came. I was right back to the last time I’d sat in church with Mark, at a Christmas Eve service. It was our last Christmas Eve service and our next to last Christmas. We sang Silent Night at the end of the service in a room full of the stars of lit candles held aloft, as we had for several years in a row. 

After the song finished in the small church, the priest switched to English, addressing the pilgrims seated in front of him. I was having a hard time focusing on his words, until I heard him say that our prayers went with the pilgrims who walked into eternity. 

At the end of mass, the pilgrims were called up to the altar to receive a blessing from the priest. In Spanish, and then English, he explained that our blessing would be in the form of a small stone with a yellow arrow painted on it. A reminder to carry with us that the arrow shows the way and the way is love. 

That mass, and Mark’s clear presence at it, was a comfort. It carried me up O’Cebreiro the next morning, and I carried it in my heart for the rest of the walk.

When I returned home mid-August, I expected to bring the light and joy and heightened awareness of the preciousness of life with me. I expected to continue my pilgrimage in the day to day, as the person I came to know and love on the Camino. If I considered it at all, I expected the worst of my grieving of Mark was done, and that I was ready to move forward.

That was not how it unfolded.

The first couple of weeks were fine as I enjoyed home and the luxuries of modern life, as I floated on the memories of the most impactful experience of my life. As the shine wore off, however, and despite the beauty of my favorite season settling around me, I found myself unsettled and out of kilter. The bright colors of fall didn’t touch me. The home I love with its bright new kitchen and lovely yard failed to move me. The usual comforts of pets and the love of friends and family barely penetrated a heart that just a short while before had been so responsive. I longed to be back on the Camino. I continued my practices of self-care: intentional gratitude, walking, yoga, journaling. But none of them touched the darkness that grew deeper with every day. 

It was a long hard winter, both inside and out. But it was also a winter during which everything seemed fine on the outside. There was no big crisis. My life overflowed with an abundance of love, and every need and most wants were fulfilled. I grew closer still to my two remaining brothers. I found ways to enjoy my newly retired husband, although I longed for the return of days of solitude.  I saw friends. I traveled a bit. I even had the opportunity to coach a family preparing to walk the Camino this summer, which let me relive my time there and created a new and much treasured friendship.

I felt wrapped in a cocoon of wet cardboard. Nothing really got in. At least not in the way it had before the Camino, before Mark’s death. Had I failed as a pilgrim? Spent all those weeks walking and so fully alive, only to come home less than I was before I went? Had I failed as Mark’s sister, unable to cry for him, or feel anything much at all about his loss? Had I lost all my healing, all the work of the previous years, only to be this tired, sad, unmotivated old woman?

Of course it’s not that simple.

 As each of those questions presented itself, I found my way to a negative answer eventually. That didn’t make me feel better. If anything I was more confused. Always before when I found myself in a spiritual wilderness, I worked my way out of it through reflection and study. New insights brought new light and a new level of healing. I had never before felt like I was working harder and losing ground faster.

As spring arrived, I began to emerge from the muck into the new light. Nothing had changed except the passage of time and the arrival of a new season. I began to feel stirrings of joy again: at the first robin song of pre-dawn, at a walk in balmy air and sunshine, at little spontaneous connections with people. Gratitude developed dimension again, growing from two-dimensional words on a page to magical multi-dimensional light.

One of the images gifted to me in the winter was that of the lotus flower. It starts in muck – slimy, thick and dark. It emerges from the muck, growing through water, emerging into the light as a singularly beautiful blossom with a very short life. The metaphors here are multitude, but the one that seems to speak most clearly to me is this: That lotus’ roots are still in the muck, and it could not live without it. 

Always before when I came from darkness into light, aside from believing I’d brought myself there, I believed I’d left the darkness behind. That isn’t the case this time. Mark is still gone. My Camino still continues beyond what I asked or hoped and far beyond any previous spiritual experience I’ve had. I’m aging, as are my husband and my dog. The world is a terrifying place full of death and disaster too overwhelming to absorb. 

And yet:

Last week, just days before the one year anniversary of Mark’s death, the three remaining siblings took him home. We had talked at length about what to do with Mark’s ashes, and in a rare occasion of easy agreement decided our childhood playground was the perfect place. The playground is a mountain, specifically the Third Cliff, as we have always called it. I joked about throwing Mark off the cliff, a tribute to childhood times when perhaps we all considered doing that with each other.

The trail to the cliff was obscured by housing development and overgrowth of brush, but we found a way up on a rough cat road. Straight up, and then bushwhacked across, until we found ourselves looking down on our childhood home from the Third Cliff. Younger brother led, carrying Mark in a backpack, his ashes surprisingly heavy. Older brother took the middle position, and I followed.  Emotions filled the air like the cottonwood fluff of our childhood. We were all near tears, and when we reached the top, no one seemed to know what to do. I think we were all reluctant to release Mark. So I started, was given permission to go first as the oldest. We each tossed a cupful of Mark into the air, each offering our own prayers and words of love as he flew. We laughed and hooted and hollered, at ashes blowing back on us, at the relief of saying goodbye, at the joy of each other’s company. 

It was a gift of a day. The weather could not have been more perfect. Mark was there with us, laughing and delighted that we were together and connected. In the last years of his life, his biggest mission was to bring his fractured family back together. We gathered, and buried hatchets, and allowed our love for each other to surface for Mark. On the mountain that day we were a family and love won.

There were several times during the day with my brothers that I became aware that I was happy. Simply and perfectly. As I followed them up the mountain, as we carved Mark’s name into an ancient Ponderosa Pine that had watched over us as children, as we wandered the property that had been our childhood home – I felt lighter and more alive and more of the self I was born to be than ever before. 

Spring is warming into summer. The world is every shade of green, vibrating with birdsong, filling with colors almost too vivid to be real as flowers bloom everywhere. I feel it and my heart, still broken and still heavy, sings along with the birds. I brought what remains of Mark’s ashes home with me. Some will be planted in my flowerbed with a yellow rose that bloomed every summer of our childhood outside one of the barns. Younger brother and I dug several starts before we headed home from our mountain adventure. As we’ve returned Mark to the earth and the air, it helps me remember that I exist in both as well. Firmly grounded in the fertile dark muck of all loss and pain, reaching into the air for the light of love.