Ashes are all that
remain after the burning
heat of a lifetime.
Ashes are all that
remain after the burning
heat of a lifetime.
My tears flowed freely, and this time
I did not stop them.
Loud wails rose from deep within,
and I did not stop them.
Each sob seemed to come from some deeper place,
breaking apart layers of scar tissue,
unblocking paths I hadn’t known were there.
Could I risk plunging in,
free-falling into the abyss,
letting myself go under, and
be completely submerged?
Could I risk feeling that kind of deep sorrow,
immersing myself in it and
letting it take me down
until I feel like I am drowning,
until I cannot catch my breath.
Is that the way through the pain?
Is that the way to move beyond
the grief I carry inside,
to empty myself and
make room to live and love again?
A friend once reminded me to “hold on loosely.” At the time, I was facing a great loss and was conflicted about holding on to what I was losing or letting it go.
I wanted to be finished with the pain and sadness of the impending loss. At the same time, I wanted to hold onto what had once been.
My friend used his hands to demonstrate how to hold on loosely—palms facing up and open, fingers spread just a bit apart. A colander came to mind—something that can both hold on and let go.
That image of his open hands (and the colander) has come back to me at other times of loss, and it occurred to me the other day as I thought of the death of my mother and the end of my work career.
Every day, I am reminded of both losses, and I try to be present to my grief when those reminders pop up.
My usual way of dealing with difficult emotions, though, is to stuff down my feelings and deny or delay the pain and sadness, even though I know it is healthier to allow the feelings of sadness and desolation to surface in their own time and to process them as they appear. Old habits are difficult to change, though, and this one is an ongoing challenge for me.
With every loss, we choose what we want to hold on to and what we want to let go. I am reminded of one of the gates of grief: Everything we love we will lose. Remembering this truth helps me hold onto the gift of what has been and let go of what falls through my open fingers.
Death took you away
leaving me alone, bereft.
I feel untethered.
The calm surface of
the lake is shattered by the
splash of a fish tail.
“I want to live until I die,” my friend Jim said when he understood that an incurable brain cancer would soon end his life. He did not want to be kept alive by artificial means; he also did not want to live or die in a hospital.
My mother felt the same. When the doctor offered her a pacemaker after her first heart attack three years ago, she said, “No.” He explained that her heart would probably give out while she was sleeping and she would just not wake up one day. “That would be a blessing,” she said.
At the time of that first heart attack, my mom was ninety-two, still driving, going to card parties every week, living in her own home and enjoying life.
After that heart attack, she began to slow down a bit and cut back on some of her activities, but she continued to live on her own and to cook, clean and do her laundry. She was very independent.
Over the past three years, she has had several medical issues that landed her in the hospital for a week at a time, and each time, she returned to her home determined to live as fully as possible.
After an internal bleeding incident in January, her doc took her off heart medicine, and she went on hospice. Then we knew it was only a matter of time until her heart gave out.
When she started falling a few weeks ago, we knew she was getting weaker every day.
Her consistent wish was to live and die in her home.
With some help, my sisters and I were able to make that happen. The past three weeks, someone was with my mom 24/7.
Giving up was not an option for my mom. She had known people who did just that—they stopped doing what they had always done and just waited for death. She would say they stopped living before they died. That was not my mom’s way.
Just last week, she looked at a silk flower arrangement on top of a cabinet and asked me to bring it down. “I want to wash the flowers and rearrange them,” she said. I brought down the basket and helped my mom get to the kitchen sink where she washed the flowers. It was exhausting for her; it was also her way of living her life.
Last Wednesday evening, she ate her last supper. On Thursday, she was too weak to get out of bed and too weak to swallow. We made her as comfortable as possible and kept vigil over the next two days.
Hospice nurses came every day, and each one said some version of, “You girls are doing a great job with your mother.” We are not medical people, and their affirmations were appreciated.
After only two days in bed, my mother died peacefully on Saturday morning, surrounded by family. She truly lived until she died—a role model for living a full life.
The mundane tasks of everyday living
create a sense of tranquility
that stretches out like a
placid lake reaching for the horizon,
each day the same as the one before
and the one to come.
The monotony of routine and habit
can lull me into believing that the future
will be made up of days like these.
I can sometimes tire of the monotony,
almost wishing for an interruption in the predictable—
until one inevitably comes along,
jolting me out of languid days and tossing me about
like a small boat caught in a storm.
And then I crave the sameness that had been,
the predictability of a daily routine.
I long to return to those times
when I could anticipate how each day would unfold,
when there were no surprises and
I could spend hours daydreaming about future travel or
gathering with friends.
I cannot stop or wish away these unwelcome interruptions.
I can only take comfort in knowing
that the turbulence will end and
calm will return.
She sits patiently,
her prayers rising like the mist
over the calm lake.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. (John 14:1)
These words jumped off the page of my daily Scripture reading and prompted the question, what is troubling my heart?
Top of the list is my mother, who is ninety-five and on hospice. She has a variety of health issues, and yet she continues to live as though there is nothing wrong with her—she still cooks, cleans and does her laundry. She both inspires me (by her determination and perseverance) and worries me (because I know that any day something could happen—a fall, her heart could fail, etc.).
If you have ever kept vigil for someone who is nearing death, you will perhaps understand the stress of watching and waiting.
I remind myself that my mother is in God’s hands, and I believe that. Yet I know I am still holding onto something, as evidenced by the stress I feel.
The next line in John’s Gospel is Trust in God; trust also in me.
I pray to be able to let go and trust that God has my mother—and remember that God has me, too. Trust is the key, and when I am worrying, I am not trusting.
Worry is another word for fear, and Luke 8:50 reminds me that fear is useless; what is needed is trust. Another invitation to trust!
There are other items on the list of things that trouble my heart—my own health, my work, money, etc. Then there are more global issues that also trouble my heart—poverty, injustice and all the negative isms.
I know that trusting God and letting go of my fears is the way to peace in my heart, which seems to be the work of a lifetime.
What helps me to let go of worry is being present to the moment and trying to stay in the present moment. I remind myself that I cannot do anything about what might happen at some future time—and worrying about it won’t change anything.
I try to do the things that help me be present to the moment—creative activities like gardening, baking, knitting, etc.
What troubles your heart? What brings you peace?
Walking the trail through the woods,
leaves cushion my steps and gently rustle
as I make my way.
The sound takes me back to childhood,
to autumns long past,
walking to school through fallen leaves,
shuffling my feet to scatter them.
Lost in that memory,
the sound of a twig snapping underfoot
I jump and apologize,
as if the twig were still alive
and I had somehow injured it.
But the twig had already been broken in its fall.
Like the leaves, its life has been given over to cover the ground,
to soften the way and
to call out to me to pay attention to my path.