Tag Archives: grief

About love

Soon after we met,

Ted asked me out to dinner.

I said “yes;”

he heard “no,”

and forever after he was convinced

that I was not interested in him romantically.

Maybe I wasn’t,

because we became just friends.

Good friends,

travelling companions,

confidants,

soulmates in a way,

but never lovers.

In some ways, I think he knew me better than I knew myself.

He would tell me that I was crushing on someone before I had any idea—

or was it rather that because he suggested a crush, I developed one? Hmm.

He was always generous in his gift-giving

(I remember the day, soon after moving into my new house,

arriving home from work and seeing

a gigantic Tiffany’s box on my patio).

Ted ate at fine restaurants, traveled first-class and generally lived large.

But he never forgot his working-class roots—

he claimed to be the first man in his family to wear a tie to work

(having been a lawyer before he opened his bookstore).

He supported numerous non-profits and schools, usually requesting anonymity.

“Don’t let your right hand…”

Ted was a fan of all things Hitchcock.

One time, we met up in San Francisco to recapture the scenes in Vertigo.

We visited all the sights and stayed at the hotel in the movie.

He thought because I am a Madeline,

I should pose for the Madeline shots

(like pretending I was going to jump into the water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge).

He would have been happy if I wore a blond wig for the picture,

but I drew the line.

He wanted me to move to southern Oregon

and work with him in his bookstore.

If that was a test, I failed.

Oregon?

Too far (three flights each way).

Still, we talked several times a week

until he got esophageal cancer,

and then we talked several times a day

until he had to get a trach

and talking was too difficult for him.

Then just I talked.

We only argued once in the thirty-two years I knew him.

Mostly, he made me laugh and helped me enjoy life.

He trusted me, and he loved me.

I loved him, too,

and I miss him every day.

Shh, it’s a secret

Just days before my mother died last year, she revealed a secret to me, a secret she had kept for almost fifty years, a secret that flipped a light switch in my brain. Suddenly, I could look at events from fifty years ago and see them in a different light.

secret-truth-vulnerability

The clarity was almost blinding, and I wanted to explore the implications of what I had learned, but my mother was dying, and I needed to pay attention to what was happening right in front of me instead of examining events from the past. So, I tucked her secret away.

And then one day last fall, her secret came rushing back to me like a tidal wave.

I was overwhelmed with a truth I had never even considered, a truth that explained my father’s attitude toward me after I got divorced. I realized that my life could have gone in an entirely different direction had I known then what my mother had revealed before her death.

I was hurt and angry.

Moreover, my mother’s secret dislodged a secret that I had been keeping for more than fifty years, a secret I was not consciously aware I was keeping.

Suddenly, disparate pieces of my early twenties fell into place like cogs on a gear. I had great clarity about my early life and things that had happened to me that had shaped the rest of my life.

secret-truth-vulnerability

At family gatherings, my younger brother liked to point to my mother and then to me and say, “Tree, apple.”

My mother was great at denial and at keeping secrets. She denied anything bad that happened to her and would not risk disclosing an unattractive (or downright ugly) truth about someone, in case it might be embarrassing (or possibly illegal). She protected people who were not worthy of protection, and she taught me to do the same.

Like my mother, I am a great secret keeper, a steel trap for people’s confidences, and I have held sacred the secrets people have shared with me over the years.

What I know about secrets, though, is that the shame attached to them can turn something innocent into something sinister, and I know how shame can paralyze.  

A few years ago, when I finally said the name of the man who raped me, I realized I had been protecting him by not saying his name; I was keeping it secret.

Saying his name—revealing the secret—broke the power of shame over me.

Back to the tree…apple scenario.

I have spent my adult life trying to unlearn my mother’s lessons, trying to be more honest and forthcoming. I have gone to ACOA meetings and worked the steps. I know that we are only as sick as our secrets, and I have tried to live transparently, without secrets.

And yet now I am faced with two new secrets from my past.

But those events are no longer buried, and I have begun talking about what happened to me.

Life is changed in an instant

On Wednesday, April 6, my tour group traveled from Angers to Sarlat, France, with a stop at Oradour-sur-Glane. As I walked the deserted streets of this devastated village, I was taken back to September 11, 2001.

I was in New York City that day, having stayed overnight for work. I walked out of the apartment building on the east side a little before 9:00 a.m., planning to walk to Chinatown. I remember looking up at the sky and thinking, “what a beautiful day for a walk.” I didn’t know a plane had already crashed into the World Trade Center; I learned that one minute later when I walked across the street and into the office.

Life changed in those few minutes.

On June 10, 1944, life in Oradour-sur-Glane changed for the village’s residents. I could imagine the residents waking up that morning thinking it was like any other morning, and then some 200 Nazi’s surrounded their village and massacred the residents and destroyed the buildings. Only one woman survived.

The village has been left as it was that day, a memorial to the massacre.

Travel-Oradour-faith
Memorial plaque in the village.

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Travel-Oradour-faith

Later that day, I heard about atrocities in Ukraine and thought of the people there who had woken up one day in February not knowing their lives would never be the same.

The stop in Oradour-sur-Glane was sobering, and for the next few days, my mind was preoccupied with the evil in the world—past and present.

Other times when life changed in an instant kept popping up—the day Jim was diagnosed with brain cancer, the day I was raped, the day Gerry was diagnosed with leukemia, the day I learned my husband had been unfaithful, the day my cousin was raped…a parade of life-altering events.

I allowed myself to feel the sadness for the people of Oradour-sur-Glane and the people of Ukraine—and for myself. In the middle of this wonderful, month-long trip to Europe, I held deep gratitude for this opportunity to see and learn.

I recognized the parallels in France’s life-altering events and my own, and I came to a deeper understanding of the need to honor my past, no matter how painful it might have been.

France is still coming to terms with their role in World War II. Likewise, I am coming to terms with my own history. I want to reveal the secrets I have held and move past the shame I have carried.

Walking the deserted streets of Oradour-sur-Glane reminded me to look at my past realistically and to acknowledge what happened to me. I remembered three questions from a grief retreat I attended: What was lost? What remains? What is possible?

Thinking of love

Late last year, someone I had known in college, but hadn’t seen in more than twenty years, messaged me. We got together for coffee, and he updated on people I had known in college.

“I always thought of him as the one who got away,” I said when we got around to this one guy I had really liked but was too scared to do anything about.

I do think of him as the one who got away, but I could not believe I had actually said it out loud. Vulnerability is not my strong suit, so this verbal admission surprised me.

Later that same week, I heard a radio show about regret, and I recalled that conversation. I regret that I let my fears determine my future.

I started to think of other times when I had closed the door on the possibility of relationship. I remembered a man I had met at the end of my summer semester in Spain. He was an architect in Algericas, and I was about to leave the country. I said I would write when I got home, but I didn’t. To what end?

love-vulnerability-hope

Similarly, the guy in upstate New York I had met on a weekend trip to Ithaca. He wrote me beautiful love letters and even drove the 200 miles to see me several times. But I was not going to move to New York, and he had no desire to move to Pennsylvania, so what was the point of pursuing a relationship?

Geographically undesirable, I thought both times.

Looking back, I can see that pragmatism was the coverup for my fear.

Last week, I watched the movie Frozen (not for the first time, but the first time in several years).

My mom died last June, and throughout the final months of her life, I had advised my sisters (and told myself) to let it go when people said things that were critical of the care we were giving my mom.

I must have said let it go hundreds of times in those last six months of my mom’s life.

After my mom died and people continued to express their opinions about what we should have or could have done to extend my mom’s life (even though she was 95 years old and had major health issues), I suggested to my sisters that we get Elsa t-shirts that said let it go.

love-vulnerability-hope

I decided to watch Frozen again if for no other reason than to see Elsa letting go.

The line that caught my attention this time, though, was only an act of true love will thaw a frozen heart.

I wondered if my heart is frozen. Had all those times when I had said “no” to the possibility of love frozen my heart? Had shutting down on potential closed me to opportunity?

What can I learn from my past decisions and regrets?  How do I move past fear to freedom? How do I let go and become open to love?

love-vulnerability-hope

I am on the case

Last week, I went to Lewes, Delaware, to help a friend settle into her new condo; she had moved from Newport News, Virginia, two weeks earlier.

“I’m on the case,” I said when she could not find her house keys.

I love solving mysteries. Where were her keys? She knew they were in the house but where could they be?

Mystery-God-faith

We retraced her steps, with no luck. We searched the garage and kitchen. She searched her bedroom. I asked if I could go through her coat closet, and she said yes. And there, inside the pocket of her white coat, were the keys. She hadn’t remembered that she had worn that coat earlier in the day. Mystery solved.

We had several other mysteries during my time with her—mostly moving related (“where did I put…?” “which box has…?”).

My younger brother also loves to solve mysteries, like tracking down the guys who broke into his garage and stole some equipment—he followed Craig’s List until he saw his equipment listed and then called the police, who set up a sting.

He attributes our doggedness in solving mysteries to the fact our dad was a cop; I attribute it to our mother’s insistence that we never give up when we were searching for something.

I remember a friend in college marveling at my persistence when she could not find something, and I was unwilling to let go until the mystery had been solved. She had been raised to let go and replace.

I love most everything associated with mysteries—novels, plays, movies and television shows.

The funny thing is, though, that despite the fact that I love to follow the clues and solve the mysteries in my everyday life, there are many other mysteries with which I am completely comfortable.

For example, mysteries of faith and miracles I can accept with complete confidence. Somehow, I can trust that there are some things we cannot solve or unravel; acceptance is the only solution.

In that way, I think I am contrary to most people—those who can let go when something is lost (and rush to replace it) and yet question faith and distrust miracles.

I think my comfort with mysteries of faith helps me be able to sit with people who are suffering and dying. I don’t ask why someone is ill or why there is suffering. I accept that suffering, illness and death happen. They are part of life. I appreciate that there is nothing to be done, no answers to be found and no clues to follow.

At times of sorrow and grief, I believe that acceptance is more helpful than questioning. Finding meaning in loss is more about being grateful for what has been and gathering the gems of good memories to cherish.

I am grateful for my approach to different kinds of mysteries because solvable mysteries, while they may take a great deal of time in the process, are solvable. Mysteries of faith are just that—mysteries.

Mystery-God-faith

I carry them with me

Leave the old behind,

look to the future,

I have heard many times,

from the likes of St. Paul

and others.

I see the wisdom in it.

Fresh start.

Blank slate.

Clean sheet….

Did I tell you about my friends

who died young,

some of them very young,

some before they even got much of a chance to live?

I carry them with me,

year after year,

these old friends,

some from a very long time ago,

when I was still a child,

to remind me that every day of life is precious and

that I have what they did not—

another day and year to try to make a difference,

to try to be the best me I can be,

to become the person they imagined I could be.

Perhaps I can leave behind all that was ugly in my past,

and carry with me

all the beauty of those who died too young

and their hopes for me.

Letting go of what was to be open to what is to come

The image of the trapeze artist letting go of a swing, suspended in air before grabbing onto another trapeze artist, has been appearing to me lately, perhaps because I have been practicing letting go of both my job and my daily routines around my mom. I am like the trapeze artist in mid-air—I have let go of what was, but I have not yet grabbed onto what is to come. I am in transition between what was and what is to come.

vulnerability-grief-transition

I think this situation is common in grieving a death. We are forced to let go of how the relationship was because the person is no longer physically with us, but imagining what the future will be like without that person can be a challenge.

This kind of letting go happens in other situations, too—divorce, change of location, loss of job, illness, leaving school, etc. What once was is no longer, and what is to be is still unfolding.

Sometimes we hold on for too long to what has been, past the time when it is good or healthy for us. I have tended to do that with relationships that would have been better off ended, but because of loyalty, guilt or fear, I have stuck around. I have also done that with jobs—stayed past the time when I knew the job was not working for me, that it was constricting or toxic.

Letting go and the changes that come with it can be difficult. I crave what is familiar, even when I know that the familiar is not in my best interest. I like routines and traditions and often cannot see another way.

When I left my job, I prayed to be open. I want to see what is possible, and the best way to do that is to stop clinging to what was, to let go and to allow myself to live in this in-between place, to become more comfortable with a lack of routine, with the unknowing. I keep reminding myself that I can only receive something new when my hands are open and empty.

Letting go of what was to be open to what is to come

The image of the trapeze artist letting go of a swing, suspended in air before grabbing onto another trapeze artist, has been appearing to me lately, perhaps because I have been practicing letting go of both my job and my daily routines around my mom. I am like the trapeze artist in mid-air—I have let go of what was, but I have not yet grabbed onto what is to come. I am in transition between what was and what is to come.

I think this situation is common in grieving a death. We are forced to let go of how the relationship was because the person is no longer physically with us, but imagining what the future will be like without that person can be a challenge.

This kind of letting go happens in other situations, too—divorce, change of location, loss of job, illness, leaving school, etc. What once was is no longer, and what is to be is still unfolding.

Sometimes we hold on for too long to what has been, past the time when it is good or healthy for us. I have tended to do that with relationships that would have been better off ended, but because of loyalty, guilt or fear, I have stuck around. I have also done that with jobs—stayed past the time when I knew the job was not working for me, that it was constricting or toxic.

Letting go and the changes that come with it can be difficult. I tend crave what is familiar, even when I know that the familiar is not in my best interest. I like routines and traditions and often cannot see another way.

When I left my job, I prayed to be open. I want to see what is possible, and the best way to do that is to stop clinging to what was, to let go and to allow myself to live in this in-between place, to become more comfortable with a lack of routine, with the unknowing. I keep reminding myself that I can only receive something new when my hands are open and empty.

Noticing the holy in ordinary lives

God-meditation-mindfulness

The words of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) have been catching my attention recently. He reminds me to dwell in the present and pay attention to what is going on in my everyday life, because that is where the sacred is waiting to be noticed.

In praying with Scripture using Lectio Divina one of the main ideas is to notice what word or phrase catches my attention—the idea being that that particular word or phrase is what God is speaking to me in that moment—and then repeating that word or phrase. By sticking with one word or phrase, I can allow it to sink in and glean deeper meaning. The Bible is so big, yet Lectio Divina focuses on the smallest part—just one word or phrase.

Ordinary life is like that, I think. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that brings the greatest joy—a kindness, hug, generous gesture.

I attended a memorial service this week for a woman from work who died in the spring. She was also a Zumba instructor at a community center, and her loyal followers wanted to honor her life by planting a tree and placing a bench in the park where she taught. One by one, people stood and paid tribute to this woman who had touched their lives by her upbeat personality, zest for living and generous nature.

Shonece had a beautiful smile and an easy laugh. It was not that her life had been easy or without suffering—she was a three-time cancer survivor, and during the first year of the pandemic, five people in her family died. She faced her loses and still chose to be upbeat and optimistic.

Tear flowed easily at this service—so great was the loss. And through tears, people recalled the simple acts of kindness Shonece had done for them. They talked about how her smile welcomed them when they came to Zumba and her spirit encouraged them. They shared stories of meals she delivered when they had family crises and all the simple acts she did to show her support for them.

I walked away thinking of another quote of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

God-meditation-mindfulness

Perhaps one of the luxuries of not working and having fewer responsibilities is that I have more time, space and energy to notice something and then ponder it. What I am noticing is that the holy dwells in the ordinary, just waiting to be seen and celebrated.