Grief

A Sunday Without Them

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One Sunday, I found him standing there in the stacks. His worn denim jeans met the back of his green and black winter coat. I knew it was him because of the cap. Wool, with ear flaps, soft brown, and a tuft of grey curls sticking out of the bottom. I walked across sticky linoleum towards him and tapped a shoulder. He turned, with arms full of books and a smile grew on his face once he realized it was me.

How unsurprising that we would both be drawn to the library on a sunny Saturday afternoon. He checked out his books, and I checked out mine, and we went out to meet the winter blue skies, saying our see-you laters. He turned right and I turned left – back to our separate houses and evening routines.

Dad believed Sunday afternoons were for libraries. Safe places full of words and comfortable couches, and shelves to get lost in. Quiet rooms filled with stories are solace for an always-thinking mind. Even as I became a self-sufficient adult, somehow, we continued to find each other there.

Libraries have re-opened now, but fear of germs has tampered my courage to peruse the stacks. Instead, I search using keywords behind screens and use recommendations from blogs and other reader friends to pick my next read. I call when I’m turning the corner into the parking lot, knowing a brave essential worker is pulling my titles from the shelves. Curb-side pick up extends to the library, too.

This Sunday afternoon, I gathered last week’s titles and sat in the car as Dylan drove me to our first errand. I wasn’t thinking of Dad. Instead, I was feeling the sun on my face and moving my toes in tight shoes I haven’t worn for days. As he pulled to the curb, I placed my mask behind my ears, ready to approach the familiar brick building. Fifty yards to the drop box feels safe.

As I walked up to the door, I watched a man and his daughter exit into the winter sun. He wore worn denim jeans, and a puffy winter coat, and the girl trailed behind him. There were curls of hair sticking out of a hat, but the cap was all wrong. The girl too young, the coat blue, not forest green like before. The scene not quite right. I was just witness.

Anchoring myself to the earth, I opened the metal handle, and let my books drop down, the metal basket clanking as I released. Grief clanked down in my chest, lodging like those books, in cold plastic bins, waiting to be seen by a caretaker. How I crave other souls willing to read my words and re-shelve my grief story that looks different every single Sunday afternoon.

Turning on a heel, I walked back to the car, opened the door, and removed my mask. We moved on to other items on our to-do list.

The U.S. is approaching a horrible milestone of 500,000 lives taken by COVID. I hurt and wonder about all of those people and their loved ones, having a Sunday without them. The New York Times is doing interviews and publishing quotes, capturing stories, and doing expose’s about what could have been different. Politicians are flying to Mexico and trying to escape cold nipping at our systems. Very few want to carry the weight of frozen pipes and the crash of broken hearts. Most are unsure how to be witness to the healing.

There is no solution. No action to take. Instead, an invitation to be one who sees.

I’m not broken, tonight, but I am sad. I wish, with much of my heart, that libraries would be open and I’d find my dad standing, once again in the stacks. Instead, I place books back to be discovered by others. I feel the sun on my face. And I raise my hand to an aching heart, noticing again and again, all the places he’s missing. I’m learning, the noticing, is a beautiful thing.

Moves on Zoom

I started a new program this weekend and spent three days on Zoom with strangers. On the first morning, we were given journaling prompts to help us set intentions for our year. I had written show up fully. Do not be afraid of being seen.

I’ve been dancing between wanting to be known and wanting to hide for much of the last few years. I crave acknowledgement of loss, of unsureness, of the very human desire to belong. This very longing to be witnessed led me to sign up for the program. Where can I connect with others who care about compassion, empathy and emotion with the same deep seeking within me?

The desire to hide pulls me inwards. The fear of rejection moves me instead toward words and anonymous posts where I don’t have to see other’s reactions to my experience. Interesting, yes, how for almost a year now, I’ve shrunk to a world behind screens.

The universe laughed as the tension imploded and I found this line item on the agenda:

2:00 – 2:15 – Movement and Dance

In an in-person setting, the idea of dancing with strangers for fifteen minutes is squirm-inducing.

In a virtual environment, the pressure is only alleviated slightly.

I logged back on after lunch with a slight groan and told myself, ‘oh, hell, just go for it.’

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Adjusting my screen up, I stood and I wiggled and I mimicked the moves of my new colleagues across time and space. Sixty five new colleagues from seventeen countries moved tentatively. Some looked unafraid. Others grabbed children and swayed in the light streaming in from open windows.

I miss people so much. The feeling of warmth as we move together. The nod of a head, or a shake of a hip, or even a knowing eye roll as we lean in uncomfortably.

I have no clue if anyone was watching me. It was just fifteen minutes.

I’m getting to the point where I’m living in the ‘Oh, hell’ space. I’m trying to care less if people fear my grief. I’m practicing the hellos, the here I am’s, and trusting that this story of mine helps others.

In my little box on the internet, my smile grew, and I allowed myself to be seen.

What a beautiful thing.

Rising to the Surface

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Sitting in the worn arm chair, I snapped the hard cover book closed. Finishing my fourth book of the year, I reminded myself, reading is better than scrolling. The tension found in the stories crafted by others is made up. Not so true of the drama unfolding every day in our exhausted world. Rather than the muddied truths unfolding on media, I’m choosing to pick up something other than a screen in the evenings. Drawing from history, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach kept me engaged for days.

The story follows Anna, a woman coming of age as the remnants of great depression followed families to World War II. Her family loses status and connection. To survive, her father turns to crafty and questionable ways of earning a living. Eventually, he leaves.

In the leaving, Anna is forced to confront questions of who she is in a world where her father isn’t. Her trials and errors are mingled with wonderings of how she can contribute.

She becomes a diver in the Navy ship yards – almost unheard of during the 1940s. Drawing internal strength, she puts on the weighted suit, over 200 pounds of ancient equipment designed to help her breathe. Going under, she learns to walk the shifting floor of the bay in darkness. She has lifelines, yes, and a few tenders watching her steps. But mostly, she’s trusting her instincts to wander alone, using clutched hands to make an impact. Water continues to whoosh around her with little concern for what she’s working to accomplish.

Eventually, the knots untie, the parts are installed, and the lost items found. When her tasks are complete, she can’t rise too quickly. Pressure must release slowly as she returns to the water’s surface. A little more air, bursts at a time, bring her back to the top where the light is no longer murky. She still swims among the slimy kelp, but knows her time underneath went to a cause bigger than herself.

Today is the last day of a political administration that made me weep. In two days, I turn another year older. In eight weeks, I’ll face five years of learning how to walk in a world where my father isn’t. It’s felt muddy and murky, and some days, the pressure felt so intense I was knocked from my anchors. I had equipment and tenders, and mostly, I had myself.

I didn’t ask to go diving into darkness. We rarely ever do. But what I’ve found amongst the currents is the knowing that I, too, can do the work when the light refuses to penetrate through.

The pressure will lighten, bit by bit, as I let the air in, small sips at a time.

We’re rising to the surface today. I wonder what we will see when we climb, with heavy boots and protective gear, up the ladder.

What a beautiful thing.

Vitamin C

Did a new year turn over?

While a fresh start is tempting, it feels more like 2020 is still bleeding onto our blank slates. I’m not willing to throw in the towel just eight days in.

One of my goals for this year is to check the news less. I’ve already failed.

My twitching fingers keep clicking refresh. As texts buzz in and news alerts ping loudly, I can’t help myself.

There’s a thick, bold line between being informed and being consumed. My consumption has reached unhealthy levels. The images of rioters and men barging through spaces seem burned into my consciousness. Anger seeps through screens as we create memes and scroll through poignant personal truths on Twitter, and confusion on CNN.

January typically is full of commitments to better. To healthy lifestyles, to new and improved selves, to less butter, or caffeine. Sugar is damned.

With the hemorrhaging of 2020 continuing, I ask, “What does it mean to be healthy, now?”

We thought cases were soaring in summer. Now spikes seem like mountains. These steep slopes lead to lack of oxygen. No blue skies or crispness in the air.

Searching for beauty from the home office is limited. My surroundings remain the same.

This week, I ordered groceries online and unpacked packages crinkling in cellophane. Butter and sugar are staples for survival. Improvement takes a back seat.

As plastic bags emptied, I turned to the pile on the counter. Five round Cara cara oranges winked hello from their caged netting.

Using a blunt scissor blade, I tore through the mesh to place a globe in my palm. As I dug my thumb nail into the flesh, I was squirted with small gems of juice. Licking my wrist, I kept at the process of ripping peel from fruit. I sank my teeth into the wedges and slurped on repeat.

I can watch, with eyes wide and stomach churning, the constant flow of bad news creep into my brain. Or I can put down my phone, walk away from the screens, and sink into sustenance instead.

Beauty in flesh, in juice, in slurping. In staying away from the news.

Be safe. Be well. Eat an orange. We need the vitamin C.

Come to the Garden

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“Colin Firth is in it” buzzed my phone. “And the woman who plays Mrs. Weasley is Mrs. Meadlock.”

On a friend’s recommendation, I watched the new The Secret Garden expecting to be transported back to one of the VHS I once played on repeat.

As the scene opened with vibrant colors and enchanting jewel toned walls, I paused.

“I always confuse this story line with A Little Princess” I texted my friend.

Any time one returns to a Classic, we see the story with new eyes. Perhaps this year’s felt absence during the holidays influenced this viewing. I sank into the couch and watched Mary and Colin (not Firth, that’s the boy character’s name) struggle to connect with one another.

This time, rather than obnoxious playmates, I saw lonely children wander in echoing chambers, banging feet, and wailing to be seen.

Spoiler alert – both characters have lost their mothers. The boy is kept locked in a room as his grieving father does the best he can to keep his son safe. The girl craves attention, and with snobbery and fits, demands others to meet her needs. In their coping, one is told to stay indoors due to poor health. The other longs for connection, fresh air, to be seen.

As I’ve grieved, I’ve longed to been allowed both responses. I had one fit, the day of the funeral, and was promptly told to keep it together.

I’ve spent months in the echoing rooms, wailing, and wondering if anyone will come see.

And this year, I’ve desperately wanted to lock all those I love into dark rooms with heavy blankets and cups of tea.

“Sometimes I’m restrained,” says the boy. “Father says it’s best for me.”

If only I could restrain all of us. To keep us safe from harm.

Upon discovering Colin, Mary says, “You’re pale.”

I am too. From being indoors and trying to prevent pain.

As they attempt to understand each other, stories of love and letters lost help the young children literally support one another to standing. Their healing comes in fields of grass, surrounded by flowers, fresh air and more jewel tones. This space allows the light to come in. Mary’s passion and persistence for connection and what could be helps her use the key.

I wasn’t prepared for my grief gremlin to poke it’s head out when watching that movie. A trigger warning may have been nice.

Grief is ever present. A forever dance of wanting to protect the ones we love from further hurt, a nod to intense isolation, and a loud wail in an echoing room where no one comes to see. It’s also a nap in a garden. A swoosh on a swing. Learning to walk when told instead pain cripples beyond repair.

Come to the garden. Choose the beautiful thing.

Hey, They Still Taste Good

Our tree is up and the twinkle from the white lights beckon me out from my home office each night. I’ve learned if I plug in the tree before 4:30 pm, I can walk upstairs to some light at the end of the day.

The stockings are hung by the chimney with care. Although, every time the fireplace is turned on, I remind Dylan to remove the giant, red knit socks from their hooks. The polyester will melt from the heat.

Gifts ordered online sit on the kitchen table, waiting for wrapping, ribbons and string. When discussing our small family’s Christmas plans Dylan winked at me and said, “Let’s honor the environment this year and not wrap our gifts for each other.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I think the environment will benefit from our holiday laziness.” At least in the case of the two gifts we plan to exchange with each other.

I’ll try to make the others beautiful, wrestling tubes of paper left sitting in the corner closet, waiting for their turn since last year.

Christmases after Dad died have been a gradual undoing of all the things this month is supposed to be. The first year I clung to tradition, trying hard to recreate what we used to do in my own tiny living room. Despite the cheese plate breakfast, and matching pajamas, most of the day was spent in a painful fog trying to tend to the tears that just kept coming. Our sink broke. We washed dishes in the bathtub.

I have to search deeper into my memory to recall details as year one became year three. There was a viewing of Die Hard and attempts at new traditions – a family night out at the local theatre to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas. The pressure to feel the good spirits of the season blurred like the white lights on the fence of the highway as we drove home from church on Christmas Eve. I wrote of splitting in two.

There are so many splits in grief.

Before and after.

Pre and post death.

Sorrow and joy.

Gratitude and gut-wrenching pain.

Dad picking up paper as presents get unwrapped and the piles of holiday detritus crinkling on the floor.

Last year, at this time, I wrote of the ‘enoughness’ of attempts at ‘doing’ Christmas. I said no to baking, yes to shopping, and hosted large gatherings with aunts perched on piano benches and grandmas squeezed into chairs at our kitchen table.

And here I sit, at the end of a pandemic year, where I’ve spent most days at home. Our plans, thus far, include Zoom Christmas morning and porch drop offs. I rest in the split between freedom from haunting traditions and the desire to be together, smushed on the couch, in matching pajamas once again.

This weekend, I got out the metal mixing bowl to bake. Mixing molasses and flour and spice, I spent hours shaping stubborn dough into snowflakes. Turns out the piping bags and decorating tips were left at Mom’s house. Instead, I filled a Ziploc bag with frosting and snipped off the tip. The result were less than perfect. Thick lines of frosting oozed from the edges onto the counter below.

When I finished decorating the cookies Dylan said, “Hey, they still taste good.”

That’s where I sit this Christmas season. In the metaphorical, ‘still tastes good’ space.

This season is far from perfect. And yet …

The decorations are bringing me joy. The lights, comfort. Attempts at tradition remain good enough. Opportunities to give back are endless.

And I hold space in the split – for what won’t be, can’t be, shouldn’t be present this season.

Watching the news this morning, I saw a brave 91-year old woman receive the first COVID vaccine in the world. I wept thinking of all the work that interaction took. How exhausted must be the scientists, the health care workers, the teachers and grocers, the delivery drivers who make my life work. Of all the hope the single dose brought, and all the sacrifice it took to get to this point.

I’m not sure what will happen next, but today, sitting near the twinkling white lights, I encourage you to honor the sacrifice. We’ve lost a lot this year.

What still tastes good?

Your answers may be beautiful things.

Choose an Action

I was on a marketing webinar today expecting more of the same.

Ideas for engagement or new ways to sell. I stopped my multi-tasking when the presenter said, “You can start a movement. All you need is to give people actions to take.”

This year has been a mess for so many. I want you to remember mess is part of the process.

Healing comes when we say yes, this is a mess, and still, I want to help.

If you’re in the thick of loss, or the confusion of what small next step to take, simply surviving is enough. Food, shower, maybe a brush through your hair – that is enough.

If you’re on the road and your load is lighter, I’m giving you some actions to take.

This year, I’m morphing previous year’s concept of the Give Light Giveaway.

Choose an action to create good and spark light at the end of the dark year.

Send me proof of your donation, or pictures of your random acts of kindness. I’ll share the results here throughout the month. Contributors will be entered to win a prize pack and I’ll send a few of my favorite things to one random winner.

Choose an action. Let’s start a movement.

Create a seat at the table for a grieving 20-30 something

Give the gift of books to Native communities

Rebuild in Central America

Write a Letter of Encouragement

Give hope to foster families

Commit a Random Act of Kindness

Share your own light

Send me a note about what’s bringing light and love to your circle of influence and I’ll share here and on social media.

It’s easy to feel like we are alone right now and separated from those we love and even our neighbors. As I learned while my husband rewatched Star Wars Episode 9 this week, “They win by making you think you’re alone.”

There have been so many Dark Sides this year. Don’t let them win. We aren’t alone. I’m here. I see you. What action will you take?

A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

In posts and on threads, on work chats and check-ins people continue to share their disappointment at not being able to gather this year for Thanksgiving. When listening, my stomach would twinge and my empathy drained. I couldn’t figure out why I was triggered.

Sacrifice of time together for the hope of remaining alive doesn’t feel like sacrifice to me. At least it didn’t. Not six months ago, when were were just getting started. Not two weeks ago when we were told, again, to stay safer at home. I know, this is exhausting. We are tired and lonely and sad. Food and connection are supposed to comfort, not kill.

Today when another colleague shared their deep sadness about missing family dinners, I felt my muscles tense.

“What gives?” I asked under my breath. “Why is this bothering me so much?”

I clicked over to the New York Times website and read Nora McInerny’s brilliant articles titled You Don’t Have to Fake It Through Thanksgiving. She reminded me it took her six years for the holiday season to feel festive again after her husband died. Six years.

I’m approaching year five.

Since, Thanksgiving has felt hard, sad, and a complex mix of hoping for bliss while clinging to gratitude. Nora’s words took me back to my own first Thanksgiving without Dad. I had gone with my in-laws to New York while my mom and my brother went to Texas. The guilt of being away and feeling normal split me in two. The distance between feeling good for minuscule moments while knowing people I love were hurting across the country ripped a canyon within me.

I remember sneaking away after to dinner to call my mom. I slouched on a velvet green couch in the bedroom above the garage and I dialed to connect us from across the country. Our families gathered around tables beneath us, smearing Karo syrup on warm plates. We wiped snot off of cell phone covers.

I spend the holiday season still split in two. Between longing and acceptance. Between people pleasing and taking care of myself. Between disappointing others and berating my attempts of trying too hard.

My empathy has dried up, perhaps, because I’ve been adapting to a different kind of Thanksgiving for a very long time. I haven’t given that longing the attention it deserves.

I’ve run out of patience for the ones who are acting like they are the only ones here for the first time, managing a less than ideal holiday because of forces outside of their control.

You may have to be on Zoom this year, but what about the festive name plates that could never grace your table again? For me, the risk isn’t worth it.

I know this is hard. I know being away from your people is sad. And I ask you to think about the millions of people who have been carrying this weight for a very long time.

I’ve learned to carry my grief like a backpack. Sometimes it’s heavy and full of old baggage. Sometimes light and open and airy. Other times full of boombox tunes that make me smile of Him.

This year the backpack is full of relief, of sadness, and tiny, fluttering threads of hope. We’re a little tattered. It’s ok. The backpack will continue to fill and empty as we go.

Nora’s words reminded me about the freedom we have to face these days however feels good. We don’t have to do the dinner, the fixings, or the mounds of pie. This year isn’t normal. These celebrations don’t have to be normal either. Grief and crisis won’t allow it. And neither will I.

As if you need my permission to allow anything at all.

Order sushi. Call Pizza Hut. Get on Zoom. Break the rules. Skip the parade. Pick up the phone and call a friend. Cling to gratitude but you don’t have to hope for bliss. For me, that’s too high a bar. Instead, blow a kiss from a screen, donate money, mail a card. Write a list of the good and the ordinary magic getting you by.

Pick up your backpack and fill it full of beautiful things.

Poked in the Heart

My muscles were sore from sitting on the floor balancing a plate of Chinese food in my lap. As I ate soggy noodles, three women, tenured family friends, sat perched above me on our worn, blue couch. As we watched an unremarkable movie, I felt safe in the company of people who knew me. People who knew him. People who carried pieces of my dead dad in their life stories too.

We had lost him a few months prior, and when the evening ended, I closed the front door and told Dylan, “I don’t want to go to bed because I feel so good now. I’ve forgotten how to feel good.”

I hadn’t thought of that night in years.

Seven days ago, Dylan called me upstairs with a somber voice. His delivery of a simple ask, “Katie, can you come here?” made my stomach sink.

After a week of addiction addled toggling between CNN and The New York Times websites, my eyes stuck in the red center of the US map as election results slowly ticked in. As the edges of our country turned blue, my heart beat escalated. Again, I sat on the floor, balancing plates on my knees as I watched The Queens Gambit to distract.

“Who died?” I thought. Unfortunately, still my default question.

“Joe Biden won” he said quietly.

Running up the stairs, I demanded he click over to nytimes. com – the news source I’ve been trusting in a sea of false news and fabricated reports.

I wasn’t convinced. Dylan scrawled out the math on an envelope waiting on the nightstand. Electoral votes and percentages and likelihoods of a secured win. Numbers and stats to help with the hope of certainty.

My heart cracked open with a gasp. I watched thousands of strangers dance in the streets with signs and masks and music from my tiny cell phone screen. We toasted gin and tonics as I don’t keep bubbly in my cupboard.

I didn’t want to go to bed last Saturday. I’d forgotten what happy felt like. I’ve been living with dread instead. Grief taught me feelings of elation can pop. Hope dissipates into the sheets as we sleep. It’s likely I’ll wake with big feelings in the morning.

As another week passed, COVID cases jump at alarming rates. People I know receive positive test results and I feel my fingers curling closed in fear. I’ve lectured my mom, and doubled up doses of vitamin D and zinc. Daily, I swallow down words I want to say to people who keep doing whatever the heck they want to do in the name of carpe diem.

As the artist PINK says, “It’s gonna be a long way to happy.”

Last night, with another plate balanced on my knees, we watched the movie 13 Going on 30. After the credits rolled, we turned to YouTube to watch Pat Benatar’s music video for Love is a Battlefield. For thirty minutes, my years of dance classes paid off. I wiggled and pointed my toes and matched the movements of the rock stars with big hair on tv. Dylan laughed and my dog barked. I felt happy. I didn’t want to go to bed.

This year has been scary for all of us. Whether you’re aware of your fears, or are stuffing them down into the fibers of your muscles where your subconscious lives, the reality of living in constant threat is not normal.

Like the first months of grief, I wonder if these intense circumstances will ever pass us by.

But there are moments, in balancing plates, and states turning blue, and dance parties in living rooms, where I am poked in the heart to remember again what it’s like to feel good. What a beautiful thing.

Pocket the Ash

Rummaging through the blue bin of snow clothes, I grabbed gloves and a hat before stepping into the backyard. Leaves demanded attention before flurries of snow arrived according to winter weather warnings.

Red rakes sat in the shed, waiting to be pulled from the pile of worn wooden handles still warm from lingering unseasonal, summer-like heat. I wrestled with tines of tools, ready to tuck the garden into its rustling bed of leaves.

Muscling orange and red matter into piles took three hours yesterday. Using rakes and shovels, I pulled towards my center, mixtures of grass and sticks and tired life. With each scrape of the earth, up swirled too, tiny puffs of black lifted and landed. Wisps of crisped needles and incinerated pines lifted into the air, into my nose, making me sneeze and weep. Despite our best efforts, the air demands we inhale what’s left, leaving traces of particles in our lungs.

Remnants of burned wild flowers and earth mixed with city maples and aspen leaf imposters. Wildfires burn nature’s backyard – the setting of my wild adventures of youth and family traditions forever changed by the swat of loss. Can memories burn as sense of place is destroyed?

Someone posted a few days ago about the sacredness of these ashes settling our concrete patios and smearing white streaks on our windshields. May we not disconnect the black piles of soot and grit from the immense loss up canyon roads.

As Dylan increased pressure on the leaf blower, blackened piles swirled up into mini plumes of darkened ash. Moving forward, he used his tool to blow the left over bits across the driveway and into the street. I watched the as the mess moved, mirroring the magnificent blooms of smoke seen from airplanes, thousands of miles up into plum purple skies.

It’s insensitive, perhaps, to have hope in the hurting so soon. My body feels the magnitude of life and livelihood turning to vapor among flames. Having experienced significant unraveling, I ask, what beauty is found in the sweeping of what’s left into tiny piles? May the act of smearing the grit on our fingers be a beautiful thing?

I felt my father’s ashes land on my toes. I watched his grit swirl with the wind and land, eventually, on cracked, dry earth. I witnessed urns burning in controlled fires as a summer ink sky turn speckled with stars.

The destruction is horrifying. The longing for what could have been, pervasive.

The honoring and remembering? Sacred.

Sweep what’s left into piles. Place the white and black smears on your altars of hope. In the wonderings of what’s next and how will we ever recovers, know this to be true – What was will never return.

We weep for this truth.

Using your fingers to pile, gather, pull towards you the mix of earth and sticks and dead things crisped. Move among the ash.

What will be is still left to be seen.

Today, snow falls in tiny flakes blanketing heat in white. I pray the moisture douses the flames and the burning will cease. And that we all may create space, with the tender embrace, for the gaping. Stand witness. Sweep up what’s left. Pocket the ash. Honor the scar. Hard, beautiful things.