Grief

Of Cautionary Tales

She shares the tale frequently. 

The one of a rebellious toddler with a shaggy hair cut – his red locks grazing the back of his neck as he turned his chin up to look at her with defiance in his big brown eyes.

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“Don’t touch that,” she said softly, “it’s hot and you

will get hurt.”

Always curious, you could watch him processing her words behind his crinkled forehead.

With defiance, he made his own decision, and leading with his balmy palm, stuck all five fingers straight to the coils and promptly started to scream.

I’ve been thinking of that little toddler and all the tales of caution we get served up.

Don’t put your hands on the burners, take your vitamins, avoid cigarettes, build up your 401k. For if we do all the right things, we’ll get out unscathed.

This week started with me calling 9-1-1 for a stranger in Macy’s. A pregnant woman had fainted. We were shopping for jeans. Dylan helped her partner lay her down on the worn green carpet in the department store. Undertrained staff frantically fumbled and we, just bystanders, made the decision to call for help.  While Dylan moved the tables stacked with denim, I leaned over and counted the woman’s breaths saying “Now. Now. Now” to the dispatch woman on the other end of the phone.  Another kind stranger fanned the woman with a crumpled flyer full of coupons waiting to be clipped.

I did something kind. We responded to a situation and when the emergency team walked in, I said good luck and we went on our way. I didn’t have it in me to stick around and see what happened next. Was it any of my business anyway?

The week ended with someone I love in the hospital and while she is ok, the tethers of vulnerability connecting us still brought me to tears. A friend was evacuated from her house due to forest fires.

All of these people take their vitamins, eat vegetables, and save money where they can. They tsk at diet soda and hug their loved ones and take deep breaths.

They’ve heard the tales, took caution, and still seem unable to escape the pain.

How do we witness and engage in others pain? How do I experience the heat of their experiences surging into the hot plates sitting in front of me?

Whether we know a diagnosis is coming, or show up and ride an elevator up to a sterile room full of beeping equipment, or call the adoption agency, or click send on the email with the hard to say feelings from years of resentment. We have choices with how much we want to touch the burning red. We can see it coming. The response is ours.

Is it really protecting ourselves to avoid the glow all together? Where can we lean in and feel the heat and not get scorched?

Or perhaps, we need to grab and hold and promptly let ourselves scream.

The choice is ours. What a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

“It is always and only mine”

The outdoor light on the shed in the back kept turning on. With each gust of wind, branches would blow casting shadows across the small sensor inviting light to stream through the open window, fighting the dark with lightsaber-like beams.

An intended safety feature was overreacting, having negative affects on my sleep.

Much like my over-active brain which was playing loops on repeat.

After a few hours of restlessness and an unsuccessful attempt at taking an Advil to relax my clenching muscles, I grabbed my pillow and stepped quietly downstairs to lay on our big, blue couch.

“Well this seems fitting,” I thought to myself as I rested on my back, staring at the ceiling. “This is where it all started.”

Those cushions couched my grief from day one. During the first week, I burrowed in the corner, surrounding myself with blankets and boxes of tissues as I made phone calls to tell folks we lost him. I choked back sobs at two in the morning while my husband was upstairs sleeping. The foam absorbed my tears and the worn upholstery still remembers the shock waves reverberating through my body.

Three and a half years later, there I was again, laying on my back, staring at the ceiling, thinking about my grief. No intense tears, no shaking sobs, just clenching fists and racing thought patterns as I prepared to fly across the country to lead others in a writing workshop on how to bring words to their grief stories.

I was trying to be brave. Mostly, I was terrified.

I tossed and turned and when 4:30 am rolled around signaling it was time to wake for the airport, I rolled off the couch and into my outfit I previously set out for my adventure. Dylan drove me through the dark and I breathed deeply, as my therapist instructed, as I prepared my mind.

“Life,” they say, “begins on the other side of our comfort zones.”

I checked my monster of a bag at the curb, made it through security, found coffee and sat down at the gate. Not a minute later an email buzzed through on my phone.

My eyes began to blur as I read the words, “Your flight has been cancelled.”

“Shit!” I mumbled under my breath and stood, making my way to the long line appearing at the front of the gate.

I once read the universe likes to test our commitment to our own goals. Challenges arise when we are about to embark on something we hunger to accomplish. Situations outside of our control flirt with our efforts, daring us to take one more step we didn’t think we could.

When I pitched a proposal to lead a workshop at a bereavement camp for 20 and 30-somethings back in April, I thought I’d just throw my name in the hat and see what would happen. I put together speaker proposals at least once a week. I thought applying would be the risky part.

Then I got accepted and said yes, I’ll go to grief camp with a bunch of bereaved strangers – still feeling silly and insecure and fearful of other peoples’ pain. Then I bought a plane ticket. Then I had to actually get on the plane which was proving more difficult than I thought it would be.

I called Dylan to inform him of the change and swallowed down tears as I explained my choices to him. He encouraged me to figure out how to get where I needed to go. I ran between concourses, taking trains and talking to airline employees about options for my bag and my transportation. The man at the United counter was not helpful. A kind woman at Southwest helped me figure out another route.

After nine hours at DIA, a two-hour flight and a one-hour carpool with strangers who kindly picked me up in a rental car, I arrived at grief camp. There were over 100 other people my age who lost someone significant in their lives. What a beautiful thing.

I got checked in and as I hugged the coordinators I noticed an open bottle of wine with a welcome message sitting waiting for us late arrivals. A fellow traveler who also spent hours trying to arrive from Philadelphia pulled out the cork and took a giant swig of red. No time for glasses. Balancing nerves, delayed travel plans, and latent grief calls for soft tannins and flavors of grapes.

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Eventually, I found my way to my bunk, unfurled my sleeping back tucked in the bottom of my giant duffle, and tried to fall asleep as kind strangers snored below me. Another night on my back staring at the ceiling flooded with thoughts and fears. I learned 30 is maybe too old for communal sleeping arrangements with strangers.

Over the next 48 hours I led my session and participated in workshops where we explored our grieving and resilience through words, photos, sounds, and memory. I joined support sessions and sat in a room with at least 40 individuals who also lost their dads. We had a talent show. People freely read eulogies, poems for the departed, and  danced their emotions out to their brother’s favorite songs. There was a group altar full of pictures and favorite things – hats, and cookies, and cards, and cups of coffee for the departed. I finally had a place to lay his favorite things and kiss his picture and whisper how much I missed him.

With every session and every conversation I could feel in my very bones the truth: I am a part of something dark and beautiful, heavy and freeing. Other’s pain I was so afraid of brought me more comfort than I anticipated. Connecting stories from bios to real faces and human hearts helped me to realize all of us carrying loss stories are not to be feared.

Yes, I’m in the very worst club with the most beautifully brave people who are living with heavy piles of shit.

Please do not fear me because of my loss.

It’s in the places where we sit and listen, where we touch hands and honor wounds where we get to extend our wavering whispers of hope and connect with one another. I kept gasping in small breaths when others would say things I’ve been thinking for years. I lacked the sacred places to share my unmentionable thoughts.

No one was afraid of making others uncomfortable – we’re much too weary of surprising others with our unsettling thoughts. Here I am. Take me or leave me.

How could so many strangers take me when others whom I loved chose the later?

We sat in our pain, absorbing the horrible truth – we must move into a forever forward timeline without our people. The bereaved still welcomed and embraced the mysterious joy flowing from the life force of love left behind in the people we love.

I’ll be processing for awhile.

During the weekend’s closing session, the organizers asked for feedback.

I raised my hand and said,  “For a long time, I’ve known I’m not alone in this thing called loss in my head. This is the first time I’ve felt I’m not alone in my heart.”

What a beautiful thing.

I also met an Artist, Meredith Adelaide, who wrote this poem originally published in her book The Great Blue World an exploration of grief and loss through imagery and word. She helped me remember this precious grief of mine is precisely that – mine to own, mine to hold, mine to share, mine to love and honor. And while this grief is all my own, I am not alone.

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Sleeping. Bag.

Two words. Packing. List.

I clicked on the link and scrolled, seeing all the usual suspects. Toothbrush, pajamas, jeans, clothes for yoga.

Then I stopped.

Two more words.

Sleeping bag.

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Photo by Spring Fed Images on Unsplash

Of course. One sleeps in a sleeping bag when they head to camp.

I never went to sleep away camp as a kid.

I went to week-long church camps and slept in cabins and bunk beds. I roasted s’mores, sang songs, and hated the group games.

Never, though, have I flown to another part of the country for a summer away.

I was too shy, too much of a home body, too little like Lindsey Lohan in the Parent Trap.

That’s going to change next week when I launch myself out of my comfort zone to head to Camp TDP – a camp experience specifically for grieving young adults. I should probably watch Hallie Parker and Annie James to prepare.

I’ll be leading a writing workshop using wordplay and other writers’ wisdom to bring words to our grief stories.

Me – standing in front of people – experimenting as I turn my pain into purpose to help other people tell their stories.

In conversations this week, people have been asking me where I’m going.

“I’m not really sure,” I respond. “I’m getting on a bus at the airport with other brilliant bereaved people and they’re taking me there.”

Yes, I have the address and the appropriate phone numbers and emergency contacts in my phone. Mostly, I’m trusting the process and willing myself to be an eager introvert in a typically extroverted space. In shaking hiking boots.

I also scanned the agenda seeking out other introverted activities. I keep imagining myself standing in the woods, nodding inward to my chubby inner eleven year old self. When I lift up my head, I’m 30 and competent and brave. I’ll bring my jeans, a Colorado flannel shirt, my Chacos and puffy vest for protection. And bug spray. Lots of bug spray.

Last week, I ran a dry-run of the workshop with a few friends here in my community. Walking them through exercises and listening to feedback made me nervous. Sharing our grief stories is tough work. It was also empowering – connection building makes my heart leap.

Inviting people into their pain requires vulnerability and risk. And I think….. I think…. I’m ready.

I’m ready to share my story out loud. I’m ready to use my talents to help others tune into their experiences. I’m ready to make awkward jokes, stumble over my words, and try something new. I need not be a polished professional to make an impact. What a beautiful thing.

Now to find the sleeping bag. Will that fit in a carry on?

Honey Bear Witness

We had a big weekend. The Buffs beat the Huskers and I screamed until my throat was as red as the sea of opponent fans sitting all around me.

Excuse me, who let the rivals into the CU section?

I painted again – another layer of fresh, clean, chalky white over the dark cabinet doors. Home improvement projects are not for the faint of heart.

Band practice filled our basement with loud beats and vibrating floors.

It was ordinary. Normal. Full of things we wanted to do and plans we put into place.

I sat to rest in our worn Lazy-Boy lounger on Sunday evening, and as the thunderclouds rolled in, I started to weep.

In the regular moments, at the end of busy days, the grief and fear and uncertainty of what comes next creep in.

In the stillness, his absence is there.

My overactive mind fills the space with what-ifs and how-to’s and qualifiers of my own doubt and the tiny tears fall.

And as the thunder clapped over my needing-replaced roof, I turned to my mess of a half-done kitchen.

I pulled on the paint-splattered bed sheet, tucking my renovation project in for the night.

I took out a cutting board and placed it on the granite. I palmed six green pears and moved their lizard-rough skin from one side of the kitchen to the other.

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One by one, I took a blade, slit the fruit open and transformed what was once one into two. Using a soup spoon, I dipped metal into the grainy flesh, carving out the seeds. Placed all six halves in a prepared baking pan and turned to take the honey bear from the cupboard.

As I drizzled the golden liquid onto the vulnerable fruit, I thought to myself, sometimes we have to be torn apart in order to transform.

Put the pears in the hot oven and baked for ten minutes. Structure softened. Heat broke down rigid boundaries and skin peeled.

After letting the fruit cool and honey pool, I stuffed the holes where the seeds once lived with gorgonzola cheese, letting the creamy blue melt with ease from the wafts of air leaving the pan.

Knives cut, innards scooped out, and golden nectar served witness to the transformation.

I’ve been cut, innards scooped out leaving so much room for beautiful things to bear witness. May I be full of things to help me transition with ease.

It may be silly to compare the preparation of pears and cheese to my growth as a human. But here it is.

I’ll keep letting the tears come, honoring the blade, and turning to the kitchen. My beautiful things.

Different than Paint on Plaster

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Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Searching through the piles of dirtied towels, blocks of sandpaper, and used Clorox wipes, I finally grasp the small metal paint key. I place its tiny lip into the rim of the quart sized can. With a flick of my wrist and a pop, off comes the lid. I place it on the old, yellowing bed-sheet splayed across the cool kitchen counter.

The thick white liquid sits in the quart sized can, bubbling up at me after being shaken in its tiny vessel. My movements blended and mixed the pigment meant to cover up dark cherry stain.

I catch myself staring as I stand at the small entrance to our kitchen, hips leaning sideways against the center island.

In just ten seconds, thoughts and memories bounce through my brain.

This is the same kitchen where we unpacked wedding gifts wrapped in parchment paper along with our young-married hopes and dreams. The same kitchen where we prepared my dad’s last meal – blood-red steak and garden salad and steaming baked potatoes with melty butter. He broke a red wine glass that evening – promised to buy me another one to complete the set.

There sit three goblet glasses still, the empty space signifying his presence in my same kitchen.

The same kitchen were I bake grief cookies and our friends and family gather for homemade pasta in remembrance of him. Other evenings we lift gin and tonics to the memory of our European adventures where we reclaimed pieces of ourselves on London’s city streets and in fields simmering with Spain’s sunshine.

The same kitchen where I’ll spoon feed a baby mashed carrots or pick up spaghetti thrown onto the floor by a child who has my dad’s eyes or curly hair.

This is a space not marked with trauma, but with comfort. With life-giving sustenance and floors with crumbs of recovery and laughter and places to lean when on the phone, chopping carrots or peeling back the layers of an onion. Paper plates and Crate and Barrel china and candles changing scents with the seasons.

I grab the wooden handle of the paintbrush off of the black granite and run the brushes bristles over my palms. Soft and soothing, a few strokes back and forth bring me back to the present.

I dip the bristles into the white and turn my wrist against the can’s rim, just like dad taught me, to remove the excess. I turn to face the wooden cabinets recently cleaned of layers of oil and grime and dust.

As I press my brush to the surface of the cabinet door I hear Dad whisper, “Remember to let your tools do the work for you.”

Moving paint on wood has a different feel than paint on plaster.

I’m not covering these doors up in the same way I did the basement.

This project is different.

Each stroke is empowering – I have a say and power in creating a space where I can be comforted and nourish others. I will delight in the light dancing off white cupboards. No more absorbing light into dark cherry stain.

What a beautiful thing.

Still Exposed

I sat in the cold office and stared at the posters on the wall across from me. I could feel wisps of cool air on my shoulders, ivory skin poking through the open-backed gown as I waited for an ordinary nurse to come and do an ordinary procedure.

A knock at the door brought my eyes back into focus and I traced my toes, still in socks, across the tile floor.

In walked a tall woman with kind eyes, her blond hair gathered tall on top of her elegant head.

She started asking me ordinary questions and then it happened again.

“Does this run in your family?” she asked with open eyes, her chin tilted up towards me.

“Yes,” I responded “but I can’t remember which kind.”

“Mhmm,” murmured the nurse “Well, it’s pretty common for dad’s not to share their medical histories with their kids.”

I paused. I had choices in this moment.

“More common for the dead ones not to share,” I thought to myself as I dug my gripping hands into my plastic chair.

“Yup, probably true,” I said, looking the nurse straight in the eyes.

Mouth shut, I could feel my jaw clench.

Poor girl – she doesn’t know. Better keep this one to myself. Breathe.

Boom!

Another grief bomb exploded at my feet and I gathered scratchy fabric around my thighs as I turned my face back towards the wall.

“Ready?” she asked.

I said yes and she began.

Shouldn’t they put this kind of information in your charts?

Dad dead. No father references please.

But that’s not how the medical system works and his blood and his health history influences mine.

So we move on. We go about our days.

This last week was full of birthday celebrations. The month of August is a big one for Huey men.

I planned dinners and boiled big pots of salted water to cook refrigerated ravioli.

Mom put candles in cannoli dribbled with chocolate chips and we sang along.

I hid gifts and revealed surprises inviting beautiful smiles of delight and excitement.

We walked through plazas holding hands and wiped at strawberry ice cream dribbling  out of their cones and onto our chins.

We took in a baseball game and bought new fan gear.

Ducked our heads into bars and sat to listen to the woman with radical hair and high-wasted pants sing tunes with soul.

We celebrated and we kept going about our days.

This is how it is now.

A beautiful mix of joy and celebration and plenty of encounters with clueless people who say seemingly innocent things because they don’t know.

I’m still exposed.

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Photo by Hadis Safari on Unsplash

I may never have it any other way.

Is that a beautiful thing?

For Sarver

I went to a show last night. We entered a big dark room filled with eager fans. I shuffled to claim my space and looked up to see rows of massive speakers suspended overhead. Lucky for me, my friends were keen to lean against the grubby wall with torn purple wall paper. How do you know you’re old at a concert? You wear tennis shoes for support and seek out hidden spaces to rest your legs already aching from eight hours at a standing desk.

As the singer screamed with passion, I nodded along in the back hiding from the rays of yellow flickering from the wands of light on stage.
It felt good to be in that room.

As the musicians emoted and the twenty-somethings jumped to the beat, I stood with my feet planted to the concrete floor. I swung my arms and let the intensity pulse through my body causing my knees to bend and shake. With each drum beat I absorbed the reverberations and welcomed, over and over again, the pounding reminder – I am beautifully alive.

There were times the audience’s screams of admiration caused me to plug my ears and I felt, once again, embarrassed to be an introvert in a loud space. I reminded myself it’s a radical act to care for oneself and while I left my ear plugs in the car, I pushed my hands to my head and my fingers in my ears. Sometimes, the noise and the darkness became too much.

While the band may not have been my first choice, they are my husband’s old favorite and I knew he was standing behind me, screaming well-known lyrics and smiling ear to ear.

This morning, my ears are ringing to prove it. I’ll never again get return to yesterday’s base level of hearing capabilities.

And this morning, I woke up and scrolled through my Facebook feed and found out again someone we knew, someone my brother loved, has died.

There is too much darkness haunting our young people. Hurting kids are turning to the wrong things to help ease their pain. And I swear to God it never gets easier to hear the truth that people we love will leave us. That one kind, searching kid just did.

Peace be with us.

We stand in darkness, there are flickering rays of light, and we bend and shake with the magnitude of our choices. We can lean on walls, hold hands, show up to support the ones we love. We can shake our heads and scream and pound and let the pulse move through us. And we can weep when people hurt.

A swirling mess of fog and noise and joy created in big, emotive sounds exists – this is what the world asks of us. I want to be affected. I refuse to go numb.

For we are still alive and we can choose to move toward the light.

If you know someone who is struggling, reach out.

If you are fighting demons, get help.

I want the pulse and the verve to continue on through me and through you. Lean on walls if you must. I want your ears to continue to hear the beautiful music. Please continue to live loudly. To see beauty. To run towards the flickering light mixing with the screeching feedback. Get on stage and help find your voice to sing.  I’ll be with you to help plug your ears when it all feels to much.