Big Little Things

It’s little things. The dog door breaks. There’s a trail of ants in the kitchen. I find a snakeskin in the backyard. Titus steps on my foot. I knock a bottle of wine off the counter, and it upends into the dishwasher.

Intellectually, I realize they’re little things, but my inner self still curls into a fetal position with each adverse event. I become breathless. Paralyzed. I can’t think. Tears spring to my eyes.

I know what’s going on. For the past several months, my foggy, anxious, grief-ridden state has matched perfectly with that of a populace in the throes of a global pandemic. But as we move out of quarantine, moods brighten, and optimism sparks, my emotions are no longer validated by the population at large. I look around at all the shiny, happy people and think, Well, shit.

But here’s what I’ve decided: It’s fine. I accept it. I’m not going to try to do better, fold in more coping skills, or chastise myself for not feeling hopeful and happy during what, for many, is a hopeful, happy time. My recovery process isn’t attached to the COVID timeline. It’s its own unique beast and will run its own course.

Periodically, I go back in my journals to read entries from past years, and whenever I revisit hard times, I find the written reminders: I won’t always feel this way. And I know that’s true.

For now, though, I’ll hide out in trees.

My Dog Ate My Grief Homework

Between grief counseling sessions, I’m given homework assignments. The most recent was to create my “loss history graph” – a detailed report of each significant loss in my life, when it happened, and how intensely it affected me at the time. Needless to say, that wasn’t so fun to do, and once I completed the arduous task, I folded the page and tucked it inside a book for safe keeping.

A few days later, I noticed my dog Daisy munching away on a piece of paper. I sometimes give the dogs junk mail to tear apart, so I assumed that’s what it was, but closer inspection revealed the truth. She was eating my loss history graph. After pulling the soggy, tattered page from her mouth, I assessed the damage, which turned out to be minimal. While she’d chewed the edges and blurred much of the writing with drool, the only segment she’d removed entirely were the words: Dad died.

Later that week, my grief counselor and I both had a good laugh as I held up the pitiful remains of my loss history graph and explained what had happened. I mentioned how strange it was that Daisy had gone so far as to pull the page out of a book, which she’d never done before. My counselor, also a dog lover, spoke of dogs’ intuitive nature and suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) that Daisy might have sensed that particular piece of paper made me sad and figured she could help me out by eating it.

Her nod to dogs’ intuitive and protective tendencies reminded me of an incident not long after Dad’s death. I’d left Titus asleep on the couch and gone into the bedroom to cry. Soon after I left the room, I heard Titus plop onto the floor and prepared to be tackled by a giant, exuberant puppy, as was his norm. But the wild assault never came. Instead, Titus crept onto the bed, crawled up to my head, sniffed at my face, and gently licked the tears from my cheeks.

“Hello, human. We are here to consume your sadness.”

In light of these two events, I’ve concluded my dogs are super heroes. “Doodlebug” is my usual nickname for Daisy, but in light of her new hero status, she may need an upgrade. I’m thinking: Daisy the Grief Gobbler.

And Titus can be: Titus the Tear Terminator.

I’ve said it countless times over the past year of fear and misery, and I know I’ll say it again.

Thank God for dogs.

Death Is

The Tao Te Ching was the first religious text I ever read that made real sense to me. It hit home so hard, in fact, that I cried the first time I read it, which was a particularly huge feat at the time (~20 years ago), when I tended to cry on an annual basis.

One theme that runs throughout the Tao is that people erroneously judge and weigh the realities of life. What should be perceived as simple, we complicate. What is truly complicated, we consider simple. And therefore, as we attempt to navigate existence, we spend much of our time completely off course.

In the counseling, reading, and thinking I’ve done on grief over the past six months, I’ve realized my conception of death, and how to respond to it, have been filtered through the very lens described in the Tao. I always viewed death as complicated, but it’s not. Death is simple – neither malevolent nor kind, as plain as it is absolute. There’s no point railing against its wrath, injustice, or unseemly coldness. Death doesn’t answer for itself. It just is.

Many years ago, a friend of mine lost both parents within months of each other, and because I had no idea what to say in the wake of such tragedy, I didn’t say anything. I avoided her, and we drifted apart. I now realize I needlessly complicated the situation. All my friend needed at that time was a benevolent witness – someone to acknowledge the raw pain of her loss. Death is simple, and so is the most meaningful response to it:

“I’m so sorry. I know you’re hurting. I’m here.”

And that’s all. It’s not complicated. I suppose that’s the good news. When faced with another’s suffering, we don’t need to offer advice, redirection, cheer, or distraction, conjure up magical words or devise brilliant strategies to try and salve their pain. All they really want to hear is:

“I’m so sorry. I know you’re hurting. I’m here.”

Simple.

A Year of Challenge

Back in January, I wrote about the 52-week gratitude challenge my mom, sister and I had embarked on three months earlier. Last week, we arrived at our final topic: Lessons Learned/Did this challenge change you? Though we should’ve finished back in October, we had to hit pause on a few occasions, namely:

  • My sister’s hospitalization, cancer diagnosis, and beginning of treatment (March-April)
  • Dad’s sudden death (September)
  • My sister’s stem cell transplant and recovery process (October-November)

Quite a year. I think there might’ve been a plague, as well. And a bunch of other gruesome shit.

🤬

As it turns out, choosing that particular challenge was eerily timely. Given all the trauma and tragedy of the past year, it was a true blessing to have a designated time each week to focus exclusively on gratitude.

Here are the final emails we sent each other:

My Response:

To be perfectly honest, when I look at this week’s subject, part of me is like: Barf! Screw you, Gratitude Challenge, my lesson learned is that everything sucks! 

😭
👿

Ahem.

Okay, so really what I learned over the course of this challenge is that it is always an option to be grateful, rather than focusing on struggles and suffering. Concentrating on points of gratitude is best for my mental health, physical health, and general state of well being.  

The past year has certainly provided its share of challenges, and having this weekly exercise has provided a consistent reminder to shine the light on gratitude. Choosing to prioritize gratitude is the wisest choice. It feels better and is more beneficial, so why not do it?

I am grateful to both of you for hanging on over the last year+ to complete the challenge. It hurts my heart to think back on the breaks we’ve had to take over the past year, but I am grateful we’ve come through it together, and I am grateful for the honor of having you both in my life.

Love, Kelly

Mom’s Reply:

So beautifully stated, Kel…. particularly the disclaimer at the beginning!  

😄

But I think that that is what we’ve all learned in a nutshell: Even though everything sucks, there’s always something to be grateful for, and looking for those things helps to keep us calm(er), happier and sane. It’s quite remarkable that we chose to do a gratitude challenge during what turned out to be the worst year of our lives; and it certainly turned out to be a timely and beneficial choice.

Katy’s little sign in her kitchen says it so well: “Every day is not good, but there’s something good in every day.”  Another expression I love is: “Keep your head where your feet are”. Focus on where  you are, not where you’ve been or where you might go. My tendency has always been to spend a lot of time ruminating ….regretting things that did or didn’t happen in the past; worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future. But this challenge has helped me to stay focused on today and what is good about today. And there’s always so much to be grateful for.

I’m grateful for having made this journey with you, and for all I learned about you. Something I didn’t learn because I already knew: There’s nothing in this world I’m more grateful for than both of you.

Love,
Mom

My Sister’s Conclusion:

I’ve taken so long to respond because I don’t really have much to add to all the beautiful things you both wrote! 

☺

It really has helped me get through this godforsaken year having these weekly emails to look forward to and to keep my focus on what is good and positive in our worlds. I learned that gratitude really is a mindset that can be cultivated.

I’m grateful to the children’s book club meeting I went to where I learned about this challenge, and I’m grateful that you both were willing to take on the challenge with me!

I’m grateful that we didn’t let misfortune and long breaks derail us and that we persevered together.

Now, what’s next?

Love you both so much!

💕

And…scene. Challenge completed. As my sister said, it’s time to pick the next one. I’ve done a little online digging and haven’t been inspired thus far, having found mostly kill-joy self-improvement projects focused on crap like budgeting strategies and home organization. Snore. I did see one about sending a personal piece of mail each week and may try that. I mean, who doesn’t love getting mail?

I know we’re all anxiously awaiting the end of 2020 while faced with the reality that nothing will be different as of 1/1/2021. That being said, I encourage everyone to try the gratitude challenge. I truly believe it saved Mom, my sister and me over the past year. Despite everything that happened, we were still inspired to send each other Bitmojis like this:

And who knows, maybe when you reach the final topic 52 weeks from now, life will be a little more normal. Maybe we’ll even get to see the bottom half of people’s faces again! Can you imagine?

Memory Stream

~ How my thoughts are running these days ~

Dad’s explosive sneezes would scare the shit out of all of us. They came out of nowhere and were unspeakably loud. Even the pets would jump.

When I was little, he called me Tiger Lily. As I grew up, he switched to Kelly-My-Darlin’. He’d wanted to name me Sioux, but my maternal grandfather put the kibash on that.

Years ago, on what was meant to be a catch-and-release fishing excursion, dozens of enormous barracuda surrounded Dad’s boat as soon as we anchored. Each time I hooked a fish, a barracuda struck. After I pulled in my third or fourth fish head, Dad – who knew how horrified I was to be an accomplice to this slaughter – glanced at me with a mischievous half-smile and grumbled, “Kelly, stop getting blood in my boat.”

His oft-repeated lessons:

  • Do your best at all times in all things.
  • If you say you’re going to do something, do it. You’re only as good as your word.
  • Don’t hate. It takes too much energy.

He would calm fussy babies by placing them on his chest. We have so many photos of him like that – on the couch, eyes closed, with a tiny, sleeping bundle nestled right below his chin.

During a family road trip, after my sister, mom and I had played the alphabet game, I Packed My Grandmother’s Trunk, and who knows what else to pass the time, Dad suggested, “How about we play a game that’s absolutely silent?”

Last fall, he asked my husband and me to grab buckets and get in the car. Mom gave us a wide-eyed look like: Oh, just you wait and see! He drove us to the lot where his boat and trailer were parked. The boat cover had been weighted down by a recent rainstorm, and in the resultant pool were thousands of tiny tadpoles. Dad explained that he’d come by earlier to dump out the water, but when he saw the tadpoles, he had to change plans. Mom, Dad, JR and I spent the next half hour gathering tadpoles in buckets and relocating them to a nearby lake. Our little field trip didn’t surprise me at all. There’s no way in hell Dad would’ve dumped all those tadpoles onto the asphalt to die. He never would’ve even considered such a thing.

Dad once told me, “Life may be shit, but death is nothing.” I’m usually grateful to have been raised without religion or afterlife ideas, but not now. I wish I could believe we’d be reunited one day. Sometimes, when I remember he’s dead, it’s hard to breathe. I have to sit down. The pain roars through me like my blood is on fire.

He loved to dance. He used to take me to the father-daughter square dances when I was in Brownies. I adored those events. He loved Elvis, oldies, jukeboxes, and sharing the story of my grandfather telling him, after they’d traveled together in the car for a few hours, “Your music makes me puke.”

He was a brutal editor of my first book. “Why is everyone in this book always grinning and exiting? Why can’t they just smile and leave?” I was appreciative for the candid critique, but not so much for all the times he’d describe a critically-acclaimed book he’d disliked, proclaiming, “It was even worse than yours.” Each time, Mom would implore him to stop saying that, and he’d reply, “What? I’m saying this guy’s published and got all these great reviews, and his book is even worse than hers. So there’s hope!”

When I was in high school, he’d leave work early to come watch my tennis matches. There were all these people around the court in athletic clothing and this one tall, intimidating guy in a suit. His presence made me feel nervous and important at the same time.

On my dresser, there’s a photo of him from his Merchant Marine days. Hanging off the side of the frame is a slingshot he made when he was a boy. When I first set that up, I realized it would be a memorial someday. Now it is. I hate that.

He got to teach his grandson to ride a bike last summer. He was so thrilled. Mom has a video of him whooping with excitement as the new bicyclist goes whizzing by.

I hear his voice. I see his shimmering fingers as he explains something he’s excited about. I feel his hand holding mine. As a child, I would lay on his chest and listen to his heart – that stupid, broken heart that quit and stole my father from me. From all of us.

Sometimes I think I might get through a whole day without crying, then I cry at the very thought. It would’ve hurt Dad so much to see me this way. He wanted his loved ones to be happy. He would want us to be laughing.

Years ago, I told my sister that when our parents died, I would never get over it. I know that’s true. Losing Dad will be a lifelong sorrow. Still, I look forward to a time when memories of him bring comfort rather than pain. That’s what people say, right? Find comfort in your memories. So I have to believe that time will come. For now, though, I just remember, and cry, and remember, and cry, and remember.

[While I still can’t believe the words “obituary” or “funeral home” have anything to do with my father, Mom did write a beautiful obituary for him that is now posted on the funeral home’s website. You can find it here.]

The Grief Tornado

“They’re called the Stages of Grief, but don’t expect them to march along in a logical, predictable order. Their arrival may seem more like a swirling tornado.”

Mirroring this state of emotional chaos, the presenter whirled his arms through the air while I doodled row upon row of tiny circles in my notebook. Though his style was dynamic, it’s hard for lecturers to capture my attention for long, especially when I’m seated in a frigid banquet room under anemic lighting with hundreds of other whispering, coughing, fidgeting attendees.

His arms continued to spiral while he pantomimed a wild ride through the stages of grief: a sudden crash into depression, swift slide over to bargaining, explosion of anger, dip of a toe in acceptance, then a graceless stumble back to denial. As he said, “Sometimes that’s all in an hour!” and the audience laughed, I wrote Stages of Grief = Emotional Tornado below a row of tiny circles.

The trainer’s whirling arms were brought to mind a few days after my father’s sudden death two weeks ago, when Mom described a dream she’d had the night before in which she and Dad watched a huge tornado bearing down on them. These days, I’m caught squarely in the center of my own grief tornado, and I don’t need anywhere near an hour to spiral erratically through the stages. In a span of five minutes, I’ll sob my head off, narrow my eyes at a photo of him and mutter, “Thanks for bailing on us,” sob again, convince myself that this is just part of the relentless nightmare that is 2020 and he’ll be back at any moment, sob some more, tell God that I will totally start believing in him/her/them if this situation can be undone (please and thank you, amen), sob sob sob, then decide that staying in bed forever is probably the best idea. Clearly, acceptance has not yet found its place in my tornado. The pain is still so raw that acceptance seems like a betrayal to his memory. I know (hope/trust) that this will change with time.

When I arrived at my parents’ house the morning after Dad’s death, I found his to-do list on the kitchen table, his pill case beside his bed, filled up for the week to come, his day-to-day toiletries in the bathroom, his clothes piled on the dryer, and a pair of his shoes by every door. His watch, placed on the table next to his usual spot on the couch, still tracked the seconds, minutes, and hours in which he no longer existed. Packages of fishing supplies he’d recently ordered arrived at the house alongside floral arrangements and sympathy cards.

Dad was yanked away so quickly that it’s hard to stop reeling from the shock. I hugged him and said goodbye just hours before he died. He was expected at my sister’s later that week to look after his grandsons for a few days. He and Mom had planned to take the Blue Ridge Parkway to visit my husband, sister, and me at our campsite that weekend. When we’d made the plan, he’d pulled out one of his trusty paper maps to plan the route and said, “It’s good to have something to look forward to.”

I’ve dreaded my father’s passing ever since his first major cardiac event in 1985, when I was ten years old. Despite the fervent protests of his loved ones, he was always cavalier about his death, replying to each, “Good night – see you in the morning!” with, “I certainly hope so,” and reminding us ad nauseam that he wouldn’t be around forever. But nothing could’ve prepared me for this abrupt loss. The finality. The permanent state of absence. As I told my mom the other day, “He just keeps being gone.” She said she’d been thinking the same thing – that he’d been away plenty of times before, but he’d always come back. And we took a step away from our separate tornados to hold each other and cry.

I know that my family, and everyone who loved Dad, will find a way to get through this. We’re huddling close and holding onto one another. In my journal, I’m writing a list of all the things he loved, and while it makes me break down now, someday it will make me smile. I’ve discovered two good grief strategies: the shower is a good place to cry, and the car is a good place to scream. And I’m not fighting the tornado. Like all forces of nature, even the most vicious, it will run its course, and in the wake of its destructive path, there will be opportunities for rebirth. While that future is unforeseeable today, I trust that it will come.

Snapshots

I’ve been avoiding this blog, because my last post was about Libby, and she passed away a few days after I wrote it. Many times over the past several weeks, I’ve thought, I should write someth… as I’ve clicked over to this page, then glimpsed the last post and clicked away immediately. Guess it’s safe to say the grieving process is far from over.

In the interim period, I worked on a project that involved reviewing thousands of photographs from the past 40 years. What I felt during this experience was the profound power of nostalgia. As I looked through all the old photos, even the ones that featured loved ones who have passed on, my thoughts and emotions were filtered through an obvious, rosy lens. Thinking back on my years in Key West, I thought, The days smelled of frangipani, the nights of jasmine, the temperature never dropped below 65 degrees, and mangoes were free. (Our next door neighbor had a mango tree, but he was allergic, so we got to have them all.) And photos of a decade in California brought forth the memories: Lovely, sunny Santa Cruz. No humidity or mosquitos, inexpensive wine and incredible produce, summit views of the Pacific, and sandy feet every day.

Of course, there were hardships in Key West and California, but I don’t think of them when I look at old snapshots. Nostalgia smooths the hard edges of the past, leaving only wistful gratitude.

Dogs2.JPGCuddle pile with young, healthy pups ~ those were the days

My new goal is to bring nostalgia into the present. Why should the past get all the good feelings? It’s over, it’s not coming back, and I need those good feelings now.

So here’s my plan: the next time I look in the mirror, I’ll pretend it’s fifteen years from now, and I’m looking back at myself in the summer of 2018. Through the lens of nostalgia, I doubt I’ll think, That was the summer I got swarmed by yellow jackets and robbed at a music festival, we buried Libby, and my lifelong poison ivy immunity mysteriously disappeared. Far more likely, I’ll happily recall: Oh, summer in Asheville. Long, lazy days touring serene mountain lakes on a paddleboard. Fireflies and honeysuckle. Our garden teemed with tomatoes, figs, and greens, and mimosa trees in full bloom lined the streets.

And if that plan doesn’t work – if the reflection only reveals tear-stained cheeks and poison ivy scars – I’ll look at this photo and remember the first time Libby tried on her new raincoat.

Dogs1.JPG

Then, awash in nostalgia’s warm glow, I’ll look back in the mirror and try again.