Archive for the 'grief' Category

Lent: Holy

amywink March 28th, 2018

In the spring of 2016, Stacey ended treatments for her cancer. After a very difficult and almost deadly drug trial failed to affect her cancer, she had tried another as a last attempt to affect the growing tumors but the consequences were unacceptable and that treatment too had little affect. We both knew, and we talked extensively about her right to choose, accepting what it meant and knowing how little time we likely had left, and we laughed as much as we could together. I found a card to send her that extolled the virtues of friendship and how friends were there to help each other in times of crisis as long as each friend had a crisis at a different time! Since my mother’s death and her cancer spreading had both occurred that spring, I added a note “I think we’re screwed” and we laughed when she received it.

We were so screwed.

We laughed a surprising amount that spring because that seemed to be the only thing left to do as we faced what was coming and something in the joyful connection we made together each time we laughed helped us cope. I threatened her “just don’t die on my birthday” and she said she’d do her best. But the weekend after my birthday, she had what we called a spell, and entered the residential hospice after becoming unresponsive.

Everyone waited.

And she came back to us.

We both knew our time was very short. I suspected the cancer had reached her brain. We had been relieved in December before she entered the drug trial when the scans had showed no cancer in her brain but it was now May, 6 months later. We did not talk of this but I think we both knew what it might mean. She probably didn’t want to tell me.

She determined to finish the afghan she had started for my mother and I still wanted, and she was so relieved to be able to work on it as she recovered in hospice. I joked with her “just don’t leave it where I can tell you wrote “arrrgghhhh” on the cave wall.” And she laughed, and retold the story to everyone.

She returned to emailing and was so grateful to be able to write, to return to our “thinking together in writing” which sustained us during the 20 years of our friendship and sustained both of us in the last months of her life. When she couldn’t write, we texted. It was hard for her to talk on the phone so we kept the conversation going and we said everything that was important to say, everything that was important to understand about our friendship and what we meant to each other, everything we had learned from each other. The end was coming so what would be the point of not saying those things? What would be the point in not telling someone how very important she is? We said all the things. I determined I would always say all the things because what is the point of not saying what people mean, what beautiful gifts we are?

I called that time our Indian Summer and we savored every email conversation, every laugh, every dark moment we made light with laughter, every dark moment when all we could do was be with each other in that darkness. She hated that we all suffered with her illness. I reminded her that she couldn’t make us miss her less no matter how tidy she tried to make the ending. We argued about heaven (our first real religious argument) but agreed she’d be disappointed if it looked the same as what she already knew. While she talked of what she had done, I argued we were saved by grace.

Every conversation was holy.

She finished the afghan and she was so proud. She’d tried a new design, learned to sew the border on. She wanted to show it around before she sent it and I agreed she should. I was leaving to get my new puppy, James, over the July 4th weekend so we didn’t want it to be left outside while I was away. She shipped it to arrive once I was home.

The afghan was lovely, blues and cream, and I pulled it from the box so happy to have received this gift of her, made by her hands. It was so beautiful.

And I saw the mistakes.

It wasn’t an “arggghhh” on the cave wall exactly, but with those mistakes, I knew. She’d never have allowed mistakes in her work, written or otherwise, the uneven border, the missing stitches. Her OCD would not have allowed it. I knew the cancer was in her brain. I knew.

And later that week, she knew. She’d decided to try one last thing and made an appointment at Cancer Centers of America. Her husband told me how hard it was to get there but they’d made it. But her scans showed cancer in her brain. A lot of cancer. There was nothing to be done. She decided what to do and I agreed with her.

It was our last conversation.

I sent photos to her through her husband and listened for him.

She did not die on my birthday, but instead on my parents’ anniversary– which I do not think she knew. I was not alone because Kristi was visiting, which Stacey had known and perhaps she decided to go when I was not alone. I think she left things as tidy as she could, with as few loose ends as she wanted, but like I told her that would make precious little difference in our grief. When her husband called, we could not speak and we still can’t speak but we can write and we do. Our grief has brought us close, as it has brought me close to her other best friend.

But it is not tidy. We are bound together roughly, unevenly, with stitches missing and holes where they shouldn’t be.

But we are bound together and it is Holy.

Lent: Be with Us on Our Journey

amywink February 22nd, 2018

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths.”
Psalm 25

I have passed the second anniversary of my mother’s heart attack. In two weeks, I will pass the second anniversary of her death. I am in the second anniversary of the weeks between, when the body does the work of grief. I have to pay attention to the feelings rising out of memory, to shadow the present and tint my current days. I know this is here. I know this is now but I respect the work of grief, accepting these tattered remnants of that passing time, the ephemera of those days between.

Time slowed down while my mother was in the hospital, as time does in hospitals, where there is so much waiting and nothing can be pinned to a specific minute. There are no appointments, just waiting. Just waiting in the unknown, even as we tried to pin what was known, like mapping our plan for a potential destination and yet having absolutely no idea of where we might be going. And so we sat, waiting, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my dear friend Sally who came for me, without my even asking and we waited.

We were not alone in our waiting, others waited in their own transitional times. One man, looking like he was straight from the ranch, in coveralls and work-boots, arrived to see his friend who had just had open-heart surgery. His nervous chatter like sandpaper against the quiet. My thoughts were not holy. I was grateful when he left to see his friend.

When he met me in the hallway after, he was filled with advice about the horror that he had seen, as if he could help me, prepare me, for what I might encounter next, and he rambled on as I stood there before him, with Sally at my back. I felt my shoulders rising, I felt the electric tension glittering in me as he so helpfully described his terrible encounter. I shouted in my head as I breathed, slow, steady, through the rising tenor of his voice, his panic. Then I moved toward him. I reached and put my hand on his arm, caught his eye and said “I will be okay. It will be okay.” And he stopped, suddenly grounded, tethered before his terror lifted him beyond my reach.

“I do not touch strangers,” I told Sally later, and I have no idea why I reached, except I had and it seemed to help. I think of that man, that moment, whatever came over me to move me toward his fear, out of my own irritation. I think of the people who were with me, friends and strangers. I think of those memories of presence, ephemera fluttering through those slowly passing days.

Lent: Lament

amywink February 19th, 2018

Lent: Lament

Tell me there was some one,
at least one, who was kind.

Who could there be no one?

No one who turned?
No one who saw?
No one who reached?
No one who walked
toward your trouble,
just to be with you there,
just so you were not alone?

How was there no one?

I think of my own troubles,
and those who showed up,
just to be present,
just to be,
knowing so little
could be said,
just to be sanctuary
in the darkness,
so I could see
perhaps even
just the palest light.

I think of the times
I have turned toward
someone’s trouble.

How could there be no one?

How can there still be no one
walking toward this trouble?

Lent: Conversion

amywink February 18th, 2018

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Ephesians 4: 31-32

Stacey and I spent the last months of our writing time thinking together about the larger issues of our lives, what meaning we could find, where our ideas converged, where they differed. She had evolved in her thinking about what might happen after death, leaning toward the ideas of reincarnation. She was not Christian in her thinking, though she knew the Bible and I would have never challenged her to a scriptural citation competition. We respected each other and our faiths were never an argument, though we did often tease each other. “We’re all God’s children,” I’d say, “even atheists.” And she would retort, “If that’s the story you want to believe.” So we each grew stronger as we leaned against each other.

We did have wonderful conversations, deep and thoughtful, because we knew our time was coming to a close and what else to say but the things that matter? Why not go as deep as we had time for? I did not seek to bring her to God, or make her accept Jesus as her personal savior, in the common parlance of conversion. I always thought more like Henry David Thoreau, who when he was asked if he had made his peace with God, answered, “I did not know that we had quarreled.” If Stacey had a quarrel with God, it was not up to me to resolve it by argument or pressure. If she did not believe, I could only simply be and by my presence, hope that I was help, as she was help to me. And that was faith enough.

One of our last conversations, though, will always stay with me. She was so tired as the cancer grew and she struggled to maintain a public self that belied the depth of her illness, a kind of shield for her growing vulnerability, but one day she was just too tired. She wrote that she had gone to the pharmacy without her wig, in only her soft chemo cap and someone had turned to her, asked about her treatment, revealed her daughter had died, and offered her presence. She asked if she could pray for Stacey (which was not really an uncommon occurrence) and Stacey said yes, taking the true kindness of the offering. And something shifted.

She wrote to me of her encounter and said, “I realize my feelings have been a kind of vanity.”

I asked her what she meant.

” I have always thought, in a way, that only I can be truly kind,” she wrote. “That others are not as kind as me. I realize now that that is vanity and I see that others can be kind, that others are kind.”

“Yes” I wrote back, “Yes, that’s right.”

And I silently offered a prayer of gratitude for that conversion.

Sitting in the Balcony at Church

amywink February 7th, 2018

As an educator of thirty years, I have always paid attention the dynamics of the classroom that impacts our learning community. Trouble from the back row can trouble in the entire class; an extrovert in the front row can make the rest of the class disappear; chatting close friends makes a professor want to use the first grade question “Do I need to separate the two of you?” The quietest student may sit up front or way in the back, and may have the most brilliant answers that I want to draw out for everyone to hear. I do not have a seating chart and remember my students by their writing projects and personalities, not their seats in class. But generally, students’ choice of seating is relatively benign. Some students always sit in the same place; some students are nomads. The trouble comes when a nomad takes someone who has a permanent position and the student who has lost the place seems bewildered and irked at the same time.

I get that. Completely.

Of course, I never have to worry about where to sit in class because I am at the head of it. Not so in church, thank the dear Lord. In church, I do not have to be the professor. In church, I walk up the steps to what I have described as the introvert’s balcony, where my introvert friend Caroline also sits (and apparently has for her life at this church). We do not always sit together, which is likely a good thing as we do not want to risk being separated if we chat and laugh, like first grade friends (and her mother has sternly looked at us in an attempt to discipline us). It is not a spot of invisibility as I have noticed when looking up into the balcony when I usher. I know because the pastors have mentioned knowing exactly where I sit. That is mildly disconcerting but I’m coping with being visible in this different setting and also learning how to be visible. If my intent was really to hide, I’d be better off choosing the back row of the first floor, where others block people’s vision and the dim light helps (but since I just revealed that, someone is bound to look for me there if I am suddenly missing at church).

I never much thought about where I sit as anything significant to others but recently people have mentioned, curiously and kindly, where I sit. Someone described me as a “Front Row Student” which I wasn’t sure was good or bad (”good” she said when I asked, she “loved Front Row Students.”) As a student, I was never on the front row). When I shifted seats in Disciple study, someone said “oh no, you sit here!” so kindly I felt I’d made a mistake in moving and the next class I went back to that seat. I felt a great relief just recently when someone welcomed me to take a seat “right here” as a sign of belonging in a moment when I felt I might be out of place. But I am just coming into this community, becoming a member, and also learning to be part of it and I am often surprised by the welcome, having been so long in the wilderness. How I think about myself is not what others see and I am working on reconciling those differing versions to learn more about who I actually am.

But my seat in the church balcony has garnered increased interest as I have become more public, more known, in church. Someone sat in my usual seat recently and noticed “Oh, I’ve taken your seat!” and I simply moved down the row (after a moment of bewilderment, just like my own students!). But after that incident, suddenly questions abound “Is that where you sit? Why do you sit in the balcony if you are afraid of heights?” I’m not upset or offended by these questions, mostly I’m amused by my own surprise at being noticed because it runs directly counter to inner sense of who I am in public. My easiest answer is that I sit there because my friend Caroline who also sits there, my actual answer is far more complicated.

When I returned to church last year, I came to grieve my mother, to listen to music she used to play, and I needed the quiet space of the balcony to be alone with that grief while simultaneously attending church, a place created by people–like the game we played as children with our clasped and interlocked hands. I was recovering my life as well, after a long period of burnout. I wanted to be cautious because I was still easily overwhelmed. How exactly could I attend a large church as a highly sensitive introvert in the first year of grief? The last time I had gone to a church, I was assaulted by the fellowshipping enthusiasm of the members. They didn’t mean any harm, but it’s best not to rush at a person the first time you see them at church. Caroline was my foil my first day (and she did not sit by me) and after the service, she introduced me, quietly, to a few people, and they quietly welcomed me.

People assume a quiet person is shy but it’s not shyness (I’m not afraid of people. I enjoy most people) nor social anxiety (I mostly don’t care what people think, though I do prefer to avoid making giant public mistakes). My quiet is, instead, reserve. As a sensitive introvert, I reserve the energy I have to cope with the energy of others. Energetic people, usually extroverts, can be overpowering to a person who is open to the energy of another. I have become anxious in the company of anxious people though I was not myself anxious, or fearful when I am not afraid. I have simply absorbed, or sensed the energy of others, like an electric current. I have had to move a slight distance from some, closer to others, to alleviate whatever feeling I’ve absorbed. I move in whatever direction until the sensation calms. I have extrovert friends–I actually like some of them very much but I can only take that kind of energy if I am prepared and only for a limited time, or I am drained to exhaustion. Some of my extroverted friends are also highly sensitive and that always makes for an interesting combination as we sense each other in different ways. I can also tell when a person is closed to me.

I learned this about myself most profoundly with my mare, Blessing, who arrived in my life in June of 2010. I had always been aware of my perceptive abilities, but her extremely sensitive presence made for electricity between us that has been both amazing and problematic. When she first arrived as a two-year-old, I walked her toward the pasture to introduce her to the other horses. When another mare raced to the fence from behind the screen of trees, a bolt came off of Blessing so powerful I felt I had been hit and hit hard, like she’d slammed against me. And yet, I was not hit. She had bolted in place, with me still 2 feet from her, standing safely with the lead rope in my hand after I opened my eyes again. This energy is what triggers a physical bolt when horses signal each other that the herd needs to run. In humans, we call it the startle reflex (a heightened startle reflex can be huge problem in anxiety disorders and so can the numbing of it.) It’s the same kind of energy that flocks of birds use in flight, what we call murmuration. I understand entirely why it’s called a bolt because that is exactly what it felt like, a bolt of energy.

When I first came to church, I was still easily exhausted by the presence of others. I was working on returning to public life, entering community, at least as well as I could. I knew where some of my limits were and I was finding out how much I could stretch them. Some limits didn’t reveal themselves until I ran right up against them, suddenly entangled. But with practice, I have been able to remain open to encounter without becoming exhausted by it. I have managed to develop a layer of resilience in the silence that I maintain in my private life, silence that I didn’t have for a long, long time.) Now, I can usher without being wiped out the entire next day (I do have to position myself at the back of the church to create a little boundary against the overwhelming energy I feel there). While I enjoy those days, I am also not engaged the same way in the service because I have created that boundary, a shield. I have sat downstairs and enjoyed the service but it takes a kind of subconscious, energetic work to do so. I enjoy engaging with others, but it does take energy, of which I have a finite amount–some days more, some days less. I am less and less exhausted but I still need to keep something in reserve.

So, I sit in the balcony, above and a slight distant from energy of everyone, above the music that rises beautifully from the choir, in the space where I do not have to spend my energy to keep feeling at a safe distance.

I sit in the balcony so I can be open, so I can simple be.

This is where I can be found.

This is where I am.

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