loss

Gifts

 

2015.12.24

 

This is Judith and her beautiful friend Prima.

For years Judith and I have crossed paths during Saturday runs along the Barton Creek Greenbelt. We wave, exchange a few friendly words, and sometimes stop to pet her aging greyhounds, who always trail behind as she darts swiftly over roots and rocks.

Judith is perpetually bright and smiling. She applauds my running group for making time for friendship and fitness, and we beam at her praise. Everything about Judith radiates joy and light. In the summer she wears tiny bun-hugger shorts that are smaller than anything my fit, 40-something-year-old friends and I sport in public. She rocks these shorts. My friends and I all agree on two things: Every run where we see Judith is a good run, and we all want to be her when we grow up.

I shot this photo on the morning of Christmas Eve when I was running with two friends. We had not seen Judith in a while and immediately noticed that she had only one dog with her. We stopped to talk and she shared the story of her other dog’s final days and the beautiful, loving send-off she gave him. The conversation shifted toward the heaviness of grief and how every new pain can revive buried ones from the past. She was philosophical and open, and clearly at peace even amidst the heartache. We stood there under a canopy of oak and juniper, soaking up this beautiful human as she poured out her heart to three women she has only known at a distance.

It was a powerful, intimate moment that lasted maybe 10 minutes.

After gathering ourselves and wiping our eyes, we went our separate ways. I couldn’t shake what I was feeling, though. Judith had stirred something in me on this sacred day. I wanted to bottle it somehow, and I immediately regretted not asking to take her photo.

We ran on for several minutes until I convinced my friends to turn around early and try to track down Judith. At a minimum, I needed to tell her something. If I were lucky, she would let me take her photo as well.

We caught up with her eventually, and if she was surprised to see us she didn’t show it. Swallowing a lump of emotion, I told her that today, along with being Christmas Eve, was also my Mom’s birthday. “In honor of her memory, I always look for beautiful moments on my Mom’s day. And you are that moment, Judith.”

We hugged. I tried not to cry. It was both awkward and completely natural. It felt like everything vulnerability should be: uncomfortable but affirming. It was the perfect start to a day in which I always reserve time for contemplation and memories.

For as long as I can remember I have sought out the Judiths in my life. I learned this from my mother. In fact, everything I know about seeking beauty and joy came from my mom. These were her greatest gifts to me.

When my mom was 38 years old, she was diagnosed with a chronic, progressive form of multiple sclerosis. A year later she was confined to a wheelchair. Her future held decades of emergency room scares, ICU visits, near-misses, and too many physical losses to catalog. She spent the last 10 years of her life in bed, relying on a ventilator for every breath.

And yet. Even with her limitations and losses, my mom radiated serenity. She found pleasure in every bird that visited the feeders hanging outside her window, or in the backyard wind chimes singing with the breeze. She exhausted libraries of their audiobook collection. Long after she lost her ability to speak, she could tell you with her eyes that she loved you.

Throughout her life, doctors, nurses and therapists marveled at my mom’s attitude. Over and over we heard, “There is just something so resilient and positive about her.” She saw beauty in most everything. I have no doubt she would have seen it in Judith.

It’s been 5 years since my mom died, and the sharp edges of grief have softened. I think I’m finally accepting that even if I can’t walk with her in my daily life, I can carry the lessons she left me. I can seek out beauty and joy and light. I can embrace--and if necessary, chase down--the Judiths in my life and tell them how they make my world brighter. What a gift indeed.

 

 

 

Rubble

2014.rubble This week I'm reaching for my own words and coming up empty-handed.

Five days ago a friend's life was devastated in a split second and the only words I can muster are..."no words."

So I've been relying on this beautiful piece of wisdom I found. I bet I've read it dozens of times over the last few days...

"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could." --Louise Erdich, The Painted Drum

The night my 11-year-old heard the news, she curled up beside me and cried for her heartbroken friend. Trying to wrap her head around such a senseless tragedy, she said, "You always think it happens to someone else, but we are all 'someone else' to somebody."

Of course she's right. And once again, I had no words.

And then today I stumbled on this photo I took a while back. It was shot in a quick moment that caught my attention but was quickly forgotten. The image doesn't entirely fill in the words that I'm lacking, but it does remind me of the incredible, countless people helping our friend through this nightmare. It reminds me that maybe I have a few words after all:  Even in the midst of tremendous loss and heartache, there is still love to be found among the rubble.

 

 

 

 

Turkey with a side of fiasco

Here comes another blog hop! This time my chicas and I were inspired by our friend Alexandra from Good Day, Regular People, who recently wrote about the subject of fiascoes. We’ve all got a fiasco story to tell. Here’s mine...

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When I was growing up our family insisted on serving the exact same meal for every major feasting holiday. In fact, the tradition was nearly as important as having enough chairs around the table. Nobody ever expected to sit on the floor and nobody ever expected anything but our menu of beige delights with a sprinkling of green and orange.

The fact that it had been decades since anyone touched the sweet-and-sour green beans did not deter our dedicated tradition police. The beans were a given. As were the mashed potatoes, the spiced peaches, the brown-and-serve rolls, the turkey, and the stuffing that, by God, better come out of a box or the men in the house would come undone.

So we liked our traditions. Some might say we clung to them with an enthusiastic death grip. In retrospect it makes perfect sense to me that we held on so tightly to these rituals because during the same time, most of our basic family dynamics were in constant upheaval.

My mom had been sick most of my life. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was 10 and confined to a wheelchair a year later. Over the course of her 30-year-long disease, she would lose her ability to walk, to use her arms, to feed herself, to leave her bed, and for the last 10 years of her life, to breathe without the support of a ventilator. This summary sounds very tidy and compact when written in one sentence, but those 30 years were messy, uncertain ones and included a long series of unraveling dreams for our family. Many holidays were spent in a hospital, or leaving a hospital, or worrying that we would be in a hospital. Many holidays at home, despite our bravest faces and sunniest outlooks, were heartbreaking and tense simply because when a loved one hurts, everyone else hurts as well.

The traditions seemed to help, though. Or at least they gave us something to banter about during meals.

It was with this familiar baggage that one year, I proposed a new menu item. I was fresh out of college and perhaps feeling worldy because I had recently left Texas and headed west, in search of a not-too-lame job and weekends in the mountains. I ran it by my mom and opted for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with everyone else.

Let’s mix things up, Mom! OK! How about another vegetable? OK! Let’s go crazy and make it green! OK! Even crazier, let’s not soak it in butter beforehand! Wait, what?

We decided on steamed broccoli served with a side of cheese sauce. I was no master chef, mind you. I was 22 and genuinely believed that the good china would make even Velveeta look classy.

The broccoli, I predicted, would be bright and glorious, and the cheese (cheese product) pure ooey-gooey goodness. Serving a new dish seemed like an optimistic and bold endeavor in the face of our family’s long-standing security blanket. Like perhaps things were almost normal and it was no big deal to try something new because it’s not like the weight of “making every holiday count” was important or anything. Just another family gathering, not a metaphor for all our hopes and dreams, right?

Thanksgiving afternoon, the dining table was set with my parents’ all-white wedding china and linens. My mother sat in her wheelchair at the table with her parents, who visited us once or twice a year on big holidays. My father, two brothers and I ferried food from the kitchen to table like seasoned caterers.

As all the usual suspects found their spots on the table, I went to retrieve our newest dish. I cradled the broccoli bowl and my younger brother, a towering but gentle giant who moves deliberately through the world, ushered in the cheese in its gleaming white gravy boat.

Before a single person could mutter “Broccoli??” I heard china crash to the floor and saw a spray of orange liquid make a spectacularly acrobatic hurl toward the far reaches of the room. The white walls, the white carpet, the white tablecloths...all splattered like the first draft of a Jackson Pollock. My brother stood speechless, his shoes surrounded by a pool of cheese sauce, still holding between his fingers the curved handle of the china gravy boat.

My mother shrieked. My father exploded. My brother stammered something like, “It just...it just broke.” My grandmother helpfully pointed out that “Wow, look how it reached all the way over yonder.”

What followed was a chaotic and noisy mix of blaming, shouting, stomping and heavy sighing. We spent much of the holiday cleaning up the mess, taking turns sponging carpet cleaner into the hundreds of orange spots all over the room. After every scrubbing, we wondered aloud how a gallon of cheese could have fit in a 3-cup container. Months later we would still find flecks of hardened cheese clinging to some distant surface. It would take years before we could laugh about The Cheese Incident and even then it was less of a laugh and more of an uncomfortable, knowing chuckle.

This week, nearly 20 years after that day, is our second Thanksgiving without my mom. The traditions have shifted over time. The food is still very much the same traditional fare. There is sometimes fine china, sometimes a new vegetable, but there is never ever broccoli.

There is, however, always gratitude. I realize how far we’ve come from the family we were then. We’ve added in-laws and kids and gained enough joy to balance out the losses. We know we aren’t immune to future stress or sadness, but the old specter of uncertainty has passed.

This year, I will count my many blessings and be thankful that the cheese can spill and it won’t be a metaphor for anything. It will just be a mess. And we will clean it up without fanfare and move on.

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Read more fiasco stories from my talented friends...

Ann’s Rants The Flying Chalupa Midlife Mixtape Smacksy

And if you can't get enough of us, check out our past blog hops about The Worst Meal I Ever Served & 10 Reasons You Should Be Glad I Didn't Blog in my 20s.