My Darkness Into Light

It’s true that when it rains, it pours.

Or maybe in the midst of great loss, when we are at our most raw and vulnerable, we feel things with greater clarity but less coping skills.

I don’t know.

But I can tell you that in this month of sorrow, life has gone on. Annie graduated Pre-K, which means come the Fall, I’ll have three kids in all day school, three kids doing homework, three kids playing sports.

I made a major job decision that requires 150 hours of licensing.

And two weeks from now, I am in charge of Vacation Bible School, a function of my asking the director of ministries at our church “Hey, why don’t we have VBS?”

“No one to run it, ” she said. Then she crossed her arms, raised an eyebrow, and waited.

That’s worth a reflection. Months and months ago, God told me to say yes to VBS, even though he knew that at this very moment, my heart would be broken. I am on the lookout for why. Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there and God will do the rest.

Which leads me to this post.

This is our third Spring in Oregon, the place we believe we were called to move. The previous two Springs have been pretty and worthy of note.

But this Spring? This particular Spring that has been so, so hard?

This Spring has been MAGNIFICENT.

The sound of the wind in the leaves outside the kitchen window.  The tulips and hyacinth that surprised us in April. The tree that leaved into a giant sentinel in the backyard.

The lemon balm that sprouted in the garden area, good for stress and anxiety.

The green hills and full creeks. Fields full of calves and lambs. Poppies. Dogwood. And sweet Mother, the roses.

Can I tell you how Sue loved her roses?

I didn’t even realize how much I was relying on the nature around me to soothe my heart until Saturday, when I was sitting at the winery five minutes from my house and this view brought me to tears.

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And then I thought about how many times in the last few weeks, Gabe has said “Mom, it is so pretty here.” Or Annie has picked some lemon balm and walked around the house, breathing it in. How the girls headed out to the backyard with their friend Sarah to cut fresh bouquets of roses for our families.

All of those things bringing simple and pure joy.

This Spring has sheltered and fed and lightened us, a bountiful grace for which I am thankful.

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This was filtered using Prisma, which is why it looks like a painting instead of a picture

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You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. 

Psalm 18:28

 

Sorrowing

 

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My second mom died. Her name was Sue. I introduced her to you once.

She died on Mother’s Day, with her son by her side. It was sudden and shocking and we are bereft.

I feel like a rat trapped in a maze. Life needs to be lived, so I get up in the mornings and I live it on that very specific plane of existence where laundry gets done and kids get picked up and dinner gets cooked. But then I’ll turn a corner and bam. I hit the wall of her absence. And it hurts.

Two days ago, it was when Annie got her haircut and I started to send the picture to Sue, who is her godmother.

Today, it was five seconds ago when I typed that sentence and used the word “is”.

I remember this from when my grandparents died in the car accident. Hitting the wall of grief. I know that as time passes, the walls get padded, and hurt less. And that one day, they won’t hurt when I hit them. They’ll send a cascade of love and gratitude over my heart, that I knew her and loved her and was loved by her.

But not yet.

The walk through grief is just like any other journey. No way out but through. And something else: the amount of pain in the hole she left in my heart is directly proportional to the amount of light she was in our lives, and will be again, once we get past this part.

In the meantime, we do the sacred work of sorrowing.

The Bustle in A House

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted opon Earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –
                                                                                                      Emily Dickinson

 

 

Grace

Last week sucked.

Wednesday,  we had to put our beloved Sugar girl down. She was 13 and it was time, but I’ve never had to make a decision like that before and it was awful.

Friday was my Reggie Jackson birthday. It’s a big number. Look it up.

We went to the coast for the day, where a giant seagull got into our car through the open sunroof and ate our picnic.

Shea and Gabe got hit by a scary rogue wave at the beach.

Gabe was carrying a glass bottle off the beach and up the trail when he slipped and smashed the bottle into the rocks with his hand. He cut himself good.

Saturday, I went looking for some Kleenex. There was none. Not one square of facial tissue left in the whole house. And no wonder.

Yep, last week sucked.  And then, in the middle of the crap, this happened:

After the girls shower every night, they get dressed in a tumble of pajamas and towels and dogs. When they got out the shower on Wednesday night, it was the first time there was just a dog.

Kate fell into a sobbing heap on the floor.

I left her with Shea while I dressed Annie and coaxed Lizzie into the kitchen for her medicine. When I came back to the room, Kate had calmed down enough to say “Mama, can we pray?”

I don’t remember her exact words, but she asked for God to take good care of Sugar and make sure she was with her family. She asked Him to tell Sugar that we love her and miss her. She asked Him to help us all feel better.

And then I asked God to send Sugar to Kate in her dreams so that she would know Sugar was ok.

The next morning, Kate came bursting into our room.

“Guess what?! I had a dream about Sugar! I was walking her with Lizzie and they were running and jumping and she was happy and her legs were fixed! I am SO GLAD that God answered our prayer!”

Then she went dancing back out the door. And she’s been ok ever since.

What do you do with a week like this? I don’t know. I’m living in a house with two dog beds, two dog food bowls, one dog and a puppy finder app on my phone. I got nothing, except the only way out is through.

And watch for the grace.

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It will be impossible to replace a dog like Sugar. She was such a good girl. I’ll tell you more about her one day when it doesn’t break my heart to do it.

 

The Wasteland

My dear and beloved T.S. Eliot begins his epic poem, “The Wasteland” with the line, “April is the cruelest month,” and for me, the end of April through the beginning of May feels like a wasteland.

On April 23, 2013, my dad received a radiation treatment that was a last resort for us, for him. Beginning in October of 2012, as his lymphoma spread, his chemo treatments failed. In the month of April, we received two big blows. We were hoping that he would go to San Diego for stem cell therapy, a treatment that held the hopes of really good results. The day before he and my mom were supposed to leave, they got the news that his cancer was growing, rendering him ineligible for the treatment. I was with my parents when they got the call and it was the first time, during his whole bout with cancer that I had seen my dad truly break down and cry.

The second blow came the day before the radiation shot. The hospital called to inform him that this particular treatment isn’t covered by Medicare, and would cost $40,000. They then asked if he would like to go ahead with the treatment. For the second time, my father cried. He told us that he didn’t want to use that much money.  He cried in the kitchen where I had eaten every breakfast of my childhood. Where he fixed chocolate malts in the summertime. At the table where we laughed. Where we fought. Where we three now cried together.

The dates are hard for me. On the 23rd he got that shot, which had the most negative of side effects. On the 28th, we went to see him in the hospital where he was in treatment for extreme pain. Mazie and Violet picked him a white rose and brought it. His face lit up with joy to see those girls. May 3rd, he collapsed at home and my mom realized she couldn’t care for him alone and he went back to the hospital. May 5th, a CT Scan showed lung caner and we stopped all treatment. May 7th, we decided to bring him home. May 9th, he left the hospital. May 11th, he left us.

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The days leading up to April 23rd, then to May 11th, wear at my soul. I feel physically different. My anxiety picks up. It’s hard to breathe sometimes. My body aches. I told my friend and dance instructor that my muscles are so tight lately and that even though I’m faithfully in yoga classes, my flexibility seems to be getting worse. “It’s because you’re not releasing.” He said matter-of-factly. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know.” he said, “Emotionally and physically. You can’t do it right now.” And he’s right. Don’t you love friends who know? I feel like if I release these emotions, I’ll drown.

But what is the lesson? What I am learning is to be gentle with myself. I don’t fake being ok. I don’t overcompensate with loud laughter or a huge smile. And that’s all right. My friends who know are loving me right through this.  Many of us feel like we always have to be strong, like we can’t be the ones who break down.  But right now, I am broken, and that is ok.

I spend my days not stressing about what didn’t get done. Right now, that stress is too much for me. My girls and I take longer at dinner, listen to French music, dine by candlelight. In my sadness, I delight in them.

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Many people tack on to their grief advice the phrase, “your dad wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and I hate that. Because deep down in my heart, I think he would want us to be a little sad. Who wants to be forgotten? Who wants to be not missed when they’re gone? What I don’t do is allow my grief to stop me from living. There can still be smiles among the tears. There can still be bursts of light in the darkness. We do a poor job of thinking that things must be black or white. There are not only two choices.

So during these 18 days from April 23rd to May 11th, I’m remembering that. I take my girls on outings and we have fun, but I also allow a space for my sadness. We talk about things that Zsa-Zsa would have loved and I let them see the tears flow from my eyes. We go to Disneyland. We opt for a little longer of a walk and push bedtime back 15 minutes. We live gently. But at night, when the house is quiet, the hole that he left in my heart opens up and I feel utterly lost in a world that just doesn’t make sense without my daddy.

If you are grieving, if you are struggling emotionally, please be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself a space to grieve. Forgive yourself for your moments of sadness or anger. Embrace your struggle. Avoid people with whom you have to “fake it.” If you take a hard look at it, they probably aren’t your true friends, anyway. Surround yourself with your definition of beauty, with things that make you happy. Get a latte. Or a beer. Or a vodka gimlet (the drink Dad and I had together in New Orleans) and raise your glass to us. Smile and cry. And know that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

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What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do ~ Dana

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A good friend of mine texted me last week to me know that her father passed away. He had been sick for a long time and over the course of his illness, she and I had many conversations about this process of losing a parent to cancer. When I told another friend the news, she said to me, “Oh, she’s lucky to have you. You must have known just what to say.” But the truth is, I didn’t. I don’t.

Having lost my father just over a year ago, I definitely know what NOT to say. I’ll give you the top three: 1. “Don’t worry. It gets better with time.” Here’s the thing: no it doesn’t. I’ll never have a daddy again. There is nothing better about that. Ever. It felt so dismissive when people told me this, as if in just 6 months I would just be over it all. 2. “I know exactly how you feel.” I understand the sentiment behind this one, but truthfully, no one knows exactly how you feel. Everyone’s relationship with their father is very different. Some people are close with their father, some aren’t. Some carry around anger and resentment. Some have tremendous guilt or regrets. I know how I feel, but that doesn’t mean that any one else feels the same way. 3. “Just be happy that you have your daughters.” This one bugs me because it ignores the gray areas in life. The happiness that I have in my daughters is unrelated to the sadness that I still feel about losing my dad. Absolute joy and gut-wrenching grief CAN actually exist together, thank goodness.

But what TO say, then? I don’t know what to say to my sweet friend because I know that there was nothing that anyone could have said to comfort me. Every sentence I thought of saying to her seemed so empty and superficial compared to the hurt that I could hear in her voice. So I hugged her, and told her how sorry I was. And I meant it.

Then I did for her what so many did for me and my family when we were in the midst of hospice and funeral planning: I brought food. During those horrible days, I cannot even remember who brought what, but our friends descended on my parents’ house, bringing homemade cookies, BBQ’ed chicken and hamburgers, chicken salad from Costco, croissants… it was a cornucopia of goodness that made our lives so much easier. There was so much to be done, especially when we brought my dad home, that we absolutely did not have time to cook, and there were only so many meals that we could stomach from the local fast food joint. I remember just crying after one of my mom’s friends from church literally brought us boxes of food. Their gifts of food nourished our bodies and our souls. It was just one less thing that we had to worry about.

The recipe I made for her is a simple, but delicious pasta dish that travels well and can just be microwaved or heated on the stove. I threw in a green salad, some Italian bread from a local bakery, and a bottle of wine, packed it all up in a Trader Joe’s bag, and sat with her in her father’s house. I’m including the recipe here. It’s a staple in our home, especially in the fall and winter. Try it for your family, and try it for a friend in need. Win-win.

Pasta e Fagioli

Ingredients:

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, quartered, then halved
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
2 cups water
3 ½ cups chicken stock – 2 14 oz cans or homemade (click here for our recipe)
1 Tbsp dried parsley
1 ½ tsp dried basil
1 ½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
1 15 oz can cannelloni beans (or white beans)
1 15 oz can garbanzo beans
½ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese (plus more for garnish)
½ lb ditalini pasta (or elbow macaroni, cellentani, or other curved pasta)

Directions:

1. In a large pot over medium heat, cook onion in olive oil until translucent. Stir in garlic and cook until tender. Reduce heat, and stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, water, broth, parsley, basil, oregano, salt, beans, and Parmesan. Simmer 40 minutes.

2. Add pasta and continue to simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Serve with extra Parmesan for garnish.

Suffer Well ~ Dana

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We’re just a couple days away from Mother’s Day, a day to honor and celebrate moms, and grandmas, and aunts who raised us, and the women we know who are doing a spectacular job of mothering. It’s a day of breakfast in bed, made by dads or other moms, and little hands, a day of flowers and jewelry, a day of sappy cards, maybe a day at Disneyland, or a day just relaxing in the back yard.

But for many, Mother’s Day is also pretty tough. I’ve watched Facebook over the last few days. A good friend and teammate is reeling from the loss of her grandma, the matriarch of their family, just two weeks ago. A friend of mine from junior high, who lost both her mother and grandmother three years ago, posted a picture of Winnie the Pooh, her mom’s favorite character, and talked about how hard this time of year is for her. My volleyball coach from 9th and 10th grades posted pictures of his mom with his children, with the sentiment that it has been 5 years that she’s been gone, but that it seems so much longer. My cousin texted me, “Mother’s Day sucks” as she will be “celebrating” the third Mother’s Day without her mom. And this year, Mother’s Day, May 11th, will be the one-year anniversary of the death of my father. Big, heavy sigh.

It’s quite the tightrope walk, isn’t it? On Mother’s Day, I will wake up with a heavy heart. I will remember each and every detail of May 11th, 2013. I won’t dwell on it, but it will still be there. On these days, it’s like we’re wearing sunglasses. We see our lives unfolding before us. We will experience joy, honest, true joy, on this holiday… but all through the lens of feeling loss. It’s a tightrope walk between joy and suffering. Those of you who know loss know that this is true. Suffering. And yet, my girls will have cards and presents for me. I will be so loved and cherished. And I will gush all my love right back on them. We will meet my mom at the cemetery. We will cry. But then we will go back to her home, where we were on this day last year with him. But this time we will swim in the pool. We will build the new desk she bought for her office. I’ll remember the time I bought her the Mother’s Day card that read: You’ve been just like a mother to me. Oops. And we’ll laugh. And give her presents.  And eat good food. And maybe make homemade ice cream.

Because that’s what we have to do. We have to suffer well. My cousin said that my dad would be mortified if he knew I was going to have a crappy Mother’s Day because of him, but I also think that there would be a part of him that would be happy to be missed, oh so dearly.  So we suffer well.

Many of my friends have told me that after 3 years, after 10 years, after 15 years, they still miss their parents, that once the first year is over, it isn’t necessarily “all better,” like society tells us it will be. But life doesn’t have to be all better. We learn to experience joy, to love our children, to laugh at movies, to enjoy our partners.  So we suffer well.

We know that our loved ones are “in a better place.” We take solace that they are in heaven where there is no more pain. We rejoice that we will one day be reunited with them. And yet, the hole that they have left in our hearts is still vacant, never to be filled.  So we suffer well.

 

Two to Tango ~ Dana

Last weekend I completely stepped out of my comfort zone and, at the age of 38, performed the Argentine Tango in my first dance recital.

Here’s how it all came about. A very good friend of mine is a professional ballroom dancer. In fact, he and his professional partner recently came in 3rd in the world in an international competition in Amsterdam. I met Jaime when my husband bought us West Coast Swing dance lessons for Valentine’s Day before we had kids. Since then, Jaime and I have danced on and off, just for fun, in my living room and have become dear friends. This last October, we were talking about my birthday and how I was struggling with the recent loss of my father.

“Remember the part in the movie Evita when the couples are dancing the tango, clinging to each other in their sadness after her death?” I asked him one night. “Can you just come and dance with me? Can I just cling to you and cry and tango?”

Without a second thought, Jaime said to me, “I’ll do one better. I will choreograph a tango and you and I will dance it in honor of your father at the studio’s showcase in January.” I sobbed.

Now, let me represent my Long Beach State Volleyball girls and say that I can dance… up in the nightclubs. If you were out dancing on Second Street in Long Beach some time between 1995 and 1998, we probably danced together, especially if you were at Belmont Station. You would have noticed us, me and my 6 foot and above teammates. But let me be the first to tell you that dancing out there is WAY different than dancing in the ballroom. Way. Poor Jaime. There’s probably nothing worse than trying to get the nightclub dancer out of a girl. And to be honest, I didn’t realize just how much I really needed to learn.

The first day that I came to the studio, it was pouring rain. Jaime was waiting in the dance room, dressed in slacks, and a vest and tie. He began teaching me the Argentine Tango and I cried. A lot. Over the next weeks and months, we met every Wednesday. Every Wednesday he showed up for me, taught me, let me cry, and demanded my best, for me and for my father.

Luckily I understand what my body is doing, but at almost 40, it can be hard to make my knees do what I want them to. When did start to move like an old lady? My favorite thing that Jaime says to me is, “Ok, do it again, but this time don’t make it look like you’re in pain.” Damn it.

All week long I had been filled with emotion: love for my dad, sorrow for missing him, gratitude for Jaime’s friendship, nervousness for wanting to do well.  Saturday night, when I couldn’t sleep, I found Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 on television. Near the end, as Harry is preparing to face his enemy, he is surrounded by his parents, and others, who have died. He looks at his mother and says, “Why are you here?” and she looks at him with love and says, “We never left.” I looked into the darkness, hoping to see, perhaps, my dad sitting in the leather club chair across the room. I whispered, “Are you still here, too?”

Sunday was our big day. With perfectly coifed hair and gorgeous makeup, I stepped onto the dance floor with my darling friend. We danced to “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla, a beautifully sad and mournful tango song.

Fast, sharp, explosive steps and kicks, followed by slow, passionate accents and movements, characterize the tango itself. I can still hear Jaime’s voice from rehearsals, “Slow, slow, quick, quick, up… and… fast, swivel, swivel, swivel, stop!” And so goes the dance of grief. There are times of rage, of desperation, of explosive pain; and there are times of quiet sadness, of nostalgia. And it’s often surprising to me how intertwined they all become.

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So I had my dance. I had my Evita moment and clung to my partner in sorrow. And it was life-changing.  My family and my friends, who have been so unfailingly supportive the last eight months, surrounded me once more. And by becoming vulnerable, by opening my wounded heart for others to see, I invited in healing. I invited in love. By allowing them to carry me through the hard days, I find the strength to carry on.  And I was again reminded that love goes on living, long after the body dies.

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And to Jaime, thank you. Thank you for your generosity of spirit. Thank you for your grace and elegance. Thank you for your professionalism and your amazing talent. And mostly, thank you for sharing all of that with me, dear friend. I love you.

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