Grief is Not What We Think It Is: Everyday Magic, Day 958

Finding strings of light

Very little in life is what we think it is, especially grief. In the three weeks since my mother-in-law died, I’ve ridden a pack of panoramic emotions in between sudden bursts of phone calls, crazy-dreamed-nights, bouts of exhaustion no coffee can conquer, plus external the wilds of weather and circumstance. We had a blizzard that knocked out our electricity for 9 hours about a week ago, my son and some other people I love each lost their jobs, and a number of friends have been struggling with illness, grief, and loss. In short, it’s been a time.

While I’ve had experience traversing the giant, naked parking lots of grief — where it’s impossible to remember where I parked my car, why I ordered the wrong thing for breakfast, or how to adult-up in the morning when there are lush blankets and a sleeping cat — landing here again is still a kick in the gut. I pad the hard edges with creature comforts — movies, books, making big soups in the crock pot, more episodes of The Great British Bake-Off, and most helpful of all, talks with Ken and friends. I dye socks and t-shirts as I had planned. I work in fits and starts, seriously consider power-cleaning the bathtub, and then decide it’s too much work.

I don’t have adequate words for where I am although one image keeps coming to mind: a rowboat without oars in the middle of a cold, foggy, overcast lake. This makes particular sense to me since my mother-in-law was such a daily part and anchor of our lives, living almost near door and needing a lot of home care, even if it translated most days for me into simply dropping by for a minute to say hello or picking up one of her many prescriptions. Trying to take my rowboat self into prime time is a little dicey at moments — to paraphrase a line from the film We Bought a Zoo, other people’s happy feels too loud at moment, yet working one-on-one with people or on projects in this computer seems to fit just right. So does watching the flicker bang the side of the cottonwood outside the bedroom window as well as holding the cat while watching an ungodly amount of movie trailers.

For the last three years, when my mother-in-law was on hospice (until they kicked her off for not dying), I alternated between freaking out that she was going to die, being at peace or in pieces over it, thrashing against then completely embracing the weight of our family being caregivers, and many manner of other responses. It seemed impossible her life would end after so many close calls, but what anything seems is sometimes just a dance of our thoughts and thinking.

I remind myself that this is a stretch of time that was always going to be beyond what I could have imagined, but then again, so many things are.  For years, I had feared us losing electricity and being snowed in, but when it happened last week, the house stayed just warm enough, the gas stove still worked enough for me to whip up (by candlelight) a great pork chops and mashed potato dinner, and Ken and I enjoyed blanketing ourselves with throws, good books, and phone calls from old friends. Then, when it seemed like we might have an increasingly cold night ahead, the lights returned, surprising me again. Grief is like that too; I can’t do much, but I can make a big pot of soup, find something to engage in, and keep warm enough until the lights come back.

In the meantime, there is Hanukkah, so I’ll take some comfort in striking a match and lighting a candle in the darkness, a reminder that life is much vaster than what I can imagine, and so is love.

Alice: Praising My Mother-in-Law: Everyday Magic, Day 957

Yesterday, we held the memorial service for my mother-in-law, Alice Elizabeth Wells Lassman (obituary here). After crowd-sourcing some of the details for this poem from her children (including my husband), here’s what I wrote for the woman who was and continues to be so big in my life and heart. I’m deeply grateful for her raising some a wonderful son and being an amazing grandmother to my kids and all my nieces and nephews.

Alice

She was a fierce protector of all she loved,

a passionate holder of babies and truths,

and oil-painting and apple-pie-making devotee,

who fell in love with her driving teacher

and made with him a tumble of generations.

A lover of outside and tolerator of inside, she praised God

in the nuances of cardinals landing and starlings rising,

as well as in this very church, holding her candle high

on Christmas Eve, pouring her voice into the rolling river

of the hymn. She believed in angels and ice cream,

making something out of nothing, and the utter perfection

of each of her grandchildren. She was a mother defender

of the Jayhawks and the moral order, the power of reading

and making her own ketchup from homegrown tomatoes.

A sycamore admirer and petunia lover, she planted

a carnival of impatiences each spring, and because

she didn’t suffer foolish invasives lightly, she crawled

on her hands and knees to clear vinca from lily-of-the-valley.

She was a benevolent ruler of guinea hens,

letting them live out old age in the shade of the elms.

She was a rescuer of baby bunnies, abandoned kittens,

confused dogs, and even a monkey once.

She journeyed to the center and ends of thousands of

Reader’s Digest condensed books, Science News articles,

and Guideposts meditations. A traveler of great cheer

who delighted in Swahili phrases in Kenya, surprise blossoms

in Thailand, and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, she thrilled

with each new landing and returned home scrapbook-bound.

A voter and girl scout leader who believed in the strength of women,

she was a happy and frequent camper, a teacher of self-reliance

who made sure her daughters and son knew how

to whip up hamburger soup, do their own laundry,

and find their way around a library and prairie.

She was sure she knew, and that you had better know too,

the difference between right and wrong, and the price of freedom.

She was a stick-by-your-guns-even-if-you’re-the-only-one

beacon for babies and mothers, justice and hard work,

the essential goodness of humans, and the gift of being alive,

which keeps her heartbeat beating in time with ours

love by love by love by love by love.

Photos: (from top): Alice with her great-grandson Lucas, Alice and Gene with all their kids in the 1960s, Alice celebrating her 95th birthday, Alice and her twin plus her other sisters, Alice and a gaggle of grandkids, all looking cool

I Had No Idea! — Some of What Being a Mother Showed Me: Everyday Magic, Day 924

As part of a ceremony for a dear friend who’s about to become a mother, all the participants were asked how becoming a mother changed us. For me, answering that in is fullness would take several books or more, but for now, here’s what’s come to me about what motherhood has so far taught me. But first, a caveat: Being a parent as just one of many paths. I believe I would have learned other lessons and swam through other experiences, just as vital and valuable, so I offer these as just one summary of gems found on one of many paths.

I had no idea how how much unconditional love I was capable, and before becoming a mother, I only had a glance of this light I’ve now experienced panoramically. Yes, the intoxicating bliss-love of new babies, and to my great surprise, sleeping in bed with us for years because we had to be together. Yes, the sweetness of toddler-talk and sing-songy operas about going to buy shoes. Yes, the camping trips with a daughter in tutus and swirly dresses, and the middle-of-the-night whispering a son back to sleep when we were too sleep-deprived to put our clothes on right-side-out the next day. But so much more, especially when watching young adults driving their own lives.

I had no idea of how much their hurt would be my hurts when she or he was pushed out of the elementary-school-age or tween or teen hives, stung and bruised. I had no idea how hard it was to not be able to protect them from the pain of the world, or how much an illusion it is that parents can keep their children (and themselves) safe from cultural fucked-upness or peers’ cruelty or other parents’ judgments.

I had no idea what perseverance and love in action really meant, or how time and the life force are the greatest healers. I didn’t know what it was align ourselves with the power of the body and the mystery of spirit while pouring blue light, real or imagined, over a child to get him or her back to sleep after a nightmare.

I had no idea that the sweetest sound would be the youngest son laughing in his sleep, or the daughter alone in her room generic cialis online us singing a song she wrote while strumming her guitar, or the oldest son narrating a vision of women on another planet raising their hands while singing. I didn’t know how much I could bear listening to the same question thousands of times, or arguments for no good reason I could discern (except fear and hormones), or The Wizard of Oz book on tape a dozen times over a 14-hour drive. Or how I could bear my own pain as I drove away from him in front of his first college dorm, or from her in Minnesota, but then I didn’t know how distance makes no difference yet at those moments.

I had no idea how much I would love all of it, even the moments I hated and the times I fucked things up beyond what I thought forgiveable – the times I lost it and screamed at them, or tried to fix was clearly not mine to fix, or spoke when I should have stayed quiet, or didn’t step up when I should have, or made my love too thick or too thin – and then how we found our way to beginning again, holding each other and saying, “let’s start over,” and then starting over.

I had no idea how much we’d laugh ourselves into crying at movies that serve as family bibles – especially Almost Famous – or after extended family gatherings that show us how much we’re flourishing even out of dysfunctional roots, or while in the middle of the worst-tasting dinners during the longest road trips, or simply while watching Youtube videos about how Honey Badger Don’t Care or inventions that go awry. Or how we’re find pizza, cuddling under blankets, and even some laughter when the white’s tree frogs or rabbit or cat or dog or so many manner of reptiles died.

I had no idea what grace was until these three, and also how it doesn’t really matter how imperfect and human we all are because being a parent is just another way of being alive, just another path toward light and the sweet darkness, but also made of light and darkness. It’s a continual process of catch and release, welcome and say goodbye to, embrace and let go.

Birds of Many Feathers: 10 Eagles, 100 Swans, 100,000 Snow Geese: Everyday Magic, Day 920

I thought it was a bust, but the boon just hadn’t happened yet. We  wanted 100,000 snow geese, but just saw a handful of eagles, and 100 swans, still beautiful and magnificent, but after years of considering the long drive to the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge to catch the snow geese in migration, I was a little disappointed. Where were the geese? Somewhere for sure, but not where we were.

Eagle in the tree

Until they were. Nearing an oxbow to cross the Missouri river into Nebraska, then turn left and go south back to Kansas, right near a small RV neighborhood, largely deserted, a cloud of birds spun up and around, white in the sunlight and black in the shadows. We stopped the car, rolled down the windows and heard the multiplied low barking song of 100,000 or so snow geese.

With minutes, we rushed to the end of the oxbow, iPhone in my hands, and camera in Ken’s, as we took videos and photos, and laughed ourselves into crying about how gorgeous and amazing this spinning cloud of birds was. Eventually, the birds settled back on the water, and we headed back to the car to drive around to a closer view of the birds on the other side of a railroad bridge. Once there, we stood on the deck of a small dock and watched them, an island of snow geese un-forming and re-forming its edges into two long strips, joined bird to bird in the middle.

Swans in the field

As we got into the car and checked our photos for a few minutes, even with the windows closed, the noise of the snow geese roared to life again. A train was crossing the bridge, and the birds circled up and around again. I ran to the shore, stopping every so often to take a photo, then at the edge of the water, a video of their song and spin.

It happened by choosing the longer way home on blue highways instead of the fast-food-edged highways that would speedily deliver us back. It happened by chance and luck. It happened because one of us looked the right direction at the right moment. Then again, it was happening continuously, sometimes over a million snow geese converging and hanging out in this area at once in early December when the weather, water levels, and wind were right.

Geese in the Sky

Both of us, after two weeks of enduring some crazy virus that wiped us out and sent us through half a dozen boxes of tissues and a whole lot of cold medicine and Netflix, had decided to simply go while the weather of this area and our health was clear enough. Although I’m still a little under the weather of the virus, I’m a lot over the moon and back from seeing, hearing, and being in the presence of such vibrant and ancient grace.

If this writing speaks to you, get a copy of Caryn’s new book, Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane and Miraculousbased on over 10 years of this blog. Details here.

Here’s a video of the birds on and off the water:

Loving Uncle Ron: Everyday Magic, Day 914

Another visit, another time to sort tools

It started with gerunds, a grammatical term for verbs that end in “ing.” To write directly and precisely, writers are supposed to avoid gerunds, Uncle Ron read in a tiny newspaper article that he clipped and sent to me.  He wrote me that when next we met, we needed to get to the bottom of this gerund business.

That was well over 30 years ago, and get to the bottom we did, along with picking up what we found at the bottom and tossing it back and forth over decades. The first time we talked about this in about 1985, I told Ron that some feminist scholars purposely used a lot of gerunds to reclaim the language shaped into sharp directives by men.  He thought that made sense, but mostly he questioned why people were supposed to write in as few syllables as possible; after all, what’s wrong with a little extra i-n-g-ing as you go? That may have made particular sense to Ron because he loved words, and loved to immerse himself in many of them for hours on end, talking until the cows came home and went out again the next morning.

But he did a whole lot more than talk. A former engineer who became a minister, marrying his beloved Wilma early in the process, and having four daughters (all who ended up with the initials JJJ), Ron liked to do things and get things done. Two or more times each year, he and Wilma would come stay with Ken’s folks (Ken’s mom is Wilma’s sister) on the farm to help out for weeks. Each day, Ken’s dad Gene  would go out with Ron to fix fences, clean out the eternally-refilling basement or barn,organize tools, or haul leaves and stack wood. Ron could seemingly build or fix just about anything, and he brought a lot of cheer to any job as well as a problem-solving spirit only an engineer-minister could mix together in the right potion.

Hauling Forest Around Too

Because Ron and Wilma were here so much, they became more like a second set of parents to us. This was somewhat formalized when we told the nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) — the day after our first son Daniel was born — that Ron and Wilma were my parents because otherwise, they wouldn’t have been allowed into the unit to calm us and the baby. Although Daniel was born at a nearby free-standing birthing center, because he inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out, he was slow to breathe on his own, and that week in NICU was treacherous for him and us. Having an extra set of very loving surrogate parents around reassured us, especially with both Ron and Wilma’s can-do, it’ll-all-work-out, have-faith-and-work-hard attitude.

Three years or so later, I was carrying another baby, Natalie, into my in-law’s house when Ron met me on the steps. I was frazzled and seriously doubting my ability to handle a toddler and newborn at once, and being sleep-deprived, broke, and in the middle of graduate school didn’t help. “What a fortunate baby!” Ron bellowed, going on to say how lucky our children were to have such smart and caring parents. Then he carried in the diaper bag and some groceries I had. He was like that — confident in a way that made me feel more confident, and seamlessly helping out however he could while joking around with Wilma, or co-narrating, in panoramic detail, one of their epic travel slide shows.

They made for a richer childhood for all our kids too. I remember when Daniel was about four years old how he paused making cherry pies with his grandma and Aunt Wilma — who were singing to him, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy…” — to run outside and ride in the wheel barrow Ron and his grandpa had ready for him. Rona nd Wilma juggled babies and dinners with us at many a meal at Furr’s Cafeteria or Perkins. Along with Ken’s parents, they were even waving to us from the porch of a friend’s house in Baldwin when we pulled up for a party that turned out to be a surprise baby shower for us. They were here, ready to lend a hand, share snapshots, and eat some hamburger soup with our growing family over many years.

When they weren’t in Kansas, they rode the circuit of their family, even hoofing it in a RV for a while. Ron and his son-in-law Jim built Jim and Judy’s house in Washington state, and Ron and Wilma babysat in Ohio, took a granddaughter on an adventure in California, or simply showed up wherever a moving van for a family member needed loading or unloading. They were outrageously active in their church, making a community out of strangers, and a tightly-knit family out of extended relatives.

This summer, we made the smarter-than-we-knew-at-the-time decision to visit Uncle Ron and Aunt Wilma along with other beloved family in Seattle. During that visit, I interviewed them about how they fell in love. It turns out that Ron asked Wilma out after he discovered the girl he first had his eye on wasn’t available. Wilma, clearly in love with Ron just as he was with her from the get-go, said she only agreed because she felt sorry for him. It’s somewhat of an involved story, but as they told it, as when they told many stories, they laughed at and teased each other, recalling how their first discussion was about which state was better, Washington or Kansas. “Well, anyone with any sense would know it was Kansas,” Wilma said although she’s spent a good part of her life with Ron in his native Washington. They turned their home states into states of love where people like me and so many others could feel supported, welcomed, and start to believe things were going to be okay.

Ron, Wilma, Judy, Jennifer, Joyce, Mark, and Ken

A few days ago Ron died at the ripe old age of 93 after a rich and vigorous life. Amazingly enough, one of his daughters, who had a condition with a life expectancy that she outlived by decades, died a few hours beforehand, the family able to be with each of them. I have no doubt that Ron is helping her navigate wherever they go next, and he’s doing so with his usual humor, cheer, and love.

Which brings me back to gerunds. By making a verb into a gerund, we make it into something more ongoing. I could say I miss Ron, but it’s even more immediate to say I am missing him, right in the state of feeling what I feel. I am loving Ron too, feeling so blessed that he was such a presence in our family, and through his presence, showed me a lot more about what family being family can be.