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

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.

The Everyday Miracle of Rainbows: Everyday Magic, Day 904

I didn’t see my first rainbow until I was 12 on the day my newborn brother died. In the middle of our house stuffed with grieving relatives, my younger brother and I quietly sipped soup at the kitchen counter early that evening until I noticed something strange and beautiful in the backyard. Within seconds, all of us were outside, amazed by a perfect arc over our house while my grandmothers, first in Yiddish, then in English, hugged us and said this was the miracle God gave us after taking our brother.

Why I didn’t see a rainbow until I was 12 was because I wasn’t looking, not having imagined rainbows were possible in real life. Growing up in Brooklyn, then central New Jersey, there were also a lot of buildings, trees, houses, and shopping malls in the way.

After I married an rainbow whisperer, able to read the sky and aim us toward wherever the most likely rainbow is, I learned that rainbows, especially in areas of the country prone to late afternoon storms, can be everyday happenings. “Not rare but precious,” Ruth Gendler wrote about beauty in her book Notes on the Need for Beauty. Nothing could be truer of rainbows in summertime Kansas, where mountains and an excess of trees don’t get in the way.

How to see a rainbow? When the sun is nearing one horizon, and dark clouds fill the other horizon, look carefully at those dark clouds directly across from the sun. Although I’ve slept through many early morning rainbows, I do catch early evening ones. When our often southwest-to-northeast storms have moved past us, and the setting sun breaks through its western clouds, poof! There’s a rainbow somewhere.

Meteorologically, we know light , reflected, refracted and dispersed through water droplets, cooks up rainbows. Looking at the meaning gets more tricky although symbolism abounds bout light piercing darkness. After the flood, the crew, animals and humans, on Noah’s arc witnessed a helluva rainbow, which we can call a symbol of hope, miracles, redemption, new beginnings, and according to the tale and film Finian’s Rainbow, our heart’s deepest dreams coming true (check out Fred Astaire and Petula Clark singing “Look to the Rainbow”). Living in Kansas, we can never escape all manner of Wizard of Oz references (step outside of the state, and someone is bound to say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”).  But of course, we also claim one of the best rainbow songs and singers of all time — “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the ever-vibrant Judy Garland, who yearns to get the hell out of Kansas until she escapes. Then she yearns with all her being to be back under the rainbow.

Yesterday, walking into the Merc to buy a bunch of zucchini, one vibrant curve surprised me. As I stood at the entrance to the store in wonder, I pointed out the rainbow to a woman about to shop also. “Look like God has given us!” she said while starting to cry. “Yes,” I answered her. We both stared into the rainbow, taking many photos with our phones, which alerted would-be shoppers to stop and look up.

Driving home, it was rainbow slivers and half-arcs all the way until  a full rainbow, so vibrant and stunning that I couldn’t help but back myself up into the chigger-and-tick-filled tallgrass to take more photos. I remembered how the arc is just part of the full circle of a rainbow, which puts me in mind of a song Kelley Hunt and I wrote called “Miracle” with this chorus:

A round rainbow is called a glory.

What you survive in life is called a glory.

You never see the arc of it until after the storm.

To see the whole miracle, you have to hold on.

The workaday miracle is where you belong.

Last night’s rainbow, like the first rainbow I ever saw, soared over my home, reminding me again of the everyday miracles we’ve given, and also how we can never see the whole miracle until after the storm.

The Patron Saint of Just-Being Returns the Music: Everyday Magic, Day 892

In the two-plus years since our dear friend Jerry died, I’ve occasionally resumed my search for my Ipod mini, a little music player I loaded with songs I knew Jerry loved, and brought to him in the hospital as he was dying. While I was sure his siblings returned it to me to take home after his death, it seemed to have vanished the moment it was placed back in my hands. I emptied the catch-all kitchen desk drawer, looked in corners of closets, and even checked behind the washer and dryer where good socks go to die. Eventually, I forgot about it.

Jerry

In the two-plus months since our family has been upheavaled by Ken’s loss of a beloved job and journey to the next best thing, I’ve thought of Jerry often. He had an amazing ability to be present when the shit hit the fan, not get swept into drama, and stay long after dinner was over to listen to whoever needed to say anything. He did this with panache throughout my year-plus cancer treatment and surgeries, serving as a rock we could huddle on as the waves swept through. The most excited I saw him get was the night before one of my surgeries when he called to say he would be at the hospital the next morning with us. “But don’t you have to go to work?” I asked. “How can I go to work when this is happening?” he answered.

I also thought of him because part of how we’ve been navigating haphazard big waves is by chatting up the ancestors, of which he’s one, and asking for help, mostly in the form of greater clarity and peace with wobbly or disappearing ground under our feet. Because this particular turn of events is made of mystery, of which uncertainty is the byproduct, the biggest challenge is just being with what we don’t know. Jerry is the patron saint of just-being, a good teacher for me who tends to worship at the altar of over-doing.img_3166

Yesterday, Ken went to work at his new job, both of us thrilled that he landed in the best possible environment and position for his callings at this point in his life. The light in and around our home lighted up a few degrees, and sometime after his left for the office, I opened the cabinet above the toilet where we keep soap, floss, some vitamins, and things used rarely, such as our daughter’s make-up remover. There, right in the center of plain sight, was the Ipod mini in the pale blue gift bag that I put it in to bring to the hospital long ago. It was accompanied by the USB cord and the two sets of ear buds I put there also.

It makes sense that the goddess of lost things hangs out with the patron saint of just-being because how else can we find what we’ve lost than by truly dwelling in the emotional and other geographies of where we actually are? So now that the old music has returned, with enough ear buds for two, it’s time to get up and dance. Thanks, Jer.