Category Archives: Loss

The Accidental Spiritual Tourist

Recently, on a trip to Asheville, I was accosted by a woman who wanted me to purchase her books on Yoga. Wait – that’s not entirely accurate. She insisted I take one for a small donation. I truly had no cash, explained I was a tourist and that I was on my way to lunch. “Oh! I’m a tourist, too – a spiritual tourist!” she chirped. A spiritual tourist. Yeah, okay. Moving right along.

Much to my chagrin, over this past weekend, her words rang back to me and I discovered that I, too, am a spiritual tourist. “Let me ‘splain…no, no time to ‘splain: let me sum up.”

I woke this morning feeling sentimental about my old house in Ossining, NY, and  heavy-hearted, missing my mother. I have not seen my mother in over 39 years, so when I miss her, it usually means something big is playing out in my life or is about to play out in my life. The awakening was preceded by detailed dreams about visiting colleges with my daughter, Clarke. These dreams may have been triggered by a recent visit to Oxford England where many families were touring the University during “open days” as I was visiting as a tourist. (That is, an actual tourist, not a spiritual one.) Or it could be that I am dreaming about visiting colleges as it is Clarke’s junior year in high school and some time during the spring, we are going to have to do just that.

No matter what the trigger, when I opened my eyes this morning, I went first to check on Clarke because she had been complaining of an ear ache last night.  I gingerly touched her forehead with my hand, and tried not to wake her. I’m not exactly sure why I thought I would not wake her, because she has always startled if touched when asleep. She did in fact startle and let me know her ear kept her up a good bit during the night.  She weakly requested to visit a doctor, so I got dressed immediately.

We piled silently into the car and started for the Urgent Care.  On the way there, she put on some of her music, which I usually abide because it lets me into her teenage life just a little.  That’s when the Magical Mystery Tour rolled up to the first stop.

I found myself standing as a teenager in Montaldo’s Boutique in Greensboro, NC with my sister, shopping for her wedding dress.   All during the day my ear was increasingly more annoying and I therefore kept bothering it back.  By the time evening fell, I was in some pain.  I downstairs and interrupted the 11:00 evening news to tell my dad I needed to go to the emergency room.  It had become impertive that I get the invisible ice pick that was persistently jabbing my right ear drum removed at once.

If my daughter’s pain was a fraction of what I recalled from that night, she was surely suffering.  Her silence told me all I needed to know and my heart crumbled.  A few empathetic tears snuck down my cheeks, but before I could truly enjoy this sentimental stop, the tour bus careened around a corner screeching to a halt at the doorstep of my Ossining home.

At this stop, I recalled a time when my next oldest sibling had gone off to kindergarten. I was finally going to have my mom all to myself while my three brothers and sisters went to school.  These were supposed to be happy days for me, but they turned into seeds of anxiety.  Most days, once I was fed, Mom let me watch TV while she disappeared somewhere upstairs in our split level home.  I watched myself as a 4 year old girl, wandering around the upstairs looking for my mother. I called and called for her and she did not answer.  When she eventually re-appeared at the top of the stairs, I was dissolved in tears.  That brief time of feeling lost in my own home left me scared and much in need of her presence and comfort.

BANG!  The Spiritual Tour was nearing a close as I arrived at my final destination:  Gratitude.

During those days of needing hugs, kisses, comfort or the actual presence of my mother, I was building the deep desire to be available to my family.  Now, every time I offer them something as simple as an aspirin or quiet company when they are down, it is both a gift to them and a gift to me.  I am grateful to be here and to be a constant source of love for them.

Next on the tour:  Baggage Claim!

For better or not so better

We recently went on a weekend camping trip.  It is the same camping trip that has been organized by a group of friends from our high school since 1983.  It’s called Summer Soltesz after the originator, Steve Soltesz who unfortunately passed away 2 years ago.

The weekend was very much the same as in years past, but also different in so many ways.  First, many of the attendees are parents, so the original party weekend in the woods now involves a pavilion where our children perform, drinking games are replaced by beading and crafts, and most everyone is asleep pretty early.  It’s come to be a truly great family weekend.  That’s not to say that there aren’t still drinking games, but they happen after the tents are filled with mouth breathing little ones passed out from a day on the lake.

One of the major changes wrought on this event is the shifting status of families. Whereas in past years also, young couples were forming and new people were brought into the event through marriage, this year several long standing marriages were reported in jeopardy.  Given the large number of families that have come to camp each year, this should not have been a surprise, but it still was.  The reality of  (1) not seeing the usual couples together because one stayed away as a result of the separation, or (2) seeing two people who literally have a hundred mutual friends sitting frostily at separate camps, was unsettling. I was sad for all of us.

At the end of this strange, and yet still wonderful weekend, there was much to   absorb.  Frank and I worked silently together to strike camp beginning shortly after we got up until close to lunch hour.  And as we were ready to leave, Frank had one final bit of bad news:  He had just padlocked the trailer with the truck keys inside.

It was hot.  We were tired.  It was time to go and we couldn‘t leave.  Frank asked around for a bolt cutter to get the padlock off, and actually found someone who had one to lend.  Unfortunately, it was broken in the attempt to get to the keys.

Did I mention it was hot and we were tired?  Since we had a car and dad hat the truck, the kids wanted to leave and let Daddy catch up later.  When I told them we were not leaving Daddy, they had a ton of suggestions for how he might succeed (Bad Idea).  It was lunch time and everyone was hungry, but first, we decided we would go to Walmart to buy another pair of bolt cutters…and a t-shirt.  My beloved’s shirt had been “decorated” by a bird at some point during our morning’s work.  After 20 + years together, I had learned one thing about how to deal with my husband:  when Frank is upset/hurt/angry/frustrated, my best bet is to shut up, stay calm, and be supportive.  And so we all drove to the Walmart, got his tools and tee and headed back.  The kids and I waited in the air-conditioned car as Frank went back to struggle with breaking into our trailer.

The children began prompting me with what we should tell Daddy he should do.  I whispered to them the secret:  “When daddy is frustrated and saying ‘big words’ it is best for us to be quiet and wait to be asked for  help instead of offering any help.”  That’s when my lovely son Bryce said,
“Mommy, maybe we should pray for Daddy.”
I replied, “I already have.”
Me too! he cried.
“Me too!” chuckled my daughter, Clarke.
“But, said Bryce, “I want to pray all together.”

And so we did.  And at that point, Frank go into the truck.  (Yeah, God!)

Later, as we were headed down the highway toward a late lunch, something very important became apparent to me and I shared it with the kids.
“Do you know what you witnessed today, kids?”
“No, what?” they asked.
“Marriage,” I told them.  “That is what marriage is.  When things are inconvenient and frustrating and not working right:  remember that you are in it together and support one another lovingly and quietly.”

That and the Grace of God has helped us through.
Hopefully, the kids got the message.

 

The Gift of Shared Grief

I had the privilege yesterday of attending the funeral of a man whom I had never met.  His name was Morris Kaylor and he was a member of a lovely Lutheran church in Conover, NC.  I learned from his son James, who is a dear friend of mine, that Mr. Kaylor was a man much like my own dad.   And while I did not get to meet him during this life, I have the distinct impression we will meet in the next…likely during the Palm Sunday service held by the multitudes as described in the Book of Revelations.  I imagine my deceased father and Mr Kaylor have  been introduced in the afterlife and have compared notes on their children.  It is my fervent wish that James and I can compare notes on our dads the next time we get together, as there could be much healing to be had in such discussions.

Thursday did not mark the first time I attended a service for someone I had never before met.  Mr. Kaylor’s service was the second time I have realized myself lucky enough to have friends so dear, that the death of their parent or parents moves me easily to action. For me, being with friends not just in “difficult” times but specifically in times of grief, is the best of gift I can hope to give them.

Several years ago, I went to the viewing of Katie Hurd.  Katie, I imagine, bestowed her lovely eyes and bone structure upon her daughter, Loree Charles.  It’s a pity I never got to see those eyes twinkle when I told her how much her daughter has meant to me during our friendship.  But when we were introduced, as it were, I put my warm hand over hers, prayed for her, and whispered to her just what a treasure Loree was (and still is) to me.  Mrs. Hurd likely knew that long before I told her lifeless form.  I have often said that I would walk across cut glass in my bare feet for Loree Charles, so being with her in her grief was no great hardship for me.

I’ve noticed over the last several years that the opportunity to grieve with my friends has become a gift to me.  (Yes, I’ve managed to make this about me again…amazing, aren’t I???)  It’s not that I’m seeking gifts for myself, but gifts are heaped upon me when I remember how incredibly moved I was by my friends when my dad passed away.  I was amazed at the friends who appeared at the funeral home and sent condolences, when many of them had never met Dad.  Although there were a few who physically could not be there, I knew their love and prayers were with me and it was an incomparable feeling to know that love.  They shared my grief when we were able to be together later and I’m so grateful for them.

Until I received love such as that in shared grief, I had no idea what it meant to be able to give it back.  And so it was my great honor to be included in the service for Mr. Kaylor.  Much love and blessings to you all.

Getting it right

I  attended a weekend retreat recently.  While I gained a lot of spiritual graces, I was privileged to share a table with a lady who was recovering from cancer.  She shared with us that when she was 80 pounds and bald and she had just moved here from another town, she attended our church for the first time…and no one spoke to her. If you read my last post, you’ll know how deeply I was wounded to hear this.  It is likely I was one of the people who did not speak to her.  What a dreadful and life long lesson that was.  I will always be thankful to this gracious woman for having the courage to share that with me; for holding that mirror up to my face and showing me fear.

Following my meeting with this new friend, I had an opportunity to put my new education to use.  Later that week, I ran into a woman in the bathroom at a local restaurant.  She was wearing a leopard print bandanna and over that a straw hat with a band in matching print.  Instead of avoiding eye contact or pretending to be thoroughly engrossed in washing my hands, I looked her straight in the eye and told her I liked her “jazzy ensemble.” She replied with a wry smile that she didn’t at all.  Undaunted, I told her I was sorry that she was having to make that fashion choice but I thought she chose very well.  She seemed to brighten, thanking me for telling her that.  Strangely, her response helped ME feel uplifted.

Just tonight, I dropped into the library.  There, coming out was a dear lady with whom I became acquainted when our daughters were babies in the same daycare.  Later we became friendlier when I joined the parent advisory board and when we moved to Concord eight years ago, she and her husband were among the first to stop by and welcome us to town.  And here she was now in front of me in a brilliant royal purple top and a straw hat with a jaunty purple flower to match on the right side.  The hat covered a perfectly smooth scalp.  Her lash-less eyes brightened when she saw me.  We hugged, and commenced the small talk.

Before long I noted that she had a new look and asked how she was feeling.  I had known she was sick before, but the loss of hair was a shock as the last time I had seen her, it seemed she was on the mend.  Apparently not.  She informed me she had just had a bone scan to see where the cancer had moved to this time.  All I could do was make a sad face and say, “Oh, no…it’s moving then is it?”  “Yes,” she sighed, “I can stand not having hair but I really miss having eyelashes.”  “They’ll come back?” I prompted, hopefully.  “No,” she whispered, “I’ll be on chemo for the rest of my life.”

…And how long would that be? I wondered in my now completely stunned mind.  What a dreadful, awful, horrible thought.  I wish I could un-ring that bell.  I can only be thankful that my friend from church taught me to say something; anything.  To acknowledge.  To be available.  To say how bad it sucks that your eyelashes won’t be back.  It is the prime way to do a small thing with great love.  But it takes a great bit of courage.

I’m sorry for the sins of the past, ladies.  I’m sorry for the times I did not acknowledge, and feared opening up to your pain.  You may decide I’m a self-congratulating ass and you may think I am nosey or intruding or completely clueless…but you will not think I am ignoring you.  You will not be overlooked.  Not by me.  Not by me.

Loving and letting go

My sister is a very wise woman.  She will deny it, but that is only because she’s humble, too.  She taught me something a few years ago that has helped my change-resistant soul accept the most painful of changes.  It’s all about letting friendships go.

It seems there are some friendships that last no matter what and some that despite your best intentions or ardent affection toward a person, just fizzle.  As far as relationships that you just can’t kill despite time or distance,  I have a dear friend (that would be you, Lauren) with whom I still keep in touch  these 20 years since we moved out of Washington.  She lives in Texas now and we still make it a point to try to get together once a year.  That relationship will never fizzle.  But I’ve had several that had fizzzled and they cause me heartache.  Another friend from my days in Washington DC was fun and funny and we had a blast together.  And when she married and moved, I wrote to her.  She responded for a while but then stopped altogether.  I called, but she said she spent all day on the phone and didn’t like to talk on it after work.  So, if she was too busy to write and was also disinterested in my calls, that pretty much left us nowhere.  I left the effort up to her and she made none.  I was crushed.  And quite frankly, a little bit angry.

It may be time for me to admit here that I have some insecurities.  At the same time, while it may seem quite contradictory, I’ve developed a significant amount of pride.  After years of believing I was not good enough and saw myself in a rather low light…well, to put it bluntly, I found Jesus.  (That’s trite.  He’d been there all the time.)  What I mean to say is that I started believing in His love for me and in the fact that I didn’t have to earn it.  Therefore, if I am good enough for the King of Kings, then what some puny human thought of me was of no consequence.  I still want very desperately to be liked by puny humans, however, if someone doesn’t like a person as sweet and fun and all-around awesome as ME, then there is something wrong with THEM.  So needless to say, when this friend just sort of dumped me because I was inconvenient to stay in touch with, I was insulted.  Then I realized the flaw was with her.

Much to my horror, it happened again a few years later.  And again.  And again.  I was beginninig to sense a pattern here!  When I had just about reached my breaking point, the Soothsayer Sister known as Laura told me she totally understood.  Now, I’m not trying to make Laura take the credit for this, because I think someone else shared it with her first, but she was smart enough to share it with me.  She said, “Claire, sometimes friends are meant to be in your life for just a season.  Sometimes that season ends.  You let it go and you move on.”

How liberating!  Seriously?  That’s all there is to it?  No hard feelings?  No big fights or telling people off?  Wow.  It’s still not easy, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when it doesn’t get ugly.

I will also admit here that I am not only the dump-ee and the victim of friendships for which seasons have passed.  I’ve used this wisdom to realize for myself that it’s time to move on because I was doing damage to the other person or to myself by trying to hang on.  I know I’ve hurt people and I regret the hurt I’ve caused them.  By the same token, I don’t intend to linger and be untrue.  At times it’s as easy as letting that person stop calling or writing or emailing because it may be their choice to let me go as well.   Maybe I shouldn’t say easy – I should say effortless.  It still pains me to think of those friends I’ve let slide out of my life when I haven’t wanted them to.

So, thank you to my sister for helping me understand that not everything is meant to last forever – even those things and people we hold dear.  And not everything that you love and let go will come back to you, even if you believe it was meant to be…that’s a lot of nonsense.  Love the time you had, let the person go, hang onto the happy stuff.  And if they’re dumb enough to let YOU go, remember that the flaw is definitely with THEM.

Peace out

Popular

My daughter comes home from middle school these days and tells me how much she hates the “Popular” people.  “Nobody really likes them,” she says, “they’re SO stuck up!”  As a sensible adult not harboring teenage hormones, but remembering such passions I ask her “Well, if nobody really likes them and they’re unpleasant, why are they Popular?”  It’s a question I have pondered since the days that I hated popular people at my school.  (That darned Betty Rubble – what do people see in her anyway???)

There was one girl in particular that really got under my skin.  Everybody loved her and I just didn’t get it.  She wasn’t a cheerleader or student body president or anything.  Her skin wasn’t particularly clear like some of those hormone-deficient and vapid pinheads with mall hair, but it seemed like everyone knew her and everyone liked her.  The old joke was that Wendy was more popular than Michael Jackson:  everywhere she went, she saw someone she knew.  As a matter of fact, when she went to Europe her senior year, she felt confident she would know absolutely no one on another continent and was sort of looking forward to the break.  No sooner did she step off the plane in Heathrow that someone called her name.  She turned around to find a boy from our class waving like a fool.  Now that is sincerely popular.  And I gotta say, as an insecure and brooding teenager, it really pissed me off.

The absolute worst thing about Wendy for me was that she knew I hated her and she just didn’t give a crap.  Truth of the matter was, she was doing fine without love from me.  How infuriating.  I didn’t figure out until many years later that I was consumed with jealousy over her.  Wendy Thompson really got my goat.

Fast forward to our fifth high school reunion.  The afternoon of the event, I was at my dad’s home in Greensboro when the phone rang.  It was my grade school friend Missy with whom I had also attended high school.  We traveled in different circles in our teen years, so it was especially nice to reconnect with her.  She had seen my name on the acceptance list and was calling to invite me to come out and have a few beers with her and some of her crowd from school.  I gladly said yes,  got reacquainted with Missy and spent the evening getting to know her best bud Dana.  Every time I came into town from Washington in the following years I made sure to try to connect with Missy and Dana.  Gradually I was drawn into their circle of friends known as The Ya Yas.

Our group of Ya Yas is a spider web of friendships spun at various stages in childhood which have come together and cemented in adulthood.  I met Missy in third grade; Missy and Dana connected in high school; Dana and Mary Mac knew each other in middle school (?); Emily, Sarah and I met in high school; Christy was my best friend in 7th grade and at the time was also neighbors with Dana.  You get the picture:  a bunch of twists and turns later and we’re like a long running book club – except without the books.  And at the heart of this group of friends?  You guessed it.  Wendy Thompson.  (Now Wendy Leonard).  Some how, some way, Wendy had touched all of our lives through one thread or another and by all rights, was at the center.

The first time I saw Wendy since our dark days of high school was at a Ya Ya gathering at Dana’s house.  Since I was the newbie and the outsider, and since I’d grown up a bit since my teen years, I smiled weakly, gave Wendy a half-hearted hug with three compulsory pats on the back before breaking, and asked how she’d been.  I had heard from my roommate that Wendy had been very ill in recent years, but Wendy did not even mention it.  When Wendy came to a party, she came to party.  Instead she asked about me.

I don’t know at what point in the evening I figured out that Wendy was funny as all-get-out and that I really liked her.  (It might have hit me after several glasses of wine).  It doesn’t really matter.  I looked her square in the eye and said, “Jeez, I haaaated you in high school!  I wasted a lot of time not being your friend then.  I’m freakin’ kicking myself…I’m sooooo sorry!”  She smiled and told me she knew but it was cool and that it was a long time ago.  She gave me a hug then and I hugged her back for real.  From that event on, I never missed a chance to tell her how much I regretted wasting that time in miserable jealousy.  She would smile graciously and tell me she loved me.  Eventually we got to a point in the evenings when we saw each other when one of of us would look at the other fondly and say, “I’m glad we’re friends.”

I watched over the ensuing years at events as Wendy’s health became increasingly worse.  Because we lived in different cities,  and didn’t see each other too often, I was sheltered from the extent of her illness and learned of her difficulties  through the Ya Yas.  I haven’t a tenth of an understanding of what she and her husband went through.  Just to say that there were multiple surgeries, hospitalizations and very radical and serious treatments to control the symptoms of the very rare disease she had doesn’t begin to cover it.  To put it bluntly, Wendy suffered a great deal, but I never would have known it from anything she said.  When asked how she was doing, she’d give a tremendously toothy smile, wag her head a bit and say, “It’s all good.”

Monday morning, April 19, a little more than a month after her 44th birthday, Wendy’s husband Taylor found she had slipped away in the night.  After so many years of struggle, her body finally gave out.  Without being too gooshy here, I’m just going to say I’m going to sorely miss my Ya Ya and friend Wendy Thompson Leonard.  Heck, everyone’s going to miss Wendy.

She was Popular.

Writer’s retreat

Hello, fan.

I’ve been off to the beach for a few days at a writer’s retreat for my group of author/poet friends.  We’re called the Winery Writers, as one of the members has a brother who owns a winery here in the Carolinas.  I’m a late comer to the group, so I’m not sure if the writer’s group originated at the winery or we’re just tipping our virtual hat to a lovely place where friends like to gather.  Be that as it may, I’m thrilled to say, I’ve penned another short story while on retreat with the Winery Writers along with a few trifling bits of poetry, but I look forward to honing the story and finding a proper home for its publishing.  My group will probably read this blog, critique it and give me helpful suggestions for a re-write.

The retreat was a wonderful long weekend trip to my family’s beach home in Ocean Isle.  It was my dad’s home after retiring from his job at Ciba-Geigy (now Cyngenta, I think?) many years ago.  The place is a sanctuary to me and while there was much creativity, peace and joy there this weekend, I rediscovered some grief that I didn’t know was still hidden.  It appeared at most unexpected times such as when I told the story about  a woven basket that once held goodies I sent to dad after he quit smoking (That would have been when I was in my 20’s…so basically, it was before the invention of the Blackberry, iPhone, email or Al Gore’s Internets).   Upon seeing the empty basket out in the kitchen this weekend, my friend, Leslie commented “What a lovely piece!”

“There’s a story that goes with that,”  I replied with a wry smile.  “I’ll tell you about it later.”  And tell her, I did.

It all started when I called my favorite gift basket supplier after talking to Dad one summer and learning he had not had a cigarette for a month.  Given his average quitting time until then had been 4 minutes, I was pretty certain he was serious this time.  As an “atta-dad” I’d ordered what was to me at the time, a pricey gift basket filled with “noshies” to help him through the cravings.  I even special-ordered his favorite peppermint BreathSavers be added to the chocolates.  (We used to call them “Peppo-fix” to mock his addiction to them.  Aren’t kids sweet?)

When I returned to the beach for a visit the  summer after Dad quit smoking, I walked into the front door to see the gift basket, still unwrapped, on display on his coffee table.

“Dad, why the bleep didn’t you OPEN the basket and enjoy the treats I sent!?!”

“It was too pretty — I hated to wreck it.”

I decided I’d wreck it for him…dag-nabbit, if I spent that much on a darned basket of food, it was going to be eaten!  My sister watched as I angrily dug into a box of age-whitened Ghiradelli.  The chocolate was petrified, the mints had softened and the crackers were beyond stale, but I choked them down triumphantly.  HA! Yeah, that’ll show YOU for wasting my gift!

Maybe…not so much. I’d managed to punish myself completely with bitterness and bad chocolate.  How ironic that the child of plenty was devouring treats gone bad to teach the Depression era kid about waste.

Retelling all this helped me realize that I missed the entire point of my father’s generation:  in the Depression, you never used “the good stuff” – you saved it for a special occasion/emergency/additional Depression.  I just didn’t get it at the time.

I get it now.  Still don’t like it.  Stil makes me mad to remember.  But I’m a little older now and a little mellower.  I can look at the instance as teaching me a bit more about a Dad I’m just beginning to uderstand.  It makes me sad that he’s not here any more to teach me in person.