“And the love is free…” I came upon this phrase in an Aussie cookbook written by a daughter about her mother.
I grieve that as time passes, it seems more and more unlikely that the love will be free. Free of recriminations, of judgement, of past mistakes as swords held over the other’s head, of cruel hurtful words remembered and begrudgingly watered for eons to flower into massive weeds of unhappiness.
I grieve my father, now dead 16 years. I grieve for a mother who floundered in the aftermath, who escaped into bitterness and resentment and never really made it back. I grieve that I’m more like him than anyone else, and that makes me an outcast. I grieve every time I am painted into a corner, with no one on my side.
Most of all, I grieve for the inability to break free.
What might have happened if things had gone as planned?
What might have we said, done, attempted together, laughed at, eaten and savored, taken in, if things has gone as planned?
Would I have told you how I felt, if things had gone as planned? That I was firmly in love with you, my best friend, and that I had been since that winter when you told me you would fly across the world for me. No one had ever said that for me before. No one has said that for me since.
I keep wondering. Did you feel the same way then? Do you feel that way now? Do you mean what you said then about marriage and love? Do you mean what you say about it now?
Would our friendship have blossomed into something more passionate, if things had gone as planned?
The anniversary looms near. The anniversary of our meeting, if things had gone as planned.
I’ve lost hope. I’ve tried to adapt my body and my mind, but my spirit is crushed. Suicide has been whispering in my ear.
My body changed when a growth was found on my spine. The neurosurgeon was not concerned about paralysis, from the surgery, but I would die. I survived the surgery, but the recovery has been tremendously hard. I missed an entire year of work. And pain remains. My constant companions are loss: Loss of movement, strength, stamina, independence and creativity. Eight years.
I have done everything I should do. I have returned to teaching part-time as I knew my body was not strong enough for full-time, but being with my students would be good for my mind and soul. I have done weekly physiotherapy, daily exercises, massage, acupuncture, steroid injections for pain and more. I am loved and respected in my community; I give to others. I have a wonderful support in my family and friends. To feed my creative void: I have taken up photography with my iPhone. I try to find the beauty in the ordinary.
Yet, I am no longer the person I once was. I am unable to do the things I love and desire, because of lack of energy and strength, as well as finances. I tire easily. I am unable to explore, as I did before, because my part-time job doesn’t even cover my bills.
Through all this recovery, I knew something was still wrong. My body felt off and my spirit was low. This past year, more tests were done. In one year after the surgery, the growth on my spine was back and it was larger. The experts don’t know what to do. I am devastated.
I’ve had a hard time carrying on. I have experienced a great deal in my life and have experienced loss. But the loss of hope is devastating. There is a darkness in my soul and the light seems so far away. It seems, at times, that suicide is the only glint of hope for rest and peace. Only four people know the depths of my loss and grief.
Perhaps the Phoenix moment will arrive soon…I hope. I want to come out stronger, more defined, grace-full and lit with hope. Right now, I am not sure how. So, I rest, listen to my body, reach out to others and take out my iPhone camera and try to find the beauty in the little things.
I hate baby showers. I don’t want to sniff candy bar “poo” and try to guess the culprit. I do not want to wax philosophical on how long it is ok to breastfeed or pretend that it is perfectly normal for a five year-old to walk up to his momma and ask for some milky. I’ve reached an age where people think it’s abnormal that I do not have children. They wonder if my marriage is on the rocks. Sometimes I tell them there is just too much crazy in my family – we have the invite to Jerry Springer to prove it. Other times I tell them I am selfish and I really like to sleep-in on the weekends or kids would seriously impede my crack habit. I’ve considered printing-up cards with various excuses and explanations so I don’t have to go into the spiel but I’m too lazy. I grieve because I cannot not have children. I wish people would stop looking at me as though I were contagious.
My Dad died two weeks after my partner and I adopted our beautiful girl. She’s so much like him - goofy, strong, a dreamer. I try, as best I can, to make him real for her, to give her her Grandpa Brian.
To make him real for her, I have to make him real for me again. I relive my Daddy’s girl childhood and miss him all over again.
It’s been 10 years, almost to the day and I cry for myself, for my daughter, for my Dad and all the missed opportunities for us to be a family.
It’s not holidays and birthdays that I navigate on the map of loss. It’s the everyday moments, marking growth charts, swimming lessons, first bike rides and falls, watermelon seed spitting contests and barbequed hamburgers. All the ordinary parts of a complete childhood that the two people I love most in the world will never share.
I grieve the relationship I could have had with my mother if I hadn’t chosen to direct my rage at her when my daddy died of a heart attack. It was he, not Mother, who decided to stay in our small town to heal after his “warning heart attack” rather than seek advanced coronary care in the city. I have spent a lifetime regretting the blame I loaded on Mother when she had suffered a loss as heavy as steel on concrete. Mother was widowed at 43, left with a sweet 11-year-old boy and a wild, headstrong 15-year-old daughter determined to rule her own life. How deeply I must have hurt her.
Mother was as stoic as Jackie Kennedy later. She expected me to be strong, to continue with my duties as Y-Teen president and cheerleader. “Your daddy would have wanted you to carry on,“ she insisted.
But I took my stand and said “No, he wouldn’t.” I had been told I was like him, and I clung to that like a parachute as I fell from the sky. I loved my mother—she sacrificed for her children her chance at a new life. But during those years after Daddy’s death, my resentment stewed like peanuts in scalding water.
Mother was raised by a stern Scots Presbyterian mother and a rigid Southern Baptist father who served as county sheriff. She spent her life trying to please her mother and was baffled why I would not bow to her wishes for me. I never saw her being close to her mother, leaving me pathless to know how to be close with mine. It was a battle of the wills.
What I wouldn’t give to pull Mother into my arms now, tell her of my admiration, love and gratitude for what she did for me. I gave her beloved grandchildren. I was a dutiful daughter— there for her when she grew sick and died. But I wish I had crawled in bed with her at the end and held her until she crossed into the light.
Now, with grown daughters of my own, I long even more to create the relationship I didn’t have with my mother—but they sometimes resent me as much as I resented her. I study the Dharma to learn how to end this samsara and cherish each other in this life. My new granddaughter inspires me to pull the generations together.
written by J. Gail Livingston
Sense of Place
My incredible grief turns on the loss of a sense of place. The small towns have dried up—no jobs, boarded-up storefronts, graffiti slashing across my high school’s windows. The family old place is up for sale, but today’s families don’t want that old rambling ginger-breaded house where my father grew up.
People are part of place, too. Nobody stays put anymore. Where once I had grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins by the dozen, now everyone I knew is in the little cemetery up the road. Faded silk flowers and monuments with bird droppings mark their resting places. Their houses stand empty and their children have moved away. But every wrinkle they wore and every hug they gave me rest like feathers in my gunnysack of memories. I miss them all so much.
Never a holiday comes—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July— my heart doesn’t break, remembering the times the family gathered. Scents sear my hidden places. I smell the roasting turkey, see the aunts in the kitchen making potato salad and baking cakes. The men stand around the grill where the eldest uncle mops the chicken with his secret sauce on the Fourth. Everybody laughs and talks at once, telling the old, old family stories that teach the children who our people were.
I yearn for the girl I was—my naivety, my pain, the fun we had. My innocence was lost on Halloween 1959, when I was barely 15. My idol, my beloved father, died of a heart attack. To say I grieved trivializes my agony. I couldn’t wait to grow up and move away. Dylan Thomas wrote, “After the first death there is no other.” But, somehow, I thought everyone I loved would stay there, that I could always go home again to that little town where I grew up— where they grew old and died.
Webb was flawed I know now, and we who grew up there had to find our own paths to a wider world. But my love for that place runs deep and rich like a vein of ore. The safety and innocence we shared still holds our roots in fertile soil, though we took flight.
“To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.” - Unknown
To be a young adult sibling left behind has to be one of the most complex feelings known to the human race. We not only grieve the loss of our sibling in the present day, we grieve the loss of the one who was supposed to witness our life in its entirety. In a sense, I am not only grieving the loss of my brother too early. I am also grieving the missed opportunity to bury him in his old age. These days, I am grieving the adult relationship we did not have – the one that was just beginning to bloom. I was only 21 after all. And just as 19 is too young to buried, 21 is too young to bury your brother. While I know that the pain of losing a sibling must be severe and confusing no matter what age the loss occurs, I can’t help but think that I could have lost him more peacefully at age 82…
Of course at that age he would probably be using oxygen or fighting lung cancer due to his 68 years of smoking. At that age we would have already buried our parents – Paul would be talking about the time when he had to start secretly mowing the lawn for dad because “dad was too stubborn to admit he couldn’t do it any more – so I had wait till he and mom went to church on Sunday mornings. Then I’d sneak over there real fast and mow it. Of course, dad eventually caught on and by then he said ‘you might as well keep on with it.’” I’d be reminiscing about my chats with mom as she got older, “maybe she had been a little confused there at the end…but still always so kind to everyone around her.” Maybe one of us would be living in that house we were both born and raised in (the same house I had only recently left and Paul was still living in the day he died). He’d be showing me pictures of his daughter, Analice, and her family — his little grandchildren — and beaming with pride as he gazed at all the pictures hanging all over the walls in his bedroom (because if you knew Paul, you know that those pictures would be ALL OVER his house). We might discuss his final wishes; make his funeral arrangements ahead of time. He and I would laugh about how he dropped the groceries upon walking into the house at the surprise 50th birthday party I organized for him 32 years ago. We might even talk solemnly about the hard times, shed some tears over the pain that life had brought us through the years. And then, as he took his last breath, I would shed my own tears over the loss of a brother that had been with me through all those years. Thank the Lord for his protective hand, his quirky sense of humor, and his wonderful grandfathering skills.
But I don’t get those years.
And I can’t help but think that if I had, this grief would be much different – much more easily processed. It would be an expected grief. A grief that is a normal part of the life process. It would be combined with the satisfaction of living a long full life of growing up and growing old together.
These days, I am grieving a confusing greif. One that my psyche just can’t quite conceptualize.
Just for clarification (because after 5 years, people who mean well but don’t quite understand sometimes give me that “worried” look), I’m not saying that I live in total despair over this fact in my daily life. Nor am I saying that I am anything but incredibly thankful for the 19 years I didget to witness of his life, (and that he got to witness of mine). If I had to choose whether to have him as a brother and have this grief again, or to never have him and all and never have this grief… well of course you know I would still choose to have him as my brother.
I think of the above quote pretty often and how on one hand, I was cheated out of the experience it describes – how I won’t ever have someone who knows me in that way. On the other hand, I think of the last sentence, “We live outside the touch of time,” and how it takes on a whole new meaning when applied to my situation. It means that as I continue to age, my brother will still be with me. Whether it is through his daughter, through the pictures I keep, the memories I have, a vivid dream, or the feeling of his presence so close that I swear if I turned around he would be standing right there, looking down at me with that ornery smirk on his face. Our relationship will never cease. Never. I will always know him as he was. He will never stop being my brother; I will never stop being his sister. That’s why you often hear me refer to Paul in the present tense. Because though his time on earth is complete, his time as my brother has only just begun.
It’s your 24th birthday. My how time flies.
You know, even though it has been 24 years since you were born, you are forever 19. That kind of sucks.
Sometimes I’m angry that you were taken so young, other times I am grateful that if it was imperative for you to be taken young, at least it was sooner rather than later. It has spared your daughter the pain of losing you, after all. She was too young to really miss you now.
Then I feel guilty for thinking that, because maybe it would have been better for her to have at least some genuine memory of you.
Which one is better?
Neither, I suppose.
I’ll never be able to reconcile these thoughts, so I accept the thoughts themselves, accept the fact that I’ll never know the answers, and let them go.
Your daughter! I’ll bet sometimes Mom and Dad are PISSED at you for leaving them to take care of her. She can throw a tantrum like none I’ve ever seen, and is more hard-headed than a block of cement, I think.
She’s so bright - asks questions that blow me away. And possesses a sensitivity for the needs of others that is way beyond her years: “You don’t have one, Auntie Laura? You can have mine.” That sensitivity and generosity remind me of you.
Those brown eyes remind me of you too.
Ah, your 24th birthday. What to do with myself today?
I might light your candle, maybe look at your pictures, probably cry.
I’ll write you a letter.
I’ll read the Compassionate Friends’ March newsletter and touch your name printed in tiny black and white letters on the “Our Children Remembered” page. I’ll look at that and still have some sense of the surreal. He can’t really be gone, can he?
I won’t visit your grave because I live 150 miles away from it. I might think about the grave stone, of that little “-” between your birth and death dates, and recall a vaguely familiar poem that talks about how the beginning and ending don’t mean much… how the “-” is the part that REALLY matters.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that birthdays are important, does it? Millions of dollars are spent on birthday celebrations throughout the year. How do we celebrate birthdays for those who are with us? Balloons and cake? Gifts? Parties?
So…what about for those who are not with us? Does their birthday lose importance suddenly when they die? Because they are no longer physically among us are they suddenly unworthy of celebration?
Not a chance.
I’m a little jealous, you know. You got to leave first. You always were one step ahead of me.
So…what to do with myself today?
I’ll go to class, I’ll talk with my classmates, I’ll do my homework, I’ll text my mom, I’ll eat lunch with my boyfriend, I’ll talk to my friends. I’ll talk with some of those people about the fact that it’s your 24th birthday, but not with all of them.
I’ll keep my ordinary day, my ordinary behavior, my ordinary schedule. I can’t imagine you wanting me to do anything other than going on about my ordinary day. So, that’s what I will do.
Except that I will still celebrate your birthday. Not with balloons, or cake, or parties. But with something that hazily reminds me of hope. I’ll wake up and realize that I must have survived it all because I am still here. I am still breathing, and — for whatever reason — I am still moving throughout my days with relative ease.
For the whole day, I’ll keep you with me. I’ll bet you’re thrilled to pieces to know that.
Yes sir, during my ordinary day, you’ll come along. And you will like it. Or else.
In my thoughts. In my tears. In the eyes of some tall dude that slightly resembles you. In my stubborn resolve to pass this class. In that song on my iPod. In my time taken listening to a friend’s troubles. Maybe I’ll find a guitar pick. I periodically find them lying on the ground in random places and say “thanks” because I think they’re probably from you.
I guess in some ways, I celebrate your birthday every day.
Again… I’m jealous. A birthday party every day?
Dang, you have all the luck.
First, like a tsunami: I pretty much just had to hang on. There was no other choice. JUST. HANG. ON.
Next, like a roller coaster: I got on it voluntarily albeit reluctantly because I was afraid. I could have chosen to avoid it alltogether through a little something we Social Workers like to call “denial.” However I knew that I should let myself experience it, and that I had a fairly fairvorable chance of coming off of it alive because I had seen other people come out on the other side. So I got on… up and down, side to side. Some easier moments, some whip lash, the terrifying anticipation of the climb coupled with some heart-wrenching drops. A few bumps and bruises. Maybe one or two dark tunnels. Generally scary the whole way through. When I got off I felt dizzy and like I was going to vomit on my shoes. But I did, in fact, make it out alive, so I got on it again.
Also, like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, navigate carefully and plan ahead…take a bag of sand just in case. REALLY proud of myself for acheiving the goal (yay bag of sand!), then it all comes crashing down around me, some jerk steals my whip and I get chased my a giant rock. I DO get out alive… but Harrison Ford wasn’t there.
Like… a leg amputation. I am forever changed. A piece of me is missing, one that I will never get back. Anything put in its place could theoretically serve the same functions but will always be a fake and will never be the real thing. I won’t ever “get over” the fact that I don’t have a leg, but I’ll get used to the fact that it’s not there anymore. I’ll adapt and make it through life without the leg.