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Death

Thoughts

Lying down with grief

June 24, 2017

Grief is your receipt that proves you loved. That you paid the price. – Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior 

This is a difficult post for me to write and likely for you to read, but writing is my therapy and this blog is my couch. You can either come in and grab a tissue or catch me at the next session. No hard feelings.

Wednesday morning, at 11:05, my Grandma Marge marched boldly into heaven.

She lived her life honestly and simply. Her possessions were few but all treasured. She walked this earth with red, fiery curls, long, killer legs and few apologies for her opinions. She was the definition of a matriarch, always guiding her tribe toward truth and the simplest, smartest answer. She spoke from her heart and accepted all who came through her door. She only asked that you “serve yourself”. My life was forever changed by her light and her love.

I never met my mom’s mom. I lost my dad’s mom when I was fairly young, so when Hank and I started dating and he told me he still had all of his grandparents, I was over the moon. And then I met her, Grandma Marge, and I went over the sun, too. She was so welcoming, so accepting so familiar. It healed a part of me I didn’t realize was so tender. She slipped right into that painful void and stoked a very specific joy for me.

I remember when Hank and I were engaged and everyone on the planet had an opinion about where and how we should get married. I felt overwhelmed and, admittedly, like I was being swallowed up by the ceremony of it all. Sensing my stress, Grandma held me back one day at a family gathering, looked me in my eyes and said, “You hold onto your convictions, doll.”

That was just something she would say. She had perfected the delivery of very sharp directives that somehow didn’t feel offensive, I think because she diluted the bite of the words in concern for your best interests. It felt like gospel … a wise woman’s suggestions, rather than a command to change direction. She was a sincere sounding board, an unfeigned confidant, and sometimes, a lighthouse. She lived on a lake with Hank’s Grandpa Butch, and before we had three kids, before everything changed for her and for us, we used to stay up late and have these long, revealing talks on the deck by the water. She always had a question or a story or a scrap of advice to punctuate the end of my sentences.

Five years ago, when we found out she was sick, it felt impossible. It felt like tomorrow’s worry. She would be the first person to beat it. She even said she would be. And she knew everything! There was no way this badass great grandmother could be stopped by some freak illness. She was bigger than that, stronger than that, invincible.

But last Friday I got the call I’d been dreading for more than a year. Grandma had taken a turn for the worse. We needed to come up that night. I was a sobbing, snotty, hysterical mess. Hank was calm, understanding. He didn’t push. He let me come to the decision on my own. And together, we drove 40 minutes to say goodbye to the woman we loved so much.

She was laying in her bed when we walked in. I hesitated for a minute and then felt a powerful pull toward her. I leaned down, put my head on her shoulder and sobbed in her ear.

“Don’t do that, honey. You’re so pretty when you smile,” she said.
“I just love you,” I cried.
“I know, honey, I love you, too. Now, you take care of those little girls, and my grandson and my daughter.”
“I will, I promise.”
“You two are going to make it,” she said, “but it won’t always be easy.”
I stood up to wipe my face and look at her in the eyes. We held hands so tight. Tighter than I’ve ever held hands with anyone with a grip that got away from me. It was this beautiful, tense, brutal energy, shared for what felt like a blink and an eternity at once.

“Thank you for being my grandma,” I strained.
“It was my pleasure. We wouldn’t have kept you around if we didn’t like ya.”
I hugged her again. The tightest embrace I could give her without breaking her fragile frame.

There’s a reason I’m sharing this …

This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. If you’ve read any of Glennon Doyle’s work or seen her speak live, you’ve heard her talk about leaning into pain. How the easy buttons are what we should be afraid of, not our feelings. But I love easy buttons when it comes to death. I’ve never been in a position where I was able to say goodbye, nor have I ever been a person who believed she could handle such a thing. I’ve never really looked that kind of loss in the eyes and worked through it in any kind of confrontational way. But, you guys, I’m so glad I did. It was a gift sweeter than I ever could have imagined.

I will never forget those honest, precious minutes with Grandma Marge. I will never forget that hug, her hand in my hand. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I hadn’t gone. It gave me comfort, cruel as the conditions were. But it hurt, too. It hurt in the way profound loss does; pounding head, lurching stomach, heavy, quick heartbeats. All of these things are the going price of one last hug, one last talk, one last memory of her eyes and her voice and her stories. I have always resisted that kind of hurt, but this time, I laid down with it, and that gives me some peace.

She held on through Father’s Day. She made it to and through her anniversary. She would do that. She would fight with everything she had to spare the people she loved. She would have fought like that forever if she could. But instead, the great beyond was blessed with one of the most amazing souls I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

And now we’re trying to come alongside our babies and help them lean into their pain. They don’t want to go to the calling hours or the funeral. It frightens them, and I think that’s OK. Tonight we are having a Great Grandma Marge Party. We’re going to bake sweets, because Great Grandma loved dessert. And we’re going to talk about all of our favorite things she said and did and all the kindness she had in her heart.

We’re choosing not to remember Grandma Marge with oxygen on her face and a bed in her living room and a breathless desperation in her tone. I, personally, will remember things like this, instead, and smile. I’m told I’m prettier when I smile …

♥ She had the walkin’ farts. They’d just pop out when she waltzed around the kitchen and startle her and everyone in the room.

♥ She always started sentences with, “I got so tickled …” or “I had to laugh …”.

♥ She would stay up until 2 o’clock in the morning playing euchre and sipping coffee with powdered creamer. Then she’d sleep in her recliner to make sure she didn’t miss anything.

♥ One night, Grandma Marge and I were sitting up chatting while the boys went fishing, and I asked her what was the happiest day of her life. And she told me that one time, her and Butch (Hank’s grandpa) were driving in the country and he pulled over and made her a bouquet of flowers from a field. That was her happiest day.

♥ Spike’s middle name is Margery, after Grandma Marge, a fact which Grandma made known by always using her full name when she introduced her to strangers.

♥ As she gave away her treasures, one by one, and handed out her final instructions to her grandchildren over the weeks as she deteriorated, she cautioned each of them. “Take care of this, or I’ll come back and haunt ya!” or “Keep your nose clean. I mean it. Or I’ll come back and haunt ya!” Just awesome. .

♥ She had the best laugh.

♥ Nobody could give Hank’s Grandpa Butch shit like Grandma Marge could. And that man deserves to get some shit. He’s a pistol.

♥ When she was little, she shot a hole through the tip of her boot trying to climb a fence while holding a shotgun. Luckily, they were her brother’s shoes so they were extra big. The bullet missed her toe.

♥ She was the calm conductor of a huge, loud, tenacious family, and the result of her efforts is a masterful display of unyielding love, indestructible support and everlasting faith. It’s the house she built. It’s her legacy. It’s beautiful.

Thoughts

The toughest lessons

January 12, 2016

It’s been a hectic and emotionally exhausting week. I’m 7 days deep into a Whole30, which tends to make me antisocial for a spell and overly reactive, and I spent like 48 solid hours filling out my Bachelor bracket. But trumping that, there’ve been some brutal life lessons in our household as of late. It would appear that 2016 has come in like lion … one with sharp-ass fangs and Freddy Krueger freaking claws.

Heaven

Heaven.
The good world up above gained a precious soul last week when Hank’s Grandma Monie walked through the pearly gates. She deteriorated quickly after a fall about a month ago. For as long as I’ve been in Hank’s life, Monie struggled with her hearing, mobility to some extent, and memory. She put a lot of weight in being social, volunteering and teaching, and she always kept a sense of humor about her age, but I know she often felt smaller and unimportant because of her handicaps. I pray, and believe, she entered into heaven through a most-electric sunset, with a bounce in her step and a smirk on her face. That her husband and great grandson were there to greet her, and she danced with all the friends who went before her.

As much as I’ve struggled with death myself, talking to the girls about this kind of loss strangled me with anxiety. There is no handbook, no guidelines, on how to walk your child through this life truth. Admittedly, I don’t know how to get through it as a 33-year-old woman. They had just gone to visit their great grandma, so when we told them she had passed away and gone to heaven, it was a bit of a shock, bring about some mixed reactions. JoJo started sobbing. At 6, I think the finality of it registered with her little heart. “It’s OK,” Spikey answered. “Because she went to heaven and then she gets to start her life all over. It’s sad that she died, but it’s OK she went to heaven.” Eventually JoJo put her energy toward drawing pictures for Grandma Monie to take to Jesus and things calmed down a bit. I was a mess.

The biggest dilemma, as I’m sure anyone who’s been through this can understand, was the funeral. Do we take them to the viewing, or just to the funeral but not the burial, or to all of it, or to none of it. Given my fear of death and tendency to avoid anything uncomfortable or emotionally wrenching, my gut call was to have them stay with mom and not be exposed to the harsh reality of true loss just yet. An attempt to preserve their innocence just a little bit longer. But in Hank’s family, death was treated as a natural part of life. Just as people will enter this world, they will leave it. It is sad but not scary. It is reality and they are looking to us to see how to process that reality. We have to set the example.

We decided to take them to the viewing so they could say goodbye. Spike was so brave and timid and wonderfully naive. Her confusion was in why Grandma was still here when we told her she’d gone to heaven. The concept of a soul at the age of 4 is as tangible as it is elusive. JoJo wasn’t sure she wanted to go up once we got there. “That’s OK,” I said. But eventually she followed, standing behind me, peeking only for a moment with confusion and fear. It was a face I’m confident I would have made at her age in this situation.

Talking through the loss of a family member, and turning my face toward it out of my concern for the girls actually made accepting the loss of a woman I loved a little easier. Now, as we work through the grieving process, I don’t know for sure how our little ladies feel about death, but I know we handled it the best we could. We talked about Grandma and why we loved her. And we will speak of her often to remember her. That is how we will honor Grandma Monie and the footprint she left on our hearts.

Law

The Law.
Every other week we have Big Breakfast – a fitting name for the gathering though I can’t for the life of me remember who officially came up with it – at my folks. My entire family shows up in pajamas to shove Dad’s famous dippy eggs, pancakes and cinnamon rolls down our pieholes. Eventually the 10 grandkids disperse to torture each other and make messes upstairs, out of the adults’ sight, while the grownups sip coffee and retell stories we’ve heard 8 trillion times.

Things got a little exciting this week. “Mom!” Spike exclaimed. “JoJo just called 9-1-1!” “She what?!” As soon as I stood up to go hunt my eldest daughter down, the phone rang at Mom and Dad’s. That was the dispatcher. I yelled her name upstairs. I yelled her name downstairs. I yelled her name upstairs again. i yelled her name downstairs again. “I’m …. right … here …” a little mousy voice whispered from under my parents’ bed. “Get out here.” I said, in that slow, spiccato tone that sends hot pee down even my own leg. About that time, I heard, “It’s the cops!”

A sheriff was in the driveway and Mom’s dogs were circling his authoritative feet, playing into the excitement. It would seem that my two little girls called the emergency line a combined total of five times. Five. Times. “I want you to come in and talk to the kids,” Mom said. “Ma’am, I have to come inside.” the sheriff replied.

He brought his broad shoulders and chocolate brown uniform through the front door and – thank the Lawd – cast his kind eyes down on a scared shitless crew of little ones. Here stood two mothers, a Grammy and 10 grandchildren, the majority of us still in our pajamas at noon. I felt JoJo quivering behind my back and heard her regretful sniffles. “Honey, don’t be scared. You aren’t in trouble,” he offered. I was not feeling as generous. “You need to apologize and you need to understand why this was so wrong.” I said as directly as I could in front of an officer. “Now you know that if you call that number, a police officer will show up. And that is only OK if you are hurt, we are hurt, or you are lost. Do. you. under. stand?” “Yeeeeee[sniffle]eeeeesssss.” she answered.

The kind sheriff left CrazyTown behind to go bust bigger bad guys and Spike and JoJo learned a very important lesson. When you dial 9-1-1, the fuzz is gonna come for ya.

 

Thoughts

A most beautiful pain

December 3, 2015
I saw a man down on the ground fighting for his life. I was a passerby for one of the most gut-wrenching, heart-aching moments one family probably ever faced, and it won’t leave me. It seems the universe is peeking around every corner lately, sending me evidence that life is fleeting and fragile and fast.

We were about 2 miles into the Galloping Gobbler race on Thursday. I ran with Britni (who you might recognize from my half marathon posts) and my friend Jackie, who happens to be a nurse. We were coming up to a turn when we heard, “Get to your left! Stay to your left! To the left, folks! Keep to the left!” There was a group of people, likely some of them family, standing around and a bit of motion near the ground caught my eye. A gentleman, probably in his 40s, was down on the ground and another person was performing chest compressions. I’ve never seen someone in such a severe situation; teetering on the edge of life. Jackie calmly explained that there were already plenty of people assisting and as we made the turn she thought she saw his arm move. Shortly after, the ambulance and fire truck arrived. The rest of that day and each day since, I’ve thought about that man. I’ve thought about this stranger and imagined a scenario, not knowing whether it’s his truth. I imagine his family signing up for a fun race, maybe it was even their Thanksgiving tradition. I imagine them coming out on that beautiful, unseasonably warm morning, taking a group photo and smiling. And then the unimaginable just struck through them. I’ve asked around and heard he is alright, which is a huge relief, but I just can’t get the image out of my mind. Hundreds of people running around one man’s tragedy; A constant motion while one family’s life stood completely, startlingly still.

waterfall

But like I said, the weight of life has been on my mind a lot lately. Researching a story, I recently visited a needleworking group. These women contribute intricate, hand-crafted blankets, hats and shawls to perfect strangers and want nothing more than the feeling of being needed and valued in return. I spoke with several of them one on one. I asked questions like, “How long have you been crocheting?” “Who taught you?” and “What’s the one piece you treasure most?” I looked into their eyes, the nucleus of their worn, wonderful faces, and I watched them relive the facts as they searched for answers. They recalled grandmothers and aunts, moments spent crafting precious blankets for first grandchildren, and time spent in the meditation of their craft after the passing of partners. I spoke about my girls and each lit up like they’d held each one of them in their arms. They would say, “Enjoy it, dear.” and “It just goes so fast.” and “Ah, bless you.” And I felt it. I felt how fast it is going to go.

 heaven
We had several friends facing their first holiday without a parent or grandparent this year. When I sat down the other night to write about my own traditions, it wasn’t lost on me how so many of the people I loved were going to have to make new ones in the absence of their mom or dad. We take Christmas morning for granted. We do. We take our phone calls and potato salad recipes and hugs completely as they come without considering what an original treasure we have. One of our friends, who lost his mom way too young earlier this year, put out a beautiful post about how he’d come to realize that to avoid the pain of losing his mother, the gift of ever knowing her would have to be taken away, and so he would take the pain.

Last week I was helping someone work on a piece to remember their grandmother and it got me thinking about what makes us. How, in the end, we are truly composed of ten trillion tiny moments and a million memories. How we pick up and carry our children’s memories for them, before they are ready to hold onto them. I thought about the thread and fabric of a person’s soul and how it’s woven from people and words and laughter. That’s what really matters. That’s the good stuff that makes every worthwhile wrinkle and scar worthy of a story.

With the reality of loss constantly looming, all I can do is be thankful for this life. For the people who fill its hours and the gifts I have been given. I hope I can accept what I can’t hold on to and cherish the memories I can. I hope I can make waves and ripples of positive change. And mostly I hope I can be the kind of person who’s worth the pain, because receiving love like that is the most beautiful thing there is.