Tag Archives: grieving

Happy Merry Us

happy-holidaysWhen I googled “Holiday Stress” this morning, I got 7 million, 500 thousand items. Top picks were articles and blogs attempting to help people manage their holiday stress. As an expert on dealing with tough stuff, I feel obliged to jump into the fray of suggestions for surviving and thriving this holiday season.

Let’s first look at the stress we create for ourselves.

  • What about the big deal hassles over the proper way to wish a friend a happy winter holiday? In an effort to be inclusive of all citizens, the White House has sent Happy Holiday cards for the past 8 years. Some Christians take that as an insult, as a “war on Christmas.” Some Jewish people have their own issues on greetings at the holidays. Coming out of my health club yesterday I overheard a couple of Jewish women ridiculing a non-Jewish woman’s mispronunciation of Hanukkah, or Chanukan. (For those who don’t know, to pronounce either word correctly, a soft guttural clearing of the throat needs to precede the H or C.) And this matters why?
  • How come we expect our holiday season to always and continuously, be happy? This unrealistic obligation pumps pressure into all our activities; In searching for just the right gifts, planning decorations and menu items we’ve seen in magazines, addressing holiday cards to business contacts that reflect our brands, and writing an annual letter to friends and family recounting all the happy successes of the past year.

Meanwhile in the real word – life continues as usual – people get sick, family members disagree, loved ones die, accidents happen, and bad weather delays travel plans. Instead of blaming ourselves, one another, or the gods, for this unexpected bad timing –

How about…

1) Lowering our expectations, it’s just a fleeting season of the year

2) Calling on helpers, both seen and unseen, while reaching out to help others

3) Saying yes to whatever cannot be avoided and asking ourselves “what good can come from this?

4) Continuing the radical self care practices that have kept us sane and healthy throughout the rest of the year  

5) Honoring those no longer with us by sharing stories of when they were here, or giving a gift in their name to a charity or cause they believed in

6) Connecting with previous experiences of peace, joy and love and bringing them into the present moments of this particular holiday season.

Allow me to wish you a blessed holiday season and a peaceful,  joy-filled New Year.

 

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

A Visit to Who We Used To Be

img_2724While visiting relatives in Boston this past weekend we toured the Presidential Library of John R. Kennedy, our 35th president. This experience confirmed an important truth I learned from two of my African American girl friends, from their culture – Sankofa. It means sometimes it’s necessary to go back in order to go forward. For my sister and I, reliving the inspiring political conversations that took place before we were old enough to vote, proved to be a balm to our troubled souls.

The goal of the library with its 5 million pages of personal, congressional, and presidential papers, 500,000 photographs and 12,000 reels of sound recording, is to promote greater understanding of American politics, the process of governing, and the importance of public service.

In the 60s politics wasn’t a dirty word as it has become in present time. It’s been difficult to watch lately, as people believe a candidate when he declares what he alone will accomplish. This widespread gullibility demonstrates profound ignorance of the process of governing in a democracy. Let’s hear it for amping up high school civics classes. But It’s that last goal – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that ignited our hearts. It took us back to a day when serving one’s country and the greater good were what we young people aspired to.

The sections on the initiations of space travel to the moon, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the nuclear test ban treaty, the civil rights legislation – left us in awe of all that was accomplished in three short years. Of what’s possible when our country is united behind an articulate, inspiring servant leader.

President Kennedy had his own version of Sankofa when he said, “We celebrate the past to awaken the future.” As this past election process has been teaching us, when we do not stay true to the wisdom of our better angels, our collective demons take over our public and private lives.

What’s a patriotic citizen to do? I was especially inspired by Kennedy’s response when asked by the press if he was enjoying serving as president. He said that he agreed with the ancient Greek definition of happiness, which was “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” My sister and I decided we needed to revisit more historical  that inspire us to do that.

Undoing the Damage

IMG_1356-1 It’s been a month since the fall that changed my life and I’m now beginning the restoration phase of the project. Last Thursday I had an evaluation at the physical therapy clinic in my neighborhood where I was given a few passive exercises to begin undoing the muscle tension that prevents me from having use of my left hand and arm. As I now understand it, when my bone broke, it enlisted enormous help from the muscles in my arm to lock it in place so the broken pieces could reconnect and fuse. And for the past month my part has been to hold the arm in a fixed position through the use of a sling, which I wore every day, even at night while sleeping.

I’m loving being able to let go of the sling for all but the times I’m in a crowded public space and need to signal other people to avoid bumping into my left side. I’ve also worn the sling when I’m teaching InterPlay to remind myself not to try to use muscles that have lost most of their strength. Strengthening will happen in the third phase – after the bones are securely mended.

As I’ve begun the exercises to reclaim some flexibility, the emotional challenge has been significant. I’m brought to the edge of tears, not just from physical pain, but from the feelings of shaky vulnerability that become ignited, like a bird with a broken wing continuingly attempting, but not quite able, to achieve flight.

Not surprisingly, since memories are stored in our bodies, working with the inner muscles close to the bone activated a memory of an incident that happened during a bodywork session I did 30 years ago. The practitioner working with me as I lay on the massage table held my left shoulder in her hands. Sending my breath into that place, and with her help, I was able to release tension from deep inside my shoulder, which coincidentally was the same shoulder that I’ve now broken. The immediate aftermath was a sensation of deep chill and my whole body began shivering. When I asked her what this might be about she said simply, “It’s fear.”  

A few minutes later when I went outside into the streets of New York City, I experienced that shoulder as porous, and the wind as moving through open spaces I had created within it. I never was quite sure what that was all about but I never missed whatever I’d let go of and I’m hoping I won’t miss the tension I’m working on letting go of now.  

Falling: Aftermath

magnetIt’s day 24 since my fall in a Sunday morning dance class ended my life-as-usual routines. Instead of taking a Zumba class this morning I will sit on a chair in the hallway outside the bathroom door, set the timer on my cell phone and use a pulley apparatus to slowly and carefully, exercise my arm and shoulder. When the good arm lowers the wounded one rises. I concentrate on listening deeply to how my body is handling this simple yet dramatic challenge. The goal is to introduce flexibility while not disrupting the proper placement and alignment needed for the bones to heal on their own.

Since my fall I’ve heard many stories of other people falling, including one of my long time friends Jyoti, who has lived in a memory center for close to 10 years. According to her husband someone left a suitcase in the middle of her room while she was sleeping, and when she woke and began moving about she tripped over it. No broken bones but lots of bruises that needed a couple of days in a hospital.

Last week my neighbor Claire saw me walking with my arm in a sling and she offered to check with me the next time she goes to the grocery store to see if I might need anything. A couple of days later she called. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to follow up on my offer to bring you groceries,” she began. “I’m in a rehab center after taking a fall myself during one of my power walks in our neighborhood.” The culprit was an uneven sidewalk, the outcome two broken bones in her left wrist, bruised ribs, and a sore left side

“Falling is part of life” according to the refrigerator magnet my friend Lynn brought me. She had her own encounter last summer with falling and breaking her heal when she walked out of a restaurant in Lawrenceville and turned her ankle in a hole in the sidewalk. After surgery and relying on a boot and crutches and the generosity of friends to get to work and back for 6 or so months, plus lots of physical therapy, she’s now an inspiring example that healing does happen.  IMG_1162

The second half of the magnet’s message, “Getting Back Up is Living,” challenges me to not focus on what I’ve had to cancel, (European vacation, grandparent trip with my granddaughter), or things I can not do (driving my car, taking dance classes, and ballroom dancing with my husband), but on the lessons being provided. I’ve become aware of how attached I am to my competencies. The 4 year old inside me who was ecstatic about being able to tie her own shoes, is still discouraged at herself when she cannot do that or other more important tasks. Looks like she and I are getting the opportunity to relearn many basic skills. I hope we’ll be like we were the first time around, proud and eager to let everyone know of our accomplishments so they can celebrate each small but important victory with us.     

Memory 2.0

My husband and I shiver as we stand with our friend Randall at the front door of the Memory Care Center waiting for someone to let us in. “How long has Jyoti been in this facility?” Rich asks. Randall briefly details the 10-year history of his advocacy for his wife in a string of facilities of this type and, blowing my breath on my gloveless hands,  I wonder if it might be time to move her again. “This company pays its staff a bit more so their turnover is lower,” Randall says. Through the glass door I catch a glimpse of a cleaning cart and knock more vigorously on the door. A maid responds and lets us in.

We walk into the main living room and find Jyoti, one of our best friends of 30 years, asleep in a recliner in front of a dark television screen, the same spot I left her on my last visit nine months ago. She’s dressed in comfortable, warm looking grey slipper boots as Randall approaches her chair from behind and gently calls her name. Coming around to the front of her seat, he offers his hands to pull her from the chair and lead her to a more private area for our visit. My husband Rich and Randall walk on either side of her, each holding a hand, and I walk behind. When we arrive in the new space she and I look at each other and I imagine I see a spark of recognition on her face.

IMG_1162The men and I slow way down in order to be in communion with her rhythm. She and I sit close together on a love seat and she lets me put my arm around her. As we hug she murmurs and mumbles a sound that sounds like “Mama.” Randall sits in a chair across from her and teases her about looking so intently at him. Rich sits in a chair on her other side while she creates sounds a young child might make, occasionally saying expressions like, “Oh, my,” with an inflection of surprise or delight. She breaks out in a song, and I respond by singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” I tell her that’s what her song reminded me of. She says some syllables in a rhythmic manner like reciting a poem and we remind each other and her of what a good poet she was. Randall invites Jyoti to dance with him and she seems delighted to do that. She’s a bit more reserved when Rich and I join the two of them in a circle dance, but though shaky on her feet she allows it. 

We take pictures of us together and Randall leaves the room and bringing back a framed picture of several women and us in our spirituality group from her room. I comment, “We’re all dressed up and at a wedding but I can’t remember whose wedding it was.“ As we study the picture together I say, “I look pregnant in that picture, but that couldn’t have been the case. I was way too old by that time.” Jyoti begins making a cooing sound and pointing to my stomach. As we sit together in the silence she rubs my tummy while making cooing sounds and I get the message that she’s teasing me about there being a child inside.

Returning home to Pittsburgh I’m disoriented, having trouble picking up the threads of my usual life, as though I’ve traveled to another place beyond space and time, another place we are all headed toward, one way or another. 

Hallow’s Eve

The pumpkins are prominently displayed at the grocers, along with the colorful pots of the season’s most celebrated flower, chrysanthemums. Front yards in my urban neighborhood sport dried corn stocks while the nearest farmland is at least a twenty- minute drive away. Homes with resident young children exhibit walkways and front doors decorated with spiders, cobwebs, and life-size white-sheeted ghosts.

Halloween-Home-Decor-Ideas-Cobwebs When visiting the homes of older children you may likely be greeted by a life-size black outfitted, gory, fanged, blood dripping, skeleton. As the costumed trick or treat crowd make their way from house to house on Hallow’s Eve, no one mentions that these playful, sometimes scary provocations of horror, are actually a contemporary version of ancient end-of-harvest ritual that celebrated the spirits of the dead. It was believed that in this transition time between fall and the hibernation of winter, the veil between the worlds was lifted, and spirits who had once walked this earth, might return on this one night.

 For my children Halloween was their favorite holiday, and before the Halloween candy had been sorted, let along eaten, they would begin planning for what they wanted “to be” for the following year. The dressing up as someone or something that they were not, or the opportunity to express a part of themselves in an artistic creative way seems especially satisfy, way beyond other holidays where gifts are exchanged or the turnover of the calendar is marked.

I still remember my youngest son, Ken dressed as a three year old devil, carrying a pitchfork made of cardboard, seven year old Corinne, dressed as a fanged tooth witch, her blond hair hidden by a black wig, and handsome five year old Kevin, outfitted as a swashbuckling pirate, (his dagger was also hand crafted by his parents out of cardboard.)big-scary-halloween-props

During this period of time in my life, my then husband was a radio news broadcaster assigned to the 6 pm and 11 pm news, so for all practical purposes, I was a single Mom on Halloween night. Fortunately I had a sister who came to help dress the children and who stayed at the house to give out the candy while I took the kids on their walk around the neighborhood. The evening  really was a two adult person operation.

One particular year, the scary costumes didn’t keep the evil spirits away from our house. While my sister and I were at our agreed upon posts, someone came around the back of our house and through an open window took our purses that were sitting on the kitchen table. In the aftermath of the celebration, not only were we both out of the money that was in our purses, but it was impossible to get a check cashed or have access to a bank account without our stolen identification.

Now all three of my children are grown and two of them are “on the other side,” as first nation peoples refer to death. As I light a Jack-a Lantern in my front window, I hope the spirits of my relations know that I would welcome a visit from them, in whatever state of dress or undress they might be.

Commencement

It’s a tremendous accomplishment, though I’ve often wondered, whose accomplishment is it? If it takes a village to raise a child, when the eldest child of my eldest child was scheduled to graduate from college a couple of weeks ago, our family determined it would take at least that many relatives and friends to help him celebrate.

 EthanGradThe graduation was to take place in the spring in the center of the country, in a city where none of us lived. Traversing the country from all directions, relatives drove south 10 hours from their home in Nebraska, Auntie Pat flew from Detroit, my husband and I from Pittsburgh, one granddad from Oregon and our grandson’s uncle, wife and 20 month old flew north and east from Palm Springs. His sister Vitoria had to stay home due to a rained out and rescheduled soccer game but she was able to participate via Facetime when her brother’s Iphone was passed around during the family’s celebration dinner.  

 Spring rainstorms across the country turned everyone’s travels into a most challenging saga, testing our stamina, flexibility, endurance, financial solvency, and group problem-solving skills. When flights are cancelled due to weather, airlines bear no responsibility and are held harmless, thus the need for all the above skills. When our nearly 20 month-old granddaughter and her parents were slated to spend the night at an airport on cots, this grandmother had to swing into action to find them real beds nearby.

MeEthanKelly Looking back now was it all worth it, all this effort to mark a family milestone? It wasn’t till I got home that I fully realized why it was all so important to me. I’d worked with my grandson to plan the events. I’d rented a house so everyone would have a place to stay.  His grandfather and I held a reception that included his friends and ours, and we sponsored the family dinner he wanted at one of his favorite restaurants near campus. Ethan’s mothers had died when he was 12, and as her mother, I had to be sure and do for him whatever she would have done, had she had the chance.

Saying Goodbye to Our Best Friend

There’s a lot of empty, silent space in our house these days. Nobody’s sitting at the front window, guarding the perimeter from potential intruders. There’s no greeting as we return home and open the front door, no heralded announcement that guests we have not yet heard coming, are in fact arriving.  As friends and I I sit on high stools at the kitchen counter, no one begs to be lifted up so they too can become part of our conversation. And sitting on the sofa to watch some television after dinner, no furry ball jumps onto our laps and sits between us, behaving as if he too is watching the screen. 

watchdog Clancy has been an important member of our family and constant companion for nine and a half years. Yet I must admit, things didn’t start out particularly well. Besides the usual challenges in house training a puppy, this one had a propensity for chewing the edges of the dining room rug and, his specialty – chewing through each and every electric lamp chord in our house.

 Our daughter was very ill at the time, and I traveled often to be with her and assist with my three grandchildren. This situation may have contributed to my lack of patience with my incorrigible new charge, but we did start thinking it might be necessary to find a different permanent home for Clancy. We were rescued by one of my dear friends who offered to become his temporary “foster mother.” She had four older small dogs of her own and in a few weeks she, with the help of her dogs, civilized Clancy. We always gave her full credit for what a special companion he became.

tinyclancy Several years ago, Clancy developed a problem with his liver. As his body began retaining fluids we were told that he might not have more than a couple of months. Some adjustments were made in his medication and he rallied. He continued to have symptoms repeatedly, receive treatment, and return to his peppy, happy self. No one ever had any real understanding of why or how this kept occurring. This phase of our life together was difficult at times but, as happened in going through serious illnesses with our children, it caused us to appreciate most every moment we had with him.

sayinggoodby.clancy

 When the end came, it was a surprise. And it wasn’t. I’d taken Clancy to the vet in our neighborhood for one of his treatments and when he came out he seemed his usual peppy self, but he was shaking. By evening he was not doing well. He didn’t eat and lost control of his bowels several times. Suspecting this might be the end, we took him back to the clinic the following morning and left him for observation. We got the call at 10 am. His kidneys were failing. It was time to say goodbye. 

The Family Carries On

As our plane finally lifts from the ground in Palm Springs CA. we’re offered a panoramic view of the mountains and red tile rooftops on the valley floor. “Goodbye palm trees. Goodbye warm swimming pools and even warmer hot tubs. Goodbye dear family, till the next time we can arrange to be together from across the continent.” 

family1

It’s said we don’t remember days or years, only moments. The moments that stand out from this year’s family Christmas vacation are:

– the clicking sounds of cue balls, hopefully hitting other balls into the side pockets, mixed with laughter and the lilt of college boys and adult men’s teasing challenges,

–       the sight of ten family members seated in a circle on the front patio, obeying  the unwrapping gift ritual of my long deceased father’s family – carefully opening one gift at a time in rotation from youngest (16) to eldest (85).

–       The stomping feet of sixteen-month-old Krya Joy as she turns her head from side to side saying an emphatic “no” up and down to say ‘yes’, followed by the show of smiling deep dimples when she gets her way.

Kyra.KevinThis was our tenth holiday season without her. Family’s carry on without a pivotal loved one, and we have done that. The first year we met at a water park in Kansas City. It was strange to be swimming indoors in the middle of winter, stranger yet doing it without their mother, his wife, our daughter. The first spring, we met in Fort Worth to take in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, something promised before she died. Last year, we met in Colorado for a ski vacation. Some years in between we’ve missed getting everyone together during the holidays but most thanksgivings were spent at my son-in-law’s dinner table in Nebraska with his family; father, brothers, nieces, and cousins.

One summer we hosted the family at our house in Pittsburgh, (the U.S. Open Golf Tournament was being held nearby.) Another summer, the year the golf tournament was in Washington D.C. my brother-in-law hosted us in his home as the tournament was held at his home course. Some springs we’ve gathered to celebrate high school graduations, and soon, we’ll meet for a college one.

family2The photographs will show how the kids have grown into fine young adults, how parents, uncles and grandparents have been aging, the joy of new additions, and how fortunate we’ve been to be able to share such fun times together.

 What the images won’t show is what’s been missing at every family gathering throughout the years. There’s always a moment when I’m reminded, and this year’s moment came when we began passing out the ice cream for dessert. Sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Tori said, “What kind of ice cream is this? It says it’s whipped. Does that mean it’s less calories?” She doesn’t know that particular ice cream was selected because it was her mother’s favorite. She doesn’t know it’s her grandparents’ way of remembering.