Ghosts of Christmas Past

Ghosts of Christmas Past

christmascarol

Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world. She owned it. She reveled in it. Christmas was a glorious celebration of things she loved most in life—children and gifts. Gift giving was her love language. There are few people in the world as materially generous as she was. She had grown up poor during the Depression, with an alcoholic father, her mother dying when she was just twelve. Painfully, she recalled the single dress she wore to school, day in and day out, the bags of goods handed out, or brought to their home, marking them the poor family on the block. There were other poor children, lots of them in fact, but that didn’t matter. She was still ashamed. When she had money later in life, when Poppie was retired and their house paid for, they could do anything they wanted, and so they did it. Part of what she wanted was to bring joy through giving. Boy, did she do it.

It varied from $5-$20 here and there, candies, treats, spontaneous dinners out any old time… to $1,000 for a friend who had a medical bill come due, $100 tucked into anonymous Christmas cards for our friends who had no idea where they came from or who the giver could be, grocery shopping sprees for my then-boyfriend (who would become Husband), and vacations by boat and by plane to faraway lands with her two loves—Sister and me.

But like I said, Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world.

For years, decades, since before I was born, Christmas Eve was celebrated at her house at a big party for friends and family. Aggie, her oldest sister, and Aggie’s husband Unc, Gloria, a dear friend and neighbor, Auntie Geri, a best friend and relative of Poppie…and so many relatives besides. All are dead now, and she was the last. The ghosts of Christmas Past.

Her tree often went up December first. We helped her decorate, of course. Every kind of beautiful glass ornament shone from the artificial tree that almost touched the ceiling with it’s pointed glass gold topper, the bottom branches laden with her handmade ornaments. She’d made them over the years, full of beads, lace, sequins, and every color of the rainbow, each a little treasure. Beneath the tree was a village, every little house and shop lighted, a mirror for a skating pond, miniature Christmas trees and white fluff for snow completing a scene I wanted to shrink down into and live in. An army of nutcrackers of every shape and size stood sentinel atop the hi-fi cabinet near the ceiling. Bringing them up from the garage each year was like greeting old friends. The cavalry of rocking horses, also of all shapes and sizes, surmounted the mantle, no less than fifty Christmas cards tucked behind them from every friend, relative and acquaintance she stayed in touch with by mail.

And after December first, there were so many other things to do each year that marked the coming of The Best Holiday Ever. One afternoon was always reserved for making gingerbread boys, which we would decorate with multi-colored powered sugar icing, and every kind of candy sprinkle imaginable. One evening was slated for visiting Auntie Marcie’s Christmas Bazaar—a craft sale held in the basement of her cousin’s San Bruno home as a church benefit, amid a bustling party. We loved this sale, because everything was handmade and charming, and affordable for children who needed to spend their allowance money to buy their family gifts. Alongside my parents she would sit in the school auditorium as we sang in the annual Christmas pageant. These events, and many more besides, were sacramental in their ritual and sacredness—to her, they made the season bright, and through them she made it bright for us.

Food was always a highlight of the Christmas Eve party. The dining room table was moved aside, pushed against the front windows to become a buffet table. As the food was warming in the oven and on the stove and in the toaster oven (no microwave in her house), the Christmas dishes were laid out—serving platters, tiered cookie trays, dinner plates (purposely mismatched), appetizer plates (also mismatched), and serving utensils all lovingly collected over decades, all Christmas themed. Everyone got a different Christmas plate, but she always took the one Spode with the Christmas tree on it.

The coffee table held the mini hot dogs, and the butterfly-shaped dish with mustard and ketchup in the wings, a shot glass of toothpicks and a stack of cocktail napkins handy. The dining room table held the feast. Two kinds of stuffed shells (chicken with white sauce, spinach with red), pizza squares, teriyaki chicken wings, “Swedish” meatballs (really Italian), macaroni salad, Italian cold cuts, deviled eggs, homemade baklava, little finger sandwiches, smoked salmon, and trays of cookies. The butterballs and shortbread were brought by Gloria—dear Gloria, with her booming voice, her perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, her painted fingernails, who always took the corner chair in the living room by the hall next to the hi-fi. She ate pigs feet, and drank whisky, and was Irish and feisty, and loved Sister and I like we were her own grandchildren, but really we were no relation except of dearest friendship. She loved watermelon candy. In the run up to Christmas, I’d go with Gram to the Sweet Factory at the mall and fill blue-striped cellophane bags full of all their watermelon flavors to give to Gloria Christmas Eve. She was generous, and always shared with me.

All the many presents Sister and I got from Grandma and Poppie, and from everyone else except Santa, were opened Christmas Eve. Toys and clothes, books, cards with checks inside…all the generosity and love that marks the season overflowed in the living room, where everyone sat on the claw-footed sofa, love seat, chairs lined up around the edges with TV trays open before them and Burl Ives or Andy Williams crooning from the record player. She was Swedish, she always said, and the Swedes always did Christmas on Christmas Eve. She wasn’t wrong. Her father, such as he was, was from Stockholm. They had always done presents on Christmas Eve. It was just what she knew and loved.

Sister and I wore our Christmas dresses, usually matching, with white stockings and mary janes. Grandma wore her festive trousers—our favorite ones, black with multi-colored polka dots—and held a highball of brandy and ginger ale clinking in a lowball glass. Poppie sat in the chair on the other side of the hi-fi from Gloria, an uncharacteristic beer in a tall pilsner glass propped on the Infinity speaker (vodka and soda would follow), his cheeks immaculately smooth, white moustache trimmed ever-so-neatly, smelling of original Old Spice and soap.

christmascarol2

I can hear these ghosts now. I can smell them and taste them. I can feel their hands on my cheeks, see the joy on their faces, feel the warmth of their hugs. And I absolutely cannot fathom that they are dead and gone, and that this Christmas—a relaxing, loving, delightful Christmas—was the first in what will be a lifetime of Christmases without her. Without them. Without any of them. With all of it totally dead and gone.

In the months after her passing, I realized just how easy it would be to develop a real kind of psychosis. If I just spoke the way she did, said the things she said, made her gestures (all known by heart), I could just become her, and so keep her alive. If I sang her songs, if I told her stories, if I called myself “Fessie,” with an “f,” the way only she did…I could be her, and she wouldn’t have to leave me. Each time that thought occurred to me, I immediately realized “this is how multiple personality disorder happens.” Maybe. In a way, those thoughts were the same kind of everyday intrusives that anyone has– “I could step in front of this B.A.R.T train,” “I could totally just drive off this cliff,” “I could yell ‘bomb’ in a crowded airport,” the kind that for healthy people are immediately followed with “That was a weird thought,” and then dismissed as the fleeting fiction they are. “I could create a second personality so as to keep my dead Grandmother alive,” seems infinitely more complicated, and uncomfortably reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie plot, but, naturally, it too was followed immediately by “No.”

“No. That’s not how we keep our loved ones alive.”

“I know. But I could…”

“No. You couldn’t. Everything you’d be trying to hold on to is already gone.”

“I know.”

And I do know. I know that the way I keep them alive is by reliving their memories, and sharing them. Right now, they hurt so much. They hurt so much that over Christmas I tried really hard not to think about them at all. And I did great! Until two days ago, when the dam failed again and I apologized to Husband through spontaneous sobs that came unbidden as we were falling asleep. I think he’s learning that the tears aren’t the hurt, they are the healing. I’m learning this too.

I’m learning. I’m remembering. I’m holding on.

 

 

 

 

Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

sunset.jpg

Hey guys! This post contains descriptions of a dead body. It’s not gory, and isn’t over-the-top, but it’s real. Just letting you know, in case that kind of thing isn’t for you. 

For the last few months, I’ve been meditating on and wrestling with what we do with bodies after people die. With what happens to them, and how we feel about them. I’ve wanted to discuss my experience with your body for a long time, but I keep avoiding writing this, because its painful and real, and I don’t know where to begin. I wanted it done in October, though, and as October is almost over I’ve run out of time to continue putting this off.

You died on March 13th.

I drove the two hours to your assisted living center in shock, sometimes weeping quietly, sometimes tearlessly resigned. Mom and Uncle were with you, we talked on the phone. They needed to go out, so they timed returning with my arrival.

Uncle was sitting on the love seat, crying quietly. Mom gave me a hug, kissed me, also crying. I turned the corner and saw you, in your bed.

You had your cream sweater over your nightgown, but you were under the covers. You had been sleeping, after all. As I approached you, I was shocked at how little you looked. So little! I couldn’t comprehend that your body had become this…this little thing. The second thought hit me like a train, and has stayed with me ever since. I remember almost laughing as I thought it— “This isn’t you!”

This isn’t you. I almost scoffed. Looking down at you, your skin was so yellow (we would eventually conclude that your liver must have been shutting down at least a day before you left), your hair was almost blueish, and of course, you were so small. This isn’t you. It came home to me so intensely. You, the woman I loved, the woman who loved me, who occupied this body…isn’t this body. It was the first mysterious, inexplicable comfort of that difficult afternoon.

I sat in a chair next to you, leaning on the hospital rail of your bed. I touched your hand, grasping it, clinging to it. I clutched your forearm, forcing myself to remember how the bones in your forearm felt…running my hand up your arm over your sweater, remembering the outlines of this body that would soon go away from me, these arms that had wrapped around me so many times. Your skin was cool, but not cold. In the movies, they always say corpses are cold, so you imagine a coldness like ice. You didn’t feel that way. Even when I kissed your cheek, it wasn’t cold. It was just cool.

Under the thin blanket, I could see the outline of your legs, your feet. The exact way your toes pointed in a little, always, as they did in life. I wanted to crawl into bed with you, cling to you. I would have except the railing was in the way. So I leaned over the rail, and held your hand. We stayed that way for a while, not as long as I wished we could have in retrospect, but as long as I really could stand it in the moment. Mom and Uncle didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. None of us knew what was going to happen now, what life was going to look like. None of us could have prepared our hearts to make this less painful.

Uncle left, and Mom and I got lunch. I’d had a letter you wrote me in my purse that I hadn’t opened yet, and I read it at the table. I smiled, not tearing up at all. Mom asked how I could read it without crying. I just could. I was just in shock. It wouldn’t hit me for weeks.

Mom had arranged for your body to be picked up while we were having lunch, but we forgot a piece of paperwork in your room, so I told her I would get it. She told me that when Poppie died, her father, she had seen them remove his body from the house and it was very upsetting to her, so she didn’t want to see you removed. I understood. Besides, they should have come already.

I entered your room, but I heard movement around the corner from your entryway. I tiptoed around, without being noticed. You were on a gurney, and you were wrapped in thick, white plastic. It came up over your head, and a man in slacks, dress shirt, tie and gloves was pulling straps over you, to keep you secure.

It was an odd moment— I knew you were dead. I understood that you weren’t occupying your body any longer. But there is a frightening and unique pain at seeing someone you love wrapped like meat, and an odd non-sensical aversion to seeing a body wrapped so as not to breathe. I knew you weren’t breathing, but it’s disconcerting just the same.

I whimpered and backed away. “Excuse me,” I said. The man turned around. “Oh!” he said. “I’m her— her granddaughter.” “Oh! I’m so sorry.” He came up to me, folding his hands behind his back and leaning in with a slight bow in greeting. He stood in front of me, I could tell, with the kind intention of shielding me from what was happening with your body. He had a kind face, and offered his condolences. I asked him about the paperwork, and he gave me my answer. I’ll never forget how subtle his movements and posture were, and how they were clearly intended to protect me, to help me. I was struck by his professionalism, and I was grateful. I went downstairs, got in the car with Mom. The truck he was going to drive you away in was parked at the back entrance, the one Sister and I used every time we’d visit. We sat for a long time, talking. As we drove away, I saw that van pull out of the parking lot behind us, and I couldn’t comprehend that you were in there, and that I would never see your body again.

Three months later I was opening a box in Mom and Dad’s basement. They had received it a few days before. Next to a bundle of paperwork was a heavy urn rolled in bubble wrap. I cut through the wrappings and slid the urn into my lap. It was surprisingly heavy. It looked like something you would have chosen— a beautiful cream color with a dark brass lid— though I don’t think you did. I unscrewed the top. Inside was a plastic bag, sealed with thick wire, filled with the fine, white, gravelly sand I remembered from when we scattered Poppie’s ashes in the Bay. The bag had a sticker on the front that said your name, date of death, date of cremation (eleven days after your death), and the crematorium that handled it. Wired around the top was a metal tag that I later learned was a tag that had been attached to your body during the cremation process. It contains unique numbers that identify the crematorium and your body, so if ashes are forgotten about, they can be identified. It means those ashes are really you.

I dug my hands down into the urn, on the outside of the plastic bag, to feel the weight of the remains in my hands. I remember thinking— “This contains your forearm that I clutched, your hand, your arms that held me. How strange it is, that I hold in my hands, the hands that bathed me, that fed me, that rubbed my back, that loved me up to today.” How unbelievably strange death is. I have come to terms with it, but I will never understand it. Never.

About a month ago, I discovered a YouTube channel hosted by Caitlin Doughty, a woman who runs a funeral home in Los Angeles who does outreach and education about death, because she feels our culture is really death-phobic, and would benefit from being more educated about it. I agree. I watched her video about cremation a few times. She explained what the process is, and what happens to a body during the cremation process. I started the video a little nervously, but facing the reality of precisely what happened to your body— your beautiful body that I loved so much— was actually incredibly healing for me. It was honest and real, and I found I could accept it with peace.

It isn’t easy to picture the remains of your loved one going through that process. And I have many, many times. But there is comfort in shining light into dark spaces. As Caitlin says, being present with your dead (emotionally and physically) can be painful, but the reality of what happens when a person dies is nothing compared to the nightmares and macabre fantasies the human mind can think up when they don’t quite know what happens…when they hide from reality in fear.

Looking back, I wish we had had much more time with your body. If we had it to do over again, we might have asked your friends if they wanted to say goodbye to you. We might have let you stay in your room for a day or two. We might have just stayed longer. I have been in the presence of two corpses in my life, yours and Poppie’s, and both times I felt enriched for it.

Your urn sits in our living room, atop our bookshelf near the ceiling. We’ve decided we will inter it in March, around the anniversary of your death. In the meantime, I asked to have it. I want to be near those bones that held me tight. Sometimes I take it down and open the lid to read the label, to pick up the bag and feel the weight, to look at the tag that ensures this was you…to be with my dead, because it helps.

This is the time of year that we remember our beloved dead. Thursday we hold the requiem mass, in honor of everyone who has died this past year. I will be there, clutching you in my heart. Remembering your warm embrace, the feel of your cheek on my lips, the smell of your hair, the color of your lipstick, the way you drank your coffee. I will be there, and your body will not. And I’m beginning to feel ok with that. I’m beginning to feel ok.

Funeral Blues

Funeral Blues

dambw

Grief is a specter that follows you, tied to you like a shadow. Depending on the day, you might not notice it at all, or you might be cast beneath its gloom to gaze at everything as through murky water– an altered reality, painful and horrible in its ugliness and its vast mystery.

Yesterday was a bad day. It has been five months and nine days since I last saw her, hugged her (twice), kissed her, heard her “I love you.”

I used to wail. I used to shriek. There were weeks when all I did was stumble through the door before collapsing onto the sofa or the bed, to weep for hours, often gasping and moaning more than crying, the strange sensation of the vagus nerve– the nerve that runs up near the heart– strummed expertly by grief, creating a horrible heartbreak in my chest. The pain, physical pain…if I wasn’t mourning a monumental loss, I would have thought nothing but a heart attack could create such pain. There were nights that I clutched her pink sweater (still smelling of her soap and hairspray), plucked from the hook on her bathroom door the day I kissed a cool, still cheek that didn’t know me anymore, tears streaming into it until I awoke the next morning, puffy-eyed, not knowing when I slipped into sleep.

Sometimes I am Hoover Dam, holding back an ocean for the sake of those who love me. Because you can’t really live with a sobbing person. Not for months on end. But Husband is good and kind, and does all he can to help. And I don’t sob that much anymore.

But yesterday was a bad day. A day in a span of weeks that feels like a regression. Lots of things caused it, but they don’t matter. I couldn’t hold back the dam. For the first time in months, I cried myself to sleep.

Sometimes you just have to acknowledge the bad days.

Amid the quiet tears that streamed down my cheeks, settling into my ears while I laid on my back in the darkness, my favorite poem about loss found its way to the forefront of my mind. I’m sharing it with you, in the hopes that when you need it, you will have it to provide the meagre comfort of knowing that someone else too, felt like this.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with the juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message: “He is dead!”
Put crepe bows around the white necks of the public doves.
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my north, my south, my east and west,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can come to any good.

W. H. Auden

 

A Trappist Retreat

A Trappist Retreat

vinagrapes2

It’s finally, finally Summer vacation!!

Husband and I took just over two weeks off of work and headed north to the Sierra foothills to spend time with our families, and to get some much-needed nature therapy. I’ll be posting some of the wonderful adventures we’ve been having in future posts, but for this post, I wanted to share what I did the first four days of my vacation— a wonderful retreat with my mother to the Trappist monastery The Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux in Vina, California.

vinabike

My mother and I had the pleasure of doing a three-day retreat to New Clairvaux last January. While it was restorative and peaceful, our hearts were heavy and rather than being spiritually fruitful, it was largely just a rest for us both. Time away from our troubles. Grandma had been very ill and unhappy, and she had been put on hospice care the week prior, which was both a blessing and cause for sadness. After Grandma passed, my mom decided to treat me to another retreat in the warm summertime…and boy, was it incredible! 

The Abbey of New Clairvaux is home to some amazing Trappist monks who have traditionally supported themselves by growing prunes and walnuts. Within the last ten years, however, they have branched out and began growing grapes and making award-winning wines, as well. Located just north of Chico, they are really in the middle of nowhere…and the peace and quiet of their abbey is unparalleled.

vinagrapes4

Their four-day weekend retreats are self-guided, meaning you determine what to do with your time yourself while at the abbey. There are many lovely things to do!

There are plenty of little nooks and crannies in the lush garden to relax with some devotional reading or in which to pray:

vinagreen2

vinagreen1

You can visit the beautiful koi pond behind the visitors center:

vinapond

vinapond2

You can visit the St. Cecilia Chapel, where I had the pleasure and honor of praying for many dear friends, near and far:

vinachapel

vinachapel2

You can visit their fantastic library, stuffed to the gills with Catholic books on all kinds of topics (an additional two big bookcases not pictured):

vinalibrary

You can visit their sweet bookstore and gift shop:

vinabookstore

You can visit their beautiful rose garden:

vinaroses

At mealtimes, you can get a simple, wholesome, vegetarian meal prepared by the monks in the guest kitchen (pictured– a mid-day snack of salad, homemade wheat bread with cheese, home-grown prunes and sliced melon):

vinakitchen

vinafood

You can even choose to eat in the silent dining room, if you decide to do a silent retreat:

vinakitchen2

There are many outdoor tables, including this awesome table made out of a huge slab of stone that reminded me very much of The Stone Table from Narnia:

vinatable

You can take a walk on the paths surrounding the orchard and vineyards:

vinagrapes

One of the days we were there, we visited their tasting room. We got to enjoy a taste of six of their incredible wines! If you are a wine drinker, I highly recommend joining their wine club (info at their website). In the Trappist tradition, everything they make is excellent.

vinawinery

vinawinery2

A must-see is the chapel that they are re-building, which was originally a medieval chapel deconstructed and shipped to the U.S. by William Randolph Hearst:

vinastones

This is a monumental task, and they have been at it since the early 1990s, I believe. The stones were shipped over, and then unceremoniously dumped in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when the Hearst estate decided not to use them. As a child, I played on these huge stones in the park! Thankfully, after petitioning the Hearst estate, they were given the stones and are using them to construct this chapel, set to be completed this year.

One of the most enriching aspects of visiting the abbey is getting to attend the liturgy of the hours with the monks. Vigils at 3:30 a.m., Lauds and Mass at 5:45 a.m., Terce at 9:00 a.m., Sext at noon, None at 2:30 p.m., Vespers at 5:45 p.m., Compline at 7:35 p.m., after which begins Great Silence (no talking until Mass the following morning). Visitors don’t have to join the monks for these short periods of chanted prayer and contemplation, but it is SO worth it to join them. It creates structure during day, and keeps God on your mind while chanting the ancient psalms to ancient melodies.

vinagreen3

I went for many long walks, and was blessed with much insight into spiritual issues I had been wrestling with. It really goes to show that when you take the time to listen— to slow your pace, to quieten your mind, to do nothing but speak with your Creator— God will answer you. It can be such a revelation that it isn’t God who refuses to speak to us, but us who refuse to listen for his Voice.

vinagrapes6

In January, I had been facing sadness, anxiety, and stress. As uncharitable as it is, I felt envious of the monks. They chose a life that renounced all of the complications that I had, seemingly foolishly, bought into. All of the things that had been driving me crazy, I had to go back to. There was no escaping them. I wanted to stay with the monks, and I was filled with a hopeless anger at myself that I’d done the things I’d done to build this life of complicated worldliness. I regretted having to return home so much.

Yet this time, I didn’t feel that way. I’m happier and less anxious about my life, for many reasons. Grandma passing is one of them, in a strange way, because the anxiety of her suffering is over. This time around, I found such calm, peaceful happiness. I felt so enriched, so blessed. I had so many little encounters that were placed before me with such clear grace and wisdom, and my heart swelled in gratitude many times.

vinagreen5

I am so grateful to have had this time to visit with them again, and that it was so spiritually nourishing. I sincerely hope everyone who wants to may be given the opportunity to visit them. While most of us do have to return to the hustle and bustle of regular life, the wisdom of the monastics can direct us, guiding us in even the most hectic of times, reminding us to invite peace and silence into our daily lives, no matter where we are.

Abbey of New Clairvaux website: http://www.newclairvaux.org

 

Pool of Grief

Pool of Grief

pond2

I’ve always thought of grief as a pool. Not a swimming pool, but a large body of water, dark and cold and full things mysterious, lake-like. Each of us will someday drink from the pool that is grief— interact with this mysterious, uncomfortable, yet inevitable entity that laps at our heels our whole life long.

When you think about it, you can observe the different ways that people do this, and the circumstances unique to each individual that make their time at the pool their own. Some people stand in the shallows for a while, confusedly, finding their way out with little struggle. Some people wade into deep water, tragically, and begin to drown. Some people sit on the shore, sipping grief as from a chalice, little bits, its bitterness measured carefully by a benevolent hand. Some wade into the pool of grief and never come out.

When she died, a very specific image came into my mind in my most emotionally exhausted moments that I yearned for, almost physically. I imagined, as I lay in the stillness that came after hours of tears, my face red and swollen, refusing to believe that my waking reality was indeed real…I reflected that I wanted to fall into a deep pool of cold water and sink to the bottom.

This image came to me many times. Enough that I shared it with a supportive friend. To be specific, I didn’t want to die— it wasn’t manifested thoughts of suicide. It was, strangely enough, an image that described what I already felt was happening to me interiorly. I already felt that I was in this deep, still, cold pool, sinking with closed eyes to rest on the bottom for a while. Perhaps for a hibernation? I’m still not sure. I always knew I would come up for air eventually…but not right away. The image appeared again and again, as I lay motionless, tear-tracks streaked from eyes to ears, staring at my popcorn ceiling.

I imagined my time at the pool would be so different before her death. It’s so easy to try to prepare oneself, to develop expectations for one’s experience. None of the things I believed I would feel, things I expected and even took for granted, came to be. I wrestled with the shock of that dissonance for months— the grating of expectations on reality. Eventually I realized I was less in control of my experience at the pool than I planned, and I learned to accept it.

I had planed something beautiful. Sad, yes. But not so sad as to lack faith, to lack all the things I knew and believed to be true about the afterlife. My pool originally contained floatation devices. It wasn’t deep, it was shallow. Something I would wade into and splash around in, in safety, until it was time to get out.

This linear concept of the grief experience influenced my shock, when my time at the pool actually came. There’s so much more dipping in and out than I thought there would be— wonderful moments all the time where the ache doesn’t find me, then at the recollection of just one memory, one song, one idiom, one image, I am pushed roughly as from a great hight into deep water to wrestle my way out, gasping from the pain and shock that the pool is even still there! Still so cold, and still so huge, and still present in my life. The time will come, I know, when I will have wandered away from it…far enough away that maybe only intentional journeys through memories will find me standing at its shore. In the meantime, I am learning to swim. I am learning to navigate its waves. I am becoming comfortable that I am not alone in this place, but that every one of us turns up here eventually, and I’m blessed with many lifelines to pull me back if I forget.

Roses

Roses

She sang. She was always singing. When he was alive, my Poppie (her husband) didn’t like it, apparently because he thought she didn’t have a good voice. She said she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. They were both wrong. She sang lots of songs, the same ones over and over. It was so characteristic of her to sing while making breakfast, sing while ironing my white uniforms for school, sing while sitting at the dining room table, working on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle…another characteristic trait, “playing puzzle.”

She sang so many kinds of songs. Old songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s, Western ballads, songs from musicals, children’s ditties she had learned in school, folksongs. Patsy Cline, and Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter, and the occasional Sinatra. “What’ll I Do?,” “The Story of Two Cigarettes,” “You Are my Sunshine,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Down in the Valley,” “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons,” and so many others. I learned these songs by hearing her sing them, and to this day there are few I have heard in their original form. I remember her singing them as they were meant to be sung, and I remember all the funny little ways she would sing them when she felt silly and happy, replacing words and adding in her own tempos. She was rarely unhappy, at least when I was around.

“Room Full of Roses,” was one of the songs she sang the most. A country song, it was recorded by George Morgan in 1949 and hit number four on the Billboard charts that year, which must be when she first heard it. I had never asked her, and I doubt she would have remembered such trivia. It was covered by Mickey Gilley in 1974, and was a major hit for him.  As I write this, I have never heard either version, but I know the lyrics by heart.

It is a bit ironic that I chose this song for the title of my blog. It isn’t a tribute to either George Morgan or Mickey Gilley, and the irony lies in the lyrics— it’s about someone breaking someone else’s heart, certainly not something Grandma ever did to me! It is so iconic of her, though, and in spite of the story the song tells, I like to think that my Grandma gave me many, many figurative “rooms full of roses”— gifts, lessons, memories to cherish, and love to remember and hold onto. I love the idea that we each do essentially the opposite of what the song says for each other— that every time we make our loved ones happy, cheer them when they are sad, care for them when they are sick, play and laugh with them, we bless them with roses of our hearts. She filled rooms, and rooms, and endless rooms of those kinds of roses for me…

So here it is, the original version shared with you on the four-month anniversary of her passing. I think of her, and hope that somewhere she is singing with me a sad song, but a song that only ever brought us happiness:

Teeth and the Journey of Grief

Teeth and the Journey of Grief

“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” C.S. Lewis

path

Through good genes, much fastidious parenting, and a healthy dose of good luck, I managed to carry out the first 24 years of my life without a single cavity. I was told that my great-great-grandmother, Nonnie, (who had immigrated from Tuscany in the early 20th century) lived her entire life without a single cavity, though this claim is impossible to substantiate. Nevertheless, knowing this tidbit of my dental genealogical history always made me feel smug. So smug that I actually stopped going to the dentist. While I continued to brush and floss (often carelessly, as I had always done with no apparent consequence), I simply felt that visiting the dentist was both a waste of time and energy for someone who clearly had genes that would enable her to live a lifetime without cavities. Six years later, sitting in my sympathetic dentist’s chair and experiencing for the first time the exquisitely distressing experience of having six teeth drilled and filled, I concluded that forgoing the dentist for so long wasn’t the most prudent thing I had ever done.

My teeth ached for months afterwards. My dentist, a profoundly gentle and supremely over-qualified woman of national dental renown (that is a thing, really!), regrettably informed me that some people’s teeth just hurt for a really, really long time after fillings. Even after the edges of the fillings are smoothed, and carefully reshaped again and again to perfect the bite. Even after desensitizing varnish is applied, and Sensodyne toothpaste employed. While all of my co-workers remarked that they never felt a bit of pain after a tooth was properly filled, I ached. For weeks I couldn’t bite down on anything more solid than cooked pasta, and it took months to crunch a firm vegetable. Eventually the nerves in my teeth settled down some from their trauma and I’ve been able to eat more normally, favoring my right side that has fewer molars filled, and always feeling twinges of discomfort with my meals.

The most surprising realization during this strange and new experience, was the realization that I had known my teeth for 30 years. For 30 years, I had run my tongue over their grooves, their ridges. I knew what they felt like, I knew who they were, and what they were capable of. But now, after their time under the drill, I realized that these old friends will never be the same teeth again. I can never get the old ones back. Now they are covered in strange, smooth porcelain that interferes with my ability to really chew (too smooth in some places), and they shock me with their on-again-off-again fussiness— sensitive today, perfectly unbothered by anything the next. My teeth are healed, mind you, but my life with them is different. It’s uncomfortable, and it will always be lesser than when I had my original, uncavitied pearly whites.

About a month after I sat in my dentist’s chair and received six unwelcome, surprise fillings, my grandmother died. She was ninety-four years old. It’s no tragedy when a woman of ninety-four dies in God’s time, and without undue or prolonged suffering. But she and I shared what can only be described as a very special bond. She was perhaps my dearest friend, certainly my greatest champion in all things whether I deserved it or not, and perhaps a true soulmate.

garden path

It has been almost four months to the day since she passed. I had experienced death before, with acquaintances, friends, and family. I believed I was as prepared for this grief as I could be— indeed, I was as prepared as I ever could have been. But entering into my grief for her was a totally and completely unexpected journey that I could never have anticipated. It has challenged everything I thought I knew and expected about death, about my faith, and about God. Many aspects of this experience have been profoundly painful, and some have been beset with graces I can hardly deserve.

I quickly realized, though, that I’m on a journey of healing, this road called grief, and that when I emerge on the other side I’ll probably feel a lot like my teeth did. New and unfamiliar, never again to be as I was, perhaps even (morbidly) still in pain, never functioning as well as I did before her death. It is too soon to tell. I hope to be able to share some of my thoughts about grief, healing, and my life with this blog as a way of helping myself move forward. I don’t intend this blog to be morbid, depressing, or solely focused on the death of my grandma, but to be a place where I can share thoughts, memories, and many other tidbits from my life, with the understanding that this profound experience will inform much of what I share. I appreciate your reading any of what I have to say, and all of the thoughts you care to share.

Incidentally, my next dentist appointment is penciled in for next month. A cleaning. Every six months feels too soon, but I know everyone will agree it’s a vast improvement to every six years. It’ll be better this time, I know it. Despite all the twinges, they really do feel so much better these days.