On this Mother’s Day Eve…

A pattern is emerging in my journey of these last several years. I am increasingly becoming uneasy, dissatisfied, and even resistant to limited thinking and exclusionary expression. I first noticed it in my journey of faith, and write about it often. Nearly all of my posts under the “faith” category name this directly or indirectly. Religion has created a small god which continually seems to underserve the big God I encounter in my life and reading and interaction with others. While I am grateful to have started with a smaller god in order to understand, dig deep, and find my footing, I am now realizing limitations of what I know or think I know. My understanding is but one grain of sand on a beach that runs eternal. And while on some days that is frustrating, more often I am grateful that my job isn’t to know and explore that beach in its entirety but rather to be the best little grain of sand I can be as I mingle, explore, learn and interact with other grains of sand.

Two years ago, Mother’s Day was expanded in my thinking as well. You can read that marvelous post here. On this eve of Mother’s Day, I am reminded of my need to experience tomorrow in a way that is meaningful for me without doing so at the exclusion of others and their experiences. In fact, I want to not just avoid exclusion but to find ways to include more than what I bring to this Mother’s Day.

Tomorrow my grown up child will be home for a day, for which I am so grateful. I love him in ways that I cannot put into words. He is my first born, my first experience of someone part of me yet separate from me. I am immensely proud of the man he is.

My nearly-grown-up child will be with me part of the day. She is my daughter while growing into one of my dearest friends. She is my joy and my delight and probably the only person I could travel with around the world and not drive crazy.

I will have part of the day with my husband who helped make these children possible. He is my partner and my friend. He makes me laugh when I am in desperate need of it.

And I will have time with my faith community who lifts me up, loves me, supports me and believes in me – things we all need from our “moms”.

I will not have time in person with my mom. I am sorry I cannot say to her face-to-face how much I love her and how much I have learned from her and how grateful I am for her. But here is a picture of her and me from a little over a year ago:

Thank you, Mom, for, well, everything.

I won’t be able to see many women who have influenced and loved me, due to distance or time or no longer being on this planet in bodily form. And there have been many men too who have been like mothers to me in their care and nurture and life-giving ways of loving me. To all of you, thank you.

And for the ways in which I cannot fully understand or will not experience tomorrow on Mother’s Day, I seek to make space for you here. I wish to find ways to honor you so that you know you are not alone. I hope others join me too in this.

To you moms who have lost a child, I have seen your pain in a hospital room, a mother unable to put into words what she is feeling as she looks upon the body of the child she has just lost. Whether you are 25 or 95, that pain is palpable and deep. May you find comfort in this day, some how… some way. May you know that your mothering continues in so many ways.

To you who are hurting, who are angry, who feel lost, who have been let down, who have had to say goodbye, who live with regret… may you be found by others in your pain, your anger, or whatever it is that you are feeling. May you know that you are loved and you are lovable.

May we all join together in our need for a mom and in the ways we have been, are, and will be “mom” whether to our children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, pets, relatives, neighbors, friends, or even strangers. Happy Mother’s Day.

What Just Happened?

Every once in awhile, something happens that leaves me utterly speechless. It is as if someone has stolen my words before they were formed, leaving me with what feels like a vacuum in my mouth. I can open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Maybe it is the introvert in me, but at times like this, words can feel profane. As if somehow filling that vacuum with forced sentiment might actually accomplish something. But perhaps that is because I have no words. Instead I sit in the silence, which feels somehow like a scream. Silently screaming, or screamingly silent for what has occurred that is both unimaginable and utterly heartbreaking.

If you have the luxury of comfort tonight, pray for those who need to feel peace in the midst of chaos. Pray for those who need to feel love and comfort in the midst of heartache. Don’t be a self-centered, self-seeking jerk. Not tonight. Instead think of those who are desperate for something, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. And for God’s sake, if you can help, offer. Don’t ask yourself if they deserve your help. Just do it. Life is too short, my friends.

Another Tough Goodbye

Jen.Kids.KittyThis is Pumpkin, along with 6 year old Isaac and newborn Liv. I am the giant in the middle. We often called Pumpkin “Kitty” because when you said KittyKittyKittyKittyKitty in a relatively high voice, she would nearly always come. Jeremy surprised Isaac and me with Kitty back in 1998 while living in Merrillville, IN. Isaac was almost 4 and Kitty was 7 months. Upon meeting her for the first time, Isaac responded, “I wike that wittle kitty cat.” Thankfully we have the moment on video.

At the time we lived in an apartment with a long hallway, the family room and kitchen on one end and the master bedroom on the other. Twice a day, for about half an hour each time, she would play by running back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Often she would run to one end with me at the other and not return. Sometimes this meant playtime had ended. But every so often, just when I assumed she had settled down, Kitty would burst back into the room and then just as quickly run away. The routine burned kitty energy and greatly entertained me.

We were in Indiana less than a year when we moved to the Chicago area. Liv was born about a year or so after our move. Kitty accepted her immediately, I assume since she was still able to keep her place on our bed. As you can see in the above photo, she liked to curl up on my side of the bed between me and the bed’s edge. (Thankfully I didn’t have twins. Otherwise resentment might have occurred.) Kitty not only accepted Liv but seemed to carry a sense of responsibility for her. We would often find her curled up in Liv’s crib on the opposite end of where Liv slept. I don’t think Kitty wanted to be in reach but seemed to want to keep an eye on her. She would leave as soon as one of us would arrive, as if to say “Your turn.” Kitty also tolerated behavior from Liv that she has never tolerated from anyone else. Normally if someone got too close, particularly young children, Kitty would run and hide. But on multiple occasions, Kitty let Liv carry her around, upside down no less. As Toddler Liv walked by with Kitty in her arms, Kitty would look at me but never struggle to get free.

For 17 years Kitty has slept by my side. 17 years. 17 fucking years. While the family certainly loved her, I think I gave her a sense of belonging. I interacted with her frequently throughout each day, and when it was time to go to bed she would be by my side. She would either be sleeping in her spot waiting for me or she would arrive shortly after I got in bed. If she didn’t show up within minutes, I would go looking for her, often finding her locked on the porch or garage. When away from home, I would struggle to sleep without her next to me. It was just part of settling in, a routine of having her there next to me.

Up until two months ago, people could not believe her age. She seemed significantly younger in appearance and activity. But her age finally caught up with her. In the final few weeks, I watched as she lost weight and energy. She became increasingly unable to get comfortable. She would hide for hours at a time. Eventually she gave up eating. Her back legs began to give out. I would find her laying by the water bowl, either without energy to leave or an unwillingness to have to make the inevitable trip back. And yet she continued to sleep by my side… until her last night with us. She no longer belonged. She couldn’t belong anymore. I needed to let her go. It was time.

I sat in the vet’s office saying my goodbye. As her sedative was kicking in, my memories flooded back. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Kitty. I was saying goodbye to a lifetime. Isaac doesn’t remember life before Kitty and for Liv, there was no life before Kitty. I tried to be strong for Kitty so that she would drift off into deep sleep hearing my comforting voice. But I couldn’t do it. What she heard instead was my shaky, raspy voice. What she felt were my tears streaming off of my face and onto her fur. She didn’t get a pillar of strength to lean upon. Instead she got someone feeling a little lost herself. I couldn’t be strong, but I could be there. I was where I belonged, by her side. Just as she had been for me, so many times and in so many ways.

We have lost three pets in three months. While all three were older and we could say had lived full, long lives, there never is a good time to say goodbye. As I look now over at my very old black labrador sleeping on her pillow nearby, I am comforted by this. I might still whisper, “Don’t go, not yet.” But as with Kitty, I would never want her to linger and suffer for my sake. Goodbyes are hard. Watching suffering is harder. Godspeed, Pumpkin Kitty. My life is richer because of you.

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A Companion Called Grief

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The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Ellen Bass

 I find myself inundated with loss. A new loss occurred last Thursday with the sudden death of our cat. She had been part of the family for more than a decade. On Monday, we received a terminal diagnosis for our dog, and are now preparing ourselves for losing her. Thursday is the anniversary of a most difficult loss, the death of my beloved friend. It will have been one year since she was painfully taken from us. I was ill-prepared for a loss like that. Maybe we are never prepared. But up to this point, I had been able to visit with Grief for a little while and then move on.

I have experienced loss before. My parents’ marriage ended. I have moved. I have been left behind. My grandparents died. My son’s close friend died at 14. All of these experiences brought Grief into my life, and painfully so. But I somehow managed to avoid getting to know Grief. I kept her at arm’s length. I remained a stranger by moving on as quickly as possible. This time Grief unrelentingly took up residence. She would not be ignored. And her presence brought up not only the loss of my dear friend, but previous losses. I thought I had successfully navigated Grief in the past, but it turns out she had left quite a mark. She forced me to sift through pain that was residing deep within me.

Physical pain can be a sign that something is wrong, and it can also be a sign of healing. Emotional pain is similar in that it is not always clear what is going on. It is never an easy journey to take. And pain can be with us for years without our even realizing it. Instead we numb our pain. We eat our pain or spend our pain or sift through relationships always blaming the other for its failure. We think maybe this next accomplishment will assuage our pain. If only I am this size or have this title or drive this car. If only I have this many friends or support this many causes or collect this much stuff. But the If Only’s are just smoke and mirrors. Pain is pain, and lasting pain cannot be addressed until we welcome the presence of Grief to learn what has caused the pain. Only then are we able to adequately deal with it.

As I sat with Grief to feel the loss of my friend, I became aware of other stuff that I had buried: relationships that will never be what I wish they could be, the unsettling of my faith, feeling the consequences of failures and regrets. Even though this was terribly difficult, I chose to stay with Grief in spite of the exit ramps that regularly came. I welcomed Grief, not as my friend but as a needed companion. And rather than be offended by her presence, ignore her presence, or attempt to move her along as quickly as possible, I have learned to sit with her and learn from her. I accept her when she is here.

It is important to point out that there is a difference between acceptance and desire. To desire Grief is to take on an almost masochistic approach. I know people who are like this, who seem to relish their losses and be defined largely as victims. This is not a healthy relationship with Grief but rather a codependent one. My relationship with Grief is undergirded by the reality that she can consume me rather than help me. This is what prevents her from being my friend. I never forget that she is capable of destroying me, and that helps to keep my relationship with Grief a healthy one.

Last week in a blogpost, I advocated for hope over knowledge. I had some great conversations with people in response. For some, it resonated. For others, it was too easy. I have come to the conclusion that authentic hope is anything but easy. Hope is the ability to grab life like a face between the palms of my hands and say, “I know what you are capable of, and yet I choose you anyway.”  To give space for friendships when you know what its loss might cause takes courage. To choose love when you know it will disappoint is living. To try again when you know what failure feels like takes guts. Surprisingly it has been my time spent with Grief that has deepened my hope. Grief allows me to accept what is, and hope enables me to see what is possible. Grief and hope are teaching me how to be both alive and free.

I have been deeply moved by others who know Grief. Experiences with her can vary greatly from person to person. To be with someone who intuitively understands her complexity and respects her is comforting beyond words. For those of you who feel alone, overwhelmed, or nearly consumed by Grief, know that you are not alone. Find someone who listens well, listens deeply, and doesn’t try to fix what is wrong. Those people will be invaluable to you as you learn to walk with Grief. And hope will come. Eventually. For we are told and I have learned that troubles produce patience, patience produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4).

Dear Catherine

It seems fitting that I write to you today. It was you who encouraged me to write, said that I had a way with words. You told me to write often, vulnerably and honestly. You said it would occasionally be painful, but that I would be a better person for it. With the end of 2014 approaching and a new year just ahead, it’s to you that I most want to write.

It’s been quite a year. I am writing at my kitchen table and imagining you sitting across from me. You purse your lips because you know I’m writing about you. I give you my best, “Do you think I care?” glance. You cackle and I laugh. How I wish this were really happening.

While this is a letter I would normally consider extremely private, I have learned that grief is deeply lonely. And so if my letter to you can help give voice to another person’s grief, then I think it is worth sharing.

I recall certain aspects of 2014 with clarity, intermixed with huge gaps of time that feel lost. I suppose the fog is normal. January and February were so busy for me with classes and physical therapy and traveling.  I remember the last time I saw you. It was the end of February and we had breakfast together. Afterwards we went to your house so that you could show me all you had done for your Etsy shop. Once again you floored me with your creativity and hard work. When it was time to go, I remember standing in your living room and saying, “I won’t hug you because I don’t want to get cat hair on you and make you sneeze.” I wish I had hugged you. I’m so sorry that I didn’t.

The day we lost you happened to be Ash Wednesday. How painfully appropriate to lose you on a day that begins a season of mourning. I find myself intentionally recalling that day in detail. It hurts to do so, but it’s become my lament for you. I speak aloud the day’s events to proclaim the day’s injustices and the loss felt by so many. Each tear is my crying out to God, both in sorrow and anger. Time has made the burden of losing you bearable, but time has not made your death acceptable.

Grief is such an intimate experience and can be navigated in very different ways. There have been moments of agony unlike anything else I’d ever gone through. And in its midst, irreverent moments broke through. I found myself laughing at you and your silly ways, perhaps because I was so tired of crying for you. I knew you’d understand. I knew you’d do the same. I realized that the one friend I needed most in dealing with my loss was you.

I hate having to choose between talking about you in present versus past tense. Past tense suggests that you are no longer you, or that you no longer matter. Present tense denies the loss of you and all the pain felt. Neither is fitting. It’s just one more thing that sucks about losing you.

I graduated in May with a degree that you regularly reminded me made no sense to you. “What are you going to do when you finish?” That never bothered me because most of the time I didn’t know either. Now as I move ahead with my work, I often wonder what you would say about all of it. Would you grow increasingly annoyed with me as I became busier with theology and church? Would you finally start to understand what I am trying to do? I remember the day you gave me Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things and said to me, “I think what she does in this book is what you could do for people regarding faith and God.” Now that I think about it, maybe you got it all along and were just waiting for me to catch up.

I have so many things I could share regarding our children. But those are their stories to tell. Let me just say that you’d be so proud of them all. Walking alongside them in their grief has helped me, sometimes even forced me to deal with mine. I’ve learned from watching them and listening to them. Where I have at times inundated myself with thoughts of what I should be feeling or doing, they have been much more patient with themselves, willing to accept who or where they are without judgment.  My logic has often made grieving harder by adding expectations or time limits to the process. The kids seem to more readily able to acknowledge what is real, set aside what they cannot deal with, and come back once they are ready, particularly when someone is there to “come back” with them.

I think the hardest part about looking into the New Year is facing a full year without you. It feels like another goodbye in this process, and goodbyes aren’t getting easier. Our friend framed your words from last New Year’s Eve for me, and they continue to resonate deeply:

Create a wish list – not a must do list. There are 365 days in which to try and make something on the wish list happen… Don’t rush it. Approach new things with the outlook of nothing ventured, nothing gained. What you gain may not be what you expected. Look forward to the surprise but know that some of the best gains are not tangible and cannot be measured. Be kind. Be generous. Be yourself.

I’m sorry you only got 64 days last year. It’s just not fair. Thank you for what you taught me. Thank you for believing in me. I will approach 2015 with courage and anticipation because that is what you would want. You lived your life quietly yet your absence continues to leave a deafening noise.

To you my friend, I love you.

Jennifer

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