Anniversary Remembering

The wave washed over me Tuesday morning just after the sun had risen. It was a familiar but unpleasant wave, the kind that releases only after it has held you under water just a few seconds too long. Emerging breathless and shaken, I took a deep breath. I stepped carefully and cautiously into the day, disoriented and on the verge of tears. Despite the attention and care of loving family members, I was overwhelmed by a sense of being lonely and lost in familiar surroundings.

This was the wave of grief. It has been three years since my Dad died and the wave of grief overcame me as abruptly and harshly this morning as it did on the morning that he died. When Dad died, I recall walking into the still dark morning with my brother, startled by how familiar the morning felt. The stars, the crisp air, and the beginning snowflakes of an incoming storm were typical of a mid-December day. The familiarity was a comfort and also an affront. Because, of course, everything had changed. We had accompanied Dad to death’s edge and waved goodbye. The wave of anticipation that had been holding us underwater during 4 days of bedside vigil had just released. As we greeted the morning, there was a sense of relief but there was also immense loss and uncertainty.

In the days after Dad died, my sense of order — of the universe’s order, really —  had been disrupted. I waited, sometimes calmly but often impatiently, for the world to right itself. I wondered daily, what was this thing we had just experienced and what was next? How do I move forward? 

I have found ways forward. I have grown more sure of my place in the world and my responsibility to it. I have recognized that I am not alone. Death, like birth, is an inevitable and beautiful aspect of the blessing of life. Sustaining love courses through us all and unites the corporeal and the spiritual, the living, the ancestral and the future generations. Grief is a byproduct of expressing and manifesting our love in this lifetime. Grief has invited me to see my own life more clearly and offer my gifts more freely and more bravely. For that reason, I can be grateful for the love and lives that are no longer here. They live on in memories of heart, mind and body. They live on in gifts of love that are re-directed back out to the wider world.

Of course, I could not remember any of this when the wave of grief washed over me on Tuesday. I was simply washed up on the cold December beach, bewildered, overwhelmed, and uncertain about how to proceed in a world that could turn upside down in an instant.

The way forward now is the same as it was three years ago: One breath and one step at a time – just like every other day. After all, that is all we ever really have.

Today, feeling stronger but still tender, I will remember the grip of the grief and the solace of its teaching. I will remember that love and loss touch us all, and that we never know when a wave of new or re-lived grief will break. I will remember to hold others gently. I will remember that love unites us all — one breath and one step at a time.

Blessings All

Years ago, I found this little slip of paper while I was cleaning out my desk. I recognized it as a note included with the calendar that my grandfather sent every year around Thanksgiving. This homemade calendar included birthdays and anniversaries for my grandparents’ children and their spouses, their grandchildren and their spouses and all of the great grandchildren born to date. Despite long distances, philosophical differences, and ordinary family dysfunction, the calendar literally tethered 50 people and 100 years of lives and relationships. Each year when I received it, I was reminded that my grandparents provided a centripetal focus for all of our orbits. Through them, we each remained in some form of relationship with one another and vitally connected both to our ancestry and also to our legacy.

Our memory of the past defines our hope for the future.

Something about the note must have resonated with me at the time, because I tucked it in a drawer to be discovered and considered another day. When it emerged during my desk cleaning, my Dad was declining with dementia. At the time, we were working hard to hold together the pieces of a life that was determined to unravel. Despite our attentive and creative efforts, the world continued to become more and more unfamiliar and confusing every day. On some days, the note seemed to taunt me, demanding that I figure out how to retain enough memories (for me and for Dad) that we could also both find hope in this very hopeless situation. On other days, the message simply seemed mis-guided. Dad did not have memories to rely on at all and did not seem to forecast towards the future. I noticed, though, that he fully lived the present moments that arrived throughout each day. Each new moment was greeted with openness and curiosity. Unhinged from expectation, a certain freedom emerged. I learned to follow his lead and soon found myself somewhat released from past and future too.

Our memory of the past defines our hope for the future.

Eventually I reconciled with the note. Memory of the past and hope for the future can be important tethers, like the calendar. They connect us to an ancient future and a distant past that keep us grounded in awareness and responsibility. They hold us in relationship with the rest of creation over all time and place, and remind us that we are a part of the whole. But neither memory nor hope can shape our relationships or our actions. Those are best tended in each moment.

Blessings All

The slip of paper still sits on my desk where I can see it often. It still makes me think of my grandfather and his calendar. It also makes me think of my Dad and the love and good living that we shared when we released past and future and, instead, walked purposefully into each present moment of his last few years. It reminds me to appreciate memories and hope while giving my care and attention to those who are with me and the work that is at hand now.

The note no longer teases or frustrates me. It strengthens my resolve to contribute to healing and wholeness. It focuses my attention on the world that my children are inheriting. Their hope for the future is in the words and actions of the young people and adults around them who speak and act with compassion for others and for the living earth now. Their hope hinges on what we do today. For today, I will honor each arising moment with memory and hope — and with an open heart, a clear mind, honest words and actions, and good intentions.

On the Receiving End

I have spent the last few years thinking, writing and talking about caregiving and care-receiving. While my perspective has been informed by the challenges, joys and lessons I gleaned as caregiver, I have celebrated the reciprocity of care in many ways. I have paid close attention to the vast amounts of love, humility, and grace available on both the giving and receiving ends of the caring continuum. While I have appreciated this continuum intellectually, most of my life experiences have placed me squarely at the caregiving end of the line. Between parenting and caring for my Dad, I guess I had even gotten comfortable there… until Monday, when I was abruptly reminded that we all move back and forth along this continuum through our lives.

Monday morning, as I was finishing a walk around our field, I stepped onto a patch of ice. I knew I was doing it and I stepped slowly and carefully but, I must have been off balance. The next thing I knew the ice was coming towards my face fast. I put out my hand to break the fall and fortunately did not hit my head. But my left arm throbbed. I laid on the ground limp for a minute and whispered “help”, fully aware there was noone but the dog and the birds to hear. Smiling at the absurdity of it all, I got up and made my way over the ice and snow to the house. I felt held aloft and propelled forward by the same invisible universal integrity and wisdom that holds the sky to the earth and urges seeds to crack open into life. It seemed that all I needed to do was keep breathing, and the rest would take care of itself. Thank goodness for the amygdala!

When I got to the safety of the house though, I felt myself crumble with the pain and disorientation. As soon as I pulled off my mitten, it was obvious that something was wrong. My hand hung limply at an awkward angle from my arm. No wonder I was breaking into a sweat. Thomas sandwiched my arm with frozen bags of coffee (softer than ice packs!) and took me to the ER. Within the next 5 hours, I received three x-rays, one ice pack, two slings, two tylenol, a big shot of something numbing injected into the bone, and dozens of kind words and smiles. I left with my arm in a cast that extends from my hand to my bicep and a 50/50 chance that Monday’s manual manipulation will be sufficient support for the healing process. If it isn’t, surgery will fill in the missing pieces, literally.

Meanwhile, my family members are quietly picking up the pieces of household maintenance that are  usually my responsibility. The pain has subsided, but the inconvenience of only having one arm available is persistent. The physical inconvenience is accompanied by an ongoing internal dialogue exploring my alternating resentment, frustration, disappointment, acceptance and gratitude.

This is a first-hand opportunity to experience the vulnerability of needing to receive care. I have a renewed appreciation for the grace with which my Dad seemed to receive love, care and practical support in his last years. At this far end of the care-receiving continuum, the challenge is to accept the generosity, compassion, and love that is directed towards us. We must know that we are worthy to receive these gifts and also that our gracious acceptance is a gift offered in return.

Each morning this week, I have woken up grateful for the new day, but have eventually been caught by a wave of surprise and sadness when I notice that I’m still broken. After releasing some stress by shedding a few tears, I realize that I am not broken — my wrist is broken. I am whole and I am on the receiving end.

Gifts of Presence

In the last year of his life, when my Dad felt like making conversation, he would ask, “So, what have you been up to?” After I answered, we would sit quietly for a few more minutes and then he would ask again, “So, what have you been up to?” He never remembered asking and remained as genuinely curious and interested on the 5th asking as he was on the first. Each asking became an opportunity for me to share a bit more deeply about my life. Though he didn’t remember my responses after a few seconds, he listened to each one with real interest and attention. I offered new responses each time he asked. “So, What have you been up to?“

It was an invitation to peel away the layers of my life like an onion, sharing myself ever more deeply, while pulling Dad in closer.

Awarenesses and insight that emerged in this space of disclosure and deep listening took me by surprise at first. Quickly though, I settled in to appreciate and maximize the potential they held. These conversations were opportunities for me to explore unanswered questions, problem solve, and think outside of the box. My Dad was offering me a gift of service and presence that we discuss and practice regularly in ChIME’s interfaith ministry program.

Listening another person into his or her truth is not only a skill to be practiced, but also a gift to both giver and receiver. It is a gift to be an attentive listener, holding a sacred space for the speaker’s goodness, capacity, and intelligence. It is a gift to be listened to with love, acceptance, curiosity and confidence. We are all capable of offering good attention and listening, just as we are all capable of working to heal our deepest wounds.

In another time and place, I practiced Re-evaluation Counseling. It operates on the same principles, specifically advocating that we are all good, intelligent, and zestful at our core. We just need the support of a good listener, or a few good listeners, to unpack and live into our natural gifts. In Re-evaluation Counseling theory, the human potential to heal itself in this way extends beyond individuals and into communities, nations, and to the earth. This amounts to liberation from human oppressions accumulated over lifetimes and generations worldwide.

Deep listening and care-full attention are not gifts or skills reserved for chaplains or counselors. They can enrich and enliven all of our relationships. All that is required is that we listen deeply, paying close attention to one another. We can exchange these gifts freely – all year-round. No need to wrap them up and leave them in the closet until next Christmas or birthday. The gift of presence expands and multiplies with each giving and receiving. You’ve already taken a turn as listener by reading this post (ie. listening to me). Thank you.

Now it is your turn to share. I am ready to listen. Leave a comment below or send me an email. Better yet, ask someone close to you to give you 10 minutes of their undivided attention. After you have settled into being the center of their attention, imagine that they have asked, “So, what have you been up to?”

Winter Horizon

I have always had a tricky relationship with this season. It’s not easy to slow down, so when the short days and long nights nudge me into bed early, I get a little resentful. I know that I will eventually love the extra time for slow reflection and gentle appreciation that winter offers, it just feels like it takes me a little longer than the rest of the natural world to make the transition from fall to winter.

This year, I have noticed that this season, as the winter solstice nears, I am grateful for the pause and intention. I feel wrapped in a remembrance and honoring that feels full, reverent and nurturing.

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years hold the anniversaries of the deaths of my father, grandfather, grandmother, and a family friend. These anniversaries are more than just notations on the calendar, they are memories of love and reflections of loss that come to me in waves of tender remembrance.

Last year at this time, I offered a workshop for people who, like myself, were holding new and uncomfortable feelings of grief and loss at the holidays. It is very unnerving to be surrounded by the season’s merry-making when your heart feels broken. At Inn Along the Way, I met with a small group of women to share stories, cry a few more tears, listen to holiday music and make ornaments. Honoring the lives of our loved ones with symbols of quiet beauty offered an anchor in that rocky holiday season.

This year, I feel different. I am holding my memories out in the light and really savoring them. In acceptance, the intellectual memories of those who have died have become distilled in body memories of our relationships. I hear and feel my Dad’s love, my grandmother’s delight, my grandfather’s steadiness, and our friend’s laughter. Though they are no longer living, this winter season is warmed and illuminated by their presence, woven into mine. Beyond boundaries of time and space, beyond life and death, we remain together.

I am grateful for this renewed perspective on the season of waning light.

May these long, dark pre-solstice days also offer you ample opportunity to feel the light of those who have blessed your life. In their absence, I hope you also feel their presence and, in your delight, celebrate your eternal love.

Barren branches of oak and maple

Reaching to the sky like old and crooked fingers.

Swollen with time and age, bent in angles and curves

holding memories and experiences of days passed long ago.

Youthful flexibility tempered by challenges and growth,

developing a rigidity accumulated from season to season.

Reaching upward and outward,

Beckoning to the sun and moon alike in honor to each passing day.

Reaching upward and outward,

Calling me to pay attention.

Notice the sky.

See the beauty in these twisted tendrils.

Celebrate the youth that has passed

and the age that has arrived.

Live this day.

Empty deciduous branches of winter,

Hold nothing but the weight of the sky,

the love of those crooked fingers,

remembrance of yesterday,

and joy of today.

From the Clearing, with gratitude

This year, in this season, I am practicing standing gratefully and intentionally in the receiving space that Martha Postlethwaite describes in her poem, “Clearing.”

Do not try to save

the whole world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead, create

a clearing

in the dense forest

of your life

and wait there


until the song

that is your life

falls into your own cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worth of rescue.  ~ Martha Postlethwaite

At this time two years ago, I was sitting with my Dad as the hospice chaplain read him the Sacrament of the Sick. Dad had been inwardly focused for weeks, mostly non-verbal with his eyes closed against the noise, confusion and distraction from the outside world. But the day that the hospice chaplain came, Dad was wide awake and eager to engage. I was so glad to look into his eyes and to share words of comfort, hugs, tears and laughter. As I describe in Without a Map, A Caregiver’s Journey through the Wilderness of Heart and Mind,

It felt as though Dad had come back from a deep and private place in order to say good-bye. I was so glad to be there and to be ready for the conversation he had wanted to have. I drove away wishing I had offered more or different words and that I had understood more of the meaning in his words. But I also drove away with a much lighter heart that afternoon and felt that Dad’s heart was lighter too.

The comfort and connection of that afternoon ushered us both into a peace that had been elusive for months. We were standing in the clearing, trusting what was to come.

It would be a month before he died. There were plenty of ups and downs yet to come, but at the time I was not thinking of future or the past. I was simply grateful for this momentary deep breath of awareness and ease.

So much grace, learning, and vibrancy has fallen into my cupped hands in the two years since Dad died. I am honored by the gifts of insight and experience that I received in our journey together and I am so grateful for the opportunity now to share our story with others.

In the clearing, there is room enough for grief and gratitude. There is time for both joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. There is permission to know and permission not to know. There is peace.

And, in my cupped hands, there is room for it all.

And there is room left to wonder — about me, about you, about where we are and where we are going —  and to wonder about what you find falling into your cupped hands.

What is arriving there?