Grief is not the end of you

I’ve been trapped in the same hospital room for a year.

I can still see the two rows of glass standing guard on either side of me, my fractured reflection in each pane as I walked past the silent sadness in each room. Doors and windows and off white curtains running into each other down a beige hallway. Dated floor tiles with brown specks become a river as the smell of antiseptic and thin cotton perfumed the air.

I can tell each hospital I have visited over the last ten years apart by the aesthetics Even though they all seem the same to me now. Even if it doesn’t matter anymore.

On my worst days, this is where I end up.

I replay this scene, and many others, over and over again in a devastating loop. And I hate myself for it. For being so weak.

A long road with nine years of hospital stays, visitor badges, and frantic phone calls that came late at night or early in the morning. How else would bad news travel save for 6 a.m. Sunday morning phone calls or 11 p.m. texts on a Tuesday? The faintly blue walls and fake flowers on side tables in hospital hallways were like lipstick on a pig.

Because no one could ever assure us that it would get any better.

It was a slow siphoning. A meandering descent.

Like a giant bucket full of water, with a minuscule hole drilled in the bottom, we didn’t notice the changes at first. We didn’t notice that the silver thread of my father’s life was nearly gone until one day it suddenly was. But we had silently been careening to that moment for nearly a decade.

And still, we weren’t ready for the impact.

On my worst days, I’m back by his side, swallowing a brick of tears and burning anguish as we all waited for the lines on his monitor to flatten and anger singed a bitter blister inside of me.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted him to stay or go, to keep holding on or to infinitely release, even though that had been his life for the last decade. Even though I had already asked that of him again and again. I couldn’t ask that from him even once more because he had done all of that, and more. What else can a father give?

On my best days, I remember that it won’t always be this way.

After his funeral, we made our way to a familiar small, sandy beach. The sky churned in a wild sea of gray, the clouds turning over like a river of lava, like they were hot and flowing until they piled on top of one another, building something unknown. The water was murky. The grainy sand bone white as it crunched beneath our feet.

Somehow, the fact that it was a less than ideal day that we had chosen to spread his ashes was actually comforting.

I’m new to this grief thing.

Before that day, I had thought that maybe, by the time we stood at the edge of the water he loved so much and let him go, eight months and a few mornings after he had left us, that it would begin to feel like true closure. When in truth, letting go of some of the last tangible pieces of him was a painful act more than it was transcendent.

The day was a confusing mess of gray, rain that spit from the sky, and winds that churned the waters below. The air stung our faces, and we let him go into something wild. We gave him over to the uncertainty, and that seemed to make a modicum of sense after eight months of being confused over how someone can truly be gone.

It didn’t mean that it was over. But it meant that we began to accept that truth of the matter. That we all fade, no matter what. That those around us will fade, and we might have to be here to watch. That life was still infinitely mysterious in its at times unforgiving nature. But in the tangled web of uncertainty and beauty, something beautiful still throbs even when we are broken. In darkness, something hopeful and light pulses even still.

We accepted the inevitable that we couldn’t escape. But by setting him free into the mist, right in the middle of it, we agreed that we were trying to figure it out. To discover our way through it. To make peace with everything.

I sat on that same beach, two months later. On Father’s Day.

Aviator shades on, shoulders out, freckled skin hot, the weather and the day could not have been any more different. This was my first time back to that same place, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. Or in what state I would find myself.

Only on that day, in the place of my sorrow months before, I wasn’t alone on the beach. Families lounging on plastic chairs and beach blankets dotted the shore. People played in the warm and clear water. I found a spot beneath a tree and sat. Watching.

You would never have believed this was the same place.

I took my children swimming yesterday. Three busy bodied children in fluorescent swimsuits stood at the edge of the shore. The older two hesitantly let the water lap around their ankles, while my third child alligator crawled through the water, the soft sand pillowing under her knees.

My two oldest were afraid of the jelly fish. They were afraid of what they could not see. My youngest child hardly took notice of their worries, instead enjoying herself on a perfect day.

She hasn’t learned to be afraid yet. She just dives right in – to anything.

I assured my children that I was watching over them. That the waters were clearer than they thought. That they were safe. From jellyfish, from waves and all manner of scaled and clawed sea creatures.

They doubted me, while my youngest continued her fun, soaking up the moments and almost becoming too brave as she inched further out.

I marveled at how brave we are before we learn to be afraid.

I realized that I might never be like that again.

 

I remember being like them. Being stung by a jellyfish hidden in the gray waters. Rocked over by the waves until I swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater. Raw wounds on my shoulders and knees as the ocean flung me back and then began to pull me out again.

I remember feeling helpless. So many times in the last year, I have felt so helpless.

How weak we feel when life mercilessly knocks us to our knees. How it clutches  at us and shakes us until the air is ripped from our lungs. How it rubs us raw even while we still suffer. We feel small, like will never be brave again. Like we couldn’t ever be again even if we had the choice.

But really, it is after life has shaken us, has devastated us, has reminded us that its language was always uncertainty, that we should feel the most brave.

Grief is a torch that will only light our steps so much.

But it is peace the illuminates the way.

Grief is not the end of us.

Even as we make bedfellows with it for many days in the dark. Even as we begin to comfortably wear it. Even as we swallow it, hold it close to ourselves and count it only as ours.

I’ve marked my grief these last twelve months. I’ve made it my own, unwilling to share it. To talk about it. To expose it would leave me helpless. It has become a shield, something to wield. As I let myself cower behind it. As I try to forgive myself over and over again for feeling so weak that I can’t move forward. When I tell myself that I can’t. I can’t move on from when he left me. What if my life is unrecognizable without him? What might he think? 

How does one move on without a place for the ones they have lost?

Grief is a torch that shows us the path, but it is peace that illuminates the way ahead. It is peace that compels us to move and find our footing again. It is peace that wills us to be brave. It is peace that tells us that we must trust the uncertainty.

One day, I pray I will be far away from that room. Where our bodies were crowded close together. Where we held his hands and whispered to him as we silently prayed that maybe he heard us one last time. That he heard us tell him that it was okay, that we weren’t going to ask him to stay one more time.

Peace tells me that grief isn’t the end. My ashes become an adornment. The thin soot of my pain. It tells me that fire can be both devastating and cleansing, and that death can make the things left behind beautiful. It can be a catalyst. The fire that sparks. The end is only the beginning, for him in eternity and now for me, still on Earth.

Grief is the end of the chapter. But not the story.

Not of me.

 

 

 

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To the first time moms

As I write, there is a child heavily breathing, lost in sleep next to me. Her brother is sprawled across the couch in the living room.

It is nearly midnight.

Tomorrow, we will host a joint birthday party for these two children who emerged on almost the same day, two years apart, in late June, six and eight years ago.

It seems like a lifetime ago. It seems like last week, this hurricane that upended my life.

Your story shifts the second you find out that you are going to be a parent. Then it shifts again the moment they emerge, yowling and slightly gross from your womb, separate from but now an even bigger part of you still.

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You were once joined nearly completely, only now you discover that it isn’t just flesh and blood that can join you with a person for a lifetime.

It’s a million yet unspoken words.

A promise, now realized. A thousand more, waiting to be fulfilled.

Your daily life together becomes a series of shifting plots. You think you have learned one thing about parenting, found solid footing, and then the next day, the game changes.

Sleep regression. Colic. Diaper rash. Reflux. Teething. Your internet not working. Misery!

I remember how unreasonable parenting seemed at first.

The thought that I had to carry a person, who practiced Cirque Du Soleil inside of me every time I tried to close my eyes, who burned my innards with the fire of indigestion (equal to the flames of a thousand suns), who I was then expected to spend hours birthing, urging them into the world with cracking pelvic bones and willpower, and then feed them from the battered front of my body, was without a doubt the most presumptuous thing I had ever heard.

Not only was I responsible for birthing this tiny person, for bathing them and noting the number of diapers they soiled each day, I was also charged with making sure they turned into a good person eventually.

And sometimes, I also needed to take them into the grocery store even as they squirmed and cried from their car seat while I lactated through my shirt with enough milk to supply ten dairy farms.

And for all of my work, where did it actually get me? The laundry was never clean. The house was always dirty and neglected. The smallest of tasks increased in difficulty ten fold. I felt like I spent my days flailing. I didn’t see where any of my efforts were gaining any ground.

It turns out, that when you become a parent, you give birth nearly every day. Right there, in the mundane.

The broken body, shriveled breasts, stretch marks, and post-partum raging hormones that whisper that you aren’t enough are some of the “easiest” parts.

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You’re then met with the crushing reality of mommy culture. You start to doubt every decision you make for them. You wonder if each one is actually best. You wonder if you need to be making your own laundry soap and baby food. You wonder how anybody ever thought you could do this in this GMO laced world. Heck, you wonder why you’re so selfish to just want four hours of sleep in a row so badly you can cut your teeth on it.

Once you were insecure about the clothes you wore, the acne on your skin, that you didn’t share the same lunch table with popular kids.

Now, you’re worried about when the new loose pouch of skin across the front of you will recede, giving you back an appearance of maidenhood.  You feel guilty because deep down, you already miss your old life and its simplicity. When your mind was quieter than it has been since the moment they arrived. You realize startlingly that the noise may never leave you.

Now, you’re worried about how to feed your baby. How to dress your baby. And bathe your baby. You wonder why your baby doesn’t sleep. You wonder why you never seem to be enjoying any of this like all of the other parents around you. Or why your heart hurts so much when they cry as you frantically pace back and forth to help them find their way to sleep.

Your heart hurts because it’s growing three times in size. Outward, forward. Like an expanding wave of an unfolding and mysterious universe.

You’re so distraught because now life comes with a new set of insecurities, the least of which is that your body will never look like it used to. Some of worst thoughts haunt your mind as you’re trying to sleep, like the fear that this new life will never seem to fit you just right.

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The greatest of which is that you’ll somehow mess this all up, mess them up. That you will ruin everything good in them.

I thought I became a mother the day they draped that first baby across my chest. And I did. It was the big bang, a new solar system of life bursting forth. A galaxy now set to spinning outward. Unstoppable. A thousand stars dotting an endless ocean. Here there are no skies. There is only forward.

The life I thought I knew so well was gone. The way things were supposed to be irrevocably changed.

I have spent every day becoming since then. Becoming a mother, and finding with each new phase that I must go further still. 

It’s been eight years. Eight years of leaked diapers. Cancelled plans. Sick children on family vacations. Crying behind closed bathroom doors, or over a dirty kitchen sink. I waited, for someone to tell me that I can do this.

But it isn’t enough to believe that I am good at this. That I can do this.

Now I see. I see what I will be. And what I will be, I already am.

Now it is enough, the belief that I am becoming. 

And yet the sun still shines. The galaxy still spins and unfolds. We move in an ellipsis, dancing around one another, as we move forward. Together. We already are.

And yet we are still becoming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’m Going to Tell My Daughters About No Man’s Land.

***Spoilers Ahead***

 

I have seen Wonder Woman three times now. Do not adjust your monitors, you read that correctly. Three times. And I am not ashamed.

I thought of myself, how seeing powerful women accomplish great things stirs me to greatness. But then, I thought of my daughters. And No Man’s Land.

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I know it’s just a movie, my loves. It’s only a story at the end of the day. But what we ultimately see in stories, in art, and have since time was new, is ourselves and who we want to be. We are inspired, and so we believe. And when we believe is when great things happen.

And hers was a story worth telling.

If it wasn’t Princess Buttercup, having since cinematically evolved into a ferocious amazon warrior, charging across a beach, bow and arrow in hand, then it was young Diana on horse back, riding through a field of golden flowers, hair in the wind, wildly free.

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It wasn’t just Diana and her lasso of truth, her sword and shield at the ready, it was also her inner compass that guided her to her truth, and her compulsion to always do the right thing. Even when those around her did not deserve her unwavering grace.

I was romanced by all of it. By the women who made things happen.

If it had to be one scene, though, that encapsulated why this film, this story, was so powerful, it was when Diana crossed the field known as No Man’s Land.

Frustrated at being told no at every turn, that she was not the one to help, that today was not the day to intervene, that she could not trust her instincts, that she must look away from the pain, violence and chaos around her, and not feel it when she sees the innocent suffer, she decides that doing nothing is not an option.

Diana decides to climb a ladder from the pits and lead the way.

Even if she had to do it alone.

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I’m not an idiot. I know how this world works.

I know that it can squeeze the life out of you, out of anyone that it perceives as weak. And from what we know, it sometimes views compassion and grace as a form of lacking. As naivete. With cold indifference and smugness, it will tell you that you are not the one.

That today is not the day.

That to win, you must not feel, must not count the costs. At least, not the costs for others.

That it will be every man for themselves.

That you must preserve and steel yourself against loss and sacrifice to survive.

That you must never show grace to those who do not deserve you.

I can’t tell you that it will be easy. I cannot tell you that it will be fair.

To be who you are. And to believe that you can.

But you must believe it anyway. Because what you do is not up to them.

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This is not some fleeting message of girl power.

I can’t tell you how to conquer the world. I can’t tell you how to right every wrong, because we all know that it can’t be entirely fixed. At least, not in this plane of existence.

But in you is so much life, so much goodness. And it is what you choose to do with such things that will reveal what you are, and who are you.

It is in times of joy that we know who we want to be. It is in conflict that we find out the truth of who we are.

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We are at war, every day.

Today is your day. This is the time. And we need you.

Perhaps we don’t have gauntlets. We don’t have shields and swords. We cannot always expect to conquer and restore with brute strength, and must instead prevail with our character and spirit.

With grace.

Such weapons seem far less effectual then we would like. We feel as though we are standing on the battle field unclothed, seen for what we truly are. Meek.

But every inch we move toward grace, toward love, is an inch more toward something greater.

It is with arms outstretched to those around us who hurt and who are broken, cruciform in appearance, that we will welcome grace to enter in.

It is with a heart that seeks to love, understand and give grace that we can actually see the broken around us for what they truly are without begrudging them their pain.

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It is with your will that you can choose today to step out and inspire the people behind you to do the same.

No Man’s Land is the place we cross when all other methods do not work, when we need to make a new way. I believe in a Christ who crossed no man’s land and made a way, so that we can do the same by His hand. Where He tread so shall we. In the dark of the tomb where He turned death to life, so shall we leave darkness behind, giving way to a dawn of a new type justice. One where hope wins.

Empathy knows no usual suspects. Neither do courage and loyalty, honor and strength.

In you, I see these things. Riding freely through a field of gold, arms outstretched without fear. Just as I see it before a field that we are told we cannot cross.

When they fire at you, you can take it. And when you want to throw in the towel is when you will have to fight the hardest.

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Because what you do is not up to them. Because pain makes you stronger. Because you see that what they deserve, you also deserve. But it is not the portion you are given.

Your cup, your portion, is wonder. Beyond logic and reasoning.

And so you give your portion to others who deserve the same as you once did. Because this is what you believe.

 

Walk on, my girls.

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