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A Day in the Life of Members Only

Monday, January 30, 2012
My sister and I started taking a non-fiction creative writing class last Monday night at a local college. For tonight's assignment, we were supposed to do an exercise that is called "dirty hands" writing. We were supposed to describe something in detail that we do everyday without thinking about it. You dig your hands in it daily and get them dirty. You do it without thought and it could be something that would be required of you daily. Something that we have begun to just go through the motions because we do it everyday and no longer notice as many of the details, because we have already memorized them all. My immediate thought of what I now do everyday and can describe in great detail, is the daily physicality of grieving, how it affects my days, my body, and how I have learned to deal with it... and I must deal with it because it is not going anywhere. Some of what I wrote are snippets from previous posts that I put together to show the full picture of what grieving feels like on a daily basis and some of it is new. Following are my images of what a day in the life of a grieving heart can look like.

A Day in the Life of Members Only

There is a private club, one that has countless members, more than any other club, but it is a club to which no one wants to be a member because it is too expensive. The benefits do not outweigh the cost and it requires personal sacrifice of all of one’s resources on a daily basis to maintain a membership, which is not optional. Once you are member, you are a member for life. One does not choose to be a member of this club, but it chooses you. There are no age requirements. It is open to the young and the old. There is no board of directors, but everyone is equal. There is an unspoken understanding among the membership of this private club that non-members can never truly discover. To join the club, you must lose someone, in death, to whom you gave your heart. I am a member of this club. I am a rookie and have only been a member for eleven months, but it did not take me long to participate in the unspoken understanding of the other members and experience what it is like to live a day in the life as a member of the Grieving Hearts Club. We all learn to go through the days of our lives with the weight of our grief ever present at greater or lesser degrees. At first, the emotions and the pain catch us off guard and fear overtakes us, but then we begin to recognize the warning signals yet still have no control over when it will wash over us. Our definition of a good day is different than those that are non-members. Our days slowly morph into a different life until we don’t recognize the extra pain and weight that our minds and body have now become accustomed to carrying. Living and grieving now coexist daily.

Every minute of every day is hard. Every breath I take is hard. At times it feels like an elephant is not only in the room but sitting on my chest stealing all of the oxygen. My breathing patterns have not been the same since my husband died. It is always shallow. All day long, I tell myself, "Take a deep breath." Throughout the day, another reminder, "Just breathe. Inhale deeply. Now exhale." I cry daily. Sometimes a little here and a little there, and sometimes I will cry until my stomach muscles are convulsing. I have gotten used to the lead weight that sits in the pit of my stomach. My stares, often times, feel blank and distant.

Some times I feel like the words "broken heart" or "widow" are hanging in front of me like the scarlet letter. Even though every one cannot see it, I feel like they do. After several days of crying in the beginning, I thought I was getting a sore throat. I realized one day that I was experiencing something new. There was an ever-present lump in my throat, ready to cry at any second. It is large and sometimes stuck down in the bottom of my throat, as if I have just swallowed a big, hard air bubble. Where does that lump come from anyway? Why can we sometimes cry with a lump in our throat or sometimes without? I have had a lump in my throat for a little over 11 months now. I keep swallowing and crying but it does not seem to go anywhere. It’s a broken heart. It swells before it can heal. It hurts to hold a lump in your throat and push the cry back down there somewhere…. where ever it goes. The lump is still there. It will just rise up out of the deep and get lodged in my throat. My broken heart is taking a long time to heal.

I have been trying to sort out all of the physical symptoms that I have been feeling. It feels like fear but not one hundred percent. My body feels like it is stricken with fear but without an object of which to be fearful. Sometimes my tongue will keep swallowing and I can't make it stop. Other times, I feel the need to swallow but my throat feels paralyzed and cannot move a muscle. The stronger the feeling of grief, the more paralyzed my throat. When it was at its peak, I could not think. I could not speak. I could not swallow. I did not feel like I was even breathing. When asked a question, all I could seem to say was, "Um". Those feelings have lingered on through out all of my days at different levels of intensity. As a member of the club I can, at least once every day, feel as if I am in a soundproof cell where all sounds and conversations turn into a silent movie, often times these moments can be accompanied by an annoying, insane ringing in the ears. I have periods during the day when I am able to focus on the life that needs to continue moving on and other moments when the feelings completely wash over me. The restlessness and the fluttering of the stomach occur mostly at night, but also during conversations about the accident and sometimes in unexpected moments.... like spotting a photograph of the two of us, when I was not looking for it.

Often times I feel numb and unaware of my footsteps. It is like a heavy blanket has been thrown over me. Other times I want to sit down and crawl into a hole to cry my eyes out. I decided it was best not to make eye contact with most people. Looking in people’s eyes can sometimes bring the tears. I am hurting in a place so deep down inside, a place that I did not know existed. In the beginning, my cries turned into moans that literally felt like I was giving birth to a child. (I had our last two children naturally and the experience has been identical.) The cries can sometimes sound abnormal. I still have those sudden moments where I feel like every bit of life has been sucked out of me. My tears still overtake me like a tidal wave, suddenly. I still have to catch my breath, as if someone has just punched me in the stomach. I still have random thoughts sprinkled throughout each day of fear of the future and completing this journey without my beautiful "other half". The pain is so deep inside my soul that there is no amount of crying, eating, drinking, or resting that can satisfy it. My insides will sometimes begin to burn. It starts in the pit of my stomach then radiates up to my ears. Some days I can feel lonely, exposed, somewhat fearful, insecure, scared... like a child lost at an amusement park. It makes me feel small and dwarfed by a big, all encompassing world.

Beside the physical symptoms that come with being a member of this club, other side effects are the tender memories that are stirred in seeing every day objects or the lack of those every day objects. I see him in the garden where we worked and dreamed together. I see him in my kitchen that we designed together to meet my every need and where he moaned in delight when a flavor or an aroma moved him. I see him in every piece of artwork that he picked out and gave me as gifts. I see him in every piece of clothing in my wardrobe because I knew exactly how each piece made him feel when I wore it. I see him in my dining room sconces for which he searched many months and finally found them in South Africa. I will see him every summer when my fig trees, which he brought in from Atlanta, are producing the luscious fruit that he thought was heavenly. I will see him as I lay in bed staring up at our ceiling fan that he was determined to wire and install himself... no matter how long it took. I will see him when I look at our garden fountain, which he gave me one Christmas, and threw his back out trying to place it in the garden, in the dark, on Christmas Eve. I will see him when I look at my sweet chicken coop from my kitchen window that he so creatively designed and built himself by adding on to our swing set fort... just because I had always wanted chickens. I am also noticing where there is now, no trace left behind.

There is no trace of his daily rhythms. The half finished cup of black coffee, Italian roast, that he always left in the same place on the kitchen counter as he left for work is no longer there. The blanket and Bible that stayed on or next to his favorite leather chair, where he spent the early morning hours, is no longer there. His dry cleaning clothes that he draped over a rod in our closet are no longer there. The smell of his cologne in the morning air is no longer there. His frequent love note texts are no longer there. His dirty exercise clothes, that always made it just next to the laundry basket, are no longer there. (Even in that, he did so with thoughtfulness because he said he did not want the dampness from the sweaty clothes to ruin the other clothes.) His empty wine glass that I daily washed by hand is no longer there. His brand new Land Rover is no longer there. His voice saying, "Babe, I'm gone. I love you... I'll call you later!" as he walked out the door each morning is no longer there. When I am making the bed, his rumpled side is no longer there. These were all traces of life.... which is no longer there.

In spite of these side effects, which are a result of my membership dues, my days also have a deeper meaning now, moments are richer that were once mundane, the ability to be compassionate has been multiplied to me, my perspective has broadened, I have had a paradigm shift about people, life, and our purpose, and I am constantly reminded that I am living in a story that is bigger than me. I have learned to feel all of this, see all of this, and contemplate all of this, while at the same time, am able to move through my day-to-day living. Living and grieving are coexisting.

Car Memories

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
My heart still does a subtle lurch when a silver Acura MDX begins to approach me in the oncoming traffic. Michael drove a silver Jeep Cherokee for several years then purchased a silver Acura MDX and continued to drive it until January 2011. At the end of January 2011, he purchased a 2011 silver Land Rover, LR4. So safe with all of its whistles and bells to make it safer for driving, including about 8 camera angles that could be seen on the GPS screen and a hands free phone system. (His phone was found in his pocket without a scratch.) None of this works when an 18-wheeler flatbed trailer is illegally parked on a poorly lit road, in the dark, backwards, with no reflectors facing any oncoming drivers.

Any time Michael and I would happen to pass one another driving in and out of our neighborhood, we would back up and roll down our windows for an exchange of smiles, a quick chat and say, “I love you.” I loved it when we would happen upon each other like that. Because he drove the silver Acura MDX for many years leading up to the month before his accident, that is the car which I associate with him. My reflexive memory continues to look to the person driving any silver Acura MDX in order to see if it is Michael. I know it is not going be him, but I look for him anyway. I don’t know why this still happens. Maybe there is this strange thought that we could somehow cross paths, yet in our different worlds, like in the movie with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves called The Lake House.

Car memories…..

His car always smelled like spilled coffee. I could count on finding fresh spilled coffee in the cup holder along with a travel cup with a lid and a mug, which he would have carried out of the house that morning. The back seat would have a sport’s jacket hanging on a hanger…..if there was no jacket, the hanger would remain and bang on the window while he drove. His console would have about 30 of his favorite kind of pen, along with countless little square notes written on his Barranco notecards. Many notes and sketches could also be found floating around on napkins from times when he was out for a business lunch or dinner and would quickly jot down his creative inspirations. In a restaurant, the next best thing to a drawing pad is a paper napkin. (It only works with his favorite kind of pen.) In the far back of his car was the “Boy Scout” Michael. There were the muddy hiking boots that he would wear for on site visits to building projects….slip off the dress shoes and step into the muddy boots…. his white hard hat, a deflated pool mattress to put down under messy things in the car, a couple of bungee cords, some rope, and a first aid kit.

The outside of his car told as much about his life as the inside did. It reflected his life outside of his business world. His car was more often covered in mud splashes than it was clean from riding it into the woods while pulling a trailer with our four-wheeler ranger on it heading out for an adventure of fishing, hunting, or camping with the kids or the Boy Scout troop, of which he was Scout Master. There were a couple a large dents in the back door from when the trailer was not hitched on correctly and rolled into the back of the car. Fishing poles often stuck out of a side window or were angled just right going down the center of the car.

All of these little details rush through my memory in a matter of seconds when I happen to see a silver Acura MDX approaching me or I come upon one from behind. It makes me think of the verse in 2 Peter 3 where Peter says, “With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Sometimes in the seconds that pass by, as I experience a silver Acura MDX “fly by”, it seems like I have experienced a lifetime. The sights, smells, and sounds rush through me showing me a passed time, it feels like yesterday and yet feels so long ago.

What's the Rush?

Sunday, January 22, 2012
Rushing, rushing, rushing…. that is the American way. As the rabbit in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland says, “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say, ‘Hello, Goodbye’…. I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”, so is the way of most people in America. If we are not rushing, our life is somehow not as important as those who are rushing, at least that is the lie that we have all swallowed. I once was one of those in the rushing lane.

I spoke in a previous post about my gait and how it has changed. “ I noticed how markedly different it was and still is. I have always had a fast gait. I walked with a purpose, a mission, everywhere I went. It was a confident gait. It was athletic at times. My head was always up and my gaze was always looking ahead in the direction that I was going. If walking in a building, I would walk right past people sometimes, without acknowledging them because my mind would be completely engrossed in the thoughts necessary for the place I was heading and the people with whom I would be meeting…my gait is different now. It is much slower. My head is bent down most of the time. My gaze is usually at my feet or on the ground before me.” My head is not cast down as often now, but my gait is still slower. I see this as a good thing. I have learned a better pace and, hopefully, I will maintain it. A slow gait can be just as confident as a faster gait. Maybe there is more wisdom and discernment in a slower gait? Can’t we have a purpose or a mission with a slower gait? What’s the rush? Is anything truly accomplished by rushing?


What really matters? What are we here for anyway? Is it to accomplish one thing after another? If so, then we must rush because life is short and we are running out of time….. How can we ever finish the ‘to do’ list if we don’t rush? Most of the rushing involves things that we don’t have to feel, experience, or really even respond to emotionally in any way. They don’t speak to our hearts. Not that everything we do in one given day needs to be something that speaks to our heart. There are necessities each day that need to be done, that is a given. It is when our whole day becomes consumed with one long series of rushing from point A to point B. It is the process that we, all too often, condense into the shortest distance between two points. The shortest distance is never the most beautiful, thought provoking route on any journey.

I was recently at a swim meet with Julia in Pensacola, Florida. This is when the habit of people rushing hit me in the face. It has been simmering for many months but I saw it for what it was for the first time. The “spirit of busyness” became naked before my eyes. It was ugly, bitter, a turnoff, and even repulsive. I saw all of these parents rushing everywhere they went during the meet, not even just to watch their child swim, but to get a drink, a snack, locate someone, or even to organize their ‘spot’. I once did the exact same thing…. Did it change anything? Is my list of things to accomplish any shorter today because of the way I rushed back then? “What’s the rush?” kept repeating itself in my head over and over again as I walked slowly in the pool area from point A to point B.

I wish I had learned this sooner, while Michael was here, so that we could have enjoyed a slower gait together. (I have not asked God many questions this past year but I have asked him, “Why such drastic measures to teach me something, to mold me into more of what you intended me to be?”) I made a conscious effort a couple of years ago to stop trying to multi-task. It helped me to begin the slower pace and gave me more focus on that “one thing”. After Michael’s death, my pace has reached levels I never thought were possible. While at the swim meet, I felt like I was in slow motion yet watching everything else in fast forward. All of the conversations, shouts, and noises seemed to blend together into one big cacophony of rushing gaits.

Life is richer with a slower gait, even with the pain and weight that my gait now carries. I still have so much to learn. Maybe this too is just a season, but wisdom tells me to never go back to the rush of my previous gait. I want to live my life in this present moment and hear God all along the way. There is a book that bears a title describing this desire to live in the moment…. The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean-Pierre De Caussade. An observance of the present moment. So much to learn in the moment. Life is short. We have a purpose. We have a window of opportunity to play our role well and with passion. We don’t have to roar and push and shove to seize the day. Slow, deliberate steps have more impact. Quiet strength is a beautiful thing.

New Year's Introspection

Wednesday, January 4, 2012
As of late, I continue to have an underlying theme in the questions that keep circling in my mind. How can so many juxtaposed truths coexist in this world at the same moment in our lives? Life and death, joy and grief, gladness and sadness, beauty and ugliness….. I am at the beach for an extended stay with all five of my children, two of which I gained custody in mid November, and my sister, who is with me for the first week. Everywhere I go, these thoughts are passing through my head looking for some understanding. (Of course, these are questions that have no real pat answer, but it is good for one to give them some thought.)

I thought that being completely away from my house would help ease the transition of entering into the year 2012 without Michael. I have now been forced to leave the last year of Michael’s life, 2011, behind me. We always spent many focused hours together in the first several weeks of each new year planning, dreaming, goal setting, and realigning our compass for life. It had always been a month of solitude, retrospection, and introspection as we continued on into a new year in our life journey together. I had anticipated that the couple of weeks following Christmas were quite possibly going to be very disorienting and grief filled, to say the least. Since the beach has always been a place where I can clear my mind, hear God’s voice with more clarity, and discern what I believe, think, and feel about life, it seemed like the logical place to bring in the New Year in a totally different way. A different house, a different place, different dynamics of family members present, different daily rhythms, different everything. So far, it is doing exactly what I wanted it to do. The burden is lighter here and I feel that I am able to have a broader perspective away from my house and daily responsibilities. I have been able to get my thoughts past the pain and look more intently at the big picture, which is hard to do when I am at home and surrounded by memories, personal items, photographs, and familiar smells that send my mind and heart reeling. It is simply beautiful here and my three teenagers and I are each seeking refreshment in our own unique ways to help us find joy in the dailiness again.

I went for a long walk on the beach by myself on New Year’s Day and found it difficult to stop. Even though I have been an avid athlete and exerciser in the past, I have not gone back to any form of exercise since Michael’s accident and have found the beach as a perfect place to begin. I began walking and knew immediately that the wide-open space of sand in front of me, behind me, and the ocean beside me had captured me. I felt like I could have walked forever. I was free to walk fast or slow, stop and watch the waves, or keep a consistent pace without thinking about where I was going. I felt as if I was all-alone on the beach that day and had all the space in the world to explore my thoughts. As I watched people play catch with their dogs, jump the waves, build sand castles with their children, and visit with their friends, I became totally absorbed in my questions of the coexistence of truths such as life and death, joy and grief, gladness and sadness, and even beauty and ugliness. These are the kind of thoughts on which it feels impossible to put words, in order for them to make sense. I am only able to have these thoughts, and not go crazy chasing my tail about them, because I have a Savior in my Lord, Jesus Christ, I know that God created the heavens and the earth, I know that there is a place prepared in heaven for me, and I know of God’s plan of redemption, which I walk in daily. I also know that all these questions exist because of the fall of man (before the fall it was just life, joy, gladness, and beauty). Without this belief system, it would be easy for one to get confused and difficult to find any purpose in life.

You live and then you die……

When discussing my current “grief status” with someone just two weeks ago, in an attempt to encourage me to get over it, he said to me, (without much compassion, I might add), “People have been living and dying for millions of years. It is the cycle of life. It is just a part of life. We live and at some point we die. You’ll get over it and you will be just fine.” Basically, he was saying, we all have to experience it at some point. Accept it and get over it…. What is the big deal?..... This is nothing new…. Love lost is always a big deal. God thought it was a big deal when man turned his heart away from Him in the Garden of Eden….it was love lost. When Lazarus died, Jesus cried….it was a love lost, even though he brought him back to life…..He cried because he was experiencing what it feels like to lose someone and he felt the pain. It hurts even if you know the ending. The loss of a human being that will never be duplicated exactly the same is a big loss to the whole world. We all have our own unique place and purpose in life and, when we are gone, there is a void. The void can and does get replaced but never in the exact same way. Lives are not interchangeable, but, as a potter works with his clay, lives can be molded into something different. That is what makes each life so special. It is only created once exactly as it is. We miss that unique soul in our lives.

Life and death….. The life I speak of is gone, and yet, I am here still, walking on the beach, and the other lives that once surrounded that life are going on and must go on….. painful, but necessary because we continue to live with a purpose and a unique role to play. I feel like it is intermission between Act 1 and Act 2. We are clay in the potter’s hand becoming a new, and different piece of art.