So long, farewell…

Sunset over Grand Traverse Bay.

Dear My Sweet Hat Trick,

I am writing to inform you that you are being let go.

You were so good to me. I learned so much from you. You gave me a very safe space to practice sharing my story…and releasing it! Poof, into cyberspace my words went and I hardly ever knew what came of them. But, they are out there.

You came to me at a time when I really needed you. I needed a place to reflect on what it meant to lose someone I loved so very much and miss so madly. My dad. With each holiday and anniversary and birthday and little league game where he once stood, behind the dugout, waiting for just the right opportunity to give James an encouraging nod or ask Dan what happened in that last play, my heart breaks.

I can put the pieces back together now though. Funny thing about the heart – it regenerates. I’m sure of it. In the spaces left dark and cold by life and loss, love enters, settles in, and multiplies there. Hearts are really big. Much bigger than any of us can imagine. Hearts are resilient. They (literally!) take a beating day after day. Hearts are strong and tough, like warriors. At night, hearts restore themselves. If not at night, then in the daytime, or anytime when we are not looking. Our great big hearts bounce back from pain, fear, and hatred, and they make more room for love. And then, filled with love and forgiveness and gratitude, to ease the pain of all that hurts us, our hearts wait for our minds to catch up to them.

A heart’s love is abundant. A bounty, really. Believe me, I know. I tried protecting the open spaces in my heart, thinking there is not enough love for me, and sometimes even thinking that I was not enough – that I was not worthy of the love. Then, when I least expected it, when I thought I had it all figured out, the space filled with love again. Love doesn’t overflow from our hearts to the space that surrounds them. No, our hearts expand. It is true. For example, the longer I know Dan and watch the ways in which he gives of himself so generously and graciously, the bigger my heart gets. And, then there are the little hearts that came in to prove my theory. Three little, tiny, beautiful beating hearts – my original hat trick – filled the empty spaces right up and taught me that life is way too fragile, way too short, and way too fun to hold back. Even a little.

Thank you. I will never forget you. And thanks in part to my knowing just enough, but not too much, I think you may always have a special spot in cyberspace. You might have a new friend soon, like a blog sister or something. I’m not sure yet. There is something new coming, from me to the world, and while I don’t know exactly what shape it will take, I guarantee you that it will be about living and loving really super-duper to the moon and back BIG.

Take care my friend.
xoxo
Love, Anna

Whoa.

Oh my gosh! I am so excited right now. I have been waiting for this moment for two days. Thoughts, words, and ideas have been swimming in my mind, begging to be called forth into my blog (insert big smile). And now, it is time.

So, I’m taking another online class through the Brave Girls Club – this one is called SOUL RESTORATION. I’m really really behind in the class. Like, I’m on week 6 (of 8 weeks) and I think it ended a month or so ago. That doesn’t really matter. At all. BUT, I had to mention it because the lesson for week 6 – No Shame, No Blame – came at the perfect time for me, during this week in my life. I love it when that happens. Incidentally, the project assignment was to create a timeline. A timeline of my life!

I love timelines.

I took this picture to give you an idea of what the timeline looks like.

The Accordion Book Timeline of my life!

The timeline takes shape over the span of an accordion book. I wouldn’t have had a clue how to make an accordion book on Tuesday, but now I know.

Before I tell you more, like why I am so excited, I need to make a confession. I am IN LOVE with the Brave Girls Club. This is how the Brave Girls describe themselves “Brave Girls Club is a worldwide community of women who want to live the best, happiest, most productive and fabulously brave life they can possibly live…and that means something different to every single one of us.

First of all, I LOVE places and people who recognize that being ANY ONE THING means something different to every single one of us. It’s one of those things that makes me go “DUH” but really, let’s be honest, not very many entities are all about honoring that one singular word can mean a whole lot of different things to different people. Right? I love it when I find a place or a person that does, because it makes me feel very warm inside. Sometimes living a brave life means getting out of bed in the morning. That can be very brave. And sometimes, it means saying a final good-bye to someone we love. That requires a hell of a lot of bravery. Trust me. I love that no matter how I define brave on any given day, I can still be a brave girl. It takes me back to the days I pretended to be Pippi Longstocking in my backyard. Oh, how I loved Pippi!

Second of all (is that a legitimate phrase?), The Brave Girls Club has given me the HUGEST gift ever. I had forgotten how much I love to be covered in glue and paint. I forgot how much I love to cut things out of one thing and create something new on another thing. The online classes are all about doing all that and so much more, meaning I am in Soul Searching Mod Podge Scissor Paper Acrylic Paint Heaven. I never thought I’d have time for something like this, you know, since having children, but I find the time in secret places. Like when I’m supposed to be doing laundry. It’s all good.

So this is why I am excited… in the process of creating my timeline, I came in contact with one of the great truths of life. This is big. As is typical for me, this is not the first time I have encountered this particular truth, but seeing it come alive in the form of my LIFE packs a lot of power. The truth hit me in the face this time.

Here it is: The truth of who you are does not change.

This comes compliments of Melody Ross, my class instructor, who I also adore even though I have never met her. Weird, but true.

Closer-up of the beginning of my timeline.

Closer-up of the middle of my timeline.

Closer-up of the end.

This is my favorite part, I think. I made a little book on the timeline! I included a picture of me with each of my children on the day they were born. Love.

As I glued the bottom part of the timeline, my dates and ages, to the book, I started thinking about all the different things that have happened in my life. It’s a lot. What I found is that my darkest of dark days took place over the course of about four years. Four? FOUR! Four of (almost) FORTY?! That is nothing. What is it? 1/10 of my life? I couldn’t believe it. From those years, which were very formative years in their defense, I created a whole story about who I was from then until the end of time, and I went back to that story in times of trouble. The sad thing is, it wasn’t really a true story. See, I’m not really, truly a drunken school-skipper just because I’ve been drunk. And skipped school. I assigned all kinds of meaning to what kinds of people do the things I did and they were really bad people. Therefore, according to my logic, I was a really bad person. Yikes. I know.

So then, when my second son was born very ill and he survived and thrived and we all moved on, life got hard for me to handle. Looking back, I know I didn’t deal with the trauma of his birth and his recovery from his illness properly. I didn’t recover from childbirth properly. I stuffed all my grief and fear and pain and sadness. I didn’t fully address the questions I had running through my mind – like, “did I somehow cause my baby to suffer…?” because I thought I really was responsible and I didn’t want anyone to find out (in case you are wondering, I was not at all responsible for my son’s illness…). I was so incredibly elated to bring him home from the hospital that I had to believe all is well that ends well.

And, secretly, I was so afraid that someone might try to take him back. It is unnatural to give birth to a baby and not be able to hold him, to cuddle him, to nurse him, to examine his little body parts, and to get to know him and fall deeply in love with every inch of him on the day he is born. It is unsettling to have someone tell you that you cannot touch your baby while he is hooked up to machines and looking so helpless, like he needs to be touched. After experiencing all that, and finally getting Alexander home where he belonged, I didn’t want to risk losing him again. When I made mistakes, like all parents do, I was SO HARD on myself. I drew from those four dark, formative years and said things to myself like, “of course you can’t handle a child, you couldn’t even make it to class on time in college…” Things like that. And other mean things I don’t even want to mention.

Two quick years later, my daughter was born! It all happened so fast. It took everything I had to make it look like I was keeping it all together – three kids, a home, a husband, etc. I didn’t come up for air. I looked really happy on the outside, but on the inside I was torturing myself with the same awful messages I had come to know as the truth about me.

Then, my dad died. It all came out. Every little bit of grief, pain, guilt, shame, and fear that I had been stuffing in neat little packages and storing in my soul. It bubbled up and out of me. Fortunately, I had graduated with a Master’s degree in Social Work and read enough self-help books to know that when all those old scripts surfaced, something wasn’t right. To feel the love that I felt from the people I knew and loved and respected and admired, I knew I had to be worth something. Since then, I learned that I have been the same bundle of love and light that I was on the day I was born ALL ALONG. I am not my mistakes or even my victories, none of those things that I do define me. The truth of who I am does not change.

Likewise, the truth of who you are doesn’t change. That’s why I was so excited. I just couldn’t wait to tell you that, just in case you didn’t know, or you forgot, or you knew but would like a reminder. As sweet Melody says, “no matter what mistakes you made, no matter how others have hurt you, no matter what happens, the truth of who you are does not change.”

It was a huge realization for me to see that I let those four little years of being lost and a bit broken define me into adulthood. Ugh! But that’s okay because I like me now and I wouldn’t be who I am had I not taken that journey.

You don’t need Mod Podge or acrylics, but do make a timeline. Or, at least consider the possibility that you are giving all your power to one little blip in time. You are not that blip. The truth of who you are, which is all the good stuff, does not change.

YAY!!!

A Different Kind of Love Letter

Dear Dad,
You’re still a jerk for dying. Every once in a while I can be okay with it, but for the most part, the way I feel about you for dying hasn’t changed.

As the second anniversary of your death approaches, I am thinking a lot about what has changed since March 11, 2010.

At your funeral and afterward, a lot of people said to me, it will get easier with an emphasis on the IT. I don’t think IT really gets easier, Dad. I think I just get better at IT. I live and love and laugh a lot and I cry a lot too. I sometimes question my sanity. When that happens, I wonder if maybe I really should be all better now. There is no “all better” in the world of lost loved ones though, Dad. I know that you know that. And, I know that you know, better than anyone, that the pain – the sadness, the anger, the desperation – we feel when we lose someone we love needs to be expressed because if it’s not expressed, bad things can happen. Unexpressed grief festers inside us like an infection. It might manifest itself in another way, like as an illness. So, I don’t need to explain to you why two years after your death, I’m still writing about it and thinking about it…and crying about it.

I still miss you so much, Dad. I miss you the most when I am putting Sophia to bed and we are laying side by side with our faces so close that our noses are almost touching. She stares at me intently and whispers the sweetest things like, “your eyes are like JEWELS!” As if she is so surprised, but also as if she is telling me a secret about the meaning of life, something that only she knows because she is still so fresh in her human body. I wish you were here to tell me what you think of all the things she says and the ways she twirls around the room, dancing and singing, and the ways she taunts her brothers. I loved hearing your James stories. Then, I loved hearing your Alexander stories. I long to hear your Sophia stories.

When Sophia and I meet new people or stop to talk to strangers in the store, it isn’t too long before someone says, “I love her little voice.” Nobody knows as well as Sophia just how lovable she is. She tilts her head and smiles. One day, Alexander was FURIOUS at her. She talks a lot, Dad. Her little voice never stops. She wouldn’t stop talking and Alexander screamed, “I HATE HER LITTLE VOICE!” It was hilarious. I laughed out loud. Really, what else could I have done in that situation?

I parent differently now than I did before you died, Dad. I used to get really stressed out, almost panicky, in situations like that. I wanted to be the perfect mother. I wanted to respond with the most meaningful, profound, and powerful words. I wanted to say the right thing, without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Oh Dad, that just isn’t real. You know? My kids need to see me lose it. They need to see me make mistakes and say I’m sorry afterward. They need to see me cry, Dad. Nothing is real anymore. Between TV and movies and video games, kids just don’t see what’s real. I want to be real for them. They need me to be real for them. When they’re upset, they don’t need me to spout off something I read in a book, they just need me to listen. At the end of the day, if they can go to sleep knowing that they are loved and that they are heard and seen, I think they will be okay. Sometimes I screw it all up, but mostly I think we’re all going to be okay.

I think that is true for most people, Dad. They just need to be heard. So I’ve stopped trying to come up with the perfect response altogether. I’ve stopped beating myself up for falling short of perfection…because I do fall short of perfection. Way short. I listen a lot and think less about how to respond when the person I’m listening to is finished talking. When people ask me what I would do – I try to answer from the heart. But, honestly Dad, we all know that nobody really knows how they will respond to something until they are actually faced with that situation. Oh, the time I wasted IMAGINING how I would respond to a hypothetical situation! I try not to do that anymore. It’s a waste of time.

I also try not to obsess so much. I used to obsess over every little detail of every little thing that I did. Do you remember that? I was so busy obsessing that I was missing what was most important – just BEING. Kids don’t care if their birthday parties have a theme, Dad. For the love of God! But themes are fun. So that’s different. I don’t pretend that implementing every aspect of the perfectly themed birthday party is for them, an essential part of the perfect childhood. I’m honest now, Dad. They may pick the theme, but all the other coordinating and matching and gathering and putting together – that’s for me. They really just want cake and presents.

I guess you could say I’m following my intuition more now. I’m listening to myself more. The funny thing about that, Dad, is years ago – before kids and marriage and a job and all that, I LISTENED to my intuition! Somehow I lost touch with that ability. Or, I lost faith in that ability. I began to look outside myself for answers to questions. I read books. Lots and lots of books. Before I made any significant decision, I checked to see what Dr. Sears would do. I turned to my friends and anyone really, to see what they were doing. Then, I judged myself against all those inputs – the books, the people, the kids’ teachers and our pediatrician… I never measured up, Dad, because that wasn’t me. That wasn’t real. And the other funny thing about that is I’m actually really smart. I have some pretty great answers. But, I still love books.

I still think a lot about God too, Dad. That hasn’t changed. It is an obsession. I really wished I had some solid ground to stand on after you died. I desperately wanted to be able to say with confidence, “THIS is what I believe…” I have some ideas, but I’m still open to possibilities, Dad. I stopped thinking that maybe some people were wrong and some were right about God though. Maybe we’re all right, Dad. Maybe we all just need to figure out what works for us and do that. Maybe we can change our minds as we go. Twice this week already I’ve read stories about how God wants us to treat others as we would treat ourselves AND, here’s the important part, that implies that we actually treat ourselves well. Right? I never got that part. I just assumed I was treating myself well and that is how I would treat others. In actuality, I wasn’t treating myself well. At all. So, I’m trying to treat myself well because I want to be able to treat other people well. Skipping meals and not making time for exercise? Um, no. Not anymore. But Dad, I’m always the first to go when things get rough. I take full responsibility for that. I’m not whining about it. I’m just saying that I’ve still got work to do.

I’m writing all of this as if you have no idea what’s going on down here on Earth. When really, in my heart, I know that you already know all of it. I know you are there in the night with Sophia and me, and maybe it is you whispering in her ear, telling me my eyes are like jewels (although, even you wouldn’t be quite so dramatic about it). I know you still follow James and Alexander and maybe you’ve got some buddies up there who listen to your funny stories now. I know you are here with me, leaving pennies and feathers and messing with the frames on my walls. I know you are guiding me to listen to my intuition…again. I know you are helping me to see what is real and what isn’t and what matters and what doesn’t. This is what you did on Earth. You were flawed, like all of us, but you were real and the way you lived your life was an invitation for all of us to be real too. You believed that the power was inside us, in the people, NOT in politicians or priests or other people like politicians and priests – people we turn to when we feel powerless. As I continue to miss you and live on without you here, I think I also feel closer to you. Closer to what you were and what you stood for. For living and laughing and loving and singing and playing and thinking with all your heart – not so much with your mind. You got it. You knew that nothing but love mattered. You sang about that. You knew that all the power we ever needed was right there inside us. You had it all figured out.

It’s hard to be real, Dad. To be honest and true. To let it all hang out. To be vulnerable. It’s all so very hard. But you did it with such grace and with such a great sense of humor too. So, I’m not giving up. I’m open and listening. I will keep at it as a tribute to you. In my mind’s eye, I can see you smiling now. I see the signs that you give me, and I will continue to follow them right back home – to myself, to my own heart, where you live, always, inside me and all around me.

I love you Dad!
xoxo love, Anna

It’s the little things

My mom and sister and I do this thing. One of us comes up with an idea. Like, let’s say we’re taking a road trip and someone says, “Let’s start a road trip journal!”

Then someone says, “If we’re in a bad mood, we’ll write in blue and if we’re in a good mood we’ll write in greeeen…and we’ll include pictures!”

And someone else says, “We have to take it on all our road trips!”

And then, “And if we forget it, we have to pay a fine!”

And then, “We’ll pool all the fine money and start a foundation!”

And then, eventually, I think to myself, “If you want to start a journal, just start the fucking journal, for crying out loud!” Because we do that too. We swear in our family. We really like the f-word.

Within minutes, we’ve taken a simple idea and turned it into something BIGGER. One might say we complicate things. It’s certainly not a bad thing to expand and expound and think BIG. But sometimes, I just want a simple journal. Sometimes, the smallest things end up being not so small after all. I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days (okay, I think a lot almost every day) and I realized that I do this thing a lot. I think of something simple that I want to try, and over time, I make it really complicated. I make rules. I develop guidelines. And eventually, I choke. My little thing has become so mired in details that it’s just too much work so I stop and I file it away with the rest of my uncompleted projects. Then I feel bad about myself for never following through. It’s an ugly cycle. I think I might be headed down that road with My Hat Trick. In the beginning, I just wanted a place to write freely, like I would write in a journal. I decided not to edit what I write. I get it all out and then I click Publish and then I go on with my life. Over time, though, I’ve come to a place where I wait and I wait and I wait because if I’m going to write something, it better be good. It should be divinely inspired! It should be life altering! And it should all be written in green!

The fact that the forthcoming declaration is more for me than for you is not lost on me. I am making it anyway. I’m done thinking. I just want to play! From now on, I will come to the keyboard like a kid being let out the doors at recess. All in, with reckless abandon. I will jump in puddles! And I won’t even think about spending the rest of the day in wet shoes. I may write nonsense. Who knows? I’m not going to think about it. Fair warning: my blog is my playground.

I attended a funeral on Thursday morning. I am tearing up just thinking about it. It was a sad day. I had a horrible headache when I got home and I went right to bed. Our amazing angel of a babysitter was with my daughter, Sophia. Sophia, who will be four on Valentine’s Day. Amazing angel had to leave to pick up the boys from school and Sophia wanted to stay with me. She crawled into bed with me. She wanted to cuddle. I was sitting up by then. She sat on my lap facing me and buried her head in my chest. Then she turned around and leaned back into my chest. Then she laid down next to me with her head on my lap. Then she fell asleep. When I looked down at her sweet sleeping face, I remembered nursing her as a baby. She looked just as she did then (she even had a huge boob looming over her head). She looked like she had been nursing and then she just fell asleep – fell off my breast, drunk with mama’s milk, to rest her sweet head. I stared at her. I played with her hair and stroked her cheek. I traced her eyebrows. I even took a picture and posted it on Facebook. It was a gift. It’s rather unusual for her to fall asleep on me these days. It’s hard to get her to sleep anywhere, actually. I can’t remember the last time she fell asleep in my arms. I felt so lucky, like a new mom, with permission to just sit and stare at my sleeping baby.

Sophia was born ten days after her due date. Yes, that’s right, TEN. Those ten days were tenuous. I had excess fluid in my amniotic sac and there was concern that if my water broke, Sophia might be in danger. Dan, my husband, took me to work with him. He was on high alert! Of course now, it all seems very funny, but we were concerned. She wasn’t even Sophia yet. We called her Lola. We had a long list of potential names for our baby girl, but I couldn’t commit to any of them. I had to see her. I wanted to meet her before I gave her her name. Three inductions were planned for Sophia. The first time: nothing. By the way, I didn’t know that could happen. I arrived at the hospital. I had pitocin, I knitted, I bounced on the birthing ball, I had a few contractions, and hours later I left with my baby in my belly. The second time I went to the hospital and Sophia was breech (since she had lots of extra fluid to flip around in) and I wasn’t really dilated and it didn’t seem worth the trouble to proceed. Sophia was born about 20 minutes before we were scheduled to arrive for our third induction appointment. I went into labor the night before and we went to the hospital. She came on her own. That is how I knew Sophia was the perfect name for her. Sophia means wisdom. Following her own wisdom, she came when she was ready. At the same time, she reminded me to trust in my body’s wisdom. Sophia’s birth was a beautiful lesson in trust and I was so grateful that the health care providers working with us believed in letting the birthing process unfold, rather than intervening when an intervention wasn’t really necessary.

Valentine’s Day is the perfect birthday for Sophia because she is a love if there ever was one. She hugs tightly, smiles hugely, and laughs from the depths of her little belly. She sings songs about whatever is on her mind. She twirls and jumps and plays with her whole heart. She embodies love and all of its beauty. She came on her day, a love day.

My sweet, sleeping Sophia.

As I look again and again at this picture, representing what was for me a magical mother’s moment with my sweet Sophia, I remember that these tender little moments are often far more life altering than anything else that might happen to me. When I saw Sophia asleep in my lap, my heart blossomed from the darkness where it hid, back into the light. I may still mourn what was lost and what will never be in my life and in the lives of my friends, but I must also be grateful for what IS and what is yet to come. Sometimes those messages seem so trite to me. I think yeah, yeah be grateful for what IS. I get it. Maybe that is why I was waiting for something bigger to share? In as much as I get it, I often forget it. I think it is the simplest messages that bear repeating. That could be why, no matter how many times we’ve said it before, we say “I love you” often in our family.

Breathe

Breathe. This is what I keep telling myself. In spite of my best efforts not to do crazy this Christmas, the crazy is catching up to me. It actually might have overcome me. I might even be buried in it.

Breathe is what I say when I find a form that was supposed to be filled out and returned last week to school. Oops.

Breathe is what I say when a holidazed woman almost runs over me with her cart in Target.

Breathe is what I say when I almost run over someone else with my cart.

Breathe is what I say when the Alien Conquest Lego set I really wanted to buy for James is sold out. I might have said something else too…something a little less Zen. Thankfully there were other Alien Conquest Lego sets. And, I’m pretty sure he isn’t picky when it comes to aliens and conquests.

Breathe is what I say when two of my three children are sprawled out on the floor of Sears, at the head of a very long line of tired, not so happy looking customers (who could maybe use a little breathing themselves), screaming at me and refusing to stand up to exit the store. Breathe and Santa is watching…

Because every single second of my day seems to be accounted for lately, Breathe is what I say when someone asks me to do something I wasn’t planning to do. I wonder how I’ll fit it in.

Breathe is what I say when I look around a table where my dad should be sitting, but isn’t. I try to catch my breath as the reality of his absence soaks in. Again. I thought that the second Christmas season without my dad wouldn’t be so bad. But it is. I really miss him. The holidays seem even emptier this year. Maybe last year it still felt like he might come walking through the door? This year, there is no question that he is gone. I wonder if he would recognize that three year-old daughter of mine, who had just turned two the month before he died. Would he love her sass? Is he laughing his ass off up in heaven? What would he say when I told him that I was singing Christmas carols with my kids and James stopped us to run upstairs to get his guitar to accompany us? What would he think when I told him that Alexander said, “I think Nature should make an award for our neighborhood because it is just so pretty. This whole town is just so pretty!” last night as we drove home (from Sears!?!) My dad loved strong, spunky girls and women. He loved to share his passion for music and guitar-playing with James. He loved Nature and he loved those who also loved and respected it. He would be loving all of this. Breathe…

A few weeks ago, in the midst of an extremely stressful work week, I yelled to my husband, “Don’t forget to breathe!” as he walked out the door. He told me that was good advice. I think it is too. At the yoga center where I practice, the instructors say that breathing is the only function of the body that is both voluntary and involuntary. I am so thankful for that because sometimes I think I go days without breathing. That must be when the involuntary breathing kicks in. For me, these are quick, shallow breaths, pumping themselves in and out just to keep me alive.

The voluntary breaths are different. These are life-giving breaths. There is a difference, you know – between doing something to stay alive and doing something that makes you feel alive. These voluntary breaths nourish me. Try one. Mouth closed, inhale through your nose. Suck in as much air as you can, and then a little bit more. Now let it out. Slowly. Again, but with your eyes closed this time. And again. Do you feel more alive? Maybe a little tingly? If even for just a moment, these voluntary breaths bring us smack, dab into the present moment. These are the breaths I keep telling myself to take. Before my mind runs off into crazy, or mouth runs off into God only knows where. These breaths keep me right here, right now in the perfection of all these seemingly imperfect moments.

Deep breath. Ahh. For you, in the crazy of your days and even in the calm, I offer this great advice: don’t forget to breathe!

Lost and Found

When my dad passed away last year, I lost my mom too. I also lost my sister. My husband and my children lost me. Since then, we’ve all resurfaced for the most part. I had forgotten about these losses until today after a difficult conversation with my mom. When we were finished talking, I had a good cry. I thought a lot about what we had said and the way we had said it, and how I felt about all of it. The little girl Anna, who resides deep inside me, wanted so badly to crawl into her mother’s lap. She longed for the safety she found there after a disagreement. She wished she could be comforted by her mom’s hand stroking her little head as she sat there, releasing the hurt with every pass through her hair.

I, grown woman Anna, am slightly jealous of that little girl. It seems like life was so much easier when anything that ailed me could be cured in the arms of my mom or my dad. As I thought about what had transpired, I wondered why resolving conflict seemed so much more tenuous now, why it seemed so hard. And then I remembered that Wednesday is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 64. I can’t help but to think that no matter what we said or thought, in the depths of our hearts, we were feeling the weight of an upcoming birthday void of its birthday boy. First, I wanted my dad back. Then, I wanted my mom back.

I live within 30 minutes of my mom in one direction and my sister and her family in another. My dad, bless his heart, came to my house several times a week in the last year of his life. He helped me with my babies like only a Papaw could. I rewarded him with leftovers. When he died, I lost my number one go-to guy. In a pinch, I always knew I could call my dad and he would do whatever he could to help me get through the day. My husband, my mom, my dad, my sister, and her husband, each of them has talked me off the ledge. Each of them has rescued me from some degree of parenting disaster. They are my village. It took a long time for me to adjust to my dad’s absence. At some point my husband, who was practically a saint from the moment my dad died, had to switch his focus from grieving wife back to his work. My village had disbanded. I wasn’t always sure where to turn. Forget maternal disarray, I was a grieving mess. How could I call my sister to come and scoop me off the floor, when she had her own floor to tend to? It was hard.

Slowly but surely, my mom, my sister, and I came to life again. My husband and my sister’s husband were no longer on their own. My children looked up to see tears in my eyes less frequently. In times of deficient coping, thank God, I was blessed with fabulous in-laws and superstar babysitters who saved the day on numerous occasions. As my mom and my sister and I came to life, we returned to each other. Since then, I had forgotten about those early days after my dad’s death. Outside of simply being together, we didn’t have a lot of energy to do much else for one another. We were in survival mode. When I turned to my mom, her body sat before me, but her mind was often elsewhere. I haven’t mentioned my dad’s birthday to my mom. I’m sure the fact that April 20 is coming this week is already on her mind. I don’t know for sure that heavy hearts were involved in our conversation today, but rather than trying to analyze it, I am thanking the Universe for the gentle reminder that I am not the only hiker on the path.

Each and every human being on the planet is on a journey. Sometimes we travel together and sometimes we travel alone. We often travel together in silence. In the midst of giving voice to our stories, we can’t be sure who is really listening. We are bound to lose each other along the way. I know that even when I lose my mom, when our paths part or our attention gets diverted, she will eventually come back to me. I may not fit in her lap anymore, but I’ll always have a place in her heart. And her in mine.

Heavyhearted

It’s the last day of Spring Break, 2011. As I was enjoying the peaceful promise of early Spring in Northern Michigan last week, two of my dear friends were facing life-changing losses. As I read books, snuggled with my children, and navigated road trips up and down M-22 and US-31, one of my friends had to say good-bye to her beloved grandmother, and another watched and waited as her father’s battle against cancer came to its heartbreaking end. A grandmother, a father, two people my friends have known for as long as they can remember. These are two of the people who have helped to shape my friends’ lives and to guide them into the beautiful, compassionate, intelligent women they are today. My heart is heavy for my friends.

As I waited for updates on my friend’s dad, a little tornado of panic rumbled in my chest. It became clear that he might die, but I hoped along with her for some kind of miracle that would spare her and her family the pain of losing him, and keep him alive. I hated the thought of watching another friend lose a parent. This is an inevitable developmental milestone, but one that I think I could do without. Once I received the news of her father’s death, I began to relate what my friend was going through to my own experience. Her dad had been fighting cancer and mine died suddenly, so the circumstances were very different, but the outcome was the same. In the end, we both lost our dads.

As my sense of panic gave way to sadness for my friend and elements of my own grief began to surface, I again began to think about death and how we relate to it. If you believe in a human spirit, you might also believe that the Spirit doesn’t die. And even if you believe that everything dies when a body dies, there are parts of a person, anyone who is close to you, that stay. Like memories, I still have memories of my dad. I also have some of his personality traits. Some of his likenesses and traits have been passed on to my children. So, really, as long as we have our memories and each other, our loved ones stay alive in some way. It’s just not in the way we came to know them. This is why, even though we may believe that they are still with us, we still miss them. We come to know everyone we meet as a physical being so we can’t help but to miss that being when it no longer walks among us. And I think we miss them even more in every instant that we realize the finality of it all – that we will never see the being we loved again on Earth.

This all brings me right back to the issue of how to deal with losing someone you love and how to address grief that is triggered by another’s loss. And, of course, I know there isn’t a prescription for grief or guidelines to follow. I completely understand that. So the answer, as always, is just to let it be. To feel it, to express it, to let it flow through you. That sounds logical to me. I would tell anyone to do the same. But in my case, over the course of the week, I needed more guidance. I began to question what I knew to be true. I lost faith in the inner wisdom that told me to do nothing, to let it be. I needed more, like a flow-chart or something, mapping out how to proceed when I stumble on my path.

And then my five year-old son, Alexander, started screaming at his brother. His screams are ear-piercing and they usually scare the crap out of me. Beyond the screaming though, is an example of how to let it be. He is angry so he screams. And then he moves on. He doesn’t hang on to his anger. He doesn’t feel guilty about it later. He doesn’t question whether it is okay to be angry. He screams and POOF! he is fine. Then my three year-old daughter walks right into a table and starts to cry. She is hurt so she cries. I pick her up, I give her a kiss and a squeeze, and she is fine. She gets back on her feet. She doesn’t even try to avoid the table on the next run-around. Then my eight year-old son is told that it’s time to stop playing Wii and he is not happy with that news because he wants to finish all 200 laps (uh, what?!?) so he throws the Wii remote thing. He is frustrated so he throws things. He may pout for a little longer, but within 20 minutes he is laughing with his dad. He is fine. No looking back.

I am left with two lessons: 1) Kids are geniuses at expressing their emotions. They serve as examples of how to let it be. I want to be more like my kids. I may even start screaming along with Alexander instead of wishing him out of his screaming phase. Heck, if it helps him to cope with whatever life throws his way, I hope he always screams. 2) I am beginning to imagine that the people I love are more like wind. In the same way that I don’t need to see the wind to know that it is there, I will try to trust that I don’t need to see my dad to know that he is with me. In quiet moments, I feel my dad, like wind. I do have one caveat though, and that is that when the knowledge I have that he is with me just doesn’t seem like enough, I will go to lesson #1 and let whatever I am feeling flow through me. And looky there, I have my flow chart.

Okay, So I Lied and I’m Not Making Anymore Promises

Something strange happened to me this week. I was thinking about this overwhelming desire I have to declare myself all better. All cried out. All finished grieving. This desire is so overwhelming that I keep mentioning it in these blog posts, as if everyone reading is waiting with bated breath for me to make this declaration. I’m like a little puppy when I see someone who knows how sad I’ve been and how my dad’s big one-year-since-death anniversary just passed, I kind-of jump around wagging my tail, waiting for a pat on the head, hoping for a “Good girl!” because I followed directions and did what I was supposed to do and now I get a treat. Not a single person in my life has ever said, “Okay Anna, you’re all done. It’s time to move on.” And yet, I assume that is what everyone is thinking. It’s as if I’ve been deaf to what I’m really hearing which is “Take all the time you need.” So, the strange thing that happened is I began to believe you. And boy does it feel good.

After my last post, a sweet friend of mine shared an article featuring two authors who had written books about how they dealt with loss (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/weekinreview/27grief.html?_r=1. One of the authors, Meghan O’Rourke, said the following:

In those first months, I quickly came to feel almost embarrassed by my sorrow. Most people are uncomfortable around loss. Friends talk to you about “getting through it” and “moving on” and “healing.” We shy away from talking about death, not out of cold-heartedness, but out of fear. No one wants to say the wrong thing; and death is scary. I think this is part of why there are so many memoirs and movies about loss: they create a public space where we can talk safely about grief.

I was so grateful for this insight because, to be perfectly honest, I can’t quite explain why I wanted to share my journey via this blog, but I can tell you that I absolutely believe there is a need to create more space in our society to talk about loss, to support those in mourning, and to honor and remember those who have passed. I also appreciated receiving affirmation that death is scary. I think I told you that one of my first stops after losing my dad was the bookstore. So many of the stories written for children about death and dying emphasize how death is a natural part of life. I latched on to that, thinking that if I could incorporate that concept into my understanding of life and pass that on to my children, we’d all be better prepared for facing our next loss. God forbid. See? Even as I begin to accept that death is a part of a life, and let’s face it, it is, I fear the loss of another loved one. Death is a scary part of life.

Death really doesn’t make sense when you think about it. How could someone I saw several times a week just disappear, never to be seen again? Yet, that’s how it happens. It’s not like my dad and I made an agreement to stop seeing each other. Or, like one of us moved somewhere far away. I had no choice in the matter. One day he was here, in my doorway, talking, breathing, living, and laughing. And that night he died. Now there are no more opportunities to say the things we put off saying to each other. This is what we signed up for though, we may not like it, but death is just as much a part of the cycle of life as birth. And the pain I’ve felt, like my heart had literally broken open, like I couldn’t breathe, like I couldn’t imagine how any of us would go on, all of it, is just as much a part of my emotional range as joy. My pain has turned to emptiness and my disbelief has turned to sadness and as these changes occur, I begin to understand that death makes just as much sense as life. Death is part of life.

When I hear people talk about living life to its fullest I picture myself in the sunshine with wide open arms, a smile on my face, hair blowing in the wind, all but floating my way across a field of wildflowers to a pot of gold, or something. I picture my children and I laughing together and playing together. I picture my husband and I holding hands, walking along the Red Cedar River on MSU’s campus. I never get an image representing the other end of the spectrum. I have never considered what it would mean to live life to its fullest when I’m sad. I never get a picture of myself stomping out of a room, slamming doors, and screaming in anger. I don’t see myself falling apart. Grieving is teaching me that living life to its fullest means living every little bit of life. It means being free to feel every little thing from utter despair to boredom to sheer delight. I don’t get to skip over the sad stuff. None of us do.

I love that I get to live life to its fullest. It is true that I would not appreciate the happiness in my life if I had never known sadness. I love a good cry. I love a good laugh, as long as I don’t wet my pants. I’m finally listening to you. I’m finally listening to me. I think I get it. I’ll take my time, I’ll move through the ups and the downs, I’ll breathe into the waves, and I’ll begin to fill the empty holes in my heart with great memories of my dad. I’m not making another promise about what I will or will not write about the next time I write. I cannot predict how long it will take before a visit to my parents’ house doesn’t end in tears. I don’t want to predict it. I don’t even want to know. I just want to feel my way through, as I go. Wherever I go.

One Last Grief Blog (maybe?) Before I Become Whole

Right after my dad died I thought there would be a time where I would need to make a choice. I imagined that I would wake up one day and decide not to be sad anymore. As we approached the first anniversary of my dad’s death, I thought that time would be right around Day 366. Despite my best judgment, what I’ve heard from others, and what I’ve read about grief, I thought I’d come back to My Hat Trick a brand-new, grief free woman.

Well, I was right. Sort-of. Day 367 and I felt lonelier and emptier than I had since the day my dad died (actually, the day after my dad died because I spent most of the day he died blissfully unaware of what that night had in store for me). I had spent the entire year looking ahead to the One Year Mark as a time when things would change and I would be all better. Things did change, but not how I anticipated. I think I spent most of the past year trying to comprehend the shock of my dad’s death because it was completely unexpected and I was, to be perfectly honest, traumatized by what I experienced the night of his death. Once that shock wore off, I still couldn’t believe he was gone. Now, I know that he is gone. I know because I’ve just gone through a year of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays without him anywhere in sight. And he was never one to miss a good meal. On day 367 it was obvious that there would be no more Dad hanging around, looking for leftovers or making a pot of coffee. And on day 367 it dawned on me that for the foreseeable future, I would need to figure out what it truly means to live my life without my dad. Something I only speculated about in the past. I thought the choice I would be making would involve happiness over sadness, or something like that. This may come as a shock to you, but I can’t control my feelings. Sometimes I feel sad, plain and simple, and other than recognizing my sadness there isn’t much I can do to make it stop. I can choose what to do with that sadness though, so that is my choice.

As I typed away last week, I thought I’d never again focus so much of my writing on my grief. I now think I would be remiss not to share a little bit about the Memorial Service my family and I had for my dad last weekend. Looking back, even to just last week, I can see that all the energy I put into that service was just the beginning of my decision-making process. What could I do with my sadness? Honor the man who made it possible and celebrate those he left behind.

In January my sister, my mom, and I took a trip together to Sedona, Arizona. We were mostly going to celebrate my mom’s 60th birthday, but while we were there we had the opportunity to perform a “Letting Go” ritual with a minister named Yana. We hiked through the red rocks of Sedona to a place where a stream flowed. We prayed, we meditated, we reflected on my dad and our memories, and we scattered some of his ashes. Just thinking about it, my heart skips a beat. It was the most extraordinary spiritual experience I have ever had (okay, to be fair, giving birth to three little beauties ranks pretty high on the extraordinary spiritual experience scale). More than anything though, our letting go ritual helped us to heal mending hearts.

Before we headed back to Michigan, we discussed the possibility of sharing something similar with our children and the rest of our families. As the day approached, we began to make plans, thinking about what we wanted to be sure to include. I even became an ordained minister so that the ceremony would be legit (I’m not kidding!). I took excerpts from a few different books on blessings and rituals, including a book specifically about Living and Dying; I added my own words here and there, and came up with a ceremony where everyone was involved in honoring my dad and, I hoped, in celebrating each other and the lives we have left together. I didn’t realize it when I was in the midst of it all last week, but all of the planning and crafting was very therapeutic for me. I was set with our service, our guests, dinner plans, and even programs. I wanted it to be a celebration. I wanted to honor my dad, as I said, but it was a lot like a birthday for the rest of us. We had made it through our first year, the hardest year according to everyone, and that was something to honor as well. I envisioned a beautiful, sunny, albeit cold, day on the beach at our family cottage in Northern Michigan.

Friday was gorgeous and Sunday was gorgeous. In between sat Saturday, the day of the ceremony, and the snowiest, coldest, most blustery day of the year (of the year might be a slight exaggeration). I kept asking if people wanted to stay inside, but nobody did. We all bundled up and headed outside. The beach was really way too windy, so we set up in sweet little spot under a tree. It was not what I had pictured, but in retrospect, the flying snow was a perfect touch. I couldn’t have planned it better myself. We read our parts and shared memories of my dad. We made an offering of rocks to the land and a cup of coffee in honor of my dad (he was coffeaholic). My mom and my sister and I walked down to the beach, to a large rock that we’ve all come to know as my dad’s rock, and scattered some ashes. This part was really special for me. We had my dad cremated so he doesn’t have a grave site to visit and I have often felt like it would be nice to visit him somewhere specific every once in a while. We laid him to rest in a place where I can visit often. After that, we joined the others who had already gone inside. By the fire, we toasted my dad and each other with champagne and homemade macaroons (his favorite cookie). It was a beautiful service.

I know there are a lot of ways that people honor and remember lost loved ones. I read a story about a family whose mother passed away right before her 70th birthday. They decided to have a “birthday” party for her and invited all her friends to share in a night of remembering and celebrating the woman they lost. I know there are all kinds of memorial services based in religion and in culture that provide a similar sense of honoring the lives of those we loved and lost. As individuals and in small groups, we do many beautiful things in remembrance. As a whole, though, I don’t see a lot of place for grief in our society. It seems like we are more apt to suggest that the grieving “move on” or “get over it.” I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s hard to sit idly by as people we care about suffer. We feel helpless. Of course we want them to move on.

In the year since my dad died, two of my very dear friends also lost parents. Even after losing my own dad and knowing everything I knew, I felt helpless. I hoped these two women could find the strength to keep going. I hated to see them so sad. Sometimes the wisest, most profound action I could take was just to sit there. So, I think I wanted to share this story about the memorial service because I am forever grateful to the people who have just sat there with me this year. And, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to share last weekend with people I love and who love me. I want everyone to know, that in the absence of abiding by religious or cultural traditions, we can create our very own ceremonies that honor those we’ve lost and that celebrate each other and what is to come. I really didn’t even need to become ordained, but the fact that I did makes me smile so I had to share that with you too. Finally, I just had to write one more losing-my-dad-related-blog-post because it feels so great to be making a choice that is rooted in celebrating the present and moving forward. I’m still sad and I miss my dad now more than ever, but I finally have the strength (at least for now) to choose to do something delightful with my sadness.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

Well, tomorrow it will have been one year since you left us. In some ways it seems like the year passed by quickly, and yet at the same time it feels like an eternity since I saw you last. It’s funny how time does that. Since you died on a Thursday, today seems more like the anniversary of your death. It’s dreary outside. The snow is melting, leaving patches of ice and puddles of muddy water in its place. It’s been rainy. The air holds the promise of Spring, but it still looks and feels like winter outside. We’ve changed things up a bit. James and Dan go to Milford Music together for guitar and piano on Tuesdays now. I’m so thankful for that. It would be hellish to spend the entire day comparing the similarities of March 11th last year to March 11th this year. I can see myself recalling your image in the door around 5:30 as you hustle James out the door to his lesson. I could torture myself, again, remembering our last hug. I might even go downstairs to run on the treadmill, trying to recreate the whoosh of energy that came over me around 8:30 p.m., the time I feel sure that you died. I may have even drug the kids out of bed late at night to ride to your house in the rain, to find mom in the backyard with you. Our lives were so drastically changed that night. Her life with you by her side ended in just an instant. So, wow, despite the changes we’ve made in an effort not to spend every Thursday night in the same routine, remembering the details of the night you died, everything that happened a year ago is still so fresh in my head.

I’m scared Dad. I feel like I’ve been living in a protective shelter this year. I’m wrapped in a bubble that says I’m grieving and I’m fragile, so be gentle with me because I might break at any minute. What happens when the bubble pops? Do I really have a breaking point? Or will I rise to the occasion? I never thought I’d lose you or Mom before you had the chance to watch my children grow. But now I know that death does not discriminate. It touches all of us at one time in some way or another. It hit me hard this time. I’m much more sensitive to the fact that it will hit me again. Sometimes I even catch myself holding my breath, fearful of what lies ahead.

Throughout this year, the unpredictability of how I will feel from one minute to the next has been a challenge for me. Other than that, it is feeling so vulnerable that troubles me. I feel so raw, so exposed sometimes. I am learning that I can be strong and vulnerable at the same time. Who knew? I am learning to accept whatever it is I feel as it passes through me. I don’t hold on so tightly anymore, Dad. I am learning to let things go.

I’m sure you’ve heard that we’re having a Memorial Service for you on Saturday. From what I understand, it can get very busy over there on the Other Side. I wanted to make sure to mention the service now so that you can attend. Will you give us a sign that you are there with us? Let me know what it is and I will look out for it. I’m hoping we can have the service on the beach. I know you’ve always had a thing for powerful women so I’m sure you’re all cozy with Mother Nature now. Maybe you can pull a few strings and get us some sunshine?

I still think about how much I would have loved to say good-bye to you, Dad. I know in my head that you left us knowing you were loved and I know you are feeling our pain as we miss you. My heart still aches for that one last anything though. A hug, a cup of coffee at my table, a holiday together. I know you live on in our hearts and I know you can watch my children grow, but how can I be sure they will know you?

I’ve been listening to your music a lot lately. I am so grateful for your voice, Dad. Couldn’t you have thrown in an “Anna” every once in a while though? We have some of your recording sessions on CD now. Mom copied them for us. I’m beginning to label them with things like “Dad’s laugh” and “Dad breathing.” Maybe that is morbid in some way, but I just don’t want to forget those sounds. Your voice is part of me now, Dad. Thank you for leaving behind the tools I’ll need to make sure my children know you. They say the funniest things like, “Papaw is already dead! Why do we have to have a party for him?” That was Alexander. All the way to school the other day he and Sophia talked about how dead you are. Last night I heard Alexander saying to James, “we all miss Papaw, especially Mommy.” I hope I’m not traumatizing them with my tears!

Someone asked me if I was okay yesterday. It took me two hours to answer because I didn’t know what to say (the question came via text so I could take my time, even Mom is texting now!). I am okay Dad. I guess I’m holding on to the possibility that I’m not okay, just in case I crack or something… But the truth is, I am okay. I am okay and I am a wreck. I know you are with me and I miss you desperately. I want to celebrate making it to this milestone because everyone said the first year without you would be the hardest, but I dread it too because the hard part is all I know now and I’m afraid of what’s to come. I know you know this, Dad, but I have to say it: If I’m okay and if I move forward, like I feel myself being pulled to do, it doesn’t mean I love you any less or I miss you any less. I think I can let my grief go, gradually, without letting you go. I can hear you now. You’re nodding your head with your sweet loving smile and you’re saying, “Far out, Anna. That is far out.”

Well, I better go pack the car now. And, well, pack my bag?!

Take care Dad! I will look forward to having you with us on Saturday.

I love you!
xoxo Love,
Anna