all the hard places

I’m writing aimlessly tonight. I just see that it’s been nearly a week since I’ve written, and so much is racing by in my own head. I’m writing, writing, writing all the time by observing and thinking. But they are mostly half thoughts lately and never leave my head to find paper or screen.

She is still here, but she is close to the other side, I think. Very close. I’ve stopped in everyday, and I see her slipping. These bodies are so strange. So real and close when you are in them, yet they seem almost marginal or paper thin as you near the end. Bodies might be the way we move through the world, but they are not even half of it, are they? Just a shell to get us where we’re going.

There are specifics I will not write about until months or years have passed. Events of my past week, things that still belong to her as part of her time here. But I will say that compassion is not soft or fluffy like we are led to believe. It is hard. It means looking suffering in the face, holding space there, carrying some of it for a while, and not running away in fear or fright. It means doing things that hurt.

Every single major religion tells its followers that compassion is the way to spiritual development, yet we leave it out when it’s uncomfortable. We change the channel or write the check and forget about it. We don’t even understand what it really is. It is never easy and always tough.

Sitting with a dying person will teach you how to live.

I spent time last week looking through some old family photos while she slept. Looking at some images I’d seen before and some I hadn’t, I was struck by how irreversible life is. You always have a choice, I suppose, of how you will react to something. But once the something is done, it is irrevocable. It’s just a big, long string that unravels and all you can do is chase it.

We can wonder what our lives would be like if something else had happened. We can wonder about the million ways it would be different, but those questions get us nowhere really. It sometimes feels like a hand pushing us through all our days with these events that propel us a certain direction, and you flail and stumble for a while until you figure it out. Then walk along as best you can until another wind blows.

I found a photo of my own dad that I’d never seen before. Driving a boat in something like 1978 without a care in the world. He had no idea that his irrevocable moment would happen when he was only 31. He didn’t know my own name or face on that sunny day, and it’s easy to look back and define it all by that moment that controlled the duration of our time together. But this week, I gazed and found myself wondering exactly what it was like in the June sunshine on that boat. What the breeze felt like. What someone said just before the camera clicked. What he was responding to when he smiled. What it was like to live in that second without knowing what was coming next.

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Photos are so good to remind us of that. Thank God there were moments when we didn’t know what was coming later.

My grandmother was so independent with her need of others. Her priority was always to give to someone else and make them feel loved and at home. I remember when dating my ex-husband, he joked that her house contained some kind of time warp because you’d walk in and insist you were staying a short while, and before you knew it, six hours and a full meal had taken place. It was true. Energy is a very real thing, isn’t it? When you love others and your true intention is to give, give, give without prioritizing your own needs, people gravitate to that.

I joked to my sister, as we tended to her a few days ago in the ways that you tend to a dying person, that I was so thankful she didn’t ever know this was the way it would go. It’s only been a month, and it pales so starkly in comparison to the things she has done for me for my entire life. But if she knew we would find ourselves in 2016 bathing her and brushing her hair and rubbing lotion on her bony arms and dripping water in her mouth from a tiny sponge, she would have laid awake every night of her life dreading the burden of it and neglecting to see the beauty.

There’s so much beauty in sacrifice. The thing about heartbreak is that it breaks your heart wide open for something else to take root. I get it now in ways I never have before, in ways that many people never do. And I am grateful for every minute that has taught me what I needed to learn.

 

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So many times in my life, I’ve heard people say they passed on the chance to see a dying loved one because “I didn’t want to remember her like that.”  That idea seems so sad and small to me now.

I will remember my grandmother so many ways. With a house full of food and company. Quiet conversations, just the two of us. Countless moments of small kindness and tiny graces that she delivered to others. A beauty that radiated in a way that only comes from joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. But I will remember these last days as well, in all their brutal reality. It’s cracked my heart wide open for whatever comes next.

Grace always lives in all the hard places.

 

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all of it

We are back home. I spent more than six hours in a car today with two kids, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. So I am doing what I always do when I can’t sleep, and I’m writing instead.

We had a fun week. It was far from a perfect, relaxing vacation because parenting doesn’t present that scenario very often anyhow. But especially when you are the lone adult with two kids, relaxation in the typical sense doesn’t happen much.

But I stole moments here and there, and I accomplished that mostly by letting everything else go. I gave them no real rules except safety and sunscreen. We lounged and watched movies and swam and played in the sand and ate more popsicles than I care to admit. I came home exhausted from hot sun and sibling arguments, but they are high on ocean waves and sandcastles and the novelty of vacation-only Lucky Charms. (Seriously, I think that was their favorite part. I likely could have saved a lot of money and just taken a box of Lucky Charms to our neighborhood pool.) But sometimes, I think you need to hit the pause button on all of it and give yourself room to breathe with no rules and no expectations.

 

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I brought along Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to reread it. I’d set some lofty writing goals for my summer, and I thought it might help me gain focus and courage. I found myself gravitating so much to the life advice it offers though, rather than the writing advice. Early in the book, she explains, “E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”  Sometimes I feel like it is only one foot in front of me that I can see, not even two or three. But I just keep moving one step at a time.

I’m growing suspicious, to be honest, of people who plan much farther than a few steps. I’m growing suspicious of someone if they seem to have it all laid out and expect things to follow in the pattern they want. I’m learning to let things happen and try my hardest to let go of all the fear and doubt and panic. Life is in the right, always. Just do the best you can in that moment, and watch it unfold.

When I step outside of myself for a moment, I see things so differently. I see a reality that I never planned on, but one that offers moments better than anything I expected.

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I’ll undoubtedly remember this week as the vacation when I survived a road trip alone with 2 kids under 7, and then the three of us piled in one queen bed inside a condo so tiny you have to turn sideways to get past the dishwasher and reach the oven. I made spaghetti and tacos and store-bought cinnamon rolls, and we ate dinner in pajamas almost every night. I chased them all week while feeling burdened and worried about my grandmother at home, and I know that will be one of the first things that comes to mind as I recall this trip years later in my mind’s eye. But I’ll also likely remember early morning hours of reading Bird by Bird while the kids slept, and Lamott is so good to remind me that “perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.” 

I’ll surely also remember this as the trip when Jude lost another tooth and delivered a constant lecture on the approximately 148,372 facts he learned about sea turtles in kindergarten. And Norah’s freckles grew everyday while she counted seashells aloud, one by one. Who knew this is where summer of 2016 would find me? I certainly never did. But I’m grateful for all of it.

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While we have not moved her yet, my family has decided to bring my grandmother home with hospice this week. We do not know the exact hour, but it likely won’t be long. The very best moments of my life have come from being brave, staying open, loving fiercely. But this, in many ways, is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Bearing witness to the very end of a life that shaped my own so intensely.

I’m deeply sad in ways I really cannot even begin to describe, and I know that it will be months of grief as the words come together for me. But I also know that human life means this one thing if we are doing it right: we will lose people we cannot imagine living without.

I see people who hold these things at a distance, who put relatives in homes or avoid thinking about what we will all come to face one day – that we all die. Every single one of us. That idea is both the most crushing and the most freeing of anything at all.

And we cannot choose what happens to us and how it all will end, but we can choose what kind of people we will be in the meantime. And I’m trying my hardest to stay open and willing, brave and honest, here and now – even when it hurts. As Rumi says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I thought my heart had expanded enough in this season, but the universe wasn’t finished with me, I think. Here we go again. I’m holding on tight for what lies ahead – the pain and the softness. All of it.

 

Love Day

Happy Love Day, readers.

So many times in this stretch of the year, I think I will look back and see how far I’ve come.  My “this time last year” reflections are moving from when I was attached to when I was newly single. They are showing how much I’ve changed, no doubt.

Last Valentine’s Day found me at a car dealership trading in what was once the most expensive gift I’ve ever been given but soon became a financial burden I didn’t want anymore. It was also the first time my kids would meet their new step-mom, though my divorce papers were sitting on an attorney’s desk with wet ink.

I can remember flipping the pages of an outdated magazine as I waited on the financing to be approved in the used car dealership, knowing that my kids were out of my control and confused in that moment. I texted a close friend while feeling exhausted and sad, asking when my chance would come – when I would feel some sense of happiness and reward instead of just heartbreak.

I was happy to drive home in my own car, one I’d signed for and chosen myself. But I remember crawling in my big empty bed in the vast house that no longer felt like home, feeling like I might have taken one small step on my own, but it was still a long way from becoming my own life. My future seemed like a distant idea that I couldn’t quite see making shape on the horizon. Something I wanted but didn’t know how to grasp.

Today felt so much stronger, so much better.

Jude picked out a gift for me with my mom recently, but I didn’t know about this at all until he begged me to open it last night – not wanting me to wait until the morning. It was a set of small pots and seeds: parsley, chives, and basil. We planted them this weekend and placed them in the windowsill in the kitchen.

Waiting, watching, knowing something is emerging soon. I feel like this so often in my life lately.

I haven’t given up on love. I am broken and wiser, but I’m not bitter. I know far more about how to judge one’s character. I am not scared to pass on what’s in front of me if it doesn’t feel exactly right or if I think it has had its time and run its course … because I know what’s in my own core. I know much more about my own value.

I ran across an Instagram caption that made me nod today. “I make sure to reflect on how wonderful it feels to live my life on my own terms, and how grateful I am for that time I had sans partnership to figure out what these terms actually meant to me without the influence of someone else. The times we have to ourselves are precious. We have our entire lives to be surrounded by other people in whatever capacity we choose, whether a passing romance or a fleeting fling. .. It’s a liberating feeling when you realize the one constant in your life – yourself – is someone you’ve grown to love more than you thought was possible.”

Jude wished me “Happy Valentime’s Day” at least five times this weekend with his missing front teeth and his excited grin. He made me a picture yesterday that included tiny lettering, drawn as small as he could manage and spelled phonetically, and he handed it to me with a plastic magnifying glass we have. He told me it was a “secret code message” for my eyes only.

I’m grateful for every bit of it – for the time alone, the messages hidden along the way, the space to breathe and experiment and ponder what is next, the love in front of me, and what is yet to be.