had a generosity of spirit. He drew people to him. He was always so easy to be
around and had such a great, if a little wicked, sense of humor! Paul loved to
cook and go fishing. He loved being out on the boat, rivers, and beaches of the
Lowcountry where his soul shined. He loved music, all kinds of music, but what
he loved more than anything was his family. He was a devoted father to Aaron
and an adoring husband to his wife of 26 years, Malia.”
That’s an excerpt from my husband’s obituary and this blog is about the grief process, but a death and the subsequent grief can take many forms. My mother died when I was twelve years old. My husband died. Those are physical deaths, but there are other types of death. The death of a relationship, divorce or uncoupling. The death of a dream, a career, a beloved pet, and we grieve those losses in ways very similar to the physical loss of a loved one.
This sharing so openly is not easy for me. I am by nature an introvert, not expressive. My friends and colleagues would tell you that I am a very private person, but writing this blog feels like a very necessary element of the grief and healing process. The transparency may be raw and painful at times, dear reader, but my hope is that something I write, something I share will somehow help someone else along the way.
Today is the one thousand-first day since Paul died, and it’s also our wedding anniversary. This day of days, of all the days, is the hardest for me. It’s harder than his birthday. It’s harder than Father’s Day. It’s harder than the day he died. It’s harder than all the missed family birthdays, celebrations, and holidays combined. Why? Because it was our day; a unique day in the story of us, the day that marked the beginning of our life together, a day when there were still so many days ahead of us.
The story of our lives together had just begun and now that book’s final chapter has been written, and it sits on a shelf in the library of memories, a treasured story to be sure, but bookended in time nonetheless.
Paul and I always considered our anniversary to be the kick-off to the Christmas season. We would choose a nice restaurant, dress up, and linger long, over a multi-course dinner. On the last anniversary that we celebrated together, we chose a fancy restaurant we had never been to before. The restaurant is a converted carriage house behind an historic mansion that is now a high-end, boutique hotel.
The restaurant, house, and connecting garden were all decked out for Christmas; a sea of reds, greens, and gold. Some of the festive colors had been smartly placed by the staff in the form of swags and garlands, ornaments, and bows, and some had been provided by nature in the form of nandina bushes, holly berries, and camellias as well as the thick, dark greens of magnolia, smilax, and ivy with pops of gold thrown in by maples, oaks, poplars, and sweetgums. By the way, the yellow-gold leaves of the sweetgum are the only redeeming grace of that awful tree with its hard sticker-balls that drop to ground and lie in wait like tiny grenades to the undersides of my bare, southern feet. Anyone who lives in the south knows that they are a menace.
We arrived a little early to our reservation so that we could walk the nearby streets and gardens and take a short tour of the lobby and sitting areas inside the mansion that were so beautifully decorated for the season. We explained to a greeter as we entered the mansion that we were celebrating our anniversary. Upon hearing this, the greeter invited us to ascend the stairs to the cupola and enjoy a view of the city.
A cupola is a small, domed room at the top of a home or building. Some cupolas are very small and intended only to allow in additional light and air. Others are large and used as a lookout either for pleasure or safety. The cupola at the top of this colonial mansion is exceedingly large with floor-to-ceiling windows and was probably intended for both sightseeing and safety as it is just blocks from the harbor and still to this day is one of the tallest buildings in the city even though it is only four stories tall.
We made our way up the spiral staircase and into the barrel-shaped cupola. It was a clear, cold night and the view was long, expansive and breathtaking. The moon was so bright it had chased the stars away. They left their home in the sky and instead took roost in the city, lighting like birds on lampposts and rooftops, and taking up residence in people’s homes and dwellings, sparkling through window panes and doorways.
One of the floor-to-ceiling windows was actually a door indicated only by the presence of a handle. I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped out onto a widow’s walk that surrounded the cupola. Yes, really. A widow’s walk.
A widow’s walk is a railed walkway around the outside of a cupola; very common among 19th century, Atlantic coast homes and so named for the women who would frequently use the walkways to search for the ships of their sea-faring beloved.
Doesn’t that give you chills? It gives me chills. It makes me feel like this blog was being written out in real life with me as one of the characters in some unknown author’s story. Because I didn’t know then, standing next to my husband, that it would be our last anniversary together and that I would be sitting here writing about it nearly three years later. It puts me in a bit of an existential quandary. Am I the dreamer? Or am I the dream?
This is the first year that I have not taken this day entirely to myself. In years past, I anticipated the day and intentionally planned activities that celebrated, even memorialized, our lives together and contributed both to my comfort and to the grieving and healing process.
On the first anniversary without Paul, I took the day off from work to visit the place where we met, and I took this picture; one that you may recognize if you have followed my story.
That was the day that the idea and impetus for this blog began and then became reality about a month later. The second anniversary without Paul was a Saturday. I spent the day volunteering with our dog, Beatrice, at the hospital where Paul passed away.
This year, I allowed it to just happen like any other day. It started out pretty rough. Normally, on a day like today, I would struggle to leave the safety and comfort of the house, but lately, the house no longer seems to hold the sense of safety and comfort it once did. It just feels….empty. The routines that once made me feel so secure now feel boring and numbing.
My mood was disgruntled and cross as I made the short drive to work and would you believe it? I pulled into the parking lot and as I got out of my car, I was greeted with the sound of a Mourning Dove literally mocking me with its low, somber “coooo, coo-hoo, coo, coo, cooooo”. I mean the nerve of some birds. Ugh. I was already struggling and then this bird just had to rub it in. Seriously. I had a few choice words for that bird.
I have been, no, I am, doing really well. I know that this is just a bump in the road, but today it feels like a mountain. However, it’s not sadness or grief that I am feeling. It’s deeper in a way. It has settled somewhere lower in my soul and my psyche. There’s a resignation to it that is almost equivalent with defeat except that it is a defeat that has been reconciled.
Nostalgia is a wistful sort of acceptance that time is linear, that there’s no going back. It is more closely related to homesickness. That seems about right.
And what does one crave most when homesick? You know it. A good home cooked meal. Am I right? So that’s just what I did. I went home from work after a quick stop at the market and made the first meal Paul and I ever made together, shrimp tetrazzini. It was 1991, about six months before we got married. We were enjoying a weekend at the beach and got in the kitchen together for the first time to make a meal. We listened to Van Morrison as we cooked and drank a dry white wine that just happened to double as one of the recipe’s ingredients.
Once home, I got in the kitchen and got busy with dinner accompanied by Van Morrison and Amazon-Alexa who not only rocked out the Van Morrison playlist but helped me keep up with the five minutes for the shrimp and mushrooms, the seven minutes for the pasta and the 30 minutes in the oven. I made the biggest mess you’ve ever seen. And, no, it didn’t taste the same. Yes, it needed salt. And, this time, the pasta was gluten free because my digestive system is nearly 30 years older and pickier. But none of that matters. It was exactly what I needed.
Here are some directions and action shots in case you want to give it a whirl. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can make it with shrimp, chicken or turkey, and even though linguine is the typical cut of pasta used for this dish, it works with whatever you choose including gluten free (brown rice and quinoa) spiral cut pasta which is what I used.
Begin with a medium-sized sweet onion, minced. Sauté the onion in two tablespoons of butter. Add about a half-pound of shrimp and a half-pound of fresh mushrooms. I added another tablespoon of butter at some point because I had a little more than a half-pound of shrimp and the mushroom slices were large. When the shrimp are pink and the mushrooms are beginning to wilt or sweat, remove to a large bowl and set aside.
The roux could not be more southern; two cups of milk (I used cream because that’s what Paul would have done), one-quarter cup flour, and one-quarter cup mayonnaise (Duke’s, of course). As the roux thickens, add one cup of sherry or a dry white wine. I had a Riesling from a local vineyard so that’s what I used. Also, I may have used more than a cup.
Return the shrimp, onions, and mushrooms to the pan, add cooked pasta (about 8oz dry), and toss gently until well combined. Place in a casserole dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 degrees (F) for about 30 minutes.
Since it was just me this time, I didn’t go all out, but typically I would add salad and a roll to complete this meal.
So something has happened several times lately. A new feeling. It’s happened too often to be a fluke; it’s real, it’s persistent, and I don’t like it. It’s not a feeling to which I am accustomed either to the extent that when I first felt it I wasn’t sure what it was. “This is new. What is this feeling?” I thought. “It’s not grief. It’s something else.” It took me a few times of being confronted with it before I had a name for it. Loneliness.
Now. Now. Don’t get worried about me. I am fine. I am busy in the best, most healthy ways. I am surrounded by friends and family who love me and look after me. I am not alone by any means.
And I fully realize that this is a normal part of the grief and grieving process for both myself and the people who surround a loss. At some point, the attention fades, and the phone calls, the invitations, and the texts gradually slow to a trickle as everyone including me moves forward, and the strength of the connections that have been developed during this process are tested in a way. It’s intriguing to me to see what sticks and what doesn’t as I move forward into my life that is no longer our life. From the observer perspective, it’s an interesting turn of events, the next developmental phase. I find myself saying, “Oh, this is an interesting development. What’s she going to do now?” but with the exception that the she is me.
True confessions: I love plants and nature, gardens and parks, but I don’t like to garden. I love to be outside, and I enjoy learning the names and identifying all different kinds of plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, and vegetables. But I don’t like to work in the yard; to plant, trim, prune shrubs, flowers, trees, or bushes, or to mow or rake. However, Paul and I used to spend hours upon hours in our yard and garden, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Huh. Interesting.
What I have realized is that I liked to garden…. with Paul. I enjoyed it because we were doing it together. This. This is what I miss. This is what I desire. I want to love to do something because someone I love loves and enjoys doing it. Ooooo, boy. Relationship goals. This is what it means to share your life with someone. To like what they like because they like it, to take joy in the joy of another.
I didn’t notice how much I missed all of this before I started dating again, and now that I have, well, I’ve realized how much I missed that level of relationship. I miss the small, knowing glances, the tell-all facial expressions, the secret language that we spoke.
It’s funny because before I would have said that there was absolutely nothing missing from my life, and now I feel like there is. Oh, for God’s sake, grrrrrrrr, and double-grrrrrr. Like really? I was so hoping and praying that the Lord would call me to single-ness for the rest.of.my.life. Ha! You got to love the Lord’s sense of humor, and He does have one!
This blog is (clearly!) my expressive outlet, my art if you will. I am equally enthralled, but not skilled, with other expressive arts. Music, theater, visual arts are just not my gift, but I love to patronize and support those who do have that gift. My smart, beautiful, talented friend and colleague, Amy Tepper, is one of those people. I purchased this lovely piece of wearable art from her several months ago. I love it because reminds me of the peace of the Holy Spirit descending from above.
Then, recently, knowing my story, she created this beautiful artwork on commission. It’s amazing in these photographs, but it is stunning in person. It tells my story on so many levels; my human story and my spiritual story. It has layers of color and dimension, and it has movement. It’s like what I see when my life flashes before my eyes. Amy captured that, and I will be forever grateful. If you would like to connect with Amy to discuss the visual expression of your own story, you can find her here.
In church last week, during the closing hymn, something happened. We were just starting into the last verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness and suddenly I heard Paul singing beside me. I heard his voice in my ear. I turned to look at him. I stopped singing and listened to him finish the verse.
Be well my friends, and stay tuned. The adventure has just begun, Malia
Life as we knew it…is.over. I know. It’s devastating, but maybe, just maybe, there is something new and different and wonderful ahead for us.
I mean who wants to return to normal? Not me. Not if normal means rampant consumerism, hateful speech and actions, and addictive, unhealthy behaviors involving social media. Let me be clear. There are more problems with the way people use social media than with social media itself. This is true of most all devices conceived by the heart and mind of man. No manmade object, contraption or contrivance is inherently harmful or dangerous. How we use them, what we do with them, makes them so.
Folks, it’s time for us to leave normal behind. I am done with normal. I am sick of it. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s time for us to grow and mature as a people and as a country, to eat the solid food of patience and wisdom, to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts that love fully and robustly. It’s time for us to move beyond our infancy as a nation, as a society, as a race; the human race.
If you’ve ever wondered where I land politically, economically, philosophically, or otherwise, that’s as much as you are going to get in the context of this blog.
The truth is that until we all collectively accept the death of Normal and grieve the death of Normal, we are not going to get to the good stuff. And, yes, I realize that I am communicating my truth so, as always, you have the option to continue reading…or not.
Now, what is the good stuff you say? The good stuff is what comes after; after the struggle, after the hurt, after the pain.
Don’t believe me? The reality of this is etched in the layers of the earth itself. Proof of it is written into all of creation and played out over and over again throughout history from the small, personal moments between humans to the huge swaths of sweeping movements across recorded time.
It’s in the sunshine after the storm. It’s in the small patches of flowers boldly growing in a field of long-cooled lava. It’s in the desert blooms after the rain. It’s in the tender, green shoot emerging from a tree stump. It’s the baby boom after World War II.
It’s the widow making her way in the world, no, even thriving, after the death of her beloved husband.
It’s the rise. After the fall.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something my husband said to me in the days just after his diagnosis when we were all struggling to fathom the reality of our lives without us being us. We were like sonographers sounding the ocean depths trying to measure the seemingly unmeasurable, waiting for the return echo that would signal that we were not dangling over a bottomless pit.
What my husband said came in the context of a collection of other things Paul felt like he needed to tell me regarding what to do and how to be after he was gone. The conversation was like a bundle of kindling to spark and light the way to my future. One particular remark, that has perplexed me so, came on the heels of his now famous advice for me to make some friends.
Paul said, “You can be free.”
I have really struggled with that. It has confused me and worried me. I didn’t know what he meant then, and I’m still not entirely sure I now know what he meant. At the time, I said, “Stop it”, protesting the insinuation that I was somehow the opposite of free or burdened in some way. I was also frankly a little hurt that he might think of me that way, that he might think I felt that way, or perhaps I was convicted of any inadvertent behavior that may have caused him to even think that I felt that way. It pricked my heart like being handed an exquisite rose with an equally exquisite thorn.
I have tried for quite some time to wrestle the meaning out of those words, you can be free. Maybe he just knew that I might never become fully myself unless in his absence. And, in truth, I have indeed discovered things about my self that I would not have known within the context of our relationship just as I had discovered things about myself during our relationship that I would never have learned otherwise.
My family has been my life’s work. Paul knew there were many things I had not allowed for myself because they would take away from my mission to give every last nth of myself to the people that I loved and loved me. That is, after all, agape love; sacrificial love. And I don’t regret it for a second.
But there’s more to it than that.
Caregiver is coded in my DNA, and I love that. It gives me purpose. I show love through service. But it is also a disorder that developed as the result of the death of my mother. I developed a knee-jerk, emotional coping mechanism, a child’s false logic that goes something like this, if I’m good enough, I can prevent this from happening again.If take care of the ones I love well enough, nothing will ever happen to them.
It led to a pattern of me taking too much responsibility for everyone and everything.
I vividly recall a late night, phone conversation with our son. This was many years ago now. He was in college and struggling a bit with the adjustments of living on his own. Paul and I listened as our son shared what was going on and after a quiet pause, I said almost hesitantly, “What if. What if you took care of yourself as well as Daddy and I have taken care of you?” Stunned silence from the other end. I may have heard a gulp. I don’t recall the exact response, but our son basically said he could not even wrap his head around that, couldn’t imagine what that would be like. But over time, he has learned to do just that.
So there I was back in the spring on COVID lockdown and struggling to adjust to life on my own, and I turned the question on myself. What if. What if I took care of myself as well as I have taken care of others my entire life? What if I turned all that effort and energy to me? Holy moly.
So now. Now I am loving my own self with the same kind of purpose and service. This. This is what Paul meant, what he wanted for me, to be free to grow myself in the ways I have poured effort and energy into others that I have loved and cared about for my entire life. After very nearly now 50 years, I am turning all of that effort and energy on to me.
Taking care of myself to the level that I have always taken care of others has been transformative. I have nurtured my self and grown my self, mind, body, and spirit, through exercise, reading, writing, counseling, nutrition, swimming, yoga, running, playing, plenty of sunshine, walking, rest, time for thought and prayer, time with friends and family, laughter and tears, challenge and ease, all of the good things a person needs to grow healthy and strong….and free.
I am free of (most!) of my own self-imposed limitations. Free from the constraints and expectations I’ve placed on myself. Free from a false logic, a false narrative of responsibility that held me captive. Free from the cage that is the either-or mindset, and free to embrace both-and instead because my heart is no longer the shallow well of self-reliance, where there is never enough to go around, where effort and energy must be conserved and rationed, where either-or decisions rule the day. My heart is instead the constantly renewed and refreshed deep well of faith so that I can be the fullest expression of myself and have more than enough left over to fully love others. Can you feel the ground shaking? Because I do.
I haven’t shared this next part with any of my friends or family. They may wonder why. All I know is that some things are easier to write than say. Or maybe. Maybe God has asked me to hang on to this for 37 years, 8 months, and 7 days until today because you, dearest, are the one who needs to know it.
When I laid down to go to bed on the night of the day my mother died, I went toe-to-toe with God for the first time. My relationship with God had gotten personal. He had reached his hand into my life and taken something precious from me. I felt I had at least earned the right to ask for something in return. I recognize the spiritual immaturity in this now, of course, but as a young girl, trying to make sense of the senseless, well, I was doing the best I could with my limited understanding, and God, God was as He always is, full of grace.
In the quiet of my room, in the stillness of the night, I met God as Jacob did at the ford of the Jabbok River. There were windows above my bed. It was a cold, clear night. I gripped the top of the headboard and pulled myself up to the sill to peer through the window and saw a sky full of stars. The room was flooded with moonlight, and I was flooded with a river of tears. I cried, begged, and pleaded with God as I prayed, “Lord, please take me, too. I don’t want to wake up in the morning. Just please, please let me die during the night. Please.”
I had my answer when, well, I woke up the next morning. I wasn’t exactly angry as one might imagine. I was disappointed; defeated, hurt and wounded that God had taken so much from me and would not allow me this one request as consolation. I didn’t understand yet that God had indeed allowed my request. It took years for me to realize that God had given me exactly what I asked for. I had, in fact, died and awoken to an entirely new existence. In the same way that I have had to mourn the girl I was, I have also had to mourn the loss of the woman I became in the presence of my husband, in the context of that relationship, because she also died….and awoke to an entirely new existence.
In this life, we die many deaths. Grieving is not something we do only at the end of a life. Grieving is a cyclical part of our emotional climate, our human and spiritual nature, because loss is a fundamental life experience for us all.
Some days all I do is flap all day long not even getting so much as my big toe off the ground, ending my day completely spent with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing. You see on days like that it’s not about flight at all. It’s about strength and getting stronger. All that flapping builds strength. Soaring and gliding does not build strength, flapping does. Hooray.for.flapping. And for looking ridiculous doing it. I’m ok with all of it.
I had a dream recently. I was outside. It was early morning. The sun was up, steadily climbing and warming, but it was still low in the sky, just beginning the long arc of the day. I had the sense that I had been there in that spot for a while, legs crossed, calm and peaceful, light breeze, head tilted toward the horizon, watching the sunrise, but I was oddly expecting something more. I was waiting. And then. Then, a second sun arrived on the horizon and, via time lapse as if racing to catch up with the first sun, took its place in the sky; the same size and shape, but the glow was different. This second sun was golden and fuzzy around the edges like a peach where the first sun had become white hot and the edges were quick. I could no longer look directly at it. It had risen above those protective layers of the atmosphere through which one can safely view our star without wincing.
This dream. I knew I was dreaming but actively chose to stay in the dream to see what happened next. It actually didn’t feel like a dream at all. It felt like a vision, like someone had something to show me. I wasn’t even surprised to see that second sun rising in the sky. It felt like a long awaited something had finally arrived. I smiled, closed my eyes, breathed in the glorious warmth, and felt my skin like a sponge soaking in the life bringing light. And my whole body reverberated, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh.”
I am choosing not to pull at the threads of this dream. I wouldn’t dare. Instead I will treat it with the reverence it’s due. I don’t want to know its roots, its origin, its pieces and parts. I don’t want to see the trees this time, only the forest. I just want to sit with it, enjoy it, accept it with gratitude as if a gift had just been handed to me.
We’ll start with a little Widow 101. Did you know that the proper way to address a widow is with the salutation, Mrs.? Yeah, I didn’t know that either. At work, it’s not a problem because I’m addressed with an academic title, but in everyday life, I noticed right away that people struggled with what to call me or how to address mail to me. I will admit that Ms. can be like a dagger in my heart. Maybe that’s why we still use Mrs. It softens the blow and offers protection perhaps in that among strangers I can pass as married if I so choose.
Then, there’s the struggle with how to refer to my husband. This is one that you know. He’s my late husband, but that has always seemed weird to me because I have no idea what he’s late to. I’m sure it’s some leftover, centuries old phrasing about the dead, but I stumble over my words, and my heart, every time I hear myself say it. That’s if I can even manage to say it.
Next, there’s my in-laws to consider. I mean they are not my former in-laws, or are they? All I know is that they belong to me now. I adore them, and they are such an important part of my life. I love them. They are my forever family.
And now a final did-you-know. According to the U.S. government, as of January 1, 2020, I was no longer a widow. My official status is single. It feels like I was demoted. It’s just so strange to see that on paper. Single. Uggghhhhh.
The Bible has a lot to say about widows. In fact, the word, widow, is used over 100 times! The context is mostly warnings about being mean to widows, mistreating them, or taking advantage of them financially or otherwise. Psalm 68 identifies God as the protector of widows. I love that. It makes me think of God as my bodyguard, my heavy. I’ve got some powerful back-up so don’t mess with me! Ha!
Here are just a few of my favorite widow stories from the Bible.
I love the story of Tabitha in the book of Acts. Tabitha was a widow who devoted her life to good works and charity. She was beloved in her community. So, when she got sick and died, people were really upset. They had already washed her body and placed her in an upper room when they heard that Peter was in a nearby city. They also heard Peter was healing the sick and performing miracles. So, they sent two men to urge Peter to come help them with Tabitha. Well, he did. In a big way. Alone in the upper room with Tabitha’s body, Peter knelt, prayed, and told her to arise. She did! She opened her eyes, sat up, took Peter’s hand, and then she rose and was presented, reintroduced as it were, to her friends and community. This story speaks to me on so many levels, but mainly it reminds me that God can and does restore that which has died. He’s working that out in my life daily, restoring me to life, a new life.
And then there’s this story from Luke that is instructive and comes with a promise, and God’s promises are gold! This story is about a widow and a judge. The judge was not such a nice guy. He was not God-fearing and had no respect for his fellow man. But there was a widow who continually came to the judge demanding justice against her adversary. You might even say she hounded him about it. The story says she was persistent and bothered the judge. This story could have been lifted from today’s headlines and become a meme on social media. Familiar with the phrase “and, yet, she persisted”? It gets even better. For all of her persistence, she was rewarded. The judge essentially gave up and gave in, granting her request so that she would stop pestering him. This story encourages me to persist, to take my petitions to God, to even bother him with my needs and concerns. The promise is that He will provide what is just in my requests.
Finally, there’s perhaps the best known story about widows, The Widow’s Offering, or in more historical language, The Widow’s Mite. A mite is a small, copper coin, and as the story goes, Jesus saw a poor widow place two mites in an offering box alongside the rich and wealthy who were also placing their offering in the box. Jesus’ commentary was not about the rich and wealthy and their generosity. His comments were about the widow. She had contributed out of her poverty while the others gave out of their abundance. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not comparing myself to the widow necessarily. I am not impoverished in any way. I am very thankful that I have everything I need and more; a warm, safe house to live in, food to eat, a good job, transportation, good medical care, a loving family, supportive friends. What strikes me about this story is the challenge that it issues to me. It challenges me to consider what I have to offer from within the poverty of the loss I have experienced. It challenges me to ask the questions…what is my (figurative) mite? What is my contribution, my offering, within the work God has given me to do? I think this blog is part of the answer to that question. The writing is, perhaps despite appearances, really difficult. Exposing my internal life is rough on me, and it takes all that I have, emotionally, down to my last mite might.
I am certainly not the first person to blog about my grief experience and/or widowhood. The topic of grief and grieving is a niche in the blogging community.
Almost every grief blogger that I follow has a post that addresses the things people say. Most of the time such posts include a laundry list of some of the most absurd.
When people say weird things, I wish I could respond with some pithy, couched remark; something that conveys how I really feel though disguised as polite and appropriate, but I am way too direct for that so I typically say nothing at all and instead start to chew on it like a dog with a bone.
So, here it is. My official, grief blogger’s laundry list of the weird things that people say.
[Disclaimer: If you have said any of these things to a grieving person as I have, it is likely that no one, especially me, holds any bad feelings about it. I have heard myself say many of these things in an attempt to console a grieving person, to comfort both them and me. It’s simply that now I see it from a different perspective, from the other side. You may have been the recipient of these words as well, and maybe it didn’t sit well with you but you weren’t sure quite why. We often dismiss rote or pat social conventions and polite conversation out of hand, but there is meaning there whether we process it consciously or not. These are just some observations and perhaps some suggestions for alternative responses as we move forward in a more aware state of being.]
“I am sorry that you lost your husband.” Paul is not lost. I know exactly where he is. Instead of “I’m so sorry for your loss”, try “I’m so sorry you’re going through this”.
Any comment that starts with “at least” as in “At least you got to say goodbye” or “At least you had 30 years together”. I’ve gotten to the point that when people say “at least”, I don’t even hear what comes next. I can’t hear what they are saying over the reverberating echo of “AT LEAST, AT LEASt, AT LEAst, AT LEast, AT Least, AT least, At least, at least, attttt leeeasssstttt….”. Let’s talk about the most instead! The most fun, even the most annoying, the most wonderful, the most frustrating, too, the most memorable, the most disappointing and the most joyful. Our life together was full of all of those things. Let’s remember the most.
“It could’ve been a lot worse.” I have yet to figure this one out.
I really love to talk about my husband. I love to share memories, and I am able, through lots of hard work and growth, to do it joyfully! However, some people are upset by it, emotional even. They start in with the “I’m so sorry”-ies, and then I end up comforting them. Really!? Come on.
Then, there are folks who beat me to the punch on social media on the anniversary of Paul’s death, or his birthday. I know. I know. I know! He belonged to them, too. I know. It’s just hard to be taken off guard, confronted with it before I’m ready. And, yes, I know there are others, many others, who loved and miss him, too. It’s not all about me. I’m just sharing how it makes me feel. That’s all.
“This is just not what you signed up for” and the even stranger, companion comment, “You don’t deserve this”. Ummm, is there someone who does? And, by the way, I’m pretty sure that “until death do us part” is exactly what I signed up for. Like I actually signed papers to that affect. Here’s the proof.
When you try to comfort someone who is grieving, when you try to console them, I know it comes from a good place, a place where you want to take away their pain and make it all better, to fix it, to make them and you (or maybe just you?) more comfortable. I understand all of that. I also understand that when we sometimes struggle with what to say, we actually say something that is exactly the opposite of what we intended. It’s ok. Really.
My recommendation is to share a good memory, or any memory really, of the person or a positive impact they had on your life. Because in that moment, in that sharing, the person is alive again for both of you. It’s ok if it makes one or both of you wistful or tearful. There’s healing in the hurt.
Consolation is a funny word to describe the uncomfortable, or even awkward, position where we find ourselves obligated to receive with politeness and graciousness something that we don’t really even want. We all know what consolation means; the comfort someone receives after a loss or someone or something that provides comfort to someone who has suffered. But I am also thinking of it as a sports reference. I play a lot competitive tennis and have found myself in a consolation round way too often. A consolation round, or consolation prize, is all well and good, but the bottom line is that the whole reason for it is because you lost. My response in these cases is generally, “Gee, thanks.” And might even be accompanied by a private, eye-rolling episode with an ugh thrown in for good measure. I mean I appreciate it, but there is always, always, a sting or bite to it. No one, I mean no one, wants to be in the position of needing consolation. I don’t want to be consoled. No thanks.
I wish, for all of us, that we were never in a position to need consolation, but it is the very heart and nature of this world, of this life, that we are born needing consolation, and we have it. In the presence of the Holy Spirit; the ultimate consolation gift. In fact, in the Biblical translations, the same root word for consolation is used in both Corinthians and the book of John to describe the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, teaches and guides us, provides peace, and equips us to do God’s work here on Earth. That’s good news because, in all truth, I rarely feel up to the task.
2 Corinthians 1:3-7 speaks to me, to us, right now, today. We are suffering today to cope with loss, with hurt, with COVID, with hate, with anger, and so much more, but God is the God of all comfort. And there’s more! He comforts us SO THAT we may patiently endure and be able to comfort others. Boom-yow! There’s purpose!
I love, too, the Comfortable Words from Matthew in the Book of Common Prayer. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
It’s been six months to the day since my last post. And now. Now my fingers are on fire! So, get ready because I’m back, baby!
And, yes, the sassometer (Hint! Rhymes with thermometer) is at full tilt these days. You know, sassometers. They measure one’s level of good ol’, Southern gumption. If you are one of my far flung readers, you might not be familiar with that word, gumption. It means shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness, and it describes my current mood, oh, so, precisely. When I mentioned to my son that this post was about to go live and that it was ‘full of sass’, he responded, “Aren’t they all?” Indeed!
And, because once an educator, always an educator, this blog post is officially sponsored by the letter G.
G is for grateful.
I am practicing gratitude like it’s going out of style, and as far as I can tell from the world today, it seems like it actually is going out of style.
Gratitude is the cure for what ails. That may sound naïve or even a little tone deaf given some of the circumstances that people are living through right now, but….have you tried it? By all means, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. There are a million ways to practice gratitude. Pick one, and try it. Honestly, if I didn’t start each and every day telling God what I’m thankful for, I don’t know what would become of me. Some days are harder to be grateful for than others. Some days I am really reaching, grasping, because the world is weighing so heavily upon me, but there is always something to be thankful for. Sometimes I even thank God for the pain I’m feeling. Yep.
In giving thanks, my mind and heart almost always return to Psalm 95, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and show ourselves glad in him with psalms” and Psalm 100:4, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”
G is for grieving.
Transporters (science fiction style) are real. I can be anywhere doing anything and with no obvious trigger and very little warning be beamed into another space and time.
On one of these trauma trips, I suddenly found myself in Paul’s hospital room. I openly, loudly, without regard, hesitation, or regret begged God for death to come and come quickly. Paul’s body was beyond help, beyond hope, but his spirit was not. (Nor is ours!) And then, he was gone. Less than a minute. Less than 5 minutes. 10 minutes. 20. He was still soft, warm. I smoothed his hair. Kissed his cheek. Cupped the corners of his jaw in my hands, placed my thumbs in the places where his dimples had carved out the most beautiful divots in his face. I.am.there. I can feel the warmth of his body beneath my open palms. The scruff of his beard against my lips and cheek. I breathe in trying to capture, retain the essence of him. I breathe out.
Sometimes that moment feels like so long ago. Other times it feels like I’ve just stepped out of his hospital room for the last time.
So, yes, I am still grieving.
Y’all have to understand. I am still shocked that I wake up every morning. I’m surprised every day to find that I am still here, that the sun still rises, that the world still turns. I mean, how in the hell is that even possible? It is the grief mindset. And I often wonder if it’s permanent, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it give me perspective, some level of awareness that others do not possess? Some level of awe and appreciation for each and every day? Or will I wake up one day and go, “Ohhhh, now I get it. Life goes on.”
I hope not. I love that I live in a state of awe and wonder at the miracle, the gift, that is life. I just don’t like what I had to go through in order to achieve that state of being.
G is for growing.
I am so different now. I have changed. I am physiologically not the person I was before Paul died. I am different. I think different. Every day I catch myself thinking very differently about things than I would have in the past.
I had a conversation with someone recently, a colleague, about perspective and what it takes to achieve it. What does it take to achieve next-level social and emotional self-awareness? What does it take to wake up? Does it take a tragedy? A significant loss of some kind? I don’t know. I really hope not, but I do think that it points to the purpose of struggle in our lives and, folks, we all struggle.
As the Oak, So I
A large oak stands sentry in my front yard. As the seasons have changed, I’ve noticed that the oak sheds its leaves a little differently than other trees. While other trees drop all of their leaves at once and are rendered completely bare, left to stand naked against the fall and winter sky, the oak retains its old leaves, crisp and brown, until they are literally pushed off the branches by new leaves, new growth. So, too, my new growth is taking the place of what was once useful and productive but no longer serves me and now falls away to be replaced by something new, something fresh.
I’m loving what I’m learning about life and others as I move forward. I recently cleared a pretty big hurdle as I moved from a state of equilibrium in my life to disequilibrium. I’m getting it right sometimes, but I’m making lots of mistakes, too, as I’m forming and navigating new relationships, negotiating and balancing my needs with the needs of others, honoring where they are in their own processes. Having been in a stable relationship for so long has made some of those skills a little rusty for me so I’m working at it every day.
G is for grace.
That smile on my face? It’s all about His grace.
I often get asked “how I do it”. Where does the strength come from, the resiliency to endure, heck, even thrive in the face of such difficult losses. Sometimes I even sense a little bewilderment if not outright irritation from others. The vibe is ‘What’s she so happy about? What’s she got to smile about? Doesn’t she know we’re in the middle of pandemic?’
Then, there’s the opposite of that reaction in which people assume that because they see me smiling, it means everything is going along perfectly. Not! These are trying times. There are challenges around every corner, let downs and disappointments, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and down-right attacks filled with the arrows and spearheads of hurtful words and actions.
Then, there’s this. I spent all of July down and out with COVID. Yep.
And my work has been disrupted just like so many others. I work in education so I’m pretty sure that I can just leave that right here and let your own imagination, dear reader, do the rest about what that experience has been like. It’s no secret that schools have had a hard time meeting the needs of students, parents, and teachers. I am proud of my colleagues, my school, and my district. We are working harder than ever before and providing students and their families with the best that we have to offer, but it is terrifying and insanely difficult every day.
Half the time I only get half a night’s sleep. I’m up pacing the house while my dogs peacefully snooze the night away only occasionally lifting one eye to make sure I’m not actually going anywhere. Sometimes I cry myself back to sleep, or sometimes I stand at an open window and breathe in the stillness of the night contemplating the nature of the universe. Quiet street. Bright moon. Light breeze and leaves in flight as they are finally released from the trees’ branchy grip, punctuated by the soft *tink* of acorns hitting the roof, front walk, driveway, or street below. Insects sing their buzzy lullaby and owls shoo-shoo me back to bed, back to sleep.
I’m not the only one though who manages to face the storms of life with a tenacity of spirit. Some of our nearest and dearest have suffered stunning losses. I see their strength, their resilience, and I know where it comes from. I want you to know it, too. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord. My faith is my source of strength, my source of peace.
G is for glowing.
I’ve had lots of ups and downs these last six months. But this picture pretty much says it all about where I am right now. (Funny how no one takes and posts a picture of themselves when they are ugly-crying, ha!)
G is for the big Guy upstairs.
The OG. The original, Father God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I have been working really hard lately on achieving stillness; stillness in body, mind, and spirit. It’s not easy. My heart is often troubled, my mind is often addled, and my spirit has always had a tendency to be restless. But I am trying.
I recently came across the full, original version of the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. You probably know the first part by heart as so many people do, but maybe like me you were unaware of the rest of it. It’s so appropriate for the times we are living in today.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
So here I am. Living life in the moment. Yesterday is done. Tomorrow is not promised. I’m making the best use of the dance floor that is my kitchen for morning and sometimes late night dance jams. I am not perfect. I am, in fact, very far from it, but I do serve a perfect God.
From Jeremiah 6:16, “This is what the Lord says: Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”
I’m standing at the crossroads. Won’t you, please, join me? Malia
It’s been hard to write. My thoughts are so scattered, and most of my energy has been poured into coping strategies for managing this upended world in which we find ourselves. Like so many of you, I am sheltering-in-place at home, working remotely, going out only to shop for groceries once a week or so.
I am an introvert so being alone is normally my comfort zone, but this. This is more than a respite for introverts. This is isolation, and it’s hard. Yes, as an introvert, I have always needed downtime, alone-time, to recharge my batteries, but this prolonged isolation is unbalanced, unhealthy. So, while we have been physically distanced, I have strived to remain socially connected with texts, phone calls, video chats, and 6-foot conversations in the neighborhood or on the local walking trail. Still, it’s not enough.
If routine was important to me before, and it was, routine has now been elevated to ritual. I am growing concerned about how structure can too easily become stricture, but for now, I need it. I need it to stay sane.
Regression. There’s been some of that, too. This is an emotional landscape that I am familiar with but had moved on from; the anxiety of leaving the house, the panicky feeling pulling out the neighborhood, the flight response at the store.
I’ve had some more grief dreams. They seem to crop up more when I’m not intentional about processing feelings on the regular.
In one dream, Paul and I were in our “home town” where we lived for twelve years, but we were leaving. We said we would visit on weekends and during the summer. When I woke, I was disoriented. Then, I thought, “Oh, that’s right. I’m by myself now. We’ll never go back there together.”
One day, I fell asleep on the couch. As I was waking, I heard Paul on the stairs. I called out to him, “Honey, will you get my eye drops, please?” Yeah. I actually said it out loud before I caught myself.
I’ve had anxiety dreams, too, where the roof is leaking or I’m chasing fire. Yes, chasing flames and trying to catch them in my hands, but they keep slipping through my fingers. I keep trying to grab them, but I can’t.
I’m also having recurring dreams about the television show Lost, particularly the portion of the show where we are introduced to the character, Desmond, who lives alone in the underground bunker, the guy who has to push a button every so many hours or something terrible happens.
BUT! There has also been progress. Check this out!
Yep! I’ve been able to focus on healthy food habits; shopping, eating…and cooking! As in cooking just for me. This.is.huge. For the first time since Paul died, I can honestly say that I am doing a good job of taking care of myself. This feels like a major shift for me. It feels like I’ve moved past something, not like anything is behind me, but more like I’ve cleared an important hurdle.
So, now what? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably because the isolation of being home alone and physically distanced from others has been extreme. I can clearly see now that I am so very capable of managing on my own and could do so for as long as I want…but is that what I want? Ohhh, now there’s a question! It’s the first time it’s even occurred to me to ask myself if that’s what I want, and if that’s not what I want, if I don’t want to be on my own, what then?
As usual, I have no idea what comes next, but I am so grateful for how far I’ve come in this grief and healing process. Making gratitude a continuous practice and staying focused on connecting, learning, and growing have made all the difference. Despite all the uncertainty in the world right now, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m going to be ok. Come what may. I’m going to be ok.
Here’s our quarantine, porch picture for posterity; surrounded by my fur-children, my constant companions, badly in need of a day at the salon, no make up. Just me. Smiling and grateful for the Lord’s provision, for the struggles that have made me stronger, and looking forward to what’s next.
Now, more so than ever before in my lifetime, I am beyond, blessed with female friendships. In my younger years, the loss of my mother at such a young age made bonding with other women difficult and tenuous at best.
Today, my women friends mean the world to me. My sister-in-law and my nieces, a beautifully renewed and blessedly restored relationship with my step-mother, and the addition of my son’s fiancé and her female family members have all been most welcome injections of estrogen-based love in my life.
I’ve written before about how important these connections are to me, how hard I’ve worked to cultivate these friendships with these amazing, empowered, resilient women and at my husband’s urging no less with those fateful words, “Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.” So, now. Now, I have these friendships, these bonds, where expression of emotion is valued, where it actually contributes to the health of the relationship. Wow! That has blown my hair back!
And, then, there are the men in my life. For many, many years, I was the rare girl surrounded by a family full of males in various stages of maturity; my dad and his lifelong friends, my uncles on all sides, my brother and all of his friends, my husband, his brothers, my father-in-law, my son and his passel of friends. I fondly call it boy-world, and I am a card-carrying, lifetime member of the boy-mom club.
Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that this is not some sort of treatise on the differences between men and women, if such a thing even exists. I am strictly sharing my experience. Period.
So, let me explain. Living in boy-world and becoming a boy-mom, I found that I had to be a little tougher. My skin had to be a little thicker. Open, emotional expression just didn’t carry weight in that world. Please don’t get me wrong. We certainly had two-way communication where we shared how we felt about subjects, but the men in my life just didn’t commonly use the language of emotion that is so skillfully wielded by the women I know and love. It’s not at all that I couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to be emotionally expressive. It’s just that I found that it wasn’t productive. It didn’t move conversations or situations forward. So, I adapted. I adapted my style of communication, the way I expressed what I was feeling.
Honestly, I used to love it when Paul or our son would complain about me (yes, really!), would shoot each other knowing looks when they were using an extra measure of patience with one of my big ideas, or would lovingly joke about my little eccentricities or quirks. To me, it meant they loved me fully, me and all my imperfections. It was a great comfort for me, a bit of a perfectionist, to know that I didn’t have to be perfect in order for them to fully love me. They got me. They completely accepted me, and took joy in me.
All of this to say, I am so thankful for all of these men in my life, too.
I love that my son now offers me wise counsel. I have sought his input on numerous occasions in the last two years since his father passed away. He never flinches. He never fails to tell it like it is and protect my best interest.
And so, so many other men in my circle of family, friends, neighbors, church family, and colleagues have stepped in and stepped up to help me over and over again. It feels good to seek and receive their assistance and guidance when needed; like when the hot water heater quit working, when the garage door broke, when the dryer vent needed replacing, when a hurricane blew out the porch screens, when I needed advice on how to handle situations. And, then, too, when my emotions were too high, and I needed an objective point of view to help me sort things out, or when I needed protection from others who were trying to take advantage.
I value their honest feedback (you know who you are!), their words of encouragement (you know who you are!!), the challenges they’ve presented me with (yes, you!), and even their gentle correction when my perception was in error or I was just plain wrong (thank you, that would have been a huge mistake!).
I can certainly, absolutely take care of myself. I know that now, but thankfully, I don’t have to. Not all of the time anyway.
This annual New Year’s Day post needs a musical overture. So, I’m going to set it to another selection from the soundtrack to my grief, “Morning Has Broken”, except in my mind, I have lately come to think of it as ‘Mourning’ Has Broken.
“Morning Has Broken” is a song made popular by Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf Islam) version of it that was released in 1971. What I didn’t know until recently is that it was actually written by Eleanor Farjeon as a poem. The poem was then set to an old, Scottish tune and published as a hymn for the first time around 1931. When it appeared as a poem, its title was listed as “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)”. Paul’s birthday frequently falls on the first day of Spring. The hymn was included in our church’s hymnal, and Paul and I sang it together on more Sunday mornings than I can count. The song is sweet and nostalgic, reminiscent of the simple but magnificent gift of each new day. It’s a call to gratitude.
Here are the lyrics. My guess is that you are already humming the tune.
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven Like the first dew fall on the first grass Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Mine is the sunlight Mine is the morning Born of the one light Eden saw play Praise with elation, praise every morning God’s recreation of the new day
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Just in case you haven’t caught on yet…I love words. I always have. Before I could actually write, I would pretend to write by making excessive scribbles across pages and pages of newsprint paper that was sold in bulky pads at the grocery store. Then, I would spread them out before me or paste them to the walls in my room. Thinking back now, this must have seemed very strange to my parents, but they also must have understood my internal drive because when I was five, I was gifted with a pint-sized but fully functioning typewriter. To this day, it is one of the best gifts I have ever received. It was magical because while I was well on my way to using letters to put words together to express my thoughts, the typewriter was very nearly able keep up with my mind where my hand was not.
I believe words have power. I have always been cautious and deliberate with the way I choose my words when writing, of course, but also in talking with others. The old adage “Mean what you say and say what you mean” could be my life’s motto.
Google provides a fascinating look at the way we use words through their Google Books Ngram Viewer. An N-gram is a word particle, word, or group of words that we can track through text or speech. Your phone’s predictive text feature uses information about N-grams to offer you choices about what you want to type next.
Google Books Ngram Viewer gives us a visual that shows us a word’s use over time. I’ve been toying lately with the words mourning and grieving to help me delineate where I am in this process. I hear and read the word grieving a lot, but I noticed that the word mourning is not as widely used and I was curious about that. Check out the Ngram Viewers for these two words.
When I look at this graph, my eyes go to the lumps and bumps, peaks and dips. Notice that the peak for the occurrence of the word mourning occurs around 1860. I immediately thought of the American civil war. Then, there’s the upward trend that appears to have begun sometime between 1980 and 1990. The war on drugs? The gulf wars? The rise of opioid deaths? Or all of the above?
Take a look at the Ngram Viewer for the word grieving.
So, like me, you might thinking, “Whoa, Nellie! What happened between 1960 and 1980?”
Well, I’ll tell you. In 1969, physician Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her landmark book about grief, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, & Their Own Families. Through this book, she introduced her theory of the five stages of grief now known as the Kubler-Ross model and with that we, as a society and culture, had a new framework for understanding and discussing grief.
The word mourning seems more intense to me than the word grieving. Mourning is a noun while grieving is a verb, an action. A-ha! Mourning is a place and space. Grieving is something I do. Mourning seems to take place for a specific, but not given, period of time and according to the definition is marked by deep sorrow.
I am ready now to leave that period of deep sorrow behind. So, I quit. I officially quit mourning.
On a recent Friday morning drive to work, I had a complete and total meltdown. Like butter in a hot pan.
Lately, my life has been like one of those cinematic devices used to show the passage of time on TV shows or in movies. You know the ones where they put the progress of days or months or even years on a loop set to music that features fast moving, split screen images of typical, daily events like the person brushing their teeth, going to work in their car, on the train or bus, eating dinner, going to bed, and rising the next morning to repeat the whole process again. And it loops. Over and over again.
Clearly, I had been on autopilot. Just trying to plow through the most difficult days of the year; those days leading up to the now second anniversary of Paul’s illness and death. The meltdown, my friends, was epic. That’s what you get you keep shoving the feelings down instead of letting them go as they bubble up. I know better, but so many things about this second year have been harder. I was tired of wrestling with the grief all the time; thought I could just put it in a box for a little while, please God, just a little while. But I paid the price.
And you know, after that meltdown I felt better and have continued to feel somewhat better. This next part amazes me still, but I promise you it actually happened. As I was sitting in the car desperately trying to compose myself, there on the radio was one of our favorite songs, “I Can See Clearly Now”, originally written and performed by Johnny Nash in 1972 but made more popular when performed by Jimmy Cliff in 1993. It’s one of a slew of songs that make up the soundtrack to my grief . The comprehensive list of songs is fodder for another post. Turns out that people sing about grief a lot. There might be something to that.
Paul was teenager in 1972 and just discovering his love for music of all kinds. In 1972, I had not yet had my second birthday, but this song was always a touchstone for both us. When it came on the radio that meltdown morning, I was stunned, and my tears were stopped in their tracks. Clearly, God had allowed me a message from my husband, and it gave me the courage to continue with my day.
“I can see clearly now” was so popular and sing-songy. I’m sure many of you are humming it now and know the lyrics by heart, but here they are just in case you don’t. They are, in my opinion, lyrical genius in a nearly Rogers & Hammerstein kind of way. The beat is reminiscent of the Caribbean and marries perfectly to the message.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day Oh what a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I did indeed make Sunday Dinner for my family recently. But the meal itself was actually just a typical weekday meal for our family back in the day. You know the day; the day we went to work, rushed through homework while Daddy cooked, ate together, piled the dishes in the sink and breezed out the door to baseball, boy scouts, church, a school event, or just went for an early spring stroll down wide sidewalks and long streets all the while chasing fireflies in the gloaming before the street lights start their losing battle against the dark of night.
No recipes this week. Just meals from memory. Meals I know by heart.
I started by making Paul’s Pimento Cheese. This is one of those dishes that is made a little different and tastes a little different every time, but it’s always good. Use whatever kind of cheese you like. Be creative. Use different cheeses every time you make it. We certainly did. You can shred the cheese yourself from a block or wheel or buy it already shredded. Finely or coarsely shredded makes little difference. Use as much or as little cheese as you need based on the number of people you are serving. This time I used 2-3 cups of cheese, but I have made as much as eleven pounds at a time. The secret to Paul’s Pimento Cheese is that it doesn’t even have any pimientos in it! True story. Instead of pimientos, Paul always used roasted, red peppers. The charring on the roasted peppers adds a smoky flavor to the cheese that makes all the difference. Many people say it has a certain flavor that they just can’t put their finger on. The roasted, red peppers are the source. Again, there’s no right or wrong amount here. I just keep adding peppers until it looks like it has enough. Add 2-4 tablespoons of Duke’s mayonnaise to get the ball rolling and then add some more a little at a time until it’s a good consistency; sticky and scoop-able but not wet. If it’s wet, you’ve gone too far. No matter. Add some more cheese and the day is saved. The final ingredient is another one that makes Paul’s Pimento Cheese unique, a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. It amps up the flavor of the cheese. Serve with crackers of your choice. A hardier cracker works best.
The main course was roast pork loin, mashed potatoes with gravy, butter beans, and a cornbread muffin. Nothing makes me feel like a straight-up 1940s housewife like a roast in the oven. I poured a little olive oil in the bottom of a casserole dish and rolled the loin until it was smeared on all sides. Then, I coated the loin in salt, black pepper, and red pepper. I covered it with tin foil and baked it in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. Always use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat. I like an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees for pork. I let the roast rest before serving to soak back up all the juices that were expelled during cooking.
For homemade mashed potatoes, peel and cut up the potatoes into roughly one-quarter to one-half inch pieces. You can use any type of potatoes and you can leave a bit of the peel on, too, if you like. Bring the potato pieces to a hard boil, and use a fork to test for softness. When fully cooked through, drain the water off by using a colander, and transfer the still hot, boiled potatoes to a bowl. Add salt, butter, and milk to your liking, and beat with a hand mixer to your desired thickness. Use caution with the milk or your mashed potatoes will be potato soup. In a fix, we have been known to use half-and-half, cream, or even sour cream instead of milk. You can use a store bought gravy, or you can use the liquid from the roast thickened with corn starch or flour to make a gravy. We did either depending on how much time we had.
Fresh butter beans are best but sometimes fresh frozen beans are all that’s available. They work, too. Our family always starts a pot of beans with a piece of what we call fat meat or salt meat. In the south, this is mostly referred to as fatback, but I have found that to be a general term used to describe any hunk of mostly fat that has been salt cured. Some people just use a couple slices of bacon or a ham hock. Either way, it adds flavor and a little oily moisture to the beans. Bring to a boil and simmer as long as you like but make sure the water doesn’t boil away.
Cornbread muffins instead of biscuits are especially good when the meal is hardy or heavy. The sweetness and lightness of cornbread balances out the weight of a more savory entrée.
For dessert, I made strawberry shortcake. Strawberries are ripe in the fields at this time of year so it seemed like a natural choice. I cored and sliced the strawberries and placed them in a lidded bowl. I added one tablespoon of sugar, stirred, and placed in the refrigerator to chill. The moisture from the berries combine with the sugar and makes just enough of a light syrup to soak into the cake or bread you choose. In this case, I chose an egg-white, or angel food, cake for my base, and then stacked with strawberries and homemade whipped cream.
Paul had an aversion to store bought whipped cream in a tub or aerosol can. He said they were phony or fake so he would always take the time to make it by hand. It’s not hard. It just takes a little time.
Use a pint or a quart of heavy whipping cream depending on how much you need. Pour into a larger bowl than you think you need or you’ll end up with cream splattered all over everywhere including you. Trust me. Use a hand mixer on the highest setting and let it roll until the cream is thick enough to scoop and stick to a spoon without falling off when turned over. Some people add a teaspoon or two of sugar while mixing, but our family does not.
On nights like this, I always pause for a moment and look at my family all gathered around our table, talking, laughing, smiling, sharing their lives with each other, the big moments and the small, eating, enjoying, remembering, and it all just feels so right. I am so grateful. The gifts my husband gave me continue to bear fruit in my life and in the lives of those we love. It makes me want to shout, “Look, honey, I’m doing good! I’m really doing good!”
We now resume our regularly scheduled grief (uh, I mean healing!) programming.
Just in case my Sunday Dinner posts have given you the false impression that I have it all together, here’s a Monday dinner post complete with picture of glorious meal making <insert sarcasm and eye-rolling emoji>. Yep, that’s right, a fried egg, shredded cheese, a days old biscuit….and ice cream. Embarrassing. But I told you. Keeping.it.real.
My grief has a tendency to pile up. It piles up in great banks like snow lining both sides of a winter worn street, like Saharan sand dunes moving across the globe through eons of time and then seemingly, suddenly arriving tall and looming on the landscape. Grief piles up one pebbly grain and flake at a time until it reaches a hinge, a tipping point, and then crashes heavy upon my heart and psyche.
Many of you may be familiar with the Native-American naming tradition. Think *Dances-With-Wolves*. In that tradition, people are given names that are construed from their nature or based on characteristics of their personality. I became aware of this tradition when I was young while reading and listening to Native-American stories where the characters had wonderfully descriptive names that revealed their inner-self and piqued the readers’ interest regarding how they received their name. But these names are not just based on personality, and they are not static. In the Native-American naming tradition, a person’s name can change based on their life experiences. As one learns, grows, and changes, their name can change to reflect their evolving identity. Native-American names are also typically connected to nature, maintaining our connection to the world around us, and connected to their tribe, emphasizing the value of connection with others.
A lesser known and understood aspect of the Native-American naming tradition is that they often have a spiritual or sacred name that is known only to themselves and their tribe’s spiritual leader. These hidden names allow the person to maintain their core identity in the face of life’s inevitable degradations or even trauma. Hmmmm, very interesting.
When the grief piles up, my world view is disrupted. My perception is distorted. It’s like looking at the world reflected in a cracked mirror. Everything seems more intense. It’s the atmosphere, the look of the sky when the light is slanted from a certain direction, the trees, the direction of the wind, and the birds. The birds outside my bathroom window make peculiar early morning chirps and trills that grate and hack away at my nerves. The sound of it makes me physically wince. If I were Native-American, my current name would be Angry-With-Birds.
Starting with February 12, there are a string of dates that are tattooed on my skin in invisible ink, fused to my insides. These dates are stuck in my teeth. I use my tongue to pry and pick, but I can no more unstick these calendar dates from my psyche than I could a handful of the sticky, gummy fruits clinging to the teeth in my mouth. They feel like boulders, rocky outcroppings, cleaving to my emotional landscape. The world is different on these dates. I don’t like the look of the air. I don’t like the feel of the car as I’m going down the road. I continuously have to remind my shoulders to stay down otherwise I find them crowding my neck and reaching for my ears and chin.
This time of year the triggers are everywhere. My senses remember everything. My body recorded everything in my muscles, bones, and tissues. Every moment of the last 35 days of Paul’s life is carved into the very fiber of my body and being; the memory of them communicated from one cell to another like a biological game of telephone until it was transmitted throughout my entire body. The right combination of sensory input and I instantly feel dread and foreboding. The input is too much. I feel crowded all the time. I want to tell everyone to just please hold still, put my finger to my lips and “shhhhhhh”. Just, everyone, please hold still and be quiet.
I actually have a startle response when I’m like this. I am startled by normal things that should not be startling; a phone ringing, a door closing, someone walking by me. I am sound sensitive; hypersensitive to physical stimuli, too much talking, too much movement. I say to myself, “This is crazy!”
Is there such a thing as a grief hangover? Because I think that’s what this is.
And, my dreams! My dreams have been, well, memorable. I have had a series of anxiety dreams.
In one dream I am frantically tearing the house apart looking for my computer but can never seem to find it. I keep looking in the same places over and over again thinking that it absolutely must be there, but it is not.
In a second more telling dream, I am driving around town in my car, however, there is something wrong. It is not driving properly. At first, I can’t figure out what is wrong but then I realize I have a flat tire. So, I’m driving around town on a flat tire, and I keep saying to myself, “Oh, no, I have a flat tire!” But I keeping driving on the flat tire anyway, and I’m asking myself, “Why am I driving on a flat tire?” I know I have a flat tire and yet I just keep on driving around. I just continue on my way saying, “I know I have a flat tire. Why am I driving around on a flat tire? This is weird. I shouldn’t be doing this. Why can’t I stop driving?” I never stopped or pulled over to get it fixed. It didn’t even occur to me call anybody for help. I just kept driving around. Analyze that! Why don’t ya’?! Ha!
And then this one. I dreamt that Paul was back. He was an old man, very sweet looking, gray-haired and a little hunched over and….he was pregnant. Weird. I know. My response to this in the dream was so typical of me, ignoring the absurd and going into full-on problem solving mode, logical, rational, calm, resolved. I was saying to him, “Well, this really shouldn’t be possible. I’m not sure what we’re going to do, but we’ll work it out.” If you’ve got any ideas about that one, let me know! Or, wait, maybe I don’t want to know. Nevermind.
This post has been in the queue for well more than a week. I’ve written it in small chunks as the days have drifted by. I’m not sure why it has been so hard for me to, first of all, write it, and then second to that to “put it out there”. I suppose the strong emotions are interrupting the flow of thoughts like debris clogging a pipe.
I’ve been really busy in the last several weeks, really preoccupied and distracted. I’ve struggled with motivation and felt a little paralyzed at times. This is all normal, of course, and I understand all of it, but it is still a struggle for me to accept and be ok with not being ok. I have to ramp up the positive self-talk and keep coaching the voice in my head to go easy on me.
My mind and my heart have often remembered the Camino during this recent episode. I remember that sometimes the path was smooth. Sometimes it was rocky. Sometimes I could see the horizon, fresh, clear, and hopeful, but sometimes I was hemmed in by trees and villages unable to see what was over the next rise or around the next turn. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had companions. Sometimes the direction was certain, but sometimes I was confused about which way to go. Sometimes the wind was at my back, warm and comforting, and sometimes the wind was in my face, bracing and cold. Sometimes I was energized and eager, and sometimes I was tired, frustrated, and aching. Sometimes I struggled up hills and steep inclines, and sometimes I enjoyed the respite of a gentle downhill slope.
So, now. Now I know why I was led, called, to the Camino. It’s laid out now in my soul, a road map to grief and all its many twists, turns, hills, and straightaways. Thank you, Lord, for showing me The Way.
And, just in case you’re wondering, there are more Sunday dinners to come.
This week I was so pleased to make Paul’s Lasagna.
Lasagna is one of those dishes that has no formal recipe but everyone seems to know how to make. Paul’s version of lasagna certainly evolved over the years. He never made it the same way twice, and it was always good. It was also one of a very small set of family favorites that he trusted me, his culinary-challenged woman, to prepare with only a little oversight from him.
He often made lasagna when we had company. So, many of our family and friends out there will remember having Paul’s Lasagna when visiting or having dinner with us. And, of course, lasagna makes great leftovers. True story, I have been known to eat it cold, right out the dish, the next morning. This occasion was no exception.
On this particular evening, I was hosting Paul’s parents and the newest members of our family, my son’s future in-laws.
I began by cooking the lasagna noodles and browning the meat. We use at least nine of the long, flat lasagna noodles per 9×13 casserole dish, but I always cook more than I will need because inevitably one or more of the noodles tear or stick to the pot or something else that makes them unusable. Also, I add a dollup of olive oil to the boiling water. It keeps the noodles from sticking to each other. Occasionally, Paul and I would make the pasta from scratch. If the pasta is fresh, then it does not have to be boiled or pre-cooked. It can be added straight to the lasagna recipe.
Paul used to make lasagna with ground beef but years ago began using mild, Italian sausage instead. I use about a pound of sausage per 9×13 casserole dish. Italian sausage can sometimes be found in the store in bulk but more often I find it packaged already in a casing. Simply remove the casing before browning it in the pan. I find the easiest way to remove it is by using a pair of kitchen shears to cut the casing lengthwise and roll the sausage right out into the pan. Use a spatula to break it into smaller, bite-sized pieces as it is browning.
Once the sausage and noodles are prepped, you’re ready to start assembling the lasagna. I began with a light pour of spaghetti sauce across the bottom of the dish, just enough to cover it from edge to edge. Then, place the first three lasagna noodles lengthwise. More sauce. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. Another layer of lasagna noodles. Sauce again. Alfredo sauce, too. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. You get the idea! One of the layers typically includes ricotta cheese in addition to the shredded cheddar and mozzarella that have already been used in previous layers.
I was feeling sassy so I got creative with a second, smaller lasagna and included a layer of fresh spinach. That’s the beauty of lasagna. You can make it your own by adding whatever ingredients suit your fancy.
Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when you can see it bubbling around the edges. Uncover for the last five minutes to get the cheeses really melt-y. Salad and garlic bread completed the meal.
Dessert was a special one. Both Paul and I are from farming families with fond childhood memories of spending time on the farm. So, throughout our son’s childhood, we would frequently visit the local farm stand of a very large, peach farm, McLeod Farms, in McBee, South Carolina. Their peaches are sold under the Mac’s Pride brand throughout the United States and Canada. They also grow other crops for local sales like corn, blackberries, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, greens, broccoli, okra, and so on.
In the farm stand, you can find fresh produce, baked and canned goods, and homemade ice cream. Families and school groups frequent the farm to walk the fields, pick produce, and visit the tractor museum. There is also a farm-to-table restaurant and annual festivals to celebrate the harvests. Families can go for a hayride or simply sit at the picnic tables or in rocking chairs and enjoy time together. This was the setting of many a well-spent, lazy day for our family.
Each year the farm invites people to enter a contest for the best recipes that utilize the farm’s produce. Paul loved trying out the winning recipes. This dessert, Peach Enchiladas, is one of those winning recipe entries, and it was an instant hit in our family.
Use 4 – 6 fresh peaches. Peel and quarter, and wrap each piece in crescent roll dough. Arrange in a deep baking dish.
Melt two sticks of butter. Add one and one-half cups of sugar and one teaspoon of cinnamon to the melted butter and stir until well blended. Pour or spoon the sugar mixture on top of each wrapped peach quarter.
Finish with the SECRET INGREDIENT…..Moutain Dew! Yes, that’s right. Pour twelve ounces of the good stuff into the dish. Try to avoid pouring it directly over the sugar mixture. Instead, pour it into one of the little, empty spaces between the wrapped peach quarters and let it fill the dish from the bottom.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Through the magic of heat and time, the Mountain Dew transforms into a thick, ooey-gooey, sugary, cinnaminny filling.
My son knew I was making lasagna, but I had not told him what I was serving for dessert. When I took this out of the oven, my son let out an “Ooooo, Mama!” and, with that, I knew I had nailed it!
As I was making, serving, and eating it, I was remembering warm, sunny, clear-blue-sky days of us; riding in the haywagon, walking in the fields, picking berries, and sitting in rocking chairs enjoying homemade strawberry or peach ice cream, laughing, smiling, loving each other.
Those were good, good days, and I am so thankful, Malia