Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Grieving with hope

Can I just be a really sappy Christian and say how much I love the Bible? Just humor me please. Check this out:

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope." 1 Thessalonians 4:13.

This isn't new; I know I've read it before. But just like everything else in the Bible (yes, even including the seemingly boring geneaological lists and the stories about people smiting other people with mighty armies) a verse may just slip through my brain at one time and at another time it seems to jump off the page. Today it was this verse from Thessalonians that jumped off the page and soothed my heart. Yes, I'm grieving the recent loss of my father, my brother, and my dear friend Mike. But faith in God, the belief that Jesus died for our salvation, changes everything. In Christ there is hope. Christians don't have to grieve like others who have no hope.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


For years I walked and walked, probably 5,000 miles, trying to keep my heart beating in my chest at a steady pace. But lately I’ve let the intensity of my walking slip and I now realize how badly I need to get it back. So this morning I walked outside in the cool sunshine, no headphones, just thinking about Mike.

About 15 years ago my long walk began one day early in the autumn, at daybreak. It was the autumn that my husband of 30 years walked out of my life. I was stunned, terrified, in shock; I thought my life was over. Another long sleepless night had led to another dawn. I could not believe that I was still alive, that anyone could survive that kind of heartache and live to see another day. I was desperate, looking for something, anything to stop the pain. I wanted to run away, to disappear, but I had nowhere to go.

About a mile from my house there is a hiking trail that follows the Potomac River for miles on the Virginia side, just north of Washington, DC. It starts down a steep path, across a creek, under the beltway, until it ends at Roosevelt Island. In the first half-mile of the trail, massive concrete and steel supports under the beltway have become a canvas for incomprehensible messages in spray-painted graffiti, and the din of cars and trucks on the bridge above is deafening. But further down the river, the noise and all evidence of civilization quickly fade away. You feel a million miles away.

Without thinking about the consequences, I went to that trail by the river for refuge. I started walking, then began to run. Like a runaway slave, I ran through the woods, along the river, ran through the undergrowth, scrambled up rocks, across the ford at the waterfall. I didn’t encounter anyone else there that morning. I seldom do—there are flocks of crows, ducks in the river and an occasional blue heron, chipmunks, maybe a deer, but rarely other people, especially so early in the day. When the river is low, sometimes I walk across rocks to a small island. But on that autumn morning I didn’t pause long enough to cross to the island. Several miles down the river my legs failed. Finally, physically exhausted and emotionally spent, I stopped. I realized that I had to retrace my steps, to get back or else simply to die there. If I died who would find my body? How long would it take? I thought about the people I love—my children, my family, my friends and I started walking home. Just put one foot in front of the other, over and over again.

I had nearly forgotten how all these miles walking give me time to settle into solitude, to clear my mind, and find an opportunity for reflection. I know that the intensity of the grief of these early days will dissipate. Somehow I will find quiet strength, a sense of resilience, the toughness of scar tissue. I’ll just keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Notes on a broken heart

I’m wrapped in a blanket, sipping tea with honey, listening to African music, nursing a broken heart. I think I really am sick—some sort of virus—but I can’t distinguish physical illness from heartbreak at the moment. It’s all intertwined anyway.

My dear, dear friend Mike died two days ago. My cowboy. He slipped away alone, in the wee hours of the morning, after a long battle with mesothelioma. He didn’t plan on the cancer cutting his life short but he directed every detail of the unraveling of his life. For that, for his intentionality, I give him such credit. He was a strong man.

I have almost never written about Mike on my blog. I found out some time ago that he was a stealth reader of the blog. Occasionally he would slip and tell me it made him laugh or cry. So I wouldn’t dare write about him.

Our relationship defied definition. At one time we were romantically involved but we broke up and got back together so many times that we forgot if we were on or off. We talked about marriage, then decided it wouldn’t work. We settled into a kind of détente—acknowledging that we weren’t headed for anything other than a long-term, deeply caring friendship. And we loved one another. That was enough.

So when he got his cancer diagnosis late in 2010, just before Christmas, I promised him that I would not abandon him, that I would be there with him every step of the way. I kept that promise.

Mike was a quietly intense man. When he got interested in something he pursued that interest with dogged determination. In high school he taught himself how to pole vault and ended up being the South Carolina state champion. He worked to put himself through college. He learned carpentry and became a skilled rock climber and sea kayaker. He learned to play guitar, mandolin, and banjo. And after he and I took a trip to Arizona, he got into horses. He both owned and trained horses. The cowboy version of a Renaissance man.

I met him when he became my guitar teacher. Mike was such a gifted, versatile guitar player. He never was able to teach me to play guitar well, but eventually we played together—Mike on guitar and me on banjo. I learned so much about music from him. He is so deeply enmeshed in my music that I don’t know how I’m ever going to play without him.

In his final weeks of life, Mike became a Christian—the biggest and most wonderful surprise of my life. On the day he was baptized, he said I had taken him on some great adventures, but that was the best of all. Even in his short days as a Christian, he was learning all he could about his faith. And that faith gave him peace and hope for eternal life.

When I was leaving his hospice room, just two days before he died, I said, “Didn’t we just have the best time together?” His response—“Why stop now?”

I miss him today. I’ll miss him tomorrow. I’m probably going to miss him for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Anti VD campaign

Put me firmly on the team that is anti-Valentine's Day. The fact that it can be abbreviated VD is not a coincidence.

In grade school we had a huge box at the front on the room on VD. It was the Baby Boom and it was a Catholic school and there could be over 70 kids in one classroom. Those poor nuns! Honestly, I'm not exaggerating. Everyone would stuff their valentine cards in the box. Until we got into the upper grades, almost everyone in the class brought in cards addressed to almost everyone else in the class. While the cute, popular kids got the full complement of cards, there were a few unfortunate outcasts who got only a handful. People like Joe R. who once smeared snot on my arm. Or Christine M. who sat on the girls' room floor in a puddle of her own urine. In 5th grade. No one sent them cards saying "U R a Q T please B my Valentine."

Donna X. totally gets Joe R. and Christine M. now. In years past I used to get valentines. Occasionally I got flowers. This year I didn't get any cards or any flowers. My mother wished me happy VD when she called me in a panic because the retirement place where she lives lost her monthly payment.

So in honor of this non-event I bought a can of red paint to paint a piece of furniture. The fumes are getting to me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A chronicle of long-gone pets

Something got me thinking about all the pets we had when we were growing up on Apache Street. I realized that—with the exception of the newborn baby rabbits we took from a nest in the woods (our intentions were good but we were fools)—I don’t recall any of our pets dying. Here’s a list of the pets and what happened to them

Gypsy, the black Cocker Spaniel. If memory serves me right, Gypsy was specifically assigned to be the pet of my brother Steve. She bit that bratty Corridon kid across the street. I probably would have bitten the kid myself, had I had the chance. After the biting incident Gypsy was sent away to live on a farm.

Slinky, the mixed breed cat. Slinky was my pet. One day she just disappeared. Fifty years after her disappearance, my mother mentioned how much she hates cats and specifically mentioned that she found Slinky on the kitchen table, licking the butter. Slinky was never seen again. Maybe she went to live on a farm.

Various unnamed pink and yellow Easter chicks. They lost their downy feathers and began to look like real chickens and they pooped a lot wherever they wanted to poop. I don’t believe chickens can be house trained. I think they went to live on Vince’s chicken farm. Now I feel ill—we probably ate them.

Chiffon, my parakeet. I presume Chiffon was a girl, but I have no evidence of that presumption. I pronounced her name “Cheephon” with a French accent because I thought she seemed like a French parakeet. I used to put her under the covers of my bed but she had mites and I think I got the mites too. Chiffon took her cage and moved to a farm.

Oscar, the duck. Yet another Easter pet. Oscar developed a limp and my mother put him in the oven and turned on the gas to put him out of his misery. We were all getting asphyxiated, but every time my mother opened the oven door to see if he was dead, he just looked at her and quacked. So she finally turned off the gas and released him. He never limped again. But soon after the gas chamber failure, he was taken to live on the pond at the local cemetery. Although we couldn’t distinguish Oscar from the other ducks at the cemetery pond, I’m sure he lived a long, happy, limp-free life.

Babette, the Maltese. Babette was a repulsive little dog who smelled bad and had no charm whatsoever, despite her stupid French name. I love dogs and I couldn’t find it in my heart to love Babette. She left one day not long after her arrival and went to live on a farm.

It’s amazing that none of us kids left home to go live on a farm.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rejecting Jesus

I rejected an offer from Jesus today and I’m wondering if it was a big mistake. Do I have too much pride? Do I cling too much to my worldly stuff to accept his offer with humility? Do I put too much value on insignificant things? Oh, Lord, help me see through my greed.

Honestly, I got an e-mail from Jesus, sent at 3:15 this morning on my seldom-used AOL account. I guess Jesus doesn’t sleep like most folks. Or perhaps he’s in a different time zone. Nonetheless, it was a simple message: “30 for the drum. Jesus.” Jesus was a tad curt, wasn’t he? No pleasant greeting, no parables, no mention of blessings or peace be with you. It took a while for it to sink in with me. I thought of all the times I prayed, telling the Lord that I just didn’t understand his will. And now here was a cryptic message from him and still I wasn’t quite sure what he meant about the drum and was it 30 days and 30 nights? And I never imagined I would hear directly from Jesus on e-mail. I thought he was more of a voice-coming-from-the-clouds sort of guy.

Don’t expect me to admit that I’m having visions or that I’ve developed stigmatas in my hands. Lest you think this is some sort of indiscernible message from the real Jesus, let me offer an explanation. I have a djembe (a tribal drum from West Africa) for sale on Craig’s List. Some guy named Jesus was offering me a mere $30 for the drum that is a huge bargain at the $65 listed price.

I told Jesus no, I appreciated his offer, but it just wasn’t enough.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Been in the storm so long

I’m reading Psalms—the Song of Ascents—and listening to African American spirituals. I put one of the songs on replay, playing it over and over again. It gives me the shivers. It’s the raw, powerful, mournful voice of a woman named Mary Pinckney singing I’ve Been in the Storm So Long. It’s an old field recording of the Gullah people on Johns Island, South Carolina. Mary Pinckney sings:

I’ve been in the storm so long.  
I've been in the storm so long.
I've been in the storm so long.
Oh, Lord, give me my time to pray.
I’ve been in the storm so long. . .

There’s a theme here, a theme that resonates through time from the Old Testament to the time of slavery to the present. God's people see themselves through troubles by lifting up their hearts to the Lord in prayer.

Psalm 121:

 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
   From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth.

Bury grief, plant a seed

Today I was driving around, running errands just to keep busy. I needed distraction, something, anything to keep me from spending the day with either tears or doughnuts or both. Lynne Rossetto Kasper was doing her food show on the radio. I love her show and hoped she would inspire me to go home and cook something fabulous. But I only caught the show near the end of an interview about a seed distribution program for farmers in Iraq. In closing the show, she quoted an old German proverb: To bury grief, plant a seed.

At first I was disappointed that I had missed my usual food inspiration. But the quote was simple enough to remember and, since I was coping (or not coping) with too much grief, it sunk in to my muddled brain. Grief, I thought. Yes, I need to bury grief. I need to go on, to live, to find hope. Perhaps I need to plant a seed. So I did get another kind of inspiration, just not what I expected.

Now this seed could be a real seed—like I could work on my garden, but it’s too cold and I’m moving on to the metaphorical seed concept. I’m deep in to the grieving now but I know that that eventually I’ll exit this version of hell. Life springs from death. Growth can follow intense sorrow. Kindness, patience, compassion, love . . . perhaps all of these can become more sacred when we realize how easily life can slip away. I’ll catch my breath, pray, and believe that with faith the sorrow can be transformed into joyful regeneration. And I’m going to buy some packets of seeds just to remind me that I need to sow some seeds of joy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Death cycle

It’s after 1 o’clock in the morning. I should be in my warm bed, fast asleep. But sleep is something I don’t do well. I’ve got other things on my mind.

For example, I’ve got a project swirling around in my head and I’m thinking about fabric textures and colors and exactly how I’m going to construct this crazy thing. But tomorrow I’ll go to the fabric store and will begin to work it out and hope the sewing machine is strong enough. This is what I do—get crazy ideas and then obsess about getting them done. Like painting the armoire at 2 a.m. Oh, well. . . .

Then there’s the whole life and death thing that’s wrapped around my neck like a boa constrictor. I really don’t mind snakes, wish I could find that old photo of myself with a boa around my neck, but the strangulation could be a problem. I can’t work with this life and death thing like I do other projects—there’s nothing tangible I can do about it. No fabric, no paint, no planning. But still, I begin to see my brain go there, lights out, under the covers in my warm bed, and then I start getting worked up. Next thing I’m out of the bed, I fire up the computer, and I’m getting upset, figuring I can make some sense out of it, create order where there is none. Like I’m really going to find some sort of understanding of life and death. Oh, no, mon amie, that is to laugh. (I’m writing that in a French accent.)

I’m in this stinking death cycle. First my father died—it was horrible, heart-breaking. I truly loved that man and wasn’t ready to lose him. Less than a year after my father died, my brother Mark was murdered, shot in the back in his own front yard by an angry neighbor, just because my brother’s dog walked into the neighbor’s yard. I truly loved my little brother and wasn’t ready to lose him either. How could I have been? And now Mike—the one who shares my crazy adventures, my music companion, the best guitar player I know, my dear, dear friend—is dying from mesothelioma. I truly love that man and I’m not ready to lose him either.

In a little over a year—three men who have been deeply intertwined in my life—dying. Somehow the cumulative effect of these three seems more than just one plus one plus one. It seems unreal, like it's not my life. Did I step off the universe and get sucked up into a death cycle in an alternative universe, a world that looks strangely like my own, but can't be? Can I please return to the life I knew before? Can someone pull the brakes on this cycle? I’m tired and I just can’t take any more heartbreak.