Even in the face of death, “life goes on.” It’ll break your heart, it’ll piss you off. But it does. It goes on.
When we suffer a heart shattering loss, one that comes suddenly and too soon, it’s enough to make us scream … at the sky, at the mirror, at God … at the birds, so arrogantly singing in the trees, as if nothing has happened. What are they doing? Don’t they know?
Part of the heartbreak is that we’re still alive. And there’s a part of us that wishes we weren’t.
But time passes. We cope, as we must. And Faith … which is a comfort most days … becomes a sharp-edged action word. A word we’ll grip in our hands with the tears streaming. With our teeth gritted. Holding onto it, almost in spite of ourselves. Letting it cut us till we bleed. Wishing it would.
Because how else will we hold onto it at all?
When someone is suddenly taken from us, it’s so confusing. In an instant, life itself explodes to the surface. It’s impossible to know which step to take. It’s everything, all at once. And it’s nothing at all.
We try to think how to move from this day to the next. But thinking is impossible. So we just try to find our feet.
When, after many months, we’re starting to have snippets of time when we feel okay, we’re quickly plunged into guilt and grief, because what right do we have to feel “okay?” We don’t even want to! This all needs to stop!
But the world keeps turning. And we keep moving forward. It’s not easy. One day, far into the future, we will have beautiful memories to look back on. Memories that will warm our hearts, and make us smile.
But today we are in the wreckage, not wanting to leave it if it means leaving her, but trying to find our way out because nothing is the same. And it never will be.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one. You will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around what you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone. Or to know if what you’re doing is helping, and you should do more … or should you do less? Maybe a little bit quieter … or louder. Maybe do it from way over here. Or not at all. Then again, maybe just shut up and get to it.
My brother’s wife died in January. She was mid sixties, a vivacious woman who finally collapsed into the Parkinsons that took over her body, and her mind. Bob was at work when the call came from Kathy, Lyn’s caretaker:
“You need to get home. Now.” He hung up the phone and rushed to the house.
I don’t know the particulars; I do know the doctor was there. And that it was, sadly, time. Lyn could not have weighed a hundred pounds. She deserved to finally be at peace. So, that January day, she let go.
My brother texted me: “Lyn’s gone.” When I saw the text, I called. He was his typical stoic self, but I thought I could hear past Bob’s weary “take care of business” voice. He was drifting, and putting together what needed to be done now, and next, and next, and then … it was a sort of roadmap that kept him tethered to the ground, kept him from collapsing in an exhausted, heartbroken heap.
I’m his big sister. He’s my little brother. We grew up in the family foxhole together. We dodged many of the same alcohol-fueled, rage-filled bullets. We are the only two of the six of us kids who share that childhood. Our parents changed as parents do, with successive children. But we were the first: Thing one and Thing two.
So I felt a sort of desperate need to help hold his pieces together. I went to him in Memphis.
Through the past six years, when Lyn was dealing with, then coping with, then had no clue about, what was happening to her, Bob had enlisted my help a few times. I was glad to give it. We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.
When I got to Memphis after Lyn’s death, I walked into the house. I was a bit startled; by the looks of things. The house itself was heartbroken.
Lyn didn’t want a funeral, and she’d asked to be cremated. Bob honored her wishes, and instead threw a party in April, on her Birthday. By now we’d chosen paint colors and freshened up all the public areas of the house. The party was a great success, and a weight was lifted from my bother’s shoulders.
Now, he’s learning how to live a life where he can go, and do, whatever he wants. It’s both a blessing and a curse; full of stops, starts, and those moments when the ache of missing her takes his breath. But he’s got this. And I’m here for him, always, ready to help in whatever way he needs.
Lately I’ve been wondering how much of me is left. I mean, when I think back, it seems like there have been at least a couple of incarnations in this one lifetime. I was someone’s kid in the first lifetime, and a sister. In the second lifetime I was someone’s wife, and mother. How much of me did that use up? By the time I became a wife, did I remember who that girl was? Was I still that person? Today I’m someone’s mother, someone’s mother in law, and someone’s grandmother. What about that kid? Is she still here? Does she know how old we are? Is she observing the relationship challenges, the unreached horizons that float in the mist, just ahead of wherever it is I am? Or is she the one driving me forward?
It’s funny. These days there’s a familiar authenticity inside my skin; is this what she felt then? Or is that dementia? Is that old age? I don’t know. But I can tell you this: I feel more on purpose than I’ve felt since I was five. Since I was the kid on that swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion, crying because I couldn’t write a song like the ones on the radio. I don’t cry about that now. Today I’m grown up, and I write songs for a living. Does she know?
When I work on the various projects that keep my passions fired, I feel her here. She sits across the table, smiling at me, her chin resting on one dimpled hand.
I also feel her tears. When my Daddy — OUR Daddy — died earlier this year, she is the one who cried into my pillow. She’s also the one who took my sister’s face in her hands at the funeral home and told her everything was okay. In many ways I felt like I was watching her do that. I was the observer. Looking back at that weekend, I realize the girl of me led us through it with her broken heart wide open, loving everybody as big as she could.
Since then, she and I have hit a rough patch. One where healing and grief keep getting locked in hand to hand combat. It leaves me bone weary, and she’s trying to make sense of it all.
When I lie down and rest my head in the dark, I feel her there. She keeps watch through the night. Sometimes in that space between awake and asleep, I hear her whisper, “Daddy always believed in us.” The adult of we never thought so. The girl of we always knew.
There are those who would call me daft for seeing us as two separate people. Shrinks might tell me to “integrate.” I reject that clinical diagnosis. The adult mind lives on the surface where life appears steady, things are kept in tidy lines, and all rules apply. But the child mind is boundless; it explores below the surface. There are times I need to get hopelessly lost in her world of unseen wonder, secret caverns, mighty whirlwinds, and fragments of dreams unlived. This is where the thrill of excitement rides in on a sunbeam, where fragile hearts dive deep, shatter and heal, only to dive deep again.
Not breaking through the surface with her would pose a far greater risk to my Spirit. I cannot bear the thought of skimming the top, and never living the we of me at all.
If Daddy can see us, we know he’s proud.
Women all over the world are dealing with separation and divorce. Many believe they are alone in their relationship drama; they think theirs is a unique situation, a solitary journey, with no hope at the end of the road.
I want to spread the word that we are a global community of women whose hearts have been softened by the breaks they have endured.
I met my husband our freshman year in college. We were both singers in a rock band. I can think back and realize that I had two visceral responses: revulsion and connection. That might sound strange, but I don’t think it’s unusual for a girl who had no clue what a “gut feeling” was, or what to do about it. Most of us – if we’d followed our guts in the first place – would not have made the choices we’ve made.
First rehearsal he was big and hairy, the center of the universe, he cracked jokes and tuned his guitar with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The first time he ever talked to me, he called me “Babe.” Normally that would have turned me off completely. But from him it was a fish hook, and I was a carp.
He was a charmingly thoughtless boyfriend, sweet but self-centered, and stayed drunk or hungover most of the time. In my purse I carried a big bottle of aspirin and a roll of Tums, because he needed them on a regular basis. He was a popular guy around campus, a reckless boy who was driven by booze, cigarettes, and rock and roll. I’d led a small, cloistered life. In my mind, I was walking on the wild side. We had sex early on he was my first. We used no protection. It was the sixties, and society said l-u-v was free. My woolly boyfriend and I got married in September, less than a year after we met. I was Catholic, and pregnant. He was Southern Baptist and he was nineteen. His father had to sign for us to go before the judge. We were perfect together, a match made in a textbook on dysfunction and codependence.
I was born in the late 1940s, so I had this idea that love conquers all (though I’d never seen it happen), life could be beautiful (though so far for me it hadn’t been), and that babies were the glue that holds things together.
We were nineteen and twenty when our daughter was born. Our son was born two years later.
We were married for almost twenty-five years. We divorced in 1991, and since then I have allowed myself to see – through therapy and self-discovery – how rose-colored my glasses really were.
The first thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that my husband and I were in two different relationships. I never thought about cheating because it’s not in my nature to cheat. He thought I was cheating all the time, because he was a cheater. So he accused me, and I comforted him.
There were sweet moments, the times “between the cheats.” During those periods he was like a little boy making me laugh, unsure of himself, needing to talk, take long walks holding hands, calling several times during the day. It wasn’t until the marriage was over and I was in therapy that I was able to recognize the pattern of adultery. You could chart it on a graph, like the Dow Jones report. When my therapist made me see it, when it finally registered, inside I let out a birthing cry that, though it’s grown quieter through the years, is still there.
In the end my husband was so deliberately cruel, so public in that last Big Affair, that I literally felt myself going crazy. I was convinced that he was setting me up to kill myself. I went so far as to write my attorney, my brother, and my therapist, assuring them all that if anything happened to me, it would not have been by my own hand. Yes, I was a little paranoid; I quit going to the grocery store because I was certain that the shoppers were whispering to each other about me through the shelves of soup cans. My eyelashes fell out, my hair dropped in clumps, I didn’t sleep for days at a time.
I started writing a lot. I bought an old IBM selectric, and taught myself to type so I could go faster. I wrote frantically; sometimes I would start at suppertime with a bowl of cereal on the table next to me, and find myself still writing when the sun came up. The cereal had turned to mush, and the floor was covered with pages. I had to get it out of me, had to park it somewhere. And so I did. It was cathartic, the writing.
There are so many facets that go into making us who we are. Through the years we chip off pieces of ourselves in order to stay small enough for the love we’re in. But when we find ourselves alone and our heads begin to clear, those pieces we’d abandoned show up again. It shocks us, because we never made a conscious decision to surrender them at all.
When I moved out of our home and into my own place, it was the first time I had ever lived alone. I was startled when I realized that I didn’t know what kind of music I liked. Music played in our house all the time, but the choice was always his or the kids and I went along with it. I mean, I enjoyed it enough. But now it was my choice. I had no idea. He kept the CD’s, so I went to Tower Records and wandered around for a couple of hours. I looked at everything. I listened at every listening station. I ended up buying Enja, Muddy Waters, and a Big Band compilation.
They say that time heals wounds. I don’t believe it. I think time takes us farther and farther from the source of our wounds, but it’s up to us to heal ourselves. That was my goal – to heal myself without turning my heart to stone.
My journey over the last decade or so has taught me a lot about who I am, and about the process of getting to here from there. In fact, now when read I what I wrote back at that kitchen table, I am stunned by the story written there. Who was that woman? Can I have been she? It feels remote, mostly disconnected from me. Yet the remnants of that past continue to color, in a variety of ways, the days of my life now.
For example, I’ve learned the subtle but profound difference between loneliness and solitude. During the first days, weeks, months of my independence I was embroiled in the seas of loneliness and longing. Stay with that long enough, it will wear you to the bone. There comes a time when you literally have to say, Okay, I’m giving notice to the both of you: Longing, you have visiting privileges, but you can no longer live here. Fifteen minutes, once a week, that’s it. Loneliness, you have two hours to leave. Pack up and get out. I have two new roommates moving in today. Their names are Comfort and Solitude.
Comfort was tricky. I had spent my life creating comfort for others. I couldn’t wrap my brain around how to do that for me. My therapist said, “Cece, make a list of the things that you would do for a friend who is going through what you are. Then do all those things for yourself.”
At first I was self-conscious. But I made my list. Flowers, massages, facials, pedicures, a nice meal out after church on Sunday afternoons. I literally felt guilty for being kind to me. I had to be deliberate, fight the resistance; for many, many months it seemed totally unnatural. Today it feels normal, and I know that it’s that very self-nurturing that has kept my heart soft, my spirit hopeful. I can tell you honestly that today I am able to see the goodness and the possibilities in life. And what I now know is that an empty glass cannot fill others. When we don’t fill ourselves first, there’s nothing to spill on anyone else.
Solitude bears a special quality. There’s a freedom to do, be, or say whatever the heart calls for. No ridicule. Linen cases on the pillows, starched and pressed; waking in the pre-dawn and lying in the quiet, listening to the birds in the crabapple; rolling out of bed and taking time – personal, quiet time – to wash face, brush teeth, open curtains, peer out at the day. So far, no word has been spoken. None are needed. Look in the mirror. The message is clear: you, and all your choices, are welcome here.
It’s funny how, when I think back on that night, I can see the silence was bigger than anything else. It was bigger than the darkness. It was bigger than the moonlight that dappled the room with lacey patterns through the curtain at the front window. It was bigger than him, sitting on that sofa. It was bigger than me, standing in the doorway. That night, everything seemed bigger than me. The clock ticked. The children were upstairs sleeping but I swear I could hear them breathing. Soft, rhythmic, surrendered. But there, in that little living room: Silence. He sat. Across the room, I stood.
“How much of you did she have?” The words hung in the air like balls, floating on water. I heard them, then realized it was my own voice.
“She had all of me.”
In the room: Silence.
In my head: A sort of screaming that, though through the years would grow faint, would never, ever stop.
No one tells you that your moment of confirmation, of validation, can also be the single most horrifying moment of your life. What do you do, once you hold the truth? Where do you go with it? What pocket do you tuck it into? Do you take it, like old ticket stubs, and paste it in into a scrapbook? Do you also glue pictures of your heart, the night it shattered?
Strength is sometimes overrated. But in the end, it’s strength you need, if only to find your bones, and tell them to stand up, to move your body forward, mind your broken heart, and – because you have not yet been given a pass to leave the planet – carry on as best they can.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table, studying the palm of my hand, and waiting for snow.
The house is warm, but my nose is cold. The wintry chill around the edges of the house drives me to the center so I’m here, at this table. And thinking of building a fire.
But these lines. They’ve been on my palms since I grew hands while in my mother’s belly. Had I known them to reveal things, had I known there was a map, I might have done life differently. I might have checked the highway that starts at my wrist and curves up to the center-point between my thumb and forefinger.
I would have read the road signs held in the two that cross from left and right.
Years ago I went to a palm reader in New Orleans. I was newly divorced and trying to figure out how to navigate in the world as nobody’s anything. The palm reader looked at my hands, traced the lines she saw, and nodded.
“Three children.” I shook my head.
“No. Only two. Two children.”
“Oh well,” she said, still looking at my hand, “You will have a third. There are three children here.” She looked up and smiled.
I paid, left as quickly as I could, got outside, leaned against the wall, folded into myself, and tried to breathe. Apparently my palms didn’t show the complete hysterectomy I’d had the week of my twenty seventh birthday. There would be no more children. But I could still feel her fingernail tracing that line. I looked at my palm. How could she see that? How did she see the one I lost? How is that written there? I choked back sobs, slouched against a building in the French Quarter. I’m teary now, just writing the words. So be it. The question I had, and still have, is this: is my story really written here? Right here? And how I could never read it, never even know it was here to be read?
I had wanted a house filled with children, but looking back – even through the grief of loss – I can see it all came together exactly as it should have.
Life is a fascinating tapestry of love and its heartbreak, growth and its pain, choices and their consequences … and the freedom to know that all things work for good in the hearts of those who believe.
So I sit here, check the weather forecast, watch The King’s Speech, and … realize that I’m idly running my finger across the line. The one that told her there were three. And I remember: whatever any of us might think we know about anything, we don’t know everything … we simply cannot. We’re inside it, looking out. There’s a certain relief in that, really. And how exciting it is to be aware that there’s always more to learn, reasons to wake each day, eager to wrap our arms around this miracle of life.