Grief is heavy today. It’s awkward and cumbersome and frustrating and surprising. Weird that it’s surprising, right? But it is, because so far the holiday season has been pretty much lovely. It’s been fun to decorate and plan and shop and not worry about how Steve is or where we’re at in the Shadowland. It hasn’t been overly-emotional or difficult and so maybe I thought I had moved into a new phase or something. Not “through it” or “over it”, because I’m not yet convinced those phases exist, but maybe I thought I had moved into the “handling it” phase, like I had Olivia Pope’d my grief – all efficient and decisive and in control. Heh.
This side-road of sadness snuck up on me because last week was awesome. And Sunday was great. It was full of family and really fun. But Sunday night, I felt the clouds roll in and I think I’ve identified the trigger point and I fear it’s going to sound crazy when I tell you what it was, but I’m telling you anyway because then you can tell me I am, in fact, not crazy. So, I started on the gift-wrapping and it was going fine, until it came time to sign the tag. To Josiah. From…my pen hung in the air for a long time until I found the courage to write it. Love, Mom. Just Mom. To Corey. From….Bo. Just Bo. Seeing my name all alone on the card made me feel as alone as I have felt since Steve went home and it made my kids look truly and honestly fatherless for the first time ever.
And that’s when the clouds rolled in, grey and weighty, with a suffocating kind of sadness. Usually they move in and out pretty quickly. This time, they’ve lingered longer than I’d like – through two nights and two mornings and three coffee meetings and two Christmas movies. Through driving and shopping and still more gift-wrapping. I’ve fought it, but not very passionately. I’ve jabbed at the air a bit, but I don’t think I’ve landed a real punch yet. Grief makes you tired, is the thing, and sort of wild-eyed so I feel my aim is off.
This morning, I woke up and my Year of Yes seemed not just impossible, but invisible. Impossible, I can do. I like impossible. The quickest way to get me moving is to tell me it can’t be done. But invisible? Different story. Today I have felt sorrow-blind, widow-blind and, consequently, Yes-blind.
But here’s what I know: I am following the One who can see in the dark. I am living in relationship with the Light of the Whole Wide World, and though this corner is blind, He sees the entire road. If I could see, I wouldn’t need Him to lead. But I can’t, so I do. I need Him. So much.
Because I have no other weapon to wield, I’m saying Yes to Day 143. The only day I can see. The only truth I know – that He is good and all He does is beautiful. He will be beautiful to me and in me and through me. Yes to that truth. Yes to light. Yes to life.
Those who walked in the dark have seen a bright light. And it shines upon everyone who lives in the land of darkest shadows. Isaiah 9:2
My year of Yes kicks off with a biggie: snow.
I live in the mountains and I love it…in the summer. Our summers are glorious. But winter snow, while lovely to look at from the couch, creates issues in my single-mom life, which are as follows:
- Driving in it.
- Shoveling it.
- I hate being cold.
And finally – and here’s a big and intimate one – snow is, for whatever reason, romantic to me. Steve loved it – I mean he loved, LOVED it. That’s why he moved us here. He loved watching it fall. He even loved shoveling. And every time it snowed at night, we would open the blinds on our window and lay in bed and watch it fall. So, this year, the thought of snow feels especially cold and especially lonely.
However, here’s a thing and this thing is undeniable: Snow is going to fall in Central Oregon and it’s going to fall often. In fact, it would appear that it’s going to fall tomorrow. I cannot say No to snow. It will not listen (and the skiers will want to punch me.) Since snow is coming regardless, I have been thinking about what I can say Yes to. Surely, there’s something snow can bring to my life if I will say Yes, instead of kicking and screaming. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
- Yes to tradition. Since my kids were teenies, we have celebrated the first day of snow with hot chocolate and buttered toast. Now that some of them are older, we also celebrate by meeting at one of our favorite restaurants for hot buttered rum. These are gifts of snow and relationship. They are gifts of our history, but they are tied to the white stuff and so I am thankful for it.
- Yes to gratitude. Nothing makes my house feel warmer inside, than snow on the outside. I will light a fire in the wood stove and be thankful for shelter.
- Yes to memories. It’s tempting right now to keep tender memories of life with Steve buried out of reach and out of touch. I would focus entirely on moving forward if I thought I could get away with it. But I know I can’t. I know grief is sneaky – it doesn’t just stay where we put it because we tell it to. I’m trying to learn to leverage the moments where his absence is most profound and poignant to fully feel and express what I’m feeling to the only One who is able to walk me through those waves of sorrow. This first snow without Steve is a chance to feel his absence from another angle. The kids and I will tell stories about him loving foul weather and we’ll laugh and clink our hot chocolate mugs to his memory. And I will say Yes to the memories and the bittersweet work they do in my soul.
UPDATE 11/30/15: This is Day 7 of Snowpocalypse. The snow fell and fell and fell (a foot and a half!) along with the temperatures, which means: it’s STILL HERE. What we have now is a tangled mess of icy snarls on the roads. I’m glad I wrote this before it came, because I had to remind myself of my Yes decision about four hundred times: As I shoveled and scraped, as I braved the mountain pass to go to an important family event, as one car’s door locks froze and refused to budge, as I rescued Tori from the hospital parking lot where her little car hunkered down for the duration.
I didn’t live my Yes as perfectly as I had planned it. There were moments of fist-shaking and sigh-making, but I DID, I’m happy to say, do better than I would have otherwise. I embraced the adventure of the crazy Bend streets and the way our city comes together during storms. I was overcome with gratitude for my car and it’s scrappy, gutsy snow faring ways. I bought snow tires – a decision I had been on the fence about, but I’m so glad I did it. I drank a lot of hot chocolate with my kids and watched about a million Thanksgiving episodes of sitcoms.
And finally, I took a late-night walk in the falling snow and had a little talk with Steve. I thanked him for teaching me to love all kinds of weather. I thanked him for all those years of shoveling with not a single complaint. I told him I missed him quite desperately, but was doing pretty well considering I’m just a girl with the shakiest-possible Yes. And in that pretty, white dream of a night, Steve’s smiles fell soft all around me, glistening and glimmering, and I scooped them up and tucked them away for the next Yes.
Yes to tradition. Yes to gratitude. Yes to memories.
Thank you, Snow.
I’ve just finished reading a book that got me thinking, which turned to dreaming, which turned to planning. I started crafting ways that I could live out one tiny-giant word this year. Excitement keeps gaining steam as I think about it, and excitement is a such a strange and welcome emotion in my world right now that I’ve decided I picked the right word for 2016.
The word is Yes.
For five years, I’ve been following stringent schedules and playing by an invisible set of intractable rules that go along with the situations my family faced: first terminal illness, then grieving. I said Yes to the things that had to be done every day and every night and I honestly had very little Yes-power after that. My life was built around the have-to’s and some of those have-to’s had life-and-death implications which made them very important, but also very difficult and stressful. I remember telling my mom about a thousand times, “I feel like I’m drowning and while I’m drowning, I’m also trying to keep Steve from drowning.” I’m truly not complaining – it was an honor to tread water for him, but something happened to my thinking during that time. It became survival-oriented. Stop-the-bleeding. And in order to do those important things, I had to say a lot of No’s to everything else.
Now, however, the Yes’s are mine to say or not say. They are here in front of me like apples on a tree. Yes. It’s a glorious, life-giving word if I’ll choose to see it as such.
But the thing is: Life still hurts. That’s just the truth of it. And sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the pain to a world of possibilities. Sometimes I’d like to sink into the sadness of what I’ve lost rather than fixing my vision on what remains. Keeping right perspective and staying out of the ditch of discouragement is one of the most difficult things I’ve done.
That’s why Yes. Yes moves me forward. Yes keeps me thankful. Yes makes me brave. Yes flings joyful question marks like confetti over the landscape of my future. Yes. What if I said it a lot? What if I said it every day? Yes to joy. Yes to hope. Yes to things that scare me. Yes to compassion. Yes to greater purpose. Yes to rest. Yes to all-caps LIFE.
The mind reels.
And the heart sings (and also shakes a little, if I’m being honest.)
Because Yes is a wild and wonderful word.
And it is my word to spend freely on the year ahead.
Yes. 2016 starts today.
Today marks the last day of the fourth month since Steve went home. I have been processing by writing nearly every day, though I’ve only updated the blog a handful of times. I’ve been reluctant to share this part of the journey publicly, not just because it’s pretty raw, but also because I haven’t really trusted my feelings from day to day. Well, no. That’s not right. My feelings are my feelings; they don’t need to prove anything to be valid. Even if those feelings don’t last all day, they are legitimate emotions when I feel them. What I haven’t been able to trust are the conclusions I tend to draw from them because my brain has been so crowded with questions – the noisiest, bossiest questions I have ever faced.
Some are general living questions, like: What do I do with the house? How do I use my money wisely? How much should I travel and speak? Or manage my time in general? Who do I call with questions about my sprinkler system?
And then there are intimate, edgy questions, like: When do I move Steve’s collection of golf hats out of the closet? How do I parent kids who are living through grief while I am also living through grief? Who will take care of me when I get the flu? Should I keep wearing my wedding ring indefinitely or not?
The first month was like living inside a ball of yarn, trying to punch my way out. The harder I punched, the more the tangle tightened. Around day 27, I finally reverted to the old technique for escaping a Chinese finger trap: Relax. Go limp. Stop fighting. Rest. Countless times, I have stopped a runaway train of thought by saying out loud, You don’t have to know right now, Bo. Just relax.
I’ve learned a lot in this season of waiting and resting and I’ve mostly been letting life happen. If I feel like getting stuff done, I get stuff done. If I feel like binge watching Parks & Rec, I do it. When cooking sounds fun, I fill my kitchen with my favorite food and people. When it doesn’t, I grab a kid or a friend and go out for dinner. In my very short time as a widow (a word that I’m not sure will ever sound right), I’ve been to more movies than in the previous ten years combined. Instead of three miles a day religiously, I run…whenever I feel like it. It’s like I’ve turned into the anti-Bo, but it’s been really good. I will always look back on these 120 days as an oasis in the back country of the Shadowlands. I’ve been kind to myself and I’ve learned that the questions don’t go away at the oasis, but they can wait. This is not a season I would be anxious to repeat, but I will be grateful for it forever.
Having said that, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt the unmistakeable movement of a turning tide. It’s not that the season of grief is over, or ever will be (it helped a lot when I stopped expecting it to end.) It’s that I feel my heart moving from recovery mode to reconstruction mode. I remember the first morning I woke up with a strange excitement bubbling beneath the surface. Is there such thing as “solemn excitement”? If so, that’s what I felt. I began writing down some new ideas and reminding myself of some old dreams. Then a few trusted friends posed carefully-worded suggestions that I knew were meant to nudge me toward the daring idea that maybe my future had not been buried with Steve. Ironically, from the day of my husband’s diagnosis, he began telling me that no matter where the road took him, he believed my best days were still ahead. It used to annoy me so, so much. I would sob and shake and tell him, “I can’t hear you say this right now. I can’t think ahead that far without feeling like my whole life is ending.” He would smile sadly and pat my head and say, “But someday you’ll be glad I said it.” And he was right. I’m already glad he said it. Maybe someday I’ll also believe he was right. I’m not there yet, but maybe someday.
So, today, on the threshold of month five, I am here to say that I am changing. I am growing. I have wrestled down answers to the immediate, essential questions (keeping the house! found the sprinkler guy!) and am hearing whispers for those that will shape my future (hint: it involves tuition and tests and scares me a lot!) I am rebuilding on this broken ground and grief is still very present here, but it’s partnered up with hope and they’re dancing – sometimes well, sometimes super awkwardly – together.
Over the next few months, I’ll talk a little more about the answers to some of my questions and the plans that are forming as Part 2 of Plan A unfolds, but for now I want to close out month four with this promise from Jeremiah, which hangs over my desk and has become the only thing I really need to know:
I will give those who are weary all they need and refresh everyone who is filled with sorrow. Jeremiah 31:25
With hope for all we need,
I am cooking tonight.
Cooking isn’t unusual for me – I try to cook dinner for my kids several nights each week, and we have our big family dinner every Sunday, so cooking is regular. But tonight, I’m cooking alone. Tori and Tess have things going that adult kids tend to have. Josiah is at church. I am alone. And I don’t mind being alone – in fact, after a busy, people-filled day, the introvert in me is happy to sink into an evening filled with solitude and good food.
But, the thing is, I can’t stop my mind from running ahead. It keeps racing out of the here-and-now, to a day not so far away, when this will be my normal. Tess gets married in January. Tori moves into her own place in February. Josiah goes to college in 2 & 1/2 years and is gone a whole lot even now.
I look at the six, fat bratwurst browning in the skillet and remember how my grandmother squirreled so many leftovers away in her fridge. She just couldn’t learn to cook for one and I’m not sure she ever really tried.
I try unsuccessfully to deflect the feelings I’m unprepared to process. I am fifteen years younger than my grandmother was when she was widowed. It seems I have a long road ahead, and that road is apparently filled with a lot of leftovers, which makes me wonder if I’ll hate being really and truly alone. Almost as soon as that thought bubbles up to the surface, my mind starts racing for solutions which include, but are not limited to: 1) Have friends over for dinner 2) Have homeless people over for dinner 3) Stop eating dinner.
But I love to cook. It’s therapy for me. And Steve loved to eat what I cooked. It was therapy for him. I would give about anything for the chance to keep making moussaka and curry and shepherd’s pie for that guy for the next thirty years. But plans change and people go and then we have decisions to make about why we do the things we do and what it would mean if we stopped.To stop cooking would be to hand more of my life over to the greedy abyss that is ALS and I just will not, cannot do it. It doesn’t get to win this one.
Dinner is ready. Sausage, maple glazed butternut squash, roasted broccoli, and way too much of it. But it is delicious and I feel warmed and fed in a world where so many will go to bed tonight alone and hungry. The minute I lose sight of that, I’ve become the very thing I swore I would never become (starts with a v and ends with ictum.) Again I’ll say: ALS doesn’t get to win this. It doesn’t get to slap labels on lapels. Not without a fight.
So, cook I shall. For many or for me. For life. For love. For Steve.
It’s just the right thing to do.