The Presence in her Absence

Most of the time I see my sister in waking moments. But on September 30, 2014, I was getting ready for work when the dream I had the night before rushed into my awareness. It was one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had, and although it is rare for me to remember even pieces of a dream, I recalled this one in its entirety.

I had wandered off the streets of downtown Nashville into a sparsely occupied coffee shop. I sat down at a small table to the right of the door and wondered what to order. When the door opened again, I looked up and in she walked. Her bell bottom jeans brushed softly against the wooden floorboards. She was wearing a loose-fitting plaid shirt, untucked at the waist. The long dark brown hair that hung limply from her head was tucked back behind the ears. Her face was troubled. I stared for several seconds. A double-take later, I realized I was looking at my sister, circa 1977. “You cannot be here,” I thought, “you’re dead!” She did not look in my direction as she sat down at the large table next to mine. Her back was to me.

More people trickled in. I did not recognize any of them, but I somehow knew they were friends of hers from college days. They filled up the empty seats around the table she had chosen, and soon an animated conversation about life and God ensued. I was mesmerized by her presence and could not take my eyes off of her. I sat, watched, and listened, resisting the urge to get up and join the group. I wanted to interrupt, to tell her how much I miss her. But I had the distinct impression that she would not have heard me anyway.

The veracity of the New Testament was the subject of the discussion. Of all people, my sister was patiently explaining the texts regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The young man sitting nearest her commented, “You don’t really believe that stuff, do you?” She replied in a calm voice, “Of course I do.” I got the sense from her statement that she was talking about something more definitive than faith or belief, something more like knowing. It dawned on me that now she sees and knows clearly, even as she has always been seen and known. For her, there are no doubts or uncertainties, only truth and love – oh, so much love.

I wanted nothing more than to stay there in that room, watching her, listening to her voice. Having a dream like that helps heal the scar of loss. Waking from a dream like that leaves a brand new one.

IMG_1217
Sunset on New Year’s Eve, 2014.

On the drive home that night, I thought again about the movie, What Dreams May Come and Robin Williams’s dip in paint. My sister adored color. I have known since the day she left this world that she sees it now like never before. That sunset gave me a little preview. She has painted lots more sunsets for me since then – each of them a creative masterpiece. I know that one day we will swim in them together.

One time at the beach, I asked her to draw the ocean for me. She did it, but then kept insisting she had not gotten the waves or the light quite right. I always thought that the waves and the light in her beach drawing had been perfect, but in this life, my sister had never been able to appreciate her own brilliance. The splash of color across that twilit sky on New Year’s Eve told a different story, a story of artistic abandon transcending the need to get things ‘just right’.

~ ~ ~

For many years I have had a vision of a house sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean. A garden stretches out in front of it, filled with every kind of flower. Now that she is gone, I can see her there, tending to the plants, anticipating my arrival. I should have known all along it was her garden.

Tattoo March 3 2016
Second star on the right and straight on ’til morning. – Peter Pan

Hawks still visit me from time to time. Her way of watching over me, I suppose. Love you bunches & bunches and tons & tons, Ditty.

~ Your Little Sis

Winging It

For my Sister, who I will always remember as Peter Pan.

From my window seat I gazed out at rivers and roads as they wound their ways over the landscape below, occasionally dimmed by my tears.
From my window seat I gazed out at rivers and roads as they wound along over the landscape, occasionally blurred by tears.

 

Two winding roads brought us here

with twists and turns

unexpected

 

Like ribbons intertwined

our paths would cross

until

 

Separately we traveled

each path’s distance

unknown

 

One winding road leads me on

with bends and forks

unforeseen

 

My path’s sharp angles

obscure choices ahead

unwritten

 

Always looking, searching

plagued with questions

unanswered

 

Looking through your eyes

or you through mine

unblinking

 

Flight impossible for fear

now you soar with me

untethered

My Sister as Peter Pan circa 1968
My Sister as Peter Pan circa 1968

50th Birthday

I turned 50 last week. For many, this event would mark an important milestone. For me it passed by virtually unnoticed. The suitcase I carried to my sister’s funeral still sits in a corner of my bedroom. I have thought about putting it away a hundred times. But putting it away would mean unpacking, and what would be the point? You see, after my sister’s funeral service, my brother-in-law encouraged me to pick out some of her clothes to take with me. I knew it was silly. She and I could not have been built any differently. My sister was a wisp, and me? Well, let’s just say I have always been “solid”. I don’t mind my size (anymore), but the reality is that everything in the suitcase is too small to fit.

Ironically, all of the shoes are too big.

The point of unpacking would be to actually wear the clothes in the suitcase. Instead I am holding onto the items that I hope will fit my daughter. One thing I plan to keep is my sister’s black down vest. I wore it for about a week, but I could not zip it up if I had on more than a lightweight blouse. The Polar Vortex of 2014 made such clothing untenable, so the vest is now on top of the suitcase where my cat, Ian, has taken to sleeping. Looks to me like he found just the right combination of soft and warm.

My kitty at peace ... with my sister's memory.
I get it, buddy.
I want to get as close to her as I can, too.

Grief makes a strange companion for me. Sanguines are not usually given to bouts of depression or morose thoughts. I am not sure what to make of the gentle waves of sadness that roll over me when I least expect it. Other times the pain comes as a swift punch in the gut, knocking the wind right out of me. In those moments it feels like she just died all over again.

Supposedly grief comes in stages but I cannot remember what they are. I only know that last week my 50th birthday came and went without a card or call from my Big Sis. In fact, I could not remember the last time she had been able to send a card or call me on my birthday. This year I had to face the hardest truth: I would never receive a birthday card or call from her again.

Probably the best birthday ever was the year that we gave one other the same card!! My sister and I were both in the habit of purchasing birthday cards and gifts way early. Her birthday was in January and mine is in March. That year I had found her card in probably June. It was such an incredibly funny and appropriate card that I could not resist the urge to tell her how perfect her next birthday card would be. She did not hesitate to inform me that she too had found the perfect card for my birthday. One of us joked about how funny it would be if we had bought each other the same card! She kept the secret for 2 whole months but we laughed about it for years to come. You’ve heard the saying, “Great minds think alike”? Well, that was a case of kindred hearts.

What do you do when a piece of your heart gets ripped out? I find it difficult at times to gather my thoughts together enough to write about anything. I often find myself thinking about my own death. I think about where she is now, too, and what she might be doing. I think about that a lot. My sister was a brilliant artist. Everything in her life was a work of art. From a prepared meal to a painting to her garden, she sought beauty in everything she put her hand to. I remember once hearing her talk about the importance of color to an artist. Her wonder at color was fascinating! As she spoke, I knew that a mystery was being revealed to me but despite her words, understanding remained beyond my grasp. I like to imagine that now she is experiencing color like never before.

In “What Dreams May Come” Robin Williams’ character literally swam in the colors around him.

During one of my last visits with her she could no longer speak in complete sentences. Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation I was having with her husband, she mumbled something. Neither of us could understand what she was trying to say. Frustrated, she left the room. We looked at one another, shrugging. When she returned, there was a small picture frame in her hands.  She pointed to it over and over saying, “This.” I did not have a clue what she meant. In response to her growing agitation, I stood and followed her through the house saying. “This, this,” she repeated, over and over.

We finally ended up in the room that would have been her studio. Satisfied at last, she pointed to the pictures on the dresser and breathed, “this” one last time. She relaxed. She had found what she was looking for. What I saw broke my heart. On the dresser were six unfinished Botanicals – dried flower arrangements in frames. None of the pieces looked anything like her work. They were thin shadows of the depth of her talent. But even with a mind being slowly eaten away by dementia, more artistic ability dwelled in her pinky finger than I would ever possess in my whole body. Even then, my sister’s talent was beyond me.

I envy my cat. I would like to be able to curl up and fit on the back of a down vest sitting on the top of my small red suitcase. I am certain it would be just the right combination of soft and warm.

The Power of Remembrance

I hate New Year’s Resolutions. Always have, always will. I heard on the news the other day that most people abandon their Resolutions by January 17 or something like that (only 10 days to go!). Let’s just say that human beings have little staying power when it comes to resolutions … sounds a lot like law-making/breaking to me. For these and many other reasons (maybe my penchant for rebelliousness?) I never make them. But today I read an amazing guest blog over at The Waiting and it got me thinking that a “2014 Remembrance List” might not be a bad idea.

Happy Tennis-Filled 2014!

You may wonder why I feel the need to make a list of things I want to remember this year. If you read my last post or connect with me on FB, you know how much the end of 2013 devastated me, decimated me, even. I haven’t been able to write anything since the account of my last days with my Sister back on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I’ve been stymied by loss, heartache, and grief to the point where I began to doubt even my own thoughts! Gathering them together in one place has been almost impossible. I realized today that recent circumstances have robbed me of some things that are crucial for me to remember.

It’s time to banish forgetfulness. It’s time to say, “enough!” to the painful distractions which have weakened my ability to remember important, life-giving things I’m learning along the way. It’s time SOMEONE (and since no one else is going to do it for me, that someone has got to be ME) reminded me of some things I have allowed pain and loss to steal.

1. There is a sense in which we all die alone, but I don’t have to grieve that way.

This process called grief is completely new to me (despite losing a close cousin 4 years ago). I remember thinking in early December that it’s odd someone my age has not lost at least one parent, but instead is first grieving a Sister. I have found myself floundering in uncertainty, wondering if I’m grieving “right” or some such nonsense. It’s been very difficult letting go of the better half of my family’s female self. I have not come to the place where I can imagine half a lifetime without my Sister beside me.

Ever since her passing, I have experienced an almost uncontrollable urge to go into seclusion. Maybe it’s because when I’m with other people, I can’t stop myself from rehashing the entire painful ordeal over and over again. I end up feeling bad for the folks listening to me as they quietly say, “I am so sorry for your loss. I don’t know what to say.” Don’t worry, I already said it all – and more. And it’s okay. For a person who almost exclusively processes thoughts aloud, there is no other sane way for me to grieve. It’s who I am. It’s where I am. And. It’s. O. K. I cannot grieve alone. Thankfully, I don’t have to. Which brings me to my next point.

2. In the middle of grieving your losses, remember to be thankful.

No doubt, the biggest obstacle to gratitude of late was the barrage of painful circumstances inundating the last half of 2013, beginning with my father’s face-crushing fall in June, culminating with my mother’s femur-shattering misstep on the day of my sister’s funeral in December, and all of the heartache in between! Sometimes when I think back on the overwhelming sorrows of the last 6 months I lose the ability to breathe. But what would really cripple me would be an inability to give thanks! So here is today’s short list of thankfulness:

– In August of 2013 my eldest Daughter was set free from a 5-year-long devastating relationship!

As incredible as it may sound, by the end of 2013, so much “bad” had happened that I was finding it hard to remember that a nightmare relationship of control, manipulation, fear, and pain had ended for my precious daughter! Now she stands FREE and in relationship with a wonderful, loving, person who has no need to control or wound her. The magnitude of my gratitude for this one blessing cannot be expressed – but it ABSOLUTELY must not be forgotten!

– My Parents and 2 Brothers are still with me … grieving with me.

They knew my Sister like I did and together we know her better. We have the shared experience of her life and, now, her death. I am thankful that we can grieve side-by-side.

– My Sister gave me so many wonderful gifts that live on beyond her life here on earth.

Precious memories of a deep friendship, beautiful examples of what love looks like, parenting insights, a commitment to excellence and beauty in everything she did filled with the power to inspire, artistic ideals along with encouragement to explore my own untapped depths, laughter and songs, never mind the countless pieces of art in my house (and out) bearing her signature. I will grieve losing you … in my grief I promise not to forget the gifts you have given.

 – My life is filled to overflowing with wonderful people who love me …

… who listen to me, put up with me, eat and drink with me, laugh with me … WITH me. And yes, even grieve with me. I am not alone. Not by a long shot.

– One of my favorite Bible verses: “It came to pass …”

Almost 50 years into this gig, I have figured out that everything comes to pass, even grief. I have this hope.

– Finally, a heart that feels pain.

This may sound odd to you, but the ability to feel pain is a blessing. I spent a lot of years shut off from my own feelings, unable to connect to my heart. Maybe the feelings were too overwhelming, maybe it was a mechanism of self-protection; no matter the reason, I was good at shutting down – too good. And I learned (the hard way) that severing the connection with one’s emotions is indiscriminate: You either feel or you don’t. Shutting out pain = shutting out joy. Unfortunately, it’s an addiction (connected to control) with a long road home. That’s a road I hope to never travel again. So I will embrace the pain and walk through it with gratitude to new joys.

And the final thing I need to remember at this juncture of my life:

3. Don’t believe the ‘press’ that comes from 14 or 22 yr.-olds you raised.

In fact, trust your instincts and don’t listen to the ‘press’ from any corner. When I read the above-mentioned blog post, The Waiting it turns out is Indeed the Hardest Part, one of the lines jolted me into wakefulness. It felt like coming out of a nightmare.

I can’t speak to being a father; so I’ll stick to what I know best: I am a mother, a good mother.

My first thought was, “I’m not.” Huh? What was that? I’m not a good mother?? Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute, hold the phone, stop the presses, rewind even! Who says I’m not a good mother? Oh, right, lots of people. Let’s see, some of my Christian friends think that because I don’t drag my kids to Sunday school anymore, that makes me a bad mother. My Atheist friends condemn me for telling my children that Jesus loves them so much He’d rather die than live without them – and I actually believe it, too. The media tells me I’m spending too much time at work; those same talking heads then turn around and tell me I’m not focusing enough on my own actualization through a rewarding career (the-kids-be-damned!). My 14-yr. old thinks I’m out of touch with today’s pop culture (AMEN to that, Buddy!) and my 22-yr. old thinks my zeal for archaic moral ideals means I’m judging her = unloving mother.

Bad press. All untrue. I continue to dedicate the majority of my time, resources, thoughts, energy, love, frustration, determination, and actions to raising my children. I have been available at any and every hour of the day or night to bandage, listen, teach, scold, feed, clean up after, laugh with, and love my kids for the past 24+ years. This will never change.

That blog was a resounding”Aha” moment in my journey right here, right now. Dawn showed me that my 2 youngest kids have an interpretation of their growing up years which I was unprepared for; but their reinterpretation of events will never nullify the truth: that God gave me to them as a Mom and them to me as my Kids; in the end, I always only sought to raise them with nurturing love and support, and will continue to do so even as I am challenged to find new ways to walk in relationship with them as (almost) adults.

This is my 2014 Remembrance List. May it be etched on my soul in such a way that my future is transformed into loving community, acceptance of what is, and the strength to move forward with confidence.

Thanks for reading, and May God bless you all with a Happy, Healthy, Joy-and Tennis!-Filled 2014!!

Words Fail

Returning from Thanksgiving break, I saw that Emily over at The Waiting had added a new writing challenge in her Remember the Time Blog Hop series.  I had missed it due to my trip East. The theme, ‘last days’ caught my eye. It was a bit uncanny, for I had just finished spending my last days with my sister. Emily’s blog about her father’s death is heart-wrenching, but it hit even harder after the week I had had. I commented that I was not yet ready to write about my own last days, but then I ran into this:

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.

– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Shakespeare convinced me that I had to at least try to write about the last week while it was fresh. Even though I am too late to make it into the hop, I am very thankful to Emily for pushing me to begin the process. I hope my dear friend Sunny will not mind me stealing her amazing perspective on my words. Hers fit perfectly at the front of what comes next.

Even in such times that you noted below, those memories of times past that are filled with such wonder, laughter and love, I find myself thinking that even they are part of our  “..seeing in the mirror dimly..”; just a mere spark of the future sight, when what we now see seems more like we’re viewing through waxed paper and then face to face, we will have the gift of clarity and then see clearly (paraphrase).  What a blessing to have hope of the fullness when skin is no longer needed and clay makes no claims.  What clarity will be present in the Presence, even in the shadows with He Who Knows No Limits, yet chose to take on skin. On our behalf.

Sunny. Thank you for this hope that passes understanding.

May God bless you all as you share with me my last days. Note: The following is an account of my last days with my sister, not her last days on earth. She is now free from the pain and suffering of this life. Sometime around Midday EST on Thursday, December 19, she gave up the fight and began to experience what we can now only imagine: a face-to-face encounter with the Source of all life. Pure love, pure light. Boundless positive energy. I miss you, Ditty, more than I can ever express! I look forward to hearing about your adventures when next we meet.

~  ~  ~

November 25, 2013, Day 1

I had expected the smell. You know it: the familiar musty odor that pervades medical care facilities. But an unexpected sight met my eyes as my mother and I stepped into the room. My sister sat slouched in a lounge chair, head cocked to one side as if permanently askew. Her arms and legs twitched or shook uncontrollably, something I later understood was the involuntary response to the pain she was experiencing. I tentatively moved closer and spoke her name. She looked up at me sideways. I thought I detected recognition in her eyes, but her gaze immediately gave way to tears, then sobs.

If she understood our words of encouragement and comfort, she was unable to communicate it. We sat on either side of her, aching for some way to penetrate her heart with our love, even if her mind was out of reach. The occasional twitch of an arm or grimace that crossed her features unsettled me, as did the unintelligible words escaping her lips at odd moments.

Lunch arrived. Reticent to be the one holding the fork, I realized how unprepared I had been for this. I knew it was bad … I didn’t know it was this bad. Less than 5 months ago we had visited her home. Wordlessly she had taken me to the bedroom where her art supplies were stored. Several framed botanicals lay atop of the dresser. The work in those frames was but a shadow of her former talents. The tears I watched slipping down my Mother’s cheeks echoed the ones staining my heart.

November 26, 2013, Day 2

Tuesday the whole family came to visit. My sister’s tears appeared again, then ended as abruptly as they had begun. It dawned on me that seeing my once-vibrant sister in this condition was worse than heartbreaking. It just didn’t make any sense! She looked like a person who had been in a debilitating car accident involving a head injury.

How had her 57-yr. young mind & body been so completely decimated?

As we sat and talked to one another, we looked for ways to include her in the conversation. I could not stop thinking about the past 5 years of decline. It occurred to me to blame the last 18 months of cancer treatments for pushing my sister’s mind farther and farther from us. That day, leaving was harder than it had been the day before. When I had planned the trip, I had secretly hoped to find her already in God’s arms, free from suffering. Looking at her on Tuesday, I understood the prospect could take weeks – perhaps months – rather than days.

November 27, 2013, Day 3

Wednesday I tried to lighten the mood. I felt more comfortable with the situation and was encouraged by her lack of tears when we arrived. Her husband and I joked a bit and coaxed a familiar “Shu-up” from my sister’s chapped lips. How much of what we said did she understand? I doubted she remembered either of my previous visits. With her head still cocked to one side, she suddenly fixed me with a side-wise glance, and pronounced my name. My breath caught in my throat. Yes, it’s me. How can I help you? How can I reach you?? “That’s right, I’m here,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.” But of course, I was going. Somewhere. Again I was reticent to feed her, but when I left that day, I promised myself I would sing to her before I went back home.

November 28, 2013, Day 4

On Thanksgiving Day we found her sleeping. Her previous two afternoons had been difficult, so we let her rest. God, please, let her rest, I thought.

November 29, 2013, Day 5

Things never seem to go as planned. And yet… even though I arrived a few minutes later than I had hoped, she greeted me with one of her most beautiful smiles. Alone for the first that week, I held her hand and whispered prayers against the pain. I begged for a peaceful end to her suffering. Then I turned off the television, pulled my guitar from its case, and tuned the strings. I didn’t hurry. There was no need. What place could impatience have in one so oblivious of time itself. My sister smiled contentedly, and murmured, “Yeah, yeah”.

For the next hour I sang the songs I love, while I watched her eyes shine with delight. I stared at her, hardly looking at the lead sheets I usually depended upon. I refused to miss a second of my time with her. I knew it would be gone in a blink, never to return.

My memory drifted back to days long gone … Christmas 4 years ago, surrounded by the family singing carols, while her grandchildren toddled to the music. When we struck up a lively worship tune, djembe and all, the adults began to dance too. I watched with delight as my 81-yr. old Father took my sister’s hand. They danced until they were breathless to a song neither of them knew.

Rewind further back to another Christmas … my sister distributing her intricate hand-made ornaments. Further still … my sister making perfect spoon bread. Further … a late-night excursion to a bar where she brandished her custom-made pool stick and proceeded to trounce us all. Yet further … my daughters prancing about in ballet costumes my sister had made especially for them. All the way to one of my earliest memories … my sister, seated at a drafting table, creating a pen and ink landscape using a technique called stippling. The breadth of her artistic talents will never cease to astound me! Suddenly my mind snapped back to the present. I found myself unable to reconcile the person before me with the one who lived in my memory.

On Friday I wielded the fork, the spoon, and the napkin. In that one small gesture of love for my sister I felt connected with her on a fundamental level that transcended the familiar banter that had characterized our relationship for almost as long as I could remember.

My sister’s youthful brokenness shattered my heart. I simply cannot understand it. But I know it enough to hate it. I hate that my Matron of Honor will never see any of my children walk the aisle; I hate that she will not hold her great-nieces & nephews in her arms the way that I held her infant sons; I hate that the spark in her, once blazing with creativity has gone out. I ache to talk with her about the turn my own talent has taken.

But Friday was our last day.

I miss you more than I can tell. Soon over – we will be together again!

Since I cannot reach you now and I will not be able to see you when you go, I am making you a promise: One day soon I will stop talking and even thinking about our last days together. I swear that I will not remember you this way. Instead I choose to remember the vibrant loving person, the brilliant artist, and the caring wise older sister you are.

I promise never to forget the inspiration you have been in my life.

X X X O (kisses, kisses, kisses, HUG!)

I love you bunches and bunches and tons and tons!

Your Little Sister,

C

For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.

2 Corinthians 4:6-10