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

Wind Surfing and Wedding Crashing

September 27, 2014, three Saturdays before my eldest daughter’s wedding, I sat on my side porch enjoying breakfast and a hot cup of black coffee, while pondering my very long to-do list. It was a windy morning, windier than usual, and looking up, I saw a hawk soaring just above my head. With no need to flap its wings, the hawk simply glided back and forth between the gusty currents. I could almost feel the bird’s joy at its ability to float effortlessly, borne up by a greater power than itself, wings stretched out full-width, relaxed and at peace. I knew it was her. Ever since she flew back from VA with me this past summer, I know she’s always flying now – doing what she was too afraid to do before. The fear has left her entirely.

The hawk’s wings finally started beating as it veered off to my right to join three companions who I named my now-dead cousins. The four of them had such fun! A couple of days later I told my parents the story, that she visited me on Saturday as a hawk. Mom’s response: “I can’t believe you said that. The other day a hawk landed on the bush in front of our kitchen window and just sat there. I told your Dad, ‘Look, she’s here.'” I was not surprised.

I started thinking about how much I would miss her come wedding day, especially her ability to put together amazing decorations for the event. It occurred to me, then, that had she lived, she would not have been able to design or assemble decorations for, attend, or – even if she could come – enjoy, my daughter’s wedding. After seeing the hawk, I felt certain she would be there celebrating with us – whole and fully alive, truly herself.

I thought, Well, Dit, I would save you a seat, but I know you’ll be too busy soaring. Enjoy the view!

It also came to me that this is how she would fill out the RSVP card:

RSVP Dit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it turns out, wedding day was overcast and drizzly. We were forced to move the  ceremony inside. There was just enough rain to keep me from looking for her overhead the few times I walked back and forth from the cottage to the venue.

But I missed her. I missed watching her arrange the table decorations as only she could. You should have seen the elegance and grace her decorations brought to my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary! I missed seeing her smile, and hearing her chat and laugh with the guests (she laughed often, and it was contagious), and cutting her big eyes over at me to communicate some inside joke only I would understand. I missed quipping back and forth with her about inane things as we always did. Most of all, I missed watching her dance. She would have been first on the floor and last to leave, and perhaps she was, unseen by those who love and miss her so much.

She would have loved this moment from the rehearsal:

And while I had no tangible sense of her presence at the wedding, I believe somehow she was there …

… guiding my daughter’s hands to braid her sister’s hair

Rachel Wedding Braid

 

 

 

… helping me dress the Bride for her big day

IMG_1055

 

… crying with me when the Bride’s father choked up in the middle of his toast

 

 

 

 

 

… laughing with us at the song her nieces and nephew shared

… smiling knowingly at me when two young bridesmaids made eyes at my handsome, 15-yr. old son

IMG_1104… and so many more moments!

Ditty, words are not enough to express how much it hurt not having you there. Can you feel the pain in my heart or taste my tears? I have to say, I was proud of myself this weekend. I managed to put aside the grief until after the festivities were over. I truly enjoyed my daughter’s wedding, just as you would have wanted me to. But the ‘putting aside’ was a conscious effort made necessary by memories and thoughts of you in that environment, that at times, threatened to overwhelm. I am glad that I did not see you flying about overhead – it would have meant you were not inside with us, and that would have truly broken my heart. Instead, my heart is full and whole, knowing you walked through such a special day with us.

 

 I love you bunches and bunches and tons and tons,

kisses-HUG

 

 

 

Your li’l Sis,

C

Why I did NOT write a story for last week’s Friday Fictioneers

A couple of weeks back, after a conversation with my Mom about her grieving process (if you don’t know, we lost my Sister December 19, 2013), I suddenly had the strange feeling that 4+ months into this gig, I had not even begun to grieve her passing. Never mind the stuff I’ve written about her death, the talk/song I shared at her funeral service, and all of the tears already shed …

A day or so after that conversation, I ran into a wonderful blog site about grief; specifically the post dealt with grief having no expiration date. It occurred to me that being so far from her (in proximity) for so many years prior to her death along with her inability to carry on our normal phone conversations during her final couple of years combined to make it that much more difficult for me to know she’s really gone. While I have no clue what the next step in my process will be, I suspect it involves some intense ‘realization.’ Not something I’m particularly looking forward to.

On Wednesday, the following photo showed up as the Friday Fictioneers prompt (I won’t even try to explain why a Friday photo prompt shows up on Wednesdays 😉 ):

Copyright – Björn Rudberg

My gut reaction was how familiar the picture was – not that I’d seen it before, but that I saw myself in a similar photo-memory of what I now think of as my former life. The emotions that boiled up to the surface when I saw the prompt surprised me a bit. A mixture of nostalgia and excitement, fondness and regret coalesced inside me to produce one clear thought in my head: “I can’t write a story about this. Not now, not maybe ever. This isn’t fiction; it’s too *real.”

In a conversation with my son about humor I told him that for me to find something funny, it has to be true, to ring true. Fiction for me is quite the opposite. Sure, the characters have to be true – to themselves, and believable – to the reader. But the more fantastical the story, the more I am drawn to it. Maybe that’s why I prefer tales about dragons, fairies, magic, and aliens more than historical fiction (Seabiscuit notwithstanding).

As I’m sure you’ve already begun to grasp, seeing what looked like the scraps of an old life of mine reminded me again of my recent loss. It was as if writing about the picture would have been a step in the direction of dealing with my sister’s death. I don’t feel ready for that right now, for lots of reasons.

First, I’m daily faced with the raging hormones of a 15-yr. old son. Having raised 2 daughters, you’d think I’d have been up to the challenge. Whole. Different. World. I’m literally at the end of myself and my ideas about how to navigate these waters. Most days I throw up my hands and just ask God to take it. Hopefully He’s listening.

Second, there are huge financial outflows facing us right now: my husband has been renovating the upstairs of our house having been out of work for 7 months; June 1, 2014 he will restart his counseling business; my daughter is getting married in October; and I would love to find a way to block my noisy neighbor before then. Being the primary breadwinner (hubby still serves as a Reservist) can be stressful in today’s economy – especially as a woman.

Third, my parents have both had rough years health-wise. 85 and 84 respectively, my Dad and Mom continue to manage on their own, but we all lose the battle against Father Time eventually. With the recent loss of my sister, their well-being is pretty much on my mind 25 hours every day.

Sunday afternoon I did some shopping to find a dress for the wedding. I knew it was a mistake when I looked into the mirror and saw almost the exact replica of the one my sister wore to her son’s wedding:

My Sister dancing with Hubby
My Sister dancing with her Hubby

It wasn’t exact, but the color, the tiers … I said out loud to myself, “I can’t look like her.” Fortunately, it was the last of the 3 dresses I tried. I hung it up with the other disasters and promptly walked out, giving up the search for the moment. So many memories, at every turn they hit me.

I looked back at the photo prompt Sunday night, glad I had left it alone. I want to push myself to write like I want to push myself to get through the grief – I’ve never been known for my patience. I’m not ready. I’m learning to be okay with that, to give myself permission to breathe. Sometimes even that hurts too much.

*Actually, my favorite part of this video is the (probably drunken) man dancing in front of me. 😀

 

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!!