A song from the past floats into my head as I’m falling asleep. I’m a teenager, listening to one of the first albums I bought with my own money. Barbra Streisand: A Star is Born. It’s the end of the story. Esther Hoffman Howard is a widow, taking the stage for the first time since the accident. “With one more look at you…” she begins. “I want one more look at you.” I want one more chance to put it all together and make it make sense.
My husband Jim is in my dreams again. But I don’t know I’m dreaming. I can touch him. I feel his hair, strangely coarse, actually, compared to the thick, loosely curled, soft stuff I remember. But he’s there, in the flesh, inexplicably, and so am I. I want answers. How is it you’re here again, and so often? Was I wrong when I thought you’d died? Has there been a mistake? Are you back for good? Where, exactly, have you been? Speak to me.
He begins to talk, and I hang on every word. He is telling me the secrets of the Universe, of life and death, and I had better remember this accurately later, when I wake up. When I wake up…does that mean that this is just a dream? Logic gets all loose and wiggly again, and consciousness creeps back into my head. Suddenly, I’m awake and sweating hot. I’m in a room by an open window on a street in suburban Milwaukee. And this doesn’t seem to make much sense, either.
Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. What are the emotions driving these dreams? What is my subconscious trying so hard to reconcile? I keep struggling for meaning. I am angry, I suppose. I deny that Jim died at the age of 47. That was too soon. It doesn’t fit into my perception of How Things Ought To Be. I do not accept it. Even now, more than four years later. Although, even in my dreams, I know that he is dead, and that is Real.
Enlightenment is, roughly, when you accept all that is…without the ‘you’. Ego is inconsequential. Acceptance, peace, wholeness. All Is. I guess I’m not at that point yet. I work on it through the night. I imagine Jim trying to help me out, but his input just confuses me. And I’m still too involved, trying too hard to wrap my little brain around the incomprehensible. How can I simply let it go? Accept ambiguity. Accept mystery. Accept it all. Accept. Accept.
So I didn’t get a post in yesterday. It was a hot, humid day at work; thunderstorms arrived just as we were leaving. I got home at 6pm, put my feet up for a bit, made dinner, and then prepared packages for mailing for the book business. By the time we were done, it was 9:30, and my eyes were stinging. I closed them and fell asleep. I’ve been musing on an issue for two days, though, and since I don’t work today (except for a voice lesson), I’m ready to give it some time and work it out in writing.
It happened on Saturday. I burst into tears at work.
It was late afternoon, toward the end of my shift. Families had been coming through in dribbles to look at the church. Since it was hot, I put a chair out on the landing in front of the door so that I could catch the breeze. Sitting there in my bustle, I suppose I made a good picture of a prim and proper church lady. A father and his two-year old daughter wandered down the road, leaving Mom and older siblings at the General Store. I invited them in and showed the little curly redhead the pump organ. She liked the sound of her voice in the echoing chamber of the empty church, so I played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (a good Mozart tune) and let her sing along. She took a look at my pin cushion balls, too, and held one until her father gently took it and handed it back. She never left the safety of her father’s arms during the whole visit. I walked them out of the church and settled in my chair to watch them walk back down the road, hand in hand. She stumbled at one point, but Dad righted her gently. That’s when I lost it. That sudden, rising swell of heat in my nose and the burning tears tumbling down were totally unpredicted. Why these tears? Why now?
Driving home with Steve, I began to talk it out and answer his compassionate questions. Where were my thoughts? What were my emotions? I remembered that I had been bored, hot, and feeling a bit lost and alone: all dressed up in an empty museum, wondering how I got there. Kind of disconnected and surreal. That father and daughter reminded me of my late husband and our curly-haired youngest. Seeing them walk away together triggered a sense of devastating loss. I will never see Jim again; Emily, now 21, will never be that young again. That manifestation of life is gone forever.
But I knew that. Why the tears? Why judge that as something sad? Obviously, I am still very attached to that particular arrangement, and perhaps not so attached to my current one. “Attachment causes suffering.” Somehow, I came to believe that my life as a wife and mother was very meaningful, very important, and it became a “secure” identity for me. Not hard to imagine how that happened. The thing is, it isn’t the Truth, wasn’t the Truth, either. It was a temporary condition. I enjoyed that condition, but Change is the nature of life. Conditions always change. One condition isn’t more meaningful or important than another. To be able to think about every moment of life as a valuable moment is a mindset that can set me free to live happily. I think of Hafiz, the Sufi poet, and his exuberant joy in living, not dependent on circumstances. I get sentimental about family life, but I don’t want to be the mother of a two year old, now. Somehow, though, that sentiment suggests that there is greater value in that particular model of life than in others, and that I am “missing out”. It’s just not true. It’s a kind of cultural propaganda. Hallmark and Focus on the Family and organizations like that profit from supporting that way of thinking. I love my children, but our life isn’t Hallmark any more. It was, once. It was nice, but it wasn’t the only and most important manifestation of living. Conditions arise, conditions change. Judging that one is “better” than the other can get me stuck and cause suffering. That’s not to say that I can’t think critically about my life and make changes. But I also want to be able to be happy in any situation.
I like my tears, too. They help me learn about myself.
I think I have a pretty active dream life. I usually remember something of my sleeping hours upon awakening. Perhaps that indicates the level of my anxieties and neuroses; I’m not sure. Steve says he hardly ever dreams, and he thinks it’s because he is so aware of his conscious mind while he’s awake. Well, fine for you, then. I blink my eyes open and forget where I am. I need decompression time every morning. My dreams almost always include my late husband, who has been dead almost 4 years. It gives me a rather fluid sense of reality. Jim is real and Steve is real, they’re just never real at the same time, in the same place. Is that weird? Oh, probably. I’m getting used to it.
The other thing I do in dreamland is sing. I wake up singing a song, or with a song stuck in my head. This morning, it was “The Rose”, a song Bette Midler recorded some years back. I think I learned it from one of my kid’s elementary school music programs. The line I was stuck on went like this: “Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed. Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves your soul to bleed. Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you, its only seed.”
Now why in the world would something like that be dominating my waking transition? I thought about that for a while. Then I began to cry. This is how I know when I’ve hit on some repressed emotion, some way that I think about myself that I don’t like to admit. For some reason, I was associating with that tender reed, drowned in a river of love. I was 15 when I met my husband, 21 when we married, 45 when I was widowed. My youth was engulfed in loving him. I don’t feel a great resonance with the bleeding soul bit. Ah, but the hunger, the aching need; yeah, that gets to me, too. I feel that for my kids as well. I call it “yearning”. I yearn for my kids all the time, no matter where they are. It’s a visceral thing. I once learned in a Bible study that there is a Hebrew word for God’s loving-kindness that translates to a verb form of the same word that’s used for a mother’s womb. Womb-love. God “wombs” us. I “womb” my kids. I also “womb” my dead husband.
Now the last line of that first verse, I will take exception to. “You, its only seed” just sounds too exclusive and attached. It doesn’t fit the scope of the rest of the song, either, in my opinion. Second verse: “It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance; and it’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes a chance. It’s the one who won’t be broken, who cannot learn to give; and the soul afraid of dying who never learns to live.” Okay, you could probably guess that verse gets to me all over (see yesterday’s post). Although, in my case, it’s the heart that once danced, the dream that once dared, the one who gave everything already who is afraid to live again and invest all that…again. So, here’s the key change and the big finish: “When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long, and you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong, just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun’s love, in the spring becomes the rose.” At this point, I want to give credit to Amanda McBroom who wrote these lyrics. Good job. I love the idea of seeds beneath the snow. It appeals to the naturalist in me, even though we STILL don’t have any snow this winter in Wisconsin. I love the idea of hope and new life. And this is where I get to re-write that last line in the first verse. The seed of love isn’t a person. It’s LIFE, life itself.
Steve and I were talking about this yesterday as we drove out to hike the Ice Age trail. He was urging me, again, to talk about what I want in life, how I want to live, why I want the things I might want. “Why do you want to have land and grow food?” I want to nurture living things; I loved raising kids. I loved because they lived. I want to live life loving. Whatever I do. It’s a cyclical thing, the flower that comes from a seed and begets more seeds that become more flowers. Life begets love which nourishes life…and so on. Okay, maybe this is sounding like drivel to you. There is something going on here, though, and it’s about a flow of energy passing from living thing to living thing, and some of us call it love. I don’t like the idea of that energy being confined to one “beloved”. That’s where I think I’m getting stuck. I say love, it is a flower and all of life can be its seed.
There. Sorry Amanda, but I have re-worked your song so that it fits my dreaming and waking life a little better. Hope you don’t mind.
Gospodi pomiluj. That’s Church Slavonic for “God have mercy”, same as the Greek Kyrie eleison. I remember learning a setting of those words in High School choir. The entire text of the piece was just those two words, repeated over and over at increasing dynamic levels. The suffering of the world thrown high to the ears of God. There were moments in the opera last night (Boris Godunov) where this poignant plea rang out and reached my heart high in the upper balcony, but unlike a Puccini moment, it didn’t take full hold. Why not? Well, I could bicker about the staging, pointing out that the chorus milling about in the background distracted from the Holy Fool’s aria downstage left in front of the floodlight. I could point out that the composer wasn’t really a professional and didn’t provide enough scene change music to set off these important highlights. Others came in later (Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance) and tried to make Boris a bit more theater-ready, but the Lyric staged the original version. But perhaps the more intriguing discussion is about the way Russian suffering compares to Italian – or Buddhist – suffering.
This iconic Russian opera includes a large chorus of peasants, children, boyars (advisers), soldiers and priests. Russia’s suffering is peopled. By contrast, Puccini’s operas often concentrate on the suffering of one or two lovers. You feel the depths of their grief in soaring melodies, cry with them, and feel cleansed. (Think Butterfly, Tosca, Boheme.) Russia’s suffering would never be so finite. It’s pervasive. The czar embodies this and its relentlessness drives him mad. Well, that and hallucinations of a child he supposedly murdered. But he cares about his people; he tries to feed them, and they still blame him for every want. How do you find peace?
Buddhism addresses peace from the inside out. It isn’t a peace that you could pass on to a population as their leader. The best you could do is find it for yourself and try to be a role model. It would be quite a challenge to maintain it as the head of a huge, suffering nation. Would that be the Emperor of Japan’s story? Or China’s and India’s story? Actually, the Met is currently showing Phillip Glass’s opera about Ghandi (Satyagraha). It was simulcast in theaters this past Saturday. Missed it, but hoping to see the encore screening December 7th.
Here’s another thought about nationalism and identity: there’s Mother Russia and the German Fatherland; what parental figure do we have connecting us to American land? Uncle Sam? Does that mean we are orphans?
I have to say that exploring and addressing my personal grief and suffering through Art is like taking a bitter pill with a large spoonful of glittering sugar. Costumes, twinkly lights, gorgeously rich bass voices and sympathetic violins really take the edge off. I appreciate the genius and consider myself enormously fortunate. Thanks for the grace and mercy. Oh, and I hope Erik Nelson Werner wasn’t badly hurt when he fell off the set in a hasty exit.
So here’s my assignment for the week: write a description of one of the characters who will be in your memoir. Here’s what I have written.
“When I met Jim, he was a warm, charismatic 17-year old. Everything about him was golden and good. He was an A student parented by professional educators, a member of the Mormon Church who spent an hour in seminary every day before school, an athlete competitive in tennis, a baritone soloist with the school choir, a blue-eyed blonde with thick, curly surfer locks and a regular California dream. And the crowning touch? His grandfather was an Italian immigrant. I was introduced to him at our high school’s International Talk-In, where locals were given the opportunity to mingle with exchange students. I was then the Vice President of the Italian Club, a thorough Anglo hopelessly enamored of all things italiano. My best friend at the time, the President of the Club, Lynn Panighetti, introduced us. Jim enclosed my right hand in a bear paw and then wouldn’t let go. His long lashes fluttered in befuddlement as he pretended our hands were magically glued together. He was a flirt, a funny one, and I was instantly flattered and powerfully attracted.
His right hand was broad with short, stubby fingers. He would later lament how often he “fat fingered” the keys of his computer. He had a scar on his fourth finger from a machine accident he had while working in a cannery at age 15. He told me after we’d been dating for a few years that I could have all of him except the thumb and two middle fingers of his right hand – he needed them for bowling. Eventually, he qualified for PBA membership; he always pushed himself to achieve the highest level possible in any of his pursuits. His hands matched the rest of his mesomorphic frame. At 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a massive barrel chest, he resembled a friendly teddy bear, especially to my 15-year old eyes. I nicknamed him Winnie the Pooh.
Thirty years later, that stocky body was swollen with toxins and dialysis solution as a result of his failing kidneys. His barrel chest sported a 6-inch scar where they had split his sternum to perform double bypass surgery on his 31-year old heart. A longer scar down his right calf marked the place where they had harvested a vein for the graft. The kids called his lower legs “cankles” because they looked like calves and ankles combined after neuropathy and edema developed. His polar bear feet with the sideways little toes were in pretty good shape for a diabetic. He had lost only one toenail to ulcerating infection. His hair was still thick, too short to be very curly, and just barely graying at the temples. His beautiful Italian mouth fringed by the ginger mustache looked about to smile, but it wouldn’t. His ears were blue with what our daughter identified as ‘circumaural cyanosis’. (“See, Daddy, I’m really smart,” she sobbed.) He was dead.”
I have become rather moody while taking this course. Finished Joan Didion’s memoir about her husband’s death (The Year of Magical Thinking) last night and did a little research. Her only child died at the age of 39 just a month before it was published. Recent images of her are gaunt and haunted. Interesting that she was an Episcopalian, like me. Her New York life reminds me a little of Madeleine L’Engle’s (another Episcopalian), but she is more neurotic, less serenely spiritual. L’Engle’s memoir of her marriage to actor Hugh Franklin was a favorite of mine about 20 years ago. (Two-Part Invention) I feel rather like I’m swimming in the shallow end of their private pool.
“Sudden massive coronary events” are dominating my thinking lately. I am reading Joan Didion’s account of her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking and browsed the pertinent pages of Ekaterina Gordeeva’s book My Sergei while waiting for Steve to glean salable items from Good Will on Tuesday. I am also writing my own memoirs of my husband Jim in a Continuing Ed course. What struck me this morning was the role of the grieving person’s best friend as hero. Not the knight-in-shining-armor type hero, but the simple, calming presence modelling a way to be. In a moment when shock obscures all notions of how to act, having a trusted person exhibit some caring, helpful behavior is a distinct grace.
My mother was that hero to me when my sister was killed in a car crash. She and I were traveling across country together, enjoying the freedom of being 20 and (almost) 17 when it happened. My mother cobbled together connecting flights to reach me in Nebraska the next morning. She got me discharged from the hospital and set up in a hotel with her while she went through all the details of bringing Alice’s ashes back to California. We went to the mortuary the next day. I was still rather zombie-like while my mother handled the business. Then the director asked us if we would like to see the body. “Absolutely,” was my mother’s reply. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that was why we were there. I hesitated. Mom led me into the room while the director closed the door. “Oh, honey,” she sighed as she approached the table. “No, she’s not there. She’s gone. Look here…” she began to comment on her wounds, on her swollen face and how old she looked, as if she were a battered wife decades in the future. She said something about all the suffering she might have been spared. Then she tenderly bend down and kissed her forehead. My mother has never looked more beautiful to me in all my life than she did at that moment. Strong, compassionate, wise and incredibly beautiful. I wanted to be like her, so I kissed my sister’s forehead, too.
Gordeeva writes about her coach, Marina, prompting her to go into the ICU room where her husband lay. “Don’t be afraid. Go talk to him. He can still hear you.” She goes in and begins to unlace his skates, a normal gesture that helps loosen her words, her tears, her emotions. I remember our priest asking me and two of my daughters if we’d like to anoint Jim with some olive oil, bathe his face, and prepare his body to be taken away. It was a relief to excuse ourselves from the people downstairs in the living room and go up to him together, to say our goodbyes together, to touch him one more time. I am so grateful someone thought of allowing us that right then. We had another opportunity to say goodbye to his body at the funeral home later when my two other children came home. By then, I could take the lead with them and encourage them to approach. I can’t remember who started humming “Amazing Grace”, but we all joined in, musical family that we are, and swayed together, arms and bodies entwined.
In the aftermath of Jim’s death, my youngest daughter and I fought frequently. I didn’t know how to talk to her, to listen to her anger directed at me and recognize that she wasn’t hateful, only grieving. Steve was the one who suggested that she was hurt, not hurtful and agreed to sit by me while we attempted an honest conversation. My instinct was to run away. I was grateful to observe someone who could be calm and present, reasonable and compassionate in the face of powerful emotions that frightened me. He is adamant about not rescuing me, but equally determined to be the best friend he can be.
I hope that I will have opportunities to be a great friend to someone in grief. I would like to be a conduit of such grace.
With the time change, morning daylight becomes precious. It’s dark by 5pm now, so I like to get up and get going early. My partner, however, stays up working late into the wee hours and sleeps in. I woke up at 7, but decided to stay in bed. Early morning brain work is often my most productive, so I just lay there and thought about my Memoirs assignment. How would I describe my late husband in detail? As I pictured him from toe to head, each part brought back associations and memories spanning the 30 years we were together. Doing this in the quiet, safe, wordless place where I sleep was a great indulgence. I didn’t feel the need to come up with verbiage or sentence structure or decide what might be better left unsaid. My brain wandered through different decades and moments without the need to assign chronology. In this floating place, I felt more connected with his entire person, without delineation. When Steve rolled over, I put a hand on his shoulder and suddenly began to weep. Why just then? Perhaps the absence of tangibility in my relationship with Jim just would not be denied at the moment I became aware of touch.
We are still one.
He sat at the edge of the bed, his naked back to me. He was working up to rising, about to stand on his unsteady, swollen, deadened feet and shuffle off to the bathroom. Something prompted me to scoot forward and wrap my legs around his waist and lay my cheek between his shoulder blades. “You will always be the love of my life,” I whispered. “You know that, don’t you?”
He did. He does.
My finger is bleeding; I’m cold and frustrated, and now I’m crying. Time to go inside and figure out what’s going on with me.
I still have occasional melt downs. I am still grieving.
Today I went to the Wisconsin DMV to get a new driver’s license, car registration, title and license plates. I am not exactly timely in getting this bit of business done, and I still have to figure out what to do with the other car that is in Chicago with my daughter. I don’t relish going into “the system”. I often feel stupid, pushed around, ripped off and helpless. I try to do my homework and come prepared. I cannot tell a lie and haven’t figured out how to find justifiable loop holes to save myself some money. Steve says that I think in black and white, which is why the system loves me. Fine. I suppose that’s my personality, and I don’t think it’s so bad. I will never be a shrewd iconoclast. I’ll leave that to someone else. I figure I did okay getting out in 30 minutes with new plates, a new title, and a new (temp) driver’s license. I was kind of proud of myself for a moment for jumping through this hurdle. I got home and updated my insurance info online and then went out with a screwdriver and the plates to do the swap. The back plates are held on by a hexagonal bolt. Fine. I went to get pliers. Back outside. I couldn’t budge the thing, and the pliers kept slipping. Fine. I’ll go find a socket wrench or something. I do have a handy array of tools, and I rather like solving problems. I found a set of wrenches and selected one the right size. It fit on the bolt, but I still couldn’t move it. I needed more force, so I went back inside to find a hammer. With the hammer, I decided to be more aggressive. I wanted to move this stubborn bolt, but the rust resisted. My knuckle scraped against the plate and started bleeding. Fine. I’ll go inside and wash my hand and find some gloves. Back outside. Final attempt, nothing’s budging, I’m cold and ILLINOIS is staring me in the face. “This is Jim’s car,” pops into my head, my nose starts burning and suddenly, everything is blurry.
If this little operation had gone smoothly, I wouldn’t have thought much about it. I still play the games inside my head that swing me from “This is no big deal” to “This is something important” and back again. Denying emotion, repressing the thoughts and feelings that spring unbidden in an ordinary moment. Where is that Middle Way?
This isn’t an emergency. There’s no need to be anxious, but something notable is happening. I want to slow down and pay attention. I am thinking of Jim, and I am sad. I miss the way he took care of all kinds of “system business” smoothly and happily. Knocking away at his plates with my hammer makes me feel like I’m dismantling something precious, and I don’t want it to be taken apart. I can’t preserve everything, of course. What can I keep? I don’t need the plates. I appreciate the car. I want always to have the love. I wish I could hang on to the security.
And that’s what it is all about.
I am grateful to have a partner who provides a safe, warm place for me to talk about this and arms to encircle me and fingers that can open a package of Band-Aids when I’m trembling.