Eulogy

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Our vacation was cut short a day, we drove a long fifteen hours in one chunk when we learned someone we love was in the ICU. We left white-sanded beaches, soft lilting waves, and sun-tilled waters to hurry home and arrive just in time to say goodbye, to weep with family and hold vigil together. We buried my father-in-law on Monday and time has taken a deep breath, creeping slowly as the things that matter most come to the forefront.

All the weeks this summer we’ve driven back and forth to the hospital and, in the end hospice, the Queen Anne’s Lace spilled over the edge of the roads we traveled, calling my name and spinning me into memories. This wildflower will forever remind me of this hard season of letting go when we held this gentle man in love.

The morning of the funeral when I walked the dog around the house I noticed the meadow behind our back yard is also stitched with Queen Anne’s Lace. When we first moved to our home, it was different—the meadow was tame. A retired couple owned the land and tended it meticulously. They kept it mowed, pristine, and often, when I would be pushing my babies on our swing set, the Mrs. would stop on her riding mower and tell me how my boys reminded her of hers.

Now the meadow is a tangled mass of trees and shrubs and Queen Anne’s Lace. It’s hard to tell what hides in all that underbrush. Somewhere in there are the apple and pear trees her little boys used to climb for sport. When I think of all that is hidden from our eyes in this visible world, it sets my heart on other things—things so precious, so mysterious—things we cannot touch or see. And I remember this: my father-in-law is free. And for this, I rejoice.

But still, I cry when I see the birds flock across the sky, the sudden lift of their wings birthing anew within me the awareness of my feet of clay—I am earthbound. Gravity holds me, but also all other things of this good earth cup my body tenderly; I move and breathe as part of entire system of things: the spiderweb, the pollen sifting through the air, the grass heavy with morning’s respiration … I am reminded that God so loved the world and when I walk through it I can feel this world he loves waiting, expectant, longing for Christ’s return. When death will lose its sting. But God so loved this world, and what we do in this life matters.

In the end, it is the little things—rocking a baby to sleep, walking together, eating together, sitting side-by-side—it is the little things that make a life. We do these things because our heart compels us to and this is how we honor the one wild and precious life—as the poet Mary Oliver calls it—this is how we honor the life we’ve been given. Yes, this life matters. My father-in-law knew this. He leaves behind a better world for having been in it. I will miss him, but I know this is not goodbye. We will meet again.

Of this I am sure.

31 Days of the Almost Empty Nest: Halloween Ghosts

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This morning I am awakened by the sounds of the shower from down the hall. Little Jeffrey is up early to report to the high school so the whole retinue can get on the road for another band competition. I’m tired from a late night of working the hot chocolate station for the band concessions during the football game. My arm is sore from the flu shot I got on Thursday, and I slept fitfully for some reason, dreaming of milk and puppies. It’s still dark outside, but I get up to make the boy a good breakfast—he’ll be gone all day and into the evening.

The bacon sizzles and I flip his favorite pancakes while he studies who-knows-what on his phone screen. He feels so far away lately, coming and going like a ghost, moving in and out of the house on my peripheries. I study him studying the screen and I am seized with that feeling again, that terrible sadness that comes with being left behind.

I know the almost-empty is meant to prepare me for the empty-empty but sometimes my heart refuses to budge. The earth is filled with longing and preparation for a sleep that gives new life but my roots long for the sun.

The boys and I have kept this tradition. Every year, before Halloween, we dig out their old radio flyer and march up the sidewalk a mile or so to the Halfway Market. There, we tap on and inspect every pumpkin before making our picks. One for Ted, one for Jeffy, and a small one for the resident dog. Then we trudge back home with our loaded wagon and proudly place said pumpkins on the porch until carving time. This year, with Teddy gone and Jeffrey ghosting in and out of the house constantly, their dad and I picked out two plump pumpkins at Kroger when we were grocery shopping one day. No pomp. No circumstance. We barely got the things carved in time for trick-or-treat.

Last week, I realized it would be the first Halloween with no Ted. So I sent him a care package with some Halloween goodies—a collection of light-up necklaces and glow-in-the-dark stuff to share with his friends. I wondered as I bought the trinkets if it was a waste of money. Surely he will think his mother has lost her mind. “Now if you go out haunting late at night, at least you’ll be visible in the dark,” I wrote, in the Happy Halloween card enclosed. Before I left for the game last night, he texted to tell me to check Facebook for a picture of him and a couple friends sporting some of the “stuff.” “I shared the stuff,” he said. “Some people said nice things about you for sending them.”

It made me smile but I still missed him.

On trick-or-treat night, after all the ghosts and goblins were back inside with bags full of candy, Jeff and I sat outside under the stars a little bit longer. As we sat with Bon, the little girl from across the street skipped over to visit with us for a moment. She had doffed her Cleopatra costume but still wore the remnants of her Egyptian makeup. “I went to every house,” she bragged. And we exclaimed over her fortitude, making much over the huge amounts of candy she amassed. This little sprite always fills my heart and I must fight the urge to scoop her up, pepper her white brow with little kisses. But I realize this would be beneath her. She is, after all, a world champion trick-or-treater.

So I just smile and memorize the curve of her face in the moonlight and sigh as I think how it was only yesterday my boys were small and their short legs were challenged to walk these streets with their pumpkin-shaped buckets full of candy.

And this morning, I make Jeffrey pancakes. And sit with him while he eats, showing him the little watercolor vignettes I’m working on for some friends, reading to him from my bird field guide all the particulars about the blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Before he leaves, he bends over me to hug me tight and kiss me on the cheek.

“I love you, mama,” he says. And then he ghosts away.

This post is part of my 31 Days of the Almost Empty Nest series.  I’m writing in community with the thirty-one dayers. Women all over the world are joining together in the month of October to write every day about something they’re passionate about. Check out some of the other writers here. So much good stuff. To read my first post, with links to all the days, go here. Don’t forget to stop by this post for a chance to win some signed copies of S.D. Smith’s children’s books. And stop by this post for a chance to win The Girlfriend’s Short Stack. 

Almost Empty

31 Days of the Almost Empty Nest: Two Natures

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The milkweed pods have rent their hearts wide open, spilling feather-soft seeds into the wind. Everywhere we walk they hover in our midst—silky filament-clad aviators. Bonnie tries to catch them, taking great bounding leaps and biting at the air. But the more she chases, the more she disturbs the invisible current and the higher the seed cluster lifts into the sky. The milkweed seed is surrounded by a crown of silky hairs that act as miniature parachutes when the wind gives flight. These soft halos allow the wind to carry the seed as far or as close as it will. We stand, earth-bound, and watch it drift away.

When we were kids, we would break open the pods and strip the milkweed of her silk. We would stroke the soft tendrils and use them to decorate our mud pies and cakes. I know that if every seed found purchase, we would be overrun by milkweed, which can be invasive. Still, my heart smiles at the thought of the forgotten milkweed seed, growing up out of my mud pie. Perhaps the Monarchs would be happy at this too.

The milkweed is in the genus Asclepias, named after the Greek god of healing. It was named thus because of the many folk remedies it is party to, but as I watch the seed drift higher, I feel a different kind of healing in my spirit. I want to learn from the milkweed seed. How to be so light? How to be lifted by the wind? It’s not in my nature to give myself away like this.

In rest and flight, the milkweed is a thing of wonder. The way the seeds are lined up in neat rows when they are within the pod—like the feathers of a bird—reminds me of the beauty and order that can be found in nature. But when the pod ruptures and the seeds are given to the wind, I am taken by the wild unpredictability.

These two natures—order and unpredictability—have been at war inside of me too during this season. In the almost-empty nest, I have struggled against the urge to hold on—not only to my children and the old ways, but to being at the center of their lives. The more I chase this drifting crown, the further it lifts away from me. Every day is different than the next. I want to grab the rent open heart of my pod and pull its leathery sides together—contain these seeds that cling rakishly by one thin strand—waiting for that devil wind.

But when the wind breaks its thin hold and carries it soundlessly heavenward, the beauty of this sudden abandonment creates tightness in my throat and I know this is the way it is supposed to be.

I must hold hands with wildness and order and let the drifting seeds gather light the way a dewdrop does in the morning.

To listen to this story, scroll all the way to bottom of the page for the audio recording. And forgive my raspy voice? I’m still recovering from this cold. 

This post is part of my 31 Days of the Almost Empty Nest series. I’m writing in community with the thirty-one dayers. Women all over the world are joining together in the month of October to write every day about something they’re passionate about. Check out some of the other writers here. So much good stuff. To read my first post, with links to all the days, go here. Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a cool giveaway.

Almost Empty

West Virginia Morning: How to Be Washed Clean

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This morning, the fog settles in over the meadow, skimming the blanket of Queen Anne’s Lace with white until it becomes a sea of flowery ghosts. I go out in the yard in my bare feet, let the same moisture that kisses their upturned faces be my foundation. I want to walk in beauty today.

It feels like we have miles to go before we sleep. So much work to do to get ready for the next season.

In the Russian tale “Vasalisa the Wise” the sweet girl Vasalisa is sent into the woods by her jealous stepmother to retrieve a coal to reignite the fire in their hearth. In the forest, Vasalisa encounters Baba Yaga—a witch who represents the wild old mother in each of us (just as Vasalisa represents the innocent, too-nice, naïve part of our psyche). Baba Yaga makes the child perform certain tasks to earn the coal she will give her: wash her clothes, sweep her yard, prepare her food, separate mildewed corn from good corn, and see that everything is “in order.” Vasalisa performs all the tasks successfully with the help of a little doll given to her by her mother when she was on her deathbed (the doll represents the intuition handed down through the ages).

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés says that these tasks Baba Yaga puts before Vasalisa teach her “how to take care of the psychic house of the wild feminine.” Washing the old hag’s laundry, in particular, is a beautiful symbol for “cleansing and purification of the entire bearing of the psyche.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this cleansing ritual lately. As we sort through Teddy’s things, making lists and deciding what he needs to take with him to school, it feels like a fine comb is being run over my spirit. I wash his new towels and sheets, take inventory of underwear and socks, cast aside the outgrown or unworn … and something inside of me is being scrubbed down, rubbed hard up against the washboard.

 … to wash her laundry is a metaphor through which we learn to witness and take on this combination of qualities [strength, endurance], and also to know how to sort, mend, renew these qualities by the purificatio, the washing of the fibers of being.”

It is a strange truth that saying goodbye to one part of myself means welcoming in another. Always, always, there is another skin growing over this scaffold of bones and blood, this limping heart. This is the way of God—to continue conforming me to the image of his son. These seasons I move through edge me closer and closer to the holy. Oh, how far I have to go.

Still, the moments creep up on me lately, and I am often surprised by an unexpected and sudden flow of tears.

Another kind of washing.

Garden Notes: Nurture

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When I returned from the College Summit Workshop, I was amazed at how much my garden had grown in just four days. I spent Monday afternoon stringing and canning beans, letting the slow snap of the pods soothe my mind and welcome me back into the routine of home. My tomatoes are struggling this year, due to all the rain, but I still have been able to start my mid-summer diet—tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and some in-between). This morning, I diced one of my salad varieties into petite bites and stirred the red bits into a pan-scrambled egg. Is there a better way to start the day?

Our first night at the College Summit Workshop was spent in training. All the writing coaches gathered in one room and our coordinator took us through the same free-writing exercises we would be asking our students to do over the next three days. After writing for ten minutes, we took turns reading our scribblings to one another, while the others took notes; just as our students would do. This simple activity allowed us to share our stories, to learn about the hearts and passions of each person there. I learned—by the way a voice would change as it held certain words—about the greatest loves these strangers carried. By the end of the night it felt like we knew each other better than some life-long friends.

I learned some things about myself through words shared and the lens of writing. Some things, I guess, we never leave behind. But, perhaps, the broken ways, the hard memories, the things we try to prune away, perhaps these are the very things that become the soil bed for rich growth.

Sometimes I think I love gardening because it proves to me that I can care for something other than myself—that I do have the ability to nurture and cultivate. All those years taking care of myself when no one else would—they have a way of turning the gaze inward. Survival of the fittest, right?

When my boys were born, the desire to nourish and teach and give was so strong the pain of it would overtake me at times. Now that they are older, they try to shake free of the bumpers I’ve put in place for their lives. They want to make their own way. At least in part.

But the garden never shrugs off my hands. My eggplants are beautiful and the summer squash are late but they are coming. I will have late cucumbers too, my planting was distracted by a boy’s graduation this year. Every morning I visit the garden. In the cool of the evening I tend to her needs.

And she will give back in countless ways.