Grandpa, Grieving, and Learning to Carry Love

I think the season might have changed from spring to summer while I wasn’t looking. A quiet breath of change that happened maybe while I was grading. Or shearing. Or mourning.

Collectively, a lot of us are mourning right now. Lives lost to COVID. Lives lost to violence. Lost experiences. Lost sense of normalcy. The world, I think, is undergoing some changes, and it can be hard to keep up or know quite where you fit.

I’m feeling all of that.

I set out at the beginning of quarantine with grand intentions to write more, but I’ve struggled with it. The more you don’t write, the harder it is to get back in the habit; it’s a skill that must be practiced as much (maybe more) than it is a talent. Early on, it was the chaos of online teaching that made me feel stuck. I only had so much brain space, and it didn’t seem I could fit much else in beyond my classroom. Then it was loss and depression and anxiety. Personal and collective.

We’re all going through a collective experience of trauma right now. Several of them really. Some people are handling it better than others, I think. Some people are really struggling. Some people don’t quite know what to feel.

Suddenly, and collectively, we’ve come to the ever present but often ignored conclusion that our lives are very often out of our control.

Beyond our collective grief and mourning, my family has experienced personal loss. My grandpa passed away this spring, an illness or injury that it seemed like the doctors couldn’t quite pin down took him from us. Thanks to the virus, most of us didn’t really get to say goodbye. We texted and called. We posted memories and remembrances on social media. We even had a collective ice cream social on Zoom. (If you knew my grandpa, you know that he loved ice cream.)

Grandpa with the signature smile. He’s wearing that smile in nearly all my memories of him.

We didn’t get to hug him or each other, though. We didn’t get to have a wake or a funeral.

I’m sure I’m not the only member of the family who felt depression hang over me like a shadow as he faded from us. The virus creates loss without context. An emptiness that just seems to appear in front of you like a fall into Wonderland through a rabbit hole.

(Hmmm…I think grandpa would like that analogy; he was a nationally known rabbit breeder, and it seems very likely to me that he would have been pretty comfortable with his gateway to the afterlife taking the shape of a rabbit hole or maybe a path through a rabbit coop full of his favorite Flemish Giants.)

My depression had been waiting in the wings since the start of the virus, and it poured onto center stage following on the heels of our loss. It does that. Comes and goes, but never really goes. It was my companion for a few weeks, a welling up inside me that occasionally rose to prominence and took over. I was thankful for my support system. For my friends who called or texted to check in. For family, who knew my loss by feel because it had spread across their skin and hearts as well. For my guy, who didn’t have the words (because, believe me, no one ever does) but who wrapped me up in his arms and told me he would be right there as long as I needed him, who let me cry on his shoulder and brought me pizza when food had lost a lot of its appeal.

A photo from Grandma’s 90th birthday this year. John, Grandpa, Grandma, and Me. I love this photo.

I’ve read that grief is love that has no where to go, that that’s why we should let people have their grief, to ride through the rough terrain of loss rather than try to smooth it over for them with platitudes. You have to learn to ride through the rough road carrying the love with you; no one can navigate the holy pain of loss in your stead.

One of my aunts wrote a touching tribute to grandpa a few days before his death, when we all knew it was coming and felt ourselves waiting for the hand of the creator to deliver him from his intense pain. She wrote about all the things she would miss. All the ways she would miss him.

I somehow didn’t see her reflection until a few days after he passed. I had spent the in between thinking about all the things I would miss as well.

One line she wrote, “I will miss the way you measured time by season and weather, the way any farmer does,” bounced around in my chest, filling space in an empty spot that I hadn’t known was there.

I do that too…

My grandfather left an obvious legacy. He and my grandmother raised nine children on a farm along the rock river. Those children, in turn, raised their children in their own way–some on farms of their own; some, like mine, in town in a small house with a white picket fence–but all of us have a little plow dirt in our blood I think, some more obviously than others. Most of us have a dose of Midwestern common sense. Many of us know the magic of being rooted, connected to the growth of things in a very visceral way. He quietly taught us that, I think.

Not long after he passed, the month of May surprised Central Illinois with a late frost. Dad came over and helped me cover my garden. We spread plastic sheets over green beans and put buckets upside down over tomatillos and tomatoes. I used actual blankets to tuck in my broccoli and slung Max’s first coat over my lettuce to protect it, as I had with him, from the cold. I thought about Grandpa a lot that night, wondering how many times he worked to protect the crops from a late frost, thought about the way he taught dad how to drive a tractor and plant corn in rows and the way Dad taught me.

The frost claimed no casualties in my garden, despite rolling over the ridge line low and fierce; it was protected by the knowledge that a family passes from one to the next.

It strikes me sometimes that he isn’t here anymore; that I won’t see him on Christmas Eve. That we won’t talk about my horses again; I won’t see him nod approvingly and tell me “that’s a fine looking horse” with the knowledge of a seasoned horseman when I pull out a photo of my latest project. I won’t hear him comment on the price of milk or this year’s corn crop or the weather. He won’t wrap me up in a bear hug that smells just a little like a barn. (His hugs would lift us off the ground until he was well into his 70s.)

I will miss him.

But I will think of him when I see the sun set over corn fields. When I start up a tractor. When I breathe in the scent of freshly plowed garden dirt. When I eat ice cream, like he did, with a fork.

I suspect that I will measure “time by season and weather” for the rest of my days, the same way he did through all of his.

I think it’s true that grief is love with no where to go. I’ve learned that the process of grieving teaches you where to put that love, how to share it, how to pull it out when you need to remember the ways it made you who you are.

Grandpa in the barn with his rabbits.
Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, Dad, my sister, and me. (I’m the little one.)

I hope your grieving, however it looks now, teaches you more about love and reminds you how to be full.

Winter, Christmas, and All of the Lists

I sat down last weekend and made my Christmas lists.  Christmas shopping.  Christmas goals.  Taking some inspiration from a blogger I follow–Karen at The Art of Doing Stuff–I decided that this year, I want to have my holiday obligations (the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating, etc) out of the way by the end of November, leaving December wide open for less-stress celebrations and evenings enjoying the season in front of a nice fire.

This year, I will be organized and intentional, and I WILL NOT be wrapping the last of my gifts on Christmas day before we load the car…again.  I refuse.

Maybe it was the early first snow that kicked my butt into gear.  Maybe it was Karen’s email about her Christmas pledge.  Maybe it was the fact that my furnace chose the evening of our first snow to take a shit, reminding me very clearly and viscerally of what cold and winter feel like.

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Maybe it was a combination of the three.

Either way, Winter, I’m here with you.  To-do lists in hand. Continue reading “Winter, Christmas, and All of the Lists”

Take Me Home Country Roads

My commute to the office usually takes about twenty-five minutes.  It’s two-lane, country driving the entire way along one of the Illinois’ River Roads.  My landmarks as I drive are a railroad crossing, a bald eagle nest, and a couple of roadside picnic benches.  There usually isn’t much traffic, but you do have to watch for deer.  Especially during the rut.

This time of year, I watch for turtles.  So far, I’ve stopped and given a crossing assist to five of them, parking along the roadside with my hazards flashing.  (Only one peed on me…but that’s a different story.) Continue reading “Take Me Home Country Roads”

The other side: More on Divorce

“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become.  No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell.  There are no maps of the change.  You just come out the other side.  Or you don’t.”
~ Stephen King

My divorce, so long in the making, was final at the end of March.  My cousin, Erin, came down for a long weekend and stayed to hold my hand in a mostly empty courtroom on a Monday morning while I answered questions from a bored-looking judge for five minutes so that he could declare my marriage dissolved.   My ex didn’t come; in Illinois you don’t have to have both parties present to finalize a divorce, and I had decided that the whole thing would probably be easier if I didn’t have to face him.

Divorce is strange.  It can be equal parts terrifying and debilitating and liberating.  Even world-ending.  It’s unexpected for some.  It feels inevitable for others.  The cutting of a cord. The removing of a limb.  A decision that you make, but that feels as though it had been made without you.  One that somehow feels equal parts devastating and hopeful.

It’s the end of something you never thought would end, and the beginning of something you never prepared for.

At least, that’s how it was for me.

Divorces seem to be like couples; each one of them is different. Continue reading “The other side: More on Divorce”

Sunshine, Twisters, and Thunderstorms

“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside of it.”
– George Elliot, Middlemarch.

February

It isn’t as warm as yesterday, but I cannot call it cold.  As of morning chores, the thermometer was flirting with 50 degrees, unseasonably warm for Midwestern Februarys.   Walking to the barn in just a sweatshirt is a rare treat.  The day is overcast; my weather app tells me that it will drop back down into the 30s tomorrow.

The squirrels seems to be celebrating this momentary gift of warmth. I watch two of them flitting through the trees like little furry ninjas, taking aerial leaps from tree to tree, branch to branch, that I wouldn’t have thought possible.  I can’t help but laugh aloud, pausing for several minutes to stand and watch them as they chitter back and forth, oblivious to my presence.

The horses, llamas, ponies, alpacas, chickens, and even barn cats are likewise “feeling their oats.”  They all seems especially enthusiastic today; whether playing or eating or just napping in the sun, they are going about their business with a little bit of sunshine in their step.  So am I.

It’s temporary; I know, but when February gives you light, you let that light in.

March

The day has been gray.  The weather forecast warned me that rain is likely, but things are warm and dry as I go about most of my day, and I forget about the impending squall.  The text from my mother warning me about the oncoming storm stops me in the middle of cooking dinner; I run to the barn, hoping to settle the animals in for the night before the thunderstorm makes it to the ranch.  The storm begins to blow in as I run up the barn lane. My solitary set of winds chimes tolls a panicked warning; they ring out loud and angry and dissonant.  The same wind rattles my aluminum gates in their hinges, creaking and crashing.  The trees swayed back and forth, deep roots digging in against the front coming out of the west.  I wonder briefly if any of them will fall.

Rain comes down cold and heavy on my shoulders as I roll open my barn doors and begin ticking chores off my list.  Shut the barn cats inside their tack room.  Shut the chickens into their coop.

Sirens begin blaring as I fill hay nets.  That means that a tornado has been sighted in the county.  I glance outside; the sky bares no tell-tale signs of a twister. The heavens are angry, to be sure, but dark gray, not green.  The wind is frenzied.  My Midwestern upbringing has taught me that the sky to worry about is a calm green one.  I glance at my weather app and confirm that the touch down was on the other side of the county, miles and miles away.  I make hasty work of the last few hay nets, and, comfortable that everyone is as well set to weather the storm as I can make them, I run back through the downpour to the comfort of the house.

The sounds of the storm wake me several times throughout the night.  Hail pinging on a metal roof, thunder crashing in the distance, wind and rain railing against every corner of the house as the winds shift direction.  I lie in bed and pray for my creatures, hoping they have the sense to go inside.  Hoping that no trees fall and take down fences.  Hoping no more twisters are born of this storm system.  I fall back asleep as the rain continues down.

April

April showers are said to bring May flowers, but so far they are only bringing me mud.  The two horses in the main barn have churned up their paddock so badly that I have ankle deep mud to contend with every time I have to get to the chicken coop.  Of course, that’s inconvenient, but the bigger problem is the way they tend to slip around.  I picture them falling, and worry that someone will get hurt…whether that someone would be one of them, or me, is yet to be seen.  I decide to move them in with the other horses in the back pasture to keep all of us safer.

My world is wet and damp.  The rain is unrelenting from the end of March through the first part of April.  Everything is more difficult in the mud, from chores every morning to keeping my tile floors clean against the dogs’ muddy paws.  The mud makes me irrationally angry every time I have to slog through it. There’s a crack in my rubber boots that lets cold, mucky water in when I step.  I really need to replace those…

If I were to begin building an ark up here, high on the ridge above the Illinois River, no one would even blink.  The animals barely step out of the barn, and they are as cranky as I am.  The forecast says that the rain will end soon, but it feels like it will keep falling down forever.

The daffodils are up along the farm road.  Yellow and bright against the new green grass that I’ve been waiting for.  The sun is out, and the animals spend their time outside.  They are decidedly happier than they have been in weeks.  I still need to replace those boots, but the mud is no longer deep enough to seep in through the crack.  Things are warming up, sprouting up, waking up, and coming to life all around me.  The warm weather wakes me up too.  Months of cold and damp and dark are coming to an end.  I feel lighter.  The anger from the mud is wearing off as things dry.  Of course, the storms will still come–they always do–but when April give you light, you let that light in.

A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken

Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens.  Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot.  I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.

I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder.  There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so.  (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age.  If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.)  But, when you get right down to it,  I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary. Continue reading “A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken”

The Adventures of Kahn

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Kahn was someone’s house cat once.  I’m almost sure of it.  Feral cats don’t come to humans to ask for help, which is just what he was doing when he and I first met.  It was the coldest, darkest part of winter, more than a year before we took over at the ranch.  I was helping to keep an eye on things while the owners were away, doing evening chores and hanging out with a friend, Katie, who had come along to keep me company.

The night was quiet, so we heard the his cries from outside the shut barn door.  Katie slid it open to find a battered-looking, black cat standing just out of reach.  It was snowy, and he was cold.  His inky fur was rough and made him stand in stark contrast to the snow.  He held one foot above the cold ground, obviously wounded and infected.  His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and despite his size–Kahn is a big cat–he was desperately underweight and looked very small.  He continued to cry as we looked on, but skirted us.  Nervous and scared but pleading for help. Continue reading “The Adventures of Kahn”