Love like lilacs…on Grandma Alyce and a life well-lived

Everyone and everything I love is holy…

I pause as the sentence pops to mind. It does occasionally, even though it came to me completely by accident at first, the consequence of a mistype and autocorrect.

<<<>>>

A few years ago, a friend and I were chatting about therapy. She was gearing up to go back, but was dreading the work. I was thinking that I probably needed to get back on antidepressants first, because as my depression sat, I didn’t think I would actually get anywhere.

“It would be a fairly nihilistic therapy session,” I began.
“Therapist: so what brings you in today
Me: everyone and everything I love is “

And here’s where I started to write “going to die” and autocorrect changed “going” to “holy.”

I think sometimes the universe interjects itself into our lives, and in this case, I think it was letting me know that I was missing the point.

<<<>>>

Everyone and everything I love is going to die…

My 92 year old grandmother, Alyce, passed away on June 28, leaving behind 9 children, 21 grandchildren, and 26 great grandchildren. Less than a week before, John and I drove up to visit her in the nursing home to which she had recently been moved. We met my cousin Erin there, and the four of us passed the afternoon.

Me, Grandma, Erin, and John

It wouldn’t turn out to be my last visit with her, but the possibility clung to me, a thought I worked to push back. I wanted to enjoy my time with her, and I did. We talked and laughed. Hugged. I turned pages for her while she looked at our wedding album. She told us about the singer who had come to the nursing home the week before. The song she requested. I wish I could remember the name…

Grandma was moved to hospice the next day; it was her choice, and we knew it was coming. She chose to transfer when it became apparent that her congestive heart failure was getting the better of her; she was tired of the doctor visits. Of struggling to breathe.

Maybe, in some ways, she was just tired.

A few days later, I went back to see her again. This time at hospice. She couldn’t speak much, could barely stay awake. The nurses (god bless hospice nurses) kept her comfortable and answered our questions.

Family rotated through. My cousins sat with me. I called my dad and told him to come. I watched several of her sons say their goodbyes. My father audibly. My uncle with a hug.

Her heart was giving out, but her mind was still sharp. She worked to say “I love you” to each of us.

Strange, there was so much sadness in that room, but what struck me over and over was the way love spilled out from every corner. The way it permeated the air.

We stood with her on the edge of death, and it was holy.

<<<>>>

We sat vigil with grandma, no one leaving until the next person had come in. She was never alone.

We talked about her life as we held space for her. Memories each of us had. It’s strange how the people you love, the people who love you, hold different pieces of you. Strange how you can come together and add pieces, one after another, until you paint a vibrant picture.

It’s remarkable how you can come to the end of a 92 year life and leave everyone you know wishing it was longer. I think every single one of us will miss her. And I think the ones who didn’t know her, like my cousins’ children whose memory is still too young, will hear stories that will make them proud of her.

<<<>>>

On July 3, we attended her Celebration of Life.

It’s funny. Knowing her my whole life didn’t quite prepare me for her eulogy. For learning about all of the living she did in the space before me, before my aunts and uncles, before even my grandfather was part of her story.

She had told me about her childhood here and there. I knew that her parents had divorced, in a time when almost no one divorced, and that she had been in the custody of her mother as a young child because her father was willing to take his sons but “didn’t want the girl.” Then she was handed around between caregivers. Her mother. Random relatives. The upstairs neighbor. Her grandparents.

She had a traumatic childhood, one that gave her every excuse in the world to perpetuate the trauma she experienced, but she broke the cycle during a time when people weren’t talking about breaking trauma cycles and mental health resources were far less available. She raised loved and loving children. She was known for welcoming everyone who came through her door (and usually feeding them, even though she actually hated to cook).

I found out that she was a writer, too, in high school. Creative writing. Press club. Even the editor of her high school newspaper. How had that never come up?

I listened to stories about the jobs she held: preschool teacher, Headstart teacher, Meals-on-Wheels deliverer. All jobs that lifted others up. Cared for them.

Hearing new stories from her life felt a little bit magic: a reminder of the depth and breath of nearly a century on this planet. A reminder that we were celebrating a life that had been well lived.

<<<>>>

I asked her what her favorite flower was once. She told me about how her children would bring her lilacs in the spring, and she told me about how she would have liked to have purple roses for her wedding to my grandfather, but that they were poor, so she made her wedding flowers out of tissue. I like that she answered the question with stories.

We had daisies and lily of the valley at her funeral, because I guess those were her favorites, too.

But I think about the tissue roses, and how she made something beautiful with so little. And I think about the lilacs, and how the answer to what she loved wasn’t about the aesthetics. It was about the way her children showed their love. It was about the story.

<<<>>>

Have you ever walked into a grove of blooming lilacs in the evening when the air is heavy? Or walked into a midwestern farmhouse where the cut flowers are sitting in a vase on the table? The scent always registers before the source. It permeates the air.

I think about her final days in hospice, and it occurs to me that grandma spent her final days surrounded by a love like lilacs. A love you felt hanging in the air before you could pin down a source.

<<<>>>

Everyone and everything we love is going to die; everyone and everything we love is holy.

I miss her.

I didn’t see Grandma all that often, but I feel her absence. The planet was better with her on it.

But, also, the planet is better for her having been on it. That, I think, is the most we can wish for anyone in the end.

Well, that, and a holy love.

Like lilacs

Grandma and Grandpa

Pandemics and Paying Attention

I’m writing this from my front porch. I bought a new rocking chair set this year from the feed store; in a world of work-from-home and pandemics, it was money well spent.

It’s windy, but warm; I’m comfortable in a t-shirt and yoga pants, my official uniform of quarantine and Covid19. My dogs are outside with me, and the llamas and horses have chosen the pasture over the barn today. All of us, I think, know that cooler weather is closing in and are making the most of the last few breaths of warm before the chill.

For the first time, I am noticing that wind through the crisp, Midwestern, autumn leaves sounds a little like the sea. I can imagine standing at the edge of a pier right now, waves breaking upon the shore.

My wind chimes, a large set with deep, resonant notes, are moved along with the trees and provide notes that carry across the farm like an almost song.

<<<>>>

It has been a weird year. But you know that. Six months ago, I didn’t imagine that we would still be tucking away in October. That we would still be wearing masks and trying to stay a llama’s distance from everyone else.

I also didn’t expect the pandemic to come so close. Touching people and places I love.

John and I are self-quarantining for the second time since the virus hit the states. Both times, it’s been due to possible exposure. We don’t have any symptoms, but today, I got my 5th Covid test since the beginning of the pandemic.

It’s amazing what is starting to feel normal.

I remember, as a child, wondering what it felt like to live through big moments in history. But that was before 9/11. Before the financial collapse of ’08.

Before now.

Make no mistake, these are the days our grandchildren–if we have them–will ask us about. They will be writing papers about the pandemic and about the election. The climate.

I think, if I’m asked, I will say that Octobers began feeling warmer and that life was mostly the same as always until you came upon a moment that felt unreal, like when you saw the airliners parked en masse at major airports because almost no one was flying, or when you saw red and orange casted photos that your friends took while they evacuated ahead of the west coast wildfires.

I will tell them that when you got a cough or a fever you worried. Instantly. Even though it was probably just allergies or the flu or one of a thousand other illnesses that could cause those symptoms.

I will tell them that I went to some of the the protests and vigils for George Floyd, that we marched wearing masks to protect each other, and that, contrary to what some might try to tell you, there was a lot of love and grace in those places. That there was hope. I will tell them that we took to the streets during a national pandemic, as safely as we could, to try and make things better for the children coming up behind us.

And I think I will tell them that it was difficult to follow the news, because sometimes it seemed like everything was bad.

<<<>>>

I think a lot of us are feeling like the world is closing in a little too tightly right now.

I’m working through a book about connecting to our innate creativity, called “The Artist’s Way,” with a friend of mine. (It’s been really helpful, to be honest, and I highly recommend it.) The author, Julia Cameron, writes, “Survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention.

Right now, as we live through certifiably insane times, I can’t help but think that paying attention is more important than ever. However, to quote another author whose work I love, we need to be mindful to “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” (Austin Kleon, Keep Going)

Today, I caught myself scrolling Facebook for way too long. It’s easy to do. We’ve created our own little echo chambers. Safe and comfortable. A place where arm chair activism can be mistaken for actual activity and outrage at the proverbial other is found with every click.

…sanity lies in paying attention.”

I worry about the election, and I spiral. My anxiety gets triggered. I make the mistake of reading the comments section of a political article, and 45 minutes later, I’ve lost 45 minutes of my life AND my faith in humanity. I worry about the pandemic, for myself and others. Lately it’s been hard for me to pay attention to the right things.

But, still, I am learning…

A few weeks ago, I found one of my favorite llamas, Rabbit, sitting on the ground just outside the barn, unable to get up. He was older, near 17 I think, and one of my favorites.

When one of my older animals goes down and is unable to stand back up, especially outside, I don’t expect them to improve. I’ve seen it too many times, and have come to the conclusion that fighting the inevitable in an actively failing critter is unfair and unkind. Life, it turns out, is a terminal condition, and sometimes the kindest thing we can do for our critter friends is to make their last journey as comfortable as possible.

I called the vet.

Since Rabbit wasn’t in active distress, the vet slotted his euthanasia in for later that day. I hung up the phone, sat on a haybale, and cried.

On top of the pandemic and every other damn thing, I had already lost two animals in the few weeks prior to finding Rabbit unable to stand. An older horse, Candi, and an older llama, Llewis, all three with unrelated issues. And it hit me in that moment, the weight of loss. I cried for all three of them and for myself. And a little bit, I think I cried for all of us.

When the tears slowed, I made my way to the feed room and mixed up some grain for Rabbit. The sweet stuff with lots of molasses. My boy would go out full. I brought him some water and hay, deposited a bucket of sweet grain in front of him, and covered him in blankets against the chill. Then I sat with him, because I loved him and didn’t want him to spend his last afternoon alone. An hour or so later, my friend Katie joined us, bringing me hot chocolate; after that, Lauren came up to the barn. Both of them sat with me and Rabbit while we waited for the vet to come because they love me and didn’t want me to be alone.

Me and Rabbit.

The vet was later than he first estimated, but that was ok. It gave the sun time to move higher in the sky. For the shadows to retreat so that Rabbit could spend a final hour laying in the sun. I wanted it that way.

<<<>>>

Time and again, this place and these creatures remind me of what’s important in a culture that is always trying to redirect my (our) attention. Plans went out the window, because sometimes the most important thing is right in front of you. Not just Rabbit though. Not just saying goodbye to old friends, but the support that comes out to greet you when you need it. The friends who, time and time again, have proven to me that they have my back, whatever that looks like in that moment, even when it looks like sitting on the ground for hours on a chilly day waiting for the vet.

My friends, my creatures, and this place remind me of all the million ways that we belong to each other.

I posted a prayer from Nadia Bolz-Weber on my personal Facebook recently. The whole thing is beautiful, but one line struck especially deeply. She writes: “Remind us that for every tragedy that’s “newsworthy” there are a million kindnesses, and countless acts of love that go unreported.”

That’s what we need to pay attention to, not to the exclusion of the major events happening all around us, but as their complement. Neither tells the whole story of this crazy year.

<<<>>>

Today, after work, I listened to the wind through the autumn trees and realized that they sound like waves crashing on a beach, and I imagined that beach. I sat outside with my dogs, and I enjoyed the sun. (We all should take time to enjoy the sun.) I collected zinnia seeds from my garden, and I paid attention to the wild colors of the still blooming zinnias to my left and right.

I planted some beautiful things this spring, despite all of the insanity. Next year, I will plant some more, and I will work hard to pay attention to all of the beautiful things happening all around me.

***Both of the books mentioned in the post are affiliate linked, which means that if you buy them through these links, I will make a small amount of money. Two notes on that: first, it does not change your purchase cost, and second, I will never affiliate link to a product I don’t believe in. I love both of these books!

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.

For Nana – On Loss and Light

me and nana

“Don’t let it be too long before you call again, honey.”

“I won’t.  Love you, Nana.  Have a good night.”

“Love you too, darlin.'”

We hadn’t talked very long.  She was tired.  She had been tired a lot lately.  The past few years had seen her in and out of the hospital with more regularity.  Last fall, she had given my sister and I each one of her gold rings.

“Just in case something happened,” she told us.  “I just want you to have it.”

It’s tucked in my jewelry box now; I forgot to wear it to the funeral.  And I waited too long to call.

<<<>>>

In the past six weeks, I have been at one deathbed.  Two funerals.

Dressed in black and disconnected from what was in front of me.

Watching my aunt receive condolences on the death of her husband.  Giving condolences that don’t feel deep or wide enough to communicate my sympathies.

Watching my sister collapse in tears on the side of my Nana’s casket.  Fighting the urge to do the same.

One week earlier I had stood with my sister beside Nana’s bed.  They were “keeping her comfortable” then, and I knew it was only a matter of time, but there was a little part of me hoping.  She had rallied before, hadn’t she?  Maybe, just maybe, she would rally again.  Maybe, like before, I would hear her again, talking about how “that was a close one, honey.”

<<<>>>

Nana wasn’t my biological grandmother.  She had been one of my mother’s closest friends, despite being old enough to be her mother.  When my mom got married and had kids (my older sister and then myself), Nana moved in to help raise us.  She lived with us until I was eleven.

Nana helped us with our homework.  She cooked our birthday dinners.  She was there for doctor appointments, school plays, t-ball games, holidays, vacations, chicken pox, every bout of the flu, riding lessons…everything.  I cannot untangle my childhood from Nana.

I wouldn’t want to.

When I was about seven, she started using the family YMCA membership to walk the track in the early morning.  I got it in my head that I would go with her.  We would wake up at six am and walk the raised track.  Me, seven years old with white-blonde, pony-tailed hair, wearing my swishy 90s track suit, power-walking with Nana and the other gray-haired retirees.

We usually went out for a donut afterwords.

Nana always included us if we wanted to be included.  My sister and I would travel with her to visit her mother in Indianapolis whenever she went there.  She showed me how to dead head petunias when I wanted to help in the garden.  She let me help make egg noodles in the kitchen…until I stole too many, earned a slap on the wrist and a “Now, you just get out of here and let me finish!”

Once, she came along with me to see a new X-Men film…She was well into her 70s at the time with zero interest in superheros or comics, but she ate popcorn and sat beside me just because I wanted to go.

She taught me from the very beginning that family didn’t need to share blood.

<<<>>>

My sister and I stood on either side of her bed.  It was a Saturday.   She wasn’t conscious, but they told us she could hear us.  So, we talked.

We said thank you.  We sang “Bushel and a Peck” the way we used to when we were little.

I don’t think I actually said goodbye.  I didn’t want to.  I just said thank you, and I love you.  And then I thought it–thank you, I love you–when the words stopped coming.

<<<>>>

This winter, I visited her in the hospital with John.  She hadn’t met him before, but she knew his name when he came in with me.  I was surprised; I hadn’t been hearing good things about her memory.

She sat in her hospital chair, connected to wires and drips and oxygen, and she looked him up and down with an eagle eye.

“You’re a good looking man,” she proclaimed.

“Well, thank you, Nana.” he replied.

We sat with her and visited for a few hours.  She never lost track of who I was, or who John was, but she kept losing her place, asking when her daughter would be home, wondering where the dog was.

When John left to go to the bathroom, she informed me that she would “kick his ass” if he ever hurt me.  Then she asked if we were going to get married.  Then she told me that she would kick my ex-husband’s ass if she could just get a hold of him.

<<<>>>

My sister called me on Monday morning.  Nana was gone.

My dad had stopped my house that morning, and I collapsed against him, sobbing.  He stayed until I steadied.  I walked into the house, sat on my kitchen floor, and listened to Doris Day sing “A Bushel and A Peck” on repeat.

What do you do when part of your world disappears?  When the sun has the audacity to keep shining as though a great light hadn’t gone out?  How dare the universe keep expanding, the earth keep spinning, wind keep blowing?  How is it that the flowers outside my window had bloomed that morning?

<<<>>>

Tuesday night, the flu hit me like a semi-truck, proof that viruses don’t give one single fuck what you’re going through emotionally.

Fever.  Chills.  Coughing.  Sore throat.  Headache.

My dad started watching the animals.  I couldn’t get out of bed.

An old friend from high school reached out to me, asking me how I was.  I told her that I was having a hard time processing, that I couldn’t quite make it past the physical fever to reach the emotional pain.

She understood.  When her grandmother had died, she’d come down with a wretched case of shingles, lending her to that same feeling.

“It doesn’t really feel like she’s gone,” I told her.

“I know what you mean,” she replied.  “Sometimes it feels like they took a trip and just can’t get a phone signal.”

<<<>>>

  The morning of Nana’s funeral, I got a call from my nearest neighbor.

“Hi, Cherity.  It’s Connie, from next door?  I just…I think one of your llamas is dead.  I mean, I know it’s dead.  We can see it from the house.  The vultures are after it.  I wasn’t sure if you knew.  I thought you’d want to know.”

Of course.  Of course there’s a dead animal in my pasture.  …This is how animal sanctuaries wind up getting animal control called on them.

I pulled on sweats and walked out to the back pasture along my neighbor’s property.  It was the most I had moved in almost a week.  Sure enough, a dead alpaca was laid out in the middle of the field.  I got close enough to see the vultures.  To realize that they had opened her up past her rib cage.  I have a soft spot for vultures, and I didn’t blame them or harbor ill will.  They were doing their job.

From where she was and what I know of llamas and alpacas, I’m guessing she went down quickly, probably a heart attack.  From what I know of vultures, I’m guessing she had been there a day or two.

My dad and boyfriend both do a great job of taking care of everyone out here, but neither of them know the animals well enough to notice if one of them hasn’t been in.  Between losing Nana and coming down with the flu, I had missed her absence.

<<<>>>

I went to the funeral, convinced I was getting better.  Pastors stood at a pulpit and talked about a generic version of a woman who I loved deeply.  It didn’t seem right.

I wanted to stand up and talk about the stories that made her laugh.  I wanted to talk about the fried green tomatoes I still can’t quite make like she did.  About the time she went up in a helicopter with me over the Badlands on vacation when I was little because I wouldn’t go up with anyone else.  Stories and memories bubbled up within while they talked about how much she enjoyed Bible study and going to church.  How she played baseball in high school.  It seemed like they missed her to me, but maybe that was just to me.

<<<>>>

The next day, my abating flu was back with a vengeance.  Six days later, I was diagnosed with pneumonia.

It’s getting better now.  I’m moving slow, but recovering.  Working in small doses.  Taking it one day at a time.

I’m taking a lot of things one day at a time.

<<<>>>

I drank the last of my Greek Ouzo the night of the funeral, toasting to Nana.  John and I watched Pixar’s “Coco.”  I thought a lot about the memories we keep of the people and animals we love.  I thought about the way they come with us as the world continues to turn.  The way we wear their love in our bodies.  Love is never wasted; it is handed off like a baton from one person to the next as we walk through our lives, not diminishing in the passing, but burning brighter as it moves from one to the next.  The sun has the audacity to keep shining because, even though it might feel like it, the light we feel like we’re missing isn’t actually lost.  It’s just been passed along.

Nana handed me a lot of love.  It’s my job to make sure it burns bright.