What It Takes to Heal

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This was the title of a panel session at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville last weekend. I was one of two panelists. The room was full because people want to know what it takes to heal.

sfb2014panel1What did it take for me to heal? I tried to offer some meaningful thoughts from my experience through grief as told in my book Remember the Dragonflies. Everybody’s different. What it took for me might not be true for others. But I think it can help.

Four hours after my husband died, my sister arrived from Memphis and said, “Well, Kathy, you just have to build a whole new life.” It hit my brain like a block of ice. I could not yet grasp that I had lost my old life.

At some point life boils what’s in your crucible down to the salt of YOU. The old life is gone. Somehow you build anew out of the crystallized residue left in the vessel that is you. You unknowingly reach down and pull up what is deep inside you and stand on it…because that’s all you have left. You don’t even know what is down there until you need it. You don’t even know you are using it as you lay hold to it. But all the years of living, praying, doing life, studying, learning, faithing, believing, and becoming have put substance in you, and that is the residue left in your vessel when all the physical things fall away.

What does it take to heal? For me, in order to heal:

1. I had to hurt. Everybody wants to take the pain away. “Take a pill.” “Pray; ask God to take away the pain.” I instinctively knew I had to let myself feel my grief. I had to take hold of it and manage it and work through it. I didn’t need to rely on anything or anyone. Loss and grief were given to me. I needed to hurt the grief out.

2. I had to shoulder into it. I had to push myself, make myself keep going, pick up one foot and put it in front of the other, then do it again. Sometimes that’s all you can do. I had to do the things I did before my husband died, plus handle all the things he handled. I had to take care of business. He was a business owner. He died on a Saturday evening. Monday morning before his funeral on Tuesday I had to go to work to let his customers know and to get a backup plan for them. Over the next month I had to close his business, write a contract, merge the customers with a new company, get a job (I had worked for him), and pay the bills because the mortgage company and the electric company don’t wait for their due. Six months after Charlie died, I was sitting at my desk at my new job, looking around at my co-workers and thinking: he doesn’t know any of these people, he doesn’t know I have this job, he doesn’t know where my office is, he doesn’t know anything about my life now. I have…sort of…built a new life, as my sister had advised.

3. I had to get the pain out (even as I was shouldering into it). All the emotions — anger, fear, guilt, regret — get them out! Crying is a release. I cried until I could cry no more. I cried for a year and a half until I got mad about having to cry, so I told my deceased husband that I was done with it and I wasn’t going to cry any more, and then I cried some more. I wrote my feelings out in blog posts (that I used in my book). I cleaned out his office and threw old stuff away in the dumpster at the office complex — threw it all as hard as I could, slamming it against the metal sides, hurting something else as I was hurting. I went on walks, hard and fast walks, slung my hands, and told the grief pain to go away. “Get out! Get out of me! You can’t have me!”

4. I needed to remember and honor him because that put me in control and took me out of a “victim” mode. I set his place at the first Thanksgiving table. I put his favorite Vols cap on top of the Christmas tree. Scattering his ashes at the one-year mark was a significant healing moment. He’d always told me he wanted his ashes scattered in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Vols’ Neyland Stadium, so I took his urn and went to Knoxville. Not only did I fulfill his request, but I gave him more. I went inside the stadium and released some ashes behind the goal post under the scoreboard. I saw a cameo of him — laughing. He was pleased. I was, too. I had an immediate awareness of feeling lighter and better. I had done something meaningful.

Life doesn’t stop when you lose someone. It keeps going on all around you. You go to work, you go to the grocery store, you pay the monthly bills, you get the car’s oil changed, you shop for Christmas, you celebrate new grandchildren, you lose someone else. You hang on to that spinning merry-go-round. Cycles of weeks, months, seasons, and years come and come again. Birthdays and holidays roll around. The revolutions spin you, and meantime, you are not only moving around in calendar circles, you are moving forward.

I guess what I’m saying is: you can’t help but build a new life. It happens over time. It happens by default. But you can choose to hurt, to push on, to release the hurt, and to take some control over the madness and chaos and meanness of grief.

I did it.

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Friday, as I drove across Thompsons Station Road to Lewisburg Pike, a swarm of dragonflies buzzed toward my windshield. I laughed out loud, then choked on the laugh. My chest tightened. I saw another dragonfly in the Johnson grass next to the highway. Dragonflies come to give assurance.

I wrapped my hands tightly around the steering wheel of the red Outback, then opened them and rubbed the arc on the wheel’s left side and the right. His hands held this wheel. It was his car.

How could I do this?

I merged onto I-65, and the tears came. They poured. I couldn’t stop them. I had to quit crying…I couldn’t complete the deal like this…I couldn’t go through the paperwork and the taking and the leaving. I must be the only sentimental fool in the world to cry over trading an old car in.

When I arrived at the dealership, I lingered in the front seat and patted the steering wheel. “Good bye, old girl.” She was a good ride. She was his for the first five years. He died the month before she was paid off. I let the memories scroll.

red outbackShe first took us to my son’s college graduation in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina. What a happy weekend!

She took us on a joy ride around Nashville during her early weeks as we checked her out. We stopped for coffee and donuts. My husband never cared about anything being messy. He didn’t care if dust piled up on shelves or if the bed never got made. But he watched me eat that donut, as if daring me to drop one piece of glazed sugar. When I did, he fussed, and it was out of character for him. But it was his new car, and he loved her. Then he went on to spill coffee nearly every morning on her beige carpet.

She was a working girl. Her tag was personalized: GENISYS. She carried dozens of computers and peripherals to GENISYS customers. I left her sign in the backseat pocket: DELIVERY IN PROGRESS — GENISYS Systems Group. Charlie would put it on the windshield when he had to park at the front door of an office building to deliver something to a customer. She was rear-ended when she was still new as she raced to Green Hills the morning our publishing company customer burned to the ground, losing every single thing. Charlie was retrieving a backup tape kept off-site to restore their data and transfer it to new computers so the company could be up and running the following day. He was a hero, and so was she. She served well.

Then she was mine. She carried me and my husband’s ashes to Knoxville for disbursing. She carried mulch, rocks, flowers, and trees. She even carried my nine and a half-foot kayak. She carried the dog to vet and grooming appointments. She carried books to festivals. She carried loads of wrapped presents for eleven Christmases.

It was hard to let her go. It was hard to let her go because she was his.

But I drove away in a new white Outback. I bought my first car. Through the years and all the cars, there has always been a man’s name first. I was always the co-buyer.

This time, I’m the buyer. And she’s mine.

Memo to Self

You’ve been here before. Why are you surprised? What did you expect? Something different? Well, put on your big girl panties, honey, ’cause that ain’t gonna happen. Best to just keep stuff to yourself. Try to remember that. Don’t put yourself out there all exposed. Other than your children and your two dear friends — one who will cuss and feel it with you and one who won’t cuss but feel it with you –  don’t expect anything from anybody else.

You share news that isn’t the best, and what do you get? Other than the above-mentioned…

Utter silence.

Just don’t tell people whom you know will not respond to your hurt because then it hurts worse. It says they don’t care.

You.

You can do this.

Pull it up from down deep.

Stand. Breathe. Walk.

Do it.

To hell with the rest of ‘em.

Sedona Ring

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Vacation last week ended with a few days in Sedona, Arizona.

sedonaWe—the seven of us who travel together every summer, five of whom are family—wanted to see the array of red sandstone formations, visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross which appears to rise out of a one-thousand-foot redrock cliff, experience the famous energy vortexes, and go to Tlaquepaque. We also wanted to go to nearby Jerome, “America’s Most Vertical City.” Jerome sits up on a 5,200-foot hill, built into the side of it almost. It is on top of what was once the largest copper mine in Arizona and now it’s a bustling tourist magnet and artistic community of writers, musicians, hermits, gift shop proprietors, and artists.

The four girls in the group wanted to shop! We like to look for jewelry made out of local stones by local artists. I was determined to find a ring. I didn’t quite know what I wanted. I wanted lots of silver. I wanted a special stone. I always look for meaning and symbolism. I look for “signs.” Signs that relate to something significant and let me know I’m supposed to buy this particular item.

I walked up the incredibly steep incline of the hills of Jerome, stopping every five steps to get a breath, and looked in shop after shop. In between trolley tours and dining out, I went to every shop in Sedona along Highway 89A, some two or three times, just hoping that magic ring would somehow appear. But I couldn’t find anything really special.

And then. In The Humiovi, which carries jewelry, kachinas, and pottery by Native American artists, I browsed Dry Creek turquoise, White Buffalo turquoise, and Boulder turquoise. Nothing struck me. Until Jodi, one of the shop’s salespersons, picked up a ring and put it in front of me. “Try this one. I have one like it. We can have friendship rings.”

Sedona RingI slid it on my finger. It fit.

“The carving on the side is ‘the journey’—the journey we take to get to where we need to get. The circle of life.”

Well, that did it.

“I just wrote a book about a journey,” I said.

“What’s the name of it?”

“Remember the Dragonflies.”

“Why did you write about dragonflies? They’re messengers from heaven, you know.”

I knew. I told her I wrote about my five-year journey of loss and grief and healing after my husband died.

I bought the ring. She bought two of my books.

The ring features Sleeping Beauty turquoise. The mine, now closed, is seven miles outside Globe, Arizona. The stone is a favorite of Zuni Pueblo lapidaries and silversmiths for the purity in color—a solid light blue. Other stones in the ring are lapis, spiny oyster shell, red apple coral, green turquoise, and magenta turquoise.

The lapis stone is a royal blue, much like my sapphire birthstone. It is believed to offer protection. It is also for self-expression, writing, creativity, and dream insight. Spiny oyster carries the meaning of peace of mind and patience. Red coral is for confidence, courage, and vitality. Native Americans believe green turquoise is sacred; it is used in ceremonies and grants good fortune. Magenta turquoise provides a nurturing vibration which allows for the screening out of hostility, anger, and fear.

Any way you look at it, I think I’m set.

Thank you, Jodi! And thank you, Sedona!

June Came In Softly

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June came in softly this year. Four days in, it came to me that the calendar had turned a page.

The previous five Junes came in with a cloud, dark, roiling, impenetrable—a cloud that hung over all thirty days. It was June six years ago when Charlie died.

I haven’t been able to make much sense of things since then, but one thing that speaks strongly to me is that the sun goes down and the sun comes up again.

Cycles. It’s the cycles in life that I find comfort in. Especially the short-term cycles—day and night, the seasons, the leaves that fall off the trees, the leaves that grow back.

fogThis morning it is foggy. On my seven o’clock walk, I studied the haze hanging in front of the tree line behind the houses on the street that runs perpendicular to mine. The distant trees were gray. Those closer to me were gray-green with clearer definition. Up in the sky I could see a ball of light behind the fog.

Life after loss is that way. The faraway future is unclear. Fog blankets everything. Things closer in, you can see faintly. The sun is behind the gray.

You know it’s there. It’s stronger than the clouds. In time, as the morning goes by, it burns the fog away and stands against the heavens, leaving wisps of memories.

On Writing the Hard Stuff

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I knew how I wanted to write my memoir from the start. I wanted the reader to know on the first page that I was okay and that I made it through, so I started four years after the death of my loved one when I was planting flowers in the yard of my brand new house; then I went back and told of my loss. I took all the suspense away and perhaps I broke a writing rule, but – too bad – that’s what I felt I needed to do for the sake of the reader.

Why? Because when I was in the pit of grief and needed a book on how to get better, I picked up one memoir and started reading about  the author’s loss and how she existed in a fetal position for a year and how she couldn’t do anything to move forward. I couldn’t finish the book. And to top it off, I discovered later she had remarried during the time the book was written.

I read other books. I was frustrated and angry at what was being published for widows. I couldn’t hitch a trailer to my car and galavant about the country baking pies in order to heal, nor could I run off and hike a wilderness trail for months on end, nor did I feel like going out dancing with other widows on Saturday nights, nor did I find it practical to sit in my easy chair and read the Bible and pray all day.

irisI lived in a real world. I inherited a business I couldn’t do, and I needed an income. I had to stay put, go to work, and manage life. And I needed help doing it. I needed to read about someone else who had to keep on going where she was.

I wanted my book to show the real stuff. And I knew my book would need to convey one thing: You can’t get to the top unless you go to the bottom.

You cannot show someone that you are better, that you have healed as much as is practical, unless you show them how much you suffered. You’ve got to show the hurt, the pain, the extent of the grief—that nobody understands unless they have been there—before the reader can appreciate where you’ve been and how far you’ve come.

My book was meant to tell a story that takes place in the flow of real life.

Dragonflies, Unaware

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I’ve become a birdwatcher because a couple has taken interest in one of my bluebird boxes on the back fence. I’m a nosy neighbor, and I like to know whom I’m living near.

It isn’t a bluebird taking up residence in my yard, and I didn’t know what breed it was. I’ve never seen a bird like this. It is pretty because of the contrast—black on top with stark white underneath.

I’ve watched the male and female bring in dried grass for a nest, I’ve watched as he sat on the fencepost while she did the work, and I’ve watched them in flight—accomplished aerialists that glide and dip and dive.

What kind of bird? A phoebe? A junco? A swallow? I pulled out my Audubon book, sat on the deck, and thumbed through the pages and pictures to check each one. I inched out in the yard to get a closer look.

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The male was sitting atop a finial, the sun throwing a spotlight on him. I noted a green-blue iridescent sheen on his upper black body, a short, notched tail, and a white underside up to his eyes.

A tree swallow.

I wondered why he was in my yard—in a neighborhood full of houses and young trees—all a field, a pasture, a farm just a few years ago. Tree swallows nest in tree hollows; they prefer fields, marshes, and wetlands. They like creeks that produce multitudes of flying insects for food. Then I remembered: Aenon Creek is just down the street.

Tree swallows feed from dawn to dusk, performing acrobatic twists and turns, in wet areas full of flying insects: butterflies, bees, mayflies, damselflies . . . and dragonflies.

Oh no. The swallows are going to chase, dip, dive, and catch the dragonflies that emerge from the creek and the wetlands behind Aenon Circle. My dragonflies.

It seems there’s always something to look out for. Something bad comes along to snatch up that which you love and treasure, that which has become special to you. The predator something is lurking in the shadows, hiding in the darkness, unseen to the one moving in the stream of life, waiting for the moment, counting down—click, click, tick, tock, with each heartbeat—to destruction . . . like the aneurysm that obliterated my world. Complete aortic dissection.

Yet I know I can’t go there. I can’t let my emotions dip and dive and exist under the water. I have to breathe and live on. I can’t let the predator consume me. It’s not healthy. There’s an order to the world, and I can’t control it or stop it. I may not like that order, but I’ve got to learn to live with it. Now I’ve got tree swallows and dragonflies, and the former will be swooping in and stealing away the latter that my late husband sends to me. In the macrocosm of the back yard, life is brutal, but in the microcosm of my heart, I still have what I’ve always had.

Dragonfly on the Sidewalk

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Some people say dragonflies are the souls of the dead. Some say the deceased send us dragonflies to give us reassurance.

Thus, the title of my book: Remember the Dragonflies. I think now when people see dragonflies, they think of me.

Sometimes we all need little reminders that we are not alone in this great big universe, that others really do remember, do think of us occasionally, that something we’ve done or achieved might really matter a little. Last week was one of those times for me. I needed a reminder.

My biggest fear is that I will be like my mother in her older years. All her life she worked as a teacher, and she was too tired to go out and get involved in the community, so she didn’t have many friends. When she retired, she isolated herself at home with my dad. When he died, she was truly all alone. No family in town, no friends that she saw on a regular basis, and then when she could no longer drive, she couldn’t go to church and she couldn’t go shopping where she’d be around people. The daily phone calls from my sister and me were all she had. I don’t want to be alone like that.

In my mailbox Thursday was a padded manila package, the return address showing the name of my Memphis friend Susan Cushman. Inside was a sweet gesture from a friend. But it was more than that to me.

Inside a little gray mesh bag was a dragonfly pin. It is old with some realistic touches and fine etchings on the wings—could be antique bronze.

pindf

The note that came with it: “I found the enclosed pin on a sidewalk last week. I immediately thought of you.”

Chill bumps came up on my arms as I was immediately taken to the last chapter of my book.

“I see an injured dragonfly on the concrete. . . .I pick it up, put it on the flat palm of my hand, and it walks to the tips of my fingers like it is going to take off and fly away into the heavens, but it doesn’t. I take it to the grass beside the parking lot and give it a resting place on the cool green next to a big rock. . . .Is it a tidy miracle box wrapped up as a gift for me? Some would say I am crazy to think so. . .”

I took it as a reminder that we are all caught up and intertwined in this life, and sometimes we do things for others that turn out to be so much more than we knew, but because we are innately sensitive to a power greater than we are, we listen and act, and often those actions turn out to be very meaningful.

This is a beautiful reminder to have especially on Easter, a time when we think of new and meaningful spiritual life.

Thank you, Susan!

Writing About the Hard Stuff

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Writing about the hard stuff — the deep hurt, the anguish, the heart pounding in my chest and throat that never stopped, the four walls of loneliness that surrounded me, the feeling that I was standing out there on a cloud with nothing under me, the constant waiting for something else bad to happen, and the physical difficulty of picking up and putting one foot in front of the other to walk forward — was not something I set out to do.

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Who would want to do that? It means re-living the pain. And not just once. Re-living it to write it, re-living it to edit it, re-living it to proof it…

But we all need to identify with someone who understands the deep hurt that comes with losing one you live with every day, one who is a part of you and a part of your life. And people kept coming to me to talk about this.

So I was called to share my experience — to show how I lived in the valley and faced the pain and how I changed as I walked that grief road month after month and took care of “death duties” one by one and made decisions and worked out a new configuration of life.

I had to walk through the fire to get out of it.

Writing my story changed me…helped me to understand who I was and what I went through and why…which caused me to go back and change my story to reflect some hope and healing…and to tell who I am now.

“You nailed it!” said a man who lost his wife eight years ago.

The Difference a Year Makes

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I like to keep up with myself. One fun thing to do is to look at my blog First Draft, which I’ve been writing and maintaining for seven years, and see what I was doing during the same time a year ago.

Last year during the first part of March, I was spending some time in the dentist’s chair. Under stress, I clamp my jaw down and bite my teeth hard together. Well, that causes problems. And costs money. Also last year in March between dentist visits, I was going to Bone and Joint for a shoulder injury. “I had four X-rays, orthopedic testing, and a steroid shot stuck straight into the joint.” The right shoulder hurt so badly that I couldn’t squeeze my mouse or pick up my fork to eat. I also began physical therapy at Star. I’d take my manuscript for Remember the Dragonflies and do edits while I was icing down after a workout. It didn’t have the dragonfly title at that point.

This year, I sleep in a mouth guard and the shoulder . . . well, it still hurts some, but I was determined to not get an MRI and find out about any possible tears, and I can pretty much do anything I want to do . . . except paddle hard enough to get out of dangerous strainers when I kayak.

Last year, my BFF had a birthday March 2. She had another one this year on March 2.

gerriandjudy3BFF on Left (and a BFF on right, too)

This year, I have the finished product of Remember the Dragonflies in hand. And I got to visit my BFF when I had a book signing in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Last year I was writing hard. This year I’m not. This year I’m trying to figure out how to get the book into the hands of those who need it most.

This year I hope to refresh. And remember the dragonflies.

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