Tag Archives: grief

Someone Else’s Story

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And what chapter do you contribute…?

I have not written a post here in two and a half months.  In that time frame, 3 valuable people in my universe died.  Two of my connections from Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) died, both on Monday, April 27.  Randy, our unit supervisor, was a mentor, coach, sensei, cheerleader, buster-of-chops-and-rejoicer-in-successes.  John, a member of our peer group, was a United Methodist pastor on sabbatical, a warm hearted man of insight and humility.  These losses came to all of us as a shock, and for me, a gut-punch as I was still reeling from Aunt Helen’s death, which I shared in my last post here.

One week later, on Monday, May 4, my beloved friend, #FirstEverWorkHusband and Person, Martin, died.  I have written several times about him, his kidney failure, and our friendship in this blog.  We had just texted shortly before he passed, and his death appears to have been a fast and massive heart attack.  I can’t really write much about that right now; it is still pretty raw and I continue to process a great deal.

But the circumstances surrounding his passing left me inconsolable.  When I could manage to sleep there were dreams (which are to be expected and I know there will be more to come); various types of crying, from leaky moments to wailing, sobbing jags.  Finally as I stood in my yard, I spoke out loud, to Martin, to God, to The Universe, asking, pleading for…something.  A sign.  I said, “I need something to know that Martin is OK, so if he is…if you are…please, let the next feather that comes my way be either white or red.  I will take that as my sign.”  I didn’t specify that I needed to be the one to actually find the feather, but I didn’t give that much thought.

Flash forward a few weeks to a Thursday evening after work, when I reported to my church to record the service for the following Sunday, since we had not yet been cleared yet for in-person worship due to coronavirus.  On my music stand was my music for the service, and an envelope with my name on it.  I opened it to find these beautiful #featherblessings from my #ChoirBoss, Carroll, courtesy of his neighbors who had collected them on a walk with their dog.

 

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As gorgeous as the spotted feathers are, it was the red one that brought me to tears.  It was the sign I had begged for.  After we had finished recording the service, I thanked Carroll for his gift, explaining to him, with choked-back tears and a breaking voice, what the red feather meant to me, and how it was the first semblance of comfort I had received since Martin died.  I thanked him for unwittingly playing such an important role in someone else’s story…in my story.

We never know the importance of a seemingly small gesture.  Something we may do or say without a second thought can make all the difference in another person’s life.  When you get an impulse to reach out to someone, don’t ignore it.  You never know when you might be writing a chapter in someone else’s story.

 

Tides

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A week of extremes…

As I write this, I am in a northwest Florida condo with a gorgeous view of the Gulf of Mexico.  The temperature is 66 degrees, the sun is bright, and the surf is a bit more active today than the Gulf is most of the time.  Foamy whitecaps dot the surface of the blue-green water, and the sugary white sand is completely devoid of people.

Five days ago I was working at my current temporary assignment at the library and watching a postcard-pretty snow fall just beyond the reference desk windows.  Oak Ridge was whited out, but the streets and pavement were clear and safe, just wet.  It was every bit as beautiful as the setting I enjoy now; it was also about as opposite as one could imagine.

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It has been a week of extremes.  My #FirstEverWorkHusband Martin’s mother passed away on Halloween.  Fort Walton Beach was their home for many years, and Charlotte was a driving force behind the local Stage Crafters Theatre company, so it was decided that her memorial service would be held there.  Hence our trip to Florida in December.  Even though a month and a half has passed since she died, it is still a fresh grief for them, and the gathering of family and friends from decades gone by and miles away seems to have brought a fresh tide of emotion.

At least, it has for me.  I grieve the death of a woman I never met, but feel like I knew.  I grieve because my friend/person is grieving, and, as Truvy said in the film Steel Magnolias, “…no one cries alone in my presence.”  I grieve remembering my own Mama’s death, the anniversary of which was a week ago today.  December always brings a fresh tide of memories.

Since we had not seen each other since I visited him in February during #OperationTakeAMinute, Martin invited me to go with him to his dialysis session on Friday, so we could talk and visit away from the crowd of family and friends.  When I arrived to collect him, he presented me with one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received…a pair of large, beautiful feathers he had found during the months since my last visit and had saved for me.

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We arrived at the clinic, did paperwork, got him connected and me gowned up, and, as much as possible, we enjoyed short periods of conversation mixed into wordless times of simple shared presence.  About halfway through treatment he began to have some chest pain and, long story short, we ended up taking an ambulance ride to the nearby hospital to have him checked out.  Fortunately, his heart is medically all right.  I am grateful.

While we were in the emergency department, a portable X-ray unit was brought in to examine him in his triage space…and a fresh tide of memory flooded over me as I relived a moment from when Mama was in the hospital and a portable X-ray unit was brought to her room to check her, a moment when she was not stable enough to transport to them, so they came to her.  It was my sweet husband’s one meltdown moment during the whole of Mama’s hospital stay.  A moment of his deep attachment to my Mama, and his mother-in-love.

It is an odd thing, how present grief can churn up past grief, like the foamy whitecaps of a turbulent surf.  The tides are constant, sometimes tranquil, sometimes violent.  But the ebb and flow never cease.

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That Baby I Held That Day

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And a memory of 9/11 I never wrote about…

Everyone remembers September 11, 2001.  Even after 18 years my recollections of the day can still bring tears to my eyes if I linger on them for more than a few minutes.  I have shared bits and pieces of how the day and night unfolded for me…but I have never written down part of the story.

I was working the primetime 4pm-1am shift at the local Fox TV station, and I had been up late the night before.  Jeff and I were still very much in mourning for Mom Cutshaw, who had died in June, but trying to resume business as usual, whatever that means after a parent has died. My cousin Alan rang my phone that morning telling me a plane had hit a building very close to where my brother, Reed, worked, and to get up and turn on my TV.

I did, and we all know what unfolded throughout the next hours.  More planes crashing, more death.  I called my boss, Tom, and told him about Reed, and he asked if I needed to stay home.  I said I’d keep him posted.  I and my family were fortunate; we only had to wait hours to hear that Reed had gotten out of the city and was safe, at least physically.  I know people who didn’t hear about their loved ones for days.

I reported for work, grateful and shaken, to sit behind my console and watch solid, unrelenting coverage of the tragedy…endless replays of the planes crashing, the buildings toppling, people jumping from buildings rather than be burned alive…and commentary from newspeople, pundits, analysts.  My friends and TV brothers that afternoon and night in addition to Tom were Larry and Dan.  I was so grateful for these “boys” who kept me company, gave me bathroom breaks and propped me up, as I hoped I was able to do for them.  We were all overwhelmed, sad, angry, and feeling kind of…lost, I guess.  Late in the afternoon, Dan’s sister came by for a quick visit.  And she brought her little 3-month-old son, Cameron.

Lord, how I do love to shnoogle me a little teeny one, what we in the South sometimes call an “arm baby”.  I asked Meriam if I could hold her little treasure and she obliged with kindness.  I held that sweet new life close to me, humming, with leaky eyes and silent prayers…Lord God, what kind of world is this child going to grow up in?  Protect him.  Protect us all.  Lord, I am so sad…

That baby brought healing to me, more than any words of comfort spoken by ministers, vows of justice sworn by our government officials, tributes offered by the rich and famous.  That baby was born just before Mom Cutshaw died…just before all those people murdered on 9/11 died.  Holding that little, sweet, innocent new life reminded me that life indeed goes on, and that God indeed cares, even when nothing in the world makes sense.

That baby is now 18 years old, old enough to drive a car, vote in elections, serve in our armed forces.  And while I have not seen him in the years since I held him that day, I have often prayed for him.  I have shared the story of how he blessed and comforted me on a day when all of us were left feeling so very lost.  I haven’t seen his Uncle Dan in many years, but I remember him in prayers, too, and their whole family.

I owe them at least that. I owe them a debt of gratitude.  Especially that baby I held that day.

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(The baby’s hand in this photo does not belong to Cameron, but to my great-nephew Forrest, from a chance I had to hold him when he was an “arm baby”.)

Rewind

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If I could turn back time…or place…

Do you ever wonder what would happen if you could turn back time?  I indulge in such fantasies now and then, particularly when my life does not seem to be going the way I would like it to go.  But if I had the ability to rewind my life, how far back would I want to go?  It’s a rabbit hole I could fall into and never come back from if I let myself dwell on it.

Maybe I would go back to when I was about five years old, before Becky Ezell drowned and my little life had not been touched by death yet.  Even at that young age I understood that the lifeless form in the casket only resembled Becky, but it was not really her, not anymore.  It was just the package she had lived in before she died.  She was about 12 years old when she drowned, but I have never forgotten that she was sweet to me.  It’s a big deal when an older kid is nice to you.

Or perhaps I would return to the first time I ever sang a solo in front of people.  I was in the Herald Children’s Choir at my church and Becky Kidd, our leader/teacher (and phenomenal church organist) had me sing a solo in a little musical we put together and practiced diligently to offer to our church family.  I think I was nine or ten years old.  So many times in so many places I have offered up songs since then, a gift for which I give thanks.

I think about the many turning points along the way, sometimes wondering, “What if I had chosen differently?”  Just one step in a different direction alters the entire trajectory of a life.  Would I go back to a decade…a year…a moment…for a do-over?

The whole last two years of Mama’s life…I’d definitely do those differently.  I screwed some stuff up there.  Probably the first two years after she died, too.  Worrying about other people’s grief kept me from properly processing my own.  It cost me in ways I am probably still paying for.

Or would I just go back to the first of this year, when my dog was still alive and I had plans that I felt would fix a lot of things for the people I love?  Wondering about it serves no purpose, I realize.  But sometimes it is difficult not to.  There is an old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Perhaps these tangents are my way of trying to learn from history, and trying to look forward.

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Grateful In Spite Of…

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Fill in the blank…

I try to keep this blog positive…but I also try to keep it authentic.  And in the spirit of full disclosure, I am very much wishing for one big “do-over” right now.  My life at age 55 is not where I thought it would be, and certainly not where I would like.

I never imagined that my career would have taken such an abrupt turn.  But companies get bought and sold, and jobs get eliminated.  It happens all the time.  It is called Progress.

In the past couple of months, two friends died sudden, unexpected deaths.  Earthly goodbyes are never easy, but when a death comes so far out of the blue, wrapping our heads around such loss is far more difficult.  There’s no time to prepare, no understanding why, and way more questions than answers.  God is good, and His plans are perfect.  I believe this with my whole being. But trusting God does not mean an absence of pain.  Right now, it hurts.

I am grateful that He is with me in my pain.  Even Jesus cried.  He never promised me that there would not be hard times; He promised me that I would not be alone in them.

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Preparation, Packing Up Patsy, And A Pause

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Fixin’ to get started…

In my last post here I began to describe my post-work road trip adventure which I named #OperationTakeAMinute.  Getting to the nuts and bolts of actually leaving took a little more time and preparation than I had originally planned, but trips often start with a hitch or two.  So mostly I was able to roll with the unforeseen events as they unfolded.

My first task was to empty Patsy, my car, completely.  I had carried so much stuff back and forth to work for so long that it was imperative that I remove everything and start with a clean slate for packing.  So I took an afternoon and a couple of storage bins, and set about loading the bins and hauling them into the house.  After this I washed and vacuumed Patsy and got her looking and feeling pretty spiffy.  No longer could she be described as The HoarderMobile…at least, for now!

Usually when we take trips, we drive my husband Jeff’s car, which is always less cluttered than my own.  As a result, packing up the car is usually an easy and well-organized task.  My trip, by myself, in my car, was a bit different.  First of all, I needed to get Patsy serviced, including addressing a safety recall on her front passenger airbag.  No big deal, I reasoned, and it was important for her to be safe and road ready.  The dealership that had to replace the airbag, however, neglected to inform me that this would be at least a twenty-four hour turnaround, which meant not only a delay in packing, but that I would also have to drive a LOANER.  For the record, it makes me twitchy and anxious to drive any car other than my own, including my sweet husband’s.  I am sure it’s a control issue on my part.  Deep breaths…still plenty of time to pack.

A pause in the process happened the night before I was to hit the road, and a somber reminder of how short life is, and how important the people are who make up our circles.  The Sunday before road trip time, I received a call from a college friend and classmate named Kim, asking if I could sing for her husband’s memorial service on Thursday evening.  Her husband, Dave, was also a friend and classmate from school, and to learn of his passing was a shock for all of us.  Kim asked another of our schoolmates, Keith, to preach the service, which turned into a mini-reunion, bringing smiles, hugs, tears, memories and gratitude for Dave’s life, talent and legacy.  At the conclusion of the service I drove home knowing that packing up the car was not a priority for the rest of the night.  I would load up in the morning.  And I did, and that was fine.

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Friday morning came and I was literally throwing stuff into my suitcase (and overnight bag and plastic bags from Walgreens) and into the car.  This is NOT how I typically prepare for a trip!  But I felt reasonably sure I had everything I needed, even if I was not precisely sure where it all was.  I had time to reorganize while I was on the road and if I truly needed something I didn’t pack, I could buy it.  So after a quick visit with my cousins Alan and Susan, their daughter Katelyn, and HER brand new daughter Breann, I was ready to hit the road for real.  #OperationTakeAMinute was off and running on Friday, February 8, 2019…and so was I.

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Days And Decades

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How 15 hours became 20 years…

Today is the 20th anniversary of Mama’s death…but just barely.  December 8 was just a couple of hours old when she drew that last breath and moved from here to Heaven.  So while this is technically the anniversary, I always spend December 7 remembering…reliving…her last day of life, and spending it with her.

I arrived at Baptist Hospital around 11:30 that cold, grey Sunday morning, to relieve Dad, who had spent the night before with her.  He told me that, after being unresponsive for over 12 hours, she had awakened in the middle of the night, and they had a conversation.  She said she knew she would die soon, and that she was not afraid.  His recollection of that exchange shook me, hard and deep.  As we chatted briefly, he made a note to send to their financial advisor on Mama’s hospital menu for that day.  I remarked that I probably had a blank sheet of paper he could use, and he said no, the menu would be fine, especially since it documented the date and his note was an instruction for an account change that needed to be done before the end of the calendar year.  He was, and still is, careful and astute in financial matters.  We hugged goodbye and I told him to go home and get some sleep, that I’d see him later.

Just minutes after he left, Mama’s face changed, as did her breathing, echoing through the room with “the death rattle” I had often heard mentioned in older people’s conversations, but had only heard with my own ears a few times.  It didn’t register with me right away that she had begun actively dying, but over the course of the day it sank in.  In about a half hour a nurse came in to check Mama’s vital signs, and she asked how long her breathing had been like that.  When I answered, this sweet nurse just came and put her arm around my shoulder, telling me that she didn’t think Mama was in any pain or distress, that I could talk or sing to her, pet her and love her, because nothing was bothering her now.  I think now that this nurse may have been an angel; I don’t remember having seen her at any other time during our hospital stay; I can’t recall her name or face or hair color; I only remember her words and the feel of her arm around me.

For her last 15 hours, Mama and I shared that little space together, mostly alone except for nurses and CNAs coming in to check her vital signs and to ask if I was all right, if I needed anything.  We only had a few visitors, including a hospital social worker and her husband, who circled around and prayed with us, and my cousins Judy and Ann, who came that night just hours before Mama died.  There were some phone calls through the day, but mostly many hours of stillness.  Mama never awoke that last day, but I spoke to her, and I know she was aware of my presence…my love.

Flash forward to last week when I was messaging with a friend and telling him about Mama’s anniversary coming up.  He expressed understanding of my residual grief.  We talked on about the state of current affairs, the world, and concerns over what we, as individuals and as a culture, may leave behind.  I tried to reassure him that he is sending light into a world that sometimes seems very dark.

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And I realized something.  Those last priceless hours I shared with Mama shaped the way I view my years, and how I want to spend whatever time I have left.  When it is time for me to leave this world, I hope I am remembered for the moments I shared with others…one on one and bunches of us together, moments of music and silence, times we laughed until we cried, ate until we belched and then laughed some more, hugs and smiles and being genuine with one another (I don’t really know how to be any other way).  If my moments are meaningful, then my years will be worthwhile.

In her last 15 hours of life, Mama taught me just as much as she did in the 58 years that preceded them.  What a gift!  If my days and decades are a tiny fraction as full as hers were, I will leave something good behind me here when I leave.

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Holding Space

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Learning by doing…

Recently while reading I came across a phrase and a concept that instantly struck a chord inside me:  holding space.  Specifically, holding space in my heart for others as they walk their path in life, especially when that path is a difficult, painful one.  It is actually something I have been learning to do my entire life.

Sometimes I’ve described this concept with the following phrases:

“You are in my prayers.”

“I’ll be remembering you.”

“I’m thinking of you.”

“My heart is with you.”

During my work in CPE, I learned that the work of the chaplain is mostly about meeting and caring for people where they are, walking alongside them in their pain, providing compassionate presence, sometimes without words.  It is often uncomfortable simply to “be” with another person, without trying to fix what they are enduring.  We want to fill the silence with words, or noise, or activity.  Often what is needed is for us just to sit with someone, quietly.  These are ways we hold space for a person in need, or in pain.

I remember the morning a few years ago when my friend’s father was actively dying and ultimately passed away, when my friend and I sent Facebook messages to one another as she kept vigil at his bedside.  Just four months ago, another friend and I exchanged messages and a photo as he lay with his beloved dog while she died.  Even though I was unable to be present with these friends in a physical way, I was able to love and care for them…holding space.

The truth is, I’ve been learning how to hold space all my life…I just didn’t know it was called “holding space”.  And that phrase may be one that comes and goes away, replaced by another “concept-of-the-moment”.  I do like the idea, though, especially when someone is of a different faith tradition from mine, or from no faith tradition at all.  Sometimes telling someone that I am “praying” for them might hold negative associations, if the church has hurt them (which happens so much more often than we want to acknowledge).  Sometimes my own spiritual life is not such that I can truly pray…but I can always hold space.  God hears what I can’t say, and the person I am caring for knows they are being remembered with compassion and tenderness.  I’m holding several people even as I write this, people dear to me who are enduring pain that I cannot begin to imagine.  I communicate as best I can with them, and when we are not talking or writing, my heart is with them…holding space.

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Take Me There

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Radio days…

This time of year always brings with it a tsunami-sized wave of nostalgia, memories of holiday seasons past and the people who fill those memories.  Sights, smells, flavors and especially sounds, fill my head and heart with both laughter and longing as I recall the many hours I spent “on the board” working in radio stations playing Christmas songs in the solitude of a tiny studio, music unheard at any other time of year except in my memories.

Working on the air was, for me, a chance to touch people without ever seeing them.  Different from live performance in that I spoke to an audience I couldn’t see, radio also allowed my listeners to imagine what I might be like without ever laying eyes on me.  I had regular callers at every station I worked for who, for the most part, were friendly, polite and respectful…even those who flirted and asked me out, sight unseen!  There were also occasional callers who made me feel uncomfortable, even threatened.  Anyone who has ever been on the air has experienced such things, especially my fellow “lady jocks”.  We all have stories to tell!

I’ve been out of the business for a long time now, but listening to the radio this time of year always takes me back to specific times and places.  I can’t hear Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Auld Lang Syne” without being transported to the top of Sharps Ridge, remembering the view from the studio window…often with my friend Ron visiting after finishing his own air shift at another radio station across town, drinking coffee and smiling at me from across the console.  This is the same Ron with whom I shared my shortest radio gig and built one of my longest friendships, until he passed away last year. That relationship is not over…it’s just changed until we’re in the same place again.

A simple song can take me there.

The synth intro to Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” immediately returns me to my first radio gig in a tiny building in the Florida panhandle.  I worked in the AM studio where I played Southern Gospel music and preaching/teaching programs, while next door the FM station aired “Light Rock & A Little Country”, hence the Paul McCartney holiday offering.  I cut my radio teeth there, learning how to do everything the old-school way because of the antiquated equipment I worked with.  My real-life husband and my first ever “work husband” worked on the FM side, with the work husband and me sharing a shift time and often standing in each others’ studio doors talking and laughing between songs on automation.

A simple song can take me there.

Music is such an evocative force in my life, whether I am singing it or listening to it.  The music I played during my radio days is especially poignant.  Those sounds bring to mind both the places and the people with whom I shared them.

A simple song can always take me there.

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(At my first radio gig, Circe 1989)

 

Promise

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Reminders of the circle of life…

For the first time in several years, we had a bird to build a nest on our front porch.  In the past the nests have actually been in a shrub just in front of the porch.  However this little bird built her nest inside a watering pitcher I had left outside on some shelves next to the front door.  The eggs were beautiful, pale pink with burgundy speckles.  After doing some research online I discovered that they were the eggs of a Carolina Wren.

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Watching this miracle unfold never gets old for me!  I check the nest, making sure it is secure and safe, seeing if Mama Bird is there or has left to find food for herself.  This little Wren has been a great Mama to her eggs, building them a quite impressive nest for a bird so little.  Since I didn’t notice the nest until it was already full of eggs, and promise, I missed the earliest parts of the miracle, but I hoped and prayed I would not miss the last stage.

This time last week, my church family was saying goodbye to our friend Ray, about whom I wrote in my last post.  I was unable to attend his funeral because of scheduling, and usually missing that chance to pay respects and find closure would upset me greatly.  But somehow, this time, I think it was meant to be that I just remember him as he was the way I saw him last, ringing handbells, singing with the choir and reading Scripture, multi-tasking at church in his customary way.

When I arrived home from work, I checked the nest to see if Mama was there and how the eggs were.  The final miracle had begun to happen!

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I missed Ray’s funeral…but God gave me comfort and joy on my porch as the baby birds hatched and their new little lives began.  He reminded me of the promise of new life we have in Christ, the new life Ray was just beginning in Heaven.  He reminded me of the care He has for us, as a bird cares for her eggs, then her hatchlings, providing them with warmth, love and security.  Gracious Lord, help me remember that You always keep Your promises, and that You ALWAYS care.

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