The Landscape of Grief

a purple tinted image of a little island in a lake surrounded by deep green, hilly land on the edges. the image is very foggy, hazy, looks wet. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I drag my three children outside for a walk. They are too young to understand how desperately I need to take advantage of the warm weather even if it’s a landscape of dormant fields, melting mud, brittle gray plants that line the bridge and sides of the road, a bright red barn against yellowed grass.

Lest I get too excited about the lack of snow and cold, my husband reminds me that this unseasonably pleasant winter in the Midwest is the result of global warming. I guess we both have our ways of grieving.

This is our first day back in Illinois after spending a week in Texas to grieve the loss of my father. We’ve eaten too much or too little depending on our body’s responses to stress. We’ve laid flowers on his coffin and wept over him in a gravesite service that he might’ve hated, but was one that his daughters and wife needed. Then we mourned him at a church memorial service that he planned before his death, writing his own obituary and the opening remarks he asked my husband to read, ones that unapologetically deflected attention away from himself.

But we three daughters inserted ourselves into his plan, a plan that didn’t necessarily include our grief. In this midst of his intellectual, cerebral, worshipful funeral, we spoke of him in ways that might’ve touched him but also might’ve confused him.

In his effort to plan his truly humble memorial, he didn’t sidestep our grief to be unkind; I’m sure he knew we’d miss him terribly. Maybe he thought that if he could deflect attention away from himself, we wouldn’t be so sad. But what he wouldn’t have guessed, or what might’ve annoyed him, was that most people that came to honor him wanted more of him. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “In Tandem”

a blurry shot of a rim of the top of tree branches on the bottom of the image, with a giant white sun sending rays out from the center of a black sky, rimmed with a halo of light.Here is a poem that takes aim at our clichés about aging and death. It does so with subtle cleverness, by putting “in tandem” an old spruce tree and the nursing home resident to whom the poem is addressed. Though there’s no stanza break, the poem divides into two parts, each of nine lines. The first part is all negatives: the clichés (like “it had a good life”) that we would not apply to the tree if it toppled over dead. The second part is all positives: how we “would have marveled” at the “pale corona of roots, / like arms uplifted and exposed.” The tree is anthropomorphized here: its uplifted arms make it more human than the nursing home resident of Part One. And more full of rich life: “we would have breathed in / earth smells and the inner life of the tree.” The poem’s final three lines again contrast the responses to the toppled tree versus the nursing home patient. The imagined tree evokes in the speaker and patient a “curious” scurrying happiness, while they know that any “small talk” of the patient’s “recovery” is fantasy. This is a poem that seems simple in its accessibility, yet it draws me into meditation on the ways our culture thinks about human frailty and mortality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Epiphany in the Memory Unit

Image of a profile of a person's face with light illuminating the cheeks and forehead, the face is shrouded by a round blurry object in the foreground.The priest’s wife handed me her half full can of beer. It was Christmastime, and the beer she was offering was a Texas IPA, sweating seductively on the table between us. I brought the can to my lips and the slightly bitter taste of the half-warm beer filled me with relief.

I needed a drink. It was 7 p.m., and I’d arrived late. We would be heading out to sing carols at the Alzheimer’s unit of a local nursing home, a well-appointed facility near the neighborhood in Houston where I am a music minister and where the priest’s wife’s husband is rector.

The nursing home smelled faintly of Clorox and overcooked vegetables—as I suppose all nursing homes do—but I had been unprepared for the regret that hit me with that smell. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Erasure”

In dark trees by Alberto Garcia on flickrHave you ever felt that your own existence is being called into question? That you might be real but in the next moment disappear? Robert Cording explores this feeling in his poem “Erasure.” At first the poem’s speaker decides that his life is “too neatly drawn” and needs some erasure, some subtleness. So he goes out into a field as night falls. His experience there becomes more, though, than he can comfortably handle. Cording dramatizes this through masterful repetitions. Watch what he does with the word “here.” In stanza one, it refers generally to life itself; I’m “here” in the living world. In the following line (the beginning of stanza two), “here” is a specific place: the field. But by the final stanza, “here / I am” sounds a note of panic, as the speaker senses death taking him over. Death’s approach, meanwhile, is marked by repetitions of “dark/darkness.” At first, in stanza three, it’s the speaker’s own choice to place himself outside at twilight, with “darkness rising up.” As night comes on and shadows take away the names of oaks and ash trees, “the dark adds the slightest chill.” But “It’s then / that the invisible hearse of darkness / waits for me to get in.” The speaker feels his life slipping away as darkness overwhelms him. He calls out for “someone” to verify his living reality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]