Friday, July 19, 2013

Sticks and stones, and words

Digging my toes into the warm sand beside a crystal-clear alpine lake (Tenaya Lake, at 8,000 feet near Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park) last Saturday, July 13, I watched something really curious.  Fifteen-year-old Calvin and fifteen-year-old Joe, buddies since their days of  sippy cups, overalls, and afternoon naps, made up a new game on the beach.  It involved throwing stuff at each other, mostly small rocks and the occasional short stick.  Calvin crouched in the water, scooping up handfuls of pebbles and pelted them at Joe, while Joe stood at the water's edge scooping up projectiles to hurl at Calvin.  They howled and laughed like only teen-aged boys can, swooping and cracking from manly baritone to little-boy screech as they moved farther and farther apart, laughing louder as they called out "you got me!", before moving back into close range, and beginning again with increasing the distance. There was no trace of hostility in this game.  It was as if the sting of the pebbles on their chests, arms, legs, and sometimes even heads couldn't possibly hurt at all.  Sticks and stones, apparently, did NOT break their bones; in fact, they seemed to be drawing the boys into a testosterone-fueled, hilarity-laced ritual of bonding via chucking stuff at each other.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" 

It's odd how this one-year anniversary of Andre's death is teaching me about resilience, despite the sticks and stones that life has hurled in the past year.

Last Thursday, we buried Andre's ashes in an unadorned plot (we will eventually have a stone marker there) in the shade of a tree in a small, private cemetery on a farm road in the Central Valley.  Our pastor, a wonderfully earthy, maternal, un-pretentious vessel of the Holy Spirit, arrived there a few minutes before we got there, and made sure that we were able to see and touch the real thing: the damp, crumbly dirt and the hole itself, stripping away the astro-turf and plastic-flowers that the cemetery manager had prepared. We didn't need to be shielded by fakery from the reality of what we were doing: committing what was left of Andre to a hole in the ground.  When the time came, I was able to kneel on the dirt, getting mud on my jeans, and put the remains of my husband of 18 years into a hole in the ground, along with a few of the roses from our yard that Andre loved, roses that he said he grew for me.  My daughter and her best-buddy, Megan put letters into the hole, letters they had written to Andre as part of their grief-processing.  We all had an opportunity to shovel some dirt into the hole, and as we were doing this, my younger son, Mark decided that he needed to participate and say what was in his heart.

"Fuck you, you son of a bitch! I outlived you!", he half-shouted, half-sobbed, tears slipping out and sneaking down his cheeks, before he retreated to his plastic chair in the half-circle under the trees.

There were a couple of gasps, but mostly there was permission to let go of the anger that mixed with grief at this last good-bye.

So there were rocks, and mud, and thorny flowers, and secret words on paper, and public swear-words, and nobody got hurt...sticks and stones and words that cannot hurt me.

And after the burial, we found a place on highway 120 that served handmade burgers and fries, and ice cream shakes in 51 flavors, on the way to our reserved campsite near Yosemite.  Over the next couple of days we hiked and camped, and played in water wherever we could find it, and we stood in awe at the majestic rocks and towering trees in Yosemite National Park :  more sticks and stone that didn't hurt us, but helped us heal instead.

Late on Saturday night, on the actual one-year anniversary, to the day and hour, I was feeling haunted, even as exhaustion had graciously worn my children down to sleep, and I texted a compassionate friend who had agreed to stay awake for me, in case I needed a voice and an ear on the other end of a phone line to get me through the haunted hour.  We talked until 1 a.m., well past the worst of the haunting for me:  words that not only didn't hurt; they healed.

Since then, I've had a couple of days of thinking about the possible hazardous sticks and stones of my kids' growing independence, of letting my older children stretch their growing wings: I put Calvin on a plane by himself, with instructions for connecting to a bus and then a ferry boat, on a first solo trip to see his uncle in Washington.  I stood back and watched Patti try her hand at playing electric bass in her youth group praise band, her first-ever attempt at the instrument in public--no coaching on my part, no "vetting" of her music, just a ride to rehearsal and a report of "she totally kicked butt, even on the stuff she was sight-reading" from the leader of the band afterwards.

And I had a day this week that was full of words that, at the time, felt like more hurt than I could bear, but I'm still standing.  In the space of one day, I had a heart-twisting phone conversation with someone very dear to me, a conversation that ended with what might be good-bye for good, and then later that day I got word that a neighbor had decided that the loud words (Ok, yes, we are a family of yellers, and we sometimes forget that the windows are open) coming from my house were a good reason to call the authorities to report suspected child abuse (??!!)   (Is it just me, or is the irony here almost choking?  A year AFTER my abusive husband's death, some neighbor decides to call the police about yelling? )  Painful, honest words, passive-aggressive untrue accusations, and I'm still standing.

So, to summarize the past week:  sticks and stones flung:  no damage.
Words of several pointed shapes flung: no damage that can't be healed with the tincture of time.

It might be time to revise that bit of childhood doggerel.

Sticks and stones might break my bones, but only if they're big enough and thrown with malice, AND words MIGHT hurt me, but I'll recover with time.

Nah... it's just not as catchy, is it?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The only way out is through

A few months back, I wrote about a tactic I'd learned from a bicycling friend, for riding my bike through a narrow place.  If you haven't read that post, you might want to check out that entry, about finding a spot to focus on, just on the other side of the obstacle. (if you click the highlighted text, you'll go to that entry).  In short, I discovered that if I can find a pebble, a stick, a crack, even a dark spot on the pavement, just on the other side of the narrow gateway, I can ride my bike through without wobbling.

This month, which somehow started in the last week of June, with my eldest son's birthday, has been one continuous "narrow gateway", and I've been wobbling all over the place.  There are painful memories of one of Andre's most serious loss-of-control/out-of-touch-with-reality moments that happened at the end of that birthday celebration last year, a moment that terrified us all, and a moment that, in retrospect, should have been the one that caused me to pack up the kids and whatever we could grab and leave the house.  But we didn't.  Who knows how differently, possibly worse, things would have ended if we had. Andre was not one to lose graciously, and he would have seen it as my "winning" if I had taken the kids and tried to leave then.

So,that night, as I had done so many times before, I simply talked him down, tucked the kids away in bed or in their rooms, and prayed for the strength to keep loving my husband out of his "moods", as I thought of them.

This year, we marked my son's birthday with three celebrations that were totally different from last year.  On the weekend before his birthday he hosted some friends for several hours of harmless paintball-shooting mayhem, followed by pizza and cake.  And then on his actual birthday, we were watching the Oakland A's beat the Cinncinnati Reds, and Calvin got to keep a ball thrown into the stands by Yoenis Cespedes, this year's star outfielder.  The next morning, we packed up our gear and headed to Bodega Bay for some camping.

But no matter how much I have tried to wrap this time in fun, the constant "sneaker waves" of memories (I've explained those, too, in a previous post.  Click here to read it. )  are making us all a little crazy: short-tempered one minute, depressed the next, soaking in the delights of summer: birthday parties, sunshine, baseball, beaches, outdoor time, and then suddenly we're lost, swamped in last year, and echoes of other years' bad times with Andre's illness. Multiply those waves by 5 people, and you get a picture of the emotional chaos around here this month.

This week, as the 4th approaches, the sneaker waves keep washing me back to last year's final getaway with Andre.  Last year, on the 3rd of July, we hopped aboard a plane for Maui, courtesy of my generous employer, for a few days of adults-only R&R (and a couple of business meetings for me).  That time, despite the gorgeous romantic setting of the west side of Maui: palm trees, beaches, rainbows, posh accommodations... was full of "I am suffocating and I don't know how much longer I can keep this up" moments.  Looking back from the vantage point of the past year, that week becomes part of the final downward slide to Andre's death, and what could have been fond memories of Andre's last full week of life in a beautiful place are stained by that knowledge

Last night, I got brave and allowed myself to sit through the fireworks at the end of "The Singing Flag" , a patriotic musical revue that is performed locally every year on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of July.  Single shots are the worst, as they have the power to drag me back instantly to the moment of Andre's death.  I've had some awful moments with small firecrackers and even doors slamming over the past year.  But last night, after I breathed through the first couple of single firecracker shots, I was actually ok.

It probably helped that I was with my kids, with my youngest child sitting on my lap and critiquing the height, color, and pattern-spread of each shell as it exploded.  And we were with our dear friends,Gina and Peter, the ones who arrived first on my doorstep the night of Andre's suicide.  That awful night, Gina was the one who stepped right into thinking and managing for me--a job that would go on for months, but started in those first awful hours:  making a plan to get the kids out, figuring out where we would go, what we would do that night, washing the blood off my feet and hands, and helping me through having my mugshot taken by the police, and insisting that a female police officer be permitted to go back into my bedroom (as I was not), to retrieve clean clothes for me to wear when I left the house.  

Gina is fighting her own battle now.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April, has had surgery, and is now bravely and calmly strategizing her way through chemotherapy, with radiation to follow.  When I'm tempted to think that my life is complicated, I don't have to look very far to be reminded that it's not all that bad.   Maybe that's a pebble on the path for me--some perspective.

Our upcoming trip to Yosemite (my pastor has called it "granite therapy") on the day we will put Andre's ashes into a grave is another pebble to steer for, on the way through this narrow gateway.  Funny... to think of those massive slabs of granite as "pebbles"...

But I'm finding that I might need a much larger stash of pebbles on the pavement to get me through each hour of the next week or so.  I guess I'd better start filling my to-do list with "pebbles", in case I need to toss some in front of me, to aim at them as I navigate this narrow gate that seems to go on forever.

Ok, maybe that's a bit too big a pebble... :-)