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?


  1. As always, thanks for your brave honesty. And...your amazing parenting. Letting your kids be independent and themselves is the best/hardest/most important job we do as parents.

    Intentional and hurtful language from anyone is just that. But from a loved one it can be profoundly painful and have long lasting repercussions.

    Right speech, Val. Right speech.

  2. I've been thinking about your words all day, Heidi. The simple reminder of "right speech" is a powerful one... Leave it to you to say so much in so few words. Thank you.