Poem : The Memory of You.

Recent past eclipses healthy memories,
those days when your smile and skin glowed happy,
what do we remember from before?
all of us were young and unaware of a soon and threatening after,
of a life later,
when the living room is empty of you,
when sad, silent objects sit in your void.

Tears come, a slow tide of grief in the dark,
or in a swell surrounded by a sea of strangers,
an angry rock of grief grows in my throat as I flee
to bathroom, closet, closed door.
I drive apologetic and repentant all the way to work each morning,
all the way home at night, mascara running along the road with me.

And when I think that faith has failed me,
Take a deep breath,” you say.
The sun glows bright against glistening pavement,
a sparrow flies fast and free above me,

I breathe.

Until I see you again,”
I whisper,
Beatific, wholly holy, alive and well.”

Prodigal : “Facing Grief and Finding Faith”

This article was originally published on ProdigalMagazine.com.
I stepped quietly into the room where my mother lay sleeping and walked to her bedside. I took her hand, thin and bony, and held it to my face. Struggling not to cry, I leaned down and kissed her forehead.“Mom,” I whispered, “The nurses are going to put a tube through your nose and into your stomach to drain it. It will help you not feel nauseous anymore, okay? So don’t panic. They’re here to help you and as long as you hold still, it won’t hurt.”

At first she didn’t respond. I didn’t think she could hear me, but then she opened her eyes and turned to me and smiled. “I just saw Jesus,” she said. “He told me…”

Whatever insight Jesus had made my mother privy to, it was lost in a garble of sleepy syllables, but her thin hands arched above her as she tried to explain. She laughed quietly and smiled at me, happier than I’d seen her in days.Then, for reasons I still cannot articulate, I felt moved to sing to her our favorite hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee…”

I made it through the first line before tears choked my voice, but she, who had barely talked in days, smiled at the sound, and proceeded to sing the rest of the verse and the first chorus back to me. Her voice was clear and unhindered, the way it used to be when she sang solos at church. She was even mostly on key.

And this thought popped into my head, “I’m closer than you think.”

And along with those words an image : Jesus, gently and patiently and lovingly coaxing my mother away from this world and into the next. In that moment, a peace and a joy descended on me, something that I had not felt in more than a year.

She died five days later.

After 14 years of fighting against breast cancer, her body had had enough. I watched her vomit several times a day for months before that, watched her abdomen distend not with fat but with fluid, while the rest of her body withered until she was Auschwitz thin.

Forgive my graphic description. There’s something about terminal illness that strips us of our preferred pretenses, the things we wish we didn’t know.

And there is something about watching the people we love die that kind of death that shifts our perspectives on life, on the eternal. It’s an experience akin to staring, nose-to-paper at a stereogram until suddenly, Bugs Bunny’s giant face emerges three-dimensional from empty, chaotic design.

I had always had faith. I had always believed in Christ and proclaimed Him as my Savior. I had always believed in Heaven as a real place, a place I would go to someday. But I believed in Heaven the way that I believe in the quadratic formula; it exists somehow, but I just didn’t get the logistics. I believed in Heaven the way that I believe in six figure incomes; some people have arrived, others are on their way, some are working their asses off to make it, some claim they’re ambivalent, and others just don’t have what it takes.

How foolish I was, how flat and empty and selective was my concept of God’s grace.

In the days before and the days immediately following my mother’s death, life took on a distinct and urgent spirituality. The gap between where I placed God and Heaven and the spiritual world and where I lived my every day life, down here on this tiny planet earth, grew smaller and smaller as I listened to that still, small voice, “I’m closer than you think.”

It didn’t ease the grief of our goodbye. However, my hatred for life, my distrust of God, my self-perpetuated isolation from His Spirit was not something I clung to anymore.

I wasn’t ready to be motherless, but I was finally ready and able to pray that impossible prayer, God, Please take her Home.

Writing Therapy.

“And even though their son will always be alive in their hearts, like Pammy and my dad will be alive in mine- and maybe this is the only way we ever really have anyone-there is still something to be said for painting portraits of the people we have loved, for trying to express those moments that seem so inexpressibly beautiful, the ones that change us and deepen us.”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I found the poem I shared yesterday written on the back side of a scrap of watercolor paper, a painting I had begun that I destroyed entirely with too much of the wrong color. On Sunday evening I finally decided to clean out a bag full of things I had taken home with me that week before Christmas, when I knew that this was my last journey home to her. So many things were in that bag. Christmas cards, sympathy cards, receipts from the hospital cafe, a copy of mom’s obituary, a Vogue that I flipped through mindlessly because I couldn’t bring myself to read the novel I brought, scraps of paintings that never turned out, scraps of writings from spare moments when fairly cohesive thoughts broke through my sadness.
Two months later, I don’t even remember writing that poem. Was I in the hospital? Was I at home? Late at night or early in the day? Before or after she slipped and fell and hit her head on the cold bathroom tile and all the nurses came rushing in at once and I cried, but she didn’t?
I left all of that out, but the emotion is there.
I’ve found bits and pieces of these experiences all over the place, scribbled on napkins and receipts and work notes. Like finding all the outer edges of a 500-piece puzzle I’ve been gathering them, trying to fit them together to keep the memories alive. Because sometimes, yes, I have to ask,

Did that really happen?

It did.
And she’s gone.
But she’s still with me.
Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has been very much like going to see my therapist, except that Lamott is like the therapist for my writing psyche. She tells me to write thoughts as they come to me on index cards or in a notebook. I think for a long moment about all of my notebooks and scraps of paper.
“Oh yeah… I guess that’s what I’ve been doing, in a way.”
“Good,” she smiles. “That’s normal for a writer, whatever that means.”

Poem : Ebb and Flow.

The complex fairness of it, and its paradox.
Fair, because she doted on me my whole life :
Swaddled, nourished, comforted, encouraged.
It’s her turn now.

But how unfair, that she should be weakened, helpless.
Her strength ebbs away, just out of reach for her,
for any of us, to grasp.
It’s the thing I cannot give her.

Where is the dignity?
All our lives we’ve struggled to find it.
It will be snatched away.
It will leave her lifeless in her child’s arms,
our world turned backwards.

The ebb and flow,
of fair and unfair,
of grief and joy,
of life and death,
of strange and familiar,
wears me down to nothing,
a smooth round stone for throwing.

[Written : 12.20.11]

Guest Post | One Letter

I love what my friend Missy said the other day,
She was talking about Grammy winner Adele’s breakup with a terrible, horrible, no good boyfriend that broke her heart, and how that breakup gave Adele the fuel she needed to write the album that changed her life and changed the world. It’s a beautiful concept isn’t it? It’s not something we think about in the midst of pain, but creativity has the power to heal if we let it.
What experiences in your life can you put to good use? How can sharing those experiences through your art impact the lives of others?
I answer those questions in my guest post for Missy’s blog in her “One Letter” series, and talk about my relationship with my mom, the letter she left me, and the one letter I would love to leave for my own daughter some day.