circling the wagons close

some of life’s most sacred moments, holy moments
happen along the raw edges of hurt
and pain
when we circle the wagons close
and sit with each other in the dark

holding hands, hands in laps
fingering the edges of the wrap we have on
to ward off the cold
the cold that is here
the cold yet to come
all of it
the veins a light hue of blue
seen through worn hands that have birthed and washed
and tucked littles beneath blankets and cleaned and prepared
and reached for love one last time
before quietly letting go
and grasping for the good in that

it’s what we do
when darkness
and the cold come to call
we stand together against the chill
drying tears,
laughing and crying all in the same breath,
holding each other tight

it is one of life’s greatest honors and hardest gifts to bear,
to sit with another
when the news comes
and after, when the pieces, shattered and scattered, are there
and we don’t know yet what to do with them

whether around a kitchen table
girding our souls for what is to come
with the laughter of children in the background,
a playful reminder of
happier memories and times,
times when we were those littles and the “old” folks sat vigil,
waiting on the news

or in an apartment with friends we hold dear
pizza and movies a soothing salve for the stinging pain of heartache and loss,
that grief knows no age limits

or sitting in the waiting room
waiting
holding our breath and gripping hands, waiting to hear the words that
will choose the path ahead for us,
always waiting, no choices
only waiting

it is in all of these moments
and all of the emails and messages and cards
and phone calls and trips and opening our doors to pups
and children
and hugs and all the times we say “I love you”
with a little more emphasis
and hug a little longer

all of those precious moments
are
so real
raw
broken
beautiful
holy

and though we may not have the answers
or good news
or the energy to face another moment of this–
we have each other

in the face of questions
and anger
and pain
and sadness
and oh, all those tears we try to keep hidden,
in the face of it all
we have each other

circling the wagons close
to hold all the love in
like lightning bugs on a summer night
strong and moving around through the darkness,
holding all who are near in the Light

and like the circle
never-ending
bathing the wounded in light
and love
and holding each other close
as we let the tears fall

it’s what our people do
on days like this

wagon-wheel-856097_1920

Inappropriate to One, Survival to Another

pic of survival doodle
When my Daddy left this world, his two sisters, my Mama, my two sisters, and I were all right there with him. Less than thirty minutes later, my aunts and I were in the other room. We’d been sitting vigil since before daybreak, and we were all emotionally and physically exhausted. One of my aunts teased me about something, trying to lighten the moment. I looked at my aunt and offered an exaggerated pout, “I can’t believe you’re giving me a hard time…..my Daddy just died!” They laughed softly. “Oh, that was good, Tara. Good job.”

Inappropriate? Maybe. But they understood. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been inappropriate in my grieving and it probably won’t be the last.

A couple of months after Daddy died, I was so bogged down in the loss that I was crying in the shower regularly and just missed him so much. I was talking with my sister about it. She said, “You know Daddy wouldn’t want you being like this.” And without even thinking about it, I replied snappishly, “Well he ain’t here, is he?  So he doesn’t get a say.” Just the other day I told my Aunt that I kept doing things, half expecting Daddy to come back and stop me. And that I wish he would. I am pretty sure that if I don’t get my act together about some things, Mama will figure out a way to come back and set me straight. She’s always been resourceful like that. I told someone that and wondered if I really should have said it.  I do that a lot.  I say the first thing that comes to my grief-stricken mind, and then later think, “Uh oh. That sounded just about sacrilegious and downright disrespectful.” If any of those comments have fallen on your ears, I am sorry. I don’t mean to be disrespectful or offensive at all.

You see, in the past several years, that has become our relationship. Mama and Daddy knew I loved and respected them more than anything.  I ma’amed and sirred them right to the end.  But I would play at sassing them and they’d play fuss back. It was never about anything serious, just goofy stuff–like me giving them a hard time at letting my children have treats or watch a movie, all of which I was totally okay with. Or when Mama would want to send home the leftovers with us, and I’d sigh and say well, if I have to for goodness’ sake, but don’t expect me to do this again. Good-natured sarcasm was a mainstay. We lived for the playful banter.

And I miss it.

I was thinking about this the other day when I remembered a particular family I worked with in Hospice shortly after I was hired. A young mother, metastasized cancer, they waited until the very end to admit her to our program. I was at the house a lot, especially in the few weeks after her death, spending time with the children. The patient’s brother stayed in town for a little while after the service. One day he was trying to convince his brother-in-law, the grieving widower, to take a day off from work and go play some sport with him. The widower was reluctant; I think he’d taken a lot of leave over her several year battle with cancer. The young woman’s brother said, “Come on man, you can play the ‘my wife just died’ card. It’ll be fine.”

Quite honestly I was shocked and appalled. All at the same time. How could he even think such a thing, let alone say it out loud?

Ah, the indignation of youth and ignorance.

Because I get it now. I look back now through the lens of my own grief and realize that it was his way of dealing with losing his sister. He was flippant and irreverent and some might say inappropriate. I know I did back then. But he was surviving. He was making light of a horrible, tragically sad situation in order to hold it together. Because if he–if I–really shared any of what was in our hearts, the floodgates would open, and there would be no turning back. All of that brokenness, shattered and scattered like a mirror that has been shot clean through, would be so far gone there might be no putting it all back together.

And so we joke. We kid. Around here if someone says “Maemae wouldn’t like that,” it’s quite likely a “Well then she needs to come back here and tell me to my face” will follow.  We miss them. We miss their laughter, their wisdom, their love, their hugs, and just being with them. Being with them and taking their presence for granted, that would sure would be nice. Because, unfortunately, that’s how we lived…..before the cancer, before the illness, before the surgeries, and the sadness. We took each other for granted. It sure was good.

It has taken a dozen years and tremendous heartbreak for me to look back and understand the words and reaction of a young man whose sweet sister lost her battle with a horrible disease. I wish I could go back now and whisper in the Tara of yesterday’s ear–“Hey, cut him some slack. It’s not inappropriate. It’s survival. Give him the grace he needs. Because one day, sooner or later, we’re all going to need that grace.”

Survival and grief are gritty and hard and raw.  Not pretty.  Or easy.  And the only way to find that out, unfortunately, is to go through it.  Which is why I didn’t get it twelve years ago.  But today, today I understand.  All too well. What looks like indifference or irreverence is often just a way of holding the pieces together.  One moment at a time.  Sometimes that’s just the best you can do.

The Giant Didn’t Win

It was so hot that day.  September can be like that in Georgia, and that day in 2009 was no different.  Especially on the roof of the parking deck at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.  I had walked all the way to the elevator, taken it down, and was on my way into the hospital when I remembered.  I’d forgotten them.

The rocks I took to Daddy when he was at Emory--in the back our newly planted butterfly bushes and lantana, it all makes me think of him.  He taught me to use a shovel and dig a hole for planting.

The rocks I took to Daddy when he was at Emory–in the background are our newly planted butterfly bushes and lantana, it all makes me think of him. He taught me to use a shovel and dig a hole for planting, and he got me the birdbath and set it up right there. 

The rocks I’d brought him.  From home.  Blackberry Flats.

Just a day or two before, I’d been at their house checking on things.  As I pulled out of the dirt driveway, I remembered I wanted to take him rocks from home.  So I put the car in park, hit the hazard lights, and got out to pick up five rocks from the gravel they’d brought in to level out the ruts in the drive.

Five rocks.  I’d read that five was the number of rocks David had when he went to fight Goliath (1 Samuel 17:40).  Daddy was definitely in a fight for his life against some kind of Giant.  I figured he needed all the fighting power he could get.

Over the next two years, Daddy and I would have some interesting conversations about David.  “A man after God’s own heart.”  How did that even happen?  Have you heard what he did?  What he was capable of?  Wow.  It must be hard, when you’ve lived your life doing pretty much as you should (there was that one story about the rabbit tobacco) and then some, and you find yourself fighting something that is hard to fully comprehend, it must be really hard then to hear a story about someone who did some pretty awful things and yet found “God’s favor.”  I’m just sayin’.

But that day in September of 2009, I made the trek back to my Blazer, refusing to hear the “Oh, just leave them, you can take them to him next time” echoing in my head.  The “what if there’s not a next time” conversations were much, much louder.  Always.  Those words pretty much ruled my actions, plans, and routines for the next two years.  And I don’t regret it at all.

I kept the rocks in my pocket during our time together in the small hospital room there at Emory.  Just before this visit we’d learned the name of this Giant.  Lymphoma.  Of the brain.  A rare form.  As I prepared to leave, I placed the rocks in Daddy’s hands and said, “For the fight, Daddy.  You can fight this Giant.  We know its name and it’s got nothing on you.”

And he did fight it.  For a long time.  After Daddy died in November 2011, Mama gave me the rocks, placed safely in one of those plastic bags the newspapers come in on rainy days.  I brought them home and tucked them in a drawer, unable to bear even holding them in my hands.  A few days ago, I found them and they made me smile.

Because now I’m trying to use them to remind me of Daddy’s spirit in the battle.  In an email I sent out on September 8th, the day the Giant was given a name, I wrote:

Daddy walked around the hall 8 times today!  I asked Mama if he did it because he felt like it or if it made him feel better.  She said neither.  He just did it because they want him to, it helps keep things circulating, and because, though he’s very tired, he’s in this fight.

Rock 1–Persevere.  Even when you don’t feel like it.

I also wrote:

I don’t have a lot more information on the disease because I just can’t make myself google it and “borrow trouble.”  I’m clinging to the doctor’s word “treatable.”

Rock 2–Hope.  That was Daddy’s rule.  Do not borrow trouble.  Whether it was anticipating rain or worrying over the surgery to do his brain biopsy, we were not to borrow trouble.  I have many days I have to remind myself of that rule.  MANY.

Daddy’s form of lymphoma was so rare, the doctors weren’t really sure what type it was.  Mama and Daddy asked the doctor a question about it, and he said he’d have to get back to them on that.  Yeah, we’re still waiting on that one.  In the same e-mail I added:

One of my aunts said, “Well, that’s your Daddy for you–he’s usually in rare form.”  We’re not immune to laughter around here. 

Rock 3–Laugh.  A lot.

When Daddy finally made it home after over a month at Emory, he walked in the back door of his house to find me and the crew there waiting (like one hungry dog does another–ahem) to eat pizza with him.  They had not seen him at all during his time at Emory.  It was such a precious homecoming.  My little guy looked up, mouth full of pizza, and in one of the most anticlimactic moments ever, said, “Hey Cap!” with a big cheesy grin.  Daddy stopped for a second, looked at him, smiled just as big, and said, “Hey, Cooter!”  Happiness abounded.

Rock 4–Treasure the little things.  From katydids on dahlias to baby girls looking for Mustangs to little guys driving Matchbox cars around the hospital bed rails.  Find joy in every moment you can.

Rock 5–Give up.  In his lifetime and especially after his diagnosis, Daddy gave up a lot.  Prejudices, expectations, dreams, plans.  And so much more.  In giving up, Daddy showed us how to fight the Giant with dignity and hope and peace, rather than with the anger and bitterness that could have just as easily taken over our lives.

So I think I’ll put these rocks out where I can see them.  And treasure memories of my Daddy who loved and lived for others, especially his family.  And remember the lessons he taught us as he fought to slay the Giant and prepared to say goodbye.

Because the Giant didn’t win.  It might have beaten his body but it never conquered his spirit.  With each rock Daddy threw–persevering, staying hopeful, all that wonderful laughter, treasuring the stories and time with those he loved, and giving up the script he might have written for himself–with each rock–he kept that Giant from taking over his mind, his heart, and his spirit.  And for that, I’ll always be thankful.

Our Princess playing soccer with her Cap in 2008.  The littles talk about how he can play soccer again now, in Heaven, and they just hope he's playing "really good."

Our Princess playing soccer with her Cap in 2008. The littles talk about how he can play soccer again now, in Heaven, and they just hope he’s playing “really good.”

The Best Things in Life Can Come from Giving UP

Daddy and Kurt, best of buds forever

Daddy and my little guy, best of buds forever

I Believe The Best Things in Life Can Come From Giving Up

(I wrote this in January 2012, remembering my Daddy.  Today I share it with you in remembrance and celebration of a man who truly set a beautiful example of how to live.  Happy Father’s Day, Daddy, thanks for everything)

My Daddy took his last breath eight weeks ago, just moments after Mama gave thanks for the gift of him in our lives and let him go.  I was thinking about him and how he never gave up, no matter how hard it was, this fight against cancer, and I realized just how wrong I was.  Daddy did give up.

Throughout this battle he gave up his quiet and his privacy, both things he treasured, so that Mama could have the help she needed in caring for him and for herself.  When the cancer crossed up the wires between his competent brain and his body, my Daddy, who found great joy in working with his hands, gave up quietly and without complaint his creating and building and writing.  He gave up pushing his grandchildren in the swings he made and kicking around a soccer ball and playing cars on the floor, and he adapted by letting his grandson drive the Matchbox cars around and around the bedrails on his hospital bed, again and again.  He gave up planting and tending to his garden and graciously accepted and appreciated the gifts his sister and brother-in-law shared from theirs.

Looking back, Daddy made it a habit of “giving up.”  He gave up the prejudices that his generation and culture were programmed to have, and he saw instead character and values and the heart of a person.  He gave up the luxury of having time to himself and raised a family, giving love in the form of time and attention and discipline, to help us grow up right.  He gave up the dream of a red ragtop Mustang and drove a station wagon instead.  He gave up teaching school to move us back home, to a better place for us to grow up.  Over the years Daddy gave up much of his hard-earned money to make a better life for those in need, quietly and faithfully, even when he didn’t have much himself.  And when we needed him most, Daddy gave up his set schedule at work, rearranged, and picked up my oldest daughter from school every Tuesday afternoon.  When his mother was so sick, he gave up his nights and stayed with her when she needed him to, so that she could stay in her home.  When my great aunt’s memory started slipping, Daddy gave up free time, just to sit and listen to her stories, sometimes the same ones over and over.

And when his own diagnosis came through over two years ago, after many tests and many untreatable symptoms, Daddy gave up writing a script of where his life would go.  He gave up and let it be.  And he led us all through those hard days with laughter, by sharing stories, with dignity through tests and treatments and more tests and all that pain, and then finally with the quiet that came with his own heart remembering.

My Daddy led a full, rich life—simple by most standards, but rich with love and stories and grace and love.  I hope that one day when I tell one of my children, the grandchildren he loved so much, to give up, that they will know that I know how hard that is to do, and that they will then do as their “Cap” did over and over, with grace and dignity and a humble heart.