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[A version of this piece was published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and later ran as a radio piece on Ozarks at Large on KUAF 91.3 FM Public Radio.]

My father recently gave me an envelope full of my mother’s old photos. Inside I discovered an image of a twelve-year-old me, reaching out to pet our recently born colt. I’m wearing wranglers, an embossed leather belt, and my long hair hangs down the length of my back. In the background sits heavily wooded Spring mountain; in the corner of the frame the neighbors clothes are hanging out to try. Surprisingly, I am wearing short sleeves, a rare occurrence, even in the warm months.

My short sleeves exposed large patches of psoriasis, a skin disease I’ve had for years. I was already going into remission by the time the photo was taken; The patches are relatively small and only cover a small portion of my arm. For years there were scales all down my leg and from my elbow to the middle of my forearm. I tried all kinds of cream, sat under sun lamps, applied a medicated tape I had to wear for days at a time, and eventually took cortisone shots, something that is considered too dangerous today. But the patches only grew. Bright red and scaly, they would peel and crack. I wasn’t supposed to pick at them, but I could never resist. Sometimes they hurt, itched and bled. But mostly the discomfort was emotional.

Miraculously, by the time I around 13–around the same time I was diagnosed with scoliosis and given a back brace—the psoriasis was almost gone. This may have been the result of the treatments or just good luck. The severity of auto-immune disease are known to come and go. By then I had learned a lot about how cruel people can be when your body doesn’t fit their expectations. I can still hear the voice of the young girl who refused to sit by me at the Dardanelle Rodeo. She called me gross and began to run away, grabbing her friend’s hand and pulling her along, telling her that if she touched me her arms would turn scabby and bloody, too. By the time I was fitted for that back brace I was a little tougher, a tiny bit braver. And I had learned to quickly recognize the people who asked questions about my body with a kind and accepting curiosity.

My mother was always taking photos of our family, something that drove me crazy back then. I usually made quite an effort to hide my arms from the camera. I even developed a pose for family shots where I’d fold my arms in toward my chest, an awkward look to say the least. For whatever reason, my guard was down that day. Or maybe I didn’t even realize she had the camera.

I still have occasional flareups with psoriasis, but mostly it’s turned into psoriatic arthritis, another autoimmune disease that affects adults who had severe psoriasis as children. It does cause me some discomfort, but thankfully I am able to keep it under control with a healthy diet and lifestyle. And it’s not a visible disease like my psoriasis, unless you count the subtle ways it’s reshaping a few of my fingers. Every so often when I play guitar my fingers swell and turn red. I sometimes wonder if I will have my hands will eventually curl in the way my grandfather’s did, a man greatly disabled by rheumatoid arthritis

Nearly twenty-six years later, I’m a distinctly different person then the timid girl in the photo. My mother is dead; those boxes of photos are where I have to go to hear her stories. I’ve traveled, I’ve started a family, I’ve faced more fears that I care to count, and I’ve come back home in more ways than one. And now I look at my arms reaching out to that colt and I think those patches look beautiful. The red is fiery and shiny. The white, pale skin around the red fades into my summer tan. I don’t have any regrets over the sadness and shame I used to feel, nor do I feel like I wasted my time worrying. I learned a lot about myself in those moments. And I certainly don’t regret what I learned about people and the limits of acceptance. All of us are so affected by mainstreams ideas of beauty. It takes bravery to reject this mask.
After staring at the photo for sometime, I decided to share it with my sons. I told them about the psoriasis, the cruelty of some of my peers, and the kindness of others. I told them how my mother almost never sounded sound fierce except when she made it clear to me that I was never, ever to be cruel to anyone, to shame or make fun of them. She had no tolerance for human cruelty–whether I was receiving it or dishing it out.

The had a lot of questions about my arms, and wanted to see the subtle scars near my elbow. The were particularly intrigued by the my telling of the repeated needle pricks from the cortisone shots and how my mother called me brave as I sat still during the whole procedure.

I owe a lot to that girl in the photo. I can see a latent fierceness there, and all these years later I might be starting to uncover it. While I do remember how sad I was back then, I don’t want to go back to console my fears or take away those patches. I want to bring that young girl with me into the present, show her how to channel her anger and would-be shame into a different way of being—to bring those experiences into everything I am and pass them down through the coming generations.

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Every being deserves an obituary. Here is ours to Patchen. 

Our sweet Patchen dog passed away sometime early Saturday morning March 7, 2015.

We adopted from the Fayetteville Animal Shelter in 2003 when she was between 5 and 7 years old. I’d adopted Elsie in 2002, and she changed my life. I was so inspired by my life with a rescue dog that I started volunteering at the shelter in the hopes of helping other dogs find forever homes. While doing volunteer work at the shelter I met Patchen and her cage mate Luna. Patchen seemed timid, quiet, and distant. Bryan decided she was the dog for us and he adopted her in October of 2003. Our landlord, Marcia, adopted her cage mate, Luna.

Bryan adopted Patchen shortly before we were married in November of the same year. He named her in honor of the author and artist, Kenneth Patchen. For a short time Patchen lived with Marcia before settling into our house with Elsie and Chat (Orwell and Buddy James would come later). Not much is known about Patchen’s life before the shelter. She was listed as an owner relinquish and we know she was terribly skinny and a little distrusting of people. Soon after coming home, however, she put on weight, grew A LOT of wiry hair, and became the most people-loving dog around. It took a while for her to bond with Elsie, but once they were close they became inseparable.

We took Elsie and Patchen to dog training classes where they both excelled. Recognizing that Patchen had a uniquely calm and loving temperament, in 2004 I started training Patchen to become a therapy dog. We trained for many months and she passed her test with flying colors. She was certified through Therapy Dog International and we volunteered at the Fayetteville Nursing Home where Patchen loved to go visit with the residents and sit calmly to be petted. Around the same time period I started serving as an assistant in dog training classes at Canine Connection and both Elsie and Patchen worked as what is often referred to as “demo dogs” where they helped to show other dogs and their owners basic commands.

Patchen also patiently served as the doggy matron of the house while Bryan and I fostered multiple dogs for the Fayetteville Animal Shelter, helping to acclimate the dogs and prepare them for suitable homes. She shared her home with Alice, Eddie, Annabelle, Yarrow, and Fred, all of whom went on to permanent homes. She also helped my late mother’s dog learn how to be near other dogs. She got to travel to many places for a dog—all around Arkansas and Kentucky, to Missouri and Oklahoma.

She also was adept at singing, giving high-fives (tens, actually,) and held only one grudge in her life against our recently passed elderly cat, Chat.

In 2009 when George and Elijah were born she took on the role of protecting new family members. She grew to love the boys, especially when she realized just how much food they dropped from their plates. In recent months she realized that our youngest child, Pearly, could also drop food from her chair, thus making Patchen’s last days particularly exciting.

In December of 2013 Patchen was diagnosed with cancer and heart disease. We were told she probably only had a few weeks or months left to live. Yet Patchen carried on a year and a half beyond that diagnosis, tail wagging and always looking for a treat. In the last year she slowed down quite a bit, but she never lost her love for treats and the opportunity to greet visitors at the door. Every now and again she still enjoyed a short walk or trip to the park. She especially loved visits from Auntie Rachel Townsend and our friend Alex Handfinger, both of whom kept her when we had to go out of town.

Patchen loved food (all food, all the time), chasing squirrels, sitting calmly to be petted, sitting on the couch with her legs crossed sniffing things, and every person she ever met anywhere at anytime. We are certain she never saw herself as a dog but rather a family matriarch in charge of providing love, oversight, and vacuuming up after the messy children whom she looked after. In her last days her favorite things to do included sitting on the porch to smell the air, sitting on the couch to sleep the afternoon away, and sitting under the kitchen table to be rubbed by our feet and wait for someone to slip her some cheese.

Her last day was wonderfully uneventful. We had no idea it was her last. She spent the day home with myself and the three children. I remember her excitedly sitting near Pearly as she ate dropped pieces of a baked potato. It had just been a few days before that Pearly had learned to sit at the table, something Patchen was visibly excited about. She had a nice full dinner Friday evening, including potato and cheese from Pearly’s plate, sat on the couch with the boys, hung out with Bryan for lots of love, and died peacefully sometime in the early Saturday morning hours. She passed away in her sleep at one of her favorite spots at the foot of our bed. She was around 17 or 18 years old.

We love you, Mrs. Patchen. Goodbye, girl. We will remember you forever. You were, and always will be, a therapy dog to us all.

Taking Down the Garden

December 2, 2013

1384804498053I love to garden. It’s a spiritual practice and therapy and a path to peace and all that kind of perspective-inducing thing. And I say that without an ounce of sarcasm. It’s also about food, of course, but mostly this stuff is all interchangeable. Watching a garden for even a season will teach you that time isn’t something you get to master. Things cycle. In a garden, the lines between death and rebirth are blurry at best. The lines between wild and cultivation are gray; there’s really no beginning or end. I could go on.

As I was taking down the garden a few weeks ago, a few days after the first frost had killed off the last of the green tomatoes, I noticed my sons and our youngest dog playing off to the side. Laughing, throwing leaves in the air, and running their cars through the soil they were clearly not feeling the weight of a coming dormancy. Instead they were mystified by the process of pulling up a garden and the beginnings of decay, and they kept running up to ask me questions about the roots and soil and the birds hopping around frantically before winter.

There I was holding the cold plants, thinking about how long it would be until the next Spring and how (literally) pregnant I would be by then, yet they were focused on the coming of dormancy like it was as magical as planting seeds.

1384804498497It is, of course, just as beautiful. At least logically speaking.  But very few humans like this part. It’s a lonely part, a quiet part. Most of what’s happening we can’t see, and there’s a metaphor that goes on for days. But my boys were fixated on the wonder of it all and mesmorized by the feel of the cold plants in their own small hands.

Inspired by their observations, and an attempt to deal with this concept of dormancy (something I’ve been ruminating on for years now), I decided to share some photos of my dead garden. Any gardener knows it’s never just about the spring. So why do our pictures always suggest this? isn’t this dishonest, really? To focus just on the ripening? The harvest is nothing without the dormancy, right?

So I’ve decided to refuse to talk only of harvest. Everything cycles, even if this is something I don’t always welcome.

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hands cookies

Photo by Bryan Moats.

This was originally published in Savvy Kids magazine as the December edition of the monthly “Penny Wise” column.  You can read my regular posts for Savvy Kids here. 

When I think of Christmas it’s not typically the trees or lights that first come to mind, but rather the warm squishiness of a clump of cookie dough, or a dense buttery piecrust, in my flour-covered hands. I love the feel of the rolling pin moving across the bumpy textures and the yielding malleability of a simple sugar cookie awaiting shaping. Baking is such a tactile experience, the transformation of a weighty mass of disparate flavors into a light, doughy, chewy morsel of warm perfection. Ultimately it’s the hint at alchemy that sustains my interest, the transformation of so many separates into such a satisfying whole.

Growing up with my maternal grandmother in a multi-generational home, and with the other grandparents less than five minutes away, kitchen alchemy was part of daily life. These were women who had cooked from scratch their entire lives; women who survived the Depression. They knew how to make delicacies like wild Muscadine jelly and how mix up a little flour, eggs, and water and create a feast. But during the holidays they, along with my mother, would go all out. Cookies and pies for days, y’all. And the best part was they always let me help.

I can clearly remember my maternal grandmother’s wonderful butter-stained recipe cards and her wrinkled hands in the dough, flour in the crevices of her silver wedding rings. Her kitchen was tiny and her movements precise. She’d give me eggs to whisk or flour to sift, and if I ever drove her crazy being so small and underfoot she never let me know about it. Providing me with an opportunity to fall in love with cooking was more important to her than a clean kitchen.

When I think of my mother baking, I recall her moving around her own small kitchen like a speed skater, the constant swish of the athletic pants she was so found of wearing in her last years, and surrounded by three different cookies in various stages of completion. She had this wonderful and weird quirk of baking at all nontraditional times of the day. Come Christmas time she was likely to be whipping up cookies into the wee morning hours, and more often than not, even as a young girl, I’d be up with her. It was way past my bedtime, of course. But she knew those magical moments of midnight alchemy were worth infinitely more than following bedtime rules for their sake alone.

When my sons were first learning to speak and their words were few and (adorably) far between, they called any muffin, cookie, or biscuit I made a “mama cracker.” I’ve always marveled at their creative and highly descriptive use of limited language, including their short stint referring to ice cubes as “water crackers.” But the phrase “Mama cracker” was especially touching. They’d watched me make these baked goods and therefore named them after me. Such a name wasn’t just creative use of limited language. It was an idea funneled through a sieve.

According to Miriam Webster, the word “alchemy” has a few definitions, including the more historic concept of medieval chemical science, which involved a “speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” But it’s also a word meaning “a power or process of transforming something common into something special,” and/or “an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.” What is baking if not the process of transforming of something common (flour, eggs, milk) into something special? And, beyond that, baking has become one of my many attempts to mysteriously (or blatantly) transmute stories from one generation to the next.

My mother and both grandmothers are gone now, and the holidays are, at best, bittersweet days reminding me of this deep loss. They weren’t perfect people, but they were the women who taught me about being a woman, and I’ve learned that baking is one way I can channel the sadness of this loss into a more peaceful memory. I see my grandmother’s hands in my own, and I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s curse of kitchen multi-tasking and late night baking. Not nearly as patient as the women who came before me, I try to remember to shrug off the mess as my sons’ attempts at stirring sends a large cloud of flour into the air and onto the floor. When they break the egg with too much force, sending the shells into the mixing bowl, I get a fork and pick them out. After all, this is how they’ll learn to love the magic of baking, which is something I really want for them as men. And such pilfering through such childhood memories may be one of the ways they’ll one day search for me when I’m gone. I’d rather not be remembered as the woman who freaked out about broken eggs.

I’m a folklorist, and we often talk about Foodways, the study of the gathering, preparation and consumption of food. In this sense, food is a window into a much larger exploration of a given region, the cultures within that region, and the unique and individual stories that contribute to the larger whole. Looking at the stories behind food is like peering into a series of window opening out not only to the past but also towards the future. When I teach my sons how to cook I’m channeling my grandmother who channeled her grandmother; I’m channeling my mother who learned from her aunts and cousins. And, in some small way, I’m laying the groundwork for the men my sons will become. So it’s not just a pie (slightly crunchy from the eggshells) my sons and I are making. It’s a mysterious transmuting of one generation to the next, a ritual transforming many common things (food, memories, parents) into something special.

Leaves

December 31, 2012

leavesgThis was originally published in Savvy Kids magazine as the November edition of the “Penny Wise” column.  

You can read my regular posts for Savvy Kids here. 

Regardless of age, there’s something about autumn that tugs at our core. The new crunch underfoot, sharper air, and richer colors. After a light rain, the moist leaves collect in gutters and along roadways, filling the air with an earthy, sweet smell of decomposition. Those that don’t make it to the gutters are crushed by cars and pairs of so many hurried feet, becoming little ghosts of themselves, their outlines haunting the sidewalks for weeks.

Autumn is so clearly a time of transition. As an adult, and as a gardener, there’s a tinge of grief in knowing that ultimately autumn is not the joyous, electric, pregnant rebirth of spring, but rather a shift toward the dormancy of winter. The colors are deep and rich just before everything turns brown and gray. Soon everything freezes and the plants reign in their activities to focus attention to their invisible processes underground.

Whether it’s the literal or conceptual variety, dormancy isn’t something most humans do well. Or at least that’s the case for most that I know. Props to you if you are wiser. Whereas we may mentally understand the plants aren’t actually dead but just storing up to burst forth in a vibrant spring, we seldom enjoy the waiting. And for those of us who have lost loved ones there seems to be something about fall that exaggerates the hurt. The days get longer, the natural world less colorful. Autumn signals that transition into a process of waiting, the silence, and long periods of dark that are so reminiscent of the mourning process.

My three year old sons, unfettered by thoughts of time (or perhaps more aware of it than I) are fascinated with the spark and immediacy of this seasonal transition. The cooler air has pushed their already energetic selves into a whole new realm of excitement, their little voices perpetually turned up to 11. Even our elderly, overweight dog—who has spent most of the summer panting and dozing on the hardwood floor—seems to be coming alive, running down the back steps and sprinting through the leaves, ears perked up to chase a squirrel run the fence line.  Who can deny the zap of the unexpected chill or the magic of texture-rich leaves that lay in drifts around the city? My sons love to reach down and grab them up and throw them in the air, crunch them in their hands, and stare intently at all the little lines and shapes.

Watching my sons I forget the sadness of fall and reminded of my own childhood leaf exploits. All raked up in a big pile, I was about six or seven and I had grown bored of running and jumping in them. Always a little to anxious for a home of my own, I wondered if I might be able to build some kind of house out of them. All I needed was some kind of paste, I thought. I’d mold them together and then make a dome of sorts. I slipped in the kitchen, mixed up some flour and water and egg to produce some kind of plaster. I dumped it on some of the leaves and began my attempt to sculpt a hut. My trusty dog—whom I had ever so creatively named Pups at age five—had other ideas. As I tried to mold the leaves, he ate the dough. Clearly he was much smarter than me, instinctively knowing the only thing that pasty mixture was good for.

My sons are not quite old enough to attempt to build leaf forts, and I hope when they are they’ll be a bit smarter about the whole process. But they are fascinated with this dying part of the tree, and I’m endlessly thankful for their curiosity and willingness to fall in love with autumn without fear of winter. The best education, of course, is observation, and so we go traipsing along, talking about the different shapes of the leaves, how each leaf can tell us about the tree from which it came. This gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of being a good steward to these living creatures that provide us with oxygen, shade, and healthy soil. And we’re not unique in this. If you spend much time online you’ve probably noticed all the parenting blogs are overflowing with leaf crafts, recommendations for leaf books, and instructions on how to make an alphabet chandelier from leaves (just kidding about that last one, although I’m sure some super mom somewhere has done this). I have yet to meet a young child, or a parent, who isn’t fascinated by leaves or fascinated with our child’s fascination. To state the obvious, trees are downright amazing.

More often than I’d like, I wind up using guidebooks and Google to learn the name the varieties. Despite living in the central Arkansas area for most of my life, I have so much to learn about these giants all around me. Whereas my grandparents knew almost all their names and their uses, my parents’ generation has, regrettably, lost sight of this magical knowledge that I’m so desperate to pass on to my children.  But isn’t that how it goes? What one generation forgets the other seeks. And it works both ways. Watching my children find amazement in the wind shaking the leaves from the trees reminds me that transition is a fundamental part of life. Nothing something to be feared but rather something to embrace, as best we can.

Photo of our laundry by Saira Khan

I recently started writing a column for Savvy Kids magazine in Little Rock. Entitled Penny Wise, it’s my humble attempt to explore the magic in the mundane.

Soon I will get this blog updated with all the new writings, but until then you can read the first two columns by clicking on the links below.

October: The Clothesline

November: Fall Leaves 

More coming soon.

I was never very good at telling my mother how much I appreciated her.  And I was never  too big on overly sentimental gifts. But every so often I would give my mother a statement present, something blatantly reminding her she was wonderful and loved.  She adored that kind of thing, which, as a mother, I kind of get now.  You give so much and sometimes the reserves run a little low.  You need someone to actually tell you you’re doing a decent job raising humans.

I’m not much for sentimental books or cards, but even as an adult I’ve always appreciated the value of a good children’s book. The message is usually direct and practical, tender but not sappy, funny and sincere without needless flourish.  Sure, I guess they’re sentimental too.  Whatever. We all have our ideas about what that words means.

Not too long ago I found this book in my mother’s things.  According to the inscription in the front, I gave it to her in 1997.  So I would have been around 19, living away from home for the first time.  I knew how hard it was for her to get used to not seeing her only child on a daily basis.  I must have felt a need to remind her of the status she held in my life, even if I was often too busy to call.

I thought about stashing the book away in one of the many shoeboxes where I save this scrap or that, endless cardboard containers filled with decades old handwriting and rotting paper.  I’m a hobby archivist.  Not a hoarder. Just saying.

But instead I decided to give the book to my sons.  They’re usually pretty gentle, but I knew even if they tore it up that would be better than letting it sit unnoticed in a deep, dusty box. It’s become one of their favorite books.  “Read Grover’s Mommy?” they ask me everyday.   Some days I remind them it was Mamma’s book.  Some days I don’t.

Do you see it?

What I love most about the book, and why I think I purchased it in the first place, is because the first picture of Grover’s mother looks strangely like my own, you know, minus the blue furry skin and all that.  That hair, my mom wore a similar coif.  Crisp red blazer?  That was a staple in my mom’s wardrobe, especially when paired with wool pants, much like Grover’s mommy is sporting.   For those of you that knew my mother, don’t you see the resemblance?

Who knows.  Maybe it’s just me and that whole thing about seeing the world through grief glasses or something.  Some days I think I see her everywhere.  Other days I have that empty feeling of having not seen her for years.

But every time I open the book, I think of my mom in her preppy clothes, every hair in place, bright red jacket freshly ironed.  Sure it’s a tender memory, but it’s also hilarious. I mean, look at this picture.  I’m finding my mother in a muppet.

After I recall her polished appearance I’ll think of myself at nineteen, baggy skate jeans, messy hair, always a bit socially awkward and confused.  But my mom was always so social, so polished, like Grover’s mom.

The book goes on to tell us that Grover’s mommy can fix a bike, throw a party, grow vegetables, and design costumes. She’s a “fearless explorer,” and a “math whiz,” riding bicycle paths and helping Grover solve tough equations like 1+2=3.

And, of course, on the last page it’s Grover who wears the cape, the super one, the one she made for him during her stint as an “expert costume designer.”  Oh, the layers. There’s a reason there’s lit crit for kid’s books. What a minefield.

Another Birthday

January 15, 2012

From left to right Rosemary’s mother, Rosemary, my mother, and her cousin, Steve.

My mom would have been sixty-seven today.  Since her death in 2008 I always write something on her birthday because I always find myself, more than usual, trying to conceptualize what today would be like if she were still alive.

One of the hardest parts of grief—and one I seldom hear people discuss—is how, after a certain point, you start to have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to have the person in your daily life again.  The world they knew before their death—the interactions between people, the relationships, the homes, even the people in the homes—have changed, sometimes drastically.  The world is a different place, partially because of their leaving and partially because of the simple fact that nothing ever stops moving. Every day a tiny change occurs. Put all those changes together and add up the years and the next thing you know we have a hard time imagining the selves we once were.

This constant motion of life is, in my opinion, is equal parts beautiful and absolutely terrifying. It comes with an ache that is hard to name.  How is it that we become so many different versions of ourselves?

If I could talk to my mom, what would I tell her about this life she left?  Maybe I’d tell her about how much her grandsons love to talk, how verbal they are and how much they yearn to describe the world around them. Or maybe I’d tell her about how much they love one another and how she doesn’t have to worry about them growing up a weirdo only child like me.  They have the unique experience of having no idea what it’s like to be alone.

Maybe I’d tell her how I’ve started writing again after years of swearing I was done with that. Or that I learned to knit or that we found a great home for her dog, Spanky, where he now lives the lap of luxury. I would for sure tell her how all her cousins and her friends came together and took me in, showing me that I had a family and letting me get to know each of them. I’ve been cared for by people I’d barely talked to before her death.  And I think that, more than anything, speaks volumes about the kind of woman my mother was. I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve had people tell me of the kind things my mother did for them, the countless ways she helped people I didn’t even know she knew.  I don’t know how things work in the afterlife, but I’d like to think my cousin Rosemary, who passed away recently, has already filled her in on how I joined her family and how many wonderful times we had around her kitchen table.

There’s some degree of peacefulness in knowing that if mom were here today she might not recognize much of my life, or my father’s life, or the homes we live in.  That might sound strange at first, but it’s peaceful because it means the stabbing pain of loss has somewhat subsided and because, at least on some level, we’ve done what she would have wanted us to do: keep going.  The stabbing pain has been replaced with a different kind of hurt, a kind of constant longing, a constant wondering about the whys of life.  The reality of grief is that it does not go away.  It just changes. Thankfully, with these changes come some measure of peace and we learn to laugh and truly find joy.  But the ache?  No, that never goes away.

One thing I’ve learned these last few years is that finding peace in loss has nothing whatsoever to do with escaping pain.  This realization that life goes on, well, that’s its own form of grief.  It’s like this: You believe you’ll never be able to function like a normal person again having watched your mother die before what you felt was her time.  But then you do.  Not because you’re strong, but because you don’t have much choice.  The sun goes down, it comes up, you still get hungry, there are bills to pay, you can’t find matching socks in the laundry pile, and emails, there are emails to send. In my case, there are babies to take care of, and to love, and somehow between feeling endlessly jerked back and forth between pure joy and crushing sadness, you realize you wake up one morning and you’re on the other side of the sharpest pain of loss.

Or at least this loss. There will be more, of course. And with each person we lose, we re-grieve all those others. Maybe these losses help us see more layers to life.  You start to realize that whatever exactly happens after we leave this world, there are a lot of people you know on that other side. This realization is sad, of course.  But regardless of what you believe about the afterlife (or lack thereof), I think there’s something potentially grounding about this. They’re adding up over there, all those folks you love and cared for you.  Maybe they’re waving, you know, like waves of grass or something?  I’ll skip the over-arching metaphors.  But there’s something hopeful about the thought of knowing the dead.

Me and my mother, 1986 Blue Springs, Arkansas

Initially you think they’ll be gone, unreachable, beyond comprehension.  But then, somehow, time goes by and on certain days they’re not. You start to find out that they’re around.  In places you never expected.

Now, people will tell you this when you’re first grieving, but it won’t mean much to you and you’ll largely ignore these comments.  When you’re first grieving, it’s not enough to know that your voice sounds like your mother’s or that your children have her eyes. Sure, it’s nice to hear. But you just want the real deal. You can’t tell your laugh that you love it and you can’t ask your baby’s eyes for advice about how to get children to sleep. But after some time goes by it will be magical to hear yourself laughing and hear your mother.  You’ll get actual chills when you see her eyes in your children’s. My friend Sam told me about this.  She was right.

And there are lots of other not-so-literal ways you’ll find the dead hanging around, but I’d just butcher those beautiful images if I tried to put them into words.   It’ll be hard to explain to yourself what you’re seeing and even harder to describe to others. But other people who have lost loved ones will likely understand because they’ll have felt it too. And since we all lose those we love, that’s all of us.