Friday, 7/27/18

Woke up at 4:52 am to a blazing light shining upon me. It was a huge full moon low on the horizon so that its light reached inside my bedroom. I smiled and said Happy 60th Birthday, Keith! We miss you here on this life’s plane. Hope you’re enjoying all our shenanigans from your view on the other side. ❤️

Keith taking his solo pilot flight test, upstate NY. Instructor decided we should all go to dinner in Keene, NH.

Postscript: When I awoke later in the morning daylight, I looked out the window and saw the trees and wondered how I could have seen the moon so clearly earlier. And yet, there it had been! When he passed, it was a huge blue moon (a second full moon in the month) and I always associate the strong light of the full moon as his embrace from beyond.

Bedroom in new home

“Are you done grieving?” It wasn’t a question for me. It was asked of my father by a recent friend. She asked my dad as they shared lunch and talked about the new house we’ve been building and what she’d seen.

Later, Dad shared the question with me and it got me thinking about it. I answered him quickly at first: “Does anyone ever stop grieving?”

He mentioned his reaction to hearing the song: “You’ll never walk alone” from Carousel. It had been a favorite of my mother’s. And just a week before she died, the last time we heard her say anything, she sang some of it when a visitor – a complete stranger to my mother – asked her in her slumber if she had ever heard the song. As the visitor began to sing the first few words, my mother began to sing with her.

When it came on the radio, out of the blue, as he got to an intersection he began to cry. Just like that. No warning. It just hit him, now 18 months later. Does anyone ever stop grieving? No, I said to dad. We just begin to change the way we respond to the memories, the triggers. We get to the point where we can smile and sigh, rather than cry. It can take awhile.

We just begin to change the way we respond to the memories, the triggers. We get to the point where we can smile and sigh, rather than cry. It can take awhile.

Even now, for me, five and a half years after Keith passed, there are times when that inevitable moment stops my breath. A song, a number, a phrase, a space, a memory… and I have to pause for a moment, take it in, reflect, and consider the possibility – is this a message?Pay attention, I tell myself. He’s still there, just on the other side of the veil. He’s still with you as real as the bearded little man laying beside me now. There are times when I still feel his touch, a gentle one on the shoulder, a soft caress to the cheek as if a kiss made of air.

Sunset over snowy field and woodsThe triggers still come, a song I hadn’t heard in awhile played recently and I had to stop and listen and nod. “I will wait, I will wait for you…” sang Mumford & Sons. The song had just been released the last summer Keith was alive. I had put it on the playlist that became the soundtrack of the summer. “You can’t let me down now” sang Bonnie Raitt in another soulful tune that filled me with guilt and sadness for not having saved Keith from the pain he endured. Then there was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, a song that came out the year Keith and I were able to see them play live in concert.

These tunes and several others cause the air to slip out from my lungs momentarily, my heart to tighten in my chest. The difference now is that they don’t make me cry like they once did. The tightness lets go quicker and a soft smile slowly curves the corners of my mouth and I breath again, lovingly touched by the soul of my deepest connection in the spirit world.

There are times when I may also feel a bit irrational, where anxiety steps up and clenches my nerves tightly. Last fall I had been asked about going to a conference this winter. It was one that I had attended in March 2012 and co-presented with Ferris doctoral students along with the then president of the college where I work. It was in Philadelphia and I’d wanted Keith to join me but he couldn’t. He hadn’t been feeling all that well and felt the pressure of some work he needed to do. I wasn’t happy about his not feeling well, this uncured bronchitis or whatever it was. But he clearly didn’t have the energy to travel so I backed off. The conference, however, has somehow been cast in my mind as the “beginning of the end” for Keith.

So it was with a sudden attack of anxiety that I couldn’t immediately bring myself to register for this event when asked last October. Steven had had a health scare around the same time and I had a sudden feeling of deja vu, a path I didn’t want to travel twice in six years. Fortunately for Steven, the potential for liver problems was caught early enough and has led to him cutting way back on his alcohol intake and it has made a noticeable difference.

I had a sudden feeling of deja vu, a path I didn’t want to travel twice in six years.

Still, though the moment had passed, the anxiety over the association between this conference and losing a husband remained. Irrational, yes. But real enough that I put it off while still watching the deadline for the early bird registration. So when the moment came this week in a meeting with the VP to discuss conference travel, I was relieved when she supported my attending a different conference, one that would take place in Austin, Texas at the end of May. I would plan to take Steven so he could visit with his son, and I’d lead a contingent of faculty to the conference. It looked like something I could sincerely enjoy doing. The anxiety slipped away and replaced by a sense of giddy relief.

But then Dad mentioned the question asked by his lady friend: “Are you done grieving?” and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The answer is: No. But life still moves forward and we must go with it, or risk losing the opportunity to live the life we’ve been blessed with to the fullest.

In the blog entry “My Mother Wasn’t Trash,” writer Joshua Wilkey shares his mother’s important and sensitive story about her life in poverty in Appalachia. It’s worth a read.

When people are eaten up mentally and physically by a lifetime of compounded shitty choices, they reach a point where they can’t even decide what is best anymore, because they realize that no matter what they do – no matter how hard they try – they are cogs in a broken machine and nobody cares about them anyway. Poor Appalachian people are broken, but not nearly as broken as the systems that keep them poor. 

Thank you, Joshua Wilkey, for bringing a voice forward to be heard.


When a terrible disease ravages someone you love, the mourning process begins long before they finally pass on. Kübler-Ross (1969), in her study on death and dying, described five stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But Kübler-Ross was initially focusing on those who were dying, and not so much on those who were dealing with personal loss of any great significance, which she later came to recognize.

These stages are not linear, either, and can occur in any order, if at all. Women tend to experience all five stages more than men. They can be cyclical, too, with two or more occurring in an almost extreme emotional roller coaster. For both the dying and the loved one, getting to the point of acceptance does not always happen at the same time. The dying often reaches the stage of acceptance before their loved ones. But if and when both reach the point of acceptance, where communication and reflection can be experienced, a more dignified death can be found.

I’d add a couple of additional stages, or at least notable elements, to the stages of pre (and post) grieving. That includes fighting to maintain control of the details in their lives. The opposite is the disruptive feeling of vulnerability when control is lost which can lead to related stages of despair and anger.

Another related stage involves trying to make order in one’s life. Especially when the world around you seems to be in chaos, small efforts to create order can take on an outsized importance. Cleaning out cupboards, putting away old records, sorting through old photos, are just a few example of how the person facing loss may attempt to build a sense of order in a life that seems otherwise out of control.

Recently, I heard this statement made by someone who is facing the inevitable loss of his longtime spouse who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve paraphrased it per my own cloudy memory.

I feel like I’m in a carnival outhouse sitting out in a field, and the circus is packing up to leave without me.

While he didn’t elaborate, he was trying to express his feelings regarding the situation he found himself in now. I’ve been thinking about this and cannot help but connect it to my own experiences and ruminations.

First and foremost, there is the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability, of literally having your pants down in a crisis, or a formidable change that is going on around you. You’re stuck. It is hard to move forward without first finishing the primary business at hand. Panic sets in and it is hard to make decisions. Yet you’re also worried about being left behind, and by the act of moving to a new location – mentally, emotionally, and physically – and the unknown that comes with that. But even more so, it is a fear of being left behind by the ominously fast progression of a disease that robs you of the one you love, again mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The carnival/circus represents fetes of apparent magic, gravity-defying acts, seemingly impossible, often nonsensical, frightening in their dangerous distortions of human entertainment, and the funhouse mirrors that twist and distort our vision of reality.

The world around you no longer makes sense and you feel vulnerable, scared, afraid of being left behind, fearing for your loved one and a future you cannot envision without them. It literally scares the shit out of you… And yet you know you have to keep moving to survive. Because that’s your role here.

Of course, the circus could also represent your loved one, the person who was the highlight of your life, with which you shared the literal stage of life, it’s bright lights, music, the comedy and drama of a life fully shared. Either way, it all seems so unfair.

Anger rushes forward. Anger at what fate has thrown you, your loved one, the cruelty of the disease. There is no preferred or better way to die of a disease. Cancer kills the body slowly while eating away at the person. Alzheimers eats away the person while leaving the body to deteriorate at a slower rate, until the parts of the brain that operate the body begin to lose their synaptic connections.

Either way, these diseases are cruel – to the loved one who suffers them, and to the lover who must endure the pain of watching, of frustrating efforts to try and overcome the diseases’ manifestations, the cruel teases of normalcy and strength that suddenly appear and then, as a wisp in the winds, they disappear to the mists that hid the light in their eyes.

Whether you want to or not, you are, and will be… the survivor. The one who will carry the stories forward until they can be shared fully with a new generation. You will be needed by others who will benefit from your wisdom, humor, insights borne of long experience. The fates have determined that your place is here…in this world…where you are still needed.

The journey along side the dying of a loved one is dark and painful. But it also has its moments to be cherished. The fleeting glimpse of a smile, a flash of humor, the small gestures that show you are still connected to this loved one. You have been chosen for the honor of being beside them on this journey to the end of this life. You, however, will stay behind, their partner only until the gates of passage open to the other side. Until death do you part.

It sucks. It hurts so badly, the pain is physical, palpable. Breath… breath… You are still alive. And they will always be with you, and waiting on the other side to greet you when your turn comes, naturally, when the fates determine it to be so. In the meantime, treasure each moment with your loved one as a gift. Soon enough, there will be only memories that you will hold onto tightly, then share with others when the right time comes.

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Sweet Pea, our nearly 15 yr old Borzoi, in a glamour shot from her healthier days.

January 8, 2016, 11:11 pm

Sweet Pea died today. Steve and I took her to the veterinarian this morning after making a difficult choice. She had not been well for awhile, but had begun declining more rapidly in the last month or so. She’d grown more frail, wasn’t eating as much, or sometimes not at all, and could barely make it up and down the stairs. Lenny, in the meantime, had begun to show his own distress by whining and barking to get Sweet Pea, or one of us out of bed to help her go outside, to eat, or whatever was going through his little puppy sized brain. He was driving us all crazy by doing this at all hours of the night. We were growing impatient, exhausted, and frustrated. We knew what it was about. But neither one of us wanted to make the decision. Sweet Pea would tell us, we would say to each other. She would let us know when the time was right.

But sometimes we don’t want to pay attention, to make the difficult choices. Sometimes, we think, that if we just ignore it, life will go on without having to face the painful moment of truth. I know that’s bullshit. I have seen it up close and personal. But it doesn’t make me immune from the desire to shield myself from the reality of her – or anyone else’s – suffering. It hurts too much to acknowledge it.

Last night, after two nights of sleeping down on the coach through the night, Sweet Pea decided she wanted to join us…one more time. Before this, the trek up the stairs would be wobbly but possible. It was the trek down the stairs that scared us all. Her legs barely held her up, and her unsteadiness made it a nerve racking and time consuming experience to get her back down the stairs. So we were grateful that she had not attempted it for the previous two nights. But not tonight.

The spirits had been talking all evening… I’d been seeing 11’s for most of the day. Michael sent me a photo that showed 5:11 in the LED clock on the TV set top sitting on Keith’s cherry cabinet he’d made for them in Needham. And again I’d look up to see 11 elsewhere…clocks, emails, texts. Something was up.

So when Michael texted me again at 9:11 pm, I thought it was simply an acknowledgement of the pattern I’d shared with him. But not long after, I heard shuffling and then a bang, then whimpers in the hallway. I jumped out of bed to see what happened. Sweet Pea had fallen at the top of the stairs, collapsing in front of the bathroom and had her nail caught under the doorframe molding. With some difficulty, I freed her from the doorframe and coaxed her up so she could make it to the bedroom. I went back down and fetched her pillow bed that I’d brought down before to convince her to stay down there. She looked forlornly in my direction, her cataract cloudy eyes trying to see me in the fog. This might be it, I thought. Maybe she’ll die in her sleep like Gemorra did so many years ago.

But the night passed and Lenny’s constant whimpering reminded us of the grim decision we would have to make once daylight came. She could barely stand, let alone make it down the stairs. At first I tried, but gave up, so Steven took on the challenge, pleading with her to try, telling her he’d catch her if she started to fall. She made it and went outside to pee, retaining the last bit of dignity the old girl had left. She even ate a little when she came back in, constantly escorted by the ever whimpering Lenny. But then she made her way to the couch, using her last bit of energy to climb up there. Her breathing was labored and I could see the time had come. I couldn’t make her suffer another day.

She passed peacefully in the vets office. They put out a white blanket for her to lie upon, though she missed it when she reclined after her anesthesia. At one point I thought the anesthesia had done the job, without the final injection. But she was breathing still, though so shallow it was hardly visible. Then the shot in her leg, and within moments she was gone… Gone to the other side, relieved of her pain, greeted happily by a healthy and goofy big Stanley. Given a warm and social greeting by her old master, Keith. I picture them enjoying some romping and fetching games followed by a good round of coach-potatoing together like they did all the time before.

Steven and I gave our last tearful goodbyes…he was really fond of her, she reminded him of several other big white dogs he’d had as furry companions in his life before me. And, with a trim of her tail feathers and an imprint from her paw as a memorial from the vet, we left to toast Sweet Pea over bacon and eggs and…toast.

Although my neighbor referred to her as "Satan's Spawn," Sweet Pea did have her playful side.

Although my neighbor referred to her as “Satan’s Spawn,” Sweet Pea did have her playful side.

Later, after letting my grown daughters know about her passing, I posted a photo and the news on Facebook. I felt somewhat awkward about the outpouring of sympathy. Yes, Sweet Pea was my longest living Borzoi, having made it nearly 15 years. Yes, she had helped me through some difficult life transitions. Yes, she had been “my” dog and furry companion. And yes…even better, she had befriended Steven…a sure sign that he was the good guy I thought him to be. I even imagined Keith sending her back from the cemetery that hot summer’s weekend over 2 years ago when she got loose for 30 hours and nearly died in the 100 degree heat so that she could help me to decide on the merits of Steven’s character. She did not share her inner sweetness with just anyone, and was especially particular when it came to men. There have been only two men I knew her to show deep affection for – Keith and Steven. I guess she knew who were the right men to be trusted in my life.

Stanley (left), Keith (laying down across the couch), and Sweet Pea (on Keith's chest)....aka the Keith sandwich on Russian rye.

Stanley (left), Keith (laying down across the couch), and Sweet Pea (on Keith’s chest)….aka the Keith sandwich on Russian rye.

In the photo above: It’s hard to believe when I look at this picture..my heart both sinks in sadness, yet breaths hope, too. Everyone is gone from this earth but hopefully reunited on the other side. Stanley on Mother’s Day 2011, Keith on 9/1/2012, and Sweet Pea on 1/8/2016. Even the couch – brought back from Fiji – is gone, having been turned over to the dogs, and later dismantled, the leather salvaged for me to use in making books. Maybe I should make some more…

Today is the birthday of several good friends. And I wish them LOTS of happiness as they celebrate another year of life to share with loved ones and good friends.

It also is the inauspicious anniversary of my late husband Keith’s passing at only 54 years old…the same age that I am now. You can read lots elsewhere in this blog (starting at summer of 2012)  about the transition through his rapid decline to death to the journey of grief and resilience that I have undergone. He was my best friend, lover, and husband of 30 years. He was someone I would trust without question, share in heartaches and celebrations, and the journey through parenthood raising our two beautiful daughters Sarah and Anastassia.

Today it has been three years since your passing, Keith. A lot has happened. I have grieved… and still do. But I have also moved forward with many of life’s demands and the promises I made… to you, and to myself… and to others.

I have embraced joy in the form of a future grandchild expected in December. And I’ve embraced building a life filled with happiness and love in my marriage to my second husband, Steven, who understands that you came before him. He honors you and protects me. Sometimes he is quick to get upset, mostly out of frustration, when he feels unsuccessful in protecting my interests, or feels slighted by a family member. He is learning the art of nuance and patience. He is learning that what others say or do is not about him, nor is it meant to impugn him. He is learning to let go of the wounds of his other life before me so that it doesn’t fracture an otherwise beautiful relationship.

And I am learning to feel your presence as a guide, to look around me and examine it through your eyes. This has become especially important as we move forward building a new home on Perry Road. You and I and Steven all came from a tradition of craftsmanship. This included a respect for workmanship, the materials, and the process. Things were carefully planned, constructed in the right order, with attention to detail. When it came to homes, it was about making them last, energy-efficient, and beautiful.

As I look at the workmanship of some of the rough framing crew, I am appalled. It has left me – and especially Steven – stressed. We are determined to keep the project moving forward, but only if the workmanship is up to our standards. It is hard to let go. And some things, I admit, I am willing to let go. For now, after several days of stressful challenges to the contractor, I am willing to see what he will do to keep to his promise to address our concerns.

If not… well. Keith… what would YOU do? I ask myself that… every… single… day…

Yes. It’s been three years. But I still depend upon you to guide me and give me strength to keep moving forward.

with love always,

Mara

Photo: Keith and me in Fiji in 2001 chaperoning students.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the "dad" to them all - young and old.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the “dad” to them all – young and old.

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Pumpkins grow in spite of my lack of attention.
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Last year, after my husband Keith’s passing, I made a few efforts to try and create normalcy, or at the very least offer the pretense of bringing it about. I bought a pumpkin and put it out by the front door. I bought some colorful gourds and put them in a bowl on my dining room table. And I tried to keep up with all the vegetables that were still coming in from the crop share I’d joined earlier in the year.

But as Autumn brought the chilled promise of winter, and the leaves began to change and pile up outside my door, the fact that I was facing the season alone became palpable. The pumpkin out front began to rot in place at the corner of the front garden, and I tossed a couple of the gourds into a hole Lenny had dug outside my backdoor when they began to mold. When a small baking pumpkin began to rot before I could cook it, I couldn’t be bothered taking it out to the trash in the cold dark winter. Instead, it joined the gourds in the hole out back.

Imagine my delight when Spring came and seedlings began to sprout. Little had I known that these would become magic seeds. Like a horizontal version of Jack in the Beanstalk, the plants began to grow – out in the front garden, and even more out my back door.

It took months before any fruit began to show on the plant out front, while the backyard began to look like a scene from Jurassic Park as the plants multiplied, sprouted fruit, and crept quickly across my patio and over my fence gate. It quickly became clear that it was more than one kind of plant. Lo and behold, several kinds of gourds became apparent, and two shapes of small pumpkins. The kids began to pay attention, teasing me on my gardening approach, and claiming their own pumpkin from the patch.

The whole situation was rather amusing, even as we would gently move the giant plants tendrils back and forth when mowing the lawn or trying to weed the overgrowth of morning glories tried to take over. But apparently my utility company was less than amused, especially when access to the meter became nearly impossible. A letter came in the mail indicating they had estimated my bill rather than do an actual reading due to lack of access from “overgrown weeds” around the meter.

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More abundance makes its way to my Jurassic Park garden.
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I kept the letter out so I could see it when I walked through the living room, shaking my head in amusement. But finally I relented and decided to take my cutters to the mass of weeds that had overtaken the fence gate, even the pumpkins. Then I took on the overgrown bushes around the airconditioning unit. In between, I took a break. But not to rest, but to refocus.

Inside the house was a similar tangle of overgrown brush, but in the form of files and papers. These created a palpable weight upon my heart and mind. They needed filing, put away. As I moved through this pile, I expanded my reach and took on files of Keith’s old business, then moved on to his final papers, the will, his death certificate, and finally adding to the pile… his birth certificate. There it was… all neatly put away in a file box ready for storage. I breathed a deep long sigh. Life in a box. Well, not really. But it seemed that way… full circle… life… death… birth.

Inside, as the piles inside were cleared away, I began to see space in the room, in my file cabinets, on the floor and the weight of their presence, and their meaning began to fade. Outside, as the piles of debris were packed into the yardwaste bags and dragged to the curb, the sun began to shine through the leaves and branches to reach the cool mossy ground. I was tired and sore, but it was the kind of feeling that came from a day of hard work and accomplishments.

I had succeeded in making room in my house by packing up some of the weight of the past… In my garden, I had cleaned out the overgrown brush around my fence gate making room for it to open more easily, for me to become more open to whatever may come into my life. And at the same time, I delightfully celebrated the gifts of abundance that had grown in spite of my lack of careful tending. It seems like an interesting metaphor for me…

Life goes on. You just have to make room and be open to letting it happen.

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My first fall harvest.