Yet I Hold What I Have

For a few years I expected the worst. Justin would be late from work and I’d stand at the window looking out at the desert, certain he was dead. When he traveled I would imagine if he didn’t return. I realized I didn’t know anything about chunks of our shared life. He tracked our finances. He knew how to fix a wobbly chair. He planned our summer vacations. For years I expected the worst but continued to allow the kids to climb, jump, run and bike fast. Now the fear that my spouse or child might die is a fear that keeps quiet, but during my early motherhood that fear would swell to a point of certainty. If I called Justin and he didn’t answer, I began to cry. The afternoon I saw my two year old daughter had opened her bedroom window by standing on a little chair and was sweeping dust off the sill with her hand, I went cold. I didn’t shout but I held her tightly, feeling dizzy at the thought. We found a way to lock the sliding window and screen.

I might have expected the worst because I understand that the worst can happen to people. I was Polly Klass’s age when I saw her picture on People magazine at the checkout. I was twelve or thirteen when I read The Diary Of Anne Frank. I heard about an Olympic runner in Bosnia who trained despite having to dodge bullets. I learned about mental illness. I read about the Holocaust. I didn’t understand Rwanda. My great-grandmother told me her mother and infant brother died in the flu epidemic and when her father could not raise his remaining two children, he gave my great-grandmother and her brother to a couple who provided, but were not warm. The worst can happen to people.

And people live through. Continue. During those early years of motherhood, two things happened that started to shape my relationship with fear, suffering and grief. Midway through a difficult pregnancy, my friend Liana gave birth to her third son who lived one hour in the hands of his dad. That is now seven years ago but the memories of Liana on bedrest, and the phone call that told me she’d lost her son, still turn my heart. A few days after she was released from the hospital, I stopped by a cafe to pick up a coffee and saw her a moment before she saw me. She was sitting at a table waiting for her husband who was inside with their boys. She was empty armed and blank faced. The mercy was, Liana didn’t try to rearrange her features to make me okay. The second thing that happened was my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. I did not know Rose well, but I knew she loved her son, wanted another baby, was excited about homeschooling. One summer I talked with Rose in my mom’s kitchen, encouraged by her straightforward faith in Christ. But when Rose died, I ached with shame at how much I worked at love, how uncertain I was at parenting. I ached with fear I might die before I learned how to love my children simply, sacrificially.

The following few years I practiced more honesty in my faith, more neediness. Motherhood was a catalyst to surrender, heart change, fuller joy. Fear subsided as I learned my identity in Christ, as I preached to myself the great care the Father has for each of his children. But fear also subsided as I witnessed others suffer loss and walk sorrow.

I am still finding a way to say this next part. During this past year I imagined myself inoculated against those losses we count as worst: spouse or partner, child, body. I am so comfortable with my ordinary suffering. The low grade depression like a background hum, ready to swell or lessen with the roll of my month or year. The pains of having much and so managing or neglecting gifts, like hiring help with housework, deciding where to get take away, sorting a closet full of clothes, or choosing what to do on a wide open Saturday. I like my ordinary suffering. I have witnessed others’ suffering. I have empathized and entangled. I do not want to wash my child’s dead body. I do not want to kiss my husband’s dead body. When I stepped into a conversation about suffering and grief with Sabrina, she surprised me by saying God does not give us more than we can bear: a platitude I would not say to any bereaved person, she could say within the year her husband died. She carries so much. She is as loved as I and we are both held in the Spirit, but when she said that I thought, Well, there you go. I can’t bear it. That single truth summed up my supposition that God understood I could be near grief, intercede, care for others, but that I am also ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression.

All of us are ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression and some of us can barely handle that. While I pretend proximity to great loss might inoculate me against great loss, the better comfort is this: we all suffer, we all lose. I move toward and away from this thought but find such comfort in the connectedness of my experience and yours, the lack of anything new under the sun, the truth that we all suffer, we all lose. I do not need to stand at the window waiting my turn. I am allowed to live with peace and joy. I surrender fear. Let my husband go away from me and return. Let my children bike ahead and arrive. Let me run alone at dawn. Liana and Sabrina live and grieve and live. Rose grieved and died. I hold what I have. I cannot do more today.

(1011 words)

One Day I’ll Write When I’m Through

A couple of months ago I sent out an essay titled “The Grave Garden” and a couple of weeks ago the essay was rejected for publication. I started writing the essay three years ago and tacked on the latest expansion earlier this year. The piece wanders. As it is, the essay is what I first supposed it might be, written only for me. I started writing about the death of infant Kaiden, my friends’ firstborn, and the years after when I was surprised by how sad and angry I remained. I remember writing the first draft. Parts were jagged, like you might snag on an inappropriate observation or emotion.

Right now I’m not certain why I committed that first draft to a file. I was already writing about the Senger family, their loss and second son, the community that walked alongside. Their grief would surface in me throughout that first year after Kaiden died, but what also came was the anger I wanted better to understand. What I’ve noticed about my more personal essays is that anything I finally type is something I’ve written by hand before, more than once. I love Natalie Goldberg’s idea that writers compost their ideas, turning over the soil until it’s rich enough to grow the right words. “The Grave Garden” essay as it is, even called finished, is likely one more part of the compost, one more turn of the soil until I know just how to talk about

what I really want to say, which is:

(I just spent ten minutes rewording a few sentences to whittle the years of this lesson to something that makes me seem more wise than ugly). Let’s try this again:

I didn’t want to be a mom more than anything in the world. And when I watched Christie, a woman who wanted to be a mom more than anything in the world, grieve the death of her son, her loss underscored the gain I held. I condemned myself for not wanting motherhood, for having to work so hard at enjoying the role, for the effort of love.

Before Kaiden died I wrote a couple of essays about contentment. Envy, comparison and finding contentment. I like to believe I really was on the way to figuring out how to enjoy motherhood, all by myself. I ran, journaled, listened to podcast sermons, laid on the floor to pray, confessed, begged for joy. I was too good at recognizing my lack. If I’d been a little dumber or kinder to myself, I probably wouldn’t have worried my initial fear or ambivalence about parenting meant always and forever selfishness. Also before Kaiden died, my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. Rose’s death shocked my apathy toward marriage and parenting. I was writing a lot about how much a fight it is to just be where you are, to yield to the difficult and boring work of loving a husband and small children, when Rose was diagnosed. Without knowing it, she celebrated her last Christmas. Without knowing it, she welcomed her last new year. And she would not see spring. The morning I learned Rose died, I stood in the shower crying for her son, but also crying for her because no matter the frame of faith and a better place, she was missing out on what I once wished away.

So “The Grave Garden” contains different sorrows. The loss suffered by Kaiden’s parents. My tangential grief for a different kind of loss, suffering what I’d missed having: a first full love of motherhood. “The Grave Garden” tries to make sense of my interaction with the Senger family’s loss and my parallel sorrow. While all the threads belong together, the essay shows me deciphering my emotions and responses in way that feels a little too raw. There is not a tidy way to write any of what I am writing in that piece, but I respect the story enough to find a way to tell it well.

I just finished Educated by Tara Westover. She journaled all the way through her wild growing up years in rural Idaho, all the way through her sense of inadequacy. She learned how to say the truth plainly in the pages of a notebook. And then, much later, she put her experiences together in a memoir that talks intimately about tragic and difficult moments. At no point in the narrative does the reader wonder if Westover is just figuring out what she needs to survive her family, to thrive away from Idaho, to pursue meaningful work she couldn’t have imagined a decade before. While she walks us through her realizations, while we watch her grow, we trust she tells us her story from a place that is through – maybe still in the middle on some days, but mostly secure in her present place.

Perhaps drafting and revising “The Grave Garden” stood in for what I should have done, which is go to therapy. It’s upsetting to write hard words in my own hand. To say to myself what hurts. Really, I think I could have done a few sessions, whacked my way through a couple of big issues, been lifted more quickly than three years of writing about my grief for the Sengers, my grief for myself, the anger. I wrote from the middle. I wasn’t through much of anything when I started drafting the essay. I wanted to be through, I wanted to understand what we learn from such tragedy, what forgiveness I might extend myself, I wanted to know I could be a good mom even if I hadn’t wanted motherhood more than anything in the world. I very much started “The Grave Garden” in the middle and its revision is ungainly but I don’t negate the need for the work. How else might I learn to write about difficult things except to write about difficult things?

(994 words)

Sometimes Days, Then One Hour

I am in Melbourne now. The day before we flew to Australia to meet friends for Christmas, I learned my grandpa had fallen and his body, weakened by Parkinson’s disease, was unlikely to recover. That afternoon I laid on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, and drifted between tears and sleep. The next morning I called Mom. I wasn’t sure if I needed to be home. Last time I visited Grandpa, we said a kind of goodbye and in the months since I prayed for his heart as he endured.

My own heart did not know what was right when I learned, kindly said, that it was only a matter of time. I am still not certain I did what was right, going to Australia on holiday when the man who set me on the crossbar of ten-speed bike to race down a hill, telling me to hold on the short ride down, returning to the top of the hill for another go, this time taking my brother, before my second, third turns – when that man was dying and I still might go to his side and say again: I remember how strong you were and see how strong you are even in this weakness. And your weakness does not change my love or affection or memory of who you are.

In the airport Justin showed me the email Mom sent that Grandpa had died. I thought what I’d been doing four hours ago. The flight was long. We landed in Queensland and I made it through a full day, woke early to run. For a week I ran with stray thoughts that brushed against prayer and poetry. I started immediately to write a poem I could see coming together, eventually. I wrote and rewrote and supposed at structure, organization for pages and days. Below is the latest draft, written today in a cafe, across from my daughter who sat reading her book. I will return to this, puzzle the best way for this poem.

A couple of weeks before he died, I sat in a different cafe, alone, thinking about Grandpa meeting Grandma, thinking about the care, chance and appointment that line up our lives; thinking the ways we are made to be here now. I am glad for my grandparents, glad for my parents, glad now for my children who will one day have their own moment of wild reflection: all the ones who bring us here now, all the ones who follow.


Maryborough, Queensland

4.Island Plantation Road

I am where I want to be
at the edge of sugarcane fields
under a hot, blue morning,
feeling my heart. The air is
sweet. I stand still long enough
for sweat to salt my arms, legs –
long enough to listen to
how quiet the world is, finally,
long enough to decide
I must go back. The roads back
are  the roads I look for
when I run: roads of
narrow width
single lane stretches
neglected asphalt
gravel
Those roads go where I want

3.Saltwater Creek Road

This must go somewhere to
nowhere, this busy road out
of town, this busy road must
give me a two lane road, at least,
a two lane road that loses
its shoulder, that gives me
a woman and her dogs out
as early as I. This woman and
her shepherding dogs stop. She
tells me the roads cutting
through these fields are
quiet and if I take this one –
There. She points –
I can go right to the creek

2.Walker Street

Far away from me my grandfather
is newly dead, awaiting burial

Maybe this is why I run all
the short paths in this cemetery,
correcting my mistake, thinking
at a distance this is an empty
cemetery. The markers are flat
and the cemetery is full

Luther Valley cemetery is full
of tall, old stones weatherworn so
it is easier to feel rather than read
names and dates etched or raised
Full also of sharply cut new
headstones like the one my family
will stand at when my
grandfather is given back

1.No Through Street

The town is a crosshatch of
wide, crowned roads that end at
field river highway. On a map,
the town’s edges look frayed
I run Lennox, Moreton, Bazaar,
Pallas, Albert, Queen
looking for a way out,
finding instead how this town
wakes, slow in bright, hot air,
slow at summer Christmas

 

Writing What You Can’t Say Clearly

This week I’ve been writing about when my friend’s infant son died and the nearly two years since. I was surprised by my anger and sorrow in the days before his birthday. My anger confused me most. I was mad because I was as sad as I was, because I’d gone bitter in my heart toward a few people connected to the loss. And I thought I hadn’t any right to feel the deep sorrow I felt, like it wasn’t my emotion to hold. Also this, my own then shifting sense of purpose in motherhood, hoping for joy after years of wishing I hadn’t married or borne children at all. My friend wanted to be a mother and I prayed for my own desire to change, that I might want to be a mother too. So when it was her baby who died – I still can’t say clearly what I felt – it was like I’d wasted my own motherhood not wanting it enough.

I made myself write about all of this. I hated writing about most of it because it was clumsy and sad. I failed at a didactic conclusion. I didn’t look good on the page.

Then I found a poetry exercise by Susan Mitchell in The Practice of Poetry. It goes something like this: think of a feeling, mood, experience that you have tried to tell but failed at telling well. Now write twenty lines about it. Use as many metaphors and/or similes as you like, but no fewer than five.

I assigned this exercise to my classes. We all wrote poems full of metaphors and similes and by end of the day, I wondered if the process mattered more. I had three starts in my notebook, each making me look closely at the infant’s death and the time since. I opened my notebook again this afternoon and made myself finish the piece. What follows is a draft I’ll leave alone for a while. But I get at something I mean.


 

1.
Empathy is my heart cut, sleep broke. I know to pray. I pray
with few words. I pray in pictures. I pray for her empty arms
like my own are also empty. Then I rise from my knees, find
my children, fill my arms. For days it is like this. I think of her,
I think of me. I am necessary and useless. I hook that thought
until I am more useless than necessary, until my empathy is
stealing grief. When my daughter was a baby, I thought
a terrible thought, that her death would be escape. And when
my son was a baby, I thought my death would be escape.
I am useless but I pray

2.
Even this poem about her son’s death becomes about me.
Motherhood was my tether. I was staked in place, to a
husband, daughter and son. She was glad to be pregnant,
glad to grow big, glad to deliver a boy with dark hair, glad
to learn how, already in love. Her joy was not rebuke but I
watched like a child, wanting to learn how to give myself
to my own children as she did her son. And then her son
died. She woke at night, forgetting he was dead, remembering
again. She’d wanted to be a mother and I hadn’t really,
not really, not at all

3.
I do not steal grief. This sorrow is mine. On the day her boy
would have turned two, we go to his grave. I watch my
daughter and son walk among the dirt mounds of other
daughters and sons. The sky is gray, wind whips my hair
and I pray with few words for many things. Later I am angry
and call my mother who listens and lets me cry because
this loss, this son that isn’t mine, cannot go from me.
When my heart cuts and my sleep breaks for his mother,
even when she and I are gray, I will take a piece of her grief,
hold it as my own

 

The Dumbest Grief In The Room

I was away for summer. Left one home to visit another. We enjoy our time in Wisconsin and are always glad to return to Kuwait. (Once here I am not always glad to be here, but that’s anywhere in the whole wide world, except maybe Sweden or Finland, one of those countries who’ve got it all figured out thanks to small populations and broad social welfare. Which I’m not knocking). Anyway, we are back in our home, mostly sorted and ready for another school year.

Every time I go home, stuff comes up.  This summer I managed not to leak all over the place, confining most of my overthinking to long runs and a notebook. One thing that comes up when I visit my college town is What Am I Doing With My Life because there is the house where I wrote late into the night, chancing on one or two good lines. And there is classroom building I tracked snow into. And there is the reserve I ran and biked through. So this summer, the thing that came up about What I Am Doing With My Life skipped past marriage and parenting (thank God) and got stuck on a/vocation.

I poke at a/vocation at least twenty times a year. I teach and mostly like the job. In one of my education methods classes, focused on teaching creative writing, our discussion turned to how we’d keep writing while teaching. Most of us in the small class knew each other from previous workshops and a few of us were good writers who wanted an eventual MFA and publication. I didn’t imagine I’d be teaching more than a couple of years. But one woman in the class likened teaching to a religious calling. As such, teaching would come before writing. As such, the majority of her essays  composed on long runs would likely never make it to the page. In that same conversation, our professor talked about whether it’s wiser to take a job that requires little creativity and keep our mind for our writing. I think of him on my cubicle days, when I’d take a job in a cube under fluorescent lights rather than be in my classroom.

My vocation exacts a lot of creativity. I’m lucky enough to teach creative writing and that keeps me writing perhaps more than I might otherwise, but between the school day, afternoons with my kids and (let me not lead you to think I’m too wholesome) nights of tv, my avocation is more minor than I thought it’d be when I was biking to class mocking up a book jacket. I write because I do. But I haven’t seriously pursued publication, even as I want it. And sometimes I talk with my students and think I’ve got to get on that, get something published so that it makes sense I’m the one teaching this class – because publication would somehow validate my ability to write or work with students as they write?

Sometimes my stray thoughts bump against one another, glob together and stretch the length of an essay. Sometimes I get a revelatory conclusion. Then I feel good for a day or week because I’ve said what I need to say just right. I might make my husband read it or post an excerpt here and shortly after, I’ll be useless again.

I was at my parents’ church this summer and the speaker closed his message about grieving before God by asking us to imagine a hurt or disappointment and hold it in a closed fist. I closed my fist around Writing. What hasn’t happened in the years since university grieves me. Writing As Means To Gain An Appreciative Audience Who Also Read Other Better Writers. Writing For Acceptance. Writing For Unbelievable Windfall And Requisite Book Signing Tour. What I really meant was Writing For Publication. I’m unpublished. I stood there holding maybe the dumbest grief in the room and said to God, Please just take this.

And I’ve since thought I can’t begrudge my vocation on behalf of an avocation.

Except (and this is important), writing is not really my avocation. Publishing may be, the laziest of my avocations. But I can’t reduce writing to a minor hobby. I’ve been writing for decades and for all sorts of reasons and I need to (once again) divorce myself from the idea that writing is most worthwhile if I also manage to publish. Maybe my writing goes no further than notebooks, saved files and what’s posted here. I doubt that though. Someday, probably, a piece of mine will land in an inbox and find its way to print. That will be exciting. Until then, and after, I write through, because.

Third Culture Mom

Last week I was talking with a fellow teacher mom whose family is leaving Kuwait in June. She told me all the work involved in exiting the country. Moving necessitates a load of paperwork. (That’s the joke why Justin and I aren’t moving yet.) But moving also brings unexpected emotion. For kids too, which is what my friend and I talked about. She mentioned a book about third culture kids, which I haven’t read, and when I started listing not only my kids’ goodbyes but the ones I’d be making this year too, she said maybe I was a third culture mom. Her offhand comment got me thinking about where I belong and the unique challenges of living abroad. And so, an essay draft in its draftiest form:

One summer I took long runs from my parents’ house into the country and back through town. I ran past two houses for sale, one on a narrow country road and the other on a quiet town street. I looked at the front yards and driveways and windows thinking of picnic blankets, snow shovels and Christmas lights. If we lived there, my kids would grow up near grandparents and extended family. We could bike to the library and grocery store. Justin would have a workshop and garden. After dinner one night, I took Justin past both houses. One of them advertised an open house that weekend. You want to go? Justin asked.

What I craved from a house were friends who didn’t move away. Everything I’d been glad to leave – small town routine, especially – now had my affection. I went to my parents’ church and saw high school classmates with their own families now. I imagined how my life and theirs might overlap, how our kids might go to school together. I imagined finding a place in the community, staying for decades, maybe even watching my students come back to buy a house on the middle lot of a quiet street they’d wanted to leave too.

Finding a place underlies why I wanted to leave. And now I wish I was planted where neighbors remember when I had a paper route or knew my siblings well enough to ask after them.

One year I said goodbye to three dear friends in as many months. Two years of significant farewells followed. I started to think I couldn’t do this anymore. Last August I went to bed early while Justin joined a potluck of new and returning staff. I could think of nothing worse than answering where I was from and what I was teaching a dozen times, speed-dating for friends. One of my close friends (also leaving this June) thinks that means I’m ready to go too. I’m not sure. Maybe I reached an emotional pause. Like, I am full of dear friends right in front me and can’t take any more on board.

That’s selfish. So as the year went on, I learned better. Or am trying better. I want to love the one I’m with. I want to be present with the friend in front of me. Sometimes this means sidetracked conversation as babies, toddlers and kids weave around us. Sometimes this means I know this friend best in the courtyard or out for breakfast or before morning bell. What I’ve recognized is a wealth of relationships pouring into my day.

This June I am saying goodbye to a core of women who give me grace and wisdom (and laughter, recipes, books). I am afraid I won’t know how to be sad in a healing way. I am afraid I’ll count all my friendships lost, that the daily momentary relationships don’t add to anything sustaining and I’m silly to think so. I am afraid I’ll want to buy a house this summer only to find that there isn’t a good place for me there either. I am afraid I am running short on my allotment of dear friends.

Once I asked another mom friend what she found most difficult about being a mom. At the time, with an infant and toddler, I found nearly everything difficult. But she didn’t say sleeplessness or inexplicable grief or potty training. She said the most difficult thing about being a mom was spending time with people you wouldn’t choose. (I think she was talking about me). Being an expat can be like that, too, when we are finding our way through new cities, foods, currencies and norms, when what we need most is the stability and laughter friendship can give. So let’s try to like each other a lot.

Which is why June remains a unique heartbreak for me. Because I like you a lot, without trying. And because my sad heart will think it’s safer to stay closed or buy a house in Wisconsin. When August comes Justin (excited about meeting people he has everything or nothing in common with) will want to go to the welcome potluck. Fine, I’ll say, Give me a minute. I’ll go to the bathroom and put on mascara and lip balm, a spray of perfume, and head downstairs with my family. I’ll open up enough to tell as many people as ask that I’m from Wisconsin and I teach high school English. Yeah, I’ll say, Those are my two kids running around over there. I’ll open up enough to trust dear friends will come.

When There Are No Words

A week ago, our friends’ infant son died. We live in an expat community where the loss is felt by the closest friends of the couple and the wider circle of neighbors and colleagues. We saw her pregnancy and joy. We stopped him for a peek at the newborn in his carrier.

In the immediate after, we said,

There are no words

and looked at the ground or leaned in for a hug. Our shoulders shook with their grief. And a week later, we still cry for their emptiness.

When there are no words, I want to find the words. The year after Grant was born, my mind had so many dark places and my heart, pockets of desperation. It was my most prolific journaling year. When the babies went down for their afternoon nap, if I wasn’t laying on the living room floor crying, or eating warm bread with Monica, I was at the table with my notebook open. I wrote the same, over and over.

I’d been thinking about that year, before this. I’ve been thinking about why I still want to find a way to say things that are hard to say. Why is it important to find words? What is it that the searching process yields? I am bent toward introspection and do not often swerve from a shining light making me see. Even so, words may come slowly, inadequately. I keep looking, for the right words.

When we said,

There are no words

I thought,

There must be, somewhere. There must be words waiting, even for this.

But I think those words do not belong to me.