The Good Things of the World

There are drills, as there now are in every school. We call them “lockdown” but they might also be known as “active shooter” drills. I wonder about the missing pieces in the plan, such as how we cannot put full grown students in wheelchairs into cupboards to hide them. We can not silence students who make involuntary noises throughout the day because of their disabilities. And, can you really follow procedures that save you from assault rifles anyway? More often, I think of how I do not want to survive any more traumatic events. I am not sure I can do it anymore, begin again to heal the PTSD once I wake to it. Sometimes, I feel one hundred years old and beyond ready to leave.

It is coming on four years now since Susanna died. Without a doubt healing has happened. To try to explain it, there is peace existing alongside the immense gap where I thought she would always be. I had never imagined a world without her, but this new reality is less terrifying and fretful lately. Bushels of worries and concerns have been lifted, aspirations and appearances I used to care so much about have almost disappeared. I have always been pretty good at tolerating others, and more than ever I am able to let people be. I observe people becoming stressed over situations that are quite real to them, but I feel out of place because I do not share the same feelings. I am grateful for this reduction of anxiety, and grateful for the courage I have mustered to go to therapy, refrain from anything harmful and let in the love that can help. I cannot survive any other way.

I still do many of the same things to soothe my heart every day. I still painfully miss her. Walking, music, fresh air and trees. The truth remains that, for five short years, Susanna’s life was happy and well-lived. I remember the details and the details make me cry, but I have not lost them. Still, I am here to make my son feel loved, listened to and cared for. Still, I live with my children’s father, who often looks at me the same way he did when we met twelve years ago. I am even creating things, I even see a future which includes things I want to do.

Reflecting, this world has severely disappointed me these last four years. Horrendous news events, an unthinkable government situation and disappointing behaviors of large segments of society. I have already lost my daughter. My mother has reached almost ninety years old and has lost her ability to make sense of the world for more than a sentence or two, and her ability to take care of herself after so many decades of independence and people relying on her. I find this unfair. There is so much I do not understand.

The wounds of what I saw happen to my little girl, on that night when I knew her heart had stopped, along with all the others I have accumulated from living for more than half a century, these are real and these are sacred parts of my life. Susanna’s death has made me mortal, all day long. I do not need to be reminded that anyone can leave at any time, because they have the flu or because they are shot in a school or shopping mall, because they have a heart attack or one of the cancers we try to screen so often. I know this. What I know less about is what comes after we leave here. I am convinced, though, that it all will mean something. I am convinced that listening to the ways the earth and sea and ethers communicate, the song of the birds, the inspired or mysterious words that pass through the lips of our friends, the art in the museums, the stories, the good things in the world. I believe these things can save us while we are here, and these are things we cannot really lose.

Crescendo

“And then I felt sad because I realized that once people are broken in certain ways, they can’t ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older as you see the people in your life break one by one. You wonder when your turn is going to be, or if it’s already happened.”
― Douglas CouplandLife After God

 

Fall is coming tomorrow. Agricultural time is even more suited to me as I get older, nothing inside of me obeys a linear system. I must stop and think a bit to remember the season, to try to grasp where I am. I am reveling in the two days off for Rosh Hashanah, though I am not Jewish. I am sorely in need of some time off, and reflection, and I always need a new year.

Autumnal Equinox, for pagans, is the balance of day and night and the point of certainty that death is happening. When I am teaching my art class, this is the season we stream Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I skip ahead to the Autumn passage. The floating leaves represented in notes make the most sense to me. Time to turn on the music and let go as I stare at the complex sea of situations that is my job, newly scheduled and followed to the minute in linear time.

In the bigger picture, the crossover line at death is an illusion. I do not say this to try to be clever but because I know it is true. We arrive here with a mission, and make choices as to how we complete it. I have no time for or interest in activities which involve denying or ignoring this. We all come from the same place, and no one here escapes the cycle of birth/death /rebirth. No one wins. It is not a race.

PTSD (the way I understand it, I am not a doctor) is kind of a state of having trauma frozen in your body and mind. I might be carrying on with my day as I need to, but little pieces of memory float to my consciousness and make me fearful and anxious. It has been a big relief to see it this way, very unsticking. I believe I have healed some. Looking at frozen fear is the best way to turn it away.

In my nonlinear fashion, this is something that happened to me three years and five months ago.  I am in the hospital room at Maimonides in Brooklyn. Susanna’s body is still breathing, but attached to tubes and machines. This is before the attempted brain scan which would not be completed. This is after the conversation with the brain surgeon who has told me there is nothing he can do. He has hesitated and floundered over those words, a part of his job no one would envy, and my jaw as well as my heart and soul have dropped through the floor. Somehow, I have sat in this room and decided that I will move my body and walk across the street to buy coffee. I have said this to my Significant Other, but he has not heard me. He is millions of miles away from me, and I believe he will always, from this day forward, hate me because of what I have done. I have not saved Susanna, and I have remained alive. I must be a horrible person, as I have always suspected. As I walk through the lobby and into the street, and back again, I am sure everyone is looking at me and knows my daughter has been sentenced to die. I have been forever changed by this day. This will always be true.

An hour or two later, I have been consoled by a nurse in front of the room where the brain scan is to take place. She has given me cold cranberry juice. I have also been consoled by a couple from Bangladesh in traditional dress. They have told me their son, who is nineteen, is in a similar situation, and they have prayed for me. These are memories of love from strangers which have sustained me, in retrospect.

Soon after, I have said good bye to Susanna. I have held her hand and said this: “If you can come back, I will be waiting, but if you need to go I will understand. I will always be with you, and I will never forget even a minute of the time we have been together”. A man working has overheard me, and has softly mumbled “Oh, God!” and is crying.

In the time since, I have realized that if you witness someone cross over, this is a part of your mission. This is intimate, and important. If someone tells you about being present for death, this is sacred as well. These are the thresholds, the places where we can feel our true home.

My daughter was here, and when I was sitting in the hallway, having been given the cold cranberry juice and the prayers, I watched across glass as people who had come running tried to start her heart again. They tried for a long time, but she had to go. She died. This did not happen because I am a bad person. It just happened. I could not save her, any more than the sad brain surgeon, and I survived.

Fall again, and Susanna’s brother has just called from downstairs to inform me that he has lost a tooth, a molar. He is four feet and nine inches or so and will be joining his school band. We are here and Susanna is there, for now. We will see the leaves turn, because that happens on this part of earth. We will listen to them fall, crescendo, and be gone until next time.

Home

This morning I watched a video on TED Talks. Pico Iyer is an author who writes about travel, in a contemplative way. In the talk he discusses how people of multiple nations and cultures define “home”.  I am someone living a state border away from where all my relatives and I were born. I am not a traveler or a well-travelled person, but this spoke to me. There is indeed a difference between the structure and soil I occupy and what my soul calls home.

I have been considering my relationship with my own physical house lately. As usual, I have been using some of my summer break to dig through clutter and eradicate dust bunnies. I have noticed, within myself, some missing boundaries, some nondescript holes in how I occupy my life here. There are layers to uncover, sections and coats of many colors.

My first memories of being in this house are of a day when my Significant Other, my son and I spent a few hours patching some holes, the first in a series of repairs leading to a complete restoration. S.O. brought wood and spackle. I, grateful that my toddler had fallen asleep on a blanket and pillows, and about halfway pregnant with Susanna, started cleaning some closets and floors. I could describe page upon page what was damaged here. We focused instead on what was possible, and what S.O. (an exceptionally talented individual) knew he could create. I was more of a witness to what I knew could unfold, and it did.

There are no perceptible holes here now. There are clean walls and restored floors, all systems functional. The house occupies the same shape and shell, but is made of our own history. There are stories to tell. There is the shocking memory of when the ocean swelled into the house during Superstorm Sandy, and the aftermath of cleaning wet mud as FEMA dropped off boxes of self-heating lasagna. Heartbreaking, to know that today as I write this people in Texas are experiencing a storm and flood entering their homes. Sometimes, we learn how what we think we have made solid is fragile, like we are.

These memories are the easier ones, because they are followed by memories of two smiling kids running around. I have photos of them playing on the underfloor S. O. exposed on his own after the storm, just before he repaired beams and installed a rich, dark wood in time for Christmas. We had reached even further into the underbelly of the house. Their smiles were wide enough to span to South America, love emanating through the pixels.

This big world, with its beautiful people of all kinds, is a scene of incomprehensible healing. I will never stop believing that we all have a purpose here, despite what we live through. I have not healed from the memory of Susanna in the living room, on that worst night of my life, when I saw that she was not going to wake up. Much healing has occurred, as I live each day and do my best, but the universal forces which can heal those memories, still stuck in places inside of the walls of the house as well as the walls I have around myself, will have to come from beyond the scope of this earthly home.

My family, as I describe it, lives in multiple nations and dimensions. I do not think in terms of walls and borders. S.O. carries with him the memories of a distant place. I carry within myself many homes, not as far away on the map but gone over time. My son will remember being here as a brother to Susanna. He always will be, though no one can see them together. Susanna still lives with us, though she does not occupy physical space.  Someday, as I have learned so deeply through my daughter and her destiny, there will be another home on the other side. I cannot picture it, but I know who will be there.

TED Talks

 

Losing My Religion

My year of graduate school is almost over, the end in sight and the glorious weeks of steamy weather and solitude coming into view. I have rediscovered television again, already. Except for I Love Lucy or Roseanne when I am drinking my coffee in the morning, I have not had the time or patience to watch anything. I have settled into The Handmaid’s Tale on this long weekend and sucked the last drops out of the six episodes available so far, getting lost inside and looking up details about the cast, production and soundtrack on my phone during the commercials. No wonder I do not watch TV like I used to, this is how involved I get.

I read Margaret Atwood’s novel during a television- free time in my life, when I read books and went places and spent more time with people in cafes (pre-internet). I checked it out of the Brooklyn Public Library in Grand Army Plaza, where I used to hang around when I had no money but time to spare. This was before I met my S.O. and had a family, and before I knew firsthand about life ending in death. I did know about the dark side of human nature but I had a narrower perspective on it.

So much to become irate and disgusted about in the story. But this is a story of the world. Fiction, but with real correlations. I do not watch this and feel grateful to be free as much as I feel revolted about how humans full of greed and evil damage each other. Freedom from this is not a privilege, abusing and exploiting others is crime. The world is a hotbed of corruption and unspeakable abuse, and this seems to have always been true. Sometimes I feel done.

When the scenes turn, in the first few episodes, to times “before” and “after”, I follow the emotional shift. I too have had my little girl taken from me, and console myself in reverie of carnivals and making pancakes. I want to hate the government, or someone, for this, but my enemy is none other than death and destiny. They are here and now and not dystopian. Death and loss are everyone’s fate. But eventually I do feel grateful that I have experienced this loss in the world I live in, where I have a job and home and a good deal of personal power.

I live with my beautiful, healthy surviving child and a partner who loves me from across cultures. He has seen things which I cannot understand, and never will, about human nature and injustice. These are his stories to tell, and sometimes he tells them to me. None, though, are as heartbreaking as what we have survived together. The cruelest part of the universe is the part which gives you a child to love and then that child is taken away. We found each other and had a son and a daughter. Susanna’s life was very short, and we remain.

Is life worth fighting for? I know it is. Whatever falls in my path I do believe I have a purpose, and I am equipped to follow it through until the last day. During these last years of my life, during which I have been bruised and broken, I have lived the most real days. Life is temporary and difficult and painful, and no one here gets out alive. Still, there are things to be done and justices to be served. And, in the bigger picture, there is a plan which cannot be seen from this plane.

Last night I was involved in my Hulu marathon, and S.O. uncharacteristically came upstairs and offered me one earbud attached to his phone. “Listen to this. This is beautiful. Maybe you know it”. It was REM’s Losing my Religion, and that is beautiful. My man has discovered the same band I discovered I high school, on this night so many years later, in a language and country which are not his first. I can only say to him that they are from Georgia and do not play together anymore. I want to explain how Michael Stipe’s voice makes me feel when I hear it, but words escape me.  He does not need words, he hears it himself. Because of these moments I am hopeful. Sometimes I know we will survive.

Dolorous (A Thanksgiving Story)

Yesterday, I looked up antonyms for “grateful”. I thought I must be feeling the exact opposite. “Ungrateful” was the first entry, somehow not fitting. I went down the list and found “dolorous”. Marked by excessive grief and distress. A word which sounds like the traditional name “Dolores” from the Latin, a name meaning “sorrow” which is given to girls in honor of the Virgin Mary. This is perhaps the opposite of being given the name “Joy” or “Felicity”.

I woke up having just dreamt about Susanna. She was with her father, on a bench, sitting up on a hill where I could see her as I approached. I called them on my phone, to let them know I was almost there. I eagerly said hello to her, knowing I had not seen her for a while because she had been sleeping. She heard me and then I had to wake up.

I survive days full of pain by knowing they will pass. There are actions which may help, but some pains need to hang around to be exposed before they dissipate. I found myself in a deep- seated hatred, beyond anger. I hated and resented every person alive in the world for not being Susanna. This was not viable and made no sense, but I wanted to be with her so badly that l felt this. I wanted to speak to a human being in a body who was my daughter. There is no solution for this. I had to do my best to forgive the world, for this transgression of not being able to bring Susanna back, along with all of its other shortcomings. Not easy lately given current events, but necessary as far as making it through the day.

Eventually I found solace in an unexpected place. A book. Books saved many days for me in the past, days which were too murky to be infiltrated by other humans. I am not ready to mention which book and why but it is related to the world of spirit, and the reasons I have to fight for wholeness as I remain here and fulfill my mission. When the world here marks itself unlivable, there is more. There is even a barrage of angelic assistance, especially on the days when all hope seems lost. We do not need to do anything alone.

I went to sleep last night relieved that the day was over. Perhaps next year I might better enjoy Thanksgiving, a complicated feast laced with national grief at its essence anyway. Celebrating the harvest with loved ones is one framework. The annihilation of indigenous people and their culture (ongoing at Standing Rock) is another. A “pilgrim” is a word meaning “traveler”, in a spiritual as well as geographical sense. It reminds me of the Yeats poem, “When You are Old”. One man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face. (This is even more beautiful now that I am becoming old). Yet I am baffled at what the Puritans considered “freedom”, and what became a way to obtain it.

When the grief of not having Susanna here overcomes me, the only outlet will always be to look beyond earth existence. I have been busy lately, studying Braille for my coursework, and less frequently able to go out and walk. The holiday schedule has given me a little more time and space. As I look to the sidewalks and footpaths, littered with random Brooklyn confetti and the natural spoils of late autumn, I see many more “S” formations even than usual. This last time, I first saw a braille symbol arranged in dried gum dots. Dots 234. This is the letter “S”. There was even a dot 6 ahead of it, the capital indicator. Susanna is an energetic arm’s length away. I am not even alone while doing my homework.

Somewhere around the hours where the veil is thinner, three-ish (I did not look at the clock), I woke from a dream with a spirit voice in my ear. A voice asking me, emphatically, for “peace”. It was a boisterous male voice, I could feel the warmth of its breath in my ear. I did not remember the details about what was going on, and am not sure who it was, but I knew it was a call for me. I asked Archangel Michael and all of the benevolent universal forces to send peace throughout my home and life and self. I think that those who love and care for me, both in this realm and in the others, do not want me to hang on to so much pain. Grief and pain appear as they need to and are real, but there is more. I need to see past the pain because there is work to be done here. I went back to sleep and woke up with a clean slate for this day. Peace.

Magnolias

The Japanese Magnolias, soon to be followed by the Cherry Blossoms, are here. Fleeting, time meaning nothing. When my son was younger he called the white Cherry Blossoms “Popcorn Trees”. Not because they looked like popcorn but because, he ascertained, they were popcorn. He also was certain the Dalmatian we saw at the playground was in fact a zebra. He trusts his own observations.

Susanna is here too. I have come to understand that disincarnate spirits have no age, not the way we know age. They are still the people we knew but they grow with us. Susanna’s shoes are lined up next to her brother’s. They have not been replaced with larger new ones. Still they are hers, waiting for her because she is arm’s length away to us as always. The way she grows with us is something I cannot explain but know just the same.

Spring has started and Easter is tomorrow again. I feel like all of my arteries and veins are full of cement. I picked up imagery at some point from yoga of my whole body as a breathing mechanism. You can send your breath to places which hurt and need attention. I hurt everywhere. Even though the breath I send is not deep and joyful, I still breathe.

Among the days which passed in March was my significant other’s birthday. I remember, two years ago, the last time we celebrated when everyone was still here in body. Susanna, of course, insisted I put on my party dress and shoes to dance with her as a performance for her Dad. I squeezed my expanding waistline into a gold taffeta formal in my closet. She donned the usual princess attire. We both wore new gem studded black flats we had purchased for spring. I believe the songs were “On the Floor” and “Feel this Moment”, probably also her favorite, “Poker Face”. Later my kids set up a special party room with pillows on the floor in the cluttered “office” where we keep too much stuff. We sat in a circle a little while and looked at each other. I saw that look on S.O.’s face, the one where he is filled to his eyelids with love.

This year on his birthday I had the cement feeling, but hope to remember a realization I had in my kitchen as I made dinner. There will be a day when time will slip away and I will look back on everything. I will see the dance parties and I will see the leaden days of tears. I will see them all as days well lived, beyond judgement. The grief comes with the love. The tears will clean up every pathway within me. My family has been cheated out of so much, we will not be cheated out of our tears. I might cry for some more years but still the flowers will come in season and still they will leave again. They will leave a fluffy pink trail.

 

Land of the Lost

 

This morning I realized my son had drawn me into his sneaker obsession. It has been new to me, this situation of sneaker release dates and elusive rare shoes to be collected rather than worn. You can never have enough. Yet, I understand obsessions and addictions of any type. We look for ways to distract ourselves. He and I both understand that no pair of sneakers will take our loss away, but we cling to what might feel good as we go forward. We grasp for footing.

Once my boy had woken up today I introduced him to a television show which most American children and I had been obsessed with when I was his age. I have likened how I feel in the world these last two years to Land of the Lost. Like Marshall, Will and Holly I suddenly found myself in a world to which I did not belong and could never imagine making my home. Grief, shock, anger and despair dog me on the same scale as dinosaurs. The hollowness of Susanna’s absence feels like the widest primordial cavern. I have learned to scavenge for water and scrape together a hearth for myself and my family, also a threesome. We too have dropped through a portal and woken up somewhere we never dreamed we could be. We once knew the name for this world but not its eminent appearance in our reality. Land of the lost, absolutely. Yet there are more worlds than we know, right alongside us.

Easter is coming, again. Another Easter without Susanna and all of the memories of her last couple of days with us. I evade the thoughts of celebrating yet I will hang the egg wreath on the door because I know she is watching. Susanna is waiting for joy to return to match the depth and breadth of all the pain, or at least give it a run for its money. Spring is an eruptive force beneath the ground. It looks pretty upon arrival but contains the creative energies which shaped the earth. Nature has the power to heal and I will not stop waiting. I will forge ahead like always. I will forage for reasons to hang on and survive, because I have to. I will buy sneakers, because my boy and I have to go places. We love you Susanna, every step of the way.