Posts Tagged With: grief

Grief and Recovery

It’s been just over a week since my last blog entry, and while I hadn’t planned on a break, I needed one.  The week has been a reminder of how grief slips back into our lives, tripping us up at unexpected moments, even happy ones.

I last blogged as I was about to leave for a family reunion, one I looked forward to attending.  It had been two years since I’d attended; I skipped in 2012, the year my dad died — I wasn’t back from Greece at that point.  Maybe I meant to skip it — maybe I just wasn’t ready for it.  Regardless, I missed that year.  

The trip driving up was easy.  I plugged in my iPod and sang as I drove north to Many, turned west, and headed to San Augustine.  The drive was a familiar one, one I’d shared with Dad a number of times after I’d taken over the driving.  It wasn’t the first time I’d driven that route since Dad’s death, yet there was an undercurrent of bittersweetness that grew as I drove.  For a lot of the way, even as I sang along with my iPod, there was a running commentary in my memory of things Dad had often said or pointed out on those drives.  His enjoyment at being able to relax and be a passenger for a change was always obvious on those trips, and I remembered that also.

When I arrived on Friday night, my sister had already arrived, as had our Aunt Jean, Aunt Mildred, and our cousin Mike and his wife Sissy.  Hugs and kisses were immediate; laughter and lots of chatter filled the air as we quickly unpacked and then prepared our dinner.  Even though the next day was going to be a long one, we sat for hours and caught up with each other’s news.

By midnight we’d all gone to bed.  Kay was sleeping in the living room near the air conditioner.  I was sleeping in the fireplace bedroom, the one Dad always used.  I read a bit, turned out the lights, and was sound asleep before too long.

Without an alarm, I woke up about 8 a.m. and headed for my truck to get the diet Coke I’d left there — I needed my wake-up caffeine.  With it, I wandered back to the living room and joined the family.  Soon, though, I was at work in the kitchen, putting my potato salad together for the reunion lunch.  Though Aunt Mildred was also working in the kitchen, there was plenty of room.  When the salad was finished and covered and in the refrigerator, I quickly took a shower and dressed.  By the time my cousin Barbara, her husband Herb, their daughter Larissa and Rissie’s two children arrived, I was just about ready.  They unpacked, put their cases in different rooms, and once more it was hugs and kisses time, with yet more laughter.  Having two little ones with us was a joy — watching a two-year-old and a one-year-old is always fun.  We traded holding Katie, the newest family member, though I admit we usually call her and refer to her as “Baby Girl.”  This was the first time I’d seen Katie, and I thoroughly enjoyed our meeting.  

Aunt Mildred left first, with some of her cousins, wanting to get to the site early and be sure everything was ready.  The rest of us weren’t much longer.  Aunt Jean and Kay and I went in Aunt Jean’s car; I drove us, along with our various contributions to lunch.  Barbara and her family went in their truck.

We drove up to the empty building that once housed a kindergarten, owned by friends but not yet sold.  Other cars and trucks were already there, and once we walked in the door, it was truly old-home week.  Some cousins I’d seen more recently, but some I hadn’t seen since Dad’s funeral.  Others I hadn’t seen in years.  

Food filled the entire kitchen counter/island; desserts filled another separate table.  Iced tea waited near ice-filled plastic cups.  

Aunt Mildred welcomed everybody, reminding us of just how long such reunions had been going on.  She thought over 50 years, but as she kept talking, one after another realized that actually it had to be over 70 or even 75 years, since she remembered attending it as a young child and she’s now 92.  

As our cousin Mike Richards was ready to give the blessing, Aunt Jean’s son Jim and his wife Dancie arrived from Houston.  We all stood as Mike gave thanks.  Then it was time to chow down.

So much good food always ends up on offer, and we always make our way through much of it.  Lots of photographs got taken — and over and over during the reunion one cousin after another talked to me about Dad, and how much they missed him.

Once you realize that most of the older folks there were his first cousins, and the rest were either their in-laws or children or grandchildren, you might begin to see just how much our gathering means to us.  Though we sometimes had to remind each other who we were, it didn’t take much.

Aunt Mildred wasn’t the oldest Richards grandchild there — her cousin Minnie V., at 97, claimed that.  Minnie V’s sister Blanche, nearly 91 (and my dad’s age, she reminded me), was next.  Their brother Carl wasn’t far behind.  There were younger Richards grandchildren– in their early 70s and mid-to-late 60s.  The next generation– the great-grandchildren– include me and my first cousins and our first cousins once removed (follow that?) — in our 50s and 60s, mostly.  There were a few a bit younger, like Larissa (great-great grandchildren) and then her children (great-great-great grandchildren).  

Lingering after lunch a bit, then cleaning up and re-packing cars, we slowly emptied the building.  Next year, we’ve decided, we’ll use a foam board to chart out the genealogies.

Back at the farm, we sat and visited even more.  After a while, Aunt Mildred, Mike and Sissy left, returning to their homes north of Fort Worth.  The rest of us actually ate.  Again.  

Once more in bed, I drifted off to sleep.  Sunday morning was time to visit a bit, repack our cars, clean up the house, and lock the door, leaving for our respective homes.

That’s when the grief hit, as I drove back the way I’d come.  It didn’t come in waves of tears or sobbing.  Instead, it was just the slow lowering of a darkness, the realization that Dad was truly gone and that this was yet another first without him.  After the first year without him, I guess I’d taken for granted that nothing like that would occur.  Clearly I was wrong.

From time to time I did cry a bit, but nothing more than a few tears.  And all this week, I’ve just hibernated, meeting friends for coffee occasionally, but not managing much else otherwise.  I haven’t written; nothing would really come.  I’d sit in front of the computer, stare at the screen, and get up without typing a word.  Why force it?  

Every day I’d get out, but that was about it.  No jewelry got made.  Nothing written in other projects than the blog.  I had a couple of appointments — the important one being the repairman who got my freezer and washer working correctly again (and only for $318!).  By Friday, I told myself that this was enough.  One more day, and then it was back to working at something.  At anything.  

Reading got me through the week — and a bit of television, though not much.  

Saturday morning, I got up and dressed.  With large diet Coke in hand, I went to a craft workshop and learned how to dye a silk scarf.  By 1, I was at a coffeeshop, waiting for my friend Betsy.  

I had a beautiful scarf to show from that workshop.  And I had the manuscript I’ve not looked at in three years printed out.  That afternoon I read through it in its entirety, pen in hand, making annotations, deciding what to move and where.  

On Sunday, I met my friend Myra, who worked on jewelry while I worked on the manuscript a second time, making additions and even more annotations.  When I left, I went grocery shopping, then drove home and unloaded everything.  While my dinner was cooking, I took out the garbage for today’s garbage pickup.

By seven, I’d eaten and then crawled into bed. I watched PBS for hours, reading a bit afterwards, finally falling asleep.  

This morning, I was up and dressed by 8.  There were phone calls to make, arrangements to be made for the dogs to go to the vet’s for heartworm preventative shots, information to get about insurance for the beach house (due in a few weeks).

By 9, I’d finished and was in my office.  I set up my kiln with the the temperature guide and a pyrometer, testing to see how fast it heated up and to what temperatures.  Once that was in progress, I turned to the computer and worked on the manuscript, transferring changes and additions to a new copy of the manuscript.  By one, I had finished the kiln temperature test, turned the kiln off, and completed sixteen chapters of the manuscript– and was heading to Starbucks for coffee with Betsy.  

Now I’ve written a blog entry.

Grief lingers still, but the darkness doesn’t.  

I’ve learned with experience that everyone deals with grief so differently, and that for myself, it’s sort of like I imagine surfing might be.  I’ll wipe out once and a while, but give me time.  I’ll be back on the board.  (In reality, I’d probably kill myself even attempting to surf, but as a child of the 60s, I like to dream about being able to surf.)

I’m back.  

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Grief, Writer’s Blocks, and Breakthroughs

One of the most distressing things of the last year or so has been my inability to write. The well-known “writer’s block” set in after Dad died. For several months I’d been writing two blogs, one on Dad and being a caregiver, and one on post-retirement life.

A second draft manuscript of creative non-fiction/memoir essays has been untouched for months. I hadn’t written anything on a project about growing up in an oil-field camp. My still-in-first-draft manuscript about American writers and Greece has been stalled for two years. I hadn’t written any poems in months.

But the blogs — especially the blog about Dad — came flowing out.

And then he died. I got some more written. And then everything stopped.

It felt as though I’d never get anything written again. My journal had haphazard entries. Even last summer’s travel blog didn’t get completed.

When my brain shut down from overload after months of stress, it really stopped everything. I felt dead. I could read, read for hours. But write? Not really, other than occasional journals. My head just was fuzzy.

In Greece during the summer of 2012 for six weeks, I attended a wedding in Naoussa, in the north of Greece. My friend Carolyn’s niece was getting married to a lovely young man from there. I loved being included, and thoroughly enjoyed the days leading up to the wedding, and dancing and partying at the reception. The day after, we headed back to Thessaloniki by chartered bus, and picked up two Jeeps. Eight of us drove on to Chalkidiki to join the bride and groom and his family.

That’s when my stamina — and my energy — really flagged. I slept. I stayed in. It was the week of Father’s Day and my dad’s birthday. Those days hit me — he wasn’t there. When we all left, I flew back to Athens and hibernated.

That hibernation lasted for most of the rest of the year. In late December I began to “wake up,” as I called it. Rising out of hibernation, out of my stupor of grief and exhaustion, I found myself enjoying my house in Lake Charles, and anticipating find my new routine. I also thought I’d broken the writing block barrier.

Wrong. That went on for months.

Greece has been for me a place of rejuvenation, of healing, and of discovery. When I lived there for six months in 1996, teaching at the University of Athens as a Senior Fulbright Scholar, I arrived two weeks after we’d buried my brother Phil. It was my therapy, my refuge.

For years after that, I went to Greece every summer. Those summer breaks were my respite from much stress (work-related, mostly, at least at first). For a few years, I rented an apartment from the Athens Centre and took intensive or immersion Greek classes. Then I bought an apartment, and the few weeks stretched to two and a half months.

Usually I referred to going to Greece as “running away” — temporarily, of course. I always returned ready to go back to my “real life,” to work, to handle everything.

But after Dad died, it took more than a summer. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, I didn’t really realize just how exhausted I was, on every level possible. Coming back from that state took over a year for me.

And it only broke while I was in Greece this year. I arrived in Greece on April 20; I wanted to be in Greece for Orthodox Easter. Friends visited me for differing amounts of time. I traveled to London for a 5-day/4-night break. I went to Istanbul for a few days. I visited with friends. I had friends over for dinner.

And then came a real treat: I was fortunate enough to attend the poetry workshop of my friend Alicia Stallings, at the Athens Centre, in Athens. For three wonderful weeks, I woke up, went to class, walked to a coffee shop, and read and wrote. We wrote, on average, a poem a day. Sometimes more. We worked with different forms, usually one a day.

There were only a few of us in the group, and it was wonderful to once more be part of a writing circle, to laugh and to listen and to read my own work out loud.

That’s when the dam apparently broke open. The class ended on a Friday, and on the following Thursday I returned to the U.S. By the following week, I’d combined my two blogs into one and began writing that daily.

My poems are in my laptop bag, and I have started to type them into my laptop, working on them as I go.

The schedule isn’t perfect yet. It’s still emerging. But I find myself writing daily and thinking about writing. What I haven’t begun working on yet I am thinking about, planning.

We often laugh about writer’s block. I’d had it before, but nothing quite so profound as I’ve experienced in the last year and a half or so. Of course, I’d never been quite so emotionally static, either, or so exhausted on every level possible.

Week by week, month by month, I read and slept and waited. Sometimes I felt bits of myself return. But a lot of times, I wondered if I’d ever be myself again.

Slowly, I emerged from the fog, the den of whatever hibernation I had entered. The death of my father clearly led to another death, the death of one part of me. Just as retirement had been a kind of death, so was losing Dad. And I was rudderless. My purposes in life were gone.

I spent six weeks in Greece in 2012. That fall, I enjoyed being in my own home, visiting with friends, picking up the pieces of my life there. In January 2013 I began to get renovations on my own Lake Charles home started. My house was no longer just a place I visited, but my home once more, and I wanted to have a place where friends could feel comfortable. Those renovations stopped when I went to Greece in April 2013, and are ready to begin again. On July 18, I flew back to Houston. By the next week, I was writing again.

Friends have told me that this time, when I came back and they heard my voice, they knew I was “back,” in a way that I hadn’t been for over a year. That’s true. I feel that I am myself again, though admittedly a changed self.

They noticed my physical voice, which clued them in that I was back.

I noticed my writing voice was back.

A new energy suffuses my outlook. Day after day for so long, I simply woke up, slept, read, ate, and talked to friends. That was a necessary time, a healing time, and something that healed me from the inside out.

Once I found I could write, I knew I was back. Now I’m ready to work on existing projects, to plan new ones. There are still days of “I think I’ll sleep in,” but there is always a time of day when I’m eager to sit down and write. Or revise.

Thanks, Alicia, for helping me break through. Thanks to all my fellow poets in the group, who patiently listened and critiqued and encouraged.

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Sense and Sensibility

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters embody two opposing world views.  Elinor, the level-headed older daughter, is the reserved sister whose sense marks her as the responsible sibling who puts others ahead of herself.  Marianne, her younger sister, is all passion and feeling, all sensibility.  Elinor’s reserved demeanor is deceptive, for her repression of her true, deep and deeply felt emotions burst out of her, surprising others who have failed to see the depths beneath her surface control.  Even Marianne fails to recognize her sister’s emotional turmoil.

Though I prefer Pride and Prejudice (it’s one of the novels that I reread yearly), Sense and Sensibility reminds me of myself and Kay.  I’ve always felt close to Elinor.  I am the eldest and have had a similar sense of responsibility for others — for most of my life, indeed, I have had responsibilities that many people my age didn’t have to cope with.  As a teenager, I was wildly emotional — over Viet Nam, over imagined ills, over the kind of mother-daughter clashes common to adolescent girls.  My temper usually got the better of me.  I had to learn to control it, to subdue it.  By the time I was in my 30s, I think I was, for the most part, more like Elinor Dashwood.  Calm, thoughtful, sensible and practical.  I could be counted upon to plan and follow through.  I was, quite simply, an almost overly responsible member of the family.  Actually, I had been abnormally responsible as a kid — I mean even at 4 and 5.  Circumstances sort of demanded it.  And that continued.

Kay has always been the more fragile of us, more easily hurt and prone to hide in her room.  She’s the youngest, and inherently shy.  I think she came into the world with an inferiority complex.  She’s much more confident now, and continues to work on that.  But she’s still outwardly more Marianne Dashwood.  Her feelings are paramount — they are all on the surface.  They control her at times.

My feelings are there too — but my Elinor side seems to balance them.  At times, perhaps, to suppress them until I am alone and can deal with them alone.

Perhaps this difference has been most evident since Dad died.  I had been with Dad a lot more than Kay had, not because she didn’t want to be there, but because she is still working.  Weekends were her time.  And he was in the nursing home for a couple of months, too, so we visited him rather than lived with him.  During the weeks he was there, I supervised the house renovations.  I handled other issues.  I also got the irritated Dad more, I think.

But after we brought him home, it was intense, 24/7.  Kay had the first weekend by herself.  I had the two weeks.  I had the minute-by-minute nursing and caregiving.  I made phone calls to arrange ambulance transportation to dialysis.  She came for the second weekend and didn’t leave because Dad’s condition rapidly declined; I was supposed to go to Lake Charles, but didn’t because I was exhausted.  That was fortunate, since we took him to the ER on Friday night and ended up getting hospice on Sunday.  On Monday, hospice was there all morning, and he was in great pain.  Kay and Billie went to Lake Charles, doing some shopping and dropping a check from me off at my house for the repairman who was going to be there on Tuesday to fix my air conditioner; my friend Patty was to be there for the work.

Kay came back to a Dad who was basically asleep — after hours of my conferring with the hospice nurse and administering more and more morphine.  I still dream about those hours before she came back.

But when he died,  I did what I do best — crisis mode.  I do that by long experience.  Kay did well too, but there were moments for her when she broke down, when she said she wasn’t ready to let him go yet.  And that was after the funeral, too.  The many details of arranging a funeral kept us occupied.  But afterwards?

Reality had set in for her.  He was gone, but as she said, she wasn’t ready to let him go yet.  t think it had hit me much earlier.  My predominant feeling after his death:  one of relief, relief that he was now no longer in pain.

She is grieving now — emotions much more on the surface, much more in control of her.  Marianne, again.

Me?  I think I have been grieving for a year.  I saw Dad slip away in pieces.  Right now, there are times where I can feel the tears are there, and beneath the tears a gaping hole that is ready to suck me through.  It will hit me, I know, but right now there are other things I must do, business issues to take care of, and family problems to help with.  My emotions are private things, and I try not to let them out in public, which is another part of why I feel more like Elinor.  Her emotions are deep and when they are unleashed/released, they threaten to overwhelm her, and they surprise her as much as anyone.

Unlike Elinor, I know only too well how deep my emotions run.  I also know that I will let them loose sometime.  Just not now, when the practical Cheryl has her list of what must be done.   There will be times, in my house or my apartment — or my car — when I let them out and bawl like a baby, sobbing with my loss.  But that’s not for public display.

Even at the funeral, when I felt that void start to open and the sob caught my throat, I gulped, grabbed some TicTacs and started munching.  At times, I was afraid that the sound of pouring out TicTacs was audible and might disturb the service, but I kept chomping away so that I didn’t just lose it and really distract everyone.  That would be unacceptable.  I kept remembering what Dad told me at his brother’s funeral, years before, as I started to sob — “Wares don’t lose control in public”.  There’s the key:  in public.  Emotions are private, and to be released when appropriate.  So I channeled Dad’s voice telling me that even while I was at his service, looking at his casket.  Closed, might I add.  Funerals are difficult enough, and an open casket makes them even more difficult.

At the funeral, I kept worrying about my sister, about my Aunt Mildred (Dad’s sister), and my Aunt Jean (his sister-in-law).  Dad would be proud, I hope, that we all were teary-eyed but not out of control.  That would be horrible.

And now, almost three weeks afterwards, I work my way through the lists of to-dos.  I’ve seen a lawyer.  I’m getting repairs on the house before we put it on the market; I’m waiting for the appraiser’s report.  Kay and I are working this coming weekend on the hundreds of tools that are neatly housed in the double-garage.  They will get boxed and moved into storage.  I hope to go to the bank to the safety deposit box.

There’s so much to do.

Kay is working through this, trying to find her way through the changes that include Dad’s death and how we shape our lives without him.   We talk daily, often several times a day.  We talk about our own plans to rebuild at my beach lot in Crystal Beach — and I think it’s important for us. This is our family house that we’re building, our future.  We’ll create our own memories there, but we’ll carry others with us.  The new house will be furnished in part with things from Egan.  We probably won’t need anything at all for the kitchen.  We’ve got chests of drawers.  We need to buy new chairs for the table that Phil found and refurbishes.  We’ll need a new sofa (one that is a sleeper).  I want a new rocker for the living room.  We’ve got televisions and a stereo.  Our grandmother’s stereo cabinet from the 1940s will become the DVD storage, placed beneath the living room television.  It may also be the bar, something Kay and I find appropriate. We’ll have 3 bedrooms, one for me, one for Kay, one for Rachel, my niece.  One bathroom.

Channeling my Elinor, I keep going as I work through the list.  I help Kay as she occasionally breaks into her Marianne side.  At home, I let my own emotions out at times, but so far, nothing of epic magnitude has emerged. At times, though, I admit to feeling overwhelmed — not by Dad’s loss as much as by the sheer number of chores that await me.  Panic attacks threaten, but I’ve avoided them with deep breathing and grounding techniques.

Emily Dickinson speaks to me at this time as much as Jane Austen does:  in one poem, Emily D says

I CAN wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,         5
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!
Power is only pain,         10
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
Give Himmaleh,—         15
They ’ll carry him!

I taught that poem for years, and it speaks to me constantly of how I myself feel.  I’m so used to grief that I can wade it easily.  But comfort — “balm” — that and joy are less well-known to me and threaten to make me slip.  Yes, Emily, yes.  I agree.

Sense — me — and Sensibility — Kay:  We manage.  And that’s positive, good, desirable.  We work together.  Day by day, step by step.  I count our successes.  They make the troubles– the griefs that threaten, the new crises that crop up– survivable.

Not that we don’t bicker.  We do.  Don’t get me wrong — our essential sibling relationship remains.  But both of us are conscious that Dad, our mediator, is gone, and it’s up to us to find our way together.

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Details, details

Two sayings come to mind:  “God is in the details”  and “The Devil’s in the details.”  Why am I not surprised that such polar opposites describe the reality of details?

Right now it’s the details that keep me heading for the notebook that goes with me everywhere — notes about things to follow up on, to call about, to find out about.  I knew something about what I’d be facing once Dad died, in terms of the business of an executor or trustee.  But I’m still discovering some.

For example, sometime in the last three weeks I’ve managed to misplace a keyring — and it’s the one with the key to Dad’s safety deposit box.  My signature is on the box, so that’s not a problem.  But if I can’t find the key, I have to pay $180 to get it drilled.  But I can manage it.

I’ve found the insurance papers that I know of, but suspect there’s another one.  I’ve contacted one company that turns out to have gone into receivership, but managed to get the right people to help.  Now I’m waiting for those papers to come in.  The big insurance/annuity policy has been taken to the funeral director, who has taken care of that and once the bill there is paid, Kay and I will get what’s left.  I’ve called the larger annuity that was about to have to be rolled out because Dad was turning 90.  Kay and I have been to the bank.  The officer there has set in motion to have his social security check returned.  I still have to contact Dad’s former employer to stop pension checks.  Of course, now I have to wait for the certified death certificates so that I can complete paperwork.

Kay and I will sell the house, and Dad knew that.  I’ve contacted an appraiser and we’re going to meet soon.

In preparation for that, I’ve rented a 10×15 storage unit for furniture and anything else we’re keeping.  I’ve got most of the books boxed, but more to work on.

But lord, the garage!  I don’t think my dad ever threw anything out — just the opposite.  He collected things.  “Oh, I can fix that.”  “That engine is still good; I can use it for. . . .”  You get the picture.  Dad and his siblings were products of the Great Depression and lived accordingly.  He had his own tools.  He had the tools from my mother’s stepfather.  He had tools he’d acquired for all of us.  Some of it is neatly tucked away in cabinets.  Some of it.  But the rest?  Let’s put it this way:  there’s a double garage with no room for any cars.  Come to think of it, I don’t think there was ever room for cars.  We’ve never actually used the garage for that purpose.  That’s why there is a carport.  There is a shed in the back of the yard.  In that is the 1977 or 1978 Blazer that Dad and Phil used for hunting and fishing.  There’s a boat and trailer.  And the riding lawnmower.  And probably more tools.

Once the house itself is empty of the life that it held for decades, of the family that no longer lives there, it’s really just a shell.  I have fond memories of the house in Egan– but it’s not something I’ll pine for.  I was 16 when we moved into this house, and it was the 7th house I lived in, so it isn’t the only home I’ve ever known.  In fact, I’ve lived in this house in Lake Charles longer than I have lived anywhere else.  The constant home in my life?  That would be the farm, I guess.  And oddly enough, the house that I dream about most is the house in Beaumont where my maternal grandmother lived.  And at times, I dream about the oilfield camp in Egan, that I’m moving back there into one of the houses, but the house is different.  And there’s a swimming pool.  Of course, someone else owns the land and has built a large home there.  But dreams don’t rely on reality.  For me, houses have purpose and life, but they’re only things.  It’s the memories I cherish, though the house may have some sentimental connection.

Having grown up on the Gulf Coast, I’ve seen houses destroyed by hurricanes.  I’ve lost a house — my beach house in Crystal Beach, Texas — to Hurricane Ike.  Other than the cracked slab and a few stray, random items, nothing was left after Ike hit Ground Zero not far from my house there.  What survived?  A few blue glass things I’d tiled a cabinet top with.  A Christmas ornament that I left out on a cabinet — a blue angel, now with a chipped wing.  I call her the Beach Angel.  Everything else washed away, piled up on Oak Island or Goat Island or dragged back to to sink beneath the gray-green waters of the Gulf.  It wasn’t my primary home, but I loved it.  And I have survived that loss.  I once left this house, though, for a Category 5 hurricane that was supposed to rip through Lake Charles, Hurricane Lily, I think.  I drove off with my car packed full with pets and computer and photograph albums and music, knowing I might never see the house again.  That’s when I realized I could live without the house itself.  And when I drove off with the car packed similarly for Hurricane Rita, I didn’t look back.  Everything I needed was with me.  If I had pets and cameras and computer and photos and music, and I knew family and friends were safe, that’s all I really needed.  Clothes?  I just needed enough to get by with.  After all, there’s always a Walmart somewhere.

So the house in Egan?  We’ll sell.  I’m not as attached to it as Kay is — she was only 8 or so when we moved in, and she is more sentimental about it than I am.

After all, we’ll still go back to Egan — we have friends who are family now, and I’ve told Billie she has to have room for us when we visit. It’s the house we’re selling, not our connection to Egan.

My notebook sits beside me here on the table now, and I see a few phone calls I can make today.  And I’m sure I’ll think of other things I need to make notes about — things to check on, people to call, things to get when I go to Egan next time.

So whether it’s God or the devil in the details, it doesn’t really matter.  Perhaps one choice indicates a more positive spin and the other a negative one. Regardless, it’s  the details come to drive us, I think, in the aftermath of a death.  They keep us going. Grief and mourning take so many different forms and differ from person to person.  I know from experience that years after, when you’re calm and think you’re beyond it, something will trigger grief so sharp and fresh that it’s a gut-kick back to the past, to the rawness of loss.

Right now, I’m pacing myself through the details.  And daily trying to gather the threads of my life back together, to find my way back to living by myself, in my house, in the town I’ve been in this time since 1981 (and add the 3 1/2 years of college for a total of 34 1/2 years I’ve lived in Lake Charles).

I’m weary, even bone-tired.  And weary with the weight of the last months, where  I’ve been too busy to let myself go too much.  I’ve cried at times, but had to pull myself back together and keep going.  I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as though I’ve gotten enough sleep again.  I’m sure at some point I’ll actually sleep through the night without waking up to check on Dad.  Crying jags will surprise me at some point, I’m sure.

I find myself reading at night, and in the daytime I start a project, a box to fill, or a shelf to clear.  Work, as Dad always showed me, was a way to deal with stress.  If your hands were busy, he’d say, your mind couldn’t be too.  If you tired the body out, you could get rest, and you’d feel productive.

It’s true.  So today I’m clearing out the front room with my friend Patty, and putting some things into my storage unit, making that room for a work area for my jewelry and for my office for writing.

My house is taking on life again, shaping itself around my needs now in retirement, and that’s a wonderful thing.  I’m finding my way back, even while I make lists of details about closing the past.

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The Bustle in a House

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, –

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

Emily Dickinson

What do you expect from a retired professor of English whose specialty is American literature?

Seriously, though, this poem has been running through my head for two days now, pushing itself into my consciousness at the very time I’m creating my own bustle in the house here.

Dickinson has always been one of my favorite poets, though I know she’s not everyone’s taste.  I find, though, that her poems have such variety and contemplate such life issues that mirror the conflicting ideas and even confusion that I have felt at many times.  Some poems when read together indicate that she had two opposing ideas and wasn’t necessarily sure of things, even of belief.

But this one, just now, is what has insistently made itself part of my life since Monday.

Truly I have been (as has Kay) part of the bustle that is necessary at such times.  Even as we were just realizing he had died, Kay and I had to be active.  We had to call hospice, and that started the wheels in motion.  First the nurse arrived to officially deal with his death; she cleaned him.  I called Charles, who was here in a few minutes.  I called Billie, who dressed and came over.  About ten minutes later, her son Joe showed up too.  Mind you, this is at 2 in the morning!  We were not alone; we were surrounded by friends.  And we found ourselves telling stories to the nurse, laughing.  When the funeral staff came in to pick up Dad, one of the guys was one of our cousins.  Small town life again, comforting in ways you don’t really anticipate as you are growing up.

Then he was gone, and they were gone, and we were by ourselves.  But we couldn’t sleep — too much to do.  The bustle had begun.  With a 9 a.m. appointment at the funeral home to make arrangements, we had to locate necessary items — clothing, photographs, insurance papers. And then I started texting cousins and close friends.  And started getting responses back, even at 4 or 4:30 in the morning.

Kay and I got through with the funeral director by 11:30 or so, and stopped in Egan for a little while before heading to Lake Charles.  I needed to check for something at my house, though I couldn’t find it.  We had coffee with a friend of mine.  We also had pampering time — I treated us to a spa pedicure and manicure.  I figured we needed to feel better, and this was the perfect treat.  We were back in Egan by 7, and found the hospital bed and other equipment was gone (thanks to Charles, who let the people in to pick it up).  We got something to eat, and  I made some phone calls.  Then we crashed.

Today, Wednesday, we spent here at the house — my friend Patty came from Lake Charles.  She and Kay cleaned up and washed clothes.  I made more phone calls, worked on funeral arrangements, went through paperwork, went to Crowley to the clerk of courts to get a copy of the living trust that Dad had set up and registered.  Then it was on to the funeral home.  Then I picked up delicious shrimp poboys and came home.  It was a bit after 2 by the time we finished lunch, and then went back to work.  By 5, I loaded my two dogs into pet carriers, and Patty took them back to my house in Lake Charles for me.  If we have visitors drop in tomorrow, I won’t have to worry about the pups.

The bathrooms are clean.  Clothes are washed.  My room is neater than it’s been in weeks.  I managed to get the rest of the house in good shape, but really didn’t bother getting my room as organized — I was just too tired, and there were more important things to do.  Now, though, it is much better.  Thanks, Patty!

And tonight, Charles came over for supper.  He’d cooked some jalapeño pinto beans in the slow cooker.  I grilled some sweet peppers and bell peppers and onions.  Kay cooked some fajita meat and made queso.  We had a great meal.  The strawberry daiquiris were also quite tasty.

Now I am relaxing.  Soon I will head to bed and hope to get some sleep.  Tomorrow is another day of bustling, both in the house and elsewhere.  Friends may drop in.  I need to get a haircut.  And Kay and I need to be at the funeral home at 4; close friends and the two of us will be there until 5, when the visitation begins.  That runs until 9.  Then Kay and I and Cindy (one of her oldest friends) come back to the house for the night.

Friday is travel day:  Kay and I will go to Lake Charles for a few hours and then head to San Augustine to the family farm.  My cousin Mike and his wife will drive down to the farm as will, bringing his mother, my dad’s sister, and they’ll get there and open up the house before we arrive.  They’ll also bring supper.  What a treat not to have to worry about that!  We just get to relax and be together and laugh and remember Dad and how many years we’ve gotten together.  We can hear more Aunt Mildred and Dad stories.

Saturday will be the funeral service and burial, followed by lunch and then it’s back to the farm with family and friends coming by.  If we’re still functional, Kay and I will come back to Egan that evening.

I know that the bustle in the house isn’t really over even then.  There’s still so much to do.  There are papers I need to locate, insurance policies to find, business to take care of.  And then there are still the closets to be emptied and books to be sorted and packed.  But that can be at a leisurely pace, certainly compared to the rather rapid pace of this week.

That, though, is when the emotional letdown will come, I think.  The rushing about and the busy pace have kept us going.  Once that pace stops, once we have time to sit and think and remember, the realities will come back into full focus.  No longer having to be social directors of sorts, we will be in our own individual and collective times, when grief will come to visit more often.

One of the great joys of my life has been teaching literature — and teaching literature has provided me with such profound consolation in difficult times — as when Mother died, or Phil died.  Teaching literature means exploring the human condition and the emotions that make us human — and one of the most profound experiences we humans share is the death of loved ones (indeed, loss in the broadest of terms as well).  Through the necessity of teaching major works of literature, I found myself so personally connected and deeply comforted.  I also found that students came to see how literature speaks to us, beyond the differences of time and culture, and touches us, speaks to us, connects to us beyond time and place.

When I taught Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, or the poetry of Edward Taylor, I found not only deeply religious Puritans expressing their faith, but humans who dealt with the loss of parents or children.  Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, came from his deep grief over the loss of his brother, and represented not Thoreau’s becoming a hermit, but his personal search for what Emerson had called for in “Self Reliance.” Thoreau wondered what was essential to life, and in the process of that two years, two months, and two days at Walden Pond he moved through grief to reconciliation — he moved back to town in spring, surely not accidental — but the time of renewal.  Over and over, I found human voices and human grief, working through to acceptance and reconciliation.

Particularly for me now, Bradstreet’s  poems about her father, Thomas Dudley, are pertinent.  In “To Her Father With Some Verses,” Bradstreet says:

“Most truly honoured, and as truly dear,
If worth in me or ought I do appear,
Who can of right better demand the same
Than may your worthy self from whom it came?
The principal might yield a greater sum,
Yet handled ill, amounts but to this crumb;
My stock’s so small I know not how to pay,
My bond remains in force unto this day;
Yet for part payment take this simple mite,
Where nothing’s to be had, kings loose their right.
Such is my debt I may not say forgive,
But as I can, I’ll pay it while I live;
Such is my bond, none can discharge but I,
Yet paying is not paid until I die.”
She wrote other poems in honor of her father, but this one, I find, is  simplest, most direct, and clear.  And I’ve always thought it was on target, but never more so than now that Dad is gone.  If I have learned anything, become anything, if there is anything worthy in me, I owe it to him, and to Mother.  They modeled the values, not just mouthed them.  Bradstreet says that she owes her father such a debt that she can pay and pay and never pay that debt off.  This is the way I feel too.  My debt is never paid off.  I pay it off daily, in pieces, in my own life, in how I live, and in living the principles and values, not just professing them.
Dickinson wrote about loss of many types, and about grief.  Many of my students, frankly, thought she was weird or crazy or just obsessed with death.  Yet her world was so different from ours in that illnesses often led to death, and medicine wasn’t exactly always a help.  Further, death was something that happened at home, not in some sterile hospital room.  And funerals happened at home, not in some special place.
Perhaps too there is some truth to the idea that there is a therapeutic element in writing.  Certainly if that was true for Dickinson, it in no way diminishes the power of her art .
Even with so many of her poems about death and loss and grief, Dickinson could write these lines, which I see as a counterpoint:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”

And Walt Whitman, her contemporary, wrote of death in surprisingly joyful, hopeful ways.  (He was, after all, an American Romantic).
As he noted:
“this is thy hour o soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best,
night, sleep, death and the stars.”
It has been my privilege to make a living out of my great passion for literature.  That I got paid to teach what I love has always been an amazing thing to me.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that lines of literature, even entire poems, pop into my thoughts at any given moment.  They spoke to me as a teacher, but more importantly, they spoke to me as a person.  I pick up literature for fun, not just for a job.
Thanks, Emily, and Walt, and Anne, and any number of other writers, for illuminating my life.  Thanks for giving a voice to my pain, for reminding me that grief has a cycle that can bring me to reconciliation, for showing me the joy that is also in life, even in the midst of grief.
As Whitman asserts in “Song of Myself,”
“All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
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