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On Writing…

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“No blogs?”, “Did you stop writing?”, “Too busy for your blog?”

Blogging seems an ungracious word for what it is that writers do.

I have been absent from my blog space for the last 100 days. And no, I did not stop writing. In fact, I have been writing at a breakneck pace for over three months. My audience shifted from the blogosphere to writers from all over the world.

When I entered a 100-day writing challenge, I expected to whip off a few blogs while churning out chapters of a book. There is an idiom for that sort of optimism: wearing rose colored glasses.

Here was the mantel set before me: 3,000 words per week, due by midnight each Friday. Because nothing has changed at my core in the last 35 plus years, come Wednesday the scramble began. I continue to be a last-minute crammer.

Some perspective:

3,000 words are double the count of a standard personal essay or opinion piece in a magazine.

The college essay limit is a paltry 650 words. As a College Counselor, I revel in prompting my students through the college essay. They approach it as though it were Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The average word count for the President’s State of the Union Address is 4,000 words. It takes a team of speechwriter’s months to prepare.

Five weeks: 45,000 words, and thoughtful critique of 750 pages of other people’s work. That’s about fifty pages per week and it was time-consuming. I am a better writer because of it.

I am often asked, “Why do you write?”

It’s a question I’ve heard since I started to blog and because I am writing a memoir. I suppose the subtext goes something like, “Why would you share personal details of your life?”

Aha…. good question!

I write to rumble with my life; to grapple with grief and loss. To find balance through examination of my soul. I write because it gets the swirling stuff inside of me to the outside of me. Once released it loses its power over me.

Before I reached middle-age I had no intrinsic sense of grief. My grandparents passed in the natural order of time, at ripe old ages. Those were sad moments, but they did not paralyze me.

My mother died when I was 43. On that day, the scaffolding of my life began to dissemble, piece by piece. Soul sucking, enormous grief became my constant companion. The losses mounted and eleven years later, as I prepared for the death of my dear Uncle Bobby, I began to write.

It helped.

Some people run, bike, do yoga, or seek therapy to manage life. Others paint, knit, sculpt, or get lost in their music. Some souls bury their hurt with a “move on” sort of bravado. They hold tight to the foolish notion that an unexamined ache will heal itself.

Wizard of Oz analogies are never far from my grasp. At 50, I found myself skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. In the wake of relentless grief, I found love and it was glorious. I smiled and sighed in the palm of it. It felt like home. The soul yearns for serendipity and for a year of my life I felt as though I had found it.

In my happiness, I forgot an important fact about the Yellow Brick Road; there is a Haunted Forest at its end and it is harrowing. One moment, I was skipping and laughing and, as I turned a corner, it took me by surprise. Before I knew it trees started heaving apples at me, and a witch appeared and tried to set my straw aflame. All the while, menacing monkeys ruled the darkened skies.

I ignored the caution signs posted along the way and that tormented me. It was my hardest grappling. Writing helped me find the answers.

When I look back at my early writing, written when I had lost all semblance of myself, it makes me ache for the me of then. When I reread early chapters of my book, I am astounded by my narrow perspective. I weep for the woman who allowed pebbles to cripple her.

I am rewriting from a new place where there are no heroes or villains. A place where I no longer try to forgive myself for what I did not know. Rather, I forgive myself for dismissing instinct; losing faith in my ability to navigate.  I forgive myself for accepting less than I deserved and allowing another to judge my worth. As a friend implored me then, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” Indeed.

In remarkable fashion, at the nadir of my sadness, another man inserted himself in my life. I scrambled to rise to the arrival of my 88-year-old Uncle Bobby. I had no idea that in his weakening I would find my strength. The eighteen months I spent by his side exhausted and restored me. He became my muse, and the writing of it made the hard work of elder-care bearable.

My articulation of the universal experience of love and loss resonated and that moved me. It was a great joy to write about my Uncle, to give voice to his history. I felt like his personal curator and it was an honor to capture his remarkable spirit in words. My journey with Uncle Bobby helped me find my writer’s voice.

More than therapy, friends, or even Uncle Bobby, writing escorted me out of The Haunted Forest.

I write to rumble, to figure, to navigate.

During the 100-day challenge, other rumbling writers encouraged my story through constructive critique. They inspired me with their own dedication to the craft.

One wrote to me, “We have little in common. I am a 35-year-old bachelor on the other side of the country.  Yet, when I read your chapters, I find myself contemplating my own life.  I want to read your writing with a glass wine and my feet set on an ottoman.”

There is a writer who does the same for me. A dog-eared copy of her collection of essays, This Is A Happy Marriage, sits on my bedside table. Ann Patchett’s soul is present in her writing.  She is achingly honest and when I read her work, she feels like a friend.

I write because I hope that one day, on the night of a full moon when sleep is but a dream, a struggling soul will reach for a dog-eared copy of my book on her bedside table… and not feel so alone.

 

 

Of Mothers and Memories…

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My mother passed away 11 years ago on Thanksgiving night.  I struggle to remember the exact date of her death.  The anniversary of it is inextricably attached to Thanksgiving.

She was diagnosed with Adrenal Cortical Cancer in late September. The following nine weeks are a confabulation of disturbed memory and racing recollections of traveling to and from Rhode Island.  Weekends were spent with my dying mother and distraught father, and weekdays trying to refocus on my family.  My children were so young that my daughter has little memory of a grandmother who loved her in a special way. She was the only granddaughter in the mix of boys. Grace was 6 years old on Thanksgiving night 2005.

When I cleaned my mom’s closet out weeks after her death, I found a stockpile of beautiful, expensive dresses, sweaters, and coats that would see Grace through several years of special occasions.  A corner of the closet was filled with precious items which surely cost too much.  My daughter was something of a life-size doll for both my mom and me.  Grace knew indulgence in fashion from the moment she was born.

After the whirlwind of wake and funeral, as I tried to settle into a life absent my mother, I received cards on a daily basis for weeks.  My father, in his heartbreak and with a slow shake of his bald head, would repeat this mantra in response to the outpouring of condolence, “People are awfully good.”

There was one such card that affected me more than any other.  I thought I had saved it, but could not find it, as I sifted through special things this week.  It doesn’t matter. While the words may be imprecise, the message is indelible.
My friend, Betsy, who lost her mom as a young woman, shared this sentiment (now paraphrased):

“When your mother dies, you lose your North Star; your guiding light.  For some time, you will find yourself imbalanced, your navigation will be off.  Regardless of your age, it changes your world.  It is only understood by those who are motherless.”

 
That beautiful letter moved into my soul the moment I read it on a cold, quiet December afternoon.  I was 43 when I lost my mom and Betsy’s letter was like a gift. Even in my incalculable grief, I understood that the death of one’s mother is an equalizing human experience.  In the natural course of living, parents pass before their children.  All of my friends and cousins who still had their mom’s, who sympathized, but could not empathize with the depth of my loss, would someday experience the same.  To be sure, I was imbalanced for quite some time when my mother left this earth.

In the last two years, I have attended too many funerals, watched too many friends and cousins say goodbye to too many mothers.  It feels like time to take a cue from Betsy.

My mother’s greatest gift to me was her example of faith.  She was an epic church goer, a Catholic from the tips of her toes to the top of her head.  I am not any of those things, but there is a moment I call upon when my own struggle is mighty.  My mom might say this moment was the work of The Holy Spirit.

Despite the fact that I had philosophical issues with the “Big C” Catholic Church, my local parish had been home to me.  I was a catechist and you could find my family, 6th row left of center, each Sunday morning at 9 am.  I loved the ritual of the Catholic mass. The predictability and familiarity of the liturgy were like meditation for me. Once my mother passed, church became impossible; the smell of incense or a single organ note undid me.  I vividly remember that first Christmas Eve, entering the church with my family, finding our pew and, as the congregation settled in, the choir led with “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”  Grief grabbed me by the throat and I let go of my 6-year-old daughter’s plump, impossibly soft hand and made my way out of the church with as much dignity as I could muster. The cold night air was a welcome relief, and I wept as I walked the parking lot for the hour it took for mass to be over.  The strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and my mother’s favorite Christmas Hymn, “O Holy Night”, wafted from the Church into the night air. Each note like a stab into my already broken heart. I knew then, that Church would never be the same for me again.

For two months following my mom’s death, night was my demon.  I battled through the daylight hours, but once my head hit the pillow, unsummoned tears would leak from my eyes and my mind raced around every detail of the previous months.  Exhaustion ushered me to sleep, but dreams of my mother woke me nearly each night.  I dreamt, not of my mother as I knew her, but of the diminished her, twisted with the pain of cancer that consumed her body.  It was as though I never knew her whole.  Her pain was a nightly visitor.

The first waking moments for those grieving are predictable.  It takes but a moment of consciousness to remember the pain that has been dreamt away in the deepness of sleep.  As consciousness nears, the ache rebuilds.  I woke most mornings of those two months willing fresh tears away.

As the world turned to a new year, a challenge I was not ready for presented itself.  My husband’s father had died the previous January.  He was a kind, benevolent, smart, wonderful soul.  A Mass of Memorium was scheduled on the anniversary of his death.  I could not fathom surviving it.  I wanted to summon the courage I knew I needed to do the thing I knew was right.  I spent the week before oddly “psyching myself up” to gut it out for him, to be an example for my children.  The night before, I crawled into bed and prayed that I could be relieved, Dear God, just once, of dreams of my sick mother.  I fell asleep that mid-January night, determined to rise to the occasion regardless of which visitors came to me in my sleep.

All I can remember of that night is that when I woke tears did not well, nor did bad dreams fly to my consciousness.  What did was this:

My mother and I walking the boardwalk of Weekapaug’s Fenway Beach, both of us carrying beach chairs in our hands.  The sun was high and the sand was soft and my mom looked lovely, in her skirted bathing suit and white cover-up.  We set our chairs down, side by side, and the waves were gentle and our toes massaged the sand.  That’s all I recall of my dream on that January night, and it is enough.

I believe that The Holy Spirit visited me that night.  That my mother sent me a message that went like this: “All is well with me, and you will be fine.  Go be who you need to be. Don’t worry anymore.”

And I did.  I went and honored my father-in-law in the way that he deserved.  Any tears I shed in the church were for the memory of him.

My grief did not end that January night; it remains in my soul.  My friend, Betsy, was right.  I lost my North Star when my mother passed.  I am not so sure, 11 years later, that my navigational ability has improved.  I remain a bit unsettled but feel as though I am finding my way.

I dedicate this writing to the women in my life whom I love.  Many of you have lost your North Stars.  Many of you have yet to.  In your grief or grief to come, I wish you peace and the surety that the Holy Spirit is present.  I have experienced him/her many times since that January night in 2006.  Listen for it in your sadness, be open to it in your grief.  What a lovely gift for a mother to a daughter. It is as precious as the perfectly smocked dresses my mother bought her grandchild 12 years ago. It is as perfect as a lovely, handwritten note from a friend that would resonate in my heart forever.

Farewell, Uncle Bobby

saint sebs

 

 

And they came, a surprising number of them, to say goodbye to a wonderful man. They came to a beautiful stone church nestled in a quiet neighborhood on the East Side of Providence.  A neighborhood whhere the young Robert Barry slid down snow-covered hills and skated on pristine frozen ponds.  Where he passed a long armed wicker basket among the communicants each Sunday morning at 9 am for forty years.  Where he lived the life of a gentleman for 86 of his 90 years.

And we said goodbye with laughter and tears, and finally, with a full military salute as a young officer handed me a perfectly folded American Flag and with extraordinary grace informed me, “On behalf of the President of The United States, we thank Robert L. Barry for service to his country in the Second World War.”

It was a marvelous day.  And here is what I had to say about my dear Uncle Bobby:

“It is good to be home here in a church which meant so very much to the Barry Family.  Built in 1916, Our Grandfather Louis Barry was one of the builders of Saint Sebastian’s.  Robert Barry served as an Usher here for 40 years.

He was, for most of my life, my elusive bachelor uncle. My earliest memories are of a Volkswagen beetle and my wonder that a man so tall could fit in a car so small.  He was a teacher and a veteran and a constant guest at my mother’s dining room table, not a holiday missed. He loved the great writers, and Herman Melville was his favorite.  He was like Ishmael: a man of the Sea.

It was not until the final years of his life, that I came to know the core of him.

Uncle Bobby was, in no particular order, Charming, stubborn, private, witty, sensitive, resolute, exasperating, and sentimental.  He was, above all things, a gentleman and a gentle soul.

His Accountant, Attorney, Financial Advisor and notably, his cousin John Murphy were intimately aware of how very exasperating Uncle Bobby could be.  No decision came quickly, no action moved upon swiftly.  He was careful and cautious.  All things on Uncle Bobby’s time. When he came to Connecticut to live his final year I came to understand this.  Asking Bobby to move in a concrete direction was much like trying to drag an anvil through the sand with a piece of taffy.  Make no mistake, he was captain of his ship til his final breath.

His charm was disarming.  That was his secret sauce and he spread it around liberally. In the great battle he fought with his body this past year, he always had a reserve of charm.  When he passed away, I received notes and calls from the care workers, mostly young women, mostly Hispanic. They spoke not of his death, but of the songs he might sing to distract from the intimacy of his care, the anecdotes he would share while they went about their noble work, or the questions he would ask them about their own lives.  He had the charm of a true gentleman

As for me, this journey with Uncle Bobby was a great gift.  In his suffering, I learned perspective.  In his mounting challenges,  I learned that patience and trust in the God are essential to finding peace.

He wrote in my elementary school autograph book, which I still have, “To Ellen, Miss America, and my very best girlfriend.”  He remains one of the most memorable men I have ever known.”

 

 

Journeys

 

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It is precipitous, this fall to mortality to which I have a front row seat.  Seems like yesterday Uncle Bobby was waxing on about old girlfriends and pontificating about the perilous future of our country.  In a matter of weeks, we are navigating new terrain.  It’s unsettling, this new place, and it calls forth an oddly tireless exhaustion, driven by the grief that is moving into my soul.  A grief in limbo. A larger grief is yet to come, but it has begun its insidious arrival.

Uncle Bobby is still here, but not in the same way.

I already miss the recliner chair that he spent too much time in this long winter. It’s emptiness nicks at me each time I walk into his apartment.   I don’t like the hospital bed in his room.  I wait impatiently for him to give me some indication that he is coming to peace.  Instead, he seems defeated, agitated, and so very tired.  His voice has lost its deep timbre, and today, as he tried to articulate I saw only exasperation in his attempt to moisten his own lips.

“I’m sorry for this baby talk.  It’s all I have.”

No need for apologies, unless they are from the Good Lord to whom Uncle Bobby gives a nod every day.  I want an apology from the Good Lord for stealing this more than good man’s dignity.  I confess that I don’t understand this painful part of taking one’s leave. I want the Good Lord to cease the lessons of suffering and get on with the redemption already.  Uncle Bobby deserves no less.

There is a philosophical query many of us casually engage in​ while we still have our physical and mental health: Would you rather lose your mind or body first?

I am now very sure of the answer.  Take my mind, Good Lord, I could not bear to watch the decay of my body with full faculty.

There is nothing of Uncle Bobby’s body that hasn’t been assaulted.  It is bruised from head to toe, just from shifting in his bed or the caring manipulations of nurses while they bath and change him.  His eyes need warm compresses to alleviate a building film, and reading even the menu of food that he will ultimately just push around his plate with his fingers is futile.  The fingers and the food?   His flattened hands have lost all fine motor skills. He can no longer draw  a plastic cup to his lips to drink with  regular success.  He tries and tries, and spills and spills.  His legs have not borne his weight in three months, his toes are riddled with open cuts threatening infection.  Bed sores spread on his back and bottom as he perseverates about a relentless itch that is a symptom of the overall breakdown of his skin.

He does have his hearing, though.  He can hear loud and clear.  His hearing is so acute that he can hear every creak in the building.  His hearing often interrupts his sleep.

In a rare late-night visit this week to meet a new overnight caregiver,  I was audience to the “sun downing” people  make reference to in the elderly.  As I spoke to Yolanda, his 11-7 guardian, I heard Uncle Bobby’s voice, not calling to anyone, but speaking in sure sentences.  I quietly entered his room to see his right hand gesticulating in the air while he gave what appeared to be a speech.  His voice was sure and strong, his eyes open, but not awake.

“The Congress needs to meet with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Not just the heroes, but those who suffered as well.  Our country must hear from all good men who served……”

Suddenly, Uncle Bobby is Jimmy Stewart and I am observing a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, and it is entrancing.  Uncle Bobby’s mind is busy, racing in the night.  He has things to say, opinions to voice.  He is a patriot, a World War II Veteran of the South Pacific who suffered in ways we will never know, and at night when his world is quieter he says what he has wanted to say for a lifetime.  He is too much of a gentleman to foist his humble opinion on others in the light of day.  A gentleman who is not yet ready to let go.

Sometime this winter I thought June it would a good time to grab a getaway on the coat tails of my daughter’s summer college experience.  While she studies in Savannah, I’ll steal away to Charleston and try it on for future fit.   What’s a week when I haven’t been away for more than 48 hours at a clip in nearly two years?  Historic Southern charm seemed like a great idea to get the reboot I need. I root for the ocean, Spanish Moss and the sweet smell of magnolia to ease my concern that maybe this liberal Northeasterner might be “too much” for the gentile South.  It’s my year of my reinvention, right?

Let’s put a pause on that, shall we?

Tonight I decided to abbreviate that trip.  72 hours is all I suspect I can stand to be away from Uncle Bobby’s journey.  Even that will be a challenge. I will settle my daughter in and get back to the business of Bobby.  It is the only thing that makes sense to me on this night of a nearly full moon.

They’ll be time for re-imagination galore at the end of his journey.  I’m on his time for the time being.  He is frightened and I am his constant.  I can try on Charleston any ol’ time.

The journey?  Well, the sands have picked up pace in the hourglass.

As for the Good Lord, I confess that despite my religious pause, I can’t quite seem to shake the old Catholic out of my soul. The Good Lord might want to take a listen right now.

“I need you to get busy with the business of Bobby, help him find peace and quiet his extraordinary mind.  It’s time for an assist, Good Lord.”

The assist is well earned.