Grief, Like a Woman

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My friend died yesterday.

Now I find myself in the kitchen, ready to bake an apple pie to bring up to her family, which includes her husband, homebound with a debilitating disease.  My tiny and slight friend had cancer, and in spite of dealing with that and caring for her husband, she’d been in a good place.  A few weeks ago, she threw a party to thank all her women friends who gathered around her during the last year, drove her to appointments, brought food, and created a web of support during this challenging time. She called the party, So Far, So Good.

The apples I’ll use are the ones my husband and I gathered from the heritage apple trees at a local land preserve.  My friend served on the local land trust with my husband, and loved this particular preserve.  My husband called her the “welcome naysayer”  on the board.  That’s the kind of person she was: she saw things clearly, and wasn’t afraid to say so.

 I pull out the pie plate, gather the flour and butter.  Then I notice the stovetop is dirty, so I clean it.  The rings around the burners are spotted with black, so I remove them, and grab an SOS pad.  As I replace them, the stainless steel teapot, covered in a film of grease, catches my eye.  I never clean it.  Now I scour it until it shines.  I remember when we had to put down Abby, our first Springer Spaniel.  The vet was kind enough to come here.  It happened so quickly, they go so quickly, you know, once that needle goes in, they’re gone.  And then they took her away, zipped in a black bag.  My husband left for work, and I was suddenly alone.  I called a friend, crying, “I don’t know what to do.  She said, “Clean out a closet.”  And somehow it helped.

So I finish the stove, then tackle the sink and the dish drainer.  Grief, like all strong emotions, carries a physical energy. As my hands move from one task to the next, I think about all the women who cleaned through their grief.  I think about my mother, who was a cleaning fanatic, and how much grief and loss she may have scrubbed through.  Not just the grief of death, but the grief of life itself, the grief of loss and disappointment, of needs unmet and wishes unfulfilled.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and for a moment experienced the utter blackness of how death might feel.  I wondered how it was for my friend, in those final moments. I hope she went quickly. 

She’d become so thin.  Snall and slim to begin with, the chemo had worked her down to bones.  When you hugged her, there was nothing to hug, no padding on her skeleton.  But she glowed.  During her last year she grabbed onto life tighter than ever, she appreciated everything. The sickness brought her a radiance that I hadn’t seen in the few years I’d known her.

The cleaning calms me.  I can bake the pie now. My husband will peel the apples we picked.  I will fill that pie with all the love and compassion I can.  As I make it, I will think of my friend.  I will remember her tiny hands that could do anything: knit, sew, garden, edit.  She was both an editor and writer, had a meticulous mind able to deal with intricate detail with an envious ease. She designed her own knitting patterns, edited cookbooks, knit and sewed for the Muppets. At our monthly knitting group, when one of us had a problem with a knitting project, she would say, “Here, let me,” and fix it in a flash.  She was a wizard that way, a wizard with her hands.

My friend was elegant, savvy, and private, with a wide circle of interesting and intelligent friends.  Until she became sick a year ago, she took care of her husband single-handedly.  Last summer, I helped her clean out the garage in the house she had just sold.  Later, we drove over to her friend’s house to see the gardens.  

In the car afterwards, I commented on the friend’s high energy and the lovely design of the gardens.  “She’s one of us,” my friend said, and although I didn’t know exactly what membership in that club meant, I was content to be considered worthy of inclusion.

Only Connect!

Only Connect

Only Connect!
                               - E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
     On a Friday evening I pull into the local pizza place. Parked next to me is a car with three passengers: a young mother in the front seat, her smart phone in her hand, her eyes on the screen. Two children are in the back. A four-year-old is in a car seat with a small digital pad in her hands, fingers pressing the screen. An older boy, maybe seven, sits next to her, absorbed in a digital tablet.
     It’s a summer evening, the air beginning to cool, the light still transparent at 7:30. Their windows are open, as are mine.  I turn off my car and wait a few moments, glancing over, seeing if I might catch their eye. Their eyes remain locked on their screens. Not only do they not notice me, they do not interact with each other.
     I walk into the pizza place. A few minutes later when I return, they are gone, and the opportunity for connection has vanished.
Hand-held Hostage
     Where is the shared experience in that family’s car? When the father came out with the pizza, did they put down their devices down and speak to him? Did they notice the aroma of the pizza, anticipate its taste, talk to each other? Or did they remain hostage to their hand-held devices? Who are they connecting with, if not with the people that are with them in the car? What will the memory of that moment be, or will there even be one? And if so, where will it be stored? On a digital server somewhere?  (See Huff Post Article on Why Hand Held Devices for Children Should Be Banned)
     I held out getting my own smart phone until last year. My husband and I had “dumb phones” (flip phones) until we could justify the expense. Once we converted, we were hooked. I am now guilty of checking my emails and Facebook an unnecessary amount of times during the day. It is so easy to do when I’m waiting at the bank drive-up, or riding in the car. I used to interact with the bank tellers more, and watch the passing scenery. Now I have to make a conscious effort not to give in to the tug of instant virtual gratification.
Map Queen
     Fourteen years ago, when we first moved to this house, people would stop and ask for directions when I was out walking. It’s easy to get confused on Connecticut country roads because they all look alike: winding, surrounded by woods on both sides, often unmarked by street signs. It wasn’t unusual to see a driver stopped, looking puzzled.
     I’d ask, “Do you know where you’re going? Do you need directions?” Then a conversation would occur, I’d direct them where they needed to go, and commiserate about how easy it is to get lost in these parts.
     Although now I still see people stopped, when I offer help they seem surprised, shake their heads, say “No, I’m just checking my GPS”. I want to say: Wouldn’t you rather talk to a person than a digital interface? Wouldn’t you like to know the shortcut and to avoid that road that is paved at the start but soon turns into a steep, rutted, dirt road that can tear out your car's suspension?
     I have always loved paper maps. In our house I’m known as the Map Queen because I have so many of them stuffed into my car door’s pocket. I throw the road atlas in the back seat whenever we take a trip. I like looking at a map. It brings me into the experience of our route, let’s me know where I am and where I’m going. Yes, I know, it can be seen as a metaphor for wanting to feel grounded and secure and perhaps in need of control, but navigation through this world is fun.
     On a paper map you can see a shortcut, or try a back road, or look, we’re just a few miles from this interesting looking place. With GPS, we follow the voice rather blindly, trusting a digital navigator to guide us. I’m a spiritually oriented person and I love trusting the invisible, but I'm interested in the form of the invisible that arises from within, not from the car dashboard.
Behind the Moon
     Only connect! When E.M. Forster wrote this, he wasn’t addressing the need for social connection, but it has become associated with that in this age of social media. (See New Republic article on context of this quote.)
     If I had to choose one quote to live by, it would be this one. It covers so much: only connect to the moment, to nature, to the deepest part of me, to whatever is presenting in my life, to whatever I’m experiencing, to that person across from me
     When we don’t reach out to a stranger, we diminish our sense of feeling safe in the world, of trusting it to be a generally friendly place.  We are isolated in our vehicles with our GPS, glued to our screens out in the world, frozen in front of the glowing squares in our homes.  How many times have you seen people at the same restaurant table completely ignoring each other while they tend to their lit rectangles?
     The experience of looking someone in the eye and seeing them, physically seeing them, of waiting to hear the answer while studying their face, of thinking of the life behind that face, this is what’s lost when we don’t connect with each other. No matter how much we’ve evolved and understand the physics of our existence and the oneness of everything, we still live and have our being in a physical world. The sensory experience of interacting with another of our species is a sweet, interesting, integral part of being human.
     Which is why we are naturally curious about each other. When I’m standing in the grocery line behind a parent with a baby, I hone right in on that little being. I want to make eye contact because that baby seems to know something that I want to experience again.
     When he was a boy, my husband asked his mother where he was before he was born.
     “Behind the moon,” she told him.
     I think babies may remember that place. When they hook into my gaze and stay with me, I want to go wherever they are going, and for those moments, I am a child again.
     That baby makes me smile, and I’m still smiling when it’s my turn to check out. I make eye contact with the cashier, exchange a few friendly words, and in doing so I acknowledge, however briefly, that we share the same place, the same planet, and that, on some level, we're all in this together. There is no digital equivalent for that kind of connection.