A Random Cardinal

These days, there is always some random something lurking around every twist in the road that can flip the switch that allows grief to flood through me like a downpour.

Today, as I drove home from work, it was a cardinal that flew in front of my car as I navigated down the same street I drive every day. In fact, I was enjoying the routine of the drive. I was relishing the late afternoon light brought in by the weekend’s time change. I was enjoying the snow-less ground with its brown grass and scattered leaves left over from autumn, as it seemed it would be only hours before the landscape is once again buried under the heavy weight of winter’s last hurrah. (It’s almost spring, I have to remind myself. It won’t last long.)

But then it appeared—the cardinal. The vivid red bird flew across my path, dipping slightly as it crossed the road and disappeared into a row of bushes. My breath caught as I was simultaneously reminded that spring is near and that Dad is not. He would have noticed that bird before I did. “Look, at that cardinal!” he’d say, pointing. Sometimes it would be an oriole, or a bluebird, or a redwing blackbird. He always had a keen, birds-eye view that spotted them first.

It was that bird that brought the tears today—a random cardinal on a sunny Monday at the end of winter. While spring may bring the promise of new life and increased light, the newness will be intertwined with a million more random somethings just waiting to slip in and spark the grief anew.

{Image credit: FreeImages.com / Mike Munchel}

Memories

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I have a mug that I have been using all winter for my morning coffee. It made its way from the back of the cabinet right after Thanksgiving, and I have been using it ever since. Supposedly, it’s a Christmas mug, but in truth, there isn’t much about it that screams Christmas. Aside from the wreath on the door of the house in the background, it is more of a winter mug. Which is a good thing because I’m having a tough time putting it away this year.

When I was little and winters were snowy, we would spend hours playing outside in the snow. We built snowmen and snow forts and entire houses with room upon room upon room on top of the snow banks in the parking lot across the street. Our fingers and toes would be numb, and it would be dark outside before we finally retreated to the warmth and light of the house. Or we’d wait until Dad got home from work and we had to go in for dinner….

These memories are why this mug has always reminded me of home. But this year, especially, it reminds me. When we were little, Dad would take us sledding on one of several different hills in town. We would load the sleds in the back of the car (or the back of the truck) and off we’d go. Dad built snowmen with us, sometimes adding an extra couple of snowballs for ears and noses and calling them snow bears, families of them, at times, populated our yard.

This year, winter has been a challenge, and I’m not ready to put away my Christmas mug. So I’m calling it a winter mug. This mug, it’s keeping me centered. It’s giving me pause to sigh and remember the good times. Remember Dad.

So if you see me using what looks like a Christmas mug in the middle of the summer, just let it go. I’m reliving some good times. And holding tight to some memories.

Music

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I’m not a fan of silence. In fact, I love listening to music. Or actually… I used to love listening to music. Recently, I have had to switch to talk radio. I have NPR blaring through the car speakers as I drive to work and back home again. The talk show hosts drone on and on and on about politics, the transition of power, the issues facing the present administration. Truth: I’m getting pretty sick of talk radio.

I used to enjoy listening to music. Usually on my way home from work, if not on my way to work, I would listen to music rather than NPR. I listened to music when I arrived home at night while I was preparing dinner. And I listened to music as I completed household chores.

However, when my sister and I were tasked with finding music for Dad’s service, the new reality of music became very clear. An entire song, a tiny line, a wistful melody, the dreamy intonation of the singer… any one of these things could turn on the tears like a switch.

Now, navigating a collection of songs is like walking through a minefield. A song will come on and I will be fine. The next song, and the next will not be a problem. Buried in the album, a line will be sung, and I will dissolve—suddenly and completely—into a puddle of tears. I never knew how swiftly these feelings could come and sweep me up into the tide of emotion.

And then subside just as quickly.

I used to enjoy listening to music; it would keep me company and drown out my own thoughts. But perhaps at least for now, I am better off listening to the sound of silence.

Tissues

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These days, I don’t venture far from home without tissues in my pocket or somewhere on my person. I never know when the tears will start, either just enough to spill out of my eyes, or an entire flood. It might be sparked by a song that I hear playing on the radio or the sound system of the mall; I might see an elderly man in the grocery store who has a similar posture and gait to Dad, or a young father with his child; or I might catch a glimpse of a rainbow in the sky.

So tissues. I have one or two tissues in all of my pockets, travel packs in my purse, full-sized packages in my car. And I have been pretty good about checking pockets before I do the laundry. (It’s a habit I started after one too many crayons slipped through undetected before they melted in the dryer, ruining an entire load of clothing ….)

Sunday night, I washed the down jacket I have been wearing every day, and I threw in a couple of new shirts that J had recently acquired. I checked the pockets of my jacket, but somehow, a tissue slipped just beyond my touch and escaped notice.

When I opened the lid of the washing machine, I was immediately aware of my oversight. Fluffy shreds of tissue clung to the clothing, stuck there by dampness and deep tissue magic—the kind that doesn’t let go.

A faint scent of detergent wafted from the clothes as I painstakingly picked at the pieces of tissue. I sighed. The fragile fibers so effective at wiping away tears were no match for the washing machine. But I’m pretty sure this is not the last time I’ll learn that lesson.

To-do List…

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My brain is like a sieve. It is capable of trapping some things and holding on to them, but most things slip right out like sand through your fingers.

There are many things I need to do. Appointments need to be made. Thank you notes need to be written. Expressions of sympathy need to be acknowledged. Thoughts need to be conveyed. And these are all things that have to be done now rather than someday down the road. I have to work them in amongst the daily bustle of my already jam-packed life.

So… I made a to-do list. The other night while I was getting ready for bed, I took a Post-it note and stuck it on my bathroom counter. As I thought of things I needed to do, I wrote them down. I listed the appointments, the people who need thank you notes, all of the extra pieces that need to be addressed. And now, it would seem I’m organized, on top of things, and ready to get things done.

If I could only remember where I left that to-do list….

Grief

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As the year began, it was my goal to blog more than last year, and I started out well. But the roller coaster of life took over. Suddenly, like so many friends and acquaintances my age, I experienced the unexpected loss of my father, and I am now navigating the uneven waters of grief.

These waters are thick and heavy, fighting against me as I press forward, day by day, moving ahead with life. I cling to the things I recognize in a life that will now and forever be different.

My journey through these waters is slow and difficult. The current is unpredictable, and the undertow often grabs me and pulls me under when I least expect it, waiting for me to thrash and fight.

Then, just as suddenly, it lets go, and I float to the surface, able to catch my breath—at least for a moment. But by the end of the day, I am exhausted from battling these waves as they come and go only to come again.

Some days, I feel as though I will never write again, and other days, I feel as if I start writing, I will never stop. Writing for me is a necessity—a place to find sense and peace and light.

Grief is where I’ve been hiding, but in time, I am hoping to blog more this year….

The Things that are Missing…

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At that university where I work, I meet with student writers from all walks and backgrounds. I mainly meet with undergraduate writers, but I also work with students who are professionals in the midst of careers—returning to school for professional development or to get a degree. And then there are the graduate students who range in age from 22 to 92.

Recently, I met with a woman who was an acquaintance of mine in a former iteration of my life—years ago when I was single and worked a different job. She is in a demanding graduate program, she works full time, and she deals with the every day stresses and curve-balls of life that we all deal with.

She was struggling. Her professor had told her that her final essay could end her participation in the program; she was under more pressure than usual, and she was taking it out on herself. Briefly, she let me in on the frustrations she had with the class—the only class in which she had struggled in the program thus far. Now, she felt the need to put exactly the right words on the page, which is never good for the writing process; she was over-editing because she felt under-confident.

I asked her how many classes she had completed in the program. Seven. And then I reminded her that she had seen me two years earlier—when she had first started her program—feeling almost exactly the same way. And I reminded her that she hadn’t seen me since. “What is it about these two classes that stripped you of your confidence?” I asked her.

Her response had nothing to do with school. She mentioned the loss of a loved one several years earlier; the holiday season without that person; the stresses of her work; a birthday celebration that needed to happen in the midst of everything else. And the pressure to finish this one last paper.

Often at this time of the year, we are too able to focus on what’s missing. The longing for what is missing blurs the present and what we have. And sometimes, we don’t even consciously recognize that we are struggling with loss or stress or the need to be everything to everyone.

And so I say this: be gentle with yourself, not just at this time of year, but always. You are not alone. We are all in this together. Chances are, if you are willing to say, “You know what? I am struggling today,” someone will step in to offer support and to lift you up.