Upon returning home from an idyllic two-week trip to my favorite place, Chautauqua , I was met by a frantic puppy with sharp little teeth, loads of laundry, work to catch up on, and a world in upheaval. Being the highly sensitive person that I am–a middle-aged goober who can feel overwhelmed in crowds or when witnessing conflict–it all seemed too much. So yesterday I concentrated on the basics: Take a shower, make at least a little progress on an editorial assignment, and keep the two appointments I had scheduled. I’m glad I did, as I’m always made better when I get up and go, even if the movement is slight, like a short walk through my neighborhood. As evening settled over Nashville, I headed for my gratitude journal. This practice of stopping and taking stock both reassures and renews me, and I can get off center fairly easily if I don’t do it. Honoring that which matters is a sacred act.
To wit: Friends who didn’t freak out when I met them for lunch and said, “Good to see you. I may cry while we eat.” Instead, they offered, “Go ahead. We might, too.” The three of us are in that stage of life where we’ve lost—or our losing—our parents; our health is throwing us curve balls; and we’re letting go of some time-bound dreams while still pursuing the ones we care about the most. We are doing the best we can, and we are not giving up even if we have to slow down a bit and order salads instead of cheeseburgers.
In my younger days, I probably thought “good enough” meant I wasn’t living up to my potential, or that I was settling. At this stage of my life, I know it means the freedom and self-assurance to live well, without comparison to others’ accomplishments or accumulations, without wondering “Would my life have been better if…?”
So on this day, I’m thankful for a good therapist, the playfulness of said frantic puppy with the sharp little teeth, a husband who knows how to cook, my writing partner who sat across from me for three hours as we wrote our hearts out, and this amazing sky.
It is good enough and plenty.
P.S. What are you grateful for, at this very minute?
On one hand, it might not look like much, for it’s just a picture of me in my favorite hat. And for those of you who know how much I loathe having my picture made, I’m actually okay with this one. Because it’s not about image; it’s about a dream come true.
Last week I had the honor of leading a writing workshop at the Chautauqua Institution (“The Language of Loss: Putting Grief into Words”). Since first stepping foot on that magical spot some twenty years ago I’ve known it would change my life. And it has.
I’ve learned a lot about subjects ranging from history to religion; made friends; eaten really good food at the Brick Room and the White Inn in nearby Fredonia, New York; heard Garrison Keillor, Carol Channing, and Salman Rushdie, to name just a few; wandered small towns with names like Ashville and Westfield and thereby come to love a part of the country I hadn’t known before. All that has been great. But now, now the best part is that I got to commune with creative-soulfuls for a week, people who were willing to write their hearts out with a stranger.
Each day we came, gathering around the table in an unairconditioned room in a former elementary school turned community center. We brought our pens and our journals and our deep-down stories. We opened the windows, turned on the fans, and wrote. In so doing, we formed a community where it was safe to tell our stories without fear of critique, or judgment, or comparison. No one cared about split infinities or potential for publication or increasing blog followers.
Instead, our concern was forming a kindred-spirit container for the sacred act of sharing those stories we don’t often get to talk about, the ones from the gut, the ones that hurt. Those writers were brave, and considerate, and willing. They were “good with words” and lovely with one another. I was inspired, humbled, and made grateful. Thank you, Chautauqua, for the experiences and the memories, yes. But especially the people.
Writing Prompt: What step can you take today, this very minute, toward realizing one of your dreams? I’ll set the timer for 20 minutes. Go!
We buried my father’s body fourteen years ago this week. His spirit remains. I feel him in my heart, daily. And I sense him other times, too, like when I’m reading late into the night or eating smoked salmon, two preferences we shared. I miss him still, but not like those awful, slow, days of early grieving. Now I can think of him without bursting into tears, or wonder what he might say to me without breaking down. So on these final days of September, I remember him not so much with sadness, but ever-increasing gratitude.
Something in me, something big, wanted to speak at Daddy’s funeral. Maybe it’s because I knew he liked a personal approach, contrasted with a funeral we attended together in which the preacher made scant mention of the deceased. Maybe it’s because I thought I had something to say. Maybe it’s because it was the last thing I could do for him. Maybe I still needed his approval.
I started writing in my journal almost immediately after my sister called to tell me Daddy was in the hospital. Writing down my thoughts is what I do. The night after he died, I stayed up late, searching the Internet for a poem I had heard “somewhere,” which I thought might be perfect for the eulogy. I did not find the poem, so I simply started writing about what I knew: my love for my father.
“Are you sure you can do this?” my mother asked when she saw me hovered over the computer keyboard, crying. “You don’t have to do this. Your father would understand.”
“Yes,” I responded, between sobs. “I want to do it.” And even though I cried through each practice run in the living room, I was able to deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral without shedding a tear. Only at the bitter end, when I looked down at his coffin and said the final words did I choke.
After the soloist sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and one of the preachers read some Scripture, it was my turn. Here is my Eulogy for Earl.
“As a writer, I imagined myself weaving an eloquent, insightful, and evocative eulogy for my father, making reference to ‘crossing the bar’ and ‘not going gentle’ and such. As a daughter, though, it was tough.
“Then someone said this to me: ‘That Earl was a class act.’ Bingo, I thought. For even if I had had a month to prepare remarks for today, I could not have found the words to do my father justice, this brilliant and precious man who tended me for 39 years.
“If we could find the proper phrasing, my mother would speak of a husband who provided her with a ‘blessed union of souls,’ of a soulmate who said, ‘Just give me fifty years with you, Martha,’ and got fifty-two. I think Earl’s brother, Bob, would try to articulate how much Earl meant to him growing up, as they lost their father at a young age.
“My sister Ginny would thank Earl for tolerance during her Grateful Dead period, a time we’re all still trying to forget—and for inspiring her to be a caring person first and a productive lawyer second, which she and her husband, Harbour, will strive to continue being in Earl’s memory. Sister Ann would surely mention the friendship between Daddy and her husband, Henry, and the guidance Earl bestowed on his precious grandchildren, Wilson, Lyles, and Martha Grace.
“As for me, I can told you of a person who taught us the importance of standing our ground while finding our way; a man who surmised that orange was not my best color; an intellect who respected the art of soliciting varied opinions; a connoisseur who could choose dry white wines under twelve dollars. A pilgrim who exemplified the true meaning of the word ‘compassion.’
“Just last week a friend sent me this poem, which her son read at her father’s funeral: ‘When I come to the end of the day, and the sun has set for me, I want no rites in a gloom-filled room, why cry for a soul set free? Miss me a little, but not too long, and not with your head bowed low. Remember the love we once shared, miss me but let me go. For this was a journey we all must take, and each must go alone. It’s all part of the Master’s plan, a step on the road to home. When you are lonely and sick at heart, go to the friends we know, and bury your sorrows in doing good deeds, miss me but let me go.’
“Earl had several requests for his funeral: he knew the preacher, he knew the songs and the soloist, and for some reason he requested, and I quote him here: ‘sufficient wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ I’m not sure what ‘gnashing’ means, really, but I’ve always been the obedient type, so I can assure you that the wailing has commenced.
“One friend and peer said this about Earl upon hearing of his death: ‘Earl Wilson’s life cast a long shadow. He personified visionary leadership combined with concern for his fellow man in everything he undertook. I was blessed to have known him as a colleague, as a mentor, and as a friend.’
“You think you were blessed, I thought. We got to be his girls.
“My family was comforted beyond measure today by your presence. Since the second this happened to us, we have been relying on the kindness of friends and the steadfastness of our God. And for those of us who are Christians, this cannot be viewed as a tragedy. My father was an amazing man who lived an extraordinary life.
This is my family’s second Mother’s Day since Mother’s diagnosis of dementia. And it’s the first one that caused me to hesitate and wonder, “Do I send her a card?” Whereupon I immediately felt sad, and guilty, and utterly unsure of myself. Who questions whether to send their mother, a much beloved woman, a card?
Last year we were all on auto pilot, I guess, trying to keep everything as normal as possible. This year I cannot deny how much things have changed for us. I wasn’t concerned that Mother might forget reading the card minutes after she opened it. I was worried that she might have forgotten me.
It’s one of the things that scares my sisters and me most, that our mother might not know us one day. “Don’t borrow trouble,” friends advise, and I try not to, even though I’ve spent much of my life doing just that, long before things went wonky with Mother. (I won’t bore you with all the things I’ve worried about that never came to pass. You can thank me later.) It may be that Mother will recognize us until the day she dies. But the very real possibility that she won’t pops up now and again.
I’m the youngest of three daughters. No sons. My sisters are ten and seven years my senior. As a teenager, it didn’t occur to me that I might have been a surprise. Occasionally I noticed that my friends’ parents looked younger than mine—my parents were forty when they had me—but I didn’t resent it or spend too much time trying to figure out what it might mean for my future. I liked hanging out with adults, and I grew up wanting to be older. I wasn’t scared of middle age; I longed for it. In so doing, I suspect I missed out on some youthful—and perhaps necessary—experiences. But it suited me, this way of being brought up.
“We treated you like you were thirty from the time you were six years old,” my father would joke.
On a ferry from Wood’s Hole to Martha’s Vineyard some twenty-five years ago, I asked my mother if I had been a mistake. I don’t know what made me pose the question then, but it was one of those moments of deep connection in which nothing seems off limits. We were two women on a road trip from Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, to New England. We’d toured the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, shopped for antiques in Connecticut, and were now bound for the Black Dog Bakery.
“Of course not,” she said, facing into the wind. Then there passed one beat of silence, two. If I were telling you this story in person I would snap my fingers twice for effect.
“But if you were,” she added, turning to look me straight on, “you were the best mistake I ever made.”
I did send the card, the day before I read this, written by a woman I worked with in another lifetime, Paula Spencer Scott. She hired me for my first gig out of graduate school, working for Whittle Communications, which I count as one of the highlights of my career. Now she’s an accomplished writer and a contributing editor over at Caring.com, and she’s had family members with dementia and Alzheimer’s. When suggesting things to do for your loved one with memory issues, Scott advises, among other things, to “Keep giving cards. She might not remember opening it five minutes later, but so what? What matters is delighting her in the moment.” (www.huffingtonpost.com)
I’m learning a lot about that these days, being “in the moment.” Spending time with Mother brings it all to the here and now. When you’re holding your ninety-two-year-old mother’s hands, noticing how much the pinky on your right hand resembles hers, both now crooked with arthritis, and telling her the same story you just told her a half hour earlier, it anchors you to this very minute. It’s all we’ve got anyway, right? So I will sit, and I will listen, and I will love.
Copyright Hamblett House LLC. Photo of Amy Lyles Wilson by Martha Grace Gray Photography.