(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
The Uses of Sorrow – Mary Oliver
Years ago, I was younger and didn’t understand myself, or the bumpy ride of Life I was embarking upon. There was a time when I thought all fathers screamed and made their mothers cry, made their daughters scream back, lost all of their families’ money (repeatedly), and didn’t remember friends’ names. At this same time, I knew the core understanding was that no one was to know what happened in our house. It was like the sitting room in every one of my parents’ houses with its Ethan Allen sofas upholstered in blue, the mahogany coffee table, and the china cabinet, in which no one ever sat. The only time I remember sitting in that room was the day that my mother and my boyfriend Chris’ parents and I and Chris discussed how I had to get an abortion and that was our only option. (It was the best thing, don’t get me wrong, but the approach could have used some work. But then again, what the hell are you going to do when your 15-year-olds end up pregnant? Probably make a lot of mistakes and say the wrong thing.) There was a china set in my parents’ house that was purple with gold metallic rims and I always loved the dishes because purple is my favorite color, but we could never use them because they were so “expensive” then one Christmas in my 20s they were “worth more than you” and then there was a threat to break all of them (from 20 something me) and then one Christmas they were used for a guest who I informed should feel very valuable, and now, after death, are used all the time.
I used to think that all the things that happened in my parents’ house were normal until I became an adult and began to see how other peoples’ families worked. For some reason, as a child, I didn’t or couldn’t see it as clearly as I could as an adult.
My dad died in November of 2021 after a very short burst of a battle with lung cancer. As he died, my mom became extremely angry at him, at everything probably, and lashed out a lot. He died very quickly, 9 days after he was admitted to the hospital which was just a few days after being diagnosed. I had forgiven him before he died, partially as a by-product of COVID (we couldn’t see each other for almost two years) and partially as an effect of years of therapy including CBT and EMDR.
Beth died in November of 2022, the same week as my dad a year before. I can hear her laughing at me right now and rolling her eyes at me as I type about how great she was and how painful it was to lose her. Lately, I have been hearing her laughing and it’s like this twinkle in my heart-mind as if tiny gold bells are jingling together and I can see her laughing at the same time. She would not want me to be sad. It was out of my sadness at losing her that I began to find my way to understanding myself; no doubt this process has actually been cooking on the back burner for years, but the reality is that the grief I have felt and still feel for Beth has been one of my greatest gifts and one that she uniquely could give to me.
I mentioned above that I have been in therapy for years. I have had several therapists but two really are the most significant: my therapist in Ellsworth, Maine, and my therapist here in Austin, Texas. My Maine therapist was my kind of therapist: practical, insightful, focused, and pro-active. She told me when I decided to move back to Texas, to seek out a provider to do CBT next. And so, trusting her, I did. I began to work with my therapist in Austin and we first worked using CBT and then combined it with EMDR and, slowly, ideas began percolating in my heart-mind, and here we are.
This year has been incredibly stressful for me. I am a new assistant principal at a high-needs campus in a small, rural district that doesn’t seem to understand how to find adequate resources to help with serious needs in reading, teacher training, and changing student behavior. They are big fans of Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking”, or so it would seem: they appear to believe that if they just wait it out long enough, solutions will appear and they themselves don’t need to seek out experts or helpers or research or……anything. I have noticed this year, in moments of desperation, that my mind follows the path built for it during my CBT, and if I close my eyes for a few seconds, I go to the forest up the hill from Duck Brook, the location I chose years ago in a therapy session which, even to me, was fairly random because I haven’t even spent that much time there throughout my life, but apparently my heart-mind thinks it is the calmest place I have ever been. Visualizing Duck Brook makes the seething, buzzing stress disappear, calm down, and become manageable.
The other day I was in the bathroom washing my hands and thinking about a friend’s house who I was going to go to on Friday. I was nervous as right now I feel so stressed out that I feel a bit insane, despite knowing this is very temporary, and I wonder if it shows on my face or in my words, or will make people not want to talk to me. A voice in my head said to me, “you don’t have to be perfect all the time”. Wow! Really? And I said, wow! Really? It’s working! My messages to myself, in my heart-mind, are changing.
How does this connect to losing Beth and having my heart squished, smashed, twisted, and transformed with grief? Last weekend two friends and I talked about how we could hear her laughing all day. It was magical and funny. Lucy and I talked about how we felt that she was becoming a part of us like her spirit is living inside our body and that’s how we can hear her and feel her all over the place. I told her that last Saturday I kept thinking I would turn around and she would be sitting next to me. I love this idea of processing loss as a process of transforming with the person, and I love the words shared with me by my coworker Mr. Moore who assured me those we love don’t want us to be sad.
I remember one trip to the coast we were in Port Lavaca, walking along its dirty in-town beaches looking for a roseate spoonbill skull or a pelican skull or both (skulls were the main focus of those trips) and we found this tiny vegetarian or vegan restaurant on one of the shore roads. It was in an old Victorian house and had a traveler-esque caravan in the front yard. We sat on a couch in front of the bay window that looked out to the ocean and found a copy of “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay in the stacks of reading material. We were waiting for our fancy teas (or smoothies? I can’t remember) to be ready and she told me the story of Louise Hay and her belief that past traumas can “live” in the body and make you sick and how she believed you could heal yourself, and how she loved her because of what she did for gay men in the 1980s who were dying of AIDS and made them feel better and that it wasn’t their fault what had happened. I knew then that Louise Hay’s ideas had made a huge impression on Beth and that they had informed a lot of what she thought in terms of keeping her cancer at bay, which she was able to do for almost 15 years.
Beth was blessed because she was a blessing and was loved by many people. Some of them helped her change her life away from how she had grown up in Oklahoma (something about her early life she fundamentally decided she had to change), brought her to Texas, and helped her feel a sense of functional, supportive family, something she had never had. She began to learn about possibility and began to repeat the teachings shared with her by that family’s father figure, Mr. Rusque.
Throughout our friendship, Beth taught me a lot about living, not be afraid of dying, and being honest and present with oneself and with others; to not judge but also not judge oneself too harshly. These lessons sank in, slowly, despite my stubbornness and fear (the fear probably will linger forever, it is in there deep), and I think she was speaking to me last weekend when I heard that message about not having to be perfect. When she was alive, I heard her say the things she said, I heard her reflect on her life and her death, I listened to her reflect on people and laugh at things that had happened and never try to force anything to happen one way or another, but just to be delightful and loving and funny and extremely beautifully dressed.
In death, in transforming my heart, in creating a space within it in which she will always live, I can hear her words, clear as tinkling golden bells, and I can begin to take them to heart. It is an amazing feeling to feel someone so deeply, to miss them so much, to have them so close. It is the best way I can honor her, to hear her speaking, to hear myself speaking, to practice what I have learned in therapy and in life, and to move forward. She liked to say during the last few months about how she was getting out before it all fell apart. Little did she know she wasn’t leaving, not really. She was giving herself to us.