The very long goodbye

It’s taking me a very long time to finish saying goodbye to my parents.

How long?

Mom’s second yahrzeit — the anniversary of her death on the Hebrew calendar — just passed. It’s almost seven years since Dad died.

We gathered in November 2017 to eulogize Mom, mix her ashes with Dad’s, and scatter them in a Florida river. My aunt and cousin sang “On Eagle’s Wings.” I heard another cousin say, as he scattered his cupful of ashes: “Goodbye, good people.”

But I wasn’t done with those good people, so I brought a ziplock bag of ashes home with me. (Pro tip: when traveling with cremains, give TSA a heads-up.) That winter, we scattered a small amount in our neighborhood park. My plan was do it twice more: that spring at Brandywine Creek, one of my favorite childhood spots, and in the summer after planting trees in memory of my parents. Four seasons of commemoration and tribute, marking out the year in places that are important to me. Continue reading

The light in the middle of the tunnel

B’orcha yireh or: By your light, we will see light.
—Psalm 36

I love it when a blog post starts writing itself in my head. I’ll interrupt what I’m doing—sometimes even my morning prayers—to scribble some notes. Once I dictated most of a draft on my phone while walking in the park.

But sometimes I have only a phrase or an image, with no clear notion of what I want to say and, crucially, no idea how to start the post. Having a good opening (the “lede,” as we call it in journalism) is like kicking off from the swimming pool wall: it feels smooth and powerful, and the momentum can carry me a long way.

House in Fog
“House in Fog,” Francisca Verdoner Kan, 2007

This post started without a lede. The phrase above from Psalm 36—B’orcha yireh or: by your light, we will see light—struck me months ago during my morning prayers. What does it mean? It seems redundant, circular, absorbing the light of inquiry rather than revealing itself.

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The raveled sleeve of care

Two months ago, my mother drew her last, labored breath. I woke up this morning from a brutal, punishing dream with a brutal, punishing headache that hasn’t let up.

And yet, I am writing: scribbling in my journal, typing on my laptop. Writing poems, or bits of them — a dangerous pastime, given that I really don’t know how to write poetry. Everything I’ve written today is about loss, and grief, and fear — mostly fear of loss and grief.

I also fear failure. But in a fit of recklessness — or, let’s call it, freeing myself from perfectionism — I’ve decided to post this one.

What We Wanted
An alma mater sweatshirt,
ash and rust, scarcely worn: Carnegie Tech detail
Dad made his own warmth.

After he died
I took a year to claim it, gingerly,
from the closet of leftovers
nobody wanted.

I wanted.

Once redeemed
it hugged me through four long, bitter
New England winters. Then:
an elbow hole. This spring the hole
blossomed and grew,
leaving more hole
than sleeve.

Sorely worn. But still I wear it.

Now the closets are empty.
We took what we wanted,
gave away the rest.

A painting, some muu muus.
A raveled sleeve.

Who will redeem this hole?

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

Though my father and mother forsake me

Though my father and my mother forsake me,
The Lord will gather me in.

These plaintive lines help usher in Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year. As we prepare for the new year through reflection and self-examination, we recite Psalm 27 daily. It’s a masterpiece of hope and yearning and soul-rattling fear, bravely masquerading as faith.

Five years ago, Elul arrived just two weeks after my father’s sudden death. Those lines evoked my pain, my feeling of abandonment.

Rear Window 1958
My parents, Rita and Ray Smith, in 1958. May their memories be for a blessing.

In the past couple of years the bereftitude receded, and I could focus on other parts of the psalm. But I knew that eventually, my mother would also have to leave the land of the living.

That time came this summer.

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Season of return

Elul arrived on my doorstep this year with unwelcome baggage.

The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul is a time for reflection, for looking back on the past even as we look ahead to the coming new year. It’s the season of return. That’s the literal meaning of t’shuva, the seasonal theme usually translated as repentance.

leaves

As summer turned toward fall, as the earth turned away from the sun, as leaves turned brown and lifeless, I felt a deep sense of loss. That was four weeks ago. Now Elul itself is ending, turning toward Rosh Hashana and the month of Tishrei. And the sadness remains.

In the past four years I have lost so much: my father, my good health, my energy, my self-image as a competent, hard-working person who can be relied upon to do what needs doing.

This new year of 5777 starts out as another year of health problems, another year of not knowing exactly what is wrong or what will fix it. Another year of fatigue and muscle pain, anxiety and disrupted sleep. Another year of unpredictable ups and downs. Another year—the beginning of Year Five—of diminished capacity and diminished self-image. Another year of not feeling like myself.

But my self is more than a bundle of health problems. This season of introspection calls me to step back from my frustration and notice what has changed, what has gotten better, not just what remains challenging and discouraging.

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Poems for my father

I haven’t written poetry since I was a child. (Birthday doggerel doesn’t count.) And I don’t often remember my dreams. But a few weeks ago, I dreamed about my father. A few days later, I found myself thinking about the dream in what seemed like a poetic form. So I wrote it.

A few days after that, a second poem emerged. Coming amid a drought of creative energy, they felt like gifts from some inner oasis.

Where Dad Lived

At first it was the same old dream:
classes unattended, assignments unbegun.
Then, leaving the school, a footloose ramble on unfamiliar streets,
through an alley, down a green terrace,
around to the front of a house I did not know.
But I knew it was where Dad lived.

Up the steps, through the front door—
and there he lay, on the living room floor. Not dead, not dying,
neither collapsed nor fallen,
yet something was wrong.
He talked about a hospital stay, and what he learned there
about his heart.

On the phone from Florida, he used to tell me about his A fib,
the pacemaker with two leads,
the new one with three.
Lying on the floor of this dream house that I did not recognize,
Dad delivered a report from the heart
about the pain that doesn’t show up on an EKG.

Mom almost didn’t marry him
because he didn’t like poetry.
“Rita!” her friend Barbara chided. “How much time
do you spend reading poetry?”
Mom elaborated:
“He didn’t talk about his feelings.”

Now, three years after she discovered him
lifeless on the bedroom floor,
maybe Dad is beginning to teach me
the poetry that was in his heart.

Sunset

At the end of the week
that was not shiva, I drove my mother
to the funeral home.
She had chosen a canister with a sunset design.
She cradled it in her lap on the way home.

I dropped her at the door
and carried my father
across the parking lot,
by the sparkling fountain,
through the lobby,
past his memorial photo that would be
gone the next day.

“Put it in the bedroom,” Mom said,
“in the corner where I found him.”
There, atop the dresser with his socks and boxers,
I set him down.

So much heavier
than I ever could have imagined.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

Fountain of Sorrow

On the train back from Baltimore the other day, I decided to start editing a bunch of old family photos. I clicked on the tiny icons, not knowing what each picture was until I opened it. There was my grandmother’s cousin George, who just died this summer at age 90, in his Navy uniform from World War II. There was my mother’s Uncle Andy in what looks like a World War I cavalry uniform, complete with riding crop. There were Mom, my siblings, and me on the beach, circa 1967.

It’s good to see your smiling face tonight.
I was jolted by this family photo, with my father on the right. “It’s good to see your smiling face tonight.”

And then, unexpectedly, a much more recent shot: Mom and Dad, gray-haired, standing with Mom’s cousin Peggy, Peggy’s husband, and Mom’s sister. The three women all have their heads tilted in laughter. The men are looking at the camera, also laughing.

I was jolted by this image of my father—alive and happy, his hands on my mother’s shoulders, enjoying himself. Looking not too different from the last time I saw him. My eyes filled with tears. Sometimes the grief still comes without warning, the way his death did three years ago.

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