Jacqui

Jacqui, dear Jacqui, I’ve been thinking about you all week, and I know others much closer to you have thought of you every minute of every day. We all miss you so much, and wished you could have been there last weekend at the church where we gathered and wept waterfalls of tears into tissues and baby blankets and onto our dresses and shirts.

Many of those gathered to say good-bye got up to talk about you, about how magnetic your laugh was, how quick your humour, how you lit up the room. They reminded us that just as you loved intensely, you felt many things intensely, not just the positive. They talked about the wisdom you embodied, wisdom that went beyond your years.

I felt honoured to be there with those who called you daughter, sister, cousin, niece, friend. I felt thankful for the conversations we’d had in recent months, conversations that mostly revolved around mutually understood pain, uncertainty, heartbreak, medication side effects, cancer, and sometimes crayons and colouring books. jacqui blog pic

When I confessed to you that I often referred to you simply as my niece rather than explaining to everyone I was actually a step-aunt, and asked if you minded, you energetically told me that of course you didn’t, silly me! So kind, always, that was you.

My heart broke on Saturday for those who held you in your first hours here on earth and resolved to protect you from this world, and who heart-brokenly admitted there is sometimes little protection to offer. My heart broke for everyone who loved you in a million ways, and managed, through their choking tears, to tell the rest of us more about you, about the many ways you inspired and enriched them.

Before you left, you told us, clearly and eloquently in that well-read blog post, that life isn’t too short, that our lives are exactly as long as they should be. You told one of your friends that you’d enjoyed more joy and love than many who live to be 90, and how could that be something to complain about? I want to live with that kind of gratitude.

Still my heart broke simply for the seeming senselessness of a life snuffed out at 28 years. The faces of my now-grown babies came into sharp focus, and I privately allowed myself honesty: I know that believing our lives aren’t too short is essential to making peace with our imminent death, but today I can’t fathom how any of us will ever feel that your life wasn’t too short.

How well you prepared those closest to you for this day though. How beautifully they talked about it. I’m positive you listened in, and that you were happy with the humour that came through the grief. I’m positive you enjoyed us walking through your favourite park the next day, stopping at all your favourite spots to say good-bye and let you go once again, into the sky, back to the earth, to a time and place outside of this one. I’m positive you enjoyed us eating those ice-cream cones you’d so brilliantly and generously thought ahead to buy for us because you wanted us to end our getting together this weekend with pleasure too, not only tears.

I left resolving anew to live as fully as you did, to honour body and soul, to embrace rest as well as productivity, pain as well as sorrow. I want to milk life, and by that I don’t mean I have a bucket list or that I need to travel or that every day is a party. By that I mean I want to live with gratitude, whether I’m energized or tired, happy or sad, whether I’m reading or streaming TV, doodling or cooking or cleaning, whether I’m alone or enjoying family and friends. Whether my husband is next to me or not, whether my beautiful children’s faces or voices are nearby or not. Whether I’m laughing or my heart is breaking.

Still, I felt grumpy yesterday, really grumpy, and felt shame around it, because it was trivial grumpiness: traffic, and medications, and sore muscles, and neuropathy, and other components of everyday life. I felt my irritability was a failure of my resolve to live with gratitude.

But this morning I see it more clearly again: gratitude and irritability aren’t mutually exclusive. Life is irritating and terrifying and heartbreaking as often as it is lovely, and often at the same time. And underneath the irritation, I found intense feelings around life and death, around my dear friend’s current pain, and my daughter’s, and around the uncertainty with my own cancer. And I remembered that though we often feel alone with our pain, we’re not, not really. It’s universal.

You dear Jacqui, showed us all this beautifully. And this, young as you were when you left us, makes you our teacher, our guru. Your life reminded us that life is a messy and wonderful gift, and though I’ve often said these words, I plan to know this ever more deeply.

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Some Things that Matter to me on this Good Friday Morning

This is for me, but also for a few others in my sightline right now—wonderful and courageous human beings whose little spot of earth they travel has buckled or narrowed or just shifted dramatically beneath their feet.

A story matters to me—a good one. One in full colour, one that includes reality and hope and courageous girls and boys, throngs of them. Courageous men and women too, men and women unafraid of speaking their truth on behalf of the marginalized. A story that transcends this moment, these bodies, our fears, one that is captured in the word Love.

Peace matters, everywhere of course, but right now I mean peace with myself, body and soul.

A blanket matters, and having an extra to share. Pretty things, yes, definitely. A colouring book, sunlight through the window, gold sparkle on hand-stitched medicine pouches, a blossom through the green.

medicinepouchCreative energy matters. The freedom to capture the things that matter, and then paint them, make something with them, love someone with them, or be on the receiving end of that creative love.

Empathy. Being able to feel the sorrow of another, perhaps even being able to diamond-heart transform it, and then return it
to them as something brighter and lighter and warmer.

Pleasure with which to balance out pain and sorrow. Hot tea. The arm of the man or woman you love on your back. The smile of your son or daughter. Sunshine on your face. Tastes that delight. A friend across the kitchen table. A circle of women with open hearts and ears. Men who have your back, or, depending on the situation, who are unafraid to show their tears. The ability to inspire hope.

Shady forests in which to walk, and which offer up clean air. Lungs in our chests, for cellular respiration and energy. Rich soil, uncontaminated and heavy-metal free, in which to grow plants that nourish and heal. Congee, as the gentlest of healing foods, to transform into muscle and movement.

Agency: Knowing what you need, and having a voice, feeling no shame.

Children. Babies who fill us with hope and laughter, and become children who re-teach us how to play, and then adults who make us thankful and inexplicably wealthy.

Our mothers and grandmothers and mother earth, right behind us, ready to catch us when we falter, our fathers and grandfathers and father sky, stronger and wiser than we once believed. The Universe as an ultimately safe place to land after all. Stories that have room for human beings, difficult emotions, defeat and despair, but also for splashes of light, resurrections, spring equinoxes, Easter Sundays.

Sunnier Days Ahead

I’m too excited about my breakfast and newly recovered fondness for food to stay in bed any longer. What I would sketch right now, if I were an artist, to give you a thousand words at a glance, is this.

My husband is in his robe, wearing the bed-head that makes me smile, his feet up on an ottoman, breakfast smoothie and iPad in hand. I’m at the dining table right behind him, my stout little black laptop (“It’s a BlackBook!”, they excitedly once informed at the Genius Bar), my organic golden-yolk egg-and-parsley breakfast sandwich, my mango smoothie, and my tea next to me, trying (somewhat successfully), to respect the morning quiet he prefers. My senses of taste and smell have stirred to life, and the numbing neuropathy and vibrating, face-plant-inducing weakness have receded enough to permit small adventures in the kitchen. My brain is chatty, animated, in high gear.

I realize that nobody cares all that much about what I’m eating or what it looks like in here this morning. But that’s not at all what this is about. They tell me that those who write or in some other way communicate and document their traumatic experiences as they emerge from them recover more quickly, particularly when they sense somebody is paying attention, so stay with me if you have a moment. And because key elements of it are already logged here, it’s primarily the roller-coaster euphoria that sometimes now emerges that I want to share today, my first steps coming out of the many-week-long, frightening, miserably painful stupor.

Also on the table next to me, I have a large bag of fresh parsley, which I’m stripping from its stalks to zip up into a little bag and refrigerate for convenience. (If you’re not a fan of parsley, Google its medicinal properties; you may quickly become one.) And invisible nor easily represented in a sketch, but equally real in my mind, are vibrant images of this meal making its way into my calves and thighs, ones that curve and move and function again, to carry me beyond the end of my building hallway and up a flight of stairs.

This post is about having turned a bend on a very narrow, hair-pin-turn-riddled, steep road scratched into the dark edge of a craggy mountain, and seeing fresh green in the valley ahead. It’s about feeling like a human being again. It’s about the million tiny things we take for granted every day until we lose them—waking up without wondering if it’s sandpaper you’ve slept on instead of soft cotton sheets. Waking up knowing you can go get your own medication instead of waking your partner to do it. Waking up hungry. Being conscious that your skin and bone marrow are no longer on fire. It’s about a feeling of confidence that I will not forever be prisoner to a poisoned and near-paralyzed body. It’s about a shopping trip for spring clothes with a friend who, like me, freed from an office cubicle by day, happens to be an outstanding and patient wheelchair navigator. It’s about waking up with a million want-to-do things in mind, things like a series of dinners to cook for the lovely human beings who have faithfully brought fresh-squeezed juices and home-made soups and smoothies and bowls of rice, or, for my husband, homemade chocolate chip cookies, beef stew and other heartier fare. Those who now, with my return to hunger, are happy to provide made-to-request roast chicken and mashed potatoes (thanks Mom!). My kitchen needs re-baptizing, and I’m eager to follow through just as soon as my legs will hold me solidly enough.

These words are an attempt to roughly translate images forever imprinted in my mind into language I can return to in the future.

An aside: it is, as always, a happy little hour I’m having with my lovely outdated little BlackBook. I’m currently reading Nahlah Ayed’s A Thousand Farewells, and it was a lovely little moment of kinship I felt with her the other day watching a YouTube clip of a speech she delivered a few years ago. She was using not a paper-weight sleek new MacBook, but rather a BlackBook identical to mine.

I miss writing, and working. The idea of getting back to it in the months to come is a lovely thought. I miss being busy, efficient, independent, creative, free, moving quickly to accomplish what it is I’ve set out to accomplish. I have, however, also resolved to slow down—there is immense value in the quiet spaces.

One more recent image for the record: I’m reclining in my usual spot on the giant jet-like sofa-turned-daybed in our living room. We have just returned from the airport with my adult son, who is in town for a two-and-a-half day visit, a couple of nearly unbroken days with his mom, his siblings, and his stepdad. I am on the couch though, not running around prepping food, serving wine, all of us busy and free to come and go at will. This time, however temporarily, the roles are somewhat reversed from the usual parent-child roles. We are together to support and cheer each other on. To add to the intensity of the setting, I am wheelchair-bound beyond our suite, and we discover that the building elevators are down. We won’t be getting out to dinner as planned. Will the kids survive this kind of compressed family time within these four walls? (And please, no fire alarms!)

Hearing my son’s hearty laugh though, I’m suddenly moved out of the heartbreak I’ve been conscious of in recent months. Pure, unadulterated pleasure reigns. He suggests we order take-out Indian food, for its glorious richness, as a remedy for wobbly, emaciated legs. I suddenly have an intense appetite, and it is so, so much fun. It is one of many such hours on this most rare and precious of weekends. We talk about cancer. We talk about their pets, their busy lives, their futures—my daughter’s business, my son’s and his partner’s corporate grind, my other son’s work as a Resident at Stanford. I’m so proud of them. Grandparents drop in for a visit. We view childhood movies my husband has put together for us, both technologically updated (credit to my brother) Super 8 clips from my childhood many years ago, and newer ones of my own still-young family in the 80s and 90s. We get to know each other in ways we hadn’t known, or had forgotten. We sing the crazy songs of that era, and marvel at the adolescent ability to remember foolish Boy Band and Spice Girl lyrics, dance moves, and movie sound tracks. We mourn and soothe each other, but we also laugh ourselves silly. I immerse myself in love and laughter; endorphins reign.

Oxygen to say Good-Bye with

“It’s going to be an awesome winter,” I said to my husband in early October, which it has been, weather-wise, but the gloriously rare warm fall temperatures have belied the internal chill and fatigue some of us were feeling: Months and months of running from our ghosts by way of working too much, playing too hard; filling our brains, emptying our brains—anything at all to distract from the giant, full reservoirs of dark, cold water lapping at our feet, ready to knock us completely off our balance.

Planted squarely in the centre of each of the women’s stories in my mind this morning—the stories of good and generous and amazing human beings I care about deeply—there lies a fresh experience of trauma, of physical pain, of toxic words from pivotal figures, of freshly fed, strong, quickly-burrowing brain worms.

Then, an open valve on the dam, a little overflow, a foreshadowing of something new, a series of key events. For one of the women on my mind today, it was a weekend shared with a small group of women who understand something absolutely essential about her recent experience, and who were able to remain fully present to it with her, help her hold the weight of it, massage it, and change its shape profoundly.

For another, it was another vessel—a quiet, warm, wood-fired retreat, again with a circle of women keen to bear witness to her experience and to understand deeply—a vessel and period of hours during which something deeply lodged beneath her ribs was put into words and images and emotion and a thousand blood-red rose petals.

For others, it was other vessels still—dear, familiar ones of church and family and home that resonated and healed most deeply.

And for others of us yet, it was a hot little fire in the river valley on the night of the winter solstice and the dark moon a few weeks ago. A small circle of like minds, a bundle of fragrant sage, and in our hands, little keys in the form of words on paper, images, artifacts, all meant for the fire. We smudged ourselves and our circle. We spoke in turn, placed our representations into the fire, and then stood and watched the flames. We felt some space open up around us, and inside of us, making room for something new to spark into flame.

We returned to our families, to holiday preparations, festivities, love, and apple cider—apple cider, which this year, with that Cognac and those million sticks of cinnamon and little foreign things my daughter brought from her specialty spice store, was divinely none like any I’d ever had. We ate exquisitely spiced squash and utterly gourmet not-steamed Brussels sprouts and festive foods of all kinds. We played and laughed and celebrated.

Darkness is only utter blackness when the candles won’t stay lit for lack of oxygen, when we can’t find our way to the truth and look it squarely in the eye. Hope, goodwill, peace, and cheer become genuine possibilities again only when everything moves from life underground to a place in free-flowing oxygen.

Nothing is different, and yet everything is, too. What makes it different: Being able to breathe again without boulders beneath our ribs. Holding in the palms of our hands and with our eyes wide open the truth of what we know about ourselves in this moment, about what is inevitable and what is not. Seeing clearly what has gone up in flames and lost its charge. Recognizing that which was a lie, utterly false. Seeing that which needed to be, but no longer needs to be: I am not what she said; you are not what he said; none of us are what we fear. We are all so much more.

We will walk into the New Year tonight with more clarity, more muscle, more freedom to express our truth, whether that truth is laughter or deep grief or anger or all three. And even when that clarity spotlights the juxtaposition of joy with a million unrelenting cruelties of the universe, we will walk into it with an infinitely deeper ability for the simple and profound gift of pleasure and love.

It’s all Good, even the Dark Side

I discovered Miriam Greenspan only this afternoon, but am already very sure I’m going to like her. She takes on our fairly robust cultural aversion to “negative” emotions, preferring to call them dark emotions instead, because dark captures perfectly the image of dark, rich, fertile soil from which something unexpected can bloom. I like the optimism inherent in this. It’s positive thinking of the best sort.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly this topic over the past year, and recently found myself sitting among a small circle of women with a shared intention to turn our faces toward the suffering of others—an intention to take it in, transform it, and return it to them as compassion.

We had a lovely guide, and it was a fitting meditation for Maundy Thursday. She had us visualize ourselves at a peaceful, safe, happy time in our lives. With each breath we then began to focus on the suffering of another, tapping into the alchemist within our souls to return it to them as something pure and strong and life-giving.

I’d arrived that night a little unaware of my vulnerability—I’d been coping quite well with some current turbulence after all. But between the intensity of the meditation and a tendency toward a somewhat porous psyche, it didn’t take long before I came undone. I was infinitely fortunate to have an empathetic other bear witness to my coming undone. She validated the dark emotions that broke over me with the force of Hawaii’s North Shore, and reminded me, when I insisted there was something pathological about my response, that intensity does not always indicate pathology.

Though we tend to see emotions such as fear, grief and despair as signs of weakness or failure, they are actually gifts when we become conscious of them and attend to them. I learned so much again that night and in the weeks since. Conscious suffering deepens our connection to others and to ourselves. It makes us less afraid and judgmental, and more compassionate with both others and ourselves.

Greenspan is honest about the chaos involved in attending to and befriending dark emotions. They can be intense, and staying with them rather than running from them is no easy task. It’s not a linear process either. I have been committed to it for some time now, but on that night fell into a very old and familiar hole whose walls scream guilt, shame, failure, weakness.

So, for myself, and for my beautiful friends also doing this work right now, a reminder–productive grief isn’t for the timid or easily fatigued. It is circuitous and demands we allow dark to exist alongside the light. But I think I’m beginning to understand that we can tap into grief’s full healing power only once we know deeply that there is no need for blame or shame, once we stop judging and abandoning ourselves, once we accept that what we feel, however difficult, is a goldmine.

You and Me

girl buddhaThe city is still gritty and muddy and brown, and we’re mostly still wearing black, and I have a hard, hard pebble lodged under my skin, deeply housed in the muscle that carries me. But we’re waking up after a very long sleep, and we’re outside again, walking on the dusty sidewalks, and the ice on the river is breaking up, and the sky is blue this afternoon. And when I left my student yesterday she leaned out her open window where the wind was whipping her curtains around, and shouted something, and I felt a spark of something I’d almost forgotten.

She and I are working on English language skills, but we’re working on so much more. She asks if my husband is a good man. I tell her he is, and she crosses her arms over her heart in gratitude. When I tell her she’s done an excellent job reading a story we’ve been working on for a while now, she grins suddenly, puts up her hand, and says, “high five!” When she meets a new neighbour in the hallway she shouts his name and embraces him.

She is teaching me about the magnificent size of our spirits, about just how much grief a single person can carry with dignity. She lowers her eyes and tells me a few more bits of her story, and I tell her I’m so sorry for her loss. She can’t look at me. I put my hand on her leg and suggest she misses terribly her husband and the children she has lost. She doesn’t seem to know exactly what I mean by this, and says only that she has become very tired, but I see tears slip down her beautiful cheeks. I feel tired too, just thinking about her losses. Grief does that, I remember as she speaks, it makes us tired.

So we sleep, we sleep, sometimes for months and months at a time. And then the mountains of ice begin to break up, and we feel a little less tired, and I think I may feel inspired enough to try dislodge that other old pebble again.

 

The Plunge: +30 to -30

She is tall and has an intricately patterned tattoo of small raised dots on her face. She smiles, says hello, extends her hand in greeting, and we walk together to the room where we will work on her English language skills. To get an idea of her vocabulary, we begin with some pictures. She knows the colour black, but it’s the only colour she can identify. She identifies some of the items in the pictures I show her in English, but most of them she identifies in her mother tongue, an obscure language that is one of many indigenous languages in her country of origin. I try out her language with each image, repeating after her, which, judging from her smile, seems to either please or amuse her. Then I say the word I’m after in English, which she repeats after me.

Though she has grand-children, she has never been to school. It’s slow work, and the sounds are difficult for her, the shape of our language on paper even more so. But she is eager and determined and seems to like it. In her nascent English, she tells me I should visit her country, that I would be a good student. I feel honored, and tell her she is a good student.

Then, shaking her head, she says, “my country, war. Always, always, war. Bad.”

I ask if she has family. “Husband, dead. Sons, dead. War.”

I try to take this in. I can’t. I feel an immense heaviness though, so perhaps I have taken it in. It has tapped into a feeling I carry around a lot sometimes, a feeling that the world is darker and bigger and crueler than I once believed.

I tell her I’m very sorry, and we resume our work. “What did you have for breakfast?” I ask. She searches for words. I prompt her. “Toast?” She nods. “Do you like jam on your toast?” She looks at me blankly, then out the window, where a small group of men are standing on the sidewalk smoking. The sun is shining, but they are wearing toques and winter coats. “Cold?” she asks. “Yes, it’s cold outside.”

“Cold outside,” she echoes. Pointing, I say, “they are outside; we are inside. They are cold; we are warm. My shirt is black; your shirt is red. This is my bag; that is your book.” They, we, mine, yours, this, that. She echoes me. I ask what colour her shirt is. “Your shirt is red,” she says. “No, my shirt is black, your shirt is red.” Her face lights up and she points at herself. “My shirt is red!” Bingo.

In response to an image of a sea turtle, her eyes widen in horror, and, shaking her head, she says, “bad.” Then she half mimes, half tells me a story of one lying in wait for a swimmer and snapping his toes off, blood everywhere. I’m skeptical, and tell her no, that can’t be, I swam with sea turtles once. Her eyes widen further. They don’t bite, I tell her. She insists they do. I check it out later, and yes, some of them do.

Sometimes when I arrive she is eager and waiting, ready to display her completed homework. She has moved from barely knowing her alphabet, to proudly pulling it out at the start of a recent session and going through it almost perfectly.

Other times, she is tired, headachy, foggy. “Medication,” she says. She shows me her written work. I tell her it’s good. “You tell me, if no good,” she insists. I promise I will.

I show her a picture of chocolate ice cream. “Not good,” she tells me. “Cold.” I tell her I love ice cream in summer. She laughs. “Yes, in summer. February now? Then March? Then… summer in June? Go outside in June, eat ice cream in June. In my country, not cold.”

One day she tells me about the fire alarm that has gone off in her building since I last saw her. “Too cold, not go outside,” she says, “I die.”

We talk about many things over the course of our meetings, much of which neither of us understand fully. But we make progress. She wants to know where I live, and is pleased that I am close by. She is going to be moving, and wants to make sure I will come to her new place too. One day she smiles at me and says “You are beautiful,” and I’m not sure I heard her correctly. She repeats it, clearly. I tell her she is beautiful also. She smiles. “You come tomorrow,” she asks? “I’ll come again in two days,” I tell her. She smiles again, and when I leave, instead of extending her hand as she normally does, she reaches out and hugs me.

Her warmth and courage might just be antidote enough for the heaviness I feel at the random cruelty of the universe.