Final Strands

Final Strands

Love forms bonds, like strands of yarn.

Like yarn, those bonds can be fragile, or get all tangled.

But when they’re kept and cared for, they can bridge any distance.

-from the game ‘Unravel’

I did a very hard thing this week. I knew that I didn’t have to go through with it, and I nearly didn’t. But the time, setting, and circumstances came together in a beautiful and sublime way.

Earlier in the week, I found myself driving all day to Arizona, the boys sitting in the back seat. I wept on the way while they slept, recalling the last time I had to make this drive. Alicia was still with us then. She was suffering, but very much alive. She made this present trip under different circumstances. It wasn’t in a desperate search for a cure at the Mayo Clinic.

Once in Arizona, I felt the need to drive to the places that once meant something to us. I showed my boys the dingy apartment in south Scottsdale, where a blue lantern once hung over a stuccoed archway. I showed them the ever more massive apartment complex where she hid eggs at Easter for Ben. I showed them the old building where I did my graduate research, and where we all spent much time together on lunch breaks. I took them to the Phoenix Zoo, situated within Papago Park, home to a collection of bizarre, yet unforgettable sandstone buttes. Alicia and I both played in the shadows of those rocks on different occasions as children, eating our PB&J sandwiches and sipping our sodas from cans wrapped in foil to celebrate the end of a field trip.

The next day, we found ourselves in Sedona. Words can hardly do this landscape justice, so I’ll not try.

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It was the place of our honeymoon, where we stayed in a simple bed and breakfast for just two days. Economics didn’t allow us to stay away any longer, but we consoled ourselves with the notion that we would one day return for a much longer stay. Perhaps, just perhaps, at our 20th anniversary. As we drove through town, that wound was prodded repeatedly with each memory that drifted back into my mind. We made our way slowly, windingly, up Oak Creek Canyon, my eyes searching for the spot that would meet my heart’s expectations. There musn’t be any people around. Not close to any cabins or retreats. Safe enough for those in my party to climb down to the stream. Eventually, I found it – a stretch of creek that passed through a living arbor of cottonwoods and sycamores, water gently bubbling over smooth, dark stones.

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This was where I was to lay her ashes to rest. The loving sadness that had been building this entire trip finally came out. I had bid goodbye to her body once before, on the night she passed. Though her body was now much changed, I was to bid goodbye yet again. I did so with a message of love – that it was the privilege of a lifetime to have known and loved her – that I hoped I did enough in caring for her – and that I hoped this act would be a continuation of that loving care. Her body flowed into the creek with no difficulty, as smoothly as water running over stones. Her ashes looked less like ashes, and more like golden sand in the midst of those mossy stones – standing out as a testament to the beautiful light she gave to so many. Caleb remarked to me, “Dad, you can still see where she is.”

Should you ever find yourself in Arizona, and have a chance to restore your spirit in the cool, green shadows of Oak Creek Canyon, just know, and remember, that those waters have kissed the body of a bright, beautiful, tender human being named Alicia.

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Reflections for “Evening of Memories”

Reflections for “Evening of Memories”

Dear reader,

I was recently asked to share at a gathering of people who had lost a loved one over the last year. The following is the text from what I shared that evening. I wanted to share this as a way to honor Alicia. What’s more, I wanted to write this in memory of the anniversary of our engagement, December 16, 1999. It was 17 years ago that I, penniless and reeking of gasoline from my piece of shit ’76 VW “Super” Beetle, asked her to place her trust in me and face the great unknown together.

Cheers, as always, for reading,

Josh

Though most of you may not know me or my family’s story, you can safely assume why I’m up here speaking tonight. I, like many of you, lost someone dear to me. This someone was quite remarkable. She was a fast friend and a great mother. She loved intensely and loyally. She could be childlike and goofy, yet she was also capable of facing up to some of life’s most sobering truths. She was an amazing wife…she was my wife. She resisted the dying of the light with every fiber of her being. For her, it wasn’t so much that she had to leave because the party was over. Rather, it was because she had to leave while the party was still going. She had much life yet to live. She had sons who had not yet become men. She had dreams of growing old beside her husband. She was on her way to becoming a counselor to the broken and the hurting. Her name, if you’re wondering, was Alicia, and she was taken from us nine months ago. Much too soon in my estimation.

When I was asked to share with you all tonight, I struggled for some time to think of what to say. What words of hope and healing could I offer that might speak to so many? Quite a daunting task given the fact that our stories involve pain and loss. But one thing you should know about me is that I’m an observer, of things both outward and inward. So I realized – maybe that’s something I could share with you, my observations of this reality that we’re living. I can’t take away the pain of your loss, nor mine for that matter. But, as I’ll explain in a moment, I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. Instead, what I can offer is simply a part of myself, or at least my reflections as a fellow traveler on this path, someone who just gets it, no lengthy explanations needed.

So, as we’re gathered here tonight, in the midst of the holiday season and remembering loved ones, I want to speak about duality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines duality in this way: “The instance of opposition or contrast between two aspects of something.” In our case, I’m referring to the act of grieving and of living simultaneously, side by side. To illustrate my point, I brought a silver dollar. It’s one coin, yet it has two sides. You see, I think each of us is carrying around a coin like this in our pockets, figuratively speaking. It was placed there when our loss occurred, and we’re all somewhere in the process of figuring out what to do with it.

Let’s start with the side that deals with grieving. If I can offer any advice, it would be not to avoid this side of the coin, even during the holidays. I would suggest that it’s good, in fact necessary, to mourn like hell over the loss of your loved one. Our loved ones are so worth it. They’re worth the pain and the tears. They’re worth the sadness, the anger, the confusion, and the longing. Fill in the blank with any emotion or state of mind you’ve experienced – your beloved is worth it. Is this not what we would want if we were in their shoes, if the situation tonight were reversed? Would we not want those who remained to miss us terribly? To mourn over the gaping hole that’s been left in their lives? Not only that, but in my own experience, the pain of grief also serves as a reminder that what I had was truly memorable. It validates that it was good and that it was real. We don’t typically mourn the loss of something that didn’t mean much to us, so take comfort, friends, as strange as it may sound, in the pain of your loss during the holidays. It must mean some very special things happened around these times – good memories, fond relations, moments filled with love.

And what about the other side of this coin, the side that deals with our commitment to living this life? For, just as we would want our loved ones to mourn our deaths, would we not also want them to go on living? Would it not cause us grief to see our loved ones withdrawing from life on account of our absence? One thing I became intimately aware of as a result of my experience with Alicia is that the time we are given in this life is a rare, precious, and wondrous gift. Our loved ones would not want us to squander that gift. Now I imagine this commitment to living life can take many forms. It may mean taking that college course or pursuing that job, or jumping out of that perfectly good airplane, or travelling to that far flung destination. It may mean getting that crazy tattoo you’ve always wanted, or agreeing to go out for coffee with that intriguing man or woman that’s invited you. At its heart, I believe this other side of the coin involves making new memories, forming new bonds or strengthening old ones, choosing to live new experiences while we still have time on our side. It’s important to say this – I don’t think it means leaving our loved ones behind. Rather, we take them and their legacy with us into our futures. To ask me to do otherwise would be no different than asking me to leave an arm or a leg behind. You see, they are a part of us and always will be.

And there, my friends, is the duality of this whole experience. Some perhaps would call this proposition a type of insanity, but I’m not speaking to those folks, I’m speaking to you all. And for us, it’s not insanity, it’s just reality – reality that was forced on us without our asking, and since that day we’ve been figuring out how to live and to grieve simultaneously. We will have moments, including during these holidays, when we simply want to crumple to the floor and weep. And I’m here to say that’s okay. It’s okay to pass on the holiday parties at work; it’s okay to bow out of having to cook for Aunt Beatrice and all the family. Likewise, it’s okay should we feel like experiencing a little revelry. It’s okay if we have moments where we smile and laugh and feel perfectly contented. We can do both, we should do both. For my part, I think it’s what Alicia would want, just as I can picture your own loved ones placing a reassuring hand on your shoulder and releasing you to do the same. So, in closing, I wish you peace of mind during this season. Be kind to yourselves; send any and all unrealistic expectations packing. May you be enveloped with the love of those around you, including the love that persists despite your dear one’s absence. And above all, I wish you the courage and the compassion to live both sides of the coin.