I am learning something new the past few weeks. I might not have to be quite as alone in my life as I crawl past the sudden death of a granddaughter. And worsened chronic illness, a year of my spouse’s unemployment, various troubles for five adult children here and there. And, yes–the pandemic, how can I note that last? The toll it has taken on humanity. On us each. That there might be care and aid for this woman–me, Cynthia–is amazing to me even after a fulfilling career offering help of all sorts to others. In truth, I was considering calling a therapist but put it off each week, waiting things out. You know…I can do this, it all takes time, I will get through this and be alright, I can tread water a lot longer….I know how grief fans open and closed and open…that sort of putting it off.
If you would, then, look above: the photo provides a semblance of what solace can be and do for me: losing self by creating an interesting scenario; meditating on curiosities and life’s beauty; being still; listening/watching/feeling. I could insert a photograph of the sea or mountains or a path winding through dense forest. Nature is clearly a focal point but not always. It might be playing favorite or new music or letting my own sudden singing flow; making a bit of art or dancing on my twilit balcony, hidden by trees. It might, then, be two lanterns, a solar kaleidoscopic sphere, and a flower. Sitting in the darkness as light sifts through it, seeing varied shapes amid softening colors. Birdsong in tiny bursts about me quieting at end of day, while the owl resumes its part with haunting calls. These cover me with ease, the simplest things. That presence of divine creation flows to and fro. I take it in, nourishment for my great hunger. I feel fuller, better.
Solitude–literally, figuratively–has been a close companion of mine for the duration of my life. Its arrival can be bittersweet, but first and last familiar, so an overall welcome state. Sometimes warm and cozy, sometimes cool and detached, it is like a second skin, a delight yet protective and flexible, as much a part of me as the blue myopia of my eyes.
I don’t think being solitary is completely a choice but an ingrained manner of living. A habitual behavior. I don’t readily stop to enumerate all options– and those that do come to mind are often due to being taught other ways. That one can have solitariness and connection with others–even though we are, of course, all by our human selves ultimately. But I apparently don’t have to expect always to be left to my own devices. A novel idea when first informed of it, and not quite accepted as truth. I am still working on it at 71; it seems that with age comes a bit of wisdom then greater leaps of learning.
Don’t get me wrong, solitude is a good thing much of the time; it appeals to the creativity I nurture, the writer and musician and thinker that stirs daily in me. I am at home with it in a myriad ways and for different means. And I was trained how to behave in the public at an early age, to interact with people in a civil, appropriately warm manner. It was a good thing. But solitude and being so much a solitary person–alone–are not quite the same, either.
Solitariness ceased being an action taken consciously–that drawing deep into self, figuring out how to endure then flourish alone, perhaps later with others –when I found myself alone as a child and desperately needed protection. But didn’t get it. Ever. Not even when my mother–a good mother but a mother constrained by societal expectations and her circumstances, her own fears– knew I was in need. I fended for myself and played my roles well enough. But then it was on to a turbulent and risky, oftentimes dangerous, youth and adulthood. Walking on a knife-thin edge while trusting my own intuition and sense of balance didn’t 100% pan out. Still, I developed survival instincts that, if not always physical rescues, were more emotional and spiritual saves. At a price. Surviving comes with a price one must be willing to pay. I have been willing. And able. That or give up, and never give up, I used to counsel myself, so outwit the victimizers, the everyday charlatans. Find the path through the world that allows you to stay alive, keep moving and keep sight of the Light.
I noted as a mental health/addictions counselor that such attitudes and behaviors are common for those who experience crushing, life changing events. If it soon is clear there is no rescue, no aid of any sort, clients devised creative ways to cope and survive. Or gave up. PTSD is brutal until it is understood and managed but in truth, there may be more harshness or (real or perceived) “punishment” and repercussions to cope with; life brings us a wide array of experiences. People can judge wrongly.
It takes arduous labor to move beyond this, years of praying (for me) and identifying markers or warning signs both within and without–to identify actual reasons for self defense and let go of misperceived experience. Then there is a pull back, and then construction of new coping skills. It is largely practical, not just emotional change. It becomes more natural to choose the healthy versus the unworkable response. And a person develops healthier perspectives, better decision making, freedom from past reactive or self destructive behaviors. It can be done, is being done by people every day. They learn to trust step by step–themselves first and, slowly, others.
If I know all this, why the persistent belief that I need to deal with life’s eruptions, twists and random barriers primarily alone? Habits are hard to change at the root. And they can seem comfortable, even when not the best. Change can be jarring, confusing, but it doesn’t tend to kill us; bad habits can and do. What can we do to save ourselves? Can I–can you–take new risks required?
Or, somewhat more complicated, can I actually “wake up” enough once more to see that I am being offered simple aid? We may think we are alert and smart enough….Consider how I had to pay attention anew, let go of old belief and practice other behaviors. It has just begun to sink in the past few days. The immensity of its impact has been worth musing over.
I shared this briefly before in a recent post, but there is a greater point to it. Skip this part of you need to but continue if you can…
I was grocery shopping on June 17 at 2:58 pm. when my phone dinged and showed a picture of my daughter, Naomi, standing on my front porch. I thought it was a weird joke she was making. I brushed it off and kept shopping, but my heart started to race. In a few moments I went outside to look at hanging flower baskets. And then I responded to her with disbelief: Is this real? Because Naomi lives in S. Carolina and only recently had driven to Colorado for the summer, where her guy lives–and I am in Oregon. When she affirmed she was standing on my porch, I nearly lost it. I raced home and found her and we hugged and hugged and I would have bawled if I wasn’t so excited. And then a bit worried about Covid-19, though we are both vaccinated. (That anxiety passed; we have been safe enough.)
Let me tell you something about her–besides that she is a sculptor, an award-winning educator, an international traveler, a brilliant woman (a talented/gifted-identified kid by 9, flew through college SATs at 11) who could flourish in any number of careers. Of course I am proud of her, as I am of all my children. But who she is can seem a true mystery and was from the start. Who creates block designs and buildings for a few hours without stopping, no distraction at just over two years? Then you get to know her more…although she explains almost nothing abut herself….And when she knows and cares for you, her loyalty is deep and wide. She has heart far bigger than her 105 pounds can keep to itself. She has soul, the kind that is hitched to the stars but swooped down here to see what she can learn and offer. She has a dry, quirky sense of humor, can offer lightning speed solutions to many conundrums, can be so quiet you have to look for her nearby. Is a workhorse when it comes to interests and passions. Self directed; don’t try to deter her. She shares characteristics with her equally individualistic–we are not so much a moderate or ordinary… if there is one of those–sisters and brother. But Na is, well, Na. (Those who know, understand this statement.)
So if she sent me a picture of herself smiling at my doorstep–“just in the neighborhood, thought I’d say hi”— it could be a digital joke, a forecast of the future, or a dream come true.
But who hops in a vehicle and drives across the country not only to see her guy Adam–but then her mother? Not for any particular reason, or so it seems at first glance…and without ever telling the mom–me? In fact, tells her she cannot make it out this year, likely. But then tells her siblings (and aunt and uncle who come later) to keep it a secret. Naomi does. But her sisters and brother are in on the plan. Maybe it was the fact the most of my birthdays the last ten years have been impacted by a family member’s death (and some of Marc’s family) and funeral. It happens so often, it is quite peculiar. Or perhaps it was that she heard something in my voice during phone calls she made sometimes twice weekly and daily texts for a couple of months–the weariness, spaciness, tears held back. And, without a doubt, she needed to see her family as much as coming for me/us. She could not make it for our Krystal’s funeral. To hug her sister Aimee beloved mother of Krystal…and share the love with everyone else.
Over the course of about ten days with us, Naomi slept on an air mattress in our living room without complaint. She did so many considerate things, it’s harder to recall what she did not do for me, for us. She made delicious food. She went out and picked berries in heatwave-blazing sun to give to us all though she has very pale, sensitive skin so must slather on heavy SPF to be outside too long. She joined Aimee and me for an indulgent pedicure even though she is not about pedicures. She scheduled and visited her siblings and their kiddos in safe ways (due to Covid). She visited Annie, widow of my brother, Gary; she’s an artist, too, so they caught up about their work.
Naomi also brought me a beautiful handmade ceramic cup; she knows I value unique ceramic mugs and cups almost as much as she does. She wants us to get a dog and kept showing me pictures, offering to go with me to a rescue center (declined, not ready for one–they die). We took walks together. Talked, talked, talked. Debated. We don’t always see eye-to-eye; both of us argue a point well and learn stuff in the process. She brought home a shiny green succulent for no good reason other than it is attractive, and not killable as it’s hard to keep plants alive in our shady home…its name is Bertha or maybe Jeanne, we shall see. She washed up dishes, cleaned some, kept her things tidy. And updated with Marc each night when he got home from work, shared anecdotes and laughter. She can talk to anyone, I think, I have seen it occur anywhere. This from a kid who rarely spoke unless absolutely required. Who hid, and yet has embraced the world and living.
When we went to visit her brother, Josh. It was a good time–we rode little motorbikes, crazy fun, gabbed. She gave him two huge walnut and metal sculptures that their father, a builder and sculptor, made decades ago. (He is deceased.) “The Guardians” are perhaps over four feet tall and heavy, but she drove across country with them in the back of her SUV. And there was a third that Ned, their dad, had never finished; it is now Josh’s to finish. (He makes art, too.)
For all I know, she also gave gifts to her sisters. This is her way, little surprises in the mail or hand delivered.
The night before she left to meet up with her guy in CA. and to explore the redwood forests –he was pausing on a meandering motorcycle trip–she insisted we have an “art party”. I was tired out from having so much fun, and was preparing for imminent arrival of my brother, sister-in-law and our sister, plus a couple of cousins. But Alexandra, her youngest sister, arrived on time as ever, and so we sat down at the balcony table. Naomi got things sorted out for us, then snip, paste, add some color, snip, position and paste magazine pictures on a small piece of watercolor paper. Little artsy collages began to take shape as we gave way comfy quietness with quips here and there. We were at it for an hour, then lined them up. Not too shabby. Yes, it was time I’m glad we shared!
It wasn’t an aching goodbye the next day. I was distracted by planning the casual lunch here with more family the day after. Marc and I were also frantically trying to locate an air conditioner, something we never need in OR. but this June the historic heat wave had commenced with ferocity. (Found a clunky one at a “grow shop” of all places. If you don’t know what t that is….Oregon legalized marijuana.) Naomi noted she and Adam were going up the Oregon coast (he on motorcycle, she in car) and might stop at Cannon Beach where my brother, sister-in-law, Marc and I were soon headed. So, it was a cushy hug but not a last-of-visit hug.
This, then, was the first portion of my repeat lesson in being offered and accepting loving care. But you know how when, for example, someone compliments you and it slides off you until it catches you off guard later? That’s what happens to me. I am continuing to figure out how to acknowledge and be present with deliberate, genuine kindness. To be open to/accepting of love like that–yes, even with family.
The second part of my tutelage was about to happen.
My brother, Wayne, and his wife, Judy–came out to visit Marc and myself, our sister, Allanya, and other family members. Their trip was also cross country but it was planned to include taking photos at scheduled stops, as well as taking workshops with photographers throughout the states. This is one of their true passions, creating great photographs; they excel at it. So it was a first big trip to do that and see family in two years as the pandemic began to wane. They’d spend three days in the Portland area, then Marc and I would share a beach lodge with them for the final days of their visit.
How to describe a brother I knew minimally for 40 years or more? He is seven years older than I am, and one of four older siblings often busy and gone, then off to universities by the time I was nearing teen years. In this brother’s case, college led to the military for about 30 years. Then came marriages and children; we lived in cities far from one another. I didn’t know him at all. I recalled he laughed easily when young and teased me a bit, but far less so for years after Viet Nam. I was very affected by his new quietness and faraway eyes. I wanted to know him, but did not get a chance. He moved elsewhere.
I moved to the Northwest at 42; three other siblings lived In WA. and OR. I felt somewhat close to all three, more so very shortly as I was welcomed. (It was Allanya who persuaded me to leave MI. with two teenaged children and settle here.) Wayne and Judy lived another life back east. It was only when they flew out that we met up. I visited at their home three times: when my young brood and husband visited long ago, then for his 70th and my 60th. And at some point things changed, perhaps when Dad, then some years later, Mom both passed away. It was us five siblings, orphaned. He and Judy visited the Northwest more. They’d travelled the world often but when retired from the military, it became most of every year. So what a pleasure to see them here and there. I felt we got more familiar with each other, stayed in touch more regularly. With the pandemic, there were more check ins.
But I was not prepared for their response when Krystal died. They knew her minimally, for she passed at 28 but did not grow up here, had lived overseas for some time before returning to Portland. They reached out often. It meant so much to hear their voices, their sympathy and concern gently offered.
When Wayne–long before that– had emailed their plans about visiting this June, it concerned me a little. Would we be safe, even with vaccinations? Wouldn’t it be hard to relax inside our home with other people? It was a strange thought–mingling, talking in person! But when June crept up, I was looking forward to it. Arrive they did, first visiting Allanya who lives with her partner in an assisted living facility. She, to our confoundment, has dementia.
It was the day Naomi left and they arrived that I noticed something different. How the distance between us felt smaller. What a joy to welcome them even with the cloud of sadness around my shoulders and brain. Later, at lunch with our sister, conversation ebbed and flowed, food was tasty, the surroundings pleasant in an air conditioned restaurant as temperatures rose ever higher outdoors. Allanya, thoughts shared occasionally, seemed happy, too. They insisted on paying the bill. I thought Okay, next time but no; this continued.
Lesson here: be gracious. Pride is not all that helpful. Accept despite a cringing discomfort. Marc and I have tried always to pitch in, have taken good care of ourselves and family. But sometimes the life’s loads shift. We’ve helped others and this time we may need to appreciate being recipients. So I told myself. ( Marc is recently employed again, things shall improve–amen.)
Following lunch, we visited a classic car dealership with Allanya. She loves to see and touch the old polished, fancy cars–I took a picture of her posing cheerily beside a vintage turquoise Thunderbird. We all have admiration so took more photos. Then we ferried her back home, and fell silent. What can be said of gradually losing parts of a sister in plain sight…it is misery. We love her so dearly.
The following day, our lunch gathering took place. Our house was filled with expressive exchanges–we are a loquacious bunch–with burgers, chicken kabobs, hot dogs grilled and more. I oscillated between tending to needs, listening, smiling and feeling blank, staring out the window at flowers on the balcony as they slowly wilted in the 112 degree heat. Time passed, the place emptied. When might such a meeting of family happen again, all parties present? It went so fast. This thing called time!-it flashes by and before we know it…
Then to the beach–Wayne, Judy, Marc and me. Allanya had wanted to go until she decided not to go…disappointing but, too, she’d get dizzy on mountain roads and it might be too much being away from her partner and their dogs. Not only short term memory is lessening; she is much less apt to get out and go even with me. How fun it may have been, siblings hanging out at a pretty spot close to the sea. She once owned a weekend home on a bay of the ocean…we stayed there so many times. Followed furtive deer. Studied starry skies.
The next 24 hours were not easy, just as it had not been the previous week. I have been alone so long. Most of us have been. Yes, Marc and I have gone on outings, but mostly he tends to do his thing, I do mine, like any longstanding couple. Now he is employed again and the rooms are empty of other voices. And I can weep, write poetry, read, be deeply silent, leave any time. All by myself. People can be taxing. And they can be wonderful. But life and death, they move with us, like my hands at labor or rest, like my soul and mind.
The lodging was attractive: high ceilings with beams, many windows to encourage drifting sunlight, rooms a-plenty– it was giant cabin. I was still glad to be there despite tension in my shoulders, a nagging headache, a slight loss of internal balance. Did it show too much, I wondered? I had tried to be present for a week with family, even when the undertow of sorrow and exhaustion pulled hard.
So what was the 3.5 day schedule, the agenda? There was none, other than to eat when we got hungry, sleep when tired. Marc and I roamed the beach as early eve arrived half-golden, then blue, then on fire with sunset. The sea’s visual infinity, its music and the sand underfoot buoyed me. I opened my lungs, breathed in the air and wind arriving all the way from who knows where. It helped, but not entirely. Still uncertain of myself, my role somehow–who was I without our other siblings, who are we in the current iterations of life’s flux– we finally slept, fitfully, at a distance. The next day, a short visit from Alexandra, her husband and the twins for lunch–they drove out from Portland to see her aunt and uncle once more. Marc and I walked the beach for miles; knots loosened from my shoulders, head cleared more. And then he left for home for the work week.
I got a clue and conceded the obvious: the whole point was to do nothing. The trip to Cannon Beach was to gather loosely, unwind, take it easy, enjoy whatever desired. Have a respite. To hang out with Wayne and Judy, sometimes do things on our own, other times shared. Wayne offered information about photography and camera functions, nicely gave me items I could use with my Cannon. Judy and I caught up at length; it was lovely getting to know her better. To feel the time, miles and experiences that separated us move aside so more connecting points might be made. They are intellectually stimulating, responsive, accomplished and cosmopolitan–and caring people. More independent and driven than am I, they know their way about the wide, mad world. Yet we are only people trodding the paths; we each have our own.
I slept better, dreaming my way through nebulous panorama of night. Awakened later than planned. It didn’t matter. We whiled away the morning, slipped into afternoon. Naomi and Adam arrived and joined at the table. Joshua (who, days after Krystal’s funeral, came upon a gruesome dead body on a remote hike; remains distressed, in addition to our own loss) and his wife and stepsons joined us awhile. We enjoyed beach time then dug into a decent meal; more talk, then off they all went. We had a carousel of family get togethers over a few days. Naomi and I resolved to see one another before another year passes…and so, farewell, firstborn daughter.
That night I slept as I hadn’t in weeks. Just as I had eaten and savored food as I had not in far too long. Up early the next day, we packed and left and that was the end of that side trip. Wayne and Judy went on to other states, seeing friends and photographing more landscapes and architecture or whatever pulls them in for a closer look. Saying goodbye to two more family members was warm, sweetly sad.
“Sister,” my brother said as he hugged me.
“My brother,” I managed.
The two weeks were a sort of magic. No, more–they were restorative, a start of healing. I had prayed for help and yet everything given me was a surprise, a reveal of mysterious powers of love. I have been paused and re-set–I have come back to my more balanced self a little more. Since I was able to try to accept these gifts, I regained a clearer, broader viewpoint. It took some defense shedding; there have been fewer, though, since mid April. I imagine God has more work to do with my participation, in any case. I am an eager student once more.
For every death of a loved one, there is a doorway that takes us back to all others we mourn and it begins to feel like nakedness in the world, and as if we must protect ourselves more. We are helplessly laid bare in sorrow. We are like children, or like souls whose bodies are useless. So it took more willingness to receive and also give back–attention, trust, time, compassion, empathy.
You might think it would be natural; I do know much about helping others gain human skills and strengthening attributes. But I have limits as we all do. I was struggling before my daughter and brother arrived–with the powerful weight of life amid the subterranean anchor of death, with exhaustion from too much happening too fast. With the strangeness of juxtaposition: beauty and wonder with shock and horror. The day Krystal died was the twin granddaughters’ second birthday. It was a bright and joyous day…and we got the call and raced to her apartment building. Saw the medical examiner at the door. Aimee and Alexandra and I saw our loved one, suddenly gone unbelievably still. It stays with us every day and night. My daughter Aimee struggles with her grief as anyone would who has lost a child, wants to hide away–though she and her partner came to our family luncheon, unexpectedly. I can only stand by, powerless except for my love and that pains me though I understand it.
In my birth family circle Wayne and Allanya and I are who we have now. That ole fast talking, laughing, insightful Allanya we knew best and longest recedes a little with each visit. We have lost our parents, a brother and sister, a nephew, a brother-in-law–there is no pretending things are otherwise. But I have the blessings of my children, the grandchildren still alive including Krystal’s brother, Tyler. Things happen when you least expect it. Yet one greets each day as it comes. We culture our hope like a pearl, the abrasion of living polishing, turning it over. And we aim for goodness in ourselves and others. Open our hearts as much as possible so we can take a chance on love. Even happiness.
I know when I am stuck in that cave made of “I can manage, I am praying, I am greeting each day with a hello” typical of my solitariness, my family can bring compassion, perhaps food, some tears, some laughs. Yes, I can do it alone, find solace in my own company more often than not. I’m a writer, for one thing. But I was taught: chin up, stand tall, always do well. But I don’t have to do it that way. There are others who do care and how much of an unanticipated rescue is that? It can be everything. More so during these times. I will rejuvenate–then be better here for them. For all that I can do.