Thursday, August 28, 2014

Five months: Impossibility

Dear Kevin,

As of right now, right around the time I am writing this, you have been gone for five months. It feels impossibly long. There is a part of me that still thinks Alright already. You've been dead long enough. You can come back now.

I know that won't happen. Nonetheless, the hope recurs more often than I really care to admit. It is an impossibility I keep coming back to.

Five months ago I clutched your hand. I uncurled your fingers and cupped my cheek, your palm so much a part of me that I couldn't imagine it gone. I wiped away your tears. I felt the warmth of your skin and listened to the uneven rhythm of your breath.

Five months ago I told you it was okay to go, that it was time. I told the truth. And I lied. It wasn't okay. It will never be okay that you aren't here with me, that you aren't here to guide your kids, that you aren't here to invent new things, think new ways, tell new stories. It will never be okay that I can't touch you again. Never. It was never time for you to die. But those things needed to be said so you could let go and go on to your next piece of work. Without me. Saying it was okay, that it was time, was the last gift I could give you, the last act of love I could perform while you still were breathing. It was the hardest gift I have ever given.

I miss you. Those words don't capture my meaning. I miss you with every breath, with every observation, with every hope that then shrivels into meaninglessness.

I am still breathing.
I am still observing.
I can't say I'm still hoping because I don't know what to hope for. Instead I am learning to live a life of present moments. In this moment I am sitting in a cafe in Vancouver BC, trying not to cry obviously. In this moment I feel like hell and understand that this life is hell. In this moment I am without. And in the next? We'll see. Not all moments are like this one.

Because that is what I'm moving towards, I think. My life is only in the present now. My Buddhist friends will read this and they may want to rejoice, but I want no such festivity. This present moment life is about survival. It's as though I am facing a life sentence and the only way to survive it is to focus on this strike of the key, this sip of tea, this cafe on this journey. If I dwell on the past the present becomes unbearable, too full of loss and emptiness. If I consider the future there is only a dull flat stretch with no ease or promise; I can't imagine a future without you. It is only in the present that I can write, that I can feel whatever the emotion is of the moment, that I can look into the world and say Yes, he still is because he is in me. Whatever else I may believe, whatever other signs I may look for, he is.

You still are. I find unendurable the idea that you are gone from this universe, so I find ways to remember that you still are. Some are only minimally comforting. Some help for a little while. And that has to be enough. Because the best way to remember that you still are is to remember the love. That was the most important thing in the end. It always was the most important thing. And I still love you, as do others. I believe that in some way you still love me. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed and you, my darling, were a notable, energetic force. Your love for me was energy directed.

Five months is an impossibly long time, an impossibly short one. It is impossible that you are not beside me, watching the river of people pass by. It is impossible that I am sitting in this cafe trying to pretend I am not crying, avoiding the glance of the woman across the room who is clearly wondering what's going on. It is impossible that you are not here, but...

My life is measured in impossibilities now.

I love you.
I love you.
I always will.

I remain yours.
Laura

p.s. Kevin, a beloved friend suggested that I might want to consider changing "My life is measured in impossibilities now" to "My life is measured in unknown possibilities now." I see his point. But you and I were always about finding ways around the impossible, so who knows, maybe that's what I'm already saying. Right now though, it feels like the things I most yearn for, the things I measure again, all those are beyond possibility. I will eventually invent new possibilities I'm sure, but not yet. For now I remain suspended in my own sundance.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

The world through my eyes: Seattle

This visit to Seattle is a light touch - I arrived yesterday evening and I leave at the crack of dawn tomorrow. Here are some of the things I have seen. Please forgive me, I'm still learning to use my camera, so there are some shots that could be better. Glare still confounds me.

A mural near my airbnb

Sunset. The mountains are stunning.

The bay with shipyard and ferris wheel.

I took a tour of Seattle underground (like many cities it is built in layers).
This is a self-portrait, underground. See me?

More Sesttle underground. The debris is from an earthquake in the 1940s.
It was all dumped underground. Handy!

More underground. A story?

One of several fish markets in the Pike Place Market.

Hello handsome!

I loved these pepper bouquets.
Sorry it's washed out, I am still learning how to take pics when there are light sources nearby.

My favorite part of the whole day. This man is the last traditional totem pole carver in his family. His sons are in Iraq, so he is teaching his brother-in-law how to make these. He told me stories about each totem pole. I took this picture with his permission.

Raven

This man was singing songs in Spanish, using the long pipe as a percussion instrument and playing the harmonica. He was speaking, with great animation, to people I couldn't see.
These young men stopped to speak with him and treated him with such respect. It was a wonder.

The grossest tourist attraction I have seen. Part of the gum wall. 

You know how you sometimes see glass inset into the sidewalk? This is what it looks like from underground.
Cool, huh?

I love alleys. 

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The world through my eyes: Atlantic City

My parents live in Atlantic City, NJ. It's a place better known for casinos and corruption, but the beaches are truly lovely. I visited recently and took some pictures.

summertime love

self portrait

I spent a while chatting with her. Nice lady.

mating rituals

Who skates on the beach?!

I liked the shadows, the lines, the green, the red

I love all the lines in this one.

On the airplane, over Lake Erie. I love how I couldn't really distinguish between water and sky.


(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 22, 2014

The smallest words

How many fairy tales begin with a line something like this:

Once upon a time there were a king and queen and they loved each other very much. They had a beautiful baby daughter whom they both adored. But one day the queen stayed in her bed and soon enough, she died.

The king was sad, but after a time he decided to marry again.
The king grieved and eventually decided to marry again.
The king wanted the kingdom to have a queen, so he decided to marry again.

There is a world in those small words. But. And. So.

Grief, I'm discovering, is a long, slow process that I don't know how to describe.

In those words - but, and, so - are a hundred sleepless night. There are gallons of tears. There is an encyclopedia's worth of questions and fears and regrets.

Grief is too big to be captured. It is too variable. It is too complex and contradictory.

So we use the smallest words in our oldest stories to hold a world.

I find myself saying things like:

I miss Kevin with all my heart, but today wasn't too bad.
I would do anything to have him back again and yet I am still here.
This is the most non-negotiable, miserable thing I have ever encountered, so I am trying to figure out how to keep breathing.

But.
And.
So.

I am bereft. But I am still here.
I grieve. And I still breath, though sometimes it feels like I shouldn't.
I love him still. So I figure out how to live. Even if that living means howling, crying and yearning for that which I can no longer have.

But.
And.
So.

(21 weeks. I wish you could come back. I love you. I am still in love with you. I always will be.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 15, 2014

Each grief is unique

We live in a culture that encourages comparison.

My car is better than yours.
Your house is bigger than mine.
Her grades are better than his.

I think this is a basic part of what it is to be human that has been vastly exploited by the machines of commerce and power. We have become so accustomed to these machines and pressures that we compare everything, down to the smallest actions and most intimate details.

My neighbor's lawn is greener and more even than mine.
Your mother's scrambled eggs are better than your own.
My little toe is prettier than yours.

And so on. It gets ridiculous.

The comparison I am encountering most frequently these days is this: What I'm going through doesn't compare to what you are, but...

This makes me nuts for several reasons.

  1. One grief is never comparable to another. The loss of my husband is my experience. The loss of your dog or job or marriage or parent is yours. Each experience is utterly and terribly unique. We each process, understand and grow at different rates. There is no map, no manual for this. Yes, there are some similar emotions and maybe similar timelines, but our individual griefs are tied into our whole being and each whole being brings their own history, their own strengths and weaknesses and their own ability to process into the equation. 
  2. Telling me your grief means you understand mine doesn't often help. Because each situation is different, each grief is different. What's more, if you use an example like the loss of your goldfish I have to work to remind myself to be compassionate because at least you are trying. That effort distracts me from the moment and means I chastise myself to remember that I don't know the context of your grief. In so doing I pay less attention to you and to my feelings and instead am busy justifying why you thought the loss of a goldfish and a husband are comparable. They aren't comparable because each grief is different.
  3. Comparing in general is isolating when I most need connection.
    I feel as though I have to reassure you that your grief is legitimate and take care of you when I am already weakened and in need. Because each grief is different it would be much easier to just know you have grieved and been through your own version of this process. Maybe that's what you meant, but by comparing, I suddenly am comparing too and don't want to be. 
  4. There are no winners in grief.
    We don't need to compete or compare. When your goldfish died when you were five it broke your heart because it belonged to your best friend who had moved away. That could have shaped your whole life. I don't know. All I need to know is that you care. That you want to connect with me. If you want to tell me about your grief that's usually fine, but we don't need to throw down to see who is hurting more.
We all have grieved something. If we stop comparing maybe we can just be present with one another, we can comfort each other, we can remember that grief is an integral part of human experience and that is enough. 

(20 weeks. I miss you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 8, 2014

Non-negotiable

All my life I have been able to find a way through most problems. I have been able to change the situation, change myself or just wait, knowing the issue was time-limited and would resolve itself. Some of the solutions have seemed incredibly disruptive (leaving a job, ending a relationship) but they've all been possible. There has always been some point I could negotiate until I found myself in a more tenable situation.

Death isn't like that. It's non-negotiable. Nothing I can say, do, avoid, embrace, bargain or buy will change the fact that the love of my life got cancer and died. Nothing will change the fact that I am still here without Kevin. Nothing will change the fact that his kids lost their dad way too soon.

Nothing.

Living in a non-negotiable state is incredibly uncomfortable and I think that's part of what makes grief so hard. Losing someone you love is a slap in the face reminding us that we have very little control over our lives. I can problem-solve all I want and I will not be able to negotiate my way out of this one. It sucks. I think most of us have a bit of control-freak in us and death is probably why. If we can control our environment then maybe we can control death.

We can't.
I can't.
I couldn't.

I hate it. I hate that controlling myself can't change this, that no amount of self-control will help. I hate that I cannot negotiate with death, a hostage release or exchange, anything to undo this. It's non-negotiable and that is incredibly frustrating for someone who defines herself as a problem-solver. Kevin defined himself the same way and believed we could find a way to problem-solve his illness, right until the end. And then he solved the problem by facing his death with incredible grace and generosity. He solved the problem by loving himself and us enough to be able to let go.

That, of course, is the only way to negotiate with death. Love each other. Love ourselves enough to remain in this world so the light of those we have lost lingers, reflected off of and carried by of our own light. Love is the only detente we can reach with death as we live in this untenable land of grief, of loss, of sorrow, of without. The love remains. And that, too, is non-negotiable.

(19 weeks. I miss you. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A walk in the park

We all know that grief and sorrow are not a walk in the park. But sometimes you just have to walk anyway.

I took these pictures this morning in the Kauffman Memorial Garden, a real gem in the heart of Kansas City. I am finding the camera's eye is helping me see things I might otherwise overlook. That helps. Movement and beauty can help us heal. The walk and the flowers brought me some comfort. I hope they do for you, too.













(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 1, 2014

Compassion, grief and education

Webster's defines compassion as "a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc. Sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

I believe in compassion. I believe in compassion in both the Western sense and the Buddhist sense, of wanting sentient beings to be free from suffering and, most relevant here, of compassion being love without attachment. It has helped me build bridges to those I thought were unreachable, it has helped me be patient when I really just want to bite, it has helped me be kind to myself in the midst of the darkest pain, it has helped me to remember to be kind to those whom I find frustrating. I believe in compassion.

I have been showered with compassion, in both the Webster's and the Buddhist senses, since Kevin became ill. I am deeply grateful for it. When those who care have been able to love me, care for me, ride the grief roller coaster with me without telling me how to grieve (in other words, loving me without attachment) it helps beyond measure. Compassion is quite literally saving my life as I mourn the life lost.

What's more, I have opportunities to exercise compassion on a daily basis. I have always tried to be compassionate but now I turn to compassion to help me be kind to those who are not on this grief journey with me. Which would be just about everyone.

For example:
  • I have been compassionate with caregivers who didn't understand Kevin. I reminded myself that they see dying people everyday and are doing the best they can. I did everything I could to help them to be as human as they could be, by asking them about their lives, about their cares, so they would see us as people, not just patient and family. And when they did something I didn't like, I didn't blame the individual but the methodology and, as kindly as I could, protected Kevin with everything I had. There was no sense in denying compassion to the caregivers; I used every tool I could to make sure he got the best care possible and caring for the caregivers was one of them.
  • When someone says to me, "I can't imagine what you're going through," I remind myself that they are afraid. I remind myself that they are so scared of losing loved ones that they can't let themselves imagine it. That I represent something they are too scared to feel. I strive for compassion for their fear, for the part of them that knows someday they, too, will be in my position.
  • Likewise, when someone says, "You're so strong, if it happened to me I would still be in bed," I remind myself that they, too, are afraid. I remind myself that they don't realize that what they're saying could sound like a condemnation of my being out in the world, that somehow they might be suggesting that my grief is less than theirs would be. I remind myself that they are trying to be kind. I remind myself that I am out in the world because I am still alive. To stay in bed for months would be to give up and I'm not ready to do that yet (though I certainly have days where I don't go far from bed). I remind myself to treat their blissful inexperience with compassion. Sooner or later they will learn that it's not strength, it's momentum.
  • And lastly, when someone suggests that it's time to move on, time to stop grieving, or asks if I'm ready to date yet, I remember that it is their discomfort with my loss that drives them. They are distressed that I'm sad and made uncomfortable by both their distress and my public feelings. I choose compassion for myself, by grieving in my own time and own season. I choose compassion for them by gently reminding them that this grief is mine and their discomfort is not my concern.
I don't live in a culture with good models for grief. We don't have the Victorian or Jewish year of mourning, there is no veil or ritual or public way of marking loss other than Facebook status. We are removed from the bodies of our dead - in fact, death has become something alien and hidden, so we never have a chance to learn just how much a part of life it is. Those of us who are lucky enough to have not yet had a big loss have no guidebook to help those of us who have. 

I find myself becoming a teacher of grief. All of us who are grieving must teach those around us what helps, what doesn't, and must remember that we are frightening premonitions of what everyone will become. We must be willing to love and be loved without attachment, without expectation, only with acceptance that we all are doing the best we can in any given moment.

I must remember to be compassionate every day, with those who don't know how to help me grieve, with those who are frightened by it, with those who have suffered their own loss. I must let compassion guide me, so perhaps the next time grief is encountered, there will be more compassion, more patience, more love. With or without attachment.

(18 weeks)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 25, 2014

Retreat and re-emergence

For the past decade or so Kevin and I co-taught a storytelling workshop in the Adirondack mountains with our friend Marni Gillard. It was wonderful, a chance to connect with nature, story and each other. This year I co-taught only with Marni, missing Kevin intensely the entire time. I could see him in each corner and yearned for him ferociously. It was very hard. It was also very good to return to work. To remember that I am a good teacher. That story has meaning to me and creates meaning for all of us.

I stayed on for Women's Writing Week, a retreat full of brilliant women, good classes and thoughtful language. I've written about this retreat before, but this year was different. I spent a lot of time writing, dreaming, crying and being held in community. It helped at the same time that it hurt, reminding me that I am coming home to an empty house.

On the next to the last day we found a luna moth, clinging to a lamp post. My friend Phillip sent this to me, on the symbolism of the luna moth. "They are born, they transform, they love, they die, and then are again reborn. Their cycles are short, as are our years while we are here. We are reminded to make the most of our moments and to live and love to the fullest." A new story, a new piece of meaning to add to this time in my life. Emergence, even for just a day or so.

So it is.

I am going home from the mountains to an empty house. I am heartbroken. And in that loss I am reminded over and over of the love. Always the love. The love between me and Kevin that will never cease. The love I felt from all my friends at the retreat. The love I feel for the world, in spite of my brokenness. I am reminded that we are born, live, die and continue, in love.

And in the end
the love you make
is equal to the love
you take.

 (17 weeks. I miss you with all my heart. I will continue to look for you in moths, in the light reflected  on water, in my dreams, in every breeze. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 18, 2014

How to go to sleep. A primer.

It’s hard to sleep when the one you love isn’t there. You already know that, from business trips and the occasional separate vacation. Now imagine they will never sleep by your side again. You will never hear them breathing. You will never nudge them to make the stop snoring. You will never again be able to wake them when you had a bad dream and know you don’t even have to ask for them to hold you. None of these will even be faint options, the poor choice to be regretted later. They are beyond your reach.

Imagine that.

So the question naturally arises, how do you go to sleep without them? Here, in the first of a series of  occasional instructional farcical posts, are directions. 

How to go to sleep when the one you love is dead.
  1. At first you may find sleep is your only ally. Your fatigue from the long sick nights finally has a chance to be appeased. Sleep becomes the place where you can hide and pretend none of this is happening. Like a child, you burrow into your covers and put pillows all around you, a fort against the pain of the outside world. This won’t last so enjoy it while you can.
  2. The laws of physics shift and, while you know it’s impossible, the nights become unbearably long and impossibly quiet. Perhaps the planet has tilted in some new way. You will wonder if you have gone deaf or if the voices in your head have become so loud you can hear nothing else. So you do everything you can to delay the moment when you turn out the light and you are alone in the dark.
  3. Avoidance is an excellent tool. Do laundry. Do dishes. Watch shows on tv at which you previously scoffed. Go for a walk. Go out with a friend. Do everything you can to avoid that still, silent moment when the light clicks off and all you can see is nothing.
  4. The time will come when you need to go to sleep. Some of you may choose to avoid your shared bed. That’s fine. Some will choose to remain there. That’s fine, too.
  5. Surround yourself with the things you love, that which has given comfort in the past. Your books, your journal, your tv remote. Now may be the time to find your old teddy bear and hold her as close as you can. While none of these will help, they are at least cardboard arms against the dark.
  6. Build your fort. Pillows at your side to remind you of the warmth of your love when they lay beside you. Blankets around you, swaddling as if you are being held. Whatever you need to know you are safe. Or as safe as you can be without them there.
  7. Avoid the dark until your eyes are so sandy they hurt. Then.
  8. Be brave. Turn out the light. This is your second bravest moment of the day, exceeded only by getting out of bed in the morning. Notice the shifting shadows and the soft sounds. Cry if you need to, your eyes shut tightly against the night. Talk to your beloved and beg them to be there, even if you can’t hear them answer. You don’t know for sure that they can’t hear you.
  9. Finally, after many gasping breaths, starts and stops, the light turned on and then off again, lie back. Breath. Look into the night because the night has no terrors in it now. You have already survived the worst.
  10. And wait. Eventually sleep may come. Or not.
  11. In the morning avoid the mirror. You know the smudges under your eyes already, they have become your flags of honor. Go through the day. And then finally, when it is late enough, try again.

(16 weeks. I would stop time if I could. I don’t know how. I would do anything to have you here and whole again.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com.
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