Love and Grief

It has taken me a lifetime to understand the relationship between these two.

The first time I recall experiencing profound grief was in my 30s, when a dear friend moved away. The physical heartache I felt was new, and I wasn’t really sure what to call it. I ached for her company, not realizing I was grieving the loss of her presence in my life.

When my father died, I was in my 30s. The physical ache was almost unbearable, and I lacked the words to explain it to my three young children. There was an unfillable void in my life, and I wasn’t yet sure how to process it. My faith brought me comfort, but I still wandered through the physical feelings. It was the first time I understood the meaning of ‘heartache.’

Years later I lost my mother, and the pain returned in a more profound way. I don’t need to explain that pain to anyone who has lost their mother, and I can’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t. I muddled through the stages of mourning in a bit of a fog, accepting each one without really understanding it.

But it was when my husband was deployed for a year with the military that I gained the needed perspective on love and grief. One of my boys was crying because he missed his dad. I started to cry, too, and soon the four of us were huddled together, crying and comforting simultaneously. I remember the words clearly because they changed me. I commented that there are some families who wouldn’t be sad if their dad went away for a year. “Aren’t we lucky that we love each other so much that it hurts when we’re apart.”

For the first time I understood that the pain I had experienced before was grief.

It was then that I realized that love and grief are felt in equal measure.

Since that day I embrace grief. I am grateful that my life is so rich and full of love that the loss of something or someone hurts.

I remind myself that there are people who don’t feel that.

And I let the tears fall.

Camellias in January

A few days ago I bought camellias. Two tall specimens, destined to flank the patio, adding color and charm. I put them in the garage to ride out a pending winter blast – which lasted but a day. The following afternoon I planted them in large pots and traded the fading blooms of fall with colorful pansies and sweet alyssum. The warmth of the sun made for a sublime day.

This morning I stitched a blanket for a baby soon to be born. The rhythmic movements creating a time of mindfulness for me, just as the gardening had done a few days prior, both providing a needed respite from the inescapable thoughts of a dying friend.

This is life. Different from one day to the next. Giving and taking. Full of extremes, and lacking guarantees. What is here one day may not be here tomorrow. My task is to find the joy and beauty and love in each day. Because tomorrow will be different.

My camellias will always remind me of that.

*** For some reason I stopped writing a few years ago and mountains of words have since piled up in my head. But today I knew I had to get them out. ***

My Mother’s Daughter

Long before ever having children, I made myself a solemn promise.

I would NEVER turn into my mother.

I remember developing a mental list of the many things I would do differently when I had children of my own. I would be a modern, enlightened parent. Not the old-fashioned kind of mother I was raised by. I mean, my generation had books telling us “What to Expect…” which explained everything I could possibly need to know.

My mother thought it was kind of silly. “You don’t need a book to be a good mother,” she said. “It’s the most natural thing in the world.”

When I talked about a birth plan, she was bewildered by the concept.

“You go to the hospital,” she said. “They know what to do.”

“But, mom,” I replied. “It’s 1992. Things are different now.”

I thought I heard her mumble something to the effect of “No. Babies still come out the same way,” as she walked off.

I reaffirmed my solemn promise.  “She just doesn’t get it.”

When my firstborn arrived, I developed a false sense of confidence. He was an easy baby. He slept through the night at 6 weeks. He stayed clean all day in his color-coordinated outfits. He was potty trained at 19 MONTHS. I remember one day thinking “This is easy. And so much fun. I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about.” My mother must have had a hard time controlling herself back then. My husband and I rolled merrily along with Baby #1 for nearly three years.

One easy child. Two modern, enlightened parents. We had it covered.

The firstborn was inquisitive and curious. He asked a lot of questions. A LOT OF QUESTIONS. Most days I answered them patiently, giving him all the facts. Encouraging him to ask me more questions. But that one day, when his baby brother had kept me up half the night – the day he wanted to know how the clouds stayed up in the sky – my patience was waning.

I had gone through the explanations of tiny drops of water hugging together to make a cloud. That the drops were so light and tiny they didn’t fall to the ground until enough of them had gathered together to turn the clouds gray and then make rain. I thought it was a really good explanation.

But he couldn’t wrap his 3-year old mind around that, and he pushed for a more plausible explanation. After a few exasperating rounds of this, modern enlightened mom gave up.

My mother’s daughter spoke instead.

MAGIC,” she said.

Magic?” he questioned.

“Yep. Magic.”

That was something he could wrap his 3-year old mind around. And the questions stopped. I felt a little guilty for taking the easy way out. But something about the simplicity and effectiveness of that strategy stuck with me.

My mother’s daughter had won her first round.

As time went on, and I had more children, my mother’s daughter spoke more often.

She had entire categories of phrases stored up somewhere in her subconscious. The very ones she swore she’d never utter.

“Because I said so,” came out every now and then, when she was just too tired to explain things.

Because I have eyes in the back of my head,” she would say while driving.

Which was often followed by “Don’t make me pull this car over.”

Some phrases were used when she wanted to avoid explaining something, or when the truth would be over their heads.

She would say “Life isn’t fair,” when one of them was having an existential crisis.

Or “Someday you’ll understand,” when the real explanation just couldn’t be offered.

And some just made no sense at all. Like “Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about.” And “If you break your legs doing that don’t come running to me.”

My mother’s daughter had plenty of advice for social situations. “If everyone else jumps off the cliff, are you going to jump to?”      And “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want plastered all over the internet.”

Every time my mother’s daughter rose up in me I realized that with every annoyance I spoke, every facial expression I mimicked, every cliché of hers I took on, I also acquired a little bit of my mother’s grace – and her wisdom.

As I grow older, and the lines in my face deepen, I see more and more of her in the mirror, too. The silver strands I now wear seem to make her big green eyes stand out on my face in a way I never noticed.

June, 2005

At my cousin’s wedding in 2005, a photographer snapped a photo of me and my mother side by side. It was the last photo of the two of us ever taken. When I look at it now, and I see her face on my shoulders, I can’t help but smile.

The transformation is complete. I have become my mother in every way.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

This essay was one of 11 stories read live on-stage at the 2016 Listen To  Your Mother: New Orleans show.

. lisha-at-ltym-2016

CLICK HERE to see my reading, or CLICK HERE  to see the entire LTYM: New Orleans playlist.

 

Dear Denham Springs,

You might not remember me, but I remember you.

I showed up on your doorstep eleven years ago, frightened and bedraggled.

And you opened your doors.

You made room in your homes and hearts for us. You hugged me in the grocery store, and gave me money. Your children befriended mine at school, and you made room for us in the pew at Mass. You shared your kindness and made me believe that everything was going to be all right.

I thanked you, and prayed that I would never have the opportunity to repay you.

But that’s not how it has turned out.

denham springs

Photo credit: wwltv.com

So I’m on my way. I’ll stock up on whatever I can find that I think you’ll need. I’ll show up ready to work. And I’ll try my best to make you believe that everything will be all right.

See y’all tomorrow.

Lisha

Being a Daughter

It hit me when I held the door open for the sweet, little lady. “Thank you, darlin’” she said. I smiled and watched her walk slowly to her car.

I wanted to follow her, open the car door for her, load the groceries into her trunk.

But her image had become blurry though my tears.

I whispered, “I miss being a daughter.”

Of all the things I have been, of all the hats I have worn, being a daughter was the constant.

Until one day.

I had an idyllic childhood. Almost every weekend of my youth was spent at our fishing camp on Grand Isle. My father and brother would be on the water at first light, leaving mother and daughter ashore. We filled the sunny days collecting shells on the beach or running crab traps in the surf, and the cloudy ones playing cards or assembling a puzzle. And talking. Always talking.

I didn’t realize during my teen years just how special my mom was. But my friends did, showing it by the hours they spent in her company.

When I moved away as a young bride the telephone kept us connected, and despite the outrageous cost of long distance in the 1980s, my husband never complained. He knew our bond was strong.

She doted on my children when they came along, even braving the delivery room when my firstborn arrived. I could not have imagined that experience without her.

I promised my father I would take care of her when he prepared to leave this world. And when the doctors told us just a few years later that she had only a couple of years to live, there was no hesitation. She moved in with us. I remember my husband’s words. “What’s the worst thing that can happen? She’ll live ten more years and drive us crazy.” He was close. She was under our roof for eight years, becoming part of every moment of every day.

Perhaps it’s a Southern thing, or maybe I was just overly attached to my mama, but being a daughter was a defining part of my identity. It was the one thing I had been for my entire life.

Until one day.

When I wasn’t a daughter any more.

My grief was eased the lifetime of memories and the promises of my faith. In my heart she was always with me. But my days felt empty. It took me years to identify that void. Once I did, I sought out every opportunity to again feel like a daughter. Like holding open doors for little old ladies.

A few days ago I bumped into a friend – who was shopping with her mother. I didn’t know this, but our mothers had been friends. When she introduced me as “Mary’s daughter,” her mother’s face lit up with the familiar smile of someone who knew my mom. And the empty place in me filled with love and pride and other emotions I don’t even have names for.

For ten years, I thought I wasn’t a daughter any more. All it took was a simple introduction to remind me that I will always be my mother’s daughter.

June, 2005

Happy birthday, Mom.

The Man


Photo courtesy of Amy Konieczka Photography.

Photo courtesy of Amy Konieczka Photography.

The other day, a man walked into my house.

He was driving my son’s car. He was wearing my son’s clothes. He even called me “Mom.”

But I had never seen this man before.

He bore a vague resemblance to a boy I dropped off at college not long ago. But the boy I remember was smaller. He held his hand out for me to hold when we crossed a street, or stepped onto an escalator. The man towered over me, putting his arm across my shoulders with ease.

The boy had an innocent face and sparkling, curious eyes. The man had a strong jaw, and a confident look. He even had facial hair.

The boy asked me questions when he wanted to learn about new things. The man talked about graduation, and about applying for jobs in California.

The boy didn’t want me to kiss him in front of his friends, and squirmed when I said “I love you.” The man hugged me tightly, and when he did I felt his love.

As I stood there watching the man – and remembering the boy – another image came to me.

The man stood in the west coast sun, with his arm around a different woman. A woman with a softer face and brighter eyes. With a smile that lit up when he entered the room. I recognized the look on the man’s face. It was the same look the little boy had when he got a new toy, or made a good grade. When he was happy.

The man stood close to the woman, so close it appeared they were one. And his hand reached out to a little boy. A boy whose eyes looked very familiar.

At that moment, I understood what my job had been all along.

When he was little I thought my job was to teach him to count and read. To cross the street safely. To say “please” and “thank you.”

I thought my job was make sure he brushed his teeth and did his homework. And wore deodorant.

But it turns out my job was to prepare him for his life without me.

In another place.

With another woman by his side.

As I returned to the moment at hand, a wave of nervousness flooded over me. And the words I’ve been contemplating for two decades came to my mind.

Roots and wings.

I gave the boy roots. That was the easy part. That was teaching him to read and cross the street and to brush his teeth and kiss him mama.

But the wings part, this was hard. But the time had come and I now had to step back and give him room to take flight.

I hope he lands somewhere special, and finds the woman with the bright eyes. I hope he remembers to say “please” and “thank you” and to wear deodorant.

And I hope he remembers his mama loves him. 

On May 3, 2015 I read this essay on the stage at the Manship Theater in Baton Rouge as part of the cast of Listen To Your Mother 2015. It was one of the top ten days of my life. 

You may view the entire LTYM: Baton Rouge 2015 show by clicking here.

To learn more about Listen To Your Mother, visit their website or YouTube channel.

 

Lists

I could feel it vibrating, so I did a quick peek to make sure it wasn’t one of the kids. Seeing my friends’ names on a group text, I pushed the phone back in my purse until the movie was over.

As soon as we were in the car, I retrieved the phoneList. The message thread was buzzing with commentary about the day’s big news: the Ashley Madison list. Names from the list were flashing across my screen. My friend’s boyfriend. Another friend’s brother. An acquaintance’s husband. Local politicians. A prominent minister. I recognized so many.

My responses were judgmental. Seeing these names – and the dollar amounts spent on infidelities and dalliances – had me stunned.

These were bad people. They deserved this.

Then I paused, and thought about their loved ones. I asked myself the question: What would I do?

But the question was strictly rhetorical. My husband would never do such a thing. He’s better than them. We’re better than them. I let that feeling wash over me with a smugness that was unsettling.

“I’m better than them.”

But what if it had been a different list.

What if it had been a list that I was on?

I’m on a lot of lists. Some I’m proud of. The list of volunteers at my son’s school. The list of donors to our new church. The list of people who voted in the last election.

Other lists, I’m not so proud of. In fact, I’m so ashamed I won’t even reference them here.

But I’m on a lot of lists. And I would be devastated if some of them were shared openly. If my children were to see my name on them. If my secrets were revealed to the world.

And I thought about the people on that list.

Some of them are feeling like there is no recovery from something this bad. Some have taken their own lives, like the pastor and seminary professor from New Orleans. I watched the interview with his family through tear-filled eyes. If only he could hear their words. His wife’s message to others, “Don’t underestimate the power of love.” His daughter’s lament that her father “doubted the fact that I would love him enough.” How many people feel alone and ashamed every single day because their name is on a list.

We have let lists define us. We validate ourselves by being on the good lists. We denigrate others when they’re on the bad lists.

We judge by these lists.

It’s time to move beyond the great American pastime of judging others. We must live with so much love and grace that the people around us will feel that love and grace every day. We have to make sure people know we love them enough. Even if they’re on a list.

Then we have to acknowledge our own shortcomings so we can move past them. We have to treat ourselves with that same love and grace we are sharing with others.

Because we’re all on a list.

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Share your thoughts on lists.

Naming Time

CalendarI still have a calendar on my refrigerator. The old-fashioned paper kind, with columns and rows delineating days and weeks. I faithfully fill in the details of my life to keep things on track. When a month passes I separate that page and move it to the back, in case I need it for future reference. Then, at the beginning of each school year I print a new one, and the process repeats itself. I hang on to the previous year for a little while, eventually parting with it unceremoniously.

I’ve had limited success with a digital calendar, so the faithful paper organizer remains the tool I use to keep track of time.

There was a phase of my life when I didn’t need a calendar. I could remember exactly what time a future event was scheduled, or the exact day something in the past happened. I had an incredible ability to recall details, and it was especially sharp when it came to remembering time. I was young, and my days were fewer.

When I was a little girl my family went camping on the beach often. One day, as my brother and I played in the sand while my mother sunned herself from her lounge chair and my dad fished, a water spout approached the shoreline. We watched it get closer and closer, eventually coming ashore right where our tent was pitched. For years I remembered the exact date and time that happened.

But as the days in my memory grew in number, my ability to pinpoint time with precision waned, and a more general method of identifying time took over. I remembered things by years. I got married when I was 22. We moved back to Louisiana when I was 26. I had my third child when I was 37. The numbers were clear and well-defined.

As I grew older, there were fewer and fewer events that were marked so clearly in my memory. Instead, a system of measuring time by milestones took over. I would recall whether something happened before a major life event or after. That was before Katrina. That happened while my husband was deployed. That was after my mother died.

The bad things seemed easier to mark time by than the good things for some reason. The simple things that make my life so rich are often eclipsed by the challenges, so those things became the markers of time. And I don’t like that.

At this moment I find myself in a transitional place. My oldest son has graduated from college, landed a good job, and moved into his own house. He won’t be coming home for summers any more, or spending Christmas break here with his brothers. My middle son is halfway through college, and spent this summer in Italy, spreading the wings he’ll soon use to fly away. My youngest started his sophomore year of high school, will get his driver’s permit this year. I am reminded daily that his years left with me are few.

Everything I have defined myself by for the past two and a half decades is changing, and I wonder what the next part of my life will be like. And what I will call it.

I’m looking forward to periods called the time Mr. Wonderful and I got to travel more, the year I finished my novel, and the year I went the whole summer without cooking.

I’m dreaming of the year I danced at my son’s wedding, and the year I became a grandmother.

But I wonder how I will remember this time.

The calendar on my refrigerator says it’s 2015. But I will always remember this as the year he got his own place, the year he studied abroad, and the year he learned to drive.

The Lesson of the Cup and Stick

This time last week, I was on a cruise ship in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, with nothing to worry about except whether to have wine or dessert after dinner. (I had both.) It was a “girlfriend” getaway, with 23 silly women (and 3 very brave men), planned to take us away from the stress and chaos of our busy lives and charge our spiritual batteries.

Cozumel, our first port of call, gave us a rainy welcome. Donning plastic ponchos, we hit the streets to see, smell, taste, and feel this island paradise. The rain ended soon after we arrived, and the sky turned a beautiful shade of blue that provided a magnificent background for our adventure.

Photo credit: Stacy Wheat, 2014

Photo credit: Stacy Wheat

As we walked the streets we talked about many things. The dichotomy of rich merchants hawking their wares and poor children on the street corner asking for money. The safety of the drinking water. Concerns about sanitation and health care. The beauty of the open water, and the threat it brings every hurricane season.

The lives of the people there seemed so different from our lives.

My mama’s words flashed through my mind. “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” I shared this thought with my friends. How lucky I felt that I was born where I was born. In a place where clean drinking water is taken for granted. Where I can drive to a doctor for medical treatment whenever I need it. That I have an education, a good job, a safe home. I did nothing to deserve these blessings. I was born into them.

Feeling grateful and lucky, we continued our walk along the beach, stopping for an occasional photo. A brown-skinned boy played in the sand. Young men swam in the crystal water. Modest boats were pulled onto the beach, the tools of their owners’ livelihood. My friend offered a different perspective.

“How happy do you think these people are, compared to us?”

Living a simpler life, at a slower pace. Developing deep relationships. Fewer stress-induced maladies, more time to enjoy the beauty in each day.

It was a humbling moment. I watched the boy in the sand, with a cup and a stick, playing contentedly. I thought about my children, and the complexities of their lives. How long would they be satisfied playing with a cup and a stick? I looked at the policeman on the corner. I wondered if his medicine cabinet had as many prescriptions in it as mine did. I wondered if the fishermen knew how well their daily catch nourished their bodies.

I didn’t set out that day to have this kind of existential moment on the beach. But it seems that’s what I do. We walked quietly for a while after that, taking in the last moments of our time there.

I brought back many things from this trip – woven bracelets, postcards, and a beautiful leather purse.

But the most important thing I brought back is a renewed sense of gratitude. I want to have the best of both worlds in my life. To live in this place with clean water and good health care, but to do so in a simpler, slower way. To enjoy the beauty in each day, and to live in the moment I am given. To hold my dear ones close. To be grateful for a cup and a stick and a beautiful view.

This time last week I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis. The kind where you cry and drum up all the reasons why your life is terrible. It went something like this.

“I can’t do it all.”

“Something has to change. I can’t keep doing this.”

“Everyone else’s needs are being met but mine.”

“When is it my turn?”

If this sounds familiar, read on. If not, you should probably find something else to do. And count your blessings while you’re at it, because you’re a lucky soul.

For those in the first group, let’s continue.

My initial interpretation of the feelings I was having was that I was unhappy. I was crying, after all. I must be unhappy. “My house is a mess. My yard is a disgrace. Life is terrible. Etcetera, etcetera.”

After my melt
down, I tried to put emotion aside and sort things out in an analytical manner. Working from emotion had given me swollen eyes and a stuffed up nose, which wasn’t helping the matter. So I did what my mama taught me to do. I looked inward.

My perception: “The house is a mess.”

Reality: My house is not a mess. The dining room is where we do homework. The kitchen counter has
a pile of papers on one end. The refrigerator needs to be cleaned and the dog needs a bath. Not a crisis situation.

My perception: “The yard is a disgrace.”

Reality: The gardens need to be weeded. I didn’t get around to thinning out the liriope before it got to be a gazillion degrees outside, so that will have to wait until fall. The grass is brown in the sunny spots, b
ut that happens every August. And now that I look around, every other yard on the block looks the same way.

My perception: “I can’t do it all.”

Reality: I decide what I do or don’t do. If I’m obsessing over something trivial, it’s my own doing. I choose what I do or don’t do.

My perception: “My life is terrible.”

Reality: My life
is enviable.

In an effort to break it down I started a list. In a matter of minutes I had a two page list of things to do. Tasks that would address my perceived deficiencies. Get it all done. But nowhere on the list were all the things I do every day. Empty the dishwasher. Feed the dog. Balance the checkbook. I looked at the list for a few minutes and started to sob again. I could spend entire days, weeks, months constantly in motion, and never get all of this done. The list would be constantly growing.

Constantly outpacin
g me without ever reaching any of my goals.

I felt overwhelmed.

So I made a new list.

I made a list called What I Want.

I’ll share a few items with you so you can get the gist, sparing the really personal ones for another time.

I want to support my son with his homework.

I want to be more faith-centered.

I want to have a clean house. (I surprised myself by acknowledging that.)

I want to make time for friends and family.

I want to finish the 1st draft of my novel.

I looked at both lists, and considered how many things on my To Do List supported my What I Want List. That was an epiphany for me. I was perceiving everything on my To Do List as time and energy suckers. When in fact, many of the things were supporting or accomplishing the things I said I wanted.

I felt like I had cracked the code.

We all get overwhelmed. Some days it feels like it’s just too much. But understanding the difference between feeling unhappy and acknowledging that you’re overwhelmed can be the difference between divorce and marriage, between joy and meltdown, between giving up or living to fight another day.

I’ll never again confuse overwhelmed and unhappy. When it feels like it’s just too much I’ll check the list and make sure the things I’m doing support the things I want. And I’ll remind myself that I don’t have to do it all. I choose what I do. My life is enviable. And I am grateful for it all.

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Are you one of the lucky folks who has never felt this way? Or are you also familiar with the Big O?