When Loss Is Life

when loss is lifeNo one expects loss. We live as if life, the precious commodity, belongs to us. Yet loss is a part of life, and when it tragically and irrevocably attacks, it changes you forever. And I mean forever. Life is not the absence of loss, rather loss exists as a part of life.

March 11 dawned as an ordinary Sunday morning. We prepared for church and when word came that Brenda was calling an ambulance and would I help with the kids, I seriously thought it was nothing. Our son hadn’t been feeling well, but doctors were talking seizure disorders, not death! As I fed the kiddos, Bill took me aside and said the medics were working to revive him and in that moment, my life spun out of control.

We hustled the kids into the car and raced…and I mean, raced to the hospital. I literally ran into a cubicle filled with family, and Brenda teared up when she told me, “We lost him.” I tried to hold it together for her sake, but when Bill and the boys and I went to see his lifeless body, I sobbed. Literally sobbed over his body. It was like an out of body experience. I had no idea it would hit me like that. But it did.

Since I blog, I kept a record of the adjustments throughout this first year of life without Alma. I knew the stages of grief, but I learned a new set of mile markers. My grief skyrocketed through all the Kubler-Ross stages in days and hours, only to repeat their eccentric gyrations again and again. In reviewing the chronology of my dance with grief, I realized it hit me hardest as months progressed after the support of services and cards passed.

Throughout this year my mind felt numb. I virtually went through the motions. I did the next thing in front of me, but thoughts were intangible wisps and hard to connect. Prior joys like sewing, knitting, and playing the piano fell by the wayside. I not only couldn’t concentrate, trying to made my heart overflow with sorrow. My chest often felt like it might explode with pain. Was I having a heart attack?  When I was still alive after a few days I realized it had to be stress, painful nonetheless. What helped me the most was talking about him, about what I was experiencing, about my pain to friends who would listen. Blogging brought healing.

Ten months to the day after Alma’s death, however, I woke up. I could focus again. I could knit and keep track of a pattern. I sat down to finish a quilt and had to relearn how to thread my sewing machine, but I was able to actually accomplish a goal! Like a mother grizzly coming out of hibernation, I felt awake. Alive.

This chronicle of my year of life with loss is meant to be a path for you as well. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time. Blessings…

*Note: This chronicle of my year of grief is available on Amazon. It is meant to be a solace for others who wonder, “Is this normal?” “Am I dying?” “What’s wrong with me?” I’ve made it 99 cents, affordable and public. I hope you can share it with others who find themselves lost in the fog of grief.

 

Change is In the Air

Happy 2019!  I took a couple weeks off through the holidays.  It was a difficult Christmas with one less at the table, and Alma’s birthday January 1st came as a double whammy.  We gathered to share his favorite foods and tell stories in remembrance of him…it was a good day.

alma's handsThis is one of my favorite stories, Alma describing how he built a breakfast bar for their home.  “OK, so you start with a pile of scrap 2x6s from building the house. You put them through the table saw twice to make them more square, then through the planer twice, then through the drum sander several times per side. Then you cut both ends off to make the ends square, then you put them in your homemade Taylor press with some glue and a few screws. At this point you have a plank, that you now have to run through the planer 4 times, then through the drum sander 6 times. Cut it to size and shape, add some trim, some stain and lots of lacquer an, Wammo, you have a butcher block breakfast

I am beyond thankful to friends and family who have gotten us this far, and look forward to a year of adaptation, change and joy!  Yes, change is in the air.  Blessings to all.  I’m back!

What Happens On Cookie Day…Really?

Rhoads family cookie day occurs just once each year.  Let me give you some sage advice: never give your grandchildren little love monikers, like cookie names.  It leads to hosting a family cookie day where we bake each kind of cookie.  It leads to bedlam!

It all began so innocently.  Matthias was our first, and whenever we wanted to talk about him, we all just said “M” and he never caught on.  Then I had a little Sugar, so the others all asked what their cookie names were, and, well, before long I had a Chipper, a Gingersnap, a Snickerdoodle, a Tea Cake, a Chocoberry, and a Lemon Drop.  If you make double batches of each, that’s a whole lot of cookies!

in the beginningIt begins with a pristine kitchen large enough for all of us. We go to the church, which has three ovens.  I wonder if the kitchen feels any fear…it’s those Rhoads kids again! Watch out! 

Everyone lines up for hand washing.  When Alma was alive he wore an old security guard uniform and his sole function was watching little hands touching faces or noses or hair…it was back to the sink for all of them once or twice.  They’re better now, but Bill watches all the same.

Some of the chilled dough is ready for immediate baking, four batches have to be mixed, and of course, everyone loves helping Katelyn with the sugar cookies. The shapes are beginning to look better, but icing is thick and literally swimming with decorations. Note to self: You can never have too many sprinkles.

When it’s all cleaned up, the cars are loaded, and I turn off the light, I breathe a sigh of contentment mixed with a whole lot of relief.  Cookie day is a happy memory.  I hope when I am gone each one will think of me when they munch on cookies, and remember how much I loved them…enough to endure cookie day once a year, lol!

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Be Afraid of the Nine-Year-Old

I’ve languished for three weeks with a virus refusing to go away. Today I lay, spent, on the couch and a perky 9-year-old wants to prove she can bake cookies without me. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The first comment hollered to me from the kitchen foreshadowed her entire venture. “Nana, what’s 21/4 cup?” Really??? She’s baked with me for years. She reads ingredient lists to me all the time. Her math features fractions on a daily basis. Really?!!

“Nana, is this granulated sugar?” She hauled in a canister of powdered sugar. Really?  Have you read the label?  Yes, I’m feeling very afraid.

But this is how she learns. So far the crashes sound muted, but she’s still on the first step in the instructions.  I’m wondering why there have been so many crashes in just the first step. I’m afraid to look, but I’ll have to, sooner or later.

Letting our little ones grow up is hard, isn’t it? On the one hand, we bust our buttons with each milestone. On the other hand, we pay for each milestone along the way. I’m left wondering if all the universe operates on that same principle. One step forward, two steps back, three step forwards and lose the common sense somewhere in the middle. With each gain a loss promises growth.

Living with loss helps me appreciate the promise, and I’m very much like a nine year old in walking down this lonely path. Minus the perkiness. Minus the sweet treat. Of course, we have yet to taste her cookies, so the analogy may prove true in the end.

Family Bandaids

Life with loss, so they say, is a Chutes and Ladders kind of game. I never played as a child, but I’m playing now. Today I enjoyed a chute that put a bandaid on the hole in my heart. We enjoy family dinners on the first and third Sundays, and they never disappoint.

On first Sundays we have recitals and all the littles play something on the piano. I love watching those little fingers fly across the keys! They usually play something they’ve memorized, so who’s interested in looking at the music or counting, anyway? Aaron tickles the ivories, always a blessing. Today Levi brought his electric cello, and those mournful tones touched my soul.

The hugs and giggles and chaos may be exhausting, but in a good way. Megan and Lori work seamlessly with me to get the meal on the table. It takes two cycles of our dishwasher working overtime to handle the mess. When the toys are put away and the final waves initiate the mantle of silence, it’s a lighter silence. We wear little smiles and laugh about the kids’ antics. Charlie breathes a sigh of relief because he ‘s patiently endured too much love, so he naps beside me. The room feels less oppressive.

I like looking back at pictures with my son and ran into this Thanksgiving picture from a year ago, when Alma was still with us. They say you grieve as much as you love, so I must learn to adapt to a lifelong hole in my heart…but these short reprieves help. A lot. Yes, it’s like putting a bandaid over a sore that made me cry all week long. So incredibly thankful for family.DSC_0152

No Empty Chairs

We put up the Christmas tree. It was all glowing, and at first I felt lighter. No, my scale still tipped at the same alarming poundage. It was my soul. My soul felt lighter.

It took me awhile to figure it out. More than color and twinkling lights, more than cheesy ornaments and memories, more than being my favorite holiday, the tree this year offered me a new perspective. It filled a corner where I last saw my son alive.xmas tree

A lovely burgundy wingback chair usually graces that corner. Alma sat in it many a night on his way home from work, stopping in to chat. It remains my last memory of my son. The advent of the tree removed that last vestige and it didn’t take long for the pendulum to swing back and smack me in the face.

Putting the chair in another place didn’t banish his memory, for I think of him with every breath and with each beat of my heart, but it removed all hope of finding him there some morning, dropping by to say hello. It removed all hope, period.

I find I am no better off than the atheist who doesn’t believe in life after death, who believes that when a person dies, he’s simply gone. I know. I believe in life after death and all, but on this side of the veil, I’m no better off than the atheist. My son is gone. I never got to say goodbye, and I have no talisman to ward off overwhelming grief.

Something will have to change, for life at this point is unsustainable. I need hope. Only hope can bring an easing of the heartache. Only hope can make it easier to breathe, cause my heart to cease its palpitations and stop the tightening in my chest when I try to eat. I need to live again, for a part of me died last March. I am waiting for that empty corner of my heart to be healed, made new, filled again. The empty chair, empty heart ends at some point, right?

 

Odd Numbers and When to Celebrate

ann347. It’s an odd number, isn’t it? Not quite golden, but close. Very close.

We opted for a big shindig on our 40th, never realizing a third of our family would be missing at our 50th–so glad we didn’t wait! I always thought I’d die young, so I’ve tried to squeeze a lifetime into each moment. Now I find the unthinkable has become my new reality. I live, yet the bones of my bones lies dead. I didn’t ask for this. I wanted it the other way around.

Being real, this is my story. My life. And 47 is a great number, because it symbolizes 47 years of learning to be one, surviving our ups and downs, trials and blessings. In this arid desert we tend to grieve better separately, at the same time, but each in our own way. We’ve learned to give space and to seek solace, and our advice to our friends is simple–celebrate now. Never wait. Loss can strike viciously, suddenly, with never a chance to say goodbye. Celebrate life every chance you get.ann1

Here’s the important point: We celebrate together. We celebrate life. We celebrate the family we have, both here and beyond the veil. Bill, I love you. I loved our evening out. Here’s to another 3, anyway. Let’s be golden!

 

Always Find Time to Smile

The world gets whacko sometimes, doesn’t it? We thought road rage was bad, but that devolved into interpersonal aggression in every corner of the country. Between wars, threats of terrorism, Facebook bullying and politics in general, life gets grim…but look at that as all the more reason to smile.

I mean this from the bottom of my heart: The simplest antidote to all this pent up rage is the application of a smile. Paste it on if you have to, but find it. Wear it. Share it. This is the time and the place to do just that!

As a guest columnist, I’d like to share with you one of the things that makes me smile. My second book has just been released, and writing has brought me more pleasure than you can imagine. I started writing the books because I cherish five granddaughters and certain life lessons needed learning without preaching. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with my heroine.

Christine is a girl, every girl, your girl. Perhaps she is you. Born a commoner, she finds herself a princess being trained for royal duties. Doesn’t that just describe each gal on the planet? We do the mundane. We sweep. We cook. We fold laundry. Yet in our hearts we know we wear invisible crowns. We know those simple acts serve a greater good and to the little minions we treasure, we are heroines.

Living vicariously through Christine and her adventures draws me from the sad notes in life and restores my joy. Seeing my granddaughters enjoying the books puts a sparkle in my soul. Do I see myself writing more books? Of course!

And that is my challenge to you, dear readers. Find those grace notes that bring a smile to your face, and put them consciously, intentionally into your life. When you share your smiles, you’ll find others smiling back, and who can be spewing rage when faced with a smile bubbling up and overflowing?  We exercise no control over the world at large, but we each influence a small corner of the world where we hang our hats. So smile and clean up your corner of the world.

The Common Princess 005 book 2 cover aaron

 

Sometimes You Just Don’t Get What You Wish For

This will be the first time Alma has missed my birthday.  When he was alive, he’d stop by several nights a week on his way home from work.  He’d walk in the back door and sit down in the corner chair and say, “What’s up, Mom?” or “Whaddaya need, Mom?” In the past nine months I’ve looked at that chair countless times, hoping to see him sitting there, that lazy smile on his face.Image 002

I got up extra early this morning, just to see if he’d drop by, maybe be waiting in that chair to tell me “Happy Birthday.”  That was the present I wanted most. I guess he’s busy elsewhere.

So what is he up to?  I mean, Alma never liked to sing, and I can’t see him in choir rehearsals all day long.  I’m fairly certain there’s nothing to blow up in heaven.  No cars to fix.  Nothing to weld.  He should be here. What a slacker! He was never idle when alive, so this is a certainly departure from the norm.

All of it begs the question: What happens when you don’t get the one present you’d hoped to get? I’m old enough I can’t remember how I coped as a child when that happened, though it inevitably did…I just can’t remember. A recent verse has been worming its way into my consciousness…and a friend at church quoted it as “give thanks for all things.” I looked it up, because I’m nowhere near giving thanks for losing Alma. Yup, that’s what it said in my Bible.  I had to close it so I wouldn’t throw it across the room.  Then another friend posted a different version…”give thanks in all things.” It’s a much better translation for nomads like myself.

I can give thanks for the love of my family and friends in this time of desert wandering.  I can give thanks for the Lord, who collects and counts my tears.  I can give thanks for the good times to come, because surely this desert ends at some point in life.  And I can give thanks for meaningful work.  Writing has become a solace for me, and I am ever thankful for the support of friends and loved ones who encourage me.

In the meantime, I’ll keep looking over at that chair, ever hopeful and ever longing to have that final goodbye with my son.  Do you get to subtract a year and a candle if you don’t get your wish?  Ha! I know.  Bummer!

Thanksgiving is Easy When You Approach the Holiday Like It’s a Tactical Invasion

I love Thanksgiving. I really do.  I love all the foods, love having my family hang out, love the idea behind it.  It is my favorite holiday until about 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving night, when the Rhoads family Christmas tree goes up. But Thanksgiving for the uninitiated can be quite daunting…hence this blog.

Begin early in November. Spend the month focused on developing an attitude of gratitude. I like to journal on the topic and immerse myelf in the real purpose of the holiday: family ties and blessings remembered. Scan articles about decorating for fall holidays. My family has a few favorites that had better be on the table, but one or two new twists keep the holiday fresh. Devour recipes on Pinterest. This cultivates a frame of mind filled with peace, not jitters. Personal preparation before meal preparation is huge for me.

Two weeks before Thanksgiving I start working on table settings. Seating 17 people requires thoughtful consideration. Who has handicapped needs? Who likes visiting with whom? Do the children sit with the adults, and if not, at what age break do they graduate to the main table? Will you serve buffet or family style with serving dishes on the table? Are you carving the turkey at the table Norman Rockwell style or plating it? Answer all these questions to determine the physical arrangement of guests and family. Then work on your tablescape. I use cloth napkins, and like to learn fancy new folding pattern each year. I also like to decorate the table with little cards at each place setting. I don’t assign seating, but I like something thought provoking or cute. Get these mudane tasks figured out well ahead of time. Trust me on this.

If you are new to preparing the family feast, you’ll find it much easier if you approach the holiday with the tactical precision of a military commander planning the invasion of Normandy. I kid you not. It takes military genius to pull this thing off. Let’s begin with the week of Thanksgiving, assigning time slots for meal preparation.

If your turkey isn’t already thawing, go now. Right now. Buy a fresh one. It takes 4 days to defrost an 18 pound turkey in the fridge. If yours is smaller, you may still have time. I keep mine in a picnic cooler with a thermometer. As it thaws it keeps the cooler about the same temperature as a fridge…but I have to watch if the oven is on too much, raising the ambient temperature. Sometimes I toss the cooler outside if it isn’t freezing, sometimes it moves in an out over the course of a day…I know, it’s a pain. But hey, that’s a lot of refrigerator real estate to fork over when the ice box is already jam-packed with everything else.

Monday is a day of rest for me. Sundays find me running myself ragged, preparing for kids’ classes, figuring out dinner, and returning for Sunday evening church. I gear up for Thanksgiving by napping on Monday. Everyone needs a day of rest, right?

Tuesday morning dawns with my preparations in full swing. I make my mashed potatoes on Tuesday, using cream cheese and sour cream to keep them creamy and delightful. I start drying 2 loaves of bread for stuffing, and I organize ingredients with spices across the dining room table. Tuesday evening is cranberry sauce. Wash your berries, taking out the ones that float. I use the recipe on the package and even though Bill is the only one of the family who likes them, I make a double batch every year. If there’s a lot left over, I can always make more Jello, lol.

Wednesday is pie, jello and stuffing day. I bake pies and try to move them around so they don’t freeze while staying the appropriate temperature. Let me just sat this: Mother Nature, I want a steady 45 degrees through Thanksgiving! Morning; While the pies are baking I’m cooking giblets. Pumpkin pie requires putting everything into the bowl in the proper order so your spices don’t clump, but making them from scratch is huge. The canned pie mix is too bland or me. Afternoon: Jello time! I usually make a blueberry concoction with a nice frosting, but it was Alma’s favorite, so I’m exploring a new recipe this year. There’s no sense in crying through the day. Evening: By Wednesday night you need to have chopped and mixed the stuffing.  Don’t skimp on the sage. I mix it up and taste it an hour later to be sure it’s savory and perfect. If you can’t farm out the sweet potatoes, make those Wednesday evening as well.

Thursday morning starts at 5:00 am, when we stuff the turkey and stick it in the oven. I know. You aren’t supposed to stuff the bird, but hey, stuffing just isn’t the same in a casserole dish. I can always taste the difference, and since it’s one of my favorite things, it simply must get stuffed. Finish the Jello by 10:00 am. If your dinner is noonish, the potatoes go in the oven by 11:00. Make sure you take your turkey out a half hour before you’re ready to carve. Spoon out the stuffing.

Carving the turkey: First remove the drumsticks. Systematically remove the thighs and wings. Now cut down the center of the bird to bisect the breast. Once you’ve lifted it aside, it can be easily sliced. Do the same with the other side. Fill one half of the platter with white and the other half with dark.

Gravy time! Start with the appropriate stock, skimming off excess grease. Season it. Make a slurry of flour and water, and add it to the gravy, whisking like a madwoman. Continue the process, letting it cook as it thickens.

Image result for images thanksgivingThankfully, other family members are bringing sweet potatoes, rolls, appetizers, a vegetable casserole, and extra desserts. So happy about that! Trust yourself. You can do this. Just devise a plan, and be very specific. It makes Thanksgiving easy and your family will be so impressed. And thankful.