When Wars Rage

One of our nation’s most horrific wars cemented awareness of a phenomenon little understood for centuries.  The Civil War resulted in catastrophic numbers of amputees, and phantom pain–in which sensation, often painful, is felt despite a limb’s absence–became a clinical diagnosis.  Dr. Silas Mitchell, who was the “father of American neurology,” treated hundreds of these patients and dedicated his life to alleviating this after effect of war.  He actually named the illogical sensation, and his memoirs trace his elusive pursuit of a cure for phantom pain.

That ghostly sensation of knowing a leg is gone, yet feeling the need to scratch a missing foot, simply cannot be reasoned nor willed away.  Current researchers believe the pain originates from a more primeval site, like the spinal cord.  To date, no specific treatment stills the shooting pain of loss.

  • As a teacher in a nursing home can close her eyes and smell chalk dust…
  • As a chef late in life can close his eyes and feel the texture of pastry dough…
  • As a mother can close her eyes and still see her son’s blue skin in death…

Loss brooks no reality.  The passages create a phantom pain in the primeval tendrils of the heart.  Not every day.  Not all the time.  Yet seeing sons of other mothers at church triggers the guilty sensation of not envy, but of wanting more, of wishing it wasn’t my cross to bear, of fighting against reality.  The quiet war rages again.  In its wake the casualties of peace and acceptance induce a very real soreness in the heart for which no real treatment suffices.  Reading the Word.  Trusting the Healer will bring the promised comfort.  Learning to live with loss.  Slow, steady bandages must be reapplied.

Phantom pain describes the heartache I feel when I open my eyes and reach out my arms…to emptiness.


On the Road Again Every Day

Okay, he’s not my favorite recording artist, but my gypsy heart loves embarking on a trip, so I warble the lyrics anyway.  I love every part of a trip.  Packing feels like Christmas.  Pulling out of the drive feels like opening a fresh new jar of apple butter.  The scenery, like a thousand snapping synapses, invigorates my mind.  Coming home to my own bed feels like heaven.

The trick lies in living each day as the ultimate journey, savoring each new experience in the scenery of my life.  Assign new meanings to everyday chores.  Derive excitement from the mundane.  Life lived to the max, pedal to the medal and interspersed with rest areas, creates a well-lived epitaph.  Wring joy from weeding.  Distill pleasure from folding laundry.  Let cooking fuel the imagination, not just the belly.  Mine the gold from the hearts lounging on the couch.  Let the Word serve as the most definitive map of life, and consult it often to stay on course.

We’re traveling this time to visit dear friends.  Desperately in need of talk therapy, this trip serves as a poignant divide between the landscape of grief and the fertile, lush foliage I’ll find at the hearth of a sister of the heart.  My goal transcends safe arrival.  I’m in search of a refreshed outlook, a calm spirit and a comforted heart.  I want to return refueled and road-ready for my crazy life.  Four camps, family dinners, a business where I try to bless others, grands camping out in our living room, little league, and a host of calendar engagements through a full summer require this tune up.  Above all, some very precious people need me at top-notch performance.

So I’m changing the tires on the vehicle my mind drives, realigning my chassis, recharging my batteries, and repacking my treasured memories to fit the current route I travel.  Every day I am on the road of life again.  Every.  Single.  Day.


What is the Final Goodbye? Boomers Need to Know

It’s been 3 months since Alma’s death, and I both looked forward to and dreaded his graveside service.  I wanted, needed, really longed for a sense of closure.  I found myself mired in an abyss of sorrow, my heart actually feeling torn inside my body.  I lost other family members through the years, but this loss of my child was not the same.

Friends asked why we waited so long to hold the service, and I can answer that in a single word: Katelyn.  His precious little daughter experienced a meltdown when she learned about his autopsy: “Cutting him open? NOOOO!!!!”  We shamelessly hid the little, almost insignificant detail about his cremation.  I’m good with that; not every lesson need be learned at 9 years of age.  Thus we waited until all the messy tell-tale signs of “no casket” were obliterated by nicely growing grass and a lovely headstone.  But postponement merely delayed the inevitable.  It finally came time to plan his his graveside service, time for me to quit thinking he was just at work, just in his shop, and to really face a regrettable truth.

For some of the family it may have felt like an unimportant after thought, but for me it was different.  From the unexpected visitors greeting us when we arrived to the Mountain Dew I placed on his headstone in memory of the ubiquitous aluminum can he always carried with him, a necessary rite of passage took shape.  The final goodbye.  I felt lighter when we left the cemetery, glad it was over.

Yet I awoke the next morning still wanting to see my son, still needing to say goodbye. Grief remained.  Perhaps loss remains as a sign of life, tears as a talisman of never ending love.  Perhaps sudden death carries the lifelong expectancy to see a loved one, a need to say the unspoken words of the heart.  And so I wonder: Is there ever a final goodbye?

We thought we said goodbye in the tearful final episodes of Mash, yet it airs everyday just like clockwork and as if it never ended.  We thought we said goodbye to flared pants and miniskirts, but they resurfaced with new names nonetheless. Gaucho pants?  Really?  Perpetual reruns and repeating cycles of fashion leave the uncomfortable notion that nothing in life ever really ends.  Yet death indeed spells an ending, a finite goodbye no one bridges this side of the grave.  The question isn’t one of ending, it’s one of beginning the long process of adaptation to a colorless landscape of never ending grief.  And I wonder if it spans into the great void of life after death.  Does Alma carry within his soul words he never got to speak as well?

Let’s put aside the ideas of the happy medium and science fiction, dwelling instead on the reality of the chasm between two worlds existing in tandem, yet ever apart.  No hugs, no phone calls bridge that gap.  Only faith permeates the void, and that’s a commodity more precious than any 401k.  Boomers eschewed materialism, but did they ever really cultivate the invisible commodities of peace transcending loss or faith supplanting despair?  We need to ask ourselves hard questions and find real answers.  For me the final goodbye was accepting he was really gone; now I begin each new day whispering, “Goodbye, Alma.  I love you now and forever, Tall Man.”  Now I cultivate that daily lightening, trusting in the Healer who promised He personally would heal my broken heart.  Now I must remember how to cultivate joy.  Acceptance became my final goodbye.

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Memorialize Stories–Not Just Graves

I always decorate graves this time of year.  Getting my sons to join me in that endeavor ranks with “Gotta’ mow the lawn, Mom!” and “Time to change the oil, Mom!”  In other words, decorating grave sites may actually be at the bottom, the absolute bottom of the list of things they want to do.

We’re preparing for Alma’s graveside service.  Knowing all 15 of us, kiddos and their parents will be there, a flood of memories I want to share flood my mind.  Buried near Alma are my mom, my grandmother and grandfather, aunts and uncles, a host of family members who slapped Alma on the back or bear-hugged him in his transition.  I plan on taking the whole kit and caboodle on a little walk down memory lane.  I want to share a short anecdote about the people who shaped their lives, who pray for them, whose DNA prescribed their noses and chins and hair lines.  They even touch our adopted kiddos one way or another.

memorialsStories transcend time.  They take us to a time and place the imagination makes vivid with description.  We may live in a visually over-dosed society, but never underestimate  the osmosis of  values, love, or joy from words bridging generations.  Decorating graves is something I do, but yes, I’m telling stories this year.  True ones.


Does Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

I’m paring down to about three posts a week on my blog.  I expect sooner or later you’llmeatballs grow tired of my company, so cutting back for the summer just made sense.  It also made me wonder.  Absence and fondness became cliched so long ago, I doubt anyone remembers who first coined the phrase.  If you know, tell me!

I gave the whole concept some thought.  If you love someone and see your loved one less, I think you may feel tantalized with the thought of being together soon, but your love grows for other reasons.  Shared hopes in letters, calls, exchange of pictures…it all deepens fondness.  But not absence.

Mostly I think it’s true when we talk about things like meatballs.  Every so often we visit a new Italian restaurant where I don’t have a “usual” item I love on the menu.  The scent of meatballs wafts through the door as I enter, and shazaaaam!!!  I have to order meatballs!  It’s only when the plate sits before me with fork in hand that I remember.  I don’t really like meatballs.  Nope.  Not at all.  So did absence make my heart grow fonder?  No, it created an illusion of fondness totally devoid of reality.

When I disappear from sight three days a week this summer, I hope you still love me.  I don’t expect you to go all ga-ga when I write, but I do love your comments.  Everyone loves to be heard, even when those we most want to hear us abide across the great chasm no man bridges.  Absent but not forgotten, loving nonetheless.

Sawdust and Wood Shavings

caveat:  this is not a happy post.  Don’t feel obligated to read it, despite the fact that I felt obligated to write it.

It’s been 9 weeks since my son’s death.  I hoped, despite all warning to the contrary, it would be a matter of bouncing back.  No.  I still have a hole in my heart.

During the day when I find myself busy with friends, working my business, dealing with kiddos…I’m good.  It feels like he’s at work.  These activities never included him, so I carry on as if nothing changed.  Yet every evening I listen for his truck.  My head knows things my heart finds irreconcilable.  That rumble never shoots past our house and down the drive to his.  And never will.

Walking down to their house and entering his shop, the wood shavings from his projects no longer litter the floor.  Friends carefully stowed his tools away.  Very few of his things remain in view, yet the house he built bears his fingerprints from the shop to the third floor attic.  And I see him in his wife and children, reciting his favorite sayings and hanging onto his memory for all they’re worth.  These shavings just aren’t the same thing as being able to see him, talk to him, hug him one last time.

Somehow, being a believer makes it harder.  I believe in a loving God.  I know He is a God of purpose and all is meant for good.  Yet in the midst of unbearable sorrow that knowledge brings me no comfort.  Sundays are the hardest.  I unlock the door of my heart in worship and I am undone.

I know anger is a part of the process, yet I feel no anger, so have I not begun to heal?  Such a worrisome thought.  I had more time with my son than many a mother who gets to enjoy a full lifespan…what a blessing!  Yet I never got to say goodbye.  I wasn’t done mothering.  The hole in my heart feels like a gaping wound and perhaps it always will.

It’s Sunday night.  Time to lock things up for the week.  Time to carry on.  Sawdust litters the floor of my heart, Alma John, and I miss you!  I look up at the chair where you plopped down to chat with me several times a week, and you’re not there.  How I wish you were.  Just too much sawdust.