Endings, Small and Large

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Ed’s birthday, falling on September 1st as it always did since 1967, marked the end of summer. I really thought his death would be the end of Ed’s role in my world, in my brain space, in—even—my heart space. True, we did divorce 18 years before his death, but we’d had two kids together and the continued parenting of those kids kept us bumping up against one another, in large and small ways.

But then, endings are always also the beginning of something else.

Today there’s a definite chill in the air in Minnesota when, just last week, it was too hot and humid to sit outside for any length of time, unless you were by water. Ed loved water. That’s what I spoke about at his memorial service when the pastor invited attendees to get up and tell memories about Ed. But no one came to the front. Minutes passed and still the pastor waited, patiently. Too patiently.

I’ve always been the kind of student who would answer a teacher’s question—even if I was wrong—just to end the silence in a classroom. That’s why, I think, I got up to speak about Ed—to end the silence.

My 27-year old daughter had already read her prepared memories about her dad; her 24-year old brother does not like public speaking—so she’d interlaced his memories with her own. Ed’s widow was too broken apart to speak. Ed’s youngest brother had already read a kindly embellished version of Ed’s obituary. The rest of Ed’s family had been mostly estranged from Ed—or he’d been estranged from them—for the better part of the prior 13 years. I don’t know that they had much to say. Did he have friends who were holding back, I wondered? He’d never had a lot of friends when I knew him best: high school, college, and the first decade of my post-college years.

So, it fell on me—I guessed, to speak on Ed’s behalf. I assumed I was his longest-known friend in attendance at his memorial service that came just three days after he unexpectedly died when his heart stopped during an endoscopy. There was more to it than this, of course; his health had been poor, his organs were—quite possibly—floundering, but none of us had expected him to die; not yet.

Up in front of that funeral home, I spoke about how Ed had loved the lake. While there are definitely more than 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, where I live (where we lived), when you speak of “the lake” in Minnesota, you’re referring to the lake that is most special to you, especially if you are fortunate enough to have a family with a lake cabin. We both had that good fortune—at the time when were together, we—along with many other family members—owned the lake (two different, but geographically close, lakes) where our grandfathers had once built cabins. By the time of the funeral, however, both cabins had consolidated ownership under aunts, uncles, or cousins, that were not a part of our immediate families. By the time of Ed’s death, neither one of us had the good fortune of having a lake anymore.

The older I get, the more I understand that life brings us a series of small endings that lead up to that one large ending, the one we’ll all reach one day.

But even without owning the lake anymore, I talked about the lake at his memorial. I told everyone how Ed was the happiest when he was fishing or swimming—at least when I knew him best. Later that evening, I would wish I’d talked about how Mozart, my parent’s springer/lab rescue dog, would dive down alongside Ed, who—with his snorkel and wetsuit on—would point out clams for Mozart to retrieve. I remember Ed laughing heartily; I remember his huge smiles on those days when Mozart retrieved a clam. It was something to see. Ed loved dogs and babies (which may explain why we had two babies before I turned 25, before I even knew I wanted babies).

While, I didn’t talk about dogs and babies at the memorial, I did tell the attendees about Ed’s smiles when he was near water. Well, maybe I did tell everyone about how much Ed loved those two babies of ours, now in their twenties. Whatever else I said about Ed, I had the definite feeling that I’d gone on too long—like I’d been leaving one of those exasperatingly long voice mail messages I used to leave Ed before we had cell phones; before he could see he’d missed a call from me and he’d know he had to call me back to see what I’d called about. He always called back—as I always called him back. Neither of us wanted to miss out on a message about one of our kids.

Ed loved those kids so much, but that love couldn’t save him from his drinking. Addiction is a disease, you know. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad disease that sometimes takes people before their time.

So, after I’d run on too long up in front of those people, at least half of whom I didn’t know—the other half, I surely hadn’t seen in years—I abruptly wrapped up. I sat back down and, no one stood up after me. Even so, the pastor waited another uncomfortable length of time. But I couldn’t break the silence a second time. My power, if I’d had any, had been spent. And I couldn’t bring Ed back with my words, as much as I couldn’t stop his drinking.

But today, on what would have been Ed’s 53rd birthday, I feel myself wanting to speak up for him again. I want to say that Ed was often a really good person, even though some of the time he wasn’t. He had a really nice smile, a warming laugh, and he loved dogs and children—especially his own two children (our two children), the ones still shedding their grief, the ones so fervently missing him today.

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Grief is More Than Sadness

The world has changed dramatically, since I last dared put down words in this journal. It takes courage, this committment to stringing together coherent words in an unstable world. When I last wrote, the novel coronavirus or, COVID-19, had already made its jump to our species; most of us, however, remained blissfully ignorant of what was coming.

Change comes, individually and collectively. change Can ripple Gently across the surface of a life in progress. It can also come with tsunami-level force, rearranging everything.

Since I last wrote, my individual life has undergone adjustment. On December 27, 2019, my ex-husband and his wife were sitting at my dining room table, eating the meal my 27-year old daughter (home for the holidays) helped me prepare, because my right hand was still in a splint from a fall on the ice. My older son (who lives locally) and his girlfriend joined us for dinner. My husband camped out with our younger son in the basement because second son (half sibling of my older two kids) had a nasty cough.

I hadn’t yet chosen my 2020 word, heal. But, already, the kind of healing I didn’t know I needed was in motion.

The day before our scheduled dinner, I’d debated canceling the invite, because of my injury or because of my younger son’s contagion. But the same nudging that prompted the invitation back in mid-December wouldn’t let me cancel. This meal, I thought, would be the first of many; this meal, I hoped, would serve as the beginning of a broader reconciliation. Instead, the meal would be the last time I’d see my ex-husband.

The father of my older two children died unexpectedly on January 7, 2020.

In January, I held my older two children as they grieved their father; I extended my hand toward their stepmother as she mourned. Late at night, deep inside, I grieved too. I wasn’t grieving my first marriage, long since spent. I wasn’t grieving the man I’d rarely spoken to in recent years, our days of active co-parenting having gradually faded as our children grew into capable adults. Although I was tremendously pained that my children had lost their father so young, I wasn’t sad, per se.

But, I am learning, grief is so much more than sadness.

Grief is raw, unbridled anger. Grief is claustrophobic fear. Grief is waking up at two in the morning with your heart on fire. Grief is feeling like someone shredded your epidermal layer with a cheese grater. Grief is losing your voice and not knowing if it will ever return. Grief is confronting, head on, one’s powerlessness over the uncontrollable. Grief is hammering against the well-meaning people trying to cheer you up or talk you out of your emotions. Grief is carrying a bucket of ice in your gut that can extinguish moments of hope. Grief is the mandatory path one must walk to reach the new version of your life, the one so different than the one you wanted. But grief is also your connection to the life you’ve lost.

Grief belongs to you; it is your right.

More change and grief work came for me in February, after my father was diagnosed with advanced and aggressive prostate cancer. I was still reeling from the news when I began obsessively reading reports of COVID-19, the virus making it unlikely I’ll be seeing my immune-compromised father anytime soon, the same virus now changing your world and mine.

As our shared losses mount daily, know that Our collective grief is real. I claim my word of the year for you, for me, for the world: Heal.

The Heart of Grace

For Renée

Tall pines fill the frame of my kitchen window.

These dense layers of green seem to infinitely

recede across my back neighbor’s property.

 

Should I ever hear a chainsaw’s caterwaul,

my only standing will be that of witness.

Straight-line winds uprooted the red pines

 

surrounding my brother’s Northern Minnesota

lake home. He was heading west

to visit friends when his cell phone rang. He

returned to downed trees and open sky.

 

Trees quietly sift at the heart of grace.

 

My life formed on the windy plains of North

Dakota—a place of vast horizons—and still

I’ve found the steady companionship of trees

 

more dependable than shifting colors of sky.

My brothers and I left North Dakota, as did

so many others of our generation. An oil boom

 

brought new folks to mine what lies beneath

grasses that once fed bison. I am an outsider

to the economic needs of North Dakotans.

 

I condemn the fracking frackers,

their inevitable “fraccidents.” And yet,

 

as I stand at my kitchen sink, one fragile end post

to one tunnel of green, hot water runs

across my hands and across morning dishes.

 

I am not without need and the weight

of my body bends towards mercy.

bright countryside dawn daylight
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