Archives for posts with tag: grief

My mom died a year ago today. I’ve been trying to think of how to best mark this sad anniversary here. It’s tempting to devote this post to how wonderful she was. Remarkably. How much I miss her. Terribly. How there’s a hole in my life that will be with me forever. How I’ve managed to stumble and stagger my way back into my writing life, eventually writing every day for  almost three months to finish a brand new novella. How proud she’d be of me for that and for intending to live the best life I can in honor of her steadfast faith in my dreams and ambitions, and the unconditional love she gave me every day of my life.

So, in that brief paragraph, I gave in to the temptation. And now I’m going to tell a story that incorporates several she told me many times. Some of her favorite memories that show just how cool she was.

I’ve written about her older brother Earl here before. When she was a young woman, he would find her jobs in Memphis and take her there to live with his family while she worked, until the needs of her parents or just plain homesickness would pull her back to the family farm. Before that she would go for extended visits, so as they all grew up his children felt almost like siblings. 

She was especially close with her oldest nephew, Paige. Having grown up very near the airport (You can see the airport behind his back yard in the picture below), he loved planes. One might say he had flying in his blood. As soon as he was old enough, he took lessons and then took to the skies. 

Since one of her jobs was as a waitress at a little restaurant at the airport, my mom was very familiar with and comfortable around airplanes, especially as part of her job was loading meals into the galleys in preflight prep. Uncle Earl arranged for her to go up with his pilot friends on occasion, and she loved it. She leapt at every opportunity to leave the ground and soar over the Mississippi Delta.

Her favorite pilot was, of course, Paige. When she was living back at home, on occasion she would be awakened in the early morning by the roaring engine of a small plane coming in for a landing in the pasture behind the house. She would hurry to get dressed and join her parents in the rush outside to greet their visiting pilot. 

“Sarah! I have to go get refueled. Wanna come?” She was always eager to climb aboard and join him. They would fly away to the nearest town that had the fuel he needed, enjoying their time together in the early morning sky. She took great pleasure in his willingness to fly low and buzz the homes of her girlfriends. I always wondered if those girls were envious and/or a little in awe of their friend zooming over their heads, waving to them when they went outside to look up. I also wonder if it registered with them how brave and cool she was.

One particular flight must have tested her bravery, though when she spoke about it there was no trace of lingering fear. Just the thrill of adventure and faith in her pilot. As they neared their landing field that was literally a field, Paige took his attention briefly from the controls. “Sarah, I don’t want you to be scared, but I have to tell you there’s a problem with the plane. I’ve got to bring us down anyway. We’ll be okay. I promise.” She must have been scared, but she was also too courageous to fall apart as many people would. “I know we will!” And   they ended up safely back on the ground, just as she knew they would. My mom had an amazing capacity for rock solid faith in the people she loved during treacherous times. It was not only his tremendous piloting skills that brought them down safely that day, but that he also flew on the faith in him radiating from his passenger. I know, because I flew through every day of my life on the wings of that same unshakeable faith.

When I call his piloting skills tremendous, it’s not merely as a cousin who has always hero worshipped Paige, though we never met. He never, ever lost his love of flying, went on to become an Air Force jet fighter pilot, and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was critically burned in 1956, when the flaming F-89D Scorpion he was piloting crashed into the same Mississippi River he’d flown near as a young man, though his final flight was over Minnesota. One of his two engines exploded. He died from his injuries the next day. There was nothing he could have done…but he did anyway. He stayed with his fighter to guide it away from a densely populated residential area. I grew up so very proud to have such a hero in my family. Some say that as we die we see our life flash before our eyes. If that’s true, among the memories of his wife and young son, parents, siblings, and extended family, there was his whole great flying life before him, like a cherished dream. Among the wings and clouds and blue skies, was the green grass of a pasture landing field and the echoing words “We’ll be okay. I promise.” “I know we will.”

(Photograph that ran with his obituary)

I honestly don’t know what exactly comes after death. But for right this moment I know what I want it to be for my mom and her beloved Paige. So I’m imagining them sitting together on the highest cloud, swinging their feet as I’m sure they did fishing with Grandaddy as children, then a smile, a nod, a whisper of wings, as they take flight together once again.

When she told Paige that she worried about the danger he was in as a fighter jet pilot, his answer told its own story of the kind of man he’d grown up to become.

“Don’t worry about me, Sarah. If I die flying, I’ll have died doing what I love to do.”

​After struggling to regain my writer’s equilibrium, first due to the escalating crisis as my mom’s life slowly wound to its close and then this painful, disorienting year in the aftermath of her death, I’m finally getting back to my writing life. In a previous post I wrote about deciding to try writing on my tablet, as a way to get back into regular writing. I can now say unequivocally that it was a smart move. 

I had been working on a story a little (a very little) at a time, but just couldn’t manage to emerge from the fog of grief long enough to make consistent progress. The need to write was there, but it lay half buried in the past, a past both near to the present and spread out over my mom’s near century long life that I knew as if it was my own from her stories. For a time, though I remembered, it felt lost to me, just out of reach, elusive yet tantalizingly near to my heart. 

Some clichés are oft repeated because they hold wisdom and truth. Time does heal wounds, even those so deep that they sear a scar across our personal landscape. Slash and burn, new growth, fresh and tender, eventual layers of the past buried like treasure beneath the feet that tread the surface. It takes time for those left behind by the death of a loved one to be able to probe the depths of memory to mine the comfort to be found there. For a writer those depths call out to be probed and touched and cherished, even before the ability to do so appears.

The key to my return to the writing life came with the spontaneity of being able to pick up a tablet, turn it on, and be writing as the impulse hit. There was an immediacy that’s  just unobtainable with the bootup process of my laptop. The wait to begin writing was killing the impulse, making it a chore instead of the usual pleasure writing is for me. 

The result of my decision to write on my tablet was a streak that began the process of bringing me back to myself, from a loss that started over the long years of struggle to get my mom and myself through the end of her life. Alzheimer’s is a relentless foe. It pillages, plunders, burns lives to the proverbial ground, and leaves a path of profound loss in its wake. Losing my mother as I’d known and adored her for my entire life, long before I lost those last treasured hugs, was the most life emptying loss I’d ever experienced. No wonder I had trouble writing.

Once I began experimenting with my tablet, I found myself writing every day. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes it was two sentences, but that was two sentences I didn’t have the day before. Often it was much more. A laptop chunk stitched together from many struggling attempts laid the groundwork. Once I started on my tablet, I wrote daily from April 10th to July 4th to finish it as a novella. When I typed the final words, I decided to pretend for a moment that all the fireworks were for my own personal celebration of the return of not only my creativity, but also the discipline that serves as the backbone of finished projects.

Of course I haven’t stopped missing my mom. That will never happen. But I have stopped missing the routine of my writing life. A step back toward normality, accompanied by the pleasure that comes from weaving words together, into a cloth of wonder and worlds and dreams.

It never ceases to amaze me how casual conversations can deepen, and sometimes help another person. One of the most important I ever had took place outside a restauant.

An elderly woman I really only knew by her face and name began telling me about her son who had recently died. He worked there and I had enjoyed a few casual conversations with him, so there was just enough connection for her to feel able to open up to me. I’m sure she didn’t start out intending to tell me the intimate, painful final moments of his life, but I could see the lingering shock and pain easing from her features as she spoke. By the time she dried the tears that crept down her cheeks, she stood a little straighter and smiled with relief.

As we all but shivered in what very nearly amounted to freezing, blustery wind, she prepared to leave. I will never forget the moment when she thanked me, calling my presence that day a blessing, a slightly different person living behind the wise, grateful gaze. I honestly didn’t know what she was thanking me for. I had just paused to offer my condolences, and listened to what she wanted to say. Then as she told me how much she had needed to talk to someone who had known her son enough to understand, yet not so well that her deep grief would add pain to another’s, I realized that on rare occasions family and close friends can actually be too close.

People who carry burdens we can’t see often won’t ask for help. They live in a kind of silence that becomes almost a prison, and are only released from it when the perfect opportunity presents itself. I was moved to be able to do something so profound for a person secretly in need, however inadvertently. 

I was reminded of that long ago moment today at the grocery store. The clerk looked very young and carefree, but, as we spoke about how heavy grocery bags can be, she told me that she had curvature of the spine as a child. She was hospitalized for surgery that left her with more than a dozen metal rods in her body. It was very painful and she had to relearn how to walk, but today she stands straight and tall. To look at her now you would never think her life had been anything but fun and happiness. Yet she suffered as a child to attain that illusion.

I had been in a bad mood, day to
day irritations and disappointments dragging me down toward a week that threatened to be all Mondays. As I left the store I realized the bubbly checkout girl had inadvertently reminded me that other people face great adversities that reveal life’s little ups and downs as the trivialities they truly are. It turned my bad mood around.

I’ve also realized that being willing to listen to another person’s problems and telling others of our own adversities in a positive way can make a real difference in other lives. It’s a good thing to help someone else when we know they need us. It’s a wonderful thing to accidentally lighten burdens we can’t even see.