Home Safe Home

I gave myself a haircut this weekend. 

I have long curly hair, so it was forgiving. There was a piece I couldn’t get right in the back, and I let my 9 year old (assisted by my husband) cut it. It created a gap. I don’t care.

I’m relieved to improve a head of hair that was looking pitiful. 

I’m relieved I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t like being reminded of the accident when I drive. I’m scared in traffic.

I’m relieved I didn’t have to go to a public place. I didn’t have to sit in a waiting room, surrounded by other ladies out for manicures or highlights. I just can’t.

I’m relieved I didn’t have to make small talk with a stylist. I didn’t have to maneuver around sensitive questions, pretend that I had a great Christmas, or listen to someone jabber about how nice it is that “all” the kids are back in school. I didn’t have to choose between being fake and lying, or telling the truth and dealing with pity, or the “I can relate my (insert distant relative here) died last year” attempts at conversation. No one tried to tell me that my nice new haircut would surely make me feel better. 

Grief and PTSD have changed how I experience the world. What used to be easy or even enjoyable is now complicated, and drains me of all energy. 

I might learn how to do all sorts of things, just to stay in the safety of my own house.

Dreams

Bright lights and white walls… The doctors come and tell us that Samuel is brain dead… They want to stop life support… I ask for one more day… I know he will wake up tomorrow if they just give him one more day… I beg, but they shake their heads… They walk out the door and down the hall to stop Samuel’s ventilator… 

The sound of crying in the house… Jeremy searches room to room… He finds Jana and Michael, but the crying continues… He realizes it is Samuel… He runs through the house, but can’t find him… The crying continues. ..

We are splashing in the lake… Samuel steps into water over his head and disappears… I dive for him, stretching out my hands to find him, but only touch water… It is too muddy to see… I know he is there, just out of reach… I keep searching, my fingers sifting the empty water… 

Escaping with Grief…Iceland

The bitter wind today reminds me of the first morning I woke up in Iceland. My grief took me there last April, desperate to be surrounded by a backdrop of nature that was as secluded and barren and desolate as my soul.

Can I just say that you know you’ve found a true friend if one day you casually mention you wish you could escape to Iceland, and your friend says, “Me too!” and then starts sending you links to tickets, because there are some really great deals if you fly there in the winter? 

Lost in Reykjavik

Our flight arrived at 5am, with our bodies protesting that it should still be the middle of the night. We spent the day meandering our way across the country, getting lost, trying to decipher road signs in Icelandic, chancing upon the most amazing vegetarian lunch buffet ever, and stopping a hundred times to take photos of the increasingly stunning scenery. We found a famous landmark and ventured out of the car to explore, only to give up a few minutes later because the gale-force winds blew us around as if we had the weight of dead leaves. The Icelanders seemed unfazed by the weather, going about their morning business. I think continual exposure to all that arctic wind builds exceptionally strong leg muscles. 

We were headed for Hellnar, a tiny fishing village with only 10 permanent residents. As we got further north, the rain that had pelted us all day switched over to a white-out snow storm. We drove the last half-hour white-knuckled and sliding on a cliff-side road along the ocean. It was late by the time Kelly and I arrived at our cabin, worn out, relieved that we survived without being blown off the road into the North Atlantic. We settled in, fixed a quick dinner, and found our beds. 

Ominous yet cheerful warning in our rental car

Sometime in the night I woke up to the cabin shaking. A howling storm slammed against our little house. Surely Icelanders know how to build structures to withstand conditions like this, I reassured myself. I pulled the covers over my head, and eventually fell back asleep to the roar of the storm.

I awoke with the sun. There were no sounds from Kelly’s room, she was still asleep. I put on my wool layers and new boots, and slipped quietly outside. I was elated. The icy wind stung my face, but the storms were over and my gloves were warm. I made my way towards the sea with a sense of awe. Mountains rose up to the empty sky behind me, and I could hear waves pounding the cliffs just down the hill. There were no other people. 

Isolated. 

It felt wonderful.

I explored, soaking in the hugeness of the landscape.

Right outside our cabin stood an old church, overlooking the sea. A picture of faith, standing alone in rocky fields of frozen grass. 

Church at Hellnar

Was it strong, unshaken through the storms, offering light and shelter to anyone wandering through the wilderness?

Or was it abandoned, a piece of history, the empty remains of a dying tradition?

Iceland is one of those places where nature dominates. Beauty and power, I alternately felt amazed and frightened by it. The mountains on the Snaefellsnes peninsula have been asleep for almost 2000 years, but evidence of their eruptions was still obvious. The ocean and storms demanded current respect. On multiple occasions I was afraid I would be blown into the frigid ocean. Even on calmer days the waves crashed into the cliffs with unsurvivable force. Falling in would be fatal. My primary goal on the trip quickly became, “No matter what, don’t end up in the water.”

The mighty North Atlantic

Everything about Iceland made me think of Psalm 46. 

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.

I wondered at tenacity of the people who landed in this spot, a thousand years ago, and thought it was a good place to live (without any of the modern conveniences that were helping me be comfortable). There were no trees, and there wasn’t even dirt for farming, the ground was all lava rock. Rock, mountains, sea, and wind. Somehow they hung on, made homes, and lived.

At home I am surrounded by a world that frets about things like technology and organic ingredients and traffic, and parades it’s excess on social media for all to applaud. I shrink into myself, because in an environment like that, there is no proper place for my grief outside of my own home. I’ve always been on the fringes of culture because I am a little too intense, too serious. Grief has amplified this. 

Wandering this rugged corner of the world was the first time since Samuel died that I felt free. My grief fit in that remote place. It was right to explore the endless empty foothills, to feel the world so much bigger than myself. It was OK to enjoy making friends with an Icelandic horse, or find satisfaction in a bowl of warm soup, coffee and cake, because all of Iceland was about finding small comforts in a harsh land. Just like grief. It was about being determined to survive in inhospitable conditions. Just like grief. It was about the hope of finding beauty in unexpected places. Just like grief.

 

Grieving Through The Seasons

rainIt’s a chilly, rainy day. It’s the best kind of rain. It’s coming straight down, so I can sit on the porch and not get wet.  

I’ve always liked the rain, but I have a new appreciation of it since Samuel died. Rainy days are gloomy, and I feel less at odds with the world and everyone else. Right now is a steady downpour that hides the distant trees in fog, and drowns out other sounds with the percussion of raindrops on the roof. A rainy sky is a mournful sky. It matches my mood and cries with me. It masks the chill in my soul, just a little. I seek out small comforts, like wool socks and a warm mug of coffee, just to hold in my hands.  

For the first few months after Samuel died, I couldn’t tolerate bright days. In a weird, detached way, I was thankful the accident happened at the beginning of winter. It provided me with sharp wind and leaf-less trees stretching their dark arms to a cheerless sun. I dreaded the arrival of spring. 

As the days warmed and green made a reappearance, I was drawn into the rebirth in spite of my sorrow. I found escape from anxiety by pulling weeds, planting bushes, moving flowers from one spot to another. It was good to have dirt on my hands. I found peace in the cycle of life and death in the natural world that continued oblivious to my personal tragedy. I thought of seeds and trees through the millennia, sprouting, growing, dying, alongside generations of people. People that lived and died, celebrated and grieved, and are long forgotten. I felt my small place in time and in the universe. It reminded me that death is not shocking, but an inescapable part of living. To everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die.

Summery activities were intolerable to me. I was overwhelmed by happy people, carefree at picnics and afternoons at the pool. But the long, hot days were a solace. I sat on the porch watching the world sag wearily under the heat. Frogs serenaded the warm nights, and cicadas droned their songs during the day. Cicadas that shed their skins to have wings for a few weeks before they die. How different it must be to discover flight and sky after years in the dark, cool earth. Their freedom is short. They fly, sing, lay eggs, and are gone.

And now it’s the end of fall, the in-between time, sinking inevitably back to winter. The willow has yellowed and dropped it’s leaves. It stands like a pencil sketch in the front yard. The deer look healthy and strong, but it won’t be long before their ribs show and they resort to eating the “deer-proof” things I foolishly plant year after year. I wonder how the chickadee doesn’t freeze, how anything outside survives when the woods are frigid and still. I wish humans could hibernate through the winter seasons of life. I wish I could curl up deep underground, where I’m protected from the cold, and sleep until my heart finds spring. 

I found a hellebore on sale and planted it on the anniversary of Samuel’s death. A Lenten Rose. It’s a tough flower. It likes to bloom in February, in the snow. I planted it as a show of faith that beauty can grow in impossible places, when the ground is iced over and everything looks dead. I might need the reminder. 

My Friend Amay

I made a friend this summer. Her family called her Amay (it’s Mongolian for grandmother). She was homebound, and I checked in on her while her family was gone on a trip. It started as a favor, but we became friends. She was full of humor and had a generous heart. I enjoyed spending time with her.

One day in September Amay stood up and the bones in her back crumbled. That was how she found out she had stage 4 cancer. It was everywhere, and there was nothing anyone could do.

I was drawn to sit with her while she was sick. She told me stories of her life, joked about her symptoms, and talked about death. She was confident in her Savior and ready for heaven. I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the slightest holding her hand and listening. I wasn’t worried about what to say or how to be. I knew there wasn’t an easy way out. There were no pat answers to make this better, to soothe her pain or provide dignity as she lost her ability to do basic things. Looming death made each of her days real, all pretenses removed. Her courage was refreshing. Even in her last weeks she was teaching her grandkids one more thing…how to face death with hope. Her friendship has been a gift to me.

Finally I can identify a positive change as a result of what I’ve been through the last year. My troubles have stripped away taboos and tensions around the subject of death. Before I lost a child I would not have been able to reach beyond my anxiety of words like “cancer” and “terminal” to see Amay, both who she was and what she was facing. I would have been concerned, and sad for her suffering. I would have said something like “let me know if you need anything” to her family. My intentions would have been good, but I doubt I would have made a sincere effort to be present. I wouldn’t have known what to say. I wouldn’t have known how to look her in the eyes, both of us aware that soon the cancer would win it’s mutiny against her body.

But I’ve learned how to be still with grief. I’ve made some discoveries about what is comforting, and I’ve seen how well-meaning people can inadvertently add to sorrow. I’m no longer afraid to come close to someone who is suffering in circumstances without answers.

 

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Amay died on Wednesday.

Two weeks ago she called her family around and asked their permission to let go. They talked and cried. She has lived with them for 10 years, long enough so her grandkids don’t remember life without her there. At the end of the conversation, in the whisper of a voice she had left, she told them to crowd in for a group selfie. She makes me laugh.

I will miss her.