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My coffee and I sit at our round table with our unconventional breakfast, looking through cookbooks to plan our week’s meals. My own handwritten notes are familiar even though they were written 20 years ago. Books being sacred objects, I was aghast the first time ex-Pat made notes in a cookbook. Over the years, he convinced me to do so, but only in pencil, and as minimally as possible, to convey the changes I’d made.

Those notes from 20 years ago….they transport me back to the Cozy House, to my slope-floored kitchen with its knotty pine cabinets. To the Mother-in-Law’s tongue that my co-worker Sandy gave me decades ago, thriving in a pot in the corner. The dogs’ and cats’ food and water dishes slightly underfoot on the lavender linoleum. The Asian blue patterned containers holding the cooking utensils on the counter next to the little one cup coffee maker. The bottom drawer where the casserole dishes lived, the one that always went cattywampus when I tried to close it. My beloved Norge stove.

We never ate dinner at the kitchen table, only breakfast on weekdays, just as it had been at my parents’ house growing up. I tried to get us to do so once and only once. It was disastrous and all three of us wound be miserable.

Doing dishes, by hand as we never had a dishwasher, standing at the sink looking out into the backyard from the white-framed casement the window. My view was beneath the arch of a tree that was slowly growing its way into the house, bending the gutter a little more each year. Ex-Pat and I talked about one day remodeling the kitchen, making it bigger, though it was a good size already. We would have built out the kitchen around the tree, leaving it free to grow as tall and as strong as it wanted.

That view from the window had grown over the decades from a dirt yard with giant wooden spools as tables in various places, to a bower of beauty, with the greenhouse that ex-Pat had built by hand as its centerpiece. Beautifully cold in winter but always warm with memory of summer. Sparkling with promise in spring. Glowing with trailing golden cottonwood leaves in fall. And raging and singing in its glory on the warmest days and nights of summer,

It all lives only in my memory now, as I sit at a different table in a different life, the wind swishing the pine boughs outside the door, the blue sky shy beneath sheer white clouds, the Stellar’s Jay keeping silent company, my coffee now grown cold.

Today’s gratitudes:

  • That I’m alive
  • Cats
  • Music
  • Driving
  • Sweatshirts

In the cozy house was a little wooden two drawer filing cabinet. In this little two drawer filing cabinet were words. So many words.

I had files of letters from my Mother and Father. They’ve been dead for 16 and 17 years, respectively. It was tough losing them within 21 months of each other. The loss from the fire is the only loss that’s been anywhere near similar to my heart. And I suppose the loss of my pets before Roscoe and Dusty.

My Father in particular was a prolific writer. He sent me newspaper clippings about my hometown or other stories he thought I’d be interested in, along with a little one or two page note, usually on his Duke University notepaper. I kept them all. And now they’re gone.

K has a letter that her grandfather sent to her. I think that may be the only letter left. I don’t know how or why I took that one with me when I left, but I’m glad I did. I have some old files in my basement that may have copies of letters he’d written to others, but none to me. My heart tears just a little as I write that, one more tear that will need to heal over time.

My Mother did not write letters to me often, but those she did are gone. However, she, like me, kept journals. I took all of them that I could find with me. That’s a blessing. I have a lot of her words, her history, her thoughts, even documentation of some of our nightly phone calls. I haven’t been able to see what years are missing yet. I don’t want to know, because knowing won’t change anything and it will just magnify what’s lost instead of what’s left. I don’t need that right now.

I hadn’t thought about the letters and my parents’ handwriting until today, when, while leafing through a cookbook that I took with me when I left the cozy house, I found one of my Mother’s recipes. She always used little yellow lined notepads. Then I remembered. Another memory of what’s been lost.

As many of the people in my community are rebuilding their lives, we’ve also been watching what’s happening in Ukraine. For me, that’s raised some feelings I need to examine.

When I saw the ashes of the cozy house and Original Superior right after the fire, the most apt description I could find was that it looked like a war zone. Nothing left intact. Burned and twisted remains of homes. Blackened trees. Ruins. Here we are, nine weeks later, looking at images in Ukraine that look like our burned out town. Except they really are war zones.

I don’t want to watch. I don’t want to see that destruction, just as it hurts me to see the ruins of the cozy house. But I can’t turn away. Why not? That’s where, for me, things get complex and confusing. Perhaps I’ll list it out. My dearest people know that one of my most oft given pieces of advice in times of turmoil is “make a list”.

  • I feel compelled to follow what’s going on, as this is as close to a potential war as I’ve ever experienced in this lifetime. That’s scary, but in keeping with how disastrous 2022 has felt to me so far.
  • These images connect my empath soul to the people who have had to leave their homes with nothing but their kids, pets, and a few belongings, so like what fire victims did. Immersion (for me) opens a connection.
  • I should not be feeling sorrow about my own loss because Ukrainian refugees have it so much worse.

Those first two bullets are things I acknowledge about myself and can process pretty well. It’s the last one that’s the kicker. As compassionate humans, we compare our tragedies with those of others. In times of trauma, this can add guilt to our rich mixture of feelings…”They have it so much worse than I do — I shouldn’t be feeling like I do about my loss.” And that just makes us feel worse.

I have been doing this even before the Ukraine conflict, ever since the fire. Yes, I lost the cozy house and the precious, irreplaceable things in it, but I do have a place to live, and clothes, and cookware. So I don’t have a right to feel such a huge sense of loss. I have not participated in the incredible generosity that the community has extended, except to contribute what I can, because what I lost can’t be replaced. I don’t have the need that others do. I feel I don’t deserve my own grief.

Rationally, I know this isn’t so. We are all entitled to feel how we feel. But it’s a hard threshold to cross, feeling empathy and compassion for those who are suffering in our State and in countries thousands of miles away, and at the same time allowing ourselves the grace to feel our own pain and loss, without drawing comparisons. I guess, in short, we are all human, and all need to treat ourselves and our fellow humans with love.

Living in the Retreat, in the middle of wooded acreage, there’s no predicting fire. Of course after the Marshall Fire, I know without a doubt that regardless of where you are, there’s really no predicting it. No one would have imagined what happened on December 30th.

Surrounded by pines here, it would be hard to see a fire coming. Today on our local news, there was a headline of a wildfire in the Southeast part of our county. I’m in the Southwest part of the county, about 50 miles away from this fire, which is 72% contained. I figured all of this out in about one minute and then I started to cry.

Is this what it’s going to be like? It’s bad enough the I have what I call PTWD (Post-Traumatic Wind Disorder). We have big winds here in the Wet Mountains, big enough to topple 75-foot pine trees onto garage aprons, barely missing buildings. (Perhaps some of you may know of my history of near misses with falling trees.) Am I going to burst into tears every time there’s a fire within 20, 50, 100 miles of me?

Once I got a grip on my silly self, my next feeling was a subcutaneous panic. I had no idea what I would do here, if there were a fire, what I would rescue. I’ve given this considerable thought, obviously, after the loss of the cozy house, but I’m still living in Boxlandia. I have no idea where the journals that I moved here from the Bungalow are. Do I just put all my most precious possessions in a trunk and drag it to the truck in case I need to evacuate? Two trunks? Something fireproof (though that was completely useless in the Marshall Fire, given its tremendous heat)?

I know that everyone who lost their homes or evacuated now has these thoughts, these fears, these plans, and feel pretty sure that I’m not alone in my sense of underskin panic. I wish we didn’t. I wish I didn’t. And I wonder if this is something that will be with me for the rest of my life or if it will find a place to live in my soul where it takes up only the space it needs.

Rescued image. Jost van Dyke, 2004.

I’ve written about losing my journals, my words, those memories. But as a photographer, I’ve lost thousands of images that were taken in a pre-digital era. And that really hurts. I’m not alone in this. The images that I’ve shared of the cozy house were sent to me by a professional photographer from town who also lost decades of her beautiful work.

Believe me, I continue to beat myself up with “Why didn’t I transfer all those images to a digital platform?” Because it took time and money and resources that I didn’t have. “Why didn’t I take those photo albums on the top shelf of the bookcase – there were at least 15 – with me?” Because I didn’t have space for them yet. “Why didn’t I at least take the notebooks of negatives?” Because, and so much of it comes down to this, I thought the cozy house was a safe place. I thought it was invincible. I was wrong.

Perhaps I should have known better.

In 2013, the cozy house was hit by the 100 (or 10 or 1,000 or 10,000) year flood. The root cellar filled with water and the kitchen and two rooms had about four inches of muddy water, but the cozy house stood firm. Some boxes of photos were close to the floor of the cat room at the time. Much later, Ex-Pat brought them to the Bungalow, damaged as they were and I tucked them away to sadly deal with later. I guess today is later.

I brought some up from the basement today. Decades of photos stuck together. So I’ve spent some time meticulously pulling them apart. The mud has acted like glue in some cases, so if I can get a fingernail inserted into a stack, I can flex them a little, then a little more, and then still a little more, until I can gently separate them. Sometimes I lose a little backing. Sometimes some of the photo tears off. But overall, I’m making some progress.

These are mostly images from my travels, and that’s nice but what I was hoping to find are images from K’s childhood. There are some – of her and her best friend at the Renaissance Festival, of her time at Calwood – but not what I’m looking for. And none as yet of the house. I’ve lost my pictures of Scotland from when I was pregnant, and that’s a tough one. That was a very happy time. And the picture of K and ex-Pat taken right after she was born. You’ve never seen any newborn look more like she was saying, “WTH. PUT ME BACK.” She wasn’t even crying, just glaring at the camera from under her tiny knitted hat that hospital staff put on her little head.

On one bright note, I have one box of albums from my Mother (another was lost to the flames). When K was born, my mother asked me to get duplicates of the pictures I took and send them to her. It gives my heart a flare of hope that I have some of those. Now I just have to find the box in our Indiana Jones movie warehouse of a cellar filled with boxes.

A rescued favorite. Tortola, 2004.

Yesterday was another day with hard and soft spots. It was wonderful to have breakfast with dear A, who gave me some lovely art and the good kind of bath salts.

I went to the cozy house in the afternoon as the sun started its lowering behind the mountains, which I can now see clearly since all the trees in town are gone. They had sprayed the ruins with some kind of greenish material to keep the ashes from blowing around in the winds. I knew this was going to happen after the sifting. Maybe I thought they’d let me know when they were going to do so, but they didn’t. Somehow, it made it harder to be there. I reclaimed a few pieces of yard metal and then just sat on the few remaining bricks of the patio by the greenhouse and bawled. I really need to remember to bring a handkerchief. And I really hope the town tells me when they’re going to bulldoze and clear all the debris. I will need to be there for that. It will be a funeral of sorts.

Once again, sitting there, I could see the trees that shaded parts of the yard, see little K running barefoot across the little bridge ex-Pat had built, see my herb garden, my perennial bed, my center bed with the moonflowers that smelled so luscious at night. The circle bed where I tried unsuccessfully to grow honeysuckle but had great luck with Cosmos, California Poppies, Bells of Ireland, and the occasional sunflower and pumpkin before the squirrels had their way with them. The vegetable garden. The new garden with my wonderful hammock. All lost. It’s still so hard. One of those unexpected hairpin curves on the grief road. I’m thinking about just making the space a huge garden until I can figure out this whole rebuilding thing.

Since I got so very sad, I stopped to visit a dear friend for some puppy therapy and delayed returning to the Retreat until this morning. It’s always nice to take the drive at sunrise. It’s lovely and quiet here and the snow is melting. Spring is on its way. It can’t come too soon for me.

I keep trying to find the right analogy for this particular grieving experience, which is different from any other. Rollercoaster feels wrong because there are no highs. ‘At sea’ works for me often, in part because of my love of the sea and how well it knows me. It is always changing, sometimes still, sometimes raging, always beautiful and unpredictable. At sea, you don’t know quite where you’ll wind up. The shore is not always in sight. You can be under your own power, at the mercy of the wind, or simply adrift. It depends on the day. Or the hour. Or the minute.

Lately, I’ve felt that my grief is like a drive on an unfamiliar mountain road. I can be cruising along, feeling like I may be okay, like I may have a handle on my emotions, and all of a sudden, there’s a curve. A sharp curve. A curve where, if I don’t take it just right, I’ll crash into the side of the mountain or fly off the edge of the earth. Those signs that say “sharp curve ahead”? Well, I’ve never been one to pay much attention to those, until I’m in the curve and discover I’m going too fast.

Today was a day for hairpin turns. A neighbor a few doors down from the cozy house kindly and at my request shared some images from their Ring camera that gave me an inkling of what it must have been like. I needed that, needed it to try to visualize it. And I was okay with it. Until I was driving back to MKL’s house, along the magic road, and a cloud over the mountains looked like smoke and some piece of music came on the Bluetooth, and I started to cry. Again. How many tears can one body produce over two months? That sounds like one of those word problems from the unforgettably evil little green spiral math book from the 5th grade.

But it’s okay. I’m okay. I’m continuing along the road, curves and all. This morning at the Retreat, the sky was so blue that I noticed it and then did a double take to really appreciate it. And I was grateful for it. For me, that’s a good sign.

Two nights ago, I somehow found myself going down an online rabbit hole of the timeline of the Marshall Fire. Maps, pictures, videos that made me sad and shocked. I didn’t sleep that night. I didn’t sleep for 38 hours. This was not my “let’s see how long it takes me to start hallucinating” sleep challenge that I go through too often when I travel. This was just a disturbance in my internal force, one that fed some fight or flight instinct with a weird, insomniac response.

It happened again this morning. I did sleep last night, because there’s only so long a body can go without it, but once again, someone shared on social media the timeline they’d put together on the path of the fire. And they specifically mentioned 2nd Avenue, where the cozy house was, at 2:24 pm, which was shortly after I had hung up with ex-Pat. I know the exact time because I had just messaged a co-worker about it.

I want to ask the person who created this timeline, “What about 2nd Avenue? Did the reports you source mention my house?” A question that they can’t answer, as they are just the messenger who has assembled this data to help them make sense of what happened. I think all of us who lost houses, pets, memories, histories, and futures want to know what happened, want to be able to truly see it in our minds’ eye, so it could make sense. It would somehow give us comfort. Though we certainly don’t need anything to make it more real.

Part of being an empath, at least for me, is the need to completely immerse myself in the experience of tragedy. It helps me understand it and process it. But I have to draw a line at some point or I will drown in this immersion, particularly when the tragedy is personal. Being at the Retreat has helped. It has kept me a few hundred miles away from the ruins of the cozy house, which has kept me from going there and losing myself in thoughts and ashes.

But social media can be a fair weather friend or a horrible enemy. This week, it has been more of an enemy, spitting small knives at raw wounds — burns — that were just starting to scab over. So once again, I go through the painful process of debridement. That’s how the process works. Debridement happens over and over until all the dead tissue is gone. Of course, I could stay away from articles and stories that hurt, but I know me. I know I won’t. I know that for me, it’s part of healing. As a friend says, it’s part of the phoenix rising from the ashes. No one ever said it would be quick. Or painless.

November 2022
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