I should have known better

I should have known better. I saw “Breast Cancer” on the caller I.D. when I picked up my landline—the line only my parents and telemarketers use. I pushed talk. I should have known better. We beat ourselves up for should have known better.

A pause before the caller picked up—a surefire sign of a telemarketer—“You are a tough lady to reach!” My eyebrows knit together, do I know her? She is perky.

“I’m calling for the Breast Cancer something something.”  I think of Debby. “We provide services for women who are dealing with breast cancer.”  I think of Cheri. “Can I put a postcard in the mail and see if you can donate a little something to help us out?” She sounds too damn perky to be calling me about cancer.

“You can put it in the mail and I’ll look at it and see what extra I have after my other donations.” I answer, terse. I’m suspect that she’s some random charity. I’m not sure if I have donated to them before. I think of Meagan. I think of Hannah and how my latest cancer donation body part is pancreatic.

“Aren’t you an angel!” She cheers, sweetness dripping from her lips, through the landline and all over my sudden and involuntary mourning. I can’t even stop to tell her to take me off her list. I can’t stop to tell her just send the damn thing. I can’t stop to tell her to tone done the syrup. I pull the phone away from my ear and click END.

I’m swamped with guilt. She was just doing her job. I have tears in my eyes.   I want to apologize without having to talk to her. I want to say, “It’s not that I don’t want to give you money. My friends just keep dying.”

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Why We Write it Down…stories we forget

Last night, I needed to find some photos of a dear friend.  It was the kind of urgency that comes with the dying, the definitive timeline, and has no wiggle room.  If only I could find the photos, maybe there would be one I had forgotten about, one that would make me say out loud in the quiet of my home, “Oh my gosh, I forgot about that one…”  That photo would carry a balm, a sense of You are losing that person, but not really, because you still have this..  

Would there be any pictures of us?  You know the ones.  Those photos where you can tell how well the friends connect from their comfort in the frame.  You can see the ease, the banter, the unapologetic mutual adoration, and silliness.

Pulling the cardboard box off the steel shelving in my guest room closet, I bent the folding flaps in my hurry to get to the albums.  Grabbing inside I tugged at the first of 3 small albums and opened it flat on my lap.  After only a couple of pages, there they were, pictures from conference.  One in particular had Dear Friend with a grin–not unusual–standing outside with my friend Nicole.

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Then I remembered what I didn’t know I had forgotten.

Nicole and I had been in charge of a cabin of seniors in high school.  DF was 18 and was in the cabin (DF is now an adult by the way) and Nicole and I had discovered–as you do at camp–that we connected.  We told the girls we were going for a quick walk while they finished getting ready for bed.  Our group was mellow and they’d likely chat a little and go to sleep.

We wandered the camp and even up to the edge of camp property–talking constantly–and eventually came back….MUCH later than planned.  I imagine we were easily an hour later than we’d planned.  Shameful, I know.  They were fine, by the way.

As we walked up the wooden steps of the cabin we noticed a piece of paper attached to the door.  Our names were on it.  It said, WHERE have you BEEN?  We have been worried SICK.  You said you would be gone for a little bit and it has been over an HOUR.  Sincerely, your CABIN.  

It is possible they grounded us.

We burst out laughing.   I couldn’t have felt more busted than if I had broken curfew as a teenager with my own parents.  We quietly opened the door, unsure of who was still awake.  One foot in the cabin and Dear Friend’s voice nailed us.  “Well look who decided to come back!”   She was clearly enjoying this, this role-reversal.  A teenage fantasy to put the adult in their life on the other end of a reprimand.  Except Dear Friend was trying very hard to keep a straight face.

The photo had brought it all back.  I’d forgotten this.  I thought it had been about the pictures, but the pictures were what brought back the story.  A story that now feels as needed as the photos of my Dear Friend.

And when I wonder if this text will be the last one she sends me, when impending and current sadness hides around the corner, I think I’ll say those same words in my mind and reprimand her.  “Where have you been?  I have been worried sick.”  I will flip it right back at her.

She’ll get it.

Yes, I quoted Oprah. So sue me. A tree lover’s guide to cancer and the woods.

What I know for sure regarding grief and nature.

Yes, I did it. I quoted Oprah. I’m not proud of it but the line came to me and I’m going to own it.

This weekend I was reminded of a few things I know for sure.   I escaped this weekend. Broke the chains of laundry. Tore off the shackles of dishes and vacuuming. Late on Friday night—in a moment of spontaneous decision-making—I hopped online, booked a hotel room and packed a bag. Then, like a kid who’s just gotten away with something, I smiled, crawled into bed and set my alarm to make an early ferry.

I had to.

Maybe it was the residue of the previous weekend.   I’d spent the evening with a 25-year old friend who is knee-deep in the trenches of pancreatic cancer. Not good.

Not just not good. Bad.

I am so tired of cancer. I am tired of its systematic and relentless pursuit of people I love. I resent the way it takes who it wants regardless of circumstance, character or age. So you can appreciate why I didn’t give a damn about my dishes or the fact that there are three Amazon Prime boxes sitting in my living room with their contents strewn about. All of this warranted ACTION on my part.

Get the hell out of town. Run for the woods. Head to the Hoh Rain Forest.

It needed to be a little inconvenient. The ferry ride, the 3+ hour drive. You see, the inconvenience underlined the significance of leaving. I needed to be away, tucked beneath Sitka Spruce and Douglas Firs well over 200 feet. Moss blankets everything from boulders to every inch of branches that reach out like fuzzy fingers. I needed the serenade of the Hoh River, its conversation, a loud party full of light chitchat. I longed for the solitude of a trail where I go at my pace and stop when I want to take pictures (even if I already stopped a minute ago.) I want the freedom to jump when thunder booms above me and to leave my hood down when the downpour comes. I want to take the untouched side trail—the soggy ferns soaking my shorts as my thighs pushed them back with each step—up to the waterfall to get a better photo and to stand there and close my eyes.

Normally, whenever I return to the trailhead, to the comfort of my car and whatever snacks I’ve left behind, there is a sense of pride. An I did it. This time I felt that, but it was different. Something about the forest opens me.

I text a video of the waterfall to my 25 year old friend.

Me: I sent you a waterfall. Early birthday present.

My friend: Thank you!!!!!!!

Me: I mentally took you on the hike. I hope you aren’t sore.

My friend: It was like I was physically there!! My legs are killing me! How many miles was that again?

Me: Just shy of 6. I have to tell you, you weren’t very helpful when we found ourselves on the trail with a big elk about 30 ft. ahead and another one about 30 ft. behind (with their family peering in from the bushes.) Otherwise, you were a trooper.

My friend: Oh my gosh!!! I bet I was useless. “Oh look, large and dangerous mammals. LET’S PLAY WITH THEM!!!”

Me: I thought when I had to tell you to stop trying to pet them was the real low point.

My friend: That was the low point. Even their antlers are furry!

Somewhere during the texting conversation the tears started. Tears of loss, of pent up energy, of fatigue. These were tears of relief. Relief that we could still play. Relief that we could pretend we had hiked and faced down some elk together. Tears that sometimes the best way to connect is to talk about what you wish you did rather than what you have to do.

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You’re gonna think I’m nuts, but hear me out.

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I believe in signs.

I don’t always know whether they are coincidence, signs from The Universe, or God or what, but I believe in their significance.  If that sounds too woo-woo, tree-hugging, new age whatever to you, I totally get it.  I’ve hugged a tree before and I’ll probably do it again.  But hear me out.

If your body can send signals that you are sick or something is not right, or body language can tell us things without you saying a word, then why not other signs?  Who is to say that we can’t be prompted into noticing things that we would normally blow off?  Who is to say there isn’t a greater message there?

Did that pair of shoes just tell me to buy them online?  Why yes, yes it did.

Who am I to argue?

Recently I had an experience that felt like this.  My dear friend Meagan Jones passed away recently at the ripe old age of 23…wrong in every sense of the word.   She was blunt and honest and loyal as hell.  She had an edge when she was annoyed and was brave when she shared the difficult truths of her life.

It had been about a month when I was sitting in church not paying attention—I’ll own that—and was thinking of her, noticing that even though she had died recently, I hadn’t thought of her for a few days.  I know in my head this is normal.  Still, the guilt arrived at the entrance to my thoughts and started pounding on the door.

“So soon?”   Guilt demanded, “You are forgetting her already?  Did your friendship mean so little to you that you forget a mere month-ish later?  That’s pathetic.”

Shoving Guilt aside, my mind drifted and tried to focus again on what was happening in the class at church.  They were doing introductions of new people.

“Welcome, what’s your name?” The class teacher said.

“Meagan Jones.”  The young woman asked.  I stopped breathing for a moment.

I don’t share this to make it seem extraordinary, just to point it out… The Don’t Miss This Moment of that experience.  “Her name is common,” Doubt countered.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that sometimes the universe, or coincidence, or God or even the incomparable Meagan Jones takes the time to show us something and the importance lies in our noticing.

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The Elusive Goodbye

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The hospice room is large—the bed, its center—but it is empty.  Where are you?

In your room, perpendicular to the bed, and there’s a chair where your awkward body sits, slumps really.  You’re propped up like you’re feeling fine—that’s what healthy people do, they sit—but instead of attentive and alert, you are a rag doll.  Your head flopped useless to the side, your mop of brown hair piled on top of your head like this is normal.  Your bloated stomach from the swelling and the tumor looks wrong on you.  This is not how cute, college girls of 23 look.  You do not belong in this place with old bodies, bald heads and loose skin on bones like lace.  This place, where death hangs on the walls like yellowed paint.

 

Funeral Survival Guide…let’s just call it what it is.

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Funerals are minefields.  That’s right, I said it.  One wrong step and—wait for it—BOOM, there goes your favorite arm.  They should be.  Everyone is doing the best they can, trying to limp their way through a haze of grief and say goodbye to someone who has only been gone a few days, but it is a minefield.  Pack up your field armor and take a deep breath—minefield.

The number of things that can stress out even the most socially confident person are baffling at a funeral.  Get together a bunch of people—many of who don’t even know each other—and then try to tackle the soul sucking experience of saying goodbye to a loved one.

I’ve collected a few notes that make funerals especially daunting in the midst of your grief.  These are the things that can trigger the explosion, derail the train, snowball out of control (pick whatever metaphor revs your engine.)

*The Ugly Cry.

If you loved the person, chances are you are concerned about the ugly cry.  This is no sniff sniff, dab dab of the Kleenex, this is the Turn the faucet on waterworks.  It is the This snot won’t stop running down my lip onslaught.  Enter bright red cheeks, puffy eyes.   Most significant about the ugly cry is that it came on without your permission and it won’t stop until it is GOSH DARN READY TO STOP.

*The Who Will Be There? Factor. 

Not only are you trying to emotionally wrap your head around the fact that you will not see this person again, no more texts, no more banter, no more visits, you have to think of the Who else is going to show up that I might not be emotionally prepped to see factor.  A funeral I went to yesterday involved this.  I went with a friend of mine—let’s call her Cindy—and told her, “Person X may show up. I’m not sure.  We haven’t talked in ages.  Nothing bad, but if person X shows up and I say to you, “Hey Cindy, this is person X,” know that that is a CODE BLUE.  (or red…whatever code means DO NOT LEAVE while I adjust.)

*The What Do I Say? 

If words could cause paralysis, it would happen at a funeral.  Talk about pressure.   A person has just lost a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend and you have to come up with the words—the right words, nay, the perfect words—that both celebrate the person, offer compassion and support and are neither too depressing or too lighthearted.  At the funeral I was at yesterday (parents who had lost their 23 year old daughter to cancer) I heard them saying over and over again, “Thank you so much for coming.”  I bet they didn’t know what to say either.

*What The Departed Would Have Wanted torment.  This is when you hear the dreaded phrases of

“She wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad.”

“She would want us to remember good things about her and not cry.”

Suddenly I’m annoyed.  Now I have what is known in funeral circles as Guilt Mourning.  I have to mourn the way the departed would have wanted.  To be honest, I’m not even sure that the departed would have felt that way.  But some person—trying to show how well they know her by issuing an edict of What she wanted—is  now telling me that, if I feel like a big o’l hot mess, that I am not mourning correctly.  That I have somehow let them down.

Guess what?  I don’t buy it.

My friend—let’s call her Ruth—said yesterday to me, “When I die.  I HOPE somebody is sad.   I don’t want them to fall into a deep depression over me.  I don’t want them to stop living their life.  But YEAH, I want them to be sad I’m gone.”

Guess what Ruth?  I can do that.  No problem.

Because I honestly think I can celebrate the departed’s life while mourning my loss at the same time.  The other night Cindy and I drank Kool-Aid (the departed’s drink of choice) while toasting her with tears in our eyes at the same time.

So what is a person to do when faced with a funeral?

Have a game plan and remember a couple of things.

1) Be prepared.

Have something you want to say to the loved one’s family before you go up to them.  Pee first before the service—you’re likely to be anxious facing this and it will be hard to focus on your loved one with a full bladder.  Have Kleenex and waterproof mascara.

2) Say goodbye how you need to, not how anyone else needs you to.

If that means going to the beach, going to the service, going shopping and getting some retail therapy or bawling on your couch, do it.  Kool-Aid helps.

3) Running into people you haven’t seen in ages is sometimes a good thing. 

I ran into an old friend yesterday and, even though we had grown apart, when we saw each other at the service, nodded and smiled, both of our eyes filled with tears.  Connection is connection.

4) This will not be the only time you say goodbye to this person.

Goodbyes with the ones that are close to us happen a thousand times and they still hang around.  You didn’t get to know the person in an hour and you aren’t going to let them go in an hour either.

5)  Don’t be afraid of the Ugly Cry.

Think of it as validation that you loved this person, that they impacted you and that you will miss them.  The more snot the better.

That’s the way they would want it.

The Words We Say

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Words are my scrapbook.  I collect them.  Not the big and fancy ones–although at times they enhance my writing–but the ones that connect to my memory.  In the way that the smell of Purell–real Purell, green specifically–transports me back to the hospital, or the way the song “Two of Us Riding Nowhere” from the I am Sam soundtrack puts me in my red 2-door (2 cars ago) and back on the road to Maple Valley, words are my best memory.  They are the closest thing to traveling back in time and reliving moments.  

I remember words people say. 

I write them down. 

I save them like pressed flowers written on journals. 

Another friend–Debby–as she was in the last months of her life and we were talking on the phone (me-frantically writing down everything she was saying) would say–during awkward pauses when I’d stop mid-conversation, “You’re writing this down, huh?”

She knew I was saving the words.  She graciously allowed for pauses.  

Sometimes I retrieve words.  Usually these are in moments of needed comfort when everyday strategies fail me.  These are the kinds of moments when reliving the event, the conversation, the memory is imperative.  When nothing else seems to do the job. Moments of I want to remember. 

I want to remember how the generosity of words fills my soul. Kind, generous and compassionate words are a balm for rough days.  They are a light and firework for great days.  But more than that, the generosity of words from people that I know is something I savor and tuck away like precious bits of comfort that remind me who I am and who I am to others

Tonight I went word hunting.  Scouring my phone, racking my brain, “Where did I put those words?” I am looking for my friend’s words.  I know they are in my writing notebooks, tucked in the back so I didn’t confuse them with my writing-writing.  They are written quick and tight.  I just wanted to get them down, to make them permanent and to keep up with the conversation.  They are also in my phone and I search for the words–notes I’ve saved from conversations–hoping that they will be sufficient to sustain me. 

Here are some of them….gathered memories.

* I teased her that her cancer–Signet Cell Ring–sounded like something Voldemort would put a Horcrux in.

*We joked that “Friendship bracelets are nice, but friendship diamonds are WAY better.”

*When I shared my Girl Scout Cookies with her–in an act of clear self-sacrifice–and said, “Bet you love me now, huh?” 

and she said, “Yeah.  But I loved you already.”

*When she shared with me that she was cancer free–however brief that was–and added, “Thank you for talking and listening when I needed it.”

Words are the script to some of my very best days.  They remind me of some of the people I miss most.  This friend in particular.  I miss her already.  Being present with another is the essence of compassion, the foundation of these words.  

It is a reminder to me to be more generous with my own words, to see words as service and to see the withholding of warm and compassionate words as a lost opportunity for connection.

“Compassion doesn’t always call for grand or heroic efforts.  It asks you to find in your heart the simple but profound willingness to be present, with a commitment to end sorrow and contribute to the well-being and ease of all beings.  A word of kindness, a loving touch, a patient presence, a willingness to step beyond your fears and reactions are all gestures of compassion that can transform a moment of fear or pain.”

-Christina Feldman Compassion:  Listening to the Cries of the World