Does This Oxygen Tank Make Me Look Badass?

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Heaving the heavy pack onto my shoulders after so many years was both familiar and forgotten.

The closest thing I’d felt to its bulky weight was the solid smack of my oxygen tank hanging loosely on the same shoulder for 2 ½ years.  “Tank’s” nasal cannula tube draped down my back, the prongs pulling in protest against my nostrils as the regulator pulsed puffs of oxygen.

The pack—which I affectionately referred to as the BMW of backpacks—had a sleek, silver design and was everything my silver oxygen tank was not.  Adventure. Activity.  Independence.  Healthy. 

But that was Hiking Me

Current Me is short of breath, fatigued by even the gentlest of hikes and aware of the way the hip belt digs into my stomach from the extra 35 pounds of prednisone weight.  Current Me hikes alone so that I can get back to Hiking Me without being embarrassed at my pace and how a relatively flat hike can kick my ass from here to there. 

Surprisingly, now that Tank is no longer my companion, Current Me savors the ability to hike at all.   My pride is on my sweaty back, my new fleece pullover and my muddy boots.

Mother’s Day Casualties

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My hands have been typing for 5 hours today.   Solid.  When I was done, I’d written 9380 words for a grand total of 22 glorious pages.  To be totally honest, I didn’t have to think up most of the words, they were already in pen in my notebook. 

But it is Mother’s Day.  And, as much as my own mother gets her day and her shout out, I’ve been thinking a lot more today about all the folks for whom Mother’s Day is a minefield. 

1)   A dear friend who only days ago had her mom’s funeral.   

2)   A mother whose college-age daughter passed less than 2 months ago. 

3)   A new mom who is celebrating her first Mother’s Day without her mom who passed when she was 17. 

4)   All the women who want to be moms but are pounding their fists against the wall of infertility.

So why the words you ask?  Why the explosion of typing bonanza?  Why risk my fingers falling off?  What do these words have to do with the above people?

Simple.  I’d been holding onto the words of #2’s daughter (my friend.)  Hours of conversation, sharing and openness have been tucked away in my writing notebook.    For weeks they have been talking to me (nagging me really, but I’m trying to be nice.) 

“Hey, you need to share us with her mom…this will mean a lot to her.”

And there is nothing like the dead to prompt me into action. 

So I text her mom…

Me:  Would you like to have our early conversations?  See the things she shared?  Her answers to questions?

Her mom:  Oh [insert my name] that would be wonderful!

And when I am tempted to apologize to her for how ridiculously long it is—22 pages? I mean  really would it kill me to revise??  I warn her to get comfy before she sits down to read.  I am tempted to warn her that—even though it is over text—that it is heavy.  That her daughter says things like “I’m not dead yet.”  But I don’t warn her.  There’s nothing I could say that she hasn’t thought, heard or experienced in the last few years of this.   Instead, I give her her daughter’s words—and with it, many of mine, many of my sharings—and hope that she finds it helpful and warming to the soul.  

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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Open Your Soul and See What Happens

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When I suggested our college-age YMCA cabin group do the activity “I’m from a place” I knew I was suggesting they open their souls to each other and trust that the group would support them.  That was how “I’m from a place” worked.  In this activity, the group stands up and spreads around the room—our room being about 15×15—and the group is quiet.  Then one person steps to the side and says, “I’m from a place….” And fills in the rest of the sentence for them.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, it can even be general, but it should be personal.

Things like…

I’m from a place where my parents don’t understand what is important to me.

Or

I’m from a place where I’m not sure where to go with my life right now.

Or

I’m from a place where it is hard to tell who my real friends are. 

Or

I’m from a place where I feel loved and supported most of the time.

Since these are college-age participants, their comments often are about finding their place in the world, what kind of decisions to make etc.  And, when someone in the group steps to the side and says their statement, then everyone who identifies or connects with that statement comes to stand near them and put their hand on their shoulder (or on the shoulder of someone who already has their hand on that person.)  Then, once everyone who has moved is done and there is a few moments of support, the next person steps to the side and says their “I’m from a place…”

This goes on for maybe 30 minutes with a group of 12.  Usually everyone goes about 2, maybe 3 times.  It is quiet.  It is thoughtful.  It is supportive.  It is intense.

And the feeling in the room as people quietly say something that is true for them, is powerful.

As the facilitator of the activity, I usually go first.  It sets the tone and gives them an idea of how it works.  It also gives the permission so to speak, to go to the place where they share the thing they struggle to say.  I don’t do this with all groups.  Not all groups get to the place where this activity is the right choice for them.  This is also one of those activities where I ask the group if they are interested in doing an something that really puts it out there. I tell them, “This is a beautiful activity and it is powerful, but if you aren’t in the mood and want to keep it light, are feeling distracted etc., it is totally cool to do something different.”

This particular group was on board.

So we started.  Simple.  Deep.  Honest.  Even when their I come from… was vague, it always hinted enough that individuals could interpret it as they wished.

Such as, “I come from a place where I’m really struggling right now.”

We don’t know why or how that person is struggling.  We don’t know if we are struggling in the same way.  But the reality is that it doesn’t matter.  If you are struggling and I am struggling, then we come from the same place.

We got the activity started and before you know it people gathered around, hands on shoulders, a hand or two on backs and other people standing nearby.  In a few moments, the whole group was connected.  Silent, but connected.

After a few moments—which we called “Giving the sharing its time” someone new stepped away.  And on it went from there.

My anxiety climbed after about 10 minutes when I thought about sharing my “I come from…” with the group.  I wanted to be able to say how what had made this last year so painful—so heartbreaking—but couldn’t find the words.  Everything seemed inadequate, or too specific.  I wanted to speak a truth for me—one that captured the profound loss without saying the details.

Also, as the leader of the group, I didn’t want it to be about me too much. I could be a part of the group to a certain extent, but not so much that the spotlight stayed on me.  The only people who had a sense of what my last year had been like were my co-leader and one of the participants who I had know for 4 years.  As I scrolled through possible phrases, they all seemed to miss what I was trying to say.

I come from a place of deep hurt.

I come from a place where this last year I feel like I no longer remember who I am.

I come from a place of deep, deep anger at the events that have happened.

None of them worked.

When I finally knew what to say I almost panicked at the thought of speaking such pain aloud.  To say this in a group of strangers would be one thing, but 2 of the people (my co-leader and “R”—the participant) would know what I meant.

I stood to the side and said, “I come from a place where I have lost one of the most important things in my life this year.”

Gradually, one by one, they came over to me.  The comforting pressure and warmth of hands rested on my shoulders.  Gathering friends—strangers only 2 days ago—moved beside me and behind me.  Then R walked in front of me and faced me.  She went against the norm of the activity, stood a foot away from me—closer than you stand if you are going to have a conversation, more like a hug—and she looked up at me until she had my eyes.   Reaching out, she took both of my hands—another unchartered territory in the activity—and she held both my hands.

She knew what I was referring to when I said I had lost significant things and people.  She knew exactly.  Standing behind me, or next to someone else was not enough.  R knew the pain I was referring to.  She had seen it play out.  Even though she was 16 years younger than I was (a 19 to my 35,) she stood with me in that moment.  I was unaware of the others once she did that.

Rarely have I felt so exposed, so vulnerable and so supported at the same time.

She didn’t say anything.  She just smiled at me and squeezed my hands.

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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.