Archive for the 'Remembrance' Category

My Protective Cloak
Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Motherhood brings out the lioness in me. No task is too small or sacrifice too great to ensure the well being of my three children. In my mind’s eye I can see myself jumping in front of an on-coming train to save their lives; feeding them first from my last ration of bread; offering myself as a meal for the hungry bear that is chasing them and in every one of these imaginings I manage to save the day.

In the normal course of life moms feed, bathe, clothe, soothe, encourage, celebrate, hold, hug, and protect their little ones through the bumps and bruises associated with living, learning and loving. Sometimes I think of my love for them as a protective cloak that serves the double purpose of reminding them of their innate value and also guarding them from the many perils that threaten to harm them as they walk this journey of life. But when death came knocking, I could not protect them.

After delivering the devastating news to my children that my husband died in a cycling accident, I rode home in the back seat of a car with the three of them crying in my arms. They asked question, after question as I felt my heart writhe repeatedly inside my chest. Why did that man hit him, Mom? Where was Phil’s bike? Wasn’t he wearing a helmet? I thought you said he probably broke some bones. How come that driver didn’t see him? Why did he die? I remember these moments like you recall a dream, vivid and yet unfocused and out of sequence. But through the fog of emotion one feeling from that night is piercingly clear…the terrifying sensation of being completely helpless. For the first time in their young lives there was not one thing I could do to take away my children’s pain. My own pain was echoed in their cries of grief, and the invisible cape I naively believed could shield them from every trauma lay crumpled on the floor mats at our feet.
Being powerless to alter the course my children were about to travel, I realized all I could offer was a hand to hold as we walked the road that lay before us. And so we grieved together. Some days were ugly. Some days I yelled more than I should have. Some days we cried; others we laughed. They went back to school; I sat on the couch and stared into space. They did homework; I tried to pay attention. Dinner was sometimes from a box, and other times from the drive through. We went to the beach, we slept in just because, we said Phil’s name often, and celebrated the fact that we loved him every day. Life milestones were bittersweet. We held fast to some family traditions, while others were re-designed. Slowly we built a new life one day at a time.

My kids taught me many lessons in the aftermath of our family tragedy. In those early days we discovered that tears can be shared; strong parents cry too. They taught me that time together is the foundation for the memories that hold us up in times of loss. Laughing with them reminded me that being happy was necessary, too. Their love was unconditional…which meant I didn’t have to know all the answers. My kids taught me that I could lean on them; the whole world didn’t have to rest on my shoulders alone. . Together we have risen from the ashes of loss to do more for the world we inhabit, because death taught us to value life. Three teenage angels taught me to be a better mother, and to see the world as it can be if we parents truly believe all those things we teach our children…love much, laugh often, and live well.
Ironically, my inability to shield my children from every pain has allowed them to learn lessons that will shape their future in ways I would never have imagined. And my lack of superhuman powers allowed their amazing courage and natural grace to shine brightly even death couldn’t dim their beauty.

My Husband’s Favorite Sweatshirt
Thursday, February 12th, 2009

For the first few weeks after Phil’s death anything that had touched his body was sacred. His shoes were sitting where he last left them, his lunchbox remained on top of the refrigerator, and his toothbrush was standing next to mine in the holder. One day I found an eyelash of his and pressed it into a plastic rosary holder for safekeeping. Three days before he died, he was working in our attic and left dirty fingerprints on the top of the door in our bedroom. I was annoyed when I saw the black marks on our white door, and made a mental note to ask him to clean off the prints. Those black marks now hold a place of honor on my otherwise white door.

In those early days I didn’t handle Phil’s things very often I was afraid of losing his scent or masking that unique smell with my own. But after a few months, as shock wore off and reality started to press in around me, I became desperate for the comfort of Phil’s arms. One morning I woke up crying (again) and wrapped my own arms around myself trying to imagine that my limbs were his. Rocking back and forth in the middle of my bed I looked up and caught sight of one of his sweatshirts. Even as I literally ached for his touch, I weighed the value of wearing his clothes against the risk of losing even a tiny part of him. With a limited supply of his things their value became immeasurable. But I needed him, so I pulled that sweatshirt over my head. Immediately I felt as if he had wrapped me in a tight hug, and I lay my head on his strong chest and cried my eyes out.

That moment was a milestone for me. I stopped withholding the comfort of wearing his clothes from myself, and just reveled in the warmth of knowing I was wearing a part of him. I slept in his t-shirts, wore his slippers to get the paper, pulled on his raincoat when it poured, and adopted his favorite running shirt as my own. I was layered in Phil, and I loved every minute.

As I became more comfortable using his things and less worried about losing him by making them my own, I discovered that Phil’s memory was part of my daily life in a new way. Instead of pulling out his things to torture myself with his absence, I used them to remind me of how much he loved me. The items that were a part of his everyday routine, were proof that he was part of my every day world~even though his body was gone. Our love was obvious to me in his hairbrush, even if that brush was now covered in my hair. When I pulled on his running shirt, I was reminded of sunny afternoons that we headed out the door side-by-side. Slowly I blended what was with what is, and found that the past was paving the way for the future.

I still go out to get the paper in Phil’s slippers. Every now and then I giggle as I pull on his favorite sweatshirt, because he would never let me wear it when he was alive. His t-shirts are often my pajamas and that eyelash is still tucked away in the rosary box. What I have learned is that his memory is held not only in the physical evidence of his existence, but in the indelible mark he left on my soul. No amount of time, space, or familiarity will rub that mark off.

The Big Red Day
Sunday, February 1st, 2009

My husband used to call Valentine’s Day “So What Day.” Romantic, huh? He thought greeting cards were a waste of trees; that buying flowers because someone told you to defeated the purpose; and that going to dinner on the big day just to eat from a limited menu and have servers anxiously awaiting your departure from the table was ridiculous. I will admit that we fought about this on a few occasions who wants to be the only girl in the office that didn’t get flowers? Eventually we settled into our own brand of celebrating our love, both on the big day, and on the other 364 days of the year.

I expected to breeze through the first Valentine’s Day without him, because he hated this holiday. But as the day approached, I found myself missing my heart day scrooge. There was no one around to balk at the increase in flower prices. There was no need to peruse the recycled card collection looking for just the right sentiment for my grumpy Valentine, and I cried when I realized there would be no one to take me to dinner at 4:30PM to avoid the crowds. Very quickly I found myself repeating in my head all the reasons to boycott the Hallmark holiday.

When the day arrived I found myself unable to ignore the National Day of Love. Instead of pushing the memories of our on-going struggle to find a happy middle ground for our own celebration out of my mind, I called them each front and center. And I laughed out loud. Recalling the times he showed up in the kitchen with a flower from our garden in hand, the dinners we “accidentally” went to on the 14th of February, my efforts to get him to just write me just one letter telling me how much he loved me (I was successful), and finally, the fact that he proposed to me on Valentine’s Day I felt loved. And I guess that is the point of the day after all. Even though Phil never contributed to the romance testaments proudly placed on desks across America, I never doubted that he loved me. That night I drifted off to sleep murmuring “happy so what day honey.”

When the Lord Closes a Door
Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

My friend Michelle came into my life in November of 2005. Around that time, grieving my husband had become my full-time job—I did everything else part-time. Two months after Phil’s death my life was settling into a pattern of managing widowhood, and single parenthood, one challenge at a time. My friends and family still kept an eye on me, but at the end of every day my most reliable companion was grief. Until early November when I got a call from my sister, Debi, asking for my help. My brother-in-law’s cousin had lost her husband to cancer the week before, and Debi wondered if I would write her a note. She thought I might know, better than anyone else, what to say to her.

The interesting thing was I didn’t feel like I knew anything about being a widow—except that it was thrust upon me, and it wasn’t optional. Sitting at my desk thinking of what to write, I finally settled on the truth—I was so sorry she lost her husband and the months ahead wouldn’t be easy, but I was available to talk anytime she wanted. That short message began a relationship that has changed my life.

Within weeks, the two of us felt an unmistakable kinship created by our loss experiences. We discussed all the things that we hated about widowhood—sometimes in pretty colorful language. It didn’t take long to figure out that speaking to each other could be done in half sentences—the other friend could always fill in the blanks. Some days we needed to cry, other days we needed to laugh, but with each passing day we discovered that we needed each other. Many mornings I woke up, with swollen eyes from an evening of wailing, and ran to my computer to see if I had mail. Her words became my lifeline, or perhaps more accurately, my hope line.

Miraculously, we took turns having break downs; we also took turns carrying the imaginary candle of hope. Each of us believed in the possibility of healing, but neither of us was sure how to go about it. Many days we weren’t sure we even wanted to try. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were helping each other heal with our every interaction. Our spirits were slowly rebuilt with each tearful conversation, with the quiet acknowledgement of each other’s pain, with the certainty of a pat on the back for a forward step taken, and with the intuitive phone calls that came when the voice on the answering machine didn’t sound quite right.

Michelle was the only person who understood that I wanted to die, but that I would never kill myself. I could tell her that I missed being a wife, but I had no desire to have another husband. One day she would agree with me that neither of us would ever re-marry, and the next day we could jointly agree to the exact opposite course of action. The most telling part of our mutual understanding was that we verbally agreed that given the chance, we would immediately trade our wonderful friendship in for the opportunity to have our husbands back—without hesitation and without any hard feelings! The illogical, roller coaster of grief was much easier to ride with a partner who was willing to either clutch my arm during the frightening drops or encourage me to throw my hands in the air—depending on the day. Somehow Michelle always knew what kind of day it was.

Reflecting on the phrase, “When the Lord closes a door he always opens a window,” I realize that my friendship with Michelle is a window that opened for me after the death of my husband slammed shut a door, with unnerving finality. Through the window of our friendship I am able to see the good that still exists in my life and in the world. The frame of our friendship window was forged by the fire of grief and reinforced by the power of shared experience. Our window is draped in mutual love and unwavering support. Unless you have lived the loss experience you might not notice that our friendship window has a unique style of glass—it allows us to view the world as it could be if we dare to believe in the power of hope. The deafening crack of the door that death closed for me reverberates in my heart and in my daily experience, but when the noise threatens to alter my life view—I just look out the window.

Thoughts On The First Anniversary
Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

As you approach the first anniversary of losing the amazing man that shared your life, your love, your joys, and your sorrows; I have a vision I would like to share with you. I am imagining you wearing a heavily laden backpack. This pack is filled with the searing pain of separation, the desperate fear of the unknown, the intense longing for the touch of someone who loves you, the emerging hope you have for the future, and a new love for today. You are surrounded by the beauty of the Arizona countryside, heading up the North side of the Grand Canyon. The landscape is breathtaking, sometimes the beauty of your surroundings causes tears to run down your cheeks—other times it makes you draw in your breath in wonder.

As you begin to ascend the canyon, you are feeling your legs, aware of the strain the climb creates. Your muscles feel weak at first, but as you continue ascending you realize there is strength in your legs you didn’t know you had. Each step forward requires effort. The grade of the climb changes often, once in a while the steep angle makes you lose your footing and fall back. Yet, even with the backward steps you move forward, pressed on by the thought that you are capable.

Following the winding path up the trail, you realize that the journey to the bottom of the canyon was fraught with pain and fear. There were days you felt you were free-falling and other days when you sat on a ledge unable to move either forward or back. No markers indicated where the bottom of the canyon was, so the descent felt as if it would last forever. Then, without warning, you found yourself standing on the banks of the majestic Colorado River. You are out of breath and a bit dizzy, but miraculously still in one piece. Trying to get your bearings you are shocked to discover that the descent is over. Calm surrounds you as you become aware that you have survived. You no longer need to wonder if you can live through the treacherous freefall of loss, suddenly you know that your goal is to climb out of the gorge you dropped into—one step at a time.

With each passing moment the strength in your muscles gives you confidence. The weight of your pack seems to change as you climb. Perhaps you have grown accustomed to the added load, but whatever the reason, you feel able to bear the weight. Climbing all the way up the opposite side of the Grand Canyon suddenly seems possible. Though you have a distance to go and your destination is not in plain view, you know it is there—not by sight, but by instinct. You can envision the outer edge of the canyon, and you have no fear of disappointment. Your journey will be whatever it is meant to be, and you are at peace. You have learned the lesson of the descent–you only have today. Today is what you live for, tomorrow is what you hope for, and yesterday is where your heart learned it’s most poignant lessons.

Onward friend.

Finding My Stride
Monday, March 17th, 2008

It was a perfect day for running. The morning was a bit cloudy, cool enough to wish for another layer, and there was a hint of fall crispness in the air—unusual weather for Austin in October. I was heading to a race start-line for the first time in over a year. For once there were no pre-race jitters or time expectations, just a lot of memories and a different kind of determination.

On August 31ST of 2005, my husband Phillip was killed when he was hit by a car while out for his evening bike ride. Phil was not only an avid cyclist; he was also a dedicated runner. He began his running career as a high school track athlete. Continuing his love of the sport as a devoted community track coach, he volunteered long after his own kids had outgrown the program. Running beside the kids at practice was one of his favorite things to do. Phil was a regular at all the local races; a towering pile of race bibs had a place of honor on his dresser. At 39, he was at the top end of a competitive age group. He was counting the days to his age group change, looking forward to racing as one of the youngsters in his field. But Phil never got to race in the next age group—he died three months before his fortieth birthday.

Before we met, I was an occasional runner. Through our courtship and marriage, my husband introduced me to the joy of running. Vacations were planned around running, track season caused the cessation of all other activities, and date nights usually began in running shoes. My love of running developed as our relationship did. After Phil died, my world looked different from every angle. The lines that distinguished what he loved and what I loved became blurred. I didn’t know if I loved running or if I only loved running with him. In the darkness of loss, I could not find the drive to put on my shoes, and run out the door without him, I quit running. Each morning I woke up in the haze of grief, with only the thought of how to make it through the day. After months of feeling lost without my husband, it finally occurred to me that I might feel more connected to him on a run. So, with some trepidation I laced up my shoes. For months I ran away; away from the heartache, away from the shock, away from the inevitable reality that he was gone. When I ran, I felt close to him in my soul and in my stride. Each breathless moment was a testament to all I had learned from running beside the man I loved. On my runs Phil was still my partner. Those runs left me spent and sad, but I needed them. Running became my way of saying good-bye to the man who was my husband and my friend.

The act of running was freeing. It reminded me that I was capable of putting one foot in front of the other—in forward motion. The destination was not as important as the journey. As time passed, my heart slowly began to heal. Eventually the nature of my runs changed, and I noticed that my step was lighter. I realized that my purpose in heading out for a jog was no longer exclusively a desire to feel close to Phil. Slowly, I stopped expecting to see him at every turn of our favorite route. Running did not always reduce me to tears. With every step I took, I began to remember the joy of running. Gradually, I ran just because I wanted to.

On that brisk October day, I faced my first finish line without my husband. A dear friend of mine, who lost her husband to cancer, lined up beside me at the start—we were there to run in honor of the men we had loved and lost, but not forgotten. Passing each mile marker, I marveled at the power of running. As we traveled the course, we shared stories about our husbands, we talked about the lives that were still ahead of us, and we celebrated the fact that we could run. Crossing the finish line I felt Phil’s absence, but I also felt his presence. Running had taken me across more than a literal finish line. As I crossed the line with cheering supporters in the background and my friend at my side, I realized that I wasn’t running just for Phil, I was running for myself, too.

My Death Wish
Monday, February 4th, 2008

It is an odd and frightening sensation to wish you were dead. After my husband died I fervently wished I could die, too. The first time I read that grieving people sometimes fantasize about death, I was relieved. My entire life I had appreciated the gift of life, to suddenly and frequently wish it away was a disconcerting and lonely experience.

When my husband, Phil, was hit by a car, the initial shock provided a buffer to the complicated emotions that would gather to haunt me in the days and months to come. As the buffer of shock wore off, I was struck daily by the realization that Phil wasn’t coming home. It felt like Groundhog Day—everyday I woke up with the expectation that the day would somehow go differently, and I would discover that Phil wasn’t really gone. Day by day the reality of his death ate away at my desire to live. There is a difference between wishing to be dead and being suicidal.

My death wish did not come from a desire to stop living. It didn’t even come from a desire to stop hurting—though the pain was so intense at times I hoped it would kill me. My death wish came from a desire to be with Phil again. His physical absence was like a phantom pain in a limb that was no longer attached. My death wish became a part of my daydreams. Jogging up a street, I would mentally challenge cars to run me over. On a plane, I would imagine a fiery crash that I didn’t survive. Hiking in the mountains I looked for wild animals that might want to make a meal of me. Driving alone in the car, I visualized my car flying over any ledge I passed. Every brush with imagined death was followed by the disappointing result of still being alive; continuing to jog down the street, landing as expected at my destination, a safe return from hiking adventures, and no crash over the nearest ledge.

The longing I felt to be with him was a constant ache; the only cure I could imagine was joining him wherever he was.As time marched on, the call to live gradually grew stronger. In the early part of my grieving I desperately held on to two reasons to live; my kids needed me, our family and friends would be so sad if I was gone, too. All my reasons for wanting to live were about someone else; if it were up to me….beam my up Lord! There was not one personal reason that I could think of to continue living—but healing has a way of sneaking up on you.

Eventually I recognized that my husband lived his life fully, every moment. He had an awareness of the value of life that influenced his daily choices. Reflecting on how he lived his life reminded me of the gift that life is, and he became a role model for me. As I have begun the process of creating a life for myself without him, I have had to find reasons to live that are my own. I want to be a mother to my children. I want to make a difference in my community. I want to weave my husband’s spirit into the fabric of the person I am becoming. I want to bask in the joy of being in love again. I want to experience the adventure that life still holds for me.

The woman my husband married died with him. Grief has changed me, but I am proud of the woman that is emerging from the ashes of loss.

Life is a gift to me in a way it never was before. The nuisances of life don’t bother me as much as they once did. Age old adages like, “Take time to smell the roses,” actually mean something to me now. The world can’t be the same place it was two years ago, because Phil isn’t in it—somehow that comforts me. What I am learning is that though many things around me are radically different, I can still be a whole, happy, grateful person. Ironically, my death wish has become a steely will to truly live. Phil would be glad to hear that.

The Memory Keepers
Monday, February 4th, 2008

My husband had a shoe fetish. Phillip owned shoes for all occasions and athletic events—some were kept only for their sentimental value. To him, each pair either served a purpose or told a story, so there was no getting rid of them. This caused a serious storage issue. In addition to his side of the closet, he claimed the entire space under our bed. According to my husband, shoes could not be stacked, which meant the entire perimeter of the bed was lined with shoes. My shoes were piled in the closet in order to make more room for his.

When Phillip died, each pair of shoes became a reminder of something about him or about us that I missed. His favorite pair of trail shoes, still covered with dust from his last run, recalled the happy hours we shared running together on mountain trails. I missed the time we spent exercising together, and enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. Racing flats brought memories of him crossing one of many finish lines, sometimes with a smile of triumph, other times with a look of disbelief, always with the determination of a person who loved to run.

I missed his competitive spirit, and the surprising heights of physical endurance to which he regularly pushed me. A pair of vintage Nikes were a particular favorite of his—causing more than one heated discussion when he pulled them out with his party attire. The despised dress shoes always made me smile, because they required dusting before being worn. Still, they were a necessity, and they had their place in the line up under our bed.

How could I part with all those shoes? I knew it had to be done, but just moving them to a new location required baby steps. Each time I picked up a pair, I relived the story they told and put them right back where they were with tears in my eyes. This dilemma felt like an unsolvable puzzle: to not only let go of the shoes, but to do it in a way that would exemplify my husband’s love for them. How could I look into what was once our shared closet, and not see his beloved collection stored neatly in their assigned location?

The shoes became memory keepers and I feared that letting go of the shoes would also mean letting go of the memories. As the holidays approached, the answer to my problem finally became clear. Phillip’s parents were born in Mexico City. A few months before he died, he took a long awaited trip to visit relatives who still live there. He returned with a renewed sense of how fortunate we are here in the United States; speaking for weeks of the poverty and despair he witnessed in his parents’ homeland. Yet, he also noticed that blended with the despair was a generosity of spirit and an unwavering faith that he truly admired. As a result of his trip, we planned to join our church group in December, when they traveled to a small Mexican town to bring the people there much needed food and clothing.

After my husband’s death, my daughter and I decided to make the trip to Mexico in his memory. As we planned for the trip, it occurred to me that the people in the village could really use his shoes. They wouldn’t be someone’s extra pair—they might be their only pair. His large assortment of footwear could provide the opportunity for a group of people he deeply cared about to work and travel in well-covered feet, rather than completing the necessary tasks of daily life barefoot. This act of kindness would transform those shoes from memory-keepers back into shoes once again.

As I stood in the courtyard of the small Mexican Church on a sunny afternoon, I watched people evaluate his shoes. Each pair was measured not for sentimental value, but for their size and practicality, with the benefits of one being weighed against another. Some shoes were left on the tables as a possibility for the next person who came along—others were scooped up right away, like found treasure.

The shoes that didn’t make the cut that day were added to the church’s store for future use. As I watched the people of that town walk away with shoes in hand, I realized that it was never the shoes that held my beloved memories. My heart held those memories, and it always would. I felt a moment of peace as his shoes were carried away. I knew that somewhere he was smiling. I have to admit that there are still a few pairs I haven’t parted with, but I figure I’m entitled to hang onto some…just for sentimental reasons.

The Only Person I Really Want Right Now, by Ann Suther
Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

I am a new widow – 5 weeks. People ask “How are you?” and I don’t know how to answer. “Sometimes OK, mostly NOT OK,” I respond. Many of them really don’t want to hear that answer and I know it, so I try to pretend I’m better than I really am.I keep thinking somehow life will change back to what it was, yet I know it won’t. This new life feels so strange . . . so empty . . . will my life ever feel normal again?His death was unnecessary – an undetected surgical error. This surgery was supposed to improve his health, and it killed him. I’m just starting to feel anger amid my numbness.Tears come unpredictably – sometimes I can tell this story without them, other times a quick and fleeting memory of something we shared brings on a flood.Why are there so many decisions to make and details to take care of when I feel least able? There are too many questions in my mind about how I will navigate through all that lies ahead. I know I have to give myself time, yet financial woes may not allow me the time I need.I pray for patience and for strength . . . . and thank God for loving adult children, and countless supportive friends and neighbors who are only a phone call away. Still, the only person I really want right now is the one who is gone.