Category Archives: Grief

Love Always Trumps Weight

Today is my 31st Mother’s Day, and it’s also 31 years since I first weighed 200 pounds. Kind of a strange two things to put together, but if you’re like me, you remember what you weighed at momentous points in your life.

I made my formal debut in the 200-pound zone when I stepped on a scale in the labor and delivery ward of Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on March 10, 1983. I made my husband Bruce stay in the labor room. Anyone who didn’t wear scrubs to work didn’t need to know how much I weighed. Bruce was a hair over six feet tall, weighed 170 pounds, and had no clue that when we were married a year earlier, I weighed just 10 pounds less than he did.

As I walked to the scale, I felt the air on my bare back since my stomach took up most of the gown. The nurse held my hand as I stepped up. I looked down at the round monitor that brushed against my lower belly. 205.

“Please don’t tell my husband,” I begged.

Not that Bruce would have cared that I weighed over 200 pounds. I was the one with scale issues. When I looked at myself I saw a double chin. When Bruce looked at me, he called me beautiful. I told him he was just being nice. He told me he never lied.

I’d gained 45 pounds in nine months, 15 more than my obstetrician recommended. It’s not that I didn’t care about my health; I’d just never been told by a doctor to gain weight, only to lose. So when chubby, self-conscious, 19-year-old me was given permission to gain 30 pounds, I went a little food crazy for the first seven months.

I was free to “eat for two.” I didn’t have to “suck it in.” I made grilled Spam and Velveeta sandwiches on white bread, doused salads in full-fat salad dressing, ate ice cream late at night, and put half-and-half and brown sugar on my cream of wheat every morning.

When I developed high blood pressure in my fourth month, I watched my sodium intake and cut out cheddar cheese, ketchup, canned soup and TV dinners. But there isn’t much sodium in baked potatoes with sour cream, prime rib, fried eggs, Hershey Kisses or zucchini bread.

We were farmers. Bruce and I had moved back to the family farm when his parents retired. We had a couple hundred cows, three sows, a bore, and a couple dozen feeder pigs. Bruce and his brother also farmed several hundred acres of corn and soybeans. There were endless chores every day.

When I blew out of my maternity coat late in my eighth month, I dressed in layers and wore Bruce’s coveralls when I went outside. My fur-lined boots were heavy, but twice a day I trudged through knee-deep snow to the silo, then the pig shed, and then the water trough. I even cleaned out the silo room a week before my due date, thinking I could “help things along.” I burned dozens of empty pellet bags that had accumulated over the winter. It took 10 trips back and forth between the silo and the area where we burned trash – easily a 100-yard hike one way – and for my efforts, I was rewarded with eight hours of Braxton Hicks contractions.

At week 40, the baby was still a few weeks from coming out on her own. The doctor predicted she weighed more than eight pounds and measured longer than 20 inches so, certain she was “done,” he decided to induce labor.

Returning from scale, Bruce helped me into bed and the nurses hooked up a Pitocin drip and fetal monitor. After the first contraction, I didn’t think any more about my weight. Scale shock gave way to labor, and for 13 hours, my body cramped and pushed until Carlene was born, all 9 pounds and 22 inches of her.

In the recovery room, a nurse brought Carlene to us and offered to take our picture. My hair was matted to my forehead, I had IVs in both my hands, my face was swollen, my breast was exposed, and Bruce was still wearing scrubs. Normally I’d have protested, but this was not a normal night. Bruce and I were smiling and gazing at Carlene as the nurse took our first and only family photo.

The next morning, the water weight bloat from the drugs was mostly gone and my blood pressure was normal. As I waited for the nurse to bring Carlene to me, I laid in bed and touched my stomach. I gathered its soft folds of deflated skin in my hands. I’d heard it was called an “apron,” the skin that folds over the top of your pelvic bone and rests on the crease where your thighs meet your torso. I followed the rivulets of squishy stretch marks with my fingers and remembered how upset I was when I noticed the first one – a small, light purple line just to the right of my belly button. My mother birthed five children and never had a stretch mark. After one baby, I was littered with them.

I kneaded my skin gently and smiled. I still weighed around 200 pounds, but I had a perfect little girl and an awesome husband.

I’ll lose the extra weight, I thought.

Until his death 10 days later, Bruce and I spent our time figuring out how to be parents. He got up with me for every feeding, especially the ones at 2 a.m. when a Sioux Falls TV station aired “Rocky & Bullwinkle.” In the evenings, he rocked Carlene and sang to her while I slept. In the mornings, Carlene sat in her infant seat on the kitchen table while we ate breakfast. While I moved gingerly and leaked profusely, it was…to this day…the most contented I’ve ever been. A lesson in love, which always trumps weight.

The Pause

March 10, 31 years ago, was my daughter Carlene’s due date, but she wasn’t interested in coming out. According to his measuring tape and his best guess, my doctor said Carlene was in excess of 8 pounds and she wouldn’t be born for another few weeks if she had her way.

“Your blood pressure’s high, the baby is big enough,” he said, taking off his gloves. “We need to get the baby out.”

“Ok,” was all I said, like I knew what he meant. Only I didn’t.

He left, I got dressed, and a nurse came in with some papers. Told me to check into the hospital.

“Ok,” I said again, and again, I asked no questions because I was 19 years old and I was stuck between the fear of the unknown and the mandate by which I was raised: never question authority. I walked numbly to the waiting area. My husband, Bruce, met me near the coat rack.

“So, what did he say?” he asked cheerfully, helping me into my coat. Bruce was terribly excited to meet the baby. Every night, he rubbed my belly like it was Aladdin’s lamp. “Come out and play!” he’d say.

“I have to go to the hospital,” I said quietly, trying not to cry. “He said the baby has to be born soon.”

He took my hand and I clutched the papers with the other. We walked outside. Bruce helped me into the car. Nothing was easy anymore.

Bruce slid into the driver’s seat. I looked over the papers the nurse had given me and could feel my heart beating in my temples.

“I don’t know what any of this means!” I slapped the papers. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. Am I having a C-section? Is the baby OK?”

Bruce took a deep breath. “Let’s just sit here for a minute,” he said.

“But they’re expecting us at the hospital! We have to go!” I protested. God knows we had to do exactly what we were told.

“They’ll be there when we get there,” he said. He reached over and stroked my hair. “We need some time to think.”

So we paused. I took a deep breath and loosened my death-grip on the papers. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember not feeling alone. I was afraid and so was he, but we were afraid together. When we felt ready to go, as was always Bruce’s positive approach to life, he said, “We’re having a baby!” Which we did, the next day, at 7:27 in the evening after more than 13 hours of labor. No C-section.

Carlene Rae came out looking just like her father, and as she grew, she took on his nature, even though they only knew each other for 11 days. Like her father, Carlene prefers to take her time, and she chafes against the hectic world and deadlines. She’s the person you want holding your hand when you shake, and she will remind you – with a joyful heart – about the good stuff yet to come.

Carlene was the joy of his life, if only for 11 days
Our wedding day; Carlene today


As long as I live, I will never forget the glow of light dancing on the snow outside the front door of Jim’s house. I threw open the door, looked to my right, and saw his barn on fire, with flames shooting 40 feet in the air.

What was burning was more than a wooden structure, tools, and his pickup. On fire was the labor and the love that built it. On fire was the bow tie given to Jim by his mother when he was a young boy. On fire was his favorite dog’s ashes. On fire was the Harley that took Jim and I on many adventures and instilled in me a confidence I’ve never had. On fire was his grandmother’s dining table and chairs, and a dresser his cousin inherited from her mother, who passed away last year. (Jim was refinishing it for her.) On fire was his grandfather’s .22 pistol and the BB gun Jim and his nephews use to shoot targets when they come to visit. On fire were my brother’s snow shoes he bought in 1970, the ones he said gave him a sense of peace when he treked across the fields around his college campus. On fire were the photos of good times with friends and family, a vintage poster for the Sinnamahoning Rattlesnake Bagging competition, and the original watercolors – painted by Jim’s neighbor – of the cabin that used to sit on the site where his barn was built.

When you walked into Jim’s barn, you walked into his mind, his past, his dreams, and his craft.

Anyone who has lost something special through fire or theft or some other loss knows that when things are more than “stuff,” it is necessary to grieve them for the life-giving, memory-filled things they were. And so it is for Jim. And for me, as I mourn the loss of my antique glider and whiskey barrel and, the most difficult, my bike.

While no one was hurt, I hope and pray our barn kittens weren’t in the barn when the fire started. We haven’t seen them yet, but we’re clinging to the hope that they are hunkered down close by.
So much to process. So much to do.

Vulnerable Much?

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” for the last few weeks. Halfway through the 7-disc book, I knew I had to have a hard copy. “Daring Greatly” is a book that screams, “Write in my margins, people! Highlight! Underline! Reread!”

Embracing vulnerability is a new concept for me. While I credit my training in mindfulness for helping me to not fall completely over my feet as I stumble my way through this new way of thinking and living, embracing what I usually ignore/avoid/run away from (fill in your own coping mechanism) is like stopping a freight train and then putting it in reverse.

When I look back at the times I’ve felt most vulnerable, many of them were appearance focused. When I was obese, I felt most vulnerable in a crowd of people who could – and sometimes probably did – judge me.

I can recall only a few times I didn’t let the vulnerability of obesity win. One was on a May day in 2001 when I gave out the Tony Fabri Memorial Scholarships at the Clarion High School auditorium in front of hundreds of teenagers – in my imagination, the worst audience of all when you’re feeling vulnerable. But Tony was a best friend to both of my daughters, and I loved him like a son. When he died, an entire community went into mourning, and my daughters’ lives changed forever.

When Tony’s parents asked me to present the scholarship awards, I was both honored and scared to death. But I kept in perspective what they were asking me to do: honor their son. They also asked if it would be OK if someone videotaped my presentation because they couldn’t bring themselves to attend. I didn’t hesitate to consent. I have a Ph.D. in grief. I know how caring for yourself while grieving means sometimes not touching the hot spots. Wait til they cool a bit, then lay your hands on them.

Fortunately for me, my weight was pretty much the only reason I felt vulnerable that day. I really don’t mind public speaking, at least when I’m prepared. Throw me out in front of a crowd with little or no warning and ask me to say something intelligent? I’m pretty sure I’d rather pass kidney stones. But that day, I was more than prepared. I was eager to talk about Tony and the legacy of his short-lived life. Only a few times did I worry about what people thought of my size, hidden as best as it could beneath a flowing top and long skirt.

What I’m seeing as I read “Daring Greatly” is that vulnerability is there, up front or in the background, from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep. Sometimes it visits my dreams. Last night I dreamed Eddie Vedder was sitting on my kitchen counter. I asked him if he liked sautéed mushrooms and he said he loved them. I remember feeling tense. I used all my best lines trying to be cool and then I hyperventilated when I realized I only had vegetable oil and no butter in which to sauté the mushrooms. That’s when I woke up.

What the hell did I eat before going to bed?

Anyway, after waking from the Eddie Vedder dream, my vulnerability went straight to the morning activity on my mind: going to my first-ever aqua aerobics class. Not only would I be trying something new, I would be wearing a bathing suit in front of a dozen or more people. Yikes!

As I should have predicted, but didn’t trust, was that the outcome of my first excursion into aqua aerobics was the same as when I plow through most of my other vulnerable moments. It was worth it. I had fun, and I met people who wear bathing suits in public and don’t seem to mind. I also changed my attitude about aqua aerobics being easy (my arms are talking to me this morning about this) and I walked from the pool to the locker room with a little more belief in myself and with a little more love in my heart for who I am – vulnerable and imperfect, but usually hopeful.

I’m learning that being my own best friend is about opening up and being receptive to vulnerability, rather than caving in to my nemesis self who, in the face of a challenge, yells in my ear, “Oh please, please, PLEASE can we not think about this? Can we just pop popcorn and eat Hershey Kisses and watch the first season of ‘Mad Men’ for the third time? Please!?”

Every day we’re “out there,” whether we leave our homes or not. (The Internet is a breeding ground for vulnerability!) Vulnerability is present when we start a new job, go out on a first date, break up with someone, get fired, go to the doctor…. Heck, vulnerability’s present in a restaurant! I always feel bothersome when I ask a server, “Can you please hold the capers and bacon and add a few more tomatoes instead? Oh, and can I get the dressing on the side?”

Online or in person, our faces, our bodies, our personalities, our cars, our houses, our coffee order at Starbucks, our sandwich order at Sheetz, and even the books our children and grandchildren want to check out from the library (“Ummm…OK… ‘Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People’ is fine! Yes! Just fine…ugh!”) make a statement about who we are, and in those moments, we’re open to judgment by the outside and the inside. That’s right. We judge our own vulnerabilities!

I know this isn’t rocket science and that many of you have already figured this out, but wow…. Clarity is creeping up on me like the spider that walked up my calf on Saturday while I scrubbed floors. Not wanting to kill it, I let it creep while I walked outside and set it free, all the while fighting the urge to sweep him away like he wasn’t real and move on with what I was doing. Sort of like the times when I feel most vulnerable and I want to crawl in a hole and shut my eyes and hope no one wants anything from me.

My audio copy of “Daring Greatly” is due back at my library on Friday. While I now own a hard copy, I was hoping to finish the book on CD. When I tried to renew it, I was told I couldn’t because someone else has reserved it. That’s OK. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one trying to stop the freight train and throw it in reverse.

My new anthem: Sara Bareilles “Brave”

Pray Help

One middle of the night a few months ago, I was half awake, tossing and turning, trying to run away from the incoherent thoughts racing through my mind. After an hour, no closer to sleep, I did something I haven’t done in years. I folded my hands and I prayed. I talked out the fuzzy thoughts and feelings with the one I know now as little G god, and the next thing I knew, the sun was up and I woke with a light heart and a calmed mind.

I stopped big G God praying several years ago and began a mediation practice, which is like prayer, only not a conversation with a deity. I find staying mindful and staying present for all feelings – good and bad – has brought me a greater sense of peace and understanding of who I am. But always in the back of my mind, I missed the deity. I missed the comfort of the one thing that got me and my brand of crazy.

After some thought about how I might reconnect with that deity, I realized how talking to big G God had often made me feel small and afraid to speak my truth. This wasn’t big G God’s fault. It was a simple matter of spelling. Stripping big G God of that big G did not diminish its greatness, but it brought it eye level with me, to a place where I would be heard and I could listen, even if both of us whispered.

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s book, “Help, Thanks, Wow,” a gift from a friend who I’m convinced is in cahoots with little G god because she is as close to understanding me without running away as anyone I know. She offers me shelter without judgment and honesty without making me feel wrong or ruined.

Praying Help, writes Lamott, is like saying, “Here. You deal with it,” and then waiting to hear back.

“The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn though pain that some of the things that we thought were castles turn out to be prison, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take.”

Too often in my cries for help, I have already devised a solution. And so my intention now when praying Help is to sit in the quiet – of meditation, perhaps – and allow clarity to find me and work with the answer provided.

I have been praying Help all morning after learning that my Aunt Ethel is dying. Help that she be free from suffering, Help that her daughter, my mother, and Ethel’s family and friends find strength. Ethel dictated a note to her daughter that I wanted to share here because, to me, it exemplifies what it means to pray Help.

To my wonderful friends and relatives –

This is the most difficult letter I’ve ever had to write because it is my final one. I have been informed that I have 1 to 6 months to live. All of the medical issues I have been having are related to the metastatic lung cancer recently discovered.

Your wonderful cards and prayers have helped me through this difficult time. Now, however, rather than focusing on my getting well, I ask you to focus on a peaceful transition to my dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

I’m sure I will be allowed to take my memories with me – and I have many with all of you.

I will love you forever, Ethel

I, too, will love Ethel forever, and I will honor her wishes and pray Help that she has a peaceful passing. A difficult thing to do, to be sure, because we prefer so much to pray for healing.

Pray Help. Breathe. Crying is OK, too.  And may you find your way out of those prisons you thought were castles, and calm the obsessions that became your new normal.

My aunts and mother, circa 1936. Clockwise from top left: Mavis, Ethel, Doris, Ardith (my mom), and Helen

A Little Story About Mental Illness

<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>It was 3 a.m. and my sister, mother and I were watching cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a heart attack. What began in my stomach as a churning crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. The feeling crept to my lungs, which couldn’t complete a full breath. It then crept into my mind, which began thinking, I’m dying, too. Within a few minutes I was on my own gurney and a doctor was handing me a pill.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “Here, put this under your tongue.”
It was Halcion. Valium with a kick. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me and I remember saying, ‘Oh, that’s right,’ and I drifted off to sleep as my sister poured me into the front seat of my car and took me home.
I slept the rest of the morning. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was groggy and deeply frightened. Did my heart just skip? What did that sigh mean? That I can’t breathe? But no fortress could stop it. Panic returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue. It came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week my defenses were spent and the pill bottle was empty.
For two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for Halcion, usually in the middle of the night, waking my then-husband, Jason, and dragging the kids out from their beds because I couldn’t drive myself. The last ER physician I saw said I needed to see a psychiatrist and refused to write a script. He sent me home shaking and throwing up.
So I called a psychiatrist. He wanted to explore my past. I just wanted drugs. He assured me I could control my panic through deep breathing. I told him I hadn’t caught my breath in weeks. We were in a shoot-off and I was running out of bullets.
Then came the day at work when my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke and I began to cry. I cried while I changed it, cried as I typed a memo, and cried when my boss sent me home because I couldn’t stop crying. I cried driving home, cried while eating a grilled cheese and Old Dutch potato chips dipped in cottage cheese (best comfort food ever). I cried when I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying, and cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.
A few hours later, Jason dropped me off at Golden Valley Health Center and I checked in to the psychiatric ward. I’d stopped crying, but I was exhausted. My head felt like a bowling ball and I answered questions with monosyllabic words.
After filling out insurance forms, a nurse led me to a scale in the hallway across from the nurses’ station. I was wearing knee-length knit shorts and a size XXL t-shirt stained at the hem. Tears had washed away my makeup, and my hair was matted to my head. I took off my slip-on canvas shoes with the hole in the toe and laid them beside the scale, like their half-pound weight would make a difference.
The nurse optimistically started the large metal weight at the 150-pound position and nudged the smaller weight higher and higher. The balance arrow didn’t budge. She moved the large weight to 200 and again moved the small weight higher. The arrow bounced a little around 240. For accuracy, she should have moved the large weight to 250, but she said cheerfully, “We’ll call you 249.”
The next day, I spent two hours in group therapy drawing pictures and writing in a journal and feeling completely out of place and ridiculously selfish among people facing electric shock therapy. One woman was the only survivor of a car crash that killed her niece and sister. She’d been the driver. A chain-smoking young man had locked himself in a closed garage and started his car’s engine a few weeks before. He’d been repeatedly molested as a child.
Could I be a bigger baby? I thought as I wrote my name with a blue crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. We were to draw a “family tree of feelings.” The only thing I felt was guilty for taking up space in a facility meant for people with real problems, and stupid for having called my doctor in the first place. So I’d cried for a few hours? Big deal. People cry.
I took a two-hour, fill-in-the-hole-with-a-#2-pencil psychological test that asked me to answer yes or no to statements such as, “I would like to do the work of a choir director” and “If I could sneak into the county fair or an amusement park without paying, I would.” Were they kidding me?
The next day, a psychiatrist went over my results. She showed me a line chart indicating how I “scored” in regard to various emotions and behaviors. The line was flowing along nicely, indicating I was “normal” here and “normal” there, just as I expected. Then a steep, jagged line rose across the paper like a fjord on the Norwegian coastline. It went all the way to the top of the chart before plummeting back to the middle.
“That’s your anger line,” the doctor said.
“What?” I laughed. “Just because I don’t want to be a choir director, I’m angry? I have nothing to be angry about!”
I explained that my psychiatrist said I had a panic disorder and that a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just need to calm down, maybe lose some weight, and I’d be fine.
She nodded, wrote a few notes, and gave me Xanax. I promised to visit my psychiatrist weekly for a month and was released from the facility at the end of the week.
The Xanax worked almost instantly and it kept the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay. But the relentless weeks-long waves of panic prior to the Xanax made me afraid of fear and I was scared I’d have another attack at any moment. I needed something to change, something to help me feel normal again. God knows my psychiatrist was no help. He read the hospital psychiatrist’s report and ran with her whole “anger” diagnosis. He wanted me to journal about my anger, even though I insisted I wasn’t angry. But in order to get the Xanax, I wrote in the journal.
He also brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about Jason (domestic violence issues….another blog for another day), but I wouldn’t go there with him. I said there was nothing I could do to change the past, so why dwell on it? He said something about unresolved grief and lack of self-esteem and blah blah blah. Buddy, I thought, all I want is some control of my life.
I discovered the golden loophole a few weeks later when I went to my gynecologist for a routine exam. I told her how anxious I’d been feeling, leaving out the part about the hospital and the psychiatrist, and she diagnosed me with severe PMS. She wrote me a script for Xanax and that was the end of journaling about non-existent anger. I focused my energy on the one thing I knew I could control: my weight.
I joined Weight Watchers, but not before saying goodbye to a few of my “friends” – the ones I knew I wouldn’t be able to “contact” once I was on a diet.
The week before the first meeting, I made Kraft macaroni and cheese with real butter, and I grilled a T-bone steak. I ate garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy hash browns, baked a chocolate cake, and went twice to Dairy Queen for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight. I poured 2-percent milk over Captain Crunch for breakfast, and made a parade of pasta dishes for dinner. Then on Saturday morning, after throwing out the leftover brie and French baguette, deviled eggs and Hershey Kisses, I walked into a Weight Watchers facility, paid the $8 fee, weighed in and left without attending the meeting. After four weeks, I’d acquired all the basic program materials and stopped going.
“You’ll leave me once you’ve lost weight,” Jason said.
“No, I won’t!” I insisted.
I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk and plain baked white fish. In my food journal, I checked off every allotted carb, protein and dairy allowed. I ate nothing more. I quit drinking and started riding a stationary bike I bought at a garage sale for $10. In return, I averaged a 3.5-pound loss every week.
I wasn’t angry. Heck no. Just highly motivated.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. NAMI is my go-to place for info and support. Mental illness is often a family thing and should not be an embarrassment. Ask for help, whether it’s for you or someone you love.

A Day Like No Other

Today is the 30th anniversary of the day my life changed forever. As many of you know, my husband died on March 22, 1983, when I was 19 years old and our daughter, Carlene, was 11 days old.
I suspect we all have a day or a moment in time that changed us, either by choice or by circumstance. Please, if you feel you can, share your day or moment in the comments below.
Here’s a glance into a few hours of that day, a day so long ago and yet still stings me to my soul:
It was a Tuesday. My Aunt Mavis called the house just before noon. My mom, who was staying with us for a few weeks, answered the phone while I folded laundry and watched “All My Children.” She put her hand over the receiver and asked, “Did Bruce go to town?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I thought he was working in the machine shed. Let me check.”
I opened the front door and called out his name. The sun was bright and the air was a promising 40 degrees. I saw a train stopped on the tracks a half mile from our farm and remembered hearing a whistle blowing longer than usual about an hour earlier. I called to Bruce again. Duke, our German Shepherd, was curled up on the rug at the bottom of the step, a sure sign Bruce wasn’t on the property.
I went back inside. Mom hung up the phone. Mavis heard there’d been a train accident, she said.
My mouth went dry.
“Call David,” I said and turned off the television. David was our pastor and a member of the volunteer ambulance crew.
David’s wife answered and Mom asked her if there’d been an accident.
Please, please, please say no. Please say no. I covered my heart with my hands.
Mom’s face went sheet white.
“Thank you,” she said and hung up the phone. Our eyes met. I knew.
“Lynnie,” her voice trembled. “Bruce is dead. David’s on his way here.”
You know how when you rip off an adhesive bandage and the pain doesn’t hit for a few seconds? The same thing happens when you find out your husband is dead. It takes your brain awhile to understand what you just heard. Even then it doesn’t sink in because the reality is just too big to grasp in the space of a few seconds.
I walked into the kitchen for a glass of water and to turn off the pork chops simmering on the stove. I stared out the window at the south end of our lawn. I thought about the garden I wanted to plant there and made a mental note to remind Bruce to till that up for me. Then David’s car and my brother-in-law’s pickup came speeding around the corner.
Wait. Bruce isn’t here anymore.
I met them at the door. They’d both been crying.
David wrapped me in his arms and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t cry. I wanted to throw up.
We sat down on the couch and I asked Mom to get my wedding ring out of my jewelry box. I’d taken it off a few months earlier because my fingers swelled. My hand shook as she handed me the small band, and I forced it past my knuckle.
“Do you want something to drink?” someone asked.
“You’ll need to keep up your strength to nurse.”
“I know,” I said. But I didn’t eat for another day.
I looked down at my body clothed in gray sweat pants and Bruce’s long-sleeved South Dakota State University t-shirt. My breasts leaked like sieves, and I was littered with stitches and hemorrhoids. It was one thing to feel vulnerable because I was overweight. Fat I understood. On my wedding day, my first thought as I walked down the aisle wasn’t, “I’m getting married!” It was, “Oh god, people are going to look at my ass!” But no amount of feeling fat prepared me for what crept through my bloated, post-partum body; a feeling so raw that it settled in my bones like damp winter cold.
From what little experience I had with the formalities of death, I knew people would soon come to our farm armed with casseroles and desserts to pay their respects. Still shaking, I changed out of my sweats and hoped no one noticed I hadn’t dusted or cleaned the bathroom in a week.

Love Is All Around Me. It’s Everywhere I Go.

Last night was like Christmas Eve. I fidgeted all evening like a 5-year-old waiting for Santa, watching the clock move slowly to bedtime. I don’t usually wish time away, but I couldn’t wait to wake up, work out, shower, and drive to Shadyside to meet my friend Debbie at church, a place I’d not been to in years (church in general, that is). And like an extra cherry on a sundae, after church I was meeting another friend in the Strip District for lunch, a friend I haven’t seen in three years. A friend I met 20 years ago when neither of us knew the sorrowful bond that would forever unite us in the Grief Club. More on that later.

I haven’t set an alarm in more than 10 years. If I want to get up at a certain time, I tell myself before I go to bed, “Wake up at ___” and I do. I’ve done this with 100 percent accuracy all these years. Today I woke up at 5:30. I laid wrapped around my body pillow thinking of all the possibilities today held. I’d take communion for the first time in eight years. How would it feel? What would I pray? When I was a regular church goer, especially at my childhood church, I would stay an extra minute at the altar, kneeling, and praying in such synchronicity with God it was like the only time the world made any real sense to me.

I took communion in other non-Lutheran churches where the host and wine were passed around to us in the pews. There was no invitation to the “table” and I’d get distracted by the proper disposal of the little plastic cup rather than sink into prayer the way I did at the altar. (This is not in any way, shape or form a criticism of alternate forms of communion. I believe these kinds of “rituals” that we are introduced to in childhood become what we prefer, and so if those of you who take communion seated in a pew were asked to walk to the altar, I can imagine that would feel kind of weird and disconcerting. Just saying.)

At 6:00, I reached over and opened the top drawer of my nightstand and dug out my iPod. I wanted to listen to Tara Brach’s weekly Buddhist teaching – my “church” the last four years. She talked about right speech and how if we really pay attention to the words we speak and the intention from which they are derived, how revolutionary the changes would be in how we relate to each other. I thought about God and my lack of communication with God via the traditional mode of prayer and what God might think when I stepped up to the altar later and took the host and the wine.

But first, I had to work out (another form of church for me). I rolled out of bed and immediately put on my workout clothes, a habit I’d gotten out of the last several months. When I have my spandex and t-shirt on, it’s like I’m obligated to work out. If I sit around in my PJs first, I make all kinds of ridiculous excuses not to work out. Like the 2-minute transformation from pajamas to workout clothes is a mental climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I had a little breakfast (a protein pancake ala Joy Bauer, only cut by 1/3) and some leftover steamed broccoli. I did the dishes and then crawled back in bed to read “Eat Pray Love.” (Am I the only woman who hasn’t read this yet?) When the food settled, I went into my spare room, which is equipped with everything a guest needs: a bed, a recumbent bike, bench, weights, and a Duplo Lego set, small bongo drum, tambourine, recorder, color crayons, color books, a Dora the Explorer pop-up book, and a stuffed giraffe.

The workout was great. I sweat. I caught up on my Health magazine reading (I’m up to September). I jumped in the shower; got all clean. Dried off, put product in my hair, put on my makeup, then reached under the sink for the blow dryer and my brush. Only there wasn’t a brush. I’d left it at BF’s.

‘Oh crap.’

I was going to a church I’d never been to, meeting people for the first time, then seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in years…and I had no brush to tame my curly hair? Temporary panic.

Then I felt something I hadn’t felt in…ever. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. It was just hair. I’d deal with it. Perfectly quaffed hair wasn’t what I was about today. (In fact, it doesn’t need to be what I’m about any day, but that’s another blog.) I was meeting friends, meeting new people, taking communion, talking to God. What did hair have to do with any of it?

I dried it, straightened it as best I could, threw on some hairspray and looked at myself in the mirror. “Meh…it is what it is.” That’s what my daughter Cassie would say. She’s a much older soul than me. I threw on a dress, some tights and a pair of boots, grabbed my purse and walked out the door, feeling that same Christmas Eve anticipation.

The church – St. Andrew’s Lutheran – is a place Debbie had been to a few times and liked very much. The fact that it was Lutheran (the tradition in which I grew up) was a big bonus. Both pastors (both female) saw us sitting in the almost back row (that’s what Lutherans do) and introduced themselves. Very welcoming.

I was surprised how quickly I recalled the words and the melodies of the liturgy. We even sang “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” a hymn I could sing in my sleep, familiar like a Beatles’ song. And when I went up for communion, it was like sitting for a moment in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by sacred things. I prayed a lot in that room. Some happy prayers, some not so happy. Today’s was a thankful prayer; thankful that I was there even though I was unsure what to pray. I suspect I’ll figure it out in the coming weeks and months. I like St. Andrew’s very much.

After the service, I drove to the Strip to meet my friend Ed. I’d parked on Smallman, which meant I had to pay $5, which I’d forgotten I’d given to St. Andrew’s.

Called Ed.

“Hey, I’m here! Where are you?”

“I’m on 18th.”

“Um…I only have $2 and they want $5 for parking. Can you come find me? I’m near the church.” I knew he’d know what church.

“Sure! I’ll be there in a few.”

I made small talk with the parking attendant. A nice kid, maybe 19 years old. Hell bent on his $3, though. Can’t blame him.

A minute later, I saw Ed across the street, waiting for traffic to clear, and it was like I’d just seen him yesterday.

“Hey!” we said in unison. He kissed me on the cheek and asked how I was before pulling out his wallet. What a gent.

We talked non-stop to Primanti’s, which is NOT a diet/nutrition-friendly place. But when Ed comes to da’burgh, he needs a cheese sandwich piled high with coleslaw and French fries between white bread. Oh wait, they do add a slice of tomato to every sandwich…LOL. I confess I ordered a cheese sandwich, too, sans the coleslaw and fries, with an egg on it. I ate half and it was good, especially dipped in Dijon mustard. Hey, I worked out and I’m human! *grin*

He drank an IC and I drank iced tea and we talked every second. We walked down Penn Ave and I bought roasted edamame at the Macaroni Company. I hesitated buying the one remaining lavish in the Mediterranean market, but strolling the store I decided to buy it, just as a woman dressed in skinny jeans and boots and hanging on to the arm of what I assume was her preppy husband grabbed it and I felt like I’d been rescued from a refined white flour coma.

“Oh no!” said Ed.

“Believe me, it’s for the better,” I told him.

We wandered into a bar and had a few drinks and talked like only we can. Ed’s wife died 15 years ago this week; a woman I am so blessed to have called my friend. Ed and I have long wandered in a trench of grief, all the while reconciling it with our “normal” lives. He gets me. I get him. We are both happy, well-adjusted individuals, but underneath the surface is a commitment to love that we can’t let go of. When someone dies, the love that brought you together doesn’t die. It’s not like divorce. The contract remains in place. Whether it’s a child, a parent, a friend or a spouse. The contract we make with that person from the time we meet is permanent. There are no outs. Not even death can separate the love. But we live with it. We integrate it into our lives.

Ed and I said goodbye a few hours later. He was traveling to the place his wife died to honor and salute her on Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m., the time of her death. I left, filled with the strength of my late husband’s love, and drove home feeling so blessed (yes, blessed) by the presence of God in so many forms: Debbie, the church, the Eucharist, Ed, our conversation, and the recognition that I am not alone, even when I feel most alone.

Love is…all around me. And my wish is that it surrounds you, too, this Thanksgiving week.

The Song Remains The Same

On Saturday, the world will formally say goodbye to Hank – husband to Shannon, father of Ella. Hank was 38. He had cancer.

Twenty-eight years ago this month, my husband Bruce died when his tractor was hit by a train near our farm. Hank and Bruce lived and died differently, but each left behind a daughter and his daughter’s mother.

The days before and the day of Bruce’s funeral felt much like the days this week – cold and windy. The air…damp and heavy. This is one of life’s hardest weeks, the one we feel the sting of the death of a loved one and the ensuing pain of goodbye.

Except for the moments I escaped to nurse Carlene in our bedroom, the bathroom had been my only refuge, the only place people left me alone and I could think for 10 minutes without making decisions about flowers and cemetery plots and caskets. On the day of the funeral, I lingered in the shower longer than usual. I wrapped myself in Bruce’s bathrobe and sat cross-legged on the counter like I always did when Bruce and I got ready for a date or church. He’d shave, I’d put on my makeup, and we’d listen to the radio and talk.

I rubbed foundation on my face and imagined him next to me knotting his tie, something he tried to teach me many times. I turned on the radio and heard the song “I Won’t Hold You Back” by Toto. I sang along until I got to the line, “Now that I’m alone it gives me time, to think about the years that you were mine.”

I stared in the mirror. Even though for three days people were everywhere and would be for more days to come, I was alone. I’d been watched and worried about like I was a fragile girl with a scarlet “W” stitched on her chest, but no one could share this pain with me. I was a new mother who should have been perfecting nursing and bathing her baby daughter and sleeping when she slept, but instead I was eyed and pawed and clung to by grieving masses, people with real grief, but who would go back to their homes where they could ponder this tragedy while I lived it.

It didn’t matter that I felt every bit the obese, nursing, bleeding mother I was. Death came with obligations. No one would understand if I stayed home. I turned off the radio and put on my suit. I walked out of the bathroom with my chin up and eyes dry. I left Carlene with a neighbor and got into my father’s car to ride to the church.

Bruce and me, April 3, 1982. Bruce died March 22, 1983.

 Dressed in a suit with a thousand sad eyes watching me, I walked down the aisle of the church with my parents behind the pall bearers and my husband’s casket. Almost a year ago to the day, many of those same eyes watched me walk down that same aisle, 40 pounds lighter and holding on to my father’s arm as Bruce waited for me at the altar, tall and handsome, young and vibrant.

Now he lay dead in a casket covered in sprays of lilies, carnations and roses with a small red ribbon attached, scrolled with the word “Daddy.”

Except for a few muffled cries, the mourning congregation was controlled and dignified, and I was, too. I kept myself together through “Children of the Heavenly Father” by staring at Bruce’s casket. I chose the song because I’d introduced Bruce to it a few months earlier when he was looking for something to sing for a solo in church. Bruce could sing a TV commercial and I’d melt. Over the summer I learned to play two of my favorite songs on the piano – “Your Song” by Elton John and “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce – just so he’d sing them to me.

When the hymn ended, the church was quiet except for the sound of one person weeping. It was my father, fully engaged in shoulder shaking, head-in-hands, inconsolable sobbing.

Dad was 6 years old when his father died in 1937, and his mother was 8 months pregnant. It was the middle of the Depression, and like chocolate, grief was a luxury. There were fields to plow and children to raise. The only way my grandmother could deal with her grief was to bury it. She did not allow Grandpa’s name spoken in the house, so my dad, who was named after his father, was called by his middle name.

He’d lost his father and his name, and now his only grandchild was fatherless, too. The man had earned the right to cry.

I imagined liberating my own pain that way or by throwing myself on Bruce’s casket and wailing. But I didn’t want to be known as the woman who lost it at her husband’s funeral. My only emotional emancipation was when I kissed my hand and touched his casket when I thought no one was looking, like I was saying goodbye to a clandestine lover.

Now it is Shannon’s turn to cry, and in the days, months and years to follow, she will raise Ella and remember Hank. Her life will go on and she’ll work and she’ll one day smile, but this week? This week will crawl inside and forever be a part of her.

I love you, Shannon. Peace, my friend.

A Happy Bruce Dream

Last month, after I wrote “An Earlier Than Usual Bruce Dream,” I decided I wasn’t going to write about Bruce in March because I feel I said everything I had to say last year. But last night I had another Bruce dream, only I was able to consciously change the usual ending of me not being able to get to him and I thought I’d write about it to see if anyone else has ever consciously changed their dreams while sleeping.

Here’s the scene: I can’t get in touch with Bruce even though I just discovered he was alive. In my dream I knew what was happening and so I forced myself to change the outcome. I knew he was in the kitchen taking something out of the oven. Usually, in previous Bruce dreams, something would hold me back from getting into the place he was, but I consciously told myself to go into the kitchen and I did! I jumped on his back (like I used to when he was alive) and hugged him and kissed him and told him how much I missed him and he laughed and hugged me back. I woke up feeling really good instead of sad and drained.

I changed my dream. How cool is that?

Bruce would have been 49 years old today. Happy birthday, babe.

He’s been gone for 25 years now, but our daughter has been alive for 25 years. Ah, the irony. Here she is with her birthday crepe. I hope her wish comes true.