One Year Ago Right Now

It is a day she would have loved — grey, cloudy, overcast, cool for July.  She would have loved it.

She loved darkness.  She loved storms and wind, and the colour black.  She loved heavy things — fat furniture, big cars, chunky jewelry.  Substantial, formidable things.  Things Built to Last.  Like she was.

By the end, one year ago today, she was none of the above. By the 29th of July, 2015, she was small, broken, bruised.  One year ago today, she lay silent and immobile.  Had done for almost a week.  During that week, her smooth, pale skin had grown even more luminous, as though the light of her being was pressing against it from within, making its way out, pushing its way to freedom.

The last time she opened her eyes to me, they were clear, cloudless, grey points of glistening light.  I gave her water which I, of course, managed to spill on her.  I was crying so hard I couldn’t see what I was doing.  The water was icy cold, just the way she liked it, and yet she responded very little when it hit her skin.  She only weakly motioned toward the spill with a crooked finger.

Then she realized I was crying.  And everything changed.

I watched her call herself back from wherever she had been, from wherever she was going, call herself back to the present, this present, my present, the present in which one of her children was crying.

“Don’t cry, baby,” she mouthed, voiceless.  “Please don’t cry.”

How was it that I didn’t realize she was dying?

I, who have been watching people die for most of my life.  How did I not see that my mother was dying?

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break

And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

For most of this year, I, like so much of the world, have been obsessed with Hamilton, an American Musical.  The past two weeks have been filled with the song Wait for It on continuous loop in my head even when it’s not playing.  Only today, listening to this particular verse have I understood just why.

I spent the last decade of my life with my mother.  Nine years living with and caring for her, one year trying to figure out how to live without her here in the form I knew so well, the form I miss so much.

It’s not that I spent that decade waiting for anything.  I wasn’t waiting for it to get easier nor for it to be done, over, finished, in some way.  I wasn’t waiting for my life to begin once hers was ended.  In fact, those ten years were some of the richest most fulfilling years of my life, professionally and personally, beyond and including the healing time spent with my mother.

And it was healing.

Of her four children, I was the one least likely to be chosen as Primary Caregiver in her final years.  To say that our relationship for most of my life was “challenging” is the greatest of understatements.  And yet the last nine years of her life allowed us to build the kind of relationship I would never have dreamed possible.

For that, I am forever grateful.

So, no, I did not spend all those years waiting.  But, today, I realize that, in some ways, I have been waiting, waiting for Something during this past year since her death.

I just don’t know what it is.

I know from what my hospice patients and their families have taught me that following the death of a loved one after a lengthy illness, the Primary Caregiver is often left without an identity, with a nameless emptiness where the Caregiver identity stood for so long.

I just never expected it would happen to me.

Who am I now that I am no longer my mother’s keeper?

Who am I now that I am, officially, an orphan?

I don’t know.

Sitting here writing this as the sun sets, as I approach the actual moment 365 days after her death, I realize there is so much I do not know.

I also realize that’s ok.

Real problems never stem from not knowing.  Real problems always result from thinking we know it all.

And I so do not Know It All.

Still, there are a few things I do know.

I know that, orphan though I am, I am still my mother’s daughter.  Nothing can ever change that.  It is its own “legacy to protect”.

And, I know they never really leave us.

Never.

Earlier today, I went for a bottle of wine. When I opened the car door to step out, this awaited me:

DebMomma

As some of you know, my sister, Debbie, collected pennies.  This is a penny covered in something that has embedded it into the parking lot pavement and allowed a white feather to attach itself to it.  Since she died in 2007, Debbie has sent me pennies at the most difficult times of my life.  Today, my mother added an angel feather.  And Deb out did herself, scattering pennies all around the feathered one:

scatter 1

scatter 2

No, they never really leave us.  Not after the first year, not after 100 years.

So…

…if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it

I’m willing to wait for it.

And I will do my best to remember I’m not waiting alone.

 

Ornamental

 

 

invitation-page-001I brought it with me over ten years ago from East Texas.  Four hundred miles and more than one lifetime from where I am now.

I call it, “The Memory Tree Service” — a way to honour the dead during a time when their absence is most deeply felt, but seldom marked.

It has been a part of my life for so long now that the memory of its creation is a bit hazy, as though there’s never really been a holiday season that didn’t include a Memory Tree Service, just as it seems as though there’s never been a time when I wasn’t “a death professional”.

But there was.

That first service came at the end of my first year as a Grief Counselor.  It had been a year of personal loss in all ways but death.  The end of a ten year career and a twenty year marriage set in motion a series of losses that left me feeling empty, excited, and not a little frightened.  Everything about grief counseling was new to me, new and yet so familiar.  I had never been so certain that I was doing what I was meant to do.

I still am.

But that first year, the holidays found me faced with the task of helping people make sense of a season that was, for me, no more than a sad reminder of times past or never been; a season full of emotional, temporal, and financial burdens I had no idea how to meet.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to help myself, much less anyone else.

Writing this, five short months after my mother’s death, I realize that I feel much the same today.

In 2004, however, I had far fewer resources than I do today.  Then, when faced with task of how to create a memorial service, I did the only thing I knew to do — I consulted The Oracle.  In other words, I Googled.

First I Googled “memorial services”.  Mistake.  Then I tried, “holiday services”.  Even bigger mistake.  I was sent to site after site full of trite symbolism and bad music.  Occasionally, a truly beautiful, honest tribute to an individual would pop up, but I was at a loss as to how to translate what had been shared there into something accessible to many, for many, of any faith, (including the faith of non-faith), of any culture, age, or income.  How was I to create an environment in which it was safe for people to openly mourn when all the world was screaming Ho!Ho!Ho! at them?

The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed a ritual.

I am a huge believer in ritual.  Ritual speaks to us on a visceral level.  It begins with the human animal, and through its power, through its link to ancestors, it connects us to all other human animals in the world, transforming us into Mankind.  But we, especially we in the West, have basically done away with ritual.  We have disregarded its efficacy as we have done that of the Shaman and the Medicine Woman, replacing them with Science and Technology.  The pros and cons of this exchange are for another post, but, as Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.”

I was determined to give the grieving a ritual to help them transcend not only their pain, but the tinsel and holly and price-tags as well.  From that determination was born The Memory Tree Service.

It is a very simple service that I have staged in all kinds of locations, from auditorium-like churches to tiny chapels, from institutional dining rooms to drafty foyers.  So long as there is room for a tree and a gathering of people who want, who need, to Remember, any location will do.

What is far more important than location, or even the tree (which doesn’t necessarily even have to be a traditional Christmas tree), is the music.

Each year I make a new Memory Tree Service Mix.  Knowing that in the community I currently serve, the attendees will be widely older and conservative, I include pieces that will be familiar to them, but I also try to use interpretations by people they have most likely never heard, interspersed with new pieces not usually associated with loss or even with memory.  This year’s mix includes music by Christine Kane, Diana Krall, The Beatles, Vince Gill, Steven Curtis Chapman, Billie Holiday, Damien Rice,  kd Lang and Coldplay, among others.

Here’s what will happen Saturday, Dec 5th, at this year’s Memory Tree Service:

The venue this year is very small, a cozy space with overstuffed furniture and lots of natural light.  There are two lit pre-lit trees,  one filled with ornaments from past services, one standing bare, awaiting this year’s remembrances.  Music will play as people enter, then our Hospice Chaplain will offer a welcome and light the central of five pillar candles, officially beginning the service.

The Hospice Director will then introduce each of the Hospice disciplines:  nursing, home health aides, social work, spiritual care, and volunteers.  The remaining four candles will be lit by representatives of those disciplines while the Director reads of Grief, Courage, Memory, and Love.

Then will come the placing of the ornaments.

Each family, staff member, and business partner in our community has been invited to bring an ornament representing the loved one/s they have lost.  It does not matter whether or not the person was a hospice patient.  What matters is only that they have been loved, have died, and someone wants them to be remembered.

The ornaments we get are amazing.  Some are hand made, some very expensive; some are personalized, some anonymous, each one representing a very personal aspect of the life of a dead loved one.  If someone realizes at the service that there are others they want to remember, we have simple ornaments available for personalization.

We ask only that the ornament be something you are willing to leave behind as a perpetual memorial to your loved one.  After the first year, the Memory Tree is never again bare.  All ornaments are placed year after year, expanding to additional trees as necessary.  Over the years, decorating the trees before the service becomes a ritual in itself.

Placing of the Ornaments is followed by a short Litany of Remembrance then the closing prayer.  Afterwards, we invite you to join us for cider and cookies and the opportunity to see again the hospice care team that was with you during your loved one’s illness.  During this time many attendees take photographs and videos of their ornaments on the tree.  We also encourage them to return throughout the holiday season, especially if there are visiting family and friends who might like to see the trees.

The 2015 Memory Tree Service is Saturday, December 5th at 1:00 p.m. at the Amarillo Hospice of the Plains Business Office.  If you would like to attend, or would like more information, please let me know.

May your holidays be blessed with peace.