Emily

The sun casts a river of amber glitter atop the slow-moving waves lapping the side of my kayak, nudging me gradually out from shore. A large white sea lion eyes me from atop the rectangular dock a handful of yards away. I glance to my left and see your mother grinning while your son paddles their kayak from between her legs. To my right, near a leaning madrone on the water’s edge, I sense your presence. Not more than a dozen feet away is your daughter, the one I held just days after she was born, the same days during which you passed to the other side. She is accompanied by your best friend and her daughters, and they are wading into the sound, shrieking and laughing as the cold water shocks their bare calves.

Earlier that day we visited a bridge tucked into the woods beneath old growth doug firs, a place I understand you held dear and your children truly love. I watched them explore their surroundings, finding rocks, tossing sticks into the creek and gathering fern fronds to build with. I remember doing the same things with my sisters when I was a little girl.

It’s been five years since I saw your family, and since you left us. As I drove up the 101 North toward your yellow beach house by the sound, I had an overwhelming feeling that you were near. It was strange and magical, and I cried my way to the driveway before gathering myself to knock on the door. The weekend that followed was filled with stories and laughter and porch sitting; I even taught the kids how to hula hoop on the lawn. Your children carry your features on their faces, and the glimpses I caught of you made my heart ache and soar all at once. I miss you all over again and yet, I am comforted by spending time with your loved ones and learning about the corners of earth you treasured most.

At dusk, I sat in a white lounge chair gazing out at the two islands on the horizon, and as I scanned the water, drawing my eyes closer to the shoreline, I had to close and open them again, disbelieving what I saw. It was you – a faint outline of a woman’s profile with her hair down, the cool saltwater cupping her shoulders as she gazed out to sea. And then minutes later, a flicker of light danced across the water beneath the sinking sun, and it was an orange buoy bobbing on the waves. But I’ll never forget that image of you skinny dipping at sunset in the place where I’ve been told you felt free and comforted all your life by nature, family, friends and traditions.

I want to think of you now like this poem reads – resting ashore where you are surrounded by the salt, soil, air and trees of your childhood; safe, at peace, having arrived at last.

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar—
Where the storm is o’er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest—
The anchors fast—
Thither I pilot thee—
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

-Emily Dickensen

 

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The Sauna

It’s my birthday. Well actually I slept through it, she said. I was born in the middle of the night. I tried to relive it in my mind, but who remembers their birth anyways? That’s what I want to know.

Dark brown ringlets cascade from a haphazard pony tail stacked atop her head. She uses the towel to dry her feet, and then lets it drape loosely beneath two teacup breasts.

I try to picture her coming into the world; this woman in her mid-forties once a baby. And then I picture myself: the  darkness before the first breath of air and light. The rush of awareness, the instinct to push. The newness of understanding. The determination to be a part of all this out here.

Last night, my legs were pendulums. I let them swing from the bar stool. Thinking, thinking. Thinking. When did I start thinking about death? Must have been a long time ago. A day rarely goes by now without that hard realization of the temporariness of everything. All the people I love.

In the shower room at the sauna, I’m alone for an instant. The warm water soothes my skin, pouring down, melting over the contours, removing the layers of thought until it is just me, at home in a body, barefooted on the slate tile. Suddenly surrounded by three women. Large women. Ovals and folds, spherical shapes draping over organs. A fading tattoo of a red heart on her left buttock with the words “Fag Hag”.

I feel comforted by these large bodies; their presence make me feel like I am allowed to take up space. I think, how beautiful.

The tile is cool beneath my toes, and it is a relief to not have to talk to anyone. I can just be, water pouring overhead, soft voices drifting in and out of earshot. The women nearby gossip amongst themselves, occasionally laughing at one another’s wit. The earthy smell of Palo Santo wood drifts into the room and I breathe it in deeply.

As I dry off in the dressing room, I think about the last time I wrote a long story; it was about a woman who lost someone to suicide. I haven’t been able to go back to the story since my childhood friend died this year. The closest I came to it was in writing group when I imagined the world from the perspective of a cobweb, which then became a speck of golden dust, a product of some great force that eventually returned to the earth beneath wooden floorboards; home.

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Meanwhile, an elderly woman with a badly hunched back readies herself to walk to the sauna. She leans on a walker and takes baby steps, shuffling one foot after the other out of the dressing room. Her arced spine is the shape of a rainbow, leaving her head dangling beneath her chest. Sallow skin, aged and loosened by time tenses, then carries her weight gradually forward. It looks like she’s in pain, and I feel an aching sadness in my body as if her bones were my own.

I dress and head back out into the cold night. A tan pitbull eyes me from behind the legs of its owner. Zipping up my jacket, I look up – a thumbnail of moon smiles across the wide shoulders of an illuminated sky. Light fans out around it, then fades into dark indigo clouds.

I put my key in the ignition, and flick on the headlights. A pause. I breathe out. I stop wrestling. There’s just this moment. In it, everything feels both wrong and right. I’m so grateful, and so sorry, and so lost for why.

I get to be here, yet she’s taken her own life.

 

 

When the Leaves Fall: Loss, Grief & Facing Tomorrow

It was almost a typical Monday. I woke up, drove to work, sat down at my desk, and sipped a cup of hot coffee. One thing that was definitely different than the previous Monday was the weather: dark gray clouds, ominous with the smell of rain, hovered outside the window. It was the Fall Equinox after all, and nature was fittingly showing off her punctuality.

I felt as if I had gone to bed the night before still in the dreamy arms of summer, only to wake up at fall’s feet a day later. But that wasn’t the only thing that caught me off guard. That morning, a message from a friend in Europe was waiting in my inbox with a request I couldn’t have anticipated.

She asked me to write a love letter to a family member who needed something to hold onto — a reason to keep going after the sudden death of her best friend had turned everything painfully inside out, and upside down.

I was stunned first, and then sad second, and then I got down to business. I spent two days thinking about what I’d write. What could I possibly say that could help?

I don’t have the answers; that’s the first conclusion I came to. And although I’ve been wracked with grief myself at the loss of several friends over the past few years, and most recently, my beloved writing mentor, I’m aware that loss touches us in such different and personal ways. There is no “one-size-fits-all” advice to give when it comes to grief. And yet, I was being asked to offer something to a stranger that would somehow encourage her to keep moving forward and still find the beauty in living.

This is not the only person that has been brought to my attention who is currently experiencing loss and change. At this time of year especially, it feels as if a hand has silently grasped the veil of summer’s illusions and pulled it aside, revealing a plainer, much harsher truth. Relationships are ending. Paths are shifting. Souls are departing. But just as there is no problem that exists without a solution, the shadow of life cannot exist without light. These illusions are being shaken loose so we can reconnect with our most primal existence and remember that life is a yin and yang of life and death, love and suffering.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” -Khalil Gibran

It goes without saying that it’s a tough time for many. The only salve I know of is to take hands with those you love and share the load. We’re in this together.

And in that spirit, I sat on my blue and white bedspread and wrote my 28th* love letter, which I promptly sent through the internet to a country approximately 5, 298 miles away.

With the permission of my friend, I’ve pasted it below. Please note that I’ve changed the name of the letter’s recipient in order to protect her privacy. My hope is that if you are reading this, and you too are suffering a loss of great proportion, this helps ease some of the pain, if even for a few minutes.

Birds Flying

Dear Anna,

I met your sister in a hostel just over a year ago. When I saw her from across the room, she was a glowing mass of passion and energy – a force of spirit. And I am so glad I got to travel with her. Out of her love for you, Anna, she asked me if I’d write you a love letter, because she tells me you are going through a very difficult time — an unimaginably painful time.

I’ve been thinking about you for the last two days, wondering how I can possibly comfort you with my words when you must be feeling as if the world has torn a piece right out of your heart. Darling, I want to tell you that the only beautiful thing that comes from loss is this: you feel your beating heart, albeit its being full of sadness and grief, it’s yours, and it’s beating for a reason. There’s a purpose for your soul here on earth, and this immense trial in your life may be a part of it. Perhaps now some comfort will come from reading other people’s stories of loss. Look to those who have been torn open, but somehow made it through to the other side. Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild” is one of those people. She writes matter-of-factly about the process of grief:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.” -Cheryl Strayed

My advice is to let the grief exist. No need to fight it. This is your experience, and it’s real, and it’s valid. It’s also 100% natural. There’s no one way to feel grief, so don’t believe the books that tell you about the stages and try to estimate how long it will take to move on. This isn’t a matter of logicality; it’s a deeply personal matter of the heart. The process of grief is one of the core experiences that makes you human and connects you to people all across the globe who also know what it feels like to have lost someone they loved very much.

As difficult as it feels now, one day you will wake up with a little less pain than the day before. Gradually, after many days and months, and years, you will gain a strength you never knew you were capable of. And that strength will guide you to put one foot in front of the other and practice living again, until one day, you’ll feel love bloom in your heart, and you will risk caring about another person as much as you did about your friend. This is how you will know that you’re healing.

Until then, darling, there will be a lot of very difficult days. Unfortunately, no one can protect you from them, so you just have to hold onto what good things you can (like your family, a big oak tree, a walk by a stream, your favorite music, etc.) and ride your emotions like the brave woman you are. You are surrounded by people who love you and want to be there for you. Take their hands when you can. You don’t ever have to do this on your own; although no one can take the pain away, sharing your thoughts and feelings with others will help a lot.

Eventually, after an unknown amount of time, you will find a way to make peace with your friend leaving too soon. But in order for acceptance to come, you’ll have to do some soul searching and reading, and deep thinking about what you think life and death are about, and find a way of making sense of things for yourself. This might take a very long time, and understandably so. It’s okay to ask god, or friends, or family, or yourself the same questions over and over again, and not have any immediate answers. Humans spend their lifetimes trying to understand why things are the way they are.

Still, it won’t change the fact that they are the way they are. And that’s why sorting it out the best you can by establishing your own philosophy will give you a very important pathway to navigate your sadness by. This is what spirituality and religion exist for – they provide a light for you to walk beneath when you are lost in unimaginable darkness.

And on that topic, the universe cannot exist without light. What that means is there will be good things to come for you, Anna. This is not the end. It’s just the beginning of something different. You will get through to the other side.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to you. You are experiencing one of the most difficult aspects of being alive, and it fucking sucks. That is undeniable.

But the light is still all around you and within you, and someday soon, you’ll be able to see it again; of this, I am 100% certain!

Love to you,
Abby

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.