Sunday, May 31, 2009

Inching Forward

Church was all right. It was more than all right. For whatever reason, I felt able to handle whatever was lobbed my way for the couple of hours I was there, and very interested in the various conversations in which I was involved.

(I did notice one really interesting thing, though.

Church seemed so BUSY. The service itself was full of energy (Pentecost, after all) but afterward, in the hallways and at the coffee hour -- people are just so BUSY. So many rapid-fire, half-baked conversations; so many interruptions. I don't know whether it's my two years of developing something of a contemplative stance in spiritual direction training, or my two years of (on occasion, anyway) thoughtful assessment in an academic environment, or my nine months of cautious adaptation to pain ~ but church felt hurried and jagged and wound up. I suppose that's another reason I've stayed away ~ an intuitive sense that the pace is just wrong for me right now.

An acquaintance/friend gave me an exquisite prayer shawl that she had made for me and been carting around for months, hoping I would show up one day. It is a lovely, lovely gift ~ but she thrust the box into my arms and disappeared.)

And then late this afternoon, Gregarious Son and I made the two-hour round trip to City South of Here, to figure out where he is supposed to go for the LSAT in another week. One of the things I most appreciate about my two surviving children is their ability to talk openly about our lives as we find them now. At one point I commented on how glad I am that he is signed up for the LSAT ~ whether or not he ever goes to law school, it's a start.

And he said, "We're going to pull through this, Mom."

Steps Forward Steps Backward

Last night we went to a baby shower for the soon-to-be first grandchild of good friends. It was a lovely party -- all of our friends were there, the young couple was beaming, the food was spectacular, and the hosts have been working steadily on their yard for years and have completely transformed it.

We lasted about an hour. It's really, really hard -- everything smacked of middle-aged couples enjoying the fruits of 25 years of labor (no pun intended) -- beautiful home and gardens, children grown and producing their own, everyone our age relaxed and comfortable because the few small children toddling around were the responsibility of the next generation.

I had imagined that we might be planning a wedding in our family this summer, and instead I had to mail off a death certificate before we went to the party. I thought our hour-long drop-by was a pretty good effort, but I'm sure we'll hear about it eventually.

This morning I'm doing the reading in church. It will be the first time in a year that I have stood before a congregation. When the office administrator sent me the reading earlier this week, it was the dry bones passage from Ezekiel. I looked at it in astonishment and thought, "I can't read this." So I tried it out loud a couple of times and thought, again, I need to call and ask them to find someone else. And then I thought, No, I need to just do it. I need to just stand there and read a passage about bones coming to life. Even though they don't.

Then a second email came; new passage: the expected description of Pentecost from Acts. I tried that a couple of times. The list of geographical names makes it almost worse, I thought. But this one I can do. It's a celebratory Sunday for the conclusion of a major church project in which I have not participated, but I can survive that, too.

I feel, all the time, as if I am living two lives. It's like walking down the middle of a road, one foot coming down on each side of the center line. To the right is normal life, in which everything looks and functions as it always did, and no one has any idea that the view from the left is completely altered and the road feels like quicksand.

Or maybe some of them do, in a small way. I encountered a new hazard at the party last night: people we haven't seen since the funeral, or before. They greet me with that hangdog look, but they don't say anything. It would be so much easier if people would just shake hands and say "I was so sorry to hear about your son" or "I've been thinking about you ever since last summer."

I know it's hard to get it right. Do you say something or do you pretend nothing has happened? Are you risking a response in the form of a torrent of tears, or in the form of an offended silence?

I can't think of any other way to do this. I treat myself gently, but each next thing poses a major existential dilemma.

What I would really like is to move to a small cottage with a cat on a barrier island far, far away.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mount Angel Abbey Revisited

Last fall, I posted about our visit to Mount Angel Abbey, which we more or less stumbled upon when we visited our daughter for her college's Parents' Week-End. We were in no shape to travel anywhere, but we felt that since she had somehow managed to return to college, we wanted to support her with our presence when other families might be enjoying themselves. We had, in fact, a very nice visit, and my encounter with the icon of Christ Pantocrator at the monastery probably kept me wobbling forward for another few months.

I had hoped to spend the night up there at the Abbey, my own private mini-retreat, while we were in Oregon last week, but the guesthouse was full and I concluded that I would have to find another time, another year. As it happened, though, a combination of desire and the time change propelled me out of bed and up to the Abbey for 6:30 a.m Lauds on Friday morning.

I had about half an hour to myself when I arrived, which I used to wander around both outside and in the chapel and then, finally, to settle down in front of "my" icon. Once again, I found the sense of peace and hopefulness that has been so elusive these past nine months. The sky was utterly blue, the chapel exuded a sense of the holy and the still, and the voices of the forty or so monks as they sang the psalms and prayers for half an hour offered a call to clarity for the day ahead.

My prayer in that chapel? ~ it's the only place I've found in which the turmoil and agitation of the past year subsides. Apparently I need to move to Oregon.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


The Garden of Gethesmane

The Resurrection

When we were in Oregon last week, we visited a place in Portland called The Grotto, a garden of plants and sculpture (that might have been a quiet place for meditation, had we not timed our visted to coincide with that of a wood-chipper going full blast for a couple of hours). I was quite taken by a series of sculptures by a Mary Lewis depicting Mysteries in the Life of Christ (apparently a devotional category with which I am unfamiliar, but perhaps a Catholic reader will enlighten us).

I'm posting images of the two which reflect the moment-by-moment back-and-forth in my own life, along with photos of one of the three sets of sculptures and their titles, so you can get an idea of the setting.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Five Things: Pain

I have been trying to get my mind around this for nearly nine months now. The fact that I have been unable to formulate even a vaguely articulate post should give you an idea of how mystified I am. It remains one of the great questions rippling away from a death by suicide:

How/Why?From whence? ~ so much pain? Enough that would cause a person to self-destruct?

I am told, by people who should know, that those who die by suicide do not comprehend the finality and completeness of their actions. That they would not leave notes seeking forgveness if they understood that they would not be here to receive that forgiveness. That they are so blinded by pain that their vision tunnels toward one goal: end the agony.

I have experienced my share of pain in this life. I have experienced losses beyond the norm for a middle class American woman of the 21st century. And having spent several years teaching in a Jewish school, I know many people whose losses rank among the worst in human history. I know about bodies, minds, dreams, being shattered beyond repair ~ as do most of us, sooner or later.

And yet, apparently, there is a realm of pain which I have not yet encountered, which most of us will never experience, no matter how many circles of hell we traverse in this life.

It is almost ~ and yet not ~ unendurable, to absorb the reality that a child whom I carried in my body, to whom I gave birth, and whose humor and kindnesss and creativity and intelligence I nurtured and treasured for 25 years, could have encountered such excruciating pain in this life, a life offered to him as pure gift.

And it seems odd, I know, that I should finally be writing this little post on the same day that I am elsewhere rejoicing over my daughter's college graduation, with photos of handsome and beautiful young celebrants and images of the natural beauty we found visiting her in Oregon. But the reality is that we do have to absorb them both ~ the joy and the horror ~ and carry them both with us. All the time.

In his essay The Things They Carried, in the book of the same title, Tim O'Brien lists the things that men carried with them through the jungles and paddies of Vietnam. All kinds of things. Me, too. In Oregon I carried a camera, and a pair of binoculars, and a cell phone, and crumpled up hotel receipts, and e-tickets, and memories of a graduation in Chicago two years earlier, and of a young man who would have looked proudly at his sister's Phi Bete key and chuckled, "Guess I should have put in a little more effort that last year ~ you beat me out!" ~ and I carried the knowledge that some of us conceal more pain than the rest of us imagine exists.

I have found some considerable help lately in a book in which the author talks about "lovingly allowing the other." It's what we try to do in spiritual direction, when we listen with attention and reverence to the story of another person's walk with God, and it has occurred to me that it is what I have to do with my son. The pain he encountered is outside my realm of experience, but I can, at least, lovingly allow his life, his otherness, to be, and honor him rather than to try to impose myself upon him.

On Mother's Day night, we went to see The Soloist, the movie about the brilliantly talented cellist, Nathaniel Ayers, whose schizophrenia revealed itself during his sojourn as a young man at Julliard and propelled him into a life on the streets. I leaned against my other son later that night and said, "That was a surprisingly good choice for this evening." All through the movie I wondered, Why? Why so much pain? Why is one man Yo-Yo Ma, and another Nathaniel Ayers? Why is one so able to embrace and share his gifts, and another so trapped by such harsh limitations?

I don't know why. But it is so.

Lovingly allowing the other. The only possibility for the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stages -- We Are All Different

I would never presume to speak for another woman's experience of this dreadful journey. But it seems that I am in a new place, albeit still considerably warped from life as I knew and loved it. Well. That life is over. And some sort of new construction is in process.

Mother's Day was rough. Thank God for my two wonderful children who are still in this world, and for their honesty and compassion in the face of such hurt. I do not have many people who can absorb my candid self-expression, but they seem able to, and able to share a little of their own pain.

Yesterday I spend nearly three hours talking over a possible internhip position for next year with a senior pastor at a downtown church. He was stunned, of course, when I told him about our year, and seemed surprised that I am capable of lucid conversation. And then we went on to have a terrific time.

That interlude caused me to think back to last fall. We had to do some things -- the first week with the funeral and all the associated planning and events, a week-end trip south for my niece's wedding, a week-end trip west to visit The Lovely Daughter on Parents' Week-end, and those horrific two days in Chicago to empty our son's apartment. Otherwise, though, my life was lived pretty much in my bed. Phone, computer, dog, me. Sleep, cry, stare at ceiling. When I did venture out of my room, I was surrounded by family or close friends. People who knew, people to whom I had to explain nothing.

I see that now I am in a different place. I am taking breaks from grief. Last night a few of us stayed after class for an hour, engaged in an intense and animated discussion with our professor. I'm pretty sure I was the only one whose thoughts were elsewhere every few minutes, but I also enjoyed myself and was grateful for the chance to focus on debates and conundrums which I find that I still care about. Afterward, I realized that I was recovering from Mother's Day by returning to my regular life, altered as it is.

So. Who knows how I'll feel in another hour? But I am pretty much able to get through lots of days now in some kind of fashion that sort of works.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mothers' Day: Mothers Holding Hands

Whether you mother a living child or one who is with God, you stand in equality with all mothers. Hold your children in your heart today as you reflect upon your child's life. Happy Mothers Day. Peace.

We are all visitors to this world; some of us walk a long journey, others just a simple second. Our impact and the true depths of our lives is not based on how many breaths we take or how old we live to be. Our lives are measured in how we have touched one another. Our children, dead and alive, have touched us deeply. Their lives mattered. Their lives have meaning and value, regardless of whether they lived on this earth or
how long they lived on this earth.

Honoring Mothers' Day for all those who mourn the death of their precious children. Not even death can break the bond of mother and child. Love is eternal.

Caitsmom in the U.S.

My thoughts tonight keep taking me to a quote from Timepiece by Richard Paul Evans: "If ever I am to comfort someone, I will not try to palliate their suffering through foolish reasoning. I will just embrace them and tell them I am heartfelt sorry for their loss."

To all of you, wherever you may be, if I could I would embrace you. I am heartfelt sorry for the losses that have brought us together. But, I am also thankful to have found such comfort and support. Happy Mother's Day.

As a mother of three boys, two of whom are alive today, I am grateful to God for the joy and challenges of being a mother. Our son Jacob only lived for one hour after he was born. His twin brother Jackson is now 14 and 6 feet tall. Jacob is somehow present in our family and yet not. I trust he is in the loving presence of God. My faith helps me treasure the past, present and future as mother.


I am wishing you (and all mothers) a Happy Mother's Day; though that may sound especially trite right now, I do mean it from the deepest place in my heart.I was looking at my blog posting from last year's Mother's Day, and it was interesting to read, a year later.

Much has changed, and much is the same. I survived this year, and Katie didn't come back.This may always be a tough holiday, but I am so happy to be a mother, and especially grateful to be the mother of both of my children, David and Katie. Katie is still my precious daughter, even though she doesn't live here anymore. After her passing, I found a letter that she had written to me, two years and one day before she died. She was perfectly healthy at the time she wrote it. The letter is precious to me, and I carry it in my purse with our family photos. It says (with her spelling just as it is in the letter):

"Dear Mom,I want you to know that I love you all the time. Every single second of life and death. I'm thinking of you always. You will always be my mother. You come and help me when I'm hurt, you help with my arts and crafts, you supervize me with the hot glue gun, you kiss my ouie's better, you prepare meals for the family every night (unless we go out to dinner), your smile brightens every day of my life, you cook very well, you always help me with my homwork, when I have a tummyach you give me tums, and if that doesn't work you give me a banana or rice from the Brat diet, and you love all of the family with all of your heart.
I LOVE you Mommy!
Love,Kathryn Emilie Gerstenberger"

This Mother's Day, I share this letter with you, in the hopes that Katie's words will comfort you, too. She is right: we will always be our child's mother, "every single second of life and death." Thank you, Katie, for a beautiful Mother's Day gift.

I find that I am entirely without words. All that love, it will always be yours.
Love is stronger than death.

GG in Ohio

Mother's Day Week-end: So Far

Friday morning ~ Really, a pretty excellent morning ~ all of it involved, one way or another, with the practice of spiritual direction and the ongoing Catholic-Protestant dialogue in my life and with my friends.

Afternoon ~ The day fell apart. Big plans for accomplishing something academic, but several hours were filled with the continuing (and perhaps after several weeks finally successful) effort to surrender our son's car to the dealer. And all for want of a fax. The young man at the dealer has been unfailingly polite; it was someone on the other end, or perhaps many someones, who has not seemed able to perform their job(s).

Evening ~ After a bit of a rant, about how whenever I accomplish one of these minor but emotionally burdensome tasks, I think it's time for my son to come home ~ "OK, that one's done, we got over another hurdle ~ now can we go back to our lives?" ~ I crawled into bed and spent most of the evening reading. Gregarious Son got home from work early and I could hear him and the Quiet Husband laughing over a movie in the living room.

Saturday morning ~ Drove to the university library to find it closed for the week-end, so came home and set up shop in the dining room. Email from a friend whose son also died by suicide. I emailed back that my basic plan for tomorrow is to hibernate, and to cancel most of the next several months, when all of our family anniveraries of all sorts will take place. ("You already tried to cancel Christmas and Easter," my spiritual director pointed out last week.) She sent a wise response,urging me to " just plan to be doing something. And include in the plan time to cry, scream, yell, write, pray, talk, be alone, whatever." I plan to go for a walk and then clean the house and clean out the gardens. No public appearances and no academic work.

Saturday afternoon ~ Managed to delete 8 pages of 22-page outline of paper. After an hour of quiet panic, realized where I had another copy on the computer. Still took an hour to recreate.

It's gray and windy outside, but it's walk time. Enough of sitting here working.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Has The Moon Lost Her Memory?

In my other blog, I've written about my experiences yesterday, one of which centered on what I can only identify as memory trauma.

One of the things that happened yesterday was that, just before I preached it, I glanced at the manuscript of the sermon I was supposed to produce from memory, and realized that it was gone. I had practiced for ten days, and I had had it earlier in the day, and the morning before ~ but, not at the moment I needed it.

I suppose that by this time people think that I am merely offering excuses -- it's been eight months, after all, and now I refer to this particular incapacity casually, as if I expect it.

Here's what it's like:

I am taking a class on the Gospel of Matthew from one of the world's great Matthew scholars. I routinely fill 10-12 pages with notes each class. But as I am writing down some brilliant nugget of information or interpretation about a verse to which few people have given much thought, an image from last September pops into my head. I am still listening and still writing, but what I am seeing is quite distinct from what is taking place in the classroom.

Is it any wonder that my short-term memory is impaired?

If I sound casual and dismissive when I seem to be making excuses for myself, it's simply that the one thing I have become accustomed to is that, without warning, I forget. Pretty much everything except what I would prefer to forget.

And you know what? I'm OK with this.

I've had a lot of people in the past months make reference to the strength others have evidenced in desperate situations. I have no idea whether I have an ounce of strength in me. What I do know is that I have been the first hand witness (and victim?) of the outcome of the kind of strength I think they mean ~ the forge-ahead-and-and-refuse-to-acknowledge-this-shit kind of strength ~ and I don't buy it. The damage it inflicts, internally and externally, goes on for decades.

SO I am trying ~ not to whimper, but to be honest. And so I'm not trying to pretend that I can do things I can't. It's OK not to be able to do everything, or even much of anything. It's OK to have to look at manuscripts, or google, or notes. It's OK to let your bruised brain heal.

Amd ~ my long term memory is fine. Hence the arrival of the
lyrics from Cats just as I needed them this morning! (And here on youtube.)

(Barbara Henson image here.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mothers' Day: Join Mothers Holding Hands

OK, here's my thought and here's my idea:

The thought:

I figure we ~ all of us who have lost children ~ are all looking forward to Mothers' Day ( and I'm using the plural possessive intentionally) with trepidation. Probably an understatement. Without wanting to diminish our gratitude for our surviving children, if we have them, or our mothers and grandmothers, if we have them, many of us are apprehensive at best about the thought of an entire day devoted to celebrating motherhood when we have so much to mourn.

The idea:

Let's hold hands on Sunday and care for one another, across however much cyber-distance we can. Let's try to take care of ourselves by caring for each other.

The invitation:

Send a note ~ in the comments is probably the easiest, but you can also write to gannetgirlatsbcdotglobalnetdotcom ~ with whatever you want to say, for yourself and to all of us ~ and I will put them all together in one post on Sunday. And, of course, you are welcome to copy and paste the whole thing into your own blog as well.

Let's remember our joy and our sorrow as mothers all together.

(Cross-posting at Search the Sea.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Five Things: Language

I use it myself. "He killed himself." "She committed suicide."

There is an intentionality implied in the language we use that is, to my way of thinking, completely inaccurate, and makes a significant contribution to the anguish of surviving family and friends.

For weeks after our son died, one of my most oft-repeated questions was, "How could he do this? And its variations: "How could he do this to me? To us?"

It took me a long time to understand that he didn't.

A friend whose son also died by suicide at age 24 told me, over and over again, about the "tunnel vision" that immediately precedes such a death, in which the person who is, literally, a victim himself, loses sight of everything in his life except the need to eradicate the intense pain in which he is submerged.

Ron Rolheiser helps us to understand with

". . . the propensity for suicide is, in most cases, an illness. We are made up of body and soul. Either can snap. We can die of cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks, aneurysms. These are physical sicknesses. But we can suffer these as well in the soul. There are malignancies and aneurysms too of the heart, deadly wounds from which the soul cannot recover. In most cases, suicide, like any terminal illness, takes a person out of life against his or her will. The death is not freely chosen, but is an illness, far from an act of free will. In most instances, suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man who throws himself through a window because his clothing is on fire. That's a tragedy, not an act of despair.

and with
this, from the author William Styron, who contemplated suicide but was saved by a last-minute sense of the pain he would inflict on his loved ones:

"The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. . . . and for the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer. . . .

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from the smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion."

Most of us will never endure such pain, although I think that many left behind come close enough, at one point or another, to grasp something of its horrific depth and breadth and to understand that it can lead to a point in which the will, as we usually understand it, is overtaken in the same way that the body can be overwhelmed by cancer cells or physical trauma.

In the first weeks after our son's death, I likened it to his having been run over by a train. It seemed that sudden, that out of nowhere. As we have learned more, it appears that the train was a good deal slower, but just as inexorably powerful.

And so: I try to use the phrase "died by suicide." At the survivors support group I sometimes attend, the leader, a social worker who lost someone beloved to her by suicide, and many of the "old-timers," use the word as a verb: "He suicided." That sounds particularly ugly to me, although I can't articulate a reason. Maybe because it is the only instance in which I have heard the verb expressed. I've never heard patricide, or matricide, or deicide, used as a verb. I guess it implies, to me, anyway, an intentionality that I believe is absent from the act.

There is no, or little, at any rate, judgment addressed in this post to anyone who finds themselves struggling with the language. We struggle with the language because we struggle with comprehending the reality.