Our steps leading upstairs are somewhat steep and narrow, and a couple of years ago, I actually fell down them. Fell isn’t the correct word. Once I fell backwards, I mostly slid down the steps, and quite gracefully, I might add. At the bottom, the little toe of my right foot hit the doorway leading up to the stairway. Hard. Intense pain shot through me.
“Mommy! Are you okay?” my daughter Emily stood, horrified, at the top of the stairs.
Not one to swear, the most I could manage, lying there in agony, was the repeated “Ow, ow, ow, ow…” as I struggled to right myself.
“I don’t know if I’m okay, it hurts so bad!” I managed, and Emily ran down to help me up.
“My toe!” I answered as I hopped down the stairs. The pain was excruciating. How could something so little hurt so bad? Tears sprang to my eyes as I hobbled around in a circle. What should I do? What would take this horrid pain away? I hobbled back up the steps and started running cold bath water, thinking perhaps the frigid temperature would help. Emily stood by, watching in concern. I stuck my foot in the water and the pain eased slightly. Emily and I stared at the underwater toe then, sticking straight out at an unnatural angle.
“That can’t be good,” Emily murmured.
I pulled my icy foot out of the water and hobbled down the stairs. Just as I turned the corner of the landing, the front door opened, and there stood my son Daniel.
“I fell down the stairs and hurt my toe and I don’t know what to do,” I thrust my foot out for him to see and his face blanched.
“I think you should go to the hospital,” he managed to blurt out, before I shook my head. The pain was easing as we spoke, and the toe, while turning an angry purple, seemed to be easing its way back into place. I ended up covering it with a large band-aid that I secured to the toe next to it, taking lots of ibuprofen, and wearing either sandals or a very loosened shoe for weeks afterwards.
I was reminded of this incident over the weekend as I struggled mightily with extreme mental pain and anguish. We got through our first Thanksgiving “without,” going out to eat at a local restaurant. It was the right decision. Later in the afternoon two of my sisters stopped to visit. As my sister Jane hugged me goodbye, she started crying in sympathy, but my own eyes remained dry. I’d already shed my tears alone at the gravesite that morning. I was doing fine, I assured Jane.
By Friday morning, I was no longer doing so fine. Alone on the couch, tears streamed down my face. I tentatively reached out, calling one of my sisters before I went out to write. She stopped to see me, and I felt a little better by the end of a short visit. After a fairly productive writing session, I made a beeline to another’s sister’s consignment shop where she greeted me with a hug. I can do this, I thought, steeling myself. But as soon as I got back home, I took a nap.
Another day, another nap.
What is going on with me, I wondered. It’s been nine months since David died. I’d been so eager to complete what was my last scheduled workshop until February, eager for the free time, and now I was squandering it in sadness. By Friday evening, I’d cancelled my plans to attend my nephew’s wedding the next day, certain I didn’t have the energy to schlep my sad self to a joyous occasion where everyone else would have their significant other. On Saturday morning, I didn’t even bother to change out of my yoga pants and tee-shirt. I began the day the same way I’d begun the day before, sitting on the couch with tears streaming down my face.
What can I do? How can I do this? What will help? How will I do Christmas without David? How can I not, with a nine-year-old to think of? Is this normal? Just when I need people, why do I want to withdraw? What can I do to make this hurt less? Is there something I can do to make it easier?
I was running in circles, looking for something to alleviate the pain. Just like I did with my toe.
I picked up and read Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Thirst, written after the loss of her partner, coming back to one particular poem several times. The poem prompted me to make some notes for my next book. Later that day, I read a magazine article about a woman who made a gift box for Jesus and wrote down daily gifts she gave to others. I wrote, revised and edited my manuscript throughout the day, glad that my brain works in such a way that I can be crying one minute and intensely fascinated by the research I’ve been conducting in the next. I realize that I’ve been just as fascinated by the process of grieving while I’ve been experiencing it. I’ve been mulling the idea of a handbook for grievers that could accompany my next book. Thank you, Lord, for this curious brain that can work even as I am assaulted by grief.
Sunday brought the expectation of company, in the form of three sons and my daughter Rachel. I began the day much like I’d begun the previous three, crying on the couch. But I had a column to write, so I brushed away my tears and studied the newspaper ads and the single coupon insert, searching for inspiration. After I compiled a rough draft for the column, I got dressed, applied make-up, and washed and dried my hair before beginning to prepare the meal I’d be sharing with my older children. I choked back sobs as I mashed the potatoes. What can I do? How can I do this? How will I get through the next 30 days? I was running around in circles again, looking for a way to alleviate the pain.
Later in the day I asked my daughter Rachel for ideas on how I could get through the holidays, and she just shook her head, as if wondering how to alleviate her own.
The inkling of an idea formed in my head. I told her about the magazine article I’d read, related how I’d felt the day before Thanksgiving when I paid the bill for the person behind me in the drive-thru of Hardees. I was using my 99-cent coupon to pick up some biscuits and gravy for the kids when I suddenly got the urge to do something nice for someone. I cringed a little at their total; it was over $8, but I paid for it anyway, instructing the Hardees cashier to tell them “Happy Thanksgiving.” Then I drove off, with an amazing feeling of happiness that lasted most of the day. Could I do something like that for 30 days? Could I do it in a ritualized way that would bring me comfort as well? The box idea, like the woman in the article? Could I decorate a box and write down daily “gifts” I gave to others? I needed a ritual, like the one I’d used to get through my birthday earlier this month.
Too busy with family to take a nap, I struggled to remain upbeat. By nightfall, I gave up. I lay down on my bed in the dark room while Abby played across the hall. Emily came in and lay down beside me. My tongue loosened by darkness and fatigue, I told her how difficult recent days had been, and confessed I’d nearly bought a pre-lit tree online just to avoid bringing our tree up.
“I could bring it up for you, if that would help,” she offered, but it wasn’t that.
“I just can’t bear to bring out the old tree and the ornaments without Dad,” she hugged me as I cried. My chest heaved with sobs…
How can I bear this? It was nearly 11:00; too late to call anyone, so I posted a call-out for prayers on Facebook, and within minutes, virtual prayers and hugs arrived, giving me peace enough to face asleep.
This morning I was determined to accomplish two things; finish up my column and figure out how I was going to survive the holiday season. I began the day with Max Lucado’s Grace for the Moment morning devotional, copying these words in my journal; “The way to deal with discouragement? The cure for disappointment? Go back and read the story of God. Read it again and again. Be reminded that you aren’t the first person to weep. And you aren’t the first person to be helped.”
It was a perfect reminder; I am not the only one to lose my spouse. I am not the only one to weep. And I’m not the first to be helped. Prayer will help. So will reading God’s word. Taking time to keep my creative juices flowing by setting up writing times. I finished my column.
I sat down at the computer to submit the couponing column, and thats when I spotted it; the Bible verse holder I’d bought at a thrift store a couple of months ago. And hadn’t touched since.
The answer had been right in front of my face all along. I picked it up and counted the cards.
30 days until Christmas.
I pulled out the front one out and read it;
“For God has said I will never leave you. I will never abandon you.” Hebrews 13:5
30 cards. 30 days until Christmas. I knew then what I should do to get through the holidays. For the next 30 days I would choose one card each day and prayerfully consider what I could do, some gift I could give, a kindness I could show towards someone else~ gifts for Jesus. And a gift for me~ I remembered the way I felt when I paid for the order of the person behind me in line at Hardees. I smiled.
I got out my greeting cards and wrote a note to a woman I’d met in June who’d also lost her husband in March. She’d been married for over 50 years. If I was in so much pain now as the holidays approached, what was she feeling like? I included the Bible verse card and dropped it in the mail.
You are not the first one to weep. You are not the first one to be helped.
I prayed; “Dear Lord, for the next 30 days, let me be an instrument of your peace and love. Let me use my pain to reach out to others in memory of the man who cared so much about me, his family, and others. I ask this in your name, Jesus Christ.”
As I looked through the other cards tonight, I realized the original set had contained 40 cards, for 40 days of reading. There must be ten cards missing. I discovered something else; card #40. (red circle courtesy of me)