Thanks. Giving.

Yesterday, I stopped at Subway to pick up a sandwich for my daughter. In line behind me stood a young policeman. Something about him reminded me of my grandson Jacob, and I immediately knew I wanted to pay for his meal. He protested when I told the cashier to add his total to mine, until I handed him one of the random acts of kindness cards I carry in my purse. “In honor of my grandson,” I insisted. Reading the card, his eyes softened. He nodded, thanking me.

I cried all the way home.

Why am I crying? I initially wondered. The goodwill gesture was a simple one. Not terribly expensive or elaborate. I usually felt lifted through performing random acts of kindness in memory of our sweet boy. Why was I crying?

random act of kindness

Then it hit me.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” the young man had called after me as I turned around to leave. Happy Thanksgiving. 

I was going to be alone on the holiday. Several of my children were scheduled to work, another lives in CA. Since I have to go into work this weekend, we’d all agreed we’d wait to get together in December when Emily visits Iowa with my grandbaby Tommy.

But I wasn’t crying because I was going to be alone.

The tears came because I can’t fix the holidays and make them the way they used to be. Everything is different since David died in 2012 and Jacob the year after. Holidays aren’t the same. I can’t give my children back their dad or repair the deep wound of child loss my daughter and son-in-law live with daily. To make matters worse, I moved away from the two-story home that served as a gathering place to a tiny house an hour or more away from children and grandchildren. Gatherings aren’t as easy or convenient. I can’t make holidays what they were. I can’t fix what was irrevocably broken by loss.

With the unexpected day off alone, I decided to go through letters my mother had written to me, organizing them into binders like I’d done with the letters she’d written to my grandmother. It was the best thing I could have done.

Nov 7 1978 letter

Mom didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving 1978? I’d always imagined my mother making a big deal out of Thanksgiving, memories of a white tablecloth, fine china, and candles on the table. I can’t recall whether any of that happened on Thanksgiving 1978, or if there was turkey served, or a duck or goose my father had raised. What I can say with some certainty is that I came home from my first semester at college to a family that loved me. And, evidently, my dad didn’t care whether any plans were made. He’d reassured Mom, told her not to worry about it.

Thanksgiving isn’t about the food, the fancy china, tablecloths and candles. It’s about family, and I have family to be thankful for, whether I see them today or not.

Then there is this letter, written in November 1990:

Nov. 27 1990 letter

More than five years after Dad’s death in May 1986, my mom was keenly feeling his absence. Much like we keenly feel the absence of David and Jacob.

What can I do about that?

It’s true I cannot bring them back. Cannot make everything the same. But there is something I am determined to do. I can be a better person because of them. I can honor them through my actions. Live a life they would be proud of. Do good in their name. Give a stranger a sandwich.

Give thanks for having had them in my life.

 

 

Counting My Blessings

I’d been dreading November 3rd for weeks. Not only would I be facing my first birthday without David, but it was also the second anniversary of my mother’s death.

“Rituals have helped me tremendously,” a new friend commented about dealing with his own loss more than a year ago. That comment got me to thinking about my own rituals in dealing with David’s death; the weekday ritual of reaching out to others every Tuesday morning, the ritual of writing in a journal as I read inspirational books and Bible verses, and yes, I will admit it; the kitchen light.

“The small light in the kitchen has been on for seven months now. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. David always shut it off before he went to bed, and now I leave it on all the time. When I come downstairs in the morning, there it is above the coffeemaker; glowing and greeting me in the darkness of the house.”

“That’s one of your rituals,” my friend casually observed, as if it were perfectly normal to leave a light on for seven months.

That got me to wondering; Could I incorporate rituals into my birthday to help get me through the day?

I could count 53 gifts that day, was my initial thought, but 53 is a lofty goal, those of us who have reached that milestone would agree. 53 gifts in 53 hours, and I can count both gifts I give as well as those I receive, along with gifts of the spirit, I amended. I chose a notebook to keep track of the gifts, and made the  decision to take my camera with me over the weekend, to chronicle my journey of blessings and gifts.

I will give a gift first, I decided, and I knew just what that gift should be. It would be a gift of encouragement to someone who needed it. I dutifully wrote that accomplishment down in my notebook. The second gift was easy; my son Dan had brought me flowers the day before.

My friend Mary’s beautiful gift had arrived on Thursday and I decided I would include that as well. I was already stretching the 53-hour time period to include Thursday, and I’d only just begun.

Then I remembered the card Abby had made me the day before that, the one with this heartfelt sentiment written on the front, of “Roses are red, Violets are blue, And I bet that Dad, Is watching over you,” to my list. Five gifts down, only 48 more to go, and it wasn’t even my birthday yet.

I woke up early on November 3rd, too busy getting ready for a breakfast out to wonder or worry how my first birthday without David was going to be. Emily had to be at work by 7:30, and I’d promised her breakfast beforehand. Gift number six was breakfast shared with my 16-year-old daughter. Number seven was two hours alone at the restaurant writing. I was enjoying the chronicling of my birthday and counting my gifts and blessings. I walked to a consignment store on the corner before heading home, where I treated myself to four more gifts; a nice towel set, a black top for one of my daughters, a dressy top for me, and a tee-shirt to wear at the rec center. The rec center membership was another gift I planned on purchasing for our whole family. I now counted eleven gifts, twelve if I included the rec center membership, and it wasn’t even 10:00.

At home again, I saw my answering machine blinking; two calls from sisters who wondered how my day was going. Two more gifts to add to the list. Could I count the 40 birthday greetings on my Facebook wall as 40 additional gifts? I decided not to, because then my challenge would be over and I’d have to face the day without the crutch of counting.

I’ll just go and see if it is there, I decided when I picked up Emily from work around 11:00. It being the gravestone I’d looked for every time I passed the cemetery. The gravestone that hadn’t been there the day before.

It was. Gift #15.

Emily hugged me as I cried. Gift #16; a hug from my daughter.

Gift #17 was standing on my porch when I got home; my sister Jane, bearing the gifts of coffee and chocolate (#18), the exact same gift I’d given my mother for most of her birthdays.

When Angela called around noon to see if I wanted to go to Dubuque with her and Jane, I thanked God for gift #19, Angela herself. A visit to our mother’s grave was #20.

Two tombstones in one day, and the memory of two of my greatest gifts; my husband David and my mother, numbers 21 and 22 in the gift-counting, though David had always been #1 on my list of blessings.

A stop at Panera Bread was #23, where Angela treated me to a delicious snack and a cup of coffee, We’d spent a lot of time there with our mother after her doctor’s appointments. Gift #24; visiting with two sisters for more than an hour.

At home again, a box awaited me on the porch; gift #25 from my sister-in-law, Susan.

The mailbox contained four more birthday greetings, bringing me to #29. A birthday card from Kohls with a $10 coupon could be #30.

#31: the greetings on the couch my grandchildren had dropped off, 33 if I count each grandchild, which I did.

I fell asleep counting my blessings, proud of myself for having gotten through my first birthday without David relatively unscathed. (tears only at each grave site I visited)

Sunday, November 4th, dawned a new day and a different attitude. I got up early; 5:30 with the clock change. The tears started flowing as I changed the clock on the wall. David had always changed the clocks.  Tears continued as I made a cup of coffee. David had always made my coffee. By the time I finished reading the newspaper and making notes for my weekly coupon column, I was sobbing. It made no sense, but then bouts of grief rarely do. Where were the blessings I’d so agreeably counted the day before? I picked up this book from my end table:

Since I purchased this book a month ago at my sister’s consignment store, I’d had a very late start to reading two devotions a day. (morning and evening) Instead, I’d been reading four or five a day, hoping to catch up to the right date at some point. The bookmark opened up to April 20th;

The Fire of Your Heart

My God, I want to do what you want. Your teachings are in my heart. Psalm 40:8

“Want to know God’s will for your life? Then answer this question: What ignites your heart? Forgotten orphans? Untouched nations? The inner city? The outer limits?         Heed the fire within!

Do you have a passion to sing? Then sing! Are you stirred to manage? Then manage! Do you ache for the ill? Then treat them! Do you hurt for the lost? Then teach them!                As a young man I felt the call to preach. Unsure if I was correct in my reading of God’s will for me, I sought the counsel of a minister I admired. His counsel still rings true. ‘Don’t preach,’ he said, ‘unless you have to.’ As I pondered his words I found my answer; ‘I have to. If I don’t, the fire will consume me.’

What is the fire that consumes you?”

Gift #34; the right words at the right time. I’d been heeding the fire within ever since my mother died, and following my passions. The very next day I would be teaching a writing class to women who, for whatever reason, had been delaying their dreams of writing for publication. One of my passions since my mother’s death has been to encourage other writers, or would-be writers to follow their own dreams. What a privilege to be paid to do just that.

Gift #35 arrived at my door for lunch. Ron and Lois have been friends ever since David’s cancer treatment in 2006. Ron was introduced to us by David’s radiologist when Ron became her patient with the same type of cancer as David. We’d shared many lunches together at the Bishop’s Buffet restaurant before they closed their doors. As soon as Ron and Lois heard about David’s heart attack they’d rushed to the hospital. Recovering in ICU, David wasn’t allowed to see anyone but family. When David heard their voices in the hallway asking for his room and the nurse’s question, “Are you family?” he had called out, “That’s my sister and her husband,” and the nurse allowed them in.

“Brother David,” Lois exclaimed as she bent down to hug him. “Sister Lois,” he replied, and the nurse looked at them suspiciously before leaving the room.

“Sister Lois,” I greeted her on Sunday and both she and Ron smiled sadly as they hugged me, likely reflecting on those last visits with David. It had been Ron who’d pointed out how David’s heart rate had changed on the monitor when I sat on the bed next to my husband and held his hand.

Ron and Lois brought flowers; gift #36.

My daughter Elizabeth stopped by with gift #37 before she went to work, and then daughter Rachel came for lunch, bearing not one bouquet of flowers,

but two, along with a picture of a butterfly she’d painstakingly drawn herself. This was turning out to be a butterfly and flower kind of day.

Could I count her three gifts and possibly be up to #40? Then #41 would be the presence of my college son Matthew, stopping for a visit. The hug from 12-year-old Katie that morning #42? What about the five “thank-you” notes Abby and I had composed as I grasped at straws that morning for something to be thankful for? Would that bring the count to #47?

I was no longer enjoying the counting of the blessings and gifts, but instead, feeling emotionally battered, and somewhat bruised. There’d been no getting around my first birthday “without David.” I couldn’t skip the day entirely, as much as I wanted to, just as I would like to skip Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Day, and jump right into April 1st, with all those “firsts” without David over and done with. Did I get to #53? With a phone call from a sister-in-law and two more cards arriving in the mail on Monday, I may have eked out a good 50 blessings counted in those 53 hours. It hardly mattered by then; I’d gotten through my first birthday without David.

What will I do about Thanksgiving this year? And Christmas? I have been pondering this dilemma, for I already know they will be difficult days to face, especially Christmas. Two years ago on Christmas my grandson lay in a hospital, recovering from surgery to remove cancer and a kidney from his body. My daughter Elizabeth was with him. That Christmas was awful. After the ritual of opening gifts in the morning, the only place David and I wanted to be was at the hospital, so that is where we headed with some of our older children. The memory of that day is foggy, but the presence of David holding my hand is crystal clear. I felt as though I could face anything with him by my side.

Begin a new ritual, one book suggests. Do anything outside of your normal rituals, another one advises. Do whatever you need to do to get through those days is the consensus from those who have gone down this road before me. I don’t yet know what that is, but I’m weighing my options; a memorial service at our church for family the night before Thanksgiving, another memorial service in early December put on by the funeral home, a family get-together at a hall between the two holidays…The memorial services could be a helpful ritual or a reminder of my loss, I haven’t quite decided. I might go out to eat for the first time on Thanksgiving, volunteer to make lunch at the Ronald McDonald house in Iowa City on Christmas, or sit in the snow and have a picnic in front of my husband’s gravestone like the crazy loon I sometimes feel without him.

Or, who knows? I might just turn off that kitchen light.