There is something about grief that makes people uncomfortable. Perhaps it is because we can not ignore our own mortality. This December marks six years since Josh passed away; yet, his death is still raw to the touch. They say time heals all wounds, but maybe the catch is that love is not a wound, so its pain like love itself, is unconditional and everlasting.
I remember the day we found out we were having a baby.
I remember the moment Josh was born.
I remember the help flight, the hospital stay, and when we first heard the word neurodegenerative.
I remember the time he first smiled.
I remember the night he left us.
I remember his joy.
This month, while attending a teaching conference in Texas with a colleague, we immersed ourselves in conversations about pedagogy and how to improve what we do as teachers. In addition to these work-themed conversations, we also discussed the need for self-care and our personal commitments to the people who matter in our lives outside of the student population we serve each day. We connected not only as teachers, but also as individuals with our own narratives to tell as a result of the plot lines we have endured. She has navigated a number of life changing battles and fortunately for all of us, she is still with us.
She is tough.
She is witty.
She is graceful.
She reminded me “you have to be able to still enjoy the joyful moments.” Her words defined how I have been feeling these past few weeks. My life is filled with joy, but I often struggle to just enjoy joy without guilt, without sadness, and without the overwhelming feeling of what could have been. It is easy to get lost in the what ifs and the could have beens, and some days I have to allow myself to do just that.
I recently attended a baby shower in my college town for a couple whose excitement and happiness is down right contagious. It is fitting that the expectant mother’s middle name is Joy. The house (and yard) were filled with their families, friends, and a number of our college acquaintances most of whom I have not see in over a decade. The casual question of “so, do you have any kids?” came up multiple times. As I have previously written, this should not be a hard question for me to answer, but I always falter in my response. Defeated by my own insecurities, I retreated outside. I sat alone on the front porch and soaked in the Montana October sunshine. For the past two years, I have struggled to interact and truly engage with people socially. For the first few years after losing Josh, I threw all of myself into social and work situations to escape being alone with my thoughts. It was acceptable to be busy. It was unacceptable to be sad. Now, I find comfort in isolation and often think it is easier to function on my own than engage in conversations for which I am tired of searching for answers to seemingly simple questions. By giving myself the time to reflect that fall day on my friend’s porch, I was able to return to the crowded room better able to embrace my emotions and excitement. It was a joyful day. Towards the end of the party, a friend’s mother told me she had been reading my blog. Her kind words made me remember why I am committing myself to be vulnerable.
It is odd to try to convince myself that it is “ok” to be vulnerable and sad. Our society teaches us that the best response to “How are you?” is “ok.” While back in my college town, I allowed myself the time to let my mind wander to past experiences. It was fun to look back on the what ifs and know I ended up in just the right place in life. I believe part of finding grace is understanding as much as I try, I don’t get to control all elements of my life. Perhaps grace, like joy, is all around me and I just need a few reminders to embrace it.
Last year, the mother of one one my English 1 students was told she only had months to live. I sat at my desk in the front of the room dumbfounded as this fourteen year old informed me he didn’t finish his writing for the day because he wanted to sit up with his mom. What rationale could I give him for why his English assignment mattered? What words of comfort could I lend him? Our daily lives and expectations become trivial during tragedy. Yet, our daily lives are what hold us together when the day is all we can muster. Sometimes we need the work to keep us busy until we can be ok being anything but ok.
As I referenced on my “About Me” page, Terry Tempest Williams reflects on her grief and the need to write as an urge to tell the story by stating, “To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones.” I have spent most of my life ignoring this internal voice calling me to write. The urgency is strange to explain and even harder to rationalize when it comes down to the practical “to do list” and my need to write. It isn’t a guilty pleasure, but instead a desire from one sphere of my brain that is pushing my heart and the other sphere of my brain that only wants to take a ticket and wait in line until it is ready to deal with the rest of life. To be completely honest, somedays I write crap. I know it is crap, and I have to remind myself that regardless of the plot line, crap is still crap. When I write this way, I am thankful for my husband who functions in the role of an editor. He is lovingly willing to call my writing what it is. He pushes me to dig deeper and to stop writing what I think I should write by calling forward what I need to write.
Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osbornevocalize this struggle for balance in their song “Burning Man,” “Half your life you struggle / half your life you fly / One day I’m the exception / most days I am just like most /…I still go a little bit crazy sometimes, but now I don’t stay near as long.” In my search for grace, somedays I feel lost in the struggle, but other days I am overwhelmed by the joy that is and always will be a central part of my life. It is true, sometimes I spend a little too much time in the crazy, but other times I am a part of the majority.
This past weekend my mom’s side of the family gathered for a birthday celebration honoring both my cousin, who is turning 50, and my mom. They have always been birthday buddies and were sweet enough to include us in the celebration. We laughed, cried, sewed, ate good food, cheered on Michigan State, and had not one, but two made-from-scratch cakes. During the joyful festivities, we also were aware of the absence of my cousin C.J. and my Aunt Georgia. Both C.J. and Georgia lived life and loved to the fullest capacity. They were our go-tos when we needed joy and they both loved a good party. It would have been easy to miss the joyful moments from this weekend if we focused on these tragic losses, but by allowing ourselves to grieve we also were able to enjoy the time we had together.
When we love, we have joy, always.