My head is full of bees. Thoughts hum constantly and without direction.
Grief has been the strangest animal for me. Perhaps, in part, because what I am experiencing is a sort of “grief from a distance,” which has a character neither easier nor harder than any other grief, simply different. I lost both my parents after several years of living apart from them and seeing them only once or twice a year. I lost my much-loved sister-in-law who lived in the same general area as my parents, so was also not regularly in her presence.
My Big Dog, he was a daily, all-day presence and utterly dependent on me. With his ashes on my dresser, he remains a daily, all-day presence. I still feel his silken ear on my lap every day.
I am still processing all these losses but I think, some days, I’m getting a handle on my grief. I may think, “oh, I don’t think of Momma as much anymore, perhaps I’m healing” or “I cry less when I see pictures of Big Dog or notices his ashes.”
Then suddenly a day comes that I’m having panic attacks and feeling indescribably lonely and lost and I can’t understand why. I look at my life and it is all well and good. I am healthy and loved and fed and clothed. I lack for nothing really. But something gnaws at me until I can barely breathe and I look for comfort and peace in every corner of my world and fail to find it.
And one morning as I am sifting through the confusion and anxiety I stumble on the answer—I am still grieving .
And in this grief, I have a new enemy—Isolation. No one can grieve with me. Grief, like death, is a lonesome event. It does little good to have someone say, “Yes, I feel that way, too.”
And in this isolation, I find only more panic. Panic itself is isolating and a sort of cycle of terror sets in that can’t be interrupted by simple measures.
I have taken up bicycling.
I focus on training the new dog.
I listen to music as if it is a hard drug to which I am heavily addicted.
I stay away from television as much as possible as it seems to increase the anxiety.
I clean a lot. (Yay! Says the husband)
I have said goodbye too many times the last several years.
I’ll do it again before I get to heal because, well, you never really heal. I know it can’t be helped. It’s part of getting older. I will still rail against it.
I disappear into my head with the bees. I don’t know if the bees will ever leave.
Excerpt from a work-in-progress on this National Mutt day for my most beautiful mutt.
I hear, tonight, no distant thud-drone of a beach goer’s car
No shore break. No train.
Seagulls sleep silent in the spring cool.
Your breathing, ended forever, opens a gulf of aching peace.
I want my disturbed sleep back—my dreams punctuated with mumbling monsters that sounded oddly like wet, canine snores. I miss 4 a.m. earthquakes as you threw yourself against the bed to wake me for urgent backyard trips. I want to trip over the dark hulk of you lying curled on the floor next to my bed, your musk gathering on my heaped winter clothes.
It’s a fact that only you can truly fill this dearth of dog.
Your grumbling groans. Your dreamy sighs. Your shifts and turns and the tick
shish tick shish of claws on tired old limbs as you shuffled to your bowl in
the early morning dark for a sloppy drink from crockery.
It’s a fact that though there will be another furred friend, loved, adored even—you are a piece of my soul like no other. There is no Big-Dog shaped peg left in this universe. You were the one and only. I waltz over a shadow in the dark—your pillow, so dense with you—and moments later return and spin, sink into my covers, embrace the silence—and sleep.
What is that odd-looking, white object in the picture? What does it have to do with grief or art? What have grief and art to do with each other and why am I writing (struggling to write) this at this moment?
That object is a biscornu which, if I recall correctly, is French for “quirky.” These objects at this size are mostly used as pin cushions and the one in my photo is indeed a pincushion made using traditional Norwegian Hardanger embroidery techniques (as opposed to modern techniques).
As to what it has to do with art and grief:
A few months ago, I struggled with my writing process and wrote about it here. You can see in some truly helpful comments that it was suggested that I exercise my creative mind through other art forms. I thought this an excellent idea although I am the furthest thing from creative in any other way other than writing. I can’t draw a straight line, I failed miserably at the various doodle crafts, and I have long since given away my sculpting supplies because I would have to invest in learning how to do it rather than winging it. I do, however, love to do Hardanger embroidery. I thought I could perhaps design my own.
I can’t. So, I gave up.
2018 waned and my writing continued to stutter like a lawn mower in overgrown St. Augustine. The holidays arrived along with the U.S. government furlough including much time for my husband and I to spend together. I decided to try “new to me” traditional Hardanger as a creative endeavor and to make a Christmas gift for someone, the above biscornu.
Through all of this, the Big Blind Dog was lumbering through his days and nights, taking his medications dutifully, eating heartily, begging for scraps always, peeing the Niagara (diuretics), and growing that snore-and-sniffle inducing lump on his cheek without complaint. He and I sat on our couch together, tv on and spewing the horrors of Investigation Discovery or tv off and only the Gulf waves in our heads. Occasionally my husband left his cave, poured a soda, gave the old gray snoot a pat and a biscuit, gave me a kiss, and wandered back into his hideaway.
I stitched and the dog snored and life was sweet and warm. I finished the biscornu and in all those stitches and waves and snoring came words for the page and these pleasant, if bittersweet, blog entries here and here. Writing was a thing again.
Then I looked at the biscornu and really saw it. I’d failed. While it was pretty, it was wrong. Something I’d planned from the beginning that could not be undone was a major flaw within it. Others couldn’t really see the flaw but I knew it was there. It ate at me.
Finally, rather than wrap it with other Christmas gifts, I decided I would keep it. Better to make a better gift for that person later—something not so obviously flawed, even if only to my eyes. I left it on my desk with a mix of sadness and disgust.
We packed up and went to see family out of town and had a perfectly nice visit.
And on the morning we were to return home, we awoke in our usual hotel room and our beautiful, sweet, old Big Dog with his one great flaw, his useless eyes, had left us.
Somewhere in his dreams, he decided he’d had enough of being lifted and guided and medicated and diapered. Somewhere in his sleep he’d decided those last pets from family, the last sniffs of our granddog, the last bites of Woody’s barbeque beef, and his favorite dog biscuits were a good note to end on.
So it goes.
Twelve and a half of his thirteen years.
And a five-hour drive of tears and emptiness and silence.
And furtive momentary pats to the still form in the back seat as if he would miraculously come back to us.
When we arrived home that evening and I walked into our office, there was the biscornu, that silly, imperfect thing, and I realized why the Universe had me keep it. Nothing at all to do with its imperfection—an imperfection I no longer see—and everything to do with the fact that it is a symbol of those long luxurious days next to him, his paws pressed against me. Of those last few days when he’d taken to lying with his head on my leg as he had when he was younger, as if he was trying to tell me goodbye. I wondered then, but had chosen not to be certain.
I am grateful for that time.
I am grateful for that quirky object I kept that had a major flaw, like the flaw of the Big Dog’s blindness. Flaws that are visible but meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Now, the biscornu is perfect in that it reminds me of him. He was perfect in his love.
When you walk beside someone daily, you don’t always see the subtle changes in their bodies and faces as they age. Perhaps, now and then, you take a step back and look critically and realize they’ve put on ten pounds or they’ve developed lines around their eyes or their hands are age-spotted. But you don’t typically pay attention to these details day to day when you love someone. It’s a human trait, this blissful blindness to the truth about aging. We are all young in the Garden forever—until we aren’t.
It’s no different with our pets; we might see them slowing down, sleeping a little more, playing a little less if we really stopped and thought about it. But most of the time we still see the young dog we’ve seen since we got it past the “destroy everything in the house” stage or the playful cat we have cuddled since we convinced the rescue kitten that humans weren’t all bad.
I have watched our Big Dog (BD) age and been aware of the little things: the scars from this scrape or that, the increasing number of skin tags, the thinning fur. His muzzle has been graying since he was five. He has lost muscle mass both due to age and due to decreased mobility caused by his heart condition, but I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought. Then some months ago as we drove down the interstate and the old boy slept soundly in the back seat, my husband said, “He’s looking old.”
I hadn’t noticed up to that point. More accurately, I had chosen not to notice.
I take pictures of Big Dog several times a week, desperately trying to capture him in these waning months, and I had not registered any significant difference in appearance in the BD of that day versus the BD of pre-heart disease. Slower, yes. More confused, definitely. But “looking old”? No. He was still my puppy. He would always be my puppy—the boy we brought home at nine months, healthy, happy, playful.
Almost two and “helping” Daddy plant a new flower bed. (Spring 2007)
A few days later, I screwed up the courage to look at him with the eyes not of a person in love but a person who admits that pet dogs don’t usually outlive fifty-four-year-old owners.
I saw the sunken temporal area above his eyes, the crown of his skull turned pointed and prominent, the spreading gray, (endearingly, even on his hindquarters). There is less and less muscle on tired old bones. His coat has become rough and wool-like in spots rather than the smooth, soft fur that it once was. I also found a lump on his left cheek (we later learned this is a tumor that can’t be removed and continues to grow into his neck and ear).
Big Dog at just under thirteen years old. (Summer 2018)
What I didn’t see that is common in large old dogs were callouses on elbows or knees. The boy has had a pretty cushy life. Or should I say, “cushiony”? He’s always had at least one good bed wherever we lived, yet usually sleeps on the couch. We have loved and spoiled and medically cared for our dog with as much compassion (and dollars) as we would any child. Some might argue, more so.
About thirteen months ago we almost lost Big Dog to congestive heart failure. The kinds of heart medicines that have been developed by researchers (like those I used to work with developing medicine for humans) saved him and have kept him not only alive but happy. Then as now, we don’t know how much time we have with him.
This time with loved ones is always an unknown and this year that has been made excrutiatingly clear to me with the death of a beloved human sister. Now, perhaps because that loss remains so raw in my heart, I’ve begun to see, every day, these incremental changes in Big Dog as he walks into furniture, stares at walls for long moments as if they contain answers, and follows our voices in the wrong direction.
He is not ready to leave yet. He bounces and woofs when he wants a treat and gets excited about his nightly apple bites from Daddy. He still enjoys exploring the edges of the dunes and the street in front of our house and he delights in sunbathing on the deck on a warm day. There is still joy between long naps.
I am happy to see him enjoying such seemingly small things without the anticipation of his own mortality.
I am sad for us and our keen awareness of it.
The fruit of the tree of knowledge, were I a believer in such a thing, surely held that we are all finite creatures and our “downfall” was that we would forever struggle against that limitation, unlike our pets that simply love and live.
[I present this, not in a bid for sympathy or mere cri de coeur, (okay, maybe a little of those) but an honest solicitation for advice. You don’t have to be a writer or artist of any kind, I think, to perhaps have valuable input here.]
I have forgotten how to create fiction. Not the mechanics, though surely those are rusty and weak, but the soul and flow of my creativity are lost. I’ve watched them wash away like sand castles.
There are myriad reasons why this is the case and most don’t really matter (in terms of fixing the problem, that is). It only matters that it has happened.
I have forgotten how to open myself to the world, to pain, to the darkest, dankest crevices of my mind and spirit. I’d even stopped reading fiction because it made those things more accessible and frightening. Reading fiction made me feel and think, so I shrank from it. I am, at least, reading again, if only in snippets, and taking care not to feel and think.
Even if I could allow that stuff in, I wouldn’t know how to let it coalesce into something creative. I’ve lost the ability to sit in a quiet room or in nature and allow life to bounce around me until a story finds its way through my pores or percolates up from my gut. Instead, those moments of potential reflection and processing are met with trepidation followed by a mad grasp for an electronic device or the television remote. Barring “screen time,” I allow my thoughts to wander only to the most basic concepts: survival, future concerns, chores, loss, loss, loss.
These things cloud my head (with my permission) like a perpetual flu. If I were an addict, I could blame drugs or booze, but my addictions are the 3 x 5 screen in my hand and the constant reexamination of pain and rage. Better to binge on pixels and past hurts than to leave the chasm in my brain agape because I simply can’t properly fill it. The ability to simply be and think: lost.
Standing in the bubble of another human’s existence, attempting to feed off and gauge their being and psyche, then pull it like wool into fine thread I can weave into a fabric of character: lost.
Voices are just noises. Faces, mere images. Fragrances and textures are just smells and surfaces. My senses that once served me as a creator: lost.
I could chalk much of this up to age, disease, grief. Be done with it. Move on. I’ve lost other things. Much harder losses. Things I will never get back. Suck it up, Buttercup. But it is exactly because my creativity has always sustained me in my life that I need it now in the face of those other losses. I have good things in my life, but I still need this. I need to be a whole me for my family and the whole me is the one that writes. If I can’t find my way back to KC the writer: lost.
I came away from Facebook for a few weeks. I logged back in a few times not because I wanted to, but because I had to log in to some other damn this or that I had linked to (Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) at one time or another. And because every time I tried to do this one thing on my iPhone it splattered a warning on my phone that said I had to log into my Facebook account without explaining why, even though what I was doing hadn’t a damn thing to do with Facebook (or Instagram, or Pinterest, or etc.) .
I just wanted a rest. I didn’t like disconnecting from my friends and family, so I kept Messenger connected. Funny thing: It was hard for me to escape Messenger conversations prior to deactivating my Facebook account. After deactivating, I’d go two or three days without Messenger contact. I didn’t mind the sudden “radio silence,” of course. It was just interesting. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. I seem to be living in that phrase lately. If I stay away from television, Facebook, news sites, and even other people, I’m much happier. So, maybe it should be, “out of site, out of mind.”
I’m not suggesting being uninformed or disengaging entirely from the world. If anything, people like me need to engage and speak up in these times. However, I do think there is wisdom in first taking stock of what is healthy and unhealthy for each of us. What I found in my last few days before I first deactivated my main account, was that click bait, blaring headlines, and well-meant but unwanted hand-patting were unhealthy.
Below is a capture I found that illustrates one aspect of why I stepped away. It isn’t really that the news is “fake” so much as that it is distorted. News bloggers (I don’t like calling them writers; half of them can barely compose a proper sentence.) take a grain of truth, layer mud and dung on it, coat it in sugar syrup, then wrap it in some pretty paper and call it “news.” We gobble that shit up. Empty calories with a dose of disease.
That disease was taking too much out of me each time I confronted it. Each time my friends and family confronted it, I worried how much it took and continues to take out of them.
I also began to look back on last year with immense sadness. I lost two of the loves of my life, my Momma and Daddy. With each new loss (oh, so many) of my generational icons, it felt like the world was just slipping away and I too would be slipping away with it sooner rather than later. This is what some people don’t understand about getting older and watching your heroes die. If they are so lucky as to get older, they will perhaps understand that looking at such loss is also looking at one’s own mortality. It’s selfish, perhaps, but as natural a part of grief as the sadness.
My grief brought on the old familiar frustration of not having accomplished the things I’d wanted to accomplish in life and fear of not having time to accomplish them. I looked ahead into an ugly future that would possibly be even further truncated. I lost hope. People attempted to give me hope with platitudes and religion, neither of which are any comfort to a skeptic in grief.
It isn’t that I don’t believe in a Something. Most days. I simply don’t believe it will hold us up above the flames. I have been in the flames plenty of times. I have also had great joy. I have been exceptionally fortunate. I am thankful, for sure. I recognize all the good things I have in life. But the good does not preclude the pain, sadness, grief, anger, disappointment, outrage. I am allowed those. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that repressing my emotions is at the top of the “unhealthy” list for me. I will continue to wail and cry when I am in pain. I will smile and laugh when I am genuinely happy.
I have found what is healthy for me. In no particular order: 1) Dealing with my emotions on my schedule, with tools I choose, not what others set out for me. 2) Cutting out ugly television. No more Criminal Minds, SVU, war movies, or any such shows/movies. I’m tired of real people hurting each other. Why should I watch fictional people hurt each other? 3)Time with my family. 4) Time with my dog. 5) Time at the page. 6) Time with nature. 7) Time in the rhythm of my breath. 8) Each Present Moment. It’s a concept that’s hard to fully appreciate after fifty-two years of looking behind me and feeling regret and looking ahead and anticipating failure. But, I appreciate it a little more each day. With that appreciation comes the realization that I don’t need hope, I simply need to be and do. I think number 8 wraps up numbers 1 through 7.
To continue to appreciate the present moment, I must continue to live in it. To live in it, I must also forego the diseased mud-dung candy on Facebook. I do hope that those of you who aren’t already following my “author’s” page will do so. Someone (thank you, Carol) has kindly accepted the task of keeping a casual eye on that page for me. As before, my Messenger will remain available. Until I’ve reached a point that peace comes readily when I encounter the mud-dung candy, my personal page is going to go dormant in a couple of days. It’s simply to easy to react to links. This dormancy could be two weeks or two years. Who’s to say? Also, grandchildren override EVERYTHING and must occasionally be afforded a log-in.
This is not a plea for attention, nor am I isolating. I’ll be on Instagram, still. I’m just bowing out of this particular spiritual poison.
I’m closing with a video I posted some weeks ago. I play this song often which means I cry often. There is method in that madness. Each time, this song reminds me not so much of what I’ve lost (though there is that) but what is important to me. Some things “got lost along the way” in the last thirty-five years, give or take, as they do for a lot of us. I’ve determined, at fifty-two years old, the only way to get them back is to live in the present moment. From my heart to yours.
It was when my daughter was in her most rebellious stage that I called you beyond tears, beyond rage, exhausted and hopeless. I apologized on behalf of myself and my siblings.
“For what, honey?” you asked.
“For all the crap we ever put you through–all four of us. Every stupid, selfish thing we ever did.”
You chuckled and told me there was no need to apologize. You said as you had said before, that you had always wanted to be a mother and you and Dad knew there were certain things that went with being parents.
I listened, shaking my head the whole time, and restated my feelings. “I know, Mom, but still…I’m sorry.”
You thanked me and assured me that the tough times would get better.
Of course, they did. Of course, none of the crap my child put me through changed how deeply I love her. In the years that have followed, she has matured into a woman of strength and compassion who mirrors her grandmother much more so than does her impatient and cynical mother. Apparently, certain genes really do skip a generation. It helps that my daughter spent a good deal of time in her formative years in the bright beam of her grandmother’s heart. She was exceptionally fortunate in that regard.
I don’t know why I didn’t benefit to the same degree that she did from your guidance except for the plain fact that you were, by necessity, tugged between four children and a spouse and all the stresses of modern life in mostly foreign lands. I did benefit nonetheless, such that when my child was born, nothing mattered more to me than protecting her. As she grew, I tried to follow your example where I could.
You left us on Thursday the 29th of January of this year. On Friday morning, I slept in as I often do. I dreamed one of my typically vivid dreams. In it, I drove the old ’78 Buick through flooding rains, narrowly missing several wrong-way drivers until I finally came to a safe stop at your house. I walked in to find you sitting up in bed, looking twenty years younger, healthier. You were singing to a young child who was both my daughter and my granddaughter. You waved your hands joyfully to the tempo of the girl-empowering Disney-esque song. You turned and grinned at me as I greeted you.
I awoke and felt held and loved and at peace.
So many times in my life you comforted me when I was in pain. When I was small and awkward and bullied. When I was struggling through my first marriage. When the Girl was in her I-know-everything-you-silly-parents stage. No small wonder you were there to comfort me Friday morning after you had to say goodbye.