When things were at their worst with our girl in 2009, when she’d been in and out of psych units 5 times in 6 weeks and was suffering from antipsychotic drug whiplash, Sherod and I took a class called “PCM” (Professional Crisis Management).  It was intended to teach us how to manage LM’s violence as safely and humanely as possible.  One of the most painful things our child could do was grab a big clump of my hair and do everything in her power to tear it out.  Sometimes my scalp bled.  It always gave rise to an extraordinarily primitive impulse for self preservation that made me want to beat the living daylights out of her.  We were functioning at the most primitive level of survival possible, all of us.  At PCM we learned a very simple tactic that involves starting with the pinkie finger and, one finger at a time, breaking that kind of grip without doing harm.  I’ve used it many times in these past few years. It isn’t only that I don’t miss the pain.  There is great relief that I don’t have  to brutally clamp down on my own self  to prevent myself from harming her in return.

Today, my life feels like it is clenched just that tightly, in anger, in self-preservation, in despair.  What it is clenched around is hard to describe: the persistent, childlike magical, wishful thinking that resists accepting that one week from today Maria is moving and all the reason why.  I keep trying to clutch these days to myself with an obstinate determination that they should count in some kind of way. We carefully made plans to make these days meaningful with our daughter and she refuses to play, moving into the future in her own way and in her own time.   I am trying to gently and safely unclench and let my life, all cramped and achy from holding on so tight, release its death grip.

This morning, that took the shape of starting to clean up and clear out behind our girl while she spends time with her dear friend and companion, Sally.  I tackled her bathroom.  How could I have known it would be a lesson in archeology?  The space under her sink told a lot of her story.  There was a little plastic plate and spoon, leftovers from her earliest days with us, when I’d get in the tub with her and we’d have bubble tea parties.  I found innumerable Nebulizer parts and pieces from lots of rounds with asthma.  And a small bottle of “Pillow Mist”—something I’d spray on her pillow and tell her would help her have sweet dreams when the night terrors were particularly bad.  Lurid pink and green hair dye from more recent times, when she talked me into letting her put those god-awful “highlights” in her hair.   And all kinds of gunk and goo related to being a teenager who has an unerring instinct for using the most appallingly scented lotions, creams and perfumes imaginable.

I thought cleaning her bathroom would bring relief—after all, we only have two bathrooms in this house and I am already coveting that bathroom space for my own stuff.  I’d talked myself into thinking I’d feel good getting to see just how much space I’d be able to lay claim to soon.  Instead, in one more way,  I had to revisit  hopes,  failures, the ever-so ordinary stories and bits of memory that I’d have thought were lost but were only put away in the bathroom cabinet until a day like today.  The day after my mom died, my dad asked me to clean out her closet and I did.  I thought that was hard.  This was harder.

I have to stop in these kinds of moments. I have to tell myself to breathe.  Even when I think I can’t finish and I want to walk away and disappear, I make myself keep going because there is something so important about going through, and not around this time. And so I do. A lot got thrown away. What is left in the bathroom cabinet and drawers, she will take with her.  There will be a lot of empty space and I will put it to good use.

After I was finished, I sat down to check in on some of the blogs I read most regularly—my friend Robin’s blog  and QuantumTheology by Michelle, whom I don’t know but who constantly inspires me.  In her latest posting, Michelle makes reference to a poem, so I followed the trail to that place.  Now that I’ve read it, I wonder if later, decades from now, I will still be able to practice the kind of archeology of choice, grief and life I’m in the middle of. I hope I will.

A Cedary Fragrance
Even now,
decades after,
I wash my face with cold water –

Not for discipline,
nor memory,
nor the icy, awakening slap,

but to practice
to make the unwanted wanted.

by Jane Hirshfield, from Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2001

Mother’s Day Gifts

Mother’s Day Gifts

I’ve never been real crazy about “Mother’s Day”—I think it’s a largely commercial, manufactured event that too easily romanticizes motherhood.  I’d just as soon let it slip through unnoticed.  This one had some really sucky parts to it. Pardon the French but that’s just the truth.  I woke up a little earlier than usual for a Sunday morning and reached for my iPhone/alarm clock to check the time.  I saw it was 3:54 and that I had an unexpected and particularly painful text message.  No point trying to stay in bed after that.  My cup of coffee tasted good and I remembered my mom who was always up much earlier than the rest of us, drinking her coffee.  I’m not her but I am her daughter.

I was aware of my mom’s absence all day and a couple of times during the morning services, I felt the grief start taking over and managed to save it for another day.  But I was cranky—I was cranky with members of my congregation who’d poured themselves out to have a lovely celebration, I was cranky with my spouse. I was really cranky with my daughter on the day we were celebrating her 16th Birthday (the actual date is Wednesday but we had friends over for cake and “fixings” yesterday evening).  It was when she was blowing out the candles on the cake and I realized that she’s crossing the threshold I’ve been dreading (after Wednesday she is eligible to move into BARC housing and there are now only two weeks to go), that the hard rock of anger, disappointment and fear dissolved into the enormity of the horizon I see ahead at every turn.

I have to help a group of truly wonderful people find a way as a congregation through more loss, more confusion about who we are and how we serve as a community of faith.  I have to trust that the decisions we’ve made about our girl are life-giving for her and Sherod and me.  Yesterday, I saw quite starkly that I need to find some new ways to deal with anger.  Not fun work, to put it mildly.

And hard as all that was, there were also gifts.  Lovely gifts.  LM made a breath-taking Koosie for me.  It’s so pretty it hurts.  She made one of those signs you hang from the door knob.  One side says, “Don’t Disturb Mom”.  The other side has a wobbly heart and “Come in please. I need a hug”.  She and Sherod gave me a pendant—of a small heart contained within a larger one.  Her heart in mine.  Mine in hers.  We in God’s heart.  Any way I think of it, I find comfort.  My spouseman gave me another huge gift.  We just finished getting our dock rebuilt.  Over the weekend, he bought a big piece of Styrofoam, fitted it out with two-by-fours and set it up as a floating extension to our new dock.

It might not sound like a very romantic gift but it. is. AWESOME.  I now have a way of to use the paddleboard I got for Christmas whenever I want.  So this morning, when the New River was still glassy-still, I paddled.  In the process, I had to: Negotiate a piece of equipment that’s almost 11 feet long onto a wobbly dock.  Get my self on the paddleboard making sure I did what I am supposed to do to protect my bionic hip.  Deal with something that stays afloat but is totally unsteady under my feet.  Be out there with all my uncertainty, all my ignorance, all my inexperience hanging out for all to see.  I can’t do my favorite trick of being a duck looking calm while paddling furiously below the surface.  At one point, I tried to turn too quickly and lost my balance.  I did not want to fall into the New River so I figured out to drop down on my knees and do it quick.  At that point, I figured the way forward is taking one baby step at a time.  I stayed on my knees to paddle back to the dock.  I suspect there’s lots of kneeling ahead for me.  I was trembling when I got off—muscles I don’t use much tired out and feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility for steering that small and insignificant vessel.  It struck me then.  The gift you get on Mother’s day—any day really—is the gift of your own life.