At Eighteen Months

Kenya,1999

Kenya,1999

April 30th was the eighteen-month anniversary of Mark’s death—a good day to evaluate where I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. My first reflection is something you might think I’d know at my age, but something that I really didn’t know quite the way I know it now: the future is unknowable.

Until the onset of Mark’s cancer, most of my days had been more like the day before than unlike. Thankfully most of our days are that way; I don’t know if we could weather the shocks and discontinuities of lives that were tossed randomly from one day to another. What grace, that we can wake up most days with a calm confidence that we know how to cope with what it will bring.

What we lose, after a long string of days like that, or even when our days take us gradually from one shaping of our lives into the next, is the deeper truth that the future is not only unknown, but unknowable. That awareness, and the patience to live in it for an extended time, is one of the gifts this time of grief and reorientation has given me.

The great African Rift Valley comes to my mind, thousands of miles long, land that fell below the surface of the earth—it didn’t erode over time, it didn’t explode in fire and lava, it dropped. Like the floor of one of those old fashioned elevators that hasn’t lined up precisely with the level of the floor it’s delivering you to.

On June 9th, Mark and I had future plans: our parents had all lived well into their eighties—his were pushing ninety—and we fully expected to grow old together. In the meantime, we had accepted jobs in South Sudan. Orientation was to start in two weeks. We’d had cleared our calendars and looked over the reading lists. On June 10th I began to understand that the future is unknowable: Mark had a tumor, it was malignant and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Over the next two weeks, our rift valley floor dropped in increments. First, the discovery of cancer in lymph-nodes far from the tumor, making the planned surgery more of a challenge. Then the image of a shadow on his hip bone; there would be no surgery. The four months we had from that moment on were infused with uncertainty. Death or life? That question was answered and other questions took its place: when? how? how painful? how shocking? The specter of a hemorrhage, “bleeding out”, faced me every time I walked into our bathroom and saw the black towels hospice nurse had told me to buy. And there was the question, the first of many Mark couldn’t help me with, that I wailed as I walked by the canal that runs through Bend, Oregon, where we were living: “What will become of me?”

We got answers to all our questions about Mark’s cancer. In the eighteen months since then, I have been given partial answers to my question. I have faced things in myself and in the nature of life on earth that I would never have chosen to face, and they have grown me. I lost much of what I had been able to fall back on, and I learned that I fall much less than I thought I would. That I am resilient. That people are kind.

Those have been comforting truths.The most uncomfortable truth I notice eighteen months after Mark’s death is that I am now stronger and I experience more joy than I ever have in my life. How can this be? What does it mean? I seem to have learned things I could not bear to choose to learn, I had to be forced—how to manage intense feelings and come back to balance, how to listen to myself and honor my own wisdom, how to do things Mark was kind enough and only too glad to do for me. I don’t think I will ever understand why light can come out of a dark time, why joy can come through grief. Maybe the deepest truths of life are like the future: unknowable. I’ve become willing to accept the beauty of paradox, of mystery; to hold them as I lift my head to greet the unknowable future unfolding to me.

Some pieces of that future are now in place:

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1926.

* I’m buying a house. It’s a fixer-upper, as much in need of TLC as any Mark and I remodeled together. Friends and family tried to tell me the time for remodeling passed with Mark. But I always loved the vision casting, the creativity, the transformation, the emergence of lovely living space out of mess.
* I dance—West Coast swing, salsa, bachata—several nights a week. Social dancing uses my whole brain and resets my mood into joy every time, and has given me new single friends who love not only to dance, but to hike, to talk about the deep things of life, and to read.
* My meditation practice, lectio divina (a way of listening for the Holy Spirit to speak through scripture reading) and the encouragement of friends and the pastoral staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church keep me growing spiritually.
* I’m starting to work with a freelance editor on the memoir I had written about growing up and working in eastern Africa.
* I’m confident that Portland is my appropriate new home, as I meet weekly with writing friends, garden with my sister and a neighbor, and have joined four of my siblings in the team caring for my mom as she ages.

Maji Waterfall Scene 2The last days and nights of April were unseasonably clear. The moon rose, grew steadily, and glowed above me as I drove home late from dancing. Its coming to fullness was assured. The steadiness of the moon, an archetype of change and inconstancy, is a comforting paradox. This may be a moon-season for me, but it is silver. And I find myself steady in the inconstancy.

Interrupted

I was on a roll, blogging about my big walk in September. Feeling more balanced in my new, single life; beginning to believe that I would not have to live a diminished life now that Mark is gone; settling into my little rental house in North Portland, Oregon.

This picture was taken six or seven years ago at  a family Thanksgiving at the farm where Mark and I lived. I hope we treasured the time!

This picture was taken six or seven years ago at a family Thanksgiving at the farm where Mark and I lived. I hope we treasured the time!

Then my brother-in-law Bob’s health plunged. It wasn’t a surprise that he was sick—he’d gotten a terminal cancer diagnosis in February. But he’d outlived the prognosis with no pain and fairly good energy. He’d been learning auto body work from an online community of car guys in order to renovate his old MG—(is that what you do to cars, or am I borrowing terminology from Mark’s field of carpentry and building?)—well, he was bringing the MG back to life. He’d been in the shop or in the yard, working with my sister, all summer. To all of our surprise, he started seeing a Chinese doctor, having acupuncture, and cheerfully drinking a bitter tasting brew of healing herbs (this is Bob, a Vietnam vet who was raised Irish Catholic on the south side of Chicago!)

Then he woke one Saturday in late September feeling as though someone had kicked him in the liver. I’m guessing ice crystals began to form around Cathy’s heart that day.

Tylenol didn’t work for long for the pain. Soon Bob was on the same hydrocodone medication Mark started out on. The hospice policy of requiring a six month prognosis and stopping all curative care keeps people from signing up in time to really get the help they need, so more and more hospitals are experimenting with “transition care” or “palliative care” that allows families to get pain management help sooner. Cathy got them signed up.

Bob was no longer driving, so I took him to that appointment, and Cathy left work early to meet him there. I saw the gray in his complexion—was it the opiates, or the pain, or the cancer? I knew that look too well.

Bob insisted that I drop him off at a spot away from the main entrance of the building, but facing a direction from which I could conveniently get headed back home. He moved slowly, pulling himself up and out of the car seat. He walked stiffly, bravely down the sidewalk. I sat where I’d parked and cried.

I got used to it again, that gray, pinched look, and became Bob’s favorite driver for what became daily trips for acupuncture. This was a surprise to all of us—Bob had been crusty about feisty, independent women (though he was married to one, isn’t that the way it is!) and did I mention Viet Nam and Chicago’s South Side? It probably didn’t help to be Catholic in such a determinedly Presbyterian family. On those drives, Bob and I learned to appreciate each other before we had to say good bye. I asked his advice for minor home repairs I was making in my new single life and he loved being in a position to help me. He talked to me about his feelings about death. We often drove in silence. Everyone in the family laughed that I was at the top of his list of drivers.

In November, after a bout in the emergency room, which brought us all to the hospital to say good-bye to him, Bob recovered enough to get home by ambulance to a hospital bed in the living room. Friends and his brother came to say good-bye. Cathy gave her guests a tour of the kitchen and said she could only take care of Bob and herself, they’d be on their own. Her daughters and their boyfriends began to spend all there free time at the house, cooking, playing card games, sitting by Bob’s bed talking, sorting through pictures, listening to stories they’d never heard before.

But as Bob’s pain got more intense his medication had to be increased, and he was awake less and less of the time. By Thanksgiving week he was mostly “away,” and every day we thought we’d lose him. I took to stopping by Cathy’s house any time I was out, sometimes staying to talk or play games. Sometimes just giving hugs and heading back to my own quiet house, the place I live alone now that I had gone through what they were facing.

All my plans for blogging, all my concentration, all my interest in the walk I’d taken and the thoughts I’d had while I walked evaporated.

Bob began to struggle to breathe. He sometimes woke confused and tried to get up—he’d been a survivor. A scrapper.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I woke to a text that Bob was breathing peacefully at last. I dressed and ran down. I must have walked into the house minutes after he had taken his last breath. Cathy, her girls and their boyfriends were nested in the couches around Bob’s hospital bed. I crawled in with them and we held each other. We cried. We talked. Our brother Chris came over later with his guitar and we sang a few songs. Bob wasn’t a singer, but he liked that part of the Kurtz ethos, and we sang a couple of old anti-war songs for him. “The boyfriends” went shopping and made a two-dozen-egg omelette for us. It was about eleven o’clock but it felt like only an hour had passed.

After the funeral home collected his body, at about three in the afternoon, I walked through a wet and drippy afternoon back to my house. It seemed dim and desolate. In the middle of my storm of tears I was able to reassure myself that I hadn’t gone back into the cave I’d been in after Mark’s death. This was a strong memory trigger, but for my own grief, it was only memory, and I’d get back quickly to the balance I’d come to in the intervening year.

Still, when it came to changing my ticket to Ethiopia and Kenya, where I was going to stay with Miriam and her family for Christmas, I couldn’t face, and chose to miss Bob’s memorial service. It didn’t occur to me until later—how strong the impulses are from childhood, and I was trained to be independent and self-reliant—that I could have invited an unrelated friend to attend with me, to be my support, that I wouldn’t have needed to go as support for Cathy. At the time, all I knew was that it was too soon to go to another memorial service. I knew I would only cry, and then go home alone. I needed to get away from death and grief for a while, to my sunny, dry-season eastern African home.

When I came back to Portland in January, my sister Janie welcomed me back to a season where “no one is actively dying,” though another brother-in-law’s cancer is advancing and we’re all bracing ourselves for another bout of grief and memories. Janie’s been a hero, constantly reminding us that it may feel as though there’s not enough attention and love to go around, but actually there  is. None of us need to be a martyr or do without. We can all continue to live rich and joy-filled lives even as we face these hard times together.

And so I go social dancing (Salsa and West Coast Swing) several nights a week. Cathy has taken up rock climbing, which she does with her daughters and the boyfriends. And Janie lives up to the plaque I found for her, “Garden Diva.” We cover for Mom’s care so that Chris and his wife can go to the cafe to work on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We sisters go to yoga together and we gather to sing around the piano on Sunday nights at Mom’s house. And we hug each other a lot.   

Facing October

Mark took his last fluttery breaths at noon, a year ago October 30th. I’d been up with him all night, because he’d had a seizure at around 8:00 and then started that end-of-life breathing, with its long pauses and deep sighs.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

My daughter and son sat up with me. As we began the journey of losing and grieving the man who had been husband and father, we quietly played a favorite game, Ticket to Ride. We collected train markers and spread them across the map, not noticing at the time the reverberations from all those American love songs, the woman who stands sorrowing on the platform, the man called away by the train’s haunting whistle to adventures unknown.

When the sun came up that morning, Miriam and Jesse decided to go on to work. We’d had so many false alarms that month, none of us trusted any more that we would recognize the end, and we imagined Mark able to go on with his heroic breathing forever. I settled down to sleep a little. I arranged pillows so I could hold Mark’s hand, even though there was no indication he still heard me, felt me, or cared whether I was present. I woke a few hours later—maybe I’d heard a change in his breathing. I told him I’d be right back, and stepped into the bathroom. Crossing back into the bedroom I heard him sigh twice, softly. Then his body fell silent. He was gone.

October this year hit me with unexpected force. Our wedding anniversary on July 29th had been the last important date I’d spent for the first time without Mark this year. What I forgot was how hard October last year had been. Mark had stopped eating, and I hadn’t known how long a strong and relatively young man can live before his heart gives in. He was afraid he would have severe pain at the end, and he couldn’t hold on to the doctors’ and nurses’ reassurances, that when organs are slowly shutting down under the attack of cancer, they release endorphins—pain may ease up, not increase. He got increasingly confused. He thought there’d been a murder and didn’t know what to say to the reporters. He became convinced God would reject him. He thought I was trying to poison him. He woke up from a nap and told me he’d been “dukin’ it out with the Japanese devil”.

He also got increasingly helpless and needed to be turned, needed to be fed the few ice chips per day he was living on, needed to be given Adavan (to relieve his agitation) in a syringe with only the tiniest bit of water so he didn’t choke. The all-important morphine from his pump was going into a port in his arm, a temporary port only designed for a couple of weeks’ use, and it began to deteriorate and leak as the month dragged on. Could he make it over the River before we had to put him through the ordeal of opening a new port? The uncertainty wore on me. I wasn’t sleeping well. Mark was and was no longer my husband. It was confusing. It was agonizing. I wanted it over, but I was as scared as he was about what would come next.

I hadn’t thought of the date of his death as a new anniversary for Mark and my life together, but I learned on the 30th this year, as night fell outside my rain-streaked windows, that I will indeed shy my face aside and brace myself as I enter the next few Octobers. The actual date of Mark’s death will be a tender one for me for the rest of my life, but it is not a wrenching one. It was the date when what had become inevitable came to pass.

I asked my kids early in October if they wanted to do anything special on the 30th, and got no responses. It was a work day—we are in four cities, on two continents. So I groped for what would be meaningful for me. I spent the 29th at a Trappist Abbey outside the small town of Laffayette, along Highway 99W near Salem. I’d felt calm and upbeat approaching the end of October, though, suspiciously, I’d developed three small canker sores in my mouth and a blemish on my chin. I, who am usually so careful and responsible, knocked a wine glass off the shelf at Goodwill and stared, amazed, at the shattered splinters at my feet. I then left my teakettle on the stove so long, boiling so dry, that the nob on the lid melted down the side and into a blob of hard plastic on the stovetop.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God's love.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God’s love.

I also lay awake late into the night before my retreat at the Abbey. After morning mass I nodded off over my prayers and readings until I gave up and crawled under a throw on the couch and slept. At lunch, a Trappist-style silent meal, the Beatles’ most soothing song looped through my head, “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be,” as though to relieve my guilt over sleeping away half of my retreat. On the dining room’s bulletin board, the daily calendar’s wisdom for the 29th was Julian of Norwich’s reassurance: “But all things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

In the afternoon I took a walk, meditated, read, prayed and journaled. In the end, the day was just what I wanted and needed—even the long nap. I did feel a little guilty that I was thinking and praying about my future, not remembering Mark. Those pesky “shoulds,” will I ever be free of them?

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

I woke early the morning of the 30th with the tender pop song line, “My darling, you are wonderful to me,” running through my head. The only idea I’d had for honoring Mark that day was to light a candle, thanking him for “lighting up” my life for almost fifty years (in high school we’d enjoyed a shy, sweet young-love relationship). I took a candle out of my over-stuffed candle drawer and lit it before I even got my breakfast organized. Holding the burning match, I looked around at the candles all over my new, single-woman’s home—on sconces, in carved candle holders from Kenya, on pedestals, in pewter candle holders, in crystal. Why stop with one?

I lit all my  candles (twenty-three of them) and spent the morning surrounded by their flickering light. Light that shines in darkness and isn’t overcome. Light that also represents warmth. Light coming directly from fire. Some anthropologists think it was fire that made us human, fire that made it possible to break down hard-to-digest proteins and expanded our food sources, fire that gave us time off from constant “gazing” and allowed us to take in enough energy to feed our ravenous brains and fuel higher thinking.

As moving into a rich, new life without Mark becomes more and more real, I find myself reacting to the implications of that with ambivalence at the best of times, with positively queasy emotional indigestion at others. I have to hold even tighter to mystery.

Sorrow and struggle do leave us deeper, richer, more complex if we submit to learning what there is to learn—all the sages say so. Places I was emotionally stuck have jiggled loose under the stresses of the last eighteen months. I feel lighter, freer. Grief has washed away some dross and left treasures I didn’t expect. Can I appreciate the growth without seeming glad for the trauma and loss? And if God redeems struggle by enriching me, does that mean I’m being lazy on days I find wider valleys and smoother paths? Can I assume plenty of trouble will find me, I don’t have to look for it? The new feelings of joy that are starting to come to me—can I enjoy them conscience-free?

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya,1999.

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya, 1999.

This overly-serious Calvinist inches forward on the journey, learning as she goes, deeply grateful for her long marriage and willing, just barely willing, to start letting it go.

Everything Turns

The Basillica de Santiago

The Basillica de Santiago

In the summer of 2013 my sister Jan and her husband walked for a week in France along the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The city of Santiago, in western Spain, was built in Medieval times around a cathedral where a relic of St. James, the patron of knights, laborers and pilgrims is said to have been buried. On the coast, a few miles further, Finisterre was believed to be the westernmost point of Europe, and there sins could be cast into the sea and washed away.  Some historians say these pilgrimages to the sea began long before the Christian era, but in Medieval times pilgrims began to walk to Santiago and Finisterra from as far away as Russia, merging like rivulets along the way to form a river of millions, protected from bandits and raiders by international honor for pilgrims, and served by hostels and ale houses established all along the way. Jan was on this pilgrim way when I told the family that the doctors had found Mark’s aggressive cancer. She and her party lit candles in cathedrals, and placed stones on wayside cairns for him.

When I heard their story I knew that’s what I needed to do at the end of my first year without Mark—a pilgrimage. To delineate these two parts of my life. To leave the difficult months behind and start to focus on the future. I wondered, what friend would be free to go with me? Or could I do it alone? And just as I had that thought, I came to the suggestion in the guide book, “If you are undertaking this pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, consider going alone.” That’s when I got excited. I imagined studying French and Spanish while I grieved (why not?) and walking in Europe as a pilgrim, heading west to cast my sorrows into the sea and start fresh.

The language study never happened. This year I couldn’t even concentrate to read. But walking, getting out of my head, getting my body into the physical world did happen. It happened a lot, so the idea of a walking pilgrimage as a rite of passage stayed with me.

One problem: Mark died in October, and October wasn’t going to be a good time to be outside anywhere in the temperate zone. As I thought more about rites of passage, I realized they have a wide target area. Among the Nuers of South Sudan and the Oromos of Ethiopia, men pass from boyhood to adulthood—from youth to wisdom—in age groups. Among the Nuers, any given boy may be on the older or younger side of his age group when the Men of the Spear decide the timing is right for their ordeal ceremony—when the weather is warm, when the cows are giving milk to nourish the boys, when the odds are good for successful healing from the bone-deep lines he will cut across their foreheads.

We make a parallel set of calculations—when we’re ready to marry we choose a weekend when our mother-in-law can come from New York, when our brides maid or best man is available, when the venue of our dreams is free. Whether we’re completely ready to enter the adult world or not, we graduate in late May with the rest of our college classmates. There is a randomness about the exact date of a rite of passage, and still it works. Surely September for my rite of passage would work.

In June I was delayed from moving into my new house in Portland. At the end of a year of pain and chaos, living in my grown children’s homes and families, not having either of my own—could I bear to live out of a carry-on roller-bag and sleep on my sister’s futon for eleven more days? Beth Rasmussen, my daughter-in-law, suggested I fill the time by doing things I have never done before . . . such as go to the nude beach on Sauvie Island. Yikes! I told her the time for that had passed a few decades ago!

Trying to come up with a plan of my own, of course I thought of walking. I thought of the coast. And I discovered that there’s an Oregon Coast Trail (the OCT), an official hiking pathway, walking the beaches for about half of the 400 miles, scaling the headlands that break through our beaches, and (around certain rocky bays,) walking the shoulder of Highway 101, the artery that connects the West Coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.

And September on the Oregon coast is one of its best months.

The woman who introduced me to the Oregon Coast Trail is a blogger, Bonnie Henderson, who hiked from Astoria to the California border on the OCT in 2009, averaging seventeen miles a day. If she could do it, I could do it, I thought. I’m in good shape. I had walked my first ten mile hike when I visited Mark’s parents in Kentucky in May. I had found a trail that reclaimed the old railway bed through the Cumberland Gap, a trail first pounded out across the gap in the Cumberland Mountains by Eastern Forest Bison, then followed by Native American hunters as what was called the Warriors’ Path. In a classic example of US land being wrested from the native residents, attacks on settlers were militarily put down and a wealthy land speculator paid Daniel Boone to hack a rough road through to the Kentucky River. In the next decade 300,000 settlers poured through the gap from Virginia and Tennessee to Kentucky. I had followed up that long hike with others in Bend, Oregon following the irrigation canal, and in parks in the foothills of the Cascades.

Tillamook ice cream--a sight to make Oregonians smile.

Tillamook ice cream–a sight to make Oregonians smile.

In June, while I waited for my new house to be ready, I packed a book and one change of clothes and took the bus to the coast. I walked about fifty miles, from Cannon Beach to Oceanside, west of the town of Tillamook, where the most popular Oregon cheese and ice cream are made.

That walk sealed the plan. In September I would make my rite of passage on the Oregon coast, a journey from Astoria to the California border, from grieving to putting together a rich new life.

I trained by looking up urban trails in Portland and walking early in the morning, before the summer days got too hot. I borrowed a pack. I went with my sister Jan on an overnight hike on Mount Hood. I talked with her about trail recipes.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

For my final training hike I loaded up my pack in early September, and set out for Kelly Point Park, a thirteen mile round trip walk from my house. Some urban project has given Portlanders cheerfully painted parking barriers at the first fishing spot in Kelly Point Park. I was still feeling fairly fresh and excited when I got there, took a break, snapped some pictures of my new best friend—my niece’s backpack—and ate a power bar.

Does every journey turn at some point into a painful trudge?

By the time I got back to North Portland, I could hardly walk. I staggered slowly along the sidewalks of my own neighborhood, consumed with thoughts of who I could call for a ride. From Chautauqua Boulevard and Lombard, six blocks to my house on to Wall and Depauw streets? Unbelievable. Surely I could make it home. I was only one week from my projected leaving date, I had all my gear collected and packed, and now I knew there was no way I could make the hike as Bonnie Henderson described it. She is one tough cookie.

I studied the map: could I walk 15-25 miles a day without a pack and stay in towns instead? But I had all that gear, and my pack packed so tidily, with everything in its own pocket, and all that intriguing freeze-dried food. So I cut my ambitions down and studied the walk to Florence, Oregon, the halfway town. I spent hours creating my own itinerary of 8-13 mile days that would end me up in either a town or a campground, working with Bonnie Henderson’s blog, the Oregon state’s OCT page, the Oregon.gov Biking-the-Coast web page, lists of state parks and Google Maps.

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

A week later, when I got to Seaside, Oregon I said to the proprietress of the Seaside Lodge and International Hostel, “I’m thinking of this as a pilgrimage, and I’m finding that everything has turned metaphorical.”

She said, “Life is a pilgrimage, and everything is metaphorical. We just don’t usually notice.”

My first metaphor had begun to echo in my head as I stumbled home from Kelly Point Park: can I do this hard thing? Walking the Oregon coast day after day, my physical world and my emotional world came more and more into congruence–both on a journey, both struggling with a question that was physical and spiritual at the same time: can I do this hard thing?

Beginning at the End

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot--"Shank's pony". Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot–“Shank’s pony”. Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I’m home from my long hike on the Oregon Coast Trail. In my three weeks away, I went from the northern tip of Oregon, near Astoria, to the small town of Yachats, almost halfway down the coast. I took the bus around some bays that would have forced me onto on the narrow shoulder of Highway 101 for miles and miles, and even so, walked about 165 miles.

The perfect ending of my time alone unfolded spontaneously—a mini-family-reunion in Bend, Oregon. I left the coast by bus on Friday and, in the kind of providence that seemed to meet me all along the way, Friday was Customer Appreciation Day and we all rode free! I spent the weekend with my sons, their wives, and the two eighteen month olds, who were so dear, even as they struggled with how to share books, a stuffed monkey and a grandmother.

While in Bend I walked again on the Central Oregon canal that so comforted me as Mark was dying. The Cascades stood bare and gray—did they have so little snow last fall? I only remember them after the snow began in early winter.

The beauty of the Oregon coast is the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

The magic of the Oregon coast is in the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

I have just come back inside from days and days spent out on the beaches or on the forested headlands of the West Coast, not surrounded by what we have created but by what God created: the ocean sloshing restlessly on the edge of land; the deep forested headlands made from volcanic flows from as far away as Idaho; the moon, which started full on the first day of my walk, then went dark, and was making its way back; the sun, that warmed every day and then dropped over the far edge of the sea every evening. 

“God has such a positive personality,” I found myself thinking. Where do our difficulties, our sorrows, our cancers come from? Theologians, philosophers and myth-makers have struggled with the source of evil for millennia and all the definitive answers they develop seem to evaporate just as quickly with the turning of times and cultures.

I don’t understand tragedy. What I do know is that my spiritual practices and the divine presence I’ve experienced have given me strength to go through my grief, and they promise to return me to peace.

Walking five to fifteen miles a day with a thirty-five pound pack on my back, I had lots of time to think. School was starting up back in the Oregon towns and cities, so most of the time I had the beaches and forest trails completely to myself. I countered my tendency to obsess by singing as I walked, or by praying my contemplative prayers of releasing what I can’t control and accepting my situation just as it is, committing to wait patiently for my future to unfold.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here's the link.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here’s the link.

On some of the headland trails, the walking got so tough there was no room in my head todo anything else but tell my feet to keep going. That’s a gift walking has given me throughout this grieving and reshaping year, relief from my constant cerebral activity.

I’m home now. Tremendously grateful for my house in Portland, for the abundance of food and the ease of preparing it, for my comfortable bed, and for my community, the family and friends I can see and those I can’t see but can still communicate with. I do feel a rite of passage has taken place; I am more ready to embrace the new shape of my life. I did also realize that I have one more first-anniversary-without-Mark to face: the anniversary of his death on the 30th of this month. The literature says that these anniversaries will feel less painful as my new-normal becomes familiar. This was my third time to come home from travel to an empty house, and it felt a little easier. I take that as a good sign: peace and joy are on their way back.

Walking My Watershed

Walking the canal along the back of Jesse and Beth’s house in Bend, Oregon, steadied me when Mark was sick. After he died, the mountains to the west, the moon rising to the east, the autumn trees—even as they changed color—stood around me unshaken.

In the spring I discovered that Bend has sixty-five miles of urban trails, and I began walking longer and longer distances. Some days I cried as I walked. Some days I sang. I discovered it’s easy to be emotionally raw in public places because most people aren’t looking, aren’t listening, aren’t out there–the urban trails of Bend mostly belonged to me. And I needed the physical world, the act of walking, my body taking one step and one more step and another one, to balance all that was going on in my heart.

With friends and Jan, my back-packing-buddy sister, I hiked to Elk Lake on Mount Hood as a trial run.

With friends and Jan, my back-packing-buddy sister, I hiked to Elk Lake on Mount Hood as a trial run.

On Monday, September 8th, I’m going to leave my sweet little house in North Portland and begin a through-hike on the Oregon Coast. The Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) is as yet unfinished, a dotted line from the Columbia River estuary to the border of California, fully half of it along the beach. Our coast belongs to us, here in Oregon. There are no fences, no private signs, no such thing as trespassers. Sandy beaches are broken up by headlands that reach out into the ocean—some I will walk around at low tide, some I will hike over, enjoying the views, and some will force me up onto the shoulder of Highway 101.

A warm current swings by Oregon in the fall, and the weather is warm. Relatively warm—this is not Hawaii or California; I am packing a stocking cap and gloves for the evening chill. The moon will rise full at 8:38 on my first night out. I may walk some days in the rain; I’ve packed a poncho. But most days the sun will beat back morning fog, the sea and sky will reflect each other, and the tide will hiss up the sand toward me and pull back over and over, repeating its own peaceful mantra.

I will walk as long as it is meaningful to me, and then I will take a bus back to Portland. This  walk will be a watershed for me, between looking back in grief and looking forward to my new life. It will be my pilgrimage, my rite-of-passage. Maybe I will be given the new dream I need . . . maybe I will be given a new name.

October would have tied off the knot of my first year alone, but it’s too late in the year to be walking, and September is when Mark and I understood that he was going to die. September is when our children gathered to say good-bye while we could all do it with dignity; September is when my siblings come to say good-bye to my husband, who had been in the family since our teen age years, almost like a big brother; September is when I made the shift from wife to caretaker for Mark’s last month. It’s a fine time to lock in some closure.

I have a few twinges of guilt, as though embracing a new life is in some way disloyal. But I know that Mark’s job was to go on to an unknown place without me, and now I have places to go without him.

I’ve borrowed a one-person tent from my brother-in-law, a backpack from a friend and a sleeping bag from a niece. My sister is advising me about a stove and simple-to-cook meals for the trail. I won’t have to live on freeze-dried food alone, because I’ll have access to grocery stores in all the trendy Oregon Coast towns, where I can also spend some nights in motel beds, take showers and soak my feet. But there are some long stretches between towns where I will sleep in state parks, in spots reserved, in true Oregon style, for hikers and bikers.

Conversations with my sister Jan continued from the time we arrived, through all the huckleberry foraging.

Conversations with my sister Jan continued from the time we arrived, through all the huckleberry foraging.

I went camping and huckleberry picking last weekend to try out the tiny tent–it’s no bigger than a cocoon for me. When I woke up crying that Saturday morning, I unzipped the bag and the tent and pushed the rain flap aside. All around me tall pines and Douglas firs rose up, as though I was in the bottom of a deep hole in the center of the forest. Peace flooded in.

I remembered that the world is a place which sustains my life. One tree might have been enough, but no, the world sustains lavish, impractical, excessive life, with trees and stones and insects and pine needles by the millions.

For most of the month of September I will be out on the coast alone. I will be putting into action one of my mantra-prayers: releasing the craving for power and control, for safety and security, for the love and esteem of other people. I’ll be walking the coast singing, praying, maybe crying some days; even though they are public beaches, they will be mostly mine for the month of September.

 

 

The Darkest Valley

This moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn staff Christmas party, 1999.

This moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, 1999, in Kenya.

I have a new understanding of the valley of the shadow of death. It is a road walked in shadow. Ahead, on the other side of the ridge, the sun will shine, as it did on the open path behind. But for now, mountains have cast shadows on the valley. The shadows are many; Mark’s leaving is only one of them. Other losses crowd the path. I have a myriad adjustments to make. Sometimes finding my new, single identity feels painful as a birth.

I moved to Portland, Oregon in June. I live alone now, in a small rental house, perfectly sized for one person, a few blocks from one of my sisters and only a few miles from the rest of my Portland-based family. Expressing my gratitude for this house is one of my daily spiritual disciplines, an antidote to the free-floating anxiety I feel about the lack of direction and focus in my life. And since I am back in Portland, I have started seeing K, the counselor I went to after my dad died in 2009, another time when my whole identity felt shaken and I needed help putting the pieces into their new places.

When I said to her that I am afraid I’m doing something wrong–maybe I’m wallowing in my sadness and disorientation, maybe I’m obsessively focussing on the negatives instead of the positives, of which there are many, in my life–she looked surprised. She told me, essentially, that losing a spouse is a long valley.

I had done so much of what I now know is called “anticipatory grief,” I thought this part would go faster. And so many of the “firsts” came quickly–within the first two months Thanksgiving, Mark’s birthday, and Christmas came, and the new year began, a year Mark would never see. Now, with our anniversary on July 29th, the firsts are all behind me.

On Valentine’s Day I was in Kenya, where the European cut-flower industry sheds less-than-perfect roses, lilies, and whole flower arrangements to be sold on the street corners, I bought myself one long-stemmed red rose bud. One for my singleness. Red for committing to love and take care of myself.

I was in Ethiopia on my birthday. Though Mark supported my traveling work, he was lonely when I was gone, and I was gone a number of years on my birthday because March is a good month to travel in Ethiopia. I said to him one year, “Hey, I just realized. When I’m gone on my birthday, I don’t get a present, do I?”

The way he said, “No!” conveyed it all–his unsentimentality, how he hated my being away, his punitive bent. So this year I thought of that conversation and thought Ethiopia was a good place to be, where I didn’t miss someone to make much over me.

On Mother’s Day I laughed, remembering years before, when we attended Kenton Church and our children were young. Throughout April we were invited to order carnations for our mothers–red to honor those still living, white to honor those who had died. In spite of all the announcements, Mark invariably forgot to order me a carnation. One year he dashed up to get me one of the spare flowers as soon as the benediction was over. When he came back and lovingly presented it to me, Miriam said, “Da-ad! That’s the dead-mother color!”

It’s been a gift that Mark was so unsentimental. The “firsts” have not been terribly painful.

This photo shocked me--he is holding his hand just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don't understand

This photo shocked me–Mark (right) was in tenth grade, and he is holding his pencil just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don’t understand.

But the lack of focus and direction; the many, many hours alone, even when I do get together with friends or family during the day; the visceral shock I still feel that someone so real, so solid, so distinct simply isn’t here any more; and maybe a cell-level grief over having watched Mark waste away; these are all still painful. I, who am so verbal, sometimes still wake up sobbing wordlessly.

K reassured me. Her husband died young, of a heart attack, so I know I can trust her in this. She helped me realize that this August may have been rough for me because my body–my spirit–something in me–knows that this is the first anniversary month of Mark’s cancer taking hold.  His pain spun out of control about this time last year. He found himself already too fatigued to put in a dining room window for Jesse, the last project he’d planned to do. We spent a day in the ER. He began to vomit blood. These were firsts I hadn’t thought of, and the first anniversary of his death itself, is still to come at the end of October.

At the suggestion of Kenny, my youngest son, I’ve been organizing the photos of our last ten years into photo albums, and K assured me that facing those memories–I think of it as metabolizing my life with Mark–may make me sad some days, but will ultimately help me go on well.

“ Anything could happen for you,” K said. “You have something we don’t often have once we become adults–an open future.  Giving your grief all the time it needs is part of letting your new life unfold in its own time.”