On the edge of eternity

Forty-four years ago today, my mother drew her last breath.

She wasn’t feeling well and had gone to the doctor, but no one dreamed that she was about to step into eternity. She was only 52.

I was preparing to begin my sophomore year of college, a know-it-all 19-year-old. My sister was barely 13. When Mom gasped and her chest fell still, we were unable to revive her.

“Your mother’s heart stopped,” the doctor said quietly after he examined her.

It was a gentle way to describe a sudden and devastating death that would  shape our lives in countless and profound ways. In a heartbeat, everything changed forever.

This anniversary, always painful, carries an added sting as I mourn the deaths of two journalists in Virginia who were gunned down on live TV this morning as they worked a routine feature story.

The gunman, a self-described “powder keg” who had workplace issues with the two victims, took his own life after writing about the killings on Twitter and posting cellphone video on Facebook. Could anything trivialize human life more than this?

I grieve for Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

I grieve for their loved ones whose lives changed forever on Aug. 26.

I grieve for us all.

(Posted Aug. 26, not 27)

God moments

I’ve been slack about updating lately, but not for lack of things to write about. A slew of amazing “God moments” give me much to ponder and be thankful for:

I was a mess of tears when I went for my July color and cut, just lonely, tired and bitchy. My hairdresser, Eric, said he didn’t know what to say except to recommend I check out something called “Grief Share.” What a blessing this has been!

Grief Share is a Christian-based program that has helped me through some rough patches and is drawing me closer to God.

What’s said in our widows’ support group is expected to stay there. But I think it’s safe to disclose that sharing stories with women who also are going through (or have survived) the difficult first year of loss has been a comfort. Each week brings a new idea or two or three that helps. And, hopefully, something I say buoys someone else.

I would not have known about Grief Share without Eric, and I would never have met Eric without God steering me to his off-the-beaten-path salon more than a decade ago.

When I retired in May, I also asked God to help me get going as a freelance writer and editor. He has more than blessed this venture. Since early June, I’ve reported and written a bunch of stories (and enjoyed every minute of it). One piece wound up as a full-blown magazine article that brought in more than 10 times what the original assignment was to have paid! This can only be God’s provision.

Another sign of God’s provision: Since June, I have received three generous and unsolicited assignment offers (two on a single day last week!), including a referral from a former publisher to a novelist seeking an editor for her manuscript. I have decided to follow my heart and take the assignments that make it sing.

One assignment that makes my heart sing is filling in for vacationing editors at a news service run by a longtime mentor. Since the late 1980s, Jeff has never failed to boost my career, and he has come through yet again. When the summer editing bounty slows this fall, I look forward to writing for him, as well.

And so it goes. I am learning that even in hours of deepest grief, there are smiles and successes to be found, and that with God’s help, I will survive.

My stalker

Grief stalks.

It waits, then mocks.

“I’ll take you down!” it sneers.

And, right now, I’m almost too tired to stand my ground or shrug it off or fight back.

I should have expected it. Almost a year after my late friend Kathy lost her husband to a sudden heart attack some years back, she confided that the pain of loss was growing more intense, not less. It was, she said, impossible to shake off.

Call me naive, but this surprised me.

After all, everybody assures you that “time heals all wounds.”

But how much time? Surely not six months — roughly how long it’s been since I lost Joe. A year? Maybe. Oh, Lord, I hope so.

Would it all hurt any less if I fled to a place, somewhere far away, where bittersweet memories are not everywhere around me?

Will a sense of peace one day replace the fight-or-flight that is my “new normal?” How and when will I escape this relentless stalker?

Hell, time warps and house arrest

The past week has been Hellish in the Tar Heel State.

Dare to venture outside and Mother Nature tosses a wet woolen blanket over you and cranks up the furnace. The heat index — how hot the heat and humidity make you feel — has topped 105 several days running.

And so it is that at 7:30 p.m. this first week of summer, the sidewalks are empty of the usual parade of runners, walkers and dogs leading their people through the neighborhood.

Everyone has retreated to the great indoors.

And here, in the air conditioning, time disappears, endless days oozing like treacle into one another —  Sunday into Monday, Monday into monotony,  Tuesday into what day is it anyway and will I ever be able to go outside again?

This is the third day of this weather-imposed house arrest. I’ve spent the time doing a little reporting and writing, begun training for a virtual editing gig, and proofread the large-type hymnal for the V.A. chaplains. My filing is done. My desk is tidy. The floors are swept, the fridge is clean. I’m caught up on the laundry.

I’m busting out of here tomorrow before I do something desperate — like scrubbing the grout with a toothbrush.

Ashes to ashes to tattoos and more

With a friend acting as lookout, I recently scattered most of Joe’s ashes near the dorm where we met at the University of Oregon.

A campus official said this act of love was technically not allowed, then advised us in a whisper to be discreet. It had a subversive feel, an appropriate nod to the zeitgeist of the 1970s when we were in Eugene. I am happy I will be able to pay respects whenever I visit the U of O, and that’s important to me.

More important is that Joe’s wishes have been honored. Well, mostly, anyway.

I still have a couple tablespoons of him left.  I’m apparently not ready after 141 days to let go for good.

Well-meaning friends have suggested having these last ashes made into a pendant or pin I can wear forever near my heart, or even into a pretty paperweight for my desk.

Online, the suggestions are freakish and macabre.

For a price, you can add your loved one’s ashes to ink and get a memorial tattoo, turn them into a shotgun shell, blast them into space or press them into a 33 rpm record with a personalized audio remembrance. You can mix them with paint for a portrait or use them to have the deceased’s likeness formed into a 3D bust urn.

I’m not ready to let go right now. But the natural order of things dictates that someday, I must.

And when I do, no freak-show, for-profit nonsense will be involved. It will simply be as Joe wished: with song, prayer and a final flamboyant fling to the wind.

On prayer and perfect timing

Before Joe went to hospice, the doctor held his thumb and index finger a quarter-inch apart in response to my question: “How much time does he have left?”

We knew it wouldn’t be long, of course. Joe could no longer eat or drink. Still, knowing the end was so near was startling and frightening.

As I kept vigil at his bedside, I prayed that he would have a gentle journey, free of pain or fear.

I prayed that he had forgiven me for every ugly thing I had ever said or done during our 40 years together, that he knew I loved him and that I had done the best I could. I prayed I would not falter as I faced the future without him. What selfish prayers, I think now.

Taking my cue from The Lord’s Prayer, I began praying instead for God’s will to be done.

Prayers don’t always get answered the way we want them to. (I haven’t won the Powerball yet!) But I trust that if I listen with an open heart, God will reveal what I need to know or do next. He protects. He provides. He reassures. And His timing is unerring.

The other day when I was feeling sorry for myself (too young to be widowed or retired and worried about my own health), a handwritten card came in the mail. It was from a young man I hired for a reporting internship probably a decade ago. He contacts me every now and then to catch up — usually during college football season (we’re both big-time fans!).

“I want you to know,” he wrote, “Rachel and I have been praying for you.”

Blessed reassurance and perfect timing — once again.

What would Joe – and Bluto Blutarsky – think?

A recent email announced plans to put a pub in the student union at the University of Oregon, where Joe and I met. This might be an even bigger deal than the infamous food fight staged there during filming of “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

Joe would have loved it.

When we were in Eugene (cue the violins), we had to dash through traffic to get to our favorite pub, and even though I was 21 and Joe was 30, the R.A. gave us grief when she caught us smuggling a six-pack or $2 bottle of potato vodka into the dorm.

Our first date was at an off-campus tavern that quickly became our favorite spot. We could sit at a spool table and watch ducks float down the Millrace or rent a canoe for a few bucks and paddle alongside them. Murphy & Me was not only close, it also had no cover charge and plentiful free snacks. Underscore the free. A pitcher was $1.25. We’d nurse one for such a long time the barkeeper would stop refilling the Beer Nuts to shoo us out.

Here’s to you, Joe! I’ll hoist one for you at the EMU when the new pub is finished.

Letting go

Saturday night was my worst in weeks.

I woke at 2 a.m. and spent hours in a futile struggle to rewind the clock to New Year’s. As 2015 dawned, I was looking forward to the college football championship game, some ambitious new projects at work and imagining how Joe and I would spend our 40th anniversary in April. I wanted to make the milestone a special one.

The fates had other plans, of course, and now there is a new nightmare: My brother-in-law has stage 3 lung cancer and it is inoperable. What next?

My mind churned on all this ’til 8 a.m., when I emailed the VA chaplain, begged off my Sunday morning volunteer assignment, asked for prayers and fell asleep at last.

Tense and tired when I finally woke, I didn’t expect that this would be the day I would take another big step toward letting go. It happened as I reorganized our impenetrable bedroom closet. I simply needed more storage space.

So drawer by drawer, I emptied Joe’s dresser of his T-shirts and socks and underwear.

I recalled how he handsome he looked in his favorite blue-striped polo shirt. I remembered how he hated squeezing into one I favored that had grown snug with repeated washings. I recalled how I used to stack his clothes on the bed every morning, boxers and T-shirt on top of his slacks and his shirt, so he could dress himself without puzzling over what to put on first and what came next.

I set aside some keepsakes, but as plastic bags filled with his things, I felt a burden ease. One more task crossed off the to-do list. Friends said it must have been hard.

Truth be told, it wasn’t, really. I choked up a little when I realized that this was going to be the day, but I didn’t cry. The work felt more purposeful than painful, like a natural next step in working through my grief. Tomorrow I will take another and deliver the bags to Goodwill.

I think I’ll sleep more soundly tonight.

Retirement rhythms and regrets

Two weeks in, I’m settling into a retirement rhythm.

— Sleep till 8. (Unless the landscapers crank up the mowers at 7:30, in which case cuss a blue streak!)

— Coffee, newspaper and computer games on the porch till 9-ish. (Essential to brain health!)

— Walk a mile or more. Smell the honeysuckle and new-mown grass. (Free aromatherapy!)

— Do something (anything!) productive. (So far, I’ve arranged a train trip with my granddaughter, paid bills and enrolled in Cobra — all tasks with deadlines of one sort or another. Still procrastinating on closets and dealing with Joe’s things — no deadlines, no urgency.)

— Eat dinner during the afternoon. Walk it off after the “CBS Evening News.”

— Retreat to the porch until dark.

— Write when the muse strikes.

I’m a Type A so this may be as close as I ever get to relaxing.

I do believe that the worry lines etched by years of newspapering and caregiving are softening just a tad. Will I ever achieve that rested, calm countenance that news refugees always seemed to have when they visited the paper? Probably not. Unless Cobra covers Botox. (But wouldn’t it be nice?)

Regrets? Of course. These are a few I’m trying to work through now that I have the time to reflect:

— Joe wanted me to retire. I wanted to squirrel away more money. I wish I hadn’t let my greed trump his wish for more time together. Who knew we had so little left?

— I wish I hadn’t been more attentive to career than to family over the years. So not worth it in the end.

— Most of all, I wish I hadn’t been so impatient and so unkind.

I pray God will help me let go of the regrets I can’t do anything about and that He will help me become a patient and kind old lady.

(PS: A little divine intervention with my worry lines would be welcome, too.)

‘The parts of dying nobody talks about’

A former colleague, Matthew Teague, writes in the May issue of Esquire magazine about his 34-year-old wife’s struggle with cancer and “the parts of dying that nobody talks about.”

Read his eloquent essay here: http://tinyurl.com/kpkke38

Life in the USA, a fascinating website about American culture, says other cultures around the world regard death as a natural part of life, while the American way is denial. Simply put, Americans don’t like to talk about it.

Matthew’s essay is graphic and compelling — and it will help advance the conversation about end-of-life care.

Please read it and recommend it to your family and friends, and if it moves you, please share your thoughts in a comment.