If I had had time to write a Christmas / 2011 Newsletter, it would have said that in 2011, I sold a house and bought a house.
My new house is perfect for me. It looks like me. It is me. The layout is perfect. And y’all should see my office. It is just wonderful.
I’m thankful this season that I was able to accomplish this monumental task. Now I’m getting through the boxes, getting things in place, getting settled in here in the House on the Hill.
“Since the death of your loved one, you’ve started a journey. It’s not a trip you planned, but it’s a trip you must take.”
Three and a half years, I’ve been on this journey and two weeks ago, I did the final big thing—selling our house and buying my house. From our to my. That characterizes the journey.
So how fitting when unpacking boxes in my new house, I pulled out the purple GriefShare workbook, “Your Journey from Mourning to Joy.” I followed the distraction and flipped through the chapters and read answers I had written down during two sessions of grief recovery support group exercises. There it was written on page 14.
“Your efforts to heal shape your journey. Complete the five tasks of grief.” In black-ink cursive I wrote:
1. Accept that your loved one has died; he is not returning.
2. Give release to all emotions.
3. Store memories.
4. Separate your own identity.
5. Reinvest in life.
I’ve done it. I’ve completed the five tasks of grief. The first three were never a problem for me. It’s the last two. Emotionally, I just didn’t want to give up my old life. I wasn’t ready, I will never be ready. I just had to do it, to make a decision with my head and follow through.
This is not to say that when I lay claim to this purple book and open it and see my handwriting on the pages, my emotions don’t plunge back to that time, because they do shoot straight back to that time when my bones were in agony, when I had “a tingling that rolled down from the backs of my arms, leaving me weak all over, and legs that didn’t want to step forward.” When my heart pounded and I had to get the grief out, and so even late at night I’d go outside and run and weep and let my warm tears mix with a cold falling rain.
There’s no way around grief. There’s no way it can’t absorb you. You have to walk through this valley, only it’s not a valley, I don’t care what the Bible says, it’s a trench, a trench that you stand in and the top edges are higher than your head and the dirt walls touch your arms and threaten to tighten on you like a vise. You don’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under your fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out and pulling yourself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until you reach the top and then clinging onto grass and weeds and tugging some more and watching and waiting for those fragile stalks to give way and drop you down again because you don’t know if you can make it out. But you keep working at it and one day you realize you are there.
And all that time of chipping away at this alone—yes, alone, because when it comes down to it, you were alone in this, and it had to be that way—you have become a new and different person.
Page 38: “Discover your new identity.” My quick cursive scrawl: “Grief can positively re-orient my identity. The other person died; I didn’t.”
This blog has not only served my writing interests, but has documented every big thing in my life…well, almost everything. But we won’t talk about what it hasn’t documented.
So I thought it only fitting to share a few photos of my move from Fieldstone Farms to the House on the Hill.
The computer and printers and other peripherals get loaded up for a ride to the shop with a plan for re-installation in three days.
Boxes, boxes, and boxes get loaded onto a 30-foot white truck, all being paraded out of my home of sixteen years.
There goes the white shag rug!
The dog settles in at the new House on the Hill. She makes a nest in every pile of wrapping paper and sits close to me.
The dog looks out her new front window. Here we are, and just when do we get to go home?
The office. Well, the desk is functional, even if it is surrounded by boxes.
See! See the work there. Yes, I’ve been working in my box-filled office!
Okay, well, the dining room is done, so there. That proves I have been unpacking some boxes. And I am reclaiming some order.
Yes! The Barbie tree is up in the big front window! I just couldn’t get the big tree put up this year, but all the Barbies are joyous in celebration of a new season in a new house. If the Barbie tree is up, that suggests a move toward normalcy and order and hope.
I’m getting there.
The first guest to my brand new home came yesterday, bearing a large velvety-red poinsettia. This may be my only Christmas tree, I told her. We sat and chatted and made plans to do lunch and take a tour of my new town.
This Christmas will be the first in my lifetime that I will not decorate a tall evergreen with all the traditional ornaments. In my house there are no signs of Christmas. There are only brown boxes, some packed, some empty. My house rings of life processes that speed forward and do not slow down for the season.
It takes me back to a Christmas sometime in the mid-1980s. My father had a heart attack two days after the Pearl Harbor anniversary—the attack which took him into a world war. This time, though, he was fighting a critical battle for life, air-lifted out of our small Delta town to Baptist Memorial in Memphis. He had quintuple bypass surgery six days before Christmas. That season, my family spent mostly in the hospital, dealing with the fragility of life. My friends back home kept expressing their sorrow that I was having to spend Christmas this way, and I kept wanting to say, No, you’re wrong, it’s not like that.
In the hospital lobby there was a tall shape of a Christmas tree made out of strategically stacked poinsettias, a large circle at the bottom, tapering, rising up to a point, with one red plant at the top, and all I saw was a reminder: Emmanuel, God with us.
“God with us” during this frightening life change.
How I needed that reminder at a time when my core was being shaken. I almost lost the head of our family unit, the one who held us together, I thought, the one we counted on. With any twitch in the rhythm of his heartbeat, I could still lose him. What then, if the walls of the foundation fell?
Now, those walls have not only shifted, they are gone, everybody older and above me is gone, and I am at the top of the pyramid. It feels cold and funny up here, knowing that I am the matriarch of the remaining family, and I am next in line to fall. In the meantime, it’s lonely up here.
And it’s lonely without the familiar. Five days ago, I moved away from familiar places and people of sixteen years. I knew what time my neighbors got up in the morning, what time they went to bed at night, how much time they devoted to hobbies or work or smoking a cigarette on the front porch. This holiday, everything is new, like the fresh Christ-child of old, and it is a time to start over, or to start recalculating time.
What better reminder than to see the lights of Christmas in neighbor yards around me, to see white-lighted trees in every window, or to receive a velvety-red poinsettia that gently says, “Emmanuel, God with us.”
“God with me” during this frightening life change.
I knew we were going to be all right when the dog let me know in the only way she could that she was accepting the move.
I’d brought her to the new house four or five times, let her walk around the front newly sodded yard, up and down the sidewalks, and throughout the house in its progressing stages of completion. For weeks in our Wimbledon house, she watched me put together boxes and strip tape around them and pack them with our stuff. Our stuff disappeared and the stacks of boxes in the house grew. She kept looking at me, fully aware that something big and different was going on. Then when the four men from Franklin Movers arrived, she began to shake violently, and my heart began to crumble.
The last big thing in her life was three and a half years ago, when her “daddy” went to the doctor and never came home. She kept watching the street, waiting for him to come around the curve behind the island. She kept watching the back door, waiting for him to walk in, so she could do that high-pitched barking and run to him, then around the circle of hall, foyer, living room, dining room, great room, kitchen, hall, bedroom, with her butt tucked, and she would jump on the bed, still yipping, and greet him as he removed his phone and billfold and loose change. That was our life together and the house on Wimbledon was all she ever knew and it was what I loved and where I felt at home.
We both went through grief then, deep and severe. And I guess some of that will always be with me, because it’s like Alyce, my neighbor in Cleveland, told my mother after my father died, “You don’t ever get over it. You just learn to live with it.” Even yesterday when the cable man was at the house, I was taking notes on setup audio and video 1 and 2 in my old gray At-A-Glance and happened to flip to the back page where I had scribbled notes at the hospital as a nurse named Betsy reported to me: occlusion…clot…mesenteric artery…opened and removed clots…restricted blood flow…complete dissection of aorta. And my chest tightened and squeezed my heart up into my throat, and yes, the tears came. I wasn’t ready for that life, our life, to be over.
So this move has been all about endings. Up until now, that’s it. Endings. Boxing up, packing up, purging, throwing out, giving away things attached to that person who is no longer with us, keeping some, remembering, letting go. Crying, hurting, cursing, fussing at him for keeping everything that I was having to throw away or pack up and move. Then driving away from it all…
Now in the new home, I think about beginnings. New people, new friends, new town, new stores, new everything. I needed a change. I needed NEW. I needed a somewhat smaller house and yard and mortgage payment. Now, I’ve got everything all new. And I can breathe.
As I unboxed my stuff and built a hill of white packing paper on the kitchen floor, the dog walked over, stepped into the stack, rattled it, circled, and lay down. Then she looked up to me, as if to say, “Okay, I’m in this, too.”
And we are okay.