In all the moments of my life when I wanted to runaway, I ran to you. As a child, you never made me feel like I was less than, as many adults do to children. I felt powerful around you. You connected me to nature through telling me about the stars as we sat next to blazing camp fires. Listening to you talk about the constellations was like magic. And when the smoke from the fire began to waft toward me, you would say, “the smoke always follows the pretty girls” and I smiled because such a small gesture from you made me feel cherished. Now when I sit with my two daughters and look up at the night sky, I think of you and all of the wisdom and knowledge you shared with me and call it forth to share with my girls to keep your legacy alive.
When I was a child, you would let me roam, down to the neighbors house to play on their piano. I don’t remember their names or their faces, but they must have been good people to allow me to pound away on those keys for what felt like hours. I loved to explore the critters and smell the sage in your rock garden, or meander down the hill to the pig farm. Your love fostered freedom and safety simultaneously.
As I got older, we spent afternoons doing puzzles, and hours in your sewing room. Our first completed project was a light blue tapestry coverlet for my bed. That sewing machine now sits in it’s box in my basement, untouched, for I can not remember how to use it. I have so much regret that I didn’t pay closer attention to the things you taught me. Now your hands don’t work and If I want to know these things, I will have to learn them from someone else. I still remember what your house smelled like, when you still had one, and I long for that smell as your space no longer belongs to you. I loved the swing out on your porch where I would spend hours spinning and swinging in the dry high desert heat of summer, pondering life. I now find myself longing to be that girl again. To be that connected to myself, content with just being; unconcerned with validation from others or looking good or stretch marks or belly fat.
After you had your massive stroke, I gave you your first nursing home shower. It was sobering. It was the winter of 1999. I was 19 years old. You said that I would make such a good nurse and you wanted me to become one so I could take care of you. I brushed it off because the smell of urine and feces and apple sauce was too much to bear and I couldn’t imagine spending my days watching people existing between life and death. I was there for you and you alone. Our love grew as the roles were reversed and I was now taking care of you.
So much changed that winter. You never settled into acceptance of the state of your body. Just the other day you looked at me and said, “this hand, it scares me. I’m afraid of it”. I asked, “is that why you move away from it”. And you responded, “Yes. It doesn’t feel like me”. And I briefly think about those people who cut off healthy limbs that don’t feel like a part of them. Life is so strange. You are afraid of the body you live in. That is a tough one for me to swallow and the grief washes over me again. I touch your scary hand and gently rub the paper thin skin. I cut, file and paint the nails on those fingers in an effort to bring just a splinter of positivity to that piece of you. That is the best I can do to ease your discomfort.
It breaks my heart to think of how little you are touched. Every time I see you, I drape my body over yours and kiss your face and nuzzle my face in your neck so you can feel my hot breath; so you remember what intimacy and human touch feels like. And when I crave intimacy, I think of you and am so grateful that I have two little girls to love on me, and play with my hair and crawl into my bed at night when they are scared. I know you are scared often and I want to climb into your bed every time I am there. But I am afraid to jostle you and inadvertently hurt you with the weight of my body shifting yours around. So I stay out of your bed. Instead, I play with your hair and stroke your cheek and look into your eyes. You have shown me what true connection and vulnerability and love are. Love is just pouring out of me and somehow, there is always more to give. Not long ago you looked at me blankly and said"you know what God is don't you". I replied, "I believe so". And you said matter of factly, "God is love.....God is love".
Together, we are the two funniest people on the planet, at least we think so and that is enough. I am really trying to see myself as you see me. I have never known a love like yours. It is unconditional. It’s like you see all of the good bits and just draw them out of me. You have always been my asylum and now I am yours. Today you asked me, “am I the only one who has ever told you, I love you so much it hurts”. There are no shadows in your love.
I bathed naked in my first stream with you hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. I can still remember the image of me from the photo you took; my arm draped over the trail head sign. I think I still have it blown up in a poster size print somewhere in the attic. I think I may pull it out and put it on the wall. Following my last heart break, I went to see the movie Wild about Cheryl Strayed’s solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. I saw the movie alone and brought a pocket full of Kleenex. I knew it would touch a place deep inside of me. You and I hiked part of that trail together, my first big hike. After that movie, I drove to the beach and laid on the hood of my car and looked up at the stars and wept for you and for me and for women everywhere; for all of the seemingly impossible moments that exist to draw love out of us. For the ache, and the beauty and for the fucking fantastic things people do and over come every day.
My favorite moments with you now are when I read to you. You eagerly await my mispronunciation of a word so you can correct me; I am happy to give you that satisfaction. We read all kinds of books. You laugh at me when I attempt various accents required from the characters in the stories. You are especially in tune on days when I have been up all night with my children and all of the words on the page seem to be a big black blob. But I read because it is the only way I can take you somewhere else other than where you are. So we travel together through books. These moments with you have been some of the greatest moments of my life. I remember when I read you Eat, Pray, Love, one of my favorite books. We read it together years after I read it for the first time. I choked back tears with each chapter because I was moving to Costa Rica to save a marriage I knew was beyond saving, too afraid to admit it to myself or to you. I was envious of Elizabeth Gilbert and her courage in that book. I eventually found the same courage. It just took moving to a foreign country to find my truth and my strength. And within a year, I was back in Connecticut, turning my world upside down and trusting the process, getting divorced and reading by your bedside again. We devoured that book together after we thought nothing could live up to Water for Elephants. Now we are reading Shirley MacLaine’s book, The Camino. You have always been such a spiritual being and I love the conversations this book evokes between us. In moments you come alive as the words on the page leave my mouth and in other moments, we take a lot of breaks as you writhe in pain and I pause to hold your hand. I remind you to breathe and I breathe myself through those moments too because I don’t know what else to do other than be completely present for you. I think that is all you want; for me to hold the space for your pain. As we make our way through this book, I take metal notes, knowing that some day I will walk the Camino for you, with you, once you have shed the body that imprisons you and are able to walk alongside me.
Today we talked about how much pain you are living in. You asked me if I thought you would ever escape it. I replied that I don’t think you will until you leave your body and you said, “you mean when I die”. I said, yes, are you afraid to die. And you replied that you have been ready for quite sometime. You said, “I’m ready to get outta this world”. And then you smiled and said, “hey, I think that’s a song”. I grabbed my phone and googled it. It was Hanks Williams I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive. I started playing it for you from my iPhone and you smiled. So we sang a long together. And I said to myself, “don’t ever forget this moment”. There have been other moments like that in my life. Many with you. Just two months ago, I was by your bedside and a sprite young girl with a guitar walked into your room. You had recently moved to a new, bigger, brighter room down the hall. She said she had been looking for you. Your eyes lit up when you saw her. She asked if she could play us a song. She started playing, You Are My Sunshine. My throat began to ache and I could feel the tears coming as she strummed and we all sang. I looked at you and said, “this is going to make me cry”. You smiled and said, “let it rip girl”. So I cried as I sang because You Are My Sunshine is my sister Hannah’s song and she has been gone for a long time now. I felt like two world’s were colliding. I realized sitting there with you, singing and crying with an aching heart, fully present to the moment that called the ache forward, that if I just allow the doors of my heart to blow right open instead of turning the deadbolt.....that feeling, all of it, is a gift to growth.
It is now over 16 years since the day I gave you that first shower when you still lived in Oregon, where your heart often wanders now. You tell me you want to go home. I want you to have that. To fill your lungs with juniper laced mountain air. To see your old friend Evelyn who still, after all of these years sends you cards and newspaper obituary clippings of friends who have expired. You haven’t been able to travel for almost two decades. It is a miracle you made it to Connecticut in the first place. You are deteriorating and it is so painful to witness. I want so much more for you, for us. I know you will return home when you no longer have any fight left in you and you fade away.
You left us on a Tuesday morning, just before noon time. I picked up the phone to my Mother's voice and the words "she's gone". This was a call I had been hoping for and dreading all at the same time; I didn't want you to suffer but I didn't want to say goodbye either. We grieved by spending hours upon hours together, all of us, at mom's house going through boxes and boxes of old pictures, reliving your story, smiling and crying. Grief brings people together in such a primal way. It cuts through the bullshit and demands presence. There is no escaping it.
Now, we are making plans, to bring you back home to Oregon in a vessel of some kind where we will hike to the top of the Steens Mountain for you. I'm sure you will be our guide, leading us with the wind and the birds as we sprinkle you like stardust amongst the wilderness where you belong.