Taggrief

How we become more

In a nearby town there was recently a fire. Fires happen far too often in our area in the winter. Many of us burn wood for heat. Many old houses (there are plenty around here) have questionable wiring. And fires these days often burn hot and fast, thanks to the flammability of the synthetic materials used in furnishings.

There were seven members of the family home in this fire. Only two made it out of the building. The mother and four children were lost.

Friends of ours were among the first firefighters to arrive from the small volunteer force in this small rural town. The truck arrived promptly, and there was still nothing they could do to get inside. The fire had moved that quickly.

This is not a post about tragedy, although that is what I think of every day. This is about community. This is about empathy. This is about what we still have, and what we are forgetting, and why it matters so much.

In my husband’s family, two parents have lost children. In my family, two of my aunts lost adult children. On the highway I commute on, I’ve come upon the aftermath of fatal accidents more than once. On a twisty back road I take down to town, I once spent fifteen minutes of a warm sunny day slowing traffic around a still young man and his fallen motorcycle.

This is part of being alive, that death is always there. It is, in fact, the only promise we have, and yet we pretend it isn’t. The woods and fields know better. In the winter, the track of a mouse scurries across the snow to a point where it vanishes, the imprint of owl wings left to either side. The scatterings of bluejay feathers among the leaf litter on the ground, the smell of decay in along the trail on a hot humid day—there is nothing to hide.

We have a beginning and an end, all of us.

In this small town where a father and child escaped from a fire into a future without so many loved ones, this is what has happened. Town members have gathered, in church, at the school, and they have mourned and comforted. The fire department has asked for help and hugs for the volunteers who are grappling with their inability to save a family, and they have received both. Funds are being raised for new clothes, new furnishings, food and housing. A living space has been found for father and child. Children are supported as they try to understand how death comes for the young and the loved, not just the mouse in the snow.

This is the best of us. This is what we are born to be to one another. The volunteers who run into a freezing night to try to save their neighbors, the families who give what they have to help one another. The people who recognize grief—their own, others—and open themselves to feel it, not to turn away. The potential for pain in this world is legion.

So is the potential for grace.

Compassion requires one giant step: to acknowledge that loss waits for us all. We do not protect ourselves by refusing to take it. We simply make it easier to become the people who do not care, who see suffering and step around it, mock it, incite it. To become people for whom community is simply a misspelling of commodity.

Last fall, my husband and I stopped to help a young woman broken down on the side of the highway. She was traveling to visit a friend, and something on the road had punctured her tire and caused a blowout. As is the case in much of our area, there was no cell service. She’d managed to contact her mother via a hotspot she had rigged, and while we changed her tire in the soft ground of the shoulder, I could hear her mother in the background. Are you with good people? Are you sure?

We stopped to help because she was young, and a woman, and alone, and because we wanted to protect her. Because I could hear the fear in her mother’s voice, and because mothers know that when we send our children into the world, we are dependent on good people being there for the times we are not. Because tragedy waits for us all, and because compassion is the truest thing we can offer. I have rescued many birds trapped in buildings. There is always a moment, as you open your hands to release them into the world, that they sit stunned for just a second, weightless in your palm, and then, when they fly, you can feel their freedom like your own. Seeing this woman drive away, I could feel the same.

When I have hope, it is not in things. It is not in political thought. It is in the moments when we recognize our constant vulnerability. When we step into the grief, instead of away. We are made to care for one another. When we do, we become so much more.

The dark, the light, what comes between

The other night, as we were driving home in the early dark, we came upon a dead moose. The action of the flashing police lights contrasted starkly with the stillness of the body. Long legs, glossy coat, motionlessness.

I wept.

That is what I do these days. I wake from dreams of hopelessness and fear, and I cry for a bit, until it is time to walk Rosie Dog. Then I get out of bed, not wanting to move, and we go for our walk, and I pull things together. It has been this way for the last month. It will continue.

This year the drought has pulled the water far back from the shores of the reservoir. It’s left the river that the landlocked salmon travel in the fall as nothing more than a trickle through sand. Bridges of land connect islands in place of moats of water. I can feel the drought in my bones, my flesh and the soil not so very different after a lifetime spent together.

Plenty of rain, and the reservoir will fill again. But damage exists in places we cannot see. Amphibian populations shrink due to missing breeding habitat and diseases their stressed bodies cannot fight off. Likewise, trees struggle silently, suffering in ways that play out over the years to come.

The things we lose do not come back. This world we treat so carelessly is made of finite substances. The cruelties we condone or enact on one another echo forward ceaselessly.

So do the kindnesses.

After the election, I tweeted something about my love for those who were suffering. I was promptly trolled by another writer flush with the victory of her candidate and looking to prove me a hypocrite. I have relatively few tools at my disposal in life. My anxiety is such that I am always battling imaginary monsters. It is an exhausting struggle that I have no confidence in winning. But I do actually love. I do care. Pessimism and optimism are twined so tightly inside me that I can carry endless despair over the horrors we commit toward one another and this world, while also holding the belief that we all have the capacity to be more. More generous, more compassionate, more courageous, more capable of learning, more open, more than fear and hunger and clawing our way through life.

This is the time of year when I comfort myself that the darkness is also finite, that light will come again and balance will be found. This year, the darkness stretches so much farther, and the light feels so much fainter. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I have always been wrong is all I can think. What we lose now may be lost for good, be it endangered species or clean water or one another.

But if I’m going to err, it will be on the side of loving, of caring, of believing in the sliver of potential for more. Without that, we are nothing.

Farewell, Callie Dog

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Callie, you were the very best of dogs. From the moment we met you in a stranger’s kitchen in Springfield, and we sat on the floor as your owner said “she’s afraid of all men,” and you immediately climbed into Jon’s lap, we knew we all belonged together. For almost sixteen years you took your self-appointed job of puppy tender very seriously.

Thank you for all the kisses, all the wearing of hats while the kids took pictures, all the dog laughs, and all the LOVE. I have never met another dog as in love with life as you. Even as arthritis settled into your bad hips, as your kidneys struggled with the arthritis meds, as the heart issues diagnosed six years worsened, you still loved life.

Or maybe you just loved us that much. We certainly loved you. When we gathered around you today and told you that we would be okay, that you didn’t have to hold on for us, that we were so grateful for everything you had given us, none of us really wanted to let you go.

Callie Dog, there was a rainbow as you were making your final trip today, and a heron by the side of the road. We will miss you tonight and tomorrow, and for what feels like forever right now.

Thank you. We love you, now and always.

Goodbyes. Hellos.

Warning: Animal death discussed.

About a month ago my Ripley Cat started going off her food. In fairly short order we discovered that she’d been hiding a large bony tumor in the fluffy hair along her jaw. She came home from the vet on pain meds. Last Monday her life ended.

Ripley came to us seventeen years ago as a week old kitten. Abandoned by her feral mother on the side of the road, she fit entirely in the palm of my hand. I fed her with syringes at first, then bottles. I named her Ripley because things were touch and go at first, and I wanted a tough enough name to get her through. What better namesake than Ellen Ripley? She came to work with me in the library, my compassionate library coworkers ignoring the large cardboard box by my desk, and helping us hide when administrators dropped by. As a bigger kitten, she would climb her way up onto the bed, and burrow under the blankets to the foot of the bed, causing us to wake at night terrified that she might have smothered there.

As an adult, she hated strangers, and talked to me in a creaky door stutter of a voice, and greeted me, always, by sniffing my breath. She had a long good life, and we were certain she would outlive us all through sheer determination. She would have, too, were it not for pain. As terrible and hard as it was to say goodbye, there was a moment as I sat there with her when I realized all the pain she would ever feel in her life was already behind her, and that made everything else bearable.

Death has visited us frequently in the past few years. We’ve said so many goodbyes that it’s become hard to remember that the world is made from more than loss, in all its many forms. The truth is that death is only one of the transitions that brings grief. We’ve dabbled in many of the others as well.

The other day a pigeon landed on the roof of our garage. This is noteworthy because we live in the woods, and pigeons are exotic birds here. This pigeon was very handsome, and somewhat bumbling as he hopped in the maple, and then came down to the walkway. My husband went out to look at him, and the bird followed the stone path down to the steps and waited there. My husband picked him up, and my daughter found a box, and we tucked him in it with food and water.

What do you do with a tame pigeon, particularly when you are not prepared to care for it? If you are lucky, you know a child who has recently lost one of her pigeons, and you drive to her house, fingers crossed, hoping against all reason that the bird in your box is hers.

It was not. But the bird in the box was beautiful to her, and she was delighted to see him, to examine his face, his tail feathers, to explain what type of pigeon he was, to admire everything about him. To take him in. And for a few minutes, standing there in the twilight, learning about the world of tame pigeons, I watched her and thought this is what utter joy looks like.

One pigeon goes. A different one returns. Beloved aunts and uncles pass away. Beloved nephews are born. Our paths through the world are always paved with goodbyes and hellos, even when the hellos feel so much rarer.

In keeping with that, we have a new family member. We are her third home in her short life. As a firm believer in the magic of three, I know that this home is the one that will count. She has the body of a little leopard, and the stripes of a tiger, and very little patience with things like typing at the computer rather than adoring her. Those are just the things we know so far. Hopefully we will have another seventeen years or so to learn the rest.

We love you always, Ripley.

We welcome you in, Coco.

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