pockets of grief, wells of memory

This past weekend, I flew to Nashville to celebrate a very special occasion: my friend Holly was ordained as a minister! She has been working for years towards this milestone, and I am so incredibly proud of her.

I had never before attended an ordination, and I was blown away by the beauty and emotion of the ceremony. It reminded me a lot of a wedding, but instead of celebrating the union of a couple, we were celebrating Holly’s commitment to generously serve others as a minister. Perhaps my favorite part of the ceremony was right after Holly was officially ordained and became Reverend Holly. The entire church stood up and burst into applause, and Holly looked out at all of us, her face glowing. Tears sprung to my eyes in that moment. The room was so palpably filled with love for my dear friend, who has already touched so many lives and is adored by so many people.

In preparing for the weekend, I expected to feel pride. I expected to feel joy. I expected to feel love and connection and excitement and peace. And I did feel all of these things. What I did not expect to feel was… grief.

I felt fresh, unexpected waves of missing Celine, the ache of her loss filling my chest more fiercely than it has in a long time. In the past year or so, my grief over her death has settled into a quiet place within my heart. I think of her often — but, unlike in the immediate aftermath of her death, my thoughts of her now are often accompanied by happiness. I can smile at my memories of her, even as I deeply miss her presence.

But grief is not a straight line. Grief can surprise you. Grief can sneak up on you. You can stumble upon pockets of grief that steal all the breath from your lungs and suddenly it is like you just lost your person, all over again, in that instant.

I was expecting to miss Celine at Holly’s ordination, just like I missed her at my wedding — crossing the threshold of another Big Life Event that she should be here to experience with us. But the way I missed her this weekend was sharp and personal and raw.

The really neat thing about an ordination is that people from all corners and phases of your life come to honor the person you were, the person you are, and the person you are still becoming. Holly’s family was there, and her friends from childhood, and her friends from divinity school. People were there from the church she grew up attending and the church she interned with and her current church home. Old classmates and old professors and old family friends.

What I hadn’t put together beforehand was that I would be the sole ambassador from Holly’s college years, the years we were roommates, the years our friendship blossomed and grew strong. As I walked into the church and sat down in a pew, I found myself looking around for the third pea in our pod: Celine.

Everyone else had their people from their phase of Holly’s life. Celine would have been my person there. I felt like I was trying to hold up a mantle for both of us, a mantle that was meant to be shared, that was too heavy for me alone. I felt sad and awkward under the weight. Because Celine should have been there, too. If life were even close to fair or sensible, she would have been there sitting next to me, holding my hand as we both blinked back proud tears for our girl Holly.

Holly’s childhood friends came in then, and I have met them all before and they are lovely, and they scooted over on their pew so I could sit with them. We chatted and caught up on each other’s lives. It was comforting to know that they had met Celine — that if I spoke her name they would share stories of her and remember her, too. I wondered if they thought of her when they saw me.

The strange thing was, even as I grieved anew the loss of one of the brightest lights I have ever known, I could also feel her presence more vividly than I had in a long time. I could imagine her there next to me, wearing a white top and a yellow skirt and a purple belt, with dangly earrings and red lipstick, her long hair pulled partly back with bobby pins. I could clearly imagine her hand in mine, with her round nails painted turquoise. I could see her looking at me with her big eyes, smiling at me as we talked about some random memory from college. She would stand up and greet people, shake their hands and say, “We’re Holly’s friends from college.” We are. How lonely the “I” is, when compared with “we.”

But as the service began, I was overcome by a profound sense that I was there not just as Dallas, but that I was representing Celine, too. I knew without a doubt that she was there in spirit — that she was indeed sitting beside me, holding my hand, in whatever way she could. Only in the physical, mortal sense was I there alone.

At the ordination after-party, they served lasagna.

*

After an amazing whirlwind weekend, on the plane from Nashville yesterday morning, I was reading through an old issue of a literary journal. An essay by Emily Arnason Casey described a Greek myth of the lark, taking place in a time before the world began, back when there was only air and sky and wind. The lark’s father dies and there is nowhere to bury his body–no ground for him to rest in for eternity. The birds all gather together and try to decide what to do, but they cannot think of any solutions. Until finally, Casey writes, “the lark decides she will bury the body of her father in the back of her mind, and this is the beginning of memory.

When I looked up the symbolism of larks, I found these words that burst with resonance of Celine:

Larks are known for their melodious singing. They also sing while they are flying, unlike most other birds, who only sing when perched. This indicates cheerfulness and reminds us to find joy in our own lives.

Larks have a crescent shape across their breasts. The crescent shape often signifies lunar qualities, and the moon is often linked with the concept of self. Therefore the lark reflects the inward journey that’s often associated with self-discovery. This goes hand in hand with their singing, something that, for humans, is often considered a private activity and a deep reflection of inner self. Lark encourages us to explore our inner selves and sing out loud.

I don’t think I came across this essay in a random literary journal from 2012 by accident during my flight home. I believe it was a message from Celine. She wanted to remind me that she is buried inside me, and inside of all of us who love her, and the well of our memories with her runs ever-deep, like a cup that can never be emptied. Her memory encourages all of us to find joy in our lives, to explore our inner selves, to sing out loud.

Celine would be turning 30 this Friday. I am celebrating her birthday by getting together with friends for dinner and then going out to a bar where the waiters sing show-tunes. I am going to remember Celine by laughing unselfconsciously and squeezing people I love in big bear hugs and singing along to Broadway show-tunes at the top of my lungs.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following prompts as inspiration for some free-writing:

  • Write about a person you miss, whether they are gone from this life or are simply someone you have lost touch with. What do you miss most about them? What memories with them do you treasure?
  • Think about an animal that carries symbolism for you, and write about the ways this meaning has touched your life at different points.
  • Write a love letter to one of your dearest friends about all the things you love about them. Bonus: send it to them!

the {un}luckiest day

I.

December 23, 2017 was one of the unluckiest days of my life.

I was six weeks and two days pregnant, and Allyn and I could not have been more excited. We had been hoping and praying for a baby, and it seemed like such a crazy miracle when we saw that tiny blue “+” on the pregnancy test. I was so overwhelmed with joy that I found myself jumping up and down like a little kid on a trampoline as I exclaimed to Allyn, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” Over the coming days, as I felt my body already beginning to change, it was like I had the most delicious secret. Like I had a superpower. Like I was never alone, even when I was by myself running errands or driving to meet with a student or walking around the lake, because I had a precious little soul inside me, growing bigger every single day.

We made plans to share the news with our families and close friends over the holidays. I could not wait to celebrate our joyful news with them.

It was a Thursday afternoon when I felt the first sharp, cramping pain. I was on a Skype call with a student at the time and the pain was intense enough to be distracting. After we hung up, trying to calm my alarm, I googled “pregnancy cramps” and found out that what I was experiencing seemed to be normal. Still, I felt uneasy. I cancelled my next student session and took a nap.

The cramping would wax and wane, but it never fully went away. By Friday night, I was feeling worried, even though I told myself that I was probably overreacting just like I often do about health-related matters. {I have banned myself from going on WebMD because it always makes me convinced I am suffering from some deadly illness or rare malady.} I told Allyn that I wanted to go to Urgent Care the next morning, if only to get some reassurance. “Maybe I have a bladder infection or something,” I mused. I refused to let myself think that anything was wrong with our baby.

Yet, this despair was seeping through my bones. I refused to let myself think about it. But, in a deep inner place, I knew.

On Saturday, December 23, I woke up in a lot of pain. I curled onto my side and scrolled through online pregnancy forums on my phone. All of the women who described experiencing cramping during pregnancy wrote about how it lasted an hour or two, usually in the evening. They wrote about how warm compresses or shifting position would help alleviate the pain.

Tears pricked my eyes. Nothing was alleviating my pain. My pain was getting worse and worse.

I told Allyn I needed to go to Urgent Care. It was crowded, filled with coughing and sniffling people. The receptionist told me they did not have ultrasound equipment, and suggested I go next door to the E.R.

The E.R.? This wasn’t really an emergency, was it? I almost turned around and went home. I wanted so badly to just “tough it out” and pretend like nothing was happening, like nothing was wrong. Maybe if I ignored it, the pain would go away. What if this was totally normal and I was overreacting? We had plans to get lunch with friends and Allyn’s family. His brother Colin was only in town for a few days. Who knew how long we’d be stuck in the E.R. My overactive worried imagination would ruin all of our plans.

Still, something propelled me forward. We checked into the E.R. They called me back, gave me a wristband, assigned me a room. Nurses took my vitals and bloodwork, scheduled an ultrasound to “check things out.” It would be our first ever ultrasound. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt as the technician rubbed the wand over my belly, pressing down hard. I couldn’t see the screen. Allyn could, but it was impossible for him to read. The technician was silent. I kept hoping she would say, “Look, there’s your baby!” But she didn’t. In my mind, I talked to our baby, saying over and over, We love you so much. We love you so much already, sweetheart. It’s going to be okay. Eventually, I found myself praying. Please, please, please. 

They wheeled me back to my room. Allyn and I tried to watch a movie on the TV to distract ourselves, to pass the time. Eventually the nurse came back. Her face looked sad. “Do you know what an ectopic pregnancy is?” she asked.

I did. I had read about it on the pregnancy forums. An ectopic pregnancy is one that implants in the fallopian tube, instead of in the uterus.

She explained how ectopic pregnancies are not viable with life. How I would have to take medication to terminate the pregnancy. How, otherwise, my fallopian tube would rupture as the baby grew, and then my life would be at risk as well.

“We’re still waiting for the doctor to give us the final report from the ultrasound,” the nurse said. “But we’re afraid that’s what it looks like. We’re having trouble finding the pregnancy in the uterus. It’s possible that it is just very small at this point.”

Allyn and I held hands, clinging to the hope that maybe our baby was there, where it was supposed to be. Maybe it was just hard to see something so small, so early on. Maybe… maybe…

A short time later, the ob-gyn doctor on call came in. She showed us the ultrasound images, pointing out the gaping emptiness of my uterus. The emptiness hit me like a slap. I felt like I had done something wrong. Like my body had failed me — had failed our baby.

“There is nothing you did to cause this,” the doctor said, as if reading my mind. “You have no risk factors. You’re young and healthy. This is just extremely bad luck.”

Our bad luck worsened. She showed us the dark blobs on the ultrasound, explaining in a calm voice that it was blood. “You have a lot of internal bleeding,” she told me. “Your tube has already ruptured. We need to do surgery.”

“Surgery?” my mind was whirring. “When?”

“As soon as possible. When was the last time you ate anything?”

From then on, time compressed. Everything happened very quickly. I was prepped for surgery. I signed a bunch of forms. I called my parents. I held Allyn’s hand for as long as I could as they wheeled me down the hospital corridors to the operating room. I remember being in the operating room, worrying that I would somehow wake up in the middle of the procedure. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a hospital corridor. Allyn was there. “You did great,” he said softly. “Everything is okay.”

I had left our apartment that morning as a woman who was six weeks and two days pregnant. I returned as a normal woman again. Back to my previous self. Drained of my superpowers.

{source}

II.

December 23, 2017 was one of the luckiest days of my life.

Yes, it was one of the most terrible days I have ever experienced. But it could have been so much worse. It could have been the end of my life.

That morning, I absolutely did not want to go to the E.R. I wanted to shove the pain down and pretend it didn’t exist. But there was a little voice inside me, telling me not to do that. Telling me to listen to my body. And so I did. I’m so lucky that I did.

I’m so lucky that I have medical insurance. That this state-of-the-art hospital was just down the street. That, for whatever reason — maybe because it was two days before Christmas — the E.R. was not crowded. I was admitted and seen right away. I did not have to wait long to get my bloodwork and ultrasound results. Allyn and I were given a private room, which meant we had space to cry and grieve, alone together.

I was extremely lucky that the ob-gyn doctor on call that day happened to be MY ob-gyn, Dr. Garima Loharuka. A doctor I had built a relationship with, who knew my history, who knew me. A doctor I had just emailed the previous week to tell her I was pregnant, who swept into our room with the most loving aura of compassion, who gave me a big hug and said, “I am so sorry this is happening to you.” A doctor I trusted completely, who explained clearly and calmly what would happen, who answered our many questions with patience and grace. A doctor who got tears in her eyes right before I was wheeled into surgery, when I told her, “I am so glad you are here,” and she said, “There’s nowhere else I would be. I just really wish you didn’t have to be here right now.” A doctor who truly cared, and who made me feel like I was in the best hands.

I am so lucky that the operation went well — that my other fallopian tube and both of my ovaries are intact; that my doctor says I should be able to have heathy pregnancies in the future; that she says I should have no greater risk factor for another ectopic pregnancy.

I am so lucky to be living in the era of modern medicine, where surgery for an ectopic pregnancy is even possible. In the past, there would have been nothing they could have done. This would have killed me.

We are so lucky to have such amazing and supportive families. Allyn’s sister came to the hospital and brought Allyn food, since he never did each lunch, and sat with him while I was in surgery. She went to our apartment to bring me some comfortable sweatpants to change into after the operation, and she also brought me Mendo, the stuffed animal frog who lives on our bed, so I would have something to make me smile when I woke up. Plus she thoughtfully did our dishes and made our bed and tidied up our apartment.

I am lucky to have such a wonderful mother-in-law, who cooked an entire Christmas dinner at her home and then brought everything to our tiny apartment, where we crammed around the dinner table together and Colin fell asleep on the couch with a beer in his hand and I laughed for the first time since Allyn and I saw the tragic truth on those ultrasound images.

I am so lucky that my parents and my brother Greg were able to scrap our Christmas plans and take time off work and pile into the car and drive up to the Bay Area to spend the week with us. Being with them was such a healing balm for my heart. They watched a marathon of corny Hallmark Christmas movies with me, made sure I was eating and drinking enough, held my hand when I broke into tears. I felt incredibly nurtured and surrounded by love from our families and close friends, many of whom cried on the phone with me when I told them what had happened.

And I am incredibly lucky to have my husband. I told him that we have made it through our first real crisis together, and we have come through on the other side even more tightly joined. My love for him has only deepened and strengthened through this ordeal. Despite his own grief and pain, he was my rock through it all — never wavering in his comforting presence. He was my advocate, asking questions and making sure I had everything I needed. He filled my prescriptions and kept track of when I needed to take my medications. He got up in the middle of the night to help me out of bed when I had to use the bathroom, since I wasn’t supposed to use my ab muscles at all {where much of my internal bleeding was} and he gently laid me back down into bed when I was done. He helped me walk. He knelt and dried off my legs after the shower because it hurt my abs to bend down. He tucked away my pregnancy and baby books into a drawer so I wouldn’t have to face them. He held me. He hugged me. He told me, “The most important thing is that you’re okay.” When I felt like a failure, he convinced me otherwise.

The grief of this experience has made Allyn and I even more grateful for each other. We’ve always tried not to take our life together for granted, but I think that our gratitude run even deeper now. Nor do we take a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby for granted. When it comes — and hopefully it will come for us, one day — we will cherish it with every fiber of our beings.

I still feel sad sometimes. I still mourn the baby we lost. And yet, I do feel hopeful. I am hopeful that we will someday get to experience the joy of a rainbow baby after this heartbreaking storm.

In my entire life, the unluckiest day of all was January 26, 2015, when Celine was killed. But there is comfort to think of her somewhere out there, lovingly cuddling the soul of this baby we will never meet here on Earth, but who will always live in our hearts.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Turn to a new page in your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use the following prompts as “jumping off” points:

  • Write about one of your unluckiest days. Write about everything that was so painful about the experience. Letting it out helps to let go of it.
  • Now, see if you can find any threads of luck in that day. Is there anything you can be grateful for? Anything that could have been worse? Any ways in which you were spared? Any lessons you have learned from it?
  • Write a love letter to someone who was there for you during one of your bleakest times.

you take home with you

I’m sure you’ve heard on the news about the wildfires sweeping through southern California. The Thomas Fire has ravaged my beautiful hometown of Ventura. It is hard to even wrap my mind around the horrific destruction of so many homes and neighborhoods. I may be physically in the Bay Area, but my mind and heart are in Ventura right now. One inspiring thing has been the way my hometown community has rallied together to support each other. Ventura has always possessed wonderful qualities of inclusion, generosity, optimism and resilience, and never have these virtues been in such strong display as they are right now. I am so proud of my hometown. #venturastrong

Please send your prayers — for our community, the people who call it home now and for those like me who may live far away but still think of it as home, for the firefighters and first responders and s/heroes working round the clock to defeat these vicious, horrendous fires.

The most important thing is that everyone is safe. Thank God for that.

But the personally devastating news, for my family, is that my 91-year-old grandfather’s home burned entirely to the ground. It is gone. This was the home that my dad, his sister, and his two older brothers grew up in. The home my grandmother picked out after the family moved cross-country, from Ohio to California, in the 1970s. The home she decorated and hosted parties in. The home she died in, twenty-five years ago, of a heart attack. The home my Gramps has lived in for 44 years.

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The house is gone, just a pile of rubble and ash. But also, the house lives on in our memories. So many memories. I can close my eyes any time I want to and I can drive up to that house, which has always reminded me of a grand mansion out of an old movie, and I can park at the bottom of the driveway. In my mind, I can open the white wrought-iron mailbox to check the mail for my Gramps so he doesn’t have to walk down the narrow brick steps that evening to check it himself. I can walk up the steps, under the huge trees, across the cracked and rutted concrete driveway, past the American flag hanging from his porch banister, and up the four steps onto his front porch. I can ring the doorbell or use the iron knocker shaped like a lion’s head — knock, knock, knock! That particular sound that was only made by that one knocker on that one specific front door. In my mind, I can hear Gramps shout, “Com-ing!” and I can peer in the window alongside the door and watch him slowly climb up the steps from the family room, into the marble-floored entryway. Above him are the chandeliers that turn on with automatic timers, suffusing the hallway with golden light, and he flicks on the porch lights, which are blue. He has always had blue porch lights — the only house I’ve known with blue porch lights. In my mind, he unlocks the front door and it squeaks that particular squeak as it opens. I step inside, into his arms for a big hug. The house smells like his cinnamon bread, if he’s baked it that day. Or maybe it smells like the cleaning products the housekeeper used if she came recently. But, underneath all of that, it smells like Gramps’ house. There is no other place in the world that has this exact smell — Gramps, childhood, nostalgia, the past. My grandma. My family. It’s all here, in the air.

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If I walk inside the house in my memory and keep going straight, I’ll enter the kitchen, with the round table and yellow-padded kitchen chairs, the table piled high with newspaper crosswords and papers and photos and cards. I remember sitting down at this table with Gramps on mornings before I left Ventura, heading off for college or grad school, when I would stop by to visit him one more time to say goodbye before I left. It was rare for me to visit him in the morning — normally it was my aunt Kay who would visit him then, walking the neighborhood with her dog Troy, and they would stop by for a cup of coffee (Kay) and a peanut-butter dog biscuit (Troy) and mostly, for a chat and a visit. I remember the soft morning light through the sliding glass door, the scent of Gramps’ coffee in the air, his reading glasses on his nose as he worked on the newspaper’s crossword puzzle. In my mind, I can sit at that table with him still. I can look at the bookshelf piled with my grandma’s cookbooks. The built-in shelves housing figurines and mugs and delicate plates that my great-grandmother painted with beautiful flower patterns. I can stand up and walk across the kitchen, take one of the plastic blue glasses down from the cupboard, and get myself some water from the fridge. I can see the fridge, covered with photos of his grandchildren, a collage of holiday cards sent over the past decade. I can see, still taped to the side, a watercolor I made in eighth grade for him of an Audrey Rose, after my grandma. Taped to one of the cupboards is a drawing of Gramps’s house that my brother did in second grade, the teacher’s handwriting proclaiming “Good job, Greggie!” On the wall, I can see a framed recipe that my cousin Rhett wrote out in elementary school, decorated with glitter glue, for Grampie’s Bread — a favorite of all of us, an Amish recipe that took ten days to make, spiced with cinnamon, dense and cakey. The version Gramps made for us was more of a cake than a bread, studded with chocolate chips. He would make the bread with craisins during the holidays. The starter living in his fridge, ready and waiting for the next batch.

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In my mind, the past can come back to life again. I can stand beside the fridge with my grandma as she laughs and laughs, the freezer dispenser brokenly spewing crushed ice onto the floor. I can follow her out the sliding glass door and down the back steps into the yard, joining the rest of my cousins in the annual Easter egg hunt — hardboiled eggs outside, plastic eggs inside, Gramps dressed as the Easter Bunny. I can follow my cousins up the stairs and into the first room on the right, my dad’s old room — wood-paneled, with hundreds of tennis ball cans lined up on a shelf that trails around the room, still there from his tennis-playing days in junior high and high school — and make my way to the wooden chest at the foot of the bed. I can throw it open, sifting with my cousins through the “dress up clothes” and old Halloween costumes. The one I remember best is the Peter Pan hat. And I can follow my cousins down the blue-carpeted stairs, marching in our costumes in a giggly, giddy parade for the adults. Even though the costumes never changed, opening up that wooden chest always felt magical, filled with possibilities. I can follow Gramps through the attic up onto the roof, where my brother and I help him string up Christmas lights onto the iron latticework. I can laugh with my brother and Gramps at our puppy Gar as he makes a huge mess on the kitchen floor, splashing water as he drinks from his plastic Snoopy dog bowl. We always said that Gramps’ water must taste the best because Gar could never get enough. Even though Gar died eleven years ago, I can close my eyes and see him there still, tail wagging in Gramps’ kitchen.

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I can stand beside Gramps as he chops lettuce for salad at the butcher block kitchen island covered with his Ohio State Buckeyes red towel. I can watch him stir the rice and water in his covered dish, sliding it in the microwave. I always loved his Minute rice and he always laughed and told me how easy I was to please. I can smell the popcorn he used to make when my brother and I would come over on Mondays after school, pouring the popcorn from the bag into the big plastic yellow bowl, shaking Molly McButter over the whole thing. We would sit on the couch with him in the family room and watch cooking shows — Great Chefs of America came on at 4, followed immediately by Great Chefs around the World. Often we would fall asleep curled against Gramps’ belly, my brother on one side, me on the other. Then Mom would come by and pick us up on her way home from work; on Mondays, my dad worked nights at the newspaper. Sometimes she would bring pizza or Chinese takeout and we would stay for dinner, sitting around the table in the family room, the table with the wicker base that was hollow inside, that we used to hide in as small children, all of us grandkids, before we grew too big to fit.

Now that we’re down in the family room, I can wander around a little bit. There’s the closet where Gramps & Auden used to keep toys for us grandkids when we were little. I remember the tiny books I would pick out and read with my grandma on the couch. I remember the teddy bear that talked when you pressed his paw. I remember watching Flipper the Dolphin and Yogi Bear on TV. On the wall, the clock my dad and my Uncle Doug made as teenagers out of a wooden tennis racket. The big fireplace with the painting hanging above it that my brother made, an oil painting of him and his namesake, my Gramps’ dad Ansel. In the corner, Gramps’ ancient exercise bike that he used to ride in the mornings as he watched the news. The wooden coffee table, covered so completely with framed photos of Gramps’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that it looked like it might collapse at any moment from the weight. And the photo of my grandma on her wedding day. That beautiful hoop-skirted princess dress; her radiant smile. I can close my eyes and see it all. And a funny memory: long ago, before the coffee table was covered with framed photos, coming over to see Gramps after a family vacation when we had been away for a week or so. Our dog Gar was so excited to see Gramps that he raced down the stairs into the den, leaped over the couch, skidded across the coffee table, and landed in the fireplace. Gramps, who is infamous in our family for getting quite grouchy if you accidentally pressed the wrong button and messed up his TV remote or flicked the wrong light switch and messed up the automatic timers on his lights, said, “Oh Gar, are you okay honey?” Not mad in the least as Gar licked his face in jubilant greeting.

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Off the family room is the bathroom where, in shock, I changed out of my grubby jeans and tennis shoes into the skirt and sandals my mom brought for me, when Aunt Kymmie threw a surprise bridal shower for me two summers ago at Gramps’ house. Mom drove me up there right after Summer Writing Camp, ostensibly to say hi to Gramps, and I was totally floored when I opened the front door and my friends and family jumped up from the living room and shouted, “SURPRISE!!!” That was the same living room where we hosted my cousin Amanda’s bridal shower, and where we used to have huge Christmas Eve gatherings when my grandma was alive, with a white-flocked tree and an ocean of wrapping paper, and where as kids we loved to pick at the keys of the white grand piano. That was the hushed room, the fancy room, with my grandma’s Waterford and Wedgewood, the trinkets and treasures and figurines. I remember going around the room like it was a museum, my brother and I “helping” Gramps as he cleaned and dusted everything one spring, telling us the story of each object as he placed it back in its spot. I remember the fancy Christmas dinners at the large formal dining room table, and also the meal we had there the day I came back from studying abroad for a summer in Cambridge, England, so jet-lagged I almost fell asleep right at the table. And I remember setting up the big screen and the noisy machine and sitting in chairs with Gramps in the living room, as he clicked though slides from his and Auden’s honeymoon trip to Mt. Rushmore and the early days of their marriage in NYC.

I can walk into the warm, sunlit study filled with dusty hardcover books and papers and mementos. Gramps taking the ancient family Bible down off the shelf, carefully turning the thin pages for us, showing us the family records of births and marriages and deaths stretching back through the generations. I remember the delicate script handwriting, the awed sense of history I felt as I looked at those lists, the lives pared down to columns of names and dates. The comfort, to be part of that line. It made me feel small in a good way.

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Memories spill into each other– too many to record them all here. Memories stretch into memories into more memories. One of my earliest memories: climbing the stairs as a little girl up to Gramps and Auden’s bedroom. Sitting with them on their bed, facing backwards– looking out the window, watching the tree branches sway in the wind.

There were countless childhood afternoons that I took the bus home from school to Gramps’ neighborhood, trudging up the steep steep hill Via Pasito with the other neighborhood kids, our backpacks heavy on our shoulders, thumping against our backs. As we walked up the hill different kids would turn off when they reached their houses. I was always the last one left at the end. Gramps’ house was at the top of the hill. His backyard had an unbelievably gorgeous view of our town, laid out below like a quilted blanket, with the glittering ocean stretching out to the Channel Islands in the distance.

Now, so many of those homes are gone. Destroyed by fickle winds and savage flames.

But also, not destroyed completely. Maya Angelou said, “When you leave home, you take home with you.” These houses live on in all of our hearts. Our love is what made them homes– and what continues to make them so.

why i don’t want to be “the one that got away” {part 2}

{If you missed Part One, you can read it here!}

When we left off in our story, I had finally gotten over my crush on M and felt like we had a real friendship. In fact, he was one of my best friends. But then one night he came over and said exactly what I had wished for the previous year…

It felt like something out of a movie, or like a big joke. I kept waiting for him to laugh and say he was just messing with me, but I had never seen him more serious. He said that he really liked me, as more than just a friend. That he wanted to give us a shot. And I thought about how much I had hoped for this—that he would wake up and realize that, despite all evidence to the contrary and despite turning down countless opportunities to date me, he had actually been in love with me the whole time. If I had written this in a story for my Creative Writing workshop, my classmates would have lampooned the plot for being wholly unbelievable and contrived. Yet, here he was, earnestness in his eyes as he gently took my hand. I told him yes, of course, let’s give us a shot. There was a knot in my stomach, but I pushed it away.

M and I only dated for a couple weeks. I had thought my feelings for him would be like a faucet that I could turn on again, but in reality they were the embers of a fire that had gone out. I simply didn’t think of him that way anymore. My wish had come true—I was completely over him. What had I written in my journal? Someday, M is going to look back and regret that he treated me like this, and by then I’ll have moved on. It will be too late. That is exactly what had happened. I got exactly what I wished for.

And it was awful.

M seemed to take things well at first, and I thought we could still be friends. But when I started dating someone else, he became mopey and awkward. Our friendship withered away. I only saw him occasionally, at group hang-outs and parties, and I never knew what to say to him. Our other friends grew annoyed, complaining that he talked incessantly about how to win me back. In truth, he didn’t even know me anymore. I wasn’t a real person to him; I was a prize atop a pedestal. I was “the one that got away.” I have a memory of one party towards the end of senior year, when I spent a while talking to him, listing out all of my bad habits, trying to convince him of all the reasons why he didn’t want to date me. That seems like it should be a symbol for something.

I haven’t talked to M in a long time. I hope he is doing well. I hope he has fallen madly in love and is exceedingly happy.

I think about M whenever the topic of revenge comes up. I think revenge is a deeply human emotion. It seems only natural to be hurting and to want someone else to hurt too. To feel unappreciated, and to want someone else to appreciate you too late. To feel unseen, and to want someone else to feel regret for what they missed. I believe that revenge is tied to vulnerability. We open ourselves up to someone and it goes badly—we feel too deeply and messily and hungrily—and we want to regain our sense of control. We want someone else to be vulnerable instead. I think that is at the root of revenge. It certainly was for me. I wouldn’t have called it “revenge” but in essence that’s what it was: I wanted to punish M for breaking my heart. I wanted him to always regret not loving me back, not opening up to me when I was vulnerable with him. At the time, it felt like I would always be hurting. It felt like I would never be enough for someone else. Looking back, that all seems so silly now. He was just doing his best, same as I was. We are all bumbling through life without an answer key. We are all just doing the best we can.

If I had a time machine, I would go back to freshman year of college and tell myself not to waste wishes on regret. I would tell myself not to yearn to be anybody’s “one who got away.” I would tell myself that I would end up with an amazing man who never plays any games, who loves and appreciates me and tells me so every day, and that is the ultimate prize. That it doesn’t cheapen my happiness to wish the same for everyone else, including everyone who has hurt me or broken my heart. Because I have hurt people, too. No one gets out of this life with their heart unscarred.

I read somewhere once that loving someone wholeheartedly—even when your heart gets broken—just means that you have built the capacity to love wholeheartedly again. I don’t want to be “the one that got away.” I want to be the small love who was preparation for the big love that lasts, the big love that was meant to be.

My mom always says, “The best revenge is to live a happy life.” I agree. Instead of plotting ways to “get back” at someone else, put that energy into making your own life as vibrant and joyful and beautiful as it can be. Build up your own happiness, rather than wanting to tear down someone else’s happiness. Yes, the best revenge is to live a happy life… and, I would add, to genuinely wish the best for the person who hurt you.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Open your journal or a new document on your computer and use the following questions as jumping-off points for some heart-writing:

  • Write about a time someone broke your heart. How did you heal? What did you learn from that experience, painful as it might have been?
  • Write about a time you broke someone else’s heart. What did you learn from that experience?
  • Have you ever gotten exactly what you wished for?
  • Write about a time you wanted revenge or experienced regret.

sautéing my way through grief

Hi everyone! I wanted to share with you a piece I have published on Modern Loss, about how cooking has been a helpful grieving process for me in the aftermath of my dear friend Céline’s death. You can read the piece on Modern Loss here, which also includes a few of my favorite recipes.

The first week after my friend Céline died in a car accident, I barely ate at all. I was too consumed by grief to even think about food.

The second week, my appetite was back and I craved junk. Potato chips, cookies, greasy burgers. You know, college food — which, in a way, made sense.

Ten years before she died, I met Céline on the very first day of college, as I was unpacking my clothes and trying to suppress my anxiety. Céline knocked on my door. She said she lived across the hall and asked if I wanted a popsicle. I chose cherry; she picked orange. Then we sat on my bed and chatted. With her stylish asymmetrical haircut and dangly earrings, she seemed way too cool to be my friend — I figured we would be dorm-acquaintances before drifting apart sophomore year. But that was okay. Céline had a wonderful warm presence that you were just grateful to bask in for as long as you could…

Read the rest of the piece here.

 

Here are some other posts I’ve written about grief:

a letter to the tree they cut down outside our apartment window

Dear Tree,

I’m sorry I haven’t properly introduced myself before. I’m Dallas, and I live in this apartment with my husband Allyn, and I have loved you since the first day we moved in one year and two months ago. In fact, you were one of the first things I noticed about the apartment when we were looking at potential places to live around the city. I fell in love with your tall, thick-leaved, beautiful branches, stretching over the apartment balcony in a protective way. Your limbs waved slightly in the breeze — friendly, as if you were saying hello.

Over the next fourteen months, you gave us so much without ever asking for anything in return. During the extremely hot summer, you provided welcome shade from the harsh midday sun. Your pretty branches gave us some privacy from the neighbors all around us, making our apartment feel more secluded. When we dined al fresco on our little balcony, your lush leaves reminded me of the time we traveled to Spain and ate outdoors, and our home-cooked meal felt a tad bit fancier. My writing desk is situated right beside the window that looked out at you, and when I was feeling stuck I would gaze out at your greenery. You made me feel calm and inspired. If that wasn’t enough, birds perched on your branches and serenaded us. What more could we ask for in a companion, dear tree?

I wish I had told you all of this sooner. Sure, I appreciated you, but it was in the absent-minded way you appreciate things you take for granted. Things you think will be around forever.

{you provided such a lovely backdrop for our save-the-date photo}

A few weeks ago, the building manager knocked on our door and gave us the news. It was so unexpected. He said that you were old, and that with all of the storms lately you had become a danger. Trees fall over onto houses and apartments and sometimes they do damage and sometimes they hurt people. He said you were impeding on the apartment below us and next to us. He said you had to come down and that was that. There was nothing we could do. We don’t own the property — we are just renters — and so we don’t own you.

When the men came to cut you down, I couldn’t watch. I felt sick and sad and I kept thinking of this Jack Johnson song with lyrics about a tree that burns down. I promise, tree, that one day, Allyn and I will have a house of our own and we will plant lots of your brothers and sisters in our yard. Until then, I want you to know that I donated to The Nature Conservancy to plant a tree in honor of you.

We miss you, dear tree. We miss you a lot. We miss your shade and your beauty. We miss your quiet presence. We miss your wisdom that reminded us of the world that was here before we came onto the scene, and the world that will be here after we leave, and that maybe our problems aren’t so big after all, and maybe our lives are a little more precious than we make them out to be in the day-to-day tasks and busyness. When I think of you, tree, I think of how you were once a small seedling, and then a sapling, and how you just kept growing and growing and growing towards the sunlight. I want to be like you. I want to have your patience and your fortitude, your generosity and your grace.

Your final lesson to me was to focus even more of my energy on appreciating the lovely little details in my life. I loved you while you were alive, but I wish I had been even more present to your presence. I wish I had thanked you every day and marveled every day at the magic of having you in our lives, sheltering our little apartment and sharing your shade with us. You have reminded me of the fleeting nature of this life, and because of you I am hugging the things I love a little tighter, a little closer, a little fiercer. Because of you, I notice and appreciate all the other trees I come across {even though none of them are quite as beautiful as you} and because of you, I am saying prayers of gratitude for all the everyday riches in my imperfect, messy life.

Love,
Dallas

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • Write a letter to a tree that has been meaningful in your life.
  • Write a letter to a different object {natural or man-made} or a place that has mattered to you.
  • What is something small in your life that you can appreciate and be grateful for, right this very moment?

my slobbery, comforting shadow

Hi friends! Just wanted to let you know that my essay “My Slobbery, Comforting Shadow” — about how our beloved family dog Murray helped me during a difficult time of my life — was recently published on the website Sweatpants and Coffee. You can read it here.

“Welcome home, honey,” my mom said, ushering me inside the front door of my childhood house. My dad followed close behind with my suitcases. As soon as we stepped through the door, we were greeted by a wriggling 82-pound bundle of brown-furred energy: our family dog, a boxer named Murray. I hadn’t seen him in five months, not since I had been home for Christmas. He yelped and barked with joy, leaping up to kiss my face, then running around the living room—his own version of welcoming me home.

“It’s good to be back,” I said, petting Murray’s head. He slobbered all over my hand, but I didn’t mind.

“I’m going to make you a sandwich,” my mom said, heading into the kitchen. “I can tell you haven’t been eating enough.”

I didn’t argue—I hadn’t really been eating or sleeping much the past month and a half, not since my engagement had quite suddenly but irrevocably unraveled….

Read the rest of the piece here: http://sweatpantsandcoffee.com/personal-essays-slobbery-comforting-shadow/ 

happy birthday céline

roomie party

My dear friend Céline would have been 27 today. It’s such a strange occasion, the first birthday since her death, because it’s like my brain is still used to May 4th being a joyous day of celebration, and I keep feeling bowled over by these waves of sadness. I miss her a lot.

My friend Trish from church, who has been meeting with me every so often to talk about Céline, recommended that I do something special to commemorate today. She said grieving can often be more difficult if special occasions are just experienced as “a normal day.” So I brainstormed things I could do to honor and celebrate Céline. Here’s what I came up with:

  • A morning phone date with Holly. I wish we could be together today, and in the future we hope to make it a priority to be together on Céline’s birthday — it just wasn’t possible this year. Being together on the phone was the next-best thing.

celine me holly

  • Baking cupcakes! Specifically, funfetti cupcakes with cream-cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles. These are what I would make for Céline if we were together celebrating her birthday today. She always made the best birthday cakes and cream-cheese frosting was a favorite of our apartment in college. We actually referred to our place as “The Cream-Cheese Frosting” when we would have parties!

cupcakes

  • I packed a picnic lunch and met up with Allyn for a walk around the Lafayette Reservoir, one of my favorite places in the Bay Area to soak up nature. I haven’t been hiking since my leg injury in January, so it was be exciting to be back out there on the trails. The Reservoir is somewhere I would have loved to take Céline if she had visited me here.

Lafayette Reservoir

  • I wore the beautiful bangle bracelets that were hers, that her mom gave me after Céline’s funeral.

celines bracelets

  • Tonight my aunt Annie and cousin Arianna sweetly took me out to dinner. They have been so great at listening to me talk and tell stories about Céline. Annie lost her best friend to cancer five years ago, and she has been very understanding and has given me advice about what has helped her grieve, and also keep her friend’s memory alive.

annie arianna my bday

  • I was extra gentle to myself today, taking time to journal, read, listen to music, look at pictures, and go through some of our old emails and messages to each other. My family was also wonderfully supportive, sending me loving text messages and notes throughout the day.

I want to end by sharing a poem my brother sent me written by John O’Donohue. This verse has been so comforting for me, especially today:

“As the embrace of the earth
Welcomes all we call death,
Taking deep into itself
The tight solitude of a seed,
Allowing it time
To shed the grip of former form
And give way to a deeper generosity
That will one day send it forth,
A tree into springtime.”

Happy birthday, dear Céline. I will try to honor your memory not just today, but every single day, with the compassion and kindness and joy that you embodied each day of your much-too-short life.

We miss you. We love you. Always.

Celebrating your 21st birthday... what a fun night that was!

Celebrating your 21st birthday… what a fun night that was!

gratitude in the midst of grief

Hello, lovely people! Thank you for taking the time to send such sweet messages and words of love after my last post. It helps to write about Celine, her incredible life, my memories, our friendship; about all the ways I miss her and all the ways she impacted my life.

Her funeral was this weekend. I flew down to Los Angeles and returned to the Bay Area yesterday morning. To be honest, in many ways I was dreading Celine’s funeral. I knew that attending her funeral would make her death seem more real, and a part of me wanted to just keep living in denial, pretending that Celine is off adventuring around the world as she so loved to do. {Have you ever met a 26-year-old who has been to 37 countries??}

me and celine

It was a surreal and sad and emotional and exhausting weekend… but it was a beautiful weekend, too. In the midst of such overwhelming grief, I was not expecting to feel grateful. But I was struck by moments of stunning gratitude, like slivers of sunlight bursting down through the rainclouds.

Here are some things I am grateful for:

  • Celine was pursuing her dreams, living a life she loved. She lived with urgency and passion. She did not put off her dreams until some indeterminate future. She was not working at some miserable job she hated. She was happy.
  • As many said at her funeral, Celine lived more in her two-and-a-half decades than many people do in 80+ years. The priest asked us to think about all the things Celine WAS able to do during her lifetime, instead of focusing on what she didn’t do. I think that is good advice.

celine funeral

  • Celine’s brother Cameron, who was also in the car accident, is headed for a full recovery. He is home from the hospital and it felt like a miracle to be able to hug him at the funeral.
  • At the time of her death, Celine was having a really amazing time in India. Cameron showed us dozens of photos and videos on his phone of the two of them smiling and posing and being goofy. Celine was radiant. It was a comfort to see her so filled with joy in her final days.

celine and cameron india

  • Celine’s family has been so generous in their grieving. They are giving all of us who loved her plenty of time and space to pay our respects and say goodbye. Spending time with her family and friends, sharing stories, laughing about her zany antics, and remembering all the love she showered on the world, was exactly what my heart and soul needed.
  • Being able to spend a few days with other people who knew and love Celine felt like being able to put down a heavy backpack I hadn’t even realized I was carrying. To me, one of the hardest and strangest parts of grieving is navigating the real world — everyday tasks, errands, work duties, small talk — while within you this deep loss is throbbing, an unacknowledged wound. Surrounded by people who were also grieving Celine, it felt like we all shared the same subtext. Even when we weren’t talking about her, we were. Even when we were laughing about some random memory, underneath it we were all saying the same thing: I can’t believe she’s really gone.

joie

  • Seeing people I hadn’t seen in a long time, hugging them, and crying with them, was more of a comfort than I could have imagined. I was happily surprised to see a few acquaintances from college who came to pay their respects. It felt really meaningful to see them there. Even people who did not know Celine very well were still deeply touched by her life.
  • My brother came with me to the funeral and the cemetery, and held my hand the entire time. He is my rock. The whole weekend he was sweetly, protectively attentive — for example, at the church when I was in the restroom for a little longer than normal, he asked Holly to go check on me to make sure I was okay. He is thoughtful and caring, a wonderful listener, and always there for me. I don’t know what I would do without him.

me and greg

  • I will never forget the moment I walked into the church and glimpsed Holly at the same time she turned and saw me. I just remember running to her. I was shaking as we held each other and cried.
  • The service was beautiful. Celine’s cousin Anne-marie and Holly both gave lovely readings. Celine’s friend Claire gave a stunning eulogy that captured her perfectly. The songs were perfect; I will never again hear Hallelujah without crying.
  • After the funeral, Celine’s family held a reception at their home, and towards the end a few of us made our way up to Celine’s bedroom. It felt surreal, yet peaceful, to be sitting up there among her things. So many memories! In her closet was this teal mermaid dress that I’m not sure anybody but Celine could pull off:

teal mermaid dress

  • Celine’s mom gave each of us some of her things to take back with us. I was so grateful to receive a Valentine I had given Celine freshman year of college {she kept it all these years!} and a note Holly and I wrote her during the Geology class the three of us took together junior year. Celine’s mom also gave me some gorgeous bracelets of hers and her rainbow purse that makes me smile whenever I see it.

celine purse and bracelets

  • Mostly, I keep feeling grateful that Celine and I were good. I knew how much she loved me. She knew how much I loved her. I wish we had more time together — SO much more time — but I know that more time would not have changed the essence of our friendship. I have no regrets. There were so many words as-yet-unsaid, so many stories that haven’t happened yet that I wish I could share with her… but at the same time, when you get down to what really matters, there were NO words left unsaid. My last message to Celine, about two weeks before she died, said simply: “Thinking of you. ❤ Missing you. <3” Her last words to me were: “I miss you so much!! more updates soon, love you!!”
  • The day of the funeral, my fourth-grade teacher {who is now a dear friend} sent me these words that have become a new touchstone in my faith:

Love is so much bigger than the vessels we live in

and somehow it lasts even after the vessels wear out.

ocean

a year of living simply: week 5

Hello everyone, and happy Wednesday! Hope you are having a great week so far. My week has been a mixture of “grown-up” things like getting my tax stuff in order and scheduling doctor’s appointments and going shopping to keep my fridge stocked with veggies; and restorative time reading, journaling, talking to my family, and soaking up time with friends old and new. I also met with two wonderful women from my church to talk a bit about Celine and how much I miss her. Sometimes I feel the need to cocoon myself, but other times it just feels good to talk about her.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’ve been thinking a lot about this last sentence of my simplicity challenge summary: We’ll reflect on what truly matters to us, and why, and what we hope to do with that knowledge.

year of living simply

Celine’s sudden death has shifted my attention to the big-picture things. I’ve been asking myself:

What do I want my legacy to be?

I want to brighten the lives of other people. I want to spread joy and kindness. I want to write books and blog posts and stories and articles that make people feel comforted, supported, inspired, and understood. I want the kids I teach and tutor to feel more confident and proud of themselves. I want to plant the seeds of trees that will provide shade for future generations. I want to help causes greater than myself. I want my loved ones to *know* how much I love them, and to always feel like I have time for them. I want them to know, always, without a doubt, how important they are to me. I want my legacy to be a ray of sunshine that makes other people smile.

Last week’s challenge was to do some free-writing or journaling about your WHY for simplifying your life.

  • What do you want to make room for?
  • What do you want to get rid of {physically and emotionally}?
  • How do you want to feel?

I want to simplify my life to make room for what’s most important to me: namely, my passions and the people I love. I want to feel like I have TIME, like my days aren’t just flying by mindlessly. I want to notice and savor the everyday moments of beauty in my life. I want to feel energized and excited and FREE.

Since writing is my passion and a major vehicle I use to spread joy and connection in the world, I realized I need to set aside some time to simplify and organize the backbone of my writing life: my computer files.

This week’s challenge is to get digitally organized and simplified! Delete unnecessary files; clean out your Downloads folder; organize your Word documents into folders; clean up your Desktop. Even if you’re not a writer, I’m willing to bet you use your computer every day and it contains files important to your life and your dreams.