Gratitude for Our Week in the Woods

I spent last week with my 16-year-old grandson, Julian, and a group of Sierra Club volunteers in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont – and while I’m sorry to say we did not have quite as transformative a time as I’d dreamed we would (despite how much I enjoyed being with my grandson and the other volunteers), I am still discovering unexpected benefits days after I got home. Overall, our week in the woods seems to have been well worth the triggering of my anopheliphobia*

I took my biological children on a volunteer vacation a dozen years ago, when they were 16 and 14, and we all found the experience life-changing and inspiring. We helped build a house in the Dominican Republic with a youthful Habitat for Humanity team of mostly

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Our young work crew and the kids who came to play every day in the D.R.

30-somethings. We were surrounded each day by adorable Dominican children who excitedly welcomed us to read, draw, or play ball games with

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My son Kyle juggling.

them whenever we took a break from the hard, hot work we were doing mixing cement or laying masonry blocks. For dinners, we walked to simple, local restaurants and ate til we were bursting, our bodies hungry for more fuel to compensate for the extreme labor we were doing during the day; sometimes we went dancing afterward to local music.

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There was a kind of crazy amount of dancing on that volunteer trip! But dancing seemed out of the question on our Sierra Club trip.

At night, we slept in an extremely low-budget motel that nevertheless featured an ancient air conditioner, flushing toilet and weak shower in each room. When we needed anything, townspeople were beyond gracious, giving us rides, bargaining in Spanish to get us better prices, thanking us for being there. We were struck most by the extreme warmth of the Dominican people and by their ability to find happiness in any circumstance. I know none of us ever viewed our own privilege the same way again.

I would have loved to take my grandson on a similar adventure, but I haven’t worked outside the home for two years now. Driving to Vermont to work with the Sierra Club cost less than a quarter of what it would have cost for us to help Habitat build a home in another country (yet still ate up a third of all the savings I had left, a worry for another column). Besides, I love being in nature, and I thought the act of giving our time and muscle to help make forestry improvements would feel rewarding in its own way. Most of all, I was excited to spend a week camping with my grandson, whom I hadn’t seen in a year and a half.

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Julian last time I saw him.

 

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Julian now — he’s almost as tall as Renee (and towers over me, obviously).

The time with Julian exceeded my hopes; what a treasure he is! He’s grown up into a thoughtful, handsome young man with hopes of becoming a math teacher, his voice now deep and his upper lip dusted in downy dark hair. We played lots of games together—Mastermind, Battleship, and Cribbage—allowing him to show off his quick logic and img_1389execution of strategy with masterful, winning displays. Though I’d always thought of him as shy, he readily participated in all the ice-breaker and team-building exercises and made us laugh with the humor in his answers. He was the youngest person there by 37 years and I was the next youngest, at 53, by at least another 10, but he was always happy to participate in the group meals and activities. He jumped up to help the cook fetch water from a far-off pump without anyone even asking, and he threw himself into our work assignments with energy and no complaints. (He even learned to make chili! Parents needing dinner made, take note.)

I loved most when we climbed into the tent at night and lay side by side talking into the dark; Julian’s a good listener who absorbs and contemplates, sometimes coming up with insights into earlier conversations days later, surprising me with his depth.

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Kalyn and Julian — lucky to discover our tent site had Wifi.

As with all three of my grandchildren, I’ve known this boy since the moment he was born, as I stood by Amy’s and Brian’s sides in the delivery room. I’ve watched as he was doted on by my tween children as a toddler, disneygroupespecially during our family trip to Disney World when he was three. I saw him gain courage as he moved from scared kindergartner to “talented and gifted” student. I worried when he struggled to make friends when he first moved to South Carolina, then was reassured to see him with a good friend group in junior high. At 13, he read poetry at my wedding — and then three weeks later read another poem at my son’s funeral; he was a quiet comfort to me during  the worst of my mourning.

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My about-to-be wife helping with ring-bearing duties.

And this year I’ve been overjoyed seeing how happy he and his beautiful girlfriend are with one another; he was looking forward to going to church with her and her family the morning after he flew home. I basically couldn’t be prouder of him and am so grateful to him and his parents that I had this week to get to know his new, more adult self better.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, the work we were asked to do—removing plastic tubing from a mountain side, pulling photo-toxic weeds from a forest entrance, stripping paint from picnic tables that needed repainting, hanging camping site numbers on posts—felt like busy work rather than an invaluable contribution. The weeds we pulled were ubiquitous on every road side, so our pulling them for eight hours felt like it couldn’t possibly matter (though I understand we were helping to keep them from spreading past that one entrance deeper into the forest). I couldn’t shake the suspicion that if we weren’t doing the work, someone else would do it – or it would go undone, which didn’t feel like it would much matter. Also, our fellow volunteers were all over 60 (the cook was nearly 80!) and needed early bedtimes, so we enjoyed only brief nighttime activities (and were chided  the night we stayed up a little later to make our own campfire). We also had to volunteer for two shifts of helping the cook, an unexpected task that cut into our already limited down time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“If only we could be greeted by some cheering Dominican kids,”  Julian deadpanned after hearing about my previous volunteer trip, “maybe we would feel this work was meaningful, too.”

Our camping and working conditions were the greatest challenge. We shared a tiny tent that let water soak in the sides and sop our sleeping bags the night it poured rain. There were no sinks, no showers and no flushing toilets for at least 30 miles. Our central campsite was beside a swampy bog infested with mosquitoes, prompting me to cover myself head to toe in a spacesuit-like mosquito-netting outfit that left me sweaty, grouchy and challenged in bringing food or water to my net-covered mouth. Our work sites were in equally deep-woods areas, and I couldn’t understand how some of the volunteers walked around with their faces exposed when my own face was surrounded the entire day by whining insects trying (unsuccessfully, thank god) to get past my netting. (Julian refused to wear the screen suit I bought him and spent much of his time slapping mosquitoes between his palms when they flew around his face; his knees still got eaten alive, though, poor kid.) The meals felt a bit like a survival-of-the-fittest test, as there was never quite enough food to go around, so if you didn’t grab your share early, you were likely to find the main course and side dishes mostly  gone. And there was very little down time built into the trip for journaling, reading, or thinking.

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We got to enjoy our day alone at the lake after all.

There were no group campfires except the one I arranged at our site. When I planned to take Julian for a lake outing on our day off, I was told we had to stay in groups of three for safety purposes, even on our time off, though I could find no mention of this rule in any of the materials we were given. (This wound up not being enforced but left us worried for the first half of the trip that we would never be allowed to spend time alone.) Our group leader, though well-intentioned, was a bit pedantic. When he ordered me to “Get to bed early!” when announcing breakfast would be served two and a half hours before we were starting our volunteer work the next day, I had to bite my tongue so as not to set an argumentative example for my humble, polite, deferential grandson.

No one wants to be the complainer on a volunteer trip, so I tried to follow Julian’s no-negativity example and enjoy our new friendships with the other volunteers. Among them was a Vietnam vet with MS who told me vets suffer from that disease and ALS at much higher rates than the civilian population (who knew?); a retired nurse who is working to save chimney swifts as their habitat is destroyed in her local community; a couple, a retired teacher and still-practicing professional pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall, who have no cell phones but have camped all over the country and were doing their eighth service trip; our 78-year-old cook, who flew in from Chicago to make the trip possible after the previous cook had to drop out; and the only other woman who wore a screen around her head most of the time–yet was on her 24th Sierra Club service trip. (!) img_1392.jpgThey were all people with rich lives who were using their vacation time and dollars to save the environment and improve life for campers and forest creatures, and Julian and I felt inspired just being in their company. Which, now that the trip is over and I am not struggling against bug bites, rain and hunger, means maybe we deserve to feel a little good about what we accomplished there, as well.

As with most endeavors to make change, our little efforts seem like a plink in the bucket, but knowing we contributed to the 27,000 hours of volunteer service provided by the Sierra Club around the world each year feels pretty good. (Click here for more information about Sierra Club volunteer vacations or here for an overview of our trip specifically. )

Possibly promising “outdoor ecstasy” in the event name may have been overselling the experience just a bit, but the long-term benefits are still hitting me. Last night when I took the dog out to pee in my quiet backyard, I heard all kinds of hooting sounds and peepers chorusing and stood listening for several minutes, amazed I’d never noticed all the animals teeming and calling in the grass and trees right near my home. Being in the woods for a week with people who cared about those animals, who could identify which kinds of birds and frogs and chipmunks were singing and calling, people who paid attention to what kind of trees and plants were growing around us, heightened my own perception of the natural world. I feel opened up to nature in a subtle but deeper way for having spent a week with true nature lovers — even if there was no dancing.

Julian, I’m not sure you had quite the college-essay-level experience we fantasized before we went, but you gave me a great week of fun and restored my faith in myself as a grandma at a time when I really needed it. Even though you are in the bloom of first love and your summer vacation had just begun, you didn’t hesitate to say yes to my offer to drop everything and come on this trip, and that was remarkable in itself. I was grateful to feel the love I’ve poured into you all your life flowing right back at me, something I found extra special coming from a 16-year-old boy. Thank you for being such a sweet, unspoiled kid – and for all the ways you inspire me. I look forward to seeing you again later this summer when I go have my experience (whatever we decide it will be) with your brother, Logan. Your parents should be very proud of both of you.

 

* anopheliphobia is a fear of itch-inducing insect bites.

 

Advice for When Your Child Dies of An Overdose

  1. Don’t look for what you could have done differently, though of course this will be your mind’s number one ocmy feministcupation now. Find and practice a trick to refocus yourself – perhaps breathing deeply in, then out. If you can stop searching for how you could have saved your child for more than a minute at a time, consider yourself ahead.
  2. Make self-care your #1 job. Daily yoga will make you stretch your body once a day, which is better than nothing. Make better-than-nothing your new aspirational standard.
  3. Ask for what you need. Your friends and family will never be more willing than they are right now to help you. Don’t feel guilty asking. Whether you ask or not, they’ll all stop waiting on you in a few weeks or months, so you may as well get some needs met now.
  4. Believe any signs that suggest your child is contacting you from the great beyond. No matter what faith you possessed or didn’t before, now is the time for a full suspension of disbelief. Lights flickering? That’s your child. Cardinal outside your window? Thank your child for visiting. Who cares if it’s real? Refer back to better-than-nothing.
  5. Let yourself cry, out loud with messy tears, anywhere and everywhere. Tell strangers your child died; show them his picture. This will help others keep their own petty problems in perspective – or, sometimes, it will help you connect with someone else who’s been there.
  6. Write to your child’s friends, thanking them disproportionately for any role they played in your child’s happiness. These people are the last ones who will ever remember your child with you, and you’ll want to keep in touch with them.
  7. Bury your face in your child’s old shirts searching for his scent. Keep tucked away any clothes that still smell of him. (Thank his girlfriend for leaving you a bottle of his cologne for desperate moments.) Go through his journals, emails, Facebook and Messenger apps and save every word he ever wrote. These are the last words he’ll ever write; maybe someday you’ll feel strong enough to read through them. Make photo and word scrapbooks of his life. Refer back to #1.
  8. Keep a grief journal and read books and websites about grief. It helps to see how many others have suffered this and other terrible losses and survived. Avoid websites of hopeless misery where other mothers swear it never gets better. It does. Really.
  9. Forgive yourself for your brain fog, your shakiness, your forgetfulness, your vomiting, your panic attacks, your flashes of rage at innocent bystanders. Let yourself use marijuana as medicine – alcohol, too, if you can be moderate and not get maudlin on it. Don’t worry about if you’ll always be this much of a mess. You won’t be, but you don’t need to figure out a schedule for your recovery now.
  10. Eventually, start reading a bit about Post-Traumatic Growth. Your child’s death has changed you forever. Someday you’ll get to decide if that change made you more bitter and shrunken or more compassionate and open-hearted… But don’t rush it; you will need to be bitter and shrunken for a while before you get to the growth that’s being forced upon you.
  11. Punch in the face anyone who tells you that “everything happens for a reason,” “you’ll be with them soon,” “God has a plan but we don’t get to know what it is,” or “your child is in a better place now.” If you don’t approve of violence, just tell those who say these things that they must be sad their child is still alive instead of in that better place they’re so excited about.
  12. If your child left behind a child, don’t contemplate your grandchildren with terror in your heart. Remember your grandchild is an individual not cursed to repeat your child’s fate. Don’t waste your grandchildren’s lives worrying they’re doomed. Remember how much of the last years of your child’s life you wasted, overcome as you were by terror and despair, and do your best to enjoy each precious moment with each precious loved one left alive in your life.

 

Another Year in the Books

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Here is a shot of Kyle on Santa’s lap when he was 4 and of his daughter, Maggie, when she was.

Here’s Maggie surrounded by her immediate family in South Hadley:057

I see that it’s been nearly a year since I posted here, and reading through my blog made me want to take a moment to report on how much better I’m feeling. This year, in which I was able to be at home not working for an income, helping my family settle in and eventually turning to writing full-time, was a true gift — but I was often so busy living it that I didn’t make time to write about it, so here’s a run-down:

Amber and Maggie moved here from Southern California in late December of 2017 and now have their own apartment in our town. My daughter Jamie moved here from Oregon and found an apartment in Northampton. And my mother seems finally settled in her third apartment, this one in South Hadley.  There have been some adjustment pains, as you might imagine, but overall I think we are doing beautifully well.

Over the summer, spurred on by my daughter asking what I was doing with my life, I started submitting my poetry in earnest. This has been a disheartening process, but I’ve had some successes. Three of the 27 places to which I submitted accepted my poetry for publication, and one of the places I applied for a fellowship gave me one, so I got to spend a week in December doing nothing but writing. I worked on memoir poems and scrapbooks of my mothering life and then came home, where I haven’t written a word until now.  But I’m getting back to it now, and that’s what matters.

 

A POEM FOR MY 52ND BIRTHDAY

A POEM FOR MY 52ND BIRTHDAY
The only year I will ever be twice the age
of both my children, the living and the dead

What in your life is calling you,
when all the noise is silenced,
the meetings adjourned,
the lists laid aside,
and the wild iris blooms
by itself in the dark forest.
What still pulls on your soul?
— Rumi

Today I am 52 —
I have spun around the sun
as many times
as there are weeks in each year
and twice as many as my son,
who loved spinning until
he fell down, ever will.

The Mayans marked eras in calendar
rounds of 52 years, each year’s end
opening a portal to the underworld.
I’ve eagerly straddled that divide,
but in math, 52’s an untouchable
number, never the sum of its divisors,
so today I was forced to choose

To start my next era, to embrace
having survived as many years
as there are playing cards in a deck,
laps in the British Grand Prix,
white keys on the piano, upper
and lowercase letters in our alphabet, and
pickups in a game that brings you to your knees.

52 is the atomic number of tellurium,
a rare, shimmering crystal elementally
more precious than platinum.
Discovering my worth at 52,
I’ve gotten rid of the jokers
so I can play with a full deck
the hand I’ve been dealt.

Here among the living, I will be double
my daughter’s age for just this one year,
old enough to know such coincidences
won’t come twice,
we’ll only get so many invitations to the table,
so many chances to turn a bad deal
into a hand we can play. At 52, I’m all in.

 

Happy Holidays from the Upside Down

I am mostly doing really well, honestly, but this past Saturday night I cried until mascara made black half-moons under my eyes while Renee and I walked our dog. (Renee gets bonus points for acting unembarrassed by my sobbing on Rt. 116 as I picked up Lola’s poop.)  I’d held myself together for Thanksgiving, but two days later the realization hit me: No matter how much gratitude I practice nor how many new traditions I embrace, I will always have a giant hole in every single special day in my life, forever. Understanding I was permanently damaged just made me cry.

Our Thanksgiving was lovely, spent with my wife, my mom, and old and new friends, cooking, drinking mulled wine, feasting, and crafting collages about our gratitude.  But all day long I felt like I was experiencing the day from behind glass. thanksgivingI was there but not there. I knew what words to paste and images to clip out for my collage – love, poetry, nature, friendship, rest. I knew how to play hostess and thank my dear friends for spending the day with me. But the absence of Kyle in the world – and my extra-acute awareness of his absence — felt bigger than anything happening right in front of me.

Having to act normal, let alone festive, when the day had that huge hollow center was exhausting.  (In fact, I threw up Thanksgiving evening before the first guests left and several more times since then, which is a bummer, as I thought I had my mysterious cyclic vomiting thing licked, but more on that another time.)

thanksgiving collageUntil now, every holiday since my son’s death has been a first – first birthdays without him, first Christmas without him, etc. For all these firsts, it seemed only right that our open, messy mourning would dominate the day. But this year’s holiday marked our first second – this was our second Thanksgiving with Kyle dead… Soon we’ll have the second Christmas without him alive. And it has become clear to me that each year, we’re going to be expected to act a little less sad. Mercifully, I am less hysterical and shaky than I was the first year, more able to practice normalcy – but it turns out I’m no less heartbroken.

I’ve been working hard on gratitude and acceptance. To help keep my Thanksgiving focus on the blessings of friendship and love I still have in my life, I created a slide show of photos of all the loved ones coming to dinner on Thanksgiving. We all enjoyed seeing it play throughout the day. But at the end of the night, I felt compelled to try to convey my underlying sorrow, so I briefly played on repeat a 5-second video of Kyle laughing and talked about how haunted I’d been by the sound of it after I’d stumbled across it while making the slide show. Everyone who heard it was suitably saddened.  But why did I do that? Sharing my sadness does not relieve it. Amplifying my grief by making others feel it with me only makes me sadder – and then I feel regretful about ruining someone else’s mood. There is nothing new or helpful left to say about how sad it is that Kyle’s gone. There is now only a hole that we all have to accept and step around.

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Here is Kyle getting a potato masher for Christmas in 2011; mashed potatoes were his favorite part of holiday meals.

Holidays and other special occasions when Kyle and I would always have been in touch, if not together, make the hole he left yawn even bigger.

My delayed tears flowed when I realized that the widened pull of the hole – like the dark opening to the Upside Down in Stranger Things — was always going to make holidays scary. Special days will now include a maw opening into an even larger well of grief than I am already facing on regular days. So now this whole month leading up to Christmas (I’m Jewish, but was raised celebrating Christmas) has an ominous spirit. Even worse, I feel this same fear when I know I’ll be seeing Kyle’s daughter; she’s delightful but is also a constant reminder of what he is missing; her most precious moments open the hole widest of all.

I do know that a form of this grief is universal at the holidays, even when we aren’t mourning – because holidays are often a reminder of how our families are seldom quite what we want them to be. The gap between our hopes and our realities can be vast, particularly if we’re aiming for a  perfect Hallmark holiday free of criticism and disappointment. Divorce, mentally ill family members, not having the money to buy the presents our kids want, all of these can create their own holes.  Even in the best years, when everyone I loved was gathered in my warm and cozy house cooking and laughing together. there were still tensions and squabbles, judgments and tears.

So for Day 28 in my month of gratitude, I return to acceptance. I am grateful for what is still good (so so much, and I never forget it), grateful that technology let me end my Thanksgiving night with a video chat with my daughter and a video performance and reading by Kyle’s daughter, maggieamberskype.jpggrateful that Jamie had a good celebration with friends and that Amy made her husband a heart-filled treasure hunt for his birthday, grateful for my mom living near enough for a sleepover on Thanksgiving night, grateful the universe put two wonderful pseudo daughters, Priyanka and Natalie,

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This is Natalie & Priyanka helping us celebrate Renee’s birthday at a karaoke club in NYC a couple of years ago. 

in my life – and let them be part of the slumber party here, grateful a friend’s cancer surgery the previous week went well, grateful another friend found homes for several homeless boys this month, grateful for the fabulous mother-daughter film Ladybird that I got to see with my mother the day after Thanksgiving, grateful for the writing accountability buddies who have been meeting with me virtually and in person.

Much as I hate it, I am even learning to accept the hole. I don’t expect ever to feel grateful for it — but I am grateful for the love that dug it, and for all the love that pulls me out of it every day.