Thursday, April 29, 2010

Protecting the New Growth

One of the things that I have found therapeutic in the last few weeks has been work in the backyard. My backyard is and always will be a work in progress. My first post on this blog was about digging up and moving rocks in my backyard to make borders. I like to create space. I see myself more as a landscape novice than as a gardener. My sister and step-mother are the gardeners in the family. Check out my sister's blog if you are interested in flowers and plants and such.

Unfortunately, for the last few years, my oasis has been ruled by 2 big young dogs. Anything I did, they seemed to undo. If it was not enough to pick up after nature, I had to continually remove items brought onto the porch through the doggie door or deposited in the middle of a foot path. And I had to be very diligent to not leave anything of value on the porch, patio, or deck or I'd be sure to find it in many pieces spread over many square feet.

This spring, I felt the need to recapture my space. I finished a stone border around one planting bed that had been in a state of incompleteness for too long. I had planted a Crepe Myrtle there that a friend had given to me as gift of encouragement several years ago. I thought I had lost it for good when I came home one day to find the dogs had chewed it down to a small stump. But, to my delight and with the addition of an electric fence it has rebounded this spring. I was encouraged to try again.

Then, I restacked the woodpile that the dogs had totally dismantled in their hunting of small wildlife that lived beneath. I raked and raked. I cleaned the porch. I wacked the weeds and oak tree saplings.And then I got brave.

I had wanted to create a new planting area .. a rock garden of sorts. But, the space was not protected by the electric fence. It is, in fact, right in the middle of Boomer's and Rufus's domain. I moved rocks. I brought in new soil. And I plant several shade plants. The dogs watched the invasion. And my confidence in them waned. I knew it would just be a matter of time before they would have to do what dogs do when they smell something new in the ground...dig it up and or roll in it.

So, in order to give this new life a chance, I had to protect it until well established. This all seems like a physical metaphor of my life right now.

Here are a few more pictures of the backyard here in the first stages of a new season. There are a few more on the slide show on the sidebar. IF, things in my mind become reality in my yard, then I will share more pictures.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Back Room

W.H. Auden ended a stanza in his poem Stop all the Clocks
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong., with this line:

said in a series on bereavement that she wrote for The Slate:
"Loss doesn't feel redeemable. But for me one consoling aspect is the recognition that, in this at least, none of us is different from anyone else: We all lose loved ones; we all face our own death. And loss, strangely, can attune you to what is beautiful about existence even as it wounds you with what is awful. You live with a new sense of what the Victorian critic Walter Pater once called "the splendour of our experience and … its awful brevity," too.

Michael Kelly Blanchard wrote a song entitled Love Lives On from an album by the same name. The message he sings to us is a strong counter to the despair that grows out of any loss that feels like a part of our very self has been amputated. "Hope set, a faded wreath..history seems a myth only mocking our belief...bracing for goodbye, praying for relief, suffering and sighs...yet, to our surprise Love Lives On."
I have a room within where I have stored loss over the years. The door is open now...most of the time... and the light is on, but, I think I have neglected this space and need to be intentional about going through what is there. For years it was more a chasm buried deep and the contents sealed off from my conscience. As a child, I was unable to process the grief I felt as a result of the periodic bouts of depression and hospitalization that took my mother from me. Then when she died before I had a chance to start to understand her life's battle, I slammed the door shut and sealed it with all the anger of my 17 years. 

When the time was right, through the power of forgiveness, grace, and mercy, the seal was broken and the hot lava of that ancient grief was released. The story of how that happened awaits another time. The results of the release from and redemption and transformation of that room within is what I write of today.

Here, after my father's death, I have entered my grief room. It is familiar. I have been here before. Knowing, understanding in part, and therefore, not being caught by surprise by the strong affects of grief, has made it increasingly possible to allow grief to be a part of my living. Though I know that grief will not kill me, it is nonetheless messy and sticky and weighty to work with. My instinct is to fight back and so I have to tell myself to not be afraid.

I cannot say I have ever welcomed grief. I confess that my response to the "gut wrenching" demands of grief usually has been cause for concern to those who have had to watch, but, I have learned that I cannot deny it its rightful place. There is an ongoing metamorphosis of my soul that is and has been taking place and so, I try to keep the door open to that room so that the cleansing breath of life can flow through and remind me that love lives on.

Just recently, I spent a day with a close friend. We walked and browsed antique shops and talked about our lives and our losses. As we continued the discussion over lunch, the tears came to her eyes quickly when she shared the story of sitting with her father through the night as she waited for death to take him. Later, she turned in the middle of a store and asked if I thought she was different now. I understood what she was asking, as I too, know I am different. I said she was freer now. There was an understanding between us that grief had in some mysterious way set us free.  The conversation reminded me afresh that grief is unique to each of us yet at the very same time it is universal. My room of grief is really not that much different than hers.

Grief in its various expressions is experienced as I ride the waves to a place where my father's presence in my everyday life is no longer normal. Fortunately, the ride is not complicated. We had a wonderful relationship rooted in simplicity and acceptance. He lived 89 years. All who knew him say it was a good life. There was nothing for me to work out or get right before he died. But, the loss I feel is not diminished by that fact. I am now an orphan without a mother or father. My life has been altered. It will never be the same.

And to make things a bit more intense, this loss has taken me into that backroom where I also remember the times when grief seemed like a cruel taskmaster. I remember losses that seemed to own me and made me wonder if I would ever feel "normal" again. The overwhelming crash of despair seemed at times to be endless. And even now the variegated tastes of regret are triggered and the pain I felt is more than a memory. All of the grief I have known has become a part of me. It has marked me, colored me, molded me, taught me, transformed me, and it has set me free. By grace and through faith, I can say love lives on and therefore so do I.

So, what has grief taught me?

That I have loved fiercely. One does not grieve if one does not love.

Even though I let the past be the past and things have changed drastically through each loss it does not mean that love and grief do not remain. Together, side by side, love and grief, joy and sorrow blend to make real the whole picture of humanity.

My grief helps me remember what was worth preserving while slowly moving me forward to what comes next.

Grief is the means by which I am able to experience new birth after a profound and shattering loss.
Grief turns me, and forces me to confront the reality that this is not heaven. This is an in between place. But, in the end, love lives on.
Grief is the vehicle through the valley of the shadow of death. The valley is to be traversed. It is not our dwelling place.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Valley of the Shadow

At a time when words seem to not line up for me, my husband Dave writes:

The Valley of the Shadow, and the Song of Angels

For the first time in my adult life, a family member has died: my sweet father-in-law died as he had lived, gently, on March 24.  He viewed all of life in the same way that all of his family viewed him, as a gift from God to be treasured and held joyfully and lightly.  His faith became deeper and richer as he aged, and even more so as cancer moved through his body.  The family had hung the nickname “El Supremo” on him years earlier, a completely incongruous title for one so humble, and yet it stuck.  He signed his emails to me “E.S.”, and I could see his grin as he typed.

There are many in our congregation with first-hand experience of what the psalmist vividly called “the valley of the shadow of death.”  There is no escaping the hurt, even though we have been promised an eternity with Christ, in His Father’s house, in new bodies, knowing fully even as we have been fully known, seeing face to face. 

My father-in-law died as the choir was in final preparations to sing the glorious “Requiem” by John Rutter.  In fact, we were singing the musical setting of the words from Revelation 14 – “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors.”  The singing continues in Latin, “Lux aeterna luceat eis”, “May light eternal shine upon them.”  The music at that point is ethereal and weightless, as if the gravitational force of care and suffering has been removed.  “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine” – grant them eternal rest, Lord.

And then the angels came to our home, and sang a song of life.

Nope, they were not as described in the Gospels – they wore jeans and glamorous hats and carried rubber gloves and dusters and mops.  A team of sweet friends came and gave my wife (and me, since I’m fortunate enough to be married to Ann) a great gift: they cleaned out our dirty home.  As surely as Lazarus’ tomb smelled better after the stone was rolled away, our house gave up its dirt and grime and dog-smell.  Dirty clothes were washed and folded, floors mopped, the refrigerator cleaned.  Those angels were singing the very song of life into our shadowy valley, at a time that we were simply unable to remember the tune.  It wasn’t a jubilant song of triumph – it was the song of a servant’s heart, of laying down self for another. 

This is what my brother has called a “tantalizing taste of the Kingdom.”  It is the song of the Risen Lord sung into us, the song of the inbreaking Kingdom.  It is like the card I received from one of the LCs, written with shaky hand, reminding me that she is praying for me Tell all your family that Jesus loves ‘em, a whole lot.”

Be reminded – and remind one another – of the Lord’s love, tender and fierce, of His companionship and presence, here and now, of the hope that is ours in His resurrection.  We have the privilege to be angels for one another, to minister in Christ’s name.  Speak Scripture into the lives and hurts of those around you: the Lord rejoices over you with song, now; even in the valley of the shadow of death, He is with you now, rod and staff at the ready; when Elijah said, “It is enough, let me die,” God said, “Have something to eat and drink now, then lie down and take a nap;” in the midst of his small, lonely world, Zacchaeus learned that Jesus wanted to have lunch with him, now; when your friend cries at the death of a loved one, stand close, and remind them that Jesus also wept at the tomb of Lazarus.  “Come to me,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” – now, though not nearly in the way it will be then. 

The memorial service (appropriately, the day before Easter) concluded with another angel (disguised as Tim Pennigar) singing “Give Me Jesus” – “In the morning when I rise,…and when I am alone,…and when I come to die, give me Jesus.”

The songs of the angels – sung through cards we have received, phone calls, hugs, cleaning solvent, and a loaf of banana bread – remind us of the tangible presence of Christ, seen, felt, experienced through His body at Blacknall.  We need not fear; His rod and His staff, His body and His song, are with us.  He has overcome the grave, and because of that we have hope.  My father-in-law’s faith is now sight.  And our valley is lighter, and smells sweeter.

Thanks for singing –


Monday, April 12, 2010

You Don't Just Get Over It

I woke around 1:30 in the morning, confused as to where I was. I found my way to the bathroom and then back to bed where I fell back into the dream where I had left off. Even in my dream I felt disoriented. I woke again around three, tossing and turning until I stirred enough to find release from the circuitous dream that seemed to be going on forever. The dream details slipped away but the residue of what I felt seemed to lay as thick as the spring pollen on the glass tables on my porch. I am realizing that I am just beginning the process. The loss of someone you love is not something you "get over".

My father died quietly, quickly, almost peacefully the evening of March 24th after 15 months of living with cancer. Hospice had just that day brought a hospital bed and set it up in the living room of the small ranch house that he shared with my step-mother for 36 years. For months he had found great comfort and ease to his pain whenever he rested in his butterfly chair. But it had become obvious that getting in and out of that resting place was becoming too difficult. So, they brought in the bed and hooked up an oxygen tank and even rolled in a wheel chair. All of these were to make things easier. My brother emailed a picture of Daddy sitting up in that bed and smiling as usual, making the best of what was given to him. I looked at the picture and cried as I knew we had all turned the corner.

My sister came that night to spend the night, giving my brother a chance to go home to his family. My other sister was to come the next day and I was scheduled to drive over on the weekend. That evening they fixed grits and livermush for supper. Daddy planned to have a cookie with whipped cream for dessert but felt too tired to sit at the table and thought he would rest in the fancy bed for a while. While my sister stepped out of the room to talk to her daughter on the phone, Daddy tried to adjust the bed to a comfortable position. Comfort came soon, but not as any of us expected. He cried out as he struggled to breathe and my sister and step-mother sat with him. They held his hands, told him they loved him, and then he was gone. They said it was so obvious he was no longer in his body.

Within hours we were all together, filling their small house past a fire marshal's comfort zone. For the next 10 days there was a constant ebb and flow of grown children and step-children and their spouses, grandchildren and greatgrands, my step-mother's sister and brother and their families, business partners, and friends. Food and flowers appeared daily and we all felt the rhythm of love gently sustaining us.

We moved through the days slowly, having decided to wait until the following Saturday to have the memorial service. We needed time together, time to think, time to remember, time to let things settle a bit in our hearts, and time to turn. Also we needed time to get the more than 40 family members to town. We spaced out the tasks at hand and moved like a flock of birds from place to place. Interspersed amongst the "must dos" we tried to maintain a familiar rhythm complete with saying Daddy's mealtime blessing 3 times a day and watching Carolina basketball, complete with the "pom-pom dance".

The week before our father's memorial service was also Holy Week. And as though that was not enough to buoy us, spring came too. We watched the foliage of the trees begin to unfold from their buds and the  Bradford pear, dogwoods and redbud trees splashed the neighborhood with color. The day we went to the cemetery to pick out a plot we were led to a resting place under a fully blossomed cherry tree. Joy and sorrow mingled. Life and death gave birth to life again. What was would be no more but the promise of life eased us onward.

The day we gathered to celebrate my father's life was indeed that...a celebration. We filled up half of one side of the church with family. The mystery of the sweet root of life was experienced as we participated in the service honoring this wonderful man we called Husband, Daddy, Bonus-Dad, Grandaddy, Great Grandaddy, Uncle, Brother-in-law, and friend. Then in true Witherington fashion, we went to our lake house and celebrated some more. We sat on the porch and we enjoyed one another's company. We ate barbeque. We drank beer and red wine. We chased the children across the lawn. we sat on the pier. We looked across the lake at the view that has changed little since the year my Daddy bought that lot 45 years ago.

                               Now, we begin to live on...though differently. You don't get over it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Girls DO What Girls Must Do

Statesville, North Carolina is starting to explode with the newness of Spring. My sister and I have been taking pictures for several weeks now, perhaps, subconsciously trying to urge new life out of winter. Check out her Garden Blog at, on our walk we saw dogwoods, redbud, magnolia, and a number of flowering bushes. It has been so wonderful to have Spring awaken this week. It is Holy Week. It is the week after my Father's death. It has been a week of sorrow and blessings, time with family, a time to look back, a time to look forward, a time to receive, a time to release, a time to believe, a time to rejoice, a time to weep, a time to be thankful.

Yesterday, my step-mother, step-sister, sister, and I were stirred up by the warm day and abundant sunshine. Anticipating the coming weekend with a time to celebrate my Daddy's life and the resurrection of Christ on back to back days, we found ourselves propelled to do what girls must do: go shopping, get a pedicure, and then go to out to dinner at the finest restaurant in Charlotte, my brother and sister-in-law's house, complete with after dinner drinks on their garden patio. You would have thought we were getting ready for a party. And, now, as I think about it, perhaps that is exactly what we were doing. We each bought something to wear Saturday when we bury Daddy under a cherry tree and go with the 40 some family members to the church to honor this wonderful man we called Pat, Daddy, Grandaddy, Great Grandaddy, Bonus Dad, Uncle, and friend. Then, like the good southerners that we are, we will eat together...again, after someone tries to remember the exact words of Daddy's mealtime blessing.