This is grief

posted in: Faith, Uncategorized | 0

I thought I understood grief but I don’t.

I’ve grieved for miscarried babies and all four of my grandparents. I sobbed and I screamed. I was incredulous and surprised. I sank into sad music. Mundane annoyances became personal affronts. I was wounded. I was broken. When my dad died, I expected all these elements of grief to invade, but on a more acutely intense level. My father is gone, forever. I will never hug him hello and goodbye again. I will never again hear him sing to me on my birthday. He will never visit my home for a weekend. I won’t have to explain to him, again, how the remote works or how to override the coffee maker’s timer if he gets up before it switches on.

I will never again spend a half hour searching for the perfect Father’s Day card for him—not too flowery or overwrought, not too goofy. He always appreciated something crisp or witty, with a simple message of love. He believed the best way to show someone love was to demonstrate it through action. Fixing someone’s car was love. Making a perfect medium-rare hamburger on a grill was love. Letting grandkids watch Spongebob Squarepants instead of golf was love.

When it became clear this past Father’s Day would be our last, I wanted to make sure to give a card to him. The day before Father’s Day, he was still somewhat aware of his surroundings. He could participate in brief conversations and nibble food, especially anything sweet and cold. I looked forward to sitting with him and celebrating the day. We’d eat strawberries. I’d hand the card to him. He might need a bit of help tearing it open. I’d read it to him, too. He would understand. It was no accident his last holiday would be one devoted to good men.

Because we were so busy caring for him, the first opportunity I had to buy a card didn’t arrive until early on Father’s Day. In the early hours of Sunday, he became restless and agitated. He was obsessed with intrusive thoughts and tried to stand unassisted. It was evident his pain level was spiking dramatically. We had to call a hospice nurse around 4:00 am. He needed a new, more potent painkiller and an anti-anxiety medication. She helped open the comfort pack kept in the refrigerator for that moment. It had small doses of these medications. We would need to pick up more from the pharmacy later in the morning. We gave these medications to him and finally, he fell into a deep sleep.

Later in the morning, my mom and I went to the store to pick up his prescriptions. I visited the greeting card section and found the Father’s Day card racks depleted. The snubbed cards represented the lowest tier of sentiments. They were trite slice-of-life lists involving cartoon chimps. They were embossed multi-page monstrosities. I plucked two of the least distasteful. One was to be from my sister, who also wanted to give a card to him. I’d let her chose which she wanted to sign.

He was sleeping deeply when we got home. It was a relief after the terrible night he had, but I was looking forward to him waking up so we could spend time with him. I wrote a message in the card and licked the envelope closed. He slept. When he stirred, he barely opened his eyes. He grunted. He consented to sips of water and some bites of strawberry, but then fell back into oblivion. There was never an opportunity to tell him he had cards to open because when he was awake, there were more pressing and gritty concerns. My brother and my mom also had cards. Someone lined up the four love letters above the fireplace.

Father’s Day ended. He never knew about his cards. He died two days later.

We delivered the cards to the mortuary and asked if they could be placed with him during cremation. They said that was no problem. Sometime between his death and his memorial service, our sentiments were burned into something that was indistinguishable from him. None of us knew what the others had written and none of us asked.


I thought I’d never forget what I wrote in his card, but it was lost in the exhaustion and emotion; turned into ashes and smoke. I know how my heart felt when I wrote those words but the tactile, the real, those sealed-forever words of love have risen into a rebirth I am not permitted to follow. Yet.

That is grief.

A List of Ways My Dying Dad Smoked His Last Cigarettes

posted in: Culture, Faith, Uncategorized | 0

As my dad died, I had violent fantasies about severely beating the next person I saw with a cigarette hanging out of his or her mouth. I told my husband I was going to kick them in the throat. He thought that was an uncharacteristically mean thing for me to contemplate. I couldn’t help it, though. My dream of pummeling smoking strangers was most likely a way I dealt with my anger toward my father and his precious cigarettes, which were responsible for his Stage IV lung cancer.

I couldn’t kick my dad so hard in the rear that you could see my Essie Trophy Wife toes in his mouth. It agonized me to see him suffer. It was agonizing for him, too. After I calmed down, my violent wishes turned to simply wanting to show and tell. I’d trot a smoker into my parents’ family room where a hospital bed was set up. I’d show them my sedated, moaning dad who could no longer walk, used big blue diapers, and couldn’t speak clearly. His skin was yellow and grey and bones threatened to pop out of this thin, cold casing. We had to administer his medications through droppers, like one does with infants. When he lost the ability to eat and drink (and then the desire to eat and drink) my mom dipped a green sponge swab into cool water and swirled it around his swollen tongue.

This is your future, I’d whisper. Surely, that would be enough to make the happy smoker stomp the pack of Pall Malls into powder.

The doctor who released him from the hospital into hospice at home told us if he wanted to smoke, let him. It wasn’t going to hurt him any more. We all nodded, eager to allow anything that might make his last days as close to the previous 10,000 days.

When he first arrived home, he didn’t mention smoking. Other family members would bring it up, asking if he’d like to smoke. This annoyed me. It was supposed to be his idea and his initiative. I found their prompting to smoke odd and even offensive, but understood they weren’t trying to hurt him. They wanted him to be happy. I also suspect they needed to see him smoke. It meant things were normal. If he could sit on his patio and puff away, life would look like it was supposed to look.


Most of the time, he was content if a pack of cigarettes and lighter rested in his shirt pocket. That’s where he always kept them. He probably felt the corners of the box against his chest and felt strange if there wasn’t something there. Several hours into being home, he decided to smoke. The biggest hurdle was convincing him to go outside. He had to be helped. Someone held his gait belt as he shuffled outside. Another person had to ready a chair and guide him as he sat.

His hands trembled as he took the box out of his pocket. He retrieved the lighter. He put the lighter in his mouth and tried to strike a cigarette.

Someone gently switched them. Then, he dropped the lighter. In a surprise move, he used an invisible lighter to light the cigarette, then went through all the motions of smoking. He removed the cigarette to exhale invisible smoke. He continued pretending to smoke until he was satisfied.

Later, he sat on the couch and began to fiddle with the box in his pocket, ignoring the questions from family members about going outside. Rather, he took each cigarette out one by one and dropped them down the front of his shirt. My sister collected them back into the box and put them away on top of the refrigerator.

He enjoyed playing with his cigarettes, often breaking them into pieces. He tried putting them back into the box, but his motor skills were quickly disappearing along with his mind.

Occasionally, my dad would indicate he wanted to go outside. Each time, it took more people to accomplish this and it was hoped he wouldn’t change his mind three minutes later. Once settled, he fumbled to grab a filterless nub of a cigarette. The most alarming smoking attempt was when he managed to light a short nub dangerously close to his face. Everyone agreed it was a bad mix, so it was taken from him.

Other times, he had three cigarettes and he went through the motions of smoking all at once.

Then, he had no cigarette or lighter at all, but he kept smoking, kept exhaling, kept watching nothing rise up and away. Muscle memory, people would say while nodding gravely.

Sometimes, it was funny. An outsider might think that was a rotten thing to think or say, but it was. He put all kinds of things in his mouth. He tried striking a spoon into a flame. Multiple unlit cigarettes bobbed in his mouth, some backward. We stared at him, stared at each other, shrugged. He’s happy, we’d say.

One of those times became the last time he tried to smoke. It wasn’t obvious it was the last, or maybe I would have noted it more. He rapidly lost every ability to physically or verbally indicate a desire to light a paper stick stuffed with dried tobacco on fire, place it in his mouth, and suck the resulting smoke deep into his lungs. What a ludicrous thing to do in the first place, but that’s humanity for you.

I used to smoke. I get addiction. I quit long before I witnessed my dad’s last breath and entrance into eternity. There are no cigarettes in blessed eternity because there is no addiction or desire to escape. There is no drive to relax. There is no muscle memory propelling a frail body to mimic motion seemingly sewn into a person’s being. Everything a person desires to experience through addiction—joy, rest, contentment, peace, and freedom from pain—are inherently present in Love, perfected.

My dad has been delivered in every way, freed in every way. People will stubbornly drag their addictions, shame, sins, habits to the edge of the finish line; where flakes of chalk bleed onto life’s road imperceptibly, as invisible as a man’s last cigarette, as invisible as his last breath.

Why not lay it down now?




Swing low, sweet compact car

posted in: Nature, Uncategorized | 0

I don’t remember whose idea it was to climb into a tiny, strange car in the middle of the night and drive around Boulder, Colorado looking for flowers to steal. On our direction, the driver would stop and several of us, all students, bolted to the flower beds that lined the streets in a posh section of town. We tore stems, dozens at a time, free. By the time we decided we’d gathered enough, we were buried under piles of irises, peonies, daisies, zinnias, snapdragons.

Once home, we dumped our haul onto our long, scratched, fiftieth-hand dining room table. They smelled incredible, filling our dank little rental house on The Hill with the wheeze of tender summer, just beginning to unroll. We didn’t own vases or containers that hadn’t or wasn’t currently holding alcohol. One of my roommates gathered beer bottles and we snapped off the ends of stems to make them fit so they wouldn’t tip over. The flower to beer bottle ratio was about 5:1, so many of the glorious blooms wilted within days. They were eventually booted to the alley for someone to pick up.


It’s morning in an old large brick house. A woman glances out her bedroom window at the Flatirons, illuminated orange by a rising sun. The cool air streaming through the screen carries the scent of Russian olive blossoms. She inhales the sweet toffee-like air and it stirs thoughts of breakfast. She pulls on a cardigan and tiptoes down stairs. She passes a massive window facing the street and stops. Her throat catches and she blinks, squints, and sighs as she opens the front door, soft-boiled egg and coffee forgotten.

Her flowers are gone.

Just last night, she pulled the green hose down to the edge of the yard and misted the leaves and ground. It had been a hot day and she wanted to give them one last drink before bed. She watched droplets grow on petals, reflecting the lights skimming the stone walkway. When her children were small, she read stories every evening. With them grown and gone, she told stories to these new frilly-faced ones, thriving in their one and only summer. Sometimes she envied her troupe of flowers, delicate but hearty enough to withstand sun and rain and night.

Some things can’t be survived.


I live in a small two-story house with many people. I don’t have views of mountains from my bedroom window, nor do I have a handy Russian olive to engulf me in childhood memories each early June. I don’t have to walk far to find either of those things, however.

I do have flowers in my front yard. They are planted in a dirt border carved out between the driveway and the lawn. One contingent surrounds the mailbox. There are tulips and crocus in the spring, irises in late May and early June, peonies in early June, and asters in late summer. I can’t imagine anyone driving by and tearing them out. Who would do such a thing?

Sometimes, when I check the mail, I half-expect to see torn stalks and stems; a one and only summer cut cruelly short.


My dad had more Russian olive trees than he knew what to do with. He planted them from twigs when I was young and because they are basically weeds, they grew wildly and took over. When they were mature, they began to produce tiny yellow flowers for a week every early summer. The scent is delicious. It’s warm, sweet, nutty, buttery. If it could be gathered into candied morsels, the White Witch would have enchanted Edmund with it instead of waving Turkish delight under his nose.


Over the years, my dad chopped down all the Russian olives except for one, which is near the driveway. It’s enormous. Branches arc over the driveway, turning the mundane suburban garage door into a magical portal. My parents hate it because the blossoms, when they drop, are messy. Someone has to get out the big broom and sweep them down into the gutter to be carried away by an eventual rare rain.

They talk about chopping it down, which would be a hateful thing in my estimation. It’s too beautiful. We sat under it when my dad set off fireworks in the street every July 4th. That scent would be lost. Wouldn’t you miss the scent? I demand to know when conversation turns toward that trash tree.

Sure, they admit. But it only smells good for a week anyway.


My dad’s health has taken a sudden and alarming downturn. He’s confused, has no appetite, and is on oxygen. He can’t walk without pain or gasping for air. He’s seen his doctor, who says it’s related to his lung disease associated with nearly 60 years of smoking. Here, have some more medicines. Take these pills, and these, and these. Pose for a chest x-ray, give us your arm for some blood, and we’ll see you on Monday.

I am bracing for the day I wake up and see my garden smaller. The biggest bloom out there, harvested in the night. Swing low, sweet compact car. I am bracing for the day that scent will be chopped away. I’m mindful of a rally in his health. Maybe they’ll find the perfect pill or all our prayers for restoration—for more time, for another summer—will be granted. I’m a fan of sparing even though once upon a time I was greedy for fun at the expense of another.

It struck me, though. If that Russian olive tree in my parent’s front yard is chopped down, my dad will not be the one to do it.

I wish he were strong enough to vanquish something I hold dear.  For that, I’d be the first to kiss it goodbye.

Bring on the Day and Its Worms

posted in: Nature, Parenthood, Uncategorized | 0

I couldn’t sleep last night because one of my kids made rotten choices, lied about those choices, and her future is threatened. It’s heavy and hard. My face hurt from crying. My head felt like I was wearing a helmet two sizes too tight. Over and over, I’d feel myself slipping into sleep, but something would jar me awake. My husband pulled on our covers. A kid woke up crying but was easily settled. I wasn’t. Then, the birds started to sing outside.

The chirping infuriated me. It was still dark. Birds have the ability to see sunlight before we can, and they are all for it: Bring on the day and its worms, they demand. Their songs meant my chance for solid rest vanished. The day and its worms meant something very different for me. I listened to them and was gripped by a strange thought that didn’t click together with my insomniac wallowing.

Those birds outside are new birds. 

The thought was tucked around me. I was stilled.

I could see young birds sitting on the tender branches of young trees. They surfed as the wind blew, bouncing up and down. From their flimsy vantage, they still found food crawling through the grass or rest from flying. Year after year, the trees in our yard have grown taller and sturdier. New birds have hatched, but they don’t find the branches as outlandishly adventurous. They are supported by sturdier arms.

Like our child…

We’ve grown up with her. We are older, more stable, wiser, and yet her decisions still smacked us hard enough to cause reeling. But because we have that solemn and solid history of loving her through the years and have built trust, this storm—while painful—is temporary.


When I was in college, I had a biology professor who was the dad of a college-aged daughter. He’d often talk about her and her boyfriend, who happened to be named Robin. The professor referred to him as Turdus migratorius, which is the scientific name for the common American robin. After all these years, I still remember the Latin name of robins because of the connection my professor built. I wonder if Turdus ever built a bicycle on Christmas Eve for my professor’s grandchildren.

There are several Turdus migratorius nests either on our house or near. One was stupidly built in the lower branches of a blue spruce tree, about four feet off the ground. I don’t know how the birds survived, but they managed to hatch several batches of new birds to sing, hop, and be the official harbingers of spring. The nest was obvious to anyone walking by, scampering along the fence, or soaring overhead. I was continually amazed they didn’t succumb to a hawk, squirrel, frisbee, prowling cat.

It was probably built by a new bird.

Winter hit and the silly nest fell apart. New nests were built in more sensible locations, housed in larger trees. Robins aren’t famous for being clever like blue jays or magpies, so I doubt they looked back on that outrageous little nest and did the birdie equivalent of a forehead smack and cringe. We got lucky, they chirp. Nodding in agreement, one of them ventures but what a view!


Galway Kinnell wrote one of my favorite poems. It’s called How Many Nights.

How many nights
have I lain in terror,
O Creator Spirit, maker of night and day,

only to walk out
the next morning over the frozen world,
hearing under the creaking snow
faint, peaceful breaths…
bear, earthworm, ant…

and above me
a wild crow crying ‘yaw, yaw, yaw’
from a branch nothing cried from ever in my life.

I’m left thinking that not only was the the branch previously unused, but the wild crow was new in town. God is continually importing the new to wake us up, to encourage, to breathe revival into our hearts.



Shoplifters of the World, Disband and Get Jobs

posted in: Faith, Uncategorized | 0

He walked through grocery stores and I followed him. I was his ride, the driver of his getaway car. He wore a black leather jacket a few sizes too large so he could load an astonishing array of items inside. He managed to slide apples, bags of chocolate, packs of meat, and medications into the coat. They rode nestled next to his back and under his arms. The first time he revealed his talent for stealing, I nearly vomited as he hustled me out of the store. I was alarmed, disgusted, appalled. I drove away from the store as he laughed and proudly pulled each item out, waving them in my face. Could I believe it? It was too easy.

He stole on several occasions while we dated. I broke up with him after six months of idiocy, culminating in him cutting down a tree in the front yard of the house I shared with five other college students. For years, I had nightmares he was stalking me. I carried a lot of guilt about his stealing sprees. While I never stole, I helped him leave because he didn’t own a car. I didn’t say anything.

I’d like to blame it on being 20 with a severe lack of self-esteem.

I’d like to blame it on his striking movie-star good looks.

I’d like to blame it on being broke.

I’d like to blame it on feeling sorry for him because he told me about how he was abused as a child.

I thought I could change him. The tender care of a loving Christian girl would turn him around. He’d leave shoplifting behind, go back to college, buy a car, pay his bills, and become a productive member of good society. He claimed I was inspiring him to improve in every way. He was going to return to bike racing because I believed in him. There was nothing he couldn’t do without me by his side, he said.

I could see my life turning into a Bon Jovi song right in front of my eyes. Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear. But they didn’t and neither did we.

So, I drove him away from stores. I drove him to his minimum wage job. I drove him home. And when I finally wised up, I realized I had trashed an entire semester at my university, the goodwill of my roommates, and most importantly my parents’ trust over a boy; a criminal boy who was hurting and adrift and thought he found a good thing—a pretty girl with a car.

But I still think about him. I don’t wish I had stayed. I’m not pining for the past. I don’t have any regrets about the amazing man I fell in love with and married five years later.

I think about him because the trajectory he was on was dangerous and lonely. He was poor, undereducated, defensive, desperate, and young. He was someone’s son. His dad was dead. His mother was elderly. He was born when she was in her mid-40s, a surprise, and she had a hell of a time raising him, he claimed.

Somewhere along the way, he derailed. There are countless other young men leading similar lives. They are eventually jailed or die prematurely. They turn to drugs and alcohol. They lash out in various ways, often destroying the women and children in their paths as they destroy themselves.

I look at my own sons and cover them in prayer. I ask for them to be mighty and wise, to be molded into men of God who shine and love fiercely. I pray they’ll always work hard and find healthy outlets for their time and energy. We talk about honor, wisdom, and Jesus.

My mom prayed the same for me, yet somehow I was tangled up with the drifting, sad, shameless boy. Clearly, there was something in me that looked the other way at the same time I declared him my project. I thought that people could save other people, and maybe they can in the sense people can inspire.

But save? Never. The broken, the hurting, the despairing don’t need a getaway driver to speed them away from the scenes of crimes—including me. How many times I have begged for rescue from situations I cobbled together? Step on the pedal, Jesus, I can’t. I have too many steaks up my sleeve, and there are apples in my armpits. Let’s go!


Instead, he turns to me and let’s me know he is very happy to drive. He is really great at it, in fact. He’s glad I trust him. But first, let’s drop everything you’ve stuffed into that coat and leave it behind. You don’t need those things. It’s going to be okay. I feel lighter. He helps me unpack. I can move and breathe. My heartbeat slows.