The Winter of Grief

On January 4th, my nephew’s wife called to say my brother Bob was not eating and was declining. I hadn’t seen him since last June, and in December was told he could no longer participate in the phone conversations I had just had a month prior. I knew I needed to visit him. I remembered August of 2014, when my sister-in-law called, saying my brother Paul was riddled with cancer and was expected to die within the week. I waited three days, and while driving to Omaha to see him, my sister-in-law called again to say he had died. I regretted waiting. I wanted to avoid more regrets, so on January 6th, my husband and I made the two hundred mile one-way trip to see him. When I walked into his dining room, he saw me, lifted his shoulders in a happy shrug just like our mother, smiled and said, “Sister”. We hugged and spent time together, being joined by his son and daughter-in-law and another brother and his wife. His pastor even joined us, making an eighty-mile trip to do so. We had had as satisfying a visit as allowed by the narrow scope of topics with his dementia and the Parkinson’s limiting his speech.

The round trip was easy as the weather was mild, the roads were clear. It met my needs to talk with him, hug him, and once again to tell him I loved him.

On Friday, January 11th, I went to bed with the knowledge my brother Bob was not expected to live through the weekend. I informed my siblings through our private Facebook group and email. My urge to immediately drive the two hundred miles to his nursing home again, to hold his hand, was tempered by inclement winter weather. On Saturday at 3:30 am, I startled awake from a dream: I was following a leader through an outdoor amphitheater, with the goal of going to the woods beyond. The leader was already out, motioning me to join him when I reached the top of the seating and the sloping of a roof. As I started to pass through this narrow opening, I realized I was walking into a maze of spider webs. All kinds of sizes and types of spiders fell on me, with spider webs and spiders entangling in my long hair. I quickly backed up, looking for other openings, but they were too small. I awoke, without finding a passage.

After a few more restless hours of sleep, my nephew’s wife called to tell me Bob had died. And my dream made sense; my brother had moved on and I could not follow.

I made a list of my siblings, to not have to trust my memory to remember which of the seven I had called. I added his oldest son on the east coast and our cousin in Nebraska. I was attentive to the time zones they each resided in and called accordingly. To tell them our brother had died was difficult enough, but to tell my other brother that Bob died on his birthday and his granddaughter’s first birthday was a difficulty of its own. I actually found it wonderful to talk to each of my siblings, even for the occasion of delivering our sad news. I am not a regular phone call person and rely on Facebook and gatherings to communicate. After I had completed the list, I found I was exhausted. My adult children were sympathetic and assured me they would attend Bob’s funeral service. My son would travel east from Wyoming; my daughter lives in the same town as I do, but planned to travel later, so she could take less time off, and see her young children before she leaves them for two days.

The service was set for January 23rd, which left time for long-distance travel plans and returning to the regular tasks of life. I made lists to help me focus. I found myself inattentive, ending up with a broken fingernail, an unexplained scratch, and a blistered finger doing a task I had safely done for a decade. I remembered the time I slammed the trunk of the car on my finger, almost twenty years ago as I grappled with the news of my father’s terminal illness. I realized I needed to pay attention if I wanted no further injuries. Or car accidents. I have been involved in three car accidents, none of which were deemed as my fault. I was rear-ended twice in the months after grappling with the pain of divorce and the death of what I had hoped to be a marriage for life. The third car accident was after my mom died. Again, technically not my fault, but these happening in times of grief are notable.

On Monday, January 14th, a friend visited us, and I calmly told her the stories. She listened and shared her stories. I was fine. I joined my book club for breakfast the next morning and found myself interrupting, bringing any topic back to my brother’s passing. When I got in my car, the tears flowed. I texted some friends, who answered with compassionate wisdom. I had coffee with them on Friday, realizing I had once again monopolized the conversation, but they are close friends and wanting to be with me in my grief. I ran to Natural Grocers and discovered a massage therapist was giving free, 20-minute massages. I passed her by as I usually do, then realized this was a gift. I turned around and took her up on her gift. I explained I was grieving, may cry, and that I knew I was carrying grief in my body. In those sweet twenty minutes, she was able to put a dent in the boards usually referred to as shoulders. While massaging my back, I realized I was carrying old griefs as well as this recent grief. I knew I could let the old griefs go. She was as skilled of a listener as she was as a masseuse. I left somewhat lighter than I had come.

I knew I was improving when I could actually complete a couple of tasks on the list in the next days. I started a list of tasks to do after we returned from the funeral service, as the business of life continues on.

I consulted with my sisters about what they were wearing. I grieved that my oldest sister would not be attending. And I decided to continue a project of making sister bracelets for our sisters-in-law. I had made bracelets for my sisters last April, using our mother’s necklace as a base. It was therapeutic to focus on creating for my family while facing our loss. My daughter and I had manicures together; something we do for important occasions.

The day prior to the funeral, my husband and I set out. We drove west, starting with mist, which turned to rain, then freezing rain. When we turned north, the rain changed to blinding snow swirling around us. We wondered why we hadn’t left a day earlier and were relieved to arrive at the motel where we joining my extended family. During the storm, I tearfully told my daughter she should not start her drive that evening, meaning she would not be coming to gather with us. When the interstate closed due to ice and accidents, we both knew she would stay home. She is a great comfort to me, and I knew I would miss her presence.

The funeral was still an eighty-mile drive away from our motel, with the remnants of packed snow on the road continuing to slow our travel and keep us focused in the moment. The sun was shining and the weather predicted above-freezing temperatures.

The pastor gathered us prior to the funeral, reading scripture, telling us some stories, and giving us directions. When she asked if any of us wanted to share stories about our brother Bob, I drew a blank. Bob was twelve years older than me; our childhoods barely intersected. He left for college and only returned a few times a year after that. It didn’t seem the time to tell that when I was a young adult he insisted we no longer keep our childhood abuse a secret, to ensure the next generation did not experience abuse as well. That we became close as adults around this process and later sharing our journeys of recovery from alcoholism. Our talks were from the heart, about how we were living day to day. When our conversations were no longer mutual sharing, and his behavior became self-serving and weird, my interest in communicating with him was squelched. When I found out a couple of years later he had Parkinson’s and dementia, his behavior had a context. I then looked for opportunities to visit him at his assisted living facility. Every time I saw him, his functioning had changed, had declined. Since his diagnosis in 2011, I have been slowly losing our former connection. There were vestiges. We could still talk about the tools of recovery together and how we were using them today.

So no, I had no quick stories to tell. His grandsons were able to tell a couple of stories; ones I had not heard before. One of my brothers told the pastor we had time that evening to share more stories. The moment passed. My emptiness did not. During the funeral service, I find myself in tears. My son put his arm around me to comfort me. I leaned into him, appreciating his comforting. We drove back to the motel on sun-dried, clear roads, enjoying the rural scenery sparkling in the snow.

Back home, and a week later, I was preparing for a short stay of my son. As I converted my craft room back into his guest room, the sadness returned. Sam was going stay to briefly with us, bringing us his car and his cat to care for while he is gone for a year-long overseas assignment.

As we moved on to grocery shopping. I realized I was in an active grief space. I couldn’t face the analytical decisions of choosing produce. I tell my husband I will pick up the yogurt and the tahini; the easy tasks. As I held the quart of yogurt, I imagine I drop it and hear the sound as it hits the floor. The stunted sound of plastic making impact on a cement floor. I see the yogurt splatting, then oozing out. I consider letting go of the yogurt and actualizing this sight and sound. It seems like it would be a relief, that it might help break the tension of my sadness. I resist, knowing it is not really a reality I want right now. But I can’t locate the tahini. What I am locating is my new source of grief: I am now facing my son going overseas for six months, to a military base I am not allowed to visit. We will be able to communicate, but I won’t be able to be in the same space as him. It seems too soon to face this, with the recent passing of my brother. I also realize my son is not dying, and that I may be getting this all mixed together. I return to my husband, who has made all of the produce-purchasing decisions and ask for his help in finding the tahini. He takes me to the correct aisle. He also picks out some chocolate peanut clusters. I resist inhaling them all on the way home and eat one when we get home, remembering overeating does not assuage grief. I looked at the list of tasks I want to complete before Sam comes home and realize I am done with the list for the day. And grateful I still have tomorrow.

When Sam arrives, his nervous excitement about his new adventure helps me feel happy for him. We spend a day together with his sister and her family. The next day I drive him to the airport through winter mist at 4:30 am. I plan to walk in with him, to see him through the security process, but he chooses to tell me goodbye at the curb. Surprised we are parting, the tears flow. I gather myself for the still-winter-dark, overcast drive home, knowing I will be home before it’s without-a-sunrise daylight. Unexpectedly, I find myself relieved that his twelve months have now started. I had had eight months of anticipating this assignment. As it turned out, the anticipation was worse than the actual event. Similarly, I realize I had been dreading my brother’s death since I found out he had Parkinson’s and Dementia. Knowing both of these conditions could go on indefinitely, I now marveled my brother had been able to be released from them in less than a decade from his diagnosis. I find some momentary peace, knowing I will have more grief moments to experience. I take pictures of Sam’s cat, so I can send them to him. And know I will be ready to face my list of tasks tomorrow.