Monday, July 17, 2017

Pain Was No Ally of Mine

Pain Becomes Your Ally
In the Garden of Compassion
“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.” ~ Rumi
Compassion being the fruit of my most profound grief was the furthest thing from my psyche in the early days after my child died. My heart being open wasn’t a problem. It was rent into a million pieces after the shattering experience of loss and splayed out for all to see.
Pain become my ally? No. Pain was my unwanted companion, the forever presence at my elbow, when I ate a few morsels, slept an hour or two, or dared to speak above a whisper. Pain was the constant of my life in those early days. I couldn’t shrink away from it; it was too strong of a force in every moment of what I, with great reluctance, called my life at that time. Pain was no ally and no friend of mine, although it held me closer than any human friend ever had.
Love was not a concept I could grasp. I could grasp only loss. Love was an emotion wrenched from me and replaced by my supposed ally, pain.
Wisdom was absent in my grief-clouded brain, which was devoid of intellectual thought, reason, or action. I knew and felt nothing except the ache of loss. I knew little except how to put one foot in front of the other as slogged through that ache. Wisdom was not on my search list. Wisdom was nothing I considered. Wisdom was not a concept my grieving heart would grasp until many years had passed.
With the passing of those years, and the making of a different life, the ally began to manifest itself. Indeed, pain was there as I finally found wisdom and love. Pain was present when I learned that grief, can, indeed, be the garden of compassion. In my grief, profound and wrenching as it was, once my heart opened from the split of being broken, in spite of my resistance, room—space—was made for the garden of compassion. And, in that garden, as my tears watered the seeds of compassion, they sprouted and began to grow.
Most gardens start with an idea—a longing for food, flowers, shade. The garden of compassion starts with loss. The emptiness of loss is like a section of earth that has been tilled and turned and almost plundered. Nothing of the surface remains. Only the fallow plot of earth is visible. It’s been churned, turned inside out, until the depths of the soil are laid bare, facing the sun and the wind and the elements of nature. First-tilled earth is raw, like a person is raw in the beginning stages of grief. But when what lies beneath is revealed—rich loam, earthworms, minerals—we realize the potential for growth and sustenance.
Of course, not every garden plot holds rich soil that yields a bounty of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Most soils require amendments: lime, compost, manure, minerals to ensure a successful harvest. The garden of compassion is similar. It’s barren early on. Worse than barren, my initial garden held only sticks, weeds, rocks, sandspurs, anger, resentment, bitterness, and fear. It took years, but when that garden became rich only when acceptance, resolution, care, concern, and time were added. At that point, my garden of compassion became rich and bountiful and compassion, wisdom, and love became my harvest.
Resistance to growing a garden of compassion from grief is rather universal. Nobody wants this garden. But like the gardens of our ancestors, when faced with cultivating a garden from grief, we often don’t have much choice. Families once sustained by their kitchen gardens and fruits of their farms had to plant and reap if they wanted to eat. Those who chose to plant and harvest continued to live.
Likewise, those who begin to nourish the garden of compassion growing from their grief not only continue to live but many also live well and even have lives that contain much joy.
However, not everyone cultivates that garden of compassion. Pain breaks far too many sufferers and wisdom is not forthcoming to all. I have received the unparalleled blessing of having pain become my ally. In return for that blessing, I choose to share with those suffering loss how to make pain their ally, too.
This grief garden, however, from which I pluck compassion, wisdom, and courage is not a one-shot effort. Those forebears who continued to plant each spring and harvest each fall did so because they wanted to eat every year. I continue because this grief journey—like those seasons of planting and harvesting—is ongoing.
To continue to soothe myself, to make the only sense from this loss that I can make, I must continue to walk beside my old ally—pain.
I also walk with that ally when it takes its place at the table of others. As years have gone by and grief has become my garden of compassion, I am more aware and more present for those who are grieving, and especially those who are fresh in their grief.
When the nondiscriminating hand of loss strikes someone I know, and particularly if that loss is child loss, I try to step up. One of the worst things about such loss is the feeling of desperation, of loneliness, of the bleakness of life with loss. One of the worst things about such loss is the isolation inherent in the belief that nobody knows how you feel, that nobody has experienced the intensity of pain within you.
Part of growing the garden of compassion is being aware of loss and having in one’s garden compassion, wisdom, and love. In my garden, I have done my best to cultivate those things. When someone else suffers loss and feels that desperation, isolation, and bleakness of living with loss, I can be there. I can share my garden. I can let them know that it may seem that their personal garden is barren, that wisdom and love, and heart are lacking. I can guide them in seasons to come as they begin cultivating their own gardens of compassion and harvesting wisdom and love. Then, they, too, can help others in their gardens of compassion.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Beyond Ronald McDonald House and Pediatric Oncology

Beyond Ronald McDonald House
And Pediatric Oncology:
I slept in a chair/bed the last night I slept in Gainesville thirty-one years ago. It was upholstered in plastic and folded out to a meager twin-size bed. My cover was an extra blanket from the pediatric supply closet. Next to me, my seven-year-old daughter slept in a hospital bed. She rested easy that night because she had no chemo, no IV, no medications other than the ones she took daily to prevent infections and seizures.
This past Monday evening in Gainesville, I slept in a bed, a comfortable queen-sized bed with sheets and a comforter. It was my first sleepover in a city where I’d spent far too many nights sick with fear in waiting room chairs just outside intensive care units or inside those units when I was allowed to stay by my child’s side. It was the first night I didn’t stay in Ronald McDonald House or a hotel in Gainesville. It was the first night I didn’t awake afraid of what the day might hold for my child.
I fell asleep this past Monday night to the swish, swish, swish of traffic on nearby I-75. Those sounds lulled me to sleep, rather than having my slumber interrupted by the all-night noise of a hospital floor that held children afflicted with dire diseases or conditions. The lights were off in the apartment and no one walked in the halls. No buzzers rang. No IV poles beeped, beeped, beeped for attention.
I knew when I woke Tuesday morning that I would be with family, celebrating just being together, enjoying them and myself. No assembly of medical students would circle the bed in the room, learning, questioning, speaking in quiet tones.
When I woke the next day, I knew the day would be a new day—a day when I was not afraid of being in Gainesville—a day when no life decisions would be handed down or faced.
Thirty-one years ago, on that last night in Gainesville, my heart was broken. My beautiful child was being released from the care of those doctors and nurses who did everything they could to cure her. That everything was not enough and we made our solemn journey home a few days later. We made the most difficult journey a few months later when we said goodbye to Alexa.
Until a year ago, I had not returned to Gainesville for thirty years. When I got off I-75 that first time without a medical agenda, I met my oldest daughter and my son-in-law at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. Later, we went to lunch and then to Trader Joe’s. Other than a weekend trip to meet some friends who attended college there in the 1970s, it was the first time I had been to Gainesville for nonmedical reasons. I wasn’t sure I would know how to act.
I figured it out pretty fast. I acted just like someone who had spent an afternoon in beautiful gardens and then went to lunch and shopping with two of my favorite people. It felt odd, but I reminded myself that people come to Gainesville every day and live and work and play there and they never go to Shands Hospital or Ronald McDonald House.
Monday afternoon, when I got off I-75 at the Archer Road exit, which is the same exit for Shands, I didn’t go to Shands. I went to my granddaughter’s house. I ate dinner with my family. I had the best ice-cream I’ve ever tasted. We laughed, we talked, we shared.
Memories have a firm place in our psyches. Memories reflect and affect who we are today and how we respond to our environment. But memories don’t have to be static. They don’t have to encompass only one time and one experience. In spite of the past that often pains us, the present and the future can bring us comfort and, especially, joy if we are receptive to those things.
Nothing will ever change my memories of the time I spent in Gainesville with my Alexa, just as nothing will ever change my memories of her. But, my trip to Gainesville this week taught me that I can add to memories. I can change associations with places and times. Even in a place that once held much sadness, I can be open to and receive love, care, and joy.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

God Is Everywhere in This

“God Is Everywhere in This”
One curve around the Colorado Rockies led to yet another mountain view, each one more stunning, more breathtaking than the one preceding it. Overwhelmed by the beauty of those Colorado mountains, my daughter said to me, “God is everywhere in this.”
It has become a favored phrase of mine. I try to remember it and to notice—even when I am grumpy, tired, afraid—that “God is everywhere in this.” Sometimes it is difficult to remember; other times it is not. It is easy to remember when the Epiphyllum Oxypetalum blooms.

Epiphyllum Oxypetalum flowers last only one night. But, oh, what a night. Beginning at dusk, the petals unfurl hour by hour, releasing beauty and scent beyond measure, beyond description. On those nights, I stay up late and bask in the aroma and the pure white beauty of the fleeting blossoms. And when I am really paying attention, I realize and delight in the awareness that, indeed, “God is everywhere in this.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

It's Okay When Your First Effort Fails

It’s OK for This First Draft to Be Sucky!
I’m ready to walk away from what I’m writing. And I will because I have to think a bit more before I put more words down. Right now, they don’t say what I want to say. My urge is to abandon these words and delete—or at least close—the file and be done. Maybe I’ll write another day, another time.
But I’m trying to encourage myself and not get caught up in the initial sucki-ness of what I’m writing. I know today’s writing is awful, but I also know I want to continue to write; therefore, I reminded myself that “It’s okay for this first draft to be sucky!” And I typed that at the top of the page. When I return from another cup of coffee, those words will encourage me to keep going rather than abandon all hope ye who type here.
It’s the rare person who excels the first time they try something. It is the rare person who excels every time they do something they think they have already mastered.
First tries might not be the best tries. We have to remind ourselves it really is okay for most of them to be sucky. The effort and the will to continue are not sucky. That effort can be harnessed to keep going and make something that is sucky into something that is valuable.

That sucky writing? I haven’t returned to it, yet. But I will because I think it might turn into something valuable.