Wednesday, November 27, 2013


         When my father died so unexpectedly from a massive heart attack, my world titled. Everything I did and said seemed unbalanced and skewed. A few weeks after his death, the school district wanted me to go to training in Sedona, Arizona with a group of wonderful women, and I cried nightly because I couldn’t make any decisions. A phone call from one friend who was also going on the trip convinced me to come along.
         Sedona began my healing. Notice, I use the word “began” because recovering from grief takes years. I took the first steps to life without my father by boarding the flight from San Antonio to Phoenix. The trip there remains a blur in my memory, but I distinctly recall standing at the car rental kiosk with five other women, and none of them wanted to drive the minivan from Phoenix to Sedona. Being fall, darkness would accompany us on the drive for more than half the trek. Now, I’ve never minded driving, even to places I’ve never visited, but my mind felt cotton swaddled and addled half of the time. Perhaps that’s why I ended up driving? At any rate, I soon positioned myself behind the wheel with one friend as navigator.
         Our exit from Phoenix went without obstacles, slowed only by the five o’clock traffic common to most cities. Having driven many times in Houston, Phoenix’s highways seemed fairly easy to navigate. Before long, we zipped onto a wide open stretch of highway. I remember conversation flowing around me filled with chuckles and “remember when” scenarios. A sunset exploded across the western sky, and darkness swathed our car as we sped along. For endless miles, our isolated van passed no other vehicle. The highway had few lights, with exits creeping up unexpectedly. My navigator, listening to the chat from the back seat, missed the exit we needed to take, and the next one didn’t appear for another five or six miles. We looped around, took a left turn instead of a right, and briefly pondered the possibility of driving aimlessly up and down desert highways like some Twilight Zone characters. Eventually, we rolled into Sedona’s warm lights and found our motel.

         Snow and ice descended during the night. Not much by Arizona standards, but as a Texan, I felt uneasy as I moved behind the wheel of the rental. Taking things slow and easy, we made our way from our motel to the hotel hosting the workshop. The presenters crammed activities and information into us at warp speed, and by the end of the first day we each longed for the escape that shopping in this wonderful little town offered. We hit the specialty shops with enthusiasm. I longed to do a little hiking on some of the trails, but as the designated driver, I didn’t get go that first day. By the end of the second day of training, I felt as though I’d explode if I didn’t get to walk to at least one of the famous vortexes of Sedona.
         When everyone else wanted to go see a movie, I opted to grab my camera case and head out on a trail that zigzagged beyond our motel. My spirit (numbed by so much grief and loss) found peace as I strolled along. I don’t know when I started crying. I don’t know when I stopped. I stayed out on the trail for over two hours, pausing when I needed to feel grounded. I took photographs of many of the views, yet I knew I couldn’t capture the healing energy that flooded through me.

         Grieving has taken on a new meaning over the last couple of years, for I’ve learned we can mourn for the living as they struggle through their final sorrows. Within the next few years, I will return to Sedona to walk, once again, the trails that eased my wounded soul.

 Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

“The First Year”

            I don’t remember last Christmas. Who pulled the decorations from storage? Placed the tree before the window? Purchased and wrapped gifts? Everyone said I did these things, but my memory begins in the movie theatre watching Les Misérables. I distinctly remember laughing at the incredulous comment, “They sang every word!”
            January tumbled in with Mom’s Celebration of Life, where friends and family lingered in our home until two in the morning. Crisis hit when all of the life insurance paperwork, sent certified mail, vanished into a black hole. The kindness of the mail store owner, who tracked down the package, prevented my total meltdown. My determination to keep busy, busy, busy, busy meant I returned to the classroom as a substitute teacher. I grabbed any job I could get at any school in the area. Slaying grief took energy.
            In February, we made the first trip in over two years to my brother’s home in League City. Because Mom’s HD prevented her from taking long trips during the last few years of her life, we relied upon my brother to take care of the house my parents left to him. Little did we know that he didn’t want to worry us about his problems. We arrived to a growling refrigerator, defunct vacuum cleaner, rusted (and dangerous) microwave, and a matching deceased washer and dryer set. Fortunately, all of those lost papers had not only been found, but processed. Insurance money allowed us to replace the broken appliances.
            March and April blew in with my honing down to a short list the schools I’d work with as a substitute. I’d discovered a love for the younger kids, and put off accepting work in the hope of getting a slot at one of the four elementary schools in my area. I took jobs as secretaries, even, just to get on those campuses. Fortunately, I always ended up in a classroom. I turned down long term sub offers from four different campuses. Although I needed to work daily, I couldn’t make any long term commitment. I realized that working provided a buffer for me as I eased out of my overwhelming loss. A long term assignment equaled responsibility I couldn’t handle.
            Mother’s Day found me remembering the good things about Mom. We’ve all worked very hard to separate our memories of Mom from Huntington’s disease and the monster it became in all of our lives. And by June, my brother toyed with the idea of visiting San Antonio to celebrate his birthday, but he decided not to make the trip. He said it’s just too hard, after driving from League City to San Antonio monthly for four years, to make that trek again. So in July, I arranged for my sister to rendezvous with us in League City. Our goal? To spend time together as a family without the stress of caregiving pulling us down. We went out to eat, and we went to a movie. Together, we tackled some household chores too big for my brother to do alone—like cleaning the garage. And we enjoyed each other’s company. Somewhere during those slow summer days, I gathered enough courage to contact a literary agent and submit my chapters and synopsis from my first novel—a dream my mother encouraged.
            Hot August days piled onto the calendar, and I decided not to go back to work. I no longer needed to leave my home to handle my sorrow. Back in December, we’d hauled furniture and clothing by the truckload to Goodwill. I’d spent days in Mom’s old room, painting the walls neon green and the ceiling and trim black. With the passage from the room into the bathroom resealed, we reclaimed the area and converted it into my son’s studio. But many little things remained untouched. I began the much slower process of sorting through every drawer and closet in the house. At one point in time, we’d combined two additional households in with our own. I’d stashed duplicates and triplicates of many items into any available spot. By not returning to work, I forced myself to sift through all of these things and make decisions.
            September found me eager to make more changes. I painted the kitchen and dining room Morocco Red. David took off a week and together we battled against old floor grout. We succeeded in sprucing up our twenty-five-year-old floors. I spent time in the yards and gardens. I began compiling my blog posts on Mom’s last two years into a book. By October, I began writing my second novel. Creating a new world pulled me out of my own life for hours at a time.
            And so I find myself back in November. So far this month I’ve escaped into movie theatres. We made another trip to League City to visit my brother and shared Ender’s Game. We’ve laughed through Thor and caught Catching Fire. With today’s anniversary of Mom’s death, we’ll escape into a comedy—something funny and mindless like Delivery Man. For Thanksgiving? We’ll head to the local Golden Corral’s buffet. If we’re home, I’ve always cook a huge meal, but not this year.
            Anyone reading this recitation would believe we’ve set aside grief, but we haven’t. During those quiet minutes each morning, or those still moments before falling asleep, I’ve drowned in her loss. Memories of that last November weigh me down, and I stay silent about my empty feelings. Do I call my brother today? Do I ask my sister how she’s doing? Maybe I should just wait and see if they contact me. You see, I’ve burned this day into my heart since I sat with Mom for hour after hour last year. I, alone, bore witness to those last seconds of her life.
            Within each day this first year, I’ve focused upon my mother before her disease stole so much from us. I drifted back to my childhood, where her nighttime ritual included sitting on the edge of my bed, rubbing my back in gentle circles as we talked about my day. My mind lingered on Mom’s grin spreading across her face as she leaned into an embrace. Her strength and courage carried me through her illness and guided me through her suffering. Her generosity and love nourished me in my childhood and still guides me as an adult.
            There are all of these moments I’ve wanted to share with her, where I’ve wanted to hear her commentary or her laugh, and where I’ve longed to tap into her thoughts just one more time. Even after a year, I wish I could say, one more time, “I love you, Mom.”

Copyright 2013 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman