I stare at the title I just wrote and wonder how it can be. On Friday it will be five years ago that Debbie died.
Five years of changes. In the last five years my daughter Alicia married, my son graduated from high school and will graduate from college in May. I’ve taken up writing and have been blogging for almost three years. I’ve been to Tanzania. I’ve seen a total eclipse of the sun.
And yet, nothing’s changed. Debbie is still gone. I still miss her. When my contacts dry out I can still moisten them by remembering those final days.
Some people might feel that five years is too long to grieve and I should be “over it” by now. The truth is you’re never entirely “over it” any more than you could get over having a limb amputated. Your life goes on and you learn to live with loss.
Life goes on. While that dark cloud is always hanging around, it’s not always cloudy and raining. There are days with sun, days with joy, days with new experiences. Things change.
And some things don’t change. I will always have gratitude for everyone who has helped my along the way. Every expression of concern or support, every hug has helped. I am blessed by my family and my community. Thank you all.
I had planned to write today about the trip I took last week. If you recall when I wrote about my trip to see the eclipse last year I talked about my original plan that had to be changed. The plan had been to go and see some Minnesota Twins minor league games along with seeing the eclipse. But that changed not too long before the trip and I ended up going to just see the eclipse with the son of some friends.
This summer I took the baseball portion of the trip from last year. I had thought I would be writing about that trip.
However, I find myself needing to write about other things. I returned from my trip on Sunday evening. On Monday morning I found myself looking at my Facebook feed. Where in rapid succession I found out that it was the fifth anniversary of the death of my friend Karen’s husband, my brother-in-law’s thirteen-year-old chocolate lab, Belle, had to be put to sleep and my friend Duane had suddenly passed away.
I know that not too long ago this would have been an occasion for me to turn inward and relive my own grief. But, I find myself more concerned for the people who were affected by these events than in how they affected me. That’s progress, I suppose. And that doesn’t mean I was unaffected by these events.
I met Karen at a grief support group, and she along with the others in our small group have helped me tremendously.
Belle was always a friendly and was there to greet us whenever we visited. She will be missed.
Duane was a shock to me. He always seemed so solid and vital; it’s hard to imagine him suddenly leaving this world. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ve got a connection with Duane. His son Jeran accompanied me to see the eclipse that I wrote about last year. Also, if any of you were ever in Debbie’s classroom at the Waldorf school you’ve probably seen his handiwork. When Debbie was hired as the first-grade teacher in 2005, Duane made a nature table for her. It was a cross section of part of a tree and the three legs were made from thick branches.
Please say some prayers for those grieving the passing of loved ones.
One year I was having trouble figuring out what to get Debbie for her birthday. I was coming home from work on March 24th empty handed. Debbie’s parents were coming over, so I couldn’t go shopping. I decided to stop at the florists and get a bouquet of flowers for her.
I was at the florists when inspiration hit me. I got a card to go with the flowers and wrote her a note telling her what her gift was. For each month of the year on the 24th of the month I would buy her flowers. For as last minute as it was, I wasn’t expecting much of a reaction. But, Debbie loved the idea. It was, in fact, so well received, that I just kept doing it year after year.
At first, I would put a little card in with the flowers and put a note in saying, “Happy Birthday!” After about six months, Debbie told me that having a birthday every month was making her feel old. So, I changed the note to, “Happy 24th!”
Over the years I got her flowers in most months and if I missed I tried to make it up later. Sometimes that meant buying her a couple rose bushes when planting season came. Some summers when she was gone to training for the next year’s teaching I would text her pictures of flowers from our yard. One year I put pictures of flowers in luggage for her to find.
After Debbie died, I wanted to still send flowers. I started to send flowers on the 24th to some of the places where Debbie’s treatments had been. Or places that worked with breast cancer patients. And to Debbie’s class at the Minnesota Waldorf School. I would simply put in an unsigned note the read, “Happy 24th!” Johann Garcia, the teacher who took on Debbie’s class guessed it was me quickly.
After about six months I stopped, except for the flowers at school. About twice a year, I’ll get a bouquet for Ms. Garcia’s class. It’s been a nice to keep a connection with the class.
Happy 24th to all of you! Thanks for reading.
I’ve had three funerals since Thursday. I’ve had death and grieving on my mind. I know many people struggle with trying to find the right words to say to people who’ve lost someone.
We’re wired to want to help someone who feels bad, but sometimes words that are meant to help can sound differently to someone in pain. I’ve come up with a quick way for you to check yourself before you say something.
When Debbie passed away one of the best analogies I heard about losing a loved one was that it was like having a limb amputated. It’s gone, it’s not going to grow back, and you need to learn to live without it. That was in my mind as I was thinking about what to write in sympathy cards and I came up with this idea.
Pretend you’re talking to a person who has just had their leg amputated and substitute “your leg” for the name of the person who just died. If it doesn’t sound right, you might want to rethink what you’re going to say.
Here’s some samples of things that aren’t great. (It’s ok to laugh; they can sound silly.)
“It was quick, and your leg didn’t suffer.”
“At least your leg had a long and full life.”
“It was your leg’s time to go.”
“Your leg wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
“Be thankful for the time you had with your leg.”
And, my favorite, “You leg is in a better place.”
What are some better things to say? Express your concern and sympathy. Mention what their leg, oops sorry, the person who passed away meant to you. Recall a fond memory of them. Tell them you’re praying for them.
The worst thing you can say is nothing. Do not let your fear of saying the wrong thing get in the way of acknowledging someone’s pain. You may not have the magic words to say to take away their suffering, but knowing they’re not alone helps.
I've been cleaning out Debbie's desk in the basement. It's where she would sit and do most of her planning for school. She had a lot of stuff down there. Early on after she passed I had looked at some of it to figure out what was there. I saw that were some things done by her students at Minnesota Waldorf School. I thought at the time it would be nice to send them to the students as they got close to their high school graduations. This spring I realized if I was going to do that I better get moving as this was the year they would graduate. Sometimes deadlines can provide me with inspiration.
At Waldorf schools the students don't use textbooks. They keep a main lesson book where they write and illustrate what they've learned. It's part of the Waldorf philosophy; it anchors what they've learned better and gives them practice with handwriting, composition and art. The completed main lesson books are beautiful. Debbie did a main lesson book for herself; she would do them as she planned her lessons. I pulled out her eight years of completed lesson books and sent them to the school so they can be used by the teacher who took on Debbie's new class and others.
After that, I didn't touch anything. This was the area of the house that was hers and hers alone. Nobody else used that desk. I have many memories of waking up in the night or early morning and wondering where Debbie was then finding her working at her desk. It's not like I had a feeling that I shouldn't disturb her area, but I just never felt like cleaning it out. Maybe subconsciously, I was avoiding it. But I had a deadline coming up, so I had to do it.
I went through all of her paperwork. I saved anything that her students had done and sent each of the ones who graduated from eighth grade with her an envelope filled with different things. I've heard back from some of them how much they appreciated getting that.
In one file drawer I found all the plays her class had done. In Waldorf, each class will do a play every year. Many times, I would write the first draft of the play for Debbie and she would do a final edit. Sometimes I would write from scratch, sometimes she would have another play to use as a base. The final play I helped with was in sixth grade. They did a Greek play - The Haunted House by Plautus. She had three translations and each was old, so the wording was sometimes a bit hard to follow. I updated the language and had to add three or four parts to fit the number of children in the class. I split one character into three and added a couple others giving them lines from other characters.
Then in the very back of that same drawer I found all of her medical files from when she had had miscarriages. I knew she carried that grief with her, but seeing those files brought it front and center in my mind. I was crying even before I found the last folder. That folder was all about the baby before Alicia. I knew that had been her most difficult one. She told me the baby had died, but I always had assumed it was a miscarriage. It turns out that the baby had been born dead at 20 weeks, so it was far enough along that she had ultrasound pictures. In the file, I found items from when he was born. There was a card with his footprints and a picture of him wrapped up in a baby blanket. She also had saved the baby blanket. By this point I was sobbing. I've decided that I'm going to put the blanket in the niche with Debbie's urn at the cemetery. It seems fitting. I am consoled by thinking of the joyous reunion Debbie had with her children in heaven.
There's still a bit of cleaning to do. But before I tell you about the last thing I cleaned I have to digress here so you'll understand what comes next. One of my favorite foods is a peanut butter and honey sandwich. We kept our bread in the freezer. At one point, I mentioned to Debbie that I didn't really like eating the crust piece on the ends of bread loaves. She told me I didn't have to; she could use them as bread crumbs when she was cooking. So, I stopped eating the crust pieces. Then a few months later I was in the doghouse because there were so many bags of bread in the freezer containing just the two crust pieces.
Ok, back to cleaning. Yesterday I noticed that on the top shelf of her bookshelf next to the desk there were a bunch of papers. They were mostly from miscellaneous classes she had taken. As I went through the papers on the bookshelf I also found about ten note books and legal pads with just two or three pages remaining. Not that it justified what I had done with the bread, but it did turn out that it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
It was good to share a laugh with Debbie again.
I was going to end this post with a short paragraph about cleaning, but as I was trying to figure out the words I found myself writing a haiku.
the desk is now clean
papers saved drawers emptied
The first night in Tanzania we stayed in Dar es Salaam. I was rooming with Pastor Horacio of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Oakdale. He had also been at Shepherd of the Hills in the past, so I knew him before the trip. I’m sure Horacio became tired of me unpacking and realizing something else I had forgotten. “Oh no, I forgot to bring any soap.” “Oh no, I forgot to pack pajamas.” “Oh no, I forgot the charger for my cell phone.” “Oh no, I forgot….” There were many things I had been meaning to pack and didn’t end up putting in my bags.
I had been through it before. It was a symptom of grief. My Dad’s death and funeral were about two weeks before we left for Tanzania. I thought I was handling it fairly well. I was functioning and getting ready for the trip. But my mind wasn’t always as focused as it should have been. It was after the unpacking that I figured out what was going on.
I understood it because I had been through it after Debbie had passed away. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be go into the bathroom upstairs to get the dirty clothes out of the laundry hamper only to find myself in the basement a half hour later looking for a screwdriver while the laundry was still upstairs. There were many times like that where I would be working on something and become distracted by something else that needed to be done. So, I would immediately move to the other task with the original task completely out of mind for a time.
Lack of focus, absent mindedness, forgetfulness, inability to complete tasks. I had them all. Everyone’s grief journey is different. This doesn’t happen to everyone. But it is a common symptom of grief.
But, back in Tanzania. There I was understanding what had happened but without a charger for my cell phone. I wasn’t planning on making calls; in fact, I left the phone in airplane mode the entire time I was in Tanzania. But it was going to be my camera for the trip. As I stood on the verge of panic, a cooler head rescued me. Horacio asked if I had a USB cable for the phone. When I said yes, he pointed out that I could plug that into my Chromebook and charge it that way.
I was relieved; Pastor Horacio had saved me. I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, he is in the business of saving people.
This is the blog post that I had intended to write last week for Valentine’s Day before I got sick.
When the final stage of Debbie’s battle with breast cancer started we didn’t realize it. The valentine I wrote about last week (http://www.timkwrites.com/blog/a-valentine-at-last6034764) was the last valentine I gave her. While Debbie couldn't get me a valentine at that time she has been sending me valentines since then.
That summer my daughter’s boyfriend was visiting and as he had never seen Lake Superior before we decided to take him to Minnesota’s North Shore to see it. The loss of Debbie still weighed heavily upon me. It was hard to believe that she was gone.
Most places on the North Shore have memories for me of being there with Debbie. Debbie loved the North Shore, it is where she seemed most able to relax. She loved the different hikes, looking for rocks on beaches, and eating good food. One time we were on a beach and I found a stone that was shaped like the top of a tulip flower. I spent a bit of time looking and eventually I was able to find an oval stone that was colored green that I could use as a stem. Later, when we were home and Debbie was getting ready for the start of the upcoming school year on a day when I usually would give her flowers I put the two stones together and gave her a rock flower.
On our trip that summer one day we were hiking the Cascade River. This aptly named river plunges down to Lake Superior in a series of waterfalls. It was the last hike Debbie and I took together on the North Shore. Usually we would hike the trail from the bottom up. Because of construction we had to park at the campground and join the river trail at its top. At the bottom, close to where the river flows into Lake Superior, the kids all took off their shoes and were wading in the river. I was hopping from rock to rock. At one point I saw a bigger rock that was sitting in the river. I walked over to it and gave it a little push into the current just to see what would happen. Not much as it turned out; the water just flowed around it. I pondered whether I had changed anything by my little alteration of the river. As I turned back towards the shore, there in the river was a stone in the shape of a heart. I realized that Debbie had put it there for me as an echo of my earlier flower gift – it was the valentine she hadn’t been able to give me in February.
After that Debbie has left me several hearts. On Valentine’s Day when I took out our dog, Lucy, right next to the path sitting on top of the snow a couple seeds had formed a heart.
On Christmas Eve, I took Lucy for a walk. The day before we had some slushy snow fall and it had melted on the ground. The temperature had fallen. Any depressions in the ground had collected water which had frozen with a white border around it. They were all circular. Then I came across one in the shape of a heart.
This last summer I was on the North Shore again. My family had a family reunion up there as we’ve done in the past. We had made the effort to make it happen this summer as it would probably be my dad’s last trip there. We were all staying at Cobblestone Cabins. One day I went walking down to the rock beach by the lake. I was thinking it was possible that I might find a heart from Debbie.
I wandered among the rocks watching the waves from the lake. I saw a rock with two rounded edges on the top. I picked it up thinking this must be from Debbie. As I looked more closely at it I realized it was more of a bean shape. I was hoping for a heart. Reluctantly, not wanting to give up, but realizing it wasn’t really a heart I set the stone back down. I took a couple steps to the lake and watched the waves for a little bit before turning around to go back up to the cabin. Looking down I laughed, there was a rock with a heart on it that was clearly not a bean.
What do all these hearts mean? Why am I getting hearts when other people who have lost someone don’t get anything? I guess that Debbie felt that she still had something left to say to me while others who have left don’t feel that need. What do I think she has to say?
I think she is expressing her love for me. Sometimes it was hard for her to do that, she was more of an “actions speak louder than words” person. After I was over the initial shock of her being gone when I remembered our life together I would often think about things I did wrong or could have done better. So, I also take the hearts to mean let that go, it didn’t change her love.
In any case, whether these are messages from the beyond or just coincidences, know that your love impacts this world even beyond the time you are physically present.
A quick note before I start: I’ll be doing a presentation at Shepherd of the Hills to show pictures and talk about my trip to Tanzania on Thursday Feb. 16 at 6:30 in the evening.
About twenty-three and a half years ago I proposed to Debbie and she accepted. I had no idea what came next, but Debbie was organized to be thinking about things. It wasn’t too much later she was telling me about this neat woman she knew who was pastor at a nearby church. Debbie thought we should think about having her perform our ceremony. So that Sunday we went to Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Shorview and I got to meet Pastor Deborah. Pastor Deborah ended up marrying Debbie and me later that year.
That’s how I started going to Shepherd of the Hills. Having grown up Catholic it was a switch to be going to a Lutheran church. I suppose my feeling was similar to Minneapolis football fans when the Vikings began in the NFL and they had to switch their allegiance from the Packers. But we’re more alike than we are different.
Shepherd has become my church home and rather than just attending I volunteered and became involved. I have many fond memories of Alicia and Andrew in their various activities or shows. I was floored by the amount of support we received after Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
There has been some turmoil there over the years and I haven’t always agreed with some things that were said or done. But I realize that God has been looking for the perfect church for over 2,000 years and hasn’t found one, so I don’t think I need to have the perfect church.
When I was in a grief support group for a while after died they mentioned that a lot of people stopped going to their churches after a death. I hadn’t even considered that with Shepherd. There was so much love and support there. But I can see why the memories might be overpowering for someone in grief. It still hits me some Sundays. I learned pretty quick I needed to sit on the aisle where I could get out quick if I was starting to cry.
After so much time I’ve built up a lot of relationships that I treasure. One of which is the feeling of having a closer relationship with God. It’s a blessing to me to have been able to have Shepherd as my church home.
I encourage everyone to find a church home and become involved. You’re welcome at Shepherd if you don’t have a church of your own. (Look for me, I’ll be sitting on the aisle way over on the right.)
You may read this post and wonder about the title and how it fits with what I’m writing about. Don’t worry, I will explain it.
Just a note before I start. I did an upgrade with Weebly on the site. I’ll be able to post videos now, you might have noticed that in last week’s posting. I also have a new website address: www.timkwrites.com. If you access my blog with the old address it will redirect you to here. And now onto my posting.
We’ve all heard the story of if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water and gradually increase the temperature it won’t be aware of it and won’t jump out even as the water gets to boiling.
What if you reverse that? There are times in our life when our world is despair, hopelessness and brokenness. We’re in hot water and we can’t get out. It’s times like that when we need the heat turned down.
That was me during the final stages of Debbie’s battle with breast cancer and after she passed away. Looking back, I’m not sure how I got through it. It feels like it was a blur, but I also have some very clear memories of that time. In fact, I just had to pause in writing this as I remembered when a group of her students came over and sang to Debbie while she was in hospice. It was so beautiful that all I could do was run into another room and silently sob. And, of course, if the computer screen is all blurry through tears you can’t write.
What can we do for someone in that situation? We want to give them hope and encouragement. But you can’t say that. At that point, they’re focused on the moment and nothing else. Things in the future, like hope, don’t mean anything.
We need to lower the heat. We might not be able to do much, but if we lower the heat one degree we’ve made a difference. The other person might not notice it, but every little bit adds up. Eventually the heat is lowered enough that life becomes bearable.
I’ll tell you what helped to lower my heat, even though I didn’t notice it at the time. Every expression of support, every card that was sent, every hug, every meal that was delivered, every prayer, each of the over 400 people who came to the funeral brought the water to a lower temperature. Eventually, gradually, hope started showing up in my life again. The mourning doesn’t stop. Like a limb that is amputated that person isn’t coming back. But increasingly that stops being what defines your life.
Acknowledgment and support are the best ways to lower the heat.
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge what someone is going through. You may not say the right thing, but at least you’re letting them know you’re concerned. Even a simple, “I’m sorry for what you’re going through” works.
You’ve read some of the things that people did to support me and my family. If you can think of something specific that you can do offer to do that. The old standard, “If you need anything, just let me know” is more of an acknowledgement since they don’t really know what they need.
Gratitude doesn’t seem like something that relates to what I’ve been talking about. But for me it does. I feel so much gratitude for the many people whose kindness and concern were manifested through their support of Debbie, my family and me. I feel truly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life.
Let me start off with a prayer request. If you were reading my blog while I was in Tanzania you might remember Freddy Hanson. I had asked for your prayers for him while the doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with him. He ended up having surgery and was expected to make a full recovery. Unfortunately, it has been discovered that it was cancer. Freddy has been at Mayo Clinic for radiation and chemotherapy. Your prayers, once again, would be a big help. Thanks.
In Tanzania I was bemoaning that my pictures of sunsets never turned out. Tom Olsen, who had volunteered to be our trip photographer, told me to try editing it and using a red filter. I was trying out the editing capabilities of my phone/camera. If you're a friend on Facebook, you might have already seen what I did. I posted a new cover photo that took a nice sunset picture that hadn't turned out and changed it to look more like the actual sunset. I improved some pictures from Tanzania. I'll give you a sampling below.
This got me musing about befores and afters in life. Sometimes it takes time afterwards for details to come forth and present a clearer, more understandable picture.
For years after the Twins won the World Series in 1987 I would have conversations with people where we were trying to figure out when something had happened. One or the other of us would say, "Well, I know it was before the Twins won the World Series." Or after. It was a shared event. After so many years of no championships for Minnesota pro sports teams, the Twins win created a shared sense of euphoria in Minnesota. We could all place when it had happened.
Before and after meeting Debbie. She changed me for the better. I was a different person back then and Debbie drew out the best in me. (She tended to have that effect on people.)
Before and after Debbie's death. A marker in time. Although on either side of it things are not clear. Her illness was a blur and afterwards I was in a fog of grief for some time. Bit by bit I progress towards being able to look back and understand.
I know that my life will now be divided into before and after Tanzania. This trip changed me in so many way, changes that I know about and changes that I haven't realized have happened yet. But I know that they are changes for the good.
I know that because of another before and after that's important to all our lives. As we celebrate Christmas this year, think about the before and after of Jesus. How this coming to earth changed more than just flipping the calendar from BC to AD. He comes as a child inviting us into a relationship of love. Accept the invitation with joy and afterwards...
Tim Kane's memories, musings and updates.