On the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, property owners are desperately trying to stop the waves from destroying their homes. People who have lived along the lakeshore for decades and whose homes were built far from the edge of the dunes are now scrambling to build seawalls before the winter waves take what’s left of the dunes and their homes with it. One man who has lived on the lake for thirty years marveled that he’s never seen the lake this high before. Heavy equipment is all along the shoreline, brought in by anxious homeowners.
In some ways, it feels as if grief is eroding my life. Loss is redefining my landscape and carving new shores. It is painful. What sort of heavy equipment can stop these losses? None that I know of. But there is the question - even if I could stop them, should I?
In life, loss is inevitable and it changes you. Whether you like it or not. How I let the new changes re-form me…that’s what I need to focus on. But that will come later. For now, the waves keep battering.
Storms of Life
I’ve covered a lot of miles this. week. Last Friday we drove to Chicago to pick up my sister-in-law at O’Hare and then we continued on to a northwest suburb of Chicago to celebrate our uncle’s life with friends and family. The original plan was to stay through Sunday, going to church with our aunt and cousin and. linger a bit longer before coming back to Grand Rapids.
The weather report had said some rain and snow, but by the time we were done with breakfast, our car was buried. I went to clear it off while Mike went to collect everyone’s luggage and Anne Marie went to check us out of the hotel. By the time I got back to the lobby, there was two inches of snow piled on my head. I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass doors and saw a bedraggled mess. My hair - which for once had been perfectly coiffed - was dripping wet and stuck to my head. My makeup was running down my face. As my sister-in-law glanced up to greet me, a chunk of snow slid off my head, onto my shoulder, and then plopped onto the floor. It was perfect comic timing and the look on her face as she beheld me was priceless.
We had a quick conference in the car. I was willing to drive to the church, but it was with the understanding that this was not a brief spring dust up. We were in a blizzard and the streets were not being cleared. A unanimous decision was made to send a text with our love and to head for home. It turned out to be a good decision. Normally a three and a half hour drive turned into a trip that was closer to eight hours long, with tsunamis of slush washing over the car whenever a truck passed us. We passed countless wrecks and ambulances from Illinois to Michigan. About twenty minutes from home the snow finally let up. It was an epic drive.
Once home, I checked messages and learned that a cousin had passed away. She was elderly and had just entered hospice, so it was not a complete surprise, but my small family group is dwindling even more and it breaks my heart.
After a two day respite from the road I was off again. Leaving Mike and Anne Marie to look after Dad and one another, I got on the highway heading east this time. Perhaps it’s because I was tired, perhaps it was the harrowing drive from Chicago, or perhaps there was grief upon grief, but I was not looking forward to the trip. Normally, I’m always up for a road trip. I love driving and I love going from place to place. But not this time.
Once I got to Rochester Hills, though, things felt better. As I drove the back roads to the funeral home, memories from my teen years popped up. Bike rides, friendship, and youthful angst joined in with memories of family. By the time I got back to the hotel that evening, I was on a more even keel and was able to get some rest.
In the morning the sky looked dirty and uneven - a bit sad, actually. A fitting day to mourn. The funeral was touching and I gathered with my cousins to share memories and catch up. After lunch I was back on the road and back into another storm. This one was only heavy rain but there were still accidents and the drive had its challenges.
East and west, through grief and bad weather, I persevered and made it home. A perfect metaphor, I think, for life and for death. You travel this world, you persevere through all the challenges life presents, and you make it home.
Rest in peace, Bob and Gerda. You’ve made it home.
Abraham begat Isaac;
and Isaac begat Jacob;
and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;
And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar;
and Phares begat Esrom;
and Esrom begat Aram;
and Aram begat Aminadab;
and Aminadab begat Naasson;
and Naasson begat Salmon;
and Salmon begat Boaz of Rachab;
and Boaz begat Obed of Ruth….
Two years ago, my husband was inspired for Christmas. He purchased a DNA test kit from a genealogy service for me. This gift was deeply moving since I really don’t know anything about where I came from. My hope was the kit might give me a sort of overview of my roots. But it raised more questions than it answered.
I am sure I’ve mentioned before that my maternal grandparents raised me. They were both of German ethnicity, but from parts of eastern Europe - part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Grandpa was from somewhere in Romania and Grandma was from Hungary. I grew up in a household where German was the primary language. To say I identified with my German heritage would be a bit of an understatement.
Imagine my surprise when the DNA results came back and showed I was ninety percent British and Celtic. What? Fifty percent I might believe, but ninety? And where was the supposed Jewish connection? The scant trace in my bloodline seems to indicate that it goes back to Adam and not since then. My identity was being messed with in a major way, and it didn’t lead to any further family connections. (Unless, of course, for an additional fee you want to have access to more records. As if I have the time for that.)
On occasion, I revisit the website to make updates to my family tree. Recently, I discovered something interesting. The one and only story I have about my father’s family is that he claimed to have descended from a famous feuding family. It was never clear whether it was the Hatfields or the McCoys, and I suspected it was one of those family myths. Stories, that upon closer examination, are found to have little to no basis in facts.
But it turns out, he wasn’t exaggerating and there may be a connection to the McCoys. Now, in addition to descending from a stowaway grandfather, I’m also descended from people famous for not getting along to the point of murder. Not quite what I had expected from a DNA test. Considering human history, though, should I be surprised?
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. - Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NIV)
2015 really kicked my ass. We felt a tremendous amount of loss last year, from our car getting totaled to the death of several of our loved ones - the year left us spinning. Grief and loss overwhelmed us and we needed time to process everything, yet it kept coming. While trying to care for our own broken hearts, we were also trying to care for Mom K. as she was adapting to her new reality of being in a wheelchair, losing her brother to Alzheimer’s and watching her daughter grieve the loss of her husband unexpectedly.
We’ve spent time traveling back and forth to Texas to help Mike’s sister adjust to her new reality and to try to help with all the maintenance a house needs. Fortunately (sort of) I’ve been laid off from my part time job and have time to do all this. I confess, I've felt dazed and numb for several months.
However, I refuse to be defined by loss and I refuse to be a victim. It’s time to get moving again, even if it’s only in baby steps. Painting is once again happening in my studio. I can’t say I’m setting the world on fire, but one of the paintings for the Freedom 58 project seems to be done. I hope. It’s been put aside to look at it again once the second one is completed but it’s movement in the right direction.
Last night we went over to Mike’s parents’ apartment and helped Mom call her youngest (and now only) brother for his birthday. There are still things to celebrate and that is our focus.
It is the season to move forward. Like posting this blog.
“For whatever you think of me, any thought you might allow
I’m not who I would like to be, it’s just who I am right now” – ‘Fragile’ by Ralston Bowles
There I sat, alone by design, at another funeral. It’s the fourth or fifth one since April and I was looking toward another one in a week or so for my brother-in-law. I sat alone because there were so many long-time friends and acquaintances at this service and I couldn’t face them. This was a service for Gary’s family and I didn’t want to draw attention to my own griefs. One more condolence and I knew I’d lose it so there I sat, in the middle of a row, with four seats on either side of me trusting that no one would recognize the back of my head.
There were some solid musicians playing at Gary’s service, the minister who officiated at my wedding. They were there to pay tribute. I’ve heard Ralston Bowles play many times over the years and he’s a flippin’ musical genius. But today, his voice was singularly beautiful as he sang one of Gary’s favorite songs by Andraé Crouch. For a moment I forgot myself as I listened to him. I forgot where I was or why I was there. Ralston had transported me for a brief moment and I am truly thankful.
I really thought I could do this. I thought I could come and share the grief of another family and offer comfort. But once the service was over and I spoke to a couple friends I realized I could not stay. I was saved by a text. A friend had gotten lost on the way to the service wondered if I could meet her for lunch. Yes, oh yes! I had to get out of there.
And so I said some goodbyes, signed the guest book and fled.
Now I’m home, changed and in solitude. I’ve received an email from my sister-in-law who has taken me up on my offer to come stay with her. In fact, she’s asked if I’d come down before the funeral to help. I’m more than glad to be of some help and comfort and will be leaving soon. I can do one on one. It’s crowds of people I can’t deal with right now because I’m feeling quite fragile.
If you are interested in learning more about Ralston Bowles and his music, go to https://www.earthworkmusic.com/artists-ind?i=1039
You can hear his music here: https://www.reverbnation.com/ralstonbowles
When our good friend died recently, my heart was broken into thousands of pieces. Not only did we lose Don, but it refreshed the grief of losing his wife three years earlier. One of my longest friendships and most dear, I thought my heart couldn’t break any more.
I was wrong.
Monday, after work, Mike sat down and said, “Chaz* has died.” I stared at him and thought he had lost his mind. Our brother-in-law is a healthy, intelligent, vibrant, and engaging man. He and Mike’s sister were due for a visit soon. This simply did not make sense. My mind was struggling with what he was saying and I kept saying, “No” over and over. Mike had to be wrong but the sadness in his eyes finally convinced me and I broke into wracking sobs.
Among his many accomplishments, Chaz had been a pilot for decades. He flew in the Navy and continued to fly privately when he got out of the military. As an engineer, he worked in aeronautics and when he retired he spent time with other retirees refurbishing aircraft. He had built his own planes over the years. His cars were not parked in the garage, since parts of planes inhabited that space. A couple of years ago he purchased a glider and was enjoying it immensely.
Sunday, he took the glider for another flight. It was a lovely day for it and he was happy to be in the air again. When he wasn’t back by late afternoon a member of the glider club contacted the local sheriff’s office to see if there had been any reports of a downed plane. The search began. Through pinging his cell phone, he and the plane were found. Chaz was pronounced dead at the scene.
My heart, which has been ravaged by loss over the past few years, is broken even more. Our family is overwhelmed with grief and it seems to be never ending. Prayers are always appreciated.
Most likely, this blog will be on hiatus. I trust you’ll understand that.
*His name has been changed to protect his wife’s and family’s privacy.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a funeral of a friend who died at far too young an age. A generous writer and editor, friendship came easy to her. Her funeral was the most eloquent I’ve been to in no small part because of all the speakers were professional writers and editors. Her loss is keenly felt.
I asked the church office if there was a recording of it and for a small fee, I was sent a CD of the celebration of her life. I thought I could listen to it again without so much emotion, but the tears poured forth anew. Tears not only for the loss of this friend, but for all the friends and family I’ve lost over the past 5 years. The losses are piling up and because it’s the nature of life, they will continue. It is just the way it is, as much as I hate that fact.
There have been many times when I’ve been comforting someone who is mourning. Often they are told, “You’ll get over it.” That’s not really true. The truth I tell people engulfed in sadness, is that you’ll learn to accommodate the grief. Eventually, it won’t be quite as sharp, nor as often. You can learn to be happy again. But you will always have a piece of your heart missing.
The only solution to avoid all this sorrow would be to insulate my life from pain. Form no friendships and no attachments of any sort. Then, there would be no pain because there would be no loss. But there would be no joy, either. I have dear memories of laughter, struggle, tears, failures and triumphs shared. Oh yes, it hurts. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s been ten years ago today that we moved my mother from her house in the Detroit metro area to Grand Rapids. It was an event that radically changed both our lives. While she knew her memory was failing and that she needed help, she also realized she was losing her home, her friends and everything familiar to her, and she was grieving that.
I knew I was putting my entire life aside to help the woman who gave me birth, but didn't raise me. And though I had already stepped into her life after not hearing from her in over a decade and done the hard work of forgiveness, now started the day to day grind of walking it out.
Throughout that journey, my life kept shrinking. I quit painting, I quit volunteering, and I quit working…bit by bit I had to let things go until all I did was look after my mother, who was increasingly resentful of me. Frankly, I was resentful of her as well.
We all long to have a destiny. I think that’s why Rick Warren’s book Purpose Filled Life was such a big seller. People long to have a deeper purpose than just getting up every day and going through the motions of living. As my life shrank more and more and I became invisible to everyone around me, I grieved that I no longer had a future. I had no idea how long this season would last, but I knew the world wasn't waiting for me when it was over. Life was moving steadily on, friends and acquaintances were moving ahead in their careers and lives while I shepherded mom through the last years of her life.
A rather startling experience occurred a couple years into caregiving. I was at a conference when a young woman I’d never met came up to me and said that God had revealed to her that I was an artist of some kind and that God wanted me to pick it up again and use it for Him. It took my breath away, and gave me great hope. But back at home, the day to day grind would continue and a couple years later I’d wondered if I’d missed the boat. God sent another stranger to say the same thing.
It’s exciting to have a destiny, and to have had the supernatural experience of people coming up out of the blue to confirm it. But I think we may forget that a purposeful life is filled with insignificant things. Laundry, cleaning, cooking, computer crashes, power outages, paying bills and other nagging, boring details make up our lives leading up to other times of great satisfaction. The graduation of a child, becoming teacher of the year, publishing a book, giving a presentation, receiving a contract for a gallery show, or any number of wonderful things are made up of really insignificant times. Changing diapers, making lesson plans, writing and re-writing, practicing in front of a mirror, working on fundamental skills over and over. All this and more takes place before the big things come to pass.
As a result, our thoughts can wander into dark places. “I’m a failure. This is useless. I have nothing to contribute.” These thoughts are poisonous. It is good to remember when Jesus was baptized and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” that Jesus hadn't done one miracle, hadn't called one disciple, but had just put in His time growing up, learning a trade and developing a relationship with His Father. Could it be that the insignificant things that feel like wasted time actually matter to God?
It is good to ponder on this as I’m transitioning back into art and writing. I’m back to working on fundamental skills. Every day is a reminder on how far behind the curve I am.
I’m right on track.
Note: The observation about Jesus' life comes from a CD series by Francis Frangipane called Holiness, Truth and the Presence of God. Here is a link to purchase that set. It also comes as an MP3 format. Used by permission.
Power of Art
In an effort to restart a creative life after years of caregiving, I splurged on season tickets for the Grand Rapids Ballet. Once a month or so, I get dressed up, find a friend who’s interested in going, and have a night out that includes visual and musical delights.
The most recent performance was called MOVEMEDIA, which is a group of contemporary works commissioned specifically for Grand Rapids’ company. Patricia Barker, the director of GR Ballet, gave a brief talk before the performances and explained the process of commissioning the pieces and how the different choreographers worked.
Rather than commissioning based on reputation or resume, the dances were chosen based on ideas, giving the work an innovative look at dance. The call for work was answered from artists worldwide. It promised to be an interesting night.
My friend and I took our seats and the first dance was introduced. This was a piece from a Spanish choreographer named Pedro Lozano Gomez. While working with the dancers he did not reveal to them what was going on in his life. He (and they) worked on the expressiveness of the dance. He wanted them to focus on their expression, and did not want their sympathy. Initially, he chose a title that expressed what life feels like with something vital missing. I believe it was “Missing a Limb.” However, Ms. Barker prevailed on him to name it “Juana” after his mother. The main character in the dance is “Mother” and the dance is about slowly losing her to Alzheimer’s.
This fact was revealed right before the curtain was raised and it sucked the air out of my lungs. Since, by current statistics, one in six seniors are dying with some sort of dementia, I feel rather confident that I wasn’t the only one. Still, there’s little comfort in that.
Thank God for kind and sensitive friends. Cindy leaned over and whispered, “Are you ready for this?” “No,” I replied. But just the act of asking me made it bearable. The performance was heartbreaking to me. As “Mother” was slipping away, I saw the others as her children and memories trying to bring her back to them. She drifts farther and farther away. I was quietly crying throughout the piece.
I pray that someday the art I create will have that much power.
Tears in my Ears
Jan working at the Julie Quinn workshop in 2012
I was on the chiropractic table a week or so ago, letting my spine relax and waiting for an adjustment. It was the first time in quite awhile that I had a quiet moment. I was surprised by a welling up of tears that flowed down my cheekbones and into my ears.
That turned my thoughts to a dear friend of mine named Jan. I'd met Jan in college and we'd been friends for over 30 years. There was a 20 plus year age difference, but that didn't matter. Our friendship was rare and a treasure. She was like an older sister to me. We spent a summer in London together, went on painting trips together, shared the ups and downs of life together.
When I stepped away from art to care for my mother, I stepped away from friendships as well. Not intentionally, but there wasn't enough time to do everything that needed to be done. While my heart still treasured Jan and other friends, I was no longer present in her life. There was the occasional card and phone call, but I rarely got a chance to spend time with her, and I missed it.
When Mom passed away, I was exhausted. I'd gained weight, broken a leg, had surgery and was worn out. Instead of picking up and reconnecting with life, I turned inward. After about a year, I was slowly re-emerging, but Jan was starting to have serious health issues. She was so sick and weak that I could only call. She couldn't have visitors.
Then, the doctors changed her treatment and that seemed to make a difference. Slowly, she was gaining strength. I could visit, although sometimes had to wear a mask. We'd sit together, have tea together, chat, do Zentangles or jigsaw puzzles. Later in the summer, she was strong enough that we took an art workshop together. We were happy and hopeful of doing more art projects together.
But our joy was short lived. She was gone by mid September.
The last few months we had together were sweet. She made sure to tell me I had been a good friend, and I made sure she knew I loved her.
But now she's gone, and I'm laying on a table with tears in my ears. Shortly after she died, I called her husband to see how he was doing. We talked about Jan and our grief. He told me he'd been lying in bed, thinking of her when tears came and rolled down his cheek, landing in his ears. It reminded him of a song, “I've Got Tears in My Ears from Lying on My Back in Bed Crying Over You.” This made him laugh and think, “Donna would know that song.” We laughed when he related this to me and I laughed on the chiropractor's table.
Laughter and tears. Grief is such a strange thing.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.