The Unsolicited Sorority

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”
― William Shakespeare, King John

 

The wipers are intermittently clearing the large flakes of snow off my windshield as I continue with my errands on this cold February afternoon. My eyelids clear the tears welling in them as my heart is transported to another time, another place, so very long ago. There are some things that never really go away; they punctuate the present unexpectedly. Things buried beneath the passage of time, obscured by a lofty stack of days, weeks, years, errands, appointments, people, and events. But it will surface and surge and at those unpredictable occasions and for a little while I allow the memories and accompanying feelings to have their holiday.
Sitting quietly in my living room two days earlier, while drinking coffee and talking with a friend on the phone, I kept looking at an old picture on the wall and realized something was wrong. The mat just did not look good anymore. It was faded and not at all a match for the picture or my décor. This certainly is not what I would choose now. Well, I can change it! I love to go into the art store and see the beautiful work of Anne Loveless, two time Art Prize winner, and her husband Steve.
Today is the day. Taking my “to do” list and the picture off the living room wall, I head for the car.
“Come on Shmoey!” I called to my dog as he jumped into the car. “You can come too. I just have a few errands to run.” I carefully laid the picture in the back seat after filling the trunk with bags of items to go to Jerry’s- the local consignment shop. Driving the seven miles to Beulah, a tiny town on the east side of Crystal Lake, I see the shop. Perfect, a parking place right in front.
Slopping through the slush as the snow continues its silent descent; I carry my picture, using my hip to open the heavy glass door. The hanging bells jingle. A woman, probably in her early fifties, comes from the back work room and greets me. “Hi, what can I help you with today?”
“I would like to replace the mat on this portrait.” I replied. “It seems faded and too coral colored.”
“Yes, I can see it is dark and faded. Did you have a color in mind?” She asked.
“A light pink would be pretty.” I answered.
“I have several samples in various shades of pink.” She brought an assortment of 90 degree mat samples for me to examine.
“Could you give me a price on just the cut mat versus you doing the whole job?” I asked.
“Of course, can I take it apart and get the exact measurements?” She inquired.
“Sure, I guess whether you do it or I do it, it has to be taken apart.” I answered.
I watched as she took a sharp cutting tool and removed the paper backing, and dismantled the piece of art. She laid it on the counter. I noticed some pastel dust clinging to the glass.
This portrait is very old, I thought to myself, I hope she is careful with it.
“I thought the artist would have sprayed a fixative on the paper to prevent ‘dusting’ of the chalk.” I commented.
“She may have, but a little dusting is normal over a long period of time.” She responded.
Long period is right. The portrait is over thirty years old.
I positioned several 90 degree ‘corner’ mats of varying shades of pink around the picture. Eliminating them one by one until a light pink was pleasing.
“I like this one.” I said as I handed her the sample.
“This color is nice; it really matches her dress,” she replied.
She was very kind and patient, and seemed to know what she was doing. The price was right for “the professional” to do the matting and put it all back together, so I went with that.
“Probably sometime next week I will have it done and I will call you.” She stated as I gave my name and phone number.
Standing there for a minute I stared at the pastel portrait lying naked on the wide counter. No mat, no frame, no glass. It is just an old delicate piece of paper with a soft colored pastel drawing with a likeness equal to the real life image in my mind. So many years have passed since my eyes gazed at that face in reality, seeing the twinkle in her blue eyes as she smiled sweetly and laughed at the antics of her 8 year old sister, Stacy.
Turning to leave I paused and said “Please be gentle with it. This is a picture of my daughter who died.”
Gazing at me attentively she spoke, “I am sorry. I know what it is like. I lost my son ten years ago. He died of leukemia…How old was your daughter when she died?”
“’Almost one.” I answered.” She died during open heart surgery. I am sorry for your loss too. How old was your son?”
Her voice was soft as she replied, “He was twenty-four. It is so heart breaking to lose a child.”
“Yes, it is.” I said, as memories tap the shoulder of emotions buried in my soul. “No matter the age of your child it is devastating. I have known elderly people whose children were fifty or sixty years old, and others who lose infants before birth.”
In those moments, during the brief exchange of words between two strangers, a common bond was recognized. A connection formed through experiencing the ultimate loss, the supreme misery of burying your ‘babe’. We know, and wish above all things we did not know the agony of our powerlessness, the months and years of craving for the beloved. We understand the challenge of living again when you do not want to. We know the arduous task of piecing your life back together when it has been forever altered. Similar to a crash that tears up your body but you survive and must learn to compensate, adjust, and walk again… limping but moving forward just the same. I am reminded of a passage in a book I read, over and over.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I prayed for the woman I had just encountered. I want to talk to her more, and I will when I pick up my picture. We belong to a club we did not request to join and unwillingly share. If there is any comfort at all it is the fact I am not alone. A support group called Compassionate Friends, for parents who lose children, helped me feel less isolated and odd, that all those crazy thoughts and feelings are “normal”. There are millions like me, like her, and more will continue to join this grief guild; death has not been defeated yet.
I think incredible sorrow carves out within us a deep capacity for compassion and empathy. We express our concern in our words, a hug, tears, a look in the eyes, and sometimes holding a hand and walking through the rugged terrain of mourning with a bereft parent. After my daughter died I received many cards and letters, often from people who read the obituary in the newspaper .These strangers reached out to say “it will get better.”Sharing their personal journey of loss and healing with me as an encouragement. I indeed can do the same, as the following scripture states:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Yeshua the Messiah, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Messiah are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through him. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5
Grief is still a process we must walk through and endure, there is no shortcut. Reading through an old diary revives the thoughts and emotions I encountered shortly after my daughter Megan’s death. I wrote almost daily. As the days, weeks, and months passed I wrote less, and less. At first I visited her grave several times a week; that too gradually diminished over time. Initially I thought I will never get over and get through this. I can’t do it, my life is over. But I did not die. Eventually healing came and I was able to laugh again without guilt.
By faith I know I am a child of the Living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, I know I will see my child again. The following scripture is not only my greatest comfort, but my greatest joy.

 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.
Since we believe that Yeshua died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Messiah.
For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep.

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Messiah will rise first.

Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord.

Therefore encourage one another with these words.

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My Forty Dollar Dog

Simple as it seems, this devoted little puppy reopened the avenue of love and significance to this wounded heart.

DSC01568DSC01569“Hey Lorene…do you want to stop at the animal shelter?” I asked as my car approached the sign for it along the road into Beulah. Lorene and I were on our way to lunch. It is a cold grey, March day in 2012, in northern lower Michigan.

She replied emphatically with a long drawn out “Nooooo, why would I want to do that? You know I don’t like animals .You can do that another time when you are by yourself!”

“I pass the sign all the time, look over at the building, and wonder what it’s like.” I explained.

“Patsi, it’s a building with dogs and cats that smell. I don’t want to spend time on my day off at the Benzie County Animal Shelter.”

“Okay,” I replied. So I packed up the thought and put it away for another day. I couldn’t put my finger on why I would even be curious, after all I am definitely not in the market for a pet, I don’t even want live plants!

Several weeks passed and I had not even thought of stopping at the animal shelter. Then one day in early May, I saw the sign, turned off the road and parked in the lot. I mused at my action and excused my behavior as simply inquisitive.

Kitties were all around the large entry room. Swinging from suspended rope and beds, climbing on the condos, and in and out of ‘houses’. It doesn’t smell too bad, mostly little disinfectant mixed with cat.

“Hello, can I help you?” A man in a green uniform asks.

“I just want to look around,” I answered.

“Well, the dogs are through the door back over there, cats are all up front.”

I open the heavy steel door and am smacked with ‘dog smell’. Yikes, mouth breathe, mouth breathe, I tell myself. Cautiously I walk down the cement aisle between cages on each side. Fifteen dogs are focused on me and barking vigorously for my attention! Quickly my fingers go into my ears. Why can’t these kennels be more sound proof? The echo is deafening!

Hmmm, that one looks old; and this one is so big. There is one here kind of small…but ugly. Well, I’ve seen enough, I’ve got this out of my system now.

Exiting the kennel I walk toward the front entrance. The man in the green suit calls to me, “Did you see one you liked?”

Oh no, thought, what do I say, I was just curious and not in the market for a pet. I responded, “No…I really like little dogs.” Seeing there were no little dogs I thought that would satisfy him.

“Oh, we have a little Yorkie out getting fixed today. You can see him tomorrow morning.”

“Okay,” I said a bit reluctantly as I kept walking. “I may be back tomorrow.”

Getting back in my car and heading home I thought- A Yorkie, those are little dogs. Maybe I will come back tomorrow. What AM I thinking? I don’t want a dog. I have not had a dog in years. In fact I regard people who treat their dogs like family members, catering to their needs, taking them wherever they go and downright ‘in love’ with their pets, as a wee bit off kilter, shaking my head and mutter to myself, these people and their dogs, I just don’t understand, it is so annoying!

My earliest memories as a child included Shorty, my first doggie, we were both the same age. My mom would never have a dog in the house so he lived outside in his own house. He was a fixture in my childhood, it was a comfort to have him around after my Dad died when I was seven.

Early one school day, when I was eleven I opened the kitchen door leading into the garage and Shorty lay in front of the step motionless. I was very sad that day. Concentrating on my fifth grade school work was hard.

Other dogs have come (at the pleas of my children), and gone in my life. The fondness I had toward the pets was minimal. Perhaps it was because I was busy raising children, working as a nurse and my life seemed to be in chaos much of the time.

I could go back into Beulah tomorrow morning; I need to go to the hardware. I will kill two birds with one stone and see that ‘little Yorkie’.

The next morning I drove the picturesque seven miles back into Beulah with my first stop being the animal shelter. I had a feeling of alarm when I could not find that little dog anywhere in the kennel. I visually searched every pen over twice.

“I cannot find that ‘little Yorkie’ you told me about yesterday.” I said anxiously to the Animal Officer. “Oh, he is in a small cage, in a room behind my desk.”

He was so small and a bit funny looking. He was curled up on a worn doggie bed. When I approached his cage he came to the front of the wire cage and stared up at me.

“You can take him out and see him.” Mr. Green Suit said.

I felt a bit awkward as I tried to pick him up. “He is so skittish and afraid.”

“Yep, he is just a little guy and he came from a home with sixteen dogs.”

“Wow, sixteen dogs! How did you happen to get him?” I asked.

“He was surrendered. Yeah, they were hoarders and well known by our department. Too many dogs, and to avoid trouble they surrendered him.” He answered.

I picked him up, he sniffed my neck then calmly put his head on my chest. I stroked his back, and ugh! He licked my cheek. His hair is coarse, matted, and stiff, and his ears are huge! He seems like a nice dog. I put him on the floor and he anxiously ventured off only a few feet then quickly scampered back to me and jumped on my legs as if he was afraid of the world and I was his security.

“Well, I need to have my husband take a peek at him. I’ll be back later this afternoon.”

I can’t believe I said that. I went home, hung a load of clothes on the line, then called my daughters confessing what I had done and seeking their advice. They reached a consensus of madness but thought it might be a good idea!

My husband, a retired veterinarian, accompanied me back to the shelter. After careful examination including his teeth, he was pronounced in good health, and approximately five months old.

Now, I was really nervous-I don’t know what to do.

“Well, would you like to adopt him?” asked Mr. Green Suit.

I suck in a long deep breath, “Can I think about it?” I asked to buy some time.

“Can you let me know by noon Friday? We have another lady interested in him, but I will wait on you first for an answer.”

“Sure, I will let you know by noon Friday. And by the way, how much is it to adopt?”

“Forty dollars.”

Hmm, that’s certainly cheap enough… and today is Wednesday, I will think and pray about it, this is a big step, I thought. I must be nuts! I am unencumbered now- retired, kids are grown, and grandkids visit, and I have a troubled marriage.

For two days the ‘what ifs’ drive me crazy. I make more phone calls to both daughters, who by the way each have a dog.

“What if he is mean, or barks too much, never gets housebroken, and just plain doesn’t work out? I asked.

“Mom, you can always sell him or give him away.” My wise oldest daughter replied.

Friday morning, 11:30 a.m. I walk into the shelter with some apprehension and begin to write a check and fill out the forms. The moment of decision has come, I nervously pick up this little dog and carry him to my car. I wonder if he’ll even sit still as I drive. I put him down in the passenger seat on a little blanket I brought and I began to drive. He is calm, and just looks at me. The sun is shining, all the hills are a beautiful collage of various shades of green. He is doing so good, innocently just sitting and starring at me. I think I will stop at my friend Jan’s house to show her my new purchase.

Jan is excited to see me and the puppy. We sit on her lawn with the soft delicate spring grass as our blanket, the earth beneath us is warm. My puppy potty’s (all on his own) then lays down and curls up next to me. A gentle west breeze is laden with the promise of lilacs and daffodils dot the yard with splashes of yellow, orange and white.

“What are you going to name him?” Asks Jan, then ads” I think you should name him Radar, he has such big ears!”

I pause and ponder the enormous contrast of this radiant spring day with the past several weeks and months of cold and darkness. My heart is hurting. A year earlier I entered into a marriage covenant with a man who professed he loved and needed me. I believed all he promised. My first year as a bride was filled with rejection, betrayal, and deceit, and the emotional abuse of withholding of love and affection. My hopes and dreams are shattered and my soul bruised under continued assault by the husband that became a stranger almost overnight. I desperately tried to regain the man I loved during our courtship only to realize, as the confusion cleared, that this is who he really is.

Suddenly the locked and barricaded doors of my heart open, I sniff and blink back the tears behind my sunglasses as I stroke this small helpless little dog-who needs me… as much as I need him.

At that moment I began understood what happened. I am in covenant with One who loves me beyond measure; the Lord God of Israel. Through the emotional pain and turmoil when I did not know what I needed, He did. I recalled what David said in Psalm 38:9:

O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you.

The Lord heard the silent speaking of my heart, as He speaks through the prophet Isaiah, chapter 65:24

It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”

Simple as it seems, this devoted little puppy reopened the avenue of love and significance to this wounded heart.

“His name is Shmu’el.” I told Jan. “It is Hebrew for ‘God listens’”.