My Christmas letter this year emphasized all the things I'm grateful for at the close of what has turned out to be an unexpectedly harrowing year. A couple of days ago I spent a few hours at Fairhaven Memorial Park with my late daughter-in-law's mother. Maria and I talked about how people struggle to cope with grief during the holidays. We so much mourn the loss of Mari Lou.
"How can you give a Christmas card to a mother who lost her child just a couple of months earlier? What do you say...Merry Christmas?" Maria asked. Maria sometimes brings her rosary to the gravesite and prays for her daughter's soul. She says she finds peace sitting by the grave, and is relieved that it's so close, only a mile, from her home.
I've been thinking about our conversation this morning as I prepare to meet Maria and my son for a holiday meal this afternoon. Steve wanted to do something special, even though last year's Christmas dinner quartet is now a trio. We're heading for one of Mari Lou's favorite places, Downtown Disney's Rainforest Cafe. Maybe I won't feel merry...but I'll be thankful to be with them. I might not wish them a merry Christmas. But I can wish them blessings...and my heartfelt hopes that they see brighter days ahead.
Why Rainforest? "There's lots to choose from on the menu, and there's the animatronics show that could cheer us up a little," Steve explained. He'd earlier made reservations for the Queen Mary's Sir Winston, but decided to cancel, thinking it might be too formal, too somber. Plus its set menu featured a number of seafood choices, and Maria, born and raised in Cuba, paradoxically does not eat fish or seafood.
I remember Mari Lou's words from last year, as we dug into our dinner at El Torito: "How wonderful it is for Steve and me to finally have both of our mothers here for Christmas." Nobody would have expected that this year we'd be a trio, and that the missing member of the quartet would be that speaker.
My son chose Downtown Disney Rainforest Cafe as the venue for our meal this year because Disney movies and this restaurant had been favorites of Mari Lou's. Not long after she died, I came across her gratitude journal. It inspired me to detail in my annual Christmas letter this year what I'd found to be grateful for this year. Here's that list:
- Family. I live closer to my son, stepson's family, my brother, and I'm in contact with nieces and grandchildren.
- Old friends, here and overseas, and new ones, both Californian and virtual.
- Travel. This year Italy, North Carolina and Georgia.
- Writing. Publishing in anthologies, online blogs, even eBooks.
- Mobility. Still agile enough to take yoga and low impact aerobics.
- California culture. Plays, concerts, movies, museums, beaches.
- Recruiting for Peace Corps in both LA and Orange Counties.
- AAUW and library book, film and travel discussion groups.
- Sunny days, roses in December, mangoes and avocados year round.
Rain, Pelicans, Chocolate…
"At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person." Albert Schweitzer
Sue, the yoga teacher at my senior living complex, incorporates the theme of gratitude into all of our sessions. She asks that we clear our minds of troubling thoughts about a past that can't be undone and a future that can't be predicted.
"Think about this moment," she'll say. "Let's begin today by giving thanks for this morning's gorgeous sunrise, and the beauty of our surroundings."
One recent morning, though, I blinked back a tear. "What difference does it make whether there's a nice sunrise or not?" I thought to myself. "Who even cares?"
I tried to follow Sue's instructions to empty my mind of negativity. But when I leaned forward as we concluded our session, clasping my hands in "Namaste," I noticed how they trembled. I'd been shaking intermittently with anger and grief since my daughter-in-law had died a week earlier.
Mari Lou had been only 53, with everything to look forward to. She'd recently reached an agreement with a major publishing house for publication of her first young adult novel. She'd celebrated the good news with her Tuesday morning writing group, to which I belonged, by toasting to its success with hard-to-find classic Nehi Orange Soda. Her fictional heroine, Possum, who lived in the South during the 1930s, drank it in the book. Orange, too, always had been Mari Lou's favorite color. She'd even bought an orange, cream and black handbag for her anticipated book tour.
She'd been preparing for a stay at a friend's desert condo in Indian Wells to finish her final edits. She'd packed her clothes and provisions. My son, Steve, had planned to drive her there, but she felt so ill she'd asked to be taken to an ER. There they discovered she was jaundiced and hospitalized her immediately. Over the next week she was subjected to a series of biopsies. After a month's stay in the ICU she'd succumbed to complications from a combination of a previously undetected heart defect and lymphoma.
Her mom, Maria, Steve and I had taken turns staying in her hospital room so she'd never be left unattended. It was on my watch that she drew her final labored breaths. Now, in yoga class, as Sue suggested we be grateful that we could inhale purifying air, I was reminded of how Mari Lou's own breathing had become such torture for her in her final days. What was there to be grateful about?
Though I'd always believed in the old bromide, it's always darkest before the dawn, now I doubted its truth. Each new day seemed even darker. I even woke up wondering what would go wrong next. Sure enough, my negative expectations almost magically managed to be met. I ruminated on my woes.
I'd taken my car in for a routine oil change and learned that it needed new tires and brakes, expenses I suspected would stretch my budget to its limits. A few people I'd thought were close friends looked the other way when I passed them in the hallways of my senior complex. My email inbox filled with a flurry of rejections for stories I'd hoped would get published. I even noticed a hole in the shoulder of the dress I was about to slip on to wear to Mari Lou's commemorative service. Nothing was going right.
Not only did I grieve Mari Lou's death, I also grieved the loss of my ability to look forward to each new day. I no longer expected ever again experiencing joy. Life seemed devoid of purpose.
Finally, in an attempt to do something positive, I began to help my son tidy up the house that had gone neglected during Mari Lou's illness. After cleaning out a few kitchen cupboards, I wandered into the den and noticed a box on a sofa with items that my daughter-in-law had packed in preparation for that prospective trip to her desert retreat. Idly, I began sorting through it. Beneath some boxes of Girl Scout Tagalongs, I discovered a faded, frayed black notebook. Its cover had been decorated with stickers featuring a variety of Dr. Seuss characters. Its label read, "My Book about Me."
Apparently, Mari Lou had begun keeping it during a dark period of her life. In one entry dated a decade ago, under the heading, "Things I am Grateful For," she had listed, "The luxury of saying I hate my life." In addition to that one negative comment, though, she had listed some things she found delight with: rain, pelicans, chocolate, cats, Steve.
On subsequent pages her "Grateful" lists began to shine with positive thoughts. She gave thanks for her
Though I'd never kept such a journal myself, I felt inspired now to begin. That evening I sat down and opened a blank notebook of my own. Even at my advanced age, it's not too late to begin my book about me, I reasoned. So I began my own gratitude list.
Remembering the harrowing hospital days, I listed how grateful I was to encounter Father John in the visitor's lounge a few days before Mari Lou died. He had stopped to watch the television news showing Pope Francis visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral. I'd approached him,
"Excuse me, Father," I began. "My daughter-in-law is on life support in the ICU, and her mother, who is Catholic, has been hoping a priest would drop by to pray for her."
"I'll go there with you immediately," he'd said.
I'm grateful that he gave Mari Lou sacraments, thus comforting her mom.
I quickly added to my list. An old friend, who had sent me a stuffed bear when my husband had died, surprised me again by sending another, something new to hug. I also remembered the kind words and condolence cards I'd received from other unexpected sources.
I'm certainly grateful that Mari Lou's publisher attended her memorial and promised a big launch for the book when it's released. I'm grateful I covered that hole in my dress with an orange-beaded pendant Steve had given me for Mother's Day when he about ten years old.
I'm grateful that my son has started to see a bereavement counselor, and that he continues to be in touch with Mari Lou's writing group students. I'm thankful he's planning to spend Christmas with her mom and me.
Most of all, I'm grateful that Mari Lou kept her gratitude journal so that I could learn now how much pleasure she had derived from rain, pelicans, chocolate…and my son. And that finding that well-worn notebook could rekindle my spark.
This week, after a long hiatus, I returned to yoga class.
"Let's begin by giving thanks for this beautiful warm morning," Sue began. I smiled.
When we concluded, and bowed in "Namaste," as I clasped my hands before my heart, I noted that my body no longer trembled. Sorrow remains with me, of course, but anger has been quelled.
I'm grateful that I, too, live in a world with rain, pelicans, chocolate…and my son.
I'm grateful for the sunrise.
|Mari Lou and Steve|