Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

Grief Work March 22, 2012

Filed under: Spirituality,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:34 pm
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About a month ago, when I was just beginning to recover from Christmas, I got a call from my sister-in-law in Wisconsin.  She’d found a lump in her groin–not a good thing for a woman just two years out from major surgery for melanoma.  The next call confirmed her fears–it was a recurrence.  Her surgery was set for early the following week–an extensive and painful surgery, which left her weak, bed-ridden, and as hopeless as I’ve ever heard her.  The following week her lab report came back–no clear margins.  On the phone, she tearfully asked me “why?”  Already stricken with fibromyalgia, and the common lack of understanding about that by those around her, she had spent the better part of the year taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s.  “Why?” she cried.   I had no answer.  She might not make it to the wedding, she had said, but she would try.  After I hung up, I walked around in a daze, a cold stone in my stomach.

The same week that her labs came back, I learned that my beloved aunt in Maine, who had just buried her husband, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.  My beautiful, earthy, spirited aunt who grew blueberries and swam in finger lakes and taught me an awful lot about having an open heart.   Then came the call that it had gone into her bones.  Before she had time to process the shock of the first diagnosis, she had to make decisions about treatments, and come to terms with the short time she has left.  “It’s damn awful,”  she said over the phone.  I was glad she could say it.  She still had her moxie.  I hung up the phone, a jumble of memories surging up–of how she’d always been there, a steady loving presence.  Now there was a cold stone on my chest.

By then I was sodden with grief.  Just when I thought I could take no more, that my mind, my tissues could absorb no more,  I come home to my husband on the phone and overheard him saying, “Yes, I’ll have her call you back.  But be warned, she’ll probably be crying….”  “I’m here,” I said, lurching for the phone.  “It’s Lil’s son… not good news, honey.”  My dear friend, Ms. Lili, was dying.  I wasn’t surprised–she had been declining for the last two years.  In her late eighties, she’d lived a good, full life, and she would be the last to consider her own passing a tragedy.  The sadness was all for me, for losing my “Jewish” mother, the one who thought I hung the moon, who called me darling, who once sent me an erotic love poem, saying if she was younger she would have given to her husband.  She often sat in my kitchen, drinking tea without sugar, “so I can taste the tea,” and eating my husband’s homemade cornmeal bread without butter, “so I can taste the bread.”  She supported me through rough years, when my illness and my husband’s heart condition, and the normal strains of life threatened to take us down.  She gave me prize-winning  day lilies, and never, ever lost her zest for life and her love of people.

I would like to tell you that I went straight to my journal to deal with my grief.  I did not.  I went straight to Tuesday Morning where I bought a red enameled braising pan I’d been eyeing, as well as unnecessary lemon soap, and skeins of moss green cashmere and silk yarn to add to my stash.  I went to the nail salon and got massaged.  I bought glossy magazines.  “Good, Mom, good,” my son Adam said, “that will make you feel better.”  I could not read a poem or write a line.  I stared at recipes from Provence and envisioned using my red pan to make rich and tender dishes.  I was buffeted by gusts of grief and gratitude, by memories, and a keen sense of the shortness of our time here.  I picked herbs, I cooked, I listened to Satie and Arvo Part. These things tethered me to the earth.  But I could not find language.  I could not find myself as I had been.

But that’s it, isn’t it?  We are not supposed to be as we had been.  A friend of mine used to say, “Life is real. Too bad.”  There is no distancing these losses, there is no denying them.  They are experienced in our bodies, they alter the narratives of our lives.    There is only the living through them, and that takes energy and being willing to say yes to this, even if it is not what I would have chosen.   Even if it means I lose the illusion of control.  I would like to think that Rumi’s poem applies here:

The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.

Next week I fly to Maine to say good-bye to my aunt.  I know nothing but that I hope to be present to her, as she has been to me all my life.  I hope to be given wings.


Sex, Death, Cooking (and Writing) December 6, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 9:05 pm
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My son came home from school sick the other day.  While eating pea soup at the kitchen table, he told me what fun his health teacher is and how funny it was to rifle through her big box of condoms, birth control pills, diaphragms.  I felt a little sick myself, about as green as the soup we were eating.  Adam is newly thirteen, and while coming into his own, still–so young.  I believe in sex ed in theory; in practice, I’m more ambivalent.  Couldn’t he just not know for a while, let his head be filled with BB guns and video games and The Godfather and Wimpy Kid books, which he still reads?  “I, uh, guess it’s kinda weird to, uh, learn about all that stuff when you’re not going to need it for a while…..” I trailed off limply.  “Of course not, Mom, you don’t have to say, that, sheesh,” he said, in disgust.  How uncool.  But I wondered if part of being home sick was being confronted head on with “all that stuff,” with having to find some way to assimilate it and find a stance towards it.  I remember my milder, less graphic, introduction when I asked my mother about the word ‘rape’ in sixth grade, and my shock and disgust when she described the terms of sex to me.  I wanted mainly to forget about it, to go back to not knowing.  I imagine that today’s kids aren’t that much different.  It’s a big mystery to lean into, grow into, and it means leaving innocence behind. Sex ed is life-long; the technical information is the least of it.

In the last month, I have attended two funerals and a woman I have worked with at the Cancer center for eight years is dying.  She is not my first participant to die–there have been three others.  It has been a privilege to work with each person, and to be with them even as they part from us.  As a young woman, I dreamed of all the trips I would take, the places I would visit, and death was not on that list.  Death was like a faint rumor, one easy to refute.  Now, it is clear I will probably not visit many of the places I’ve imagined, but I will take that final trip.  So, I’ve suddenly become interested in home funerals, in the particulars of hospice.  Like a child smuggling porn to try to figure out the adult world, I read about these things.  Still, like that child, nothing will prepare me for the real thing. It has to be lived.

The day Adam came home from school, he made a sponge cake. He is mastering a repertoire of cakes.  I lean towards stews, curries. The other night I made braised lamb shanks with red wine and basil with polenta.  I seasoned it with the salt of my tears. I imagine that, overwhelmed with our various mysteries, we both find comfort in cooking, in the way of taking raw and inedible ingredients and transforming them into something sustaining and pleasurable.  The cooking brings us into the moment, into our bodies, into the stream of life.  Cooking helps us digest the indigestible.  It is a gift we share, a pleasure beyond nourishment.  Writing is like this, too.  We take the raw ingredients of our lives, we cook them, offer our strange and particular melange in the hope of nourishing ourselves and others. Just as in the Jewish Seder, we taste our tears, the sweetness of our lives.


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