It’s May Day, and I’m remembering my father, Everett Ellis Gantz, Jr. His human trek ended seven years ago today, not quite two years after the death of his charismatic artist-wife, Ann Cushing Gantz, my mother. After nearly 89 years on this earth, my father was full of wisdom but still an enigma—especially to me and to his only grandchildren, Elliot and Ian. Few truly knew the man behind the stoic, tacit Midwestern façade. The quintessential Greatest Generation engineer, my dad did long division in his head for fun. But he also clutched a lifetime of secrets in his shadows—some I have only recently exposed.
At the time of his gentle passing from dementia and heart failure in 2014, I was a struggling single mom of two precocious and complicated young men—smack dab in the middle of the caregiver “sandwich generation.” Though I tried to put my oxygen mask on first, my “sandwich-making” expertise in this stressful context was, well, uneven—always getting tangled up in the roughage. So, as I reflect on those difficult and devastating years, I recognize now that the vitriol and extreme stubbornness I often encountered on both sides of the figurative bun were clear indicators of a family unhinged. Adapting Bohn and Conrad, I’ll just say, ”The road to heartbreak is paved with good intentions.”
So, as another Mother’s Day approaches, along with the launch of another new normal, I have revisited and tweaked something I wrote at the time of my mom’s extended paralysis and aphasia after her stroke. I suspect it’s applicable to the full spectrum of grief—and hope.
No need to give to receive any- more than her spirit shines, without veneer, without thoughts, without words, transcending— her true essence, now real— her soul apparent. Awareness without will, cognition, gone— she looks at me and now she sees?
Me letting go— With her, content to be. Helpless though, in her wheeled prison. Her body not knowing how to bridge this chasm.
In fear, he clings, together alone. Refusing to accept— or ever go home. To let go of control when his seizures defy the years and the secrets— he only knows why.
The anger. The loss. The stories, hiding in the dark, the stone walls— deep in his heart. Oh, let love live on, forever in peace and letting go but never release.
“Why do you wear black all the time?” Medvedenko asks.
“I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy,” replies Masha.
These familiar lines that open “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov may feel a little stiff and melodramatic out of context, but there is truth in them. This classic nineteenth century drama set on a Russian country estate explores universal themes that transcend time and place, such as love, fame and regret. So, the fact I resonate with Masha’s malaise is not surprising. I have always adored Chekhov. I remember recreating many iconic moments during my thespian days at Northwestern—cavorting through waist-high snow in the bitter sub-zero cold.
“This is just so Chekhovian!” we’d announce between the method and the madness.
It’s been decades since then, but the poignant words possess a different kind of relevance today. Mourning is draining. And most days, I am merely surviving. That said, I know that mere survival is not sustainable. It’s not living, but I think I’ve lived there most of my life. Gratefully, there have been countless glimmers of joy and grace along the way, but I think it’s time to recalibrate—to find new and durable meaning, since the worst of all nightmares has happened.
Is that what my grief is trying to tell me?
When I ask grief that question outright, the short answer is this: “Well, Elaine, this totally sucks, and you are completely screwed.” However, if I sit with it a bit and get curious, I discover some nuances and layers. Though the pain of losing my brilliant and complicated 26-year-old son Elliot Everett Wright far exceeds all other losses in my life combined, I find it also acts as a kind of an accelerant, like a flammable substance CSI might detect in the ashes after a horrific fire. Grief is a ubiquitous, unstable chemical compound that can ignite seemingly innocuous psychological debris in a heartbeat. The spontaneous combustion of new griefs inflaming ancient wounds makes carrying the most unbearable of all losses even more painful.
And while we are pondering incendiary substances, I am reminded of the potent odor of turpentine spirits that would hang in the air and seep into every surface of our suburban house growing up. My mother, Ann Cushing Gantz, a passionate artist who was profoundly frustrated by the fickle art world, liked to repurpose B&M Baked Bean jars to soak her paint-caked brushes. The small, amber-brown containers covered every table, every shelf and ledge in her cluttered studio over the garage—messy and mesmerizing, like an overgrown garden of potted pigment. I can’t think of my mother without catching a whiff of that bittersweet aroma—stringent at times, but strangely appealing. Anything can trigger a grief pang, even years later. And every loss is its own.
Like putting out fire with gasoline, my efforts to quell grief’s urgency simply don’t work very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its grave context. At first, I thought Elliot’s loss had its own private room in my broken heart, but I think compartmentalizing it increases the internal friction. I wish I could find a way to disengage it from the rest of the root system. I don’t want to go under like someone hanging on to a bag of rocks in the middle of a pit of quicksand.
My grief is shouting at me—but so is everything else. All the experts say I need to feel the ache of this unimaginable loss to find a way to carry it, along with the rest of the baggage I seem to have brought to this place of fresh awareness. I will never reverse the agony of losing my precious Elliot and the relationship we might have had, but one day, I may be able to soften the sharpness of his absence—if I create a space for forgiveness and empathy for myself and the other players in my drama.
“Forgive to live,” Grief says. “But never forget.”
I guess I’m just not sure what to do next.
“At this rate, it may combust into a blaze you cannot extinguish,” Grief warns.
It’s an inside job, as I say so often—getting grounded in the now and establishing healthy techniques to soothe my fractured nervous system. I am no longer that frightened little girl who grew up in an atmosphere of confusion, resentment and secrets. So I need to stop trying so hard to fix things that aren’t mine to fix. It’s all bigger than I can ever imagine—a mystery beyond naming. That is where I need to live.
So now, I’m remembering a different Masha from another Chekhov play:
This Masha says, “I’ll go. . . . I’ve got the blues today, I’m feeling glum, so don’t you mind what I say [laughing through her tears]. We’ll talk some other time . . .
Perhaps, I’ll adopt the countenance of this Masha—from Act I of “The Three Sisters.” Laughing through her tears. Acknowledging the hurt but finding a way to laugh. She might be on to something. Recently, I read an article recently in The Atlantic that said the expression of seemingly incongruent emotions can actually help moderate intense feelings—tears of joy, smiles of sadness, etc.
“Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions,” asserts Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragón. “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well,”
Well, Masha, for now, I’m going with that . . . laughing through my tears, and we’ll talk some other time, my dear.
“Grief is universal, but every person’s grief is unique,” says grief counselor David Kessler.
This duality is potent, especially in recent days. The collective grief that surrounds us now is overwhelming—the weight of mounting COVID casualties, the ongoing horror of senseless police violence, and the alarming escalation of gun massacres in this country. Along with the enormity of these disturbing realities, so many of us also carry the achingly personal losses that seem to cling to us like cobwebs in a dank, gloomy basement.
Grief is an ambient constant.
Having lost my oldest son, Elliot, and many family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is always changing, deepening, expanding, and contracting, but it is always there. It morphs and shifts into different flavors of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and despair, but gradually, I am becoming more aware of my most salient triggers. Slowly but surely, I am integrating effective self-management techniques—like grounding, breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and counseling. Still, grief is inextricably attached to my being—insistent, obnoxious and endlessly dogmatic. There is no escape, no place to hide, no satisfying its demands. Not even in sleep. There is no pill nor spirit.
Grief is relentless and narcissistic.
Grief both shrouds and accentuates the stubborn presence of loss. Grief is everywhere and in everything, like the trauma bond of an abusive relationship. You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. Grief changes all of your relationships—at times isolating you from your friends, family, and the community you need to heal. You are a different person in a toxic relationship and in the dance of grief. You often find yourself reassuring others you are OK—when you are not. You may even try to run away or distract yourself, but grief is persistent and undaunted. Wherever you go, there you are. And the dark truth is that part of you does not want to let go, because at least, the pain is connection.
Grief is not just something inside that you have to work through.
Grief is also on the outside, always next to you. It’s beside you, behind you, in front of you, over you, under you—hovering like a long shadow, even in the dark. Some say losing a child is like losing a limb. You can survive it, but you must relearn how to do everything. However, I think it’s also like gaining a limb you don’t want—an extra arm or leg you must constantly contend with, manage, or even hide. And it’s always in your way, awkward, and obstructive. You must relearn everything, but you still cannot escape it.
Do you acknowledge it immediately when meeting someone? Or do you pretend it’s not there, which can draw even more unspoken attention to it? How do you live with such an abnormality? There are no easy answers, and it’s a confusing question in a culture that minimizes and compartmentalizes grief to avoid its discomfort. So, how do you find meaning in life? Do mundane tasks even matter at all when the worst has already happened? But that’s where compassion is essential—individually and collectively. Things like meeting a deadline at work of separating out the recycling may not seem to matter much in a universe tainted by unbearable loss, but we must keep going.
And more important, we must be intentional about caring for each other, showing up, and creating a space for mattering. For me, regardless of how I conceptualize it, the gravity of grief informs every interaction, every experience, every conversation. Hopefully, over time, I will become more accustomed to its presence. I know I must find a way to accommodate grief if I am going to function in the world.
Yes, I am different now, and I work every day to accept this journey.
Grief will always be part of me, just as my love for my son Elliot will be. And grief will always be a layer between me and everything else. Whether a thin, hyaline veil or an imposing brick wall, at times it’s murky black and at others, sparklingly light. The light is the precious part, the awful glimmer of grief. That’s what illuminates the gold, the gleaming memories of a lifetime that will never die.
Together we can do our best to soften the fear, the anxiety, the alienation, and the pain—inside and out.
Lately, I have been thinking about the events of 2018, the year my precious son Elliot died on August 5th. Though I had faced many mighty challenges in my half-century on the earth, this series of 365 days was like no other. It was a messy mélange of life, death, disruption, and grief—but looking back on it now, I’m increasingly befuddled by some of the other events that occurred in that most devastating year. I have mentioned a couple in prior posts that pondered probable connections to the cosmic unconsciousness, like “Quantum Ghosts”.
Could it be true that everything really is happening at the same time—like some quantum ball of tangled twine in another dimension of the time and space continuum? Is the concept of time (past, present, and future) really just a convenient construct? It’s overwhelming to think about too much but still intrigues me in a “Twilight Zone”/”Black Mirror” sort of way. As a side note, Elliot loved both those shows and even introduced me to “Black Mirror.” So why rule it out?
I wrote the post below on May 28, 2018—just two months before Elliot’s sudden, horrific, and unbearable motorcycle death. Like so much in my life now, rereading this essay was both profoundly disturbing and oddly comforting. There is so much we simply don’t understand—and likely never will in this tangible realm.
Memories of those we have lost are often complicated—a morphing mosaic of longing, loneliness, anger, pain, guilt, sadness, gratitude, forgiveness, love and eventually, peace.
This Memorial Day I have come full circle in many ways. When my oldest son, Elliot, watched the “The Lion King” as a toddler, he called it “the circle guh-life.” Turns out that “guh” is profound because the circle is rarely a smooth curve. There are bumps and turns—which reminds me of the words of another Elliot – T.S., with one L:
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”
I arrived there this week.
I began a new assignment writing copy but in a new context. I hope to shift out of the chaotic freelance writing world to work with an integrated marcom agency in Dallas for a while. Every change is an adjustment, every new adventure a realignment. Every experience, your teacher. I missed the energy of a creative cadre—a tribe of brilliant minds collaborating and concepting in real time. A place to belong. I guess I enjoy the process as much as the product.
The Universe works in mysterious ways—most of them unconscious. Life coach Mary Morrissey teaches, “First, notice what you are noticing. It’s the first step to self-awareness.” So, here’s what I have noticed – though I am starting over once again, I find myself in stunningly familiar territory. I am working in Preston Center, a shopping center just a few miles from where I grew up. It is like returning to the place “where I started”—probably holding more hidden nostalgia than any other place of my childhood.
And I’m seeing it for the first time.
I have been flooded with memories of shopping at Sanger Harris and the Woolworths dime store with my mom and sister when I was just 10 or 11. This was our primary recreational activity—a pocket of together time. An artist, reluctant teacher, and sometime socialite, my mother’s presence filled every room she entered in the outside world. On Saturdays, she adored shopping and visiting her flamboyant fashionista friend Mercedes, who ran the Elizabeth Arden counter at Sanger’s with great panache. They would chat and banter as Melissa and I “played” in the makeup, but her mission was to purchase her signature lipstick shade, Fuchsia Shock. It suited my mom’s mega-watt style, and it was the same shade she sported on her thick, one-inch nails.
Over the past few days, I have wandered the sidewalks of Sherry Lane and Westchester during my lunch breaks. A hip, trendy free-range hamburger boutique has replaced the greasy soda fountain at the Woolworth’s. And Wyatt’s cafeteria, with its wickedly sumptuous chocolate-icebox pie, is long gone—as it the dusty, cramped little store where I purchased my very first record. It was the debut album by The Partridge Family. Though I have lived in Dallas for most of my life, I have never experienced the emotional impact of this place before—not like this. Until now, these glimpses of my past have felt like they belonged to someone—and disconnected.
Perhaps, this is the beginning of my exploring.
On Wednesday, I left my 18th-floor office at noon, pausing for a startlingly raw moment. I noticed the high-rise across the street and recalled that faithful day more than three decades ago when I hopped into the back of shiny, white limo after my wedding reception on the top floor. I struggled to step into the skin of that ostensibly happy married girl. She felt like a character in a movie—unrelated and detached. I saw her in a crisp, purple size-10 linen suit she could wear only after losing 30 pounds on Weight Watchers. She was waving to the smiling people on sidewalk who were tossing fuchsia tissue-paper petals into the air.
I chose not to linger there.
Yet I could not avoid more of the strangely familiar. Not sure why, but I turned right at the corner—away from the shopping center and toward St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. This destination held its own mixed, messy bag of memories, but it lured me with a gravitas I could not explain. The last time I was there was 2014 for my father’s funeral and before that, 2012, for my mother’s memorial following her protracted illness. I also was married there in the sanctuary and attended elementary school at St. Michael’s School, where I always dreaded that excruciating President’s Physical Fitness Test. Though my parents did not attend services there or address spiritual matters much at all, it was our “church of record.”
How I remembered trying to find a way to belong there. I offered to help Mrs. Dienes, our perfectly pressed neighbor, teach kindergarten Sunday School when I was about 16. I borrowed my parents’ powder-blue Mercury Monarch with the white interior to get there by 9:00 a.m. I sang in the choir for Paul Thomas, who always scared me a little, and I attended the youth group led by Kyle Rote, Jr., the super-cute soccer star on the Dallas Tornado. Alas, despite all my valiant attempts, I never felt like I really fit in—as if I were missing that essential component that made me worthy of the Episcopal whole.
Still, this is where my parents’ ashes are residing for eternity. My stomach tumbled as I realized I was about to see them again. Serendipity—but no coincidence. I had not been back since my father’s interment. At once, I felt the weight of generations of secrets and shame enveloped in a warm wave of comfort. I stepped closer to the austere, yet elegant, monument. There they were, together for always and forever. So present and peaceful behind the pristine limestone plaque. I stared at the inscriptions and was suddenly overwhelmed. I grieved not for what we lost but what we never had. And in that moment, I made peace somehow. Then, I paused in pure awe as I considered the convoluted series of events that had brought me to this place at this moment. There I was—steeped in memories and standing with my parents once again as I prepared for a new future. Almost too much to process.
I closed my eyes and thanked the Universe for this miraculous journey and others to come. These are the moments that amplify our being beyond all comprehension.
Then, I thought of sipping a cool, creamy root beer float at Woolworth’s . . . and I smiled.
Easter is a complicated and befuddling holiday—so many meanings, layers, beliefs, rituals and memories, but one stands out for me. Easter will always remind me of Elliot. In 2014, Easter Sunday just happened to merge with his spectacular fourth-year saxophone recital at the University of Toronto. His precise, riveting and affecting command of the instrument mesmerized and stunned his rapt audience of devote fans. I remember feeling there could not possibly be enough room in my heart to contain the flood of joy, love and pride I experienced in those remarkable moments.
On Easter, I do my best to stay steeped in the beauty of that sacred space seven years ago—which feels like both a lifetime and a heartbeat. As I honor this rare and extraordinary human, forever missed, I endeavor to embrace the grace and joy of this glorious memory—and the notion that love never dies.
So, here are two poems.
One is Elliot’s and the other is mine. I was inspired to write “Saxophone” in a recent poetry class with Megan Adler. We dissected “Shirt” by brilliant musician/poet Robert Pinsky, and I felt a flash of Elliot’s mercurial presence. I paired it with one of Elliot’s most haunting poems, “Shakuhachi,” which describes his love for another eccentric instrument. This piece evokes his unbridled passion for life’s music—and words.
SHAKUHACHI by Elliot Wright
Someone should not- ify the authorities— This can’t belong to me.
I shouldn’t be allowed to touch it when in every Japanese
restaurant I’ve been in they hasten to me with a fork,
this mendicant ghost’s pneumatic bamboo carapace, this severed bundle
of lacquered vacuoles. Hollowed stock, red bore tender as a ribbon of
his throat—he who is surely ululating to- ward me from the Pure
Land in futile rage. It came to me woven in the raft of my
grandfather’s trinkets, that gregarious poacher, anxious collector,
lover of things and strangers—those stop-gap measures against that vacuum
the mind so abhors. No wonder, then, that he should have parted with this
chime-hammer of the void, this attendant to the court of nothingness—
this contradiction given me
SAXOPHONE by Elaine Gantz Wright
The reeds. The ligature. The body. The bell. The saxophone’s bourbon-soaked wail lingers— longing for another coda or infinite reprise
The keys. The mouthpiece. The bow. The crook. Where is your rarified air, your circular breath— that was snatched, silent in eternity’s niche?
The tenor. The alto. The soprano. The bari. Fingers on fire made your practice perfect, such mania that muted all but your memory
Coltane, Parker, Getz and Halladay—mentors, brethren, your trenchant troubadours of note— persistent signs of life and bittersweet balm
Shakuhachi and Linux. Yamaha and Proust— virtuoso with far too many talents to be soaring into forever on a regular Sunday
I want one more song on the saxophone, redux to recall a melody long gone—again to fill this abyss with your timeless refrain.
And I was so smitten that I posted my own version. It read—”Spell your name, but for each letter, press the first word that comes up in your predictive text.” Who knew this would lead to an enchanting journey? Thank you to Kim Due Vacco and Alex Nicole McConnell for your introductions. Something about the randomness of predictive text captured my imagination, and the string of name-associated words held its own profound, provocative mystery. In some cases, the the obtuse messages felt predictive in an almost astrological or contemporary-version-of-runes sort of way. The oracle of Facebook.
Since I have been marinating in the world of poetry lately, I decided to challenge myself to create a “found” poem. I wondered what might emerge if I compiled these cryptic communications, posted by more than 100 of my Facebook besties, into a coherent (you decide) piece. I love the collective collaboration of this—the genius of the crowd, as they say. Full disclosure though, I did not include every post. I went with my muse and plucked those that felt like they would help me with the overall creative flow. Thank you to all of my eager contributors. This was more fun than I ever fathomed, and I could almost hear Elliot’s snicker as I succumbed to Facebook’s brazen manipulations. Yet the irony is that he triggered the whole thing with my first engagement, which became the first line of my poem. Thank you, Elliot. I appreciate your mischievous ways.
Elliot loved angels in NYC—even did all. Very, I did and now, not more— and really even after. Do I—angels need any? Even love and Ian now exist.
Please have it let—my all right year.
Get up, your soul up. Enough.
Let’s look everything with each lesson Like you need. Keep everything very in need. And no need can have everyone right your love. And no good enough love— and maybe you know we eat the same. We even need dinner, you. Good and really you.
Just one night. Just one a new— Just about now—everything. Just use like I expected Just enough for five reasons, everyone yesterday
But remember now: Do everything to the end. Remember, if they are.
But, both Bobs? And no, no Evanston? Evansville, really I can’t!
Sorry how and really—if sorry used sorry about not sorry about me.
Very excited, really, of new I know about— kids are really early now Remember, if they are.
So happy about new now — one night, please enjoy the early read. Please read it carefully everyday, but even early right left you . . .
The gravity of grief is exhausting. I am talking about the micro and the macro of it—the micro being the weight of my own personal confederacy of losses, and the macro, the gestalt of the world in crisis—the pandemic, isolation, climate change, social injustice, QAnon, Texas’ incompetent leadership, gun violence, the pain of lost children at the U.S. border seeking sanctuary, and the list goes on. Lately, I feel like I have hit a wall, a saturation point that has tarnished all my silver linings.
Most days, I find this perpetual state like a heavy weighted blanket, paradoxically as agitating as it is confining. (That might be my CPTSD talking.) But let’s face it—if you are human, you are dealing with crappy stuff. It’s part of the package, and the last year, two or four, have been tough for all of us. Grief is ubiquitous. Grief is insistent. Grief is oppressive. Grief is obstinate. Grief is transformative. It changes who we are because it changes the way we rub against the world. And yet, it is also one of the most potent reminders of our inherent humanness. As so many smart people have posited, we grieve to the degree we love. So, for those of us who suffer most, grief is never going away, but it may morph. And the exact way it morphs is as individual as a snowflake.
That’s why addressing and processing grief head-on is essential. I feel like I have a PhD in the subject by now, but that’s why I talk about so much. It’s what I feel called to do. My meaning. David Kessler, a gentle grief guru, says so eloquently:
Grief must be witnessed. Something profound happens when others see and hear and acknowledge our grief. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Conversely, something goes wrong when it remains unseen.
Profound and true, because the vulnerability of being witnessed authentically is what restores your sense of wholeness and safety—even if it’s just for a nanosecond. And with a continuous queue of compassionate witnesses, we begin to truly transform and reach a place where we can carry the weight of the grief burden—and eventually, carry on. We feel carried by the whole, and we realize we need community to heal.
Truly, acknowledging and validating grief is the most gracious gift you can give a broken heart. It opens up a space to breathe and thereby connect. It is the definition of grace, and regardless of your faith proclivities, grace is the place where we encounter the divine. There are no magic words required. You don’t even have to apologize. You really don’t need to say you are sorry for my loss or anything like that. This might be a new catchphrase or hashtag. Grief means never having to say your sorry. Just say you are present, and you cannot begin to comprehend the gravity of my loss. “There are no words. I am here.” That’s it. I consider those who can sit in silence or simply walk alongside me to be my angels on earth.
Still, grief in our culture is tricky because it’s the elephant in room—which translates into instant awkwardness. We don’t have the language for loss. We have never developed the interpersonal grief muscle, but why? Loss is universal, and being seen is the most potent balm. It’s just the closeness, context, and confluence of the loss (or losses) than can tip the scales, adding even more weight. Perhaps these are the three Cs of grief?
Closeness. This is nature or depth of the relationship. Though grief is not a competitive sport, there is particularly devastating wallop losing a child packs. It’s out of order and life altering—even setting all other aspects aside. No matter how complicated the connection might have been, losing a child is like losing an appendage. You can technically go on living, but you have to relearn how to do everything. In losing my spectacular and sometimes frustrating Elliot, I find the love and pain often conflate (another C). That intensifies the ache that erupts in these startling moments when I am unable to breathe or stop the sobs. Indeed, context is also a vexing conundrum. (Another C or two.)
Context. This refers to the particulars of your life at the time of the death and after. These factors are inescapable. The context has felt like a tightening vice around my experience. Elliot had found his groove. He had just scratched the surface of his potential. Tragic on so many levels. I just can’t bear it, so I just keep moving. I try to muster empathy for myself, but it’s a challenge. I am training myself to acknowledge the tough feelings and release them. I’m kind of an emotional nomad—living on the edge and trying not to dwell in the stagnate stew underneath for any length of time. I feel so detached and untethered. Thank God, I have my moments of precious connection with friends but nothing durable. Some days, maintaining the “I’m OK” exterior is so exhausting I just mentally vamp. Tread water. Barely. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I can do. Yet something about this bifurcation in the isolation of my silent, compact office in front of three computer screens makes it even more debilitating.
Confluence. The pieces of me, the factors that have come together in this life now—after Elliot. As a single mom of a 24-year-old son, I must constantly remind myself to give my Ian the space he needs to forge his own path. That’s both difficult and easy. Beautiful and desolate. Fulfilling and draining. I feel I am performing over the center ring without a net, flying the airplane without a parachute—when all I really want is a safe place to land. Emphasis on “safe.”
I know I need to find a way to be in the world. Half of me feels like it no longer operates in sync with the rest of me—the definition of yin and yang. Numb, heavy, confused and anxious. Time is sluggish and accelerating—all at the same time. Perhaps it’s the lumbering repetitiveness of COVID existence—sorrow, grief and isolation make an unappetizing cocktail. I have lost that unconscious optimistic autopilot that helped me know I would be OK; I would figure it out one day. But now, everything is hard, feels off center and precarious in this context of fear and uncertainty It’s hard to flex the over-functioning muscle that’s always been my default coping mechanism. I guess my grief therapist would say that’s progress, but I say it’s harrowing. Definitely accounts got the vacuousness, the feeling of perpetual flimsiness. And the futility of this awful, new normal existence.
I am constantly aware of the vast, dank abyss I teeter over. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I am a half, maybe even a third of a person now. Am I missing the part that died with Elliot? Will my heart regenerate. Will my soul? I want the comfort and connection others can bring and simultaneously want to be with alone. I have no interest in banter, but it used to be my fuel, my raison d’etre. Still, I am grateful for so much—an extraordinary son, caring friends, my writing, a new job that challenges me, and a lovely roof over my head.
I am different now.
And maybe, there are more than 3 Cs—maybe five, six of seven. They all apply at one time or another, but the most important one is not a C at all. It’s a G—grace. Cherishing those transcendent moments that remind me I am part of something much bigger than my own rumination.
I must keep clearing the space to let in the light.
I am honored to be included in this beautiful collection of art, poetry, and essays. “House of Comfort” is part of a series compiled by Gretchen Martens for The Retreat House Spirituality Center in Richardson, Texas. It’s a deeply moving journey—poignant yet powerful, intimate yet universal. Here is a taste:
Off-kilter— Everything feels out of whack, out of sync— Uncomfortable in my own skin. Is there a place between the yin and the yang? Where nothing and everything meet? The push and the pull. The yes and the no Bitter and sweet To and fro Black and white Pleasure and pain Progress and regress Abel and Kane Now and forever You and me Off and on Captive and free Stuck there. I am Like Scylla and Charybdis the space in between but filled with emptiness. What should I do? [My favorite FAQ.] Nowhere feels right. Says the voice in my head, “Wherever you go, there you are,” Who is it? Can’t shake it. So bizarre. Since I lost so much. Since I lost my baby boy, Since I lost My bearings. My heart. My joy. The thread I hang by. “Get over it. Buck up.” [Programming reverb. Doesn’t it suck?] How I’ve tried to retool and rewire. All the trauma and the pain. Yet tears fall fast in the blink of my eye “Isn’t it just such a shame?” A wisp, faint susurrus—Elliot’s breath? To feel. To embrace. No regret. To listen. To wonder. To hold. To know. But where? How? Where did he go? And where is he now? “I am here, mom,” he said. But not really at all. Mysterious. Dead. As in life. So prickly on the other side. But it’s not right. Out of joint. Out of order. Out of my mind. I just can’t think. So many questions. Nary an answer caught in my sigh. To how? To what if? And still to why? Without parent nor child. Both gone in between. Mostly alone, half-mother unseen. A daughter, a sister, a cousin, a niece, a granddaughter— not. Rest but no peace. Together. Alone. By myself. There, I go the darkest place, my miasma in tow. “You’re fine. Buck up,” she says with a grin. Not until I feel. [Who said that?] “Oh, just take it on the chin.” Those voices are real. But what I did not expect— I am here by grace— to forgive, not forget.
A week or so before snowmageddon stymied Texas, my dear friend and writing pal Sue recommended a book called “When Women Were Birds,” by Terry Tempest Williams. I’m endlessly grateful, as it provided a warm and poignant embrace during the powerless hours. If Anne Lamott says it’s “brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder,” you can bet it’s a winner. As I sat on my big purple couch in the frigid darkness, swaddled in three blankets with a flashlight precariously perched on one knee, I devoured Williams’ evocative, lyrical prose and was instantly inspired to scribble this poem — just before the electricity sizzled back on for another brief round:
I am worn out. I am scared. I am alone. I am freezing. I can almost see my breath.
I am a balloon that is slowly deflating. I am an opaque mosaic of dusty shards that don’t quite fit. I am the map of another country. I am overwhelmed. I am underemployed. I am seeking. I am hiding. I am not knowing . . . I am fried.
I am filled with emptiness. I am hollow with grief. I am here but not present. I am shallow but deep.
I am aching to be seen, but I don’t want to be noticed. I am yearning to connect but no energy to speak. I am salt in the wound. I am salve on the sore. I am dented but still running. Where is the door?
I am shadow. I am moonlight. I am desire. I am disdain. I am letting go. I am holding on. I am selfish. I am shame.
I am kind. I am cold. I am love. I am lost.
I am waiting in the wings. I am milling in the mezzanine. I am loitering in the lobby. Where is the stage? I am scripts unwritten. I am books unread. I am the Rock of Gibraltar. I am the tools in the shed. I am a frothy, white jet trail. I am blood-orange sunshine. I am Purple Rain. I am Auld Lang Syne
I am select soccer and team tennis. I am saxophone lessons and art classes. I am ear infections and root canals. I am a pair of new dark glasses. I am fistfights in the kitchen. I am boxes in the hall. I am lullabies in the nursery. I am drawings on the wall.
I am sighing I am sobbing I am wailing I am praying I am allowing I am inviting I am chuckling I am fraying
I am a sutra unraveled, but I am whole.
I am a cotton shirt, not pressed. I am a pair of jeans, too tight. I am a child without a mother. I am a mother full of fright. I am the tears in a handkerchief. I am the words on the page. I am a candle in the window. I am a flashlight in the dark. I am a sip of black tea. I am a broken heart.
I am an imposter and an expert — respected and dismayed. I am confident and confused — anxious and praised.
I am stardust. I am golden. I am taking. I am giving. I am releasing Now Forever And for you, I am living.
Texas and the universe demonstrated this truth with debilitating intensity last week. Indeed, we are living in a time of radical transformation, a period without predictability or security. Socioeconomic upheaval, geopolitical unrest, erupting racial tensions, escalating cybersecurity threats, and climate change are all coming to a head. And oh, and this is all happening in the midst of a global pandemic.
I will admit I am hypersensitive as I navigate the agony of my own grief, but the world is becoming increasingly fragile and complicated. Control is an illusion. Sure, we can decide whether we turn on a flashlight or light a candle in a blackout, but how do we manage our lives with any kind of certainty? So many directions, but nowhere to go.
When most all the infrastructure services that are designed to support and protect us in arctic temperatures fail catastrophically, our trust evaporates. And we panic. Plus, we’re back to ground zero on Maslow’s famed hierarchy of needs. Forget self-actualization — I’ll settle for flushing my toilet.
And amplifying the precariousness is the capriciousness of it all. Some people are still without any power in Texas; some are boiling every sip of water they drink; others are recovering from extended rolling blackouts (like us), and others had no disruption at all. Then, there are the food supply-chain disruptions happening now and broken pipes everywhere you turn.
Yet through all the chaos, I have been grateful. I have appreciated my 24-year-old son Ian’s calm, grounded presence, as well as the kind texts from friends across the country who checked on us — though I could not always read them in real-time, because our cell service was toast, too. I was grateful for the vigilance of our building management and our dedicated maintenance team. They worked tirelessly to repair broken pipes, open locked-down security doors, and silence errant fire alarms. I may say everything reminds me of “The Twilight Zone,” but the building seemed to have a will of its own at times — like it was mischievously misbehaving.
As the days oozed into nights without power, heat, internet, or cell service, I also remembered the “Twilight Zone” episode called “Midnight Sun.” Lois Nettleton played an artist who was suffering in stifling summer heat, painting abstract canvasses dripping with pigment. Alas, the earth had fallen out of its orbit and was moving closer to its central star. The obligatory twist occurs (spoiler alert) when the opposite is true. In actuality, artist Lois has been nursing a raging fever. When it breaks, we discover the earth has been plunged into sub-zero temps as it is jettisoned from the sun’s orbit. A potent metaphor.
“Twilight Zone” or not, I was scared.
I still am, but I’m aware my fear is exacerbated by the trauma and shock associated with losing my precious 26-year-old son Elliot in a flash of indifferent tragedy 30 months ago. His untimely, out-of-order death continues to rattle me to the core, each and every day — so sudden, senseless and shocking. C.S. Lewis said, “Grief is like fear, but you are not afraid.” Well, in this case, you are. It’s apropos of everything these days — this feeling of utter, urgent precariousness and instability. The kind of complicated grief traps you like a hostage in a boundless fog of disconnection and anguish. I am always balancing on a precipice – looking for a way to hold on and live in a world that is forever changed.
Dr. Todd Miller, our wise and wonderful eye doctor, had a rare simpatico with Elliot. They would banter incessantly about music and technology. Dr. Miller also was enamored with motorcycles in his youth. I deeply appreciate his perspective and that he allows me to talk of Elliot and my grief whenever I see him.
“The appeal of riding is like finding the ‘sweet spot’ between pleasure and fear,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s a balance, a kind of calculated risk.” But what kind of formula do you use to calculate such a risk?
I cannot dwell on these questions, though they continue to haunt me. Still, I have come to realize that fear is a common part of grief. And precariousness is woven into the fabric of our existence — more salient now than ever. Life is ephemeral. Fleeting. Then, gone. Combine that with the ambient grief we share for a confederacy of losses in the pandemic, summarily splashed across social media. It feels like we are slogging through some kind of mind-bending Truman Show.
I am coming to accept that all life is precarious — a temporary gift we must respect and nurture as best we can. Our souls are all on different journeys, and that includes our children. A spiritual medium once said to me, “Our children are not ours. They just come through us.”
As the snowmageddon crisis in Texas has taught us, we are not in control — even when we think we are and even when are just sitting on the couch.
Turns out, we are just along for the ride.
My Precarious Boy
I need to find a crack to breathe in this stolid suspended chasm. Empty moments dissolve into heavy hours — to make bearable being awake. Persistent memory. Present absence. Precarious life now that saline tears debride the unhealable wound forever — a faint shadow, cast in the light of his darkness. So raw and exposed but not seen.