“Mom, I want to be a mermaid this year. Mom, I want to be a fairy princess.” My daughter loved to dress up. Even beyond Halloween, which she made last two whole months, Marika had me rummaging for fabrics and sewing frilly feminine gowns, dressing her up like she was my little doll. Then, she would pose patiently with a serious face as I applied makeup, and captured the creation in a photo.
The assignment in my photography class this week was to “construct a scene that attempts to reconstruct a memory or even a fragment of it.”
“Oh no, another memory thing,” I said, aware of spending a good portion of my time and energy the past four years reconstructing memories. Photography for healing is something I recommend to anyone recovering from a loss, but it is not for the faint-of-heart. It is like facing the bleak facts of your situation, and sharing them over and over again until you can tell your story without tears. Most of the time.
The meltdown wasn’t from the photographs, or the photo-shoot, which took little time because my models eagerly cooperated, bouncing about in the glad rags I handed out. By that point I’d composed myself, and was enjoying the merriment costumes bring out. But, in my scrambling about for the outfits, tearing through the giant Tupperware bins of old clothes, finding the baby sweaters my mother knit, the strawberry nightgown, and the flowery mother-daughter frocks, … touching the sundresses Marika had outgrown, something had sent my memory spinning in tessellations.
What memory might you try to reconstruct in words or in an art-form? Does your favorite photograph capture a memory? Or does it construct a memory?
In preparation for my trip to the Rocky Mountains, I had my toenails painted yellow. I did this gutsy thing to remind myself I’m capable of anything, and can overcome my fears. The deep yellow matched my hiking attire: the shirt that belonged to my daughter who died, an old bandana, and the leather bracelet my mother recently bought for me. It was a happy yellow to cheer me as I first attended a bereaved mothers’ retreat, and then set out on my own for four days of hiking alone in the Rockies. It was the yellow of road signs that said Avalanche Area, Falling Rock, Runaway Truck Ramp, and Beware of Animals Crossing.
Let me just unload a few things right now. At the Crazy Good Grief retreat they called this a “Brain Dump.” I call it my current, ever-changing list of things to worry about:
The headaches and nausea of altitude sickness, avoided by drinking tons of water which means having to pee every hour. On trails. Driving a strange rental car on unfamiliar, narrow, two-lane twisting roads that wind around mountains and have shear drops on the sides instead of shoulders and guardrails. Add fog and the possibility of ice and snow to that. Trying to remember what to do when encountering a moose or elk – stand my ground and make a loud ruckus or run for my life? Being alone. Staying by myself at my cousin Neal’s cabin, a construction site in a remote area up a steep dirt road that I won’t be able to find after dark. Not to mention snakes, roaches, spotty cell-phone service, no Internet, and getting lost.
A rainbow happened on the evening of my first day at the cabin. And it followed me the next morning on the way to the Rocky Mountain National Park where I alternately drove and hiked through a year’s range of weather systems in one day. Was that when things changed? Or was it when a young elk and its mother crossed the road right in front of my car? Was it after singing to my daughter and blowing bubbles into Bear Lake? Or did things change when I met the women on the rocks?
Six women were posing on the huge rocks that marked the end of the Tundra Trail. They must have been waiting for me, watching as the wind jolted me up the path, because one handed me her cellphone to take a photo as soon as I reached them.
“C’mon up here,” said Lillian their leader, after I snapped a few shots. They were climbing up beyond the designated trail end, scrambling to the highest point.
“I’m sixty-four. I’m too old to do that kind of climbing, I said.
“Well, I’m sixty-five. We’re all sixty and older here,” Lillian yelled from her perch above my head.
So I climbed.
“Are you alone?” Lillian’s sister asked.
“No. I’m with the spirit of my dead daughter,” I blurted out.
“How did she die?” She asked. It was just the invitation I needed.
On the last day, on my last hike, a notice at the trail head said BOBCATS IN THE AREA. Travel in Groups. Make Noise. Don’t Run. Stand Tall. FIGHT BACK.
Like I didn’t have enough to worry about.
But by then, something had definitely changed.
Testing the never-used whistle attached to my backpack, I trotted to the trail, and came up with this:
THE MORE YOU FEAR, THE MORE OPPORTUNITIES YOU GET TO TEST YOUR COURAGE.
Yellow is the color of aspens in Colorado in the fall. Over my week in the Rockies, I watched as more and more of the hills and mountains turned bright yellow (a hue that is more attractive on trees than on toenails).
My daughter Marika Warden wrote this after her friend Jake died. She was going to carry the memory of him forever. So when Marika died, I knew I would have to find a way to carry her. Grief is not something to get over or through. It is a remnant of our love that changes the course of our lives and shapes who we are. If we allow it, grief can be our ruin. Or grief can help us grow. It all depends on moving forward as we hold on.
6 Healthy Ways to Hold on to Your Loved One Who Died
LOOK at what your loved one left and what (s)he loved. A daughter left songs that her bereaved mother now performs. A widow walks the land she shared with her husband for forty years and writes about the lessons of love, death, and grief. My own daughter loved Facebook and blogging so now I dive daily into social media. Take your cues from your beloved, from what was important to them, and consider how you can make their memory live on and make their lives matter.
CREATE a ritual, a private or public tribute, an ongoing event like a new family tradition, or an annual community memorial run … in their memory. Create a foundation to support something meaningful to your loved one’s life. Create a poem.
TRY a new activity in her honor, maybe one that your loved one liked. Learn a new skill. Allow yourself to imagine her laughter if you fail or fall flat on your face.
LISTEN to the one you love and thought you lost. Wearing his hat, take a walk with your memories of him. Or light a candle, have tea, and talk to him. Send him an email. You can still have a relationship with the departed.
GIVE. Plant flowers in the local park or give a sapling lilac tree a home in your yard. Give to the community. In her name, donate to a charity or cause. In her behalf, volunteer some of your time to make a difference in someone else’s life. Buy a birthday gift “from” or “for” your loved one and gift someone who would really appreciate it. Or gift yourself.
LIVE. Expand who you are. Include your loved one in your life and live for the two of you. Celebrate his life by living yours fully. What did he want out of life? What do you wish for? ALLOW YOUR LOVED ONE’S DREAMS TO INFUSE YOUR OWN.
How will you carry the one you love who died into the next chapters of your life?
“Robin, Marika needs a dog. Her life depends on getting this puppy,” my sister said, speaking of my daughter in the same tone as the doctors who insisted Marika’s life depended on getting a bone marrow transplant. So in the fall of 2009, in the middle of our struggles with cancer, we got a jolly new Havanese puppy. She became the lifesaver we all needed. We couldn’t help but laugh as Suki climbed to the tops of couches, to the shoulders of anyone sitting on the couches, and atop Marika’s bed where she slept happily among the stuffed animals or under Marika’s chin.
In the end, Suki could not save the life of my daughter. But after, nudging me up from bed and out of the house each day, and snuggling with me at night, Suki saved mine.
I would go so far as to recommend that anyone who has lost a loved one should get a dog. I would say Suki is my best friend. I would do anything for my beloved, inherited, life-saving dog. So why did I tell people all week, as we waited for the dog oncologist appointment, I would not let Suki get chemo or radiation?
“If she has cancer, I won’t put her through all that pain and discomfort,” I told them. But I told myself I couldn’t afford it. In fact, as soon as I learned there was a chance of cancer, I had set a limit on what I would invest on my precious friend. Knowing people who’d spent thousands of dollars on their dogs with cancer, I didn’t know of a single cancer-surviving dog. I wasn’t going to take a chance on losing my dog and my money.
The oncologist appointment was followed by long hours of waiting and not being able to focus on work. Finally the doctor called with the results of the fine-needle aspiration biopsy. On the floor with Suki in my lap, I hugged the phone. I hugged Suki, closed my eyes, and buried my face into the soft fur on her head. Hanging up, I cried. Then I stood, lifting Suki, and danced with her in my arms. No cancer.
Happy Birthday to my joyful Suki who turned six on Saturday.