Monday, May 13, 2013

Out of Africa: International Travel as a Metaphor for Heaven

I hope that dying feels like jetlag.

My childhood beliefs about heaven seem, well, childish. One challenge of being raised in a Christian home, exposed to Bible stories from a very young age, is that those early teachings don't all age well. My ideas about death and the afterlife and the mysteries of heaven are all tangled up with cartoony images of gold streets, pearly gates, angels with enormous wings, raucous choirs, and new heavenly bodies replacing broken down earthly bodies.

When I picture my mom passing from this life into whatever comes next, the best version of death I can imagine is a wonky circadian rhythm.

In the spring of 2004, days after I graduated from Western Washington University with a teaching certificate and an English major, I left the country. It was a trip that had been years in the making. Every ounce of my anticipation, determination, and motivation to take that last round of finals and complete my student teaching was all directed toward one place: East Africa. I had volunteered to be a chaperone with the African Children's Choir and traveled by myself to meet the kids and fellow chaperones I would spend the next two years with.

I vividly remember my first morning in Uganda.

My flight landed at the Entebbe airport before the sun was up. I walked down the airstairs onto the tarmac in a daze, followed my fellow passengers toward the small, single-story building, and fumbled through my bag until I found my Visa. Two members of the choir's parent organization picked me up and drove me to Makindye, one of the hills in the capital city of Kampala. When I arrived at the guest house where the children still slept, I was shown to my room and promptly fell asleep.

When I woke up several hours later, the sun was bright through the screen-less window. Mosquito netting billowed around the edges of my borrowed twin bed as a gentle breeze filled the room with the smell of wood fires and cooking rice. I could hear the happy chatter of children in a language I didn't recognize. Birds sang in the lush trees surrounding the house, hidden by banana leaves and other unfamiliar foliage. I looked down from my second story window and saw the children I had come to teach, busily performing their morning chores; sweeping the front porch with a broom made of branches, washing clothes in small plastic basins, arranging shoes and flip flops neatly at the entrance of the house.

My cramped seat on the plane was a distant memory. The kink in my neck loosened as I got my bearings. I couldn't get downstairs fast enough to meet all of my children.

I never could have predicted the beautiful place I found myself. My former imaginings seemed ridiculous and two-dimensional. Before going there, I thought all of Africa was brown and dry. Once I arrived, I found myself in a colorful oasis, surrounded by red dirt, bright green vegetation, and blue skies. The sun definitely felt closer on the equator, especially after a rain storm.

Nothing prior to that moment, in a new location and time zone, was any less valuable. Everything about my new reality in time and space put all that came before it into perspective.

This is why I worked so hard in school. 
This is why I packed as much luggage as I did.
This is why I brought a top-of-the-line digital camera.
These are the people I have so much to learn from.

My wish for my mom is a similar awakening. I hope that dying is just the necessary doorway to unimaginable journeys.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Constructive Coping

Losing my mom has been the most difficult experience of my life. It has also been full of meaning and depth and personal growth. Grief and self actualization both take a toll.

My natural reactions to discomfort are overeating and oversleeping. But neither tactic is very helpful (if only Oreos and mid morning naps were rejuvenating long-term). Instead of avoiding the pain, living in denial, or self-medicating, I'm choosing the harder way. I'm living through the loss. I'm feeling every emotion and doing my best to process each of my own reactions. This is time consuming and exhausting, so I am working on productive responses (I share them here as recommendations but mainly as reminders to take care of myself emotionally and physically).

I have been seeing my current counselor for about a year and a half. She has been an excellent sounding board for me and Hubbins. Some weeks I attend individually, others weeks we go as a couple. She gets us. She appreciates our differences and helps us find common ground. She helps me look at my life through a telescope instead of a microscope. Whether I spend an hour in her office laughing or crying (or both) I leave every session with a broader perspective. Finding a counselor, spilling my guts to a stranger, and building rapport took a lot of time and dedication. Honesty in the midst of struggle is no cake walk. But it has been worth it. Does it make me sound like Bob Wiley to say I love her? I love my counselor.

For a little over a year, I've been getting regularly scheduled massages. It feels indulgent to admit this, as if I'm recommending being fanned with palm fronds and fed peeled grapes as a path to health. But massage has made a big difference for me. I love it for the peaceful atmosphere, decreased muscle tension, and nurturing touch. It's mentally calming. I don't understand all the science behind feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin, but I know how much better I feel after a massage. 

When I exercise, I have more energy, a better mood, and increased confidence. I am not an athlete. But pushing myself past comfortable is worth it. When I run, my concentration is only on forward motion. My head clears. My heart beats from activity instead of anxiety. Running provides literal and figurative practice in endurance. I don't get a runner's high, but my motivation is reaching mileage goals and seeing progress in myself from year to year.

With running partner Diane, April 20th
There's no textbook for grieving. I looked.

Most depressing shelf in the bookstore
However, I have found plenty of stories of hope and guidance. I gravitate toward story tellers who are authentic, imperfect, and honest about their struggles as well as their joy. A little inspiration goes a long way these days.
Titles and authors I've written about before, plus a few new favorites
I knit, sew, crochet, quilt, and embroider to keep my hands and my head busy. The repetitive motion is meditative and soothing. Seeing individual elements come together as a whole is satisfying. Order exists in the world when I knit two, purl two.

Silence and solitude
These are the hardest for me. Being alone forces me to address what's actually on my mind. Silence means turning off the distraction of the TV and allowing myself to hear my own internal chatter. Writing helps. If I pack my weekends so full of activities that there's no time to sit still and be quiet, I feel scattered on Monday morning at work. It takes planning to leave time for nothing, and I'm learning how much I need down time each weekend.

There are other ways I cope, too: napping has it's place. Healthy eating makes a big difference in my mental well-being. Crying is necessary and cleansing. Appreciating beauty and humor in unexpected places combats melancholy. Being transparent with friends and family about how I'm doing keeps me from isolating myself and feeding depression (probably a blog post all it's own: who to confide in, how much is too much information, hurt feelings when no one asks how I'm doing, my own expectations of caring dialogue, etc.).

Again, these are lessons I am currently learning. I'd love to hear your recommendations.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Family memories

Last week, my family planned Mom's funeral.

She is still alive and receiving Hospice care. It was really uncomfortable to put myself mentally in a future without her. But the conversation we had as a family was healing.

The pastor who agreed to do the memorial service asked each of us to tell him about Mom.

All five kids shared.
  • Mom always had time for us. 
  • She was an advocate for whoever we complained about (sibling, co-worker, friend, or stranger).
  • "Up until the last few years, I haven't made any decisions in life without at least an hour long conversation with Mom."
  • She was very creative, even in how she disciplined, and always firm and fair.
  • Mom made a point of spending time one-on-one with us. 
  • She had our back, even in the years when sibling rivalry pitted us against each other. 
  • "The worst part about being the youngest was that Mom was experienced, and knew all the tricks. I could never lie to her. But she was also exhausted from raising four other kids, so I got away with a lot."
  • She consistently gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.
  • She could always see the positive in any situation. Dad said one time he and Mom were stuck in traffic due to construction and road work. He was in a sour mood and complained about the inconvenience. Mom said, "But look at all these road workers who have jobs! You should be happy for them!"

The pastor asked what her love language was. We answered in unison: "Words of affirmation."

We talked about chore charts, her love letters, instructional post it notes (which she left everywhere as we got older, reminding us to take clean clothes out of the dryer, or put dirty dishes in the dishwasher not the sink), and her love of music.

Keeping memories of Mom in the forefront of our minds made the rest of the meeting so much easier. The focus changed from our reluctance to acknowledge the permanence of death to the many gifts of her life.

It was powerful to hear each other share the things we love most about our mom. That's our goal for the memorial service, whenever it may be: to celebrate her and all the ways she's influenced us.