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Category: Bereavement

The Shifting Sands of Grief

The Shifting Sands of Grief

This blog has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent weeks because I have been taking inventory regarding where to go from here. My intention all along was to pair nature photography with contemplative reflections. Why was I drawn to a certain image in the first place? What feelings and insights arise?

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And then my mom became ill and died, and I find myself grappling with Big Questions and the many manifestations of grief. My writing has become more personal than I ever intended to share. Am I writing an autobiography of grief? Is it useful to share such personal feelings and experiences?

Much of the time, I honestly feel as if I am losing my mind – which I realize is one of the primary manifestations of grief. When I was in my twenties, I volunteered for an organization in Syracuse called Hope for Bereaved, which published a book called Hope for Bereaved: Understanding, Coping and Growing Through Grief that consists of short articles that address all kinds of losses. The title of the very first article is “I Wasn’t Going Crazy…I Was Grieving.” How reassuring!

It’s not only the loss of the deceased loved one that makes this season of grief so challenging. It’s the way relationships shift, like aftershocks from an earthquake. It feels as if the very foundation on which I stand has been removed from underneath me. Life feels unstable, unsupported. Even my sense of self feels like shifting sands. I have been floating in teardrops, releasing inhibitions, and dwelling in questionsBig Questions, like:

  • Why am I here in the first place?
  • Where does my responsibility to others begin and end?
  • Is my ultimate responsibility to myself, to live fearlessly and follow my soul wherever it leads?
  • How do I balance my own happiness and peace of mind with caring for others?
  • Is there some kind of divine blueprint for my life, and if so, how am I doing so far? How can I tell?
  • Or perhaps when all is said and done, is all the content from this lifetime just information to process and understand rather than to judge? (Will we review our life with an omniscience that allows us to see things as they really were, rather than through the limited, skewed lens of our own ego?)

Sometimes these questions threaten to overwhelm me, for I don’t have the answers and can be very hard on myself. Sometimes I wear myself out by giving in to the temptation to seek external stimulation by filling my mind with the voices and opinions of others, when true peace and fulfillment is an inside job cultivated more effectively by sitting alone and still and filling with light from the inside out. Only then can I beam light to others. But I can’t do that when my own battery is depleted.

It is more important than ever at this dark time of year to kindle the inner light and to be gentle with myself – especially now that my mom’s nurturing presence is absent from my life. Yesterday, it occurred to me that there’s nobody to buy me gloves and socks anymore. Sure, I can buy them for myself. However, that was something my mom always did – and that I often took for granted. She came through with sweet, small, comforting gestures that nobody else thought of. There’s a certain kind of love and care that is missing now and that needs to be cultivated in other ways. And there’s also the question of how to navigate new and unfamiliar relationship patterns. Who picks up the pieces? Who (and to what extent) cares for the most fragile family members? I try my best but cannot fill my mom’s shoes, and my attempts often feel awkward and clumsy.

It reminds me of what it was like to become a mother. Having a child changes your life monumentally, and I remember wondering: When will life return to normal? The reality was that it never would return to what it was before. You become accustomed to a new “normal.” And I think that’s what I’m dealing with now, in the wake of my mother’s death.

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I find that when I feel overwhelmed by questions about how to manage relationships, the best I can do is to avoid taking the tempting detour into the thinking mind. Instead, take a deep breath and slow down. Return to the moment and practice self-care faithfully. Get enough sleep, to begin with. Meditate. Exercise. Eat right. Speak the truth. Say no when saying yes would overload my circuits. Channel the energy so it doesn’t get stuck inside me. Listen to and follow the internal compass known as intuition.

These responses might not provide the answers to the questions that arise. They might not be exciting. However, they restore me to a more centered, balanced state from which I can discern the next step. And that’s probably the best I can do. One step at a time, may I be led by the best and highest within me and honor the Self that unites us all.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

All the Places I Find Her

All the Places I Find Her

Although I connect daily with the light that shines through each and every one of the five-year-old angels assigned to my heart this year, some weeks are more trying than others. After a brutally long week of what felt like mothering the world, I wish I could pick up the phone and call my own mom and get a little mothering, myself. I’ve been missing her a lot lately.

Every morning on my way to work, I ask for blessings on my mom’s soul, send out prayers for loved ones and myself, and then express gratitude for everything I can think of. Yesterday morning, I was in a dejected mood but did this practice anyway. Immediately after I said, “Amen,” I received a blessing. It felt like a spiritual wind embracing me (yes, while I was driving), and I was filled with an inner knowing that everything (is and) will be all right. It felt like a response to my prayers.

Is that how my mother speaks with me now? (Or some other benevolent force?)

Fall, my favorite season, has arrived in all its colorful grandeur. However, there’s something about this particular fall that makes my mom’s absence feel more real. Perhaps it’s because summer always was her busiest time of year and the season in which we saw her the least. She was more present during fall. But on top of that, I realize from my earlier work with bereaved populations that we are heading into a challenging time of year – a two-month span that includes my parents’ anniversary, both of my children’s birthdays, Thanksgiving, my mom’s birthday, and Christmas. My mom’s absence will be felt big-time, by all of us.

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In the past few weeks, I’ve caught traces of my mom’s essence several times. It’s a far cry from picking up the phone and talking with her – and even from the supra real dreams in which she has appeared. And yet, sometimes brushing up against her imprints makes me feel closer to her than ever, as if she truly does live on inside of me. As if there are no boundaries between us. Sometimes it even feels as if the qualities that were expressed through her actively seek expression through me (and others, I’m sure) now that she’s moved beyond this world.

A couple weeks ago, I found her a few minutes after dropping off my son at a friend’s house for the evening. Alone in the dark car, I turned on the radio and heard a song I’d only heard once before – when my dad and one of my mom’s best friends from 50 years ago sang it around her deathbed two days before she passed away (after we’d belted out a few John Denver songs). The song is, “Eddie, My Love,” and my dad told us she would sing it to him all the time when he was taking his time getting out of the house. I’d never heard it before but remembered enough of the lyrics to recognize it – and gasp – when it came on the radio in the car. Certain that was the song they sang around her bed, I pulled to the side of the road, took out my phone, and recorded it so I could play it when I returned home. (Interestingly, right when I took out my phone to record the song, I received a text from my sister asking for one of my mom’s best-loved recipes. What timing!) It turns out that yes, it was the song, and when I played it for my daughter, she explained to me wide-eyed that the very same song popped into her head completely out of the blue earlier that day, and at the time she wondered how she would feel if she ever heard it on the radio – for she, too, only had heard it once before, at my mom’s bedside. And that is the truly amazing thing about sharing such experiences. Had I kept it to myself, I would not have received the information my daughter had to offer that took the experience to a more intriguing and powerful level.

Needless to say, I let my dad know about the song coming to both my daughter and me the same day, and it made him happy.

That same evening, while sitting at the kitchen table, I happened to notice that the bag of ecologically grown apples I’d bought that afternoon came from the small town in Vermont where my mom grew up. I’ve never before seen or heard any reference to that town other than in my mom’s obituary and in her stories about her childhood!

Last weekend, I was surprised to find one of her memorial prayer cards on my bed. It was the only thing on my bed.

And then there’s a certain kind of longing that is entirely new to me.

Recently, I was preparing for a meeting about which I felt quite anxious. As the day of the meeting approached, I found myself wanting to channel my mother’s energy for the first time in my life. It continues to astound me that it took a terminal diagnosis before I was able to perceive and appreciate fully the gifts she gave to the world through the kind, gracious, and hospitable manner in which she lived her life. In an effort to differentiate myself from her and become my own person with a strong backbone and the ability to say no, I had rejected and discarded some of her most salient qualities, considering them weaknesses (for nobody experiences a parent’s shadow side as clearly as his or her children). But that week, I was nearly desperate to retrieve them, for I was neither whole nor balanced without them. If only I could channel my mother’s energy, I knew I could relate to the other parties with loving-kindness and handle the situation with grace and poise. As an extra measure, I wore one of her bracelets that day – a delicate chain with gold hearts and pearls – as a visual reminder to stay calm and rooted in kindness. It worked, and I left the meeting feeling relieved. (Thanks, Mom!)

As I floated in my kayak one afternoon this week, the following words drifted through my mind as I thought of my mother:

As Jesus taught us to pray

And our mothers taught us to love,

Let us forgive our parents’ mortality

And embrace our divine heritage

Which is unconditional love and light.

When I write my way through grief, there’s a natural tendency to want to tie it up neatly by the end. But the human reality of my mom’s death is not neat. Pardon my language, but it sucks not to have my mom physically in my life. I derive strength from knowing I am not alone in this journey and that losing a parent is part of the natural course of human life. But I also find strength in the recognition that my mom’s legacy lives on through me. Integrating the qualities that I used to push away is a journey towards wholeness and a blessing. To discover my mom’s essence inside the very breath I breathe is a joy to which the only response is gratitude. Gratitude like mighty rays of sunlight that evaporate the tears of the clouds that temporarily cover the luminous sky.

It cuts through the sadness.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mom Moments

Mom Moments

If you know me or have followed my blog for any length of time, it’s probably clear that I’m quite open-minded when it comes to spirituality. However, there is a part of me that is surprisingly skeptical and discerning and searches for logical, rational explanations whenever something out of the ordinary happens – probably because I am so open and want to keep myself in check. So I’m not as easily convinced as I let on and tend to be more impressed when skeptics or non-believers have profound experiences than when I do. But I certainly have been having my share of “Mom moments” lately.

Here are a few examples:

I was driving home from grocery shopping one evening and felt a gentle nudge to turn on the car radio. The song that was playing was John Denver’s “Back Home Again.” Not only did John Denver hold a very special place in my mom’s heart, but I don’t recall hearing any of his songs on the radio in recent years. Hearing this song was out of the ordinary enough to really get my attention. And the refrain hit home: “Hey, it’s good to be back home again.” Not to mention, my mom grew up on a farm (as the lyrics continue).

I had another experience while driving. Every day – usually when I’m in the car – I say a little prayer in which I ask for blessings on my mom’s soul and guidance and support for myself and others. Then I express gratitude for various things. This particular day, right after I said, “Amen,” the car CD player turned on by itself! It clicked to a new CD and played the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, “Teach Your Children”!

Here are some lyrics that really spoke to me:

And you of tender years
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by
And so please help them with your youth
They seek the truth before they can die
Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

Now, that was really weird! But sometime after the fact, my inner skeptic wondered if it was possible that I forgot I’d turned on the CD player. However, the surprise I felt when the player clicked on led me to believe that was not the case. The moment I got out of my car, I saw a friend who also had lost a parent recently. I told him about the “moment” I’d just had, and without missing a beat, he said the same thing had happened to him six times in a row. The player turned on, and my friend turned it off – six times! After the sixth time, he acknowledged his parent’s presence, and the player didn’t turn on again.

And then there was the time I sat in the living room with a basket of Universal Cards on my lap. Each card has a word written on it, and there’s a companion book that suggests some possible associations for each word. I was really missing my mom that morning and asked for a message from her. I closed my eyes and picked a card, which was a card I’d been choosing a lot lately. No big deal. I put the basket of cards away and went about my business. About a half hour later, I returned to the living room and found one single Universal Card lying face-up on the floor in the middle of the room with the word “Healing” written on it. The entire “Healing” page in the book resonated with me. It began: “Healing influences and energies are around you… They can be called on to heal any aspect of your life.”

Hmmm…

There was the woodpecker pecking on the outside of the house right next to the window. I had only experienced that once before – when a woodpecker knocked on the door right after my mom received her cancer diagnosis. And there was the unexplained pounding on the window (heard by my husband, who was startled and looked for the source) when my husband was becoming impatient with me for taking so long to get out the door.

There was the sweet yet vulnerable cheep…cheep…cheep! of the baby birds in our yard who had just left the nest and were learning about flying and independence as the mama bird watched protectively over them from a distance.

The unexplained smells. The music that arrives fully formed and comforts me – and gives me goosebumps from head to toe when I sing it softly (without letting anyone else hear it because it feels too tender). Transcendent experiences that I wouldn’t even attempt to describe because the feeling element is lost so easily in translation. (Honestly, I don’t know if the emotional charge of any of these experiences can be transferred to another person.)

And then there are dreams.

Over the weekend – exactly one month after my mom passed away – she showed up in my dreams for the first time. It happened during a rare, late afternoon nap. I can’t recall what I had been dreaming, but all of a sudden, I was at the performing arts center where my mom spent her 34-year career, talking with a few people at the very back of the amphitheater.

I noticed a woman who looked like my mom (about 15 years ago) coming toward me down the hill on one of the walkways. She was wearing a navy blue and white striped top and navy blue slacks and looked very happy, pleasant, and totally in her element. Yet, she was in a hurry, as if she had important responsibilities to attend to. She scurried by me, en route to the seats or (most likely) backstage, and I turned my head, thinking that she looked like my mom. Then I realized she was my mom, and I gasped and woke up, heart pounding! It felt so real!

A few days later, in preparation for a meeting with a newspaper columnist who is writing an article about my mom, I came across a video from her retirement celebration, which I’d never watched. At the end of the the video, there were a few photos of her with her very favorite artists, and in two of them she was wearing the same outfit she had worn in my dream!

This morning, I dreamed of her for the second time. In the dream, it was about 10:30 at night when I received a phone call from one of my parents’ neighbors, who told me something we both felt my dad needed to be aware of. I wanted to call my dad right away, but my mom was still very sick, and I didn’t want to disturb her by calling the home phone. So I called my dad’s cell phone instead – and my mom answered. Then she was immediately in the room with me. I was in bed (where I actually was asleep and dreaming this dream), and she was standing at the side of the bed looking over me in a peach colored nightgown. I can’t remember exactly what she said to me, but she acknowledged that she was dying. With tears streaming down my face, I replied, “I wish we had more time together.” She bent over, and we hugged each other. I could feel her shoulder bones because she was so emaciated. But mostly, I felt the love.

I was at a used bookstore the other day and felt nudged to pick up a certain book and read the page I opened to. The words on the page were about the regrets you have after the death of a loved one being different than the ones you had previously. An example was regretting that you put your loved one through radiation treatments and all the related suffering. When I opened the book, I wasn’t aware of any lingering regrets, for I felt so much healing took place between my mom and me during the past year. But when I awoke from the dream, I knew better – and cried a river of tears – for it occurred to me that my mom and I never really said goodbye. We never grieved together over having to part so soon. I tried my best to help her let go and to assure her that it was going to be okay and that what she was experiencing was normal. I did all my crying when I was alone. She read my blog faithfully until she was too sick to sit down at the computer, and some of my writing from December through May was a means for me to communicate to her that I knew she was dying without forcing the issue. I happened to arrive at my parents’ house right after she finished reading one of my posts, and she came downstairs, gave me a hug, and told me that I have always been loved. In the week before she died, she beamed and exclaimed, “You’re great!” The last understandable words she spoke to me were, “I love you so much.”

We said goodbye between the lines but never came out and said it while she was still lucid. We had some conversations in which she indicated that she realized she was dying, but she didn’t seem to want to talk about it. There was a line I felt I couldn’t cross. I wasn’t able to tell her how much I’ll miss her and that I wish we had more time together – until she wasn’t able to communicate. Most of all, I didn’t want to burden her with my sorrow. I wanted her to let go and move on without worrying about anyone else. I didn’t want to hold her back.

But in dreams, we get a second chance. We get to say goodbye. And it was for real.

Looking through photos, I realized that the peach nightgown my mom wore in the dream was the same nightgown she had on when she died.

There have been other experiences that leave me with a sense of awe, peace, sweetness, love, and/or relief, and my “Mom moments” have much in common with what other family members and friends have experienced. But I think that’s more than enough for now.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Questions That Bubble Up

The Questions That Bubble Up

“He’s still around. Just listen.” 
– George Harrison (to Tom Petty after the death of Roy Orbison)

This is the longest I have gone between blog posts! Over the past week and a half, I have been immersed full throttle in end-of-the-school-year responsibilities. The workload this year is more overwhelming than ever (compliments of New York State’s APPR teacher evaluation system), and I have been putting in ten-hour days at school and then staying up until midnight in order to meet all the deadlines that come in rapid succession. Toward the end of the week, I felt completely exhausted and knew I couldn’t continue at this pace and intensity when grief is still so fresh and so physically and emotionally draining. It’s as if one marathon ended and was followed immediately by another. It is not a time to be some kind of superwoman and deprive myself of sleep. So, despite all that needs to be done within the next 12 days, I am taking a necessary breather and doing some writing before resuming my work.

The day before I returned to work following my bereavement leave, I attempted to begin cleaning up five months of chaos around the house and didn’t get very far, although I did manage to do the dishes. (And since then, I have resumed cooking meals!) At one point, I stopped to call a bereavement organization to order a book for my dad, and when I gave the woman my address, she queried, “N as in Nancy?” Nancy is my mom’s name, and I could barely answer another question or get off the phone soon enough before the cloudburst of tears began. It was such a raw, vulnerable feeling of never knowing when it’s going to hit or what will trigger the tears. And yet, I had no problem at all later that day getting water from the spring right next to where my mom worked for 34 years, perhaps because I expected it might be rough and was able to prepare myself – cover up the raw nerves. It’s the little surprises – such as a friend’s description of opening his dad’s old duffel bag and smelling his sweat and cologne – that sneak up and knock you off balance because you weren’t expecting them.

Several days later, I was on the phone once again giving my address and was asked the same question. Only this time, I shook my head and answered with a smile. Perhaps next time, I will offer, “N as in Nancy” right off the bat!

This is a well traveled path, and I appreciate and find great comfort in words from others who are walking ahead of me and are more familiar with this terrain. I especially appreciate when friends share experiences they have had of connecting with their dearly departed’s essence.

One evening, I felt a profound sense of peace and realized that – despite everything that has happened – all is well. And when I voiced that out loud to myself, I felt embraced. It was a wonderful feeling, like a spiritual hug. And it’s true: Losing a parent during adulthood is part of the natural order of life. Despite our personal losses, we are part of something so much larger than our little, individual selves. We are part of the rhythm and dance of Life. We are interconnected with all of life. This is so comforting! To know that I am part of this dance is such a blessing! It doesn’t even matter what I believe about what happens after we die. To know I am interconnected with the living universe is enough. My son and I talked about such things on the dock that evening with the light of stars and airplanes both in the sky and reflected on the calm water. We were looking for fireflies, which hadn’t come out yet. When I told him about feeling so peaceful and the sensation of being embraced, the first firefly flew past us, illuminated. We sat on the dock with lights twinkling above, below, and around us, dwelling in the feeling that “All is well.”

I feel much calmer now, in general. I don’t have to check my phone constantly or rush straight from school to my parents’ house, not knowing what small crisis might arise from day to day or hour to hour. No more racing against time and not knowing how far to the finish line.

Nature continues to uplift me and soothe my soul: The brilliant orange glint of orioles darting to and fro; cottonwood seed babies rising into the sun en masse; long (and nearly invisible) gossamer filaments drifting through perfumed air; the first couple lily pads floating on the water’s surface; being dazzled by an iris in the process of becoming (and the genius of nature’s packaging); and floating in my kayak, feeling at peace, and then noticing a familiar pair of wings beating toward me from across the river, for my beloved great blue heron finally has returned!

Nighttime is somewhat magical and definitely restorative. I dreamt again of a unicorn shaped cloud. One night, I woke up with a strong impression of a little technician next to me helping to reset my cells. It looked like a solar panel, with many rows and columns of photovoltaic cells that were being clicked on and off. Another time, I awoke in the middle of the night from a dream in which a woman who was very, very special and either dying or already dead communicated a message to me as I held her hand. I couldn’t remember a single word of the woman’s communication but woke up to a voice that said, “The veil is very, very thin right now.” (If that was an opportunity of some sort, I was too exhausted to take advantage of it.) Similarly, a family member who has been a lifelong religious and spiritual skeptic reported a highly symbolic and ineffable experience that included being enveloped by an indescribable golden light that pushed a force of happiness into him or her along with the understanding that my mom is with us and able to tune in to our thoughts. This relative felt my mom provided a glimpse of what it feels like to be in the afterlife, and I have been smiling all day since hearing about it. Other family members have shared their dreams and impressions with me, and it really feels (as one relative put it) as if my mom has cleared customs and been approved for earthly travel!

On a more “rational” level, so many questions began to bubble up to the surface this week, as I attempted to make sense of what I have experienced over the past six months. Did my mom have any closure in the end? When did she realize she was dying? What was that like for her? Was she able to achieve any sense of peace, or did she become stuck in depression and apathy? Is there anything I can do even now to help her to achieve closure? I read through my journal entries from the past six months with such questions in mind. I am grateful that I took the time to jot down notes about things my mom said from day to day that revealed various milestones, such as when she realized she would not get better and when she felt the cancer invading her body much more aggressively. I listened closely for subtle communications and took them seriously. I assured her that what she was experiencing was normal when she feared she was losing her mind, and invited her to talk about it – but it seemed she could only say so much. Did she suffer in silence? There definitely was a line I felt I could not cross without throwing everything and everyone completely off balance. There’s a lot I did do to help my mom during the months she approached death. But there’s so much more I wish I could have done and wanted to do.

These are questions to which I might never have answers. And what value would me having the answers contribute to the world, anyway? Perhaps it is best to rest in the questions. Let them be.

What is the best response to an active mind?
The fragrance of flowers,
the movement of clouds across the sky,
a field of fireflies,
breathing in and out:
OM.
Return to love.
Return, return, return.  

More questions arose after I watched Martin Scorsese’s 208-minute documentary/biography, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (for the second time in recent months) from start to finish one evening. I am so inspired by the way George Harrison faced his death (and replay frequently his song, “All Things Must Pass”). It sounds like he wanted to immerse himself in meditation as he approached death and be as conscious as possible as he left his body. Was he able to do that? I wonder how heavily he was sedated during his dying days and to what extent the pain meds prevent a person from entering meditative consciousness? How do you balance meditation with medication when the pain is so bad?

I began to wonder (in a purely contemplative manner): Did my mom (who did not like to medicate herself unnecessarily and was very wary of morphine) receive palliative sedation that was appropriate to her level of pain, or was she essentially euthanized by meds that – in addition to relieving the pain – made her unaware and hastened death mercifully? Were we giving her too much pain medicine at the end, beyond what she would have wished? Or was she not letting on how ferocious the pain was, other than to insist she did not want to live like that? Is it possible not to be over-sedated in such a situation, or is the pain so absolutely unbearable that palliative sedation is the only compassionate response? And what implications does pain management have on entering death with awareness?

The latter is a question I found unsettling. Eventually, one answer I arrived at was to communicate to those who would be most closely involved in your care how they can take over a meditative practice or make a specific prayer request on your behalf when you are no longer able to communicate. This also includes making known your wishes for what readings or music you want around your deathbed, the level of lighting you prefer, etc. I remember how distracted I was during the birth of my first child by the conversations taking place around me and M*A*S*H being played on the television in the hospital room. It was a much more peaceful atmosphere the second time (a homebirth) when soothing music played, and I was surrounded only by loved ones (including my spiritual teacher) and a midwife who was attuned impeccably to my process. Surely, I imagine, the same atmospheric concerns would apply to death midwifery. At the same time, I believe that when a dying person is not lucid, processes are still taking place on other levels and dimensions and that there is much more going on than meets the eye.

These are some of the questions I intend to explore with my spiritual caregivers after the school year is over. Returning to George Harrison, however, perhaps some insight comes from his widow’s description of a bluish white light that engulfed him and filled the room when he died. Despite all the questions bubbling up in my mind, it seems to me that the experiences of light, peace, and spiritual understanding that we are gifted completely eclipse any thoughts our minds can entertain.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Now That She’s Gone: A Photo Journey

Now That She’s Gone: A Photo Journey

After learning of my mom’s terminal diagnosis a few days before Christmas, I began pointing my camera at subjects more personal than my usual landscapes and nature fascinations. Today I want to share some of my favorite images from this intimate journey.

On Christmas day, objects that had been around my parents’ house for as long as I could remember suddenly glowed with splendor and meaning. I noticed them. For example, I remembered how I loved to play with my mom’s jars of nail polish when I was a child and would line them up and pretend they were shiny, little people.

In the image below, my mom had just received her first lovely floral arrangement from Maestro Charles Dutoit and Chantal Juillet. She and I had been writing her obituary and discussing her funeral arrangements, and I knew that the conducting baton Maestro Dutoit had autographed and presented to her in honor of her retirement was one of three items she wished to have displayed next to her ashes. She took the baton out of its case, read the inscription, and pretended to conduct with it. In this moment of reflection, the wall calendar in the background stands out as a poignant detail.

Toward the end of January, my dad was hospitalized and underwent surgery to improve circulation in his foot. After he was discharged, he needed to keep his leg elevated. My mom was experiencing some clotting in her leg (a side effect of the chemotherapy) and had to elevate hers, as well. For a while, neither of them could drive, and they sat on the couch looking like bookends. My mom was losing her taste for food but went through a phase in which she enjoyed strawberry smoothies that I made for her. Her appetite was very small, and I always made more than she could drink by herself, so this time my dad got the leftovers.

 

As more medications gathered on the windowsill, the medication schedule became more complicated, confusing, and expensive. One prescription for counteracting the blood clotting caused by chemo cost $1,000 out of pocket and was not reimbursable! My parents regarded chemotherapy as their only hope to keep my mom around longer, whereas I felt chemo caused more problems (i.e. transfusions, painful clotting/swelling, exhaustion, and hospitalizations) and wished my mom would give it up and focus on quality of life. It was so frustrating to watch my parents cling for dear life to something that kept them in a cycle of suffering. I realized the only sane response was to let go of the need for a particular outcome, trust the process, and honor my parents by accepting wherever they happened to be on this shared journey.

I had a dream in which my mom and I visited my grandmother’s house, and she was comforted by what she found there. In waking life, none of us had been inside the house since we sold it to the current owners following my grandmother’s death three years ago. I woke up feeling it was important to get my mom there. I made arrangements that were delayed by another hospitalization, but finally we seized a beautiful spring day and made it happen. We were so pleased to see the improvements the current owners made to the house and to feel all the love that resided there, including a sweet little girl with a passion for horses (whom my grandmother would have adored). It was so good to know that the house in which we experienced so many happy memories was well loved. In this photo, my mom is outside the house with her brother looking at a picture of them with their mom when they were young children.

Alena was my mom’s companion to the end.

The next image is from Mother’s Day. The previous day, my mom had been admitted into hospice care, which couldn’t happen until she had stopped her chemo treatments. This was a very difficult decision, particularly for my dad who had to let go of what he saw as his last hope to keep my mom alive. After my sister and her young children left, the house was quiet and felt very different. A foreboding sense of sadness was heavy in the air. My mom was sitting in her favorite spot on the back porch, and all of a sudden, my 19-year-old daughter knew what to do. She sat down at the piano and played the song, “Hallelujah.” I went downstairs and told my mom, and she made her way to the living room with her brand new cane given to her as a Mother’s Day present. My daughter tried with all her might not to cry as she played the powerful song repeatedly, and as the music flowed, the room filled with light.

The coffee table became my mother’s universe. This was a brand new coffee table that I see as a manifestation of the hope my parents held onto until the tail end.

This last photo is perhaps one of the most personal and powerful images I’ve ever captured. It’s of the sun rising outside my mom’s room after she passed away a few hours earlier. In one window is the image of a universe dissolved – one of THE most profound events of my life – balanced by the pastel magnificence of the sunrise in the other window. The world continued to turn without missing a beat. How could that be? At the same time, I am grateful it did because it is so comforting to know that we are all part of this great rhythm and dance of life. From this perspective, All Is Well.

 
 

And finally, the funeral home altar with my mom’s flight attendant hat, Dutoit’s baton, and her guitar – symbols of different chapters of her life. This image poses the question: What objects would serve as symbols of your life?

Accompanying this series of images in my photo library are sunrises and sunsets, frost, woodpeckers, cardinals, icicles, shadows on snow, empty milkweed pods, silhouetted winter trees, ice, tender green shoots, clouds, fog, crocuses, budding trees, moss and lichen, daffodils, grape hyacinths, bees, lilacs, rainbows, tulips, willows, dandelions, maple leaves unfurling, fiddlehead ferns, wild columbines, and chive blossoms. They have been my companions and mirrors on this journey and have kept me connected to the larger cycles of the natural world. This connection has nourished and uplifted me, given me strength and an expanded perspective, and provided me with proof that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. Quiet moments in nature helped me to know what to do and when to do it each step of the way and charged my battery so I could be present with my mother as fully as possible during the final months of her life.

I had followed the hearse to the crematorium in Vermont and stayed close by so I could bring home my mother’s cremains. While that process was taking place, I passed the time walking around the unfamiliar town. I walked past a children’s clothing shop that had pretty dresses on display, imagined my mom would have loved that store, and instantly broke into tears. That was the first acute wave of grief that walloped me. But then I kept walking and ended up alongside a small river that runs through town. The river soothed me. I couldn’t make out what it was telling me, although I knew it had spoken to a part of me that understood river language.

I realize there will be many more episodes of grief arising out of the blue and knocking me off balance. But there also will be rivers and infinite connections with nature to support me throughout the journey and to remind me there is a force larger than ourselves that connects and unites us all – and that the sunrise always follows the sunset, no matter how deep a loss is experienced on the personal level.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cooking up Some Memories

Cooking up Some Memories

I just got home from dropping my son off at play rehearsal and entered a house that smelled just like my grandmother’s house did when we arrived for a visit and a fresh, welcoming pot of vegetarian goulash was warm on the stove.

What a happy, comforting feeling!

Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She would have been 95, which makes it the fourth year that she has not been physically present for her birthday celebration. We sat around enjoying “Great Grandma’s Goulash” and sharing memories of her. It looked just like her goulash and smelled just like it, too. I thought it tasted just like it, although my son insisted that – although it’s really close – next time I must buy the brand of tomato soup that she used, to make it completely authentic…even though some of the ingredients in it make me shudder.

Isn’t it incredible how powerful smells are in recreating an atmosphere that makes you swear your dearly beloved relative or friend just left the room for a moment and could walk back in any second? As much as we want to remember how someone looked or sounded, sometimes it’s certain smells that bring them back to us most poignantly. The aroma of a familiar meal cooking can be one of the closest experiences to being in that person’s actual physical presence.

For Christmas, my mother-in-law gave each of her children a beautiful, homemade recipe album that is a real work of heart.

The recipe album – which is perhaps best described as her culinary memoirs – includes not only the recipes themselves (handwritten on index cards) but also typed narratives, old photos, and notes that provide the context within which the meals were shared.

 

For her last birthday, I gave my own daughter a large binder of favorite recipes that featured many she enjoyed as a child. It wasn’t as artful or narrative as my mother-in-law’s gift, but it was very important to me to pass the recipes along to Jasmine.

My mother-in-law and I both love to cook, and one thing we both know is that you can cook up someone’s presence by making foods they used to either serve or request. I think that is why it was so important to both of us to pass down our most treasured recipes to the next generation. For example, I have always remembered my vegetable jambalaya recipe as the last meal my former father-in-law had a taste for before he died. Some part of him exists within that recipe simply because he loved it and requested it when nothing else appealed to him. It was a way in which I cared for and nourished him and is a vehicle of love.

My grandmother’s presence is invoked magically by making her goulash and a couple other recipes I’m so glad I had the foresight to ask her for while she was still alive. She would keep the ingredients on hand, and if we called to say we were going to visit, she’d have a batch ready by the time we arrived. My mom’s signature dish is her macaroni and cheese. My mother-in-law’s might be her creamed onions. Mine is probably baked ziti with two sauces: red and white. But at another time, it might have been my mom’s tuna noodle casserole or my Mexican pie or tofu pot pie – or perhaps the “love soup” I traditionally make when someone is sick or the Christmas Eve menu I make to accompany our favorite Christmas movies. When I think of foods from my childhood, Chocolate Crinkle cookies from the ubiquitous Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book come to mind. Although I haven’t made them in decades, I’m certain that mixing together the ingredients would bring me back to making the cookies with my mom in the kitchen of my childhood home. Our spirit – and memories of happy times together – live on in the recipes we leave behind. In the delicious fragrance of vanilla extract being measured into a teaspoon.

My refusal to buy the soup laden with high-fructose corn syrup that my grandmother used to make her signature goulash got me thinking about what gives these special foods their magic. Must they be recreated authentically? Can you substitute an ingredient and still make it “work,” or is that cheating? My son admonished me for tweaking my grandmother’s recipe to make it more healthful, explaining that it’s only a once-a-year indulgence, so keep it real for Pete’s sake! Cooking such special recipes conjures comforting memories. I am talking about comfort food in the fullest sense of the term – food that appealed to everyone’s diverse tastes, brought us together, and made us feel content and happy. My baked ziti is not what I tend to make when I’m hungry or want something healthful to eat. It’s the dish everyone requests for family get-togethers, and it nourishes in a different way. It makes you feel loved! Like my grandmother with her goulash, I make sure to have baked ziti ingredients on hand so I can make it on the spur of the moment if my daughter calls to say she’s visiting. (And of course, she gets to take home the leftovers.)

Family recipes and the stories around them are an important, intimate thread of family history. Which ones will you share? Which recipes will you want to acquire from loved ones in order to conjure happy, comforting memories?

 

 

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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