Category: Bereavement

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.

Father Figures

Father Figures

It has been an eventful week for the two most influential men in my life (aside from my husband and son).

A week ago, my dad was exercising at the local YMCA and went into cardiac arrest while on one of the weight machines. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. Had he been anywhere else – at home, in the car, in the grocery store – he probably wouldn’t still be with us. However, the staff was so alert and well trained and literally saved his life by performing CPR and using the defibrillator. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery earlier this week and is now in recovery in the cardio-pulmonary surgery unit of a renowned local hospital, where he is in a state of confusion at the moment. When we were on our way to the hospital after his collapse, we had no information about his condition and didn’t know what to expect. I was so grateful to be able to talk with him at the hospital later that evening and found it somehow comforting and reassuring that he had no recollection of the cardiac event. He remembered being on the exercise bike and then waking up in the hospital. So perhaps when something like this happens, it is much more traumatic for those witnessing it than for the victim.

Since then, my mother has spoken with the person responsible for saving my dad’s life by simply doing what he was trained to do. Perhaps he doesn’t consider himself a hero, but he most certainly is, and my family will be forever grateful to him. He saved the life of a father, husband, grandfather, brother, and uncle who perhaps didn’t understand how much he is loved and cherished – or by how many people – until this happened. So there is a blessing in this. To have the opportunity to express and receive love is a blessing. Another blessing for me personally is that my priorities have shifted. A brush with death (a loved one’s, if not our own) can certainly shake a person awake and set us straight, reminding us of what is most important. The small stuff just falls away, and we have the chance to realign and rebuild.

[If I could, I would insert a photo here of my mom holding my dad’s hand the day after his surgery. However, I did not have a camera with me at the time.]

Tonight I also learned that the man whom I considered my spiritual father passed on today. David came into my life at exactly the right time, when I was going into eighth grade. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” was absolutely true in this case. He was a social studies teacher at my high school, although I never had him for a teacher; I met him through one of his sons. A fellow Pisces, he introduced me to spirituality, Eastern philosophy, Jungian psychology, Edgar Cayce, astrology, and dream work and was a spiritual compass who helped me to rise above the superficial preoccupations of teenage life. He gave me Richard Bach’s novel, Illusions, as a high school graduation present, and the story made a big impression on me. Convinced that my life’s purpose was to offer my talents in service of others, he introduced me to the field of music therapy and sent me articles and books on that topic. (My undergraduate senior thesis was on music therapy because of his influence.) He also gave me magazine subscriptions (The Quest, Heron Dance, etc.) as gifts for several years. For Christmas this year, he gave me a two-year gift subscription to Joan Chittister’s The Monastic Way, and when I received it, I knew the subscription would outlive him. We maintained an ongoing correspondence throughout the years, and I have probably what amounts to an entire box of letters he wrote me when I was in college and grad school and in between and afterward, when I was trying to figure out my place in the world. He remained a spiritual teacher and friend until the end. He loved to talk and always told such intriguing stories, almost always on spiritual and metaphysical themes. My children and both husbands were close to him, as well. He was family. He was my hero who always encouraged me to find spiritual, loving solutions to the challenges I encountered.

In hindsight, I find it interesting that this morning I was thinking of one of my former students who has a particular talent and interest, and how I’d like to introduce him to a certain performing group that he might find inspiring. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that kind of thought in connection with a student. When this child came into my classroom this morning to say hi (as he does most mornings, just as I stopped into David’s classroom every day when I was in high school), I asked him if he’s ever heard of the group and promised to bring in a DVD for him. I felt as if David’s spirit was being channeled through me; only this time I was the teacher, not the student. How interesting that, unbeknown to me at the time, David had died a few hours earlier.

I saw him for the last time in October, when he came for a visit on a sunny autumn day and sat at the kitchen table in the seat with the best view of the river. It was a lovely visit. He seemed at peace and so full of love. At one point, I felt his spirit shining through so strongly and beautifully that I just had to photograph him – and I am so grateful now that I did this. (It was the only time I ever did this in all my decades of knowing him.) Before he left, he spoke about wanting to get together again soon. But I also sensed an unspoken goodbye somewhere in there, and when he drove away, my heart sunk as I wondered if that would be the last time I’d see him. But he looked so healthy and radiant that day, and that is how I will remember him.

 

I am going to miss him so much and shed plenty of tears tonight, although the whole time I couldn’t shake the image of him smiling and even chuckling. I think of the scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which the writer character played by James Earl Jones was invited into the cornfield and laughs as as he takes his first steps into the unknown – the great adventure. After retiring from teaching, David spent several years at the end of his life researching and writing books about ghosts and hauntings both in our region and around the world, and this is how I imagine him walking through the doorway of death. I spent a long time sitting on the riverside tonight beside a candle, visualizing him bathed in light and releasing him to the light.

 

I wrote a poem nearly 25 years ago that David really liked and that he told me he shared with several people. Although I’m sure I will come across many profound quotes in letters and emails he sent me through the years, I shall offer this poem here in cyberspace as a tribute to David. After a life well lived, may he rest in peace.

I AM NOT GONE

I am not gone – 
    I have simply changed my form.

You will find me
    In the coolness of a raindrop
    And in leaves that brighten the autumn ground.

You will hear my voice
    In the whisper of a falling stream

And feel my touch
    When the warmth of the sun meets your skin.

My soul will travel to you
    In the flight of a seagull

And you will see my smile
    In a fresh, summer flower.

I am the energy that fills your spirit
    When you witness the beauty of nature.

We are called together
    When you remember a time we shared
    For I exist within those thoughts.

Whenever your heart is touched
    You are receiving the gift of my love

And every time you cherish me
    My soul is blessed.


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dragonflies in December

Dragonflies in December

Lately, I have been reflecting on some of the images I captured on the river over the summer and remembering my plant and wildlife friends – especially water lilies and dragonflies, which I spent countless hours observing with awe and wonder.

Recently, tragedy struck the family of a child in my life, and in my search for stories to help grieving children, I came across a gem of a booklet called Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Strickland. I requested it through the library and was delighted to finally get my hands on it. The gist of the story is that a colony of water bugs wondered why every now and then one of their own would climb up a lily stalk and disappear, never to be seen again. They got together and came up with a plan: The next one who went up the lily stalk would come back and let the others know what happened. In time, another water bug found himself climbing up a lily stalk and turning into a dragonfly. After zipping about for a while, he landed on a lily pad and noticed his old water bug friends at the bottom of the pond. He wanted to go down to tell them what had happened to him, but since he was now a dragonfly, he wasn’t able to go below the surface of the water. And if they were to see him looking down at them, they wouldn’t recognize him in his new form. So he decided that he’d have to wait until his friends climbed up the lily stalk in their own time, and then they would understand for themselves.

I absolutely love the way the dragonfly life cycle can be used to explain death to children. I remember attending a hospice memorial service one December during my internship and hearing what must have been this very story – but I thought it was about caterpillars and butterflies. It was a powerful story that I loved immediately, although I must have misremembered the details over time.

After reading the little booklet, I recalled one afternoon this past summer when I paddled to the lily pads and arrived just in time to witness a newborn dragonfly fall out of its exoskeleton (which was still clinging to a reed) and onto a lily pad. It was pale and colorless and looked completely disoriented. It just lay there still, and I wondered if it would be okay, hoping the fall wasn’t too much for this tiny creature. (The little booklet mentioned such a fall, so it must be a normal part of the transition.)

 

I felt honored to have witnessed the dragonfly emerging from its nymph state; it felt like a Very Important event to observe despite it being a common occurrence in the natural world.

After seeing the newborn dragonfly resting on the lily pad, I noticed numerous shells, or exuviae, of dragonfly nymphs clinging to reeds and water lily stalks all around me. They were completely motionless and looked like they were sleeping or just resting there. All this time, I had mistaken them for living creatures.

Dragonfly (top) and two clinging exuviae (middle and bottom)

As I read about the dragonfly life cycle, I learned that the exuviae would continue to cling to the stalks. However, they were simply empty shells, ghosts of former selves. Something about this image felt profound to me, and I became fixated on photographing them.

I didn’t understand the power of this image until reading Water Bugs and Dragonflies with the child mentioned above in mind. I realized the exuviae piece could further explain to a child that the body of his/her deceased loved one is merely a shell, not to be confused with the living presence s/he had known and loved.

Although I did not feel it was my place to discuss the dragonfly allegory with the child in question, I passed the information along to someone who is in a better position to do so. The adults with whom I have shared this story since reading it myself were very touched by it, which is why I feel compelled to share it with you. My hope is that it will bring comfort to someone who is in need of it.

 

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’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 (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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