42 Million Heartbeats

You died on a Saturday. I remember thinking it was too beautiful a day for death; too beautiful for your slip from pink, to gray, to gold. But now I know Death comes, regardless of swaths of stars. Regardless of being held by the sun and kissed open by the wind. Death comes. Plucking each petal from its bloom in a garden I didn’t plant.

Death comes.

I’d talked to you the day before yours came. I’d said hard things, things I’d packed and unpacked in the suitcase of my soul, things that seemed boxy and awkward falling from my lips as my 4-month old screamed, strapped to my chest.

I was angry.

So angry.

In those moments, I was the person I had always been told to be: the one who was firm, who didn’t back down, who stated facts with precision. And I thought it’d feel good. That there’d be a cleansing.

But there wasn’t.

And I didn’t.

I thought of calling back that night. I thought of telling you one more time that I loved you, that I just wanted to keep you longer. But I only thought it. I didn’t do it. And after I woke the next morning, I was told you didn’t do the same.


The moments, hours, and days that followed were a blur. And if I’m being truthful, many still are. Because the hole in my heart is your size and shape, Dad. And while you wouldn’t want that; it’s there. And always will be.


365 days and roughly 42 million heartbeats have passed painfully since your last breaths left me breathless…unmoored…


So today…

I will turn my face toward the sky, where your name is written in puffs of white and sunlight,

where your heart beats Forever,


I will try

to be






My name is Hollis (Part One)

We suffer losses, and it is such a Hobson’s Choice as to which one is the deeper cut. Those losses caused by death final and fatal and the ghosts that haunt from that place. Or those losses that linger and will not die and have the good grace to become ghosts.  – Charissa Grace White

Mr. Jankowski is addicted to licorice.  I flip open my notebook to page 10.  117 Spring Lane.  No name Jankowski: seen twice.  Last time on April 19 wearing pea green pants, a long denim shirt worn through at the elbows and horrible sandals.  Should not wear sandals, I had written, toe nails like machetes.  Refer to Dr. Goldberg, retired podiatrist, 402 Briar Patch Ct.  Then I added, addicted to licorice.  No one should eat that much licorice.  Refer to Dr. Bowman, retired physician, 223 Bluebonnet Circle.

I put my notebook back in my pocket and chewed my pencil a little while I surveyed my street.  Ms. Phillips had already brought out her trash.  By now she was sipping her Clamato juice and dancing to Julio Iglesias’ greatest hits.  She had been a prima ballerina and still donned pink tights, a black leotard with plunging back and a thin pink belt to exercise three days a week.  “At 81,” she said, “I deserve the weekends off.”

I like to visit her on Mondays.  She makes a pan of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies every Sunday and allows herself only one: her devotion being too great and her leotard too form-fitting to annihilate the pan.  She told me if I don’t come over, she’ll have to throw them down the disposal and no 11-year-old with a heart would ever allow such deliciousness to meet such a horrible end.  So, I make sure I’m there to do my part.

Booth Brantford lives two doors down from No name Jankowski.  I visit him on Tuesdays.  He lives in a two-bedroom ranch and the way he ties back his curtains make his house look like it’s winking.  He was married for 65 years to Barbara Ann McClusky.  She died last year, two days after Christmas and one day before their 66th wedding anniversary.  He’s been a mess since.  All he eats are microwavable meals, when he eats, and he’s worn the same sweater for five months now.  Barbara Ann knitted it for him before she died and he can’t part with it.  At least it’s been washed, but a navy blue snowflake sweater in mid-June is alarming.

When I visit he tells me about how they met and when he felt his love starting for her. He said it’s like a seed of longing was planted in the center of his heart.  As is bloomed, he realized he couldn’t be without her.  He found himself dreaming of her silken hair and how her slender shoulders would feel beneath his heavy hands.  How he could sit for hours watching her, already having memorized the slightest details of her frame and face, like how her right eye had more green specks than her left and how the birthmark at the nape of her neck reminded him of four-leaf clover.  It wasn’t really.  Just a reminder of one.

He likes to show me pictures too.  They had four children together.  Two didn’t live much past birth: one had a lung disorder; the other was taken by rheumatic fever.  The two that were left are grown now.  The oldest is a lawyer in Brooklyn, who, according to Booth, sold his soul for a condo in Manhattan.  The other is a playwright with an addiction to sadness.  They never visit, which doesn’t seem to bother Booth, but it bothers me and I’m sure it would bother Barbara Ann.

On the other side of me live Marty and Irene Buchanan.  They are transplants, like many on my street.  They’d spent most of life in Dallas in the restaurant business. Morty was the sole-proprietor of Mort’s BBQ Pit.  At the height of their smoked empire they had six locations and even bottled and sold their own sauce.  He told me what was in it once, but I’d been transfixed by a spider spinning its web (that’s not learned, you know; they hatch knowing how to do it) and missed the last three secrets to the sauce.

I think Irene was truly beautiful.  She has the softest looking skin that creases in places it should:  around her mouth for having laughed and around her eyes for having cried.  Her cheeks are perfectly round and always rose-colored.  I know it’s natural because she doesn’t wear makeup, Morty wouldn’t hear of it.

They never had children; she miscarried nine times.  The doctors never did discover what was wrong, so she took it that she was.  She named each of them and collected seashells for them, neither of which she told Morty.  He’d scream and yell about the nine vases of strategically placed and meticulously chosen shells around their home.  He didn’t know, couldn’t have known really, that they were shrines to his children.

She’d told me once about a friend of hers who had lost a baby.  Every year on the anniversary of his death she’d release 16 butterflies, one for every week of his life.  Irene couldn’t understand it.  God had already taken him so far away.  Why would she let the butterflies go too?  I thought of answering her question, but knew it was the sort you asked not expecting an answer.  The answer was in the slump of her shoulders and the wetness of her eyes.  I saw that too.

My house is in the exact middle of our street, which is perfect for me.  A noticer.  I live with my grandparents, Nan and Pop, in a retirement community in Florida.  I’ve been here for four years, after cancer took my mother and booze took my father.   Nan and Pop are special and not in the way the kids at school call me special.  They say it as a bad thing when I know it to be good.

Nan was a therapist, so she’s always encouraging me to talk about my feelings, which sometimes I do, but mostly I don’t.  I think she wants to try to right with me the wrong she feels she did my father. “Hollis, you know you can tell me anything, right?,” she always asks after she gulps a little of the air lying around.  She gets a look a little like a crappie I once caught and waited too long to put back in the water: eyes too wide, cheeks sucked in.  It pains her to say my name, I know; it reminds her of my father since Pop became Hollie long ago.

Nan makes me breakfast every morning: fluffy sourdough French toast with a little vanilla and a lot of cinnamon; thick-cut smoked bacon, which she always arranges in a heart on my plate; sausage links; a grapefruit half with a piranha-teethed spoon; strawberry pinwheels and, when I’ve been really good or she’s really sad; steel-cut oatmeal swirled with raspberry jam and chunky peanut butter.  Pop has eaten this way for nearly ninety years.  He thinks things like high cholesterol and heart disease are eventualities of a life well-lived and tells any doctor he meets just that. “When death comes knocking, I hope it’ll let me finish my French toast,” he says.  And he has every confidence that it will.

Like most of the homes here, ours is a ranch.  It’s painted a slate blue, that reminds me of my mother’s eyes, with big white shutters.  There are flower boxes beneath every window, some with berry-colored impatiens and others with miniature roses, and a red door with a silver-plated knocker.  Hanging outside the kitchen window are Nan’s wind chimes.  She gets lost in a sea of bubbles when they play, washing the same dish again and again.  Sometimes, when the wind is sleeping, I run my finger lightly across the front of them anticipating their canorous pings and tings.  The sound is soothing, just like Nan says.

My room is the best room in the house (for obvious reasons).  Nan said I could do whatever I wanted to the walls and even volunteered to help me paint.  On one wall, I have a Scrabble board with the word combinations needed to make a 2,044-point move using the SOWPODS dictionary and the word sesquioxidizing (it’s not in the normal dictionary, but it should be).

I’ve always been into words.  They fascinate me really.  At age 6, I started reading the dictionary.  I started with the letter a, which is an obvious beginning, and have continued since then.  I study and memorize seven words a day, since people smarter than me say that that’s the magic number.  By my calculations, that’s about 12,775 words to date, give or take.  But, when I feel like I’m going at a snail’s pace, I let myself pick a word from elsewhere, like the SOWPODS dictionary (I know it’s a little renegade, but it seems to work) to let the color back in.

On another wall, I have a painting of Einstein, which I did myself, and one of my favorite quotes of his: The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  Actually, it doesn’t really look like Einstein; it looks more like Amos Slade from The Fox and the Hound.  But whatever.

On the third wall, is a painting of my house.  The house where I lived with my parents before Mom got sick and Dad got lost.  Nan and I had a picture to paint by, although I didn’t need one.  I even remembered to put in the tulip garden Mom had planted and her garden maker: what is for you will not pass you.  She spent hours out there, especially once she found out the cancer had come back.  I think that’s why those flowers bloomed long after they should have died, like she did.  I think they lived off her tears.


Cruel Beauty

**This fictional story contains delicate themes (e.g. bullying/coming of age sexuality/rape) and coarse language.  If you are sensitive or averse to either, please refrain from reading.**

I am a keeper of secrets. Not just the hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind, but the kind that make you want dive into the peanut butter jar and eat marshmallow fluff with a spoon. I’ve never been pretty. I’m the girl who stands in the mirror, towel on her head, pretending to be beautiful: Disney-princess-beautiful with long-flowing tresses, big eyes, and a perfectly heart-shaped mouth. I know I’ll never be her, but I dream to be.

I live in the country; I’ve lived here all my life. I spend my days wading through corn fields and my nights down by the creek. I like to listen to the silence there, to all the things hidden in it. I like to bring my diary too. I write about the things I hear and quietly muse how it would feel to catch my name dancing on the wind. The wind that kisses and caresses. The wind that doesn’t harm.

I write about sad things too. Like what Swan Anderson told everyone last week about my being a curse. That ugly people like me shouldn’t be allowed to live. I write about it because I know it’ll hurt less if I put it down on paper. If somehow I peel it off myself and plaster it to the pages of a book that can be closed.

Swan is one of those girls who was gifted with good looks and vexed with bad manners. She’s beautiful. She knows it. And so does everyone else in Drexel. Because of it she gets anything she wants. Her heart is black though, I’m sure of it. Just like I’m sure I hate tomato juice and that strawberries make me sneeze.

I watched her once after gym class, parading around half-naked in the locker room. She was talking about Nick Berry, the cutest boy in school and with whom she’d recently “done it”. Everyone hung on her every word but all I could pay attention to were her breasts. They were perfect−barely touched by the finest hairs, and transparent on both sides. Her nipples, deep pink and button-sized, were unlike my own which are huge and fleshy, like the breasts of the women in the nudie pictures my father hides in his chest of drawers.  I’ve always found them ugly too.

Swan has never talked to me. We’ve sat next to each other in homeroom nearly every year−Anders before Anderson and all that−but she’s never uttered a word. The closest she has come to acknowledging my existence is that cool flip of her hair. She almost looks at me when she does it. Almost. I get a faint whiff of her strawberry shampoo every time and afterward secretly pinch my outer thigh, careful not to let her see my silent reprimand.

Everyone loves Swan. Teachers praise her. Parents want to adopt her. Boys want to date her. Girls want to be her. But me, I simply want to survive her. I had a dream last night that she got run over by Willis Watkin’s tractor. She didn’t die, but the accident left her mangled, unrecognizable really. In my dream, I felt a frisson of joy and then a cold, deep stab of guilt at her misfortune. But then I woke up and realized she was still inimitably beautiful and horrible, so I cried myself to sleep.

I took off toward the creek this morning trying to forget. It was near dawn and I knew my father wouldn’t miss me.  Too much drinking.  Again.

I cut behind the Miller’s farm and followed the long fence to where it ends and climbed over. The grass was still somewhat wet and slimy beneath my sneakers, but the air was light, crisp even, for a summer morning. I hadn’t been in the Miller’s house for over a year. Not since Sil died. It didn’t seem fair for her to be taken so young: 37, full of life and love. She’d had a massive heart attack eight days after the birth of their fourth son, Jack. They found her prone, wearing her ruffled apron, the green telephone receiver just out of reach.

I babysat for them off and on until Mr. Miller, Sheriff Miller’s son, decided Swan would be a better choice. She is the first of nine siblings, a child-rearing cognoscente if there ever was one. “Surely, with all her experience, she’ll be able to handle my boys…better,” he told me. “I hope you understand, Margaret.” Sure. I understood perfectly. For a second, I had a wicked thought about Mr. Miller. But before it and my anger consumed me, I turned around and walked home.

The Miller’s property backs right up to Thunder Creek, but isn’t part of it. Their property is, however, one of only two ways to access it and since I’d been their babysitter and am not a known deviant, they’ve let me come and go as I please. They probably take pity on me, like most others do. A person knows when he’s being pitied, I assure you. There’s something unmistakable in the flattening of one’s lip and the squint of one’s eye when they’re trying too hard to be happy around you−like if they don’t, you’ll find the nearest bridge from which to hurl yourself. It’s ridiculous really, but then so are they.  Turns out ugly doesn’t trump ridiculous. Who knew?

The creek, calm and steady, was just beginning to warm from the dawning sun when I arrived. I closed my eyes to its music and let my body gravitate to my favorite rock, the huge one nestled beneath the wedlock tree, where my haunches had worn a perfectly-positioned settee.

Everything about this place is lovely. If I were an artist I could try to do it justice, but since I’m not, I just let its beauty wash over me. There are trees everywhere, both skinny and fat; and rocks−of all different shapes, sizes and colors−pepper the creek’s outer edges. Farther off there is a small sunflower field, which looks too perfect to be natural, and a wooden shack the fishermen used when the fishing was good. From what I’ve heard, it was also a prime make out place, but it’s been abandoned for years, the lower quarter now giving way to the creeping kudzu.

As I looked, I saw a strange light coming from the shack, like prisms dancing on the panes and swore I heard a scream. I decided to investigate since the odds were quite favorable that someone “up to no stinkin’ good,” as Pap always said, would be more scared of me than me of him. Besides, I hadn’t had the Cook’s tour of Thunder in a while and convinced myself, and my erratically beating heart, that now seemed like a perfect time. I remembered my father’s words: “Don’t worry, Mags. Wait long enough and you’ll find your fear.” And I had found it; it was skulking within me making the underside of my knees sweat and my bottom lip quiver.

I thought of how my father despised me as I crept. How he was a small man−not in stature, but in character−who had never forgiven me my mother’s death. How he held me responsible for it. Me, who took my first breaths as she took her last. Me, stuck with a drunk of a father who wouldn’t give the slightest damn if I simply vanished. Who would talk you dead for twenty-five hours with no bathroom breaks. Who, after deciding to take one step down the wrong path, decided to take another and then another and then another. Cruel he could be, but mostly he was just inconvenient and foul− a weighty addition to the laundry list of why-to-leave-this-hellhole-of-a-town.

I was cut by another scream, followed by sounds of struggle, as I eased my way alongside the shack and then to standing beneath its window. I saw him first, one hand over her mouth, the other between her legs. His body, moving grotesquely into hers in rapid bursts, was rigid with wrongdoing and heavy with shame.  “Is−this−how−you−like−it−pretty−girl?” he asked, then answered, “Yeah−this−is−how−you−like−it.”

Her white panties circled her ankles and her head shook back and forth, occasionally smacking the filthy floor, finally breaking her butterfly clip as she fought him. But it was no use. He was too strong and too crazed. He began to hit her, to bash her slight frame, and that’s when I heard a scream, recognizing it seconds later as my own. I started hammering the glass shouting, “Get off of her! Get off!”, and hurled every foul word I knew at him, calling him a shitdickass, or something like that, as I ran around the side of the shack screaming that I’d kill him. “I’ll kill you,” I promised, through a rush of adrenaline and moxie, and then was nose to chest with him, his open fly and his horrified expression. Son of a bitch, I thought, looking into the ruddy face of Mr. Miller, and behind him, to a cowering ball of flesh: Swan Anderson.

For every Goliath, there is a David, but staring into Mr. Miller’s eyes I realized I was no David. I took a step back as he raised his fist, and felt a warm trickle run down my inseam and pool in my polka-dotted socks, as I waited for its weight across my face.  “You leave her out of this,” Swan warned, trying to pull her panties up her shaking legs. “You touch her and I’ll tell everyone about this−your father, your children. I’ll tell them everything,” she seethed. “I’ll even go to the graveyard and tell Sil.” Something in him broke then. He looked around the shack−suffused with heat, sweat and regret−to Swan, and then to me as he lowered his arm, stepped back and disappeared into the woods.

“You won’t tell anyone about this, Margaret,” Swan said, as her teeth chattered against her bent knees. She wouldn’t look me in the eye and kept smoothing her hair and her dress. I stared at her in disbelief, not for what she asked me to do, but that she said my name. It seemed a small victory to hear it pass her lips. Somewhere deep down I waited for her to melt at the utterance of it, like she’d warned many times before.  Nope, I thought, and shook my head back and forth.  “Good,” she whispered.

I stood in the doorway, not knowing where to be or how to act, as she walked toward me dusting herself off. She pinched her pale cheeks, which quickly came to life, and brushed her hand through her hair as she looked at me and walked away.  The faint smell of strawberries lingered for a moment as I pinched my outer thigh, not as a reprimand, but as a prayer, as a keeper of secrets.

**I wrote this story last year, yet until yesterday only one other soul had read it.  Obviously, it’s not what you’d expect from bloomingspiders, but it is an artistic expression of deep themes, as are all of my posts.  In the future, I plan to post pieces that may stretch and scare us both.  I hope you will welcome that, but if you don’t I understand.  My ultimate goal as a bloomingspider is to spin truth to net hearts.  Rape and bullying are deep-searing truths for many.  And while they may not be yours, I pray you’ll be sensitive to those whose they are.  I close with the sacred blessing of my dear friend, Charissa Grace:

“Do justice
Love mercy
Walk humbly”

What a dying mother taught me about living

You may have seen her in the news. And if you haven’t, you likely will.

Her name is Ashley Bridges. She’s 24. And she’s dying.

Ashley and two-month-old daughter, Paisley, in their California home.  Image courtesy of CNN.

Ashley and two-month-old daughter, Paisley, in their California home. Image courtesy of CNN.

What caught my attention, other than the precious image of Ashley and Paisley, was the story’s title: “Mother’s Ultimate Sacrifice for Newborn”.

I thought of those words. I thought of the daily and hourly sacrifices mothers make. Then thought of the sacrifices mothers-in-heart make for babies that will often never be: round after round, poke after poke, loss after loss. And I had to know hers.

I watched a short news clip about Ashley: how last November she found out she was expecting, just 10 weeks before being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a malignant bone cancer. How the doctors told her to terminate her pregnancy and start treatment. And how she’d immediately refused.  Her response was complex in its simplicity:

“There’s no way I could kill a healthy baby because I’m sick.”

Ashley kept herself as healthy as possible.  She made plans, tried to live normally, and shortly after reaching 8 months gestation was given another diagnosis: a terminal one. The cancer had spread. Delaying chemotherapy had robbed her of time. And hope.  Her doctors suggested inducing labor, followed by aggressive chemotherapy, but warned it would gift her a year, if that.

So there she sits, as the camera zooms in: blue-eyed, lovely, and dying, with little Paisley nestled sweetly at her side. I watch, feeling guilty for my intrusion, and wonder:

Will she ever realize what a supreme sacrifice her mother made?
And more…
Will she ever understand how it’s possible to be loved that much?

As the extra chambers of my mother’s heart swell, I hear the answer. It taps at the door of my soul and solemnly whispers: Yes. She will understand. When she is a mother.

The truth is this: whether we believe it or not, whether we accept it or not, we are all terminal.  Sure, we may not walk the same path as Ashley. And perhaps our hourglasses will have a few more turns than hers, but we all have an expiration date. Her doctors know hers, just as the Great Physician knows ours.

I don’t pretend to know cancer intimately. And I don’t pretend to have the answers. But maybe Ashley does. Maybe living in and loving through every second is hers. Maybe being here, heart-tethered to this space, this moment, and this unique “blessing” is hers.

Those answers don’t mean she hasn’t cried, cursed and cowered. I’m sure she has. But she is confronting her choice, her ultimate sacrifice, with a lion’s heart…a mother’s heart.  And her answers are her own.

Her closing comment about Paisley is heartrending in its clarity:

“Maybe I’m not supposed to be here and she is.”

Maybe not, Ashley.

But know this: you personify the greatest and most noble of gifts: love.

And that gift will outlive us all.

If you’d like to see the interview, click here

And if you’d like to donate to Ashley’s Recovery Fund, follow this link: https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/wl34/save-smash-ashley-s-recovery-fund

Healing, like grief, comes in waves

I have avoided Orlando for four years. In my most honest places, that is what’s whispered to me as we pull in and see a small figure waiting for us in the doorway: that of my 94-year-old grandmother, Catherine. She is smaller than I remember, frailer too, but she still gives the best hugs: the kind where her hands run up and down your back, making a final squeeze near your shoulder blades. The kind that give you enough time to take in her scent: Swiss lotion mixed with a hint of Neutrogena.

The house remains the same: the kitchen linoleum still feels tacky beneath my bare feet, the pictures lining the shelves and walls are in precisely the same place, the back bathroom still smells of Dove soap.

Four years ago we were here and found out we were expecting for the second time. The first hadn’t ended well, but we were hopeful despite. I remembered the wee hours of that July morning, waiting for EPT to confirm what my heart already had. I remembered our walk afterward, talking about how everything would change. How the blessing of that sacred knowledge would remain Ours until the right time.

How the right time never came.

How it has never come.

I had looked Brazil in the face, thanked her and scorned her for all she gave and took. But I hadn’t done so here. I hadn’t traced the lines of rooms where I’d been so happy before being so sad. I hadn’t wanted to. I wasn’t ready to. Until now.

Maybe Grandma knew. Maybe she knew that grief had pushed me away. But healing had brought me back. And I was reminded then how both come in waves: some that roar and crash into your deepest places, others that touch so softly, you barely realize they’re even there.

On our third day together, Grandma mentioned the two things she’d like to do before she dies: see the ocean and visit the cemetery where my aunt and grandfather are buried. R and I had planned to make the trip to Daytona to do the same, so I told her we’d take her. The next morning she told me she thought she’d stay behind. She gave reasons, reasons similar to the ones I’d told myself during my four years away. And I knew what was happening. The waves were crashing in. She knew it. And so did I.

I told her we’d be there with her, that God had given us a beautiful day, and that we’d understand if she decided to stay. But she didn’t; thirty minutes later we were heading to Ormond Beach with Grandma in tow. I had forgotten the palms on I-4 East, the lush green peppering both sides. I had forgotten Atlantic Avenue’s concrete jungle and the number 1015, where my grandparents’ motel, The Holiday Shores, had stood. And I’d forgotten the exact spot of the graves, but found them after walking a familiar path: two rows in and toward the middle.

R and Grandma at the cemetery.

R and Grandma at the cemetery.

Grandma had chatted the whole way down. She told us how she’d been so mad after hearing the news that Grandpa Paul had bought a yacht, that she’d driven 90 miles an hour all the way home. “The Good Lord got us there safely,” she’d said. And I knew she believed it. When we crossed the Halifax River, she told us that’s where she’d learned to fly a seaplane. She was pregnant at the time, but Grandpa Paul has insisted, growing belly and all. She told us about his sit-down with Norman Brinker and the subsequent opening of their very first Steak and Ale restaurant. And then, in the hush of the cemetery, she told us about my grandfather’s last days. How her last words to him were, “Are you feeling okay, Chuck?” And how he fell over afterward, right there at the breakfast table. “I think he knew it was coming,” she said. “He knew.”

Grandma and I.

Grandma and I.

We were quiet then: R and Grandma in front of Grandpa Paul’s grave, me in front of Aunt Kathy’s. And I felt a surge of emotion so strong, I began to cry: for them (All of them) and for us left behind. I cried for my aunt, who was only 18 when she passed. I cried for her life, short-lived. For those who truly knew her, like Mom. And those who’d longed to, like me. I cried. One hand on my heart, the other on her grave. One hand saying goodbye, the other a heartfelt hello.

On the way back to Orlando, Grandma talked about Aunt Kathy. How she’d wanted that car so badly. How her girlfriend had had one. How Grandpa Paul went to Miami to get it. How it was a surprise. And how that morning, my Aunt’s last morning, she’d left Grandma a note, which read: “I took some change from the cupboard, Mom.” She’d signed it, “The Brat,” a name she called herself. A name that, looking at my Grandma, I knew had not and will not be forgotten.

The waves of grief and healing come. I relearned this with Grandma. Sometimes one is pushed by the other. Sometimes they arrive in tandem. But always, always, they come.

Those four days with my grandmother were sacred. We shared and rode the waves together, whether she knew it or not. She helped me remember that one does reach the other side of grief. And that the other side is written with gratefulness for what was had, not bitterness for what was lost.

Thank you, Grandma.

For your time. For your lesson.
And for your love.

Our hands

Our hands.

What will you say when I die?

I found this a few months ago while driving around my hometown.  It seemed appropriate.

I found this a few months ago while driving around my hometown. It seemed appropriate.

I watched the subtle rise and fall of my chest yesterday and wondered:

What if it stopped? What if my heart stopped right now?

It was a horrendous thought. Horrendous because I’ve chosen to spend my days thinking about how to fill them, not how they will someday end. Recently though, I’ve thought a lot about death. Not in a morbidly obsessive way, but rather in a matter-of-fact-this-is-going-to-happen way. Because it will. Sooner or later it will.

I’d like to believe that I will grow old. That I will wear sweater sets, use a cane and take heart in singing to plants and playing games of Scrabble. That I will take my last breaths in the comfort of my own bed after a life well lived. That I will have earned my laugh and frown lines. And that my spirit will still be young and strong despite its vessel being old and weak. But there is no guarantee that my end will be this way. There is no guarantee that my last heartbeats will be slow and steady as they march toward my death. And quite frankly, that scares me.

I once had a dream about my wake. I was laid in a white coffin, dressed in an outfit I’d never seen and covered head to toe in thin lace netting. My hair was done up, which I never do, and my lips were stained a garish red. The room was wall-to-wall with people, but no one passed in front of my casket. No one wept or extended their hand to cover mine. And when the priest asked if anyone had anything to share, no one spoke. No one.

I woke in a panic thinking about the hairsprayed coiffé, the horrible lipstick and the deafening silence. And suddenly all the horrible things I’ve done and said lay before me like the countless pebbles on that tiny beach in Maine.

Just love these.

Just love these.

I remembered my childhood and the mountain of untruths I told. I remembered how I laughed with my friends at Barbara Denk who smelled, we said, but to whom we never got close enough to test out. I remembered how I yelled at my Grandmere after she’d asked me 209 times where my Papa was. How He’s dead seemed utterly cruel to share with her Alzheimer-ridden mind. And how I once told a boy I still loved him just as he told me he loved someone else. I didn’t though. I just wanted him to love me instead. Those are just a few, of course; there are pebbles that are more grievous and some that are less. But all of them bring me back to the admonishment of earlier this year:

You are a good person, Dani. But you need to be better.

It had been a terrible Saturday. I was very ill and had started to shake uncontrollably, as I nursed pain that felt like a forest fire moving east to west inside my upper abdomen. Bishop and Sister Hall arrived as I was in the thick of it. And before I knew it, Bishop anointed my head with oil and began to pray over me. The prayer was earnest and simple, imploring for the pain to subside and my health to return. I felt his hands shake a little upon my scalp and heard a hitch in his breath as he invoked the name of Jesus Christ and finally said Amen. As he stepped away, I felt my body go limp and saw a flash of brilliant blues and pinks. Then he appeared.

He was glorious as angels go: a beautiful strong nose, bright blue eyes a shade lighter than my mother’s, and a kind upturned mouth. His hands were unblemished and rosy, like the skin of a newborn, his fingers long and delicate.

He called me by name and shared with me some of my truths. And if I remember correctly, he reached his hands toward me more than once. Because I remember wanting to reach back and hoping that that is what Heaven feels like.

Then he slowly began to back away and said this, his last words to me:

You are a good person, Dani. But you need to be better.

When I came to I was crying. I immediately told my husband about the angel and what he’d said, to which he responded with tears. He later reminded me that I was being pumped full of powerful drugs, that I wasn’t well, that perhaps I didn’t actually see what I saw. But I wouldn’t accept it. He called me by name; he knew my heart. It was real. And he was real too.

I haven’t seen him since that day and I’m okay with that. Seeing an angel once was more than I ever hoped for and I don’t plan on wasting his advice and admonition. And while I know what I know and know what I saw, I’m still terrified of dying. I’m still terrified of leaving this Earth before I’ve done something worth remembering, something that will move people to cover my hands with theirs as I lay still in my casket. Something that will render me forever a passenger in the hearts of those I love.

And then it hits me: perhaps the something, the big thing, isn’t a big thing at all. Perhaps it’s calling to let you know you’re thought of, laying with you when you’re sick or helping you when you can’t help yourself. Perhaps it’s giving my seat up on the bus, buying lunch for someone in need or running after exhausted parents with their little one’s stuffed giraffe. Perhaps all the big things I could do would mean nothing if I hadn’t done the little things. If my heart hadn’t been right. If I hadn’t been right.

I wish my younger self could hear that. I wish she would have let herself be known in ragged form instead of the person-shaped mask used to make her appear whole. And I wish I could go back, hold her hand, and tell her the two things I haven’t always known:

It will get better.
And you will be better.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken an angel to figure that out, but maybe, just maybe, that’s why he came. To let me know that I’m on the right track. To confirm that I’ve made mistakes, tons of them, many of which I don’t wish to relive. But I’m on the other side of them now. And I’d like to think, I’m better for them, as well.

I don’t know when my last heartbeats are coming, it’s better that I don’t. But I hope that when they do you’ll put your hand over mine and whisper something to my heart, if only from the quiet of your own:

You are better, Dani. You truly are.

One of the most beautiful cemeteries I've ever seen.  It's in L'Île-Perrot, Quebec.

One of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen. It’s in L’Île-Perrot, Quebec.