Around four years ago, in the fourth year coming out of treatments, I found myself in a vehement phase of mourning. The pull towards expressing my love and losses through gardening continued to grow more fervent. It was then I created our candle and flower ritual to mark the conclusion of our final failed attempt – and to chauffeur me through winter in the absence of gardening. I was pulsing on a regular basis with the need for physical symbols that could mark, prove and memorialize.
I even wrote a letter to the Steve Hartman segment of the CBS evening news. He had done a piece on pulling oceans of weeds on his property in upstate New York to make room for a sea of wild flowers. No doubt a kindred spirit, I was thinking, until he at the end referred to his children – and everyone’s apparently because we ALL get to have them you know – as “The only garden ever really worth cultivating” or something like that. OUCH!
In my letter I pointed out (in nicer words) his use of the “Throwing the Other 20% of the Human Adult Population Under the Bus” linguistic exercise in which he was partaking. And then I suggested he do a piece on my embryo garden and entire backyard of gardens which I also curated as thoughtfully as possible in honor of my unborn. Or on the shrines and/or mourning rituals of anyone who wanted children but couldn’t have them, because it’s really not about me in the end. And so, SPOILER ALERT, I never heard back anything. My letter is stuck somewhere on one of my older, latent computers, so I can’t get to it at the moment. But knowing me I’m sure it was a real freaking gem (looking for eye roll emoji now…..).
Ahhh, mourning. Mourning is defined as the outward expression of grief. Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns. To move forward with healing, mourning is immensely facilitating, if not essential. So when your loss is societally stigmatized, dismissed, minimized and belittled, well….good luck with that! Looking back I don’t know how any of us do it. What I do know is it takes a brave and diligent soul to traipse through the fire of cultural indifference, introducing ourselves to the accumulation of more wounds on our path through healing. What irony.
This year I found myself expediting my candle ritual on the eve of a snow storm. Other things, though, were also swirling in the air: the formulation of future business plans, physical therapy exercises to tend to my quirky but vastly improved skeleton, pandemic restaurant adjustments and practice yoga teaching to name a few. In my life, “what comes after” is starting to pick up past the pace of crawling. So the ritual that had riveted my attention in earlier years was now noticeably one of many points of interest on my to do list.
A new, casual vibe continued to lace through our candle and flower event. The need to share publicly is a few years gone. Not to say that I never, ever will, but these days it mostly feels right as a private pause.
When it initially seemed I would not be able to get flowers on “THE” day, my pivot was somewhat easeful. And once the display was up and running, my husband and I didn’t have a strong urge to light the candles, letting many nights go by until it was convenient to do so. And when we did, much day to day talk fit neatly into where our once purely solemn, meditative trance used to be. Work, home repair and “what time are you leaving tomorrow” chatter wafted over the bobbing flames.
I must admit, I continue to find it a bit odd that the rest of mundane life is taking place by the side of that which was once so world shattering and all encompassing. Unless some other disaster comes along to force me back, there is nothing on the face of earth that could drag me to that place. But there is something I miss about those days if I’m to be honest. Emotionally, they were far less ambiguous. And there was something so truthful about the space one finds oneself in once they’ve been plucked from the illusions of control and things in life making sense.
I remind myself it does get different as time goes by, and that’s a healthy thing. I take it to mean that I’m processing and moving along, that I’m a real live and engaged human with a growth trajectory. Yet I can’t help but to find these seismic shifts slightly perplexing. It got me questioning if our current rituals were really necessary, if it’s really what we need right now.
But then there were other moments. Such as the settled, “all is right with the world” feeling that came over me upon being able to procure the flowers on “THE” day.
And my husband and I still have some of our most centered and candid conversations around our flickering heart. He is a “strong and silent” type who doesn’t talk much about his grief, and yet from him this ritual has a way of extracting pointed truths. “I’d rather be celebrating birthdays than memories” he blurted this year, gazing over the lit candles.
Yes, and shitty memories at that. For people like us, needles, drug side effects, multiple catheters penetrating unexplored territory, medical haziness, years of life lost to the pursuit, societal indifference, social isolation, existential injustice and the pain of our fractured souls are what initially connects us to our children.
I keep the display up for about two weeks, and then on or just before Valentine’s Day I bring the decaying flower bouquet out to our white garden and lay it over the white pile of rocks. Underneath which lies, somewhere in the earth, the box containing our embryo pictures. Soon after, the ritual relay baton gets handed to white crocuses poking through the ground in late winter/early spring.
As I made my way back to the garden this year, it hit me I hadn’t dealt with anywhere near this much snow cover in the 5 or so years I had been doing this. A push and pull between rational me and bereaved Momma me ensued.
Rational me: “Oh, it’s fine, you can just put them down on top of the snow and it’ll be close enough. It’s the general idea that matters.”
Bereaved me: “But, wait….WHERE is the exact spot??”
I suddenly started to feel upended amid the snow cover induced disorientation, trying to mark the spot from memory anchored by my barely visible white rose bush. In a triangular shaped garden this is especially difficult, as a small step to the right or left can significantly alter one’s perspective.
Upon beginning to paw through the frozen covering, I quickly hit the compact and unforgiving layer from a previous storm.
Rational me was not into it at this point as chilling chunks of icy snow slid into my gloves. Bereaved me was becoming awash with feeling frantic, and even somewhat stupid she didn’t know where her children were.
And just before rational me could squeeze out the decision that we were just going to lay the flowers on top of the snow and move along already, something else took over.
Something way bigger than a thought could ever be focused my eyes like a laser on a particular spot and suctioned my arms down. My ferocious burrowing landed right spot on my little rock pile, and for one glorious moment, all was one as my face spread into a grin and my heart became as wide as the sky.
“See?? See!!! You see now??!!! Momma knows where you are!” This internal exclamation would be heard by no one, but yet it was undeniably connected to all that I know to be true.
Welcome to the realm of the un-reframable, a realm most of you know all too well.
I find the concept of “reframing” concerning as it’s commonly applied inappropriately these days. My husband and I recently had to postpone our loooooong awaited green card interview as one of his co-workers was having Covid like symptoms (turned out everyone is fine but we certainly couldn’t risk exposing anyone). This was frustrating and disappointing, yes, but there are some potential good points in having to wait. And, if one has survived something practically thirty years in the making, what’s another coupla months? Plus, you can reschedule an interview but you can’t reschedule someone’s health, so all’s well that ends well. In other words, this bump in the road was something reframable.
Within life’s minuscule problems and mundane challenges, sure, reframing can be a proactive coping skill. In the face of life altering traumatic loss, for me the concept of “reframing” lacks depth and drips with disconnection. It has the potential to be massively minimizing and thus unhealthy when applied in the wrong places. I venture to say love is not reframable, so therefore grief isn’t either. Grief spans far beyond one’s thoughts and is not a problem to be solved. All we can do is navigate through and with it the best we can. At their core, some things just are.
Within the last year or two, I don’t recall exactly when, I saw the story of the body of a Vietnam soldier being recovered and returned at long, unfathomable last. His widow, who had remarried and had another life of her own now unfolded, was first in line to greet his return. They had been relatively young – early twenties maybe – and had been married for a short time before he was deployed. My story is completely different than hers, but if I may be so bold, I felt like I “got” this woman on a level. The love she held for her first husband and her life unlived was palpable. For fifty or so years she did not have a body to bury. It was clear from her words and facial expressions the thread of what should have been was ever soft in her heart, a key fiber in her well lived life. And that her life long love wound was still penetrable.
Unfulfilled longing is not a pathetic failure, rather it is human. If balanced it does not snuff out what comes after as so many of us fear, but rather it recedes to a degree and wraps itself, slowly and curiously, through our new realities. It ties us to many who came before and will come after who have the same core lived experience of what might have been. It is an organic particle of the human condition.
So “just another part of my day” my flowers on the grave ritual was this year that I had left the tv on when I went outside. I came in only to be pounced on soon after by Harry and Megan’s pregnancy announcement. This stuff doesn’t really get to me these days. However, when paralleled with the moment I had just had in my snow blanketed garden, it prompted the re-emergence of a truth both harsh and familiar – that no matter what else I did or what else transpired for the rest of my life, in the realm of parenthood, that was all I was going to get.
And yet, it all seemed to make sense after that. Our ritual, that is. Early on, ritual rooted me on some semblance of a path forward when everything that came after seemed to sprout from that which was lost.
Perhaps going forward the purpose of ritual is to yoke the past with the present and that which is unfolding. To gracefully wind what should have been into whatever is going to be. To highlight our rough edges and then smooth them out a bit. Or maybe to illuminate our losses so we hold an ever evolving awareness of that which we carry. Ritual has a way of revealing to us simultaneously layers of where we’ve been and where we are now.
I don’t quite have the experience of going from one thing TO an entirely different thing on this path. While this may be happening to some degree, this is mostly a level of polarization I don’t fully understand. I more so have the feeling of moving WITH my experiences. My losses will always have been life altering and traumatic. I will always be the mother of unborn children. What is in the forefront of my radar continues to shift. The recipe of elements with which I deal is always reconfiguring. Perhaps this is the delicate dance of integration.