How Do You Like My Leaf?

One of the many things I loved and miss about my mom is how we used to make up silly songs together about ordinary situations. Usually, this would happen when we were walking or cleaning or driving somewhere. I used to love running errands with her, even when I was older. She was the kind of person who made mundane things in life a little extra special and fun.  When my dad would protest to the unrealistic nature of blockbuster musicals, we would point out to him that he kind of lived in a musical.

Though my mom and I both had a deep appreciation for good music, the songs we’d make up were classically terrible. Just really, really bad–but funny. Snort until (your pants are at risk) level of funny. Usually, the melody would either be stolen or very haphazard, and the lyrics would be morbid, purposely obtuse, or random observations.  Sometimes they wouldn’t make any sense to anyone but us. We could rarely remember them later.

HOWEVER, I do remember the very first song.

The very first song we ever made up together was when I was about three years old, and it was called, “How do you like my leaf?”

Mom and I were walking at Wilshire Trails park in Gainesville, Ga. It’s a beautiful park, with paths that wind through threes and over streams, an old, covered “Troll bridge,” and several large rocks on which to climb. It was autumn, and the ground was strewn with wet red, yellow and brown leaves stuck to the path. I picked one up gleefully and beamed up at my grown BFF.

“How do you like my leaf?” I singsonged.

Without missing a beat, mom sang back: “It’s very wonderful!”

“How do you like my leaf?”

“Very Very NICEEE!”

“How do you like my leaf?”

“I don’t want to sing this song!” (still singing of course)

“How do you like my leaf?”

“VERY VERY NICE!!!!”

This kept going. It escalated. The faux angst to my mom’s response lyrics got increasingly more panicked. You get the idea.

Whether we wanted to or not, we would remember, “How do you like my leaf?” forever after.  It can get stuck in your head permanently. Eventually, my mom, dad and I hated that song, but we loved it too.

Well, that silly little song has been in my head a lot this week, and I know it is because it is the week of my mom’s birthday.   Autumn was, in so many ways, her season. It was the time of the year when my small family made so many formative childhood memories. Autumn was when we’d head up to the Appalachian Mountains and camp as much as we possibly could. Autumn is when we’d meet my grandparents for a cozy vacation in Tennessee. Autumn was when we’d head to Jaemor Farms to buy all the apples and explore the corn maze. It was when my dad would light up the old fireplace for the first time in months, making our house by the lake smell like old stone and smoke and spices and woods.

All of these memories, and so many more, float through my head  constantly  this time of year. They are like memory-leaves scattering down, catching on light breezes as my heart jerks in response to them.

A few days ago, I was walking with Kora, my three year old daughter, and she found a bright orange leaf that she thought was amazing. She beamed at me with her billion watt smile.

“Look, mama! A Nana (banana) leaf!”

It was a perfect leaf, and a perfect memory, and a perfect moment to share a little bit of my mom with my daughter. So I taught Kora the infamous jingle. Of course, what with being the very bottom of the barrel it terms of sophistication, the song thrilled Kora’s little heart and provoked many giggles.

Yesterday, out of nowhere, she wanted to sing it with me again. It caught me in the gut, but made me smile, too.

My mom’s birthday is tomorrow (October 27), and it is the first year since she’s passed where I have a very full day that does not allow me much time to reflect. The last four years, I’ve purposefully tried not to schedule much, unless it was getting together with my dad and/or grandmother. It has kind of been a day for me to remember, to put flowers on my mom’s grave, to look at pictures. Tomorrow will not be that, though. I’ll be participating as a first-time vendor in a really whimsical local fall festival, selling  the apothecary products that I make.  When the opportunity first presented itself, I knew I wanted to do it immediately. However, when I found out it was on the 27th, I hesitated. Would it be wrong to be busy?

But the more I think about it all,  the more I feel good about it. My mom would have been so excited about me doing this, and I know it will be a fun new fall memory for me and my family.  So many little things this week keep pointing me back to the thought that I am able to go forward while smiling back at the beautiful memories behind me.  There is heartache to be felt, but sweetness to remember…And wonderful things that can only be built because of what has come before.

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Your Last Autumn

It drifted in twirling pathways

Of deep grey rain and golden sunbursts

On the mountains

–Your last autumn.

Anxious finches, the rustling light on leaves.

The world in memory. The world in preparation.

Only in Fall

Can the world be angled so differently.

Your eyes were a cerulean blue,

Like the sky,

Your last autumn.

I wonder what moments were focused in those lenses.

Crinkly-smile lines and warm sweater hugs?

The final leaf falls, in a sigh.

But now it is some other Fall,

And I see grays and golds

And blues

And you.

-Kathryn Gustafson, 2016

Remembering the Tidal Wave

-There’s no denying that this week, the week of June 18, sucks. Maybe it always will.  Each moment of June 18, 2013…and the days leading up to it, are pounding brain in tidal waves of memory and grief this week. I’m not alone in grief; I don’t pretend to be. I don’t share these thoughts in an effort to seem important, but because these feelings are important, and we all have them. They merit expression in words, which don’t come easily for everyone.  Our stories matter. Here’s some of mine-

It’s not just remembering saying goodbye the day you died. It’s the remembrance of everything in those last days.

That final trip to the hospital, when you were discharged and assigned hospice care.  I promised to make you something good to eat when we got home. You just looked at me with those sad, blue, dolphin eyes. You smiled, slightly; I took a photo.  I didn’t know that you were saying goodbye, then. I had absolutely no idea. Not until June the 19, when I was sorting out pictures for the funeral arrangements. I looked at that photo – taken only days before – and saw your face looking back at me in that moment: brave, sad, loving, pitying.

At home, family began to arrive. Hospice gravely told us you had a few weeks, perhaps. The truth was it would only be a few days. Dad went back to the bedroom and told you, quietly, what they’d said. I heard you cry out, “I don’t want to die yet!” The loudest words you’d spoken in weeks. It broke my heart. Breaks my heart, even at this very moment; I can hear it now.

That night I screamed. And screamed. This was a nightmare I had had over and over as a small child. But was this real? Was this real? No, no, couldn’t be. It was. But it couldn’t be.

Surely I would wake up.

The next day, you went to sleep.

 Your friends and family poured in. Bringing food. Sitting in the bed next to you. Singing and praying and kissing your face as you drifted in and out of awareness.  I lay in bed with my arms around you while you slept. I tried not to cry, in case you would hear, but once I lost control. You hadn’t moved all day, until then. You moaned and lifted your hand to rub my back, softly. Small tears slipped out of the corners of your closed eyes. Later, there would be a tiny bit of dry salt there.

Don’t worry. I know how much you love me. Always have. Always will.

June 17: The night before it happened, I sat near you with my husband and my best friend. We read you poems. You seemed content, though you did not stir. Dad held your hand all night: so sweet, so vigilant.

I went to home.

He called the next morning. Early. Barely able to get the words out, he told me that you were struggling to breathe, “fish out of water,” he said.

I made it just in time, which was a miracle. Another miracle; you heard my voice and opened your eyes: looked at me, into me.

That’s how you left the world, looking into me.

Pouring your love into me, just like you always had.

I saw you leave. Saw the light go out. Saw your body empty of you. I know where you went.

No one could die better. What a hard thing, but what an honor, it was: to say goodbye like that, your eyes on mine. It’s a memory that hurts and haunts me, but I treasure it all the same. Sometimes, a lot of times, that’s the image I see when I close my eyes at night.

-People say that grief comes in waves, and they are right. That’s how it feels. Like a tidal wave. I think that the first year is the worst for most people: you never know how high the waves are going to be, when they are going to hit. It’s not that you miss someone less after the first year; it’s just that you learn to keep swimming. Life keeps happening no matter how much you feel like it should have stopped. Eventually it just becomes part of you. That doesn’t mean you forget, or that it doesn’t hurt anymore, but it becomes a different sort of thing. You learn to anticipate what might trigger it: holidays, birthday and weeks like this one: the anniversary of the loss.

It’s been 3 years now, and most days I keep swimming pretty well. But this week has – like a tidal wave – knocked me off my feet. I wasn’t expecting it, somehow. All these memories to come flooding in this strongly. It sucks – literally sucks the air out of me-sucks me down under the weight of everything. People who haven’t had this kind of loss in their lives don’t quite realize how much these waves can  feel less like sadness and more like raw horror. While I share this without a bow on top, without any dusting of sugar, I do know that it won’t always hurt like this.

Next week will be better, different, again. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge our pain when we’re in it. We feel these things  because we’ve lost something valuable–in our grief, we acknowledge the value of what we’ve lost.

As my mom always said, “It is what it is.”