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When a terrible disease ravages someone you love, the mourning process begins long before they finally pass on. Kübler-Ross (1969), in her study on death and dying, described five stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But Kübler-Ross was initially focusing on those who were dying, and not so much on those who were dealing with personal loss of any great significance, which she later came to recognize.

These stages are not linear, either, and can occur in any order, if at all. Women tend to experience all five stages more than men. They can be cyclical, too, with two or more occurring in an almost extreme emotional roller coaster. For both the dying and the loved one, getting to the point of acceptance does not always happen at the same time. The dying often reaches the stage of acceptance before their loved ones. But if and when both reach the point of acceptance, where communication and reflection can be experienced, a more dignified death can be found.

I’d add a couple of additional stages, or at least notable elements, to the stages of pre (and post) grieving. That includes fighting to maintain control of the details in their lives. The opposite is the disruptive feeling of vulnerability when control is lost which can lead to related stages of despair and anger.

Another related stage involves trying to make order in one’s life. Especially when the world around you seems to be in chaos, small efforts to create order can take on an outsized importance. Cleaning out cupboards, putting away old records, sorting through old photos, are just a few example of how the person facing loss may attempt to build a sense of order in a life that seems otherwise out of control.

Recently, I heard this statement made by someone who is facing the inevitable loss of his longtime spouse who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve paraphrased it per my own cloudy memory.

I feel like I’m in a carnival outhouse sitting out in a field, and the circus is packing up to leave without me.

While he didn’t elaborate, he was trying to express his feelings regarding the situation he found himself in now. I’ve been thinking about this and cannot help but connect it to my own experiences and ruminations.

First and foremost, there is the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability, of literally having your pants down in a crisis, or a formidable change that is going on around you. You’re stuck. It is hard to move forward without first finishing the primary business at hand. Panic sets in and it is hard to make decisions. Yet you’re also worried about being left behind, and by the act of moving to a new location – mentally, emotionally, and physically – and the unknown that comes with that. But even more so, it is a fear of being left behind by the ominously fast progression of a disease that robs you of the one you love, again mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The carnival/circus represents fetes of apparent magic, gravity-defying acts, seemingly impossible, often nonsensical, frightening in their dangerous distortions of human entertainment, and the funhouse mirrors that twist and distort our vision of reality.

The world around you no longer makes sense and you feel vulnerable, scared, afraid of being left behind, fearing for your loved one and a future you cannot envision without them. It literally scares the shit out of you… And yet you know you have to keep moving to survive. Because that’s your role here.

Of course, the circus could also represent your loved one, the person who was the highlight of your life, with which you shared the literal stage of life, it’s bright lights, music, the comedy and drama of a life fully shared. Either way, it all seems so unfair.

Anger rushes forward. Anger at what fate has thrown you, your loved one, the cruelty of the disease. There is no preferred or better way to die of a disease. Cancer kills the body slowly while eating away at the person. Alzheimers eats away the person while leaving the body to deteriorate at a slower rate, until the parts of the brain that operate the body begin to lose their synaptic connections.

Either way, these diseases are cruel – to the loved one who suffers them, and to the lover who must endure the pain of watching, of frustrating efforts to try and overcome the diseases’ manifestations, the cruel teases of normalcy and strength that suddenly appear and then, as a wisp in the winds, they disappear to the mists that hid the light in their eyes.

Whether you want to or not, you are, and will be… the survivor. The one who will carry the stories forward until they can be shared fully with a new generation. You will be needed by others who will benefit from your wisdom, humor, insights borne of long experience. The fates have determined that your place is here…in this world…where you are still needed.

The journey along side the dying of a loved one is dark and painful. But it also has its moments to be cherished. The fleeting glimpse of a smile, a flash of humor, the small gestures that show you are still connected to this loved one. You have been chosen for the honor of being beside them on this journey to the end of this life. You, however, will stay behind, their partner only until the gates of passage open to the other side. Until death do you part.

It sucks. It hurts so badly, the pain is physical, palpable. Breath… breath… You are still alive. And they will always be with you, and waiting on the other side to greet you when your turn comes, naturally, when the fates determine it to be so. In the meantime, treasure each moment with your loved one as a gift. Soon enough, there will be only memories that you will hold onto tightly, then share with others when the right time comes.

I wrote this for a blog I started for Mott Community College’s Center for Teaching & Learning… in case you were interested in student success in community colleges via Professional Development for staff and faculty.

Center for Teaching & Learning, Mott Community College

Ultimately, our success in the CTL is measured by how we support those who make student success possible! Ultimately, our success in Mott Community College’s Center for Teaching & Learning is measured by how we support those who make student success possible!

By Mara Jevera Fulmer, Ed.D., MFA

As Faculty Director for Mott Community College’s Center for Teaching & Learning, I  had a bit of a learning curve  in order to fully embrace the role the CTL has on our campus. So I thought that with this entry in our blog I would share both the general idea of CTLs and how we have utilized this center at our community college.

What IS a CTL?

This is a conversation that usually begins when someone asks me where I work. In Summer 2014, I was offered the opportunity to be reassigned to Mott’s Center for Teaching & Learning on a fulltime basis. Previously, I served as the Program Coordinator for Graphic Design and a fulltime professor for the program…

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Live & Learn

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Gate A-4 By Naomi Shihab Nye:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, shu-bid-uck, habibti? Stani schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be…

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Detail from an artist’s book created for a presentation on my growth through my doctoral studies.

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Well… That’s done! Phew! I have successfully defended my dissertation and can now officially be called Doctor Fulmer. It’s been a long and winding road and I can unequivocally say I am not who I was when I began.

And this is not where I thought I would be when I finished. But here, indeed, is where I am…

Tomorrow will bring a new challenge, something to change the course of my life… Sometimes it’s just a small thing… Or just a word or two. “Do you want to move in with me?”

You never know, really, how your life will shift ever so imperceptibly in a different direction. Not every change is brought on by the seismic shift of death. Sometimes… just sometimes…it is just one small thing you never really believed you would hear or say.

And then it’s over. And you’re sitting there thinking: “hmmm. That’s it. What next?”

In a way, life has been in a simultaneous holding pattern while I finished this doctoral degree, while at the same time rushing forward towards a future that was not entirely in my original plan.

Well, it’s not like I don’t have other things to do… Or want to do. Make art. Write more. Build a house. Move up in my career so I can put my skills to the test.

In a way, life has been in a simultaneous holding pattern while I finished this doctoral degree, while at the same time rushing forward towards a future that was not entirely in my original plan.

Let me explain. For the reader who is unfamiliar with my story, I offer a brief synopsis. Life was good. Really good. Daughter #1 had just gotten married to a wonderful man. Daughter #2 was graduating from university and had two jobs already lined up. I had finished my first year in a doctoral program while working full-time in a job I love. I had been awarded a short-term Fulbright to Russia. My husband of nearly 30 years and I had purchased our dream property where he could have his workshop, family art studios, gallery, and even a future new home. Life was good.

And then it wasn’t. (Read more about it In earlier posts going back to September 2012.) He had lost weight, been fighting a “cold” and feeling weaker. A month of tests led to a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer, unknown primary (likely pancreatic), prognosis extremely poor. From diagnosis to death – less than 3 months. He made it just past his 54th birthday and our 30th anniversary. My life felt like it had completely crumbled.

Promises were made, though. He made me promise: Don’t sell the property, but finish it for the family to use for their studios as planned, and for my own uses. Finish the doctorate. He really wanted me to do that. He was upset that I had dropped out that summer to care for him. But, really, who can concentrate on Quantitative Research Methods while managing the care and emotional roller coaster of dealing with your dying spouse? But…then he was gone and I had to deal with the emotional crater that is grief.

First, I finished the renovations on the gallery house which contained daughter #1’s photo studio upstairs. Then a new fence, and retaining wall went in. The farmhouse is slowly being dismantled and parts saved for salvage. Steven, my companion in all of this, has tirelessly put his heart and soul into the work, along with any college students I can hire to assist.

Most recently, the large 4000 sq. ft. workshop space has been slated for renovations. Stacks of the 71 new windows fill the crowded shop in anticipation of being installed late fall, along with new insulation, siding, and steel roof. The emerging economy has slowed progress as the contractor I have worked with, an old friend of my late husband’s, is backed up from other work. But progress inches along and I have no doubt that it will all be done before Spring.

While all this was happening, I caught up. I finished all of my coursework, including the Quantitative Research course which I did by independent study with the original and very understanding instructor. I did all of this with a 4.0 GPA. At the commencement and hooding ceremony held last May, I was awarded the Faculty’s Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award for my thoughtful approach to the various studies, sometimes challenging my classmates to look at things from a different perspective.

And then, only five months after commencement, I have completed the dissertation defense, receiving high praise for intellectual standards for my work.

The meaning of pursuing these goals had changed. My life’s partner was gone… And my life had been designed for a partner.

I tell you all this not out of boastfulness. I tell you this because it was done in order to honor my promise. For if I had not made that promise, there were many times when it would have been easier to just walk away from it all. The meaning of pursuing these goals had changed. My life’s partner was gone… And my life had been designed for a partner. My new companion, however, was not going to let me give up on those promises.

And so how does one do it? It began with a simple gesture of sharing… Opening up one’s vulnerabilities and accepting that you might get hurt… But that you’d already felt the worst of pain. So what could it hurt if you shared a little of yourself with someone new who seemed to care and shared some vulnerabilities of his own?

It’s been a year and a half since I met Steven and he’s been the kindest and gentlest person that the spirits could have sent across my path at a time when his kind of personality was just what I needed. And since then, I have grown to respect and admire this self-described hillbilly for his creativity, innovation, and practical smarts. He is a good balance to my over-intellectualism. He wears his heart on his sleeve which reminds me to recognize my own capability to love someone again. And frankly, he’s always there with a good hug…just when I need it.

So I come back to where I began this brief story. I finished my doctoral studies. I am now Dr. Fulmer. I began as the wife of a loving husband of 30 years. I survived through my studies as a widow. I am now looking forward to building a new life with a new partner in a new home on the dream property from before.

The shape of the dream has shifted…just a little… I face a new challenge shared by many in the “sandwich generation” who are looking at caring for aging parents…mine who will join me in this new home I’ve designed. And I feel confident that, with Steven as my companion on this new journey, we will be able to meet whatever life’s challenges lay ahead. But I’m not naive. I know that, without warning, the road can shift beneath your feet. And life will never be the same again. You can’t live your life looking only in the rear view mirror as you try and move forward. And you can’t live your life paralyzed by the fear of a shifting road.

All you can do is take this long and winding path of life one step at a time. Look ahead to the dreams you continue to create. Scan side to side to see who is coming with you. And occasionally glance back to remind you how far you’ve come. Only in this way can you live your life moving forward.

Besides, I’m all good with the ghosts of those who still travel these roads with me around here.

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A good omen. Swans are visible through the branches along the pond’s edge as the sun sets behind my property where I’ll be building a new home.

Loving the continuity of the family of artists.

A. Fulmer Artistry

Today I pushed myself to get back on the horse and start printing again. I wanted to play more with my American Tapa screen. Even though it’s not an easy screen to print perfect the imperfections add a certain textural element that I quite enjoy. I don’t think I’d like using it so much for scarves if it did look so perfect.

The good news: I was able to print two scarves with what I like to call an oops color. These scarves require 6 passes and the screens get clogged so these are quite labor intensive.

The bad news: This design was burned into a cheap screen that had been used by freshman at the college, which means it was well loved and couldn’t handle all this love being given to it. I managed to get through these scarves but unfortunately I will have to re-burn the design on…

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It’s been nine months since the last entry. Not that I haven’t had anything to say, far from it. But life has been very full… And frankly, I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to really share with the blog-reading public. So I will simply say that life has been mostly good, with many, many blessings to be grateful for, lessons learned, and dreams experienced.

First… The promises kept.

During the summer 2012 of my husband’s illness, when I dropped my classes for the doctoral program I was in, Keith made me promise him two things. First – that I would finish the doctorate, and second – that I wouldn’t sell the property at Perry Rd and would continue with the renovations to make it the studios and gallery we dreamed of, including a photo studio for older daughter Sarah, and a printmaking studio space for Anastassia.

Last month, on May 9, I participated in the commencement and hooding ceremony for my doctorate with highest honors (4.0 GPA) and was given the faculty’s Distinguished Scholar Practitioner Award. I still have some work left on the dissertation. So I am reluctant to duly embrace this achievement. But finish it I will, with an anticipated completion only months away.

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Above: Me with my award.
Below: My daughters, me, and Steve pose together with our Spider-Man masks on. One can’t take oneself too seriously, you know.


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And last fall, we launched the opening of the photography studio of S.E. Fulmer Photography, followed shortly by the opening of the downstairs gallery. All together, the building is called The Gallery House.

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Above: The Gallery House from last Fall.

This summer, with the incredibly dedicated help of my dear companion of the last 14 months, we are heading fully into the workshop renovations. We are starting with some much needed landscaping – fully fencing the space of about 1.25 acres. Then we’ll add some retaining walls, and finally, the building itself will get a thorough clean up. The workshop must be made ready for use in making the project that follows possible.

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Above: Looking uphill at the workshop which will be the focus of this summer’s renovations at Perry Rd.

New promises…

In late April, I read a book that I recommend to anyone wondering what kind of grief is normal. With apologies to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief are more appropriately applied to those who are dying, not necessarily to the survivors. The book is called “Four Funerals and a Wedding” by Jill Smolowe. She experienced the loss of four dear loved ones, including her husband, within a short period of time. She addresses her own manner of dealing with those who offer help, with the potential concern for being judged, and most importantly, the resilience of recovery from loss. In no way does resiliency mean that one has stopped grieving for their loss. But resiliency means one is able to look forward and build a new life, in spite of their loss.

I was so moved by her book, about her ability to describe many of my own feelings and providing the permission one needs to move on, that I sent her an email message. We exchanged some very kind messages and I felt a kinship to the form of widowhood she has defined, where one is allowed to move onward, even find new relationships. She sent her encouraging best wishes, for both the relationship I now have, and for the completion of my degree. If you, too, are facing the potential loss of a loved one, or already have, this book may be for you. If you know someone who is facing this, and you want some insight into how to help, this book would be for you, too.

Another book I read was “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” by Roz Chast. A comic book artist, she writes and draws from the heart about her experience as the only child of two 90-something parents who she must deal with in their last few years. Her strong-willed mother faces serious health issues after a falling incident, while her father suffers from dementia. The reality, however, is that we just start falling apart the older we get.

This book also dealt with the feelings of guilt and frustration of the caregiver, Roz, who was an only child. Frustration because she couldn’t convince her parents to move out of their apartment until it was a critical situation, and guilt over issues of money… Would they outlive any money they’d saved? And what of the cost of their care and special living needs? The situation described by Chast was made even more real by the sudden decline in her health of my companion’s aging mother.

These issues have crossed my mind regarding my own parents recently, too, though I have been spared some frustrations. Shortly after my doctoral commencement, a road trip to Florida to see my parents led to discussions about a potential future with them living with me in Michigan. The trip included their first introductions to my companion, and my parents seemed to have really taken a liking to him, and he to them. As my brother (who flew in to help with the discussions) and I looked knowingly at each other, my dad regaled Steven with the stories we’d heard many times before. And my mother seemed to enjoy Steven’s chivalrous nature and good humor.

Though much younger than the situation in Roz Chast’s book, my parents are coming to terms with a future that includes being near me as they face their own health and aging issues. Rather than be a 20-hr drive away, we are now planning to build a multi-generational home to share.
So the workshop at Perry Rd will need to have the woodworking side fully functional.

Yes, a new home is in our future. Recognizing the fact that both my parents are artists, too, my daughter Sarah has already dubbed this future abode: “The House of the Aging Artists” complete with dripping paint for the logo style.

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Above: a great white heron, one of Keith’s animus, visits me on Sanibel Island during my visit to my parents last month.

Below: Me…on the beach at Sanibel Island.

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Ah well. I’ve come to the conclusion that we must embrace the life we’re given, go with the flow and be ready for the challenges that life brings. I’ve been through hell and back. Keith is still with me in spirit – I know this for certain. But I’m in this universe and I will be making the most that life offers. It’s the only way I know.

[Apologies, dear reader, for the length of this post. It captures many reflections and milestones from the past few months…]

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Keith walks along the coral shores of Tongatapu, Tonga, an island nation to the east of Fiji, 1993.
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The inauspicious anniversary has now come and gone and with its passage, I feel both a deep sadness and a lifting of a veil. No longer do I look back a year and remember what I was doing, how Keith was suffering on that very same day the year before, or the traumas of his treatment. Now when I look back a year ago, I see how much the earth had quaked, my road had shifted beneath me and my children, his family and close friends. No longer would there be any chance of his voice on the other end of the phone, a person to ask advice or crack a joke. No longer would we be able to imagine a time when he could have recovered.

At this time a year ago we began a long dark road of healing, like going through a dark tunnel where you would not know whether your footing would hold you, where you move forward both numb and carried by the faith of good will in those around you. Once that anniversary passed, September 1st, 2013, the first year anniversary of Keith’s passage to another plane of existence – some call it Heaven, some call it an afterlife, another dimension, another life… but just not one here, on this earth, with us, within reach – I no longer felt compelled to think about what was going on a year ago that day…

For the weeks and months before that anniversary, I was doing just that… thinking back to the almost precise day a year before. What were we going through? What sad decision was being made that day? How were we coping with it all? How was Keith even capable of surviving as long as he did? I reread every word of the diaries I wrote throughout that summer, right up through the day he died. Somehow, though, I’d never written down how those final moments passed. In reflection, a year later I write these words:

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Diary, Sunday, 9/1/13, 3:15 pm

It’s September 1st. Can’t believe it’s September 1st. “I think I just saw Dad take his last breath,” she said a year ago. Stassia had looked up at me in the evening dimness of the darkened bedroom crammed with the hospital bed against the kingsized bed Keith and I had shared. Sarah lay groggily waking from her nap not quite taking it all in. I walked up beside the hospital bed as Stassia kneeled from the bigger bed that hugged against it. I felt his neck, then leaned down over his mouth and nose to see if I could hear him breath. Standing straighter I looked at his chest that no longer moved. Then lifting my eyes to his that were gently closed, his mouth still slightly open from his previously labored breathing, I looked back to Stassia and now Sarah. “Yes, I think you did, sweetheart.” We stayed like that for a few minutes, not quite knowing the next move. Then, finally, we each laid our hands on Keith and said a quiet prayer for him, wishing him safe travels on his journey home… that place beyond our reach but where he would be free from the pain of his disease, the humiliations of sickness and crude attempts to stop its crushing march towards death. He was free of it all now. We were sad, but relieved as well.

I remember all of this now. Even while I cannot believe that a full year, a full 365 days have passed between now and that moment when he left us behind. I remember sending the kids downstairs to tell their Uncle Gino and Aunt Danette who were busy preparing dinner in the kitchen. I had left them just a few moments before, a little while after sending Stassia upstairs, telling her to wake Sarah, that it was time for her to give dad his meds. I remember feeling a tap on the shoulder even while no one was there next to me, and a sudden urge to follow Stassia up the stairs, entering the room only a minute or two after her. I remember the room was mostly dark except for a couple of nightlights and a yellow cast from the small antique stained glass lamp on the vanity.

I remember that after sending the girls downstairs, I picked up my iPad which had been playing music softly while winding through a series of selected family photos I’d put together for Keith to see… in case he had ever opened his eyes those last few days. The music I’d selected was meant to relax him… and us, yet now whenever I hear those songs, I begin to choke up, so many were about the love and caring and commitment to each other that a couple would share. I remember then pulling up the “poem” I’d written the week before, what would eventually become part of his eulogy that Sarah would read at his funeral. In the dimly lit room, I read it aloud to Keith and made some minor adjustments, as if he were directing me from beyond to smooth out a passage here or there. When finished, I laid my hand on his arm and my head on his chest and just lay there breathing… for both of us. It was over. His suffering was over. What lay ahead for me, I knew not what at the time.

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This past summer was a time of many travels, with Keith’s spirit following along nearly every step of the way. As we prepared to travel, a long-awaited package arrived in the mail containing the cremation diamonds Keith had asked for. It was a strange reminder of a stranger request Keith had made and that I had reluctantly fulfilled. Our travels, however, were also preceded by a rather unsettling dream. I wrote about it and then my sudden epiphany of what it meant:

Dream, 7/1/13
First one with Keith in a long while. It seems.

Keith was on the other end of the call and the conversation was as normal and casual as if he were still alive.

Me: hi
Keith: how are you?
M: Good
K: Good to hear. Now, Jess said she couldn’t translate for you. She’s gonna be busy. 13 Hurdles were coming.
M: Yea. I’d heard about that.

As I answered holding the phone to my ear, I stepped from outside to inside of a house, leaning low to pass under a closed window, trim painted white. Maybe it was a Dutch door but with the bottom open.

My alarm went off and the dream ended along with the conversation. I could still hear Keith’s voice in my head. It was good to hear from him again.

Postscript: Today is the 11-month anniversary of Keith’s passing. After the dream, I did a quick online search for “13 Hurdles, grief”. This is what I found:
http://mysonzack.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/hurdle-13-going-home-again/

Appropriate in many ways, even more so because on Wednesday, July 3rd, I’m taking my new friend back to my childhood stomping grounds.

And on July 27, what would have been Keith’s 55th birthday, me and the kids fly back to Fiji to spread some of Keith’s ashes and rejuvenate. Jess is our friend’s wife who own the Beachouse in Fiji where we’ll be staying.

PSS: After falling back to sleep, I re-awakened feeling I knew what the 13th hurdles were. I was supposed to take Keith’s ashes to New York, too. It is about “his” going home, not just me. I think he wanted me to bring him back to Ashdown Road, maybe the pond there where I sat with Sarah in my lap and took a photo of the very large Tri-color Heron that walked by me. But it could also be that I bring him to a lake in the Adirondacks for his friends to help spread his ashes…. hmmmmm…. which way to go….

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Returning home to Upstate New York

Over the July 4th holiday, I went back to upstate New York to visit family and old friends and introduce a new one. We met up with my brother and his family for lunch and then Keith’s best friend Michael was there to take me and my friend on a tour of our childhood memories around the Saratoga region. The first stop, though, was Ashdown Road where I knocked on the door of the first home Keith had ever built for our family. And, after securing permission, Michael and I shared in the act of spreading some of Keith’s ashes on the edges of that same pond Keith had dug, and where the Great Tri-color Heron had visited me when Sarah was born.

The next day, as the light of the sinking sun glittered across the quieting lake waters, I handed my iPhone to my friend to record the event. Larry stopped the boat at a special place on Sagandaga Lake where he said Keith had caught a large carp. I then asked Larry and Jean to join me on the boat’s stern and we each took turns dropping the last of the ashes I’d brought into the clear cool waters of this beautiful Adirondack lake. As we dropped the last of them into the water, we each said a prayer for Keith’s peace in the afterlife, the existence you’ve taken on in that other universe that we know you’re watching us from. The ashes swirled into the shape of a large fish and then just as quickly dispersed.

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The sun’s rays pour through storm clouds onto the receding tides of Fiji at the Beachouse. August 2013.

Back to the South Pacific
A few weeks later, on what would have been Keith’s 55th birthday, my daughters, son-in-law and I began the long journey to Fiji. Unfortunately, a weather delay out of Detroit had a domino effect and we missed our flight in LA that would take us to Fiji. With every hotel within shuttle distance of LAX filled due to the other stranded travelers, we ended up camping in the international terminal for 24 hours until the next flight to Fiji would leave at 11:30 pm Sunday. We finally arrived, due to the international dateline, before dawn on Tuesday, 7/30, Sarah and Mark’s 2nd wedding anniversary. It would take us three days to recover from our travels but there are worse things than being stuck on the beautiful beaches of Fiji, surrounded by friendly faces.

When on my second voyage out to sea to snorkel about the reef at high tide, I found myself in rapture like a small child laughing at the playfulness of joyous discovery at each colorful fish, sea anemone, or seashell I picked up. It went on like this for what seemed like an hour, even once Sarah and Mark joined us, him on the kayak and Sarah in the water snorkeling along with Stassia and myself.

At one point I found myself alone, looking around there was a panoramic view of dozens of different types of colorful fish, from moorish idols to Picasso trigger, from orange and black clownfish to black or blue damsel fish, lemonpeel angelfish skirted in and about the other unnamed colorful players to our dance. Coral heads filled the sandy area with waves of green seaweed, to colorful Christmas tree coral worms as the waves slowly caressed us to the gentle beat of the sea.

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I was transported back to a similar moment in Fiji during a dive with Keith. I remember holding onto the top of a coral bommie, schools of colorful fish moved in an harmonic dance all around me, in sync with the waves that pulsed through and around our bodies. As I remembered this absolutely magical time back then, my chest began to tighten. Keith, are you here? I remember now asking myself this. You could swim this type of natural beauty any time you want now, Keith. But is that why we are here? To remember and remind ourselves of that magical time? Is this how we are to honor you here in Fiji?

I had to fight back to tears that began to choke me. And just as I could no longer hold them back, I heard sounds of joyful outcry through the water and above the surface. Sarah and Stassia were happily playing in their discovery of some new fish, a group of clowns in an anemone, a big puffer fish under some staghorn coral, a colorful nudibranch that was hiding in the shadows… You taught them that, this joy of discovery of the undersea world, to respect it, yet relish it with a whole heart.

I swallowed back the tears that threatened to overtake me. Turning towards the laughing mermaids, our daughters now nearly 24 and 27 years old, I joined them in taking joy of their new discoveries.

One of our last days in Fiji, we made our way into the highlands of Viti Levu in order to kayak on the Navua River with a brief stop at one of the many beautiful waterfalls. Our little band of just four travelers and our Fijian guide were mostly alone as we made our way downstream. The occasional motorized longboat passed us heading upriver, sometimes trying to splash us (if it was filled with locals), sometimes throwing a big wake (if filled with tourists), but always with big shouts of “Bula!” Otherwise our trip was beautifully and blissfully quiet as we passed through the deep jungle canyon, marked by the occasional group of cattle clinging to a flatter area to graze. The rush of the occasional rapids would make our hearts beat faster. But then as we passed into calmer waters, the chatter of bird calls could be heard from deep in the jungle, one I mistakenly took for a dog barking until I’d heard it a few more times down river. Possibly an owl, instead.

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One of the many smaller streams feeding into the upper Navua River.

I knew this was a place for contemplation. So it didn’t surprise me, only pleased me more, to see the occasional heron fly by or sit on a rocky perch on the river’s edge. Keith’s animus, I thought, watching us make our way, being sure we did so safely. “Hi Keith” I would think to myself every time I saw one of these beautiful birds. They only seemed to ever showed themselves one at a time. So it was easy to believe that the white heron, then the white-faced blue heron, then the dark blue heron were all Keith… watching over his family and guiding us safely through our voyage.

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Earlier in our Fiji trip, Andrew, Keith’s best buddy in Fiji, made arrangements for four salusalu to be made. These are Fijian-style flower leis. Traditionally, they would be dropped into the water behind a sailing ship when newly launched. The same practice would be used to send Keith on his journey by putting more of his ashes into the channel when the outgoing tide would take them out to sea at sunset. Sarah, Stassia, Mark and I each poured some of the ashes into the sea followed by a flower salusalu, the sun setting quickly on the horizon as the waves broke loudly on either side of the channel. Andrew held the boat steady and then I asked him to do the final honors for the evening which he did. With all my children present during this time as the boat rocked us on the horizon of the South Pacific seas, the flowers drifting out to sea with his ashes in tow, it seemed so much more meaningful than any other time before or since. The next place we took Keith’s ashes was to Sulua Place in Pacific Harbour, where Keith had built our South Pacific home. Once again securing permission after finding out Sarah’s former teacher was house-sitting OUR old house, we went to the edge of the sea wall and, with a few blossoms of bougainvillea, we dropped the rest of the ashes I’d brought to Fiji into the ocean-fed lake.

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Very early on August 11th, as the plane descended into Detroit, it occurs to me that the act of visiting Fiji again, especially with the kids, and reconnecting with old friends serves a greater purpose. It served to remind me, to reassure me, that my life with Keith – if it were a dream – is one from a shared dreamscape, shared and made real by all those who knew him and remembered his stories. For it makes life – my past life with Keith, and any future we create anew – more than just the dream of songs, those songs that I played on the iPad a year ago, the ones that still bring tears to my eyes now.

Just before dropping through the clouds to the airport below, we saw the last of the streaks from the Perseus meteor shower outside our window, a reminder that all things are connected here between heaven and on earth.

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The last of Summer’s days

Over the next two weeks, with the marking of what would have been our 31st wedding anniversary, and then the looming milestones of when hospice would bring his hospital bed, I faced more emotional swings, especially as news reports celebrated the Blue Moon for the summer season. Keith died on the weekend of a Blue Moon, defined last year as the second full moon in a month, but more accurately was the fourth full moon of a three-month season as was the case this year. As the evening wore on and I settled in for bed, I felt my mood change. Sleep eluded me and my back throbbed angrily from my earlier weeding rampage in both the front and back gardens. I lay there in the dark, thinking back to a year before and what we were facing in Keith’s final days, still not knowing how long he had left.

Eventually, I just couldn’t stand it and decided to read through my diary entries from last summer. I relived each moment described in those pages yet with the fog of time cushioning the sting of pain. By around 2:30 am, my anxieties began to overwhelm me. I wanted to SEE the blue moon. I needed to see it. But the ambient light in my bedroom was too much. I began unplugging powerstrips that had extra lights. I tried to bend my body over the glass table by the window so I could see the moon that hung very tightly to the roofline of the house at that angle. Last year my bed sat under that window and I could just look straight up from my pillow as the light of the moon pressed sharp shadows of tree branches across the bed. But this year my bed sits on another wall and the window hangs over a glass table with books, photos, incense and a candle I’ve burned occasionally for Keith. Eventually, I climbed across the bed and craned my neck. I needed to try and feel the light of the blue moon, even as I cried myself to sleep.

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Dream, 8/30/13

I was on a boat. On this boat, the drawer of my dresser was overfilled and there was a pair of black velvet flats with bows that were getting squished. Music played on the stereo, like my iHome that holds the iPod here.

I was getting dressed but would get interrupted by different people. In one case someone who was dressed in a black chefs jacket says to me that I’d better be nicer to someone, that I shouldn’t be so hard on him. I replied that it was guidance and tough love, that he needed it in order to achieve what he wanted.

I remember others coming in but can’t recall the conversations. Only that I was in the process of dressing.

As I tried to leave the sailboat, the exit was actually a long curved wooden slide, polished smooth and beautifully crafted, like something Keith would have made. I don’t think I went down the slide.

I recall then seeing someone, a man who had crazy curly hair. He smiled gently at me. I turned back towards the dressing room to adjust the music. I found that the remote control was missing. All I could do was change the tune by selecting something different on the iPod. But to turn it off, I would need to do something more drastic like pull the plug. I sat the iPod down after selecting a different song, tried to shut the dresser drawer, but the black velvet shoes were getting crushed.

My analysis:
The curly-haired man was my friend, the person I needed to be nicer to. The slide was a passage towards the spiritual world… to exit would have meant death for me, an exit from this life. The black velvet shoes are the shreds of mourning and grief that swell the corners of my life, beautiful but sad… They need to be made to fit into the package of my past… not left to overwhelm my current life or my future. The music is the music of life. We cannot turn it off without dying (i.e. pulling the plug). We can only change the song.

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And finally, the anniversary

It was September 1st, 2013… The song that Keith and Sarah danced to at his daughter’s wedding to Mark had just come on the iPod playing on my iHome as I wrote in my diary on this first anniversary. My friend was out in the workshop after having mowed the lawn, trimmed the edges, raked the front yard of its leaves. Sarah, Mark and Stassia would later be coming over in anticipation of dinner, and an evening by the bonfire, toasting their dad.

That evening we would burn the masi bow that we’d tied to the front yard tree last year, the day after Keith left us. And we would throw the last of the copal that I’d brought from Mexico, a gift from Tlakaelel back in 2006. My friend was there too, but quietly… out of respect for this family event. It was still so surreal to me… a word I shared with Keith’s sister Barb just the other day, on her birthday – the same as my friend’s. Keith’s father had died in early June, just 9 months after Keith. She shared news of the closing on his house in Phoenix, the estate sale while we were still in Fiji, how quickly it had all happened… yet all in the same year as Keith’s death.

It felt surreal that I sat here writing in my diary 365 days later, a full year of days, and my friend now sits beside me, ready with a warm and unconditional hug. I’ve needed a lot of those lately. It’s been a surreal experience, this last year or more, beginning with … what… Stassia’s graduation and Keith’s still not getting over his “flu” after too many weeks and months? my flying back from Russia after news of “metastatic liver disease”? the nightmare weeks and months that followed, so few that we never felt we had a chance to even begin to catch up to the disease that had raced through his thin ravaged body.

It’s surreal that life went marching on afterwards… surreal that Keith is not here… YOU are not here, Keith. At least not on this side of the spiritual realm. I wish you well, Keith. I know I can feel your spiritual presence… stronger some times than others. I need to keep going on, to empty the drawers of grief, to change the tune on my iPod, and be more open and kinder to the gentle friend who has stepped forward to help me through it all. Only time will tell. Time… heals eventually.

This morning I reread the card that sits by the candle I light occasionally for Keith. “Regard all dharmas as but dreams.”

Life is but a dream…

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