Learning to Dance with a Wooden Leg

“The death of a beloved is an amputation…At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.” 

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

The anniversary of my first solo trip around the sun is fast approaching. Facebook reminds me of the everyday things that were happening last year as we moved, unknowingly, toward the head of the line where together our tickets would be punched, but where we’d board separate flights. How could I have known that that morning I would come home to discover that Dave had left his body…bad knees, painful legs, and bad heart…behind in his favorite chair, coffee still warm in his cup, to journey to an unknown realm without me?

I was still posting photos from our latest adventure. Dave loved life. He lived without an agenda taking each day as it came and finding joy, wonder, and delight all around him. Traveling expanded our world, giving us even more opportunities for pleasure, adventure and amazement. While we were able we went as far as we could, as often as we could, for as long as we could. When his mobility declined to the point that he could no longer join in on walks in the city or short hikes in the National Parks, Dave would happily find a bench and wait patiently for my return. Knowing that he would be waiting gave me confidence and courage to take my limited hiking skills and head out alone on unknown trails.

Suddenly there was no one waiting for my return, no one waiting to see my photos, no one waiting to hear of my escapades, no one waiting with a warm car…no one waiting. I had to decide whether to store my trekking poles or learn to move forward on my own.

Scenes from our last trip…Colorado and Utah, September 2018

One of the greatest challenges of grief and loss is learning not only to live without the one you’ve lost, but learning to live without the person you were when you were with them and learning to live as the person you have now become. I, only half jokingly, wonder if that is why senior citizens are asked whether they’ve fallen recently. With each loss we have to regain our equilibrium without the stability of what once was. With a part of ourselves missing we have to teach ourselves a new way to find our balance.

Stability often eludes me, but I am learning to live my life with that wooden leg that C.S. Lewis talks about. There are times that are really difficult, the nights are especially sucky, and tears still come unbidden, but now and then I hear Dave’s voice encouraging me to find joy, seek adventure, and laugh as often as I can.

Bloody Marys on the Deck
Basalt, Colorado, September 2018

If I have died; and you refuse to live because I am gone, I died two times. But if you take the joy I always had in life, and live it for me in your own, and past on to others then I’ll know that the world will stay a better place for I was here awhile.

Nadine McLaughlin ‘Death Wish’

Years ago…almost two decades now, Dave, my friend, Suzette, and I went out to dinner. It was Suzette’s suggestion to try a new Ethiopian restaurant that had just opened in her neighborhood. Dave and I agreed to give this new cuisine a shot. We all knew we were in trouble when we were met at the door by a waitress who asked, “Would you like a booth or a basket?” Basket? Basket? What the heck did that mean? We opted for the booth. It was pretty much down hill from there. We ordered the Ethiopian Feast for Three. When the meal was brought to our table the chicken portion was represented by a single drumstick. The rest of the meal was also rather scant, but easier to share. On the other hand, none of us liked it at all. Thus, to paraphrase Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall…the food was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it. Life too, can be painful and hard, but most of us still want more. Even with the pain, darkness, and the aloneness of grief, life is still worth the living.

One Afternoon In Maine, October 2019

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Ecclesiastes…and of course The Byrds…remind us that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

About that dancing…Anne Lamott says that the loss of a loved one “is like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly…that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but,” she says,” you learn to dance with the limp.”

A few years ago, as part of our church’s Coming of Age program…think Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation…the youth and their adult guides were exploring the idea of death. One of the facilitators asked the group, “How many of you are grieving the loss of someone or something?” Nearly everyone raised a hand…adults and teens alike. I’m approaching an anniversary, a date on the calendar, but I am surrounded by people…friends, family, and strangers…who are also just putting one foot in front of the other and moving slowly down the same path. We link arms at times to steady those for whom those wooden legs are new and as yet untried, but we all move toward the time when even momentarily we can leave our weeping and mourning to laugh and dance.

I know this anniversary will be difficult. I’m sure there will be weeping, the ugly cry, runny nose and the whole shebang, but I also know that I’m learning to dance. The dance may not be pretty considering the whole balance thing, the limp and wooden leg, but…there is still dancing and laughter. Dave is waiting patiently for me somewhere…but for now I’ll journey on by myself…dancing and laughing whenever I can and recognizing there is still a time to mourn and weep when I can’t.

Following My Own Path
October 2019

Pay Attention. Hurry Up. Slow Down.

No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has to come, think of the present because thats where you are. 

Kazi Shams
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Edited

The recipe called for one half cup of butter, softened. My butter was rock hard, but it was a warm day and the sun would speed this process along, so I put a stick of butter on the railing of the deck. I returned to the recipe and began to chop the nuts and maraschino cherries. I measured out the coconut, chocolate chips and mandarin oranges setting them all aside ready to be added in turn to the mixture. Finally, in another bowl I added the flour, salt, and, oh dear, I was out of baking powder. It would only take me a minute to run to the neighborhood store to buy a new container, so I slipped out of my wear-these-only-around-the-house clothes, washed my hair because it was sticking up all over the place, and headed off to Quality Market. But wait, if I was going out, I might as well take the mail down to the mailbox. I had several items in envelopes ready to go, but one needed to be printed. I got my laptop and opened it to the letter. The printer hasn’t been working properly for awhile, so it was necessary to hand-feed each sheet of paper into the machine. I’m getting rather skilled at this task and it was quickly accomplished. One of the letters needed special attention, so instead of the mailbox I’d stop at the post office on my way to the grocery store. Arriving at the post office I waited as two cars cleared the parking lot, leaving the space closest to the door available. I smiled as I went inside and discovered that there was no one inline ahead of me. How lucky. I ordered my stamps and requested that the last letter be sent via certified mail. I needed to fill out the label which would be affixed to the envelope. As I completed the questions on the attachment another woman approached the counter. She was hard-of-hearing which slowed the exchange somewhat, but the clerk was patient with her and realizing that she was obviously hungry for conversation listened to her tales and added one of her own. I was happy to wait and was moved by the kindness and caring of the clerk. I’m a fan of the postal service. I reached the store without complication and was in and out in no time. I returned home to find the ingredients still on the counter waiting for me. I’d get back to making the bread in a minute, but first I’d hang the sheets on the line. Carrying the wet fabric to the porch I was just about to rest the sheets on the deck rail only to remember…THE BUTTER. It was definitely softened.

Funny How the Package Kept It’s Shape Even Thought the Butter Didn’t
July 2019

I always thought I was fairly good at multitasking. As a mother and elementary school teacher it was a necessary skill, but it’s not one that I have maintained. Maybe no one is ever really good at it. Multitasking is such a misnomer, an illusion. It is impossible to focus on even two projects at once. In actuality we split our attention between them not giving our full consideration or effort to either.

How often have I walked into a room only to discover that I have no clue what prompted me to go there in the first place? I can lose my focus from one room to the next! Who knew that walking and remembering would be taking multi-tasking to the outer limits of my ability? The older I get the less often I’m able to hold two ideas in my head at the same time. My brain is slowing down like an old computer that needs to be taken to the Apple Store and swept for duplicate, unnecessary, and obsolete files. After all, do I really need to have the procedure for threading a reel to reel projector or the lyrics to The Monster Mash still taking up memory.

I’ve also begun to realize that there are two competing and mutually exclusive philosophies at work in my life these days.

Speed up! The clock is ticking!

“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.” 

Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance

Slow down. Smell the flowers.

“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”   

Eddie Cantor

At this end of life, and especially since Dave died, people are constantly telling me to do what I want to do. “This is your time,” they say. But what do I want to do? Yes, the road is wide open and while I hope the end is far off in the distance I know it’s out there and I’m not sure how long the tread is going to last on my tires. Do I hurry and fit in as much as I can or do I relax and simply be? Do I move along the coast collecting lighthouses or do I sit quietly in the sand and contemplate the way the waves lap the shore? I’m still searching for the answer.

Lighthouses on Prince Edward Island, August 2018
Lido Beach, Sarasota, Florida 2016

Back to the melted butter. Do you suppose it was the result of the overstuffed files with their loose bits of minutiae scattered across my hippocampus or was it the result of simultaneously trying to bake, do the laundry, and sing along with the cast of Hamilton? It was probably a combination of the two if the truth be told.

I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing me to “Pay attention. Watch what you’re doing.” It used to be about spilling my milk, but now I think she’s telling me that whatever speed I choose going forward and whether I’m off bagging lighthouses or getting sun on my face and sand in my undies I should be present wherever I am. “Keep adventuring,” I hear her say, “but remember to stop the car at the scenic overlooks, get out, and stand in awe at the wonder of life.”

Hurry up, slow down, and… by all means pay attention to the butter.

Someone Move the Cookies!

“You don’t stop laughing because you grow older. You grow older because you stop laughing.”

Maurice Chevlier

Dave and I both enjoyed playing cards although he played more often than I did. Throughout our married life he played in a weekly poker group. In retirement he added weekly cribbage matches and the occasional pop-up Texas Hold ‘Em extravaganza to the list. Together, we played Spades, Hearts, Do Dirt to Your Neighbor, Ninety Nine, and lots of Euchre. Euchre is very popular in the Midwest where we grew up. If you played cards and you lived in Michigan chances are you played Euchre.

Rank of cards in a game of Euchre

When I decided it was time for me to reach out to friends and add some fun back into my life, playing cards, Euchre in particular, seemed like the perfect way to begin. We’d start a women’s card group. There are lots of expats from Michigan living in central Vermont, so it wasn’t difficult lining up friends who knew the game, were excited by the idea, and willing to play. We’d just need to find a night that worked and get started. That should be easy.

Remember when Friday and Saturday nights were reserved for nighttime fun? In retirement every night is Saturday night. One problem…there’s a twenty year age spread between the four of us so although technically, by the local senior center standards, we’re all senior citizens, half the group is still employed. We’d have to plan around their work schedules. Then of course our calendars are also filled with volunteer commitments, family obligations, and previously planned fun of various kinds, but we eventually found a date that suited us all.

As the hostess, I had certain responsibilities. I had to be sure to clear a path through my house to the kitchen table where we’d play, but these were good friends who wouldn’t mind a little dust and since I’d had workmen in my house the previous week …stripping wallpaper and painting…there was a fair amount of dust to be found. Have you ever noticed that when you dust it just all comes back? I think that’s God’s way of letting us know she wants it there. Who am I to question divine wisdom?

OK, dust or no, I’d concentrate on the snacks. The days of popcorn and soda or pizza and beer appear to be over. I’d have to put some thought into this. I settled on wine…red and white, lemon-ginger ice tea and I had the handy Keurig as backup if someone wanted coffee, but we’d need finger food too. Something easy to hold along with a handful of cards. Between us we had…vegetarian, no dairy, no gluten, no eggs, no soy, and one who was game for anything. Bless her heart. The spread was an interesting combination to be sure including olives, peanuts, carrots, cookies, chocolate of course, hummus, and corn chips. Seemed about right…and besides there was wine.

Finally, we were ready to bring on the cards and get the game underway. Euchre has many variations, so our first order of business was clarifying which rules we would follow and how we’d keep score. The game is played using only the cards from nine and above. That leaves the fives as the perfect counters for score keeping…a talent in itself. The bottom five pips…suit symbols…would count for the first five points. Then the top card would be turned over exposing the final five. We’d just need to remember to actually take our points.

“We use the twos to keep track of trump.” I’d never heard of that, but it sounded like a good idea. When trump was called the two from that suit would be on top of a stack of four. What a clever idea.

“Do you play that the dealer can steal the deal?” Having the deal is a great advantage and you have to be sneaky, quick, and clever to be able to pull it off.

“Of course, ” we agreed. With all that decided, it was time to let the games begin.

Finding the rhythm and refreshing the rules took a bit of time but soon we were all playing like Las Vegas card sharps. As the game progressed it became evident that I was sneaky, clever, and an accomplished deal-stealer, much to the annoyance of the more trusting players. “OK. I have an idea. Let’s put the cookies on the left side of whoever is supposed to be the dealer.” Of course, that plan depends on someone actually moving the cookies.

“Wait. Who called trump? We need a little figurine to put in front of the person who made trump.”

“Nothing compares to the stomach aches you get from laughing too hard with your best friends.”

Unknown

Picture it. We now had glasses of wine, small plates for our snacks, fives for counters, twos for keeping track of trump, and a rotating bowl of cookies as well as the actual cards for each hand all vying for space at the table.

Playing Euchre as senior citizens is more complicated than those games we played in our youth. In addition to remembering whose turn it is, which card was led and how many tricks were needed we also have to flip the trump-tracking-twos, remember who called it, and of course… move the cookies. More of a challenge to be sure, but with an even greater reward…joy. Oh, we all wanted to win, but that wasn’t necessarily our final objective. Levity, laughter, and hilarity were the order of the day…not competition. We just wanted to have fun! Our laughter was unrestrained, genuine and bountiful. My tummy hurt and my cheeks ached by the end of the evening, but my spirits were lifted and I felt lighter than I had in quite awhile.

Anne Lamott says that “laughter is carbonated holiness”. That seems like the perfect definition to me. I am so blessed to walk my path in the sacred effervescence of laughter. We’re playing again next month. I have the perfect figurine to help us keep track of who called trump. Her name is Remembrance.

Her name is Remembrance
A gift from Kathy, 2019