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Posts Tagged ‘writing through grief’

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Island Lake, Cromwell, Minnesota, iPhone Shots, October 16th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


We are out of the sauna followed by a dip in Island Lake. It’s the evening before we leave to travel home. We sit in black easy chairs in front of wall-length windows writing and working on photograph archives. Over the week we saw six pair of trumpeter swans, three common mergansers, one pair of eagles, and at least ten loons. A mature eagle just swooped down and flew in front of the window, then glided on through the birch.

“She’s here,” Liz said, looking my way. Our eyes lock. I feel my heart swell and break open in tears. We came to make space for grief, for the passing of Liz’s mom in September. Sadness is the other side of the joy I feel being here: walking in the autumn air, sitting on the dock listening to the cries of the loons, eavesdropping on a family of Canadian geese with Nikon binoculars. The goslings stay with the parents (who mate for life) for at least a year. Blood pressure is down, pores are clear, my heart beats low, even and steady.

We stopped to meditate on the one and a half mile walk around Loon Lake in Savannah Portage State Park. If I hadn’t portaged on canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and sank up to my knees in mud, I might not know what it’s like to carry a Duluth pack on my back, a canoe over my shoulders.

The Savannah Portage is part of history, a long, wet walk from Lake Superior near Duluth to an eastern bend in the Mississippi River just west of Big Sandy. Liz and I like to travel to places we haven’t been before. We are only a few hours from the Twin Cities; we had the lake all to ourselves. The reds and oranges of the maples are past peak, but the yellows of the birch and poplar are popping. Yellow. Soothing, bright, clear.

I am grateful for downtime. My gratitude list grew tenfold over the week. I know it’s a luxury to be able to take time off to grieve. After a loved one dies, the work-a-day world continues to churn. Mother Nature has given us solace. A place to sit on a glacial lake facing West, the direction of later life, the domain of sunsets, and oceans, and the sit bones of mountains.

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Cody, Wyoming, iPhone Shots, May 13th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

View from Marylin’s, Cody, Wyoming, iPhone Shots, May 13th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


It was a month ago to the hour when my mother-in-law died. Liz was on her way back from a business trip in Tulsa, Oklahoma when her sister called. I was sitting by Lake Como in St. Paul, Minnesota about to eat my lunch when the phone rang. The Dallas airport echoed in the background; Liz’s voice was brisk but heavy. “Mom just passed away,” she said. “She went peacefully.”

Marylin had requested a bath the night before. Tracy, Liz’s sister and her mother’s caregiver, had gotten up, given her mother a bath, and was combing her hair when she stopped breathing. I could picture this because when Liz and I were in Cody, Wyoming in May, Liz brushed Marylin’s hair as she sat in her favorite chair by the window with a clear view of the bird feeders. When Liz was finished, Marylin gently closed her eyes, smiled, and seemed in total peace after a night of tumultuous dreams.

I miss my my mother-in-law; grief takes many forms. Marylin was like a second mother to me. She championed my writing like my own mother, Amelia, who supported my creative life even when it twisted, turned, and spiraled up and down. Marylin and Amelia never met, but felt a love and kinship to each other. They were there for Liz and I through courtship, dating, and marriage. They saw only our love for each other and the compatibility of our lives together; there was never any doubt. I will always be grateful for that.

A few weeks ago, Liz and I watched the documentary on writer Joan Didion, “The Center Will Not Hold” by her nephew Griffin Dunne. When the film ended we sat in silence and wept. Dunne uses intimate archival footage, photographs and on-camera interviews to document the span of Joan Didion’s life. Having lost her husband and daughter within the span of two years, Joan knows grief; it gnaws at her bones.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

-Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

After Liz called on September 5th, 2019, I could not finish my lunch. I sat in a Chevrolet Silverado staring at the lake, wondering at the breadth of Marylin’s spirit as it lifted skyward. The day was cloudy, the wind erratic and scattered. Summer was letting go.



Summer’s End, September 5th, 2019, iPhone Video, Rain Garden, Lake Como, St. Paul, Minnesota, video © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Rest In Peace, Marylin. I miss the way you smiled and called me your daughter-in-love. I miss the depth of our conversations around writing, haiku, and politics. I miss the way you held Liz and me in your heart in a bubble of love. I miss your love of theater, your writing and your contributions to redRavine. I miss your optimism and the way you gave back to your community and the world around you. I know you are with your father, maybe running by the Pacific Ocean with Queenie, wild and free. I am a better person for having known and loved you. We will meet again.

-written October 5th, 2019 between 10:45 and 11:30 a.m. CST. Everything is in Divine and perfect order right now.

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Poem For My Father (the way love bends), Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2015, © 2015 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I found out about my father’s death from reading an obit. He died on Halloween. I wrote three poems on a Royal typewriter. I had not seen him in years; he never responded to my letter. It is a lesson in letting go. It is a lesson in blood ties, and ties through love. It is a lesson in the nature of human grief, something we may feel for that which was never ours.


My Father As A Boy, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2015, © 2015 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


-posted on redRavine, Sunday, January 11, 2015

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Walking The Bluff, last Midwest Writing Retreat, Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve, Grafton, Wisconsin, March 2013, photo © 2013 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Writing friends are hard to come by. Friends who are good practitioners of writing, even harder. The last time I saw Bob was at the Milwaukee airport in March 2013. He smiled and gave me a hug, then we walked to separate gates after five days of Sit, Walk, Write with Jude and Teri. We met many years ago at a Natalie Goldberg writing retreat in Taos, New Mexico. The Midwest Writing Group we formed has continued to meet every year since to practice writing. To honor silence.

For me, Bob was one of the pillars of our writing group. He held the space, led the slow walking, kept time when we wrote, engaged in lively discussions at the dinners he prepared. He was an excellent cook. I will never forget his laugh. Bob contributed work to red Ravine and continued to post practices with me after others fell away. I could count on him. Today, Sunday, August 4th, 2013 at 3:30pm, a memorial service for Robert Tyler Chrisman will be held at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 4501 Walnut St., Kansas City, Missouri.

Bob Chrisman, born Robert Tyler Chrisman on May 3, 1952 in St. Joseph, Missouri, passed away peacefully Friday, July 12, 2013, at Kansas City Hospice following a massive stroke. He was surrounded by family and friends who sang to him until his final breath. When I was reading back through Bob’s writing on red Ravine, I realized we had done a Writing Practice together in 2011 on Death & Dying. I find comfort in his words:


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Why all this focus on death at a time of year when the world screams with life and beauty? Why must death occur during these spring months when the earth bursts forth in new life and beautiful shades of yellow-green, when flowers of all colors open and scent the air, and when we can say, “Winter is gone for at least seven months”? Why?

Maybe all this life and beauty replaces the darkness and depression of the winter and I want no more of it. Give me life in all of its forms and beauty. I suffer enough during the winter and I’m over it, but I’m not, it seems.

I notice the beauty and revel in it because I know the bleakness of winter. Joy returns to my life because I know that the good times may not last forever. The friends I carry in my heart as the treasures of a lifetime will die. I must rejoice in their being while they are with me and not put that off for a change in the season or the approach of death.

How is it that the richness of life requires us to know the poverty of despairing times? Does it work like salt on cantaloup or watermelon? The saltiness makes the sweetness that much sweeter as death makes life more precious.

If I could stop death and dying, would I? No, I would let things happen as they must. I might even bring death to those I love earlier if they desired it, but that’s not my place in life. Sitting next to the bedside of a friend who’s dying makes me aware of the value of the time we had together and what a loss their death will be. If they must die (and they must), I can spend the final days and hours with them and carry them and those times in my heart until I pass from this earth.


-Bob Chrisman, excerpt from a 2011 Writing Practice on the WRITING TOPIC — DEATH & DYING.

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GATE GATE PARAGATE
PARASAMGATE
BODHI SVAHA

Gone, gone, gone beyond
Gone completely beyond
Praise to awakening


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, August 4th, 2013. I miss you, friend. And I carry you in my heart until I pass from this earth. I believe..

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By Elizabeth Statmore


Sunday morning, my second without Fromage. All I’ve wanted to do all week was look at profiles of rescue dogs. During standardized testing I searched Petfinder and Craigslist, reading about different available dogs and looking into their eyes. There are so many dogs who need homes, and the hole in my heart feels so huge.

But we need to get a hypoallergenic dog this time. It was a lucky miracle that David was not allergic to Fromage. So I started searching breed rescues, looking for Goldendoodles and Labradoodles who needed rescuing.

There aren’t that many breed rescue groups for doodles, in spite of the fact that they are one of the most popular breeds around these days. That means so many dogs who get given up for being too big, too active, etc. People give dogs up for the weirdest reasons. They get bored with the dog or they’re moving, so they say they have to give up the dog. They wouldn’t give up their children if they were moving, I think, but I can’t be sure.

So I started looking up Labradoodle breeders to inquire after adult dogs who might need re-homing or rescue. And I came upon Golden Gate Labradoodles just south of here, so I e-mailed Kristin the owner/breeder, to ask about rescues.

And she told me the most wonderful news I have heard all week.

They rarely get returns, since they breed first and foremost for temperament and they screen adopters carefully. But they do have a Guardian Program for their breeding dogs, and there’s one adult male they’ve recently added to their program whom they adore but who really deserves to have his own guardian family and home.

His name is Topper.

Topper was also the name of my very first pet — a dime store turtle from Kresge’s. I loved that turtle. I cared for him endlessly, fed him and petted him and made adventures for him in his little dime store turtle bowl with the red diving board and the green plastic palm tree on the central island oasis. I remember all of this vividly because he was the most interactive pet I had until we got our Schnauzer Cappy.

My eyes bugged out when I read that. I did a double-take.


Kristin forwarded me the information on their guardian program as well as some information about Topper as a family dog. It’s basically a foster-to-own program, in which the dog lives with you in your home as your pet, and a few times a year he has a breeding “gig,” for which you drive him either to the breeder or to the specialized repro vet. For male dogs, this is a pretty minor affair, dog sex being what it is — which is to say, quick and dirty (or in the case of the repro vet, very sanitary). When the dog’s breeding career comes to an end in a few years (probably four or five), ownership gets transferred, he gets neutered, and he lives with you as your forever dog.

They have come to love him dearly but their home pack consists of a number of already-estabished dogs in their program, and Kristin feels like it’s not fair to Topper, who deserves to be the center of attention in a family — the most-loved dog in his pack. So she’s been looking for the right family of owner-guardians to match him with.

She forwarded a link to his profile on their web site and my heart bloomed open. He could not be more different from Fromage — fluffy, non-shedding, mellow, confident, laid back. He’s the color of cafe au lait — referred to in Australian Labradoodle parlance as “cafe,” a diluted coffee color, almost taupe, with a non-shedding coat but the same eager, loving chocolate eyes I am looking for.

Kristin said the best way to ask more questions about Topper and/or the guardian program would be to call her. She gave me her cell phone number and said she hoped to talk to me soon.

I called her yesterday afternoon.

We talked for two hours.

In my original inquiry message, I explained that we had recently lost our beloved 15 ½ year old dog, Fromage. I included David’s collage of photos and told her my story of how I’d rescued him and how we had loved him.

She received this message on May 18th, 2012 — Topper’s second birthday.


On the phone we talked about everything — training and dog-loving philosophy, Topper’s and Fromage’s personalities, and our home set-up.

She and I bonded deeply. We love our dogs in very similar and compatible ways.

I told her it was clear to me that Fromage had held on as long as he could to take care of us, but that he just couldn’t do it any more. But I told her that I knew in my bones — and in my feet — that he wants us to adopt another dog who can take care of us. He needs a new dog to take over the work of rescuing us. It took him thirteen and a half years to raise us, and he doesn’t want all that good work to go to waste.

All of this clearly resonated with her. She wants to move toward the next step as much as I do.

I told David about it and he is open to it. Since I’m the primary caregiver, he is looking to me to lead. And since I am the crazy one, he is looking for me to set the pace.

I will probably go over and meet Topper after school one day this week. They don’t live far from my school. We talked about my timing, with graduation and summer coming, and having that be the best time for me to integrate a new dog into our household.

We would give a deposit that would be refunded gradually over time as certain milestones get met. Then once his breeding career is finished, in maybe five or so years, the last portion of that deposit would go towards his neutering fee and he’d be transferred over to us for forever.

This feels like a miracle.


Topper & Elizabeth, Home At Last, San Francisco, California, June 2012, photo © 2012 by David Bassin. All rights reserved.


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About Elizabeth: Elizabeth Statmore is a San Francisco-based writer and teacher of writing and mathematics. She is a long-time practitioner and teacher of Writing Practice, which she learned from Natalie Goldberg. A frequent contributor to KQED-FM, Elizabeth’s last posts for red Ravine include Seed Starting, a piece about writers as gardeners, and Writing The “Remembering Grace Paley” Piece — a step-by-step tutorial on how she turned a raw piece of writing into a finished radio commentary. Elizabeth was also one of our first guest writers, contributing the post Abandoned Is… Fromage was her dog and spirit guide of almost fourteen years.

Healing is Part III in a series of three Writing Practices about the love and loss of Fromage. Parts I and II are Long and The Gifts Of Trash Night.

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By Elizabeth Statmore


I wanted to find that Anne Lamott essay on their dog’s dying, but it’s in another book and I don’t have time to find it right now.

This is the first work day without Fromage, and I can already tell there are going to be a lot of awful firsts like this — first Trash Night without him, for example. Trash Night was Fromage’s favorite holiday. Lucky for him, it came every week. Tuesday nights, after dinner, we would bring the trash and recycling and composting down the front stairs and haul the wheeled cans to the curb — black for rubbish, blue for recycling, green for compostables.

David would wind him up as I started gathering the bags in the kitchen. “Trash Night!” he would exclaim to Fromage. “Trash Night!” And Fromage would start to dance around the room excitedly, wagging his tail hard and barking.

“Trash Night! Trash Night!”

Bark! Bark! Bark!

Being descended from a long line of working dogs and shepherds, he would herd me with our bags toward the front door, barking as if to yell, “Hurry up! It’s Trash Night, dammit!”

As far as he was concerned, the best nights were the ones when we needed to make the trip to the sidewalk more than once. He would dash up the stairs and bark down at me, urging me on. While I dealt with the carts and the bags, he would amble over to lift his leg and pee on a nearby sidewalk tree. it was his holiday — and now he is going to miss it forever more as we are going to miss him.

This hole in my heart feels bottomless, and it makes me wonder if I will ever feel whole again. I miss him with an ache and an urgency I can’t describe with words. This is my life now.

***
8:00 p.m. insight — Fromage does not want us to be lonely. He wants us to adopt another dog who can watch over us.

He loves us and doesn’t want us to be lonely.

He stayed as long as he could, but he just couldn’t do his job of taking care of us any more and he had to go. He’d dragged himself through sickness and dying, and it was time for him to leave us.

But he doesn’t want us to be lonely for too long.

He loves us and wishes us the best. It’s not a betrayal of him for us to love a new dog.


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About Elizabeth: Elizabeth Statmore is a San Francisco-based writer and teacher of writing and mathematics. She is a long-time practitioner and teacher of Writing Practice, which she learned from Natalie Goldberg. A frequent contributor to KQED-FM, Elizabeth’s last posts for red Ravine include Seed Starting, a piece about writers as gardeners, and Writing The “Remembering Grace Paley” Piece — a step-by-step tutorial on how she turned a raw piece of writing into a finished radio commentary. Elizabeth was also one of our first guest writers, contributing the post Abandoned Is… Fromage was her dog and spirit guide of almost fourteen years.

The Gifts Of Trash Night is Part II in a series of three Writing Practices about the love and loss of Fromage. Part I is titled Long.

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By Elizabeth Statmore


Fromage died on Saturday, May 12th 2012 at 11:30 p.m. at All Animals Emergency Hospital, surrounded by us and our love. He was dehydrated and disoriented, with a temperature of 105.6. Normal temperature for dogs is 101-ish, with 102 being in the high fever range. So Fromage had a raging fever, probably from a combination of a brain tumor (or nervous system tumor) and end-stage kidney disease.

We knew it was serious when he couldn’t do anything with a Beggin’ Strip — his favorite treat in the universe. And I’d dreamed Wednesday morning that he died. I knew it was a precognitive dream, but I didn’t know how or when the end would happen.

He did his utmost to stay alive for me — to support me and love me through this disorienting chapter of my life. He showed the same heroic courage and love he had shown us all his life. He was an impeccable warrior to the end, but in the end it was time to let him go.

It was the night before Mother’s Day.

It’s the little things that really punch me in the gut — the moments that interrupt my conditioned habits, such as automatically tucking the newspaper bags into the plastic bag collection next to the front door, only to realize that I don’t have a need to save dog poop bags any more.

I put his sterling silver tag on a chain and started wearing it around my neck last night as I went to bed.

He was the only being who has ever called me his mother. On our first Mother’s Day he bought me a pair of dog socks.

He was the dog of my life.

He was the dog of my heart.

I somehow left my favorite fountain pen at school on Friday, but I was too stressed-out and worried yesterday to deal with it. But this morning, all I wanted to do was write, so I drove down to school and back to retrieve it.

When we got to All Animals, Fromage had a fever of 105.6. This was a raging brain fever. He couldn’t even walk down our front stairs. I carried him in my arms down the thirteen front steps — all 60+ pounds of him. David carried him into the car. He was dehydrated and disoriented and scared. He was dying.

I held him in the back seat while David drove. He lay quietly on the back seat, watching where we were going.

He had kept himself alive so he could support me. And now I knew it was my turn to support him by letting him go and by easing his passage into the next world, into his next life.

Fred always said that Fromage was my spirit guide.

Now my heart just aches. David’s too. Fromage loved David so much, even though David felt hurt that Fromage was always so freaked out and demented these last few years. David hugged him and loved him too, even though there was so much dog hair. By last night, no one cared.

I can’t put away his old beds or mats yet. I am still processing the fact that he is gone. There is a giant Fromage-shaped hole in my heart — one with one stand-up ear and one flappy ear. The stand-up ear is his right one. It has a bite taken out of the tip. My lips and fingers know the shape of that missing spot instinctively. Completely. Like a fingerprint.

He’d been staying alive to get me through this tough time. On Wednesday night I got the word that my layoff notice had been rescinded. He went downhill fast from there.

I loved that dog so much.

He loved me more purely and wholeheartedly than I had ever been loved before. It was a healing kind of love. He healed me. He made me whole.

When Crystal and I saw Mary Oliver the first time at the Herbst a few years ago, Mary had recently lost her longtime partner, Molly Malone Cook, and had been writing about it for some time. A woman in the audience asked how she’d gotten through the devastating loss. “Well,” she said, first you go a little crazy. You go nuts for a while.” That thought comforts me now. I am going to have to go a little nuts for a while while I grieve.

The loss feels cavernous.

It’s also tinged with fear and shame that I might not be experiencing appropriate gratitude for the gift of his life. I *do* feel a bottomless gratitude for his life. It’s just that right now, this is the part where I have to take in and let out the hurting — the loss and the groundlessness of impermanence.

In legal terms, I rescued him, but the emotional truth is that he is the one who rescued me.

He was a magical dog, a magical creature. In mythical terms, he was my magical helper-being.

“A dog lives fifteen years, if you’re lucky,” Mary Oliver writes in one of her dog poems. In so many, many ways I’ve been very, very lucky. Fromage was in good health and good spirits until this very last week. He enjoyed long walks and Trash Night and giving David five and ten and eating Beggin’ Strips until the very last day of his life. He watched for my return through the glass in the front door every single day of our life together.

As we left the hospital room after it was over, I kissed him behind his flappy ear — where, even in death, he still smelled like a puppy — and I whispered to him, “Okay, Puppity, guard the house.”

Then we left the treatment room and closed the door behind us.

I did not look back.


Fromage at the Dog Garden, Dog Garden, San Francisco, California, April 2004, photo © 2004 by Carlos Hillson. All rights reserved.


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About Elizabeth: Elizabeth Statmore is a San Francisco-based writer and teacher of writing and mathematics. She is a long-time practitioner and teacher of Writing Practice, which she learned from Natalie Goldberg. A frequent contributor to KQED-FM, Elizabeth’s last posts for red Ravine include Seed Starting, a piece about writers as gardeners, and Writing The “Remembering Grace Paley” Piece — a step-by-step tutorial on how she turned a raw piece of writing into a finished radio commentary. Elizabeth was also one of our first guest writers, contributing the post Abandoned Is… Fromage was her dog and spirit guide of almost fourteen years.

Long is Part I in a series of three Writing Practices about the love and loss of Fromage.

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