Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Weekend of Thinking Deep Thoughts

If you're dropping by for a lighthearted post today, you'd best be moving on. It has been a weekend of putting the puzzle of life together during this journey through grief. I'm hoping at least some of the borders and corner pieces are in place. 

I think I've mentioned a time or fifty that I'm in a GriefShare class on Thursday evenings. I took it last semester, and in going through the workbook again I have found something interesting: I think I'm making progress. My answer last September to the question"What is the most difficult thing you are going through right now?" was "I feel like going on with my life is like leaving Dave behind." I will have to say that I've worked through that, partly by realizing his life stays with me in my heart. I've even slowly come to the decision that I would be OK to sell the house and downsize in the future. You have no idea how much progress just thinking about leaving this house is. 

I scheduled a meeting Saturday morning with a worker who was going to give me bids for some projects that need to be done around the house. Loyal Brother-in-law was coming over, too, to help me through this process.

Before they came I was having my quiet time and thinking about Proverbs 29:18 that says, "The people without a vision perish. (They are unrestrained; they wander around.)" I was praying to become more purposeful in some of my decisions and directions. I decided to look the same verse up in The Message: "If people can't see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves. But when they attend to what He reveals, they are most blessed." (Italics mine.) There was this strong realization that I can look at all the changes ahead of me as a good thing: as a new beginning. That I could fix the house up to sell it, and move to a home that is a more manageable size for one. 

Definition of a nano second? The time it took me to well up with the exciting possibilities of change, and then crash into the Ugly Cry with the reality of moving. Drat. Two Excedrin and a morning nap later, I was ready to meet with the Change Crew. The meeting went very well, and was full of plans for getting the home ready to put on the market. That will be somewhere down the road when my emotional temperature become more normal.

Still thinking on this today, I crept into the back row of a church where no one knows me, and I can cry anonymously if needed. And the Pastor's first words? "'Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide...' so begins Lowell's great poem. You can start a new life today just by making wise choices. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. When the needs are great, you must make a CLEAR choice." He may as well have dismissed all the other congregants and walked back to my row; the sermon was clearly  just for me. Let the others get to the restaurants early for good seats at lunch.

Moving on. Moving ahead. I know that part of what holds me back is that the last months of Dave's life keep playing through my mind, and I become full of "coulda, woulda, shoulda." I KNOW that I have a choice to remember the good instead, but I can't seem to unstick the pause button in my memory. 

So, tonight I just sat in front of the fire and thought through the time I knew Dave. From when we met, got engaged and married, and all the good times to the end.  And then I did something that surprised even me: I decided to watch the DVD of the funeral. I've had it laying on the coffee table for quite some time. I pick it up and put it down regularly, and often wonder how I'll know when the right time to watch it will be. Well, that would be: tonight.

And I was surprised by joy. 

I'd forgotten how precious the service was. It was filled with love and laughter and happy memories. I even spoke at it, and my DVD'd self was reminding me that we'd been very purposeful with the terminal diagnosis. We'd spent good time together, and called the family in on what would be (unbeknownst to us) Dave's last weekend. My screen self told the story of how we'd prayed daily that "everything that needed to be said would be said, and everything that needed to be done would be done." That we believed that "abundant life" was for now, and not for some day. That Dave and I had watched a DVD that was a montage of pictures of his life, and when it was over he turned to me and said, "We had a very good life, didn't we?"

Yes, we did.  And here is to believing that someday, hopefully soon, I will only remember the good times and not the terminal last days. "Pain may endure through the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning."

Looking for a  new day to dawn.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Please Back Away From the Emergency Alarm

One thing I have learned about teaching is that you have to keep the waters calm. Any new addition to the classroom, or change in the routine, can throw the balance completely off in the Kingdom of First Grade.

This can happen with small things, like when I change a sentence strip chart to include a new poem. (Mayhem and foolishness ensue.) It also happens when I display big new things like a 3-foot snowman Loyal Sister snagged me at a Hobby Lobby after-Christmas /90% off sale years ago. (Most children seem to have a small series of strokes due to the EXCITEMENT! of CHANGE! A few  go positively catatonic.) (And, PS: Whose fault is it for putting out that snowman every year-- and actually plugging it in so it can wave at the students as they enter the classroom? I raise my hand and say, "Guilty.")

Yesterday, I accidentally veered off the path of Strict Routine. I usually drink my necessary-to-teaching-six-year-olds coffee out of a blue insulated mug. It is very much a part of our morning meeting time, as I admire all manner of show and tell items. And consume mass quantities of caffeine with a smile on my face.

 That day, I left home with a pink coffee tumbler given to me by a special friend. As I was sipping from it in the classroom, I kept seeing all these unusually wide-eyed students staring at me. There was also a lot of whispering buzzing through the room. Most days, they are not shy about blurting out anything that crosses their consciousness. This day they seemed bug-eyed with a shared dilemma. But no one was talking.

Finally, the bravest of the litter raised his hand. "Mrs. O'Brien, why do you keep licking that flashlight?"

I examined my pretty-in-pink coffee container, and realized it did indeed resemble a flashlight. And 19 sets of eyes were glued on me to see if I had lost my mind. And to determine what the consequences might be for them. A flashlight licking teacher might mean more work and less recess. Or worse. (Viola Swamp for a substitute comes to mind.)

There was an audible sigh of relief as I showed them the hidden button which opened a spout on top. The opening  released hazelnut caffeine happiness into my mouth. I was touched that they were guardedly concerned about my mental health. Or their workload and personal comfort.

Off to find my laser pen. An old Seinfeld episode reminds me of some fun things I could do with it on Monday morning.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Goodbye, Farewell Auf Weider Zane, Adieu

Married Daughter and her sweet husband are moving even farther north on Friday. To Pennsylvania. An entire time zone away from Texas.  But we will continue to connect as often as possible. Because that's what families do.

I'm so proud of their willingness to embrace this move with enthusiasm, and to look for the blessings ahead. 

Sometimes, you can't improve on what was already said by someone else. So, you quote them. Or in this Bloggy world, you link to them.

Here's Married Daughter's blog post on The Move. You can read it by clicking here.

God speed, young couple. God speed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Solo Trip

Baby steps, baby steps. But sometimes, there are giant steps forward.

On Friday, I was only at school for half a day in the morning. My darling first graders were performing at our all-school assembly to advertise our school's Read-a-thon associated with Reading is Fundamental. We wrote some cute songs and poems you can see here, and performed them to a full house. The crowd went wild, and the teacher left after lunch for a solo trip to Houston.

My first stop was to see a very special friend. A lifetime ago, my children and I ended up living in the Family Cottage Program of the Texas Baptist Children's Home, when their dad suddenly left. This is a program that helps out mothers and their children during stressful circumstances, and gives them the gift of time as they figure out the new Plan B for their lives. We lived there for 18 months, and have stayed very connected with this program. When D passed away, we asked that donations be made to this wonderful organization in his honor. My friend, Debbie, who was the director, has now moved to Houston to begin a similar program there. The vision is for 4 different campuses on each side of Houston. I was able to tour the homes and meet many of the mothers and their children. I know that this program is a godsend to each one of them. Several of the mothers are using this respite time to finish a degree or to get a head start on saving for a new home or car. The campuses housing these families are just amazing and you can read about them here. The tour of homes was finished off by a dinner at Pappadeaux's and a lengthy catch-up conversation. What a perfect visit!

The next morning, I headed into downtown Houston to meet  a special new friend. This summer, I began receiving the most precious comments from a reader of this blog after D died. Lynn had also lost a husband, and she was far enough down the road to healing to reach her hand out to help me. We began emailing, and I cannot begin to tell you the blessing she has been to me on my journey through grief. 

WELL, she had flown in from her home in Canada to attend a Beth Moore Conference, and I met her at her hotel when it was over. We had a wonderful lunch and visit, and she continued to fill my heart and soul with her wisdom and kindness. I listened very carefully, because I knew in my spirit that there was something very helpful I was going to take away from our meeting.

She began to talk about a few moves she had made in faith after her husband passed away; she just knew she was supposed to move. And then she repeated something that Beth Moore had said earlier that morning, "Sometimes in life, you just have to step out. Do what sounds good to you. Go where your joy and your heart are."

That may sound very obvious to you, but you are probably... how do you say it? A normal person. I, on the other hand, feel as if I fight through fog all day long. Those words seemed to light up my spirit. It began dawning on me that I could have a new life down the road. A good life. A happy life. 

We finished our lunch with hugs and promises to stay in touch. (You can read her blog here.) (I am just all about links today...) Anyway, I kept thinking about what she said the entire ride home. (Except for that little stop in Brenham where I bought Blue Bell Ice Cream...)

The short version of my epiphany? I realized I can leave my home for a more reasonably-sized house in the future.  Downsizing and change started sounding good to me. A home with a smaller yard and square footage to take care of could be  a good thing. A very good thing. Are you as surprised as I am that change can be in my future?

But wait: there's more. A member of my grief class asked me to come to her church Sunday morning, and I did. It was easier to be an anonymous face in a crowd, and attending was so much easier then it has been. (And the church is in the town that serves those amazing gingerbread pancakes I've mentioned a time or twenty.) (And, yes, I did have one.) 

A great Sunday afternoon nap, followed by a visit from a friend bearing tortilla soup. 

All in all? A perfect weekend. Three days full of fun. Fellowship. And future plans. 

Because the future is becoming a little clearer each day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Spa Day

In the craziness that is a first grade classroom in December, one of my students came rushing in one morning. "Mrs. O!" she all but shouted, "What do you want for Christmas?" At that moment, for some curious reason, my mind turned to rest and relaxation. "A massage", I answered without a second thought. "What do you want?" I asked the student.

She apparently wasn't really interested in chit chat; turns out she was a "mole" for the parent gift selection committee. She reported my answer to the parents, and I found myself the proud owner of a gift certificate to a spa when the last day of school rolled around before the Christmas holidays began. WOW! I think I gave my elementary teachers candy or bubble bath. These parents are amazing.

Today was a school holiday, and a perfect time to redeem the coveted gift. I was led into a quiet room for a massage, and began hearing a rat-a-tat-tat noise. Appears they were roofing the buildings the spa was housed in. But as I got still, I could also hear the piped in classical music, with achingly beautiful violins that fill my soul every time. I realized that if I focused on the soothing music, I no longer even noticed the roofers.

Life can be like that sometimes. You can choose what you want to tune into, and with a little concentration can tune out the static of the world. Nerd that I am, I was laying there thinking about an Amy Grant song of the 1980s, with these lyrics:

"Deep within you there's a spiritual battle
There's a voice of the darkness and a voice of the light
And just by listening you've made a decision
Because the voice you hear is going to win the fight..."

So, along with my massage, I also got a message. (Clever, that Scrabble-like letter mixing, no?) I have a choice to choose what I dwell on in my thoughts. I have a choice in the way that I view the continual slideshow of memories that filter through my consciousness. Remember the impatience I showed toward D his last day at home before our drive to the hospice hospital, or remember the precious way the entire family was gathered together within 24 hours? I choose the "voice of the light". (Oh, Amy, though I don't understand the path your life has taken, your songs continue to speak to my spirit.)

That decision made, I got to test it out as I floated home from the spa treatment. I stopped at a locally owned sandwich shop that D and I used to love to visit. We'd get the salmon, cream cheese and capers panini with olive pesto. I hadn't been there for six months. I went up to the counter to see my favorite selection covered with white tape; apparently no longer a choice. "What happened to the salmon panini?" I asked. "Well, for the past several months the popularity of that selection has really gone down," the worker informed me.

Choice time: Am I sad because it is gone? Or am I happy because I realize that the two salmon paninis we ate each week on Saturday (D was such a creature of habit) made a difference in the store's selection?

I'm choosing the fingerprint D left on the sandwich shop.

I'm also choosing to remember that we loved to see musicals, indie movies and eat Sunday brunches; and not the images from those last difficult days. I'm choosing to remember that D lived to see all 4 children graduate from high school and go off to college, and not how many times they came home to join me in waiting rooms at local hospitals.

This choosing? It's a way to put D's history down in the scrapbooks as a glorious time that will not be overshadowed by the cancer.

And to think that this train of thought all began because of noisy roofers. Sometimes the irritations in our life produce great fruit. The oyster creates a pearl from a misplaced grain of sand. Chunks of coal are made into diamonds through pressure and cutting.

 "Just by listening you've made your decision, and the voice you hear is going to win the fight."

Let's all listen carefully.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Seizing the Day

I have decided that the number of blogs I post a week is some indicator of where I am in this journey through grief. I'd love to say I am clipping along at one post per day, but it seems I'm closer to limping toward one or (maybe) two posts a week.

I was waiting for the coffee maker to deliver its goodness today (a HOLIDAY FROM SCHOOL!!!!!), when I glanced at the side of my refrigerator. And inspiration hit.

We began this journey with cancer in November 2002, with the first operation in February 2003. There were long stretches of D being hospitalized or homebound and recovering. Our resolution in 2006 was to learn to live again, even with a cloud of cancer looming. We were inspired by the words Jesus spoke when He said, "I have come to give you life, and give it to you abundantly. " We decided if D was going to live, we were going to LIVE. And if he was going to die, we were still going to LIVE. We decided to hold God to His word that abundant life was for now, and not someday when cancer was no longer a threat.

We started taping things to the refrigerator to remind us of the good things in our lives. 2006 began with a cruise to the Caribbean. We loved seeing musical performances and attended the TransSiberian Orchestra, and Broadway Across America's "Momma Mia" and "The Lion King". We attended a local production of "The Fantastics" ("Try to remember when life was so tender, that dreams were kept beside your pillow..."), and visited friends at the coast where we watched dolphins play by our deckside restaurant table. News of the amputation came that summer, and a friend lent us her home in Maine for our last real traveling vacation. Our daughter married that fall, and we purposed in our heart to enjoy the wedding to the fullest degree, inspite of the fact that D could not walk her down the aisle after all. (He did offer, in his dry way, to drive her down the aisle in the basket of his scooter. The offer was politely declined.)

2007 began with a concert (I apologize ahead of time to my adult children) to see the band "Air Supply". (Let's just say: there is a certain age when older singers should no longer be allowed to wear leather pants and big hair.) I put a very brave D, and his walker, on a plane to see his daughter in February. We loved going to see "indie" movies at a local theater, and enjoyed "Young at Heart" and "The Visitor". Not long after that, D turned to me and said, "I think I have a brain tumor." Being the kind and compassionate wife I am, I said, "NO, YOU DO NOT." (Because we were both very tired of hospitals and medical procedures.) Well, the MRIs begged to differ with me, and on my birthday, D had a 14 hour surgery to remove a tumor covering one-fourth of his brain. And was home an recovering like a rock star in just a few days. Feeling like we had dodged a major bullet, we returned to abundant life with a vengeance. We flew to Missouri to see now-Married Daughter and her precious husband.( My favorite sidetrip there was a visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder home and museum which even contained Pa's fiddle. ) Another one of our favorite activities was to go to a local movie chain that serves food during the showing. D did not have the stamina to go to a movie and go out to eat, so this kind of killed both birds with one stone. That summer, D took classes to learn how to drive a car with hand controls, and we had a van adapted for him. We both wept at the freedom this would afford him as I returned to school in the fall. I don't know if you can see it, but the last item of the year is a post-it note he wrote me that says, "Have a good day. I love you. D" that had been left on the coffee pot, where he knew I'd find it first thing in the morning. So glad I kept it.

2009 began with Broadway Across America's "Legally Blond: The Musical". We laughed and said we felt like we were returning to normal life, not knowing this would be the last six months we'd have together. D drove to see his daughter in Fort Worth in February. He drove the two of us all the way to Missouri to see Married Daughter and her husband during my Spring Break. Life was feeling pretty abundant! My birthday brought tickets to a local production of "Grease" and a "Happy Birthday Sweetheart" post-it on the coffee maker. (Do you notice a trend with coffee in my life?) We went to the indie film "The Soloist" and D busted a gut laughing at "Paul Blart, Mall Cop" (a movie I did not even get, but loved to hear his hilarity in the next seat). And the next week, we found ourselves in our oncologist's office hearing the unimaginable: only six months left of our abundant life together. And the aggression of the cancer shaved that into six weeks.

But in the in-between times? We did have abundant life. We lived very consciously, and we appreciated things on a level we never would have if our calendar pages had seemed limitless.

Each year, I have my class write a report about hometown hero, Lance Armstrong. We inevitably end up with his motto, "Carpe Diem", and try to break it down into a first-grade friendly translation. This year's version was, "Grab the day. Get all the happiness out of it." Well said, six year old best friends, well said.

So today, I've decided to add one more post-it note to my refrigerator:

I cannot wait to see the abundant life that is ahead of me in the year ahead. And I hope for the same for you. It is not for "someday when", it is for NOW.

I end with the words of a song that keeps playing in my head. You can hear the full version of it here.

There is hope for me yet
Because God won’t forget
All the plans he’s made for me
I have to wait and see
He’s not finished with me yet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Not in Kansas Anymore

As I drove to school this morning, I was giving myself a great big atta-girl-pat-on-the-back. Seems I found myself praying for certain people in my life. Normal for you, but that felt like a giant step forward for me. The fact that I had extra room in my head and heart for others is a new development. It seems like for the past several months, many of my grief induced prayers have been reduced to one word, like "please", "help" and "mercy". And God is faithful to meet me where I am, and comfort me with more grace then I could possibly deserve. But praying diligently and daily for friends and family fell off my to-do list months ago. In fact, six months ago today. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, a little progress was being made in the healing department.

Until the ride home. The song that was sung at D's funeral came on the radio. Oh, how swiftly the tides can turn with just a few notes. Are you familiar with the song, "Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)" by Chris Rice found here? The words in the song that pierced my heart were surprising:

"Oh, and when the love spills over, and music fills the night
And when you can't contain your joy inside..."

Joy. There is a serious lack of it in my life these days. I occasionally make it to the point of "contentment", but joy has yet to hit my radar in this new journey I'm on. It kind of reminds me of the scene where Dorothy exits a technicolor Oz to return to a black and white Kansas. Grief feels colorless, void and not a beckoning destination. I don't know the way back to the Emerald City of my old life from here.

I think if you were to ask my colleagues they'd say I was upbeat and brave and happy and blah,blah, blah. If you asked me, I'm fairly sure my words, as always, would be, "Fine, fine, everything is fine." But truth be told, I often feel the best description of my inner thoughts would match the actress Helen Hayes' quote when she lost her husband, "I was just as crazy as you can be and still be at large."

I am heading out to dinner with two precious friends in a few minutes, and I know there will be laughter and good conversation. I'm looking forward to it. But I'm also looking to the return to a life full of color. And joy that spills over.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

New Beginnings

Welcome to my new and improved Blog page! It was designed by a student I had as a first grader, lo those many happy years ago. She is now married with an adorable daughter, and she volunteered to update my Blog look from her remote location in Oklahoma. Check out her blog design here. (Thanks, Autumn. I love it!)

It has been a week since my last post, but I watched my counter continue to log visits day after day. Thank you sweet friends (real and virtual) for checking in on me. I've had several people ask if I'm doing alright when I go so long between postings. I think I can explain my bloggy absence in just a  few words: school started again. It is like a tunnel that sucks you in during the week days, and spits you out on Saturday. My head is spinning with trying to figure out how my first  week back passed so quickly!

I love the second semester of school: it is all about reaping what you sowed during the first semester. My first graders come back after Christmas, and it is almost like someone has opened their brains and poured in The Smart. They return reading and writing better than ever, and the trick is to stay ahead of them with new challenges. 

If you will allow me to brag a bit (because I am sure I have the brightest first graders on the planet), the first day back we wrote in our journals about "What I Did Over the Holidays". And? Hello! Sentences that started with capitals, ended with periods and made sense. Good spelling, creative ideas and neat handwriting. Sigh. Does a teacher's heart proud to see the progress. And contrary to my last post (here), I'm feeling better about the profession. (But not paperwork.) So, the students are back in class, ready to go. 

The teacher is also back in class. My GriefShare group restarted it's 14-week rotation on Thursday evening, and I've decided I need at least one more cycle through. I was rereading the post I wrote the first time I attended GriefShare (here) early last fall. I began it only 7 weeks after D's death, and I did not make it through the door before I began the Ugly Cry. This time? I was looking forward to going, and to another layer of healing. (Life may be like a box of chocolates, but grief is more like an onion.) I didn't cry; I actually even laughed a few times. I hurt for the rawness of my new fellow pilgrims in the class. There is apparently now space in my heart and head for caring about others. 

I was so very encouraged that I could sense I have made progress in this journey through grief. 

Turning my Mary Englebreit calendar page to a new year, new school semester, and new GriefShare class. My word for the year? Hope.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Apple Picking on Roads Less Traveled

Reality dawns at 7:30 am on Monday: return to the second half of the school year via a day of Inservice. 

Inservice. For the uninitiated, you may think  teachers get a day to work in our rooms  preparing for the return of patterning feet. (Actually, it will be a stampede of  little feet entering the classroom, combined with  parent-sized feet running in the opposite direction for minivans and freedom.)

But a day working in the room? Doesn't happen. We are subjected to Required Training on all manner of new twists and turns in the curriculum.  

May I just vent a little here? This is my 20th year in the classroom. I consider myself to be a hardworking, diligent teacher who loves her students and gets along well with their parents. I go the extra mile often to ensure that my lessons are creative and engaging. But I am growing weary of the  unnecessary mountains of paperwork and expectations continually dumped on teachers. It is almost like the actual teaching of students becomes the second job that teachers moonlight with. The freedom to create a stimulating classroom is hampered by the continual documenting of every "i" being dotted and every "t" being crossed.

I pulled out these pictures of some of my students to cheer me along to Monday. We made 2010 calendars as Christmas presents for the parents, and these pictures served as the covers. A whole lot of The Happy going on there! Because these little faces and those precious eyes are the reason I love teaching. Not the lesson plans, instructional planning guides, ever-evolving state mandates and continual testing that interferes with classroom time. And  with actually looking into those little eyes.

To quote Robert Frost, sometimes lately I wonder if I am "done with apple picking now." I love teaching, but there are times that I want to cry "uncle" to all the documentation that does not  create effective classroom experiences. 

 One of my favorite, but now retiring columnists, Ellen Goodman published her final piece last week. It has been on my heart a lot since then:

"There's a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over--and to let go. It means leaving what's over without denying its validity or its past importance in our lives.

"It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on rather than out.

"The trick to retiring well may be the trick of living well. It's hard to recognize that life isn't a holding action, but a process. It's hard to learn that we don't leave the best parts of ourselves behind, back in the dugout or the office. We own what we learned back there. The experiences and the growth are grafted onto our lives. And when we exit, we can take ourselves along--quite gracefully."

One thing I have realized during this journey through grief is that the plans God had for me before D died are the same plans God has for me now. Those plans did not change: they just don't seem as apparent to me in this fog that invaded my brain on July 13th. 

But I also realize more than most, and more than ever, that life is short. I am passionate about teaching children, but I do not want to spend my life in an environment that chokes the life and fun out of the profession.

 And for the first time, I'm wondering about the "graceful exit" that Ms. Goodman mentions. If it is time to take what I've learned through my years and apply it somewhere else. And to possibly look toward Frost's "road less traveled by". (Oh, English minor: you have served me well, lo these many years!)

Jury's out for now. Thanks for listening to my opening arguments.