Grief is a pain in the soul

empty bed

Grief is a peculiar thing. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, creeping into your consciousness through images and hidden memories come to life.

You see his picture on your phone – the same picture you see every time you open it – but this time, it surprises you to see him again. A dream awakens you in the early morning hours with a start because it was so real. You’re sure he’s back.

You look at his side of the bed to find the pillows and blankets in the same position as when you finally fell asleep last night and the night before. Still, you imagine him there, sleepy eyes opening to see you, his hand reaching over to touch you, to calm your fears.

Grief jerks you into reality.

Like a little girl awakened from a bad dream, you slip out of bed, eyes straining to adjust to the harsh light of day. You look for something familiar to propel you past the shadows looming across the floor. You put on his robe, savor his scent left at the collar, and feel his hands pulling the belt tight across your waist.

Grief is lurking just beyond the thin layer of healing that you thought was beginning to cover up the hole in your heart.

You try to shake it off. You tell yourself not to pout, not to dwell on the heavy fog settling in. As if grief is a nasty habit you can conquer with positive thinking.

Well-meaning people say, “But you know he’s in heaven, with Jesus, and one day you’ll be together again.”

The words intended to bring hope drive the sword of grief even deeper into your soul. You’re not interested in tomorrow, in a promised future. You want to see him today. You want just one more day to look into those eyes that saw through you and still loved you.

Grief gets under your skin, irritating the protective layer of faith that makes sense of suffering and sorrow. It makes you scratch yourself ‘til you bleed tears that sting like salt on an open wound. Who can you call? What will relieve the burning sense of aloneness?

You cry out for him. You ask God to give him back. You wait.

Grief knows when you’ve had enough. It knows when to stop to let you catch your breath.

And then, like a spring rain bouncing hard off dry ground, pooling in the crevices and then vanishing beneath the surface, your tears fill up the barren spaces of your heart and preserve even the smallest root of faith. You are nourished from above, love poured down. The will to keep believing is restored. A new hope has blossomed and you are empowered to go it alone one more day.

Grief goes as quietly as it comes. It leaves you exhausted, but somehow refreshed. You know it isn’t through with you, but it doesn’t scare you as much anymore.

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Signed, sealed and delivered

writing-letter

I have always looked forward to getting the mail each day. (Is it any wonder I married a mail man?) Rarely is there anything more than bills or marketing offers addressed to “current resident.” But every now and then there is an envelope with my name hand-written on it, and I can hardly wait to open it to see what’s inside.

This was especially true after Paul died. I received dozens of cards from friends wanting to express their condolences. Every one of them evoked my emotions. Some made me cry because of the verse or the personal words they wrote. Others inspired me to stay strong through this difficult time. And still others overwhelmed me because they were from people I didn’t even know telling me how much my husband had meant to them.

I keep four of those cards in the pocket of my journal so that I can read them when I need a dose of comfort. Old friends from Arizona wrote that it was Paul’s “deep, passionate love for us” that fueled his battle to remain on this earth as long as possible, and that “the impact of Paul’s love inside each of you keeps the essence of who he is alive and active.” I take such consolation in those thoughts.

Just last week I got a card from Marlene, saying she was available for a meet-up for some coffee and a listening ear, or a good movie. A few weeks before, Judi wrote to say she was praying for us, knowing that it would be difficult to “celebrate love without thinking of Paul.” Nancy and Cindy sent similar messages of remembrance and hope and offered their generous support.

What’s especially moving about these cards is that they’re from women I haven’t been in regular contact with. Women from the church Paul and I used to attend who took the time to let me know the girls and I are on their minds, in their prayers, not forgotten.

Such a simple, yet profound, gesture of love delivered right to my door.

Knowing how much these cards mean to me, I’ve had to ask myself why I don’t send cards to people more often. I think about sending a get-well card to the sick or a sympathy card to the grieving, but that’s where my intentions end. What gives? I still have the birthday card I intended to send to my friend in February sitting on my desk. I texted her instead!

To cut me some slack, it seems fair to place some of the blame on the digital age. It’s so much easier – and faster – to send an email, shoot off a text, connect on social media, make a phone call or FaceTime. Much easier than selecting a card, writing the message without the benefit of spell check and the backspace bar, finding a current address, buying a stamp and getting it to the post office.

And there’s the rub. Mailing a card takes extra time, a good deal of effort, and a few bucks – not to mention some faith in the postal service to deliver it to its destination. Maybe these cards carry so much meaning for me because I know the effort that went into sending them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got hundreds of texts and emails saved on my computer and phone sent to me by family and friends who mean the world to me.

I just think there is something very special about holding a card or letter in my hand that was touched by and written with the sender’s own hand. From their hand to mine, it is human contact on paper that I can feel in new ways every time I open my journal and read their caring words over and over again.

I got one of those handwritten keepers today from my four-year-old granddaughter. She passed out a single sheet of note paper to some of our Easter dinner guests on which she’d “written” a message in hash marks and scribbles. She told us we should keep the note in our pockets so we could look at it whenever we wanted to. Yep, a girl after my own heart.

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So how about you? Do you like getting personal cards or letters in the mail? Do you save them to re-read in the future? Why or why not? Or are you just as happy to get an email or text? Do you send handwritten messages to your friends and family? How often? What supplies do you keep on hand that help you follow through on your good intentions?

I’ve got an idea. I’d love to send you a hand-written card to cheer and inspire you. Just send me an email at writejoann@gmail.com with your address and a brief explanation of why you’d like to receive one, and I’ll send you a card in the weeks ahead.

Speaking of mailboxes, if you don’t want to miss a word I say, sign-up to follow me via email so that each post is delivered straight to your inbox.

Thanks for reading, friends. You just made my day!

How ancient words gave me hope for the journey

desert sun

A few months ago I heard a preacher on the radio say something like, “God is willing to break you to remake you.”

As scary as that sounds, the words gave me courage. In fact, they were in sync with the on-going conversation I’d been having with God.

A few days before, while reading Deuteronomy 8:1-6, I was struck by verse 2. It says, “Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, to find out whether or not you would obey his commands.”

Call me crazy, but that passage was a welcome dose of hope for my weary soul.

With cancer as the unwelcome guest in my husband’s lungs, the last few years have felt like a very long journey through barren stretches of scorched desert land. Like bare feet on hot sand, my tender heart has pranced awkwardly between faith and doubt, joy and grief. Some days I can’t stop crying over the way my life is changing, the way the pain of God’s hand on me hurts like hell. Other days, I just keep wandering on, hoping that our prayers for healing will lead us back to the lush green landscape we once enjoyed.

This shot of encouragement was delivered to me after what had been a stretch of gloomy days that left me panting for some relief: A kind word spoken by a fellow sojourner that goes down into your soul like cool water on a dry tongue. A story shared that fills you up with faith like grilled steak and corn on the cob at a summer barbecue.

In this passage, Moses was urging his people — as their time of testing in the desert was about to end — not to forget it was God who sustained them on their long journey. For me, his words helped me to refocus on what I already knew: That God is at the center of every moment, every situation in my life. Nothing touches me that hasn’t been consecrated by God, motivated by his abiding love for me. He stops at nothing to fulfill his promise to complete his redeeming work in me.

Though I feel battered and bruised from being knocked off my feet in this storm, I know I am not alone. Like the silver lining in a foreboding cloud, God is with me. I dare say He is the storm, stirring into being a new faith that is able to stand up against even the darkest of days.

If being broken as I am comes with the promise of being remade for my good and God’s glory, then I can bear another day in the hot sun.

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How about you? How is your character being tested these days? Where do you go for encouragement? I’d love to hear your story.

My friendship with Mildred Behn

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Mildred Behn

My friend, Mildred, died on August 20 at the age of 102. I’ve written about her before here, albeit clandestinely. I was asked to speak at her memorial service last Friday to offer a reflection on my relationship with her. Here’s what I wrote:

I know that many of you could stand up here and talk about the ways Mildred touched your life. She had the amazing ability to make every person she knew feel as though they were special to her, a favorite among the many people she graciously invited into her world. It is for that reason, I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on the remarkable friendship I shared with Mildred Behn.

Mildred at bible study

Mildred created the lesson plans for a women’s bible study she led for many years around her kitchen table until just weeks before she died.

I met her for the first time at a meeting we both attended here at the church with our mutual friend, Steve Nickles. Afterward she came up to me and boldly said, “We should be friends. Let’s get together some time.” I agreed, but getting together didn’t happen for another year or so. It was Steve who brought us together again via a small group study during Advent.

I will never forget one of the first times we got together outside that group. She wanted to introduce me to Brownies, one of her favorite lunch spots. She was still driving at the time and insisted on picking me up. I got into her turquoise sedan, and as she sped off with a lurch down the street, I wondered why I hadn’t been more concerned about letting a woman in her 90s drive me anywhere!

She must have felt my anxiety, because after zipping across Telegraph and using a parking lot as a turnaround, she recused herself from any liability should anything horrendous happen while she was driving. I laughed away most of my fear, offered up a silent prayer and made a mental note that I would do the driving in the future.

Mildred was a voracious reader and spoke more than a dozen languages.

Mildred was a voracious reader and spoke numerous languages.

Our attraction for one another was fueled by our mutual love for writing. We shared journal entries, published articles and favorite books. We inspired one another to write more and she was always encouraging me to submit my work for publication. We were both regular writers for Monday Morning Meditations. She lavished our writing team with kudos for our offerings, but, truth be told, she was the best of the bunch. Her work was exceptional, her content often downright brilliant.

She said writing was “all the world to her.” From the day she learned to print, she began to write her own stories. It was only recently that I got to read some of them published during her time at Andrews Boarding School. Each one revealed her genius at being able to craft clever characters and compelling dialogue that captured not just your mind, but your heart.

I asked her once what she thought her life would have been had she pursued the writer’s life as a young woman. Her response was witty, but true.

“Yes, if I had not married, I’d have written and written and sent my stuff out, and today I’d be living alone without a kinfolk in the world, surrounded by my out-of-print books,” she said. “I have no regrets; a book won’t call you ‘Angel Mother’ and manage to get you to Bob Evans when the snow is 8 ft. deep [referring to her son, Ted].”

Our mutual love for words and one another was nurtured through email. We called each other keyboard pals, rather than pen pals. At last check, I had more than 1300 messages between us. Back and forth, back and forth, we shared the everyday happenings in our lives.

Mildred at computer

Mildred was glad that she learned to use email and Facebook in her 90s, allowing her to connect with people near and far.

I looked so forward to her name coming up in my inbox, and she, mine. Her subject lines and salutations were always witty and provocative. She addressed me with a myriad of pet names: Flower of the Field, Carpet-weevil, Rosebud, Bambina, Little Hedgehog, and the one that stuck ‘til the day she died, Trinket. She liked the name January for herself, and so I referred to her by that name when I wasn’t calling her Mom, Mumsy or Millie.

Her messages often made me laugh out loud, challenged me to think differently on matters, and always reminded me I was loved. She found the everyday happenings of my life fascinating, and I felt honored to hear the amazing stories of her childhood and growing up years. She said she wasn’t one to give advice, but she gave it to me – gently, gracefully – when I needed to hear it, always with my best interest at heart.

Her messages could be manipulative, too, with not-so-subtle reminders that I hadn’t visited in a while and warnings that her death was imminent! Needless to say, that worked well in getting me over there.

Always, her messages were infused with love and laughter and left me wondering how I got so lucky to be her friend. One day I will sift through all those emails to share with others her wise thoughts – and wise cracks.

When I think of my Mildred, I think of a woman of strength, courage and great faith, someone who had weathered many a difficult storm and yet chose a positive outlook on life. She was a woman before her time and yet one who made peace with the time in which she lived. Until her last days, she walked with an urgency and purpose and her mind was sharper than the youngest among us.

Mildred & me

Sitting on the swing in her backyard was one of Mildred’s favorite pastimes.

She could have been known far and wide for her writing, and yet her influence extends to so many through small, but powerful, acts of kindness and love. She was a fireball of truth and love that captured my heart for life. She was my friend, mentor, pastor, mother, sister, keyboard pal, and so much more.

As I sat next to her on her dying bed, I stroked her hand and told her how much I loved her, how much she had meant to me and how happy I was to have been her friend. She said,” I know, dear, I know how much you have loved me, and, oh, how I have loved you.”

The years I had with her weren’t enough and yet they are full of memories that I will never forget.

One of my Favorite Memories

sound of musicThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 release of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Academy-Award-winning film musical The Sound of Music.

For me, the movie triggers a very special moment in my family’s history.

I was 7 years old in 1965 when my parents took my three sisters and me to see the film at the Madison Theatre in downtown Detroit, one of an exclusive list of theaters in major cities chosen to show the film before its general release nationwide.

If I remember correctly, the outing marked my sister Laura’s 12th birthday.

 Sometime in 1966

Sometime in 1966

Our moments together that day are captured in my mind as a series of vivid snapshots. I am a round-faced, chubby little girl with buck teeth and dark brown hair cut bob-style, pulled back on each side with barrettes. I can hear the swish of the tulle fabric lining my Sunday-best dress as I move anxiously in my seat, clicking the heels of my black patent leather shoes over lace-trimmed ankle socks.

We are sitting toward the back of the theater, maybe in the balcony. I can touch my mom sitting next to me. I can see my sisters and dad further down the row. Later I am standing, stretching, maybe at intermission during the three-hour and 10 minute film that, according to journalist and film historian MIchael Coate, grossed $57 million in its first year of release.

As the memory continues, the movie is over and we are down the street having dinner at Flaming Embers Restaurant in the old Broderick Tower at Woodward and Grand Circus Park. I am awestruck watching flames of fire kicking up in the faces of white-coated, high-hatted chefs who are flipping steaks on a massive grill.

I am amazed that I am sitting in, what for me, has to be the most expensive restaurant in the world. When, in reality, you could get “a T-bone, baked potato, salad and soft drink for $1.19” at that time.

I am looking across the table at my father who appears god-like to me for having orchestrated this monumental moment in my life.

Why so monumental?

Moments like this didn’t happen very often for a middle-class family like mine. Going to a movie theater was special, let alone going to one in downtown Detroit. But going out to dinner anywhere was over-the-top exceptional.

Unlike today’s 58 percent of American adults who eat out at least once a week, I can count maybe two or three times during all my growing up years that my family dined at a restaurant. And, unlike my daughters who consider eating out a routine experience, I was very aware of what a special treat it was to have that rare breakfast at Blazo’s on Michigan Avenue in East Dearborn.

For my dad, that downtown movie and dinner experience in today’s dollars would have felt like 225 bucks out of his pocket, no small change for a man making a living as a tailor at J. L. Hudson’s. No drop in the bucket for my family today.

Photo Source: The Detroit News, circa 1961.

Photo Source: The Detroit News, circa 1961.

A classic revisited

Like the Broadway musical that inspired it, The Sound of Music tells the story of the Georg Ludwig and Maria von Trapp family, who fled their beloved Austria after the Nazi annexation in 1938. According to Coate, the film remains the third highest in overall box-office performance behind Gone With the Wind and Star Wars when adjusted for inflation.

The movie’s golden anniversary sparked publication of a new book and special-edition magazines, release of a new DVD and Blu-Ray, and special screenings and television interviews with the film’s stars, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.
I was actually teary-eyed watching the Diane Sawyer special “The Untold Story of ‘The Sound of Music’” on ABC’s 20/20 back in March.

My heart has been blessed
The significance of my memories of the film goes beyond the uniqueness of the experience. The Sound of Music struck a chord with me because the von Trapp family’s story was in some way my family’s story.

My sisters and I could identify with a family life alive with music as my father prepared his voice every Sunday morning to sing the mass at Holy Family Church or entertained guests in our home and elsewhere with songs from his native Italy.

We felt the sense of security that comes from having a mother who taught us to mind our manners, calmed our fears when it rained in the night, and was present in both the mundane and transformational moments of a girl’s life.

We knew the tears shed after harsh words spoken in the heat of the moment and the struggle to find our way in an often scary world where freedom comes at an enormous cost.

We learned the value of working together to reach our goals and saw the determination it took to climb over our own mountain of obstacles on our way to making a good life for ourselves.

And, like the von Trapps, our faith in God fueled the journey and inspired us to live out our callings in a way that was good for us and helpful to others.

sound of music bookSince that first viewing of The Sound of Music, I have watched it on TV or DVD a dozen times. When prompted, I can do a decent impression of the nuns singing about their problematic Maria and belt out the high notes of “Climb Every Mountain.” I have “blessed” my own daughters with my rendition of “You are Sixteen …” and “My Favorite Things.” And because my father bought her the musical score for piano, my sister, Laura, can still play “Edelweiss” by heart when she has to.

My memories of The Sound of Music will forever have the power to twirl me around and transport me back to a most magical moment in my life. I think I’ll go watch it again now.

© JoAnn Amicangelo 2015

Why I love January

I don’t consider myself a poet, but I have journals full of free verse from my high school creative writing classes. I found it to be a relaxing pastime and an effective vehicle for expressing the jumbled-up emotions of my teen years.

Every once in a while I am inspired to write poetry, as was the case following a visit with a dear friend who is more than 100 years old.

She is a remarkable woman with a sharp mind, quick wit and wealth of wisdom earned through tough times and an insatiable appetite for reading and learning. A woman of faith and a writer herself, she has touched many a soul with her empowering presence, listening ear, and ability to cut to the heart of a matter with grace and love.

I wrote For January as an expression of my gratitude for the privilege of knowing this very special woman.

Photo by galdzer via Deposit Photos.

Photo by Galdzer via Deposit Photos.

For January

Fine white hair
precious as silk
touches purple shoulders,
woven from Wisdom,
tested on
a life well-lived
in love.

Skin the color of light
drapes over her small frame
chiseled by Love,
edges smoothed
by Trouble’s waves
crashing against
her soul.

Raised by a troubled mother
father on the fly
boarding schools
good and bad.
A young woman’s dreams for
the writer’s life
put on hold for unexpected love.

I listen to her heart
learn about her life
through words strung together
on golden thread.
Brilliant beads
of truth and sensibility
glistening on paper.

A friendship
built across tables
at breakfast,
nurtured through letters
of care and concern.
Devoted sisters,
loving friends.

We have our pet names for each other
She is Millie, Mamsita,
Mammy, Mumsy, Mom, and
my dear friend, January.
I am her Rosebud, Dear Child, Cherub
Little Sprout, Darling Girl, and
one and only, Trinket.

It is the January of her 98th year.
The air is frozen
and the chill of impending loss
draws me to her.
She reaches out to hold me,
melts me with her spells
of love and grace.

So many lives changed
righted, redirected
through this one woman.
A priceless gift
to so many,
to me.
Love alive forever.

©JoAnn Amicangelo

 

Why I Write

©depositphotos.com/cboswell

©depositphotos.com/cboswell

I’m beginning to define and explore the difficult question of why I write and why I want to become a better writer. Here are some of my initial and incomplete thoughts:

  • Writing is my response to God’s direction. God keeps telling me to write. I know that sounds pretty mystical, or overly religious or downright arrogant. I mean, if God said it, who’s to argue the point, right? But it’s true in the sense that, despite trying a number of different degree programs and work roles, I have always sensed God’s finger pointing me back to writing. I think it’s safe to say I feel compelled to write, as in, if God gave me the ability, provided the training and gave me the tools to write well, then I should write.
  • Writing is the fruit of my spiritual life. In high school, much of my writing was focused on searching for my identity, asking the big questions about the meaning of life and my purpose on this planet. Just after graduating, my search culminated in establishing a relationship with Jesus, and that course correction shifted my journal writing to reflections on scripture, meditations on my life as a Christ follower, and insights I was getting from reading the bible and books on the Christian life. Nearly 40 years later, I am still recording my thoughts and ideas about the realities of my life.
  • Writing is a way to share my journey with others. I have written dozens of articles over the years on various subjects for publication in magazines and newspapers. But I feel most fulfilled when I write about my personal experiences in a way that has the potential to help others. My blog is a vehicle for this kind of writing.
  • Writing clears out the cobwebs in my thinking. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to write my way through problems and relationship issues. I start out confused or angry as I write about a situation, and by the time I’m three or four pages in, I see things in a different light. I’m usually able to understand the decision before me or recognize my role in a situation, and I’m able to come to some resolve.
  • Writing gives me great pleasure. Ok, not when I’m in the middle of it; not when I’m moving words around, swapping paragraphs or wondering if I have made any sense at all. I enjoy writing when the work is done, when I’m reading it aloud to myself to hear where I need to make changes. The pleasure comes in the final edits and when someone reads my story and says, “Good job.”

I have stories to tell – my story, your story, God’s story. That’s why I write and why I have started to blog more regularly.

©JoAnn Amicangelo 2015