74 Days into Grieving My Dad

Dear Dad,

I miss you so much in ordinary little things…I’ll be deciding what to make for dinner, and thinking I’ll make something you like, and then suddenly remember that you can’t just drop in for dinner anymore. I will see someone in the corner of my eye wearing a reflective vest, and think for a second that it’s you, riding on your scooter. If a car goes by that looks like yours, my heart skips a beat, wondering if perhaps it’s you coming to visit. I still think, “Oh, maybe Dad can drive me to this appointment,” and then have to remember you can’t.

I was there when you were dying. I arranged your funeral and wept over your ashes when I picked up your urn from Kearney. I was there when you were buried, but my head and my heart are having a hard time catching up. It’s like I can’t really realize you’re gone. Often I say to myself, “I should really call Dad and catch up,” and then I remember that I disconnected your phone after you died, and why can’t I remember that? I feel like someone who is constantly waking up from a happy dream, only to have reality slap me in the face.

So many things remind me of you: the garden beds you built out front, filled with brave spring bulbs peeking out, and the planters in the backyard by the garage, your worksop, which contain the mournful remains of summer sunflowers and tomatoes, now scraggly and black, the little hooks on my cupboards which you hung up for my washcloths, and the many books on my homeschool bookshelves, which you were always bringing for the kids, whom you adored. It is hard to realize you’re gone because there are so many signs of your loving presence everywhere.

One night shortly after you died I couldn’t sleep, and went to read on the couch. I pulled a book from my Montgomery bookshelf: “Emily Climbs.” In it was an inscription from you to me as a child, “to my dearest ‘star,’ love + hugs–Dad.” Emily Starr was also very close to her gentle father, and lost him at a young age. Reading this always made me cry as a kid, because it felt like my pain in being separated from you after the divorce. I was four then, and now I’m forty, but I’ll always be your little girl, and being apart from you still hurts terribly, especially each time I momentarily forget, only to remember again. 

Loving you always, and waiting to give you a huge hug in Heaven,

Anna

Cookies and Milk at 3 am

Of course, after admonishing our kids not to wake up too early for Christmas (they once woke up at midnight to open the stockings on the ends of their beds) it would be me, their mom, who woke up at 2:30 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. So silly, as the kids and I had worked so hard to prepare ahead, had finished wrapping and had even stuffed the stockings and stowed them in a box days ago, so I wouldn’t have to burn the midnight oil playing Mrs Clause. Yet I woke up. Was it pregnancy heartburn, excitement, or insomnia?

Whatever it was, I decided Santa’s tradition of the post-midnight snack was a good idea and got up to have an angel sugar cookie and a glass of milk. I’d say I had a snack with Santa, but you’d know from Google Santa Tracker that he was already safely back home in the North Pole by this hour.

So while I’m up, I thought I’d take this quiet moment chance to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, despite everything, and a lot of hope for better things to come in 2021. Thank you so much to all our family and friends who supported us from afar this year, as we went through the pandemic, and through the illness and loss of my Dad, Bob, to cancer. Your loving words, encouragement, cards, flowers or food dropped at our door have meant a lot.

Shortly after my Dad passed away, in the morning of November 9th, it began snowing, which is rare on the rainy coast. “Mum, Mum,” said the kids with excitement, “Grandpa is sending us snow from Heaven with Josephine!” It’s amazing how positive and resilient kids can be in the face of loss. Here are a few pictures from our house, where we have tried to find all the joy and sparkle we can this Advent.

May God in his humble nearness at Christmas surround you with blessings and give you the eyes to see them, so the little hidden miracles of each day can shine and bring you hope.

Lots of love from all the Eastlands here at Just East of Crazy Land! Thanks for being here, making me feel less alone as I eat cookies and milk at 3 am, and await the sparkly madness of Christmas morning with 7 kids! ✨🌲✨🎁✨🌲✨

A Tiny Piece of Night Sky

Right now I don’t wear mourning black

because as I told the kids before the funeral,

Grandpa loved the bright colours of gardens

and flowers in the sunshine,

so dress for him.

But I do wear around my neck

a black necklace studded with tiny stars

—piece of night sky stolen by faeries—

to remind myself in all dark moments

to seek the sparkle.

It’s not a bright, dawn-rosy piece of Heaven

but a scrap of far-off night sky,

piercingly cold and beautiful,

the kind you look up at in silence

longing for the things that do not perish.

My heart thumps near my necklace,

aching to burst forth from my chest

and reach this forever with you,

beating its warm little drum

to the echoes of eternity.

The Pain that Waits in Quiet Corners

The hospice room is quiet

I can hear my dad breathing steadily in his sleep.

Not wanting to disturb him

I sit there in the half light coming from the bathroom door

clutch my hot tea

and try not to flee the stillness—

the pain that waits in quiet corners

to roll in hot tears down my cheeks.

After I eat the cookies that the sweet care attendant gave me

there’s nothing to do but sit and listen to him sleep

the way he must have so often listened to me sleep

when I was a blond and rosy baby.

Back then, all he had to do was hold me

and I was safe.

Now, all I have to do is let him go

and he is safe, too.

Both times

both hearts

aching with love.

Axe

Sometimes in the busyness of the day

I forget for a few minutes

and don’t feel the ache,

but when I first wake up

from the dream of sleep

to the nightmare of real life,

it is there

—the axe in my chest—

the cleaving pain

of remembering

my beloved father is dying

and all I can do is sing to him,

mother him,

tenderly stroke his head,

pray and cry,

and hold his sweet hands

still warm.

Stardust

Yesterday, my sweet neighbour’s only daughter died of cancer, leaving behind a loving husband and two little boys. I am so crushed by this news, so in her honour, and in honour of all the many precious people who have recently died, I thought I would share this poem from my book unexpected blossoming: a journey of grief and hope.

As some of you already know, I wrote this book of poetry after losing my baby daughter Josephine. Peace be with all of you who are suffering the loss of loved ones in this crazy time.

Stardust

If it’s true that we are dust

and that from the moment of birth

we are heading towards death,

then are not all our words

like a dying breath—

an exhalation of hope

that our voices will be heard

after we’re gone?

Like the light of stars

shining for years,

sending light across the universe

long after the star has burnt out.

Are we perhaps,

though weak and frail,

yet destined for eternity,

little flurries of stardust?

Loving Through the Fear: A Mortal Mission

It is strange how this virus has woken us up to a very obvious but often ignored fact: we are mortal. This reminder of our fragility has caused us to panic and scramble, as if it were possible to avoid this inevitable outcome of our lives–their ending. The ending has been there all along, but not in such a prevalent, “hiding around the corner” kind of way.

So how should we respond to this intense affirmation that our lives are a brief and precious gift?

With love. With love that is stronger than death. With love that connects us all. With love that can reach across the globe into every trembling heart. With many, many, concrete acts of love. It there were ever a time for “random acts of kindness,” it is now. Except they are not random; they are very much the point of our existence: to affirm the irreplaceable nature of every human life, and to honour each person with our little acts of affection and and kindness, to find in the face of the poor, the lonely and the stranger, the face of God.

Imagine for just a moment what might happen at this uniquely uncharted point in time if we all choose to set aside politics, agendas, finger pointing, conspiracies, and our own (very real & very different) fears.

What if we choose Right Now to take care of one another and put compassion, love, and service above all else? What if we turn our necessary distance into something even bigger than saving lives?

An Open Letter to Humanity

Everyone will do this in their own way, living with a sense of personal mission to serve their families, their friends and their communities with all the talents and passion they can muster. It is by loving that we mortal beings unite ourselves to the Immortal One, the fount of life and source of love, and come to share in a life beyond the fragile one we have here.

Let us burn our life’s candle brightly and share its light with those around us. Then, whenever its light is snuffed out, we will continue to glow in the hearts of people whom we have loved.

This Christmas Give Hope

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What does it mean to give a meaningful present? One that is a true expression of our love… can we truly take our hearts and wrap them in shiny paper, and give them in a way that affirms the worth of the recipient, the very value in their existence? This is a great challenge.

When I was shopping recently for my kids, seeing so many rows upon rows of plastic nonsense toys in the huge box stores left me feeling empty. All this abundance seemed a bit pointless, when so much of it was soon to be destined for the dump. It’s not that I hate toys. I still have stuffed animals and doll house furniture from when I was a kid, not to mention my stamp collection and books.

I think what bothered me was all these unnecessary things being consumed so voraciously, when so many other children in the world don’t even have a bed, or clean water, or a home to call their own. No one has given them gifts to affirm the very worth of their existence. Perhaps they don’t even have parents to kiss them goodnight and tell them how much they are loved. But instead of simply being grinchy and depressed by this, I wanted to do something, even if it was something tiny.

So I found a way to take some of these little broken pieces of my heart, wrap them with love, and send them overseas. The kids and I did it together, because it is so important that they learn to give, and not just to expect gifts from life. They will be happier this way; moreover, they will be more truly human. What did we do then? I usually hate spending money but this was my absolute favourite shopping of this year! We visited charity websites like Doctors Without Borders and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

We read about the impoverished and displaced people they help, and chose the gifts that spoke most to our hearts, like a sturdy tent to shelter a homeless family, blankets and mats to sleep on, and a water filter to provide clean water and help prevent disease. Another that tugged my heart strings was a Kangaroo Care Wrap that can double the chances of survival for a premie baby, by keeping her skin to skin and close to her mother’s heart. Having lost a full term baby girl five years ago, the idea of being able to help another baby survive was irresistible. For a mere $15, I could reach across the ocean and give a baby a chance at life, and a mother freedom from the tragedy of loss. My kids were really excited, too. They felt true joy at doing something so good for others.

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Another wonderful charity is Chalice, which sponsors poor children, helps their parents learn to plan their finances carefully, and gives them support and tools with which to earn a more stable livelihood. So if you want to empower families in need to become more independent by giving gifts like livestock, seeds, farming tools, a sewing machine or bicycle, etc, this might be a great charity for you.

I hope you’ve found inspiration in the great work that many people are doing around the world. If there’s anyone left on your list this Christmas Eve, consider giving them a gift that truly affirms their humanity and your own. The charities will send a nice e-card describing the important gift that was given in your loved one’s name.

Remember, we are not mere consumers! We are not robots who can run on money and possessions alone. We are all, each and everyone of every race and background, children of God who are strengthened by loving each other more deeply. This is what the Incarnation is about. The God who loves us all so tenderly that he wanted to affirm our intrinsic worth and erase all fear or doubt of our worthiness of being loved from our minds. He wrapped his divine heart in the frail paper of humanity and came to live among us, as a shepherd smelling of his sheep. He brought all the light and glory and splendour and magic of Heaven down to earth, to share it with us through his creation, if we would only reach out our hands to touch his and embrace this precious gift of life.

I hope you can find him this Christmas. In all the organizational Olympics of preparing your home for Christmas, may you see God at each turn…in the smiling face of your children and guests, in the beautiful colours of your Christmas meal, in the sparkling colours of lights on your tree…but also in moments of loneliness, sadness or rejection, and in the poor faces of humanity across the world, who need affirmation that they, too, are truly beautiful and loved.

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God bless you all this Christmas, and as my favourite radio man Archishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “God love you!”

The Unnecessary Burden of Manufacturing Our Own Worth

We feel, in our society, a very strong pressure to prove ourselves. To show we are successful. Worth knowing. Accomplished. We define ourselves by our external achievements, and are in turn crushed by our external failures. Is this necessary?

Does our value indeed come solely from what we do? I don’t think so!

But before I explain, let’s consider what kind of world we create when we do think this way. When we determine human worth based on externals, we claim the right to judge others. What’s in their soul doesn’t matter, because it’s all about results. Did they succeed in this job interview? Did they obtain this degree? How much is their salary? Is it more than mine….because if so they must be better than me. 

See the trap we set for ourselves? Not only do we judge others harshly, which is a terrible thing, but we also do the same to ourselves, and risk falling into depression and despair. We feel we are not good enough–that we are failures. Well, you can’t be a failure, you can only be a person, a human being…perhaps one in challenging circumstances, but a human all the same. No one is a failure.

We are not defined by what we do, but who we are

So who are we anyway? We are children of God, called out of all eternity to love and be loved. Each one of us is precious and utterly irreplaceable. We all have unique talents we are called to generously share with the world…and this despite all our weaknesses and mistakes. God made us as we are, fragile and beautiful, so that when we are humble enough to acknowledge the cracks in our hearts, His light can shine through us. 

So when the sirens of the world lure you to the rocky reefs of self-doubt, remember He who made you is perfect, and has a plan for your life more beautiful that you can imagine. It is cooperating with this plan, with all its challenges and opportunities for interior growth, that makes everything worthwhile. 

At the end of our lives, we will be judged on love. St. John of the Cross