Saturday, June 27, 2020

Calendar Pages

I was talking to a good friend yesterday, whose young husband died suddenly a few years ago. I wanted to know how the new rhythms of the pandemic were affecting her family. How had they coped during the complete shutdown? "I mean, grief is already so isolating," I said.

Her reply landed deep inside me, because I recognized my own experience there. "It's been okay. In a way I feel as if the rest of the world has been catching up to where I've been for a while. That they are getting a taste of grief."

She didn't mean the many, many families whose loved ones have died from this brutal illness, a number that is unfortunately climbing by the day because our country does not have a well-coordinated plan on how to address Covid-19.

The "taste" she was referring to was the swift wiping clean of the calendar pages. When everything shut-down in mid-March, people took a sharpie and drew through weddings, work trips, school days, and social events and had to surrender to the uncertainty of when and if things would ever return to "normal."

People struggled to find a daily routine and felt rudderless when the rhythms they'd always known of work and school and even identity were upended. Jobs they thought they could count on disappeared, and they were separated physically from the ones they loved. The world outside their doors felt confusing and even dangerous.

And so it is with grief. Grievers know the stark Before/After well. They know the disorienting feeling of having a plan for how things were going to be, how one's life would look, then being left with the uncertainty of how to move forward when life turns upside down.

I remember my sister scrambling to find a new wall calendar for us right after Jack died, because the one on our kitchen door scrawled with things like, "Jack/Margaret dentist", "Boy Scouts", and "baseball practice", in all its normalcy, belied the shattered state of the family inside that door. It wounded us us with the could-have-beens. Each plan cut us to the bone.

Grief requires an adaptability and flexibility that is not innate or comfortable, right at a time when you are feeling ill-equipped to exhibit either. It requires a letting go of the expectation of how things were going to be, when your instinct is to clench your fists and try to hold on with all you've got. We deny and resist our pain as much as we can, but at some point we have to face it.  The longer we resist, the longer it lasts.

Grief is messy.

As is life in a pandemic.

It's important and even healthy to acknowledge our losses. To say, "I hate this! This is terrible! I wish it were another way!"

But when we continue to cling to the way things were, or the way we wanted them to be-- whether we are doing it because life is "unfair", or even in the name of "personal freedom" we can spew our grief, or our germs, on others.

Both are harmful; one can be deadly.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020


Hi Dears! I want you to know I'm thinking of you and sending you love at this strange time.

We are doing well, but being with Andrew 24/7 makes it hard for me to write.

Instead of sharing my own words today, I'm sharing my sister in law's thoughts on fear, chronic illness, grace, and this unique time we are in.

With so much love to you, Anna

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Catching Up but not Catching Many ZZZZ's

How did January last 153 days and February has whizzed by? I've never been good at math, so none of this is clear to me, but I will say that hurtling toward spring feels like a good thing.

More outdoor time with my little guy will keep us from watching too much TV, which has been our M.O. for a lot of the winter.

Spring will also mean a chance to see Margaret over her college break. She and I are planning a little getaway together. There have been SO MANY gray days in a row, I know she will welcome the  warm sunshine. I'll welcome the sleep. Andrew still pops into our room every night and his morning wakeup time has scootched much earlier the past few weeks. This is torture for a night owl like me.

Springtime also means birthdays!

Jack's, Andrew's, and then a milestone one for Tim. I've scheduled Andrew's party for a huge indoor play place. Funny that I've never once taken him to one because I'm such a germaphobe, and now I'm willingly paying for an entire party there. Hand sanitizer for everyone! The thought of having a preschool party at our house just overwhelmed me.

In Tim's honor I've set up a dedicated puzzle table in our house with an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on it. We're pretty wild and crazy over here, for sure. We'll probably have a shindig for his birthday, too, but he hasn't yet told me what he wants. We almost called it quits while planning my 50th (he was in the wrong, of course), so I'm a little nervous about the forthcoming negotiations.

Jack would be 21 on March 18. This feels big. Huge. What would he be like? What would interest him? Would he be as handsome as I picture? Oh how I long to know.

I'd like to invite YOU to join me in celebrating Jack's life, and our ongoing love, by taking part in #Cheers2Jack on March 18.

Because this would be the day for his first (legal) drink, I invite you to toast him with whatever your favorite beverage is, whether it's a cold beer or or a hot latte. Feel free to take a picture for me and put it on the An Inch of Gray facebook page or instagram (I'm @annawhistondonaldson) with the tag #Cheers2Jack. I hope to do something in person here in Vienna, most likely a mid-week dinner over chips and guac, but I haven't planned anything yet. I'll keep you posted.

Today is Ash Wednesday, as we remember how fleeting our physical experience on earth really is. I got ashes and a blessing in the narthex of the preschool while dropping off Andrew. Talk about a full-service experience. Kind of wished I'd showered first.

Love and blessings to you today.

Friday, January 17, 2020

A Language of Love

Do you know your love language?

Mine is words of affirmation. Kind, loving words go very far with me, and hurtful words sting more than almost anything else can.

Presents are okay, and I enjoy a good hug, but tell me I'm doing a good job, I'm capable, or I offer something of value to the world, and I will put my chin up and persevere even in the toughest of circumstances. I will stand tall for you or for whoever else needs it.

I've been going through a lot, feeling over-tired and overdrawn. Uncreative, unhealthy, and unproductive in the world. I find myself wondering if I'll ever settle into a groove for 2019, but then I discover it's 2020, so the answer is likely no. Sleep eludes me with a mashup of menopause, preschool parenting, and middle of the night worries about how my daughter is adjusting to college.

I wonder why I never bothered to set any goals, personally or professionally, and just coasted until somehow waking up at 50 feeling like life has been a series of reactions versus actions. I ponder if I only have 30 or 20 or 2 years left, whether I'll be satisfied that most days all I looked forward to was a big bowl of popcorn and a Netflix binge. Is this my offering to the world, during this one life? Morning comes too soon or not soon enough.

Andrew is in a stage where he wants all of me, all the time.

At my age, I never would have imagined being needed in this intense way again, and the adjustment has been steep. He is adamantly opposed to all things Tim right now, through no fault of Tim's. He is just taking the whole Oedipus thing about as far as a 3 year old possibly can. The other night he told me he hoped there were two heavens, so he and I could go to one, and Daddy could go to the other. Harsh. It seems this little guy wants to go to great lengths to let me know I'm his number one. I tell him he can love both Daddy and me. That there is enough love to go around. There's enough of all of us to go around.

Although it doesn't always feel like that way, because we are spent.

As winter darkness sets in early, making it feel much later, it's easy to just gather up some of the parenting pieces that have been Tim's terrain, such as the final tuck-in, or reading the last book, if it means a happy boy not getting all worked up right at bedtime. After all, we know this is a phase to ride out; we've been down these roads before. Just as Tim didn't have to sleep on the floor next to Margaret's bed forever like he did when she was two, this too shall pass. In fact, I know that was time well spent, because even at age 18, home from college, she'll still sometimes climb onto his lap. He's a stiff person, and she's a prickly one, but they still connect in this way.

So instead of Tim doing the tuck-in, I started doing it. Then we moved to having me sit in the big blue recliner after tuck-in just so he'd know I was near. Then it morphed into extended snuggle-time in bed. It helps him fall asleep more quickly, and it yields sweet conversation. But, oh, how I resisted because I knew he'd be back in our bed again in just a few hours, and wasn't this a lot of rigamarole to go through for just about 4 hours of separation? With the clock ticking on my precious hours of alone time?

I decided to try to reframe this when I saw a friend with four kids had put a small sticker on her car that read, "I get to do this." She uses it to remind herself that the hours upon hours in the car being present with her kids is special time-- away from screens and homework. A lot of good connecting happens then, even though it's not easy.

This connecting time been good for Andrew and me too, because it is a sinking into togetherness, rather than my pulling away, hiding in the bathroom with my phone and a piece of chocolate while he clambers to find me.

He feels it and I feel it.

But back to love languages. Tim has rarely been one to lift me up through words. Remember during premarital counseling when we wrote down our needs and I wrote, "I want to be told I'm pretty sometimes"? Even more than 25 years ago, I knew we had a disconnect on this issue. His view was that if we were getting married, I could assume he thought I was kind of neat, so what was the big deal? Even in the eyes of young love, which is blind to so many mismatches, I wanted to articulate a need, which went well beyond my looks and was more about affirming me as a person worthy of notice.

Over the years there have been a few stilted, "You. look. very. nice. in. that dress"  or "good job" comments, but not many. Yes, I knew I could have married someone who grabbed my butt and said, "Hey, Hot Mama!" but that's not the guy I fell in love with. I knew it going in. But to hit 50, with a butt that is far less grab-able or remarkable than ever before, and cosmic questions about your place in the world, it's possible to yearn to know that you take up space and are seen. Perhaps because I am a writer and a speaker, words help do that for me.

Margaret has long been more likely to speak to me with criticism than love or affection, even though I know she loves me. My role as a safe spot to land since Jack's death has meant my putting on protective layers so the harsh stuff can slide off.

Stiff and Prickly, remember?

Jack was the one who would tilt his head to the side say with a wry smile, "Aww... I love you!" It was usually after I'd said something clever, or vulnerable or goofy, and it made me feel close to him. Like he got a kick out of me, and as if there was a whole lot of LIKE wrapped in with the LOVE.

I've missed those words that poured out unbidden. Unstrained. Not trying to check a box on Anna's wants and needs list. I know Jack still loves me as I do him. Our love never had a chance to get to the stage where perhaps it would have been uncool to tell your mom how much you loved her. I know if I quiet myself, I can still hear him whisper "I love you" into my soul. I can see his love in the two bluejays at my feeder right now, and in the sweet but hazy memories that come to me in flashes, every single day.

But what does any of this have to do with Andrew, and sleep, and snuggling? Once I began to reframe this new nighttime routine, realizing that it is a sweet and temporary privilege, I've been able to not only sink into his twin bed giving him something he craves, but also sink into the love he gives me freely. "I love you SO SO much!" he beams, touching my face. "Oh, I just LOVE you!" "I love you and want to keep you forever!" These words affirm and fill me up after a long day at a challenging time of life.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think our kids are here to meet our needs. Nope. That is far too much to put on a child. It isn't healthy and it isn't fair.

But I do think that God knows that my soul has been parched for affirmation. That my world has grown smaller the past few years as career and accomplishments and even maintaining friendships have been overshadowed by the ever-present need of caring for a small child again.

He surely knows that the middle of the night doubts about what I've offered the world, and whether I'll have the stamina to do what's before me, can somehow be soothed by having a child, this child, who tells me, again and again, that I am beloved.

And I'm grateful.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Not Color-Blind

Today our dog Charlie barked to go out, and when I opened the slider, he took off across our narrow back yard. I looked up and saw in the yard behind us a young man in a hoodie, likely mid-20's, hand money to another in his late teens, wearing baggy clothes and hoodie. They were in plain view of the windows where Andrew and I were hanging out, but they stood awkwardly behind the garage of the other house, where there were no windows or doors. The second young man, son of a caregiver of my elderly neighbor, counted the money, pocketed it, and turned to go back into the house.

My immediate thought was they were up to no good. Was it a drug deal? I felt concern that I'd have to tell his mother and that would be an uncomfortable conversation. Of course, I had no proof that it was a drug deal, just concern that they were standing in a weird place in the yard beyond prying eyes-- except for my own, of course.

Then, both young men looked up and saw me. Our eyes met, and something shifted. I felt something that went beyond the previous awkwardness and discomfort. Fear? Yes, it felt like fear. In less than a second, I'd switched from maternal concern for the second young man to fear.

I am sharing this with you as I explore my own feelings and reactions. It is not flattering to me, but it's real. You see, both young men were Latino.

Had I witnessed a drug deal? Was the older guy in some Central American gang? I was safe inside my house, but the fear sprang up from thinking I'd put my family in the middle of something dangerous when they looked at me.

What flashed through my mind stemmed from what I see on tv and read online and assumptions and prejudices I didn't even know I had.



This is why when someone says, "I don't see color" or "I don't see race" I don't believe it. We all see color. We all see race, whether we admit it or not. What we see may sends different messages to each of us, based what we read and hear and experience, but we see it for sure.

My other neighbor across the street has sons the same age as the young man/boy next door (Wow,  how much more likely am I to say "boy" when it comes to the neighbor I know better and "man" when it comes to the one I don't???) If I saw my neighbor Luke receive money off to the side of his house in a similar fashion, I'd probably text his mom about it, not worried I'd somehow get caught up in some MS-13 situation. Never once thinking I'd possibly be in personal danger.

This entire scene transpired in a matter of seconds. And it brought into shocking relief my own bias. It helped me better understand how dangerous it is for brown and black sons in our country to be out doing normal things because of visceral, knee-jerk reactions from people like me. Knee-jerk reactions from law enforcement.

Normal things like hanging out with their friends. Eating in restaurants. Applying for jobs. Driving.

And yes, selling the family trampoline.

I watched the first young man head to his car, get a ladder and tools, and start to disassemble the trampoline he'd just purchased for his family.

I got to spend the next two hours looking out my back windows, thinking about race and my own assumptions. And thinking about how when people of color tell me what what it is like to face racism, it is my job to listen and believe. Not to try to make excuses. Not to deny or diminish their experiences because I want to paint a picture of the world I want to live in, not the world as it is. Not to claim to not see color, but to admit that we live in a world that DOES see color. To admit that I make mistakes, and that those mistakes are painful to those I hurt, even if they never even find out about it.

The trampoline is gone now, but I will not forget today.