When I am an old woman, will I know what to do with all this pain? Will I finally have come to some wisdom, some way of soaking it up or shedding it off? We went to the Blackhills and to the Badlands. Over and over the weathered faces of Native Americans stared back at me, wrinkles lay in deep folds across eyelids and cheeks bones, faces that seemed to know, to know sorrows I don’t even have images for, only a deep guttural wailing that binds my broken heart to theirs. Did they ever discover how to bear up under the weight of loss, of stripping and breaking, their beings required to take up less and less space in a vast land that once was theirs?
All of a sudden, in what seemed a common moment, there comes piercing in, a blade that cuts afresh, that causes the blood to ooze and bead. Trekking out into the complex array of layers stacked, striations of brown and talc and orange, we explored the Badlands, a place of ever-changing, evolving erosion, a land of perpetual loss. Over the course of days, our skin unknowingly soaked in the sun and we took on burn and tan. As Solveig noted the darkening of her arms the conversation turned to her “olive” skin that she must have gotten from her dad, for I am an Irish lass, covered in freckles and prone to burning. And Allistaire? Well, she had been declared “white on white” by her first oncologist, this apparently being considered a good thing, indicative of a greater likelihood of having a bone-marrow match should there ever be need.
And just like that, there it was. The sudden knowing of a man who I had so loved, loved early and loved long. His arms turned olive in the summer, the hair in turn changing to blonde. I would bring his wrists to my cheek and feel the softness there and admire this warming of color brought by heat and light. And the blade twists and I want to gag. What do I do with all this pain? Where do I put these memories, these small intimacies, these wee jewels of love of knowing another? How now do I look at them, how ought I to categorize them?
Tonight it was the grits. Leaving work feeling deflated, feeling that in spite of my efforts, I had yet again tripped up and found myself in a mire, my heart dragged. To the grocery store we went. I can always buy milk but beyond that the question of dinner loomed, so deafeningly complex, so much to consider. What can I cook that won’t take too long, won’t make too much of a mess, won’t be an unhealthy mess of chemicals from pre-packaged easy prep foods, and won’t be pricey. Breakfast dinner, that’s what I would do, an old standby from childhood and always surprisingly satisfying. As we checked out I told Solveig to go get a different box of graham crackers as this one was bashed in and I thought this might be a sign of crumbled crackers. “Still poison,” the boy behind me in line mutters under his breath.
I can’t seem to catch a break. I’m fairly aware of poison. Pretty keenly aware that my child died of cancer and I don’t know why. I’m the one that had to watch her gray lips move like a dying fish on the shore after her chest ceased to rise. “Do you not think I want to avoid poison with every fiber of my being?” I want to bellow back. But I have another daughter, see. She’s the one the crackers are for, to bring her and her school friends joy to celebrate the end of another school year with a sleepover and s’mores.
At home we sit quiet, bellies filling, finding satiation in our sausage, eggs, toast and grits. Grits. We haven’t had those in a long time, sort of forget about ’em. They are a food representative of my childhood. Daughter of two native Georgians, pork tenderloin, fried eggs, biscuits and grits have been core to my growing up. It brings an odd joy to watch my own child, far from the south, relishing grits. Shrimp and grits come to mind and prompts me to dig up an old recipe I vaguely remember making once.
And just like that, there it is. The memory floods back. Still early in my role as wife, trying to bring joy to my husband by preparing tasty, healthy food, I would peruse the Cooking Light Annual Recipes books for new tasty dishes to try. There it was, the green salad with avocado and grape tomatoes and southern style shrimp and grits. 2005 the spine of the book tells me. Just four years in to what would end up being a 15 year marriage. I try to remember those days. Try to squint and see, who was that girl just turned 30, and that boy early in his career? Were we happy then? What were our woes? How were we already laying down patterns of relating that would burn and cut and blind us to one another.
I wish I could go back. Inhabit her flesh. See the world through wiser eyes and try again. Could I make the ending turn out differently? How much was within my grasp and what never was?
But I can’t. I can’t go back and I can’t change a thing. And now I must simply learn to live with this living breathing loss. I remember talking to Marla. Marla is the director of Side-by-Side, the ministry that pairs volunteers with sick kids at Seattle Children’s. Allistaire’s own Side-by-Side volunteer, Kaley, was one of her dearest friends. I never knew how she did it. Kaley could play with Allistaire for three hours straight and come away with nails garishly painted a whole array of colors. Her stamina for princesses and sick dolphins or sea horses or any other creature in desperate need of magical potion to make them well, never flagged. Marla was a key part of this equally magic pairing of Kaley with Allistaire. And then her own love fell ill to cancer. Her husband died in less than a year from a brain tumor.
“I’m learning to carry it,” she said over the phone when I called her about a Bozeman family who might need to head to Seattle Children’s.
I’m learning to carry it. Her words echo in my mind.
You would think that Allistaire’s death would be both pinnacle and end of the enormous, unrelenting strain. Somehow nothing could ever compare to that degree of blinding, burning pain of being severed from my little beloved, of having to witness the incomprehensible, an utterly still child who had once been unable to not dance at the slightest hint of music. And yet, like strata laid down over eons, like those hills brown and talc and orange, the sorrow cements layer upon layer, an ever mounting enormity of pain, each era marked in color and grit and brevity or length by the sorrows at hand.
And erosion? Is it gift? Is the wearing down of the layers over time as the rain bears down in heavy sheets, and the wind whips away fragments of rock, does this loss of loss equal gain, get assigned the tag of “good?” It doesn’t feel that way. I already struggle to remember her voice, I strain to catch the look in her eye. I come back again and again to a handful of the same memories, desperate to not lose more of her. I see her in the early hours of the mornings at Ron Don. I would wake her up to use the bathroom. She might look like a baby girl with her bald head, but she was a 6-year-old girl, fully aware that she should be beyond diapers. And yet, for the love of her kidneys, we were always forcing down massive fluids which made it hard to make it through the night dry. So I would wake her up at 5 when I got up. She would sit on the toilet, her little legs dangling, panties encircled at her ankles. Panties with purple Bat-Girl symbols or blue panties with the yellow and red emblazoned W of Wonder Woman. Sometimes, right there on the floor in front of her, I would hug her as she peed. Then off she would go, back to bed for a few more hours.
I see her over and over, facing away from me as she headed into her room. Little round bald head, jammy shirt, her little bottom in panties and skinny legs on tip-toe. She walked tip-toe all the time despite my constant admonitions to walk on the soles of her feet. This “heel-drop” was a vestige of so many months living in a hospital, hours upon hours sitting and laying in bed, heels back causing the Achilles to tighten over time. I see her tip-toeing back to bed, her little tubies swinging side to side. How I long somehow to transport through time and greet her in the dim light of morning.
I don’t want to lose what brings the pain. I close my eyes and remember what it was to kiss him on the cheek just at that place where his razor went no higher and I could glimpse faint peach fuzz. The memory is just there. I don’t conjure it up, it simply rises to the surface unexpected, uninvited. And so are all my days, pricked with scores of cuts, memories breaking through the surface of the moment. Blood bright along the cut.
I look back at those weathered faces, at the eyes unblinking. Did they ever learn to carry the pain?
The Badlands have their beauty. The shear accumulation of time, layer upon layer was necessary. So too is the cutting away, the erosion that lays bear the history of that land. Sometimes my life feels like a wasteland. I wonder at the landscape that will one day be seen.
💙💙💙🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻 love and hugs to you
Oh, Jai. Thank you for again letting us in. And my hope- is that in a small way it helps to let the thoughts out. Out to those who read and hoped and prayed in your fight for Allistaire to live. And now- it feels like such an honor to listen while you live. Thank you.
Words don’t come to me like they do for you. Such a gift you have with words. Thank you for sharing and please know you are being held in prayer…where I feel confident that my lack of words are perfectly interpreted by the Holy Spirit who knows just exactly what to say to the Father on your behalf.
You are so loved Jai. So very loved.
Your blessed to be a blessing, thank you for sharing. We love you Jai!
I read all of your posts and I speak Allistaire’ s name , having fallen In Love with it as soon as I heard it.
Your words sometimes terrify me with their truth and apt descriptions of the reality that you face now and when Allistaire was sick.
I am thankful for your beautiful writings and would certainly love to read a book when you feel ready , if ever to re-tell your story on the pages of a book.
With Hope ,
Your writing is so utterly beautiful and you somehow manage what few can – to lay bare emotions most cannot. Your mind and your heart are marvelous things. I so want there to be joy in your life that in some way balances out the depth of your pain. I pray for that, my friend.
Though the Lord delayed his journey to Lazarus; the beauty, the life, the breath, in its time still approached. Praying for you!
Oh Jai, your words are powerful. I don’t want to say I can relate because I haven’t experienced your pain and can’t. I will say, on some level I relate to your words more than most others could describe. So much loss in my life that doesn’t go away or get “filled in” by other things. It’s figuring out how to live with my loss… I’m continually trying to figure out how to rise above it, how to use it for any shred of good that I can. This is just me who hasn’t lost a precious girl or immediate loved one to death. I just thank you for sharing. It touches my soul.
I love you.
I have to leave a message to tell you that I have read your blog for years–a few friends had shared it and I prayed for Allistaire. Now I relate to a bit of your story–not regarding sweet Allistaire but faced with the searing loss of a marriage I did not want to end. Your writing describes the pain, the incomprehension, the way that life just moves on in a way that I can’t describe myself. My situation is not identical but your recent posts bring me to tears each time, but in a small way they are a comfort, just to know that someone gets it. I am so sorry that you are here. I pray that you will have new strength to help you carry.
I am sorry to hear that you are going through such a hard time as well with the loss of your marriage. It is a brutally painful death. Thank you for taking the time to share. I will be sure to leave your comment private.
Oh, dearest Jai, my heart aches with your pain as I read your thoughts. I pray for you to know God’s peace deeply in the midst of the lingering pain. Gayle and I continue to pray for you in our nightly phone calls. Love to you, friend.
You’re so loved, dear Jai. I wish I could have the words to say, to know what to say….I wanna listen. Thank you seems so lame to say, but thank you for sharing with us a glimpse into you heart and your pain. May Jesus one day make it all clear as to “why? Why?? WHY??!!” this is part of redemption. I see her little face on the billboard nearing the new interstate exit and just groan inside. I pray for you sweet love.
Thank you for the reminder to love deeply. The loss is great but the love was deep. It hurts to hear your pain but I am grateful you are willing to be vulnerable and transparent. May God’s love fill you today, may you fall into His shadow once again.
Jai, I sat in 3rd service at GracePoint church yesterday and when I realized who Barry was introducing, I instantly began to weep. I have followed your blog for a few years now, and you and your beloved Allistaire have become so dear to me from afar through the sacred words and pictures you’ve shared. Your story, Allistaire’s story have changed me. May we forever turn our eyes toward our Redeemer. Thank you for sharing your life, her life with us.
I love you Jai. Keep telling us.
I think of Allistaire often and pray for you, Sten and Solveig when I attend Mass. She was such a beautiful, joyful little girl. Our birthdays are a day apart, March 6 and 7, although years apart. She didn’t make 7 and I turned 70 this year but we have cancer in common. However. I have been been more fortunate having survived it twice with no evidence of disease. I keep Allstriare’s picture on top of a chest of drawers along with memorial pictures of some who have passed and other dear ones who still live, family and friends. I met another mother at church the other day who lost her son to cancer when he was 8 years old, the bravest little guy. He would now be 18. I told her about your blog and how she might find comfort there in reading about your and Allistaire’ s cancer journey, and know that she was not alone in her sorrow. We owe them to live our lives to the fullest with courage, joy and determination sustained by their memory and love.
Oh, how my heart yields such compassion for you as you openly express your heartfelt emotion. During our brief meeting following Gracepoint’s third service on Father’s day I witnessed your sympathy towards me upon hearing of the loss of my beloved wife of 23 years. Our memories are powerful as they evoke emotions thet can be as sweet as honey or as devastating as a tornado. Your poignant words are sometimes so very hard to swallow as some of what you describe mirrors my daily reality in this aftermath. Even so, those very words are also a comfort. Not knowing what God has in store for the future has left me clinging to Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I hope this verse, as well as many others, may bring you comfort during times of sorrow. I lift up prayers to the Lord for you.
I visit your blog often hoping for more words from you. You are a gift. Please do write again when you can. I pray for you that the Lord would give you Strength to stand up through all of this. For His glory. Even in the badlands there are new blossoms.
The Abyss of Grief
My (Richard Rohr O.F.M.) friend and brilliant translator of many mystics, Mirabai Starr, who lives nearby in Taos, New Mexico, has encountered numerous deaths and losses, each cultivating in her a deeper spiritual practice and longing for God. But the death of her fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, in a car crash was “an avalanche,” Starr writes, “annihilating everything in its path”:
Suddenly, the sacred fire I have been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss, instantaneously dropped into the vast stillness and pulsing silence at which all my favorite mystics hint. So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face, I was suspended in the invisible arms of a Love I had only dreamed of. Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water.
So this was the state of profound suchness I had been searching for during all those years of contemplative practice. This was the holy longing the saints had been talking about in poems that had broken my heart again and again. This was the sacred emptiness that put that small smile on the face of the great sages. And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back.
But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.”
I didn’t do it right away, nor was I able to sustain it when I did manage a breath of surrender. But gradually I learned to soften into the pain and yield to my suffering. In the process, compassion for all suffering beings began unexpectedly to swell in my heart. I became acutely aware of my connectedness to mothers everywhere who had lost children, who were, at this very moment, hearing the impossible news that their child had died. . . . .
Grief strips us. According to the mystics, this is good news. Because it is only when we are naked that we can have union with the Beloved. We can cultivate spiritual disciplines designed to dismantle our identity so that we have hope of merging with the Divine. Or someone we love very much may die, and we may find ourselves catapulted into the emptiness we had been striving for. Even as we cry out in the anguish of loss, the boundless love of the Holy One comes pouring into the shattered container of our hearts. This replenishing of our emptiness is a mystery, it is grace, and it is built into the human condition.
Few among us would ever opt for the narrow gate of grief, even if it were guaranteed to lead us to God. But if our most profound losses—the death of a loved one, the ending of a marriage or a career, catastrophic disease or alienation from community—bring us to our knees before that threshold, we might as well enter. The Beloved might be waiting in the next room.
Jai and family:
You are often in my thoughts and in my heart. I hope you are doing a little better each day. Grief has no compass, no timeline. But my hope for all of you is that each day is a bit better.