Yesterday I also went to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where there is beautiful light wherever you look.
It’s just something about knitting. It has a small, yet commanding voice, and what it tends to say, in times like these, is that it will help take us through the big steps with little steps. And technically, in this case, those little steps are known as stitches. Knitting takes unease and supports it with shawls the way the performers at a big top support a trapeze artist with a net. It underpins transition with a deeper sort of harmony.
- Deborah Bergman, The Knitting Goddess (NY: Hyperion, 2000)
When I made it home from London, the impact of Ruth Ann’s death knocked the stuffing out of me. While I was away, I had all of London to distract me. Back home, there was nothing to keep the avalanche of grief and the immensity of loss from bowling me over, day after day. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read. Writing was beyond me. There are only so many hours in a day that my body can sit on the harp bench and practice. Long walks siphoned off some of my agitation, but there was no way to walk long enough and far enough to escape sadness. I didn’t know what to do for the far too many hours that I was stuck with just being with myself.
Then I found this yarn, dyed by Debbie Davis at The Fibre Studio at Yarns To Dye For.
The merino and bamboo blend is named “Tidal Pool.” The yarn held all the colors of the many mornings Ruth Ann and I spent on the porch of a rented beach house, drinking coffee and watching the day’s first light play upon the water. As soon as I saw it, I knew that I would use it to knit a prayer shawl for Ruth Ann’s partner.
Searching Ravelry, I found the pattern Simple Shawl for Fancy Yarns by Jen Hintz. It’s perfect for showing off the beauty of the yarn. I cast on the first five stitches on April 12th.
Some days this was the only project I wanted to work on. With every row I thought about Ruth Ann and all the life we shared. The yarn flowing through my fingers was a tangible thread that tied me to her across the emptiness.
Some days I didn’t want to touch the yarn or the shawl that it was becoming. Picking up the knitting needles was picking up and wrapping myself in grief.
Spring’s days and weeks ticked by. The shawl grew slowly, with four stitches added every other row. The weather shifted from spring breezes to summer heat as I added eyelet rows and garter ridges to the basic pattern. I finished the bind-off and took it off my needles on July 18th.
Knitting this shawl was a tangible sign of and outlet for my grief. Each stitch was like a prayer bead that I could, and in fact had to touch and hold as a part of my own coming to terms with Ruth Ann’s death. Now, all these beads are caressed, counted, and strung. The shawl is finished, and sent off to the welcoming arms of Ruth Ann’s partner, with the hope that wearing it will bring her the healing that knitting it brought to me.
The time spent working on the shawl seems to have somehow defined my period of mourning. I feel more ready to move forward into “next,” whatever that may be, and to step into the life where Ruth Ann no longer walks on this earth with me, but stays forever close in my heart.
We had a sell-out concert last night: 1020 seats filled, and over $25,000 raised for Susan G. Komen. Nothing in the rehearsals prepared me for the energy of our performance. I was still awake at 3:00 a.m., still riding the waves created by our sea of voices. We rocked the house.
Lying awake this morning, I thought about cancer, thought about the fear and pain and despair that cancer creates. Cancer takes away our loves, steals our hopes, trashes our plans, turns our dreams into nightmares. But cancer also gives us gifts, if we can face our fears and look it in the face.
Cancer forces us to know our mortality. Our lives, and the lives of our loved ones are suddenly finite, and more precious. Everyday becomes a gift. Every moment can be alight with hidden treasure – cancer reminds us to look for it. Each breath becomes a gift of presence, in the present.
Cancer, by blocking our chosen paths, makes us gather our courage and take new ones. Cancer made me see that the man I loved and planned to marry was not for me. Cancer invited me to step into a new life, a life free of others’ plans and expectations. Two years after my diagnosis I met the love of my life. This year we celebrate 38 years together.
Cancer inspires artists and writers, composers and musicians, to create and express beauty and meaning in a world that often seems short of both. Sing For the Cure is but one example.
And cancer creates community and connection, inspires reaching across the distances and differences that we think divide us. Last night, every singer remembered the dear ones who are gone from our loving embrace. Every singer celebrated the survival of friends, family, and ourselves. Every singer gave life to the hope and determination that cancer will be defeated, and promised that together we will look fearlessly towards our future, with one glorious voice.
It is never about how good your voice is; it is only about feeling the urge to sing, and then having the courage to do it with the voice you are given.
Ruth Ann and I shared a love of choral singing. We both sang in choruses years ago. Then adult life kept each of us from that passion. When I retired, I joined the community college chorus for a couple of semesters, and got to sing in the Verdi Requiem. When Ruth Ann moved to North Carolina, she got to sing in the community performance of The Messiah for two Christmas seasons.
We also shared wonder for the transcendent experiences that joining voices in song will create. I understood her experience of feeling as though she was singing with every choral director she’d ever known as she sang The Hallelujah Chorus. She understood my experience of Verdi opening a portal between worlds with the music of his Requiem.
I didn’t make it to Ruth Ann’s The Messiah performances. The first year I was sick. Last year an ice storm threatened and I was afraid to travel. I thought I would get to go “next year.” Now, there won’t be a next year. This year, I’ve learned not to count on one.
I was playing harp for my friend Roxann’s memorial service when a choral conductor asked if I would like to sing in this year’s performance of Sing For The Cure®, a song cycle about people affected by breast cancer. I knew nothing about the music, but figured that if I can sing the Verdi Requiem, I could manage to sing this.
And I can. We’ve been rehearsing since the end of June. The conductor broke down the 10 songs into manageable chunks that make the music accessible. I can play the alto parts on my recorder, so I can work on my lines outside of rehearsals. While I have pretty good relative pitch, I know that the chances of me finding and singing a B-flat or a C-sharp out of context is pretty slim. But my strategy for Verdi success – to be in the midst of altos who are spot on with initial pitches – still works.
Being a part of this production is full of gifts. Singing with 100 other voices is amazing, thrilling, and beautiful. These joy-filled sounds, and being a part of making them, creates light and heals dark places in my heart. I’ve cried thinking how much Ruth Ann would love this work. I’ve cried from missing her and from her not being here to hear it. And I’ve remembered how happy and excited she would be for me to be singing, and how much she would like these songs, and felt her presence close by in the remembering.
The music and the lyrics are so full of hope and determination that someday soon, this disease will be eradicated, and until then, no one will ever have to walk this path alone. There lies healing I didn’t expect and didn’t know I needed. This year marks my 40th anniversary as a cancer survivor. I was 22 years old when I was diagnosed with cervical and uterine cancer. Although for the rest of her life my mother denied having taken any medication while pregnant with me, twenty years later my aunt disclosed that after multiple miscarriages my mother took DES.
In 1974, mentioning a cancer diagnosis could clear a room faster than dog farts. People acted as though cancer was contagious. My talking about having cancer put them at risk of getting it.
Friends disappeared. My mother drank. My boyfriend stopped touching me. There weren’t many who could stare down their own fears enough to be able to help me with mine. There were no organizations or groups to support cancer patients, and no internet to research treatment options. There was no networking of patients and survivors, and no ribbons pinned to collars and lapels. I walked this cancer path silently and alone.
The songs in Sing For The Cure® create a different reality, one where promises are kept, and hope is alive, and no one has to face cancer alone. A world where silence is banished as 100 voices sing:
I am one voice; I will not be silent
’til my song is sung around the world
You have only begun
to hear the power of one
I will keep on singing ’til I’m heard.
We are one voice; we will not be silent
We will keep on singing ’til were heard
We are one voice; we will not be silent
’til our song is sung around the world
Let the music begin
and let hope live again
We will keep on singing ’til we’re heard.
WE will keep on singing ’til our work is done
We will keep on singing ’til the race is won
We will keep singing ’til the ribbons that we wear
wave like banners of life in the air!
We have one life; one choice; one hope
We are one voice!
Through Music’s magic the songs I sing this summer can go back in time and heal the heart of the scared young woman I was forty years ago. And forty years on, that young woman is neither scared nor alone. She has a community of people and songs that share her experiences, reflect and acknowledge her feelings, and honor her survival.
Some of you may be so fortunate as to have never been visited by the Cat Fairy. You may not have even heard of her. The Cat Fairy skulks about, looking for unsuspecting soft-hearted cat lovers. You may not even consider yourself a cat lover. No matter. When the Cat Fairy finds someone who she determines is worthy of her gifts, she leaves a cat or kitten on the doorstep. The Cat Fairy will not be denied. When she determines that you must have a cat, then YOU WILL HAVE ONE!
I’ve been regularly blessed by the Cat Fairy. Her first visit was 40 years ago. One rainy night I let one cat outside, and ten minutes later two cats came back in. Audrey and I were together for 17 years.
Ruby, my first cairn terrier, and I were on our morning walk when we heard a tiny “mew” from the overgrown drainage ditch on the side of the road. Ruby loved cats and had one of her very own, so I knew she would not hurt whoever was calling to us. I let her off her leash and asked her to find it. Minutes later she emerged from the high grass delicately carrying four-week-old Arrow by the scruff of her neck. That began another 17 year cat-human cohabitation.
I cannot escape the Cat Fairy no matter where I travel. Sixteen years ago I pulled up to the rental cabin at Hunting Island State Park, and Willow was waiting on the steps to the screened porch. I swear she said, “What took you so long?” As we opened the door she sauntered inside, walked to my bedroom, hopped onto the bed and fell asleep. She’s slept on my bed every night since.
Willow was my last present from the Cat Fairy. It’s been so long since CF visited I thought that I might finally be off her list. And after figuring out that I’ve been cleaning cat litter boxes every night for 42 years, I was ready for my current cat crop to be my last.
Woe be to anyone who thinks that the Cat Fairy will at last pass them by. Here’s what she left on my front porch for my birthday:
Let me introduce Scout, all whopping two pounds of her. She let me get close enough to pick her up yesterday. Off we went to the vet, where she was pronounced female and feline leukemia / AIDS negative. So begins her new life as an inside cat with the other two felines already in residence.
Willow and Murphy are totally disgusted. (I am amazed at the sounds they can make to voice their displeasure.) Charley is cautiously curious, having previously met kitten claws. I am totally smitten. This new little life is gladdening places in my heart that have felt only sadness since losing Ruth Ann.
Scout thinks it’s time for my bath. My left hand is under attack by a sandpaper kitten tongue. Oops, now it’s my toes. Gotta go!
Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.
I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.
Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping. Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”
I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”
I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.
When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.
In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.
The season of tulips is over:
The season of irises begins:
March’s wood hyacinths are fading away:
While the Dianthus burst forth into the heat of May:
The airy clouds of dogwood blossoms brown and fade:
Becoming litter on the ground:
While maple leaves unfurl into summer, creating welcome shade:
The gifts of each season pass, but are unerringly replaced by the gifts of the next season. Every morning walk tells me this is so. Every morning walk should assure me that the passing of the season of Ruth Ann in my life will be followed by gifts of the next season, gifts as yet unimagined and unknown.
But the shape and weight of the emptiness left by her death continue to confound me. My meager tendrils of faith in the turning world struggle to take root and grow. Trusting that a new season will quietly tiptoe into my life and astound me with its beauty requires moment-by-moment suspension of disbelief.
My favorite television show is Call the Midwife. Last Sunday’s episode closed with these words:
Invisible wounds are the hardest to heal, for their closure depends upon the love of others, and patience, understanding and the tender gift of time.
I am blessed with the love of others. My own patience and understanding for my hurting heart are in short supply. But the tender gift of time arrives of its own accord, without requirements of belief, faith or consent. And so, I act “as if” the passing of grief and the return of joy are inevitable, even while faith and trust remain out of reach. And every morning I step out the door, and keep walking.
I’ve avoided writing this post since four days into my trip to London, and for the last two months. I landed in London on Tuesday, February 18th. On Friday, just after visiting Hampton Court Palace, I read the e-mail my friend Jeanette said was the hardest she ever had to write, the one telling me that our friend and my soul-sister Ruth Ann died early Thursday morning.
Ruth Ann had lung surgery two weeks earlier. She told me not to come see her in the hospital – she didn’t want me picking up some nasty illness before my trip. She came through surgery like a champ, and was home recuperating and doing well. I thought the time for any potential problems was over, and that her only challenge was to slowly and steadily regain her strength and stamina. I thought that I would see her and tell her all about my trip once I was home. Some unseen, unknown, undiagnosed complication caused her to hemorrhage, and changed everything.
It was easy to do blog posts while I was in London. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I made myself leave the house every day and go see at least one of the sites on my London list. Getting to and spending time in interesting places was a much-needed distraction. Picking out which photos to post and writing some breezy description of where I’d been that day helped fill up what had become long, grief-filled evenings and sleepless nights.
But once home, there was only one thing that I could possibly write about. And to write about Ruth Ann’s death would make it far too real, and more than I could bear. This grief has been so physical, so heavy to carry. Breathing takes such an expenditure of energy, energy that seems lost and gone forever, just like Ruth Ann. It’s taken every bit of this time to believe and accept that my soul-sister no longer lives on this Earth and that I will never again gaze into her eyes and heart. It’s taken every bit of this time to wrap my heart around this emptiness.
Since coming home I’ve tried to keep showing up for all the things that fill my life, if only because I know that Ruth Ann would not want me to lose one moment of life or connection or music in my grieving for her. And so, I walk. I knit. I practice. I show up for yoga class and the Hospice unit and harp lessons and ensemble rehearsals. I spend time with still-living friends who love me and care for my aching heart. But I’ve not written a word, in either my private journal or my blog.
In the two months since Ruth Ann died, the Earth turned towards the Sun. The hours of darkness shrink, and light beckons. The oaks and maples unfurl new green leaves against a china-blue sky. Shade returns to the world. White and pink clouds of dogwood blossoms arch over the neighborhood streets. The scent of confederate jasmine hangs in the air. White azalea blossoms mound like snowdrifts, and offer backdrop for the crimson, lavender and pink azaleas that compete for attention. A sudden burst of red on green bursts into song as the cardinal perches in the cedar tree beside my driveway.
It’s Easter Sunday, the day to celebrate resurrection and redemption. Easter does not erase the pain of Ruth Ann’s passing, but it reminds me that life emerges from darkness, and that we are all offered resurrection. I breathe out gratitude for beauty that still fills this world, and for the hope that is promised this day. And that’s a start.
My last day in London I found Little Venice, a hidden paradise on the Regents Canal in Maida Vale.
The canal is lined with narrowboats repurposed from their original task of transporting goods through London, to become off-beat homes on the water.
On Sunday afternoon you can take the Waterbus to Camden Lock, and float through a hidden, wild London.