My Creative Sketchbook: Grief and Crows

Yesterday I spent time with a friend who is enduring a great loss. I came home and did this page in my sketchbook. While it won’t make my friend feel any better, my heart was a little lighter after I finished it. 


A Year Gone

No, time doesn’t heal all wounds; that’s not how it works. rather, wounds heal time – you suddenly find, after the hard work of grief, that this hard thing has made you take the hard step and you have grown. You may look more contorted, more wrinkled, more bent, more scarred. But inside the heart beats with a deeper tattoo. Grief does not depart – don’t let anyone ever convince you that it does. When you learned to walk, didn’t you fall? Didn’t it hurt? Didn’t you cry? Your legs didn’t go away, though. And grief, which gives the soul perambulation, doesn’t end. The grief gives you a new way to journey. It allows you to walk, to fly, to purchase new horizons, to see new worlds, to listen more attentively.

“After James Died” by Harry Kelley in KnitLit: Sweaters and Their Stories…And Other Writing About Knitting. Linda Roghaar and Molly Wolf. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.

It was this day, one year ago, that I returned from my trip to Hampton Court Palace to find the email telling me that Ruth Ann died the night before. At one moment the world was sane and made sense. In the next moment, a skewed and distorted reality took its place.

This year I lived in these parallel worlds, straddling the crack that ran to the depths of my foundation. In one world, all is normal. Clocks tick, water flows downhill, and the sun rises dutifully in the east every morning. In the other world, a river of chaos roars through careening canyon walls, time refuses to move forward, and I am caught in the ever repeating loop of reading the email telling me that Ruth Ann is gone forever. There is no more sunshine. I must find a way to live in the dark.

In one world, I go to harp lessons and to recorder ensemble and to play at the hospital. I walk the dog and practice harp and knit, and resemble a normal person. In the other world, time flows backwards, and is filled with jumbled dreams of travel and temporary dwellings. Strange dream characters have malevolent purposes, and make promises that are empty lies. I awake confused and exhausted into the world that contains the all too real nightmare of Ruth Ann’s death.

Somehow, in this long year, I found a way to balance between the worlds, and survived them both. New roots grew in that sudden darkness. Signs of life are murmuring just under the surface.

I still don’t know what will break through the soil’s crust and emerge into the light, but I know it will happen. And when it does, I will call it Hope.

Finding Solace: Knitting A Prayer Shawl

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.

Tidal Pool by Debbie Davis
Tidal Pool by Debbie Davis

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.

Completed Prayer Shawl
Completed Prayer Shawl
Prayer Shawl Detail
Prayer Shawl Detail

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.

To Everything There Is A Season

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.

Death and Life

My friend with pancreatic cancer died this afternoon. I did not get to go play my harp for her again. A nasty cold kept me away the past ten days. It seemed unfair to inflict sore throat, fever and sinus congestion on someone who is already dying. Enough is enough.

I am sad that I did not get to see her again, and grateful that she is no longer suffering.

The turning cogwheel of my world is missing more and more teeth: my dad, Leo, Bettie, Patti, Ruth, John, and now Roxann. Yet, “the big wheel keeps on turnin’, ” missing teeth and all, and life rolls on.

The life that rolled on tonight was the end-of-semester Recorder Ensemble concert. Again we had more people in the audience than we had playing on stage, and many members of the audience were not related to any of the recorder players . . . I guess our fame is spreading.

This semester’s music was the most challenging I’ve played since joining the ensemble five years ago. For many of the pieces I was the solo soprano amongst the flock of altos, tenors and basses.

Tonight, for the first time, I can say that I am happy with how I played in a concert. My stomach remained in its assigned place instead of in my throat, and my hair-trigger adrenal glands did not surprise me with a sudden overdose of adrenaline. While I was not note perfect on every piece, I never lost the flow of the music, never lost the beat, and never lost the joy of playing.

Tonight, with my friend’s death heavy in my heart, I am grateful to still be in this silly old world, even with all its missing pieces. I’m grateful to be able to play music, grateful to be able to still walk among the trees and beneath the stars and with the friends who remain close by my side. I’m grateful to be able to say, “I’m happy with how I played tonight,” and to go to sleep with a satisfied mind.

Time For A Change

January 2007 began with my brother-in-law dying of leukemia. In March I took my soul-brother off the ventilator and held his hand as his spirit flew off to see what happens next. As the year continued, two work colleagues left this earth, along with a dear man who mentored me early in my career.

Later that spring, my oldest cat began throwing up blood, a symptom of the lymphoma that was supposed to have killed her six years ago, and she had to be put down. In August my cairn terrier’s diabetes became too brittle to be controlled by insulin injections, and Skylar joined Arrow on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge.

In October my surviving cat Willow developed uncontrolled vomiting, which resulted in exploratory surgery, followed by a month of keeping her alive at home by four-times-a-day forced nutrition through a feeding tube.

The first week in November, Willow went upstairs still connected to her feeding tube, and came back downstairs without it. She decided that enough was enough and used her time alone to pull it out. On the way home from the vet, a speeding car ran a red light and hit me broadside as I was making a left turn. By the time my sweet old ’93 Volvo wagon stopped spinning, headlight and tail light covers popped off and were strewn in the roadway, every piece of plastic on the inside of the car shattered, and the rear axle snapped in two. The legendary Volvo frame was so bent that once the fireman forced the rear hatch open, the entire car skewed so that neither side doors nor rear hatch could be closed again.

So 2007 ended with my car dying to save me and my cat – we both emerged shaken and bruised, but we walked away basically unharmed.

At the end of 2007, the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles decided that those of us who had old, three-digit license plates had to be issued new four-digit license plates. I’d had the same plate for at least 20 years, and I wasn’t looking forward to having to memorize a new tag number. But when I opened the package with the new tag, I knew that I’d have no problem remembering it. This is what the DMV decided I needed that crazy year:


Turns out there was big public outrage about plates being issued with that particular combination of letters. The DMV ended that tag run and offered to replace the existing tags of anyone who was offended. But I loved my new license plate. It completely and thoroughly summed up surviving 2007.

But now, 2007 feels well behind me. Now, in 2013, it’s time for a change. I’ve thought about a personalized license plate for the last couple of years, but when tag renewal time rolled around, I talked myself out of the extra expense. Thanks to refinancing the mortgage, last month I had a little extra cash in my checking account, and I decided to take the plunge. The new tag arrived yesterday evening, and I braved the latest horde of mosquitoes to install it.

Here’s what my car will be sporting for the next few years:


My old tag reminded me of everyone I lost that long year, and all that I survived. My new tag makes me giggle. I like the change.

Entering The After Life

My words have been frozen since writing about John’s memorial service, which was four weeks ago today. I’ve been living in some alternative time stream, where my body and my thoughts move slowly and the simplest tasks take longer than seems possible to complete. Writing a blog post has been like poling an unwieldy craft upstream against the current – lots of effort with little ground gained. I end up no closer to shore than when I started.

Finally the ice is melting. After two weeks of travel and new sights, I am moving from the shock and disbelief that John is gone, to the after life, the life that will be lived despite being irreparably changed by loss.

The life that is mine to live includes writing. Tonight the writing is nothing special or profound. It is reclaiming the act of putting fingers to the keyboard, watching the words appear on the screen, because this is how I live. This is what I do.

A Musician’s Saddest Task

This week, the joy and excitement of playing in ensemble and making music with others is bookended by the sadness and grief of losing an ensemble member and saying goodbye.

Last summer the evening recorder ensemble lost Ruth. She was hospitalized the week of our spring concert – after all her work to learn our challenging repertoire, she could not play with us. At our last class meeting I learned that she chose to only have palliative treatment for the leukemia that took her life only two short months later. But I had the chance to say goodbye, to tell her how welcomed she made me feel as a new member of the ensemble, and to fulfill the request she’d made many times – to play the harp for her.

Ruth played in this group for close to thirty years. When her daughter asked us to play at the memorial service, it seemed exactly the best way to honor Ruth’s memory and to say goodbye. The afternoon was a celebration of a life lived large, a life filled with love given and received, and a celebration of our own lives being enriched by having known and played music with Ruth.

Yesterday I said goodbye to John – too soon gone, killed as a result of a freak accident. He is someone I’ve known for years from attending concerts of the many ensembles he played in. A classically trained clarinetist, there was not a wind instrument he couldn’t play. The more ancient and obscure the instrument, the better, which is undoubtedly why he became a master of the hurdy-gurdy. He played in almost every ensemble at the community college – early music, baroque, big band – as well as more ensembles in the community that I even knew existed, including Celtic, Renaissance, contra dance band and klezmer. Almost any day I was in the music department I would see John, either with his head in his locker searching for music or an instrument, or scurrying to his next rehearsal.

He was so welcoming and supportive when I began playing with the early music consort last fall. He had a wicked sense of humor, and sitting just one chair over from me, he could always make me laugh and relax when the sight-reading and rhythms were just too much for me. Every week he reminded me that playing music was about having fun together. I so looked forward to many more years of playing together in consort, to many more years of getting to know him. I was just starting to say “hello” and now I already must say “goodbye.”

His brother asked that the consort play a prelude to yesterday’s memorial service. The church sanctuary is huge, seating a thousand people. Our joy at knowing John, and our grief at losing him poured into our recorders, and we filled the soaring space with sound. The music we played was from our hurting hearts, and was never sweeter or more beautiful.

The reception after the service included musicians playing a Celtic jam session. It was the kind of gathering that John loved; the kind of music-making where he would have pulled out any number of instruments from his backpack and played along.

So on this day, death is bookended with the sounds and songs of the living. For a few blessed minutes, there is just the music. For a few blessed minutes, healing can begin. The music binds us together, holds us tight against the sudden emptiness where John should be. And perhaps, if we squint hard into the fading sunlight, music allows us a glimpse of our absent friend, and gives us our only golden chance to say goodbye.