An “F” in Grief

I’m like a dog with a bone when I want to learn something new. I’ll devour everything until I reek of the topic. I’m finding, however, that grief is not something you can learn by osmosis. Who knew?

In my quest to ace my Grief exam, I’ve gone through a stack of books, tons of blogs–everything I could get my hands on–and I’ve given myself an F.

I must admit, I’ve been a little cocky when it’s come to navigating the winding path of my feelings in the past six months. When I’d met Caroline (not her real name) two months after Hilary had passed, I took one look at her and thought, Oh hell, no. She had been bereaved three years after losing her son to a deliberate fentanyl overdose, and she still looked like hell. I determined that I wasn’t going to look like that in three years. Like the 1 in a million person who thinks they’ll be the only one who won’t require antidepressants for clinical depression, I was going to be that one person who would get through grief with a smile on her face. Not a huge toothy grin that said everything was just peachy, but rather, the wistful, damn-she’s-been-though-hell-and-back-but-she’s-still-showin’-up smile that shows just enough grace to hide the arrogance.

Fat chance. We were sitting in a coffee shop sipping on lattes and I spilled the beans, along with a torrent of tears.

“I owe you an apology, Caroline,” I sniveled. “When I met you, you told me that it was one thing to seek joy, but not to be disappointed if I didn’t find it. I was so angry at you for being such a Negative Nancy. But here I am, miserable. It’s all I can do to get my ass out of bed on the days I’m not working, much less be joyful.”

One of her rare, almost-smiles emerges; even a little laugh. “That’s ok. I get it. Who would sign up for this?”

I’m learning that Caroline is a whole lot stronger than I’d ever given her credit for and I’m honoured that she will take her bandages off to allow me to look at her wounds. To me, she’s a freakin’ grief rock star. She can spot a trigger from a mile away, knows enough to give herself “I’m gonna allow myself to feel like shit today” days and buffers them with moments where she chooses joy–or something close to it.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that reading every book written on grief, surviving suicide, and every other literary attempt at finding hope in the midst of crap isn’t getting me any further down the road. It’s actually been a distraction from doing the real work of grief. This is where my friend, Peter would tell me that there is no right or wrong way to do grief, Monica. You do what you need to when you need to. I know this in a head-smart kind of way, but I couldn’t shake the fact that my emotional responses weren’t adding up. Does grief look like irritation? Annoyance? Panic, even?

I was at a dinner party with friends. I made myself go. I didn’t really want to; I was prepared to curl up on my couch and happily contemplate my navel for yet another evening, thank you very much. But eventually I decided that isolating myself was probably not healthy either, so I showed up. I was doing okay, just hanging out on the periphery of conversations. A hot discussion on gun control ensued; proponents for and against making their impassioned pleas for their stance on the matter, talking loudly and passionately over one another. I could feel my head start to spin and my heart beating fast in my chest. I began doing the grounding techniques I’d heard about. Ok, Monica. What can you see with your eyes? What can you smell? What are your feet touching? I couldn’t take it anymore and I bolted from the room, locked myself in the bathroom and bawled until I was spent.

I think C. S. Lewis best describes what had just taken place.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times, it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” (C.S. Lewis: A Grief Observed)

There it was. Grief does indeed look an awful lot like fear. Fear of being alone and fear of having to be among people. Even resuming hobbies I once enjoyed, like my writing classes or musical theatre haven’t been the same. I could handle seeing people that I’d met in previous classes, but who were these new students? I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. Stay away from me. This is an unexpected nuance of grief, this fear. Fear pisses me off. It shows up as anxiety, wakes me up way too early with the incessant, what are you going to do? on repeat, until I throw the covers back, cursing the very day itself. I decided that rather than make space in my sock drawer for fear, I’m giving it an eviction notice.

The fighting back has involved psychotherapy with a gentle giant who doesn’t irritate me–which is good–very few attempts at seeking professional help in the last while can boast the same result. (During one telephone counseling session, the counselor referred to me as Lady throughout the entire discourse.) There’s also a pair of hot pink boxing gloves that are routinely donned to pummel the crap out of a heavy bag. That feels good. The gentle giant once asked me if I had anyone’s face in mind as I whaled on it. I had to think for a bit, but no one came to mind– unless grief can be personified.

I’m not as far along as I’d like to be on this wilderness terrain, but it is what it is. Some days my only testimony is, I’m still here. That’ll have to do for now.

Yes and amen.

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Lessons in Bike-Riding

I’ve never been a stellar cyclist. Balance has always seemed to elude me. One false move or glance and I’m wobbling all over the trail struggling to remain in the upright position. The best piece of advice I was ever given was this: Don’t look down at where you are, but ahead to where you want to go. Not just for cycling; this is a metaphor for living. More than ever, I’m learning to look ahead to where I want my life to go instead of looking at where I am now. If I look at my current situation, I can become anxious and full of doubt, making me lose my balance and risking a crash.

It’s not easy, but it is necessary. Hilary was fond of telling me that everything is temporary; nothing ever stays the same. Whether a season was good or not-so-good, she would just keep going until it changed again, despite her own anxiety and fears. I don’t know that I fully appreciated her tenacity at the time, but now I’m trying to follow in her footsteps. Grief can provide ample temptation to remain stuck and intentionally choosing to re-join life–even find some joy in it– can feel like betrayal, as if somehow you’re over it.

But I’m trying. Today it was a bike ride. A good friend had upgraded his bike and gifted me with his original ride. Although the saying goes “it’s like riding a bike; you never forget,” it took me a while to get the hang of it again. In my favorite park, I found my footing and actually enjoyed viewing the scenery as the gears clicked into place.

While I’m far from mastering changing gears, literally and figuratively, I’m learning. With a change in vocation, I’m navigating uncharted territory. Trusting my own instincts, learning from the experience of others and leaning into that still small voice are the markers that are guiding me into this new foray. Like never before, being vulnerable, quick to admit, I was wrong and I’m sorry, and setting healthy boundaries have become part of my daily existence. Each day has begun with the questions: What lessons am I going to learn today and do I have to learn them the hard way again? Strange as it seems, I look for Hilary in these moments. She was so chill when it came to making mistakes and owning them (eventually!), so I find myself wondering what she would do in the situations I’m finding myself in; what advice would she give. Funny, I never sought advice from her when she was here; I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. Now, however, I’m kind of in the world she once inhabited. One where pain, anxiety and defensiveness are the norm for my charges, I’m constantly wondering how she dealt with the incessant onslaught of emotions. In the still small voice in my spirit, I hear her two cents worth being thrown in: Remember mom; everything is temporary. Don’t get stuck in where you are, but where you’re going. You’re killin’ it, ma.

Thanks Hil; I needed that.

Yes and amen.

One Last Walk

It was a day of goodbyes. As I made my final trek to Owen Sound, it occurred to me that this would be the last visit I would be making to this little city to visit family. This was the day before Derek was leaving to join our son in Kamloops, BC. But before he could leave, there was some things that needed to be taken care of.

The bathroom for starters. As far as ex-wives go, I think I’m pretty awesome. Arriving at his home as the moving truck was wheeling away meant the only thing that remained was the clean-up. While Derek gathered a load of garbage to take to the dump, I was up to my elbows in Mr. Clean and soapy water. Yeah, I was helping to clean up my ex’s house. Some people marvel at the fact that we can be civil–even kind towards one another. If you haven’t figured it out by now, life is too short to be treating anyone–ex’s included–like an ass hat. Perhaps more so in the last few months, we’ve extended more grace to one another than in previous years, but it’s only been slightly more of a stretch. Whether or not we were able to keep a marriage together had no bearing on the fact that we had brought two children into the world together.

And since we had been together to bring those children into the world, it only made sense that we should be together when we returned one of them to the earth.

After the house was in order, it was time to head to the park. Seated in the front seat of Derek’s car, I cradled a soft velvet bag that contained all that remained of our daughter, Hilary. Focusing on the road ahead, I anticipated our final walk.

Harrison Park is a landmark in the city of Owen Sound. This vast expanse of woodland was donated to the city by a man of the same name, and for years, it had been a favorite place to enjoy nature. Each step along the trail with Hilary still snuggled against my chest, brought back over two decades of memories. I remembered summers of swimming in the pool nestled in the forest. Both Hilary and her brother Cameron were like tadpoles, swimming under water and only coming up for air when they absolutely couldn’t hold their breath any longer. Famished after a swim, we would make our way to the Inn for an ice cream cone. Our Saturday morning ritual was breakfast at the Park Inn and the kids always insisted that we sit in their favorite server, Andrew’s, section where he would talk to them like real people. I noticed that the bird sanctuary was still home to the peacocks. As toddlers, the kids would compete to see who could out-screech the peacocks, much to the chagrin of other park-goers. In Hil’s later years when she would come to see her dad, a visit wouldn’t be complete without taking her dogs, Ebony and Lila, for a romp through the forest– winter, spring or summer–it didn’t matter.

Derek had taken over carrying the velvet bag and I snapped pictures of my favorite places in the park. A field of trilliums that the long-awaited spring had finally yielded, created a beautiful carpet for the forest floor. With the trees finally in bloom, a primordial canopy sheltered us as we went about the business of sharing Hilary with the woodland. I watched with sadness as Derek set about finding the perfect places. I’d never seen him indecisive in the thirty-plus years I’d known him, so I acquiesced to every place he chose, letting him anoint flowers, ferns and paths where Hilary’s feet no doubt had tread.

If I’d wondered if Hilary was hovering over us watching the proceedings, I was quickly assured. Just as Derek had shared Hilary with the river, a dog came bounding out of nowhere, and jumped on the precise spot where Derek had poured her ashes. The dog jumped and frolicked in absolute joy. We looked at each other first in shock, and then burst into fits of laughter. With her love of dogs and any four-legged animal, we knew it could only be Hilary making her presence known. This act alone brought a peace and comfort that was much needed.

Finally, I asked if I could have some of her ashes. Derek went to hand the container to me but I simply held out my hand.

“You want me to just pour it into your hand?” He seemed surprised.

“Sure, why not. It’s just Hilary.”

I think he was a little hesitant at first, but did it anyway. The ashes, which more closely resembled sand from a beautiful white beach, actually seemed warm in my hand. I looked intently at the contents, reminding myself that I was only holding her carrying case; her truest self–her spirit–was everywhere.

I released the ashes into another part the river, at a spot where I was sure she and her brother had stood, watching for fish, frogs and whatever else they believed lurked beneath the water.

We walked for a while in silence when Derek turned to me and said with a serious voice, “Uh, Monica…”

“Yeah?”

“I think you’ve got Hilary on your pants.”

I looked down at my pant leg to see white finger prints on my thigh. “Oh well, she was always getting into my clothes.” I didn’t brush her off.

While it was a bittersweet occasion, it only seemed fitting that we made the pilgrimage back to one of the most memorable places that Hilary enjoyed; whether with friends, family or in solitude. I’d like to think that wherever she’s walking now is far more beautiful than any place her journey on earth took her and that one day, we’ll be walking the same path again.

Hope Deferred? No Thanks

I was already in the waiting room when Barbara walked into the office.  Although we’d yet to meet, somehow just watching her enter the space let me know she was my assigned peer support person for the survivors of suicide group I’d joined.  She had the look of someone who was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Even when she tried to smile at the receptionist, sadness wouldn’t let her.

Our greeting was almost apologetic.  Like we were embarrassed by our common thread, we made awkward introductions.

“How long have you been bereaved?” I’d learned the lingo; you don’t just come out and ask when their loved one had taken their life.

”It’s been about three years.”

I was stunned.  Three years?  She looked like it had just happened three weeks ago.  She was, well…so pained. I silently declared that I would not look like that in three years; hopefully not in three months.

Barbara recounted stories of learning to push away the people who didn’t help but only added to her pain, how she ceased to make her son David’s favorite foods and telling people that she had two children—not acknowledging that one no longer made earth his home.

“Monica,” Barbara sighed.  “Losing David was like losing my leg.  I can get a prosthetic leg, or use crutches, but I will never walk on my leg again.  It’s like that.”

In my mind, I just couldn’t fathom the hopelessness with which she spoke. It sounded to me like she didn’t think she had a choice.

“I feel like I need to stay connected with things that used to bring me joy,” I processed aloud.

“That’s good,” she encouraged, then landed the sucker punch, “But don’t have the expectation that you will have joy.  Highly unlikely.”

“Are you a woman of faith?” I asked.

“No,” she responds shaking her head. “David used to talk about his favorite Catholic church.  I don’t know if he ever actually attended it, but every now and then, I order a mass and attend. I only do it because he liked it.”

I suppose this is where I get stuck. While I am grateful that this woman who has also suffered this unimaginable loss would take the time to enter my pain, I can’t help but feel that we are walking a totally different path. I’m not suggesting that a relationship with God is the only source of hope and peace, but as I listened to her words, the over-arching theme was one of a loss of hope and a lack of desire to find it. Much of her ‘advice’ centred around white lies, denial and pushing away. I honour her vulnerability and willingness to share, but I simply can’t go there.

I recently watched the based-on-a-true-story movie, Breakthrough, where a mother is desperate for her son to recover from what should have been a fatal accident. She overhears people talking about the futility of her prayers and medical intervention, and is devastated by their comments. She announces that her son’s hospital room and the adjacent waiting rooms were to be filled with words of life and hope, and if people couldn’t find something positive to say, they needed to leave. I hear you, sister.

I choose to believe in God’s goodness. I choose to believe that while there may be pain in the night, joy will come in the morning. I have to choose this daily. I don’t know when that morning will be, but I’m trying to embrace the hope that comes with it. I’m not deflecting, lest anyone should think otherwise. My one-way yelling matches with God and Hilary–for that matter– would prove otherwise.
These past few days when the sun has deigned to shine on me and my situation, I have attempted to embrace it–even find joy in it. I used to find joy in running (ok, more like a slow jog), but just putting one foot in front of the other has been an effort, but I want to, so I try. I signed up for another session of musical theatre; it’s ok–not spectacular– but I show up. Same with my writing classes.

I. Show. Up.

I recognize that for some, experiences with God–or how He’s been portrayed by others– has left you with more doubts and questions than hope and answers. But for me, He is my Source of strength. Most days I have no clue what He’s doing in my life. I don’t understand much these days, but I choose to trust. I choose to believe that God will work with whatever daily decisions I make, just as He worked with Hilary’s decision. I know that she is in heaven because of the decisions she made in her life before she chose to end it. If I allow myself to believe that it’s all down-hill from here and my life will cease to have any meaning, relevance or joy, it’s like choosing to lie down and pull the earth up over me. In the words of Hilary, “That’s a hard no!”

The dark days will come, I know. I might be triggered by a song, a smell, or even a phrase, but I’m not going to go looking for them in expectation. I know they are there; no one needs to tell me, but thanks for reminding me. What I am going to do is to choose to move forward in my grief, with the hope of a day that’s maybe better than yesterday. Because hope deferred, definitely makes the heart sick and I’m ready to feel something else in my ticker.

Yes and amen.

The Show Must Go On

I had signed up for Musical Theatre, a class at the local Arts Centre.  The thought of getting up and singing in front of an audience after a twenty-year hiatus scared the crap out of me, which was precisely why I wanted to do it; to step out of my comfort zone.  A man I had briefly dated had once said to me, ‘ Are you sure you want to do that?  With your low and gravelly voice?’ 

            ‘Screw you,’  I thought. For that very reason, I signed up.

It was nerve-wracking and I struggled with the fear that I would get up on stage and botch it supremely.  Hilary was supportive and told me that I could do it and to not let the criticism of a guy (whom she’d never met but had already decided she heartily disliked), discourage me from going for it.

After her death, I wasn’t sure I should or could.  I was afraid people would think I was getting on with my life far too soon after losing her, but I realized that to not go ahead was like letting fear and doubt win, so I went for it.  I’d missed a couple of classes and only returned for the dress rehearsal.  Both teachers, Susan and Yo, and my fellow students were amazingly supportive and created such a safe space.  Susan assured me that if I decided not to sing in the final performance, but rather just come to hang out with the gang, that would be fine too.  My decision was made based on the fact that if I didn’t show up, I’d just be sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, and kicking myself for not following through. I pushed through my misgivings and put on my costume and make-up and showed up.

            When you make it to the other side of the greatest loss imaginable, you realize that it would take a lot more than stage fright to take you out.  So what if I bombed?  What was the worst thing that could happen?  The audience would applaud politely and forget me as they sipped their morning coffee the next day. 

I remember walking through the back hallway towards my stage entrance, my mic was in place, and I was listening to my fellow-student, Deborah begin her song.  I was next, and as I quietly stood at the back of the theatre, there was an unbelievable calm.  I had no jitters; my heart wasn’t racing and there was a giddy sense of excitement to get in front of the audience and just sing my three-minute song.  Cue music.  I entered from upstage right into the spotlight.  I vaguely remembered seeing my sister in the front row and was glad that we had been instructed to focus our gaze at the control booth at the back of the stage above the seats. I didn’t want to see anyone. As I sang, I was aware that my timing was off and I was not synchronized with the backing track, but I didn’t care; I knew I would catch up.  I was having a conversation in my head the whole time I was singing; ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually doing it.  I’m singing in front of an audience and there is no fear.  I’m doing it!’

As if being led, I looked to the upper-most right-hand corner of the theatre where I noticed a bright stage light. In my minds eye, I could see Hilary watching from the rafters.  ‘I’m going to go for it,’  I decided.  In practice, my voice would crack or disappear altogether when I would attempt hitting the higher notes that Ella Fitzgerald sang in her rendition of Someone to Watch Over Me.  Not tonight.  Tonight, I’m singing for Hilary and I will not disappoint her.  I took the final line of the song and raised it up to those rafters from where I was sure Hilary was watching.  Perfection—at least for an amateur.  And then the applause.  I could hear my friends whooping it up from the middle of the audience.  With an almost imperceptible grin on my face, I exited to where my fellow students were waiting back-stage.  Hugs, high-fives and congratulations greeted me. Relief.  And then the tears.  Tears that I had finished what I’d started and Hilary would have been proud.  Tears for the realization that I’d no longer have this distraction from my grief.  It was a bittersweet crescendo at the end of a symphony.

            As Nora McInerny says in her Ted Talk about grief, grieving isn’t about moving on, rather it’s about moving forward.  You carry your loved one with you wherever you go, into your new normal, whatever that looks like.  The grief will continue; there is no expiry date.  But you are allowed to move forward with your life—enjoy it, even.  After all, the show indeed must go on.

Yes and amen.

I’m Not Okay, and That’s Okay…I think

I’m in a movie. A movie I’m pretty sure I’ve seen before, except I’m playing a major role and I don’t like it. It’s the one where the police call and want to come to my workplace to speak to me. Why? I ask rather curtly. Already I don’t like the sounds of this. In the movies I’ve seen, when the police show up with their caps across their chest, it can only mean one thing, and it’s not good. Immediately, my mind tries to justify the why, like somehow I can change the outcome I’m instinctively dreading. Maybe it’s about the 911 call I made a few weeks ago when a neighbour was using his brother-in-law as a battering ram against the wall outside my apartment? I try to assure myself with this possibility. But I know it isn’t. I feel it deep in the place where I don’t want to acknowledge a truth that is about to be revealed.

Within an hour, I’m numb. Sitting in the back of the cruiser being taken home, having learned that my daughter is dead. Learned that my daughter took her own life. Shit. I won’t be able to finish my musical theatre class. The thought passes through my mind like a stray hair falling onto my face, and I brush it away. Funny how the human mind creates thoughts and ideas to distract you from the Big Feels. Protection from the brain imploding on itself.

Fast forward about a month, and we’re at the funeral. It’s a blur. Standing in the receiving line greeting people; some I knew and some I didn’t. Listening to the same thing over and over, So sorry for your loss, or How are you? I realized that I was not offended by the how-are-you question, despite peoples instant mortification over asking what they were sure to be the most insensitive of questions. It’s not. It’s what we do, people. Relax.

The question that did bother me, and still amazes me that no one was throat-punched for asking, was:

“How did she die?”

She took her life.”

“Yeah, but how?”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

” I don’t see how answering that question will serve either one of us. I prefer not to talk about it, if you don’t mind. (Even if you do mind, you cretin).

So now it’s been almost two months. People still ask how I am. My response varies, depending on how it’s asked. The casual and heartfelt, “How are you doing?” doesn’t irritate me, but the serious, “How are your doing?” has my nerves wound like a cheap watch. As if the person asking has suddenly acquired a PhD in grief counselling, I outwardly cringe. What if I blurted out that I was suffering from nightmares that wake me up in a cold sweat, or responded with, I’m freakin’ awesome! Thanks for asking.” Suffice it to say that I’m probably lying if I say I’m fine, or I’m okay. I’m not. Yet.

My emotions run the gamut on the regular. I’ve walked through the grocery store and been a total wreck in the toothpaste aisle. Who knew that seeing Toms of Maine toothpaste would reduce me to hot mess in aisle 7, or seeing a display of live-edge tables at a farmer’s market would have me giving the artist tips on cerenova wood finishing? (Cuz that’s what Hilary used.)

I’ve been told that I’m so strong, so courageous. No I’m not. I’m sitting in the same track pants that I’ve worn all week, and I may or may not have remembered to use deodorant this morning. I’m high-five-ing myself for actually using the stove/oven to cook a meal. I went for a two-hour walk and I feel like I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m hanging on; that’s it.


Distraction has been both a friend and an enemy. Friend in that I can just zone out and not feel anything, and enemy in that I can just zone out and not feel anything. Face Book posts have been particularly subjected to my scrutinous eye. As if there is some sort of AI that can tap into your brain and read your thoughts– or people suddenly have a passion for suicide awareness–posts appear talking about how suicide removes the chances of tomorrow being better. No shit, Sherlock. My question, and the one I posed after said post appeared, was this: Do the same people who tsk, tsk those who succumb to their feelings of hopelessness, have the same opinion of doctor-assisted suicide? Is it more dignified and acceptable for someone to decide to take control of their life/death when they are terminally ill, than for someone who decides that living with their illness–depression/ anxiety is equally excruciating? I’m not a proponent of either, but I’m not gonna judge you. The other FB post that another well-meaning person (pftt) posted was from a suicide awareness group. The whole idea of re-naming the act of taking one’s life from “committed suicide” to “died by suicide”. Again. It’s just my opinion, and perhaps I’m not in the right frame of mind to have one at all, but my question to this post was, “Does anyone notice that the only people posting their opinions on this are alive? Does anyone know what someone who has ‘died by suicide’ wants it to be called? It doesn’t change the outcome. I. Don’t. Care.” I’m sure I was really popular that day and perhaps people thought I was on my side of cyber space, bawling my eyes out. Nah. I was just irritated by a sudden surge of benevolence where previously there had been none.

I guess my message in this rather in-your-face blog is this: Suicide isn’t easy to grieve and it’s not easy to talk about. I’m just feeling my way through this and I have no idea what I’m talking about other than expressing what I’m feeling in the moment. If you want to help anyone who is grieving any kind of loss/death, don’t ask that person what they need. They don’t know. Trust me on this. What you can do, is this: That one thing you know you’re capable of doing, do that. If you know you can bake someone their favorite cake, do that. If you know you can just sit in silence with that person, do that. You don’t have to have answers and you don’t have to say anything profound. And, oh, just thought of this one: Don’t say our loved one is in a better place. They’re not. The better place is with us.

Be assured that my hope and faith is, and always will be, in God, lest anyone feel that I require a faith-lift. God knows my heart and He also knows I haven’t felt like myself lately. He’s got broad shoulders and can take anything I throw –literally and figuratively– at Him. As for the rest of you, I hope I haven’t burnt bridges, alienated anyone or generally pissed you off. Not my intention; just pushing inside thoughts to the outside. If I have, I offer my warmest condolences. (Please see Nora McInerny’s TedTalk for that reference!) https://youtu.be/FlaMOn8_1bc

No pictures to go with this blog, unless anyone wants to see me in my sweats with no make-up.

Yes and amen? Meh.

The Chipped Tooth

I remember the day well. I was on my way to a workshop and stopped at a local fast food place to grab a bite to eat. I bit into the sandwich and felt something hard. Wow, they must have over-cooked the bacon, I thought. Turns out, it wasn’t a piece of bacon, it was part of my tooth.

I looked in the vanity mirror of my car and cursed myself. It had finally happened. I had this horrible habit of gritting my teeth when I got angry about something– a passive-aggressive response to any irritant that I didn’t want to give voice to. I wouldn’t even be aware half the time that I was doing it. My kids would pick up on it right away and ask what was bugging me; I’d lie and say nothing, but the next question was:

Then why are you gritting your teeth?

This time it had been my daughter, Hilary, bringing home a puppy; something I had explicitly told her not to do. We’d had the conversation before; an apartment was no place for a dog–specifically MY apartment. But she did it anyway and I was angry. Angry that she had not respected my decision on the matter, and angry that she couldn’t see that a puppy would not satisfy the void she was seeking to fill.

On this particular day I had come home to find Phoebe, said puppy, crying in her crate. Hilary was nowhere to be seen. As much as I didn’t want to be responsible for this creature, I couldn’t bear for it to be crying alone in her bed, so I took her for a walk, pissed off, gritting my teeth all the way.

Months later I’m in the dentist’s office with a brutal tooth ache but more importantly, I have this chipped tooth I can no longer bear to look at. Hilary had suffered the same fate about a year earlier when a friend’s dog had abruptly snapped his head up and caught her under the chin, chipping her front tooth. She went through her Instagram account and found one of her followers who’s dad was a dentist and immediately went there, explaining how she’d found him. She left with her beautiful smile restored, happily flashing her new grin. And now I was sitting in the same dentist’s office sobbing, as I explained how I’d come to find him; through my daughter, but unlike her, I can’t go home to show her my beautiful smile because she’s gone. I had just returned from our home town where I had tended to every detail of her celebration of life; the music, the scriptures, the pictures, the flowers….everything. I was left with a throbbing pain in my mouth that was only surpassed by the ache in my heart.

The dentist’s demeanor softens and with each word, he dismantles my fear of dentists and I’m learning to surrender and trust the process. I’m sensing Hilary hovering over the scene, encouraging me to relax and warning the dentist to go easy on her mama. He does a quick appraisal of the cause of my toothache and with a gentle hand on my shoulder announces,

“We can look after that another day, but for today, I want to give you back your smile.” and he gets to work, gently and skillfully filing and re-creating my front tooth.

Tears silently slide down my cheeks as he makes the repairs. I hear the hygienist’s soft sniffles as she assists him. In that moment we are all aware that he wasn’t just doing a routine dental procedure, but healing a deep wound. Each day prior, I was looking in the mirror staring at the evidence of my frustration at things I could not change–people and situations. When the dentist handed me the mirror to see the finished work, I didn’t see a chip or any flaw; I saw reconciliation and forgiveness.

There is so much more I want to say about the passing of my beautiful daughter, but for now I just want the reader to know that amidst the worst kind of grief a parent could endure, my daughter restored my smile. I think it was a prophetic act on her part, to show me that a smile can be restored. There may be pain in the night, but joy does indeed come in the morning. I’m not sure when that morning will be, but I trust Hilary and I trust God.

Yes and amen.