grief is a bad friend

Grief is a funny thing. I don’t mean funny ha-ha, I mean funny strange. It sneaks up on you. It catches you by surprise. It punches you in the gut and then provides a chair to sit in while you recover. It’s kind of a bad friend, but not too bad of an enemy if you know what I mean. It would probably hold your hair while you threw up but might ignore your texts if you were trying to get a hold of it. That kind of friend. Unreliable, but familiar.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye as she walked past me. Her hair is short and silver-gray. She trails behind her family (friends? kind neighbors?) who stride with purpose. She is an older lady who makes a point of looking at everything, touching the soft throw blankets,  her pace dreamy, and without a  sense of urgency. She is simply enjoying herself.

I shift my weight in the uncomfortable boutique chair and follow her with my eyes. She walks more slowly than the others, carrying herself with a combination of grace and curiosity.  They walk away from me and disappear behind the towering display of indoor/outdoor pillows. I am wracking my brain to make the connection. It comes to me in a rush. My mother.

Gut punch number one, check.

My mother who has been gone for twelve years.The one I miss and forget in varying degrees, since I am about to end my fifties.  She used to shop like it was her religion, taking a deep dive into retail therapy whenever I took her to the store.  She looked at everything, commenting on everything, musing on whether it would  look good on her shelf at home.  Not only that, she would watch me with an eagle eye to see what I liked, what I picked up and reluctantly  put back.  Then she would unobtrusively place those items in her cart, hoping I wouldn’t notice. She wanted to get them to the register and bag them before I had a chance to protest,

I look over at my friend who is busy ordering two living room chairs. She has taken her time and is happy with her choice if a bit daunted by the price. I am waiting for her to finish, and then we will shop together.  As I get older, I try  to limit the things that I choose to take  home. Some days I am better at being selective than other days. Retail therapy is real, and I learned it from my momma. For her, there was nothing one more scented candle couldn’t fix or make better.

My friend and I walk across the store together to look at pillows she might buy for her new chairs. As I round the corner, I notice a display of wind chimes in various shapes, sizes, and materials hanging at eye level. Like everything in this store, it was made in some other country and imported to this store in suburban Spokane. I think this is so we can feel more international even though we live in semi-rural eastern Washington. I collect wind chimes, after a fashion.  When we moved twice in six months, quite a few in this collection got irrevocably tangled in a box in the front closet. I have been meaning to get to that.

As I stop to touch the aqua blue squares, it happens again.

 Gut punch number two, this time with a chair for me to sit in, so we can visit. Grief has no manners and it never, ever calls before showing up at your door. Rude, but predictable.

My mother had an all-aqua set of these chimes hanging from her bedroom ceiling for as long as I can remember. I would sneak into my parents’ room and jump on their bed, tapping the chimes gently so I could hear them tinkle. I realize I don’t know what happened to them. There are a lot of things that I lost track of from their last house with all of the moves and transitions.

There is something about grief that alters time. I can pass by wind chimes and immediately be back in my parents’ bedroom. I can be shopping with my mom by watching a gentle lady snuggle a silky soft  cashmere throw or sing along with a movie musical we used to watch together.  I have come to call these moments “visits from my mom.” I don’t hear her voice and I don’t see visions. I simply become aware that I am  experiencing things that remind me of my mom or my dad. I feel my chest fill up with sense memory and emotion;  grief and joy taking turns, and my eyes water. Sometimes I even say out loud:

“Oh, hi mom.”

Quietly, of course. That day with my friend, I mentioned to her that I felt like my mom was visiting. (She is the kind of friend that I can say stuff like this to.) It felt both big and tiny. I wanted to linger and wait for something more, but it didn’t show up. I feel a little disappointed about that.  I move on to look at other items. Shortbread from England. Sauces from India. Pottery and glassware that I think might look pretty on my shelves at home. The visit is over.

At the beginning, right after my father died, I would beg for God to let me dream of him. It rarely happened for me,  though my children told me they dreamed about Grandpa. I was envious, since I wanted to see him so badly, but  I never did. . When my mom died, it was the same story. I wanted to have one more conversation with her, one more argument. I asked again and again for just one dream where she would visit and talk to me, but I never got one. It made me unspeakably sad. It felt too final. 

I remember the realization, right after I got the call that my mother had died sometime between midnight and 3:00 am, probably from a stroke, that I was now, officially,  an orphan. I had no parents. There was nothing standing between me and death. I was the next generation in line. It was weird and terrifying at the time. Now, it’s just a fact of life. Much less upsetting as I creep up on sixty than it was at forty one and forty five.  

I am watching my adult children live through their late twenties and early thirties with grace and purpose, albeit in ways I never would have imagined when they were toddlers. I am sure that my mom never imagined the things I would get up to as an adult. She always told me that she was proud of me and she showed up even when she didn’t quite understand me. She loved to go shopping, and I loved to go with her. 

Some grief experts say that relationships don’t end with death, they simply change form. The relationship continues, but in a different way than before death. As I have lived out the years since my parents died, I have found that to be true. I still talk to them, listen to their advice, fight with them, love them, and miss them. They are less problematic when they are dead, especially around holidays. (Don’t worry, when your parents are dead, you are allowed to make those kinds of jokes about them. They don’t mind.) 

 I know that I will open the door the next time grief comes to visit, even though it is  an interruption, even though it is a visit from a bad friend. Like so much of my life, I have to take it the way it comes, instead of the way I wanted it to happen. My parents are with me, just not on my terms. The recurring gut punches are simply a sign that I am still connected to them, and they are still connected to me. I am so thankful for that.

3 thoughts on “grief is a bad friend”

  1. Beautifully said and written! Such deep and poignant words – thank you for putting into words the reality I’m so new to.

    • Excellent piece of work your absence and forgetfulness at the same time by gut punches at the same/force we’re amazing was incredible how alike it fell, but not really—-get it?

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