infinite losses.

/

Grief has no resolution. It ebbs and flows like the ocean–a compounding, building brick-upon-brick grief that picks up the debris and carnage around it until it is monstrous, then erodes away only to begin again.

It does not look backward or forward. It is the very top of the drop of a rollercoaster, the uppermost apex of tension and anticipation for both the best and the worst. Will I ever come down? Can I go back? It is too late. What awaits me?

//

How do you define yourself? I can tell you how I would answer. I am a 26-year-old who loves reading, writing, and I generally prefer discussing the meaning of life over awkward, pointless small talk. I love to sing. I am a teacher, a learner. I look forward to starting a family with my husband someday. I care deeply for my friends and family. I like to think, to challenge myself, to achieve.

All good things. All good things that can so easily, quickly, unexpectedly fall away, disappear, fade into the black. Who would I become then? What would I do?

As I’m building up this house, I wonder what of it will stay; it seems you just take things away.

///

I have watched illness and chronic pain ravage and thrash at my family’s well-being and tear away at the things they’ve built up. Good things that have defined them, given their life meaning, granted fulfillment–chronic pain and illness can take all of that away, and we all stand speechless at the scene of the crime. Helpless. Baffled. Hurting. What do we do now?

Grieve. We have to grieve the loss. There is no way around it but through it. Loss asks for nothing more and nothing less of us.

People ask how I am doing. I am grieving; I am unresolved; I am dissonant. Tomorrow may be better; next week it may be worse; next month it will assuredly be different. But it will not leave.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds in the way people think it does.

////

A story:

A country boy, rebel-without-a-cause with calloused hands and a warm heart, has grown into a young man has grown into an adult. He has traversed the many hills and valleys of growing up–death and loss, sickness, addiction, depression, exhaustion, the existential dream that is early adulthood, late nights, babies, doubt, crises of faith. He marries a woman whom he loves and who loves him; they ski and hike; they go camping and enjoy an active life. He works his fingers to the bone to provide for his growing family–night shifts to day shifts to sleepless nights to babies and wondering how they’ll afford diapers and formula. He is smart, savvy, kind. He  quickly climbs up the ladder of success, from the cement floors of warehouses to the corporate offices of management and directorships. High-stress, high-stakes, high hopes. He wakes up before the sun; he follows it home. He takes pride in his work. Affable and generous, charming and funny, he loves people, and they love him. What a good man, they say, even when he’s not around. I’d never want to work for anyone else. And they mean it. His children never see his stress; when he is home, he is Dad, who wrestles and plays catch, who tells funny stories and laughs, who rides bikes and plays around-the-world in the driveway, who rescues kites from roofs and crashes BMX bikes on rickety ramps…

We learn about this man by what he does and how he does it. We piece together who he is with these scenes: Able-bodied. Energetic. Down to earth. Active. Humble. Fun.

I prefer to call him Daddy. He is all of those things and more.

I do not know when it came, but chronic pain and illness snuck into the corridors of my daddy’s body like a thief in the night and made dirty, crusty homes in his joints and connective tissues. They acted quickly, eating away at what made his body strong and fluid, eroding his activity and mobility, his energy and well-being. In the swift blink of an eye, chronic illness threw a wrench into the gears of my father’s life. I cannot say when the rheumatoid arthritis crescendoed from cumbersome to crippling. But it did.

/////

This is part two.

He is in pain all day, every day. He cannot work without causing further damage to his body, but he works anyway–for as long as he can. He loves his job, and he is nowhere near retirement age. There are bills to pay, too. Gone are the hikes and pick-up basketball games, the crawling on the floor with kids. His joints are aflame. The flight of stairs in his house are Mt. Everest. He grapples with a disease he cannot stop, enclosed by the unfairness of it all.

His wife is struck down by a brain aneurysm, which she miraculously survives. But now they both live with chronic pain. With limitations and nasty assumptions. Forced early retirement. Astronomical medical bills. They are thankful to be alive, but their bank accounts do not express the same gratitude, nor do bill collectors. They foreclose on their home. His identity shrinks and sheds as everything he has worked for all his life are crumbling. Was it all for naught? Did he overcome so much just to end up here? How can he find meaning now, at mid-life?

It seems you just take things away.

That was years ago.

The disease has since progressed. The pain is worse; medication does little other than cause side effects. My parents’ lives are shaken; at every turn, there is a monster to fight. Loss, so much loss. Infinite losses that compound upon one another and are woven together and loop from here to there and back again, much like the negative feedback loop of symptoms that occurs within my father’s own immune system.

Loss of stability. Loss of health. Loss of energy. Loss of faith. Friendship, family. Loss of community. Loss of intimacy. Loss of the future. Confidence, dreams, hope. Mobility, ability. Trust. A way of life. Quality of life. Resources.

Depletion. Defeat. Being emptied out.

Identity. They have been forced to redefine and refill themselves, to redraw the lines of who they are, plugging picked-up pieces of themselves into the empty spaces the best they can as they travel down the road away from the carnage. Some days it feels more like they are outlining who they were in chalk, covering what’s left with a white sheet, and departing from the scene of the crime. A ghost.

Does this have a point to it? God, I wish I could hear you. Why did you take this away? I wanted it! Can I move on now that it’s gone?

//////

Daddy is still Daddy in more ways than not; for that, we are grateful. Mom, too, who has fought back her own demons and damage from the brain aneurysm.

Dad cracks jokes to break tension. He is ornery. He is charming. Nurses and staff adore him. He itches to work; he doesn’t idle well. In fact, the last time he was hospitalized, Mom is certain it was a result of his insisting to mow the lawn a few days prior. The day he was released, we caught him out watering the plants multiple times, claiming, “The nurses told me that I should walk around!”

Lies, of course; the nurses said no such thing. But that is Daddy–work ethic, affable charm, stubbornness, a need get his hands dirty, even as they swell and throb from the pain and damage of RA. I worry at times, but I also know he’ll never change; that’s okay. He is picking up the broken pieces of himself, putting life back into the carnage, clinging to who he is, giving a hearty, “F— you!” to his disease in the best way he knows how.

///////

There is much to be thankful for, and that is no mere platitude of piety or feigned strength. It is the honest-to-God truth; I stand upon it daily. It is my sword and shield–it is Divine Light of God in the dark that I can say even so, He is still good, and even so, it is well with my soul. (That’s my hearty, “F— you!” to disease and loss.)

But the grief hovers; it is tireless. Like the slow, pulsating light of a star, it fades in and out, taking its time to travel toward me, sometimes hidden or out of sight, yet always there. Even as the first light reaches me, always I know there is more to come, in waves of light–or of water, sound, color. Deep down I know, too, that in some distant, unknown future time, there will be grief that will hit like a supernova, a blast of radio static, a tsunami, a kaleidoscope. Whatever loss I experience now, there is other loss to come, and by God’s grace, I’ll find a way to stand up under it then, too.

So I am at once grateful and grieving, both accepting and angry. There is tension, an odd simultaneity and equality between grief, gratitude, and fear, empathy, sadness, anger. It is not either/or; it is all.

But how can one feel all of these things at once and not implode?

By giving each thing its place and its space.

When I think about life before my family’s chronic pain, I see snippets of scenes that are far away, so far removed that they feel more like mythology than history, more fantasy than biography. I don’t really remember what life was like before pain and sickness became part of the family, and perhaps I am protecting myself from the mirage of “the good ol’ days,” from the bitter kind of grief about how things were and how things are supposed to be not being how things are. Perhaps I am merely resting at a bend in the road where the scenery around me prevents me from seeing clearly behind me or ahead. At the top of the hill, perhaps I’ll see more; perhaps I’ll be ready for it.

All I know now is, I am struck with a grief with no resolution as I watch chronic pain and illness chip away at those I love most, to see them grapple with not only pain but crises of faith, of identity, of worth; they were not ready. At 25 years old and 23 years old, Jordan and I were not ready for this either. So I don’t look back, and I only look so far forward as is necessary. There is no relief when looking back brings only anger and sadness and looking forward brings no hope.

Where do I look?

////////

I can only look up and around–the here, the now. I see the good; I feel pride in watching my loved ones press on. I see the bad, and I curse it. I look heavenward when I am baffled, broken, bruised. I seek grace upon grace, joy, clarity, and peace, and I allow God to fill in the dry spaces of my heart that need Him.

I swallow the bitter seed of pain today, and tomorrow, one of sadness, and a week from now one of anger. I will digest it, let it settle, plant it. Looking up, trusting that even seeds of grief grow beautiful things when they are quenched by the Living Water.

I give each thing–good or bad, ugly or beautiful–its place and its space. I can’t weed out the bad until I see it for what it is; to do that, I must give it space and a place. Acceptance and surrender.

The only way around it is through it.

Grief will whiplash us if we try look beyond or behind it; it grows and crystallizes like old honey, becoming perverted and unpalatable if we ignore it. And yet, there will never be complete resolution to it because time does not heal all wounds in the way we think it will.

So what else can I do but call it what it is–heart-wrenching, unfair, painful; love well–even when I want to run away; and do the work. Give each thing its place and space.

The only way around it is through it.


*Quoted text is lyrics from Wavorly’s “Time I Understood.”

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to be a hickman.

Yes, this is 5'4" me carrying my 6' something younger brother.
Mother, father, sister, brother. Yes, this is 5’4″ me carrying my 6′ something younger brother.

Do you know the history of Hickman?

It’s my maiden name, and sometimes people who’ve only ever known me as Faletra chuckle when I tell them.

“Yes,” I say when they ask, “Are you a hick, man?”

I laugh, because yes is an honest answer; we kind of are sometimes.

My name is Faletra now, and I’ve married into a great family who has loved me as their own for the past 8 years. Blessed, I would call myself, to have two great families.

But biology reminds me: my name is Faletra, but my blood is Hickman, down to each cell, red and white. I’ve often wondered where the name came from, from where previous Hickmans hailed, what they did, how they lived. Did they live with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, like my father? And what of diabetes, like my grandfather? Or cancer, like my grandmother who died before I knew her? Did they know intimately the tumultuous up and down of anxiety and depression, of bipolar disorder, or panic attacks? Did ancestral Hickmans find life to be beautiful and exhausting at the same time, too, as we do? Were they mad at God? Did they trust him anyway?

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My father, grandfather, and younger brother. “This could be a photo of four generations if you’d give me a son already!” says my father.

To be honest, the specifics do not matter. Because whatever our history was or is, it has made the Hickmans full of a kind of soft, unassuming strength that some people just plain miss. We are a redemptive, glimmering, loving people. Yes, we have our shortcomings—and lots of them, but what lies beneath our scars and divots and short tempers? What are the stories behind our fears and anxieties? The paths Hickmans have walked have been full of thorns and bristles, burning coals and frigid terrain.

The Hickmans are tender (yes, even the men, in their own rugged way), but they fight and thrash against the tumult and the crashing waves that try to knock them down. If anyone has raged against the dying of the light, it is my mother and father. If anyone has been knocked down by wave after wave and still managed to stand up against them, strong and sometimes all alone, it is my brother. They are generous and compassionate. They love when it is hard. They give seventy times seven chances. They fight their demons instead of pretending they have none. They do not sweep their troubles under a Jesus-rug, as I like to call it, or pretend that everything’s just a-okay.

The sad thing is, through the years, some people have decided that kind of authenticity and truth is too much.

People have left them behind. Walked away in their time of need. Swept them to the side, out of their path and line of sight, like they are salted snow, a melting and dissolving eye-sore in the midst of an otherwise seemingly sparkling crisp winter.

It’s a pity, I tell you, because underneath everyone else’s sparkling white snow is the same load of shit, and at least my parents have the balls to call it shit when it is actual shit, and then they get their hands dirty cleaning it up.)

But I (profanely) digress.

Same eyes, same soul.
Same Hickman eyes, same Hickman soul.

This is the narrative of Hickman: we greet pain and loss, anxiety and grief, loneliness and confusion, and we tell it to kindly fuck off because there is still life and marrow in our blood cells and bones.

On my toughest days–the ones full of pain, of anxiety, of tears, and “this life is too much,” and doubt and fear, and “Oh, my God, why? I cannot stand!”–I remind myself that I, too, have Hickman blood, and if I have even just one thousandth of the same strength and tenderness it carries with it, then, by God, I am going to be okay.

I love you, Daddy, Mommy, and Bubby, and I am so proud you’re my family.

we are what we always were.

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To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.

Clara Ortega

Meet Bubby, with his blue eyes (we have the same eyes) and hipster hair, thick-rimmed glasses, long limbs, giant feet.

He’s my baby brother. His name is Jordan now; we don’t call him Bubby. While through infancy and toddler years, he was round and chubby–short features, ruddy cheeks, with a generally displeased look upon his face–he has since stretched and elongated into a six-foot-something young man, complete with stubble and a mischievous grin.

He is the reason I laugh whenever I use thyme in my cooking because at family gatherings, we enjoy the most terrible of puns solely to annoy everyone else. Do we have enough thyme? I don’t know where all the thyme went. Oh, no! We’re out of thyme! Do you think it’s thyme to go? Well, just look at the thyme. I think it’s thyme! What thyme is it? THIS THYME!–holding thyme seasoning in the air. Our puns—and our lives—are better shared together.

We are so much better together.

But we are adults now. Where has the thyme gone? (I couldn’t resist; so sorry.) How did the Hickman children get here, now, in our early twenties, with so much behind us, and still so much more ahead?

Yet, we are back then, too. He will always be my baby brother. And I will always be Sissy. We are synchronic.

We are close. Picture Meg and Charles Wallace from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. We share something bizarre and sixth sense-ish; even through the tough years when we argued and spouted hateful things and stopped talking, that special closeness was still there, hiding behind the turmoil and turbulence of growing up and being unsure how to love one another well.

Jordan was a quiet, stoic young child with a profound, intuitive mind, juxtaposed against my sometimes arrogant, always stubborn verbosity. (Sometimes I think we switched places when we became adults.) I imagine his juvenile mind stewed and bubbled with ideas and cognizance that most children do not have and few adults ever develop. He had dreams–prophetic dreams; his inner mind was lively and intuitive enough to keep him engaged, so he felt little need to express himself verbally. He grunted, pointed. For a long while, he did not speak, which naturally raised some concerns about his development. (Turns out he’s wicked smart, which I always knew.)

I knew exactly what he was saying even though he never said it. Mom says at the dinner table on more than one occasion, Jordan would grunt from his chair.

“What, Jordan? Use your words.”

Grunt. Groan. Point. No word.

“What do you want?”

Grunt. Groan. The pre-cry face–scrunched nose, quivering lip.

“Mooooom,” I’d groan, exasperated. “He wants mashed potatoes.” I probably rolled my eyes, too.

Sure enough, he wanted mashed potatoes.

This could be Hickman mythology–a legend passed down from my parents to us to encourage Jordan and me to remain as close as we were at that age, but I believe it to be true. Jordan and I have an understanding of one another that doesn’t require talking or even being in the same zip code. We always have; God-willing, we always will.

In elementary school, during lunch one day, I remember hearing of someone in Jordan’s class teasing him. I saw him from across the lunchroom, and I knew he was upset. I marched over there and gave the whole table an earful. Nobody messes with my baby brother—my baby brother who was afraid of staircases descending into dark basements and would make me take the first step, my brother who needed glasses with lenses an inch thick in order to see, my brother who was so good at anything he put his mind to but so humble and unassuming.

He doesn’t need me to walk down the stairs first anymore.

I have watched him grow up. Sensitive, intuitive, and possessing a strong sense of justice, my brother is very much like our mother. He also has the hilarity, the work ethic, the determination, and the charisma of our father. He is brave and outspoken, and even more stubborn than I am. He’s confident, highly intelligent, and knowledgeable. He works hard. He makes hard decisions. He runs his mouth (ahem, often).

So this is what it’s like to watch your baby brother grow into a man you are proud to be related to.

I do not feel overshadowed by him, but I cannot help but see all the things he has done that I have shied away from. He takes risks; he is calculating and smart. He is not afraid of losing, but he’ll work as hard as he can to win anyway. He speaks up. He’s decisive. He brings laughter wherever he goes, as well as random facts about the effects of caffeine on the body and lectures on organic chemistry.

He told me today that, if he were to get any tattoos, one would be an anatomically accurate heart on his chest, and the other would be an epinephrine molecule. I can’t think of a more perfect tattoo for him.

“Why epinephrine?” I asked, even though I knew exactly why. (I know him well, after all, and he’s told me all about epinephrine at this point, as well as about various other organic compounds and chemicals.)

His eyes flicker. “Well, epinephrine is your body’s fight or flight mechanism. You take risks, you go out on a limb, and your body produces epinephrine. So, you know, take risks, survive, all that.”

I nodded. “Fight or flight… Physiologically your body still gives you a choice. So even if you feel cornered, you still can choose to fight.”

“I didn’t think of that,” he said.

He didn’t think of it because he already knows to stand and fight. His tattoo would advert his solidarity, his oneness with himself, and his ability to stand his ground. And the heart: his confidence in himself–all parts of himself, from his bosom–the metaphorical heart–to his intellect and knowledge–the anatomical heart.

I will always be amused by this anecdote because it reminds me how we are so strikingly different in this respect. Jordan’s anchored heart, his survival instinct juxtaposed against my tattoo of choice: on my collarbone are birds taking flight, with the eager lyrics of the hymn by Robert Robinson, asking that the Lord might bind my wandering, fickle heart to Him. I see it each morning in the mirror, and I am reminded of my wayward, woozy heart’s need for solidarity, for a tether, for guidance. I am reminded of my propensity to fly away, to flee, to wander; it cries out for my heart to find rest.

For a couple years after my undergrad career, I was working a job that was far below my skill level, not utilizing my degree, and quite frankly draining the life out of me. My mom told me once that Jordan was indignant that I was settling for as long as I did. He knew without even asking that I was afraid to take a risk, to put myself into the career I wanted because I didn’t want to face rejection. I was depressed. I didn’t think I could do what I was feeling called to do.

“What the hell is Kelsey doing? She needs to be teaching,” he said. “That’s what she is supposed to do. She’s a teacher.”

Little did he know that his words would tether my heart to my dream again, giving me the gumption I needed to take the risk of potential rejection in order to pursue something I love: teaching.

——

When my mother suffered a brain aneurysm three years ago, my brother and I were faced with emotions and fears that neither of us handle gracefully: loss and the possibility of death, grief, mortality. As classic Hickman children, we dealt with it with relative silence. After an emergency brain surgery that very well could have taken her life, Mom, inundated with pain and subsequent painkillers, broke the silence with her slurred and yet somehow sharp words.

“I almost died.” And then she laughed.

The words and the laughter were angular, jarring, inconsistent with the fuzzy figure we saw lying in the hospital bed, our mom who looked nothing like our mom. She didn’t know it wasn’t funny yet–it was too soon–and even though her words were muffled by medication and pain, her face and lips swollen and red, her visage wholly unrecognizable and pallid, hearing her and seeing her was like cutting open a wound that had scabbed over. It was like jumping into an ice bath.

One of my mother’s eyes was completely swollen shut. Bandages concealed the other. Probably a good thing because we would have only seen cloudiness and pain. I had not yet met my father’s eyes because I knew what they would show, and I did not want to know until I had to that the situation was grim. My premonition was enough.

I had not looked at Jordan’s for the same reason, nor he mine. We know what it means to look one another in the eye; we know what it means when we choose to avert them, too. Our eyes would have confirmed the gravity of the situation, would have validated the immense but unspoken fear, would have confirmed what we did not want to know: It will be a miracle if Mom makes it. We didn’t want to grapple with it until there was no other choice.

We have blue eyes, Jordan and I ; in fact, Mom and Dad do as well. It’s our eyes that most people say give us away as relatives. It’s more than just that they are blue; my theory holds with the cliche that eyes are windows to the soul: my brother and I, along with our parents, share a soul. We are a soulful people, and watery blue like our eyes, possessing quiet strength, stubborn but adaptable, a slow impetus for change as we trickle down our path but also make that path our own in some way, carrying surprisingly more than what one might expect.

When Mom woke up and spoke those words, we were forced to meet her there in the pain, in the reality, the fear, in the grief, there, swimming in the clinical blues of a dim hospital room. She had dealt with the pain; we should, too. (I didn’t deal with the pain well.)

I will never forget the moment when Jordan’s and my eyes locked, watery and tired but also relieved. At least now the fear was mingled with hope. It was dark in the room, but I saw what I needed to.

Our eyes gave us away, as they are prone to do: sheer and long-suspended terror mingled with pending grief mingled with relief and a dash of hope. In that moment, we acknowledged and admitted to one another everything we had kept hidden, without words: I’m terrified, this was hell, thank God she woke up, what if she hadn’t, and what now? followed by, I am scared witless, too, and this was hell, but she did, and how in God’s name did she?, and I don’t know, and I’m sorry.

——

Blue eyes and freckles, we share, but there’s more.

I see my same cerebral, internal processing in him; we careen into other worlds when we let our pensive natures take over. We trail off; we stop talking mid-sentence; we space out.

We work hard, and we do not take kindly to failure. We are competitive and stubborn.

Sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves.

We love to laugh, and we are fluent in sarcasm.

When life gets real, we’d rather sit in silence than share the nuances of our emotions.

We both are terrible liars, and we have that nasty habit of smiling when we are uncomfortable. (No poker face at all.)

We are distraction-mongers; give us Facebook and Tumblr, Reddit and video games, books and studying so we might ignore the harsher realities of life and the feelings that come along with them. We will wrestle with abstract theories easier than our personal empirical realities.

We put Worcestershire sauce on meatloaf, and we handle well a strong drink.

We are not fond of mornings, and we’re a bear without sleep. Coffee is our lifeblood.

We aren’t great at vocalizing emotion or sentiment to one another, so in earnest, we sandwich the mushy moments between some well-placed wit or sarcasm, some silliness or nonchalance.

We have big plans, lofty dreams, and even bigger questions about life. We get lost from time to time, but between the two of us, we have enough hope to find the way back home.

—-

We are what we always were to one another. Time (thyme) won’t change that. We will always connect on a level we can’t articulate; we will always find ourselves safe there, loved and cherished, in a place of effortless understanding and appreciation. We will fight; we will get angry; we will call one another names. But it will always be because we care and know deeply who the other is.

His soul will always tell me to take deep breaths, to laugh, to be silly and goofy, and to not take myself too seriously, to chill every once in a while, but to be serious enough about my dreams that I pursue them. His soul might also use some f-words and tough love, injected with lessons in organic chemistry and various physiological processes of the human body, but somewhere in there is the mushiness of his heart.

I hope my soul tells him something equally worthwhile, probably injected with lectures on why the English language is the way it is, the benefits linguistic descriptivism versus prescriptivism, and many, many monologues about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

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