Death, Grief, and #Outlander

Books.  Are.  Refuge.  I believe this.  I believe they offer hope when it is hard to come by, that they offer respite when the world is “too much with us,” and they offer knowledge to combat the ignorance of prejudice.

So I was not surprised when, after my mom died on Christmas Eve, I eventually turned to my books.  I was surprised, however, that it took me so long to reach out to the solace of their well-worn pages.  There was an answer for that, of course, a reason for my hesitancy to slip into the relief offered by a good story; it just took me a while to work it out…

{SPOILERS AHEAD:  If you haven’t finished the Outlander series to date, you might want to book mark this page for later.  Otherwise, read further at your own expense.  You have been warned.}

Grief is a very personal thing.  It varies so much from person to person, and even from loss to loss.  There is no “right” way to grieve.  (Although, of course, there are some very unhealthy ways to do so.)

In the first book, we get a glimpse at Claire’s grief at losing Frank.  Despite the protests of some Frank Haters, Claire most certainly does grieve the loss of Frank.  She weeps for him at Castle Leoch after tending to Jamie’s injuries.  And, trust me, if a woman can sit on a certain ginger’s lap and sadness that, my friends, is some serious grief.  Some readers minimize the depth of this grief, since Claire doesn’t curl up onto the fetal position or rock back and forth.  Our heroine, however, if made of stronger stuff.  Her turns her grief to action, to purpose, to finding a way back to Frank.  Sometimes, grief spurs us on.

There is more grief, of course, grief over the Wentworth and what it does to Jamie.  Because sometimes, the grief that hurts is the most is the unrelenting pain of someone we know…a pain which we cannot ease for them.  The pain of loved ones can rub and gnaw until it creates a wound on our own soul–as if, by adding our own pain, we can lessen their burden.  Helpless in the face of Jamie’s pain and shame and guilt, Claire finally shares her own pain in the quiet of the abbey.  And, in that sharing, she finds hope.

Sometimes grief more resembles anger, like when Jenny lashes out at Claire for not raising a finger to save her beloved Ian from death.  Why him?  Why now?  Why like this?

Death, like any visitor, can be fickle.  Sometimes you know; you plan for him, wait for him, and are ready to receive him.  Other times, he catches you unaware.

Ian Murphy saw Death coming for a great distance.  There was time to make sure that there was nothing left unsaid.  Time to prepare.  To set things to right.  A blessing to be sure, but also a burden in its own way.  Everyone gathers.  Everyone waits.  Life stands still in the long moments between breaths.  Until finally, the breaths cease and, slowly, life starts back up again.

Other deaths seem to strike like a crime of opportunity.  One moment’s hesitation, a moment too long at a stop light, a skipped mammogram, an unknown allergy…  Unfortunately, life—much like a good book—has periods of unrest…dark times to make the reader appreciate the light…tragedy to make the happy ending that much sweeter.

And that, of course, it why I didn’t immediately return to the Outlander books.  I cared too much about the characters to risk losing anyone else.  Dealing with the loss of Mrs. Bug and also Young Ian’s guilt, seemed too much to take on.  Watching Claire drink herself into a stupor instead of contemplating a life without Jamie felt too raw; to witness, again, Claire’s feeling of maladroitness in the face of Ian’s illness, felt too eerily relatable.  I wanted something else.  I wanted escape.  I wanted love without the pain.  Light without the dark.  Good without the bad.

So, for a while, tended to things.  Arrangements, loose ends, the sorting through of things.  Busy work.  Work to distract the mind.

But that is not balance; it cannot be maintained.

So, now, finally, I venture forth.  I write a little something.  I read a bit.  I try to put one foot in front of the other.  Something akin to walking.  Something like moving forward.

At some point, though, I hope for more.  I hope for something better that just forward movement.  At some point, I want a measure of peace.  The peace that comes with acceptance.  Something past the blinding pain of loss, something past the anger, something past the empty void.  At some point, I want to have the grace and wisdom to, instead, whisper:  That she may be safe, Lord.  

Maybe someday, for the moment, that will be enough.   Until, we just hold on as best we can…

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Mom and Dad (Thanksgiving, 2016): our last holiday together

Books, Grief, and #Outlander

Sometimes you just know things. A thought, unbidden, rises with certainty. Not something hoped for. Not something expected. But something Known.

When I heard my mom had a mass in her lung, I knew it was cancer. And before the radiation and chemo and pet scans, I knew–just as sure as autumn’s days grow shorter–that when the season’s chill gave way to cold, she would also give way to something, to whatever comes After.

This brave, wise, and faithful woman taught me to live. Now, as these numbered days march on, she teaches me the Final Lesson. How to die.  The one thing that she cannot teach me is how to go on without her.  This lesson I must figure out on my own, and a lonely, stumbling journey it is.

Raised with books as I was, I look there for solace: I try to find escape; I try to find guidance.  Something to hold onto when I can no longer hold her.

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A pile of books waits for me next to my bed.  The spines cracked with use.  Pages dog-earred.  C. S. Lewis shared his own journey in A Grief Observed, and I cling to it like a map out of the abyss.  I spare a thought for the repose of his own soul, and in the next ragged breath I say a word of thanks for Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series.  Mere words on paper, to be sure, but words that have helped me untangle thoughts, find hope and faith, soothe both anger and fear… Now I turn to those beloved books in the blind panic of a grief much dreaded.

Considering the span of years (and the time period) which Gabaldon’s books cover, it is only natural that death and loss occurs.  Claire’s parents.  Jamie’s parents.  Murtaugh. Ian Murray. Frank. Mrs. Bug. Faith. Even merely presumed deaths cast a long shadow across the page.

We see death through the eyes of so many characters.  And, in them, we see ourselves  Every stage of grief is represented:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then finally…acceptance.

Last night I reread the pages of Ian Murray’s death.  I grabbed the book off the pile and took it with me to my son’s football practice.  The heat of the day had dissolved into a crisp breeze, and the Oklahoma sun was blazing pink and yellow behind the black of the shadowed tree line.  Under dusk’s shadows, I flipped through the pages until I found it.

The death was neither easy nor poetic, but his soul’s final passage was a gentle slipping away.

He didn’t speak again but seemed to settle, his body diminishing as life and breath fled from it.  When his last breath came, they waited in dull misery, expecting another, and only after a full minute of silence did they begin to look at one another covertly, stealing glances at the ravaged bed, the stillness in Ian’s face–and realized slowly that it was over at last.

Despite the fact that we know it is coming, we never quite expect it; we wait for a breath that never comes, and glance at one another for confirmation.  Is this it?  Is this all?  We always want there to be more.

They move on.  Then we move on.  We proceed with preparations.  Busy ourselves with What Must Be Done.  But realization finds us in the quiet moments.  It always does.

When Jamie and Jenny find a quiet moment together, Jenny asks her brother the thought that has lingered in her mind despite her distractions:

“Where d’ye think he is now?” Jenny asked suddenly.  “Ian, I mean.”

He glanced at the house, then at the new grave waiting, but of course that wasn’t Ian anymore.  He was panicked for a moment, his earlier emptiness returning–but then it came to him, and, without surprise, he knew what it was Ian had said to him.

“On your right side, man.”  On his right.  Guarding his weak side.

“He’s just here,” he said to Jenny, nodding to the spot between them.  Where he belongs.”

This is what I am holding on to…that long after I stop waiting for the breath that never comes, I will always find her, just there, guarding my weak side.

#Outlander, #Fandoms, and Finding Your Tribe

By the time I turned 40, I had amassed a lot more good books, a few more wrinkles, and more true friends.  That is the nice thing about finding yourself…once you find yourself, you can find your people.  Everyone needs people.  Even a sporadically extroverted introvert like me.

My people tend to be a bookish sort.  Full of snark and geeky cultural references tucked alongside the botanical names for certain herbs and an unapologetic appreciation for the bagpipes, my people are a motley bunch.  Yet, I still delight in adding to my tribe.  In fact, I seek them out.

As I gathered water bottles and hollered for my son to hurry up and grab helmet and pads for practice, I dashed back in the house to grab a book.  Well, two books actually.

“Haven’t your already read Outlander like a million times?” he asked as I climbed into the car.

“Mmphm,” I snorted.  “You know I have.”

“So….why are you reading it again?”

I sighed impatiently.  “Some books are worth reading again.  But I’m actually not re-reading it.  I’m reading that other one.” I nodded my head towards the other book.  My battered copy of Voyager peeked out from under the cluttered in the back seat.

“Why did you run it to get it if you aren’t going to read it?”

I shrugged.  “Well, in case I run into someone that likes Outlander.  Or might like Outlander.

That’s right.  Let that Fandom Flag fly high.

This is the same reason that I want to get a new phone.  Well, besides the fact that my iPhone is so old that it only has 3G, there is no space left on it, and it is so slow that if I had to use it to call 911, whatever crises warranted the call would likely be over.  But I digress…I want a new phone so that I have the space to get a new ringtone.  The ringtone.  The Skye Boat Song.

Right now, all incoming phone calls* are announced with the blaring of the Doctor Who theme song.  (Which I downloaded after I realized that the magical twinkling bells of Hedwig’s Theme was not audible from the nethermost of my purse.)  I briefly considered the Sherlock theme, but my inner Scotswoman wants bagpipes.  So that’s that.

At first, I didn’t realize quite what I was doing.  I thought I was simply surrounding myself with the things I love.  Which was true, of course, but it is more than that.  Like a male peacock showing off his plumage, it was all about attraction.  I was trying to attract others.  People like me.  My people.

There is a Scottish festival coming up in a few weeks.  There will be tartans, and meat pies, and bagpipes.  Books of history, and uprisings, and recipes, and languages.  I want to get a new license plate that proclaims my heritage.  Perhaps a bumper sticker, too.

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Well, hello there, fellow Sassenach!

If you see me driving down the street, feel free to honk.  If you see me at football practice reading, pull up a chair.  We can talk Outlander, or Sherlock, or Game of Thrones, or Walking Dead, or….whatever.

Come on.  Don’t be shy. There’s plenty of room in the tribe.

* This is not strictly true.  I do have one other ring tone.  All of my husband’s calls are proudly announced with the ear-piercing wail of a police siren, since he is…well…a police officer.  This is particularly fun when I am in a crowded place and he calls, and everyone around me looks around nervously.  My kids do not find this nearly as entertaining as I do. 

Why I Encouraged My Teenage Daughter to Read #Outlander

When I was fourteen, I read Flowers in the Attic. Several of the other girls in my grade were reading it…whispering about it…stashing it away when the teachers walked by. Of course, I had to read it, too.  I was lucky; my mother was always happy to buy me books (although, had she read the book herself, she might have rethought that, at the time).

Some of my schoolmates had borrowed the book from their own mothers…and by “borrow” I mean that they took the book after their moms left for work and then slipped it back into place before their moms came home in the evening. In the time in between, we consumed the story with a kind of perverse fascination.

So this was what grown-ups read!

Outlander-blue-cover-198x300So when my own fourteen year old asked if she could borrow my battered copy of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, I didn’t hesitate long before passing the book to her. My heart skipped a beat as she dashed to her room to start reading but, to be perfectly honest, this was likely more concern for the fate of my beloved book than for how my daughter would react to the story.

No, that was a given.

This was one of those books that would leave a mark on her soul.

Some stories do that…they stay with you forever. I simply wanted to make sure that her first Adult Book was one worthy of the honor.

I read a lot of the same books that my daughter reads. Not because I am policing her reading, but because I want to share in it. When she comes to me sobbing over some book betrayal, I need to know who has earned those tears. But some of the books targeted to teenagers seem to portray the female protagonists as perpetually enduring some Great Tragedy, or waiting for a male character to define them/save them/notice them/love them.

Not all of the stories, mind you. There are some really good YA books with strong female characters who represented a wide range of diversity. But, honestly, we waded through a lot of simpering fools to find a few strong female protagonists. And a lot of the love interests shown in the books were either sparkly or broody. Many were emotionally manipulative or controlling. If she was going to have a “book boyfriend,” I wanted better for her.

So when I realized that my daughter seemed interested in this massive tome which made me laugh out loud, and ugly cry, and real passages aloud for the simple pleasure of feeling the words on my lips, I didn’t discourage it.

In fact, I encouraged it.

I scoured the books to find passages which showed the strength of love, the resilience of the human spirit, the anguished soul clawing its way out from the pits of despair. Some passages I read aloud. But sometimes, I left the book conspicuously next to the sofa—pages temptingly dog-eared—like an offering.

So when she finally asked to borrow the book, it was a relief, really.

“Where are you?” I’d ask eagerly. But not too eagerly.

The book served as a way to talk about hard things, scary things, awkward things… We talked about love and sex and respect and mutual pleasure and consideration between couples. We talked about marriage and expectations and the roles we construct for ourselves (and those that others wish to inflict on us). We talked about sexuality and about when feelings aren’t reciprocated. We spoke of honor and vows. Of promises kept…or not. We shared tears and heartbreak and loss. We talked about rape and brutality…and of healing. We spoke of hope and faith and trust.  We talked about when to hold on; we talked of when to let go.

I let my fourteen year old daughter read the book not in spite of the fact that the books is mature, but because it is. I let her read the book because I know that a book can be more than just entertainment—more than just a story.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a book can be a conversation…or at least the beginning of one.

 

Pins and Needles and Prayers

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Christmas with Mom (2015)

Tomorrow is my mom’s brain scan, and I am on pins and needles.  We will find out if her lung cancer has metasticized to her brain.  If you are a prayerful person, if you have been known to offer up well-wishes, to light candles, or to otherwise implore to something Bigger, something More, please keep my mom in your thoughts…your prayers…your heart.

This is all the words I have in me today.

These are the only words that matter.

#Outlander and All The Feelings Ever

There is a reason I rarely wear eye make-up.  Well, besides the fact that I am lazy and hate having to take the blasted stuff off, plus it makes my lashes feel inordinately heavy, which makes me think that it must be time to go to sleep).  Mostly, I avoid mascara because, inevitably, it will end up in wet, black tracks down my face.  Call it the burden of being an empath.

For as long as I can recall it seems that other peoples troubles weigh on me as heavily as my own.  If a friend gets dumped, I grab a pint (of ice cream or beer, I don’t judge) right along with her.  When she starts looking for a house, I giddily sign up for house alerts on Zillow.  Those closest to me know to never send weepy memes to me without a *Kleenex Warning.*

Yesterday, I made the mistake of reading a mother’s letter to J. K. Rowling.  Of course I ugly-cried at my desk and hoped all that walked by might think it nothing more than a bit of spring fever.  Even now, when I called my bleary eyed daughter down from bed to read it to her before I left for work, I choked on the words and she had to make an emergency kleenex run before I flooded my keyboard.  (I have taught her well.)

This blessing/curse of feeling All The Feelings Ever also happens when I read.  As a general rule, I avoid books that contain abducted children for this very reason.  (Although I did watch “Room” recently with my eldest child.  We both ended up screaming “Jump!” at the screen while we ugly cried together.  It was oddly satisfying.)

SPOILER WARNING: THIS THE IS PART WHERE I START TALKING ABOUT OUTLANDER

This All The Feels Ever thing is probably also why I read (and re-re-re-re-read) the Outlander books.  It is why I wept mercilessly at the end of Dragonfly in Amber and called over my daughter as I tried to choke through Jamie and Claire’s parting.  It is why I rejoiced when they were reunited in Voyager.  It is probably why I got so incredibly angry when Lady Sassy-Pants blackmailed Jamie.  It is why the sound of the bodhran sent a shock wave up my spine in  A Breath of Snow and Ashes.  Even now, when I read that bit, I have to read it aloud.  And every time, every single time, I get goosebumps:

I sat up, listening hard. It was a drum with a sound like a beating heart, slow and rhythmic, then trip-hammer fast, like the frantic surge of a hunted beast.

I could have told them that Indians never used drums as weapons; Celts did. It was the sound of a bodhran.

What next? I thought, a trifle hysterically, bagpipes?

It was Roger, certainly; only he could make a drum talk like that. It was Roger, and Jamie was nearby.

(From A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, chapter 28 (“Curses”). Copyright© 2005 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)

The All The Feels Ever Thing works both ways–for good and for bad.  Sure, after Wentworth I could barely function, but there might have been a good bit or two in the books to help balance that out.  *blushes furiously*

*ahem*  Moving on…

I’m not sure if the All The Feels Ever thing is genetic or not, but I am fairely sure my mid-kid has it.  She recently took to binge-watching Switched at Birth on Netflix.  This resulted in her bawling and using an entire box of kleenex when someone was cheated on by someone else.  The knowledge that my genetic predisposition would continue on would have been much more endearing if I was not then re-re-reading a certain bodhran scene and had need of kleenex myself.

My husband rolls his eyes at us both and quietly slips off to buy more tissue.  He knew early on what he was getting into.  He teases me about crying over an old Lifesaver commercial and a certain episode of the Simpsons.  Yeah, he knew just fine what I was all about.

I used to wonder about this.  This whole All The Feelings Ever thing.  But then Outlander, as it so often does, offered me an explanation.  In An Echo in the Bone, Claire has to leave her beloved cheetie Adso behind.

“Go on, then,” I said, and set him on the ground.  He stood for a moment, tail waving slowly, head raised in search of food or interesting smells, then stepped into the grass and vanished.

I bend, very slowly, arms crossed, and shook, weeping silently, violently.

I cried until my throat hurt and I couldn’t breathe, then sat in the grass, curling into myself like a dried leaf, tears that I couldn’t stop dropping on my knees like the first fat drops of a coming storm.  Oh, God.  It was only the beginning.

I tubbed my hands hard over my eyes, smearing the wetness, trying to scrub away grief.  A soft cloth touched my face, and I looked up, sniffling, to find Jamie kneeling in front me, handkerchief in hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said very softly.

“It’s not–don’t worry, I’m . . . He’s only a cat,” I said, and a small fresh grief tightened like a band round my chest.

“Aye, I know.”  He moved beside me and put an arm around my shoulders, pulling my head to his chest, while he gently wiped my face.  “But ye couldna weep for the bairns.  Or the house.  Or your wee garden.  Or the poor dead lass and her bairn.  But if ye weep for your cheetie, ye know you can stop.”

“How do you know that?”  My voice was thick, but the band round my chest was not quite so tight.

He made a small, rueful sound.

“Because I canna weep for those things, either, Sassenach.  And I havena got a cat.”

(From AN ECHO IN THE BONE, chapter 12 (“Enough”). Copyright© 2009 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)

Maybe I can’t weep for my husband’s heart attack and the resultant health problems.  I can’t weep for the mass in my mother’s lung.  I can’t weep for the heart tests that my eldest daughter is enduring.  If I start, I don’t know that I can stop.  But I can find some escape, some joy, and the release of some much needed tears between the pages of a book.  And, for that, I am so grateful.

Soon Enough (and all too soon)

Winter is holding on longer than I’d like. I am ready for my feet to be warm, for fresh vegetables, and for the smell of earth as I tend the garden.  I am ready for warm rains, and the smell of sweet grass, and warm sidewalks underfoot.  I want to throw open the windows and hear the birds chirping as I tap out words on the keyboard.

The chickens have been laying an egg or two most days, with the occasional Three Egg Day. Nothing like the consistent four eggs per day that we go last summer, but I am grateful nonetheless; they deserve the break.

The days are getting longer, bit by bit. When I leave work for my commute home, there is still a bit of sunlight left to guide my way.  By the time I arrive home it is dark, but I’m happy for that bit of light.  Soon enough the sun will burn hot and long and I’ll collapse into bed before the moon climbs in the sky.

Soon enough I’ll foreswear casseroles and comfort foods in favor of salads and grilled fare that won’t “heat up the house” in the making. Soon enough I’ll pull out the kids’ summer clothes from the attic and wonder how they could have grown so much without my noticing.  Where had the time gone?  I’ll want those moments back–those nights wasted bickering over chores and messy rooms and late homework.  Trailing a finger along the worn seam of a too-short pair of pants, I’ll want to reclaim that time…to take back those three inches of growth and re-live it, to notice it this time, to savor it.

Soon enough comes all too soon.

Tonight, I’ll build a fire in the fireplace. Maybe we’ll make hot cocoa and play a game.  They’ll talk, and bicker, and complain.  And I will listen and try to store it all away…because you never know when The Last Fire of the Season happens.  You don’t know when they will suddenly be Too Old for Family Game Night.  Or Too Embarrassed to be Hugged in Front of Friends.  These moments–these precious, fleeting moments–aren’t marked with fanfare.  They aren’t honored in their time…only in retrospect.

Soon enough comes all too soon.