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…

mom-and-dad
Mom and Dad (Thanksgiving, 2016): our last holiday together
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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.

Depression, #Outlander, and a New Year’s Wish

When you take away the twinkling lights and beloved carols, the bustle of family underfoot, and the sweet anticipation, winter can seem just…cold. Maybe the feeling is held at bay until after the last of the wadded up wrapping paper finds its way to the trash bin, or perhaps it creeps in not long after the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. But it comes. It always comes.

The frightful weather outside no longer seems delightful, instead of throwing another log on the fire and shouting for the storm clouds to do their worst you wonder just how much firewood there is left, and worry how the roof is holding up, and if your pipes might freeze.

Laundry piles up as you put off the wash until the temperature can fight its way back above freezing, and suddenly the same four walls that seemed so cozy and inviting now seem to close in around you. The family you love seems to get on your nerves, and you spend an inordinate of time hiding in the bathroom just for a moment’s peace.

You start to notice the gaps . . . Those dark spaces that used to be filled by someone you loved. You are reminded of the traditions that fell away this year, since the one who carried them out is no longer around to do so. Perhaps there were angry words before the absence, or maybe there was no time for words at all. The were just . . . gone. Or maybe they lingered until there was nothing left to remind you of the person that once was, and you wished you could recall something more than the weakened shadow with which you were left.

For all the joy the holidays bring, too often they also bring sorrow. Maybe this is why I read so much around the holidays. It isn’t because there is more time (because there isn’t), or because the cold keeps me nestled indoors (because I tend to get cabin fever), but maybe it does have something to do with the fact that books remind us that we are not alone.

Books remind us what adventure feels like, the joy of possibilities, and the intimate pleasure of a story well told. They give us a taste of love when our own life might be lacking it, and a sense of justice of which the world too often seems sadly devoid. Books remind us what honor looks like, and loyalty. They can show us joy, and peace, and light.

But some books, daring books, also remind us what darkness is . . . and how to find our way out of it.

Harry Potter reminds us what true friendship looks like. Friendship with all of its faults and flaws. Friendship that acknowledges both selflessness . . . and jealousy. Friendship that has room for shortcomings, for missteps, and that still finds its way to forgiveness and loyalty. The series shows us love in all of its myriad of forms: the love of true friends, yes, but also the love of brothers, of parent and child, and of mentor and protégé.

But, in these dark days of winter, sometimes love and joy can seem as scarce as the fleeting daylight. Sometimes the emotions more easily identified with are those that mirror the steely grey sky.

J. K. Rowling gave the dark emotions form in the Dementors. These creatures sucked the joy out of those around them, just as depression can steal away whatever joy we try to embrace. If only chocolate could stave off the effects of depression as well as it did the after-effects of a Dementor attack . . .

While Harry Potter may have personified depression with its Dementors (and while a dear friend and I often refer to ourselves during inexplicably cranky/depressive moods as feeling rather “Harry Potter Book Five”), few stories summon forth the darker side of humanity better than the Outlander series.

Diana Gabaldon allows us unimaginable intimacy with her characters. We bear witness to violation, to self-loathing, and to grief. But, more importantly, she leads us through to the other side of the dark journey.

[SPOILER WARNING….]

JAMIE ~

From the beginning, we know that Jamie has had to endure Dark Days. His mother died in childbirth, he believed his sister to be in ruin, his father died of a stroke during Jamie’s flogging, he believed his uncle to have tried to kill him, his wife is nearly burned at the stake, and he tried to return her to her rightful time even though such a move would mean losing his true love. Later, he endures unimaginable brutality to try to save his beloved Claire. And that’s all just in the first book!

The end of Dragonfly in Amber always results in an ugly cry. (Yet I keep reading it, again and again.) Whatever joy he found is ripped from him as he is separated from Claire for twenty long years. In her absence, he fully expects to die and does nothing to try to avoid death. Instead, he embraces the relief he expects it will bring.

Slowly, his life finds purpose again. First, as a de facto chief of the prisoners at Ardsmuir. later as provider for Laoghaire and her daughters. He is uncle to Young Jamie and surrogate father to Fergus. Sometimes, we are reminded, it is enough to keep going for the sake of others until you can find your own reason to continue.

CLAIRE ~

Claire’s strength is one of her defining characteristics. When ripped from her husband and the life she knew, she did not fall apart or expect to be rescued somehow. Other that one brief moment of tears while perched on the lap of a certain highlander, the woman was unwaveringly strong. But even Claire has her limits.

In Dragonfly in Amber, when Claire lost her Faith, her beloved first child, she did in fact seem to have a crisis of faith. The darkness surrounded her and she found little reason to go on. As angry as she was with Jamie, she felt ungrounded and without direction or purpose. Only after she realized that she was needed, that he needed her (what with being imprisoned and all), did she start to regain her sense of action.

In a later book, even when Claire was brutalized at the hands of kidnappers, she did not succumb to the darker emotions that might easily have drowned her. Although there was still much to be dealt with and worked through, she did not give up. As long as Jamie was by her side, she seems able to withstand nearly everything. He is her strength, as she is his. In fact, it seems that Claire is most vulnerable when Jamie, her emotional bulwark, is absent.

Undoubtedly the lowest point for Claire was when she feared that Jamie was lost at sea. Without Brianna to care for, there seemed little reason to continue. She contemplated suicide and found what solace she could at the bottom of a bottle. And the readers bear witness to her nearly ruinous grief. We want to shout to her that Jamie is alive! We want to tell her to hang on, that things get better, and that there are still so many others to live for . . . just as, in real life, when we wish to whisper these same consolations to our own real-life friends and family members who suffer from depression or who are struggling with grief. Hang on. Just hang on . . . it gets better.

YOUNG IAN ~

Young Ian suffers from his own grief. The pain of being separated from his family time and time again has to weigh on him. He also confronts the nearly unbearable struggle of trying to do the “right thing,” and of trying to put others first as he offers himself as a substitute for Roger and, in doing so, must turn his back on his family, his faith, and his heritage. Then, when he finally builds up a life with Emily and they try to start a family, to then suffer the loss of child after child until finally his own wife turns from him. And the aching loneliness he quietly endures as he tries to make peace with his loss . . . only to see in his Uncle Jamie and Auntie Claire the kind of love that he longs for. Remarkably, the constant reminder of their joy doesn’t call forth bitterness, but rather hope. Hope that if they can find their way back to one another, that perhaps he, too, can find his way back to happiness. Young Ian still has the soul of a poet and there remains in him the young lad that, on that day long ago in a brothel, when confronted with his Auntie Claire, long since presumed dead, finds the whole thing to be incredibly romantic. Although he faces his own torments, Young Ian meets them like the poet-warrior that he is.

Not everyone is as lucky.

FERGUS ~

Perhaps that is why, for me, the character whose struggle with his own internal demons touches me most is that of Fergus. Fergus, who in his youth made light of his missing hand and joked about finally being a gentleman of leisure, who never complained about his motherless childhood, who always seemed confident and jovial . . . that this is the character who tried to take his own life, that we didn’t see it coming, THIS is the character, the moment, the desperation that I feel sharpest. Because sometimes you DON’T see it coming. Sometimes, no matter how well loved they are, no matter how many people care, sometimes we just don’t see it.

That is why, in these dark days of winter, as we take down the tinsel and tuck away the garland, it is well to take stock of ourselves and those around us. Depression can set in like winter’s chill, and sometimes you don’t realize how cold you are until you can no longer feel.

A new year approaches. Perhaps instead of resolving to fit into a size four dress or buy something bigger, better, or more expensive, we could resolve to take better care of ourselves . . . and of those around us

My wish for the new year is simple: May your home be filled with books that speak to you, friends who care for you . . . and time enough to enjoy both.

Sons and Brothers and The Weaker Side in #Outlander

As I get older, I choose my friends more carefully (or at least I try to). Those closest to me have been there for quite some time. Some friends have been in my life since…well, since we were the age that my own children are now. So it is easy to see my children’s friendship through the eyes of a child as well as with the wisdom of years—not that my motherly wisdom necessarily accounts for much in their eyes, yet.

I stand back and try to let them learn their own lessons of friendship, if I can. I bite my tongue a lot. Some friendships I know will burn out fast and, sometimes, I am grateful for it. Other times I watch bonds being forged, strengthened, and fortified by time and shared experience, and I find myself hopeful that the bond will stay solid without becoming fetters.

These early experiences with friendships…these earliest relationships…can color what we expect from later relationships. And, to be honest, I want them to expect a lot from their friends and from themselves. People will make mistakes, of course, but how they address their mistakes shows a lot about their character. The ability to say “I’m sorry,” and “I was wrong,” and “of course, I forgive you,” give more insight into a person’s soul than if they never had need for forgiveness…whether to ask for it or to receive it.

In case you were wondering when I was going to bring this around to some Outlander reference…wait no more! {SPOILER ALERT}

So, as I am working through yet another re-re-re-reading of the Outlander books, I find myself calling my kids over to listen (yet again) to some of the snippets that tug at my heart. Lately, my son, especially, seems to be the getting the lion’s share of my fair attempts at Scottish-brogued recitations from the stories.

My son, youngest and brotherless, used to beg me for a little brother. So I was so glad when we moved and he found a family of boys down the street ranging in age from nearly new-born, to three, to just-his-age, and to just-one-year-older. Finally he had a band of brothers of the heart. I think it eased his own heart a bit, to feel less alone; in a house full of women, he and his father are woefully outnumbered. It reminded me of Jamie speaking Ian:

“I thought I’d have a new brother,” he’d said suddenly. “But I don’t. It’s just Jenny and me, still.” In the years since, he’d succeeded in forgetting that small pain, the loss of his hoped-for brother, the boy who might have given him back a little of his love for his older brother, Willie, dead of the smallpox. He’d cherished that pain for a little, a flimsy shield against the enormity of knowing his mother gone forever.

Ian had sat thinking for a bit, then reached into his sporran and got out the wee knife his father had given him on his last birthday.

“I’ll be your brother,” he’d said, matter-of-fact, and cut across his thumb, hissing a little through his teeth.

He’d handed the knife to Jamie, who’d cut himself, surprised that it hurt so much, and then they’d pressed their thumbs together and sworn to be brothers always. And had been.

(From AN ECHO IN THE BONE by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 81, “Purgatory II.”)

When I read that bit to my son, he blinked away some alleged allergen that suddenly seemed to make his eyes a bit watery. I must have suffered a similar affliction, because I suddenly needed a tissue, myself.

As my son gets older, I realize his need for a “brother”–for someone to stand with him, to “have his back” when things get tough. Apparently growing up male is a hazardous business. Hell, growing up at all is rough enough. So I shared this bit between Jenny and Claire with him:

“I remember, when they were young, auld John told Ian it was his job to stand to Jamie’s right, for he must guard his chief’s weaker side in a fight. And he did— they took it verra seriously, the two of them. And I suppose auld John was right, at that,” she added, snipping off the excess thread. “After a time, nobody would fight them, not even the MacNab lads. Jamie and Ian were both fair-sized, and bonny fighters, and when they stood shoulder to shoulder, there was no one could take the pair o’ them down, even if they were outnumbered.”

She laughed suddenly, and smoothed back a lock of hair behind her ear.

“Watch them sometime, when they’re walking the fields together. I dinna suppose they even realize they do it still, but they do. Jamie always moves to the left, so Ian can take up his place on the right, guardin’ the weak side.”

(Diana Gabaldon, From DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, chapter 33, “Thy Brother’s Keeper.”)

*grabs another Kleenex* Stupid allergies.

Perhaps just as important as having a brave brother to stand at your side, is to know that the loyalty is unending…to know that it is a loyalty that has need of asking.  It. Just. Is. Friendship like that transcends time. It even transcends death itself:

(Fair warning: grab your Kleenex now, and perhaps a wee dram to fortify yourself.)

After Ian’s death, Jamie and Jenny share a quiet moment of wonder (…and said moment may have resulted in some not-so-quiet ugly-crying at our house):

“Where d’ye think he is now?” Jenny said 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, 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.”

(From AN ECHO IN THE BONE by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 84, “The Right of It.”)

The thing about a true friend, though, is that they never really leave you. It can take a while to understand that. Certainly my ten year old self could never imagine having a friendship continue beyond the grave; but my 43 year old self finds great comfort in that.

I read my son the passage where Young Ian comes across Jamie preparing for battle:

“And what are ye doin’ out here in your sark, then?”

“Washing,” Jamie said, but in a tone indicating that that wasn’t all of it. “And…talkin’ to my ain dead.”

“Mmphm. Anyone in particular?”

“My uncle Dougal, and Murtagh, him who was my godfather. They’re the two I’d most want with me, in battle.” Jamie made a small restless movement. “If I can, I make a wee moment to be alone, before a fight. To wash, ken, and pray a bit, and then…just ask if they’ll bide with me as I go.”

Ian thought this interesting; he hadn’t known either man himself; they’d both died at Culloden, but he’d heard stories.

“Bonnie fighters,” he said. “Did ye ask my Da, too? To go with ye, I mean. Perhaps that’s why he’s about.”

Jamie turned his head sharply toward Ian, surprised. Then relaxed, shaking his head.
“I never had to ask Ian Mòr,” he said softly. “He was always…just with me.” He gestured briefly to the darkness on his right.

(Diana Gabaldon. From WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD.)

So, yes, THIS is the friendship I want for my children. THIS is the kind of bond I hope they forge with their friends…their family…their future spouse. I wish for them the kind of love that is constant, and unflinching, and loyal, and without fail. Because the world is hard enough…and knowing that someone is guarding your weak side can make all the difference.