Fierce Gratitude

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November, 2013

Yesterday, I had a wonderful talk with my stepmother. I’d called to check and see how my dad is doing with his chemo treatments, how the repairs were going on the rental property that was damaged by fire, and if they were hunkered down with the big storm moving toward their rural area in Tennessee. The talk was ordinary, but the warmth shone through in our conversation about bedding down their chickens to weather the cold-snap and snow, and how their cat doesn’t like going outside in bad weather. At the end of our talk, quietly, as if she surprised herself with the words, for the first time in the 37 years she’s been part of my life, my stepmom said, “I love you.” And then, as if not sure it was okay to say that, rushed on to, “Happy Thanksgiving.” I was filled with fierce gratitude as I said the words back to her and meant them.

My parents separated the summer before third grade, and my father wasn’t allowed visitation because my grandmother had tried to prevent my mom from taking me and my sister back home to Massachusetts from Illinois. Over the years, I saw him a handful of times, since visits were allowed once my sister and brother and I were older. At one point after my second daughter was born, and my dad withdrew from my life again as I was struggling to cope with a baby with serious health issues, we were estranged for ten years. We had brief communications after that, and he drove up from Tennessee to see one of my girls perform in a concert once. But it took the knowledge that death is final, and that his colon cancer had metastasized to inoperable tumors in his lungs, to move me to reconnect with him on a meaningful level.

I am glad that I have had the chance to know him this year—with both of us having let go of the hurt and angst of the past—two people who have forgiven and grown, solid in who we are and open to the small joys of each day. I have learned about grace near the end of his journey in this world. I am grateful that he has been able to share his sense of acceptance, letting go of struggle and embracing the joy of feeling well enough to cook a meal, or savor a bowl of ice cream or a glass of ice water, two of his favorite things.

My wife and I traveled to Tennessee this past summer to spend a week in the Smoky Mountains, not too far from my dad’s home. Our first day there, we spent the entire day with them touring the sights, soaking in every waterfall and breathtaking  mountain view. We enjoyed chatting with him and my stepmom as we traveled in their pickup truck, with my dad on a break from his chemo and feeling well enough to drive that day.

My dad and stepmom are Catholic, and their faith gives them strength. I wasn’t sure how Heather and I would be received as a lesbian couple, and thus my gratitude for the love and open arms we met in Tennessee ran fierce and deep. Dad and Pat loved Heather from the start, and we chatted like everyone had known each other for years. We sat around their table on their wrap-around porch, looking out over the lake and watching their chickens run around the yard. My dad served the meal he most enjoyed preparing as a chef and later as the owner of a small restaurant, beef burritos. I have pictures of the piece of art he created, a flower of sliced avocado adorning the top of the tortilla, and other vegetables artfully arranged on the side. I’ll always treasure the love with which he prepared that meal.

From the same trip, I brought home a photo of my dad sitting on a bench a third of the way up to Laurel Falls, content in his orange rain poncho in the light drizzle, eager to hear our report of the rain-swollen spectacle we’d climbed up to witness. He talked about how friendly every hiker was as they passed, asking if he was okay and offering him granola bars. He didn’t want us to miss the experience of seeing the waterfall, and sat patiently when he was too tired, and the neuropathy in his feet and legs from chemo made it too difficult to climb further up the trail. This gesture of love reached deep into my heart.

The knowledge of impending loss adds an edge, a more profound gratitude that I have had the chance to know my dad and stepmom. The thankfulness is enhanced by a world of memories, past struggles buried inside me for years and released through great focus and the aid of meditation, massage, journaling, my love for our four girls, and the support and steady presence of my wife, even in our rockiest times as a blended family.

The childhood memories remain. The summer before third grade when my family camped out and washed clothes in the rust-stained bathroom sink at Cape Ann Campground, living out of our station wagon because my dad couldn’t find work. The apartment fire that left us living in a hotel when I was in first grade. The worsening of my mom’s mental illness and her suicide attempt that same year. Weeks with my dad struggling to care for three young children who had no understanding of what was happening. My father telling me to put on clean socks to go visit my mom, and my child’s puzzlement as to why the windows in the hospital were barred.

The visit with my grandparents in Illinois before the divorce—egg and ketchup sandwiches in front of Bozo the Clown on the black-and-white TV in their den,  playing spaceship with Mimi and my little sister on their upstairs porch. Then one day, police arriving to escort me and my sister from my grandparents’ house, my mother sitting white-faced in one of the squad cars with my two-year-old brother. My frantic tears and confusion as my grandmother, her red hair flying, threw our shoes toward my mom, screaming, “Don’t you want the kids to have any shoes?”

All that remains as memory, but without power over me to invoke anger, resentment, or sadness. This letting go—my fiercest gratitude—has allowed me to embrace all that is positive in my life, my wife, our four girls, our three dogs, our cozy house, and a wealth of new blessings each day. Only after I let go of the past could I appreciate everything that is good in my dad and stepmom, opening to love.

I treasure the memories created on our trip to Tennessee last summer, the hugs, the warm conversations, and the stunning sunsets over the Smoky Mountains. I soaked in every Mockingbird call, every buzzy trill of the Worm-eating Warblers, and the beautiful calls of “Trees, trees, murmuring trees” from the Black-throated Green warblers. I revisit these moments during meditation, soaking in the good, wrapping myself in simple joy.

Not long after my dad told me that the cancer had spread to his lungs, I found myself working through a world of confusion and grief, overwhelmed by strong emotions over our troubled relationship and past. One night I dreamed that I was searching through an attic. With care, I chose objects to save and things to discard. I held close symbols of the positive parts of my childhood, and stored my daughters’ toys lovingly in a box. I let go rusted tools, rotting wood, bits of hardware, furniture that had belonged to my ex-husband, and forty-seven years of hurtful memories. I experienced variations of this dream several times, sorting through attics or basements and choosing what to hold close and what to let go. Sometimes the girls were with me, sometimes my wife, and always there was the presence of deeply complex memories around my dad.

My final dream in this series broke open in a burst of color, with me first on my knees on fertile ground, planting tulip bulbs, and then taking in the stunning orange and yellow of the blossoms I had planted in memory of my dad. In North Carolina, when we crossed the state line from Tennessee to visit the other side of the Smoky Mountains—a Raven screaming over a valley to a backdrop of violet clouds and the sinking sun, the glory of Mingo falls, and countless scenic overlooks—Heather and I visited a Cherokee art cooperative. There, I found a finger-woven scarf with patterns of vibrant yellow and orange. I couldn’t stop stroking the fabric, feeling the texture of the fibers under my fingertips as I recalled the warmth of the yellow and orange tulips in my dream.

The scarf hangs in our family room, draped over a gnarled branch Heather retrieved from a stream along Roaring Forks trail, where we’d spent time with my dad and stepmom. I brought part of Tennessee back with me, along with a piece of art woven by a woman’s fingers, connected to the thread of whatever joys and sorrows she has known in her own life. Every time I touch the fabric I think of the yellow and orange tulips I will plant after my dad leaves his journey on this world behind. I am filled with fierce gratitude, for reaching a place in life where I had room in my heart for him, and he had room in his heart for me.

May all beings know gratitude and peace.

Yours in love and joy,

Heather Owl