I Will Love You For A Thousand Years And A Thousand More

Always a smile.

I am a writer unable to write since the death of my daughter. As much as I try to force the words to come, they are so interlaced with pain and grief that they stick on my fingers and won’t pass through a keyboard. It’s hard to type with eyes overflowing with tears. I wanted to write about a subject Alana always felt I should write about to remember her on the day my world changed and she died, but I can’t. Instead I’ll remember her by the words she wrote, and I read, at her Celebration of Life. Someday I hope I can write again, but for now I rely on her, like I did so much when she was alive.

Alana loved our family and that love extended past our nuclear family and encompassed all of the Maynes clan. In describing our family relationships, she said, “We’re not like, Oh, they’re my cousins. We’re more like technically we’re cousins but we were all kind of raised together, took family vacations together, tortured and traumatized each other. Just consider my cousins my younger sisters and brothers, that’s easier. Plus when I have kids they’ll be aunts and uncles, not whatever you call cousins.”

And she loved her sister, Sarah.  When someone complimented a hat she wore and asked where she got it, she said “My sister actually made it…special..just for me..” and she wrote, “Sarah’s gifts are always so coveted that I find myself getting quite territorial over them. Get your own awesome sister, people. Mine’s taken.”

When we moved to South Carolina she wrote: “Things that excite me about moving: 1) Being able to hug my Sarah whenever I want. 2) Big whirlpool bath tub. 3) Finally having high ceilings so I can jump up and down on my bed!”

She said “the hardest part of moving isn’t the packing or the goodbyes or coordinating traveling with 4 pets. It’s resisting popping all of the bubble wrap.

She thought personal space was a term coined by people who hated cuddling and the high point of her day was “the moment you walk in the door and your dogs make you feel like a rock star just for coming home.”

She loved her dogs, Pippin Pablo Escabar and Baxter Rodriguez and children. “Have a new found respect for those of you with daughters. I just spent a half hour getting a ponytail to hold up with a tiara and another half hour explaining why even though the dog is technically large enough to be a horse, we cannot buy him a saddle and ride him. Even though, it is an awesome idea and difficult to argue with the logic.”

Alana didn’t feel the same way about some adults, though, as she did with children. “Some days you’ll move mountains and change the world, other days you’ll be thankful to not pop off at idiots. Little victories,” she wrote.

She was an avid observer of the world. One day she saw a mother tell her young daughter in the check-out line, “You’re driving me crazy. Do you see anyone else dancing in line?” The little girl turned around to see if anyone else was dancing and Alana busted out running man and started rapping, “It’s tricky.” She wrote, “Don’t let other people dictate when you dance, kids.”

And she tried to hard to look for the best in people. “Just when I’m ready to get frustrated the universe reminds me in a two minute walk you can change someone’s perspectives.”

She excelled at the sarcastic comeback.

“A date told her, ‘I underestimated you girl. I thought you’d be all make up and shoes. Shoot, she replied, You do know what happened to the last man that underestimated me. She paused, Neither do the police. Turning compliments into awkward silences for 25 years,” she wrote.

She had a more difficult time figuring out the southern mindset:

“At work someone asked, You got a husband?
Nope.
You got a gun?
Nope.
Well, maybe you’ll find one down here.
Oh yeah! There are gun shops EVERYWHERE! I’m just waiting on my bonus.
*awkward silence*
She meant a husband not a gun, huh? For the record, this is a totally acceptable conversation to have in the South.”

One day at a gas station she overheard two guys talking about her and described the conversation.That ain’t her real hair! Hey, girl, that your real hair?
Yep. Wanna give it a tug?
Shit, come grab this girl’s hair, B! You thought she was rocking a weave!
So glad I rocked the natural curls today.

And as much as she tried, Southern men puzzled her. “So far every conversation has consisted of the following: Can I see your tattoos? What does that one mean? It gets hot here in July and August, did you know that? Where’s your husband/boyfriend?
Yes, look. It gets hot everywhere in the summer. I’m one of those independent Yankee women you’re mom warned you about, run.
I’m struggling with all the small talk.”

She wrote, “I am practicing being kind over being right.”

And she practiced gratitude. For those of you who don’t know, she struggled with mental illness and that informed a lot of the last few years of our lives together. One day she wrote:

“Jehovah’s Witness came by this morning and instead of talking of the evils of pornography or drinking we spoke of mental illnesses. This amazing woman has an adult daughter with bipolar and we shared the heartache and struggles of loving someone who suffers daily from a disease many people don’t understand.
I am so blessed to have Renee Maynes as my mother and support system. She’s taught me that I’m deserving of the love, patience, and the understanding she’s given me.
There’s no magic wand or quick fix for mental illness. There’s a lot of tough work, trial and error, moments of doubt and sorrow, but it’s so worth it.
Today I’m grateful for those who’ve opened their hearts to me and supported me when I wasn’t capable of thinking clearly.
I’ll end with this: the stigma of mental illnesses is alive and well. A lot of people will judge or brush you off. Call you dramatic or tell you to suck it up. Love those people. Educate them. Be patient with them. An open dialogue is the only way to change hearts and minds.”

Alana worked hard to conquer her demons and be a better person.

“Today I’m grateful for mistakes. The big ones, the small ones, the ones that set into motion a series of events that ultimately make you stronger, wiser, and more compassionate. It’s easy to get caught up in judging yourself based on the mistakes you’ve made, but enlightenment comes from embracing them and seeing their importance.
Love to all my mistake makers today!”

And I don’t know if she actually wrote this, but it was in her notes and sums up how Alana lived.

“So, there were two choices: I could close myself off, resign myself to the fact that the world is an imperfect place and I could carry my hurt like a security blanket. Or, I could forgive myself. I could decide that loving people isn’t a weakness and trusting people isn’t a flaw. I could decide when others wrong me that’s a reflection on them, not me. That’s the beauty of it. Something that could have damaged me and made me bitter ended up opening my heart in ways I never knew. So, yes, I believe there’s always a choice.”

And when Alana was faced with the choice to be happy or be sad. Well, you know the one she made.

It’s only fitting I close with the toast she gave at her sister’s wedding. She was so happy to finally, as she put it, have the brother she always wanted in Dorri and so thrilled that her sister had found the man of her dreams. That night, under a warm SC sun, she stood in front of the crowd and said this:

“Here’s to life’s worries. Because in life you only have two things to worry about: Whether you’re well or sick. If you’re well you have nothing to worry about, but if you’re sick you only have two things to worry about: Whether you’re going to get better or die. If you’re going to get better you have nothing to worry about, but if you’re going to die you only have two things to worry about: Whether you’re going up or down. If you’re going up you have nothing to worry about, but if you’re going down at least all your friends will be waiting there for you!”

Until we meet again, I miss her today and ever day.

Plumbing the Depths of Grief

american somme cemetary Bony

american somme cemetary Bony (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The death of a loved one is an impossibly agonizing, soul-crushing experience that never completely heals and only lessened by time. When my brother died in a car accident at the age of 25, I thought my tears would never stop.  From the moment I first heard the news, until the moment we lowered his body into the ground, I cried with a ferocity and singleness of purpose I didn’t know I possessed.  All the awful details of death, going to the hospital to get his personal possessions, cleaning out his apartment, picking out a coffin and the clothes he was to be buried in, were done with eyes blurred by tears and a voice hoarse from crying.  The procession of people bearing food and flowers seemed never ending, but I only hungered for alcohol and cigarettes.

After he was buried, the dreams started. Dreams of the two of us on a subterranean train system, the only illumination strobes of light that made him and the other passengers appear and disappear to the background sound of a speeding train racing over wooden tracks.  I was the only one who spoke in the dreams. He sat quietly, attentively, listening. I started out by speaking slowly, normally, and as the train raced along my words hastened to match its speed. I’d talk faster and faster, cognizant in my dream that the time to talk was soon coming to an end, and then he’d disappear.

I’d wake up crying, thinking I would pay any price for him to still be alive. Eventually my grief ebbed to where I could say his name without crying, and then to where I could look at his picture without my eyes growing teary, and now I survive without him. Still, 28 years later, I mist up whenever I hear the lines from “White Christmas” that promise “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams”  because my dreams are the only place I can hope to see him.

Was I depressed during the grieving period? Yes. Did my doctor put me on antidepressants to numb the pain of my loss? No, and I’m glad he didn’t. My brother’s death was something I had to work through and plumbing the depths of my grief informed how I have dealt with the deaths of all of the loved ones that have followed him.

The American Psychiatric Manual has traditionally warned against diagnosing depression during bereavement, but now psychiatrists with ties to drug companies have helped to remove that warning and the makers of antidepressants stand to benefit from the change. If grief equals depression, grief is a treatable condition. A treatable condition is billable and amenable to interventions, in this case, prescription medications. Instead of providing a shoulder to cry on, doctors will provide a prescription pad to write on. And where does that leave the patient? Once again a normal part of life is medicalized, this time because drug companies want to take advantage of a market that increases every day, with every death.

Recently I heard the story of a mother who stood up at her son’s funeral and apologized because she had nothing to say to eulogize her son. She stood dry-eyed, unable to cry, and said she was on too many medications to feel anything but numb.  I wonder about her now, many  months after her son’s death, and whether she’s allowed herself to experience the pain of grief in all of its snot-drenching messiness. I hope so. I can’t imagine any crueler prison than not being able to let go of that pain.

In mourning death, we open our heart and let it bleed. Even though a scab may form, for a long time every memory rips it open and starts the bleeding again. It’s an unpleasant, unpredictable process, but as Henry Rollins says, “Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize the strength; move on.”

The grieving process helps us to do that far more than any chemical ever will.