How I miss getting together with others to grieve the death of my father, much like Covid deaths

From time immemorial, we humans have been joining together to mourn or memorialize our dead. This is a tradition we seem to need, to get together and recognize the death of a loved one. In the past this would be called a funeral. Today it can be any kind of ceremony to gather together and grieve the passing of someone special to us.

My father died on March 10th of this year, right before “the virus” began to run and ruin our lives. We had hoped to have a special ceremony for Dad at the Denver Botanic Gardens, a place where he often lectured and was well known as one of our state’s foremost botanists. That could not happen. And now, six months later, we still wish we could do something to get together and commemorate his life and his passing. Then I realized, hundreds of thousands of Americans are feeling the exact same way. Because of this horrible pandemic, so many of us cannot even grieve in the usual ways. At least my Dad did not have to die alone, but we were then left with no way to get together and mourn him. I’m so glad we did at least have a fantastic 90th birthday party for him. That was a wonderful coming together of those who loved my father and knew his was a life worth celebrating!

I am struck again by how fundamentally social we are as a species. From New Orleans jazz funerals to Tibetan sky burials, we always find our own ways to deal with love and loss. We need that time to fully embrace our return to the earth from which we came. What could be more natural than dying, and yet it always seems so sudden and unexpected…

One of my favorite aspects of moving here has been that I finally feel good about my future after death. I now know I wish to have my ashes spread over this peaceful and quiet place, the land below our home here in rural southern Colorado. Perhaps my Dad would like that too, since we live in one of his favorite ecosystems, the Pinon-Juniper woodland.

“Yes, it’s beautiful to exhale after you inhale. At the right time, when the chest is full, breathe out and let go.” – Norman Fischer, “Suffering Opens the Real Path”

How Careful Observation, Writing, and Gardening Create New Meaning

One week ends another begins, but both seem the same. It’s that sameness that wears on us. The near term is the same, and the future seems clearly uncertain. It’s impossible to make travel plans, not just for now but for the fall and winter. Some people have started referring to 2020 as the “Lost Year.” Imagine how those in my family feel, having lost my Dad right before “the virus” took over our lives.

I am saddened to learn that COVID-19 may be taking a toll on Americans’ heart health even if we’re not infected with the virus. According to new research, cases of ‘broken heart syndrome’ are on the rise among those without any specific illness. This occurs when part of the heart becomes enlarged and is unable to pump blood effectively, preceded by intense emotional or physical stress.

Everybody deals with this kind of stress differently. I think it’s easier for us gardeners. We have something in our lives that brings us daily joy. We can go outside each morning and enjoy the summer blooms! The fact that our plants need us, even marginally, also helps. Let’s face it, we all need to feel needed. This is why we all need to find positive distractions from this sad time in all of our lives.

I relate to these issues more than most. I sometimes pass out from lack of oxygen and am not certain if I will take my next breathe. I struggle daily to find the good in everything, like the 4th of July celebrations on TV last week. I want to feel good about my country again and positive about our future, but it isn’t easy if I watch the news too much.

So I go outside and walk around my garden. I hang out with the birds and bees, literally! I watch the birds taking a carousel ride on Mike’s great purple wind sculpture.

I sit quietly and observe the end to another glorious day, as the sun sets over Mount Mestas to our West.

Sometimes I take photos of the sunny still life developing on my bedroom wall as the sun comes up each morning. My appreciation of my eye sight is increased one hundred-fold as it diminishes with worsening cataracts.

These are the moments that sustain me… What are yours?

My Salute to Caregivers Everywhere!

One thing I have learned from first caring for my husband when we first met, is that providing care for those who need extra help almost always involves guilt of some kind.

So many of us understand the importance of this work…

Back when Mike and I first met, he suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) regularly. This meant trying to find doctors who understood this generally misunderstood and mistreated illness. The worst of the docs always blamed the victim by saying that CFS was caused my mental illness and had no biological basis. Thankfully the CDC eventually showed these MDs to be quite wrong. (Description of CFS at the CDC)

But in the meantime Mike had to go on regular short-term disability from his jobs. I had no previous experience with caring for others. I found that he generally felt guilty of having this terrible illness, and I felt guilty that I was not a more patient and compassionate caregiver.

Since moving down south six years ago, Mike’s health has improved dramatically. He rarely suffers days of CFS. And it’s a good thing because my health has gone downhill quickly. My main problems now are extreme hypoxia, defined as: “deprivation of adequate oxygen supply at the tissue level,” difficulties with consciousness and balance from a previous traumatic brain injury, and quickly failing eyesight (cataracts). And, I would like to add, DEPRESSION:

because I never had any major health problems before age 60. My how quickly things can and DO change! Luckily Mike is a marvelous caregiver! No guilt involved.

In addition to all of this, my Dad recently died from a short illness right before the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in mid-March. This meant that my Mom, who had never lived alone in her 86 years of life, was suddenly quite alone and grieving terribly. Thankfully, my sister and her husband live nearby and provide every kind of loving care for her everyday. But with my health tenuous at best, (we have 3 known cases of Covid-19 in our county and over 20,000 in the Denver metro area where my Mom lives), I haven’t been able to go help out with my Mom’s care.

This means my sister is absolutely EXHAUSTED both physically and emotionally from helping Mom out day-to-day while I sit down south feeling breathless and guilty. I’m sure you can imagine how all this feels for both of us…

She does not blame me or anyone else, she and her husband are just completely worn out! There must be so many of you who are living through similar circumstances right now, with no easy answers, but lots of difficult circumstances to deal with everyday.

That is why I feel the need to salute all of you who have put your own life on hold while you care for the millions of friends and family members who desperately need your help. I love every single one of you for your bravery and dedication!

What we did not learn from the Native American traditions

“Doctor my eyes, I cannot see the sky. Is this the price for having learned how not to cry?” -Jackson Browne

Losing my father has brought up so many new thoughts about my upbringing. Strange how I feel freer to question all this after his death. Lately I feel like I may have been raised in the wrong family at the wrong time in history. What has stimulated this thought? Watching a new series called “Native America” on PBS. I can highly recommend it!

When I started watching this program I got lost in it immediately. Everything they were saying rang true and captured my imagination. Did I mention the first stories I ever enjoyed reading, writing or drawing were about Native Americans and their ponies?

Native American creation stories are wonderful. So much imagination, something I was not allowed as a child...

Most importantly, the concept our European-American culture has so completely missed is that we should all see ourselves as ‘Caretakers of the Earth.’

How can we honor our true Mother? By taking good care of her.

I also so related to the first episode: “From Caves to Cosmos.” It is about how the ancient Amazon Peoples slowly migrated up through the Americas, always seeking the right place, or what they called “the center place.” This is the place where we feel most centered with the landscape, the weather and the cosmos. I never completely understood this concept until I found my ‘center place’ here in southern Colorado. This is a spiritual concept, not to be understood until you feel it viscerally. I felt I had to write down this phrase immediately:

“When you enter a new landscape, you become a new kind of person.”

This best describes how different I felt after settling into our high desert perch. I felt at home in a way I could not even have fathomed before. The silence, the direct connection with nature, the overwhelming sense of belonging, were instantly clear to me.

The other concept our culture has so woefully forgotten or ignored is a strong and positive sense of community. When we confronted those ‘savage’ Native Americans, we were well into the “ruggedly independent” American phase, especially out West, the Manifest Destiny and all that crap. We saw ourselves as stronger and smarter so we should certainly defeat these weaker Native peoples. Of course we weren’t the only country who massacred or subjugated indigenous tribes. It happened all over the world with colonialism. That does not, however, make it a good thing!

In fact, I see so many of our cultures’ worst problems being caused by no sense of community or belonging. The epidemic of loneliness, drug addiction and now high levels of suicide reflect how alone so many of us feel in a culture that encourages independence instead of interdependence. I was raise to be super independent and it took many decades and a lot of counseling for me to realize that this strong sense of independence and lack of trust was not serving me. I found my life far too lonely so I changed.

We have lost and continue to lose so much wisdom by ignoring the teachings of the Native Americans who are left on this earth. This PBS series is proof of that. See it and expand your mind. While you’re at it, send PBS some money so we can continue to enjoy these alternative viewpoints.

Our Parents’ Spirit Lives Inside Of Us!

I just watched a marvelous story on CBS Saturday Morning, where a young woman lost both of her parents at age 18. The thought floored me. I do not know how I would have survived such an overwhelming blow to my own spirit. And then she said,

“Their spirit is in me.”

I lost my father one month ago, right before this terrible virus started ravishing the entire human race. But thankfully, I see everyday how his spirit is in me. My Dad was a born teacher. He taught others his whole life. We are now learning how many of his past students saw him as a powerful life mentor. The part of his spirit that only spoke to me in the second part of my life was his love of native plants. I have kept a native plants garden since my 40s, learning more each summer about why certain plants thrive in Colorado’s higher, drier elevations. Since moving to a semi-arid Pinon Juniper woodland in 2014, I continue to learn how to plant and nurture the plants that my Dad loved and the ones that love this arid climate. Now that spring has arrived…

I go out to tend my “sky garden” everyday, with its unobstructed view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, knowing full well that I never would have chosen to live in such a quiet, natural place if my Dad hadn’t taken us out camping as children and taught us to appreciate everything about nature. Mike has developed a love of the local birds, which he feeds and provides water for everyday. We have learned to recycle our inedible leftovers by leaving them down the hill for every variety of animals, including ravens and vultures.

We feed the earth as it feeds us...

And speaking of eating, my Mom taught me to produce healthy, nutritious meals for my family by her excellent example. She was not taught to cook by her mother and only began learning when she married my Dad in 1951. Then she turned that skill into an amazing art. By junior high school, when my Mom started working full-time, I began making our family dinners, great training for life!

Mom also followed her grandmother and mother’s tradition by taking up sewing and turning herself into a top-notch seamstress. She first made really pretty dresses for us as kids, and then graduated to beautiful quilts and other meaningful gifts for her friends and family:

Mom-made from Grandma Carter’s bedspread

All of these wonderful pastimes and useful skills dim beside the myriad of intangible lessons learned from my parents like respect for others, intelligence, science, solid research, good communications and a lifelong desire to learn more everyday.

I saw a very powerful program on PBS this week about the Windermere children. This is the story of some Jewish kids who lost every member of their families in the German death camps in World War II. They were generously given a new lease on life at the Windermere Estates in England after the war. This is a story of AMAZING strength and resilience, and fascinating in terms of early child psychology research and the use of art therapy. Please check it out sometime. This story strongly reinforces my gratitude that I was able to know my parents and grandparents for as long as I did.

Their spirit lives inside of me!