Take Pain Like a Pussy

I know- the title is a bit obnoxious. Still, I feel obligated to give due credit to the creature who taught me an important lesson while simultaneously poking fun at the ridiculous insults about my gender being weak. We all know how untrue that is! 

Everywhere you look, Kitty is there!

  Sixteen months ago, my life was suddenly divided into two parts in a split second. Anytime I think about something in the past, my brain forces me to determine if the event was BC- Before Caleb died or AD, After his Death. It’s a permanent geographical feature of my life as if a volcano erupted and split my property into two parts, with a rocky lava flow right outside my front door that I am forced to navigate every time I step outside. This divide also distorted my sense of time; it feels like the story I’m about to tell you is from a long, long time ago. In reality, it happened a short seven years ago. 

Kitty guarding the gates of Thirsty Goose Farm.

   While we were building our little farm in South Carolina, we were adopted by a feral cat. The neighbors said she had been wandering around those parts for a couple of years, but she decided it was time to settle for whatever reason, and we would be her people. She was incredibly affectionate and full of personality, the kind of cat that made cat haters say, “Well, I still hate cats, but this one is pretty special,” as she fell asleep purring on their laps. We spent months deciding on a name and creatively landed on “Kitty.” 

our photogenic Kitty

   Kitty just had one problem. Well, three, as we had three dogs on the farm, and they all wanted to chase her. One of the dogs had a strong prey drive and tried to eat her. We were terrified she was going to get hurt or killed and did all we could to calm the dogs down and keep her safe (I would not have chosen to put a cat in this situation, but please remember, she was the one who moved in). After a few days of this stress and worry, I was at my wit’s end, and then I witnessed Kitty’s incredible, instinctual wisdom. I saw our tuxedo kitty streak down the driveway from my kitchen window with the crazy killer dog behind her. As I bolted out to try and save her, she stopped, dropped to the ground, and calmly faced the hyper-fixated dog. To my amazement, the dog stopped, sniffed her a bit, and sat down. The other dogs came over excited, and Kitty calmly lay there, letting them get used to her. It took a few weeks for the dogs to adjust to her presence; every time they chased, she would lie down, let them sniff and bark, and eventually get bored and walk away. Soon, they regularly lounged together in the shade, watching the crazy humans sweat buckets while laboring in the sweltering heat.

Kitty is claiming her turf.

  I’ve shared this story several times over the years, bragging about the brilliance and bravery of our beloved barn cat. Then tragedy struck, and I experienced the instinct to run from the awful monster that had just hijacked my life. The moment I locked eyes with grief, I was utterly undone and sure it was going to destroy me. This terrible creature took over my entire house, efficiently sucking out all the air and light.   With every breath, I smelled its stench and struggled against the crushing weight of its presence. It didn’t take long to realize I couldn’t outrun this beast of grief. I’d seen many people try and fail, as the coping mechanisms used to fuel their running just multiplied their pain and tripped them up. I decided to be brave and take a lesson from Kitty. I sat down, reluctantly acknowledged its presence, and fell silent.

Kitty chilling with the dog who wanted to eat her.

Initially, I feared and resented grief and concurrently understood the necessity of hosting it. As my acceptance of our cohabitation increased, it demanded less space. Grief slowly became less of a monster in my perception. Surprisingly, I found its company refreshingly authentic and comforting, and my curiosity developed. I began asking questions and found grief to be non-judgmental, gentle, and wise. Although I would have never chosen to know it, let alone live with it for the rest of my life, I no longer feel like a hostage held against my will. It still feels strange to admit this, but I think we have become friends. I realize this may sound like a twisted Stockholm Syndrome situation, but it’s not. I have the freedom to kick grief out or make it live in the basement or the garage, but I realize this would be to my detriment. Its presence has increased my humanity, capacity for love, and pleasure and appreciation of all the good still in my life. I’ve decided I want to keep my heart open and alive, and I can only do that by giving grief its rightful space. Grief still sometimes takes over the whole house, but most of the time, it just sits in the room with me and reminds me of the great love that brought it to me in the first place.   

Twelve Weeks

A few years ago while our family was together I let it slip (it wasn’t really a secret, just something we never considered important) that Caleb was our only unplanned child; his siblings found this quite amusing.  We were half heartedly using natural family planning and surprised ourselves with a pregnancy when our first baby was only five months old.  It was a shock (shouldn’t have been) and a wonderful gift wrapped up in the same moment.  We loved him as soon as we comprehended the two pink lines.  I did my best to contain the news until the twelve week mark, but i was so excited about this unexpected baby.  Oh what a gift he was.  

Read more: Twelve Weeks

 We just passed the twelve week mark since his death and it seems to have opened the dam of grief and tears for everyone in his inner circle.  Most all of us have shared that this last week was unexpectedly tough.  I know I shared the same sentiment at the two month mark, but we are finding that time is only bringing more revelation of our loss and a greater intensity of pain.  Just as our joy and excitement grew as he developed inside the womb and the date of his arrival grew closer, the heaviness of our loss is increasing as his presence with us is growing further away with each passing day.  

They loved and championed each other so beautifully

 Every time I looked in the mirror the last couple of months of pregnancy I couldn’t imagine my body being able to stretch any more- but it did!  On and on the growing and stretching continued.  I couldn’t believe my body was capable of carrying such a  load. Sometimes I felt a bit claustrophobic with this huge belly I had to navigate through life.  I would walk into walls and furniture  and I struggled to keep my balance as my center of gravity was continuing to change.  There was no break from it- every move I made had to accommodate what I was carrying.  Work, home, sleep- me and my baby belly.

Now I look in the mirror and can’t imagine carrying anymore sadness; it seems impossible to feel more grief than I already have, yet it keeps growing.  Again, the burden feels impossible  at times and I desperately want to run away from it, but it’s a part of me and I have to learn to navigate through life with it.  I’m finding I need to make space for my pain- I can’t walk through doorways like I used to, I cannot sleep like I used to, I cannot plan my future like I used to. Strangely, there is a necessary nourishing involved, a respect the pain demands.  I’m learning to accept this, there is no running away and leaving it behind.  I’m rearranging life so there is more quiet, more time to sit with the pain and the sweet memories, space created for the processing my brain and heart are demanding.  

 Josiah was still a baby when I was pregnant with Caleb, so I often carried two babies at once.  It was challenging as my belly grew and I had to get creative, but I was alway strong enough to do what had to be done.   I’m learning again how to carry two different things at once, as there is also goodness, joy and sweet gifts in my life alongside the pain. It’s not so much switching gears,  as one never gets to set the pain aside in order to only feel joy.  Its more learning to accept the continual presence of pain while giving space to something else.  

Throughout my career I’ve worked with many chronic pain patients, and while some lost their existence to the loss, anger and addictions their pain pushed them to, others managed to live full lives by accepting it’s presence while pressing forward – not pain free, but also not void of joy and goodness. Some of these people are the strongest, most beautiful and compassionate humans I’ve met.  Instead of shriveling up and breaking down, they accepted the hardship, as unfair as it was, and grew to meet the challenge.  

Could never pass up a power tool!

I realize I’m never going to get over losing my son- I’m carrying this pain until the day I die, but I also have a life to live that has so much love and goodness in it.  Three weeks after Caleb’s death, his sweet niece, Selah, was born.  Holding her often opens the floodgates, as my heart and body vividly remember holding baby Caleb, and at the same time some of those tears are from joy of her existence and the perfect gift she is to us, especially during this season.  I can’t separate out which tears are which, they blend together as they fall.  When I cry with Erin, Caleb’s widow, most of those tears are pain for her loss, but mixed in are tears of gratefulness that he experienced such amazing love because of her.  When I cry with my husband and children, mixed in are tears of joy from our memories and the years we had with Caleb and the things we loved about him and the difference he made in our lives.  Since Caleb’s death we’ve been blessed with a beautiful daughter in law who is everything we wished for our son Josiah, and when I think about what an answer to prayer she is, my tears of joy for our new daughter are mixed with tears for our missing son.  I wish we were all together and Caleb was here to welcome his amazing new sister in law into the family and hold his sweet baby niece, but that will never happen.

Wonder what sort of yarn he was spinning here

.  I don’t want to miss out on the rest of my life, overcome with resentment of the pain I will always live with; on the other hand my pain needs a proper place- a healthy space where it can exist without crowding out all the other elements of living.  I’m a bit uncoordinated carrying both joy and pain, but I trust with God’s help I will develop the capacity to do so.