First you dive, and then you swim.

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Waves. Darkness. Seasons. Analogies for grief are not in short supply.

But the swimming pool surprised me a little.

When I was a little girl, I thought I knew how to swim. I had an above-ground pool in the backyard, a little over waist-high to a six-year-old. I could easily walk across the pool. “Swimming” amounted to one or two strokes before having to turn and head the other direction. Sometimes, if no one else was swimming at the same time, I could swim around and around, lightly touching the outside wall of the pool.

Then one summer I unofficially became a member of the Davis family, who went to our church. Their oldest daughter, Deanna, was my babysitter that year, and Deanna’s dad listed me as a member of their family so that I could go with Deanna to their swim club.

The Morgan Wynd Swim Club had a sizeable inground pool with two diving boards, a slide, and a snack bar. To this day, I smell chlorine whenever I open a bag of barbecue potato chips, the associations of the two are so strong in my memory.

Swimming around the Morgan Wynd pool meant bouncing on my toes around the perimeter, hanging onto the edge. I couldn’t actually swim proper strokes across the length of the pool, but I could bounce up and down and make it all the way around the pool, even the 12′-deep end of the pool where the high dive was, thanks to the concrete overhang and the curved wall.

Of course, the quest of the summer was to dive off the high dive. Of course, it took me weeks to get up my courage. Of course, the high dive was in the middle of the deep end of the pool. And of course, I’d focused more on being afraid of the fall than figuring out how I’d make it back to the safety of the concrete edge.

In I jumped, feet first and holding my nose. There is nothing worse than a noseful of chlorinated pool water, so I avoided that at all costs. I went down, down, down, figuring I’d touch the bottom and push hard at an angle to emerge closer to the edge. At that point, I was betting I could swim two or three real strokes to reach safety. The only problem was that I didn’t realize my little six-year-old body was too light to make it all the way to the bottom of the deep end, even jumping off the high dive. When I stopped sinking there was nothing. No concrete bottom. No concrete wall. No concrete ledge. Nothing.

I had enough sense to realize that I was going to have to move myself towards the surface, so I lifted my arms above my head and pulled them back down through the water over and over, swimming awkwardly in a direction I’d never gone in my backyard pool: up. When I finally broke the surface, I managed to doggie paddle to the edge, terrified.

Jumping off the high dive forced me to learn how to propel myself through the water, from the depths to the surface.

And that’s what grief has been like.

For the first few weeks, everything centered around the funeral and thank-you notes and cleaning out mom’s apartment and getting the estate opened. Then things got quiet and normal returned. And I realized I didn’t quite know how to move through life without my mom. She’d been both the wall I pushed off and the edge I’d hung onto. What I did with my time depended on her schedule of doctor appointments and house-cleaning and errands.  Choices I made about healthy living habits came in reaction to her poor choices in nutrition and exercise. I even chose what I wore based on what I knew her reaction would be to my fashion choices. When I was frustrated with my husband or overwhelmed with raising my kids, she’d exhort me to get over myself or assure me it’d be all right. And then she was gone.

For several months I felt like I didn’t quite know how to move through life. I had my husband and youngest son to take care of on a daily basis, but they were at work and school and involved in sports and activities. All the time I’d spent caring for my mom was now free time. All the choices I made about what to eat, what to do, where to go, what to wear… those were mine and overwhelming.

The six-month “anniversary” of her passing was October 7. It was a Monday. I thought about it the weekend before and was impressed that I didn’t have a sense of dread. A good friend asked me if I’d like to get coffee. She’d lost her father recently too. She asked how I was doing, and I told her I was doing OK. I mentioned that day marked exactly six-months from the day Mom died. She talked about struggles with her family since her father died. We chatted a little more. She said something that should have made me smile, but for whatever reason, it hit a sore spot in my heart. My smile disappeared. Tears welled up in my eyes. She tried to make me laugh. I apologized, grabbed my tissues and my purse, and left the coffee shop sobbing.

I cried all the way home; I couldn’t even see the lines on the road, I was crying so hard. I went inside and cried more. I washed my face and breathed deep breaths. Then I started sobbing again. I ugly-cried off and on for about five hours, texting my husband and telling him what had happened. I was sad. So so so sad. I begged the Lord to let me feel His presence and His comfort. I was in full-blown lament mode. And then, I was at peace.

Other than grace, I have no way to explain what happened. I was just filled with peace. Deep, deep peace. And I knew I needed to move towards the surface. So I did.

Things I had held onto (material things) because I was afraid my mom would be disappointed with me if I got rid of them, I felt free to deal with. I emptied the last of the home-canned produce she’d taken with her to the independent living community. It was old and had turned a funny color, and it smelled bad when I broke the seal of the lid. It needed to go. Then I cleaned out her old metal filing cabinet that I’d brought to my house exactly as she left it. I organized her important papers and put them into file boxes until we close out her estate.

I even found a home for the planters we’d given her a few years ago for Mother’s Day, to keep her gardening (her joy) without having to negotiate the brick steps to get to her backyard.

By grace, I emerged from the depths, swam to the side of the pool, and climbed out.

I still love my mom. I still miss her. But I think this will be the last post on grief for a long while.

I’m moving on my own, and that feels amazing.

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I had lofty plans for this blog.

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I had lofty plans for this blog. And then life happened. And death. 

I retired from teaching full time to help care for my elderly mom. I thought I’d start a blog to keep my creative and intellectual sides working, even though I wasn’t bringing home a paycheck. 

About a month after my official last day of work, my mom took a tumble going to the mailbox. A few days after that, she announced it was time. Time to sell the house she’d lived in for 57 years–the only home I’d known until I left for college. It was too much for her and too much for us. And even though we’d renovated part of the main floor of our house into a guest suite with the thought that she might come to live with us, she never did move in. She said she thought the changes at our house were nice, but she thought it would be best for us and for her if she moved into an independent living facility. She said, “We’re too close and have too good of a relationship to mess it up by trying to live together.” 

Of course, that statement had a whole history of “it’s complicated,” but she was right. It was for the best. 

Over the course of the next six weeks, we went through her entire house, sorting things into trash, sell, and keep piles. We had a massive yard sale. We cleaned out the whole house, and we were able to get Mom moved into an independent living facility about a mile from the house she’d lived in since the early 1960s. Same grocery store, same pharmacy, same doctors, same hospital, and virtually the same neighbors. 

Life in the senior community went well for a while until things began unraveling. There was a power struggle over the library: readers vs. socializers. There was an argument. Things changed. Mom changed. She started saying things so outrageous that sometimes I’d have to leave to keep from saying something I knew I’d regret. We were confused. Was it a mental illness? Was it dementia? Was she having strokes? As we set out to find the underlying cause of the change, mental deficiencies evolved into physical deficiencies. 

She had an accident in the laundry room–bumped into a chair propping open a hydraulic-hinged door. The door closed, hitting her right shoulder. We never could figure out exactly how it happened because her account of the story was always a little jumbled. She had x-rays that showed no injury. She followed up with doctors who couldn’t find any physical signs of impact. Along the way, she quit using her right arm altogether. She talked constantly about being in pain, but the focus of her pain traveled from arm to shoulder to back to hip to feet and around again. None of her pain medications helped.

The medical professionals were as flummoxed as we were. The injury was followed by colds; colds turned into long-term stomach ailments. She refused to go to the dining room for meals, saying she had an upset stomach. She refused dining room delivery of food to her apartment. (We later discovered she’d ordered food from several different restaurants during the course of her digestive woes.) She claimed the housekeeper quit coming to clean. (The housekeeping had come by her apartment twice the day Mom made that claim.) I cleaned her apartment for her. She got upset. 

We called in more doctors, but before we could figure out the underlying physical ailment, she fell. 

The night she fell her spiral of decline tightened, both mentally and physically. The ED visit turned into an outpatient stay for observation, which turned into a visit to rehab. Rehab led back to the hospital, thanks to a raging UTI. The UTI treatment resulted in C.diff.  C.diff under control, she went back to rehab. The back-and-forth between hospital and rehab lasted about a month. She quit eating and refused to drink unless the water was ice cold. The straws were too short for the cups at rehab, so I ordered her longer straws. She still wouldn’t drink water on her own, so CNAs and nurses helped us make sure she was drinking throughout the day. 

On Friday, April 5, we found her in her rehab room, unresponsive. The nurse in charge called EMS. Mom’s blood pressure dropped so low during transport that they had to rescue her medically on the way to the hospital. By the time she rolled into the ED, she was stable, but her kidneys and heart were fighting each other to see which would completely fail first. She regained coherence enough to tell us and the doctor that she was tired of fighting and ready to go home to see her mom and dad and my dad, who had all passed years earlier. 

Our entire family gathered at her bedside that Friday night. She had something to say to each one of us. And then she said good-bye. Her thoughts and words were clearer in those last conscious moments than they had been in the past few weeks. She drifted off to sleep, aided by morphine. We stayed with her round the clock. 

On Sunday morning, April 7, the nurse woke my husband and me and said Mom was getting close to passing. We held onto her, told her we loved her, and a few minutes later she was gone. 

The six months since she died have been a lot. Actually, the past couple of years have been a lot. Looking back I can see clues that her mind and body were failing, but I always thought she’d rally. She’d faced challenges before–big challenges like a shattered pelvis–and she’d always fought her way back. But not this time. 

Grief is a road paved with second-guesses. I wonder what I could have done differently. 

Yet there is also grace. I loved my mom dearly. Our relationship was close and complex. I think many mother-daughter relationships are. We shared a faith in Jesus Christ and I am confident that I will see her again one day, in the presence of our Redeemer. 

In the past few days, though they’ve been the most emotional days since her death, I have sensed that it’s time to move forward. I started this blog the month after I retired from teaching, which was right before my mom decided to sell her house. I’ve posted a couple of times, but life and death have a way of bringing projects to a halt. In contrast, healing has a way of getting things moving again. So here we go. 

I’m recasting the vision for this space from an education-focused blog for parents, students, and educators to a broader scope of content, which will cover all sorts of things I’m learning, from books  I’m reading to courses I’m teaching to resources I’m developing to projects I’m attempting to, well, who knows? That’s the adventure. 

I don’t mean to be selfish, but instead of trying to gauge what readers want and getting all stressed out about pleasing other people, I’m doing this for my own growth. 

If you’re up for it, join me. Let’s see what we can learn. 

P.S. Mom, I love you and I miss you.