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XXXii

Hi, Mom,

You died two years ago this morning. Valentine’s Day 2016. While you were dying, I was lying in bed, posting a photo of your two granddaughters to Instagram. I wrote about love in the ways I understood it at that time:
Celebrating love that brings a pig in the house in -17 degree weather, that shares brand new sticker books with younger siblings, that brings joy and anticipation despite searing pelvic floor discomfort, that shampoos away skunk spray, that tolerates Cheerio farts, that permits nachos for dinner (every once and awhile), and that looks like the stuff of everyday life but is what keeps this whole thing together. 

And while all of those sentiments are still true, through my grief, I have come to understand love in its darker, more complicated forms. I’ve been writing essay after essay about your death, my grief, and the love found in all the broken spaces. This one I feel ready to share. I dream of such an essay one day gracing the pages of “Modern Love.” But I’m not there yet. For now, these inadequate words will have to suffice as I continue to do the work and navigate life in The After.

I miss you. I hate this day and all that it represents, and yet, I feel a more deep and honest understanding of love in the wake of your death. I am a better person for it. What a cruel and stunning truth.

143 Your Ashley


 

A Literal Shitstorm

For my mother’s 65th birthday, our family gathered in Saratoga Springs, New York, home of her alma mater, Skidmore College. My father arrived with my mother after a lengthy car trip from their home on Cape Cod, and my elementary-school aged daughters greeted them with great enthusiasm.

“Can I hold Momar?,” inquired my Kindergartener. My father obliged, and my child proceeded to skip down the streets of Saratoga with her grandmother safely concealed in a small Rubbermaid container. I watched on with a mix of amusement and dread, envisioning the stumbles of my child and a stiff breeze as a recipe for disaster under these particular circumstances.  

“Don’t worry,” my father chuckled, recognizing the potential calamity, “there’s plenty more of her back at the house.”

My father is a scientist, and for him, practicality and efficiency reign supreme. Naturally, the kitchen tupperware was the most secure method of transport for my mother’s ashes. Dignified? Perhaps not. But certainly safe, and certainly amusing, though I could picture my mother’s heavy eye roll in response to being treated so casually. But I hadn’t been on the receiving end of such admonishments in over a year.

Admittedly, I can recall the mix of annoyance and humor that accompanied her reprimands, as our final conversation the evening prior to her death was of this nature.  We lived in Vermont, and the weather was predicted to fall below zero degrees. My mother, who was visiting the next day, called to insist we bring our household’s potbellied pig inside for the night. She didn’t want to find frozen pork in our barn. Potbellied pigs are Vietnamese, she reminded me, and couldn’t be expected to tolerate a harsh Vermont winter.

Despite this lighthearted conversation, my mother died hours later, suddenly, unexpectedly, in the arms of my father, her husband of 42 years, in their bed on Valentine’s Day morning.

When my father called to relay the news, my husband was elbow deep in pig shit, as Penelope Pig had had her morning constitutional all over our kitchen floor. And seeing as I was nine months pregnant at the time, he’d offered to handle the clean-up. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he muttered sarcastically moments before the phone began to ring.

The painful clichés of this entire experience do not escape me. A Valentine’s Day death in the arms of one’s soulmate. The loss of life on the brink of welcoming another. Our kitchen floor covered in animal feces as the universe dropped the most extreme load on our household.

This couldn’t possibly be real. It was all too contrived. Too movie-scripted in its staging. And yet, there I was, expeditiously unmothered.

Death from a theoretical perspective is serious in its contemplation. It is unknowable and inevitable and universal, which make it all the more complex.

The lived experience of grief is, of course, all these things. It is marked by a pain I can only equate to the deepest, most intense moments of labor. That visceral, unhinged agony that accompanies giving life and letting life go is fittingly synonymous, two realities I faced cruelly side by side. Grief is traumatic in all the somber, serious ways one anticipates.

And yet, the evening of my mother’s death, my husband and I found ourselves huddled over the bath tub scrubbing pig poop from the coats of our two large retrievers. In the hysteria following my father’s phone call, my husband had flung our swine’s droppings onto the back deck, and our dogs had gleefully rolled in the tempting excrement. As I hefted my 37 week pregnant body into the tub, and swore and pleaded and gagged in response to my dogs’ disgusting life choices, the heavy fog of shock and emotional turmoil briefly lifted.  James and I found ourselves in fits of uncontrollable laughter, a display of levity in the face of this calamitous day.

On the face of it, cleaning up poop in a bathtub while pregnant on the eve of your mother’s untimely death feels like an unnecessarily cruel reminder of life plowing unrelentingly ahead. And yet, the ability to still find humor in such a preposterous state of affairs, even on one’s darkest day, was deeply reassuring. To feel laughter, and that momentary reminder of the joy that makes the loss of life worth grieving, provided hope.

“Mom would be so appalled that instead of donning a dramatic black gown for the next year in a show of mourning, I’ll be covered in baby poop, spit up, and spoiled breastmilk, likely wearing a stained nursing bra and mesh underwear, ” I mused to my husband through a mix of laughter and grief-induced tears.

My mother was the kind of person who swooned over the story of her grandmother covering her grandfather’s grave in a blanket of fresh roses while wearing black for an entire year. While an elegant mourning dress would convey the seriousness and drama of death and the blanket of roses would certainly pay tribute to my mother’s passion for flowers, the five day old sweatpants and soiled t-shirt were a much more authentic display of the work of grief in the face of life moving unforgivingly forward. And my mother never wanted a grave, so the floral covering was a truly superfluous consideration.

I couldn’t fathom how I would mother without my own mother a phone call or car ride away for support and encouragement. I heard her loving voice reminding me this was all just a phase. This time would pass, and it wouldn’t feel so debilitating and all-consuming weeks, months, or years from now. She had said this when I was puddled on the floor of my bathroom, my oldest daughter wailing in the adjoining nursery at 6 weeks of age. I’d called her weeping I wasn’t cut out for parenting. She’d gently reassured me, “You can do this.”

While my love for her and grief over her death will never subside, I’m learning, a year into this process, that it evolves and shifts. The notion that time heals all things is utter bullshit. But time does allow for growth and adaption. Time permits balance and gentleness and forgiveness, with the world and oneself. And it has a way of stripping life down to its most essential parts.

Love presents itself in all of its messiest, purest, unfiltered forms in the aftermath of death. My son was born, three weeks to the day, following my mother’s passing. While I had had relatively uneventful, smooth deliveries with my two older children, my son’s labor was predictably fraught.  Fortunately, baby remained healthy and strong despite the upheaval of its incubator.

With the love and presence of my dearest family and friends, I made it to ten centimeters. With three strong, determined pushes, I brought my son into the world. He pooped on arrival, a fitting tribute to my mother and the trajectory of our story.

I held my newborn to my chest, the sticky meconium further binding us together in those final moments before my midwife cut the umbilical cord. My third birth, and yet for the first time, I envisioned my mother similarly cradling me during my first breaths. I beheld the fragility and power of new life, the sweet half strawberry nose of my mother atop my son’s face, the mystery and universality of it all. Grief ushered in an even deeper gratitude for this life, a grace and gentleness previously unknown. One of the many surprising gifts found in such heartbreak.

Shortly after his birth, I developed an infection that resulted in days of extremely high fever.  We couldn’t figure out the cause, and the postpartum realities combined with my grief were only further confusing the situation. As James ran through symptoms and potential causes over the phone once again with my doctor, I mumbled through a feverish haze, “I think I saw some white spots in my poop. Could that be something?” We were desperate for answers and some relief from the 104 degree reading on the thermometer. We scheduled an appointment for the next day, and I agreed to provide a stool sample.

That evening, when I had a bowel movement, I asked James to bring me gloves and a container. I lay down on the floor of the bathroom, the tiles cooling my feverish cheeks, and promptly fell asleep alongside the toilet bowl. When I awoke, James was once again elbow deep in shit, this time my own. As he went to transfer my excrement into household Rubbermaid, he inspected it closely, carefully considering  these white spots of which I spoke.

“Oh my God, Ashley. That is oatmeal. That is oatmeal from all the damn lactation cookies you’ve been eating.”

Apparently, we did not need to provide a stool sample. A sneaky case of mastitis was slow to show its most notable symptoms, but by the morning, I was on a heavy dose of antibiotics, and the dynamics of my marriage had forever changed.

I knew how much my husband loved me. I had experienced his caregiving and support in unmatched capacities over the course of that three weeks following my mother’s death. But I had no concept of the unwavering depths of his love until I witnessed him literally holding my own shit in his hands. In a month’s time, the death of my mother, the birth of my son, and the caregiving of my husband had tested my own capacities for love. And, more significantly, I had experienced the intensity and scope of how I was loved in return.

And with the strength of that love, we continue to make our way through grief. In death, love shows itself most boldly. In the Kindergartener skipping through the streets with her grandmother in Tupperware. With dogs covered in pig shit. In meconium-coated newborn toes. With a husband picking through his wife’s feces in a quest for answers. While it may not be terribly dignified or romantic, it is what makes death such a worthy, formidable adversary.We carry the light and the dark, the joy and the pain, as all humans do.

A year following my mother’s death, we approached her freshmen dormitory, now a residential apartment building. My father suggested that we scatter a few of my mother’s ashes over the gardens out front. “Momar can feed the flowers,” he told my daughters. “She would love that, because flowers were here favorite thing. Besides us, of course,” responded my Kindergartener. As residents strode in and out of the building, caught up in the rhythm of their daily lives, my family stood around an ordinary rose bush, and through tears, we smiled.

All this shit is compost for the future. And I’ll always see my mother in the flowers.

XXXi

Hi, Mom,

I heard your youngest grandchild’s heartbeat for the first time yesterday. It’s amazing how that simple sound can make such an abstract, mystifying process concrete. That steady whosh turns an idea, a concept, a dream, a hope, into something so clear. So real. So thrilling.

“That’s our baby.”

Our final baby. The last time we’ll get that relief, that proof, that affirmation of the wonder of life in process. Without direction or demand, my body is once again creating. And that reality is awesome. And humbling. And absolute magic.

For the first few weeks of this pregnancy, I wasn’t excited. I was nervous. And ambivalent. And anxious. Was this what we really wanted? Was this what our family needed? I questioned. And hesitated. And hedged.

And I missed you, mom. I fucking missed you. (I mean I always do, but during these past few months, more palpably).

But as the weeks have fallen away, and my belly expands, and my fatigue fades, and the news spreads, I feel a lightness. An anticipation. A joy.

I so look forward to welcoming this child into our family. With all the chaos and love.

Sunny and Courtland were entertaining Sander the other evening, indulging his desire to spin in circles while holding hands, before collapsing on the floor and throwing his body on top of theirs. He giggled with delight as he threw himself on top of Sunny, and she wrapped him up in a big hug while whispering, “I love this little guy.”

There is so much of that ahead of us.

143 Your Ashley

XXX

Hi, Mom,

I distinctly remember where you were seated as I relayed the news of my pregnancy with Sanderling. We were in your home on Cape Cod, dropping the girls off for a weekend of Camp Momar & Doda while James and I attended a wedding in Chicago. It was mid-July. We had only just learned of the pregnancy the weekend or so prior over the 4th of July holiday

We waited to share the news with you in person, to enjoy the full impact of your joy and celebration. We were seated across from one another on the couches in your living room. As the words fell from my mouth, you leapt to your feet shrieking, “I thought it was time for another baby!!!!” before wrapping me in one of your signature overly-ambitious embraces.

Your enthusiasm and joy was palpable. I felt so loved. So safe. So sure. In that moment, with my mother hugging me in her exaltation, everything was going to be okay.

In the early stages of my pregnancy with Sunny, during a weepy, insecure moment over the phone, you sympathized deeply. “Pregnancy is such a vulnerable time, sweetie. Be gentle with yourself. Everything can feel so scary and overwhelming and unsettled. Let your family help you feel safe.”

I reflect back on those words now as I so desperately crave your reassurance. And love. And joy. And promise that it will be okay. That I am safe. That this baby is safe.

I’m expecting your fourth grandchild and it is impossibly unfair that I don’t get to share this news with you. That I don’t get to physically experience your excitement and concern. Your mother’s love.

No one has welcomed the news with the enthusiasm and readiness you would have had available in excess. I’ve even felt judgement, or at best, restrained congratulations, from many. Four must seem excessive. But it’s not their lives, or their business, and yet, it hurts.  It’s hard enough to have to live in a world where you don’t get to share in this experience with me than to also have to face cool detachment from those I love. If you were here, you’d help mediate and soften those hard feelings. You’d help protect me in my most vulnerable state and reassure me that this baby was meant to be. And that it was going to be fucking amazing.

James and I weren’t sure we wanted a fourth child. It was always a possibility after Sander’s pregnancy, as you knew how worried I was about the dynamics of a family of three. Always an odd man out.

But we had settled in to a nice rhythm with the kids, and while pregnancy had been a distinct possibility since the spring, month after month my period arrived. After six months, James and I felt like it was time to call it. I didn’t want this to be an open-ended possibility that could occur at any moment. If it wasn’t meant to be, then it wasn’t meant to be. We were so fortunate to have our three, healthy, growing children. We did not need a fourth. After many a discussion with our therapist, I scheduled my yearly check-up with my midwives and told them I was ready to have a IUD reinserted. At that appointment, I relayed that there was of course the possibility that that month I had gotten pregnant. My period was due on Saturday and it was only Thursday. They did a pregnancy test in the office and it came back “negative.” I felt the weight of that news sink in. I was done with this remarkable period of my life. My IUD appointment was thus scheduled for the following Tuesday morning.

But then Saturday came and went with no period. And Sunday. Finally on Monday, I bought an over the counter test and a very very faint line appeared on the stick Tuesday morning. I called my midwives to have them cancel the appointment. Sudden change of plans.

When James shared the news with his parents, his mother’s first reaction was “Allison knew it! She whispered to me at Courtland’s 4th birthday party that she knew you were going to have four children because of Sanderling’s pregnancy. She was so certain of it.”

It’s comforting to think that you, The Universe, fate, intervened at the last minute and made this baby possible. That this was indeed meant to be. And that James and I, however fucking batshit crazy our lives are going to become, will do this with as much grace and good humor as we can possibly muster.

And even if it’s not some cosmic intervention, I find deep comfort in knowing that you, on some level, knew that this baby was going to be a part of our lives. That while I’ll never experience the full impact of sharing the news with you in person, that you knew. That you know. And that you are jumping up and down in the cosmos shrieking, “I thought it was time for another baby!”

Another baby who will share a piece of her Momar. There’s no greater comfort than that.

143 Your Ashley

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XXIX

Hi, Mom,

Christmas 2017 was a good one. But my lord were you missed.

We went to bed on Christmas Eve to a ground covered in green grass and awoke to a winter wonderland. I can’t recall a white Christmas quite so spectacular. We made Swedish cardamom rolls like we did the morning of your last Christmas with us. We’ve really perfected the recipe. Sanderling nearly ate his weight in bulle. We opened presents by a toasty fire. Dad won Christmas by gifting Courtland a karaoke set that provided the evening’s entertainment (and many more to follow, no doubt). We spent the afternoon sledding, before eating boeuf and popping Christmas crackers, and cozying up to a viewing of “Love Actually.”

Earlier in the week, after prepping your wild rice shrimp casserole recipe for Christmas eve supper, I reflected on our first Christmas with Sunny.  That year, I remember feeling such gratitude that all of our loved ones were alive and healthy and together. I remember rolling over to James that night and saying, “I know it won’t always be like this.” I just didn’t realize this would change so quickly. I thought I had years, decades if we were lucky, before this feeling. This forever balance of light and dark.

It’s never going to feel right without you, but we’re learning to navigate your absence and find light in even the darkest places.

143 Mama. Merry Christmas.

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XXVIII

Hi, Mom,

It’s that time of year. Your dining room table is covered in envelopes and stamps and pens and ribbons and tissue and gift bags. We’ve got Santa’s workshop humming along chez Cart. The holidays are going to forever be mixed emotionally with your absence. I carry such nostalgia for the happy memories of Christmas’s past of which you played such an intimate roll. It’s difficult to imagine how we continue to spread joy in the face of such loss. And yet, we do. In fact, with even more resolve, and intention, and love. For we are more acutely aware than ever of how much there is to lose. How much there is to celebrate. How important it is to give thanks and be present.

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In your honor, we created another family holiday card, wishing peace and gentleness to all. This year has been challenging for our entire nation, for the whole world, and the individual I grief I feel is one facet of many complex experiences and communal heartache we’re weathering as a country. In these past two years, I have learned to carry the world with more gentleness, to lead with more kindness, and to try, even on the darkest days, to celebrate light, and joy, and love.

As always, Minted had a simple yet beautiful design that spoke to this message I wanted to share.

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Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

I had a peace sign necklace made from pieces of your jewelry collection following your death, and this card is one more nod to the peace I seek in a world so very different than I ever could have imagined.

We miss you desperately. I wish you were here, sitting around your dining room table, sipping champagne and stuffing envelopes as “The Nutcracker” plays in the background. But we carry on thanks to memories of your vibrant, lion-hearted spirit

143 Your Ashley

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XXVII

Hi, Mom,

I’m currently curled up on the couch with your snotty, phlegmy, pathetic grandson by my side watching marathon episodes of “Cars.” He requested that we get “cozy,” so we’re buried under blankets, snuggled up side by side. You always said the upside of us being sick as kids was how dang sweet we’d become, and boy is it true. He is disgusting, but very, very sweet.

We’re winding down from two busy, beautiful, celebratory weekends. While so festive and filled with love, I just miss you so dang much. After everyone departed this morning, I found myself carrying such a pit in my stomach. When all the noise is gone, I’m left with the devastating reality of your absence. Thanksgiving was another delicious, family affair with all of Jake’s family in the mix. And this weekend we once again watched the girls dance in “The Nutcracker” and Michelle and Dellie and our chosen family rallied together to support the girls. It was so lovely to have the house brimming with activity and love, but again so palpable that you should be a part of the energy. The memory of you is never going to be sufficient.

Sunny misses you particularly so. She’s really feeling your death during these big weekends. You made such an impact in the too brief six years you were her grandmother, and it’s fucking unfair that she has to live without you, too. You are her top request on her Christmas list to Santa. She understands that it’s not a realistic gift, but it’s her deepest desire regardless.

She drew a photo the other day of you as an angel with song lyrics about how she just wanted you for Christmas. She sat crying as she colored.

“Sometimes it feels good to cry. Because it shows me how much I loved her.”

Ain’t that the truth.

143 Your Ashley

XXVI

Hi, Mom,

Sunny is proving to be quite the fish. She competed in her second ever swim meet this past weekend and wound up placing third overall in the girls 8 and under category. I am so proud and impressed by all of her hard work. She so clearly loves to swim, and has been finding meets exciting and rewarding.

“My tummy is all filled with butterflies. I guess that means I care!”

I’ll continue to drag my butt out of bed at 5am on a Sunday to watch her race if she continues to put in the work and find pride in the outcomes. The kid swam a 100 IM in under 2 minutes! I’m not sure that I can do such a thing.

She had to miss a few practices due to our mini holiday with the Swedes, and after he first practice back, she came home and declared, “I just really missed my time in the pool.”

Dad is taking particular joy in her accomplishments, as I’m sure it feels very reminiscent of my days in the pool. How I know you’d delight in her successes as well.

143 Your Ashley

P.S. The meet was at Smith! Particularly meaningful. We talked all about your mama, and the benefits of a women’s college. Gosh, Northampton is a special place, and that campus stunning!

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XXV

Hi, Mom,

Yesterday was Halloween. And for the fourth year in a row, we executed another ridiculous team costume. The girls are currently steeped in the “Harry Potter” series, and so they requested that we each pick a character from the books. Sunny was Hermione, with her stack of books and wild hair. Courtland was Ginny, badass and strong and chalked with red hair for the part. Dad was Dumbledore, and ordered the most epic costume to complete the look. The man has never had to manage so much hair and fashion tap! James was Harry, and Sanderling his snowy, white owl Hedwig. And I wore Momo’s epic velvet cape to pull off Professor McGonagall. As ever, you were deeply missed.

143 Your Ashley

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XXIV

Hi, Mom,

Your 1st grade granddaughter is so stinking wise. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear this. You were always her biggest cheerleader. You understood what a thoughtful and sensitive child she was. You saw through her tantrums and tears, and saw a beautiful and kind soul. I mourn for so much, but the loss of Courtland’s biggest fan is one of the most devastating elements of life without you. How I wish she had the privilege of navigating her teenage years with you by her side. It is so fucking unfair that your love and comfort and the safety it provided are no longer a part of our future.

While sitting on the beach earlier this week (yes! A beach day in late October, with Maja and her family no less!), Courtland sat apart from the group, lazily gazing out at the ocean, burying her feet in the sand. After some time, I approached her and asked if she was okay.

“Oh yes, mom. I’m just listening to the waves. It is the most peaceful sound in the whole world.”

While watching Sunny compete at a swim meet, one of her friends bemoaned, “Sunny’s not winning the race!” And Courtland responded, “That’s okay. What matters is that she does her best and feels proud of herself.”

Upon handing me her 1st grade school photo. “Mom, at the time, I thought I did such a nice smile, but now I see that I look like a first grader, with all those missing teeth.” (I assured her that that is what made it such a nice smile, because it represented this stage in her life so perfectly). Admittedly, it is a classic and hysterically awkward school photo awash with awkward, Jack-o-lantern grin, and I love it.

And lastly, she was in the midst of a meltdown after refusing to brush her hair before bed. Full screams and cries and refusal to follow directions. In those moments, I feel so frustrated as this behavior was long gone in Sunny’s world by the time she hit 1st grade, though I know it does no good to compare the two. After fifteen minutes or so, we had both calmed down and she was merely whimpering into her pillow. She turned to face me and said, “Mama, I know you feel so frustrated when I do this. But I just have so many feelings. Sometimes I don’t know how to not cry.”

And god, my heart ached with the clarity and honesty of her words. Her self-awareness so far beyond her years, beyond what most adults ever possess in a lifetime. You would be so moved by the brilliant and challenging and candid person she is.

But you understood that about her, even though you only ever knew her as a preschooler.

143 Your Ashley

XXIII

Hi, Mom,

Meg shared this poem by adrienne maree brown, and it spoke directly to the most broken pieces of my heart. I’ve bolded what struck my gut most profoundly. What I have discovered as my truth, that which she put to words so succinctly.

Spell for Grief or Letting Go

Adequate tears twisting up directly from the heart and rung out across the vocal chords until only a gasp remains;

At least an hour a day spent staring at the truth in numb silence;

A teacup of whiskey held with both hands, held still under the whispers of permission from friends who can see right through ‘ok’ and ‘fine’;

An absence of theory;

Flight, as necessary;

Poetry, your own and others, on precipice, abandonment, nature and death;

Courage to say what has happened, however strangling the words are… and space to not say a word;

A brief dance with sugar, to honor the legacies of coping that got you this far;

Sentences spoken with total pragmatism that provide clear guidance of some direction to move in, full of the tender care and balance of choice and not having to choose;

Screaming why, and/or expressing fury at the stupid unfair fucking game of it all (this may include hours and hours, even lifetimes, of lost faith);

Laughter, undeniable and unpretended;

A walk in the world, all that gravity, with breath and heartbeat in your ears;

Fire, for all that can be written;

Moonlight – the more full the more nourishing;

Stories, ideally of coincidence and heartache and the sweetest tiny moments;

Time, more time and then more time… enough time to remember every moment you had with that one now taken from you, and to forget to think of it every moment;

And just a glimpse of tomorrow, either in the face of an innocent or the realization of a dream.

This is a nonlinear spell. Cast it inside your heart, cast it between yourself and any devil. Cast it into the parts of you still living.

Remember you are water. Of course you leave salt trails. Of course you are crying.

Flow.

P.S. If there happens to be a multitude of griefs upon you, individual and collective, or fast and slow, or small and large, add equal parts of these considerations:
– that the broken heart can cover more territory.
– that perhaps love can only be as large as grief demands.
– that grief is the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life.
– that grief is gratitude.
– that water seeks scale, that even your tears seek the recognition of community.
– that the heart is a front line and the fight is to feel in a world of distraction.
– that death might be the only freedom.
– that your grief is a worthwhile use of your time.
– that your body will feel only as much as it is able to.
– that the ones you grieve may be grieving you.
– that the sacred comes from the limitations.
– that you are excellent at loving.

You taught me that last one.

143 Your Ashley