Heritage Trail Day 2: Grief and Loneliness…and one more wipeout.

If you prefer your Marla in a box of sunshine, this post is not for you. Close the window and return tomorrow. There will be a new rainbow, or fluffy kittens and plenty of sunshine when you come back, and our relationship will be none the worse for it. But today I’m lonely. I’m sad. I need to have a moment.

This crash was foreseeable. I could see it in my posts, hear it in my voice, feel it in my being. But these ups and downs are like watching a train wreck. You can choose to watch or look away, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Baxter can usually keep it minimized, but he is with the in-laws for this long holiday weekend of activity. In fact, I won’t have him again until mid-July.

I try not to stay in the loneliness long enough to analyze it, but I’m taking a day, one day, to linger. It usually comes after the upswell of emotion and love of being surrounded by people I care about, by exciting and new events in life. I try the usual outlets: Kurt, Facebook, Baxter, self-slapping, spreading some love around. But the Mom factor always negates the rest. Nothing can replace the need to call your mother after almost 40 years of having her every day, even if only at the other end of the telephone.

This damn Heritage Trail had me thinking of my own lineage again today. Yesterday I mentioned my dad’s side, and the men of coal. But always when I go on trails, it’s about traces of Mom. She is in the trees I try to identify, in the walking pace I try to force on myself, in the voice that echoes in my head.

Hiking with company in these moods is better, because I can’t hear myself think when someone else is talking. This is where Baxter helps if there are no humans to join me. He helps smother any chance to truly be alone with my thoughts. When we hike together, I’m only focused on what he wants to look at, whether he’s behaving in the face of other hikers and, if I’m sure we’re alone, how far he can go off-leash before I might need to go track him down. Maybe I have no business trying to drown out those thoughts, but they hurt, and if there’s one thing I’m good at avoiding, it’s emotional pain. Unfortunately for my tactical avoidance, Baxter is back in Pennsylvania.

Today I’ve taken the flat path. I started it yesterday, but the bum knee was starting to call me pretty foul names. I did manage to get as far as a couple large branches blocking the path, and moved those. I made a little comment about it on Facebook that sometimes, some days, you just really want to work your way through an obstacle rather than going around it.

I guess that’s what I’m doing today, trying to push into and through this pain that stays hidden, the kind I usually avoid in favor of those fluffy kittens, rainbows and sunshine.

Hiking to the end of the trail gives me my goal: a crumbling bridge, overgrown with the forest around it.

A path to the top greets me. I accept the challenge and climb.

Perched on the edge of the outward-leaning railing, I know my size and weight puts me at a balance disadvantage. Some days, I wonder if it’s courage or carelessness.

I open my journal to write, but I’m crumbling and cracked like the cement around me. The loneliness hits me and I feel myself wanting to lean out, to let myself fall backward over the bridge.

I’m pretty sure I would survive it, and it would really make one helluva blog. I’m kind of tough like that. Sometimes I’m even surprised I don’t have two rows of teeth and some vestigial Viking bone structure, compliments of my Orkney Island ancestors.

But I know this crumbling is more than my usual comedy of errors I employ to avoid emotional depth. I post to Facebook, seeking out companionship in my solitude.  It will only be a quick fix, because I know what I need today is Baxter. I imagine him wondering why he has been left behind, waiting, watching for me to come back for him. And I need him today as much as he needs me.

Memories are closing in and promising to ruin the kickapoo joy juice I seem to have been drinking the last few days.

Maybe it’s good that this trail is empty, that none of my friends are online, because it forces me to think about the pieces of grief that have been surfacing lately, that often do surface for holidays and landmark moments. I try one more time to post to Facebook, uploading a photo of me in my new writing spot.

Baxter is wrapped into this pain, into the relief of it, probably deeper than he should be. I need him right now, the way I needed him years ago, when I adopted him as my mom was dying.

When Mom was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, an incurable death sentence, I went to stay with her for awhile. We had a lot of long talks about our relationship, about her cancer, about my own life of medical problems. She kept apologizing to me for never understanding what it’s like to live with illness. I was surprised. I had always believed she had felt my pain. She had never let me know she didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t believe that she could talk about my own problems, minor in the face of cancer, of death.

Maybe that’s what it means to be a mother. The best ones lose the priority of “me” in the face of raising children.

I have only been a mother to children of the canine variety. I tried the human route, and miscarried them all. It happens that way, sometimes. I won the husband lottery and so far have lost the child lottery. Mom was on the other end of the phone every time. She was never a dog person, but even she encouraged me to hold my dogs and let go. Sometimes, though, dogs need to leave just when you need them most.

Pippin, my first dog, was put down while I was staying in Florida with Mom. She had been a pound rescue, brought to the animal shelter in a crate of pre-weened shepherd-husky puppies abandoned at a farm. I loved that she clung to me immediately and ever after. (I wouldn’t understand my role in increasing her “separation anxiety” until years later.) When I went to Florida, Pippin had been decrepit for some time, and I kept ramping up her pain meds because I couldn’t face what she needed.

I needed her to live, to be there for me while Mom was dying. My faltering, non-motherly need to put my own suffering ahead of hers caused Pippin to be put to sleep alone, while I, the only mother she had known, was 900 miles away. I had to tell the vet over the phone to go ahead and end her suffering. There was no room, no time to allow myself the pain of losing my canine companion of 16 years.

As Mom’s cancer progressed, Alex, our 12-year-old black lab, had a stroke. He lost all function in his hind legs and back. You really can see the look, when an animal begs for you to stop holding onto them for your own sake. I massaged his ears as the vet put him down.

Writing about these things does help healing, and maybe this blog will add another little aloe to this slow burn. I sat and wrote a poem called “Alex” the day I buried him. (It was published in 2010 and I’m including it at the end of today’s blog) I’ve written a few about Pippin, and finally began writing about Mom a little more than a year ago.

I’m still entangled sometimes, in this issue of motherhood: losing one; failing to become one; surrogate to my canines. And maybe it’s because of this that I sometimes wonder if these lingering days of loneliness and grief all come down to the hormones of a woman “approaching” middle age: the ups and downs of menopause; the swan song of my dying eggs.

In the stillness of the woods I finally write about this untended grief, about these animals who keep me from complete loneliness, about allowing myself the right to have more than one face to share with the world.

The sun is climbing higher and its time to leave. I make my way carefully down the steep slope, feeling more than a little full of self-pity and overly poetic wax. And since life never lets me live in drama, the mud takes out my feet, banana-peel style, and I land hard on my tailbone.

If a Marla falls in the forest and nobody is there to witness it, is it still funny?

Yep. I did that, just ended this blog with a picture of my dirty butt. I’ve already told you I can’t sit with serious for too long. Tomorrow will be light again.

Love, Marla

As promised, here is “Alex” as published in The Hummingbird Review, Summer 2010. I’m going to keep the ones about Mom to myself for awhile.

23 Comments on “Heritage Trail Day 2: Grief and Loneliness…and one more wipeout.

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  6. I think anyone who has experienced loss will find healing in this blog. I know I did through tears and the memories it invoked. The Alex poem is so beautiful:) Thank you.

  7. It’s still flipping hilarious when you fall, no matter if the audience is human or squirrel (although squirrel’s laughs are funnier) . I miss her in many of the same ways, and i still remember when i quit letting her navigate tue route …Catskills, circa 1980. I guess sometimes the emptiness has to be addressed, and you have done so beautifully…thank-you for this one, sis

  8. oh Marla… your Alex poem is just beautiful.
    I guess we all have good days and bad days… I think you’re brave to put it all out there. I’m not good with words. You have a talent

    • Thanks Michelle. I think the most incredible part of writing is when it makes other people feel deeply about something, and when it lets me go back and feel it again myself, in a way that memory can’t always do.

  9. Thank you for writing this, for your honesty. It’s beautiful and touching, and definitely got this woman approaching middle age and mother only to two ancient cats a little weepy. You and yours are in my thoughts.

  10. Marla,
    As hard as this piece I am sure was to write it deeply touched me! I think we all suffer with bouts of sadness and loneliness from time to time. How we process them and what we learn from them, that is what sculpts the people we become as we evolve through our lives. I would considered it strange to not have days such as this reflecting over missing lost loved ones, family, pet or friend! They are the things and people who we carry a small part of with us each day as we take the steps forward along the trail of life! Having known your mother well growing up and your father a little bit I am sure they are smiling down quite proud of the women and wonderful writer you have become!

    • Thanks Jeff. It means so much that you read the blog and commented. I’m glad it touched you and that you have such great memories of mom as well. Your post is so considerate and sweet. Thank you.

  11. I’m so sorry for your sadness today. I hope something makes you feel your mom’s spirit with you today. Love you, friend.

  12. Marla,
    Thank you for writing that, it makes me feel so bad too we just put down 2 dogs last year. It is and was sooooo hard. Thanks for writing “Alex” because, I too need to be sad today. Sometimes you just have to have sad feelings to let you appreaciate the good.

    • Thank you Suzanne. It was really kind of you to leave a comment and talk about your own dogs. I agree with you. It makes the happiness in between much more powerful.

    • Thank you so much for commenting and for reading. I sometimes wonder how many times the *Likes* are actually read, too. I think from your posts we have similar personalities, and I really appreciate you taking the time to read and reply.

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