Rainbows, Scotland 2001
In early June 2001, I traveled to Scotland with my father and stepmother, a journey that took me deep into my Scottish roots. We hopped from one mystical landscape to the next. From Isle to Skye with the MacLeod’s Dunvegan castle to Barra of the McNeil’s and North and South Uiste. And one of the most spiritual places I have ever visited- Iona. It was a reoccurring pattern for me, to my family’s dismay, to wake up early, walk the misty hills and journal about this majestic place.
While I could not contact mom while I was travelling, I did think of her on my trip. One day, during a morning walk down a road in South Uiste, I saw the most gorgeous rainbow fall from the misty clouds over the town. On one of the ferry rides, I felt the wind on my face as I watched double rainbows skip over the rough waters.
After my mom’s death, I would see a rainbow in the most unusual places. A rainbow between to clouds or straight up in the air over the house. Rainbows became a thing, something between my mom and me.
I wasn’t expecting to see rainbows traveling to Tuscaloosa to pick up our artwork from the exhibit hall. I was focused on seeing friends, reflecting on the place where I had lived and celebrating the gift of creativity that I have so often denied in my life and fought so hard to retain in times of conformity to the social norms and ways of “the real world.”
On the way home from Tuscaloosa.
Driving home from this trip, I was more reflective than usual, and also found myself more optimistic. I knew that my mother would be proud of who I had become, my life with Barton, my work and writing. Truly, the girl in Tuscaloosa had been shed away, and a new woman emerged. I could not return to this place where I was.
On the day I drove home, I saw two rainbows driving into Atlanta. One, the light of sun shining through the rain. My heart truly shone with all the colors of the rainbow.
This was a mom and me moment.
Notes written by Tuscaloosa community members in the Corner of Care.
While it has been several weeks since I have returned from my second trip to Tuscaloosa, it is important to write about this trip because it was so drastically different than the first one, where Barton and I traveled together.
This time, I drove the entire 13-hour trip alone, stopped to say hello to a friend that I had missed on the first trip, and arrived at my friend’s house completely exhausted. The next morning, I woke, and was on my way- I spent the morning at the Junior League Art Gallery at the Bama Theatre taking down photographs and artwork.
Leavng Traces: Diving From the Nest
Before taking anything off the walls, I spent a few minutes- just mom and me time. I celebrating the passion for creativity that she passed down to me through her life, her work, and her genes. I celebrated how far I had come in my own photographs, and even though I still don’t own a digital camera, was excited about the level of photography I was able to exhibit. I thought I would feel sad, write in my journal about how much I missed my mom, but instead I found myself writing about the celebrations in my own life.
Packing framed artwork in my little Honda was no easy feat (in 98 degree sun), and before I left, I was able to have lunch with a dear friend of mine from where I had worked and a new friend that I had met on our first trip in June.
I did take time to drive around town one last time, to see the places where I had lived, where I had been. There were more blue tarps and many more roads were clear of debris, but honestly, there was still a huge amount of work to do.
Like a tourist, I had to get a picture of the Moonwinx Hotel. I remember my grandfather telling me that at one time, it was the most popular restaurant in town, but while I lived there is was pay-by-the-hour/day motel. I walked across the street to say hello to a friend at the local drugstore, who was so lucky they were able to open after just a few weeks.
Alberta Elementary School
I stopped by Alberta Elementary School, where my grandmother had taught reading, now just a pile of steel and concrete.
Alberta Baptist Church
And sat for a minute in the parking lot to the Baptist Church, still a central point for providing community support to so many people.
I drove through Falls Lake, partly because I couldn’t believe that for the 7-years I lived in Tuscaloosa, I didn’t realize there was a lake there, now fully exposed.
Playground near Salvation Army
I stopped by The Salvation Army, where I had worked with the Woman’s Auxiliary, where I organized “An Evening of Chocolate.”
And I drove by Hobby Lobby where I picked up supplies for art projects.
Though the sanctuary wasn’t open, I peaked through the doors of my church, said hello to the volunteers working in the community hall, and sat for a minute on the grounds. Here is where we had the memorial service for my mother. Here is where I said good-bye to an important relationship. Here is where I found my connection to my faith and so many close friends that I now call my family.
I even drove around my neighborhood again, I just couldn’t leave without saying good-bye.
Each one of these places meant so much to me when I lived in Tuscaloosa, but now, it was time to return home. After all, I couldn’t return to the girl I had been when I lived there. And now, there are new adventures waiting for me at home, new places to go, new experiences and lessons to be learned.
During the worst moments of anxiety, I pick up the pen and paper, wade through the issues on my mind and return with more clarity and focus to move on.
Have you ever made yourself crazy with worry? Up all night, on the computer for hours, mania crazy? I would have never expected the effects that my mother’s death would have- on my own health.
For legal reasons, I cannot say that the medication my mother took for pain management of MS caused her death, but I do know it contributed to her death. She initially put the patch of pain medication on while I was traveling in Scotland, and had such a detrimental reaction that she went to the hospital. They removed the patch and gave her fluids, but sent her home, as her neurologist could not be reached. I still have the list of body functions that were affected on that day.
Yet, two days before her death her neurologist cleared her to use the patches. I always wondered about that conversation- did my mother resist, did she request to take it regardless, did he tell her of the possible fatal effects? I will never know. Later, the pain patches would be recalled year after year by the FDA for accidental death, accidental overdose, and complications with other medications.
I did go to visit one of her doctors and requested medical records. Yet, I was never comfortable with seeing her neurologist, who I wasn’t sure would tell me the truth. Already, one of her other doctors had pat me on the head, told me that millions of people die every day, for no reason at all. What a coward. I am sure he just wanted to cover himself. But what he did in turn was turn me against every doctor and distrust them. All I wanted was an honest conversation, and he couldn’t even give me that.
The first time after my mother’s death that I went to an ENT for sinus issues, it was suggested to me to take prednisone. I shook my head and sobbed. Once I composed myself, I began to ask, what on earth would make me react in this way?
Night after night, I would be scared to fall asleep, terrified that I, too would die in my sleep. While I have overcome many of those most raw emotions, I have not been able to shake the distrust of doctors, medicine and the medical system in general.
Using the tool of journaling has been instrumental in processing these emotions. In a creative journaling assignment I wrote, “Walking in to a neurologist’s office is a death sentence.”
Ironically, my husband has benefited from cutting edge technology, and while others have had reactions to using implanted devises, he has seen dramatic benefits that, from what I understand, have improved his quality of life incrementally. You can’t get much closer to Borg that him (except his mission is to help people become independent in their lives, not “add to the collective”). I have struggled with my own trust in doctors as I have seen him be so trusting.
As I am now faced with fairly minor issues that may require taking medicine, I enter the world of mania, pouring over forums and Internet medical boards with lists of reactions. I have medicine that I cannot take. Not yet. Will it change the way I feel- finally optimistic, focused and energized? And when I am in a doctor’s office, what they say makes sense; yet, at home, I question the doctor’s analysis and judgment. Are they just fluffing me off? Do they even know me at all?
Worst of all, I do have questions about mothers and daughters, and the genetic link of MS. But you won’t find me walking into a neurologist’s office. And I feel so sorry for when I am faced with interviewing a neurologist to work with and I read the concerns of care, the lists of conditions and questions that this poor physician will face. I will truly become the worst patient they have ever had.
Recently, I found myself brave enough to write a letter to the neurologist- and mail it. Now, I don’t expect a reply, but it was an act of empowerment in a place where I still felt dis-empowered in my life. Letter writing is a powerful way to say what we need to say- and have the option to burn, bury or tear it up, without an ill response. But in this case, I felt in as equally important that those words are read, even if it discarded on the other end.
This side-effect I could never have been prepared for, and though I have worked through my mother’s death, have not yet been able to work through my reliability on the medical system and mortality that may come from the same system that is supposed to save lives.
When you find yourself facing a side-effect of a transition, loss or issue, taking out a notebook and pen can help you process through these issues that come up. In fact, writing about unresolved issues can positively affect our health by lowering blood pressure among other physiological shifts.
Sunset through strom clouds.
* Please note that this post was written on June 23, 2011.
Ten years ago today was when my mother let go of this world and embraced the light of God. It was one of the worst days of my life, as there were many things left unsaid and unfinished.
For me, the first year was the most difficult, an emotional roller coaster that I just couldn’t escape. There were many firsts- my first birthday spent planting tiger lily’s in the front yard, her first birthday with a trip to the Art Museum in Birmingham, cut short by local bomb threats just after 9/11. First Thanksgiving huddled in the bathroom as the tornado warnings passed. First Christmas breaking down in tears as gifts were handed out.
There was the day I picked her ashes up from Birmingham, an awkward trip home as I was so afraid to drive, and the day of meeting doctors impacted by knowing my mother in ways I could not. There was amazing trip out west where her ashes flew in the Colorado mountains- a time of healing and letting go.
As the years passed, these events, markers and memories blend together, a time to honor, a time to remember and a time to return to where I came from.
It’s easy to romanticize our relationship, but the truth is we loved hard, we fought hard. There was a push-pull- resisting the one we want love from the most. I was the rebellious daughter, and she was the hovering mother. Yet, she was the one who I could always go to- for advice, for encouragement, for a connection that no other could give.
I have realized that few will remember my mother in the ways I have, but she is kept alive within my memories. After my mother passed, I whispered, “This will not be in vain.”
I am just now understanding what I meant when I said these words. It is so easy to drown in a state of despair and loss. It is easy to lose one’s way after such a personal and intimate loss.
Ten years later, I am amazed at where I am- married to the most amazing man, writing and providing space for others to write and heal, and yet I am asked to return to a storm-torn town where I once lived to remember the history of which I emerged.
For many girls and women who have experienced motherloss, there is a counting of markers- first, fifth, tenth. Each year brings a new place in time and new challenges along with it. There is no forgetting. Time does not heal all wounds. The supportive words of others often fall on ears that cannot hear anything except for the mourning sounds of loss.
Today, woke early, and before the sun was up had already written about six pages in my journal, tears falling down my cheeks, staining the purple tinted pages. After work, I had dinner at a local café, watching storm clouds pass overhead, but held off long enough to see an amazing sunset. I drank a glass of wine, enjoyed soup and egg rolls, and took a deep breath.
This year, there is also a celebration- as I felt that in many ways I have taken the harder road, I have followed my dreams- upheld the path of creativity my mother set out for me in our original art show, Leaving Traces. What does it mean, to nurture and hold this line, this life that often brings adventure and insane into the same sentence? What does it mean to truly take care of this gift?
And this weekend, I will drive to Tuscaloosa, take down the paintings hung side by side, from a mother and her daughter. Life will go on, and through my work, I hope to touch many more lives. Truly, her death was not in vain.
As we rebuild, we can never go back to how life was.
Ten years ago I experienced two transitions back-to-back that transformed my life in ways I could never have expected or imagined. There was a final good-bye on a toxic engagement and relationship that I had held on to for way too long. Literally a month later, my mother passed away from a medical reaction to a pain medication used to for MS pain management.
For me, this was the point of no return.
The next years that followed were ones of mourning not only the people I had considered the closest who had left my life, but the pieces of myself that I had to shed in order to move forward. I found myself in an unfamiliar place, not even knowing who I was at first or what steps to take.
Through writing, training in martial arts, and becoming active in my spiritual life, a new woman emerged from this newly shed skin. Since that time, I married a man I am completely and madly in love with, have worked hard to build a writing and tutoring practice and have found a true sense of purpose, vision and service. I am still learning about how to create boundaries, honor my creativity and refine my practice as a writer and teacher.
Still, there are times when I get uncertain or doubt myself. These are the times when I look back over my shoulder- clinging to the past. While it serves no purpose, it is usually a good indication that I am about to make a leap forward into something with new possibilities.
Returning to Tuscaloosa, talking to our neighbors, seeing street after street so decimated, there is no returning. As volunteers and servicemen and women cut trees, clear and repair roads, clear debris, and begin to rebuild- there is no returning to the way things used to be before the tornadoes.
No matter where you are, you cannot deny the transformations that must take place. Even if new houses were built in the exact same spot and the exact same family moved in, the experience has changed them in some way. It is undeniable. Forward can be in many directions, but you cannot return to the way things used to be.
The day before, there had been a tree in the middle of this house, on our street where I lived.
Do you know your neighbors? I didn’t realize that neighbors were such an important part of my community until I was living in my mother’s house processing the many transitions in my life in 2001. Neighbors and close community friends became a vital part of how I was able to come through these transitions.
In the first days after the tornado, it was difficult to know if my neighborhood was still standing. Communication was out or spotty at best, and I couldn’t reach anyone. I poured over the news reports on the Internet, knowing that one of the worst hit areas was right where I had lived.
While in Tuscaloosa, we had an opportunity to take a few hours and walk around my old neighborhood. We stopped just in front of the house where I had lived- it is quite an unusual experience to knock on the door where you once lived, walking in.
Many houses sustained roof damage.
During the afternoon, we chatted with six or seven neighbors in the immediate circle where I lived. We learned that there were actually four tornadoes that passed through the neighborhood that week, and that most had only sustained roof damage, though there were a couple of houses that had more. Only one circle over, and one behind, the damage was more devastating, and we talked about the different neighborhoods that had been affected.
Each neighbor had a different story, and as we talked, we caught them up on what we had been up to as well. Most of them had met Barton, as Barton walked our then 4-month puppy Bear around the neighborhood, chatting with those he met along the way.
The landscape of an entire neighborhood completely changed.
What Barton & I hoped we were able to provide is a sense that each person, family mattered to us, even though we were states away and had since moved on to new things in our lives. We handed out packets with journals and pens to a few neighbors, but more than anything, we just spent time listening, talking, and connecting.
This is not the way I remember La Rocca Nursing Home.
In the days after my mother’s death, my grandmother, who at that time was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, would call the house and ask for my mother. It was one of the most excruciating moments, over and over, for me to smile through my tears and tell her that mom wasn’t home, but that she was fine. My grandmother could simply not comprehend this new world. Returning to Tuscaloosa, I had a very poignant experience with becoming disoriented.
Eventually, my grandmother moved into a assisted living residence and in the last years of her life, La Rocca Nursing Home. Barton and I would zoom through the halls until we found her room, and she would pat Barton’s face, remembering his stubbled gotee until the point where we could no longer speak. Eventually, my grandfather moved into La Rocca as well, until their deaths last year.
I had heard that La Rocca Nursing Home had been severely damaged by the tornadoes, and before we left, I knew that I needed to go by, and it wasn’t that far from my old neighborhood- just a few blocks away.
Barton knew exactly which street to turn down, and we passed house after house that was in shambles with roofs caved in, trees through living rooms, debris that still lay in the streets. We turned down the street that La Rocca was supposed to be on.
Now, I remember La Rocca being at the end of the street in a cul-de-sac with gorgeous trees around both sides and all the way up the hill. They had expanded the road since we had been there, but as we drove further, we both were thinking- where is it? I know it’s on this street. I know it’s on this street.
Slow: Residents Walking.
Barton saw the sign “slow- residents walking.” I stopped the van, and we looked to the right. The entire landscape had changed. You could see up the hill, normally, where beautiful trees once stood now fallen and tangled. The building on one side stood with blue tarps stretched over, and the other looked like the roof had just melted in.
I got out of the van and saw a painted sign on a piece of siding- La Rocca Nursing Home. I put my hands to my jaws. I couldn’t believe it, what I was seeing. I pulled the van forward so Barton could see the damaged buildings from his window.
What was so bizarre was the feeling- knowing that it was in this particular place, and then not being able to identify where we were in relationship to it.
Driving back out of the neighborhood, every time Barton told me to turn right, I turned left or if he told me to turn left, I would turn right. My entire orientation was off.
One of my friends mentioned that just after the tornado, people couldn’t get back home- street after street lay in ruins- which street was theirs? People wrote street signs on pieces of cardboard or sheet rock to identify names and places.
In a book I have been reading recently, The Body Has a Mind of It’s Own by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee, there’s a discussion of how we orient in our bodies- that we can actually feel or embody the length of a car, holding a fork or using a prosthetic arm or leg. How do we embody our communities? What happens if you take away not only the street signs but the landmarks you use to tell where you need to go? What happens if the places where you drove everyday, ate meals, conducted business, socialized where no longer there? One of my neighbors in my old neighborhood said that no matter how they go out of the neighborhood, they see the worst of the tornado’s destruction. What is it to live and be immersed in this new world?
Even several days after returning home, I was at an intersection turning right. I could see a car pulling up behind me in the rear-view mirror and had the sensation that it was on the street to my right. How do we orient ourselves back after such a shock to the system?
Coming back- it takes time to orient ourselves to new landmarks, directions, places. For our minds to catch up. There are ads in the local paper that La Rocca will rebuild, along with many other houses and businesses. I have seen first-hand the resilience of a community in the process of healing and beginning to make new connections, new road maps.