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I wrote most of this in 2006, and I may have used it here before—I’m not sure—but I’ve added some. Grief is heavy this week of my brother Tom’s passing, swirling with memories and wish-I-hads and the best kind of laughter. If you’ve read it before, I hope you don’t mind seeing again, and that you can get a gift from it, too.

It’s Sunday afternoon when I write this, and the sun is almost out. How nice it is after two weeks of unremitting gloom. As it grows lighter outside, I grow lighter inside as well. Which is odd when you consider what I’ve been thinking about.

Grief.

We all see a lot of it in our lifetimes. When we’re young and if we’re lucky, we see it from afar. We see old people die and it’s too bad, but...you know, they’re old. Then, of course, comes the time when it’s not from afar and the person who passes on isn’t old. This is when we really find out about grief.

My grandmother died when I was seven, and even though it felt strange that she wouldn’t sit at the table and drink from her cracked cup anymore, she was eighty-four. So I didn’t grieve. Not really, though to this day, I think of Grandma Shafer when I see a cracked coffee cup. Then when I was eleven, a 10-year-old schoolmate died. Forty-some years later, I still feel profound sorrow when I think of her. She was smart and funny and had so much to give here on earth that even now I have difficulty coming to terms with her death. But I couldn’t identify the feelings I had about her passing, couldn’t explain the tears that came to my eyes for years whenever I thought about Cindy being buried with her red cowboy boots.

When I was thirteen, I lost the only grandfather I’d ever known, and the hurt came in waves, like the throbbing from a bee sting. He died in June, and by the time school started, I’d gotten over the worst of it, but junior high was different than it might have been. Because grief wasn’t far away anymore.

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Look for the Helpers

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ” – Fred Rogers

In my last column, I said how hard it was not to write about politics. I also said you were welcome because I wasn’t going to. I’m still not, exactly, but I’m not exactly going to dodge it, either, because it permeates our lives in a way I’ve never seen before.

As of this writing, at least 31 people died in mass shootings last weekend. As of this writing, there have been 255 mass shootings in this country this year, which is 218 days. As of yesterday afternoon—Monday, August 5—according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 33,237 total shooting incidents, resulting in 8,796 gun deaths and 17,480 injuries in 2019.

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Little Boxes

Sometimes, the workings of my mind make me think of that Parker Brothers game, Scattergories. I don’t know how to play it—its bright red box isn’t one of those taking up room on a shelf upstairs with Monopoly, Scrabble, and Candyland—but I just feel like I have a whole bunch of little boxes with something to say in each one but not enough to make a point with. Quite honestly, I think I’d write a better column if I could settle into Cards Against Humanity or something, but the Scattergories have taken me over, and this is what I’ve been thinking.

About gifts. In our yard, outside my office window, we have a clothesline. I like to hang sheets and towels out because I love the smell of the sun and the wind in them. However, the towels come out stiff and scratchy and Duane would rather sheets were soft instead of crisp, so I don’t hang many clothes. Instead, the suet feeder hangs on the pole and the birds congregate there to eat and scold each other. The deer wander up under the clothesline and look at the window until I move, at which time they chase each other back into the cornfield. I am not outdoorsy by any means, but you can’t live in the country without realizing what a gift the outdoors is.

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Dust and Hummingbirds and Being A Spectator

Sometimes I think I should change the title of this column to “The Rocking Chair on the Porch,” because I’ve discovered a disturbing part of aging I hadn’t expected—although I should have.

I’ve become a spectator.

I am envious of people my age who have not. You know who you are, those of you whose flower beds still look great and who plant gardens and run your vacuum cleaners before walking across the carpet makes you sneeze. I’ll bet you dust, too, before someone writes “dust me” on the table with a snarky finger. No doubt you cook meals every day, sometimes more than one a day. Most unforgivable of all, you probably have good hair, too.

Another meaning of the word “spectator,” however, is “observer.” I like that much better, don’t you? Probably because it doesn’t make me think about dust, weeds, or other people’s hair.

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It’s in the Mail…

At a writers’ group meeting, Pam, one of the other writers who has a writing voice so deep and poetic I cringe with envy every time she writes, said she’d been writing letters. “Oh,” I said, “it’s a lost art.” And I realized that whether it was a lost art or not, I’d certainly lost it.

I blogged about it, using some of the same words I’m using here. That’s what you do in letters—you tell the same news to everyone you write to. We lost a tree last week in that wind. A new cat has shown up at the bowl on the porch. We don’t need another cat, but he’s so pretty. We got an inch of rain last night—slept right through it. The kids are growing up too fast. Why did I ever say I couldn’t wait to see what they’d be like when they were older? I could have waited. Did you hear about my cousin passing away? So many memories. I should have gone to see her, but never got around to it. Went by your folks’ old house and someone painted it pink—wouldn’t your dad have a fit?

They weren’t important, those letters, that news. Yet they were. Remember opening envelopes and having school pictures drop out? Sometimes a check. Sometimes a five-dollar-bill you needed more than you could bear thinking about. My mom and aunt were the queens of sending clippings. Obituaries, jokes, quotations. We found them in their Bibles after they passed away, with dates written at the tops in faded ink. Oh, yes, memories.

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...like a band of Gypsies...

Lots of people on road trips this year--have you noticed? It makes me want to go somewhere. I have so many favorite things about road trips.

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If we just do this…

Let’s talk about my bathroom.

It’s a half-bath with a window and good lights over the sink. You can’t change clothes in there—no room. Years ago, one of our grandsons claimed it as his bathroom because it was little like him. He said the big bathroom was mine but that I had to let Papaw use it.

This bathroom has a good mirror. It’s where I put on makeup, dry my hair, and count the lines multiplying on my face on a daily basis. I turn my head from side-to-side trying to determine just how many chins I have and if they’re sagging more today than they did yesterday. I brush my teeth there, giving the mirror a captivating arrangement of white spots on its surface.

The top of the vanity is always a mess. When I clean the sink, I put stuff away, but by the next day it’s all out again. I need to clean the sink more often.

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…TO STOP THE PAIN…

Writers are always told to “write what you know,” but the wheelhouse of things I know about is on the cramped side—it doesn’t hold much. I write mostly from feel and from what others have told me they care about. Sometimes I write about something because of a TV show or an NPR discussion.

Which is what led me to write about suicide. I make no claim to expertise, but you don’t have to know much about it to have been touched by it. It’s not something that touches lightly and doesn’t leave a scar; rather, its marks on the soul and heart are dark and permanent.

In 2015, I wrote this: “When my kids were teenagers, adolescent suicide became what felt to every parent of every kid like an epidemic. It was scary. I remember telling the kids that if they ever felt hopeless and unable to talk to anyone about it, to please, please, please wait two weeks. Because even though two weeks won’t go all that far in healing most wounds, it will make them bearable. And then when things get bearable, I said, give it another two weeks. This was in the 1980s—I’m still giving things two weeks.”