Posts Tagged 'Bereavement'

The Moose Lamp

My son Steven would have been fifty-two this month. But his life was cut short at forty-three by his death in 2011.

Memories of him floated to the top today when I attended my bereavement group, an event that takes place every Tuesday from 10:30 until noon. Housed in a small, Ikea style conference room in the west end of Ojai, there are no frills. The lighting is dim and there are no cookies. In addition to an outpouring of feelings, there are tears, extended silences and, blessedly, enough occasional laughter to raise one’s spirits a notch or two.

I’ve become a regular who began participating after my sweet wife Ila passed away almost two years ago. During that time, my attendance has morphed from a focus on Ila to one that includes both she and Steven. I often picture them together, arguing; and I smile. Always looking for a bargain, I also take advantage of this group therapy to talk about my relationships with other loved ones.

The number of Tuesday gatherers varies from as few as three to as many as nine. Mostly women who have lost their husbands, we have others who’ve lost parents and children. Regulars, loosely defined as those who have been coming more than three months, usually predominate. New faces join periodically while some regulars stop coming. Others leave, rest, and then return months later. Some come once and are never seen again. It’s not for everyone.

It’s not clear why some people come every week while others attend less frequently. The reasons they come are clear and fairly consistent, but the frequency with which they appear seems governed by inexplicable, unsaid reasons.

For me, one who disdains being idle, the meeting is a block of time that I don’t have to otherwise fill. It also provides the social exposure that I treasure. My home on the hill, while in a beautiful setting, does not easily offer personal interaction. The quarter-meter plan that once allowed TV watchers to deposit quarters in boxes attached to their sets is not an available option. And, more importantly I can comfortably say things that would remain unsaid in other settings.

I arrived at today’s meeting a few minutes late. Making the non-obligatory excuse for my tardiness, I described my trip from Vons to the vacuum cleaner repair shop in Ventura and back. A trip of fifty-eight minutes that I claimed to be a new world record. Satisfied that I had been forgiven, I took my usual chair at table, sat back and scanned the crowd.

A man who I had not seen before sat opposite me. When newcomers join the group, the rest of us introduce ourselves. I’m Fred. My wife died almost two years ago. I’ve been coming regularly and, yada, yada, yada. Depending on the urgency of the need to get something off one’s chest, an introduction can often take as much time as chanting the first five books of Moses, in Hebrew.

Some people are eloquent and engaging. Others, less so. The man opposite me merely said his name and added succinctly, “My thirty-year old son passed away in December.” Nothing else. Then he shifted in his chair and assumed a slouched position that non-verbally said ‘I don’t know why I came here and I shall remain silent for the next ninety minutes.”

Time rolled on. People told stories and described feelings that might go unheard in confessionals or even in a bed shared by two lovers. Yet the man opposite me seemed unmoved. His lids occasionally hid his eyes and he often furtively glanced at his smart phone. Yet, even with his seeming detachment, he appeared troubled.

Our group leader is a master at drawing people out. Never asking directly, she has the uncanny ability to elicit words from an otherwise reticent participant. “Fred, do you think you could share something about your son Steven that might be of value to our newest member?”

Of course, I thought. The moose lamp. And I told its story.

Steven bought a ten-inch high table lamp at a garage sale. Maybe he paid as much as two dollars. It had a tiny bulb and a shade that had the image of a moose on it. When you turned the lamp on, its light shone in a way that accentuated the moose. Tacky at best, Steven kept it on a table in his apartment and switched it on every night. And turned it off when he went to bed. Never very sentimental, he nevertheless loved the moose lamp.

In the last month of his life, I was with him in his home when I stumbled and caught my foot in the lamp’s cord. The lamp fell off the table with a sound that presaged disaster. I picked it up as though it were a baby, flicked the lamp’s switch and was horrified to watch it stay dark. My son David was standing next to me and I said, “I don’t care what it costs, I want that lamp repaired and working before Steven is gone.”

David picked up the lamp, looked at the cord and sarcastically said, “Well we might first try plugging it in.” We did and the light shone through the moose and into my eyes. Laughter replaced tension.

Steven died a few weeks later. Aside from his guitars, the only valuable object in his apartment was the moose lamp. I wanted it and I took it. The two-dollar lamp now sits on an expensive table in my living room. I look at it each time I pass. I light it when the feeling takes me there. Memories flood back of Steven’s stubbornness and ego-centrism. But the lamp also reminds me of the special moments when I loved him most. Memories that assure me that his passing need not always be filled with sadness.

I don’t know if my story of the moose lamp helped the man opposite me. But it made my day.

Am I unique?

It’s Tuesday. Up at 5:30, I left the house at 6:15am in the dark. When will the daylight return to guide me down the path to my garage? My declining night vision tends to make the voyage even more of an adventure. Add a couple of steps plus depth-of-field challenging bifocals, and one realizes why there are so many old folks who fall and break into irreparable pieces.

At the athletic club the usual assortment of fitness seekers populated the treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes and other means of self-improvement. About equally divided between males and females, all strove to achieve nirvana, or maybe just lose a few pounds.

I admit to enjoying an added benefit of club membership that is conspicuously absent from club brochures. Politely gazing upon lovely women brightens my morning. Looking without leering is an art that requires practice, patience and sensitivity. After seven decades I’m still practicing.

I finished my workout and Robert taped my shoulder hoping to relieve a mild ache. I showered, shaved and went to my next stop, Java and Joe. The coffee shop offers good coffee and mediocre pastries, many of which appear to have been left in the sun too long. I ordered my usual dark roast coffee in a medium cup, put some Splenda and cream in it, and took my usual seat outside the cafe.

It was a bright morning, sharply edged and a bit chilly. One of the outdoor tables housed a half-dozen regulars and their dogs. Five coffee drinkers are attentive listeners while one, as is his custom, occupies the speaker’s rostrum and pontificates loudly and at length. Knowledgeable, he speaks on a wide variety of subjects citing facts and figures to bolster his arguments. I admit to finding it tiresome. Or perhaps, feeling left out, I demean the speaker to assuage my feelings and wonder, do others commit the same sin?

I sit removed from the coffee klatch, checking my email, reading the news and watching passersby. Occasionally someone I know will arrive and we do the usual hello, how are you, and have a nice day. All too infrequently, someone sits with me and we share more than pleasantries. At those times, I am happy and impervious to the emanations of the adjacent table for six.

My next stop was the Livingston bereavement group held at the Help of Ojai west campus. I began attending these sessions shortly after Ila died, more than a year ago. Originally held twice a month, they are now offered every week. It’s a chance to share feelings with others who have lost a loved one. Some participants are regulars. Some start but drop out. Others attend intermittently. I have mixed reactions to the meetings. Some produce glorious highs while others leave me low. All the sessions, both high and low, teach me something.

This week eight participants gathered around the conference room table. Seven women and me. I felt surrounded. Why so many women and so few of me? Perhaps it’s because husbands usually die before their spouses. Or perhaps men are too reluctant to share their feelings. In either event, I felt unique.

The afternoon progressed into evening without incident. Tuesday is yoga night. I’m enrolled in five sessions focused on people like me who have little, if any, exposure to the mysteries of yoga. Originating in Northern India over five thousand years ago, yoga is a secular, multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States.

Thirty-seven million people practice yoga in the U.S., nearly double that of seven years ago. Eighty percent of them are women; why so? Excuses include, yoga isn’t a decent workout; it’s too touchy-feely; you have to be flexible to do it; men’s bodies just aren’t built for pretzel-like poses. This evening, at Ojai Yoga Shala, I was the only man in the company of seven women.

My Tuesday nearly over, I was beginning to feel unique. The last man on earth, surrounded by an Amazon race of women that only needed one man to satisfy its basic need to maintain the species. A herculean task indeed, one which I was prepared to assume…for the good of mankind, of course.

Just a little guilt

I went to my bereavement group this morning. We meet the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at Help of Ojai’s West Campus. It had been months since I had attended a meeting and I thought it was time to renew acquaintances.

I arrived a few minutes early and found a stranger, Vivian, who was relatively new to the group. A nice woman who seemed quiet and a bit distant. We exchanged pleasantries and then fell silent.

Kathy, a strong, determined, yet warm woman of about fifty, leads the group.  She is quite good at it, knowing when to talk and when to be silent. Saying the right things also helps. Kathy has been there and back many times. We spent a few minutes focused on small talk.

Marsha and Joyce arrived. Old-timers whose attendance predated mine. Both women had lost their husbands; each was at a different stage of bereavement. Not everyone takes the same path. The process and elapsed time vary for each person.

The ninety-minute session began with a description of how we each were feeling. Some participants took pains to describe their feelings in detail, while others spoke more generally. Listening, it seemed that I had not missed much in my two or three months of absence from the group. But progress isn’t necessarily why people attend. Being among others in similar circumstances is often enough to warrant continued attendance. It’s good to know that other people have many of the same feelings that I do.

I had a special reason for coming at this time, since it was the one-year anniversary of Ila’s passing. I felt almost bidden to attend, as though it was part of the rite of passage. A pilgrimage to the place where I had spent many hours listening to others while sharing my feelings without restraint. Sharing thoughts with others who had similar reasons for being there and who felt safe enough to be frank, honest and human.

My turn to speak was rapidly approaching. I quickly sorted through the events of the last few months. I tried to organize my thoughts into a cogent verbal expression of my feelings. When I finally began to speak it all seemed to fall into place without significant effort.

I spoke of my continuing dedication to zealously working out at the gym. How it not only strengthened my body but how it also nurtured my psyche by regularly socializing with other people, many of whom I now call friends.

How I had slowly returned to photography. Taking photos for the Music Festival, contributing two dozen of my photos to the walls of the newly reconstructed hospital in Ventura, and a greater willingness to just take pictures regardless of subject.

How I had resumed driving the Help of Ojai bus. For appreciative riders who have no other way of getting to the grocery, the doctor or, bless their hearts…the hair salon.

How I had joined with some talented people in a creative writing group. How I had restarted my blog with full credit to the writing group for giving me a weekly incentive to put my thoughts on the web.

And my family and Jackie, all of whom I treasure beyond words.

Overall, I felt a bit guilty because of my good health and rebounding happiness. Guilty that I was happy even though my loved one was gone. And then I remembered what happened a week ago. And I told this story to those sitting around me.

It was the day before the one-year anniversary of Ila’s passing. It had been a busy day for me with several trips into town, work on several projects and little time to just relax. Around four o’clock I felt tired and decided to sit on the soft couch in the living room and attack a NY Times crossword puzzle. And, of course, I quickly fell asleep.

My nap couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes. Awakening, I looked to my left and saw sweet Ila standing there, her hand resting lightly on my left shoulder. It lasted no more than five seconds. Just enough time to see a broad smile on her lovely face. A smile that seemed to say, “It’s OK.” And I felt refreshed and happy.

It didn’t matter whether it was fact or fiction. All that mattered was that it happened.


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