When I turned 18, my parents urged me to register to vote so I could help defeat a school levy that would increase their property taxes. But at school, I realized that voting against the levy would deprive staff members and fellow students of services and equipment they needed. And though I would soon graduate, my brother was a year–and my sister was three years–behind me.
So I voted FOR the levy.
We went through some hard times as a family. We relied on food stamps and commodities, got free lunches at school, and my brother, sister, and I were able to go to college thanks to federal grants.
So now, when I vote, I make sure others have access to the social programs that enabled me to achieve what I have in life.
I grew up a fundamentalist Christian. I didn’t know much about politics, but it seemed pretty clear to me that, had Jesus been alive, he would’ve been a democrat. He fed the poor, healed the sick, forgave people, and encouraged us not to judge one another. He also considered wealth to be more of a liability than an asset.
When friends came out of the closet, I knew Jesus would’ve gathered them in a warm embrace, so I did, too. And when I learned about the failed birth control and post-partum PTSD that led to friends’ abortions, I just opened my heart wider and loved them more.
I don’t know when Christianity and republicanism became conflated, but it forced me to make a choice. To stay in integrity, I had to let go of something. I chose to let go of my religion but continued to model my own life after the life of Jesus.
I’ve kept quiet about this. I haven’t wanted to upset people I care about or lose their love. But my silence isn’t serving me. I can’t take care of people by withholding who I am from them anymore. I need to follow the example of my gay friends and muster the courage to come out of the closet:
I am a democrat to the marrow of my bones.
And I am no longer a Christian.
There is a cost to coming out. My own mother is 100 percent sure I’m going to hell, which makes serving as her caregiver painful for both of us. But I cannot change who I am to put her mind at ease. I cannot, as is the case in the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella, cut off parts of myself to fit into the glass slipper of fundamentalist Christianity.
So, there you have it. In our current political climate, I understand if you feel the need to cut ties with me as a result of this revelation. If so, know that I appreciate the role you’ve played in my life. I release you in love.
Toward the end of my brother’s life, he spent every waking hour in a faux-leather armchair by his living room window. He was companioned by the puff-puff-puffing of an oxygen concentrator, a walker with a basket full of pills, a laptop that helped him stay connected to people around the world—and an elephant.
I don’t know whether the elephant’s name was Denial or Hope, but the sicker my brother got, the bigger the elephant grew, nourished on secrecy, silence, and relentless positivity. The floor around its feet was covered in eggshells.
That elephant robbed me of some of the most meaningful time I could’ve spent with my brother. I never got to tell him how much I admired and loved him. I didn’t get to thank him or relive memories that only the two of us shared. And I never got to say goodbye.
I didn’t realize what I’d missed until Kelly Lindsay was diagnosed with glioblastoma and began writing about his experience in a CaringBridge blog. He refused to embrace battle metaphors. He wasn’t “fighting” cancer, his tumor wasn’t an “invader,” and he wasn’t striving to “beat” a disease that would eventually kill him. Instead, he strove to unconditionally love it.
Not only was Kelly’s experience elephant-free, his choice to love his tumor put me in an uncomfortable position. I could not love Kelly and hate what he loved. If I was going to love him, I had to love all of him, including his tumor.
I didn’t want to do that. I struggled to accept, much less love, the thing that was killing him. So, I asked Kelly for help.
“This tumor is part of me, and I’m actually grateful for that part,” he said from a faux-leather chair with a view out his living room window. “The whole year has been valuable. Not in ways I could really enumerate, and not in ways that, when I was first diagnosed, I’d say, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s great news.’ As far as a learning experience, it’s not one I would’ve wished on myself or on anybody else, but it’s been pretty spectacular.”
Kelly had cancer once before, and his wife Diana had it twice. She was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2006, and oncologists gave her three to 12 months to live. Kelly was her caregiver then and, miraculously, she became his caregiver more than a decade later.
The two of them were in cancer graduate school, and that might be what enabled Kelly to harvest riches from an experience that everyone else would rather avoid. He said the year after Diana’s diagnosis was the best one of his life.
“And this year, if it’s not the best year, is the second-best,” he said. “It just shows how wrong I can be about a big picture. It’s all actually pretty exciting, Petra. In a way I wouldn’t have thought.”
Kelly and Diana transmuted their cancer experience into something that has benefitted hundreds, if not thousands, of people through the founding of a nonprofit called Healing Circles. It offers social support through small groups of people (called circles) who have a challenge or interest in common.
“In a lot of the circles at Healing Circles, people have focused on death and dying and made it an interesting, intriguing part of life,” said Kelly. “Instead of this scary, awful thing that ends something, it starts something, and you don’t want to miss it. I want to know when the side effects end so I can enjoy this other part of it that doesn’t need to be scary. It doesn’t even need to be endured. It needs to be enjoyed, so that’s probably where the loving part comes, too. This is a whole new aspect of life. Why rush through it?”
Loving someone who’s dying without an elephant is excruciating. It was difficult to simultaneously hold onto Kelly and let him go. To stay present with him and grieve the loss that I knew was coming. I say that as a distant planet orbiting Kelly’s sun. By contrast, the orbit of his brother Tom brought him much nearer, close enough to be overcome by his love for Kelly and the loss he knew was imminent.
Could I have born the anticipatory grief that Tom bore for Kelly? Could I have grieved for my brother the way Tom grieved for his? Would I have had the courage to speak openly about the death we both knew was coming?
I think so. I prefer the present pain of acceptance to the deferred pain of denial. Death comes with or without an elephant, and grief is inevitable.
When Tom’s friend Bin, whose mother died of glioblastoma, learned that Kelly had been transferred to hospice, he wrote, “Lean into this crazy shit, my friend. The only thing worse than what’s happening is pretending it’s not.”
I didn’t have the opportunity to lean in with my brother, and pretending that he wasn’t dying didn’t keep him alive. So, I will say now what I couldn’t say then.
Thank you, Tommy, for being such a good-natured companion throughout our child- and adulthood. I can’t remember a time when you didn’t take the high road.
Thank you for your thoughtful kindness and for the compassionate way you advocated and cared for our parents. And thank you for loving me in a way no one else could.
I miss your bear hugs. I miss your mind. I miss our in-jokes and the way you called me “Petey.” I even miss the noogies.
There are nearly eight billion people on this planet, but it feels empty without you.
I live on a jewel of an island flanked by two mountain ranges. In the morning, the sun peeks over the Cascade Mountains, igniting the snow on the Olympics in shades of pink. And in the evenings, the sun slides behind the Olympics, bathing the Cascades in golden light.
The thing is: The mountains move. Not side-to-side, but forward and back. Some days, they look like they’re right on the shores of Puget Sound. Other days, they seem teeny and distant.
Why? It turns out that the mountains look close because of a temperature inversion. Warm air sits on top of air cooled by the frigid waters of Puget Sound. Light rays bend toward the colder air, causing the mountains to appear above or taller than their actual position. The greater the inversion, the bigger the mountains seem.
The point is: The mountains seem bigger because of something in my environment.
And so it is with my grief. My beloved little brother Tom Roush died earlier this year. We were born a year, a month, and a day apart, and we were a set.
This planet is teeming with 7.7 billion people, but in the absence of a single human being—this particular human being—my world feels hollow and empty. It was so, so much richer when he was in it.
Some days, I’m OK. Some days—lots of days—I’m not. Today, I was taking the garbage out and heard a single-engine airplane overhead. Then I saw a passenger jet flying low over the horizon. Tom would have known what kind of planes they were just by hearing the sound of their engines.
I went inside to make lunch for my partner’s birthday and realized that I’d never get another birthday card from Tom. I was never much of a card person, but he spent time picking just the right one, and we signed cards in a way that only we found amusing.
Like the mountains, my grief looms larger depending on environmental conditions, and my loss seems bigger on those days.
But sometimes, the mountains are invisible. At night, for example, I become blissfully unaware of my loss, only to rediscover it in the disorientation of morning, when I feel the weight of sadness in my body. Other times, the mountains are obscured by clouds, hidden by my need to attend to the banalities of life. But when my task is complete, the clouds part, revealing the mountains again.
There is no moving these mountains. But in their mercy they grow, they shrink, they disappear altogether and, in so doing, they help me learn how to live without Tom.
Men in boats about to capsize,
look to my light with longing.
Envy my firm footing.
Do not know whether they should hold on to
their wrecked ships or
swim to shore.
They assume I’ve always been here,
safe and dry.
They do not know about the storm so violent
that I could not distinguish the sea from the sky.
About the night I released my hold,
grabbed my baby, and swam
Ludwigsburg-Ossweil, my mother’s hometown in Germany (where we stayed while Dad was stationed in Thailand for a year), and then back to
Chanute Air Force Base—only this time, we lived and went to school in Gifford.
Gifford was a Lake Wobegon sort of town. It had around 600 inhabitants, and we lived there for three years—long enough to put down roots. We caught fireflies, got lost in endless fields of popcorn, and actually knew people where we trick-or-treated. We skied down snow drifts, became Cub Scouts and Brownies, and sang for the residents of the local nursing home.
Then, Dad retired from the military, and we headed west in the station wagon, towing a travel trailer behind us. I loathed the forever place to which my parents retired and missed Gifford terribly.
At 11, I was on my way to my seventh school, and something snapped inside me. I had said so many goodbyes over the years that I couldn’t bear the thought of saying any more. So I addressed the problem by building a fortress that surrounded and protected me. By preventing hellos, it would prevent goodbyes.
It worked. It kept me safe—and very lonely—into adulthood, and despite my best efforts, still exists today. Occasionally, someone breaches the wall, but it’s relatively rare, and I wonder sometimes what makes it so effective, especially now that I no longer want it to be.
Recently, however, I was minding my own business at a coffee shop, when I turned to find a stranger inside my battlements, fiddling with a cream pitcher. I had no idea who he was, or how he got there. We exchanged a few sentences over the course of the evening, and went our separate ways. I was shaken.
The stranger appeared inside the battlements several times after that, and each time I felt a sense of joyful recognition that was completely inconsistent with how well I knew him. Then, one day, he skittered under the portcullis just before it closed and declared his love for me from the other side.
What am I supposed to do with that? Leave? The fortress?
I am intensely and inexplicably drawn to the stranger. Can I work up the courage to leave these walls I’ve come to know so well?
Every day, the dog lies in the shade of
the willow tree, but
does not remember why.
Does not remember
the man who disappeared over the rise
in the gravel road, as he’d done
so many times before.
Does not remember why
he is filled with a sense of
loneliness and longing.
He knows only that
he must wait.
The children have often tried
to lure him back into the yard
with bones and hugs.
And he goes for a while, but
always returns to the tree and
come and go.
Farmers pushing carts to market.
Children on their way to school.
The doctor, making calls.
He knows them all.
Each time someone passes,
he raises his head in expectation
only to lower it again,
One day, a figure emerges over the rise,
but it is not a shape he recognizes.
A one-legged man swings back and forth
between crutches, laboring under
the weight of a pack.
The dog’s tail gives a thump.
He does not know why.
Does not know why he rises to
his feet and runs toward the man.
Does not know why he
knocks the man over, whimpering,
his tail wagging his entire body.
The man laughs. Cries.
He thought he was at the end
of his journey home from the war,
but realizes that it has just begun,
as the dog leads him past the willow tree
into the yard.
As I walked through the forest on my son’s birthday yesterday, I reflected on how challenging life has been since the moment, 12 years ago, when he was born. At the same time, I’ve grown weary of thinking about how hard it’s been. Weary of feeling sorry for myself. Weary of My Story.
I realized that the past twelve years have felt like walking through chest-high water, which is something I used to do on purpose for exercise. There’s a much more efficient way to get through water. It’s called swimming.
Walking through the water of my life hasn’t exactly been a conscious choice. I do it because it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m ready to find a more efficient and joyful way to move through life.
Like any young damsel in distress, I always dreamed that a knight on a white horse would rescue me someday. Didn’t matter what the distress was. Maybe it was my night to do dishes. Maybe I forgot to do my homework. Maybe my siblings were especially annoying that day.
Fast-forward to today, and I am actually experiencing real, grown-up distress. As always, I dream of being rescued and relieved of my burdens. But for the first time, I realize that it’s completely unethical to allow anyone to do it.
When you’re a damsel in distress, you’re in it for the rescue, not the knight. And that’s not fair to any man.
I recently read a heretical book called Goal-free Living, and loved it. Among other things, author Stephen Shapiro advocates navigating life using a compass instead of a map, which I found especially relevant, given the fact that I created a tool whose very purpose is to help you access your inner compass.
Our first maps are given to us by well-meaning parents, teachers, clergy, and employers. They provide a bird’s-eye view that enables us to “see” destinations that may be thousands of miles away. Unfortunately, they cause us to become so destination-focused that we don’t see where we are in the moment. Compasses, on the other hand, give us a sense of direction, but don’t provide information beyond our line of sight. They keep us in the present.
Why would anyone choose a compass over a map? Because using a compass forces us to look within, identify the true north of our passions, tool up to pursue them, and follow where they lead. Using a compass means making room for synchronicities and serendipities in life. It means being alive, NOW, rather than postponing life until after our goals have been met.
I called this book heretical because ours is a very goal-focused society, and a book on goal-free living seems to go against everything that we believe in. Nonetheless, as I’ve spoken to others about it, I’ve encountered relief. Some have said that they live life in a goal-free way, but have felt guilty about it. Shapiro’s book makes them feel validated. Others have recognized that living goal-free is a more feminine approach that has been frowned on in our patriarchal society. They weren’t really able to put their finger on that distinction until they were exposed to Shapiro’s book.
I agree with that. Motherhood blew the map right out of my hands. I lived goal-free for a decade, picked the map back up earlier this year, and then another gust of wind came. Now, here I sit with my compass, feeling validated, excited, and scared all at the same time.
Night before last, I had a dream in which I was speaking to a local author. “I just had a thought,” I said. “Maybe you can help me think it through. You know how some people love to be scared? They go to scary movies and pick out the scariest rides at amusement parks? I wonder if some people are like that in real life and just like to be scared.”
I’ve never sought out scary things on purpose, having found real life scary enough. I can only guess that people who deliberately expose themselves to frightening situations must feel safe in all other areas of their lives. No one experiencing the real-life horror of a concentration camp, for example, would queue up to see Friday the 13th.
Now, let’s say that we are eternal, and knowing that makes us feel completely safe as disincarnate beings. We can dip our toe into the sea of mortality whenever we want. Let’s further say that our sense of safety leads some of us to seek out the contrast of deliberately bringing scary situations into our lives when we’re incarnate.
“Am I one of those people?” I wondered. “Am I saying ‘yes’ to scary things just for the experience of it? If so, I’m ready to knock that off right now.”
This morning, while walking through the forest, my thoughts veered toward something frightening, and I stopped myself. “You’re making a choice, Petra,” I said. “You’re choosing to walk into the horror show. Why do you do that?”
I’m beginning to realize that most of the fear I’ve experienced in life has been anticipatory. My scary pie chart would look something like this:
Enough of that. Here’s to staying off roller coasters and out of horror shows.