It’s Not a Shrine or Anything

My mother’s purse has not moved in three years, seven months. It sits on her desk, beside her computer monitor. A spider web forms a bridge between the purse and screen.

Insurance forms, business cards for hospice workers, and hospital bills are strewn haphazardly across her desk’s surface.

Books on real estate management and lung cancer and knitting, a Bible too, all layered in dust. Words abandoned, no longer helpful or needed.

Frog figurines she collected over her last twenty years are lined up on a desk shelf. They too enshrined in dust. Someone once told Mom that frog stood for “fully rely on God.” I didn’t think she was religious, but she seemed to like that idea. I wonder if that’s why she kept collecting them.

Greeting cards are stacked next to receipts and sticky notes and peppermints and nicotine lozenges. I recognize several of them, including one I sent after a girls’ vacation to the Grand Canyon. I used my corporate bonus to fly us first-class, even rented a convertible for us to drive. We called it our Thelma and Louise Get-Away. It may have been indulgent, but I don’t regret a single dime. You can’t take it with you.

Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy

~ Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”

Most of the sticky notes are phone numbers. Doctors? Clients? Friends? I want to call each number to see who answers. “Did you know my mother? What did you talk about? Did she seem happy? Please, tell me. I am trying not to forget her.”


“Yep, I saw those on her desk,” I say to my dad about some old medicine bottles. “I thought about tossing some of that stuff out, but I didn’t know if you had left it there on purpose. Or something.”

The “or something” hangs in the air for a moment, as if time is deciding whether or not to pause. It decides not to.

“No,” he says. “I just haven’t gotten around to it. It’s not a shrine or anything.”

“Okay,” I say, digesting his words. “Maybe I’ll go through and clean up her desk then.”

I want to ask him why he hasn’t touched anything on her desk, it’s been over three years. But I stop myself. After all, this is only my second time home since she died, I have no room to talk. He’s been sick too. One can only fully process one mortality at a time.

I have this vision of Death having a “Take a Number” dispenser, like at the DMV and New York delis. “One death at a time, folks, take a number. We’ll get to everyone. Now serving number . . .” the Grim Reaper’s assistant announces, bored and monotone and snapping gum, over the intercom system. All the ticket numbers are blank.


I sit in her desk chair — black faux-leather, high-backed, cast rollers, I was with her when she bought it — after I wipe it down with an old rag. I look at the dusty rag and wonder how many of her dead skin cells I’ve just wiped up. I briefly consider saving the rag.

I pull out her keyboard tray, rest my fingers on the letters, and absently remember her nails clicking away emails. The printer, which is beside the monitor, which is beside her purse, has two sheets of paper resting in its output tray. I reach over and take them out, expectantly, like a child at Christmas. Was this the last thing she printed? Was it a letter to me? Some sort of message, a sign?

One sheet is a receipt for Pajama Jeans, dated 3/7/11. I remember the package arriving, my dad calling the Pajama Jeans folks on the phone. “The reason for return? She died yesterday.” After a pause, “thank you.”

I wonder if the Pajama Jeans customer service rep ever thinks about that phone call. Or maybe people use death as an excuse all of the time to return items. I also wonder if Pajama Jeans are as comfortable as Mom hoped. I keep thinking I’ll order some, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.

The second sheet is another receipt. This one for a necklace with a mustard seed pendant. It is dated 3/19/11; Mom died on 3/21/11. It is the last thing she ordered.

At the bottom of the page, the company’s logo and a biblical passage:

. . . if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. ~ Matthew 17:20

I knew a girl in college who had a mustard seed taped to a page in her Bible. She took me to her church; she wanted to help me find Jesus. I wasn’t looking for Him, but I’ve never forgotten how small that mustard seed was.

I doubt either receipt is the symbolic letter I was hoping for. I know I spend a lot of time looking for signs that don’t exist. I set the sheets back on the printer.

A small spider creeps along the desk, it’s not much larger than a mustard seed. I take the dust rag and press down on the spider, just like pressing a pause button. Somewhere, a number is called.


I want to ask my mother if she had faith. As small as a mustard seed? Larger? What did she believe in? Or Whom?

There’s so much I want to ask her. I miss picking up the phone to call her, I miss our little talks. What’s the recipe for your Thanksgiving corn soufflé, Mom? What was your health history when you were my age, when I was too self-absorbed to even remember your doctor appointments? Does high cholesterol run in our family? What’s the name of that book you wanted me to read? Why frogs?

And the bigger questions. How did you cope when your mom died? Were you at her side? How long did her desk sit untouched? What was the last thing you said to her? What was the last thing she ordered? Was she happy? Were you? 


I am still sitting in her chair. I don’t know how much time has passed. I finally understand why some families cover the deceased’s furniture, photographs, and mirrors–and books and frogs and cards and sticky notes–with large sheets. The sheets make it easier to not stop and stare, to not lose track of time. The ghosts live under the fabric instead of on the surface beckoning, begging to be remembered.

We all live in haunted houses, rooms full of memories, coated with layers of dust and longing. Some of our ghosts live in our hearts. But you can’t put a sheet over your heart, I’ve tried. I do go through repeated cycles of flash-freezing my heart though, then I slowly thaw it out again. Ghosts are immune to the cold. And to spiders and dust and pause buttons. Nothing kills them, except forgetfulness.

I sit a bit longer, write about her, talk to her–tell her that I miss our little talks–anything to keep her ghost alive. I’m not ready to forget her. I’ll clean up tomorrow. Or the next day. It’s not a shrine or anything.



You’re gone, gone, gone away,
I watched you disappear
All that’s left is a ghost of you

~ Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks”

Words For The Weekend (Dear Someone Struggling With Grief and Pain), Volume 46

Another unconventional Words for the Weekend post (for the weekend of 08/31/13, Volume 46) and an unexpected one as I had said I would be taking this weekend off. However, I received such an outpouring of support from “My Grace is Gone” and discovered so many of you are struggling right now with grief and with alcohol abuse, some of you with both.

Some of you are barely hanging on right now.

I received a touching e-mail from a lady who recently lost her mother. She was so brave to reach out and share some of her pain with me. What follows is a portion of my reply.

This week I also include some songs, quotes and a poem, some previously shared in past volumes, that bring me comfort. I hope they do the same for you.

This weekend’s volume is dedicated to her and to others in pain. It will be sunny one day. 


Dear __,
Bless you.
Thank you so much for reaching out to me and sharing your pain.
As much as I want to tell you “just don’t drink,” I know it’s not that easy. I know the pain is unbearable, and I know that desire to make it stop at any price.
It will get different in time.
Not necessarily better or easier, but it gets bearable. Scar tissue forms.
I do know drinking doesn’t make the pain go away. Nothing will, honey, so embrace the pain. If you used to run, you know this concept. You hurt and ache and you want to stop, but you keep going anyway. You run through the pain.
And that’s what grief is. You feel the pain, but you keep going anyway.
Embrace it and know it hurts because of how much you loved. The pain is a link to that love.
View the pain as a good thing. A reminder you are alive, a reminder of love, a reminder of your mom.
It hurts to do things sober.
But you do not want to vanish. You cannot. Your mom needs you to stay here, stay present. Remember her, you will feel her in your heart the longer you stay sober and clear-headed. You will see signs if you look for them…
Find solace in that love, find grace in the pain, and find comfort in knowing you are not alone. You’ll find no answers in a wineglass. I tried for years.
You are your mother’s living legacy. Use her grace to live well.
With love,


letter page 1April 10, 2006

Dear Crystal,

I’m so sorry to hear that life is getting you down at the moment. Goodness knows, it can be so tough when nothing seems to fit and little seems to be fulfilling. I’m not sure there’s any specific advice I can give that will help bring life back its savour. Although they mean well, it’s sometimes quite galling to be reminded how much people love you when you don’t love yourself that much.

I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It’s real.
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.


It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
One day.

It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are as real as the weather – AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.


They will pass: they really will.

In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. “Today’s a crap day,” is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. “Hey-ho, it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.”

I don’t know if any of that is of any use: it may not seem it, and if so, I’m sorry. I just thought I’d drop you a line to wish you well in your search to find a little more pleasure and purpose in life.

Very best wishes


Stephen Fry

From site: Letters of Note, originally appeared in Volume 28. Letters Of Note: The Book will be published October 2013.


“But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.”  ~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, originally appeared in Volume 35


“We stumble on… bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves.  It is almost enough… The world spins.  We stumble on.  It is enough.” ~ Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spinoriginally appeared in Sunday Words


“There is no escape from the slave catcher’s songs
For all of the loved ones gone
Forever’s not so long

And in your soul they poked a million holes
But you never let ‘em show
Come on, it’s time to go

And you already know
Yeah, you already know how this will end”

How It Ends by DeVotchKa


“Grief can destroy you –or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone. OR you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see that it wasn’t just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it. The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss. And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.” ~ Dean Koontz, “Odd Hours“, originally appeared in Volume 9


“Hold this heart when I go
sing my song when I go
sing it loud when I go
sing it proud when I go
some people are learning to die and some people are yearning to fly…

Oh the thought of death has yet to make me afraid
’cause I will march right off this world into the next like it’s a grand parade
but if you feel lonely just like you want to run and hide
then I’ll wrap my wings around you and give you strength and I won’t leave your side
and I’ll watch over you
I’ll watch over you
oh, my care will cover you just like the moon’ll do

you know I’d love to get to heaven
you know I’d love to see the view
but first I think I’ll stay and watch over you”

When I Go by Brett Dennen


“Whether you’ve seen angels floating around your bedroom or just found a ray of hope at a lonely moment, choosing to believe that something unseen is caring for you can be a life-shifting exercise.” ~ Martha Beck, originally appeared in Sunday Words


“If I ever leave this world alive
I’ll thank you for all the things you did in my life
If I ever leave this world alive
I’ll come back down and sit beside your
feet tonight
Wherever I am you’ll always be
More than just a memory
If I ever leave this world alive

If I ever leave this world alive
I’ll take on all the sadness
That I left behind
If I ever leave this world alive
The madness that you feel will soon subside
So in a word don’t shed a tear
I’ll be here when it all gets weird
If I ever leave this world alive”

If I Ever Leave This World Alive by Flogging Molly


nobody but you – by Charles Bukowski

nobody can save you but
you will be put again and again
into nearly impossible
they will attempt again and again
through subterfuge, guise and
to make you submit, quit and /or die quietly

nobody can save you but
and it will be easy enough to fail
so very easily
but don’t, don’t, don’t.
just watch them.
listen to them.
do you want to be like that?
a faceless, mindless, heartless
do you want to experience
death before death?

nobody can save you but
and you’re worth saving.
it’s a war not easily won
but if anything is worth winning then
this is it.

think about it.
think about saving your self.
your spiritual self.
your gut self.
your singing magical self and
your beautiful self.
save it.
don’t join the dead-in-spirit.

maintain your self
with humor and grace
and finally
if necessary
wager your self as you struggle,
damn the odds, damn
the price.

only you can save your

do it! do it!

then you’ll know exactly what
I am talking about.

“nobody but you” by Charles Bukowski from Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way, 2002

This poem was recently shared in last month’s Volume 41 (Sometimes I Wish), but I felt it a perfect closing for this week. Save your self. Do it! Do it! You’re worth saving. Do not drown in your grief. Do not drown your sorrows. Your sorrows know how to swim. Better than you do. Save your self. Do it! Do it! You are so worth it. ~ Christy

(I won’t be responding to comments right away due to my marathon training (in fact, if you see me on-line this weekend, tell me to back away slowly from the computer and to take my “baby donkey” for a run) but if you have a song or poem that comforts you or some thoughts to comfort anyone else hurting, please, please feel free to share. Have a peaceful weekend, and for those in the U.S., a fun Labor Day holiday.)

Sunday Words on Hope, Guns, Annabelle and Hands

I could not find appropriate words for yesterday’s Words For the Weekend post. But while words failed me, some of you have shared poignant thoughts that I would like to share.

Please enjoy the following selections: a poem on hope submitted by kind reader Elle, a few quotes on hope, links and further reading on the delicate subjects of guns and issues facing The United States in the aftermath of tragedy, and a couple of songs that have been echoing in my mind this weekend.

If you have any quotes, poems or songs of hope or encouragement, please feel free to share in the comments; I will include them in next weekend’s Words post.

I wish you all a week of peace and healing.


HOPE (shared by reader Elle, written by Elle’s beautiful poet friend)

“Please help me to remember when my heart is dark with sorrow
that even this most pressing grief will ease on some tomorrow,
For so the cycle always goes, if I could just remember;
but I forget that spring exists when I am in December.

As part of life is pain, so surely part is also pleasure,
won’t happiness that follows tears seem all the more a treasure?
So mourning, help me please believe that there will yet be laughter,
for after all, the darkest night has sunrise follow after.

I know I look too closely at the trouble life is giving;
Yet take for granted many things that make my life worth living.
As if the fact that bad exists, means goodness cannot find me;
Yet good things happen every day, won’t someone please remind me?

It matters less what happens than it matters how one views it,
but life looks dark and cold to one whose grieving heart imbues it.
And it is winter in my life; but please don’t let grief blind me
to the good things and to hope of spring once sorrow lies behind me.”


In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. ~ Albert Camus


Sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts. For there is alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmitted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness. ~ Pearl S. Buck, The Child Who Never Grew


Whether you’ve seen angels floating around your bedroom or just found a ray of hope at a lonely moment, choosing to believe that something unseen is caring for you can be a life-shifting exercise. ~ Martha Beck


We stumble on… bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves.  It is almost enough… The world spins.  We stumble on.  It is enough. ~ Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin


In his blog “Better Living Through Beowolf: How great literature can change your life”, Dr. Robin Bates quotes Matthew 2:18 on The Massacre of the Innocents and then shares from Melville’s Moby Dick:

“But by her still halting course and winding, woeful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not.” 

Bates goes on to write:

To this oceanic sadness I add my anger at anyone who, because of political expedience, avarice or other base motives, refuses to seriously grapple with America’s gun problem, especially the easy access to automatic weapons.

I’ve read many outstanding posts about the need to address our nation’s current gun laws. I do not know the solution, but I, as I’m sure the following bloggers, would agree that something is broken:

Gus at Out Where the Buses Don’t Run shares in “When Is The Time To Have That Discussion on Gun Control?“:

Now is not the time for hysteria and finger-pointing. There are 20 dead children to be buried, 20 pairs of parents whose grief cannot possibly be measured. Not to mention the grief and confusion the father of the shooter and the husband of the shooter’s mother must be feeling right now. Now is not the time for empty rhetoric and false promises. But the time will come, and it’s incumbent upon all of us, parents and spouses, voters and elected officials, lobbyists and concerned citizens, to have a measured, intelligent, and MATURE conversation about what gun control means, without compromise, without the taint of lobbying and money.

Susan at Recovering Life shares in “A country gone awry:

Gun control would help, wider availability of treatment for mental health problems would help. But the increasing massacres of innocents are only one of so many indicators of things gone awry–homicide rates, suicide rates, drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, poverty, school drop-outs, homelessness, joblessness, depression, anxiety, PTSD, child abuse, and on and on–that I wake up in the night afraid.  Something is rotten at the core.

Caitlin Kelly, author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns, at Broadside Blog shares in “Why the next shooting massacre is (sadly) inevitable“:

– It has been said that 25 percent of Americans will suffer from mental illness during their lifetime. On any given day, then, there is a percentage of the population for whom ready access to a weapon and ammunition is deeply unwise. Co-relate this statistic with the number of Americans whose home contains a gun.

– Forty-seven percent of Americans own a gun. This is the highest rate of gun ownership since 1993. (source: Gallup poll.) There is no way to know when or how these two factors intersect.


As always, when I can’t seem to find words for my feelings and emotions, I turn to music and song. The first speaks to a parent’s loss and being left to wonder “why?” The second speaks to the buoyancy of the human spirit. Yes, we are heart-broken, but we cannot stay idle with despair–we must carry on, we must.

“Annabelle” by Gillian Welch (video)

I had a daughter called her Annabelle
She’s the apple of my eye
Tried to give her something like I never had
Didn’t want to ever hear her cry

We cannot have all things to please us
No matter how we try
‘Til we’ve all gone to Jesus
We can only wonder why


“Hands” by Jewel (video)

If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be that we’re all OK
And not to worry ’cause worry is wasteful
And useless in times like these
I won’t be made useless
I won’t be idle with despair
I will gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear
My hands are small, I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own
But they’re not yours, they are my own
And we are never broken