In the weeks since I’ve returned from St. Lucia following my father’s passing, I’ve been determined to heed a piece of advice passed on from a dear friend:
“Move. Like. Molasses.”
She told me this in person just days after I got back, repeating it in a subsequent text — punctuated just as above — because she knows my tendency to move through life in overdrive, parceling out my hours in a frenzied pace of doing and giving.
But she also shared this because, having lost her mother to Alzheimer’s two years ago, she realizes not only the energy and space that grief requires but how challenging it can be for those of us used to juggling overcommitted schedules and being there for others to take time for ourselves. I appreciated her reminder, even as I seemed to instinctively slip into a quiet cocoon.
While I was forced last year, in the face of another life-altering loss, to be more mindful of where and with whom I spent my time, struggling to be deliberate even then, slowing down has come easier to me now, as if my body could do nothing less. Heading into a season filled with invitations and obligations, I knew I would be selective about what I chose to participate in, but there was one event I signed up for immediately, without giving it a second thought: the Rubye’s Kids Holiday Party, an annual event sponsored by the Jenkintown-based nonprofit committed to enriching the lives of underprivileged children.
I have previously written about this party — a bright, boisterous affair that serves 500 children from the carefully festooned halls of Girard College — and how my participation over the years has been a highlight of the season. It is a gift I offer myself because the joy, love and kindness shared that day are, for me, an anchor to all that matters most at this time of year.
However, this December, as the date approached, I became anxious and awash in what was beginning to feel like dread. I wondered if it would be taking on too much, if I’d have the energy for it, if my fragile emotions could withstand a day on which my heart always felt tender to begin with, even if the tears stirred were from a place of deep appreciation for the hope and happiness shining from so many adorable faces.
Yet I’d made the commitment and I would keep it, and by the time my boyfriend Zane sent me off that morning with a blessing to “go let (my) heart be healed,” I knew the day would be a blanket for my sorrow, soft and soothing and just the inspiration I needed to find my flagging Christmas spirit.
And it was, from the minute I stepped into the Armory at the college amid a sea of excited volunteers, all of us ready to greet the children with a thunderous red-carpet welcome, as we swept them up in the promise of unconditional love and acceptance and a few hours’ enchantment during what for many can be a wistful time of year. As I helped to chaperone a group of 30 youngsters from one of the participating elementary schools, there was nowhere else for my mind to wander, no room in my heart for anything but the moment before me, and the clamant sweetness of the call to nurture and encourage all who so willingly gave themselves to our care.
I smiled in the course of that single day more than I have in weeks and every time a child slipped her hand into mine, turned his beaming face my way, pressed close to share the card or ornament or artwork they’d created, giggled and whispered and peppered me with questions, I saw another version of myself: pure joy reflecting pure joy, apart from the perils of grief.
It reminded me of how, just the week before, I’d attended a get-together with my friends from college and spent most of the night on an impromptu play date with 3-year-old Ani, the daughter of our hosts, Joe and Deb. Though she played shy in the beginning, it wasn’t long before we were running from monsters, turning each other into animals, and her personal favorite, feet, with her magic wand and making up songs that were all variations of the word “doot.” As we danced, hopped and twirled, and besieged a willing Zane with our silliness, all the reservations I’d had about coming evaporated.
When Joe had first extended the invitation to us to gather at their house, I’d been excited at the prospect since it had been over a year since we’d all been together. But just hours before going, my thoughts turned pensive and doleful and I considered canceling. Yet I also thought of the hugs, the laughter, the beauty of bonds forged over many chapters of our lives, and I rallied — to find my heart buoyed not only by what I’d anticipated but by an unexpected dose of impish exuberance.
My time with Ani and with the kids at the holiday party has been a potent reminder of my resilience as I mourn my father’s death. In my interactions with them, I’ve seen hope for brighter days, for joy that flows unchecked.
There will be times after experiencing a loss when we turn inward. We go slow and do less so that we may learn to sit with our grief. Sometimes we decide to drown out its clamor with distractions. And sometimes we discover that healing comes through a small act of courage: the choice to throw open a window on our world, press our face to the light and give of ourselves from the fullness of our raw and ramshackle hearts.
As I escorted the kids back to their bus at the end of the holiday party, one little girl told me how glad she was to have seen her cousin that day.
I asked when she’d last spent time with him and she said it had been four years ago at her mother’s memorial service. I slipped my arm around her, choking back tears.
But she was smiling still, lost in the pleasure of their reunion — such a young and guileless teacher who’d fast developed the skills to seize her happiness from a life of imperfection, emptied of all guarantees.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times