I am about to embark on a ‘Peruvian Odyssey’ (that’s what the organizers are calling it). I’ve never been to South America and have had, like so many people of my age, a bucket list that included a trek to Machu Picchu. Said bucket list has many adventures on it with the stoic, sometimes cynical Scandinavian belief that ‘it’ll never happen but you can dream can’t you?’. Ordinarily this trip would have any number of reasons why it couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t happen. Yet it is. In just two short weeks I will be on my way to ten days in Peru. My Peruvian Odyssey of Grief and Loss.
I am going to Peru to grieve the losses I have encountered this year – yes, that’s plural, it happens some years, it happens more years the older I get. It started last summer with Dad, [see my last post: ‘Doing’ and ‘being in grief – Part 1] then it was losing the house, the Popowitz home for fifty years, cleared down to the empty spaces and hollow echoes. Over this past year Alzheimer’s has been slowly, torturously taking Mom away each day. One minute she’s with us, the next she’s gone, unaware, oblivious to who we are, with a hollowness to her eyes and her soul that feel like the echoes of that empty house once full of activity and noise.
Mostly I’m going to Peru because of another big loss that happened this year. My very dear friend, my co-author and co-facilitator of our hospital grief groups and a fellow thanatologist. She and I traveled around the country attending conferences together, enjoying all the local cuisine. She could find a hole-in-the-wall diner, restaurant or pub and it would have THE best local food and flavor – it was her gift. Though we only knew each other closely the last ten years, our conversations, our planning and writing projects, our love of good food and books, our candor and our Scandinavian roots brought us closer and closer. Until three years ago. We were presenting together at the International Death, Grief and Bereavement Conference when I noticed her speech was slurred – it was 9am so I knew she wasn’t drunk, we talked about her getting it ‘checked out’. One month later she was diagnosed with ALS [I wrote about it in this post: When the Ice Bucket Challenge is Real] and three years later she is dead.
We spent every Monday afternoon together this past fall and winter. She ‘willed’ me her Death, Dying and Bereavement class at the college – her professional pride and joy. Years ago she and I had talked endlessly about her submitting a request to teach this class; we talked about all the elements of it, the papers that needed to be written, the textbook she should use and finally the first DDB class in a community college setting was born. She taught it for years and this year she asked me to take over. Every Monday after class I would stop by for a visit and fill her in on everything that was happening. The agony of living my full, active life hurt me to talk about but helped her, she would write ‘how’s things?’ on her magic key board and I would rattle on and on while she took it in, smiling all the while. I told her last December about a trip I was invited to – a mission trip to Peru – teaching school children how to calm their fears and anxieties. She lit up and did her best to shake her head yes, she went right to her board and insisted I go to Peru, I should explore, I should enjoy. She was a world traveler, she’d been from China to South Africa, Ireland to Slovenia, back and forth around the globe. I would always revel in her travels, be amazed at the photos of cemeteries she’d visit all over the world and of course we’d talk about the food. She wanted me to go where she had not been, and ‘never would now’ and ‘show me Peru and Machu Picchu’.
I, of course, gave her every reason I shouldn’t go, telling her to remember I am Scandinavian after all. But that did not do, she would shake her wobbly head, spend several minutes gathering and writing her keyboard response, which often included a swear word or two, in her encouragement.
On March 17th her husband called, she was in hospice; I should come right away. For two days, we sat, those of us, the many of us, who loved her, who would miss her, grieve for her. In the chapel of the hospice house, on the altar, sat a beautiful hand-blown glass bowl containing shiny smooth stones of different shapes and sizes. As I peaked in, on the top sat a white heart shaped stone amongst the grays and blacks and browns; I reached in and held it, feeling its warmth and softness, neither of which usually describe a stone. As I sat next to her, I held the stone on her arm or in our hands for a long time; I thanked her for being my friend and all the adventures we had together, for giving me the honor of teaching her class, and for encouraging me to go to Peru. I told her I would go despite the long list of reasons not to. I would go and take her with me, in my heart, in my mind, in the tiny white heart shaped stone that stayed warm between us. Though she appeared unable to hear or communicate with us, when I told her I was going to Peru, a tear rolled down her face. I kissed her goodbye and never saw her again.
She is still with me though, I take that little stone, my grief token, wherever we would have gone – or will go. To teach her class, to graduation day of her students, to the grief conferences we’d go, to the cemeteries I visit that she would have, the local Fourth of July parade we were always at. And soon, I will take her with me to Peru. My grief odyssey will continue long after Peru though. For I will always miss her, always trek through grief’s journey and I will always have her spirit, in the form of that little white stone, with me.