Grief, an exploration in words

grief is trying to breathe

grief is too soon

grief is no and no and no

grief is feeling a heartbeat stop, gone from beneath your fingers

and breaking the earth in two.

grief is cumulative

grief is one times one is ten

grief is layers of raw-edge concrete,

tightly packed and stacked 

sedimentary by day

metamorphic by night.

grief is why why and why

grief is fuck you

grief is midnight pillow cries,

kidnapped stars and moon

grief is unknown sidewalk stains

everyone walks around.

grief is unfixable dents in steel

no one understands 

until they absolutely do.

grief is a boulder so heavy

you’d saw off your own heart 

just to escape it.

Copyright (c) 2020, Kathy Lynn Harris.


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Give credit to the river banks

rivers

are praised

for their sun-caught

brilliance and

mad-swell of froth

but keep in mind

it’s the banks,

root-held and rock,

that must hold it

all in.

copyright (c) 2020, Kathy Lynn Harris.

Photo by Nitish Kadam on Unsplash


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A tiny, uplifting poem (I hope)

Remember this

the one good thing

about emptiness

is

it can still be

filled.

copyright (c) 2020 Kathy Lynn Harris

Photo by Mario Mendez on Unsplash


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Damage

Hail pummeling, dark

windshield unshielding

now quarter-sized, 

maybe golf ball—

weakened wipers fighting,

soul-strike after soul-strike

like gunshots 

to the spine.

A different person, 

another kind of woman

might’ve slowed, 

quickly sought cover—

an overpass maybe

or fought for space 

at the Buc-cees 

diesel pumps.

But she drove unphased 

by the ensuing cracks, 

accelerated even—

toward the falling 

pieces of storm, 

knowing the damage 

will be striking

in the light.


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Notes for the Skilled Nursing Facility

My mom is gone now.  But I wrote this poem anyway. It got a little dark.

—————-

Notes for the Skilled Nursing Facility

 

Her name is Diana Sue Harris, but please.

Don’t call her that.

She goes by Sue.

 

If there’s an issue, call her middle daughter

who will drop everything

and hold the hurt inside for years.

 

She loves Dr. Pepper, all day long. It never seems to elevate her sugar levels,

so give it a go.

If you tell her to drink water instead,

she might call you a bitch.

 

Dark chocolate makes her happy, with a nice cold glass of milk.

Whole. Not skim.

She doesn’t watch her figure anymore.

 

She can’t drink beer in here, I know.

So substitute with donuts, which can lift her spirits as

much as a couple of Michelob Lights

on a good day.

 

Can she have cheese? Block not sliced?

Burgers?

Barbecue?

 

Can her senses still be filled with the mesquite smoke of tender Texas brisket, or grease from the Angus chuck dripping down her hands, or the tang of sharp cheddar on her tongue?

 

Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.

 

If she’s sad, you can put on some George Strait or Elvis

and she’ll move her hips and hands and remember her lovers,

the dancehalls, the days of being light and desired

and full of magic.

 

Can she go outside here? Can someone lightly touch her elbow

and help her to a spot in the sun?

 

Is there a way for her to still feel a breeze lifting her silver hair,

Bake-clay warmth on her face?

 

Will someone make sure she can see the determination of lacy dandelions,

the hope in blades of Christmas green grass?

 

Her “baby” is Dolly, by the way. She’s a shaggy dog. She’ll ask for her.

Here’s what to do: Tell her she’s safe. And loved. And that taking that dog away from her was one of the hardest things her middle daughter’s ever done.

 

The TV. Yes, sitcoms help. Try Golden Girls.

Laugh tracks distract from not knowing who you are.

Try it for yourself.

 

Her husband of 52 years was Herman. He loved her. She loved him most of the time. She’ll ask for him, and wonder where he is. I need my husband, she’ll say. Don’t tell her he died three years ago. Tell her he’ll be there soon.

 

I guess she can’t go clothes shopping anymore. Just in case, Bealls has a good clearance rack this time of year.

 

Dislikes? Well, hot peppers. The sting of shower water on bare skin. Bras (who cares anyway?) Loud voices. Being touched without her permission.

 

If you can, ask her about her chili. Chicken-fried steak.

Her music store. Her life.

Not now, but before.

 

She takes her meds with pudding or yogurt.

Everything seems to go down better with sugar

these days.

 

Do not make her lie down flat in the twin bed in the corner

with the thin, rubber-covered mattress.

Lowering her head makes her afraid.

Like falling backwards, over, in a rocking chair.

Like something you least expected

And can’t control.

 

She can’t use a fork or spoon anymore.

Let her eat with her fingers. Let her snack. Let her cry. Let her dance.

 

Let her do whatever the hell she wants.

 

Take your $200 a day and leave as few bruises as possible.

Cover scratches with gauze and tape and try not to tear her tissue-thin skin.

 

If she doesn’t want to move, don’t make her. If she says no, listen to her.

 

Try to remember there’s a human in there. Who loved her family. Her animals. Food. Music.

 

Who was smarter than you may be right now.

 

Try to remember the need for dignity remains.

Even if she can’t speak that word anymore.

 

Tell her she’s beautiful.

 

Before you break her spirit,

and she decides living isn’t worth the cost.


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Sometimes it’s hard to be thankful, and that’s okay

UnknownIt’s not a secret to anyone who knows me, or reads my work, that the last two and a half years have been the crappiest on record for me. And by crappy, I mean moldy garbage full of week-old salmon crappy. I mean two entire years of shrunken donkey balls and snake excrement. (Snakes do poop, right? I’m too tired to Google it.)

I lost my hero, my sweet and funny dad, in July 2015. I knew I’d lose him at some point, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to not be able to pick up the phone and hear his voice. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly after, and it’s been a speedy descent into memory loss and confusion and sundowning and finding 24-hour caregiving and hiring and firing agencies and feeling guilty that I can’t be there in person for her more than a few times a year. My once-vibrant, beautiful, take-no-shit-from-anyone Mom is now virtually helpless. I don’t think she would recognize me if I walked up to her in the HEB grocery store tomorrow. Yet I talk to her daily, trying to help from two states away. Every day, she asks for my dad. She needs him, she says. Where is he?, she asks. Why won’t he come get me? So every day, she has to feel the hurt of either a) his death again, or b) his not being there to take care of her when she needs him. I feel her pain of abandonment physically.

On top of those losses, there have been financial challenges and job transitions and substantial fear for my son’s future in this country and huge hurt from those I thought would always be there for me and let’s not forget important volunteer demands and mass shooting nightmares and months of sleep sacrificed to worry. (I’m sure this is the case for a lot of people right now; I don’t mean to imply my life is worse than anyone else’s. It’s sooo not. Just bear with me as I write through it.)

I told a friend recently that grief is kind of like this: Things always go sideways in life. Tires go flat. Sewer systems fail. Assholes thrive everywhere from Starbucks to the office. But when you’re grieving, your brain can react to those things like, “yes, the sewer repair will cost $8,000 … AND DON’T FORGET your dad is gone forever and your mom doesn’t know you anymore.”

I know I should practice better self-care, but I’m not very good at it. In fact, my body has recently said, F*ck you, in a very loud way, and I’m struggling to recover enough to even eat a bite of turkey on Thursday.

So yeah. Thanksgiving this year? Meh. Whatevs. Nobody really likes the cranberry sauce anyway. Am I right? And pumpkin? Please. There’s no way to make it look any less like runny camel shit. (How many times can I say shit in one post?)

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Buck up, sista! Things could be much worse. Stop yer whining already. You’re thinking that I still have a lot to be thankful for. And I know that. (Of course, I do. I’m sad, not dumb.) And I say those very things to myself all the time.

I have a roof over my head. My son and husband are healthy and happy. I work with some great people. I have good friends and my generous in-laws who seem perpetually on standby to pick us up if any of us fall. I live in Colorado with a view of the foothills from every level of our new home. Nature still surprises me if I let it. Our dogs are still funny and hanging in there most days. And we now have a truly caring and kind team of caregivers helping my mom.

But I wonder.

Why do we force ourselves to pretend, especially during the holidays, that everything is just fine? That we’re living a Target + Kay Jewelers + Folgers commercial?

Doesn’t the sorrow we feel also serve some purpose, just as gratitude does?

Is it just human nature to want others to snap out of it? And if so, why? What do we fear so intensely about sadness? That it will spread like a contagious disease?

The fact is I’m not good at pretending. I don’t have a bluffing face. I’m bad at poker.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re having a tough time, too, it’s okay.

If you feel like you’ve put on a good show for the past year, but you’re tired and have run out of energy to do so now, it’s okay.

It’s okay to feel what you feel.

It’s okay to say you are a little hopeless and lost right now.

It’s okay if you don’t feel like writing a gratitude list.

It’s okay to say “pass” as folks gather around the Thanksgiving table, with everyone saying what they’re most thankful for this year.

It’s okay to binge-eat pecan pie in the garage.

Yes, I’m absolutely sure that we all have much to be thankful for this year. We don’t live in Syria, after all.

But it’s also absolutely ok to acknowledge your wounds.

And honestly, it might even help more than you think to give the Folgers coffee commercials the middle finger every now and then.

 


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Getting past grief …

Grief Poem #129

by Kathy Lynn Harris, copyright 2017

 

I saw an older man today

in the January-crisp morning light

walking a fence line—

faded ball cap down, blue flannel shirt,

shoulders hunched against the wind,

breath like smoke

from one of your old Marlboros.

 

And there it is again, that abrupt

catch of throat-breath,

quick-snag of heart.

 

As if I’m 14 and arm-crawling

under a sagging barbed wire fence—

dead weeds in my face,

 

following you into the

next section

of winter-brown pasture.

 

Moving as fast as I can;

trying to prove I’m good

at this sort of thing,

 

thinking I’m in the clear.

 

Then a razor-sharp

rusty prick

hits

 

and the back of my shirt rips

and maybe my right shoulder bleeds

and I realize I had misjudged

time and space …

 

And that I wasn’t past

the worst of it

 

at all.

 

 


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Letter to the New Owners

 

Look, it’s my fault, I think.

I must have forgotten to mention the trees. Surely, if you’d known, they’d still be standing.

That little aspen grove in the corner of the yard? They were babies, not higher than my knee, when we moved in 16 years ago. Eight or 10 of them, connected in ways we may never understand. We watched them grow and struggle and grow and then finally thrive. They were a few feet taller than me when we packed the moving truck. They had survived a blizzard that dumped 9 feet of heavy snow on top of them, a storm of a century that broke the branches of our sturdiest pines. They survived several summers when no rain came until early September, when their stressed leaves turned not bright gold but a mustard brown, and fell to the ground in the slightest breeze. But they survived. Provided cool shade from a burning high-altitude sun, allowing ferns and mushrooms to grow in the patches of earth between them. Until now.

And that one thick lodgepole pine by the deck. For 16 years, that tree held the wooden birdfeeder my father built for me with his own hands, and that my husband hung snugly against the trunk, so tight no 120 mph wind in the dead of February winter could send it flying through the woods. I lost my dad two years ago, but I still had that weathered birdfeeder. That he made me. In that tree. Birds of all shapes and sizes ate from that feeder year-round. Chickadees, woodpeckers, pine grosbeaks, bluebirds, gray jays, nuthatches, dippers, pine siskins, crows and the incomparable stellar’s jays, with their breathtakingly rich blue-sky wings and screechy call. Red-tailed hawks sat in that tree waiting for a rosy finch lunch, and once, a golden eagle rested there. Right there. My kid learned about birds from watching that tree. He knew the call of a chickadee before he knew any kind of rhyming song. I wrote and edited novels next to it, listening to the noisy chipper games of squirrels and chipmunks.

You see, these trees were quite possibly some of the most spiritual things I’ve ever accepted into my over-cynical mind. If there was a god of some kind, a power in the universe working beyond our control, I figured it must reside in the bark of those trees.

But now. Well.

So for future reference, here are a few other things to note.

The woodstove in the great room is your lifeline. Don’t treat it like an appliance, something that can be replaced easily. It will heat the whole cabin on a 50-below zero night with 60 mph winds howling outside, when there is no way a propane furnace could keep up with that kind of cold. Not all woodstoves pack that kind of punch. But our little one can. And did for 16 years. If you treat it well, it will protect you from the kind of cold you can die from.

Also, there’s a little piece of skinny, floor-to-ceiling wood that frames the closet in the extra bedroom. It has tiny marks and dates, indicating how our son grew, from when he could first stand with his head proudly flush against the wall, his chin a little raised. He’d let me mark his height there, in his room, and spin around to see just how much he’d grown since the last mark was made. We marked his last height the week before we moved. He’s 10. And I know those are our marks, not yours. And yet, they belong to that cabin in a way you don’t yet.

Let’s also talk about the creek behind the house. A selling point for our cabin, no doubt. But there’s a responsibility that comes with that. Stupid people sometimes come up to the mountains and dump their crap back there, near the creek. Don’t ask me why. And the winds, so fierce in the winter, blow things all around on the mountain, too, and a lot if can end up in the creek. So, you’ll have to stay on top of the trash in the spring and early summer. If you want the moose and bears to still visit for fresh drinking water, and the trout to still swim through it during snow melt-off. And that way, if you take care of it, you can sit by it in the summer evenings, listening to the still and then the rush and the flow, and know that it’s not polluted with beer cans and Styrofoam and parts of an old mattress, but quite likely renewing a whole ecosystem downstream. And maybe a part of yourself, too.

There is so much more to say. The little blue spruce that is about 4 feet tall along the rock walkway? I planted that our first year in the cabin. We were broke, but it was on a clearance shelf at Home Depot for $3. I bought it and planted it and cared for it like a child during the years when I suffered miscarriages and the emotional and physical pain of infertility. I couldn’t make a baby, but I could water that tree. After his adoption, my son and I hung Christmas lights on that tree many years. No tree was ever more wanted.

Oh, and the front of the house next to the large boulders? There’s a perfectly sunny spot there in the winter where you’ll want to stack your firewood. Trust me, we tried a lot of stacking locations over the years. But the important thing to remember is that you have to move that wood by middle of May, if there is any left over, because if the ground is allowed to feel the sun, it will eventually spring forth a mountain wildflower garden in late June. Purple fireweed will bloom, and wild roses, and yarrow and sunflowers, and pink clover, and even a few yellow wallflowers, and they’ll change your life every time you see them in the morning light.

The back deck. Where to begin? My son gardened with me on that deck, rode his Big Wheel on that deck. Learned to shovel snow on that deck. Took naps on summer afternoons on that deck. Had picnics on that deck. Laid, wrapped in blankets, on chilly August nights watching meteors showers on that deck. My husband perfected his barbecue techniques on that deck, with his old-school charcoal grill. We’ve listened to music on that deck as a family, made s’mores together around the firepit, wrote songs together, sang Rocky Mountain High together at midnight on that deck, ate lazy summer meals on that deck with good friends and family. A family of raccoons lived under that deck one winter. This year, it was rabbits. Lots of rabbits that our golden retriever mixes would visit 10 times a day. We have had bears on that deck. Red and black foxes that look into the sliding glass door at dinnertime. We made our most important decisions on that deck.

I could go on, but why? Why. We chose to leave. Life moves on. Things change. The raw, unbridled, sometimes-harsh life at the top of a mountain was exactly what I needed when I moved to Colorado from Texas so many years ago. I wanted to be tested. I wanted to heal whatever was broken. I wanted that log cabin and piece of land at 10,500 feet above sea level, with its surrounding snow-capped peaks, to save me, and it did. Again and again and again. I didn’t want to leave that cabin, or my mountain. But I had to, and now. It’s not mine anymore.

You are the stewards.

Please handle with care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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New poem for #WorldPoetryDay

World Poetry Day

Breaking

I can count my broken bones

like milestones

like clean breaks

like short stories

maybe Lorrie Moore’s—

funny

but also kind of sad.

 

First-grade nightmares and hardwood floors

driveway basketball with two bare feet

recklessness and dank river air

missteps on a solo mountain hike

impatience in a Target parking lot.

 

But my heart?

You can’t really count

the fragile

hairline

fractures

on a fault line—

eventually spreading

 

like what happens

from the weight of beating

monsoon rains

on long-weathered wood,

rotting, wearing down

strength.

 

moments after days

after weeks after years

 

chipping love and naivety

into what must resemble

rubicund ceramic shards

scattered on an unswept,

linoleum kitchen floor

 

too many unkind boys

and unkind girls,

playground pranks,

and no way to measure

root-scraping betrayal

in familiar trees

or insecure men and unsuccessful lies

or the gradual creep

of a mind-tangled disease

or conversations I’ll never unhear.

 

My bones healed, I suppose

some smoother

and stouter than others,

some reminding me

on the last mile of a long day

that healing takes a long time.

 

But my heart?

It just figures …

that’s the way things are now.

 

 


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Maybe We Weren’t That Different

On the surface, one might think my dad and I were not much alike. I’m liberal; he was conservative. I always vote Democrat; he never voted a straight ticket in his life. I saw him cry maybe three or four times in 46 years. I sometimes cry over a dog food commercial or when the fading sunlight catches my child’s face just right, all in the same day. He was rational and logical and a planner. I tend to be impulsive and approach life with the thought of, Why not? I’ll figure out a plan B later. I anger easily and have little patience. My dad demonstrated patience every day of his life — whether teaching a bunch of loud-mouthed eighth-graders or dealing with three daughters arguing over who needs the bathroom next.

I think because of those differences, he didn’t really know what to do with me. He shook his head in subtle disbelief — a lot — when I was around. I was the one who fell out of line. I moved away. I didn’t listen to advice (much). I had no interest in cattle ranching. I’d stay up all night reading when he’d told me, “lights out,” five times before. I wore socks with holes in them so I could afford to travel. I ate Cheetos and drank Dr Pepper for breakfast if the mood hit me. I mowed circles in the yard versus straight lines like he taught me. I chose to live where temps hit 50 below and bears hang out by the front door. Did I mention he shook his head a lot around me?

In fact, my very first memory at age 3 or so is of my dad shaking his head at me, grinning, as I tried to climb over a sagging barbwire fence. He waited to see if I could do it on my own, then quickly picked me up and over when my shoe caught the top wire.

Now that he’s gone, I miss that feeling so much, physically and metaphorically.

But something happened at his funeral that makes me think maybe we weren’t as different as I thought.

After he retired from teaching, my dad worked in my hometown county in Texas helping the area’s veterans and their families get access to benefits they might be eligible for through the VA. His office was in the county courthouse, across the street from the fire station. One of the firefighters came up to me at the funeral to tell me how much he enjoyed getting a wave from Dad in the mornings.

Then he asked me if I knew Dad was trying to help a homeless vet who slept down by the river and who hung out near the station some days. He said my dad would watch for the guy and bring over forms for him to complete. Several times, same forms. Tried to help him fill them out right there in front of the station. Told him about resources. The firefighter friend said my dad would always say, “I’m working on it!” when asked about the man who wandered around town, obviously needing services but not trusting anyone to help him.

I was so proud to hear this story. But it didn’t really surprise me. My dad was the kind of man who would stop on the side of the road to fix someone’s flat or run into a neighbor’s burning stable to get horses to safety.

But hearing the story did make me feel closer to him. Because my husband and son and I, every fall, put together a warm blanket and pajama drive for the homeless folks who stay in Denver shelters as winter moves in. It’s gotten really big over the years, and it’s something we look forward to all year. Last year, we collected nearly a thousand blankets alone. Now, knowing my dad had a soft spot for a homeless vet in my hometown … makes what we do even more meaningful.

I’m sure we had other things in common, too. The love of animals. A strong work ethic. Good books. Credence Clearwater Revival. Stubbornness when pushed.

But the next time I’m home, I just may try to find that homeless man. Maybe I could at least bring him a home-cooked meal or some clean clothes.

I don’t think my dad would shake his head at that.

photo 1


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