Listen

Story and photographs by Nancy Malcolm

I was not prepared for the relationships with my grown daughters.   I am forever their mother, but I am not needed as a parent anymore.

That was and is a hard dynamic for me to change.  We wrestle with control and often talk in circles, trying to be heard.  We have a back and forth, push and pull dance with multi-meaning dialogues.  They seem to understand this much better than I do.

“Mom, I KNOW.  I know what I need to do,” I hear them say.

“Mother, you raised us, don’t you realize we KNOW what you think?” they recite.

“Mom, I just want you to listen.  You don’t have to fix anything or give advice.”

But, sometimes I say ‘it’ again, only louder or rephrased, thinking they didn’t hear me or quite understand my point.  The real point is, I think I know what is best for them and what they should do.  On one such occasion when frustrations were high and tempers rising, I heard a voice inside myself whisper, 

“Listen.  Listen with your heart not your ears.”  

My lips clamped shut almost instantly, but my self-righteousness still wanted a voice.  Smugness is a deadly sin you see, and even a shaft of light cannot penetrate the hard outer shell of a superior, puffed up wisenheimer.  Old habits are hard to break.

My mother died of a brain tumor when I was four years old.  In my childish mind I envision myself as the perfect daughter.  So perfect in fact, she would never have left me.  I would have been obedient, and hung on her every word.  I would have sought her wisdom and cherished our talks.  I would give anything to hear her voice and listen to her point of view.  I saw myself that way and I admonished my girls for taking me for granted.  My self pity reminded me that I had no mother to listen to and my ungrateful girls had me.

“Listen,” my whisper said.  “Heart listening opens closed doors, hushes smugness, sends love not loathing…listen.”  

My sanctimonious attitude does not listen well.  It strains to get one more word in.  It plans a good comeback.  It is selfish and self-centered.  

I heard an acronym once:  WAIT- Why Am I Talking?  There are very few times in life when you should keep talking and talking.  Most of life is listening, at least if you want happy relationships and peace.

 “Listen” my whisper said.  “Hush.”

Listen to the ocean when you are there.

Listen to the toddler ramble on about his musings.

Listen to your husband’s snore and be grateful he is alive.

Listen to the elderly person in the grocery store and ask a question.

Listen to your heart, your gut and your best friend.

I wanted my daughters to listen to me.  But, what I really wanted was to be heard.  My thoughts, my heart, and my words were all vying for a way out, expressing what was inside.  My outside didn’t match my inside and I wanted the real me to be seen and heard.  Instead, I said to my daughter, “You’re not listening to me.”  Neither one of us was listening and we ended our conversation agreeing to disagree, leaving dissatisfied and hurt.

Finally I got quiet and sat with my hand over my heart, a practice I knew, but had conveniently forgotten.  “What’s wrong?”  I asked myself.  “What can I do to make you feel better?”  And then I listened.  I heard myself ramble on about my feelings and fears; my doubts and worries; my suggestions for my daughter.  Sometimes my worries are so vivid that I can’t seem to stop the cycle of obsessive thoughts.  I want my girls to be happy and I mistakenly think I know what is best for them.  I forget to remember that my adult children must listen to themselves.  They have their own inner guidance and wisdom to tap into and their own hearts to follow. They are wise, strong and courageous.  

 So, I listened to myself and in the process I did feel heard, all without continuing to talk.   My shoulders lowered, my breath deepened and my body finally felt relaxed.

“Go on,”  I whispered to myself.  “ I’m listening.”

Remembering Happiness

Clare and I

 

In 1959 I was six years old, missing a front tooth and playing dress-up with my neighbor, Clare, and my black cat, Sylvester.   For some reason, we always had a black cat and always named each one Sylvester, whether they were male or female.  Sylvester was not an original name, for sure, but convenient when one of the cats would run-off or meet with a tragic demise.  We never had to wonder what to name the new cat.

Clare’s daddy was a doctor and they lived directly catty-corner behind us in a large two- story house.  Our street was like a dividing line between upper and middle class houses.  Our house, the house my mother died in, was at the lower end of middle, but Clare didn’t seem to mind.  She had this large modern house, a little sister, a doctor daddy, and a beautiful, vibrant mother who drove a station wagon and baked cookies.  All of these things I did not have, especially the part about having a mother.

My daddy, although usually not generous with my mother’s belongings, had obviously allowed use of a few of her things for this dressy occasion.  My white doll blanket skirt was held up by a brooch belonging to Mama and as most elegant women I knew, I had a fake fox fur around my neck.  Completing the ensemble was a smart white, plastic headband purchased from Woolworths downtown.  It was the hallmark accessory for most of my early years.

Clare, one year my senior, went to a private Catholic school, while I attended the neighborhood elementary.  She was taking violin lessons and had Brownies after school, while I was walked straight home after school by our live-in housekeeper or my older brother, Jimmy.  I was always wishing she had more time to play or that I had after school things to do, too.

I don’t know why my daddy took a picture of us that day.  I could speculate and say maybe he was celebrating my missing tooth, or my recovery from chickenpox, but he was not usually one to celebrate those types of things.   Maybe it was because I had on a few of my mother’s things, which reminded him of her absence.  I’ll never know the reason, but I’m glad he did.  I’m also grateful for Clare.  Her parents were aware of my mother’s passing and they generously included me in their picture-perfect family.  They extended the hand of fellowship and normalcy to a little girl who was dauntingly unsure of her place in this world.

Because my mother had died in this house, my daddy could hardly wait for us to move.  When our lease was up, we moved down the street into an old parsonage that had big floor furnaces and window unit water coolers.  Our new, old house was bigger but too far for Clare and me to play as often as before.  We eventually went our separate ways, but she was my childhood friend for a season of time, distracting me with warmth and laughter.  Her friendship brightened my days and put this smile on my face, a face that was struggling to remember what happiness really meant.

No One Wants To Hear My Story

Nancy 4 yrs old

Four-year-old me

No one wants to hear my story anymore.  The story about my mother dying when I was only four years old.  No one wants to admit that I still have pain and grief over losing her because I am sixty-seven years old now, and should be way past the acceptable time for mourning.

For so long I have felt societal rules about grief and the invisible timeline for sadness.  ‘Hurry up,’ it says.  ‘Get over it, so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable around you.’  My pain hurts others and touches them in a place so deep that they want to deny it is even there.  No one says these things of course, but they side-step around me and cleave to the edge of the room or conversation as if I might poison them, or worse.

I’ve gotten very selective about who I share my story with.  Most people are visibly shaken to hear that I grew up without a mother’s touch, but then they really don’t want to know more.  It’s just too much, especially women I know who still have their mothers and who complain a little about having to take them places or call too often.

They are uneasy admitting that they have a different story.  That their mothers were vividly alive, engaging, and understanding.  Some are embarrassed to tell me good things about their mama’s and to some, I want to say, “Be grateful!  Be glad you can still tell her you love her and breathe in her scent.”  But, no one wants to be told, “Be grateful.”  It’s like coaxing a child with, “Tell the nice lady thank you.”  And the child says, “Thank you.” with very little feeling.

“I am grateful,” they say and maybe they are, but it is really to silence me more than anything else, and then the subject changes.  I am never ready to change the subject, but I hear the whisper, “No one wants to hear your story.”

“Am I too much?” I ask myself.  “Am I just supposed to stay quiet and not tell my truth?”

It stifles me and mashes my spirit like a corset that labors my breath.  Sometimes I even become ashamed or worse…silent.  The grief turns in on me and feels sticky and complicated, like an expiration date that tells me it is too late to talk about this, the pain should have run out by now, but it hasn’t.  It has lessened, of course, but it’s there right under the surface….waiting.

Please don’t shy away from those who have a different story.  Pray for enough peace to hold space for those who grieve.  It will bless them and you, beyond measure.   How else do we learn from each other?  How else do we really know another soul?  Don’t be afraid to witness someone else’s pain.  Feel it together, talk about it, breathe through it, and embrace each other.  Hold the ache in a sacred place and dare to learn something new about yourself, dare to hear the story. We all have one to tell.

Just Do It

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As long as I can remember, I’ve been discreetly cautious around water.  I detest the icy water of a swimming pool or even the ocean before the sun has warmed the tide.

I’ve never been one to Baywatch-run into the ocean and frolic in the waves, and I watch with envy those that do.  I’m the one at the swimming pool who gets in inch by inch trying to gradually get used to the water.  I sometimes hear the whisper, “Just do it.  Jump in.”  But I argue with myself, listing all the reasons I can’t do that.  I don’t want to get my hair wet, it’s too cold, or I feel fat.

I’m getting tired of the inch by inch life that weighs me down until I cannot move.  I’m disgusted by my lack of adventure and cautious moves.  I’m ready, I think, to embrace a more fulfilling way of life.  If others can do it, why can’t I?  This hesitancy is a long-ago habit that started when my mother passed away.  My four-year-old mind could not fathom the loss of my mother, but her death left an imprint on my body and soul.

That’s when I began my demure misgivings.  Shyness and fear took hold of me like a creeping fog from the sea, enveloping my very spirit.  I didn’t hear the whisper then;  I only felt the grip of an uneasy foreboding.  “Shrink back,” it beckoned.  “Hold back,” and so I did.  It’s much easier to shrink back than to push forward.  It instantly felt like a safe place to be and I began to try it with every situation.  My carefree childhood came to an abrupt halt and I became wary of life in general; my maturity at a standstill.

This past summer I heard my grandchildren prodding me, “Jump in Nannie, it won’t be cold for long.  Just do it!”  I sat on the steps of the pool watching them splash and play, their joy out front for all to see.  Where did their bravery come from?  It never occurred to them to shrink back or limit their fun.  I envied their unbridled joy.  

As I began my slow descent inch by inch into the water, I was aware of their growing impatience with me.  They stopped encouraging me and I felt the sting of disappointment from them and myself.   On my deathbed will I say, “I’m so glad I didn’t get in the pool and play?  I’m glad I shrunk back?”  I know I will not feel that way.  I fear my regret will be heavy and I will be deeply saddened that I missed their screams of delight and wet grip around my neck.  I’ll ask myself why?  And so, against my fearful judgment, I did jump.

I jumped for all the shrinkers who let the icy voice of fear stop them in mid-stride.  I jumped to prove to myself that I could, and I jumped for that little four year old who lost her mother and was afraid of life.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who was a pioneer in near-death studies, knew this very fear and spoke these wise words, “Live, so you do not have to look back and say: God, how I have wasted my life.”  Never again, I tell myself.  Never again will I shrink back from life, although I know there is a big chance that I might, at least a little.  I have made progress and perhaps that is all I can do.  It’s a good start, and today I can let that be enough.

This Motherless Daughters’ Dream

Mother's Day for a motherless daughter

In the spring when flowers come alive with vivid colors and my birthday, on the first of May has come and gone, I unconsciously start to feel anxious like I’m skating on a thin layer of ice.   My life gets smothered with unease and dread, my two old friends since childhood.  The dread of marking another year without my mother.  Another Mother’s Day to sit quietly by and watch the whole world celebrate.  Another milestone with no memory attached, just a blank hollow space that looks like the mother-shaped hole inside me.

My mother died of a brain tumor when I was four years old and now at sixty-seven, I still cannot conjure a voice or face or hand that might remind me of her.  I’ve never caught a whiff of her perfume lingering in the air and turned to see if she was near.  “Did she even wear perfume?”  I wonder.  

Lest you think me selfish and ungrateful, my appreciation and value of being a mother myself is at the top of my gratitude list.  I am grateful for the blessing that daughters and grandchildren bring.  I humbly acknowledge these beautiful gifts of life and what sweet music it is to my ears to hear them call me Mother or Nannie.  But, the little child in me struggles.  I struggle every year with those Hallmark card commercials and advertisements for “a free rose at brunch”.  I struggle with thoughts of envy and chide my friends who still have their mothers, to cherish this time before it slips away.

In the sixty-three years without my mother, I have never dreamed of her until just last year and even then, I did not see her face.  I often have asked God why.  “Please,” I would beg, “send me a dream or vision of her to let me know I am not alone.  Help me feel her presence.”  I’m always afraid I will forget her.  Afraid, my soul will not know hers when we meet again.

In my dream, everything and everyone was in black and white, except one person.  I was running down a crowded street and searching frantically for my mother.  I spotted someone in a bright red dress and I fought my way through until I reached the red dress and I touched her.  Her face never really came into focus, I just knew it was her from the thick brown hair and the red dress, the dress she was buried in, I was told.   As she turned around, I asked, “Are you, my mother?”  I remember thinking in my dream that I should hug her or pull her to me, but it was all very quiet and serene.  She nodded yes and gave me her hand.  We stood on that crowded street and looked at each other for a while.  It was quiet all around us, like in a bubble, and I felt she couldn’t stay very long.  I didn’t want to let go of her hand, but she let go first and touched my arm, saying, “I’ve been here all along.  You are going to be ok.  You are going to be just fine”, and with that, she was gone.

When I woke up, I could not believe that I had finally had a dream of my mother.  But, I felt sadly dissatisfied because it was fleeting and strangely generic.  I wanted longer.  I wanted her to hold me and explain her thoughts….tell me she loved me.  I wanted a reunion.  Was I being petulant, like a little child that didn’t get her way?

I have since had time to process this dream and think rationally, as best I can.  There is an old gospel song entitled, “We’ll Talk It Over” by the Gaither Vocal Band.  The gist of the song is that we only know in part why things happen in our lives, but when we get to heaven, we have a chance to ask God why and talk it over.

I don’t know why my mother had to die or why my brother and I were chosen to be among the motherless.   I may never know why my dream was short and took so long to come.  But, I can choose to believe that in the by and by, as the song says, I’ll have the chance to ask my Creator why and finally understand.

And, I can choose to believe what my mother said to me in my dream.  She has been with me all along, for if I search, I can recall her presence amidst a crisis or two and her hand in mine when I needed her most.  I can choose to believe that she has missed me as much as I have missed her, and in the by and by, we will meet again.

 

I am going to be ok.

I’m going to be just fine.

I know I will.

 

 

Angel Wings

Angel Wings

written by Nancy Malcolm

 

I’ve never really been a good sleeper.  I remember waking up early that morning while it was still dark outside and padding into the living room.  My father had closed the door leading into the bedroom he and my mother shared. I imagine he scooped me up and asked why I was up so early, as he sat us in the rocking chair.  He might have told me my mother was gone, but I don’t remember his words, only being held and rocked.

In the way that four-year-olds know things, I knew something was wrong with my mother.  I’m sure I was told about her illness and hospital stays but some sixty years later, I cannot remember the details.  The adults in charge of me most likely explained the circumstances in simple, cryptic words appropriate for a child. Only much later would I learn that my mother had died in the night and that my dad was rocking me as we waited for the funeral home to take her body away.  I find it unnerving that I awoke at just that time. Did her soul pass over my sleeping frame to tell me goodbye? Was I awakened by an angel’s kiss or my father’s sobbing?

All that mattered to me at the time was the warmth of my daddy’s lap and the rhythmic creaking of that old rocking chair.  It would be years later before I would feel the complete impact of her death and even now, I am taken aback at the enormity of my loss.  Our loss.

My mother died of a brain tumor when I was four years old.

I have only two vivid memories of my mother.  One was the day we brought home a wheelchair for her.  After the surgery to remove her brain tumor, her face was droopy on one side, her speech was slurred and she had trouble balancing enough to walk.  Because I was only four years old, I was told these facts, I don’t remember them first hand. I truly have no memory of my mother’s face, voice or mannerisms.  My dad always said that our mother was very frustrated with her inability to care for my brother and me after the surgery.  My brother was eight years old and with us being so young, I’m sure we took advantage of her slow mobility. The realization that she could no longer keep up with us was probably more than she could bear.  She was only 33.

I remember my dad and me pushing the wheelchair into the house and us laughing and talking.  But, she didn’t want it. I can see her now, standing in the living room in her robe. She had one hand on the piano to balance herself as she said with her garbled speech, “No.  Don’t need it.” She cried and was angry and shoed it away with her good hand. My brother and I were sent to play outside while my dad tried to calm her down. I do not know if the wheelchair stayed or not, but I know that she became resigned and despondent after that.  Her life as it had been as a healthy, young mother of two, was over.

My second memory is of my mother’s funeral and my dad picking me up to look at my mother in her casket.  He wanted me to kiss her goodbye. I didn’t want to because her lifeless body scared me. My reluctance made him more sad and upset.  

 My mother looked as though she had been gently laid in her final satin bed.  She wore a bright red shirt-waist dress made from a heavy wool fabric. While her face had been stitched carefully to disguise the drooping eyelids and mouth,  her dark brown hair looked fresh and stylish and her lips, painted in a blood-red matte finish, looked pleasant, not pained.  

“Don’t you want to kiss your mama goodbye?” he prodded and held me up to see her.  He leaned over with me so I could kiss her cheek and I kicked my legs and began to cry.  

What a sight that must have been, a young widower and his two small children standing at the casket.  As a child, seeing my mother’s body stiff and unnatural had to have been frightening.   I realize now that my father was lingering at her side.  He didn’t want to let her go. He knew that for the casket lid to shut and for her grave to be filled meant the end of his life as he knew it and ours too.

Years later I would recall that story to a therapist and for the first time, someone acknowledged for me how scary that must have been.  That was the first time I admitted it to myself. Unknowingly, my dad had made me feel ashamed at not wanting to kiss her goodbye and I was finally able to see the scene through a different lens.  For most of my adult years, I was petrified to attend funerals and I couldn’t figure out why. I would make up stories saying why I couldn’t attend and if I couldn’t get out of it, I would become anxious and shaky, nearly making myself sick.   I had a true fear of death and seeing a dead body and that did not change until much later in my life.  

There is a huge distance between my mother’s angel wings and the harsh reality of death.  My childlike mind never fully understood it or separated the two. My father would tell us our mother was an angel in heaven now, and still, we felt the fear and ugliness of death.  How can they both exist?

To this day, I don’t like loud noises such as gunshots and slamming doors or references to the dead coming alive or anything unpredictable that would make me jump.  I still cover my eyes or leave the room if a television program seems too frightening or the music too intense. It’s all just too much for me. I’ve been afraid since way back when…afraid of everything.   And for me, real life has been much more disturbing than make-believe. As an adult, I understand the process and realities of death, but the child in me is chilled to the bone and I can’t stop the shiver.

When Pictures Are All You Have

 

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My whole relationship with my mother is through photographs.  I don’t remember talking with her or being held by her. I only know the likeness of our features through these black and white photos adhered to the page with black corner holders, neatly placed in an album.

My Dad managed to continue my “baby book” photo album until I was about 10.  The photos early on with my mother stop when I was 3. My mother was already sick and becoming unable to care for us.

Then, of course, there are the pictures of my brother and me after my mother died.  I see the stress on our faces, particularly my Dad.  He struggled to make us look nice and well

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My 5th birthday party 

put together, and no matter how hard he tried, we looked motherless.  He would pose us in our Easter clothes or Sunday best and tell us to smile. The outcome is obvious in these Kodak moments as he tried to make us look like our mother would have wanted. Alas, no pasted on smile could hide our broken hearts.

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My Dad, brother and I seven months after my mother died.

I learned a lot about my mother’s personality and countenance from her high school yearbooks, her college scrapbook, and my parents’ wedding pictures.   I saw her as a young lady, vibrant and energetic. I saw her laughing with friends and smiling on her wedding day. I read the endearing remarks from her school chums as they professed everlasting friendship and love.  Everything I know about my mother came from those that loved her and from these priceless black and white snapshots.

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Mom and Auntie Sue

 

 

My impressions of her came through the lens of someone else’s view, but for me, that is enough.  I’ll let their love and admiration, their memories be mine as well. When pictures are all you have, it has to be enough.

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My parents’ wedding

 

My Brother

 Impress Dad with these classy yet practical gifts.

I had a wonderful visit with my older brother recently.  It is always a tender feeling to be with the one person who knows my beginning; the one person who traveled the same path in childhood.

 

I am amazed to look into his eyes and see a part of our parents and even myself.  One glance into his eyes and I feel his love and compassion.  His eyes say ‘I know’, and that is enough for me.

 

We know our story together and yet we each have our own interpretation.  It is not uncommon for siblings to tell completely different tales of the same upbringing.  We are all individuals with our own experiences.

 

Yet, ‘we know’.  My brother is four years older than me.  When our mother died, his eight-year-old self already had so many more memories and experiences than my four-year-old self.  He knew.

 

Although I don’t recall us as kids, ever really talking about her death, he has been gracious with his memories through the years.  Some of his memories have become mine.  I’ll always be grateful for that.

 

Whenever I am fortunate enough to spend time with my brother, I feel comforted.  As our eyes lock, we see our story flash by.  Sometimes briefly and vague and sometimes, we stop to tell it again.
No one else in my life will ever share my story.  He is my link to our past and my anchor to the future.  He knows, and that is more than enough for me.

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Happy Birthday Mom

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Make a Wish
I haven’t always known my mother’s birthdate.  I’m sure my daddy thought about it as every September rolled around and she was not here to celebrate, but he rarely spoke of it.

About twenty years ago, Auntie Sue began calling me on my mother’s birthday, September 28.  She would call while I was getting ready for work, sometimes at 6:30 a.m.  “Hi honey,” she would say.  “I’m still sittin’ ugly, but I wanted to remember your mother on her special day.”  Then she would tell me a quick little story about her or just tell me something about her personality.  Most of the time we would laugh while she was telling her story, but we both knew our tears would flow as soon as we hung up.

 

As I’m prone to do, I imagine that I would have been a wonderful daughter.  I would have called, sent gifts and baked a cake.  I could imagine her eyes lighting up and us hugging as we both said, “I love you!”.

 

But, the truth is probably somewhere between my imagination and reality.  I might have been busy with my own life and children and only managed a phone call or card purchased hurriedly to make it on time.  I’ll never know how it might have been.

 

But today, I am wishing my mother a Happy Birthday.  Today, I am remembering a story Auntie Sue might have called to tell me.  I’m missing these two special ladies, but I’m happy they are together and celebrating within the Pearly Gates.  Who knows….they may be eating some heavenly delicious cake!  I hope so.

 

Happy Birthday Mom!

Resting in Peace

R

My dad was always wanting us to visit our mother.  After church on Sundays, he would suggest we stop by and see Mom, to pay our respects.  My brother, dad and I would stand at my mother’s grave and silently stare at it.  Sometimes we would bend down to clear the grass or pick a weed so the marble headstone would stay pristine.   What a sight we must have been to other mourners; a grieving widower and two small children.

 

As a young child, I was never quite sure what I was supposed to do or say while we were standing there. I just knew Daddy needed it and he wanted us to have whatever closeness or comfort the visit could provide.  As strange as it may sound, for us, this was a perfectly normal thing to do.

 

As I grew up, the visits became less frequent, being relegated to holidays or important milestones.  In high school, I went even less often, partly because I was ‘too busy’ and partly because I was a little embarrassed to show that un-cool side of myself; that side that was still hurting.

 

When my brother or I would come home from college, my dad would always ask,  “Would you like to go by and see your mother?”  Sometimes we would ask him first and I could tell he was pleased, his answer always yes.  Often, as we stood there, he would tell us a story or share a memory about her.  He so wanted us to find solace there, just as he did.  I could tell he never wanted to leave, hating for her to be alone.

 

Through the years my desire to visit the cemetery changed.  It may have been because I had moved away and we were no longer just a short drive apart.  I especially wanted to visit her when I first married and became a mother myself.  I knew she really wasn’t in that grave, but I also had no other place to go where I knew her spirit would be.  I had no memories of our time together, no past heart-to-heart chats to recall.  I only had this place, where somehow I knew I could find her and she would be waiting there for me.

 

A few years ago, I went back home for a high school reunion and visited the cemetery, perhaps for the last time.  As I got out of the car, I slowly walked up the familiar hill to my mother’s grave.  The only difference this time was that my daddy laid next to her.  Strangely, as I stood there, I knew they both were at peace.  They were finally together again and I was satisfied with that realization.

 

I don’t know if I will ever visit that cemetery again.  My whole family resides there except my brother and me.  Grandparents, parents and an aunt all underneath the Panhandle sky.

 

I am grateful for the effort my father made to keep us all connected.  He did the best he could; I wholeheartedly believe that now.  My peace has come with time and work.

 

I may feel the need to return there again.  But, for now,  I know that their home is in my heart, not in that grounded space, and with that, I do find comfort.  The comfort I was searching for was inside of me all along.