A PHOTO JOURNAL OF GRATITUDE
On the day before a long past Thanksgiving, after a days-long vigil, my dearest Auntie Martha passed away in a hospital bed set up in her room with her best friend of sixty-plus years and her niece by her side.
“I think she’s gone,” Diane said, reaching over to close her eyelids with well practiced nurse hands.
Auntie left unexpectedly—who can say when death will come?—even though we held our breath waiting for her passing from moment to moment in our hope that death might take her gently.
Today’s anniversary of her leaving finds me on the threshold of a “first” in my widowed journey: my first Thanksgiving without my lover and best friend.
Today’s photo journal opens with a giant red-orange sunflower, a friend that brings me immediate joy when I see it. A friend that I surround myself with in my front yard garden, in vases, on kitchen wallpaper, coffee cups, and on my window sill.
Take joy with you on difficult journeys.
Along with being named for me specifically, Dan Neff was also named Dad, Daddy, Pops, Old Man, Grandpa, Gramps, Brother, Neighbor, and Friend. Posting images and vignettes of our life together is a bittersweet experience because it makes me want to reach into the photo and.just.bring.him.back. There are countless moments when I just want to bring him back.
Oddly, the pain of knowing I cannot bring him back lands me in what feels like an opposite emotion: gratitude.
I grab onto the word by its golden tail and pull it towards me.
What if we’d never met?
What if at the uncountable turns in the road one of us turned left instead of right?
What if one of us decided we’d chosen wrongly and walked away for good?
I am grateful.
I’m grateful for 51 years and nine months with a man who gave 110% of himself to me and our family. He believed in us, stood by us even when we were wrong, filled with joy at just being with us, and bragged on us to whomever would listen.
He trusted us with his authentic self and taught us to take off our masks, following his lead. He sacrificed over and over and over and over during our lifetime together, yet held fast to certain boundaries. A feat that eludes most.
One would never guess that this photo was taken after the most heart wrenching words were spoken by each of us as we digested Dan’s diagnosis of Mantle Cell Lymphoma at the end of 2018. The suffering that is a part of life taught us that we can cry AND laugh as we make our way through life together.
Counting Gratitude . . .
I am grateful that Dan and I—a couple of kids who fell in love and married—somehow returned to love over and over when we’d lose our way; somehow made it to “death do us part.” I’m grateful that this family was born through our love; grateful for the role models who taught us to love unconditionally; grateful for the wisdom teachers who helped to make us more than we could have ever grown to on our own.
I am grateful for these flowers that came from a bush that Dan bought me for our anniversary in 2010, our fifth year of living on Rosewood Place. The roses on this bush have forever mimicked his love which was larger than life, beautiful and bold, and was in full bloom all year round.
I’m grateful for the City of Hope and the VNA Hospice and Palliative Care group whose people took such good care of Dan and each of us along the way; grateful for the LIFE in each of these organizations who deal daily with death. They find LIFE in all the moments and even after the last breath. Words cannot capture the wonder of their ministry of care and kindness.
In this journey—a journey that is explicitly my own—I want to keep going.
I am alive.
I want to live as fully as I can in this new life, born out of the thousands of unearned days that have been granted to me in this lifetime.
Who am I without my person?
Why does life give and take in so many different ways for the millions of folks who live?
What does it mean to make a life alone?
What does it mean to exist?
Life’s existential questions abound . . .
May I move into the holy space of remembering.
May I hold onto the GIFT that is hidden in the GRIEF.
May I follow my BLISS and know that hidden hands will always be there—helping me along the way.