Goodbye, Year of Nothingness

On New Year’s Eve, the pastor began his sermon as if he were delivering a funeral meditation. Dearly Beloved, we’ve come together to remember the dearly departed … 2017. I bowed my head to bid the year adieu, though truth be told, I felt a glimmer of joy. A sinister kind of joy. You know that little emoji with the sideways smile and mischievous glance … the “heh, heh, heh, I’m up to something” emoji? Yea, that’s how I felt. I’m ready to put 2017 six feet under. Hand me the shovel. I want to throw the first clump of dirt.

It isn’t the year’s fault. It wasn’t a suicide. It was a yearacide. I killed it. And I don’t mean that in the fist-bump, conquering way. I mean I shot it down in its prime. I confess. I’m guilty. Lock me up and make me stare at a bare wall with nothing but a lonely clock ticking away the seconds. It’s been a year filled with nothingness, a void. It’s the first year in my memory that seems pointless. And it’s my fault. It was a year of nothing because I didn’t fill it with something. No life changes. No adventures. No risk. No new encounters. No writing. No real meaning.

I realize how pathetic that sounds (cue violin), but stay with me.

There was some continuity throughout the year. I worked (such that it is), attended church regularly, spent time with friends on a pretty consistent basis, and celebrated holidays and birthdays with family. And there were some losses. Failed job interviews. The deaths of loved ones and friends. Singed confidence and damaged hope. Some good things happened too, of course, but they were largely not of my doing and felt few and far between, so it’s hard to fully take pleasure in them.

I spent too much time alone, a really easy thing to do for a dyed-in-the-wool introvert with social anxiety tendencies. And too much of that time alone was spent doing meaningless things, like watching TV. I rarely even read a book, something I’ve usually taken great pleasure in doing. It just seemed like work to me since my actual work requires a ton of reading. At the end of the day, I just wanted to be swept away into some other realm. And indulging in a good sci-fi story or fairy tale on the boob tube seemed just the ticket for easy escape.

I feel I owe Father Time an apology.

Dear Father Time,

I want to thank you for your generosity and offer my sincere apologies for abusing your resources. On January 1, 2017, you generously filled my chronology coffers with a bounteous supply of seconds, minutes, and hours. Your generosity is truly more than I deserve, considering my lack of stewardship. And yet, I suspect you will fill those coffers again on January 1, 2018, without asking anything in return. Such a selfless gift. But I know what it’s like to give a gift only to learn that the recipient never used it. So, mea culpa.

Sincerely,
Your appreciative but undeserving friend

The thing is, the end of 2017 feels like the end of a really long year, a year that lasted about 39 months – a three-year season that was unexpected, unwelcome, and unsettling in many ways, but a time that brought with it some graces and gratitude as well.

A few months ago, I went on retreat with a small group of ladies, some of whom I had never met before. We sat in a circle one evening and shared about our lives – not in any planned or contrived way, but organically and honestly. It is amazing how easy it is to share with others when you encounter the right group of people. The whole atmosphere was one of acceptance and openness. No judgment, no agenda, no advice. Just listening and receptive hearts. I told these willing hearts about the struggles and losses I’ve experienced over the last three years, beginning with the loss of a job, followed eight months later by the death of my father, and eight months after that with the death of a friend and mentor. In the midst of those and other losses, I struggled to redefine my place in the world, seeking out my calling or at least meaningful employment but finding disappointment and uncertainty instead.

The next morning, one of the women approached me and apologized for having gone to bed early, fearing she may have left the circle before I finished telling my story. I hadn’t even noticed, but she had awoken concerned that I might have been hurt. So sweet. She thanked me for sharing and trusting them with my story. Then, she said, with heartfelt compassion, “You’re still grieving.” And I was dumbfounded. Truly, I stood there in shock, thinking, I am?

I am.

And I realized, in that moment, that I had not allowed myself the possibility that grief could last that long. Even though my heart and mind know that grief has no timeline, my intellect had determined that it was time to move on and, furthermore, that I was doing a lousy job of it. It was like I had thrown myself into the deep end of a pool with no ladder or set myself adrift in the ocean without an anchor or a paddle. Self-compassion had been left behind on the shore. I can’t help but recall the dream I had after Dad died, in which he told me I would need a boat to escape the flood.

But now, a new year is upon us – that spot on the calendar that we’ve all agreed marks the moment when a fresh start can be had. And I find myself wondering if that might be a possibility.

Last year, on Epiphany Sunday, my church handed out Star Words. We shared communion and, as we walked back to our pews, we were handed a star, emblazoned with a word to carry with us through the year. Now, I’ve indulged in this practice myself for several years, inviting a word to be my companion throughout the year. But this was the first time I had been given a word without offering the invitation. I looked at my word and felt nothing. I guess that should have been a clue as to how my year would go. I put the star in my kitchen windowsill where I knew I would see it every day of the year. I’d glance at it occasionally while washing dishes or peeling potatoes, giving it the opportunity to speak to me. And it tried. Oh, it really tried. But I resisted its every attempt to make contact.

The star’s invitation was Acknowledgment. I’m just noticing that the word is acknowledgment and not acknowledge. A noun instead of a verb. Maybe that’s why I resisted it. Maybe I needed an invitation to act, rather than to notice. But then again, I probably lacked the motivation for action, so perhaps the star knew my only capacity was observation. Of course, I looked up the word, and it has two meanings. The first is “acceptance of the truth or existence of something,” while the second is “the action of expressing or displaying gratitude or appreciation for something.” I guess some action is involved after all.

So now, as Epiphany Sunday and a new Star Word approach, perhaps I’ll attempt acknowledgment. I acknowledge my complicity in my year of nothingness. I acknowledge my grief, my sadness, and my disappointment. I acknowledge the graces and moments of joy that peppered the year. I acknowledge my supportive family and faithful friends who threw me a rope when the void tried to swallow me. I acknowledge my hope that 2018 will be a year of something. And I acknowledge that I’m the only one who can ensure that something happens.

I have a greeting card that I bought many years ago, thinking I’d eventually give it to someone who needed it. Turns out, that someone was me. The card offers a quote from Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask the questions and years that answer.”

Mea culpa, 2017. Thank you for the questions. May 2018 be a year of answers.

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One Year

Today marks one year since Dad made his transition. He died the day before Father’s Day, and thanks to Leap Year, we were allowed to skip over Father’s Day before recalling his first “heavenly birthday,” as I often hear people call it. He died on the cusp of the Summer Solstice, and today, it is the Summer Solstice again. And this year’s solstice brings the added delight of the Strawberry Moon, the June full moon noted by Native Americans as the advent of the strawberry crop. Apparently, the coinciding of these two events only happens about once in a lifetime. Dad would have enjoyed that bit of trivia. I wonder if he was aware of it in 1948 as a young sailor in the Navy? Did he see that big, beautiful Strawberry Moon appear in the darkness of the ocean sky at that Summer Solstice?Dad-Computer-2

The solstice is considered a “thin” time, a time when the veil between worlds is particularly thin. I sense there are many thin times and places, and I have been fortunate enough to experience a few of them, but we are rarely still enough or unencumbered enough to fully encounter them. My almost-4-year-old nephew has been talking about Papa lately, as well as his cat who also died last year. “Is Papa at Grandma’s house?” “Can Calvin wake up now and come out and play?” The other day at my mother’s house, he was trying to ask her something and couldn’t find the words. Finally, he said, “You know, the one who used to sit in that chair.” You mean Granddad … Papa? “Yeah! He had a boo-boo, and we put water on it.” How does he remember? It was a year ago, and he was only 3. The young are so fortunate, I think. They have not had their connection to the other side warped and withered by the harshness and disappointment that sometimes accompanies us in this life. The veil is still so thin for them all the time. I am so grateful he still holds memories of Dad. I mourn the day when those may fade away.

I spent a little time this morning, reflecting on that day a year ago when we had to say goodbye, reading my blog post about Dad’s passing, looking at pictures, and embracing cherished memories. As my Mom echoed in a Facebook post this morning, I do not want to dwell on the memory of that one day, but instead reflect on a life well lived.

I have very tactile memories of my dad – the feel of his skin, his gait when we walked together, the smell of his pipe (though he gave that up when I was very young). His hands were, at once, tough and delicate – rough from working in the garden but gentle from holding a pen, pencil, or airbrush with the intimacy and precision of the artist he was. Eventually, his hands became misshapen by arthritis, but they reached out for the touch of another all the more often.

His gait was determined and steady. He walked as often as he could, finding new roads and paths to explore in search of mini-adventures. He often swung one arm briskly, while keeping the other in his pocket – a method that unnerved me when he became less steady on his feet. I hold tender memories of walking with him in the rain, holding hands as the water dripped down our noses and clung to our eyelashes. It was cleansing and peaceful. A few months before he died, I told him how much I wished we could walk in the rain again, and he said, “Me, too. Maybe someday.” But that day didn’t come. Maybe he can walk in the rain whenever he wants to, now.

When I was quite young, I remember Dad mowing our next-door neighbors’ yard. Nannie and Pappy, as they were called by everyone regardless of heredity or age, were elderly and not able to mow their 2-acre yard themselves, so my dad did it. This was in the days before grass-catchers on lawn mowers, and my dad would lay out a big, old blanket to collect the grass and carry it over to his compost pile behind our garage. I would sometimes “help” him in this endeavor. He would rake the grass onto the blanket, then gather up the corners and sling it over his shoulder like Santa Claus. I would often walk behind him with my little arms wrapped as far around the bundle of grass as I could reach to help him carry it. I remember, as clearly as anything, the feel of his gait as he walked, as well as the rough, bumpy texture of the blanket as it rubbed against my face, in concert with his steps. The smell of the fresh-cut grass and the perspiration on my Dad’s skin are as present to me now as they were 40 years ago.

There are so many memories flooding my mind and soul today. Each one could fill pages if I wrote them up. But I will savor the rest on my own for now. They live with me and support me, as I recall whirlwind vacations and lakeside walks and artistic driftwood and skipping rocks and organic gardening and funny hats and fancy toast and swimming pools and family picnics and mountain hikes and tilted troughs and side-aching laughter and worship-filled Sundays and more love than a girl could ever have hoped for.

I love you, Dad. Happy Heavenly Birthday.

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Anew – adverb – \ə-ˈnü, -ˈnyü\

For the third year, I have invited a word to choose me. It is an intentional practice of hospitality and paying attention. Though, I must admit, the process was not so intentional this year. Neither was it particularly hospitable. My spirit grew weary as the year came to a close. It took most of my energy to simply be present every day. I tossed the invitation out into the universe, but I did not tend it. I asked the word to choose me, but when it came knocking, I peeked through the window and said, “Not yet.” But it persevered, and the word found me, nonetheless.

It was at the invitation of spiritual teacher Christine Valters Painter that I began this yearly practice. Each year, she offers a guided spiritual practice to assist in the process of inviting the word. I have not always used her practice, but I offer the invitation and wait, and the word always finds me.

The first year, 2014, the word that came courting was connect. I recall the word coming fairly quickly, but I wasn’t sure why. By the end of 2014, I was halfway through my spiritual direction training, where I made connections with now-beloved friends who have become cherished spiritual teachers. I also found myself unemployed. As my job search began, the art of making connections, which has always been challenging for me, became a crucial skill to develop. My companion word had been nurturing and preparing me for the task at hand.

As 2015 approached, I invited a new word to choose me. Transition came to call. The uncertainty of my employment, which remains uncertain a year later, and the looming ache of my father’s probable passing, which did come to pass, brought the word to me with some ease as the year began. As the year transpired, its blurry grief and despair camouflaged my word. And while I did not pay it much attention throughout the year, my word showed up from time to time to offer comfort and repose.

2016 has arrived, and its impending approach found me sending another cosmic invitation out into the universe. Choose me, word. But I made the word wait. I did not so much resist the word, as I held it off. At arm’s length. Close enough to see it, but not close enough to engage it. Finally, a shift. Christmas came and went. And the new year came closer. And with it, my word, insistent and unwavering.

A new year has arrived. It has arrived anew.

Anew.

I looked it up in the dictionary, an actual dictionary that sits on my shelf. Remember those? It has two definitions:

  1. once more, again
  2. in a new manner or form

I checked out an online dictionary as well, and it offers the second definition as “in a new or different, typically more positive, way.” Typically more positive.

The word carries with it a sense of continuity that I find comforting. It suggests both familiarity and freshness. And something about that feels so very right. I looked up related words as well. New suggests something previously non-existent or recently acquired and untainted. Renew denotes repetition without significant change, like renewing a driver’s license, though we often use the word renewal to suggest improvement or a fresh start. I think we are misusing that word. Anewal seems a better choice, but that word does not appear to exist.

As I ponder the meanings of my word, in the midst of my search for meaningful work and my continued relationship with grief, I think the word is inviting me to acceptance and openness. It calls me to accept what comes and to stay open to how it comes. I have desires about what I hope will happen this year, and I intend to pursue those desires, trusting and honoring them. But I will remain accepting and open to what shows up.

Each word travels with me through its year, occasionally tapping me on the shoulder and whispering, “I’m still here.” It’s funny how a whisper grabs your attention. Recently, while trying to get my rambunctious 3-year-old nephew’s attention, I whispered his name, and he stopped in his tracks and turned to see what I had to say. Whispers. Listen to them.

I do not typically make resolutions at the new year, but I do often set intentions. So, perhaps my intention for this year is to simply live my life, anew.

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The Water Dream

Not long after Dad died, I had a dream – a short, abrupt dream that seemed to have a pressing need to get right to its point. Here’s how it went: Mom and I were in the living room of my parents’ house, and my sisters were sort of standing in the background. Usually, when I dream of someone’s house, it is not the house they actually inhabit in real life. It is just some “dream” house. But in this dream, the house was actually my parents’ house. Someone rang the doorbell. We were not expecting anyone. When Mom and I opened the door, an old woman dressed head-to-foot in black stood before us. I don’t recall her speaking or gesturing or exhibiting an expression of any kind; she was just there. She seemed to serve no other purpose but to get us to open the door. We went out on the front porch, and I think she kind of lingered there a while but then she was gone. The air was gray with rain, and the yard was flooded with several feet of dingy water. The water was rising slowly but visibly. Then, Dad was there, standing on the porch about five feet to my left. He looked as he had in the prime of life, maybe in his 40s or 50s. He stared out at the water. I looked at Dad and said, “You’re concerned about the water, aren’t you?” He looked at me and said, “Yes. You need a boat.”

I am a sound sleeper; very few things are capable of disturbing my slumber, but this dream woke me out of a deep sleep. I have a lot of strange dreams, a trait I inherited from Dad. Sometimes, they are silly; sometimes, frustrating; sometimes, truly bizarre. Usually, they make little sense, and I remember very little about them. But every once in a while, I have a dream that jars me, a dream that I remember vividly and that I am confident holds a message. And this was one of those dreams. What struck me immediately as I awoke was Dad’s concern for us. I had the definite feeling that his concern hinged on the fact that he knew what we needed, but he could not give it to us. All he could do was offer advice. “You need a boat.” The warning was offered calmly, as was Dad’s way, but quite decisively. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but very soon, you will need a boat.

Naturally, I started researching dream interpretation. While I doubt that every dream holds some deep-seated meaning, I do believe dreams are the subconscious mind’s way of running free, unleashed by walls of emotional defense that crumble while we sleep. So I pay attention when a dream sticks with me, and I really wanted to understand this one. So, here’s my take on the things that stood out in my dream:

An old lady wearing black– Old people in dreams often mean death. They can also mean wisdom or knowledge, but since the old lady in my dream never spoke, imparting wisdom did not appear to be her task. Black can also indicate death, and that old lady was draped completely in black. So, this image seems fairly straightforward. Death came a-knocking.

Home – Your home, especially a childhood home, represents your basic needs or priorities or your beliefs about “home.”

Water – Water typically symbolizes the subconscious and one’s emotional state of mind. It can say all sorts of things about one’s emotions, depending on the kind of water it is. Calm, clear water means serenity and peace of mind. Muddy water relates to negative emotions. Water rising up into your house = being overwhelmed by one’s emotions. Bingo. (Also, water, in the form of rain, plays a significant role in the memory I will hold of my father’s transition from this life, so that seems important to note as well.)

Boat – A boat symbolizes one’s ability to cope with emotions. So I’m guessing, no boat = no coping.

A deceased parent – Dreaming of a deceased parent relates to fears about losing him and coping with his death.

Family – Dreaming of family members represents security, warmth, and love (unless the relationship is bad, in which case it can mean bitterness or jealousy). In my case, it is definitely the former. My mom, my sisters, and I grew closer as we cared for Dad, and we were all with Dad when he died. I think the message of the dream was intended for all of us.

So, how do I interpret my dream? Death came knocking to give me access to my Dad. As I think back on my dream, I believe the old lady disappeared when my father appeared. She had opened the door to the place where my father now resides, and her job was done. There are dreams referred to as visitations, and some of those dreams are intended offer advice from a deceased loved one, which seems the case with this dream. My father was the messenger. I’m not sure if the message was from Dad, from God, or from my own subconscious – maybe all of the above. The message seems to be, “Get a handle on your grief before it overwhelms you.” I also sensed, “Everything will be ok. Just be sure to get in that boat. Surround yourself with the people and places you love, and all will be well.”

The boat is taking shape. It has not appeared out of nowhere to save me. I couldn’t buy it, and it wasn’t given to me. I had a role in building the boat, and I think it is still under construction. It started as a raft, just a few pieces of wood tied together with some handmade rope – like that raft Tom Hanks built in the movie Castaway. It floated fine, but it couldn’t get him over those big waves. He needed a sail for that. For me, that sail has been in the form of friends and family who care for me. They pull me back in the boat when the water starts to pull me under and help me raise the sail so I can get over the rough waves. I’m still getting wet when the water splashes in, but I keep building the boat. Eventually, the sides of the boat will be tall enough to keep the water out, and I will be protected. Until then, it is enough to simply not drown.

I started writing this piece while on retreat. I go on retreats as often as I can. A few days off the grid is always good for my soul. Walking in the woods, sitting by the lake, reading, writing, sleeping, embracing the silence that is my prayer – all are waiting to nourish me on retreat. Each retreat is unique; I never really know what will happen. I take along a variety of items – books, journals, sketch pads, colored pencils – not knowing which I may actually use. I simply come prepared to let the Spirit take me where it will. As I was packing for this retreat, I grabbed an origami kit and placed it in my bag. I had forgotten I even had that origami kit, which consists of colored paper squares and instructions on how to fold a variety of designs. I spotted it as I was grabbing some other items and thought it might be fun. One night, sitting in that cozy cabin with a prayer shawl made for my dad draped over my legs, I decided to fold some origami and see where it took me. At that time, I had no idea I would end up writing about this dream. I hadn’Boatt even thought about this dream for a couple of months. And I wasn’t thinking about it that night. I just started thumbing through the origami book to pick a design. Or maybe it picked me.

The first design I attempted – a boat. Yep, I made myself a boat. And it made me smile. Thanks, Dad. You always give such good advice.

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Cemetery Adventures

My maternal grandmother’s limb of the family tree has always put me in mind of a weeping willow, sort of ethereal and beautiful, but a little sad. Her father died when she was only 10 years old; they nearly starved to death during the depression; her brother died mysteriously in a Manhattan hotel room; and her beautiful sister, in the presence of their mother, was struck and killed by a car while she was rendering aid to others who had been in an accident. Tragic stuff. Our family had visited a number of graves represented by these tragedies, but my mother could not recall the location of the cemetery where her maternal grandparents, Peggy Fitzpatrick and James Hogg Cornett, are buried.

Mom never knew her grandfather James, a dapper, enigmatic man who died of uncertain circumstances. There was a story about a gunshot wound acquired in a shootout … maybe gangrene in the leg … maybe gangrene caused by a gunshot wound. Well, those are the stories we were told, and we had no reason to think otherwise. We were also under the impression that he had been some sort of lawman, but I found a census that shows him as a teacher. Mysterious. Mom did, however, know her grandmother Peggy, a poor but proper lady who was a fine seamstress and served as Perry County, KY Deputy Sheriff. Oh, yes, she did. I found a 1930 census that proves it. So, we did have a law-woman in the family.

My mother was in her early 30s when her grandmother died, and she remembered going to the funeral in Hazard, KY, but her only memories were that it was somewhere near the Blue Goose and that it required climbing a hill to reach the gravesite, not an uncommon circumstance in Appalachia. A cousin had attempted to explain to her where the cemetery was located and described the final approach as feeling like you are driving right up to someone’s house. So, with this limited information and insatiable curiosity, I became determined to find this cemetery.

Over the last few months, I have been climbing the family tree, researching our genealogy and both unlocking and discovering a few mysteries along the way – a fascinating and addictive pastime. Mystery # 1 solved: James Hogg Cornett died December 24, 1926 after a 10-month battle with a brain tumor and, ultimately, hypostatic pneumonia. No gunfight. No gangrene. Well, I suppose there could have been a gunfight or gangrene, but if so, those are not the things killed him. Another James Cornett of Perry County, KY, however, did die 18 years later from a gunshot wound received in a shootout at a roadhouse. Sometimes, this research can ruin a perfectly good family myth.

While doing all of this research, I stumbled upon a list compiled by a Mrs. Howard Johnson in 1977 with the names of those interred at the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY.” Among the names, I found my 2x great-grandparents, Granville Roger and Hettie Hogg Cornett, and their sons, Urban, Folger, Floyd, and my great-grandfather James. Success! However, my great-grandmother Peggy was not among those listed, so was it the right cemetery or not? We assumed James and Peggy were buried next to each other, but were they?

We had come to eastern Kentucky for the annual family reunion of the descendants of Robert S. Jr. and Cornelia Amburgey Cornett – my mother’s paternal Cornett side. You see, my grandparents, Carson and Marguerite, shared a surname before they were married. The familial connection went back several generations, and everyone in the family has the right number of appendages and none of us has tail, so we think we’re all right. In the 1930s, you couldn’t swing a dead bobcat in the mountains of Kentucky without hitting someone with your surname, so romantic liaisons often involved those with some hereditary connection. But British royalty did it on purpose to keep the bloodlines pure, so surely my kin could do it out of necessity or happenstance. Or unabashed love, as in the case of my grandparents, who were crazy about each other. And they were many generations removed from one another on the family tree, unlike those British royalty who married their first cousins. So much for mountain people being  “kissin’ cousins.”

But I digress. The morning after the reunion, we set out on an adventure to find this mysterious cemetery that was the final resting place of my grandmother’s closest relatives. Based on the limited information I had, I attempted to search for the cemetery in question using an app called Find-a-Grave, and a few possibilities popped up. With the help of my iPhone’s GPS, we headed into Hazard, KY and followed Siri’s instructions to three different cemeteries, one of which was nonexistent, as far as we could tell. The other two, in Wabaco, did exist but were not the right cemeteries. The first was a tiny, fenced-in plot of about 15 headstones that Siri, remarkably, lead us straight to without a hitch, despite the fact that the cemetery had no name and was tucked away amidst a grove of trees on an unmarked street. On the way to that cemetery, we passed the third, much larger cemetery. So, we took a slow drive through that one, searching scores of headstones for the Cornett name. We saw only one, and it was no one we knew.

Not to be defeated, we headed back toward Hazard in search of assistance. When in search of a locale, ask a local. We saw a little store with an “Open” sign in the window and a sheriff’s vehicle out front, so we pulled into the parking lot. A group of people were maneuvering some kind of machinery next to the shop, but they paid us little attention  so we headed inside. An older, bespectacled gentleman was behind the counter waiting on a husky, younger man whose t-shirt indicated he likely went with the sheriff’s vehicle out front. Before the officer could get away, we explained our plight and showed him the list of names I had found for the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY.” Now, Wabaco is neither city nor suburb. It’s just an area that somehow took on a name and was generally described with a hand gesture as being “back over that way.” And this was the shopkeeper’s only offering. The sheriff studied the names and, learning that we had already visited the only cemeteries he knew of, offered a brilliant suggestion. “Go down to the Maggard Funeral Home. They’ll know.” Well, there’s an idea! Ask a funeral home where a cemetery is. Why didn’t we think of that? We thanked them and headed toward the funeral home, which the sheriff assured us was just up the road a piece. I’m not sure what road it was up or how far “a piece” is, but apparently it was not the road we were on or “a piece” is farther than we anticipated. We drove a couple of miles into the heart of Hazard and finally encountered the Engle-Bowling Funeral Home, which we thought would suffice.

Entering the funeral home, we were immediately greeted by the open doors of one of the viewing parlors where a dearly departed person was laid out in preparation for an afternoon funeral. It felt strangely invasive to even look in the room, so we headed down the hallway in search of a living person who might come to our aid. Standing in a second, darkened parlor were two men who greeted us with a nod but were otherwise lacking in curiosity about our presence. We wandered around a bit more, but finding no one else to ask, we inquired of the two men lurking in the dark about the location of an office and headed in the direction they indicated. In what I can only describe as a waiting room sat another two men who were swapping stories as if in a barbershop. After finding no office or any additional men, we ventured back into the darkness and told the first two men our business. They were unfamiliar with the cemetery we sought, but a third man emerged from the darkness and offered that he would go get Clyde. “If anyone’ll know, Clyde’ll know.”

A few moments later, Clyde appeared, having apparently come from the aforementioned but nowhere-to-be-found office. He was a middle-aged man wearing a dark suit and tie, indicating he was likely the funeral director. His black, perfectly coifed hair put me in mind of a toupee, but I don’t think it was one. We again described our plight and presented the list of names associated with the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY.”

“Yea, I think there is another cemetery over that way. I think it’s down near the Blue Goose. You know where the Blue Goose is,” he offered, more in the form of a statement than a question. We said we did. “Well, go past the Blue Goose, and you’ll see a little auto dealership. Just past that, you’ll see a road on your left. I think it’s up there.” One of the barbershop guys agreed, “Yea, there is a cemetery up in there. What’s the name of that road? Chimney Rock?” Clyde did not recall the road’s name but said, “It’s right after the auto lot. Now, if you can’t find it, go to that auto lot and talk to Sammy Smith. Sammy’ll know.”

We thanked them and headed back toward Wabaco. Beyond the Blue Goose and the auto lot, we found the sought-after road, which was indeed called Chimney Rock. Turning onto the gravel road, we drove past a dead pigeon that far-too-closely resembled the initial scene in the funeral parlor, and headed up into a holler. When we reached the top, we encountered an old guy sitting on his front porch swing, watching curiously as this unknown vehicle pulled into the drive next to his house. We told him our business, and he assured us there was no cemetery on that road. So, back down we came, paying our final respects to the dearly departed pigeon.

As suggested, we stopped at the Sammy Smith Auto Sales to seek out the all-knowing Sammy Smith. His dealership was a white trailer with fans whirring inside and a small, covered front porch that offered some folding chair seating. A man emerged through the sliding glass door, and I inquired if he was Sammy Smith. He was. I again related our quest, and Sammy asked to see the list of those resting in the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY” in case he might recognize any of the names. He did not. “Let me call Lucy Anderson. If anyone’ll know, it’ll be her.” He retrieves his cell phone.

“Lucy, there’s a lady here looking for a cemetery. She’s got this list of names. See if you know any of ‘em.” He rattles off some of the names and then listens for a moment.

“… You mean, behind Jeff Strong’s? … They’s a cemetery up there? … Where?”

Two other men had emerged from the trailer – a young man smoking some kind of a strange-looking pipe, about which I chose not to inquire, and an older man balancing himself evenly between his rifle-shaped cane and the porch post. The older man started nodding his head and whispering excitedly to Sammy, “Yea, there is a cemetery up in there. I remember now. You can see it from Jeff Strong’s deck …” Sammy continues to question both Lucy and the man with the cane until he concedes the cemetery’s existence.

The man with the cane offered to show us the way. “I’ll get in my van over there and you can follow me. It’s right up the road here.” I returned to the car, where my mother had been waiting in the air conditioning, and said, “We’re following that van!” And we did. After a half mile or so, the man turned onto a steep, gravel road and slowly led us to the top where he turned around in a wide place behind someone’s house and stopped so that his open window was next to mine.

“Now, you follow me back down and when you get to the mouth of the holler, go across the road and wait. I’m gonna see if I can find an entrance from another road.” Halfway down the road, he stopped, got out, walked to my window while pointing to the hillside and said, “You see that fence right there?” I did. “Well, that’s it. I’m gonna go up this other road and see if I can find where you get in. Now, you go on down to the mouth of the holler, cross the road and wait. I’ll come back and let you know.”

As we started to descend, a rather disturbing noise began to display itself from somewhere within our vehicle. “Do you hear that? Is that our car? It must be his car. No, it’s our car.” It was an awful, screeching, metal-on-metal sort of sound. Nothing you want to hear while driving out of a holler to await further instruction from a man with a rifle-shaped cane. We eased down to the mouth of the holler, crossed the road and parked in a gravel lot in front of a garden center whose signage warned against trespassing. We got out to investigate the noise, but we could find no suspect metal piece causing the sound. So, we waited, wilting a bit in the noonday heat. A few minutes later, the man in the van pulled into the lot and stopped next to us.

“Ok, now, you want to drive around this curve in the road right here, and you’ll see a road on the left called Walker-Cornett Road.” We had noted our namesake road earlier in the day. Then I remembered that the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY” list included some Walkers. I suspected we were onto something. “When you get to the top of that road, you’ll see the cemetery on the left. It says No Trespassing, but you know …”

We thanked him for the information and shared that we were in further need of assistance, as our vehicle was making an odd noise, which we attempted to describe.
“Ah, that’s probably just some dust in your wheel. Happens all the time in these hollers.”

We expressed our continued concern, and he offered to walk to the tire shop that was adjacent to the inhospitable garden center to see if someone could help. Now, it has come to my attention that no one in eastern Kentucky is in a hurry. Apparently, there are no pressing engagements to hone these skills. It’s a slow, easygoing pace, and I envy it tremendously. Our new friend sauntered, then moseyed a while, before easing into an amble on his journey to the tire store 100 feet away. Meanwhile, Mom and I waited in the intensifying July-in-Kentucky sun. Many minutes later, he reappeared, followed by a lumbering young man with a cigarette barely hanging onto his lower lip. After assessing the situation, the young man agreed with the van man’s dust-in-the-wheel theory and meandered back to his shop to retrieve some sort of tool. Knowing this may take a while, I decided to strike up a conversation with the van man, so I asked his name.

The name he offered was Elijah, which pleased and somehow comforted me. He is a round, tallish man, perhaps in his late 60s, with white hair and no teeth that I could see. His easy way and toothless grin had won me over early on, but this was my first opportunity to learn anything about him.

“I like your cane,” I said. It’s always useful to start with a compliment. His lips disappeared into another toothless grin as he announced that he had made the cane himself. I called over my mother, and we oohed and ahhed over it. It really was a beautiful specimen, finely carved and bejeweled with little, silver tacks that formed a cross near the handle. He puffed up a bit and produced his cell phone, which housed a gallery of images showcasing scores of canes he had carved. Then, he scrolled through the images until he reached another gallery featuring the wooden instruments he has built – dulcimers, mandolins, banjos, and some kind of instrument that resembled a cigar-box guitar but was played with a bow, like a violin. He was especially proud of that one. He described his basement workshop and explained his process, which involved wetting and bending the wood to create curves. I told him I had never heard of that method, and he said he thought he had invented it. A truly gifted craftsman. Apparently, his craftsmanship won him a spot among the top 10 pieces in a juried art show in Louisville some years ago. I don’t doubt it a bit.

The tire shop fellow returned with some kind of metal implement and proceeded to beat on the wheel he suspected of making the unsettling noise. Mom drove the car a few feet, which indicated a different wheel might be the culprit, so he walked over and beat on that one a while. I’m not sure what he knocked loose – the aforementioned dust, I suppose – but the sound abated and we were most grateful. Elijah asked what the charge was, and the young man waved him off. My mother insisted on compensating him and handed over a $20 bill, which he accepted before bidding us farewell, never once having looked either of us in the eye.

Elijah provided his phone number and asked that we let him know when we had safely completed our mission to the cemetery, which I thought was very kind. We said our goodbyes and headed toward Walker-Cornett Road. Turning onto the small gravel road took two attempts, as the angle of approach requires a very sharp, switchback sort of left turn. When we reached the top, we discovered why Mom’s cousin had described it as he had. We basically pulled right up in the backyard of someone’s house, stopping in a wide turn-around that appears to be a standard driveway feature of top-of-the-holler homesteads. And as Elijah had promised, there sat the little, no-name cemetery, behind a black, cast-iron fence adorned with a “No Trespassing” sign. We moved the concrete block holding the gate closed and trespassed on the cemetery grounds. One of the first headstones I encountered was a name I recognized from the “Cornett Cemetery, Wabaco, KY” list. “Mom, I think this is it!” We walked slowly through the recently-mowed cemetery, examining the headstones. There were only about 20 grave markers, and they were somewhat randomly placed. I discovered a row with a large stone that simply said “Cornett” and four smaller stones that read “Granville,” “Hetty,” “Folger,” and “Floyd.” It was the right cemetery. To the left of these stones lay two larger stones, covered with the fresh-cut grass. I brushed away the debris to reveal James and Peggy, my mother’s grandparents. Success. A little further back, we discovered the graves of Granville’s second wife Ellen and their son Miller, as well James’ brother Urban.

We felt great satisfaction in finding this cemetery, though we felt less satisfaction with its condition. It was a strange, nearly inaccessible cemetery with a lawn mower and about a half-dozen motorcycles and their spare parts adorning the back fence line. Not far from this makeshift parking lot, a small shed advertised that it housed the “Miller Cornett Memorial Railroad Museum.” Apparently, Miller Cornett had been an engineer on the L&N Railroad for 45 years, and some of his memorabilia lay behind the padlocked door of this small repository. Leading up to that door was a trail of trash – empty plastic oil jugs and rusted paint cans. It made us kind of sad. To its credit, the cemetery was mowed, which is more than we can say for another cemetery where some relatives are resting at the far end of Hazard. We spent a fair amount of time in the little cemetery, walking, looking, wondering about these long-gone ancestors. I suspect this land was once part of Granville’s farm, and they had decided to create a small, family cemetery on the top of this hill. Over time, the little community of Wabaco grew up around it, walling it off from the outside world.

When we left the cemetery, we drove back to Sammy Smith’s auto lot so we could tell Sammy and Elijah in person how grateful we were for their assistance in finding the lost, little cemetery. They seemed pleased. We hoped we had added a bit of spice to their otherwise routine day. They’d have a story to tell when they got home that night. I told Elijah that my mother wanted to buy one of his canes, but he said he had never sold one and wouldn’t know what to charge. He just gives them to friends in need or nursing home residents. What a nice guy. But he said he would take $120 for his cigar-box, violin-like instrument, which had a name that I’ve now forgotten. Later, he said, “Well, you have my number. Maybe I could come up with a price on a cane.” And it would be worth every penny.

As much as I would love to have finagled an invitation to Elijah’s workshop to see his art and possibly purchase a cane, daylight was burning, and we had to make our way back to Louisville before dark. What an unexpectedly good day it had been. We saw parts of Hazard we never knew existed. We made the acquaintance of some of the most hospitable and friendly people I had ever met. And we found the long-lost resting place of our ancestors. After saying our goodbyes to Sammy and Elijah, we headed out of Hazard, feeling the spirits of long-ago loved ones bidding us farewell.

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Just On the Other Side

A soft spring morning rain was falling as I kept vigil near my father. Rain has always been a balm for my soul – especially this kind. It was a perfect rain – steady, thick, gentle lines, encasing everything that is precious to me. The sound and smell permeated me, like a salve seeping through my skin in search of the wound that needed healing. The raindrops dampened the air, creating a protective film around the house – a chrysalis preparing for the impending transition within.

During the night, his breathing had been audible. I shared a bed with my mother so we could both be close to him in case something happened during the night. My sisters were in nearby bedrooms. I lay awake, listening. It was the out-breath that I could hear. Long, silent pauses, then a quick, breathy release of air. Long pause, quick breath. Then, a pause that lasted too long. I got out of bed and walked over to touch him. My mother raised up as well. “It’s ok. He’s still breathing,” I said. I got back in bed, but very little sleeping took place. I listened and waited, listened and waited, occasionally glancing over to see the silhouetted rise and fall of his thin chest.

A long night.

It was the 20th of June, the cusp of the Summer Solstice, a time when the veil between worlds is considered to be particularly thin, where this world kisses the next. Tropical Storm Bill, my father’s namesake, had weakened and made its way to Kentucky, bringing with it the lovely, soft rainfall that was cocooning us all.

Coming in from the soothing rain, I wandered back through the house to his bedroom. My sister was there, watching quietly. I mentioned that some cultures believe that the soul cannot be free if the windows are closed. So, we opened the windows. The cleansing aroma and soft tapping of the rain floated in and filled the room. My father loved a rainy morning.

My other sister wandered into the room. We all chatted quietly about this and that, while watching my father breathe. Then, my mother wandered in as well. And we were all there, flanking his bed. Watching. Waiting.

The room fell quiet, except for his breath and the rain. And we watched. The pauses between breaths grew longer. We waited. He took what would be his last breath, as I held mine. And then, we knew. He was free.

And it was perfect. Peaceful. Beautiful. He left this world as he had lived in it, graciously and without fanfare, surrounded by love that he had created. We covered him with kisses and tears, touching his still-warm body and caressing his sweet face.

“I think you finally got what you wanted, Dad.”
I know you are not far away, just on the other side of that lovely veil. I will stay close, watching the thin places shimmer and waiting for a precious glimpse of you, until we are together again. I love you.

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Self Care

“Don’t forget to take care of yourself.”

I have been offered this sage advice by many dear friends over the last few weeks and months, and I truly appreciate it. I do. It comes from a place of deep caring and wisdom-filled experience, and I take the advice to heart. I also know, however, that for me, in this tender time of waiting and holding, that caring for myself and caring for my father are the same thing.

During the times when I am away from my father, while one of my sisters is with him instead, I use the time to catch up on my life – laundry, dishes, spending time with my cat, Oliver. I have also used that time to write or have coffee or lunch with a friend. Sometimes, I just try to “be.” But always, my mind is with Dad. And my desire is to be with him in every moment that I can. If my wish is granted, I will be with him as he makes his final transition, holding his hand and telling him how much I love him. I hold that wish as gently and lightly as I can, as I know there is no guarantee it will be granted. And it will be ok.

Dad is not too responsive at this stage. A few days ago, he slept until 2:30 before finally waking up enough for me to feed him “breakfast.” I was so grateful he wanted to eat. It would be his only meal of the day, but it was a meal. I started by offering some pineapple sherbet, then a whole banana, followed by some donut holes with OJ and coffee. An impressive meal. Yesterday, he ate only a banana. Today, he has been asleep too much to eat anything and likely would decline the offer of food.

Until today, bananas have been our saving grace. He will almost always eat a banana when nothing else holds appeal. One morning, while feeding him a banana, I said, “Dad, you know what song I always think of when I eat a banana?” He did not. So, I sang the song that he sang to me so many mornings when I was young, while we shared our breakfast bananas. “Yes, we have no bananas! We have no bananas today!” A silly novelty song from his youth. He smiled as I sang, and he said the words with me. That prompted him to remember some other lyrics – “The politician’s daughter was accused of drinking water.” Turns out, they belonged to another song he loved from that time period, “The Coffee Song” by Frank Sinatra, but no matter. It brought him some joy to recall the words, and it brought me joy to share the memories. Self care.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve done lots of self care. I’ve gotten Dad a drink of water. I’ve adjusted his pillows. I’ve helped him to the bathroom. I’ve talked with him about old family photos filled with people I never knew, and some he never knew. I’ve shared silly songs and poems with him. I’ve listened to classical music with him. I’ve read the Bible to him. I’ve shared time with my mom and sisters, who have all been amazing through this journey. I’ve shared meals with all of them. And a few tears. I’ve sat on the front porch with Dad while we watched my nephew blow bubbles in the yard. I’ve taken walks in my childhood backyard. I’ve sat next to my father, holding his hand while he slept. And I’ve told him I love him more times than I ever have during my entire life.

“It’s ok to go, Dad. I love you.”
“I love you, too … so much … You’ll all be ok. Is this Sara?”
“Yes.”
“One of the best.”

Self care doesn’t get much better.

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