October 29, 2023

"Come Hither My Friend, Hope"

"How are you doing?"

It's an impossible question to answer if I'm trying to be simultaneously brief and honest. And, candidly, it's difficult to know how how accurate my answer will be; my self-awareness gauge has taken quite a hit and it seems very likely that my calibration is off. But I feel compelled to try. 

I think we are doing something resembling okay these days. It's been more than four months now since our world as we knew it was rocked to its foundations. Every day has been full of ups and downs. The Shadow still pops up from time to time, but with decreasing frequency. We still feel Chrissy's absence every day, and I'm sure we'll continue to do so forever, though the textures and tones of that feeling continue to change and evolve. The pace of life has picked up significantly, as it tends to do, and I hope my lack of posting here for the last several weeks has not caused undue worry for those checking for updates. Time, as always, is a precious commodity, and the nature of going from two parents to one means that I'm having to run a constant triage of life's necessary tasks, including self-care.

In that regard, you may take my recent lack of blog posts to be a very good sign. This outlet was, in the weeks following Chrissy's death, very much an emotional and spiritual pressure-relief valve, one that provided a very necessary place for me to put the feelings that were too intense for me to keep inside. The posts have slowed because I'm doing well enough that I'm no longer an emotional boiler threatening to take out a city block. 

A month or two ago I noticed a shift in my emotional state. For quite a while, I would have told you that I didn't want to feel better yet. And I don't think that was at all unhealthy, for the record. But I also would have told you that I knew I couldn't stay in that state indefinitely. Staying there too long would be unhealthy. And not only unhealthy, but it would do a disservice to myself, to my family, and to the memory of the woman who was a force of forward motion and was my constant partner and inspiration for the past 20 years. I'm not sure exactly when it happened or what triggered it, but at a certain point I noticed that "I don't want to feel better yet" became "I don't feel better yet, but I think I would like to feel just a little bit better now, please and thank you." 

A few weeks ago, a package arrived for me in the mail. I'd made a very small purchase from the website of one of my favorite contemporary artists, William Schaff (Side note, I have very recently been corresponding with William to commission a piece of artwork, and his kindness and thoughtfulness are every bit as noteworthy as his artistic talent). Included in this package was a vinyl sticker of one of his works. This image struck me immediately, and has echoed in my brain in the weeks since as a mantra of sorts:

An image of an exhausted-looking boxer, with a banner reading "BEGONE SADNESS, BEGONE WOE, AND COME HITHER MY FRIEND, HOPE"

I can now say truthfully--and I believe objectively--that not only am I now ready to feel better but in fact I do feel significantly better and more hopeful about the life that's yet to come. To be sure, the life ahead of our family has become something very different and more complex than what I had imagined just a few months ago, with an element of sorrow undeniably present. But where I recently could only see a beacon far in the distance across a gloomy fog, now I can begin to make out the faint trails of some of the possible paths that could lead to that beacon. Where before I only knew that we would arrive there eventually, I now have begun to figure out how we will get there. 

I think I'll leave it there for today. I had a completely different post planned when I sat down to write this, but I will get to that soon enough. Look forward to a post detailing a very long list of the joys we have been experiencing in the midst of our grief: joys of travel, laughter, wonder, gratitude, awe, fellowship, and comfort. And know that we continue to appreciate and covet all of the encouragement, prayer, practical help, and love that continues to be poured out on us. This hopeful post would not exist without y'all.

August 21, 2023

The Shadow

Today marks two months since we lost Chrissy. An eternity. An instant.

There's an old narrative trope familiar to anybody who's seen more than one or two horror movies. At some point there will be a character (or characters) just going about their business, happily doing their thing. Maybe they're humming or whistling a cheerful tune. A teen couple laughing as they sneak off to make out. A little girl picking flowers. Whatever it is, the light-hearted scene will draw on just long enough to give the average viewer a sense of peace. And then, inevitably, there will be a subtle shift in lighting. A dissonant note in the scoring. A shadow moving slightly near the edge of the frame. Something to make you, the viewer, say to yourself: "uh oh." 

And that's been my experience of grief so far. 

It's the night after Chrissy died. I'm in the kitchen. It's been a surprisingly productive day. I've done all the hardest ADHD tasks. I've been to the mall, which I have steadfastly and happily avoided for a decade, because that's where I can quickly get my suit hemmed and taken in. They gave me a claim ticket and a time to pick up the suit, and I've returned at that time with the not-lost claim ticket. I've filled out multiple overdue forms for summer camp. I've helped plan her service. I've hacked into dozens of our shared online accounts to make sure our bills are getting paid. I've sorted through several returns I need to make. I'm proud of myself for what I've been able to accomplish. And there I am in the kitchen, keeping the productivity momentum going. I'm putting up tupperware. (At the edge of the frame there's a little shadow that moves just enough that you're not sure if you actually saw anything.) I have the thought that I'll probably get rid of a lot of our mismatched, seldom used tupperware. (In the background music, a subtle discordant note plays.) I have a thought that I'm going to have to be in charge of cooking the meals now. (The shadow moves again, slowly but less subtly, towards me. No worries, our hero is being so productive, whatever this thing is he can take it down easily.) I get an idea. It's the perfect solution to the meal prep problem. (Our hero sees a door through which he can escape the shadow. It's labeled "family cooking classes." It's a big strong door, and he's got some distance from the shadow. He can easily get to the door in time, get through, and lock it behind him with the shadow on the other side, and he'll be safe and secure.) What a great idea! It'll help practically and I'll be able to involve the kids and teach them useful life skills! I reach for my phone to google local classes. (He reaches out and grabs the knob. He turns it.) I'm so proud of myself. And I know who would absolutely love this idea if she were here... ([click.] The latch disengages, and a writhing horde of shadow monsters bursts through the door from the other side, enveloping him and dragging him to the floor in the fetal positon) THIS IS THE KIND OF SHIT YOU SHOULD BE DOING WITH CHRISSY FOR FUN AS A MOTHERS DAY PRESENT!! NOT OUT OF DESPERATION BECAUSE SHE'S GONE!! ALL THOSE HALF-ASSED BIRTHDAY AND CHRISTMAS PRESENTS YOU GAVE HER WHEN THIS IS THE STUFF YOU SHOULD'VE BEEN DOING TOGETHER ALL ALONG!!

This scene has played out again and again. Different settings, different jump scares, same Shadow, same grief. 

The Shadow shows up in different forms. It loves to sneak up on me while I'm mowing the lawn (though I did successfully mow the entire yard today without weeping a single time. Small victories). The Shadow can very often be found in the kitchen, like when I was cleaning out the fridge a few weeks ago and came across some fresh mozzarella that had gone bad. I stood there and sobbed because Chrissy had bought it with the plan of making caprese salad, one of our summertime favorites. Suddenly the moldy cheese became a totem of so many plans we had, now headed for the garbage can. 

Last week The Shadow showed up in an automatically generated playlist I was streaming while driving. I'd chosen a southern rock playlist, which is great driving music on a hot summer afternoon driving through rural farmland. Until that playlist gets to Jason Isbell's "If We Were Vampires." That led to an uncontrollable sobbing fit that, according to my fitness tracker, was intense enough to get me into the cardio zone for four minutes:

I know in my head that, over time, sunlight will find its way back into most of our lives, and there will be fewer and fewer hiding places for The Shadow to wait in ambush. But it'll never be completely gone, and we will have to find a way to live with that. 

I have tried and failed several times to type an uplifting ending for this post. It's not coming to me. I'm sorry to be a bummer. This is hard. It hurts so badly. That's not to say we are surrendering to this Shadow. We do have hope and we are finding moments of joy, and I know it will get better, eventually. But right now, The Shadow is very much a part of our lives. And that will be the way it is, until it isn't. We'll get there. Eventually.

August 1, 2023

The Girls are Back in Town

The past couple of weeks have been very quiet around the Hardy house, because the girls have been away at summer camp. As hard as it was for me to be away from them for two weeks, I knew they would benefit from the experience, and they were champing at the bit to go. While they were gone, I've slogged through a lot of the type of stuff one has to do when in my position. Lots of paperwork, filling out forms, cancelling credit cards, gathering documents, all the kind of stuff my brain enjoys least. But thanks largely to caffeine and the incredible support of family and friends, I have managed not only to get out of bed and brush my teeth every day, but to be something approaching productive. 

But after two weeks of executive functioning, I was more than ready to see these smiling faces again when we picked them up at camp:

We got them home Friday afternoon and began the process of de-stink-ifying them and all their camp-ly possessions. Other than unpacking, I planned a weekend of rest and resettling. That night we watched a movie:

Saturday morning we had family snuggles in bed with the puppy and watched cartoons:

Then we had wacky waffles:

Fun was had, junk food was consumed. The Nerds waffles were surprisingly not disgusting! Saturday was full of playing, back-to-school shopping, and more unpacking from camp. We even got our gymnastics bar set up:

Sunday morning we enjoyed going back to church as a family, and then we spent the afternoon/evening having some great quality time at the pool:

I can't express how good it has been to have the girls back after two weeks of plodding through the quiet. These kids are loud and messy and strong and loving and hilarious and wise and so very, very good. Having them back with me has been pure joy, even as we are still feeling the oppressive burden of grief. When we get to the other side of this (and we will), these two will have been the ones who pulled me through it.

July 13, 2023

Becoming Something Different

It's a Fall day in rural Georgia. It's the late forties/early fifties. There's a small thump as an acorn plops to the ground in a shallow, damp depression in an otherwise flat field. It's nearly round and small, about a half-inch across. This acorn surely doesn't know this, but it already has a name: Quercus nigra, the water oak. And that's just what it is. A water oak acorn. And it sits on the ground, just being a water oak acorn. 

At some point, water is added to the acorn. Spring heat, too. Something happens. A tiny taproot slowly emerges from the acorn's shell and stretches downward. The root pushes its way into the soil, and soon a tiny, tender stem and leaflets emerge and begin a slow, unfurling stretch towards the sun. All of the parts of the acorn are still there, and for sure it's still itself: Quercus nigra. But even so, it is becoming something different. 

Now we call it a seedling. And it has much added to it: water, nutrients, carbon, solar radiation. And it becomes something different still. It becomes more of itself. It adds branches. It adds height. It is still fully itself. And also it is becoming something different. 

It's now the mid-nineties. A house is built in the back of the pasture, overlooking what is now a mature water oak, towering over the pasture, its round, wide crown demanding to be the focal point of anyone looking out from the house, or anyone looking towards the house from the road. It's probably 75 feet tall, and in the summertime it often hosts dozens of cows under its canopy, providing them relief from the sweltering Georgia sun. There's a boy who moves into the house. He's on the cusp of puberty, and spends a lot of time wandering outside. The boy sometimes pokes around at the tree's bark with a poorly-maintained pocketknife. This tree still very much contains everything that was once that small acorn. It's still very much itself, and yet it has become something profoundly different.

It's a Fall day in 2003. The goofy, distractible, wandering kid steers his pickup truck off the road and into the gravel driveway. He's still himself, but he has become something different. He's still goofy and distractible, but he has grown and matured. He still carries a pocketknife, but it's better maintained now, and mercifully he no longer carves in living trees. And on this day, there is something very different indeed about him. For the first time on this day, this goofy young man has a particular young woman with him. As they drive along the driveway at the edge of the pasture, she takes in the beauty of the water oak's late summer foliage. And who could blame her? The young man drives slowly as the gravel crunches under them. He keeps stealing glances at the young woman, gauging her reaction to seeing the landscape of his coming-of-age. She is pleased by it. He smiles. They are each themselves. But they are together, and even though they don't know it yet, they are in the process of becoming something different. 

It's a few years later. Spring. A different car pulls into the driveway, but it carries the very same young man and woman. They are still themselves. But different.  It's the same ingredients as before, except they've each had the addition of a band of precious metal. Some alchemy has occurred. They're each themselves, but they're also them too. It's something beautifully different. The young woman takes hundreds of photos. She takes one of the water oak. It's this picture: 

A towering water oak in the middle of a flat pasture. Its branches are still bare this early in Spring.

It's a few years later. Another different car. Same them. But no, not the same. They have a new person in the car. This person is made up of ingredients from each of the two young adults, but it is something different. And the them that they are is now something so much more, and so very different.

It's later that same year. The water oak, still itself, becomes something different. Its xylem and phloem quit xyling and phlowing. The moisture starts to drain and evaporate, and the branches begin to dry out. Its foliage that year is not pretty. It's different, and it's not fun. 

It's the week of Thanksgiving, 2012. The water oak's once majestic, shade-giving branches are now heavy, brittle, and dangerous. The oak needs to be cut down. The pocketknife kid, of course, ends up being the one who has to go all "Old Yeller" on the focal point of his childhood: 

The tree, that was and still is the same acorn from before, is now something different. It's a log. And so it remains for a brief while, but before long the young man's parents hire a friend with a sawmill to come. Sharpened steel teeth and powerful machinery produce long, rough-cut boards. The wood is transported to the young man's home in another state. It is stickered and stacked in the basement, where it can dry, and stabilize, and spend some time just being exactly what it is: a stack of long, organized fibers of a water oak, Quercus nigra, that sprung forth from a small round acorn. And there it stays, for more than ten years, just being what it is. 

It is 2023. June 21st. The summer solstice; the longest day of the year. The water oak is in the basement, existing. The young man enters the basement workshop, suddenly looking markedly older. He looks through the stack of Quercus nigra and picks a couple of choice boards out, then uses a handsaw to cut a couple of clear sections out. He sets these pieces carefully on his workbench, and then leaves. A few days later, he returns. He packs those sections up along with a grab bag of woodworking tools, carries them up the basement steps, and places them in the back of his car. They're on their way to becoming something different.

These select sections of that oak travel back to Georgia, back to the gravel driveway, to a workshop about 75 yards from where the acorn fell all those decades ago. There, over the course of a week, they are once more transformed. 

The young man once again puts blade to the oak. No pocketknife this time; now it's with well-honed tools and something that, if you kinda squint, resembles skill. It is slow going. The oak fibers are severed, across the grain and with it, over and over, pass after pass, hour after hour. Eventually, what remains is flat and smooth. Four flat boards are produced. Two long, and two short. This collection of the fiber of this Quercus nigra is packed back up along with the tools, placed back in the car, and once more taken away from the pasture where it began to be what it is.

A few days later and it's back to the basement workshop in North Carolina. More sections of rough-sawn planks are selected and transformed. 

The flat pieces of oak, that were all once part of one piece, have dovetails cut into them so that they can once again be one piece, but in a different way than they were before.

A thick piece of oak has grooves cut from its flat face.

It's late Friday night. The man works late. Into Saturday. He makes a half-second mistake that he realizes will take him hours to fix. He swears. He considers going to bed. No. He has a deadline. He works through the night and into the morning. By late morning this oak has become a box. It has dovetailed sides and a beveled top. But then it becomes something more. The man and his immediate family add some private, personal touches. Finally, a small bag containing something simultaneously very ordinary and very special is placed inside, and the joints are glued and clamped for the night. The inside of the box has become something beautifully and meaningfully different.

It's Sunday, around noon. The oak box is released from its clamps. The glue squeeze-out is carefully removed with a sharp chisel. The surface of the oak is given a thorough rub down with a natural, fragrant wax mixture.

The man loads it up in his car once more. When they reach their destination, he pulls the oak box out and carries it to a patch of green grass in the sunshine. The family that sits in front of it is the same family it has always been. But it has become something different. The loving, life-filled, curly-haired mother is not physically present. But she is. Her fibers are woven throughout the family, inextricably a part of everything they were before. Everything they are now. Everything they will be. She is a part of all of it. 

Even as it becomes something different.

July 7, 2023

A Simple Gratitude

Of the many, many things I am thankful for, the one on my mind right now is that this summer meal exists:

Thanks be to God.

(tip jar)

July 4, 2023

Damn, She Was Good.

I have a favorite coffee mug. This mug came into my life one summer when I was working at camp. This is the same camp where, a year or two later, I would meet and fall in love with Chrissy. My camp staff friends and I would always pop by the thrift store on our days off, and one glorious day, I spotted this mug and knew I had to have it:

It's a great mug. Perfect size, good weight, and the kitschy 1970s blocky "DAMN I'M GOOD" can work either as an uplifting morning affirmation or as charming mock bravado. It's my mug and it sparks joy every time I use it. 

Chrissy hated it. Or, rather, she pretended to hate it. Or, actually rather, she probably hated it a little bit but also found my relationship with it endearing. For probably over a decade, our Saturday mornings around our house would find me pouring coffee into my mug, catching Chrissy's eye, nodding towards the mug, and then giving her the eyebrows and a wink. She would give an exaggerated eye roll and maybe make some sarcastic comment, but always have a little smirk playing at the corner of her mouth. And so it continued for years, this little flirtatious domestic dance. Until Chrissy up and changed the game. 

Let me just say this: we are fortunate as a planet that Chrissy Hardy chose to use her powers of planning and execution for Good. Because when she chose to use them for evil, she was just as unstoppable. 

One Christmas morning, probably seven or eight years ago, Chrissy got me good. We'd finished all of the family Christmas rituals; we'd opened presents, eaten breakfast, and dumped out stockings. I'm sure I was on my third or fourth cup of coffee of the day, most certainly out of my Damn I'm Good mug. Everyone was starting to retreat to admire their new gifts, when Chrissy announced, rather dramatically and with excellent projection, "Oh, wait! It looks like we missed a present!"

As heads around the living room and kitchen turned towards her, Chrissy reached behind the couch and pulled out a smallish, exquisitely wrapped box. She started to really lay it on thick: "My GOODNESS, how could we have MISSED this? WHO on earth could it possibly be FOR?  Why...It looks like...Why yes! The tag says it's to ME! Well, who could it be FROM? Oh, I think it says...Why yes! It's a gift to me from my loving husband ROBERT!!"

I had never seen this box in my life. I certainly hadn't wrapped it. Something was afoot, and I immediately didn't like it. 

She went through a big, obnoxious show of unwrapping it. "No, I want to keep the paper for later, your Daddy took such care with the giftwrap!" This went on for a while. Finally, at long last, she pulled out the box. She snipped the scotch tape, opened the top flap, and produced... this:

The sheer psychological torture she inflicted on me! Not only one-upping my prized possession, but the libelous claim that I myself would have given her this sacrilegious vessel! I spent the rest of Christmas being a little bitter and a lot in awe over how thoroughly she'd mug-shamed me. And she spent the rest of the day with a little evil grin and a twinkle in her eye. And I loved her a little more that night than I thought possible that morning. 

Her mug was accurate. There was truly nobody better.

(this is the first of what I plan to be many periodic stories about Chrissy that I referenced in this previous post. I still covet any of your Chrissy stories that you think I may not have heard, photos you think I may not have seen, etc.)

July 1, 2023

A Simple Gratitude

Of the many, many things I am thankful for, the one on my mind right now is that cell phone cameras are finally able to get close to capturing a Flatwoods night sky:

Thanks be to God.

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