Sunday, October 08, 2017

Rainbows



It was a two-rainbow week.

Rainbow #1 appeared in the sky on Tuesday morning, a dreary morning. The air was heavy, too warm for October. I backed out of the garage, drove south for a block and turned right—west—and saw the full rainbow stretching broadly over the houses, the school, the school yard. The harder I looked, the more it seemed to be a trick of light. Real things waver in the wind--flags, trees, kites. Airplanes cut right through the current. The air that high above the ground was surely moving but the rainbow held steady, in one place, that was not really a place at all. I drove a half-mile before I encountered the rain that had refracted that bow, but by the time my windshield was wet, the rainbow had faded.

Rainbow #2 was spectacular. Saw it at 5:45 last evening, again while driving. The sun was bright and sinking in the west, but there was rain where I was. I looked east and there it was, stretched across the  sky, dividing the heavens from the earth, or so it seemed. It lasted the full 20 minutes it took to drive to our destination—like it was permanent—-and seemed to grow more wonderful the longer you looked. The legs, if that's what you call the parts that seem anchored in the ground, vibrated with color, and a second rainbow, fainter but still distinctly there, formed above the first one. I'm proud to say I did not rear-end anyone despite the distracted driving and managed to take a couple pictures when the car was stopped. My phone dinged with a video of the same rainbow, texted by a friend who lives ten miles northeast of me.

It was everywhere! And yet--where? This one shone so bright and strong, it looked like there must be a pot of gold somewhere nearby that you could drive to. Its sheer persistence seemed to be saying something, as if God was broadcasting an upbeat message to the world after a particularly awful week.

One can see how rainbows made it into Genesis.





Monday, October 02, 2017

Sadness

I took two trips in the last week. One to Michigan for the funeral of my cousin John, who died too soon, too young, at age 57, of liver cancer. The other trip was to Washington Island, for a fall weekend with my daughter at a familiar place, full of family memories.

Now that I'm back, been to a choir rehearsal, checked my Twitter feed, unpacked the suitcase and put my feet up on the ottoman in front of my usual chair, I feel like a stranger in my home. I've thought a lot in the past seven days about being a child in an extended family rooted in Detroit and in rural Michigan and about who I am as an adult in that family. I've thought a lot about the years of being a mother to young children as they played lakeside on Washington Island.

I don't want to come back. It's not just the work week ahead, the meetings, the problems to untangle, the trip to the grocery store. It's something about lugging a load of leaden grief with me through all those things--lugging it, mostly silently, grimly.

 Both Cousin John and my son, Kris, who died in July, were extroverts, the lube in the social network, happiest when everyone got along. And joyful to be around.

 That joy resides in the past now. When it does break through into the here and now, it shows up in tears. Wet, salty, runny tears remember love and sweetness and special sons.

There's nothing to do but feel it, I guess. That's what grieving is--slowly letting in feelings that seem too much to bear at first, in anything more than the tiniest dose. And learning to love those feelings.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Perhaps by those very holy tears.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Cards




While I was on vacation at the beginning of August I wove a basket. I've made baskets before, on and off in the last 15 years—some more successful than others—but hadn't made any in several years.  I wanted something to do on vacation besides the usual knitting and writing, something that I would struggle with a little bit, something that was a little bit challenging, even frustrating, that would take my mind off feeling sad or feeling lonely. Soaking reed, cutting spokes, weaving and trying to make the shape that's emerging under your hands conform to the one in your mind--these are things to do that are just absorbing enough to mute grief for a while on a summer afternoon.

I ordered a kit for this basket. There are two large plastic boxes of basket supplies in my attic, but rooting though the mess to figure out what I could make from what I already had would have been a bridge too far.  Basket reed comes tied into coils when you purchase it. But the minute you start to use it--either by clipping the strings that bind it, or by trying to pull pieces out of the coil without clipping the strings--you've got a wild and springy mess on your hands.

A kit, ordered at the last minute from Amazon Prime, gave me what I needed to make one controlled basket. I found the pencil box that held clothespins and few other tools and I was good to go.

The kit was for a "bread basket," oval, sturdy, medium-size. with a wooden bottom. The spokes fit into a continuous slot that runs around the sides of the wooden bottom. The first couple rows of weaving hold them in place.

Weaving is easy. Shaping the basket is hard. My oval was lopsided. One long side stood straight up, the other flared out rather more than it should have. But as it happened, I left the basket on a table in the screened-in breezeway of the cottage one night when it rained. The basket was thoroughlysoaked. I pushed and stretched and tied it together in the shape I wanted it to be, and three days later, back home and all dried out, both sides stood up tall.

Now, straight, deep and with a heavy bottom, it holds sympathy cards on my dining room table.

There are a lot of cards. It will be six weeks tomorrow that Kris died and the stream of notes and cards is only now thinning out. Each card has brought handwritten words -- sometimes just a few, often quite a lot. People are wise enough to stick to simple things for the most part, sharing memories of Kris, thankfulness for his life and his blog and his caring. They've thought about the right words, found a good pen and written them by hand. Some have waited a few weeks, not knowing what to say, or knowing, perhaps, that I will need to hear these things for a long time, not just a week or ten days after Kris's passing. I open them and read them right when I get home from work, as soon as I pull them out of the mailbox. I cry every time, inevitably, just a little bit. It's healthy—like taking a nightly glass of red wine.

I've never been a big card-sender myself. There's no box of all-occasion cards in my desk, like my grandmother or Aunt Clara would have kept on hand. I bought a sympathy card yesterday to send to someone else who recently lost a young-adult son, and I was surprised at the price. But then, I'm cheap, and not especially well-organized. When I need to send a card, I dig through the basket or the desk drawer and come up with a blank card--something dated and artsy, or leftovers from writing opening-night notes for shows I've directed. Thinking of what to write is not hard if you keep your ambition modest--something truthful and real, however small.

This collection of cards in my basket holds many messages like that--a grade-school classmate remembering Kris's friendliness or that he was the boy who didn't tease her. People acknowledging how hard this has all been. Statements of firm faith, along with statements of faith that acknowledge how little we understand of what we mean when we say "resurrection" and "life after death."

I don't seem to have a lot of words right now--beyond the ones I say to Eliza many times each day: "I miss Kris." Or I have them but can't seem to say them much less follow them into the past or into the future.

I do have the words of friends, in a very nice, though not quite symmetrical, basket on my dining room table. Thank you.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Catherine, on "the perfect partner for Michelle"

One more memory from Friday evening's memorial service, this time from Catherine Mussatti.

Good evening. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Catherine and I am one of Michelle’s best friends since grade school. My husband Nick and I were dating at the time Michelle first introduced us to Kris, and since then, we became especially close to Kris and will always remember the times we have had building our relationship alongside theirs.

I knew Kris was the perfect partner for Michelle from that first time we met him, and witnessed Michelle drunkenly throw a pencil at his eye during a heated night of board games and beer. In that moment, I figured most guys would start to have second thoughts about my crazy best friend, but in some goofy way, that was a metaphor for the kind of relationship Kris and Michelle would have. Fun, fast-paced, forgiving, and patient. They married just two years later. It was meant to be – God surely had a plan.

It’s been inspiring and humbling to see Kris and Michelle’s love grow from the very start. Nick and I have been lucky to spend time with them at bars and breweries, out in back yards and playing board games, and most memorably, on a trip to New York City last summer where we agreed Chicago deep-dish is infinitely better than New York-style pizza, which Kris called “just normal pizza”. I’ll always remember Kris and Michelle’s wedding entrance, which involved them dancing to and twerking to hip hop in sunglasses, or seeing Kris slow dancing with Michelle at our wedding, with Michelle in his lap, arms around him in his wheelchair.

I am most thankful that he showed Michelle, who means so much to me, what it is to be a great man, husband, and friend. Michelle told me that Kris was a thoughtful listener, and I always considered him to be genuine in conversation, and able to tell it like it is. Kris’s intentions were always real and his love unwavering. Even in these last weeks, he planned ahead to his and Michelle’s upcoming 4th wedding anniversary, and surprised her with an early gift. Despite the unexpected difficulties in his life, Kris always managed to put others first.

Reading through people’s reflections online in these past few days, the words inspiration, determination, courage, strength, confidence, ambition, and optimism are used consistently to describe Kris. The one word I feel that summarizes all of these, is GRIT. The dictionary describes grit as a firmness of mind or spirit and unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. Grit is a trait based on an individual's passion for a particular goal, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their objective. Kris embodied grit, and never lost sight of his goal of ending ALS, advocating for and in the community, and to continue to be a positive, optimistic person despite facing an unimaginable challenge and battle. He lived with a purpose, and spent all his days living up to that.

To close, my vow and call to action for the Gronk’s Grace Army, is to not let our passion and the fight against ALS die with Kris. His life here on Earth may be over, but Kris’ legacy is far from settled. His legacy isn’t defined by just the times we’ve shared together, or the memories we have of him, but the impact Kris has made on us that changes who we are. Kris’s name is not etched on a tombstone, but is carved on our hearts forever. Kris, you’ve showed us what we need to do – it’s our turn to lead the fight now. Love you and God bless you.

Kamm, on Kris

Kris's friend Mark Kamm spoke at the memorial service on Friday evening, July 28, at First Free in Rockford. This is what he said.

Yesterday, in preparation for this time of sharing, I sat at my desk sifting through some 12 years of memories trying to pull a few meaningful paragraphs together. I found myself staring at the wall. My mind had gone mute, with only what seemed to be silent films of the past several years faintly rolling through my frontal lobe. The week had been a long and exhausting culmination of three increasingly difficult years.

Since Kris' passing on Monday, I've read hundreds of comments, anecdotes and messages about Kris' lively spirit, caring heart and inspirational mental toughness. While I love to read all of these things about my friend whom I've often thought of as my personal Butch Cassidy, these are not the things that caused Kris and I to grow as close as we did. Our friendship actually blossomed out of our mutual frustrations with life. We were roommates for the first time during our sophomore year at Valparaiso University. Kris was navigating a lot of personal turbulence in those days, and I was dealing with some things that caused me to feel like I was in a flat spin heading out to sea. All at the ripe age of 18 years old.

Our ability to intensely (some would call it violently) talk with one another about the things we were dealing with, and come to trust each other with such personal and private emotions and issues, not only grew us closer on a brotherly level, but allowed us to lean on each other during the dark times so that neither of us had to sleep with our heads in the mud. Each of us needed to be heard, and each of us needed someone to understand him at that time -- and the timing of our assignment as roommates couldn't have been more perfect. It was a God-thing – a divine appointment - that would prove itself and come to full fruition ten years later.

Over the years, communication between Kris and I became more seamless. We could pick up on each other's body language and understand each other by reading simple facial expressions. We could express vast ideas through a few simple anecdotes. This became more and more invaluable as Kris began losing control, first over his body and, then, over his ability to communicate/speak clearly.

I feel blessed to have had some of the conversations I had with Kris. We discussed things I've hardly had the opportunity to discuss with anyone else: deep, confusing, terrifying things. One of our last great epiphanies after a day of conversation, beers, and tears, involved uncovering what we felt was the most important part of our time here on earth. We came to agree that only one thing in this world pays back dividends when you're gone. That's the relationships we have with other people. People are the most important thing. We also came to the realization that though many people may say they believe this, few actually live it.

You see, it's become so simple to communicate with people in very abbreviated, very matter of fact, very impersonal ways. Yes, no. Up, down. Left, right. Too often we feed each other this controlled commentary of our lives rather than dare to engage in genuine intimacy. Too often, we switch our ears to passive intake and think, "Oh, it's not my business," or "It's not my problem…"

The ability to communicate and connect with and care about other humans beings is a gift – one that Kris fought to hold onto and employ until the very end. I can think of no greater tribute to the life of my friend than to do the same.

Kurt, remembering Kris

My younger son, Kurt Grahnke, spoke at the memorial service for his brother, Kris, on Friday evening, July 28, at First Free in Rockford. This is what Kurt said.

People tend to see diseases, especially neurological diseases as losses or deficits of certain functions. In medicine there are a myriad of fancy words to describe these deficits: agnosia, amnesia, ataxia, apraxia, the list goes on... It is easy to look at Kris’ disease as a loss – a loss of the ability to walk, drive a car, hug people back, eat a sandwich…. speak, and eventually on Monday night, a loss of the ability to breathe. However, the human organism is not simply a machine whose parts break down when we get sick. One of my favorite thinkers once said
“There is always a reaction of the individual to attempt to repair, to compensate for, and to preserve one’s identity in the adverse circumstances of sickness” (Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat).
This ability to adapt is a key characteristic in all humans–healthy and sick. Since the dawn of Homo Sapiens, the ability to adapt has allowed us to become such a proliferative species. With a constantly changing environment, our knowledge and abilities have advanced, our skulls have morphed, our brains have changed in ways we still do not fully comprehend, equipping us with conscious awareness of this joyful, beautiful, puzzling, and indeed, sometimes incredibly sad human condition….

But I think we’ve reached a state where it is easier to be totally comfortable with ourselves, our status quo, our default setting…and we may feel like we don’t really have to adapt so much anymore.

Kris showed me, showed us…that this is not good enough and that there is always room for self-improvement and adaptations. Kris knew there were other people around the world battling the same disease he had, and he never stopped fighting for them through Gronk’s Grace. He realized his work might not lead to a cure in his lifetime, but this did not stop him from making a contribution towards finding a cure for others down the road. He never stopped fighting for anyone he loved and he had love for a lot of people, including the special needs community, with some extra tough love on our sister, Eliza. He continued to teach these children from his power chair and even after “retiring” he never in fact stopped teaching all of us…

To do so, he found new, creative ways to help others despite the deterioration of his body….And this to me is what is most meaningful in life and makes us most human and made my brother, Kris, a particularly fantastic human: the ability to continuously adapt and improve one’s self for the sake of other people, especially the underdogs in society.

Moving forward, I hope we can all find our own ways of adapting to our losses, whatever they may be, to preserve and strengthen our unique identities, so that we may fight for the underdogs with the same tenacity, grace, and love that Kris showed us.

I’d like to close with a quote, keeping in mind that every single one of us will die one day.
It goes:
“Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for [those you love]. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving” (Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air).


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Gronk's Grace



So here I am, on Thursday, July 27, one day before my 63rd birthday, trying to figure out how to wear a Gronk's Grace t-shirt to a funeral.


Well, not a funeral. A service that is a celebration of the life of my son Kris Grahnke, who died on Monday evening after three and a half years of living courageously with ALS. His blog, "Gronks Finding Grace," chronicled the reality of a devastating disease that destroys the body's ability to move, talk, swallow and finally, breathe. He also told the story of God's amazing grace in all of this -- in his wife, Michelle, who bore all the burdens of caregiving with wisdom, faithfulness and a radiant smile; in friends and colleagues who became the Gronk's Grace fundraising warriors for ALS research, and in the blessings of life in God's good world—summer, beer, multi-tasking in the bathroom.

Now he lives in God's eternal kingdom, safe and whole and still blessed by grace.

Back to the wardrobe issue. Last night, as I considered different options for the bottom half of a Gronk's Grace outfit, I fumed just a little, in my mind, at Kris. A t-shirt at a funeral, when I've got a perfectly lovely navy blue summer dress? The things I do for this child! It was a familiar, comforting feeling, and when I recognized it, it made me smile. I thought of my Cub Scout Den Leader's shirt, not near as flattering as a Gronk's Grace shirt, but worn so that I could be included in an important part of Kris's growing-up.

Kris often pushed me past the life I was accustomed to, got me out of my rut, and forced me to be more outgoing, just to keep up with him. His friendships in junior kindergarten brought me lifelong friends. He introduced me to Facebook and cell phones and to many wonderful young women and men, drinking beer at Poor Phil's. (I learned about the beer, too, from him.) For what it's worth, I use the f-word more freely because of Kris. More critical—I survived my husband's dementia and raised three healthy kids because of Kris's help, his ability to plan and be flexible, and his fierce concern for his siblings. He negotiated change and adventures with Eliza. He helped Kurt become his own person, his own kind of Grahnke cool.

A week or so before Kris died, I heard myself think, "his life has become a burden to him." Struggling to breathe is hard. Not being able to talk and be understood was, I think, harder still for Kris. He connected with everyone, and conversation was the medium for that. It was fun to watch him work a room. It was also fun to de-brief with him after a party or family gathering. One thing we shared was an interest in people and how they interact.

In these days since his death, there have been news stories about Kris--one on local TV in Rockford and one in the local paper. They used footage and photos from past stories about him as a teacher and someone fighting ALS. It was good to see his round, smiling face, to see him in a classroom, with kids, to see him buzzing down the hall in that power chair. When he was a baby, we often described him as "alert," always looking around, tuning in to his surroundings. Grown-up, this quality became enthusiasm and friendliness and social intuition. Yesterday, in our back-and-forth about the obituary on the funeral home website. Michelle told me that the information about his masters' degree needed to specify "behavior interventionist," because he frequently pointed that out to people. His gift for understanding people and the many different ways in which they see the world became a resource for helping children adapt to the school environment--and for adapting the environment to the children.

I will think about Kris and love him and miss him for the rest of my life. My heart, somehow, is not broken, it's full. Full of love for him, and blessed by the love of all the people he touched--the quirky individual kids he had such great relationships with; his beautiful Michelle and the whole Jamerson family, who took such good care of him; Eliza and Kurt, and Kamm and Cate and Rosie and so many other friends; Emily, his caregiver during this last year.

May Gronk's Grace, which is really God's grace, be incarnate in all of us, in memory of our dear Kris.