Once and a while I discover a book that utterly rocks my world. I have found that in Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of Strayed’s online advice column for the website The Rumpus. Writing under the pen name “Sugar,” Strayed replies to the letters of readers suffering from depression, grief, and relationship woes.
There is no sugar-coating with Sugar. She is balls-to-the-wall tough love…but delivers her message with a hug and cup of hot cocoa. She is your mom, best friend, and mentor all rolled into one.
This past weekend, I REALLY needed some Sugar….someone to give me honest advice at a time I was feeling lost and hopelessly sad. But, I did not have a Sugar. All I had was myself. Which got me thinking…why not try to be my own (second rate) Sugar? After blowing my nose in my shirt while sitting in a U-Haul, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.
First, I needed a pet pen name. I decided on Booger, because
- Phil has called me this every since he caught me
pickingscratching my nose
- It rhymes with Sugar
So here goes…
My aunt, with whom I was very close, died suddenly a year ago. She was diagnosed with cancer and was dead in a month.
Aunt Terry loved to sing and dance. One memory that keeps replaying in my head is from one summer down the shore. We were having a party and had rented a karaoke machine. I can still picture Aunt Terry arm-in-arm with her daughter Megan singing the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty Four.”
My aunt died when she was 64. This seems like a such a cruel irony.
We had a memorial service for Aunt Terry last November. She was cremated, so it was decided that at the end of the summer we would all gather at the family beach house- Terry’s favorite place -to scatter her ashes into the Barnegat Bay.
Despite the craziness of our recent move to Massachusetts, I still planned to attend my aunt’s ceremony. Then the reality of life started to set in. Phil had a crisis at work requiring him to travel, returning late Friday with a U-Haul of our furniture. With no babysitter, one kid with “adjustment issues” and another who pees on the floor…things did not look good.
So, I did not go. While heart breaking, I really felt that staying home was the right thing to do. I explained my decision to my daughter Emma, and she said: “You can always say goodbye in your heart, Mom.”
It’s so bizarre how a kid will say the most profound thing minutes after drawing a Sharpie marker mustache on her sister’s face.
Yet as the weekend progressed, I became depressed. I couldn’t believe I was missing it. I beat myself up for not being there to support my cousins Megan and Brian. I sobbed in the U-Haul parking lot while listening to Willie Nelson’s cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.”
Booger, did I do the right thing? And if so, why do I feel like such a sad sack of shit?
Adrift in Scituate
Wow, driving under the influence of grief and Willie Nelson is a special kind of self torture. Throw some Wind Beneath My Wings on that playlist and you might just drive off a bridge. But what doing the ugly cry in a U-Haul does indicate is the need to release some “stuff.” It sounds like you missed a chance to say goodbye. Notice that I said “a” chance, not “the”chance.
“Should I have stayed or gone?” Does it really matter? It seems to me more beneficial to focus on the decision you DID make…because it’s the only one that’s real.
Let’s start with the guilt. While “showing up” is important, we tend to overestimate our significance in these situations. Yes, Megan needed love and support while scattering her mother’s ashes; support she received from your other loving family members. You were missed, but your presence would not have eradicated her pain. Her mother is gone. And no one will ever make that OK. Not even you.
Don’t give up the ship. The hardest times for those in grief are the days AFTER the memorials. The weekly grind of making lunches and changing diapers and soccer games when all you want to do is get in bed and stay there. Those are the times she might appreciate a little company. So, call her. Tell her to check her calendar and GO SEE HER. Buy a lot of wine. Let her talk. Listen.
Let’s get back to you. I believe that the subconscious delivers important messages through our dreams and memories, i.e. your Beatle’s karaoke memory. I’m wondering if we could turn what you describe as a “cruel irony” into something tender and healing.
What if that song is actually Aunt Terry’s love letter to you? Imagine your aunt is singing that song to you right now. She’s asking you:
“Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?”
How would you answer these questions? Maybe her “need” is to have her spirit kept alive by your memories. Perhaps you “feed” her by living your life in a way that would make her proud.
“Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you need to say…“
Write her a letter. Then bury it, rip it into a million pieces, stick it in an envelope or in your underwear drawer. Burn it and scatter the ashes into the ocean if that’s where you feel her presence. But just write it. Tell her how you feel.
“And if you say the word
I will stay with you.”
And she will. Because you asked. That, as Emma so wisely suggested, is saying goodbye with your heart.