Two spoonfuls of Maxwell House. Two packets of Sweet-n-Low. One spoonful of powdered, non-dairy creamer. And a mug that is slightly younger than my mother. Two cups. Always two cups.
For as long as I can remember, this was Nanny’s morning routine. She never ate much for breakfast — maybe a doughnut or a couple pieces of toast. On the weekends, she’s bake cinnamon rolls or make biscuits and gravy. But no matter what was on the plate, the coffee was in the mug. Made with an almost zen-like precision, I can still remember the sound of the kettle as it started whistling, the smell of the crystals dissolving into the water, the clink of the spoon against the ceramic. I can still remember the image of her hands wrapped around the mug, the way her eyes closed as she would take that first sip. It’s been nearly four years since this sequence of events happened in real life, but in my mind, it happens often.
Personally, I’m a Starbucks VIA fan. I use Splenda, usually three (or four… or five) packets. I use half-n-half. My mug varies from day to day, though one in particular reminds me of her favorite mug. I don’t drink it every morning. But when I do — when I hear the whistle of the kettle and feel the spoon in my hand — I often feel a lump rise in my throat. I stop in my tracks, wrap my hands around the mug, soak in the smell, and I smile. It’s not a full smile, not one that is pure excitement. But it is a happy one — happy that she was in my life for as long as she was. Happy that I picked up some good habits from her.
You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.
— Anne Lamott
It’s been a hard week at the hospital. Details aside, it’s been one of those weeks where my own experiences of grief and loss have surfaced regularly. I miss Nanny. I miss those who died before her — Blanche, Kathleen, Ira, Pansy, Evelyn, Oma, Sheena. I miss my old church and the people there who helped shape me into the man I am. I miss so many things, some big and some little. But the sense of loss is there nonetheless. So today, I’m resting (even though I work tonight). I’m taking time to remember and feel.
One of my colleagues asked us yesterday, “Did you see yourself in the bed this week?” The truth is I did, in a very real way. And it scared me. It made me think of the ways in which my life could have turned out differently. I could be married to a woman. I could be a father. I could be working in a different field, living in a different city. I won’t say whether that life would have been more or less authentic (I truly loved the one woman I have in mind). What matters are the feelings, the reactivity, the sense that something was lost — my innocence, my faith, friendships, integrity… the list could go on.
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
— Leo Tolstoy
My first CPE supervisor, Mark, always told me, “Keep working through and getting current your grief.” One of didactics we did in our first unit at the Clinic was to draw out a grief timeline. As I put the marker to paper, I was surprised at everything that came up. I could remember nearly every aunt and uncle who died and how I felt about them. I could remember old classmates, even the ones with whom I wasn’t close. I recounted the major paradigm shifts, like the first time I realized that, sometimes, praying without ceasing doesn’t keep someone you love from dying. Hope doesn’t always transform into healing. People betray you, even the ones you love and trust most. The truth is that we all suffer loss, big and small, expected and unexpected.
…however, we can all experience healing too…
As we enter into the holidays, and as I continue my work at the hospital, I’m aware of the pervasiveness of grief, loss, and suffering. I’m also aware of something else: human resilience. Many, most, maybe all of us, have the ability to overcome hardship and pain. We can take the hurt of our loss, feel it, and work through it in order to become stronger, better, more compassionate. There is never really going back after suffering a major loss, not to the old normal, the former way of life. But there is hope for something new, something just as good and whole. For all those reading this, I hope you heal from the losses you’ve endured. I hope you can find your own version of Nanny’s morning cup of coffee — those memories that remind you of the love in your life and the people who shape you. I hope you are able to take a minute, a few minutes, and breathe in the healing around you. Breathe in peace… and maybe the blissful smell of caffeine.
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. Michael currently lives in Cleveland after twelve years in Uptown, Chicago, completing his residency in hospital chaplaincy. In his spare time, he loves chocolate, wine, and scifi.