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Junk Mail, Birthdays, and Other “Majestic” Switchbacks

Mail still arrives almost every day for Jon — mostly farm related stuff like flyers, magazines, auction notifications, and the random pieces of junk mail. I usually walk straight to the trash bin as I am going through the stack, and toss most of it before I have time to think about it. But today he got a birthday card, and it stopped me in my tracks. A birthday card. Sigh. And yes, it was just one of those impersonal business birthday greetings: “Hello Jon! It’s your birthday!” It still caught me off guard, squeezed my heart, and caused a lump in my throat.

I’d like to celebrate his birthday — with him. I’d buy him a sweet birthday card, make his favorite meal and bake a yummy red cake. Just simple normal things. I miss the normal so much.

I know the “Christian-thing” to say is, “Oh, I miss him, but I don’t wish him back. I know he wouldn’t want to come back.” But that wouldn’t be the truth or the full truth. I miss him every day. But I DO wish him back. Selfish, I know. Not very spiritual, I know. Just the honest-to-God truth. I wish he was here.

We were good together.

Good, not perfect. There were things about the other that drove both of us crazy. Even after 50 years, we were still trying to fix each other. We were in an imperfect marriage. But we were good. I miss him. And I still grieve every day.

Everyone talks about grief within the framework of stages. I think grief is more like a mountain. Not a Smokey or a Rocky. It’s bigger than that. Grief is wider, deeper, higher and more vast than any of the mountains in the Americas. Everest comes to mind. The highest mountain in the world. Yes. That seems right.

Mount Everest. Grief.

Some days I get a glimpse of the mountaintop as I think about the future. On those days, the peak is standing out, beautiful and majestic, beckoning me to keep climbing. I see new meaning in my life and I walk for a few days with fresh ideas and a determined purpose. My grief is lighter on those days. It’s still there in my backpack, but I don’t take it out and examine it. It stays tucked away, not forgotten, but out of sight and somewhat out of mind. I chart my course for the day and onward I go. I might even go on an upward trek for a few weeks. And then I hit a switchback.

Switchback, a noun. A zigzag road.

Switchback, a verb. To follow a zigzag course especially for ascent or descent.

I don’t think Webster’s dictionary has it right. Zigzag means moving from left to right as you go forward. A switchback has it’s true meaning within it’s own word: switch back.

Switch, a verb. To change to or from an active state to inactive; to make a shift.

Back, an intransitive verb. To move backward.

Going from active to inactive and moving backwards. That’s a better description of my switchbacks.

A National Geographic journalist tagged a photo, “Mt. Everest, filled with millions of switchbacks, daunting and majestic.” Does the analogy stand? Grief, filled with millions of switchbacks, daunting, yes… but majestic?

In her book, Healing After Loss, author Martha Hickman says, “The suggestion that hidden in this grief is some redeeming feature — such as that we might learn something — is an offense to us. It is as though we are supposed not to mind so much that our hearts are broken.”

I have come to think that maybe grief is that mountain, daunting AND majestic, and every now and then I catch sight of the majesty. The wonder of it all. The life and death of it all. Somehow feeling like I haven’t really lived as a complete person until I knew this death. That feels wonderous in a sad sort of way. In that way I see the redemption. The “magnificence” of this. I am forever changed. Better? Beauty from ashes? No, but wiser, more empathetic, and more human, maybe.

I’ll continue to climb. Day by day taking roads that lead me closer to the peak of my own mountaintop. Roads that suddenly and unexpected turn me completely around, heading back over ground already covered. I’m okay with the switchbacks. I’ve been on this journey long enough to know that the switchbacks are valuable and hold healing of their own. And they always “switch-forward” at some point. Maybe that’s a new word for Webster: switchforward.

Switchforward, a verb. To change from inaction to action. To advance or move forward.

Grief is Mount Everest. Vast. Formidable. Ominous. On the border between Tibet and Nepal, at the peak of Mt Everest, climbers find satisfaction, purpose and empowerment. Maybe even healing and joy. Is that what I’ll find at the top of my mountain? I don’t know. I’m just partway up, and the peak is only discernable occasionally, and even then, through a misty and cloudy vision.

But I’ll keep moving… from action to inaction and back to action, from switchback to switchforward, maybe even switchupward, all leading to a higher point.

I’ll travel the long and winding road.

A road that leads upward toward healing and hope.

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