Strands of Loss – Strands of Grief – Strands of Gratitude by Madeleine Sigman-Grant

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My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue,
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold -
Carole King


This opening stanza of Carole King’s song, Tapestry, has resonated with me since the first time I heard it. Maybe it is simply the melody but more likely it is the words that inspires within my soul a sense of searching, change, yearning.

From the earliest time, I can remember strands of yarn in my hands. Even before I could manipulate a needle, I held my arms out as my mother laced skeins of yarn around them so she could roll the yarn into balls. That motion symbolizes my life – unravel, rewind, create, unravel yet again . . .

How ironic that one of my first memories is ‘tied’ to my mother. Our relationship was difficult. There was one time when we didn’t talk for months – I needed my space from her neediness. I know she loved me and believed I was smart. But she was embarrassed by my body – overweight and not athletic. More importantly, for most of my life, I was the adult in the relationship. I had to be strong and tough – could not express sensitivity. Ironically, when I expressed my independence, then I was mean (like my father – who she called a Hitler when she was upset with him). Not the most flattering comparison for a child being raised in the late 1940’s – early 1950’s! It was especially painful to hear as my father was my rock, the one who loved me unconditionally – oh, I miss his wisdom, humor and kindness.

As I reflect back, I am convinced that my mother had a form of bi-polar disorder. She would be happy and dancing one moment, and depressed and inconsolable the next.  But she was the person who painstakingly showed me, the little girl, how to knit, crochet, embroider, and needlepoint. We worked together and separately on many wonderful projects – I still have our tablecloths, blankets and canvases. Our relationship wove together and split apart and I am still picking up the strands of shame and pride. My fingers itch to begin another project.

The loss of my father was so hard, as it deeply changed my life as well as that of my sons. To make this even more devastating, more tragic, is that it was followed 3 months later by the loss of my marriage.

In fact, the loss of my parents fades like strands of black turning to grey, contrasted to the vivid colors of the loss of both my marriages – the first one to divorce and the second to death – losses that wrenched my gut, severed my beliefs, yet anchored my strength, courage and hope. Those strands still dangle in front of my eyes, moving me to reach beyond. Those events, happening over 30 years apart, truly are the beginning, middle and end to my past tapestry – one which I know now I would not change even if I could – as well as the beginning to my present and future creations.

How well I thought I crafted that first marriage tapestry. Someone came into my life who loved and needed me. We held the same beliefs, the same sense of fairness, the same dreams of home and family, the same work ethic, the same sense of humor. And for many years, I believe this held true. And then came the devastating betrayal of my own body – ulcerative colitis. An auto-immune disease for which the best treatment at that time was sulfa drugs – to which I am highly allergic. As my intestines screamed, I was confined to embarrassing treatments. My energy waned and I could no longer take adequate care of three boys, my two sons and my husband. When I had to have emergency surgery to repair a physician-initiated perforation of the colon, followed by a frank talk with a gastroenterologist that at some time, I would probably need a colostomy bag, I felt Phil pulling away. If I no longer felt like a complete woman, is it any wonder he couldn’t continue to love me? The strands that wove my life together slowly unraveled. The marriage tapestry shredded, the family torn apart, my sons struggling to cope with a life without their two male role models and their mother trying to handle losing the house, her stability, her diseased body, along with her identity.

Through all this, or perhaps because of all this, or in spite of all this, another pattern emerged. One that would have never been stitched if the deaths of my father and of my marriage had not happened. Dropped pieces of my life, broken strands, seemed to blend together to create a new path – a new strength emerged. It became clear that if I was to build a new life for myself and my sons, I had to make drastic changes. I needed to be able to support our new family and weave together a future. The decision to acquire a PhD at age 40 seemed ludicrous – both financially and personally. But every one of my friends and relatives didn’t seem shocked by my decision at all. They all said, that makes perfect sense. Go for it.

So, another piece of canvas was cut, the yarn (both old and new) was blended into a dreamlike picture. Imagine having a day when you get your acceptance into one of the most prestigious universities and meeting your future husband. What an amazing treat. While not all was easy, this new tapestry flourished and took me to places I would never have dreamed possible. A new marriage, at times joyous and at times agonizing – a marriage complete with frustrations and dancing, anger and joy. A newly restructured body that was tenderly loved and cared for by an amazingly kind man. A career filled with struggles, challenges and professional recognition. Trips to Peru, England, Scotland, Sweden, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, Australia, Israel – beyond my wildest dreams. Sharing this with Milt only to watch the strands that were his woven life break with every passing year as Alzheimer’s ravaged his canvas.

With each strand of loss, with each strand of grief, comes strands of gratitude. Maybe I should have had a more stable mother, but I am thankful for the gifts she bestowed upon me – fortitude, strength, and tapestry. Maybe I should have had a body that wouldn’t betray me, but I am thankful for being able to exist with re-crafted internal plumbing. Maybe the dual tragedies of loss of father and loss of marriage could have been separated to allow sufficient grieving for each, but the double blow forced me to begin a new life. Maybe I shouldn’t have had to watch Milt leave me day by day, month by month, but I am so grateful for his gentleness as he faded away.

Indeed, my life has been a tapestry – of emotions high and low, of dreams lost and found, of colors bright and subdued. I wonder what the tapestry of my future years will look like.

Madeleine Marks Sigman-Grant

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Born in the Bronx NY, Madeleine moved to Los Angeles with her parents in 1960. After completing her BS from UCLA, she practiced as a Registered Dietitian until the birth of her two sons. Moving to Lake Arrowhead, CA, she decided she’d had enough being a stay-at-home mom and ventured into the world of Public Health Nutrition where she worked for the Riverside CA Department of Health and received a Master’s Degree from Loma Linda University.

Along her journey, Madeleine was given lots of lemons (life challenges), both physically and emotionally. In 1985, at the age of 40, this divorced woman decided to return to school for her PhD, dragging her two sons up with her to Davis CA. Upon completing the degree, she took a job teaching at Penn State University. Both her sons stayed in CA, while Madeleine moved with Milton, her significant other cross-country.

Winter in the East did not work well for this West Coast pair, so in 1997, it was back West – this time to Las Vegas, where Madeleine taught for the University of Nevada, Reno as their Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Specialist until her retirement in 2015.

After retirement and the death of her husband, Madeleine moved to Salt Lake City to be near her oldest son and his family. She is the happy Nana to four wonderful grandchildren (two in Salt Lake and two in Southern California). Retirement has not been her forte – as she is currently an Associate Editor for Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior as well as a technical writing consultant. She also takes classes at the U of U, needlepoints and reads.

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