In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” an outstanding British runner becomes an Olympian. He explains the connection between his faith and his running, “When I run, I feel His (God’s) pleasure.”
I can relate to this experience. As a lifelong athlete, I have played tennis, run marathons, done triathlons, and competed in long-distance open water swimming. In the past two years, I have taken up something new to me – outrigger canoe paddling -and cut back on other sports. You could say that I am serious or obsessed with paddling and not obsessed with other sports, for now. It is said that the cure for an obsession is to get another one. (Mason Cooley)
When I paddle, I feel God’s pleasure.
There are a lot of aspects to paddling. There is belonging to the community of the club and individual team. There is a culture of inclusivity and friendliness as well as competitiveness. Racing together adds to the camaraderie of the crew and the team. At regattas (shorter distance racing), we spend the day together cheering each other on, eating pot luck, taking photos, and talking story with one another. I am signed up for some trips for longer distance races where we will hang out together, like Around the Rock/Alcatraz in San Francisco and the Queen Liliuokalani on the Big Island. Belonging to community is a spiritual need for people and the paddling community meets that need in many of us.
Many folk in Hawai’i are part of the paddling community; it gives me an automatic rapport when I meet new people. When I bought a pair of water shorts today, the salesman and I had a good chat about our different teams and the arrival of the Hokule’a, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe completing its three-year circumnavigation of the earth. My canoe club New Hope will be paddling thirteen canoes out to greet the Hokule’a tomorrow morning near Ala Moana Beach Park, where we will join with other canoe clubs on the water. The return of the Hokule’a is a historic occasion, which inspires great pride in the Hawaiian residents.
Paddling is also in-spiriting or inspirational. The water is clear, turquoise, green and blue, allowing us to see tropical fish, honu (sea turtles), manta rays and occasional sharks. Sometimes, the waves toss us around or cause us to huli (turn over), reminding me of the power of the ocean. It is an environment to respect! The horizons of green mountains, sandy beaches and the enormous sea speak to me of the immensity and beauty of creation and the Creator. Is it any wonder that I feel so enthusiastic (en-theos, the root of the word enthusiastic, means “in God”)?
Focusing on paddling technique and synchronicity with my teammates is all-absorbing. I am paying such attention to counting or stroking or steering that all other concerns and worries fall away. I feel the canoe ideally gliding with our strokes or feeling heavy in the water when we are not paddling in synch. “Reach, place, push down, pull back, return…1,2 on the stroke, 1 on the return,” I am concentrating. Being in the now is all that matters. Paddling is all about mindfulness to the present experience, which is the heart of the abundant life. The rabbi whom I follow said, “I have come that you might have life and have it in abundance.”
So, when I paddle, I feel God’s pleasure in my being part of the community, being inspired by creation and the Creator, and being in the present moment. May you feel God’s pleasure today in whatever is good and beautiful that absorbs your attention. May you be inspired and live with ease as you focus on the present moment. And may you find peace.
Archive for category: People
In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” an outstanding British runner becomes an Olympian. He explains the connection between his faith and his running, “When I run, I feel His (God’s) pleasure.”
As we gather this Thanksgiving at the table, I am acutely aware of the relatives who will not be there and whom we cannot phone anymore. My throat tightens up and my eyes water. Absence is like a silent presence in the room, when I think of them.
Today is my sister-in-law’s birthday. Mary Beth would be sixty-five and newly retired, enjoying a renovated condo in Florida. She kept a youthful figure and preferred her lipstick ruby red and hair jet black. Hers was an interrupted life; she never got to enjoy her retirement from being a school librarian, a profession qualifying her for sainthood in my book. Mary Beth said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” She loved her life to the fullest and had a lot of deep friendships. She befriended gay people way before that was acceptable or chic. At our wedding in Hawaii, she whooped it up with the best of them and took in the sites. She was not ready for the party to end, much less for her time on earth to end. She had a reoccurrence of breast cancer with metastases to the bones, stage four. Cancer stole her life. My husband and I (and many others) miss her very much. Our laments are full of, “If only…” and “It was too soon…”
Someday, the way we miss talking to her on the phone or physically seeing her will be transformed. I know this because it is like this with my other Beloveds, who have died and I have fully grieved. In time, I have noticed a different relationship with the ones I have loved and lost. John O’Donohue describes this change in prose:
“Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.” – For Grief
For the grief you bear this holiday season, may you find the support and care you need to walk through it.
May you harvest what is loving and profoundly good, emulating what values you admire and leaving the rest by the side of the road.
May you continue your journey with your desired loved ones ever in your heart.
In September, an old friend had an emergency surgery, which was quite major. Her primary doctor told her to expect to be back to normal sometime in December. She is slowly healing and eager to be back to her routine life.
When I was healing from surgery and waiting to get back to everyday life, I was impatient. I wanted to be healed and done with the pain, resting, the medications, my feelings of uselessness and helplessness, and eventually, the physical therapy. I was not “a good patient.” I tried to be nice to my spouse and well-wishers, and practicing acceptance came hard. The wise priest/writer/professor Henri Nouwen wrote, “The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”
Being an unwilling patient (are there any willing patients?) taught me more empathy as a chaplain to my patients. Going through the process of surgery, where one might not wake up again from anesthesia, made me face my mortality afresh. I made sure that I had no amends to make. My relationship with my husband was loving. My spiritual care work was in good hands. I was reminded of the inconvenience of putting your regular life “on hold” in order to have surgery and recuperate. I gained empathy for patients in pain. I felt very grateful for good health-caregivers on whom I was so dependent. Being dependent was difficult for me, simply because I am used to being independent. Slowing down and doing nothing was also a new spiritual practice. Since I still teach chaplains in the hospital, it is imperative for me to remember what it is like to be a patient and to be open to other patients’ experiences as they differ from mine.
It could be that you are going through illness or some kind of difficulty right now which requires patience. Perhaps patience is not a strength of yours. These words of Teilhard de Chardin may be of some encouragement to you, as you wait:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new; and yet it is the law of all progress that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you, your ideas mature gradually – let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, Grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give God the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Retreat Centers are always in beautiful places. Serra Retreat Center is on the top of a mountain in Malibu overlooking the ocean and looking down on the mansions of the rich and famous, like Mel Gibson and Dick VanDyke. I think that Serra was a mansion donated to the Franciscans, who turned it into a retreat center. For several years, I enjoyed taking my chaplaincy students to this white stucco and mosaic edifice surrounded by pink bougainvillea on the mountaintop for daylong retreats. One time, a Buddhist student, who honestly had not been exposed to much Catholicism, asked me about the Franciscans, “Don’t they make promises or something?” I was very happy that he was interested in learning about another tradition. “Yes, they make vows about poverty, chastity and obedience.” He was silent for a while and then replied, “Well, if this is how they do poverty, I’d like to see how they do chastity.”
There is something about being surrounded by beauty, which helps us to be quiet and get in touch with what is going on inside us. Sometimes it takes an escape from the everyday routine and solitude to face oneself and empty out one’s insides. Journaling helps me to let it all out and see things more objectively on the page. I gain some emotional distance from whatever is happening in daily life. Clarity and calmness often follows. I am able to lift my sight and breathe in the beauty.
In our everyday world, we may not be able to easily find grace, but we may be able to place ourselves in a position to receive it. Retreats are such places. We may encounter not only our own interiority, but also the divine within us. Augustine said, “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself.” For me, I can often encounter the still, small voice of God within, after I have settled into silence, as I described above. Listening, I may be reminded of a line from a poem, song, scripture or hymn. This usually applies to a situation which I am facing. A person may come to mind and how I could practically help them or simply surround them with light and love in my heart. Sometimes, I just sit or walk in silence.
A retreat is a place of withdrawal or seclusion. On retreats, I often encounter God as Beauty in nature. The grounds of retreat centers offer places of healing because of their beauty, like the vista of the vast dark blue ocean meeting the great lighter blue sky from the Serra mountaintop. The awesomeness of sky and sea express Beauty, artistry and creativity. My small self is brought into perspective in the larger natural world. Whenever I take time and truly see Beauty, I am impressed and awed.
What is the point of going on a retreat? Irenaeus from the second century said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” As we grow, we can become more and more awake and alive to Beauty, to Spirit. It is worth taking some time apart to get in touch with oneself and Beauty in nature. In fact, if I could give you a prescription, this is the one I would give to you.
A man in his twenties was headed home on foot from a friend’s house one night in San Francisco. He had walked home this way many times before, never having any trouble. However this time, he was attacked by thieves, who stabbed him repeatedly, took his wallet, and left him bleeding on the sidewalk.
He ended up in one of our hospital’s Intensive Care Units post-surgery, surrounded by his very concerned Mom, Dad and sister. His name on the chart was John. So, when Helen, who is a chaplain like me, and I stepped into the room, we softly called him that name to see if he was awake. He was not, but we met his family, who told us his story. For weeks, we visited him and whichever family member was there. There was always a family member by his side. One day, his name on the chart was different. His family was calling him by his real name, Nathan. His father told us that the false name was to protect him from anyone who meant to harm him. The ones who robbed him might not have been random thieves, but enemies who might return to kill him.
Who was Nathan that he might have such enemies? He was a person in our care and that was all that mattered to us. We got to know him as well as we could. He was young with light brown hair and handsome face. He loved reggae music. As chaplains who provided Music is Good Medicine, songs by request at the bedside for patients and loved ones, we sang and played, “No Woman, No Cry,” a very white version of Bob Marley. We played, “You’ve Got a Friend.” We visited so much, we befriended him day in and day out. He said we lifted his spirits and made him laugh. I think we sang and played our entire repertoire on the ukulele and guitar.
Then one day as we made our rounds of the hospital floors, he was no longer there in the ICU. The Catholic chaplain told us that he had died. It was unexpected. He had told his family, “He was ready to go to God. He was okay.” But we were not. We were not ready to let him go.
On our tenth wedding anniversary
Let us vow to encourage all virtues in each other
For we are each perfect as we are
And we could use a little improvement.
We are each broken
And we are whole.
May we serve each other
For all our days,
Here, there, and everywhere.
Let us vow to open ourselves to the abundance of life,
Freely giving and receiving, I shall care for you,
As the treasure of my very own.
May we be grateful
For all our days,
Here, there, and everywhere.
Let us vow to forgive all hurt,
Caused by ourselves and others,
And to never condone hurtful ways.
Being responsible for my actions,
I shall free myself and you.
Will you free me too?
May we be kind
For all our days,
Here, there, and everywhere.
Let us vow to remember that all that appears will disappear.
In the midst of uncertainty,
I shall sow love,
Here! Now! I call to you:
Let us together live in peace.
May we give no fear
For all our days,
Here, there, and everywhere.
Standing by the Earth Wall,
You smile your wondrous smile.
I am speechless,
And my senses are filled
By the sounds of your beautiful voice,
Beginning-less and endless.
I bow deeply to you, my love.
(Adapted from Sensei Wendy Egyoku Nakao and Thich Nhat Hanh)
It is a bit wacky to write to you now that you are gone from this life. I do talk to you when I am alone, as many people talk to their loved ones, I understand. On this Mother’s Day, I wanted to name a few of the many things, I learned from you.
First, I learned a love of reading. As a teacher and librarian, you were always recommending books and articles to people. You got Wayne and I hooked on reading by buying us comic books. Any day was not complete without a visit to a bookstore or a library. I remember how you had library cards to all the neighboring towns’ libraries and put in requests for new murder mysteries at all of them! You loved murder mysteries. We joked that heaven must be full of all the latest books. I sure hope that is true. Wayne and I are still reading like crazy. My writing is even getting published these days.
You were always so generous to the people around you. You gave your time to the fellows at the AIDS hospice where you volunteered. Baking cookies was a joy for you to share with bookstore owners, gas station attendants, and librarians, after Dad died. You threw yourself into giving to others. You were always sending articles in the mail, cut from the New York Times, specifically for me or others to read with a personal note from you. You wrote almost every day. I have tried to follow in your footsteps. Today, I will go running with a friend of a friend who is newly sober and having a hard time. She is much younger than me and I will probably die trying to keep up, but it is good to be generous with my time.
You were extremely loyal to your loved ones. I know you loved Dad, Wayne and me unconditionally. You did not approve of some of the things we did, but the bottom line stayed the same. I knew I could always find a welcome home with you. And that is what taught me about God’s love; it is like your love, Mom. You loved me no-matter-what. I bet you still do. I still love you too.
This is an excerpt from my to-be-published book “From Fear to Eternity: Embodying Grace to Those Who Suffer.” It is part of a chapter about my mother and me, after my father died. Wayne is my older brother and Sharon is his wife.
Eventually, Mom got involved in volunteering for Our House, a home-like hospice for primarily young gay men suffering from AIDS. Her resilience in the face of grief seemed to match the prevailing culture in Our House. Mom encouraged all the guys to eat more bananas and fresh fruit. She was sure they were not getting enough, so she brought them more fruit from home. She also loved to bake desserts, which the guys enjoyed, too.
Mom brought desserts to everyone: friends, acquaintances, and veritable strangers alike. Book store clerks, librarians, the gas station attendants who pumped her gas. Needless to say, my mother was very popular. But her grief continued unabated — she never stopped missing Dad.
In January four years after Dad died, Mom visited Wayne and my sister-in-law, Sharon, in Maine. When she returned home to Portland, she went to see the doctor because she had been feeling cold and run down. The doctor ordered blood work.
A few days later, Mom telephoned me.
“I have leukemia — AML,” she said.
A million things raced through my mind.
Oh, no! That’s awful!
People die of that!
No, don’t say that!
What came out of my mouth was stupid, “Are you disappointed, Mom?”
She got angry with me. “I’m upset!” she snapped..
I apologized and we talked about her first chemotherapy appointment. My background as an oncology chaplain had taught me what to expect. I knew it would mean in-patient treatment. So we discussed a plan for me to come be with her in Portland when she was hospitalized.
She would be in the same hospital where my father had died only a few years earlier and, to say the least, it held no pleasant memories for me.
AML, AML, AML.
It ran through my head like a mantra. Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
Shaken and terrified from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, I asked all of my oncologist friends about it, but they didn’t know as much about it then as they do now.
I prayed desperately for God to make Mom well. We were best friends. Since Dad had died, she relied on me. I was going through a divorce, had just moved, and changed hospital chaplain positions.
I relied upon her. Now this?
About a week later, Wayne, Sharon, and I all were in Portland at Mom’s house. We had settled into a strange new routine of preparing to go see her in the morning. One morning, she called to tell us the news that the chemotherapy had failed and she was being discharged from the hospital. The plan was to pick her up, take her home, and call hospice.
That was a shock. Somehow I thought there would be more than one attempt at chemotherapy. I was confused and upset — I couldn’t believe it was happening so fast.
My brother was angry. He thought the doctors should have caught the disease earlier or done something differently with her treatment. He also blamed Monsanto, where my father had worked, for exposing her to toxic chemicals, because for years Momhandwashed many of Dad’s work clothes.
After the shock came the sadness. Mom was going to die. We all began crying.
“Oh no, God, oh no!” I felt like my guts were being ripped out.
Although I knew it wouldn’t work, we tried to be “strong” for Mom. What a silly idea! As a chaplain, I knew that being emotionally honest was much better because then Mom could be real about how she felt, too. I guess we didn’t want to be puddles on the floor of the hospital room, unable to reassure her that we would be there for her with our love until the very end.
I felt like I was walking through quicksand; everything was just so damnably hard. And I was scared. I didn’t want to be a mute basket case, but I didn’t want to say something stupid again and make her feel worse, if that was even possible. I wanted Mom to know how much I loved her. This was going to be the most agonizing path we’d ever walked together.
She was sitting up in bed, her blond hair thinned by the chemotherapy, trying to smile, but her eyes began watering when they met mine. We both started to cry. I could say only, “Oh Mom!” as I rushed to her side, leaned over and hugged her shoulders, weeping.
“Honey,” she was crying, too. “I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want you to,” I said.
“We don’t want you to either, Mom,” Wayne and Sharon said, talking over each other through their tears. They were on the other side of her bed, touching her shoulder and holding her hand.
Everything in my being resisted my mother’s death. She was too young. She didn’t want to die. It was too soon after Dad’s death. She wouldn’t get to live long enough, enjoy herself enough. We had plans together for a retreat and a trip to San Francisco. I needed her.
We brought Mom home to die. It was unutterably sad.
We entered into a different rhythm of living, with me sleeping in a bed next to hers at night for comfort (for both of us). If she woke up in the middle of the night, I would, too, and we would talk. She wanted to hear about my dream about Dad again, the one I had shortly after he died. In it, Dad was all dressed up in a suit, which was unusual in real life.
“Dad, you look so good!”I effused.
“I always look good,” he responded, clearly offended.
Dad was standing in an apartment. I just knew that it was an apartment with space for two people, not one person. It was meant to accommodate two. This was the dream I recited for Mom time and again, a vision that brought her so much comfort that we both cried. It was as if Dad were waiting for her in that apartment, somewhere beyond this life.
This led Mom and I to talk about what we each believed happened after this life.
She hoped. I believed.
I’d had the opportunity to talk to a number of people in the hospital who had had near-death experiences. I had also taken a leap of faith to believe in life with One who is Love, starting in this life and continuing onward.
Mom needed to air her fears about not being accepted by God in whatever came next. I listened and offered her reassurance that nothing could separate her from God, who is Love. I felt sure that God loved my Mom. I imagined — envisioned, really — that shortly after she arrived in the next world, she would be giving God instructions about how to treat Wayne and me.
We had a number of conversations like these, lying in our beds at night. We reminisced about good times and bad, such as my first divorce at age twenty-three.
My husband had married me without disclosing to me his un-medicated bipolar mental illness. His dysfunctional (meaning functioning with pain) tragic Southern family had kept it a secret from me. One day, he had a psychotic break from reality and he drove to Washington, D.C., to deliver a plot to assassinate Mu’ammar al-Kaddafi to Jessie Helms, and to submit his poetry to be published in Playboy magazine.
I decided to have my husband “put on hold” as a danger to himself or others as soon as he returned from his ill-conceived field trip to the nation’s Capitol. He proved himself dangerous by punching the Emergency Room psychiatrist who tried to examine him. Following a hearing, he was committed to Holly Hill, a nice private mental hospital of my choosing. Nonetheless, he hated me for it. And even though his diagnosis was clear, he also refused to take any medication.
My idealism was shattered. I thought any relationship would work if you just tried hard enough. I was wrong.
The United Methodist Church, represented by three district superintendents, questioned me about my divorce to ascertain if I was at fault. Although they cleared me of any wrongdoing, which seemed obvious to me, the process was painful and offensive, not pastoral. I needed to move on from the church, which I had been serving for five years. I was devastated. I was appointed to begin a new church, a work for which I had no energy at the time.
As we recalled that horrible time in my young life, I began to weep. Wanting to console me, Mom offered, “Come, sit on my lap.”
“No, Mom. I’m too big. I’ll crush you,” I told her.
“No, you won’t. Come here. Sit on my lap,” she insisted.
So, I did.
I balanced myself partly on the arms of the chair, so that my whole weight was not on her lap and I hugged her. I cried onto her neck. She patted my back, like she did when I was a child. She let me just cry and talk about my hurt. There was so much consolation in her arms. As we laid on our beds in her bedroom, I told my Mom how much I loved her again and how much I would miss her.
“Baby, you know I will miss you too,” she said. “I will always love you. And I’ll always be over your left shoulder. Just put your hand there.”
A hospice nurse came to Mom’s house to assess what medications we needed and a social worker stopped by as well, but that was it. They seemed to assume that I knew more than I did about the dying process at the time. So they left us on our own to cope with what was to come. I didn’t know what questions to ask.
Each day for dinner Sharon or I would make a major deal out of cooking a favorite meal. One night it was Chinese and the next it was Italian or Mexican. Naturally, we ate a lot of desserts. No holds were barred.
Mom ate less and less as her appetite naturally decreased. Her body no longer needed food. Yet being offered the variety of foods and participating in the ritual of eating meals together — laughing together over dinners — was ultimately important.
“What do you want today, Mom?” was the big question. We gave her whatever she wanted. Raspberries and Haagen-Dazs ice cream for breakfast? Perfect! No more vegetables for Mom!
One morning she looked at her morning vitamins near the sink and said to me, “I guess I don’t need these anymore.”
I teared up. “I guess not.”
It seemed we both were beginning to accept that she was dying.
Mom grew weaker and used a walker to get around the house. There were no more trips outside. She sat down on the couch with Wayne and me to go over her will and finances. She brought her jewelry box and called for Sharon so she could distribute her jewelry between her daughters.
Being a lover of books, Mom had an outstanding credit at Portland’s famed Powell’s Bookstore and another bookstore that she gave us to spend. She insisted that Wayne and I go spend the credit immediately so she could see what we bought. She told us that she wanted there to be no bickering between us. She wanted us to get along and to be close. Of course, we agreed.
It was overwhelming. I didn’t want Mom’s things; I wanted Mom. If only I could keep her. But I couldn’t.
Who my mother was in her life, she was in her dying. Generous. Fighting and accepting and reconciling.
One afternoon, she asked me, “Do you remember that mountain store in Santa Barbara, where we got that jacket for free because the clerk forgot to ring it up with all the other stuff we bought?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. I remembered that from a trip we took together.
“We need to repay that store. That was wrong not to pay,” she said rather thoughtfully.
Guilt struck me immediately. Here was my mother worrying about this seemingly petty offense while she was dying!
I took the responsibility for this stupid omission upon myself.
I thought myself an honest person and I felt responsible and ashamed by this stupid omission. I was causing Mom additional pain in her most awful time. That was how it felt to me.
“I will take care of it now,” I said, running to get my checkbook and look up the store’s address on the Internet. I used Mom’s envelope and stamp, and immediately mailed a check with an apology note.
My conscience could not rest until I had unburdened Mom’s conscience. I would never “steal” something from a store again, not even a few pennies in incorrect change.
Mom had been attending a Lutheran Church, which offered a Sunday night Jazz service. A jazz combo would play old standards and the minister would make spiritual comments interspersed with the music. At the end of the service each week, Mom would shake his hand and say, “Wonderful service. Next time, less talk, more music.”
The pastor would laugh goodnaturedly. I’d try to say something nice about his remarks as a professional courtesy. The service was pretty cool.
Mom decided that she wanted her memorial service to be held at the Lutheran Church and that she wanted the jazz combo and singer to perform. She asked me to call the minister to arrange it. He told me that the jazz group not only wanted to celebrate her life after she died, but also while she was alive. When could they come over?
The singer, drummer, guitarist and base player arrived to play for an hour one afternoon in Mom’s crowded living room, taking song requests from their guest of honor. She sat on the couch like a queen, reveling in the music, tapping her foot and nodding, smiling and applauding at the end of each song. It was amazing, life-giving, and so profoundly beautiful! Such a generous gift!
One night shortly after that, Mom lost consciousness. Her breathing became raspy and deep, while I lay sleepless at her side. She still was breathing regularly, but I knew that she was going.
“Oh, Mom…” I rasped as my tears begin to flow.
I went to get her prescription for liquid morphine and administered a few drops into her mouth. I thought it might make her more comfortable, since they give morphine by IV in the hospital when people are dying. I wept and stroked her forehead. She didn’t respond.
It is said that the sense of hearing is the last to go. So I told her over and over how much I loved her and that I would be all right on my own. She would be with Dad and she would be fine with the God who loves us. I laid back down by her side and tried to sleep.
Her breathing was so loud and I was so bone weary, I finally slipped out to the living room couch to try to catch some sleep. At daybreak I awoke and went back in to see Mom. She was no longer breathing.
I ran out of the bedroom to call Wayne and Sharon upstairs. Just like Dad, Mom had died when none of us was in the room.
I felt like I had let her down. I wished I had held her hand until her last breath. It took a while to acknowledge that she would not want me to carry that burden.
I had done the best I could as her daughter, just as she did the best she could as my mother. Neither of us was perfect in relationship to each other. But our love was enough.
Mom wasn’t perfect as a human being, but she really, really loved me and I knew it. She was such a great mirror of God’s love.
God’s love is unconditional. I know my mother’s love was unconditional. She loved me no matter what. I was lucky. I was flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone, and she knew it. I was hers and she would never let go. If God’s love is like that, and I trust that it is, I get it because I experienced it with my mother.
I have known a love that is stronger than death because I can recall it and feel it even now.
I have experienced a deep love and acceptance that is the root of my ability to attend to other people that way. Certainly, other issues have gotten in the way, which have had to be attended to and continue to need attention.
My mother’s love has been the strongest, most visceral, and most powerful embodiment of God’s love to me. Her love burns brightly in me. She was present for me in the extremity of my deepest feelings, just as I was present for her in the midst of her deepest feelings.
Mom has inspired me to care for people in their living — and especially in their dying. Care for dying people that was informed by Mom’s dying and death became a focus of my professional calling.
Witnessing and grieving her death was yet another death-and-resurrection experience in my life, a pattern I came to recognize in all the major ups and downs of facing sometimes harsh reality.
I would never “get over” Mom’s death.
I would never stop missing her; but with time’s passing, it would not be so sharply painful. Sometimes the waves of grief would knock me over when I least expected it.
Yet, I would put my right hand on my left shoulder, feel well-loved, and remember Mom in the words of e.e. cummings, who wrote:
“i carry your heart with me (I carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)….
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”
— e.e. cummings, [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] Copyright 1952, © 1980, 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust, from Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage.
Susan looks like a blond opera singer, but she actually does jazz standards, pop and gospel. House-sitting and water aerobics are currently her “real” jobs. When I started “Music Is Good Medicine,” a program to take volunteer musicians to individual patients in the hospital, she was an employee who volunteered. That is how we became friends. She has a great voice and an even greater heart.
We were having lunch one day as I recalled to her how much I appreciated her kindness to my husband Jim and me after he had cancer surgery. Jim was home convalescing, when she brought three of her friends to our tiny studio apartment to sing together for him. Jim practices Buddhism and attends the United Methodist Church with me. So, we call him a “MethoBudd.” And he loves gospel music. We both cried when they sang, “The Storm Is Passing Over.” We had just been given the news that Jim had received a surgical cure from the cancer. As I recalled that time and Susan’s kindness, I teared up again, over my banh mi sandwich.
Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite theologians, writes about where we might look for God in our ordinary lives. “The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips. The good dream. The odd coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Maybe even the smallest events hold the greatest clues. If it is God we are looking for, as I suspect we all of us are, even if we don’t think of it that way and wouldn’t use such language on a bet, maybe the reason we haven’t ‘found God’ is that we are not looking in the right places.” The moment that brings tears to your eyes.
I believe that God is love and that God’s love is incarnate (i.e. made real) in people, like Susan and her friends. So often, seeing that love brings tears to my eyes.
When I was an impressionable youngster, my Mom observed to me that I had “a short neck” and should not wear turtleneck shirts or sweaters. So, for many years, I followed her instructions, implicitly believing what my Mom had told me.
In my late twenties, I made a visit home while I was unconsciously wearing a black turtleneck sweater. My Mom told me how nice I looked in my sweater. “But, Mom, you always told me that I had a short neck and should never wear turtlenecks.” The recollection had sprung immediately to my mind and lips.
She replied, “I said that?”
“Yes,” I stated emphatically.
“Oh.” That was it. No apology. Our family was not keen on apologies unless it was a deathbed scene. Then apologies were okay as long as they were brief. Forgiveness came or it did not. I forgave my Mom about “the short neck” comment very easily. I, too, have made a thousand thoughtless comments, which hurt other people’s feelings. Besides, my Mom loved me. I mean, she really, really loved me.
When I was born, she said I had black hair covering my forehead and she thought she and Dad would have to get that fixed. It fell off in a few days. I arrived in the world as a warm, squiggly little bundle, completely dependent upon her with my jealous one-year-old brother Wayne determined to kill me. She became incredibly watchful. He used every means in his powers to do away with his chief rival for our parents’ attention. Mom had to be vigilant for the can of tomato soup poised to smash down upon my head and rescue me when buried in snow or nearly drown. Our folks thoughtfully strategized that a Joe Palooka punching bag might capture his attention, but that was no match for a lively moving target like me. It wasn’t until age ten and eleven that we could really play harmoniously together, when Mom bought us wooden tennis rackets with Green Stamps. (Just forget it, if you don’t remember them. Pretend they are Bitcoin.) We hit tennis balls to each other for hours in every kind of weather for years. Frozen puddles on the courts would not deter us. We would attempt to hit those spots on the other’s side, to skid the ball out of reach. Both of us became competitive players, even combining our skills to play mixed doubles against common foes. In short, we learned to get along only on the tennis courts.
My Mom was an early feminist, which meant that girls were to be treated as well as boys. My Dad wanted motorcycles for Wayne and himself. So, Mom said that he needed to get me one too and take me along as well. By the age of eleven, I was a tough little one, surviving my brother’s assaults. So, we competed on the trails with me on a Kawasaki 100, my Baby Cow, and Wayne on a bigger Kawasaki. My Mom drove an early edition Poppy Red (orange) Mustang with a white interior, while the neighbors all drove black and dark blue behemoths. My Mom had unique style. Jeans, never dresses, were for her.
My Mom was a teacher before she brought Wayne and me into the world with Dad’s contribution, of course. She instilled a love of reading in us by reading to us, taking us to the library, and plying us with comic books. It was common to come home from school to see her lying on the sofa, reading murder mysteries, her favorite genre. She was in that posture on the day when I made a decision that affected the rest of my life.