Sometime in my late twenties, in the first years of our now 30-year marriage, and somewhere on a lethal length of highway locals call the Levan Death Strip, I learned everything I need to know about marriage. The learning came in a dream. In it I’ve identified eight principles everyone can use for a better union.
My husband Randall and I are driving through central Utah’s high mountain desert along an endless, arid highway known as the Levan Death Strip. “Death”, partly because there’s nothing on the landscape but tumbleweed and dust devils, but mostly because it’s one of the deadliest stretches of road in the state. Semi-trailers and careening motorcycles, rusted out 1973 Chevy Impalas, and cattle trucks meet head on at high speeds here, exploding the desert silence with the hellish sound of detonating metal and glass.
As I was saying, Randall is driving. I’m sitting shotgun, my eyes on the map. Straight ahead is this hypnotizing strip stretched taut as if it were a towing rope attached to the hood ornament on our car and at the other end to the setting sun, which shimmers on a ridge patiently drumming its fingered rays across the horizon.
Suddenly, the sky goes dark. In the space of one breath, daylight is swallowed up in a black tide that thickens, obscuring everything round us, three-hundred-sixty-degrees of palpable heavy.
Barely ahead I make out the blinking orange of some tail lights. There had been cars far, far ahead of us a few minutes ago and now they appear closer, having slowed to a crawl. Everything inches, struggles, lurches. Then stops.
We stop too, on the left side of the road. No discussion, no way to move ahead, not only because we can’t see, but because this heavy has body. Some sort of gelatinous, clinging, viscous weight that is cold and lifeless touches my skin when I step out of the car and creep, hand-over-hand along the car’s right side, palming the hood, then patting my way to the driver’s door out of which Randall emerges.
We say nothing even though I open my mouth and try to push noise up from my throat. The sound waves don’t travel through this new quality of air, so no use calling out. No use, even, trying to whisper to Randall, at whose left side I now stand, right arm linked with his left, pushed up against him, drawing warmth and reassurance.
By the cars parked up the road there’s a faint outline of people. They’re shuffling in this serious, deadly quiet. Now the Heavy coagulates and I can make out neither people nor the tail lights that had just been visible in front of us. Randall and I stand in silence, fused that way, totally, existentially alone.
With no way to judge distance but by the length of our stride, no way to converse, and no way to get our bearings, we simply hold on to each other. I can feel the swelling and contracting of his breathing. We fall in sync.
At the driver’s side of the car, on the left edge of the highway, we begin moving, inching. Walking is a must; something tells us standing still will mean death. So we cling to one another––I on Randall’s left, toeing the edge of the road so we don’t slide off into the shoulder; Randall to my right, initiating every step forward into the darkness.
It’s here, engulfed in heavy murk, that we lean onto each other, pressing. There is a symbiotic, synergistic friction that generates heat and not only keeps us on track and moving forward, but holds us up.
Many dream-time minutes into creeping forward and I turn, straining to see my husband’s face just inches from mine. But I can only make out that he’s wearing a suit. And there are sparks scattered on that suit. Little fine embers seem to be falling onto (or is it emerging from? I can’t tell which), the fabric. Afraid they’ll make his suit combust, I start swatting and then slapping these sparks.
Strangely, the sparks give just enough light to help us push ahead, which I sense we do long after my actual dream ends.
The journey you’ve envisioned on the outset of your marriage as a tidy, well-lit straight line to infinity? Not. Life is neither tidy nor straight, nor is it necessarily well-lit. See up there, a couple of hundred meters ahead where the mirage makes the road look swimmy? That’s where the beeline disappears, giving way –– again and again –– to the reality of the changeable and unexpected.
Know now that this will happen and you won’t self destruct when life doesn’t go to plan.
Start together. Stay in together. Sure, we can also chose to have our individual cars where we’re free to listen to our own playlists, eat our stinky beef jerky, and go at our speed. We can select our solo routes and stop at our preferred points of interest at will. How convenient is that? Saves us from compromising our plans and preferences with another person’s, right?
But the whole point is to travel as a team, which means compromise over convenience, sitting elbow-to-elbow, someone driving , someone reading the map, beef jerky that side, dried sea kelp my side. It’s of little consequence, by the way, who’s driving, who’s navigating; both functions are equally necessary and of course interchangeable, because in my dream, we are both licensed, alert, and invested in the trip, our individual contributions therefore essential for the voyage.
Know now that your marriage is the vehicle that does not just get you to a destination, but will test your capacity to place compromise and commitment over convenience, sharing responsibilities and whatever arises on the route.
You’ve noticed: maps help. (And GPS is better.) But only when you can see a road. What when you can’t? That’s where the strength of your partnership kicks in and you must gingerly feel your way together, into the future.
As a newlywed couple we found marriage mentors––living guidebooks, maps––folks ahead of us in life who modeled how it could all be done well. But roads change, and so travel plans. We, for instance, started out determined to be tandem university professors. Some years into marriage, however, both of us decided not to do our PhDs. Instead, we took a different route, or better, several end-to-end alternate routes.
Know now that maps must be pliable plots, not strict strategies.
Midway along our route tragedy hit and the bright desert daylight was instantly choked with the ultimate heavy. In one stroke of fate, and in the middle of major international move when our stability was already compromised, we lost our eldest child, then 18, to a gruesome water accident.
It’s then we learned that darkness had texture, heft. At any moment the Heavy can hit and swallow up our sunny route. Loss of all sorts, not just the dramatic blow we have known, can change virtually everything in an instant. Struggles with illness both physical and mental, addictions, a partner’s or child’s illicit behavior, unemployment, and larger societal events (war, economic downturn, natural disaster, etc.) or a combination of any of the above, might be our dark tide.
Know now that darkness not only might happen, but it will. When it hits, your marriage can remain intact and even grow stronger, becoming the very thing that helps you individually and as a family to survive.
5. Soft Shoulders
You know those signs that warn motorists of soft shoulders off the sides of the road? In Tanzania I once witnessed what happens when they are ignored. A public bus over-crammed with passengers, their goats and chickens and baskets of market goods dangling out the windows, tried to overtake a stalled vehicle by driving onto the soft shoulder. The moment the bus’s two left wheels were off the asphalt and on the soil, the bus began sinking, then teetered, then toppled over on its side. Screaming, crushed adults and children, yowling and fluttering livestock were the soundtrack I can never erase from my memory.
Know now that soft shoulders are everywhere and anyone can slip more easily than you might imagine. And when darkness sweeps in and disorients you threatening to drive you off your route or from each other, it is especially important to toe that edge, reminding yourself to push inward toward your partner and away from the soft shoulder.
6. Synergistic Support
Although my strong inclination toward rule keeping meant I sensed limits well with my left foot, I was afraid to move forward into the darkness. I kept pulling backward. Behind felt safer than ahead, and I recoiled from whatever was out there in that pitch black mass. In real life, too, part of me wants to retreat from the unknown because I lack confidence in my ability to conquer difficult and intimidating situations. Randall, on the other hand, doesn’t obsess over worst case scenarios and forges forward.
Know now that progression in marriage requires both staying out of dangerous soft shoulders and pressing forward into the unknown. When you and your partner are pressing inward, toward each other, the isometric pressure not only propels you forward but actually gives you energy and helps you to stay standing.
When I first interpreted this dream, I saw those sparks on Randall’s suit as trouble coming from the outside. My job was to beat that trouble down. Part of a strong partnership is being alert and sensitive to our mate’s vulnerabilities and doing what we can to keep our partner safe. Of course my message is not to feel excessively guilty when a beloved plays with fire, so to speak, because of course we’re all responsible for our own decisions and behaviors. But I’ve observed the strongest couples try vigilantly to protect one another from trouble.
Loving each other means attending to each other, helping keep one another safe and well. We can do so by staying extremely close and watching for signs that something is smoldering. Does your wife struggle with anxiety? Does your husband have addictive tendencies? Does she fly easily into a rage? Does he slump regularly into a depression? Is she on the professional road a lot where she could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Does he work a lot on the Internet where he could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Then you do everything you can to strengthen them for those situations where they might fall into trouble.
Know now that everyone has weaknesses and everyone is susceptible to temptations or attacks on their virtue and morals. Know now that central to loving our spouse is not only having their specific sparks at heart, but to help beat them back before they take flame.
8. Or … Sparks
And here is the most important portion of the dream. Because at 20+ years into marriage I found that my former interpretation of it, which you just read, and therefore my paradigm for marriage, had changed. Where I’d previously seen myself as the safe-keeper, the border patrol, the ever ready spark-slapper, now I saw those sparks differently.
What if those sparks I’d been slapping at weren’t signs of danger? What if they were something else? What if those sparks –- what I’d thought were temptations, fiery darts –– weren’t flying at my partner but those sparks are actually emerging from him? What if they weren’t bad fire but good, even flecks of hot gold? Not trouble but promise? Not hints of weakness but signs of power? I thought, “What if those sparks are searing heat and power literally bursting out of Randall, and I, in my hyper-attentiveness and self-righteousness am beating them down, beating him down, extinguishing a light, extinguishing him?”
There are so many ways we can extinguish the light in others. We think we are being care givers and life coaches, but in over-critiquing, in hyper-patroling, we can become nit-pickers, fault-finders, nay-sayers. We can also hold each other back in our jealousy and insecurity when we permit our own fears, self doubts, and insecurities (we all have them) to breed that nervous reflex that lashes out –– slap! –– disallowing others to simply be who they are, to shine, even brilliantly.
We assuage things by saying we’re just being honest, when we actually end up beating that person back, or beating her up. We slap out another’s light by refusing to forgive, holding a grudge, keeping score, playing tit-for-tat. We can engage in power plays, we can belittle, we can even discredit our own beloveds in slanderous gossip. We might play politics, demanding equality at every turn, not interdependency as an overarching guide, saying, in essence, “Well, if I can’t have those sparks, then neither can you!”
When this new marriage paradigm came to me, I have to tell you: I wept. How many years had I focused on potential faults in my husband and not on the promising strengths? How many opportunities had I missed to praise him, to celebrate in his light, to see his radiance increase?
Know now that even in purely selfish terms, you are the prime beneficiary when your partner glows. Indeed, we all benefit when anyone glows! You’ll remember: those sparks on Randall’s suit gave us both just enough illumination to light our way through a world of complete darkness.
When we make it through this heavy passage together––and I trust we all will–– then it will certainly be by virtue of all this unsmothered, heat-generating, God-given mutual incandescence.
Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.
What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:
GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE
Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.
When: Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away
What else? Question and Answer session
What kinds of questions?
- Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
- How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
- Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
- Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
- What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign country?
- What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
- What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?
And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.
Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!
Eyes speak. That morning at the Limburg refugee camp, I heard volumes.
“Guten Tag,” I said, tipping my head toward the man sitting alone. One of the dozens I’d met while volunteering as a German teacher in refugee camps near Frankfurt, he had drawn my attention more than once.
Hard to miss: Shoulders nearly as broad as the end of the table at which we sat; Ring with blue stone on his left hand; Vividly colored mandalas he’d painted on art day; Fantastical flying stegosaurus he’d fashioned with felt tip markers. The steady, weighted gaze from under the brim of his baseball cap gave him the air of a once-imposing but now-cowering animal, bruised from serial blows.
His eyes had been watching, speaking while I worked. Two minutes earlier, a dozen or so children and I had been rowdily chant-singing “Kopf, Schulter, Knie, und Fuß”, our laughter spraying like lemon yellow microbursts into the slate gray camp atmosphere. But the kids had lost interest after an hour and had run off the instant there was a lull in the rhythm.
Only one child, Sultan, had stayed. Now he moved down the table, dragging a leftover piece of my big roll of work paper in front of him, and took his seat next to the man in the cap. The man placed his hand on the boy’s back, patting twice. It was then I saw these two had the same eyes; moss green, mournful.
“Guten Tag,” the man said to me, his smile lifting the corners of his mouth, but not the edges of his eyes, which were fixed and, though shining, heavy.
“Deutsch? Englisch?” I asked.
He raised his meaty fingers, making a pinch, “English. Little.” The man pointed to Sultan, “My son. He speaks little English. Also little German.”
A woman joined us, slipped in, silently, sat with hands folded. Veiled in soft gold and brown patterned cotton, maybe forty, she moved gracefully, cautiously into the chair between Sultan and his father. Affection and sorrow spread across three faces in front of me, with hers a rounded portrait of weathered beauty centered in clear, wise eyes.
Sultan, whose slick black hair had been trimmed recently, piped up, tipping his head to one side: “Mother, die Mutter,” then the other side, “Father, der Vater.” Then be busied himself, writing.
“Und woher kommen Sie?” I spoke directly to the father, asking where they were from, and launching an interview disguised as a German conversation lesson.
The mother understood nothing. Sultan whispered, translating. The father nodded, pointed to himself, his wife, his son. “We: Afghanistan.”
“Und was schreibst du, Sultan? What are you writing?” I asked.
“Family. Die Familie Khan. Meine Familie. ”
Always seeking common ground, I said, “I have a husband. We have four children.” And I scribbled our family and ages, pretending this once that my eldest child was still alive, so 27 years old.
“For fünf-und-zwanzig Jahren we’ve moved a lot, too.” I wrote that above our heads, then continued, listing the countries, nine in total.
It was the “too” that felt wrong, a barb in my throat. I suppose that in another setting full of folks for whom international travel and residency are givens, “moved a lot” might have drawn a line of connection. Someone might have said, “Oh, we loved Hong Kong, too,” or “Really? We were in Vienna for three years,” or, “Which arrondissement of Paris?”
But did our moves as corporate expatriates and the Khans’ flight as terror-driven refugees have anything in common? Anything except perhaps geographic displacement? Mine was a superficial, even ridiculous, comparison. So my voice cracked with unease, trailed off in apology.
Trying to recover, I looked into Shafeka’s eyes. “It has not always been … easy.” Sultan translated the words, and I hoped this woman would read the real story behind my eyes, the one I couldn’t quite splice into the narrative, the one explaining how we had buried our firstborn, our eldest son, during that ragged borderland of moving between countries. Instead of that, I said it was hard because, “Every time, you know, another new language.”
Language acquisition was an obvious point of contact. I listed my few tidy European tongues and what’s left of my dormant Mandarin. Ahmed’s brow stayed flat. He then asked me to spread out both my hands, palms up, as one-by-one he bent my fingers closed, ticking off his ten languages: Farsi, Turkman, Uzbek, Tajiki, Balochi, Ormuri, Pashto, Pashayi, Dari, Krygyz. I didn’t even recognize half of them. “And little English,” he shrugged.
Then four young women approached. I recognized two; Summiyya and Safia from previous interaction, and knew they spoke exceptional English and had refined, discreet manners. “My daughters,” Ahmed said. And I was not surprised.
“Now you learn German together as a family,” I said, trying to cheer them on. “You must work hard. Moving and learning languages is hard.”
Those last words petered out into yet another pool of shame. Those words could not stand before this man’s face, this woman’s face, this son’s and these daughters’ faces with eyes that have seen “hard” and horrors my eyes have only read of.
Nothing about our experiences with “hard” was similar. I’d moved from comfort to comfort, willingly, eagerly, with every possible advantage, every conceivable yellow brick already patted into place along the road forward. Suitcases in the multiples. Air shipments. Sea shipments. Jet planes. Eye masks and earplugs while grumbling about economy legroom. Hotels. Taxis. Relocation services. Rental homes, per diem, restaurants, facile passport stamps, schools awaiting along with piano, drum, clarinet, flute, horseback riding lessons. Freedom behind me. Abundance around me. Safety ahead of me. All as far as my eyes could see.
In contrast, here are the scraps of the Khan family saga:
The Khans’ world has always been at war. For generations, in fact, Afghanistan has been the stage of end-to-end conflicts, coups, rebellions, reforms, radicalization, insurgencies, the widespread violence of mass bombings, and the personalized atrocity of public executions. Once part of the intellectual elite, Shafeka’s father, a brilliant aeronautics engineer, had been executed by the Taliban. She looked away as she spoke and Ahmed translated, both wincing while tears sprang then streamed freely.
With their family surrounded by mounting violence and constant fear, Ahmed and Shafeka knew fleeing was the only option to preserve their family. They fled leaving everything; relatives, friends, home, neighborhood, mother tongue, all that had been their history, everything they had planned for their future, including the antique business Ahmed had built up over two decades.
With their seven children, Ahmed and Shafeka traveled from central Afghanistan to central Germany (a distance of over 5000 kilometers or over 3000 miles.) That is roughly the distance from Oslo, Norway to the Italian island of Sicily. Or from London across the Atlantic to Boston. Or from New York City to Denver, Colorado, and back to New York City again. This odyssey, which they undertook during winter, took four months.
They began by looping southward to Pakistan but were detained there by police who forced them to return home. They fled again, this time through Iran, where they were detained again and sent home. Again they fled, though I don’t know exactly how or by what route in order to avoid police. This time instead of being sent home, guards shot Ahmed in the feet.
(I’ve heard of this tactic used by police/guards/ border control officers from more sources than Ahmed. Shooting anywhere in the legs doesn’t kill, so a guard cannot be seen as inhumane, and a war council couldn’t prosecute. From the hips down can be counted as a misfire. Still it stops literally in their tracks those who are fleeing, and it intimidates others.)
Injured feet could not keep the Khans in Afghanistan. Carrying only what they could sling on their backs and hold in their arms, they left home again. Hiking in mountains, hiding day and night, going days without food, they survived that life-threatening trudge to that infamous Turkish coast and beyond. The daily, sometimes hourly, threat of violence. A father’s fear for his youngest. A mother’s anxiety for her precious daughters. Vigilantes now line the well-trodden route between the Middle East and Central Europe. Hundreds and even thousands of refugees, especially children, have simply “gone missing.”
Under moonlight, smugglers took too much of the Khans’ money to load them (and a pile of other desperates, including unaccompanied children) onto an inflatable raft. They lurched in the pitch black across even darker waters, arriving predawn on the shores of Greece.
Safia and Summiyya added their memories: “There was no bath, no water.” “Tired, so tired and sometimes sick.” “Afraid, always afraid.” “Where to find food? Where to sleep?” “Which person to trust? How to stay warm?”
As Ahmed and his daughters recounted this, Sultan stopped writing and raised those sea green, radiant eyes, and Shafeka shut hers, shook her head now hanging low, pressing her crossed arms to her rib cage. Then everyone’s eyes met mine, as if saying, “This is our truth. We deny none of it. We are here only because we have survived.”
Since the day they stepped off a train, (what Ahmed calls “so big luck” from the Austrian border to Frankfurt), they have all been here in Limburg –– or in Limbo, as I call it –– a refugee camp under a train overpass that shakes and shrieks like the bombs that fell back home. People, mostly strangers to one another, are waylaid in overcrowded, utilitarian spaces for months on end, not knowing when they will be moved to another camp, where that camp might be, or if they might be denied asylum altogether and be deported. That threat hangs perpetually in the air.
So in limbo they stay. No school, work, routine, private space, even shower stalls. Children grow bored, mischievous, withdrawn, or aggressive. Or remain miraculously sweet. Adults grow limp from aimlessness, rabid with restlessness. Or remain miraculously civil.
Everyone agrees it is stressful. Hearts skitter, tempers sometimes flare, despair spreads its paralyzing poison. Ahmed’s high blood pressure worries Shafeka. Shafeka’s low blood pressure worries Ahmed.
But back to Afghanistan? To Iran? Iraq? Syria? To hell? As bleak as life might sometimes feel in limbo, life in hell is worse. Ahmed schooled me, his eyes narrowing and darkening. “War was terrible, terrible. No words. Terrible.” And his eyes scanned the hall full of refugees around us, all people I’ve grown to know, many whom I consider my friends. “All. All have dead because war. These people,” he was pointing, “dead father, dead mother, dead brother, dead children.”
I know all of my losses combined cannot touch the edge of what Ahmed and Shafeka have known, but I offer my one truth. I share with them––though it is hard to speak the words and I speak only with great restraint––a short version of how we lost our son, the one who is not more than a stick figure on paper, the one I said was 27 but is forever 18. “I know the feeling of losing someone you love with your whole heart. I know that feeling.”
Then I quickly add, “But I do not know this,” and I write the words with a vengeance. “I know nothing about this.”
Our conversation ended there. The multipurpose hall had to be set up as a cafeteria. All of us –– Sultan, Safia, Summiyya, Shafeka, Ahmed the Afghani antique dealer, and their American German teacher –– had shared scraps of our stories. Those stories, I reflected as I packed up my belongings, are as far from each other as are our countries. A seemingly inestimable expanse between us.
Or is it so? Now we were here, we had connected. In Limburg. In limbo. Maybe somehow all stories connect if you follow them deeply and far enough. And it could be that it is our stories of loss that connect us all. Don’t we fuse where we have been shot through, whether in foot or in spirit? Don’t we bond on our broken edges?
And where do we sense these bonding stories more poignantly than face-to-face, eye-to-eye, spirit to spirit? How do we better understand? When do we truly see each other?
What I saw as I walked under the train overpass to my parked car was a bunch of refugees, maybe forty, milling about on the gravel, waiting for “Mittagessen,” lunchtime. Among them, I spotted an Afghani antique dealer, father of seven, husband to Shafeka, a survivor named Ahmed Khan. He stood there behind the chain link fence, and not far behind him stood a son named Sultan. Both had their hands in their pockets, Ahmed with his black cap , Sultan with black bangs, both with magnificent eyes.
Those eyes. Those storied eyes. I stopped, turned, looked longer, closer. The general became specific, the “bunch of refugees, maybe forty” became particularized, human. So many eyes. So many stories. Eyes glinting in early afternoon sunlight. Eyes blinking back a world of lived darkness. Eyes behind which the sacred and unspeakable are known and preserved. Eyes in front of which limbo either looms or opens up as a bright and promising horizon.
Every Sunday, I write a letter to our 20 year old son, Dalton. He’s serving for two years in England as a full time missionary for our faith. Normally, because he has limited time to access, read, and respond to letters, I compress my messages to bullet points. (Hard when I want to spread my heart across the page with an industrial sized ladle .)
Here is this week’s letter. You’ll forgive that I’d condense what’s most precious to me into a cheesy Top 10 List. And I know you’ll understand that this is only a fraction of a fraction of my reflections on what Easter means to me.
6) That he rose for us means we are called to help others rise. This requires an alertness and compassion few of us have naturally. As our egos swell, they eclipse the face of The Other. And what’s worse, with that swelling sense of self, we might sometimes feel others deserve to stay low, lying flat, suffering nose-in-the-dust for their sins or circumstances. I’m ashamed to say I’ve felt that indignation tighten my jaw more than once. (“She made her bed, she’s got to lie in it. And I’m not fluffing her pillows.”) But Christ asks us to do as he did: rise to help others rise. All others. No exceptions, no lepers.
7)“He is risen” points to a supernal communing act. It means the most concrete, physiological communing (the reunion of body and spirit, cells and fibers, tibia and fibula.) It also means reuniting anything lost and buried with the found and living. We’re given through him, I believe, the capacity to live with our heads and hearts united. Beyond that, HIs example tells us to unite with our marginalized, forgotten, lonely brothers and sisters. We’re charged to stretch our arms as far and wide as we can and pull those out on the rim close to our center, to our heart. We are one. Division is demonic.
8) He rose through priesthood power. I’d not learned that truth until late in life, but the resurrection was a priesthood rite. This tells me something about the ultimate life-giving power God has allotted to mankind through priesthood. We are to use it not to elevate ourselves in any way, but to help others rise to greater life.
9) “He is risen” means that though we have no need to fear existentially, we have no excuse if we are complacent. Christ rose multiple times before he rose definitively, and by that I mean that he rose in response to those crushed by sickness, poverty, sin, evil, and death. He drew everything heavenward in his warm updraft. He knew everything would ultimately be renewed, but those timely losses –– of sight, hearing, health, sanity –– were worth his immediate attention anyway.
10) His resurrection was the vanishing point, the spot in time and timelessness where every agonizing question, loss, doubt, weakness and evil was absorbed and converted by some splendid alchemy into possibility and joy. All will be well, if not instantly, in time. And indeed. All is seen and known in his Eternal Now, all is taken into consideration as part of his creation, which is a continual re-creation.
And you have risen, too, Dalton, as you’ve followed Him. I can tell. I can feel it in your letters. When we follow him, we’re promised that, even if we’re required to traverse dark and alien terrain in the interim –– and we will be asked to trust through unspeakably dark places –– we will rise at last.
In all love, forever!
Your Everluvin’ Mum
Since 2007, the year that forever split my life into Before and After, it’s been impossible for me to write a year-end summary. Here we are again, March, and I realize I’ve still not lined up year 2015 and given an accounting.
That’s partially because I fear provincialism. I fear losing sight, even for a moment, of the global context in which my private story plays out. I’ve become aware this year more than any other in my life of how tidy, how survivable, even how irrelevant my personal dramas are in light of the immense complexities rolling out across our global panorama, across huge swaths of humanity. And so anything I say about my life, I feel, has to be said with the big backdrop in mind.
But here, a quick and dirty recap of 2015. Consider it a preface to my next book.
Il Matrimonio (The Wedding)
In this post I announced that our Claire got engaged to be married to her amore, Alessandro. Their courtship had been unconventional; their engagement and wedding followed suit.
After a year of long-distance yearning and reams of letters in Italian while she was finishing her Uni studies in the US and he was finishing his full time service as a missionary for our church in southern Italy, the two were married in a big Italian farm wedding outside of Pavia, Italy. True to the Global Mom story line, it was a multicultural reunion around sumptuous tables (the food!!), with languages flying in as many directions as were friends, who came in from France, the US, all over Italy, and Singapore. I’m still verklempt as I reflect on everyone’s thereness, the way we actually pulled off an otherwise logistically impossible event.
Following the civil wedding, we trundled to Switzerland to join closest friends in a small, intimate ceremony referred to in our religion as a temple sealing. In contrast to the party in Italy, this rite was simple, quiet, other-worldly. The couple dressed in head-to-toe white for the brief ceremony attended only by closest Italian friends of our faith, and were given profound promises regarding their future together, which we believe extends beyond death.
A horse farm reception followed later in Heber Valley, Utah, and we left immediately for a family honeymoon through southern Utah to the southern California coast.
Missing from all these festivities was Parker, of course. That absence doesn’t get easier, but we’re growing in gratitude and perspective and capacity to love life though broken and limping. Our Dalton, too, was far away, because in August of 2015, upon our arrival in Frankfurt, he’d turned right around to fly to England to launch his 2-year full time mission for our church in South London. He’s now been serving for over 19 months.
He’s serving now in an area known as Little Nigeria, working on that accent. He’s never been happier and bemoans that the end is in sight, wishing he could extend his service by a month or two, but is scheduled to enter Uni only shortly after relinquishing his badge.
Underneath (literally) the marriage, the ceremony, the mission, was The Flood. For nearly nine months, our home was an oceanscape and construction site after an external water distribution system went amok during our absence and…We returned to a bayou that sloshed over our shoes. The entire ground floor of the home had to be decimated, and after jackhammers and turbo ventilators, it became a bombed-out concrete carcass.
Then it flooded again. And again. Workers found leaks inside walls…More than a few times, I hid in my car during the day to escape the deafening noise, and otherwise played hostess to a total of 80+ construction and insurance folks tramping through my door. Month after month. After month.
Yes, we survived it. Just fine. And we were happy that everything was completed the week the newlyweds arrived to live with us for a year. They’re doing this to save money while taking college/grad school entrance exams, working multiple jobs, and applying through the Frankfurt consulate for a US Green Card for Alessandro.
A major part of 2015 and now the prime focus of 2016 has been this US Visa for our Alessandro. For those of you out there who’ve ever navigated the bureaucracy, you have my reverence and respect. I hear you groaning and see you holding your shaking head in your hands right now. Thanks for commiserating.
Now try jumping those same multiple hoops in two foreign languages. Every interview (and form and phone call and interview and returned form and repeated phone call and follow-up interview) has had to be translated from English and Italian to German and back in reverse. In all of this, Claire and Alessandro have been good-natured and unflappable. They’re learning about patience, work, consistency, and faith.
As I type this, they are sitting in Frankfurt’s US consulate in their final, all-determining, face-to-face interview. Claire flies to the US next week for her final face-to-face law school interview, and Alessandro is finishing his college entrance essays for admission to a US Uni in the fall.
And all this – floods, reconstruction, Visas, marriages, missions, work, everything – is tempered by the bigger context in which we live. Because while we’ve been marrying and missioning, while we’ve been bailing water and applying for universities, while we’ve been fighting for Visas and begging for work, Syria (and surrounding populations) have been under siege. In desperation, hundreds of thousands of the distressed and traumatized have spilled into Europe, bringing in their wake a humanitarian nightmare unknown in modern history.
Here’s where our quaint family summary connects to the Big Picture. If 2015 began with a house flood, it ended with a world flood. The inconvenience of a house under jackhammer reconstruction is practically charming compared with the real bombs obliterating Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Multicultural marriages and missions have their challenges, but are infused with hope and celebration because we have freedom, assets, peace, abundance, and every possible advantage life can offer.
While helping Ale and Claire with their German residency, I’ve been sitting in government hallways, elbow to elbow with threadbare and disoriented refugees fresh from their harrowing journey, seeking asylum. While editing my daughter’s and son-in-law’s essays for US universities, I’ve also been sitting in Frankfurt’s University for Applied Sciences, helping my Iranian and Afghani refugee friends apply for courses in mechanical engineering and intensive German language instruction.
These friends figure among the dozens with whom I’ve been working in local refugee camps since the floodgates broke in the early fall of 2015, and Germany welcomed an unprecedented 1 mill+ refugees (mostly Syrian, but also Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghani) across its borders.
The statistics and complexity are beyond staggering. The human stories are heart- rending and breathtaking. Because this is such a proximate and personal reality for me, you should expect to see more of my posts (and all my other social media platforms) weighted with these stories.
As I see it, 2015 and 2016 is where not just my tidy little family tale, but world history splits: Before and After. The saga will not be the type we can share in a Year End Summary. It is destined to color the future of humanity, everywhere. And it might be where Global Mom and On Loss and Living Onward intersect, inviting both the next book of my career and a focused direction for the remaining chapters of my life.
[Note: I wanted to share with you my lightly edited transcript of the remarks I gave at our son Parker’s funeral in July of 2007. I’m telling you they’re lightly edited because you have to understand: This was our child’s funeral. We were speaking. We had not eaten, drunk, slept, or walked but in ragged spurts for a week. In addition, the day of the viewing, my mother had been raced to the emergency room with kidney stones, and our two youngest had been convulsing on the bathroom floor, vomiting and panting, hours on end. I had no computer. I had no resource material but my scriptures and a soul gouged raw. So I’ve corrected some inconsistencies and repetitions and tightened a turn of phrase here and there.
Otherwise, this is the manuscript I managed to scratch out from where I hunkered on the laundry room floor listening to my two precious living sons moan with nausea an arm’s length away. I wrote with a broken pen on a yellow legal pad I’d grabbed from my Dad’s desk. I’ve carried that yellow paper, folded, in a front closure of my scriptures ever since.]
Rite on the Oslo Fjord
Ten and a half years ago, eight-year-old Parker was baptized in a chapel in Sandvika, Norway. In preparing for that important rite in our religion, Parker told us that he had a couple of particular wishes, foremost of which was to invite everyone. Inviting everyone meant drawing together people from neither our national culture nor our religion to witness and participate in an intimate ritual.
His baptism was intimate, because there were sermons and musical numbers directed just to Parker, and because Randall, Parker’s father – not the congregation’s priest or pastor – performed the baptism himself. Parker thought it would be the perfect chance to get everyone together. This boy just loved bringing everyone together.
What a sight it was on a cold February day in Norway to see clusters and streams of “everyone” arriving at that little chapel on the banks of the Oslo fjord. His eight-year-old friends and their families, some dressed in Norwegian traditional costumes, gathered as if for a national celebration in our modest Mormon meeting house. The event was pure joy.
Rite in the Rockies
You, too, have been personally invited by Parker to gather from around the globe and in clusters and streams today. And what else would Parker have ever wanted, but that everyone from all over be with him, even if it is a closing rite for Parker.
I know he’s wanted you here, because all this week I’ve heard a specific Beatle tune looping in my head. Now I’m not sure, but if I knew the Beatles any better, I’d guess the text is probably all about drugs or something. Still, the chorus has not left me, not once. Parker has even been singing to me: “Come together right now over me.”
Come together. Right now. Over him.
Because of your love for him, you’ve come here on Parker’s behalf. Our Parker was a true friend to those who were in distress or need. People found comfort and solace in his presence because he was so closely in tune with the Spirit that his path was clearly lit, and he drew others onto that path with him. He wishes today, above all, that people come together, and in coming together, that we will participate in a sacred spot in time.
What is a sacred spot it time? Let’s visit, or revisit, our Bible for a moment. It’s full of sacred spots in time – rare, potent pin points where people come together and share in learning the most important truths. For me, one of the most meaningful examples from the New Testament has been a personal guide to me for many years.
It’s a story about a heightened moment. It’s marked by anguish and hope, death and life, grief and joy that meet at a sharp edge of an hour or so. You might remember the story in John. It is an account of a family – two sisters and a brother, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – all devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.
The scene filled my mind just over a week ago as I was racing alone and in anguish for nearly five hours through the middle of the night from my parents’ home in central Utah where I had just arrived on vacation to a regional medical center in southeastern Idaho where Parker’s comatose body had just arrived via medical helicopter. In my life I’d been in Idaho exactly one time previously, just the day before. I’d visited Parker at his college apartment to spend three hours with him on the afternoon of Wednesday, had then left him with an extra firm hug, and caught a glimpse of big, happy Parker drumming a beat on his thigh as he disappeared in my rear view mirror.
Martha, Mary, Lazarus
As you might recall from the story of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. But when Jesus got word that Lazarus was ill to dying, instead of coming right away, he abode two days still in the same place, and allowed this close friend to die. In fact, Jesus stayed away until the fourth day, which, according to Jewish custom, was the day of official death. The day grievers stopped visiting the grave. The day it was too late.
When Martha, torn open with anguish, learned that Jesus was finally arriving in Bethany where they lived, she ran out on the road to meet him, pleading, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died, but I know that even now, whatsoever thou will ask of God, God will give it to thee.” Martha saith unto Him, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day;” and finally, “Yea Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.”
In a rented Dodge Durango SUV on Interstate I-15 in the deep black of the desert, I was Martha. In desperation and steely faith I was rushing to grab the Savior by the shoulders and plead with Him. “I know. I know. I believe that thou art the Christ, and I believe that thou wilt save my son.”
In the Intensive Care Unit in the Portneuf Regional Medical Center in Pocatello, where many also came together over Parker, we experienced a sacred spot in time. Death and life hung in suspended animation. I felt it, many there felt it. It was as if we stood before a tomb, and there, amid many attending to Parker, I continued calling out in my mind to my God, “I know. I know. I believe that thou art the Christ, and I believe that thou wilt save my son.”
This Martha, the one of the Bible, saw the full healing of her beloved Lazarus. And that miracle offered everyone present a sacred spot in time.
This Martha, however, [pointing to myself], did not. Are we not, however, also standing in a sacred spot in time?
Here, we might be asking ourselves some questions: “Isn’t life cruel, random, indiscriminate?” Or, “Does wishful pleading ever make a bit of difference? Are such pleas even heard?” Or, “If pleas are heard, what failed here? God Himself? Did this Martha’s faith fail?”
What is the Greater Miracle?
I feel to answer those questions with yet another question, one whispered into my ear by the wisest woman that I know. She asked me this as we stood side by side in the hospital over the beautiful, strong, but comatose body of my precious boy. “Which,” she asked me, “is the greater miracle; healing or comfort?”
More than her own life, that Martha like this one wanted her beloved’s healing. More than anything, both Marthas knew healing was possible. That Martha got her healing, her brother. Lazarus rose to new life.
I, however, am left with this cold casket. And in more ways than symbolically, l have died. I can feel it in my limbs, my heart, my cells, in my struggle for breath. I am in as great a need for healing as was Lazarus. I will need a miracle, a new life, resuscitation.
So maybe the question is not what is the greater miracle, healing or comfort. Maybe the question is is there a difference between the two? Are they not both gifts of God, sprung from love, against all odds, and toward new life? As one minister wrote: “Resurrection is for both sides of the tomb.” I – we all – will need to be resurrected from this emotional death just as Martha’s Lazarus was brought out of the tomb.
Sacred Spots in Time
And now as I stand here before you I find that I am the other sister. I am Mary, who days after Lazarus’ miraculous rebirth, and only days before she knew that Christ was going to be crucified, invites her Master into her home. They come together. Over Him. She falls at His feet and in this thick, dense compression of life and death, death and life – of Lazarus revived, of Jesus on the cusp of crucifixion, on the brink of rising from death – she recognizes she’s part of something rare. We’re getting the smallest hint of what that feeling is like right here and now among us. And because she knows that feeling is rare and fleeting, Mary blocks out all distractions in order to learn important truths. She pulls that moment to her heart, bows her head at the Savior’s feet, focuses in full concentration, and takes it all in in simple, intimate, symbolic ways.
Do you recognize this is where you are right now? Do you recognize that you are being soaked in something divine; that you have been invited quite personally by Parker to come together over him, to be here and to feel heaven so close? Or do you resist that Spirit and lose the chance to feel the beauty and the light and healing warmth that is only to be found through the Spirit of a living God?
Parker knew and recognized that Spirit, and he wants us to come together right now over him. But he doesn’t want it to be only about him, only about this moment. When we leave this place, this spot in time, how will we retain the gift of having been here? I have a suggestion of which I know Parker approves. It’s simple.
I’ve known Parker longer – in mortal terms, at least – than anyone here. He grew within my body and for nine months as a loud,percussive presence. I remember being in a graduate seminar where I had a book perched on my eight-month pregnant belly. We were studying Eugene Onegin I believe, I don’t know, and in the course of that lecture the book popped off my stomach – was catapulted, let’s say – and scooted across the table. My son always had and still has a forceful beat.
With that beat in mind, consider that in French, Parker’s name is pronounced, “par cœur,” which means “by heart.” The essence of his spirit and the symbol of his name is an invitation for all of us to feel the pulse, to feel our heart, and in the stillest of moments to recognize the intensity and love that was his heart. As we feel our own heart beating, we can be reminded of this boy, who was maybe somewhat impulsive, but whose impulsiveness drove him to do some of the most beautiful things. One of those things – a fatal flaw or a godly gift – was to plunge not once but twice, headlong into troubled waters to try to save a boy he’d known a mere week.
My friends, we will leave this place. We will all go away from this incubation place, this sacred spot with its golden hum and heightened meaning, this holding place where we are sitting now. It is up to us to listen to our hearts and to know that we weren’t changed for just a moment, but that we are changed forever because of the great love of the boy who invited you personally to be here today.
Parker, you know my heart. It is hardly beating, my son; it has been pulverized. But I believe – I know, I know – that every construction requires first a deconstruction, that this falling apart over you invites me to come together over Him. I have great faith in the living Savior of this world, I give my shattered heart to Him. I ask that He take its brokenness – all our brokenness – and work His miracle of healing comfort.
It took years to forgive myself.
I’d been warned. I’d been shown what was coming. I could have intervened. I could have been there. I could have saved my child.
But I hadn’t. I didn’t. If I had just…
In Global Mom: A Memoir, I wrote about a dream I’d had of our son Parker two months after he’d drowned. The dream was especially forceful and allowed me to see and feel the setting he was in after death – a vivid, bright realm beyond mortality – as well as what he was doing there and with whom.
When I’ve had a dream like that, (in my life I’ve only had a few), I immediately write it down and share it with one or two others so it’s fresh and they’re “witnesses” to what I’ve been taught. Because they have a different resonance than my run-of-the-mill bad digestion dreams, I feel a certain stewardship over their content. The Japanese call these real dreams. They are gifts. You treasure them. You don’t thoughtlessly parade or banalize them. That being true, it was a little risky to publish one in a book. But I don’t regret that I did.
Then in On Loss and Living Onward I devoted a chapter to a dream I’d had exactly one month prior to losing Parker. In that dream, I was chasing after a toddler version of Parker (wearing a small version of the blue swim trunks we’d bought together when he was 17), who was being swept away in a small river that passed under a bridge, a passage from whence his little body never emerged. The dream was strangely corporeal. I actually felt the sun beating on my head, the icy spray of the water flecking my forearms, gravel cutting my bare feet and wild grass scraping at my ankles as I ran along the shore. I was sweaty, agitated, shaking and breathless when I awoke.
But that dream was not the only one I had about Parker’s accident before that accident happened. What I’ve never published is the following dream, a second one. I used to call it God’s Final Warning.
The Second Dream
From my email to a confidant:
The second dream I had exactly the week before his accident. By then I’d managed the bulk of the move to Munich (at least our beds were set up in the apartment so we could sleep here) and Randge [Randall] had arrived from Paris to be here for legal document signing before I left on the 14th to Utah to be with the kids whom we’d sent on ahead of us, especially to get Parker into summer college.
In the dream I rush into an ICU alone to find the tall, muscular body of a beautiful young male lying face-down on a gurney, a sheet covering him up to his waist. He’s wearing a neck brace and there are tubes coming out of his nose and mouth and he’s hooked up to monitors. He has multiple head injuries and looks bruised and bludgeoned from what I can see looking at the back of his head.
I’m shocked and chilled. I reach for the body and somehow recognize it well. Reason tells me that, because of the head injuries, this is the victim of an automobile accident, so my dreaming but analytical self tells me this is Aaron, my brother,the only licensed driver I know of that would fit the form and height of the man I’m seeing on the table.
My whole chest feels kicked in and I’m keeping myself from wailing. Many people are passing in and out of the room, but I’m the one standing closest to the body whose shoulders I stroke. I speak to the body and groan. We’re that way for a while. Then the body is turned over and it’s not clear to me whose face it is as the swelling and bruising and discoloration are so severe. Blood cakes the hair. There are some facial wounds.
I conclude it’s Aaron and he’s had a terrible car accident on his commute to Salt Lake City for work. He is unconscious and it seems – I’m being told – he will not live. I am weeping and trying to find a hand to hold under the sheet draped over the body. I pray and try to understand. People are in the room at a distance, not people I know well.
Then Randge is brought into the room. He has come in a hurry from far away. He stands to my left then we lean onto each other, supporting a motionless shock. The line of onlookers is up against a far wall. We are ripped open with grief.
I awoke from this dream and was lightly crying to myself, my heart was thumping and I felt agitated – I felt warned –and sat right up in bed. (I was in our little makeshift room here in the apartment, Randge sleeping deeply to my left.) As soon as I awoke him, I told Randge exactly what I had seen and said I needed to call Aaron right away to warn him to take no risks when driving and to at least go slowly. Then I convinced myself he’d think I’m nuts, some kind of clairvoyant or something, so I left it up to fate and to his good driving skills to avoid anything like what I had seen.
Those dreams meant something important. I’d felt that while dreaming them. You know how that is? When you are dreaming and it’s as if something taps your subconscious on the shoulder, saying, “Pay attention. Pay close attention.”
Well, the “something important” came rushing at me several days later.
In full force it came rushing, but only after Thursday, July 19th when Parker, standing in his blue swim trunks on the gravelly and wild-grass-lined banks of an Idaho irrigation canal, dove back a second time into a whirlpool under a little bridge to try to rescue a drowning college classmate. It came after his death-grayed body floated a distance down the small river past the bridge and plummeted head first over a lava rock waterfall. After I had hurried to Pocatello in the middle of the night and entered alone in an ICU where Parker lay face-down on a gurney (neck brace, tubes, monitors, head injuries, under a white sheet), after he’d been turned over, after Randall had burst into the ICU from his flight from Munich, after the onlookers lined up against the other wall, after we turned off life support. After the funeral. After it was too late.
When my two dreams and their matching reality came together, a deep terror set in. It paralyzed me. All I could conclude was that I’d fatally ignored God’s 3-D cinematic warnings given an entire month and then a week ahead of time. Plenty of lead time to have yanked fate off its tracks. Plenty of time to have saved my own child.
Yet I hadn’t.
Why not? Why had I not? Why? Why?!
The Eternal Now
For so long I wrestled with every psychological angle. Had I been worried what others would think if I told them I, some homemade visionary, had had a couple of disturbing dreams, so please no water activities this summer? And we’re going to be walking everywhere for a while, no cars? Would I make everyone too anxious to live if I said I’d foreseen a male loved one in his last moments in an ICU scene? Or was what kept me from using these dreams to prevent tragedy something worse, something far more sinister, a character flaw, like a chink of sloppiness, selfishness, distraction, irresponsibility?
Whatever the reasons behind not having advertised the dreams, what it came down to in my mind was that I was to blame. And that meant that beyond the gutting of grief, a boulder of guilt weighed on top of me. I shared that boulder with only a very, very few.
This is what a confidant wrote when I shared my boulder of guilt:
Warnings that you didn’t heed? No, no. Please do not torment yourself with such thoughts. These dreams were, rather, preparatory glimpses into what we mortals call “the future.” God, we know, is not bound or limited by our understanding of time and space. For God, all eternity is one Eternal Now. Somehow, through God’s great power and mercy and your own maternal in-tune-ness, you were permitted to see into the Eternal Now for two brief moments. You were a Seer. You are right to see these experiences, these dreams or visions, as evidence of God’s grace and as a testament to the fact that, for whatever terrible and holy reasons, this was taken into account in the cosmic scheme that includes your beautiful Parker.
What you hear from my friend’s message is that after much time packed with much spiritual work, (seeking God’s guidance through meditation, study, questioning and waiting for concrete answers, seeking to live close to Parker’s ongoing spirit, serving others as lovingly as I was able, gathering evidence of God’s loving kindness to our family and to me personally), I grew settled on this matter. I no longer felt I was solely responsible for his death. I accepted (and was not conquered by) death.
Could I have used those dreams as megaphone warnings to my family and circle of friends? Could I have forbidden all water activities for the summer? Forever? Could I have locked away every male I cared for who fit the description of the man I’d seen in my dream ICU? Kept them from cars? Cross walks? Random falling timber?
(You see how quickly love, grief, and longing wax irrational.)
I suppose so, yes. I could have done all of the above. But would having done so assured their survival? And as important, perhaps: Would having done so also have wrung out the very life from life, “killing” everyone another way? Never allowing them to live? Heaping on them fear, anxiety, foreboding?
But let me ask again: If my dreams were given not as forewarning, (knowing that even with such forewarnings I couldn’t have prevented my son’s accident), but were given as comforting communication to be recalled in the world of after, what does all this mean?
For starters, a conventional worldview that rejects any reality outside of the physical realm we inhabit cannot offer sufficient meaning in this riddle. A worldview that denies some kind of spiritual circuitry connecting my dreaming spirit with a much Higher Source of Light and Truth, (whom I call God), doesn’t offer meaning, either. Even quantum mechanics and parallel universes don’t account for these exquisitely personal communications and their broader, this-world (irrigation canal and ICU) context. And most especially, those theories are incapable of addressing the especially precious, abiding, and reciprocal relationship I have felt all along with my guide, my God.
But my friend’s Eternal Now. That’s something I can sink into. As cosmos-bending and challenging to our puny minds as might seem a loving God caring for each of us from the middle of an Eternal Now, it does take it all in : Horror, holiness, time, relativity, space, us, something-far-beyond-us, everything.
In the end, (if there is an end), that notion of everything sits very, very well with me.
Sweet dreams to you all.
(Evening spreads over the irrigation canal leading to Monkey Rock.)
February is my memorial month, four weeks of sifting through archives of dozens of journal entries, hundreds of emails, multiple early book drafts, and other previously unpublished writings so that I can remember, reconnect, literally re-collect, and offer something valuable to you.
It’s a tender and unpredictable process. In spite of my especially heavy professional and private schedule this month, I’ve found myself at my computer in the middle of the night more times than I can count, often listing with longing, tears blurring my vision (or streaming freely) as I return to pieces of writing and living that have shaped me profoundly, and to others I’d somehow forgotten.
Here’s a photo I found in my midnight rummaging. The accompanying text is from Global Mom, where I bring you here, the Pont des Arts, a bridge over the Seine where the music of life is pulsing over the Cit of Light. These are the last lines before the lights go out and his pulse stops under a bridge in an irrigation canal in rural Idaho.
It was the night of the Fête de la Musique. Throughout that June night, Paris vibrates with its annual city- wide festival of music, when musicians of every sort—madrigal choirs, rap artists, reggae bands, orchestras, flamenco guitarists, string chamber ensembles—are free to make their music any place they want in the streets or in concert venues and for as long as they can hold out. As the name Fête de la Musique says, it’s a music party; but fête is pronounced just like faites, the imperative form of to do, making of the title a typically French jeu des mots or play on words: “Do music!”
Nothing could have suited our firstborn better. Parker, who as I’ve written was part of a circle of local percussionists, met with them on the Pont des Arts for many hours of pure drumming explosion.
Walking toward that bridge, you could feel the electricity thrumming in surging beats already in the ground and through the air. Crowds had already packed the bridge, so the children couldn’t see over all the heads, and Randall and I couldn’t see around all the bodies to find Parker. But we knew he was there somewhere. Maybe listening. Maybe hanging out with friends one last time.
As we moved closer, Dalton and Luc, who could see under people’s arms and between their knees, spotted their big brother. “Hey, Parker!” Luc yelled. But the drum beating was so thick, you couldn’t hear your own voice as it left your own mouth, let alone hear the voice of a waify seven-year-old.
Luc pulled me by my hand toward the crowd, then motioned to Randall to hoist him on his shoulders. “The crowd!” I yelled over the din, “there must be hundreds!” At least four or five hundred people on that one bridge alone, and they split apart just enough so we could edge our way toward the source. And there he sat, djembe between his knees, the white boy with blue-gray eyes, his hair cropped very short to his well-shaped skull, the American boy (but who would have ever known?) named “Par Coeur” by the likes of Shafik, his closest Tunisian drumming buddy, and five others all of African descent. There they all were, swaying and pulsing to the pounding of their own djembes and large tub drums, or rocking, eyes closed, as they pummeled their instruments together.
The energy could just about lift you off your feet. It made the bridge tremble and sway. And standing there in the push of all these people, I sensed I had to hold myself together, had to keep myself from throwing my arms in the air and spinning for sheer delirium. This was a Paris I understood, a place where millions of people sing their songs and beat their rhythms but do it all at once. Somehow, it’s not cacophonic but something beyond it, a grand intimacy and intimate grandiosity strung along the river and its several bridges.
Over those bridges, under those bridges, behind the museums, in front of the Metro stops. Children, old people, all colors, all persuasions, tourists, policemen, the homeless, the political elite. Everyone on one night crowding the skies with their music. In the center of this—really in the physical center—sat my boy, the one who’d banged into pieces my big Tupperware bowls on linoleum in New Jersey and broken to splinters my mixing spoons on the wooden kitchen floor in Norway. Who’d gotten his first drum set from a retiring musician down the street on our island and had beaten the sticks to a pulp. Who every Thursday late afternoon and in the fifteenth arrondissement of this city, had shown up for his drum lessons from a French percussionist with a long gray beard tied neatly with a red macramé bow. There was this son, shoulder to shoulder with the world, whamming and jamming with his people—all people, everyone and anyone who would stamp and clap and catch the hem of his rhythm.
“Dad?” I heard Dalton trying to raise his voice to get Randall’s attention through the noise. “Dad?” our blonde and reticent eleven-year-old was standing, a bit self-conscious, awed, visibly, by his brother. Not as comfortable yet in his skin as this muscular drummer was, but every bit as thoughtful as your average fifty-year-old.
“Yes, Dalton?” Randall crouched down to hear better.
“Dad,” Dalton was watching the movement ripple through crowd encircling the place where the seven drummers sat, feeling the surge of the drums’ cadence. “Dad, do you think . . . heaven’s anything like this?”
Randall and I laughed a bit then smiled. But Dalton was sober, stone cold serious.
I’ve held those words as if in plaster in my mind. And I have had to wonder.
“Protect then push. Protect, protect, protect, protect. Then one day, you’ll need to push.”
The woman advising us knew what she was talking about. Joyce Ashton was a bereaved mother herself as well as a professional grief counselor who’d written and lectured with her husband Dennis about major loss and bereavement. We were sitting in their living room in December, five months after our 18 year old son’s burial.
All our years –– over 15 at that time –– of living outside the US, yet it had never once occurred to us to spend the holidays anywhere but the country in which we lived “abroad.” Until now. We fled our drafty Munich monastery with hastily packed carry-ons and flew a world away from isolation that weighed like a glacier on our spirits. We arrived in the Rocky Mountains of the American west where family waited to take us in.
The children needed levity. I couldn’t even give them a strand of cheap tinsel. Randall was down thirty pounds (12 kilos) since July, ashen, his eyes sunken. I moved like a burn victim released from a year in solitary confinement. My five months of deliberate retreat from human interaction and the terrifying world out there had left me, when I now stepped off the airplane, blinking at lights, recoiling from sounds. Brittle and liquefied, jittery and ready to melt into any caring arms. I was both.
As we sat in the Ashton’s living room speaking short hand known to the grief-stricken, I knew Joyce’s advice to “protect then push” was right. And that Balzac was wrong. “Give to a wounded heart seclusion,” he’d written, “consolation nor reason ever effected anything in such a case.”
At least Balzac was partially wrong. Seclusion had been a gift to my heart. A severe gift. But just that afternoon while meditating a clear inner voice instructed me: “Retreat was a gift to you. But you can’t stay there. If you do, you might never emerge. And if you wait too long to emerge, too much will have died in the meantime. You must go out.”
From the US, I wrote this email to a friend:
You worry about my withdrawal. Don’t. I know that every tale of spiritual rebirth is a tale of withdrawal: to the wilderness, into a whale, into a vessel, into a tomb, into a mountaintop, into a grove. . .This is no surprise, as mortal life itself is a descent from the light and warmth of preexistence into a dark and isolated womb followed by the stressful entrance into a world of blaze and clatter. (No wonder infants howl at birth!) Right now, I’m in gestation, huddling tightly in a womb. I will learn everything this sanctuary can teach me.
I also wrote in my journal about Christ’s model of protecting and pushing:
Been studying Matthew 14. Many careful readings. Christ’s love of his cousin John the Baptist, Christ’s grief at JB’s violent, cold-blooded murder. Some of Christ’s disciples had been John’s disciples, so they were grieving, too. How He longed to go into a desert place apart – isolation – to grieve, (did He commune with the Father there? With the Baptist?) but He couldn’t tarry there long because so many needed Him. And how Christ turns in compassion to the throngs needing His blessing. None of their burdens was as great as his. Lame? Blind? Leprous?Just hungry? He was bearing all of them, and more. He bore it all. Still, he didn’t dismiss them. Was his compassion awakened/enlarged due to His “acquaintance with grief” (Isaiah), his sudden loss, a loss foreshadowing His imminent crucifixion? He actively turns towards others as an extension – completion? – of his grieving process. And what happens? The great miracle of loaves and fishes, itself a type and shadow of the Last Supper.
A week after seeing the Ashtons, getting that inner voice public service announcement, and reading Matthew 14, I sat in another room, this time in Germany. I’d contacted the gentleman who oversaw our church congregation in Munich, telling him I needed to meet with him as soon as we were back in town.
That man (whom we call our bishop) was a truly good soul, a sympathetic, soft-spoken young father and first-time expatriate doing his utmost to lead our scrappy little gaggle of members. And I had the distinct feeling that we terrified him. Or at least really worried him. Or presented him with a peculiar challenge.
From the start we signaled we wanted no visits, no leadership responsibilities, in spite of two decades of back-to-back leadership “callings” in our congregations everywhere we’d lived. In fact, I’d told our bishop to please not even call on me to pray aloud in meetings. Not because I couldn’t or didn’t want to pray (what else was I doing all week long, anyway?), but because every time I bowed my head –– I knew this –– I poured out tears like a jug gushes water.
As a couple and family we were working so hard every day and night all week long to just keep breathing, to keep ourselves together, to access spiritual strength and get the divine guidance we craved, not to mention to deal with the many unanswered questions about Parker’s accident, the fallout in the lives of others involved in that accident, and the potential legal implications. Every day was dire. Every day was a face-to-face encounter with The Big Issues.
And we’d just arrived in a new country. So there was that.
But Sundays. They weren’t like the sanctuary that was my weekday world, not much like our makeshift monastery. What could be, though, but a morgue? At church we tried to swerve around but couldn’t help but hear the normal chit-chat, those hallway conversations about how tough it was to not have 24-hour pharmacy drive-throughs. How irritating to not find diapers sold in bulk. How annoying that there weren’t more cinemas that showed movies in English. And how hard it was to send a son off to university, or on a mission, or to some place without decent WIFI.
And this all made us feel like we were aliens, sensitive to the point of being skinless, flinching and wincing at normal human behavior: glibness, facile answers, chirpiness, glee, dogma-as-bandage, platitudes.
We regularly side-stepped out.
People side-stepped around us.
I’m surprised they tolerated us as much as they did. Mourning, especially with strangers, takes super human patience and a divine dose of sympathy. I know everyone was doing their human best.
What resulted, though, was a vacuum-packed existential isolation, a loneliness-to-the-point-of-desperation I’d never felt before in my lifetime exacerbated by the fact that it was happening exactly where we’d always felt most at home: in our faith community.
So as I was saying … I asked for an interview.
“You wanted to talk, Sister Bradford?” my bishop asked, his eyes open and soft.
“Well, not really. I don’t want to talk. But I know I need to.” I think I was already crying.
“Please. Please, tell me what’s on your mind, on your heart. How can I help you?”
He was tall with a visible goldenness to him, this man. He held his hands folded on his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
How could you help me? Ideally, I thought, ideally … you could weep long and hard with me about our son. Or not even cry. You might ask about him. But I won’t beg you or any of my brothers and sisters here to feign interest, pretend heartache. No, can’t do that. Solicit sorrow?
“I’m …” I interrupted my own freight train of thought, “I think I’m ready to help. I’m ready to reach out and do something here. Do you have something I can do, something you need me to do?”
Bishop: “You want to serve here at church?”
I nodded, still crying into my lap. A box of tissues came from his hand.
I looked up from my lap. He was gracious, silent.
Then he took a long breath. “Well. That is interesting, Sister Bradford.”
He went on: “We’ve been praying and fasting and discussing over the holidays while your family was away how we could serve you, how we could possibly help your grieving family. And we got the impression that as soon as you were ready, Sister Bradford, you would tell us. And when you would tell us, we would have work for you to do.”
Me again: “??”
“How ready are you to serve, Sister Bradford? What can you take on? I want to be very sensitive to––”
I remember in that moment feeling a single rusty engine rev exactly once in my lower thoracic region. I butted in:
“––Whatever … whatever you need me to do. I am ready. I want to share what we’ve learned, what we’re learning.”
He leaned back in his chair. He smiled. Then he leaned forward: “We’d like to ask you to teach the teenagers. Sunday School.”
“And … seminary.” (An extra weekly youth instruction.)
“And would you teach the women’s class?”
“Once or twice a month?”
“Would you be able to teach the adult gospel doctrine class?”
Nod. Smile. Two engines churned. Maybe a third.
Nod. Smile. Joy-heat rising.
“And there is … one special and wonderful sister, a shut-in for years, serious health problems. But she lives 45 minutes away. You have a car. Can you visit her?”
Slow nod. Big eyes. Little sniffles.
Once I got that gig up and running, a couple of months later I also began team-teaching mid-weekly evening classes –– what we Mormons call Institute ––a gospel study course for all young adults in the greater Munich region.
You might say I found “push.”
I also found loss. By that I mean that as I pushed myself in an effort to serve others, I connected with people and there found more loss than I had previously known existed among us. It was everywhere, in all forms. (I could make a list here, but you know as well as I do that that list would use up all my battery and yours.)
Before major loss became my personal story and not someone else’s fiction, I was oblivious to much of its world, its look, its contours, its devils. The hook is this: Once loss was my story it wouldn’t have been enough––in fact it would have been a reverberating secondary loss and a dead end story –– to remain withdrawn in that narrative cul de sac for good. That wise inner voice had instructed me: Don’t let your sanctuary become your sarcophagus. I had to push.
So strengthened from my months in retreat, I now served. As much as could. And at the same time, so many, many people served our family. We wept three years later when we left our community in Munich.
If I lost my monastic retreat, it was never meant to be my permanent residence. Because outside its protection I found life.
And Inspiration. Power. Friendship. Help. Wisdom. Answers. Guidance. Comfort. Love. Tenderness. Meaning. Hope. Compassion. Holiness. Visions. Answers. Strength. Light. Vigor. Humor. Resilience. Relief. Brothers. Sisters. Community.
Loaves. Fishes. Miraculous Nourishment. God.