How Will You Compose Your Life?

Forty-eight hours after a technician turned off our son’s life support, my husband and I found ourselves going through the two suitcases and one backpack that contained virtually all of his earthly belongings. Basketball shoes, a navy parka, a half-empty tube of toothpaste, t-shirts, a folded print-out of his university classes for that summer term, some Polaroid photos of the one week he’d had on campus. On our knees and speechless, we fingered through sacred debris while alternately holding in and letting flow stinging streams of disbelief.

In Global Mom: A Memoir, I describe the moment:

A nice woman had gone to Parker’s dormitory and packed all he’d had in his room. Late one night, we’d sat, Randall and I, on someone’s living room floor in that university town, sifting through those things: his journals and class notes (his handwriting); his wallet; a Post-It with “remember to call Kevin”—simple, chest-crushing tidbits. A bitter, obliterating treasure hunt. His laminated student ID with its unwitting, wide-open smile. I’d clasped it ferociously to my heart.

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In an outside pocket of Parker’s backpack, we found a notebook with “Religion” and “Life” written on the cover.  “I just wonder what…” Randall’s voice receded as he opened to the single page of scant notes from this class Parker had attended during his first (and only) week at university. There, in green felt tip was this heading:

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“What do we take back through the veil?”

Not your usual question, even for a religion class. And certainly not typical for an eighteen-year-old college freshman whose wide eyes were riveted on a future chockfull of promise and invulnerability. He had all those pages to fill, after all, his whole life story to write.

Those pages. How they gawked at me, empty and echoing, void of my child’s voice. I had to grit my teeth to hold in a yowling tornado of agony as I imagined our son, robust and buoyant, jotting down those words so casually. I could envision him chatting in class, (“Parker, you raised your hand. Any thoughts?”), yakking away about death-as-theory. Then he would be slapping the notebook shut, slipping it into a backpack, and slinging its weight over his shoulder. Off to meet death head on.

The ink had hardly dried on the page before death itself answered this question for Parker.

What did that answer look like? What remained of Parker after he was pinned for several minutes in a lethal whirlpool, knocked out under water, then flushed out head first over jagged lava rock waterfalls? Anything? Did oblivion claim him?

If Not Oblivion, What?

Let’s try to imagine the possibilities. Did something endlessly him transcend flesh and bones, homeostasis, neurotransmission? Did this essential self, his spirit, peel from his oxygen-deprived body which was dragged by students to a patch of waterside gravel? Did spirit-Parker watch students encircling his body as they screamed, “Don’t leave us, Parker! Come back, Parker!”

Could his immortal identity, his distinct self, have been totally present and brightly aware of the paramedics panting as they attempted and reattempted CPR, barking, “Compressions! Keep on the compressions!” Did he see the local hospital emergency nurses hold those defibrillators to his chest again and again and again, then give shots of epinephrine? Was he present as the life flight pilots settled their helicopter on the landing pad then rushed his gray-blue body on that gurney into the regional trauma center? As his mother knelt, groaning, at the side of his body in the ICU? As his father bent over his firstborn’s feet and held them, praying? As his sister and soul mate touched his forearm then folded into sobs? As one younger brother stared in shock and the youngest huddled in the arms of a friend in a hallway? As the classmate, the one Parker had risked his life trying to save from drowning, was ushered into the room?

During a day and a half of coma, was whatever constitutes the inextinguishable Parker somehow close at hand? At the moment the doctor pronounced him brain dead did Parker hear those words? And as the ventilator’s whoosh was silenced, did my son communicate to some of us around his gurney, “I am here. I will always be right here”?

My point is not to convince anyone of what for me is self-evident; that Parker (and you and I) are immortal beings.  I don’t need to take on Nietzsche, Camus, Hawking, the long list of nihilists, or the even longer list of neutralists, the ones who shrug and chuckle, saying, “Es ist noch niemand zurückgekommen.” (No one’s come back yet.)

My point, instead, is to explore one thing: To what extent might that green question change our lives?

One True Sentence

What if that question were our life thesis, influencing our desires, choices, behavior? What if, as I wrote my life story, I were to place that question as my thesis statement? Right there on page one and in neon green?

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Hemingway, referring to writing, called this kind of guiding idea the “one true sentence.” It structures creation, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. When applied to writing our life story, that “one true sentence” works as an underlying grammar or fusing phrase for all we do and are. It is our mantra.

I mentioned this in another blog entry:

If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?

I like “What will you take through the veil?” because it is an instant sifter. It separates the significant from the trivial. It boldfaces what is lastingly essential and fades what is not. So much of what gets my goat (not to mention my time, energy, money, focus) is frivolous; too much of what is truly durable, sadly, gets short shrift. That question, if internalized, winnows away distractions, and slackens the sweaty grip of temporality, materialism, self-absorption, greed, despair –– so many ills. It even undoes the deadening choke of nihilism.

As another bereaved mother and author says:

The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula, I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give much more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved. I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don’t know if they even like me. But who cares? Loving them is my joy.

Give, give, give — what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don’t give it away? Of having stories if I don’t tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don’t share it? I don’t intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.

It is in giving that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.

…My daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give.

-Isabel Allende

 

Think about it: How challenging yet how refining to write one’s life story based on the conviction that what remains with us at death is that which we have given. That by sharing our experience, knowledge, talents, stories,  wealth –– even our whole selves –– we don’t just become one with others, the world, and the divine, but we ourselves become people who are bigger, richer, more fundamentally alive. Simply put, there is much more to us when we die.

And that’s what it means for us. What does it mean for Parker?

I think it means that at the age of eighteen years and five months, and on a summer evening in his first week of university, in a canal with an unmarked, deadly whirlpool, he went back in the vortex twice to free a fellow student who was trapped and drowning. And he did not lose life.

He gave it. He gave it and he has it more than ever, even now.

 

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Their Story is Our Story: Giving Refugees a Voice

With our friends at Limburg refugee camp, central Germany

With our friends at Limburg refugee camp

How do a hard-working, visionary refugee liaison, an award-winning videographer, an award-winning photographer, award-winning portrait painter, and an award-winning author who have never all met each other,  (they live in four different time zones), find one another and combine their gifts to bless the displaced, distressed and desperate?

Divine choreography.

And what are the results?

A great deal of 3:00 a.m. cross-global texting. Plus some moments of humbled amazement.

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Their Story is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees

The five of us involved in this project have watched as our connections––simply too far-flung to happen without reliable WIFI, and too far-fetched to happen without a steady dose of heavenly intervention –– have seemed to slide into place. Really, it’s been like liquid lightning. The electricity has flowed and flowed.

Trisha with Leyla, whose story will send thunder through your bones.

Trisha with Leyla, whose story, which we will soon share, will send thunder through your bones. She is a survivor multiple times over.

So let me first hand over the page to Trisha, my friend and inspiration in doing refugee work here in Germany. She can explain to you how Their Story is Our Story (TSOS) evolved.

And then I will share three brief refugee profiles with you. They are but a foretaste of what TSOS is about.

Finally, I’d like you to meet the team, including Garrett Gibbons, Elizabeth Benson Thayer, and Lindsay Allen Silsby, who in under five minutes will surely ignite a desire in you to lean in, step forward, and reach out with compassion to our refugee sisters and brothers.

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Trisha recently wrote the following to her circle of friends who have been involved in refugee work here in Germany:

Some of you might be interested in a project that has fallen from the cosmos and into my life.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a dear American artist friend who used to live here in Frankfurt, and on the same day a message was forwarded to me from a complete stranger in London who does high-end portraits. Both of these women have been feeling strong impressions to put their talents to work for the refugees here in Europe. Meanwhile, I had been having strong impressions about putting together a media project to share these beautiful people and their incredible stories with others. I am certain this was not by chance that the Spirit was working on all of us at the same time…it is very simply Divine Choreography!

In the two weeks since then, things have just fallen into place. A group of five people with amazing gifts has formed and we are planning for them to travel from Seattle, Washington, northern Utah, and from London to sketch, photograph and film refugees here in the Frankfurt area and then, hopefully, in the camps in Greece. Some of the stories we hope to tell are people you may know. Adib and his son, Hasan. Tahmina, Daniel, Hangama and their family. Others we’ve grown so close to, whose stories inspire and

Our plan is to create first a video and then a book and eventually a traveling exhibit. We want to tell these stories and change hearts! I feel so strongly the hand of Diety in this project! As you each have felt, I feel the special attention our Father in Heaven is paying these people at this time. And I know that this project is His project.

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Now, for three brief profiles of people who have become far more than “refugees” to us. In fact, we don’t like the word “refugee” very much, as it generalizes (and neutralizes) the poignancy and sacredness of each human story.

ADIB

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Adib, a true gentleman.

Adib, a true gentleman.

Adib is a Palestinian Syrian from Damascus, whose thriving business as a master mason and ceramic tile layer was laid to rubble when war ravaged his world. With his son and business partner, Hasan, Adib made luxurious baths and kitchens in his home country, but most of them, like his own home, are now no more than a crater. Father and son made the perilous winter journey to Germany where both have been living for months in a tented barrack outside the town of Limburg. In spite of having lost virtually every material thing, Adib seems to maintain a perpetually sunny outlook. He is often found sitting with his head bent over his German lesson book, piecing together this new language the way he used to place tiles; meticulously, with patience, and always with the end result, integration, in mind. With these new reading glasses which he was given by a camp volunteer, Adib looks toward a bright and peaceful future.

VAHID

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Elizabeth Benson Thayer's sketch of Vahid

Elizabeth Benson Thayer’s sketch of Vahid

Vahid is Iranian, and arrived in Germany with the first wave of refugees in the early autumn of 2015. He was barely in his 20s. That journey meant leaving behind everything that was familiar and of value to him, including his home with his entire extended family and a mother he adores, his culture with its poetic language and fragrant food, his lifelong friends, and the plans they’d all made for the future. All this to launch into the complete unknown and in order to escape encroaching religious persecution and civil unrest. Vahid is a musician, and finds refuge in composing as well as singing while accompanying himself on a guitar. But you can’t easily make music in a cramped refugee camp. And of course among the few things he could carry over his shoulder, a guitar was not included. Already, he’s sung publicly in German, one of the many steps he’s taking toward integration in this new world.

TAHMINA

Daniel, Tahmina and Hangama Ahmadi

Daniel, Tahmina and Hangama Ahmadi

Tahmina is Afghani, the eldest of four siblings, and made it to Germany almost entirely by foot. Like her younger brother Daniel, who is a whizz at chess (and beats every last refugee camp volunteer who challenges him to a set), Tahmina is obviously bright and ambitious. Her English reflects a solid education and an eager mind. She hesitates to give too many details of the perilous trek from her homeland to Europe, (“So dangerous. So frightening. So sad,” she says), and doesn’t dwell on her innumerable losses. No stranger to hazard, Tahmina lived all her eighteen years with war and terror as a daily backdrop, since Afghanistan has been the stage for constant insurrections, coups, unrest, and destruction for 35 years. With Hangama, her younger sister, and Muri, her baby brother, she and her parents have one hope: to escape fear and live together in peace.

Please watch. Please share.

 

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.