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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come Together Right Now Over Me: Funeral Remarks for My Son

[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.

Par Cœur

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.

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Protect Then Push: How a Sanctuary and Service Helped My Grief

“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.

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The gravesite without its stone. The ground was frozen. We waited for a spring thaw.

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.”

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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. 

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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.”

Me: “??”

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.”

I nodded.

“And … seminary.” (An extra weekly  youth instruction.)

I nodded.

“And would you teach the women’s class?”

Nod.

“Once or twice a month?”

Nod. Nod.

“Would you be able to teach the adult gospel doctrine class?”

Nod. Smile. Two engines churned. Maybe a third.

“Every week?”

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.

“Every week?”

Nod.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love’s Life Preserver: First Aid in the Face of Grief

What is it about expressions of love that helped us so much in the face of great grief? Maybe the following metaphor might help you understand.

The expression “drowning in sorrow” was more than a metaphor for us; we knew it day and night in our repeated day terrors and nightmares wherein we relived Parker’s last minutes. Figuratively, too, the vortex of grief had us grabbing for each other’s hands, gasping for air, but we couldn’t always help each other up from the vicious downward suction.

And wouldn’t you know it. That is just when some fearless, grounded friend expressed love for us, for our three living children, and for Parker, and right then it felt like someone had extended an arm or hurled us a life preserver.

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Sometimes that love came to us in words, spoken or written. We have hundreds of archived emails, some of which I’ll share in future posts. We received beautiful, simple letters by conventional mail. We got text messages over months. Phone calls. Soft, cautious conversations that warmed and strengthened us.

Other times, words were unneeded. Love came as a penetrating glance from across the board room. In the form of a CD of gentle music in a padded envelope in the post box. As a single hand placed steadily on the shoulder. Other times it was in a dozen of Aunt Yvonne’s Tangy Lemon Bars.

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Whatever it was, that act of love was like a life vest that actually buoyed us up. We could grab on to something bobbing on the surface, filled with the spirit, at once lighter but at the same time more powerful than the darkly spinning whirlpool of grief. For that moment we could breathe. For a while our hearts felt sturdy. Something about simply knowing someone was there on the shore next to us reaching for us – something I still cannot explain but am forever indebted to – gave us hope and stamina to keep fighting from giving up and being pulled completely under the waters of despair.

These people who showed us love  (certainly not all members of our faith, by the way) lived by instinct the spirit of a certain well known discourse from Mormon scripture. In that passage I’m thinking of, an ancient prophet outlines what is required in order to enter into the fold of God. His list is instructive: Be willing bear one another’s burdens; Be willing to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort; Stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things.

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Here I notice that this charge to mourn and comfort—to sorrow with and to offer power (comfort = con-fortis = with power) to others –– benefits everyone, not just the person drowning. Mourning and comforting are soul-deepening and life-saving also for those who try to rescue. By practicing compassion, we are practicing pure religion, which means we experience being liberated from our own limiting egos to be connected – bound, sealed – in profound unity with others. We discover the thrill of being part of something larger than ourselves, the soothing place of communion, the safety of community.

“Standing as witnesses of God” means standing in for God on the edge of another’s whirlpool of grief, ready to risk our comfort, our safety, our egos, and if necessary our very lives in pulling against the weight of someone else’s discomfort. That calls for great and abiding feeling, soul-deep empathy, even fiery absorption.  For most of us, that calls for learning a whole new depth of love.

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Love, then – more than therapy, drugs, diversion, anything –  is the ultimate aid in grief. It is, at least,  the “first aid,” as in the French, premier secours, secours deriving from the same root as the English “to succor.” To succor is to love – intensely, immediately, selflessly and unselfconsciously. Its nature propels that urgent dash to save in the very first moments, that breathless rushing in, that racing-to-resuscitate sort of behavior.

That kind of love is precisely the kind our grieving family received in bulk and over  weeks, months, years.  We would not be standing if it weren’t for all the love that held us up then and holds us up still.

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(To be continued: “Protect, protect, protect…then push.”)

Shell Shocked or Shelled? What Happened in the Face of Death

I continue my February posts where I draw from files (my early book drafts never published, correspondence, study notes, my journals).

Why would I do this? Because it’s February, and our Parker, gone at 18, would be 27 next week. I’m paddling, (most days with the muscle of deliberate joy and the oars of gratitude), against a familiar downward suction.

As much as for Parker,  I’m here because I’m not done sharing with you what I’ve learned. And I would never want you to leave any interaction with me (in my books, my interviews, my public addresses, my social media presence, even chatting on the street) misled to believe that major loss is either a dead end – you’re captive in this killer swirl forever – or a hurdle you can spring over. Like bungee jumping over the valley of the shadow of death.

No way.

Grief gets its way in my writings. It’s an Orc. Raging, violent, terrifying, devastating. Ugly.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

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But grief, as I’ve experienced it, is mostly something else. It can be this:

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What I’ve learned is that it does no good to share the first image without some promise of the second. You’d discount me as hyperbolic, melodramatic, dark-spirited.

And it does no good to share the second image without some acknowledgement of the first. You’d incorrectly believe that the entirety of grief has fluid lines and feathered shoulders. Knowing grief yourself, you’d maybe discount me as a prettifier. Or not knowing grief, you might, from my writings, be poorly informed when you face others’ grief. “Uh….It wasn’t supposed to be this messy,” you’d think when your grieving friend acts like he’s stalked by Azog the Defiler.

So I give you both. Here, I continue in the ICU, where our son lay in a deep coma:

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 11:30 a.m., Friday, July 20

By late Friday morning our other three children arrived, brought by loving family and friends. The waiting room was overflowing. I didn’t go out there, though, but once, I think.

Claire I kept close to me while Kristiina [Sorensen] and Sharon [Leigh] sheltered Dalton and Luc in a waiting room far down the hall, away from things that hung in suspended animation. I cannot write about Claire. It’s beyond painful. She and Parker were soul mates, our inseparable two from Norway’s barnepark, the team that then confronted French together, shared the same friends, understood one another on a level I’m sure we parents never even approached. We’d sent Parker a care package two days earlier–candy bars, funny dollar gifts, love notes, laughing and joking, imagining his reactions – and now we huddled, whispered, stared at the side of his gurney. Slumped into one another’s arms, we half-reclined in a vinyl recliner, arms wrapped around our shared human furnace of horror.

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 20

Randall landed at the Pocatello airport and his brother brought him straight to Portneuf. Pallid and panting, he burst through the doors. I first embraced him, then braced him, and then he cried out softly, “Parker. Oh, sweet, sweet son. . .”

My relief was immediate. My sorrow compounded. My heart, having raced to this instant, now skidded to a standstill. This father, squeezing his eyes closed, carefully placed his hands on his son’s exposed ankle then slowly walked those hands up the sheet over the calf and thigh. I zeroed in on those hands, wide and thick, like his son’s, hands which now rested delicately, tentatively, on the son’s lower back. He spread his fingers on that sheet then took his son’s limp hand with its half-opened fist and slipped his own fingers in between Parker’s. His shoulders drew up as if to hold the horror weighing down his head. His face seemed over a hundred years old. And he then turned that face, eyes now closed, upward. Then those eyes, mirrors of devastation, opened to meet mine.

Some things are simply too cruel.

I’ve heard people describe “shell shock.” The traumatized are obliterated, rendered incapable of reason and normal function, stunned into catatonic silence. They fold in on themselves like inexpensive, soaked pocket umbrellas, or go rigid and blank, chalk-like. They splutter and mumble and rock violently back and forth. They heave an armchair or themselves through a window.

“Shell shock” was part of what we felt. No question. We were shocked. Scorched. Thunderstruck. In the weeks and even a couple of months that followed, in fact, we would bear medically diagnosable signs of being mildly concussed, of having had our nerve-endings singed, their pathways rerouted. We routinely asked what year we were living in. What month. What world.

But being “shell shocked” was not all we felt. We felt “shelled,” too, encased in holiness. More electrified than obliterated, enclosed in a sanctuary suspended between two vibrating realms – here and there, earth and heaven – in a small ICU space where we were buoyed up by a rare liquid luminosity.

There was, in that protected realm, also a slight opening, a pinpoint in the center of my closed-eye, closed-ear world. It was very still and very light. I concentrated on that spot. It was warm and steady and streamed forth love and safety. When I felt my way there, I sensed how the entire room filled, like with a rising tide, with that love. With that tide came understanding, a brief glimpse into the crystalline, high-resolution Big Picture. Such love and understanding released rays of purposefulness, which rose like basement light through the planks of an old floor, illuminating things from all angles, crowding and cradling the room.

(To be continued…)

ICU: Things I’ve Never Shared About Losing Our Son

It’s taken eight years, two books, several live interviews, and multiple public addresses on the topic. I think I’m finally ready.

For February, our son Parker’s would-be 27th birthday, I’m going to share some heavies. It’s like doing daily isometrics. That means  that  grief’s vortex tends to pick up in pitch and suction near his birthday, making me long to sink into deep, silent retreat. But I’m not giving in. I’m resisting. Instead of going limp and lifeless, I’m sharing myself every day in person and in print.

One channel of sharing is the hands-on refugee work I’m blessed to be able to be involved in here in central Europe. (If you want more descriptions about that, you can dip into my Facebook, or my MDBglobalmom Instagram and Twitter accounts.)

The other channel of sharing is what I’ll now do here on the blog. Over eight years I’ve written steadily on major loss (journals, early book drafts, study notes, correspondence with wise friends, etc.) Now I want to share some of the more personal – and therefore powerful–pieces with you.

A few of these I’ve been posting on my @OnLossandLivingOnward Facebook page. (Click on that title.) But because some of those texts are long or of a delicate intimate / spiritual nature, I’ve been thinking Facebook just isn’t the right place for them.

So to the blog. Note: I’m not necessarily following any linear progression over the next few posts. I’m pulling what grabs my heart and what I feel might be of most value to my readers. I know some of you want a community of solidarity in your own grief, and I know others want to understand the contours and texture of major loss so that  you can help others in acute need. Your needs are a primary reason I share so openly.

The following piece I wrote within the first month after Parker took his last breath in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to which he’d been life-flighted and was being kept “alive” on a ventilator. I had driven alone and through the night to find him there, comatose.

IMG_4792Pocatello, Idaho: 3:30 a.m., Friday, July 20, 2007

There, in one of the first rooms, under greenish lights, poised impossibly flat and facedown on a gurney was my big boy. More silent and still than if he had been asleep, and propped with a neck brace was this, my oldest child, tubes snaking in and out of his nose and mouth making gurgling sounds, a stiff white sheet covering the length of his long, firm athlete’s body from waist to ankles.  I longed to wrap my self around him, but hardly dared approach his form. I dropped the black overnight bag I’d packed in a frenzy when I’d gotten the policeman’s phone call , and stepped to where I could lean very close to his profile, close enough, even, so that I could feel my own breath coming back to me off his left cheekbone. For an instant I was fooled: Is he breathing? But there was this big white laminate and stainless steel ventilator mocking that hope.

The upper edge of the cotton sheet – I could see it had a Portneuf Regional Medical Center stamp in fine gray font – was crisp, barely outlining Parker’s form beneath. His shoulders I traced with my eyes. I’d known this one mole from birth, these four tiny freckles since that sunburn from the Jersey Shore, I’d bandaged that small purplish scar when he was six. But these fresh gashes like an animal’s claws, where were they from? Parker’s newly-stilled shoulders kept expanding, lifting and dropping evenly, mechanically. I studied that hulking, uninvited machine standing on the other side of the gurney, I surveyed the other strange machines at his side and the stark fluorescent lights and the odd blue woven blankets and my unfamiliar blue fingernails, blue feet. It was a bluewhite coldness I’d never known, a cold that had lethal contours like the iceberg that took down the Titanic.

I reached for his shoulder. It was warm. His forehead and brow were badly gashed. I bent down within inches of the left side of his face and examined the metal scalp staples. His eyes were blackened, bruised, swollen and were slowly oozing a delicate trickle of blood. I froze. His mouth, oh that sweet mouth with its full bottom lip. I traced his hand. My body folded like damp origami.

“I Am Here, I Am With You”

I took his left hand in one of mine and steadied myself in a chair I had pulled as close as I could next to the gurney. Then I found and unzipped my black leather-bound set of scriptures, the first thing I’d thrown into my bag. I opened and began reading in half a voice into his left ear: “For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, And my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and profit of my children.” Parker knew these were my favorite verses from the Book of Mormon, so I chose them instinctively for our comfort. From somewhere within the room – or was it in the room of my soul? – I heard Parker’s familiar low voice, “It’s all right. It’ll all be all right. Thank you, Mom.”

I scooted the chair so my knees were now pushed under the gurney and I could almost rest my chin on Parker’s shoulder and resumed my reading, “Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.”

There were other people in the room, some I hardly knew, but I didn’t have the energy to ask them to leave. A perceptive nurse ushered them away and for a few minutes, I was allowed to be alone in the room. “Parker,” I asked inwardly, my chin to my chest and my eyes closed from distractions of light and ambient sounds, streaming tears down my face and onto the front of my shirt, “My darling, darling sweetheart, what is this? What has happened? Please, can you hear me? Where are you? I know you hear me.”

“I am here,” came the answer. “I am with you. I am right here, Mom.

I could breathe. I supported the weight of the moment with my elbows on my thighs, the heels of my hands over my eyes, my fingers up over my forehead. My scriptures lay open, flat across my knees.

“You must not leave me, Parker. You must not leave us. Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry, so sorry for this, so sorry.

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”portrait

Encompassed About

 Looking up for an instant, I was confused that his voice was so clear yet his body so utterly immobile. His mouth closed. His eyes leaking those perfectly steady drops of blood.

I pulled my scriptures up to my eyes. I continued, “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works. . .”

Another nurse came to adjust a machine and verify some numbers on a chart. I made eye contact with her, but even that quick glance was an unwelcome distraction for me, as I was trying to care for my son. And we needed to be alone, he and I. I reached up and barely touched his face as I read; “Yes, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about. . .”

Then there was activity gathering all around me, some people were moving in front of or beside or behind me, people were asking me questions, trying to be solicitous, interrupting my concentration, and I wanted to cry out that they needed to go far, far away. I was unable to form the words or use my energy for anything outside of my connection with Parker. Just to carve out a private, protected space, I closed my eyes and recited what I could by heart from my favorite passages: “And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth. . .nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”

I hungered to stretch out alongside my child on that gurney, lie down and breathe with him. For him. Give him my breath. Life support. Life support? Wasn’t that supposed to be me? Hadn’t that always been me?

Life Support

“My God hath been my support,” I kept reading, rocking lightly, rabbinically, my tone flat while tears plopped freely on my onionskin scripture pages. “He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.”

During those hours that I pleaded with God and cradled my head in my hands, dampening my scriptures with my tears, I felt the hot friction of fear and faith chafing against each other.  I wept quietly but continuously while I fought to breathe for Parker, whose tubes gurgled with air and fluid. I talked at times with those who kept vigil with me. But I primarily talked within myself to my son and to God.

(To be continued…)

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Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.

 

 

 

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

I know.  I vowed I’d be the dutiful blogger and complete in tidy fashion my series on swimming in the digital ocean. Rest assured, that ocean’s not going anywhere so I’ll get to it.  But that might take a while.  Keep reading, and I’ll explain.

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Photo: © pretoperola/123RF

My change in direction has something to do with  this. (Go ahead a read there after you’ve let me have my little say here, please.) It’s the first of my pieces for Inspirelle, a white-hot new webmag based in Paris, which is a “woman’s guide to life in Paris and beyond.”

(I believe in Paris, in the beyond, in women, in guiding, and in life. So it’s a great fit.)

So … back to oceans, back to life:

Fluctuat nec mergitur

Those words, (meaning “tossed but not sunk”), are glowing right now at the base of the blue-white-red illuminated Eiffel Tower. They shine in bold response to the terrorist attacks in Paris this month.  We can also apply them universally, to all acts of terrorism — Beirut, Russia, Kenya, Nigeria … a catalogue that can, if you’re not steadied, unhinge your sanity.

I also apply those words to the many terrors broad or private that punctuate the human experience. I’ve known some directly, and am observing all sorts in others’ lives, in your lives. Our voyages are different, but the ocean that holds humanity is the same, and none will cross without being thoroughly — and sometimes violently — shaken.

Major recent events in the world at large and in my immediate sphere have struck some deep plates. “Upheaval” doesn’t fairly describe it; “cataclysm” comes closer.  These strikes have accentuated divisions between nations, whose boundaries I can trace with my finger and whose leaders names I’ve memorized, as well as among real friends whose names and faces and stories I know by heart. Peoples — and specific people — have been struck and destabilized.

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Painting: Joseph M.W. Turner; “A Disaster at Sea”

That Sinking Feeling

In all this, there’s a temptation to claim we’re sinking, en masse, and with one inevitable glunk-glunk-glunk. But that mindset can breed hysteria (not good on the deck of any ship), or the slump of torpor. It can even increase violence.

Though fractures crack across the planet and through the core of my community, and though I often feel I’m straddling chunks of Pangea, her landmasses groaning and shifting, plate tectonics making a wild ripple ride of the face of things, I’m choosing (albeit sometimes shakily) to fight to stay afloat.  I know I can’t merely float.

Floating (false bravado, whistling in the dark, pretending immunity, retreating in a bubble, or following popular tides including those of nihilism and cynicism) — they all make us much more vulnerable to the ferocious downward suction of our times.

Reaching Deep, Reaching Up, Reaching Out

Is there a way out of that downward suction? Here’s an idea: Reach deep, reach up, and reach out. Elsewhere on this blog, and subsequently in my second book, On Loss and Living Onward, I’ve described these three reaches with different descriptors (steadiness, illumination and love), and how reaching in all three ways helps when our private world is in turmoil. These times we inhabit are volatile, requiring a far richer, more stable inner life than ever before necessary. I sense I need devotion to something larger than my fickle, earthbound, egocentric self. And I need increased service and compassion to my fellow passengers with whom I share this turbulent voyage.

Where do I start? Here. I start right here with writing. And while at times it’s fitting to write about the landscape of the digital ocean (screen time, filters, stuff we haven’t even thought of yet), other times, like right now, I only want to write about the ocean writ large. When terror roils and the earth moans, when fear rules and humankind grieves and keens, compartmentalized themes feel irrelevant, even irreverent.

So here’s to increased reverence. Thanks for allowing me to reach deeper in the next posts. With luck, we’ll remain buoyant together.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Noël — From On Loss and Living Onward

OUR LAST PARISIAN Christmas. And because we would be sending Parker, our eldest, off to college in June, we knew it would also be a “Last Christmas”—our last Christmas with all of us together, at least like this.

So I’d run myself ragged with holiday preparations: writing and direct- ing and performing in the church Christmas program; writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our ninety-five annual Christmas missives; decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and “getting into the holiday spirit.” At least that was the euphemism.

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That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I am not proud to write about. Instead of making merry with my family, I holed myself up in my bedroom for a couple of hours. In the stillness of that dark room, my body heaped unmoving upon the bed, the universe could have whispered into my heart, warning me that this would truly be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son.

Relish this evening, the universe could have stirred in me, as preparation. Memorize its every detail. Plant yourself in the middle of the scene and draw your family very, very close. Your child’s eyes—stare into them right now and learn by heart the patterns of his irises. Do you see their delicate blue-gray, their lively pupils, the way they stretch and contract in darkness and in sun- light? Do you know how much you need those eyes? This boy? His life?

There were no such messages from beyond. Or if there were, I was too distracted and far too tired to hear heavenly whispers or divine warnings or to feel celestial shoulder-tappings.

Something did, however, tap on my shoulder. And something did whisper. And something did warn me that this would be The Last Christmas with Parker. And that something was Parker himself.

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THE LAST NOËL: A TRUE CHRISTMAS STORY

“MOM?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from the doorway.

She was on her side, knees curled up slightly, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum. Her eyes stayed closed. She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall: Kitchen sounds, a swirling, tinkling holiday CD, conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in house slippers. A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there. Noises she simply wanted to escape. For as long as it would take.

She was doing it again, that thing she sometimes did. She was retreating into silence. She did this, usually, when she had overdone things. And she did have this tendency to take on too much, to leave herself no room for reverence, for breathing, for reflection, for rest. How many years had she done this? Why did she never learn? Another year-end marker and look, no change. Same old, same old. Old. Old. She felt old.

She tugged the purple comforter up to her eyes, which were leaking a lone, languid line of tears. Like a fine finger tracing with its tip, the saline trail went from the right eye over the bridge of her nose and into the corner of the left, or from the left eye down the left temple, slipping into the ear canal. Her nose grew wet in the same moment, and so she drew in one quiet sniff.

“Mom?” a voice came from the doorway. “Look . . .” the voice was moving closer behind her, “Listen, Mom.” It was her eldest son, and now he was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed. “Please, don’t do this,” he said. “Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider shifting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired. So bone-deep tired. And sad.

He sighed, her eldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sound that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? His maroon one, she remembered.

Should she just turn around and face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair that’s a bit soggy now, with tears drizzling past her ear and down her jawline? Just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some mirth into her limbs? Just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a toy train track—switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

She remained silent and still, hoping he’d think she was sleeping deeply.

This is when he tapped her right shoulder. And then he left his hand there. The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress (as she envisioned its course) and to the floor. How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched, holding in all the softer feelings her heart held in its pulse.

“Why don’t you say something, Mom? What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first. But c’mon, they’re done now. Just . . . just come out there. Come see.”

She had lodged herself too far into the silence to creep out so easily now.

Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out. Another year: gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle. Here we are again. Christmas. I should be keeping everyone’s spirit aloft. But I’m flattened.

Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of the door’s edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne. She pulled the purple up over her head.

“Hey,” came a voice from the doorway.

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his dad’s. And heavier. “Honey, we’d love for you to come out. Just eat a little dinner, ’kay? And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

So, so tired. And so emptied, clean out. All this pressure to be happy. Please. If you could let me be alone.

Her oldest son made a sudden move. His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just . . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom? Get. Up. And. Turn. It. Around.”

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled completely over, from left to right, opened her eyes, and found she was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans. Then the son knelt. His eyes met hers. He looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

“’Kay, I’m not going to add any drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all, you know? This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.

Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit. So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his calluses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

“Come on.” Now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come on in here with me.”

The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family. The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering and quibbling, and went quiet. A suppressed or hesitant grin and, “Hi . . . Mom!” came from the youngest child, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer. We’re going to turn things around here. So . . . we need to pray together. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

It was the prayer of a full-grown man. His mother—and everyone—felt its substance settle on their shoulders. They knelt for a moment in silence. But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence. This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending-swelling of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things around.

“Please . . .” the mother said, “I am so sorry,” and she looked around the circle. “It’s just been too much . . . again . . . and I needed to get some . . . distance. It’s not you, it’s— ”

“No, Mom,” the daughter said then cleared her throat, “it’s a lot, and we sometimes don’t know when we’ve made stuff hard for you, and—”

“Or when we’re bad—” said the six-year-old, who, the mom now noticed, had stars and candy canes drawn in neon marker all over his cheeks, chin, forehead, and forearms.

“No, you’re not bad,” the mother countered, as the innocent flamboyance of round red-rimmed glasses and temporary Christmas tattoos urged up into her throat a flash flood of regret and tenderness, “and this is not anyone’s fault . . .”

As the mother spoke, her words disgorged a whole swamp of apologies, into which all the children and the husband now waded with their own apologies.

Then they embraced, got off their knees . . . and embraced again.

The ten-year-old son, eyes darting as if with guilt, put his arms around his mother’s waist and asked, “You want me to scrub the stars and candy canes off him?” She shook her head and squeezed his shoulders, then watched him scuffle off with the youngest child at his side, turn back once, his eyebrows raised to be sure he’d understood—the body painting’s okay, then—and then trot down the hall, acting The Protectorate to his little brother, who skips alongside him, blonde bowl cut bouncing.

Before long, there was laughter, ruckus, and the King’s Singers decking every hall with fa-la-la-la-las.

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, shoulder-to-shoulder, nestled deep into the soft brown overstuffed sofa. He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. She, while watching that son in her peripherals, scanned the life encircling her.

Dad brought in trays of homemade eggnog. Daughter wore a new light blue fleece bathrobe and flannel pajamas on which miniature pink snowmen and reindeer danced amid snowflakes. The middle son reassembled a Lego figurine while the youngest held a pillow up under his chin, a chin that sported, like a fluorescent target, a neon gold felt tip marker star planted smack dab in the center.

That Christmas Eve, the family clustered in the plush comfort of sofa and solidarity, just like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could re- member. With mouths edged in eggnog, and with eyes groggy or wide, they nuzzled. All six of them. And they followed (or at times mirrored) the black- and-white sweetness of their favorite holiday film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

That Last Noel, life was just that: wonderful.

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The First Christmas Without Him. The Second Christmas Without Him. The Third and The Fourth and The Fifth . . .

Peering into the long tunnel of Christmases that are yet to be without Parker, our family has kept to the ritual of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I have held onto this holiday ritual even when so diminished and devastated by death that all I could do was hold back tears with one arm around my ribcage and the other around my family’s shoulders.

That first Christmas after Parker died, though sliced to the bone by the scythe of sudden loss, I felt nothing like the depressive slump I’d felt the last Christmas when our boy had been alive. Oh, I was distressed, even despair- ing. At times, I was even quietly, privately deranged with pain. And a couple of times, I whispered that I was afraid we wouldn’t make it, meaning that our marriage, our sanity, or our very hearts might fail.

But we sat together and we watched the film. And we’ve watched it every Christmas since. This movie—a classic about the sacredness of each imperfect human life, the triumph of family and community, the intervention of celestial beings—has become a symbol of our decision to live, even thrive, instead of utterly drowning in grief.

For me, living onward with loss has depended to a great extent on the

deliberate and repeated choice to fight back the torpidity of despair. Plung- ing into the depths of despondency was the greatest temptation I have ever resisted in my life. While I had no suicidal thoughts—how could I ever abandon my loved ones, and especially in a time like this?—I simply wanted life to go away. Forever. When the character of George Bailey weeps that frenzied, feral cry on the frozen bridge, I understand and I weep with him.

To resist the cold, icy drag of despair, I learned over time that I needed three things: steadiness, illumination, and as much love as the world and heaven could offer or I could dredge up to give.

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Steadiness. In early grief, almost all of my physical energy was devoured by the task of remaining steady and keeping my family steady. With no extra capacity for physical exertion, I slowed down as never before. I walked, talked, and even breathed at a different pace than had been my normal hyper-drive. I lacked the wherewithal for those old patterns of excess. What is more essential, though, I had no need for them. In fact, they repelled me. Grief overwrote my usual frantic scramble from distraction to distraction—however worthy those distractions might have been—and replaced that speed with heavy-duty Zen. Corporeally, I felt greatly weakened—like recovering from major invasive surgery—but that fragility allowed me to become very spiritually focused. Like this, my spiritual antennae were stretched to full extension. And it was in that steadiness that I found the knowledge and meaning I needed in order to live what on the outset seemed an unlivable life, a life bereft of our eldest. Thereafter, I made a deliberate effort to devote myself to single-mindedness. By steadying myself through frequent and focused mediation and prayer, I resisted the gravitational pull of despair and distraction, so common in today’s loud, frenetic, and some- times abusively demanding world.

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Illumination. Retreat alone was not my sole response to grief. At a certain point in my experience—many months after my son’s death and after as long a time of concentrated meditation and searching prayer—I felt a clear spiritual impression. It told me that if I stayed holed up much longer in the nautilus of grief, if I resisted engaging in life, if I folded myself over my heart into a work of emotional origami, if I crammed myself into a foot- locker of loss buried under the boulder-slate-and-ash landslide of anguish, I might never emerge at all. And even if one day I did come out, much else might have died in the meantime. I had a choice: I could remain cut off from others and become grief’s slave, or I could extend myself toward others and remain grief’s student. The former choice would bring atrophy and sorrow, the latter, growth and joy. I took small, significant steps to connect with others, accept their gestures of service, and to serve them.

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Love. This service—some rendered, much received—opened up flood- gates of warmth that counterbalanced the icy river of despair. Like George Bailey, I was rescued by the realization of love rushing in from all sides: for and from God; for and from family; for and from friends and even strangers. The flow of loving-kindness coaxed me out of despair, led me through that tension between resisting and reengaging, between self-protection and service, between fearing and trusting, between loss and living onward with love.

So as simplistic as this might sound, the First Noel, the Last Noel and all the Noels that will follow are tales about learning love. For me, while my love for my son has been grief’s reason, it has been that same force of love that has proved grief’s rescue. As wrote Leo Tolstoy, “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”

If this is what “healing” feels like, then I suppose I am its rehabilitating patient. I can with quiet confidence say today something I could never have imagined on the outset: It has been love, the decision to open up to the possibility of it, and the deliberate choice to receive and to share it—again and again and in spite of certain risk—that has brought me off of that bridge overlooking despair and back to life. Into a fragile, imperfect, (and some- times terrifying) but also a miraculous, sweet, and yes, even a wonderful life.

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) 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. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)

Casting Hands—From On Loss and Living Onward

ON MY WRITING desk stand statuettes made of white plaster. They are nearly identical in size and shape. Each statuette consists of two hands clasping each other. If you knew the rings my husband Randall and I wear, you would know that in each piece one of the two hands belongs either to him or me. In the first statuette, one of the hands—bony, veined, and with long fingers just right for playing the piano—wears my distinctive triple-linked wedding bands. In the second statuette, one of the two hands is thick, with Randall’s substantial fingers, broad oval nails, and custom-made ring with its small stones and the engraving “ASP 2007”.

Each of our hands (Randall’s hand in one statuette, mine in the other) is wrapped snugly around yet another hand. It is a fleshy mitt of a hand, a hand with slightly swollen fingers that do not bend quite like ours appear to be bending. The nails are gnawed a bit at their tips. The knuckles have wrinkles I could recognize in a line-up of a hundred other hands. These are, after all, the hands of our son Parker.

In one statuette, my left hand grasps Parker’s right. In the other statuette, Randall’s right hand, which wears Parker’s American School of Paris class ring, wraps firmly around Parker’s left. A college student who had been at the site of the accident that ultimately took Parker’s life had removed Parker’s class ring when he was dragged, unconscious and blue-lipped, out of the water. His hands were already swelling while students tried frantically to administer CPR and offer prayer blessings to their friend who was not breathing, and this student knew that Parker would want his family to have his ring. Sobbing and yelling, “Don’t leave us, Frenchie! Wake up, Frenchie!” the boy tucked the ring into his swim trunk pocket. He handed it to Randall after we’d turned off the life support and released Parker from two days of coma and from eighteen years and five months of mortality.

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Sometimes, that scene of horror is all I can think of when I look at these statuettes. Life cut off too soon, like the two plaster pieces themselves, which stand on their wrists, rising, as it seems, upward from out of this desktop, almost giving the impression that the forearms, elbows, shoulders—the rest of the human forms to which these hands belong, the whole person—might be somewhere below my desk, in an unseen, underground, under-desk world.

Other times, when strangers happen to see them—for instance, the man repairing our Internet line—I let them imagine that these statuettes are nothing more than a lovely, balanced set of clasped hands set in plaster. Like bookends, perhaps. Or artsy paperweights.

But balanced bookends and weights were notions far from our minds in that impossible hour when those hand casts were made. That hour was 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 26, a week to the day from the incident that had cost our Parker his life. It was the first day we had seen his body since we had been ushered away from its still-warm flesh lying so leaden in an ICU. There our son lay before us again, but this time a waxy surrogate, a cheap wax museum replica.

Evacuated, I thought as I entered a utilitarian room crammed next to a corner office in the mortuary. An empty garage, was the impression that came when I approached our son’s form draped with a grayish-green blanket on what must have been an examiner’s table. We’d come that late morning with Kristiina, our dear friend, and her sister.

“You might want something solid and lifelike to remember him by,” Kristiina had offered when she had visited my parents’ home the Sunday night before. She had spoken as she had stood: uncertain, frozen, as if inching out on a tightrope, her half-whisper holding back the panic I knew her spacious heart was trying to clamp down to size.

“Lifelike? Uh . . . uh-huh. Maybe that would . . . be . . . a good idea.” Randall had been steady, respectful. I had held my hands beneath the kitchen table, where they were shaking as if with the beginnings of palsy. My legs, as I had stared down at them, felt as if I had just emerged from hibernating in an ice cave.

“My sister has helped make these for the parents of stillborn infants a few times,” Kristiina had added, her eyebrows raised in apology, her tone steeped in mourning. “She’s never done someone as . . . large . . . and who had been so alive . . . as . . . ” Her mouth knitted itself into a curved and twitching pucker, her blue eyes flashed in desperation, and we all hung there for a moment on that incredibly taut but delicate line between knowing an alive Parker and comprehending a dead one.

I had stared at them both, Kristiina and her sister, trying to find words. An impulse hinted that I should respond like the old Melissa would have responded. How did she used to talk? How did she form words? How did she speak without sobbing? That person was gone, I knew it. Syllables, like rough wooden blocks, dropped out of my mouth, I think. Clumsy, polite words of habit. But they conveyed nothing of the typhoon that was battering and boiling throughout my mind.

At the mortuary on that Thursday morning, Kristiina and her sister silently mixed buckets of quick-dry plaster, solicitous and servant-like at Parker’s feet. Randall and I stood in a dizzy stupor at our stations on either side of our son-replica, tracing his stiff shoulders with our fingertips. In one movement, father and mother took the hands of their firstborn, wrapping their fingers around his, and buried the blended parts wrist-deep into buckets of a mixture the color and consistency of gelatinous oatmeal. I noted how my boy’s flesh held less life than did the wet plaster itself. I shook off the plaster, shook off the experience, feeling in the moment as if I’d defiled the sacred, hoping that this would one day end up being worth the desecration.

And Kristiina was right. It has been good to have something solid to remember Parker by. But these hand casts are more than mementos. They are far more than objects reminiscent of the physical closeness we once shared with our son. For us, they are sacred tokens pointing to an expansive spiritual reality that bursts the limits of flesh-and-blood closeness.

To explain the spiritual reality that these plaster casts symbolize, I need to share one of several profound occurrences that marked my early months of grief and has remained with me, vivid and comforting, ever since. It has made these clasped hands into monuments of reverberating, clarifying truth. I don’t share this with every visiting Internet repairman, although I sometimes wish I could.

During the weekend of Parker’s passing, hours after we left his body to be transferred to a mortuary, days before we would make—or even think of making—plaster hand casts, I was lying on my side in bed, knees tucked up toward my chest, arms wrapped around my middle. My pillow was soaked with tears, and my body was throbbing in acute physical pain, crushed, it seemed, as if by a landslide and torn wide open through the torso. The corporeal sensation of such abrupt and violent loss was like having invasive surgery with no anesthesia, or better, like having a bomb go off in the center of my being. We couldn’t escape the feeling of this immense, black, gaping vacancy in that central space—right here, in the fork between our ribs—that our son had just occupied.

Through my silent weeping, I begged God to keep us all—my husband, myself, our three surviving children—from being sucked into the apparent bottomlessness left by this implosion. Although our family was strong and loving, although we were emotionally stable people, although we had profound faith in life being eternal and were certain Parker was in a safe and loving place, we could not imagine, could not physically absorb the impact of life going on without his intertwined with ours. I could not see how we would be able to survive. There had to be help—hoist-you-up-from-under- the-arms-and-keep-you-breathing help—and I knew that kind of help was beyond anything this world could offer.

For several hours, maybe, and probably all night, I whisper-begged continually in prayer, seeking God and Parker, asking that they be close to me and somehow make themselves known to me in a way I could recognize. As nighttime shifted to dawn through the window, another shift began to take place in my mind. Like curtains being quietly drawn open in my spinning and murky mental chamber, I slowly started to see something. I could just make it out—it was initially no more than a foggy, subtle image.

At first I thought it was some sort of textured rope or—no, it was a chain. As I focused on it I saw this chain wasn’t static, but was gently rhythmic, pulsing. Then I could see that the movement came from the links attaching, separating, and reattaching to each other.

These links, I saw as my inner light grew brighter, were hands. Human hands of many sorts, shades, and shapes, glowing against an opalescent background, gently stretching then clasping firmly, pulling one another. All at once, I understood that these were hands from the past and the present, hands of mortals and immortals, reaching and pulling each other along, binding time and timelessness together.

At the same time as this image grew clearer, a feeling overtook me; it went through my whole body, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, expanding in my chest, and that feeling was joy—jubilant, singing, surging, soaring joy. Part exhilaration, part anticipation, that joy spread through my traumatized body, warming and loosening it, and lifting my spirits with an unmistakable tug.

Something was pulling. Someone was pulling me. Mighty but tender hands were reaching for my hand. And my task was to reach. Touch. Clasp. Hold on. And then, once linked, to reach to others.

Maybe what I was experiencing in that flash of insight was a glimpse into the way things are, a brief vision of God’s cosmic machinery, which is one continuous work going on between us mortals, but also between mortals and spiritual beings, between this realm and the neighboring, immortal one. In only those few seconds, I understood that the living and the dead are joined in a loving, interdependent, interactive chain. There was no difference in that chain between the living and what we call the “dead.” They were equally capable beings. Which helped me see that neither I nor my deceased son was alone, forgotten, disconnected, or left without one another.

For the first time, I comprehended in a visceral, palpable way this truth about the interconnectedness of all humans in every stage of existence. As my mind took in this visible chain, my hands felt the unmistakable palms— calloused from basketballs and drums—of my own child’s hands. I understood that not only was Parker “in good hands,” the platitude some had tried to use to comfort me, but that I was in good hands, too. Parker himself was among those good hands. For me. And I am among the good hands. For him. For anyone. For everyone. There is no one—alive or dead—who does not need the reach and pull of another’s hand.

As one person of extraordinary spiritual depth has said:

We move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them. . . . We are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors . . . who have preceded us into the spirit world. We can not forget them; we do not cease to love them; we always hold them in our hearts, in memory, and thus we are associated and united to them by ties that we can not break. . . . If this is the case with us in our finite condition, surrounded by our mortal weaknesses, . . . how much more certain it is . . . to believe that those who have been faith- ful, who have gone beyond . . . can see us better than we can see them; that they know us better than we know them. . . . We live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. . . . [T]heir love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.

Eventually I learned that whenever one of my hands reaches to pull along the hand of another—when I serve in whatever way I can, be that by listening, speaking, laughing, weeping, writing, singing, being silent, acting receptively to the subtle impressions I attribute to Divinity—I can feel my own son’s hand clasped in mine, pulling me along. Then I do not feel I am only pressing forward with hope, but that I am being pulled toward that hope, and being pulled toward joy as part of a larger, caring community.

In those moments of clasping onto others, whether by giving strength or receiving it, I sense the luminous bigger picture. We are all, the living and the dead, part of an intertwined effort to bring every last one of us to joy.

That image of communal movement redefines much for me. Among other things, it sets a question mark behind the notions of “alive” and “dead.” There are many of us breathing types who are less alive than those we’ve buried. And I’ve experienced enough to say with total confidence that many of the “dead” are infinitely more alive than the most “alive” person we have ever known. My son is one of those, the most living among what convention insists we call “the dead.”

And what about me? Will I, then, while living, remain forever the living dead because my son is temporarily separated from me in the flesh? What better mentor than this fully living son who is “dead” to reach back, take my hand, and guide me to live fully, while alive . . . while living?

In my yearning agony after Parker’s death, real comfort and strength have not come solely from the assurance that life continues after we die, but from the knowledge that my child is powerfully present in our family here and now. Our relationship with Parker continues. Personal experience has been the sturdiest evidence for me that I don’t have to wait until the here-after to be a co-worker with my son. It can happen here and now. His hand is clasped in mine, and mine in his. In spite of death, a relationship keeps developing. A bond continues to deepen.

Yes, the normal ways of feeling him close are gone—I cannot call him to my room, cannot get a shouted answer from down the hallway or a phone call or a text message or a note under my pillow on my birthday, cannot anticipate his future, cannot delight in sharing him with others, or any of the millions of other things we living people do to knit our hearts to each other. I will never lose my lingering longing for the flesh-and-blood physical presence of my boy. But there are other ways of feeling his presence.

Being able to feel his presence, like feeling any spiritual impressions, requires a mindfulness, imagination, and faithful effort I never needed before. I am on quiet guard against the noisy voices and clattering distractions of our modern world. I have to shelter my spirit at times, the way I would shelter a small seedling from harsh wind and the torch of the sun.

When I focus on those white plaster hand casts as I am doing now, I see them as bookends to a story that has no end, as weights reminding me of the substance of grace my family and I have known. And I have to admit to a little bit of a miracle: When I look at them and let their reality sink in, I am no longer always taken back to that Thursday morning at the mortuary and the son with stone-cold hands. I am, instead, more and more often taken to that internal image I saw and felt of the joyous continuity of God’s plan for the whole woven rope of humanity. Hands, like these casts that seem to rise from the hidden realm beneath my desk, are always emerging from an unseen, but nonetheless real, world. And they are always reaching toward us. Parker’s hands, the ones whose nails and knuckles I could pick out of a crowd, the same hands that I will in some coming day hold in my own as I stare into his eyes and take in his full-grown spirit self, are firmly cemented—sealed—to mine.

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One Last Time On Loss and Living Onward

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

This is post #199. In a couple of days, I’ll give you my final and 200th post. Between now and then, I invite you to order and read this book. 🙂

On Loss & Living Onward came to be over months of unprecedented searching and researching. By “searching,” I mean grieving, which, after the initial implosion of traumatic loss, is intense, prolonged yearning.

Yes, I was searching.  Not for release from grief or its pain, but specifically for Parker, for God, for community, for truth, for understanding, for strength, for light.  Sometimes, for air.

And I was researching. From the introduction to On Loss:

“…Every morning when the children left for school and Randall left for the office or for the airport, I turned to my daily pattern of digging and searching amid piles of books spread about me in a circular mountain range. I sat cross-legged on the floor with sometimes twenty books open at once: Testaments, both Old and New and other scriptures of my faith; a poetry anthology; a modern French novel; a German lyric; a prophet’s or pioneer’s personal journal; a Norwegian memoir; a commentary on the book of Job; a stack of professional journals on parental grief; collected talks from great spiritual leaders past and present and from the East to the West; discourses from Plutarch and Plato; my Riverside Shakespeare; accounts of Holocaust survivors, 9/11 survivors, tsunami survivors; and Parker’s own words, which we have treasured in his journals, poetry, school essays, letters, and lyrics.

Oh. And my laptop.

For hours to months on end, I went spelunking through others’ words. When someone’s words hit the bedrock of the Spirit, I knew it in half a breath. There were revelatory moments when a correct insight stunned me to immediate tears or, more often, head-to-toe stillness. At times my heart would leap a hurdle or my eyes would stretch wide open; other times I would hold my breath or exhale audibly in gratitude. Whatever my physical and intellectual response, every time a writer got it, I’d quickly type those words into my files.

Unswerving, I kept at it—mining, sifting, cataloging; grieving, mourning, learning, writing; adapting. While I never found the one book that for me addressed the desperate underside of grief as well as the magnificent promise of the loving bond that endures and evolves despite physical separation, I was (to my surprise) on my way to writing one.

And today—almost seven years after Parker was taken in an early harvest that plowed our souls right open—I finished this book. I lovingly pass it on to you.”