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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Deceased Son’s Answer to What It’s All About

photo (2)Headstone still fresh on his grave, my eldest son showed up in the middle of the night with the key to the meaning of life. In this dream where Parker appeared, I was guiding my three surviving children through a city I knew well. It was evening, I was sad and wrung out and felt pressed to get to my car, to get back home.

Suddenly behind me I heard my youngest, Luc, (seven years old at the time), squealing like a newborn. Call it my Mother Bear, call it my short fuse, I swung around to snap the head off of whomever was bugging my boy.

The instant I spun, lip curled and neck tensed to snarl, instead of a “Hey! Cut it out!”, I snagged on the “ow” of “out” and gasped. There, in shorts and his favorite blue t-shirt with his trademark cropped hair was 18-year-old Parker, as unscathed as the last time I’d seen him alive, the day before he died.

He was playfully dangling his youngest brother over a trash can.

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Luc on Parker’s shoulders.

You know that full body-and-soul whiplash that yanks you from nearly biting through someone’s jugular to buckling to your knees and kissing their feet? Melting, I lunged toward Parker, and he, (with a look that said, “Oh, Mom, you know I was just kidding around,”) handed his little brother to his sister and reached for me.

His shoulders were familiar, as was his smell. Desperate, I pled, “Tell me, honey. Tell me everything you’ve learned.”

He pulled back a bit. That mini freckle on his nose. That scar on his eyebrow. That one steely fleck in his right iris. It was my child’s face, only seasoned. Slower.

I waited for words.

Bending down, he whispered, “This is it,” and he took a small breath. He searched my eyes, then:

“Every relationship is to bring us to God.”  

I strained.

He stared.

“That’s … that’s it?” I gaped, “There’s nothing more? Nothing else?”

His soft eyes remained fixed.

And the dream closed.

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The boys, July 2007

Every Relationship Is to Bring Us to God

Since that dream it’s been my mantra. And like most mantras, it slips out too slickly, sounds cliché, yet has more layers than the Himalayas, more depth than the trenches of the Pacific. It risks oversimplification, and yet it will take my whole life to comprehend. But here’s how I’ve broken it down up to now:

Every relationship.

Every.

This means the obvious: all my bona fide biological ties, my family. Then my family through marriage. Then my besties, my closest friends. Then all ranks of associates and regular contacts like teachers, students, classmates, work colleagues, teammates, neighbors, congregation members, parents of my children’s friends, the lady who delivers my mail on her yellow bike even in the snow and rain, the commuters who share my daily ride on the bus, the blue-haired widow who waves as she walks her Dachshund past my window evenings at eight.

All are people with whom I share different degrees of blood and intimacy, experience and history, all people with whom I share space, time, ideas, efforts. All people with whom I share myself and who share with me something of themselves.

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Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Iranian German Students

Family, Friends, Strangers, Followers, Foes

Everyone.

In addition to these ^ relationships, there are interactions with those I meet sporadically or even just once. Like the guy loading my mulch on a cart at the garden store. And the lady who cut me off on the freeway exit ramp this morning. Or the infant who cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the parent who slept with his headphones on while his infant cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the crew on that flight. The passengers on every side. The pilot, whom I never saw and who never heard the infant, but whose voice we all heard and whom I trusted to take me “cruising safely at 37,000 feet.”

I interact, most of the time mindlessly, with all of them.

Then there are those I’ve never actually met, but with whom I’ve had some sort of fleeting or superficial interchange. The rabid politician in the news, the celebrity whose fifth marriage is material for a trash mag I leafed through at the doctor’s office, the musician whose song I wail along with in the car.

And the virtual relationships, the FB acquaintances, Instagram posters, Twitter commenters. Blog followers.

And the people on either end of history; my ancestors, my progeny.

Or people on either side of the globe; my countrymen, my political foes.

Relationships. Every last one.

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Every Relationship Brings Us To …

All this social interaction, all this mortal jumble? It’s more than learning about teamwork, or an effective way to get stuff done. And it’s also more than learning tolerance and compassion and patience with crying infants and drivers on the Autobahn.

“Every relationship is to bring us to God,” maybe, has to do with this:

Author Toni Morrison, in an interview, remembered having been the young mother who, when her kids walked into the room, scanned them up and down looking for faults. She’d be thinking, Tuck in your shirt, or Comb your hair. She felt that her critical stance meant she was caring for them, which I get only too well. It is what I was doing in my dream when I wanted to ream out the thug behind me who was, I thought, evidently hurting my youngest child. I was set for censoring.

Morrison then offered another approach. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says ‘I’m glad to see you’. It’s just as small as that.”

There Are No Neutral Interactions

An approving glance. An encouraging smile. A forgiving shrug. A step forward. A brave nod. This is how we move ourselves and others toward the best in humanity and toward deity.

A whispered judgment. A punishing glare. A jealous glower. A turned back. A swift dismissal. A spin around to bite through a jugular. This is how we move ourselves and others away from each other, away from divinity.

What if I were to enter all my social encounters not perched to swoop in with criticism, or stiffened behind all sorts of false boundaries (like a difference in race, religion, political grouping, jealousy, shame, whatever), but poised, instead, radiating one primary thought: “I am glad to see you”?

I believe it would change me, the other person, the encounter, everything.

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I know.  You’re saying, “I’m glad to see you” is easy when you really are glad to see someone. And in my case in the dream I was more than glad. I was unzipped, liquefied with love and longing for my son.  Let me say the obvious: when there’s been no bad blood, and you see your absent beloved again, every minor critique you might have stockpiled during mortality vanishes in the hot flash flood of love.

But what about all the other relationships? What about most of them, the ones that exact superhuman effort from us? The ones where we’d rather say, “I’m glad to see you … go“?

That’s where Parker’s advice really gets traction. While most great mythic traditions and even modern pop spirituality claim God is found above and outside of the messiness of human interaction, maybe while sitting solo and contemplating a snowflake from atop a lone peak, I’m saying that God is found in the trenches. God is down here in the grit. God’s in the mix.

And so, too, say the experts. Harvard professor Michael Puett comments on what ancient Chinese philosophers would think about modernity’s going–it-solo attitude, and why our personal relationships are what mortality is all about:

They [Chinese ancients] saw each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us.

 For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. [Can I get an amen?] That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

In other words, there are no neutral interactions. All of our actions and reactions send vibrations into a vast webwork that either brings us and others to God (or to wholeness, light, love, healing, The Source of All Meaning, whatever you call The Best Thing You Dare Imagine), or drives us and others from the same. Every thinkable link I have to every last human being plays not just a part in how I grow and experience meaning and joy, but adds in some (major or infinitesimal) way to others’ wellbeing. And that truth is why relationships are what it’s all about, and why they are at once so infuriatingly hard while being so immeasurably valuable.

Every Relationship Brings Us to an Understanding of God

Yes, there are those few relationships that flourish without a lot of effort, and therewith offer a glimpse of what godliness might feel like. But more often relationships are plain old spiritual work. They grate on us. Leave us blistered. There are those, too –– and we’ve all had them––that don’t just pumice us. They skin us alive.

And how do those relationships bring us to God? In my experience, they bring us to an understanding of God’s nature. They let us learn of Him.

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Him. Let me take license and talk specifically for a moment about the God I worship. The Being I strive to comprehend and hope to emulate responded majestically in all relationships, but particularly in the most injurious ones. Herod, Pilate, Judas, Peter, Roman centurions, mocking Sanhedrin, ungrateful lepers, and the centuries’ long saga of modern scoffers and arrogant erudites –– before them all and for them all Jesus Christ stands blameless. No figure in history, no God of any other myth possesses the dignity, selfless love and self-mastery in human relations that Christ embodies. No other being I know of has not only withstood betrayal, exploitation, usury, abandonment, cruelty and hidden agendas but has gone so far as to absorb abuse in all its forms and transform those evils into healing for all, including the abusers.

Like everyone, I’ve known a small portion of those injuries I just listed. When I have, (like recently, when a close friendship took a turn I never expected into an unmarked dead end), I had to fight to muzzle my Mother Bear, retract my claws, and swallow my snarls.

And right then, in rushed Parker’s words. They helped me breathe through what felt to me like lovelessness directed at me and my family, but just as important, they showed me how far I am from mastering The Master’s manner in response to hurt and betrayal.

What have I learned, then, from what my son taught me in a dream?

That all relationships –– including the ones we might have to step out of for everyone’s wellbeing –– are gifts that help us approach God.  By reflecting on His exquisite response to even the ugliest human tendencies (others’ and our own), we see how far we mortals are from His standard of loving-kindness and perfect compassion. In the end, then, every relationship brings us not only to God, but also to the God within each of us.

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(Portrait: Courtesy of Jennifer Quinton ©)

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What do you think? Which relationships have taught you the most? Tried you the most? Are those two kinds of relationships one and the same?

What have your best and richest relationships taught you?

Taking the definition of “relationships” a step further, what other interconnections besides those with humans “bring us to God”?

And to the basics: What does “bring us to God” mean to you?

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. 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.