Altars, Altar Cloths, and Our Covenant to Mourn

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All images: LDSLacemaker.com

Draped neatly on nearly every Mormon temple altar I have ever seen is a white crocheted covering. I had always assumed that such coverings were a quaint nod to our pioneer heritage, those skilled Irish, Dutch, Welsh and Scandinavian hands that provided delicate handiwork to adorn my faith’s earliest temples. It wasn’t until loss ripped through me with H-Bomb force that my eyes were opened to see a deeper meaning.

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It was a Thursday evening, one week to the hour from the tragic drowning accident that took our eldest son’s life, when my husband Randall and I, weak with grief and staggering under the molten lead weight of shock and sorrow, went to the LDS temple so that Randall could do what is a common but crowning rite in our faith; he would serve as proxy for our 18-year-old’s posthumous “endowment”, a bestowal of supreme blessings and promises conditioned upon faithfulness to the gospel. We happened to also be asked in that session to serve as something we call “the witness couple,” meaning that we represented all others in attendance as we approached and knelt at an altar, the central feature of the room in which temple goers are seated and instructed. Freshly amputated as we felt, we scarcely had the energy to get up and approach the altar or even kneel at it, but managed to by bracing ourselves—torsos against and elbows upon—that holy, lace-covered altar.

I recall crying quietly, head hung. Dark spots of dampness pooled on lace geometry, I can see them still, and I can also hear the Spirit telling me, “This suffering is a similitude.” My heart cramped. “And this,” referring to the altar covering I was wetting with the blood of my soul, “is the community of Saints.” I focused on that handiwork throughout that evening, seeing it all as if for the first time. And in each of the subsequent temples I’ve visited in the years since our life was imploded, I have reflected intensely on the altar covering’s meaning.

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What do I now see in those soft altars and in dainty altar cloths? I see these ten hard truths and endless thunderous power.

  • I see that life is an altar, not a stage, as I had believed before I knew that I had zero control over life. That all my efforts to do the right would not and could not protect me from death in all its iterations. That God does not, in the strictest sense, protect us from life, but provides us with exactly enough strength through Christ that sorrow be transformed into joy, suffering into strength, death—the greatest evil— into life, and even life eternal.
  • I see that our Christian covenant before anything else—before white shirts and ties, food storage, memorizing scripture, hosting elaborate youth theme nights—is one of connectivity, companionship, co-mourning and compassion. It is about stitching ourselves to each other in love. Alma, an ancient prophet featured in the Book of Mormon, offered this distilled truth when he taught that Christ’s disciples live to bear others’ burdens, mourn with them, comfort them, and to stand in for God in all things, times and places. (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 18:8-9)

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  • That any other expression of faith than the self-sacrificial and the other-rescuing risks becoming parochial, nothing more than navel-gazing, and ultimately lacks the substance that will create of our simple single threads Zion, and of our threadbare or shot-through selves, offspring truly like our Divine Parents.

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  • That extending our arms to one another knots — or knits—our hearts together, as we read in Mosiah 18:21. This intertwinedness results in a human fabric where each tatted patch represents a tattered and torn someone who is, through intimate, single stitches, held in our community and in turn in a greater, cosmic cloth.
  • That knitting our hearts to one another doesn’t require that we be perfectly whole to begin with. In fact, those altar cloths provide an aerial view of all our broken bodies and punctured spirits. It’s in our reaching outward to catch others or to be caught by others as if with a fine crochet hook, that we are caught by God. The parallel miracle appears when, in our human reciprocal catching and knitting, God knits and mends our individual broken and punctured hearts.

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  • That our brokenness, while making us feel acutely poorer and more fragile, frayed or shot through, also provides open spaces where we can be caught by God. Sewn closer to God, we are far richer and exponentially more robust than we had been before.
  • That such torn-to-pieces-hood, (William James’ translation of the German, “Zerissenheit”), is what we came to earth to know. We can, in our experiences with torn-to-pieces-hood rail and resist, rebel and rage. But we can also recognize that holes, not wholeness, invite holiness. Spaciousness invites the Spirit, and in His wounds we are healed, made whole.
  • That altars are mourning benches, and mourning benches are places of reverence. When we seek to meet someone in their grief, we are treading on sacred ground. This call to compassion—to suffering alongside another—is not a time for perfection, but a moment of supernal authenticity. Any self-consciousness and perfectionist leanings do nothing to help the grieving. We bond on our broken, not on our polished, edges.

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  • That we ought to bear burdens first. (Mow the grief-stricken’s lawn, wash their car, take their children for three days.) Mourn next. (Jesus wept.) Comfort later. (“Comfort” means con+fortis, or “with strength.” Bring all your strengths.) And witness of God (roll out your sermon) only after you have done all of the above, and for much longer than you had ever imagined necessary.
  • And I have learned that mourning, like kneeling at that altar, requires silence. The Jews sit seven days of shiva. We can begin with at least that. We need only to show up and sit in shared stillness. Indeed, altars are places of listening more than places of lengthy discourses. And real listening is more than a polite or professional act. It is total, imaginative focus requiring physical effort and divine inspiration. Listening to those who are suffering will teach all of us essential lessons in our shared humanity.

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As Nicolas Wolterstorff, Yale Divinity School theology professor and bereaved father writes about altars and mourning benches:

“What do you say to someone who is suffering?

Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit [or kneel] beside me on my mourning bench.”

—Wolterstorff , Lament for a Son, 34

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How have loss and grief stitched you to your God?

What have others done for you during times of acute grief that has knit your heart to theirs?

What has it meant for you to mourn with or comfort others?

What is to be learned from the seemingly endless landscape of mortal suffering?

If you are LDS and attend the temple, what has that temple-attendance done for you in your anguish and isolation?

 

 

 

 

 

Could I Have Saved My Child?

It took years to forgive myself.

I’d been warned. I’d been shown what was coming. I could have intervened. I could have been there. I could have saved my child.

But I hadn’t. I didn’t. If I had just…

Real Dreams

In Global Mom: A Memoir, I wrote about a dream I’d had of our son Parker two months after he’d drowned. The dream was especially forceful and allowed me to see and feel the setting he was in after death – a vivid, bright realm beyond mortality – as well as what he was doing there and with whom.

When I’ve had a dream like that, (in my life I’ve only had a few), I immediately write it down and share it with one or two others so it’s fresh and they’re “witnesses” to what I’ve been taught.  Because they have a different resonance than my run-of-the-mill bad digestion dreams, I feel a certain stewardship over their content. The Japanese call these real dreams.  They are gifts. You treasure them. You don’t thoughtlessly parade or banalize them. That being true, it was a little risky to publish one in a book. But I don’t regret that I did.

Then in On Loss and Living Onward I devoted a chapter to a dream I’d had exactly one month prior to losing Parker. In that dream, I was chasing after a toddler version of Parker (wearing a small version of the blue swim trunks we’d bought together when he was 17), who was being swept away in a small river that passed under a bridge, a passage from whence his little body never emerged. The dream was strangely corporeal. I actually felt the sun beating on my head, the icy spray of the water flecking my forearms, gravel cutting my bare feet and wild grass scraping at my ankles as I ran along the shore. I was sweaty, agitated, shaking and breathless when I awoke.

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But that dream was not the only one I had about Parker’s accident before that accident happened. What I’ve never published is the following dream, a second one.  I used to call it God’s Final Warning.

The Second Dream

From my email to a confidant:

The second dream I had exactly the week before his accident. By then I’d managed the bulk of the move to Munich (at least our beds were set up in the apartment so we could sleep here) and Randge [Randall] had arrived from Paris to be here for legal document signing before I left on the 14th to Utah to be with the kids whom we’d sent on ahead of us, especially to get Parker into summer college.

In the dream I rush into an ICU alone to find the tall, muscular body of a beautiful young male lying face-down on a gurney, a sheet covering him up to his waist. He’s wearing a neck brace and there are tubes coming out of his nose and mouth and he’s hooked up to monitors. He has multiple head injuries and looks bruised and bludgeoned from what I can see looking at the back of his head.

I’m shocked and chilled. I reach for the body and somehow recognize it well. Reason tells me that, because of the head injuries, this is the victim of an automobile accident, so my dreaming but analytical self tells me this is Aaron, my brother,the only licensed driver I know of that would fit the form and height of the man I’m seeing on the table.

My whole chest feels kicked in and I’m keeping myself from wailing. Many people are passing in and out of the room, but I’m the one standing closest to the body whose shoulders I stroke. I speak to the body and groan. We’re that way for a while. Then the body is turned over and it’s not clear to me whose face it is as the swelling and bruising and discoloration are so severe. Blood cakes the hair. There are some facial wounds.

I conclude it’s Aaron and he’s had a terrible car accident on his commute to Salt Lake City for work. He is unconscious and it seems – I’m being told – he will not live. I am weeping and trying to find a hand to hold under the sheet draped over the body. I pray and try to understand. People are in the room at a distance, not people I know well.

Then Randge is brought into the room. He has come in a hurry from far away. He stands to my left then we lean onto each other, supporting a motionless shock. The line of onlookers is up against a far wall. We are ripped open with grief.

I awoke from this dream and was lightly crying to myself, my heart was thumping and I felt agitated – I felt warned –and sat right up in bed. (I was in our little makeshift room here in the apartment, Randge sleeping deeply to my left.)  As soon as I awoke him, I told Randge exactly what I had seen and said I needed to call Aaron right away to warn him to take no risks when driving and to at least go slowly. Then I convinced myself he’d think I’m nuts, some kind of clairvoyant or something, so I left it up to fate and to his good driving skills to avoid anything like what I had seen.

Looking Under the Bridge

Those dreams meant something important. I’d felt that while dreaming them. You know how that is? When you are dreaming and it’s as if something taps your subconscious on the shoulder, saying, “Pay attention. Pay close attention.”

Well, the “something important” came rushing at me several days later.

In full force it came rushing, but only after Thursday, July 19th when Parker, standing in his blue swim trunks on the gravelly and wild-grass-lined banks of an Idaho irrigation canal, dove back a second time into a whirlpool under a little bridge to try to rescue a drowning college classmate. It came after his death-grayed body floated a distance down the small river past the bridge and plummeted head first over a lava rock waterfall. After I had hurried to Pocatello in the middle of the night and entered alone in an ICU where Parker lay face-down on a gurney (neck brace, tubes, monitors, head injuries, under a white sheet), after he’d been turned over, after Randall had burst into the ICU from his flight from Munich, after the onlookers lined up against the other wall, after we turned off life support. After the funeral. After it was too late.

When my two dreams and their matching reality came together, a deep terror set in. It paralyzed me. All I could conclude was that I’d fatally ignored God’s  3-D cinematic warnings given an entire month and then a week ahead of time. Plenty of lead time to have yanked fate off its tracks. Plenty of time to have saved my own child.

Yet I hadn’t.

Why not? Why had I not? Why? Why?!

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The Eternal Now

For so long I wrestled with every psychological angle. Had I been worried what others would think if I told them I, some homemade visionary, had had a couple of disturbing dreams, so please no water activities this summer? And we’re going to be walking everywhere for a while, no cars? Would I make everyone too anxious to live if I said I’d foreseen a male loved one in his last moments in an ICU scene? Or was what kept me from using these dreams to prevent tragedy something worse, something far more sinister, a character flaw, like  a chink of sloppiness, selfishness, distraction, irresponsibility?

Whatever the reasons behind not having advertised the dreams, what it came down to in my mind was that I was to blame. And that meant that beyond the gutting of grief, a boulder of guilt weighed on top of me. I shared that boulder with only a very, very few.

This is what a confidant wrote when I shared my boulder of guilt:

Warnings that you didn’t heed? No, no. Please do not torment yourself with such thoughts. These dreams were, rather, preparatory glimpses into what we mortals call “the future.” God, we know, is not bound or limited by our understanding of time and space. For God, all eternity is one Eternal Now. Somehow, through God’s great power and mercy and your own maternal in-tune-ness, you were permitted to see into the Eternal Now for two brief moments. You were a Seer. You are right to see these experiences, these dreams or visions, as evidence of God’s grace and as a testament to the fact that, for whatever terrible and holy reasons, this was taken into account in the cosmic scheme that includes your beautiful Parker.

What you hear from my friend’s message is that after much time packed with much spiritual work, (seeking God’s guidance through meditation, study, questioning and waiting for concrete answers, seeking to live close to Parker’s ongoing spirit, serving others as lovingly as I was able, gathering evidence of God’s loving kindness to our family and to me personally), I grew settled on this matter. I no longer felt I was solely responsible for his death. I accepted (and was not conquered by) death.

Could I have used those dreams as megaphone warnings to my family and circle of friends? Could I have forbidden all water activities for the summer? Forever? Could I have locked away every male I cared for who fit the description of the man I’d seen in my dream ICU? Kept them from cars? Cross walks? Random falling timber?

(You see how quickly love, grief, and longing wax irrational.)

I suppose so, yes. I could have done all of the above. But would having done so assured their survival? And as important, perhaps: Would having done so also have wrung out the very life from life, “killing” everyone another way? Never allowing them to live? Heaping on them fear, anxiety, foreboding?

Such questions.

But let me ask again: If my dreams were given not as forewarning, (knowing that even with such forewarnings I couldn’t have prevented my son’s accident), but were given as comforting communication to be recalled in the world of after, what does all this mean?

For starters, a conventional worldview that rejects any reality outside of the physical realm we inhabit cannot offer sufficient meaning in this riddle. A worldview that denies some kind of spiritual circuitry connecting my dreaming spirit with a much Higher Source of Light and Truth, (whom I call God), doesn’t offer meaning, either. Even quantum mechanics and parallel universes don’t account for these exquisitely personal communications and their broader, this-world (irrigation canal and ICU) context. And most especially, those theories are incapable of addressing the especially precious, abiding, and reciprocal relationship I have felt all along  with my guide, my God.

But my friend’s Eternal Now. That’s something I can sink into. As cosmos-bending and challenging to our puny minds as might seem a loving God caring for each of us from the middle of an Eternal Now, it does take it all in : Horror, holiness, time, relativity, space, us, something-far-beyond-us, everything.

In the end, (if there is an end), that notion of everything sits very, very well with me.

Sweet dreams to you all.

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(Evening spreads over the irrigation canal leading to Monkey Rock.)

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.”)

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)

Randall & Co. — From On Loss and Living Onward

OUR HANDSOME BOY had not grown cold in Room #2 of an Idaho ICU by the time news of his passing had reached every end of our community in Paris. Michel, Randall’s work colleague and tennis partner, was the first to call. Michel’s low, slow words came from Paris through Randall’s cell phone. “It’s not true, Randall!” Michel repeated over and over again, “Oh, my dear Randall!”

Unable to sleep more than five minutes at a stretch, Randall and I had been out walking all night through our childhood neighborhoods. It was now after 3:00 a.m. The previous afternoon, we’d left Parker’s body at Portneuf Regional Medical Center in Idaho and had driven the nearly five hours southward to be with family where we both grew up, in a small town in Utah.

Michel and his family loved us very much, Michel cried. “We hold you all close.”

With the green glow of his cell screen casting death onto his face, my husband listened silently as Michel, an understated Frenchman, choked on sobs as he said goodbye. The confluence of sorrow and sympathy worked its way down to Randall’s knees, and they gave way. His legs folded under his body right on the spot. There he sat in his pajamas, barefoot and curled like a beggar beneath a street light on the sidewalk. He cradled his head in his hands. Peak heat season in the desert west, but all day long his body had quaked as if it were midwinter.

Now Per was calling from Norway, and Randall put the cell on speaker. There under the aloof moon, Randall’s lifelong career mentor reassured us with solemn but straightforward affection: he and his wife loved us.

The next call was from Munich. It was Stefan, Randall’s boss—a big guy, a big presence, but I could hear that he felt reduced by his own total defenselessness. His small, broken cries teetered toward me where I now crouched next to Randall in the darkness.

Then came the whispers, “I’m in the Vatican, lighting a candle for Parker.”

That was Stefano, a work colleague from Rome.

A week later, on the sweltering afternoon of the funeral, there stood other work colleagues who had flown in from all over: Zaki representing all Randall’s associates from Scandinavia; Franck from France; Lothar and Stefan from Germany; Stefano from Italy; Russ from Japan.

Dad, boys, funeral Image: A. Crandall ©

Dad, boys, funeral
Image: Angelique Crandall ©

 

And a week after the funeral, jet-lagged and grief-loaded, Randall was required to be sitting in his office. It was the day after we had landed in Munich. Work colleagues met him as he came through the sliding glass doors. Everyone there knew. Phone calls and emails, which had flown back and forth between the US, France, and Germany during the days surrounding and following the accident, had kept Randall’s company aware of our family’s situation.

One German—towering, burly, a legendary connoisseur of lager and cigars—took Randall in his arms and then muffled his own quaking moans by burying his head in his American colleague’s shoulder. On Randall’s desk, two small handwritten notes already lay, penned in German: “Your pain is our pain,” and “We can only pray to God for your healing.” Day upon day, there were flowers, soft eyes, the touch on the shoulder, and respectful requests to “do anything to lessen your work burden, Randall.”

For the first time in his two-decade career, work was a burden, a considerable one. Although some find work a welcome distraction from pain and loneliness, this was not the case for my husband. The idea of “business as usual” was repulsive to him on every level, and discussions of head-count reductions and a new operating model rang with sickening hollowness in the gutted-out space between his head and his feet.

“I want to be a postal worker. Or a cowboy on the range,” he pled with me many times through his own tears that awakened him every morning. “It’s not the scrutiny, or some fear of people seeing me weak, watching me be so broken. That’s not it. It’s the superficiality. I don’t have the heart for it. None of this company stuff matters compared to what I now know . . .”

And I couldn’t blame him. Together, we had undergone a seismic shift. Randall had seen, felt, heard, and in turn learned things of a spiritual nature that altered understanding of the world. Much of what had been of relative value a month earlier—the temporal, the material, the commercial, the superficial—didn’t matter at all anymore. All of that paled in comparison to what he now knew regarding love and loss, life and death, and that fragile silken strand from which all existence hangs.

Moreover, grief had drained his energy. Standing up in the morning was work enough.

During those first weeks back in the office, the predictable routine did steady Randall somewhat, but only enough to fool him into thinking he was “on the mend.” Because of course he was not.

In the middle of an intense discussion about the implementation of the new commercial model, his secretary Patricia passed him an express delivery piece of mail: the bills from the air ambulance that had life-flighted Parker to the trauma center. With one glance, whatever was “sturdiness” folded in on itself like an old dime-store pocket umbrella. “Patricia,” Randall whispered as he took her with him out into the hallway, holding the mail in a hand dropped heavily to his side, “Can you . . . will you please take care of this one for me?” She opened the papers with her boss standing there numbly, his eyes ice-blue pits of despair. And she dropped her head and broke down.

Less than a month from tragedy, and in the throes of an international conference call, an email notice popped up on Randall’s laptop screen: the insurance company needed a scanned copy of Parker Fairbourne Bradford’s death certificate. Mule kick to the gut. Macroshock. Fibrilation. The deadening plunge of the universe into the cranium. And racing to a window for air.

All the bracing against these waves of pain, all the acting as if unscathed (which is, after all, what competent people are expected to do, play The Impervious One), all that harnessing of anguish was physically exhausting for my husband. The lie of stoicism was almost physically impossible for him to keep up, at least for very long stretches.

“I need to retreat and be alone, to digest this, to go into the depths,” he told me. He knew he couldn’t be alone for long with a leadership role at work. So he went underground—literally.

There was something in the building’s underground parking lot—the isolation, the darkness, the hermetic seal of the car doors as he shut himself into the driver’s seat—that liberated and soothed him. There, in his car, he could weep as loudly as he needed to for his lunch break and again for a few minutes in the late afternoon. A lightless car. A lightless subterranean garage. A lightless grave.

But these retreats were brief, ending every time with the ping! of a timer he had set.

A major restructuring initiative was taking place within his company, and Randall knew that if he were not present—and energetically so—many of his colleagues’ jobs (and livelihoods and families’ futures) would be jeopardized. He couldn’t care less about that all-important corporate bottom line; he could, however, care about the human story above that bottom line.

Two weeks back at work (near the one-month marker of our son’s death, and on what happened to be Randall’s birthday) a large group of his colleagues from around Europe who had not seen him since learning of Parker’s passing were convening for an important meeting in the Munich offices.

“How am I supposed to keep up some steely façade for hours of back- to-back meetings and a board presentation?” Randall had asked me that morning, eyes already red from weeping since predawn. “How am I supposed to lead? And with energy? I can hardly dredge up sincerity.”

He’d aged, it seemed, a good twenty years in a month. And by this time I was beginning to wonder if this man in front of me who suddenly looked like a hospice patient would in fact be able to manage the major, visible, and relentless demands of his position. Was this the same man who, just over a month ago, had managed the demands like he’d managed our early morning 12ks: sprinting and racing and laughing all the way through the last 3k, high-fiving me and throwing his sweaty head to the skies: “Don’t get much better ’an dat, does it, babe?!” And I’d slap him on his derrière.

Now I pitied him, pitied what he had to do. All I could do to help was promise I’d be on my knees for him that day. All. Day. Long.

“You call me, hon. Call me any time. Any time. Just make it through this one day, okay? You must. You can.”

I kissed his eyelids as he pulled on Parker’s leather bomber jacket. “Parker will be there with you,” I said. “He knows it’s your birthday.”

Beneath the crushing chest press of sorrow and absence, Randall found his way through the soundless corridors of his company’s building to an empty conference room in an untrafficked corner. Alone there, he knelt to pray. With one foot wedged against a door so no one would enter, he wrestled with fear and longing and confusion so suffocating, he had to raise his head so he wouldn’t pass out. Through the floor and down from the ceiling, he then felt warmth surround and seep into him. It spread its light through his body and he felt, as if from nowhere, a physical reinforcement. “Like love,” he told me later.

What happened next was a personal and a professional triumph. Not a triumph for my husband’s profession, but a triumph for the nature of professionalism across the board and across the world. On that day in some steel-and-stone antiseptically sterile regional office outside of Munich, Germany, something quiet but spectacularly human happened.

Randall rose from his knees and returned to his office where he and his colleague Craig were at a computer screen preparing documents for Randall’s presentation on the company’s major restructuring initiative. Craig knew about Parker. In fact, Craig had received the first phone call after Randall had gotten The Call from me at 7:00 a.m. Munich time: “Honey, come now. To Idaho. Come to Idaho right now.” It was Craig who’d scrambled anxiously, plotting Randall’s emergency flight from southern Germany to southeast Idaho so he could have those last sacred hours with his comatose child. It was this same Craig who’d been Randall’s right-hand man ever since.

Now the two tried to focus on their computer screen while person after person tapped gently on the door, entered, and silently looked straight into Randall’s eyes as he rose to greet them. Then they took him into their arms.

Kari from Finland. José Luis from Spain. Hans from northern Germany. Chris from the U.K. Lars from Norway. Antonio from Italy. Michel from France. Colleague after colleague from two decades of work. It was as if in bodily form the whole panorama of Randall’s career was streaming through his door. From embrace to embrace, Randall wiped his tears, turned back to Craig (who was from Wisconsin, by the way, and was also wiping tears), and the two then cleared their throats and tried to focus on that computer screen again.

Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
Computer screen. Tap-tap. Eyes. Embrace. Tears.
The sequence went on for hours.
When Randall did have to stand at the end of that day to present in front of all these colleagues, was his heart still constricted with anguish? Was he unable to face their scrutiny? Intimidated? Destabilized? Helpless?

No. No, because he had already looked into their eyes, and there he’d seen injury, vulnerability. He’d seen humanness, intimations of which he’d observed throughout years of interaction, but which had been mostly hidden behind what is called professionalism. Hidden behind titles and door plaques on corner offices, distorted by a razor thin but magnetic bottom line.

Now he felt their humanness resonating from their faces, which mirrored their generous, human presence. Breaking down or falling silent for a second or two didn’t faze him, and it didn’t faze them either. So he simply did what he needed to do, all the time watching closely the eyes of those before him.

Their eyes (maybe this will make no sense) allowed Randall to present with tremendous emotion—hands trembling and heart skittering—about that blessed corporate bottom line. For that day, at least, everyone in that room knew it was not the bottom line at all.

At the end of that memorable birthday, Randall received one last knock on his door. It was Craig. From Wisconsin. He stood there a moment, his GQ square jaw and outdoorsy good looks uncharacteristically stiff, locked mid-breath. Craig gripped the doorknob, holding the door a bit ajar, neither completely entering nor leaving the room.

First, he searched with his eyes out the window. Then he looked at the floor. Then he looked right at Randall.

“I . . . I, ah . . . Randall, I just want . . .” His throat was tight, his voice seemed to go a pitch or so higher than usual.

“I just want to say . . . I don’t know . . . I just don’t know, Randall, how you made it through this day.”

Shaking his head once, Craig caught himself. But not in time. Randall’s colleague broke into one open sob. Then he excused himself and walked out the door.

Dad, boys, Munich, 3 years later Image: Rob Inderrieden ©

Dad, boys, Munich, 3 years later
Image: Rob Inderrieden ©

© 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)

On Loss and Living Onward

What do you say to someone who has experienced the devastation of major loss?

Nothing. Just listen.

Filmed by Michelle Lehnardt, with score by Eliza Smith, and soundtrack editing by Corbin Sterling.

Featuring author and bereaved mother Melissa Dalton-Bradford, bereaved parents Lana Kemp Smith, Melodie Webb, Dean Menlove, Coleen Menlove, Lisa Garlick, Dean Garlick, Tom Linkous; bereaved children Eliza Smith, Calvin Smith, Millie Smith; bereaved spouse Marshall Smith; and bereaved sibling Kevin Linkous.

Borrowing My Girlfriend’s Garlick Press

Lisa Garlick is the mother of Jocelyn.  Or Jocie.  Or Jiggy.

I am the mother of Parker. Or Frenchie.  Or Par Coeur. Or PFB.

Five years ago, we didn’t know each other and couldn’t have ever found one another, I don’t think, on this big wobbly planet. But a kind and common friend, Diane, and our cruel and common tragedies, our children’s tragic deaths, brought us together. We bonded online.  It was instantaneous for me, and I think it was pretty quick for Lisa, too, who is a woman of such honesty and such sheer heart-volume, it’s been a marvelous lesson just taking in all she has to give.

Since there are certain geographic constraints, we only see each other once a year. At the Parker Hike. Every year she brings her dear Dean. . .

. . .and their youngest son Chet. . .

. . .and every year they make homemade (scrumptious) flavored beeswax lip balm they call Jiggy Stix, which they hand out to all the hike participants.  (Just to give you an idea of their capacity for giving. And to reveal to you that hunky, soulful Dean is a beekeeper on the side, as well as a bereaved father and splendid all around human being. And Chet, the sly genius, is a poet.)

And Lisa, besides all this, is a quilter.  A master quilter.  Twice already, Lisa has hand made our family the most impeccably designed quilts — major artistic renderings of carefully selected fabrics stitched thread-by-thread into visual harmony with our Parker’s clothing: his volleyball uniforms; his basketball uniforms; his drum-beater T-shirts; the light blue swim trunks he was wearing that July evening he lunged back into the whirlpool to try to grab his drowning classmate.

Yes. Those quilts are sacred to us.  I only crawl under mine when the world feels wobblier than usual, which, you know this as well as I, can be just about any time.

The hike — The Wagon Train — has brought me face-to-face with Lisa, and all of us face-to-face with Michelle, who recently lost her beloved mother.

And with Sharlee, who, when she was a girl, lost both her father and oldest brother weeks apart to tragic accidents.  She also lost her sweet mother to cancer.

And with Julie, who cared for her mighty and terminally ill son Brigham for 14 years, then held him in her arms as he expired into the next life.

And with Patsy.  And Ellen.  And Maja.  And Cheri.  And Bonnie Jean.  And Jacque.  And Angelique. And Renee.  And Kathryn.  And Glen.  And Aaron.  And . . . Such friends.

Michelle’s husband, Eric, and two of five adorable sons

Such magnificent souls.

Dean carrying Michelle’s youngest, Mary

Such constant manifestation of God’s solid everpresence in an ever-wobbly world.

Emily, Brigham’s sister; My niece Eliza and Michelle

Part of the Bradfords and our new Singaporean friend, Chloe Ith

Lisa’s blog is a gust of clean, clear air to read, and treats beautifully this year’s Parker Hike.  I haven’t even asked her yet, but I’m inviting you to drop in and visit her place. Here’s the address:

http://thegarlickspread.blogspot.fr/2012/07/five-years.html

You’ll love her, as I do.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  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.