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.

 

 

 

Repost: My Christmas Sermon Given in Frankfurt, December 2014

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

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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Sin 201: The Diet Parable

My body’s been all over the map.

That’s not Global Mom talking about the places she’s lived. That’s Melissa talking about everywhere her weight has been.

(Make that had been.)

Eating at a hawker center in  Singapore.

Eating at a hawker center in Singapore. I enjoy really good food, anywhere, any time.

Note: I’ve been stable and healthy for decades. But the road to finally feeling free in my own skin was long, painful, erratic, exhausting, costly in every sense of that word, and even life-threatening. As a teenager I battled with eating disorders, which began at 13 with anorexia so severe, I lay in hospital for months and was even fed intravenously. That led to major weight swings, all tangled in the string of yo-yo dieting.  You name the diet, by the age of 19 I’d tried them all, including ludicrously long stretches of eating nothing but ice shavings with a dash of dust mites. (For protein.)

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Where did all that extreme deprivation get me? As I said, it dragged me all over the map, including to a peak when I was 80 pounds (35 kilos or 6 stones) overweight. And this all happened within my teens. For cryin’ out loud!

Which I did. Often. I was one very stuck girl. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to find equilibrium. My messed-up metabolism made what should have been the glorious gift of a human body more like a life sentence on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

First world problems, I know. But I share this whole history to explain why, 1) I sympathize from the floor of my gut with those who struggle with their bodies, and why, 2) extremes of all kinds scare me, and why, 3) I’m repelled by the word “diet.”

In fact, we don’t say or do that four-lettered word in my family.

I also share my history to show that people can find peace, freedom, balance. People can change their appetites. 

And now my husband wants to change. Here’s where our diet parable starts.

Eating with Claire. The fries were great.

Eating in St. Cergue, Switzerland with Claire. The fries were great.

Randall’s not been all that peppy. Worst health of his life, he says. My adorable husband, a natural athlete all his life with a wicked backhand and a speedy 10k, a man who’s always met life on the tips of his toes, has recently hit an all-time slump. He’s carrying some extra weight he doesn’t like. He’s winded by stairs. Achy after a flight. Sleepless. Sleepy.  And in last week’s executive physical (a day-long battery of tests administered at a major US hospital, where Randall’s overall health and fitness were assessed), he was advised that in order to return to the health and vigor he once enjoyed, he’d have to change his diet.

That word.

Those vulgar folks and their nasty white doctor frocks.

Problem is, over the last couple of years he’s tried everything to get his zip back. He’s cut down, cut out. Skipped meals. Tried to get infected with the Asian flu. But he’s still stuck.

“Okay, hon,” I told him while we jogged together this morning. “Trust me. I’ve got a plan. You’re going to absolutely love this. I made it up in my sleep, it’s that simple. This is it: we have to get you to eat much more. Much, much more.”

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

I explained my theory, which I happen to call the Pyramid Plan. (Because a little alliteration makes it marketable. And again, we don’t use the D––– word.)

The Pyramid simply means eating a lot of the foods that are the best for your body, what your cells really need for optimum nourishment and health, the most nutrient-packed, roughage-dense foods.

“Every day without fail you build your Pyramid by eating the most of those kinds of foods. The base of the Pyramid,” I made a triangle shape with my fingers, “is 6 large servings of vegetables. Then you add 5 servings of fruits.”

I watched him in my peripherals. So far, steady. We kept running, breezy-like. Then I added the next layer. “You eat 4 servings of whole grains. Along with 3 servings of lean protein. Then you need 2 servings of calcium/dairy, and to finish it off, you’ll need one generous serving of fat.

It was then that Randall noted what you’ve just noted. “You mean. . .no Krispy Kreme food group?”

We kept jogging.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

“Right, yeah.” I ran straight ahead, acting clinical. “The Pyramid doesn’t include that sort of stuff because the aim is to get full on the best so that there’s not much room left for the. . . not-so-best. That way, we basically reeducate the palate. You’re not supposed to be aware of this, but we’re going to try to transform your taste buds.”

It so happens that those super foods at the base of the Pyramid also have the fewest calories per serving. The higher the Pyramid, generally the more calorie-dense the food group. What is wonderful, is that you eat well, it is sustainable, and you needn’t subject yourself or your thyroid to anything extreme. And we’re not into demonizing food. We’re learning to love the best of it.

Maybe you’re thinking of this family, who stopped eating sugar cold turkey for a year, and subsequently no longer desired what they’d craved earlier. But I reassured Randall that our focus is different. (It has to be. As you know, this jog we’re enjoying is in Switzerland. This is no time to rule out chocolate. I’m thinking of a way of working it into the Pyramid. Maybe as mortar.)

What I was suggesting to my husband isn’t first about what you can NOT eat, but what you CAN. And SHOULD. And MUST.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Experience has taught me something important. If we keep giving ourselves false fuel, we’re training our desires for just that: false fuel. We’ll crave empty calories that fill us up, but leave our cells screaming. When we fill our empty stomachs with empty calories, we remain forever hungry. Paradoxically, we can end up overeating, overfed, but ultimately undernourished. Left unchecked, this emptiness can lead to feeling imprisoned in our bodies, sluggish, even dead-ish.

It’s a difficult cycle to break. I know.

You already see this parable with sin taking shape.

Our spirits, like our bodies, crave true nourishment.  Truth. Meaning. Intimacy. Knowledge. Service. Hope. Freedom. Growth. Creation. Love. Problems arise when we become habituated to filling our spirits with “empty calories,” with tangible or intangible stuff (like the It Handbag or maybe Facebook fame,) which we’re fooled into thinking will satisfy us, but which in the end don’t. Because they cannot. “You can’t ever get enough of what you don’t need,” goes the adage, “because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.”

Unsatisfied, famished, we keep scarfing down metaphorically “empty calories” in a passive stupor of addiction, mindlessly poisoning our systems with what will never ultimately satisfy our spirits. Shopaholics, workaholics, pornoholics. Liars, exploiters, thieves. We war, we dominate, we covet. We justify gossiping, cheating, condemning. We long for our neighbor’s salary, house, spouse. We allow drugs, binge drinking, insularity, promiscuity and bullying, every latest gadget, every designer trinket, every luxury leisure to fill the hallways of our schools,  starving our first world children spiritually, while third world children starve literally.

All the while, the sound of our innermost cells, screaming.

Eating more birthday cake, Alabama.

Eating more birthday cake, Mobile, Alabama.

Though I’m not Catholic, I appreciate this from Pope Francis:

“There’s the risk of passively accepting certain behaviors and to not be astonished by the sad situations around us . . .We get used to violence, as if it were everyday news taken for granted; we get used to our brothers and sisters who sleep on the streets, who don’t have a roof over their heads. We get used to refugees seeking freedom and dignity who aren’t welcomed as they should be…[We should fight ] this addiction to un-Christian and easy-way-out behaviors that drug our hearts.”

To undrug our hearts we might need to retrain our desires/appetites/impulses. For that, it’s not enough to just stop scarfing the bad stuff for a while. That Quickie Miracle Cleansing Flush might drain something, but it won’t retrain much. Something draconian––ever eaten only Tic Tacs for three weeks?––might feel righteous, even holy, but it won’t rehabilitate us for good. We’ll be back to Twinkies before we know it. It’s not enough to remove evil, to tell my children to not spend so much time in a daze with a digital gadget, for instance. Remove the gadget, and what you have is an empty space. There must be a desirable and  truly “nourishing” replacement that fills up –– or even crowds out –– the vacuum that remains. There has to be “nutritionally dense” matter that will fill both mind and spirit and train the soul toward those things.

As this wise voice asserts:

“Evil in its raucous, impudent, and foul forms penetrates so strongly into the consciousness of our precious young people that they scarcely have freedom of choice. We cannot isolate our young from the influences of the world, but we can teach them to differentiate so that they can avoid everything that is unclean, unspiritual, and ugly.”

-Dr. Johann Wondra, (former head of Vienna’s Burg Theater) “Art: A Possibility for Love” in Arts and Inspiration, ed. Dr. Steven Sondrup

Eating...ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

Eating ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

By filling the body and mind with the best, you are educated to differentiate and free to choose between the empty and the excellent. Furthermore, you can arrive at that magical moment when you realize with a jolt that you’re actually craving raw red peppers. Not at all like what you used to crave, the Cheet-os, Doritos, Fritos, Tostitos, Ho-Hos or anything else that ends in a zero.

Just a Plain. Red. Pepper.

What’s happened is all those good things from the Pyramid base have waged a gentle revolution, and your body chemistry has been altered. It honestly wants what is best for it.  It desires what is good.  When we fill our bodies and our hearts with the real, the good, the highest quality of nutrition—literally or figuratively–– we begin craving the real, the good, the truly nutritious. We’re nourished. We find balance. We’re free.

That, I think, is a mighty change.

Those words remind of a passage of scripture I’ve always loved. It’s about an ancient people, once a tribe of ego- and appetite-driven types (like all of us), who, through disciplined living and mindful choices, retrain their spiritual taste buds. They experience such an internal revolution, in fact, the record states they’d “wrought a mighty change” in their hearts, and they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”  (Mosiah 5:2)

Impossible? No more disposition for Krispy Kremes?

In a few posts, I’ll be back to report on how the Pyramid stands.

 

Not letting any of my cousins eat my birthday cake, Bloomingotn, Indiana

Not letting ANYONE else eat MY birthday cake, Bloomington, Indiana