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?

 

 

 

 

 

Dispassion

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It’s a spring afternoon of 2009, nearly two years following Parker’s death, and the counselor at our children’s school in Munich has invited a short list of students and faculty whom Dalton has hand-selected to gather in an empty upper floor room during an extended recess and lunch period.  The whole building will be empty during that hour, the counselor’s assured us, so that we can count on no disturbances whatsoever.  We’ll need this time.  Dalton’s been preparing for many months for this moment.

“Now, all of you’ve been invited here specifically by Dalton,” the counselor begins after we’re all settled. There are about a dozen girls and boys sitting to my left and my right in a circle, twelve and thirteen-year-olds all of them.  Dalton’s favorite teacher, his English professor, is sitting directly across from me, and Randall is to my immediate right. The four chairs to my left separate me from Dalton.

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“He’s invited you,” the counselor continues, “because he has something he wants to share and he trusts you. What we will discuss today stays here, unless Dalton invites any of you to share this information further. Is that good with you, Dalton?

He nods.

“Good with everyone else?”

Everyone else nods.  I’m focused on the middle of the circle where we’ve set Parker’s djembe, his treasured African drum.

“I wonder,” says the counselor, “if you all could just note on this slip of paper I’ve given you something that you’ve lost. It can be something intangible or it can be a home or a person, anything. But I want this to be a thing whose loss has really hurt you. Maybe it still hurts you. Just write it down and then you can place your paper on top of here.”

She points to Parker’s drum.

I watch as these kids and their teachers soften, and a spirit of thoughtfulness and sincerity seeps around the circle.  I also watch Dalton carefully. He had been sleepless and cramped on the floor of the bathroom all night.

“I’m not sure I can do this, Mom,” he’d said as I’d wiped his forehead with a cool washcloth around 3:00 a.m.  He was on his side in a quasi fetal position.  “What if. . what if I tell them and. . .”

“And. . .and what?” I asked, running the cloth under cold water again. I squeezed out the excess. I dabbed his face.

“What if I tell them and they just. . .they. . .” He was sweating, holding his stomach.

“They don’t do anything? What if they don’t care, you mean?” I knew my boy. And I knew this same leaden, justifiable fear. What if I bare my soul to someone and he leans away from, not into, the conversation? What if I expose the enormous hole in my torso and no one sees it, no one feels it?

That’s the great fear.

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And that is why, for nearly two full school years, Dalton has made acrobatic contortions at school to avoid any discussion about his family.  He’s done everything to avoid mentioning his brother, the one who had been Dalton’s living idol one month before he’d arrived at this new school, the same one who had been buried two weeks before landing here.  In this new community, everyone asked that thing you always ask when you meet the new student, “So, do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Dalton decided to lie.  He had no older brother.

But the deception and the denial were literally making him ill.

So on a spring day during a noon hour, we’re in a schoolroom where the students are writing down and then talking of their various losses: grandparent, aunt, uncle, pet. They write about lost friendships and missed opportunities and forfeited stability because of moving from country to country their whole lives.  Some write down a lost possession – their home in another hemisphere, for instance – some write down “lost time”.

Not one, however, writes about losing a big brother.

“Thanks, everyone,” says the counselor.  “Well, you’re here today because Dalton has lost something that is extremely valuable to him, more precious than almost anything else in his life.” The counselor is no way maudlin, just serious but warm.  I breathe heavily with love for her and for what she’s doing, with love for all these youth who are taking their lunchtime to be sitting here, circling our boy.

“And because Dalton cares so much about this thing he’s lost, and because he cares about you, too,” she adds, “he wants to share some of that loss with you. Is that good?” She scans the circle. All eyes are fixed, alert. “Okay, Dalton, would you like to share with us?”

I watch my boy – soft, blonde, cautious, eyes like chips of aquamarine –- I watch him take a breath. I watch the muscles around his mouth, the place you usually catch the first cracks of breaking apart. I also watch his friend, a small Jewish Israeli boy named Itamar, who’s sitting at Dalton’s elbow, his mop of almost-black hair just brushing into his thick dark lashes, those huge soulful eyes watching Dalton, our Nordic prototype, as he begins to speak slowly, deliberately.

“I want to tell you. . .” Dalton begins as he stretches his fingers out on a gold-brown spiral bound book he’s been holding flat on his lap, “I want to share with you someone who is important to me. This,” he lifts up the album of Parker to show an enlarged photo of a handsome teenager with dark hair, a crimson red rugby shirt and half a grin, “This is my big brother. His name is Parker.”

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Burning creeps up my face and I look over toward Randall with an impulse to take his hand in mine, but I don’t because in the tension of the moment I know the slightest movement could topple things. I wipe my palms discreetly on my pant legs.

The counselor is smiling at Dalton, helping him along. His English teacher is quiet, her eyes large and already rimmed in shine. The boys and girls in the circle, as I quietly look around, are motionless, reverent, even.

“Parker is what I have lost,” Dalton adds.  He lifts his brows, his mouth is pinching and then shaking a bit, “He passed away in a water accident not so long ago when he was trying to save another student from. . .”

And right then, a sound like a rabbit being injured arises from behind Itamar’s dark mop of hair that is now hanging toward his lap, and his delicate shoulders under a black and rust speckled sweatshirt were rounded over.  They’re shaking. Dalton stops speaking, and turns his widened eyes toward Itamar. The black-haired boy raises his head. There are already tears dripping down the light olive face, and pain transforms those brown eyes.  He’s crying openly, like this is his own loss.

As if by synergy, Dalton’s eyes fill with tears, too, but his eyebrows are raised. These are tears of surprise. But more than that, they’re tears of relief and joy, the look you’d see on someone who’d slaved day and night for weeks but still never thought he’d deserve to pass the big final exam, but got – holy cow!—the highest score in the class. Surprise, relief, joy! Then Dalton touches Itamar’s shoulder, as if comforting him, while Itamar continues to wipe the flow of tears with his grubby, oversized sleeve.

“I want you to know about what happened to Parker,” Dalton says,  “because he’s a great brother and he’s so important to me.”

While the rest of the world outside our building grows more and more quiet (I wonder what’s happened with the afternoon recess and all the children’s laughter and screaming from moments earlier), Dalton begins narrating with a stronger voice.

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He sits straight and tells a bit about the pages of the album, holding each up and turning the book so everyone in the room can see: Parker holding his arms around his two younger brothers at basketball and volleyball championships;

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Parker with arms around his family at high school graduation;

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Parker hiking with his family;

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On family vacations;

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Teaching Dalton and Luc to bike or swim;

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Hanging out and watching movies with Claire and his brothers;

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Going to church;

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Eating his favorite, ice cream;

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Laughing in the sunshine and goofing around beneath starlight;

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Pictures of a real live person, a brother, friend, an actual human being. A reality.

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The students are first speechless, and two girls to my right are wiping under their eyes. Everyone – every last person, I note – is leaning into the conversation, reaching their attention toward this story, asking to hold the book themselves if Dalton doesn’t mind. Could they just see – his name’s Parker, right?– if they could see Parker. If Dalton could just hand them all his pictures of this real person, this brother named Parker.

**

Compassion does not always look like Itamar.  It’s not always unfiltered emotion, the free flow of tears. (And by the same token, not all tears express compassion.) Some people cry easily, unselfconsciously, comfortably. Some weep with abandon.  Others are biochemically unable or culturally forbidden to show tears.  Still others might suppress tears for selfless reasons (they’re worried about how their tears might affect others); others will not cry for selfish reasons (they’re concerned about how their tears will reflect on themselves).

More often, (and this should make co-mourning possible for all of us, even the most severely tear-challenged) compassion might look somewhat like the students and teachers in that circle.  Some cried. But more didn’t.  Still, everyone had certain traits in common, all of which were facilitated by the wise (and compassionate) counselor.  Everyone was present. They came, gave their time, opened their ears and hearts.  They gave the moment their full attention.  They didn’t tell Dalton (or Itamar or anyone in their circle) to stop crying, nor did they show any signs of being uncomfortable when they themselves started crying. In all, the impact of the moment came from everyone’s posture: they leaned into the story. They spontaneously encouraged Dalton to tell more, to share all he wanted, because he could be sure it would be honored by and safe with them. There was no question that they cared. Dalton became a new boy thanks, to a great measure, to that one liberating and loving moment.

I’ve revisited this schoolroom experience so many times in my mind, wondering about the significant, even life-altering learning that might have been lost if instead of compassion dispassion had driven our approach to grief.  What if no one had provided a safe environment for Dalton to share his sorrow, his Parker?  If someone (a parent, a teacher, a friend) had instead told him to forget his brother, to get to work and lose his self-pity in some distraction, to get on with life, to suck it up, pull his wagon, keep a stiff upper lip, to be big boy? (He had, after all, turned thirteen by then.)

What if someone had instructed Dalton not to cry, not show any vulnerability, not to articulate what is of deepest and eternal value to him? What if he had been trained already at that age – the age when society and hormones are already well at work impelling boys into a toughening phase – to mask his pain (which would mean masking his love), by playing the stoic, the macho?

What would those other students have not experienced, if they had not been in that room? Watching a young man be frank and tender, another moved by pure sympathy to sobs? If they’d never witnessed their teachers, too, all adults and authority figures, also moved and softened?

And what would I have missed, had I not observed this precious, powerful hour when my child, frightened by his sorrow and sorrowful because of his fears, was able to express and receive love? Love in the form of an Israeli boy who had never met or seen or talked with a person named Parker, but who was, by some sudden rush of unadorned humanness, able to feel something of what his friend was feeling.

As if that list of learned lessons is not enough, there’s more. I’m not quite finished with our story yet.  The classroom is still full, we’re still in a circle. Let me share with you the last thing we would all have missed, had we not allowed this hour to happen.

At this point, the room on that second floor of the school building is rather quiet, except for some whispering as Dalton begins turning pages and narrating his photo album, and the sound of Itamar blowing his nose into a tissue the English teacher has just handed him. Students start to chat softly, two and two, as they pass the Parker book around the circle.  I keep my eye on Dalton, whose entire posture has changed from closed and shadowed to open and gleaming.  He’s pointing to the page with a shot of Parker playing a drum solo in his senior class talent show at his school in Paris: “Of everything Parker did,” Dalton’s smiling now, “basketball, volleyball, swimming, hanging out with all his friends, even eating ice cream. . .I think what he loved the most was drumming. That’s why we brought his drum today.”

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Right then, from directly beneath our feet and as if on cue, someone begins playing a drum set.  An explosive, vibrating drum riff that goes and goes and goes. It startles Dalton, the English teacher shoots me a glance, I reach to squeeze Randall’s hand, two of the boys look at the floor then all around the walls and then back at each other, perplexed but oblivious. And Itamar holds the tissue at his nose.

I softly shake my head. Randall grins.  By that time, these kinds of coincidences aren’t entirely new to us anymore.

We listen for several more minutes while Dalton tells all he can about his brother, and while some stranger wielding pretty wicked drum sticks tears it up under our feet.

The kids need to return to class, the tin of cookies we’ve shared is down to crumbs, light is shining through the windows, there are no more tears, and the invisible drummer retreats to whatever mysterious place he’d come from.

But his silent rhythm follows us all the way home and beyond.

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La Tempête de 1999

I have just propped my feet up on my desk and am leaning back in my comfy leather chair before I begin tick-tick-ticking away at my laptop. The moon is still high at 5:30 a.m., the boys are still safe and soundly asleep, the house stone silent, and I know I can get in a good 45 minutes’ uninterrupted work  before they stir and the morning routine begins.  It’s a pregnant moon, I watch for her hidden pulse beneath the mottled ivory skin so ripe, taut, engorged with fecundity, and through my open window I hear the peep-peep from the garden of the first morning birds.  A copper-colored squirrel flits up a tree past leaves that hang gracefully, their changing colors a muted swath of fabric that barely flutters as the night stirs into morning with one stroke of a breeze. No, hardly a breeze, really, more like a breath. I like the window open at this hour just for a brisk shot of chill, and I like that I can close it off, too, and that it’s not yet legitimately cold, and with those dozy thoughts I burrow into old photos to add to the post I am composing about a blissful birth in a cozy château setting almost as silent as the one I am sitting in as I write.  Yes, I recall, circling my neck once to loosen shoulders, that birth was also under a full moon.  Magical.  I take a sip of warm peppermint tea, watch the steam rise from cup, let it soak my face a bit like a momentary sauna.  Dry air today, I think to myself, might need to set up the humidifier and, uh-oh, apply extra hand cream.

On the paired side of the earth:

“Fast, faster, c’mon, faster! Get them up here, faster!!”

The nurse wearing green scrubs and an orange headlamp is yelling, motioning down the lightless corridor on the eighth floor of New York City’s Langone Medical Center, waving frantically to get the team of EMT personnel and a trailing firefighter into the delivery room where Julia Alemany is in the pitch of labor. “Right here, guys!” the nurse yanks them through the door, “Hurry, faster. Who’s got lights?”

Doron, Julia’s husband, is crouching next to his wife, who has had her hands curled over her eyes and against her forehead for two hours now, while Hurricane Sandy pounds demonically on the walls of this building, shaking it, slashing at it with wild whipping vacuum-like winds, hurling branches and metal scraps against the windows, yowling like nature herself is giving birth to the devil. Julia writhes on her side, panting, crying out, “I can’t do his anymore, someone help me, heeelp me. Where’s my doctor? Dor, what’s gonna – ?” and she lets out a low, guttural moan, clenching her belly with both bare arms.

The nurse jumps as something crashes into the closest window, rattling it in its frame, cracking the glass in a splintering thunderbolt pattern she can see when the real lightning outside explodes in one brief smack.  The rain and wind flog and lash, and Doron, normally a calm guy, is thinking how this feels like being trapped in the bottom of a huge electric mixer, nightmarish, impossible. He tells himself he will not lose his cool, he will not lose his cool. “’Kay, babe, we’re going to make it, Jules, we’ll make it hon, just stay with me, we’ll be alright, they say the pain guy’s on his way.”

Doron looks at the nurse, who shakes her head once. No sign of an anesthesiologist anywhere, although she’d called for him on the P.A. system when the power was still up almost an hour ago. “You’re doing great, Julia,” the nurse says, stepping closer, putting her hand on the nape of Julia’s neck and stroking the woman’s sweaty dark hair from where it’s gluey in her collar, “We’re here with you. We’ll figure this one out. Hey, what happened to the firefighter who was supposed to get me some li – “

The firefighter runs in, his red and silver industrial-sized flashlight now cuts a white tunnel through the shadows, and just behind him comes another man wheeling a portable I.V. He’s carrying a small suitcase of equipment, too, and Doron leans closer to Julia, his voice suddenly a register higher, “Okay, Jules, we’re cookin’, doll, he’s here. Pain guy’s in the house, folks, pain guy’s in the house.”

Six glowing cell phones, a red and silver flashlight and four minutes later, the needle is in Julia’s lower back. Doron puts his hand on her forehead. “Epidural will kick in, they say, in about five, six more contractions. They want to know if you can handle being moved? Can you move?”

On a medical sled, the EMT and medical teams carry Julia down eight flights of unlit stairs with Doron, now in his own headlamp and holding three phones aloft, leading the way, looking back up the stairwell with every step, barking at the men to “be careful with my baby men, just be careful.” The firefighter’s shining his flashlight right on the exit where an ambulance is waiting to take them to Mount Sinai. The moment they open the door, sheer force of wind suction yanks at everyone’s shoulders like a riptide yanks at your legs, and the team has to steady itself ­– “Hold on, guys, hold it, slowly,” – as they inch against the gale while someone swings wide the two back doors of the idling vehicle. “Watch the curb!” someone yells, “Keep her flat!” another snaps,  “Jules, are you with me? Can you feel it working now?” Doron’s face is wet with hot perspiration and rain that is not falling, but slicing sideways.

Julia nods, but says nothing.  Her eyes are firmly closed to the pandemonium and the icy gales that rage all around her. She’s saving energy by concentrating on nothing but the thudding of her heart as it ricochets all over inside her ribcage. Doron tucks a blanket up to her chin just as she is hoisted into the ambulance, and climbs in right after her, reaching for her hand as the sirens start whirring.

In spite of the half tree that falls across the hood as the ambulance approaches Mount Sinai, in spite of Hurricane Sandy, in spite of the devil of nature being born in New York City and up and down the eastern seaboard that night, at 12:48 a.m., Micha Alemany-Markus is born to grateful though exhausted parents, Julia and Doron.

And about that same hour, in a distant time zone, I sip on my third cup of peppermint tea while listening to birdsong and stretching my arms to the ceiling before pasting in my last sunny photo of the painless April birth of a little prince in a castle in Versailles, France.

**

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”—Albert Einstein

**

Only once in my life have I experienced anything that could be put in the same genus as Hurricane Sandy.  That storm was called Lothar or La Tempête de 1999, and was equivalent to a category one hurricane, mowing with 80 kilometer winds a path of devastation across northern Europe, plowing right through Versailles, right down our street.   A dramatic event, an historic event, a sorrowful event as fifty-three lives were lost, homes were demolished, historic treasures were ripped out by the root (10,000 rare trees in the Gardens of Versailles) or ripped to shreds (wings of the castle, windows, artifacts), and the equivalent of six billion dollars’ damage.

Still, its effects were miniscule compared with Sandy’s awesome ruin. In fact, I hesitate even printing “Lothar” and “Sandy” on the same screen, they are so far from each other in terms of magnitude of human and economic loss.

Lothar sent us flying from our beds that Christmas Day night, running frantically through our house, gathering our young children into a central and protected place, racing to the windows and battening down shutters to be sure that the old thin glass was not going to rattle itself into shards. There was debris and there were whole chunks of things – trash cans, shingles off roofs, shutters, a child’s bicycle – sailing through the air. I remember an image: the enormous tree in our neighbor’s yard was wrenching and jerking so violently, that its branches, normally a dozen meters from our home, scratched within centimeters of where I stood on the other side of glass.  Death’s claws, I thought. How close they came.

But Lothar lasted a mere two hours.  We actually returned to our beds and fell back asleep.  The next morning, Randall and I kept the shutters locked and let the children, who’d been up those two hours, sleep longer in the still and the darkness, then we awoke them and went about getting ready to go to church.  When we opened our front door, this is what we saw.

That day, we walked to church, as did most of our congregation. If their cars had not been damaged in the maelstrom, they couldn’t drive them for all the downed power lines and tree graveyards that just the evening before had been lovely manicured roads.

But here’s my point. Because I lost nothing in that storm – no loved ones, no property, no livelihood, not even more than two hours of sleep – to me Lothar was a single event, a story to tell one day in the future with a couple of impressive pictures, almost a titillating narrative, but not a life-changing landmark by any means. I have few vivid memories of that spot in time, in fact, beyond what I have shared here.

Others, though, people very much like me, people I have thought of since, will always consider December 25th 1999 the day their life split, the moment everything stopped. They lost the most precious things – a husband, wife, father, mother, sibling, child – to two unpredicted hours of a freak climate tantrum, and then, in the ruin, had to dig themselves out.

To take that reality one step further, as I sit and type this, not only are people climbing out of Sandy’s wreckage, but others are bracing themselves for it.

And to take that reality one step further, as I finish this paragraph, this one you are reading, someone else, and it could be anyone, and it could be myself, is going to be visited not by a category one hurricane, but by a metaphorical Sandy.  Or a Lothar.  They will get the test results back from their doctor. They’ll answer a phone call at an odd hour. They’ll see a strange, unapproachable look in their spouse’s eyes.  They might be driving or sitting or running or singing in the shower and with no warning, a storm will descend that will rip out all the precious plantings they have cared for so tenderly, counted on so faithfully. That is the forever moment, the instant that divides their life into Before and After.

What does one do with all this? What do we do with one another’s losses? How does another’s desolation impact my life? Who owns a tragedy? Whose loss is it anyway? What will assuming some small part in another’s tragedy bring to me, anyway? Will it weigh me down, drive me to unfiltered paranoia, eat up my private pile of joy?  How do I reconcile the fact that I walked that Aftermath Sunday morning in December 1999 to church in heels – right past, by the way, the neighborhood château where our Luc would be born five months later – that I minced in a skirt around toppled trunks, that I climbed side saddle over enormous root balls, that I escaped the scathe and the scythe while someone else, a victim because of a few chance centimeters, did not? And how does my living evidence this knowledge, that it is often scant centimeters – not worthiness nor predestination nor entitlement nor good fortune nor anyone’s inalienable right – that separates those flattened by tragedy from those who walk over or around or beside it?

**

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” –Andrew Boyd

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