How Will You Compose Your Life?

Forty-eight hours after a technician turned off our son’s life support, my husband and I found ourselves going through the two suitcases and one backpack that contained virtually all of his earthly belongings. Basketball shoes, a navy parka, a half-empty tube of toothpaste, t-shirts, a folded print-out of his university classes for that summer term, some Polaroid photos of the one week he’d had on campus. On our knees and speechless, we fingered through sacred debris while alternately holding in and letting flow stinging streams of disbelief.

In Global Mom: A Memoir, I describe the moment:

A nice woman had gone to Parker’s dormitory and packed all he’d had in his room. Late one night, we’d sat, Randall and I, on someone’s living room floor in that university town, sifting through those things: his journals and class notes (his handwriting); his wallet; a Post-It with “remember to call Kevin”—simple, chest-crushing tidbits. A bitter, obliterating treasure hunt. His laminated student ID with its unwitting, wide-open smile. I’d clasped it ferociously to my heart.

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In an outside pocket of Parker’s backpack, we found a notebook with “Religion” and “Life” written on the cover.  “I just wonder what…” Randall’s voice receded as he opened to the single page of scant notes from this class Parker had attended during his first (and only) week at university. There, in green felt tip was this heading:

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“What do we take back through the veil?”

Not your usual question, even for a religion class. And certainly not typical for an eighteen-year-old college freshman whose wide eyes were riveted on a future chockfull of promise and invulnerability. He had all those pages to fill, after all, his whole life story to write.

Those pages. How they gawked at me, empty and echoing, void of my child’s voice. I had to grit my teeth to hold in a yowling tornado of agony as I imagined our son, robust and buoyant, jotting down those words so casually. I could envision him chatting in class, (“Parker, you raised your hand. Any thoughts?”), yakking away about death-as-theory. Then he would be slapping the notebook shut, slipping it into a backpack, and slinging its weight over his shoulder. Off to meet death head on.

The ink had hardly dried on the page before death itself answered this question for Parker.

What did that answer look like? What remained of Parker after he was pinned for several minutes in a lethal whirlpool, knocked out under water, then flushed out head first over jagged lava rock waterfalls? Anything? Did oblivion claim him?

If Not Oblivion, What?

Let’s try to imagine the possibilities. Did something endlessly him transcend flesh and bones, homeostasis, neurotransmission? Did this essential self, his spirit, peel from his oxygen-deprived body which was dragged by students to a patch of waterside gravel? Did spirit-Parker watch students encircling his body as they screamed, “Don’t leave us, Parker! Come back, Parker!”

Could his immortal identity, his distinct self, have been totally present and brightly aware of the paramedics panting as they attempted and reattempted CPR, barking, “Compressions! Keep on the compressions!” Did he see the local hospital emergency nurses hold those defibrillators to his chest again and again and again, then give shots of epinephrine? Was he present as the life flight pilots settled their helicopter on the landing pad then rushed his gray-blue body on that gurney into the regional trauma center? As his mother knelt, groaning, at the side of his body in the ICU? As his father bent over his firstborn’s feet and held them, praying? As his sister and soul mate touched his forearm then folded into sobs? As one younger brother stared in shock and the youngest huddled in the arms of a friend in a hallway? As the classmate, the one Parker had risked his life trying to save from drowning, was ushered into the room?

During a day and a half of coma, was whatever constitutes the inextinguishable Parker somehow close at hand? At the moment the doctor pronounced him brain dead did Parker hear those words? And as the ventilator’s whoosh was silenced, did my son communicate to some of us around his gurney, “I am here. I will always be right here”?

My point is not to convince anyone of what for me is self-evident; that Parker (and you and I) are immortal beings.  I don’t need to take on Nietzsche, Camus, Hawking, the long list of nihilists, or the even longer list of neutralists, the ones who shrug and chuckle, saying, “Es ist noch niemand zurückgekommen.” (No one’s come back yet.)

My point, instead, is to explore one thing: To what extent might that green question change our lives?

One True Sentence

What if that question were our life thesis, influencing our desires, choices, behavior? What if, as I wrote my life story, I were to place that question as my thesis statement? Right there on page one and in neon green?

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Hemingway, referring to writing, called this kind of guiding idea the “one true sentence.” It structures creation, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. When applied to writing our life story, that “one true sentence” works as an underlying grammar or fusing phrase for all we do and are. It is our mantra.

I mentioned this in another blog entry:

If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?

I like “What will you take through the veil?” because it is an instant sifter. It separates the significant from the trivial. It boldfaces what is lastingly essential and fades what is not. So much of what gets my goat (not to mention my time, energy, money, focus) is frivolous; too much of what is truly durable, sadly, gets short shrift. That question, if internalized, winnows away distractions, and slackens the sweaty grip of temporality, materialism, self-absorption, greed, despair –– so many ills. It even undoes the deadening choke of nihilism.

As another bereaved mother and author says:

The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula, I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give much more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved. I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don’t know if they even like me. But who cares? Loving them is my joy.

Give, give, give — what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don’t give it away? Of having stories if I don’t tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don’t share it? I don’t intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.

It is in giving that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.

…My daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give.

-Isabel Allende

 

Think about it: How challenging yet how refining to write one’s life story based on the conviction that what remains with us at death is that which we have given. That by sharing our experience, knowledge, talents, stories,  wealth –– even our whole selves –– we don’t just become one with others, the world, and the divine, but we ourselves become people who are bigger, richer, more fundamentally alive. Simply put, there is much more to us when we die.

And that’s what it means for us. What does it mean for Parker?

I think it means that at the age of eighteen years and five months, and on a summer evening in his first week of university, in a canal with an unmarked, deadly whirlpool, he went back in the vortex twice to free a fellow student who was trapped and drowning. And he did not lose life.

He gave it. He gave it and he has it more than ever, even now.

 

**

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Are Risen: 10 Personal Easter Meanings

Every Sunday, I write a letter to our 20 year old son, Dalton. He’s serving for two years in England as a full time missionary for our faith.  Normally, because he has limited time to access, read, and respond to letters, I compress my messages to bullet points. (Hard when I want to spread my heart across the page with an industrial sized ladle .) 

Here is this week’s letter. You’ll forgive that I’d condense what’s most precious to me into a cheesy Top 10 List. And I know you’ll understand that this is only a fraction of a fraction of my reflections on what Easter means to me.

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With Dalton traveling in Poland at Easter time

Dearest Dalton-

With a russet colored puppy at my hip, and soft rain drizzling on the bright suede daffodil heads in the garden, with a gray morning splintered by streaks of platinum and blue over the spindled forest,  and with my scriptures and favorite sermons piled on the table in front of me, I’d say life is more than good. It’s reborn.
Christ rose so that we will rise too. But we rise in a manner more immediate and proximate than a distant, some-day promise of standing up in our graves. Yes, all humankind will walk with glorified bodies into Glory’s embrace. I don’t doubt that. But what does the resurrection mean for us in this moment? What does “He is Risen” say to my soul right now, right here, on my couch this Sunday morning ?
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10 Meanings of He is Risen
1) “He is risen” means that He descended below and rose above every pain, betrayal, indignity, alienation, misunderstanding, sin, hurt, illness, separation, mistake, plaited crown and pounded nail. He did this for me. He did this for you. He did it for the perpetrators and the preoccupied Roman guards. He rose for all creation.
2) In every instance he rose high above humankind’s pettiness, vulgarity, brutality, obliviousness, indifference, and self-obsessed numbness. He calls on us to do the same. We are to rise and not return shrug for shrug, evil eye for evil eye. He urges us to fight darkness with light, coldness with warmth, crassness with refinement, indifference with engagement, ignorance with enlightenment, fakery in all its forms with pellucid truth.
3) He is still risen. His resurrection wasn’t some quaint myth, some poetic concoction, but a reality in bone and sinew. If the women’s sighting at the tomb and breaking bread with apostles doesn’t prove it, the Book of Mormon account with its many detailed pages and its multitude of eyewitnesses (and all the visions given modern prophets, i.e., D&C 76), are proofs worth considering. He lives now. I know this.
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4)  I know this because I have my own, intimate proof. “He is risen” has been enacted in our little family life, after having been struck dead in July, 2007. You can say, as I can, that by some power outside of ourselves we have been brought back to life, to life in abundance. We are risen!  Honestly, I trusted his historic rising more than I believed possible our future rising from grief’s grave. But…here we are, my love. Who can deny that? Who can question something or someone hasn’t poured iron down our spines and molten force into our limbs once lined with death’s lead? Resurrection, wrote Reverend Laura Mendenhall, is for both sides of the tomb. We are proof of that.
5) “He is risen” means that he has conquered death. Not just death of the body. He conquered all death, including the death of hope, of dreams, of innocence, of union, of belief, of love. “He is risen” means that he can draw all of us upward from every iteration of death that we might have to experience. As I wrote in On Loss and Living Onward: “And so once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.
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 6) That he rose for us means we are called to help others rise. This requires an alertness and compassion few of us have naturally. As our egos swell, they eclipse the face of The Other. And what’s worse, with that swelling sense of self, we might sometimes feel others deserve to stay low, lying flat, suffering nose-in-the-dust for their sins or circumstances. I’m ashamed to say I’ve felt that indignation tighten my jaw more than once. (“She made her bed, she’s got to lie in it. And I’m not fluffing her pillows.”) But Christ asks us to do as he did: rise to help others rise. All others. No exceptions, no lepers.

7)“He is risen” points to a supernal communing act. It means the most concrete, physiological communing (the reunion of body and spirit, cells and fibers, tibia and fibula.) It also means reuniting anything lost and buried with the found and living. We’re given through him, I believe, the capacity to live with our heads and hearts united. Beyond that, HIs example tells us to unite with our marginalized, forgotten, lonely brothers and sisters. We’re charged to stretch our arms as far and wide as we can and pull those out on the rim close to our center, to our heart. We are one. Division is demonic.

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8) He rose through priesthood power. I’d not learned that truth until late in life, but the resurrection was a priesthood rite. This tells me something about the ultimate life-giving power God has allotted to mankind through priesthood. We are to use it not to elevate ourselves in any way, but to help others rise to greater life.

9) “He is risen” means that though we have no need to fear existentially, we have no excuse if we are complacent. Christ rose multiple times before he rose definitively, and by that I mean that he rose in response to those crushed by sickness, poverty, sin, evil, and death. He drew everything heavenward in his warm updraft. He knew everything would ultimately be renewed, but those timely losses –– of sight, hearing, health, sanity –– were worth his immediate attention anyway.

10) His resurrection was the vanishing point, the spot in time and timelessness where every agonizing question, loss, doubt, weakness and evil was absorbed and converted by some splendid alchemy into possibility and joy. All will be well, if not instantly, in time. And indeed. All is seen and known in his Eternal Now, all is taken into consideration as part of his creation, which is a continual re-creation.

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And you have risen, too, Dalton, as you’ve followed Him. I can tell. I can feel it in your letters. When we follow him, we’re promised that, even if we’re required to traverse dark and alien terrain in the interim –– and we will be asked to trust through unspeakably dark places –– we will rise at last.

In all love, forever!

Your Everluvin’ Mum

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?!

Monkey Rock Falls

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.)

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.

The Last Noël — From On Loss and Living Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE LAST NOËL: A TRUE CHRISTMAS STORY

“MOM?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” came a voice from the doorway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Last Noel, life was just that: wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)

Casting Hands—From On Loss and Living Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one person of extraordinary spiritual depth has said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0089

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)

One Last Time On Loss and Living Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. And my laptop.

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

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

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

 

 

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.

Knowing What’s Going To Happen Next: When a Friend Dies

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme,and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.   Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” – Gilda Radner

Left ot right: Maureen, Melissa and Natalie, front row at the Château de Versailles.

Natalie in her light brown curls, signature smile, and beige trench coat, sitting at my left elbow (I’m center, in burgundy). Château de Versailles

I learned this morning that Natalie, whom I’ve known most of my life, and who is only a few years older than I, passed away yesterday at 6:32 p.m.  She had battled the devouring dragon of cancer for a long time. Her death, I have been told, was quiet.

At my desk, blithely culling my decades-deep archives for pictures for yesterday’s post, I was thinking of this woman as her image passed under my eyes. It’s strange and painful but somehow beautiful to think that in the same moment I was posting away, crossing and recrossing my legs, breathing steadily and smiling while studying a friend’s features, that very friend was being released from this life and the diseased body that encased her buoyant spirit.

Someone wrote on Facebook that “her spirit [was now] free as the wind,” and someone else expressed her conviction that Natalie is now surrounded by loving heavenly beings. These are things I believe.

Correction: These are things I know.

I don’t expect anyone else to believe or know them as I do. But given that the header-title up there announces the fact that Melissa Writes of Passage, it makes sense that I stare down the ultimate and common passage, death. I do not know death from the horrifying and perhaps purifying experience of extended suffering that Natalie had, the one that her family and closest friends have ushered her through; I do, however, know some other things from irrefutable, repeated and shared experience that is so intimate, I hesitate to put it in words, written or whispered. Forgive me as I lurch and fumble.

“Life after death” is about two realities: what happens with those of us who survive the death of another, and what happens when we die.  Life in some form follows both events. I’ll talk first about the first, grief, which I know well. I’m still moving toward the second experience, as are we all.

Natalie

Natalie, front and center; ninth from the left, tenth from the right

Surviving another’s death; Living with grief

In this slippery passage of life, we can’t be certain about what’s going to happen next. We can, however, be sure that death will be at the end of all the uncertainty, the final leveler. It will be there, waiting, at whatever will mark the end of your mortality and mine, and of the mortality of every last person we know and love. Death can come in any way, at any moment, and to any one. Let that be a warning. Let that be a reward.

With that backdrop, being in this life might sometimes feel like we’re Mr. Magoo bumbling through an obstacle course built on lava-filled and rapidly shifting plate tectonics while being chased down on all sides by Dementors, Orks and Aliens.  I’ve had those not-so-deliciously ambiguous moments, which sprang not from anticipating my own death, but from outliving my own child.

Gildna Radner, the comedienne, was a performer, as was Natalie, the violinist.  Both women died too young of cancer. For some bereaved, I can imagine their friends’ suffering and deaths feel cruel, brutal, heinous, ironic, senseless.   As the survivor of my son’s tragic death at age eighteen, I know something about the way these feelings of grief can throb and rage inside the rib cage, gnaw at the base of the brain, put dangerous tension on relationships, and how they can singe the corners and core of the heart.

There are other responses, however, which might come over time and from making challenging, deliberate choices. They can lead from raging in the rib cage to enlargement, from gnawing in the mind to illumination, from tension in our ties to welding, from singeing in the heart to singing.

What is the most important ‘”challenging and deliberate” choice we who live might make in order to glean something from death?

I suggest we begin by choosing to look at it. “Let death be daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything,” wrote Epicetus. A modern spiritual leader expanded on the same thought:

All men know that they must die.  And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. . . .  It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other.  We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation.  If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.

Joseph Smith

Until the evil of death is acknowledged for the traumatic event it is, we live, I believe, actively devaluing and rejecting two of our most humanizing qualities; vulnerability and compassion. Minimizing the impact of death also numbs the innate spiritual ability in all of us to refigure our relationships, which I believe continue in spite of separation through death. These continuing ties can greatly enhance our living years. They can guide us.  They can, even, give us greater life. Dr. Kaye Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist and author, says something similar:

‘Blessings may break from stone,’ wrote George McKay Brown. ‘Who knows how.’ Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why. … ‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,’ wrote Graham Greene.  Grief is at the heart of the human condition.  Much is lost with death, but not everything.  Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love.  There is grace in death.  There is life.

Kay Redfield JamisonNothing Was The Same,  pp.181,182

Our own death; Living eternally

What I can add to Gilda Radner is that after death, I know something does happen. That is delicious to me. Deliciously unambiguous.

Death as an event is not shrouded in ambiguity. It is straightforward, natural, an advancement, a transformation, a passage. As spiritual entities inhabiting mortal bodies, we are not meant to remain in this decaying state nor on this earth forever.  We are intended for far more magnificent and expansive experiences. As said the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.

Natalie wearing a flowered peasant blouse and her irreplicable smile.

Natalie in a flowered peasant blouse.

But we cling desperately to this life. It’s only human to do so.  Hundreds of devoted friends fought and campaigned and lobbied the medical and heavenly powers that be for Natalie’s life. There were glorious benefits concerts, generous donations, organized caretakers, trips for retreat, quiet mornings spent just sitting with her, I’ve been told, and the countless communal fasts and desperate prayers, I’m sure. Mine were among them.  We’ve all known how the best in the human spirit can be caught into the warm updraft of the divine, and how entire communities, entire lives, can be altered by a crisis like this. How we will tear, tooth and nail, and shred at heaven’s curtain for a brother or sister’s survival!

Last month, however, Natalie visited my parents.  She’s known them, fellow musicians, since the days captured in these photos from the ’70’s. It was a simple, brief visit in their living room.  Natalie was conserving energy, she said, which explained her hushed voice, her stillness, the palpable calm that spread out in the room like the sound and shade of a sunset.

“We’re redoubling our prayers for you, Natalie,” my Mom said.

“And hoping for another breakthrough and some sort of–”

Natalie cut my Dad off, mid-phrase, with a limp wave of the hand.

“No, no. Please. Don’t pray for healing,” she insisted, her eyes steady.  “I’m prepared now. Pray for my release.”

I have to conclude she told others the same. And released she was.

Natalie didn’t know in July of 2007, when she played prelude music on her violin at our son’s funeral, that cancer cells were already conspiring to assault and destroy her body.  That only six years later, she would join our musician boy in the neighboring realm – “the next room”, as a prophet once called heaven, the vast world of spirits.

What happened next? Graceful, ivory-skinned Natalie stepped into a slow explosion of ultra radiance peopled with “loving heavenly beings,” who from their watchful position, have known and mentored her in life, who have in turn awaited her arrival with shimmering joy and outstretched arms, who have since swept her up,  gathering her into glistening, swirling currents of unbelievable, unearthly music. She is playing as never before.

Natalie in lavender  maid of honor at my sister's wedding.

Natalie in lavender sash, as maid of honor at my sister’s wedding.