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

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

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

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

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

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Luc on Parker’s shoulders.

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

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

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

I waited for words.

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

“Every relationship is to bring us to God.”  

I strained.

He stared.

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

His soft eyes remained fixed.

And the dream closed.

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The boys, July 2007

Every Relationship Is to Bring Us to God

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

Every relationship.

Every.

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

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

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Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Iranian German Students

Family, Friends, Strangers, Followers, Foes

Everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships. Every last one.

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Every Relationship Brings Us To …

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

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

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

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

There Are No Neutral Interactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Relationship Brings Us to an Understanding of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Portrait: Courtesy of Jennifer Quinton ©)

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

What have your best and richest relationships taught you?

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

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

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

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.

Monkey Rock Bridge Downstream Sideview 2

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.)

The (S)Low Down on Crazy Busy

“Truth is, Melissa: seems you’re always busy.”

He was right, my almost eighty-year-old Dad, who, sober-eyed, watched me from where he sat at the foot of the bed.  I scrambled on the floor, foraging through piles of clothing and gear for the three-day pioneer trek reenactment my husband and sons were slated to leave for the next morning.  Crack of dawn in dungarees, Tom Sawyer hats, suspenders and hiking boots.  Pulling hand carts and sleeping under a sky hung loosely over the high desert of northeastern Utah. My men were heading here:

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Oh, Pioneers!

Oh, Pioneers!

Luc trek

Dalton trek

Since arriving at my parents’ in the States on vacation, I’d been scouring Salt Lake City’s thrift shops, Army Navy outlets and bona fide pioneer-outfitting stores in between doing television, radio and print interviews for my book launch.  Delay-onset jet lag. Little sleeping.  Spotty eating.  When did I last shower? On this continent?

My mind was shredded by the intensifying yank between hand carts and hard copy, and I was having night terrors about covered wagons and book covers. I was wound so tightly, you could have used my spine to drill a tunnel through the Rockies. My brain was doing that thing I call not worrying but whirrying.

Whiiiir-whiiiir-whiiiirrr, like the propellers of a plane left revving at top speed on an abandoned tarmac.  Tight spine, whirring mental blades, fatigued physique, against the backdrop of a crammed calendar. I was always busy. Dad had nailed it.

But I defended myself to his face, and I’ll do the same here.

“That’s not even it,” I exhaled. “‘Busy’ would be alright.  To be honest, Dad,” the tension was now probably visible in my neck, “I’m not ‘busy’. I am maxed out, burning out. This is modern life!” I punctuated that last phrase by smacking my open palms on a mound of pioneer-grade burlap tenting.

sjwhipp.com

sjwhipp.com

Sometimes I’m driven too far into the whirr.  I take on more than is reasonable, more than is healthy, more than is humanly doable, and more than is needed.  This escalation of responsibilities – insanely, the busier I get the more recklessly I tend to take on additional tasks, and the faster my whirry whirrs – means that not only am I left with too few resources to do normal and necessary things (sleep, eat, talk with my Dad), but the quality of things I do (sleeping, eating, talking) is altered.

Even in restful moments like sitting behind the wheel at a traffic light, waiting for my bread to toast, standing in line at a small town post office, or lying in bed waiting for slumber, I sense a low-grade agitation surging and heating my sinews.

Jittery sleeping. Gritted eating. Clenched talking.

And then someone’s four words – “seems you’re always busy”- harpoons me, the bend of that hook lodging itself squarely in my tense, multitasking torso, with its puny heart valves thunking irregularly, its lungs never quite filling for one deep, full breath. It snags my whirrying and makes me stop. Makes me sad.  Very sad.

eyesonsales.com

eyesonsales.com

What is going on here? Why does some part of me apparently believe the myth that doing more means doing better? When did I agree to this myth? Why does any one of us agree to this? What is happening in a person and in a culture at large, when “crazy busy” is venerated, cheered on, sought out and upheld as the standard? And shows no sign of slowing?

What are the costs of frenetic hyper-productivity, of crazy busy? And please, is there a cure?

Science has long since determined that the popularized crazy busy lifestyle delivers a sound wallop to our emotional and physical wellbeing.  Like armchair physicians, we coolly tick off all the ways in which accumulated stress weakens our immune system, leads to increased respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive and sexual dysfunction. We draw faint lines between stress and certain cancers.  We warn ourselves about the dangers of distraction – what it does to drivers, pilots, teachers, students, parents, children – and we wag a finger at multitasking, noting that it is not, in fact, more efficient or more productive, but more fragmenting to our minds and to our human relationships.

When was the last time I lay for unmeasured, luxurious swaths, next to my beloved (child or partner or, yes, my nearly eighty-year-old Dad) and just listened to him breathe?

When, for that matter, was the last time I lay for as long as I needed, and just listened – calmly, lovingly, openly – to my own breathing? Or to God’s?

My version of "rapt attention" at a theater production.

My version of “rapt attention” at a theater production.

Before my whirrwind month in the States came to an end – a month I’ve not been able to write about until now for all its crazy busy-ness – I made time to connect with some of my beloveds.

One evening, I wandered to the end of the upstairs hall and into my parents’ bedroom. It’s right above the basement bedroom of my childhood. There was that familiar parental smell, the shushed drag of the door over the pile carpet, the ceiling fan making the lace curtains breathe like two lungs on either side of the window to my left. The known contours of Mom’s and Dad’s shadowy forms in the receding light lay on their relegated sides of the bed. They were fully clothed, just resting there in the dusk before having to get themselves up and ready to go to sleep.  The years are finally, finally showing on them. They are in need of repose. And so am I.

So, without invitation and in my street clothes, I crawled onto their bed and shimmied in between them. Lay down flat on my back. Took my Mom’s hand in my right (her trademark plush palms) and Dad’s in my left (his fingers always a bit chilly) and without much talk at all and with light disappearing along the walls and out of those lace curtains, I listened in love and reverence to them breathe.

Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

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Poland (March 2013) 048

Why was I determined to bring my family to Poland during Easter? From a previous post, you know we’d considered going to a warmer, closer place for that week. Italy, for instance. Just across the fence from where we live in Switzerland. Or Spain, only an eight hour drive. Southern France, four hours even with a couple of rest stops. There were clearly options.

But I was set on Poland. Colder, farther, reputedly austere, and expecting an unseasonably late squall.

If you’re new to this blog, you might think I wanted to visit Poland because it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and given my dozens upon dozens of cathedral photos – Oh. You noticed all the cathedrals? – you think I must be Catholic, too.

I’m not.

(Devoted Christian and by nature something my close friends call “spiritual.” But not Catholic.)

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth's surface.

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. Largest salt mines on earth lie outside of Krakow.

Neither am I Jewish. Although you’d think from all the posts on my fascination with things Jewish that I must have been bat mitzvahed. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying Jewish history and literature, particularly literature born of the Holocaust, (and yes, I’ve sung at my share of bat mitzvahs), but no, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t go to Poland only because of its once considerable Jewish population.

Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into crowded freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other camps

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other death camps

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

I went to Poland because my spirit feels drawn to the history – both devoutly Christian and devoutly Jewish – and the energetic culture that has arisen from that complex, contrapuntal foundation. Through the week spent traveling, I revisited my archives of Polish and eastern European writings associated with the Holocaust. Late on Holy Friday evening in Warsaw, in fact, I was sitting in my pajamas in bed in our hotel room reading some of these poems. The boys were over there, listening to iTunes; Randall was over there, working on his lap top. And I was in the middle of this especially sparse verse:

Crucifixion
Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
1940-1943

I
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me. . .”

II
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

**

. . .And right about there from somewhere behind or above or outside, I heard (I thought) an angelic chorus.

In my head?

(Okay.  I’m not that spiritual.)

“Hon?” I spoke lowly. “Are you hearing – ?”

My husband looked up from his work. “Whuh?”

“You hearing. . .? Okay seriously. Are you…? Hearing. . .Is it just me?”

Then I heard a full musical phrase. Randall, however, did not.

So I swung my legs out of bed, and ran to the window. I waved to Randall to come quickly.  Bring his iPhone. We saw this:

Dalton rushed out the door pulling on his coat and slinging a camera around his neck. He arrived at ground level just as this happened:

From the street, he was able to capture these images:

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In the context of all we were ingesting, with the backdrop of all I have shared in the last posts – Final Solutions, genocide, death marches, gas chambers, freight trains and firing walls, toppled statues and draped Swastika banners – against that incomprehensibly murderous epoch, what can we make of this street scene?

What meaning or relative value is there in a procession where hundreds of people, strangers to one another mostly, simply drop to their knees and worship? On the icy asphalt, in some odd splotch of street lamp, a child in the arms or crutches under the arms – what practical, verifiable, enduring, elevating purpose is there in getting down on one’s knees? In bowing one’s head? In submitting oneself to something as “insubstantial”  (again, considering the immeasurable loss and the evil engendered by the Holocaust) something as impractical, one might say, as is faith?

I will not answer that here.

But I’ll leave you with this poem. First, the poet’s notes:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk [in northern Poland]) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

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With Her
Czeslaw Milosz
translated from the Polish by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: “Talitha cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
in a fearful unity with her, with her pain of dying,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

Fast Friends

Monkey Rock, sunset.

Monkey Rock, sunset.

“Naked, except for my water sandal stuck on my hand. Both my hips were dislocated.  Yeah, I was like . . . like pretty beat up, I guess.  Had some bad cuts all over the place especially this huge gash on the back of my head plus all these massive bruises.   Yuh, they said I was near dead.”

The young man’s voice over the phone was as lifeless as his body must have been when Idaho Search and Rescue had found him, “washed up,” as he told us, “pretty close to five miles downstream.”

“Five miles?” Randall asked into the receiver.  I scooted closer, still taking notes on my laptop. All this was going into our growing file: “What Happened At Monkey Rock?”

“Yeah,” the guy sighed then stalled. Then he caught his breath. “Yeah, five whole miles, if you can believe it. The rescuers told me if I hadn’t floated face up and flat on my back, well, you know. . . I would’ve never made it.”  He stopped again. Randall pinched his brow between his index finger and thumb while I held my hands ready over my keyboard, waiting to taken down the rest.

“Yeah.  I know,” the voice said, “I should’ve  died. I’m. . .uh. . .I’m real sorry about your son.”

Meet Robb.  Here, he's carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

Meet Robb. Here, he’s carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

How did Randall and I, who now lived in Munich, Germany, end up in this conversation with a kid from a place called St. Anthony, Idaho, someone we’d never met, but who was going to prove to be vital in understanding the accident that took Parker’s life?

To answer that question, I need to veer a little bit into my religious beliefs. But I only do so hoping you won’t, 1) be offended, 2) feel preached to, 3) mistake me for a manic ascetic, or, 4) think I’m running for the papacy.

Meet 2-year- old Luc.  He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker's shoulders.

Meet 2-year- old Luc. He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker’s shoulders.

The way we made this important connection has something to do with fasting. As our immediate response to the news of Parker’s accident, Randall and I and our entire family and many of our close friends fasted. In fact, when I’d gotten The Call close to 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 19th, my immediate instinct was to shut down all eating and drinking. Randall’s inclination was identical. Claire’s, too.  And my parents.  And my siblings.  And my closest sister-friends, who either rushed to my side or kept closely connected in other ways.

Meet 2-year-old Claire and Robb's 2-year-old daughter, Audrey.

Meet 2-year-olds Claire and Audrey.

One of the first things Randall did while he agonized, waiting for his flight from Munich to Idaho, was to call Serge, our dear friend and the regional leader of our church in Paris, and ask him to invite the hundreds of members there to join in a communal fast for Parker, a boy many knew well.  Then Randall called Lutz, the regional leader of what was going to be our church in Munich. Lutz sent out the request, asking those church members to do the same for a family and a boy they did not yet know.  Only later did I learn that others around the world, some of my faith and many not, having heard of Parker’s accident, began their own private fasts and prayer vigil.  I can’t tell you how many people were joined with us in this intense spiritual focus over two days, but it was many.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children hiking Norwegian mountains with us. Norway.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children, including Audrey, hiking Norwegian mountains with us.

The habit of fasting for strength and clarity stuck with us throughout the months that followed Parker’s death. Again, this desire to fast was instinctive, not the adherence to a rote tradition dressed in sackcloth and ashes.  And while it’s true that to some extent I could not eat, there’s no food known to man that was going to give me the kind of spiritual strength I needed to pull my family through the tar-filled abyss I felt trapped us neck-deep.

So once a week, from Saturday to Sunday evening, Randall and I fasted. Fasting meant clearing out, airing out, making room for more spirit, growing more focused, making ourselves receptive for whatever whisperings (or turbo blasts) God might send our way.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

Then on August 19th, the first month marker of the accident, in an email exchange with our lifelong friends Robb and Jacque, another pattern began.  

“It’s for solidarity,” Robb wrote. “Can we just fast with you guys on this day? Because really, what else could we do for you from all the way over here in Massachusetts?” 

Some sixty-seven months later, they’re still at it, these two, joining us in fasting on the 19th of each month.

Parker atop Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Parker atop Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

More background: we’d left the States (and the funeral and the cemetery and the accident site) for Munich without a complete picture of what had happened the night of July 19th.  The local news had gotten it wrong.  The local police and university authorities were unsure.  There were rumors and variations of rumors mixed with speculation and hearsay spreading quickly in small town Idaho, and when word of this got back to us, we hurt and were deeply sad.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher's Pulpit.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher’s Pulpit.

So Randall and I wanted to get to the bottom of things.  We pursued every lead, every name, every telephone number for weeks on end.  What we did know was that this place called Monkey Rock was a favorite gathering place for locals, was private property, but had never been marked as such.  Significantly, the local canal authorities had also told us that they were unaware of “any other accident in this canal like your son’s, Mrs. Bradford.”

Colin, Robb and Jacque's son, on Preacher's Pulpit.

Colin, Robb and Jacque’s son, on Preacher’s Pulpit.

Which was confusing.  The first local television coverage featured an interview with the area’s sheriff, who’d said, pointing to the canal, that everyone in those parts called this place “The Meat Grinder.” Names like that aren’t given without footnotes, so we set out finding out what those footnotes were.  How to do that? From the other side of the world? Having never lived in Idaho? Having never visited there except for the events surrounding our son’s accident? Knowing only the smallest handful of people anywhere in that area? With everyone involved now dispersed, gone their separate ways?

Claire and Audrey, Preacher's Pulpit.

Claire and Audrey, Preacher’s Pulpit.

As we gathered information (taking testimonies over the phone from people who lived in the area, paramedics, students who’d been  at the site of the accident), we saw it would be necessary to meet face-to-face with the county’s canal board. This was a panel of gentlemen who oversaw water and irrigation rights in what was southeast Idaho’s rich farmland. We wanted to explain what had happened to our son in one of their canals, the very canal they had been led to believe was harmless.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

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We set a date, early April, for that trip to Idaho. And we continued fasting and praying as did others on our behalf, like Robb and Jacque, who knew we were searching doggedly for more information that would help us piece together a story that would make a difference at that important April meeting.

Bronx Zoo, New York City

Bronx Zoo, New York City

On March 3, Randall and I received this email.  (As context, at this time Robb was filling a volunteer position as the bishop or pastor of his LDS [Mormon] congregation in Massachusetts.) The mail began:

Jacque and I had a strange experience today that I wanted to tell you about.  I’m still shocked and don’t know exactly what to make of it.  I can’t ascribe it to mere coincidence.

I spoke in our meetings today about finding joy in fasting, and about the happiness that comes from following this gospel law.  I spoke about how our own family has been strengthened through our fasting on your behalf, and how focused fasting and prayers from around the world have hopefully fortified your family with the Spirit and with the pure love of friends and family.  I didn’t go into details of the accident, since Jacque spoke about Parker last week in her address, and I did myself in August in reference to the merciful doctrine of the resurrection.

[Of note: Jacque told me later that, although as the bishop’s family they were used to inviting people over nearly every Sunday for dinner at their home, on this given day Jacque was flat out not up to it. She has a demanding career as a corporate consultant with a Fortune 500 company, travels a great deal, they have four children, it had been one of those weeks. Her plan? To hunker down with her family curled up in jammies  around nothing more than big, cheap bowls of cold cereal. And sleep.]

Robb continued:

During the church meeting, Jacque noticed a missionary; the dark suit, white shirt, tie and name tag hard to miss on his 6′ 5″, near 300 lbs. of solid muscle.  (He played football for the past year and a half at college.)  He is physically imposing, and brand new (today was his first day in our congregation; he’s just arrived here in Massachusetts).  He looked overwhelmed and lost. Something made Jacque walk right up to him and invite him to dinner. 

[And I’m guessing something made Jacque plan on something other than cereal.]

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Robb went on to describe how, after dinner, over dessert, they cleared the table, kicked up their feet, leaned on their elbows, and started in on a conversation with this quiet, unsure new missionary.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

“So, tell us all where you’re from,” Jacque asked, setting out the makings for an ice cream bar.

“Idaho,” came the answer. “St. Anthony, Idaho. A farming town near Rexburg.”

Robb and Jacque and their children looked quickly at each other.  The fact that their dinner guest came from Idaho wasn’t so remarkable. Countless missionaries come from Idaho. But he came from St. Anthony, the address of Monkey Rock.  

“St. Anthony, Idaho?” Robb said. “Well, okay. You know of a place called Monkey Rock?”

The young man, mid-scoop, went whiter than his vanilla ice cream.

“Monkey Rock?” He put down his spoon. “I almost died there.”

And the football player went on to describe the following, which Robb writes in his email:

Best friends, our Paris apartment

Best friends, our Paris apartment

As a junior in high school, just three years ago, he was doing what he says all the kids in that area do for fun; he went bridge jumping in the rivers and irrigations canals. His favorite place was at a confluence of an irrigation canal and a river, joined near a bridge, just above Monkey Rock.  He explained that he had jumped off that bridge other times, but always when the water level was lower.  He’d never had any problems there.  This time, however, the water was up to within a foot of the underside of the bridge.  He didn’t know it at the time, but that made the undertow much more powerful.  One buddy jumped into the water, was spun around by the undertow and spat out on the other side.  Then he, our missionary dinner guest, followed, and jumped into the exact same place but was dragged down into the circular current.  He was held underwater, cycling around and around.  He struggled for what he said felt like minutes, then with his last strength, struggled to swim out, but hit the back of his head on a rock and was rendered unconscious.

He said that going limp must have allowed his body to slip beneath the powerful eddy and into the moving current underneath.  He said his unconscious body flowed with that current and over the lava rock falls that give Monkey Rock its name.  His high-school friends continued to search for him in vain in the murky water cycling below the bridge.  A group of college students downstream saw his shape move underwater beneath the falls, but did not come to his aid.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Before we even finished reading the email, we called Robb and Jacque in Massachusetts. How could we talk with this missionary? Robb arranged for that to happen, and this is where I bring you back to a phone conversation between Randall and the young man, the exchange that began this post.

Robb and Colin at that ordination

Robb and Colin at that ordination

“Doctors told me later I’d been unconscious underwater for probably 6 minutes. Being unconscious probably kept my lungs from filling with water and kept me from drowning.  I really should’ve drowned.”

“And your massive but lean body weight, that probably made you slip beneath that powerful undertow into the underlying current,” Randall said, wiping his hand over his forehead and then dragging that palm down the thigh of his jeans.

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“Yeah, and my friends on the shore couldn’t spot my body, so they were panicking, running up and down the rocks and scrub brush, screaming for me, then they called 911 on their cells. And 911 sent Idaho Search and Rescue.  They thought they were coming for a body pick up.”

Many phone calls later – conversations we always recorded, helpful discussions with this young missionary’s parents, with the head of Idaho Search and Rescue, with a local journalist whose own son had nearly lost his life there, too, who’d pushed doing a story on canal dangers but had been told he could not – after nearly a full month of nonstop long distance investigation, we discovered detailed, verifiable, chilling footnotes that explained “The Meat Grinder.” This place, among locals at least, was notorious.

Robb far right, after Parker's ordination.

Robb far right, after Parker’s ordination.

“Kids are getting caught up in there all the time,” Brett Mackert, the head of Search and Rescue told us.  “I’ve had to save a couple of them by dragging them out with my jumper cables.  These canals are nothing but death traps.  But they’re not marked, you know? No danger signs, no ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nothing. And I guess a foreigner like, well yeah, someone from France – what’d you say? He’d been one week there? Right, well, he wouldn’ta had a clue of the trouble in there.”

Parker, Dad & Mom (Melch Psthood Ord - Versailles, March 11, 2007)

With all this information in hand, we traveled days later from Munich, Germany to St. Anthony, Idaho.  There, in a small white municipal building, we met with the county’s canal board.  With us were my parents, the missionary’s parents, Brett Mackert, the journalist I just mentioned, other interested locals, and a hydraulics engineer who described the dangers of this particular canal’s construction, features that created the Bernoulli effect; a fierce confluence of currents that make suction that’s capable of pinning even heavy objects in a perpetual vortex.

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Unlike the missionary who dove intentionally into the whirlpool like many others we eventually learned of, Parker and his classmate had been standing in relatively calm and waist-high water downstream from the vortex which is hidden under the bridge, when an invisible undertow sucked them a few feet upstream, pinning them. It felt, the survivors said later, like the spinning barrel of a washing machine lined in rebar and chunks of raw cement.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker's passing.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker’s passing.

Right here I’d love to say that this meeting of ours launched a county-wide initiative to make safe or at least mark dozens of irrigation canals. But I can’t say that.  And that’s not the point of my writing. My writing is to drill my focus and yours on the light that has burned off many of the biting ironies of this tragedy. Part of that light is shared here, as Robb ends his email:

Claire and Audrey, college roommates.  Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

Claire and Audrey, college roommates. Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

This thing seems more than a mere happenstance, yet we don’t know what to make of it.  What are the chances that this young man would arrive in our church building today, that we would invite him over, and that we would discover right now when we know you need it most, this story of all his life stories?  What are we to understand or gain from this connection?  The only thing that seems certain is that Jacque and I feel a renewed, acute aching for you both.  We feel renewed love and affection for you and your entire family.  We continuously pray for you all, and pray for God’s mercies for you.  We remember you and we proudly remember Parker.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

I can’t guess what this means to you, reader. But for me, there is a delicate but traceable connection between the active love from these friends and the fact that some missionary from St. Anthony, Idaho lands just in time at their Massachusetts kitchen table. And there would be other events, equally remarkable and equally inexplicable, at least in purely rational terms, unless perhaps you believe as I do in a reality larger than this often cramped and occasionally dismal mortal tunnel you and I are belly crawling through.  There are those happenings, our family’s been blessed with many,  that perforate the obscurity, that pierce through it in shafts of air and light and understanding, making this passage a conduit, as I see it;  bright and vibrating with hope and sloped, even if imperceptibly, on that long grade heavenward.

Our kids, Brittany, France.

Our kids, Brittany, France.

Global Mom: Julestemning

Christmas in Norway.

Three words, and my bones go all cheese fonduey.

That’s  because there is, even in my memory, a special spirit to a Norwegian Christmas.  With New Jersey’s jingle jangle still in my head, Norway’s quiet spirit caught me off guard the first Christmas we lived on our island.  And during all the Christmases that followed, I felt slowed down, whoa-ed down. Again and again and again.

Christmas in Norway is synonymous with making music, and since singing was my job, I did a lot of it during the holidays.  Where did I sing, with whom and what? Let’s just say the range was eclectic.   “Chestnuts Roasting” and other American standards with a jazz band in Holmenkollen kappell, a restored stave church high overlooking the Oslo fjord. The “Messiah” with an electronic keyboard run by a generator in a dilapidated barn hidden deep in the mountains. (I was offered an ankle length military uniform coat from an audience member, which I accepted so I could sing the soprano solos without getting whiplash from my teeth-chattering.) Scandinavian folk tunes with traditional instruments surrounded by candlelight in a stark Lutheran church. Spirituals with trumpets, sax and drums on Norway’s answer to The Tonight Snow.   “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a screen test for a national T.V. commercial.  Brahms with full orchestra and viola descant in a sumptuous opera house.  Simple hymns with our Mormon congregation’s small and struggling yet achingly sincere choir.

Then there was that most unforgettable of Christmases: The Viking Birth. That’s when I sang out five-kilo Dalton Haakon on a high note of “Amazing Grace”:

“And grace my fears relieeeeeeeeeeeeved.”

And grace sure did.

This post will be the last that focuses on our Norway years contained in the first few chapters of Global Mom, A Memoir, coming to you in January.  The next posts about Global Mom will introduce you to France, or more specifically to Versailles, where we first landed straight from our Nordic island isolation.

Versailles of the Sun King. Of the famous château.  And of our son, our petit prince, Luc William.  And of the not-so-famous château where he was born.

Then I’ll give you a good long look at Paris.

Then Munich. The City of Monks. Our Monastery Years.

Then Singapore. With flash-backs to Hong Kong.

Then Switzerland. With flash-backs to Vienna.

And much of the craggy, glossy, pitch dark, shimmering terrain in between.

So sit back.  It’s October wherever you are in the world.

But right now in Global Mom it’s December.

My attempt at a hand drawn family Christmas portrait one of our last years in Norway.

Global Mom, A Memoir

JULESTEMNING

Bente calls me at 5:30 a.m. Whispering in Norwegian, she tells me to hurry – run!— to the T.V. to catch the broadcast.  My friend has no idea what she’s asking.  I’m almost nine months pregnant, which means running resembles a slo-mo animation of global plate tectonics, my pelvis held together by what feels like no more than three shredded rubber bands.  But I waddle obediently down the stairs and dump my fertile self into the sofa.

Sitting breathless and alone in the darkness, I watch. In total stillness, the program illumines. It is one long, still moment until this crescent of blonde girls dressed in floor-length white gowns and with wreaths and burning candles atop their heads begins singing:

Night walks with heavy steps. . .

Shadows are brooding. . .

In every room so hushed. . .

Whispering like wings. . .

Santa Lucia.  This is the darkest night of the year. And in Norwegian, that means darkness of the underside of the blackest inkiest black.  Something about that thick backdrop makes my anticipation for this moment and for this season more intense,  intimate.  I’m awaiting the Christ child’s birth, awaiting the Bradford child’s birth. The Unknowns; one under the taut skin of my belly, the other under the night skin of the world, and this slow awakening happening in the sphere of my body, in the land of Norway.

Baby rump gyrates up under a rib.  A knee there.  A foot print there.  A head grinding relentlessly like a street dancer spinning on my bladder.  Now he’s rhythmically filing his toenails on my lowest left rib while he hiccups the effects of last night’s spiced lentil soup.  I push down with the heel of my hand. The lump bulges right back again, defiantly. Can he hear the television? Because he’s pulled a lever on his recliner so he can spread eagle from my pancreas to my esophagus. I’m stretchy both in skin and in soul.

Bente has prepped me about Santa Lucia.  “If you want to really get Julestemning, you must watch the performance live or at least on the live broadcast from Stockholm.”

Julestemning is an untranslatable expression, but every Norwegian knows what it means.  Closest thing we have in English is “Christmas spirit.”  But used in English, it conjures up for me at least images of neon pulsing robotically waving snowmen in shopping malls, the slosh of musak in the dairy aisle of your supermarket.  Andy Williams rapping “Ole Saint Nick.”

In Norway, that spirit is different. Deep as the darkness.  Fresh as snowfall in the nighttime.  I hadn’t understood the term, really, when just a few weeks earlier at a Norwegian friend’s house their young adult daughter was on the phone from California. She was there doing a year-long exchange in the land of The O.C., cooler than anything, you’d think. But from her end of the line I could hear she was sucking back tears, sobbing to her family, “Det er ikke Julsestemningnen her enda!” (There’s no Christmas spirit here yet!)

But now I begin to understand. In our basement, in the dark, low in sofa, high in pregnant, I watch the television glow with angel girls singing about the heavy tread of darkness and the pending light, singing with innocence, their faces almost iridescent with the sweet liquid warmth of a musical sunrise, and I’m lulled, nearly half-dozing. Before I can tug on the corner of the blanket that has slipped off my shoulder, I realize I’m draining tears from both eyes.  Crying, for hormones’ sake!  Punch drunk on Julestemning.

Bente, my formidable friend of the predawn phone call, has gifted me with something priceless in that phone call.  She and her family are, in every respect, our tutors in things Norwegian.  This holds true particularly when it comes to holidays and music. Here, she tutors me in Christmas:

“You begin,” Bente’s bright blue eyes widen enthusiastically, “with a thorough Christmas cleaning.”

This means, I learn, on-your-hands-and-knees scrub down of every inch of pine, including the ceiling.  Polishing windows with vinegar and lemon. Beating rugs and bedding and mattresses and bushes.  Flossing your banister. Tipping over the fridge.  Wiping under it.  Picking lint out of the wiry element on the backside of your appliances.  With a Q-tip.

“Then you’re ready for Christmas curtains,” Bente’s adorably girlish Swedish sister-in-law Pia schools me. She is also smiling.

“Curtains” means taking down all your everyday window treatments. Washing them, folding them, storing them in plastic bags you’ve sucked the air out of. And replacing them with flouncy fabric in red and green. Holly berries, candy canes, bows, polar bears, trolls.

“So, where do you pick up these curtains?” I am decidedly curtain challenged, except for stage curtains, which I’d never sewn or laundered.

“Pick them up?  Oh no. You buy the fabric. You sew them.”

“Sew? Curtains? For all your windows?  For every Christmas?”

Was this even legal?

“And after that, you do the syv sorter,” Bente adds, still smiling.  She is tall, has four tall children, and they all have peachy complexions with bright, winning smiles. I conclude it’s a national mandate.

Syv sorter means making seven different sorts of Christmas cookies all in the course of one day. (And there are prescribed sorts, I was to learn, of which Pillsbury ready-bake is not one, you sluggards.) Real Norwegians like Bente are born to do seven sorts in a day and from scratch.  But they are also born with peachy complexions, winning smiles, skis on their feet, a hockey stick in their fist, and something in their constitution that lets them slurp the teensy eggs out of the tails of raw shrimp.  And still smile.

“And don’t forget kransekake,” Pia wants to explain to me, her dimples softening the blow.  By now I’m feverishly scribbling notes. “You start with hand-ground almonds and powdered sugar and — you want to borrow my moulds?” She hands me her cast iron ring moulds for the traditional stacked wreath cake, then pulls me aside. “You can actually buy the dough ready made.” She lowers her voice, “But not a word.”

I’d never seen darling blonde Pia look stern.  This time, she’s glowering.

At Bente’s, we all gather for Christmas Eve.  We have come in our best clothing (Bente and Pia’s children are in Sunday best and opulent traditional Norwegian costume) because, as Christian, Bente’s oldest has told us, this evening will be “litt høytidlig.”

A bit solemn. Formal.  Reverent.

I gather this is code for. Please, pants with belts. Drawstrings and elasticized ankles turned away at the door.  (And you will forever be labeled, “Bumpkin.” )

We gather around Bente’s table set with a great-great-grandmother’s crystal, heirloom silver, china handed down generations. There are candles. There is an order to things, a program. A first course followed by a song.  Another course.  Another song.  There are pewter warming plates and hand-tatted linens from another great-grandmother. The menu includes substantial fare; traditional white sausage, delicately boiled potatoes, steamed Brussel sprouts and caramel pudding right before the crowning treat: stacked rings of the kransekake, each ascending ring decorated with small Norwegian flags.

No paper plates, even Chinette. No feet propped on the coffee table.  No root beer floats in mismatched Jets and Yankees mugs. Not a single popcorn ball, corn dog or Jell-o salad. Nothing of that sort anywhere from the Arctic circle all the way down to the southern border that Christmas Eve.

Just a guess.  But one I’d stake my life on.

LANGBORDET

Given that Christmas in Norway means gathering, we buy a huge table.  This particular three-meter plateau of pine has room for twelve, and we have twelve traditional curved farm chairs made and painted to match.  In a pinch, there is room for fourteen.  Sixteen, if everyone dines armlessly.

Even with the table as talisman, I never really fully master the Norwegian Christmas.  Maybe because it takes much longer than five years to do so. Maybe because I do not really master so very much domestically, if you must know the truth.  I do get all the traditional decorations, serve mounds of fish in every possible state at every one of my gatherings, make vat upon vat of something called gløgg, an onomatopoetically named cider that Norwegians consume with or without alcohol. (But mostly with.  And with lots).

I even perfect my own recipe for gingerbread, the very mortar of any true Norwegian Christmas.  I learn all the local songs about the art and lure of gingerbread-baking. I sing them with my children and add choreography I can still pull off today if you put a kransekake mould to my head. One year, I made enough gingerbread dough to re-shingle our roof.  Then loaded it in my car and took it to church where two dozen children built a scale model of Machu Picchu, looked like. Machu Picchu with shiny green gum drops and red striped fences all around.

In the course of our Norway years, I scrape off the biggest scabs of the vestiges of a crusty old feminism that had preached disdain for all things — for every thing — domestic.  I shimmied out of that brittle role model while also squeezing sideways past The Good Norwegian Housewife one.  (I never, for instance, tipped or Q-tipped my fridge. Never once).  But I took a swan dive into the one domestic task I liked:  Food preparation. Food preparation, specifically, that gets people together. I gave up Gloria Steinem for Rachel Ray and traded in Bella Abzug for Julia Childs.

In fact, I now see that in some ways I at least subconsciously took Mrs. Julia Childs as a muse, a model.  Many years after leaving Norway, after Childs’ death, I saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian which featured her huge meat cleaver-scarred Norwegian farm table. She said it had been the heart of her home.  She even had similar curved farm chairs to mine. Or better, I did to hers. And they were all collected during the time she’d lived in Oslo with her husband, Paul.

Hmm. She’d also lived twice in France.

And once in Germany.

And along the east coast of the U.S.

Now I’ve got you thinking we’re nearly identical, Mrs. Childs and I.

But besides the fact that I am not six feet tall, do not have an arsenal of kitchen knives, have never in my life made a boeuf bourguignon nor, lets be honest, a single pot roast, and besides the tiny fact I’m neither genius nor legend, there is one feature of our lives, of my life and the life of Mrs. Childs, that does not match.

Children.

She had none.

I was bursting with my third.

Which was  good.

But given the paragraphs below,  hard.

**

TROLLS

From my journal:

This year has marked the kids’ surge in growth of all kinds.  Parker’s making great headway with his Norwegian, managing to converse like a native with his little first grade buddies and participating in the church  program with a major speaking part.  Wise Man #1.  And at school for the Christmas program he’s Troll #1. 

Is the universe trying to tell me something?

Parker as a troll in his class Christmas spectacle at Nesøya Skole. The lip liner should be given special credit.

He’s lost teeth right in front so he epitomizes the gangly six-and-a-half-year-old, wild about his sport club, crazy about his weekly swimming classes. Claire has refined a large repertoire of native folk songs which she hollers and croons at all times and in all places.  Both children are sturdy and active,  joyous reminders to us of the vibrancy and hope of childhood.  I can drone on and on about their energy and bright minds, how Claire loves all things theatrical, how Parker has a penchant for memorizing long texts.  Actually, it’s a little creepy, his ability to memorize.  According to his teachers, they’ve never seen the likes. He has something like a perfect aural memory.

But. But. Adjusting to the whole local school thing has been hard work for him. For us all.  HARD.  Parker’s teachers have been terrific—kind, flexible, patient—and the school’s principal, Sigrid, has been an absolute wonder. She’s called me in to conference with her every week—a schedule that will spread out to once a month, we plan—just to make a team out of home and school in order to assure this boy, this first non-Norwegian child they’ve ever had, has a good experience in the school, in Norway.  

So here goes: I came close to crying in yesterday’s conference.  As Sigrid was expressing her concerns about Parker’s behavior (and his four teachers around the table were describing how disruptive he can sometimes be in class, erratic, uncontainable, sometimes explosive), I felt that salty wave climbing my throat.  Times like this I’m convinced that it would have been better for everybody had I stuck with full-time theater, had we not moved to a foreign country, and had I let child care professionals duke it out over this child.  It’s all so tiring.  So deflating.

Point is, I have little natural talent for domesticity, for mothering.  All my other talents, (that short list that’s steadily getting shorter) have no application at home. I can love, love a lot, but that love doesn’t seem to be the pill for Parker.  So while I am listening to the Norwegian terms for this boy — “strong character”, “unchanneled energy”, “sensitive” — I don’t say it out loud but my internal voice is blaring on loudspeaker, “This is too much for me!  This here? It’s nowhere in my skill set!!” 

Well, bless her heart, Sigrid reached across to me when I guess she saw my eyes drop to the table top, and she put her hand on mine;  “Think”, she said, “of the adventure we’d all miss without his powerful presence in our lives!” 

I managed a smile then. But hearing her words now in my mind makes we weep with confused but sweet gratitude for this boy.

And writing those words many years later pierces me straight through.

On Decmeber 29th, approximately 5:30 a.m., I called Bente.  I whispered, “Han er kommet.”

He, our baby boy, has come.

And with that arrival, the arrival of number three, a second son, the dark winter skies confirmed that there was now even less of a chance of turning back from being the worthless and incompetent mother I was wholly convinced I already was.

Darkness shall take flight soon

From earth’s valley.

So she speaks

Wonderful words to us:

A new day will rise again

From the rosy sky. . .

Sankta Lucia! Sankta Lucia!

 

Our three Norwegians.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.