Can We Hold All Of It?

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA; November, 2015

Can we hold all of it? Can we both honor the war dead and wonder why, dear God, are we still engaged in endless war? Can we both use words like sacrifice and courage and service with conviction and sincerity and compassion while asking ourselves, are there other words I could be saying, too? Illuminating words? Game-changing words? Words that come from a deep and wise and loving place? Can we both grieve and resent that we are?

I’m trying to. And have come to realize that since the death of my mother a month ago, I’ve been practicing this spiritual balancing act. Because, yes, I mourn, yes, I miss her every day, yes, I’m sad, yes, I am grateful for all she imparted; how she’d modeled so many ways to be a strong, fulfilled woman. (Just writing fulfilled, a word she used all the time, makes me smile.) And yes, my relationship with Pat Wild was—and is— the most rich and complicated and challenging relationship I will ever have! So, yes, I am learning to hold all of it. Slowly. And sometimes failing, falling.

Meanwhile: The world just noted the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War.” (aka “The War To End All Wars.”) Meanwhile: Veterans for Peace just reclaimed Armistice Day. Meanwhile, my mother’s unambiguous, clear, firm, posthumous message to me: be grateful.

 

Was it The Light?

My mother died a week ago.

So many, many things I could and want to say about her; I am moved, this morning, however, to tell this story:

About a week before she died, in terrible pain, she’d said, “I feel as though parts of me are flying away.” Which, as a dear friend no stranger to grief pointed out, is a lot like a wonderful song.

For the past week, much to my sorrow, unlike the sense of my father’s loving and abiding presence after he’d died, I have felt A Huge Void. As so poignantly described by Kathryn Schultz in her New Yorker essay about her father’s death. 

But, yesterday, in Boston’s Museum of Science’s butterfly garden, surrounded by fluttering, beautiful creatures, I felt my mother. I felt a powerful—how to describe it? An energy exchange? Her presence? Her essence? Her soul?

Was it the light? Or The Light?

Why ask.

Backlit

Having a loved one receiving “comfort care” is like being stoned—minus the munchies. Sometimes I forget and become absorbed or distracted or caught up in mindless routine but, mostly, my life glows, now, as if backlit. Ever aware that someone I love approaches death has imbued everything around me with such wonder, such preciousness, such gratitude!

Which, not for the first time, brings me to that wonderful moment at the end of “Our Town”:

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”
Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Saints and poets, maybe—and those whose loved ones approach death.

“Unidentified Artist”

Detail from “Pieta” by an unknown artist, circa 1470, School of Avignon, France.

My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!

For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)

Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!

So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”

Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)

And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Grammy

Reading “The Granddaughter Necklace” at Grammy’s house, August, 2018

For the past week I’ve been “Grammy.” That this delightful grandma-derivation is both something my beloved granddaughter began calling me one day, but can also mean prize-winning musicality, makes me very happy. Being Grammy makes me very happy— in the same way I feel whenever I am doing what is truly asked of me. Why is that?

What is it about being a grandmother that feels so “in the place just right”? For starters, spending time with the children of my children is a non-stop intimation of mortality! As Grammy, I am ever-aware that, yup; I am going to die. I. Just. Always. Am.

This fundamental realization immediately prompts a couple of questions: Okay, then, Grammy. So how do you want to spend this time with this child? And what do you want this child to remember about you?

So, yes, I am probably My Best Self as Grammy but, honestly? The role—which, for me, blessedly, also means being retired—allows that. Having cleared my calendar of all but the most essential duties and responsibilities when my grandchildren come to visit, Grammy time is pretty leisurely. You want to dawdle over breakfast, spend all morning in your jammies? No worries. (I could go on and on about this! But won’t.)

And what do I want this child to remember about me? My stories. Stories about when this child’s mother was a little girl; yes. Of course. But stories, too, about when I was a child; how different the world was, then. For I learned from my own, gifted, story-teller Grandma what a blessing it is to look at one’s own life as the next installment of an ongoing, mysterious, amazing story. To understand how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

And, yes, looking into the eyes of my beloved grandchildren, I know I am looking into The Future. And ask myself: what am I, Grammy, called to do?

 

 

 

 

It Goes On

Harvard Square Sidewalk, Election Day, 2017

Like many “Villens,” Ralph Hergert had dual citizenship: Somerville and Cambridge. So it was not surprising that although a long-time, pivotal, and much-loved Somerville activist, Ralph’s memorial on Saturday was held at Old Cambridge Baptist Church, his spiritual home in his last years. And that his beloved, vaulted church overflowed with OCBC congregants and Villens who’d worked with him and beside him on peace and social justice issues for over thirty years.

Still the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in East Somerville when we first met, Ralph and I had many conversations about how his faith and mine, both predicated on the belief that we can experience The Divine without an intermediary, were so radically different culturally yet, in fact, so very close. Good stuff.

My favorite Ralph story: He and I worked in the same building, he as the head of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and I as a teacher at Somerville’s adult learning center. One morning as we were both coming to work we met outside the building and, somehow, got to talking about music—specifically, for some reason lost in the mists of time, about “There Is A Balm in Gilead.” (Endlessly kind, he nevertheless pitied my ignorance of liturgical/spiritual music.) We walked inside, he walking up a flight of stairs, me walking down a flight, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he leaned over the railing. He looked down at me. He grinned. And  began singing that wonderful spiritual. His voice filled the stairwell. His voice filled my sin-sick soul.

Ralph struggled with Alzheimer’s in his last years; his disease was referenced, present, many times during his (music-rich) memorial.  Something else was present, too: a sense that The Work continues. I felt it; others did, too. That all that Ralph held dear and had worked so hard for lived. Buoyant. Enduring. Possible.

Good stuff.