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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
No, that isn’t a tree growing in our driveway. That’s a Norway maple branch which broke off during Sunday night’s fierce winds and, miraculously, hit no one, nothing as it crashed to the ground. Tilting backwards, that impressively thick branch—and its leafy, smaller branches—then nestled against the building next door. Today, while more than a half-million people in New England are still without power because of other, less felicitous broken-off branches, ours has already been sawed into manageable bits. So tonight, on All Hallow’s Eve, as I’ll pass out Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’ll take time between doorbell responses to consider Life’s tenuousness. And its preciousness.
At a wedding Friday, I met a young woman working in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos—aka Lesbos. Because I’d asked her to, she contacted me Sunday (in the midst of packing, no doubt), with info as to where to contribute. (Now you can, too.) “I’ll hold you, your colleagues, and the people you are serving in the Light,” I emailed. “That’s Quakerese for a daily mindfulness,” I elucidated.
I see the two of us on Friday in our nicest wedding duds and best jewelry, holding wine glasses, perhaps: removed. Happy. Touched by a lovely wedding. Today, back on Lesvos, weaving between rows and rows of tents filled with Syrian families, does that young woman even remember our chat? Does that lovely wedding now seem a very, very long time ago? And far, too far away? Do all the best wishes, the thoughts and prayers and being held in the Light by well-wishers Back Home kind of seem beside the point today?! I would imagine so.
But she, and the small piece of this troubled, broken world she invokes, is still with me. She has enlarged and brought her backyard into clearer focus. This morning as two helicopters, like vultures, circled my backyard, I held Syrian refugees and the people of Puerto Rico and all those who lost their homes from northern California wildfires and all who suffer in the Light.
No, my prayers don’t solve the Syrian refugee crisis. They are merely a tool with which to dismantle my complacency.
One of my neighbors teaches at Harvard Divinity School, a fifteen minute walk. So I often see him pass by on his sidewalk commute. Yesterday morning and, again, today, he walked past slowly, head bowed, his tall, gangly body folding into itself, into his grief. Yes. His grief. You know and I know what news he woke up to yesterday. You know and I know what is breaking his heart. We know what crushes him. It crushes us all. Again? Again? Dear God.
Years ago, for about a year, I was my Quaker meeting’s First Day School Coordinator, i.e., the principal of a pre-K—12 school open one hour a week and taught by volunteers. Dimly, very dimly, I understood that, for example, when I met with newcomer parents, I spoke for not only my meeting but, in a sense, the entire Quaker world: its history, its faith, its practice. (Yikes.) So, silly as it sounds, now, when a peach-colored scarf mysteriously appeared on my coat rack one day, I decided that I’d use that scarf to, ahem, ordain myself. If called upon to, indeed, be A QUAKER, that castoff scarf became my stole or vestment. Praying for guidance, praying for the right words, praying to listen with love, praying to be open to Spirit, I ceremoniously draped that scarf—which, luckily, went with everything I wore—around my neck. (Writing this, I still feel its soft cotton warmth against my skin.)
More recently, when my Quaker meeting offered training to become a “pastoral caregiver” I was, at first, not interested. “Why do I need training to do what I am already doing?” I thought. (and, yes, frankly, am doing pretty well!) But, again, dimly, I intuited that this seventeen-hour training, created by The Community of Hope International, was exactly what I was supposed to do.
How right I was. For not only do I get to explore delicious—and challenging— subjects like pastoral care and Benedictine spirituality and humility and healing (and lots, lots more) with others from my faith community but when, girded and guided by this training, I do pastoral care, every month I will have the opportunity to talk with others about “God in the Hard Places.”
[Ghost Bike, Park Street, Somerville, MA, August, 2016]
Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes we’re asked to let ourselves move beyond words, to listen for the notes between the notes, to let the silence speak to us. Sometimes we’re invited to allow a sound or a smell or a color or a gesture or a wordless moment in a dream tell us everything we yearn to know or feel. Sometimes we’re not supposed to parse or define or explain. Sometimes we’re supposed to be dumb (as in speechless); to be a stranger in a strange land, illiterate, lost, using all our senses except hearing to make meaning of what surrounds us. Sometimes we’re asked to let our humility guide us and to breathlessly wait to see what ensues when we let Judgement go.
[Sunset from Dane Street’s Commuter Rail Bridge, May, 2016]
Environmental noises of 42.39°N, 71.09°W : ebbing and flowing traffic, sidewalk conversations in multiple languages, birds in season and, when the wind’s from the South*, commuter trains’ horns—that haunting sound now more mournful since a Fitchburg-bound commuter train fatally hit a bicyclist. (Whose name, two days later, has still not been released.)
It happened Sunday afternoon. It happened at the Park Street crossing. It happened even though the train gates had been lowered and the warning lights flashed. It happened despite pedestrians shouting to that young man on his bike to stop. Stop! It happened in my neighborhood and about an hour before I arrived. (I pretty much walk over those train tracks twice a day.)
By the time I’d arrived Park Street had been cordoned off, emergency and Somerville police and MBTA officials’ vehicles lined the length of the quarter-mile street, and the train, a hundred yards or so down the track from the accident, silently waited for its passengers to be transported to a T bus (which arrived just as I walked by.) The silent train, the silent street, the hush of the groups of people gathered along Park Street’s sidewalk on either side of the crossing; such collective, respectful, deeply connectedquiet!
Pedestrians had not been allowed to cross the tracks, either—for chilling reasons, I assume— so I’d walked about a mile out of my way to a grotty, ramped pedestrian underpass. Which I shared with a young woman and her bicycle.
“You be safe out there,” I said to her, misquoting a beloved “Hill Street Blues” line. Since that seminal show had gone off the air in 1987 I was pretty sure my reference would be lost on her. But at that moment in that narrow, graffiti-darkened tunnel I’d needed to say something about my own tenderness towards her, her youth, her aliveness, her emergent possibility.
“I know!” she replied. “It really gives you perspective, huh.”
*When the wind’s right, too, you can hear Logan Airport jets throttling up just after they’ve landed.
This past weekend on retreat in New Hampshire I swam, I picked blueberries, I read—and kept my SmartPhone off. Guess what happened? Unplugged from the wider world was just fine. Delicious. But not being accessible should something happen to My Loved One—I am her health care proxy—was not.
No crisis. She’s fine; I was not needed. My anxiety was around both my failure to have arranged a back-up while out of town (Ooops) but, also, my realization of how central my sense of responsibility for my Loved One has become. (Oh!)
Ironically, this realization came on a weekend spent acknowledging my overweening* sense of responsibility. (I know !?) A sweltering weekend back home, every time I cooled myself off in the velvet-feeling lake or felt refreshed by a gentle breeze a part of me scolded: I have no right to enjoy this! I should be organizing around climate action. As if I were solely responsible for fighting global warming! Overweening, much? Absolutely.
But as I have noted before, being with Loved One and accompanying her in any small way I can during her final journey is sacred work. Holy. So I want to Be There in the fullest sense of those simple words.
[I willI be away next week; please check out my next post on August 2nd]