Tag Archives: grief

Breath of Heaven?

Mom and Dad

Yesterday Hospice advised my siblings and me that we might want to gather around our mother.  Yesterday was also two years to the day after my mother, in the hospital for surgery and refusing to eat, asked me, “What day is it?”

“It’s Tuesday, Mom,” I responded.

“No, I mean what date is it?” she’d asked, looking over her smudged glasses that she insisted on wearing even as she slept.  She had one good eye, and even as she had decided to die, she still wanted to know she could see the world if she opened that eye.

“It’s October 25th, Mama.”

Glaring at me, she seemed annoyed, and for a moment I was taken back to my childhood, when that mother’s stare was enough to stop me from committing whatever transgression I had been contemplating.

But then I realized she was staring down the Grim Reaper, who had been waving his scythe over her bed in the days since the surgery.

“I have no intention of dying on the day Mommy died!” she declared.  And she sat up in bed, asking for her lunch tray and eating every bite of the liquid diet the aide staff had brought to her room.

Two days later she had a debilitating stroke that left her unable to talk intelligibly.  It seemed a cruel blow for a woman whose chief enjoyment in life was chattering about everything and nothing to the people she loves.  Where once I’d been irritated that I couldn’t watch a television show with her that she didn’t interrupt with constant stories she’d just remembered, now I long to be able to understand her garbled string of chatter.

When my sister called with the news yesterday, both of us were certain our mother had changed her mind about that long ago October date.  She lost her mother when I was just sixteen months old, and each year on October 25th, she has reminded my sister, the only one of her children who remembers Mommie Bell, of the significance of that date.

Fully expecting Mom’s demise yesterday, I refused to leave her bedside last night, until my husband gently persuaded me that I might need rest for the days ahead.  I relented and this morning found my mother awake when I returned to her room.

Taking no chances that she might be confused about who I was, I hugged her and said, “I’m Estelene, Mama.”

She gently tugged me to her and repeatedly kissed my cheek—the one sign that ensures my sister and me that she hasn’t confused us with the nursing home staff.  I laughed in delight and pulled back to say, “Yes, you know me, don’t you!”

In a rare burst of clarity, she mouthed as best she could, “I love you.”

“I know you love me, Mama.  And I love you, too,” I said.

Sure that I had understood her, she drifted peacefully to sleep.  I sit at bedside, watching to see if she’s breathing, just as she did countless times during my childhood, when I awoke to see her hovering, a cold cloth in her hand for my fevered forehead.

I’m reminded that none of us fully understand the Breath of Heaven—the way it brings us into the world and then takes us back to God.  For now I’ll be grateful for the privilege of sitting at her side as she has so often sat at mine.  And, most of all, I’ll be thankful for the blessing of another “I love you” whispered from her lips.

Tell me your stories of the Breath of Life.

Ordinary Time?

Whatever Clock

A reminder from a friend that time is never ordinary

God feels distant—not absent, just a little farther away.  It’s okay, really, because the church bulletin last Sunday assured me that this is 25th week in Ordinary Time—one of those everyday weeks that isn’t part of Lent, Easter, Advent, or Christmas.

Twenty-five weeks of Ordinary Time so far this year—that coincides almost exactly with the number of weeks since I lost a close friend who died unexpectedly.  Easter came about a month after he died, and for that week, God felt a little more accessible in the rituals and reminders of why I practice my faith.

But in those weeks of Ordinary Time, when I usually feel a Presence hovering, I’ve struggled.

Are you there, God?

Of course, I hear.  But the sound is muffled.

I go to my women’s circle meeting, where we have two new members.  Both are grappling with why God would take their children—a 16-year-old son and a 26-year-old daughter.

Another member is exhausted from a string of debilitating challenges.  She rages at God, asking why, and in the next breath talks of how God used her to bring comfort to a teenager she barely knows.

When one woman apologizes for crying, a long-time circle member who recently lost her mother reassures her.  “It’s okay.  You get to cry here.”

I learn today of another member of the circle who lost her mother this morning.  I learn from social media that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter lost her grandfather, who was 92.  That wouldn’t be such a tragedy if this 15-year-old hadn’t lost her mother, my friend, last September—in the middle of Ordinary Time that was anything but ordinary for a girl who lost her mother.

In the face of their pain, I feel ashamed that I haven’t regained my balance yet from losing two close friends in a year.

I talked this week with an acquaintance who grew up in a faith tradition similarly rigid to my own childhood tradition.  After the devotion of her early years and the anger of her young adulthood, she chose meditation as a way of finding peace.  Like me, she’s living in Ordinary Time right now—and ordinary is satisfying.

Both of us acknowledged that when life is good, we tend to feel guilty in the presence of people who are in the midst of challenges.  And a little hesitantly, we admitted that when we’re loving life, there is a part of us that is frightened, that keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop—for that moment when we lose everything to a tempest too awful to contemplate.

I suspect we aren’t the only ones who are better at forging ahead when times are tough than we are at accepting the grace of life’s gifts.

One of today’s lectionary readings comes from Psalm 143:  “Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me…” (7)

It falls among some of my favorite psalms that speak of a God who is gracious and merciful, who executes justice for the oppressed and feeds the hungry, who heals the brokenhearted and wounded, who gives refuge in the shadow of his wings.

I stand in awe yet again that, though the world has changed much in the thousands of years since these songs were written, human beings have not.

How is it that God executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry?  God doesn’t rain down manna from heaven these days.  But when people come together, it’s our wings that provide the shadow to a person in need until the storms pass by.

How is it that God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds?  When I’ve been brokenhearted and wounded, it’s the people who’ve helped take care of me who’ve helped me glimpse the face of God again.

So, yes, all of us have times when God feels distant and maybe even absent.  But when we flail, it’s the strength of others that can help us feel the Presence of the Spirit that is in us all.

This I know.

And maybe, if I keep reminding myself, one of these days I’ll get better at knowing and accepting the grace of the Ordinary.

Tell me your stories of the Ordinary, the Extraordinary.

Life in a Box?

Mom at Halloween

She squinted at me as I walked through the door and pursed her lips until I came closer—the kind of look she gives the staff when they come in—very unlike the broad smile and the happy “Well!” that lets me know my mother knows exactly who I am.  I pulled a chair up next to her wheelchair and took her hand in both of mine, and she began to chatter, though the sentences I understood gave no hint of the bonds we’ve shared for the past 57 years.

As I sat with her, it became clear that she knew I was someone who cared about her, and she seemed happy when I kissed her as I left, but she showed none of the emotion of my previous two visits, when she spoke my name and waved to me, clearly reluctant to let me go.

It was a difficult visit for me, coming on the heels of losing one of my best friends.  As I sat next to her, I wondered why God would leave my mother here, trapped in the haze of a stroke, and take my friend, who was still in the middle of doing so much good that he is mourned by hundreds.  And I wondered again at the unfathomable ways of God.

As so often happens when I’m wrestling with life’s unanswerable questions, a snippet of a line came to me from literature—from a play where the characters ask whether life in a box is better than being dead.  I pulled the play from my bookshelf and looked at the lines I had taught and highlighted.  Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead uses two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to ask the questions about life and death that make our heads spin.  My seniors either loved or hated the play, but no one was ever indifferent.  Some students loved the circular questioning, and others hated that Stoppard asks the questions but gives us few answers.  In the second act, Guildenstern says this to Rosencrantz:

“Ask yourself, if I asked you straight off—I’m going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather to be alive or dead?  Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking—well, at least I’m not dead! In a minute, somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out.  (Banging the floor with his fists.) ‘Hey, you, whatsyername! Come out of there!’”

I understand exactly how Guildenstern feels.  When I stood by my friend as he lay in a box at the viewing, I had to resist the urge to say aloud, “Get up. Come out of there and tell me this isn’t real!”  And as I sat by my mother, I wanted nothing more than to hug her and bring her out of the box that life has placed her in.

As all of us do when we’re dealing with pain, I reminded myself of the many people I know who’ve suffered far greater losses—the parents who lost their one-year-old, the 15-year-old who lost her single-parent mother, the 28-year-old son of my friend who lost his father.  I know how fortunate I am to have had both my mother and my friend for so long as a wonderful part of my life, my happiness.

Ultimately, I know that these are unanswerable questions.  Is life in a box better than no life?  Does knowing my loss is less than the unutterable losses I could have suffered make the pain less?  Does believing, as Stoppard says at one point in his play, that every exit is an entrance somewhere else make us grieve any less?

Again I look at the highlighted lines, searching for something more than just the circular questions we all ask.  And I find it in one of Rosencrantz’s insights later in the play:

Be happy—if you’re not even happy, what’s so good about surviving?  (He picks himself up.)  We’ll be all right.  I suppose we just go on.

That is exactly what we do, isn’t it?  Whether the box of our lives is small or expansive, whether we believe in Heaven or not, whether our pain is great or greater, we go on.  We look for the moments of joy.  We smile and sometimes even laugh aloud when we remember the people we’ve lost as they were when they were fully human among us.

So let us tell those belly-laughing stories and remind ourselves that we’ll be all right.

Does God Make Mistakes?

Jordan's Drawing

Jordan’s Drawing

Returning to work today after the death of one of our family’s dearest friends, I gave myself a pep talk, trying to convince myself I could make it through this one day before the weekend.  I flipped on the light switch to my windowless office, and the first thing my eyes saw was this drawing by my friend Wayne’s grandson.  I smiled, as I do every time I look at the picture, but this time the smile was seasoned with sadness that Wayne would never again show up at my door with one of Jordan’s drawings in hand.

My sorrow has sometimes taken my breath away this week, and every time it does, I know that I can’t begin to imagine the grief of my friend’s wife, his son, his grandson, and his 87-year-old mother who lost her only child.  The first time I spoke with my friend’s mother, she amazed me by thinking of my pain in the face of her profound loss.  “Sweetheart,” she said, “I can hear the hurt in your voice.  We both just have to remember that God doesn’t make mistakes.”

I shared this with a colleague today who asked how my friend’s family were doing.  My colleague said, “You know, I hear a lot of people in my own faith say that, but I’m not so sure about that.”  And we both paused to share stories of the things that shaped our respective views of God.

And I think for the first time this week I may have at least a partial understanding of why Jesus told his disciples that they needed to be like little children in their relationship with the Creator.  As a person who values intellect and reason, I’ve always struggled with that story in Matthew’s Gospel.  Does Jesus mean I’m supposed to be gullible and naïve? I ask myself.  I can’t quite accept that I’m meant to put aside my intellect and accept the ways of God without question.

But as I’ve struggled this week to understand why my friend would be taken from a world where he was still in the middle of doing so much good, I’ve decided once again that it’s okay to question God—that if I believe in a God who is bigger than my understanding, then I’ll never have all the answers in this life.  When I think about how little children face the unfathomable, I know that they often ask life’s big, unanswerable questions and accept it when there isn’t a clear answer.  They ask their parents questions and then run off to play with complete joy, even though their parents have just given them a jumbled explanation, an uncertain answer.

And so I grieve.  But I know that when I walked this morning, I still needed to enjoy the beauty of the stars.  And when I go to the beach, as we so often went together, I need to put my toes into the sand and know that my friend is now a part of the incredible universe that surrounds me.  He is in the waves that wash over my feet, the ocean breeze that touches my face, the horizon that seems eternal in the distance.

So I remember, yet again, the words of the playwright Thornton Wilder:

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

And so, my friend, I commend you to the eternal.  As long as I draw breath, I’ll give thanks that, for 20 years, you and I shared this earthly journey together.  It makes my grief a little less to believe that we haven’t seen the last of each other.

Does God make mistakes?  I think probably not.  And I have love and hope and faith that my friend and his loved ones will all somehow reunite as part of the great I Am–even if, like a little child, I’m not quite sure how that will happen.

So tell me your stories of seeing God through a glass darkly.