Death and renewal

He who has ears to hear, let him hear

Posted by on Jul 26, 2009 in Death and renewal, Spirit | 0 comments

Years ago a child the age of my son was found dead in our area under the most horrible of circumstance. I called my sister crying about this precious 6 year old boy whose last hours on earth were unspeakably horrible. She said to me, “Well, you watch your son more carefully. Nothing like that could happen to yours.” I was dumbfounded. I replied, “but it happened to this child.” I tried to explain my feelings, and as loving and caring a person as she is, she just never got it. My dear friend “Wings” wrote a post about wanting everyone in the world to care as much as she did. I do not wish to sound self-serving or self-righteous, or any of those self things I hate, but she and I are kindred spirits. I explain myself today for her, so she will know she is not alone in her feelings. I also know her life has been much more difficult than mine and her expression of her sentiment is therefore different.

Still, those that are put in our path needing love, we love. Over the years I have “adopted” a dozen or more friends of my children, let them move into my home, listened to their stories, and made sure they had what they needed to finish school and stand strong on their own. A few disappointed me, but most found their feet and moved on to be wonderful, even amazing humans. Long before I met my ever so indulgent husband I was doing the same for every waif I found on the street. I never questioned why or hesitated to reach out my hand. Often I had nothing to give but love, but love alone is usually sufficient. I feel blessed that I have been given the gift of being able to nurture the ones who have been sent to my door. Like Wings, I will never understand why everyone does not feel this way, but unlike her, I have come to accept it.

I think you all know that I am not religious. The terrible hypocrisy of Christians just rung me out and left me high and dry, but to be other than who I am would be a blot on my soul. I hate to quote the book, fearing lightning will strike me, but I suppose I took it to heart when I read, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is reported to have said it over dinner, which they call supper where I was reared. He looked around the table at his closest friends and told them how to live their lives when he was gone, but purportedly he was also anticipating my birth and yours and, therefore was speaking to us all.

Thanks God, I heard you. If I’m wrong about this whole spirit in the sky thing, and you’re listening, I just want you to know, I am not asking for anything more than what I have. To be completely honest I find the love thing totally magical, perhaps the only magic left on earth. The more I give, the more I get. I don’t want to deceive you, sometimes it hurts, but it also makes my life rich beyond measure. I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Posted by on Jul 5, 2009 in Death and renewal, Spirit | 0 comments

She was the perfect picture of rustic misery, standing by the roadside in a pouring rain, bleached blond hair tied in two hurried and unruly frizzles behind her ears. Her smoldering cigarette was cupped by her thigh, sheltered only slightly from the downpour, her other hand lay across her torso about waist high, fist clutched in a knot, as if she just swallowed something noxious. Glancing at her tight jeans and the black leather jacket that almost covered her exposed midriff, I looked about for her motorcycle. There was only a pickup truck with the driver door open parked all alone near the front entrance of the boarded up corner store. Last I remember the store had been a mom and pop grocery, but before that an ice cream shop, prior to being a feed store, and a at some point, an equestrian supply shop. Although it is only 3 miles from the house I have lived in for over 2o years, I have never been inside it during any reincarnation.

The lot sits in what appears to be the path of progress, but for some reason, likely zoning laws, progress has skipped and hopped over it all these years. Farms blanket the road on both sides, green and seemingly prosperous. I follow the woman’s stony gaze down to the black gash that stretches across a section of the corner near the road, a burned circle about 40 feet across. The headlines from last week suddenly become real, “Two die in fiery crash in Hanover County”. Like always, I start making up story lines to explain her stance, her facial expression, her clothing. It has no basis in fact. It is sheer intuition, an educated guess from years of careful observation and my propensity for chatting up everyone from an Amish housewife in Pennsylvania to the Turkish janitor in my long ago apartment in NYC. My children consider this an affliction, like some sort of tourettes that grips me, and I suppose they are not entirely wrong although I like to think of it as a writers disease.

I look both ways for traffic, pausing longer than necessary in order to hold a picture of her in my mind. She is a cardboard cutout I can cover with flesh as I drive down the back roads on the first leg of my Sunday morning trip to Arlington. She knew the people that died, not as well as she would have liked, but they were kind to her. Perhaps she met them at the WalMart store where the man worked after his retirement. She recalls a last casual conversation, a smile, a laugh, but overriding it all all she imagines the horror of their last minutes on earth, trapped inside the burning van. She searches for some reason, some divine plan, but soon gives it up as past her understanding. There is no balm in Gilead for her this Sunday morning. She stands for long minutes crying tears for them and for herself and for life’s irony. She does not use words like irony, but nonetheless it’s part of the uncomfortable and all too familiar ache that twists inside of her.

Soon she will go back to her truck, vowing to be a better person from now on, but when she gets home the chaos of her life will intrude, and like all of us, she will soon forget. Her husband will ask her where she went and why she left him at home with the kids. Her best option is to shrug and tell him quickly and honestly, but she will be filled with emotions she has no words to express. Likely the conversation between them will be unsettling, perhaps argumentative. The angry words will come as a surprise to them both.

I gathered the newspaper out of the recycle bin when I got home Sunday night. The man was 76 a veteran of Korea and VietNam, a retired police officer, a life spent in harm’s way. His wife is remember as a loving mother, devoted to her children and grandchildren. They say his van veered into the path of an oncoming truck, ran off the road, and burst into flames immediately. There is no picture of them in the paper. My only remembrance of them will be this sad woman, standing like the scarecrow of death by the side of the road, her station in life written as clearly as her private pain across her face. She does not hang her head or sigh. She stares directly into the face of the familiar enemy. She does not go home and write a poem or paint a picture of it, she simply wears it into the weeks and years to come, like gypsy gold.

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Hello, Goodbye

Posted by on Aug 31, 2008 in Death and renewal, Father in law | 0 comments

I wrote my father in law’s obituary this week. A lady from the Richmond Times Dispatch called us asking if they could do a feature article on him. I listened to my husband speak on the phone about how dedicated his Dad was to the church. “Sometimes we would go for a week with out seeing him for dinner except on Sunday.” I wonder if the woman on the phone heard between the lines as clearly as I did? My husband loved and admired his father but he knew always that he came in second to the family business. It’s hard for a child to compete with God for his Dad’s attention.

I must give my husband credit for reinventing fatherhood. With no example to go from he managed to let the children know that they were the most important people in his life. I turned through pictures on Thursday trying to find ones to show at my father-in-law’s memorial. As I scanned through the children’s birthdays, holidays, concerts, special awards at scouts and school, I note that their grandfather appears in only the Christmas photos and a few random shots when they stopped by, usually unannounced, and scooped the children up to have their picture taken together. I found a few where the children visited him at his birthday, but mostly the pictures are ones of him and other preachers.

My daughter and I were talking in the car earlier in the week and she stumbled around for a description of her grandparents. “They just never look at themselves,” she says definitively. I give her the quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and we talk about Thoreau and living deliberately. She asks again if she had to come to the memorial service and I tell her again, yes, you need to be there. She went to Pittsburgh on Wednesday to visit a new friend. She called me Friday morning when we were halfway to Roanoke and told me that I was going to be mad at her, but she couldn’t make it to the funeral. She told me a long complicated story about why her alarm didn’t go off but well, it’s her choice.

My middle son, the peacemaker, flew in from Seattle to attend the memorial. The preacher from Pop’s church asked me if one of the grandchildren would read something at the service. I should have said no, my children are all agnostics and atheists so they wouldn’t feel comfortable standing in the pulpit, but instead I volunteered the flesh of my flesh without his consent. As we drove over Afton mountain for the third time this week, my son sat in the front with his Dad studying the piece from Romans he will read. He was dressed in the new clothes I bought for him the day before, black blazer, soft blue shirt, gray pants with a subtle stripe, and a tie borrowed from his father. When he stood up in the church he was so handsome and he spoke in a clear strong masculine voice, like a prophet crying in the wilderness. Even knowing all that I do, I believe him for a few seconds. In the face of all the amazing men who speak today, godly and intelligent men, men who have spent their lives believing something I was taught but cannot accept, I stumble briefly over my incredulity. It is all so comforting. I smile as I imagine Pop’s ghostly presence standing in the pulpit smiling down like Luke’s father from Star Wars.

Each of us on the front row have our own private grief. The widow cries for a lifelong companion, but the rest of us, son, grandson, and myself, we mourn for a relationship that could have been. The important man in the pulpit talks about how children loved Carl and flocked to him for hugs. I think back through my children’s life and cannot recall even one time when they went spontaneously to their grandfather for a hug. The man they talk about is not the man my family knew. The man we knew could never divide himself from the role he played. As I watch my son interact so patiently with the grandmother he drew in this flawed family, I realize that he gave his grandparents the unconditional love they could not give him. I know he is able to do that because he got that same kind of love from us, an exasperating love evidently. He explains it to me in the kitchen last night. “Why do you always tell me everything is fine? Why don’t you just tell me I fucked up sometimes? Why do you always blame yourself?” Of course, I immediately accept the blame for that and apologize, and the boy shakes his head in dismay. Laughing now, I promise I will try to be more critical, but I know I’m lying.

My failure is in seeing my children as they will be, as they have the potential to be, but not giving them the constructive criticism they may need to achieve that potential. Perhaps because I was reared without praise of any kind, I have erred in the opposite direction. The boy will be 30 this year and I’m thinking he may just have to learn to accept the fact that I’m the mother he got. My daughter tells me always that I’m the perfect mom, but then, she knows what sells. My oldest forgives me all my sins just as I forgive his and he always holds part of my soul within his own. I love them all with a primal animal instinct that would send me rushing into the path of an oncoming tornado to protect them, however that is something that is rarely required of parents.

What they need and what I give them does not always coincide, but if I learned one lesson from the life and death of their grandfather it should be to listen. On one rare occasion my father in law touched my heart and made me love him in spite of all his flaws. It was when my mother died and he wrote me a letter from his real heart, the heart of a man who cherished his mother. In it he said, “The loss of one’s mother is the most wracking experiences life can bring us. All the nerve ends of the soul are centered there.” It’s strange to me that although I know how gigantic a figure my mother was in my life that I cannot see myself being the same in my children’s eyes. I suppose I won’t really understand until they have my funeral, and damn, I hate that I’m going to miss that.

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Bridgett (Bid) Doody June 7 1946 – June 7 2008

Posted by on Jun 10, 2008 in Death and renewal | 0 comments

This is a picture of Bid from our last visit in the spring. We escaped for a brief moment from the delightful gaggle of children and grandchildren that always seemed to swarm around the house and took a quiet walk in a nearby garden. Later we visited an elegant tearoom and had lunch served by ladies wearing black dresses and starched white aprons. We talked about her son Nick, my daughter Eva, and the marriage that had started and ended in a storm.

Saturday evening Nick phoned us with the news that his mother had passed away about an hour before, her breath coming quickly for a few minutes, then slowing, then stopping forever. If I were a mystic I would say she choose the day to go, her birthday, to let all friends and family know they should celebrate her life, not mourn her death. I do know she was a gracious, intelligent, witty, and charming woman, one that I was most fortunate to know and love.

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Mother’s Day

Posted by on May 11, 2008 in Death and renewal, Mother, Spirit | 0 comments

When I was a child, when I was a Baptist, when my mother was alive, we would be pinning on our corsages about this time on a Sunday morning. They would all be red carnations to honor our living mothers, and later I would look around the church sadly and uncomfortably at all the white ones that designated the departed mothers. My grandparents didn’t come to our church, but my mother’s mom attended the tiny chapel in Echols, Kentucky, where the only sign of civilization other than churches and houses was my grandfather’s general store. My dad’s mom didn’t go to church at all as she never learned to drive a car, had been reared as a Methodist, and was not especially religious, one of the things I liked about her. After what seemed an eternity of fidgeting on hard wooden pews in our itchy starched clothes, my parents would take my brother, sister and I out to eat in one of the two acceptable restaurants in our booming metropolis of Beaver Dam. It was a rare treat in those simpler times, a change from my mother’s roast beef waiting at home in the oven for the potatoes and carrots to be added and other vegetables to be cooked while we changed out of our Sunday best and helped Mother get dinner on the table.

This formulaic happy childhood exists for me now just out of the corner of my eye, disappearing if I look directly. Occasionally a smell assaults my nose and takes me back there in a quick flash, the wooden floors and ice cream smell of my grandfather’s store, the musty coal oil and biscuit odor of my grandmother’s house, the sweet funereal scent of a corsage, all transport me to those days of innocence. I can’t help but think about them all on this day, the tactless and self absorbed mother of my mother, the fierce and outspoken mother of my father, and the brilliant but insecure mother that reared me with a love that was deep enough to drown us all. Now they are all gone, dust to dust, and I am left to write the history the way I remember it.

Today my Mother’s day is not about flowers or church or dinner. In fact, we celebrated it yesterday, hiking the Rose River and Dark Hollow falls loop in the Shenandoah, my son and daughter in front of me most of the way, occasionally letting me lead. Dinner was an accidental discovery in Charlottesville in a restaurant that looked like a Big Boy Diner complete with a chrome counter, cozy booths, and black and white tile on the floor. It turned out to be an authentic Greek restaurant where we ate amazing stuffed grape leaves with Tzatziki, a delightful and authentic Greek salad with tons of feta, and grilled lamb and chicken on homemade pita. When I woke this morning I thought about what all of my foremothers might think about my unconventional taste, and I wondered what history will write for me in the hearts of my children and my grandchildren. I know it will be a story of love, hopefully one that knew when to let go, one where it did not take death to release a grip of control.

My girl and I sat in the back seat on the way from Charlottesville yesterday and I told her a story about the grandmother I loved most dearly, the one born on the day after her birthday, the one who may have bequeathed her a bit of stubbornness, a bit of delight. She was feeling patient and she listened to the tales of cooking stoves and flat irons. We moved on to summer evenings in Kentucky where we sat around the pool with her grandparents on the last night of our annual visit, the only time everyone finally relaxed. I questioned her about what the world could possibly hold for her and for me as we move swiftly into the future. I hold this precious minute in my hand, examine it, wish for it to last forever, and then it’s gone on the wind like dandelion fluff, to settle and grow in some unexpected place.

My children are restless today, one in Seattle with his wife, the future of our family in her body, one in Fredricksburg with a boy who wants to love her forever, one sleeping still in the basement, but soon to be gone, with only a spider’s silk string to find his way home. How I love them I cannot tell. Made of words alone, there is not a book big enough to hold the emotion. I want to thank them all today for making me a Mom, expanding my horizons, challenging me to do things I never believed possible when I was a child, when I was a Baptist, when my mother was alive.

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Rainy Days

Posted by on May 8, 2008 in Death and renewal, Spirit | 0 comments

This time of year never suits my temperament. I am too skeptical to trust the long soft days, the warm sun, the boring endless beauty of it all. Gerry, my daughter’s British father in law paid me his highest compliment on our children’s wedding day as I stood laughing under the dripping white tent in my backyard, barefooted and ankle deep in water. “You were born to be British,” he exclaimed and gave me a hug. I hugged him back and loved him from that moment on. Yes, I thought, I do pride myself on being a rock during disaster, but sometimes I wish I could relax and enjoy it when everything is going well. I’ve often tried to analyze this character trait; to decide if it’s good or bad. I have determined it makes no difference because it is too deeply ingrained to pry loose.

Even an innate expectation of disaster did not completely prepare any of us for the marriage not working out, but by the time she arrived home, my arm was steady for her to lean on until she found her feet again. She and Nick have managed to salvage a wonderful friendship from the ruins, as close as the one she has with her brothers. They talk on the phone every week and they still share each other’s joys and sorrows. She embraced his family as her own and he did the same with ours. Except for the ocean separating us we would find nothing awkward about including them all in family gatherings along with his girlfriend and her boyfriend. I’m certain his staunchly Catholic family would have more difficulty adjusting to that sort of unconventionality, but all in all, things turned out wonderfully well.

She went to Detroit this weekend, all sunshine and smiles on the outside, looking forward to the electronic music festival. She called me Friday night from somewhere in Ohio with that sound in her voice that sets off mama radar. “Bid is in hospital,” she said, in the British phrasing appropriate for the mother in law she still loves. “Nick’s in Shipley. He just called me. It’s a brain tumor Mom. She can’t speak or move her left side.” My mind flashes back through the relationship I too have shared with this lovely woman, the first time we met in there lovely family home, the bonding we all did together in August of 2005, during what came to be known as “Wedstock”, the bittersweet visit to say goodbye to those family ties a year ago this month. I allow myself only a microsecond of personal grief as I think about the faces of Bid’s children and grandchildren, but most of all, my own girl’s heartache.

“Are you okay,” I ask, knowing she will somehow feel to blame for this. She had a dream on Mother’s Day that Bid died. I know she’s thinking she should have insisted Bid go for testing at that time, perhaps before the tumor spread so far into the speech centers, perhaps when it could have been operable. It’s one of those foolish human things we all do, believing we have some control over a random universe. All weekend I have googled “brain tumor” and followed the threads past the grim prognosis for Ted Kennedy to a few places that give me hope for recovery. The odds depend on location and aggressiveness, neither of which we know at this point.

Tonight a part of my heart is in England in a comfortable modest home in Shipley. The piano in the dining room is silent, the brothers and sisters, the children and grandchildren who have come home from London, Scotland, Italy, and New Zealand sleep fitfully, if at all. It is dark there now, but when the morning sun rises it will fall first on the flowers in the back garden, the ones she tends so lovingly. They will all try to step around the empty place where she should be, but one by one they will trip and fall into it. There will be tears, but there will also be laughter, and hope, because she, the very definition of home for them all, has taught them well. For the few seconds after waking, before remembrance of the reality of the day, Gerry will think of the kettle, the trek to the kitchen and back to the bedroom with tea, the sweet moments together at the break of day, the ritual he has performed every day of their married life. Anguish will come back afresh when he rolls over into the empty space where she should be. I have no bargaining power with God and even if I did, I would have no idea what to ask. I only know life is capricious and even though the rain supposedly falls on the just and the unjust, this particular storm feels personal.

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