Archive for 2014

“Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.”
  —  George Iles

When my sweetheart and I began, thirty years ago, to discover each other and when we began to dream together about the life we might share, two things stood out.  First, we wanted to build a family.  Second, we wanted to be of service to the people we met.  The two have been intertwined, and sometimes it has been that very family that has needed us to serve.  Sometimes, we have challenged every member of the family to get on board and join us as we serve the needs of others.  It has been an interesting journey, and my first impulse is to glorify our choices and paint some rosy picture of our super-human ability to rise above the mundane and deliver in a selfless and spiritually enlightened way.  The truth is that the choices we have made have challenged us through the years and continue to encourage us to stretch beyond what we think we can do.

Yesterday was day two of a planned work weekend at our house.  After two summers on the road, we’ve been enjoying the chance to catch up on all the small repairs that have take a backseat to the final demands of our years of parenting.  We were cruising right along, and only two items remained on our to-do list for the weekend when the phone rang.  Interruptions.  When you choose a life of service, you grow to expect interruptions; but they still can surprise you when you’ve made other plans.  A young friend needed our help.  She was about to embark on a new adventure – heading to college for the very first time – and suddenly, with a 90-minute ride and a two-hour deadline, she was without a way to get there.  The end of our list of goals was so near I could taste the satisfaction that I knew I would feel as I crossed off the last item.  Now I felt myself giving a thumbs-up to my sweetheart who is everyone’s driver, giving him my support to hit the road for three hours while I attended to other obligations at home.

I like to think that I live with my heart wide open at times like this; but the truth is that I was feeling interrupted, disappointed, and maybe even a tiny bit perturbed at losing my partner in crime just as we approached our shared goal of the day.  As I heaved a heavy sigh, I thought of all the times when I had been the person who needed a hand, or a leg-up, or a ride, or a last-minute favor.  I felt around in my virtual dresser for my big-girl panties, pulled them on and adjusted them, and reminded myself of our “Big G” goals as I kissed my sweetie goodbye and wished him smooth sailing.  I wanted to share this here, because I sometimes think that when our life of service is seen by other people, they assume that we have some sort of super-human ability to go with the flow and not worry about what gets set aside in favor of a good deed.  The truth is that we get cranky and tired and jealous and snarky, just like everybody else — the difference is that we have been lucky enough to have the hand of faith reach out in the dark and touch us with hope.  Once that has happened, it is next to impossible not to want to pass it along.  Hope.  That’s what makes it worth the effort.  That’s what makes us grow up when we feel childish and cranky about the interruptions.  That’s what makes looking back on yesterday such a sweet thing.  It took only 3 1/2 hours of our time to deliver hope to someone who is off to begin her life; and there is no gift we would rather have sent with her.

As I sat this morning and reflected on all of this, my eye caught a post by one of my Facebook friends, Obi Kaye.  It said,

“Kindness is such a thing of great importance that even the smallest one; a smile, a kind word can change lives.”

That’s what it’s about.  Changing lives.  And I know ours have been changed by the choices we have made.  Thanks for the reminder, my friend.

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.”
  — Anne Morrow Lindbergh

There is a memory tucked deep inside my heart.  It has no words.  It is a smell that I placed there when I was just a little girl — the aroma of the salt in the air as we approached the beach in New Jersey for our family vacation.  I have taken in that scent many times since that first one; but there is something magical about a smell that is a memory.  It can surface even when we are miles from the source and remind us that there is a place we need to visit.  Today, as I stood in the early-morning sunlight in my backyard, I could swear that I smelled the ocean; and I made a mental note to include a trip to the beach in my not-too-distant plans.

The first time I visited the shore, I remember thinking that I had found the biggest sandbox in the world.  I dug and tunneled and molded and built, making castles and gullies and fashioning roofs out of clam shells, just in case a sand crab might want to move in and stay for a while.

As I grew older, it was the waves that attracted me.  I learned to jump at just the right moment so that I wouldn’t be sent flying along the sand toward the shore.  I learned how to navigate out beyond the spot where they crashed and enjoy the rocking motion of the sea before it hit the shore.  I learned that salt water made me buoyant and let me float, almost above the surface of the water, and I learned to close my eyes against the salt-water sting when I dove beneath the waves.  I loved the beach at high tide, when we would have to move our blankets farther and farther toward the land to avoid the encroaching water.  The bigger the waves, the better; and I learned to belly surf and let the power of the ocean carry me back to shore when I was ready for a rest.

It was not until I became an adult and had visited the ocean many times that I began to notice its heartbeat.  I heard it when I walked alone one September, pondering the death of my son and wondering how my sorrow fit into the big picture that is the universe.  I heard it as it matched my own heartbeat and reassured me that I was part of something much bigger than my own being.  I heard its heart race with delight as it tossed a whole bunch of tiny starfish onto the shore at my feet and reminded me that in the midst of our deepest human despair, there are miracles to be found if only we will open our eyes – and our hearts – to see them.

As I stood in my backyard this morning and caught the impossible scent of ocean on the inland breeze, I remembered my constant friend and was filled with a sense of timeless wonder – a choicelessness that spoke to my heart of the places I have been and the places I have yet to see.  And it mattered to be free from choice; because it is only in that choiceless place that we truly understand that our footprints will linger on the timeless shore, even when they seem to be erased by the incoming tide.  Just as I hold the memory of the salt breeze deep in my heart, the ocean holds the memories of every heart that has heard it, of every footstep that has fallen on its shore, and of every soul that has discovered its infinite nature by the sea.

“How do geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds, so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it, that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.”
   — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Today marks the first day of summer.  The season has changed once again, and we all know it.  The calendar has warned us, the sun has hung around in the evening sky until long past his usual bedtime, and the schools have closed their doors and returned the sounds of children at play to the world outside.  The Earth’s seasons are predictable – reliable.  I have learned these seasons well as I have watched them pass for more than six decades.  They are dependable.   No matter how much I might long for summer on a cold winter’s night, there is nothing I can do to alter the inevitable rhythm of the universe.  There is something comforting and familiar in the cycles and seasons – something that wraps its arms around us and reassures us that all is well.

The seasons of the heart are less predictable;  and my own climate change has had me silent lately, as I listen for the call toward the unknown that inevitably follows endings.  The silence between seasons is as unavoidable as the change itself; and it has taken some self-discipline, some self-restraint, and some self-exploration to allow the quiet to descend and stay long enough to feel familiar and friendly to my waiting heart.  As the silence begins to stir and the sounds of the world around me once again begin to reach my ears, they have reminded me that there is no escaping the transitions of our lives.  We must say goodbye before we can move on and say hello.  For some reason, this is the part that I always try to avoid; but in my seasoned heart, I know I will have to embrace the sad and wistful goodbyes before my heart can be ready to fully embrace what lies ahead.

Last night, my sweetheart and I made our weekly shopping trip to several stores for groceries and household supplies.  In the midst of our stops, we decided to pop in at our favorite buffet restaurant for a bite to eat.  It was a busy evening; and when we finally were seated, our table was next to one with an extended family of grandparents, parents the age of our own children, and little ones from about 2 to 7 years old – five of them.  As we sat there at our adults-only table, I felt a sudden sense of freedom.  There were no extra plates to fill at the buffet, no food to cut into bite-size morsels, no complaints that there was nothing good to eat – only a peaceful dinner with polite conversation and time to spare.

At the next table, there was air to be blown through straws from brother to sister, small bodies to be placed again and again in their seats, and reminders that some real food would have to be consumed before there would be any hope of ice cream.  Then it happened.  A small hand misplaced a water glass on the table, and the tide came in.  It washed over napkins and plates and bowls and forks.  It landed in a couple of laps and it sent the waitress scurrying for a stack of napkins.  My sweetheart and I made eye contact and smiled knowingly.  We always had said, with our own brood, that no dinner was complete until someone’s beverage tipped and soaked the whole table.  We returned to our orderly meal, knowing that the chances were slim that it would be washed away in a spill.

One of the young dads came walking by with his son.  “I’m taking him to the bathroom,” he called to his wife.  They were barely out of sight when the next little boy cried out, “I have to pee, too!!!” and I thought of the way that needing the bathroom is always contagious where small boys are concerned.  As his mother left her lukewarm food to take him, I heard her mutter, “Have kids, they said…it’ll be fun, they said…”  Suddenly, I could not swallow.  Tears welled up in my eyes, taking me completely by surprise.  ‘Have kids, they said…it’ll be fun, they said…’

I wanted to follow her and tell her they were right, whoever “they” might be, the ones who said it would be fun.  They were right.  I wanted to tell her not to miss a single moment of the fun that drives us crazy.  Not to miss a single chance to take that kid who really doesn’t have to go to the bathroom his brother is getting to explore.  I wanted to tell her not to miss how tenderly her 7-year-old daughter was talking to her littlest brother.  I wanted to tell her to carefully catalog the memories being made before her eyes and to commit them to her heart for later retrieval.

Instead, I looked up at the man who has shared our family-building adventure for all these years.  I raised my hand, looked into his eyes, and snapped my fingers.  “Yes,” he replied, “in an instant.”

As we finished our dinner — and the food was all hot, and there were no tidal waves, and nobody had to go to the bathroom right now — I was careful to hold onto my napkin, just in case anything spilled from the corner of my mouth or the corners of my eyes.  As I heard the cacophony of dinner out with the children fade into the recesses of the past, I heard my heart speak a tearful goodbye to the sometimes-frustrated young mother I used to be.  I realized that when the challenge is done, all that remains is the love.

“Love is a fruit in season at all times, and in reach of every hand.”
— Mother Teresa

Goodbye, mom.  Hello, grandma.  This is going to be fun.

But I still wonder what else a grandma might do.

Those of you who know how to read a calendar will notice that I’m a couple of days early for my Father’s Day message this year.  You see, only twenty-four days after last year’s Father’s Day, my dad released his grasp on mortality and found his way home.  I am sure he is comfortable there and waiting with some patience that was not his way in this life for us all to join him one day.

It is impossible to approach this first Father’s Day without him and not feel the sadness, the longing, and the absence that comes with such a loss.  This is the time when I should be sending his card.  This is the time when I should be gathering anecdotes to share with him in our Sunday phone call.  Instead, I am sitting here and trying to write his Father’s Day message before the Sunday celebration begins.  I don’t want my remembering to be lost in the happy chaos that Sunday will bring; so I’m purposefully making some time today to reflect, to remember, and to love what it was to have had Al Stead as my dad.

I remember when I was very small that my dad seemed like a giant – or maybe he was a bear, because I can remember lying awake one night and hearing his snoring from the bedroom on the other side of the wall and wondering if there was a bear in the house.  I remember that he would tap dance into the kitchen in the mornings, dressed in suit and tie, and take my mom for a twirl before she served up his scrambled eggs — the “snotty” kind that nobody wanted to mooch from him, because we liked ours well-done.  I remember his strong, smooth baritone voice singing out at our corny family sing-alongs around the piano after dinner.  “If I Ruled the World,” and “On A Clear Day,” were two of his standards, along with anything by late-Sinatra.  He did a mean version of “New York, New York,” and often would remind us that everything was up to date in Kansas City.  I remember how he came to my swimming practices and meets and took such pride in my accomplishments, even though I was not the best on the team.  I remember how proud he was of all his kids, and later his grandchildren, just knowing that his family was the best in the world.

I remember how he loved mom, with all his heart, and how he happily let her take care of him for more than sixty years; and I remember how abruptly and completely he reversed the roles and met her every need when dementia compromised her life.  I remember how he held on, hoping to outlive her, and ultimately went the way of many good caregivers.

For me, personally, my best memories are of the daily phone calls – always at dinnertime (thanks, Dad!), and usually repetitive, because his life didn’t change much from one day to the next.  We talked about being children, about growing up, about being parents and spouses, about being grandparents.  And we talked about what lay ahead – sometimes not clear as to who was reassuring whom.  All I know is that in those phone calls, during the last ten years of Dad’s life, we got to know each other better than we ever had before.  Exploring beneath the surface of my ’50s Dad gave me a whole new respect for the man he truly was; and although I will admit that there were days when I rolled my eyes at the sound of the phone ringing, I would not trade those calls for anything.

The phone has been silent for almost a year now.  I can almost – but not quite -imagine the sound of his voice asking me, “What’s up with you today?”  Sometimes, when I go outside to grill some burgers for dinner, I still find myself patting my pocket to be sure I have my phone, just in case it rings in the middle of dinner prep.  And sometimes, on a day like today, when the rains have passed and the sun comes bursting from behind the very last thunderhead, I can almost – but not quite – hear him singing, “on that clear day…you can see forever, and ever more.”  And I know he can.

So when Father’s Day rolls around this Sunday, I will celebrate my sweetheart and his sons – all fathers – and know that Dad is right there with us and feeling mighty proud.  I’ll miss you, Dad.  Happy Father’s Day.

“What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”
   — Benjamin Disraeli

I once heard a story about an elderly church lady who was making her final arrangements.  She prepaid her funeral and burial expenses to assure that her descendants would not be burdened with such things.  “Do you have any special requests?” asked the funeral director.  “Yes,” she replied, “only one.”

“I would like to be buried with a fork in my hand.”

“With a fork?” asked the funeral director.  “I don’t understand.”

The woman went on to explain that she had attended many church picnics throughout her lifetime.  “When they come to clear away the dishes,” she told him, “they always say, ‘save your fork!'”  Then, when the delicious main course is over, they bring out the most remarkable desserts!  Just when we think that the best thing ever has ended, something even better comes along.”

And she wanted everyone to know she was saving her fork.

Yesterday marked the end of an era for me.  It was nearly forty years ago that I dressed my eldest child in his favorite new outfit and his brand new shoes and watched him climb onto the school bus for his first day of school.  Yesterday I watched the last of my kids walk across the stage at her high school graduation.  As she shook hands with the superintendent and received her diploma, I wiped away a tear or three – just as I had when her uncle took his first steps toward kindergarten so many years ago.  There will be no more first days of school.  There will be no more open houses or basketball games or art shows or award celebrations.  There will be no more term papers or projects with their accompanying stress and frustration.  There will be no more educational beginnings or endings.  Those now belong to the next generation; and I will attend them as a benevolent and doting grandmother who enjoys all the successes and skips the struggles.

When that first kindergartener was born, forty-four years ago, I stepped into the world of motherhood.  It has been a banquet.  It has been my chosen career for more than two thirds of my life; and although we never stop being parents once we have made the decision to bring new life into the world, motherhood no longer will be my primary job.

As this day has approached, I have wondered who I might be when the last tassel on the last mortarboard was flipped.  I have wondered whether I will know what to do or who to be without a comfortable title to describe my purpose in life.  I have wondered whether I would recognize the person I would see in the mirror after that earth-shattering moment.

As we lay in bed last night, at the end of a very busy and emotional day, I turned to my sweetheart and said, “Well, I guess we get to be a couple now — for the first time.  I guess it’s finally our turn.”  As I reached over to run my fingers through the curls on top of his head, I thought of all the times I had done the same for one of my children.  “You know,” I said to him, “all these years of raising children and taking care that their needs were met have us pretty well-prepared to look out for each other.”  As we lay there in the darkness, feeling the wonder of how quickly time had flown and how the main course we  had chosen to serve up for ourselves finally had been cleared away, it all made sense.

We’re holding onto our forks.  The banquet is not over.  Dessert lies just around the corner, and we clutch our utensils in anticipation; because we know the best is yet to come.

“When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.”
  — Sophia Loren

I have heard it said that we never really hand over the reins of childhood to the next generation until we become parents.  When I think of all the childhood games I have played again and again with my children and then with their children, I really don’t think we turn anything over.   Instead, we let small hands hold the reins and clasp our own around them as we share the excitement of the wild ride together.

In two days, we will celebrate Mother’s Day.  In our family, we also will celebrate the seventh birthday of Cheyenne, who was born two days before Mother’s Day in 2007.  Celebrating both on the same day reminds us to pause and give thanks for mothers and for children and for the adventures they live together.

When Cheyenne was born, just in time for Mother’s Day, her status was uncertain.  She arrived with special needs that set into motion a flurry of monitors and surgeries and beeping machines in the NICU.  Nobody knew what lay ahead for her, and all that could be celebrated that first Mother’s Day was that she had survived her arrival and that we had hope in our hearts for her future.  Seven years later, outsiders would never imagine that her daily routines still include extreme measures that have become routine.  To the naked eye, she and her mom are exactly like any other mother and daughter — joined at the heart forever.

When occasions collide, like Chey’s birthday and Mother’s Day, it gets our attention; and we move beyond the hearts and flowers to consider that there are many kinds of mothers who will celebrate on Sunday.  Let’s not get so caught up in Hallmark’s idea of the day that we forget to acknowledge them.

Let’s remember the moms like Cheyenne’s — the ones who daily perform extreme duties with grace and joy, the ones who give their very special children ordinary lives, the ones who make multiple trips to hospitals and therapies, to doctors and specialists, the ones who store medical supplies as well as toys and celebrate the small successes that keep their kids going.

Let’s remember the moms like me — the ones who have outlived a child and whose hearts and flowers are expressed in sweet memories as well as in the traditional ways with their living children.

Let’s remember the moms whose children are raised by other parents — the ones who were not ready to be mothers for whatever reasons, the ones who feel quite alone on Mother’s Day as their hearts remember their babies.

Let’s remember the stepmothers — the ones called wicked, whose hearts are big enough and strong enough and loving enough to withstand the cries of, “you’re not my real mom,” while being more real that anyone can imagine.

Let’s remember the moms like my own whose late-life dementia sometimes makes it seem that they have forgotten who their children might be — the ones who, if they are very lucky, have taught their children about being parents and now accept mothering from the people they once held and nurtured.

Let’s remember the ones who now parent their parents and show motherly love to those who created them.

Let’s remember the childless mothers who bring love and nurturing and teaching and care to other people’s kids — the aunts, the teachers, the neighbors, the friends — who carry on the fine tradition of mothers everywhere without the recognition of a special day.

Whatever sort of mother you may be this year, we celebrate that you are part of our world.  After all, where would any of us be without a mom?

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief…and unspeakable love.”
  — Washington Irving

Our lives whiz by at such breakneck speed that we often forget to attend to the sacred in the midst of the mundane.  Sometimes it seems that we have forgotten how to cry.  Indeed, we often admonish ourselves and our children not to cry, to suck it up and get on with things.  But tears are part of who we are; and they do, indeed, take us to a sacred space we need to visit in order to clear our minds, rediscover our souls, and clarify who we are before we head back into the world once again.

Have you ever had the wind blow dust into your eyes?  It is painful to have debris land in such a tender spot, and our body’s built-in defense sends tears to wash away the particles that cause us pain and cloud our vision.  We don’t stop when the tears flow and scold ourselves or will them to dry up.  We welcome them and the way they clean out the dust and restore our ability to see.  The cleansing quality of tears is a part of our humanity, and their benefits are undeniable.

It would do us well to consider the cleansing quality of the tears we shed during times of great sorrow and joy.  Just as our tears stand guard and keep our eyes free of debris, they also guard the deeper vision that resides in our soul, our spirit, and our emotion.  When debris blows into our sacred space,  when we lose our ability to see beyond the temporary circumstances that will change with time, we need to remember that our tears are part of the cleansing process that restores equilibrium to our life.  We must not will the tears away before they have finished their job.  Only when the dust and debris has been washed away can our eyes see clearly once again.  Only when our soul has been relieved of the clutter that buries it from our sight can we truly have the vision we need to return to living our purpose.

Let’s celebrate tears today.  Let’s embrace them when they come and let them do their job.  They clear the debris from our sacred space and remind us who we are.

“But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.”
    —  Vincent van Gogh

“God is Love.”

For sixty-four years, I’ve been hearing people say that.  Still, it seems as though our human nature forgets about love and instead falls into conflict and judgment and anger.  We say that we want to know God, and in the next breath we accuse another person or another being or the very universe itself of getting in our way and keeping us from realizing that goal.

Vincent van Gogh’s story is one of a tortured existence.  He lived less than forty years and he struggled with mental illness.  I imagine that his obituary might read, “eccentric man ends his own life – dies alone.”  But beneath his struggle, there lived a soul so overwhelmed by the beauty of Creation that it leaped right off of his brush onto canvas.  More than 100 years later, the raw emotion he felt when he perceived that beauty springs from his paintings and touches our hearts and minds.

Van Gogh may have been a tortured soul, but he made it his quest to love many things.  That love transcended his struggles and lives on to this day in the work he produced.  It would seem that he had the ability to look beyond the surface of the subjects he chose and see that spark of God, of love, and to translate that into the bold colors and strokes that showed us the part of his world that resonates with something in ourselves.

Not all of us — or any of us — will paint like Van Gogh; but each of us has the ability to look through the eyes of love and everything and everyone who enters our world.  Each of us has the ability to see past the surface and discover the spark of Creation — of Love — that called each piece of the universe into existence.  We must open our hearts as well as our eyes.  We must put aside judgment and prejudice and practice loving many things.

It is in loving many things that we draw closer to understanding God.  It is through discovering our mutual ingredient that we begin to understand that each of us plays an integral part in the whole of the universe.  Do you want to know God?  What will you love today?

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls”
    — Joseph Campbell

The dictionary defines bliss as “complete happiness; pure joy.”

What is your bliss?

When I read Joseph Campbell’s words today, on the occasion of what would be his 110th birthday, they worked the magic his words often do for me.  They poked a hole in my facade, scratched away at my ego, elbowed past my psyche and tickled my soul and invited it out to play.  “Follow your bliss!” they cried, and the words laughed with joy as they danced around in my being and made me lighter than air.

With all the demands life places on us, it can take some serious digging to reach our bliss.  If we are not attentive to keeping it uncovered, it is easy to lose it among the responsibilities and tasks that make up our days.  What we forget is that all the tasks and duties of our lives gain meaning and joy when we follow our bliss into living our lives.

Children know about bliss.  When I thought of an illustration for following bliss, I immediately knew that it had to be the photo of my granddaughter, Cheyenne, running toward iridescent bubbles with her arms spread wide.

Bliss

It was not the bubble that created her bliss.  It was not the summer day that made her fling her arms wide.  It was the complete happiness and pure joy that define her approach to life that made her appear as light as the bubbles that beckoned to her.  Indeed, when I later saw the picture, I passed the thought that maybe it was her bliss that made the bubbles dance on the breeze at just the right height to keep her reaching.

Follow your bliss.  This does not mean jumping from attraction to attraction and seeking to be entertained by life.  Rather, it means that all of life can be entertaining if we follow our bliss into each new day.

Campbell offers this advice:

“The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”

What are we waiting for?  We need to uncover our happiness rather than waiting for some to magically appear from an outside source.  We need to push aside the obstacles we create to simply feeling happy.  We need to live the lives we were created to live.

As Campbell would say,

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.”

We spend a lot of time and energy making life complicated.  Let’s begin once again to carry our bliss close to our hearts as we live each new day.  It is, after all, what we were born to do.

And the universe will open doors where we used to see walls.

What is your bliss?

 

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, terri (bonesigharts.blogspot.com) challenge me to join a group of women who would answer questions she posed.  This piece was posted on her site last Wednesday.  For the sake of posterity (and my kids), I want it to be on the record at my own site as well.  Thanks for asking, ter!  I might not have written it if you hadn’t raised the question.

What are friends for?

When my dear friend, terri, asked if I would be a part of a project where she offered us questions and we responded with our views, I thought it sounded like fun. Along with some other amazing people (if they are terri’s friends, they must be amazing), I would get to share a viewpoint and also enjoy reading what those other folks had to say. What would my topic be? World Peace? Kindness? Creativity? No such luck. Instead, her email read:
“are you okay if i go to the loss of your son? …and what i’d like to ask is what are some of the insights that you gained thru all of that?”

What are friends for?

Real friends are for encouraging us to be our complete selves in the midst of all the events that make up our lives. Real friends are for opening us to the opportunity to take stock and sort out the experiences that have made us who we are – and who we are becoming. With that in mind, I will do my best to answer in less than a thousand pages what insights I have gained through the loss of a child. If anyone is reading this who is in the midst of such a loss, I want to say up front that it has taken years for these insights to develop and a great deal of time for the rawness of grief to give way to peace. I remember being alternately angry at words like those I will share here and feeling inadequate that I could not put my grief, my anger, and my sorrow aside to feel such resolution. This is where I am now, not where I was then; and I will share with you the words a friend spoke to me at that worst time: “Someday, when you have finished grieving, you will use this experience to help someone else who is going through the same thing.” I can’t begin to tell you how angry that made me and how true it was, when the time came that I was ready. Do not judge yourself for anything while you are grieving. Grief has no rules. Take your time. Feel your sorrow, and just keep breathing until the world sets itself upright again. And it will.

Our lives are made up of days and months and years when one day seems pretty much like the other. We meander through a friendly world and enjoy the time we spend exploring what it means to be human. But there are days that set themselves apart from the others. They are the days that mark events that alter the way we view the universe, for better or worse, and sometimes divide our time into “before and after.” The birth of a child, the loss of a parent, a move from one location to another, times of great joy and times of great sorrow, and times of great insight. My life will forever have two segments called “Before Brett died” and “After Brett died,” because his arrival, his short stay, and his departure have changed me irrevocably.

I come from a family with great longevity. I grew up in a household with a great-aunt who began talking to me about death when she was in her seventies. She wanted me to know that she would not live forever; and although I protested with many tears, she insisted that I listen. “Don’t cry at my funeral,” she would tell me. “Promise me. And I want you to sing my favorite hymn.” I was eleven years old when she extracted this promise and twenty-nine when I delivered. She died on my birthday in 1979. At the time, I thought it was kind of crappy that she chose that day to move on; but in the time after my son died, I found comfort in that simple coincidence. One year later, in February of 1980, my boys went out to play Olympics with their friends. Brett was six years old at the time and looking forward to his seventh birthday on March 11. As they crossed the quiet street in front of our house, everyone saw the car that came slowly down the hill – everyone but Brett. The car that hit him was going 20 miles per hour. The driver was not impaired. It was an accident, pure and simple; and it changed my life in an instant. That instant set in motion a series of unfolding insights that continue to appear to this day.

Here they are:

1. I had studied Physics and learned that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Now I learned that when one object was a small boy and one was a large car, the car wins.

This may seem harsh and without any maternal love, but it was important, with my world turned upside down, to know that the universe does not alter its order to suit the individual. I needed my world right-side-up, and I needed to understand that I wasn’t singled out.

2. I learned that life is not linear. It spirals and loops and turns all over the place, but usually those loops are so subtle that we don’t even notice them. Now I learned that the linear view – we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die – was not always accurate.

I had to consider, for the first time, that life was not so simple; and this expanded view has helped me time and time again. When we place people in the constraints of a linear timeline, we set ourselves up to judge. I have grown in compassion as I have seen others whose loops and spirals have taken them to sad places. I can relate.

3. I have learned that some loops and spirals are surprisingly sorrowful and others are surprisingly wonderful. Now that I recognize them, I experience joy at times I might have overlooked before.

Imagine my surprise, when I married my sweetheart, to learn that his son – MY son – had been born the day Brett was buried. And he was just turning six. Sometimes the universe sees a boy who needs a mom and a mom who needs a son. Loop, spiral, joy!

4. I have learned not to fear death.

Now I suppose this one has morphed from one form to another to fifty more over time. In the early days of my grief, I stopped fearing death, because I didn’t see why it mattered if I continued to live. Fortunately, this stage of anguish lasted a very short but intense time. Thankfully, I had good friends who propped me up and helped me go through the motions of living until I began to feel alive again.
One morning, several weeks after Brett died, I had a dream that seemed so real that I was right there in it. I suppose my subconscious had picked up the sounds of my surviving children playing in the early morning, and I found myself in the boys’ bedroom. Brett was there, playing with his little sister. “Oh! You’re here!” I said in surprise. As I moved toward him and tried to give him a hug, he backed away, smiling all the time until he disappeared into the mist in the corner of the room. There was something in that smile that said, “I am okay. You can’t touch me, but I am here.” If I close my eyes, I still can go to that dream; and it has brought me great comfort.

I have come to believe that losing my great-aunt Essie on my own birthday was another looping spiral that calls me to remember her – and her wisdom – every time I turn the calendar for another year.

5. I have learned that grief, in all its raw truth, tells us lies.

If you are grieving right now, remember that you cannot judge the remainder of your life based on the anguish you feel right now. I told myself many lies during those days. I could not go on without my son – and here I am, more than thirty years later. I could never risk loving another child, because the pain of losing him was so great – and I have added five more children to my family since that time. I was a terrible mother, because I had let one of my children die before me – but I am a world-class mom who has brought her children back from the edge and made it possible for all of us to cherish the memory of their brother.

6. I have learned that grief is love, turned inside out.

We cannot grieve deeply unless we have loved deeply. Every tear I cried, every moment of raw pain, every memory of times that never could be again expressed how deeply and passionately I had loved my little boy while I had him here. In time, I figured out that he wanted me to go on being happy and being the sort of mom to the rest of my kids that I had been to him. I learned to turn my grief inside out and live each day as a tribute to the depth of love we had shared. This changed my life.

7. I have realized that every single day there are mothers burying children.

I have a heart and compassion for every one of them that my linear view had blocked before Brett died. It never really entered my awareness that a mother whose child dies in the poorest slum in Calcutta feels the same pain that I felt – that life circumstances which might make it a more frequent occurrence really do not matter to the heart of a mother. And I pray every day for mothers and children who stand at the edge of the abyss.

8. I have learned how important it is to get the message out to people about death not being a monster that chooses you and attacks and robs you of life. Instead, it is a part of the continuum of living.
By learning to embrace all of life, including the fact that it is finite, I have been able to stand by people who are near the end. This gives me, and I hope them, great peace.
I hope there is something here that resonates with someone who needs to hear it today. When my son died, my view of the world was radically altered. I raged and grieved for a time; but the day finally came when I had to admit that it would be a difficult choice to make if I were offered to have him back and give up all I had learned or to lose what had become myself and know that I could not touch him just one more time. I suppose the decision to embrace all his death had taught me was an easy one to make, because the universe does not allow such choices.

9. In the end, we must choose whether to live our days stuck in sorrow or to be fully alive and grab hold of all that life puts before us.

Thirty years ago, I never could have imagined

That a year later I would be there for my best friend’s mother when her son died at age 32
That I would go on to love five more children
That I would walk with each of them, at their request, to visit the cemetery
(when they were just about Brett’s age) and tell them about their brother.
That people who were nearing the end of their lives would show up, again and again, and share with me the grace and wisdom they learned along the way and allow me to be there when they reached the end.
That all of this would prepare me for my father’s last days, and that I would be able to reassure him as he prepared to leave this world for the next.

10. I leave you with the greatest realization, the one that encompasses all the rest. Love never dies. When the dust settles and the wind blows our grief away, it is the love that remains. If you are missing someone you have cherished, honor their memory by loving fiercely, wherever you go. A dear old friend, in her 90’s at the time, told me “the most important thing is to be remembered.” Live, love, and remember. Very close by, beyond a thin veil, the people we love are watching. And smiling.