Saturday, August 22, 2009

A step toward mystery...

This is Life. One day it is wonderful and magical and the next it is riddled with sorrow. That may sound melodramatic to you because sometimes we don’t experience this radical shift at all. Sometimes it is something that the mind toys with but the spirit doesn’t actually know. However, for those who have experienced tragedy there is a heightened sensitivity to the fact that Life changes very quickly. To my mind we are given a choice in recognition of this awareness. We can choose to charge forward toward healing and light or stay behind stuck in darkness. For me, it is much easier and far more interesting to head toward the light. I’m at peace knowing that everyday brings new life and death. (8/22/09)

June 18, 2008
Subject: A step toward mystery

It may seem unfair that I would send such joyful pictures depicting a truly glorious day, along with a tale full of happiness and cheer, followed by this. I've been nibbling at this email for days and days, so it is a quirky coincidence that I'm sending it now. However, as I consider it more deeply, it doesn't really seem all that coincidental. Rather it seems a true reflection of Life. One day things are grand and lovely and the next, Life is dark and challenging. At least this is how Life seems to me these days. However grand or dreadful Life may be at times, I am learning that there are always lessons to consider and welcome, like fertilizer, as I grow....

It was my great privilege and honor to witness the vast capacity of the human spirit and I am deeply humbled by it. I went to a viewing on Friday June 6, 2008 of the little boy who died a few weeks ago. After careful reflection of my intentions, I followed what was a compelling instinctual desire to go to his wake and as I drove to the funeral home, I was peaceful knowing that I didn't have any expectations. I couldn't imagine what the funeral home was going to look like or smell like. I couldn't visualize how many people were going to be there. I couldn't imagine what he was going to look like and I couldn't imagine his mother's reaction when she saw me. I couldn't imagine anything at all and although that felt strangely empty, I was acutely aware of how open and free I felt.

The day was overcast and chilly with rain threatening a presence but never amounting to more than a misting. When I drove into the funeral home parking lot, I noticed the enormous cemetery across the street despite the fact that I have driven by it countless times. The funeral home itself looked like a lodge of some kind. It is an enormous building that reminded me of something I'd find in a swanky ski resort. It is impeccably landscaped in a pristine wooded setting that was both picturesque and grossly surreal. Outside the main doors there is a drive-through entryway where dozens of people were gathered. As I approached, I noticed that most of these grief-stricken folks were twenty-somethings huddled together in a tight reassuring pack. I couldn't help but marvel at the number of facial piercings and tattoos I saw that seem so stereotypical to the culture of this age group. I wondered about them. Who are they? Are they here for him? None of them looked familiar and as I walked by I felt much older and a little lonely.

I entered through one of 2 large glass doors typical of a corporate-like building. I found myself in a sweeping lobby area that was decorated with wooded log cabin type themes. Stuffed chairs and couches with Americana colors and plaids were situated throughout. To my immediate left there was a wooden stand displaying guest books, like sheet music, of the services and viewings that were going on throughout the building. I couldn't see one for him and as I looked over my right shoulder I caught the attention of a woman sitting at a desk that was hauntingly similar to a concierge. She asked me to follow her and as I did, I took notice of my surroundings. There were a number of lovely prints on the walls of pheasants and praire scenes, as well as prints of vases filled with delicate flowers and birds carrying sprigs of berries. Along a meandering hallway there were large posters that seemed odd and out of place. None of them made any particular impact and it was here that I noticed the overhead music. Tinkling sounds of bells and waterfalls mixed with a violin type piano sound that had no real melody or repetitious chorus flooded my ears. It flowed continuously like a stream washing over rocks and pebbles and pieces of wood. It felt deliberate and conscious despite subtle efforts to create a peaceful surrounding. I tried to imagine myself in the woods of my childhood sitting by a stream so as to match what I was seeing and hearing when all of sudden I was jolted out of my dreamy state by a larger than life poster of Elvis. I couldn't believe my eyes and as I walked by trying with every ounce of energy I had not to burst out laughing, I caught a glimpse of a small brass label at the bottom of the poster that read, "commemorative 2007". It immediately made me think of a theme I've been contemplating ever since our hospital stay, which is that "everybody has a story." I wondered about the story behind this poster and how it came to be hung on the wall of a funeral home like a gigantic commemorative postage stamp. It was so peculiar and I found myself wondering if soon I was going to see another such poster with a picture of Liberace. I shook my head in wonderment and before my thoughts could take me any further, the woman in front me turn around and with a Vanna White wave of her hand pointed me to the room where the little boy's family and friends gathered.

The first thing I noticed was the lighting, which was dim and sleepy. To my right there was a white guest book opened to the traditional 'sign-in' page. There were only a handful of signatures and I added my name but before doing so, I picked up the book and closed it. I turned it over not knowing what I'd see and was delighted to see a picture of this beautiful little boy beaming with a joyful grin framed in the center. As I slowly went through each page documenting his birth, death, family and so forth, the depth of his departure started to weigh in. I took only a single step and there just around the corner to my right lay this little boy in a light blue casket lined with white ruffled fabric. There were 5 other people in the room; his mother, step-father, grandmother, uncle and older brother. His mother, step-father and grandmother were gathered beside his casket while his brother and uncle sat in chairs against a far wall. Near them were small rectangular shaped tables that seemed to me to serve only the purpose of displaying dimly lit lamps and small bunches of flowers. They were several large cups of coffee on them that seemed completely out of place in terms of the decor but perfectly in line with the feel of the place.

His mother noticed me immediately and sighed. With grace like I've never known before, she took a few steps toward me and we embraced. It was a long, full bodied hug that was both tender and gentle. I found myself weeping and whispering, " I am so sorry he died." She told me, "Me too, but I'm so glad you're here." At that, we parted and looked into each other’s eyes and smiled. My hand didn't leave her arm for a long time. I introduced myself to her family and his mother told them how we met. Her mother sobbed saying, "I can't believe you came here! We have got to start praying for your daughter so you never have to know this." Everyone nodded in agreement. I thought, "What an extraordinary thing to say in the midst of such horrific grief." I found myself considering the infinite ability of one's spirit to give to another in moments of heart-wrenching pain. I don't know if I could be so self-less. In that moment, I can assure you, I have never known anything more beautiful than the spirit of this family.

It was here that I was fully aware of a little boy lying in his coffin. His mother and I walked over to him. I was astonished to discover that he looked nothing like how I remembered seeing him just a month or so ago. He reminded me of an uncovered mummy in way and I suddenly felt ashamed for thinking it. It felt disrespectful in a way and I didn't know what do to with that thought that was so vivid. His mother said, "He doesn't even look like himself anymore. He's starting to decompose." That word startled me and I asked when he died. She told me that Sunday morning, May 25, 2008, she went into his room and he was gone. He had died in his sleep and without pain, for which she was so grateful. I asked her if she would tell me his story and she did. The fighting spirit of this little boy was immense but his cancer was a greater foe. We laughed. We cried. We held hands. We hugged. We sat in silence. I was there for 3 hours and it was a powerful and beautiful experience. I continue to be deeply affected by the many people I'm encountering and these simple yet moving exchanges we continue to have make sincere and lasting impressions on me.

I sat next him for a long, long time and I finally asked his mother if I could touch him. She smiled and enthusiastically said, "Of course! I have no problem with that. I've been rubbing his head a lot." I told her that I had a confession to make. "I've only been to a few funerals," I began, "and the sort of sick and morbid part of me has always wanted to touch the people who had died." "I can't explain it." I continued, "But this is the first time I've ever felt comfortable enough to ask and hope I'm not being disrespectful in any way." She looked at me with such understanding and compassion. She said with a mischievous smile, "I know exactly what you mean! He's the first person I've ever touched and have always wanted to, too." She then made a gesture with her hand inviting me to touch his hands. It was here that death made a real impression. He was bald because of his chemo treatment and his cheeks were sunken a little and his skin had darkened. She told me that the morticians kept painting his lips pink, which she promptly wiped away and they, furthermore, put a glittery eye shadow on his eyelids. We chuckled in disbelief about the need to paint life on a body that is so clearly dead. She found it completely unnerving and much preferred the natural look to his face and body. I touched his hands, which were gently folded on his belly. They were cold and stiff but beautiful. I touched his head, which was also cold but incredibly smooth. I kept thinking about a perfect stone that for thousands of years had been washed by water creating a flawlessness that was natural, solid and beautiful. I couldn't help but wonder if this image would have stirred my consciousness had the tinkling watery music not been filling my ears. He was no longer in this body and although I knew that intellectually, I was so grateful to her for letting me feel that knowledge with my fingers. I told her more than once how thankful I was and what a wonderful teacher she's been for me. I thanked her for her grace and her kindness in allowing me into such an intimate part of their lives.

There were many things that were said that I found difficult. I kept thinking about the voice of grief and how absolute it was. I also kept thinking how grateful I was to be in this place, learning from these people about matters I fear and hope I never have to face, but may one day. I heard things like, "Why did God do this? We prayed and prayed and prayed. I guess God didn't hear our prayers. I just don't understand why God takes children. I suppose he's in a better place. I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow I can't deal with God taking him and then sending us His tears. Why do most of the kids with cancer have to die?" I felt their pain in a very peripheral way. I can't know it and I can't even pretend to understand it. Their comments about God sure got my mind ticking though and although I kept silent, I was aware that I didn't share their questions, which seemed completely foreign to me. I was very aware of that fact that I have never once considered God in this curve ball we've been thrown. I don't sense in any way what we're going through as 'God's doing.' I'm fully aware that this is counter to virtually everything I was taught to believe and what many still hold firmly. For me, however, it is a flimsy thought that yields little growth.

Still, I pondered their sentiments a great deal. They rang in my head like a gong. To them, God was a separate entity casting His will as He saw fit, leaving them behind in disbelief, wonder, and pure anguish. I found their idea of God hard to digest because of my inability to get beyond an obvious sense of betrayal and a withering faith that seemed precariously threatened if the view of God continued in this way. When I gave voice to those thoughts in my head I was quick to quiet them so not to create any sense of judgment. They will come to terms with what life has given them in their time and in their own way. My beliefs are my own and I was mindful of the gift presented to me as witness to their process, which then became a process of my own.

I left this funeral home-lodge feeling awe. There were 2 very distinct thoughts and one was that God is a very personal matter regardless of many attempts to make it more 'universal.' The other thought was a simple confirmation that all life is important and meaningful. All people at one time or another are someone's son or daughter. Bearing witness to this mother and the loss of her son drove home to my mind that life is so precious and so worthy of reverence that destruction of it for whatever reason or rationale slowly kills the spirit that connects us all. As I sat with that thought, I was moved to tears to consider what passed between this family and I or at least what my impression of that energy was. To me, that connection, that level of intimacy, that indescribable sense of recognizing the humanity in one another is God. If God is Love and Love is God then that's what was present and it wasn't separate or intangible. I'm still processing that a great deal because it is so outside the box of what I knew as a little girl and I sense I am only in the elementary stages of attempting to understand what I'll probably never be able to fully articulate. I try nonetheless.

I went home to my beautiful family and sat noticing Life surrounding me. I knew tomorrow, the funeral, would be heavily charged as well but I had no expectations and simply wanted to be.

I don't have much to say about the funeral itself. It was held in the same place in a small nondescript chapel. There was a pastor there who seemed nervous and a little awkward. I appreciated him immensely and although much of what he said meant little to me, what he did say that I found extremely poignant was, "We gather here because we just have to. We say the things we do because we have a need to do that. We just have to." I couldn't agree more. It was a strange gathering saying good-bye to such a young life whose death was so tragic and seemed to serve no other purpose than to bring intolerable grief and suffering. There were definitely celebratory memories shared but most of the ceremony was incredibly somber as I think you would well expect. We gathered there because we felt compelled to. I went, I realized as I sat there, because I cannot live my life afraid. I refuse to be afraid.

I sat with a few other professionals from the oncology clinic. It was tearful and yet supportive. I told a family advocate, "I'm here because I was compelled to come. I can't be afraid." Her response was surprisingly and extremely comforting, "Just because you were compelled to come and understand this process is not a premonition that this is going to be your fate!" I appreciated that more than words can really express. I don't think that thought was ever in the forefront of my mind but as soon as she said it, I realized that it was a thought that was definitely lurking and lingering. It was good to let that go.

As we were leaving, I decided that I would not attend the grave-side service. That didn't feel right to me. Instead, I spent time with some of the people who work at the clinic. I had the most wonderful conversation with the executive director of the Candlelighters, which is an organization that provides support for families enduring cancer treatment. She and I spent an hour sharing our stories and our journeys. I had met her only a few times and just briefly at that but I had a sense that we would one day have an intimate meeting. This was it and I left feeling uplifted, empowered, and strangely connected.

This is one of the darker things I have experienced as part of this journey, but I somehow have a more brilliant sense of light. I suppose it is the result of extinguishing fear and replacing it with understanding, compassion, essence, consideration, reflection and hope. It is my hope to be a worthy teacher to my children; To teach them that all life is valuable and no one life is more important than another. To teach them to cherish Life and understand that it is a gift to share. To teach them that hope is a state of mind worthy of considerable attention and care. To teach them that friendship, intimacy and love is what gives us purpose. To teach them that connecting with others is God alive in us all, without which we languish. To teach them that there is no greater praise worthy in Life than to express one's sincerity and kindness in simple heartfelt ways. To teach them to simply be.

It is with a heart filled with hope and love that I write this. I share it with you because I must. I sit here grateful that you have joined me. I know now that I have what it takes to continue on...come what may...~j

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