Ten ~ 1

In a few months, it will be ten years since my son’s death by suicide.  I might have some things to say.

I have a good life; don’t get me wrong.  We live in a beautiful home in a wonderful neighborhood ~ historic houses, walking distance to almost anything you might want, lovely people.  I have work which, at least some of the time, is meaningful and deeply satisfying.  Our living children have done well in the aftermath of trauma. One can survive, and even thrive.

I wonder, all the time, who he would be now.  I imagine whole lives for him.  That MBA from Chicago, a business career, a home in Hyde Park, a cottage on a lake.  The ballerina wife, the adopted Asian children.  Or the loans paid off, the desertion of the corporate world, the worldwide pursuit of photography, the life on the road.  Or the return to summer camp, the job with the farm and maintenance crew, the cabin in the North Carolina mountains, the wife and tow-headed children loving hikes and kayaking. Who knows?  None of it will ever be.

I loved being the mother of three small children.  I thought, at the time, that life could not possibly get better.  It turns out that I was right.  There will always be someone missing.

It hits me like the proverbial ton of bricks sometimes, usually inconvenient times.  A conversation, a glimpse into another life, a scene on the television, an article in the news.  I think I will die, but I never do.

Parts of me are missing.  I see friends losing parents; I see their lostness, their deep grief.  I don’t have access to those feelings anymore.  I have been saddened by my father’s death 18 months ago, and I often miss him, but his death from illness at the age of 85 was not for me an experience that in any way resembled the shock and horror and excruciating pain I felt in every nerve of my body after the death of my son.

I am not an easy person to be around, or to be.  I have no patience for the sentimentality that pervades so much of our culture of death.  I try not to mar others’ experiences of comfort, so a lot of the time I muster a meaningless smile and endure until a conversation or event passes.

I do hope, but it’s hard.

 

 

 

End of Life 3/3

breath air

Earlier this week, as a way of remembering Howard Gray immediately after his death, I flipped through a few of the emails I’ve received from him.  One of the first that popped up, written a couple of years ago, suggested that I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, M.D.  It looks as if I didn’t respond to the email, but I think that I had already read the book at that point.

Lucy Kalanithi, M.D. was the other main speaker at the Dayton conference a  few weeks ago.  The book (which I am not going to review here) details her husband’s experience with lung cancer; Lucy finished it after he died.  Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young neurosurgeon when his diagnosis disrupted his life, and forced him to shift from physician delivering bad news to patient on the receiving end of a devastating report.  It’s a must-read for anyone whose life has jolted from one of ordinary dailiness (not that Paul Kalanithi was ever ordinary in the sense of the word which most of us understand) to the high drama of end-stage cancer.

Lucy spoke about the challenges she and Paul faced after his diagnosis, including

  • facing one’s own mortality
  • questions of identity ~ who am I now?
  • facing death and uncertainty
  • and the tension between living and dying.

That last one I remember so well from my stepmother’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis.  How do you deal with in-your-face issues of serious illness and likely imminent death and simultaneously forge a life among your family and friends?

Lucy left us with two poignant reflections, the latter emerging from the Q-and-A period and much discussed at out table.

The first had to do with Paul’s statement of desire: “I want everyone else to take care of Lucy so that she can take care of me.”  What a powerful recognition of, on the one hand, the needs of the primary caregiver, and on the other, the need of the patient for someone who can focus her life entirely on his need for care and support, to which everyone else can contribute by providing for the caregiver.

The second had to do with their conscious decision to have a child whose father would probably not live to see her grow up, whose father might not live to see her at all.  For the Kalanithis, their daughter was, and is, a life-giving source of joy and, while some shuddered at the thought of the courage required of her mother, most at our table could appreciate the powerful desire for love to break forth in the form of the birth of a child, even, or perhaps especially, in the heart of a sojourn toward death.

Please read this important book.  It illuminates an all-too-common experience, and may be the trigger you need to start a much-needed conversation with a loved one.

 

Rev. Howard Gray, S.J. (1930 – 2018)

HJG

As a middle and high school teacher (my second career) fifteen years ago, I was in need of a graduate course in literature or history, which I could not find.  Hmmmm . . .  Spirituality and Narrative sounded interesting.  “Who is this Gray professor?” I asked the department secretary.  “He’s new,” she responded.  “But people seem to like him.”  He was out of town for our first two classes, and a friend and I wondered distractedly about missing the date for a course refund.  What if we didn’t like him?

We did.  In fact,  I was mesmerized by the eloquent, well-read, humorous, and delightful 70-something Father Gray.  I took another course in literature from him.  And then a third, on Ignatian spirituality.  It was early in that semester that I asked him if he would serve as my spiritual director and help me make the Spiritual Exercises – a long adventure in prayer and one-on-one conversation.  I knew that my request would mean an hour of his time every week or so for months, so I was sure that he would turn me down.  But I so wanted whatever it was that filled this brilliant and elfin-like man with such an infectious joy.  “Oops,” I thought, when he said, “Sure,” and pulled out his calendar,  “Now I have to do this!”

That “Sure” changed my life.

As it tuned out, that was a year of relative peace and lack of drama for me, a leader in my local PC(USA) congregation, a teacher in a Jewish school, and the mother of three college students.  A perfect time to spend hours on a practice of prayer devised by a Catholic saint nearly 500 years earlier.  A couple of months in, it occurred to me to google Howard’s name and I discovered, to my astonishment, that this gentle and unassuming man was known across the globe as one of the foremost scholars and teachers of Ignatian spirituality.  Oops again.  What should I do?  How could I continue to take up so much of his time?  Eventually I concluded that, since he didn’t seem to mind, I would press on.  A few months later, I threw all caution to the wind and announced that I was going to seminary.  Howard, who was not supposed to say much of anything beyond a few suggestions as I made my way through the Exercises, exclaimed, “Will you get going?!”

Months later, I finally made it to seminary in Pittsburgh, and also started a program here in Cleveland for would-be spiritual directors.  Howard moved on to Georgetown, but we stayed in touch via email — I mostly complained about my courses in Greek, and he offered encouragement and witty commentary.

My darling Josh, my tall and blonde and blue-eyed and funny and brilliant son, died of suicide just before the beginning of my second year of seminary.  Howard was one of the first people I emailed, and he became one of what would eventually be a group of three Jesuits who encircled me with listening hearts and occasional words and hours and hours of presence.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I would not have survived those early years without Howard and his brother Jesuits, my personal lifesavers.

As I’ve written on FB, some months, maybe a couple of years, after Josh died, I was  ready to give up on everything – quit seminary, quit ministry, go live in Greenland or someplace. “Well, of course you can quit,” said Howard. “Or you can keep going for what may turn out to be the most productive years of your life.” I don’t know yet whether or not he was right. But he inspired me to try.

That’s the thing about those Jesuits.  They seem to be under the impression that one can do impossible things where God is concerned, and they don’t make a big deal about it.  Most especially, they don’t tell you that you can’t move forward just because your life is a mess.  They think that you can.

It’s been nearly 15 years since that first class with Howard, nearly ten years since Josh died, seven and one-half years since I was ordained in the PC(USA).   I have a stack of emails, most of them offering counsel and encouragement after my son died, but many others filled with humor and recommendations for poetry and other reading.  I often preach and teach things I learned from Howard, and I hope that when I am with people who are suffering or dying, I remember what he taught me, mostly through example, about presence.

I know that, with his death two days ago from injuries sustained in a car accident on Friday, the accolades will pour in.  He held positions of enormous responsibility and influenced thousands of people.  But to me, Howard Gray is that white-haired man with the gleam in his eye, the wicked sense of humor, and the capacity to be present to any experience of faith, from the highest mountaintop of exuberance to the most vast desert of desolation.

I will miss him very much.

 

Image:  Georgetown University, 2014.

Holy Saturday: The Day After and the Day Before

It was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I was living with my maternal grandmother and her husband down in Cincinnati, so that I could work in a nearby motel.  There was little in the way of summer jobs in my small hometown an hour to the north.  Early Saturday morning, wearing my white maid’s uniform and sneakers, waist-length hair pulled back into a ponytail, sitting at the formica table in the kitchen, I eat my cereal. I am basking in the pleasure of having the house to myself for the week-end, while D&K spend time at his cabin in Kentucky. 

When I answer the phone my father is on the other end.  My stepmother, on vacation at Chautauqua with her daughter and grandson – the husbands to go up the next week-end – has somehow died in the night.  Late forties, healthy, excited for weeks about the anticipated time with loved ones in a favorite place.  Dead.

My uncle arrives a few minutes later to give me a ride to work.  I have changed into jeans, and tell him that he needs to drive me home instead.  We are silent, silent the entire way.  I see a tear run down his cheek, and I am surprised, but then I realize that he is remembering a similar drive ten years previous, when my mother, who was his sister, had been killed in a car accident, along with my baby brother.

. . .

At home, sitting in the kitchen.  A few people, family and neighbors, are milling about, making phone calls, making coffee, making lists.  The air is leaden, with a sense of doom being replayed.  I am not quite eighteen, and I watch them in wonder.  Each seems to have a role to play, and each seems to know his or her part.  It occurs to me that they have all done this before, ten years ago, and they know how to do it.   My role is to watch and learn, so that I, too, will know what to do someday.

. . .

We are crammed onto the back porch, which is really little more than a square brick entryway, crouched and sitting and standing, we six kids, who have seldom all been in the same place at the same time since our parents married.  July afternoon, warm, sunny.  Death has finally brought us together. My youngest stepbrother, almost thirteen, had found his mother.  He describes the scene, again.  My stepsister, 22 and a fairly new mother, says, “It’s so weird.  It’s so weird.  One minute, someone is alive, and the next, she isn’t. “  Later, she and I will return to the Chautauqua cottage and circle it like stealth reconnaissance agents, trying to reconstruct the events of that July night.

She looks at my brother and I as we sit on the porch, legs dangling over the grass.  “You already knew about this,” she says.  I always remember her tone as one of accusation, although I am sure she did not intend it that way.  But it was true.  We did know.  We had known for most of our lives.  One minute, someone is alive, and the next, not.

Holy Saturdays.  Bitter Saturdays. They happen to us all.  As more than one friend has noted this year, the anguish is not erased in three days.  And once you know that things are one way one minute and another the next, you cannot unknow it. 

No Hospice Time

Trigger Warning: Parental Death

Several of my friends have lost or are in the process of losing parents, parents who have been or are in hospice care.  I admit to being a bit envious.

When my dad was diagnosed eighteen months ago with lung cancer for the third time, he and my once-stepmother-back-together-again immediately began looking at treatment options.  The initial information was sobering — multiple lesions in his lung — and the news became more dire as a scope was recommended and then not, due to a tumor wrapped around his pulmonary artery.  I was surprised that he was considering chemo, as the brutal death of his fourth wife, from lung cancer treatment as much as from the cancer itself, had caused him to swear several years earlier never to fall victim again to such medical excess.  But the impetus to live is strong . . .

I went down to visit for a couple of days while he awaited further testing which he had inexplicably rejected a couple of weeks earlier.  I said that if the cancer had spread beyond his lungs, he might want to consider wrapping up in a sleeping bag and spending his remaining time sitting on his deck, enjoying the woods and creek below, and the birds visiting his feeder.  It was November and he was nearing 85; it seemed like a plan to me.  He seemed to hear and not to hear.

My stepmother told me later that they were hoping that the chemo would eradicate the cancer as quickly as it had appeared, and that he would have several good years left.  I decided to remain silent, and headed home, beginning to work out in  my head how I might arrange my schedule to accommodate several trips to their home four hours from mine, as I had been able to manage when my previous stepmother was dying.  I had read about tumors encasing pulmonary arteries, but I permitted myself to imagine that it would be a privilege to care for my father, if there were time in which to do so.

Three mornings later he was doing laundry just off the bedroom, and collapsed and died. Presumably that wraparound tumor had ruptured the artery. After a mad dash to the hospital and a declaration of death, the paperwork for his donation of his body to the medical school was completed and he was transported to . . . somewhere.  The test results, confirming the spread of the cancer across and into multiple areas, came back a few days later.

I admit to being a bit envious of my friends who’ve had hospice time.  I guess that conversation about the deck and the sleeping bag and the birds was it for us.

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted (Retreat for Survivors of Third Sunday in Lent)

Samaritan Woman Roman Caracombs

The story of the Woman at the Well (name not recorded; how surprising) in the Gospel of John recounts an encounter between Jesus, an itinerant Jewish teacher, and a Samaritan woman, someone with whom, due to her gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, he is expected to avoid.  It’s the longest conversation he has with anyone in the Bible, a conversation in which he elicits from her an acknowledgement that she has been married five times and is now with number six, but swiftly moves on to a revelation of who he is, which in turn upends her entire life.

The Samaritan Woman and I have had a long relationship.  A decade or so ago, I spent several days meditating upon and praying with her story, and her movement from an encounter with Jesus at the well and out into the world to tell what she had heard was a pivotal factor in propelling me into seminary.

A few years later, my son gone, I often focused on her exhaustion and disappointment.  She has a history of negative characterizations due to those five husbands, but there is no indication in the story of anything untoward on her part.  (My father was widowed three times and divorced once, and I was once a family lawyer, so I am well acquainted with the disillusionment and heartache that follow the end of dashed hopes, whatever the reason.)

This year, I find that I am really, really liking the Samaritan Woman.  I mean, I always did, but this year, her persistence in leaving behind her water jar, the symbol of a life tangled in the expectations and promises of others and in the sadness and hardship which have come her way, and walking confidently into a new future ~ this year I am seeing not only the gift of water rushing from Jesus’ life into hers, but the gift of determination that she packs up and takes with her.

I don’t know where you are as you read this.  If you are in the early years, it may be all you can do to sit by your well, and that’s okay.  But if you can look ahead, even of only for a minute or two at a time, perhaps you can see a future.  Not the one you wanted or planned for, but the one that came your way due to the past being smashed to bits.

How might you respond, when you can?

 

 

What Do You Remember? (Retreat for Suicide Survivors ~ Third Friday in Lent)

starfish 0217

Nature has proven itself to be the greatest source of solace for me.  Not from the beginning ~ it was months, perhaps even more than a year, before I became of aware of my surroundings again.  I remember identifying a migrating sparrow on the sidewalk one day, surprised that the recesses of my mind had produced a name in response to a familiar annual sighting.  It seemed odd to me that such a sparrow still existed, and that it still had  a name.  My inner world was that altered.

When our children were small, we went to the Florida beach every spring.  I don’t know what these particular starfish are called, but they frequently appear along the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine.  We used to occasionally  place one of our finds into a bucket of sand and saltwater and take it up to our porch to watch for awhile.  Eventually, satisfied by having enjoyed its companionable presence for a bit, we would return it to the waves.

Last month, we ventured to the beach again.  I felt very brave, returning to what had been the site of such joyful times for me.  It had taken more than a decade, and perhaps that would turn out not to have been long enough.

The starfish are still there.

What about you?  What creatures or sights in the natural world call out to you, saying, “Remember, and come home to yourself”?

First Sunday in Lent (Retreat for Suicide Survivors)

The rhythm of the Christian calendar brings us each year to the first Sunday in the season of Lent, the Sunday on which we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  Before he can embark upon his ministry of healing and teaching, he is, according to the Gospel of Matthew, led into the desert and into a confrontation with the devil; into a 40-day period of hunger, silence, and temptation.

The “wilderness” in the Bible, the literal wilderness of Sinai, looks to those of us in North America more like a desert.  Rocky, barren, seeimingly devoid of life, stretching across a great landscape of emptiness broken only by peaks and valleys.  And 40 ~ in the Bible, the number 40 means a lot, or many.  Forty days for the flood from which only Noah and his family and the animals were saved.  Forty years that the Hebrew people wandered the Sinai wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Forty days for Jesus’ purifying and preparatory time, hungry ~ and alone, but for the tempter.

The pattern of the church year invites us to revisit this desert time at the onset of Lent.  “Revist?,”  you may well ask, and add that your own desert time lasted, or continues to last, much longer than 40 days.  Perhaps you have only recently been tossed into the desert and left lying in a heap on the cold, rocky, ground.  Perhaps some time has passed and you have come to know the terrain well.  Perhaps you have encountered the angels who, finally, arrived to tend Jesus.  Perhaps you have walked out of the desert and into a new version of your life.

In any case, this season, and this Sunday, invite you to take a look around.  There is always something to observe in the desert.  If nothing else, the sun rises and the sun sets, placing  you in the midst of a much broader universe than you may be able to absorb.  But there are also flickers of movement in the desert.  The shadows separate into distinct patterns, merge into a haze, separate again, and fade.  Small mammals and reptiles make momentary forays into the light or into the darkness, seeking sustenance.  Birds occasionally soar overhead, briefly marking the stark landscape with their own pegasauran shadows.

arches

Look around.  Look around your own desert.  Look up, look down, look through.

Jesus, as far as we know, took nothing from the wilderness with him when he walked back out, into a world in which food and water and companionship were plentiful.  But he carried with him the experience of having been hungry and thirsty and utterly alone, an experience which marked him forever as a man for others.

Look around.  What will you carry with you; what do you carry with you, that marks you as a woman or man for others?

 

 

(Image: Arches National Park in Utah.)

 

 

 

 

Friday Five for Lent

friday-five-lent

The RevGals Friday Five is, not surprisingly, focused on Lent:

1.) Are you giving up, or taking on? Some combination thereof?

I’m taking on . . . accompanying a college student through an eight-week version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and trying to do the daily prayer and reflection alongside her.  I also pulled out my journal from my own year-long experience of the Spiritual Exercises in 2005-06, because I wanted to see what I had to say then.  I am somewhat surprised, although it all rings true.

2.) Fasting? What does that look like for you?

Fasting has never been a meaningful practice for me.  I suppose the whys and wherefores of that might be worth considering.

3.) In what way is study helpful to you this season? Are you reading, studying, journaling…?

Since I find myself without a call, I have plenty of time for reading.  This week, I am finishing up Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets and David Lose’s Preaching at the Crossroads, and skimming Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

4.) Purple. Do you find that your wardrobe is drawn to participate in the season?

Nope.  Now that I think of it, there is very littler purple in my wardrobe, although I have some great purple earrings.  And, as I look down, I see that I am wearing a fuzzy purple sweater, because I am staying inside today and it happened to be lying on a chair instead of in the laundry.  Maybe it’s an unconscious thing.

5.) How are you finding ways to take “time apart” in order to avoid getting worn thin?

I don’t have to worry much about wearing thin these days.  A year ago, I was brand new to my congregation, looking at an extra service and sermon every week, and in the process of getting really, really sick, which I ignored and thereby prolonged.  Today, I am declaring a snow day and working (or not) at whatever pace I choose on whatever projects appeal to me.

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