stick around

I am a small person, relieved to be standing at the end of the long winter, watching, feeling the approach of a new season, Spring.  And I am that small person in more than one way.

We held a memorial service for my grandfather last Monday.  He crossed over back in December, but the rest of the family lives far away so we took our time waiting for the season to change and making sure that most of them could make a visit.  It was crazy sweet to see those cousins we rarely see, let the new generation of little ones play, and tell stories about our shared loved ones gone on.gg memorial

At the same time as that was happening, the final business of my step-mother’s estate finally came to a close.  It has been a long and arduous year and a half since her untimely passing.  Finishing the work of her estate feels like shedding an old skin, like maybe I should cut my hair, drink champagne, do something radical to mark the passage of that time.

Our little family weathered four deaths of near-immediate family members in about 18 months.  A couple close family friends departed in that time frame as well.  Saying that it’s been an “intense” time doesn’t do it justice.

But I am not complaining.  I have grown.  I have learned about things I never thought of learning before, and that knowledge has contributed to the wholeness of my life in ways I never imagined.

I have learned about how much work is involved in dealing a loved ones affairs.  I am no longer quite so intimidated by IRS forms and large banking firms.  I understand the need to keep busy in the thick of emotional upheaval.  I have also begun to learn about what to keep and what to discard.  I have learned that it gets easier to let go of things as time passes.tree 3

I have learned that each death is as individual as each life.  Death is like birth – a place where the mystery of being, which we so often ignore, comes in close contact with our daily lives, where we can no longer ignore it.  Before our children we born, where were they?  Now that they are here, it is hard to imagine that they were not here – they certainly cannot imagine it themselves.  And just so, when a person we love has died, it is a stumbling point on our sense of reality – where did they go?

I have learned that in some ways, they haven’t gone anywhere.  Their presence stays with us in our hearts and our minds, naturally, and if we are lucky, our understanding of them and what they shared with us while they lived might even grow as we travel through the remainder of our lives.  It is not the same, but it is enough.

I have learned that our perception of loss, and of ownership, does not always match with reality.  Sometimes, our own perception is all we have to go on, so we have to stick with it.  But it’s worth is to understand that its only our own perception.

I have learned the benefit of silence in conflict.  I have felt, more so than ever before, the need to stand up for my perception of loss and ownership (even though I know they are only mine) in the face of contradiction and exploitation.  I have seen how the law of the land fails the ways of the heart, and sorrowed at that failure.

photo credit a. white. thanks.

photo credit a. white. thanks.

I have learned that none of us are alone.  Our lives necessarily touch other lives, and we often have no idea how much impact that contact has.

And I am beginning to learn something about memory.  It is a piece of perception, and so necessarily personal, but the sharing of memory is potent somehow.  If I cling to my personal memories in a possessive way, I run the risk of letting them grow dusty and stale, and less meaningful with time.  Sharing stories, memories, with others who shared the love of loved ones passed on opens up the possibility of greater understanding and greater appreciation.  It may be painful – our personal version of history may be challenged in ways we could not have imagined, which can feel like a complete violation of everything we are.  But it isn’t.  Not really.  And sometimes (not always) letting ourselves feel that pain can a way to new growth, and new growth makes for fresh flowers.  growth

Given all that – Thank you.  Thank you, everyone who hugged me and loved me through this time.  Thank you for your support and good thoughts and patience and love.  Thank you for carrying boxes, for offering me water.  Thank you for listening to me, over and over again.  I cannot imagine how it would have been without you all.  I know it would have been much more difficult. Thank you.

Knowing full well that my request is meaningless, I am asking for two more favors.  First, please have a will – a legal, written will.  And last, if we could take a break from this death thing for a year or so, that would be great.  Please, stick around.

grandpa

My grandfather was born and raised on his family’s farm in south central Georgia.  I imagine in his early years he lived similarly to my children, in that he probably spent a great deal of time outdoors.  He developed a fascination with reptiles – turtles and snakes specifically.  It was a lifelong enthusiasm that knew few boundaries (there are some stories to tell here).

He remembered for us a story of a playmate from his neighborhood who moved to Florida.  When she returned for a visit, he asked her what it was like down there.  She remarked on the abundance of snakes and turtles, and it planted a seed in his mind that Florida was a place he would like to live someday.

So, years later, when he was in medical school at Emery University and met my grandmother with her sweet way of saying “yeah-yuh” and family in south Florida, he knew he had found his path to paradise.  When she agreed to his engagement proposal one winter’s day, he ran outside in his shorts and bare feet and celebrated in the snow, so the story goes.

aren't they lovely?

aren’t they lovely?

He and my Nana went AWOL while they were serving as medics (he was a doctor, she a nurse) in WW2.  They took off for some beautiful spot in France and got married.  And they stayed that way (not in France, or AWOL, but married for sure) for more than 65 years – the rest of their long lives.

My grandfather really loved life.  He liked to explore.  He drove fast.  He learned to fly an airplane, and flew regularly.  He rowed and sailed on little Lake Isis, where he and Nana lived in central Florida, and took an annual Christmas day dip in the lake, always emerging refreshed, saying he “felt better already”.

flying themselves out to Wyoming to visit their son...

flying themselves out to Wyoming to visit their son…

He also loved to serve.  He was a family physician in the small Florida town where they lived – and that was his entire career.  Each and every time I visited my grandparents in their “home town”, we would go out to eat or make a shopping excursion around town.  It was unavoidable that at least one person, and probably more than one, would walk up to me and pat me on the shoulder with a statement such as… “Well, hunny, you must be Sally Beth’s little girl!  Your grandfather delivered ALL my babies!”.  There’s an official number somewhere on record, no doubt, but I have been told by reliable sources that my grandfather assisted the births of over 2,000 babies over the years.  He probably attended to the final illnesses of many of the townspeople as well.  He was a family doctor, the way that family doctors used to be.

In his final days, he continued, in his dreamy, drifting way, to sew stitches and do the occasional surgery, asking my mother to find someone’s file for him, years and miles away.

And he loved his family. He was a generous and loving grandfather.  Even though we sometimes fumbled in our understanding of each others’ worlds, there was never a doubt that he loved us all faithfully, so much.

this is a funny picture - but look at his smile!

i can’t stand my fuzzy hair – but look at his smile!

As a child, my grandparents’ Florida home was a magical place.  The house was large and full of dusty, fascinating family relics, and the grounds were a jungle of flower and fruit, with the lake sparkling, beckoning in the background.  I remember getting lost in the tangerine tree branches, eating so many tart and sweet fruits, the tremendous variety of texture and flavor, and the amazement of finding my first ripe mulberry.  It felt like Eden sometimes.  Until I met some fire ants, anyway.sam and pat in yard

Nana and Grandpa left their personal paradise nearly ten years ago, when it became clear that they could not maintain their house and grounds, themselves, without assistance.  I’m sure it was difficult for them.  But they made the most of it, and I am grateful that they came here, close to us.  It was precious, to have four generations, together.  They became GG (Great Grandpa) and Big Nana (which is funny cause she was a tiny little old lady) to Lulah.  Nana passed away when Levon was a tiny babe.  It has been difficult, since then especially, to watch my Grandpa slowly fade.11-21-10 002

My mother has tended to him faithfully, beautifully, and I have learned so much from watching her about graceful change in the course of life.  The approach of death is as trans-formative a process as the approach of birth.  The energetic charge of it is different, but no less powerful.  With birth, we make room for this new person in the fabric of our family.  With death, we absorb the memories, the life story, of our elder into us, then bind ourselves closer to those we love, to close the hole that they make with their departure.

Rest in peace, Grandpa.  Thank you for your great love.  We love you too.sam and pat on trolley

the first annual susan white memorial picnic

momo n meIt has been one year since my step mother Susan made her sudden departure from this life.  Some friends gathered for a picnic over the weekend, to celebrate her memory.  It was a rainy day, but those of us who attended were grateful to be there, standing around the little native Redbud tree dedicated in her honor at the local park.  We spread some ashes and nicely composted mule manure, and appreciated each others’ company.  I wrote this for the occasion:

It’s been a year now since any of us has seen Susan, in the flesh. I know many of us have looked for her, in the usual places, and wished she would show up. It’s been long enough now to begin to wrestle with the reality that our friend is not returning, not the way she was before.

And its been long enough to really know why we wish she was here. Susan was a beautiful person. She delighted in life’s beauty and took pleasure in contributing to it. She enjoyed making a space fun and inviting, and making an occasion special. We feel her absence in our gatherings and seasonal festivities. We miss her special touch.

Susan also loved the woods. Not just as a concept, but as a HOME. It is a trait that many of us here share and understand in each other, and in the past as, as I have tangled with all the tangential impulses that accompany the loss of a loved one, it has been a comfort for me to know that Susan spent her last few hours at home in the woods, exactly where she wanted to be. In one of our last phone conversations, she was there in the Hollow, and she remarked, “It’s just so beautiful out here.”

She also expressed her gratitude to our good neighbor, Chuck, for mowing the yard. And now I do the same. Every time I pull up Henry Hunter Lane, into the modest clearing where site the house I know so well, I too think that it is so beautiful, and I also thank Chuck for mowing.

I have thought often over the past year about death and dying and how difficult a concept it is for us, the living. There go our friends, our family, away from us, it seems, to someplace we can’t know about. We might hear theories about what goes on. We probably believe some of those theories and disbelieve others. Some of us study on it quite a lot, but we can not experience it, all the way, until we experience it, and after that, it appears fairly difficult to get a message back to the rest of us to let us in on whatever reality exists beyond that veil. So there’s some amazing quality of un-knowing going on when we are put face to face with that reality.

Un-knowing, ignorance, can be frustrating for us big-headed bipeds.

But, I have my own ideas, coping mechanisms perhaps, to bring to the fumbling place of loving and losing that we have been through in the past year.

When we most miss our friend and most wish she were with us to share some moment, what if we summoned the courage to cut through our grieving and our ideas about dying and going away, and we just looked for her instead? We have to look for her differently now. She won’t be laughing with a cup of coffee in her hand on the other side of the table from us. But it may be that she can be found inside each of us, just in the way that we know her so well, enjoying that moment, just the same.

So, when we are appreciating some specially enchanting piece of life, or seeking that beauty inside a struggle, and we wish she was there to share our joy, or add wit or wisdom to our conflicts, perhaps we are summoning her, inside of ourselves, and so in that way the enjoyment is magnified, and the storm is calmed. And all the more, when we share a good space with each other, when we connect the different pieces of memory that each of us carry together, and bring them into the present moment and appreciate who she was to each of us, then, I believe that in some way she is here, as well. Not held back from anywhere else, not restricted by body, politics, or finance, but carried forward with the same love that carries us all.DSCN0888