Tag Archives: death

When Love Conquers Death

The Christmas my son, Peter, my first child, turned three was, of course, the first time he was old enough to make sense out of the Santa story.  And being the child he was, Peter made too much sense out of it.

“Mommy,” he said to me when I came into his bedroom on Christmas morning, “did Santa Claus really tiptoe into my room and put those things in my stocking”—having no fireplace in our Texas home, I had hung his stocking on the end of his bed—“or did you do it?”

I seem to be incapable—unfortunately, in this case—of telling a direct lie, especially to a child.  And so I admitted that I had done it, and then I spun a story about Santa Claus as the spirit of giving, etc., etc., none of which interested him in the least.  He had the information he’d asked for.  Mommy had filled his stocking.

So when his younger sister, Beth-Alison, grew old enough to comprehend the Santa story, she had her big brother close at hand, delighted to let her know that it was all a big game the grown-ups were playing.  There was no Santa.

She once told me that was the worst thing I ever did as a parent, depriving her of the brief chance other children have to believe in Santa.  I defended myself by saying, “If that’s truly the worst thing I ever did, you’re pretty damned lucky.”

I only wish it were.

But what is it about truth-telling and Santa?  If Peter’s question had been less direct, I might have found a way to respond without spoiling the fun.  Because the truth of Santa isn’t about who did the tiptoeing.  It’s about what the gifts honor.

However close or far we are from the real Christmas story, what is meant to be honored in this season is the victory of love over death.

And that’s a truth we search for, every one of us of every faith or no faith at all, our entire lives.

Peter & Beth-Alison

The Peter who so determinedly and mischievously—he was good at both determination and mischief—spoiled his little sister’s Santa story, died almost eleven years ago.  At age 42, he left little behind except his wife and three sons, living proof of his ability to love.

Peter died after a long illness that robbed him inexorably of body and mind, and dying, he went to such an unknowable place that none of us who loved him could follow.  Yet if I was unable to truly accompany his death, that three-year-old Christmas morning still lives in me.  “Mama, did Santa Claus really . . .”

And so much else lives in me, too.  And in his father and his sister.  And in my beloved daughter-in-law.  And in those three adored grandsons.

Can love conquer death, even if you don’t believe in Santa . . . in more than Santa?

When Peter’s father is gone, when I am gone, too, so much of his Peterness will be gone with us.

And yet I believe in the imperfect love that brought my son into the world.

And I believe in the imperfect love that will live still in those he created, in those he touched.

“Mommy, did Santa really . . . ?”

If I could return to that surprise moment with the perspective of age, I would answer his question differently.

“Yes, my son!  Yes!  Love tiptoed into your room.”

I Stood before the Mirror


I stood before the mirror this morning
studying my chin’s newest collapse.
Two more grooves
inside the old familiars,
parentheses doubled for emphasis.
A sunburst of creases radiate from my lower lip,
as though drawn into being by an invisible purse string.

I tug my cheeks smooth.
Ah, yes . . . that’s the way I looked yesterday.
Or perhaps it was the day before.
Does it matter?
These new grooves are only a surprise
because inside my face,
inside me,
they don’t exist.

Standing here, though, before the truth-telling mirror,
I am reminded of another time,
another mirror,
another face—
also mine.
Many miles away my son lay dying.
We all knew except,
perhaps,
he.
Control of his body slipping away,
comprehension, too.
Visions we could not share galloping through his brain.
We watched him, son, husband, father leaving,
all of us watching.
We had been so certain he had come to stay.
And during those watching days,
during those months that stretched into years,
I rose each morning,
stood before the mirror
and saw that in the blessed dark
my face had
fallen
again.

It didn’t matter particularly,
that fallen face.
More a curiosity than a concern.
Watching your son die,
even from a great distance,
teaches you to care little about such things.
When you go out into the world there is so much you cannot say.
Your face is only doing its best to speak for you.

But still I stood then,
toothbrush in hand,
studying the grieving mother who studied me,
the collapse of flesh almost a comfort.
A substitute for the tears,
so nearly vanquished by
the
long
grieving.

Now,
when even grief lives far away,
as though all this happened in another lifetime,
to another mother,
I find strange comfort in this meticulously outlined chin.
The comfort
that comes with knowing
that death
will rescue us all.


This will probably be the opening piece for the memoir I’ve been talking about, a memoir that will now be primarily in prose. The title for the whole is one I’m returning to: When Even Grief Lives Far Away.

Here  You Are, Alive

And that is just the point . . . how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”
                                                                                                                     —Mary Oliver

“Here you are, alive.”

And to that fact, I don’t believe there is any more serious response than pure rejoicing.

I don’t remember doing a whole lot of rejoicing over pure aliveness when I was a child. I did, I suppose, what most children do, accepted my life as an unasked for gift, one that was important simply because it was mine.

We were not a particularly rejoicing family. My parents were responsible, certainly. Hardworking. As a family we were courteous and respectful most of the time. And I do remember with real affection my mother’s tuneless humming as she went about her household tasks, especially in her beloved kitchen.

I also remember, carry in my bones, in fact, my father’s deepest philosophy expressed in a single statement: “Life is a dirty deal.” He had supporting arguments, too.

I listened, of course. How could I not? I was curious, bemused, silently skeptical.

Maybe it was my mother’s humming and the way she sometimes said, “Oh, Daddy!” in a tone of gentle disgust when he said such things that made it possible for me to stay skeptical.

6_3cloudsStill, I was the kind of child who paused on the red-slag road halfway up the hill to turn back to gaze at clouds piling and piling behind me, too caught in their beauty to hurry away from the approaching storm. I was the kind of young adult who rose out of the dark thrall of existentialism to decide—simply decide, because I knew there could be no proof—that my life mattered. Mattered for no reason except that I felt it did, though I knew my father would have told me that my feelings proved nothing at all. And so I decided to matter and decided, too, that if my life mattered, the lives around me had to have significance as well. Because surely I couldn’t be the only creature to possess such a gift.

In the years upon years that have followed, the gift has been sharpened—I can even say blessed—by an evolving and inevitable acquaintance with death. Can any of us truly appreciate the sweetness of the air that fills our lungs before we have met death?

My comment on it all now? Past the deaths of both of my parents, past the death of my son, past the deaths of too-many friends . . .

Only that nothing is more sacred than life in all its forms. My own life, the lives of my daughter, my partner, my grandchildren, my friends. My dear little dog. The life of the lilac bush blooming in front of my house and of the dandelions so exuberantly blessing my lawn. The lives that are no more and the lives that are not yet. The life of this blue and white planet, moist and beautiful as Mary Oliver reminds us, and of this ever-expanding universe.

All sacred.

Year after year, I have lived into this knowledge, and now I have found a way to put my belief into words. I have framed my comment on being alive. My hymn to the universe. A kind of 21st century creation myth. All gathered into less than 450 words as the text of a picture book to be called The Stuff of Stars.

The Stuff of Stars says that the creative impulse that exploded with the Big Bang goes on exploding, unfolding, innovating still. It says that life comes out of death, that we have planets only because stars died, that we have humans only because dinosaurs died, that we have children only because our ancestors died, making room, making room.

It says that we are all made out of the same stuff. Butterflies and giraffes. Redwoods and moss. Leaping water and steadfast stone. All stardust.

The Stuff of Stars says that that you and I are stardust come to consciousness, at last, and that is the deepest wonder of all.

What a privilege to have gathered the skills to speak my heart’s truth in such a simple form.

What a privilege to be alive!

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Transformation

The natural warmth that emerges when we experience pain includes all the heart qualities: love, compassion, gratitude, tenderness in any form. It also includes loneliness, sorrow, and the shakiness of fear. . . . these generally unwanted feelings are pregnant with kindness, with openness and caring. These feelings that we’ve become so accomplished at avoiding can soften us, can transform us.                                                                                                                        Pema Chodran

Pema Chodran, the famed Buddhist teacher, isn’t talking about pain experienced in stories. She is talking about pain experienced in life. But the reason stories exist is because they give us a potent way to understand life, to live it with deeper attention. So all she says here refers to the work we do in creating stories, too.

And thus the point she is making, that “pain includes all the heart qualities: love, compassion, gratitude, tenderness . . . loneliness, sorrow, and the shakiness of fear,” is a powerful one for all creators of stories.

5_13As I write this I am emerging from a week of virulent flu, and in the miasma of my illness I spent far more time settled on a couch watching films than I ordinarily would. Yesterday I watched the 1962 film based on the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I am ordinarily not a fan of old black-and-white films. Too often the acting seems stilted, forced. But this one is so delicately and exquisitely done that I was, once again, utterly compelled. And of course that was possible in no small part because it is based on a delicate and exquisite novel.

When the final credits rolled, I found myself saying, “Ah . . . that’s the kind of story I want to write!” A laughable enough longing. After all, who wouldn’t?

But my heartfelt reaction prompted me to pause to ask, What gives both story and film so much power? Why do I feel transformed by living through this story, even though I already know exactly where it will go?

I think there are two answers. The first is that To Kill a Mockingbird is set on the bedrock of large, important issues. Every personal conflict rises out of deeper, more fundamental conflicts of society as a whole. Not just racism. Indeed, if we consider Boo, the story’s “mockingbird,” it’s society’s attitudes toward all the dispossessed that are being challenged here. But writing about important issues doesn’t necessarily make for an important story. And it certainly doesn’t make for a transformative one. In fact, big topics can lead to grand writing and no transformation at all.

What makes these big issues work? It’s because they are approached, in every case, through the small, personal, utterly believable experience of living characters. And living characters are those whose vulnerability shows. Even the young woman who entraps Tom is a victim, a victim of her isolation, her longing, her father’s rage. And Scout, the six-year-old who witnesses our story, casts light on the whole through her own innocence, her lack of comprehension.

Many stories take on large issues—take most murder mysteries, for instance—but they don’t always succeed in making those issues truly important to us as readers, as viewers. It’s only when large issues are seen through a personal lens that they have true power.

These days I resist stories in which my emotions are compelled by a character’s death. I’m too acutely aware of how easy it is for a writer to kill a character off. And if she does so simply to draw a reaction from me, I hold back. I won’t be jerked around.

But when the death—or any other source of story pain—is demanded for the sake of the story’s own truth, when strong action rises out of the characters instead of being imposed upon them from above, then the writing serves its purpose. The story transforms me, opens me to feelings that enlarge my own humanity

And that is, I believe, one of the deepest functions of stories. These “unwanted” feelings, so pregnant with kindness, with openness and caring, can touch us, teach us, soften us and make us more human while leaving our daily lives intact.

A pretty good bargain, that!

***

 

April Fool!

4-1snowycrabIt’s been a long winter for those of us in the Upper Midwest. I won’t bother with the statistics, just let the word long stand. Snow and ice and winds and below-zero temperatures. Broken pipes, crunched cars, middle-of-the-night furnace emergencies. Our two small dogs beg to go outside then stand, bewildered, holding up one paw, then another.

Last summer my partner and I landscaped the yard of our rented house. (An odd thing to do, I know, but we had lots of yard and few plantings and isn’t all space, ultimately, only rented?) We put in trees and bushes, grasses and prairie flowers, wild strawberries and violets and lily of the valley. We wanted to create a respite for ourselves and for all the creatures we love to watch from our windows or from the front stoop. And, of course, the beloved creatures flocked to this new haven and turned our tender plants into breakfast, lunch and dinner.

What sweet fools we are!

And so we put up fences, spread natural repellents, and lured the hungry with other fare.

They gobbled our offerings and our new plantings, too. Fools. Fools.

We put protective wrappings around the saplings, and then winter came and the snow piled past the protectors, and the rabbits simply hopped on up to munch higher on the tender bark.

Is there such a thing as a January fool?

We put up more fencing. The snow piled higher.

February fools.

The fellow who plows the driveway very considerately came back one day to clear the huge piles that had built up on each side of the entrance. Only he pushed the snow up to the backyard fence and then over it into the yard in a great mound so that Dawn, my ruby cavalier, could climb right up to the fence corner and on over to the other side. (She is stone deaf, so there is no way to call her back unless she happens to notice the person running barefoot across the snowy yard, signaling wildly.)

March fools, too.

For April fool I have to move into conjecture, because I’m writing this before April has arrived. But having lived in Minnesota for more than forty years, conjecture isn’t hard. There will be a huge dump of wet snow, clinging gloriously to every branch and street sign and shrub. Or freezing rain, perhaps, bedecking the world in crystal and turning the streets into disaster. There will be melting snow, dirty and used up and running everywhere, and mud will squelch and cling.

Then there will be another freeze.

But a fellow in a red feathered suit will call, “Took, took!” and his sweetheart in her lovely olive dress will promise “Chip, chip, chip!”

And we will all be fooled, if only for a moment, into thinking that love alone will feed us.

But the fool I’m waiting to be isn’t April’s. It is the one I’ll become as our Minnesota May arrives. The perfume of damp earth, released from its winter confinement. Blossoms on new crabapple trees . . . redbud, pagoda dogwood, deep blue lilac. Every shoot, the unfurling of each tiny petal, even the children blooming on the sidewalks . . . all will flower in my brain as the most blessed foolishness.

I have been thinking about death lately, about the death of stars that brings us planets, about the death of dinosaurs that made room for humans, about the death of elders that allows the gift of children.

I have been thinking about death and watching beyond my study windows the way the sun glints off snow and how tree shadows turn blue as evening approaches. And thinking about death and snow and sunshine brings me, inevitably, to spring.

To being an April fool, a May fool, an anytime fool.

In love with this precious life.