Journey’s End

Journey’s End

Skärgården in the Evening

Last night I crawled into my own bed after a long flight home.  That felt good.  I even managed to sleep until 5:30 this morning even though my body insists it is a lot later in the morning than that.  I’m sitting with my regular copy of coffee and the silence of a house where I’m the only one awake.  I’m glad to be back.

The last few days in Stockholm continued to unfold with a kind and gentle grace.  The weather was terrible.  This has been the coldest, wettest June on record in Sweden.  On Monday, between rain and a mean wind, the temperature with wind chill was 38 degrees F.  Even though that was disappointing, it also made the trip feel more real and connected to life as it is and not as we wish it were.  My dad and I sat and read in the hotel, we talked and I made little forays out to explore and do a bit of shopping.  Even in the rain, Stockholm is a beautiful city.

On Monday evening, we went on the final really big adventure of our trip—we got on a ferry that goes out into the Stockholm archipelago.  The archipelago has over 10,000 islands; this ferry carries people to and from their summer homes scattered on the larger islands.  You can buy a round-trip ticket and the ferry has a nice restaurant.  There’s something especially lovely and exciting about dining in a formal restaurant on board ship, what with the crisp white napkins folded just so and the old and gracious silver, china and crystal.  The round trip takes 4 ½ hours and with the long summer twilight, we had a beautiful view.  When we came on board at 5:00 PM, it was still raining and grey but about 1 ½ later, the sun started breaking through making everything look magical.   Everywhere I looked, my eyes were happy.

There was no speed involved in this part of the journey and there’s something about sitting looking out as you slip through the water that invites story telling.  It turns out that one of the happiest times ever in my father’s life took place in 1937, when his parents brought him from Colombia to spend a summer in a cottage they rented in Skärgården, as the archipelago is called.  Starting from that summer, he went on to tell me about the next 5 years in his life, as WWII loomed ahead, he was sent to Sweden alone and then in 1941, when he was 13, came home to lunch on Tuesday, February 3rd.  The people he was living with, Tant Jennie and Farbor Oscar (Uncle and Aunt in Love, if you will), were waiting for him and handed him a cable.  The cable advised that his mother had died in the very early hours that day in Colombia.  I don’t think my dad has told many people that story and it was as raw and painful for him on Monday evening as it had been 72 years ago.

We ran into a whole lot of complications trying to do the genealogy research about my grandmother Rosa and finally gave up for now. But it was so much more important and meaningful to sit with this man who is now 85 years old and whom I am only now really getting to know.  Again, I was reminded how the holy is ordinary and the ordinary holy, if we will accept, as W.H. Auden insists, that “Time is our choice of How to love and Why”.

We spent Tuesday first with Maj, our dear friend whom we’d seen earlier in Norttälje at lunch and then packing.  In the evening, we went out to dinner with a couple, Mona and Frederick, who lived in Colombia for several years in the 70’s, when Frederick was an executive with the Colombian subsidiary of L.M. Ericsson.  I got to hear about their children who were beautiful babies when they lived in Colombia and now have impressive lives as adults in Sweden and the USA.  We told old stories about Cali in Swedish, talked about my godfather who is a legendary figure both in Colombia and in Sweden because of his work in ornithology, about the very spirited gatherings my parents used to host in those years.  It gave us another way to celebrate my mom, remembering her unforgettable parties.  In a moment of truly poetic goodness, the strands of life in Colombia, Sweden and the USA all wove together again in a way I could neither have anticipated nor prepared for.  And then, way too early in the morning yesterday, I was saying good bye to my dad and taking the high speed train to Arlanda Airport to begin the long journey home.

Nunc Dimittis

Nunc Dimittis

Before Högmässa (High Mass) in Stor Kyrka, June 24, 2012

This morning we went to church at Stor Kyrka, the church the King and Queen of Sweden attend (very occasionally) in Gamla Stan.  We have found out that my grandmother Rosa was baptized in a church called St Johannes Kyrka, also close to our hotel, but though the church still stands, it no longer serves as a parish and the building is rented out to a Polish Catholic faith community.

We walked from our hotel, a shiny modern building in a fairly modern part of town, across a cobblestone bridge that dates back to the 12th century, into Gamla Stan and up a steep hill to Stor Kyrka.  After about 15 minutes, at a little before 11:00 AM, the priest who was celebrating this morning came out and said a few introductory words and then invited us to sit in silence and listen to the bells.  It was real bells, bells that have been rung for hundreds of years.  I’ve been in other places where bells rang to announce the beginning of a service, but somehow today, I heard them differently.  Eucharist means celebration and today, the connection between joy and celebration ran deep for me.  It felt like those bells were pealing forth with jubilation.

I sometimes feel like I’ve become the biggest cry-baby on Earth because I couldn’t stop weeping during the Högmässa—the Lutheran High Mass.  I’ve never been to a service in Swedish before and again, the gratitude.  You can hear the opening hymn here—a piece of music I have heard and sung since I was a child, one that Mom just loved, but that I didn’t even know was a hymn sung in church.  I should have known-it is a celebration of summer, not for summer’s sake alone but for what it reveals about God’s love. But in an agnostic family, what made my parents so happy was describing the wonder of summer after a long winter.

I said the creed, I sang the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei in Swedish—my eyes able to read the words, my mouth able to shape itself into sounds that I have heard since before I was born but had never used to speak to God.  Everything was so known and well-worn from use over and over again, every Sunday in English and Spanish, and now so new for being in Swedish.

Perhaps even more meaningful for me, it was one of those loose strands I talked about a couple of days ago, woven into the part of my life that has been most separate from my family of origin.  My dad and I sat in a pew together, we wept together as we sang Nu Blomstertidan Kommen. Perhaps most movingly, our voices blended as we started saying, “Vår Far...”—we prayed the Our Father together, in Swedish, in church, on a Sunday morning.  Another of those time-gifts I struggle to  fathom in all it’s complexity, paradox and beauty.

The many strands of my life make particular sense with my dad.  A few times as we walked down the street in Stockholm and in Uppsala, people have given us puzzled looks and we finally figured out it’s because we mix our three languages together (Swespanglish?) as we talk.  My brother Hans is fluent in Spanish, English, Dutch, German and French.  My brother Nils in French, Spanish and English.  I am the only one who learned Swedish and when my father is gone, I will lose the richness of this particular kind of conversation. I don’t dwell on the loss; rather, I am mindful of what amazing moments these are right now.  After this morning, my father is also the only one in my family who has been with me in worship in all three languages.  On a cosmic scale, this is all so insignificant.  For my heart, it is another miracle of intersection and completion.

And there is one more dimension to that miracle—which I started to describe as small but didn’t because that would be too much of a misnomer—there is no such thing as a “small” miracle.  When I reached out my hands to receive communion and heard the priest say “Kristi kropp, bröd från himmelen” I offered more of myself than I had ever been able to before.  Perhaps I also know God more fully now than I ever could before.

Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see…

Midsommarfest & 85 Årsjubileum

Midsommarfest & 85 Årsjubileum

Today is my father’s 85th birthday.  Following an old family tradition, I got up at 5:30 and snuck into the bathroom of our hotel room where I had hidden tea roses, a candle, matches, his birthday gift and a Mazarine—a small almond tart that’s typically Swedish.  Therewas a little tray in the bathroom that I decoratec with the roses and put the Mazarine in the middle of.  Then I lit the candle. The sun was already blazing outside but with the curtains drawn the room was still in enough shadows for the candle light to shine brightly as I sang him the typical Swedish birthday song and brought the tray to his bed.  We  laughed and wept together—that I had pulled it off, catching him completely by surprise, that this was something my mom loved to do for all of us, that her absence has been a constant presence with us everywhere we’ve gone and all the things we’ve done.

After breakfast we walked up to the castle that sits at the top of a hill here in Uppsala, his alma mater’s city.  On the way, we stopped at the cathedral.  Both yesterday and today, I have gotten to spend time in stunningly beautiful, ancient holy places, and it is here that sadness comes to visit.   Maybe it’s because each time I go into one, I light a candle both for my mother and for my girl, Maria.  Yesterday on the way to Tre Faldighets kryka (Holy Trinity), I went past a store where I saw an exquisite dress that would have been beautiful for Maria.  I started to go in to find out about it and couldn’t—to even consider buying it was to consider a future for her that I simply must not cling to.  Today, in Domkyrka, I saw a “tree of life sculpture” which is where you place votives.  The picture doesn’t do it much justice but it is lovely.  There are some small, white Swedish candles that mom always used sparingly when we were growing up—they only came out at Christmas.  Those were the candles available to light and place on that “tree of life” so that’s what I lit.  My mom would have loved that.

As we walked this morning, my dad shared bits and pieces of stories from his days as a student here in Uppsala, the route he’d take from home to the his classes when it had snowed and he’d ski to school, where his first girlfriend lived, the library he did his research in, the bell tower by the castle where everyone went to make out.  We agreed that it is so very strange, having strands of our stories in all these different parts of the world.  We stop and retake the strands, and use them to weave yet another bit of our life whenever we can and then have to leave them hanging again, sort of forlorn, with no sense that we will ever be able to weave them back into the next part of the story.

And then this afternoon… It is Midsommarfest today in Sweden—delayed from yesterday and officially celebretated as the longest day of the year.  I found a small village outside of Uppsala where they were celebrating with the traditional maypole and dancing and dragged my dad out there.  I suspect he’d have preferred a more quiet afternoon, but he was a good sport.  As a little girl I heard about Midsommarfest, I read about it, I saw movies and I sort-of always knew that because of my hip and how infrequently we went to Sweden and how unlikely it was that we’d be here for this particular holiday, I’d never get to be part of that celebration.  And I was completely wrong.  I made a Queen Anne’s lace crown for myself and got to be a part of the dance.  It was glorious.  Yes, my history is sort of messy and full of loose ends, my present is really complicated and I can’t dream a whole lot of dreams for myself at the moment.  But maybe that’s as it should be because that dancing was some of the sweetest time I think I’ve ever received.  Gift.  Grace.  Joy.


For My Friend Len

For My Friend Len

These trips are as much about self-discovery as adventure.  This time around, there have been moments when I missed specific people a whole lot.   Yesterday, I missed my friend Len something fierce.  Len is an amazing artist.  Several years ago, he and his partner David lived in Fort Lauderdale, they were neighbors, they often sat with me at church (I wasn’t ordained yet), Len “gets” that European aesthetics and sensibility that makes me shudder when I go into most furniture stores in Florida.

In the morning, my dad and our good friends the Krantz’ piled into our rental car and drove to Grisslehamn, a small, small coastal town across from Finland.  We were going to go hiking to a point that was quite fortified during WWII and where wives have stood for many centuries, watching for the menfolk, fishermen, to return from the sea.  Yesterday was the first day of truly perfect summer weather for this part of Sweden–about 65 degrees F and bright, beautiful sun.  We walked briskly (boy, I hope when I’m 85 I’m that vigorous!) but I stopped often to take pictures because there was so much that delighted.  I’m trying to figure out how to share some of those pictures but I don’t want to get boring and touristy so I’ll spare you.  After a simple lunch of smoked salmon and potato salad, we headed back toward Norrtälje.  These are all idyllic back country roads where I had to be careful because deer and elk crossed the road in front of me several times.  Maj asked me if I wanted to see the church they used to go when she and Gunnar lived on a farm.  Of course I did.  So we made a few turns and then we were at Häverö kyrka.

The bellfry


Bits and Pieces

The Altar

And a 12th century baptismal so beautiful it made me weep.

Lennie–gotta come see this place~



Visiting with Dad’s Old Friends-Another Gracious Meal

My father and I drove to a town called Norrtälje yesterday. My dad has never used a GPS system and I got close to being suicidal or homicidal (or both) when he kept trying to contradict  Garmin ”Kate” with her very British accent who would say ”turn right” when he thought we should turn left.  Thank God we only had to drive for about an hour with not a lot of turns.

Gunnar and Maj Krantz live here—Gunnar was my father’s best friend when he was growing up in Uppsala; they had the kind of friendship where they wouldn’t see each other for years and years and could pick right back up as soon as they saw each other again.  Once, when I was in the fifth grade, when it looked like I needed hip surgery and my doctor in Boston had already retired, my parents brought me to Sweden for a consultation with a hip surgeon here in the middle of the school year. Tant Maj and Farbror Gunnar had three kids including a son called Olle and he invited me to go to school with him one day.  My parents put me on a train out to the town where the Krantz’ lived  and I can remember feeling totally grown up and giddy about getting to go to school with Olle, especially because he was totally cute and I had a huge crush on him.

Tant Maj is going as strong as ever, like my dad.  Farbror Gunnar has senile dementia, a lost little boy in an old body.  Olle had come out from Stockholm yesterday to watch his dad while his mom spent time with us.  We all had dinner together.  I always expect my elders to have aged.  I am always shocked to see how my peers have aged as well.  Olle and I are both in our fifties and it shows.  He’s a critical care cardiac nurse who was ever so gentle with his dad yesterday.  He and I are going out for a drink in Stockholm when my dad and I go back there on Sunday. No crush any longer but a lot of curiosity about how we’ve ended up living our lives.

The Krantz’ home is much more modest than the one we were in on Monday evening, but again I was struck by the sense of scale and gentility.  I am moved by the ability to create beauty and offer wonderful hospitality in small spaces that manage to be filled with light , lovely art and intelligent conversation, with good food that is also healthy, prepared in small kitchens that don’t have all the gadgets we collect in the USA.  Dad and I are staying at a small hotel and I notice the small details of hospitality here as well.  Both at the hotel in Stockholm and here, our towels are on heated racks and there is something so incredibly delicious and luxurious about getting to get out of a bath and dry off with warm towels.

We’re off to go hiking and have a picnic in a forest park along the coastline.  The sun is shining and I am happy.



Our host opened a second bottle of champagne to have with dessert and right after the cork popped out he said, “Ah, that is the sound of a civilized home”.  Hans Blix has an amazing sense of humor, dry as gin.  He was the nuclear inspector who kept trying to convince the USA that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  This evening he was also a supremely gracious host to a mini-class reunion that included my dad and 3 other classmates.

Even before Hans made that witty comment, I sat and watched an ever-so-familiar evening unfold.  My father and I walked to “Hötorget—an open air market in the center of the city—to buy some nice flowers to take to our hosts.  When we got to the Blix’s home, I saw how everyone else had brought lovely flowers too.  I’d say that’s another mark of  ”civilization”: small gestures of appreciation and the discretionary income that allows them. The apartment was not large by American standards and filled with the most stupendous art imaginable—an original Picasso, a series of paintings by a a Swedish-Mexican artist, and the most incredible antique Persian rugs.

We sat down to a 4-course meal that began with a mushroom dish Hans had fixed with mushrooms he’d picked himself at his family’s summer cottage.  Eva his wife had fixed the main course, Hans made the dessert—a rhubarb pie that was delectable.  A young woman from Nicaragua who is getting her PhD in chemistry helped serve the dinner.  My ”Swedish ear” is working again and I listened to the stories of five remarkable people.  Einar is a retired civil engineer who worked on mining and aide projects on behalf of Sweden in Egypt, Tanzania and other countries in Africa.  Arne was a doctor with the World Health Organization who served in 94 countries helping to address issues of childhood malnutrition.  Hans is currently leading a project to build a ”sarcophagus” over what remains of the Chernobyl nuclear plant.  Barbro is a well-known social scientist who has consulted across the world on issues of peace-keeping and reconciliation.

One of the lovely traditions of a Sweden that probably hardly exists any longer is the tradition of trying to put words around what matters beyond words when you give a toast. Hans, as the host, was the first.  He talked about the class of ’46, the first class to graduate after the war and how they were the first generation of true “internationalists” as represented by the five of them gathered together over the meal.  There were toasts that gently ribbed about my dad, whom all the girls used to swoon over.  And about the English teacher that would beg him not to come to class because his English was so lovely (and he could quote Shakespeare plays almost in their entirety) that she was ashamed of her own English pronunciation next to his.  My dad was class president and it was quite remarkable, watching the deference with which his “klass kamroter” talked about him.

I know am a child of privilege and that what might easily be called a “very civilized evening” is really about the spaces privilege opens for this kind of encounter.  I hope I don’t just take it for granted.  I know that as much as I loved being in what felt old and familiar and comfortable, I was also standing on the edges.  I think about the crazy wonderful wedding we just celebrated at St Ambrose, with the mess, and energy threatening to spin into chaos and just remembering fills me with energy.  I feel so much more at home there.  But I do.  I just absolutely love and cherish this part of my heritage and am glad I knew to take flowers, that I knew the etiquette for the toasts and I understood exactly what Hans Blix meant when he said “That’s the sound of a civilized home”.  I’m home for a few days.

Abuelita Rosa

Abuelita Rosa

I write this as we are hurtling through thin air at 30,000 feet above sea level, running south to north over the Atlantic along the eastern seaboard.  I have miles and miles of visibility from my window on this clear summer day.  After a brief layover at JFK, the course will be west to east and it will take a little over 8 hours to get to Stockholm.

I had a wonderful send-off last night and this morning:  the spouseman and I prepared a grown up meal together with no running complaints or whining from a cranky teenager.  There is something to be said for being empty nesters!  A  few times during the evening I was reminded of what it was like when Maria wasn’t with us and Friday nights were  fun and lively for us.  I took a good long walk; while I was out, watching the lightening crackle over the western part of the county, the phone rang and my girl was on the other end.

Earlier in the week we’d a bad time of it. First she wanted to see us, then she didn’t and didn’t even want to talk to us by phone.  I bet it’s going to be a few steps forward a few steps back like that for quite a while.  But last night she said,  “I’ve been looking at the picture with you and daddy and me and it keeps telling me to call.  I’ve been missing you.”  We agreed that we’d have breakfast together so we picked her up bright and early this morning;  after gentle, sweet time together, we gave each other a family hug and then I was curbside, checking in for my trip to Sweden.  We get to try again.  Again. We will try lots and lots more times, and I get overwhelmed by such grace.

I have been given the freedom to look to the days ahead now.  It’s going to be another of those “dips in time” for me.  My grandparents on my dad’s side emigrated from Sweden to Colombia in the late 20’s.  There are very big gaps in my knowledge of that side of the family, except that I know that when my dad was 9, his father insisted that my dad should return to Sweden to be educated there.  My grandmother, the person I am named after, begged her husband not to make my dad go.  She was a surgical nurse and she knew that she was dying of pernicious anemia, that if my dad left she would never see him again.  My grandfather was unrelenting.  Then, while my dad was still in Sweden, in high school, World War II broke out and he did not get to come back home until he was 26 years old, long after my grandmother had died.

I always knew I carried her name.  There was also a beautiful oil painting of her that hung in my parents’ house.  Rosa was six feet tall and regal, sitting in an exquisite, 20s’s era lace dress.  As a little girl, I hoped I’d get to be as tall and beautiful as she and had to settle for me instead.  But nobody had stories about her, I had no real sense of who she was.  Conversely, I knew my other grandmother, Vera (whom I’m also named after—uggh!) only too well and she was quite horrible and became more horrible as she aged.  I’ve probably written elsewhere that the worst thing my mom could say to any of her children was that we were becoming “Just like Abuelita Vera”; that particular criticism struck terror in my heart.

Many years ago, I promised myself that one day I’d go back to Sweden and try to do as much research as I could about Rosa Hellberg and her family.  My dad and I talked about this hope when he spent time with my family at Christmas and we started planning our trip. It was a good opportunity to tell him that I wondered if finding out more about her would help me find out some things about my own self.  Even as my love and appreciation for my mom have grown, I have also continued to live in fear of “becoming my mother and my grandmother” with their wide streak of destructiveness.  In turn, this led my father to tell me the first story I have ever heard about his mom.

One day, several months after my dad moved back to Cali in the early 50’s, he hopped in a cab that he’d hailed from the sidewalk.  When my dad got in the driver stopped the car, turned around and stared at him and said to him, “Usted tiene que ser hijo de Doña Rosa” which means, “You must be Miss Rosa’s son”.  The cab driver had driven my grandmother around town frequently while she was still alive and remembered her well.  He told my dad that he wasn’t the only one who remembered her, that she was beloved by many for her kindness and the way she cared for people.  The cab driver said a lot of people called her “la angel” (the angel).  And then my daddy made me cry because he said that as he’d gotten to watch me work at the church, he’d thought that this was what his mom must have been like.  God knows, I am no angel.  But it was sheer and absolute gift to be told that story.

We have my grandmother’s birth date, and a general idea of the part of Stockholm she grew up in.  We also know the hospital where she did her training and that record keeping in Sweden is excellent.  So, God willing, I will come back home after I get a few more glimpses of the woman whose name I am proud to carry.

We Get to Try AGain

We Get to Try AGain

The first time I had to call the cops because Luz María was so out of control, she was 7 or 8 years old.  Sherod was in Connecticut because, after months of scrutiny and back and forth, he was in serious consideration as a candidate for suffragan bishop.  This was the big round of interviews.  Our girl kept escalating more and more and for longer and longer and I was worn out.  Her support team at school was also watching her spin badly and they recommended I call the cops if things went south again when I picked her up at school that afternoon on a chilly winter day.  Immediately after we got home she started getting aggressive again.  I called 911 and it didn’t take long before there was a loud bang on the door and I let two cops  in.

The long and the short of it was that they explained that for a child that young, the Baker Act was moot—there are only a couple of child psychiatric units in Southeast Florida and so far away that neither the police nor the local ambulances could transport her to either.  I’d have to take her myself.  What they did do was take her out and talk to her very seriously before leaving.  When the door shut, María went into her room and curled on the bed in the fetal position.  One of the self-soothing behaviors she’d brought from México was the habit of sucking on her tongue very loudly.  She lay on the bed for several hours doing that, unresponsive to any of my efforts to reengage with her.  But at bedtime, when I was almost asleep, she came into my room and asked if she could sleep with me.  How could I say no?

Early, early the next morning, probably at 4:30 or 5, I felt a butterfly touch on my arm and heard a little voice that said in the dark, “I’m sorry mami.  I thought the policemen were going to take me away and I was not never going to see you again”.  I scooped that little light of my life into my arms and I think that was the first time I said, “Luli, I will never stop loving you and today, we get to try again”.

If there is a refrain to the song of our life together, that is it: “we get to try again”.

Today was insanely busy before church.  We were moving to a new service schedule and we were celebrating the first-ever Latino wedding at the 10:30 bilingual service.   I was up at 4:15 AM, finishing two totally different sermons.  At 8:00 I was wrestling with two large banners and a desk stapler.  The “industrial stapler” had gotten jammed so I was struggling to get the two banners to stay up on the sign board we have for them.  The South Florida humidity of summer was in full force, my glasses were fogged up,  I was fretting about the sweat streaming down the back of my black clergy shirt, and trying to convince myself that if my hair was a disaster and my nose totally shiny, that was OK because I was not the bride. With the grass all soggy and gross, I thanked my lucky stars I’d carried in my pretty blue shoes to wear during the services and had on my crocks while I got the banners up.  Oh vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

When the banners were finally up, more or less, I went back into my office where my iPhone buzzed.  I’d missed a call from BARC Housing.  My fingers could not move fast enough to call back and then, I was fighting back tears and talking to my daughter after 6 days of absolute silence from her.  The conversation had the utilitarian tone I know so well.  María wanted to know why she couldn’t go to church today.  Now you have to understand, this daughter of ours has fought us tooth and nail for years, really acted out, because she hates going to church.  I told her there was no way we could work that out today.  I also told her we’d need to figure out how to be a family now that so much has changed before she’d spend time with anyone else beyond the folks at BARC.  To which she immediately replied, “OK.  How about you take me out to lunch today?”

We didn’t make it to lunch but we did pick her up and take her to a Starbucks close to BARC in the late afternoon.  When we first saw each other we were all very careful and circumspect.  There were a lot of other residents wanting attention so we walked out of the building quickly, María and I ahead of her dad, both of us looking straight ahead. We hadn’t walked 5 paces out the door when her hand slipped into mine and held on tight.  Our visit with her was delightful.  She and I had to pop into a Publix in the same strip mall to get shampoo and soap.  We played the grocery store games she and I have played since she was tiny.  When it was time to leave, I walked her into her new home;  we both joked around and did our cool thing with each other.  We set the time for a call this evening and dinner on Wednesday.

María told us enough about the past few days and nights so I know that when she goes to bed tonight, she will lie and miss us and think about us.  The last thing Sherod will say after turning out the lights is “Good night, María” and I will add, “May the angels and your Good Shepherd keep watch with you tonight.”  We said this every night during the two years it took us to finalize her adoption all those years ago, and I suspect we will say it for a long time to come.  All three of us will grieve in our own way that this is how it is for us now.  And we will also, all three of us, be safe.  Once more, we get to try again.

This is Going to Change You

This is Going to Change You


“This is going to change you”.  Someone said that to me a couple of days ago.  It was a kind and thoughtful response to my stumbling efforts to describe the place grief has in my life, especially now, since Maria has moved out of our home and for now has no contact with us.  This person made the comment after describing a conversation he’d had with a man who was kidnapped and held captive in South America for several years and still managed to come out on the other side remarkably strong and well adjusted.  At the beginning of his captivity, the man realized that the experience would change him fundamentally. He made no effort to cling to who he had been and instead focused on who he was and was going to become and one day, he was set free.

I’ve been changing for the past year.  It started the evening I stood in front of my closet figuring out what to take to Panamá and realized I needed to pack clothes for my mother’s funeral.  There was a different certainty to the decisions I made that night. There was also a new center of stillness.   When I got to my parents’ house on the evening of May 23rd, I had to catch my breath, really see that my mom was dying.  By the following morning, I had stepped into a new role when I insisted to my dad that we would meet with the voluntary hospice team that works in Boquete.  I look back on all that with some amazement.  In an eye-blink, I stopped being the daughter and child and became an adult who needed to steer a household not her own through strange times.

I did not stop to question that I had to provide some steadiness, whatever steadiness I could, not just to my dad, but to Pastora, the housekeeper, and Paulino, the gardener, and my aunt, and even some of my mom’s friends who had always been my elders before, and now were wobbly and vulnerable in a way I wasn’t.  My older brother arrived a few days later from Holland and brought his own wisdom and strength but I functioned as the matriarch of our family for the rest of our time together.   About three days after I got to Boquete, my mom sat on the side of her bed, with all the vulnerability and trust of a child and asked me, “Rosita, do you think I’m going to get better?”  I had a split second to decide how to answer, not wanting to be deceitful but sensing that the blunt truth would be too much for her.  “I don’t know, Mom.  I hope so but the cancer’s in your marrow now, which makes everything harder.  I am here with you today and I am so thankful for this time with you.”  I don’t know if it was the right answer but it got us through to the next moment.  There were any number of encounters like that during those weeks, where what I said and how I said it mattered to a lot of people.

In the weeks after Mom died, when several other people I cared for died too, and I had to officiate or participate in a whole series of funerals, I learned that part of being grown up is compartmentalizing and putting your own “stuff” on the back burner to be true to your work and vocation.  I would have thought such a succession of funerals so soon after her death would shatter me.  They didn’t.  Ironically,  I had something else going on, far more serious, far more capable of robbing me of my life.  I had become diabetic and had been stubbornly refusing to recognize the small signs and warnings. Finally, a few weeks after Mom’s death, I managed to overcome my denial enough to go to my doctor.  When she showed me the results of my blood work, I could not play the game of denial any longer.

I got my diagnosis a few days before I was supposed to go on a much-anticipated retreat with the Jesuits in Maryland.   On the morning I was supposed to leave, I had the mother of all rows with my spouse and was confronted with the fact that you don’t pour yourself out to take care of one part of your life, without other parts paying some of the price. I’d walked with someone else’s household through to death and left my own household to fend for itself.  I couldn’t just up and leave again.   To add to the stress, I had thought as soon as I started taking the diabetes medication, all would be well with my blood sugar. I was completely mistaken. My blood sugar levels were still way high and I couldn’t push through the truths right in front of me that I’d have preferred to ignore. I cancelled my trip feeling not regretful but liberated.

Until that day, I had intended to keep the fact that I’d become diabetic to myself—I felt so ashamed that I had let that happen to me.  Somehow, on that morning, a whole bunch of pieces came together that helped me see that I am no longer able to put up much of a front, pretend and pose for the sake of an image of myself that just isn’t real.  I told the leadership of my church about my diabetes and even began to have careful conversations about my weight and food with people around me in ways I had never dared to before.  I can’t say it felt good.  To this day I fight the shame of having to work so hard to manage my eating.  But pretending takes more energy than I have any longer.

Recently, I watched a TV series called Firefly.  In an episodes I really liked, one of the characters says, “When you can’t run any longer you crawl, and when you can’t crawl any longer, you find someone to carry you.”  In a very paradoxical way, the strength I find now is the strength to ask for help.  It has taken an incredible amount of intention and effort on my part not to isolate myself over this past year but I really haven’t had any other choice.

I have also come to terms with complexity at the heart of my life.  A marriage and family are full of complexities and complications.  Being a priest while the church is in serious decline is like navigating through a maze in the dead of night with an enormous responsibility not to fail the people who have entrusted me to provide leadership and steadiness when everything is in upheaval.  How do I let go and yet stay connected to my daughter who was abusive to my husband and me from the moment we received her into our care, who looks like a monster on paper if you read a list of her diagnoses, and has also been one of the true miracles in my life?  The list goes on.  There seem to be hundreds of decisions placed in front of me with a relentlessness I was not aware of before.  In the end, though, they boil down to a very basic choice posed to me by my Creator:  “On this day I have set before you life and death.  Choose life that you may live”.

Before this year, a lot of my life was about anticipation.  “Ya casi es mañana” (it’s almost tomorrow) was long a favorite catchphrase of mine.  That has changed. Surely, I will have new dreams for myself.  But not right now.  I’ve been talking recently about my sense that choosing life right now means staying in the moment, to host  grief.  I guess that’s a fancified way of saying that I am grieving; still, I like some of the implications of framing it that way for myself.  My mother and my grandmother were consummate hostesses and I now use some of the silverware I inherited from them for everyday purposes to remind me of their graciousness.  But there’s another way of being a hostess that I did not learn from them, that I’m learning on my own.  I am learning to open the door to something so unwanted and unlovely I would never have received it before.

In a strange way, having diabetes allows me to open the door to grief when it shows up, not invited but ever so persistent. I used to have all kinds of ways to numb out, but my favorite was eating. I’ve replaced the eating with a lot of walking and in the quiet of nightfall, like the fog, it arrives on little cat feet. Some nights the grief gets so intense on my walks that I have to lean against a tree or sit down as soon as possible because I simply cannot hold myself up.  The thing is, if I will not fight myself, even if I think I’m hurting so much I’m going to die, the pain moves on and I take the next step, and the next, and the one after and eventually, I find my way back home.  I fall asleep, morning comes again and there’s a whole new piece of life making claims and asking me more questions.  I have changed and I imagine I don’t even know the half of how much more I have ahead.  What hasn’t changed is this:  I still choose life.