A Feast & Three Stories

ImageWe gathered in the parking lot of First Baptist at 11:15. Not quite fall, but no longer summer, the sun did not make the day warm. One of Sherod’s nieces, a retired Army lieutenant colonol we call Commander Kim, herded us along, Sherod and his sister engaged in another small round of good natured sibling squabbling about where the cars were supposed to be parked.  There were tall, beautiful cousins, one fighting a panic attack, one or two somewhat pouty lips, and folks who awkwardly acknowledged that we are are related to each other, though most days that has no reality whatsover. Uncle Ralph, Juanita’s last surviving sibling, made sure we knew what would be going on and what we were supposed to do.  None of us really listened, though I think everyone got it that this was one of those times we shouldn’t forget. The whole family bunched together on the stairs in front of the Ed Building for what may be the last, most complete family picture of the Mallow-Derryberry’s.

When everyone had finally made sure they had a snapshot in their smartphone, Uncle Ralph shepherded us up the stairs to the dining room where the ladies of First Baptist had spread a Southern feast for us: sweet tea, fried chicken, green beans, squash casserole, potato salad, lima beans, corn casserole, Jello-O Salad with cool whip and mini-marshmallows, fruit salad, rolls, refrigerator pie and chocolate cake.

Visitation happened inside the sanctuary, where Tiffany windows filtered the fall sunlight, dimmed and colored and hushed it as we all considered that under that pall lay Annaw, the last true matriarch of the family.  A dear friend from Fort Lauderdale was there all of a sudden, giving Sherod and me a hug, disorienting and consoling us all at once.  There was an almost steady stream of people who wanted to pay their respects and there were the unctuous funeral directors who kept everything moving smoothly.  I’d never been to a Baptist funeral–more simple than our Episcopal version and just beautiful.  Uncle Ralph gave the Eulogy, Pastor Light the sermon.  A musical performance by a nephew, an opening and closing hymn and then it was over.

Juanita was 13 when the Great Depression hit. Her younger brother Ralph told stories about her.  Their family barely eked out an existence in the worst years of the Depression.  Juanita graduated highschool, attended a business college and then got her first job.  She was paid $10.00 a week as long as the company was able to stay open. When they finally closed, her last ‘paycheck’ was a rusty old typewriter that my sister-in-law still has.  But her very first paycheck she used to put a down payment on a bicycle for her baby brother Ralph. That’s the first story.

By the time Ralph turned twelve, Juanita was working at the movie theater in town, selling tickets.  Children under 12 paid a dime for a ticket.  Ralph was a small 12-year old on the day of his birthday and had thought he could pull off a few more 10 cent tickets.  Except it was Juanita selling them so when it came his turn, she reminded him his ticket now cost 15 cents. He panicked because he didn’t have the extra five cents and he really wanted to see the movie.  Juanita dug in her purse to give him a nickel.  From then on, whenever he went to the movies, there would always be a nickel on the counter for Ralph to buy his ticket.  This one’s the second.

There were all kinds of folks who came through the receiving line to extend their condolences.  Most shook our hands or hugged our necks quickly and moved on.  One stopped when he got to me. He wore a suit and tie, just a regular looking guy.  He told me he had been Juanita’s mailman for decades.  Now, my mother-in-law had lived in the assisted living facility for at least the last 7 years.  Yet the mailman remembered her, how polite she always was to him, how on the really hot days, she had a glass of ice-cold co’cola waiting for him.  He teared up as he told me what a fine lady she had been. This one’s the third.

When Sherod and I first married, Juanita and I had a hard time of it with each other.  In fact, I always felt like an interloper, even at this funeral, aware that Juanita’s joy would have been far more complete if Sherod’s first wife had been there instead of me.  But we found our way with each other and these last stories about her, the courage and dignity with which she accepted the realities of aging, the meticulous care she took to be responsible for her own self and for her family reminded me that steadfast, unglamourous, every day love is hard and stunningly beautiful.  My diminutive, sometimes cranky,mother-in-law was heroic.  Even in death she was heroic, ensuring there was a lovely funeral left paid, planned and programmed for as a celebration of her life and her love that drew the family together, if only for one last time.

Entering the Silence

I won’t be celebrating at the Sunday services on Sunday. I leave for Birmingham tomorrow and Juanita’s funeral will be on Saturday.  I get back to Fort Lauderdale on Sunday evening, in time to stop and see my girl one last quick time before flying west on Monday.

I knew I had to leave more consecrated bread and wine for the Sunday service than we had and in the Episcopal Church we consecrate sacraments at the Eucharist itself.  This morning, with very little planning, I ended up having Eucharist with about 10 other people, all of us women, all of us Latinas.   I had pulled out the service leaflets for the Eucharist we used to celebrate at the storefront chapel when I first became involved in community ministry.  The Eucharistic Prayer was written by a Latino professor at General Theological Seminary in New York–it is evocative of the landscapes of our countries, it uses language that grates, even in translation, for many who have not come here as immigrants but for those of us who were shaped by that experience, it offers solace, even redemption for some of the harshness of immigration.

Instead of the usual Prayers of the People, everyone offered spontaneous prayers and because we were also remembering Sherod’s mama, we prayed for our own, and for ourselves as mothers.  The very last woman to offer her prayers is a beautiful young woman who’s youngest is known as ‘cachetes’ (cheeks).  His little face is simply delicious and when he breaks into a smile it almost gets lost in chubby, gorgeous cheeks.  At the end of the prayer she looked right at me and said she wanted to become one of the sheep of this sheepfold.  For three years she has attended Sunday services quite faithfully and never come up to communion.  Today she did.  Today most of us wept through most of the Eucharist.

Draw near.  Enter.  Come, then.

There was all kind of busy-ness that followed.  The pets are now with their respective ‘angels of mercy’ who will tend to them until Sherod returns from Selma. There were any number of loose ends to tie up and they all got done.  Since Sunday I’ve been battling yet another round of bronchitis and and this time I keep losing my voice.

Be still.  Wait without words, I am told.

Finished with my work duties, I went to get my girl, Maria for a couple of hours.  Even though she is still struggling, the staff at BARC and I agreed that she and I needed to have some time together and at the end of the visit, when she was safely back at BARC I would tell her about her grandmother’s death.  It didn’t work out quite as I had planned and as we were on I-95, headed back to BARC, it became clear that I needed to tell her.  When I explained that Annaw had died and I was headed to Alabama tomorrow to be with Daddy for the funeral, this was the conversation:

Maria: Is my daddy OK?
Me:  Yes, love, he is OK; he’s a little sad, but glad that Annaw isn’t hurting any more.
Maria: Mami, do you think Annaw already met Marta Isabel? (Marta Isabel is Maria’s birth mother–our girl sometimes refers to her as mom, sometimes by name).
Me:  Oh sweetie, I’m sure she did.
Maria:  What do you think Marta Isabel said to her.
Me: I imagine she wanted to know about you and Annaw was able to tell her what a beautiful young woman you are growing up to be.
Maria:  Mom, you know that Lion King song about dying and they live? The one that made you sad and you cried because of your mom?
Me: I do. You mean They Live in You?
Maria: That one. Can we listen to it?

So we did. Maria helped me find it on my iPhone and we kept driving down the highway, listening.  As it ended, she said, “Now Annaw lives in me too”.  Indeed, my child. Indeed.

Alone this evening, I am packing up for the retreat, giving the house a once-over so Sherod comes back to a nice clean home.  A while ago, I stopped to look at the video I made right before Maria went into BARC.

This is the invitation to start finding my way into the silence.

Juanita

My mother-in-law has died. I bet God sent her sisters Flossie and Barbara, and her brother Sherod, her mother, and her husband Earl, to greet her with rejoicing at the doors of heaven. And then He stood quietly next to her and thanked her for the endurance, dignity and strength with which she lived her life….

Me, Before Boston

ImageThis picture was taken in Panama, where my parents stopped with me on the way to my first surgery at Boston Children’s. You can see how far my left leg is rotated out. They were only figuring out how significant that was. (I also chuckle because there’s that awful plastic people used to put on cushions to make them last longer. That chair is still in my aunt’s house in Panama.)

A few days ago, I went to visit an extraordinarily brave young man who is recovering from Leukemia and a bone marrow transplant. C and I talked about the garden at Children’s. When he was strong enough after the transplant, he would lie in the grass in that magnificent garden and soak in the sunshine.

Boston Children’s continues to grow and in the next few months, that garden that gave me and C solace will become a construction zone. A new building is going up there. It breaks my heart and I am so incredibly grateful that I got to make that pilgrimage in 2012. I am so sorry for all the little boys and girls who will never know that magical place.

Another Sort

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This morning, I tackled a couple of baskets of accumulated laundry I need to iron.  And I tackled the closet in María’s room.  It became another lesson in archeology, another small moment to practice discernment–what to hold on to, what to let go of.  Some of it was easy.  The closet was the repository for all of the clothes I wore until 2 years ago.  I tried to put some of them on and literally, skirts would simply slip off of me and I swam in jackets and blouses.  Those were easy to put in the ‘donate’ pile.  But they gave me pause.

I am grateful for the second chances our bodies give us.  Stress and not as healthy eating has my blood sugar edging in a not so good direction so I am back to as much mindfulness as I can muster in the eating department.  Unlike the God of second chances and new beginnings, there are just so many blows my body can absorb.  Seeing those clothes, realizing how unhealthy I once was, helps me remember that the choices are stark and have to be made over and over, and over again.

Other parts of today’s work have been harder.  I found the Christmas dress María wore 3 years ago; it was hidden behind some other clothes in the closet.  It is a very pretty dress—my girl looked lovely when she wore it with her first pair of heels.  Sherod and I simply  touched and looked at the dress for a while this morning.  We had a game going in those years:  if she wears a pretty dress, she will be happy and things will be better.  If we learn something new, if we say something different, if we try this other program, things will change, she’ll understand, she will grow into better patterns of coping.  I am learning that, along with putting dresses like this in the ‘donate’ pile, I have to sort out the hope grounded in reality from the If Only game.  That can be wrenching.  The spaces that open up when we let go can be fearsome.  What replaces what I have let go of?  Oh how I want it both ways—the new possibilities and the old dispensations.

Today, that question, “what must I let go of?” brings me back to holy indifference, a willingness to give something my all while not expecting one outcome or another.  I am praying  for the grace of holy indifference almost constantly this day and what I hear in response pushes rather than comforts (who knew that consolation is not always about warm fuzzies?).  Holy Indifference understands that sometimes I won’t get to see wrongs made right.  That letting go of something lets loose ripples that impact the lives of others, including people we care for deeply and the ripples sometimes cause pain to those I most wanted to shield.  To practice this discipline means hosting grief, no matter how many times grief shows up and how ready you are for something else.  And finally, practicing Holy Indifference means saying that a loss is real.

Whispered very gently with that truth is this other one.  Even when a loss is real, it is not necessarily the last word. I strain to hear that whisper.

Bits and Pieces

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Front Fence of a House in Vaxholm

I have a small window of time to write.  These past days have been chaotic beyond words.  We got the ‘dreaded’ early morning call last Thursday–the end was near for my mother-in-law.  A flurry and Sherod was off, headed back to Selma.  The next 5 days got worse and worse, in some respects.  What some of the doctors saw as the beginning of ‘active dying’ was not. Instead  we are now faced with a harder situation.  Something has happened and Juanita is lost in deep dementia.  She is in the hospital right now because when it seemed that the end was near, she ended up on a morphine drip.  Sherod and his sister now face all the planning and preparations to place her in a nursing home–totally new set of plans with insurance companies, doctors, caretakers, etc.  We are disgraceful these days, with our continuum of care for the very old and dying.

The ministry I serve continues to push me further and further into unknown and uncharted territory.   I am doing a fair amount of looking back, identifying moments in the ministry where there were several more decisions that “coulda-shoulda” been considered and taken.  This is not about engaging in a pity party of useless regrets.  Rather, having found some new ways to understand how I serve and contribute to the health and wholeness of a community of faith, I am going back to mine what I can about moments that passed me by.  By the grace of God, that may help me serve more effectively and faithfully as I move forward.

I am also making the final plans and preparations because I am going on the 30-day retreat.  This is hard on the whole system I am a part of.  I am fighting all kinds of little voices in my head that call me irresponsible and self-centered.  But way down deep, I remain convinced that I am most able to do the work of transitioning out of this ministry, whenever that happens, and preparing for whatever comes next, having taken this time to spend in the company of my Maker in ways I am not able to otherwise.

Life goes on…

What It Means To Be Lost: Luke 15:1-10

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Like many women, I have given a lot of my life to taking care of others.  When I was growing up, my brothers got Tonka trucks to move dirt around and I got dolls to take care of.  I look at the career choices I’ve made—by and large, they have to do with taking care of, nurturing, developing, teaching.  And especially, as a clergy person, serving.

In late 2011 my mother was dead—the model of sacrificial service who had taught me well. Maria was spinning further and further out of my capacity to care for her.  There was still plenty to do in ministry but having diabetes was simply too real to ignore.  And so I began to walk.

My decision to walk was different than others I had made.  Sure, I had whiled away hours reading or sewing or knitting or visiting with friends.  This wasn’t to pass time away, this was to claim it in all its depth and breadth and meaning.  This was a decision to reclaim my life.  And then, for very practical reasons I chose to walk at night—that was when it least impacted my husband, my daughter, my work.

Some of the stretches of the sidewalk on Riverland Road are paved in blacktop and on moonless or overcast nights, I have been more than a little disoriented. There are unlit areas where I am always unsure.  Recently, a pit bull came right at me out of the dark and it was by the grace of God and his human companion’s strength that he did not get to me because he was hell bent on attacking.  I felt that awful sting of adrenaline zooming all the way out to my fingertips. I was reminded that there are monsters in the night. Walking in darkness has become for me a very powerful metaphor about my existence as I know it today.

You can call it the dark night of the soul, as the mystics do.  Ignatius of Loyola, whose thought and spirituality has shaped my own, describes it as desolation.  You can call it being blind and lame.  Jesus calls it being a sinner and a tax collector.  There are many ways to approximate this truth about ourselves, but in the end, it comes to the same.  We know, we know only too well, what it means to be lost.

We know what it is like to go from oblivious to mildly concerned to anxious to agitated to frantic and desperate so our every  movement entangles us more, till exhausted and powerless, we collapse.

Today’s gospel tells us that our Good Shepherd knows this about the human condition. Today’s Gospel insists that our Good Shepherd will not stop looking until the lost sheep is found.  Today’s Gospel reminds us that finding even the least of the sheep, the runt, the one we all love to hate, the one no one has even noticed went missing, is worthy of celebration.

But we should not fool ourselves.  This being found by Jesus is not all sparklers and confetti and victory parades.  Don Schutte is a Jesuit musician who has composed a piece of music that is no great masterpiece.  But it speaks powerfully to me.   The song, Holy Darkness, says, “I have tried you in fires of affliction;  I have taught your soul to grieve, I have showed you the cost of compassion”.

I have come to believe that the essence of our lostness is our unwillingness to face directly, and honestly,  without artifice or pretension, into the hard, frightening, potentially destructive aspects of life.  I didn’t want afflictions, especially the fires of my daughter’s afflictions.  Who amongst us wants to learn the harsh and beautiful lessons of grief?  Compassion costs?  I want a volunteer job that I can do in five minutes and makes me feel good about myself, not one that costs.

Our culture does little to encourage us to accept the complexity of human existence, the tragedies that life brings with it.  And when you cannot run any longer, when there is simply no more energy or light left, there is the searing loneliness that comes with being lost.

Holy Darkness makes one last claim, a claim that goes to the heart of God’s love for us.   “In the barren soil of your loneliness, there I will plant my seeds.”   God’s reign breaks in to the places of desolation and turns all that lost and brokenness into something new.

We are lost and the good shepherd won’t stop looking for us.  We are lost and it is there that we find the light, the hope, and the life.  We are lost and we we have already been found.