Tomorrow it is 5 years since you died. This is the first time the date has also fallen on a Sunday, the day you died. With Dad next door in La Casita Blanca, it has been both hard and easy to retrace the steps, remember these days, five years ago. Tomorrow evening, though, we will have friends for dinner and I hope so much that Dad will be too entertained to pause to remember the very end. Some of the story you just have to let go of.
In the morning, I will be preaching at Ascension, a church I would have loved for you to see, especially at Christmas time and Easter. The lessons for this Sunday started out to be hard enough: Luke tells the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead. I would have much preferred a parable, especially the one of the Precious Pearl, which over time has become one of my most favorite—I hear it speak of our capacity to understand what is most essential and let go of everything else that clutters and clouds our vision, leaves us clinging to what’s penultimate, and how, in those moments of illumination, we draw closer to the reign of God. But that’s not I choice I was given and so tomorrow, I work with what I have.
What makes it hard is that on Wednesday, I officiated at a pauper’s burial and then went to visit and anoint a man I had come to cherish who was close to death. Yesterday, I got word that this brave, highly educated and travelled man, a member of our parish, had slipped away. I will officiate at his graveside funeral on Monday. Today, I have gotten word that another man—a man my age, an absolutely remarkable person with a different kind of courage and a wonderful sense of humor, has also died. I am relieved for both of them—each in hisown way has finally been freed of the ways in which our bodies get ravaged, worn out, trap us. I will help to bury this person too, a couple of days later, and both times I will be reminded that “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Here’s the most important thing I have learned amidst all the dying, Mom. I have learned to let go some more of fear. As a child I was terrified of so much. As an adult, I tried to learn my fear away, especially my fear of death, or at least into submission—if I could study enough, understand enough, know enough about this impenetrable mystery, I would not be devastated when it happened to you, or Dad or anybody else close to me. Underneath that impulse to control, the fear still raged. It wasn’t until you actually died that the fear began to ease. Turns out, the way to overcome the fear not only of dying, but of living was simple: live in my body—inhabit it, use it, be aware of it, in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
Last week, I was out with one of my favorite gardening tools—a pole digger. It’s hard to use and I still get blisters on my hands though I also have some calluses now. Sometimes, I also have to haul out a heavy ax from Sherod’s workshop because there are some big old roots that get in the way. But all by myself, I dug a hole deep enough and wide enough to receive a beautiful camellia, a gift I was given a few weeks back. I have felt the spray of water on my face as I watered it almost daily and today, I saw one beautiful pink bloom.
Yesterday, I went up to a place you would also love, and spent over a good part of the morning picking blackberries in the hot and humid sun of an Alabama summer day, with the sweat running down my back and the small thorns on the blackberry bush sticking my fingers and the berries staining my hands.
I’ve been stopping as I write, to stir the blackberry jam that’s simmering on the stove. There’s a stool next to the stove so I can overcome that height challenge of mine, to safely pull out the jars I’ll fill with the jam and then process in an enormous pot. Tomorrow, when the water has cooled enough, I will pick up that pot and by myself, will carry that heavy thing back to the sink, empty all the gallons of water still in it an put it away. Death is not diminished by this work. But when I stand back and look at all the jewel-colored jars of goodness I get to give away, I am too busy being happy to grieve or fear other deaths to come.
I’ve also become braver. Yesterday I sent off the version of my essay that 12 other people will read and critique with me, during the time I spend at the writer’s workshop in Collegeville. I don’t think I’ve ever worked more carefully and thoroughly on a piece of writing. I realized I am feeling totally insecure—I keep telling myself I’ll probably just discover I can write decent blog posts and parish newsletter articles but nothing else, that everyone else’s work is stellar and mine a ‘has-been’ story. But where before, that would have prevented me from trying, this time I just shush those voices and keep working and editing and being glad and excited about that week of work I’ll get to do. All this time I’ve spent on those twenty pages have helped me prepare what amounts to the outline, by chapter, of the book I want to write. Imagine.
So, yes, Mami—even your death had an amazing gift buried in the desolation. In my stronger muscles, in the resilience and determination and loss of fear, there is a hot and dusty and tired and joyful, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Gracias, mami; te quiero…