Eight years

Mami helping me dress on the day of my wedding

Dear Mami:

Eight years ago, today was the day when we turned the last corner with you. Early that Saturday morning, I watched Hans leave your house at the crack of dawn, headed to Panamá City to fly out that evening to Amsterdam. The weight of spending whatever time was left with you, without my big brother to help carry the sorrow was more than a little overwhelming. I was missing my own girl and spouseman a lot after two weeks away from them. And it was so hard watching you lose ground, day by day.

What I held onto that Saturday, was the knowledge that our intrepid Hospice ladies would visit mid-morning. They always brought laughter, comfort, insight and peace with them. I still don’t know how we would have gotten through without them. But that morning was different. I could see it in Barbara’s face the minute she put her stethoscope against your chest She didn’t even consult with the other two women with her. She put the stethoscope down, looked at Dad and me and said, “You have to get Hans back; do not let him get on that plane to Amsterdam.” In another time and another place, a nurse would have not had the freedom to give such direction, but up in Boquete, with such little medical care available, she did the right thing.

You didn’t just get upset—you were furious—that the next thing she said was that you were not to get out of bed any longer. I still chuckle that the minute we turned our back on you, you did get out of bed and with Pastora’s help, found your way to the living room “throne” where you had gotten to be Queen of Everything for so long.

The only women more strong and stubborn than you were the Hospice Ladies and before you knew it, they’d rolled your hospital bed into the living room, rearranged the whole space so you could look out those beautiful glass sliding doors out to the garden and gathered all kinds of beauty around you. You had no excuses now to get out of bed and I could see your relief. You were tired. But you still wanted to be in the space you loved best.

It didn’t take long for you to fall asleep and I watched you sleep through most of the day as I waited for Hans, dreaded the reality that made it so critical for him to come back. But oh, when you woke up in the evening and saw Hans, your face lit up with such utter joy and delight that I can still only thank God for how that day unfolded.

And then it was Sunday and now you didn’t just sleep, you struggled to take each breath. Dad, Hans and I kept watch with you, tried to do what we could to give you comfort as your body finally could no longer keep going. In those last few moments when your breathing had ended but your heart kept racing, I am fiercely, heartbreakingly, glad that I was able to do one last thing to make your leave-taking a little easier. That night I walked with you right up to the gates of heaven and what an extraordinary privilege it was, even if it meant leaving you in God’s hands and returning to my life.

The next morning, locked in my room, weeping, I demanded of God that the next time we meet I get to be in your presence with you as your truest self. I wanted assurances that I would get to see the tender smiles I still remember, your eyes twinkling, your hand holding mine. I know now that those things I wanted were things that had actually been lost along the way, especially as the cancer ravaged your body. Even more, I know that what you had given me was already enough, more than enough, of what I will ever need in the way of a mother’s love. It still strengthens me, even when being a mother myself gets hard. These days I make fewer demands and try to extract fewer promises from God. After you died was when I really began to learn what gratitude is all about. Grieving for you was another gift received because you were my mother and I, your daughter.

So today and tomorrow, as I remember those last hours of your life and the fact that you have been gone for so long now, I don’t worry any longer about how, or when I may get to be with you again. I simply acknowledge that I miss you and that even now, your love endures and abides with me.

All is well, Mami, rest in peace…

The face of God

The stories in the Bible about being in the presence of God are conflicting and conflicted. Can you see the face of God and live? How can you live if you have not seen the face of God? I am steeped in the Judeo-Christian version of reality, that assumes that power, might and glory, like God’s, look big, imposing, scary enough to maybe make you die of fear. Every now and then, that image gets turned upside down.

Last night, my sweet girl dog Tux jumped up on our bed after we’d tucked in for the night and came and snuggled against me.  I had literally just put a new coverlet on our bed in the afternoon, tickled that I’d finally found something I really liked for the summer. when even nights are hot and sticky in Alabama.  All of a sudden, Tux jumped up, got as far as the bottom edge of the bed, and proceeded to throw up this ghastly, stinky gob of stuff. I practically flew out of bed with nothing to do but wipe the stuff off the coverlet ( trying hard not to retch myself), gather it up, and head to the washing machine.  I set it to wash for a long time…

This morning, when the sun was already high, I took the coverlet out of the washing machine and went out to hang it on the clothesline.  It was a bit big and cumbersome. As I was stretching it out on the line, out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow move by and heard fluttering.  I glanced down and literally, at my feet, looking up at me with the shiniest obsidian little eyes imaginable, was a robin.  He looked at me for several seconds and I looked back, astounded by the beauty of his plumage, but even more, by his fearless examination of me.  And then, the moment was over and he was off, probably to find some more food for his brood that’s still holed up in the bluebird house at the end of our wildflower bed.

I wonder if these aren’t the moments when we actually do get to see the face of God.

Just about perfect

Blueberries, blackberries and little Miss Tux helping out

I was up very early—before 5 this morning, and it didn’t take long for dawn to start breaking. After feeding Tux and Mo, who demand to be taken care of before anybody else, I sat with my cup of coffee.  My small obsession is good coffee and today, the coffee I roasted Friday was just right. On a day off it somehow tastes so very much more delicious, perhaps because I get to savor each sip. I read for a bit, played with my silly dog, slipped into some gardening clothes, and got started on the things I’d promised myself I’d do today.

The best part of the work was out in the garden before the heat had taken hold.  This is the first day blueberries truly needed picking and now I know how to do it—how to turn them gently this way and that, to make sure they are blue all over. How to pluck them so their tiny, delicate stems stay on the plant and I don’t have to pick them out when I’m getting ready to make some jam. 

I used to do this work in a hurry, anxious to get the work done, anxious that I might not pick enough and too many would go to waste. The pace is much more slow and careful and deliberate so I see the bees, the big, loud bumble bees and hear the endlessly noisy mockingbirds. It’s all about the journey, not the destination when I find the right rhythm. Some of the berries I plucked slipped through my fingers and fell in, under the branches of the blueberry bush. I didn’t even try to find them. I decided it’s one of the ways I share this bounty with all the other creatures who appreciate their juicy deliciousness.

When I stopped, I walked over to our blackberry vine and put down my trug. It looked so pretty I had to grab a few pictures.  We planted the blackberry vine three years ago; last year was the first time it bore fruit. This year it stretches a good 6-8 feet in either direction, and the vine is laden with blackberries that will be ripe, most of them all at once, in the next 2-3 weeks.  

Volunteer flowers are growing on either side of the fence between our fruit and vegetable garden and our backyard. In the next two weeks, if the heat doesn’t kill them, they will bust open too. And if I looked down towards the gate into our food garden, I could see the fig tree that has plenty of fruit this year as well, and the peach trees that Sherod has so carefully tended to and should bear some nice peaches. I got a recipe for pickled peaches yesterday, knowing canning is in my near future. It never stops being new. It never stops being a parable of the gracious reign of God.

The rest of the day whirred its way through. I had washing and ironing and beds to make, with line-dried sheets. I cooked some of the meal for this Memorial Day, I continued to work on my thank you notes for everyone who was so amazing the night of Holy Comforter’s Celebration of a New Ministry, went back out for one more round of work on the flower beds.  When I was hot, really hot, really tired, really dusty and gritty and grimy, I rinsed off, got in my bathing suit and Sherod and I got in the pool long enough to splash around, watch the shadows start growing longer and laugh at the utter cuteness of our two silly dogs as they played around the pool. 

And then, it was time for dinner with my dad, time to clean up, time to watch an episode of Downton Abby (am not exactly binging but trying to see an episode a day; I only started watching episode 1 of season 1 a few days ago).

This was a day when Sherod and I were like three-year-olds intently engaged in our own projects, only catching glimpses of each other, or stopping to ask a quick question.  I kept silence most of the day and luxuriated in the solitude.

All that’s left is to post this, brush my teeth and go to bed. A day doesn’t get much better than this.

By gratitude alone

Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is gratitude. I woke up early this morning, and so did Sherod. As they begin, the days are still cool and gentle, so today we went out to the back deck with our coffee, sat quietly and watched the morning start unfolding. There were two moments so beautiful it felt like my soul was not big enough to hold such loveliness.

Towards the end of our property line, there are some very beautiful trees and in front of them, a small patch of wildflowers that Sherod plants each year. The light came through the trees, dappling the flower bed, and the bluebird house Sherod made that holds a busy little couple raising their babies, making everything lush and luminous all at once. Then I saw that one of my roses, a plant that had actually been in pretty bad shape as spring began this year, was covered with blossoms and buds. Two other rose plants were also blooming and the abundance that all of them together represented was simply astounding.

I got back from Fort Lauderdale yesterday afternoon. I had gone down to spend María’s birthday with her. It was the first time I had to confront directly the new normal that is emerging with our daughter. She basically lives in two different realities at this point. Some of the time it’s as if nothing had changed. She is her winsome, needy, amazing self. Then, this vacant look comes into her eyes, she slows way down, seems to get increasingly confused, struggles mightily to stay grounded in the world that the rest of us know and understand. She stops recognizing me, and all I have left that I can do is sit quietly next to her, hoping the confusion will pass. It did this time around, but not quickly.

We went to the movies on the day of her birthday, when she seemed to be in a good place. We were well into the movie when she got quite agitated. She’d held on to the stub of her entrance ticket and all of a sudden said we needed to leave immediately because she had won the prize and needed to go pick it up it up right away. There was no way to redirect her. Fortunately, I was there with one of the staff members who works most closely with María; between the two of us, we agreed it was time to get moving. Ashley took María back to BARC and we decided I’d take a step back for a while. Instead, I went shopping, got my girl a new set of bedding–sheets, quilts, pillows. By the time I got back to BARC with Costco pizza and birthday cake for a party, she was in better shape, puffed up big as could be when we sang Happy Birthday. It was only when I was getting ready to leave that the weird ideation and affect came back.

This is the new normal, probably for the foreseeable future. As far as we can tell, this moving in and out of the reality the rest of us know is a symptom that Maria has somehow regressed to the point where she has stopped being able to distinguish between past and present. We believe it is the result of the line Sherod and I had to draw last April. That was the last time we were able to have her here at the farm, and it was a nightmare with her out-of-control behavior that included brutal self-injury. Unable to make the connection between her behavior and the fact that she sees us less and is not able to come and spend time with us, Maria keeps experiencing the trauma of abandonment that so defined her early childhood. And it is more than she can bear. She becomes psychotic often these days and the medications still haven’t helped much.

We have had to find our way through so many new normals with this brave and wounded young woman. There has been so much to let go of. I have the strength to go be with her, to love her in whatever shape she’s in. I fly to Fort Lauderdale and let my heart rejoice to see her and hold her hand or hug her, if only briefly. In fact, this time I saw some exciting progress with her physical health and and, well-being. She is working out at the gym four times a week, and has lost over 40 pounds which is excellent. I hold on to that as a reminder that even the new normal with its losses doesn’t mean that everything is lost, by any stretch of the imagination.

But it takes energy and it takes pure strength of will, to say goodbye again, to come back into this other part of my life. As I drive away from BARC the last day I’m with her on one of these trips, I wonder how I will make myself leave her, get on the plane to come back home.

By God’s grace, the strength has always been there. This morning I was reminded how the grace is offered—it is all around me in God’s creation, the steadiness of Sherod’s love, the generosity of the parish I serve, the newness of a new day. It is gratitude, sometimes gratitude for the smallest, most insignificant things imaginable, like sunshine dancing with the leaves, that keeps me going.

Blackberries, roses and coyotes

At about 2:00 this morning, I woke up with a start.  It stopped being unusual to hear coyote packs howling in the night a few years ago—after all, on June 21st, it will be five years since I was the first of us to move into our little farm in Lowndesboro; we live with lots of coyotes all around us.  But last night, there was a pack yipping so loud, sounding so nearby, that I panicked, convinced they were in our back yard, trying to get into Fort Yolk, where the old lady, La Monita, the last of our original chickens girls, and five new young ‘uns Sherod is raising, were all tucked in for the night. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that sense of being so much in the presence of raw danger. I woke up the spouseman who went out and looked as the night fell silent. It’s possible the coyotes were in one of our pastures or in the wooded area right beyond our fence-line, but there was no sign they had been anywhere near the chicken coop.

I have struggled to find the energy to get out and do the spring gardening that my roses and flower beds require.  But what matters is today I was out with all my gardening stuff, weeding, dead-heading my roses, feeling the tug of the weight of a wheelbarrow full of limbs and weeds on my arms and shoulders as I hauled the effort of my work to the burn pile.  After I dumped the contents of the wheelbarrow and stopped to open the gate of the pasture, I noticed a bright-red, not yet ripe, blackberry close by. I put down the wheelbarrow and began walking along the fence. I had stumbled into a small wild blackberry patch.  When I had as many blackberries as I could hold in my hand, I put my harvest in the wheelbarrow, along with a rose I had picked and my gardening stuff and headed back in for the day. 

You cannot be connected to the earth, to the wilderness that is easier to see when you live out in the country like I do, without having to acknowledge that there is a wildness to this life of ours we don’t get to choose. Last night as I lay in bed with my heart pounding, waiting to know if the coyotes had brought carnage to our homestead, that truth was brought home to me with ferocity.  Within that wildness, so completely beyond our control no matter how much we like to think otherwise, there is also the utter generosity of Mother Earth. I’ve neglected my roses and yet they are laden with blooms. The blackberries were so juicy and sweet, still warm from the day’s sunshine, so delectable as they went down my throat, parched from an afternoon of good work.

It is supposed to be hard & other things I don’t want to forget.

I was perched on a step stool discretely placed behind the altar, black veil in hand, struggling to get it up and over, down the back of the altar cross. Then I would tie a back ribbon around it and walk out in darkness and silence. I tried several times, the fabric kept slipping off even though I’d practiced a couple of times during the day on Thursday and it worked well then. I breathed through the rush of anxiety and then it came to me: this is supposed to be hard. When I finally got the cross veiled, tied that ribbon and walked down the aisle, I was almost in tears. It’s supposed to be hard to turn around and see dimly that the altar has been stripped bare, and the aumbry doors hang open awkwardly, and the sanctuary candle has been extinguished.

I had had a half-formed homily on my mind for days; on Friday morning I sat and wrote it and my throat kept knotting up.  It is hard to contemplate the horrors that unfold all the time around us—I re-read a harrowing article in the New York Times about the way women in Honduras are being killed and why. I couldn’t stop thinking of how here in Alabama we have systematically stripped people who are incarcerated of their humanity—we may not be in prison, but we who continue to let things be as they are for prisoners are committing a crime against the Holy Spirit, in some regards, we are re-crucifying Jesus.  

Saturday: hard in its own way, and yet with tendrils of hope carried in with the cold wind that blew from the north that morning as 20 of us huddled against the church wall in the Memorial Garden for the Holy Saturday liturgy, reminding ourselves that “In the midst of life we are in death;” (BCP).  It is hard to do what TS Eliot asks us to do in East Coker: Wait without hope. Wait without love. That kind of surrender even of hope and love was made at least a bit more bearable when I looked around and saw faces mapped by years of stories of grief and great love, saw young faces so clear and bright, heard a delicious little boy get it just a bit wrong or totally right when, at the end of a prayer, he said “Oh Man” instead of Amen.  The waiting is easier if we are not alone.

And then it was Easter and it was time, according to so many voices all around us, to turn off the darker, more somber voices and fall into merriment and color, and music, and extravagance and beauty as we brought back the Alleluias. I was reminded: even Easter Sunday is supposed to be at least a little bit hard. And yesterday there was plenty of sorrow at the images that kept coming in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. The thing is, that is precisely what the heart of these past days is about: insisting that the horror does not have the last word. Our celebration is a disruptive act of refusal to give in to all that is broken and harmful about our humanity, trusting that God can take the very worst and help us start over.

So here are the things I want to remember about this Holy Week:  

Don’t tell me an older congregation isn’t willing to try new things! The people of Holy Comforter continue to amaze me with their willingness to engage our worship without the kind of rigidity and insistence on form that teeters on the edge of performance for performance’s sake. It was not the intent of those of us who planned the worship for Holy Week to be different or “try something new” for the sake of being cute or obnoxious.  The very talented staff that works with me helped plan and prepare good liturgy. What was offered was received with a reverence that filled these days with meaning and beauty.

It’s supposed to be hard. Even though the worship schedule we put together this year was lighter than I’m used to, last night at about 7 p.m. I literally could not keep my head up a moment longer. I slept until 6 this morning. 

What good does it do to have Holy Week and promptly forget? I come back to the line from Gerard Manley Hopkins I first heard from my boss at the Ascension a few years ago: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,”. That is the prayer.  Indeed. May he easter in me, easter in us…

When I grow old…

Flower bed in the middle of spring

I hit a wall last Sunday in the early afternoon, when I’d led a class, a church service, 2 meetings and still had to go home, prepare some notes and head up the road to a town north of Montgomery, where I’d accepted an invitation to be Lenten speaker that evening. I thought, “that’s it, I’m taking tomorrow off because I am exhausted.

I did household work that following morning, planted some lilies of the valley, washed and ironed and folded and put away, moved winter clothes upstairs and summer clothes downstairs. Monday was also when I got my girl her Easter Basket and was the day I took my dad to get his monthly pedicure. He got out of the car a little more slowly, walked a little more carefully, seemed a little more stooped over than usual. I chuckled a bit, watching him walk into the nail salon, thinking he’d been home a week and still wasn’t fully recovered.

A week earlier, Sherod, my husband, got up at 3:20 in the morning, threw on some clothes, and went over to gather up my dad and his roll-on bag. I imagine they rode into Montgomery in silence, and Sherod pulled up his truck right to the door of the Greyhound station in one of the very seediest parts of town. He watched and made sure my dad got inside safe and sound before heading back home.

At 4:45 a.m., my dad was on a bus, settled in for a 10-hour ride to Gainesville, FL where he would meet the special lady friend he left behind in Panama when he moved to Lowndesboro in 2015. They still email and Skype regularly.

When Dad got to Gainesville, he arranged for an Uber ride that dropped him off at the Airbnb he’d rented for the long weekend he and F were going to spend together. When he told me his plan, I teased him a bit, told him about all the news about Airbnb hosts secretly videotaping guests and posting videos on social media. I ended with the admonishment that I didn’t want to see a video of the weekend on Facebook and my dad blushed the deep red of a freshly picked, ripe tomato.

I picked him up at the Greyhound Station at the backend of his trip; he looked very happy and very tired. We haven’t talked a lot about the weekend; it feels important to respect his privacy and he hasn’t been very forthcoming. He’s still happy and has still been catching up with himself, now two weeks later. But that makes sense. After all, this is my 92-year-old dad. He astounds me. More than 30 years younger than he, I would feel hip and cool to be able to tell the above story about my own self. And he navigated the technology and distances with no help from my husband or me, except for the rides to and from the bus station.

His friend needed to come up for some medical tests so this happened on her timetable. However, I want to believe that with so much life bursting out all around us, with spring in full bloom, my dad was inspired and strengthened to go be true to love. I know for my own self, this is the time of the year I get to thinking of trips I might take and places I might see. But even more–it is he who inspires me and reminds me that even when we grow old, life has a way of being full and rich and overflowing with unexpected opportunities that we can say yes to or not. I hope I will still find the way to say yes if I live to be 92….