|Ruin near The Burren in Ireland, 2008|
THE MOURNING AFTER
The long lonely walk passed through unrelenting brightness,
Around remnants of recollection,
Over shards of broken dreams,
And all within cried to be crushed.
But the walls held:
Held old hurts,
Held ghosts of hope that died some time before...
For the life of me, I cannot remember when.
Between birth and death one small dash carved in stone,
Between loss and renewal a clock ticking slowly.
Each day a Holy Saturday,
Living the questions in a land of unknowing
Aged, fermented, poured out, emptied.
But in the darkness illusion died.
And with this death, dawn lit an empty tomb.
All that was unholy led me to the gift not sought.
I have resisted this story. Time has re-framed the events but the truth set me free. Messages arrive in the oddest packages. This morning, a single tweet from The New York Times: an article entitled “An Effort, Years in the Making, To Capture the Miracle”. Within this article a reference to Franz Wright’s poem, “The Only Animal.” Click here for the text of the article if you are interested. A link to the poem can be found later in the post.
I wrote the words below the photo of the castle ruin in a journal in 2008. They reflect my state following several events that occurred over the course of a year: the death of my mother from Alzheimer’s, the death of my husband, and the loss of my home in a storm three months after his death. I thought I understood grieving....one day at a time, recognizing and mourning each separate loss. But life is a continuum...at times a Frankenthaler that bleeds...at other moments, a jumbled no-beginning, no-end Pollack. A year passed before I knew what I had not grieved. I had lost the context of my life in twelve months. When I wanted to cry, I felt guilty. My losses didn’t measure up to those of others. How do you say “But the insurance didn’t cover” and not feel shabby? The road to discovery and recovery is circuitous. Please let my stumbles be your wisdom.
Here’s the story of that morning when mourning began. Before I continue, I must add that my husband long before his death gave me his blessing to tell his story If I thought another might benefit. I pray that a healing intersection can be found here.
The nurse described the events prior to his death, saying finally, "Your husband was a very stubborn man." With that, she handed me his bag and left the room. No hospice moment as with my dad and mom . . . just "good riddance and don't let the door hit you on the rear on the way out." I gripped the bed rail for a while, looked at this man with whom I had lived for over thirty years. In some ways I felt as if I were looking at a stranger, that my husband had died some time before.
Standing by the bed, I stared down at his face, lips bloodied from his struggle, and touched his cheek with my hand. So many caresses over the years, so many tender moments, and now nothing. Just his cold, unshaven face and chilly, unyielding fingers . . . no precious memories, no tears, nothing but relief that his battle was over. I have never known such silence.
The nurse, nerves raw from the battle John fought that night, saw me through a filtered light. Later, much later, I wondered if abuse, mental illness, alcoholism or addiction had touched her life. [ It had.] In the pre-dawn hours in CICU. though, I felt only anger, abandonment, hurt, anything but compassion. Only later, much later, would I pray for that nurse.
Gripping John's small suitcase, I turned away and walked from the room. Leaving CICU, I saw no one as I began a long, lonely walk. The waiting area in the lobby was empty at 5:30 a.m., so I sat down and made the first of many phone calls. I was motionless when he approached me. Dressed in work khakis and a knit shirt, the black man said, "Ma'am, something bad has happened, hasn't it?" I wasn't crying but I suppose my shock was evident by the absence of gestures, movement, expression. Standing up, I said quietly, "My husband just died." He took my hand and said that he would pray for me, that God would be with me. I remember thinking that he had kind eyes. He asked if I needed anything. I placed my other hand on top of his and thanked him. We embraced briefly and I felt God's arms around me. Then I sat back down. When I described him to my physician and another nurse, no one knew who he was. I attach no mystery to this, only the precious humility of one man. How great are the anonymous acts that leave no calling card.
The day of the memorial service was surreal. I remember the shock of entering the sanctuary, surprised to find it filled with friends and coworkers. The minister, Joe Elmore, a friend who cared deeply for John, spoke movingly and directly, addressing John's depression and struggles while at the same time revealing the man who was more than a disease. Jim Hooper, his best friend, gave the eulogy, his voice breaking at times. The service was full of quiet emotion, simultaneously comforting and heart-breaking. Insignificant moments coexisted with the substantive. Late in the service as we stood singing the congregational hymn, I realized that my purse was still hanging on my shoulder but I didn't care. At some point in the service, John's eldest brother suffered a stroke. Unnoticed until we stood to leave, he was helped downstairs and transported to the nearest hospital. As we left the sanctuary, one man asked me, “Do you think John was saved?” There is a reason for everything...had the purse been hanging freely in my hand, at that moment I might have swung it.
Here is a link to Wright’s poem. He drank, drugged and visited mental hospitals. And came to believe in grace and healing. He and his father have the distinction of being the only father/son duo to win Pulitzer Prizes in the same category.
If someone you love died as a result of addiction, mental illness, suicide, I ache with you. I pray that all would choose life but know how hard that choice can be. I knew that my children had lost too much for me to harm myself. Many times, though, I thought, “They are grown and I am of no use to them. If I don’t wake up tomorrow, it will be fine with me.” But the universe to whom I cried did not take me. I know that my late husband has kept many people sober. He taught others the humility of not judging. Starting with me. We are all finite beings. I cannot claim credit for the perseverance I have any more than I can judge the mental illness that haunted John. I am content. I laugh and cry and go to bed and get up and embrace the sunrise. And I celebrate the sunsets.
Life doesn't open like a Hallmark card. Few of us live in a Norman Rockwell painting. Pain doesn't evaporate. But, if we face it - unmedicated, honestly - it is distilled: the alchemy of truth.This Thanksgiving, we will have empty places at our tables. In their absence, those we forever love are present. And so are those we've never met, never even liked. We are all God's children.
I frequently revisit the words of the Rev. McLean in A River Runs Through It...