Time For The Telling

Time for the telling

This story has waited for three years. God’s time says today is the day to tell it.

During the Christmas season of 2017, my cousin Beth emailed me with thanks.

She began, “Thank you for empowering me to speak.”

Beth had attended a Christmas gathering of an interfaith community group. Some members had known each other for years and were obviously quite comfortable with one another. But among the newcomers Beth noticed a couple that she knew had lost their 20-year-old daughter Emily a few years back to a heroin overdose.

Emily’s dad was sitting next to Beth and around them swirled a buoyant conversation about the birth of children as there was an about-to-deliver-any-day expectant mom sitting at the same table. Happiness rebounded as one after the other moms told the story of their child’s birth.

The dad sat silent, perhaps living through memories of his daughter’s death. Beth thought about how painful this must be for him. Then Beth remembered a conversation that she and I had concerning the death of a child. I had shared that it’s so important for parents to continue to hear their deceased child’s name and have them brought up in conversation. The loss of a child is a wound that is always there, but it’s made worse when others tiptoe around seemingly trying to avoid saying the child’s name.

Knowing that Emily had been adopted, Beth took a deep breath and risked asking the dad how old Emily had been when they adopted her. His face lit up and said, “Just 18 days old.” Then Beth asked to hear the story of Emily’s adoption, and he seem so pleased to relive all of the happy details.

Beth’s email to me closed with this thought: I don’t think I would have risked “opening his wound” by mentioning Emily if my conversation with you had not convinced me that those wounds are always open, but the pain is never being able to talk.

So, to my friends Linda and Jenn, on the 13th and 10th anniversaries of the loss of your beautiful children, let me say their names here:

Kristin and Jacob, you will never be forgotten; you will be loved for always and forever.

A Sacred Space

sacred space

St. James’ Episcopal Church, Warrenton, VA

If you receive a Christmas card letter from me, you’ll notice that today’s post is based on this year’s letter.  Be sure to listen to the music at the end of this post; it’s something that I didn’t include in the letter.

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We’ve missed so much during the pandemic. People, most of all, of course, but we’ve also missed activities and events.

I miss places and the one that really tugs at my heart is my church. Yes, I realize that people make up what’s really the church and that St. James’ the building simply houses one particular group of God’s children.

But St. James’ is a sacred space for me. My son Tim’s baptism was held there; 22 years later so was his funeral. My mind brings forth the faces of the children I’ve taught there over the years. I have fond memories of my own children growing up in the church, attending choir practice and other events. The baptisms, weddings, and funerals I’ve attended roll like film credits in my head.

I’ve been stirred to action and inspired to be a better human being through teachings and sermons.  I have been entertained by not just fantastic choirs but musical ensembles and amazing organists. I have laughed and cried there. And while there during troubled times, I have certainly felt love surround me.

One especially poignant moment was when my dying friend Jonathan sat beside me in the empty church. He could not take his eyes from the stained glass above the altar; Jesus’ ascension into Heaven seemed to transfix him.

Our congregation missed Easter inside the church and now we’ll miss Christmas there as well. Our Diocese carefully considers the health and safety of our parishioners and has courageously deemed meeting inside is not in our best interests. For several months we held weather-permitting outdoor services, but sadly, that too is off-limits now.

When we held services in the church parking lot, there were no stained-glass windows. The quiet was broken by voices and laughter from a popular nearby walking trail. Instead of hymns, we heard pop or country music leaking out from the cars driving by. But still, each member, bundled up and masked and sitting in lawn chairs we brought from home, waved and smiled with our eyes at the passing of the peace.

Our church’s governing body recognized the people’s longing for our sacred space. By appointment, individually we can go inside the church to sit, pray, or reflect.

I went in one day recently. I felt pure contentment as I settled onto a pew. After a while, I walked around trying to see the old church with new eyes. When I came to a pew resplendent with color as the sun shone through a stained-glass window, I took it as a reminder of the angelic message to shepherds watching their flocks by night.

“Fear not, for I have good news for you. Even in these dark hours, the glory of the Lord shines brilliantly through in the form of a baby who is Christ the Lord, the Messiah.”

God loves you and will always love you, no matter what. Above all else, know this: You are loved.

~~~~~

In years past, our Christmas Eve midnight mass ended in candlelight with the choir and congregation singing this blended hymn.  Christmas blended hymn of Night of Silence and Silent Night by St. Olaf Choir, Minnesota  

Writing About Writing

writing about writing

My friend Betsy Anderson is part of a group that runs grief writing workshops. Her own daughter Caroline died in 1995 at the age of 16 from a sudden illness, so Betsy is an inspiration of healing to workshop participants.

In November 2012 I encouraged a new friend Denise (who had lost her son Zane ten months earlier) to attend the local workshop with me. Hoping that Denise would find pathways of recovery in the experience, I wasn’t expecting much for myself. After all, I was already four years into the grieving process for my son Tim, and I believed that I was doing OK.

Ya, right. As the women began sharing their stories of the deaths of children, sisters, brothers, parents, and friends, I felt my composure slipping. Some losses were months old, several a few years, and one (a young child who had died from leukemia) was just five weeks. I felt the deep grief of all those women as if it were my own all over again. I sobbed nearly throughout the six-hour class. I had thought I would help Denise through the class, but it was she who patted my hand.

There was one poignant statement from a mom that was nearly a tipping point for me. She said, “I have closed doors that I might peek through but never open again.” I was embarrassing myself with the crying, but thankfully, I decided to see it through.

I learned the health benefits of writing on deeply meaningful experiences: a lowering of blood pressure, an increased production of T cells (immune warriors) and help in coping with chronic pain.

There were various methods of grief writing. One was sentence completion. The leaders provided prompts to certain aspects of our lives such as growing up.

  • As a child, for me home was…
  • When I was little, I was expected to…
  • My first experience with death was when…

A second component of the program was writing short lists.

  • Write three fears you presently have.
  • What are four things you miss about your loved one?
  • Name five things for which you are grateful.
  • Because of the death of your loved one, what are three things you have lost?
  • Because of the death of your loved one, what are three things you have found?

A two-part exercise instructed us first to make a list of words or phrases signifying what our lives had been like before the death of our loved one, and then a list of words or phrases that defined what our lives were like after the loss. Some examples from our group that day were:

Before: noisy, music, joyful, laughter, in control, safety, future, confidence, companionship, smiles

After: broken, never again, powerless, dazed, empty, rage, raw, lonely, questioning faith, tears

When the words and phrases of the group’s “after” were read out loud, it was as if a collective sigh echoed through the room. A community had been built because the feelings and emotions were so common. We weren’t the only ones! We weren’t strange or bizarre. We weren’t crazy. We were mourning.

The second part of the exercise was to choose one of the group’s Before and one of the After words/phrases and make an acrostic poem. For my After phrase, I chose Never Again.

Normalcy is difficult to find—thoughts of pre-drugs

Eventually is what I choose to recall.

Vivid images of the larger-than-life Tim

Entering the house, calling out “Hello Mama!”

Rich in spirit and love, Tim was.

And I know he is at peace in

God’s loving arms,

Always loving his family,

Interested still in the whole world,

Never to be forgotten.

After the workshop ended at 2:30, I went home and straight to bed. I was spent. But the experience was so meaningful to me that here I am, eight years later, writing about it. Writing about writing.

You don’t have to be in mourning to take advantage of the benefits of writing or journaling. You can be in any situation that is deeply meaningful to you. And I have good news: You don’t need to write every day, be a perfect speller, or know the proper use of a comma. You’re writing for yourself, for your own mental and physical health benefits.

I’ve included a link below that shows how beneficial writing is. Go buy yourself a beautiful notebook and begin.

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Powerful Health Benefits of Journaling from Intermountain Healthcare.org

Motherly Advice

motherly advice

This will be a strange Mother’s Day across our land. Typically, two places are full on the day when we honor our moms (churches and restaurants), but not this year. I have had several people tell me that they even forgot that Mother’s Day is this Sunday.

I’ve compiled some motherly advice after asking Facebook friends for their best-remembered advice from their moms OR what they felt was their most commonly offered advice to their own children.

My high school friend Jan Loughner Devlin (who is fortunate to still have her mom with her) gives us this: Never tell a lie. Mom always finds out the truth. You know, I believe I can hear Mrs. Loughner saying those words!

Church friend (and a wonderful mother) Amber Kiffney says, “When I became a mother, my own mother told me, regarding the advice a new mother gets from everyone, heed the advice that makes sense in your heart and ignore the rest.”

Nancy Duggan, another church friend, says her mom was fond of saying, ”Nothing changes unless something changes.” Short but profound advice.

“Never let on that you know how to or are capable of painting a wall, or you will be doing all the painting for the rest of your life!” Sound advice from Mrs. Reed, mom of my high school best friend, Linda Solich.

Friend, artist, and marketing advisor Michelle Coe has parenting advice for those walking-on-eggs-teenage-days: “When dealing with teenagers, pick your battles and keep the long game in mind.”

From my friend Judy Jones (one of the most giving and beautiful souls on earth) is this: “Very often I would print out the lyrics to a beautiful song that meant something to me and give it to Russell and Andy.” One of those songs is linked at the end of this post.

Toni Shreve (wow, I’m fortunate to have many church friends) says as her children were growing up and pushing boundaries, she tried to instill in them the rule of asking for permission if they wanted to do something, rather than just doing it and getting in trouble afterward.

Surprising advice from my sister Bev because she’s been happily married for 50+ years: “Never argue in front of your children because it scares them.”

From my own mom (and something that my daughter Laura follows as well) I learned the value of being on time. Never having learned to drive a car and having a husband who worked shift work, LaVerda Shingler had to depend on friends to pick her up to go places. I can still see her being 100% ready, purse in hand, waiting at the window for a girlfriend’s car to pull in the driveway.

None of this is life-changing advice, of course. But collectively, we’d do well to still follow the sage wisdom of those who have come before us.

~~~~~~~~~

Rascal Flatts singing “My Wish”

 

Empty Chairs

Empty Chairs

Don McLean is most well-known for his iconic “American Pie” folk-rock song from 1971. (I’ll wait for a bit while you sing a few lines because you know that you want to.) But I prefer his hauntingly, beautifully sad song “Empty Chairs.” There’s a link at the end so you can listen to it. You might want to grab a hankie first.

The song is about him living alone after the love of his life left him. Apparently she had given fair warning that she wouldn’t be staying, but he didn’t believe she meant it. Here are the last two stanzas, courtesy of LyricFind.

Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can’t forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs

And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did I never thought you would.

There are many empty chairs around the world during this isolation the pandemic forced on us. Church pews, baseball bleachers, office chairs, concert venue seating, classroom seating of all types, restaurant booths, park benches, seats in movie theaters, hairstylist chairs, waiting room chairs, and even the chair your dentist’s assistant places you in while telling you to relax.

And maybe most importantly, our own chairs. You know…the ones around the dining room table where friends and family sit when we gather to share a meal. Or maybe it’s the front porch chairs we sit in to visit with people who drop by. Or the picnic table in the backyard where we play games. Or the chairs around the fire pit or the seating in our family room…all empty of the people we love.

It stinks.

I happen to really like chairs. My mother-in-law Rosalie gave me the one I’m sitting in right now; it belonged to her mother so it holds special meaning to me. And when I was getting ready to retire from my office job, I asked the company’s president to just let me take home a side chair from my office instead of buying me a gift.

And during the two years when our family was in transition house-wise, most of our household furniture and belongings were in a storage unit. We’d occasionally stop by to pick up one thing or another, and each time, I’d pull out the rocking chair where I had lulled my babies to sleep. I just wanted to sit in it for a few minutes and feel my sense of home.

As beautiful and meaningful as chairs are to me just as they are, I am impatient to fill them with people. My guess is that I’m hearing a chorus of AMENS! out there!

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don McLean and Empty Chairs

 

Love Story x 3

love story

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll share a trio of love stories. But they may not be what you’re expecting.

Barbara Elaine Smith, a beautiful and outgoing African American woman, had two successful careers. As a model in 1976, she was the second black woman to appear on the magazine cover of Mademoiselle.

Her modeling work spawned her second career. As a model, she lived in Italy and France for a while. While there she developed a passion for what the Washington Post called, “food, drink, and beautiful things.” She was bent on success as she slipped into the role of famous restaurateur and lifestyle guru. Known simply as B., she opened her first restaurant in 1986 in New York.

Smith was once a customer of mine when the company where I managed the credit serviced her Washington, DC restaurant named (appropriately) B. Smith’s. That restaurant closed after twenty years shortly after B. was diagnosed in 2013 with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Her husband Dan Gasby (a second marriage in 1992 for both of them) has been a solid rock for B. as her disease has progressed. They have the desire, financial means, and family support for B. to remain in her own home. Dan’s adult daughter Dana moved in with them and helps care for her step-mother. This is love story #1.

The most widely known facts about Alzheimer’s are these:

1) It’s the most common form of dementia.

2) The disease is progressive.

3) There is no cure; Alzheimer’s is irreversible.

Some caregivers of Alzheimer’s-inflicted loved ones have noted that eventually it’s like caring for a toddler in an adult’s body. Patients may end up talking gibberish, wandering off, and stalling at bath time. Despite the deep and abiding love one feels, caring for an Alzheimer’s patient can be an exhaustive life of frustration, depression, and guilt.

Professing a continuation of great love for B., Dan Gasby has fallen in love with another woman. He’s 65 and Alexandra Lerner is 53.

In 2017, having been in the midst of a struggle with her own father’s dementia, Alex overheard Dan talking to someone at a restaurant about his loneliness as a caregiver. The two struck up a friendship that soon blossomed into love.

An article in the fall 2019 People Health magazine stated Alex has her own room in the couple’s house. She commutes from Manhattan to spend weekends with Dan and B. Dan’s daughter supports the relationship. Not having outside help, the three of them care for B. who recognizes none of them.

Dan has been open about sharing this unusual relationship. As you can imagine, there are legions of judgmental people who have taken their hate to social media over this. Some tie their rants to racial hatred since Dan is black and Alex is white. When several of B.’s former (and famous) friends used their celebrity status to voice their negative opinions, Dana remarked that none of those “fraudulent friends” had been to visit B.

B.’s own neurologist Sam Gandy recently noted that “a third of family caregivers die before the Alzheimer’s patients they tend because of crushing stress.” Dan feels better able to cope with the caregiving with Alex in his life. He said, “I could have put my wife in an institution, but I love her. It’s just a different type of love now.”

(Be sure to watch the video linked at the end of this article.)

Their regular waiter at a favorite restaurant enjoys serving the trio. “It’s beautiful,” he says.

So Dan and Alex, in love with each other and both loving and caring for B., is love story #2.

I will tell you the truth: When I first read about this, my immediate response was that it was plain wrong. Then I slipped on Dan’s moccasins and asked myself, “What if it was Norma who no longer lived in the real world, who had no concept of who people were. Wouldn’t I want my caretaker husband to find new love and joy?”

And I would. Just as he would want the same for me.

And that’s love story #3.

~~~~~~

 

How To Not Forget

how to not forget

Several commercials that first aired during this year’s Superbowl have people talking. Google’s Loretta is one that many folks are responding to with deep emotion.

The commercial tells the love story between the unnamed man narrating and his late wife Loretta. Obviously elderly, he appears to be fearful of forgetting the details of what their life together had been like.

When it opens we see his computer monitor as he’s typing a Google query “how to not forget.” Part of the advice we see for holding onto memories is to repeat them.

Then the man requests the voice-activated Google Assistant to show him photos of Loretta and himself. We see photos from the recent past as well as older pictures from when they were newlyweds and middle-agers traveling to Alaska. The man offers verbal commentary such as, “Remember that Loretta hated my mustache!”

Each time he says the phrase “remember” the Google Assistant types back, “OK, I’ll remember that.”

We see a clip of Loretta’s favorite movie (Casablanca) and short videos of her with their young children.

As the commercial comes to a close, we see some of the memory markers he has asked Google to remember…that Loretta used to hum show tunes, that her favorite flowers were tulips, that she had beautiful handwriting. At the end, the man says, “Remember I’m the luckiest man in the world,” presumably because he had loved (and been loved by) Loretta.

The reason why this commercial tugs so darned hard on our heartstrings is because it’s based on truth. It’s the story of a Google employee’s 85-year-old grandfather who actually voices the commercial.

In today’s hurry-up-preoccupied world, we may subconsciously long to be known as deeply as the unnamed husband knew Loretta—all the little things that made Loretta a unique person.

My guess is that, after viewing the commercial, many of us wondered what our loved ones might say about us. What little idiosyncracies set us apart? What is OUR favorite movie, favorite flower, favorite song?  What makes us laugh? And what makes us cry? What’s something we’re truly passionate about? And what family story have we told too many times but still laugh every time we tell it?

Life is so short. But it’s packed with thousands upon thousands of little memories. We just need to make a point of learning how to not forget them.

Even if you’ve watched Loretta already, be sure to watch it again (link below) with new eyes and understanding.

And just for the record, I have terrible handwriting but my favorite song is For Always by Josh Groban and Lara Fabian.

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The Loretta commercial

The story behind the ad

Blog from Lorraine Twohill, Chief Marketing Officer of Google

For Always

A Flash of Unforeseen Remembrance

flash of unforeseen remembrance

Life lessons appear around us each day if we can just remember to be attentive. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find one at a celebration of life ceremony for the son of a friend. I guess because it was unexpected that I felt (and still feel) a tremendous sense of awe and gratitude.

At just 31 years old, unable to recover from a devastating two-year battle with a brain infection, Catzby Pitzvada died on December 17. I had never met Catzby; it was only through the stories of his mom Denise that I knew of him.

The ceremony was TRULY a celebration of life because Catzby lived a full life…full of adventure, travel, learning, music, friendships, laughter, and love.

Although the eulogies and tributes were each uniquely personal, one clear message shone through them all:

  • Catzby cared deeply about people.

  • Catzby understood that relationships need to be nourished.

  • Catzby encouraged those in his orbit to also care deeply about people and nourish their relationships.

A high school friend of his was brave enough to admit that she’s always been kind of a loner. She said she had let many friends drift away, but that Catzby always kept in touch over the years and nudged her to do the same, to keep reaching out, to maintain bonds.

That was the lesson that hit home for me. Because it’s easy to get lazy about relationships.

Right now (without having to think twice about it), I can name four people I’ve been talking about visiting for over a year. Each lives within an hour’s drive from me so why do I only talk about it? Do those people feel loved by my inaction? No. Likely they feel forgotten.

A line of poetry by Edwin Arlington Robinson goes like this:

We cannot know how much we learn

From those who never will return,

Until a flash of unforeseen

Remembrance falls on what has been.

Catzby, thank you for being such an inspiration, for choosing a full and joyful life, for having smile lines around your eyes before you hit 30. And especially thank you for the flash of unforeseen remembrance that we need to hold onto our relationships, to value them and care for them like the precious gifts they are.

~~~~~~

Catzby’s obituary

 

Just Like Cupcake

Today’s post is based on my 2005 Christmas letter.

In November 2004 we made the difficult decision to put down our beloved family dog of thirteen years. Like most old dogs, Cupcake had developed many physical problems. She endured twice daily insulin shots for diabetes. Minimal pain medication for her aching joints had to be carefully monitored as it could have further damaged her ailing liver. Cupcake’s clouded over eyes severely limited her vision. She was nearly deaf as well, and she often became confused, appearing to not know where she was.

We no longer put her on a leash for walks since there wasn’t a risk of her running off. She loved to be outside; rooting around near the trees and bushes smelling for squirrels and other dogs. I usually lingered slightly behind her, letting her enjoy herself. At some point, she would look up and her body would stiffen. I knew she was afraid that she was lost and alone outside. She would stand frozen until I came up to her, touching her gently, saying her name and telling her I was there watching over her. I swear I could see the relief that flooded over her old body. Soon, and with a little spring in her step, she would continue on her way.

It dawned on me that most of humanity ends up like Cupcake. Our eyes become so filled with visions of “things” we want that we lose sight of what God wants for us. Our ears turn deaf to His voice when we are too caught up listening to the busyness and needs of our daily lives. We stumble along and are suddenly frozen with fear that we’re lost and alone. Then God touches us gently, speaking our name, and gives us loving reassurance that He is there beside us, watching over us, loving us more than we can possibly know.

With Open Arms

with open arms

The iconic Cristo Blanco, a 26-foot white statue of Jesus Christ, towers over the city of Cusco, Peru, on Pukamoqo Hill. Legend has it that Pukamoqo Hill holds soil from the four quarters of the Inca Empire, so this was a spiritual place for the Incas. Cusco has been described as the gateway to the more famous Machu Picchu.

But an even large statue of Jesus Christ is in Rio de Janeiro. At 98 feet (not including the base), Cristo Redentor, (Christ the Redeemer) stands tall on the summit of Mount Corcovado. It’s said that the statue is the most recognizable landmark of Rio.

What the statues have in common, of course, is the outstretched arms.

Arms open wide can have various meanings. When the arms belong to my friend Judy it means get over here so I can hug you. They can signify this is the real me; I’ve got nothing to hide. Or I come in peace. And as Episcopal priest Rt. Rev. Michael Curry was quoted as saying, “Our belief (is) that the outstretched arms of Jesus…are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

Consider my favorite parable, the prodigal son. When the father in the story sees a far-off figure trudging along the road, he knows without knowing that it’s his son. You remember…the young guy who scandalously asked for his portion of the inheritance before his father died, then left home to squander it away on a wild life. When the money ran out and he was reduced to daydreaming about eating the pigs’ food, he decided to return home and ask for a job working for dad.

This father, who likely had been shamed by that son and who had also probably spent many sleepless nights worrying about his younger progeny in that faraway country, might have been justified in a little passive-aggressive behavior when the boy showed up. Dad could have stood with his arms crossed, tapping his foot on the ground as the boy approached.

But no, we’re told that the father ran to the son with open arms, hugged and kissed him, and then arranged a huge celebration to welcome him home.

Those open arms meant I love you. I forgive you. There is nothing between us that can’t be overcome.

We’re now in the second week of Advent. My wish is that you embrace the beauty and peace of the season of waiting with open arms.

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Interesting painting and discussion of Jesus’ open arms