A Friend Such as Rob, #LegacyofLove

Reunion Sept 2019
Rob, surrounded by some of the many women who loved him

Why are we here? Ever ponder that question? My dear friend Rob lived the answer.

It’s hard for me to write about someone so special to me who’s not yet been gone two weeks from this life.

But Rob’s legacy deserves to be shared. And his legacy as my friend and “brother” is something I need to write, to honor one of the most important men in my life. That’s not an exaggerated statement. Although Rob wasn’t my blood brother, he couldn’t have been closer to me if we had been born of the same mother. He knew me so well, and understood and accepted me better than any sibling.

And he taught us all so much.

Of course, if Rob were alive, he’d be reading this rolling his eyes and leaving some sarcastic comment. And he most certainly would be reading it, because Rob read and commented on nearly every post I’ve written since I started this blog 6 1/2 years ago! He only missed in the past couple of months as his beleaguered breathing made even getting up out of bed a chore.

So, why read this post if you didn’t know Rob? Because you’ll learn something about what it means to live with courage and humility, to live your life to its fullest expression, even, and especially, in the face of a disease that you know will take you too soon. Maybe you’ll understand a little more about the true meaning of the words “surrender,” “acceptance,” and “loving presence.”

And if you’re lucky, you’ll encounter someone like Rob whose unique expression of love for you will arrive exactly when you need it. And it will forever impact how you love others going forward.

I met Rob late summer 2008, less than a year before my beloved David died. We’d met at Sevenoaks, months before we were to start the Pathwork program together. Yet, without hesitation, Rob hopped in the car for the 4-hour drive from Raleigh to attend David’s memorial service.

Two weeks later, I was in this terribly painful place. If you’ve experienced the sudden death of a spouse, you know what I’m talking about. All your family and friends have gone home and the shock of what happened sets in. The going to bed every night and waking up every morning alone seems unbearable. You wonder if you’ll get swallowed up in this grief. That’s where I was. So, I picked up the phone early Saturday morning and called Rob, not knowing he wasn’t at home in Raleigh, but visiting friends off the coast of Seattle, where it was 3 hours earlier. Not yet dawn.

It didn’t matter. He got out of bed and stepped outside so as to not disturb anyone else in the house. He listened. He cried with me. And he let his heart stretch as he both stayed with me in my suffering and witnessed an amazing sunrise over Mt. Rainier. Wanting to share that precious moment, he described the beauty unfolding before him, and he helped me recognize that beauty and joy could exist simultaneously with pain and sorrow. That all of it was moving and flowing, and held by a loving God.

dawn at mt Rainier
Dawn at Mt. Rainier

Rob, being the poet that he was, wrote a beautiful poem about that experience – a powerful moment that solidified our heart connection.

From then on, Rob became my #1 supporter, thoroughly trusted friend, and personal cheerleader.

I grieved. He listened.

I wrote. He read and encouraged me to publish my writing.

I loved to dance. He introduced me to InterPlay – improvisational movement, because he knew I needed this freedom of expression in my life.

I questioned my decisions as a single mother handling a teenage son. He offered his wisdom and experience from raising three sons.

I anguished over what to do with David’s many and varied collections. He helped wherever he could, including hauling shopping bags full of David’s tee shirts – collected from every place we’d visited – to his quilter friend in Raleigh. She made two gorgeous quilts: one for me and one for Davis. And when Rob delivered them, he sat with me as I fingered the material and cried over the memories.

I became passionate about immigration and human rights abuses and moved to El Paso. He sent me links to related articles, financially supported my causes, and connected me to a teacher friend offering a segment on immigration at a private middle school, who then invited me to do a presentation for her classes.

I wondered, with David gone, who would remember my birthday and special dates? Rob kept a record and sent greetings on that morning, letting me know he was thinking of me. Even this April, in the midst of tough nights and sometimes rougher mornings, he sent me a message on the anniversary of David’s death.

quilt2
My exquisite quilt of David’s tee shirts

All these gifts – and so much more – Rob gave me. I’ve been considering what I possibly gave him in return. Except my love. I hope that was enough.

Rob didn’t need much else. He had an ever-widening circle of friends as his heart opened further and further. He had a devoted and fulfilling relationship with his wife Maureen. She was his confidante, his support, his first and only love for more than 47 years.

All this Rob did while balancing his own journey with death as cancer arrived in his body less than two years after we’d met. Then I, along with Maureen and all his friends, received the gift of watching a transformation happen, as Rob walked, and sometimes crawled, along the spiritual path cancer took him on. Not easy for a man who was used to being in control.

In this “divine dance,” as he called it, he learned to let go of his ego’s attachment to self-importance and self-reliance. He slowly put down his roles as a knowledgeable physician and “fixer.”

And he let the Divine teach him to be astonished by the sacredness of life. To be present to whomever was standing in front of him, from a much softer, vulnerable place. To risk fully expressing all his gifts, with spontaneity and joy.

It was a beautiful dance to observe. Although painful, because we knew the outcome.

Still, as Rob demonstrated, no one can grow or be transformed living in a bubble of comfort. He struggled with painful challenges, with wanting to be alive for his newly arrived grandchildren.

Rob_wNina
Rob with first grandchild, Nina

But he also recognized graces, small miracles “happening all around us if our eyes are open enough to see and our hearts are soft enough to feel.”

 

To me, this expresses how Rob came to terms with his “powerlessness”:

“Transformation is not about great spiritual experiences but coming to terms with our own human weakness as we experience it. … [P]owerlessness is the greatest power there is because it enables one to simply be more and more a channel of God’s power and love.” (Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable)

If our purpose here is to care for one another, to become fuller expressions of God’s power and love, then, Rob, you definitely accomplished that mission. Yes, my dear friend, I am amazed and grateful for having you in my life. What a gift it’s been to have such a friend!

“To be human

Is to become visible

While carrying

What is hidden

As a gift to others.”

 (From David Whyte’s: “What to Remember When Waking”)

 

 

On Being a Midwife

egg nest-843231_1920Today is a special day. April 18th. The anniversary of David’s death.

But this year, it’s especially meaningful because that date falls on the same place in “time” that it fell on the day David passed. Easter Saturday.

Knowing that this sacred season is filled with special graces, I’ve been taking it slow, going within. Paying attention. And I’ve received one heck of an unexpected, insightful gift. From an unlikely source. The popular Netflix series “Call the Midwife,” based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of midwifery in 1950’s poverty-stricken East London

First off, I should explain that I’m always behind when it comes to watching anything on TV or otherwise. So, you’ll understand when I say I’m only on season 1. Last week I was watching episode 7, a Christmas story about a newborn being abandoned on the convent steps by an unwed teenager. But it was the scenes around the tragic life of Mrs. Jenkins that held my unexpected gift.

Years earlier, newly widowed with five children to feed, Mrs. Jenkins had made the excruciating decision of turning herself and her brood over to the “care” of one of England’s notorious workhouses. All of her children had died there, malnourished and mistreated. Now she lives in abominable conditions, neglecting her health and hygiene, and the midwife/nurse Jenny Lee is sent to care for her.

In one particularly moving scene, Nurse Jenny, joined by Sr. Evangelina, comes to her home to bathe her. Like a silent intruder, I watch as the two women attempt to remove Mrs. Jenkins’ shoes, stuck to her feet after all these years, and tenderly disrobe her for her bath. With her thin, naked back exposed, O Come, O Come Emmanuel plays over this intimate undertaking. Surely this is God dwelling with us and in us, so evident by the love and care with which these two women lower Mrs. Jenkins into the bath, cover her frontal area as they sponge her back so that she will not feel any shame or discomfort. She appears wide-eyed in disbelief over what they are doing for her.

I cry easily. This selfless act strikes my heart open. No doubt because it’s achingly beautiful.

But it’s something more.

Something deeper that I can’t yet express or identify. The removal of Mrs. Jenkin’s shoes, the tender touches the two women applied to her body. The water and washing.  The one who had difficulty accepting and receiving such care.

It’s all so familiar.

It takes a few days before I understand this scene’s personal significance. Before another tender scene involving water and washing surfaces in my memory.  A scene involving someone who also had difficulty receiving. My husband.

It’s January 2009. David is cashing in on a silly gift I’d given him for New Year’s Eve: a handwritten, magic marker-colored I.O.U. for a foot bath and massage.

David was the serious one in our relationship. I was the let’s-find-some-new-adventure half of our marriage. While he provided stability and focus, I dabbled in creativity and wonderment. Knowing that he would ignore this holiday, let it pass without any fanfare, as he would have so many others if not for me and Davis, I decided to come up with a novel idea. Create a stack of I.O.U.’s, each one a personal treat: a free backscratching, dinner at his favorite restaurant, homemade breakfast any weekend. He chose the foot bath and massage first.

foot-massage-2133279_1920It’d be an understatement to say I was surprised. David – agreeing to such indulgent treatment? David, the guy who could barely handle receiving attention on his birthdays?

But I was grateful. Grateful for this opportunity to lavish him with care.

And months later, I would be grateful for this memory.

As I prepared the footbath, David sat waiting quietly in his favorite easy chair. He wore his terrycloth robe – the one article of clothing I would hold onto longer than anything else he’d owned, as if his scent would never fade. I placed the footbath on the carpet before his feet. And now, this man, this devoted husband who’d given me so much through our years together, allowed me to kneel before him and lovingly wash and caress his tired feet, to gingerly massage his toes, bent and inflamed with diabetes, to rub lotion on his calloused heels, hardened by years of neglect. In giving this to him, I received in return his humble appreciation, visible in his moist eyes as he simply said afterward, “Thank you, honey. That’s the best gift you could’ve given me.”

It was the last gift I would give him. And it turned out to be his gift to me.

Less than three months later he would die unexpectedly. A heart attack taking him too soon on that glorious Easter Saturday morning. A morning not unlike the one I experienced today.

Call Jennifer shell broken

In the Midwife episode, after her bath, Mrs. Jenkins appears to be renewed. Wearing the new coat Nurse Jenny obtained for her, she walks upright, no longer carrying the weight of shame. She’s recognized something in herself through the eyes of love. Through their tender attentiveness, Nurse Jenny and Sr. Evangelina had practiced a different kind of midwifery.

A midwife is an intermediary, someone who meets you in the middle of what you’re expecting and assists you all the way through it to the other side. Hadn’t that been what I had done for David, without even realizing it? Holding that in-between space for him? Helping him to receive and accept the selfless, abundant love that awaited him over the threshold he would soon cross?

The irony is that David had been an arbitrator, a labor relations mediator. He had been the one who’d calmly held this in-between place for others, the place between what is and what is possible. He had taught me how to be that for him.

Eleven years is a long time. I no longer grieve as I once did, no longer fear that the well of grief is bottomless. It isn’t.

I have learned that love takes many forms. That it truly is stronger than death. That every act of self-giving love, of selfless service, brings us closer to the threshold of waking up into who we truly are. The Beloved in God.

Maybe I did walk David home.  Maybe I helped him cross that threshold.  And maybe once again, it’s David who’s given me the real gift.

walking each other

Wade in the Water

rio_grande

The pain of heartache flows in the narrow river. I watch the ripple from the footbridge above, feeling helpless, hopeless. There is little I can do.

Do I let my heart feel the sorrow, the grief? Sometimes I do.

Sometimes I cry with the young wife and mother who lost her 2-year-old daughter and the husband carrying her on his back. Or with the Honduran woman whose husband did not want to come but listened to his wife’s plea. “It’s only for a few years,” she told this strong man who could no longer keep his family fed and safe.

He did not make it across the Rio Grande.

Nor did the 21-year-old female who’d been sent to wait in Mexico. Alone and vulnerable. No one to protect her from imminent rape. She tried to venture back across.

El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants 2019
El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants

Taking the risk in the water was better than the risk of waiting in Juarez.

Single women, mothers with children – they are the easy targets.

I’ve heard courtroom reports of Guatemalan women pleading with the judge at their initial court hearing not to send them back. “Put me in a cell,” one tells the judge. She would rather be locked up while she waits than be “free” in the homicide capital of Mexico.

“They extorted my family for money,” another one says. “I’m afraid to go back.”

Two women sob in the courtroom, with their young children in tow. Intruders tried to rape them at their shelter.

Those of us who live at the border – we all know it’s not safe in Juarez.  There is nothing protective about this outrageously unsafe policy, the complete opposite of any kind of “protection” for migrants.

Even the El Paso City Council denounced the “Remain in Mexico” policy 6 to 1 back in July. Still, it continues.

I read about a priest who was kidnapped in early August by a gang for not letting them into his shelter to kidnap migrants. He is still missing. Another priest was killed outright in Matamoros.

Juarez shelter
Juarez shelter; photo from El Paso Times

Now at our hospitality center, Casa del Refugiado, in El Paso, a different kind of migrant passes through. The kind that can take a plane across Mexico and land closer to the border. The kind that have cell phones and are cellphone savvy enough to make their own travel arrangements quickly. Some leave our center within less than 24 hours of arriving.

Granted, not all are like this. But I hardly see the desperate, disheveled, dirty faces anymore. Those who had to leave their country just to survive. And started out on foot.

Facing extreme hardships. Extreme suffering. Extreme roadblocks along the way.

Wait in Mexico? They have been waiting. Especially the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the El Salvadorans. Waiting for justice and safety that do not exist.

So, this tiny patch of water that separates two cities, two countries, poses a minor obstacle.

Still, the river can be deceptive.

The water churns, swirls, gains power.

So many stories are buried in its silt.

I ask, what can I do? Plead? Wail?

And then I do one thing I know I am asked to do. I pick up my pen. I tell others. I write the stories, hoping those who read will know that we cannot stand on the shore watching. We, too, must wade in. Feel this churning, swirling power.

Maybe it will change us. Maybe it will cause us to act.

water-1246527_1920

 

Fitted Sheets & the 10-Year Challenge

alaska meanddavid

When Facebook had the 10-year challenge recently, I had to stop and think. Do I want to go there? Because 10 years ago, my husband was alive. To post any pics of myself in 2009 would be to post pics of a different self.

In early 2009 I was still part of a family unit of three, with an identity I could name and be confident in – wife, mother, self-employed writer/editor, active community member.

Months later, those foundations would come crumbling down as I struggled with my grief, feeling the shock of the unspeakable. Years later, I am rediscovering who I am in ways I could not have imagined. In a place I never imagined I’d be.

Sometimes it astonishes me, how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve traveled, all that God has done in my life, in those short 10 years.

For starters, I had to take on all the basic chores David did that I took for granted, like the grocery shopping, cooking, even the laundry. Yes, I was definitely spoiled.
And David liked to do things with precision and care, while I flitted through chores. And sometimes life.

After he died, I’d wished I’d paid more attention. To everything. How he prepared that special Panko-crusted salmon. How he handled a budget. How he folded those blasted fitted sheets.

Honest to God, nobody could fold fitted sheets like David. Not even my neat-freak friend who came over to do the laundry in my first week of grieving. She admitted she couldn’t do it with such precision.fold-fitted-sheets.jpg

It may seem funny, but every time I fold fitted sheets, I think of him. In this simple act, I remember so much love, care, nurturing, safety, and security. I know that’s a lot to see in a neatly folded sheet.

It’s a memory of a love that has carried and upheld me all these years. And it’s more than just David’s love. It’s a love in which we both exist.

So, I was willing to take that challenge. To go back and look at a picture of us. To reread and reflect on journal entries from that year.

What astonished me was how strong my faith was in the midst of such pain. How I was able to see and write about his death so clearly. How I was already deepening my trust in the Love to which I am being asked to surrender.

As one of my spiritual teachers says, the immediacy of what is is trustworthy. It’s all trustworthy. Because that is where God is, in the immediacy of this moment.

Since this is the 10th anniversary year, I’m going to risk sharing something very personal. It seems right to do so, to honor my love for David, to acknowledge the healing that can happen, and the amazing ways God can use us in the most painful of circumstances.

This entry is dated April 19, 2009, the day after he died:

My dearest David,

I can’t understand, so I won’t waste time trying. I know you wanted to be here for Davis. But although you can’t be here physically, your spirit is with us, and I know I will feel your presence throughout our lives. I know you’re going to help me from where you are. I also know that you are going to finally understand how much you are loved, and that gives me peace. No one loved me and accepted me and supported me as much as you did. You helped me to grow in so many ways. You were so devoted to me and to Davis. I tried to tell you how much I appreciated you, but it wasn’t enough – I know that because I needed to tell you this every day.

I’m going to miss you saying, “Hey, I didn’t get my kiss this morning.” And I’m going to miss you bringing me my coffee and doing all the little things you do to please me. I’m going to miss seeing the pleasure you got from Davis, witnessing how proud you were of him and how you would choke up talking about him sometimes. I’ll miss your generous heart, your bear hugs, your look of disgust at my wild ideas but how you went along with them anyway, your desire to help those in need, your willingness to see things differently, your wisdom in helping me to see things differently, your ability to turn to God under stress.

Everywhere you went, you thought of me and Davis. How could that be any different now? I KNOW this life is not the end of our journey. We were only beginning to deepen our soul’s journey together. It has been a very powerful and beautiful experience to share this life as your wife. I believe this – that I will recognize you in something or someone somewhere in a moment of awareness and my heart will smile because I will know you are with us.

People marvel at how I can be so strong. I am hurting, I cry, I’m deeply pained by the physical loss of you, but I believe we are being upheld in love and strength because both Davis and I know that in God we live and move and have our being. This experience truly solidifies that for me.”

So, I may not have learned how to properly fold fitted sheets in 10 years. But I have learned to discover grace in the painful challenges. And to trust where love wants to take me.

Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up
where you are.

You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different. Surrender.  (Rumi)

Gratitude, Grace, & Grief

Close up of tableset with colorful plate for Thanksgiving party.

Thanksgiving.

Soon Davis will be here celebrating the holiday with me. I don’t have to be told how fortunate I am.

At the same time, I’m also aware that many will be missing a loved one at their Thanksgiving table this year.

Those who are still seeking news of a family member among the 700 or more missing in the California fires. Those whose loved ones were among the dozens of victims of mass shootings in the past several months, from a bar in Thousand Oaks to a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Sometimes it all feels like too much. We turn away. We turn off the TV. We find something else to occupy our minds.

Thanksgiving. Grieving. The two don’t quite go together.

Or do they?

Although we don’t have any control over when tragic, painful circumstances will strike our lives, our world, what I’ve discovered is what I do have control over – how I respond.

And, inadvertently, how grieving and gratitude can occupy the same space.

viktor_e_frankl_quote

I remember reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl years ago. One of the many things that struck me was a scene in which this man in the concentration camp is out working on the rock pile in the gray, predawn hours, concerned about his wife, and he turns to see the glory of the sun beginning to light up the sky as it rises in the distance. Even in what seems like a hopeless situation, he recognizes this as a moment of grace.

Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life – her diaries written during WWII – wrote: “I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life.”

Etty found herself in the midst of a frightening era of unspeakable atrocities. She also found herself on her knees, giving thanks for unspeakable beauty and grace-filled moments.

It seems when I, too, am brought to the edge of raw grief, I go to my knees. In surrender. In vulnerability and humility. Calling upon my Higher Self, the Holy dwelling within.

And then I discover the grace in my situation.

The grace that was there all along but I didn’t have the eyes to see. Until that moment.

Gratitude, grace, and grief can indeed occupy the same space.

I’ve learned this. And I am still learning it.

Learning it from my spiritual teachers, in Pathwork, the CAC Living School, Insight Meditation, and others, who continue to remind me that whenever life’s “disturbances” pull me down, I can pause and choose what to focus on.

And I’m learning it from our “guests” at the Loretto Nazareth hospitality center. Even after the kind of suffering they’ve experienced, they are still filled with gratitude for small kindnesses.

And every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of a parent and child on their knees before the crucifix displayed in our common area. In prayers of thanksgiving for their safe journey. And for their long journey ahead.

Something beautiful alongside the sorrow.

There is room for all of it.

And, in every moment, something to be grateful for.

A Good Place to Land

Las_Cruces01.gif
Aerial view of Las Cruces, New Mexico

Today is the 9th anniversary of David’s passing, and I’m marveling at where I’ve landed. Only last week, I moved again.

No, I didn’t stray very far from El Paso. Just over the border in New Mexico. But it’s a good move. I’ve bought my own place in a great community, and it means I’m putting down roots. Settling in. Ready to really sink my teeth into my life here.

Back in 2009 I could not have envisioned this life. A life without him. A life far from dear friends and a community that fully supported and surrounded me and Davis through our grief.

A life outside my beautiful Virginia.

Now I can’t imagine going back. Not being able to accompany and support the asylum seekers who arrive at our door. I can’t imagine not being able to witness firsthand and speak up about the realities of the Borderlands – the name for our area, from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM.

Las Cruces Organ view
A view from my morning walk

Because the reality is so much different from what you hear in the news or from the mouths of political pundits on TV. Or on Twitter.

I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve met. About perseverance and faith against all odds. About the challenges of living with tremendous uncertainty. The kind that’s life-threatening and beyond heartbreaking.

And, most especially, about the nature of our true home. The home within.

Still it feels good to have landed in my new physical home. A place with a different kind of beauty, where I still have my circle of friends and a community committed to social justice and caring for “the other.”

 

Las Cruces fields
Outside my new neighborhood

 

A safe place.

Yes, El Paso and the Borderlands are safe. In fact, El Paso continues to be counted as one of the safest U.S. cities for its size. I have always felt safe here. I teach English to adults at a church that’s within walking distance of the border. The little hospitality house where I volunteer is downtown, also close to the border. Mexican shoppers cross over daily and support our economy.

This is why what we hear in the media about the border is so disturbing. Like the idea of the president sending the National Guard. It’s ridiculous to us. We believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money and our resources. The truth is, apprehensions at the border have decreased significantly. The numbers are way down.

We also know the truth about the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico and how that story, in the hands of this president, exploded into some far-fetched, fear-based fantasy. Not to mention that many of these asylum seekers are from Honduras, a country whose recent election was considered a fraud, except by our president. He supported the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández – an authoritarian leader in one of the most violent nations in the world. We continue to send military aid to Honduras while their military police abuse and kill grassroots activists and the poor and marginalized. With rampant crime and human rights abuses, it’s no wonder Hondurans are fleeing.

Honduran election protests

One young woman whom ICE delivered to us shared how the people are desperately poor. Desperate people do desperate things. She and her roommate were both raped in their apartment, and everything they had was stolen. They had nothing left. They were not safe. And they had no recourse. The police could not or would not help them. She fled, not knowing this rape would result in a pregnancy until months later.

Yet she shows no resentment. She even smiles when she speaks about this baby. She seems to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. I wonder if I could land with such grace.

But then again, after David died, I didn’t think I’d ever land someplace gracefully and securely again. At least not without that bottomless well of pain accompanying me.

I’ve discovered that’s not true.

And moving to Las Cruces, with its tree-lined streets, and a little cooler temperatures and a lot more greenery – all within a short drive to El Paso and still within my border community – well, it’s like landing in the best of both worlds.

With so many blessings, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world around me and not give back. I know David would approve.

Me&David

We Are All Grieving

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View from my apartment looking out across Mexico

We are grieving our loss. My fellow volunteers and I – the women and men who worked alongside me at the Nazareth hospitality center.

We know we’ve lost something special.

Several weeks ago, our center for migrants and refugees closed. We were told it was due to staff transitions in the main health center that owns the wing we were using. We thought it was temporary. So far, it hasn’t reopened.

But even before the center closed, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had been bringing us fewer and fewer refugees. In mid-January, our daily numbers began dropping to single digits.

The interesting thing is, all of this happened soon after I’d closed on my house, packed up all my belongings and moved here – lock, stock, and barrel. Suddenly, what I loved doing most and fed me spiritually had disappeared.

You gotta wonder what the Universe has planned.

Still, I know without a doubt this is where I am meant to be. Living close to the border. Living, as I call it, “close to the bone.”

I’m not questioning my heart’s guidance.

But I am grieving. And I’m not the only one.

I realized this last week when I unexpectedly ran into several of my fellow volunteers at a Taize service.

Volunteers like Martha. Every Tuesday, she and her friend Cuki would come to Nazareth to prepare breakfast and lunch for our “guests.” When our daily numbers jumped to well over 100, they enlisted other friends to help.  They spent their entire day there, every Tuesday.

And they’ve been doing this for nearly three years.

Martha and I were so happy to see each other that night. With moist eyes, we shared how much we missed Nazareth and “the people.”grief-loss-therapy

Without really having words to express why, we both knew the fullness of this experience had touched our lives.

Other volunteers joined our conversation. And that’s when I realized, we all were grieving.

Grieving because we missed interacting with the people who had clearly given us a gift by their presence.

Grieving because we know the tragic and violent situations that existed in these people’s lives – the reasons they fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have not changed. They’re still subjected to death threats, extortion, and gang violence. But where are they are fleeing to, we wondered?

Grieving because we know that human rights abuses are increasing – at detention facilities, at ports of entry, and elsewhere. And we don’t expect it to get better soon.

Some Customs and Border Patrol agents are turning away asylum seekers without consideration of their claims. Cases have been documented of people with credible fear being turned away at the border, like the mother who fled Guatemala after gang members killed her two sons and threatened her life. Turned away, even though those who are fleeing violence have a legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.

Or, in some cases, ICE is locking up asylum seekers. Sticking them in detention for the duration of their case, even though they pose no threat to our society. Even though they have passed their “credible fear” interview. Causing them more pain, more harm, more trauma to their children.

Here’s a recent example. Martín Méndez Pineda, a 25-year-old journalist from Acapulco, Guerrero, was detained and denied parole after seeking asylum here in El Paso. Pineda had received death threats and police beatings for his critical reports of the Mexican federal police. Only a week earlier, a female journalist had been murdered in Mexico.  Rather than assist this young man, we threw him in detention like a criminal.

Yes, we are definitely grieving over the direction our country is taking towards migrants and refugees.

Because for us, this is not just a controversial issue on the 6 o’clock news.

We have come to know “the people.” We have listened to their stories. We have accompanied them and been transformed by the encounter.

And we know they are human beings. Worthy of being treated with dignity and compassion.

El Paso Columban Missions

Please, no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration and refugees, let’s remember that these are human beings. That human rights abuses should not be part of our protocol.

And it is absolutely inhumane to separate mothers from their children as a deterrent to immigration.

All that we will accomplish by such inhumane treatment is more grief. And the loss will be much more extensive and personal than we can anticipate.

For more practical and humane suggestions for curbing the flow of illegal immigration, listen to award-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s TED talk at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/sonia+navarro+ted/15ada9caf1939193?projector=1

 

Grief Revisited

elderly-couple-hands

Grief.

I’ve been feeling it again lately.

On December 2nd, David’s birthday, I found myself crying. That’s unusual. Several birthdays have passed since his death and they haven’t caused such a reaction in me.

But that day I missed him.

I was feeling particularly tender and vulnerable. Continuing to live in this uncertain, “in-between” place was affecting me.

And there was something more.

A little over three months ago, in the predawn hours, I awoke to a message on my phone from a good friend from the past. Lisa had reached out to me because her husband had just died. Shocked out of my groggy half-awake state, I texted back that I was here if she wanted to talk.

Lisa and her husband Kevin had been good friends of ours in the early years of our marriages when we lived in Connecticut. We’d stayed in touch after moving away and even wound up living in the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. Occasionally we’d meet halfway for family camping trips.

We had this history together.  We’d begun our marriages around the same time. Had both experienced the years of longing for a child and waiting and hoping and waiting some more. Finally rejoicing in each other’s gift  — a son for me, a daughter for Lisa. Our friendship was comfortable and comforting.

Listening to Lisa that morning, my own grief came back to me just as clearly as if I were reliving it with her. I remembered how I’d felt as if a hole had been ripped through my heart. How else can you describe losing your best friend and most intimate partner? The person you tell everything to, share everything with. The one who knows you better than anyone. The love of your life.

Yes, I understood that pain. I could empathize. But what surprised me is how easily I felt this grief again. I remembered how bottomless and debilitating it had felt. How at times I’d thought I couldn’t possibly heal.

More than anything in that moment, I wanted to take that pain from my friend.  Even if it meant I had to relive it for her.

Because I have crossed over this threshold, I know I can survive it. And much more than that — I know that joy and love and fullness of life exist even in the midst of such pain. I already know this.

But Lisa doesn’t. At least not yet.

I got off the phone that morning asking, why so much pain? Why must we experience so much pain?grief-loss1

I don’t really know the answer to that question.

But I do know that if I close my heart off to feeling as a result of my deep loss, I will close myself off from the greatest adventure and fulfillment of my life.

Here’s what is clear to me:

That grief and the healing power of transformation are connected.

That compassion has grown in me because of my own grief.

That grieving is not a singular event . The door to my heart has been broken open; I can’t go back to allowing myself not to feel.

That all of it is sacred and trustworthy. Even the painful stuff.

And I can trust the One who remained with me through the deepest darkness of my grief.

fyodor-dostoyevsky-the-darker-the-night

Many of us are grieving at this time of year. Some of it is due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, which can magnify our loneliness and pain, especially when we’ve lost loved ones.

Some of the grief, I believe, is due to this recent presidential election. I know I have felt anxiety and a real sadness for those who are vulnerable, including Mother Earth. There’s a collective grieving happening. I’ve heard this from others as well.

For me, the call is to live with greater compassion. Even, and especially, if it means feeling the pain of the other.

As insight meditation teacher Tara Brach explained in a recent talk on Bodhisattva for Our Times, going through your personal grief brings you to the universal.

She says, “Let grief transform you. Then make a conscious choice to be a light.”

That in itself is reason enough for me to allow myself to feel the pain of grieving. I want, and I choose, to be a light in the darkness.

“We’re all in it together and we can trust that even in the long, dark nights of winter our hearts are turning toward the light.” (Tara Brach)

The Gift of Esther

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I can’t believe I’m writing this. Esther died today.

Less than three weeks ago she came into my room at Grandview house and said she had some news. Esther never even ventured into my room, so when she pulled out a chair and sat down, right away I knew this was serious. She told me she had cancer and it had spread throughout her body. I was in shock. We all were.

Esther was the Sister of St. Joseph with whom I’d been living since I arrived in El Paso in early December. Over the past few months she’d been losing weight. I thought it was due to the stress of managing this big house by herself. Although I was helping as much as I could, having volunteers coming and going every two weeks or more, trying to feed them all, keep the house clean, and manage the bills, all seemed like a huge responsibility to me. And I wasn’t 70+ years old.

Then Esther had developed this unrelenting back pain on top of the weight loss. Still I didn’t attribute it to anything serious. Esther was just too spunky and vibrant. A former phys ed teacher, she’d often break into song. Remembering a show tune or classic that somehow related to the situation at the moment, she’d simply start singing. Not the least self-conscious at all. Even though she rarely got through the first line or verse before forgetting the rest.

I found this endearing.

So was her addiction to doing the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. Whenever I came down to breakfast, I knew if I sat down with her, I could expect to be drilled.

“How many letters?” I’d ask.

But she’d already have moved on to belting out the next clue. It was too much for my mind that early in the morning. Sometimes I’d eat my cereal in my room.

The thing is, I love Esther. But at first, I wasn’t even sure I liked her.

When I came to live at Grandview house, she questioned me. She didn’t understand why I had left everything behind. What was I looking for? More than once she told me she could never do what I was doing. And she wasn’t too keen on the idea that I was writing three days a week instead of working every day with the immigrant families at the hospitality center where all the other volunteers at Grandview spent their time. So, I offered to give her one full day a week of chores to help towards my room and board.

Still, I don’t think she trusted me. Or my ability to live like a missionary and adjust to the situation. Our relationship didn’t exactly start out on stable ground.

But as she saw how I adapted to making meals with whatever lay stored in the cupboard, how I rarely asked for anything, how I was available whenever she needed me, she eased up. And I grew less resentful. Prayer helped. So did my commitment to being there.

And then, very subtly, Spirit slipped in and taught me how to open my heart to this woman. Showed me how to see her more clearly. Like the night Esther shared her faith story with me. How she’d been a teacher for years, focusing on herself, before she experienced a grace-filled moment that changed her life and caused her to join a religious congregation.

The day Esther handed me a large sum of cash to manage groceries because she had to be away from the house for several days, I thought I’d cry. It was more than the fact that she trusted me. Without saying a word about it, I knew we’d grown fond of each other.

By the time my birthday came around at the end of March, she was asking me what I’d choose if I could have my favorite meal. And then she went and bought fresh tuna steaks and told me to invite a friend to dinner. This from a woman who had worried aloud more than once about what the grocery bill was running.

As Esther grew weaker, I felt especially blessed to be at Grandview. I actually enjoyed lugging the trash cans up and down the steep driveway every week. And pulling the weeds popping up out of the pavement and along the hillside. It would have been easy to stay there longer.

The morning I’d packed up my car and was ready to head out of El Paso, Esther and the other Sisters at the house gathered round to bless me on my way. The beauty of this gift — Esther had prepared the blessing. When I looked into her eyes to say goodbye, I recognized my own heart.

Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March
Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March

I’m treasuring Esther’s gift tonight.

Breathing Together

Conspirare

Friday night, I caught myself holding my breath.

It happened while sitting in Bates Recital Hall at the University of Texas-Austin in the middle of a Conspirare concert. Conspirare is an enormously talented Austin-based choral group whose name, ironically, means “to breathe together.”

That night they were performing the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet, set to music. And the breathtaking piece was Soneto de la Noche.

But the beauty and sentiment of the poetry were not what had caused this reaction in me. It was much more than that.

I’d first experienced Conspirare singing this piece five years ago. My very dear friend Rob had brought a DVD of a live performance of the choral group to a weekend gathering of friends. Awed and inspired by these talented artists, Rob wanted to share their music with us. It was July 2009 — three months after my beloved husband had died.

I remember Rob sitting next to me on the sofa as we watched and listened to voices and music that took me to another realm. Then, one of the men from the choir stepped forward for the next piece, and Rob suddenly reached over and grabbed my hand. He’d forgotten this song was among the selections, and he knew what was coming would cause me pain. It was Soneto de la Noche.

Although the poem is in Spanish, the soloist spoke the words in English. In his deep, gentle voice — not unlike my husband David’s — he began:

      “When I die, I want your hands upon my eyes; I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands to pass their freshness over me one more time…”

My tears flowed, unrestrained. I cried from a deep pit of grief — this dark place that I thought, at the time, could never be healed. But I also cried from the recognition that I was being comforted by those reassuring words, as if my own dear David were speaking them to my heart. I heard David telling me to go on living, to live a full life, the kind of life he knew that I was capable of and that he so often saw and admired in me.

Knowing how much that song, and Conspirare, meant to me, Rob later gifted me with both the DVD and CD, and I must have listened to Soneto de la Noche hundreds of times. I’m well past the place of crying when I hear it. Now it’s simply a bittersweet memory.

Or so I thought.

When that same soloist stepped forward for this song Friday night, I found myself holding my breath in anticipation. Was it in anticipation of experiencing this gorgeous piece of music “live”? Or did it have something to do with the fact that I’m standing at yet another crossroads in my life? As I let go and exhaled, surprisingly and instantly, tears formed again.

But this time, I heard the words spoken to me not from David, but from a Loving Presence within me:

“I want you to live, Pauline…

I want all that I love to keep on living, and you whom I loved and sang above all things

To keep flowering into full bloom, so that you can touch all that my love provides you.”

 

I exhaled and took in the words. Breathed them in, gulping them like much-needed oxygen.

 “…flowering into full bloom.”

Yes!

Isn’t that what the poet Neruda, the composer of these beautiful pieces of music, the musicians, and the singers were doing — flowering, allowing their remarkable talents to fully bloom?

And isn’t that what God asks of us?

How we use our life, how we manifest our gifts and talents is our responsibility. Just like the parable of the talents. We’re not meant to bury our gifts. Our spirit isn’t meant to “die” with the one who passed on before us. We are meant to fully live, just as Neruda urged his lover. And just as God, our Divine Lover, urges us.

When I consciously allow this Loving Presence to breathe through me, then I am my truest self.

And as my truest self, I can “touch all that Love provides me.”

And isn’t that what God asks of us?

 

Turns out that today, September 23rd, is the 41st anniversary of Neruda’s death. He died at the young age of 69. Below is his poem, Soneto de la Noche:Pablo Neruda (2)

 Soneto de la Noche

When I die, I want your hands upon my eyes;

I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands to pass their freshness over me one more time;

I want to feel the gentleness that changed my destiny.

I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep,

I want your ears to still hear the wind,

I want you to smell the scent of the sea we both loved,

And to continue walking on the sand we walked on.

I want all that I love to keep on living, and you whom I loved and sang above all things

To keep flowering into full bloom, so that you can touch all that my love provides you,

so that my shadow may pass over your hair,

So that all may know the reason for my song.