Missing the ones who are gone

It’s been 8 1/2 months since my dad died, and I’m walking this weird road of grief, more nuanced and shaded and blatant than I had ever expected.  Yesterday in church we were singing the closing hymn, and as I started to sing the first line of the last verse, my throat closed up and my eyes started to water and I was done: “That, when our life of faith is done, in realms of clearer light, may we behold You as You are, with full and endless sight.”

One of the blessings of having had this three month sabbatical is the spaciousness of time which has allowed me room for grief that I had not realized I needed.  If anything, I miss my dad more now than I did at first.  My first birthday without him was like a sword in my heart; my parents’ anniversary popped up in my digital calendar and I was shocked at the affront I felt that he wasn’t here to celebrate with Mom.

It helps so much that others grieve, though I do not wish grief on anyone.  Grief finds us all, I suppose; it’s the price of loving.  Today as I write, I think about my dear friend from college whose father died within days of my dad’s death.  I think about beloved church members whose names we will recite this year on All Saints Day and how awful that will be.  I think about my neighbor and his family living the last year with the diagnosis of a stage 4 glioblastoma.  John McCain’s death, and all that surrounded that, gave me such empathy for his family in their grief. I think about the family of Botham Jean, the man shot and killed in his own apartment by a police officer who thought he was in her own apartment, and their grief that is compounded by – well, everything.

My father’s death was not tragic nor was it the stuff of nightly news.  For that I am immensely grateful. But I miss him so much.  I miss skirting around politics and playing cribbage and losing to him at dominos.  I miss our inside joke about watching the cottonwood trees shimmer in the breeze.  I miss his common sense, and his unending curiosity about things.  I miss having a dad around, right there at the other end of the phone line.

Halloween decor is flooding the market place now, the next big holiday to sate our consumerist hungers.  I don’t much care for Halloween – I don’t like to be scared, and there’s a lot of free-floating sugar going around.  I’ve started wondering if on Halloween, on All Hallows Eve, my dad will come visit in some way.  Weird thinking, I know, but grief can do strange things to one’s belief system.

I hope he doesn’t come visit, because it is my deep hope that he is resting in peace, whatever that means.  It is my deep hope that all he needed to accomplish was done by the time he took his last breath, so that there is no reason for him to come back.  Maybe in the end, all of us whom he loved knew that he loved us: the great accomplishment, and maybe the only truly necessary one.

Saints, not ghosts.one-bird-flying-in-empty-sky-nature-background-with-wildlife_r09fknvge_thumbnail-full01

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The wedding shoe

As we near the end of our delightful and refreshing three-month sabbatical, my husband/co-pastor and I are finally doing all those little house projects we’ve been meaning to get to.  Yesterday we moved things around in the basement, which serves as our den, laundry room, and second guest room, and in moving stuff, we cleared out the closet.  As we went through only two plastic bins there, I found my wedding shoes.

“It’s probably time to give these away,” I said.

“Probably,” my husband replied.

I LOVED my wedding shoes.  My dear friend Alison, my co-bride who like me was getting married for the first time in her early forties, whose wedding was three weeks before our own, agreed to go shoe shopping with me. We discovered a charming store in uptown Chicago that specialized in wedding shoes.  She found what she needed, and I found what I needed.  Off-white satin with pumps with an ankle strap and rhinestone buckle, with what I thought would be a very comfortable 2 inch heel.  Fifteen minutes into the reception, not so comfortable.  But no mind. I loved the shoes, which no one saw, and which I happily took off later in the evening.

When we returned from our honeymoon, I realized that I would rarely wear these beautiful off-white shoes again, so I had them dyed black.  I believe I wore them once after that, because a few months later I got pregnant, my feet swelled, and after the baby my feet were never quite the same.  So the shoes have been sitting in this bin for 13 1/2 years and I don’t need to be a KonMari practitioner to know that if you haven’t worn something for 13 1/2 years, it’s time to let it go.

We went to the Goodwill drop off this morning and the gentlemen took our things.  The bag holding everything broke so it was a bit of a mess, and as we drove away, I saw a lone, dyed-black wedding shoe lying there in the dust.

There are many things I would do differently if I were to marry Gregg again.  I would not make my bridesmaids wear matching periwinkle dresses.  (Thank you, thank you, AM & EF.)  I would get a different dress.  I might ditch the tiara that held my veil in place.

But there are so many things I would do exactly the same.  I would marry Gregg again.  I would have AM and EF stand up with me.  The wedding party would enter to everyone singing a hymn.  I would walk down the aisle with my dad, a memory that is so poignant now that he’s gone.  I would have all those beloved family and friends there.  I might not register for gifts, but I would eat cake and dance and take all that joy all over again.

Of course, a wedding is not a marriage, as I tell betrothed couples .  A wedding is a herald of what’s to come, but in the years that unfold, cake gives way to boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, and veils give way to hats that hide a bad hair day, and beautiful satin shoes sit in the closet while sneakers are laced up or clogs slide on and socks mysteriously lose their mates in the dryer.

As I mentioned, we’re near the end of our sabbatical, and I’m so grateful for this time away.  One of the things I have most strongly realized is that I really love my husband.  Perhaps this should be obvious, but when you work with your spouse, and when you share an office with your spouse, you can lose sight of all the reasons you married that person.  We’ve spent all but five days of this sabbatical together, but there has been space to breathe and see each other anew.

I have no idea if he would say the same thing about me.  Maybe, maybe not.  But I’m still so grateful for a fantastic wedding that heralded a marriage that would be filled with beloved family and friends, and dancing, and cake.  But we promised each other never to give shoes as a gift – maybe that’s the secret to it all.

Getting lost with your husband (or some kind of significant other)

img_5309Having said goodbye to friends who had spent the week with us at our vacation place, my husband and I decided to go for a drive.  We knew which road to take, and which dirt road to take after that.  We had a number for the dirt road we wanted to follow, and a map, and a destination.

Ah, what fools these mortals be.

We had borrowed my parents’ pick-up truck for the drive, and my husband agreed to drive, so I had the dog on my lap.  I also had with me two bottles of water, two tangerines, a fourth of a bag of Juanita’s Tortilla Chips, Advil, and my hiking shoes in case we wanted to walk.  There were Kleenex, toilet paper, a flashlight, some rope, and jumper cables in the truck.  We were prepared.

img_2221So up a lovely forest service road we went, enjoying the beauty of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, waving to the occasional oncoming car.  Up up up we went, Mt. Rainier peeking through the tree line until at last, we rounded a bend, the trees cleared, and there was beautiful Tahoma.  The view stayed with us for a few more bends, until we were headed downhill and back in the forest.

Down we went, avoiding the potholes.  Down we went, approaching each intersection with some caution, consulting the map (the “map” would be a better description), looking to see if any road had a number on it.

Finally, having driven downhill for a while, we came to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere.  We found this hilarious, and I wish I’d taken a picture.   The road ended at a T, and we scrupulously consulted the map, looking anywhere for a T in the road.  Having found one (or so we thought) we realized (mistakenly) if we turned left, the road would end.  So we turned right.  And started going uphill.  At this point, a good hour into the drive, I started congratulating myself that I had brought not only water but also provisions.

It was about 6 in the evening, and the sun was getting lower, so we knew which way west was and we were pretty sure we wanted to be heading mostly north and a little east.  Happily, sometimes the road went that way.  Unhappily, sometimes it didn’t.  But a car would pass by now and then, so we knew we hadn’t completely left civilization.  Plus I had my dog and tortilla chips.

Then we saw a sign – in the middle of the forest at intersecting dirt roads – that gave us three options.  The town nearest to the house was a mere 26 miles away.  So we took the right and started making our way on a one lane gravel road in the middle of the forest.  We did cross a well-maintained bridge over a pretty little creek.  I saw a chipmunk.

And then we were heading up again.  Up.  Up.  Up.  Up the side of a mountain.  I HATE the sides of mountains – I must have died from falling off a ledge in a previous life.  We were going up a pothole-filled dirt and gravel one-lane road up a mountain and all I could do is tell you which direction is west and where the tortilla chips are.

“Should we turn around and go back?” I asked my husband.  I knew I could get us back – I just had no idea where forward would take us.  And we were on the side of a mountain, which I HATE.

“No, we’ll get there eventually.”

“Are you okay driving?”

“Oh sure, I’m fine.”

So up we continue.  We passed a few cars and a camping site, and some sort of encampment in the middle of nowhere which we landmarked as the meth-makers colony.  We continued going up and the road was narrow and bumpy and I was so sure we were either going to die, falling of the edge of the mountain, or the meth-makers were going to need to rescue us.  “They can have all my money and the chips, ” I said, “but they can’t have the dog.”

At least I still had my priorities straight.

Finally we reached the top of whatever Hell Mountain we were on, and there was an enormous puddle in front us, which I was sure was either a sinkhole or a ledge just waiting to break off.  “Do you want to walk up ahead and see how bad it is?” I asked my brave husband.  “Sure,” he said, calmly, as if he was enjoying himself.  Which he totally was.  Which both infuriated me and gave me courage.

I started reciting Psalm 121: I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  I felt better and in that moment, we did not die.

We went on.  We made it through the puddle.  We started going downhill.  The one-lane dirt road eventually becomes two lanes, and then a paved road, and then we saw it.  A bright yellow rectangle bearing the number 6: a beacon from heaven.  We knew where we were.  We had made it to the road that will take us to our driveway.  We will not die in the wilderness.

Over dinner that night I did thank the little Lord Baby Jesus for seeing us safely home, and I thanked my husband for being calm and keeping his sense of adventure. That night I started the new book I had downloaded on my Kindle: Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown.  I totally got the metaphor.

So here’s what I can appreciate, now that I am home-home, on flat ground with nary a mountain in sight: sometimes it’s really good to get mostly lost with someone you love. You have a deeper appreciation for their gifts and for yours and for the way you tolerate each other’s weakness.  You have to be in it together.  You have to have your priorities straight.  You have to be able to laugh and to pray.

Mostly, though, when you get lost with someone you love, you have to trust that you will get home again, with them, and that some day, you’ll be glad you had the adventure.

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Thanks, Mom, with love

I have always appreciated Mom – at least the way I remember it!  I’m sure there were a few adolescent years when the appreciation lay buried deep, but that same appreciation blossomed fully when I became a mother myself.  That’s when I realized that I grew up in a house with a superhero.

In the past few months, my appreciation and love for my mom has changed.  It’s as though it has been burnished by grief and devotion, with a rich patina that can come only from experiencing together sorrow and loss and a recognition of love.

At first Mom was surprised when we all came after we heard that Dad was dying.  We weren’t surprised to do that at all – that’s how we had been raised by the two of them.  You show up.  You wait for each other.  You leave pretense at the  door.

So we were all there, gathered at his bedside.  We four kids would go to our own rooms for the night, but Mom slept in Dad’s room, on the most uncomfortable cot in the world.  She didn’t complain.  She wanted to be there with him and for him, as she had been for 58 years.

And then – I can hardly write this – she stood with us as each of us had to say goodbye to Dad.  Three of us left before he died. I know how I felt when I left his room for the last time; leaving him was the hardest thing I have ever done.

But Mom was there for me, and for my brothers, as we each said goodbye and then cried and cried.  In her grief, in her exhaustion, she was still Mom.  She was still there for us, holding us, comforting us, being present with us in the rawness of grief.

So this year especially, I am grateful for my mother.  I am grateful for her humor and her wackiness, for her generosity and wisdom, and especially grateful for her devotion to Dad through it all, and for her presence with us in those bewildering days in December.

“Thank you” seems such an inadequate thing to say, and “I love you” does too.  The words are paltry, but all that is behind them is not.

Thank you, Mom.  I love you.

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Whose face do you see when you write the Easter sermon?

Well, it’s that time in Holy Week when I’m staring down the first draft of my Easter sermon, considering throwing the whole thing out, googling “great Easter sermon illustrations”, going back and reading awesome Easter sermons from the Great Masters and wishing I could be like them, and wondering if we could get away with a Lessons and Carols Easter.

No, too late for that.

So this is the point where I remember that I am called to serve a particular congregation, and while others whom I don’t know will show up, this is a Sunday for the congregation. And as I always do when I write a sermon, I picture these people in my mind’s eye.

I picture the family and friends of two members who died today, and wonder what on earth I could possibly say that could give them any measure of comfort, and remind myself that the best comfort comes not from words but from the community itself.

I picture my friend who comes to church on Christmas and Easter, and maybe once or twice in other times of the year, and wonder why she is there, and what she is looking for, and if any part of the service will find her.

I picture some folks who I think will worry that I’ll get political in the Easter sermon, because they brought their relatives who would disagree with anything I might say, making for an uncomfortable Easter brunch.

I picture those who don’t think a woman should ever be in the pulpit, and I don’t give them a second thought.

I picture my daughter, who has told me that our sermons lately have been downers and could I please say happy things this week since it’s Easter?

I picture the choir, sitting through the sermon twice, looking at my back for the whole of the sermon, and I say a prayer of gratitude for them, and for George Friedrich Handel, who wrote a pretty good piece called the Hallelujah Chorus.

I picture other members, getting on in years or fighting some crappy disease, knowing this may be their last Easter.

I picture the families, the parents who struggled to get their daughters into scratchy Easter dresses and their sons to wear clip-on ties because Grandma would like a cute picture, parents who worry about their kid acting up, or throwing a fit, and I want them to know that we understand kids get fussy and act out and we’re still so glad they are here.

I picture the staff and the volunteers who have worked so hard this week with extra services, doing so much to be hospitable and offer some spiritual depth.

I picture Jesus and Mary in the garden, and regret that that image is too informed by Warner Sallman and the pre-Raphaelites.

I picture the stranger who has come out of obligation.
I picture the friend who has come despite her grief.
I picture that faithful saint who has come because he believes all of this so deeply.

It’s a good audience, that crowd in my mind as I face down the lap top.

Who do you see when you write your Easter sermon?

 

Sunrise at the columbarium, with coffee

Two days after my father’s memorial service, my mother and sister and I had coffee at dawn at the columbarium where his ashes had been laid. It was a cool, dry morning, and while we did not see the sun, we did see the color of the sky change. We talked quietly, looked at the names next to the place where his name plate would eventually go, and sipped our coffee and blew our noses

This week as I think about Easter, I keep going back to that scene: three woman at the grave at dawn. Certainly we were still so very sad, and the worst of the grief had not yet set in. We were still together but later that day, after the sun had fully risen, I would make my way back to Oregon and my sister would go back to North Carolina. Our brothers would return home too, and Mom would return to her new life, life without Dad.

We left the columbarium so we could pack and head to the airport. Each goodbye weighed heavier than the last, though they were lightened by promises to see each other soon, to stay in touch, and we have, but still – there is nothing like being together in the flesh.

The Easter story tells of three women, or two disciples, or one woman and a gardener, all at the tomb. I know their grief, and I want to know their hope and surprise. This Holy Week in the thick of things, I do not know them. Not yet.

Sunday morning I will stand in the pulpit and read that magnificent story and I will bi-locate, and part of me will be at the columbarium with my mom and my sister, waiting for the sun to rise. One never really knows what will happen while preaching, if the Spirit will rush through me and I’ll know – know – that I’ll see Dad again; or if I’ll be totally disconnected from my words and putting on a good show; or if I’ll look out at the beloved congregation, so many of whom have walked through death and grief and hope, and who still show up in on Easter morning because there’s nothing like being together in the flesh, whether the news be bad or Good.

Church basements

A few years ago I did a wedding at the church for a couple who were not official members of the congregation.  The first time I met with them for premarital counseling, one of them asked if they could check out the church basement.  Sure, I said, with a slight hesitation, as we had already determined that they would get ready elsewhere and would not need “the bride’s room” to get ready.   As it turns out, this bride was the granddaughter of a pastor and she had a particular fascination with churches.  When we got downstairs, she took a big sniff, and said, “This smells just like a church basement should.”

I wasn’t sure how to react.  We had just done some renovations that included new drainage that would prevent the plaster walls from seeping water, so I was hoping she was not smelling fresh mold.

I’ve served a lot of churches, most of them with musty old basements.  In my first call, the choir music was stored in the basement and got moldy, so we had a good old-fashioned “wipe all the music down with diluted bleach” party.  We also availed ourselves of the opportunity to throw away the life-sized nativity set, since Joseph’s head was bashed in and one of the wise men was missing a hand.  That was before we found fifteen bags of bulk mail that were never delivered as someone hid them in the bowels of the church basement.

More recently, I’ve begun to think of church basements as magical places because of the great changes that begin in them.  How many 12 Step groups meet in church basements, in uneven circles of beige folding chairs, where people admit so much truth in their lives and seek deep transformation?  Those groups don’t work for everyone, I know, but I also know people who know they would be dead in some gutter without them.

This week I attended a meeting in the basement room of another church.  It was as you would suppose – acoustic tile ceiling, fluorescent lights, that unique slight smell, beige metal folding chairs, long tables, pillars in the middle of the room holding up the sanctuary one floor up.

Forty of us gathered in that church basement to talk about poverty, and the new Poor People’s Campaign, about being civilly disobedient to let the powers that be know that we really are serious about our friends who live with so little while we live with so much.  We signed things, and talked about why we were there, and promised to do something.  I wonder what spell J.K. Rowling would write for that, ending poverty.  Luxurios totem, maybe, or abudentsia totalis.

It didn’t seem very magical, if you looked at any one part of it – a few church people, more non-church people, xeroxed paper, beige folding chairs.  People who care about rents, and immigrants, and housing.  People like me who may or may not be courageous enough to be disobedient, albeit civilly.  People who believe that change can happen.

Even change that begins in a church basement.

church basement