Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Friday, a giant heavy box arrived in Seattle, WA, from Raleigh, NC, via FedEx. The box was tall and narrow. It must have weighted 30 pounds. In it was a project that I made in eighth grade, a collage of 36 photos and a few words shellacked on a round piece of wood. My original idea, or the idea that my teacher had recommended, had been to create a tabletop that might eventually grow legs. That never happened.
As my parents prepare to move from the home they’ve lived in for 45 years, Mom is cleaning out the house I grew up in and mailed me this memorabilia.
It’s interesting to look at this relic from my childhood and to see how I presented myself in the eighth grade. There are baby photos of me, a photo of me in red, white, and blue on July 4, 1976, at a bicentennial party, a photo of skinny me waterskiing, and a photo of red-headed me with our dog Tripper. Other than a small photo of my pen pal Cory McAllister from Indianapolis (I wonder what she’s up to now), all of the photos are of family: cousins, my parents (including my mom in that sexy red dress, her thin arm around my slightly greying father), my siblings (Sister Jen when I dressed her up as a clown and Little Brother Matt when I dressed him up as an old man), and our cocker spaniels, Sparky and Tripper. Other than the photos, there’s a four leaf clover, now pale with its 40 years, the cut-out words of the summer camp I went to as a child, “life…”, “sailing”, and “Coke”, the last the effects of marketing, I’m sure. I never really liked Coke much. I preferred milk. (and there you have it: a glimpse at my oddity.)
When Mom told me she was mailing this treasure, I remembered how heavy it was and asked her to give it to Goodwill or recycle it. She said, “You can give it to Goodwill or recycle it, but I’m mailing it to you.”
I took her at her word, so when it arrived, I first showed Ann and our friend Ellen around the collage, then brainstormed with them how we might recycle it. When I told Mom on the phone that I was planning to recycle it, she seemed surprised and hurt. I would do almost anything not to make my mom feel bad—she has been there for me for a lifetime, and I want to be there for her, too. I felt bad, but really, what would I do with it? I tend to create cluttered spaces (aka my desk), but I try to follow my mom's and partner Ann's examples and tidy up.
I have seen homes cluttered by not letting go. Our 97 year-old neighbor, Annabella, has so many papers and photos cluttering her floors that it’s hard for me to visit. When I went to visit last week, I had to hold on to the walls so that I didn’t slip on my way in and through. When I got to the dining room where she was sitting, she said, “Sit wherever you can find a place.” All the chairs were covered with stuff, so I just sat on the stuff in one of them.
My Grandmother Matthews, also a child during the Depression, hoarded things as well, and after she died, Mom went through her things, old newspaper page by painstaking page: with a savings bond tucked between the papers from time to time.
My mom, in contrast, has spent her days after my siblings and I moved out cleaning out the house, one closet at a time. When we were young, she always wanted us to make our beds and clean our rooms, which I thought was silly because they’d just get mussed again. (Thus, there was the year when I slept on top of the bed so that I didn’t have to make it. Finally, Mom just started shutting the door down the hallway to our rooms, a section of the house Mom called “the zoo.” )
Mom likes things tidy. She’s no hoarder, but she did save my siblings’ and my papers, projects, report cards, and so forth. She shepherded me and my siblings through our early years, so these school projects may track her progress as much as ours. As she and my dad prepare to move from this home they built and have lived in for 46 years, reducing their space from 5000 square feet to 2000, there are some treasures she cannot abide to part with. So I guess she’s sending them to us. (She sent me some china, too, which my partner Ann and I are delighted to have.)
It’s hard to let go. Since my brain tumors, I’ve had more practice letting go than many people my age. I’ve let go of my career, my driver’s license, hiking in the mountains, traveling in technologically developing places, and walking or talking easily. I’ve let go of an even smile and single vision. I’ve let go of cooking and gardening.
The fact that I can list the things I’ve let go may mean that I haven’t really let them go. I still feel their loss. Sometimes, I find the losses in my dreams: walking easily beside Ann without holding on to her or a cane; teaching, always teaching (though Ann tells me I usually speak like Charlie Brown’s teacher, one night I said quite clearly, “The point of learning is to understand.”) I neither drive nor cook in my dreams: apparently, those chores I’ve let go.
If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you know that I embrace the life I still have, and I feel lucky to live a second life in this one. Still, I mourn the life that is no more.
As I age in the second half of a century, and many of my friends are older or sicker than I am, I also mourn the lives of friends who have passed: one church friend died a week ago, and yesterday was the first anniversary of another’s death.
Thinking about these passings and others on Sunday, I listed to Dr Geoff Warburton’s TED talk on grief. These lines struck me: “You need to embrace everything that grief brings you…. You need to feel that emotional abyss. You need to let that abyss swallow you…. It may feel that in that abyss, a part of you is dying, and maybe a part of you needs to die in order to live…. Right in the center of that abyss, in that silence, you’ll find your liberation.” Warbutton, who lost a brother, is talking about the abyss after the death of someone we love.
In addition to loss after death, I think of so many other losses. For example, I think of my losses since brain tumors. As I’m becoming increasingly involved with immigrants and refugees, I think also of the grief of too many people living in violence and poverty, too many people whom our country’s not welcoming.
Yesterday, at a re-launch of the sanctuary movement in Seattle, a movement that works towards safety and kindness towards immigrants and refugees, a minister quoted a woman seeking refuge whom she knew in Denver, Colorado. Ana, the wife of Arturo, husband and father under threat of deportation said, “You do not know how strong you are until you do not have another option.”
For me, this learning about myself in this time of loss has been a gift of my brain tumors. But loss has not been a gift in a perfume-y, tidily wrapped and red-bowed package. It has been a hard gift, a gift that I've accepted only because I haven't had another option. I believe the tumors have enriched my life, but that doesn’t mean I’ve liked these losses or I’d choose them.
Sunday at the end of church, I stood to give a welcome to newcomers as well as old-timers, as I and the other lay leader often do. I hadn’t planned to do this week’s welcome, so I hadn’t planned and just started talking when I stood up, hoping I would go in an appropriate direction.
I spoke to what was in my heart, and what was in my heart was the ache of so many people around me who were having to let go. Behind me sat a man whose partner died just a week ago.
The minister had talked in her sermon about beauty and miracles, and the sun outside shone at last, so I was simultaneously feeling the ache of loss and the ache of wonder.
When I said, “Perhaps you came to church aching today,” several people made intense eye contact. Several have talked with me since. They and I seem to have connected in this aching space: both aching with loss and aching with beauty. Perhaps you connect here, too. Welcome.