My dad and I enjoyed our customary hilarity by phone Monday night. Mom was hosting a bunch of women for a Dining for Women event, so my introverted, non-female dad retreated to the lower level of their house, where he takes up his usual historian manly-man things, like working on manuscripts and building shelves by the gazillions with loud power tools. When I suggested that he marshal some other husbands of the women and launch a panty raid on the gathering, he chortled and put on his best macho bluster, “Aw, to heck with those guys! I don’t need any help!”
During our conversation, Mom came down to bring Dad some dessert, and he warned her of the panty raid plan. She retorted that it was too late, everyone was gone except some people who were staying behind to play cards.
Believe me, I know how lucky I am to have both my parents still alive and as vital and funny as ever. Every time I talk with them, I hear about a funeral they have been to, or the funeral they’re planning (they’re both retired ministers, as much as any minister is ever retired), or the time they’ve spent with a friend of theirs who is in the twilight of life, having struggled for x number of years with some horrific disease.
Monday night was no exception. The conversation shifted as Dad talked about having visited on Sunday night a “young” friend of theirs who has been battling multiple myeloma for 10 years or so. Dad talked softly about the feeling of powerlessness, of being able to offer only the simple gift of showing up, holding the woman’s hand, and sitting with her and her family.
I opened Facebook Tuesday morning to find several posts from friends of my parents saying goodbye to the woman, who died shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning. All day long there was a steady beat of remembrances and tributes to her on Facebook, from people of all ages.
This unfolded in the wake of the recent death of my friend E, who was a big fan of my dog Lucy. And it unfolded on a day when my office building shook and swayed during a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia that was felt by people from Toronto to New England to Ohio to South Carolina. And it unfolded on my first day back at work after our annual week-long pilgrimage to sit by the ocean on the Delaware shore. It has all combined to remind me yet again that the world teems with both life and death, all at once. Grief is always there, like the tide. Coming in, going out. Ebbing and flowing. Dragging stuff up onto the shore, and pulling it back under.
So here’s a poem for my many friends and family who are grieving, for whatever reason. At my 30th college reunion this past June, one of my classmates read this so evocatively and tenderly, all you could hear was the intense suspended animation of a couple hundred people not breathing.
by Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
The exercise of balancing the grief of losing someone we love with the gratitude at having known that person at all is a little like trying to keep “From Blossoms” in your mind while feeling like this song from Kris Delmhorst’s masterful “Strange Conversation” album. Delmhorst added her own plaintive, simple melody to lyrics she adapted from James Weldon Johnson’s, “Sence You Went Away.”
I hope you find ways to enjoy the waning summer. Hold on to your life’s peaches as long as you can. Admire them. Savor them. Drink in their textures and smells. Above all, eat them, in all their round jubilance.