Tag Archives: Grief

The Algebra of Life

Only an infrequent blogger such as I would have ears so tinny as to pose a mathematical riddle on a Sunday. Today’s algebraic challenge?

When does 62 = 24? Show your work.

The answer is June 7. Today is a mixed bag in our house. In the algebra of life, each June 7 marks another year of marriage for my parents while also marking another year that PW’s dad has been dead. Today is my parents’ 62nd wedding anniversary. PW’s dad died 24 years ago today.

Isn’t that so like life? One person can be experiencing a transcendent moment of awe while the person right next to her can be staggering through the endless, rocky, unpredictable terrain of grief. Even stranger is when the same person is living in both landscapes.

I never met PW’s dad, but I’ve heard enough stories to wish I had met him. And not a week goes by that I don’t ask him, in case he’s hanging around within earshot, “Did you see that? Did you hear that? She’s stunning, isn’t she?”

160 PARTY BARB 01_0003.1

My parents on their wedding day in 1953.

As for my parents, well, in their 62 years of marriage, I’m pretty sure they’ve reinvented the institution of marriage at least a handful of times. Probably more. I’ve never understood why people are afraid of marriage being reinvented. It seems to me that every couple who enters into this covenant will reinvent it, shape it in their own way, learning how to love each other as they come, to paraphrase Kristin Diable’s “True Devotion.”


My parents on PW’s and my wedding day in 2004.

I don’t know the particulars that have gone into my parents’ reinvention. I know some of the components that loom large: admiration, humor, and forgiveness.

When PW and I were watching the Belmont Stakes yesterday, we were both struck by how newly minted Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah finished the race–after a mile and a half, it seemed like he was still accelerating. That’s what my parents’ 62-year marriage looks like to me today,  as though their union has more forward momentum than ever before. I also happen to know that their church congregation gave them a standing ovation today, so there’s something else they have in common with the thunderous thoroughbred.

For some reason, this poem comes to mind on this bittersweet anniversary. It’s from Mary Oliver’s 2014 collection of poems entitle, Blue Horses, which PW gave me last Christmas:

RUMI (for Coleman Barks)
When Rumi went into the tavern
I followed.
I heard a lot of crazy talk
and a lot of wise talk.

But the roses wouldn’t grow in my hair.

When Rumi left the tavern
I followed.
I don’t mean just to peek at
such a famous fellow.
Indeed he was rather ridiculous with his
long beard and his dusty feet.
But I heard less of the crazy talk and
a lot more of the wise talk and I was
hopeful enough to keep listening

until the day I found myself
transformed into an entire garden
of roses.

Which brings us to another math problem:

When does 62 + 24 = infinity? Live your work.


Tide chart for the past week

Forbidden snacks and a movie

In weighing whether to play in her hockey games last Friday night and Saturday morning or to stay home for Lucy’s last night and morning, GForce opted to play. She told me she’d prefer time alone with the dog. So after school on Friday, before she left for her evening hockey game, GForce holed up with Lucy in the den, where they watched “Lady and the Tramp” together while GForce fed Lucy many Fritos, as well as a few other forbidden people-food snacks.

On seeing this, Tiger ran upstairs to PW’s office to tell on GForce and Lucy. With his animated meowing and dancing, he clearly conveyed his outrage. However, the content of his complaint was lost in translation, and the breach of protocol continued unabated.

* * * * * 

This is why we can’t have nice things

When our friends TK and GG arrived on Saturday, they brought with them a service of blessing for Lucy that GG created. We lit candles all over the living room and gathered around an excited Lucy (More company! Woo hoo! Hey, look! Have you seen this nasty stuffed toy I eviscerated years ago? Okay, but have you seen it UP CLOSE??) Eventually, Lucy settled back down and we began to reminisce and say prayers. During one of the more tender moments, Tiger jumped up onto the coffee table and sauntered over one of the lit candles.

Yes, he caught on fire.

No, he did not appear to notice.

Yes, the tearful mood was pierced by Lulu shrieking, “HE’S ON FIRE!”

Yes, TK grabbed him and put the fire out immediately.

Yes, the entire house reeked of burned fur for most of the rest of the day.

* * * * * * * *

A tongue mightier than death

In my previous post, I mentioned that one of Lucy’s, um, features was that she was very licky. This feature drove all of us crazy, and the most frequent daily correction of her behavior over the past nearly 10 years was, “Lucy, NO LICKING.”

As an example, most mornings when she was ready for me to get up, she would come to my side of the bed, rest her chin on the bed near my face, and heave a big dramatic sigh. I would reach over to scratch her neck and chest while she sat there, gamely trying to keep her mouth closed. Invariably, her head would tilt down and tongue would begin to creep out. If I said, “Ah ah!” she’d tuck her tongue back into her mouth. If I didn’t say anything, she’d slowly push her tongue out far enough to touch my hand or my wrist. If I still didn’t say anything, she would leave her tongue there for awhile. If I still didn’t say anything (because this was a game we played), only then would she commence licking.

In my experience, the veterinary protocol for euthanizing an animal is first to sedate the animal, and once the dog is asleep the vet administers the drug that stops the animal’s heart. On Saturday afternoon, as the sedative began to take effect, our licky Lucy began to lick the air. The sleepier she got, the slower she licked. When she was fully sedated, she put her chin on the floor and the tip of her tongue was still sticking out. She commenced snoring, which made us all laugh through our tears. Then we noticed her tongue sticking out and we laughed a little harder. How fitting that Lucy’s determination to lick could not be conquered by sleep, or even death. No wonder we couldn’t train her to not lick while she was with us!

* * * * * * * *

She is not here

In the last month of Lucy’s life, Tiger was unfailingly attentive to her. Any time she would lie down, he would rush to her side and begin licking her head. We probably should have clued in that something was up with her, but of course only the official diagnosis of cancer from a board-certified veterinarian and the ridiculously fast growth of the lump on her neck made us sit up and take notice.

After Lucy died on Saturday, Lulu went and got Tiger (who made himself scarce after his attempt at self-immolation had failed) and plopped him down next to Lucy’s head. “Here you go, Tige. Take one last lick.”

Tiger refused to look at Lucy’s body. Instead, he craned his neck and appeared to scan the ceiling, looking all around above Lucy’s body. He seemed to be saying, “What is this? I’m not licking that. That is NOT my Lucy. She’s not here.” Even now, remembering that brief moment gives me goosebumps.

* * * * *

Mad cat

On Sunday night, PW and I sat exhausted on the couch in the den, watching TV. Tiger was fast asleep next to PW. At some point, I turned from the TV to look at him and noticed that he was awake, and that he was sitting next to PW on the couch, with his body turned facing us. And he was staring at us in this frozen-in-time, unblinking way. It was a little unsettling, and grew more unsettling the longer he stared. Several minutes. PW reached over to pat him and he started meowing at her. He didn’t move, but his meowing grew louder and more insistent. We tried talking to him soothingly, but he continued to meow. At one point, PW reached over to pat him again, and this time he turned his back and snarled at her.

When I told this to GForce, and suggested that PW and I deduced that he’s mad that Lucy’s gone, GForce said, “Well, in the animal world, he’s been widowed.”

* * * * *

I’d like to teach the world to cry

As we were driving to our veterinarian’s office to give them Lucy’s body so it can be cremated, I recalled a similar trip we made not quite 12 years ago with our dog Zoey. And I recalled feeling the same way then as I do now. All these people out in the world, doing whatever they’re doing, oblivious to my shattered heart, make me feel so mad. Tiger’s right: it’s an outrage. Stop all the clocks.

Except the foremost thought in my head is more like, “What is WRONG with you people? What is WRONG with you people who are playing in the snow? You people who are walking along, talking and laughing. You people who are shopping at the hardware store. You people who aren’t crying. My dog is DEAD!!”

My anger isn’t so much that Lucy is dead. Every living thing dies. I’m angry that my heartbreak, which at times feels so consuming to me, is so relatively tiny that it’s not reflected in the face of everyone I see. In my grief fantasies, I bastardize that Coca-Cola jingle and turn it into “I’d like to teach the world to cry, and sob along with me…” My dog is dead, and there are moments when deep down I want tears streaming down every face I see.

Then, a gift.

Monday morning, on my bus ride to work, one of the two women sitting in the row behind me quietly sobbed through the entire 20-minute ride. She was gasping those quavering clipped breaths that are the heartbroken person’s refrain.

Monday night, at prison, PW and I shared a table with an incarcerated woman who was so overcome by tears while she colored that she put down her markers and sat with her head in her hands while her tears dripped down onto the table.

It felt weird to be comforted by the despair of those two strangers, but their tears were strangely calming. Finally, I felt, the universe is listening. Thank you.

* * * * *

We got no stinkin’ tide charts

We’ve heard from lots of people expressing their condolences, and wondering how we’re doing. I’ve written before that my own experience of grief is not a series of linear stages. It’s more like the tide. And this grief, with its magnetic pull that draws all other griefs of my life toward it, feels like trying to make my way to the beach through a particularly rough surf. One moment I have solid footing and the water at my back. The next thing I know, it’s all loose rocks churned up by the undertow, and I’m struggling against the water as it rushes back out to sea.

Every time I feel caught up in the tide, I think, “Oh, this is the worst part.” It might be prompted by seeing a tuft of Lucy’s fur. Arriving home to the chasm that is the absence of Lucy’s greeting. Countless other things. In reality, the worst part of death is the way it shatters whatever our routines used to be, and how long it takes our brains and our hearts to process our new reality.

On Saturday evening, we had theater tickets, purchased several weeks ago before we had any inkling of what our day was going to be like. I was at the sink late Saturday afternoon, doing the usual math in my head: “If the show starts at 7:30, we need to leave at 6:45, so we’ll eat by 6, and I still need to shower. So I should walk the dog by…Oh. Right.”

High tide.

After I re-collected myself, I went up to GForce’s room and said, “Want to take a walk with me? I feel at sea here with no Lucy to walk before we have to leave.” GForce replied, “Sure, mama. Do you need me to wear the leash?”

I was surprised by my belly laugh. Low tide.

When we arrived home late Saturday night, after a spectacular show (the American Repertory Theater’s “Pippin”), PW, GForce, and I ended up huddled together in the kitchen while I sobbed harder than I had all day.

High tide.

After I re-collected myself, we broke our huddle and headed upstairs to bed after our long and difficult day. I took a deep breath as I looked at the front door and called after GForce and PW, “Anyone want to join me in the front yard for one last pee? For old times’ sake?”

“No thanks, but knock yourself out!”

Smile. Lights out. Low tide.

And so it goes. There’s no timetable for this particular tide we Lucy lovers are in. It is predictable only in the fact of it. Best to just keep swimming.


On Them Light Has Shined

Lucy: proper name, from L. Lucianus (cf. Fr. Lucien), a derivative of Roman Lucius, from lux (gen. lucis) “light” (see light (n.)).


Lucy — September 2, 2002 – January 5, 2013

If you’re lucky, somewhere in the course of your life an animal picks you who gives you much more love than you can possibly return. If you are luckier still, the animal who picks you lives a long and relatively healthy life. And if you are even luckier still, this abundance of luck suddenly pivots into a kind of curse.

It feels like both the best and the most terrible luck in life to have arrived at this point with our 10-year-old golden retriever, Lucy. We learned this past Wednesday that the fast-growing lump on her neck was an inoperable cancer. PW and I made the excruciating decision to spare Lucy any more suffering than she has already endured, to allow her life to end while she’s still recognizable to us as the goofy, light-bearing wonder she has always been.

And so, Lucy’s humans, on whom her light has shined—who have been adored, and sometimes tolerated, far more than we can begin to comprehend or repay—have to let go of our animal before we are ready. And really, is it ever possible to be ready to let go of a love that has exceeded our wildest dreams, both in its longevity and its sheer size?

This morning GForce and I took Lucy for one last frolic in the snow. Lulu gave her a few Christmas cookies (Lucy loved baked goods of all kinds). Then we gathered with a couple of dear friends, who are facing a similar decision with one of their three dogs, and had a little ceremony of farewell. And then an amazingly compassionate veterinarian came to our house so that Lucy and we could say goodbye in the comfort and familiarity of our own home.

When we adopted Lucy at nine months old, she came to us from the National Education for Assist Dog Services (NEADS) with a list of about 50 commands she had down pat. She could turn on lights, open doors, and, my favorite feature, she never jumped up on people. Her name was Robyn.

Robyn was raised in the NEADS “Prison PUP Partnership,” which places puppies in prisons all over New England to be raised and trained by incarcerated people for assist dog work. I had put in an application for one of the NEADS “furloughed favorites” several months prior to getting a call from them, in July, 2003.

Robyn was “furloughed” from professional assist dog work at 9 months because of hip displaysia, and she was a perfect fit for our family. When PW and I first met her at NEADS, she was fresh out of prison, and her NEADS handler warned us that the prison pups develop an intense bond with the people who raise them because they have so much 1×1 time. She added that in the couple of days since Robyn had left the prison on her furlough, every time she entered a room she would frantically look around for “her guy.” Then the handler went to get Robyn.

Sure enough, Robyn came bursting into the room a la Kramer from the old Seinfeld show. She frantically looked around, then locked in on PW and me and scrabbled excitedly across the tile floor, sliding to a sitting stop on top of my feet. She tilted her head back to look at me and grinned. And that’s pretty much what the last almost 10 years have been like with her.

After that first meeting, PW and I reluctantly left her behind so that we could go home and get our house ready. A couple of days later, the five of us piled into the station wagon and drove an hour west to the NEADS facility to bring Robyn home.

Of course, we brought toys with us. The whole way home, in the rear view mirror I’d see Robyn’s head randomly popping up as she threw the toys from the way back into the back seat where the girls were jammed in next to each other. No offense to anyone named Robyn, but we all felt this dog needed a different name. The five of us discussed new names, and we settled on Lucy, in no small part because her fur had a reddish hue and her personality reminded us of Lucille Ball. She seemed very much like the kind of dog who would have lots of “‘splainin’ to do,” as Ricky always said to Lucy in the “I Love Lucy” show.

Little did we know.

Sure enough, Lucy’s “counter surfing” skills were unparalleled and the only place we could safely leave food out was on top of the refrigerator. One Christmas at PW’s mom’s house, we put all the pies out to cool on a sideboard in the dining room and left for a walk, with Lucy secured in the kitchen by baby gates. When we got back, two pies were gone and a very uncomfortable and bloated Lucy had somehow jumped back over the gates into the kitchen, where her sugar high gave her smile a demented quality.

A couple of years later, that same demented sugar-high smile was tinged with green Christmas cookie frosting after she nosed her way into the room where four dozen Christmas cookies were cooling and ate every last cookie.

PW’s dreams of taking Lucy to work with her were crushed by Lucy’s love of baked goods. It proved impossible to keep Lucy out of the food pantry storage bins at the church. She would sneak off when PW was busy with something, return with a half-eaten loaf of focaccia in her mouth, and fix PW with big sad eyes, as if to say, “I have been bad, and here is the evidence that convicts me.”

In her range of mishaps and facial expressions, our Lucy was the canine embodiment of Lucy Ricardo from that classic old TV show. Because she had such a long and vibrant life, there are way too many Lucy stories to tell in one sitting.

She was both incredibly sweet and ridiculous. She could sit quietly for a long time while our cat Tiger licked her entire face, and she was also given to random air raid siren howling in her sleep. She snored loudly. She would carry on entire conversations if we took the time to grunt back at her. She slept in positions that seemed unbelievably uncomfortable. She was very licky. She had a great smile. She had terrible breath. She loved to grab Tiger around the middle between her  front feet and drag him around the house. Tiger also loved this.

One can learn a lot about love from a dog. I like to think that all of us learned how to love each other a little better from getting to live more than nine years with Lucy. And as it often goes with love, the greatest depths of our connections are plumbed at ending times.

Since our animals can’t talk or write to us about what might be the best time to move on, we have to figure that out, both for them and for us. It is an unbearably heavy load. Thankfully, PW and the girls and I agreed that we didn’t want to wait until the sweet and goofy Lucy we knew was eclipsed by a hollowed out, incontinent, and immobile shell of her former self. We will not choose to let her suffer to squeeze a few more days or weeks out of a well-lived and long life.

I know so many people who, after putting their diminished pets down, have said, “I probably waited too long.” That is not the song that our family wanted to sing, even though we all are probably still feeling wobbly about this decision. So we made our Alleluias with broken hearts and through a river of tears, surrounded by the love of friends, family, and probably quite a few strangers.

The prophet Isaiah wrote,

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

How lucky we have been to have been chosen by Lucy, to have basked in her light for these past nearly 10 years. There are not enough words for the gratitude we feel.

I made this video to share some of Lucy’s spirit with you. The song is “Heavenly Day,” by Patty Griffin. Griffin has described this gorgeous love song as having been inspired by her dog, so it seemed the perfect soundtrack. The last image in the video is a watercolor portrait of Lucy that Lulu gave me for Christmas last week. When I opened it, I burst into tears because even then I could feel the shadow of this day.

If you came this way

                                        If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion.

Almost seven years ago I had one of those famous “NPR driveway moments.” I had been driving home from work, and a “This I Believe” segment came on. It was called “Always Go to the Funeral,” and its refrain still runs through my head with a frequency that still surprises me–much in the way that every death, no matter how anticipated or imminent, is surprising.

As I sat in the driveway listening to Deirdre Sullivan talk about this life lesson her father taught her—Always go to the funeral—I thought about important funerals I’ve missed. And it’s not as though the life-changing moment of hearing “Always Go to the Funeral” somehow inoculated me from ever again missing an important funeral. But I’ve been to a lot more funerals since that driveway moment, thanks to this stranger named Deirdre Sullivan.

This is partly why, this past Saturday, I spent much of a chilly and luminous New England spring day in church, attending the memorial service of a woman nearly two years younger than I, whom I’d never met. Cancer took Jeanne McCrorie from her family and friends far too soon.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here’s a photo of the “blossoms have appeared in the land” banner on a day that looked much like this past Saturday.

The pick-up choir of more than 30 of Jeanne’s friends and family (some of the finest singers in the city) rehearsed Heinrich Schütz’s “Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead)” as some of the early birds arrived. The heartbreaking beauty of Schütz’s motet was a musical painting of grief as the price of love.

From the comparatively dark alcove of the church where I was handing out programs, I could see an almost fluorescent sliver of cornflower blue sky. A banner hung over the door, so that mourners trudged up the steps under the words, “blossoms have appeared in the land.”

Amid the intense sensory collision of sight and sound between the music, the banner, the sky, and the repetition of greeting the steady stream of Jeanne’s shattered survivors, it occurred to me:  I am meeting Jeanne right now. This is how we are getting to know each other. Hello, my newest friend!

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

People have all kinds of excuses for why we don’t go to church, or to weddings, funerals, baptisms, christenings, whatever. I know, because I’ve thought of many of them myself over the course of my life. Thankfully, seven years ago, Diedre Sullivan cut through all that so perfectly:

In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

One of the things I’ve learned is that, a lot of the time, it’s not really that much more difficult to do good than to do nothing. And even when it IS much more difficult, here’s a bit of Zen-like wisdom from my oldest brother, who once told me, “How ever far out of your way you are willing to go, THAT is the way.”

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets. These were among the readings at Jeanne’s memorial service.

When PW was meeting with Jeanne and her family to plan the memorial service, Jeanne said she wanted the service to be like “one last hug.” Mission accomplished. It was lovely to finally meet you, Jeanne. I’ve heard so much about you. I look forward to getting to know you better.

The Cambridge Singers perform Heinrich Schütz’s (1585-1672) arrangement of ‘Selig sind die Toten.’

Selig sind die Toten,
die in dem Herren sterben,
von nun an.
Ja der Geist spricht:
Sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit
und ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach.

English translation:
Blessed are the dead,
that die in the Lord
from now on.
Yea, the Spirit speaks:
they rest from their labors
and their works follow them.

Change Management

That bright, clear, perfect late-summer morning, I was one of 15 people sitting around a conference room table. Several of our colleagues from other offices were dialed into the meeting, too.

Change Management. Every Tuesday morning. 9-10 am.

warning change ahead

Look out!

Months earlier, a corporate auditor was attempting to impress upon our departmental manager the vital importance of Change Management. The manager sneered, “Change Management?!? I don’t give a FAT. RAT’S. ASS. about Change Management.” That statement, and the attitude, hung over our weekly Change Management meetings like both a millstone and a team flag.

One of the guys who attended these meetings by phone was named Tom. He called in from Poughkeepsie. He was always a no bullshit kind of guy, calling things as he saw them, regardless of the political fallout. He was one of those truth-tellers who could be searingly funny one moment and witheringly dismissive the next. In nearly 10 years of working at the company, I never met Tom. But I still hear his voice from that morning.

Our meeting that day started with the usual banter. We had been meeting weekly for about six months, so we knew each other pretty well. We talked about baseball and football as we waited for everyone to check in. Tom was a die-hard Yankee fan, so he was teasing the Cambridge-based team about how much the Red Sox sucked. Just as the chair of the meeting started to go over the agenda, Tom blurted, “Holy shit. Somebody just said that a plane flew into one of the World TradeTowers. What the fuck?”

We all looked at each other. Someone asked, “What kind of plane?” Tom said, “How the hell do I know? Probably some idiot small plane. Had to be an idiot if he can’t figure out how to avoid the tallest building in the world.”

We continued to move through the Change Requests (CRs). Tom broke in again. “Now it’s two planes! Two fucking planes have hit the towers! What the fuck?!”

Those of us around the table in Cambridge all looked at each other, bewildered. After a long pause, we continued our routine of slogging through the 20 or so CRs, with Tom’s silence now heavy in the room. Usually, Tom had something to say about every single CR, often describing them with words such as, “Bullshit.” “Stupid.” “Pointless.” But he had “gone on mute,” as we called it.

Minutes later, someone in Tom’s office had hooked up a TV, and Tom was seeing the now iconic images of the twin towers engulfed in smoke and flames. He broke in, “Shit, people, we gotta end this call. You all need to find televisions. You’re not gonna believe this. What the FU–” He hung up.

Our office was across from a shopping mall. Only the CVS and the Starbucks were open, and neither had televisions. The other stores didn’t open until 10. People from our building streamed into the mall anyway, running around frantically looking for televisions. One of the restaurants always kept its three TVs on different stations, even when it wasn’t open. A crowd gathered outside this restaurant. We stood there watching, trying to make sense of it all. We couldn’t hear the audio, so all we had were the images. Gradually, people wandered off. I stood there, alone, riveted, consumed with confusion, with Tom’s “What the FUCK?!” still echoing in my ears.

When the South Tower collapsed, I blurted, “Holy SHIT!” When the North Tower came down, I ran out of the mall and across the street to our offices. My boss had already sent around an email telling us to go home if we wanted. I grabbed my bag and left.

The drive along the Charles River was surreal and slow. Dreamlike. It seemed crazy to have such a picture perfect day in Boston, while chaos and terror were choking the skies and streets in New York. I called PW and told her I had been sent home. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. Minutes later I called my parents. My dad answered. All I remember about that conversation is that we were both crying.

I drove to GForce’s school. Lots of other parents were milling about outside. The office had posted a note on the door saying that if parents wanted to pick up their kids, they should proceed to the classrooms and talk with the teachers. I wasn’t worried about GForce’s safety. I just wanted to be the first one to talk with her about what was going on.

As I approached the classroom, the sound of Louis Armstrong’s voice singing, “What a Wonderful World” lilted into my ears. The floodgates opened again. With tears running down my face, I asked the kindergarten teacher if I could take GForce home. She patted me on the arm and said, “Of course you can, honey. I haven’t told them anything. We’ve just been listening to music together.”

In the car, GForce had all the usual questions, coupled with the age-appropriate attention span of a honeybee in a field of wild flowers. “What happened to the buildings, Mom? What’s for lunch? Why did people fly planes into the buildings? Can we go to the playground?” I still don’t remember how I answered her “Why?” questions. Probably, I just repeated the refrain of, “I don’t know”

Yesterday, PW met with her interfaith colleagues in their final preparation for the “Back Bay 9/11 Commemoration: From Remembrance to Hope.” While I am glad that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are gathering together on Sunday for this combined service, I feel a twinge of regret that the Christian Gospel lesson assigned for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary will not be among the readings in the service:

Matthew 18:21-35

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Whoa. So much for the “New Testament God of Love,” that many Christians are so prone to citing, in favorable comparison with the “angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament.” But I digress.

This past week, the Boston Globe has been running 9/11 remembrance stories, as I’m sure is occurring in media throughout the country. There was one in particular that surprised me with its coverage of people whose stories I have never heard before: the flight attendant who was supposed to be on American Airlines Flight 11, but called in sick; the baggage handler at Logan Airport who tried—and failed—to get bags labeled “M. Atta” onto Flight 11; a pilot who served as Captain John Ogonowski’s co-pilot for 10 years; the ramp supervisor who cleared American Flight 11 to leave the gate; the ticket agent who sold two of the hijackers their tickets to United Airlines Flight 175; the security agent at the United Airlines checkpoint, who was only 19 years old at the time.

Matthew’s Gospel lesson for September 11, 2011 was rattling around in my head when I was stopped short by this passage in the Globe article:

Arriving in Lower Manhattan two nights after the attacks, [Ogonowski’s former co-pilot] found a sanitation worker about to toss away scrap metal that he recognized as part of Ogonowski’s landing gear. Escaping the dust and chaos, he slipped into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, knelt in a pew, and tried to say the Lord’s Prayer. It took 50 attempts before he could get through “forgive those who trespass against us’’ without faltering.

It gives me goosebumps to imagine this griefstruck pilot kneeling in a pew, struggling to repeat “The Lord’s Prayer” 50 times so that he could get through the passage about forgiveness without getting tripped up by it. I don’t know if I would have had the patience or generosity of spirit to persist. Maybe the open wound of that intense grief would have propelled me toward forgiveness, as many times as necessary and then some more. I hope it would, but I really don’t know. After all, I’m still working on some forgiveness issues that I’ve tried at least 77 times without success.

When I linger on the mental image of that pilot kneeling in the pew, I wonder if forgiveness is the ultimate Change Management. Maybe one reason change is so hard to manage is because genuine forgiveness is so difficult. But how else can we change the ways we relate to horrible things, or even simple slights, so that our future is not filled with wounds that we continue to re-open? Even when I know forgiveness will give me a radically better future, it can still be excruciatingly hard.

Forgiveness is so difficult that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew is that we must forgive “not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In Biblical terms, that’s the equivalent of “more times than you can count.” And it’s way more than 50. So there we have it, Christians: The Gospel Imperative of Change Management. No wonder we need recurring weekly meetings.

Yesterday morning, two days shy of the 10th anniversary of that awful day, GForce said she wanted to interview me for a school project. “Sure, what’s the project about?” I asked. “It’s about September 11th, and what you remember about where you were that day.”

What I remember about where I was on the morning of September 11th is that I was in a recurring weekly meeting. The subject: Change Management.

On balancing peaches and grief

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.

Fun fact: the peach blossom is the Delaware state flower.

Fun fact: the peach blossom is the Delaware state flower.

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.

From Blossoms
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.

“A slow section of a pas de deux requiring great skill and strength by the dancers”

The title of this post comes from one of the definitions of the word “adagio.”  Years ago, a dear friend of mine – J – finally succumbed to the ravages of HIV after living with it for more than 15 years, a rare feat in the 1980s and early 90s.  After J died, I wrote a poem called “Adagio” to try to figure out how I would live without him.  J was the minister of music at the first church I felt at home in since I stopped going to church when I left home for college.  His humor, his courage, his musicianship and his theological perspectives were like life support for me in those first few years that I struggled with returning to church.

J’s conversations were always peppered with puns, wry observations, and piercing insights.  I was on a church committee with him once when we were discussing whether the cross was too prominent a focal point in the sanctuary.  Someone on the committee said, “Well, I don’t know why we’re even having this discussion.  The cross IS the focal point, the starting point, for Christian worship, isn’t it?!”  J responded with an intensity that stunned everyone in the room.  He leaned forward and said with a quiet ferocity, “No.  No.  The focal point of Christian worship is the communion table.  We don’t gather around the cross.  We gather around the table.  The table is what makes us a family.”

In J’s last weeks, my then-partner and I were on the rota of bringing in food to J and his partner.  J especially loved pie – which he called Vitamin P – and so we made sure that a pie was always one of our menu items when we brought dinner to J and his partner.  Sometimes we would just sit and watch him sleep while we swapped J stories.  Often a group of us would sit around his bed and sing to him.  It was a long goodbye, and yet, like every death, there was still a shocking suddenness to it when he was finally gone.

I had to do some digging to find that old poem, “Adagio.”  My search was prompted by what in our household is now a double whammy of June 6 and 7.  June 6 is the birthday of Mary, a long-time and much-loved friend of PW’s and mine, and a mothering tower of power in Sheerah and Lulu’s lives.  Mary died this past December after a lifetime of challenging health issues that stemmed from being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 15.  At age 18, Mary was not expected to live six more months.  For years, she told people she had surpassed her expiration date.

Mary died at age 46, leaving behind an enormous and heartbroken galaxy of family (her wife and their three children, plus Sheerah & Lulu, her mother, her siblings and their families, her in-laws), friends, former co-workers, and neighbors. Mary’s Facebook page lives on without her, and many of us posted birthday greetings to her yesterday.

June 7, the back half of the double whammy, is the 19th anniversary of the death of PW’s father.  He died suddenly at age 54, a mere three years older than I am now. And if the universe weren’t already strange enough, June 7 is also my parents’ 57th wedding anniversary.  I suspect that some of those 57 years of my parents’ marriage have been long, and some have flown by.  But a death year doesn’t vary in its interminable-ness, in my experience.  So I’m guessing that the 19 years of PW’s dad being dead feel longer than any number can measure.  At least that’s how it looks in her eyes.

I’m not one who cares for that whole “He/She is in a better place” stuff.  For me, the “better place” idea is one of the many theoretically helpful things people say to console someone else, or themselves. I know it’s usually well-intentioned, but I’d rather just have someone stand next to me and say nothing, or say, “This sucks.” Or, “I’m so sorry.” Or, “There are no words, so I’m not going to say anything.  I’m just going to stand here with you and breathe.”

Living on after losing a loved one feels to me like trying to dance with a missing partner.  Like the title of this post, it’s slow, and it requires great skill and strength.  While nobody knows what comes after death for the ones who leave us, I do believe that on our side of things, it is still possible to tend to an evolving relationship with a dead person.  We have to invent new moves, new words, new ears for listening more deeply than we’ve ever had to listen before.  In my experience, the relationship doesn’t die with the person, but the change is so mind-boggling and heart-shattering, it can feel like the relationship is also dead.

For anyone else out there who is mourning, trying to figure out the new steps to this strange dance of loving someone who is no longer here, here’s a little poetic offering for you, one of my many attempts over the years to cobble together some shards of meaning out of incomprehensible loss.


For J

In a last spinning step
you glided through the door that is no door.
The remaining steps – the ones we do without you –
follow the rhythms of
“I remember when…”
“Once when he…”

It is good, the dance of remembering,
and we practice it momently.
We use intricate moves to step through sorrow,
broader steps to trace a bad pun.

This movement between your world and ours
now demands a syncopation that is new to us.
Sometimes we improvise, with dipping and twirling.
Sometimes we take comfort in a set pattern
of predictable movement.
Often the dance is hard.
We forget our steps, or we don’t know them at all.
We bump into each other.
We are afraid to lead, or too stuck to follow.

Still, somehow, there is grace in our clumsiness.
Ours is an awkward grace of heavy feet
moving by the sheer force of will.
We are down one partner now,
but we dance our memories into the future as best we can.

We dance.
We must keep moving.

© Joy Howard, 1993/2010

I had a different video picked out, Eddie Vedder and Neil Young singing “The Long Road.”  But then I found this one that is such a great connection to my previous post, and the lyrics are such an evocative portrait of what grief feels like to me.  The way they end the song, both the sound and the visual of father and daughter singing with and to each other, reduced me to a blubbering mess.  You may need a whole box of tissues.  I ended up needing a beach towel.