Finding Beauty In Life and Death

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I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.

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I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

Forgiveness

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When I was twenty years old I became the caretaker for my mother when her bipolar disorder sent her into a psychotic state. At the time I was sorely ignorant of mental illness and lacking confidence in my own abilities to assess the situation and advocate for the very best care for her. I would make a decision regarding her therapy that would haunt me for well over forty years. I allowed my own instincts to fold under pressure from her doctor mostly due to my ignorance and non confrontational nature. I agreed to a treatment for her that I knew she would hate. I did not have the courage to stand my ground and insist that the doctor try something else. Nonetheless I learned from this incident and grew exponentially into a person who would never again be influenced to act against my own sense of right and wrong. Sadly, even though I changed I was never quite able to forgive myself and whenever my mother’s illness reared its most profound ugliness she would remind me again and again of what she saw as my betrayal of her. It took a great deal of internal reflection and wise counseling for me to finally accept that I was worthy of mercy.

Each of us has a story of something that we handled badly, something that we replay in our minds over and over again as though we might somehow change the outcome or at least assuage our guilt. On a rational level we know that we just need to genuinely apologize to anyone whom we have hurt, and then demonstrate through our actions that we have genuinely learned and changed. If we are willing to become better then there is little reason to continue to berate ourselves or to be reminded by others of our transgressions. Forgiveness should mean that our faults will never be mentioned again, and yet we all know of situations in which an offender is never allowed to fully transform because someone continually thinks of them as the incarnation of their sins rather than their contrition.

In the gospel of a few Sundays ago Jesus had died, risen from the dead and was with some of his apostles once again. Lovingly he chose not to remind them of how some of them had denied him when he most needed their support. He did not focus on the moments when their human frailties caused them to react badly. Instead he loved them for coming back to him and demonstrating their belated faith in him. It did not matter what had happened in the past because he knew that they loved him at that moment.

The Christian message is one of forgiveness, and yet so many of us pridefully hold grudges against people whom we believe have hurt us. Particularly in today’s society once an individual has displayed egregious behavior we tend to forever hold that person in infamy even when he/she makes attempts to repent. It is a prideful thing that we do forgetting that each of us has fallen from grace at one time or another. We want understanding for ourselves without granting it for those whom we have stereotyped with a broad brush of negative judgement.

Certainly there are acts that seem unforgivable and make it almost impossible to associate with any kind of absolution. When we think of the Holocaust we sense a special kind of evil that only God himself might unravel and pass judgement upon, but for the most part the hurts that we inflict on ourselves and others can be reversed. When people truly attempt to become better it is important that like Jesus we embrace them as they have become rather than what they used to be. Continually reminding them of the past is as cruel and hurtful as any wrong that they may have done.

I’ve always been impressed by stories of forgiveness and the people who demonstrated great love and compassion to those who had wronged them. They abound in our history, but of late they are the exception rather than the rule. Abraham Lincoln understood that if our country was to survive as a union we would have to have to embrace the people who had attempted to rebel against the nation, forgiving them for what they had done and moving forward without continually chastising them. Of course he was tragically assassinated and the resulting tendency to punish has bled over into the current political environment. As a society we focus on missteps rather than the evolution of character. It is not what a man or woman may have once done in a moment of thoughtlessness that should matter, but rather what kind of person he or she has ultimately become. 

I am a huge fan of Robert Downey Jr. not just because he is a highly entertaining actor but because I believe him to be a good man. There was a time when his addictions were so severe that he almost lost himself and his career. He was slowly dying in a haze of drugs and alcohol that made him unreliable. Nobody trusted him even after he had done much work to rehabilitate himself. He could not get the insurance necessary to land even a minor part in a motion picture. It was Mel Gibson who was fighting demons of his own who came to the rescue, offering his own money as faith in Robert Downey, Jr. Ultimately Downey’s career was resurrected, but the loveliest thing about him is that he never forgot the kindness form Gibson who also became a pariah because of an outburst when he was drunk and under the influence of his own mental illness. Downey has appealed to the motion picture industry and one time fans to demonstrate some compassion for Mel Gibson just as he was given. He understands as well as anyone that life is a continuum, a journey in which we struggle to become better versions of ourselves. He knows how important it is to cherish those who make great efforts to change.

We seem to forget that Jesus modeled forgiveness again and again. The stories of his mercy resound in the Bible, and yet even many who profess to believe in his words turn their backs on those who fall. It sometimes feels as though our society has become a judgmental nag when what we really need is more absolution. The strongest people in our world are not the ones who are unwilling to see the goodness emerging in a fallen soul, but those who embrace those who change with love and clemency. 

The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

Surrender

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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.