Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hope Summons Your Future

Hope Summons the Future
“Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future.”
                                           ~ Elie Wiesel
This is my ancient recipe box. My sister made it for me during my daughter Alexa’s illness thirty-two years ago. Recently, one of my other daughters asked me for a recipe. I got out the box and searched. I didn’t find the recipe for tofu carob pie, but I did find these recipes.

They are in an article titled “Holiday Entertaining: Great Beginnings.” I had folded the pages of recipes and stored them to make another day. That day has not yet arrived and they have been in the box since the date on the pages: November–December 1986.

I was stunned when I read the date: November–December 1986. Those two months were the worst of my life. My seven-year-old daughter Alexa died from brain cancer on November 2, 1986. My memory of only a few things about those months is clear: the day she died, the day of her funeral. The other days are a blur: Thanksgiving is blank. All I remember about Christmas is the agony of unpacking her handmade ornaments and placing them on the tree. Christmas itself was a nonevent. I remember wearing too-stiff new Levi’s and a pink T-shirt to a friend’s house. I don’t remember cooking. I don’t remember giving or receiving gifts.
What I especially do not remember about those two months is reading magazines. I don’t remember eating food, much less thinking about cooking it. So of course, I don’t remember pulling these pages of recipes from that magazine—these pages that sat untouched for thirty-one years.
These pages now tell me something else I don’t remember from those years ago—something I was not aware existed in my life. These pages tell me that in the darkest days of grief, some small part of me believed in a future. Some small part of my psyche held what was the last thing to spring from Pandora’s box: Hope.
I don’t remember feeling anything beyond the most profound despair during those days. Hope was a memory, a concept tucked deep within me—but it wasn’t so deep that it no longer existed. My unconscious hope made me pick up a magazine about food. That hope believed I would be hungry again. My unconscious hope moved my eyes across the words and photos. My unconscious hope stopped at some of those words and photos. My unconscious hope moved me toward thinking that those recipes sounded like something good to eat. My unconscious hope moved my hands to tear these pages of recipes from the magazine and place them in a box. My unconscious hope believed I might cook again someday and try something new.
I say unconscious hope because during those sorrow-filled days after Alexa died, I believed I was in Dante’s inferno and had heeded the warning to “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
When life deals us the shattering blows of loss, one of the most life-affirming aspects of our being is often the first to go—and that is hope.
But in those days some part of me had not abandoned hope.
In spite of my despair, in spite of my darkness, I now know that hope was still alive in me, a flickering light not ready or willing to be completely extinguished by sorrow.
Those of us who have lost children, grandchildren, and siblings know that despair. We know that darkness. What we might not know, especially in the early stages of grief, is that hope remains in each of us. With each breath, with each step in our journey of healing from loss, hope is present. It becomes brighter and more real, even if we aren’t aware that hope remains.
I wasn’t aware of that hope in the early days of grief, but I am aware of it now. And I want to share with you that hope is indeed present within each of us, although we may be unaware of it. Even after the greatest loss, hope sits at our sides and walks with us and holds and nurtures us. And as it does, hope summons our future.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Zig-Zag Running for Four-Year-Olds

Zig-Zag Running
Zig-zag running? That’s the style of running my four-year-old granddaughter learned in pre-kindergarten last week. Zig-zag running is the pattern you use when you run from the school building. You have a meeting place away from the school where your teacher and the other children will gather. To get to your safe place, you run in a zig-zag pattern.
The sighs and groans in my heart are almost too heavy to lift out of my psyche and put into words. I will try. I know why she and the other children are taught to run that way, although I doubt the teacher told them: A moving target is harder for a bullet to hit.
When I was a child, I was afraid of war with the Russians. I had nightmares of bombs being dropped on me. Duck-and-cover drills were the staple of emergency preparedness for my generation. My class didn’t have a “safe place.” We had the walk (not a zig-zag run) to the railroad tracks to board trains that would evacuate us from Jacksonville, Florida, a prime target because of the military presence there and its proximity to the Russian missiles in Cuba.
My fear was the Russians and the nuclear bombs they might drop on my home, my family, and my friends. My fear was an out-there fear; it was the fear of “them,” the others, those who weren’t Americans, the Communists who didn’t share our values of freedom and liberty and justice.
My fear for my granddaughter isn’t a fear of “them.” And that’s what is so chilling. My fear for her is “us.” It’s Americans—overwhelmingly white male Americans—who have made it necessary to teach four-year-olds zig-zag running from schools.
The character Lara in Dr. Zhivago, when speaking of the brutal revolution in Russia, knowing it would continue, knowing she and Yuri would be separated, knowing the carnage would not end anytime soon, said, “Oh, Lord—this is an awful time to be alive.”
When I think of zig-zag running, I agree with Lara.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Be Sensitive to Signs of the Spirit Nearby

Signs of the Spirit
 Some things I know just are.

Jimmy died early Wednesday, September 27, before dawn broke in Boston, Massachusetts. I know the date because Jimmy’s fiancĂ©e Carla sent my daughter Tarah and her friends a text message telling them of Jimmy’s death. She also said: “Do something beautiful today,” which I wrote on my whiteboard, along with the date.
Carla is one of “my girls.” Carla, Tay, Dana, Bev, Hannah, and my daughter Tarah have been close friends for too many years to count. I’ve spent many days with them over those years, enough to love them and call them my girls, enough to feel connected to them as they experience life—both its joys and its sorrows.
 On the day Jimmy died, Dana’s heart and mind were heavy with thoughts of him while she was driving to Boston to pick up Bev. As she drove, a blue jay flew past her windshield, in slow motion, in a deliberate move to get Dana’s attention. It then perched on a nearby tree branch, and it stared at her, until their eyes locked. Dana felt certain it was Jimmy’s presence.
Later that morning, Dana was the first of the girls to receive a phone call from Carla. As they spoke, Carla stopped the conversation to tell Dana about the blue jay perched in front of her, its gaze intense, staring. Right away, Dana knew, “It’s him. It’s Jimmy,” she said. “I was supposed to be on the phone with you while this happened so you could tell me.” In turn, Dana told Carla her blue jay experience.
I believe in such signs of the spirit being nearby, so I, too, took note when Tarah shared the blue jay story with me. I also take note of birds. In the days before Hurricane Irma struck my Florida home on September 10 and 11, I noticed that with the exception of some buzzards and a hawk, all the birds left our area. They knew the storm was coming and flew to safety. The birdsong that rings in my mornings was absent. They have been slow to return, and in the weeks until September 27, I saw few of them. I missed them and hearing their music throughout my day.
A day or two after Jimmy died, I was outside checking my orchids and I saw the first blue jay since the hurricane. It was alone. It stayed in the brush next to the house only long enough to be certain I saw him. (Of course, I told Tarah.)
I sometimes question my beliefs—among them my belief that the blue jay was a sign. I have no scientific proof—not a bit of data—to back up my beliefs. But some things I know just are. There is the seen, the unseen, and then there is the felt. I know when I feel something. I know when the presence of someone, seen and even unseen, is nearby. I cannot measure that presence in any way except by my own awareness.
When such events occur, and we receive what might be signals from beyond, some are quick to say it is coincidence or a particular focus at the time. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s no more than coincidence that the blue jay showed up in my yard that morning or that two of them insisted that Dana and Carla take notice. Maybe I noticed it because blue jays were on my mind. The thing is: I saw no other birds during the time I was outside. I’ve been outside many days since that morning and almost a month later, I have yet to see another blue jay.
Perhaps it is in the noticing, the awareness. In the initial hours, days, and weeks following loss, our emotions are on the surface, as if there is a different, more sensitive, more intuitive layer atop our skin—one labeled feelings, emotions, heart. The cries of our hearts no longer are tucked away where no one can see them. No longer are they stowed in those places where it’s easier for us to discount or even ignore them.
Early days following loss are when our hearts are indeed on our sleeves—laid bare for all to see. In that hypersensitive mode, every touch, every word, every song, every tear—has greater, deeper intensity. Because of that intensity and because our awareness has expanded, perhaps that is when our eyes truly open—perhaps that is when we see the blue jays.
I believe that when someone’s spirit has just left their body and hasn’t quite yet found its place in the cosmos, heaven, the unseen, we are sensitive to the presence of that spirit. I believe the spirit of someone who has recently died is nearby. I also believe that in our heightened state of emotion and intensity, we become aware of and we can still commune with that spirit—and they with us. Perhaps God gifts us—and them—with that closeness and connection to offer us comfort and to reinforce our faith.
In my experience, that nearby state of the spirit does not last as long as I would like. As our raw exterior begins to heal and as life’s distractions—living, which is a good thing—pull us back into a more solid realm, the spirit at the same time senses that we have returned to that solid world. And that spirit—that spirit that is now free—has its other work to do as it finds its place within the cosmos, the unseen, heaven. As that place is found and the spirit’s work begins, the connections happen less frequently, although I also know the spirit checks in from time to time.
If you have recently lost a loved one, and you become aware of his or her presence, I don’t think you are crazy. I don’t think you are imagining things. You are not a dreamer and you are not a fool. You are in the presence of something pure and honest and good. Embrace that presence while you can—before the world pulls you away.
As you return to the world and to life, remember to pause to listen to and welcome the blue jays. As you return to the world and to life, also remember something else just as important: Do something beautiful today.