In the 1990’s I had the privilege of working for seven years with women and men infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Dickens’ words “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” echoed during those days in Atlanta. Across lines of class, race, gender, and age those same words rang true. They were impossibly, precious days and shaped many in our generation.
That work taught me a great deal, and I continue to learn from the many memories I carry with me. One of the pieces is the notion of memory cells. These are said to be antibody producing cells or infection fighting cells. Vital cells, life bringing cells. And it made perfect sense to me that of course our bodies remember, even our cells remember.
We are people of stories. We move through our days collecting memories of encounters that comfort and sustain us; stories that break us open and gather us in. Especially in our times of grief are we most aware of them companioning us, as though we are wrapped in a storyboard quilt. We treasure them and these body-memories continue to live in us as we make our way on.
Part of our grief work is letting go of what we’ve been physically doing during the ending, dying days. Our physical care for our loved one often took a great toll. And the body remembers. When we cared for our loved one, our routines shifted and we created a schedule focused on time for their care. And our body remembers. Our self-care often became secondary. And our body remembers.
It’s a miracle really, carrying those hours and days in our bodies. afterward physical healing at a cellular level is needed as well as emotional healing. We need to take gentle care of our whole selves in these tender days of holding on and letting go.
As we watch the moon tonight we are reminded that more light is coming. With this light may we be encouraged to do what is next for us. May we find comfort knowing that our bodies will remember the love that continues in us as we journey on.
Breath Prayer: "Steadfast" "spirit"
Steadfast One, create in me a clean heart. Begin again with me so that I might be refreshed and soothed by your healing balm. Transform my weariness of body and spirit so that I might return to you, Healing God, and turn to what is ahead. And in the morning may I awaken to your light that is guiding me on. Amen.
(thanks to friend Susie for this picture of the bowl and the ones below)
Time is passing.
Time is passing and we all watch as one day is moving in and through and quietly, steadily, faithfully passing into the next. It’s not unusual to look up and know that we are witnessing the passing of time. Somehow (really, how did that happen?) we are already in the middle of May. I don’t know if it’s because we are now firmly in the computer-age when everything seems to be instantaneous…or if it’s because I know in my bones that I am getting older…or if it's something in the middle of that, but surely, truly, in fact time is passing. So quickly.
My Mom’s younger brother, Tom and his beautiful bride, Cynthia are here in Atlanta visiting this week. They generously make this trek from California most every year, “to keep track of how tall the boys are getting,” they say.
Their coming shifts our schedules. Cousin Erika, Claud and Bets and our families eat dinner together each night, to lean in. We share one another’s houses and share the cooking, and each night we sit around the table to share stories. Past stories and present stories. We catch up we each other. Our prayers of blessing before each meal, and many of the stories name the ones who are no longer with us around the table. Our prayers and stories name the ones who are living in other parts of the country. Our prayers and stories continually, over and over re-call and re-collect our family.
The picture taken here was from a night we went to the movies to watch a play. We got to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy. It was wonderfully done and wonderfully fun to be together to do that. We grabbed the moment and snuck off together to share that time.
Time is passing. In The Summer Day, Mary Oliver asks that question, “What will you do with this one wild and precious life?” and it’s true. We spend each hour of each day answering that question. Having lost both Mom and Dad, my heart knows well that i am living my life holding on and letting go.
My Uncle Tom holds the stories of our family. He can connect people with places and places with times and times with people. His hands so remind me of my grandfather’s and the love in his heart, so remind me of my mother’s. My Aunt Cynthia marks moments. She is one who cherishes times together. Her picture is under the word “hospitality” in the dictionary. They both so love their family – it matters to them that we all share a deep, rooted bond together. That is their living legacy for us all – and with each visit, we are reminded.
I love that they've known me my whole life and now are knowing the boys in the same way. I love that they're interested in me and my family. I love that we all carry the family story - different tellings of this story, that's for sure - and we are all carrying it.
Grab Each Moment. Grab This Moment. Seize this day. We won’t always have this luxury of time, these sharing of meals and prayers and stories. Time is surely passing. And for this one wild and precious time, we are together…and -- each time it happens -- I am forever thankful.
(A great example of Mom's leaning in. This is moment shared during a visit with cousin Karen.)
As I remember my Mom on this Mother’s day, one of the first images is how she was always leaning in.
It wasn’t that she wasn't able to hear or see (although those things gradually did happen for her later in her life). Instead as I grew up and watched this practice of hers over and over, gradually I came to understand that Mom deeply loved the folks around her. Her leaning in was her way of literally drawing folks closer.
It wasn't because she couldn't hear, it was because she wanted to hear more. It wasn't because she couldn't see, it wasn't that at all. Instead she wanted to see everything that she could possibly see - she wanted to see what was in the face, in the flower or on the picture. Mom was interested in what was around her.
And in this lesson alone she taught me well about life. And with Barbara Ann, there were so many lessons…
Mom died of lung cancer in October of 2005. When she entered hospice, she told us that she wanted to stay in her newly claimed home here Atlanta surrounded by her family. And so our family helped that happen. Her hospital bed was set up in the living room. She was up and in her courtyard garden the day before she died. Mom did her best to live into her death.
This October will mark 10 years since her death. In so many ways that is just plain wrong. Without her leaning in - for everything and everyone who came into her life -- without that leaning in, there continues to be a tender, missing-place in my heart. My mom continues to be present with me, all the time. Even now when something amazing happens with the boys, I want to pick up the phone and call her. And sometimes that feels so real to me that I forget she’s not living a mile away in Decatur.
One of the chapters from my new book, Grief and the Psalms: Companioning the Moon for 29 Days is about Mom’s leaning in and embracing her three girls. The verse used for this chapter is from Psalm 23, “Surely goodness of mercy shall follow me…”
Not long ago I sat on our front porch swing here in Decatur and watched a thunderstorm blow in. Sitting there on my porch I remembered how Mom had loved watching storms just like that one when we were little. She would somehow gather us all in, holding my two sisters and me on the couch on our screened porch. The four of us would watch the storm blow in, somehow all held snuggly together. Often there was a fierce wind with torrential downpours. We could see the sky suddenly bright with lightening. I don’t remember her words, or if she spoke at all. I just remember being wrapped up in her arms and feeling so very safe in the midst of such noise and smacks of light.
As I continue to lean into the comfort and reassurance of this psalm, I have a body memory of sitting on our front porch, being held by Mom. It’s not really logical in the midst of a great storm to feel safe. While some might say, “take cover,” here’s the thing that was true for me: I was already securely resting in the safest place I knew. I was being held and loved in my mother’s arms. Surely goodness and mercy ~ just four words. More than enough to encourage and comfort me. More than enough to bring me home again.
Early one morning after letting John Brogan out of the car a mile from high school this past week, (so he could walk with his girlfriend…that’s a whole ‘nother story) I passed a Mom and 7-year-old boy and their 10+-year-old black lab walking to school. I couldn’t help but go right back there, to those days not that long ago when we walked with the boys and our black lab to elementary school. Maddie was the world’s best dog, and she would say that she had raised our boys as much as we had.
Our boys have companioned Murphy (a black a brown shepherd), Maddie (a black lab), Buzz “down” Lightyear (an Australian shepherd), Emma (a red-boned, coon hound) and now K’bu (a chocolate lab). We’ve been blessed with really good dogs – and as it turns out, pretty darn good boys.
I know this isn’t a universally shared view, but I can’t imagine growing up without a dog. We were lucky because when I was 10, we got Sloopy (a mixed [up] beagle) and she lived with our family until all three sisters had left home for college. Sloop lived in a time before leash laws. One of our family’s favorite memories was singing Christmas carols in the neighborhood. Sloop walked into almost every house along the route and was greeted with treats and hot dogs all night long. [That girl could “work the room."] Sloop would run beside our bikes all through the summers. And she walked Dad every night for a mile or two and so they could both be home in time for Johnny Carson.
Dogs are unique in all the world. When the boys were little and our lives were chaotic, every night when I opened the door after a long day at work – there was Maddie sitting there, wagging her tail. Waiting. For me. She did that for Linda. And for each of the boys. Although we (actually) saw her rolling her eyes at each of the boys when they acted like kids around her. And I think she started (actually) sighing – a lot – after Sam was born. I don’t think she had anything against Sam, she liked him – it was the principle of the thing. We got Maddie when she was a puppy, 6 months before Brogan was born. And I truly think that her eye-rolling and audible sighs were overt signs of wishing for the good old days.
As I watched the Mom, the boy and old dog walk slowly down the street I was mindful of their pace. Five years before, I bet the Mom and dog had intentionally matched their pace to the toddler's – as he was slowly and carefully taking his first steps. And that morning as I watched, the Mom and the son were matching their pace to the old, friend who would most probably not be making this morning trek too much longer. Grey snout and tail wagging, that good ole girl looked up at her two humans as they were talking. Nodding her head, every now and then. But always on her guard. Ever the protector, ever the companion. I could tell just watching her, that she took this child-raring very seriously. I could tell that this was her boy.
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. A Candler School of Theology graduate, Lesley has just published her second book, Grief and the Psalms: Companioning the Moon for 29 Days (available on this website). She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan and Sam in Decatur, GA.