The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.

Don’t Go Too Early

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
~Galway Kinnell “Wait”
from A New Selected Poems 

If everyone abandons you and even drives you away by force,
then when you are left alone
fall on the earth and kiss it,
water it with your tears,
and it will bring forth fruit
even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude.
Believe to the end, even if all people went astray
and you were left the only one faithful;
bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. 
~Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov

Suicide rates of teenagers in the United States have increased well over 30% since 2009. It is a national epidemic and tragedy.

Based on the anguish of the patients I see every day,
one after another and another,
over and over again I hear
a too-easy contemplation of suicide,
from “It would be easier if I were dead”
or “no one cares if I live or die”,
or “the world would be better off without me”,
or “I’m not worthy to be here”
to “that is my plan, it is my right and no one can stop me”.

Without us all pledging an oath to live life no matter what,
willing to lay ourselves down for one another,
to bridge the sorrow and lead the troubled to the light,
there will be no slowing of this trend.

…when there is no loyalty to life, as stressful and messy as it can be,
…when there is no honoring of the holiness of each created being as weak and frail and prone to helpless hopelessness as we are,
…when there is no resistance to the buffeting winds of life~

please just wait a little longer, only a little longer:
don’t go too early

Striking the Balance

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Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride.
Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.
Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance
because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness.
~Blaise Pascal

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We yearn for perfection,
to be flawless and faultless,
unblemished,
aiming for symmetry,
straight and smooth.

Life serves up something
far different
and our eye searches
for what is broken like us:
to find the cracks,
scratches and damage,
whether it is in
a master’s still life portrait
replete with crawling flying insects
and broken blossoms,
or in the not so still life
of those around us.

Somehow Christ bridges
Himself between God and us,
becoming a walkway for the wretched.

In the beginning we were created
unblemished,
image bearers of perfection.
No longer.
We bear witness to brokenness
with our shattered lives,
fragile minds and weakening bodies.
It is our leaks and warts
that stand out now.

To restore
our lost relationship with Him,
Christ strikes the balance;
He hung broken to mend us,
to lift and carry us across the gap,
binding us to Him
forever.

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Still Life With Flowers–Jan Huysum

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A Strong Enough Bridge

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The bridge of grace will bear your weight…
~Charles Spurgeon

 

All creatures are doing their best
to help God in His birth
of Himself.

Enough talk for the night.
He is laboring in me;

I need to be silent
for a while,

worlds are forming
in my heart.    
~Meister Eckhart from “Expands His Being”

 

What God would birth Himself into something as dark as this world?
Into this place of meanness, tribal conflicts and hatred?

This God would.

He labors in our dark hearts for good reason, becoming a bridge strong enough to bear us into the light and heal the cracks and fissures within.  We are unformed and unready to meet Him, clinging as we do to our dark ways and thoughts, afraid to walk the plank as our weight of sin is so heavy, our need so great.

We are silenced as He prepares us, as He prepares Himself for birth within us. The labor pains are His, not ours;  we become awed witnesses to His first and last breath when He makes all things, including us, new again, bearing us up, no matter how heavy the burden we bring to Him.

The world is reborn — even where dark reigned before, even where it is bleakest, even where we were sure we would break the bridge we tread. The broken heart is healed and sealed by grace for which no weight is too great.

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The Bridge of Grace

photo by Josh Scholten

The bridge of grace will bear your weight.
Charles Spurgeon

When considering the paradox of a holy infant born in a dingy barn, so weak and helpless, completely dependent on others for His care and safety, it seems impossible that such frailty was meant to hold the weight of a struggling drowning humanity in His hands.  No sin is too great and nothing too heavy a load for Him to bear.

Advent is a time to reflect on such mysteries,  deepening our understanding of the remarkable gift we were given the night God came to earth as one of us, to dwell among us, and now through the person of His Spirit, remains at home in our hearts.

The bridge built that night continues to bear the awful load that we alone could not manage without being lost forever.

A baby becomes our bridge to grace and we have been offered safe passage.

 

On the Edge

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In our medical school lecture hall, George always sat on the edge of his seat in the front row. That way, he could be closest to the professor and not miss any detail of the slides projected on the screen, the nuances of the overhead projector diagrams, or the patients paraded into the lecture hall with memorable symptoms. From the first day, it was clear George would be the go-to person if one of us missed a lecture, as he kept the most accurate notes of any medical student in tiny neat almost verbatim script. To read his notes was almost as good as being there and he was willing, with coaxing, to share what he knew. He was, to put it simply, the best and the brightest among us.

Working on a double Ph.D/M.D. degree, he hoped one day to be a physician laboratory researcher in a teaching hospital, although getting that much personal information from him took much coaxing. He was a first generation college graduate in his immigrant family and their hopes and dreams were riding on his success. It was clear he was their bridge to success in their new home and new life. He rarely socialized with other students after class, nor did he join in study groups. At the end of the day, he would cram every book into his huge back pack, sling it over his slight frame and head out for the city bus to return home to his parents’ house located near the north end of Seattle’s Aurora Bridge.

My opportunity to work with George came during our first clinical experience in our first year of classes, working in pairs to interview patients in hospitals, practicing our skills at taking histories. When we divided up the questions beforehand, George was more than willing to let me ask about our patients’ family and spiritual support systems, their interpersonal relationships and sexual history, and their struggles with depression or other mental illness. He was much more interested in the detail of their illness and physical symptoms, so we made a good team documenting excellent patient medical histories. George admitted to me that talking to people was a challenge for him. His passion for healing was in the lab, in his future research and in his hope for discovery of new treatments for disease. He knew his best work would not be at the bedside.

Once our class started full time clinical rotations in hospitals in our third year, students were assigned in small groups together, working under attending physicians, residents and interns in the traditional teaching hospital hierarchy.  Medical students do the grunt work for the medical team, with most of the patient contact being the duty of the medical student.

Despite his quiet nature, George excelled in the clinical work of his internal medicine rotation, and then went on to his 6 week surgical rotation. He was assigned to a particularly difficult chief resident who had a reputation for grilling students over the operating table about anatomy and being very picky about how his patients were cared for. George was always ready for the questions in the OR, never missing a one, and worked beyond the 36 hours on, 12 hours off schedule to make sure all his work was complete. He was barely getting home to sleep, just to turn around to catch the bus in the early dawn to head back to the hospital. One morning, in his exhaustion, he overslept by an hour, and rushed to arrive barely in time for 6 AM rounds at the hospital. He was unable to gather his patients’ lab results or organize information for the chief resident. When it was clear George was not prepared, the chief resident, irritated, told him to leave and not bother to return.

George grabbed his heavy back pack, caught the city bus and in morning rush hour, got off on the south end of Aurora Bridge and started walking toward home. He stopped in the middle of the bridge, set down his back pack on the sidewalk, climbed over the rail and standing briefly on the edge, staring at the water below, he jumped.

At his funeral, his pastor shared the following with his stricken family, instructors and classmates:

“George worked very hard to reach the goals he had set, in his hope to cure diseases. What we must remember is that to reach our goals we must pass over the deepest valleys of our lives. The darkest pit can appear to swallow us up. The Lord is there to bridge that gap as the firm foundation under our feet, ready to hold us up when we teeter on the edge. Don’t ever lose sight of the other side, where the valley will be no more.”

I hope, –no, I know—George is waiting for us there.