Don’t Look Back

A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—
I’ve heard the Hunter tell—
‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death—
And then the Brake is still!
~Emily Dickinson from “165″

The deer in that beautiful place lay down their
bones: I must wear mine.
~Robinson Jeffers from “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones”

As the house of a person
in age sometimes grows cluttered
with what is
too loved or too heavy to part with,
the heart may grow cluttered.
And still the house will be emptied,
and still the heart.

Empty and filled,
like the curling half-light of morning,
in which everything is still possible and so why not.

Filled and empty,
like the curling half-light of evening,
in which everything now is finished and so why not.

Beloved, what can be, what was,
will be taken from us.
I have disappointed.
I am sorry. I knew no better.

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Standing Deer”

My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.

Enthralled with so much color,
motion, music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed,  from eating
a clump of grass
growing in the snow.

My heart leaps
with worry.
She tells him
to run
for the thicket,
to seek safety where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.

She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.

The gun shot
hits my belly too.

My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for him.

I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
knowing Bambi
is cold and alone
with no mother
at all.

She took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie for years.
His cries
still echo
in my ears.

Now, my children are grown
and have children of their own to protect.
My mother is gone from this earth,
my thicket emptying,
my heart full,
my stomach stronger,
I even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.

I now can look back
and weep inconsolably
once more.

It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

I spent this morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  Whenever horse people gather, there were personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times which still come often in my professional life,  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.

Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here.   And we all had to let her go.  

Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.

And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.

I know we’ll catch up later.

Jenny R –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs

To Leave Something Behind

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,
my grandfather said.
A child or a book or a painting
or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made.
Or a garden planted.
Something your hand touched some way
so your soul has somewhere to go when you die,
and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted,
you’re there.

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said,
so long as you change something
from the way it was before you touched it
into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.
The difference between the man who just cuts lawns
and a real gardener is in the touching, he said.
The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all;
the gardener will be there a lifetime.
~Ray Bradbury from Fahrenheit 451

Esther Meyer, nearly 92, photo taken by a granddaughter
Esther’s hands – photo by Donna Meyer
photo by Danielle Meyer Miljevic

At last the entire family stood, like people seeing someone off at the rail station, waiting in the room.

“Well,” said Great-grandma, “there I am, I’m not humble, so it’s nice seeing you standing around my bed. Now next week there’s late gardening and closet-cleaning and clothes-buying for the children to do. And since that part of me is called, for convenience, Great-grandma, won’t be here to step it along, those other parts of me called Uncle Bert and Leo and Tom and Douglas, and all the other names, will have to take over, each to his own.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Somewhere a door closed quietly.

… she saw it shaping in her mind quietly, and with serenity like a sea moving along and endless and self-refreshing shore.

Downstairs, she thought, they are polishing the silver, and rummaging the cellar, and dusting in the halls. She could hear them living all through the house.

“It’s all right,” whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. “Like everything else in this life, it’s fitting.”

And the sea moved her back down the shore.
~Ray Bradbury “Great-Grandmother” from Dandelion Wine

Esther learned young how to work and she never forgot, still working up until the last few days of her long life.

Today she is sweeping up, wiping down counters and washing the dishes in a corner of heaven, after baking cookies and putting a soup on to simmer, to be sure everyone up there is well-fed and feels welcome.

She grew up on a remote farm in South Dakota where survival meant the whole family pitched in to help. When she married Pete and headed west to Washington, the work never let up: six sons, a small farm, a construction business to help manage, working as a caretaker privately and in a nursing home, taking on the mission of coordinating a large Sunday School ministry in our small church back over fifty years ago and never leaving.

Esther touched everything and everyone in this life, leaving a bit of herself behind in all of us. She’ll stay plenty busy in the next life.

She was Wiser Lake Chapel for over half her life, along with her husband Pete who passed from chronic leukemia over a decade ago. Their son Wes took on many of Pete’s carpentry and building maintenance duties at church, but then he too lost a fight with acute leukemia.

Esther persevered despite these heartbreaking losses, a tenacious testament to the power of the Spirit in one woman’s life. She had more artificial joints in her body than her own joints, some replaced twice. Her heart tried to fail any number of times, most recently after a trip to Europe she made earlier this year, by herself, to visit her missionary son. She never stopped driving. She never stopped walking even though every step took immense effort paid in pain. She came to every church service, morning and night and mid-week, usually with something fresh-baked in her hand. If soup was needed for a meal on short notice, she could make it happen in an hour from what she stored away in her freezer. She was a self-appointed clean-up crew, wheeling her walker from table to sink to counter to trash can and back again.

Every new great-grandbaby and every new Chapel baby had a hand-made Esther quilt, complete with her hand-painted pictures and the details of the birthday and birthweight printed on it. She made hundreds over her lifetime.

Esther’s family is a large exuberant and glory-filled group of sons and daughter-in-laws and grands and great-grands who reflect who she and Pete were to them, to our church and the greater community. They are a legacy left on earth, to keep up the good work and gratitude-filled worship, to never ever give up, no matter how tough life can be.

Thank you, Esther, for changing us all so profoundly we won’t ever be the same as we were before you touched us; you left us all so much better than before. Now I believe we all are just a little bit like you.

And most of all, thanks for 90-plus years of your loving labor on the Lord’s behalf. The soup is on the stove in memory of you.

We Are Forever Changed

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart
~Kitty Donohoe “There are no words”
written on 9/1/11

As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our unified silence and our stillness.

Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne after that tragic day 18 years ago – such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for the “milk of human goodness.” Instead it seems we have become more divisive, pulling ourselves apart.

We must return, as people of faith, to that stillness to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be still; we must be silent. We must let the bells toll and the names be read out. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace.   A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light,  forged in freedom, born in liberty.

We must stop allowing our chain links from being pulled apart.

Holding Down What We Have

The next morning I felt that our house
had been lifted away from its foundation
during the night, and was now adrift,
though so heavy it drew a foot or more
of whatever was buoying it up, not water
but something cold and thin and clear,
silence riffling its surface as the house
began to turn on a strengthening current,
leaving, taking my wife and me with it,
and though it had never occurred
to me until that moment, for fifteen years
our dog had held down what we had
by pressing his belly to the floors,
his front paws, too, and with him gone
the house had begun to float out onto
emptiness, no solid ground in sight.
~Ted Kooser “Death of a Dog”

God… sat down for a moment when the dog was finished in order to watch it… and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been made better.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Twelve dogs have left pawprints on my heart over my sixty five years.  Each dog of my childhood was my best friend to confide in, take walks with, to cry into the ruff of their furry necks. They always listened compassionately and never judged, even when I was in the wrong.

There was a thirteen year long dogless period while I went to college, medical school and residency, living in inhospitable urban environs, working unsuitable dog-keeping hours.  Those were sad years indeed with no dog hair to vacuum or slobber to mop up.

The first dog in our married life on the farm, a Tervuren,  rode home from Oregon on my pregnant lap in the passenger seat, all sixty five pounds of her.  I think our first born son has a permanent dog imprint on his side as a result, and it certainly resulted in his dog-loving brain yet he has lived ten years in the largest city on earth, sadly dogless.  

Six dogs and thirty four years later, we are currently owned by two gentle hobbit-souled Cardigan Corgis who are middle-aged and healthy. I hope they stick around with us for a few more years, but we have felt the unmooring of our home’s foundation when we have lost, one by one, our dog friends in the past, usually in ripe old age.

Dogs could not have been made better among God’s creations because they love unconditionally, forgive without holding a grudge and show unbounded joy umpteen times a day.    It’s true–it would be nice if they would poop only in discrete off-the-path areas, use their teeth only for dog designated chew toys, and vocalize only briefly when greeting and warning, but hey, nobody is perfect.

So to Buttons, Sammy, Sandy, Sparky, Toby, Tango, Talley, Makai, Frodo, Dylan Thomas, Sam Gamgee and Homer:  God sat down for a moment when He made you and saw that it was good.

You’ve been good for me too, holding fast my foundation to the ground..

Sam as puppy kid – photo by Nate Gibson
photo of Dylan Thomas by Nate Gibson

Packed and Unpacked

Holes in the shape of stars
punched in gray tin, dented,
cheap, beaten by each
of her children with a wooden spoon.

Noodle catcher, spaghetti stopper,
pouring cloudy rain into the sink,
swirling counter clockwise
down the drain, starch slime
on the backside, caught
in the piercings.

Scrubbed for sixty years, packed
and unpacked, the baby’s
helmet during the cold war,
a sinking ship in the bathtub,
little boat of holes.

Dirt scooped in with a plastic
shovel, sifted to make cakes
and castles. Wrestled
from each other’s hands,
its tin feet bent and re-bent.

Bowl daylight fell through
onto freckled faces, noon stars
on the pavement, the universe
we circled aiming jagged stones,
rung bells it caught and held.

~Dorianne Laux “My Mother’s Colander”from Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems.

Many of my mother’s kitchen things, some over seventy years old, are still packed away in boxes that I haven’t had the time or the emotional wherewithal to open. They sit waiting for me to sort and purge and save and weep.

But this kitchen item, her old dented metal colander, she gave to me when I moved into my first apartment some 40 years ago – she had purchased a bright green plastic colander at a Tupperware party so the old metal one seemed somehow outdated, overworked and plain. It had held hundreds of pounds of rinsed garden vegetables during my childhood, had drained umpteen pasta noodles, had served as a sifter in our sandbox, and a helmet for many a pretend rocket launch to infinity and beyond.

It still works fine, thank you very much, for all intended and some unintended purposes. It does make me wonder what other treasures may surprise me when I finally decide to open up my mother’s boxes. She died ten years ago, but her things remain, as if in suspended animation, to be rediscovered when I’m ready. They wait patiently to be useful to someone again, touched lovingly and with distinct purpose as they once were, and be remembered for the part they played in one woman’s long and faith-filled life.

Maybe, just maybe, it will feel like I’ve unpacked Mom once again as well.

To infinity and beyond…

Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.