There’s something to said for seeing in the dark especially when the first rain in weeks makes both a dramatic and gentle entrance, adorned with lightning bugs filling the fields, stars to the south, and lightning flashes turning on and off the vista of clouds.
There’s something also to be said for listening closely when thunder echoes within echoes, opening up caves within caves of the sky, the wind barely trips leaf against leaf, and filling it all are thousands of tiny pings of rain.
It’s a still life for the senses, only instead of a canvas, it’s life being life in this place at this moment. A crooked bolt shines on down before vanishing. The car hoods glow metallic every few moments. Inside, the dog stands up very concerned, then lies back down. Outside, the tomato plants out back and hostas out front drink it all in, me too sitting on the porch, awake when I should be asleep.
Sometimes life rocks us into its beautiful cradle, and eventually, I hope, toward refreshing sleep. But for now, this is enough.
27 years ago today, I was in labor at the with my first child at Topeka’s Birth and Women’s Health Center. It was wicked hot. The waves of contractions had been knocking me down for many hours since my water broke at Liberty Hall in the middle of a nightmare-ish film about the Bubonic Plague. A lot was going out the window quickly, foremost the plans I had about how childbirth would be a challenge I could manage, the birth would be quick, and the baby would be born healthy.
27 years ago tomorrow, I was in a nearby hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, my fabulous midwife and doctor from the birth center having recommended this and now wrapping their arms around our family along with other great supporters. Our newborn, Daniel — who tends to not take the easy route in life for most things — inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out and was born unresponsive to things like breathing on his own quickly enough. Ken and I were standing by his incubator, our hands through the openings so he could hold our fingers with his small fists. He was full-term, strong and relatively healthy, but we wouldn’t get to bring him home until July 14, Bastille Day. As it turned out, it was the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day, and public radio played many renditions of the Marseillaise (click here for musical accompaniment to this post). The whole day, we kept telling him, “You’re free!”
He was free, and we were beginning our long fall and rise to freedom from whatever we thought becoming a parent was, a lifelong unfolding of how deep, hard, rewarding, joyful and heartbreaking love is, and how little control we have over just about anything but watering the garden, doing the dishes, and making a strong cup of tea.
Now that we have three 20-something children, the surprises continue, sometimes picking up speed, and sometimes lulling us into the notion that humans have real ground their feet. I mean, we do have the real ground of the earth, but when it comes to thinking we always know best where to step next, not so much. Becoming a mom has immersed me in a kaleidoscope of intensives, from learning about various physical ailments from epilepsy to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, to studying the nuances of SAT applications, healing modalities off the beaten path, car insurance policies, best inexpensive motels without bedbugs and with pools, and IEPs (Individual Educational Plans). We’ve tutored our kids (and ourselves) on how to balance a checkbook, what not to say to your boss, where to find the best yard sales, how to facilitate a meeting, and why great movies, kickass enchiladas, and dark chocolate matter, especially when the chips are down and the stress is up.
We’ve collected irreplaceable stories together, like what could go wrong after driving in mountains for seven hours, then eating too much before getting into a flimsy tent during a thunderstorm. We’ve driven, flown and taken the train all over the country to see relatives, attend funerals or weddings, and try to relax at the Grand Canyon or in the Rockies when our kids would rather fight over the remote control for the hotel room TV. We’ve also had thousands of long talks, including a good many Jewish versions of “come to Jesus” talks (as they call them in the Midwest) about grades, honesty, chores, habits, crushes, friendship, and the screwed up world we’re leaving to them, broken with ecological devastation, racist killings, war-torn countries driving immigrants to risk dying on flimsy rafts, and widespread trauma.
It’s exhausting and overwhelming, glorious and dismal at times. There’s no end to this job as my friends with kids in their 40s and 50s remind me. There’s no end to the piercing hope and desperate prayers for each child to find his or her own best way. Luckily, there’s no end to the love, and the capacity I didn’t know I had to begin again, especially when it comes to edging out another inch of forgiveness for all of us.
So on this birthday of starting my climb, fall, and long walk through a great many parenting parking lots and prairies, I want to celebrate freedom, folly, and wish my oldest son a sweet birthday. Nope, being a parent is not what I thought it would be. It’s vaster and better and, like this day that turned from cold thunderstorms to hot clear skies, always in motion.
There they were for the last two nights: a dozen or more fireflies stitching their green light across the bedroom, rising toward the danger of the ceiling fan, spinning out in iridescence before gaining enough traction in the air to fly right again, or simply landing on top of our blankets or in my open purse.
“How did they get here? Is there a door open?” Ken asked on Sunday night, propelling me to walk the dark house where all the doors and windows were closed, but lightning bugs hovered over the living room couch and the bathtub. When we looked out the window, we saw thousands of their kin, lifting and lighting over the cucumbers, ornamenting the back deck, and rushing around their mosh pit of the field. It’s a banner year for fireflies, and we could only guess that they moseyed on in without noticing they were leaving behind the larger atmosphere for the smaller one.
We talked about airlifting them to the safety of the fields, but it’s hard to catch and carry a firefly without injuring him or her, and besides, the light show was too entertaining. Although Ken unfortunately rolled over on one, for the most part, they seemed to be doing what fireflies do: call out to each other with light and speed, and wait for the return call. They also did things I never imagined, like four of them lining up precisely from the floor beginning at the end of our bed down the short hall to the beginning of the bathroom. “It’s a landing strip to direct me to the bathroom,” I told Ken.
Last night we shut the lights to find them still turning on and off, winking at the fireflies on the other side of the window, and still grappling with the forces of good and evil emanating from the ceiling fan. Today, the Zen calendar spoke to their light. Tonight we hope the fireflies will return to speak to each other while we snore and dream.
The old ones, and the old gospel hymns talk about going home when we die. For Jews, it’s said that we’re in limbo, not able to truly start mourning, until our beloved is buried. On Friday, when we buried Charles in his cardboard coffin, homecoming and mourning sung through the sun-lit woods and circle of friends and family.
It was one of those Kansas days when any moment of daylight would be heavy with heat and humidity although a 9 a.m. burial was more like a light sauna than what would unfold later. Many of us met at Charles and Khabira’s house a little after 8 a.m. to load the coffin — the lid and sides covered with notes of love and thanksgiving, hearts and mountains, wings and prayers — into the back of a pick-up truck. Then Ken climbed in to sit with Charles’ body for 15-mph drive through far east Lawrence; he later said, “Charles got one last good view of the streets that he had traversed countless times.”
From the sweet air-conditioning of my car, I kept the radio off and sang, “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song” on the drive. It felt like Charles was all around, maybe just a little of him in the passenger seat along with bug spray, a big hat, and copies of the simple burial service we would use. Soon we were there at the edge of the cemetery that morphs into woods, a slim path leading to where Dwight put up an easel with a portrait of Charles, and a big hole in the ground next to an equally-sized pile of dirt. A crowd of friends and cemetery staff wheeled Charles into the forest where we waited.
Clumped together, the 30 or so of us plus two dogs (including Charles’ beloved Rosie), began with “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song,” one of Charles’ favorites, before Ken blessed the four directions. Then as planned with Khabira, I opened up the service for people to share whatever they wished. Some spoke of how welcome Charles made them feel like they belonged to something and someones larger than themselves. Others said if it was wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist in Kansas. One of his granddaughters spoke of him catching her baby at childbirth, and others told of how he married them. Rosie walked toward the grave site and peered in as did one of Charles’ great-grandsons, both curious and present. Some offered up songs; others, prayers. The humidity rose, and our faces shone in sweat, love, and sadness.
Then it was time for the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead said at burial, every Friday night at services for a year, and on the anniversary of the death for years to come to remember this beloved one. With all its “v-yisda…..” words, I’ve come to see this prayer as praise for the life force embodied as the holy, particularly this centerpiece of the prayer, translated into English:
Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort
Our Kaddish was coupled with a toast (featuring Scotch whiskey as Charles would want) as friends and staff lowered the coffin slowly and evenly. T.J. led a second toast, based on a Nigerian tradition, giving some of the whiskey back to the earth or tossing it on the coffin. Meanwhile, a persistent hackberry butterfly kept alighting on Khabira’s hand or sleeve.
There was a Quaker song and of course this Sufi invocation:
Toward the One,
the Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,
the Only Being;
United with All the Illuminated Souls,
Who form the Embodiment of the Master, the Spirit of Guidance.
Now it was time to fill the grave, and as goes Jewish tradition — and ecological and communal practice — everyone was welcome to shovel or toss in dirt to fill the grave. Singing abounded as streams of sun filtered through the trees. Although the cemetery staff was ready with a small bulldozer, there was no need: most of us took to the task, and four of the guys stayed after everyone else had left to fill the hole and make sure there was even extra dirt on top for when the ground settled.
In the end, there was the beginning: we had brought Charles home, not just by putting his lovingly-decorated cardboard coffin in the ground and filling the hole, but by letting that part of us that is Charles gather itself up and share its song of its grief, sweetness, humor, joy, light, heat, and change. Mostly, we brought Charles home to us, opening the door wider to the heartbreak of him being, in this form at least, beyond reach. At the same time, Charles becomes larger and more precious. May that homecoming continue, gathering more hackberry butterflies to itself over time.
Just now, the wind picked itself up and gusted up to 40 mph after the very still, humid and over-the-top hot day of Charles’ death. No rain, no storm, no big wind expected, but as I write this, in the dark on the porch, the sky flashes all directions in dark purple and curls of lightning, a lone cricket sings his song, and the wind is moving some of the furniture just a little. Thunder rumbles to the west, some young trees go horizontal, and I know this force of nature has a name: Charles.
Charles was one of the first Lawrencians I ever met, in about 1981 when I was a member of the Kansas City Sufi community, where Charles and his wife Khabira would sometimes visit. I was dazzled by Charles’ exuberance about Dances of Universal Peace and, as I learned over the years, most things. It’s an understatement to say he’s one of the most enthusiastic people on the planet, embracing many paths and many communities. Charles was a Jew, a Sufi, a Shaker, a Quaker, a Buddhist, and likely felt kinship with many other spiritual traditions. He dealt in Volkswagen repair, real estate transactions and management, mentoring men, and lots more. A father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was especially excited about his family, and he bowed with his hands together at heart center whenever he saw us as if we were each his favorite human.
Charles died this morning at our local hospital after years of cancer and months of an especially difficult end. I was going to visit him in the afternoon with Ken, but because of a mix-up regarding differing news of his condition, I went over earlier to find Khabira and the lovely hospice people sitting quietly. I plopped myself on the stool next to Charles, and asked how he was doing. “Oh, did you not know?” Khabira asked. When she told me, I burst out crying, shocked that a long-time-coming death could actually come.
Sitting by Charles, I was struck by what I’ve experienced at other deaths, including my father’s: how death seems strangely ordinary. Dying? Not so much, and especially not in Charles’ case after weeks of intense pain, love, holding on, letting go, and the combination of uncertainty, morphine and cancer that spins everything into a vortex. But death, this fresh and close-up, as many remarked over the day, is so surrealistic. How could someone alive be dead when life titters on its meanderings, noise and heat all around us?
The time in the hospital was infused with peace and sadness, forms to fill out, calls to make, and puzzling over what of our collective vehicles was the best way to get Charles from hospital to home where the family was doing its own home-grown funeral direction. We settled on a van even though seats had to be removed, and soon, some of us were carrying Charles into his office, a separate building behind his home. We had a cardboard insta-coffin to fold together after deciding to put the “handle with extreme care” side on the inside so that tomorrow, friends and family can decorate the outside with messages and images of love and goodbye.
In little time, off the cuff and steering by the heart, we made a ceremony of washing the body, moving Charles into the cardboard coffin, and with lots of hard work and engineering (and a pair of scissors), getting him into a beautiful robe he’s worn for many religious occasions. Ken and one of the hospice people lifted his head and shoulders enough for me to wrap his Tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl he had for years and that Jews are customarily buried in, around him. I even wound one of the fringes of the tallis around his finger, a sign of active prayer. Throughout the work of our hands, we sang one of my Charles’ favorite Sufi songs — “Listen, Listen, Listen to My Heart Song,” read some blessings for the body and four directions, burned sage, sprinkled holy water and rose petals on him, and learned how to activate bags of dry ice. The whole thing was simple, spontaneous, necessary and tender.
Now Charles the Storm envelopes us, breaking the heat wave for this moment with cool wind and sweet rain. “I’ve never seen a storm on radar like this one,” Ken says right now as he sits beside me in the dark.
“What is this storm like?” I ask.
“Indescribable. It’s like there’s a mega storm with a huge center, just west of here spinning off all these thunderstorms.”
We look at radar, and see a wheel of weather, sending change many directions at once. Not an ordinary storm but a force of nature, like Charles: original, life-giving, exuberant, and full of magic. All around, there’s lightning bugs and lightning, wave and particle, a big fireworks display across the clouds in the shapes of fast-moving rivers or tree branchings, and in the fields, thousands of small lanterns blinking on and off like heartbeats. Dance in peace, dear friend.
It’s hot, and it will be hot for the foreseeable future with highs in the 90s through most of the rest of June. Then it turns July, when it’s 100 degrees most days, and the nights not much cooler. So it’s a time to adjust expectations, walk quickly through the heat, and always carry a big hat. I’m falling in with accepting that it’s hot today, it will be hot tomorrow, and any sudden shivers won’t likely show up for months. I’m also remembering how to do summer:
Dinner? Something cold, unless the air-conditioning is powerful, like half a cantaloupe and some smoked fish, or even better, sorbet with chocolate sprinkles. Crackers are also good.
The pool. The water will feel bathtub-temperatured after about a minute, but that first minute is divine. The air feels lovely and cool to the face lifting out of the water.
Listening to the astonishingly spirited Claudia Schmidt perform a house concert in Old West Lawrence last night, despite the sauna-esque glow of where I was sitting, I felt tapped on the shoulder to turn around and change. For the last few months, alternately freaking out, napping on the porch, guzzling caffeinated beverages, hugging good friends, complaining, breaking open my heart, talking with Ken while we lie in bed exhausted and overwhelmed, eating too many cookies and other new normals of Deathwatch 2016, I’ve tended to forget that every living moment is not consumed by intensity and crisis. Thankfully, somewhere in the middle of one of Claudia’s songs, reality broke through and said, “Snap out of it, Caryn! It’s just right now.”
Right now varies of course, and lately, it can especially seesaw from a F4 tornado to light-breezed blue-skied views. But right then at the concert, it become abundantly clear that I could drop the 62-pound backpack of grief singing at the speed of emergency, and sit happily on a small folding chair, letting Claudia’s high and low-pitches woos, scatting, and shimmering voice, guitar or dulcimer, and presence of tenderness, freedom, friendship, justice, awareness and welcome shine through me. Each note, each breath, helped me tilt just enough to catch the present and remember how much I love this life, this music, these people, this place, this time even.
Music also holds memories and holds us. When Claudia sang “Hard Love,” I followed the river of the last 35-something years from when I first heard this song, concentrating then as I did last night on the words, “the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of its names/ because the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.” I also got to talk about that song with Daniel, now 27, but probably a baby when he first heard it, about what hard love can mean. Another song, “These Stairs,” brought me back and forward as I thought about what it means to die at home. “The Strong Women’s Polka,” a newer song she wrote and sang, brought us together in laughter, recognition and singing along with the chorus, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes me you wish you were dead.” It also reminded me of the power of music to knock us into hysterics, the happy kind, and make community out of audiences and performers.
Music has saved me all my life, from the first songs my mother sang me that made me feel less fear and more beauty, to what I’m listening to right now, “When the Deal Came Down,” a song I co-wrote with Kelley Hunt sung by Kelley right here. This morning in the bath, I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gorgeous rendition of “10,000 Miles,” which imbued the movie “Fly Away Home” with deep waves of healing and homecoming. I cycle through long stretches of the guys too: Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Leonard Cohen as well as more show tunes than perhaps a person should ingest in a day. On the way to town today, I was thrilled to hear Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” music that picks me up and puts me back down as a more coherent human. Altogether, music reminds me that I’m a buzzing, changing, churning and rhythmic body held in the larger body of community and the earth.
Music — just as the song Kelley and I wrote, “Music Was the Thread” — has held together my story and held me together continually, a heartbeat sounding in the background and center of life as I know it. Here is a poem I wrote in the last year about that thread:
My mother singing “Tora Lora Lora,”
the Irish lullaby even though we were Brooklyn Jews.
The vacuum on the shag carpet. The singular birch
shaking over the hapless window sill. The humming refrigerator.
The chants encasing me in each swayed note as I wrapped
my thin arms around my cold chest in the cavernous synagogue.
The creak of the swing as I turn horizontal, defying gravity
in the static of the transistor radio. The loud slap on the bass notes
of the body that make bruises, then the slow breath
of forgiveness, pacing until the danger is gone.
All the possibilities in each library novel about a girl,
afraid at the start, but about to do something
to swirl the calm pond of her life. The first kiss in the back
of the school bus broken by applause. The sound of thunder,
an interior roar like hunger. The old staccato of my father’s anger
before it dissolved into the tenderness of defeat.
The way some mornings rev up like motorcycles
coming point blank toward us. The exhaling speed
of rivers, starving for new ground, or betrayed
by sudden shorelines that break the water into remembering
willows. Bike tires on wet pavement, downhill,
at dawn. The happy rhythm of the subway rocking my spine
in and out of alignment with the dark as we tunneled
through water back to air, the miracle of one rushing animal
carrying us all. This buzzing body ferrying millions of cells into sound.
For the Claudia Schmidt concert, big thanks to Burdett and Michel Loomis for hosing us in their beautiful home, Bruce and Peggy Kelly for bringing Claudia (and bringing her back to Kansas!), Kat for all the home-made goodies, and for hauling in and out many chairs and a big sound system, Forest, Daniel, Thomas, Bruce, Burdett and others. Bouquets of gratitude to Claudia too!
The grass of our lawn is so high that I can’t find our push mower, but since it’s likely broken, what’s the use ? Another thunderstorm pushes toward us, and once again, the humidity soars and the wind picks up energy. All night I dreamt of my dying friend after a weekend that includes many varieties of the wild, the woolly and the too-muchness.
This Memorial Day weekend, I wrote and revised an obituary and memorial service after meeting with my friend’s family, organized some of the tools in the basement, shepherded ingredients for a barbecue to my dying mother-in-law’s house and occasionally tried to get her to engage in almost saying “yes” as she becomes increasingly non-verbal, swam in the too-luscious but also too-warm pool waters with my delightful sister-in-law, hauled a bunch of boxes of broken things to the trash, spent inordinate time on the interwebs to find one great b &b in Kansas City for an overnight escape next week, made mashed potatoes, talked to several people about the close ones dying in our lives, watched videos of otters eating cereal, wrote a letter to a student, swam some more, and entertained bouts of “when-will-this-too-muchness-end?” despite the futility of wondering. I almost cried, almost wrote a poem, almost started a mosaic with newly-found old tiles (nothing like cleaning out the basement), almost finished the top of a new quilt, and almost freaked out (or maybe I actually did that).
There are times when everything grows exponentially from the lawn, to the sourdough starter our son is making, to us, but like most growing pains, it can be crazily confusing, uncomfortable, and over-the-top intense in how long it takes to get footing on new ground. It’s also hard to imagine a day of low humidity, clean-cut grass, and the dying loved ones dead and missed, and what it will be like to walk through that next life. I look out the window for a reminder of how much the scenery changes, one seasonal tilt at a time.
For the last three nights, I’ve been accumulating assorted sizes of plastic containers, sorting 1998 holiday letters and tiny tank fireworks, and tracking tornadoes. “Look at what I did with the boxes of paper on our highway fight and our old baby blankets,” I said to Ken. “Look at the radar,” he answered. When it’s dark out and the tornadoes tend to be rain-wrapped, such nights mean a lot of time cozying up with half a dozen weather websites.
It’s been a whirl of excessive humidity, insomnia, drawings of monsters from another planet, long-track tornadoes, and rusted ice cream makers. Because of mice and mildew invading our bevy of cardboard boxes, I’ve been putting my hands on all our stored history — from my labor history term papers from 1980 through Ken’s junior high yearbook onward through our kids’ baby announcements that thrilled us, elementary school music programs based on deep surrealism, and college grade cards that depressed us all. Meanwhile, the heat and humidity drenched me in contemporary sweat, Daniel yelled, “Oh my god!” while following live cam storms, and Ken explained to me that the tornado near Harveysville, if it kept going straight, then died its way north just a bit, could wipe out our home.
In between it all, I work a little, guzzle iced coffee, pack up Ken’s teenage ice skates, and return to Target each day to fill the back of the CRV with more purple, blue and gray giant plastic bins that will find a new life holding letters from dead relatives and hundreds of video games that might be worth something in 2070. There’s something very grand and satisfying about putting the pieces of our old signs and wonders into some kind of order, one bin at a time, clearing the first chakra of the house while the big sky of the world remakes itself in its wildest high wind unfoldings.
It’s past midnight, and I’m sitting in my dark bedroom lit by this computer screen and the moon-brightened clouds moving across the dark windows. I’m thinking about this swirl of death and dying around us all the time, and sometimes, much more so, like this spring. Since mid-March health crises, my mother-in-law, who has been on hospice for months before then, has been fading away. A week ago, I helped officiate a memorial service for my sweet friend and student John, who died at 70 from cancer while writing astonishing poetry about life and death. Meanwhile, our dear friend Charles is transitioning from being lovingly present in a gonzo kind of way (advanced cancer and/or pain meds) to sleeping much of the time. And today I took Forest to see Barry, a delightful man in a fragile comatose state, so Forest could say goodbye after working as a farm hand at Barry and Barb’s place.
It’s a strange time. It’s a beautiful time. I keep the phone close, know certain conversations may be the last (or the last in friend’s or family’s bodily form), and check Facebook, email, and my own gut inklings. I hold Charles’ hand and put my other hand gently on his chest for a minute, look into my mother-in-law’s eyes and bring her a cookie, and think how much I don’t want them to die.
Because dying is such hard work, I sing old Hebrew prayers, Sufi chants, Quaker songs for those around me in fear and pain, slips and pieces of sound that have carried me through many times. While I’m not obsessing over stupid shit to distract myself from this these endings, I sing the songs in my head right before sleep to aim myself toward more of what matters and away from my anxious heart.
Sometimes I handle it gracefully, listening and offering help. Sometimes I’m far more of a basket case than I had imagined, ready to take great insult at tiny mishaps as if my shiny, thick fur of resilience has been shaved off, but then again, I figure that many of us are roaming bundles of nerves at any given time. Sometimes I read books and articles about dying, trying to get a handle on the smooth vessel without a handle, searching for some easy answer in this pressurized time.
At my best, I look at and learn from what’s here: reality is startlingly beautiful and strange. “What do you love best about this life?” I asked Charles recently in a very surrealistic, funny, and joyful interview for the obituary I plan to write for him. “You!” he answered quickly with shining eyes that told me he was so in the moment and so alive in love that he would say this to everyone right now, and he would mean it.
What do I love best about this life right now? I pause, return to the roving moon through the ridges of clouds and trees. “This,” I hear across the horizon of my life, deathwatch or not, all of this tender time when I can put my yearning for solid answers and dates on the shelf and see how even dying is beyond my small ideas about it.