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The Dam Burst

imageI wondered if I would cry — could cry — when my son graduated from college over the weekend. Water turned out to be the theme of the day.

At the interfaith baccalaureate service in the morning, where my son would sing with the Adelphian choir, a series of students shared their reflections one after another. They told personal stories, stories of coming out and trying to find a new way to relate to God and find a community, stories of hope lost and hope regained. They spoke with whatever vocabulary fit their understanding of Divine Mystery.  They sang and prayed for others.

We sat there, parents and family, faculty and staff, students and friends, listening and reflecting. For an hour, we became a community.

The morning light flooded through the chapel windows from the east, bathing my son’s face in gold. To close the service, the Adelphians sang Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home.”

Oh where is the road that will lead me home?”

The song took me back to that day in October 2012 when my “other mother” teetered between life and death. As her children and grandchildren gathered around her bedside, my best friend and I sang that song. And as we sang, “Miss Ann” slipped to the other side, to the place where her faith guided her, where her husband and mother awaited.

Four months later, a small group sang it at my father’s memorial.

As I listened to the choir, I could almost see my mother and father hovering. Was it a daydream? Was it my heart’s longing that brought me their image? Were they really there? It felt as if they were.

The dam burst, and I cried. My stomach pulsed with withheld sobs as I cried tears of joy for my son’s safe passage, of happiness for the moment of reunion with my parents, of compassion for the tribulations that many of the students had experienced.

Water turned out to be the abiding symbol of the day. Rather than the typical, somewhat overly long commencement ceremony, in which one waited for one name out of more than 600, Yahweh (for it had to be the angry God of old) decided to interrupt things with an outburst of Biblical proportions.

The wind picked up as the class representative gamely soldiered on with her remarks. The skies above us swirled in a circular pattern. If we had been in the Midwest, we would have been heading for storm shelters.

Next came the rain. It did not “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” Each was a swollen bubble that splattered into inch wide rings where it struck heads, blouses and trousers. Within minutes, those initial marks were obscured by rivulets from the flood that pounded the crowd on the field.

Then came hail and lightning. Running through sideways rain that rapidly filled gutters, those who didn’t leave in the initial downpour – the hardy families who were determined to hear that one name called – evacuated to the field house. We sheltered for nearly an hour before university officials made the call to resume the ceremony.

This morning, the words of “The Road Home” returned to me:

After wind, after rain, when the dark is done, as I wake from a dream in the gold of day

Through the air there’s a calling from far away, there’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home.

Rise up, follow me, come away is the call

With love in your heart as the only song

There is no such beauty as where you belong

Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home


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My Son Is Graduating. Will I Cry?

Tommy handprint and booties

I don’t know a lot about tears. They tell you that laughing is good for you, that it can add years to your life, even help cure cancer. But what about tears? What does it do to you if you rarely cry?

My earliest memory of crying was soon after my father’s massive heart attack forced him to retire and us to relocate to Seattle. I got in trouble for something. Dad was home, and I heard the slip and snap of his belt as it slid out of his trousers. I fled to my room and wailed.

“Stop sounding like a fire engine!” my mother yelled.

I cried because I didn’t want to be punished. I cried with rage at the injustice of it all. I cried because inside me was a great knot of feelings: grief over the death of my grandmother, shock over the jarring moves from familiar Maryland to foreign Honolulu and then overcast Seattle, fear that my father could die from a second heart attack, and profound loneliness because I was lonely.

Oh how I cried.

Eventually I got the message. I wasn’t supposed to cry.

My parents were of hardy western stock. Mom, only child of a short, scrappy attorney, learned to drive at 11 years of age so she could accompany her father while he hunted on the benches around Boise. Given his blood pressure problems, there was always the possibility she might need to drive for help. Dad grew up in Yakima under a “severe” father – his words — in a household where shit rolled downhill. His father criticized the eldest brother. The eldest took it out on Dad. His was the kind of family home where children were seen and not heard. His mother behaved civilly — as people would expect of the daughter of the town’s “grand old man” — while her husband left each night to sleep with his mistress. An open secret.

When bad things happened, my mother was unshockable. It wasn’t just that she was unflappable. It was as if a switch was flipped and she went into sergeant mode. She dealt with it — whatever it was — without fuss.

She expected the same of me. My brothers, all older, knew the rules without being told. They were the sons of a hunter, sons of a Marine.

Somehow I thought the rules would be different for a girl. I felt different. I wanted to share my enthusiasm, my indignation, my pain. I wanted to be held and comforted.

Rather than provoking sympathy, my expressions of emotion exasperated my mother (she would say outbursts). In early grade school, she would let me lean against her for a while — but only a while — before eventually complaining, “Stop clinging.” Mom was a big believer in shaking things off. Her biggest hero was her grandmother, who lived into her hundreds and was famous for her advice about illness, “Just make up your mind and shake it off by morning.”

Mind over matter.

I don’t mean to whine. (See? I had a pop up message in my head that said, “Quit whining.”) Or to blame my parents for being the stoics that they were. Stoicism has a lot going for it. Stoicism got Mom through the loss of her father while she was still in college, supported her through WWII, and saw both Mom and Dad through the loss of their daughter to leukemia.

This whole topic came up because I’ve been really mushy the last 24 hours. (Mushy? I know. It’s hard not to be pejorative.) I was looking for an old piece of family memorabilia and stumbled across a plaster mold of my son’s handprint and his first pair of real walking shoes. I almost lost it.

You see, he’s graduating from college tomorrow.

When I posted a picture of my find on Facebook, a friend advised, “Be sure to take tissues tomorrow!”

I wondered, will I cry? It’s not that I avoid crying. I simply can’t.

I’m not the family crier. My husband is. When we go to a movie with any kind of emotional moment, my daughter and I look over to him to see if he’s tearing up. He usually is. My husband comes from a whole family of criers. My best friends are criers. My children are criers.

When I was in therapy as a young mother, my homework assignment was to let the feelings in, to sit with sadness, to let myself cry. Crying, for me, took effort. When I finally would cry, it was as if the dam broke. I couldn’t stop.

So I wonder, will I cry?

I can feel my heart threaten to explode out of my chest. My son has overcome some really awful stuff to take that walk across his commencement stage. At times, in the past two years, I have felt as vulnerable as a new mom looking down at that gentle baby who looked in awe at the world around him. Wondering, how did this miracle happen? Will I be able to give him what he needs and keep him safe?

I don’t know if I will cry. I’ve been well trained. But I can tell you my heart is cracked open, hovering outside my body, waiting for tomorrow.


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Loss and Its Companions: Love and Forgiveness

Eileen Driscoll Campbell

In grieving Dad, my mind has turned to my mother, who died in 1999. I love her for who she was and her many gifts to me, and I have long since forgiven her for the things that I once ached to receive from her.

If I want to, I can call to mind the feel of resting my head on her bosom, dozing on a long car trip, comfortably settled between Mom and Dad on the plastic-covered bench seat. I can’t exactly say that it’s a recollection. It’s more like a muscle memory, as if the tissues of my face can reconstruct the very feeling of her. She is soft and warm, a little damp with perspiration, and smells faintly of Shalimar talcum powder.

But I also remember Mom being perfunctory when I expressed feelings of hurt or sadness. Which seemed to happen often. “Stop crying like a fire engine,” she would tell me, exasperated. Her lips would compress above her strong jaw line.

A few years into my marriage, she bluntly told me that I would lose my husband if I continued my commitment to career. Prohibited from pursuing the career she had imagined in law, she found success in her role as wife. She believed I would succeed only by doing the same. Implied in her warning, I thought, was a threat that she would be on my husband’s side if I screwed things up.

This doesn’t seem like much of a homily to my mother. But I couldn’t have felt for her what I did by the time that she died if I hadn’t spent time pulling apart the threads of our relationship and reassembling them with the advantage of time, distance and age.

Several years before Mom passed away, when she slid more deeply into dementia, a blanket of sadness settled on my shoulders. I felt immobilized and I had no idea why.

This fits my pattern: having been well trained to ignore feelings of sadness, I don’t recognize them. They rise up. They demand my attention. When they are persistent enough, I attend to them.

Realizing that I was losing Mom made me examine our complicated relationship. I knew she loved me, sometimes with terms, but ultimately unconditionally, with fierceness and loyalty. I wasn’t like her. I would never be like her. But I knew she loved me.

By the time she developed lung cancer, I was at peace with my relationship with her. I forgave her for not always being able to give what I wanted from her. As cancer ate away at her personality and memory, love glowed in the gaze of her fading brown eyes.

Loss and forgiveness. They go together.

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