Tag Archives: faith

Turning My Mixed Feelings Over to Divine Love

My cousin Lynn's bark prayer boat, launched for my father

My cousin Lynn’s bark prayer boat, launched for my father

This is a strange birthday. Next year is one of those milestone birthdays, when I’ll put a “6” in front of the single digit, instead of “5.” But I’m not lamenting my age or the passage of time. I’m.. what?

In April I attended my friend and classmate Mimi Chiang’s memorial. In May I celebrated my beautiful cousin Lynn Fawcett Whiting’s life. Tomorrow I will join with friends to remember Jim Jennings, who illuminated my life ever since I met him in 1995 or so. This, while the horror of Orlando echoes.

Mimi, Lynn and Jim were — and are — inspirations to me. Mimi for her courage in life and on the page. Lynn, for the art and beauty of her soul. Jim, for his love and wisdom.

Beginning in 1999, when I confronted my mother’s terminal illness, Jim was the person I turned to when I experienced a crisis of faith, or simply quailed in the face of life. This blog is peppered with his advice to me. Search “my mentor Jim” and you’ll find him.

Maybe this is a good time to repost what he wrote me shortly before my father’s death in 2013. I worried about my father’s faith. I worried about my faith. I worried… I still worry… about a lot. I’m not very good about lifting those worries up. I wish I had that kind of easy faith, but I don’t.

What I have had, and do have, are messengers like Mimi, and Lynn, and Jim. People who glow with something unnameable.

  • God is with us, actually inside each of us even when we do not sense it, and remove enough of our own clutter and misgivings and pain to be fully conscious of divine love inside us.
  • God doesn’t have a dossier on each of us that reads how long we will live, how we will deteriorate, whether you get cancer or I get Alzheimers. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, and that experience is governed by the natural order which is haphazard, and evolutionary, and our individual biological destiny gene defined more than most anything else. But the soul was, is, and shall be.
  • It’s perfectly natural for us to wonder how a loving God could allow this or that, but fairness as we want it to be does not come with free will and nature.
  • I have asked for most of my life, “Why did you set it up this way God?” In my dotage I have come to accept that I will get an answer…I will see and understand only when my spirit is set free from my human experience.  Meanwhile, I have to trust, have faith in God’s unconditional love, and try to be a loving other in the world. And to be perfectly comfortable in having a fit from time to time about why it is this way — why my 34 year old father of three kids is dying of brain cancer, or my lady in the Alzheimer’s unit is so very lost. [Jim was a chaplain for hospice at this point.] Very hard to accept that we are not in control; that we have to ultimately turn it over to the embrace of the Divine.  Meanwhile we care for each other in the fullest sense we know how, offering love and our own broken heartedness with the words of the Christ  “Thy will be Done.”  You can even go so far as to say, “Well dammit, Thy will Be Done.”
  • I am sure you understand the chaplain was asking the question so he could get a sense of where your Dad is both spiritually and religiously so he can approach your Dad accordingly.  What the chaplain’s job in this team is, is to do anything he can to help your Dad have peace of heart and peace of mind. Sometimes this is expressed in religious language; often not.  Your Dad does not have to have all the answers to all the questions right now. He needs heart connection because that ultimately answers the unanswerable questions and ensures him peace of heart and peace of mind so he can release. Whether he connects in any way to a traditional notion of God, he sure does to your Mom and he wants to go and be with her.  So for him, there is a there there, and he has his heart set on arriving.  Leaving is generally harder than entering, for each of us.
  • Turn all your mixed feelings over to Divine Love.  Literally, write each one on pieces of paper; put them all into a bowl or pot.  Take a lighter and burn the scraps safely and as you do, tell the Divine to take care of this messy stuff so you can take care of your Dad and your self.  Each moment now, even the most gritty ones is precious. HUGS

Jim was always better with words than I am. … Even the most gritty moments are precious. The soul was, is, and shall be.

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Mom, On Thanksgiving

Mom's prayer guide

As I’ve been thinking and writing about my mother this month, I’ve unearthed various letters and tidbits that bring her wit and wisdom roaring back… I published this as part of a post last week but it seemed somehow appropriate to bring this piece back in honor of our national holiday for gratitude…

A few days after my mother died, I found a book in her bedside table that contained 24 spiritual exercises “for healing life’s hurts.” I don’t remember taking it, but I must have, because I stumbled across it again this week, in a cupboard, forgotten. There was her first name in her careful right-leaning cursive, the top and bottom of the “E” of Eileen curling back upon itself, the “n” swooping east in a long, straight stroke. Other than the cover, only one page of the book bears her handwriting, the third lesson, entitled “The Healing Power of Gratitude.” She underlined this passage: “(S)ometimes just letting ourselves be loved can solve so many problems. When we let go and just soak up love from the Lord and others who care for us, we have a whole new power to go on again.” Next to this, in a slightly shaky hand, she wrote, “God doesn’t walk out on me — I walk out on him.”

Gratitude was a common theme in the letters we exchanged over the years. When we spoke by phone, living 800 miles apart, we often struck sparks off one another, but on paper we were forced to listen. (I say “we,” but more likely it was me who had the interrupting habit.) She almost always began with news of her church “doings,” good Episcopalian churchwoman that she was. A letter I received when I was single and working in Los Angeles — now bundled with others in a box — was written in her classic vein. She began by noting that she was “piddling around” getting some things done, including publicity about the United Thank Offering, which she lamented was rarely used as it was intended. One was supposed to put coins in the Blue Box as a personal spiritual discipline for acknowledging the good little things that happen every day. She wrote, “I admit that I frequently forget to use it but I do remember a lot of the time to say thank you, God, when I get a lovely letter such as yours which came yesterday, or Dad shows his appreciation for something — or maybe because I didn’t have a flat tire when I was in a hurry and late — this past week I have been grateful when there may have been a whole 24 hours this puppy of your brother’s didn’t dig something up in the yard — or managed to hit the papers during the night.” She ended that long train of thought paragraph by saying she just wished the timing of babysitting my brother’s dog was different so that she could get on with gardening.

Even that last bit is true to form. On the page, she just shrugs her shoulders and moves on. The dog digs. The garden will suffer. We shall overcome. I can think of dozens of examples when she took far bigger things in stride. Her anger worked the same way. She yelled, said her peace, gave as good as she got. But when the argument was over, she didn’t resurrect it. Her lexicon seemed nearly devoid of those negative emotions that require time to fester: blame, guilt, spite. She wasn’t one to let things marinate.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for so much, but, Mom, you are at the top of the list.

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Going The Distance

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

On a good night, when the wine was flowing and we were gathered as a family around the dinner table, my father told jokes. My brother Bruce and I were given to puns of the worst sort, and for a time I specialized in the foul humor I picked up from the ad agency where I worked, but Dad was the family story teller. One of us usually handed him a cue, a short sidelong reference like, “There’s a pony in there.” Off to the races he’d go.

He straightened, there at the head of the table, and made eye contact with his audience as if to ask if we really wanted to hear that old story. His pause, his expectant look, was all he needed to gather us in.

There was one about the boy who found a strange spotted creature he called a “rarey” that began to grow so fast it threatened hearth and home, prompting the boy to load it in a truck and attempt to drop it over the edge of a cliff on a high mountain peak. The punch line? “That’s a long, long way to tip a Rarey.” (Insert groan here.)

But my favorite was the one about the optimist and the pessimist.

He avoided the usual start. No “once upon a time.” My father launched right into the action of the story, setting the stage. In the setup for the optimist and the pessimist, he described a family’s problem with a pair of twins. One looked on the bright side of everything, so much so that he could imagine no problem that could not be surmounted or that wouldn’t dissipate all by itself. The other saw only gloom and doom, and no matter what wonderful opportunities arose, he felt he was sure to fail. The parents decide to engineer a resolution by giving the optimist truly terrible Christmas presents and the pessimist, truly wonderful ones. The story ends with the parents standing by, confounded, while their optimist son gleefully digs in a huge pile of horse manure, exclaiming, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!”

My father loved to tell stories, but in the end, he left me a riddle. My father, who was doled out more than his fair share of dung in life, never gave up, never became bitter, never stopped believing in the possibility that things would get better. While many people become curmudgeonly as they age, he became gentler. Why? What drove him?

If my mother had her druthers, the answer would be faith. Her faith sustained her through the loss of her father while still in her twenties, the war, the loss of her daughter to leukemia, the death of her mother, and the long frightening years of my father’s struggle with heart disease. Resting on the levee of the river during one of our many walks, I asked my father if he believed in God. I wanted to hear him say yes. I wanted that little bit of reassurance that, when the time came, he would be welcomed into heaven to join my mother, even as the little doubter in my own mind wondered if that’s what really happens after we die. “I wish I could believe,” he told me. He just couldn’t make the leap from concrete reality to ephemeral faith. The closest he ever came to saying he believed in an afterlife was to say he looked forward to seeing my mother again.

Perhaps it was love that fueled him. Love, to my father, wasn’t about what you said, it was what you did. His place in the middle of three sons, with an emotionally abusive father and a bully for an older brother, had a lasting effect on his dedication to others. My grandmother lived out her last years in a convalescent home in our community. After he ate with us, my father took her dinner every night. I’ll be honest. I didn’t like my grandmother, and she didn’t like me (she thought I was entirely too outspoken, my father confirmed much later). Why my father would want to spend time with such a sour old woman I couldn’t understand. But in his last years, I saw my grandmother as my father saw her: she was a gentle woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering egotist. I remember how her face softened, how something flickered across her features, when my father spoke to her. His nightly visits were driven by more than filial duty. They were borne out of love.

Or maybe it was hope that kept him going. Within a week of his death, he still believed he could recover his strength, if he just got out there and started walking again. Anthony Scioli, a professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, has been investigating the link between hope and health. Writing in Spirituality & Health magazine, Louise Danielle Palmer summarized his conclusion, that “…hopeful people tend to be more resilient, more trusting, more open, and more motivated than those less hopeful, so they are likely to receive more from the world, which in turn makes them more hopeful.”

I’ve used a lot of trite quips to explain my father to others. “Like a Timex, he took a licking and kept on ticking.” His health challenges alone would have flattened most men: three heart attacks, three open heart surgeries and three strokes.” While we were growing up and he still had our college educations on the horizon, I know he felt he had to recover. He had to provide. That was duty. But how do you explain his dedication to come back from strokes after my mother died, after his duty was discharged?

He did it a step at a time. With the help of a physical therapist, he learned to concentrate on swinging his weaker left leg and striking with his heel. He had to think about each step to avoid stumbling. When he was in acute rehab at the UW Medical Center, I remember how proud of himself he was when he demonstrated the new skill he had relearned with the occupational therapist: he made me a cup of instant hot cocoa. Even now, when I write about it, I cry. To be so reduced by a stroke that completing the steps – take out a cup, fill it with water, microwave it, pour in the cocoa and stir – was an accomplishment. It could have been humiliating, but it wasn’t. It was a milestone. A good day. The medical professionals predicted he would be wheelchair bound; then they revised it to “he’ll never walk independently without a walker.” But he did. For years, he just used a cane.

Every day on our walk, he set a goal. Sometimes it was to make it no farther than the third driveway down. He felt the load in his chest, was breathing hard, but he rarely stopped short of his goal. When I said that most people would quit when they started to feel the strain, he simply said, “Every day I try to go a little farther.”

My father went the distance.

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What Will Happen To Me?

IMG_1242

What will happen to me?

           My father often asked this question. Like answering a child who wonders where babies come from, I gave the simplest answer. I knew that money had been a concern of my father’s for as long as I could remember, so I summarized his financial position and told him he did not need to worry. I even went so far as to write out a statement of his monthly income and expenses for him to carry in his breast pocket. For a while, that was enough.

After a time, his question what will happen to me took on a different tenor. He wanted to know how he would die and how he would be cared for. He was the man who had figured out how to load a battle ship (put in last the things you need first). He thought in scenarios. What was the plan, he wanted to know. But this wasn’t a briefing. He was asking me, his daughter, to acknowledge his death and dying. How to even talk about it? Did he want reassurance – don’t worry, Dad, we’ll take care of you – or did he want a contingency plan? Should I use the word “death” or something sanitized: when the time comes? Did we really have to talk about this? I told him the truth: that I didn’t know what would happen. He could have “the big one” and die suddenly, felled by the heart disease that had plagued him since he was forty-six. He could fall and have to go to the hospital, in which case we would get him home to my house as quickly as possible. Or he could slowly lose ground, in which case he would be at my house with hospice. Whatever happens, Dad, we will work to get you home and you will not be alone. And for a while, that was enough.

He was thinking about his death. But he did not seem frightened. As hard as it was for him to lose my mother, first to dementia and then to lung cancer, he did not rail against the heavens. I asked if he believed in God. He said he wished he could. But he was angry, angry that my mother had feared her own death – a woman who had been devoutly religious, a mother who had been sustained by her faith when her little girl was taken from her by leukemia. He placed the blame on God. If there was a God, how could he let her be afraid, he asked. The Just God was unjust. Then he said, “I hope it doesn’t shock you but I look forward to being with your mother again.” So you believe in the afterlife, I asked him. He replied, “What’s the alternative?”

Six months before he died, he had stopped asking what would happen to him and started predicting his own death. On a visit in July, my brother Bruce called, choked up; hearing our father talk about dying unhinged him, he said. Initially Dad’s phrasing was playful: “I don’t have long before the big jump.” He made it sound like an adventure. He was plummeting to earth.

It was summer then, when the trees drooped from the heat that pressed down from relentlessly blue skies. In better days we would have walked in a lazy serpentine from one circle of shade to the next. Dad would have summoned his breath to recite a passage from The Ancient Mariner, intoning in his best imitation of Richard Burton, “Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea!/ And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony.”

Instead I watched him pant in his chair, his lungs crunching inward at the end of each exhalation. He interrupted his sentences to breathe. For a while he said I don’t think I can pull through this. Finally he began to say I’m not long for this world.

I didn’t want to believe him. I even found a word for people like him, people who survive long past every prediction, people who teeter on the precipice time and time again, but always pull back from the edge. People like my father are called “biologically tenacious.” On the day that hospice came to evaluate my father, my son told me that he didn’t think Papa could die, would die within six months, as the nurse had to conclude for my father to be admitted in the program. My son was angry at the hospice nurse for her matter-of-fact statement about Dad’s prognosis.

My friend Jim wrote me: “Remember, the descent is like going down stairs.  Sometimes one by one, and sometimes several at a time.  Nothing you can do about this but be present and loving.  His spirit is trying to discard his human body so it can move forward.”

I wrote this prayer:

Help me, God, to be fully present

Help me to feel calm so that I can calm my father

Help me to radiate so much love that it warms him

Help me to support the others who love him on this awful journey

Help me to understand

Help me to love

Help me

I knew I had to say goodbye, to say the words that might help release him. I told him my brothers and I would be okay, that he had raised us well. That we would do the best that we could to help him be comfortable. I told him I wished I could make it easier. He told me he was proud of me.

On New Year’s Eve, when we watched the festivities on television, we did not know he had only twelve days left. He turned to me and said, “In my next life I’m going to come back for you.”

 

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My Mother’s Easter

Dean's christening, with Bruce

Dean’s christening, with Bruce

My Mom loved Easter, and not just for the stylish hats, spectator shoes and forsythia blossoms that made their spring appearance. It was truly a time of resurrection, when God made good on his promise to save the world.

In 1954, Easter fell on April 18 – almost as late in the season as this year’s. Six months earlier, Mom and Dad had lost their baby, their little girl Midge, to leukemia. Diagnosed at one year old, it had been brutal to watch Midge’s final remission end after more than two years of experimental treatments. Midge was not yet four.

When Easter arrived the following spring, Mom was big with child, and alone. The Marine Corps had delayed Dad’s solo posting to Japan as long as possible, but he was overseas as Mom faced the imminent birth of their fourth child.

It could have been a terrible time. In fact, one of the Naval medical professionals had advised Mom to abort the pregnancy, saying it would be too much for her psychologically given Midge’s terminal illness. I’d like to have seen the look Mom gave that doctor or heard her response. Never one to hold back, I am certain she gave him — and it was almost certainly a him — what for.

I imagine Mom looking out the window at the yellow forsythia, watching the earth renew itself, her hand resting on her large belly. After three pregnancies, I’m sure she knew her time was near.

Two days later, on April 20, she welcomed my brother Dean into the world. Dad said later, “It was as if the sun came out.”

Happy birthday, Dean. I know Mom is thinking of you today, and so am I.

Mom, Nana and I with Easter hats, by the forsythia, in 1961

Mom, Nana and me: with Easter hats, by the forsythia, in 1961

 

 

 

 

 

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Seeing, Believing, Remembering, Trusting

St. Ignatius San Francisco

Yesterday my friend and mentor Jim sent me a short email: “Giving thanks for your Dad’s life tomorrow. HUGS.”

It didn’t surprise me that Jim would suspect that this is a time of reflection for me.

January and February were always hard months for Dad. I expected that he would ultimately pass away during one of those barren months. But each year with astounding speed, daffodil buds would proceed inch-by-inch out of the ground, quince bushes would blossom into their full fuchsia glory, and tulip magnolias would burst into flower. And Dad would say, “I think I might make it after all.”

This spring, finally, he didn’t. But as the spring roars along, I am grateful that Dad is at peace. And I am comforted by the memory of his smile (that “big ass” smile as I so indelicately put it during my remarks at his memorial) a few hours before he died.

I awakened this Easter morning fully aware that, finally, Dad has moved on.

By happenstance, my husband, Todd, and I were in San Francisco for the weekend, which gave us the opportunity to attend church where someone very special to us is the new pastor. Fr. Greg Bonfiglio, S.J., former president of Jesuit High School, was slated to lead the 9:30 Easter service at St. Ignatius Parish in San Francisco. The many pillars of the church were festooned with garlands of flowers, decorated with pots of yellow narcissus and encircled with large bouquets of forsythia.

Commenting on the gospel, Fr. Greg described how Simon Peter had arrived breathless at the tomb and peered in. Only when he saw the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face did he believe that Jesus was no longer there, and had risen.

“Seeing really is believing,” Fr. Greg said, “but this is a different kind of seeing. This is the kind of seeing that is open…”

I still struggle with faith and questions of what happens after death. My blog posts are full of questions. But in my father’s last hours, I saw him in communion with someone he loved. By the time he died, the journey of his last few months affected me in a visceral way and led me to greater openness in resurrection after death.

On the day he died, my brother Dean and I told Dad it was okay for him to go, that we would see him again, and that we would be fine. I had to let go and stop trying to prevent Dad from dying. I had to trust God that He would care for him.

“Seeing” leads to believing, and believing, to trust.

Fr. Greg Bonfiglio

Fr. Greg Bonfiglio

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A Year Past: Good Friday at the House of Mary

candles

On Good Friday last year, I found myself, quite by accident, at a place of Christian pilgrimage in Turkey. We were on a shared 30th anniversary trip with dear friends when our tour guide decided to make a second stop after our tour of Ephesus. From the rolling hills covered in new grass and spring blooms adjacent to the sea, our van wound up a hill, arriving at a hilltop surrounded by leafy trees and tall, whispering pines. The breeze immediately cooled us after our warm walk through the long marble promenades of Ephesus. Our guide, Yesra, had brought us to the House of Mary (“Meryemana”), where Mary was believed to have lived during the period that Paul was busy spreading the gospel to the people of Ephesus, which was the strategic heart of the Roman empire in Asia Minor. It felt… peaceful.

houseofstmaryThe house is a place of pilgrimage for Christians, but is also respected by Muslims who recognize Mary as the mother of a prophet. After people visit the small house built of rectangular stones, which became a chapel after her death, many light candles. There’s also a Muslim wishing wall where people tie notes with their prayers.

We filed in to the quiet chapel where nuns in habits kept vigil by the small altar. For most visitors, it was a short visit: a solemn one-way walk through the small interior followed quickly by an exit into the small courtyard. I stopped in the chapel and knelt at one of the small wooden prayer benches. And I cried. I prayed for my Dad, who was in failing health. Although I am not Catholic, I prayed for Mary to intercede on his behalf and relieve him from the suffering of congestive heart failure and the grief that only the oldest know after their spouses, parents, and friends have gone before them. As I left, one of the nuns silently approached me and handed me a candle.

lightingcandlesOutside, I saw the glass-enclosed stands of candles implanted in sand. I prayed again, as did my friend, Lisa.

Many candles and many prayers later, my Dad was released. I will never forget the look of greeting on his face those last few hours. Dad, this is a good Friday, a better Friday, knowing that you are at peace, even if I miss you every day.

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