“From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other – above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men [and women], both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”
~ Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein’s words have been a comfort this week. He manages to explain what I cannot in the breadth of two sentences: the complexity of our entanglements through the depths of sadnesses and the high of our happiness-es. There will be days and weeks in our lives when the transition between these emotional states leave us breathless. For me, and for many in our small community, the time since Thanksgiving has been one of them.
Saturday Dec 3rd
This morning I woke to the sound of winter birds. Muted light filled the room and the imagined events of the day slowly illuminated into sequenced images on the cork board of my mind. My fuzzy early morning wonderings, along with the deep pitted feeling I have had in my stomach all week, were swiftly interrupted by my oldest daughter’s sweet voice. “What should I wear for my party today? Should I wear the same thing to the tree farm?” She jumped in my bed and wrapped her arms and warm body around me. When did she grow such long limbs? I am thankful for the little girl pj’s she still wears.
Little ‘sis wasn’t far behind. She pulled herself up and over the side of the bed to snuggle on my other side while asking with uncommon cheer and wakefulness at such an early hour, “What are we going to do first? We have so much to do for fun!” I love the way she constructs a sentence and her boundless enthusiasm. I looked into her face and in this moment, while following the lilting sounds of her voice, I thought of another mother in my neighborhood who is burying her youngest daughter today. A daughter who is the same age as my eldest. Her sweet baby girl. We have talked extensively about her all week, about her entire family. Her bravery and their grace in the midst of grief. I saw my daughters just then and heard their voices but lost track of what they were saying – as if they were talking to me from another room. I struggled to contain my emotions.
We talked about her courage, how she taught us about bravery in the midst of scary things, like disease and an uncertain future.
Memories of driving with my friend Kirstin to the funeral home two days prior flooded my mind. Going alone wasn’t an option. I’ve been to most of the funeral homes in town, though never for a child’s viewing. We stuffed our pockets with tissue and spent a few minutes in the car collecting ourselves before heading into the building in full recognition of how our discomfort and sorrow pales in comparison to the pain Mariel’s family is enduring. Their exhaustion, disbelief and despair. Surely, we can get out of this car. We did not know what to expect and could only imagine our own inability to move if faced with the loss of a child. Inside the room, decorated in their daughter’s honor, was full of love. A table of beloved items and favorite things, two large screen televisions told the story of her life in pictures. Their large family gathered – a full room of warmth. Her parents, while grieving, openly and generously greeted and spoke with each visitor Her mother, beautiful and kind, held us in long embrace. We all want to ease their pain. Our presence is all we have to offer, our memories and our support.
We talked about how they share their lives with us and how we have new understanding of reaching out, what this really means. Our deep appreciation for their invitations to include everyone and a renewed appreciation for our community.
Gratitude, sorrow, regret, love, all a bottle neck in my throat; a pressure in my chest. This life, for all of us willing to feel it, is a heart swelling and surprising experience day by day. To be open to bliss we open ourselves to the its polar opposite, the experience of profound confusion and grief. Yet, the grief I touch on today is not in the realm of despair. Despair, I do not know. Despair, for today, occupies another’s heart. How many? Too many in this world.
When we contemplate another’s grief we often begin by opening the cellar door of our own darkest hours. It is only by comparison sometimes we can measure the distance between us. I have known many older adults who have lost a child. This is not my grief and I do not understand it. I have not touched on it. It plays like fear in my mind. A parents nightmare. I have had the privilege to listen and in the listening a learning of the meaning of despair overtime. How, over many decades, a loss like this, can impact a life and how it is lived, differently. A kind of breaking open, transmuting pain into meaning. Given the nature of the work I do, facilitating voluntary groups, I see people who are on the generous end of the sharing spectrum. They are not only interested in openness, they throw open windows wherever they go, simply by being themselves.
We talk about happiness and how she taught us about joy in the midst of struggle.
Tonight we gathered at the school on her 9th birthday. The school was decorated in lights and photos. Many hands working together to create a special evening for a remarkable little girl and her legacy. There was cake, lots of cake, a short and enthusiastic vocal performance from the Recess Singers* who sang two of her favorite Recess Singers songs (“Walking on Sunshine” and “I’m a Little Trout”), which ended with the “Happy Birthday” song we all know so well. The one we sing from the time we are children. The song I remember singing to my grandfather when he turned 101 (we are supposed to live long lives like this), the song we sang to our own daughter just days before. At this point in the evening, we felt our collective heart breaking, a room full of parents and children, signing in acknowledgement of the birthday she is not here to celebrate.
They are teaching us about how we move forward, to let go and how to remember at the same time. This is life’s greatest challenge we all must meet .
In thoughtful preparation, her family considered this and made a point to include something she would have loved. There was a DJ. The second hour kicked off with loud joyous pop-music, the lights were dimmed and the holiday lights stringed up above looked like a starry night. We watched our children dance with abandon,flail their arms, run in circles, grab hands and shoulders for boogie trains, jump up and down, laugh and cry. Laughing and crying. Most of us followed this cycle all evening. We thought of her here. We saw her in her parents faces and in her siblings and cousins. We saw her around the room in portrait and imagined her dancing with her friends.
We talk about what people shared. Someone said it best last night. She is cheerful. She was cheerful. She is still teaching us about joy.
*The Recess Singers are students grade 3-5 who practice once a week during the lunch hour – giving up recess to learn, sing, dance and share music with their peers on occasion. This is a program I co-direct with my friend Kirstin – an idea sparked from a wonderful teacher, Jen in 2010. They sang from their hearts on Tuesday in honor of our sweet friend, also a Recess Singer, who died on Thanksgiving Day.