Remembering Lorie Levison

September 24, 2009

Last week, my friend Lorie died of cancer.  I sat with her as she spent her last exhalation and grew silent.  I tended her body.  I celebrated her freedom from pain.  And I mourned her early departure from this beautiful world.

As it turns out, in our small community, I am not only someone people tend to call in times of grief, but am also called sometimes when death is drawing near.  This is a task I cherish.  Being able to companion someone as they make that sacred transition from life in a body is the holiest thing I know.  That, and being present when a baby is born.  They are remarkably similar events, both accompanied by a rush of grace that takes my breath away.

I have known Lorie for nearly two decades.  We adopted our first daughters within a year of each other, when the girls were around ten.  Both our kids became young mothers, transforming us into grandmothers, and blessing us with some of the most important relationships of our lives: our grandchildren.

I happened to be with Lorie in the hospital a couple of weeks ago when she was given her terminal diagnosis: the leukemia she had been valiantly combating for over a year had gone into overdrive and the battle was over.  I was there because Lorie had been on a special diet, and I was the one signed up to deliver her breakfast that day, following a transfusion the night before.  She went home that afternoon, so that she could die in her own space, surrounded by the people she loved.

After bearing witness to the news, I sat quietly with Lorie for a few minutes, and then she asked me to take dictation.  She wanted to compose a letter to her granddaughter.  This launched a series of “last letters” I wrote down for Lorie over the next few days, while she still had the strength to speak and the clarity to choose her words.  This task was one of the greatest honors I have ever been given.

Lorie’s disease invaded her body with shocking speed.  A week later, she was gone.  The day before she died, as I was sitting beside her and recording her final wishes for the disposition of her body and the nature of her memorial service, Lorie — who took care of the business of her dying with the same no-nonsense elegance with which she had always tended the business of her life — suddenly reached for my hand.  “Amazing,” she said, smiling, “how you’ve just blossomed into my life like this!”  I nodded, mute with love.  And then we went back to making her funeral arrangements.

My younger daughter, Jenny, died on Lorie’s 50th birthday: October 30, 2001.  Every year for the past seven, Lorie has sent me a beautiful card and a very personal note on that day.  It has been a special, private knowingness that we have shared.  Her family has decided they would like to hold Lorie’s memorial on that day this year, to honor her life.  They have asked me to officiate the ceremony.  It will be my thank you to Lorie for holding me in her heart as I navigated this season of loss throughout the early years.

Though I do not hesitate when called to the bedside of the dying or the shattered hearts of the grieving, I have never learned to cultivate detachment.  I have been known to collapse on the floor beside a newly bereaved widow and take her in my arms and sob with her when I was supposed to be “counseling” her.  I have stumbled out the room following the death of a friend and felt like I was going to faint from the horror of their final suffering.  It is taking me many days to even begin to return to the land of the living after following my friend Lorie as far as I could go beyond the veil of this world.

Yet this same capacity for pain opens a boundless space for beauty in my life, and for the bubbling-over-delight in the simplest moments: my dogs lying in identical positions at the top of the stairs, waiting for me to come up to bed; news of the unexpected pregnancy of the daughter of a friend who died of cancer in my home only two years before; the press of my husband’s lips on my damp collarbone after a bath.

Thank you, Lorie, for blasting my heart a little wider, for carving the secret pathways of grace a little deeper.

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Angels Rush In

September 11, 2009

Sometimes, at the fiery core of our deepest sorrow, it is as if a door flings itself open and the angels come rushing in. They may not stay long, but during those first hours, days and weeks following a profound loss, they minister to our shattered hearts with unutterable care. They relay messages from our loved ones on the other side, even if our ears are too filled with the sounds of our own sobs to hear them. They blow the breath of the divine into our lungs so that we can live. Angelic CPR. It is more: it is grace. It is terrible, beautiful grace.

We are usually too broken, too stunned by the Mystery to notice these gentle ministrations. When we do, we are often ashamed to admit to them. How could we claim that there is anything positive about the death of someone or something we deeply loved? In the wake of a serious loss, we may find ourselves floating on invisible wings, and being grateful for them, even if we do not understand. This strange gratitude may strike us as obscene, best kept to ourselves.

You can see this kind of rapture on the face of the widow at the funeral, the father of a teen-ager who died in a car wreck, or the child who watches as her mother buries the favorite family cat in the garden. They are supposed to be sad, and they are. They are expected to weep, and they do. Yet they exude a preternatural calm most observers attribute to shock. Their equanimity is written off as denial. Reduced to a biochemical tonic the brain mercifully releases to help us bear the unbearable.

I am not disputing the neurophysiological reality of this early stage of grief. Why do science and spirit have to be deemed mutually exclusive? I believe that the same divine presence that designed apes to evolve into women and men and mountains to break down into beaches created endorphins and other elixirs to help us survive and navigate the human experience. What I am saying is that the serenity that sometimes, usually fleetingly, washes over us when someone we cherish leaves this world, has meaning beyond the physical. Loss creates a vacuum in our hearts. Into that space divine sustenance flows.

And then there is the sheer power of the Mystery that breaks through when our world is cracked open by loss. We are plucked – or in many case violently wrenched – from our ordinary, limited reality. That is when the veils that obscure the spacious, holy suchness of the divine are rent, offering us a glimpse of an expanded, more ultimate reality. What we see there looks like what we have been searching for all our lives, yet paradoxically, we are in no condition to embrace it. And so we simply observe it.

The secret sweetness that fills us with awe, bordering on euphoria, passes. When the angels have done their work and patched our broken hearts enough to set us down at the base of the arduous path of grieving that lies ahead, they kiss our brow and slip away. Later, we may find ourselves looking back at those initial days following a tremendous loss with something like nostalgia. We remember it as a time when our loved ones felt vividly present to us, even as they were leaving us behind.

There are other pragmatic reasons we experience what might seem like an ill-placed sense of well-being in the wake of a serious loss. When something terrible happens to us, that is when our families and communities rally around us and offer their support. We never know how much we are loved until we are going through a crisis and suddenly everyone we know is sending soup and flowers, calling and writing, holding our feet in their laps while we cry.

Like the chemicals released in our traumatized brains, however, this circle of support will eventually dissipate. Like the angels who rush in to minister to our broken hearts, the people who love us will be compelled, through necessity or discomfort, to return to their own worlds and pick up the lives they put aside on our behalf. But good work has been done. We have been blessed, fortified, reminded of what matters most. Now we must carry those jewels close to our heart, and set out on our journey into the wilderness of grief.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JENNY

September 2, 2009

Lest I have led my readers to believe that it is okay with me that my daughter died at fourteen – and my brother at ten, and my first love at thirteen, and close friends in their twenties, and my father in his early sixties — it is not okay.  This journey of transformation does not preclude a tremendous amount of suffering.  All I’m saying is that the pain isn’t the whole story.  In fact, it is the pain that breaks open our hearts, so that the grace has a place to pour in.  That’s all.

Today is one of those days.  It’s Jenny’s birthday.  She would have been twenty-two.  Birthdays can be one of the most poignant markers on the path of grief and loss, especially with regard to the death of a child.  Each birthday is a searing reminder that the person you loved is not growing a year older.  I would like to celebrate Jenny’s life on this day – and I do; I am by writing this blog as a tribute to her – but my heart has a mind of its own.

You would think I would have seen it coming.  But each new anniversary is a fresh adventure in grieving, an experience for which I cannot seem to prepare.  I feel like Bilbo Baggins, being swept out of The Shire before he knows it, without even having had the chance to pack his pocket-handkerchief!  Today the pain rushes in like a forest fire and reduces me to ash.  It blows my breath away.  It folds me to my knees.  And it renders me mute.

It turns out that within this silence, I find my connection to my daughter.  That mourning her this hard clears the debris of my busy little life and parts the veil that separates my soul from hers.  Ah, here you are, Jenny.  In the calm that follows the storm of tears.  Happy birthday, my love.