Slipping Away

March 25, 2010

When I was in the jungles of the Yucatan and Chiapas last month, I contracted a nasty double dose of parasites and bacteria, and became very ill.  I have traveled in Mexico for most of my life and have never been this sick.  My agent suggested that maybe I am so comfortable there that I let my guard down.  Perhaps I was so depleted by this winter’s travails that I had no resistance.   Whatever the explanation, I developed a high fever one night and in my delirium I had a vision of my daughter, Jenny.

Here’s what happened.  I was in a great deal of pain.  My joints were on fire and I couldn’t sleep.  At one point, as I was writhing in the dark of night, I realized I could call out to Jenny for help.  I wasn’t asking for anything in particular.  I simply remembered that she was available to me, and so I reached for her.  The instant I called, I felt her rushing in to surround me with her love.  I felt enfolded, as if by great wings.  And then she just held me.

After a few moments, I felt her begin to slip away.  I cried out: “Jenny, don’t leave me!”  I began to wail.  She returned and wrapped herself around me again.  “I will never leave you, Mom.  I am always with you.”  Finally, I felt strong enough to let her go.  I thanked her, and surrendered to our separation, as I have done a thousand times.  And then I lay in my steaming bed and wept.  My husband woke and held me.  “Jenny was here!” I told him.  “She was just here!  Can you feel her?”  What he felt was me, burning up.  The next day he took me to the doctor.  I am recovering from the disease, but the gift Jenny gave me that night will be with me always.

Yesterday I had the honor of sitting with one of my heroes, Kate, whose beautiful young free spirit daughter, Nina, was murdered in January, two days after her sister’s wedding in the Caribbean.  As the weeks unfold and Kate’s heart blazes with love and longing, her mind, as minds are designed to do, seeks understanding.

As with every single grieving person I know, Kate felt her daughter very close to her in the first days following her death.  Now, two months later, Nina’s presence feels increasingly tenuous.  Kate senses that Nina is continuing on her journey, and she can’t help but wonder where that journey leads and if her loved one is okay.

As we were talking, I saw a light stream into Kate’s heart.  I do not usually experience psychic phenomena, but I knew in that instant that Nina was flowing into her mother’s heart in response to the intense love and pain Kate was feeling.  And suddenly I had an epiphany.

I realized that the feeling we have of our loved ones being close to us immediately following their death might have more to do with us than with them.  In the wake of a profound loss, the limitations of our ordinary perceptions are stripped from our consciousness and we are given a glimpse of that which lies beyond the mundane.  When we love someone deeply, we cannot help but try to follow them when they’ve left this world.  At first, propelled by shock and supported by grace, we are successful in parting the curtain and stepping through.  As time goes by, we, the living, must necessarily return to this world.  This distancing may feel like they are moving away from us, but, as with Einstein’s train analogy, that’s an artifact of relativity.  We’re the ones who, in spite of our deep desire for connection, are slipping away, back into life.

This reminds me of an interview I read with Leonard Cohen years ago.  He was talking about falling in love, and how popular psychology describes this state in pathological terms as a matter of our projecting onto the blank screen of another all our hopes and dreams about romantic love, rather than seeing the person for who she or he really is.  Leonard disagreed with this analysis.  Rather, he said, when we fall in love, we are seeing truly.  As time goes by, the veils of our ordinary conditioned consciousness begin to drop again and obscure the clear vision we were gifted with at first.  Isn’t that beautiful?

I think a similar thing is true with grief.  The loving connectedness grieving people report in the wake of fresh loss is sometimes labeled “denial” and is attributed to the shock of losing a loved one.  However, I have always perceived people in that state as being filled with grace.  Their sense of connectedness to their loved ones does not feel delusional to me, but quite the opposite.  Grief and loss have lifted the illusion of separation, and, for a moment, we experience the boundarylessness of love.

Daughters of Juarez

March 17, 2010

While the primary focus of this blog is the transformational power of grief and loss — and the mysterious beauty and grace we may discover at the heart of deep sorrow — this is a journey that usually begins with profound, unadulterated suffering.  I would simply be using spirituality as an excuse for “checking out” if I were to deny the real anguish that many of us experience in the face of tragedy.

I wrote the following piece for an upcoming event that has been organized to raise awareness about the hundreds of young, poor, dark-skinned women who have been abducted, raped, tortured and murdered in Ciudad Juarez since 1993.  Please forgive the graphic horror depicted here.  I have chosen to speak from the perspective of a fictional mother of a murdered maquiladora (factory worker).  Sadly, I am able to identify with the impossible task of having to identify the body of one’s child.  I know that some of you have also had this experience, and I bow to you.

Broken Light

The bus pulls into Ciudad Juarez

just as the sun touches the tops of the maquilas

and spills into the filthy factory windows

where my baby ran away to work for the pendejos.

Sunlight like blood.

Like her blood

which I can’t stop seeing whenever I close my eyes.

Flowing from her lips,

her wrists,

from between her torn apart legs.

Blood flowing into the silent desert,

nourishing nothing.

So I try not to close my eyes.

But they accidentally drifted shut on the bus last night

somewhere between mi pueblo in San Luis Potosi

and this borderland of screaming ghost girls,

this infierno that tears and chews and gulps our daughters,

that swallowed my girl,

mi Lucia,

light of her father’s broken heart.

Broken light.

Body broken like a pinata.

Like a glass bottle.

Like the yolk of an egg.

I can’t do this.

I cannot fucking do this.

No one could possibly expect a mother

to identify the body of her child.

I got the message yesterday

as I was plucking the needles from a basket of nopal.

Nopal is good for the diabetes,

which I think I have.

As if it mattered now.

I returned their call

from the phone office next to the parque.

They warned me:


partial decomposition;

anguish carved into her dead face.

I practice picturing these things.

While her father slips into a cerveza coma

I board the bus and imagine her unraveling.

Her long hair yanked and severed.

A nipple bitten off.

Cigarette burns on her neck and eyelids.

A man grunting like a cochino.

Two others laughing.

One more turns away, maybe,

and pukes in the Sonoran night.

There is no one to meet me

when I climb down from the bus.

My knees buckle and I stumble.

Swiftly, I regain my balance,

restore my dignity,

smooth my long braids

which have been suddenly shot with silver

in the weeks since Lucia disappeared.

I shift my satchel across one breast

and unfold for the hundredth time

the sheet of graph paper

with directions to the city morgue.

I begin walking.

Duermete mi nina.

Duermete mi sol.

Duermete pedazo

de mi corazon.

Mirabai Starr