Something’s lost, but something’s gained

The day before dad’s 90th birthday party, I had to buy some things at the Dollar General. Many family members were flying in from all over the country, many tasks to be done, much anticipation and excitement.

As I waited in line, a woman stood before me with three helium balloons — two silver and the other, a red heart that read: I love you.

“What beautiful balloons,” I said. “I’m sure the person getting those will love them.”

She turned to me, her face changing from a smile to sadness.

“They’re for my son’s grave. Today is the anniversary of his death.”

My heart dropped. Today was also my dad’s actual 90th birthday, on Cinco de Mayo.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“That’s OK. I’m going to put these on his grave and we’re going to have a nice chat. He was only 26 when he died,” she said, her eyes tearing up.

I asked his first name and told her I would pray for him if she would pray for my dad.

When I got home, I checked the closed Facebook group for my 50th high school reunion. It had been scheduled for the same day as dad’s party and as much as I wanted to attend, I knew I couldn’t.

Early Saturday morning, after a deluge on Friday, family began to set up outdoor tents, tables, chairs, decorations, while food was being chopped, prepared and cooked in the kitchen.

We had sent an invitation to one of my parents’ friends whom they’ve known for at least 50 years. I wondered why she hadn’t responded. I know her well and it was unlike her.

As I was preparing food at one of the tables, I heard someone say she had been hospitalized. With cancer. It had spread. I felt as if the wind had been taken out of me. How could this be, I thought, as I kept peeling and chopping, preparing for a joy-filled event.

Photo by Lydia Zuniga

The party began. The skies that had been cloudy and uncertain had cleared. The musicians played Latino music, the Mexican food was plentiful, the drink flowed and dad smiled again and again, as friends from his church, his past workplace, and others attended and wished him a happy birthday.

Guests kept arriving when we saw a young Asian man walk down the driveway. No one knew who he was. But I had often seen him biking past my parents’ home to his job at the local grocery store where he gathered the shopping carts.

He seemed alone when I would see him at the store and I wondered if he had any family in this country.

Photo by Lydia Zuniga

He stood there and I asked if he was OK. He spoke little English but from what I gathered he said he had heard the music and liked it. He planted himself on the spot and my sister and I looked in question at each other. Mentally, we must have agreed on the same thing, the only loving thing to do.

“Are you hungry?” we asked. He nodded. So we made him a plate and he sat down and began to eat, listening to the music. Then left.

When the party was over that night, I was exhausted, but checked into the Facebook group to see what had happened at my reunion. I saw photos of the event, of adult women I remembered as young girls with bangs and long hair flipped at the ends, and smiles filled with promise.

And I saw a photo honoring six of my classmates who had died, too young.

Photo by Lydia Zuniga

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps too much excitement. Too much food and drink. Too many memories. I kept thinking of the woman at the Dollar General store who had lost her son, of my classmates of so many years ago, of my parents’ friend with cancer, and of the Asian man so far away from his homeland.

Of dad, celebrating 90 years of an amazing life.

As I finally drifted off to sleep, I realized that the last few days had shown me this:

Life takes us on many paths, some joyful, some we’d rather not take. Many unexpected. We cry, we celebrate, we love. That, as Joni Mitchell sang “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”

And each second is precious.

Live it now. Celebrate it. Now.

 

 

Displaced people

I tend to write about “letting go” and “dying” a great deal. I don’t do it intentionally. It just seems an overwhelming theme in my life these days.

Perhaps it’s the result of aging. We tend to lose much as we grow older. Here are some thoughts and “stories for the journey” about all this.

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When I was 10 years old, I was uprooted. I was plucked from the flat Texas earth, the oppressive heat and humidity, the lazy pace of long days to the fast-paced blur of the Philadelphia area.

Dirty. Cold. Dark. I hated it. Cheese steaks  and pretzels with mustard? What the heck was that  stuff? Dad’s work had transferred him to the Northeast so I didn’t have much choice.

Still. I was displaced. And not feeling at home, not one bit.

angelI share this story not as a “poor-me” event, but as a life-changing one. It made me realize that at heart we are all aliens — that we are all “displaced people” whether we like it or not.  No matter our spiritual or religious beliefs, or lack thereof, we all seem to be aware that this is not our home.

That restlessness that settles on our spirit and rattles us at odd moments or wakes us in the middle of the night? That is our soul reminding us that “home” is not here; here is temporary. Within us is a deep longing for our true home. I think that’s why we resonate to movies like The Wizard of Oz, E.T., The Castaway or more recently The Martian.

Here are some stories:

I bumped into a family friend and his wife a few months ago. I had heard she had been diagnosed with cancer. But I hadn’t seen them in some time and when I did, I had to hide the sharp inhale of breath, the shock of seeing her so changed — frail with a haggard frame and a cap covering her shorn head. Despite that, she smiled and we chatted. They told me the cancer was inoperable.

And then, she pointed to her husband and said:

“He wants me to sit around all the time and do nothing. But look at me! I’m alive now! Here. Now. I’m not dead yet. I have things I want to keep doing.”

After the brief conversation, we all hugged. I felt life and warmth. And the wisdom of her words.

Another woman, Joey Feek, is now in the process of going home. Joey is part of the famous country music duo Joey + Rory and a few months ago, her cancer returned. She is at home now, with her husband Rory and their precious daughter, Indiana, who was born with Down Syndrome.

I follow Rory’s blog (and you might want to as well: http://thislifeilive.com/) and I am always amazed, that despite the pall of sickness and death around them, this family is always bringing joy and light to the world, with their music and Rory’s inspiring words.

Then there is my dear dad. He is still with us, but after suffering a stroke three years ago, and at 89 years of age, I wonder how much longer he will be here. My heart will break when he goes home to God.

death-dying-and-spiritualitySo, yes, I do write a great deal about dying. Perhaps it’s because I most need to learn and accept this lesson. And what lesson is that? That death is the sharp edge that defines life, gives it depth and meaning. Dying and death point the way to life, showing us that life exists only in the present moment.

We can accept with grace and gratitude that for now we are given life to live on earth — to enjoy the caress of the wind on our face and arms; the scent of perfumed earth after a summer’s rain; the skip of a child lost in complete and unbounded joy.

The truth is — “now” is all we have. It is a gift. A grace. And it is enough.

Sue Monk Kidd, one of my favorite writers, says this:

“We have to acknowledge sometimes that this moment is enough, this place is enough, I am enough … it grounds us in our being. It grounds us home.”

So, in this sense, perhaps we are always home. Now. In the moment. Never truly displaced.

And how beautiful is that?

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(I have deep Southern roots and this is one of my favorite Gospel hymns, sung and recorded by Joey Feek, as she was undergoing chemo treatments. It makes me cry. No matter your religious beliefs, this song poignantly speaks to “coming home.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let it be

“Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild precious life?” — Mary Oliver

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I ran into Sally at the store the other day. We had been in a spiritual/prayer group together last winter and at the time, she had mentioned her father who was ill. She had been managing his care while he was in a nursing home.

I hadn’t seen her since that group ended and when I saw her, I asked about her dad.

“He died two months ago,” she said, sobbing.

women-huggingI hugged her and listened.

“It was so hard and so easy at the same time,” she said. “We were praying at his bedside and I was in tears, and I felt him go. I knew he was out of pain … still … I cry a lot these days.”

I felt my soul split open, wanting to spew out a river of sorrow. Her father’s death was triggering my own feelings of anticipatory grief about my own father who had a stroke two years ago.

Sally asked about my dad. I told her that for now, he was OK, but declining with each year. And I told her that I knew her experience would soon be mine.

“It will be painful,” she said, “but you will get through it. Let me write down your dad’s name so I can pray for him and for you.”

We said good-bye and I left the store, even more saddened. Meeting her and learning of her father’s death felt like a wake-up call, a gentle nudge from God. For whatever reasons, life has spared me the death of a close loved one. And Sally was a visible reminder to me of my story right now — one that each day knocks closer on the door of my heart.

For me, it continues to be a lesson in acceptance. And to be honest, I’ve never been good at it. I’m not good at letting go, especially of those I love.

I write a good deal about letting go because it’s a lifelong lesson for me. Lately, however, I have come to consider that perhaps it’s not so much a matter of letting go, but rather of “letting it be.” Wayne Muller an ordained minister, therapist and author, writes:

When we die, we need not let go of anything. Death will come when it comes. We are simply letting it be. And it is the same with life. We need not let go of our illusions of immortality. They will go on their own soon enough. But if we can mindfully accept it all simply as it is — we live and then we die — then there is nothing to do at all, only to let it be. This acceptance brings tremendous freedom.

These are fine words. And I yearn for that freedom that Muller describes. However, in this moment, they are just that —  words and not experience. I can only hope they uphold me when my father dies. And I pray I also find strength in God and the support of those around me.

But here’s the irony. Even while I wait — with grief, with dread — I also experience each moment with my father as precious, as new. When I am caregiving and with him, I find life somehow is born again, even in the face of impending death. And this, strangely, is a gift.

In his decline, I am learning to live attentively and deeply in the moment. And when he dies, I will offer thanks for my father’s life, one filled with countless examples of loving service. He truly has taken Mary Oliver’s quote to heart and lived life; he has not wasted one precious second in his desire to serve and help others.Letting-go21

Dad is not always coherent and the last week or so, every time I mention something — no matter the topic — he says “Let it happen. Let it happen.” He used to offer this advice when I would be troubled about the outcome of any given situation.

I believe this has been dad’s way of telling me to “let it be.” With such a teacher, how then, can I not be in gratitude? And how, when he dies, can I not keep from crying — in both joy and loss?