Coming to Peace With Our One Precious Life

LaRue, on Lake Michigan in Chicago
LaRue, on Lake Michigan in Chicago

My grandmother LaRue Marie Brown Lundin just passed away on Tuesday, October 18th at 11:15pm. She was 100 years old, born on May 2nd, 1916. At the time of her birth, Woodrow Wilson was president and the United States was just about to enter World War I. The automobile was still relatively new, having been around only 30 years. Motion pictures were still being produced without sound. As a teen, she would have heard about Gandhi’s Salt Marches and Amelia Earhart being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. When she was 29, she would have likely been amazed at the unveiling of the world’s first computer.

She lived through World War II and Vietnam. Her first husband walked out, leaving her to raise two little girls solo in the 1940s. She was a woman who rarely sat down until well into her 90s – and even then she would put up a fight to help with the dishes. The ham and potatoes were always perfect and served on her finest china. She had to have things done her way. She ruled the roost – and her kitchen especially – late into her years. Forks went one way in the dishwasher and spoons another. In her life she was often feisty, funny and quick witted. She was known to ride roller coasters even in her 60s. In her 80s she took a ride in a motorcycle side car with a wide grin on her face.

I was lucky enough to get to her death bed in Casper, Wyoming a few days before her passing and shared some of her last words before she fell silent on Saturday. There were so many poignant moments all at once. The wind was harsh and chaotic, contributing to my own turmoil as I balanced parenting my three young boys with my desire to sit quietly at her side. It was the familiar feeling of being splattered in too many directions – laid bare and stretched toward a horizon as vast as the Wyoming landscape my grandmother called home for her last years of life.

Her imminent death was inviting me to slow down and abide. And yet the chaotic, messy, tumultuous land of my very much alive three boys inevitably eclipsed my need for silence. Wanting to pay homage to my grandmother’s life, I took every opportunity I could to sit with her and hold her hand. Each moment of reflection felt stolen as I bounced back and forth between my grandmother’s bed and the quickened pace of parenting. The experience of holding space for my boys, holding space for myself, and also simultaneously holding space for my grandmother felt both relentless and impossible. My two-year-old tantrumed like never before. I scrambled to cook, mitigate conflict, launder and keep up with the potty training and snacks. There was a diaper here and another there. Did they brush their teeth and was I connecting enough with them? The Hospice nurse’s injunction for quiet contrasted sharply with my bundle of never-ending movement and energy wrapped in three precious boys. Where was the place for children in this liminal moment of parting? How to not drown in what felt like unconquerable chaos? It was a feeling I was well aquainted with, amplified by Death’s Door. I only wanted to focus on what’s important – but how to do that when so much calls for one’s best and most present self? I took the moments of quietness I could get, and tried to go gently.

Sitting with my grandmother, I was struck by all she worried about in her final days. In particular, the fierceness of a mother’s love and care until the very end shown through. That some of her last words were about a baby – and her “two baby girls” – sinks deep. She needed reassurance that they were okay. As my grandmother struggled, the Hospice nurses recommended a Reiki practitioner who does energy work with those dying. She did her work from a distance, only knowing my grandmother’s name. She didn’t know that my grandmother had been talking about a baby and telling us over and over again that she was ‘seeing’ a baby. And yet, the practitioner relayed that my grandmother was struggling with an early pregnancy loss. She was meeting the baby, said the Reiki master. She was talking to the lost child, apologizing. Apparently, she needed to work through this loss before she died.

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“I can’t believe I’m leaving,” she said to me as she looked intently into my eyes. “Unreal. Absolutely unreal,” she said. In her final days she said “sorry” many times. “I just have to say that.” She also told us she loved us. When I mentioned her great-grandsons were there to see her, she said “Oh wonderful!” and called them honeys.
While we aren’t sure all she was sorry for, we do know she was grappling with different moments in her life. The regrets, the love, the mistakes, the hard moments. She was worrying about her two daughters. Were her “two babies” okay? She worried about money. Was that okay too? Whatever she was working through, she held on fiercely. For days the Hospice nurses said it was the end – but her heart kept beating and her lungs kept breathing. “Are you ready to go?” we asked her on Saturday. “Yes.” I whispered in her ear that she could let go and that all was okay. “Thanks. That would be nice!” she said, with her familiar humor. Different names were spoken. She called for someone named Wesley. She asked for my brother. Was Aunt Carole okay?

The Hospice nurse called it “Terminal Restlessness.” She had only seen one other person hold on so tightly for so long while they were actively dying. For Grandma, she was actively dying for many days. She didn’t eat for almost two weeks. Some breaths had 45 seconds in between. Others, a minute and a half. At one moment I asked my two-year-old what he thought was important to remember when being with his great grandmother as she dies. Without hesitation he says “give love.” He and my four-year-old both sang sweet preschool songs to her and touched her forehead as they said goodbye. My oldest sat guard just outside, practicing his knitting – perhaps as a way to integrate the gravity of the moment.

After a while her words stopped. She couldn’t move her mouth any longer and her eyes were mostly closed. My mother and I light candles. We speculate on what she could be waiting for. She was one who was very particular about the parameters of her comfort. We awaited the constellation most supportive of her release.

Her death reminds me that more important than the dishes or the dinner or keeping up with the endless sea of daily tasks is the airing out of our mysteries and darker internal experiences. She reminds me that taking time to fully digest and integrate my experiences will pay off as I age – and perhaps as I too am faced with my own death bed. Her death reminds me of the importance of staying current and connected with our deepest troubles and doing the work required to allow them to heal. And – I’m also reminded that some things may never dissolve, even at the end. Here she was, 100 years old, ready to go but somethings perhaps left unresolved. She tries to communicate and we only get snippets towards the end. Money. Babies. The number 59. Like riddles unsolved or pieces of a puzzle without the whole, we choose to reassure her. We tell her it’s all taken care of. What’s left in the heart and mind can be released. And, if letting go is a task impossible, then blend the light and dark, lovely and difficult into one expansive, integrated gesture in the heart. I whisper into her ear that the heart can hold it all. She doesn’t have to be burdened with casting something off or letting something go before her final release – but rather she can accept, embrace and integrate. Then, let it all dissolve. We remind her again and again that she is so loved, even when she tells my mother at one moment that she can’t feel that.

Her death reminds me of the lifetimes of baggage we can carry – perhaps even to the grave. She reminds me that the experience of motherhood is one of the most important in a lifetime – and that we likely worry about our children intensely until the end. My grandmother’s death also reminds me not to waste any time in delighting in the feeling of sun on skin or wild winds in hair. She reminds me that love is the most important thing.

Death is akin to a birth – a labor of anticipation. In my grandmother’s case, it appeared that hard work and surrender was required. She had to struggle to find her final resting place. On the night that she died, my cousin Michelle had a dream. “I was trying to find her a place to sleep. She didn’t say anything. We just walked around a house, sometimes her leading me and other times I was helping to keep her steady. Every room had a fireplace, but all the beds were taken. I had to grab someone else’s couch cushions and laid them down to make a bed for her…I don’t know if I have ever dreamt about Grandma so it’s incredible that I dreamt of her on the night of her passing.”

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Just before she died I saw her via a video call. Like looking into a mirror at the future, I witnessed the way in which nature and life do their alchemy of transformation on each of us. Her skin and jaw were falling towards the earth in a profound dance of gravity and release. As my grandmother held on with quick shallow breath, I wondered about the ways in which we hold and process memories throughout our lives. What happens if we don’t say what needs to be said? Is there unfinished business to tend to? When we too are knocking on death’s door, will something hold us back or give us pause? What life did we lead? And was it what was imagined or hoped for? Her eyes leave me with the silent injunction to ask again and again what is needed to come to peace with our one precious life.

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Leaving Home…

IMG_0239Last weekend my family drove four hours north to Casper, Wyoming to celebrate my father’s retirement from 41 years of ordained ministry as a Lutheran pastor. My sister-in-law and I drove with our boys through several hours of open land, pronghorn antelope and buffalo occasionally dotting the landscape. I was entering my own liminal space of transition, battling a cold and dealing with my own response to what was yet another of life’s great thresholds.

For my whole life I’ve witnessed my father in action at work: sharing his wisdom on Sunday mornings via his sermons, running out the door to get to the hospital late at night to be with a sick person, presiding over funerals, baptisms and weddings, and generally attending to the needs of those in his community. He set a great example of integrity and service. He gave it more than his all. And somehow, he has managed to be an amazing father while balancing his many responsibilities and his calling to serve.

It was one of those days of celebration and honoring where I was holding a lifetime perspective, feeling the long stretch of time that my dad’s 41 years or ordained ministry is – and how that length of time mirrors my own lifespan. With my mother and brother by my side, I feel where I have come from and our long journey together as a family unit, with my father’s work with the Lutheran Church always there as a constant. While the church communities and locations changed, the rhythms often remained the same. Growing up Lutheran entailed many a church potluck with casseroles and jello (and dad’s retirement party was just the same!), and a long succession of kind and generous people offering their love and welcome to my brother and I as the proverbial ‘pastor’s kids.’

For his final sermon, my father spoke about ‘leaving home.’ While he was speaking about his own journey with the transition into retirement, the theme of threshold and change resonated. In fact, the occasion reminded me of my own journey of ‘leaving home’ to become a mother and cultivate my own newer nuclear family. It reminded me of my own ‘leaving home’ from my family of origin, charting my own path and how suddenly I find myself age 40 – basking in midlife with three of my own children in tow. As I struggled to listen amidst the clamor of my three boys’ shuffling and persistent requests for food, water, crayons or stickers, I felt my own sense of being ‘betwixt and between,’ as my father describes it. Pulled between two worlds I stand: one wanting to pay homage to my father and honor my (and his) past, the other grabbing for my attention via whines and taps as my boys adjust to a 90 minute church service in wooden pews.

The transition to motherhood indeed was also a leaving of home, a leaving of the familiar. In past years I could listen attentively during important occasions, offering up my full presence and attention in an undivided way. Now, I do the dance of bifurcation – split in four directions at all moments during a day. My brother is a father now too and we connect during the event about how different it is now. Time has surely passed and entered us both into the middle ground of our lifetimes, where the territory is new and the familiar ballasts of the past fade.

The moment of dad’s retirement is a marker of one such ballast fading. Of course the transition brings newness and hopefully new adventures for my father in his 70s and beyond. But it also marks an end, and reminds me of the wilderness of what is to come when my parents pass into the next world. As dad said during his last sermon:
“Life is always taking us to the wilderness. The wilderness is an “in-between” place. It is a place of awareness, a threshold. We are betwixt and between. We are neither here nor there. We have left behind what was and what will be is not yet clear. In the wilderness we come face to face with the reality of our lives; things done and left undone, our uncertainties, our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and losses, as well as the unknown.”

Leaving “home” can be difficult. As dad reminded me last Sunday, it invites us to change and opens us to new discoveries about ourselves. “It challenges our understandings of where we find significance, meaning, and security.” Yet perhaps most importantly, “leaving home” is about our continued spiritual journey and growth.

That night as I lay in bed with my boys, we talked about the day and about all the photos my mother had prepared for the event. We talked about my father’s lifetime of work and adventures. And Rowan said, “Mama, I heard one thing in Grandpa Bob’s sermon today. It was about how hard it can be to leave home.” He wanted to hear more. Why was it hard? Did everyone have to leave home? How do you find your way back? This led me into telling them their nightly story as they fell asleep. I heard myself speaking about how every person leaves home in different ways, and that there are times when we are in periods of the great unknown. The story took us into a forest, and into a great wilderness, but there we found a river where we could begin again and be transformed. And then, somehow, we find our way to a new home – over and over again finding our way home to what is ultimately our own beating heart. We can change and we can grow. We can journey thousands of miles. Things inevitably change, and around each corner there is a new self greeting new life circumstances.

And still, we can seek out the comfort of home, wherever or whatever that might be – coming back to ourselves with a spirit of rememberance of something in us that is unshakable, like a steady thread flowing through lifetimes regardless of time, external conditions, life transitions and even space. As I drift to sleep with my boys, I realize that this is my journey into motherhood and mid-life: old reference points fading, new challenges emerging daily, new responsibilities, new juggling, constant invitations to grow and learn. Some days I pine for the familiar or yearn for what was. Today, seeing my dad set sail into new horizons, I choose to let go of grasping for the lines that mark the past. I’m indeed in a great, new wilderness, charting my course and witnessing life’s great passage of time.

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Halloween: Reaffirming Death and Its Place as Part of Life

FullSizeRender (3)“People in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o’lanterns, re- enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendency. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.”

– Jack Santino, The Folklore of All Hallows

I love to tell my children the old stories of Halloween – how for at least 1200 years (and likely much longer) people of Celtic heritage were celebrating a festival of the dead on October 31st, complete with bonfires, costumes, and treats left on stoops for the wandering spirits. November 1st was the marking of a new year in the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the darkest half of the year. Harvest in, darkness falling earlier, leaves almost all tumbled off the trees, it was seen as a time when the veils between the worlds were said to be thinner and the spirits of the departed returned to frolic once more among the living.

Out walking with Braeden today we talked about what it means to return to the earth. We studied the leaves just fallen from the trees and I showed him how the colorful ones still had their sweet pliable lifeblood about them while the brownest ones were easily crumpled, crunchily turning back into the earth before our very eyes. In our bedtime stories of the past few evenings I’ve woven in how our ancestors likely were paying very close attention to the natural world and the lessons contained therein. Just like the leaves returning to earth, this is a time for us too to contemplate those who have passed to the other side before us.

FullSizeRender (6)The day after Halloween we set up our ‘Day of the Dead’ altar with photos of my Grandpa Lundin, my Grandma Rhea and Grandpa Nick, and my great great grandmother Wilhelmina. There is a photo of my father paying his respects at my grandpa McNamara’s grave in Normandy, where he died right after D-Day during World War II. It got us talking about our bodies returning to earth, and why some of us are buried in the ground. Rowan got out his drawing paper and asked me to draw a person who had “gone back to the earth.” He then drew a “hole” (which for me harkened a tree – the symbolism of which wasn’t lost on me since many of my European ancestors believed we came from trees and thus should return to earth in trees – hence the wooden coffin). Rowan added hearts around the body, and peace signs representing how those who “have gone back to the earth are thinking about peace and surrounded by love.” While explaining his drawing to his friend Emily today over a lit candle he said “here is the dead person in their cradle, back to the earth.”

Yes! Here we were, getting at what I think is part of the central essence of this ancient celebration. Like Jack Santino writes, here we are “reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.” Over lollipops left over from trick-or-treating we talk about how the candy of the season should really be a reminder of the sweetness of life since we are here amongst this glorious land of the living. Luckily, the six year olds agree. “It shouldn’t just be all about the sugar.”

Today, November 2nd, is “All Souls Day,” designated as such by the Church sometime in about 1000AD as a day to honor the dead. It built upon the existing “All Saints Day” of November 1st, which had been designated in the 8th Century by Pope Gregory III, a feast day to coincide with the pagan Samhain and the Celtic New Year, with the evening before known over time as “All Hallow’s Eve,” now our current ‘Halloween.’

Of course the more ancient origins were rooted in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, where bonfires were lit and people would wear costumes to ward off and confuse the ghosts traveling between worlds at this time of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, when spirits and the souls of the departed were catered to with offerings of food and drink (often ale or wine). Trick-or-treating likely has its roots here, or perhaps from the tradition of going door to door collecting food for Samhain feasts, or from the All Souls Day parades in England, where people would give out ‘soul cakes’ in return for praying for departed family members.

In a culture gone mad with candy and consumerism, I pine for the quiet thread of story that Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, and All Souls Day weave together. I tell it to my children in several acts each night, and build on the themes during the day. What do we notice about nature around us? How is the darkness landing earlier and earlier and how does it make us feel? Why is it important to remember those who have passed before us? And, is there really a mysterious realm of ‘other-world’ that we cannot truly know?

For now, I tell them that this is the time of year to go inwards into the light of their own hearts even as it is getting darker. This is the time to feel our roots settling deeply into the earth, even as the leaves of our activities may be falling away. What sustains us deep below that is beyond the fruits of our labors? Where can we find life in hidden places, even when so many things are dying? These are the words I utter as they slowly drift off to sleep.

FullSizeRender (4)Rowan’s drawing of a person who has “gone back to the earth, in their cradle.”

What We Have Been Makes Us What We Are

“Our deeds travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are…” – George Eliot

IMG_2080Like a slow burning candle, our lives pass – and what remains is a holy mystery to behold: the shreds of paper, the unwritten stories passed on, the recorded histories from 1000 years ago, the letters, the photos, the standing stones and cave paintings. “We were here,” they say. “This is what happened. You too will be history one day. You’ll be gone with only traces of your humanity left, imprints on time and space to be felt through story and artifacts.” And so it is with the stories of my great great grandparents settling on 143 acres in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Stories told by my father about his childhood summer at the farm take literal shape as we visit the old barn and land where the “old home place” stood. The cicadas are in full force and the place is teeming with life. I stand at the center of what would have been their home and feel outwards for a trace of what their lifetimes could have been like: hours spent on the porch, watching the sunlight in the trees and listening to the insects. Tending hearth and land. Milking cows. Making butter. Raising children. Hosting grandchildren and great grandchildren. Births. Baptisms. Marriages. Funerals. A new highway slicing their land in two.

The stories and histories of my ancestors weave behind me like threads in a braid, coming together into the braided DNA of my present moment form. The past is pulled together into what is now – cellularly as well as from a storyline perspective. In this way there is really no beginning and end – but rather a continuous thread with different points of origin. Still weaving, I marvel at the continuation of life and genes passed on to my children and wonder how to impart to them a perspective of lifespans that moves beyond our present moment expressions. Taking this on prods me into the realm of deeper and larger questions to be answered together. It takes us into a territory of mystery and spirit. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is our journey leading us to? What is sacred about this lifetime? How are we connected to ‘place?’ When do we have to die and what happened to those who went before us?

My grandmother’s wish was to be buried at St. Paul Lutheran Church Cemetery in Parkersburg, which is why we are all here. This is where she was born and where her mother and grandparents and great grandparents are buried. We are now eight generations past and present together on the old cemetery land. We walk over the bones of our ancestors, us in full bloom standing atop our literal roots. My boys ask questions about what it means to “go back to the Earth.” We talk about the cycles of life and the bones beneath our skin. We talk about how some things are constant but how all living things do have to die. We try to prepare them for when people might cry.

It isn’t often I can take my children to a place and say “this is one of many places where you are from. This is where many of your ancestors lived and died. You too are from here in some way.” My grandmother has given us a profound gift through her wish to be buried in the old family plot. It brought us together to a place few of us know, but nonetheless represents the origins of our German family line’s presence in America. It prompted old stories, memories of childhood overnight bus trips from Cleveland to Parkersburg – and the transition from city life to the country. Some of us visited where the old home place used to be, meeting relatives who still live on parcels of that original land. It gets me thinking about what home is, and my longing for a deeply connected sense of place which is often cultivated over time and across generations. For many European Americans like myself, that experience is different now. And yet, how can I raise my children with a sense of home and place and history, even when so much of our recent family history has involved movement and migrations?

“Our deeds travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are…”

I remember the Armenian family at the passport office this summer, the father preparing to take his four teenage children to Armenia so that they could greet their homeland. He and his wife are descended from orphans, their great grandparents killed during the Armenian genocide. Our conversation is a solemn one. They are planning for a trip of a lifetime. They are learning Armenian, traveling this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide and plan to go to the spot in Armenia where they can gaze out over what used to be their ancestral homeland (now in Turkey). The conversation prompts me to reflect on the places my European ancestors are from and how many of them came to America fleeing poverty or persecution, or were forced off their own ancestral homelands, even if longer ago than Armenia’s 100th anniversary of the genocide this year…

It’s something that isn’t often tended to in the European American experience. Many of us with European ancestry may identify with the oppressor, having come to America and stolen lands from Native Peoples. Were we meant to cross the great ocean and forget our roots and begin anew, forgetting the cycles of trauma and displacement that many European Americans endured? In the threads of my own braided history there was the French Protestant Ezell family fleeing Catholic persecution, where being burned at the stake or cut down by the sword because of your religion was the norm. There were the Delameters, also fleeing France and seeking refuge at Canterbury before finding a safe haven in the Netherlands. There were the Belgian/Dutch Walloons, also Protestants fleeing persecution and landing in New Amsterdam (New York). There were the Scottish Highland Chisholms, driven off their lands by the English and massacred at the Battle of Culloden. There were the peasants from Mecklenburg, Germany, still living in one of the last and poorest serfdoms in the late 1800s. And there were the McNamaras – the line of my name – who lived in place in County Clare, Ireland, for no less than 1,200 years, defeating every intruder until Oliver Cromwell came with his guns and cannons and enforced new tenant landlord laws, driving the native people off their lands, burning churches and evicting all but six of 200 McNamara families. They hung on for 200 more years in Ireland, Catholics punished for their religion under oppressive English “Penal Laws,” until the Potato Famine final forced them across the ocean to the tenements of New York. The story braids itself to my father, Robert McNamara, whose mother was born and buried in Parkersburg.

In Ireland, the bards or poets historically played an important role, filling the office of both historian and genealogist. They curated the stories and signposts of a family or clan, recording and sharing them across generations, handing us the artifacts that pointed to the significant impressions made over time. In this way, culture and identity were transmitted. Where we come from and where we have been was deemed of utmost importance. In today’s very different world, we as parents and elders can still play these vital roles, reminding our children of the larger spans of lifetimes, putting our current lives in perspective and context, and sharing the stories we deem important for posterity. We can inspire respect for those who have passed before us, and a sense of awe and mystery in the face of where we have come from and where we are going. What survives over centuries? What traits do we inherit from those we’ve never met but who we are related to? How did so many of us become so short-sighted? How do we maintain vital connections to our past while also shaping our future, keeping in mind what legacy we as individuals, families and societies wish to leave behind? Can we see ourselves both as the oppressor and the oppressed, thus inviting the possibility of deeper understanding and compassion for all sides? This surfaces with my children when recounting stories or histories where it is easy to fall into “good versus bad” or “right versus wrong.” Even with my own past, I feel the tendency to side with one side, and then I remember that in almost every instance my bloodline embodies both/and. I was the Viking invader and the native Irish. I was the English colonizer and the Scottish Highlander. I was the Catholic and the Protestant. I was the Patriot as well as the Red Coat, and I was also the Confederate and the Union.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once pointed to “the bards sublime, whose distant footsteps echo through the corridors of Time.” In these distant footsteps I catch faint whispers pointing to the path of integration. I ride the waves of old story and ultimately see clearly the inevitability of my and our dissolution. And yet, something endures – at least for a time. The bones in the earth, the stories across generations, the old barn, the same sound of crickets or cicadas chirping now that would have likely piped up 50 or 100 or 500 years ago too. The light across an old doorway, or the bond between a mother and her child. And age-old important questions: Are we making time to share what is most important? Are we telling the stories we want to hand down? It is a time for remembering the long term perspective of Life. What are we growing in this lifetime? What are the roots? What is worth preserving and upholding across the vast annals of time?


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Dry Run Road, Parkersburg, West Virginia

Finding Refuge in Change: Love, Nature, Goodbyes.

“I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.” – Terry Tempest Williams

I’ve been wrestling with goodbyes. My two-year old began preschool this Fall and each goodbye for those first few weeks was heart-wrenching. My husband summed it up well in an email a few weeks ago after drop off: “It was a heartbreaking goodbye – my heart still aches. Braeden looked me in the eyes with streams of tears coming down and said, “Bye bye Papa.” It was like he knew with courage that the separation is an inevitable part of life but he was also holding his need to cry. I wish we never had to say goodbye to our kids. But this is just a taste of what is to come when they leave our home, and then when you and I die. Painful stuff and yet real…”

And so it was with the goodbye to my grandmother a few days ago. Breathing through a tube of oxygen, she culminates 91 years of life: still poised, nails done, a paragon of loveliness even in the midst of terminal lung cancer. The few days there are like the weaving together of a multi-generational tapestry of Life. Time slows down. My baby mingles with Grandma and he is fresh to this life: non-verbally absorbing the history and felt experience that is unique to each family. We sit together in the smallest room of the house, surrounded by photographs. We all know this is precious time. Priceless time.

Family stories abound, accompanied by the emotional undertones and overtones reminiscent of a life full of everything: Birth and death, the dramas, the pain, the hurt feelings, the love, the mistakes, the brightness, the seasons of youth, the tragedies, the years of habit and routine, the joys and kindness, the shadow and the light. Photos from the 1959 vacation to Mexico are unearthed. The scrapbook from Grandma’s 90th. Grandpa’s album from World War II and Iwo Jima. The photos from the last family reunion.  Baby photos from the births of each of my sons. Happy memories knit together with sad musings about my Grandpa’s final days. “Remember those pancakes he used to make on Saturdays?” Everyone laughs. “Remember the burned tapioca pudding?” Then, some tears are shed. Some slow rolling, some more fervent. My aunt cooks up a feast and my brother asks my grandmother what wisdom she can share for us young “foolish” ones. “Just keep loving,” she says.

Eva Saulitis, another woman with terminal cancer, wrote in Into the Wild Darkness: “Ultimately, what I face every day is death impending – the other side, the passing over into, the big unknown – what poet Harold Brodkey called his “wild darkness,” what poet Christian Wiman calls his “bright abyss.” Death may be the wildest thing of all, the least tamed or known phenomenon our consciousness has to reckon with…Can I take comfort in the countless births and deaths this earth enacts each moment?…Death is nature. Nature is far from over. In the end, Nature endures. It is strange and it is hard, but its comfort, and I’ll take it.”

The goodbyes too are strange and hard. They are bittersweet, but mostly sweet – like a cool cup of water on a hot day – or a rest in the shade of an old, solid tree. For a pause I consider my own season of life, traveling in a web of time, knitting myself into a few precious days of drinking up memories and considering those familial ties that bind and the lifespans of those before and after me. Ultimately, it is those younger than us who will likely be at our proverbial death-beds. I reflect back on the tearful goodbyes with my two-year-old. Who will he become? How will I know him as he and I age? If I, like my grandmothers, live past age 90, will I have grandchildren attending me? Rising and falling, the knits of each day unfold. Some stitches stick and others fade away. What will remain?

Love. Nature. Goodbyes.

This time, I don’t grasp. Instead, I practice finding refuge in change. I listen. I sit still. I give myself over completely to this moment. Because I know this is fleeting. I know it is likely the last time together. And so every day should be lived: giving ourselves over completely to what arises. Dip into homage and gratitude. Let go of bitterness or disappointment. Surrender to chaos. Let even the full, zany – often frustrating and exhausting – days and years of raising young children be medicine for a lifetime. In the final hours this shall all fade away with love in its wake. Some patterns dying while others survive. All: a blink of the eye.

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What Do the Grandmothers Say?

d552dd4f-ba83-4ab3-891d-3ac90c162874I’ve been thinking a lot about my great, great grandmother, Katherine McCabe. Like me, she was mother to three boys. I discovered her last Spring while doing family history research (I’ve been an avid family genealogist since 2000) – even finding this photo online of the McCabe family, who came from Cavan, Ireland in the 1800s. Here she is, dressed in black, standing right above my great, great, great grandparents John and Eliza. The family settled in Campbell and Bath, New York and Kate eventually married my great, great grandfather John C. McNamara, who left her a widower in 1905.

For some reason she has stayed with me. Perhaps it is because I can see a bit of myself in her expression here. Or perhaps it is because she also had three sons. Perhaps it is because I’m about to birth my third child, and the continuation of my family tree is unfolding. In gestating a new member of my family, I can feel the cells from thousands of ancestors and places culminating in my story, my baby’s story. These moments before birth connect me to all the women before who have birthed my lineage into being. I can feel some of their journeys tangibly through my research: traveling across oceans during tumultuous times. Fleeing the potato famine. Living in crowded boarded houses in Brooklyn. So many mothers losing so many children. Accidents. Whole lifetimes of stories. Widowed. Old… The heartbreaking cycles of life coalesce here and now as I wait for baby to be born. Days aren’t just days – they are actually the culmination of millions of years of evolution, genealogy and history.  Days aren’t just days – they are the ongoing writing of deep, rooted story lines, weaving pattern lines on my skin, my children’s skin, right here.

So what do the grandmothers say? They remind me that each lifetime is but a blink in the annals of time. Birth, Death, Childbirth, Marriage: these are the key signposts of a life that remain in the records of family history. They remind me to take the ‘long’ perspective: seeing beyond any given moment into the vast continuum of life. They remind me to marvel at what has survived. They remind me of the preciousness of each of our individual life stories. And, finally, they remind me to confront my own mortality. They have come and gone and so will I…

What will survive? What will be forgotten? What is important? These are the questions I ask as I prepare to welcome a new life. What do I want to leave for the future? Yes: Letters to my sons. Yes: Family stories. Yes: Meaningful work in support of Earth and Life. Yes: Good food. Yes: Nourishing traditions… Yes: Love…

Late Night Inspirations From My Mother, Circa 1978

When I had just welcomed my second born into the world last year I took time to really slow down and relish the first months, truly feeling my place in a long line of mothers and newborns. During my three-month maternity leave (which also felt like a rare moment of human nesting and hibernation) I dug up old journal entries, wrote long letters to my boys for when they are older, revisited my ongoing family history projects and research, organized photographs, began a baby book of memories, and dipped into the myriad folders I have with family memories and keepsakes. How amazed I was when I came across this poem written by my mother, Joan Ellen McNamara, when she was nesting with her second newborn, my most precious little brother. Entitled Late Night Inspirations, here is a window from February 26th, 1978 – as well as a reminder of the unchanging experience of motherhood throughout the generations…

I think that I shall ever be

so grateful if I never see

another diaper wet and soiled,

another day when plans are foiled;

a little boy who is fussy and crabby,

a little girl when not so happy,

those midnight feedings at one and five,

and in-between when I’m barely alive.

This little boy who cries for food

then falls asleep before he’s through

which means that in an hour or so

we’ll have to give it another go.

for another box that needs my touch

to be unpacked – there is so much!

and really now, you can keep

those nights of quiet, peaceful sleep.

Ha! Ha! I say that just in jest.

I’m dying for a day of rest!

But in all truth I wouldn’t give

away this life that I know live:

To hold a babe within my arms

and be beguiled by his charms.

To watch my little girl at play

as she busily whiles the hours away.

Oh sure, I rant and rave, complain

but within my heart, in love, they reign.

For I’m sure there is no greater joy

than found with my little girl and boy…

Five Generations, on Rowan's Wall...
Five Generations, on Rowan’s Wall…

67 Years and Three Generations Later…

67 years and three generations later, I learn firsthand the details of the last months and hours of my grandfather’s life through a series of conversations with WWII veteran Bill Rhodes, who was with my grandfather right before he died.  I look at my father, my brother and my son – the living issue of Pvt. Robert Patrick McNamara Sr., who was killed by a mortar shell on the night of July 7th, 1944 in a foxhole on Hill 122 in Normandy, France.  I quietly marvel at the powers that be, the ebbs and flows of life and connections that bring me to a phone call at 4:30pm on August 3rd, 2011 with Rhodes, a 93-year-old veteran – and one of the last survivors from Company L to still be alive – and a man who trained and fought side by side with my grandfather until the last moments of his life.  “Is this the granddaughter of Robert P. McNamara?” He says when I answer the phone.  Yes.  Yes it is…

We connect serendipitously through a website page where his war memoirs were published.  He’d mentioned my grandfather here, writing about how my grandfather had visited his foxhole the night he was killed.  It was a pitch black night and he wondered how my grandfather had even found his way.  They’d talked about the good old days and how my grandfather was a Golden Glove boxer in Cleveland, Ohio.  He took a swig from Rhodes’ canteen.  At the last minute he traded foxholes with another soldier, Alfred Sheridan.  Shortly thereafter, my grandfather was killed during the onset of the infamous Battle of Hill 122 – some of the worst fighting those in the war would know – and Sheridan and Rhodes lived on to tell the story:  The training in England with tents pitched on a hillside overlooking the Channel.  The nighttime jaunts to English teahouses in search of food. The startling announcement that it was already D-Day.  The rope ladders off a cliff into the ships.  The landing together in assault boats on Utah Beach, Normandy.  200 men started together, and within five weeks Rhodes and Sheridan were two of only 27 men to survive in Company L.

This is history, yes – but it is also the story of living bones and tissue coming to a tragic end at age 19.  This was a young man who was already a husband and father. I reflect on how without his blood and body, my existence would have never been. So it is with absolute awe that I listen to Bill Rhodes recount the last wanderings of his life.  Here is the father my dad never knew. Here is the man who was my grandmother’s first love. Here are the genes my son Rowan’s wiry body has also inherited:  genes of a Golden Glove boxer from Cleveland, Ohio.

This story points to the tragic mark of a whole generation of boys and men lost to war. One particular story, my story, a human story.  The story of who came and went before. The story of a genealogy.  The story of loss.  It’s a testament to memory, and the indelible mark of death on our lives.  The details shared are vivid.  The pangs of regret live on.  Its a story that transcends space and time – an uncanny and unexpected chance for my grandfather to speak through the words of another veteran who was by his side. It’s as if I heard directly from him.  “This was a slice of my life… This was the end no one knew about but always pondered…These were my actions.  This was the tragic close – so normal:  a drink of water from a fellow soldier’s canteen and a chat about the old days… This was war.  It all ended in a foxhole, some four weeks after crossing the English Channel into France…”

This is also a story come full circle.  It so happens that the man who posted Bill Rhodes’ memoirs online is the son of Alfred Sheridan, the other veteran who was with my grandfather the night he died.  Sheridan and McNamara switched foxholes.  McNamara died and Sheridan lived.  Sheridan’s son tells me that in the 1980s, shortly before his father’s death, his father cried, saying, “It should have been me, not McNamara.”  Rhodes tells me he felt badly about this foxhole switch his whole life.  A crazy twist of fate meant life for one, death for the other.  A simple switch at the last minute determined the course of history for at least our two families.  And now, the Sheridans and McNamaras connect.  We give each other blessings.  The son thanks my grandfather, and all of us, on behalf of his whole family.  He only wishes his father were alive to speak with us.  We all agree:  something has come full circle.

Here we all are, 67 years and three generations later, creating  a web of story and connection in the year 2011, where the tides of history ripple in our bones and minds -converging in this rare and precious moment of revelation and homage:  A mystery that life would have us meet to share a story that was waiting to be told.