Life, Death and More Life

I don’t think I have made it through a day in the past month without crying. Please, I beg God, please don’t let me lose someone else I love during the Christmas season.

Technically, it’s Advent, and technically, Mom didn’t die during Advent. She died before the First Sunday of Advent, but it was December, and the heart doesn’t measure time with calendars anyhow. The heart measures time by experience, and my heart has Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the time between tangled in a knot of heartache and grief.

About the time I turned 40, my mom’s age when she died, I suffered an existential crisis. Whether it was an early mid-life crisis or just the crisis of living past my mother’s age of death, I don’t know. I just know that I was desperate to make sense of my life, for the pain and disappointments and mistakes to make sense. I read over and over — until I had memorized some parts — Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. So much resonated with me, validated my experience, and in that, I found a way to make peace with my life.

About the same time, I read Motherless Daughters: Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman. What I recall now, years later, is how typical my life was; I made the kinds of choices women make who lose their mothers during adolescence. That comforted me. She also said that for women who lose their mothers when they are young, that loss is one of the defining moments of their lives. And that has been true for me, too; I am a motherless daughter, and I have never stopped missing my mother. I have never stopped longing for her love — even after realizing that my mother would never have encouraged me to become a painter or to become a deeply spiritual person, two movements which give my life its deepest meaning.

Over the years, I learned to be grateful for the mentors God brought into my life, the women who mothered some part of me — Jessie, my counselor, whom I will always credit with the wholeness I was able to achieve as a result of our work together; Signe, my art instructor, who encouraged me when I entered her class with only curiosity, but no experience; Darlene, the co-worker, who listened with infinite patience as I wrestled with the life challenges I imagined I would have shared with my mother had she lived; and so many others over the years. And now, one of those precious, precious women is dying.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis — her lung tissue is thickening, so her brain and organs aren’t getting the oxygen they need. She’s been housebound for weeks, and the oxygen she’s being given has been increased. Most recently, the decision was made to begin administering morphine to help her body relax, because it naturally fights for the oxygen  it is not receiving. My heart is breaking.

Wanda, a Lutheran pastor, was my spiritual mother. I was a deeply spiritual person when I met her, and had a healthy spiritual life, but no one with whom to share my thoughts and ideas. Wanda and I had the discussions that I hungered to have with someone, and out of those conversations — often conducted over white wine (Wanda) and beer (me) — a deep friendship grew, a heart connection that endured even when we were not able to spend time together. We talked once in a while about getting a place together when she retired, but by the time she retired, she also knew she was dying. Like a good mother, a protective mother, she didn’t tell me. She just said she was going to move closer to her sister.

I saw her a few months ago, and was reminded with that visit just how much I love her. When I moved a couple years before she retired to accept a new position, I discovered she is one of those people who isn’t good at keeping in touch. And while I missed her, I always knew that I could visit her and would be welcome, which eased the ache. As time passed, the ache lessened, and I learned to live without her in my life. I continued to pray for her and to love her, but life brings these transitions and learning to accommodate them is part of living.

The visit earlier this year, and the conversation we had, even though her energy flagged after a couple hours, reminded me how very much her friendship means to me. Together, we hatched the idea of reshaping some of her sermons into meditations for a book. Wanda selected the ones she wanted to include, and I have been editing them. I hear her voice in them, and even recognize some of the ideas we discussed. I can remember sitting at a table in the pub that was our favorite getaway and saying, “But, Wanda, think about this: if there hadn’t been a cross, would the resurrection had have the same impact? If Jesus had died of old age or been killed in an accident, would anyone have noticed when he rose from the dead? His death had to be public and it had to be humiliating.” And there it is, in one of her reflections — the question I raised.

And so she lives now with me even as she struggles for each breath and her body is beginning to shut down. I have no doubt that she believes in the resurrection. We spoke of her death a few months ago, and she said, “I truly believe what I have preached at hundreds of funerals; I truly believe in the resurrection and eternal life.” Her sister said that Wanda’s mantra has become, “Life is good, but eternal life is better.”

I know this, too. I have no doubt that our Lord will wrap Wanda in his arms, and say, “Welcome home, good and faithful servant,” because she is a woman who has truly lived the gospels. But I am a selfish, selfish woman. I’m not ready to lose her — not now, the book isn’t done; not now, it’s Christmas.

Not now. But, I know this isn’t in my hands; it’s in God’s hands, and I must trust God to give me the grace to let her go with joy when the time comes. Until then, I reserve the right to cry.

Good Grief

I want people to like ME.

That’s what  she said — an employee I supervised about 15 years ago when I was director of an art center. I had discovered my trust in her had been misplaced, and difficulties I was having resulted from the way she was manipulating me and others in order to achieve her agenda. In the process, she was shredding my reputation and my credibility.

Classic example: I would go to the office, and as I walked through the door, she would stop me to say, “The curator wants me to put work by so-and-so in the gift shop, but I just don’t think his work is right for us.” I would answer, “OK, I’ll support your decision.” Then, she would go to the curator and say, “I would be more than happy to put so-and-so’s art work in the gift shop, but Mary says it’s not appropriate for our venue.” Then the curator would come to me — after contacting a couple board members to get their support — and be furious because he had already assured the artist that we would carry his work. I would tell him — and board members when they called to find out what was happening — I was simply supporting the gift shop manager’s decision, and she would coyly say with a smile, “It’s not my place to make those decisions, it’s yours.”

Because she’d been with the organization longer than I had, the board would accept what she said as truth, and chastise me for failing to take responsibility for my actions. While these irritating, frustrating, maddening contretemps were occurring on a too-frequent basis, I was attempting to deal with other organizational challenges. Unfortunately, because the gift shop manager had systematically undermined my credibility with the board, members did not trust my judgment.

When I tried to explain to the gift shop manager what she was doing with her little games, she smiled and said, “But, I want people to like ME. You’re paid to be the bad guy.” I was stunned with that response, because I believe each of us must be responsible  for our own actions. Of course, what I believed or didn’t believe was irrelevant. Within months of that conversation, I was out of a job.

That phrase — I want people to like ME — has haunted me for more than a decade. I would be washing dishes, and find myself arguing with the gift shop manager about that. I would be folding clothes warm and fresh from the dryer, and it would pop into my head, taking the pleasure out of the comfortable, homey task. I would be driving down the highway, gazing at a fieldof harvest-ready corn at dusk and be lifted with joy by the golden glow, only to be smacked down as that phrase ran through my head.

And, I have hated myself for being so hard-hearted and unforgiving. I profess to be a Christian. I profess to follow the risen Christ whose gospel advocates forgiveness. I pray the Lord’s prayer daily — “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Why did this comment come back to me unbidden over and over?

Why was I stuck there? I’ve had a couple other unpleasant job situations since then; why did that one stick with me when I’ve been able to move past the others, when I’ve been able to see the blessings of open doors created in the other difficult situations?

A couple weeks ago, an answer spontaneously came to me: because I was stuck in grief.

In 1989, I visited the Chicago Institute of Art for the first time. While there, I had an epiphany: if I did not create art, my life would be wasted. I’d been painting for about 10 years by that time, primarily for personal pleasure. I knew as I looked at Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV” that I needed to pursue an art career seriously.

I returned to South Dakota, conducted research in order to determine how to proceed, and set goals for my career. Within a year, I had achieved my one-year, three-year and five-year goals. During the following years, I had a number of solo exhibits, had work included in several touring exhibits and saw some of my work accessioned into museum collections. Equally as important, my social circle was primarily comprised of fellow artists.

When the gift shop manager — the same individual who later shredded my professional reputation — began to nag me about becoming director of  the art center, I was positioned to support myself as a practicing artist. I had just received a three-year grant which would have made it unnecessary for me to work beyond doing some residencies in area schools. I could have immersed myself in art rather than balancing an art career with another job in order to pay bills.

By the time I was fired and escorted from the art center by two board members, all of that had been destroyed. Only a couple friendships survived, and I was so burned out that I didn’t paint again for years. When I did begin to paint again, I made no effort to exhibit my work. I didn’t have the energy — or courage — to begin again. I had only to attend a couple art events, and have former friends turn their backs on me rather than include  me in conversations, to see how difficult it would be. I didn’t have the heart for it.

What I did not realize for a very long time was that I needed to grieve that ending, the death of my dream, of what I believed to be my life’s work. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed in her book ON DEATH AND DYING, that there are five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I came to realize that I have not been hard-hearted or unforgiving during the past 15 years; I’ve been stuck in the anger stage of grief — with short forays into bargaining.

I wish this realization had released me to move immediately to acceptance, but it hasn’t. Instead, I find myself crying about just about everything these days, and thanking God for releasing me to move beyond the subconscious anger which has plagued me for years. I know these tears will lead to acceptance and healing — and maybe create in me a place for a new dream. Only God knows.

Only God knows — and I am willing to wait on him.