Be Love, Walking

The month of May was marked by the passing of two dear ones: my 99-year-old grandmother and a close friend of nearly 20 years. I am so thankful to have grown into a life that makes room for deep emotions. It is good to cry aloud and mourn the loss. To praise their unique gifts. To smile at their peculiar challenges. To celebrate the depth of our bonds. And to grow from the experience of their death.

Oh, how dearly will I miss them. But like a skeleton amidst beautiful, deep red roses, death shows us how to live. Each death teaches us to acknowledge the preciousness of our own life and to revel in the joy of being here.

Grandma lived a long life, but Dan was only 51, a father, husband and community leader who had so much more to give. His leukemia came back full force just after he’d made it home from an arduous stem cell transplant. Blessed with strength and fortified by chemo, he visited with a flowing stream of friends and family over his last few days. Meanwhile his son and close woodcrafter friends created the most beautiful casket that any of us had ever seen. When he passed, they placed him in that beautiful box.

That night some of us who cherished Dan came to his family’s living room to once again share food, drink his homemade wine, and play music that he loved. We gathered around his body, ravaged by leukemia, but still holding the memory of his spark. There and all around the village we held each other in an amazing outpouring of love and open-hearted emotion: tears, laughter, songs, smiles, hugs, wailing, toasting, roasting. Dan’s eldest son Forrest spoke as he would have, giving great thanks for the deep river of community spirit that Dan had a large hand in co-creating.

Throughout his illness, Dan's wife Beth has grown into a fuller expression of her gifts: a beautifully transparent, generous heart; the presence to experience each moment fully; the grace to hold uncertainty; the strength to move forward; her depth of emotion and inspired posts on Caringbridge.org. She will yearn for his bodily presence every minute, every hour. I've wept bitterly for her and Forrest and Jesse, the ones who lost the most.

After many tears I still carried a vague, unsettled depression. What is it all for? Why are we here? I took a walk and threw myself down on the grass for a nice little breakdown. I actually beat the ground with my fists and kicked my legs. I was furious at the Something (my word for God) for allowing this to happen.

While I soaked the dirt with my tears, our cat Sparky walked up the back of my legs and sat on my butt. I had to laugh. Sparky is half bobcat, a magnificent animal that runs across our yard like it was the African plains. Mary Oliver’s delicious poem “The Summer Day,” came to mind (it even involves involves falling in the grass). Excerpt:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I too am a magnificent animal, one who would sing and write and make art, letting her heart run as free as the African plains. I will be a warrior for my wild self. That will be my gift, for Dan and grandma and myself everything else that has to die.

But then a few days later, it was back, a stinking pool of depression that sunk my moods. What is it NOW? I did yoga. I cried some more. It wasn’t clear until I sat quietly to meditate. I made my body into a soft, permeable bowl to receive, and it came. Love, is all. Love.

I saw it then, the deep regret that I didn’t love them enough. I didn’t fight enough to spare grandma from a lonely death in a nursing home far from family. I didn’t connect more deeply with Dan and Beth in the last year; I had let some painful differences linger. My regrets lay on the rug like a mangy black dog, chewing its wounds. I cried some more, for what I’d lost.

Then it came: Be love, walking.

Walking means to keep moving forward. I can’t go back, but I can pay it forward. Isn’t love like water? The exact same water has been recycling itself over this planet since the dinosaurs walked the Earth. Even today we are drinking dinosaur pee, filtered a billion times. Love is endlessly recycled, too. I can walk with love down the road, and it will be the same love as the love I missed out on. Almost.

I can be love, walking. And you can too.


Mildred Parmele 1910-2010

My grandma died this morning. She would have turned 100 in December. She lived alone in a nursing home without any family nearby, and I regret that. I also mourn the old ways, when your grandma lived next door until the end of her days.

Grandma loved me to pieces when I needed it most, a sensitive child with too-busy parents and not enough love to go around. She lost both parents at age 13.

After having three boys, I was her first grandchild, a girl. She dressed me up like a cherished doll. She fed me her baked goods, her warm soup, her home grown beans.

She gave me her style, her jewelry, her designer fashions, in a long life in which everything becomes vintage.

She was tough as nails, lived for fun, and had a cold streak of stern Norwegian judgment. As she gradually lost her marbles, she became even more fun - a creature of the moment, with no memory of yesterday, or longing for tomorrow.

If you gave her anything -- a cup of coffee, a cookie, a napkin – she said Thank you! As if she really, truly meant it.

When she could no longer travel, she moved to assisted living, then a nursing home, and finally the Alzheimer’s floor. I loved her, but where was I when she needed me most? Far away, in a world filled with yesterdays and tomorrows.

I visited three or four times, made the day’s journey to the Nebraska cornfields of my birth. But I could not feed her my baked goods, my warm soup, my home grown beans.

For her 99th birthday I brought her Lefse, the sweet potato bread of her childhood. By then she was more than halfway to another world : done with eating. talking, reading, interacting. Even holding hands for too long was too much. Go away, she finally said. And I understood.

I sat with her quietly, loving her concave face, her transparent skin that revealed every vein and artery, her emaciated body that could still kick and punch the nurses who burst into the room to change her bedding at night.

I sang her soft lullabies, and when my sister came we sang Christmas carols. Grandma came alive for awhile. She made sounds and mouthed the words – even the second verses. We cried and said good-bye.

I loved my grandma and she knew it. But I missed most of her end-of-life -- and I missed seeing her go.