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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day we commemorate fallen soldiers, but approaching it more broadly, it’s a day that invites us to remember the people whose imprint lingers. As we recall the people whose lives have touched ours in memorable ways, we conjure moments recent and long past, even fleeting, when a spark of kindness or decency charged us, when the gift of patience or compassion changed us, even now.

Often, we remember the people who had such an effect on our lives without knowing that we have done the same for someone else. At every memorial service I officiate I remind listeners the fullness of a life is not measured by longevity, but by the impressions made.

Last year, as I considered the perennial question of what happens when we die, I settled on the idea that all the light once contained in our animate body disperses back into the world, carried in all the beings and places we touched. In the memory of people and animals we knew, the ground we walked, the oceans we swam, in the air we exhaled—our essential being remains.

If Memorial Day is a time to commemorate the dead it is also a time to consider the ways death doesn’t end us. In her fanciful novel A Gracious Plenty, Sheri Reynolds writes:

The dead coax the natural world along.…[They] control the seasons.…In June, the dead tunnel earthworms, crack the shells of bird eggs, poke the croaks from frogs. The ones who died children make play of their work, blowing bugs from weed to weed, aerating fields with their cartwheels.…The ones who died old cue the roosters to crow and dismiss the dawn each morning…The ones who died strong push the rivers downstream…the ones who died shy string spiderwebs, almost invisible. There’s a job for everybody on any given day. The Dead are generous with their gifts to the living.

Not everyone perceives the dead this way, but as the protagonist of the novel notes, she can only see those who have died by remembering the shape they held in the past, “but that’s about my eyes—not [their] presence.”

Memorial Day creates an opening through which to return our attention to the presence of those we carry with us, whether they are dead or not. And it invites us to consider the ways we inhabit not just the memory, but the sensibility of others.

If you were to ask me to name all the folks who have made a positive impression on me it would take hours. Chances are good that I did not end up in all of their memory banks, but I have learned I am stored in some.

A couple of months ago, Tricia forwarded an email that came to the church office from a woman now forty, I knew for about six weeks when she was twelve. I stayed briefly at her house having befriended her mother, roosting the way young adults do when they have not quite landed. To be honest, I had not thought of Joni since I left Houston in 1982. I heard from her mother once by email about eight years ago, out of the blue. It was a short email updating me on the family. I responded in kind and that was the end of it. When I read the email Tricia forwarded it took a moment to figure out just who Joni was. She mentioned she had come across a letter in her mother’s attic I had sent to her and her younger siblings and that triggered her getting in touch. She didn’t tell me what was in the letter and I had no recollection of writing it, but she asked if she could visit so I invited her up to my house for lunch and she came. We had a delightful time and though I still don’t know what possessed her to reconnect, I agreed to visit her this summer in Greenfield where she and her children and partner live.

Though I still wonder why Joni remembered and reached out almost 30 years later, I certainly understand the impulse because of the people I carry inside. Some I haven’t seen for thirty years and if my Internet searches had proved fruitful I would have contacted folks out of the blue, too. People who might have thought, gee, what is she getting in touch for?

So often we don’t realize the effect we have on others, or they, on us. For eleven years I have carried a little boy named John Gustin with me. I met John on the pediatric floor of Maine Medical Center where I did Clinical Pastoral Education, the hospital chaplaincy program required for ministers in training. John was seven the summer of 2000. From the notes in his chart I knew he was nonverbal without any medical explanation noted; that his alcoholic mother was out of the picture; that his father and two older brothers lived four hours away. Every day I would visit John, grateful for the chance to hang out without having to worry about words. There was no small talk to make. Just quiet playing and the occasional words I offered him. He was quiet even beyond his wordlessness, in his manner. He moved slowly, deliberately, gently. He had been hospitalized because of an infection around the insulin pump in his abdomen, but most days, he appeared not to be in pain. John liked to play at the computer in the patient lounge and I will always remember the day I found him entranced by the figures on the screen. I asked if he would be willing to color with me for a while, being the low-tech person I am. I can still see him registering my request, considering his options to pass the time. In a moment, he lifted his index finger with its dirty little fingernail and pressed the off button. I have never felt so loved in all my life.

And because the universe is benevolent, one of my last days there, I happened on John in his room while a lovely pet therapy volunteer brought out an enormous white bunny. I sat down on John’s bed and stroked the rabbit’s soft fur with him when the volunteer offered to take our picture. I knew there would have been no way to photograph John myself as that would have been a violation of confidentiality and a breach of my role, but when the volunteer handed us each a Polaroid print I smiled and silently thanked the universe.

I treasured that photo because it allowed me to more readily revisit the time I spent with John, the way he instructed me in how to be present and attentive. He provided an easy way for a nervous novice to pass the days without having to knock on doors or enter rooms of other patients less eager to see a chaplain.

Over the years I have wondered what became of him. A few years ago I went onto Facebook thinking I might find him there but I found only other folks with the same name. And for some inexplicable reason about a week and a half ago, I decided to try again. I went onto Facebook, typed in his name, and got a link to his obituary. John died six months after I last saw him. In the hospital at age eight.

I have been carrying his light, thoroughly illumined by the vision of that small finger pressing the computer button. I have held fast to the feeling of John one of the last times I encountered him, curled in my lap, his arms wound tightly around me, his head burrowed in my neck. I heard him crying and followed the sound into his room where a young nurse’s aide brusquely combed his freshly shampooed hair. Suddenly, John began to wretch and the newly made bed was instantly soiled. Exasperated, the young aide yanked the sheets beneath him so I carried John to the couch and cradled him. The trust he bestowed charged and changed me that August day, in a way that enlivens us both still.

When I speak of the universe holding us, this is what I mean. We are held in body, but also in memory. Whether we recognize it or not, we are held by those who carry us, and those we carry. We are held by the places we have trod, the trees trunks we leaned against. We are held in the stories others tell.

In the novel I quoted from earlier, Sheri Reynolds writes of the realm the dead inhabit, “In this place you’ve moved beyond experience. Now it’s your stories that keep you down. You can’t leave until you’ve told them.”

I sense it is our stories that tether us. The ones we have yet to tell, the secrets as yet unreleased carried into death may need telling in order to free the spirit. And perhaps imaginations freed of body trade secrets and swap stories beyond our capacity to hear.

The stories we tell testify to the presence of the beings that remain part of our lives—they may not all be human—by virtue of leaving an impression, imparting a lesson, instilling a value, encouraging a path.

I invite you to take a few moments now to share a story you carry with someone seated nearby so that on this Memorial Day, we not only remember, but we become the a chalice poised to hold another’s light. (Give folks time to share stories)

Sheri Reynolds writes in A Gracious Plenty, “I know the Dead haven’t disappeared because the sun does rise. The roosters do crow. The clouds move across the sky like always.”

After my father died in 1999, a year or two after I read Sheri’s book, which by the way, I bought seventeen copies of and gave out to friends, I began to think of my father pushing the tomato plants up each summer because of the way he devoured the box of Tennessee tomatoes his sister shipped him every year. He would sit down with a box of Saltines, a handful of red tomatoes and a serrated knife and eat slices on crackers as if every one were his last and happiest meal.

Before my father left this life to ripen tomatoes, he married three times, first my mother, then his second and third wives. The last two left their marriage to him and got involved with a woman. During my father’s cancer when there was time to ruminate, we wondered aloud what were the odds. At the time my father met his second and third wives, they had been drifting in rough seas—and in him they found a safe harbor. My father was a gentle, supportive man. In his later marriages he had come to understand more of himself. From the pier where I stand looking back, I see how each woman gathered her strength and re-charted her course. And if someone were to say to me, “Gosh, your dad was married and divorced three times; too bad none of his marriages worked out,” I would tell the story of his memorial service where all three ex-wives gathered to hold him. I would speak also of the Russian √©migr√© who told the people gathered, all strangers to her, how my father had saved her life by helping her come to America. I would express how proud I am to be the daughter of a man who ushered women to safer shores.

Relationships serve a purpose beyond our line of sight. They don’t have to last to work. What we think of as not working may in fact not be a failure of anything other than our ability to see. In 1982 when I left Houston, a twelve-year-old girl named Joni stored me in her memory; and though I left Maine Medical Center eleven summers ago, I never set John B. Gustin II down.

This Memorial Day as we remember the lives that imprint our own, may we feel the embrace of those we hold and those who hold us, in memory, in story, in being. Amen.