Your Days Are Short Here

Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

Death on Nanda Devi

Nanda Devi courtesy of Stanford Alpine Club

The news this week of the deaths of climbers on Nanda Devi peak in Nepal recalls the story of my high school classmate, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, whose body still rests on that mountain for which she was named.

The ripple effect from Nanda Devi’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  One of my friends elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes greeting everyone she met.

From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.

But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

The boys were mesmerized.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits which she showed off while wearing tank tops.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived a bit late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship in comparative religion at a local college.  He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled before there was a word for it simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the security of high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the relative security and camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while the rumor was that Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 40 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in.   Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.

Tethered and Devoted

lacehydrangea1sphere of pillowed sky
one faceless gathering of blue

shyly, I want to sit by you
but don’t

old globe come home
a blue-soft let near the cheek

dozer, I’m tethered, and devoted
to your raw and lonely bloom

my lavish need to drink
your world of crowded cups to fill.
~Tara Bray “hydrangea”

I can’t not look at the blooms everywhere now after the deprivation of winter. The rich colors and textures are overwhelming and welcome.

I capture them as best I can; some in a vase, most in photos. In photos they never wilt, blessed with a kind of immortality.

The Great Reward of Service

In great deeds, something abides. 
On great fields, something stays. 
Forms change and pass; 
bodies disappear; 
but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. 
And reverent men and women from afar, 
and generations that know us not and that we know not of, 
heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, 
shall come to this deathless field, 
to ponder and dream; 
and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, 
and the power of the vision pass into their souls. 
This is the great reward of service. 
To live, far out and on, in the life of others;
this is the mystery of the Christ,

–to give life’s best for such high sake
that it shall be found again unto life eternal.

~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889

For Memorial Day 2019~

~standing in gratitude and reverence for the few
who have suffered great loneliness and loss
to secure the future and well-being of many,
including unknown generations to come…

I hear the mountain birds
The sound of rivers singing
A song I’ve often heard
It flows through me now
So clear and so loud
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

It’s carried in the air
The breeze of early morning
I see the land so fair
My heart opens wide
There’s sadness inside
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand
…forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
~Lori Barth and Philippe Rombi “I’m Dreaming of Home”

Wither Me

Wither me to within me:
Welt me to weal me common again:
Withdraw to wear me weary:
Over me to hover and lover again:

Before me to form and perform me:
Round me to rill me liquid incisions:
Behind me to hunt and haunt me:
Down me to drown indecision:

Bury me to seed me: bloom me
In loam me: grind me to meal me
Knead me to rise: raise me to your mouth

Rive me to river me:
End me to unmend me:
Rend me to render me:
~Philip Metres “Prayer”

witherpeony1

witheriris1

 

The truth is:
though we prefer to gaze on fresh beauty,
to ponder smooth youthful perfection
rather than the pocked and wrinkled,
the used-up and weary,
our prayer desires His everlasting love
even when we fall in frailty.
We wither from the first day,
readying for fruit to burst forth
as we, torn and buried,
are sown to rise again.

 

witheriris

 

witherchestnut

 

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
Isaiah 40:8

And the Flowers Fall…

Oh that I once past changing were, 
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither! 
         Many a spring I shoot up fair, 
Offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither; 
                      Nor doth my flower 
                      Want a spring shower, 
         My sins and I joining together. 

         And now in age I bud again, 
After so many deaths I live and write; 
         I once more smell the dew and rain, 
And relish versing. Oh, my only light, 
                      It cannot be 
                      That I am he 
         On whom thy tempests fell all night. 

         These are thy wonders, Lord of love, 
To make us see we are but flowers that glide; 
         Which when we once can find and prove, 
Thou hast a garden for us where to bide; 
                      Who would be more, 
                      Swelling through store, 
         Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.
~George Herbert from
“The Flower”

As they are meant to do,
the crocuses have melted back to earth
the winter snowdrops long gone,
the orchard tree blossoms have shed their petals to become
burgeoning cherries, pears and apples,
the daffodils have come and gone,
the tulips are falling apart in slow motion.

Spring in full swing
Exhaustion replaced by renewal
and fresh air now filled
with the sweetness of growth and fruitfulness.

Our fields grow lush and soft
with the sun warm on our horses’ withers.

It isn’t enough to celebrate the defeat of winter
by blooming where we are planted;
when we do fall apart, may we
find ourselves never withering again.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you.
1 Peter 1:23-25

As If Death Were Nowhere in the Background

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

~Li-Young Lee from “From Blossoms”

These are impossible mornings of color and cool breezes.
A hope of immortality extends across the sky as far as the eye can see.
Impossible — because we know it won’t last;
these ordinary days, this precious time is ephemeral.
Still I revel in it,
moving from joy to joy to joy,
from tulip to tulip to tulip,
rising up so vividly alive from mere dirt,
eventually to sink back down to dust so gently,
~oh so gently~
to rest in the promise, that vibrant living promise
that spring someday will last forever.