This is the season for graduations, when children move into the adult world and don’t look back.
As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and after nearly thirty years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.
In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into those exuberant hearts so he or she can pull it out when it is most needed?
When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving way beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trust they left well prepared.
As a school board member, I watched students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.
When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years. I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.
When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university and college health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road inevitably gets bumpy.
I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love. Only they will know the time to unpack what is within when their need arises.
I’m reminded daily about how little I know and understand. I work with people who are suffering, whose symptoms may fit prescribed diagnostic criteria but yet defy explanation or reason. They care about what relief I might offer rather than a label that names the illness.
Like so much in medicine, what I witness daily is unexplained and unexplainable. What I do know I carry with me, small and honorable and shareable. I offer it up to each patient, one after another: here is what I think might help. here is your next step to take. here is the hope that goes with taking each breath, the next and the next.
Even when standing in the dark, as we all do at times in our life, we just keep breathing. In and out. In and out. We are filled even when empty.
…to love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it and everything you’ve held dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands, your throat filled with the silt of it. When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air, heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs; when grief weights you like your own flesh only more of it, an obesity of grief, you think, How can a body withstand this? Then you hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, no charming smile, no violet eyes, and you say, yes, I will take you I will love you, again. — Ellen Bass “The Thing Is…” from Mules of Love
It begins again, even though I’m unprepared. No matter which way I turn, autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again. Some dying is flashy, brilliant, blazing – a calling out for attention. Then there is the hidden dying that happens without anyone taking notice: just a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.
I will spend the morning adjusting to the change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure. Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.
As I scoop and push the wheelbarrow, I recall another barn cleaning fifteen years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days. There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me as the organizer that I had taken very personally. As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart. I was miserable with regret. After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group, my work felt futile and unappreciated.
One friend had stayed behind with her young family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure. Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen:
“You know, none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now. People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country, a wonderful time with their Haflingers, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom. So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy. You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us. So quit being upset about what you can’t change. There’s too much you can still do for us.”
During tough times since (and there have been plenty), Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to cease seeking appreciation from others or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way. She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time. She was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and instead to focus outward.
I have remembered.
Jenny herself did not know that day fifteen years ago she would subsequently spend six years dying while still loving her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was only slowed in the face of her faith and intense drive to live. She became a rusting leaf gone holy, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until five years ago this past week, she finally had to let go. Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end. Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her firm belief in the plan God had written for her and those who loved her.
So Jenny let go her hold on life here. And we reluctantly let her go. Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.
You were so right, Jenny. Nothing from fifteen years ago amounts to a hill of beans now. Except the words you spoke to me that day, teaching me to love life even when I have no stomach for it.
And I won’t be upset that I can’t change what is past and the fact that you have left us.
Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. ~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop’