I do not know how much of my blog you read, Person Reading This Right Now, but last year – when I flew home from Sanibel – the lady randomly sitting next to me on the plane turned out to be someone I went to college with (but did not know back then) and we discovered she was actually in a photograph I had on my phone from a recent reunion weekend! In the photo we were standing right next to each other. It was the most BIZARRE and wonderful gift from God. I wrote about it then. It was really the perfect capstone to that whole experience.
I got to the airport this time, after 12 days, very roiled and unsettled still, in my spirit. The ocean was calm only one day while I was in Sanibel, and that seemed to suit the general tone of my time there. I was happy I went, in the end – very glad. It was the right choice. But I am a different person now than I was just a year ago. Sometimes it is very hard to find my balance, in this raw reality.
Anyhow: the flight was overbooked, and the flight attendants were looking for volunteers. Recent media coverage of violence on planes, between flight staff and passengers, was sharp in my mind even as I was resolute in my determination to GET ON THAT PLANE. Sarah was graduating the next day! Had to get home.
When I finally boarded the plane, there was a woman sitting in my seat and I thought, “Oh no…” But she was just getting out of the way while folks tossed their bags in the overhead bins. As I arrived, she shifted into her own spot. Within 5-15 seconds of my getting settled, she turned and asked me about my blue wristband, thinking it was to remember someone who had died from prostate cancer.
“No, I’m sorry. This is in memory of my son, Mark. He died a year and a half ago.”
“Oh, that’s awful. My husband died 8 months ago from prostate cancer.”
“Oh no! I’m so sorry.”
And we were off. Emily, meet Patty*; Patty, meet Emily. God orchestrated this, clearly: what are we to learn from one another today?
I hope what I gave Patty is similar to what I offered my grieving, new friend a week ago: permission. Permission to go through the process of grieving at the pace your soul requires, not that which society (or impatient family members) would dictate. Permission to, in spite of your faith, feel the sadness and the pain of losing someone we love so deeply. Permission to believe that blessings will come, do come from a loving God who weeps with and for us in our loss.
Patty and I spent a lot of time sharing some of our stories, the mini-miracles that help us feel we are never far from our loved ones. Her faith is so strong. She said later, in a text, that she always said God loves her a lot and so I was His gift to her. I felt she was to me as well.
She also had much to teach me, through a truly “coincidental” life story. Patty is now 70; I might have been sitting next to my own Sarah, decades from now, in an “alternate universe” or story-line. At least I hope it’s alternate.
Patty not only lost her husband last September (and her mother and MIL since, and many, many others she loved), but she also revealed to me that her baby brother, who was 2 years younger than her (like Sarah/Mark), died when he was 19 (like Mark), and she was left an only child (like Sarah). Her parents owned an accounting business (just like Steve and I). Whaat??? I was floored by the similarities. In her case, though, her father succumbed to alcoholism in his grief, and he died; her mother – who favored the brother – was bitter and angry at times. She was a lifelong Christian and felt all her duty and tithing and faith were rendered meaningless when her son died so unexpectedly and tragically. We can so easily fall into the trap of thinking God “owes” us a pain- and problem-free existence if we just follow the rules. Even in her old age, needing more care than Patty could provide, she threw painful accusations at her daughter: “your brother would have taken care of me, not put me in a home.”
Just a few days later, I read C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce.” It’s a tale, a fable, in which ghosts from Hell (which is depicted as sort of a grey, endless city where it’s always raining and almost dark) get to go on a bus trip to the outskirts of Heaven, and there they meet Bright Spirits – deceased relatives or business associates or friends – who have come specifically to help encourage the bus riders to choose to stay.
This is a Cautionary Tale: in one way or another, most of these ghosts make the choice to return to Hell. They cannot find their way to wanting Heaven more, no matter how much they are implored to give it a try, so stuck they are in rigid (or incredibly passive) mindsets.
In one case, the ghost of a woman, Pam, meets the Bright Spirit of her brother Reginald. Pam is not happy to see Reginald; rather she is demanding to see her son, Michael, who died unexpectedly 10 years earlier. She’d made her family miserable in the intervening time, before she died as well: she refused to leave the house, she made his bedroom a shrine. She did all that “in love, in duty” for the boy she’d loved more than anything else, more than anyone else. She’d shut out other grieving relatives (like their own mother, hers and Reginald’s), claiming her grief, her maternal pain, more true and important. Her brother tells her that her son is far away in the mountains (the center of heaven) and could not see her yet; Reginald the Spirit pleads with her, trying to help her realize she has a little work to do first, that what she needs most is not her son, but God…that God is not to be used as a pathway to “get to” her son. She needs to recognize that her love for her son has not actually mirrored that of God for His children; in fact, it was not love at all, but a basic and primal possessiveness.
I’ve thought a lot about these two things…the encounter on the plane, and the story that seemed to poke me really hard. And I must proceed with great caution. It would be really easy to take these as flat-out indictments, since that has often been my mindset.
I…do not feel I was meant to receive these stories because I am just like those two moms. Nonetheless: God is not only love and mercy, but also wisdom, truth and justice. We are told He “prunes” us for our own good. There is a rasp within these experiences, a rubbing against my skin, and I need to heed it, even though it hurts.
I am only human, and that means the life I have lived has had consequences and left other people affected by my actions – for better AND for worse. I have been selfish, in my grief…hiding away, feeling others’ sadness was too heavy for me to bear in addition to my own. This was in part because it WAS too much, and I’ve never had very good boundaries…to know what I am truly responsible for and what I’m not. I have screamed, stomped my feet and flailed every part of me in full-out, pain-filled tantrum, demanding that God show me Mark… when I have no idea what that really means. I have sometimes strayed very close to beatifying Mark, which really suits no one, much less him. He was as complex a human as any of us.
It’s been just 19 months. I am still learning to live this life. And I am guessing that even in this, God is still loving me and trying to teach me that the biggest and wisest decision I can make at any time in my life is to trust Him, and to look for His “helpers” (just like Mr. Rogers said)…that even when it seems like everything is lost, He isn’t.