Unglued

The East High School gym was filled with Samsonite card tables from various eras dug out of basements and garages and covered with white paper, and high school seniors and their parents drinking orange juice from Dixie Cups and pale lukewarm coffee in Styrofoam and eating sweet rolls. At 7:30 in the morning, the din of the senior awards breakfast was deafening. My middle son Daniel was among the honorees. The two of us shared a rickety table with Dan’s classmate Michael and his dad, Jack. People, movement, sound, light, energy was all around me.

I was inside my own bubble looking out. When Jack asked, “So, how are you, Becky? Things good at the church?” it took me a moment to process the thought that I should respond. What I said was, “My mother died last night.” My words fell like a cinder block. The four of us were startled by them. It wasn’t clear our little table could support their sudden weight.

How odd it was to me that the world was going on so normally, and that I and Daniel and the rest of our family would be going about such normal-life things. I’d never before lived a day without my mother being alive. I’d lived most of my adult life hundreds of miles away from Mom, and we weren’t the kind of mother and daughter who talked to each other on the phone all the time. But always, always, my whole life she’d been there. And now, not suddenly, because her death had been a long time coming, and not surprisingly, because we had been keeping vigil and caring for her as she labored into eternal life for weeks by that time, now she was simply, gone. It was an odd, disorienting feeling.

The memory of that morning, of my feelings nine years ago returned earlier this week and linger here. Out on the deck this ridiculously pleasant Saturday morning in mid-August in Nebraska, it is so beautiful I thought, “Even my Colorado cousins can’t beat this perfection.” But, just under the surface of that thought I am disoriented. Despite all the immediate surrounding evidence to the contrary, all is not well. The perfect breeze, the ideal temperature, the green, green trees and blue, blue sky belie the heavy truth.  Our nation is in trouble. Our churches are in trouble. Our neighbors are in trouble.

Vulnerable people all around the world have been in trouble always, but, this week, every week this past year, more and more of those whom I know and love who had been less vulnerable than the most vulnerable are feeling more and more threatened, more and more afraid. Immigrant friends, brown friends, gay friends, Muslim friends, and now Jewish friends—can it really be that in 2017 in the U.S.A. on Saturday morning a week ago a congregation at worship was menaced by Neo-Nazis wielding automatic weapons?

Out of the blue the other night a friend from far away texted me, “Are you concerned for your safety?” His reason for asking was different than my reason for replying a hesitant, simple, “Yes.”

I almost flunked the Rorschach ink-blot test when I took the battery of psychological tests required by the church before sending missionaries overseas back in my twenties. There was some image in which almost any sentient human being sees a gun, but Pollyanna me, I saw something completely innocuous instead. A night in my forties spent curled up in the fetal position bracing for the possibility I could be shot cured me of any lingering naiveté about how vulnerable all of us truly are to each other. One hurting, unglued human can wreak havoc.

I know that now. And now we see the evidence there are myriads of hurting humans among us and some of them are coming unglued.  It hasn’t happened suddenly and it shouldn’t be a surprise.

We have to process this thought; it’s time for each of us to respond. It’s time to speak up for those who are threatened, even if that means we may be threatened, too. It’s time to pray and to bravely unleash the power of love. Maybe there’s still time to make whole that which and those who are coming unglued around us.

On Being Sad Together

It was the red hair we shared that started up the conversation. (Mine was thanks to a great stylist, hers her own natural color). We were sitting opposite each other in the gynecological oncologist’s waiting room. Her parents sat in the seats next to her. There was anguish on both of their faces.

She and I talked about our hair, how mine had been red when my parents adopted me when I was three months old, but later it turned blonde, then blah, then when I was dating Mike he said something about me having the right coloring to be a red-head and I told him about when I was a baby and long story short, I’d been having my hair colored that way for about three years and something I never knew before but knew then was there’s a kind of red-head sorority out there. Red heads catch each other’s eye, nod sometimes. It’s a thing. She laughed and told me it sure is a thing. Her hair was red from day-one. In fact, did I want to see a picture? She just had her hair cut that morning.

In the picture her thick, silky straight red hair extended down past her waist. “I had it cut so I could be in control of it a little more.” “Starting chemo?” I asked. She nodded. Tears slipped silently down her mother’s sweetly wrinkled face. Her stoic father looked at his shoes.

She showed me pictures of her two sons. Her elder son was the age of my middle one. He was a marine and a new daddy. Her grandson was a fine specimen of a baby. I said, “You’re too young to be a grandma.” She told me she was fifty-one. (I was fifty-three). “Do you have grandchildren?” she asked. “No, not yet.” She said she was glad to have her grand baby this early. Her ovarian cancer will never go away. She had surgery but it was some horrid, virulent strain that always comes back, in some new organ, in some new unpredictable place. Surgery can remove it, chemo can slow it down, but it will always come back. For the rest of her life, however long she has to live–she will be fighting cancer, or waiting to fight cancer, wondering where it lies lurking within her. Her dad studied the palms of his hands, her mother daubed a hanky across her cheeks. She said, “I’m glad I get to know my grandson now.”

She asked me, “Are you okay? I mean, nobody is sitting here in this waiting room because everything’s wonderful.” I told her I was okay. I had uterine cancer, but they caught it very early and I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation, only surgery. “So you’re here for a check-up?” She asked. Not exactly, I told her. “I have some bleeding. I’m not healing up right. It’s just scar-tissue so it’s not scary. It’s just a pain. If it doesn’t heal they might want to re-do part of my surgery.” And I told her, because one can say things in the waiting room of the gynecological oncologist’s office that one wouldn’t ordinarily tell a brand new acquaintance, (and because her Dad had excused himself to go find a restroom), “really, the worst part of this whole thing for me now is that Mike and I are still kind-of newly-weds. We were both alone a long time before we met each other and, well, this just stinks. Sitting here, hearing your story, knowing what you’re up against I feel guilty even being sad, but I am sad. Every time I come for an appointment Dr. Nadkarni tells me Mike and I better wait another twelve weeks and then another twelve weeks before being intimate. What a dream-wife I’ve turned out to be.”

Quickly I said, “Truly, I’m sorry. My situation is nothing compared to yours.”

And this was her gift to me. She told me there’s no reason to compare. She told me, “You get to be sad. I get to be sad. Both of us have perfectly good reasons to be sad.”

Isn’t that a trap we sometimes fall into? Not wanting to lapse into self-pity, we err as well by not allowing ourselves the grace to grieve something difficult. My difficult situation doesn’t have to be as difficult as someone else’s difficult situation for it to qualify as legitimate cause for heartache.

“We both get to be sad,” my sister in the red-haired gynecological oncology sorority said. And her quietly weeping mother nodded her head.