Sunday, November 13, 2011

Kindness, Compassion, and Connor...

Me and Connor at the Evening of Kindness
a fundraiser for the MISS Foundation

Connor and his little brother, Kyle
who offered the money they were paid for the night as a donation to our cause

The heart knows neither duality nor the limitations of time and space.
-Sri Sathya Sai Baba

Last night I spoke at the MISS Foundation's fundraiser 'An Evening of Kindness' to celebrate the more than 1,000,000 Kindness Projects which have been done (literally) around the world since the project's inception in 1997.

The event was held at the Merrill Estate in the generous spirit of Bruce and Janis Merrill, and with the aid of many amazing volunteers to whom I am eternally grateful.

Valley business leaders, philanthropists, and those touched by the work of the MISS Foundation attended. Ambassadors Maya and Woody Thompson came in memory of their beloved, gorgeous little boy, Ronan Sean who died in May of this year as a result of neuroblastoma. Leroy was there remembering Jason. Shawn and Theo were there remembering Zach. Melissa was there to honor Tyler. Michele was there to talk about International Kindness Project Day on July 27th and to remember Branden and to thank the compassionate folks at Circle K for helping Michele "be his mom for a day." Kathy was there to remember Lizzy. Mark and Sandie brought photos of Zach and Katie to share their love and their lives. And many, many more... Kathy Sandler's two children, who also worked the event, donated their money back to the foundation. Even the guitarist, hired from Flagstaff, decided to donate his time after the event in memory of his beautiful sister, Mandy.

To say there were many emotional moments and much, much suffering in the room would be an understatement.

Simply, there is no material place on Earth which can hold the anguish in that room last night. No matter how many beautiful kindnesses are born from the pain of this loss, the means never justifies the end. Ever. Still, exploring the beauty from pain is a choice we get to make, when we are ready, as bereaved.

I want to share one magical interaction I had with a young man, Connor, who reminds us that we have much to learn about time and space and age and wisdom. Our greatest teachers are, often, the youngest...

After all the speakers presented, Connor approached me. He had been volunteering all night, and I'd noticed his warm smile and quiet demeanor. He thanked me for our work, and he said that he nearly cried while I was speaking. He looked into my eyes and I could see and feel his compassion. Those moments are all too rare in this chaotic, no-time-to-pause-for-the-pain world. Yet, standing before me was a very young man who had given pause to my words and clearly felt them deep inside his heart. He said that he wanted to donate his earnings for the evening to help the MISS Foundation. He believed in our cause. My eyes started welling with tears. His did too. We just stood there looking at each other for a moment... this young man, a stranger, who opened his heart so far and wide, with such breadth and depth that time literally stood still. It's a rare thing in this world. I knew I was standing in the presence of a giant, and I was humbled.

As he promised, at the end of the evening, Connor approached me to hand me his earnings. So did his wonderful younger brother. They wanted to give. They weren't afraid of us like others often are. They did not recoil at the talk of child death. In the only way they could help, they wanted to help.

There were so many, many more magical moments last night. People who came to me and shared their sorrows and their losses and their sufferings. Those are the things which remind us of our humanity, of our shared connections to one another and to the bigger picture. I'm reminded of Trungpa Rinpoche's admonition to "hold the sorrows of the world in our hearts while still remembering the great Eastern Sun."

Connor and I exchanged numbers as he is off to college next year. He promised to stay in touch and offered to volunteer again until graduation next May. I want to express my gratitude and respect to his parents and his grandparents and his aunts and uncles and other family members who helped to raise him (and his brother) and who must have a surplus of generational loving compassion, as it obviously spills over his own heart and into the hearts of others.

And if those magical moments were not enough, in a Jungian twist of synchronicity, I discovered that Connor was born on the day we buried Cheyenne in 1994, and I wept. I imagine she'd have liked him very, very much too...

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Paradox of Suffering

Yesterday I received an email from a delightful Italian man I met long ago. I didn't realize, ever, that he followed my blog:

I have been reading your blog, and I have a question for you: are you able to be happy? to have lighthearted moments? to laugh without a worry in the world? Or is the dark cloud of grief always hanging over your head? I know, this is none of my business. But I have been wondering this for a long time and I only got the courage to write you today.

Those who do not know me personally and intimately might believe my life to be macabre, full of sadness, grief, trauma, and loss. Oh, yes, and in fact, I cry nearly every day.

But, there is another aspect of me often unshared publicly because traumatic grief is the centerpiece of my work's nature. Here is my response to this lovely man:

My most honest answer is that I'm utterly and completely happy and fulfilled, even when I feel sadness and grief. I know it sounds like a paradox, doesn't it? But I cannot imagine feeling better and more content in my life than I do... I laugh at myself often and I wake up every day excited for whatever may come, even if it is tears. I might cry a lot, but I laugh too, and feel so much more connected to my authentic self and everything else in the Universe. Death does this for me... He is like a box of darkness which too is a gift (nod to Mary Oliver). The more I am present with the reality of human suffering- my own and others- the more genuine and full life I am able to lead.

I do not want to be a fraud. I don't want to pretend to be happy all the time, like life doesn't hurt like hell. I don't want to pretend that I am not afraid, weak, vulnerable, or helpless at times. My life is bigger than pretense, and I owe it to my dead child and my dead parents and my dead best friend and the many beloved dead of the many families I know and cherish to live my life in authenticity.

That also means that with my big suffering comes big joy, the kind of unmitigated elation of life's simple gifts. An unbridled passion for budding flowers, and working ants, and glimmering snow, and pastel clouds, and the sound of children's voices... Everywhere around me I am surrounded by wonder and awe. I try to be awake to the preciousness of it all, even a single breath. Every day is sacred and vibrant. Vibrant in ways I never imagined before Death introduced Himself to me. My life went from fifty to fifty thousand colors.

How could I ever put the dark crayons back in the box now? No, because she is mine, for all eternity, and I am hers for just as long.

It's taken me a long time to see the beauty in the pain, the paradox of suffering. It's what's real. It's the only thing, besides love, that is real.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The First Josephine

The past is never where we think we left it.
-Katherine Porter

Once upon a time, there was a very, very poor family who lived in Sicily. Rose and Nicola lived in a tiny cramped apartment in the largest city on a small island. She was a seamstress, and he was a barber who loved to play the mandolin. She was strict, direct, and detached. He was quiet, withdrawn, and private. They had three children: Mary, Josephine (my mother), and Salvatore. They had three children.

Times were hard in Sicily during the early 20th century. Child death was common; infant death rampant. The Grim and his ilk stood around every corner, pillars of salt, waiting with their baited breath for a communicable illness, or scarcity, or traumatic birth, or malnutrition. Then they rushed in, mercilessly, and took out, sometimes, an entire family.

I was cleaning out old boxes of family photographs just before my Nanny's death. She was in her mid-80s at the time. Photo after photo I searched in wonder. Some had edges worn from too much handling, others with faces faded beyond recognition. I stumbled on a photo of a baby on a horse.

"Who's this?" I asked her.

She took the photo and looked at it.

"That's Josephine," she said.

"Josephine?" I asked. "That doesn't look like mommy."

"Oh no," she said, "that was the first Josephine."

I stopped and looked up at her, breaking my gaze into the box, quizzically.

"What do you mean the first Josephine?"

In her strong Italian accent she explained that her first baby, Josephine, died at almost a year old. Pneumonia, she thought.

I nearly gasped out loud.

"So my mom is the second Josephine, named after the first?" I asked her.

She went on to explain that she had a second baby the next year, very soon after the first Josephine died. She named the second baby Josephine. The second Josephine lived for six months and died in her sleep.

At this point, I felt utter disbelief. I didn't understand. Two, wait, three Josephines? Enter confusion, frustration, and language barriers.

Indeed. It was true. "But - how could I not have known? Why didn't anyone tell me?" I thought.

Nanny's third baby, named Mary, lived.

Her fourth, she named Josephine again, was my mother. The third Josephine. My mother was the third Josephine.

My mother, Josephine the III, died ten years ago tomorrow. I don't know where she is now, but I miss her in my life. My father, John, died six years ago tomorrow of what I'm sure is a broken heart, four years to the day after my mother. He was the first John, the only John. I miss him too. His parents had 14 children, many of whom died long before they did.

My mother's parents had five children. Five, not three. Josephine, Josephine, Mary, Josephine, and Salvatore.

Times were hard, indeed...


Dear Mommy,

Tomorrow it will be ten years, an entire decade, since you left this Earth. How did that time pass so quickly? I am a daughterless mother and a motherless daughter now. And I miss you in my life. There is so much I'd share with you, much of which I'd have once been reluctant to share. There is so much I'd say to you, much of which I'd have once been too fearful to say.

I know you loved me now. I know why it was hard for you to show me. I get it. And I'm so sorry I didn't get it then. It's clear, so very clear now. And I feel I could've made it right. Damnit, I really miss you and daddy. And the kids miss you so much. And Joe misses you. And Mark and Eda and John.

I don't know where you are, but I can hope- can't I?- that you are with Chey, and Daddy, and Peppino, and your two Josephine sisters, and Nanny, and Grandpa, and all our other beloved Dead.

My throat is tight with sadness and I will cry many tears in the next few days. I remember the look in your eyes at the hospital. I remember watching them resuscitating you. I remember the anguishing life-support decision. I remember much that comes back to haunt me every Fall. But especially this year. Year ten. An entire decade.

Remind Nanny that she has five children, not three, and that I always remember them all, will you? Tell her that the first Josephine's photo is in my butsudan next to Chey's ashes. Nanny will understand that now, I'm sure. And tell daddy that I love him very, very, very much and that I forgive him, and that I'm sorry I was so willful and stubborn. I come by it honestly, you know?

Mostly mom, if you can hear this, tell Chey that I love her with my entire heart. I miss her presence in my life every day. I wish it was different. And that I'm sorry I couldn't save her. Let her know I've finally forgiven myself for that. Finally.

Thanks for visiting my dreams so often. And remember that I love you and I know you truly love me. I know. I know.



The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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