Grave Concerns

For as long as I can remember, my parents have been fond of torturing us by talking about the afterlife with unseemly anticipation. My mother, in particular, has harbored a long time death wish. As a little girl, I remember feeling rather offended by the wistful quaver in her voice as she would sing: “Beyond the sunset, o blissful morning when with our Savior, heaven is begun. Earth’s toiling ended, o glorious dawning, beyond the sunset when day is done.

“Jesus Christ!” I’d think to myself huffily. “Don’t trip over your feet in your rush to ditch your little kid!

Scan 3When my mother was diagnosed with a serious illness and given eighteen months to live (ten years ago), it looked like her dreams were finally coming true. My parents began to prepare for the end in earnest. My dad already had a suitable poster-sized photo to display at his own funeral, but my mother did not. My dad rarely gets bothered about anything, but about this particular issue he fussed endlessly. He hired a photographer to come to their apartment in Seoul to take photos of my mother. In the end he rejected every single one, because he felt that she looked too sick in all of them. (Should have taken her to Glamour Shots, Dad!) Over the next eighteen months, he rooted around in old photo albums searching for possible funeral photos. When we’d see him at Thanksgiving, or Christmas he’d find a moment when my mother wasn’t around to pull one of us aside and furtively slip us an envelope containing her photo. We inevitably viewed his choices with dismay. (Really, Dad? She’s got a poodle pama* in this photo. Ugh – not this one! Her dress is hideous!)

We kept these uncharitable thoughts to ourselves, of course, and dutifully promised our dad that we would deal with the odious task of getting the photo enlarged. We would then routinely, perhaps subconsciously, sabotage the project by putting it off until we forgot all about it…only to be reminded the next time we saw our dad and he would give us a meaningful look and ask if we’d “taken care of the thing I asked you to do.” Once, in advance of a family get-together, my sister called me in a panic and confessed to me that she’d misplaced the latest photo my dad had given her. She knew he’d ask her about it, and she couldn’t admit to him that she’d lost it…The poor man kept plying us with new photos and pestering us until at long last we finally showed him one of the photos he’d chosen, enlarged to poster size and ready to display at my mom’s funeral. Lord only knows where it’s gathering dust now…

The next issue to be sorted out was where my parents would be buried. During the worst of my mother’s illness, when she truly was close to death, my father, brother, and I helped her stagger up the mountain to the spot where her parents are buried.

 

My brother and I wept that day, our hearts wrung with searing grief, when our dad told us she had come to say a final goodbye to her parents because she knew she would never be able to make it back up the mountain again.

As it turned out, that indomitable old woman was able to haul herself back up the mountain again under her own steam just a few years ago.

IMG_3344

But back then, on that terrible day on the mountainside with the chill shadow of death looming over us, we could never have imagined that we would one day stand next to her again at the gravesite years later. On that day my mother recognized the caretaker who was tending the graves. She summoned him over in her usual imperious fashion, all the more freighted by her deathly pallor. The man hustled over with a deferential air, and listened with a bowed head as she weakly gestured to a spot she had picked near her parents. She informed him in a barely audible, raspy voice that this was where she wished to be laid to rest. My father, brother and I stood there, a mute tableau of sorrow, with rivulets of burning tears trickling down our faces. I believe in a just God, because S/He meted out swift punishment to our mother for torturing us with her maudlin performance. After hearing her out, the man informed her that the mountain, (which her own father had bought), was reserved solely for members of the church he had founded, and therefore she was ineligible to be buried there.

In a final twist, later that day when my brother and I had caught our breaths after the repeated sucker punches to the gut, my dad privately complained to us that although my mother wanted to be buried with her parents, she should in fact be buried with his people, in the countryside far away from Seoul.

My siblings and I discussed this latest revelation amongst ourselves. We had always known that dying was our parents’ version of winning a trip to Disney Land, but until then – the idea of having to bury them had been purely notional. It was then that we realized we had no idea how to actually handle it. It’s not really the kind of casual conversation one wants to have, say, over Thanksgiving dinner. My parents cleared up all our doubts a couple years ago by announcing that they had purchased burial plots in Virginia. They handed each of their children identical envelopes containing maps to their adjacent plots and instructions for their funeral services, including the phone numbers for the ministers who had already agreed to officiate and instructions for how much to pay them. After a major freakout, my siblings and I finally settled down. Eventually, we even felt grateful that they had made their wishes so perfectly clear.

Our dad, who is usually fairly vague about pretty much everything else, spelled out with exacting specificity the kind of coffin he wanted: a plain, pine coffin with absolutely no decorative elements or adornments of any kind.

Thereby ensuring that everyone will think his children are a bunch of cheap $%^@s! my sister concluded.

*Korean women are required by law to get a short, homely perm (“pama”) the minute they turn 40.

Dr. B & the ties that bind

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death…

On Saturday we went to a beautiful service for my friend Peter. Residents who had been mentored by him painted Beta Bridge in his honor.

img_2629

At the reception we saw a couple who had been our very first friends in Charlottesville. We hadn’t seen them in ages. Almost twenty years ago now, I attended a UVA Women’s Club event for newcomers. I was desperate to make friends, but there was only one person there who looked even remotely close to my age. I assumed that her mother had brought her along. I struck up a conversation with Emily and was delighted to discover that we were about the same age and had both just moved to Charlottesville. We had both recently gotten married and were trying to finish up our dissertations while our husbands were just beginning their academic careers. Overcoming my natural reticence, I told her that I was not going to leave without her phone number.

For many years we got together on a regular basis, but the last time we were really in touch was right after the birth of their third child. The baby had come so fast, they didn’t even have time to make it to the hospital. The baby was born at home with Peter giving instructions to Emily’s husband over the phone. At church the next Sunday, Peter and I chuckled over his easiest delivery ever. That was years ago, and now we were meeting again at Peter’s funeral. In his honor, we made a commitment there and then to rekindle our friendship. Just as I had resolved not to leave without Emily’s phone number all those many years ago, we resolved not to leave the church without putting a date on our calendars to get together.

On Sunday we were sad to learn that yet another friend and fellow church member had died that day. My daughter and I talked about other friends we had lost touch with and decided that it was high time to check in with Dr. B. I asked my daughter to write a note to herself to remind her dad about this. The girl does not mess around:

img_8059

“Bug Dad. -Dr. Bradley -Phone”

Dr. Bradley was our neighbor at the first house we lived in when we moved to Charlottesville. He had been a Colonel and an army doctor – a true officer and a gentleman. My English husband once said Dr. B epitomized all the things he loved most about America: he was generous, wide-eyed with wonder, curious, eager to learn, and open-hearted. Before we had even moved in, he put up bluebird houses for us and had planted tomato plants for us to enjoy. He would come back from trips to local orchards with bags brimming with apples and peaches to share with us. At Christmas, he would bring over a plate of the cookies he made using his late wife’s recipes. As a retiree, he was able to audit UVA classes and he would often take advantage of this benefit by sitting in on my husband’s classes on political theory.

We learned far more from him, though. After living in New York City for many years, my husband and I were faced with an acre of lawn and more leaves than we had ever seen in our lives. We kept putting off the Sisyphean task until finally one weekend we decided to face the music. We began to laboriously rake massive piles of leaves toward the woods. Our arms and backs were stiff, but we had only managed to move the leaves a few feet. Dr. Bradley strolled into our yard carrying a leaf blower and a tarp. He helped blow our leaves into piles and showed us a far easier method of moving the piles by loading them onto the tarp and dragging them to the woods. We were so grateful for his help, but deeply embarrassed to take it at the same time. We kept trying to hint that he had done enough for us, but he cheerfully continued to work alongside us until it became too dark to see.

“What time shall we start tomorrow?” he asked. We demurred, but he insisted that he loved using his leaf blower and that it was fun for him to spend hours and hours helping us clear our yard.

“Well,” I responded, almost believing him, “We’re going to church tomorrow, but we should be back by 12:30.”

“OK!” he said, “I’ll be back then!”

The next morning we woke up stiff and sore and decided that we would sleep in rather than go to church.

We were still lolling around in our pajamas at around 11 am, when to our horror we heard Dr. B’s leaf blower roaring into action. We couldn’t possibly let our elderly neighbor take care of our lawn, but if we went outside, it would be obvious we were goofing off rather than going to church as I had proclaimed we would be doing. Of course, we threw on our clothes and slunk out of the house to help Dr. B help us with our leaves.

One Halloween, I made a special point of visiting Dr. B’s house with my sons in tow. They were dressed up in Scottish kilts and I knew he would appreciate this as he had just been to Scotland on a tour:
Scottish Lads

We found him sitting in a dark living room, reading a letter by the dim light of a floor lamp. It was from his grandson, who was serving in Iraq. Dr. B wanted to read out loud to us from the letter, so we sat and listened. Just a few weeks later his beloved 20 year old grandson was killed in action.

We moved away from our first neighborhood and then two more times after that. Dr. B moved too. We tried to keep in touch with him, and visited him a few times in his nursing home. He always had things set aside for the kids…img_9516

The last time we visited Dr. B, we brought him some peaches we had just picked at the orchard. He wasn’t at home, so we left them for him at the desk. We never heard back from him.

It was time to reconnect, so I looked Dr. B up today. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that he died almost a year ago, on January 19th. He was 93. I wish we had kept in better touch. I wish we had had the chance to say thank you and goodbye. Dr. Bradley’s name, and the names of all the friends and family we have lost, are written not only on our arms, but on our hearts.

On love, loss, and life.

img_3733Thank you for bringing me here.

This line from my sister’s novel Tiger Pelt has been on my mind this past week. A year ago today, a dear friend died. This evening I will gather with Carla‘s friends and family. We’ll have dinner together and we will celebrate her life and the many ways she touched our own. At the end of the week, I will attend the memorial service for another friend who died almost a week ago today. Peter was one of the finest human beings I have ever met. I feel honored to have known him and to have called him a friend.

It’s been a rough year, if I’m being honest. I’ve been trying to prepare a celebratory post about Tiger Pelt, which is launching today, but I’ve been reeling with sadness and stumbling my way through the week. This past year, a beloved uncle and aunt also died, a close friend moved far away, and we worried about the health of our elderly parents. In a moment of overwhelming anguish I declared to my husband that I didn’t want to know any more people. Knowing people sets you up for sorrow.

Many years ago when I was in graduate school I ended a relationship with the person I thought I was going to marry. I was completely undone. My oldest sister rushed to my side to be with me in my misery. I wailed to her that I wished I had never met the person in the first place. I could have spared myself so much grief! I had invested so much of myself into the relationship, only to be left with a heart that was literally throbbing with pain. My sister told me that despite the hurt, I shouldn’t wish that time away. She said that every experience – good and bad – creates the layers and depths that make you more of a human being. One day, she told me, I would realize that the relationship had been a valuable one, and for all the pain I was feeling, my life would be fuller and richer because of it. I didn’t believe her at the time, but she was right of course.

In Tiger Pelt, the two main characters experience loss after terrible loss. Toward the end of the novel, Young Nam clasps the hand of Hana, whose life has intersected with his own in painful, and even destructive ways and says, “Thank you for bringing me here.” In this line he acknowledges the truth of what my sister once told me long ago. I think this is what I love most about this novel. The protagonists endure unimaginable suffering, but they choose hope, love, and gratitude over despair. You may cry when you read Tiger Pelt, but you may also laugh and be inspired by the strength of the human spirit. Hopefully, the stories of Young Nam and Hana will settle into your hearts forever.

And so I end with this. To Carla and to Peter, who both inspired me with their character, integrity, and spirit: Thank you for bringing me here. You are now a part of my heart and my story. I am better for having known you and I am so grateful.

 

Showing up

First posted a year ago today…

A week ago today I went to a memorial service for a woman I first met in graduate school in New York City. She had been a fellow student in my department for a year or so before she disappeared. People dropped out of the program all the time, and I assumed that she, like so many others, had decided it wasn’t for her. Although we were never close, I was surprised and delighted to spot her familiar face in the choir loft of the church my husband and I began to attend when we moved to Charlottesville about four years later. I found her after the service and tried to reconnect with her by chatting about our department and about New York. My overtures were coldly rebuffed. I was bewildered, but gave it no more thought until the following Sunday when she found me and wordlessly handed me a handwritten note on a scrap of paper before walking away. In the note she told me that she had been forced to give up her studies because of her health problems. It was painful for her to talk about her time in New York, because it was a cruel reminder of everything she had lost.

“Thank you for your note,” I said the next time I saw her. She did not reply. I’m sad to say that these were the last words we ever exchanged. Over the years, I awkwardly smiled at her or waved as we crossed paths. She would make eye contact with me, but nothing more. I feared that the very sight of me made her unhappy. Our paths diverged further and further. I eventually finished my degree and began teaching in my field. My family rapidly proliferated. She grew sicker and ever more remote. I would often see her walking along the road on her crutches, always alone. I learned from her obituary that on top of her other health issues, she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, which would explain some of the difficulty we had in interacting. From her obituary I also learned that she had graduated from Harvard with high honors, that she had a working knowledge of seven languages, and that she was a Chicago Cubs fan…Now she’s gone, and I’m left wondering if I should have tried harder to be a friend to her. If I had persisted, maybe I would have learned these things from her, rather than from her obituary. In the end, all I could do was show up for her memorial service.

It was a beautiful service given with love and compassion by our minister who knew her and appreciated her struggles, her strengths, her quirks and the essential goodness of her character. Knowing that she was unable to work, the church staff had appointed her as “adjunct staff.” She took care of things like folding the church bulletins, making sure the pencils in the friendship register were sharpened just so, and gathering up bulletins left behind in the pews to recycle. She volunteered at the hospital and for Emergency Food Bank, and many other places as well. The minister read a prayer for her called “For Those Whose Work is Invisible” by Mary Gordon from her series of “Prayers for the Unprayed-for”:

For those who paint the undersides of boats, makers of ornamental drains on roofs too high to be seen, for cobblers who labour over inner-soles, for seamstresses who stitch the wrong sides of linings, for scholars whose research leads to no obvious discovery, for dentists who polish each gold surface of the fillings on upper molars, for sewer engineers and those who repair water mains, for electricians, for artists who suppress what does injustice to their visions, for surgeons whose sutures are things of beauty. For all those whose work is for your eyes only, who labour for your entertainment or their own, who sleep in peace, or who do not sleep in peace, knowing that their efforts are unknown. Protect them from downheartedness and from diseases of the eye. Grant them perseverence, for the sake of your love which is humble, invisible and heedless of reward.

I’ve only been able to locate these prayers on JSTOR, which I hope you can access. They are full of poetry, humor, and empathy for human beings in all of their diversity. Gordon lovingly casts a holy light on human frailties and foibles by juxtaposing them with divine acts of creation, mercy and love. Here are excerpts from the other prayers in this series, all of which are worth reading:

For Liars: “Shelter them in their dream for an earth more various than our own…For your sake, who have thought of universes not yet made that rest, like lies, in the mind of your infinite love.”

For Those Who Have Given Up Everything for Sexual Love: “Grant that we who have lacked their courage may be strengthened by their example to pursue our partial loves with gladness and fullness of heart.”

For Those Who Devote Themselves to Personal Adornment: “Bless them, because a change in fashion can allow us to believe there could just be, for all of us, a change in heart. Grant this for the sake of your love which has adorned the mountains and created feathers and elaborate tails, O Lord, source of all that exists for delight only, for display only, suggestions, in the joy of their variety, of the ecstasy of light that is eternal, changeless and ever changing.”

For The Wasteful: “Look with kindness upon those who travel first class in high season, on those who spend whole afternoons in cafes, those who replay songs on juke boxes, who engage in trivial conversations, who memorize jokes and card tricks, those who tear open their gifts and will not reuse the wrappings, who hate leftovers and love room service, who do not wait for sales. For all foolish virgins, for those who knowingly give their hearts to worthless charmers, for collectors of snowmen paperweights, memorial cups and souvenir pens. For those who take the long way home…We pray to you whose love is prodigal, who multiplied the loaves and fishes so that there were baskets upon baskets left, who turned plain water into wine of a quality no one required, who gave your life when you need only have lifted a finger…”

For Those Who Misuse, Or Do Not Use, Or Cannot Use Their Gifts: “For conservatory-trained composers of incidental music, for beauties run to fat, for the patrons of charlatans, for athletes who watch television, for poets who write commercials, for mathematicians turned card sharks, for legal aid lawyers turned corporate counsel, for actors who are waiters, for wives who do not wish to stay at home, for cat lovers afraid of mess, for paramours afraid of transmittable diseases, for those who no longer go to auditions, for blacksmiths and letterpress printers…protect them from diseases of the spine, so that they may turn and bend to glimpse your hand at the fork of roads not taken, at the tunnel’s end.”

My own prayer? That I will gain the courage, the strength of character, and the compassion exemplified in these prayers to show up for the living, rather than for the dead.