Tag Archives: Mortality

Uncanny

Do you know who this man is? Neither do I, but I feel like I should. This picture popped up when I Googled the tiny cemetery in rural Oklahoma where my great-grandparents are buried. It’s the spitting image of my great-grandfather, but it’s not him. Great-grandpa lived to be 100, and I was blessed to know him as an adult. Humans are hard-wired to recognize those we know. Though the resemblance is uncanny (my mother says “amazing”), I know it’s not him.

So who is he? The Internet associated him with a country cemetery of maybe 350 residents, of whom I’m related to a meaningful percentage. Plus he’s looking at me with my grandmother’s eyes and her brother’s face…he’s got to be a relative. We have no idea who he is, and there’s no one left who would know. The last of my great-grandparents’ twelve children–ironically their oldest–died five years ago at 100. My guess is that he’s my great-grandfather’s father, after whom he was named, and who’s buried in the same cemetery. The resemblance between them is too strong for him to be anything else. According to his headstone, my great-great-grandfather died in 1925. Anyone who might remember him would be at least 100. I doubt that person exists.

His face has stayed with me since I found the picture; it bothers me that I don’t know for certain who he is. He looks just like a man I grew up loving, a man who attended my wedding. We must be related, yet he is lost to time. I suppose that’s the fate of us all. We’re here for a brief instant, then the day comes when the last person who remembers us is gone. It is sad, but it is life. Already I’ve lost friends and loved ones at this halfway point of my life. Yet I remember. I remember them with fond memories; I will see them again, all too soon. And I will learn who the man in the picture is, and we will remember together.

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.”  –Antonio Porchia

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Cemeteries

(Mennonite Cemetery, Kingman KS)

I’ve always loved cemeteries…to me, they’re places of peace. When I was ten or twelve, I’d ride my bike to the cemetery a mile outside of my small farm town and walk in the quiet under the shady trees. I’d read the barest of details about its inhabitants, carved into rock, and wonder what their stories were. Usually the only sound was the Kansas prairie wind, as few cars passed by out in the country. It was a peaceful place to get away, and ponder the meaning of life and how difficult it is to grow up.

My grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in country cemeteries…they’re wonderful places to visit. One of them is a couple of miles from my father’s boyhood farm in central Kansas. My great uncle is buried near my grandparents. He was never the same after his service in the European theatre in WWII. Grandma told me that he panicked in a foxhole, and his buddies had to hit him on the head to knock him out so that he didn’t give their position away to the Germans. She also called him “shell-shocked”, whatever that meant. Whatever happened over there, Uncle Donald spent his adult life in a nursing home. We saw him occasionally at holidays. I always liked his innocent nature, even though I’m not sure I ever had a conversation with him.

My great-grandparents are buried on a dirt road cemetery in Oklahoma, just across the Kansas state line. Great-grandpa participated in the great Oklahoma Land Run as an infant in a covered wagon. He and grandma farmed until he was 55, when his doctor told him to sell the farm and retire to town due to his poor health…he lived to be 100. They’re buried on the same flat, windy, treeless prairie where they raised their 12 children. It is a fitting resting place.

My mother’s parents are buried in a Mennonite cemetery in southern Kansas. If it hasn’t rained, you can navigate the rutted, hilly dirt road the four miles off the highway, passing by the spot where the one room school that grandpa attended used to stand. Though we’re related to a third of the cemetery’s residents, I can’t be buried there, as I’m not a member of the local church. It’s always been an exclusive club:  grandma harbored resentment her whole life for having to earn the church’s approval to marry grandpa, due to her suspect Nazarene faith. But she’s now a full member, buried next to her daughter, who she tragically outlived. I miss the three of them so much…even today, decades after they’ve been gone, I can’t stand on that quiet prairie without breaking down.

I don’t visit the cemeteries often, as I don’t believe my loved ones are really there. When I do, I don’t go for them–I go for me. I go to remember, to honor, to immerse myself in the cycle of life which foretells my own fate. I go to remind myself of what is important, though it is in the past. I still find peace in these places, though it’s a more mature peace than that of a teen on a bicycle those many years ago.

“Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.”  –Emily Dickinson


Questions

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I’ve always had lots of questions. How do things work the way they do? Why did you just act that way? What’s over that next hill? Why are we here? I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid:  books, magazines, at age 12 my mother’s set of childhood encyclopedias. I loved the magazine Science that we subscribed to when I was a teenager; it made me want to be a theoretical physicist. After all, what better job could there be than answering the really big question of how the universe works?

While I’m grateful to now having a world of Google answers at my fingertips, I’ve resigned myself that many of my questions won’t be answered in this life. Some of them are random:  what is the purpose of dreams, and why will we die if we’re prevented from having them? Is there life on other planets, and what is it like? Does God love dogs as much as we do, enough to have them in heaven (I’m thinking yes)? But some of my unanswerable questions are more profound:  why is there suffering? What should I be doing with my life? Why must innocent children die? It’s part of the human condition to find ourselves in circumstances which force us to wrestle with questions like these.

My deep belief is that heaven will be a place where I will get all of the answers to my questions, plus many more I didn’t think of. I don’t believe in the vision of a harp-playing heaven in the clouds. In his book Heaven, Randy Alcorn lays out a biblical case that heaven will be our own renewed Earth. While I find some of his points a bit of a stretch, the overall idea feels right. Why wouldn’t God–who made us in His image to live in this Earth home–give us a glimpse of our future home to prepare us for when we share it with Him? I believe we will work and play, and enjoy art and music and each other for all eternity. And there will be plenty of time…and patience…for me to finally get answers to all of my questions.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”  –Voltaire


Scars

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Everyone in my immediate family has surgical scars. It’s one of the things I’ve always pointed to when highlighting ways we’re alike, even though we don’t all share DNA. When the girls were little, our new puppy “played with” a beloved stuffed Tigger, requiring surgery to repair; even Tigger was proud of the scar which made him one of us. While I’ve pointed to our scars to help us focus on what makes us family, I also wanted the girls to be proud of the scars from the heart surgeries which saved their lives. Little did I realize this lesson would come back to teach me one day.

Megan and I were passing time recently on one of the long drives to Little Rock, retelling family folklore. It comforts us both, somehow, to process our past as we face a somewhat scary future. I was sharing the story of adopting her kid sister when I realized, for the first time and with the full clarity of hindsight, how much fate intervened so that our youngest would end up a McCleary.

We were a few months into the adoption process when we discovered that I had a stomach tumor. We spent the next six weeks on a cancer roller coaster, which included a major and unpleasant surgery. By the time we got the all clear, we needed time to recover from some pretty deep scars, both physical and emotional. When we eventually restarted the adoption process a year later, our little peanut with the million dollar smile joined our family.

I now realize that without that unwelcome interruption, we would have ended up with the wrong daughter. While I’ve long been grateful for the gifts of perspective that specific trauma gave me, it hadn’t dawned on me that I owe the very makeup of my family to those scars. But I suppose that’s often the case, isn’t it? Our scars make us who we are, not just shaping us inside and out, but acting as serendipitous detours which help get us where we end up. Thank heavens I was never really in charge of shaping my life after all…if so, I’d have gotten it very wrong.

“Scars show toughness:  that you’ve been through it, and you’re still standing.”  –Theo Rossi


Remission

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I wasn’t sure I should write this. A large part of my brain told me to forget what I’d read, forget the pictures of the boy, forget the key and terrifying fact. Another HLH victim, this time a boy of 10-12. He’d had a stem cell transplant and had been in remission for two and a half years. Two and a half years. We’d clung to what we’d read, that most relapses occur within a year, a milestone we comfortably passed last fall. I’ve not let myself think about it since. I don’t think you can, or you go crazy.

I’ve read other parents’ stories, stories of very real PTSD. I’ve been blessed to avoid it, but not without scars. All of us parents whose kids have been critically ill bear them. There’s no way to fight at your child’s side for their very life for months without scars. There’s a whole year of my life that I either don’t want to talk about or which makes people uncomfortable when I do…our lost year. But it happened, and we’re still living with the long-term repercussions. There is no roadmap for crap like this. Sometimes you just get dealt a bad hand, and you just have to find a way to get through it.

Then every once in awhile…too often…you hear someone else’s story, a story of tragedy. And you realize that your own burden isn’t so bad after all. Rest in peace Mihir, and prayers to your loving family. Your remission…your healing…is now permanent.

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”  –Marcus Tullies Cicero


Goodbyes


I said goodbye to a dear friend this month. I hate goodbyes, I really do. It’s not as if my friend is dropping off the face of the Earth, but it will be different now. This is the only part of friendship I don’t like.

This was my first Arkansas friend when we moved here, going back to day two of my new job. You know how you click immediately with some people? This was that. We’ve shared a lot in three years. This friend has seen more of my tears than anyone outside of my family; I’m beyond grateful for his friendship and support. I’m happy for his new opportunity and life, but I sure will miss him. Recent news at work has us realizing more goodbyes are likely coming.

This week was the one year anniversary of closure for the family of a friend and his son, lost in a tragic hiking accident. The overwhelming online support on this anniversary was a fresh reminder of the loss their family feels every day. I remain in awe at the small band of heroes who regularly risked their own safety for three months to bring two strangers home to rest.

I wrapped up this week at a funeral, where a young friend and her toddler daughter unexpectedly said goodbye to her young husband. That’s the worst kind of goodbye. The only thing that keeps senseless losses like these from driving me literally crazy is the profound hope that, while lifelong, these goodbyes are not permanent. We will all meet again.

All of this has made for a reflectful week, for what I’m thankful for and what really matters. I’ve put a card in the mail to a friend dealing with loss who I’ve been thinking about. I’m hugging my family more and being less cranky with them. And I’m going to go visit my parents today, just because…because there are goodbyes.

“Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I know what I need. I need more hellos.”  –Charles Schulz

“Goodbyes make you think. They make you realize what you’ve had, what you’ve lost, and what you’ve taken for granted.”  –Ritu Ghatourey


Lessons

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A dear friend lost his mother last month. She was 95 and, from all accounts, a talented woman with a fascinating life even before starting her family. Here is what my friend shared about his mother’s last week.

“Thursday morning, I visited my mother at the nursing home. She was fragile and semi-aware as I fed her a few teaspoons of scrambled egg and helped her drink a tiny sip of apple juice. She tired quickly and asked to return to her bed. Before she dozed, I kissed her on the forehead and whispered ‘I love you, Mom.’ ‘You’re a good kid,’ she replied. ‘You’re a good mom. See you next time.’

An hour later I visited an inspirational high school teacher, in a nearby nursing home. We visited spiritedly for 30 minutes before he had to leave for physical therapy. I promised to return to complete the visit the next Thursday.

On Saturday, Mom died peacefully. On Wednesday my teacher died unexpectedly.

Among the reflections I allowed myself until more tears interrupted were the two powerful lessons I’ve embraced from them: Mom taught that there is right way. This teacher taught that the wrong way has consequences.”

Though not the same as losing a parent, I unexpectedly lost three friends in the last year, all in my same decade of life. As with my friend, each loss was a cause for reflection. Each left me with some unique gift and helped me a little on my journey toward becoming a better person for having known them. I believe we honor those who go before us when we use their passing to reflect on the lessons of their lives.

Depending on your perspective, death represents either an unfortunate outcome of the natural order, or an upside down gift from God. A gift because without an unknown expiration date, what incentive would we have to create, to improve, to reflect? Would we simply be the smartest of the animals, spending our days chasing only instant gratification, with no need to look for something more? Knowing I, and those I love, will not always be here is a powerful motivator for me to become better. Those around me help me fulfill my potential simply by showing me theirs. It is a rich blessing, though the inevitable losses are painful. I have only been able to find comfort in the pain of those losses when I try to learn lessons from the best of who they were and hope that, someday, I, too, may be a small lesson to someone else.

“I truly believe that everything that we do and everyone that we meet is put in our path for a purpose. There are no accidents; we’re all teachers – if we’re willing to pay attention to the lessons we learn, trust our positive instincts, and not be afraid to take risks or wait for some miracle to come knocking at our door.” –Marla Gibbs