On community

The recent blog series by Two Writing Teachers, Seen, Valued, Heard: Writing to Establish Community, brought to mind a piece I wrote on community two years ago—long before the current pandemic, the transition to remote learning, and our vastly-intensified struggle for social justice. We are all reminded, many times over, that for a communityever how large, small, or microcosmicto flourish, it is imperative that every member sees, values, and hears one another.

What IS community, really? So much more than we tend to think. Philosopher David Spangler wrote: Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.” The words of priest Henri Nouwen: “Community is first of all a quality of the heart the question, therefore, is not ‘How can we make community?’ but, ‘How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?‘” And this line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who died in a concentration camp, strikes me deeply: “The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them.”

As an educator, as a human being, I continue to reflect on “community.” Here’s my composition from 2018, followed by a double acrostic composed this morning.

When I think of the word community, I first envision a neighborhood where people are bound to one another by a sense of civic responsibility. A grouping of people or houses does not a community make; a true community develops from like-mindedness about the good of the whole. Protecting one another, helping one another in times of need, maybe beautifying the area . . . on a deeper level, think of these variations of community: Commune, communion. These words have a spiritual color to them. They imply an even greater like-mindedness and focus. Definitions of the verb commune include a passionate, intense, or intimate discussion, the exchange of thoughts and feelings; to commune, or for there to be communion, people gather together out of a desire to share, tap into, or celebrate something profoundly meaningful to all. Such a rapport implies that partakers are there not just to get but to give.

So it is for a community of writers. A grouping of people with pencils, papers, and laptops, within the classroom or without, does not a community of writers make. To write is to put pieces of one’s soul on a page; this, in the scheme of human undertakings, is an unparalleled act of courage. A writing community, then, is a gathering of the courageous in a place where it is safe to share the pieces of one’s soul on the collective pages, with the responsibility to hear, value, and honor one another, and even to help each other beautify the arrangement of words for greatest effect. The writing community is vital to the writer, for, ever how old or young, writers sharpen one another, encourage one another, celebrate one another, and grow together in an atmosphere of commitment, accountability, expectancy, sometimes breathless awe, and glorious release.

Above all, let us not fail to see that hidden word in “community”: unity.

Connected by the arc
Of our humanity, we are more than able to
Make one from
Many, to create a vital spectrum
Upholding both me and you.
Numinous, luminous, an
Iridescent inscribing of graffiti
To us, from us, in ink of heart-bent light
You and I define our sky.

The view of my neighborhood, taken from my driveway last week, between thunderstorms.

Life is what you bake it

“‎All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”

-Henry Havelock Ellis

Today I share my golden shovel poem inspired by the Ellis quote, posted this week on Two Writing Teachers‘ Slice of Life Story Challenge along with these questions: What are the moments you’re holding onto? What are you letting go of today?

Here’s to the art of living, to holding on while letting go, to savoring moments spent with children, making every one count.

I hold to all
moments spent with children in the
holy art
of seeing the world with fresh eyes, of
spontaneous embracing, of living
each day in newness. I hold to freedom that lies
in forgiving, that paradoxical self-rising power in
letting go. I hold to a
continuous, necessary cobbling of fine
crystal moments, their pure sanguinity mingling
with, dulcifying, the blood-tart of
a sliced heart. Letting
go of despair, of my shortcomings, letting go
of yesterday, yet believing in tomorrow, letting go and
savoring today in a bluesy canton of confidence, holding
onto the children, always the children, just holding on.

My granddaughter loves to bake. I love symbolism. Here’s our flag cobbler. “Canton” in the poem is the term for the flag’s blue square. Strawberries, heart-shaped, represent love; blueberries, youthfulness and confidence in the future. Bake it well.

The future is calling. I’m listening.

*******

Thanks also to Margaret Simon for hosting Poetry Friday. Visit her blog, Reflections on the Teche, for more poems and magnificent quotes in response to “What is poetry?”

Repurposed

“Speak Up” mixed media collage. Jordan Kim, 2019.

A friend who knows of my strange love for the loud, jarring buzz of cicadas presented me with this card for my birthday. Fashioned from repurposed material, these snippets, chosen with artistic precision and care, strike deep…

Sing loud & proud

your soul
is joyful
loving and
wants to sing

positive

The world’s loudest cicada is the Brevisana brevis,
a cicada found in Africa that reaches 106.7 decibels

Earth itself has a sound, an incessant hum
caused by pounding ocean waves
measured at a frequency 10,000 times lower
than what humans can hear

Speak up
out

For now is the time of cicadas; some of them, sleeping underground for seventeen years, are due to rise.

And sing.

Yesterday, when the sun was brightest, I walked and walked the path around the graveyard of a country church, listening for the first strains.

—Silence.

No cicadas.

Seems they are late. I wonder why.

I thought about their wings, how the sectional lines running through the lower portion of these long, diaphanous structures form the letter W or P. It is said that these are omens for War or Peace.

—Folklore.

Unless Nature is a prophet.

Whatever pattern lies in the veins of their wings, or however it’s perceived, the cicada’s song is always one of life. Of survival. It is individual. It is collective. It is precious.

Most people call it cacophony, a harsh, deafening, discordant noise … not hearing the song for what it is. Not recognizing it the way cicadas do. We are not cicadas.

Yet there’s something of us, of all living things, in the sound. A song not heard with ears but with the heart, that ceaseless hum of our own brief journey from the womb to the ground. A song of earth, ocean, dust of the stars, for we are repurposed atoms of these; we carry them all, and each other, within us. Can we even hear our own song, any more than we can know our own heart, for what it really is? How can we even think we know someone else’s?

Until it becomes a collective cry of the heart.

In words

Speak up
out

in musicality

your soul
is joyful
loving and
wants to sing

even in sorrow, loss, grief, despair

even in fear, rage, hurt

especially in overcoming, healing,

rising, at long last

to greet the season of change.

Today, Two Writing Teachers shared words from Toni Morrison: This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore the pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledgeeven wisdom. Like art.

Like that of Jordan Kim, who created this cicada collage. Her mission: To inspire others to honor our connection to the natural world and to each other.

Let it be our repurposed song, fashioned from the fragments of our hearts. Let it be positive. Let the Earth ring with it.

Sing loud & proud.

Write bravely

Today concludes the thirty-one-day Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Today I cross the finish line with many fellow Slicers, having written a post each day.

But the writing doesn’t end here.

Nor does the challenge …

That’s the thing. Now, more than ever before in our lives, is a time to write.

The photo above is of a pocket notebook a friend and mentor gave as a parting gift to all who attended her retirement celebration years ago. Her love of writing and advocacy for teachers as writers inspires me to this day. She also passed the torch of facilitating district writing workshop training to me … until this year, when it is no longer offered. But I carry the notebook with me everywhere I go, just to remind me …

Teachers, students, families, friends, citizens of the world, all … today I offer the same to you, in the ongoing composition of life: Write bravely.

*******

write your stories

share your glories

write bravely

write for healing

name the feeling

write bravely

write all your rages

fill all your pages

write bravely

write through your tears

conquer your fears

write bravely

write of the past

save it at last

write bravely

write of your sorrows

and your tomorrows

write bravely

write them for you

and for me, too

write bravely

write bravely

write bravely

Puppy therapy

Seems like a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders and physical separation is an ideal time for some puppy therapy.

So I brought you a tiny puppy to hold awhile. In your heart, anyway, if not in your hands.

You’ll want to know the story, I suspect …

Last December, my son and I went to pick up his new puppy.

We wanted a mini dachshund, as we had one for sixteen years, from the time my boy was four until he was almost twenty-one. Dachshunds love to snuggle. They’re full of affection and whimsy. And mischief … and stubbornness … but their devotion outweighs all else.

When we got to the breeders, as paperwork was being completed, I noticed a movement under some blankets in one of the kennels.

“Oh, something’s in there!” I remarked. “It looked empty except for the blankets.”

“Yes,” said the breeder-lady. “A mother and her baby. She only had one, born yesterday.”

And then the lady did the unthinkable.

She reached under the blankets, scooped the newborn out, and placed it in my hands.

I could hardly breathe.

Tiny. So fragile. So beautifully formed, utterly perfect in every way. The sheen of its gorgeous coat, solid chocolate. Teeny little ears. Nails so miniscule they could barely be seen … awe isn’t adequate for the suspended moment of wonder at this bit of life in my hands.

The puppy’s mother, a long-haired red dapple, hovered at my feet, her big brown eyes fixed on me as I held her baby.

“Here, ” I said to my son, “hold it for just a second and we’ll give it back to its mother. She’s anxious.”

I placed the puppy in my son’s hands and took took a picture with my phone. With a fingertip, I stroked its satiny head, just once.

“It’s so beautiful,” whispered my son. Very carefully, he slid the tiny creature back into the breeder-lady’s hands and she deftly returned it to its blanketed kennel.

The mother darted in. She went right to work on her baby, licking away all of our human smell from its fur.

I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then.

Maybe it was the mother’s impeccable care of her one baby. We’d worried her, made extra work for her. The puppy squirmed against its bath but quickly settled back to blissful neonate-sleep.

Perhaps it was the fragility of new life that twisted my heart, its precariousness and preciousness, the struggle of being alive and helpless and dependent. Or the convicting knowledge that the human touch is not always a kind or good thing. Or maybe the pang was simply because life is beautiful and because I love dogs.

“Okay, you’re set,” smiled the breeder-lady, handing us the paperwork. “He’s all yours.”

No, of course not the tiny day-old chocolate puppy. That was just a gift of the moment. The breeders hadn’t yet determined if it was a boy or a girl. I did fantasize about returning in two months to get it, however, and what I’d name it … right now, as I write this post while watching Citizen Kane, I am considering “Rosebud” …

No.

I just felt you might need a moment with the tiniest puppy I ever held.

THIS is what we went for, and what we carried home:

Our Dennis.

He’s like a furry worry stone … while holding him and rubbing him (he now rolls over for belly rubs, his favorite) it’s impossible to feel sad or worried or anything but peace and gladness to be alive.

So I give him to you for a minute, to hold with your eyes. And maybe with your heart. He’ll steal it—trust me.

Just a little puppy therapy for your day.

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

Mourning dove blues

Mourning doves are said to symbolize providence, grace, peace, safety, renewal, and moving forward. Their low-pitched song sounds sad or comforting, depending on the listener. I dedicate this lament to the dove outside my kitchen window, whose plaintive murmur I hear in the dark, just before sunrise.

grim gray morning

grim gray news

grim gray outlook

grim gray blues

time to shelter

time to snooze

time to waken

time to muse

dream to endure

dream to choose

dream to escape

dream . . . a ruse

morning to ponder

morning to lose

morning pours out in

mourning dove coos

*******

Photo: Nesting mourning dove. Katy Tegtmeyer. CC BY

He loves me, he loves me not

Today I am revising a fun memoir I first wrote as a model for a fifth-grade class. Given the choice of a time in my life when I was happy, sad, angry, afraid or embarrassed, the kids voted for “embarrassed.”

What fun it was to watch them alternately cringing and writhing in their seats—but also laughing.

*******

As soon as the dismissal bell rang, I shot down the hall, through the doors, and to the crosswalk in record time. I could hardly wait to get home from school: My grandma had called that morning to say that my present should arrive in the mail.

I’d been thinking all day about what my present might be. Was it a latch hook kit, or a Mystery Date game? I’d been wanting those forever. Maybe it was those books that I heard some middle-school girls whispering about and which titles I kept mentioning as potential gifts, as I was dying to read them, but so far no one had gotten for me yet. Last year, when I was ten, I still read the Little House books and wished I was Laura to the point that my mother made sunbonnets for me, but of course I’d become too old for that now … most of the time…

I ran the whole way home, slowing only when I got a stitch in my side. At last I reached the steps of my own house. I took them two at a time and barreled through the front door into the living room.

“MOM, I’M HOME! DID MY PRESENT GET HERE?”

“It’s on the coffee table,” said Mom.

Sure enough, a large box wrapped in brown paper sat beckoning from the table. In ten seconds I had the paper off, trying to imagine what fantastic thing Grandma had chosen for me.

I threw the box lid on the floor and yanked away the tissue paper inside.

For a moment, I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.

Clothes.

I was okay with clothes, but …

This was a shirt with some kind of huge design on it. I picked it up. When the shirt unfurled, the design turned out to be a giant daisy with a bright yellow center and enormous petals covering the entire front.

Ewwwww!

Mom said, “Oh, that’s nice.”

But that was not all. Oh no, that was not all.

Something was glowing at me from inside the box. A color so bright that it was practically blinding, a shade close to a French’s mustard bottle.

Somewhat fearfully, I lifted the glowing yellow thing out of the box.

Shorts.

A bulky pair of shorts that matched the daisy shirt.

Shorts made of thick polyester that would never wrinkle in a million years, an unsympathetic fabric that scratched against my skin.

I detested polyester.

I couldn’t pull my thoughts together. Was Grandma serious? Surely she wasn’t playing a joke on me! Didn’t she understand that I was now eleven, not six?

Mom said, “How cute, a little shorts set. Look—there’s still something in the box.”

I wanted to say I do not want to know, and I do not care, this is the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen in my life, but I quietly reached into the box one more time, as the last wisps of my hope withered and died.

In a flat pack of cellophane lay a pair of knee socks.

KNEE SOCKS.

They were white. Each had a daisy on them. One sock bore the words “He loves me” and the other sock was emblazoned with “He loves me not.”

“Now, that’s unique,” Mom commented. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“Mom! I can’t wear this! Can I ask Grandma to exchange it?”

“Absolutely not. Your grandmother took time to pick this out especially for you and to get it in the mail so that you’d have it on your birthday. You will keep it and be thankful.”

“Well, I’m not going to WEAR it!”

My mother’s eyes went dark, flashing like warning signs. She stuck out her chin, reminding me of a hungry bulldog that just had its food snatched away. I even detected a slight growl:

“Oh yes, you WILL wear it. You will wear it tomorrow and we’ll take your picture for Grandma.”

“I’m NOT wearing this to school, Mom! No way!”

The next morning, I trudged slowly, miserably to school in the hideous daisy outfit, socks and all, while Mom watched from the front steps with her arms crossed over her chest. She’d checked my bookbag to be sure I hadn’t snuck a change of clothes in there.

People could probably see me coming for miles, wondering what this unearthly glowing object could be. I kind of hoped I would get run over on the way to school, or that I would magically come down with flu, but my mother would still make me wear this so I might as well get it over with.

The snickering began as soon as I stepped into my fifth-grade classroom. The girls took a quick look at me, looked at each other, and erupted with uncontrollable giggles. The boys just stared, not even bothering to look away.

No one wants to be stared at in this way.

The cutest guy in my class, Allen, finally said, “What in the heck are you wearing?”

Why, oh why wouldn’t the floor just open up and swallow me? I couldn’t even think of a reply.

All day, when I passed by classmates, I heard little comments: “Here comes the flower girl” and “Has she figured out who loves her or loves her not yet?”

As I was getting up to sharpen my pencil, my left sock snagged on the side of the desk. When I snatched my leg free, a long thread pulled out.

Now I had to walk around with a long string dangling from my “He loves me” sock.

I could not endure any more. At lunch, I just wanted to sit by myself in peace. But when my classmate Vincent realized that the cafeteria was serving fried fish, he came around with his brown paper lunch bag, asking the rest of us if wanted ours. Vincent always did this on fish days; he took the greasy bag of collected fish home to his family.

He plopped down on the seat beside me. “Hey, you want your fish?”

“You can have it, Vincent. I’m not hungry.”

“Thanks! What’s the matter with you?”

“Geez, Vincent, isn’t it obvious? You can see what I look like today. Haven’t you heard what everyone’s been saying?”

“Not really,” said Vincent.

He did look a little confused.

“This is the most embarrassing day I’ve ever had! My grandmother sent me this ridiculous daisy outfit for my birthday. I can’t believe she thought this would be a good present. I hate it! I feel stupid.”

Vincent shrugged. “It ain’t that bad.” He took the fish off of my tray and put it in his grease-stained bag. “At least you got a grandma who loves you.”

I stared at him. He was smiling and happy, even though he wore the same brown shirt to school almost every day. He never seemed embarrassed. I thought about his family who’d be eating the unwanted lunches of fifth-graders for supper that night. Funny Vincent, the class clown. He made everybody laugh, including the teachers, even when they tried not to. It all came together in my mind, just then, how Vincent didn’t dwell on himself; he thought about others and tried to make them happy.

That’s what my grandma always did, too.  

Tears of shame stung my eyes.

“You’re right, Vincent. She does love me. She’s the best.”

“Anyway, happy birthday!”

None of my other classmates had said that to me.

I had an inspiration:

“Hey, Vincent, do you want half of my cinnamon roll?”

“You kidding me?”

And we sat sharing my cinnamon roll until lunchtime was over, with Vincent making Mmmm! Mmmmm! sounds and me swinging my leg, long string swaying gracefully through the air, daisy and all.

Photo: Macro daisy. Brandon Martin-Anderson. CC BY-SA

A Jesus moment

Up until COVID-19 closed the churches, my choir and my son’s choir were practicing for a combined Easter cantata, one of his childhood favorites. His idea: “Your choir knows this, mine knows this, so we can just do it together at each church. I’ll lead the music. You can take care of the drama, Mom.”

Thanks, Boy.

But I got rolling.

We were one week away from the performance when everything shut down. Will we be able have the Easter production later this year? We don’t know … which reminds me of a complication the first time we attempted this drama about Jesus …

With no Jesus …

*******

Once upon a time, I started college to major in theater arts. I’d performed in plays all through high school, which lead to community theater. That’s where I met my husband. Never got that degree … a story for another day. My husband went into the ministry two years after we married and my love of theater took the form of small church productions.

Which grew bigger.

And bigger.

One year our choir director asked if I would help her look for an Easter cantata with a play: “People don’t come for plain old cantatas anymore. They’ll come if we add a play …”

We found a cantata we loved, but … only narration, no acting.

“Can’t you write one?” the choir director wanted to know. “I’ll handle the choir if you’ll handle the play.”

I opened my mouth to say No! but before I could speak it, something tugged on the sleeve of my mind (that is not a mixed metaphor, it’s what happened) and so I said, in a teeny-tiny voice:

“I’ll try…”

I listened to the songs over and over; they happen to form an ideal sequence for the last week of Jesus’ life. As I listened, I wrote the scenes as they materialized in my head … no speaking parts, just stage directions based on lyrics while the choir sings. Beginning with the busy streets of Jerusalem, people greeting one another, lining up with palm branches as Jesus walks through—Hosanna! Hosanna!—moving into the Last Supper with the twelve disciples, the garden scene, the betrayal, the arrest, the Roman soldiers gambling for the robe, the mourning of Mary the mother at the Cross with John, the distress of Mary Magdalene, the tomb, the Resurrection, Jesus reuniting with his disciples, even a scene of martyrs for the faith and a grand finale …

I figured out set pieces that would have to be made. Props that would have to be acquired. I came up with a head count of people—twenty-five!— seventeen of them men—Why were there SO MANY disciples?!—and asked if any ladies at church would be willing to make all these Bible costumes. Six of them took it on. Everything fell into place. I cast the parts …

All except for Jesus.

Which is kind of a problem.

My main issue: I didn’t want a fake-looking Jesus. If we had to put a wig and beard on some guy … it was going to detract. It would cheapen the whole thing. And: Who was going to be comfortable playing this part, anyway? In such a case, how does a church go about finding a Jesus? A believable one? It’s not like you can put an ad in the paper: Wanted: Church seeks Jesus … people would read that and purse their lips: “Tsk tsk, you church people, you oughta have Jesus already …”

I grew more nervous with each passing day: We still don’t have a Jesus

And then one Sunday, from my vantage point in the choir loft, I spotted visitors out in the congregation. A woman and a man.

A man with long brown hair.

And a beard.

He was kind of olive-skinned …

When they came back the following week, I could have sworn he was wearing sandals.

I said to my husband: “Give me that guy’s number off the visitor’s card.”

“He’s only been here twice! How are you going to just call him up and ask him to be Jesus in this thing!”

“I am just going to do it. The worst he can say is No.”

And so I called. The conversation went something like this:

“Um, hi, I know you don’t know me, I’m the pastor’s wife at the church, we’re glad you and your wife have been joining us recently … welcome, welcome … I have sort of a question for you … see, we’re preparing to do an Easter production and it’s all set except for one little thing … we, um, don’t have a Jesus … when I saw you last Sunday, I knew you’d be perfect … was wondering if you would help us … there’s no lines to learn or anything, it’s really easy and fun, just reenacting the last week of Jesus’ life while the choir sings …”

He chuckled. “Okay, sure.”

“Wha— I’m sorry … did you say yes?”

“Yes, I’ll do it.”

“You—you will? Wow! Thank you! That’s awesome! I think you’ll enjoy it. I mean, we wouldn’t, like, really hang you on a cross or anything …” <relieved laugh>

Another warm chuckle: “It would be okay if you did. I’m full of nail holes anyway—I’m a carpenter.”

Carry on

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where …

—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell

Dear Son,

I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed youI still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.

That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.

Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the path became, you kept on walking.

No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.

It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon. You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.

That summer was glorious and brief.

That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.

Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread. Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.

On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sangremember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last? I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.

How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.

And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.

I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …

It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.

Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.

You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?

Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.

So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors … it is unthinkable.

I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …

You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.

That is why I love this picture. It is your story.

There are no words for how much I love you.

Keep walking, Son. Carry on. You are strong.

I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.

When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther alongI know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
...

All my love, my always-little darling,

Your forever proud, grateful Mom