Weathering the Storm Together

I flew home from Florida yesterday, landing in the midst of a snow storm.  Now I’m sitting on the sofa, marvelling at the amount of snow that has fallen, shocked at the downed trees and power lines and other signs of devastation, sad that so many of my neighbors are still without power. And I’m very aware  that all this marvel and amazement comes after the fact, after the storm.  After one has heat and light and a good strong cup of coffee.

When the storm hits, the tissue of our ordinary life is stripped away and we come face to facet with the essentials, the need for heat, light, water, the need to give and receive news, help, kindness.  That last–the helping neighbors, the kindness remains, even when the first burst of cooperation wears thin.  As the days and weeks without light and heat go by (effecting key members of our Parabola family, Jeff, David, and Lee) we discover that kindness is not sentimental but essential.  We discover that taking a hot cup of coffee to a lineman up from Georgia, or lending a hand to the neighbors, is not just a nice thing to do–it is an expression of understanding.

After the storm hit, I stayed on in Florida, where I was visiting my 93 year old father, who is facing his own super storm of sickness, aging, and impending death.  He became very, very sick while I was there, and I decided to stay with him, to be his hospice nurse, to talk with him about dying. “We’re up to our neck in crocodiles here,” he said one day. This meant things were too extreme to worry about anything optional. I thought of all my friends weathering power outages, cold, trees through their roofs. Emergencies concentrate the mind.  My father and I talked a great deal about dying.  Many years ago I had a very dramatic NDE (another story for another time. I told him I glimpsed the light–the great luminous loving intelligence–behind the appearances of this world.  I told him that we are all held by this light, this great force of love and compassion, and that he would be carried by this love when he left his body.  I told him that love doesn’t end when the body dies.

“I know God is not a white guy,” my father told the chaplain who came to visit the other day. “He is a Being. My daughter from New York (gesturing to me) died and she told me.” I told my father the chaplain was there to talk about being calm and collected. “Do you think I calmed him down?” my father asked.

A good friend emailed me in Florida (thank heavens for iPads) to remind me that being with a loved one who is dying is also a time for honesty.  This struck me as extraordinarily important–and something I had not considered.  As I sat with my father one afternoon, I dared to mention a time when he had really hurt me.  “I forgave you a long time ago,” I told him.  “But I want to give you a chance to say you are sorry.”  He was.  I wasn’t being sadistic to a dying old man.  I had an inkling that it is best to leave this world in an attitude of humility, seeking forgiveness for all the ways we may have hurt or harmed others knowingly and unknowingly.   Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed our those who go forward with an open heart, empty hands.

I came to Florida carrying a question about why it is important to embody the truth, to feel all there is to feel, to experience as deeply as we can experience, not to live our lives gliding over things like ghosts, escaping into thoughts. I have an inkling that dying well has to do with participating deeply in life. And it is the hard times, the heart aches, the big storms and black outs that turn out to be the deepest springs of wisdom and compassion.

The best we have to share with one another is not what we imagine to be our spiritual treasure (not even NDEs) but the kindness that flows from ourpoverty.  Blessed are those who know that we are not in control, that God is in control.  Blessed are those who are open, who keep each other company and bear simple gifts, hot coffee,drinking water,  a good story.


8 thoughts on “Weathering the Storm Together

  1. Beautiful post Tracy. As Heraclitus noted – change is the only constant. I concur that kindness is a basic human need – we tend to think it’s only important for infants who experience failure to thrive as a result of a lack of care, kindness and touch. I think it continues our whole lives.
    Being with an elderly parent who is experiencing failing health is a potent form of compassion. It is hard to talk about “the end” and what happens. Some very fearful people I have known have experienced “practice” deaths, which I think functions to put them at ease to make the transition easier. When my father’s health was declining, I had several conversations with him that started off with very broad inquiries. One evening he told me about a dream he had had, and I knew then that he wasn’t too long for this world.
    Asking for forgiveness is beautiful – it reminds me of Dr. Ira Byock’s “four things:” I love you; please forgive me; I forgive you; and thank you.
    Love survives death, it is the only “thing” we get to take with us; it is what makes us immortal. Tracy, I wish you strength for this difficult but inevitable passage. Also know that we inlanders are thinking about coastal residents who are suffering the aftermath of the storm.

    1. Thank you, Barb. Change is the only constant. And possibly kindness, or the aspiration to be kind and to seek forgiveness for intentional and unintentional harm. More and more, this seems to me the most intelligent way to live. It is a way to be with change.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful story, Tracy. Your father’s wit during (and after) the chaplain’s visit is delightful. I loved, too, your gentle insistence that your father say he was sorry for the time he had hurt you.

    Almost thirty years ago, I decided to go to Texas to visit my father, with whom I had had a very stormy relationship all my life. For most of the three-day visit, there was, as usual, nothing of substance that we talked about. But on a ride back to his place my last night there, we had a brief, ten-minute conversation in which, somehow, we acknowledged all we had in common and how much we had hurt and been hurt as a result. It was beautiful and deeply healing. Three months later he died very suddenly. A few years ago Parabola did an issue on Grace. That meeting with my father was an experience of grace.

    1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and insightful comment, Trebbe. It’s amazing how honesty–heart-felt honesty–can open the door to grace.

  3. As Mr. Gurdjieff said we see our life reflected upside down, the difficulties and crises we take to be negative are in fact energy and material we need for our growth. I think your father got it very right when he wondered if he had calmed the priest. Your father is the one with the direct experience of what it is to approach death, he is the explorer and teacher here. You are astonishingly fortunate to be able to receive his “dispatches from the front”.

  4. Welcome Tracy, welcome home!

    Thank you for sharing the conversation you had with your father, conversations with a parent are so very important. I saw both may mother and father on Saturday; we are fortunate to have them with us still.

    We are losing the “Greatest Generation,” the generation of our parents, and it makes me very sad at times. This is the generation that grew up during the Great Depression, fought and lived through WWII, and then gave birth to the “Baby Boomers.” They raised families in the 50s, 60s, and well into the 1970s.

    They witnessed so much, the assassination of JFK, MLK, and RFK, as well as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. All of them major events that shaped the world we grew up in, and then later inherited as adults.

    A few months ago I attended a funeral for the mother of one of oldest friends. We’ve been best of friends since high school, even college housemates for a couple of years; we threw some great parties in that house.

    What struck me profoundly at her funeral is how we and another best friend, have been witnesses to one another’s lives for over forty years. Over that time we have seen each other as only the best and oldest of old friends can, sworn forever to secrecy.

    In this, as in any healthy family, there is a complete acceptance of who we are to one another that goes beyond all our differences. It’s hard to explain, the ties that bind us together are old, but they have never frayed, even though there are profound differences in how we may view the world or vote for in an election.

    The people we are bound to in this life, who our parents are, the life we are born into, the people we meet, fall in love with, and enter into close relationships with is a grand and marvelous mystery. It’s a mystery we should be in awe of and thankful for everyday of our life. This is the grace we are given in life, the people we are called into relationship with throughout our life. It is a gift.

    I think I would like your father, I like his humor, and I like his mindfulness. A mindfulness found in a passing moment that slowed him to tap into his humor. Your story of him made me smile all over.

    These are the ties that bind, bless be the ties that bind!


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