Cecropia

On this Mother’s Day weekend, it seems appropriate to breathe new life into this blog of mine that has languished for months.  Being a writer requires a discipline I often find challenging to maintain – especially when life undergoes such a transformation as mine has in the last year.  Joy does not prompt me to pour out words for others to share in the same way that pain does.  Isn’t that odd?  I believe that phenomenon is common one, however.  As Truvy says in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

So let me begin again to be a writer with some regularity.  After all, being “in it for the long run” means that you don’t give up even if you’ve fallen down.  Life cycles.  And it’s time once again for rebirth.

Let me share with you a story that I wrote after my mother died.  I can’t think of a more fitting way to honor her memory for Mother’s Day.  Thank you, Edna Bach, for being the primary influence on my life and for using every opportunity life gave you to teach me important lessons – like this most important one of all.

 

Cecropia:

A Story about Life for Children and their Grown-ups

By Anna Bach

 

What do you keep on the dining room table at your house?  Maybe a pretty vase with flowers . . .  or a bowl of fruit . . . or a candlestick?   I’ll bet you would never guess what we kept on the dining room table at my house when I was a little girl.  Caterpillars!   Not just any old caterpillars, either — these were giant silkworms, the caterpillars of the Cecropia Moth, the largest moth in North America.

Not many mothers would help their children raise caterpillars on the dining room table, but my mother wasn’t just any ordinary mother.  She had a gift for knowing what was important about life, and she knew that for the few summers of my childhood the lessons those caterpillars could teach were more important than an uncluttered table.

If I close my eyes, I can still picture the tiny white and brown-spotted eggs that dotted the backs of leaves.  As they began to hatch, tiny black worms wiggled out about the size of a large ant. Inching along the fresh leaves we provided for them every day, the little worms nibbled the green straight across, never wasting a mouthful.  Sometimes two worked together, chewing away, until only the veins of the leaf remained – like an old umbrella with the fabric removed.

Soon each little caterpillar would grow too big for its skin. One-by-one they would clamp their tiny caterpillar feet on a stem and split their black suits right open.  And guess what — with their next suit of clothes, they turned green.

They were lean, green eating machines, those caterpillars.  The more they ate, the bigger they grew.  The bigger they grew, the sooner they would split their skins and come out even larger and more colorful.  Soon they boasted bright orange, yellow, and blue tufts down their green backs.  No matter how colorful they became, however, I still thought they were rather ugly-looking worms.  Fascinated, I grew brave enough to let the caterpillars crawl on my finger and cross my palm from one hand to the next.  I wasn’t supposed to play with them.  Mother made it clear that we must behave gently.  Their well-being was our sacred trust.

The ever-growing caterpillars ate so fast we had to work hard to keep them in fresh leaves.  Sometimes taking care of them seemed tiresome to my six-year-old self, but I understood that their lives depended on my efforts. Every day we cut branches from their favorite wild cherry tree to place in that vase in the dining room.  So long as food was provided, they stayed right at their tasks — devouring greenery, growing more plump, and shedding their skin – four more times!  We had to put fresh newspaper under them every day, too.  Watching life’s lessons can be a pretty messy business.  But Mother seemed to care more about the unfolding story of the cecropia moth than any mess or inconvenience.  I told you she was no ordinary mother!

With the coming of fall, the caterpillars went to school with us.  Maybe I forgot to I mention that my mother was a teacher.  How her first grade students loved to watch as those cecropia caterpillars spun their cocoons!   And, of course, so did I.

Throughout the winter, the vase sat safely on a window ledge, holding bare branches that supported the brown crescent-shaped cocoons.  After a while the students — and even I — forgot the caterpillars.  We were busy with other things, like learning from books.  Then, in early May, something wonderful began to happen.

I remember the first time Mother called to me, “Anna, come here.  See what you feel when you put your hand around the cocoon.”  The dry, spun silk felt leathery as I gently, but firmly, closed my hand over its wrinkled outer walls.  Inside the warmth of my grasp, the cocoon that looked dead stirred with life.  Deep within the caterpillar’s tomb, the moth was struggling to be free.  The wiggling both tickled and frightened me at the same time.

“Let’s help it, Mother!”  I cried.  “We could use scissors and snip through the cocoon so that the moth doesn’t have to work so hard.”

“Oh, no,” said Mother, “if you want to be helpful, you must let the moth find its own way out.  If you try to hurry the process, the moth might not survive or it might be deformed.  The struggle is part of the process — part of nature’s way of making the miracle happen.”

Mother reminded me of a big word we had read about: Metamorphosis.  It meant “the process of being transformed.”   She said the ugly green worm with the colorful spots had somehow spent the winter learning how to be a moth — changing its form from an earth-bound, ugly green worm to a delicate flying machine with beautiful reddish-brown markings.  When the transformation process was complete, the new creature had to escape the once-safe cocoon in order to stretch its new wings.  That was why it was important to leave the cocoon on the branches — so the soft, downy legs of the cecropia could pull that lovely new form into the light of day.

I certainly had read in books about metamorphosis, but no words could describe my feelings as I watched one of those big, beautiful moths unfold its new wings and begin to fan them dry.   Now, Mother said, the new moths would find mates and lay eggs that would hatch into more little cecropia caterpillars, and the process would start all over.

Those summers we spent growing cecropia caterpillars were long ago.  I am now a grown up — a mother and grandmother myself — but I am still discovering the value of my little girl lessons.  In fact, I think I am just beginning to learn the most important lesson of all.  My mother taught me that one, too.

By the time I became a grandmother, my mother was old and frail.  Her spirit still enjoyed life just as much as when I was a little girl — or when she was a little girl — but her body couldn’t house that energy anymore.  Life for Grandma B, as the children called her, was beginning to be more and more of a struggle.  One night I was called to her bedside because she was very ill.  I held her close in my arms as she fought with pain.  Although I didn’t want life to change, the time to let go had come.  I cried and was so sad.

But my story doesn’t end here.

The next morning I woke early and went outside alone to think.  I knew the day would be difficult.  I had to tell our children and grandchildren the sad news.   I tried to think of words to use to explain losing someone we loved so much.  As I stood in the early dawn, listening to the birds sing, watching the raindrops drip from the leaves of the trees, I remembered how my mother always taught me to find strength and comfort in creation.   However, instead of finding the words to share with my family, my mind kept returning to the moment I held my mother as she struggled within her body.  I searched my mind for happier pictures, trying not to be so sad.

Then the childhood memory of holding the cecropia cocoon came back to me.  What was it Mother had said?  “The struggle is part of the miracle.”  A sudden, wonderful feeling washed over me.  “If an ugly green worm transforms to a magnificent moth, imagine how glorious life must be beyond this earthly cocoon for someone already so beautiful.”

At that moment, I experienced the understanding of another big word — Resurrection.  Just as there is no way to explain to a little green worm about wings and flight and being carried by wind currents, so there is no way for us to understand any life beyond this physical one.   But by faith we catch an occasional glimpse of what eternity must be.  We can sense that the transforming miracle we call death is really just a new beginning, a transformation, a metamorphosis.

I left the porch and the quiet morning rain with a deep sense of peace and assurance.  I knew when my grandchildren asked the question, “Why did Grandma have to die?” I would be ready to respond — “Let me tell you a story from my childhood about a giant silkworm moth called the cecropia.”

Better still — this fall we will find a cocoon and wait for the spring.

 

October Light

I love the golden hue of October light, the patina of an aging year.  The glow seems heavy as though the late morning sunlight is swimming against the  tide of time.  I understand. My life force feels the same resistance in my aging bones.  Still, many say that fall is their favorite time of year.  And many young ones say they can’t wait to be retirement age.  I wonder if they recognize that autumn’s allure eminnates in part from our awareness of its inevitable fading from glory. Its brevity underscores its value. We know it can not linger long, for it isn’t the last season of the year – it’s the penultimate one.  The same can be said of our retirement years.

I’ve never before comprehended the need for the word penultimate. Why would the next-to-last be something to identify with such specificity?  Shouldn’t the ultimate of anything dwarf what comes just before?

Perhaps nature gives us a hint as to the necessity for the word by sending us October light. Maybe you think it’s your imagination that the light seems golden, almost liquid in its hazy hovering, especially early on an autumn morning.  However, what you observe is real.  Earth has begun tilting away from the sun; now the rays of light we receive are longer, slanted beams that gleam and cast long shadows. We recognize that – while warmth is not quite over – the days of baking our bones in sunshine are done.  We wax nostalgic, looking back at summer and anticipating the long, dark, ultimately cold days of winter.  We savor the penultimate nature of autumn light.

In the Hindu religion, this is the season for Diwali – the festival of lights, a celebration that spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair.  My understanding is that the festival lasts 4-5 days over the new moon of autumn, during the penultimate darkness before the “longest night of the year” in December.  The traditions of shopping and feasting, of gifts and lights seem not unlike the Christian celebrations attending the birth of Christ, the ultimate Light of the World. If we could learn to value the traditions of other religions, perhaps Christians could recognize that the Universe is always teaching the same lesson to slow-learning humans – light eliminates darkness, life triumphs over death, and ultimately, understanding illumines oblivion. We know the light will return with vivid spring strength.  Like a crayon-resist painting, darkness will be scratched away, and the light will be revealed once again.  If we let them, the seasons teach us to hold on to hope.  The Hindus use the “Festival of Lights” as a reminder before darkness descends of the power of light.  It’s like cramming right before the test.

I would argue that in this penultimate season, humans get a needed chance to value the changing nature of light and the changing nature of life. We slow down.  We savor the harvest. Our memories glow with the same golden hue of the grain we store.  The mellow shades of autumn remind us of the challenges on their way, but soften the dread.  Given this time of preparation, we can be ready for the ultimate season – winter,  or metaphorically, death.  We have the penultimate season as a reminder to get ready.

Ever since Ron’s stroke, I’ve been more aware of the ultimate season life brings to us all. More specifically, I have thought about the reality that my life, too, must end.  Theoretically, we know the shadows deepen as autumn approaches (“those golden years”); but if we are honest, until we really experience the chill in our bones, the physical shift from growth to wither, we don’t really believe death will happen to us or to those we love.  How important, then, that autumn brings us the chill reminder of changing realities.

Now, this could seem a morbid truth, and autumn could be a hated season.  But usually it is not.  Why?  Because we celebrate the harvest.  We hold parties, we dress up, we ring door bells and play pranks.  We layer clothing and discover there is no bad weather, only poor planning.  We rake leaves and jump in them.  We mull cider and roast marshmallows.  Life is good.  And if we are smart, we approach our latter days with the same abandon.  I want to be smart.  I want to make the most of this penultimate time we are privileged to enjoy.

And so I announce my choice to risk loving again.  I am selling my home, downsizing my closets and shelves, and taking a leap of faith that – like Job – my latter days can be better even than my beginning ones.  I am pledging my heart to the Rev. Dr. Page Foster of Melbourne, Florida, who also lost the love of his life – four years ago tomorrow.  We plan – like the Hindus – to make this penultimate season a “Festival of Light.” How sweet to have a chance to share the harvest years of life together.  So how fitting that I will say “goodbye” to family and friends here at Thanksgiving.

When I was in the middle of Ron’s winter season, I entitled this blog “In It for the Long Run.”  Of course, at the time, I was thinking of Ron’s admonition to me as a young mother to be patient with the raising of children – to take the long view.  They would not always be children.  Once my babes were adults themselves and successfully pursuing lives of their own, I saw the wisdom of his advice.  In the midst of our struggle, I discovered how taking the same long view applied to the marathon journey of stroke recovery.  Then after Ron made his ultimate crossing from this life to the next, I recognized the new “long view” applied to picking up the course of life again and finishing my own race.

This blog began as a place to explore the lessons of caregiving in the face of difficulty and struggle.  Then there were forays into the furnace of grief and loss.  I wish now that I had been more faithful to record the explorations of how I was rebuilding my life, once I determined to do so, but instead much of the searching for direction in last twenty months has been a time for silent meditation – like when it’s summer and it’s just too hot to cook.  But thanks be to God, I have emerged from that season and am enjoying October light.  This long run I’m on is taking me to new places and new scenery, and that’s okay.  Maybe it’s time for a new title – “Second Wind.”  Regardless, I am still underway, and I don’t intend to quit. Just letting you know.

 

 

October Light

The hope is life’s transience will produce such luminance in us

If we tilt toward the Source,

Avoid storms and linger in the calm,

Let the chill of change produce its magic,

And just BE.

Firsts

And so begins a series of “firsts” in the grieving process. Today is Ron’s birthday – the first since his death on March 11th (my birthday). I am teary. Not surprising.  At first I was tempted to give in, to begin this day filled with reflection on my loss.

However, Facebook popped up a “year-iago-today picture” for me this morning. The image caught me by surprise, fluttered briefly on my screen, and then disappeared into my news feed before I could decide whether I wanted to repost it. The photo was from Ron’s birthday party at Summertrace rehab center on Sunday, July 13, 2014. We were all wearing mustaches. Ron was trying to play “Drop-the-Ring-on-the-Birthday cake.”

Of course the picture brought tears to my eyes, but it also reminded me of the burden Ron bore every day – his paralysis and pain, his cough (he tried to eat rice pudding Dean made for him, but couldn’t), his tired smile (he wanted to enjoy the children, but needed to go back to his room to rest).  So much weariness and struggle – for both of us. How could I wish him back for another birthday like that?

And so I choose to celebrate his re-birthday today.  I rejoice that he no longer has to compromise with physical life, a dynamic spirit trapped in an uncooperative body.  He did his best.  He stayed as long as he could.  The tears are for me, not for him.  Yet I should not weep.  This is a day for the first celebration of his legacy – to be glad that in this life he did more than exist, he lived by faith, he made a difference, and he loved me.  How fortunate we both were. How fortunate we both still are.

So I will dry my tears today – again and again, if necessary.  I will embrace the day and its gifts  I will remember that the longings I feel are reminders of the eternal nature of love.

The only defense against grief is life.  To live in sorrow is a selfish indulgence of my own needs that helps no one and has no power to transform.  That attitude is the antithesis of Ron’s legacy, a disservice to his memory.  So today remember with me what Ron stood for in his life:  letting the needs of others set our daily agenda, understanding that our gifts are meant to be shared, holding ourselves to a standard of excellence, but knowing God’s grace holds us secure in our striving.

May every “first” celebration remind me of Ron’s approach to living.  This year will give me lots of opportunities to practice.  In fact, this coming July 18th would have been our 34th wedding anniversary.  So now I can just reread this post to regain my focus.  I’m sure I will need to.  The process of grief is not linear, but recursive.  That’s why the “firsts” really never become seconds or thirds.  Time does not dull grief; we must let time change our use of grief.

 

 

 

When Love Isn’t Enough

My mother always said, “When love fails, double the dose.” As a teacher, I often quoted her wisdom. I think the concept works in the classroom, well, with all humans really. The only flaw is in our misapplication of the word “love.” As a widow, I find myself grieving over love’s labors lost. I see folks squandering opportunities and I want to shout, “We have such a short time to love one another! Get it right!” It’s not enough just to say “love you” and then do as we please. We need to evaluate what kind of lover we are. But there’s no pill to pop to improve our love dysfunction. We need to love fiercely. But we also need to refine our understanding of the word. It seems to me we have three applications – “apps,” if you will – that we learn to use when we say we love another.

The shallowest love we employ is a selfish, love-myself-INSTEAD-of-others kind. But before we start pointing fingers at those we consider examples, we must confess we all start there. At birth, we cry to get what we want. And we “love” those who do our will. Sadly, some seem never to outgrow this form of ego-centric, need-satisfaction-based love, a strictly utilitarian application of affection. What’s in it for me? Romantic lovers are often accused of loving in order to get sex, or security, or children, or – you name it. But face it, we have all used the Love Hook to get other needs met, as well. An acquaintance I once knew was outraged when the family she “adopted” one Christmas failed to be sufficiently grateful for her charity. Suddenly, the poor children she loved so much as she wrapped their presents were the target for condemnation. Her expectations were not met. In other words, she didn’t get what she wanted from the transaction. We learn that selfish form of love early. However, we can learn to go for that app less often. When this kind of love fails us – and it will – we have an opportunity to go deeper, to discover that putting a hook in love keeps us infantile. We can do better.

A second “app” that gets a lot of use – even though it misapplies important principles of love – is the “Love-others-INSTEAD-of-yourself” application, one that masquerades as the Christian understanding of love. In this approach to loving, the person places him/herself last, thinking this is the self-sacrificing action required to be authentically loving. At its most perverted, this kind of lover loves others because she believes herself unlovable and/or he feels undeserving of love. So everyone else’s needs come first, and I must serve because others deserve it more than I do. And if I totally focus on the other, maybe I can trick this one into thinking I deserve to be loved, even though I really don’t. Again, this approach is certainly a more positive choice than hating others and seems more constructive at first, especially to the ones receiving the love gift. However, love applied in this fashion is not healthy – either for the recipient (who usually senses there is a hook called “guilt” in that bait somewhere) or for the lover (who eventually will feel put upon and Unappreciated). This behavior when identified is usually called the “martyr complex.” And, while there are many noble Christan lovers who are admiringly labeled “martyrs,” their sacrifice of blood did not come from a place of low self-esteem or from a place of manipulation and control. This form of “buying” love with our behavior is another form of love that fails time and time again. Parents often get trapped in this format. They expect children to be grateful for the sacrifices they have made – yes, out of love. But what kind of love is it that feels disappointed when the return on the investment wasn’t as anticipated? I read once that we don’t love our children in order to get them to love us, but in order to teach them how to love others.

Which brings us to the third love “app” – the application that, I believe, is the healthy, joyful, best use of the word “love” – the loving-others-AS-OURSELVES” approach. In other words, I am instructed to love myself authentically – to recognize my needs and act appropriately to satisfy them, to have the understanding that I am lovable and capable and important – just like everyone else. Jesus never asked anyone to give up what they didn’t already possess. Before I can “lay down my life for a friend,” I must first truly possess a sense of my own value. There are those who see the Jesus message in the light of martyrdom, of sacrificing self for a “cause” in order to accomplish something. And that application is certainly there. But what they miss is the sweating blood moment beforehand. Jesus didn’t really WANT to die. He CHOSE to – even with the uncertainty of whether others would get the message he was delivering or not. Counseling folks who found marriages crumbling, I have often heard desperate pleas to get the estranged loved one to stay or to come back. Generally, that marriage has been the result of love application #1 or #2. For, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “Him that I love I wish to be free – even from me.” That is truly love without a hook in it.

God knows the condition necessary for human beings to grow is the freedom to choose. That God-given freedom is what life in this world provides – not freedom from limits, but freedom to choose our responses within them. How to love is one of our choices. I believe we employ God’s gift best when we seek to offer unconditional love. Yet we continue to choose other cheaper versions of the love concept because app #3 is so costly. God has completely demonstrated perfect love for us. Did God chose the path of sacrifice to seek our love in return? No. Jesus’ sacrifice was God showing us how to love others.

Maybe my mother’s favorite saying should be modified slightly: “When love fails, examine the Source, then double the dose.”

What are you waiting for?

June 3,, 1966 – almost 50 years since I graduated from high school. Next year I’ll have to decide whether I go to a reunion, assuming someone still living in the area will make the plans for that celebration to occur. But this year I can just wax nostalgic. No pressure. Unlike 50 years ago at the end of my junior year when all I could think about was that now I was a senior, now I only had a year to wait for freedom, emancipation, college, adulthood! Remember that feeling? I don’t think humans ever forget their adolescent, hormone-laden, fevered sense of urgency to grow up.  And “graduation” is the marker.

By now those of us who have achieved a different “senior” status have learned that life is a series of “waitings” interspersed amid searches for something worth waiting for – a life partner, babies, new home, new job, vacation, lab results, chemo’s (or whatever treatment’s) end, and – finally – death. It’s all a waiting game. No new insight there. Yet, like graduation, we only really give our full attention when it’s our turn,  when some gripping marker looms before us and we feel the ancy “are-we-there-yet” vibrations in our core.

As much as we claim to hate waiting, we seem to love anticipation-as-existence. When we are waiting for some desired end, we experience a heightened sense of longing. We fanticize about the coming event sometimes even to the point of anxiety, sleeplessness, or frustration. When life itself doesn’t provide enough stimulation, sometimes we even manufacture our own marker-as-crisis just to make life more interesting. It seems odd to me – lover of tranquility that I am – that I have allowed crazy-maker commitments into my schedule.  Yet I have. Often. And perhaps it is this very love of a waiting-for-something-to-happen fix that hooks me into saying yes, filling up my calendar with events, crowding more into daily life than I can possibly get done.  I have lived by Marilyn Savant’s philosophy of having ten times more to do than is humanly possible so that I get to choose which project I work on. As Marilyn argues, “if I only have to do what is possible to get done, then I am stuck doing that one thing.”

But, for the last year and a half, I did only one thing.  I took care of my husband.  All of my waiting game was focused on Ron’s needs, his schedule, his pain.  When we both recognized that the time had come for him to depart, that was an ultimate graduation to anticipate.  The only way to have peace was not to anticipate, but to live in the moment, aware, unblinking, grateful.  Now he has accomplished that goal — two months ago already  —  I am still figuring out how to get back to my own worth-waiting-for pattern of life.

Being so absorbed for so long on end-of-life matters makes you rethink what really is worth waiting for, what markers are important enough to gobble up the finite amount of time that remains for you.  I know what happens if I don’t think this through.  The many opportunities for “doing good” will fill up my calendar by default and I will find myself focused on whatever event comes next, willy nilly.  I will go back to letting life happen to me – with the illusion that there are endless days to fill with busy-ness.  On the other hand, if I  constantly focus on the temporal nature of existence, I am in danger of being turned inward, of feeling niggardly about my days.

How do I reinvest myself in the joy of anticipating planned events, goals, commitments, yet remember the hard-won wisdom of treasuring the moment?  How do rejoin the human (rat?) race without becoming so future-focused I don’t live in the present? Because it is inevitable.  We humans negotiate an already-not-yet existence.  We exist trapped between the past and the future with only occasional glimpses of the Now.

I’ve lived the last year and a half with more glimpses of the Now than ever before in my life.  While I’m not grateful for the suffering and loss, I am grateful for the by-product.  I want to keep that live-in-the-moment choice of focus going forward.

My high school senior grandson, recently discussing his upcoming graduation, said, “Grandma, I can’t believe I graduate in two weeks!  I feel like I have been waiting my whole life for this moment!”

And isn’t that a great feeling? Don’t we envy that exuberance just a bit?  And yet. . . .  if he sees life through the lens of the-next-big-thing-to wait-for, we can tell him that he’ll spend his life in a waiting room and be disappointed by the result much of the time.  So maybe the message for all graduates is, “Enjoy this moment.  Feel it. Learn to treasure a moment like this.  And then learn that life is about making moments.  Lots of them.  And savoring them.  Even the little ones. Especially the little ones!”

Isn’t that the message for all of us.? Whatever we do, do it with all our heart.  What are we waiting for?  The time is Now.