Friday, September 24, 2010

Connections and perspectives

Jay and Ben, Mary, Sydney, Lindsay and Chris

One of the remarkable events of the past year, a year of connections and new perceptions, was the wedding of Chris, Ben's nephew, to Lindsay Barnes, last week in Colorado. Ben's brother Jay had initially discouraged us from coming to the wedding because it was so far and we wouldn't have time to visit with everyone. Ben hadn't seen Chris in 15 years, nor had he seen his niece, Sydney. I had met neither, except for a conversation with Sydney when she encouraged us to come to the wedding. Jay's perception that coming to celebrate a wedding 30 miles into the mountains of Colorado for a few hours was not a good idea. He was right, but that was before he realized that it was going to be a three-day soirĂ©e. We drove four days there and back and spent three wonderful days eating and talking and hanging out and reconnecting and getting to know one another. It was a blast, a remarkable wedding event, punctuated by a Francis family reunion. Ben got to see Chris and Sydney for the first time in 15 years and reconnect with others. I met all of them for the first time, including Jay's ex-wife, Mary, and her sister, Jenny. 
Wedding guests were mingling in the living room a few nights before the wedding in the mountain cabin where Chris and Lindsay and some of the other guests were staying. Food had been served and Mary and I were getting to know each other over a meal at an oak table that was a barn door in a previous life.  Mary and I began to talk about Ben and Jay's parents, Jim and Alice, or Jefe and Chula, as they were affectionately called, who had died 30 years before. Up until that moment I had only heard Ben's understanding of his parents' decision to sink their boat in Monterey Bay, marking their 42nd anniversary and their life-long agreement to "sail off into the sunset," and end their lives before ending up in a nursing home. "Since Jim suffered his stroke...he is just not able to be happy," Alice writes in a farewell letter mailed to Ben, but addressed to Jay, Mary and Chris. 
When I first heard the story early in my relationship with Ben I was angry. His father may have had a stroke, but I didn't understand how they could leave. My own mother is 101 and since she turned 90 she has seen me marry Ben, my brother marry Annie, me and Jared graduate from college, and the birth of two great grandchildren. Even though her third husband was defined as soulmate she has outlived him by 23 years. As I have written about caregiving mom, I have considered Jefe and Chula's choices, a choice that many would like to make but would not have the courage to make.
But if Alice was healthy, as is speculated, how could she leave her family, I questioned Ben. He rationally and patiently explained that he and Jay always knew and understood that their parents were together in life...and in death. They made a choice to die together because they could not face life without the other and they also could not face life in care facilities, dependent on other people. Alice briefly explains that she had been able to ignore "lumps, aches and pains," because of their decision. 
It was still an unsolvable mystery. I admired Ben and Jay's lack of anger and bitterness and their ability to extend grace to their parents. But Ben's rendition was one-dimensional. The story the fisherman told who saw the boat go down was one-dimensional.  Just like the different perceptions of those who show up at the scene of an accident, I had not yet met those with a different story to tell, a different perception than Ben or Jay. 
Mary said she had been close to Alice, and then, there it was, a new perception, a new angle, another dimension to the mystery. "I was pregnant with Sydney when they died." I had not realized how surprised I would be by this new revelation or how it would impact me. 
Once again I had to rewrap...or rewarp, as the case may mind around their choice, especially Alice's. In her letter, she refers to her one wonderful grandchild. But what about the other one, Alice?  I stared at Mary, tears in my eyes. I was speechless. "How could she?" reverberated in my mind. Another day, Mary said she had been devastated but had to be strong for Jay and Chris. Sydney had vomiting problems when she was a small baby, creating more stress in the family.
Sydney and I had already connected on the phone and continued getting to know each other over the weekend. On the day before the wedding she and I drove alone to Steamboat Springs for a wedding shower for Lindsay. Before we left for the shower we sat on the back porch and talked about our mothers. Another night we drank beer in our trailer by candlelight with her Uncle Ben and I and talked about her grandmother and her choices. She listened as Ben explained that he hadn't been angry as Mary had remembered. Grieving yes, but not angry. 
Sydney said she felt an affinity for her grandmother and wants to write a book about her and the family, that she wants to understand the un-understandable.  I had observed Sydney and her mother having a good time together, but also a hard time, a karmic journey they began a long time ago with more to come. 
I wondered once again, but now with more poignancy, if Alice had seen the future and how her decision would impact those she loved if she would have still made the choice she did. If she could feel regret, would she? I think Jefe would still have made the choice. But I'm not so sure about Alice.  But then perhaps that's just my wishful thinking, my mother's heart, my desire for grandchildren, and not being in her shoes. 
I choose to believe that Alice would have been looking forward to her grandchild, the beautiful woman with the blue eyes that remind people of Jefe and others of Alice. But something even more powerful than a grandmother's love drew Alice in another direction.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Poisoned Chalice

But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions,
 which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.  William Shakespeare, MacBeth.

I sat next to my mother in the pew as the priest intoned the Eucharist. Light filtered through stained glass, Jesus on the Cross, illuminating the altar and the flowers set there by my mother or some other devout altar guild member. I’m not sure why I agreed to go to church with my mother. But my stepfather was dead and I had not attended his funeral or bothered to visit him while he lay sick in a hospital bed. My mother was a widow a second time. It was the least I could do. And I was sure that going to church with her was a small piece of making things okay for her. She would have been hurt if I had refused.
After my divorce I had driven around in my blue volkswagon bus for two years, working for four to six weeks at a time and then moving on, in circles, from Utah to Idaho to Washington and then down the coast to San Diego, visiting my mother and brother and sister-in-law and nephews until I felt crazy and confused and then I would hop in my bus and leave. Eventually I spun off the circle and sold the bus and went to Iowa to work at the Maharishi International University where I went a little crazier before landing back in San Diego.  
I felt edgy, as if I might get up and walk out. Instead, I sat while she directed me to turn this page or that page, or hold the hymnal while we sang hymns, her beloved hymns she said she remembered and later sang in her head, just as she remembered passages of Longfellow’s Evangeline she learned in high school and would later recite to me when she was a centenarian. I would turn and see her mouth moving and hear the notes and words and watch her face and feel vaguely irritated.
We were to take communion. I wanted to stay in the pew, but if I had my mother would have been embarrassed.  “What would people think?” Instead, I went forward and knelt at the railing with my mother. The priest walked toward me, his hands holding the bread, the body of Christ, my hand outstretched to receive it. When I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church at age 10, I never was sure whether or not it was really His body. Some churches believe in the transmutation of the bread to body, the wine to blood. I just knew it was supposed to be cool, and I was proud to be participating in an adult ritual. Sitting beside my mother at the age of 27, irritated and distracted, there was still something about the ritual that reached me.
The priest walked the line of supplicants, offering up the body of Christ to tongues extended like birds in a nest waiting for nourishment. Stepping away, the priest went to the altar to prepare the wine, the blood of Christ, the infusion of life, the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of all that had gone before. I so wanted that. I wanted my life back, my innocence restored, my mother and brother returned to me from alcohol that isolated me from them, my family whole. Could the blood of Christ do that for me? I could only hope.
The priest walked to the head of the line at the altar, slowly offering upturned lips the hope that this would be the day they would feel the newness, the refreshment from the blood of Christ. The priest approached my mother who took the cup. Then, he stood in front of me, lifting the cup. Before me, a specter. Engraved on the side of the chalice, was the name of my stepfather, “In memory of Samuel Solleder.”
The way the dream plays out, I refuse the cup, stand up, and walk silently from the church, never to return, either to my family or to the church. I walk out into the sunlight, free. I’m alive, not because of the blood of Christ having washed me free, because I don’t take the cup. I walk away from the memory of the man who abused me, away from the mother I love who would sit next to me as I drink the bitter cup, the blood of Christ, in memory of the man who had shamed me and criticized me and used me and then acts as if everything is all right. I could not reconcile the two.
If this was even-handed justice, then I had received it all. The blood, the hand, the words, the touch of evil.
There’s a second dream. I take the cup from the priest, I bring my arm back, the wine spilling on the floor behind me, staining the carpet, the supplicants gasping. My arm comes forward in slow motion, the poisoned chalice leaves my hand and arcs, twisting in the air, the priest’s eyes are wide, aghast at this unseemly turn of events. The chalice falls through the air, slamming into the lovely stained glass window, the glass shattering, Jesus falling silently to the floor in shards, one eye staring up at me from a broken piece of stained glass. I turn and walk out.
Instead, ... my own blood rushing in my ears, anger and hurt and confusion tumbling my thoughts, I take the cup, the blood of Christ. Through my tears I have begun the journey of forgiveness. I just didn't know how long it would take.