I wrote this essay several years ago when we were still living in Northern Virginia, but it feels relevant for these days of COVID, racial violence, and gun killings. I often find it hard to fit all of life together.
Today I felt discombobulated. I missed turning on Godwin Drive to get to my writing class and when I finally did get there, I discovered I had come a half hour too soon. As we discussed the stories (short stories the class is reading) I had trouble remembering what I had read. When we got to writing I couldn’t get started. This evening I discovered that not only had I left a borrowed magazine at the class, but my calendar as well. If I were Alexander, I would begin to think that this has been “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” *
But it wasn’t. On this April day in Holy Week the sun shone brightly and the only trees not blooming were the ones that have already lost their blossoms; the grass outdid itself with green. It was the sort of day that saturated me with its beauty and life, and still held an abundance infinitely greater than my capacity take in.
The phrase that ran through my head all morning was, In the midst of life, we are in death, the opening sentence of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. I thought of that as I waved my sister Carol off at nine o’clock for her long drive back to Ontario where her husband’s family was gathering for the memorial service for his nephew Nathan. She drove back through this glorious spring to face the gut-wrenching realities of a 20-year-old boy-man who finally took into his own hands the ending of his years filled with injuries and pain. She headed back to be with a family already shattered by years of anxious attention that left them exhausted and depressed. As I waved good-by, I also remembered the day before, standing in our sunny kitchen, holding Carol who hung limply in my arms as she sobbed convulsively, just after she received the news from her husband. Thankfully I had known the call was coming and was prepared to offer comfort without questions.
In the midst of life, we are in death. Ten thirty: Carol was gone. I gathered the sheets to wash. My day was beginning to take shape. The phone rang. It was Jeff, our pastor. He wanted to stop by to talk. I was the chair of the Pastoral Advisory Committee and we sometimes had things to discuss between regular meetings. He would be there in half an hour.
The phone rang again and Wayne answered. It was for me—Elizabeth from South Dakota. “Kathie,” she said, her voice breaking, “you said I could call if I needed to talk, so I did.” Her husband Gordon who had been rendered almost quadriplegic three years ago had been admitted to hospice a week earlier. That much I knew from “Caring Bridges.” I had responded saying, “call me if you want to talk.”
Gordon has been up and down for these three years, requiring constant care and presence on her part, and now he has stopped eating. He has been on a roller coaster ride toward death, and Elizabeth is riding with him, not knowing how to feel. One moment planning his funeral, the next realizing he isn’t dying yet, wanting him not to leave, telling him he can go, being overwhelmed with the ending of forty years of passionate life together, feeling grief in all its guises. We talked about acceptance of not being in control—she thinks she has learned that, only to be slammed with a newer and more pervasive being out-of-control. We spoke of praying with openness, not making specific requests for how things should be. We spoke about the hardness of living with dying.
In the midst of life, we are in death. I hung up the phone in my sunny kitchen. I went to the sink and filled a glass to water the shamrocks on the windowsill where the sun quickly dries them out.
A car pulled up in our parking space. It was Jeff. He came in, and I showed him into my den where we could talk in privacy. He sat down, paused a moment, and then announced, “Kim has been diagnosed with breast cancer.” His lip trembled. His face looked blank.
“Oh, Jeff!” I said, not knowing what else to say. We sat a moment in silence, and then he began telling me the details. It was serious. The doctor recommended a double mastectomy and chemo. Both he and Kim were in shock. They had no idea how to manage this. Jeff’s cell phone rang and I could tell he was talking with Kim. When he finished, he said that she needs to talk with him frequently, just to feel connected, to keep going through the day. We talked some more, about their family’s needs and how and when to talk about this with the church. Before he left, I offered to pray with him.**
In the midst of life, we are in death. I prayed for him and Kim as I stood at the kitchen sink and watched him get in his car and leave to go home to her. Then I took the sheets from the washer, loaded them in the laundry cart and carried them out to the wash line knowing that the sun and brisk breeze would not only dry them but leave them with a fresh fragrance no fabric softener could match. I ate my lunch and headed out for my writing class, missing my turn, getting there early, not remembering stories, not writing well, forgetting my calendar.
Which part of my day was life and which part was death? It would be impossible to separate them. Strands of grief come in the warm bath of the sun. The redbud blooms and Nathan is dead. Elizabeth speaks of God’s presence that is more real than any loss, and Gordon isn’t eating anymore. Bright, vivacious Kim has cancer and may not survive it, and Sunday is Easter. I step outside and casually pull up a weed by the roots, and think about getting ashes to fertilize my woodland ferns. It is all a paradox, a mystery. I cannot explain it; I cannot parse it out. All I can do is live it, but sometimes, like today, it leaves me discombobulated.
* Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, Simon & Schuster, 1972.
**Kim survived and is once again her vibrant self, but we had no way of knowing the outcome on that spring day.
Kathie, your words are beautiful. Debbie
Thanks, Debbie! Such experiences carry with them a terribly beauty all their own and it is sometimes hard to do them justice, but the Book of Common Prayer really nailed it on this reality, it seems to me.
I saved this to read till this moment this calm, sunny afternoon when I could focus. I am so filled with gratitude and love for you and treasure your friendship and wisdom.
Thanks, dear friend! You live in this reality all the time as we all do, but with more consciousness than most of us, most of the time.
Thanks, Kathie, As always, I appreciate your writing and today’s truth that we live in both worlds, life and death, all the time, whether aware of it in such vivid ways or not.
Thank you, Evie. Today was a beautiful day here and we hiked, but I was aware of all that was dead around us and under our feet that help make for a vibrant aliveness–bright green moss on dead logs, crumbling leaves and logs that are feeding the first tentative wild flowers as well as the trees that are just beginning to push buds. It’s all there, all together, inseparable.
Kathie, what an evocative description of spring -“the grass outdid itself with green” and “the day that saturated me with its beauty” being 2 memorable ones. From that to such very draining conversations and realities for special people in your life – and so the very aptly titled “Discombobulated”, reminding me of a week when I had a funeral for a suicide victim in a very dear family, and then the death of a 5 yr. old a few days later. I didn’t have such a good word to describe it, but your word certainly fit.
And now, Happy Easter to you and Wayne
Thanks, Joan! I was afraid that some people might think discombobulated was an irreverent word to use in the face of such weighty matters, but it best described my inability to function well and my less-than-profound way of falling apart. It represented for me the way the holy and profane are linked together.
Beautifully written, Kathie. What an apt description of how death is part of life. Spring in all her glory reminds us how to be grateful for the privilege of inhabiting this beautiful Earth we call home… even if it is but for a time.