It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains, an appropriate time to re-post the effect of Katie’s illness along the way. This is a re-posting of a piece written along the way of Katie’s illness.

I wrote this piece when we learned that my stepdaughter Katherine’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart   Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that.  I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one.  It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy.  When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping.  ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked.  “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand.  Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body.  A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes.  In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems.  My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary.  Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this.  I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:

Karen:

My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.

Me:

The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a  doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time.  It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights Center.org. “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”

16 thoughts on “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

  1. Reply to Christna:  
    There is nothing wrong with innocence.  Your “long way to go” can vanish in the blink of an eye or the ringing of a cell phone.  There are an incredible array of experiences that need no rehearsal before you are on center stage.  People make no mistake about grief in that they think it will destroy them.  It does.  But/and what it destroys, though, is the illusion that life is predictable, the assumption that we have the ability to control awful things within the bounds of emotional dignity.  What is really true, once you get to the cliff’s edge of the Big Grief is that love encircles its entire sphere, on this side of the grass and around to the air side of the cliff’s edge once you have fallen off, and you will.  The eagles manifest to some, the herons to others, but True knocked-down-dragged-out Grief, living the dying incrementally before there is The Resolution and Relief of the actual death (which becomes balm in the end)—is a gift. Maybe not to some, and no one can name it for another, but that is how it happened to me.  I wouldn’t have known how to choose, if I was allowed, between a short swift no-time-to-catch-your-breath death of a loved one, or the watching of a long ugly painful journey within the machinations of a monstrous medical empire.  All I know is there is an underbelly to grief that illusion cannot erase nor denial confine.  Courage isn’t a natural ability, it is learned.  

    The living of this journey was a daily reality—but interpreting it will go on for a lifetime—and I have but just begun.  We are all on the same road of innocence. 

    Hang in there, Christina and blogging readers—love is inside the underbelly.  Fear illness in the swiftness of its pronouncements, but keep your eyes open for the big birds.

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    • Gg – I assume it’s Greg, maybe…Thank you for coming by the blog and posting this insightful reflection in reply to Christina. I’m particularly struck by “watching of a long ugly painful journey within the machinations of a monstrous medical empire. All I know is there is an underbelly to grief that illusion cannot erase nor denial confine. Courage isn’t a natural ability, it is learned.”

      I spent a full sabbatical at Harvard Divinity School working on the issue of illusion. Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Freud, and Sartre were my daily bread as I asked whether “God” was a product of the human imgination created to provide false comfort to us cowards. Paul Tillich talked of faith as “the courage to be” in the face of nothingness and of God as Being-Itself or The Ground-of-Being. Schleiermacher, long before Tillich, talked about God as the All, the Encompassing, in which everything lives. God is Ultimate Realiity, and to live in honest faith is to live before the Ultimately Real. Not only thanksgiving and awe, but Loss, grief, sadness, fear, and terror are part of life itself. Any theology that tries to minimize them or that teaches the virtue of existential denial is, in fact, a flight from God into the gods created according to our desire. “The human heart is a perpetual factory of idols.” Won’t tell you who said that! Thank you

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      • So interesting! Before I read Gordon’s reply, I had copied the following text from Gg’s comment because it felt important to me:

        ” All I know is there is an underbelly to grief that illusion cannot erase nor denial confine.”

        Then I read Gordon’s response, and he said:

        “Loss, grief, sadness, fear, and terror are part of life itself. Any theology that tries to minimize them or that teaches the virtue of existential denial is, in fact, a flight from God into the gods created according to our desire.”

        Well geez! That pretty much takes care of everything I was going to say!

        Thanks to you both for your thoughts and heart.

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  2. Thank you for being honest and real and straight out in what you think and believe and hope. Your writing makes me smile and cry and feel God’s love. Thank you, and be blessed!

    Slainte, Lisa

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  3. Gordon, these poignant memories you’ve shared touched my heart deeply. That moment when we hear the news that a loved one’s illness is terminal, does feel like an assault. I realized how right you are as I read your piece — that the shock and even the denial are gifts that help us get upright and able as we reel from the blow.

    I’m fascinated by your postscript. For so long, I’ve been trying not to ask and to simply accept. My road to being able to “live in the mystery” and thrive without answers, has gone only so far as insisting that my truth is all right to tell.

    For a long while I’ve had a 2,000 word post waiting as a draft. It goes through some of my experiences from when I found out about my mother’s illness, through to my attempts to cope with conflicting emotions after her death. I think I’ll just copy it into a file on my computer. It was necessary for me to write, but it isn’t uplifting and I know it’s too much. I prefer the way you write about these kinds of issues. I’m so glad to have discovered your blog through Courtenay’s.

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    • Thank for sharing, Sparks. It’s sometimes hard to know what to share publicly and what to keep as a private reflection. Bless you in your private self, as well what you reveal to us. It’s all good.

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  4. “I don’t believe in selective divine intervention,..”
    Yeah. God is sooo hard to figure! Sometimes I’d love to believe in that, but if I did, what about all the ones for whom God does not intervene? God simply cannot be that cruel, else I cannot believe in her.

    You’ve written another good thing here:
    “The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary. Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.”
    I blink and my trust crumbles much too often. Yet, sometimes in the midst of intense struggle, it comes back to me. Or God brings it back to me. I think it really is true that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

    This, to me, is a lovely description of faith and courage:
    “I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.”

    Sometimes that is the most we can do. Sometimes that is everything we can do.
    Thank you for the words of your heart.

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    • Glad this resonates. Selective intervention poses a serious problem, doesn’t it. Why, for instance, would God not intervene to stop the rampage by a soldier who’d “lost it” that killed 16 innocent people. Thanks.

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  5. Pingback: The List « Bluebird Blvd.

    • Reply to Christina: Your generation likely never heard ex-NFL football player Rosie Grear (a MASSIVE lineman) and Marlo Thomas singing on Sesame Street, “It’s alright to cry….” Can’t rmember the words, but they were intended to help boys understand that if Rosie Greer felt free to cry, so could they. It goes for girls, too 🙂

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  6. On days like today, I wish that WordPress had an “I LOVE IT” button as well.

    Gordon, honestly, the way you write about life’s big questions… really makes me appreciate the fact that you are writing about life’s big questions. I know that sounds circular, but, really, what’s going on is that I’m learning so much about something new to me as a writer, as a person.

    I am learning what it means when a great writer put it all on the line. Everything. This piece is full of true emotion. And reading this a second time, I find myself, again, experiencing that just-before-tears sensation because your writing about grief is so full of life.

    I have more to say, I think, but I need a little while to ruminate over your ideas. There’s so much here. So, so much. Thank you for writing this. For sharing this. For saying this. For all of this.

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    • Would that be great if WordPress had an “I love it” button! I’m moved by your response. I’d like to say I’m humbled, but I’m really not. Makes me feel so good to know the words make a difference to someone other than myself.

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  7. What a beautiful and moving piece. I feel like crying as I sit here at work… It is strange how death seems so personal, somehow, yet it is one thing that is completely universal. I still cannot wrap my mind around death, but often during the day I think of some of the people I love so much and hope that I will have enough time with them before they or I die. I cannot even imagine losing my mother – she is my closest friend and just imagining her being out of my life is so painful. I should work on my faith and acceptance now so that I can be better prepared. Even you with your vast life of preparation to face death – saw the rain and did not feel like getting out of bed. I know that those who have passed are here, and there are amazing stories of communication between the two worlds, but I have a long way to go it seems before I am capable of speaking both languages.

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