A Mother’s Love

Katie and Kay (Mom) at Katie's graduation.

Katie and Kay (Mom) at Katie’s graduation.

Today Kay shared this at the cemetery as we laid to rest the ashes of her first-born daughter Katherine (“Katie”)

For Christ to have gone before us,
To have kept us from ultimate sadness,
To be our brother, our advocate,
The One who ushers in the Kingdom,
And the One to come,

Does not keep us from our digging today.
We still gather here and throw the dirt on our sacred dust,
We take the shovel like all those gone before us
And surrender to the Unknowable—
The place where
Love and Beauty and Kindness grow wild.
Where sorrow has no needs,
Where there is all beginning and
Nothing ends.

I know this Love of hers lives on. I feel it.
I watch it in many streams of synchronicity,
Where my heart leaps from memory’s knowing,
Where I share a breath from her beyond.

And then I cry in secret,
Begging that she return

On my terms.

But if my begging is selfish,
The answer to it is not.
If I but knew the splendor of that Place where Love lives,
I would marvel in her good fortune
And ponder her grace inside a timeless waiting for us,
A begging for our good fortune
To come on her terms.

We live our lives in time.
She lives all time as Splendor.
We are bound between this stalemate
And the mystery that is our promise.

Until then we have no other luxury than
To shout her precious memories to the sky
In loud thanksgiving that Love herself lived with us awhile.

Then, because we live with fuller hearts
From knowing more than before our loss,
We turn our shovels over
As those with little other choice for now.
For now we dig.
And shed our tears
With greater Trust.

Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is
In heaven.

– Kay Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 9, 2013,
the third anniversary of loss and fuller hearts.

Katherine Slaikeu Nolan

Katie and Chris at Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Katie and Chris at Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Today we inter Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) ashes – three years to the day after she left her cancer behind at the age of 33.

It takes awhile sometimes. The stages of grief don’t come in standard sequence like the innings of a baseball game.

In “The Final Time” in Max Coots’ collection of poetic prose, Seasons of the Self (Abington Press, 1971), he wrote:

It takes a little while to know how much of life is death and not to dread it so.
To sense the equilibrium of the earth,
To be at home in time, and take the limits of both life and love.

A person’s death is a private thing, like grief, like prayer, like birth.
I know nothing of that final time, except what I know of life,
But I know I live and in my life I have so many opportunities to die,
For death is many things and times,
Before the days are gone,
But I have, yet, a while, and things to be, and much to do.

Max Coots is a poet and Minister Emeritus of the Canton Unitarian-Universalist Church in Canton, NY. His words still echo today as the family gathers to lay Katie’s ashes to rest. Special prayers today for Katherine’s husband Chris, her mother Kay, her father Steve, and her siblings Kristin and Andrew.

It’s the little deaths before the final time I fear.
The blasé shrug that quietly replaces excited curiosity,
The cynic-sneer that takes the place of innocence,
The soft sweet odor of success that overcomes the sense of sympathy,
The self-betrayals that rob us of our will to trust,
The ridicule of vision, the barren blindness to what was once our sense of beauty –
These are deaths that come on so quietly we do not know when it was we died.

Precious Lord, deliver us from these, and grant us peace within the limits of life and love.

Ora Labora

Katie delighting in Sebastian

Katie delighting in Sebastian

Today is the second anniversary of Katie’s death after a valiant battle with leiomysosarcoma, a rare terminal cancer.In today’s earlier reposting of Kay’s reflection on her blog, www.rawgrief.com, I quoted the last line of a great hymn.

The composer, T. Tertius Noble, spent his summers in the big house at the top of the wall of Old Garden Beach in Rockport, MA, one block from my grandparents’ home.  Only later in life did I learn that this favorite hymn was composed by the man in the house above the wall at the beach.

Here are the lyrics and an organ rendition of the hymn that flooded my mind this morning, as I gave thanks for Katie and thought of Kay’s reflection.

Come, labor on.  Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fears!

No arm so weak but may do service here; By feeblest agents

may our God fulfill His righteous will.

Come, labor on. No time for rest, till grows the western sky,

Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,

And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,

“Well done, well done!”

4:30 am Reflection (during my first few months of grieving)

4:30 am Reflection (during my first few months of grieving).

Kay and her brood -Katie, Andrew, and Kristin

Kay and her brood -Katie, Andrew, and Kristin

Two years ago today we said goodbye to 33-year-old Katherine (“Katie”), RIP. Today her mother Kay posted this amazing reflection. Click the link above the photograph for Kay’s recollection and reflection.

Below is a photograph of Katherine (she preferred her formal name in her adult years) and Christopher (“Chris”), her husband and best friend, during a family trip to Costa Rica in 2009. Chris, you were the best of the best. Payers for Chris Katie’s father, Steve, sister Kristin, brother Andrew, and Kay.  “And a glad sound comes with the setting sun: ‘Well done! Well done!'” – final stanza, hymn “Come, Labor On.”

Katie and Chris on Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Katie and Chris on Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

The List

“You have ca… You have can.. cancer. But we think it’s treatable.”

I read The List early this morning, the day after hearing a doctor tell a wonderful older couple the news. The full bone scan tells a different story. It can be treated with radiation, but at what price for an old man already writhing in unbearable pain? My friend has been on “the list” once before 20 years ago. Now he’s back on it, this time for good. He’s a strong man, but not that strong, not immortal, not invulnerable. The treatment will not stop it this time. Morphine and lots of love will see him through until he’s off the list for good.

My step-daughter, Katherine, was placed on “the list” at age 30. She was exited the list at 34. Her ashes are on the mantel now. Her courage, her buoyancy, her steadfast refusal to let being on “the list” define her, her compassion for the doctors and nurses who “treated” her with surgery, chemo, more surgery, radiation, lasers, and morphine, and for us, the members of the family to whom she brought so much delight, have left us with so much more than what’s left on the mantel.

I’ll post a piece written during the third year of Katherine being on “the list” later today. Look for “It’s raining; it’s pouring.”

For now, share your stories with a comment here, or go to Courteney Bluebird’s blog and comment there. All of her work is remarkable and worth the visit.

Dust to Dust, Muscles to Mush

Ash Wednesday: Muscles to Mush

Gordon C. Stewart. MPR commentary. Feb. 17, 2010. (The family had vacationed in theKatie in Costa Rica jungle of Costa Rica at step-daughter Katherine’s request after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.)

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  It’s an Ash Wednesday kind of week. It puts me in mind of another Ash Wednesday, two years ago:

“You want to go down to the waterfall?  Come on – I’ll show you a shortcut!”  The invitation comes from Ryan somebody-or-other, who lives next to Las Aguas, our home deep in the jungle ofCosta Rica.  We’re having fun now.  We’re on vacation!  At 65, shortcuts sound good.

Ryan leads the way to a steep and narrow jungle trail.  “Hang onto the rope with your left hand. The railing on your right is only there in case you lose your balance.”  The blue rope is thin and slack.  The railing is two inch round bamboo.  Ryan – in his mid-30s and fit as a fiddle – leads the way down the steep ravine, followed by Chris, Kay and Katherine.  I bring up the rear. I tell myself that I’m last because this way I get to protect Katherine in case she falls or needs me.  Everyone else knows that I’m last in line because I’m like an old tortoise trying to climb down stairs.

The “shortcut” — this great adventure we’re all enjoying — is steep, 60 degrees or so.  My legs, whose only regular exercise is climbing the stairs in our house or the one step up into the chancel on Sunday mornings, are turning to jelly.  By the time we climb down 75 jungle steps,  Katherine, whose fingers are either numb or painful these days because of her chemo, declares something uncharacteristic of her: “I don’t think I can do this.”  I don’t think I can either.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, muscles to mush.

I’m thinking that we’re going to have to go back up this trail.  I’m thinking that we should turn around now while we can.  I’m thinking about Katherine’s hands, her cancer, her exhaustion, and how badly she wants to do everything that has brought us here, to this trail.   “It’s not far,” Ryan assures us.  But like George Bush, Ryan is from Texas.  “Sure!” I mutter to myself.  “Sure it’s just a little farther.  Even if it was a mistake, we have to stay the course.”  There’s no turning back now.  I wonder if everyone fromTexas stretches the truth.

Sure enough, it turns out we are only halfway there. But we trust Ryan and keep climbing down to the falls, Katherine ahead of me, the helper tortoise, sliding and slipping downward and sideways, leaving several cracked bamboo railings as a reminder that I’d been there.

At the falls Ryan and Chris, both as agile as the Costa Rican howler monkeys that swing in the trees, scale the falls to perch on a ledge with the waterfall cascading over their bodies.  “Just one little slip of the foot from death” is what I’m thinking, trying to remember when my body was well-toned.  Kay takes her camera and has a field day.  Katherine and I hang out, breathe, and agree that it’s beautiful — and that it would be a lot more beautiful if someone sent a helicopter or just beamed us up.

The way back to Las Aguas is easier, perhaps because it isn’t a shortcut.  This other trail takes no more time than the shortcut, and it’s much easier on the thighs, the hands and the brain.

I conclude that shortcuts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – like stimulating the economy by depleting the national bank account. Like giving ourselves quick fix tax rebates so we can spend the receipts and leave the long-term debt for our grandchildren.

By the time we get home, our legs have turned to mush.  It reminds me of Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is made on one’s forehead with ashes.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  Muscle to mush. For us Christians, there is no shortcut through this season, no Easter without Lent.

In the hours following our return to Las Aguas, Kay assures me that some soreness is a good thing.  I’m tired, woefully out of shape, sore, and a likely candidate for a heart attack, which, as Kay reminds me, means … I’m not dead.  While the dust and ashes that I am still have some muscle left, the soreness reminds me that I’m alive.

Someday everything that I now claim to be my self will turn to mush.  The pain will go away.  On the jungle floor below the falls, the waterfall will wash over us and carry what’s left downriver to wherever the river goes. Then there’ll be no shortcuts and no illusions of time.  Just the long river into eternity.