In grief, the shortest writing can be the hardest

In the pangs of grief the simplest tasks can seem the most insurmountable.

Buttoning a shirt.

Pouring a glass of water.

Writing a paragraph.

Inexplicably we can burst into tears because our subconscious remembered that we were grieving, before our conscious selves permitted the rawness to claw back to the surface.

You can’t schedule the waves of emotion.

And even if you could, what hope would you have to control them?

You’d steer your bow toward the rolling and growing whitecaps of sorrow, and longing, and memory, and anger, and regret, and fear, and the soup of all of human experience.

You’re convinced you can handle it. You’re strong.

And then the emotion splashes over the side. You swallow, and maintain course.

You’re strong.

You bite your cheek to keep the tears small, and your mind focused.

But the waves are still coming, and your tiny boat is feeling too small.

You feel weak. But you’re strong…you just don’t know it.

The salty mist of the emotion can force you to squint and hold your breath until a storm passes.

And one day, after many storms, you may feel confident enough to pick up a pen and try to return to the joy that comes through translating life in words.

Passing On, Grief Begins

There was a point in my 20s when I realized I had been spared death playing a major role in my life to that point.

It may seem like a strange realization to have, but I distinctly remember acknowledging the fact and knowing there would be a time when I would lose loved ones and not know what happens next.

Then, in a string of years, I lost a grandmother, I lost my father, I lost a grandfather — the last two were about a month apart.

I still can’t fully write about that time, yet.

But in my grief, I relied heavily on my surviving Grandfather with whom I long had a connection.

As a kid, he had taught me chess.

He had enriched my faith journey by sharing his own.

And that despite the fact I grew up on the West Coast, and he lived in Ohio.

And it was unexpected that I would have his counsel and strength, because I and he expected he wouldn’t have lived as long as he did.

My Grandfather had dealt with heart issues for years, kept alive by talented doctors and a pacemaker working overtime.

He lived an incredibly full year after the death of his son — my father — and died at age 82.

Finding the Words

Before he died, my Grandfather told me an incredible story about the chaplain at his hospital having been held hostage by Jihadist militants in the Philippines.

The story — far-fetched it seemed — included the facts that this priest had faced beheading, and prepared himself to be a martyr.

My Grandfather told me, a journalist, that I should find this priest and tell his story.

And I did. And it was all true, and more.

But I didn’t find the priest until my Grandfather had already died, and I found myself thinking that I should write down the anecdote, or write about my Grandfather, or write about the grief, or write about the emotion.

But I couldn’t.

Until I could…at least in a small way.

I was fortunate to have interviewed my Grandfather for the sake of my children, and have about 40 minutes of audio and video with him.

It seemed like a long time when we recorded it, but now it seems like nowhere nearly enough.

He spoke about himself, his life, his health, and his Catholic faith that meant so much to him.

It’s through his desire to have passed on the faith to his family, that I found the strength to write even a short narrative about him without losing it.

Sharing his voice in a podcast somehow helped him feel closer than he seems when those emotions are spilling over too quickly.

Gone But Still There

Writing and storytelling can be cathartic, of course.

But everything I produce holds a piece of me. Even the throw-away pieces of pseudo-prose have something of me in them — a glint of my experience and spirit.

With the topics that matter, though, a bigger share of me is invested in even short bursts of wordplay.

When I wrote

He had survived his wife, and his son–my own father–despite a heart condition that left him many times expecting death.

 

…I felt frozen for a minute. Or 10.

By writing it down, it all becomes present again not just in my mind and my heart, but right in front of me.

C.S. Lewis wrote of grief in his heart-wrenching and powerful journal A Grief Observed.

He compared it at one point to a man having needed his leg amputated.

His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off.

Life is fundamentally changed by the loss. You can’t forget. The wound remains forever, but the pain may change in intensity and feel.

We don’t need to force our grief to move to a stage we think we need or want.

We may write smoothly and easily of other topics and passions, but in grief our “whole way of life will be changed.”

If it takes a year-and-a-half to write a short piece about our feelings, or the loss itself, as in my case, so be it.

We advance in our journey forward one inch at a time, in a tiny boat rocked by unceasing waves of varied intensity.

We need to accept the inch as progress.

And remember: we’re strong.

Your quality known among your enemies

It’s a powerful scene in the movie Kingdom of Heaven, in which newly-minted Christian knight Balian (Orlando Bloom) releases into freedom ‘Saracen’ knight Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani…on account of his quality.

Balian had fought and defeated what he thought was Imad’s master, over a horse found on the master’s desert plot. Balian ordered Imad to take him to Jerusalem, but then released him and gifted him the horse.

“Your quality will be known among your enemies, before ever you meet them,”Imad says, before riding off.

He recognized the goodness (or at least capacity for mercy?) in Balian.

For some reason I find this line and what it represents to be much deeper than its thirteen words might seem at a superficial glance.

The core idea — that someone’s quality of character or history of action could resonate far beyond oneself, even among those who might oppose you — is found in a number of faith and cultural traditions.

In the Buddhist Dhammapada: “Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea, nor yet in the clefts of the mountains, nowhere in the world (in fact) is there any place to be found where, having entered, one can abide free from (the consequences of) one’s evil deeds.”

At the core of this, of course, is karma–what goes around, comes around; you get what you give. But there isn’t necessarily the recognition of character in this. One’s karmic debt might influence one’s interaction with the universe, but that doesn’t mean one’s reputation precedes him.

In the Bible, too, are a number of corollaries. In Galatians we find a line repeated in Kingdom of Heaven, as well, “Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit.”

Or in Luke, with the story of the Good Samaritan. Although a victim is left on the road by two people who might be expected to offer help, it was the ‘outcast’ Samaritan who was the true neighbor. Jesus is quoted as saying the true neighbor was “the one who treated him [the victim] with mercy,” telling us to “go and do likewise.”

Or perhaps Sirach has a better match. “The kindness people have done crosses their paths later on; should they stumble, they will find support.”

And that’s maybe bolstered in Philippians with the clear directive, “Your kindness should be known to all.”

Of course The Golden Rule applies to the core idea here as well, but it doesn’t necessarily deal with the idea your reputation for fairness and goodness would be known even by your enemies.

I’m sure there are examples from other traditions that might apply.

I don’t know why this idea speaks to me as it does.

There are pros and cons to the world knowing you are just and good-hearted. Unscrupulous people might try to take advantage of your morals and personal credo, and use your playing-by-the-rules against you.

But among those with honor — and honor and nobility are characteristics inherent in the dynamics of Kingdom of Heaven — then that reputation bolsters your standing, and in theory you’d be afforded respect and courtesy even among those who disagree or oppose you.

(This is obviously not a perfect system, and the sins of the feudal world are many. But I hope you’ll forgive me for staying on my original line of thought.)

We can’t always know which people in our lives are playing honorably or unscrupulously, and we can’t control what someone might do with the knowledge we play by the rules.

We can only control ourselves, our actions, and our interactions. How we will be judged, is by how we act, and who we are now.

And it should be done with humility. There’s a difference in earning one’s reputation through action, or by being one’s own cheerleader.

What better moment for bettering the world than now?

If we were to be judged on our lives up to this point, can we stand confidently before our Judge and claim excellence? In my opinion, everyone’s truthful answer should be “No, but I tried my best.”


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As the headlights swerve toward you, don’t panic

It wasn’t until long after the car had passed, and I had escaped unscathed, that I realized I hadn’t panicked.  I remember hearing once that traffic incidents often happen near home, probably because we let our guards down.

Maybe that was in the back of my mind as I rode my scooter, on my street, three houses from my home, and I saw the headlights veering toward me.  Cars park along one side of my street, so it’s not unusual for a car to drift farther than necessary.  I watched closely though, shifting closer to the sidewalk on my side of the street.  The headlights kept coming. The speed was noticeable.  I moved even farther to the sidewalk.  Then the headlights swerved quickly toward me, then away, and the car passed.

I stopped, letting my scooter lean beneath me toward the sidewalk as I looked at the car, waiting for some sign that the driver was aware.  It appeared to run a stop sign and hurry away.  After continuing home, and taking stock of what had happened, I realized: I didn’t panic.

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