Today at my church we celebrated Seder together. We've done this every year for the past several, and it's always a very profound experience for me because between the prayers and short talks, you eat various types of food that really bring home the message of that segment. I appreciate rituals that help me get into the physicality of an experience since I can be tempted to stay in my head. There’s nothing quite like a bit of horseradish on matzo to bring the shock and sting of grief into full focus. I felt like a small explosion had gone off in my sinuses! And I like thinking of the generations upon generations that have participated in these rituals before me.
We focused a lot this time on how these Jewish rituals give space and language to the journey of grief. Christianity has a great language of hope and of a life to come, but it's Judaism that gives much more space to the grieving process and really admits that there is much pain in life, and it's okay to embrace the tears. In fact, eat this parsley dipped in saltwater to remind yourself of the tears.
It was a day when I especially need to acknowledge tears and grief. Two weeks ago today, our infant niece, Gabriella, died after just an hour of life. I still well up with tears when I think about that precious little bundle with long feet, a sweet and peaceful smile, and soft, soft skin. Her parents were gracious enough to let us meet her, even knowing that they didn’t have much time with her. Even Lily met her cousin. It’s her first real experience of death. Of course she doesn’t fully understand what it means (who does?), but she clearly knows that it makes the adults in her life sad.
This whole month at my church we've been talking about the inherent duality of life and spirituality, the pain and the joy that are part and parcel of our human experience. When I looked back at this blog to see what I’d written about Seder before, I see that it was also in April two years ago that we were trying to process another round of loss.
As the poets say, April is the cruelest month. I hope you don’t mind, but it seemed an entry that was worth re-posting. These are still questions that I struggle with, but I will now say that on most days having the cheery soundtrack of a vivacious two-year-old filling the house helps me carry these questions as well-known (if not comforting) traveling companions, and I don’t feel quite as much angst in the unknowingness of it all.
Originally published on Friday, April 10, 2009
I’ve had a hard time dealing with death lately.
While I was pregnant with Lily, I realized that death scared me much more than I had ever previously acknowledged. Death and birth, as our bookends on this human experience, are closely related, so I think it’s natural that being pregnant stirs up thoughts of death (and for most of human history giving birth has been such a risky undertaking for women that they very justly feared that the start of their child’s life might be the end of their own).
Bringing new life into the world also naturally requires reflection on what values and beliefs we want to pass on to our children. I didn’t just want to give birth to a child; I wanted—want—to help imbue her life with meaning and purpose, which brings me back to the Big Questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? All of these questions deal with death both explicitly and implicitly.
In a previous post, I talked about how some work I did with a hypnotherapist while I was pregnant helped me recognize that one of my deepest fears about birth and motherhood was that the hope I had been raised with—the hope that death, as John Donne penned, is just “one short sleep past” before “we wake eternally”—might simply be wishful thinking, a way to deal with the randomness, pain, and injustices of this life.
These past few weeks have made me face this fear anew. The three families, seven adults and seven children, who died in that tragic Montana plane crash you’ve likely read about were alumni of my alma mater, and my husband went to high school with one of the fathers. This news has been especially hard to fathom now that I have a child. The loss of so many young lives—all of the children were under 10—is truly unfathomable to me. And I can’t imagine how my parents would cope if they ever faced such a loss of their children and grandchildren (two of the mothers were sisters; five of the children were cousins).
And this week, one of my former colleagues died of lung cancer. She had never smoked even one cigarette. It feels so colossally unfair. She was only 52 with two children in high school. We taught English composition together for two years when I was still quite green. Not only did she welcome me (and my dog) to her office anytime, but she also opened all of her files, gave me copies of her syllabi, and mentored me through my first challenging semesters.
The last time I saw her was in the lab of a local hospital. She was getting her blood drawn to try to figure out why she couldn’t shake a persistent chest cold. I was getting my blood drawn to make sure we were all set to start trying to get pregnant.
She was on her way to a lung cancer diagnosis. I was on my way to meet Lily. Life and loss don’t ever seem to be too far from each other.
This juxtaposition of life and loss was really emphasized for me this past weekend when the small church/spiritual community that we go to celebrated a Seder meal together as a way to respect, appreciate and enter into this important Jewish holiday. The 15-part meal, in the words of a rabbi, represents the journey of liberation and transformation. As one of my pastors put it, “It’s 15 parts because transformation takes a long time—it’s the work of a lifetime.”
One of the steps, Maror, the eating of bitter herbs, really affected me. I was holding Lily during the meal, doing the new mama sway to keep her peacefully sleeping in her sling. I carefully ate the mixture of horseradish on lettuce, trying not to spill on her (wouldn’t that be a great introduction to solids!). The horseradish is actually mixed with the Charoset, a sweet walnut and apple paste which symbolizes the mortar that the Jews used as slaves to keep the bricks together while building Pharoah’s many projects. My other pastor, who had actually made the dishes, pointed out that the Charoset, the sweetest part of the whole meal, also had wine or grape juice mixed in to symbolize that everything, even the sweet and easy times, has at least a little pain that is inherent. We ate the bitter herbs twice. The second time they were inside a Matzah “sandwich,” symbolizing the mix of bitter and sweet isn’t only external; it’s also within.
As a metaphor for life, the eating of bitter herbs teaches me that life and loss really are inextricably woven together. I’m speaking as a novice—and a non-Jewish one at that—but my takeaway was that the whole experience is a reminder that life is often bitter, we will be slaves in Egypt for far too long, but we carry with us the hope and possibility of liberation and transformation.
I told the group after the meal that Maror had reminded me of how difficult the previous week had been because Lily had started teething. The pain she felt cutting her teeth was excruciating for Stephen and me to witness (she added a new scream to her repertoire that gives new meaning to the term "blood-curdling"). And many of our efforts to help her were very poorly received by her. There’s just no way to explain to a baby that suctioning her nose with a saline spray and one of those horrible bulb aspirators is actually going to make her feel better. However, from my vantage point as an adult (with teeth), I know that teeth are important and quite nice for both eating and biting off hang nails. I can now see two little teeth starting to emerge, but boy is that emergence a big pain in the gums (and ears, and nose, apparently).
All I can hope is that from the vantage point of the divine, our pain and loss that seems so unfair, so random is like cutting teeth in the big scheme of things. And I desperately hope there is a scheme of things.
Those close to me laugh at how often I see applicable truth and insight in the Harry Potter series, but I’m realizing while writing this post that besides the clever plot and engaging characters, I love these books because they are all about death, the temptation of immortality, the power of self-sacrificing love, and, above all, the hope that there is a big scheme of things.
J.K. Rowling has said that her mother’s slow demise from multiple sclerosis was a big part of her motivation to write the series. She struggles mightily with her faith in the books—this is no easy allegorical tale. Like me, her doubts are big, her questions real. The tombstone on the grave of Harry’s parents points to her hope. She quotes 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” That is ultimately the thesis statement of the series.
Rowling knows that her hints of transcendence, her gestures at something beyond can only be that—gestures and not road signs. Faith, after all, is the substance of things hoped for. When Harry meets Dumbledore in the afterlife—well, really the chamber to the afterlife—and learns the answers to most of his questions, he asks Dumbledore if their conversation was real or if it was just in his head. Dumbledore’s answer is one of my favorite explanations of faith: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
I have no idea how to incorporate Dumbledore's wisdom, or the lessons of Maror, or even my hopes and fears into my parenting of Lily. But maybe in a small way just deciding to have her is in itself a gesture, a prayer for the substance of things hoped for.
Shortly after I posted this, I read a chapter in Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith about Easter and Good Friday that completely hit home. She was visiting a friend in Utah who was dying of cancer (she died a month after the trip), and, in addition to skiing, they celebrated Easter together. Lamott's description of Good Friday felt so true, that I just have to add it as a follow-up to this post:
We celebrated Good Friday that night, a week late. It's a sad day, of loss and cruelty, and all you have to go on is faith that the light shines in the darkness, and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. I hate that you can't prove the beliefs of my faith. If I were God, I'd have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check as you went along, to see if you're on the right track. But nooooooo. Darkness is our context, and Easter's context: without it, you couldn't see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.