the seed can't know
what is going to happen
the path to becoming is unknown to us all.
flower or vine, fern, herb or tree
everything is possible
yet nothing guaranteed.
for the seed
the risks are many
and courage is essential
at the core of the seed
is a dream, a wish, a prayer
that moves it
toward the unknown
This is the first part of a poem-prayer written by my friend Deer. “Courage is essential,” the poem says. “The risks are many.” For the last 24 hours I’ve carried in my heart the aspiration and disappointment, the broken halleluiah, of a one of our children, Lars. By the way, he’s the one who first played “Halleluiah” for me, on a car ride along Turnagain Arm, an unearthly landscape outside Anchorage. It was the Jeff Buckley version, and I made him play it again and again. In the sense of an acute spiritual/emotional crisis, Lars’ heartbreak actually laid me lower, shook me up, unsettled me, more than cancer did. It’s been that way with these three kids who don’t share my blood but share my heart. It’s taken 24 hours to come to the table with all the questions that arose. Yesterday I even had it out with “God,” asking, as I often do, “What the hell is wrong with you, you bastard? Why aren’t you paying attention to what’s going on down here?”
In the end, I have to trace it back, like I wrote about the other day, unraveling an incident in life like a weaving to trace a thread back to its origin, and feeling along the thread’s way, to find a path to the center. I look out the window, and there it is, the outward metaphor for my center, the steadfast mountain revealed this morning in all its white and blue-shadowed glory. Yesterday it was partly obscured by a cloudbank, but last night, at about 7 pm, I noticed a tiny triangle of gold in a cleft between two mountains. I could see that just beyond the mountains, in the Gulf of Alaska, the cloudbank ended, and the sky was clear. Another earth existed over there.
One year ago today, Craig’s mother Dorothy died. Craig was there, with his hand on the top of her head, as our healer friend had instructed him. “That’s where the spirit exits, “she said, “and where healing energy enters.” He and his brothers and sisters-in-law and Dorothy’s helper had been singing to her on and off for days as her body shut down and she gradually let go of this earth. When Craig and I talked on the phone last night about our son’s rough day, we suddenly remembered that it was a day before the anniversary of her death. “That means today was still part of that year,” Craig said with a sudden little fire of optimism in his voice. “That means a new year still hasn’t started.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Right now I feel like stuffing this year in the dumpster, and good riddance.” It’s how I felt after a run at Mahukona on New Year’s Eve. I jumped into the ocean and treaded water, watching the sun set. I started sobbing, saying out loud, “Thank God it’s over. This year is over.”
Craig found out about his mother’s impending death the day he and his son Lars completed a 12 day canoe paddle down the Green River, in Utah, over Lars’ college spring break. Father and son floated the red rock country, huddled together during a violent thunderstorm, built fires and cooked meals, and shared long human silences in that ancient canyon country of long geologic silences. So I think of the year beginning, actually, with that river trip. They emerged into a jarring new reality: Craig wasn’t flying home to Alaska, but to Orange County. He stayed for 10 days until Dorothy died. And about a week later, I called him from Boston to tell him I wasn’t coming home. I had breast cancer.
In a few weeks, he returns to Santa Ana to pack up his childhood home, and I return to Boston to see my doctors. I’m thinking that when we return to Alaska again, a new year will begin for us. But who knows? The powers that be have inexplicable plans. Our son experienced it this weekend, the outcome of a big college swim meet turning on a dime, for himself and for his team.
Not knowing what else to do, I planted my first garden seeds for Lars, tomatoes, basil, flowers. I stood on the deck in the afternoon sun and scooped dirt into six-packs and small pots and sprayed the dirt with water and sprinkled in the seeds, covered them with more soil, spritzed again, then put the tray in the kitchen windowsill. It’s another act of faith. I did the same thing last spring, and never got to see the garden Craig planted from those starts. I’ve been carrying this 21 year old person in my heart all day long. He’s my stepson, so I never “carried” him in the way his mom did, inside her own body. But I have carried him, more than once, in that place behind my breastbone. He’s had his share of disappointments and deaths in his young life. I was with him when he learned that his first foal had died soon after it was born, on his mom’s farm, when he was 10 or so. I watched him win and lose countless swim races. And he in turn flew three times to Boston to see me while I was undergoing cancer treatment. He stood in the room while I got measured for my radiation tattoos. He watched the computer screen while the radiation oncologist outlined the field of my body where I’d be zapped.
It’s astounding what the human heart can bear. How time and breathing ease the hurt and loss by tiny increments. In my carrying mode today I picked up a book I’ve had so long that the front cover is completely detached, Healing Into Life And Death by Stephen Levine. Levine has spent decades working with the gravely injured and dying, injured and dying both in body and spirit. I found this passage near the book’s beginning: “As we came to see that healing occurs on many levels, it became obvious that there was not something spiritually or psychologically amiss with those who did not cure their bodies. It was from observing in many who died the healings of long-pained minds into the heart of great peace that we came to notice some discomfort with the appellations of some doctors that only those who physically healed were ‘superstars’ or ‘exceptional patients.’ Because what does that make all those whose diseases increased unto death—low-normals, second-stringers? The confused elitism that somehow those who heal their body are ‘better’ than those who don’t has a tendency to come back as a sense of failure on the death bed when the last disease inevitably comes along and displaces us naturally from the body. Death is not a failure, but rather an event during the ongoing process which one survives on the path of healing to continue toward even greater learning and growth.” The same passage could be rewritten for athletes, for anyone, actually: “We came to notice some discomfort with the appellations of some (fans/coaches/parents) that only those who win are ‘superstars’ or ‘exceptional athletes.’” Sometimes, there are outcomes that require more courage than winning does. It’s something that likewise bothers me in cancer “culture,” which is the obsession with survivors, and the notion that people die after “losing their battle with cancer.” Sometimes, there outcomes that require more courage than surviving does. Surviving or not is in the end a crapshoot. And so many times, after decades of effort, so is winning or not. Outcomes are out of anyone's control. The choice is in how to make the healing journey.
And as always, while "God" was busy navel-gazing, the God-in-the-human-heart was the answered prayer, and made the healing journey, which is, so often, hard, a real son-of-a-bitch, bearable.
Like the seed in Deer’s poem, our son is stronger and more courageous than we imagined, and though he’d never use these words, I believe his journey through all his challenges is a healing one. Like each person on a healing journey, he’s a champion, win or lose, live or die. The words to the song “Halleluiah” of course have run through my head all day again, just as the changing face of the mountain has drawn my eye. “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken halleluiah.” Today, I send that halleluiah back to Lars.