abandoning. (the) last. suitcase.

•12/26/2013 • 7 Comments

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It was the last day of our trip together.  My father’s luggage and mine leaned on the curb waiting to taxi to the airport, red and green as Christmas.  Heading home.

Five years ago, my father knew something was wrong with his wobbly legs, but he didn’t know that ALS had claimed them.  He asked me to accompany him on a trip to Europe since my mother’s health was failing and my brother, on sabbatical leave with his family, had invited Dad to join them.  Forty-five years earlier, we had all spent a sabbatical year in Goettingen, Germany, and so we returned to season some of that history and pass it on to the next generation.  While we were on the continent, my father wanted to return to his favorite haunts in Switzerland and relish the beauty he had loved most in this world.

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On the train between Lucerne and Munich, or somewhere in between,  our relationship found a new equilibrium – no longer that of a father and daughter but of two pilgrims navigating life’s unpredictable road.  He learned to lean on me, as once I had leaned on him.  We learned to laugh at his tales of getting stuck on the floor of the train station after re-tying his shoe or getting stuck in the tub without the strength to rise.  We learned to talk and risk saying what we meant and let the differences stand.

Only a few days after our return, he was told that was to be his last trip.  But not his last journey.  Ahead was the completely uncharted path of dying, and living while dying.

I decided to make a travel log of this final adventure, along with my dear friend, Stephanie, who was accompanying her mother on the gravelly  road of ALS.  We began this blog together, and I presented a note about it to my father as a Christmas gift, 2009.  In it, I promised not to invade his privacy, detail medical conditions, or air family matters.  I vowed not to try and interpret his experiences, but to reflect upon my own.  I told him that while I knew the disease was thought to be dreadful and even cruel, I wanted to hold the possibility that light could yet be found in the days ahead.  That I would be there for all of it, for the dreadful part, yes; but also for the ways it might change, shape, sharpen our living of these days; how it might endear us to this here and now.  His eyes became wide, as though imagining for the first time the chapter ahead of him not a curse, but an adventurous conclusion to a rich life.

This Christmas, we came to the end of that road.  I have tried to be faithful to the practice I set up for myself, as he was certainly faithful to the adventure, opening himself each day to whatever life presented.  Even opening himself, at last, to the kindness of death.  Through these reflections, I held ordinary moments  up to the light and found that they became prismatic. They  lodged themselves in me with a certain staying kind of grace.

Now it is time to let words stand still and hold the sounds of silence.  Stephanie and I clinked glasses on Christmas Eve over a beautiful dinner, her  daughters radiating their young loveliness around us.  Her mother and my father no longer communing at this table of goodness.

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But both of them alive in us, in a powerful, mangered way. Both of them still shaping our ever-widening capacity for joy, for life.  Both of them, luggage shed, carried in our bones like a river of light.  For, like all who are cherished in a living heart, theirs is

A Life, Still.  

 

adieu. leave-taking. salutations.

•12/14/2013 • 9 Comments

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“At the hill’s foot Frodo found Aragorn, standing still and silent as a tree; but in his hand was a small golden bloom of elanor, and a light was in his eyes. He was wrapped in some fair memory: and as Frodo looked at him he knew that he beheld things as they had been in this same place. For the grim years were removed from the face of Aragorn, and he seemed clothed in white, a young lord fall and fair; and he spoke words in the Elvish tongue to one whom Frodo could not see. Arwen vanimelda, namarie! He said, and then he drew a breath, and returning out of his thought he looked at Frodo and smiled.

`Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,’ he said, `and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!’ And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as a living man.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

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Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!

“Farewell” by Emily Dickinson

Memorial Service
Monday, December 16 at 2:00
Mountain Brook Baptist Church
Birmingham, Alabama

a. life. symphony.

•12/11/2013 • 34 Comments

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Andrew kept a certain dark suit aside.  Yesterday, he dressed him in it.  He dressed my father in the suit, and in a particular shirt he had given him, an elegant tie, and the eternity cufflinks that my father loved.  Across my father’s legs, he laid the lap blanket I had woven for him.

Andrew put on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and let it pound through the house.  My brother drove down, opened the door and entered the room as the chorus rose to it’s most joyful, Joyful.  There, in that room that had been home for the last five years, my father lay in peace.

I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it,  said Diane Ackerman. I want to have lived the width of it as well.  

My father lived the length and the width, the height and the breadth of this life, I want to say.  He lived every bright corridor and dark corner without bitterness or regret, but with a grateful spirit, with eyes that lit a room, with a presence that roared.  He lived with the music of his mind, making of it a symphony of gladness and joy.

And then, as we all are asked to do, he stepped aside.  In the quiet of his sleep, breath stopped.  Life went on.  He slipped out.

Mortals, join the mighty chorus
which the morning stars began;
love divine is reigning o’er us,
binding all within its span.
Ever singing, march we onward,
victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music leads us sunward,
in the triumph song of life.

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William  Edward  Hull,  Jr.
May 28, 1930 – December 10, 2013 

autumn’s. light. swimming.

•11/03/2013 • 5 Comments
A walk home in this afternoon light, holding my husband’s hand.  Glory floats in the air; chimes chant the hour.
Calling my father from the early porch dark.  More is lost, his world even smaller now.  Closing in.
Packing to leave for Bangkok in the morning, for work, and life, and what I love.  My world larger than ever with praise.
Going out.  Going in.  We move in two directions.  Both swimming in the same light.
this, to you, dear father, as I go on my way  ~
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over the grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.~ Wendell Berry ~
(The Sabbath Poems, 1993, I)

Attire: Lapels (of) Splendor

•10/01/2013 • 4 Comments

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Twelve minutes before the wedding ceremony, my nephew Andrew emerged from a victorious Tennessee TV huddle – now a groom with a satisfied gleam behind his orange-rimmed sunglasses.  He had waited for this: to show me what he had created out of the sari borders I gave him after my last trip to India.   And there he was, striding up to me in sartorial splendor.  Silk brocade that once floated through the lovely homes of Mumbai now fitted his lapels, lined his jacket, shaped itself even into a neck tie.  He had envisioned it all, down to the Tennessee-orange socks,  his own unique fusion of the Vols and the Vedic.

After the ceremony, the lovely meal, a dance with my brother who had officiated the nuptials- I walked out on the sprawling lawn in the early light of evening and called my father who was so palpably not there.  My brother had ended the ceremony with my father’s words – ones the family knows by heart – and conjured his presence there in quiet benediction on the day.    But now, as I heard my father on the other end of the phone,  the golden tongue sounded disturbingly like a shovel chomping through gravel.  I reported on the wedding, his son and grandson and great-grandson all taking their places in the circle of life.   He tried to calm my fear about the chomping sound in his voice. I hung up and sat under the darkening sky.

Inside, the dance music was really kicking in now.  Bridesmaids were flinging off their heels. Andrew and Sarah did dips and swings to Luckenbach Texas in their finery;  he picked up the guitar and began to sing his own song.   The littlest Hull  pranced in the center of all the moving parts – at 10 months old he stole the floor.

I watched the last light crawl down into the wooded distance.  In the wide-open evening, the chilling air, there on the spongy grass, I felt the turning.

The great wheel of life moved solidly on.

anniversary. (of a) lasting. silence.

•08/21/2013 • 10 Comments

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my dear father,

It has been a year, today, since you held Mother’s hand as her life slipped out of your reach.  You have taken that empty hand, in the year since, and applied it to the pen, writing down to the the last word your 7th book in these five long years of crumbling health, calling it your last.  That right hand is the only portion of your body that still can articulate itself, which I find a grace, for it delivers words which your tongue can not.  Your fingers cannot make it up to the bridge of your nose to adjust your glasses, or across the plexiglass to turn a page of a book.  But if a pen is laid across their crib, you still can press a word into the paper, like you pressed your aching heart into her hand.

It is an amazement to see how much life is squeezed into what little you have left.  When voice and movement and conversation are taken away, then, it seems, even more life comes flowing through the flesh of your palm.  It ruffles the fur of a frisky friend, it strokes a baby’s leg, it empties the mind of its words onto paper, or sinks its feelings into another hand.

When I think of all the channels still open to me – legs that can fly down my stairs, a voice that bellows in the car, hands that snap and clap  – I feel as though a mighty river is over-running the sluices.  And then I look at you, that one right hand left to carry all the force of being, and I am in wonder.  How much it still has to say.  How far it reaches.  How deeply it has learned to love.

always your daughter,
remembering,

Susan

Affiancing. Lovely. Sarah.

•06/20/2013 • 9 Comments

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I didn’t know you had it in you!  The neighbor’s daughter sprinted over to my father’s outdoor deck in her running clothes, a two year old perched on her hip, after hearing cooing and commotion coming from under the maple trees.  She was laughing with my nephew, Andrew, with whom she played as a child on his occasional visit to his grandparents.

Andrew – caregiver to my father, romancer of ladies of all ages who flock to his charms –  is getting married.   And I understand why.  He has found the most luminous soul to orbit his sky.  He has found Sarah, and finally stopped to look no more.

This is not Sarah’s wedding dress I’m publishing, heaven forbid.  I was lucky enough to be a part of her dress shopping day, along with her mother and sister and friends.  But she stole my heart with her blushing bridal beauty, out-glaming herself with each new dress she slipped on.

Since my father will not have the strength to make it to their North Carolina wedding in September, Andrew and Sarah brought the festivities to my father.  On Sunday, both families gathered on my father’s deck to celebrate their engagement and commitment.  Andrew’s first lady, blond dog Stella, sprawled out lazily in the thick of things, babies squirmed, Sarah’s grandfather led a charge, my father wheeled out and drank in the moment with a grin.  I adore her, he says of Sarah, forming the words emphatically with his recalcitrant tongue.  She brings music to his house, tenderness to his day, grace to his grandson.

I take my father’s hand and slowly reach it toward Stella’s fur, or place it gently on little  Liam’s leg, his 8 month old great-grand.  He cannot get there on his own, that long stretch of a few inches.  He cannot wrap his arms around Sarah and welcome her into the family.  But his heart is clear – that muscle moves toward her with joy.

For better or for worse.  In sickness and in health.  The words we daily live upon like the ground beneath us rise up in these moments with a crackling force.  I think of what my father knows of these timeless words, knows them sixty years in the bones.  He knows now both the better and the worse.  Both the richer and the poorer.  Both the sickness and the years of health.  Marriage, his presence announces, loves and cherishes the all of it.  And now these two young ones are ready to walk into those words.

Sarah bends to kiss my father’s face, where sadness also dwells.  Love is there, just there, in his face, in her gesture, in the long path of a few inches.  In the long road backward and forward sixty years each way.  Love, even with a recalcitrant tongue, says Yes, Yes.  To all of it.  And would again, and will yet, over and over again.

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