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Wish You Were Here – 10/28/2012

When you see a rainbow, who do you want to share it with? When you skin your knee, who do you call out for? When you get a good grade in school, or you get hired for a new job, or your pet cat dies, or the doctor comes back with your test results and tells you you’re going to be alright, who comes to mind? When we see beautiful things, when we get good things or bad, when life is going very well or very, very badly, we all have folks we turn to, people we want to share those experiences with. Because the people we love make the good things better, and they make the bad stuff easier to take. We want to share our experiences with the people we care about.

But sometimes you turn to point out the rainbow or share your disappointment and the person you’re looking for isn’t there. Travel down to some sunny beach or scenic canyon or famous city, and you will find someone there selling postcards with pictures of the local sights that say, “Wish you were here”. People buy them and they send them back home or off to other places; to people they wish they could share that experience with, of being in a new place, having some new and wonderful experience.

Then there are the people we love who are further away than a first class stamp or a phone call can get us. The incredible privilege of being alive comes tied up with the fact that we also must die. So many of the people we love leave this life before us, and we remain here, missing them. We feel their absence in big ways and in little ways but perhaps most in those small moments that we would have rushed to share with them, when they were still alive. Often we come to treasure things that remind us of the people we miss. A man keeps his husband’s shirts hanging in the wardrobe they shared. A woman gives her mother’s candlesticks a special place on the mantle. A child holds onto a stuffed bunny her uncle gave her, long after its polyester fur has become matted and worn.

The author Sam Keen writes about his father’s death, beginning with a memory from long before he passed on, when Sam was a young boy. He sat beside his father one day and watched him carve a tiny sculpture of a monkey out of the hard stone from the center of a peach. The young Sam asked for the trinket and his father explained that it was for his mother, but promised to carve one for him as well. Many years passed, and his father grew ill. Two weeks before he died, a package arrived in the mail. It was Sam’s very own peach pit monkey. After his death, Sam’s father wasn’t there with Sam in the same way anymore. His body was gone, and his mind. There were no new thoughts or feelings coming from him, and he wasn’t carving any more animals out of peach pits. But that little figure of a monkey was a reminder of Sam’s father, and the ways in which he was still a presence in his life.[i]

The poet Rumi wrote of death:

I died as a rock, and became a plant.

I died as a plant, and became an animal.

I died as an animal and became a human being.

Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

We are trained to think of death as the end of our selves, or of the people we love, and that nothing more can come from us after we have died. But there is more to it than that, because there is more to us than that. You are more than your body, like a tree is more than its bark and branches. You are your voice and your words, you are your actions and choices, you are the pain that you cause, and the love that you give. And while your body, like mine and everyone else’s, will one day no longer breathe or move or live – all of the rest of what we are will continue on. The way we live now will give shape and color to the flowers that bloom from our having been alive. From what we choose in our time, new love or hurt or fear or joy will follow.

Often this happens in strange and unpredictable ways. As in the case of Sergeant Steve Flaherty, who left home for the war in Vietnam more than forty years ago, and died there, fighting in it. Just before he died, he took the time to write a few letters home to his family. And because of where and when and how he died, those letters ended up with the people he was fighting: the North Vietnamese army and they were not sent home to the people he wrote them for. But no war is forever; today the United States and Vietnam are at peace. After decades of waiting, those letters from Sergeant Flaherty finally made their way home. Messages to the people he loved in life and reminders that the connections we share with the people we care about are strong enough to outlive us.[ii]

But more often what endures after us is nothing so literal as a set of long-delayed letters. The full story of a life continues to play out from the lives of the people we deeply touch. It is possible to make an impression upon the world in this way by doing harm and causing pain, but I believe that kindness and compassion have a greater shelf-life, and in any case, legacies

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formed by them tend to be much finer and worthier things. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died when I was very young. Growing up, I had no memory of her – just a picture of her holding me when I was a baby. I have always tried to imagine her: who she was, what she was like. I listened to stories from my mother and my grandfather and uncles, and tried to piece together a picture in my mind.

Down the street from the house where my mother grew up there was another house where some family friends lived, and still do. When Sarah and Joe moved into the neighborhood, they were just beginning to start a family, while my grandparents had been at it for some time. Sarah and my grandmother became friends – the older woman lending the younger a listening ear, or a bit of simple advice, as she began to build a household and have children and go through many of the same experiences and challenges my grandmother had already faced. Sarah and Joe were like extra grandparents to my brothers and I, as we grew up. And the friendship that Sarah had shared with my grandmother, their closeness and kindness, echoed down through the years, so that in a very real way, my grandmother could keep giving love to her grandchildren even after she had died.

In the moment when we turn to point out the full moon in the sky, or to share some small triumph or loss, and catch ourselves, remembering that the person we are turning towards has died, it is not in vain. It is not foolish, and it is not empty. For the people we love, and who have loved us, are still here. Their lives, once bottled up into a single form, have spread out into a wider web of relationship. A piece of them is still with us; still shaping who we are, and through us, affecting the world. They can still hear us, so long as we are willing to do the listening for them.

[i] To a Dancing God, by Sam Keen


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