Tuesday, March 6, 2018—Episode 21—Graves into Gardens

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is The Song of the Three Young Men, verses two through four and eleven through 20A.

Azariah stood still in the fire and prayed aloud:

“Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors, and worthy of praise;
and glorious is your name for ever!

For you are just in all you have done;
all your works are true and your ways right,
and all your judgments are true;

For your name’s sake do not give us up for ever,
and do not annul your covenant.
Do not withdraw your mercy from us,

for the sake of Abraham your beloved
and for the sake of your servant Isaac
and Israel your holy one,

to whom you promised
to multiply their descendants like the stars of heaven
and like the sand on the shore of the sea.

For we, O Lord, have become fewer than any other nation,
and are brought low this day in all the world because of our sins.

In our day we have no ruler, or prophet, or leader,
no burnt-offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense,
no place to make an offering before you and to find mercy.

Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted,
as though it were with burnt-offerings of rams and bulls,
or with tens of thousands of fat lambs;
such may our sacrifice be in your sight today,
and may we unreservedly follow you,
for no shame will come to those who trust in you.

And now with all our heart we follow you;
we fear you and seek your presence.

Do not put us to shame,
but deal with us in your patience
and in your abundant mercy.

Deliver us in accordance with your marvelous works.”

-------------------------------------

Death, I understand neither your timing nor your choices. I have known people to squander a retirement, and I have known people who have died on the brink of plans that would serve others. I have known babies whose lives were barely a breath. How is that decided? The three young men remind me of young, stupid mistakes. Most of us survive them. A few do not. A friend of mine is the youngest of eight. Three of her sisters died young of a genetically-caused cancer. Her mother buried a husband too young and then three of their eight children. Where are the answers for that family? Who gets saved from early death? And why? Who gets left to mourn? And why?

We are left knowing there is precious little we can know for sure in this life. There is the power of friendship, and it is taught over and over. I learned the power of friendship the day after a high school reunion. It had been a weekend of barbeque and conversation and dancing. But on the cloudy day after, several classmates gathered with me on the edge of town in an old graveyard next to what was once a little brick church. Ashes of my first husband, Scott, and our son, Ted, lay next to one another, and their gravestones were ready at last. I had covered the graves with a blanket Scott and I bought on a trip we took to Scotland. Scott was thrilled to find the Hamilton hunting plaid. For years, it was folded across the foot of Ted’s bed, to help him remember the father he lost shortly after turning two.

It started to gently rain, softening the ground for the bulbs and plants friends had brought. They dug and planted and watered. And by the time we needed umbrellas, the graves were a garden. When I thanked them, I told them that I do not understand why these men who were my life died at the ages of 32 and 27. But that losing Scott, losing Ted, had taught me that it is the kindness of others that keeps me breathing. And that at that moment, surrounded by such kind friends, I knew I could keep breathing.

Friends read prayers from The Book of Common Prayer Scott gave me our last Christmas. That misty morning, with weather that could have come from Scotland, graves were turned into gardens. Through the power of friends without answers. With only the power of friendship.

This fall, the friend who served as Teddy’s godmother and I will go to Scotland over the anniversary of his passing. By then, I hope to know where the Hamilton who left Scotland for the States lived, so we can scatter some of Ted’s and Scott’s ashes there. Once again, we’ll know the power of friendship and we’ll learn once again, again how thin is the veil between this life and the next.

Grief is a thin place.

 

March 5, 2018—Episode 20—The Deer

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is Psalm 42, verses one through seven:

As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God.

My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God;
when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

My tears have been my food day and night,
while all day long they say to me,
"Where now is your God?"

I pour out my soul when I think on these things:
how I went with the multitude and led them into the house of God,

With the voice of praise and thanksgiving,
among those who keep holy-day.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

When our son, Ted, was at one of the lowest points in his struggle to grow into himself without relying on drugs or alcohol, he asked me if his dad or I had favorite Bible verses.

I told him about psalm 91 that came to be important to his dad, Scott, and I, after Scott’s cancer diagnosis, and I also told him about my relationship with psalm 42.

One wintery day when Scott was sick, I sat in a church and thumbed through the Book of Common Prayer. When I read psalm 42, and its image of a deer longing for water, I stopped. I was thirsty for God, the god of certainty. I was thirsty for certainty that God wouldn’t let Scott die, that Teddy, 18 months at his dad’s diagnosis, wouldn’t have to grow up without a father.

I didn’t feel the wave of certainty I longed for. I was so numb and the church was so cold that I kept my red, down coat on.

And I remembered another winter day, a warmer winter day. The day Scott and I drove to a state park where we’d enjoyed picnics earlier in that year, the year we met. We walked for a while, then stopped. He placed a ring on my finger that had belonged to a great-great Aunt. And we became engaged.

All the while, under some pine trees, stood two deer, quietly watching us. Their gaze was so gentle in those shadows. When I found psalm 42, I found the memory of being quietly, gently, observed. I didn’t find certainty, but I found a memory that helped me feel a little less alone.

I hope that telling Ted the story of the deer in the life his dad and I shared, and in the ancient psalm somehow helped him feel alone. I hope the walks we took in that same park, always accompanied by the story of his dad and I becoming engaged, did the same.

Sometimes I answer my longing for Scott and Ted by taking my mind to that long-ago glade that warm December day.  I recall the gentle gaze of those deer, and I know...

Grief is a thin place.

 

March 4 — Episode 19--Bees

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is Psalm 19:

 

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another,
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language,
and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands,
and their message to the ends of the world.

In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun;
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again;
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever;
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold,
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened,
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can tell how often he offends?
cleanse me from my secret faults.

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

----------------------------------------------------

         I am no psalmist. The psalmist longs for God’s will above all else. “More than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb.”

I long for my beloved dead above all else. I can imagine nothing sweeter than their laughter. I hold great hope in heaven. I imagine reunions beyond my imagining.

On the edge of my hometown, there’s a little graveyard in the shadow of the brick building that was once a church. I am connected to most everyone whose remains are buried there – at least in the old section. I took comfort in the corner where my first husband’s marker was in the shadow of my grandparents’ stone. Scott and I had met in my hometown, and he embraced it as his own. Our son, Ted, and I planted many a flower and bulb in that corner.

Twenty-five years after Scott’s death, the time came to bury Ted’s ashes. I was consoled by thinking of part of him sharing part of that corner whose soil he knew. But the groundskeeper had to explain to me that there was no more room in that corner. He did so gently, but I felt the lack of space to yet another cruel reality.

The groundskeeper found a spot in the old section that would be large enough, and so I that is where I wept as I placed Ted’s urn that autumn. The next summer, I returned to place Scott’s urn beside our son’s. A friend of Scott’s and a friend who is a priest would join me to hold a quiet ceremony.

As the day drew near, it became increasingly important to me to have flowers at the gravesite. Ted and I had taken comfort in planting flowers for Scott. And so I found what looked to be a lovely summer arrangement online – mostly white, but punctuated by the dramatic pink rubrum lilies we’d chosen for our wedding. When I learned the arrangement would cost $150, I was taken aback, but ordered them any way.

A few days later, one of Ted’s friends got in touch with me. He had been on a state website that listed funds citizens were owed. He didn’t find any for himself, but when he typed in Ted’s name, it was clear that Ted was owed…$150. I claimed the funds easily enough, although it was never clear why he was owed the money.

As anyone who has loved someone beset by addiction of any kind understands, it’s a complex situation, and it draws problems to it like an unrelenting magnet. One of those problems is invariably money. Early on, Ted promised told me he’d repay me every penny I lent him for lawyers and probation fees and rent and one of our shared goals for him was financial independence. We were getting there, but we never reached it, and that was a source of guilt for Ted, and of practical concerns for me.

The June day of re-interring Scott’s ashes was what I’ve come to think of as “practically perfect” weather. “Practically perfect” was the weather headline the day Scott had died so many Junes before.

The flower arrangement itself was beyond “practically perfect.” It was exquisite. As I knelt on the ground to gently place Scott’s urn in the ground, I was so grateful to look up from that gaping hole of death to see a glorious mix of roses and snapdragons and lilies, especially the rubrums in every hue of pink.

But mostly, I remember the bees. They hummed throughout our prayers and tears, busy with pollinating, bridging blossoms and, in ways I couldn’t understand, braiding together earthly regrets with eternal love.

It is always hard to leave that graveyard. But that day, flanked by two friends, with the vision of the flowers Ted bought for his dad, and with the hum of the bees in my ears, I was able.

Grief is a thin place.

 

March 3, 2018 — Episode 18--The Piano

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is from Mica, chapter seven verses 14 through 15 and 18 through 20:

Shepherd your people with your staff,
the flock that belongs to you,

which lives alone in a forest
in the midst of a garden land;

let them feed in Bashan and Gilead
as in the days of old.

As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt,
show us marvelous things.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over the transgression
of the remnant of your possession?

He does not retain his anger for ever,
because he delights in showing clemency.

He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.

You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.

You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and unswerving loyalty to Abraham,

as you have sworn to our ancestors
from the days of old.

“He will again have compassion upon us,” today’s scripture says, but for those of us who grieve, the only really satisfying compassion is to be reunited with our beloved dead.

The place of grief is a place of longing, a longing to unite the past with the future with the presence of those we love but see no longer. In the meantime, it’s only the kindness of others that keeps us breathing.

I heard a story the other day told by a man who has made his living as a long-distance mover for several years. He got to talking about objects. Nearly everybody he’s ever moved is attached to at least some of the objects he’s moving for them. Sometimes it has to do with monetary value, but more likely than not, it has to do with memories.

He once moved a baby grand piano across the country. It was probably worth a lot of money, but it was important beyond money to its owner. She was a young woman, moving to a place where she knew no one. Her husband worked long hours while she cared for their toddler. It was sometimes a lonely life, but she took pleasure in playing the piano, specifically the baby grand piano they were moving. She had learned to play the piano on this very instrument, as had generations of her family before her. She was already taking the toddler in her lap and letting him pound away to his heart’s content. Playing that piano gave voice to generations of love.

The move came on an overcast day, and as the movers tightened the ropes to lift the piano to its new home in a high rise apartment, it started to sprinkle. Maybe the weather had something to do with the fact that just as the piano reached the end of its climb, the ropes…broke. And the piano came crashing to the ground, spilling strings and polished wood and pedals and memories.

The young woman stood there, clutching her toddler’s hand. She seemed to be in shock. She would be the last person to play that piano. Everyone was in shock, including the movers. And then one of them, one of the burliest, one who never had much to say, walked over to her. He put his arm around her. And just watched with her as the raindrops came faster and faster, splattering on the remains of the piano.

And one by one, all the other movers joined them.  Paying their respects to the piano, the woman, and her dreams.

In the future, when she grieved that piano, that move, that marriage, she could remember their compassion too.

Grief is a thin place.

 

Friday, March 2, 2018—Episode 17--Our Maple Tree

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is Genesis, chapter 37, verses three to four and 12 to 28:

Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am." So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me." So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.

He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, `Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him" -- that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

 

Joseph’s story doesn’t really start until he moves. Granted, it’s not a move he wants to make, going to Egypt as a slave, but nevertheless, it gets him out of the pit where he didn’t even have water.

Like a lot of people who grieve, I moved in the aftermath of my first husband’s death. I hoped the friends understood when I explained that I couldn’t imagine a future for our child and me as a family of two except by imagining it in a new place.

 

Grief had already taken me to a new place emotionally. It seems that the only choice grief gives us is to treat it as a diagnosis to be cured or to recognize grief as a place of change. I no longer recognized my life, or even myself as I rode an ever changing emotional roller coaster with inclines that sometimes frightened me. Scott died June 8, 1991, and all this time later, I still can’t articulate all the ways grief for him has changed me, and still does. But I know that the experience of cancer with him and losing and loving him is the most formative of my life.

The day Teddy and I drove away from the only home he had ever known, the only house I had ever owned, I was bowed down by guilt. His dad, Scott, and I had loved Pittsburgh, where we had moved knowing only each other. We claimed its hills and rivers, its baseball team and its symphony, its friendly ways and just-right-size as our own. Was I being disloyal to leave for a city we’d never visited?

And what of Teddy? He had done beautifully his first year of preschool. He liked the toy moving van I bought him to play with, but he didn’t like the for sale sign in the front yard, and every chance he got, he tried to pull it out of the ground. Was I uprooting him for good or for ill?

Teddy was barely two when his Dada died, but he understood that his dad had planted the young maple tree in our front yard when were expecting him. Scott died in June, and so we saw the leaves turn colors and fall, then the bare branches covered with ice and snow, then with buds, then with leaves again before we moved.

One afternoon as Teddy napped shortly before we moved, I plucked three leaves from the tree. I placed them in a picture frame and when we moved, I hung it in Teddy’s room. I hoped the framed leaves would somehow remind him of his dad’s love, even though we had moved across states, and even though his dad had moved across eternity.

I couldn’t have known then that Ted would have a maple leaf with Scott’s initials in it tattooed on his shoulder the day he turned 18. Ted knew my opinions about tattoos, but once he turned 18, he no longer needed my permission for a legal tattoo. I had no idea what kind of a tattoo he was planning, but when he showed it to me, I burst into tears. “I just wanted to be sure I wouldn’t forget him, Mom.”

Now Teddy is gone too, somehow, I hope, united with the dad he was afraid of forgetting. Their ashes are side by side, and while I’ve never thought of having a tattoo, I remember them with the ink of my heart.

Grief is a thin place.

Episode 16--“The Lottery”

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is Jeremiah chapter 17, verses five through ten:

Thus says the Lord:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.

They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?

I the Lord test the mind
and search the heart,

to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

 
As the psalmist says, “Who can understand it?” Who can understand why a friend’s baby was born with stage four liver cancer? Who can understand why my son outlived addiction only to die from the effects of Imodium, used by many in recovery to cope with nerve pain that outlasts their using? Who can understand why, in a prenatal exercise class, one expectant mom was the wife of an oncologist and another pregnant member was the wife of a man who became his patient?

I was the wife of the man who was the patient. I remember another doctor from when my first husband, Scott, was in the hospital for yet another chemotherapy, yet another futile attempt to save his life. He was a doctors who wasn’t afraid to show he cared, a doctor we respected because he had the courage, the audacity, to say that he didn’t know why Scott had contracted the cancer, and who wished with us for more medical options with more certainty. As the three of us spoke about the improbability of the “Who can understand it” situation in which were living, the doctor muttered as much to himself as to us. “Remember that old song?” he asked. “If it weren’t for bad luck, you’d have no luck at all. When we talk about how and why you got this cancer, that song keeps running through my head.

It may seem like a harsh comment, but I remember it as compassion. The doctor, the one to whom we went for answers and treatments, the holder of our hope, entered into our gloom, our despair, our agony. Like the psalmist, he asked, “Who can understand?”

There’s a short story by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery.” Maybe you know it. It’s about a small village that holds a ceremony each year. This ritual lottery ends in the stoning of one unlucky adult. They gather at 10 a.m. on the prescribed day and the survivors stone to death one of their own in time for lunch. No reason for this annual cruelty is given, although some nearby fictional towns have discontinued the practice.

My son, Ted, and I were English majors at the same college, 30 years apart. The better part of the last half of his life – he died at 27 – was marred by struggles with addiction, which breeds troubles like a hydra. But by the end, signs of hope were shining in his life as fast as stars on a clear night in the country.

One of those signs was that we were enjoying reading the same things at the same time, although we were separated by several states. We loved the suspense of Jackson’s story, and maybe because we’d lost the lottery with Scott’s cancer, neither of us were particularly shocked by the “Who can understand?” of the story.

Now I have two copies of Jackson’s short stories. In each book, the page where “The Lottery” begins is dog-eared. It’s the only short story in the collection we got to. I am left holding the artifacts of our relationship, asking, “Who can understand?” and I no longer know what my son wonders.

Grief is a thin place.

 

episode 15 (2/28) "no words"

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is from Matthew, chapter 20, verses 17 through 28:

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Losing my grandparents and parents was losing my past. Losing my husband was losing my present. Losing my only child is losing my future. Each of these losses is distinct, unique…and yet, each of these losses has taught me how little control I have. And each loss has taught me the power of companionship.

I don’t know if it’s a gift or a curse of grief, but grief teaches us how very little control we have. Disease runs its course, and while maybe we can hold it off for a time, death of some cause comes eventually.

All we can do is be there for each other. When I was in graduate school, I was dumped by a young man I wanted to marry. As I look back, I think I probably dodged a bullet. But at the time, I was devastated. One afternoon, I sat in the dorm room across the hall and sobbed. My friend handed me a box of tissues, and I sobbed my way through the entire box. Tissue after tissue wadded with my tears filled her trash can before I left.

When I thanked her later, she said, “But I didn’t do anything!” “You did everything,” I told her. “You stayed with me. You didn’t judge, and you let me cry.” I wonder still if she realizes what a gift she was to me that day when I could not see tomorrow.

The other day, an elderly friend of mine who is quite ill, told me she felt my son, Ted communicating with her across the thin veil that separates this world from the next. Ted, who died at 27, was particularly fond of this friend and her husband. Ted referred to my friend and her husband as “my unjudgemental grandparents.” Not only did their attention lack judgment, it was undivided. It was about the best kind of attention there is. No wonder each of his visits to me included plenty of visits to their house.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the other day when Ted’s adoptive grandmother, who is quite ill, told me she felt Ted in her hospital room. She was in that state of a little loopy and oddly clear when I spoke with her on the phone. “Teddy’s been visiting me,” she said. “He’s finally healthy and happy – he’s really doing well. He wants you to know that. And he wants you to feel better.” My friend’s thoughts shifted, but of course, my mind stayed on what she’d told me about Teddy.

I couldn’t visit my friend in person because I was out of town at the time, staying with friends. After I said goodbye, I wandered into the kitchen, where I told my friend.

“No words,” he said, “no words.” And he hugged me as I wept.

We drink the cup of life because we have no choice. Often, that cup is as bitter as our tears, as hard to swallow as opening our hand to let the dirt fall on a loved one’s grave.

It is company who are as frail themselves as tissue, friends who don’t have words, friends who share how thin the veil is, that keep us sipping the cup of life.

EPISODE FOURTEEN 2/27/18 “Miracles”

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is Isaiah chapter one, verses two through four and verses 16 through 20:

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:

I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.

The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;

but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,

offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,

who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,
learn to do good;

seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;

though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;

but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Good Lord, O Lord! Good Lord! Nowadays, this is what we call a Prosperity Gospel! You know, the idea that if we’re good, we’ll get what we want. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished. Never mind that we’re all people who do things that are both good and bad, both wise and foolish. You hear it all the time in statements like, “Anyone can be a success in this country if they just stay in school and stay off drugs.” Statements like this forget that not everybody avoids freak accidents and unpredictable diseases, that not everybody has a functional IQ, that not everybody has the full belly, the clean water, the love, the luck, the encouragers of curiosity to do so.

So when I find this attitude in the Bible, in churches, in people, I get angry. Because no amount of prosperity gospel, or any other gospel for that matter, stops funerals from coming. And this attitude that everything is in our control sets us up for death as our failure. And death is either your failure, God…or it’s a transition that calls your kindness into question.

When my son, Ted, was not yet declared legally dead, but lay in a hospital with no signs of life, the babysitter who had seen us through his dad’s death 25 years earlier visited. As I dozed one night, she kept vigil. I would open my eyes and see her hovering with love, holding his hand, praying in whispers, begging you, begging Ted, begging his dad, to please, please, please let this 27-year-old beautiful, compassionate, creative, boy of your creation….to just live. To be a miracle. To bring his mix of wise and foolish, of stupid and smart, of good luck and no luck at all, to pour into love for his grandchildren.

We had prayed the same when Ted’s dad, Scott, battled cancer for as he turned 32. We lived with a cancer diagnosis for eight months and four days, about the length of time we knew we were pregnant with Teddy. But Scott’s cancer diagnosis ended in death instead of in life. And yet when Mary burst out, “I don’t understand why you can’t get a miracle!” I looked across the tubes and machines and blinking lights and flat lines at her and said, in all sincerity, “Oh Mary, there’s no greater miracle than eternal life.”

I meant it then, but now I want to barf. Ted had no descendents. Scott had none. And I have none. And Again and again, I have learned how thin the veil is, but again and again, I learn how the veil on this side, any way, is woven with a warp of pain and a weft of tears.

The veil is very thin.

Episode 13 (2/26) “Gregory”

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is Luke chapter six, verses 27 through 38:

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

-------------------------------------

My son’s struggle to grow up was mired by drugs and alcohol. Sometimes I regret Ted’s life as a trail of wreckage, carnage, detritus of a life wrecked by my mistakes, his mistakes, the limits of love, the power of addiction.

Sometimes I wonder if the most painful times for Ted were when he was on the upward spiral, not the downward. The upward spiral required an unblinking look at his damaged body, his damaged relationships, his damaged future. And in a blink, with one little misstep, everything could get worse, -- or, with a pill or a needle or a bottle, everything could get forgotten, at least for a moment, until it got worse again.

I am so very proud that Ted was in an upward spiral when he died. And I hope I helped during those tough upward times by reminding him of his innate goodness, of his deep compassion, of his brave love.

At one point in his life, Ted wanted to be a chef. He had the passion, the creativity, and the willingness to start as a dishwasher. Unfortunately, the kitchens where he worked were often full of pills and booze and an ethic that drugging was part of cooking.

Ted met a man named Gregory in one of those kitchens. Before Gregory ended up in prison, he forged checks and otherwise stole from several people, including Ted. Ted was one of many who didn’t keep what he knew about Gregory’s thefts from the police, and he was relieved when he learned that Gregory wouldn’t be in his life for a long time.

 

Here’s something you may not know about people who wind up in prison, like Gregory did: Many of them are well-educated. And they’re not all scary. Lots of them are extremely creative, and extremely sensitive, and those traits haven’t always served them well. Because they experience the pain of living double-deep. Gregory studied music composition and theory at a prestigious School of Music. He’s fluent in a couple of languages. He’s fascinated by mystical poetry. In fact, he named his cats Rumi and Shams, in honor of the 13th century Persian poets I hadn’t heard of until I met the long-haired Rumi and Shams.

 

I met Shams and Rumi because, when Gregory went to jail, his former roommate had to move to a smaller apartment where pets were not allowed. When the roommate mentioned to Ted that he was going to take Gregory’s cats to the pound, Ted said, “I’ll take care of them. They shouldn’t have to go to the pound.” Ted loaded the cats and their equipment into his rattletrap of a car, and unloaded them into his apartment, where he hid the cats until he learned that pets were indeed allowed, with a monthly fee.

 

Ted became the cat’s chief petter and human playmate. He took them to the vet and changed their litter boxes. He called himself a “Feline Foster Father.” When he told me, I was shocked. Ted usually referred to cats as “the one kind of animal I don’t like.” But Ted came to love Gregory’s cats and care for them as if they were his own. And the cats came to love Ted.

Gregory is out of prison now, working, going to mass, staying clean and sober, and generally adjusting slowly but well to his new life. His latest accomplishment is buying a used car. It makes getting to work and the grocery store easier. Sometimes, Gregory posts selfies on Facebook, grinning with cats on his lap -- the same cats Ted fostered for him. You can almost hear the purring.

Every time I see one of those pictures, I thank Ted. Ted saved the cats for Gregory, whom prison saved from near-certain death. And Ted saves me from despair. Because he teaches me, once again, that compassion is stronger than death.

Grief is a thin place.

Episode 12 (2/25) “Just the Right Fit”

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me.

Today’s scripture is from Genesis chapter 17, verses one through seven and 15 through 16.

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.’

“God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’

I grieve the loss of grandchildren. Unlike Sarah, unlike Abraham, I have no descendants. My only child, Ted, died before becoming a father.

I drove Ted to the rehab center the day he decided to enter treatment for heroin addiction. Ultimately, Ted beat heroin, but two years later, he still had nerve pain, and turned to Imodium for relief. He took too much, went to sleep, and didn’t wake up.

In the car that hopeful, hellish, August day, our conversation turned to Ted’s desire to be a dad some day. He told me he planned to name a child “Scott” in honor of his dad who passed when Teddy had just turned two. I still remember the proud lump in my throat. And I remember envisioning a proud, healthy Ted beaming as he held his baby in his arms, somewhere in the future.

Now I do not know what to do with the baby clothes and toys and books I saved for Ted’s children, for my grandchildren. They hang in closets and fill drawers and closets and shelves. And once in a while, I seem to find a new home for them.

I found one the other day.

I belong to an online group of women, many of whom attended the same Divinity School I did. I haven’t met most of the women, and many are much younger than I am. One of them is the mother of three boys. A little over three years ago, she gave birth to a daughter, Mina. Unexpectedly, Mina lived only three days.

Now my friend is about to give birth to a second baby girl. As it turns out, this little girl is due on my birthday. Which made me think of the baby dresses in the top drawer of the dresser in the guest room. A neighbor who happened to be in the Philippines shortly after I was born brought back a half dozen paper-thin, pure white, hand-embroidered dresses that my mother dressed me in my first summer. They’ve yellowed some, but they’re still exquisite.

I realized the dresses would fit my friend’s new daughter during her first summer, and when I asked if she would like them, she wrote me right away. “We’ll cherish the dresses. My husband is from the Philippines, and we don’t have any of his or his siblings’ baby clothes, so they will be meaningful in that way also. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Gemma will know where the dresses came from, and she’ll know how special you and Ted are to our family.”

I had no idea my friend’s husband is from the Philippines, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever meet Gemma – or any of her family. But I feel that grief is bringing those tiny dresses home.  

Grief is a thin place.