An Open Letter to My Sister Who is Dying*

THERE. I said it. That damn D word.

I will call dying out as the damnable thing it is even though I hate swear words. Even in private. There’s enough ugliness in the world.

But I hate more what’s happening to you.

I’ve been dancing around it ever since you were diagnosed as Stage Four. Not the kind of happy dance you did at the end of our driveway after Amber and Ben’s wedding reception. Instead this awful verbal two-stepping I’ve done around what you’ve never been afraid to face.

“Dying’s not so bad,” you said to me last month between coughs. “Other than the pain. This is the best way to go. Time to plan. I’ve done what I wanted to do. I have no regrets.”

Your steady voice.

So matter-of-fact.

So very Catherine.

So what that we’re not sisters in any kind of way a birth certificate can prove? You have plenty of those. I have one I treasure too.

Kindred Spirit Sister. That’s what you’ve been to me, Cath.

From the time we met on the Cape over 20 years ago, you’ve been Anne-with-an-e to my Diana.

Israel March 1996

Sitting between mom and me on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, 1996

Fearless when I was cautious.

Candid when I was guarded.

Exuberant when I was hesitant.

Long red hair aflame, you whirled into our lives reminding me of nobody never I’d ever seen.

Neighbor first. That big old Victorian you shared with Doug around the corner in our village.

Friend next. You two plopped into a pew at church and declared you’d come home.

Sister last. And always.

Because who but a sister would do what you did that time at the Cape Cod Mall?

You disdained shopping. Prized your quiet weekends on the Cape after those hectic 12 hour days as a high-producing executive in Boston.

So when you ran into the mall for a minute that summer Saturday and rounded the corner, why did you even break stride when you saw my five crazed kids darting every which way, me needing octopus arms to corral them all?

But with a clap of your hands you had them at hello.

“Rowe kids!” you exclaimed and they stilled, sensing Something Good might be about to happen.

“There is a great kid movie at the Cape Cod Cinema,” you improvised (knowing that a family of seven never afforded such things.) “And here I am feeling sorry for myself because I have no kids to go to that movie with.” (A suspicious sorrow dredged up that very instant.) “When who should appear but two beautiful girls and three boys?!

“Who wants to go with me?”

And with arms around shoulders and the fast retreat of 10 sneakered feet, you left me, pathetic with gratitude and guilty with grace, until a note arrived thanking me the following week.

Blue cardstock. Boston postmark. I have it still.

You took five active children off my hands, paid out of your own pocket for movies and popcorn and hot chocolate, and then you wiped out my mom-debt by insisting I had done you a favor?

It’s a story I’ve told many times since. But I have lots of Catherine Stories that might never get told because you beat me to the punch there too.

May 2001

When Mike & I celebrated our Silver Wedding anniversary, you offered to be my bridesmaid.

“You can speak at my service,” you said, “but don’t go on too long.”

So I can’t tell about the time a blizzard blanketed the dark streets of Osterville and you greeted me and the kids at your backdoor, coat tossed on over nightgown, your face brightening when you saw the snowfall?

“Snow angels!” you cried. “Kids, let’s go!”

And nightgown and all, you flung yourself backwards into a drift, young ones tumbling next to you, laughing.

Or what about our 90’s Sister Act with Claire, all sparkles and lipstick and Big Red Hair? We got it on video 20 years later, didn’t we, this time with a tiara perched on your wavy white chemo-‘do.

From a thousand miles away I can hear you wagging your finger, perfectly manicured as always.

Don’t you go on too long,” you warned. “And don’t talk about me. Make it about God.”

With you, Catherine, it’s always been about God.

Business acclaim and designer suits, decorator homes and four master’s degrees, you’ve dismissed it all. Always a careful planner who liked to travel, you made the decision about your final destination decades ago. I’ve heard you say it a hundred times.

Jesus. Without him I have nothing. When I’m with him nothing else will matter.

“Dust to dust,” you say cheerfully. “I want my ashes scattered in the pond and garden. And at the service we’ll give away those bottles we saw in Israel – what were they called?”

“Tear flasks,” I manage to get out.

“Yes, those!” and I think I hear you clap. “They’ll be the party favors.”

“But Catherine,” and now I’ve lost it good. “I don’t want to be at that party when you’re not there.”

Silence hums along the wire. Coughing.

“I have never been happier in my life,” you say, “but now I’m tired. We need to say goodbye. But we’ll see each other again, and maybe I’ll have red hair!”

January 2014

With the hats you got us on PEI so I could be a redhead too

The connection is broken. I stand there a long time.

Struggling. Finally conceding.

You’ve always been good at living – throwing yourself headlong into whatever needed doing. Now you’re showing us what it means to be good at dying too. And even though you’re younger than I am, it looks like you’re gonna get Home first. You always were a little competitive that way.

But you know what, sister? When my time comes I’m gonna know you whatever color ‘do you’re sporting in heaven.

And I promise not to talk about you at your service. Not too long anyway.

I always was a little bad that way.

Till I see you again, your kindred spirit sister,

                                                                                                                                               Maggie

January 2014

With your post-chemo lamb ‘do

*At the time of this posting, Catherine has hospice care and is undergoing a final clinical trial. We pray for her fervently every day and KNOW that God can heal her any way He chooses – medically or miraculously – before He heals her eternally. Life is terminal for us all. I’ve asked our friend Judy to read this letter to her so she’ll know what I plan to say at her service when the time comes.

“Than smoke and mist who better could appraise

The kindred spirit of an inner haze?” Robert Frost

Hunger Pains

It took me three years to figure it out. 

The answer, that is, to the two most frequent questions friends at church have asked me since I started a master’s program in biblical studies in August of 2011.

“So why are you doing this exactly? What do you plan to do with your grad degree?”

These are legitimate questions to pose to a woman in the autumn of her life–a season when one traditionally begins hunkering down to prepare for retirement, reduce the velocity of life, and enjoy extended rest. Why begin studying Scripture so intensively now in what is unarguably my third trimester of living?

The answer is so simple I missed it until after I turned in my final paper two weeks ago.

When you’re hungry, you eat.

     When your soul is growing lean, you seek sustenance.

             When good food is within reach, you don’t pass it up.

My commencement ceremony is now in the rearview mirror, but here’s the prodigious thing every student learns. Commencement is just the beginning.

 You’re not finished; you’re just getting started.                           

        With privilege–to learn, to stretch, and to grow–comes responsibility.                                     

            When you’ve been well-fed, you want to be sure no one else goes hungry.

With mind-numbing exams, multiple evenings of research in the library, countless academic papers, and 42 intensive credit hours behind me, I’m no longer carrying the heavy backpack of time demands I have for the past 36 months.

But to grasp the diploma in one hand and reach for the remote control with the other? To drink deeply of the fountain of knowledge, wipe my mouth and walk away?

 To whom much is given, said the Master, much is also required.

Starting this month, First Baptist of Wheaton is offering each member the opportunity to engage Scripture in a fresh way through the Community Bible Experience (www.CommunityBibleExperience.com), an eight-week Bible reading program that allows readers to approach the books of the Bible as a complete narrative sans chapter and verse breaks and study notes.

I’ve offered to serve as a host or leader if needed. Because I have nothing else to fill my time? 

Not quite that. Full-time work sometimes overflows its 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. banks, and our Sunday Night Sisters mentoring program for college women starts up soon. I’m also eagerly looking forward to hosting a Tuesday evening neighborhood Bible study taught by my awesome neighbor and OT scholar, Sandy.

But despite just having finished three years of intensive Bible study, I want to be part of CBE whether or not a small-group leader is needed. I can’t wait to plunge back into the New Testament with fresh eyes and open hands this fall.

No need to ask to ask why. I already know.

Hunger pains.

The Fawn, Reprised

fawnAfter I related the story of Libby and the fawn, the small moment shared in last week’s post, my coworker Katie brought me a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mary Oliver that describes a similar incident. As Oliver notes, Such gifts, bestowed, can’t be repeated.

Libby’s maternal grandparents live in a house near the corner that, like Oliver’s, bears a name.

Perhaps we will rename it Gratitude.

The Place I Want To Get Back To

Is where

In the pinewoods

In the moments between

The darkness

 

And first light

Two deer

Came walking down the hill

And when they saw me

They said to each other, okay,

This one is okay,

Let’s see who she is

And why she is sitting

On the ground, like that,

So quiet, as if

Asleep, or in a dream,

But anyway, harmless;

And so they came

On their slender legs

And gazed upon me

Not unlike the way

I go to the dunes and look

And look and look

Into the faces of the flowers

And then one of them leaned forward

And nuzzled my hand, and what can my life

Bring to me that could exceed

That brief moment?

For twenty years

I have gone every day to the same woods,

Not waiting, exactly, just lingering.

Such gifts bestowed, can’t be repeated.

If you want to talk about this

                Come to visit. I live in the house

                                Near the corner, which I have named

                                                  Gratitude.

- from Thirst, poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2006)

The Fawn

It happened so fast there was no time to capture the moment on film.

Every July we make our annual trek to the hills of West Virginia, where four generations of Mike’s family have gathered annually for nearly 35 years. We start gathering supplies weeks in advance: ingredients for the evening meal when we’ll take our turn cooking for 50-75 + of our kin. Books and gifts for those we seldom see. Sports equipment and beach towels, games and photo albums.

Every year we wonder whether Gramma and Poppa, the two solely responsible for the familial mayhem, will retain their unbroken attendance record.

Every year they do.

Nearly 91, Mike’s mom no longer careens around the go-cart track as she used to do in her 70s with the grandkids. Newly 90, his dad no longer flies down the water slide at Wheeling Park with the great-grands. New memories alight in Mom’s hands like butterflies that linger a moment and are gone. Old friends whom Dad looked forward to greeting when they moved back to New York this summer are gone.

Yet they make their way back to Family Camp each summer, smiling quietly in the midst of the riotous talk and laughter of seven children, 23 grandchildren and 30 great-grands plus assorted spouses and pets.

From the Bluebird cabin in the holler where we lodge with our own adult children, Mike and I awaken early this year, aroused by the stirrings of our year-old granddaughter in the room next door. We pace outside the door until a sleepy-eyed parent surrenders Libby to our eager arms.

Cheerios and sippy-cup in hand, Libby settles happily into her umbrella stroller for a morning walk up the hill to the cabin where for sure two Special Someones will be awake in the wee hours.

And sure enough, they are. Gramma and Poppa are already sitting at the kitchen table with a daughter or two. There is no time to waste when the years are slipping away like water between the fingers.

We push open the door, plop Libby on the polished wooden surface.

“What a beautiful child!” Mom exclaims each morning. “Look at those blue eyes. Whose is she?”

Libby Blue Eyes

“This is Elizabeth Marjorie Susek,” we say proudly. “Libby. Amber and Ben’s first child.”

And every day we have the extreme joy of introducing Mom to her newest great-grandchild.

But one day we linger too long. Libby starts to fuss and a call from her own mama beckons us back down the asphalt road.

And then we see her. A fawn, big-eyed and wobbly-legged like Libby, sprinting across the road before us minus her own mama.

She stops, turns, stares at the small one in the stroller. Considers for a moment, wariness warring with curiosity.

We wait, breath tucked into ribs, nothing stirring but the West Virginia wind.

It only takes a bound or two and the fawn is in front of us, staring at the baby who struggles to pull a greeting from her small stock of words.

“Doh!” Libby says delightedly. (“Dog”).

Fawns don’t smile, not really.

But we did. All the way home to the holler.

To My Granddaughter on Her First Birthday

Dearest Libby,

Twelve months ago today the world – our world – tilted a little. Spun crazy with joy. Panted, breathless, with the news.

She’s here!”

And your grandpa and I dropped like stones into chairs on the patio as I squeezed the phone tight, jabbing at the speaker button. Not allowing the smallest of words to escape into the humid summer morning. Not letting the thousands of miles keep us from such joy.

I’ve told you before how it was when you slid into the world with a whoop and a holler and amazed us all.You can’t hold those memories yet like we held you later, lying on your grandpa’s strong arms like an offering, swaddled with your daddy’s warmth and fragrant with your mama’s milk.

You didn’t do anything to make us adore you. You were only blueberry-big when the loving began. Maybe before that even.

And when the summer slept and you woke, smiling, your eyes fixed on my face, I started you on the stories. About your mama, how she was like that too when she was wee. And your daddy, how he sidled into our family some years back with his shy smile so that everybody loved him from the start, not just your mama.

Snow was coming down around the time you first sat up, reaching for anything you could pilot to your mouth. It wasn’t but a minute before you started to wave when our faces came on that computer screen, your fingers closing and opening, grabbing a little more of my heart each time.

Spring’s green ovation brought the clapping, your chubby hands meeting each other in the air as we looked on, goofy with gratitude. When was the last time your mama’s parents received such applause, and when did it ever matter before now?

You knew that your grandparents will do all manner of Silly to earn that smile. You still do.

And now the gladness is here that’s summer again and a year’s come round full circle. Your  very first birthday, babygirl!

So how could it be that this very morning it was your grandparents who got the gift?  Your mormor and your grandpa’s eyes blessed with the sight of you crawling towards us from a thousand miles away.

Reaching up to stroke our faces on the screen.

Pulled back into your mama’s arms as she smoothed your curls.

Grinning your daddy’s shy grin as you brought your fist for the first time just below those wide blue eyes, kissed it, and blew.

We felt that love all the way to Chicago.

Then, gift bestowed, you crawled away, off camera and out of sight.

It was the best birthday gift we ever did receive.

We love you Infinity, Libby.

Your mama will tell you just what that means.

 

Libby at one

Libby at one

 

T4 ~ Top Ten Travel Tips

Months before Mike and I left on our study tour of Israel, we polled friends who have traveled there recently.

“What are you really thankful you had along?” we asked. “Anything you wish you had taken?”

Their advice and our subsequent experience applies to international travel in general, so here in no particular order are M&M’s Top Ten Travel Tips:

10. Passport holder.

Years ago, my friend Marge gave me a slim black leather case (pictured below) that is the perfect size for the essentials you absolutely do not want to lose. Mine has four pockets for my cellphone, credit cards/medical ID, currency and, of course, passport. While traveling I sling it around my neck; at the hotel it easily slips into the safe.

9. Water bottle/carabiner

Other than in the winter or rainy season, Israel has a hot, dry climate. We were comfortable there even in late May, but it’s vital to stay hydrated. Bottled water is easily procurable but we’d rather save our shekels for other things. Carry a Nalgene bottle in your backpack or on a strap (as our guide did), or clipped to your belt loop with a carabiner.

8. Backpack/messenger bag

And speaking of backpack, you already knew you need one, right? When you’re away from your lodgings and on and off a bus all day, you need a hands-free place to stash a light sweater, sunbrella (wish I’d had one of these), notebook and pen, hat, camera and snacks.

Mike borrowed this striped one and I carried the small black citypack, but be aware that backpacks can be problematic in a crowded place. Due to security concerns you are better off in some venues without a bulky pack. Backpacks

I wish instead I’d taken a small messenger bag like our guide used. Slung over his neck and one shoulder, Yoni could easily reach into his bag for essentials and never had to be concerned about pickpockets coming up from behind.

7. Trail Mix

Breakfasts and dinners were included in our tour, but most lunches were on our own. We enjoyed midday meals of shawarma (shaved chicken roasted on a spit) and falafel (the ubiquitous fried ground chickpeas in pita bread that are the Middle Eastern equivalent of our hamburgers).

With the huge Israeli buffets that began and ended each day, though, we didn’t need much at lunch most days. A roll with some dried fruit and trail mix purchased and zipped into individual sandwich bags before we left was just right.

6. Practical Shoes

You already know this, but just a reminder: forget fashion. Go for comfort. And don’t purchase your shoes just before your trip. Break them in for a month or two first.

A coworker suggested closed-toe Keen sandals that I ordered from REI. They were perfect! And since they were waterproof as well, I could wade through Hezekiah’s tunnel in Jerusalem without changing shoes.

sandals

5. Pantyliners

Guys, this tip is for you too. Have you ever tried to change into fresh clothes in an airplane lavatory? Exactly.

Pick up a bag of these before you leave (30 for a buck at the dollar store), and make use of them for overnight travel when you hit the ground running upon arrival.

4. Clothes

Set out what you think you’ll need a week before your trip. Eliminate half. No one cares if you wear the same stuff multiple times. Take a clothesline and use the shampoo the hotel provides to refresh your wear.

(Another tip: many holy sites require “holy wear,” which means arms covered to the elbow and legs to the knees. I kept a shawl in my citypack along with a long lightweight reversible skirt, which was also much cooler than slacks.)

3. Hanging Toiletry Kit

I got mine from LL Bean before we left and loved having everything in one place. Travel sizes are easy to get from the dollar store or Target. Leave the full-size stuff at home (except for sunscreen – you’ll need it!)

2. Sound Machine

Mike and I have always liked to take a small sound machine (ours is from Brookstone) when we travel to maximize our opp for a good night’s sleep despite city noises. With the advent of smartphones and iPads, though, leave it at home and download a white noise app instead.

1. Currency Converters – plural!

Everyone knows you need one for international travel, but if you’re taking a laptop and cellphone along, you’ll need at least two.

So what I have forgotten or failed to mention? Please share your best travel tips too!

Mike & Maggie’s Messianic Mezuzah

So a mezuzah sounds a little like a Hebrew folk dance, right? Maybe the Jewish equivalent of a German polka or Polish mazurka?

But you can’t hang a dance on your doorpost, and that’s where our new mezuzah resides.

Back door

By definition and practical usage, a mezuzah (Hebrew: מְזוּזָה‎ “doorpost”; plural: מְזוּזוֹת mezuzot) is a piece of parchment, usually contained in a small wooden or metal case, that is inscribed with the words of the Shema from the Jewish Torah (known to Christians as the Pentateuch):

Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” is the clarion call of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the fundamental statement of Israel’s monotheistic faith. The passage continues with specific instructions.

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children.

“Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (New Living Translation)

Observant Jews take these words very seriously.

On our study tour of Israel the latter half of May, Mike and I noticed mezuzot of various types affixed to the doorframes leading into our hotel rooms – always shoulder-height and slanted towards the room.

We learned that mezuzot are so affixed to fulfill the mitzvah (biblical commandment) to inscribe the words of the Shema “on your doorposts” as Deuteronomy instructs. The inward-angle signifies that God and the Torah, symbolized by the mezuzah, are entering the room.

I love this imagery.

But Mike and I are not observant Jews but rather devoted Christ-followers. Is it kosher for us to hang a mezuzah on the most-used entrance to our home?

Most rabbis might say no, but then again Christians do not keep kosher Jewish dietary laws either.

Our mezuzah, purchased in a shop in Bethlehem from a Christian Arab proprietor, displays an ancient Christian ichthys symbol supporting a Star of David crowned by a menorah and the dove of the Spirit. We think of it as a messianic mezuzah symbolizing the fact that as believers in the Messiah, we have been grafted into the family of faith.

Mezuzah

But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree.” (Romans 11:17)

And when we return home each evening, pausing briefly to touch the mezuzah as we enter our home?

As Mike commented this morning, “No one but God can see the tiny scroll of paper with Hebrew letters that mezuzah contains. We didn’t place it there because of some magical belief that its presence protects our home.

“For me, it’s a sign of confidence and dependence. Confidence in the One the Shema acknowledges as our God and Father. Dependence on the One He sent to purchase our redemption.”

A messianic mezuzah.

It’s a little like a divine dance on a doorpost, don’t you think?

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