Finding Refuge in Change: Love, Nature, Goodbyes

Sometimes, death offers bittersweet reminders.

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Photo: Deborah McNamara (Rhea and Nick, 1959)

“I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.” — Terry Tempest Williams

I’ve been wrestling with goodbyes. Especially during these times of pandemic, each time I lay eyes on a loved one I feel keenly the unpredictability of our reunions. Not only are there complicated logistics to surmount in gathering, but there are also layers of vigilance enshrouding each visit with family members who are ‘high risk.’ When will we see one another again? What if one of us gets sick and ends up in the hospital? What then if we can’t find each other amidst quarantines and crowded ICUs?

My memory takes me to the difficult goodbyes, the times of intense transitions, and the final goodbyes with family members before they passed. There were hard days of goodbyes with my sons when they were little, and my heart had been constantly tugged with each separation.

The preschool goodbyes were particularly heart-wrenching. My husband summed it up well in an email reflection: “It was a heartbreaking goodbye — my heart still aches. Braeden looked me in the eyes with streams of tears coming down and said, “Bye-bye Papa.” It was like he knew with courage that the separation is an inevitable part of life but he was also holding his need to cry. I wish we never had to say goodbye to our kids. But this is just a taste of what is to come when they leave our home, and then when you and I die. Painful stuff and yet real…”

Before my grandmother died a few years ago, I’d visited her in South Carolina when her lung cancer was terminal and we knew her time was limited. Breathing through a tube of oxygen, she had been still poised, nails done, a paragon of loveliness even in the midst of a deadly illness. The few days spent with her during my last visit were like the weaving together of a multi-generational tapestry of life.

Time slowed down. My infant son was fresh to this life, mingling with his grandmother and non-verbally absorbing the history and felt experience that is unique to each family. My father, mother, brother, nephew, aunt, and grandmother all sat together in the smallest room of the house, surrounded by photographs. We all knew it was precious time. Priceless time.

Family stories were numerous, accompanied by the emotional undertones and overtones reminiscent of a life full of everything: remembering the love, the mistakes, the seasons of youth, the years of habit and routine, the joys and kindness. Photos from the 1959 vacation to Mexico were unearthed. Then there was my grandfather Nicks’ album from World War II and Iwo Jima, the photos from the last family reunion, and baby photos from the births of each of my sons.

There were happy memories knit together with sad musings about my grandfather’s final days. “Remember those pancakes he used to make on Saturdays?” Everyone smiles. “Remember the burned tapioca pudding?” Then, some tears are shed. Some are slow-rolling, some more fervent. My aunt cooked up a feast and my brother asked my grandmother what wisdom she would share for us young “foolish” ones. “Just keep loving,” she says. “Just keep loving.”

Eva Saulitis, another woman with terminal cancer, wrote in Into the Wild Darkness“Ultimately, what I face every day is death impending — the other side, the passing over into, the big unknown — what poet Harold Brodkey called his “wild darkness,” what poet Christian Wiman calls his “bright abyss.” Death may be the wildest thing of all, the least tamed or known phenomenon our consciousness has to reckon with…Can I take comfort in the countless births and deaths this earth enacts each moment?…Death is nature. Nature is far from over. In the end, Nature endures. It is strange and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”

With so many people facing loss right now, Eva’s words serve as a balm to my fears. Goodbyes are strange and hard. They are bittersweet. Yet in those final days with my grandmother, I learned to find solace in just being present with what was true. Yes, it was an ending. Yes, it was the last time together. I could choose to live these precious moments like I would relish a cool cup of water on a hot day, or a rest in the shade of an old, solid tree. I could feel my own season of life, knitting myself into a few precious days of drinking up memories and considering how I want to face change. What will remain?

Love. Nature. Goodbyes.

This time, I don’t grasp. Instead, I practice finding refuge in change. I listen. I sit still. I give myself over completely to this moment. Because I know all of this is fleeting. And so every day should be lived: giving ourselves over completely to what arises. Dip into homage and gratitude. Let go of bitterness or disappointment. Surrender to chaos. Let the full, zany days and years of raising young children be medicine for a lifetime. In the final hours, this shall all fade away with love in its wake. Some patterns dying while others survive. All: a blink of the eye.

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