In Memoriam

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My sister and brother at our cemetery plot one Memorial Day weekend when we could still be close to each other.

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Many pilgrimages are made to honor saints or other holy people: pilgrimages to Jerusalem to honor Jesus, to Mecca to honor Mohammed, to Bodh Gaya to honor the Buddha, even to Graceland to honor Elvis or Cooperstown to honor the early baseball greats. Of course, we make these pilgrimages not so much for the dead saints as for ourselves.

Simply put, there is something in most of us that needs to honor the Dead.

I’m writing this on Memorial Day, the day we remember those who have died on the battlefield or, this year, those who’ve died of Covid-19. When I was growing up in a small Maine town during the 1950s, it was a major holiday. Our Memorial Day parade also served as one of my first pilgrimages, as, first in the Cub Scouts and then in the Junior High marching band, I walked from the American Legion Cabin in the center of town, first south, stopping at North Yarmouth Academy to honor the dead graduates, then on to the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries at Riverside, back to the Legion Cabin for a break, and then north to the cemetery by The Old Meeting House on the hill.

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Old Meeting House in winter. Photograph by Micah Brown

At each stop, there were prayers, and, if memory serves me, the playing of Taps. The stones of veterans were decorated with flags and flowers, and I’m guessing out of that tradition grew today’s more general practice of families, regardless of their military background, decorating cemetery plots on Memorial weekend.

I think it’s more than just tradition. When my daughter was dying of cancer, she told her mother and me that she didn’t want to be buried; that she wanted her ashes scattered over the ocean. Her mother couldn’t accept her decision, and after Laurie died, Patricia had a traditional funeral and our daughter’s ashes buried in her family’s cemetery in Downeast Maine. Divorced, shattered by Laurie’s death, I didn’t fight my ex-wife’s decision, just stayed away and had a private service on Sand Beach in Bar Harbor where Mary Lee and I waded into the December waters and scattered some burned mementos of Laurie in the waves.

But after I’d spent several angry years grieving Laurie’s death, a counselor told me that having a specific place to mourn my daughter might help me. For a while, I fought the idea, but one Memorial Day, when I was planting flowers on our family’s plot, I found myself needing Laurie there. For the first time, I sympathized with my first wife’s need to have her daughter with the rest of her family. So, I ordered a memorial stone for Laurie, and, indeed, it was healing. The stone gave me a focus for my grief, gave me, I suppose, a feeling of control over the great mystery of death. I could concretize it, decorate it, tidy it up whenever I felt the need.

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Writing today, I realize it’s not merely in cemeteries that I’ve honored the dead who have impacted my life. Looking around my house, I see it full of their presence, and I realize that besides honoring them, I’m keeping them alive.

Of course, photographs are the most common way to keep someone in our lives. Mary Lee and I have pictures of our parents and grandparents in almost every room of the house.  I also have photos of old classmates on the walls of my study and in the spare bedroom where I keep my treadmill. I have paintings which Laurie did on the walls as well as her craft projects on bookcases and end tables. (My favorite is her Fathers’ Day gift to me of eleven small stones painted in different colors, each one with two eyes, standing together in modeling clay on a wooden base, and titled, “Rock Concert.”)

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When my father retired from being a carpenter, he kept his hand in by making a number of wooden boxes, chests, candle and cup holders, all of which I have around the house, along with a wooden plate he carved with an intricate leaf pattern in the days before we had television.

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I have saved letters and emails from my mother where she talks about her childhood, which, along with a tape recording I made of her reminiscences, helps me remember not only her, but my grandparents and great-grandparents. I have a CD made from a tape of my Grandmother Cleaves, who used to play piano for the silent movies and who once had her own local band, “The Charmers,” performing at a party at the retirement community where she used to live.

I wear on occasion a turtlenecked sweater that used to belong to Dad, as well as two very loud sweaters that my father-on-law used to own, along with his Harvard crimson beret. Speaking of hats, I wear one of my old friend Scott’s Red Sox caps when I watch television. Until the strap broke, I used to wear my father’s swordfish billed cap, but now I have my own.

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And, although they’re harder and harder to find, I still wear the same kind of forest-green chinos that my Grandfather did. (Oh, and I also have his watch, which doesn’t run but which I can’t throw away.)

For me, these photos and paintings and knickknacks and clothing serve the same purpose as the stones in the cemetery that I’m going to decorate tomorrow (In this time of Corona Crud, I’m waiting until after the Memorial Day rush to avoid the crowds of people): they help me deal with the death that I’m getting closer and closer to, and they are a way to help keep the people I have loved alive.

And I realize all these remembrances are also a way to give thanks for the life I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy: a life filled with blessings I haven’t earned, often coming at just the time I’ve needed to be blessed.

If, as Ann Lamott says, there are only three prayers—“Help,” “Thank You,” and “Wow!”—these are memorials for those to whom I have said those prayers, those who have been the saints in my life, those who have shown me the meaning of the word Grace.

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Laurie Leigh Wile: Self-portrait, 1987

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“To Accept the Things I Cannot Change…”

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Decoupage by Kate Bell (Side One)

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At the beginning of this year, someone (I think it was on Facebook) suggested I pick a word to guide me through 2020. Because I struggle with it whenever I say AA’s Serenity Prayer, I chose the word “acceptance.” So far, I’ve been spending a lot of time grappling with this concept, trying to accept not only the pandemic world I’m now living in, but also myself, which I’m finding is a far more difficult thing to do.

First, I need to be clear about what I mean by acceptance. Look up the word in the dictionary and you’ll find that some of the definitions are “favorable reception, approval, favor,” meanings I don’t … well, I don’t accept. Nor do I agree with the opinions expressed in a blog entitled “Why you should never accept yourself.” The author writes that accepting something means you’re making excuses for bad behavior; that you don’t think that things can be changed or that you don’t want to change; that you’re letting other people tell you who you are, what to believe, how to behave. (This last one seems to me to be a big reason for a lot of the protests these days against stay-at-home directives.) The author of this blog is male, but I recall last year a feminist saying that she was not going to accept that she cannot change the sexism in this country.

I don’t think the Serenity Prayer’s “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” means making excuses for bad behavior. Nor do I think when Michael J. Fox—who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease for almost thirty years—says,  “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations,” he wouldn’t like his disease to go away. Or when musical composer Arthur Rubinstein states, “Of course, there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings,” he’s letting people tell him how to behave.

For me, acceptance means to acknowledge what is, without resisting or denying it, but also without necessarily liking, wanting, choosing, or supporting it. We are in a worldwide pandemic. I don’t like it, but if I don’t accept that, if I try to live my life as if the coronavirus doesn’t exist, I am endangering my physical health. And if I don’t accept that there are people listening to politicians who will say anything to stay in power instead of to doctors who have spent their lives studying diseases, I’m endangering my mental health.

I first learned about acknowledging without approving when I learned Centering Prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault used to tell us that while we were sitting in silence, “resist no thought, retain no thought, react to no thought…” Well, that was shortly after my daughter had died, and I was full of ugly, angry thoughts. One of which was that I was responsible for Laurie’s death, either because I had left her mother and remarried, or because I had stayed with her mother too long and she’d been caught up in the bitter fighting between us. No way, I said, am I going to accept those thoughts.

And I fought that thinking for years, until one night, I finally surrendered them. Okay, I said, at some level I am always going to feel I helped kill my daughter. It was as if a 1000-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Harder to accept than my character defects, however, are my strengths. As Nelson Mandala said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” When someone praises my virtues, I can become terrified. I feel I need to live up to them and that’s scary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sabotaged myself by following up on some virtuous act with something dumb or destructive. It’s easier for me to create some unreachable idea of perfection (usually based on some movie hero or athlete or spiritual saint) and then flog myself for not living up to that ideal.

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So, for me, acceptance is not about whether I like what’s going on. I’m also finding that acceptance is not, as some suggest, a passive process. Along with my daily calisthenics and practicing the scales on my banjo, I must actively practice the scales of acceptance. The other day, I was raking some dead leaves from our flower garden, and thought: “Yeah, acceptance is a bit like this—raking out the dead leaves of denial, judgment, shame, guilt, perfectionism so that acceptance (including acceptance of the fact that it may snow tomorrow)—can grow. I can practice acceptance toward what’s happening with the coronavirus, with people whose political views differ from mine, with my aging body, with my character defects and virtues.

And acceptance doesn’t mean I can’t work to change things. I can write letters to my national representatives urging them to stand against irresponsible behavior. I can phone people who are alone, and continue to “see” my grandchildren via Zoom. I can wear a mask in public even if others don’t. I can accept the fact that I’m 77 years old, and still exercise, still eat better. I can—as Cynthia suggested years ago—accept my emotions, while at the same time acknowledging their impermanence. I can tell my inner critic to get lost. I can forgive myself for things I’ve done wrong and work to make amends. I can grieve the loss of my unrealized dreams. And when all else fails, I can fake it until I make it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that I feel things are always going to be the way they are forever. One good thing about aging is that I’m learning that there’s Chronos, human time, and Kairos, God’s time. For years, I accepted that my body chemistry was going to change between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the months I spent watching Laurie die. And then, two years ago, I realized I was enjoying the holidays. And as I was writing earlier in this blog about always feeling responsible for my daughter’s death, I heard a voice: are you sure about that? In the last few years, I’ve discovered how my family’s history of alcoholism has caused me to want to blame myself for all kinds of things for which I’m not responsible. Maybe Laurie’s death will become one of those things.

So, what does it mean “to accept the things I cannot change”? More than anything else, I think it means being open to Grace, “gifts,” as I called them in an early blog, the undeserved help I’ve received in my life. Acceptance, it seems to me, is a stance that says no matter what comes, I know that the God-of-my-not-Understanding will give me the grace to endure it or to learn from it or to love it. Maybe all three.

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Decoupage by Kate Bell (Side Two)

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