The Gift of Rescue

I mentioned in my last post that my favorite uncle passed away last week.

Some time ago, one of my paternal aunts–my Uncle Joe’s wife–told me the story of when and where my bond with my uncle initiated: I was not quite two. The family had gathered and there was a heaviness in the house because of the passing of my paternal grandmother and one of my paternal aunts–my dad’s older sister–within six months of each other. With the curiosity of a toddler I was drawn to the trash receptacle, and my Uncle Joe patiently and repeatedly pulled me away. He followed me and stuck by me for the rest of our time there. Since then, she told me, we became each other’s favorite (Shhh…don’t tell the others).

My uncle served as a pastor for almost 43 years [in many parts of the United States], and I often called him my personal pastor. When I had a spiritual dilemma or crisis, I called Uncle Joe. When there was a wedding, Uncle Joe. When it was time to dedicate my child to God [christening in some denominations], Uncle Joe. When Karlette’s life was waning, Uncle Joe. When the family, again, needed ministering after hearing of the imminence of Lori’s passing, Uncle Joe. Funerals, Uncle Joe. No matter where he was in the country, Uncle Joe would come, my aunt a willing travel companion.

When my not-so-little one was baptized a few months ago by a pastor we respect and admire, if I’m being frank, our one disappointment was that Uncle Joe [because of a recent stroke] could not be in the water alongside him.

Beyond the rites and rituals of religion, Uncle Joe was my counselor, my spiritual advisor, and a friend of my heart. His compassion for others was palpable. It’s clear I’m not the only one who felt this way. Since their move to Northern Alabama a few years ago, I’ve noted the steady stream of former church members, friends, and people picked up along the way in their home.

I’m convinced he, like my mom, was a saint. He loved and adored my aunt and tolerated her strong will and the zaniness that comes with the family genes. [See the post on my dad to get a glimpse of my aunt’s personality]. He graciously tolerated my dad’s other two sisters, both divorcées, lightheartedly calling him their husband too.

My Uncle Joe had a keen spiritual wisdom that I rarely encounter. I’m not referring to religious rules or doctrine or biblical exegesis—though he was expert in each–but I’m referring to a wisdom that was steeped in a committed relationship [with God], in faith, belief, and trust; it resulted in a spiritual practicality that often unseated me.

When he preached my sister’s funeral sermon, in his urging us to take all the pain, anger, and suffering over the loss of Lori to God, he reminded us that God doesn’t cause death, that because God is Light and Life, death cannot abide in His presence. Instead, he taught, God stepped aside.

I’d never, ever thought of the relationship of God to death in that way, but there’s incredible [mind-blowing] common [and spiritual] sense in that statement.

While I don’t know all the whys and hows, I’m grateful for my uncle’s life. I’m grateful for his light and for the gifts he gave. He had a sharp wit and unique sense of humor that didn’t abate even though he experienced a brain injury.

Last November—out of the blue—he suffered a major stroke and a massive heart attack. Doctors did not think he would leave the hospital, but he survived and thrived for 10 more months. Fourteen years ago, he suffered a major heart attack—the one called “the widow-maker.” At my sister Karlette’s funeral six and a half years ago, he commented on the fact that the time of his heart attack [in 2005] and her first breast cancer diagnosis coincided. He mused that perhaps God kept him here so he could minster to us. Last year, he officiated my sister Lori’s funeral. Two months later, he suffered the stroke and heart attack. I’ve often wondered, was he kept here to minister us through two of the most difficult challenges of our lives?

When my sister Karlette passed away, another one of my dad’s sisters pointed out that by holding on till we could travel to her and say our good-byes, Karlette gave us the gift of time. As I think about my uncle’s crises last year, I’m sure that is exactly what God gave us—the gift of time. Ten additional months for the people in his world to go to him and love on him and support him and let him know how much he meant to them. Ten more months for his wife to dote on him and show him that she would be okay [eventually] if death were part them. Ten more months for his sons to express their love for him through giving their time and through the intimacy of care. Ten more months for us to witness his fight, his strength, his wit and his humor.

I’m grateful that I was given time to express to him how much he meant to me. I’m grateful that since their move here, my hubby and son were able to develop a relationship with him. I’m grateful that my aunt was given time to adjust to a different type of life and pull from stores of strength she may not have known she had.

The knife of grief is sharp and [seemingly] unrelenting, but I’m grateful for my uncle’s patience and the gift of rescue that brought us together. I’m most grateful for the power of the resurrection, the sure to come great reunion with our loved ones who fell asleep in Christ, and that final moment when “death will be swallowed up in Victory.”

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.  (I Corinthians 15:51-54 KJV)


Note: No worries about the whole “favorites” thing mentioned above. It’s a game my dad’s sisters and first cousins started when they were young. I fully intend to keep it going, but we won’t let the others know there is verifiable proof that I was his favorite. 😉

Today…

Today marks one year since my sister Lori’s passing, so I punched purple tulips in her honor.

Today, my sorrow over [both] my sisters is tangled up with grief over the loss of my favorite uncle, who ministered so ably and lovingly when we lost Karlette and Lori. He passed away two days ago.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to put into words all the things my uncle was and is to me.

Today, I sat in front of my window–journal and pen in hand–and desperately willed the words to come. They refused. Usually my readiest companions through the most challenging moments, lately, they have failed me time and time again.

So today, I punched purple tulips in honor of my sister.

Sylvia Barnes and Toni Morrison | Teaching, Preaching, and Doing the Work

Dr. Sylvia Barnes, October 2014.

Last week was not a good week for my heart.

Before I could digest the news that the literary goddess herself, Toni Morrison, had passed, I learned that Dr. Sylvia Barnes, one of my undergraduate mentors, had passed. With the news of both deaths, I felt as if every bit of oxygen was squeezed from my body.

As I sat through a brief meeting holding in the knowledge of their passings, I realized with everything in me that I am sick and tired of loss.

I’m tired of trying to find the words to express the deep sense of emptiness I feel when someone significant to me dies. There are no words for the love I can’t give, the unexpressed admiration and near deification of those who have profoundly impacted my life and who have had a strong hand in shaping who I am as a person, a writer, a scholar.

Sisters. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. Mentors. Professors. Literary goddesses. I’m tired of processing loss.

It is interesting that both women died the same day, August 5, 2019. I held both in high esteem for their unapologetic focus on black lives, for their commitment to excellence, for their wisdom, for their very humanity.

Dr. Barnes was the Toni Morrison of my undergraduate world. We were in awe of her—her standard of excellence, her fiery passion, her unflinching dedication to the deep study of literature, language, and light. Her dignified presence filled any room she entered. She taught eager undergraduates so many things, not just about literature but about life and love and how to navigate the madness of the world. I distinctly remember some of the wisdom she shared about the importance of reading in gaining and creating knowledge, about relationships and love and attraction.

In her raspy voice, with polished Jamaican accent, she urged us to “Read, read, read everything you can get your hands on. Read!” She wasn’t just an English professor. Like Baby Suggs Holy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved–preaching in the clearing–she was a divinely inspired preacher offering keys for life; every single class with Dr. Barnes felt like a sermon of love for our beautiful Black selves.

When I struggled with racism in graduate school, I reached out to her for counsel, and she candidly shared stories of her own similar experiences while in pursuit of the doctoral degree. Somehow, just knowing she overcame them intensified my determination to push through.

Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe–50 Years Anniversary of Things Fall Apart.” December, 2008. Photo by Angela Radulescu

I spend a great deal of time studying, teaching, and writing about Toni Morrison’s novels. My first real encounter with her came when I was in college through my own not-for-a-course reading. The Bluest Eye left me in utter despair. I had read other black writers. I was drawn to them because of the way they spoke to an American experience with which I could identify. But it was Toni Morrison who awakened the scholar in me, who made me ask questions and drove me to write about books; it was her body of work which led me to theorize through literature the unique experiences of Black girls and women.

It was Sylvia Barnes who showed me I could, who encouraged me to use my singular voice to speak about Black girls’ and Black women’s experiences.

It has only been a week, so I’m still processing these losses and what they mean to me. These women—goddesses, really—have filled me for more than half my life and have prepared me for their parting. Though they toiled tirelessly, there is yet much work to be done. The mantle has been passed on, and we—those of us who write about, think about, theorize about Black experiences—must get down to business and with urgency do the work.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge–even wisdom. Like art.  Toni Morrison, The Nation, 2015

Photo from Pixabay

A Perfect Gift

Today began with grace. For the first time in six years, I woke up without the significance of the date weighing heavily on my heart. Though, this time last year, I could not imagine that I’d be mourning the the loss of another sister, I also did not imagine that we would welcome my sister Karlette’s first grandchild into the world.

Our Little Angel

And it is her beautiful presence that brightens today and gives a bit more of Karlette back to us.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. –James 1:17a

Still. Covered.

“Be Still,” mixed media art by Lisa Larson

Thanksgiving Break ends today. The break I looked forward to since September. Time to be still and allow at least some healing to take place. A little time to just be and allow my grief to spill out without having to hold back or rein it in, without the persistent demands of first-year students or the expectations of colleagues.

But.

That didn’t happen. I’ll spare you the details of the “instead,” but tonight, I was noting how things sometimes come in a torrent. Without warning. The storm beats on us relentlessly and we can hardly catch our breath between lightning strikes. We want to do something, but the only thing we can do is take cover.

And that’s what I did.

I took cover from doctors who spoke doom and gloom. I took cover from the constant barrage of questions and requests from students (yes, during the break). I took cover from fear of all the “what ifs.” I took cover from the emotions that surged to the surface when my bestie told me she lost yet another person in her life to cancer. I took cover when my other bestie got a “not good” prognosis for her mother’s condition. I took cover when yet another bolt of lightning struck just yesterday. I took cover when the little frustrations of life were sure to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

I took cover in the Word of God, in the knowledge and experience of who He is, and I rested in His embrace.  I found shelter there because when faced with the impossible, there’s nowhere else to be.

Some time last week, I received the card above from one of my dearest and most constant friends. It felt like a warm and much-needed hug, the hug that says, “I know…and this is the way through.”

I’ve been on a journey with stillness for years now. Some days, I’ve mastered stillness. Others…I stand in place, fretting and fidgeting. The card arrived when I was feeling the full brunt of all of the impossibilities that life has become, when all the disappointments were dancing before me and taunting, tempting me to fall apart. It was my call to do nothing. Be still. Relax against the onslaught and simply hold on to the God who will not, cannot let me go.

And that’s where I am tonight as I face the grueling last days of the semester with all the stuff that was there before and all the stuff that came up since…

Still. Covered.

They Lived “Their Brightest Lives”

“The Brightest Sunflower.” Photograph by Eileen V.

despite knowing
they won’t be here for long
they still choose to live
their brightest lives

rupi kaur, “sunflowers,” the sun and her flowers

Today’s sunflower love features the photography of my Love Notes friend, Eileen V. She captured the sunny bloom while out and about with a friend and sent the card with hugs, strength, and hope in light of Lori’s passing.

Eileen wrote that whenever she sees a sunflower she thinks of me and her daughter, Alanna, who also loved sunflowers.I did not miss the “past tense” in Eileen’s mention of her daughter, and I learned shortly afterwards that she lost her daughter some years ago to a tragic accident. It’s bittersweet to share a precious connection via sunflowers, and when I see them, I will think of Eileen and Alanna.

My heart breaks. It breaks for all of us who have lost someone dear to us. But it comforts me to know Alanna, Lori, and Karlette lived “their brightest lives” and touched so many hearts during their brief sojourn in this world.

#ThursdayTreeLove | The Oak and a Lesson in Self-Healing

Oak Tree in City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana, January 2017

This was not a good week. I was ready to throw in the towel by Wednesday morning, but I got up, dressed, pushed through the rest of the week, and kept Philippians 4:13 on repeat.

I’m taking a mental health day tomorrow.

In the last couple of days, I was told twice–in so many words–that I was being negative. Me? The person who always finds the rainbow and gives [almost] everyone the benefit of the doubt? The individuals who commented were right. The heaviness of unexpressed grief, of holding it together, and of having to navigate all of life despite my feelings was seeping out in unpleasant ways.

Each time, I went back to my office and asked God for forgiveness and a little more of His grace. He didn’t give the scolding I deserved. Instead, He gave empathy, reminded me of my humanness, and affirmed my decision to take some time away from the usual maddening routine.

Normally, when I’m in an icky place internally, my camera and a slow walk with the trees work together to adjust my mood. Not so this week. I walked almost daily, spent time with the trees, looked for unique perspectives to photograph and…nothing. My mood was unchanged. I realized, sadly, considering the trees isn’t always an effective panacea.

Today is #ThursdayTreeLove and I was so sure I’d write a post about the lovely trees I’d considered all week. I’m not fond of the idea of sharing this week’s photos, so I decided to share some from a happier moment–photos from a walk through City Park in New Orleans with my mom, one of my older brothers, and my baby sister.

We captured loads of photos on that walk, but today, we’ll take a look at one of the gorgeous Oak Trees in the park:

My photos aren’t great, but I’m sharing them anyway because I love the structure of the tree, the network of branches, and the way the tree seems to reach across the park toward the other trees.

You can somewhat see the massive size of the tree if you note my “tiny” brother in the lower right corner of the photo.

Trees and buildings in the background are puny by comparison.

The 1300-acre City Park of New Orleans is home to 30,000 trees, and proudly boasts “the oldest grove of mature live oaks in the world, including the magnificent Anseman Oak and McDonogh Oak, which are between 750 and 900 years old” [See Trees in City Park].

My guys and I spent so much time in the Park when we lived in New Orleans that we captured hundreds of tree photos. We were (and still are) especially fond of the Oak Trees. The trees are simply breathtaking. One day, I’ll go through my collection and select a few to share on the blog. For now, enjoy a little extra #ThursdayTreeLove with a few more City Park Oak photos on my hubby’s blog. I think you’ll enjoy “The Root of It All.”

I read somewhere that trees are self-healing. I don’t remember all the details of the process, and I certainly don’t expect to do the healing work alone, but there’s wisdom in turning inward, taking care, and doing my part. I coped a bit better last week because I was intentional about spending some time daily, allowing myself to feel and write and think. I did none of that this week and it showed.

Moving forward, I’ll put into practice the lesson of the trees.


I am joining Parul Thakur every second and fourth Thursday for #ThursdayTreeLove. If you would like to play along, post a picture of a tree on your blog and link it back to her latest #treelove post.