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

Written on My Heart | #WordlessWednesday

Losing a loved one does not just make us
painfully aware of their mortality, but our own,
which comes with a great sense of responsibility–

to carry on living our lives a little more
mindfully, purposefully, and wholeheartedly,
now that they cannot

(I miss you and I will always love you) –-Emina Gaspar-Vrana

Today my sister Lori would have celebrated her 56th birthday. In the photo above are the last Christmas gifts she gave me–a brooch representing [us] six sisters joined by hip and heart and a beautiful sister-heart. She gave them to me last January–weeks after her diagnosis–when we made a special trip to New Orleans so she and I could have a sister heart to heart that I didn’t want to have by phone. While I struggle with the cruel reality of two sisters gone, I walk in the knowledge that not even death can remove the imprint of my sisters from my heart.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) –e.e. cummings

See You “in the Morning,” Sister-Girl

Lori Ann by Tapman Media

My guys and I traveled to New Orleans the weekend before last–to lay eyes on and touch my sister Lori, to love on her and pray over her. Even though she could not verbally communicate with us, she was responsive. She even opened her eyes briefly. In our prayers for a mighty miracle, we also submitted to Divine Wisdom. There was so much light in her, still so much fight that we walked away, hopeful that we’d see her again the following weekend.

That was not to be.

My sister, Lori, took her last breath a few days after our return, Wednesday night, September 12, just before midnight. And now, I feel like I’m holding my own breath…again.

I am angry. Disappointed. Hurt. Grieving miserably. I wish I could sit this one out and not go through it at all. I draw parallels between Grendel, the monster of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, and cancer, a horrible night-crawler that catches us unaware and snuffs out lives. Jealous over our happiness, our relationships. Our very humanity. And that horrible beast took Lori from us, like it took Karlette five and a half years ago.

One of my nieces texted me yesterday expressing her utter disappointment and anger about Lori’s passing. We were all praying that her desperate situation could become an incredible story of Divine intervention. I assured her that I share her feelings, and encouraged her to give full vent of her anger to God. He can handle it. Furthermore, He’s well acquainted with our grief and He’s just as hurt and angry as we are that we are going through this…AGAIN.

I read and reread the following quote almost daily for several weeks and finally shared it with my mom and sister:

God didn’t set this journey in motion. He’s just as angry as you are that you have to walk this road. But He promises you this: He will walk this road with you. And He will be there for you when you reach the end of it. God loves you.  –from the television series Touched by an Angel

God is a compassionate, loving Father, cradling us and weeping with us. His amazing grace, the blessed hope of Christ’s return to take us Home, preparation for the biggest family reunion ever, and a heavenly future without the suffering and pain of illness and death rescue me from the darkest depths of despair.

I already miss Lori like crazy. She was a good person, who welcomed all into her life and loved them deeply. She loved giving gifts, finding just the right thing. Like Karlette, she loved beautifying her spaces. She spent so much time babysitting many of the nieces and nephews that we can claim she “half raised” them. Her guys and two little girls (her granddaughters) were her heart, but there was so much room for many more.

Though I grieve over the loss of her, I do so with an unshakeable hope, rooted in Christ:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. –I Thessalonians 4:13-18

“Lavender Tulips for Lori,” by Tapman Media

We Are Infinite Because of Love

The last several days have been incredibly difficult–five deaths affecting people near and dear to me. It takes its toll. Yesterday, I wanted to blog about something hopeful, but I didn’t have the energy to pull a bit of light out of me. After a fitful night, I woke up and recalled a stack of mail I hadn’t gone through. In that stack was a postcard from my penfriend, Trang K, featuring the tomb of Frédéric Chopin at Le Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris. The image is part of the Oases of Silence 2018 collection.

On the postcard, Trang describes her walk “with deep solemnity” through the cemetery. Her words are appropriate for this moment:

Life has no beginning and no end as we each carry the memory of each other through our love and hearts. The sadness at the sight of the graves left me and I was left with the joy of celebration to be in the presence of [Frédéric François] Chopin, [Ferdinand Victor Eugène] Delacroix, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde.  May [we] celebrate each moment of [our] glorious [lives] knowing [we] are infinite because of love.

Few words comfort in the immediacy of a loved one’s passing. Action takes the lead when words fail: “When you can’t look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark” (Alice in Wonderland).

“Breast Cancer Has No Face”

Today marks two years since my younger sister’s passing due to cancer.  It’s not easier, as some assured me it would be.  Every day I think about her. Every day I fight tears and nail-spitting anger.  Every day I remind myself that this life is not all, that I have a “hope burning in my heart” to be reunited with my sister and other loved ones some day.

Last weekend, I did a bit of organizing and finally emptied some boxes of “nonessentials” from our move two and a half years ago.  As I emptied a box, here and there, I stumbled across something connected to my sister: an essay she wrote and sent for my review before submitting; a recipe for a smoothie she shared because I don’t like eating breakfast; an old journal with the plans we made for the book we were going to write together about her experiences; a prayer written in tears, pleading for her healing.

I found wrapped in lots of tissue the extras of the beautiful sun catchers she made for a women’s group I coordinated.  She’d made a similar one for all of us sisters for Christmas one year and since I liked it so much, she volunteered to make some for the group.

There is always something in a box or in a book or even on my cellphone or saved to my hard drive…these beautiful reminders of her life on earth.

There’s this precious angel saved in a text message.

IMG_2841

She sent this to me the night after she read my blog post that championed her “fighting like a girl” against the cancer monster.  She made the angel for a bulletin board in her middle school classroom, probably for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  In the 10-25-12 text message she wrote, “My angel is missing her halo.” For me the missing halo has become a metaphor for Karlette as she walked this earth.  She was indeed an angel without a halo to many through her many selfless acts.

In her message she also wrote the title of this piece, “Breast Cancer Has No Face”–her socio-political statement about a disease that has no boundaries, no consideration for a person’s name, income, or status, and certainly no cure.

For me, its face is very real and it bears the eyes of my sister.