Walking in Amazing Grace…

This is what grace does […]. Grace gives us the faith to be utterly assured of what we cannot see […]. It connects us to the invisible One in an eternal love relationship that fills us with joy we have never known before and gives us rest of heart that we would have thought impossible. And that grace is still rescuing us…  –Paul David Tripp (emphasis mine)

“Amazing Grace” is a powerful hymn. Whether I’m singing along with a congregation, singing alone, or simply reading the words, the lyrics always move me to tears.

When I watched and listened to my beautiful colleague, Julie Moore Foster, and her equally beautiful daughter soulfully sing “Amazing Grace” this morning, I was stunned into meditative silence.

Even before I reached the end, which presented a short montage of Julie’s oldest daughter’s life, I knew their singing of this song was not “just singing” but a powerful story of God’s work in the soul–His amazing grace.

They lost Témar at the beginning of 2015, a loss they walk with every day.  I “knew” Témar briefly; she was enrolled in my British Literature class her last semester of college, the semester I lost my sister. Two years later, I bonded with Hannah, the daughter featured alongside Julie in the video below, over our mutual loss of sisters.  A question in my Shakespeare course led to an intense discussion of disappointment, loss, and coping with the “most difficult” challenges of life–a moving experience that I might have the courage to share another day.

I know what it is to be saved by God’s grace, not just from sin and the ravages of this world, but rescued from the deep, murky pit of grief and despair that can suffocate and rob a life of meaning and joy. But when my mother, Julie, any mother–indeed any parent–can stand upright and sane in this messed up space where parents have to bury their children, I see clear evidence of God’s grace walking and talking among us.

Notes on the song/video: “Amazing Grace” arranged by Kelvin Wooten, Wayne Bucknor, and Julie Moore Foster. Direction and videography by William Jenkins. Audio production by WoodaWorx Productions, Inc. The song is part of Julie Moore Foster’s first album, Soul Songs. To find out more see: Soul Songs Project.

The “Other” Sister: “I didn’t have to fight…”

Although I’ve written about my younger sister Karlette who succumbed to breast cancer a few years ago, I have not mentioned Lori, my other sister, who danced with the devil. Lori’s diagnosis came a few years before Karlette’s first. I asked her to write a blog post about her experience, but she feels that she has little to add to the conversation. However, what she shared with me during the “trying-to convince-her” discussion says a lot about the feelings of some breast cancer survivors whose battles may not have been as “dramatic” as others’.

It has been hard for me to think of myself as a survivor. I really didn’t have to fight cancer. Karlette fought cancer. It kept coming for her and she fought with everything she had. I just went through treatments and it was gone. I’m not sure if I’ve ever celebrated survival. I know that there’s always the possibility of its coming back, but my plan would be the same[…]. I never thought of it as a fight. I thank God for His mercy and for blessing me when so many others had to fight and many even lost.

When I pointed out to her that her status as “survivor” is a matter of perspective, that every year she “holds her breath until given the ‘cancer free’ news,” she responded:

I do. [But] I give it all to God. I thank Him daily for every breath I take. Don’t get me wrong. I know I, too, could have lost, but I know that it was God who fought and won. Not me–not without giving it to Him.

It has been difficult for Lori being the older sister survivor when one of her baby sisters didn’t survive. She lives with profound sadness because of this reality. I watched her go through treatment, and it wasn’t pretty. Cancer changed her life. It changed her body’s chemistry and even impacted the way she processed our younger sister’s passing. 

A cancer diagnosis–no matter how positive the prognosis–is a sucker punch that a person feels deep in his or her being. Every cancer survivor lives with the possibility that “it” may return.

That is what makes survivors survivors–not “beating” the disease or coming through unscathed but the daunting reality of the disease; they’re survivors because they can stand up in the world and move and contribute and be [whole and well] with the looming possibility of such crippling news.

We lost Karlette. That’s an awful reality that hurts like hell. But losing her makes us celebrate Lori even more. Though we may never have the answer to why not Karlette too, Lori’s survival is important. It rescues us from despair. It gives us hope. And that is certainly a reason to celebrate.

The closing lines of my favorite Lucille Clifton poem comes to mind:

come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
[from “won’t you celebrate with me“]

*Photos in this post are from Pixabay.

To My Colleague with Breast Cancer: You Have This Moment

faith

I read a little of your story today and it broke my heart. I see you wearing courage and faith openly, but I know you’re hurting, suffering, and perhaps afraid. I want to talk to you, but I don’t know what to say.  That I’m praying for you? I am.  But how many times a day do you hear that?

Whenever I see you, I think of Karlette, my little sister. The loss of her. The grief that still challenges every waking minute.  The sorrow that changed me. That changed all who really knew her in unspeakable ways.  Knowing this very real loss of her, I cannot offer you empty platitudes and mere words. I will not ever say to you what many cancer patients often hear:  “You’re a fighter. You will make it.  You will come through this.”

hope

I don’t know that. Neither of us do. Unless we are speaking of a future in the heavenly realms, earth offers no guarantees. Faith that can move mountains assures us that God is faithful. But. Faithful God allows grief, disappointment, and sorrow.  No matter how unfair or mean or downright unacceptable it seems to us—faithful God says, “some sicknesses are unto death, some for testimony.”  This can be a hard, hard pill to swallow.  But it is truth.

I wouldn’t say any of that to you either. You already know it.  You began this difficult line of thinking when you first heard the diagnosis or when the treatments did not bring desired results.

Then, I remember a conversation with Karlette on one of my visits.  In 2011 or 2012.  She had so many battles, so I’m not sure of the year.  She was weary of people seeing her as a cancer patient, as a cancer victim.  When people saw her, she felt, they saw cancer and not her.  She wanted to talk about MORE than that.  She was so much more than that, but when cancer takes over your body and your life and you can barely lift your head most days, even you begin to wonder.  I remember saying to her—you are not your cancer.  Or maybe, she said to me–I am not my cancer.

I say it to you–you are not your cancer.  You are more than this disease that disrupted your happiness and altered your life so completely that you are no longer who you were. I say to you–embrace the uncertainty.  Live and dance and love in beauty and in the sacredness of your being, and be everything you are in this moment.  Only this moment is sure.

love

“Just Like Your Dad,” or Happy Birthday, Daddy!

 

Daddy.

Daddy.

“Just like your dad,” some people say to me. Typically, this is in reference to some unwavering position I hold on a particular issue. I’m not always sure of their meaning, but I take it as a compliment. My father is an honest, hardworking man of his word. He has impeccable integrity. Is he perfect? No. Can he be stubborn and contrary? Indeed! But it is because of his strong opinions and my having to battle him throughout my childhood and adolescence for the right to my own, that I do not waver with every “change in the direction of the wind.” It is because of his (and my mother’s) sacrificing that I know my worth. And because of the fierceness of his commitment and service to our family that I know the character of genuine love.

Today is my dad’s 81st birthday. Eighty-one years is a long time to be blessed with life and good health and love on this earth. It is more meaningful because my dad is the first among his parents and siblings to live beyond the age of 60. I imagine that he spent his years up to that point a little anxious…holding his breath a little. So we celebrated 60.  We celebrated 70. And then, 80. And 80 was major because we had not gathered as a family since Karlette passed.  There was something in the celebration that was more than just another birthday–it was a celebration of “being alive” and with family and close friends. For some of us, we celebrated for Karlette, who loved (and never missed) these family gatherings, and who would have been right there with us making much over Daddy. For some of us, it was intense because our last celebration of this magnitude–for my dad’s 70th birthday–where family and friends gathered was just weeks before Hurricane Katrina scattered us in different directions. For those of us who suffered loss after loss after loss over the last few years, the celebration served as a welcome exorcism of the heaviness of the grief that weighed us down.

That was last year. This year the celebration is a little quieter–as we had a huge family reunion a few weeks ago. But the day is no less significant. As I celebrate my dad and his day, I’m not only looking at today. I am looking back to the warmth of yesterday, meditating on all the intangible and imperishable gifts my father bestowed on his 10 children. I also look to tomorrow, as I realize these gifts are being instilled in generation after generation of his progeny. Though I cannot tell all that he is and all that he’s accomplished in one blog post, this is what I celebrate.

Thank you, Daddy, for being unapologetically who you are and for passing a little of that on to me.

Happy Birthday, with all my love…

 

Mom and Dad with all their children at their 50th wedding anniversary, 2008.

Mom and Dad with all their children at their 50th wedding anniversary, 2008.

Considering the Flowers…

Colors of Nature

“Considering the Flowers” (Charmi’s Hydrangeas)

Forgive me for burying my head in the sand for just a moment. I am a Black woman living in America with a Black “male” child and a Black “male” husband and a Black “male” father and Black “male” brothers and Black “male” nephews and Black “male” cousins and Black “male” friends, and every day that reality feels more and more like a maddening nightmare.  I cannot at this moment look this pain “full in the face” or allow myself to feel the full weight of my grief for fear it will push me over the edge.

I’m weary.  Tired of the same narrative.  I need to contemplate the flowers for a little while to keep my sanity intact.

Power

 

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

“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.

Farewell…For Now

Dr. Bernard W. Benn, photo from family files, pilfered from B. Benn's Facebook page.

Dr. Bernard W. Benn, photo from B. Benn’s (his son’s) Facebook page.

When I was an undergraduate I had the privilege of studying under the tutelage of Dr. Bernard W. Benn, an anointed person who influenced the lives of many, many others in amazing ways. It is through the many classes that I took under his instruction that I learned to love (forever) Shakespeare and the Romantic and Victorian poets.  His faith in me fueled my pursuit of a doctorate in English and many other endeavors. His protégés have gone on to honor his excellence, and through each of us, his work continues.

This wonderful person—my advisor, mentor, and friend of my mind—passed away last week. The news literally knocked the wind out of me because I did not know he was ill and, quite frankly, I expected him to be around much, much longer. I had the bittersweet pleasure of attending his funeral and seeing his family, with whom I’ve been acquainted almost as long as I’ve known him—Mrs. Dr. Benn, his beautiful wife, who took such good care of me when I was a student, and his three children who are themselves doing great things for humanity. Although I entered the funeral weighted with grief, I left much lighter, with hope, and with a drive to ensure that I continue to practice the compassion and wisdom he so ably taught through his example. Something in that funeral reminded me to “lift up my countenance” and celebrate the blessing of living a life touched by Dr. Benn.

Moran Hall on the campus of Oakwood University. The building, constructed by Oakwood students in 1938, was named after the first Black president of the University.

I have a million and one memories of Dr. Benn. In separate conversations this past week, my friend and colleague Cy and I had a few good laughs about our experiences with Dr. Benn. We reminisced about the beautiful spring afternoon he finally and reluctantly gave in to our English Literature class’s pleas to go outside and discuss Chaucer. We convinced him, but he took us not too far from the building. Instead of to the Bell Tower near the building or under one of the stately oaks, he led us out the side door of Moran Hall, which housed the English Department and our classes, into the grassy area between Green and Moran Halls, but closest to Moran, of course. Cy and I talked about his habit of teaching, eyes closed, head leaned back, but alert, intently listening, demanding excellence in writing and in thinking, without making students feel insignificant or small.   We chuckled about his giving her grammar books for her birthdays as a way of chiding her to improve. Ever in his humble and gentle way.

Dr. Benn mentored me pretty much all the way to completion of my doctorate and my early years of teaching, so I have enough to say about him to fill a book or two. But my keenest memories are of the mornings when I’d arrive in the department at 8:00 a.m. sharp and already find him on his knees in prayer.  That is the one image that consistently comes to mind whenever I think of Dr. Benn.  It was for me defining. It spoke of the character of this “giant” of a person–a master teacher, grammarian, and scholar, a department chair, a former university president–who so unapologetically demonstrated his need for the Sovereign God and who made his very life a prayer to God.

I will always remember him fondly. I have drawn from the wisdom he shared with me almost every day since I graduated from college.

He was an amazing teacher who took a motley bunch of us who “liked to read” and transformed us into lovers of great literature.  He took our immature arrogance and finessed us to mature individuals, walking in godly confidence. He called our Christianity to task through every text we studied and by his sincere example. He showed us the way to infusing Christ into our lives—our studies, our interactions with each other, our future students, our professionalism.

"Weeping Willow," iPhone Photo

“Weeping Willow,” iPhone Photo

I took a mental health day earlier this week because I needed to take some time to process yet another loss. In my all-day period of meditation, I read some favored poems, thanks to Dr. Benn.  One such was “Morte d’Arthur” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I imagined the last conversation between Sir Bedivere and Arthur as my parting conversation with Dr. Benn (pardon the liberties that I’ve taken in changing some of phrasing of the text):

 

Then loudly cried the bold Lady Chandra:

“Ah! my Lord Dr. Benn, whither shall I go?

Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?

For now I see the true old times are dead,

When every morning brought a noble chance,

And every chance brought out a noble knight.

Such times have been not since the light that led

The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.

But now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved

Which was an image of the mighty world;

And I, the last, go forth companionless,

And the days darken round me, and the years,

Among new people, strange faces, other minds.”

 

And slowly answer’d Dr. Benn from the barge:

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have lived my life, and that which I have done

May He within Himself make pure! but thou,

Thou shouldst see my face again,

Pray for all souls. More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for mankind night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

But for now farewell. I am going to take my rest,

But for a little while.

We shall meet again

At the trumpet call to the great reunion

In the sky…

Untitled

From the poem, “The Tide,” iPhone Photo

I Thessalonians 4:13-18

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.