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.

Earth Has No Sorrow…

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy-seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish,
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Today marks five years since we lost my little sister, and I miss her every single day. I can’t see the color pink without thinking about her. Certain cadences in my speech and the intoning of particular expressions make my words catch in my throat because I think I hear her voice coming from my body. As I think about her life, our conversations about dreams and goals, I realize we sang the same song but to a different tune.

I tried to keep myself busy today because I know where my thoughts “live” on March 11. I tried to stuff the grief into a neat box inside my heart, when what I wanted to do and what I needed to do was to pull away from the rest of the world and cry myself tearless.

Just last night, I finished a letter to a dear friend regarding the recent brutal loss of her own sister, administering medicine that I must take. Grief doesn’t come in a neat package with step-by-step, day-by-day instructions. Grief is a process that can’t be staged, coached, cultivated, or rushed.

And we must allow ourselves to go through it–no matter how long it takes–with apologies to no one, not even ourselves.

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.

Nine Years Since…

I’ve been slightly agitated all week long, with “something” gnawing just beneath the surface.  I couldn’t figure the cause of my mental discomfort till late last night when the date “August 29th” hit  me.  August 29th.  August 29th.  Nine years ago, I woke up in my sister’s home in Lithonia, Georgia to discover that just as we all breathed a sigh of relief thinking NOLA had been spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina, the flood protection walls breached.  With that break, so many things in my life changed all at once, and I found myself vacillating between moments of hopefulness and moments of helplessness.  My husband and I did not lose our home, but we lost so much more than that, and in some ways, I am still dealing with those losses today.

I realized recently that I’m a slow griever.  Grief ekes out slowly, laboriously, as I feel I have time to “handle” unpleasant and difficult emotions or the feeling of being out of control.

Typically, I turn away from Katrina and Post-Katrina pictures, but I bought the books and documentaries and captured photos for the time when I will be able to look without turning away.  So today, in an effort to face “head on” some of the raw emotions associated with Hurricane Katrina, I forced myself to look at pictures of homes that I shot a few months after Katrina.  In so doing, I peered into that moment when nature shook everything out of control.  Perhaps, now I can begin to deal with discontinuity and change, not for survival but to live and breathe again.

The photos in this post were all shot December 2005, a few months after the hurricane.  My oldest sister and her oldest daughter (my lovely niece) were visiting from Texas, so we decided to take a drive to view some of the devastation.

In a city like New Orleans, we’re always so careful to lock our doors, particularly just before we leave town.  I imagine the owners of this home, like my husband and I, locked their doors, set the alarm, and left with a few days supply of very casual clothes, fully intending to return to normality days later. Instead, they returned…to salvage what could be salvaged and to have their home gutted…

For me, these images of a home completely displaced from its foundation represents the sudden shift in reality for New Orleanians.  This is how all those first moments and months felt, like some huge thing shifted out of place and repositioned itself where it did not belong.

This next set of houses is a bit more personal–

"2333 Port Street," New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

“Beyond Repair,” New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

This was the house of a family I am close to.  On the surface, not so bad. But in reality, thanks to Katrina, broken beyond repair.

The next two images are of my Aunt Rosemary’s house.  She lived directly across the street from my grandmother, so I spent time at her home whenever I visited my grandmother.  Free huck-a-bucks, a scrumptious meal or treat were always waiting along with our simply fun and off-beat conversations about this and that.  Mae-Mae, as she was affectionately known, played the lottery like no one else I’ve ever known.  I remember, once, she showed me a shopping bag full of lottery tickets.  She helped me select my wedding dress.

"My Aunt's House," New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

“My Aunt’s House,” New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

She had her home rebuilt. She lived in a “Katrina Trailer” for quite some time while waiting for her home to be rebuilt. It was finished in 2008.  She died suddenly, within months of moving into her newly refurbished home.  I’m sure she was one more casualty of the storm.  More loss.  I remember not crying at her funeral because I was afraid the dam would break and I wouldn’t be able to control the flow.

"Contents from My Aunt's House," New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

“Contents from My Aunt’s House,” New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

Nothing in the home was salvageable. Water topped the roof.  Fortunately, she had given my mom the box of old family pictures some time before the storm.  Priceless memories preserved.

This last one cuts deeper than I care to acknowledge.

"My Grandmother's House," New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

“My Grandmother’s House,” New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

I can’t even put into words what I feel when I see images of this house that my grandfather built with his own hands 70 years ago, when my mom was just 7 years old.  I’m sure every grandchild did a little growing up in this home.  My grandfather died when I was nine-years-old, so this has always been in my consciousness “my grandmother’s house.”  It was second home to many of us grandchildren and Grandma always had lots of love for us and our ever-growing families.  We typically used the back door to enter the house and loved hanging out on the front porch.  She died a decade before Hurricane Katrina (one of my aunts was living in the home at the time of Katrina).  Water topped the roof.  This house that survived major hurricanes–the Hurricane of 1947 and Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and dodged Hurricanes Camille (1969), Georges (1998), and (our Pre-K warning) Ivan (2004)–fell to Katrina.

"My Grandmother's House," New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

“My Grandmother’s House,” New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

I could have fallen to the ground and cried when I saw this.  How CRAZY this seemed to me, at first, how unreal that there would be no more memories made in this place.  Instead, I sucked up the pain, snapped a few photos and moved on.

I began to see my life as preK (pre-Katrina) and postK (post-Katrina).  There’s a bit of fuzziness to my preK memory, probably because I don’t want to look too fondly on or romanticize a time before.  After we moved to Alabama a couple of years ago, I stopped referring to life as preK and postK because only New Orleanians (and those many others directly affected) would truly understand.

Days after the levees broke, I went with one of my closest friends, Tarshia, to a mall in Atlanta where she treated me to a pedicure.  We took a trip to Build-a-Bear where I “built” this bear. Her name is “Trini,” short for Katrina.  I refused to clothe her because I felt Katrina had taken everything from us and left us all exposed.  I left her so.

"Trini," Hurricane Katrina Bear, August 2005

“Trini,” Hurricane Katrina Bear, August 2005

I realized just last night that since Katrina, I’ve been holding my breath.  And every loss since has simply made me inhale a bit more deeply.  Maybe, with this acknowledgement, I can start breathing again…

"Hope for Our Future," New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005

“Hope for Our Future,” New Orleans, Louisiana, December 2005