On celebrating life and facing death

There is Irish folk music playing in the next room as I begin to write this morning. This is the heritage of my childhood and adolescence. Every Saturday our home (and the yard outside through Dad’s ‘transistor radio’ (!) was filled with the sounds of traditional instruments and familiar voices singing songs that had become part of the DNA of the household.

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. Today also marks 93 years since the birth of our mother, Mary Sweeney. She opened her eyes to the world in the very rural world of the west of Ireland on March 17, 1929. Her earthly life, of 91 years, formed her as a strong woman, faithful to the end to her family, and marked by what can only be called a fierce love. Fiercely aware and constant and independent. It was a teaching love as well. As in: this is how you live a human life. And so today, we celebrate her life as a family and with her remaining circle of friends. We celebrate with thanksgiving and joy.

It is also fifteen months ago since the conclusion of that remarkable life of emigration/immigration, marriage and childbearing, work and music and creativity; a life of attention to events the world over, as well as the range of emotions brought on over the years by her beloved Red Sox, Patriots, and Bruins (the Celtics were a late addition!). It is fifteen months since the very early morning I sat by her bed for an hour and more, the body that had birthed us into the world lying still before me in the hours since her death. The silence of that hour was filled with what must have been a deeper prayer of sorrow and of gratitude than I had ever known. United with the initial emotions around Mom’s death were the soul-stirring remembrance of other like moments, stretching back to my paternal grandparents’ deaths in the 70’s and 80’s and through the passages of letting go of the company and conversation of our neighbor Hazel (like another grandmother) and our aunt Nonie (irreplaceable), and to the memory of the August morning at the beginning of this century, shrouded in thick fog, when our Dad was taken from us by cancer.

All these personal memories of what we often call loss are housed within a world which experiences the same on a planetary scale in every generation. To only concentrate on the months immediately prior and since Mom’s death is to recognize a landscape of loss in a worldwide pandemic, and now in the suffering of the people of Ukraine. And these in turn are in relationship to other massive seasons of grief around the world.

Those who struggle with grief – ultimately 7 billion of us – know that the struggle does not have an expiration date. That struggle does not even carry a worst by date that might correspond to the best by dates we became familiar with, labeled on the nourishment we buy to maintain life. Grief remains active and pushes above the surface of everyday life at various moments; sometimes we can recognize an immediate cause for the renewed sorrow, but oftentimes it is not evident.

Over this year and a quarter I have come to see that, within the grief that is a part of this world’s story (but not its whole story by any means), there are those losses that shift the personal landscape, our understanding of life, more than others. In lasting fashion. In the midst of a life which embraces meeting new people, appreciating old friendships, searching creatively for new ways to carry on, there are losses the weight of which cannot be measured on any scales usually provided.

When that happens, it is hard to admit. Hard to admit because the changes such an experience brings cut in both apparently positive and negative directions. In other words, in every life some friends, some family members, some mentors have an influence on us that does not end. Rather, it changes.

I have heard the assertion argued that it is possible to love a person too much. I understand and appreciate the argument. I would only respond that if that is true, it is at the same time not possible to love a person too well. When you have been loved very well (and been moved to love in return) in a manner that does not admit of measure at all, you have been changed. In that experience you have become more than you had been, and more than you otherwise might have been. More wise. Steadier. More loving yourself in relation to others.

That is the gift. There is an accompanying burden. It is this. From the morning or evening when that love is no longer accessible in earthly terms save in memory (a precious gift), the price to be paid for the gift given is a sorrow borne. Borne from then forward through all the days remaining. Parents who have suffered the death of a child know this truth. Soldiers who have lost compatriots at their side in the midst of battle know this. Medical professionals who have carried for us all the heaviest weight of pandemic know this. Spouses who have lived and loved side-by-side for decades and are then widowed know this. Adults whose lives have been embraced by the indefatigable unbreakable love of wonderful mothers and fathers know this. I know this.

To be loved well is to receive one of the best gifts possible. And in a passing world, that gift always comes with a price due. It is at last only the overarching love of God, the source of all love, that guarantees both the gift and the possibility of paying the price for the rest of life. And doing it with a grateful heart.

Happy Birthday Mom! And always, thank you.