It’s been months since I’ve published a new journal entry. In the interim, I’ve been developing talks and meditations for my weekly mindfulness meditation classes and writing for my mailing list. However, this week, I’ve had the urge to share with a broader audience who and what is most predominant in my heart: my cousin Paul and the rest of my Canadian family.
In the spring of 2016, I traveled to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia for the first time to visit relatives. After a long day of traveling, I was quite tired when I finally arrived at my great-aunt and -uncle’s home, but their son, Paul, was right there to meet me. He was so excited. It was the first time a cousin visited, and it was a big deal for him. A year younger than me, Paul was my dad’s first cousin and therefore my first cousin once removed. (My grandfather was the eldest of a dozen kids, and Paul’s dad was the youngest.) Looking at him was like seeing my grandfather again.
I instantly thought of Paul as a cousin soulmate. He whisked me away to experience sunsets and moonrises during my visit, and when it was time to leave, I didn’t want to. I felt like I had found my tribe.
Two years later, I visited again. Paul and his wife, Janet, picked me up from Vancouver airport, for which I was immensely grateful. (There’s a lot involved in traveling to the Sunshine Coast, especially with photography gear in tow.) We stopped at Granville Island, had lunch overlooking Vancouver harbor, and drove through Stanley Park before making our way to the ferry and his parents’ home in Sechelt. Paul also brought me back to the airport when I left, again stopping and staying overnight in Van.
In between meeting him that first time and saying goodbye at the airport the last time, we spent time together on his father-in-law’s yacht (which was a real treat for me) and smaller prawn boat. He was really in his element on the water. There were dinners together with more family. A trip to the farmers’ market. Cards and texts and phone calls.
I honestly can say that nobody else on this planet made me feel the way Paul did. I felt welcomed, protected, truly cared for, and understood. Spending time with him and family in British Columbia was transformative. It changed my life. I had dreams of somehow, someday getting a visa and spending more time close to my family tribe in British Columbia.
Paul talked often about going to Cape Cod together, where he had fond memories of visiting an uncle (also my dad’s uncle) who had been an artist and an overall fascinating person. He wanted to take me to Hornby Island. We came close to traveling to England together for a family reunion, but it was so last-minute that it didn’t come together. He wanted so much to experience an “American Thanksgiving” and promised he would make the next visit, for that purpose. But then of course Covid came along.
This year, I wished for the U.S.-Canadian border to reopen so the idea of visiting the Sunshine Coast could come back into the realm of possibility. However, there were complications and factors beyond border status that made it unfeasible. So I traveled there often in my heart, where there are no borders aside from the ones we, ourselves, maintain.
Last Friday evening, Paul passed away after suffering a massive heart attack two and a half weeks prior. His obituary is truly touching, complete with poems written by family members.
My heart is heavy with that old visitor, grief, that comes in waves. What I have learned from previous losses is that the heart is an ocean spacious enough to hold all the waves that move through it, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Although I’m accustomed to relating to Paul from a distance, his parents, daughters, sisters, and other family members are not, and my heart goes out to them.
In moments of remembering, I practice breathing in memories of Paul and his beautiful qualities – really filling up with that energy – and breathing out compassion for everyone else grieving his absence. After a few breaths, I extend this out-breath wish (also called metta) to everyone grieving a loss. There are so very many, and we never grieve alone.
This is a different kind of heart wave: the kind that unites us in our common humanity. The deepest losses I’ve experienced have taught me that the heart can become the telephone through which we can communicate even with those who have passed through the veil we call death. May we honor those we’ve lost by embodying what we loved about them, however we can, even if it’s simply recalling their goodness and by doing so, shining a little brighter and allowing their essence to continue rippling in the world. That is the prayer in my heart at the moment.
© 2021 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
It was another week of staying home (the eighth, to be precise). And yet, I went on an important journey: to the epicenter of my heart to connect with the aliveness that’s there beneath the sadness/grief/anger/blame. What is it, and what does it ask of me? What does it want me to know?
And I discovered a longing to know that I am making a positive difference in this world. That I’m loving well.
In his book, A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield observed:
When people come to the end of their life and look back, the questions that they most often ask are not usually, “How much is in my bank account?” or “How many books did I write?” or “What did I build?” or the like. If you have the privilege of being with a person who is aware at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple: “Did I love well?” “Did I live fully?” “Did I learn to let go?”
And from “Late Fragment”, Raymond Carver’s last published poem before dying of cancer:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Did I love well? Did my loving matter? Did I feel beloved? Connected?
These are universal yearnings.
One of the greatest realizations I’ve had since my mom passed away six years ago this month is that the seeds of love we plant on this earth are not done growing when our life here has come to an end. Chances are pretty good that you will not live to see them flower fully. Sometimes it’s your very absence that waters them until at last they bloom, and those left behind marvel at what your life has been and all the ways in which your loving has enriched their lives.
My relationship with my mother was complicated when she was alive, for we were so different (and alike) in some ways. I put up walls that wouldn’t let her get too close. She couldn’t have had any way of knowing that those walls were my own vulnerability and had nothing to do with her worth as a mother or human being. I didn’t even realize at the time what they were because I was too enmeshed. In our mother-daughter relationship, I didn’t feel seen, and I’m sure she didn’t, either. We just kept playing our roles. Doing our best but not giving each other what we wanted most. Which I think was the same thing.
Until the end, when those roles and walls dissolved, which was incredibly beautiful.
Although I did my best to help her feel loved and appreciated during the final months of her life, my love and appreciation for my mother didn’t truly blossom until after she took her final breath. She didn’t live to see it. And it probably couldn’t have been any other way.
As a result of my experience, I realize that sometimes you have to be content with planting seeds and have faith in the invisible seeds you sow in the world through the life you live. Through your very presence. Some seeds grow quickly. Others take more time. And we have to be patient. Many seeds won’t send shoots above ground until after we’re gone – from someone’s life or from this earth altogether.
Yes, the seeds of love continue to awaken and grow after we’re gone. When we come to the end of our life, may we understand that it’s not over. The seeds we sowed continue on and will bloom in time. We can’t take our last breath believing it’s the end. There’s so much more yet to come. So many gifts to be found and unwrapped.
When I was doing hospice work in my 20s, one of my patients expressed sadness for not being able to live long enough to see her flowers come up in the spring. I didn’t understand at the time, but her words remained with me, and I think I finally grasp both the literal and metaphorical meaning. Which is why there are tears streaming down my face as I write this.
After we leave this life, our love will continue to grow. Those we leave behind will discover artifacts of our lives and get to know us in new ways. They will find them inside boxes of our belongings and inside themself, as well.
Appreciation and love will deepen. They will feel our presence in so many ways, places, and situations. Our love is our gift to them that endures beyond our lifetime and even into new generations – like the mint plants I transplanted from my mother’s garden a few years ago that now thrive in my own garden (a metaphor in itself). And the lilac bush in my parents’ yard that still blooms even though someone else lives there now.
We interact with those who were friends of our loved ones and through the exchange of smiles and stories see them from different angles, like a flower being illuminated by just the right slant of sunlight.
And we allow ourselves to express the qualities we appreciated most about them, even if we didn’t fully appreciate them when they were alive, when we were trying to be different and set ourselves apart from them (as is often the case with mothers and daughters and with fathers and sons).
There are so many ways in which loving – our most essential nature – continues on.
So if you ever wonder or doubt whether your life and love is of value, know this: It’s not over yet. Even when you take your last breath, there is so much more of your life left to live. So many seeds yet to emerge from underground and be seen.
And the most wonderful thing I’ve learned is that relationships don’t end with death. I’ve never been closer to my mom. I see her sometimes in dreams and feel her presence in certain moments and places. Whenever I need her, she is never further away than my own heart. My heart and dreams are the portals that allow love to flow both ways. At this point, love is all that’s left, and it’s everything.
Yesterday, I went hiking with my husband and decided to stop to take some pictures, so he went on ahead. There was a period of several minutes when I walked alone through the woods. And the most bizarre thing happened: A bird landed on the path a few steps in front of me and walked with me the whole time. It was like walking a dog, but it was a bird. The bird stayed real close to me the whole time and made me giggle. It was a Snow White moment, for sure. But I also wondered if the bird was injured because it didn’t fly away.
Eventually, I saw the blue of my husband’s jacket in the distance, and the moment he came into view, the bird flew off into the woods. It seemed like it had wanted to keep me company as I walked alone – didn’t want me to be alone.
When I told my husband about my bird companion, he reminded me that it’s Mother’s Day weekend, and perhaps it was my mom saying hi. It felt like the bird wanted me to know that I wasn’t walking alone. And I think that if our departed loved ones could give us any message, especially now, it’s that.
They are still with us, and the love continues to bloom. And not only do we get to witness it, but we can dedicate the merits of our own awakening to them.
Walking with the bird
© 2020 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
“What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”
-Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2005)
This week, my favorite living writer died. So did a high school classmate.
Mary Oliver was 83. Matt Riker was 51. His life was snuffed out by the same illness that took my mom from us nearly five years ago. In November, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Later that month, he visited Dana-Farber and learned his illness was incurable.
According to an article in a local newspaper, several years ago, Matt was very unhappy with the way he was living his life. He decided to turn things around and devoted his life to helping others. The more he helped, the better he felt. On a similar note, two years ago when he was borderline diabetic, he took up running, lost a lot of weight, and got into really good shape.
The point being: When he realized he wasn’t living the life he wanted to live, he found the determination and courage to make changes and turn things around. He even went back to school and received his bachelor’s degree last year. By the time he was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, he felt at peace with his life and continued to focus on helping others because that’s who he had become.
Matt’s story is a real wake-up call. His transformation is inspiring. When you don’t like the story you’re living, you can do something different and change it.
The weekend before he passed away, there was a celebration in his honor. What a gift to have a celebration of life before someone passes away! It was an opportunity for everyone to say goodbye (even without saying it) and thank-you for happy memories and a life well lived.
I hadn’t seen Matt since high school. After he learned the nature of his illness, I reached out to him, and we shared a memory of being in a choral group together back in high school. I had to drive my son to Albany when the celebration was taking place and made it just in time. Matt looked in my eyes, said my name, gave me a hug, and a few moments later, two companions were on either side of him helping him make his way out of the building so he could rest.
After he left the celebration, a classmate who had gone running with Matt in the fall expressed disbelief. Such rapid physical decline is hard to wrap your head around. When I saw him at the celebration, he appeared as my mother did a week or two before she passed away. I did not expect him to make it to the end of the month. He only made it a week.
When an acquaintance your age or younger passes away, it wakes you up. It might inspire you to appreciate your life and your loved ones more. You might step back, take stock, and consider what’s most important and whether you are living your life in harmony with that.
I realized this week that I’ve gotten a little off-course and lost sight of what’s most important. I’ve been too busy and haven’t been spending as much time in nature as I need to. Haven’t had much time for those who mean the most to me. My heart yearns for more nature connection, more writing, more photography, and more quality time with loved ones. These activities feed my soul. They are my true Work.
What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live? The answers to these inquiries are within each of us, in our heart center. Our heart is a compass that keeps us on course if we allow it to guide us. Its wisdom helps us to gauge how closely our life is aligned with our true Dharma. Then we can make some course adjustments if need be.
I believe that however long or short our lifetime is, it’s exactly as it should be. Even when death seems to come too soon or too suddenly, there are no accidents. If it’s your time, the universe will make sure you are in the right place. In other words, beyond the personal, senseless tragedy of loss, there is another level on which all is well. These dense bodies we live in only allow us to see a portion of the picture.
The thing is, we don’t know when our time will come. There are things I still want to accomplish, and I’ll bet the same is true for you. Things I don’t want to leave undone. When a friend of mine published her first book, she exclaimed, “I can die now!” That’s what I’m talking about: Don’t die with your song/book/etc. still within you.
Matt’s death awakened everyone his life touched. It inspired me to think about how I spend my time and why, and to take inventory of the Big Picture, just like he did several years ago.
Mary Oliver passed away four days after Matt, on Thursday.
Thursday morning, I HAD to sit on the riverbank (despite the cold weather) as the sun rose and listen to the music of the delicate plates of ice sailing down the river and colliding with piles of other shards. It’s one of my very favorite songs.
It’s no wonder I couldn’t resist the call to be in nature, astonished and filled with appreciation for the visual poetry surrounding me, though I wasn’t aware yet of the significance of the day. All I knew at the time was that it felt like the first real breath I had taken all week, and I could barely feel the cold because I was doing something that set my soul on fire.
When I heard the news that evening, it all made sense: Her soul was passing through. I wonder what she would have scribbled in her notebook about that morning’s frozen splendor on the Hudson.
Spending time on the river’s edge that morning and learning about the two deaths only a few days apart served the same purpose: They awakened me from the trance of routine and reminded me of what’s most important and what I need to make time for. What I did make time for until a few months ago when I took on another part-time job. (And next month, I will add yet another thing to my plate when I start a two-year mindfulness meditation teacher certification program, which I have yearned to do for years.)
I realized I need to spend more time steeped in gratitude on the water’s edge or elsewhere in nature with my camera in hand and my senses wide open. More time listening to what drifts through the air and bubbles up from within, and taking dictation. More time developing the services I’m trained for and feel passionate about. The Universe has delivered some very clear and consistent messages about moving forward with that NOW, not later. If not now, when?
I had to admit to myself that I’m doing too much. My schedule is too full. Even though I enjoy and appreciate everything I’m doing, something’s gotta give within the continuum that spans from enjoyment to the deeper pull that sets my soul on fire.
Those whose deaths jolt us out of the trance of daily life remind us to make time during our “one wild and precious life” for what is most essential. To not look beyond our own heart to discern what that is.
To get to Work.
© 2019 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, Reiki practitioner, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
What an enriching and joyful process it’s been going through pictures spanning my dad’s whole life and reading the cards and online condolences through which people described him based on the context within which they knew him best. Over the past two weeks, this process has helped me to see him in a much greater context above and beyond the particular relationship I had with him—which also differed from the relationship either of my siblings had with him.
Every relationship is unique, and every life is composed of different relationships and chapters through which we express ourselves in different ways, much like a multifaceted crystal that is held to the light and turned to see the different angles from which the light shines through it. And yet, there are some qualities that remain more or less consistent at the core.
With my dad, some core descriptions that came up repeatedly included:
- True gentleman
- Smiling face
- Incredibly sweet
- Great athlete
- Warm and friendly
I remember being at his USAirways retirement celebration about 15 years ago, which provided me with my first glimpse of who he was in a broader context, beyond just “my dad.” When it was his turn to speak, he was quite a storyteller. And funny! I’d never experienced that side of him before! Those were some of the traits that endeared him to so many.
He also could be stubborn, and that’s a side I saw a lot. As he was in the hospital on what would be his deathbed, I commented to my son about how stubborn he was being as we left ICU one day. His “stubbornness” seemed to frustrate me more than anyone else and usually had something to do with him not being receptive to my ideas and how I was trying to help him. Holding tightly to previously established preferences and opinions. But my son suggested that he was dignified, rather than stubborn. My dad was determined to do things his way. A true Taurus!
He loved his hot dogs and ice cream and refused to follow a diabetic diet. He refused to have a fistula put in his arm in preparation for the increasingly likely event of kidney failure and a regimen of dialysis to keep him alive. He wanted nothing to do with a life without hot dogs or a life centered around time-consuming dialysis treatments and not being able to go to the YMCA to exercise and socialize. This summer, whenever he told me he had a hot dog for dinner or that friends brought him one or two when they visited him, my heart smiled because I understood my dad was an old dog who wasn’t about to learn new tricks and that he was choosing quality of life over longevity. His quality of life took a great blow when my mom died, and wherever he could find moments of happiness and comfort…was good, in my opinion.
One day back in February 2013, he was exercising at the YMCA and went into cardiac arrest. When I was on my way to the hospital with my mom, all we knew was that they used the defibrillator to get his heart started again, but it was very shaky. We didn’t know if we would arrive at the hospital to find him alive or dead. When we arrived, he was in the care of one of my best childhood friends, and we were able to talk to him. He was about to be transported to another hospital, and again, we didn’t know if he would survive the ambulance ride. But when we arrived at Albany Medical Center, he was alive and in good hands. He ended up surviving quadruple bypass surgery. Our family is so grateful for the YMCA staff, who gave us an extra 3 ½ years with him. For some reason, it wasn’t his time then.
In his novel, Illusions, Richard Bach wrote:
“Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
Always one to look for meaning, I often contemplated why my dad didn’t die that day. What was he still here on earth to learn, experience, or do?
At the time of my dad’s cardiac episode, we had no idea that my mom had pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer by the end of the year and passed away within six months of being diagnosed. But in between my dad’s cardiac episode and my mom’s death, they were able to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together at Disney World.
Losing his wife of 50 years – his best friend and soulmate – was so hard on my dad, and I’m sure that was obvious to everyone who knew him. His life would never be the same. Yet, I believe she needed to leave when she did so he could experience some things and grow in ways he wouldn’t have been able to grow otherwise. For example, he had a more direct relationship with my siblings and me when our extroverted mom wasn’t in the picture doing most of the communicating. And I think that was really important for him and for us. We had nearly 2 ½ years to do that. During that time, he was able to meet his first great-grandchild (my granddaughter) and see his grandson (my son) graduate from high school.
Two weeks before my dad finally went to the doctor for foot pain that kept getting worse this summer, a friend contacted me late at night to tell me that he walked past a particular music venue and saw my dad sitting in there alone. I reminded him that’s where my parents used to go to listen to music and added that my mom is probably there with him in spirit. My friend replied that my dad looked really sad, and I said it’s because he doesn’t realize she’s there with him. Understanding how difficult and painful it was for my dad to walk, I was surprised he went through the trouble of finding parking in downtown Saratoga Springs during the busy, summer tourist season and walking to the venue. He must have had a strong purpose or longing to go there.
A few days before he went to the doctor, my husband dreamed my parents were dancing together. It was one of those dreams that felt more real than real, if you know what I mean. My mom was in full, vivid color, looking so happy and vibrant as she danced. Although she was dancing with my dad, he was in black and white and didn’t seem to realize she was there dancing with him. Surprised to see my mom, Jack exclaimed, “You’re not supposed to be here!” And my mom replied, “Well, I am! And I always have been.”
* * * *
Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes what seems to be a cruel twist of fate is merciful. We just can’t see the whole picture from where we stand.
A diabetic with significant cardiac history, my dad had a rough summer that included six-hour bypass surgery to correct a circulation issue in his leg. That was followed by a recovery period, and in the midst of recovering, he ended up back in the hospital for a sore on his foot that resulted in his little toe being amputated and another recovery period. After being discharged from the hospital, he spent a couple of weeks at a rehab center and in less than a week after being discharged from the rehab center came down with the pneumonia that claimed his life.
During the last few weeks of his life, I worried about how my siblings (one local, one not) and I would care for our dad when he got out of rehab and was being his stubborn or willful or dignified self. Like when my dad and I came back inside after our first wheelchair excursion outside of the rehab center on a beautiful day, I dashed into the restroom for about 15 seconds, only to find him wheeling himself down the hallway toward the main entrance when I reemerged. A custodian witnessed it and had a look of combined shock and amusement on her face. I felt like the parent of a toddler, who must be ever-vigilant. It was a strange feeling to have in relation to my dad.
I became anxious about how he would fare living on his own in his split-level house with stairs all over the place. On the way home from rehab, I reminded him that there was a walker on each level of the house that he was supposed to use, and he exclaimed that he wasn’t going to use any walkers and then took off like a racehorse when we arrived home. Again, I felt like an anxious parent trying to get him to follow doctor’s orders that he claimed he never remembered hearing. How could I help him when he wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do?
I wondered how long this would go on, how long he would need a caregiver at the house, and whether he would need to go into a long-term care facility at some point. But throughout this time, I kept hearing my mom’s voice in my head assuring me: Don’t worry. This isn’t going to take long. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but two days before he died, when he was back in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, I found a dead cardinal in my driveway. I’d never seen a dead cardinal before, and my dad loved cardinals. When I saw the cardinal, I had a sinking feeling that he was not going to make it this time. And although my mortal heart was breaking, my intuition assured me that it’s okay because it’s his time.
My dad would not have wanted to live a life in which his freedom was restricted. In the end, it seems his swift death was merciful. He didn’t have to languish in a nursing home or undergo dialysis. He didn’t have to observe another wedding anniversary without his beloved wife and passed on in time to spend their October 19th anniversary together in spirit.
As much as I will miss my dad, I realize that losing our parents is part of the natural course of human life. In recent years, some of my friends have had to face the tragedy of losing a child, and a couple of my kindergarten students suffered the sudden loss of a parent. I have not lost a child, and I am not a child who has lost a parent. What I am experiencing is within the natural cycle of life. It is to be expected.
My parents loved each other so much, and although he kept going the best he could, my dad’s life would never be the same again after losing my mom. With a love like that, it’s not unusual for the surviving spouse to follow close behind. So I really feel it was my dad’s time to go. In the end, pneumonia wasn’t a thief that came along and stole him from us before his time. It was a swift, merciful ride to the other side that saved him from declining health, a restricted lifestyle, and continued mourning. That he was able to avoid that kind of pain and suffering brings me peace.
© 2016 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
It is with sadness that I write about my dad’s passing eight days ago. He succumbed to
pneumonia Legionnaire’s Disease (we learned later) after being in ICU for five days. He died less than two-and-a-half years after my mom died of pancreatic cancer, which isn’t unusual for couples who love each other greatly. As difficult as it is to lose my dad, for many reasons (that I will share in a separate post), I feel it was his time, and that certainty brings me peace.
We had his calling hours and memorial service yesterday at his church – the culmination of a week of tremendous activity. There were many meetings and lots of work involved in creating a video slideshow for the church events and working around numerous, unprecedented technical glitches that arose. I went through boxes of my parents’ photos to assemble photo collages to display in large frames on easels. Wrote a eulogy. Found a new, loving home for his cat. Visited with my two adult children and nine-month-old granddaughter, who traveled from out-of-town.
In other words, I attended to the usual tasks that fall on the closest relatives immediately after someone dies. But I also did something not so common in our culture: On Tuesday, I drove to Bennington, Vermont to be present for my dad’s cremation, as I did when my mom passed away. And that might sound morbid, but it wasn’t. It was transcendent.
I was not with my dad when he passed away. I couldn’t make it to the hospital in time but was able to say goodbye to him over the phone. I told him that I love him and thanked him for being such a great dad. I encouraged him to let go and assured him that everything is going to be fine. We are going to be fine, and so is he, for he is about to go on a wondrous journey. I told him I’m so happy for him because he will soon be with my mom, his beloved wife of 50 years. His last words to me were: I love you, too.
I couldn’t be there when he died, but I was able to show up for his cremation, which felt like another part of the process to witness with love, light, and presence.
When my mom died, I pushed her cardboard coffin into the crematory retort and then retreated to my car to meditate for a while before walking around Bennington for a few hours until her cremains were ready to be picked up. But with my dad, it was different. The funeral director invited me to come and go as I pleased. He left the crematory door unlocked and placed a chair next to the retort for me, along with two bottles of water.
I sat next to the crematory retort for an hour and a half meditating on my relationship with my dad. I remembered good times and reflected on all the ways in which he expressed his love. The small but meaningful gestures, such as vacuuming my car, filling my gas tank, and taking us out for dinner. And larger gestures, such as when he helped me out financially when I needed an implant for my front tooth and when I was getting divorced. How he and my mom made it possible for me to attend the private college I felt so drawn to, without having to take on much student debt. The family vacations that usually involved amusement parks, such as Disney World. How he always had my back and conducted himself in such a kind and dignified manner, which made me proud to call him my dad.
I also visualized any sadness, grudges, regrets, and human weaknesses and impurities burning away until only love and light remained. Until only spirit remained, released from any human shortcomings – his or my own. That included any negative feelings or resentments I harbored because, at the personality level, my dad and I were so different, and I challenged and disappointed him in many ways. He was a traditionalist with a worldview that was much more conservative and black-and-white than my own, and through the years I came to accept that rather than try to change him or get him to understand my worldview and choices. For instance, when I got married, I wouldn’t let my dad give me away because I did not consider myself an object to be transferred from one man to another. I’m sure that all the explaining in the world couldn’t help him understand that because, with my dad, you didn’t question tradition. You just followed it. So I let all that burn away until only love and forgiveness (for him and for myself) remained.
I sat there and told him everything I wasn’t able to express when he was alive. Sometimes we don’t recognize the different ways in which people express love in the best way they know how. We might not realize that the questions and comments that seem so judgmental on the surface arise from a spirit of deep love and concern. Our communications pass through our human filters and so often get misinterpreted. And we build walls to protect our fragile egos. And we build histories, stories, and communication patterns that are often so hard to rise above. And we don’t say what is in our heart because the patterns are so entrenched. That’s what I got in touch with in the crematory and allowed to burn away. I bathed all that in love, and it transformed into nothing but love.
I recalled the scared look in my dad’s eyes during the last few days of his life because he sensed something was different this time. How he absolutely refused to engage in a conversation I initiated about hospice care, and it felt like just another example of him rejecting what I had to offer based on my knowledge, experience, values, and sincere caring. How I couldn’t be there when he died because I needed some distance from a situation that arose, in order to maintain my strength and sanity. How I felt I could support him better from a distance that last day of his life, not knowing it would be his last day. I let all that burn away until only love, forgiveness, and an appreciative sense of humor remained.
I essentially composed his eulogy (which I will share in a separate post) while sitting in the crematory. The tears I cried were mostly tears of appreciation and gratitude for all the ways in which he expressed his love and continued to love and care for me, despite our differences. I appreciated what a steadfast provider he was for our family and for having such a stable, secure childhood. I appreciated the ways in which his traditional worldview was challenged to the core by some curveballs life threw his way and how he responded with love every single time. I appreciated how much he and my mom loved each other.
As my dad’s body burned in the crematory retort next to me, I reflected on all the ways in which he expressed love for us, acknowledged our relationship and humanness, and honored the spirit that unites us. The spirit of love and kindness. It was a powerful process, though not one that many in our culture choose to experience or even realize is possible. By the time I left the crematorium, I felt so light and filled with love and light and appreciation for my father. I felt his light shining so brightly.
Lyrics from India Arie’s song, “I Am Light” came to mind:
I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside…I am light.
I am not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain…I am light.
I am not the color of my eyes, I am not the skin on the outside…My soul inside is all light.
While waiting to hear that my dad’s cremains were ready to be picked up, I drove around and decided to take a walk before dark. I ended up in Old Bennington and couldn’t resist parking near an old church with an adjacent cemetery. It seemed like a perfect place to walk with my camera.
Not knowing anything about the history or looking for anything in particular, my intuition led me through the cemetery, and I came upon poet Robert Frost’s grave.
How perfect, I thought, for that day I took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.
There are many cultures in which funeral rituals, including cremation, are not performed by professionals out of sight of grieving family and friends. The image of open cremations on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India comes to mind. Families gathered around the funeral pyre watching the body burn, coming to terms with mortality and relationships. What do we gain by keeping the care of our dead at arm’s length? What do we lose?
Being present for my dad’s cremation was such a positive, healing experience for me. I wish it were more commonplace in our culture…even as I see my dad in my mind, bristling and shaking his head, wondering how on earth I could think that way. Knowing he’ll never be able to understand me but loving me just the same.
© 2016 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.
In the final weeks of my daughter’s pregnancy, she seemed delighted that I would wear three hats during her labor: mom, doula, and photographer. The morning after Ava was born, I was eager to return to the hospital. Although my role as doula was done, my role as photographer had only begun. By the time Ava was born, I was so sleep-deprived from three consecutive nights of compromised sleep that I forgot to play around with my camera settings and do what needed to be done in low light, handheld situations without flash. Now that I was rested and had my photographer wits about me again, I yearned for another chance! And of course, there is no joy like holding a newborn!
I was eager to photograph Ava before she left the hospital and became adorned with the fashionable layers of this world – clothing and props that would cover her essence and make her look more of this world than a sweet mystery just arrived from who-knows-where.
Before leaving, I glanced at the living room window and noticed snowflakes floating down so gracefully, glistening like diamonds. It reminded me of a tear that ran down Ava’s cheek soon after she was born. From a particular angle with the ambient lighting as it was, it looked like a silver river trickling down her cheek. That was my instant association when I noticed the snowflakes glistening so silvery and bright in the morning sunlight.
I went outside to head to the hospital, and when I got to my car noticed that the snowflakes landing on it were well defined. It was an ideal time to photograph snowflakes!
I watched one snowflake fall from the sky and land on the frosted car window and wanted to photograph it instantly, before it was affected by its surroundings. When a snowflake comes in contact with other snowflakes or a surface kissed by warm sunlight, it quickly changes and loses its pure form. I wanted to photograph snowflakes right when they landed, before their lovely mandala essence dissolved.
And then I realized how extraordinary it was that this was happening when I was on my way to photograph a newborn baby. Could there be a more perfect visual analogy? Gazing into the windows of a newborn baby’s soul and observing the exquisite, six-pointed mandala pattern of a freshly fallen snowflake evoke a sense of awe and wonder. Both are sights to marvel at.
I had attempted to photograph snowflakes for the past two winters and never had such a rich opportunity. What a gift to wake up to such delightful snowflakes that morning! And what a gift to hold Ava and look into her eyes, which were like dark, infinite pools. Cradled in my arms, she looked around as if taking in the great mystery that surrounds her and wondering: Where am I? What am I? Meanwhile, I was beholding the great mystery I found in her eyes, wondering: Where did you come from?
For a moment, I imagined her passing through a veil of forgetting before entering this world. But mostly, I surrendered to the mystery. Held it in my heart and let it fill me as I floated in the peaceful pools of her eyes.
And that’s why there’s no joy like holding a newborn.
© 2016 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.