Jun 142015
 

As we approach the 4th of July, my thoughts turn to the founding of this nation, and a person I particularly admire: Thomas Jefferson. I admire his wisdom and depth of knowledge across many disciplines. In this moment however, what gives me pause is not his insight into the failure of the Divine Right of Kings and emergence of democracy. I am reflecting on what I can only imagine was his, and his wife Martha’s deep understanding of the value of human life.

Martha Jefferson had seven children. John Skelton, conceived with her first husband, died at the age of three the summer before she married Thomas Jefferson. Of the six children she bore in her ten-year marriage to Thomas, only two daughters, Martha and Mary lived into adulthood. Two daughters and a son died as infants. The sixth died of whooping cough at the tender age of two.

Burying children must be one of the most difficult things any parent can do in life. Today, we consider it to be contrary to that natural order, but in times past, it was certainly not unusual.

For most of human history, life expectancy has been short… perhaps 25 years for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. During the early 1600s in England, life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.  Life expectancy was under 25 years in the Colony of Virginia, and in seventeenth-century New England, about 40% died before reaching adulthood.

I wonder, as a result, if our ancestral parents had a very different sense of the miracle of life. Did living with such a profound understanding of life’s fragility permit them to look upon their adult children with deeper appreciation and love?

Judi and I had, and still have, two children. In the 30+ years since David was born, I spent few moments worrying about his or Kathryn’s successful journey into adulthood. Medical science gifted us with a sense of safety, and belief in the vigor, rather than fragility, of human life. I always believed, regardless the malady, a trip to the doctor or the emergency room would present an appropriate remedy.

I wonder how my relationship with them might be different if Judi and I had had six children and buried four of them before David and Kathryn reached adulthood. How could it not be? How could I not see them as even more miraculous than I do now? How could I not worry every day I might yet have to lay one or both of them to rest before my life ends?

Not long ago, I was introduced to a man whose 18 month old son succumbed to sudden infant death. My heart breaks for him. But it cannot possibly break in the same wrenching way it would if I had shared the horrific experience of having to say goodbye to a child.

I am thankful there are support groups for parents who have lost children. But in this age, a grieving parent must search for others who share their unimaginable pain and heartbreak. Martha and Thomas did not have to search for support groups that would gather from hither and yon. In virtually every direction, there were others who shared intimately in their loss. Caring hands and hearts were everywhere. No matter where they traveled, there were others who understood, as did they, just how astonishing and miraculous human life truly is.

Do I wish a return to a time of ever present grief from the loss of children? No, I certainly do not. But I am aware of the paradox that, in our safety and comfort, we have surrendered some amount of wisdom and appreciation—perhaps significant amount—for the miracle of life itself.

Dec 182013
 
Note:The following will appear in the January/February Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
For more reasons than I can recount, I chose well the day I proposed to my bride. Not only is she from Hawai’i and “forces” me to visit her immediate family in Honolulu, but she has family in Thailand and Malaysia as well. We recently embarked on a long-delayed journey to meet them for the first time.
I have loved my in-laws for many years. Now that I have met the extended family in the Far East, I have many more to love…and admire. Being in the presence of a warm and generous family can leave you in awe, but that is an insufficient descriptor for the depth of my love and respect.
I learned of their generosity and acceptance our first night in Malaysia. In a wonderful seafood restaurant, I struggled with chopsticks to extract crabmeat from a tenacious shell and claws. I was the only one with seafood and sauce strewn across the tablecloth. When one last bit of crabmeat escaped the death-grip with which my fingers juggled those two tiny pieces of wood—and splashed another puddle of sauce across the tablecloth—I was mortified and did my best to hide the mayhem with my napkin. One young nephew sitting next to me, with the most understanding gaze, turned to me and said “It’s okay…don’t worry.” It was a generous moment of acceptance I will not soon forget.
The Saturday night we spent in their home, more than 50 family members gathered for an evening of food, fun and festivities. I have seldom seen such a well-orchestrated feast as the family unveiled a cornucopia of cultural treats…and more joy and love than one could imagine.
The final night we were there, after far too many glasses of scotch, they even coaxed yours truly to take to the microphone for karaoke.
If you could choose a family to call your own, it would be difficult to find one more life-affirming. And yet, this family was nearly ripped apart many years ago. When the patriarch, Ivan, was just 19, both his parents departed this earth, leaving him to care for four younger siblings.
I have only the most rudimentary sense of the anguish of leaving a young family to fend for themselves. Many years ago, on a weekend retreat with my daughter, a teen recounted the death of her father when she was in eighth grade. She described the unfathomable grief and heartache that gets only marginally easier as the years pass. In the ensuing moments, I realized, in a way I had not prior, that I will likely depart this earth leaving my children behind to face the world alone. The separation, loneliness and grief brought me to my knees. That night I literally cried myself to sleep. How could I possibly say goodbye to the children who so animate my life and give it meaning?
Before we left Malaysia, I thanked Ivan and his wife for fulfilling his parents’ deepest longings. “I can only imagine,” I told them, “that your parents would be grateful to know their children are well, happy, and loved.” Ivan looked at me with a gentle smile that spoke of his humility and gratitude and said, “I hope so.”
As I sit here, I can easily be brought to my knees again at the thought of leaving my children alone and vulnerable to the vagaries of life. But now, the pain eases just a bit. Ivan reminded me of the indomitable human spirit and our ability to survive and thrive even in the face of unbearable loss.

 

And I am grateful to my bride and her family whose love, support and encouragement make all these experiences, thoughts and words possible.
Jan 022011
 
“They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
                                                         Don McLean
With the tragic loss of Dakota Lewis, I sit with tears streaming down my face. I grieve that the joy he was able to give to so many is now lost to us—and to those who never looked into his eyes and felt the affirmation he was able to give in the moment of connection. We have only the memories of his joy in which to seek comfort. I am comforted by the few but vibrant memories he wrote upon my heart.
I was reminded of Don McLean’s words about the troubled life of Vincent Van-Gogh on the Facebook page “In Memory of Dakota Lewis.” As I have dwelt in the aftermath of Dakota’s passing, I have wondered why he was deaf to the words so many of us tried to share with him about the beauty and joy he brought to the world. But upon further reflection, and in the shadow of Don McLean’s lyrics, I also wonder if there was a quality of deep listening I was unable to give when I was with Dakota. No matter how hard we tried, I wonder if we were in a constant dance of conversations that ran parallel…never collided in a way that we could both hear. While I wish it were different, perhaps that is just part of being human. If I let you down my young friend, I am sorry. I tried, and was simply unable. I am, after all, only human. Perhaps, just perhaps, I will find a way to listen to the one next to me today in a slightly deeper way.
Dakota, while your life was short, you used your time here to leave us with many blessings. None of us, in a single lifetime, can witness our impact on the world. It is only in setting “initial conditions” (see “Stepping Gently Into the New Year”) that we change the future. Dakota, in a few short years, you helped us set in motion a future with more love, kindness and generosity than would be possible without you.
I miss you my young and very dear friend.