Praying our Goodbyes

While corresponding with a friend who is in a chapter of praying goodbyes, and working on what feels like clumsy hello’s, I was reminded of a story I’ve never told. I felt my friend’s ache, one that resembled my own etched in the wall of my heart, of “a still-living mysterious space between” of a life, a love, or a dream let go.

This is what it means to celebrate life in the daily that I often try to write about–being present to each moment when life is kissed with death. Our first half of life seems to be about attaining and winning and gaining. And now we learn to open our hands. The memory is somehow painfully intimate, but also universal.

This is the story of when Alison and I burned our Vanguard business cards.

Ali had moved to Sonoma, CA after birthing twins in the Men’s Tower the year Steve was the Men’s Resident Director. On this particular day months later, Ali had three little boys under age two (three?), and she had lots of little hands and feet, and hungry tummies. Her dream of being a mother had come true, but it was one that came at the great cost of leaving her community and workplace. Though she adored her little ones, now she was also discovering the downside of domestic engineering, of groceries and diapers. Poop was a presiding theme of her days just then.

In an attempt to save my health and marriage, we had moved away also, and I was now holed up and trying to survive the wilderness of Montana, shrouded in absolute obscurity, hungry and lost, without so much as a prospect of a friend or job. The community Ali and I both loved, the offices we helped decorate, the titles we helped create, our budding salaries were now mere memories and no longer any part of our present reality. Ali and I wept openly across the phone line as we each read our titles in raised, shiny blue font with that little shield logo, the mission we’d come to call our own–spiffy business cards and titles that no longer meant a single damn thing. My box was still almost full, 472 cards never slipped into the handshake of remarkable professionals in handsome suits to be tucked into their Day Planners while anticipating a phone call. With trembling fingers we each lifted handfuls of cards, our offering, and threw them on the fire, watching them ignite and curl in on themselves.

I shuffled a batch of 1×2 inch card stock like a deck of playing cards and feeling the weight of each card, each loss on my fingertips, then dropped them one by one in through a lid of a red wood stove, watching my dreams turn black around the edges, hearing the hiss, stubborn about exploding into a burst of flame. Alison tossed her cards into a large fireplace along with her soggy tissues. Finally, we each chucked the handsome white oblong box itself in to burn. I didn’t tell Ali that I stashed five cards under a note pad in the back corner of my desk drawer. I felt ashamed. I burned one card each year for five more years. And then I burned the lecture notes I’d taught from, and then the syllabi, and finally the class rosters of my students… just last week. Twenty years later.

James and I no longer have libraries, simple theology, a music studio, the dog, our two children, their friends, their noise and messes, or their belongings in the day to day. We find a measure of freedom in our new found space, but  there were many days I felt as if what we knew and loved most was erased in the downsizing. We share many intimacies and we share griefs in sizes and shapes we never before imagined. And with Lent comes new hope, new Life. Growing looks different now.

Nomads we are. We celebrate life as we know it. We listen. Read. We saunter. Breathe. Watch good movies. Each rich food, drink good wine. We are creatives, hoping to reflect the Master. And we dance, with hands open to the sky.

On that day with Ali long ago, we didn’t yet know our bright future. And I certainly couldn’t yet see Easter. I was merely praying a painful goodbye. Letting go.

On that day with Ali long ago, neither of us had attained noteworthy status, our titles wouldn’t hardly register on a career bulletin! We grieved something more pure and innocent. We’d stepped into motherhood, “this path leading elsewhere,” at great expense. And to do so we’d left our mater; we’d left community. We also discovered that “mother” had many more children to attend. She loved us, was proud of us, and we were now on our own. Community was up to us, and it wasn’t looking altogether like too much fun. But we had each other, even across all those miles. All these years. Still.

* * *

I shared this story with our wise professor and friend, Dr. Jerry Camery-Hoggatt. He responded with words that comfort and remain:

I believe it was Frederick Buchner who said,

What’s lost is nothing to what’s gained, and all the death there ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.

And yet, and yet:  There remains the need — perhaps even the responsibility — to grieve.

Dr. C-H then said, It seems as if the burning of your cards was a kind of ritual—a religious act even. Rituals don’t generally happen out of the blue, but instead are punctuation marks that help us transition from one sentence to another. Sometimes they help us transition between paragraphs of our life stories. Sometimes even chapters. So I wondered about the prior sentence this ritual was closing. Surely there was sorrow and loss, but I wonder it was not sorrow about where you were heading so much as sorrow about what you were leaving behind…

I suspect that your ritual of burning your business cards was a kind of release of something about your life – about who you were – that you liked and respected, that you cherished. It was connected to VU because that was where you felt that part of your life take root and grow…I suspect that the part of you that you found at VU is still with you, too, burned business cards notwithstanding.    

I notice something else about the ritual: this ritual was a shared moment. You weren’t alone. You aren’t alone now. You have Jamé, you have Cierra, and Spenc and Taylor, and you have me. I’m quite sure that there are many, many others who feel that connection with you, who know who they are in part because of who you are and the roles you play or have played in their lives. They are who they are because of you.