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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

The Road Is Long

Reposted from the CaringBridge site for Everly Broadway

This weekend I attended the Moral March in Raleigh to both display a commitment and be encouraged for the long struggle for justice in our state where it seems so many people, particularly leaders, forgot who we are and where we came from after the economy crashed.  When I listened to the remarks about public education, and when I read the stories of how things have changed so suddenly and dramatically in our state and our county, I find myself saying that I'm glad Everly did not live to see all of this.  It's only half true, because although I would want her to be free from the pain of seeing her work dismantled, I also wish I had her as a mighty ally to work to put things in order.  But I don't really want to write today about all those political struggles, except indirectly.

As I stood on Fayetteville Street near the NC Capitol, at one point a singer on the platform was singing Sam Cooke's song, "A Change Is Gonna Come."  Those of you old enough to remember can feel with me the deep emotion of the plaintive lyric that says, "It's been a long, a long time coming," and of course, what he waits for has still not arrived.  He holds on to hope for that change to come.  As that line echoed among the skyscrapers and marchers, and I listened to people talk about the struggles for voting rights, only to see them reversed, I felt that deep ache that resides deep within the human heart, that longing for a world to be set right.

Anyone who paid attention in literature class should know that poetic texts are by intent polyvalent (what dominant cultures love to falsely call "universal" when they want to claim all truth for themselves as the omniscient knowers).  Poetry describes specific people, events, and experiences, and yet the words inevitably connect with readers who find themselves in many other situations.  People who listen to Sam telling about his struggles to be respected and to simply live a life will very likely be drawn to places of hurt and longing in their own stories.  I hope it is not privileged appropriation to talk about this song in relation to my own long road of grief.  Connecting with another song, this one made popular by Everly's beloved Osmonds, "The road is long, with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where."

This Wednesday, February 18 and Ash Wednesday, will be nineteen months since Everly died.  Those of you who read this, who miss her, and who have walked alongside following my writing before and after Everly's death, know that the journey has been long from her grand accomplishments as an educator, leader, servant of God, wife, and mother, through her courageous struggle to survive cancer, through her preparation for and acceptance of dying, and through her family's and friends' demoralization and disorientation after losing her from our lives.  I have tried to chronicle and reflect on it first here in this CaringBridge journal and then later at my "earth as it is in heaven" blog.

For a very long time, the emotion was raw and unbearably tender.  Many of us were regularly surprised by tears in unexpected moments, or not surprised at all by the tears and pain of remembering times when Everly was the best part of our day, of our lives.  I could not pass an 18th of the month without the pangs of loss, the memories of that day and her final struggle before peaceful release.  In the fall of 2013, a wise friend encouraged me that with time, even those last days might be remembered more for the joy and goodness of knowing Everly than for the wrenching pain of her departure.  I found that hard to believe.  I held a thread of hope that it would be true.  And finally, I am beginning to believe that it can be true.

"Grief work" has become a popular term in therapeutic culture.  I find it to be helpful to me.  It helps me recognize that the richer understanding and memory of those precious months and days with Everly will not happen purely by chance nor by inattention.  Even when there are unexpected moments of insight, those will not simply sprout from uncultivated ground.  For wounds to heal, I am having to apply the antibiotic ointments of remembering and retelling truthfully and lovingly the stories of living and struggling with Everly until I can see their beauty and dreadfulness.  I have to massage in the salves of wise words from others who have walked this kind of road to soften and mend the torn places.  Doing these things is hard work, like growing things in a garden is hard work.  I'll not hammer away into absurdity with these two metaphors, but move on.  The point you already get is that I have to put effort into healing and new growth. 

Much of my reflective work over the past year has been about what I would do next with my life, living a very different life than the one Everly and I had planned together.  For that reason, I shifted away from this site that had been more focused on Everly.  Love for her was the reason you all came to this site to read, and only secondarily to know about her loved ones as they pressed into the future.  But today I'm back because I again want to focus on the grief and loss that accompanied her last days of living.

A few weeks ago (just before Christmas), I wrote about a poem by Denise Levertov, "Terror."  In that poem, she draws a powerful image of the emotional changes that come in time after loss, when the immediacy and intensity of the pain begin to recede for many people.  Awareness of such moments can awaken a new terror that somehow the person who has been grieving has become hardened, stony, inhuman, for not feeling the same as before about so great a loss.  It described for me a very different feeling about the Christmas season as it came around the second time without Everly there to make the plans and decorate and wrap and make us all happy.  Sorting through the mixed emotions of trying to get on with the life that Everly expects of me and of not having such all-consuming sadness has been part of the grief work.

Last week I started another book in which a noted scholar and minister traces his own steps through loss and grief, Henri J..M. Nouwen's In Memoriam, written soon after the death of his mother.  Nouwen is known for his deep insights into the complexities of human struggle in this world and for the ability to articulate the ways that love must unfold and entangle itself in the relationships of our lives.  His gifts as a writer have meant that on most pages some turn of phrase leaps out or sears my consciousness with illumination of pain or joy.  Thus, I am taking it slow.

Today I read his account of spending time with his mother in her last days, when she found it too taxing even to speak.  He said that he and she had been using the same prayer book during her illness, so that even if separated, they were able to share the fellowship of reading the same prayers from the Psalms each evening.  Remembering being at her bedside with their days together soon to end, he writes,

Now there was no doubt that she was dying; it was so clearly written on her face.  It was so clearly written on her face.  I knew that we both knew.  But there were no words.  I bent over her face...."Shall I pray?" I asked softly.  She seemed pleased and nodded.  Knowing she would have asked me this if she had possessed the strength to speak, I realized that the words of the psalms would make it possible to communicate with each other in new ways....As these words were slowly shaped by my lips, covering her like a gentle cloud, I knew that we were closer than ever.  Although she was too ill to smile, too weak to say thanks, too tired to respond, her eyes expressed the joy we felt in simply being together.  The psalms...lifted the veil of sentimentality.  As soon as the words of the psalms were spoken, there was a strength, a power, and a divine realism between us.  There was a joyful clarity.  A mother was dying, her son was praying, God was present and all was good.  As she looked into my eyes, I knew that my gratitude for her presence in my life would live on within me.  As I looked into her eyes, I knew that she would die grateful for her husband, her children and grandchildren, and the joyful life that had always surrounded her.

I would not want you to infer from this selection that I am now deciding everything was happy in July of 2014.  Neither I nor Nouwen would sugar-coat those times.  Of course those final days were filled with questions, struggles, frantic emotions at times, and deep sorrow.  Yet they were not captured by those difficult aspects.  We also had the beauty of Everly's eyes, her smile, her demeanor, her humor, to accompany us.  When she felt troubled, afraid, or upset, we were there to listen to her calls, meet her needs, embrace her with love, and calm her with our presence.  In a house where death was soon to come, life remained the force and hope of a family intoxicated by our love of one another. 

What Nouwen's writing in this opening chapter brought to my mind was the way that Everly's children surrounded her with a peaceful, loving presence.  Sometimes we were all in the room with her, and I have vague memories of such times.  More often, we were in pairs or one-by-one sitting with Everly and opening our hearts to the sacred time with her.  Sometimes one of the children would sing every song she could think of, or even turn page after page of the National Baptist Hymnal and sing for Mommy.  Sometimes they would go to talk with her about deep matters of their lives, answering the questions they knew she would ask, opening the hidden places of their lives, hearts, and minds to the Mother whose love was so abundant and present to them.  I had my moments of sitting beside her, holding her hand, talking, singing, and praying as well. 

But what stands out to me is the way David, Naomi, and Lydia opened themselves up to Everly as instruments of peace, sewing love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy.  All of those gifts to their Mommy were mingled with aching tears, but they were tangible gifts nonetheless.  Not in Nouwen's way of the psalms, but in their own ways of hymns and songs, honest words from their hearts, hummed melodies, and gentle caring touches, they bore her body through the vale of tears, through the valley of the shadows.  Their giving presence eased her death with the comfort that she had loved her own in this world, and now could love them to the end.  I could wish for so many things to have happened to let her be here with us longer, and I do.  But short of that bliss, how could I ask for more than the beautiful human beings that she bore into this world, who stood by her in her darkest hour and blessed her name with their loving presence?

We all still struggle in the wake of those hard days.  They are difficult memories, but even as I compose these words, I do so behind tears of joyful memory mixed with the pain of loss.  So I give thanks that the beauty of those days increases in my memory, as I strive for endurance to produce character and for character to produce hope.  For hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  We have seen that love poured out in the life of Everly, and we have seen it poured out into her children.  May they and I be the blossoming rose of Everly's love, strength, and courage in these days of our sojourn.

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