Tag Archives: Community

The Way Home

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I went to church this morning—on my couch. A dutiful daughter, I spent the first half of my life in religious prostration, and then I left. But detachment from dogma meant disconnect from community and I wandered, people-less into my middle-age. In recent years, I sometimes sat, shyly, noncommittally, on the back row of a new church I discovered, an un-church. The Unitarian Universalists. 

The UU church, nurturing spirit and service, brings a solace of words and music and familiar faces to my living room via Zoom on this second Sunday of social distancing. Congregants come like moths to the chalice flame. Greetings scroll up from the chat box as joiners bask in the warmth of shared hearts and minds, if not bodies.

Sensitive to surrounding energy, I’m challenged at the best of times to recognize what is mine and what is not. I get that from my mother, I suppose, an empath who could not witness a child harshly disciplined in the grocery store without weeping. My body picks up stray vibrations like a musical instrument and amplifies emotions I cannot name. In this time of global crisis, the volume is deafening. 

Reverend Molly reads poetry. The words are gentle hands untying the knots that bind my chest, loosening the resolve I wear as armor. Awareness of my unawareness blooms; I’ve been holding my breath and I didn’t even know it. With room to expand, distress spirals up toward the open air and I am crying. Copious tears trace their way slowly over my cheekbones and drip off my jaw.

I cannot stop, but even if I could, I would not. This grief is my prayer. 

On day 8 our family has cut our losses, nursed our disappointments, regrouped, and hunkered down for the duration. Cancellations and interrupted routines require precarious adjustment. Intimately, we hover protectively over our own. Sydney, 20, with Down syndrome, who suffered a near fatal pneumonia when she was 2 is particularly at risk. Melissa, 35, is 3 years out from breast cancer, including the full-on assault of chemo. I worry that her immune system is not fully recovered. And Jeremy, 33, is a physician’s assistant, on the front lines, testing and treating by day, returning home to his wife and 3 babies at night. I wonder if his PPE will last and if it can protect him from harm. 

Our fears are mitigated by gratitude for good fortune and blessings abundant: the opportunity to work from home, continued income, food, and shelter, and togetherness. All shall be well for us. What I feel today is bigger than myself.

The overwhelming scope of collective human experience rises in my throat like a coyote’s mournful cry in the night.

I have become those who are ill and those whose very lives are forfeit. I am their loved ones who rail at the injustice of their loss. I am those whose businesses are failing, finances lost, futures uncertain. I am everyone who is alone and afraid. Boundaries and borders blur. I am more than the inhabitant of this one small life. I am everyone.

How can it be true that this intensity is not mine? I think perhaps it belongs to me more than ever.

For in it, I sense a seismic shift; the world will simply not be the same on the other side of this. And what hangs in the balance, could this be the answer we’ve been praying for? Might it be the transcendence we’ve searched for? The salvation of humankind? 

There’s meaning here, an invitation. As the centrifugal force pinning us to our lives suddenly stops, radical change isn’t only possible, it is inevitable. It feels like a reckoning, a nudge as we lurch and tilt toward a tipping point, hanging on by our fingernails, poised to cascade over the edge into a cavernous unknown. But in freefall, we grasp and clutch with fear only to find it is in the letting go that we are safe. And finally, fully alive.

Spirit of hope, help me.
I can’t seem to find my way back to your realm.
I’ve been wandering in labyrinths, running into dead ends,
facing down monsters, losing my way.
Ariadne’s thread only tangles my feet and leaves my fingers raw.

Spirit of hope, ground me.
I’ve lost my bearings on what’s real, who I am, how I got here, why it matters.
Unreality makes a poor compass.
I remember to look up lest I get caught off guard,
but such preparations mean little to a soul suffering vertigo.

Spirit of hope, steady me.
Maybe the only way forward is to stay still.
Perhaps if I rest my bones exactly where I am instead of
scrabbling for purchase, searching for loopholes, willing myself on,
perhaps the dust will settle enough for a path to reappear,
a path that needn’t be tended or beautiful, just barely discernible.

Spirit of hope, guide me.
You dwell in the turn around between inhale and exhale,
a moment of trust that pulls me into the future.
I’ve been looking for something more grand, more obvious,
more compelling.
Help me recognize the promise and the flickering signs of life,
of love, of hope.
Help me remember that my body already knows the way home.

Lindasusan Ulrich

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Filed under Breast Cancer, Down syndrome, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Loss, Motherhood, Pandemic, Stress

The Light Between Us

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

One love, one blood, one life.
You got to do what you should.
One life with each other, Sisters and Brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.

One, U2

She doesn’t even know them. Not personally, anyway. Connected by three degrees of separation, she’s a friend of a neighbor of the family, this mom, dad and two sons, leading ordinary lives until a few weeks ago when their world was up-ended when the youngest brother received a shocking diagnosis: Stage 4 Medulloblastoma. She doesn’t know them, but no matter. She, too, is a mother, and that’s enough. Today she’ll shave her head for an 8-year-old boy she’s never met.

Movie-star gorgeous, sitting tall and poised, her hands shake in her lap.  She is prepared to be rendered hair-less. Bald. A statement of undeniable solidarity. Long, silky tresses gathered into ponytails sprout from her head, Medusa-like. Her gift is a double offering as the endowment of the hair itself will go to Locks of Love to make wigs for children who have lost theirs. Children like Aiden.

The lights on stage are bright. She squints, looking out over the darkened room. The typical late night crowd of the live music venue has been replaced this Saturday morning with people of all ages. The place is packed. With barely enough room to move, little ones are carried and bigger children are pulled by the hand through clumps of people as their parents edge past to congregate up front. Food vendors and silent auction items line the walls. The community has shown up. They intend and expect to give their support. What they don’t expect is how much they will receive in exchange.

Suspense hangs in the air as the clock ticks down to show time. In the spotlight, three more women–mothers, all of them–sit on folding chairs, draped in plastic capes snapped at the back of their necks. One lives next-door to the family, grown close as neighbors will, by the proximity of their shared lives over the span of years. A drink in the driveway after work, a rant of parenting frustrations, a new gardening idea, a remodeling project. A sick child. Dark brown wavy hair hangs past her shoulders and bangs frame her pretty face.  Brushing a tear from the corner of her eye, she blinks her long eye lashes; extensions that, along with big earrings, will soon accessorize her new look.

The next woman’s hair, thick and black, has been divided into segments, also going to Locks of Love. She smiles broadly, exuberance radiating from her face. Aiden and her young son are best friends and the families neighbors. The boys went to school, camped and rode scooters together until recently. Until the news.

It started with headaches that worsened. Doctor appointments revealed nothing conclusive, but Aiden’s parents persisted. Asking questions, insisting on more investigation, tests and more tests were performed and finally, a 2 ½ inch tumor resting on his brain stem was discovered along with other masses in his brain and tumors on his spine. Not what anyone wants to hear, the family had their answer: a rare and aggressive form of cancer. And with it a surreal new reality filled with surgery, hospitalizations, drugs, finding the best treatment options available, and relocating far from home to get it.

Mom and Dad are Skyping with Aiden today from his hospital room.  Technical difficulties threaten to thwart success and the disappointment is palpable when the connection drops.  After a few more tries, suddenly, there is Aiden, larger than life, yet with a vulnerability that makes him appear small no matter how much of the wall is covered by his projected image. Cheers go up from the throng when this little boy comes into view. His parents lean into the camera and smile their gratitude. The shavees blow kisses and shout their hellos. And with the family’s presence, preparations are finally complete. It can begin.

Excitement buzzes through the audience as people whisper their amazement to one another.

“They’re so brave.” 

“I could never do it.” 

“Can you imagine what they’re going through?”

Referring to the other mothers, these things can also be said of Aiden and his parents. In the air, something magical emerges, an alchemy of love beyond description, and it is the last woman on stage who has made it happen.  Neither a neighbor or a stranger, this mother is an acquaintance, a friend of a neighbor, who socialized with the family casually at barbecues and birthday parties. For years she knew that one day she’d make this choice, for many reasons and many people, not the least of whom is her own mother who died with no hair on her head after enduring not one, but two bouts with two different types of cancer. And the cruelest truth is this: the second cancer was caused by the curing of the first. This woman is colorful from her sassy chin-length brunette mane streaked with red and purple, to her shining eyes and dimples etched deeply into her round cheeks. She radiates joie de vivre even when her voice quivers with emotion during her welcome speech.

Initially, she envisioned a dare; a fun, gutsy campaign culminating in a bold public display that would garner cash, cold and hard, for the family in need. “How much would you pay,” she queried, “to see me shave my head?” When the other three added their momentum, issuing their challenge, a movement was born.

“What are you willing to give to this family if we are willing to cut off all our hair?”

Who wouldn’t admire them enough to donate money, based on their chutzpah alone? No doubt, funds will be raised, but more than money, the rallying of a community around one family garners energy. Efforts expanded as more and more people volunteered, good people who wanted to do something meaningful.  Besides these four, at the end of the day, dozens of others, women and men, mothers and fathers and uncles, even Aiden’s classmates—both girls and boys—will have stepped up and joined the ranks of the hairless to say, “We’re with you.”

On stage, they reach out, hand to hand, forming a linked chain, shaking and laughing and blinking back tears. There’s no turning back. The time is now.  And as this realization takes hold, the noisy, celebratory atmosphere is charged with a profound undercurrent of intensity and an overtone of the sacred. Enrapt, people find themselves strangely moved to tears. For some, a strong and unexpected reaction. These mothers are brave; it is no small thing what they do. It takes guts, but also inspires awe and reverence. Do they know how brave they are?  Possibly, but they would tell you that their courage pales in comparison to the bravery being asked of one small child.

He could be any of theirs, this darling boy with liquid brown eyes and a smile to melt a mother’s heart, who likes snow and ice cream and Dr. Pepper, this typical second-grader who loves his family and his dogs and his pet hamster. A vibrant, happy kid who wants nothing more than to play with his friends–and the chance to grow up. This boy, he is all of theirs.

With a hairdresser for each, the shearing commences simultaneously. Razors are set to scalps. Quick, deft strokes reveal rows of bared skin. Whoops rise up from the house as sheaths of hair fall to the floor and ponytails are severed like dismembered limbs. The impact is powerful. Tears run, unheeded now, down faces, falling to the floor with the locks of hair. This has become far more than a benefit. It is a sacrament. The degrees of separation between neighbors and friends and acquaintances, even strangers, merge and blend until no division exists and all are encompassed by a tangible sense of belonging.

Newly shorn, the women huddle, arm-in-arm. Exhilarated by the fulfillment of their conquest, they laugh through their tears. In disbelief they can’t resist reaching out to rub each other’s heads, now lightened, the weight of all their hair, gone. And the translucent image of Aiden and his parents is cast across the stage, over all of them, and reflected back to those watching. Lighter than air, love lifts the heaviest of burdens and illuminates the soul.  Stripped down, love bares the beautiful, naked truth: no one is ever alone.

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Filed under Babies, Enlightenment, Gratitude, Motherhood