I am starting my “musings on grief” with an excerpt from the first sermon I preached after my month-long summer break in 2019. July had been a month filled with loss, a month that started with my father-in-law’s death and ended with my step-daughter’s death. I keep my cell phone in the pulpit with me, on silent of course, in case of an emergency. While I was preaching I could see that my youngest daughter Zoe was texting me. After the worship service and after a meeting, I spent the afternoon with Zoe who was in the hospital with the DTs. She wanted to be sober for Emily’s memorial service. Zoe is gone now, another contributor to my musings on grief. Here’s what I wrote August 4, 2019.
The night after my husband Frank’s father died the phone rang around 9pm. A ringing phone has become a source of immediate stress in our household these last few months. Frank’s father had been in the hospital for two weeks before he died. Frank’s oldest daughter Emily had been in hospice since mid-May, coming to the end of what her husband calls her “brawl with brain cancer.” Emily is gone now; she died this past Monday. The phone still rings and buzzes with texts. People are calling to offer comfort. Emily’s husband Paul is calling and texting with details for the memorial service.
The night after Frank’s father died the phone rang. It was Paul. Emily had taken the car and he didn’t know where she was. She wasn’t supposed to be driving. She needed a walker to get around. How could she have taken the car? As we left the house to drive around their neighborhood to help find Emily, Frank said “I can’t do this.” “You can do this,” I reassured him. You are doing this. This is you doing this.”
Emily came back that night just after we left our house. We turned around, continued with our nighttime routine and eventually fell asleep. There would be other phone calls, other drives towards their house. The Saturday we thought she was done, Frank drove wildly toward her house trying to trust we would get there in time, but really trusting nothing at this point in a month that would begin with the death of his father and end with the death of his oldest daughter.
As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about the drives we take when a child is about to be born. I wasn’t on that drive with Frank. Emily is my stepdaughter. She came into my life when she was 13 years old. The oldest of our combined family of four girls, Emily was the responsible one. The one who answered the phone the day our youngest broke her wrist during spring break. Frank called me at work using my cell phone – it was before he had his own – he was taking Zoe to the hospital, but he failed to tell me which one. I called back. He was unpracticed with cell phones, he didn’t answer. I called Emily at home. The responsible one, she knew which hospital.
Ram Das, the American spiritual teacher known for his connection to Timothy Leary and his devotion to his guru Neem Karoli Baba, said that we are just walking each other home. He also said that “dying is the most important thing you do in your life…. And loving is the art of living as a preparation for dying.” We’re here to walk with each other towards our common destination to no longer be here. How we love each other along the way matters.
Home, for Ram Das, is unity with the divine. We can achieve that here, while we are still present in our bodies, in ordinary moments of connection with each other. Final unity will come when we die. From the Hindu Upanishads: “All the universe has come from love, and unto love all things return.” We are all walking each other home. Our home is love.
A very loving friend asked me if Emily and I were close. I know the question came from love, but I have to wonder if they would have asked me that if I were Emily’s biological mother. We don’t usually ask that question of each other when a family member dies. Were you and your mother close? Were you and your father close? Were you and your sister close? Were you and your spouse close? We may not ask that of each other, but we probably ask that of ourselves. We ask that of ourselves in the way we untangle our relationships after someone is gone.
Another very loving friend, listening to me untangle my complicated relationship with my mother after she died listened while I shared how confused I was. I deeply loved my mother and yet, she had utterly failed me when she should have protected me. I deeply loved my mother and yet, she often irritated me towards the edge of cutting her out of my life. I deeply loved my mother and yet, my friend interjected: “your mother was no saint.” Reality check: my mother was no saint. And neither am I. None of us are.
There is a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition. Two traveling monks observe a young woman attempting to cross a large mud puddle. Without hesitation, the older monk picks her up and carries her across the puddle. The two monks continue on their travels. They walk for hours. Over the hills, down the valleys, through another town and across a forest. The entire time they walk, the younger monk quietly broods. Finally, the younger monk erupts from his silence. In one version of the story, he scolds his elder brother admonishing him, “Monks are not allowed to touch women. Why did you carry her?” The older monk smiles and turns towards his younger brother, “I left the woman alongside the road hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
Like all wisdom stories, this story has several versions and several titles to go with the versions. The story I shared this morning with the children is called “A Heavy Load.” The arrogance and ingratitude of the young woman is a central part of that version of the story. Another version of the story is called “A Monk with Heavy Thoughts” and emphasizes the younger monk’s discomfort with his elder colleague’s rule breaking.
We carry a heavy load when someone hurts our feelings, ignores our wishes, or seems to put their needs in front of ours. Refusing to put down our heavy load, we carry grudges and hurts to our graves. We carry heavy thoughts when we question our own actions, regretting hurting someone’s feelings, ignoring someone’s wishes, or seeming to put our needs in front of theirs. Refusing to let go of our heavy thoughts, we punish ourselves with constant shaming. We get stuck in seeing ourselves as victims. We carry our heavy load, our heavy thoughts, crowding out love that is always present. From love we come, to love we are returned. If only we would leave our heavy load alongside the road as we walk each other home.
Up until several years ago, ecologists believed that trees competed against each other. That trees, like humans, engaged in a survival of the fittest battle with clear winners and losers. They believed that trees were competing for resources like light and water and nutrients. That the strongest trees were the ones that grew the tallest and took resources from the smaller, weaker trees. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered otherwise.
Suzanne Simard discovered through conducting experiments that trees are communicating with each other in a way that balances their resources. What she discovered at first, she says is “if one tree had a lot of water in it or a lot of nitrogen or had high photosynthetic rate and if one tree is sick, then the neighboring tree shuttles more of those nutrients to that suffering tree.” For example, if one tree gets damaged by a mountain pine beetle, it will increase its defense enzymes. This information is communicated, and another tree will increase its defense enzymes.
What she discovered next is that the trees in her forest are connected by microscopic fungi in a network called the mycorrhizal network. She describes them like sewing threads that crisscross and go off in multiple directions. They work together to form a very complex web that is in constant communication with the trees.
Suzanne Simard created a map of the network with each tree representing a node. The biggest, darkest nodes, she and her team called hub trees or, more affectionately, mother trees because the hub trees nurture the trees growing in the understory of the forest. They have found that mother trees send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings and this increases seedling survival by four times.
She wondered – do these mother trees favor their own children? So, they grew mother trees with kin and with strangers’ seedlings. They do recognize their kin and do connect with their own kind with larger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. She and her team also found that when mother trees are injured or dying, they send messages to their seedlings, messages that increase the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses.
This is not a selfless act of a sacrificing mother. It is not the selfish act of a mother tree that cares only for its kind. What Simard and her team found out is that trees need a complex, diverse community in which to thrive. They need other plants that can cycle nutrients more quickly. They need neighbors that are resistant to insects and diseases. They share resources with their neighbors because a strong, diverse community gives back to them making them stronger and healthier. Trees need each other and so do we.
Forests are not just collections of trees, just as humans are not simply collections of individuals. They are complex systems with hubs / mother trees and networks that allow them to communicate in ways that provide for feedback and adaptation. This communication makes the forest more resilient.
At our best, when we humans really listen to each other we become more resilient. In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service Ram Das and Paul Gorman write, “We really do meet behind our separateness. And for however long that lasts, such meeting is what helps … helps at the level of being … is help itself.”
Just like the forest, humans have a great capacity for self-healing. Just like the forest, we need diversity and complex systems to promote this self-healing. We used to believe that human beings were locked in a survival of the fittest battle with winners and losers. It’s beyond time for us to start believing that we’re more than just a collection of individuals competing for limited resources. That, we too, are capable of cooperation. We too, are capable of communicating below the surface sending messages to the deep parts of our souls, building each other’s resistance for the journey home.