The lilac are blooming.
And they’re taking me back again to a May morning some thirteen years ago when a light went out in my life and the long shadow of sorrow moved in.
It was the Thursday before Mother’s Day, 2007. As the first of the sun’s rays broke over the crest of The Canyon, I was at the back of my car cinching my bike to the rear rack in anticipation of a morning ride on the back roads of Taos. While fiddling with my bike, I heard from inside my house the phone ring, followed by the answering machine kicking on. A couple minutes later the phone rang a second time, followed again by the answering machine. I was irritated that people were calling me so early. I finally went inside to check my messages, and scanning through the caller ID I saw that one message was from my brother Mark, the other, from my father.
My heart was suddenly in my throat.
Their messages were short: “Call me when you can.”
My mother had died that morning.
I hardly remember the rest of that day.
Or the days following.
But of the tidal wave of emotions that overtook me, I remember in a moment of grasping that I was grateful, at least, that she died in springtime.
I hoped that in her last days she had seen lilac.
I hoped that as her body crumbled to cancer, she was enveloped in blooming.
The day after Mother’s Day, my brothers, Dad and I were together in my parents’ home, an apartment in a retirement community that they had moved to just five months earlier after selling our family home of 42 years. The apartment, though unfamiliar to us, was sunny, and was situated on grounds that were abloom in spring color and fragrance — lilac among them.
As we consoled each other, my brothers, father and I divided out tasks. Among mine was to plan the memorial.
I hadn’t a clue how to do this.
My mother had left no instructions except a little scratched note we had found among her papers. Something along the lines of “A simple ceremony. Pine wood box. Phil playing Saints.” ** The latter was a reference to her brother, my uncle, Phil Wilson, a talented jazz musician and gifted trombonist who, at their mother’s memorial 20 years earlier, had played When the Saints Go Marching In, one of my Grandmother’s favorites.
Beyond this, we knew nothing of my mother’s wishes.
I decided to try to find a Unitarian minister.
Although my upbringing was decidedly non-religious, my mother, who grew up in New England, had been raised Unitarian. Her mother — my grandmother — was atheist. My grandfather had been simultaneously (!!) the president of Harvard’s student Baptist club as well as the president of the Unitarian club; his own father had been a Baptist minister (who — according to family lore — was fired for daring to suggest that the some of the stories of the Bible be taken as allegorical rather than literal.)
When I was a very little girl, my family attended a Unitarian Fellowship each Sunday, but we stopped going when I was about six years old. Many years later I asked my mother why we had stopped going. “That was during the Vietnam War, and the services had become overshadowed by political discussions.” She said that the services lacked the uplifting spiritual aspect that she had so enjoyed and remembered fondly in the church of her youth.
I looked online and the nearest Unitarian church was an hour north in Summit, New Jersey.
I dialed the number and tearfully spoke with a woman with the warmth of a wise elder. She was the head or lead minister, and she was who I wanted to officiate my mother’s service.
But she was unavailable for any of the dates we wanted.
She recommended their youth minister, a young woman named Emilie.
I felt the sting of disappointment. Knowing nothing about such things, I assumed that we were getting “second best.” Plan B when my mother deserved Plan A. It was out of my power though — as was, seemingly everything right then, and so I took down Emilie’s number.
When she answered the phone I could barely get out a sentence for sobbing so hard.
And yet, If it’s possible to send someone a consoling warm embrace through a phone line, that’s what she did, immediately, without hesitation.
She was free on our hoped for date and would be honored to officiate.
In the meantime she suggested that we come up to the Summit Unitarian church to meet with her and share remembrances of my mother.
A few days later my brothers headed back, briefly, to their respective homes to tend to their families, and my father and I made the hour drive to Summit. There Reverend Emilie greeted us in the sanctuary of her church. The building felt familiar, like it could have been a backdrop to my mother’s New England childhood.
My dad and I sat with her around a small table, and for an hour-and-a-half he and I reflected, often tearfully, trying to convey some concept of who our mother, wife, best friend was. All the while Emilie’s hand was in continual motion over a pad of paper as she took notes.
There was no tape recorder, which remains incredible to me. For the level of detail she accurately gleaned, the deep essence of my mother that she gathered, was stunning.
Some weeks later, when we gathered again, this time with our families and a long life’s worth of friends, Emilie spoke heartily of my mother’s life. It was as though she’d known and understood her well.
Afterward, my father commented to me with deep warmth and appreciation in his voice, “I really like Emilie. I think Mum would have liked her, too.” My thoughts exactly.
Four years later there was no question who to call when my father died.
Although Emilie and I had not spoken in almost half a decade, when I called again and muttered through tears who I was, she voiced immediate, empathetic recognition.
Now it was my brothers and I who would drive an hour north and gather round a small table with Emilie.
Her pen filled pages.
In the coming days as she and my brothers and I all worked on our comments for the memorial, I received a message from Emilie: “Dawn, I just have to say I am in love with your parents!” She expressed regret for never having known my mother, and appreciation in at least being acquainted with my father. She felt as though she were getting to know them yet more deeply through our stories and their shared history.
The depth of her sense of them, her respect and warmth and admiration radiated as she spoke at my father’s memorial.
That was nine years ago.
It’s been almost a decade since my father died, and as long since I’ve been back to New Jersey.
I’ve not seen Emilie since.
And I might have thought this story of our acquaintance would have ended there.
But in the decade since, Emilie’s and my friendship has only deepened.
What I’ve found is that each year when I send my annual springtime card, when I address one to Emilie, I feel as though in a way I’m also sending it to my parents. It’s as though she’s a gatekeeper to my parents’ spirit.
Maybe I think of her a little bit as an angel guarding their memory.
Months will pass without a word from each other. And then spring will come round again and we’ll share warm salutations. It might be just a quick “Hello,” or it might sometimes be a more detailed exchange, as when she sought ideas for ways to nurture in her family a love of the outdoors as my parents had done. Always our exchanges have radiated warmth.
It’s spring again.
Only this spring is unlike any spring any of us has ever known.
There are deep, dark shadows across the country, across the world, as pandemic fans through families and communities. People are fighting for their lives. Others are fighting to keep them alive. Others are losing their jobs, their security, their known world. And all the world is mourning. All the world seems gripped in anxiety, in uncertainty.
I am one of the fortunate ones: Secure, in good health, well-nourished and comfortably housed, my few needs are met and likely will continue to be. Though worry for others weighs on me, one of the most pressing questions that arises for me is: How to help? How, from the walls of home isolation, can I offer calm and comfort? Beyond financial contributions and donating goods, how can I possibly help make things better?
It turns out that one way lay in my work — in my art. And in one instance at least, via an extraordinary opportunity to help my friend who years ago helped me.
For as with countless churches throughout the world, in an effort to keep the congregation safe and healthy, the Summit Unitarian church has had to move their services online. That means filling an hour each Sunday morning with thoughtful, inspiring, relevant words and song.
A few weeks ago, Emilie, who receives my weekly Tuesday Dawnings messages of uplift, asked if I might allow her to include some of my recent watercolors in their next online service. For she admitted one of their challenges is coming up with enough images to share during their online services.
Images, you say?
I took a quick look on my computer: I have over 30,000 images:
If there’s one thing I could provide her community, it’s images.
That following Sunday morning I turned on my computer and logged into a YouTube channel. And there in my kitchen, as I drew a match and lighted a candle, I joined in fellowship across hundreds of miles a community in Northern New Jersey.
As I watched and listened and was moved by that service, I saw my lovely friend — my parents’ angel. And I saw creations from my camera and brush.
Little did I know thirteen years ago when I picked up the phone in the hushed corner of my parent’s bedroom, out of death and deepest grief, a new friendship was about to take root.
Little did I know in the darkness of this pandemic that I would be presented with a unique and creative opportunity to help a community.
Little did I know with all those moments of pause and thousands of shutter clicks, that some of the beauty I notice might be part of a special gathering of souls hundreds of miles away.
Little did I know what light would emerge from the shadows.
And little did I know what abundance and beauty could take root and blossom out of loss.
** We had two memorials for my mother, one in New Jersey for us and our friends, and, a few months later a private service for family in Exeter, New Hampshire, in the church where she and my father had been married 53 years earlier. At the family gathering, my uncle Phil payed tribute to my mother with two tunes — Come Sunday, which my subscribers will recognize from this week’s Tuesday Dawnings, followed by Saints.
Candle image by Zae Zhu on Unsplash.
Thank you for being here and reading my musings.
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Thank you again.
~ Dawn Chandler
Santa Fe , New Mexico