The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: love

How Grief Defines and Ennobles Us

We all reach a stage in life when grief and a sense of loss go from being sudden events to our constant companions. In numerous conversations in the last few weeks, I have been struck by just how many people are moving through the various stages of grief and seeking to infuse their own lives with meaning as they have come face to face with their mortality.

It seems to be happening at every level – from the loss of celebrity figures like David Bowie or Stuart Maclean in recent months, to those losing hope for peace in a troubled world. An entire generation of Baby Boomers has reached the age where they are saying gentle and painful farewells to parents in their final days. Suddenly tears seem something sacred and heartbreak leads to a sense of closeness.

Every day throughout our community such experiences are played out in ways most of us will never know. Like some kind of institution, grief is ever-present among us but goes unnoticed. Occasionally it catches us unaware, as when we spot a funeral procession on its way to the cemetery or when we spot the sad crescendo of tears by someone incapacitated outside the emergency room. It is in the darkened face of one on the edge of losing their faith in humanity because of all the conflicts, or the person who looks at an old photo album they haven’t open for years. In most cases, such events never make the news or rise to public consciousness but they nevertheless define the daily life of citizens and are therefore important.

There is always the tendency to wish grief to end, to release its dismal hold on our emotions. Yet it endures because we must always be reminded that for a time we had something special in our lives and our crying out in pain is but a reflection of just how valued that presence was. The tears are the down payment we pay for the ongoing memory of what we have lost and still treasure. It is just as the old Jewish proverb reminds us: “We fear to love what death can touch.” But once we overcome that fear and begin a relationship with someone that we value then it is inevitable that the pain will strike us when she or he is gone. And yet we do it – we continue to reach out for what inspires us. When we are young we don’t think about what we could lose; when we are older we can’t forget it.

Recently I reached out to a friend in Britain who had suffered an unexplainable loss. Endeavouring to be supportive, I sent some words of encouragement. She wrote me back with an anonymous quote that spelled grief out for me in a fashion I will never forget:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

“Love with no place to go.” Most of us endure this each day and yet continue on because, really, what can we do? We can’t bring what we treasured back to us. We understand that grief loses some of its intensity over time, but we never overcome the longing. We feel the loss deeply because that person once stretched our minds and our spirits to new heights and depths. Our grief is a reminder that their memory is yet with us, stirring our emotions, and encouraging us to get on with life. Just as knowledge builds the mind and exercise strengthens the body, grief uniquely ennobles our soul and spirit.

All those who grieve are baptized into the fragility of all that is human. And yet the pain’s presence in our lives is but a reminder that, in some unexplainable way, what we have lost is yet with us. Our grief is the price we pay for the privilege of having that person still present within us even though they are gone. They yet whisper in our ear, arouse our spirits and not just our memories, reminding us that we not only loved them deeply but that we were capable of getting beyond ourselves and embracing a greater life. Their presence in our lives through grief means we can still perform that remarkable act of transformation.

Mothers: The Gift of Endurance

Mom and me walking copy

With Mom in Calgary (1960)

MY MOTHER WOULD HAVE BEEN 98 THIS YEAR.  Losing her some 35 years ago was difficult; today she is my constant companion.

Meeting my father when he was on leave in Edinburgh, Scotland, during World War Two introduced her to a future she could never have predicted. She became a Scottish war bride in 1944 by marrying her Canadian soldier. There was lots of that in those days, and the hotels were so full that they had to spend their summer wedding night in a cow pasture. It was likely to be her last moment of real peace before the madness of war and personal tumult invaded her world.

Six months later she received a telegram from the War Department, saying that Dad had been missing and presumed killed in the Italian campaign. I kept that telegram for years. Devastated, like so many other remarkable young women of that time, she maintained her work schedule at the local munitions factory and attempted to bury the pain.

D-Day was occupying everyone’s mind and correspondence was heavily censored so that no secrets would be revealed. Only when the invasion was accomplished did she receive a telegram from Canada. It was from my father in Calgary, in convalescence from being shot twice – he had, in fact, survived. He wondered why she hadn’t contacted him after he sent all those letters saying he was struggling after being sent back to Canada from hospital in North Africa. Letters had been held up because of the military campaign and he had never known she had received the telegram saying he had perished.

Proceeding by ship to Canada, she met my Dad in Calgary as they tried to build a life together. My brother and I were born during that time (1945 and 1950 respectively), but my father’s wounds meant he was incapable of solid work. It was then determined that she should take the kids back to Scotland while he attempted to find employment. So here was this struggling woman, with a five-year old and a nine-month old, taking the train back to Montreal for the return journey to her homeland. Five years later Dad found a job with Imperial Oil and asked her to return, which she did within the year.

The following years were anything but easy for Mom, including bouts of alcoholism and depression – the reason I haven’t written of this until now. It was never easy, but through it all she walked me to school, taught me to put others first, to never forget Scotland, to throw myself into life rather than backing into it, and in the process I loved her with a full heart.

How did she do it? How did she manage to keep it all together when the entire world, including her own, was literally falling apart? In my mind, it was a miracle of tenacity in a world of unsurely – one of the legacies mothers leave to the human race. Some moms believe they have to train their kids to carry themselves in a cruel world. Fair enough, but Mom continued to remind me to play a role in actually making the world a bit more kind and just – remarkable. The training of her children was her direct answer to a supposedly hopeless world. I was her downpayment to a better future – God, what a thought. And what a responsibility!

Dorothy Fisher once wrote: “A mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” But if that is so, why do I tilt so much towards her now? Because I need her? No, because I love her, just as I did following my first breath and her last. Catherine Wiseman Pearson – a woman of her time who transcends all time, of her generation and every generation. I am her son. I love you, Mom.

Christmas and the Art of Making Goodness Attractive

mother-and-child

WE AREN’T FORCED INTO DOING GOOD. Nor are we legislated or coerced into performing a kind act for others. Rather, we are inspired into it. It might be a holiday song wafting through a favourite store, a Salvation Army kettle attended by a citizen, seeing our kids start decorating the tree, watching a favourite holiday movie, or standing silent as a family looking over a manger scene in our local park – all of these moments, and so many more, arc us towards kindness, generosity, to be more accepting, even committed to being a more compassionate people. But somewhere along the journey we encounter others who call out the best in us and we end up being better as a result.

And whether we can explain it or not, we receive more impulses in this direction during the Christmas holidays than at any other time of year. Images and music abound – presents, family, singing, neighbours expressing their best wishes, lights, shopping, giving, and receiving. But back of even all that comes a simple challenge that prompts us to get outside of ourselves and, for a brief time at least, move in a more aspirational direction – “Peace on earth towards those of goodwill.”

Let’s be honest: our world isn’t as we would wish it to be at the moment. All the death, terrorism, flooding, poverty, political division and economic dysfunction have created within us the sense that whatever isn’t right in our world isn’t improving either. None of this do we feel we can control.

We continue to put up with practices that we now believe aren’t helping us – dysfunctional politics, capitalism without jobs, devouring the natural order, the underperformance of institutions. We have kept rationalizing lesser evils, hoping they’ll somehow add up to the greater good. But in the end it’s all just bad math and we know it.  At some point we have to say “no” to all the compromising and just live for the good of others.

Yet into this world comes this irrepressible attractiveness towards that which is good. It remains within us despite a darkened sky and it comes to shine during the holiday season. For reasons not fully known to us we prove willing to see the world through a child’s eyes, and in such moments the potential to see the world as we wish it to be gets easier. Families grow closer, neighbours get friendlier, and communities embrace an extended sense of compassion. Yes, there are the hurts and difficult memories, depression and misgiving, but overall we as a people trend more effectively towards the hopeful.

When the problem’s of the world’s life, huge in their reach and complex in their workings, weigh upon our collective conscience, we nevertheless possess the ability to move out from under such shadows towards hope. Repeatedly, we encounter Canadians who inspire us to sacrifice, to accept something new, to give back, to forgive, and during the Christmas season we see such actions more than any other time of year. It’s not merely magical but motivational, and we become better, even if only for a season.

Across Canada there are people who are upping their game, living lives that extend beyond their normal carefulness.

Faced with her final Christmas, Holocaust victim Anne Frank witnessed evil unlike anything the world had ever endured. Despite that, she looked around her at the remarkable acts of courage and kindness by average people under great strain and wrote in her diary: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Her hope didn’t reside in her freedom but in her values and she elevated the world by holding on to her values until the end.

All that is asked of us is that we live for what we believe in and seek to extend it beyond Christmas to the entire year, and beyond our immediate lives to the entire world. Such is the remarkable allure of goodness. Such is the genius of Christmas.

Knowing for the First Time

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It was T. S. Eliot who provided one of my favourite quotes of all time:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

On any journey there are two kinds of exploration – the journey without and the one within.  For our son Ater both melded into one as he returned to the place of his birth and at the same time attempted to piece together in his young mind and heart developments that were bound to drive him into a deeper place of maturity.

The picture above is of Ater seeing his grandmother for the first time in seven years. We had only just arrived when he discovered her waiting for him on the periphery of the crowd. People were all over him, but once he saw her, he began moving slowly in her direction. I started to video the moment but the look on his face was so profound that I forgot all about it and moved to be with him.

His face was as complex as a map of Africa. She moved to him, arms open wide, and enveloped him in her world again. Suddenly he wept, as did she. He told me later that the memories of her care for him following the years after his mother was shot filled him with gratitude at that moment. They embraced for a long time before she quietly pulled back to examine him. “You have a fine face,” she said in her native Dinka language. He couldn’t respond.

Later they sat on the portico of the mission where we were staying, holding hands and saying words neither could comprehend – he no longer knew Dinka and she had never known English. From watching that scene, I learned once again that love, and family, and roots, and memories possess a language that exceeds all vowels and consonants. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s keen observation in her Der blinde Morder: “Touch comes before sight, before speech.  It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”  If so, a vast array of truth was passed back and forth in those few tender moments. But if, as Mark Slouch says, “Gone is the saddest word in any language,” then surely the happiest must be the word “here.” The tenacity and endurance of love as a language was never more clear to me than in that moment when a young man embraced his past and an old women recaptured her hope.

And then suddenly she up and left, moved by deep feelings that we didn’t comprehend. And Ater just sat there, surrounded by lots of interested faces who just stared at him as tears streamed down his cheeks. My heart fluttered in that instant. I wanted to rush in and embrace him – he’s my boy, after all. But I’ve lived long enough to know that the human heart must grow willing, if not comfortable, with the complexities of profound life once it strikes us. And so, in an action that was totally counter-intuitive for me, I leaned against the wall and let him work it through in his young mind.

And then the most marvelous thing happened. He looked up, saw me, rose and rushed to me in embrace. My God, I’m so thankful I waited, for in that tremor in his bones I held a young life that was reconciling its past and its future in a quick moment of time. I pulled his face down to mine and asked if he was okay. He merely nodded and kissed me on the top of my bald pate.

Tell me: who was the caregiver at that moment? It was him, not me. He was suddenly appreciate of the wonderful gift he had just been granted and it was his way of expressing his thanks.

Look at the video below, shot later that day, and you’ll see he moved about easily in a world that was once filled with rampage, war, want and death. He had returned to a land a peace. But the grandmother he had held earlier that day had gifted him with a protected love that had transcended the deprivations of human dealings.

I watched the grandmother a couple of days later, observing from the sidelines as Ater played with his new friends, and it struck me at that moment that perhaps one of the best things about leading a good and sacrificial life is the opportunity to actually become a memory.  That was all Ater had of her until that week. He suddenly looked up at her and waved and she beamed all over. I studied her face and wondered whether she was herself learning that to live in someone’s heart is to never die.  She was coming to terms with the reality that she had been remembered, that a young boy had captured in his mind all those occasions where she had been there for him. She was coming to terms with the eternal nature of love.

Watch the video and you’ll smile seeing them dance together because to be truly human is to dance. Ater is no longer a boy with a past and a future, but a being with a path ahead of him. But as long as he has memory and a language that is greater than syllables, he will never be at a loss for words.

 

No Mere Dream Date

Thirteen years of marriage is a very brief time to fill with all the adventures we have had over the years. Jane and I are deeply aware that our life has not been an ordinary sojourn – anything but. There’s a reason for that and it has nothing to do with me.

Even as I type these words, Jane is packing for her and her mother as they head out tomorrow to Churchill, Manitoba on the train. Her mom is 89 years old and I haven’t seen her this excited in a long time. She knows that with Jane there everything will be taken care of. This is just what my wife does – inspires people to press the envelope, regardless of age or caution. While her mom reads her books in Churchill, Jane will be in her wetsuit, swimming with the Beluga whales – just like her.

It was on our first trip to Sudan all those years ago that I suddenly understood that being with Jane could be a dangerous thing. It wasn’t because we were in a war zone or that we were attempting to avoid enemy troops as we sought to locate slaves seeking their freedom. I’ve spent a lifetime in such conditions, so we were a good match that way. No, Jane suddenly became dangerous because I discovered she was helping me to believe in the impossible. Such people turn our worlds upside down. We all have values, but, over time, we come to our personal accommodations with them, coming to terms with the fact that we’ll be lucky to see some of our dreams come true. My wife breaks those limitations, not by rhetoric or argument, but by living out her ideals to the very limit of their reach.

We had just finished identifying a number of slaves, mostly women, seated under the shade of a tree and looking concerned that they might not find their freedom. We had purchased that liberty through funds we had raised in Canada, but these struggling Sudanese women didn’t know anything about that. Jane rose from the ground and addressed them through an interpreter. “You’re free to go your own way,” she began. “Find your families. Live your life. Build a better world with your freedom.” In an instant I realized I was listening to a great liberator – not just of others, but of me. It was then I knew that this is who I wanted permanently in my life. We sat back to back, on the ground, and ruminated over what we had just experienced. Even there I knew her spine was stronger than mine.

But she has been dangerous, let me tell you. In her journeys to Iraq during the Gulf War, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, the Congo, and now Sudan, she has never been content to leave a place without making life better, even for just a few. She has made me younger, and if you could have seen her mother today you would have thought she was a spring chicken. This is the effect of Jane Roy on the lives of others.

I can’t get a fix on the exact moment I became overwhelmed by her goodness; instead, I was just kind of baptized into it. It wasn’t about the words, gestures, looks, or even touch. It was the sense of human movement, that I was journeying out into my world and it was going to feel the effect of my presence specifically because I was affected by Jane’s abiding company. This is a powerful revelation and stands at the root of all great loves. She had immersed me into humanity and I was in the depths of it already before I realized just how much I loved her.

Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” I understand what she meant, but that’s not me. Personal dignity – at home, with friends, in my community, in Sudan, or even in the House of Commons – to me is the inspiration for true character. Jane makes me truly happy, but it’s a byproduct of respectfulness and humility she has brought to our relationship.

So, here’s to you, Jane. To the climbing of Kilimanjaro to the savanna of Africa; from feeding the hungry to chasing our desire for adventure; from enjoying our moments alone to those times when the kids jump in our bed and won’t leave us alone; from the building of a family to the construction of a deck; from the jumping into life to the pursuit of each other. But behind it all is this absolutely restless desire to heal our world – to give without getting, to learn humility with honour, from burying those that perished to bringing new life out of slavery. It’s always – repeatedly and, yes, at times dangerously – about helping others. I was like that before I met you, but you refined me, bettered me, and taught me that sacrificing for love of others can be a spontaneous thing.

You are a darling, Jane, not because you’re mine but because you’re you and in the beauty of your character you have become the servant of all humankind – God, I love that. Tonight, while you’re asleep, my eyes will be wide open because I’ll be living in the world of Dr. Seuss – “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” This is my reality. You are more than a dream date or a loving wife and terrific mother. You are life as God meant it lived. Thank you for taking me along.

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