Monday, July 23, 2012

In a Heartbeat

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. –Elizabeth Stone

Two of my friends are in a vigil now at the bedsides of their children. Two children, both young adults, struck down suddenly by two different threats, in two different ICUs, both fighting for their lives. Two sets of parents waiting...and praying.

I am thinking about these friends. About how they were going through their normal day when in a heartbeat everything changed. About how things that were important one moment – running errands, writing a blog post, going to work, calling a friend – were not at all important one moment later.

I have a cousin who as a teen suddenly developed a serious heart condition. At the time, it appeared that a virus had attacked his heart muscle. A transplant saved his life. He grew up and married. He and his wife have a beautiful baby girl. Before she was a year old, a persistent cough quickly revealed a life threatening heart condition. Deja vu. Again, the vigil waiting for a donor. Again, a donor found. Happy ending? For one family, yes. For another family, grief. And hopefully comfort in knowing that their loss saved someone else.

Two other friends lost their children, one in an airplane crash, one in a fire. Another friend loved her child through years of battling leukemia. Loss that is unimaginable until experienced.

I know many parents, like myself, who have children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Our grief is chronic. It never goes away.

We all live with the possibility of heartbreak as close as our shadow all the time. How do we make peace with that? And yet, we do.

In a classic Buddhist story, a mother, crazed with grief over her son who just died, begs Buddha to use his power to bring her child back to life. Buddha promises her that he will grant her wish if she can bring him a mustard seed from a home in which no one has ever died. She frantically goes from door to door, but everyone tells her a story of loss. She cannot find even one home that has not been touched by death. By the time she returns to Buddha, she understands the truth of sorrow and life. She asks Buddha to help her bury her son and becomes his disciple.

Today I am praying for my friends and their children. And I am also marveling at the miracle of the human spirit. We embrace life knowing that it is fleeting. We sing with joy knowing that everything is impermanent. We choose to love knowing that in doing so we expose the raw tenderness of our vulnerable hearts.

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. –Joanna Macy

related posts: Mary was a Real Mother; In the Softness

61 comments:

  1. In light of the recent tragedy in Colorado, your post is even more poignant and touching. How fragile life is! How quickly everything changes!
    Such a tender and beautiful reminder to all of us to treasure each moment with our loved ones.
    Blessings to you!

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    1. Martha, I had not connected this to the tragedy in Colorado, although I was just reading about that this morning. Thanks for making that additional connection. And thanks for your kind words.

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  2. Beautifully written Galen!

    I join you in your prayers for your friend as I feel the pain too, just by reading your words...

    Life is indeed strange and often shows us things we don't want to see, but then, that's why it's called living life that we all do.

    It hurts all the more when incidents like the one you mentioned, happen in the lives of people we know.

    I've read that story of Buddha in school when we were learning the 3 truths he discovered, and it spoke volumes indeed. I guess life and death are part of the same coin, though we as humans aren't able to accept death as willingly as life - that's what makes us human too - isn't it?

    Thanks for sharing and yes, prayers are known to move mountains, so keep the faith :)

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    1. Harleena, I have thought long and deeply about the Bible verse about faith moving mountains. That was a tough verse for me for so long because I felt like my prayers for my son went unanswered. I finally realized that the healing I was praying for was really my own, and that prayer was answered indeed. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Galen, I learned this lesson all too well, the lesson of letting go, when my son was a Marine in Iraq. The anguish and conflict I felt as he fought in a war that I was against nearly broke my heart. He was deployed three times, each one more dangerous than the last. Every time the phone rang, every time a strange car was spotted on the street was cause for breath holding fear. In the end, he came home safe. Changed. Hardened by combat, but safe.

    Many of my friends and many of his were not as fortunate. Over the course of the years I wrote hundred of condolence letters...until I couldn't do it anymore. Until I had to move on.

    My son told me once the sweet boy that I knew died in Fallujah. But I see bits of that boy returning now that he has become a father. Watching him interact with his daughter, seeing the Barbie doll stashed in his back pocket as he pushes the swing.

    The worry in his eyes when they were home for a visit and the baby got sick. "Will you come to the doctor with us, Mom?"

    We plant the seeds. We water and nourish and then we have to step out of the way and let them grow into who they are. We send them out into the world with our prayers and blessings. And then we have to let them go.

    I wonder sometimes who and where I'd be if I never had children. Life certainly would've been easier if I'd never lain awake nights worrying. But layers of grief and joy and the day to day mom stuff have given me a depth that I never would've had without them.

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    1. Susan, I think I've told you before how much I appreciate your son's service to our country. Like you, this was a war I didn't agree with, but hopefully we learned from Vietnam to separate the political from the human. Our service men and women are just that--serving! And DEserving of our respect and gratitude. Always.

      Like every other parent, like every other person who draws breath for that matter, I have known fear and heartache on behalf of those I love. And yet, there is never a moment when I wish I had made a different choice. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. The spirit of children is one that must be relished every moment. Whether through death or simply growth it is soon gone. Life itself is a fleeting as you say, everyday to be given full attention lest we miss a minute. Very poignant and gentle post.

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    1. jan, Thank you for your eloquent addition to the discussion.

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  5. Interesting, its been a while since I commented so thought would make an effort. Its Ramadhan and im fasting, have you tried it, come have a look at 'Fasts & Suhur'

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    1. So glad you stopped by! I so admire the Muslim practice of fasting during Ramadhan. It is a model of devotion and discipline that all of us, of any faith or no faith, can learn from and respect. I have tried fasting as a spiritual practice myself, but had little success since going without food for more than a few hours wreaks havoc with my blood sugar and gives me horrible migraines. I have tried to modify the practice to accommodate this. Thanks for commenting.

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  6. Reminds me of the story of Solomon's baby. Prayer and fasting as long as there was a chance, then clean up, get something to eat, return to life. The Buddha story was so amazing in truth and simplicity.

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    1. I don't remember that Solomon story. I remember the one about the two women claiming the baby. I will have to check this other story. Thanks for commenting.

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  7. We don't get out of this existence without experiencing loss. Plain and simple truth. Until very recently, I had experienced just about every manner of death within my family unit. I come from a very large, prolific family. Death from old age, death from diseases, death from accidents. We had been fortunate, however, to not lose anyone to suicide, until June 30th. The whole world changed irrevocably for all of us with that act, and I was pushed to adjust, to adapt and to accept this new level of loss and pain. In order to find some level of balance, I did what I always do - I wrote it out of my heart. That was the first stage of coping for me, and eventually began the healing process. I'm still working my way through it all, and will continue to do so over the years. I have yet another facet, yet another layer of understanding of grief and loss now, and I've been forever changed.

    Prayers and healing energy going out to those two families that you referenced in your post. <3

    - Dawn

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    1. Dawn, Thank you so much for sharing your story. My best friend's brother (my friend, too) committed suicide years ago. She still suffers over it. It is a special kind of grief. Thank you for commenting.

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  8. One of the worse things ever to face in life is a parent losing their child (not that I've experienced it) but I've lived through the days along side my mother, after my sister lost her life. It's been years, even my mother has passed on as well, but my sister's death still stands out more than her birthday...I have been given a gift from above though. My daughter's little girl has so much of both my mother and my sister in the way she speaks, looks acts....her expressions her vivid ways of life....that it's like I catch special moments of my mother or my sister popping in!

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    1. Karen, I love your description of your granddaughter. How precious to see your mother and your sister returning in her young life. Thanks for your comment.

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  9. I remember many nights sitting in a chair waiting for a daughter to come home after a late night out. After a certain point, my mind would begin to spin out of control with every scary thought. Nothing bad ever happened but that didn't keep me from going through those night terrors over and over.

    Being a parent never ends. It is terrifying and the greatest job ever all at the same time. I feel deeply for your friends and what they are experiencing. Thank you, Galen.

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    1. Bob, I hear you. I wrote once about being a nervous wreck the first time my daughter rode her bike around the block and was out of my sight. Thanks for commenting.

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  10. Probably because it was the David and Bathsheba's child story from II Samuel I meant. Oy, what a bozo I am.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification. I will look up the story.

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  11. "I finally realized that the healing I was praying for was really my own, and that prayer was answered indeed."

    this is so true, Galen... and Bob? yes... those many nights ... I still have them but they are diminished by time... but if I get a phone call late at night or awakened by a call? my heart is outta my chest....

    What tragic stories... my heart goes out to them... unimaginable pain...

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    1. Carolyn, I understand from updates that the two children I spoke of are out of ICU now. One will probably recover relatively quickly. The other will have a harder time in rehabilitation. Sometimes it's a marathon. Thanks for your comment.

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  12. Powerful stuff, Galen. You marvelously highlight the triumph of the human spirit with these noble folks. In our darkest hour, our Authentic Self shines brightest. We are naturally radiant and cheerful, infinitely unique and superlatively creative and incredibly resourceful. Our potential is unlimited, and our spirit is rejuvenating. Folks who encounter great challenges know they must turn to the self that encourages optimal living. What could be a nobler act than to open our arms to what is true when faced with such challenges?

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    1. rob, I love your phrase "marvelously highlight." I'm going to remember that one! And thanks for adding your eloquent description of our Authentic Selves. Thanks for commenting.

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  13. oh my gosh! I will pray for your friends too, for their children and their whole family. My sons ICU experience and the prayers of many others, some who I did not even know, brought about our families conversion.

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    1. Annmarie, There is nothing like the helplessness of seeing our children sick to bring us to our knees in prayer. Thanks for your comment.

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  14. I'm happy to read that both children are on the road to recovery.

    I too marvel at the human spirit. Sometimes it is tempting to close our hearts off, and maybe we do for a while, but that's no way to live.

    "The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe." –Joanna Macy

    Another great quote. Thank you for posting this.

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    1. Kim, That is the wonder of it, isn't it, that even if we close our hearts off for awhile, the spirit will break through like grass growing through concrete. Thanks for commenting.

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  15. Beautiful Galen, I will keep the in my prayers. I love the Buddhist story. One I treasure. Loss is not to escape, but a part of everything.

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    1. Jodi, Loss is a part of everything--well said. Thanks for your comment.

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  16. I like the story of the mustard seed. Very poignant. I have total compassion for the experiences of your friends and all the others who are undone by grief. I know most don't agree with this, but I think we choose our lives in big lessons. We don't choose them in the details of the everyday but in the things we need to learn in order to grow towards spirit. We often learn our greatest lessons in the hardest life events, but when someone is struggling through trials - the big plan is hard to see. All we can do is be compassionate.

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    1. Nicole, Your observation that the big plan is hard to see reminds me of a couple of verses in the Bible about how we can't see everything now and not to lean on our own understanding. "All we can do is be compassionate." So true. Thanks for commenting.

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  17. Perhaps because my own family is small in number, I had little direct experience with death until the past decade. Now that I'm older more friends and acquaintances have been hurt, gotten ill, or died, and it seems natural. Interning in hospitals helped me learn to be comfortable with trauma and the disease process. Generally, unexpected catastrophe brings out the very best in people. Not that I wish unexpected trouble to befall anyone, but it's inspiring to experience the way people bounce back and grow from it. I love the Buddha story too.

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    1. Mikey, Death is natural. As the Buddha story illustrates, all of us will be touched by it in our lives, and indeed our own lives will end with it (at least in the physical sense). Making our peace with death frees us to live fully and joyfully. And sometimes to grieve deeply and healingly (I made that last word up). Thanks for commenting.

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  18. Wonderful post! Absolutely love this post!


    "Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." –Elizabeth Stone

    How true this really is! =)

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  19. Lovely writing and I will pray for your friends and their children
    "Our grief is chronic" spoke to me Thank you for sharing

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    1. Patricia, I am sure your prayers are appreciated by both families.

      By the way, I still can't link back to your blog or even to a site with your blog link, from your name. I don't know if that is something you can change, but it would be easier to visit your blog. Thanks for commenting.

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  20. Galen, this is one of the most kind-hearted, articulate posts I've seen about life and death and gratitude. You are a very sweet person to embrace your friends' grief along with your own.

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    1. Jeffrey, Thank you for your lovely comment. I so appreciate it.

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  21. So well said. I am always wondering how a parent can survive when they lose a child. I can only imagine the time it takes to heal.

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    1. Bonnie, It seems unimaginable, and yet I know several people who have survived and reclaimed joy in their lives. The loss is always there and yet woven into the fabric of their lives. It is the most powerful testament to the resilience and beauty of the spirit I have witnessed. Thanks for your comment.

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  22. praying with you for your friends and their children...

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    1. Alida, I'm sure your prayers are appreciated. Thank you.

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  23. Beautiful post of love, compassion, life and death. Joy and sorrow, allowing, letting go and gratitude!

    You bring it all out there my friend Galen and the beautiful thing is that we truly only have the moment and to make sure we tell the ones we love we truly love them.

    In love and light,
    Nancy

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    1. Nancy, Yes, this moment, this holy instant is the gateway to eternity. We use it best by manifesting love and light, as you do all the time. Thanks for commenting.

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  24. What a beautiful post. And I love the Buddha story. I can't imagine where I'd be with the loss of one of my children. My heart goes out to everyone. I'm thinking of your friends right now!

    PS May I reference this post in the one I'm working on about living in Colorado with the two worst shootings?

    Thanks Galen! Beautiful!!

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    1. Betsy, Yes, certainly you can use a link to the post. Please send me the link to your post when you publish it so I'll be sure not to miss it! Thanks for your kind words.

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  25. I too know what it feels like to be waiting in a ICU. I have to granddaughters that have been in the PICU. One for a heart condition the other one had a rare bone marrow disease. She had a bone marrow transplant and is do well; except for being blind. Yes, life is full of so many struggles. However, I can say that we came out stronger knowing beyond doubt that our family fasts and prayers by many made the difference. She was the most sick baby that the PICU and ever had and she made it. She blesses our lives today and plays the piano by ear.
    I loved the Buddha story.
    Blessings!

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story about your grandchildren. What scrappy little fighters they were! And what a lovely gift of music you have in your life now. Thanks for commenting.

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  26. It's amazing how a sudden illness can make us change our priorities, Galen. I've had experiences of having to wait by the bedside of loved ones as they went through illness, hospitalization and surgery. I know how it changed me so much. I can't begin to imagine how parents like yourself go through a life time of pain sometimes. But you're so right, pain breaks us, and yet the human spirit rises resilient and often much stronger than before. I'll be adding your friends' families to my prayer list. ♥

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    1. Corinne, When we come close to death, especially when it is ourselves or someone close to us, the frailty and the preciousness of life are brought dramatically to our attention. It often reveals, as you say, the transcendent nature of our amazing human spirit. Thanks for your comment.

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  27. Hi Galen,

    This was a very touching post, and I really felt it, as I do with all your posts. My prayers are with you.

    I have heard the the Buddha story though my meditation practice and its a great example that death and suffering are a part of life. As you quite rightly said everything is impermanent and both sad times and happy times are. A great wisdom can be developed, when we accept that both the good and the bad are the same. Of course, it is easier said than done.

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    1. Hiten, Yes, easier said than done. Thank you for the kind words.

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  28. Love this post, Galen. It never seems right to lose your children, and my heart goes out to any parent in this precarious position. As my experience with drug addiction expands, I've crossed paths with too many parents who have lost their children to this devastating disease. Loss of this kind is a tragedy for any parent.This post is one more reason to practice daily gratitude.

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    1. Cathy, So true, an excellent reason to practice gratitude every day. Thanks for your comment.

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