Last January, I moved to Ithaca, NY to begin my first ordained call as the Associate Pastor of First Congregational UCC. My partner Syed also found a job here, as a systems engineer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I went back to Fort Worth for my ordination on Feb 20, 2011, and then Syed and I packed up our home and 2 pets to drive north - a car accident and snowstorm later, we arrived in Ithaca and started to settle in to this next phase of our lives. We bought a lovely home last summer, and we are enjoying all that the Ithaca area offers - waterfalls, arts, music, wine, friendly community, and more.
Not long after my ordination, my dad Steven was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He endured multiple rounds of chemo and ultimately decided to have a stem cell transplant. Sadly, he fell and had a brain hemorrhage when he was at his weakest from the intense transplant procedure, and he did not make it long enough to see whether the new stem cells would make a difference. We said goodbye to him on January 22 of this year - just over 6 months ago.
|Pic from my graduation, May 2010|
Less than 2 months later, my grandfather Bruce (my dad's stepdad) died after many years with Alzheimer's. Because his disease was so advanced, I felt I had said my goodbyes to my granddad a couple years ago, so his death was less jarring. The bigger loss, for me, was not having my dad there with me to be with us. I was grateful that Granddad's passing gave me an opportunity to be with my family again, as the week or so after Dad's death wasn't nearly enough.
In May, we said another goodbye, this time to our precious cat Silly. She lived with me for over 11 years, and she was around 15 years old. Silly was friendly, cuddly, sweet and curious, and she moved with me from Boston to Texas to New York, even staying for a few months with my parents when I was in seminary. Last month, we brought home a new cat, Sammy, and he's adorable and friendly and fun. I still miss Silly's presence, though, as she was an important companion through many important transitions in my life. I don't know what life after death is like, but in my mind, Silly is curled up in my dad's lap, keeping him company while he watches Stargate.
I am going to try to write somewhat regularly here, to remember my dad and others, and to reflect on the process of grieving as a pastor. It's a constant dance between the personal and professional, giving myself space to grieve on my own terms while also being present for others, wherever they find themselves on life's journey.
Now that 6 months have passed, I'm finding that I'm having more good days than bad, although I still carry a deep sense of sadness that intensifies in moments of quiet. I also have profound gratitude for my dad and my family. I am so grateful that last year, my parents came to visit us for Thanksgiving, and that even though my dad was tired and in pain, he thoroughly enjoyed his visit and Syed's smoked meats. It means a lot to me that he was able to see where we live and meet my congregation and just spend meaningful time with us.
I am filled with thanksgiving for my dad's life journey - for his commitment to sobriety, for the ways he struggled to move beyond a troubled childhood, for the difference he made in so many people's lives. He was a complex man, always seeking the better way, questioning and struggling and changing throughout his life. In his memorial service, the minister read statements from those of us who wanted to share, and this is what I wrote: "One of the last times I talked to Dad, he said, 'Mandy? Are you happy?' I told him that yes, I am happy, and that I am proud and thankful to be his daughter. We’ve had our ups and downs, as all families do, but ultimately, I am so grateful for the hard work Dad did to overcome addiction and to become a better husband and father. I remember many late night conversations in high school, when we would discuss deep theological issues, and he taught me that even when humans fail, God’s love is abundant, inclusive, and unconditional. I will miss calling him for insight, but I know that a big part of why I am who I am is because he showed me how to love God and love people, and to love myself as well. He touched many lives and will continue to do so through all of us who love him."
My dad was an introvert and not much of a talker, but when I have joys or struggles in ministry, I sure wish I could call him. Dad had a real sense of what it meant to be the Body of Christ in the world - to be a loving, caring community that transforms people. He taught me to pay attention to issues of justice, and to be open to changing my mind.
My parents (and I) grew up in a tradition that does not recognize women as ministers. When I embarked on this path toward ordination, it was more of a struggle for my dad then for my mom. But in the end, Dad became one of my biggest supporters, and both of my parents served communion in my ordination. I can't express how important and special that was for me.
Much of my life, I think I was trying to win my dad's approval, and when I became and adult and learned to truly "accept that I am accepted" (as Paul Tillich would say), I found I didn't need to seek approval anymore. At the same time, I am grateful that in the end, Dad did give me his blessing. And while I don't feel that I had things left unsaid or undone (at least not big things), I do really wish that I had more time to get to know my dad, more time to share my life with him and learn from him.
Yes, this past year and a half have brought a great deal of delta...and with every change comes both loss and growth. But this time, the losses feel more profound than ever, and though I know that growth will come and is already happening, I think that if I could choose, I'd rather keep my loved ones around and find other ways to grow. But life brings death, and there is no way around that.
So I'll close with a prayer from Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book. And I'll start using this blog more to chronicle my journey. Thanks for those of you who take the time to read it. Blessings to all...
"It is hard to sing of oneness when our world is not complete, when those who once brought wholeness to our life have gone, and naught but memory can fill the emptiness their passing leaves behind. But memory can tell us only what we were, in company with those we loved; it cannot help us find what each of us, alone, must now become. Yet no one is really alone; those who live no more, echo still within our thoughts and words, and what they did is part of what we have become.
We do best homage to our dead when we live our lives most fully, even in the shadow of our loss. For each of our lives is worth the life of the whole world; in each one is the breath of the Ultimate One. In affirming the One, we affirm the worth of each one whose life, now ended, brought us closer to the Source of life, in whose unity no one is alone and every life finds purpose. Amen."