Twenty Years in the Making – A Song For My Father

I am sitting at the family piano in the living room of the house where I grew up. Aside from a few boxes, the piano is the only thing left in the house. Mom is moving into a senior apartment after 53 years in that old Victorian on Sherburne Street. I’ve come to play a song for her — a song that was seeded in that very living room twenty years before as my father took his last breath.

Many of us were raised by fathers from “the greatest generation.” They were great in so many ways. They lived through the Great Depression as children and World War II as young men. They built stable lives for their families with the help of the GI Bill, supportive wives, and hard work. Many of those fathers were also harsh and distant, probably suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and living in a narrow construct of what it meant to be a man. My dad was one of them.

Dad cut an imposing figure at 6’8.” He had a sarcastic streak and a need to have things go a certain way. Though both he and Mom worked full time, it was incumbent upon her to make sure dinner was on the table promptly by 5:30. If Dad got too hungry, his usually short temper grew shorter. My mom, my two older brothers, and I were finely attuned to his moods and eager to avoid his sharp tongue.

His nicknames for me when I was a girl were “klutz” and “dummy.” These heartless epithets stung the awkward, too-tall, whip-smart girl I was in those days. But the difficulties of those early chapters of my life aren’t the point of this writing. I tell them merely to set the context for the rest of the story.

In the spring of 1991, the back pain Dad had been attributing to a fender bender was diagnosed as untreatable pancreatic cancer. In the ensuing three months, he went through a dramatic transformation, both physically and emotionally.

As he lost weight and became jaundiced, he also became….gentle. My nickname became “Peaches” and the doors opened to amazing conversations, including one memorable one in the garage where I asked him to stay in touch after he died. Since then I’ve had many extraordinary encounters with cardinals as have many of my family members.

The time of his dying – which I’ve come to call “Our Summer of Love” — brought excruciating pain, deep healing, and (strangely) lots of laughter to my entire family. I remember one evening in particular. Dad had had a procedure to remove fluid built up in his belly. Once he returned home, the incision began leaking. I was dispatched to the little corner store where I’d had my first job to purchase disposable diapers we could use to stanch the flow. Mom was too exhausted to take on the task of patching him up, so up I went to his bedroom to see what I could do. The absurdity of taping a diaper to my father’s stomach caught us both by surprise. Suddenly this horrible moment in a heartbreaking process became hilarious. My jaundiced, emaciated father and I traded darkly comedic wisecracks and laughed like banshees.

A few weeks later in the wee hours of a rainy August night, he died in my arms. Mom and I were with him there in the living room. I felt strangely calm and present. The biggest, scariest thing – the death of my father – wasn’t scary at all. It was….beautiful.

Something opened in my life during and after that strange summer. A flood of songs began flowing out of me. Seven compact discs later, I am still writing songs. Right before the house on Sherburne Street was sold to a new family, I finished the song about my father’s last months and the lessons they taught me.

Thank you, Dad, for doing the best you could and for dying with such grace and generosity.

(You can listen to the song at the link below.)

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In Praise of Solitary Mornings: Four Reasons I Love Waking Up Alone

I am single and child-free and fifty-five years old.
And, oh, how I love my solitary mornings.
Here are four delicious qualities I treasure about that time…..

Improvisational

I do whatever I want in the morning. As a self-employed person, I do a lot of everything – from the high-level thinking and writing to the mundane tending of details. The first hours of the day are for following my whims. I very rarely set an alarm. One of the most precious “self-employment benefits” I have – and there are many – is the gift of waking slowly in my own time. Once I’m up and moving (slowly, slowly), I read a novel, step out onto the porch to smell the air, or linger in the garden to gather greens for my morning eggs. Mornings are for making it up as I go.

Unwitnessed

I love not having a witness in these mornings. For many years I awakened next to someone and cherished that shared, intimate time. Romanticized it, even.   Now there is nothing more appealing than being completely alone and unwitnessed in those tender hours of waking. My hair is every which way. I talk to myself. My eyes are puffy, my breath most likely sour. And I don’t care. I remember waking many years ago next to my then-husband and realizing that before I was even fully awake, I was considering what he needed. I was horrified that the habit of caretaking was so ingrained that it revved up before my conscious mind was engaged. Mornings are for being free from the eyes of the world.

Cozy

I often set the timer on my coffeepot so I can wake up to the smell of coffee. The pleasure I take in snuggling into my covers while I hear that magical substance brewing in the kitchen is indescribable. I feel cared for and pampered without having to contend with the pamperer. Once I’m up, I pull on my favorite plush robe. It’s long enough – a miracle for someone who is 6’2” with constantly chilly ankles– and so soft and just my color of blue. Most mornings I sit in my favorite chair with a mug in hand and feel like the luckiest woman alive. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful for these little day-starting blessings. Mornings are for simple, sensuous pleasures.

Sacred

The space between sleep and wakefulness is sacred to me. When I’m there I gather remnants of dreams, listen for the voice of wisdom, and send blessings to my family and friends.   Things occur to me during that time – things both profound and mundane. I listen for guidance, dip into what the day holds, softly set intentions to be kind, to breathe, to welcome the gifts and challenges that arise before I return to my bed at day’s end. For years I’ve assumed that I should leap up and meditate. I should read poetry. Do yoga. Write three pages in my journal. What I’ve come to discover is that my time between the worlds has become my morning practice. It is a “should-free” zone in my demanding days. Mornings are for tasting the sacred in my own way.

Sometimes I sing softly to myself in these tender hours. One of my favorite morning songs is by my friend, Francis Gurtz with lyrics by Kahlil Gibran:

Wake at dawn with a wing-ed heart
Wake at dawn with a wing-ed heart
Give thanks, give thanks
For another day of loving.

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Get ‘Er Done – A Tale of Work and Family

My mom – now nearly 91 – frequently quips, “All three of my children are workaholics.” (She has actually started calling us her “old people.” The three of us are now in our 50’s and 60’s.)

Although I don’t lay claim to the workaholic title myself, I can see what she means. We McAfees all know how to (as we say in Minnesota) “get ‘er done.” I suspect this hyper-competent, focused diligence has its roots in our parents’ Depression-era childhoods. Or the German heritage that runs through both bloodlines. Our parents’ home state of Iowa certainly has something to do with it as does the legacy of farming in both family histories.

Dad was a self-described pyromaniac who loved building bonfires in the backyard on summer nights. His passion for lighting wood on fire soon became a year-round affair. During the energy crisis of the 1970’s, my father decided to install a Ben Franklin stove in our small living room. Between the potbelly stove in the basement and the new one upstairs, we heated our Victorian-era house almost exclusively with wood during long Minnesota winters. Which brings me back to that workaholic thing.

Every fall Dad would go out to the forest to cut up fallen oak trees with his chain saw. He’d return home with the Ford truck groaning under huge loads of logs. When I was younger, we’d split the wood by hand out behind the garage. I remember a particular cold night out there when he let me brandish the heavy splitting maul with my spindly little-girl arms. I can still hear the satisfying “thwock” the frozen wood made as it split in two. Later Dad took to renting an automatic wood splitter.

On a certain day in November, we would gather friends and family to “get the wood in.” We’d slide piece after piece into the basement using Dad’s homemade metal chute. I was often in the basement, stacking the fragrant pieces in tight rows all the way up to the ceiling. I loved the complex puzzle of fitting each piece into its place while continually dodging the chunks of hardwood rumbling down the chute. We worked at a steady, swift pace all day long. Mom catered the affair with big piles of traditional comfort food: scalloped potatoes, meatloaf, homemade dill pickles, and gallons of milk. What I remember most about those days of hard labor was the deep joy of working so hard together. It felt more like dance than drudgery. We were “getting ‘er done” and it was grand.

A few weeks back, my 32-year-old nephew, Travis, was in town to participate in one of my voice workshops. In the short few days he was here, I witnessed the “get ‘er done” legacy continuing into the next generation. In between workshop sessions, he fixed my computer printer, located a standing desk online, redesigned the layout of my kitchen, and advised me on how to purchase a used iPhone….and a dozen other tasks, large and small. I recognized a familiar joy and drive in how he went about these things.

It looks like this family will keep on “getting ‘er done” for a long time to come.

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I Will Stay Awake With You – The Making of a Song

Sometimes making a song is like making a stew. Disparate stories, ideas, and phrases all go into the cook-pot of my imagination. Somehow with time and the heat of attention, those elements coalesce into something coherent and nourishing to the ear and heart.

My song, “Awake,” is a fine example of that alchemical process. (You can listen at the link below.)

In a sunny open room overlooking San Francisco Bay, a large circle of leaders is gathered to explore deeper questions about life and leadership. Author and pioneer of evolutionary consciousness, Barbara Marx Hubbard, is our guest speaker.

Out of several hours of rich conversation, one resonant idea lingers on in my mind. Marx Hubbard suggests that the timeworn way of expressing love – “I love you” – could be replaced by the phrase, “I will stay awake with you.” This new language is full of rigor and bravery. “I love you” feels staid and passive by comparison.

A few weeks later I am bringing song to a conference about community sponsored by St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minnesota. Both institutions were founded by Benedictine orders of monks and nuns. The abbess from the order of the Sisters of St. Benedict speaks of the long history of her order, including a remarkable story. During the Dark Ages in Europe, the Benedictines sheltered and preserved culture in their convents and monasteries. Once the darkness had passed, they brought it back out into the mainstream where it eventually blossomed into the Renaissance.

I fall in love with this notion and wonder: who would preserve the best of our culture if and when another dark time came? If not in the monasteries and convents, where would those pockets of civility reside in these times? What would we be called to preserve?

The “broth” in my song-stew was a reflection on the life force – the animating energy that inhabits all living things. How could it be that redwood, jellyfish, peregrine falcon, mountain lion, sunflower, and the trillions of living things in our soil – are all notes in one great song? And how does it change me to know that every particle of my body comes from the explosion of ancient stars?

These ideas find their way into song at a friend’s cozy house in the central Wisconsin woods. As I sit at the piano, messing around with this and that, my fingers suddenly find a pattern on the keys. There’s something there. I begin singing:

“I swear, by the stars I am made of
I will stay awake with you if it should fall apart
I will remember the heart.”

How is it so that these words, this melody feels like remembering something rather than creating something? Why do the tears fall as I sing this promise to the world, to Life itself? And how can it be that seven years after its creation, the song continues to teach me how to sing it and what it means?

May this song bring nourishment and wakefulness to you today.
Bon appetit.

You can hear “Awake” here:    https://soundcloud.com/barbara-mcafee/awake
or by clicking the link under “blogroll” to your right.

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This Is When I Think of You – A Meditation for Fellow Caregivers

Yes, you.
My fellow caregiver.

I think of you most often as I walk out of Mom’s senior living place. Perhaps it is 9:45 p.m. on a frigid winter night. I worked all day and then drove the half-hour journey to have dinner and a game of Scrabble with Mom. She has told me her litany of things – birds on her feeder, friends who are ill, bargains at the store, aches and pains, childhood memories. Her voice rings in my ears.

I breathe a great sigh into the night air. It comes out in a cloud of steam replete with that familiar mix of weariness, gratitude, and loneliness. That’s when I remember you and send you a blessing for doing the thankless, dull, strangely joyful, exhausting work of caregiving.

I know you are sitting just down the hall during those hours at the clinic, watching a patient nurse practitioner or physician help Mom navigate the complexities of her 90-year-old body. You know that delicate dance between knowing when to intervene and when to step back. How do you decide which to choose?

And I think of you when I am breaking down Mom’s walker and stowing it in the back seat of her Buick – at the grocery store, the hair salon, the pharmacy, the restaurant. How many times have I performed this ballet? How many times have you?

I celebrate with you when I make her laugh in that way that lights up her blue eyes – still sparkling and vivid at 90. And when she calls me back for one more hug before we part and I breathe in the gift of her still-aliveness through her familiar scent. I say to you with a brimming heart: “This makes it all worthwhile, don’t you think?”

Remember, I am right beside you as you sit by the hospice bedside at 3:00 a.m., torn between wanting to hold on and needing to let go. I am thinking of you as you sit on hold with Medicare, as you listen to the same story for the third time, as you drive through traffic once more to be there. Just be there. For whatever comes.

I know you are doing your best. And we both know though it will never be perfect, it will be enough. I forgive you your moments of impatience and frustration. Will you forgive mine as well?

My unknown friend. my fellow caregiver:
We are in this together, even when we feel most alone.

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The Listening Horizon: A Meditation on Wild Silence

I’ve been trying to tell this story for over ten years. It haunts me in a beautiful way. Though I struggled to find the words to tell it, I was missing the key that could finally bring the story from inside — out.

I recently listened to an interview between Krista Tippett of On Being and acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton, on sound and silence in nature.

Hempton has been exploring and recording sounds in the natural world for decades. He is also a self-proclaimed “silence activist,” working to preserve the few places left in North America that are free from the intrusion of human-made sound.

In the interview, Hempton used a phrase that finally opened the way for me to tell this story: “listening horizon.”

I am in Ely, Minnesota on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It is deep winter, the middle of the night. I bundle into layers of clothing and set off into the darkness alone. The snow squeaks under my boots as I head to the middle of the frozen lake.

I lie down, perfectly cradled in the snow’s embrace. I am strangely warm but for the few square inches of exposed skin above my facemask. The swish of my jacket against the snow gives way to silence as I settle in to gaze at a firmament dense with stars.

And then something happens. That something I haven’t had words for. The silence – begun in my small pocket of breath-steamed air – begins to grow. In all directions. Equally. That silences spreads, speeds away from me faster and faster until I feel dwarfed by it. There is nothing for it to run into out there in the night. I feel both tiny and expanded. It is the largest silence of my life. It is a prayer in a non-language said to a god of infinite listening. It is bliss. My tears freeze to my cheeks. This is a listening horizon….and it is huge.

And then.
A car roars to life.
Right over there at the edge of the lake.
The growl of a metal beast.
The silence collapses, a star imploding, a vastness pulled back suddenly, violently into an acre of snowy lake.

And in that moment I understand what we humans have done. The nature of the soundlessness we have stolen from the world with the controlled petroleum explosions of our gas-powered engines. How small we have made our own listening horizon. And how small we have become to fit ourselves into it.

This knowing opens a grief in me as wide and trackless as the silence I just tasted and lost. The silence for whose gifts we are bereft. The silence through which we can step to find …. a blessed, full, resonant nothing. An absence so full that I remember and grieve it still.

That listening horizon.

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Conscious Dying: The Story of Jack

Jack and I were at the YMCA Christmas tree lot in the dark chill of a December night. His breath plumed among the pine branches as he laughed about his recent visit to the orthopedic surgeon. “During my pre-op visit for my hip replacement surgery, the surgeon asked me to list all the medications I was on. When I told him that I didn’t take any, he couldn’t believe it!”

Well, I could believe it. My friend Jack jumped out of an airplane for his 70th birthday. He cross-country skied in cold Minnesota winters. And he was always quick to bring his lanky frame out onto the dance floor where he waved his arms around, shuffled his feet, and grinned with all his teeth.

How could it be that this vital and deeply alive man who never smoked in his life would turn up with terminal lung cancer just a year later?

The diagnosis was a profound shock to him and the many people loved him. Soon after he received the news, he told his wife, Linda Bergh, that he intended to have a conscious death. Not only that, he also decided to have his dying process filmed along the way so other people could learn from his experience. Jack’s sister, Nancy Jewel Poer, offered to make sure the film got made.

Jack invited his many friends and loved ones to join him on his conscious death journey. We’d gather at the home he shared with Linda every week to sing together. Friends who dropped by were welcomed by Jack’s frequent exclamation, “Every day brings some unexpected joy. And today you are that joy for me.”

Whoever was nearby grabbed the video camera to capture his candid reflections on dying, moments with friends and family, and the evening where his community came together in a local church to offer him tribute. There were even scenes from the final vacation he and Linda took to Mexico just weeks before he died.

Jack spent his final days peacefully tucked up in a hospital bed in the aptly named “living room.” He was living into his death and it was strangely beautiful.

The morning he died, friends gathered to prepare his body and put it into a casket specially built by his niece. For the next thirty-six hours, someone was always in the room with his body — singing, praying, meditating, or reading. People of all ages gathered and dispersed. The cat played under the casket. There was a surprising amount of laughter interspersed with the tears and songs.

Witnessing Jack’s conscious death is one of the profoundest gifts of my life. Nearly ten years later our community is still harvesting blessings from all we learned from Jack. His generous gift will continue to echo through each of our lives as we face other deaths including our own.

Thanks, Jack. You did good.

 

The film is a true reflection of what it was like to witness “The Most Excellent Dying of Theodore Jack Heckelman.” To see a trailer and learn how to order a copy:

http://www.nancyjewelpoer.com/nancyjewelpoer/HOME.html

 

 

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