Way back in 1993, my new husband and I volunteered to help create the very first Earth Day Celebration in Cape May County. As a social studies teacher, I’d been incorporating environmental studies into my curriculum for a handful of years, and had recently shaped a collaborative unit with the new science teacher; and as such was poised (and eager!) to expand that consciousness at a larger level.
Just before the event, however, I went into labor, and birthed a miniature baby girl, at the end of the first trimester. I was still able to attend the fair, but was forced to do so from the sterile perch of a beach chair. An early lesson in surrender.
The following weekend was the annual Beach Sweep which I had coordinated on the island since its inception. The turnout was better than ever, and the celebration at Sam’s Pizza afterward a huge success, but photos of me that day reveal a pale and somber young woman.
Sensing the depth of my despair, my husband gave wings to a dream we had long shared. Thus three months later, we left behind the Beach Sweep leadership, the Earth Day committee, our precious students and friends, and our beloved family–including three sets of parents, nine siblings, a dozen aunts and uncles, and countless cousins.
Two sons and a timber-framed home in Vermont followed in the years to come.
Earth Day festivities abound in these Green Mountains, but we quickly learned that our neighbors here had a day to day relationship with the natural world. While recycling and water conservation put us ahead of the curve at the Jersey shore, we had much to learn about the nuances of living in harmony with the earth around us, and we are still learning.
Our sons grew up “on the land,” visiting neighboring farms, and living out their relationship with the earth within our community and beyond–bringing consciousness to state, national and international levels under the guidance of committed educators.
A quarter of a century ago, the Earth Day Fair in New Jersey was, for many, an introduction into simply considering the environment in day to day decisions. Now, it’s more of a punctuation of an evolving relationship with the life-giving force we all call home. What was once Reduce, Reuse and Recycle has matured to include Restore, Replenish and Respect.
This year, it slipped our minds to go to the Earth Day Festivities in town; but we were in our gardens, uncovering signs of spring and looking up to see the geese return to the pond.
The preciousness & fragility of life–human & planet–continue to pulse–inside me–forever shaped by this week in 1993, and by the lives that later grew inside and around me.
May we each find our own way to deepen our relationship with the earth around us, and may this remind us of our response-ability to the life-giving planet with which we have been entrusted.
This is what I overhear in times of crisis–Like when the wedding guest passed out while I was singing; or when I was wheeled into the hospital for an emergency c-section; or even more recently, on the first day of this vacation, when my teenage son dove into the pond and came out bleeding.
(But not last night.)
If I’m asked, “How are you so calm?” I might explain that I grew up in a doctor’s family where emergencies presented themselves on our doorstep, and where I was often enlisted by my father to open bandages, or needles or stitches. Thus, I was trained to “think” before I could let myself “feel” which served me well in a life filled with crisis.
(But last night was different; and I’m not sure why.)
It had been our first day at the Jersey shore, and I had just finished a lovely dinner with my two best friends from highschool. My husband picked me up at the restaurant and we headed back to the condo where we were staying–alone, while the kids spent the night with grandma.
Before we crawled into bed, I checked email, just in case someone in the family needed to connect around plans for the following day. To my shock, I discovered a text from my friend who I had just left:
“I was just in major accident on 25th & Atlantic.”
My husband and I dashed back out the door and jumped into the car. The drive down this 5 mile island seemed to take forever. We knew how to serpentine through the town to avoid most of the lights, but there was no avoiding the tourists who made traffic unbearable on a good day.
There were two lights we had to wait out as we approached 25th street; and then there was the scene up ahead: flashing lights, firetrucks, ambulances, police. We had to park two blocks away because the roads were closed down in every direction.
I ran ahead in the dark in my sundress and flip flops while my husband locked up the car. I stopped the first policeman that crossed my path, and said, “I’m looking for my friend. She was in this accident.”
Ahead I saw her car, slammed into a set of pilings outside a family restaurant. Beside that, on its side, was a white SUV, with booster seats scattered around it.
“Is she still in the car?” I asked, but the policeman shook his head and pointed to a bench. As I crossed the street, I could see that her airbag had deployed and that her front end had been completely crushed by the impact.
As she came into view, I cried out her name, and I ran to enfold one of my favorite people in the world in the certainty of my arms.
“There were little kids,” Lou Ann mumbled. “They were screaming. They couldn’t get out of the car.”
Just then, a police man approached us with a car seat in his hand. “Did this come from your vehicle?” he asked.
Lou stared at him blankly so I answered for her, “She doesn’t have little kids anymore. She was alone in her car.”
“That’s not mine,” Lou finally said, and then added: “Why did that woman run that stop sign? There were so many kids.”
The officer reminded Lou Ann that everyone was fine. “They’ve gone to the hospital, but they were all conscious,” he told us.
Moments later my husband joined us on the bench, and I began to tremble. I shook so violently beside Lou that I had to let my arm drop from around her shoulders.
(This is her crisis not yours, I chided myself, but my body refused to listen.)
When Lou’s husband arrived, I leaned into my own husband’s arms, and asked him, “Will you go ask the EMT’s to check Lou. She has a cut on her forearm and it’s swelling.”
Lou said that she was fine and that she didn’t need to be checked, but I insisted. In the back of the ambulance, we discovered that she had welts on her chest too. “I’m just worried about those children,” she repeated. I asked the EMT to wrap the ice around her arm so that it would stay put on her drive home.
Just an hour earlier we were full of smiles, leaving a restaurant, and now we were hopping out of an ambulance in the middle of what should have been a busy road.
We hugged one last time and shared “I love yous” before Lou climbed into her husband’s truck. Casey put his arm around me as we walked passed the accident scene and watched the police lift the street sign back in place. They remarked on how close she had come to the telephone pole.
The night was dark, and I felt strangely empty. I wanted to keep on eye on Lou, check her injuries, bring her soup, talk to her some more, but she lived a half an hour away, and she needed her own family.
I had felt this same empty feeling this past Saturday after my son’s diving accident, when they wheeled him into radiology for a Cat Scan, and told me to wait outside.
It was the same in the procedure room, when he resisted the offering of my hand while the doctor put 16 stitches in his head.
What am I supposed to do? I wondered then–and now. How do I love people who don’t belong to me anymore?
(And what’s up with this “vacation”?)
It was another vacation, during another summer, when a car accident took my grandmother’s life. Maybe that’s why this particular crisis had me “feeling” before I was finished “thinking.”
Over dinner, I shared with Loud what had only just occurred to me: Three of the most special people to me in the world had names that began with ‘L’ : my Nana Lila, my friend Lou Ann, and my son Lloyd.
“My three ‘L’s” I smiled proudly.
This morning, I am extra grateful that two of them are fine.
Weddings and funerals bring me back to my familiar. The Mid-Atlantic. The home of my people.
I sit in the quiet church where my best friends were both married, and watch as new faces replace us. A generation of nieces and nephews come of age, gathering to say goodbye to their grandma, the mother of my dear friend, Lou.
I feel the wheel turning, and notice an elder woman sitting in a pew off to the side. Will that be one of us some day?
I like funerals. I like the ritual of tending the passing of a loved one. And even though I’m not a Catholic, my days in parochial schools make the swinging of the thurible above the coffin a warm familiar, as I take in the smell of incense.
The deceased apparently liked funerals too. Once she lost her faculties. “We had to stop taking Mom to funerals,” Lou tells me. “She thought they were parties.”
I gulp, wondering about my own affinity. Despite the loss, I am filled with joy to see so many dearly familiar faces from my past; since grief is something I don’t typically share in public.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Mrs. O, and so I don’t. I keep her here, in my heart, welcoming me into her home –from 14 to 47 and beyond.
I have to admit that I am a little disappointed to find that I wasn’t the only one who was so warmly received. Apparently Mrs. O. was a second Mom to many more than me.
“She forgot how to do everything,” my friend says “How to get to get dressed; how to eat. But every time she saw me, she told me that I was perfect.
She forget how to do everything… except how to love.”
What a legacy. To loose everything, but your ability to love.
My eyes turn from the altar to the pews where the grandchildren weep with loss.
What a testimony of her love, and of the family she nurtured.
I’ve watched this family love for over 30 years–through their guilt and worry and attachment–never failing to be in awe of their undying devotion.
My friend is the most devoted daughter, sister and mother that I know; and even on this day of burying her mother, she tends to the grief of others. She remains strong. She returns to her kindergarteners the next morning.
I have been infinitely blessed by this friendship.
When her brother steps up to the altar to read the intercessions, I am delighted by how fully Italian he is, and then tickled when his thick New York accent delivers an Irish poem,
May the road rise to meet ya. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand.
My hometown holds me in the palm of its hand this weekend. I drive by the ocean and the marsh and the homes where my family once lived. I soak up time with my sister and her children. I sit beside my father and let his leg brush mine. I hug my stepmother, pet my canine step-sister. This is enough, I think. (Once I needed so much more.)
I gobble up boardwalk pizza and Italian hoagies. I sniff the salt air. I visit with my in-laws. I unearth memories. I sense the absence of my mother like a shard of glass through my heart.
I look up at the beautiful stain glass art of the Gospel and wonder why they don’t make the floors more captivating. How are we to keep our heads bowed when there is so much color above?
I notice that a nun in street clothes has replaced the altar boys beside the priest. I wonder if this is due to school (it’s a weekday) or scandal? As the elderly priest raises the Communion above his head, there is an almost imperceptible shutter at the presence of a woman on the stage which has long belonged to men.
I notice how much of the language of these familiar rites, excludes: “Those who believe…” and “He who follows in the name of the Lord...” and “We of the faith…”
I make a mental note to be sure my own funeral is inclusive, even of those who feel it necessary to separate. I realize that this will be tricky.
When it comes time to stand up for the bread and the wine, the separation is clearer. Those who remain in the pews have either missed confession–or worse–don’t belong. Even the name-tagged attendants from the funeral parlor bow their heads for the Body of Christ, making me wonder if “Catholicism” is a requirement of the job.
25 years ago, when I sat through the weekly Masses at Wildwood Catholic, I could hardly bear the length of it; but approaching 50, I know what a gift it is to sit and ponder.
And so, I take in the Homily, word for word, while opening myself up to all that is connected. Father talks of the inability of the disciples to recognize Jesus after He is risen. He contrasts their limited view with that of the women who were the first to speak of the Resurrection. (Outside, a car horn punctuates the gift of feminine receptivity.)
He reminds us that we must embrace suffering, just as Mary stood at the foot of her son’s cross. (And the church bells ring, marking the top of the hour–and the gift of this mother’s devotion.)
“This was the inspiration for Geri’s life,” the priest says, and I have no doubt it is true of Mrs. O.
My own loss is comforted when we are prompted to come to our knees on the familiar cushioned benches beneath each pew. For awhile I thought perhaps the Catholics had given up on the kneeling which once accompanied the standing and the sitting and the standing again.
I notice that the nun is the one who models what it is we are supposed to do–when we are to stand, to bow our heads, to kneel down. (Once this next generations passes, I wonder who will be left to guide us.)
I decide to have recycling at my own funeral, and even compost. I make a mental note to request potted plants so that there will be less waste. The lillies wrapped in pink foil at the foot of the altar are beautiful.
These reveries are disrupted when the priest tells us that it is time to “take our leave” of Geri.
I don’t know how Lou will do it. I don’t know how we got to be the grownups–burying our parents–whose lives in ours we once took for granted.
We proceed out of the church silent.
I watch my friend walk ahead, alongside her father, toward the limo at the head of the funeral procession, slipping her hand inside his.
Tears slide down my face, as I walk toward my own car with the Green Mountain tags and head “home.”
I want to capture what it is to descend from an elevation of seventeen hundred feet–thickly forested, steep and snow bound.
It’s midnight, Mile Marker 63 when I feel it: The world is flat.
I sense it on the inside first–a shift in my internal wake, a settling–like sediment to the bottom of a glass; and even if I’ve been dozing in the backseat with the children, I know we’ve arrived–not quite to our destination–but to sea level.
With an exhale, I surrender my preoccupation with the descending digits down the Parkway, and begin to notice where I am. Now. Tuckerton. Beesley’s Point. Great Egg Harbor. How it is that I never recognized these characters when I lived here… settings for works of fiction, tickling the tongue and imagination.
By Mile Marker 30, the smell of the marsh finds its way through the cold air and past the tight seal of the car windows.
Just as we pass the exit for Sea Isle, my own tides steady to balancing point–like the bubble inside a level. Does the body know? Do the cells swell with memory? December 8, 1963. Mercy Hospital. My birth place.
Suddenly a hundred and sixty-nine monotonous miles of the Garden State warp speed. A surge inside rises to meet the sea. “Hello, old friend. It’s me. Kelly Brown from out of town.” (That’s how the neighbors greeted me each summer when I returned.)
As we move into the single digits, the tide recedes. I struggle to remain afloat as we speed through Court House and into an onslaught of memory… the light at Stone Harbor Boulevard, the Repici’s roadside motel, the chapel where James and Lynn were married, the road to my dear friend’s house.
Pulling back like a wave from the shore, then swept up into a sea of grief, I’m buoyed amidst life’s debris, by a child on each side, and my husband at the helm of this homecoming ship.
The boys have their own internal compass for the journey. At exit 6 as we turn off the Parkway and head east onto the strip of land that carries us to the island, they begin to stir like the tiny clams that rise in the wet sand.
I can’t drive this stretch of road, past the sewage plant, without the smell of cigarettes, stale perfume and fresh lipstick–as my mother takes a brush to our sleep-tangled hair and rubs spit against our cheeks with her thumb–preparing us for our grandparents–her in-laws.
Once over the draw bridge, past and present collide, lifting me, before tossing me like a conch to the shore. Shells fly from under the tires as we bounce over the salt-weary roads of what was once home. The grocery store where I pawned pennies for bubble gum has finally had a face lift–six years too late for my mother who shopped there even when the rest of us coined it: the Beirut Acme.
We cruise into the island town of Wildwood Crest, deep in winter’s hibernation. Pull up to an abandoned curb, and the man I love slips out from behind the wheel and opens the gate to his own childhood.
On our right, is the bay; and on the left, the sea. Straight ahead, just two blocks, is the house where my own mother would be waiting at her late night perch over a bottomless cup of coffee. Like some sailor’s wife, her voice floods with an undercurrent of longing as she greets my return, “Hi, Kel,” she’d say.
“You can move away, but you can’t get the sand out of your shoes,” a dockside barkeep used to tease whenever I talked of leaving. I laughed at Jim’s warnings, like the one about my hips and pizza. He’s gone now too, but was once very pleased to hear that they didn’t deliver in the mountains.
He appears to me now, like an apparition, leaning too far across the bar to pour my drink, a jester-like grin lifting his thick Caselle frames, from a sun-creased face. The grains of his words rub between my toes… as the salt and the sea tug at me.