"The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living."
Marcus Tullius Cicero
It's happened again. Someone I know died. While Michael Phelps racked up an unprecedented number of medals and Simone Biles vaulted her way into gymnastic history books, my daughter's father-in-law drew his lasts breath. I know, I know. People die every minute every day. People die in numbers too great to comprehend. Dying is part of the circle of life. It's when the circle narrows to include someone you know or love that death is no longer something that only happens to someone else.
A few weeks ago, my uncle went in for back surgery. A man so full of life, it never occurred to him or any of us that something could go wrong - horribly wrong. Complications that had nothing to do with his back sent him into another 4 hours of surgery from which he did not recover. And just like that, the once robust man, my mother's youngest brother, the end of a generation, died. No time for goodbyes. Final I love yous were whispered into the air as life support machines slowed to a stop. Another chapter in the book of life ended.
As the maker of memory bears I have listened to many heart-felt stories. One mother wants a bear, but can't yet part with the shirt her son was wearing before a hit and run driver ended his life. A few months before my uncle died I grabbed an old Vietnam era USMC shirt from the box of memorabilia we'd been searching through, never guessing I'd turn it into a bear as a reminder of his years of service. I've made bears from quilts pieced together by a loving mother's hands; from the surfing shorts of a young man who couldn't kick his addiction to opiates; from a veteran's combat uniform with cigarette butts still in one of the many pockets; from a beloved grandfather's red and black buffalo plaid hunting jacket; from a souvenir concert T-shirt; from clothes cut from a mother's body in an emergency room. Over the past weekend, while making five bears, I've contemplated how a woman who wore bright, yellow and pink tie-dyed T's could be so ravaged by alcohol that she chose to end her life. The answer, I suppose, lies in the question. Alcohol, like cancer, knows no boundaries.
Having sat next to both my parents as they crossed from this life to the next, I am no stranger to death or its partner grief. I know that each passing is different and each person's experience is different. My goal is to comfort the living by remembering the life, not the death. Making bears helps me do that.
I believe some infinitesimal part of a person remains in the clothes I use to create bears. I know it sounds weird. I can't explain it. Maybe it's like the butterfly effect. A person's vibrations keep dancing across time even after they are gone. If I believe there are no coincidences, only God moments, then I have to believe the clothes I have been given are the ones that hold the most sentient pieces of that person. A never-ending trace of the Divine?
Or maybe it's the stories. I always ask for stories about the deceased before I start a bear. At most any memorial service stories abound that will make you laugh and/or cry. I wish there was a way to know, really know, a person before you are sitting in a church pew listening to an eulogy. I've found by the time someone is ready for me to make a bear, they are ready to tell the stories - of life, death, joy, and sorrow. My job is to be present, to listen. Every storyteller, needs a good listener. It's an honor for me to do so.
In the time it's taken me to write this people have died. None of us knows when our turn will come. It behooves us all to make the best of the time we have. We don't have to win gold medals. We just need to be the best we can be. We need to be kind to one another. We need to tell our stories. And we need to listen to others'.
"To listen is to continually give up all expectation and to give our attention,
completely and freshly, to what is before us,
not really knowing what we will hear or what that will mean.
In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in, softly,
with a willingness to be changed by what we hear."
What's your story?