Only One Regret

Shared from “To Be Continued.”

Sister Peter Claver, administrator of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for 30 years
Sister Peter Claver, administrator of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for 30 years

Every now and again, those quizzes circulate social media, asking us to identify silly things like our greatest fear or biggest regret.  The answers are easy for me: fear itself, and no regrets.  (Okay, full disclosure, I waffle between my fears being the clichéd “fear itself” and “the unknown.”)

As for regrets, I have to recognize one constant: not having known certain individuals, a few blessed souls who have left only positive lessons, only loving marks, in their tracks.

I worked for 15 years at a hospital founded and sponsored by the Sisters of Providence.  So many Sisters had profound effects on all who knew them, and on many more whom they’d never met.  Sister Peter Claver, who died in 1991, is still recalled with great fondness and respect in Spokane’s leadership circles.  I never tired of hearing tales about her grace, wit and fortitude.  Even the gentleman driving the courtesy shuttle for a car dealership recounted for me the times his mother had been a patient and the impression made by Sister Peter Claver, who, as the top administrator, took time to visit patient rooms. (She also carried tools in the deep pockets of her habit and would tighten door hinges on her way through the hospital.)  Other Sisters of Providence—and the Dominican Sisters I eventually came to know—were such strong forces, often the only women calling the shots in a business world usually reserved for men.  They were innovative and fiercely protective of the causes they served.  Getting to know these dynamic women and their collective history ultimately led to naming my daughter after Emilie Gamelin, who founded the Sisters of Providence after suffering the loss of her husband and all her children to illnesses.

Now in the folds of the Jesuit heritage of Gonzaga University, I’m discovering more saintly souls who I regret not having had the chance to know.  Father Tony Lehmann, for example.  When my colleague wrote a piece on Father Tony to explain why we chose “To Be Continued” as the name of our new blog, I quickly learned how deep and far and wide Zag love runs for this beloved priest.  People trolling their Facebook feeds stopped in their tracks at seeing Father Tony’s face.  They “liked,” they shared, they posted.  Not in that usual Facebook style, but with intention and heart.  What I wouldn’t give to have known him myself and have my own story to recall.

It’s questionable to regret something I couldn’t have controlled—I didn’t choose when or where I was born and raised.  But I’m positive there have been other great people in my midst who I did ignore or pass by too quickly.  What might I have learned or gained if I’d taken a moment (or more) to visit?

That is my one regret.

Grace for the Sparrow

2 Girls & a birdIt was like a Windex commercial, except without the laughing crows.  The small sparrow on its morning trek was blissfully unaware that the scene ahead was framed by brick and encased in glass.   The legal assistant inside the office building turned in her swivel chair when she heard the thud, just in time to see the frail bird fall to the ground.

She had dozens of phone messages to return, and a pile of papers stacking up at the fax machine, all of which would result in hours of paperwork to prepare for her anxious attorney.  But for Shirley, the last moments of that bird’s life were more important.

Dressed to the nines and sporting her new five-inch red stilettos, Shirley dashed outdoors and knelt down next to the window.  The bird was gasping for air, and seemingly crying out for comfort.

Shirley scooped it up in her hands and wept over it.  “No one should die alone,” she whispered, “I’m here for you.”

Hers was a heart that was wrenched daily by clients suing neighbors, doctors, family members; criminals avoiding due punishment for heinous acts; couples ending marriage in nasty court battles.  She read and filed and recorded countless stories of child abuse and saw failed cases where justice was not found.  A thankless job like this would harden the softest soul.  But for Shirley, it made her that much more tender and resilient and compassionate.

The bird witnessed this truth.  As did many a scorned teenager.  And plaintiffs wrongly accused.  Even her ex-husband.

As the bird closed its eyes and took its last breath in the comfort of Shirley’s hands, she was transported back in time to her youth, when she and her sister would feed the squirrels and birds, rabbits and geese that wandered freely through their Pennsylvania property.  Inevitably, the two girls could charm a feathered or furry guest to come and be stroked or even held.  In those moments, nothing else in the world mattered.  At those times, being so deeply trusted by another was as fulfilling as life could be.

Shirley dug a small hole in the ground by the window, clumps of earth collecting beneath her manicured nails.  She laid the bird in his final resting place, wiped the dirt from her hands and the tears from her cheeks and returned to court documents awaiting her attention.

If justice couldn’t be guaranteed for each client who came through her office, at least there was grace for the sparrow in its time of need.

*Editor’s Note: This photo was among hundreds in a box at an antiques store in Philadelphia’s historic district.  It was begging for a story, so I bought it, for $1 and gave it “Grace for the Sparrow.”  I have no idea who these girls really are—and if some soul out there recognizes them as part of a lost family history, then please reach out. While their identity is unknown, “Shirley,” is indeed based on the life of a real woman, a real legal assistant with a real heart for those who suffer. — kv

100 Words – a contest

mapShe had an old, brown map of the world, framed and hanging over her TV.  Stickpins with colored heads marked where she’d been and how many times.  Lying on a twin bed in her nursing home room, she propped a leg over the other knee in the air; her memory as sharp as her body was nimble.  She knew what she had paid for a Coke on an Alaskan cruise in the ‘60s, and why she returned to Australia twice. (Koalas.)  Thirty years after her death, the search for that map—with its pins and memories—begins.

Finding Ghosts and Beauty

Moon PassI have unfairly judged North Idaho.  Terms like “backwoods” and “redneck” most often come to mind, based on experiences during my five-year residency there—the same timeframe as my five-year marriage to a true North Idahoan.  I’ve written off the panhandle of the Gem State as a home for bigots and racists, with a smattering of California transplants who’ve successfully transformed some beautiful landscapes into well-known tourist spots.

While my sentiments still feel (somewhat) legitimate, I must recognize there are many well educated, thoughtful, open-minded souls residing there, and beyond those fine individuals, North Idaho mustn’t be written off.

For one thing, I love good, unadulterated wilderness, and there remains plenty of it in the state’s panhandle.  North Idaho has a collection of pristine lakes and rivers, and ranges of mountains and forests left to themselves, seemingly empty of capitalist commercial juggernauts ruining them for the sake of a buck.  No, here—where locals drive big trucks with fishing rods, rifles and dogs—the land is pure as it can be.

IMG_6417Take, for example, the St. Joe Scenic Byway and rugged Moon Pass through St. Joe National Forest.   Every twist and turn in the road delivers a new treat to behold—from marshes to road-side creeks to mountain-flanked riverbeds.  Moon Pass follows part of the old Milwaukee Line—which would be an adventure unto itself, even without the surrounding mountain views, thanks to its tunnels and single-lane trestles high above the valley floor.  Moss-covered rock walls tell where water rushes over in the spring and trickles down in summer.  There are picture-perfect picnic spots high above the river, where the only sound comes from the water itself and the air is so crisp and clean, you want to bottle it up to take home.

And then …

Then there are the ghosts.  The cedar ghosts.  Hollowed out shells of trees left standing since the big burn of 1910 when fire roared through the forest and the lives of countless acres of giants and dozens of human lives, too.  They were 300-500  years old when the fire scorched their trunks and snapped off their tops.  And here they stand – gray and cold and unmoving, but not dead.

Cedar Ghosts

Oh, not dead.  For something in them spoke to me.  They want to recognized, loved. They have stories to tell and I must listen.  Stories of a land called North Idaho that calls to be loved rather than labeled.

August 2013

What My Ex Had Right: A Christmas Reflection

At Christmastime, when the hot buttered rum and homemade toffee are plentiful and the holiday music is on 24/7, I always find myself telling people the one thing my ex-husband had right about me:  he called me a Christmas Crackhead.  The title has stuck and I wear it with pride.

IMG_20141214_065527029[1]In my home are enough Christmas trees that I can read by their light in the middle of the night.  One in my dining room stays up year-round, its décor changing with the seasons.  One is specifically for travel memories; another is for the homemade ornaments I made as a kid and the ones Emily makes.  My living room tree is all earth tones to match my “burnt pumpkin” colored walls and my 9-footer in the split-entryway, seen from both downstairs and upstairs, is always a traditional red and gold theme. Another is all blue and silver to complement the gorgeous snowman-themed tree skirt my mom made for me years ago.

I start filling out my calendar with local Christmas activities well in advance so we can take in all the special events we love.  Emily and I have many favorite traditions—all of them free or cheap—and every year, we try to fit in as many as possible.  Seeing the Trees of Elegance at The Davenport Hotel is a must, as is going caroling, attending a potluck with our dear Sisters of Providence, driving around to see light displays, going on a horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown, and many more.  At home, we have a “red box/green box” game where we hide little trinkets or messages for each other, and together with my parents, we enjoy Advent reflections and candle lighting every Sunday evening.  As is customary in many homes, we also do our share of holiday baking and deliver goodies to friends and neighbors.

So when people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?” the answer is always yes.  Many will respond with a bit of shock, thinking I must mean that I’ve already purchased and wrapped all my gifts – but those activities are last on my priority list.  Yes, I’ll shop a bit, but it’s definitely not the focus of my Christmas preparedness and has nothing to do with my being “ready” for the holiday.  Our culture’s obsession with commercialism tends to turn me away from the stores rather than to them, and besides, there’s nothing fun about spending a gob of money on stuff that people will eventually get rid of.   Even The Grinch figured it out:  “Maybe “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

The Grinch's revelation, and the Madonna & Child, as seen from a skywalk in downtown Spokane.
The Grinch’s revelation, and the Madonna & Child, as seen from a skywalk in downtown Spokane.

I saw those words in the most interesting venue yesterday.  Emily was shopping in the Santa’s Express—a place where elves help children choose gifts for their parents, and all the proceeds benefit a local charity—and I was waiting in the nearby skywalk connecting two downtown buildings.  A window artist had painted scenes from The Grinch on each pane, and as I enjoyed his or her beautifully done snowflakes, I came upon The Grinch’s revelation positioned so you’re also seeing the two-story Madonna & Child displayed on the Macy’s building.  Clever.

Am I ready for Christmas?  Of course.  Always and forever.  Because I’m a Christmas Crackhead and I can’t get enough of the hope and peace and goodwill that can be found in so many places if we take the time to look.

Merry Christmas!

Funeral for a Chipmunk

March 2012 (Reprinted by popular demand!)

Today, the girls found a dead little chipmunk in the road. When Abbey and Emily brought it home and were inspecting it in the yard, I suggested that they put it in a box and give it a little respect, in hopes that this would discourage them from a natural instinct to touch it. I gave them a shoe box and thought they could take it from there … which they did … to extremes I had not imagined.

Emily wrote on one side of the box: “The Chipmunk who was special on Stonington Lane and who died of a crazy driver.”

Preparing the funeral site
Preparing the funeral site

Abbey wrote on another side: “Saved by Abbey & Emily and honored in this box on 3-18-12.”

A good while later, they asked me to join them outside for a ceremony. The box was in the center of a hula hoop, Abbey was sprinkling rocks around it and Emily was parading around the hoop with a garden sign that says “Peace.” They had my rocking chair in the yard and had moved a table to the edge of the porch to be a pulpit. Abbey and I sat while Emily opened the ceremony in prayer for the Chipmunk they had named Fat Cheeks. For a scripture reading, she went to Isaiah where she read the prophecy of the birth of Jesus. She then launched into quite a sermon about how the Bible says we should care for animals. “In Genesis,” she said, and opened her Bible to Genesis where she ended up reading about Joseph and his brothers. When she snapped the Bible closed, she said, “Well, I don’t really know that that had anything to do with this chipmunk or about caring for animals. …. But … I hope that it made your heart tick anyway.” (What?!!)

Emily eulogizes Fat Cheeks the Chipmunk
Emily eulogizes Fat Cheeks the Chipmunk

Then it was Abbey’s turn and she wanted to pick up where Emily had left off (sort of) and began reading about how Joseph when into Potiphar’s home and how Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. I’m thinking to myself, “Okay Abbey, you can stop here…” knowing that we’re embarking on a soap-opera-esque story about a married woman luring a young man.  Abbey reads that Potiphar’s wife says, “Come to bed with me…” and I am just dying (what does this have to do with poor little Fat Cheeks the chipmunk, and what are these young girls thinking of this tale?).  I start to say something but Abbey keeps going and comes to the point where the wife screams and tells guards that Joseph came to sleep with her. Finally, Abbey stops after it says “Joseph left his cloak and ran out of the house.”

“Well …” says Abbey, “I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to do — just run out on someone when they have asked for help.”

(How I managed not to burst into laughter at this point is still a mystery.)

Emily’s ready to take over again and asks us to stand and sing a song. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” is her selection, and I add a verse about how “He’s got the Fat Cheeks Chipmunk in his hands” and am really amazed I am still standing and not rolling on the ground laughing. The song is over and I sigh and think we’re done, but Reverend Emily gets back up to the pulpit and really starts sermonizing away. She’s going on and on and on, and even Macy, our dog, starts yawning loudly as if to tell Emily enough is enough.

We went through two more rounds of eulogizing and sermonizing before they invited me to share and I said I was sorry the poor baby didn’t live longer but was glad he (or she, Abbey corrected me) was okay now. Then I left them to finish the job of placing the box somewhere in the bushes by the porch.

I must say it was the most entertaining funeral I have ever attended. Quite possibly the longest, too.