Life / Death / Life: Circles Open and Unbroken


Last night I went up the hill just before dusk to a friend’s house, where we spent a couple of hours in her fragrant wood-fired sauna, nestled under cedars, maples, and Douglas firs. Three of us sweated, inhaled sweet-scented steam, and shared plant medicine tidbits gleaned from an island wildcrafting workshop I had missed. I spoke about the last two weeks of liminal time as Craig and I sat in vigil at his mother’s bedside with his siblings, followed by her passing on Good Friday / Full Moon, then her burial and memorial service. Now I am home and Craig is still at his mother’s house east of the mountains, packing it up and getting it ready to sell.

Craig & his mom, Thanksgiving 2014
Craig & his mom, Thanksgiving 2014

I had not expected to take my mother-in-law’s death so hard, but I found myself breaking down in tears often over the past two weeks. There is something especially poignant about facing death in the season of rebirth and renewal. The cycle of grief and joy, of life/death/life, is a circle, a continuum. We open to one in order to have access to the other. During the days we spent at Shirley’s bedside, I reflected on the last week of my father’s life in 2006, when we kept a similar vigil. I also felt a resonance with the days leading up to my friend Helen’s death in 1994, the first time I ever sat with someone who was dying. I recalled my mother’s death in 1984. And one of those bedside days last week was the 25th anniversary of my beloved son’s sudden death. The memories kept flooding back. As a friend wrote to me, “We have a grief ‘history.’ . . . We carry our grief from loss to loss.”

We spent those days at Shirley’s bedside sharing stories, weeping, praying, and singing. When she took her last breath, she was surrounded by her four children and two daughters-in-law. I felt a holy hush come into the room, and I heard myself say: “We should sing to her. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” And so the six of us sang, Craig’s voice strong and true, until it broke. Once again I felt privileged beyond measure to stand at the gates of life and death.

Last night I emerged from the sauna, heat rising from my skin, into the misty woods and a light rainfall. Owls hooted and frogs sang as I stood under the forest canopy, cooling down, arms open wide to the night. I released my grief — some of it, anyway — in sweat and raindrops.

In a few days I will travel to Maine, to celebrate the coming of the May with my granddaughter Grace. We will go for walks and draw in our nature journals, and build faery houses, and laugh a whole lot.

The Wheel turns. So has it always been, so shall it always be.

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