Full Circle

Life has a way of coming full circle, as I was reminded while attending a funeral recently. We were celebrating the life of Clara Thorp, who’d represented goodness-on-earth for 92 years.

I met Clara decades ago when I interviewed her for a newspaper story. She was retiring after a sterling career at the local nursing home. A single mom, she’d started as an aide, got her nursing degree, and devoted her life to the elderly, the dying. Hers was one of those stories you relish writing.

As with so many others whose stories I wrote, Clara and I went on to live our separate lives. She reportedly enjoyed her retirement, though she continued to help out at the nursing home when needed. A stone marker was placed in the home’s lawn to honor her. That old building outlived its usefulness and is boarded up now, the stone marker removed. Yet legacies of love outlast even stone.

Full circle, I met up again with Clara late last year. Her final passage in this life was spent at an adult group home, where I visit most days to read aloud to my centenarian friend Elizabeth. Many—not all—of the residents are living with neurological loss: dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc. One of Clara’s daughters had copied that newspaper story from long ago and posted it on the refrigerator at the group home. It served as a daily reminder that Clara, who may’ve been confused and lost in the present, had lived a full and meaningful life of service. It had to impress those caring for Clara to know that she’d once provided the same kind of care for others and did so from her heart.

I, too, was grateful to reread that story, to remind myself of the impressive woman I’d interviewed all those years before. Though still tall and slender, the Clara I re-met was a shadow of herself. Sometimes though, a light glimmered through that shadow. Occasionally, as I read to Elizabeth, Clara would shuffle past, pause, and stoop down to straighten the blanket that covered Elizabeth’s feet.

In death, Clara left behind a large and loving family, a crowd of friends who turned out for her memorial, and something else. A vision of heaven. I usually eschew descriptions that  mere mortals try to offer of heaven or the after-life. Eternity is a promise and a mystery. I’m willing to wait for that mystery to unfold. And yet Jack Schneider, who officiated at Clara’s memorial, offered a vision that I embrace. He reflected on the people whom Clara had tended as they approached death’s door: the many—the frail and perhaps the fearful—whom she’d comforted at the end. What a crowd of hands there are, ready to lovingly welcome Clara home, Jack concluded.

And will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by?

Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

Omak Mountain hulks behind the haze of wildfire smoke

The Okanogan Valley, where I live, took a deep, collective breath yesterday and probably exhaled with a sigh. It was our first day of smoke-free air in weeks, a classic summer day, high in the 80s, blue sky, gentle breeze. Besides that, it was the day after the Omak Stampede, which informally serves as the apex of summer hilarity around here. After Stampede, we get back to business. The return to school, work, harvest, and the county fair are coming at us all too soon. The smoke was forecast to return, too.

Stampede is a mixed bag of community celebration with a professional rodeo and controversial horse race at its heart. There’s so much more—from art shows to the colorful and exotic Indian encampment, from swilling suds in a totally unglamorous beer garden to singing hymns at the Sunday morning cowboy worship service, from tubing the lazy Okanogan River to partaking of dizzying carnival rides. It’s too much for some of the citizenry, who leave town to escape the dust, crowds and craziness.

I agreed this year to volunteer for a few hours at a voter registration booth in the Indian encampment. I told a friend what I’d be doing, and she made a comment that shocked me. I know she thought she was saying something funny. What I heard was racist. I gasped and mildly chastised her.

Later, I regretted my response because I’m pretty sure she thought—if she thought about it all—that I was objecting on the basis of political correctness. I’d failed to tell her how I felt. I felt sad—sad because her comment reflected an unfair stereotype of Native Americans, sad because those stereotypes negate possibilities for compassion and connection, sad because I didn’t want to be in a position of judging or thinking less of a friend whom I admire.

Today the haze has returned to our valley, smoke from the myriad fires in British Columbia and in our own Pasayten Wilderness  to the north. A different kind of haze lies all across our country after the events in Charleston, Virginia—yet another episode in our confused desperation over our national legacy of racism. It’s a dense, smoky cloud that strangles us as we struggle to find ways to clear the air.

Yes, it matters what the President and all our leaders say from their bully pulpits. More important to me, however, is what I say. And what you say. I might have said to my friend, “Your comment was painful for me to hear. Could we talk about it so that I can understand how you truly feel?” I’ll try to remember that next time. And there will be a next time—probably not with this friend, but comments and attitudes are out there all around me. To work our way out of the blinding haze of racism—and all aspects of discrimination—will require each of us addressing it, one by one by one.