Greetings, Gero-Punk Project friends! We’re celebrating contemplation and gratitude all week long, so please check back daily for Thanksgiving reflections from our wonderful guest essayists. Many blessings, much love!
Each Moment of Love is the Whole of my Life
By guest Gero-Punk
Our family has loved and been loved by six great-grandparents, all living within ten minutes of our home. Over the past three years we lost half of them. In this essay I explore their passing out of life, and what I have learned from loving and being loved by them.
Our first loss was my step-father, Clinton, a wise mentoring elder. Once the deputy superintendent of Portland Public Schools, Clinton was a deeply spiritual being, a brilliant and caring educator, taken three years ago by leukemia. He mentored me, and our three children, in how to move through life in synch with our core values. He embodied integrity in everything he did and said. My mother took a bad fall one week before Clinton passed, suffering a traumatic brain injury and broken knee, so I moved in with them to care for them both. The night he passed the hospice nurse said she was over-booked and I would have to break into the locked box that held the palliative meds. I was unprepared for the emotional toll this would take, but hastened to bring him comfort and ease. It was the middle of the night, and my mother held her beloved husband of 37 years in their bed, while I held her.
Our blended family arrived and encircled the bed. Finally, the hospice nurse arrived to count breaths. When Clinton passed, I saw his spirit go out the window as my mother keened. My mother was desperate, stuck in a primal part of her brain. Over the next two weeks, with the help of generous neighbors, I found meals for the puppy-pile of family and friends that moved through the house, connected by the need for touch. As I took care of my grieving mother and children, and helped managed the logistic and legal details of life and death, I depended on my husband to stand strong with me when I needed breath. My mother’s grief was complicated by her brain injury and it is only now, after three years of brain-healing, that she has begun to move through it.
Our second loss was my step-mother, a spry athlete, retired teacher, deeply sweet and kind, taken by ALS one year ago. Her striking characteristic was her kindness—no matter what, she spoke ill of no one. Her athlete’s body lost every muscle, one by one, over six years. This new hospice did not over-book, and the nurse and social worker were with my father and his wife continuously, keeping her free from pain and supporting our blended family as we encircled her bed. The hospice aides were deeply touched by the love of my father and his Rita. Non-responsive for 23 hours, at the very end when I held her hand and said, “Lovely Rita” she squeezed it, and her spirit escaped to hover over us. My father, who had nursed his beloved companion tirelessly for six years, cried out once.
Over the past year my step-sister and I have supported my father through the life and death emotions and details, and we have been inspired by his dedicated effort to honor and experience his grief, while at the same time taking strategic steps to re-invent his life. Three weeks ago my brother and I took him on a memorial trip to Maui, to the same condo he stayed at with Rita for six weeks every year of their 30-year retirement. At 91, needing help to walk into the ocean due to vertigo caused by Meunier’s disease, he snorkeled for the first time in seven years. Buoyed by the big blue ocean, we saw his pain ease, and his loss become bearable.
Our third loss was my exceptional father-in-law, at age 100 ½ years. Our “Papa” lived a challenged life. Born in Ecuador, left with a bishop at age 6 to be his servant, this brilliant child grew into a troubled and optimistic man. Raised without parents, he had to figure out life for himself. Unloved, uncared for, with no decent role models, he developed an odd collection of beliefs and ethics. Apprenticed at age sixteen to German engineers in a machine shop, he discovered an unusual and useful aptitude. He became a mechanical engineer, but could not settle down. He worked in a gold mine in the jungles of Colombia at age 32 to earn enough money to immigrate to America as World War II was winding down. He arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, with no English. He met and married his English teacher, and together they raised four children in Jackson, Mississippi. The home was turbulent. He became ashamed of his accent. The only Spanish he spoke in the home were swear words. His youngest son, my husband, Carlos, was taunted with racial slurs by schoolmates. Carlos came to Oregon when he was 23. He was surprised to learn that many of his Oregon friends found his Ecuadorian heritage fascinating, even “cool.” We met, fell in love, and raised three children of our own. I was studying to become a Bilingual Educator. We enrolled our children in a Spanish bilingual immersion school, and my husband learned some Spanish.
When Papa visited Oregon 20 years ago, after he was widowed, he was stunned when we asked him to speak at our son’s Coming of Age ceremony. He said, “Everyone will hear my terrible accent!” We assured him that everyone would appreciate his accent, and they did. Ten years later, at age 90, Papa’s life in Mississippi had deteriorated beyond repair, and he was at odds with his daughters and their husbands. We brought him to live with us. Regular meals, being with a family, and good medical care began to transform his haggard appearance. At first, whenever we said anything complimentary or affirming, he would cry. We realized that he was not used to being appreciated and respected, or loved unconditionally. Our family tends towards affirmations, so for that first year, Papa would receive compliments, then he would cry, and then he would invite another compliment.
The transformation we witnessed through medical therapy and being loved by our family was remarkable. After a year he stopped crying when complimented, and instead developed an over-inflated sense of self. We focused on meeting his needs for autonomy and safety, love and belonging, and esteem and contribution. Soon, his ego became normal-sized as he settled into healthy self esteem. He decided to move into his own apartment. He set up his woodshop and began carving again. We helped him stage an art show. His doctor suggested he enroll in Tai Chi class.
It was in Tai Chi class that he met Jeanette. Theirs was a storybook romance. They were like school kids, giddy in love. We watched Papa become a settled elder, a wise mentor to his grandchildren, now adults, and loving great-grand-papa to their children. His wood carvings during the past six years were some of his most beautiful. He learned how to use a computer, and cell phone, and took to the I-phone like a duck to water. He upgraded with each new release. He honeymooned in Hawaii (at the same condo frequented by my father, David and step-mom, Rita) and snorkeled for the first time in his life. He traveled with his new bride all over the world. He said, “I waited until I was 91 to be happy.” Living a challenged existence for 90 years, he still had the optimism to move to Oregon to seek out a better life for himself.
Two years ago Papa was diagnosed with two aneurysms in his belly that were inoperable. His doctor told him, “Any day now, one of these will burst, you will experience excruciating pain for about half an hour, and then you will die.” This grim announcement took the wind out of Papa’s sails as he waited each day for the pain, and the end, to come. Jeanette, a retired nurse, got a prescription for liquid morphine that she carried with her wherever they went. Papa lost the sparkle in his eye for about over a year. He slowed down. Then about six months ago, he suddenly regained his sparkle and though he still moved slowly, we could see that he was at peace. He and Jeanette are devoted Christians, and I think he made a sort of peace with God.
While I was in Hawaii with my father and brother, I got the call that Papa had a slight belly ache. My husband went over and spent the evening with Papa and Jeanette, staying until Papa went to sleep. The pain was very mild and Papa figured it was indigestion. The next morning he woke pain free. Just to be safe, Jeanette suggested he sit in a wheel chair rather than walk. Later that morning he jerked slightly and lost consciousness. He passed away at the hospital without regaining consciousness, with Jeanette by his side, and my husband there minutes after he passed. Hardly any pain, a peaceful death, a man who lived to find love, respect, contribution and self-actualization. Born in 1913, died in 2013. A century well lived, a death with no regrets.
During their six-year marriage, Jeanette and Papa celebrated holidays with us, because her daughters were against their marriage. Jeanette was broken-hearted, but steadfastly and fiercely continued to love her husband. We responded to her daughters with love and boundaries. We are glad we made that choice, so that at the end, we could center in love, and be present with honoring Papa’s life, and supporting Jeanette through the loss of her beloved companion. We are fortunate that our family has what I have come to call a “Sweetie-pie Default Response.” I did not realize how much I have taken that goodwill and love for granted.
Our family is now down to three great-grandparents: my mother, Lucille, my father, David, and Papa’s widow, Jeanette. Who am I? What am I learning about this life and death journey we all share?
It is clear that I have become matriarch to a large, blended family of multi-generations. My “foundation laid by nature” as Dante would say has equipped me with capacious love, and for understanding the power of love. For example, when I encounter a person who is behaving in a harmful way, I may at first feel anger and a sense of superiority. I have learned that the only counter that is reliably useful is to find it within myself to love the person. This has gotten easier over the years, and has become nearly a default response—not just from practice, but from learning that when I love, my capacity to understand and learn from whoever it is I am feeling defensive or offensive toward, increases.
It has become quite clear to me that I am not superior to anyone. That said, I do not pretend with false modesty that my behavior might not be better than someone else’s, or at least more generally useful. I just do not take credit for that evolution, nor do I assume my behavior is rare; others have modeled this for me. My foundation laid by nature provided me with the capacity to love, and to learn from love, and my life experiences have privileged me with opportunities to learn from others. Lots of people are further along the path than me, so happily, I am provided mentors. Learning has made me useful. I am grateful for that.
At the memorial service several people said I missed my calling—that I should have been a minister. I almost did become one, but my multi-faith paradigm prevented me from identifying with just one tradition. As a Buddhist Mystic with a fondness for Catholic saints, my spiritual exercises are bit of a jumble. I am at home with reverent people of all traditions, it is all language and metaphor anyway, and we are all just doing the best we can to express what is inexpressible.
I am also oddly un-ambitious. I serve where I am. Large or small venue, it makes no difference. With my grandson, serving his awakening wonder, or with my students, creating a classroom where we co-create learning, or at the pulpit in an act of transmutation, or on the stage connecting with the fourth wall of God, it is all the same act of loving and being loved. My father-in-law lasted 91 years without persistent, dependable belongingness. Does it matter in the end how long he lived in love? Each moment is the only one that counts. That is why small or large venue makes no difference—an office, a title, a vestment, a salary—that is mere accessorizing, not elemental to the moment of loving and being loved.
When my grandmother was dying in the hospital, in the throes of late stage Alzheimer’s, I leaned over her diminished body as she gibbered to me, eyes alight. Without words she made it very clear that she enjoyed the sweet jello I was feeding her, and without words as I gibbered back it was utterly clear that we existed only for that moment in which we loved each other.
Who am I? The only possible answer is that I am of love, and for love. Each moment of love is the whole of my life.
Eileen Mejia has been teaching at Marylhurst since 2001. In her classes, Mejia promotes students’ capacities to think critically, with the goal of discovery, and to engage material that is complex, provocative, and grounded in rigorous scholarship. Students have the opportunity to co-create wisdom and new learning, by collaboratively applying their learning directly to their identities and life roles. Mejia generates a classroom culture of openness to unexpected discoveries by inviting and building on diverse student perspectives.
Mejia rarely lectures. Rather, she provides interactive learning activities that compel students to engage in a “whole bodied approach” to learning. As Mejia describes it, “We move, experiment, and explore. We seek to recognize and challenge our own, and each others’ assumptions as equal co-learners. I ask questions I do not know the answers to, and encourage students to do the same. We enact playful, curious and critical discourse.”