When the Caged Bird Stops Singing

Today cyberspace was abuzz with news of the death of poet Maya Angelou, whose fearless prose, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a work of autobiographical fiction, was a bright spot in my high school career.

When I heard about Maya’s death, remembering the title of her book immediately made me think of my mother, whom I saw last weekend at a mental hospital in Atlanta. The only thing harder than seeing her there, it turns out, was leaving her there, knowing that there is a better-than-average chance it was the last time. Her carotenoid artery 90% blocked on her right sidJohn and Sandy=201250e, she is not in her right mind, yet her doctor refuses to do surgery because she is a “surgical risk.” And so, while we seek a second and even a third opinion, she waits in a ward with her “people,” a group of similarly old and confused patients.

Almost everything has been stripped away. Hospital policy prevents her from having her hardbound study Bible (only paperbacks allowed), or anything on the walls. Her life has been reduced to a few changes of clothing, a hospital bed, and one-hour visits from up to two family members a couple of times each week. She has lost 30 pounds, and there is no telling from one day to the next whether she will lash out, or reach out in a hug.

The one bright spot in the ward is a nurse I will call “Queen Winnie.” Magnificent and matronly, her close-cropped hair silvery against her ebony skin, she is kindness personified as she gently directs my mother to wherever she next needs to be. “She’s a good singer, your mother,” she told me on Sunday. “We were singing the old church hymns together before you go there.” Mom smiled and nodded.

At that moment, she wasn’t singing. “I want out of here,” she said plaintively. I want that, too.

Sometimes, though, no matter how much you want something, you have to let her go.

On the way home, I raged — feeling a little ashamed about the likelihood that I was adding to my father’s burden, but unable to contain the sense of injustice, that a woman who had spent her life in the service of others, was spending the last days so confined. And equally mad that the love of her life had been robbed of her presence long before her breath left her body.

A detachment of a most powerful and terrible kind.  It is, in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, a “severe mercy,” the moment in an adult child’s life when you realize that you cannot fix what is wrong, and you cannot save them both. All you can do is hold on, and hope.

In the words of Ms. Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

Keep singing, Momma. And when it comes time to leap that fence, know you take a piece of me with you.

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“The Shining Barrier”: Love poem from “A Severe Mercy” (The Love Project, Day 15)

a-severe-mercy-book-coverToday’s contribution to “The Love Project” is a signature poem from one of my favorite books on romantic love, entitled A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. The story of love discovered — simultaneously on both the human and divine levels — offers a remarkable image of married love at its best. At least, at its best at the beginning.

The cynic would observe that the reason they never experienced the “creeping separateness” was that their love did not last for long. And yet, they had laid a foundation that carried them not only through the early years of marriage, but through unthinkable grief and pain as well. Years later, I briefly corresponded with Professor Vanauken, and he told me that after Davy’s death he had gone to a great deal of trouble to find his wife’s daughter, whom she’d given up for adoption before he knew her. He wanted Davy’s daughter to know what an extraordinary woman her mother had been, and how much she had loved her. Indeed, who could help but love a woman capable of such a love as this?

This present glory, love, once-given grace,
The sum of blessing in a sure embrace,
Must not in creeping separateness decline
But be the centre of our whole design.

We know it’s love that keeps a love secure,
And only by love of love can love endure,
For self’s a killer, reckless of the cost,
And loves of lilactime unloved are lost.

We build our altar, then, to love and keep
The holy flame alight and never sleep:
This darling love shall deepen year by year,
And dearer shall we grow who are so dear.

The magic word is sharing: every stream
Of beauty, every faith and grief and dream;
Go hand in hand in gay companionship –
In sober death no sundering of the grip.

And into love all other loveliness
That we can tease from time we shall impress
Slows dawns and lilacs, traceries of the tress,
The spring and poems, stars and ancient seas.

This splendour is upon us, high and pure
As heaven: and we swear it shall endure:
Swear fortitude for pain and faith for tears
To hold our shining barrier down the years.

Today’s Love in Action: When was the last time you wrote your beloved a poem? Or reread one of his to you?

What Says “Love” to You? (The Love Project, Day 4)

a-severe-mercy-book-cover“Whatever one of us asked the other to do – it was assumed the asker would weigh all the consequences – the other would do. Thus one might wake the other in the night and ask for a cup of water; and the other would peacefully (and sleepily) fetch it. We, in fact, defined courtesy as ‘a cup of water in the night’. And we considered it a very great courtesy to ask for the cup as well as to fetch it.”

Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy

In this Christian classic, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis reflects on the love-of-a-lifetime that was his, albeit briefly, in a way that inspired countless Christian young women to elevate their own expectations of romance. The idea that it is possible to find a ‘soul mate’ would would not only bring you a glass of water in the middle of the night, but eagerly consume every book, every album, and every movie you had ever seen or heard, simply to be able to have a shared lexicon of love — it was bewitching to consider that such a man might actually exist.

What is your sign, your “cup of cold water” equivalent? Is it his taking the dog out each night before turning in, without fanfare or reminder? The way he turns on the coffee machine a few minutes before your feet hit the floor? What is it that says “love” most eloquently to you?

Today’s love in action: Surprise your spouse by bring that “cup of cold water in the night,” something that you know your spouse appreciates. It might be cooking a certain dish, watching a certain program, or some other way to say “I love you’ without words.

40-Day Challenge: Mercy (Day 20)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Today I’m afraid I must be brief — I’ve reached the actual deadline on my current project, and the deadline is breathing down my neck. But I didn’t want to let down the team, so here goes!

If you’re like me, you have a short list of books, movies, and music that changed how you look at the world. For me, one of those books was Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, a haunting true love story about Sheldon and his wife Davy. If you have never read it, please do. One of the passages that stayed with me was the “shining barrier” the two of them erected against the outside world, built brick by brick by simple sharings. The first months of courtship, they spent reading every book the other one had read, listening to every recording, and so on. That shared experience made their love strong enough to persevere to the end. Which, sadly, was not so very long.

The sequel, “Under the Mercy,” was a series of essays about the years they spent together, preparing to enter the Catholic Church. His essay about the white cliffs of Dover was another revelation, which I read just as I was about to swim the Tiber (or in this particular metaphor I guess it would be the English Channel) myself. It was cold. It was hard. But oh, the glory of it.

One day when I was working at Servant, I about fell off my chair when I pulled an envelope from Dr. Vanauken from the slush bin. The pages smelled of pipe tobacco, which I found charming (my dad used to smoke a pipe), and I read with total absorption. As it turns out, his beloved wife had given birth to a child prior to their meeting, and the essay was about his tracking her down so he could meet that last little bit of Davy, which continued to live on after she was gone.

I did my best to convince Servant to publish the book, and it is one of my great regrets from my time there that I was unable to get them to catch a vision for it. (I believe “Little Lost Marion” was later published by OSV, God bless ’em.)

Soooo… Where am I going with this? Today’s theme, mercy, recognizes that the potential for greatness in the human heart is often obscured by — stuff — that clears itself with time (okay, time and a bit of extra help as needed). I do not know how Dr. Vanauken first felt when he found out about Davy’s daughter — it must have been hard to hear at first. But in time that source of pain became a source of great grace.

If you see any similarities between this story and your own, feel free to ponder them today.

Today’s Challenge:  Think of someone in your life that has always rubbed you the wrong way. Perhaps it’s someone who consistently shuts you out, or refuses to play fair, or otherwise offends you regularly and seemingly without the slightest pang of guilt. Now … go pray a rosary for that person. Right now. I’ll wait.

Today’s Prayer:  Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. Amen.