Forever hold your penguin dear
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” – Jack Lemmon
March of the Penguins” for the first time on Saturday night. I know the whole world has seen it by now, but we hadn’t. Mr. Brilliant had to leave the room; even though he is a man wont to explore the joys of forensic pathology in his spare time, has been known to do surgery on himself, and is hell bent on watching every episode of The Sopranos in slow motion, the very thought of penguin babies freezing to death was too much for him. He can’t watch CSI or Law & Order or House episodes where kids are hurt—it’s all about the kids for him. He had to go. He retreated to the living room.
I myself escaped to the bathroom when a vulture arrived to feed on the young, leaving poor Emma to fend for herself. When an egg fell onto the ice and froze early on, I knew we were in for the real story, not the Disney version. Even so, at every turn when danger loomed, Emma and I would yelp in unison, our sharp intakes of breath prompting John to shout in anguish from the next room, “What?! What?! Oh, no, what’s happening now?”
“I can’t take anything else,” we would say, watching the mama penguin being eaten by a shark. And yet more came. And more. The fathers came back, the mothers left for their 70-mile march toward food, the mothers returned to find their partners and their children—except for some, those whose babies had died. Young ones froze on the ice; the fathers’ cries guttural and deep, echoing; a mother so in grief she tried to take another’s young. It was human in its complexity and in its utter simplicity and depth of emotion.
And even still, in the face of all the hardship and pain, progress continued—gorgeous baby chicks grew up to take the same long walks, to find partnership, to know relationship, to care for an egg through immeasurable odds, and they persevered. Perseverance, courage, love.
And so do we humans, it occurred to me as I watched. We face terrible odds. The death rate, after all, is 100%. And yet we persevere, even after the most anguished of losses, we continue, we put one foot in front of another for those long, sometimes lonely walks. And we arrive to find things changed.
No parent should have to say good bye to their child like that, not on the ice of Antarctica, nor from cancer, or of a drive-by shooting on the streets of Washington, D.C., nor of genocide in Darfur, not in a tsunami swept to sea, not at the hand of an abuser, not in an execution style shooting at a small Amish schoolhouse in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, and not in a car wreck at Exit 6 on I-240, the Chunns Cove Road exit.
It is not possible for me to conceive of the pain those families in Pennsylvania felt, indeed the mothers and fathers of any child gone. I won’t try, because to try is to be a poseur in a grief too big to be approximated. I’ll simply ask: is there any greater pain than burying someone you love more than your own self? What is there to cling to in such a world?
On September 14, 2006, a young 20-year-old woman named Meta died in a car accident at 10:36pm. I didn’t know Meta; I had never met her. But I knew someone who knew her well, and the circle of support that lifted Meta up afterwards also encircles me, and so I have shared in this extraordinary story, even if at a distance. I am writing not from that kind of personal loss that comes with losing someone close to you, but from a place of deep and profound thankfulness for the lessons that her death has brought me. It was too high a price to pay, but it has been paid and my only way to honor her is this—listening to, heeding the lessons.
There are the usual lessons—life is short, for example—and there are deeper ones too.
An outsider to this story, I have struggled to write about its impact on me since the weekend she died, since that day I received an email from my friend, Catherine, who was there in the room when Meta was born and there in the room for the precious hours and days after her death. Close friends with Meta’s parents, Catherine was one of four women (though I'm sure there were more I don't know about)—Catherine,
Sheila, Walker, and Caroline—who lifted up that family when they needed lifting, and in a
way that eased Meta’s transition from this earth, in a way that taught us all
how much death is a part of life to be embraced and held dear, in a way that
taught us all how not to run from death as we often do.
A woman named Ren wrote to me recently after reading an earlier essay on 37days: “I agree with you that the grieving process is a life-long thing. It's about coming to terms with the new relationship you've got with the person. Because death doesn't end the relationship, it ends a life (there’s an old quote about that...who is it?) and it's this constant coming to terms with the fact that they aren't physically there.”
I was struck silent by Ren’s note for a while, and then I wrote her back: “I can't remember when I have been so struck by the truth of a statement than by yours about grieving being a process of coming to terms with the new relationship you've got with the person." That is it, exactly. It is not an end, it is a change.
It was my friend Catherine who started me on this journey with Meta. “I saw Meta a few weeks before she died. She looked like she was glowing. A number of people remarked on how she looked the last time they saw her," Catherine said, "like she was on fire from the inside out."
Meta had done her share of partying in her teenaged years, a wild child of sorts. Acknowledging those growing up years, her mother had given her a “Get out of Jail Free” card from a Monopoly game, just in case. It was found in her wallet after her death, a talisman for her in those years, a reminder of the love that shored her up, that always stood behind her. The little angel wings on the man getting out of jail were not lost on those who discovered it among her belongings after she died.
"She had gone to a spiritual retreat last February," Walker explained. Walker was another of the women who led the way in those days after Meta's death. "After the retreat, her heart just simply opened. 'This is my purpose in life,' Meta had said afterwards," Walker told me when we talked about Meta's death.
And, in fact, it seems from my vantage point, she fulfilled that purpose in death, given the extraordinary events that followed. The first urge to expression by all who knew Meta was to open the space for love to emerge. And emerge it did.
I first heard from Catherine by email:
“We are helping each other move through those days with love,” Catherine wrote.
Everyone felt strongly about taking care of the body of Meta as she makes her transition...by hand, in person, and at home.
We contacted a local funeral home that honors alternative ways – and they transported Meta's body out here.
We laid her in the cabin on Mary Anne and Deb’s land, and slowly over the next three days created an amazing sanctuary – flowers, candles, prayers, meditation, tears, smiles, photos, whatever was brought by the many people who came. The love is strong, and tangible. We kept a constant vigil – all day and all night—for those three days. On Saturday – Day 2 - there was a circle of over 100 people out in the meadow.
That Friday morning, we got in touch with a woman who is Buddhist and who has experience with this—this is the mission of her particular spiritual practice—helping people at the time of death. She came out to be with us right after Meta’s body came, and she taught us how to bathe, anoint, and dress the body, including sealing the injuries from the accident (on the back and the back of the head). Mary Anne, Deb, Michael (moms and dad) and three others (Sheila, Walker, and me) did this. Two air conditioners are running all the time to keep the air cool and dry. Three days is the recommended longest time. What a healing experience – taking care of your baby at this time. Thank you, Meta. We now know how to do this. It is embedded in my heart and mind, and I know that I will be able to help others do this.
I am writing this early in the morning of the day (Monday) when the funeral director will come back and we will take the body with him to be cremated.”
Deep in the mountains of North Carolina, I believe the cabin was original to the property on which it stand, an old space for human living, and all that comes with human living—the joys of love, childbirth, breakfasts as a family, fights, sickness, dying, and death, no doubt. Four walls can tell so much; they are witness to our living. And in this cabin, generations have lived and died, no doubt.
In September, it became a sacred place, a sanctuary, a shrine, a place for transition, a resting place for the body of a young woman named Meta who died too fast, gone before she fulfilled her mission—or not?
The wreck occurred at the Chunn’s Cove exit off of 240, a four-lane by-pass circling our town. I pass by it most days. And yet, it is now a sacred place, a piece of land and asphalt that holds secrets: what happened in those moments, that moment of impact? A highway held her.
Wouldn’t your impulse be to run to her, hold her, lift up your baby, catch her when she was falling? Can any of us know this story without placing ourselves in it? And that is what her family did. They brought her home, to catch her, to take care of her, to hold their baby.
And so it is, my passage past Chunn’s Cove Road has become altered, so much more so for her family, seeking clues there, I imagine, or not. What was Exit 6 is now holy ground; it soaked up her blood and took part of her, a part they long to hold again, I’m sure, as we all long for our loved ones to sit down at dinner with us just once more.
The sacred places that our bodies move past and through, themselves sacred. And yet, when people die, we move so quickly in the opposite direction, to have those bodies picked up and cleaned and sanitized. Pema Chodron has written that “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” To look away, not at; to dispose of quickly. Dead bodies are fearful things. We have lost sight, perhaps, of where we really are. When I try to locate myself in space and in place, why am I always confined to this space, this place? Am I my body, or is it merely a container for me? Why should I run at its disease, its death?
Death is mystery. It is awful and transformational and freeing and heartbreaking—it is also Truth and therefore fearful for many of us, for me. But this young woman has changed that—what a gift I have received from someone I never met, will never meet.
This sign was posted on the door to the cabin:
Meta’s Sacred Sanctuary:
Friends of Meta,
Thank you for being here.
There are a couple of
things to be aware of as we take good care of the body of Meta while she makes her transition.
As an alternative to the
usual embalming of the body, the body of Meta was lovingly and naturally washed, anoited, and dressed here in the cabin.
Because no artificial embalming techniques were involved, please be attentive to the following requests:
2) If you touch, please be very gentle to respect the integrity of
the physical body - so as to not disturb the tissues. We thank the body of Meta for housing her spirit.
We welcome you.
Meta loves you all.
What we do in these moments defines us, somehow. I have to face the facts that my urge is to run, as I wanted to run from Tycho, and as I have run from other deaths. What I found in this story was a group of people who so loved this young woman that they walked solidly toward their fear and their not knowing. They had never done this before; it was not a reflex of habit, but of sheer, pure love.
“The hardest part for me,” Walker said, “was being there when they took her
body out of the body bag. We had no idea what to expect.” Walker and a Buddhist
Sangha named Caroline were
the only two there then; they asked the people from the funeral home to help
cut her clothes off. “It was hard until I saw her,” Walker remembered.
They put the body of Meta on a massage table in the little cabin and covered her with a sheet.
“The soul is still nearby,” Walker said, "so we knew we wanted to hold a loving space and help the soul to leave."
“The first day, it was just a few of us,” she remembered. Her daughter, one of Meta’s best friends, was there. “We washed Meta and dressed her and my daughter helped put makeup on her. It was a real gift and privilege to be there, and my daughter really saw that."
"It felt so natural and so right.”
“We held her in our arms,” Catherine explained. “We washed her tenderly, from her feet up to the top of her head. We sealed her wounds.” “Our approach,” Walker explained, "was trying to stay in our hearts, to create a loving place, a place in which grief could come up and into your mind, and then leave, replaced by love. There was so much love in that room, it was palpable," she recalled.
Catherine echoed that feeling. “It had a timelessness about it, like we were not in time,” she said. “We all had such a strong impulse to take care of our baby—we wanted to wash her and take care of her. It became a holy place, a powerful place, a place of moving, walking love. We hadn’t done anything like this before, but we learned. We learned to apply witch hazel and powder and rose oil to the top of her head, her forehead, on our hearts. The intention with which we were there started the healing process for all of us. We kept vigil all day and all night for three days. At the end of those days, Meta's parents spent time alone in the cabin with her body. When they emerged, they said it was clear to them that her spirit had left that place."
They had all helped the spirit of Meta fly.
As Walker put it, "hundreds of people all over the world were sending up prayers that her soul would be opened more and more to the light and love. On that Saturday night, we held community prayers in the cabin, praying for her soul. Most of my time was spent with Meta," she continued. "It felt like a gift."
That Monday morning, Meta's oldest brother Niko and one of his two dads, John, carried the body of Meta out of the cabin. When they reached the crematorium, the group that accompanied them didn’t put Meta in a cardboard box, no. They put the body of Meta in a cardboard box. There is a difference. Meta lives, her body doesn't. Would we look at death and
dead bodies differently if we changed our language to reflect the reality of
body and spirit? This intrepid, wise, amazing group of people accompanied the
body of Meta to the crematorium where her body was put into a cardboard box.
“We put flower petals on her, she had a garland of flowers for her head, she was beautiful,” Catherine recalled. “We played music and sang ‘I’ll fly away.’ Her dad, tears streaming down his face, clapped and kept time to the music. ‘Keep playing,’ he said, ‘keep playing.’” They sang as they put the cardboard box into the furnace.
"We thanked the body for housing Meta,” Catherine said, “and as we walked out of the building, we looked up and saw the smoke.”
It is a story so beautiful and so raw and so very intensely real that it breaks my heart and heals it all at the same time. And there is more. Just as the penguin story kept coming, there is more.
The body of Meta was cremated; her father Michael and brother Raj went the next day to pick up her ashes. To complete the circle of life in a way that gives me pause, they were led to the oven and raked her remains out themselves, her bones still holding the structure of her.
That, my friends, is what a full, rounded, complete circle looks like. That is what walking toward every part of life looks like—a leaf that is brown and dying on the ground is a thing of beauty just as is a green one; we are all part of a circle, one much bigger than we are. Why do we so break that circle?
As it turns out, one of the women who was instrumental in this story, Walker, is the owner of the gorgeous retreat center where we held our first 37days retreat several weeks ago; it felt circular to know that, to realize that after the fact, as if there was something drawing us there to that spot. Another of the women, Catherine, was one of the participants in that first retreat. Don’t try telling me that life isn’t circular in some significant ways. We are tying bows around significances every day, I think. We just don’t know it, or not yet.
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
In this world, we often have things fill in for other things, often because the other things are too big, like an eclipse that is too bright to watch directly—we need a deflection, a parallelism, of sorts, to make them manageable: a rock for a burden, a sun for a yearning, the ocean for wishes, a dove for a spirit.
When I look at this photo from the celebration of Meta’s life, that dove caught perfectly in flight, I am most struck by the joy on the uplifted faces as that dove becomes Meta: who among us wouldn't choose flight?
Even the “get out of jail free” man from the Monopoly game has wings, after all. That dove is imbued with much meaning, as are all the things of our days. Sometimes, the sun shines just right on them and we can acknowledge and own and see that meaning, sometimes not.
Death ends a life, not a relationship. What if each of us holds imaginal cells, something different from the current form of us, just as the butterfly waiting to emerge and fly?
told my friend David about this extraordinary event, this holding up, this
taking care of. He wrote back: “This is how a community is supposed to work.
Imagine if we held each other with the same grace in life as they have shown Meta in death."
We are singularly unprepared for the death of someone so young—no matter their
age. It calls into question meaning and fairness and truth. What we can only
hope to do, I think, is move toward them with a heart so open to love that we
can embrace the whole of them, body and spirit, and help that spirit to fly
away from us so it can envelope us, so we can continue that relationship in a
different, deeper, more intangible and yet more powerful way.
In each day that her family lives, I imagine that Meta will be a pentimento in those hours and weeks and months and years, just as my father is in mine, turning and turning in their mouths and hearts and limbs like a dorodango is turned, the silt of that dust of our ongoing days creating a precious, fine shine in which we can see ourselves, and them.
Forever hold your penguin dear, as Meta holds her mom, Mary Anne, in this photo. They need not freeze on cold, hard ice as long as you are holding them, if not in your arms, then in your heart, your mind, your own soul. Hold each other with the same grace in life as these beautiful people have shown Meta in death.
"Since adulthood,” her obituary read, “Meta grew into the knowledge that her true purpose was to spread love.” She had chosen a life of open-hearted love before her death as a result of attending a spiritual retreat seven months before she died. To enable other young people to attend Open Heart workshops, her family has started a scholarship fund. If you would like to give a donation of $3.70 or $37 or $370 - however large or small - to fulfill Meta’s dream, you can make a check payable to “Heart Sanctuary” (in the memo section, write “Meta’s Scholarship Fund”) and send it to: 37days – Meta’s Dream, P.O. Box 18323, Asheville, NC 28814. I’ll then forward our gifts to Meta's family.