|A New Perspective|
Dad in Virginia, April 2001. Photo: Blake.
Dad and Jody, April 2001. Photo: Blake. [Larger version]
By Dad/Erik- late October, 2001
Hard for any of us believe that two years have slipped by since Micki died. The instincts of the unwavering caregiver roles of 1999 slowly fade. Those intense times allowed emotions to be pushed down, brushed aside in days with a hundred urgent tasks. The buried feelings have been given airtime. Each has been danced with or cried with or, perhaps, grappled with dimly in a dream. Hospice grief groups, caring therapists, patient friends, and time alone - I am once again focusing on the gifts of each day.
So many family changes in these past two years. In July 2001 I moved to a farm-based cohousing community in Hartland, VT. We are twenty or so families trying to model living lightly on the planet. A small dairy, forest lands, hayfields, two Norwegian Fjord workhorses, an organic garden, maple syrup in the spring, a small cheese operation - I have reverted to my farm boyhood. Youngsters hustling for the school bus and oldsters headed for a dozen different roles in this beautiful and culturally vibrant Connecticut River Valley near Dartmouth.
A final chapter in our family odyssey around Micki's dying needs to be shared. Many friends have urged me to write about the four rituals we planned. Each of the four services reflected some of Micki's specific requests. Yet, the final shape, the eventual tone of each event was created by survivors to honor Micki and to support our individual healing journeys. Micki was always emphatic, "Bear, those services are for the living. Do what you need to do."
HONORING MICKI'S BODY
At all three outposts during our 1999 New England spring visit, women friends helped Micki bathe and then lovingly massaged her with oil. These sessions were not at all planned; each seemed to emerge from the unfolding events of a given day. To me they seemed Biblical, echoes of poignant caring from the Hebrew Scriptures. I discussed with Micki the possibility of something similar after she died.
On the morning of October 27th, shortly before nine o'clock, the two women friends who had agreed to help with cleansing and anointing Micki's body joined Jody, Micki's sister Sherry, and me around the bed where her body lay. Her expression was peaceful, lips pursed in a slight smile, her newly lush hair in the ringlets of her childhood. We had discussed with a devout Jewish friend possible elements to include in such a ritual: acknowledging by name ancestors on both sides, prayers asking forgiveness for any unintended slights to her body, a commitment to tenderness and love in all we were about to undertake.
A half dozen candles, the smell of mild incense, tears, rememberings, gentle laughter. My most vivid memory is the gentleness of all the helping hands. We washed her body; carefully turning it from side to side, lifting newly heavy limbs, then patted the skin dry with a towel. The familiar clove-scented massage oil we had used on each other over the years now gently applied in final anointing caresses. Clothing for her body's cremation included her favorite tee shirt, its front painted with ladybugs. We then dressed her in what Micki called her joy pants, white cotton and covered with Jody's drawings and the name, Eagle Woman, boldly printed across the front.
Once clothed, we sprinkled Micki's body with flower petals fresh from Ruth Keitt's garden. Each of us took a turn at brushing her hair. Our Hospice nurse, at Micki's request, brought a small bag of bright fall leaves from a recent northern vacation. These leaves joined the flower petals. The nurse commented that autumn leaves, like some people, seem to achieve their greatest brilliance and beauty just before they die. Sherry read a blessing from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Our longtime friend, Ruth Keitt, shared some poems from Rilke.
We sang some hymns from memory. We reflected on legs that had jogged for decades and had recently bounced giggling grandnieces and nephews. We remarked on hands and arms that had kneaded bread, knit sweaters, played the guitar, and given a million hugs. We spoke of breasts and Micki's joy in nursing her two babies. We marveled at her voice that so often touched us all in song. During this tearful reminiscing two deer, slowly, side-by-side, tiptoed out of the woods and up to the deck outside the master bedroom windows. Emissaries from Mother Nature? Micki's spirit saying good-bye and hello? In nine years I had seen a single fleeting deer on three occasions.
My mid summer negotiations with cremation services were crisp and clear. Mention an urn and I will hang up. I want a vehicle with no marking or advertising of any kind. Absolutely no plastic will be used. Micki's body, the fount and vessel of her vibrant fifty-seven years, left the house lovingly covered with a favorite quilt, her face open to late morning sunlight filtered by towering evergreens around the house. A profound transition, grounded in the bathing and anointing, had begun. Whatever elements of Micki's life that live on - the smile, the laughter, the loving outreach - are no longer around for us to hear and hug. Micki now goes forward in the memories and hearts of all whose lives she touched.
THE GAINESVILLE MEMORIAL SERVICE
"She whom we love
In early spring of 1999 Micki first wrestled with the reality that a loving God might allow her to die in the prime of life. During that turbulent quest for a tranquil spiritual center our Minister, Larry Reimer, helped her find a new lens, an enduring transcendence. That spiritual calm accompanied all Micki's remaining days. Visitors who spent time around her bed often remarked about her radiance. Not once did she complain about her pain, her ebbing faculties, or her approaching death.
Larry's trail wisdom helped us plan a service with hymns and Bible passages our family loved. His own reflections during the service, "Micki as one of our Saints," deftly kept in play the belief that Micki's spirit was moving to another place. Yet, he did not gloss over the earthly reality that a feisty, loving human being, a mother, wife, sister, daughter, and friend was gone forever. Larry also assented to my wish that all the chairs in the sanctuary be set up in concentric circles. Everyone who came, many in colorful shirts or scarves, was able to look into the crying, smiling, prayerful faces of at least half the people who filled the church.
Ruth Keitt spoke about first meeting Micki, recognizing a fellow WASP, and soon learning that Micki was a WASP with chutzpah. She recalled Micki's pride in her Jewish heritage and the zest that pervaded everything she undertook. Nancy Tiederman's spirited remarks touched on Micki's outrageous outlook that she could accomplish anything she decided to do - and usually did.
At the reception after the service we handed out ice cream cones of Brigham's Mocha Almond. In her final months, one of Micki's favorite foods was this Brigham's flavor, an irresistible tradition from our graduate days in Cambridge. Available only in New England, our supply came in dry ice from Howell nieces, Gracie and Betsy, plus Boston-based Sherry. The ten quarts left in the freezer became part of the celebration of Micki's life.
THE NEW HAVEN MEMORIAL SERVICE
In our early years in New Haven Micki and I attended the Church of the Redeemer. I had never seen it so full. For Micki's memorial people standing against the back walls, the balcony abulge with familiar faces, each pew snug with family, classmates, and friends from a hundred incarnations. Talks by three dear friends quilted the service together. Betty Stookey, Barbara Libby, and Wendy Wheeler touched the accomplishments that spoke to stature and each, with laughter, wove in anecdotes that spoke to an irrepressible humor and feisty spirit.
Twenty male voices from Blake's Yale singing group, The Duke's Men, brought the entire congregation to breathless quiet and tears with Franz Biebl's Ave Maria. Micki always maintained that song moved us closer to the divine. The Duke's Men touched every heart. If Micki had a theme song, it was On Eagle's Wings, her favorite for twenty years. One of her strongest images of a relationship with God was the mother eagle swooping down to support a tiny eaglet just learning to fly. Her voice teacher, Martha Oneppo, stilled the church with one last performance of On Eagle's Wings in Micki's memory.
During one of the prayers a determined ladybug landed on the folded hands of Blake's friend, Meredith. She passed it along to Blake. After crawling around a bit, it traveled to my hands for a while and then on to Jody. Since a ladybug was one of Micki's favorite symbols, we were all in disbelieving tears by the time it flew on from Jody's hand. For a benediction we had asked a longtime friend and Blue Hill neighbor, Noel Paul Stookey, whether he might sing his lovely version of the Irish Blessing. Micki often closed her church services with her haunting, clear rendition of this folk song. Noel's presence seemed unlikely since he was performing with Peter, Paul, and Mary in South Carolina the night before.
Two wonderful happenings unfolded. Meant to be as Micki would have said. Somehow Noel was able to get to New Haven just before the service ended. Now Noel's Irish Blessing closes with two identical lines, "And may God hold you in the palm of his hand." From the late 1970's when Micki first began singing it, she always sang the final verse as "May God hold you in the palm of HER hand." This whiff of liberal chutzpah always rankled a bit with Noel.
Noel, unaccompanied, filled the Church of the Redeemer as if he were singing in Yankee Stadium. And in our family, well aware of Noel's prickliness about a feminine God, tears flowed anew when he boomed the last verse. "And may God hold you in the palm of her hand."
THE WOODBRIDGE CEMETERY
An extended family of more than twenty people took turns shoveling a bit of earth on top of Micki's buried ashes. On the slope above her gravesite stood the granite markers of ancestors going back to the Nineteenth Century. The spirits of a grandmother, her father, and several uncles looked on as with prayer and song we carried out a final gesture to mark Micki's much too early death. A nibbling early November wind, the looming circle of leafless shag-barked hickories, and ashes returned to Mother Earth - a final ritual completed.
More than six months went by before I could deal with a headstone. At the top center is a circle engraved with an overlapping cross and Star of David, a gold necklace symbol Micki often wore to honor her blended religious heritages. At about the middle of the stone, her full name, June Mitchell Bingham Esselstyn. Beneath her name three dates: Born October 20, 1942; Married August 19, 1967; and Died October 27, 1999. In the Woodbridge Cemetery the font size, the stark summary by date were dictated by a couple centuries of tradition. Nonetheless, that sparse vignette just didn't do justice to the sparkle and impish energy that were Micki's.
After considerable thought and a lively discussion with Jody, Blake, and Micki's Mom, I decided that the blank backside of that granite slab was a palette in waiting. Thus, on the back of her grave marker the name by which everyone knew her, MICKI. Beneath her name a single phrase, the distillation of the hunt for a single quotation that roamed through the Bible, countless hymnals, and books of poetry from Rumi and Shakespeare to Frost and Auden. Our perfect choice:
"How can I keep from singing?"
Also carved into the back, down at grass level near one edge is a small field mouse, spirited tail aloft, headed out into the lawn. More than any term of endearment in our thirty-three years together, Micki cherished the name, Mouse. Family lore will tell future generations that the carving captures a bit of the magic Micki and Erik shared.
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