Wrestling with Angels

It has been over five months since my last blog. During this time I decided that I did not have enough video to create a documentary film based on Nancy’s life. Instead, I created a written remembrance, THE MUSIC OF LIFE, A Remembrance of Nancy Wicklund Gray, and it is available at Amazon Books. During the time I was writing the remembrance, I received a note of condolence from a woman, Susan Scott, who I had met through my world of oral storytelling. Her husband had died in the past year and she was suggesting a book to read that might help me better understand the experience of grief.

Susan reminded me that we were both graduates of the M.Div. program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search and discovered that she had recently published (Upper Room Books) a book on her work as a chaplain for elderly people in nursing homes–STILL PRAYING, After All These Years. I also found recordings on-line of her sermons at a variety of churches in the area where she lives south of the city of Philadelphia. These resources gave me a way of engaging her by letters and emails to discuss a variety of spiritual subjects. The result was that I found myself feeling a strong attraction to Susan while I was still writing a remembrance of Nancy who had died just six months ago!

How do you rationalize a possible new love so soon after losing someone you deeply loved? Well, if you are a storyteller, you try to write a story about the experience. The following story attempts an exploration of this subject.

WRESTLING WITH ANGELS

Jerrold Winston Davis was his God-given name, but he was known as Jerry Davis. Jerry loved to tell the story that his first name came from his uncle and his middle name from Winston Churchill because he was born in the middle of the Second World War–this was the idea of a mother who had high expectations for her son. Jerry himself preferred the name–Jerry Davis– because it sounded less pretentious. He never felt the need to fulfill the expectations of others for his life.

We all have to decide how we want to respond to the expectations of others. For most of us this response is unconscious. When we are young and full of potential, we respond to the talents that the world identifies in us. Jerry was good looking, verbally gifted and attracted to religious expressions. His family was deeply committed to the Presbyterian Church and he grew up imbued with the teachings of the Church. It seemed natural–according to his mother–he should become a Presbyterian minister.

This bright and shinning prediction for Jerrold Winston Davis was tarnished–and one might say balanced–by another of God’s gifts to him. He was dyslexic and from an early age he developed skepticism in regards to the estimations and expectations of other for him. Because of his difficulty reading, teachers underestimated his intelligence; he learned at an early age to not accept their expectations for him. Jerry decided that he had to find his own path in life. After a brush with the ministry by receiving a degree in theology, he finally made the decision to become a teacher in a private school. He taught creative writing and led the school’s theatre department. This academic setting afforded him the freedom to explore his own artistic talents; but more important, it allowed him to encourage his student to discover their own talents free of adult expectations.

But this story is not about Jerry’s teaching career–no, our story is about Jerry as an old man. Ah, I know what you are thinking: ‘I’m not interested in stories of old people! Their lives are over. Who cares about them? What can they teach me about the life I am living?’ I will say that you are right and you are wrong. Yes, you are right that old people have either succeeded or failed at fulfilling their expectations in life–the path in life has been traveled most of the way, no exciting discoveries are still to be made. And yes, life has lost the excitement of the “hero quest”, that journey of discovery that we all need to make in our lives. On the other hand, if that old person has truly made the journey, they may have some worthwhile advice as you search out your path in life. They may share some experiences you will eventually have to face. Let’s see what we find when we slip in and do a little eavesdropping on the world of Jerrold Winston Davis–maybe he has some advice for your journey through life.

Death is part of our journey through life. Most of us brush against it more than once as we grow up. Jerry had had his share of brushes–grandparents, uncles, aunts and even his father–though he was not present when his father died. Jerry had a closer experience of his mother’s death. He sat with her and sang to her as she departed her path in life. None of these experiences prepared him for his wife’s death. Mary received the diagnosis of esophageal cancer, stage four, at the age of seventy-four. For more than a year she struggled with the disease. Mary did not like the warrior metaphor for one who lives with a disease. She did not talk about her illness and she continued to plan for the future until her body could not muster the strength for independent living. Finally, one day, Jerry had to rush Mary to the hospital where they stabilized her and she came back home to die.

Jerry and Mary–as a friend liked to say: “sounds like a marriage made in heaven”– and they were a well matched couple who met in middle age. For twenty-two years they lived a happy and uneventful life together. Mary’s cancer diagnosis was the first and only bump in the path of life they shared together.

It was Mary decision to spend her last days in her study with the books she loved and the pictures that reflected the academic life she had enjoyed for over forty years. Her first day back home, she was able to exclaim, “Jerry, did you see the beautiful sunrise this morning!” In a few days this enjoyment of the natural world was taken away from Mary. Her level of pain required increased dosages of medicine. Soon her communications with Jerry became more and more intermittent. Jerry felt that Mary was withdrawing from the life they had so happily shared together.

The last day on the path of life for Mary was quiet and contemplative for Jerry. He sat for long periods by Mary’s bedside, holding her hand. There was no communication, but there was also no sign of suffering. Periodically Mary spoke words that Jerry could barely hear. He felt a strong sense that she was withdrawing, prepared for a journey, a new path that they could not share together.

It was early evening of a late summer day when Jerry decided to leave Mary’s side to fix something to eat. “Mary, I’m going out to the kitchen to find something to eat.” Jerry hesitated, waiting for a response. When Mary did not respond, he got up from the chair beside the hospital bed, paused a moment, and then went out to the kitchen to warm a bowl of soup.

Twenty minutes later Jerry returned to Mary’s bedside. He took hold of her hand again and bent down to kiss her cheek. A foot from her cheek, he sensed a change in his wife. He looked at her eyes; they were closed as if she was asleep. He waited for her to take a breath of air as she had labored to do for several days. There was no sign of breathing. Now Jerry felt with his other hand to find a pulse in Mary’s wrist. There was no sign of life. Mary was dead.

Jerry thought about calling an ambulance, but he did not do it. Instead, he turned and pulled the bedside chair up close to his wife. He took her hand again and spoke aloud an uncertain prayer for Mary’s soul to find a new path away from this human body. After a period of prayerful contemplation: Jerrold Winston Davis called hospice on the phone. He asked the nurse to come to the house and confirm Mary’s decision to leave this life.

For several weeks after Mary’s death, Jerry tended to the details of honoring the dead. He chose to attend the cremation of her body–a shocking industrial-like experience. He organized the memorial service accented with the music that Mary loved and the community that loved her. Finally, he carried her ashes to the cemetery and enterred her in the ground where one day they both would find their final resting place for the remains of the body.

After the honoring of his wife, the days turned to weeks and on to months. During this time Jerry Davis sought ways to deal with the grieving, the loss of his partner in life. Several nights he went to the room where Mary had died. He felt he might encounter her soul still lingering there. Jerry did not feel a connection to the ethereal Mary MacPherson-Davis. Finally, he set a pattern of going to her grave to say a prayer and share a report on his well-being.

Death is never far afield. The nightly newspaper has a section for death notices. Our family albums are full of pictures of those who”have gone before use” as the phrase is often repeated. Those who like to go for an evening walk often find the town cemetery a pleasant place for an evening stroll: and there is a whole industry built around disposing of the dead–the undertakers who own the funeral homes in every town. My point is that we live with death all around us, but we do our best to ignore it. Jerry Davis decided that he wanted to confront death; he was ready to wrestle with the Angel of Death and discover new expectations for an old man–or at least, a new perspective on the end of life.

How do you–or can you– create an encounter with the Unconscious? Jerry imagined that he might find a river bank and camp there until the Angel of God showed up to wrestle with him–as in the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis. Another time he imagined a journey to the Rocky Mountains where he might camp and wait–like Moses–for an encounter with the Divine. Never did he imagine the setting for his encounter with the Angel of Death.

That fall and winter, after Mary’s death, Jerry allowed for time to mourn the loss of his partner in life. One day he went to her study and there he found journals that Mary had created from the time she was ten years old until her death. Exploring these journals Jerry found drawings that Mary created at about the age of ten. These drawings illustrated her favorite poems.  He found essays from Mary’s high school years. One essay argued for a woman’s right to be herself and not allow society to dictate a path in life. This, and much more in Mary’s journals, informed Jerry about the woman he loved and helped him to create a remembrance of her time on this earth. This creative project in turn facilitated the mourning process and the beginning of Jerry’s contemplation of his own Death. He pondered; Might I confront my own fear of death and begin to search out a path after I leave this human body?

Spring is the time when we clean up the detritus from last summer’s ending–or death if you choose to think about it that way. One day Jerry finally convinced himself to go out to the gardens that Mary had loved and cared for–working in the garden was not a spiritual exercise for Jerry as it was for Mary….at least he did not think it was. The sun was shining brightly and temperature was a perfect fifty degrees for working outside. As he raked the leaves from last fall, Jerry saw the peonies were just emerging from the ground while the snow drops were almost finished blooming.

Jerry stopped his work and knelt down to consider this cycle of life. We see life’s cycles come and go with the seasons of the year, but most of us tend to not think about our human connection to these cycles of life and death in nature. For just a minute, Jerry pondered how human life might be like the flowers and trees–they live, die and come back to life in the spring of the year. Might humans follow the same pattern–life, death and rebirth? This spiritual experience in the garden was a fleeting moment for Jerry. He paused and then returned to the task before him–supporting the rebirth of Mary’s beloved garden. He worked for three hours until he had expended the energy in his seventy-seven year old body–time to rest and enjoy a meal. When he stopped working, he sensed that he was leaving Mary’s spirit in the garden.

Diner time was the most difficult part of day for Jerry Davis. He so missed sharing a meal and a glass, or two, of wine with his partner in life. Many nights he assuaged his feelings of loss by watching television instead of eating alone at the dinner table. This night he felt a special connection to Mary after working in the garden. He took his meal to the living room where he and Mary always sat after dinner by the big picture window. There he ate slowly, sipped a little wine and looked out on the gardens where he had just been working. He thought how, for twenty plus years, his expectations had been fulfilled by a happy marriage.

Caught up in revelry of the spirit, Jerry ate and then enjoyed a second glass of wine by the big window until the shadows of the spring night started to obscure the scene before him. Whether it was the second glass of wine and the labors of the day, Jerry would never declare, but that night as he sat comfortably on the couch, he closed his eyes and a visitor appeared beside him. This apparition of the unconscious did not offer a Jacob-like combat; instead, they sat side by side and found commonality between them as they contemplated the coming night.

The Angel of the Unconscious (Aou, as Jerry called Him) spoke first: “You summon my presence?”                                                

Jerry responded: “I seek your command regarding my path to the end of life….and the strength to follow it.”                                                                                                                                                                

“Your words are received and a response will be given“ ,returned Aou, “but first you must share your heart’s passion. What do you expect from yourself in these days you have left on this earth?”                                                                                                                                                               

Jerry considered this request. He had spent much of his life reacting to the expectations of others. Had he considered his own expectations? Jerry Davis sat starring out the big window as Mary’s resurrected gardens disappeared into the dark of night.  

Finally, Jerry turned to confront his antagonist. He expected to see a young winged combatant like often depicted in paintings of the Jacob story; instead his apparition appeared as an old man–much like himself–graying hair, a generous mid-width and dressed casually in jeans and plaid shirt. This apparition bolstered Jerry’s self and he responded with heart-inspired words: “I am not sure what to expect. I know that I feel alone without Mary in my life. I think about staying alone, perhaps discovering something that will help me complete my life’s journey….but, but I also think about finding a new mate, someone who will share the days left to me in this life…wanting to share love is human…but maybe love ends when the human in us dies? I don’t know which of these expectations to pursue.”   

The dark of night now obscured the world outside the big picture window. For a long time
Jerrold Winston Davis stared into the void. Finally he turned to his Aou and spoke with a sense of conviction: “My heart’s passion is to find a new love, a woman I can love as I loved Mary. Some people may reach out to explore the divine; I was put on this earth to look inside to explore the divine in the human…and, for me, this exploration happens when the Divine couples male with female, sexually and spiritually, so that one supports and builds energy in the other!” 

Human expectations whether personal, familial or societal are sometimes hard to measure and describe in a story. This was not the case in this story about the life of Jerry Davis. The next day, after his visit with the Angel of the Unconscious, Jerry received a card in the mail. It was a condolence from a woman who said she had taught English in the same private school where he taught for many years. She offered words of sympathy and recommended a book that supported her when her husband died. She signed the card, Anne Marie Maldonado. Jerry vaguely remembered this name from his teaching days, so his curiosity was peaked. That night he did a Google search on the name of “Anne Marie Maldonado”. He found one who had recently published a book of poetry. When he read her curricula vitae, he was sure this was the woman who had sent the card of condolence. So he ordered her book that night and began to imagine how they might explore the possibility for love near the end of the path of life!

Wresting with expectations is something we all need to do in life. Others will try to influence actions in our life. And, we cannot always count on an Angel of the Unconscious to challenge us to take action at just the right times in life. We are not always as lucky as Jerry in our story to have an Aou that shows up at just the right moment in life.

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