Friday, April 24, 2009
By Clai Lasher-Sommers
Sometimes I really believe it,
that I am going to
Save my life.
--Mary Oliver, What Do We Know
I sit here looking out of a massive post and beam room with windows and doors. This is one of the first warm days that we have had in nearly three weeks. The cold of this winter has sent the bravest of us to bed early. Ice build up on the metal roof is now dripping fast. For an instant I think it is raining. We thinned a grove of pine trees this week and I can see the adjoining field.
I look out at the clearing and realize that the animals will have to adjust to the new view, as I will. By thinning, some trees will grow stronger. More trees mean more protection for the birds, deer, and turkeys. Animals will have to learn that although we see a open field it does not mean there will be harm. Not on this watch.
I looked at the calendar today. It has been exactly five years, and two months since Alison Sommers died. He is my husband -- he is just not here. I wonder how long Al knew he was sick, or did he know? He was a man who at 68 still fought fires, running with an Indian tank that weighed over 100 pounds up ridges until hoses could be handed to him. Brush fires were fierce during that dry, thirsty year.
“How in the hell can Al be in better shape than we are?” a younger fire fighter would say.
He did not work at staying in shape. He just was. He built houses and had children that demanded running after. One of the things that we all loved about him is that he always whistled. Always. When did he stop whistling? I am hearing him now as I write and see him at work.
Al was a builder of many types of houses but all had a trademark. Reconstructed barns, arts and crafts houses, renovated farmhouses, all were finished with the owner’s vision accomplished. They were homes lived in by people who also remember the whistling. He would run his crew and subcontractors with gentle kindness, but expected the best of them. I ran the finishing work crew and I demanded the same ethics but I did not whistle. I felt like a mother of grown men and I sang a lot of rock and roll with the men because that was the radio station they played. We always knew he was coming to the part of the house any of us might be working in because he would be whistling something.
He was a hero. He had his EMT Level 2, which meant he could administer IV lines when he would respond as a volunteer firefighter to a scene. He was written about in three magazines for his work. Al could barely stand the cold the last year he was a volunteer fire fighter because of the frostbite he had in his hands more than once. He had saved a hunter who had been shot deep in the woods and deep in the snow by another hunter. It was cold, windy, and three feet of snow had fallen in 24 hours. Al hiked in with only his med pack and a radio, found the man, and then got him out on a stretcher. One Christmas Eve he was called out three times in 35-below zero weather to fight chimney fires. The day before we got married, he tried to save a little girl who had been crushed by a tractor. He breathed air into the three-year-old's lungs until the ambulance came. It was too late.
He was the best father to my children. Every night he would come home with whatever child he had taken to work that day, and pick the other one up and say, “Hello, pumpkin, what are you up to?” There would be laughter and tickles. We were his second chance family -- “thank you Clai," he would say, "for this second chance.”
Now I know he was my first chance, and I miss him with the tearing red streams of grief that come flowing in. I think of the 23rd Psalm which if you have ever been to a funeral you might remember. It is a Psalm of poetry for the living.
Two children from our union, five children from his first marriage, and seven wonderful grandchildren that I inherited when I married him, and twins that were born 6 months after he died. I was the one blessed. Each of those children and grandchildren helped him go to the other side during some part of his illness. I held him while the lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis took him quickly from us.
The poetry plays out so vividly in my mind:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
I shall not want because the Lord will provide, and I will even get to lie down in a green field, I can be near soothing water. Even when life is unbearable, it is OK, because God will be with me. Even when the darkest nights come, it will be fine, because God is with me.
Once you have the experience of helping a love one transition to death, you find yourself at the bedsides of friends or friends' parents who are dying. Someone usually starts crying or saying the Psalm. It gives such comfort to those who are grieving.
Many times, I have hated this Psalm. But today I remember why I also love it. I know the strength it gave me. What else did we have at the time? Chemotherapy, radiation, holding, feeding, loving, not only Al but his, our children who knew their father and grandfather was dying. Kali, Ali, Shaynah, Rebekah, Jo, Jesse, all of us gathered. And we rocked each other.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil: for you are with me
we will go hold your father, your grandfather because it is like our dreams of playing in fields with him--
…lie in green pastures; he leads me in right paths
"Let’s paint heaven and the fish and hang it on the wall where he can see it. Sean and I will give him the next dose of Roxinal and Phenobarbital and then we can snuggle with him and tell stories while he sleeps."
We shall anoint him with oils of lavender, rosemary, and rose with Tony helping us. Touch to touch, love to love. Are your hearts breaking? Let us feel our love for him overflow and every day he will be with us, and God will help us as he takes him -- your father, your grandfather, my husband, from the toil of this life to the next.
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.
My children, do you feel the Celtic angels coming? They have taken him home.
It is as simple and as hard as that. The sparks fly away, the embers are hot. My children are on their own paths, which he helped make. They are in between the age of needing and not needing me. Will Kali my beautiful daughter be all I was not? Will Ali my beautiful son who is all I am, gain his balance?
I open my eyes and feel the gentle touch of spring flowers opening inside my mind. I imagine a writer getting close to art, pain entering our souls, fingers rubbing tears, and tapping on keys.
Clai Lasher-Sommers, who lives in New Hampshire, is writing a memoir. She is working in a small rural library, learning new life lessons about transitions and the craft of writing and living.