My sister’s favorite holiday was Thanksgiving. Maybe it was genetic. Our mother loved that holiday as well. My sister made a habit of inviting people for Thanksgiving she knew would, of course, enjoy a tasty meal. But it was more than that. What she wanted to give was a critical dose of belonging and community. Most importantly, she felt they needed to feel fully loved-on.
This past Thanksgiving was different. My sister could not cook or host or invite anyone over. She was busy with her last bit of soul-sized work that day. That was the day my sister, Lucy Jane Biron Lustig died.
She was 56 years old. Her final journey on this plane was hard, fierce and at times, joyful. Joyful in the paradoxical sense of seeing my sister’s wisdom come alive, more fully and clearly than I had ever seen before. Also, joyful in the paradoxical gratitude sense of seeing first hand the enormous footprint of love my sister has created in the world. And to see that love reflected back in the generous, courageous, unwavering support she received while in hospice care from so many dear friends.
Experiencing this was not about some intellectual knowing, as my friend and gratefulness mentor Brother David Steindl-Rast might say, but more a heart-fueled understanding. It was about faith. It was in the air around my sister and it was magic.
Of course, the healing now needed for all of us who loved Lucy will not be quick, easy or linear. No one promised us that. Grief like poetry has meandering curves, sudden surprises, anxieties and deeply painful moments. And yet, it is also filled with whole streams, tributaries, and rivers of paradoxical gratitude. Several I’ve already mentioned. And yes, I will need to use every healing poem in my own personal first aid poetry kit.
The great German poet Rilke (Translation Robert Bly) once said:
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you
Please know how appreciative I am of you, here, now… bearing witness and simply hearing my own personal “grief cry” as I write.
I was deeply fortunate to spend a number of weeks with my sister while she was still present and lucid, though already in significant pain from her cancer. Some days, I was with her for ten or twelve hours. She told me on one of those days that she felt such a strong pull toward life and yet what was calling her home was even stronger. At other times the anxiety and pain combined to overwhelm any and all conversation.
Lastly, one thing more. I suspect that our presence is the most important thing we actually provide to those who are close to death and on their journey to the next plane of existence. But still, we write… We write because we are in pain. We write to place our grieving in the mouth of words. We write for sanity. We write to tell our truth as clearly as we can. We write to heal. We write to feel and because nothing else works. Here is a letter I wrote to my sister in those last weeks before she died.
Dear Sister Lucy,
For so many years we’ve learned from each other. Back and forth it has gone. Now the learning is one-sided. It is coming from you. On my best days, I am open to what you are teaching, trying to keep up as best I can. What’s also true is we, your friends, family and loved ones are trying to help you with the journey you are on… To let the worry and pain and struggle all go, to move on free from this plane to the next.
The ancient wisdom says there is much we cannot know with our minds, but very little we cannot understand with our hearts. Here are some things I do understand: You have gathered sunlight all your life, and then beamed it back out to others. Mom did that too, as you observed all those years ago. It’s true that all of us do that some, but with you, it has been a deep practice and life’s habit. No, you are not perfect. How boring and tedious that would be even if we humans could somehow pull it off. What you have been in your life is real. And like all of us you have inside you an irreducible element of rascality. The combination makes you irresistible to love.
The poet, Robert Frost once said, “We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.” You are so close now to that middle mystery. Only one step away, but that step is soul-sized. My greatest learning is that the legacy of love and caring and support you’ve instilled in so many hearts, especially mine is impervious to time.
That is my way of saying the word “eternal.” That’s my way of saying yes, we are going to all be OK here – your family, friends, loved ones, and also the great family of things to which we all belong. Yes, we all are going to be OK. And one more thing, wherever you go, dear Lucy, a piece of each of us who loves you… will go there too.
With an indestructible love,
Your Brother Dale
PS: Thanks again for reading this. Oh and yes, stay tuned! There will be loved ones and friends gathering often and life and belonging and poetry and presentations and classes and books and work and long hikes on the mountain in the coming year. And I hereby dedicate all that and more to the memory of my dear beloved sister.