Last night was like Christmas Eve. I fidgeted all evening like a 5-year-old waiting for Santa, watching the clock move slowly to bedtime. I don’t usually wish time away, but I couldn’t wait to wake up, work out, shower, and drive to Shadyside to meet my friend Debbie at church, a place I’d not been to in years (church in general, that is). And like an extra cherry on a sundae, after church I was meeting another friend in the Strip District for lunch, a friend I haven’t seen in three years. A friend I met 20 years ago when neither of us knew the sorrowful bond that would forever unite us in the Grief Club. More on that later.
I haven’t set an alarm in more than 10 years. If I want to get up at a certain time, I tell myself before I go to bed, “Wake up at ___” and I do. I’ve done this with 100 percent accuracy all these years. Today I woke up at 5:30. I laid wrapped around my body pillow thinking of all the possibilities today held. I’d take communion for the first time in eight years. How would it feel? What would I pray? When I was a regular church goer, especially at my childhood church, I would stay an extra minute at the altar, kneeling, and praying in such synchronicity with God it was like the only time the world made any real sense to me.
I took communion in other non-Lutheran churches where the host and wine were passed around to us in the pews. There was no invitation to the “table” and I’d get distracted by the proper disposal of the little plastic cup rather than sink into prayer the way I did at the altar. (This is not in any way, shape or form a criticism of alternate forms of communion. I believe these kinds of “rituals” that we are introduced to in childhood become what we prefer, and so if those of you who take communion seated in a pew were asked to walk to the altar, I can imagine that would feel kind of weird and disconcerting. Just saying.)
At 6:00, I reached over and opened the top drawer of my nightstand and dug out my iPod. I wanted to listen to Tara Brach’s weekly Buddhist teaching – my “church” the last four years. She talked about right speech and how if we really pay attention to the words we speak and the intention from which they are derived, how revolutionary the changes would be in how we relate to each other. I thought about God and my lack of communication with God via the traditional mode of prayer and what God might think when I stepped up to the altar later and took the host and the wine.
But first, I had to work out (another form of church for me). I rolled out of bed and immediately put on my workout clothes, a habit I’d gotten out of the last several months. When I have my spandex and t-shirt on, it’s like I’m obligated to work out. If I sit around in my PJs first, I make all kinds of ridiculous excuses not to work out. Like the 2-minute transformation from pajamas to workout clothes is a mental climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
I had a little breakfast (a protein pancake ala Joy Bauer, only cut by 1/3) and some leftover steamed broccoli. I did the dishes and then crawled back in bed to read “Eat Pray Love.” (Am I the only woman who hasn’t read this yet?) When the food settled, I went into my spare room, which is equipped with everything a guest needs: a bed, a recumbent bike, bench, weights, and a Duplo Lego set, small bongo drum, tambourine, recorder, color crayons, color books, a Dora the Explorer pop-up book, and a stuffed giraffe.
The workout was great. I sweat. I caught up on my Health magazine reading (I’m up to September). I jumped in the shower; got all clean. Dried off, put product in my hair, put on my makeup, then reached under the sink for the blow dryer and my brush. Only there wasn’t a brush. I’d left it at BF’s.
I was going to a church I’d never been to, meeting people for the first time, then seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in years…and I had no brush to tame my curly hair? Temporary panic.
Then I felt something I hadn’t felt in…ever. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. It was just hair. I’d deal with it. Perfectly quaffed hair wasn’t what I was about today. (In fact, it doesn’t need to be what I’m about any day, but that’s another blog.) I was meeting friends, meeting new people, taking communion, talking to God. What did hair have to do with any of it?
I dried it, straightened it as best I could, threw on some hairspray and looked at myself in the mirror. “Meh…it is what it is.” That’s what my daughter Cassie would say. She’s a much older soul than me. I threw on a dress, some tights and a pair of boots, grabbed my purse and walked out the door, feeling that same Christmas Eve anticipation.
The church – St. Andrew’s Lutheran – is a place Debbie had been to a few times and liked very much. The fact that it was Lutheran (the tradition in which I grew up) was a big bonus. Both pastors (both female) saw us sitting in the almost back row (that’s what Lutherans do) and introduced themselves. Very welcoming.
I was surprised how quickly I recalled the words and the melodies of the liturgy. We even sang “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” a hymn I could sing in my sleep, familiar like a Beatles’ song. And when I went up for communion, it was like sitting for a moment in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by sacred things. I prayed a lot in that room. Some happy prayers, some not so happy. Today’s was a thankful prayer; thankful that I was there even though I was unsure what to pray. I suspect I’ll figure it out in the coming weeks and months. I like St. Andrew’s very much.
After the service, I drove to the Strip to meet my friend Ed. I’d parked on Smallman, which meant I had to pay $5, which I’d forgotten I’d given to St. Andrew’s.
“Hey, I’m here! Where are you?”
“I’m on 18th.”
“Um…I only have $2 and they want $5 for parking. Can you come find me? I’m near the church.” I knew he’d know what church.
“Sure! I’ll be there in a few.”
I made small talk with the parking attendant. A nice kid, maybe 19 years old. Hell bent on his $3, though. Can’t blame him.
A minute later, I saw Ed across the street, waiting for traffic to clear, and it was like I’d just seen him yesterday.
“Hey!” we said in unison. He kissed me on the cheek and asked how I was before pulling out his wallet. What a gent.
We talked non-stop to Primanti’s, which is NOT a diet/nutrition-friendly place. But when Ed comes to da’burgh, he needs a cheese sandwich piled high with coleslaw and French fries between white bread. Oh wait, they do add a slice of tomato to every sandwich…LOL. I confess I ordered a cheese sandwich, too, sans the coleslaw and fries, with an egg on it. I ate half and it was good, especially dipped in Dijon mustard. Hey, I worked out and I’m human! *grin*
He drank an IC and I drank iced tea and we talked every second. We walked down Penn Ave and I bought roasted edamame at the Macaroni Company. I hesitated buying the one remaining lavish in the Mediterranean market, but strolling the store I decided to buy it, just as a woman dressed in skinny jeans and boots and hanging on to the arm of what I assume was her preppy husband grabbed it and I felt like I’d been rescued from a refined white flour coma.
“Oh no!” said Ed.
“Believe me, it’s for the better,” I told him.
We wandered into a bar and had a few drinks and talked like only we can. Ed’s wife died 15 years ago this week; a woman I am so blessed to have called my friend. Ed and I have long wandered in a trench of grief, all the while reconciling it with our “normal” lives. He gets me. I get him. We are both happy, well-adjusted individuals, but underneath the surface is a commitment to love that we can’t let go of. When someone dies, the love that brought you together doesn’t die. It’s not like divorce. The contract remains in place. Whether it’s a child, a parent, a friend or a spouse. The contract we make with that person from the time we meet is permanent. There are no outs. Not even death can separate the love. But we live with it. We integrate it into our lives.
Ed and I said goodbye a few hours later. He was traveling to the place his wife died to honor and salute her on Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m., the time of her death. I left, filled with the strength of my late husband’s love, and drove home feeling so blessed (yes, blessed) by the presence of God in so many forms: Debbie, the church, the Eucharist, Ed, our conversation, and the recognition that I am not alone, even when I feel most alone.
Love is…all around me. And my wish is that it surrounds you, too, this Thanksgiving week.