Nobody likes to be alone. Geese certainly don’t. I don’t either.
On the creek in front of my studio there’s a small cove. Geese come and go and chatter with each other often well into the night. About a year ago I noticed even as the hordes of geese continued coming and going, two apparently decided to make their home here on the creek. What made them distinctive to me was how tight they seemed to be. The two were definitely an item; they’d appear regularly paddling across the cove often beak to cheek. One day I saw them standing erect on my neighbor’s dock hanging out the way you might expect lovers would. One waddled toward the other, gently poking and prodding. The other (he or she?) would dodge and feint, stretch her neck, step toward the partner then back away as if executing a dance step. The other goose moved in tandem. The ease of their moves bespoke a long relationship. As I write this they are bobbing on the still water as if sunning themselves. They may not be groupies like the others but they love being with each other. Nobody likes being alone.
I enjoy watching them. Today however I felt sad and afraid for them. I’m reminded how tenuous the joys are of having a companion, that special someone with whom to share a life. I know I will soon be lost to Jo, and she to me. I anticipate this loss is one of the most wrenching moments in our lives. I know in my head that this cycle of impermanence permeates all of life and that’s it is the nature of things to take hold of, and at some point, surrender. It doesn’t mean I have like it. This ubiquitous impermanence is easy to forget when things seem to be going along normally, which is to say, the losses we may sustain are not any we have any big investment in. Loss of loved ones bring the harsh reality of this primal uncertainty up front.
It’s common to find solace in knowing others face the same hard knocks as we do. It’s true in most cases except where death is involved. Our consciousness is doggedly consistent in this regard: this stage of the lifecycle most will treat it, in daily life, as someone else’s issue, too remote to consider now. I did until about nine months ago.
As my time draws nearer I’ve become increasingly aware that I will be leaving my spouse behind. I’m nagged by this feeling that I’m betraying her, failing to hold up my end of the bargain, my obligation to be there for here always and forever. I can only conclude from the thought that there is something in me deep down, some subliminal sense that I have of a kind of continuity woven into the relationship’s impermanence that is going to abide, or to say it differently, will remain after time.
After the two geese had gone I continued to fret about this. In about an hour, a small gaggle of geese descended on the cove, interrupting my ruminations.
In the last several months I’m increasingly aware of community’s significance playing out in my life; how my awareness of belonging blunts, if not always removes, some of the bitter loneliness of separation and loss. There is, at the end of the day, even if this treasured person is lost to me, as I am to her, others will show up for us during the transition and afterward, like the geese that seem to arrive from nowhere, unbidden, and in surprising numbers.
All of this is predicated on a strong feeling I have that we belong each to each other, woven together tightly like the intricate woof and warp of oriental rugs, which, while not always apparent as we look down on them, in a careful inspection, becomes very evident. This is true not only with our closest friends and casual acquaintances, but those unseen neighbors with whom we share this global space, in places as far away as Russia and the Ukraine.
For many years I taught at Loyola College, where many of my colleagues were Catholic. Some belonged to religious orders, others were lay and still others priests. As an Episcopalian, I felt an easy affinity for Roman Catholic piety. One of the things that came to mind the other day was the common practice among Catholics of reciting the Hail Mary. The practice has been sadly trivialized and its deeper significance lost in the trivia of professional sports. The Hail Mary pass was known as the one in which a longshot is vindicated by a miraculous intervention: this guy made it over the finish line because somehow divine providence had intervened. This misses the point.
“Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee . . . pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” goes the recitation.
As I understand this devotional, it’s not descriptive of miracles but of a certain kind of belonging, not to a particular sectarian affiliation, but a pious practice exercised to deepen and sustain our understanding of our belonging to a divine mystery and to be reminded of the place our humanity has within it.
What seized my attention about the Hail Mary, recently, was how death is mentioned as a transitional phenomenon, not a finality, that is, Mary’s intercession is being requested at a time of momentous transition. Jo and I are transitioning our way from a familiar way of being into another that feels strange and alien. What’s suggested to me in this devotional, is how there are persons there to help through the transition. This person whom we ask to pray for us at this very difficult time, is not a magical cult figure, but a woman prominent in religious history who deeply understood what it’s like to suffer those excruciating transitions, particularly the death of someone as intimate as her own son. There’s credible authority in someone like this which far transcends any of the magic frequently attributed to her.
Seeing the gaggles for a while was comforting, a reminder of community as a sustaining force. Seeing the two geese on the creek saddens me. They remind me of the eternal process where we think of two becoming one (as in the marriage metaphor) and that the day will come when the “one” will again be separated to become two, the one remaining, and the other transitioning elsewhere. To make it through, we need all the help we can get from those who know what it’s all about.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality including The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.