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.
Letters to Editor
Wilson Wyatt says
Picking up on your last line, George, I can’t say that I know “what it’s all about,” but you have given all of us so much more to feel and consider as we navigate the final years. Thank you for that, my friend.
Jim Richardson says
You remind me once again that we are all reading the same story – it’s just that some of us are a few chapters behind.
I instead, feel a sense of joy for the dancing goose pair; they are fortunate to not only have each other to comfort them, but as you describe, an entire community to give them company. Too many of us live our lives without any loving support. Humans, like most other animals in this world are not designed to live alone.
Loneliness, for me, is the worst of all situations. Without my wife and family, without my dear friends that surround me, I would be lost and afraid. Much better to live a life full of joy with another, someone who loves and cares for you, than not to have had that experience at all. Transitions, especially the final one, are often sad and painful. May we all face this part of our life with as much grace as you have demonstrated.
Jan Bohn says
A thoughtful commentary. Have you considered putting all these columns written since your diagnosis into a book/blog/website? Each one has so much to offer. Thank you and many blessings.
Margaret Iovino says
Creek Reflections was super- revelatory, like so many of Georges essays. His writing is so important and so helpful helping us to live beyond a mundane level .
Jeff McGuiness says
George, I hope very much that you will do that. My best to you for these thoughtful pieces.
susan e delean-botkin says
Thank you so much for sharing your life with us. For many years, I had listened to your wonderfully inspiring treasures on NPR. I never thanked you for starting my day peacefully and thoughtfully. Thank you. You have been and are a blessing to us.
Eugenie Drayton says
As someone else stated, i some years behind you and my family is different. My prayer for you as your journey continues is that you listen to your heart amd see what ypur heart does with your thoughts and as ypu watch your feathered friends on the creek. We take in our surrounds and fill our hearts. Hearts are more resilient than we give them credit. People, famkly, friends, and loved ones are resilient too and have an incredible capacity to hold on to what is most prescious.
Liz Freedlander says
Holding you and Jo in our hearts.
Patricia Reynolds says
George – it seems to me as I have read your essays since your disease has gone into a different direction that you have discovered a new, even deeper love – for your Jo, and for God
Lyn Banghart says
Thank you once again for your very honest thoughts and feelings. This was difficult for me to read. After being together for over 50 years, John and I are like one….. But as difficult as it was to read, it also helped me immensely. I am so grateful for what you have given to all of us as we will also face this someday. I wish we could visit. Have some wine and laugh and cry together. I admit, that would be for my benefit but also with the hope that it would help you in some way. Seems trite, now that I’ve said it. I truly do send you love and hope that in some way it surrounds you with all the other love sent from family and friends. I send Jo love as well. I hope that help from “those that know what it’s all about” comes to you in plenty. In the meantime, please keep writing if you can, because for us, you know more of what it’s all about than we do right now.
Much love and blessings, Lyn
Dear George, Thank you so much for being your true self and sharing so beautifully with us.
Jayne Bourke says
You always awe me. Your beautiful, poignant insights silence me… I just stop, read & try to take it all in. But mostly, I am grateful for you, more than you’ll ever know.
Marsha Marino says
Please remember all the goodness that will remain in everyone you touched you have been very lucky to have had each other throughout your lives. Thank you for sharing these wonderful moments with us all
Another poignant musing by one of the nicest people I know. Miss seeing you and No. Fondly, Kitty