Death and Life in the Yard

It’s been a week since Guy Oppedisano suddenly passed away.  We were gathered together for our weekly meeting on Sunday night when we got the call.

In the span of 10 months, his is the 8th death to directly impact our community.  4 of those including Guy, were members of our intimate JUSTembrace family.

Today, after an opening shift at Starbucks, and grocery shopping for the Super Bowl party tomorrow, I was ready to hide. Ready to curl up in a ball and let the sadness that has been laying on my chest envelope me.  I’m physically bent over by the sadness of it all. Compounded grief my counselor calls it.  Well, that’s what she called it 3 deaths ago. I think we’re headed towards the next level description at this rate.

As I stood in the yard after bringing in the groceries, the 40 degree air and bright sunshine called me to find an alternative to hiding, so I grabbed a rake from the basement and started in one corner of the back yard and set to work. Raking, and raking, and raking. Over an hour of just raking. My back is killing me and my hands are blistered, but the back yard looks awesome.

Raking a yard after winter is like combing matted hair, and it is very satisfying. You comb and comb and comb, pulling up the dead and matted leaves and grass. You cut the “skin” of the earth and expose the black soil where fresh life will soon grow. You also get to see little hints of spring in the baby tufts of GREEN that you find here and there.

As I raked, and raked, and raked, I found my thoughts drifting over the memories shared in that yard with those we’ve lost.

413785_10150658079733279_300684698_oyard workI thought of our first Spring in the house, Anthony Garcia and Melvin Wilson spent the afternoon doing yard work with Emma and I. I paid them with coconut cream cake, but wouldn’t let them in the house because yard work is dirty work.

And I raked.

My heart ached as I though of last Spring, when after a very difficult visit with Melvin, I was in my office when I saw Warren. I ran out to tell him something and before I knew it, we were doing yard work for the next hour and a half!

11054689_10153105495848279_1428013254_o11046995_10153105495598279_2042044132_nWe both told each other how much better we were enjoying the work from what we would have been doing.
“Warren, the yard is going to thank us! Know how?”
“Yes. With green grass.”
This work was a unique expression of grief in community.

And I raked.

I thought of how we had shared that space for so many special memories.  I thought of our very first bonfire with Anthony not long after we moved in and then Emma’s graduation when Anthony prayed over her.prayer

And I raked.

I thought of all the times Warren pitched in to help set up and tear down events we hosted – how willing he was to contribute and how much he loved being with us.  I thought of Warren’s memorial we hosted in that yard – how it was the first time we hosted an event without him or his help in that space.

And I raked.

11725577_10153388055228279_1489451154_oI thought of Oscar bringing his mom, Maria Villatoro, over from the nursing home when we were cooking hot dogs in the yard – of the chance they had, as mother and son, to get out for a bit and celebrate life and family together in that yard.

And I raked.

I thought about Mike Primeau coming over one sunny spring day while I was doing something outside and putting one of our lounge chairs in a sunny spot until I was ready to go in.  How peaceful he seemed just sitting in the sun in a chair in a yard.

And I raked.

12004915_10153575516968279_3320176352171360573_nAs I raked, I was reminded that I’m a horrible dog sitter – I never clean up Barkley’s poop.  I remembered how Warren loved Barkley and the time Barkley bit Guy. I thought about Carey’s fear of Barkley and I wondered how much longer we have with that saint.

And I raked.

I thought of the times we couldn’t handle having small group inside because the weather was too perfect and we gathered in a circle to pray and read Scripture together. I thought of Guy reading Scripture about Lazarus’ resurrection at Warren’s memorial.

And I raked.

I also thought about the young people who come and go from this community. Those who have left an impact and those who are currently sitting at the feet of our neighbors, many being introduced to loss for the first time – or now, the 8th.  I thought about a former housemate teaching high school Spanish in Tennessee now, who just called me today asking if she could drive back for next weekend.  I thought about those who it feels like I only talk to when someone has died, or the times they call me crying to process later, and how much I treasure those talks.  I thought about the two who have been here for all of the deaths, and how unique of a roll Guy had in their lives.  I thought about the newest housemates who just moved in a few months ago and are already totally IN this with us – being wrecked by love and loss.

And I cried.

As I violently combed up the dead leaves, grass, trash, branches and dog poop, and reflected on all of those memories – I made a choice.

I’m choosing new life.  I don’t want to – please understand. I want to hide, I want to run away, I want to jump ship.

But I’m choosing new life. I’m choosing to do the painful work of raking up those precious memories in my mind to let the hints of new life breathe.  I’m ripping up the earth of my heart exposing bare soil where a vibrant yard will soon be and many many more memories will be made.  I’m uncovering trinkets lost in the trampling impact of winter, and I’m reflecting on the sweetness of those moments shared.

As I continue to rake (I still have the front yard to get to sometime), I will rake with full knowledge that next year when I do this, the grief will be further compounded.  We will suffer more loss, more tragedy, more illness.  Next spring, I will again have the chance to choose life, and I hope I still have the courage to do so.

My therapist said to me this week: “you know Sher, this is to be expected.” I didn’t know, so she explained, “this is the reality of the poor.  So much loss. So much death.”  She was right, and with those words she reminded me of my vocation. I have been brought here to live and die with my neighbors.  To see resurrection and to grieve death. We have established a community that will cry for those once forgotten – not because they are our projects, or people we serve – but because they are our Friends. They are our Family.

I trust that the only way to sustain this kind of community is the sheer grace and presence of God. So, as I choose new life this spring, I do so resting fully in the embrace and comfort of our Lord.  Nothing else is certain.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be for ever. Amen.