– By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act – act in the living Present!
Heart within and God o’erhead!
Lives of great ones all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing shall take heart again.
Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
(I like to follow this with a couplet from
Longfellow’s “Footsteps of Angels”)
O, though oft depressed and lonely,
All my fears are laid aside,
If I but remember only –
Such as these have lived and died!
This poem and excerpt became especially dear at the time of my Mother’s death in the spring of 1992. In processing this loss, I had assembled memorial booklets for the family with several key photos, stories, Psalm 34, and some of Mom’s favorite hymns. Since my Father had died 19 years earlier, part of the impact of Mom’s passing had to do with the reality that my siblings and I had no parent living among us — we were now “it” as the covering generation.
In that frame of mind, I’d written a pledge to each other and our collective children – and children’s children. Here it goes:
We pledge our loyalty and love; our prayers for your salvation, safety, holiness and development — that you will become all God designed you to be and serve Him and each other with excellence and humility. That you will bond with one another in love, and pray for each other and for us.
We would encourage you to reach for your highest – in Jesus, whom to know is life eternal. Do not be content with merely passing through this life — live it!
If, by some chance, you should die before Christ returns, let those who remain behind take comfort in knowing you are in heaven and that you truly lived while you had your turn.
We love you dearly — ever so dearly.
Postscript – written March 17, 1992, by Mary Ellen Leavenworth Chico
What has it felt like to have Mother die – and what is the meaning and change involved?
After years of stages of separation and closeness, the finality was bigger and sharper than I’d expected – even expecting it to be so.
The sadness as I contemplated her life and exit was unbearable and extremely weighty, once I’d let that come. I was a little sorry that there was no satisfying answer or resolution. I could only acknowledge that in some ways her life looked worse from the outside than perhaps it did from the inside. That is, the aspects I would have wanted her to enjoy – or that I would have enjoyed in her shoes – she seemed to suffer through or dread; but the parts I would have found boring, she cherished!
As my mind and soul searched madly through the inventory of experiences, attitudes, and emotions, I came across many things – sweet and sour, and salty – that came from Mama, but nothing that touched the moment. All was a swirl of ups and downs, fears and questions in that night of March 14, 1992, three short nights ago, as I tossed on the sofa, unable to breathe well.
A groundswell of longing developed within me like a tidal wave suddenly out of a flat sea – a longing to be immersed in praise and worship. I longed to be swept into the presence of the living God – to His throne. My husband Keen hungered, instead, for solitude and could not bear the “crowd” however; so in tender love and realization of his loss, too, we did not go to church the morning of March 15, but to breakfast at Louie’s by the Cliffhouse, instead. We watched the birds, squirrels, tourists, and ocean and rock-garden San Francisco coast in the beauty of being themselves. But by nightfall, my need was so strong, and Keen agreed for me to go solo to church.
It was communion night! The praise and worship were just what The Doctor ordered, and the release was — large — the glories and relaxation, comfort and awe opened up the deeps. Tears flowed, arms shot upward as I pressed into the intense warm of Heaven, of Jesus, of Daddy God, of the Holy Spirit – seeming to cuddle me in the midst of the glories and grandeur that are the presence of God. I was sensing this to be Mama’s experience as she stood, surprisingly shy, taking in the total shift in her reality. I still can’t say in a word or words what that felt like; it was a most complex set of emotions – not the pure exhilaration I had experienced on the passing of my Father, 19 years before.
As I am taking the time to write these thoughts, I am having breakfast: 6-grain pancakes, a fruit cup, and a double latte (not de-caf). Toward the end of my pancakes, I realize I am full to the point where, although tasty, the pancakes are no longer a meal; they threaten to become an obligation! At this point, I realize I don’t have to accept that and could simply leave the rest – which I do!
Oh, the liberty! Now I realize that the old, expected tape is silent….
I wonder how many other behaviors will change as I learn what it means to be “my own woman” in relation to Mom’s ideas and sayings.
Of course, hers was only one of many such voices, but it was a dominant one, to be sure. Looking out on the open days before me, there is a loneliness in the freedom, but the curiosity and trust is compelling.