Sermon Given at the Birmingham Unitarian Church
Bloomfield Hills, MI
Over a year and a half ago, I watched my father slip away from me faster than I could hold onto him, because of his Advanced Alzheimer’s. Two years ago I had to accept that he no longer cared where he was. Next I had to accept that he was incapable of having a hand in taking care of himself, that he could not even feed himself. I realized this when I found him and his table covered in food. When I approached him he said, “I don’t know what I’m doing here or what they expect me to do.” He was unable to recognize the purpose of the food and utensils in front of him. Next I had to let go of selfishly wanting him to live a longer life so I could enjoy the rare occasion of him telling me he loved me.
I do not like this “Letting Go” part of life! For much of my life I have held on to everything I could. I was, in real and metaphorical ways, a horrible Pack Rat.
Perhaps I should give myself credit…..I was an amazing pack rat. I kept letters, pictures, children’s drawings, greeting cards, old college papers, and mementoes even I no longer recognized who they were from or what they meant. Not only did I hold on to objects but I have also held onto ideas and ideals for very long times. My mother swears I believed in Santa until I was 12 or 14. She exaggerates. But I do remember trying hard to hold to the magic that Christmas had when i was very young. .
I kept so many things simply because I needed to hold on to what had been good in my life, because the future was uncertain and frightening. I held on to tangible pieces and memories of my past so I had some positive and loving roots to cling to.
The push/pull of Holding On and Letting Go lasts throughout our lives. We cannot wait to outgrow childish things and ways, but then we wish we could hold on to our youth and freedom from responsibility, so we keep ancient comic books, sorry - graphic novels - and our favorite dolls. We are eager to end being single and begin a life with someone else, yet, we fear losing our individual identity. We want our children to stay young and sweet, sitting in our laps offering soft, chubby cheeks for bedtime kisses but we do become more than ready for them to grow up and move out. Hold on and let go - this then, is our life’s dance. Hold on because we need to and Let go because we must.
Sometimes Holding On is more difficult than Letting Go, yet we feel we must. We hold on to bad marriages for the sake of our children. WE want to hold on to
our children but we NEED to Let them Go. We hold on to jobs we hate because we fear we cannot do any better. Then we learn that letting go is the only way to survive and keep us sane.
There is a line from The Life of Pi, spoken by the main character near the end of the movie: “The Whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But, what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say “goodbye.”
I agree and disagree. I believe that letting go is only a part of life. Perhaps - I would divide the whole of life into three. I would say that in the whole of life we need to find love, Hold on to love, and when it becomes necessary - to Let go of what we have loved. I know that saying goodbye to what we have held onto and now must let go of is crucial in order for us to move forward in health. But that doesn’t change the NEED to hold on for a while.
We say goodbye through divorce proceedings, exit interviews, retirement dinners, and farewell parties. We lunch with friends ready to relocate, take a last walk through the house where we raised our children. We allow our ministers to officiate at Memorial or Funeral services, our official goodbyes, and we have one last look at the face and hold, one last time, the hand that once stroked our hair and held our hand, the hand of the one we used to love or, harder yet, those we still love but who have died so we are forced to let go.
At times we have no choice but to let go and some times we must let go because of endings we did not choose. We might choose to let go of Marriages and careers, but we have no control over losing our health, abilities and income as we age. We choose to love but we usually do not choose when those we love will die. We learn to live through more losses than we ever imagined one could survive and each Loss in our lifetime teaches or has the potential to teach us to how to let go.
One young, devastated father taught me that sometimes letting go can only follow holding on. A young woman gave premature birth to a Fetus around 24 weeks. She was rushed to another hospital but her husband came to the hospital alone with this tiny being. I was told that 24 weeks gestation was the point at which a doctor could decide whether or not to treat. The doctors did not want to. The father was adamant, demanding that they do everything they could for his son. Finally the chief of Neonatology arrived. A devout man, he began every day at church praying for all of “his” babies.
He looked at the father and said, “Your son is not formed enough. Everything we would do to him would cause him great pain. We would be torturing him. He cannot survive whatever we do. You should sit in a rocker and hold and love him for as long as he has.” The father was unmoved. He kept insisting that they connect his son to a machine to breathe for him.
Finally, I got it. I looked at the father and said, “Are you telling us that if you can’t get the doctors to treat your son that you will not be able to live with the fact that you could not do anything for him?” The father nodded his head and began to cry. The chief, began to intubate the man’s son, and did so with tears streaming down his face. The little one died 12 hours later in his father’s arms as the doctor advised. But because he got the doctor’s to try to hold on to his son, he could let go without being destroyed by his grief and guilt.
There is another choice we will make between Holding On and Letting Go. When someone we love dies we, their memory keepers, will choose how they are remembered. Depending on our relationships, some of us will hold on to what was admirable, the good memories, the reasons we loved them and - we will let go of their faults, the little hurts they caused us simply because they were flawed human beings - as we all are. We will forget the things that irritated and annoyed us. The memories we will share will be of a kind, loving human being who did their best.
When I was a child I believed what the Catholic church taught about life after death. I believed that, if we behaved, we went to Heaven and we spent eternity with our family and friends. Eternity. And, while we were there we would never age, never argue, never get sick - just enjoy ourselves forever and ever. When I left the Catholic church everything was up for grabs. All the things I was taught, everything I believed - it all needed to be rethought and I had to decide what I believed. I don’t believe that there is a heaven where I will be with those I have loved for eternity. If I turn out to be wrong, I’ll be thrilled. But, I had to redefine even heaven and eternity.
Now, I believe that eternity is as long as we are remembered and as long as our good works last. It feels arrogant to imagine that I am worth more than anyone else. So, my revised eternity feels alright. I have told my children many stories of their great-grandparents and even some earlier stories of their family. I want them to know who these wonderful people were that I loved so much. So, even now so many years after their deaths my grandparents and great-grandparents live on.
We are the memory makers for the dead. We have the choices to hold on to what was good and loving or hold on to what was painful and unkind. Will we choose to let go of someone’s flaws or we will let go of their humanity? To quote another academic, historical source. This is from Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey. “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. And, in the end that is all there is…
Actually, choosing which memories we share and shaping how others will know that we loved is an important choice. So, I have this piece of advice for whatever it is worth. Choose for yourself. Not for what makes you feel justified or righteous. Choose what gives you peace.
For me, I pray I will be remembered gently. I wish to take to my grave the wounds and damage I may have caused. For my children, and those I loved the most, no matter their age when I die - and I pray they all out live me - I hope that rather than remember the times I disappointed them or misled them, or lost my temper, flared my flawed humanity, or fell short of their expectations of me…or worse…when I fell short of what they needed from me….I pray for their forgiveness. And, if they have the strength and if I have not failed them too often or too profoundly, I pray they can forget or, at least, set aside my faults and sins.
I hope they remember that at every single step I did my best. Through exhaustion, fear, worry, heartache, disappointment and all the rest of what I might have had to contend with in my life - for them, always for them….I tried to do my best. Please remember when I held your hand, not when I said I was too busy. Remember that I loved you as deeply and truly as I was capable. Hold on to the times that we laughed and, please, forget when I made you cry - because sometimes you deserved it. Hold on to the feeling of being in my arms, my warmth and the strength of my hug.
I know I made mistakes. You will too. We humans keep making them. But, you will grow in grace and love if you can learn to forgive more than you learn to hold onto hate or anger. Hold on to what was good, what I got right and the Love the Love, the Love I felt for you. the Love that is my immortality. And,if you can….Please Let Go of what you can and Hold on to ME for my arms will, for eternity, be around you.
And, so, we have just passed All Soul’s Day - a time to honor and remember those we have loved, those we love still who have died. Our memorializing of those we love will not resurrect them. We cannot remember them TO life, but we can remember them INTO life. By doing so their Love and wisdom, their humor and grace continue to live in us and those who hear about them.
May we all have the grac15e and strength to Let Go of what we Can and to Hold On to the goodness in our lives especially the goodness and Love that came from those who love us. There are many things I do not know and some I cannot know. But those I have loved I can remember into Life. Of this I am sure.
So be it. Amen.