Signs and Wonders

As I shared before I left, this retreat was a time of remembrance for me and honoring of my grief and loss.  Last Thursday was the third anniversary of my mother's death and two months since we lost our beloved dog Duke.  

I drive out to the Hood River Valley in the morning, listening for how the day needs to unfold. I stop at Rasmussen Farm and pick out some vanilla pear jam, sugar dumpling squashes, and chestnuts to roast.  I take in the beauty of brilliant purple cabbages.

I visit the Pheasant Valley Winery because I read about their wine made from organic pears. Slightly sweet, slightly dry, with one taste I am smitten and I buy several bottles to have on hand for our Sabbath dinners. I spend some time at the lavender farm and as I leave I notice a garden stake with a butterfly, a symbol that emerged for my mother in the days after she died. I know I am on the right track.

I continue along the road, pulling over every so often just to breathe in a particular tree alive with color. I see a park off the road and I drive in.  I am led to a partially hidden trail along the Hood River.  The path is carpeted with leaves, a holy procession.  The ground is cool and soft.  I see Mount Hood in the distance, partially shrouded in mist, and I am aware of the sacredness of this place and the indigenous peoples who have been nourished by this mountain, this flowing water. I love ancient things and their sense of solidness and permanence.  I take solace in knowing that some things do not perish so quickly.

As I walk I begin to collect leaves. I am especially drawn to giant yellow maple leaves, demanding to be seen and witnessed. I hold them against my body, remembering that liminal space between life and death. I remember the waiting, when the question was no longer if, but when.

At the edge of the river I sit on a large smooth rock and I sing: “Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life” and “Do not be afraid I am with you, I have called you each by name, Come and follow me, I will bring you home, I love you and you are mine.” I sung these same words to my mother again and again as she lay dying. She was unconscious but I wanted her to release into death bathed in song.

I stand up and spread my arms wide, sending my collection of golden leaves into the water as an offering to the grand flow of life. In that very moment two hawks rise up from a tree into the air above me and circle for a few seconds before disappearing.  Perhaps they carry my prayers on their wings.  Perhaps they embody the spirits of the ones I have lost.  I sit in silence and gratitude. The ritual has emerged from my marrow.  I trust this knowing.

I get back into my car and begin to head back toward my cabin when in the sky before me is a rainbow touching down on the orchards below. I pull over again and breathe in this vision and gift. The last rainbow I saw was on my birthday when we were in Hawaii in June. I promise myself standing there I will look into the significance of them as they have now blessed two significant days for me. Of course, there is the biblical story of the rainbow as a sign of God’s covenant. I wonder what message the native people of this land saw when a rainbow appeared.

The radiant amber light of late afternoon spilling through clouds illuminates autumn branches strung with glittering citrine and ruby. I arrive back in my room and settle in to take a long ritual bath, immersing myself in healing waters.  As I lay there in this font of my grief I begin to cry.  Large heavy tears spill down my cheeks and plunge into the bath water, mingling in a holy blessing of each other. 

I want to be mothered again. I want to reach my arms around Duke's solid body and hold him against me again.

I can feel the ache in my belly throbbing.  The deep loss rises into my throat and my breath becomes labored.  I stay present to it for many long moments. Slowly it subsides and I notice a warmth in my chest spreading wide across my body.  A sense of solace and comfort expands within me, another gift from beyond.

I emerge and wrap myself in blankets. Darkness has descended and I go stand out in the field behind the cabin where the night before I stared at the moonless sky sprayed with a thousand stars. I wondered where Canus Major was, the constellation of the big dog. Even with the cover of clouds I take in the vastness of this dark vision. My prayer has become awe once again.

-Christine Valters Paintner

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