Today, a guest post from Bernadette.
Last weekend, I had the honor to visit Emily, Rick and Ronan in the company of my dear friend T. It felt an honor because I am not an especially close friend of Emily’s. We worked together previously and have shared a warm friendship but not exactly intimacy – not like T. shares with her. Emily had read drafts of my unfinished work and given me notes. When she’d lived in LA, we’d taken hikes together in the Santa Monica Mountains, and I’d been thrilled whenever invited to eat Rick’s outstanding cooking. We’d planned on climbing Mt. Whitney together last summer, but the birth of Ronan and her obligations as a new mother prevented that. Friends, yes, but not, perhaps, the kind of friend you need and want when calamity hits.
Or so I feared. When news of Ronan’s diagnosis came, I wanted to visit — wanted to be the kind of supportive in-person friend she might need — but given all that was going on, I didn’t want to push myself into a situation where I didn’t belong. Thankfully, Emily and Rick, and dear T. convinced me otherwise and I hopped on a plane.
I had met Ronan as a newborn but hadn’t seen him in at least ten months. He’s grown into a beautiful little boy. His eyes light up when he sees things that attract him, his smile is ready for anyone who’ll take a moment to try to win it. To hold him and cuddle him is a dose of heaven – a huge shot of oxytocin. I loved watching him grab and subsequently squish the daylights out of a piece of avocado, and the way he’d perch on my shoulder, peacefully resting his sweet-smelling head next to my neck. On Saturday of our weekend visit, we took an outing to Chimayο, a church tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, with the following poem on the walls of the sanctuary:
If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayo.
Called the Lourdes of America, the place attracts pilgrims seeking miracles of healing. As I took in the warm but not too-warm spring sun on my face, I marveled that, of all the places Emily, Rick and Ronan could have ended up geographically when this diagnosis hit, that it was here, in Santa Fe, with its delightful array of woo-woo healers and mystical energy, here near the Sangre de Christo mountains, near Chimayo. On the drive over, Emily, T. and I had been discussing faith and questions of afterlife and all the heavy things that Ronan’s condition brings up, and Emily had told us about the openness she feels to explore any and all paths to better understand what’s happening to Ronan on a mystical level. As I see it, hers is not a frantic, vain search for a healing miracle for Ronan, but simply a pilgrimage looking for the strength to survive and understand what’s happening — and to make Ronan’s life and death as beautiful as humanly possible.
After checking out the main church, we took a short walk down a dusty side road to Santa Nino Chapel. Santo Nino is a child saint who is said to walk the countryside at night spreading miracles, especially among the imprisoned, the poor and the ill– a manifestation, many believe, of Jesus as the Holy Child.
In the chapel to this child walking saint, I fell in love. Man-made trees spouted amid the pews, brightly colored bird mannequins perched in their boughs. The Stations of the Cross were vivid and electrifying, the altar surrounded by sunny renderings of the 12 apostles (Judas included). All the art in the chapel seemed made for a child’s eyes – perhaps a child like Ronan whose vision is departing. We found tucked in a little corner a hand-crocheted, vibrant verging-on-gaudy representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The place was alive with folk art, with the way the human spirit uses its senses to comprehend the world, with the way we as humans fashion art to try to make sense of things. Most touching in the chapel, lining the shelves and filling all the space around the statue of Santo Nino, were the countless pairs of children’s shoes – left by parents so the walking saint will have some foot protection as he goes about his work. Photos of children and handwritten pleas for the waking saint’s intervention on behalf of the little ones crowded the space.
And here, next to me, was Emily holding her only child Ronan in a chest snuggly. The beauty of the moment and the joy that I was there, in her life, to witness it, filled me. I touched Ronan’s head and whispered a prayer. Not for healing – that’s not going to occur. But in thanks for this beautiful boy and this beautiful day and the fact we were here now to appreciate it.
Later over the weekend, Emily, T. and I got into a discussion of redheads. Undoubtedly, the first thing people notice when meeting Emily is her gorgeous flame-colored hair. I told them that I’d talked with my doctor recently about how unique redheads are in regards to pain. (Research suggests what seem to be contradictory findings: that redheads are less susceptible to pain-killing and anesthetic drugs — they are more likely to waken during surgery and to require higher doses of painkillers – and yet also seem to have a much higher tolerance to pain than non-redheads. “Natural redheads have a higher pain threshold than others,” said geneticist Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University’s pain laboratory. “Men and women with naturally red hair can withstand 25 percent more electric shock than non-redheads.”)
But is it really all that contradictory? Here’s Emily, walking through something that would scare the senses out of any of us, and from what I can tell, she’s doing so simply by acknowledging its reality and by being fully awake. Does that mean she feels more pain? Yes, I’m sure it does. But it also means she feels more joy and wonder and awe and delight in her beautiful son. If the painkillers of contemporary society worked for her – denial, a hysterical search for a miracle cure, a refusal to be present with him– maybe she’d be able to numb herself to the excruciating awareness of her son’s slow dying. but what marvels she’d lose by so doing!
At dinner Saturday night, our redhead conversation turned to Sequoia trees. Having grown up camping in Sequoia National Park every summer, I had learned a few things about them and, as a redhead myself, felt a kind of kinship with those giant trees. Sequoia trees are the largest (by volume) living things on earth – and one of the oldest; some live into the thousands of years.
Just as the fiery red hair is the first thing one might notice upon meeting Emily, a Sequoia tree’s fire scar would be the first thing one would notice upon meeting a mature tree, after noting it astounding size. Walk through any Sequoia grove and stand gape-mouthed at how these giants have survived with scars running up the middle of them, big enough to invite your entire family to sit inside for a photo, but tall enough to be way beyond man’s reach. The trees look as if they’ve battled fire their entire lives and have barely survived. Some seem nearly split in two.
But here’s the irony: Were it not for fire, Sequoias wouldn’t have what they need to propagate – that mineral-rich soil for example is the result of fire – and the tree’s cones, hidden high up in the branches, will stay as closed and hard as a fist without fire to loosen them and shake the seeds down.
Nature outfitted them with what they need to thrive amid fire. Tannin is what gives their bark their unique (redhead-like) cinnamon color and is largely responsible for the tree’s resistance to disease, insect infestation and fire. I remember the rangers telling me as a kid that a fire could burn all around the massive tree, up and down it, and take big sections out of its middle, but as long as one undisturbed line of the cambium layer running up the length of the tree remained unburned, the tree would be able to survive.
One undisturbed line.
Αnd survive they do. Giant Sequoias have an amazing ability to heal. I’ve seen those fire scars, walked inside them. They don’t stop the tree. Continually, new wood grows from either side of the fire scar, covering a little more each year until the injury is healed over like new skin on a body. In some cases, fire scars heal completely and become hidden to the naked eye. But they’re there – a testament to what the tree has endured.
All these thoughts crowded my mind as we prepared last Monday to say good-bye to Emily, to hug Rick, to kiss little Ronan’s head. I left their home filled with awe that this family, who has enough to worry about, made room in its life for me to come and join them. Yes, what’s happening to Ronan is a tragedy, but what’s accompanying that tragedy is nothing short of beauty. I see the strength and the endurance of the Sequoia tree in Emily, coupled with the vulnerability of the redhead for whom pain-killers don’t quite do the job. I see a family who is determined to stay awake and aware through every stage of this journey, and I marvel. I think of all the pilgrims who journey each year to Chimayo for a miracle, and from what I can tell, in the little adobe house on Sol y Luz street in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a miracle has already occurred. And I am honored to witness it.