I began this blog nine months ago partially in response to the news of Heidi's cancer (see the first entry Watching for Light, on 9-29). With Heidi's death Sunday, I have been going through the photos I've taken these past nine months, looking for ones that speak to me of Heidi.
There are none of Heidi herself. I have been taking very few photos of people, since it hasn't seemed right to post those without asking permission and that added an extra layer of work to a blog entry. So even though interactions with people are often the source for sparks of light in a day for me, I have not emphasized that here.
Instead I have focused on nature, and on objects that in some way show a spark of light, either literally or metaphorically. Sometimes it is a physical object that illustrates an interaction or an event that was a spark of light. With the latter, I often have told a little about the event.
I decided to put together a slideshow of photos that speak to me of Heidi -- sometimes due to comments that she sent me, or because the object pictured is from an event related to Heidi, or simply because the photo seems to fit in some way today.
I put this series of photos together, but instead of doing a slideshow here, which may take too long for some computers to download, I have divided it into five segments, one for each day until Heidi's memorial service Saturday, beginning today.
Yesterday evening, on June 24, Heidi Siemens-Rhodes' 38th birthday, just a little before 7:00, friends and fellow church members began gathering for a short song vigil and farewell to Heidi. Nine months ago we reeled at the news that Heidi, one of our co-pastors at Assembly Mennonite, had stage IV cancer and probably only months to live.
She has lived richly and eloquently, sharing her zest for life and her struggles with cancer and unsuccessful treatments. She, husband Mitch, mother Jan, and boys Theo, Adam and Ira, have generously, gracefully, and courageously shared their journey with the congregation and other friends, "daring to stare death in the face," as one friend admiringly put it.
As we gathered, we knew that this day of Heidi's birth was most likely also to be the day of her death, and her birth into a new life.
There were vases and jars for gathering the flowers people brought from their gardens, and a basket for cards.
We lit candles and passed around song sheets:
Let there be light
O Thou in whose presence
The Lord bless you and keep you
There were smiles and tears, and candle flames that danced wildly in the breeze.
People kept streaming in, on bike, on foot, and the small front yard filled and overflowed. Family members gathered on the front porch and watched from the upstairs window. Little ones ran to and fro.
And we sang Happy Birthday, and the three hymns, and stood together in silence, holding Heidi and Mitch and the boys in prayer. Someone began singing a slow, thoughtful Alleluia, alleluia, and we joined in softly.
There were hugs and tears, and people slowly dispersed. About the time most of the crowd was gone, Heidi began taking her last breaths. The family gathered around for that last fare-thee-well, and (from Mitch's message to the congregation and the CaringBridge community) they remained around her bed for some time, crying, laughing, reminiscing and offering words of blessing for Heidi’s new life with God.
Farewell, Heidi, as you rest in God's ocean of light and love. And God's peace to you, Mitch, Jan, Theo, Adam, Ira and to all who will mourn for Heidi, as we continue the journey here.
This icon of Christ hangs on the wall of the chapel at the Hermitage Retreat Center. It caught my eye when I attended a Taize evening prayer service there back in March. This was just after our co-pastor Heidi had been in the hospital for a week, receiving a new cancer treatment. It was not successful and she was suddenly looking much more frail and exhausted than she had before.
In the songs and silence of the Taize service, the awareness of Heidi's illness, the impact on her family, and on our congregation hit me at a new, grief-filled depth. I found comfort in prayers at the foot of the cross, and in gazing on this icon across the room. I hadn't looked closely at it yet, and it was only afterwards that I saw with delight that it is Christ as Light Giver.
Light continued to weave itself through the Opening to Grace retreat last weekend. I told something of the first session yesterday. Saturday was another rich day, with four people having focus sessions. There were many tears and much laughter, struggle, and light, as well as some time to wander in the woods and meadows, enjoying discoveries like this monarch caterpillar feasting on milkweed.
On Sunday morning, I experienced another grace-filled moment of light and shadow. At the end of our last session, we were all standing in a loose circle outside, surrounding the woman who had been working and two people who supported her on either side, and we began singing Prayer of Peace by David Haas.
Each verse follows the same pattern, only the subject changing -- first peace, then love, light, and Christ.
Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet.
Peace within us, peace over us, let all around us be peace.
Like several others there, I know hand motions to this song, and we began doing them. As we sang the verse "Light before us....let all around us be light," I noticed my shadow. The sun was behind me, and my shadow was at my feet, spread before me. There was some space between me and the people to either side, so it was quite distinct and I found myself watching it as we sang and moved, feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.
With the last verse, I stood with my arms wide spread and slightly lifted, turning in a circle as we sang "Let all around us be Christ," ending with my shadow like a chalice shape before me. And I glimpsed an awareness that yes, somehow in Christ both shadow and light are held. Tears and laughter, sorrow and joy, all intermingled.
And I remembered the last time I had sung this song was the Sunday before, at the end of our Pentecost service. During our second hour, we had a recognition of Heidi's pastoral work in our midst and we closed with the dance group leading us in this prayer of peace, another day when tears and laughter, joy and sorrow danced together, held together in the Body of Christ.
( I'd love to include a clip of our dance group, with their colorful scarves, but don't have it in a form to post. There is a youtube clip of another liturgical dance group, with their version of the same song here -- Prayer of Peace starts at 4:47.)
I've been thinking about weeds and unwanted growth this week. I've been working in my garden and flowerbeds, pulling the weeds, making room for the veggies and the flowers I want to be there.
And I've been thinking about the weed of cancer, and the effect it is having on our copastor Heidi, and on the parents of several friends. Last week Heidi and Mitch made the decision for her to end chemotherapy and to enter hospice care.
There is beauty in thistles, in the right place. There is no beauty in cancer. I don't know if there is ever a "right place" for cancer. I do know that it doesn't belong in Heidi's body.
There is beauty in the supportive responses, in the ways our congregation has gathered around Heidi and her family, in the courage and hope with which they have approached this cancer journey. But beauty in cancer? No.
Thinking about cancer, and about thistles, I went back on campus to look for the thistle I had photographed a couple weeks ago (see yesterday's entry).
I couldn't find it. I looked where I thought I had seen it, and I went back and forth along the edge of the prairie plantings and there was not a thistle anywhere in sight.
Or rather, not any that I recognized. I finally took a second look at this shriveled specimen and realized it was the thistle I had photographed earlier. And I remembered seeing a groundskeeper prowling the plantings with a spray nozzle in hand and a tank of something on his back. A tank of something lethal, apparently, because it certainly did in this thistle.
Apparently thistles don't belong in the prairie plantings, anymore than they belong in my garden. In this setting it was a weed, and the groundskeeper dealt with it.
The doctors tried numerous ways of dealing with Heidi's cancer, but they didn't succeed. Did I mention the beauty of doctors, nurses, and other caregivers who deal with cancer day after day, rejoicing when the treatment goes well, mourning when it does not?
This blog began on a day when I saw raindrops on red rose leaves catching the light. (That photo is the banner for this blog.) I took the picture just a few days after we learned that Heidi had stage IV cancer, and for me the image somehow captured the tears and the hope we had.
Winter has come and gone, and last week there were again raindrops on my rose leaves. This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, and also Heidi's years of pastoring at Assembly Mennonite Church. We don't know whether she will be able to be present -- she was last Sunday -- but the service will be recorded. And we will remember and laugh and weep together.
Our neighbor's tree is in bloom and fits well with these lines I read Sunday in a psalm by Thomas Merton:
Today, Father, this blue sky lauds you.
The delicate green and orange flowers of the tulip poplar
tree praise you.
The distant blue hills praise you, together with the sweet-smelling air that is full of brilliant light.
p. 47, in Book of Hours
Unfortunately the blue hills are indeed distant, as are some of the other praising images Merton offers.
And in the past few weeks, I've heard from three friends that their parents recently learned they have cancer. Another friend is in the throes of chemotherapy and side effects, after surgery for breast cancer. Pastor Heidi is in the midst of her own struggles with the side effects of treatments. And the young teenage son of a cousin was hospitalized after ingesting muratic acid, a side effect to a school bullying situation.
And yet the sun shines, and the spring flowers keep opening, and the bees buzz their praise. And the toddler grandson of another friend has had a successful heart transplant, the cousin's son is responding well to medication, and those with cancer are receiving the best help that the medical world can give them.
Life is always such a mix of joy and sorrow.
So, with awareness of that mix of sorrow and joy, I'll join in with Merton's later lines in the psalm:
I too, Father, praise you, with all these my brothers [and sisters],
and they give voice to my heart and my own silence.
We are all one silence, and a diversity of voices.
You have made us together,
you have made us one and many,
you have placed me here in the midst as witness,
as awareness, and as joy.
Here I am. p 47, Book of Hours
For months our congregation has been lighting a peace lamp each Sunday. We hear about one of the world’s troubled spots, light the lamp and respond to the leader’s “The light shines in the darkness” with “And the darkness cannot put it out.” (John 1:5)
This past Sunday one of our pastors, Heidi Siemens-Rhodes, shared with us that she learned earlier in the week that the cancer she had ten years ago was back. On Monday she had further tests and the news was bad. Not only is it back, but it has spread to several new locations. Radiation treatments started on Tuesday. Heidi, her husband Mitch, their three young boys, and their network of friends and family are still reeling.
There are many tears, and many prayers, and many photos of candles posted to Heidi’s facebook page. “The light shines in the darkness.”
It was raining Sunday as we heard the news, a slow, steady, relentless rain. As we anointed Heidi, we sang "Rain Down, rain down, rain down your love, God of life." (Jaime Cortez, OCP Pub)
It kept raining all day. It has continued raining all week, interspersed with moments when the rain eases. Yesterday brought one of those breaks in the rain, and the sun even came out. I seized the opportunity to get outside and walk around my yard and garden, checking on things.
My attention was caught by the splendor of sunlight reflected in rain drops scattered over burgundy rose leaves. The sight seemed to capture something of this week’s spirit of tears and of hope, of God's light shining in the darkness and in the midst of lament.
It occurred to me that a good practice these next weeks would be to look for the daily moments of light, and to try and capture them in a photo or words. And having just gotten this website up, a blog seems a good way to structure this prayer of hope and attention. I won't post every day, but I will keep watch, with my eyes and with my heart.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"