in a strawberry field
I spent some time with a dear friend of mine this week. He’s a bit older than me, in his sixties now. A lifelong farmer that plants his fields with horses still. It had been too long since we had seen each other. In that space of time our worlds, each of them, had forever shifted on their axis. Our daughter had died. His beloved wife had died. I am not the same person. Neither is he. Never again.
I was a bit nervous to meet this new version of him. Could I be comfort? Could I be willing to sit in his fresh, jagged pain as an offering. Could I be what he needed?
We stood in his strawberry patch with the heady sweet smells wafting up around us. One of my daughters picked berries. I watched her, remembering that the last person in those fields with me was my other daughter. My Mila. The daughter who finds me now not with her voice and the touch of her fingers, but with a voice transmuted from unknown places as messages to my heart and a touch that comes through the winds into my hair, and across my face to dance in-between every eyelash. She is there, but she is not sitting on the earth beside the strawberries. That is my other daughter there.
As we drove to my friend’s house that morning, I told my daughter, my Ella, about the last time I was there. I told her about her sister’s exuberance for the bounty of endless, sweet strawberries, shoulders warmed by the sun. She ate as much as she picked and then she ate some more. It was a scorching hot day. The only sound was cicadas reverberating off sunbeams. When we were done, our flats of strawberries overflowing, my friend’s wife, the one now dead, insisted that we share in some strawberries and homemade ice cream she had made from their cow’s fresh cream earlier that morning. Somehow, Mila mustered the fortitude to eat more strawberries. An enormous bowl with an enormous amount of ice cream. We sat at a small table in the grass under the shade of wild lilac bushes. Our entire drive home, my dear Mila, was doubled over with a tummy ache. She swore off strawberries for a lifetime. She ate strawberry shortcake with us the next day - extra whipping cream for her - as always.
Now two of those four people are gone. Off to Terra Incognita. Soon enough, the other two will be joining them. But not yet. Not now. Now was there, feet covered in strawberry vines, facing my friend.
I stood close, speaking with him. Every now and then, each of us bending over and reaching for a berry we spotted and couldn’t resist. We spoke about horses and cows and experiments with breeds we were excited by. We spoke about the pace of summer and our families. I asked him how he was, how he has been since his wife died. When he said “Oh, I don’t know” I asked for more. I stepped into that shaky voice that tried to hold back pain. I couldn’t leave him there alone with that. “Tell me. I’d like to hear.”
That’s a load, isn’t it? To saddle up to someone so entrenched in pain and to be there. We don’t do that much. I learned this when our daughter died. Most people can’t. Many people won’t. They think that asking and speaking of your love is cruel or painful. That’s what we tell ourselves - to let sleeping dogs lie. As if the grieved will forget if we don’t bring it up. It’s a cop-out on our end, that’s all. We can choose that path, but we should be honest with ourselves about why we do it. About who we are actually protecting.
At our eldest daughter’s wedding recently, a family member came to my husband and I privately and told us that he just wanted us to know that he empathized with how hard it must be for us on such a day - celebrating incredible joy with two of our daughters in the glaring absence of another. He opened up that space to us, told us of his love for our girl, spoke her name. It was such a generous and loving gift - to be met in those dark corners most shy away from. It touched us deeply and we will keep that act of generous kindness with us forever. And because we will, because we know, we have the capacity to offer it to another.
It doesn’t mean every interaction should be one of deep conversation, but there, in that strawberry patch, with my friend who has little family and lives a solitary life, I understood that all I had to give was my open heart and my ear. His pain was my pain. His sadness, mine. I have been heartbroken.I have lived in anguish. I still do. I live in anguish and I live in joy. The joy found in the deepest of despair. I live in the fluid of life now. In there, somewhere, is the gift I could offer to my friend - my vulnerable heart, willing to take on more. I will not run from his pain because there is nothing more that I’m afraid of. I cannot be mortally wounded because I already am. I am here and I am not. I am not afraid.
I saw tears in his eyes and I kept looking. I heard about the suddenness of his wife’s death. How he was unsure of how to do the things he did when she was at his side. The whole rhythm of his days has dissolved. He is trying to figure out who he is now, how to be, how to move through the life that remains his alone. He has lost weight, too much weight. He can’t figure out how to stop losing weight. “I added an extra potato to my lunch today”. She did all of the cooking. She did the nurturing. She did the organizing and the relationship building. She was home to him.
He stopped talking and apologized for “going on”. I asked for more. We often feel self-conscious about sharing our hearts with another in this culture. We don’t want to burden other people. We feel guilty for taking up too much space or time. We hold onto our darkness lest we dampen another’s light. All of us, propping up this bullshit idea that presenting a facade is the acceptable, good manners we must all uphold. And then each of us, retreating to the isolation of our homes where we block out our loneliness with noise and visuals and distractions of all sorts. If we could all just start being a little more real, a little more courageous, we could be the conduits of grace and love we are meant to be.
I want to be that. I want to be the woman capable of great feats of bravery. Not of scaling mountains, but of a willingness to let my pain be exacerbated by the pain of another. Not because I’m a sadist, but because I have come to understand that this is love and love is the all and the everything.
His wife’s devoted dog barks too much now. He is off-kilter, frenetic, always searching and pacing, smelling for hints of a trail. “He’s always looking for her. I wonder when that will stop”, my friend said.
“I used to go into the kitchen at lunchtime and there would be a good meal for me.”
We could hear those words and think them callous or diminishing. I wept when he said them. So simple and pure. Here, a man of the earth, plain and hard working, that was nourished for decades by the food that passed through his hands and into her’s. She in her farmhouse kitchen, cooking food that honoured their place, his efforts, God’s creation, the soil and the animals. She, feeding her man. An act, as ordinary as this very moment, practiced again and again. A sacred ritual manifest in the robust wellbeing of her beloved’s life. Meals into days into weeks into months into years into lifetimes. Her lifetime. Until the end of her lifetime, but not his. Now he sits at an empty table in a still kitchen. The love of his woman no longer fills him.
We kept talking. He asked me when things started to fade. Pain, he meant. “It softens,” I told him, “but it never leaves. Not one bit. You will come to know how to live with it. And you will draw closer to God. And you will find her in places you would have never imagined possible before.”
We hugged each other. And in our embrace, his thin frame, slumped and fragile. It wasn’t the body I have hugged many times before. Neither is mine. I gave him a book and promised to call. We made future plans, most important plans, around cow testing and pasture ratios and cross breeding that I will need to be there for. All sorts of rues to just be in each other’s company. To just be his friend, however he needs it.
I went to my friend’s farm with thoughts in my head about the path our planet is on. I have been struggling with my understanding of the issues of our day. We are bombarded with information on the seeming collapse of tradition, culture, morality, and a dissolving common sense around the worth of the good and the innocent. We are slathered with lies about who or how we can be saved. I have chosen to focus on my spiritual development in this time of their mad drive towards transhumanism. What am I if not machine? I am human. I am spirit. I am more than the sum of my parts. I am a symphony.
But I have been struggling with how. How do I allow the will of my Creator to move through me? What is meaningful enough to combat the steamroller vision of the maniacal and lost that seek to destroy all that is nature, all that is Godly and mystical and wondrous, and replace it with concrete and digitization and fragmentation? I found it. I know it. It came to me in a strawberry patch with an orchestra of cicadas chanting the answer, a beloved daughter picking strawberries with the ghost of her sister near, and an older man, a friend, offering me his trust and softness.
It’s all there. It’s all here. All of all. And nothing is more powerful.
p.s. If you’re interested in seeing a documentary that was made of us, our farm, and our sharing of life and death as we have come to understand it, you can do so here.