Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday (we who survive)

I spoke to my dad on FaceTime today, which we’ve been doing much more frequently than we normally would. It’s a thread of connection from a global lockdown crisscrossing time zones and national borders - in central Pennsylvania and the east coast of New South Wales my dad and I are in this together, at home, baking bread. My dad has been baking bread for about twenty years, ever since his 80 year old friend Vera started mentoring him. I started baking last week on my 38th birthday because there was honestly not much else to do and a friend offered to teach me, virtually. I’ve been ringing my dad to show my starter and leaven, my rising dough and scored loaves coming out of the oven. I’m not perfectionist enough to be a great baker but I am enjoying shaping dusty dough. My dad’s been in ministry my whole life, a small church pastor and more recently training as a chaplain, working shifts at a large hospital emergency room. He’s usually busy visiting people, running errands and working, even in his late 60s, so it’s rare that we would talk regularly on the phone. But now he’s home and so am I. 

My dad mentioned that my great-grandmother had died in the Spanish flu pandemic over a hundred years ago. Her name was Kathryn and she was 26, buried with an infant, leaving her husband and 3 year old daughter - Jeanette -  my grandma. She was pregnant during World War I, birthing my grandma at the end of 1917. What world did she imagine for her baby girl, who would live to be 95 years old? She gave birth to her second child while the flu ravaged the world. How many more children would she have raised had she not been infected, how many more great-grandchildren would there be like me? Kathryn died in one of the very last waves of the pandemic, in 1921.

I hadn’t known that my dad’s mum had lost her own mother as a small child. My dad’s father, her husband of 65 years, had lost his mum tragically as well. How did their stories grow up in my dad as he grew, how did their pain shape him, how has their resilience brought colour to his eyes? Trauma and loss is often left unnamed but we carry it still, we wrap our own babies in it and it feels safe; it’s all they ever know. Science has recently uncovered epigenetic inheritance, we carry the past generations’ trauma in our DNA. What of my great grandmother’s death is whispered when I inhale quickly and my body feels alert and on edge? What of her hope settles me when I exhale slowly, counting, allowing my body to be held by the ground and divine love. She birthed two children through a pandemic, she was courageous and also afraid. When I was pregnant my fears were acute - catastrophic thoughts of dying when my children were too small to remember me, of leaving my husband to care for a toddler alone. Was my body grieving the loss it tenderly carried in genetic code?

I’m becoming more aware of the layers of trauma in which the seeds of my life have been planted and grown. This isn’t blaming others for my problems; I’m learning my story so I can keep doing the hard and gentle work of breaking cycles that have tangled us up for generations.  I move my body, take my meds, forgive myself and show up to therapy for my great-grandma Kathryn who died longing for the best possible future for her babies, and their babies as well.

Theologian Shelley Rambo writes of how in Jesus’ farewell message to his followers recorded in the gospel of John he invites them to “remain in me.” To remain is to be what’s left after everything else has fallen away. A better translation of this Greek word, menein, is to survive. Survive in me. Survive in my love. Jesus anticipated the trauma his execution would inflict on those who loved him and would be close by. Today is Good Friday, when Christians remember Jesus’ last breath handed over, paradidonai, to those who were left behind. Even in the presence of terrible death, a breath of life remained, inhaled and carried on by those who survived. 

Every human has generations of hurt and ache in their bones and blood. Most people on the planet have suffered extreme brutality from colonisation, white supremacy and war. And yet, we are born of survivors. As much as their torment has shaped us, so has their fire and their expectancy. Even in death, their life breath is handed over to those who of us who remain.

Thank you great grandmother Kathryn. I carry you now, in hope, just as you carried me.


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