Piece of My Heart

 


 
Peace be with you. That’s OK. You can say it. Old habits die hard, right?

For those of us here raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, as well as some other traditions, we have a fine-tuned response to the words “Peace be with you.” We say in response, “And also with you,” or of late, “And with your spirit.” These words are part of the repetition of Sunday after Sunday of the celebration of mass. And though many of us have long since departed our faith of origin, it’s hard to let go fully of some of that religious training.

Recently, I happened to hear a mother explaining to some friends that she was in town because her son was in a hospital in a coma following a drug overdose. Looking at this young mother trying to hold it together and then explaining what was on her heart, something deep within me took over and the gesture just happened. Without thinking, I crossed myself. The impulse might have come from one of the deep recesses of my mind. It might have been a habit. Or maybe it came from a place of knowing how terrifying hospitals can be.

About eight years ago when a friend and I were working out my pulse just would not return to a normal rate. After knowing me for a while and witnessing this, my friend said I needed to see a doctor. And it turned out that I had an irregular heartbeat. This wasn’t the kind of irregularity that is a cute little quirk someone has. It had potential to cause me trouble if it wasn’t addressed, so that’s what I did.

It was a few months later when I was wheeled in and put on the operating table. Sensors were strung into the interior of my heart and my surgeon was delicately, methodically looking for the piece of my heart that was causing the problem. See, what was amiss was the electricity passing through nerves that operated the contractions of my heart. I had excess nerve pathways causing my heart to beat oddly and occasionally to slip into a long, scary series of highly irregular beats when I had trouble catching my breath and I felt light headed.

Now, I don’t play many video games anymore, but I have some friends that do. The set-up in the operating room would have been a dream come true for them. There were rotating screens showing internal images of my heart spinning around me. The surgeon was operating the controls, trying to locate the culprit nerves. And when he would find them, he would zap them with a radio-frequency pulse, essentially burning tiny portions of my heart tissue. Kind of like playing Space Invaders. I’m sure the decades my surgeon spent perfecting his technique really appreciate that description.

But during the procedure, something started to feel not quite right. The numbers on the screens I could see whirling around me were starting to move in the direction that years of watching ER told me were the wrong direction. My pulse was getting faster and faster, but my blood pressure was getting lower and lower. Since I was conscious for the procedure, I remember the anesthesiologist arriving to assess how to sedate me…so that they could use “the paddles” on me. If I’m not mistaken, someone might have even said “stat!”

Now, I am fully aware that I was in a world-class medical center, surrounded by world-class medical professionals. I was not likely in any real danger. But when someone says, “Get the paddles.” Can we all agree that’s not a good sign? And when the anesthesiologist finally did her work…everything went black.

Not to ruin the ending of the story, but I did, in fact, survive this ordeal. Yes, and for many years now I have had a perfectly regular heartbeat. In fact, I’ve had the privilege over these many years of enjoying rather good health, all paddles aside. But the memory of being as close to death as I had ever been that day is never far from my mind.

And this is a weekend for memories. This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day and we remember the lives of those men and women who have died in combat in service to this country. The name of this holiday was not always Memorial Day. The first name of this holiday was Decoration Day. A commander of the Army set May 30th as the date three years after the end of the Civil War. The reason this date was selected was because it was not an anniversary of any military battle. It was intentionally chosen not to be a memorial for any particular battle. It was to be a memorial for those who had fallen in any battle.

It was called Decoration Day because on that day mostly mothers met on former battlefields and in burial sites to decorate together the graves of their fallen sons. On the first Decoration Day in 1868 as many as five thousand people decorated twenty thousand gravesites. *1 The traditional flower of Decoration Day, and now Memorial Day, is the poppy. The adoption of the poppy as the symbol of remembering our fallen soldiers did not come about until World War I.

John McCrae was serving alongside his close and dear friend Alexis Helmer. Helmer was killed in battle, and McCrae presided over the burial of his fallen comrades, including his friend. It was that same evening, after burying his friend, that John McCrae wrote what would become one of the most famous poems in the English language.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 

One of the reasons this is such a powerful poem is that it is cast in the voice of the dead. The reader or the speaker is made to imagine speaking as one of these soldiers who are buried amid the poppies. And giving voice to those who fall, telling their stories, remains one of the most important ways to remember, to memorialize the lives of the fallen among us.

Today we remain in one of the longest wars in the history of this nation. The war in Iraq began more than fifteen years ago, and soldiers continue to risk their lives there to this day as well as in Afghanistan and other places throughout the world. To date, in our two active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 5,790 service members have lost their lives.

Those are sobering numbers, but risks to the lives of soldiers are not only on the battlefield. Here at home, the toll that the effect of trauma resulting from deployment and battle takes upon our brothers and sisters is nothing short of tragic. The VA reports that of those veterans seeking any medical assistance at a VA facility at all, almost half are diagnosed with a mental health problem. *2 This does not account for those soldiers who do not seek treatment at all. And the toll of untreated mental health problems is evident in many ways, but perhaps the most striking is this:

Veterans make up 8.5% of the U.S. population.
But veterans make up 18% of all suicides in the U.S. *3

And we should never assume that suicide is the sole measure of this suffering. There are silent wars being fought now by our service members against foes as cunning as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chemical dependency, only to name a few. And these battles are raging inside the lives of so, so many others, too. In our reading, Mark Morrison-Reed talks about the lives that some can lead; lives of living deaths. And so many trapped in the shame and pain of mental illness feel this on a daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute basis.

And so much of this suffering is in utter, complete silence.

People who enjoy the privilege, really it is a blessing beyond measure, not to know this pain, when faced with someone who is suffering, aren’t sure what to do or what to say. But in some ways that is actually a good thing. Not trying to tell someone who is suffering in this way how they should be or why they should look on the bright side is actually a good start. Because one of the most important things any of us can do for someone who is suffering is to listen and not talk. We only need to sit there and listen. We can even ask questions, but we must listen to the answers.

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, an author asked fifty people to try to describe depression to someone who has never experienced it. *4

“Just wanting to stand in a field and scream your head off—but you don’t know why.”

“It’s like being the prisoner and the jailor both.”

“Like mourning the death of someone you once loved—you.”

It is hard to hear that people suffer like this, isn’t it? It is when we learn of experiences of other humans like this; it is when we feel the suffering of others that our hands want to hold their hearts and heal their pain. When I heard that young mother talk of her son in a coma following a drug overdose, my impulse to cross myself was something deeper, something older than I can conceive; something older than any religious training. Rituals, like much of faith, are outward manifestations of inward realities. Something happens in our hearts, and we must do something outwardly to honor it. The impulse was a reflex not of religion. It was a reflex of compassion, of one person wanting to reach out to another and help.

In our community here, many of us have let go of parts from our past faiths. Some of the things we let go because they are painful, and it’s a relief to be free of them. Other things we let go of, not because they are particularly painful, but because we are working to build something more, something more meaningful here together. But indeed, what you sacrifice you render sacred. We offer these parts of our past as glad sacrifices to the idea that a faith that is as welcoming, as affirming, and as much of a home as possible to all, literally has the power to save lives. Unitarian Universalism is important to me, it is sacred to me, because I believe it saves lives.

I would never suggest that our faith by itself has the power to relieve the kind of traumatic suffering that mental illness inflicts. But when we are our best selves we offer a community that can care for those pieces of us wounded by our pasts while nurturing the individual spirit yearning to be free in each one of us.

All those years ago, watching my computer readouts going all wrong, I had to look away from the screens. I looked up instead, right into a pair of eyes. They were tucked neatly, sanitarily, between a fine, pale blue surgical mask and a matching head covering, the eyes that peered back at me and my fluttering heart were the eyes of the nurse assigned to offer me comfort during the trying procedure. But when I looked up at those eyes, what I saw was fear. Fear that I was not going to be OK.

And then from the radio I was allowed to listen to during my procedure came a song by Annie Lennox that began

 

Yea, though we venture through the valley of the stars,

You and all your jewelry, and my bleeding heart.

 

And the thought that passed through my mind was not “Gosh, I hope I make it.” It wasn’t, “Tell my parents I love them.” It was in that moment that I was filled with such enormous gratitude. Because I consciously thought of the gift it was to lead a life of faith that taught me to forgive the people in my life who had wronged me the most and to ask the forgiveness of those I had wronged the most. And I smiled as I closed my eyes because I was ready to die. Peace was with me.

And when I came to, and the procedure was over, there was a little piece of my heart that was dead. There still is. It was dead, sacrificed, sacred, so that the rest of my heart could go on and work correctly.

And that is what John McCrae, the soldier who wrote In Flanders Fields, knew too in his heart. See McCrae wasn’t a chaplain or an ordained person of any kind when he performed the burial rights of his friend and comrades. He was an army physician—a doctor. With the chaplain unavailable during the battle, he was the only other person present with any education, so he performed the burial. It was only later, after the ceremony, imagining those he buried were telling him never to forget why they had died, when he wrote his poem.

 

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 

Remembering his friends with the remainder of his own life was an honor. It was a privilege. So many of us here remember people who we lost to battles in foreign lands. We also remember those who have been the victims of tragic events here in our own city this week.

Rick Best served in the Army for 23 years. And even here he remained in public service, working for the City of Portland. And he and his wife worked together to raise three teenage sons and a twelve-year-old daughter.

Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche was memorialized by his mother. Her words: “Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, My dear baby boy passed on yesterday while protecting two young Muslim girls from a racist man on the train in Portland. He was a hero and will remain a hero on the other side of the veil. Shining bright star I love you forever.”

 

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep

 

So we hold them together in our hearts. They are pieces of our hearts. And so it might be from our hearts, that we hear what was the last great hope for so many, the purpose of the cause so many fought for.

 

In our hearts we might hear them say: peace be with you.

And we answer: and also with you.

We will never forget.

We will go on remembering.

We will remember you all.

And may it ever be so.

 

Amen.

 

[1] See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/civil-war-dead-honored-on-decoration-day.

2 See https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/reintegration/overview-mental-health-effects.asp.

3 See https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/Suicide_Prevention_FactSheet_New_VA_Stats_070616_1400.pdf.

4 See http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/danny-baker/depression_b_5267263.html.