For many reasons, my friend Rebecca Gibbs is on my mind today. In part, because her daughter Anna wrote a beautiful poem about our family, which I hope to share in the future, with her permission. Perhaps because her husband has been working in our neighborhood, overseeing a town project. Also since I have a stack of books borrowed from Rebecca’s library — stories we had discussed — and some that I just finished reading, so that it felt as if our conversation has continued over the past several months. And maybe because her mother is a good friend who also attended graduate school, and is encouraging me on this adventure. And as I plan for classes in the fall, I’m encouraged because Rebecca attended Harvard University; that was one of the stories I was privileged to capture on videotape one sunny afternoon, as she made recordings for her family, about a year before she died.
Of course, she’s in my heart, because she and Jessie shared the journey through cancer, and trips down to Dana Farber. Rebecca G. and I understood each other in a unique way … she was a mother who faced the knowledge that she would leave her children before she was prepared to do so, and I was a mother who had lost one of my children much too early.
Her presence in my thoughts was a sharp contrast with the scripture I heard in the Meetinghouse today. The story tells of two miraculous healings.
In the Biblical text from my faith tradition (Mark 5:21-41), Christ was asked by a father named Jairus to come heal his dying 12-year-old daughter. Crowds followed him. On the way, a woman, who had been isolated and gravely ill, worked her way through the crowds and touched his robe. Christ felt energy go out of him, and knew someone had been healed. After he spoke with the woman, and listened to her story, friends of Jairus rushed up to say that Jairus’ daughter had died. Yet Christ promised that the child was merely sleeping, not dead. He continued to Jairus’ house and … “42 He took the twelve-year-old girl by the hand and said, “Talitha, koum!”[d] which means, “Little girl, get up!” The girl got right up and started walking around.”
Admittedly, I felt angry when I heard that scripture. Bothered. Maybe just momentarily, but honestly, it’s always there, at some level. Where was that promise, where were those words, in my family’s journey through cancer? Or Rebecca Gibbs’ journey? Why are some healed in their bodies, and not others?
Wasn’t there a “Talitha, koum!”for our child, too? And others young daughters and sons? Or adults, because we are all someone’s children?
I don’t often allow these thoughts to have much room to wander around and be expressed. They’re futile. They’re raw. They aren’t tempered by everything else I know and believe. They grow out of the fundamental outrage and sorrow that is always, even a little bit, part of our consideration of Jessie’s life and death. I wouldn’t be honest, with myself, or anyone else, or my Creator, if I didn’t say so.
I wish, and I know others have wished also, that “Talitha, koum!”had been our promise. Our story. That we could be witnesses to bodily healing through faith.
And yet as one wise woman of faith, Sister Leonore, has reminded us more than once, Your prayers may be answered, but not always in the way you expect. Perhaps “Talitha, koum!” is different for some of us.
The Meetinghouse, restored over the past several years by members of First Church’s congregation. Now in use again, decades after a fire caused its closing.
Certainly that was the challenge that Rev. Rebecca Pugh faced today, as she grappled with that scripture with us. We met today in the small Meetinghouse, a freestanding structure near our larger church, which has undergone its own journey of healing, because it was badly burned decades ago. It has slowly returned to usefulness through years of thoughtful restoration at the hands of many congregation members, so that it is available again to be used for summer worship.
In that freshly-healed room, small enough for a modest summer congregation to gather, Rebecca Pugh looked at the closely-clustered group of friends and members as she talked about the scripture, and those miraculous healings of Christ. She was careful with this topic, because she recognized that it was sensitive.
You see, I’m not alone, wondering why such healing miracles didn’t happen for each of us? I sat in a room filled with people who understand, quite intimately, what it means to live with broken bodies or lives.
Linda listened from her wheelchair; she was paralyzed ten years ago in the same automotive accident that took her husband’s life, and changed hers forever. Nearby sat a young visitor who is deaf. Others in that gathering attend regularly, and serve in leadership roles, yet live with chronic conditions that range from cancer to immunosuppressive conditions. Scattered among us sit those who have overcome eating disorders or reclaimed sobriety, yet will always struggle with these challenges. Of course, some among us are otherwise psychologically or emotionally wounded, too.
Don’t all of us wish we’d felt the rush of restorative power upon touching a Healer’s robe, or heard “Talitha, koum!”as a child rose up from the brink of death? Instead, many of us live inside slightly imperfect or very compromised bodies, or function despite deep connection to other losses and traumas.
We try to find comfort in what Rev. Rebecca Pugh identified as spiritual healing. Because we don’t all receive miracles, do we? At least not in a form we immediately recognize. Although maybe, when we reframe the story, and look at it differently, there’s a miracle anyway.
As Rebecca Pugh pointed out, our experiences are sometimes like the scriptural account of the woman who pushed through the crowds to touch Christ’s robe. We may rely on the courage of connection to this community and our Creator, and the resources that those give to us, seeking whatever hope could be gained there.
As you look around, you don’t have to read the Bible to see such examples. Sitting in that old-new Meetinghouse, its fire-ravaged scars still part of our history, its structure shored up and reclaimed to be purposeful again, we could see the same lessons visible in each others’ lives. Around us are living mentors, teachers, and inspirations. We are privileged to know people who wake up each day, inside bodies that don’t do what they were designed to do, and yet find a way to reach past those limitations to be part of something bigger, something more, and find meaning in lives that are blessed in other ways, if not by physical fitness and health.
Yes, I wish we’d received healing miracles. But we didn’t. Not that obvious kind, anyway.
Like the people in my congregation, Rebecca Gibbs was more than my friend. She was also, I realize, my guide and teacher.
She thought past her own cancer, which was progressing, transforming and diminishing the length of her life. She considered how to heal her family, too, even after she was gone.
One way that she tackled the transition from her presence in her family’s life, to her eventual departure, was to invite her family up to the Highland-Cowles cemetery. As I remember this story, which she told to me, though I recall it imperfectly and secondhandedly, she had an outing with her spouse and two children. Up under the same row of maples where Jessie’s ashes are now interred, she spent time with them, admiring the view, the trees, the setting, talking about why she liked that spot.
She created a living link to that spot, where her remains were later buried. In that way, her family had her own words, her own feelings, and her living presence imprinted there, as part of their connection to the site they had selected. She hoped they would go up there, and when they visited later, be comforted by that first visit with her.
Rebecca Gibbs chose her own ground: soft green blades of grass and occasional upheavals of knotted tree roots, sheltered by an arching canopy of verdant whispering leaves and a chorus of singing birds. She stood there, above her own eventual passage, and claimed it. Made it part of her living narrative, to give as a gift to her husband and children.
Rebecca G. and I also found it comforting that Jessie and she would be close to each other. Near each other, between the stately the row of maples, overlooking the town. Rebecca believed they’d be near each other, both here on earth, and wherever they next sojourned.
Part of me will always ache at the words in the scriptural account that cried, “Talitha, koum!”Because the way my younger daughter “got up” was to leave this life, and move on to another place where I cannot yet follow.
And yet, I also know, and assure you, that there are many more layers to our response to Jessie’s life and passage. I believe that part of the answer to our cry for healing, our prayer, was the way that she and my friend Rebecca G. each lived beyond the limits of cancer, and made us pay attention, and realize that we can make a difference regardless of how short or long we live, how small or large our ways of reaching out to others.
And the same is true of those people I witnessed in the little white Meetinghouse today, listening to the anecdote of miraculous physical recovery, when some of us won’t ever have that experience in this lifetime. All around me, people continue to live boldly and brightly, or quietly but visibly.
Whether each of us intends it or not, we become mentors for each other. Examples about how to make purpose out of unfathomable circumstances, how to find grace and hope when all seems impossible, how to keep going when it seems there are too many obstacles, how to hold on or let go, how to be part of this community, this experience, this life together.
I also realize that the promise of healing – physical or spiritual — doesn’t mean you won’t hurt anymore. Or carry scars. Or continue to struggle with old habits and relapses and cravings. Or have times when you fall into dark places, and come out again.
The promise of healing is there in the faces gathered to listen to the stories in Mark. It’s visible in the lesson of people who show up and claim their chance at healing and connection. It’s about trying. Continuing. Being present. As much as possible. In whatever way is meaningful and practical.
Each of us, in our different ways, claims our ground. Creates living stories that will later become memories, and heals self and others – at least emotionally and spiritually, if not bodily, as much as possible – here and now. Again and again. Maybe on velvety green spot beneath towering maples. Or inside the reclaimed walls of the Meetinghouse. Or somewhere else along the way, on our different journeys.