This Saturday I will go to my fourth funeral in two months. I will sit in the back. I will stand and pray with fellow mourners. I will wait in line to pay my respects and honor a life well lived. I will allow the sadness of death to wash over me. Move me to tears. And then I will walk into the sunlight. And drive home.
My problem with funerals is that life has only stopped for one of us. And running out to Walmart for orange juice later that evening feels… Well, it feels incredibly awkward.
I freely embrace my shallowness. I avoid thinking about sad and confusing things because typically I end up feeling sad and confused. Shocking, I know. But as much as I try to busy myself with the mundane habits of the living, funerals force me to contemplate the inevitable end of everything.
So as I prepare for this Saturday, my mind revisits all of the funerals I have attended. And I wonder. How are they now? The ones who remain. How do they live? Does breathing ever come as easy as it once did? Can laundry and dishes and driving to church ever settle back into the muted colors of everyday life?
What hope is there for those who of us who walk the road behind them? Who have yet to bury a parent, a spouse, a child? What life after death is there for those left living?
These are the questions that percolate as I pull the black dress and sensible black heels from the back of the closet. A quiet pondering invades my normally frenetic consciousness. What life after death is there for those left living?
Ironically, in this season of funerals, I reunited with an old friend I’d last seen at a funeral. Death had separated us. The death of a child. A daughter. A beautiful spitfire of a girl.
Her daughter, Taylor. Seven years old.
I was Taylor’s therapist. Although I never did much of anything therapeutic. For Taylor. I may have provided some counsel and comfort to her mother, Melanie.
And for sure, Taylor and Melanie were my therapists. Teaching me stuff no graduate school could ever convey. Chief among the tutoring was the understanding that hope need not be reasonable, and that the communication of the heart is not limited by language. Taylor, a child with no words, taught me joy is not earned, it just explodes when you least expect it. But only if you have surrendered yourself to the possibility of its existence.
Taylor died suddenly. In the night. Found by her shattered parents in the morning.
And all of us who knew them circled the wagons. Cleared our schedules. And prepared for a funeral. Our society’s process of separating the living from the dead.
I am a health care professional. There are boundaries we must maintain to preserve ourselves. You simply cannot function. Cannot get out of bed and go do a job that involves living and grief and pain and death, if you allow yourself to get too close. You’d turn to dust and blow away.
So it was rather inexplicable to find myself calling the grieving mother and asking to speak at the funeral.
“Taylor would love that.”
And then I was caught. Between the self I knew and the self I wanted to be. Fierce. Brave. No boundaries. Only a freedom to follow the heart, wherever it may lead. I wanted to be a lot like, Taylor.
So I dug out my chicken suit. Yes. My chicken suit. Traded shifts at work. And with a dear friend behind the wheel, we set off to separate the living from the dead.
The memorial home was packed. I felt like a foreigner. I was just the therapist. Here among the broken, devastated family. Taylor was my patient. Not my cousin. Not my sister. Not my granddaughter.
What am I doing here? The sadness at a child’s funeral is so heavy. There is no comfort from a life lived. This is a life snuffed out. Too soon. And we all know it. And we pull and stretch the biblical texts into some sort of buffer. And no one says, “I’m very angry that God let this happen.” That’s not what you say at funerals.
But the truth is that God was at the helm during her whole complicated little life. God is at the helm at every funeral. All things. All things are his.
And sitting in the back with my chicken suit buried deep in a gym bag, I knew the only way to survive was to feel. Angry. Shocked. Broken. And to push deeper into a God I loved. I dare you God. I dare you to make sense of this.
And suddenly, I was filled with joy. With no reason. With no purpose. Just joy. And I felt free. Free to live in the face of death. Free to let go, so I could keep. Free to follow a God who does not limit himself to human understanding.
When the time came, I maneuvered to the front of a very full room. Many were openly weeping. And I looked into the faces death left behind. My fingers grasp the gym bag so hard, I couldn’t feel them anymore. But joy is worth the risk. And so, with a deep breath, I said good bye.
“As we go through our days, every once in a while, we encounter a life force so concentrated, so undiluted, that we are changed by their presence. Taylor was one such person. Ask anyone who knew her well. Taylor was a “game changer.”
I met Taylor when she was just a tiny peanut. Barely a year old. But it was clear from the moment I held her; Taylor had a lot to tell the world.
Taylor was a soul communicator. Her nervous system may have betrayed her, but her spirit never did. During our first session, we sat on the floor and she sized me up with those big brown eyes. I could clearly read her thoughts. “Look lady. Let’s get something straight from the get-go. I’m in charge.”
As therapists, as health care professionals, we operate with the understanding that we come to help. We come to teach. We come to fix and change. We pray to bring healing. To restore what has gone amiss. To regain the balance in a world askew.
Our patients must remain our patients. What type of therapists would we be if we fell in love with every person in our care? We must keep some distance. We must remain professional. We must care but maintain the boundaries of “professional caring”. We learn to color inside the lines.
As I worked with Taylor and her family, I gradually realized there were no easy answers to be found here. Any plan I came up with, didn’t seem to go anywhere. But Taylor didn’t seem upset with my lack of progress. Just as I was about to give up, she’d lean in with her open mouth kiss, and the whole frustrating session would evaporate into joy.
And as our relationship deepened, I slowly set down the tools of my profession. The picture cards. The manual signs. The buttons and switches. The answers weren’t coming from any of the books I’d read.
And then, Melanie sighed one day. “I guess we’ll have to read the book of Taylor.” And so we did.
Although I never heard a sentence, Taylor communicated loudly! Her message was clear. I’m going to do what I’m going to do, when I want to do it. We learned to set our clocks by Taylor time.
Don’t get me wrong, Taylor may have had the face of an angel, but she had an ornery streak the size of Texas. I’ve already referred to her has a “soul communicator” and mostly she spent her time telling me where, exactly, I could step off.
I remember once I was trying to get her to point to picture cards. Taylor would have none of it, and when I persisted, she took the cards, scooted over to the ball pit, and plopped them inside.
Her mother affectionately referred to her as “butt”. And anyone who ever asked Taylor to do anything she didn’t feel like doing, soon whole heartily agreed with this moniker. Even if we didn’t admit it out loud.
Perhaps my most favorite moment I shared with Taylor happened on Halloween. Taylor came dressed as a chicken. Yellow. Fluffy. Completely adorable. On this day, of all the children who filled CTU, Taylor was the cutest. And she knew it. She rocked that costume with all the poise, confidence and flirtation of a runway model. Parents of other children scrambled to take her picture.
As Taylor, Melanie and I trick-or-treated around the unit, Taylor worked the building like a politician in November.
And from this vantage point, I was better able to read the book of Taylor. Here was someone who had no trouble communicating what truly mattered. And somehow, even though I was supposed to be the teacher, I found Taylor and her family teaching me.
Some answers will never be found in books. Some thoughts are too precious to be expressed in words but must be communicated by the soul. Sometimes the short, straight line is the wrong path to take. Sometimes it’s more important to enjoy where you are then to press on to new horizons. Sometimes, dressing like a chicken makes perfect sense.
After my Halloween with Taylor, I didn’t even try to keep a professional distance. The word “boundary” wasn’t in Taylor’s worldview anyway. If she wanted to go somewhere, she did. Even if it meant stealing away the hearts of her therapists.
As much as I tried to build a functional communication system for Taylor, I never succeeded. However, I have rarely communicated with a patient as well as I communicated with that little sprite of a girl.
Usually, we were arguing. Usually, she was winning.
The longer I knew her, the more I realized that Taylor was right all along. Let’s not waste time on what doesn’t matter. The world is flooded with communication no one receives. Most of what we say slips through our consciousness without really registering. How many people, fully capable of speech, glide through life without really connecting? Without ever knowing, and being known by another soul. How many of us have never stopped to examine an interesting crack in the wall, or tried to kiss a bubble as it floated by?
How many fully-abled people live without really being alive?
After reading the book of Taylor, I couldn’t see cute, little chicks without thinking of her. It’s ironic that I associate little chicks with this amazing, beautiful girl. Chickens, you know, have wings and yet remain flightless. Birds equipped for journeys fate will not let them take.
But they don’t seem particularly perplexed by the situation. They are not angst ridden or bitter. They simply embrace wings that flap but don’t fly.
Taylor lived inside a body that barred her from fully experiencing the world. And yet, Taylor did not seem remotely concerned with her limitations. She cared nothing for the timelines of others. The agendas, the therapy goals, the IEP objectives. Tay was intensely interested in doing what she wanted to do. Living. Seeing. Doing. Being. She was the star in the book of Taylor and she knew it.
When Melanie told me of Taylor’s passing, I was sitting at my desk, at work. And somehow, it felt as if the lights were dimmed. The sun was shining, but the air was cold. I ended up wandering home. Wondering. Doubting. Unsure.
But slowly I started to recall everything I’d learned from the book of Taylor. The memories came dancing back. And I was holding that big eyed baby on a blue therapy mat. And trick or treating with a fuzzy chick on Halloween, and fishing my picture cards out of the ball pit… again. And I was laughing and crying at the same time.
And I wondered how to say goodbye to a beautiful, fierce, vibrant spirit. How could I let her family know and the world know that Taylor was indeed a “game changer” because she had radically changed me.
And then, suddenly I knew.
A tribute of joy.
Taylor taught us that when you can’t get around the puddle, you can at least have fun stomping through it.
Taylor taught us that boundaries are for maps but not people. Love is limitless. Coloring outside the lines is messy, but real.
At this point, I pulled a gigantic, yellow chicken suit out of my bag and began wiggling into it.
Taylor taught us that when you feel like lying down and quitting, it’s much more fun to kick your therapist.
Taylor taught us that communicating, being known, is beyond words and the language of hope is beyond full understanding.
She taught us to laugh, and giggle and play. And when needed, to tell bossy people where to “step off”.
I’m standing here in a chicken suit because sometimes that’s just the right thing to do.
Good bye, Taylor. Thank you. Thank you for shaking it up, keeping it real, and living in joy. The next time we’re together, you can teach us all how to fly.”
Standing in the front of the room swathed in yellow feathers, I looked up. And in the red eyes and swollen faces I glimpsed something new. A reflection of the joy Taylor had brought to so many.
It was then that I realized funerals are truly an opportunity to separate the living from the dead. But not in the traditional sense. The moment death arrived, Taylor had gone on ahead. She was instantly more alive than I have ever been. Free from earth’s restrictions and dancing in the presence of God.
No, funerals are not for the dead. They are for the living. As we sit in the pews, we have an opportunity to evaluate the corners and closets of our own lives. To pull open the drapes and let the searchlight of eternity illuminate how much life we are actually living. Life happens in the “now”. How many “now” moments are we completely consuming? How many “now” moments are we “living to the full”? In this way, Taylor was the least handicapped person I’ve ever met.
This Saturday, I will go to a funeral to celebrate the completed life of a noble and very kind man,and I will honor him by evaluating my own. I will separate what is living from what is dead in my cluttered heart. I will rededicate my life to following God alone, even if it means attending funerals in feathers. And then, I will walk out into the sunlight. And drive home.
Love Hollylu 7 < 8
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