Many “firsts” of our lives stay with us a lifetime. It’s not necessarily because they are spectacular, but simply because they are first.
First loves, whether or not they end well leave indelible impressions. It certainty has been the case for me. I recall two first loves; one was Elise (I was 10, maybe). The other ‘first’ was Barbara with whom I fell in love in my adolescence. Perhaps Barbara was really a second but it felt like a first – but I make too fine a point of this. In any case, I remembered both. That was around seventy years ago.
I don’t remember what Elise looked like, except she was tall. I spoke to her twice. I loved from afar. She moved in across the street and, from my window, I yearned for her as I’d see her come and go. For Barbara it was different, more substantive, truly relational. I loved her as a person and we did memorable things together – like going up to Manhattan to see Noel Coward’s romantic tear jerker, “Brief Encounter.” I was a teen-ager then and we both cried as we watched it.
Romantic love is among the most capricious of our human adventures; like atomic fission, the forces that generate it remain hidden, but they are powerful and unstable and, if not handled carefully, end in meltdowns. Our loves, such as they may have been remain incredibly memorable.
There are other firsts, far less emotionally laden, but nonetheless have left me with an impression lasting my lifetime.
One memorable ‘first’ for me was the day my grandmother showed me how to burn holes in a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The incendiary nature of the trick seemed ‘un-grandmotherly’ to me. Her teaching me, however, legitimized any darker fantasies I might have entertained for starting fires. If grandma thinks it’s ok, it must be ok. In either case, I remember taking the magnifying glass outside and making lots of holes in sheets of paper. They looked like pixels and I even burned my first name into a stick of dry wood.
There was another ‘first’ when a friend and I constructed telephones from string and two tin cans. We punctured the cans at the bottom, fed the string through each hole, knotted both ends and then walked far enough apart to draw the string taught. We talked about two minutes and the string broke. We talked, it broke again. We repaired it and resumed our conversations several times. It may not have been uninterrupted service, but it was a first and, for a young boy in 1942, it was pure magic.
But, a first in our lives may also be a last if we can believe Dr. Christopher Kerr, whom many heard recently speak here in Easton. His work in hospice with dying people led him to believe that the ideation of dying people are not incoherent ideas and delusions, products of the dying’s disintegrating consciousness. Traditionally, these ideas have been dismissed as such. Dr. Kerr believes that, as the dying prepare to leave this world, they are making a purposeful spiritual return, a pilgrimage of sorts, returning to rendezvous with the first significant people in their lives. For the dying, we normally think of the main task as saying goodbye. Kerr suggests that there’s another undertaking; it’s reuniting with the first significant people of our lives and greeting them. In the act of dying, we are both going and coming.
I had my initial experience with this as a young priest. I was sitting with a young woman whose mother was dying. The young woman was holding her mother’s hand. She heard her mother greeting her own mother who had died when she was a small child. It was a moving moment for the young woman holding her mother’s hand. She was joined both here and there; here with her mother and there, as her mother was greeting her own mother, over there.
Dr. Kerr has witnessed enough of these kind of phenomena to find them credible, enough to make his life’s mission one to help people become aware of it. In one of Kerr’s Ted Talks, a woman, who was his patient, permits him to record her experience.
“I was lying in bed and people were walking very slowly by me . . . all very friendly . . . they touched my arm or my hand when they went by . . . all people I knew. My mom and dad were there, my uncle, everyone I knew was dead was there . . . I knew it was my mon and dad and uncle and brother-in-law. . .. I remember seeing every piece of their face. . .. I have seen my mother recently, more.”
In another account, Dr. Kerr tell the story of Mary. “She was near the end of her life and her four children were also present. One day Mary starts cradling a baby that nobody sees. She refers to him as Danny – a name no one understands. Mary’s sister arrives from out of town and explains that Danny was Mary’s first child, who was stillborn, a loss so deep she never spoke of it during her life.”
Kerr comments: “Yet while dying, this indescribable loss returns to her in some manner of warmth and tangible love . . . a dying patients’ physical wounds that could not be cured, yet her spiritual wounds were being tended to.”
What pleases me about what Dr. Kerr is doing is how he simply documents what he is being told and, in so doing, he discloses a spiritual dynamism undergirding all of life without making it either formulaic or dogmatic. He’s not remotely preachy. It is what it is, and he simply tells us what he is being told. It has to be said that the gift he brings to a world hungering for spiritual sustenance is that he has the ears to hear and understand.
I’ve always been drawn to T.S. Eliot’s classic line from his poem, Little Gidding.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It’s comforting for me to consider that many of the firsts of my life I shall one day return to, but then I will see them in a new way.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.