Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

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Wounds Remembered

View from our tent MD

[View from our tent Friday morning, photo by Margy Dowzer]

Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island was a powerful, moving, four-day gathering, with teachings and ceremonies led by Indigenous elders from near and far.  It included the stories of so many people, many of which are not mine to tell. But I want to share some of my own story at the gathering.

Wabanaki means people of the dawn, and there were ceremonies at sunrise each day led by Bobby Billie, a spiritual leader from the Seminole in Florida. I am also a person called to the dawn, so I was present each day for that time.

The first day, several of us had gathered near the arbor in the mist around 5 a.m., but no one had yet arrived to lead the lighting of the fire.  So I prayed my own dawn prayers, and felt this message from the sun–“You are all bathed in love.”  Later that morning, Anishinaabe women from the Midewiwin Lodge sang a song about the love the Sun has for all of us.  I was so moved by the melody, the voices, the drumming on the Little Boy drum.  It went straight to my soul.  They said it was about the first woman to walk the earth, expressing her joy at seeing everything in creation.

The first day was devoted to healing the wounds carried within the hearts and minds of the people from our long history of violence.  The wound that became clear to me was a Great Forgetting:  first there was a great disconnection of my ancestors from their connection with all of creation, and then there was a great forgetting so that the people would be unaware that they were wounded, disconnected, and thus never realize that they had once been connected.  At the end of the ritual, we each were invited to offer tobacco to the fire and make a solemn promise.  My promise was to remember, to remember the wound and to remember the connection.

Also coming into my thoughts was the herb that has appeared on our land–St. John’s Wort–which has traditionally been understood as useful for depression, and also as a wound healer.  I seemed to hear in my mind, this plant can help when you remember the wound of disconnection, when you open to the pain underneath the great forgetting.  I had harvested some of the plants earlier in July, and they were infusing in oil at home–the oil turns red from the plants.  When I got home, I also harvested more of the plants and hung them to dry in our garage, for making tea.

I know that there will be many more rememberings, lessons I carry from this time, but perhaps that is enough for now.  I do want to offer my thanks to Sherri Mitchell who has carried the dream of these ceremonies for many years, and who called us together and enabled it to come alive.