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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Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom