Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of my sister and brother-in-law, Marilyn and Alex Kaplan, in an automobile accident near their home in southeastern Pennsylvania. In a tribute, their friend Rabbi Leah Berkowitz described Marilyn as a “sermon walking.” In my own sermon about six weeks later, I tried to explain why.
“We come and go like a ripple on a stream, so love me tonight, tomorrow was made for some, tomorrow may never come, for all we know.” I’d imagine that Sam M. Lewis, who wrote those words, had experienced his share of losses. The words are about romantic love, of course, but they apply to any kind of love.
How many of us have experienced a sudden and traumatic loss, or heard about a friend who did, and resolved to always tell those we’re close to how much we love them? And how many of us have failed to carry out that resolution – multiple times, probably? Most of us seem to live in fear – fear that we’ll be seen as silly expressing our love, and maybe worse yet, fear that we won’t be loved in return. We let that hold us back.
Marilyn Kaplan was an exception. For the last couple decades of her life, every conversation she had with the hundreds of people to whom she felt connected ended with the words that were her hallmark: I love you and I care. She said those words with warmth and sincerity, and you knew that she meant them.
She said those words to family members, old friends, members of her religious community, the many friends she made in Overeaters Anonymous, neighbors, and anyone else who understood that they could safely share their life’s burdens with her – a waitress, a store clerk, a local business owner. When she died, I’m sure there was not a single loved one anywhere in any doubt about how much she or he meant to my sister. And, since what goes around comes around, I believe that Marilyn died knowing she was loved.
She was not born “a sermon walking.” I am certain that there’s no walking-sermon gene in our family. So for the next 15 minutes or so, I’d like to examine her life for clues to help you and me toward the kind of grace she attained. And I’ll share with you something about her death that left me in a WWMD dilemma. (What would Marilyn do, and would I have the grace to do it?)
But first, in order to prove beyond a doubt that she was not born a walking sermon, I want to tell a story I don’t think I have ever told anyone. It happened when I was 12 or 13 and Marilyn was 23 or 24.
Our father had died a year or two earlier. Marilyn was newly married with two toddlers, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and I would spend most weekends with her and her family. One Friday, I arrived having learned a new word. I loved the sound of it, the silliness of it, and I kept using that word the way kids sometimes do – over and over and over for 24 hours or so. The word…was…”pudgy.”
And that Saturday night, after the children were asleep, the future sermon walking threw at the future Buddhist Unitarian Universalist every article at 218 Canford Drive, Broomall, PA, that was not permanently affixed to the structure. And I learned an early lesson in what the Buddhists call Right Speech.
As I think back now, in today’s greater awareness of stressors, I realize what an incredible period that was in my sister’s life. She got married, moved into a brand new house, had her first child 10 months later and her second child 11 months after that, followed almost immediately by our father’s death. There was a four-year gap before she had a third child, and then almost five years before the fourth.
My aversion to being around lots of little kiddies may have started in those years. As the family grew, it got harder to have a conversation with my sister and my visits became less frequent. She seemed one dimensional to me – the devoted housewife and mother – as I came of age in the era of Bob Dylan, Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, antiwar marches, teach-ins, and free-flowing marijuana.
The Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine has written that “what brings us to grace is not always pleasant, though it seems always to take us to something essential in ourselves.” That depends, of course, on how we handle life’s difficulties.
The monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in terms of watering seeds. He says we’re all born with seeds of anger, seeds of resentment, seeds of love, seeds of compassion, and so on. He believes that we can choose which seeds we water. He asks us not to deny or reject our anger and resentment, but to water lavishly the seeds of love and compassion. That’s a perfect description of my sister. She knew that there were times for anger and resentment, but she didn’t dwell in those states. She watered the seeds of love and compassion. And she attained greater grace through adversity. When life handed her lemons, she didn’t make lemonade, she planted a citrus garden.
In the 1970s, Marilyn and Alex had their share of the family melodramas one can expect with a house of children going through their teen years. Things got intense enough to drive them to family therapy. And also in the ‘70s Marilyn found Overeater’s Anonymous. I realize now that more than 30 years as a devoted OA participant was a huge factor in what made her a good listener, a great friend, a great waterer of the right seeds, able to find grace in adversity.
At one time, she was sponsoring and otherwise supporting so many OA-ers that Alex had to set a house rule – no calls before 7 a.m. And every day promptly at 7 the phone began ringing. She eventually stepped back from so much direct support, but she continued to the day she died attending several OA meetings a week and maintaining close relationships with her fellow 12-steppers.
In October 1983 Marilyn and I and the rest of our family suffered a tragedy no family should ever have to face. Our uncle and aunt – our mother’s brother and sister-in-law – were shot to death. And the killer was their son – our first cousin – who had grown up to be a paranoid schizophrenic.
I believe that loss and the death of our mother in 1990 – tempered by her years with OA and her religious community – gave Marilyn the resolve never to leave a loved one without expressing her love. Hence the earnestly expressed “I love you and I care.” But being a walking sermon involves more than that. At her funeral, Rabbi Peter Rigler identified another form of grace my sister had.
Rabbi Rigler was new to Temple Sholom, called in July 2009. In his eulogy for my sister and brother-in-law, he talked about how he met Marilyn in his first days there. She came to his office, introduced herself and offered her help in getting him settled. And then, Rabbi Rigler said, Marilyn suggested in the nicest and least confrontational way possible that he end the practice of giving out chocolate bars from the pulpit on children’s birthdays.
He thought about it, decided she was right and the next thing he knew Marilyn was standing in his office doorway with a big bag of toys from the Dollar Store. That was her kind of activism.
I certainly appreciated my sister when she was alive, but it was her death that led me – and many others who knew her – to reflect on how extraordinary she was in this world that Rabbi Berkowitz talked about in the reading, where so many spend their lives tearing other people down. But it was an incident after her death that tapped me on the shoulder and led me to do this sermon. Unfortunately, in order to explain it, I need to tell you a little about the accident.
As was their pattern, Marilyn was driving, with Alex in the passenger seat. We believe they were going to the movies. Always a slow and careful driver, Marilyn for an unknown reason lost control and swerved into the oncoming traffic. The first car to hit her clipped a corner just enough to swing the car around so that the next driver had no choice but to plow into the passenger side door.
I think it’s a testament to Marilyn and Alex’s karma that both of the other drivers reached out to the family. The driver of the first car came to the funeral. The driver of the second, a clergyman named David Moyer, obtained our phone number and clearly felt called to minister to us. The accident had broken his sternum and some of his wife’s ribs, and caused bruising to the 4-year-old grandson who was in their car, but Bishop Moyer left his car to be with my sister and brother-in-law, neither of whom was conscious.
My nieces and nephews met with Bishop Moyer at a time when I was unable to join them, and I spoke with him by phone a day or two later. He was greatly comforting to them and to me. I very much wanted to tell both drivers that one thing I know for certain is that, if Marilyn and Alex could communicate with them, they’d want to apologize for what they had put the drivers through. When I told the first driver that, he waved it away and said no apology was needed, which was fine. But Bishop Moyer did something even more gracious. He accepted the apology. He also told me that he prays to live as long and as happy a life as Marilyn and Alex had. He had a knack for saying just the right, most comforting thing.
After their in-person visit and before my phone conversation with Bishop Moyer, I had a conversation with some of my nieces and nephews. We were confused about his denomination. The church’s website identified it as Anglican, but Anglicans in the United States are called Episcopalians, so why…….
Oh, all of a sudden it came to me. Bishop Moyer was one of those for whom the Episcopal Church in the United States had become too liberal. In fact, after I researched it later, I learned that the Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania had deposed Moyer for his resistance to the church’s changes, such as the ordination of a gay bishop.
When that became clear to us, the climate in the room changed immediately. “I think less of him,” one of my nephews said. “That means he doesn’t accept my son.” And I struggled between my desire to speak with Bishop Moyer, who was with my sister at the end of her life, and my abhorrence of some of the things he stands for.
I couldn’t get out of my head the story that Rabbi Rigler had told about Marilyn and the chocolate bars. Could I have the conversation I wanted to have with Bishop Moyer and add something in a loving, non-confrontational way about inclusion? That was my WWMD dilemma. I decided to call him, rather than pay him a visit, and I had the very comforting discussion I already described. Despite myself, I felt greatly comforted by him.
In conversations I’ve had since then, I’ve found a lesson there in seeing the whole person. We can accept the good in others even when we disagree on an issue we consider essential. And in another context, one of my nephews mentioned the serenity prayer, which meant a lot to my sister, as it does to many who are in 12-step programs.
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
One thing we can change is ourselves. Someone from her temple asked me what made Marilyn and me so spiritual. I hadn’t thought of either of us that way, but in Marilyn’s case I’d say her spiritual practice was the hard work she did in OA, with a lot of support from her religious community.
That’s one lesson I see for the rest of us. If we want to find grace, if we want to be a sermon walking, we need a spiritual practice to help us water the right seeds. So I’m returning to the meditation practice I drifted away from over the last decade and offering a program here at UUCL for others who want to try it. Maybe someday someone will call me a sermon stumbling.
I put a quote from Maya Angelou in the order of service today about how we all can change the world, and here’s another one that sums up another lesson from my sister. Ms Angelou says: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
May we all feel loved and cared for, and may we all let others know how much we love and care for them.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine
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