Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.

Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.

Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.

Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.

I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.

He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.

When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.

I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.

It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.

This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.Digital illustration: Stained Glass Flower

With a Full Heart

graphite drawingA Song of Farewell
Ends Only the Beginning

A fond farewell should only end the start
Of what emerged from nothing to become
Much greater than its origins, a home
For all that’s good and gracious in the heart–

What had begun in silence has grown deep
And richer than imagining could guess,
A tapestry of joy and tenderness,
A score of blended notes that time will keep–

Whose voices came together first in this
True confluence of sound and sweet accord
Cannot again move aught but closer toward
Such harmony as, now it’s found, is bliss–

For in love’s benedictory refrain
Awakens what all hearts must sing again.

graphite drawing

With gratitude to all at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas,
and especially to the choir, for welcoming us so kindly during this past year.

Kathryn Sparks
August 2012

Mothering Sunday


So there we were with a couple of bashful vergers posted with their baskets full of lovely handmade nosegays meant to recognize mothers, whether present among us or not. This is the pretty little presentation the Bishop's wife kindly took out and handed to me to honor my two mothers and their mothers, too, as well I would.

If you have any affiliation with things or persons British, you likely know that today is Mothering Sunday. As the Bishop informed the attendees this morning at the Anglican parish where my husband choir-conducts, it matters not that there is an American counterpart holiday–by the time that President Woodrow Wilson got around to declaring such a thing official in 1914, this congregation had already been celebrating Mothering Sunday for a good 35 years thanks to its British roots, and Texas-located or not, they sure as shootin’ weren’t going to stop recognizing mothers on this official day right along with the president’s little add-on festivity.

Anglophilic as I am, I’m hardly one to balk at keeping the faith with the old holiday myself, whether for stubbornness’ sake or for tradition, or for the beautiful British-ness of it all–though it originated as a Christian holiday, surprisingly, falling on the Sunday when one of the traditional texts began with a paean to Jerusalem, the ‘mother of us all’. But better than that, I happen to think that there are excellent reasons for celebrating mothers and motherhood as often and as publicly and resolutely as possible–two supremely excellent reasons to begin with: Elisabeth, who gave birth to me, and Joyce, who gave birth to my husband. I have two of the best mothers in the whole wide world. You can look it up; in any sensible encyclopedia or dictionary it will have a picture of the two of them in the entry explicating the heart and soul of the concept known as ‘Mom‘.

photo       photoYou could be forgiven if you thought from the accompanying photos of them that they had their work cut out for them with these two little melancholy looking shrimps of theirs but I assure you we, and our respective siblings, were all a supernal joy to raise from first to last. Okay, that part is pure baloney and bilge-water–but the point of course is how outstanding our moms were at mothering, and that part is utterly true. We were and are two incredibly fortunate humans, and we know it. No amount of roses and posies could possibly reflect the full spectrum of gifts that Joyce and Elisabeth have brought to both of our lives. But a sweet little nosegay with a brilliant deep pink rose is hardly amiss in the attempt.photoI made my own little corsage, of course, as a drawing of exotic (i.e., nonexistent inventions representing) flowers, because mere effusions in prose can never say how deeply grateful I am to have two such dear and devoted mothers to love. I am particularly and acutely aware of this when both, who have had their own adventures of survival and not just in spouse-training and child-raising over the years, are currently recovering from surgeries. Nothing like having one’s mom undergo surgery, especially as both are doing, surgeries that are not their first, to remind us of how fragile life and wholeness can be and how desperately we hope for our chance of having them back ‘better than new’ and with long and healthy and happy years ahead of them. The signs are good, despite the inevitable miseries of recovering bit by bit, with the expected setbacks, that our hopes will be fulfilled. The only medicine I can offer is love, and that I do send them in unspeakable abundance, but since my mother had spinal surgery I’m pretty sure a big hug is not the most desired form of cure even if I were 2000 miles closer to her, and since my other mom is probably still bandaged up here and there a bit herself, the same 2000 miles nearer-my-mom-to-thee might just prove a little too abrasive as well. So from this safe distance I send e-hugs, ethereal kisses and two-dimensional bouquets and eagerly hope to see both of our mothers springing with good health in June.

graphite drawing

I wish and hope that both of our beloved mothers will last even longer than a little drawing of a bouquet can before it fades like live flowers.

If you are a mother yourself–biologically or by adoption–or act as a nurturer and sheltering presence for anyone, I wish you endless bouquets as well. Without all of you, none of us would be here. Literally, of course. But in the wider sense, we owe an immense debt to the caregiving and protective and human-betterment instincts so often attributed to mothers and grandmothers and godmothers and aunts, and rightly so, but also gracefully and beautifully practiced by teachers and community builders and cooks and nurses and companions and shelter-builders of every age and nature who have the desire to make the world better for those who might not be able to make it sufficiently so for themselves. Thank you. Especially you, Elisabeth and Joyce. You are treasures beyond invention. I can think of no higher aspiration than that others should take their example from