In the quiet of a Sunday morning, after reading a few selections of the Daily Office, I settled into the pages of May Sarton’s book, Plant Dreaming Deep. This particular book records the personal story of how, at age 46, Sarton came to own her first home in Nelson, New Hampshire. I open to chapter one then glance at the title: “The Ancestor Comes Home”. It is a hint of grace that this chapter should set the table for All Saints Day so perfectly.
I love May Sarton’s writing — her prose is beautiful, her memories hold power, and her angst over indecision is eerily familiar. But as I enter Sarton’s world, I find I have more in common with Sarton than a shared angst over decisions. She unwinds a few frames from the days of her life to tell how she lost both parents by the time she had reached middle age, one in a lingering death and one in the space of hours. My parents seem destined for this same divide and conquer method themselves; Mom is already gone, felled like Sarton’s great oak father, while Dad is withering on the vine like Sarton’s mother.
The deaths of Sarton’s parents set in motion the dismantling of her parent’s life. And without any plan to do so, my thoughts immediately turn to my younger sister. Christi has been living in the shadow of this reality for the last two months, as she has begun to take stock of my parent’s household and make plans for its destiny, whether it be landfill or another’s lucky home. Sarton’s words about her death rendered event echo in the chambers of my own heart, just as they will soon echo in the vacant house that was my parent’s home.
“…I flew back through that long day to a house that was no longer home. It was all sudden, violent, and terrible. Within a week the house had been sold, and within two months dismantled, the books gone, everything torn apart of the fabric of my parents’ lives together. I went through those months like a person in a dream, hardly conscious, making decisions because they had to be made.”
Christi too is “making decisions because they have to be made.” However, I’m very grateful that my sister moves at a slower pace than Sarton, even as each passing day makes more clear that Daddy will never leave the nursing home to return to his home on the hill. That’s our reality in a hard nutshell. And of course the reality has always been there, keeping us company, nudging us toward recognition, in hopes that we might see IT for the truth it is and name it into existence. I’ve never thought these thoughts before — that the hardest part of reality is its mere acceptance.
Last June, when Dad was a new and (so I then thought) temporary resident of the nursing home, I looked Daddy in the eye and told him he was a saint. Daddy was surprised at my words. Daddy knew he wasn’t perfect and even in his demented state, Daddy knew I knew this too. So I went on. “Daddy, you’re a saint not because your perfect. You’re a saint because your real.” And as soon as I spoke these words, I realized their truth, that they explained so much about who I am and what I hold most dear.
Dressing up in a Halloween costume of pretense and assumed identity is fun. But it’s when the masks come off that the beauty and truth of a person is revealed. For far too many, the masks stay on until death do it part. But for others, it happens inch by inch. We see these as the Mother Teresa’s of our world. But whether alive or dead, we all become saints sooner or later. We enter sainthood by owing — accepting the reality — of our own imperfect truth — our own imperfect humanity. And when we no longer pretend to be other than who we really are — when our eyes open to our own beautiful brokeness — we become just like Daddy.