The Quality of Mercy. . .

by Maria Theresa Maggi on October 31, 2021

. .is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. .

–The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

Though my neighborhood is not formally a retirement community, the lion’s share of my neighbors are retired. in addition to living alongside each other as we age, we also witness the aging of the dogs we walk every day. One of my neighbors I know in the dog walking context recently lost his elderly dog Sophie. Though I don’t know him well, he’s always full of pleasant how are you’s and concerns for safety during the pandemic. He and his wife have built a little free library in the front of their house, a detail I am endeared to. His greetings always include Cotton and he once stopped to tell me how patient I was with Cotton and how good to him (which is no brain easy to do pretty much most of the time). My greetings have always included Sophie as well. I knew he had lost her when I saw him walking alone from afar. But with weather and different walking schedules I didn’t see him again for some time. When I did pass him on his way to our mailbox bank I made a point to stop and offer my deep sympathy.

A few weeks ago I passed him on his way to the mailbox bank again. When he got a few feet past me after our greeting he suddenly stopped and called out to me. He asked me if I used flea medication for Cotton. He asked me how much Cotton weighed. Then he said he had extra expensive prescription flea meds he had no use for. Would I take them and use before the expiration date or pass them on to someone who would?

Cotton has a flea med that works for us and it’s not likely I’d use this. Still, something made me say, “sure.” I wanted to see his face lighten. As I waited while he loped back the few yards to his driveway to go retrieve them, I realized this was of course about more than sharing flea meds. My acceptance of this offer was also a way for him to release some of his grief, to not have to look at the expensive prescription that will not be used. Just one less thing to remind him Sophie is gone. Viewed from this standpoint, it really didn’t matter if I could use it, or find someone else to use it. What mattered was that I accept it from him, and let him feel even a little bit of relief that perhaps another dog will benefit and he will not be reminded it has no use.

I think of this whenever I see those 3 months of flea meds in my dog supplies that I most likely won’t do much of anything with, and it continues to make me glad I could ease that grief a bit. My neighbor is older than I am and often I’ve seen that older seniors than I choose not to get another animal (which at this point I find almost impossible to imagine), so anything I can do to ease the painful finality of such a transition I’m grateful I can do.

_____

The week before last I got a text from my son that read “there [they] be,” accompanied by two photographs. There was my foster grand baby sitting in a swing, bigger, with a head of blond hair new to us and a serious scowl on their face. My daughter-in-law had asked the social worker who relays the care packages they send if it were possible to see a picture. There is still no direct contact from birth mom, who claims it’s hard to obtain computer time for a virtual visit when the other moms get priority for their court mandated visits. There is no court mandate asking her to let my son and daughter-in-law see our foster sweetheart, so this was the first image we’d seen of them since they were reunited with birth Mom last July.

Of course it was exciting to see how they’d grown and how blonde their hair is, and that they were wearing a pair of pants my son and daughter-in-law sent in the first care package. But the contrast between the expression on their face and body language compared with all of the photos we have of them was sobering. At first my son joked that they had their grumpy face on—like their foster daddy—and we laughed. But the power of a photograph is undeniable. I remember this from long ago when the first assignment I helped create for a large bevy of university writing instructors teaching freshman composition was to analyze a photograph—a personal one. While it is true that we had seen that face on them before, and while it is also true they just could have been having a bad morning or afternoon, there it was, frozen in time. The difference between the photos of them I already have and this one shocked me when I uploaded it to my computer and it came up next to the others I had left open on my desktop. By that weekend my son was deeply sad and back to blaming himself for not taking extraordinary measures to save his foster child, and feeling like he had failed the child he loves. My heart broke with his all over again.

A few mornings after that I woke up and found myself on a train of thought that brought old songs to mind, in particular “Somewhere My Love,” that used to be my parents favorite from Dr. Zhivago. I started to sing it and burst into tears at “someday, we’ll meet again my love, some day, whenever with Spring breaks through/you’ll come to me/out of the long ago/warm as the wind/soft as the kiss of snow/till then my sweet, think of me now and then/god speed my love/’til you are mine again.” I really broke down when I thought of the song from West Side Story, “Somewhere” and the bridge in the middle that says “we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving/ somewhere.” I needed that cry.

I keep a light on a collection of stones and shells from the beach for my foster grand baby that stays on all night, so that, if in their dreams they should travel here, they will find their way and know they are loved. The other night I noticed it was shining especially bright in the dark. During the days I also started to notice that I was drawn back to this painful image of them in the swing seat. I started to let myself look more, and even pat their virtual head. I started to tentatively explore letting myself feel whatever they were feeling.

When I told my son that I had had a good cry about our foster baby, he shared with me that he had had to delete the photograph from his phone because he couldn’t handle it. I let him know that I understood and I supported him in doing whatever he needed to be okay enough to put one foot in front of the other. I thanked him for sending it to me so I could share and understand the impact first hand. Apparently my daughter-in-law decided against sending it to her mother, which her mother tells me in our talks is probably a good thing.

So here I am with it. And yet I don’t feel stuck. It’s not easy to look at, but it’s easier when I try to think about how he must feel and have compassion for it than if I think about how it’s all changed and we failed –or more accurately—were not legally allowed–to do anything to prevent it.

Recently, with Halloween coming up, I opened the book my daughter-in-law made and gave to each of us and to my foster grand baby and his birth mom. It’s a photo essay describing their first year and first experiences with us as family. I knew there were photos of first Halloween, including some of a large   came from my daughter-in-law’s mother’s garden being carved with foster grand baby’s “help.” I looked at all the photos again and felt all the happiness and love. When I closed the book, I discovered a picture and caption on the back I had forgotten about, since I always have the front cover showing near the lights and shells and stones. It’s an image of foster grand baby at the bottom of a slide after a ride down. They are ever so pleased and grateful, their face full of love and discovery and accomplishment and feeling supported. The caption reads, “I am [foster grandbaby’s name]. I am loved.” I decided to turn the book around to show this photo and this caption before I went to bed. And I told this to the photograph in the swing.

The morning after when I woke up, I had another inspiration. Instead of the songs that made me cry, it came to me to visualize me there on that playground, lifting my foster grand baby out of that swing and giving them a big hug. Rubbing their back, talking to them about how much they’re loved and all the people and animals who love them. Maybe singing them a song. Maybe showing them a flower or a bird or even the goats they used to love going to see. I visualize holding them against my heart until their tension dissipates. Perhaps we rock side to side a little to help that along.

I also see them pushing back from me to give me a winning smile, ready to explore the world again.

I know I am making this up. But if it’s what I can do as the holder of this photograph for my side of the family, then it’s worth it. It may well happen that our foster grand baby is becoming a different person than we knew him to be, and that we are becoming people who will not be known to him. But deep in the heart, where mercy resides, beyond the heartbreak and bitterness and pain, I find I have the strength to envision lifting them out of that swing. And so I do.

When the process of reunification became a reality last Spring, I committed myself to becoming as strong as I could be, in order to withstand it and to be of support to my son and daughter-in-law—and my foster grand baby– through it all. I have returned to the healthiest whole food choices for me in my daily eating. I have lost those extra pandemic pounds. I have started to run on the beach, and when it rained all week I ran on the pavement.  When the skies cleared and the ocean calmed, I went back onto the beach and at this writing my original goal to run to the mouth of School House Creek has been achieved.

I am proud of these external accomplishments and how gradually feel myself become stronger as I pace myself and allow time for rest and recovery. But most of all I am proud of how these choices have made me stronger within, lifting my spirits at times while also helping me face my heartbreak. I’m grateful that such actions as I try to describe here feel to me like an extension of a Buddhist breathing practice in which the suffering of the world is breathed in and unconditional love is breathed out back to it.

Often we don’t like to be the ones left holding something for someone else, particularly something they don’t want anymore or don’t know what to do with themselves because it’s too painful. But I believe sometimes being the one who can do that is a small act of mercy in a harsh world. I continue to trust such a seemingly humble and overlooked acceptance can be an act of grace beyond our understanding. I keep the unused dog medicine and the photograph because I can, and because I still can imagine healing. If something can be imagined, then it continues to have a chance at being possible. If I can breathe more healing out into the world, even in my imagination, I am going to do it. I’m going to keep the promise of healing alive. I won’t be able to do it every second. But the times I am able to do it hold great strength. I put my faith in that strength whenever it is available to me, and I pray for the patience to be surprised by results I can’t anticipate.

Maria (moonwatcher)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Veronica November 2, 2021 at 9:21 am

Oh, my heart broke reading this. I’m holding space for you, your son and daughter-in-law, and grandbaby, and will breathe some hope and healing out into the world when you take a break to rest. We don’t yet know how things will evolve, but I, too, have faith in the inner strength we all have. Sending you love and hugs. xoxo

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2 Maria Theresa Maggi November 2, 2021 at 12:14 pm

Thank you ever so much, Veronica–means the world to me. You are truly a sweetheart.

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3 Silvia November 3, 2021 at 8:57 am

May you be happy! May you be blessed.
May you all be held in love!
May the little one be blessed and comforted!

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4 Maria Theresa Maggi November 3, 2021 at 1:16 pm

Thank you ever so much, Silvia! xoxoxo

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