People who put the “sweet” in “bittersweet”

4 June, 2017            People who put the “sweet” in “bittersweet”

Our Mom died in her sleep five months ago today. Friends of hers and of Dad’s and of ours throughout our lives joined us when we had her ashes interred yesterday morning at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). It was so sad to finally be burying Mom’s ashes and it was so joyful to be surrounded by such wonderful people in such a spectacular setting on such a gorgeous late Spring day. The experience was far more upsetting than I’d anticipated, but the closure feels more complete than what I’ve known so far.

Be forewarned, this post is even more scattered than my normal scattered post. 

My sister Sheila’s husband Greg Wiese took this picture. This is my brother Shane on the left holding his son Wesson, then me, then my sister Katie, my sister Sheila, my brother Kevin and our old family friend Father Shane MacCarthy:

With my brothers and sisters and nephew and family friend yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery

We were surrounded – surrounded – by the sweet presence of so many of our friends and loved ones. It’s still difficult for me to reconcile the joy of that community with the sadness of losing my mom. But the joy continues to rise to the top and it will stay there. Of course, no one would find that more delightful than my mother would.

Sheila arranged for the orange flowers in front of my dad’s gravesite and the yellow ones in front of our sister Ann Michele’s gravesite. All this beauty in a place as somber as a cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery is a special, special place. A few of Sheila’s flowers:

Flowers at Mom’s and Dad’s and Ann Michele’s grave yesterday

The thing about early June in Virginia is, things are growing. Everything is growing. There are close to half a million graves in ANC, but at least on a sunny June morning the place is vibrantly, almost disconcertingly alive. So it was fitting that almost precisely twenty-four hours later, Evelyn and I were in Richmond visiting our friend Ariel and a Carolina Wren swooped into a hanging basket over my head to feed its babies! After the wren flew out I stood up – it was just above my head – and pointed my camera deep into the heart of the scarlet begonia. And saw a baby Wren’s face peering out!:

Baby wren in nest today – see the yellow edges of its beak? And its little eyes? Scarlet begonia at left

Shane MacCarthy has been close to our families since the early 1970’s when he was a priest and we were parishioners at Saint Camillus church in Silver Spring, MD. He was visibly moved yesterday, and his service was powerful and eloquent. Shane spoke about a German theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Mr. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1943 and executed in 1945. Shane read something Mr. Bonhoeffer wrote while he was imprisoned: “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.

Shane reminded us at the outset to be mindful of the “gap” Mr. Bonhoeffer spoke of, and of it being kept empty to help keep alive my former communion with mom. As soon as those wrens began going in and out of that nest this afternoon, I thought of the wren’s nest my parents had every Spring in the wreath on their front door. I thought of that “gap” remaining unfilled, and how it will always be empty to keep alive what we enjoyed together.

There were more birds on nests at Ariel’s this afternoon too – but only the wrens were over my head. She has what must be the world’s most prolific pair of mourning doves raising yet another brood on the side of her house. I think they’re on their third brood of 2017, and it’s only June 4:

If you see a dove tomorrow, don’t be surprised if it comes from this parent

When Shane was talking about the “gap,” he was alluding to the way my mom would never let a gap grow between her and other people. He’d gotten a call from my mom recently – it was mom calling him to ask about his granddaughter. Even at eighty years old, she kept up with everybody, all the time. Shane’s own mother had died at 101 years old in 2014. Mom sent him a poem then, which she said she found “helpful in my grieving for Mike.” He then talked about how Mom had found something that helped her grieving for Dad, and she passed it to Shane to help him grieve for his mother, and he was now passing mom’s wishes back to us – to help us grieve for her. He showed us the email:

My Mom, sharing her own grief experience to help another person with his, and ultimately us with ours

You may recall last week’s post Happy Memorial Day! I took a pretty picture of the sunset from (of all places) our Kroger parking lot. If you missed it, have a look, especially for comparison to this one. If you want to see: Happy Memorial Day! Anyway, I took another one this week! Same place! You can tell by the parking lot lamp on the right side of the picture:

Yet another grocery store sunset

A favorite story of my Mom’s (she had like a trillion favorite stories, almost as many as my Dad) was when I was growing up and spotted one of these:

“Look! A blue!” – me, or at least according to my mom

I would say (according to her) “Look, there’s a blue!” Because (again, according to her) they’d point at one and say “Look, there’s a bluejay!” I’ll bet I wasn’t even five when that happened – and I’m fifty-five now and I still think about her saying that.

Anyway, I usually work with a guy real early on Monday mornings but he was out of town last week so (you’re in for a surprise) I took the dogs to the river! We got there just as the sun was coming up and it was barely light and an owl appeared in a spot I’d never seen one before. We each caught one another off guard. It only looked at me for the time it took to snap this blurry image; then it vanished. It was a treat to see it though:

It wasn’t this blurry in real life

Yesterday morning I left here before 7:30 so I’d be plenty early for the 10:30 funeral at Arlington. I pulled into the visitor’s parking lot at 9:30 and stepped out of the car to take a deep early morning breath. And a mockingbird landed on the fence behind me! My camera is never more than an arm’s length away; this was my first picture:

Mockingbird greets my arrival at Arlington National Cemetery

It is in every way bitter to bury your mother. But the sweet people she drew to join us in our grief were a treasure to spend the day with.

One of my nieces came from California, and a high school classmate of Mom’s came from Florida. My Dad’s cousin Neil came from Chicago. All five of their lovely granddaughters plus their handsome young grandson.

I got a lot of closure at the ceremony yesterday, but the river was calling the dogs and me this morning. We spent a long time down there. Even got to see my first Leopard Frog of 2017:

First Leopard frog (for me) in 2017

That was five minutes before I asked Mackey and Yuki and Turner to pose:

Posse at the Pasture

Anyway, I think I need a solid night’s sleep again tonight. In the unmistakable spirit of my late mother, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Have a great week, all best,


PS I can’t do a June blog post with the word “sweet” in it and not put a picture of a gardenia. This is one from Ariel’s yard today. About midway between the wren and the dove: 

The scent is practically coming through the picture



About Jay McLaughlin

I am a rehabilitation counselor. I have many friends with autism and traumatic brain injuries. They help me learn new things constantly. I hike with dogs at the James River in Richmond - a lot. I've completed an Iron distance triathlon a year for 11 years. My most recent was in Wilmington, NC in November, 2013. I currently compete in mid-distance triathlons. And work and hike and take pictures and write and eat.
This entry was posted in Birds, Blue Jays, Carolina wren, Dogs, Flowers, Fun, grateful dead, James River, mockingbirds, People, Pony Pasture, Rivers, scarlet begonias, Smiles (including "dog smiles"!), sunsets and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to People who put the “sweet” in “bittersweet”

  1. Sheila Wiese says:

    I love this post and feel the exact same way. So much joy and so much sadness.

    • I’m glad you loved it! That whole day – and after – were just a constant back/forth between joy/sadness. But, as with all things Jude (in my opinion), the sad notes fade to the background and the positives endure. We chose our parents well! Have a great day,

  2. Becky says:

    Jay, this post is so meaningful. I am so very sorry I was unable to attend your Mom’s service. I miss her phone calls so much. The poem was perfect. Thanks. And, please, stay in touch. Becky

    • Thank you Becky, it’s great to hear from you. I will never forget that morning up there when you were the first responder and you didn’t even know you were responding. We were sorry you couldn’t make it to Mom’s service too but we knew you were with us in spirit. Interesting you mention missing her phone calls so much. I hardly talk to anybody on the phone – she was by far the main person. On her caller ID I had a picture of her with one of her old dogs visiting our house. It always made me smile to see that. I will certainly stay in touch – Kevin and I inherited our Page Co property and I’ll be passing right by Bridgewater on our trips up there. Rescue 15 was so important to both of them and by extension to the five of us. I look forward to talking with you again soon! Thank you for your kind words and have an excellent day,

  3. Jackie says:

    Beautiful 😘

    • Thank you Jackie! It was so helpful for me to write it, it almost felt selfish. Thanks again and have a great day,


      PS I hope the messy little family who moved in on your front porch is thriving!

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