Posted by: Nancy | February 12, 2015

“When Great Trees Fall”

I have been thinking of my family lately. In my mind’s eye, younger sister is at the center and she is represented as the tree. The rest of the family, my three brothers and I, are in a circle around the tree.

I have written of my sister before. She has Down Syndrome, and at 51, she has had many remarkable adventures and experiences: success as an artist, competing as an athlete in Special Olympics, a 25-year career with a public library, international travel, a love of dining out and trying new foods, the companionship of many friends. And from most who know her, a constant love.IMG_1818

The role of the siblings around her has changed over time. When she was very young, we provided nurturing and guidance and room to grow.  Later, we celebrated her successes and delighted in her joy. And now, as she is declining, we stand to support and cherish her.

We who make up the circle have grown closer together by her presence. She is the center, the focal point of the family, our reason for connection. We have also become better, stronger people because of her. She taught us patience and tolerance, how to laugh and take risks, how to really know joy.

These days, after her latest setback (a result of seizures and diminished brain capacity), we gather around her even more tightly and tenderly.

We struggle with her struggles, but I —we— will not mourn what is lost.

We will celebrate what exists in her still — the essence of her beautiful spirit. I see her earliest mannerisms, they way she brings her hands together and twinkles her fingers in joy. She laughs and giggles. She still tells herself stories, making sense of her world as best she can. She still is attracted to art and wants to create, she tries to establish her process. She still loves all those around her.

Her core is unchanged. We know she will lose more of her physical and mental abilities. We know that ultimately we will lose her physical presence. But I now realize that I do not need to feel less loved. All her love, her essence, does not change.

Back to the tree — the image came when a friend recently reminded me of Maya Angelou’s poem When Great Trees Fall. (The poem appears in her fifth volume, I Shall Not Be Moved.)

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,
dependent upon their nurture,
now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.

We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
dark, cold caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

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