At my grandmother’s funeral, I described her as my oldest best friend. Even five years after her death, I find myself driving in my car and reaching for my cell phone to call and talk to her. I forget she is not physically here with me anymore because her words, actions, and love are still so alive to me. I think Rachel Naomi Remen, author of My Grandfather’s Blessings, would understand this connection. She states, “Death is the end of a lifetime, not the end of a relationship.” This has never been so evident than in the pages of this book, where the words of Remen and her now deceased grandfather intermingle, creating an eternal conversation that I felt lucky to overhear.
Remen has been counseling people with chronic and terminal illness for more than twenty years. She cofounded the Commonweal Cancer Help Program and is their medical director. Commonweal is described as “a nonprofit health and environmental research institute”…it “conducts programs that contribute to human and ecosystem health — to a safer world for people and for all life.” Remen helped cofound this program after realizing that there was a lack of empathy, human touch, and connection between a patient and healthcare professional. She also observed that traditional medical training seemed to discourage feelings, empathy, and emotion. She couldn’t understand why the process of healing would ignore the heart and soul of a patient and a healthcare professional.
The book is organized into six larger sections that contain stories of Remen’s experiences with her patients, friends, and family. Even though most of the stories focus on interactions with people who have cancer or are terminally ill, there is not a depressing word in the book. Rather, every chapter infuses you with a sense of deeper connection with life, people, healing, and, yes, death. I read this book mostly in public places over the last few weeks and there were many times that I had to hide the tears running down my face. Also, I would put the book down, pick it up a few days later, and no matter what was going on in my life, I found myself touched with some message that I needed to hear at that time.
Remen and her grandfather shared a belief that everyone is connected and blessings can come from those you are most intimate with and total strangers. They also claim a blessing can be as small as someone returning a lost earring. I was in an airport when I was reading the story on being aware of small blessings. I started to make a list of observed acts of kindness around me. I wanted to see the blessings, not the confusion, the scurry, the self-focus that often happens when people are forced to travel long distances in small spaces.
As I started to look beyond the chaos, I noticed people blessing other people on a regular basis. The man who uprighted a woman’s suitcase when it fell over on her way to her seat, the friendly woman at the ticket counter who helped lift my heavy bag onto the scale, the man in the security line who let two older women go in front of him. The barking of “remove your shoes” and “we are at level orange” no longer seemed as threatening. Remen had reminded me that “when someone blesses you, it reminds you a little — untying the knots of belief and fear and self-doubt that have separated you from you own goodness. Freeing you to bless and receive blessings from everyone around you.” I admit there are times when I see nothing but hatred and intolerance in those around me. I want to fix and alter people’s behavior and the world itself. However, Remen shares that we cannot receive a blessing until we feel blessed. And, we are all blessed in at least one, if not many, ways. We need to stop and recognize this and allow the blessings to roll in. Remen also states that “blessing life may be more about learning how to celebrate life than learning how to fix life.” You mean I can celebrate life and give and receive blessings even when the ticket agent announces that my flight is going to be delayed? Yes.
Stories about healing can bring healing to those who listen to them. As I read each chapter, I underlined words, sentences, and paragraphs that acted like small dabs of ointment on the nicks and scrapes life has given me. However, I wasn’t expecting a gaping wound to be healed by a book — but it did. A year ago I moved back to my native California after living in Boston for four years. When I left California, I planned to just stay for the summer, working as an ESL teacher for a residential summer Upward Bound program. However, I liked the change a new coast had to offer, and I found a full-time job as a writing teacher at a Boston-based non-profit that worked with urban young adults. I was passionate about education, social justice, and empowerment through learning. I was ready to serve, and I did with all my heart for four years.
I broke up fights, supported pregnant teen mothers, and gave advice to scared single fathers. I spent long hours writing curriculum late into the night and on weekends in hopes that it would reach a student and help them overcome an obstacle they would have to face. I saw students succeed and fight against stereotypes and win. I grew to love my students and ached to see them succeed and get out of some of the worst neighborhoods in Boston. When I walked into my classroom each morning, I would never know what would be waiting for me. Several mornings I found a desk empty because a student had been arrested the night before. One morning, as I was preparing my lessons at my desk, I received a phone call informing me that my student intern wouldn’t be coming to work because he had been shot and killed the night before. This was followed by several other student deaths and a violent attack on one of my best students, who had survived the civil war in Sierra Leone, only to be beat up, robbed, and shot. He had entered a different type of civil war.
And then one day, as I stood in front of my class, something broke inside of me. I looked out at my students and felt a numbness that I couldn’t shake. It frightened me so much, this lack of feeling, that I closed my book and walked out of my classroom and never returned. Three months later I found myself living in California trying to forget about my students in Boston, and I felt that I had lost the battle, that I not only failed myself, but I had failed my students. I questioned if I had ever made a difference.
Remen’s book contains numerous stories about the concept of service. I was reading a few chapters before going to sleep one night when I read this passage: “Sometimes when a life of service has taken us to the fringes of human experience, what we find there is so overwhelming that our hearts can break.” My heart had broken and part of it was because, I realized, I had failed to grieve for all of the loss I experienced and all of the loss my students had shared with me. Remen says, “Grieving may be one of the most fundamental of life skills. It is the way that the heart can heal from loss and go on to love again and grow wise.” As I read further, Remen’s words continued to heal me. “One might think that compared to the size of the problem what we do means nothing. But this is simply not the case. When it comes down to it, no matter how great or how small the need, we can only bless one life at a time… It is not about changing a world I cannot change. It’s about touching the lives that touch mine in a way that makes a difference.”
As I read these words, I felt a peace settle over me. Perhaps I didn’t change the world, but I was deeply touched by my students during those four years, and with this knowledge, I was hopeful that I had touched their lives as well. Remen says, “How tempting… to put the struggle behind you as quickly as possible and get on with your life. Life might be easier then but far less genuine. Perhaps the wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.” It is my hope that, like me, you can find an unknown blessing waiting for you in this book and be able to finally let go.
Melanee Grondahl has been a college English instructor for ten years. She now writes and designs online curriculum for college textbooks. She finds that reading books and talking about them is a profound blessing.
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