Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘faith’

Death Like the Old Movies

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

I wish death happened like it used to in the old movies. You know, those deathbed scenes were everyone gathers around, makes amends, say their good-byes, and drift off with visions of God and the angels dancing in their eyes. But it rarely does. Deathbed conversions are few and far between.

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When death approaches, or has taken place, most people live their faith, their beliefs (or their disbelief) in a God, or the hereafter, the same as they have the rest of their lives. If they believe in some creative force that is more than what we can see, they continue to do so through sickness and loss. If they believe God has a plan for everything that happens, and that Jesus is their savior, they continue to do so until their dying breath. If someone feels that there is no God, supreme being or spiritual meaning for anything on earth, they hold on to that belief after their loved one’s body is buried deep in the ground.

A friend once told me, as their mother was dying, that no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make herself believe the same as her mother had all her life. She desperately wished she could. She wanted to understand and connect with her mother before she passed on in a way she had never been able to. She said that for awhile she pretended to believe as her mother had, but she knew she was pretending. She even went to her mother’s church and read the same readings and scriptures, without any change of heart.

A client I met with for several months repeatedly expressed her frustration that her husband had never believed in God. She couldn’t understand how he had gone to his death without accepting God into his life. For over forty years she had tried to convert him and get him to go to church, always believing that someday he would see the spiritual light.

A member of my family had an understandably difficult time when my uncle killed himself, and sincerely worried about his soul, wondering if he was suffering as much after death as he had during life. They prayed that God would forgive my uncle and provide the serenity that had always seemed to be just beyond his reach. The only way they could make sense out of the tragedy was to believe that he was “in a better place”. They had always believed that God provides happiness and peace, and used that faith to provide personal comfort, safety and meaning.

Belief in God, a Great Spirit, Nature, Jesus, or some other religion or spiritual path, doesn’t mean that people don’t question, argue, bargain or get angry with that in which they believe.

A colleague of mine was enraged when her daughter was killed in a car accident. She felt like her religious tradition had lied to her. “How could a loving God let such a bad thing happen to such an innocent child?! How could He take her at such a young age?!” She still believed in God, but couldn’t make sense out of what had happened. “Somebody was responsible for this!” she said. “There has to be a reason!” She prayed to God for an answer. “But all I could hear was myself talking to the empty air,” she explained. “It took me years of asking ‘why’, begging for an answer, before God gave me the strength and understanding to live with not knowing.”

Another client blamed God for allowing her abusive ex-husband to survive and live with his alcoholism, while her hard-working, kind friend died from liver cancer. She overflowed with unanswerable questions. “Why didn’t that son-of-a-you-know-what get this awful disease instead? Why does my friend have to deal with this? What did she ever do? Why? Why? Why?” Her friend continued to work as long as possible, and remained true to her sweet loving self until her death a year and a half later.

As in most sweeping statements of finality there are exceptions. Occasionally someone reacts to death and loss differently than they have lived the rest of their lives.

A woman I interviewed a few years ago said she made a bargain with God and it changed her life. As the car she was driving hit a side rail on the freeway, and begin rolling over and over she said, “God, if you let me live to raise my young son I’ll dedicate my life to you.” She had never believed in God and didn’t know where that had come from, but she said she heard a voice answer her that said, “Yes”. She survived the accident, continued raising her son as a single parent, and never forgot her promise. Though she had always seen herself as a selfish person, she started thinking of others and became involved in a number of charities. When her son was killed ten years later she never wavered from her promise and used her son’s death to inspire her to do even more of “God’s work”.

Death and grief can crack open our hearts. They can change our perceptions of how we see the world. They can wake us up to the reality of pain and suffering in ways that we never thought possible. Within the midst of such grief and pain we can reach out for comfort, look within for guidance, and find compassion and forgiveness from our religion, community or sense of personal responsibility.

Mourning can be a catalyst for clarifying our values and deepening our understanding, but it doesn’t mean we will throw our beliefs out the window or change our spiritual faith. We need not despair over our usual conditioned human response to loss. There’s always an old movie with a good deathbed scene we can find at the video store, take home and imagine ourselves saying our good-byes, making last minute amends and being carried off to the heavens!

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

Stop Meriam’s Execution

A judge in Sudan just sentenced 27-year-old Meriam to 100 lashes and death by hanging for violating her faith and marrying a Christian man.

We must act immediately to save Meriam from this horrific death. Click here to sign the petition asking the United States and the United Kingdom to intervene and put pressure on Sudan to stop Meriam’s execution.

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Meriam is 8 months pregnant and has a 20 month-old child. The courts are convicting her of violating her Muslim faith and adultery because her marriage to a Christian man is void under Sharia law. But Meriam says she was raised by her mother as a Christian her whole life.

Adultery and violation of faith should not be considered crimes at all, let alone acts worthy of the death penalty. Human rights groups are calling this a breach of international human rights law.

If enough of us raise our voices in protest against this horrific sentencing, the government of Sudan will be forced to protect Meriam from execution. Please sign the petition to join the campaign to protect Meriam.

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Thank you for taking action,

Jen
Care2 and ThePetitionSite Team

Islamic School In Synagogue

Islamic school plans to move onto St. Louis synagogue campus
July 20, 2012

(JTA) – An Islamic school in the St. Louis area, the Al Manara Academy, is planning to move onto the campus of a local synagogue, B’nai El Congregation in Frontenac, Mo.

By August, the Islamic day school plans to move to the space previously occupied by the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy, according to the St. Louis Jewish Light. A conditional permit of use was approved Tuesday by the Frontenac City Council, limiting the number of students to 100, the newspaper said.

Amye Carrigan, B’nai El president, told the Jewish Light that a “firm, signed lease agreement” is not yet signed with the Reform congregation. “If and when it happens, I hope it’s going to be a very positive thing for the community,” she said. “This arrangement can be a wonderful opportunity for understanding and promoting positive outcomes.”

Earlier this year, the Reform Jewish Academy merged with the Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis to form the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. It will operate on the campus of Congregation B’nai Amoona, which previously housed the Schechter school.

Phillip Paeltz, a board member of Al Manara Academy, told the Jewish Light that the operation is “an Islamic school which seeks to train students in the Islamic faith, but also prepares them for a multicultural world.” He said, “As Muslims, we refer to all Jews as people of the book. In so many places in the world there are conflicts between Muslims and Jews. Hopefully, this is a time when we seize the opportunity to work together.”

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Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed,
National Director
Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances
Islamic Society of North America
Phone 202-544-5656 Fax 202-544-6636
110 Maryland Ave NE, Suite 304
Washington DC 20002
www.ISNA.net

Muslim & American

Resolution of the Fiqh Council of North America. Adopted in its General Body Meeting held in Virginia on September 24-25, 2011

On Being Faithful Muslims and Loyal Americans

Like other faith communities in the US and elsewhere, we see no inherent conflict between the normative values of Islam and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Contrary to erroneous perceptions and Islamophobic propaganda of political extremists from various backgrounds, the true and authentic teachings of Islam promote the sanctity of human life, dignity of all humans, and respect of human, civil and political rights. Islamic teachings uphold religious freedom and adherence to the same universal moral values which are accepted by the majority of people of all backgrounds and upon which the US Constitution was established and according to which the Bill of Rights was enunciated.

The Qur’an speaks explicitly about the imperative of just and peaceful co-existence, and the rights of legitimate self-defense against aggression and oppression that pose threats to freedom and security, provided that, a strict code of behavior is adhered to, including the protection of innocent non-combatants.

The foregoing values and teachings can be amply documented from the two primary sources of Islamic jurisprudence – the Qur’an and authentic Hadith. These values are rooted, not in political correctness or pretense, but on the universally accepted supreme objectives of Islamic Shari’ah, which is to protect religious liberty, life, reason, family and property of all. The Shari’ah, contrary to misrepresentations, is a comprehensive and broad guidance for all aspects of a Muslim’s life – spiritual, moral, social and legal. Secular legal systems in Western democracies generally share the same supreme objectives, and are generally compatible with Islamic Shari’ah.

Likewise, the core modern democratic systems are compatible with the Islamic principles of Shura – mutual consultation and co-determination of all social affairs at all levels and in all spheres, family, community, society, state and globally.

As a body of Islamic scholars, we the members of FCNA believe that it is false and misleading to suggest that there is a contradiction between being faithful Muslims committed to God (Allah) and being loyal American citizens. Islamic teachings require respect of the laws of the land where Muslims live as minorities, including the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, so long as there is no conflict with Muslims’ obligation for obedience to God. We do not see any such conflict with the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. The primacy of obedience to God is a commonly held position of many practicing Jews and Christians as well.

We believe further that as citizens of a free and democratic society, we have the same obligations and rights of all US citizens. We believe that right of dissent can only be exercised in a peaceful and lawful manner to advance the short and long term interests of our country.

The Fiqh Council of North America calls on all Muslim Americans and American citizens at large to engage in objective, peaceful and respectful dialogue at all levels and spheres of common social concerns. We call upon all Muslim Americans to be involved in solving pressing social problems, such as the challenge of poverty, discrimination, violence, health care and environmental protection. It is fully compatible with Islam for Muslims to integrate positively in the society of which they are equal citizens, without losing their identity as Muslims (just as Jews and Christians do not lose their religious identity in doing the same).

We believe that emphasis on dialogue and positive collaborative action is a far better approach than following the paths of those who thrive on hate mongering and fear propaganda. Anti-Islam, anti-Semitism and other similar forms of religious and/or political-based discrimination are all forms of racism unfit for civilized people and are betrayal of the true American as well as Islamic values.

May the pursuit of peace, justice, love, compassion, human equality and fellowship prevail in the pluralistic mosaic that is the hallmark of our nation.

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed,
National Director
Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances
Islamic Society of North America
110 Maryland Ave NE, Suite 304
Washington DC 20002
www.ISNA.net

Goddess of Cancer – Scene 5

Excerpt from Goddess of Cancer and Other Plays by Gabriel Constans.

Goddess of Cancer – Scene 5

Characters

GODDESS: Multi-cultural woman of no particular age. Face painted a variety of flesh tones. Hair a mixture of blond, brown, red, black and gray. Long rainbow-colored robe. Changes persona frequently.

VICKI: Asian-American woman in her twenties. Casual dress. Animated. Angry. Anxious. Scared.

WENDY: European-American woman in her thirties. Conservative dress. Quiet. Shy. Fearful.

JENNIFER: African-American woman in her forties. Business suit (beeper). Intellectual. In control. Avoids emotion.

LENNIE: Mexican-American woman in her fifties. Flowing skirt, flowery blouse. Insightful. Compassionate.

BARBARA: Arab-American woman in her sixties. Gray skirt and sweater (wearing a cross). Strong. Survivor. Dogmatic. Angry. Tired.

CHANTALL: Jewish-American woman in her seventies. Slacks and blouse (gray wig, in wheelchair). Humerous. Matter of fact. Sarcastic. Worried.

Setting

Living room. White couch center stage facing audience. White chair next to couch, stage left and black coffee table in front of couch. Large green plant on floor between couch and chair. Flowers in a vase on table. White door stage left. Three large pictures with red frames on wall behind couch. One picture is of the Grim Reaper, one is of an angel and the other an hourglass. Black bar facing audience stage right, with potted plant on its corner. A light switch is on the wall by the bar. Closed cupboard behind bar is full of cigarettes.

A slide-projector (with a color slide of each actor’s face shown at beginning of each scene) is placed on one end of the bar for the Goddess to operate or in front of the stage and controlled by a stage member.

Time: Afternoon or early evening. Present.

ACT I

SCENE 5

(Barbara’s photo appears on screen/wall.)

GODDESS: Barbara. Sixty. Housewife. Mother of five children, six grandchildren. Married to Yusef. Abdominal cancer and surgery two years ago. In remission? (Act’s surprised.) Oh well, better luck next time.

(Goddess turns off projector and lights on. She goes to the bar, pours a glass of red wine and places it on the coffee table. There is a knock at the door. She goes over and opens door. Barbara enters.)

GODDESS: Barbara, what a pleasant surprise. Come in.

(Goddess offers her hand in greeting.)

BARBARA: (Glares at Goddess. Doesn’t lift her hand to shake back.) Nothing pleasant about it!

GODDESS: Of course not. You’re right. Sit down.

(Goddess and Barbara both go to couch and sit at opposite ends.)

GODDESS: (Offers glass.) Like some wine?

BARBARA: (Looking offended.) I don’t drink!

GODDESS: I’m sorry. Are you alcoholic?

BARBARA: Of course not! It’s religious.

GODDESS: Are you a Muslim?

BARBARA: No. Catholic. My family is originally from Lebanon.

GODDESS: So, you are a Lebanese Catholic?

BARBARA: No. I am an American Catholic! Yusef and I immigrated with the children in the seventies. Our faith in God sustained us.

GODDESS: Life has been hard?

(Goddess moves a little closer.)

BARBARA: Nobody said it would be easy. We’ve sent three of our five children to college. Of course, they don’t appreciate the sacrifice and suffering it took.

GODDESS: You’ve given a lot. What did you get?

BARBARA: Just knowing I gave everything I had is enough reward. (Pause) There’s a better place I’m going to.

GODDESS: I hope I can help. After all, if you are so miserable, what is the point of sticking around?

BARBARA: I didn’t say I was miserable. I’ve got grown children and grandchildren. I’m very proud of them. I just pray they don’t get taken in by life’s temptations.

GODDESS: Has that happened before?

BARBARA: (Pause) My middle son, Daud, was disrespectful to his father once. (She looks away sadly.) He moved in with a girl then had the nerve to say it was none of our business. His own parents! (Pause) His father said he would never talk to him again. (Pause) That was four years ago. They have a child we’ve never even seen.

GODDESS: Don’t you miss him?

(Goddess moves closer.)

BARBARA: Every day. (Pause) I try not to think about it. (Pause) When I had surgery a few years ago . . .

GODDESS: (Overlapping) I remember. One minute I was there, the next I wasn’t.

BARBARA: I missed him so. I thought, ‘What if I die and never see him again?’ I begged Yusef to call him. He refused. He misses him too, but he says he’d rather die than give in.

GODDESS: Would you?

BARBARA: What?

GODDESS: Die before making amends with your son?

BARBARA: No! But it’s not up to me. His father…

GODDESS: (Overlapping) You’re going to let your husband’s pride come between you and your son?!

BARBARA: No! I mean, yes! He’s the head of the household. If I disobeyed him he’d disown me.

GODDESS: How can he disown you? You’re not a piece of furniture.

BARBARA: You don’t understand. It’s God’s will.

GODDESS: Ah, but I do understand. If you start to question your beliefs now you may discover that you have been subjected to an archaic system of servitude designed by men, for men, under the guise of religion and morality.

BARBARA: Stop!

(Barbara stands and points at Goddess as she heads towards the door.)

BARBARA: (Continued) You’re evil! Only the devil would say such things.

GODDESS: (Stands and walks towards Barbara.) To you I’m the devil, to others I’m a nightmare, but I told you the truth.

BARBARA: Stay away!

GODDESS: I can’t help it. I want you. I want your mind, your heart, your soul. Anything I can get my hands on!

(The Goddess lunges towards Barbara. Barbara screams and runs out the door.)

GODDESS: Of well. She’s just as good as dead anyway. Her husband’s seen to that.

(Goddess goes and turns off light.)


Goddess of Cancer Continued – Tomorrow Scene 6

Nicholas Lives On – Part 2

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

In the fall of ninety-four, Reggie and Maggie Green were on holiday in Italy, driving peacefully through Messina with their children Nicholas and Eleanor (seven and four years old) sleeping soundly in the back seat. Out of the dark night a vehicle creeps alongside. They hear angry shouts and demands to pull over. Terrifying gunshots slam into the body of their car. Reg outruns, what turns out to be, Calabrian highway bandits. Upon arriving safely at their hotel they check the children, who they believe have slept through the traumatic incident. As they try to arose Nicholas they discover a horrible gunshot wound to his head. Two days later Nicholas is pronounced dead.

Without hesitation the Greens decide to donate his organs. This act, which to them is the only choice imaginable, soon catapults them into national and international attention. Nicholas organs go to seven people. Organ donations increase dramatically. Surprisingly, revenge is not in the Greens’ vocabulary, only the reporters ask about retribution. Reg Green says, “There is no sum of money that could give me back my son. Whereas justice heals, vengeance just creates new problems.” The Italian Ambassador Boris Biancheri tells them, “Your names and the name of Nicholas have become for Italians somehow synonymous with courage, of forgiveness and compassion.” Upon their arrival back in the U.S. they continued to advocate for organ donations and speak frequently in public about the importance of turning personal tragedy into life for others.

Nicholas Lives On – Part 2

REGGIE: And we both spend a lot of time with books. It’s through books that I learn about life. They tell you how life was and how it should be; what was foolish and what was effective. Those things get inside you I think and cause the reactions, which become instinctive.

When people say they thought that Nicholas was the brightest star in the sky or they saw him in a grove of trees or as an angel . . . I like to hear that . . . it shows their compassion . . . that they went outside themselves to find the most comforting thing they could think of and wanted to pass it on to us.

Such comments don’t convince me in any way, shape or form about any spiritual realities however. I have to look for concrete things which continue to do good. For example: organ donations are up in Italy by more than fifty percent. That’s hundreds of people walking around today who would have died by now. There’s a real sense of something good coming out of it . . . real hard physical good.

Life is a complete mystery to me; I’ve got to say. Death is a complete blank. I really don’t know about it or even have a hypothesis. What I’m trying to do in my life then, if you don’t understand death or the purpose of life, is deal with it on the level that I can and I know there are certain things to me that seem to be better than others: kindness is better than cruelty; full stomachs are better than starvation; making a joke is better than hurting someone. Those sorts of things have always struck me as I’ve grown up.

I’ve tried to concentrate on the things I can understand and handle. And this was one of them where one could palpably see good come out of it. We’ve since met all the people who received Nicholas’s organs. The difference in them is quite astonishing. The thought has come to me since, “We saved those people from going through the devastation we’ve gone through.” And you know, if you can’t do that then, come on . . . it seemed so obvious at the time.

We go to a lot of organ donating meetings and I have never met anyone who’s ever said they regretted it. Most people say it’s helped them a lot. In fact, most meetings we go to someone will come up and say, “I wish I’d done that.” Because they sense that somehow we got something back from it.

The worse thing about Nicholas’s death, besides the loss, which is terrible, is that he never reached his potential. To me that’s the most awful thought. It does subside after awhile, though it’s always there. The fact that he never got that chance is the thing that I find most difficult. It’s not just one’s own dreams having been unfulfilled; it’s the fact that his dreams weren’t fulfilled. To me that is the worst thing about it. He never got to live to his potential. But . . . we have all the memories and he was a wonderful little boy and because of that I think we can deal with it.

As you know I’m a father late in life and I always wondered what would happen . . . that I might not get to see him as an adult or know how he’d turn out in the end.

People that have helped have tried to give what they could. Whatever they’ve done seems to be the best possible. If they’re budding poets, and every Italian turned out to be a poet, they write a poem. Someone wrote music, part of a piano sonata to Nicholas. Somebody else did a full-scale choral work. People reached down inside and found the essence of what they wanted to do. That is very comforting; that it made people feel that way. One man sent us a book about Eskimos written in Italian, of which we don’t speak a word, but that was what was important to him.

And we’ve been very active in all this. Whenever the flame dies down I pour some more gasoline on it. What I didn’t want to happen was have everybody very sympathetic about it for a couple days and then comes along the next tragedy. I was determined to use whatever resources I could. I was a journalist and dabbled in PR for a time so I had some skills. My idea was to make it stick; to etch it on people’s minds; to not have it forgotten. We’ve written articles by the dozens, traveled all around the country, spoken to all kinds of audiences. The universality of the response was not just from mothers and fathers, but from admirals, writers, police.

I think there are a lot of elements to this response, a sort of mixture that’s made the alchemy . . . an innocent child for one thing. I think we were able to get across a sense of what he was like. We had a photograph of him in my camera and that picture was sent around the world , so right from the beginning people knew what he looked like. And we’d tell stories . . . Maggie would tell stories. People built a picture about him fairly early on. The fact that we were foreigners in their country and they didn’t “protect us”, as it were, also struck a chord.

All those factors came together. And though neither of us are Catholic, the Catholic Church has been hugely supportive. The Pope blessed the central bell that’s in the memorial bell tower. Catholicism itself, at some level, probably has a theory about all this. The official position certainly is very supportive.

MAGGIE: One reason has to be that Reg was a journalist and therefore had no fear of the press. Some people are afraid to talk and don’t know what’s going to happen. We were willing to talk to people right from the beginning. The day after we got back to the states we were on all three morning shows (television). It’s hard to be willing to do that about organ donation because it’s always the result of a loss and some families aren’t up for it. A good part of it is being willing to be in newspapers and on TV. All the stories we’ve encountered talking to other donor families . . . they always have some cruel twist or the child had a lot of promise . . . any of them could have been that sentinel.

Reg was on the phone from the hotel room to the London Times as soon as we found out Nicholas had died. They did a terrible story and got three-quarters of the facts wrong, but he still thought of talking to them like that.

REGGIE: That’s right. Many people will say, “Not now, we need to think about it.” Or, “We’ll get back to you.” The press isn’t like that. They want immediate information and if you haven’t got it the story will get written anyway, so you might as well get it accurate.

I made a conscious decision when we came back that, “We can do some good here.” I really made a point of going out and trying to get as many people interested as possible. I saturated the market. As a result there are very few talk shows or magazines that the story hasn’t been in. Of course, there’s always the feeling when you go on television or in a newspaper, wondering if your doing it for self advertising. I try to examine myself closely and although the attention is flattering, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was doing some good. I can’t get rid of the fact that I’m pleased if Barbara Walters wants to talk to me but I’ve tried to do a rational assessment of whether it will help or not.

And we’ve been on all kinds of shows. You know that one called The Other Side? A guy on the day before us was a private detective whose job was to track down vampires. You wonder if this is the right kind of an audience, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s the very people who wouldn’t otherwise consider it. The National Inquirer called and one always has to worry . . . because they do distort the facts . . . tabloids have a tendency to do that. We talked for an hour and a half and a very sober article came out of it. So, a lot of people read this that might never even think of organ donations.

MAGGIE: In a way it helped too. Those first numb days . . . when we visited the Prime Minister and President of Italy and went on the Italian equivalent of the Jay Leno Show . . . that helped prepare us for the future when we were talking to The Rotarians. There was a sense of, “We did that” and nobody’s looking for the bad in us, so we can deal with it.

REGGIE: It doesn’t bother me if people are looking for the bad and as far as I can tell there isn’t any of that here . . . on this particular topic. As far as this is concerned our motives are clear. Whatever people make of that, that’s fine. And if at the end of the day people decide they wouldn’t want to donate their organs, I for one wouldn’t want to change their minds. People have really strong beliefs. For some people it’s wrong. They should not be forced into it.

I was in Italy last week talking with a journalist and he said, “You know, not everybody sees it like you. My grandmother, for instance, is terrified of donating organs because she thinks she wouldn’t go to heaven.” And a chaplain I met said, “A lot of these splinter groups in Italy, these fundamentalist groups, are against such things.”

I don’t like coercion. I’d like it to come from the heart. The use of coercion just raises the whole tone of society. Being agnostic I can’t rule out the fact that these people may be right. I know it seems ridiculous now but it was a very strong belief at one point. A week before his death we were in a church in Switzerland, with Nicholas, and there was a painting of a man who wouldn’t get into heaven because he was deformed. Of course that doesn’t occur to me, but if somebody believes that, it would be terrible to try to force that person into something. I much prefer the other method, which I see is working, of information and raising awareness.

All polls in this country show that something like ninety percent believe in organ donation, almost nobody is opposed to it. When it actually happens of course the actual decision is much more difficult. The key to it therefore is giving information and that approach is much more likely to get results than coercion or pressure.

The bell tower is a part of all this too. It was made as a memorial for Nicholas. It isn’t anything I would have thought up myself. When I first heard about it, it took my breath away. A sculptor in Italy wanted to produce this tower; at first with the idea that there would be only one bell. He was designing a bell for the United Nations Fiftieth Anniversary, which was a private venture and made from melted firearms collected by the police. He said he wanted to design it and wouldn’t charge anything. In addition to that he put in innumerable hours trying to get the right kind of steel structure, the right stones for the wall. He drove all around California looking for what he needed and just wouldn’t take a penny. Once we mentioned this in Italy and got one of the big magazines to support it, bells started to appear. People would rush into their house and come out with a hundred-year-old bell they’d give us. Sometimes they’d be from people who’d lost a child or some other loved one, but often just people who were touched by the whole idea. There are church bells along with cow bells on it now, and we keep getting them. There are over a hundred and thirty bells and we have no more room. Now we’re having to think about what to do next. There’s a real sense that people have taken to a lovely idea . . . which is the preciousness of life.

The Papal Foundry, which has been making bells for a thousand years, offered a bell. It’s a very big bell. The Pope blessed it before it left Italy, even though neither of us are Catholic.

It’s there for the children and a way to remind people of the power of organ donation . . . that it can save lives. And, on a more spiritual note, it reminds people of the impermanence of life . . . of using life for whatever good you can. You know, I think that’s a thing about both Maggie and I have come to separately . . . even though we don’t believe in any particular cause to go out and say, “You’ve got to do this or that.” We prefer to say, “This is what we believe; what we’ve done.” Maggie leads by example. She doesn’t talk about it much; she’s very diffident about her capabilities. Her example is the thing that struck me when I first met her. I’ve never known such honesty, gentleness and purpose . . . they sort of transmute themselves.

If you go back to what has influenced me most, it’s the example of people doing their thing; not telling you about it, but doing it. I always knew about death. It wasn’t a strange concept. And if you’ve got a set of beliefs, you should stick to them. Don’t throw out a whole lifetime of thinking or believing just because something happens.

I always knew there was violence in the world. I always knew there were catastrophes . . . but because it then happened to me doesn’t mean that suddenly the whole world is wrong or different than yesterday. Now, it may be a good world or a bad world, but it’s there all the time. If you believed in God before you shouldn’t stop because he’s not being “good” to you in this particular case. Or, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t all of a sudden start inventing one. I never believed in deathbed repentances, especially someone else’s deathbed. Certainly you’ve got to let events modify what you believe and indeed they may revolutionize it, but it’s not something that ought to be done lightly or wholesale in an emotional state. I don’t know exactly what it is that gives Maggie her strength, but she has continued, as far as I can see, as far as her religious beliefs are concerned, to not be very different than how she was before. I think this is bigger than religion . . . it’s about all life.

I’ve always known there was violence and poverty. There is a random quality to these things . . . if I’d gone left instead of right this might never have happened. I get strength from the belief that people are fundamentally decent. I’ve seen a lot of cruelty as a journalist. I’ve seen miserably self-centered behavior, but I think people in their core are decent and they want to do the right thing. I also think people are very lethargic. They want to do something but never get around to it. In general though, there’s a wellspring in most people of wanting to stand up tall. I’ve experienced hundreds and hundreds of people who have that human sympathy. They’ll write to us in order to be comforting in some way. The letters have been such an outpouring of compassion and sympathy. A lot of them say, “I’ve never said this before” or “I don’t know how to say this . . .” and then say something with simple eloquence and depth.

I’ve learned a lot going through this about people I already knew. It turns out that a very good friend of mine had lost his brother and family but never spoke about it. And I never knew that before; even though I’d known him for over thirty years! I realized that there is a lot more behind peoples’ faces then we give them credit for. They’re often harboring the memory of some terrible thing that happened. They hide an enormous amount of death. It makes you more sympathetic to life.

Tolstoy said, “To know all is to forgive all.” I always thought that was a real nice idea. To be fair to myself I’d say I knew it before, but Nicholas’s death intensified it. The more you know about yourself . . . I’d say if there’s one key to everything it’s to “know yourself”. Just to understand yourself. If you know your own workings then you understand others much better.

In a sense though Gabriel, what I find is that to give people a “how too” in this kind of thing . . . I don’t see that there’s a kind of recipe you can use. It takes a long, long time to create who you are and how you react to whatever. If I was going to try to preach to anybody it would be on those kinds of lines.

MAGGIE: This is one of those situations where getting information out there helps. I suspect that one reason the donation rate is so low in Italy is because you’re expected to be prostate in grief . . . screaming and shouting. We were forgiven for not acting like that because we were foreigners. They would be made to feel guilty for appearing to be rational enough to make such a choice at a time like that. They now see there are many ways to grieve and choices that can save lives.

THE END

More from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

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My Son Ryan and AIDS

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

In 1984, one week before Christmas, Jeanne White was told that her son Ryan had contracted AIDS from a blood product he’d used to control his hemophilia. The doctors gave him six months to live. Struggling to make life as normal as possible for her thirteen-year-old son, she attempted to have him return to school as soon as possible. She did not realize the amount of fear and prejudice that would result when the school heard of his illness and refused to allow his return.

After numerous court battles, which brought he and his mother to national and international attention, Ryan was allowed back in school only to be inundated with hate, ignorance and abuse. As a result of their struggles Ryan was befriended by numerous celebrities such as Elton John, Michael Jackson and Phil Donahue and began to educate children and parents about AIDS by speaking at schools, appearing on numerous talk shows and news programs and having a movie about his life broadcast on national television. On April 11, 1990, five and a half years after his six-month prognosis, Ryan died. His funeral was one of the most publicized services of that decade.

Shortly after Ryan’s death his mother Jeanne, who had always been behind the scenes publicly, was asked by several senators to speak about Ryan to Congress in order to pass national legislation for AIDS education. She reluctantly agreed and was instantly thrown into the media spotlight. The bill, THE RYAN WHITE CARE ACT, was subsequently passed and Jeanne White became one of the most sought after speakers in the country. She founded the Ryan White Foundation and continues advocating for AIDS education and prevention with children, teenagers and their peers.

JEANNE WHITE:

A lot of times it takes a little push. Everybody likes feeling sorry for them selves over the death of a loved one. That’s kind of normal. With me it was Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch who got me going and I fought it every step of the way. Ryan was always the public speaker not me.I was just following Ryan around. Senator Kennedy and Hatch had just named a bill after Ryan called the Ryan White Care Act and they wanted me to come to Washington DC. It was too soon. We had just buried Ryan two days before and they asked me to come anyway. They knew it was going to be hard, but they said, “You know, this is the first chance that we have of getting something done for people with AIDS.” They said, “Ryan’s death is so fresh on everybody’s mind, his illness and funeral was carried by every network for the last week and a half. This is the first chance of someone being in the public eye that takes the focus off the disease and puts it on to the fact that ‘anybody can get it.’”

I said, “Yes”. I said, “No”. I said, “I can’t, I really can’t. Ryan used to do that, not me.” On the second day people from Senator Kennedy’s staff called me again. They said, “Terry’s going to be there.” Terry and others had helped me through a lot of bad times. During all the years that Ryan fought AIDS the more people I knew that died of AIDS. And I had seen so many families just like me. Even though I didn’t want to get involved, so many people helped me that I kind of felt like I owed it to them. Then Senator Hatch called me and said, “You know, we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. I have twenty-three senators lined up for you. All we want you to do is tell what it’s like to watch your son live and die with this disease.”

So I went to Washington and I’m so glad I did. It made me feel good. I didn’t feel I did great, not like I wanted to. I could have done better but I knew I was sincere in what I felt and said. After that, people wouldn’t let me stop.

Phil Donahue, who was a pallbearer at Ryan’s funeral, has become a very good friend of the family. When he was in the hospital visiting Ryan he noticed all the mail and could not believe how much was pouring in. He took a bunch of the letters back to New York with him and called saying, “Do you realize these letters are all from kids?!” I said, “Well yeah, that’s who generally wrote Ryan.” He said, “Jeannie, you’ve got to continue this work. You’ve got to answer this mail.” Phil said, “I’ll hire you an assistant.” There were over sixty thousand letters! Phil kept his word and with the help of Marlo Thomas and the St. Jude volunteers, they were able to find a lady that lived close by.

I was so impressed with Ryan, so proud of him. Sometimes I’d think, “Golly, is he really my son?” To me he was just my little kid, but to the nation, he was this celebrity and hero. I hated to even think that I could follow him, his impact was so great and people listened. When I speak I’m always a nervous wreck, even though I’ve been doing it now for years. I’ve messed up a lot, but I’m me. When I introduce myself I say, “I’m just a mom. I’m a mom just like your mom and because of this misunderstood disease called AIDS, my life changed overnight.” I say a prayer every time I go out. I say, “Lord, please help me to get through this. Help me educate these young people. Help me make a difference in their lives with my story.” Then I say, “Ryan, please be there with me.” Then I have this kind of surge that goes through me and I feel like its Ryan saying, “OK, Mom, I’m with you.”

I think we’ve made a lot of progress. By “we” I mean everybody who has committed so hard to fighting this disease with education and through therapy and drugs and medical treatment. I think we’ve come a long way. The people who have to be commended the most are the people that are not here. Their lives had to be lost for us to get where we are today, to show compassion. Even though I’m tired I’m still doing it because of the Terry Burns, the Mike Callums and the family members that I’ve seen.

One day we were riding in the van and Ryan reached over and grabbed my hand and started swinging it. I looked over and said, “OK, what do you want?” He said, “I don’t want anything.” “Come on Ryan, what do you want?” I continued. He replied, “Can’t a son hold his mother’s hand? ” I said, “Come on, you really don’t want anything?” “Mom, I just want to say thank you for standing by me, for always being there for me.”

I remember that moment when I speak to teenagers. You know, we always think everybody’s going to be here tomorrow, but one day you’re going to wake up and somebody’s not going to be there. I say, “You might think this stupid old lady up here doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but I do. The next time you go home from school, even if you think it’s the corniest thing you’ve ever done, write a letter to your parents. If you think you’re real cool and you can’t go up and hug them around their neck and say, ‘Mom. Dad. Thank you. I love you.’ Then write a note and put it on their pillow. Do something so that you’ll never be sorry.”

It would have been easy to be mad all the time at the people who ridiculed us, who discriminated against us, but we had to put our lives in perspective and look at what was really important and what wasn’t. Everybody saw on the news that it was this fight for Ryan to go to school, but the number one priority in our life was keeping him healthy. Second, was keeping my job at General Motors, because we had great insurance and it paid for all his medical bills. And the third part was my daughter Andrea, keeping us together as a family.

At first, it’s like, “Why?” Everybody wants to know why. Why wasn’t he given a miracle? All my life I was taught if you pray hard enough, if you believed hard enough, that you would get a miracle and you could never doubt that or you wouldn’t get one. I never thought Ryan was going to die. I just couldn’t quite understand that. I thought nobody had more people praying over them than Ryan did. I prayed, “Lord, wouldn’t it be nice to show this kid a miracle in front of the whole nation.” Everybody knew he’s lived with AIDS for five and half years. He’d been in and out of hospitals. He’s been blind twice. I mean, this kid had a heck of a life, why couldn’t he be given a miracle? When he died, it was like, “Why? What more could we have done?”

When he died I was really taken aback. I started questioning my faith. I think that’s normal. I mean, I started wondering if there really is a god? How does God let things like this happen? I see people around me all the time asking that question. “Why do young kids have to die?” I mean, anybody really, lots of other good people have died too. So then I started trying to find reasons.

After awhile it started to get clearer. “Look at all the things he’s done in his short life. He’s educated so many people. Wouldn’t we all like to say we had accomplished as much as this kid did in only 18 years?!”

I tell the kids that when I get to heaven I’m going to be angry. I hope the Lord forgives me for being angry, but I’m going to say, “Why did you have to take Ryan?” Then I say, “You know what I think he’s going to say? He’s going to say, ‘You know what, he was only supposed to live three to six months. I gave you five and a half years and you’re still not happy.’” Maybe I got a miracle. We had quite a few Christmases that we never thought we were going to have.

I didn’t want to lose my faith. I was mad at my faith. I was mad at my church. I was mad at my religion. I was mad at God. But I wanted to find a reason. I eventually started seeing things around me like the Ryan White Care Act and Elton John go through rehabilitation and get off of drugs and alcohol and I thought, “My goodness, Ryan touched more lives than I ever knew. Perhaps those people got miracles and they don’t know it.”

Michael (Jackson) was a real good friend of Ryan’s. When Michael called Ryan in the hospital once, Elton said, “With all the money that’s in this room, we can’t bring this boy back to life.” That was a real big realization to Elton . . . that he had all the money in the world, he had everything he could ever buy, but he could not buy his health. That’s why he entered rehab. When Michael called me after Ryan died, just to see how I was doing, I said, “I’m doing OK but what made you and Ryan so close?” When Michael would call, they would have long phone conversations. He said, “You know, most people can’t get over the awe of who I am, so nobody can ever act normal around me. Ryan knew how I wanted to be treated, because that’s how he wanted to be treated. I can’t trust anyone because everybody always wants something from me.” He could tell Ryan anything and Ryan wasn’t going to go blab it or tell it, you know. “I promised Ryan he could be in my next video and now that he’s gone I want to do a video for him.” He made a video called Going Too Soon, which was about Ryan.

It’s hard to talk about death. I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t really think he was going to die. I can remember him saying what he wanted to be buried in. I told him I really didn’t want to talk about it but he went on anyway, “I know you like me in a tux but I don’t want to buried in one.” I said, “OK, Ryan, what do you want?” I mean, it’s like, I’d say anything to get this conversation over with. He says, “I want to be buried in my Guess jeans, my red T&C (Town and Country) shirt, my Air Jordan’s and my Jean jacket.” He pauses, as I’m fading out, then says, “You know how people are when they’re lying in a casket and everybody is watching their eyes to see if their eyes move? I want my sunglasses on and I want to be buried in my boxer shorts.” “Your boxer shorts?” I exclaimed. He’d just switched from wearing briefs to boxer shorts and really liked them. “Why your boxer shorts?” I deadpanned. “You know that hernia I got? I want to make sure I . . .” He had a hernia that they couldn’t operate on because he had no platelets. “I want to make sure I’m comfortable.” And I thought, ‘Well, if you’re dead, I mean . . .’ “OK, just talk,” Ryan said. “You know, as a mom.”

One of the best things after Ryan died was when people talked about him. I think it was also good for me to get involved in something I truly believed in, doing something, instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. That’s the easy way to go . . . feeling sorry for yourself. People didn’t let me, although that’s what I probably would have done if not pushed. But people were always talking about Ryan and people still do and that kind of keeps him alive within me.

CONTINUED

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