Twenty years ago, in Who Dies? I wrote that we speak of dying in wholeness, yet we see there are aspects of ourselves that have never fully seen the light of day. We see how much of ourselves is submerged, feels yet unborn, how much we push away life. It is as though we had never fully touched the ground of being. Never having placed our two feet squarely in the present, always shuffling and toe tapping, waiting for the next moment to arrive. I wrote that to become wholly born, whole beings, we must stop postponing life. To the degree that we postpone life, we postpone death. We deny death and life in one fell swoop.
Yet even authoring numerous texts and having over three decades of intimate experience with the dying does not fully prepare one for the immediacy of a terminal diagnosis of your beloved. Ondrea was recently diagnosed with leukemia. Twenty-six years of marriage, in which we have, I think, mirrored the ground of our being, are suddenly telescoped into a moment in time. The mirror is fractured.
This remarkable book brings clarity back to the mirror. This is a love story of a life well shared. It unveils for us the healingalbeit a healing unto deathof a woman who was an inspiration to all she touched. This is a book of ritualsrituals for opening the heart, rituals for finishing the unfinished business of life that continue the healing process well after the beloved has passed beyond. It is a recounting that personifies the truth that love never dies.
This book may well make you weep. Yet, paradoxically, it is in the heartfelt connection with pain that we find the joy of openness to our undying connection to the love we all share. That is the ground of our being.
Some might conclude that somehow, by continuing to live, Andris may have gotten the better of it. But, in truth, when we love someone fully, we might well wish he or she would die before usso that we can offer that person the container for their dying process and stay behind to endure the rippings of grief. It is said that love is as close as we get to Godbecause to love fully, selflessly, with all our spiritual and physical energy, is God itself.
As Ondrea and I write this foreword, we grieve and we simultaneously celebrate the twenty-six years so far in our mutual healings into life and love. Life, love, and death all have a sorrow enfolded within them. That sorrow can be numbing. Or it can be fruitful. It is a fruitful sorrow that is projected from the pages of this book.
Ondrea and I embark on a road that is not fully illuminated. We will have to find our own way. Yet, we find comfort in knowing that Andris and Nancy have traveled a similar path before us, and we thank them for casting this beam of lightLove Letters: Reflections on Living with Lossfor our guidance.
Stephen and Ondrea Levine are internationally known speakers and writers on spirituality, relationships, and issues of death and dying. They have counseled terminally ill people and their families for more than thirty years and authored, together or individually, more than a dozen books, including Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying; Embracing the Beloved: Relationship as a Path of Awakening; Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart; and A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if It Were Your Last.
This is a beautiful book. In thirty-nine letters written to Nancy, his deceased wife, Andris Baltins recounts his profound sense of loss experienced when confronting her dying and death. Although, in the midst of grief, the most ordinary tasks of daily living seemed overwhelming, in the letters it is clear that his immobilizing grief was relieved by gratitude. Memories of their shared experiencesof times of great happiness, of periods of life-threatening illnesses, of recognition of their growth and enrichment in parenting their two children: an academically talented daughter and a son born with Down syndromeall have helped to relieve the sense of loss. Through recall, inventive creation of rituals and courage to do what seems helpful, the memories have become a sustaining resource for living into a hopeful future.
Perhaps most helpful to those of us who have yet to face the death of our life partner, we are allowed through these letters to observe how, for at least one thoughtful and reflective human being, memories that initially bring only a painful sense of loss are transformed through recall, inventive creation of rituals, and the courage to do what seems helpful instead of what seems conventional, into a sustaining resource for living into a hopeful future.
I had the privilege of meeting Nancy when she became a student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where I was teaching New Testament Theology. To say that she was a remarkably creative and spiritually mature seminary student is an understatement. The depths of her explorations into the relationship of scripture to human faith and her perceptive applications of spiritual insight to human experience delighted those of us who helped her to discover the materials of the tradition. It goes without saying that Nancyand, later Andy as wellbecame our teachers as well as our students. These two people enjoyed a rare relationship of spiritual intimacy that allowed curiosity, exploration, and differences of perspective to enhance their lives together rather than to threaten them. I am grateful for the ever-deepening friendship that continued with Nancy and Andy beyond her seminary years and allowed me to experience some of the astonishing richness of the ways in which they processed together the news of Nancy’s cancer, and then the reality of its terminal nature, and, at last, the experience of her dying and death. Andy’s account of his grief journey flows organically from what I observed of the relationship between the two of them, which came before, and hasin its sometimes startling honestythe cohesion and integrity of an authentic human testimony.
The reader of these letters will recognize in them the influences of Jungian psychology, Christian teachings, Eastern religions, and contemporary philosophical writingsall of which provided the raw materials for the evolving worldview, and faithview, Nancy and Andy shared together. Ultimately, however, their themes are the most basic and the most universal: they are about wonder and about kindness, they are about living life with gratitude, they are about being open to the gifts of both the light and the shadow of our human experience, they are about the timeless discovery of the truth that lovedespite all human fears to the contraryreally is stronger than death.
Henry A. Gustafson, B.A., B.D., S.T.M., Ph.D., is emeritus professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where he taught from 1968 to 1989.
About six months before Nancy died, she gave a sermon. Not in the main sanctuary of Plymouth Congre-gational Church in downtown MinneapolisNancy wasn’t an ordained ministerbut in the chapel at the “early service.”
Though I’m not a member of Nancy’s church, I always went to hear her sermons. I’d time my arrival for after the announcements, the unison prayer, and the hymns, just before the sermon. She’d glance back to the pews near the rear door to see if I was there and wink to me as she walked to the pulpit. I’d blow her a kiss. After her talk was over, I’d motion “thumbs up” and leave.
On the occasion of this, Nancy’s last sermon at Plymouth, I did not run off after she finished her talk. Not because it was her last. I had no inkling then that she would die less than six months later from the “whispering disease,” ovarian cancer.
I did not rush away the moment after Nancy stepped down from the lectern because I was unable to move. I sat in the pew in the second to the last row of the chapel staring ahead. The words of the parable with which Nancy had concluded her sermon were still ringing in my ears. I saw the image of the brick wall she had painted in the parable, not the bricks of the corridor leading to the parking lot.
The parable Nancy related was set in a hospital ward. There, elderly invalids were confined to curtained beds in a sick bay. The large room on the second floor had only one window, and the woman confined to the only bed with a view out the window, Clara, became the eyes for the entire ward.
Day after day, Clara described everything she saw to the others. She painted pictures, in words, of falling leaves, sultry summer evenings, Christmas, decorations and birthday celebrations. She detailed the comings and the goings of a family across the street, giving them names and describing them so vividly that, to the others, they felt like relativesFran, the mother; Jimmy, the only child. Clara depicted the freckles that covered Jimmy’s face in summer, guided the ward through the joys of Jimmy’s first bike, evoked images of the green Teenage Mutant Ninja costume he wore at Halloween one year, the pirate outfit with scabbard he donned the next.
When Clara died, another woman was moved to Clara’s bed next to the window. For the first time in the many years she had been bedridden, she would see the outside world for herself, rather than through Clara’s eyes.
She turned to the window. She looked. She rubbed her eyes. Grayish red bricks of the wall of a taller building next door filled the window from top to bottom. Not even a glimpse of sunlight could be seen. She was speechless.
“What’s going on?” demanded the others.
She paused and took a long breath.
“Come on, tell us. Tell us what’s happening out there.”
“Well,” she paused. “Well, it’s just like Clara said: Jimmy’s out and about on that new bike of his. He’s wearing that new birthday jacket. Clara was right: Jimmy’s hair is red as fire . . .”
The closing hymns were sung. The congregation rose. I noticed people shaking hands, others hugging. I continued to sit. For me, the walls of the chapel had transformed into the grayish red brick of the building adjoining the hospital. I found myself in a sick bay looking for meaning beyond what was visible. I sat questioning what was “real” and what was “imaginary.”
Later that week I recounted the story to my sister Dana. My eyes teared as I spoke of Jimmy’s new red bike. Dana, herself a psychologist, didn’t lose the opportunity to encourage self-exploration.
“What are the brick walls in your life?” she asked me.
Brick walls? There are no brick walls in my life, I responded. I have a wonderful life. I married the girl of my dreams. I love my work. I have two spectacular children.
Dana persisted.It was then that I, for the first time, admitted to myself that Nancy might be dying. I realized that for Nancy and me, the reality of the other side of the wallour undying love for each otherhad become our only reality. Though that part of us would live forever, there was also a hard brick walla physical being that could not, and would not, live forever.
This book is a compilation of letters written to Nancy after she died. The letters recount my experience of colliding with brick walls and, as well, with touching what is beyond them. Surprisingly, bumping into the “reality” beyond the brick wall opens wounds just as real as the ones from “real” walls. But, for me, the process of healing lay in being open to seeing Jimmy’s red hair and the grayish red brick. As neither my process of experiencing the grief of Nancy’s death nor writing about my presence to the two “realities” was linear, the letters, and Nancy’s “responses,” can be read in any order.
The letters are occasionally interspersed with writings of Nancy’s that appeared in an anthology published after her death as Gifts of Spirit: The Spiritual Legacy of Nancy Baltins. They are reprinted with the permission of the Nancy Baltins Legacy Committee of Plymouth Congregational Church. Though “in reality” the excerpts from the anthology were written before my love letters to her, they are a response of sorts from the “reality” beyond the brick wall.
I’ve been asked if what is written in these letters really happened. In other words, is this book fiction or nonfiction?
Yes. And yes.
Except for Nancy’s name and mine, I’ve changed the names of people. For simplicity, sometimes I’ve created “composite persons” that say or do what a number of different people actually said or did. At times, the events didn’t happen in the order implied by the letters. But everything happened to me at some point.
Here are some things that are “real”: Nancy Jean Solstad was born on August 9, 1945. She died on June 30, 1996. I first wrote a letter to Nancy in 1953, when we were both eight years old. I have continued writing.
AAB Minneapolis, Minnesota