The day that my wife and I introduced our first, newborn son Andrew to his 108 year-old great-great-grandmother in late March of 2012 was a profound and memorable day. Grandma Minnie, as my family affectionately called her, awaited our arrival as a handful of extended family members trickled into the gathering space of the nursing home where she lived. Though her body had slowly deteriorated over time, her mind remained sharp, aware, and present. As we brought Andrew over to the side of her wheelchair, I was awestruck at the significance of this meeting and I sensed she knew the importance of it as well. Andrew marked the start of a new generation of children who would carry on Grandma Minnie’s family name. In the room that day, five generations of family gathered to eat, laugh, snap pictures, and tell stories from decades long ago. Someday, we’ll have to show pictures of the occasion to Andrew and explain its significance, but as for his great-great-grandmother, I believe she knew how important it was to wait and meet him. For exactly two weeks after that visit, I received a call from her grandson (my father) to inform me that Minnie had passed away peacefully in her sleep. After 108+ years on this earth, I believe she waited so that her path would cross Andrew’s and that we would all receive the gift of that joyous gathering. As I look back on it, that day stands out as a rare occasion when the cycles of life spin beautifully close to one another: The arc of Minnie’s story coming to an end… the arc of a young boy’s story just beginning.
Each May, we do a lot of thinking in university life about chapters ending. Our seniors well up with tears when we speak with them about saying goodbye to this place they have come to call home. Each year I watch them struggle to leave. We will miss them too and their contributions to us personally and to our programs. What is most difficult for them, I think, is the liminal space in between chapters. They are left with nothing more than saying goodbye, ending a phase of their lives, packing up, but not yet able to say hello to something new, not yet able to start fresh, to move onto the next chapter quite as quickly as they would hope. But this will be the pattern they will face many times for the rest of their lives. Having gone through the transition from college life to what-comes-next, I am tempted to describe in great detail to them the wonderful things of life that lie ahead. But I try not to, for despite the discomfort and difficulty, each one must face the fear of the unknown, each one must say the tough goodbyes, and each one must find a new purpose and a new sense of self in this period of uncertainty.
Instead, I often use with students the image of holding my hands together, open, and with the palms facing upward as a metaphor for the approach to life I’m called take as a person of faith, hope, and love. Admittedly, during my own transitions, fear causes me to want to hold on tightly to that which I’ve known and loved. But clenched hands cannot welcome new experiences and clenched hands end up suffocating the very things I try to protect. An approach to life with open hands does indeed risk having to let go of people or places or ideas once dear to us. With open hands we give these joys and blessings the freedom to fly and the freedom to depart. But it’s the only approach that truly allows us to receive greater meaning in our lives. That’s the cycle of life. We come to know something bigger and better only through allowing room for that kind of freedom, even though it feels like loss, difficulty and struggle.
Someday, Andrew will be someone ending a chapter, saying goodbye to dear friends, moving away, and facing an unknown future. I’ll have to resist the temptation to shield him from the pain that transitions hold and the temptation to give him answers. Instead, I hope he’ll lean on his own stories of death and rebirth. I hope he’ll remember the lessons that nature teaches, that there is a time to plant and a time to harvest. I hope he’ll remember that pain and suffering are not forever, that love endures, when we allow it. I hope he’ll trust that there is always a brighter day after even the darkest night, that the path ahead will become clear even though it seems to disappear at times. For Andrew’s story started, very poignantly, by overlapping with a wise, old woman whom an entire family trusted over a whole century because of the way she modeled faith-filled strength, integrity and love for the four generations beyond her.
So if you find yourself in the midst of a transition that makes you anxious, that leaves you with sadness for the chapter that now ends, that leaves you fearful of the unknown future, I offer you this for the next chapter of your journey:
If you seek trust, have faith.
If you seek meaning, look deeply.
If you seek peace, breathe.
If you seek love, give love.
And if you seek God, simply ask and stay awake.
Greg Carpinello with five generations of family in 2012. He and the rest of the CFJ staff will miss the members of the Class of 2014 of Xavier University, but they know that these new alumni will do great things in the world.