Posts Tagged ‘John Laux’

It was easier for me to travel across the whole country and claim my partner John’s body than it was for Michael Brown’s mother to cross a few feet of pavement in Ferguson, Missouri.  

John was killed in a car crash in Montana while I was home in Massachusetts.  We are not sure when it happened.  Was it late at night or early in the foggy morning?  The car went off the road and into an irrigation ditch.  It came to a halt upside down in the water, partially obscured by a tree.  Much later in the day, someone noticed something odd and called the police.

A local police officer and a State Highway patrol officer responded.  They saw John’s body suspended in the water.  You don’t survive long in the water so they must have suspected he was dead, but still they jumped into the ditch, into the muddy November water filled with broken glass and twisted metal to free him from the car. 

They brought his body to the bank, called an ambulance, and began trying to identify who he was.  Identification was hard because John’s wallet must have fallen out into the water.  The crash force must also have knocked off the silver bracelets that he wore. The police officer who finally called me was doing a delicate dance between fully confirming John’s identity and figuring out my relationship to him.  I started sobbing when he said, “He didn’t make it.”  I apologized asking him to repeat what he has said a number of times.  He said, “It’s OK.  You’re doing fine.” 

He was reassuring as he kept asking questions to confirm John’s identity.  I asked about the bracelets and he didn’t remember seeing them.  He must have said something about comparing a picture taken of John at the crash site to the license picture on file at the Montana DMV.  I said, “I want to see the pictures you took.”  “Oh, no,” he replied in a quiet tone. He let the O out slowly.  He was protecting me.  I’d see John soon enough.

As soon as the police realized that John and I were partners , all the people and institutions with which I interacted acted compassionately and helpfully to bring me to him – possibly even bending the rules to make it happen (explained more fully here). I remember the director of the funeral home to which his body was transferred talking about “receiving John’s body” and waiting for me to arrive.

That was what I needed because I can not tell where this urge, this longing, this desperation comes from – it must be deep in the human psyche – but I wanted his body.  I knew he was dead but I had to be with his body: to see him; to pray over him; to touch him, no matter how cold; to press my forehead on his chest and let tears and snot and pain come out of me.

Lesley McSpadden is Michael Brown’s mother.  Our experiences of the death of our loved ones are worlds apart. I imagine that you have heard about Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager killed by a police officer on August 9th in Ferguson, MO. If you don’t already know it: yes, I am white.

Lesley McSpadden and other members of his family were nearby when Michael was shot six times in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, there were many people near by and some of them immediately began recording what happened on cell phone cameras.  This is what they saw and shared:

  • The police officer did not try to resuscitate Michael Brown.  He seems not to have even checked to see if there was a pulse or possibility that the teenager was alive.
  • The body lay in the street uncovered.  Michael Brown’s blood spread out over the street.  This is such a disturbing image that mainstream media warns watchers about the graphic nature of what they will see or even blurs out the image.  This is the scene that Michael’s family came upon.
  • Michael Brown’s uncle seems to be the first family member to arrive.  In a video, he is a large man in blue who comes toward the body and is about to bend down to touch his nephew.  A police officer runs toward him and pushes him away and back behind police tape.  The police offer seems to be yelling at him, seems agitated.
  • I don’t know when Lesley McSpadden arrived. Did she her child’s body fallen in the street, face pressed to the pavement, blood in a long streak?  Or was she there after they finally put a white sheet over the body?  Even with the sheet, her child’s feet and blood were visible.  A neighbor describes her interaction with the police.  She said, “Why y’all got my son out in the street?”  A police officer responded, “You can’t see your son. You need to calm yourself down.”
  • About four hours after he died, Michael Brown’s body was loaded into a dark vehicle covered in a blue tarp.

I so sadly see my experience and Lesley McSpadden’s experience as parallel opposites.  In each instance where I was offered comfort and protection, she was shown coldness and distain.  I so sadly see the treatment of John’s body and Michael’s body as parallel opposites.  John’s body was offered respect.  Michael’s body was not.

How we treat the bodies of our dead is important.  Our oldest wisdom tales teach us to respect the body even when the breath of life has left it.  The Egyptian Goddess Isis searched for the body of her beloved Osiris, not once but twice.  The second time, when Osiris’ body is chopped into 14 pieces, Isis invents mummification and rituals for dead that are important for soul of the deceased and for the healing of those left behind.  Antigone from Greek myth defies the laws of the king to bury her brother with proper ritual rather than leave him to the elements because she must answer to a divine law higher than the king’s.  Christianity stresses the importance of preserving the body so that it can be resurrected when Christ returns.

What happened to Michael Brown’s body was a profound failure:  of institutions and systems meant to serve, of the human heart’s ability to feel compassion and see itself in the suffering of others. Yes, I am talking about racism and classism and compassion all together.  There is so much data on how race creates inequality in the United States and how white people benefit from it that I know we aren’t stuck here because we need more information.  We don’t need more information; we need to admit how that information plays outs in our lives and be with the uncomfortable feelings that arise.

So feel what you feel as hear about how Lesley McSpadden was treated. If you can, go look for some of the unedited video of Michael Brown’s body in the street and feel what comes up as you look at it. If it’s your way, pray, perhaps for the soul of Michael Brown, for the comfort of his family, for forgiveness of us all, for the strength to be part of making things right. We will need action as well as prayer.  But first let your heart crack open.

The community of Ferguson has let its heart crack open.  Immediately people were saying, ‘This isn’t right.”  They gathered.  They were in shock.  They were angry.  They have been called protestors, at best, peaceful protestors.  I think of them grieving.  They have had to push through so much to do this grieving. They’ve had to walk through tear gas and face loaded assault rifles.  I thank them for this that they have done at such cost, for the honoring of Michael Brown and his family; for the ancient work of mourning the dead they are doing, for the service they are performing for the whole nation to open the door for us to move toward wholeness.

My grief is a private grief, but our grief for Michael Brown is a collective grief.  He belongs to all of us.  The people of Ferguson are our neighbors.  When someone dies in your neighborhood, you offer support.  It can be so here.

None of us wants the terrible things that cause grief to have happened, but I’ve been surprised to find that grief is a privilege that opens us up to that which is greater than ourselves.  After the roller coaster of emotion when we are crazed or numb, being supported to go through grief can actually enlarge us. Beliefs fall apart and something new takes their place.  Today we may believe that we don’t know what to do or that things can never change, but going through grief rather than ignoring it can unravel that.  The impossible can be possible.

8/25 Note:  This morning I learned that Lesley McSpadden had not seen her son’s body until yesterday.  It took me less than 2 days, less than 40 hours to reach John’s body all the way across the coutnry, and it both tore me apart and helped me find peace.  It took Lesley McSpadden more that 14 days, nearly 360 hours to go be with her son.  This cracks my heart open. I hope it cracks other hearts open.

[Two places for further resources for reflection and action:  I appreciate the work and spiritual-activist perspective of Thorne Coyle who reminds us that where ever we are there is work to do in our communities – and that love and anger are connected.  And, as I think of the people in Ferguson and Missouri as my neighbors in this country that we share, I’ve been glad that I know of the long and deep work of Jamala Rogers and the Organization for Black Struggle; they are on the ground in Ferguson today and doing long-term justice work that helps us all.]







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I have started a series of poetic nature meditations inspired by the many wonderful photos I have.  I’ve been posting them to my Tarot blog, but they certainly fit the themes of this blog as well.  Periodically, I’ll let you know about the offerings over there so you can decide if you want to make a cyber trip.  Unlike today’s New England weather, travel is easy and there is no snow in cyberspace!

Gate of Water

John at Water Edge








Dream of Water

Trail of Cedars Close







Gate of Fire

Burn and growth 2 of Wands







Dream of Fire


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My uneasy feelings about marriage became even more complicated this past November when I got the call that no one wants to get.

“He didn’t make it.”

The police officer was telling me that John, my partner of 12 years, had died in a car accident in Montana where he’d been working, 2,500 miles away from the home we shared in Massachusetts.

He had to repeat what he was saying a few times.  When I digested the news, tears came out of me in waves.  I’ve never been so out of control of my emotions.  This release was the best thing to do in that moment for so many reasons, but especially because the police officer got visceral proof of the primary nature of our relationship.

That relationship wasn’t clear when the police officer had made the call.  John’s wallet must have fallen out during the crash and with it his license and the “Who to Call in an Emergency” card that he’d made and kept there (hey, he’d been an Eagle Scout).  Fortunately, our mortgage company must have decided to marry us off at some point because John comes up in some databases as John Cushing.  The police officer called the number listed there and it was the home phone I answered.

“Does he have other family?”

John’s father left the family when he was 2 years old.  There was a period of contact in John’s 20s, but that ended.  When John’s mother died in 2011, his father didn’t call though he had heard the news.

But John’s father was legally the next-of-kin because we were not married. 

In these first moments on the phone with the police officer, I was already planning to get on a plane to Montana as soon as possible and claim John’s body.  I would do anything to make that happen.

I told the police officer the story of John and his father’s relationship and that I – truly – did not have his contact information, but I knew that he lived in North Carolina.

The police officer gave me the name of the funeral home to work with and, though he didn’t say it directly, I feel pretty certain he slowed down the search for John’s dad to allow me to get to Montana.

Would he have done that if my name had been Charles instead of Carolyn?  This man showed me such compassion that I want to believe he would, but I tend to doubt it.  As part of the legal system, there would have been various problems with his doing so.  Even if John and my masculine alter ego Charles had been married in Massachusetts, they wouldn’t have been married in Montana.  Montana has some of the nation’s steepest restrictions on same-sex marriage, banning it by constitution and by law.

While my sister worked on getting us tickets to Montana, I talked with the funeral home.  They would receive John’s body and wait for me to arrive.  Could I please bring some documentation of our relationship?  They were gentle in making this request, but in the background I knew they had to face some legalities to release the body to me.

Ok, what documentation?  I had mortgage statements and that had already linked us together today.  But I wondered how compelling they would be.  I was worried.

I called a co-worker and asked if she could give me a letter saying John had been my domestic partner since 2000 and list the dates when he was covered by my health insurance.  Connie e-mailed me a copy, sent me a hard copy, and faxed to the funeral home. There would be no stopping that message.

And this is just what they needed.  When I arrived at the funeral home directly from the plane, we did our business first.  The funeral director took out the faxed version of the letter and said the information it contained would satisfy the requirements they had to meet.  Thank you, Connie!  Thank you, Massachusetts!

The week in Montana was stunning.  I was stunned by my loss and stunned by the support given to me by all sorts of people  from John’s wonderful co-workers to the woman in the post office who helped me and my shaky hands fill our forms to forward John’s mail back home.  No one questioned my and John’s relationship.  Might the kindness have been there if my name was Charles?  From some people, yes, because they are good-hearted and don’t want to see people in pain..  Would things have been as easy for me if my name was Charles?  I doubt it.   People assumed our relationship as one of marriage, or just about the same thing.

At the end of the week, I returned to the funeral home to pick up John’s ashes and the death certificate.  I slipped the certificate from its manila envelope and look sadly at the stats:  date of birth, date of death, mother’s name, my name.  I stopped short looking at the slot to list the type of our relationship, it said, “Married.” 

“Ah, we aren’t married,” I sputtered to the woman who’d handed me the envelope.  “We are partners. I don’t want to misrepresent us.”  I said.

And in truth, I didn’t want to be married.  Neither of us felt comfortable with marriage for our own reasons of observing less than optimal relationships unimproved by marriage.  But also because why should we be able to marry when others couldn’t?  I used to say, “We’ll get married 10 years after gay marriage is allowed in all 50 states.  The institution will need at least that much time to recover from its bad habits of putting males and females in little boxes of traditional and dreary roles. ” And I’d laugh.

“There is no option for domestic partner in Montana so we picked married.”  The woman smiled at me.

And so I was married there in the funeral home.  No flowers, just ashes. But they were mine to take home.

Would this have happened if my name was Charles?  Absolutely not. 

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February 13 – 26, 2013 in Gallery One at 1 Cottage St, Easthampton, MA
& on-line here on the blog

Reception: Saturday, February 16th from 5pm to 7pm with a poetry reading at 6pm

The Artists

Carolyn Cushing is a poet inspired by nature and slightly obsessed with cells, light, and the first flaring forth of the universe. In 2012 her manuscript Before and After was a finalist for the Philbrick Poetry Award of the Providence Athenaeum. She lives in Easthampton and has a studio in 1 Cottage St.

John Laux was passionate about technology, art, and nature. He created paper sculptures, crafted Christmas ornaments, shot holographs in a lab he created, and took photos on his trips to Nova Scotia and Montana. He architected websites for UMass and the Media Education Foundation. In 2009, he designed a Green Industry Map for Western Massachusetts as a special project of the Green Gateway, which he founded. His last position was as the AskNature Project Director of Biomimcry 3.8 Institute in Missoula, Montana. In 2004 he wrote about his many interests, “I know that I love to problem solve. Programming, mechanics, processes, solutions, science, and nature. I know that I want to study how things work, how to make them better and how to make them more sustainable. I know that I love to create art and that which brings to the surface form over function. I love things that not only function but that fit into their environment esthetically and mechanically. The term biomimicry comes to mind. Study the world around you and mimic how things work.”

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Buddhas Below Great Mother


Unstoppable Wholeness

We live in bodies,
not our own.

They belong to the whole
of air and its circuses:
hawk’s form above moused fields,
squirrel’s dive for bending branch,
sanderling’s ocean flight beyond net

They belong to the whole
of rain and its passengers:
liquid life for soil,
but bits of broken sky fall, too;
dark matter from factory’s plume

They belong to the whole
of fire and its actions:
Western sun burns mountain brush,
sparks spring from body’s smallest parts
until broken cells lose heart’s heat,
take breath from bird,
from woman,
from any one of us

who wait
in permeable flesh
for Earth’s folds to take us down
where fire, water, air, and bone
blend bright
and everlasting.

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Below the Horizon
The observable horizon
is little known, obscured
by everyday movements
but today when I look
there is a small explosion.
I can’t find you anymore.

There are two parts:
surface and depth.
Geese circle a pond,
shift from Vs to Ws.
Three passes before heavy bodies
break surface.
Two geese tip their bodies entirely
disappearing to taste depths.

Could I dip below the horizon?
First, I must press it down on itself,
resolve it to onion-skin thin.
Then unable to resist puncture and push,
I would squeeze my body through
and below you might be waiting.


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Lake Mac Sunset with Boats



By way of the vanishing body

Towards our ends
skin thins, opens up a hint of fire
spun from each cell’s center.
Fingers blush a little
when pressed to another’s palm.
Then begins the vanishing,
that last light leaving
perhaps from the crown of the head.
Surprised, you’ll find a way to follow.
I have no proof to offer
just a fool faith in light remaining,
like the stars in the sky, forever
as our bodies go down to the deep.

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