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April 10, 2012

Gifts Born of Awareness

The following story by Barbara Riverwoman is a stirring testimony to the rewards of being aware, of tuning into the "God of small things," and of knowing that nothing is too small to be insignificant or meaningful. It reveals how the universe can give us pieces of perfection even in the midst of our greatest pain... if we, in turn, 
give our caring attention to that universe.

Watercolor by Amber Alexander

When Judy died, the universe seemed to fold itself around her and us. Those who were close to her felt drawn into a state of grace that brought us closer to each other and to nature. Most particularly, to a special date and a small moth.

Judy Wieder Hurley Bloomgardener died on November 11, 2011, waiting until the sun had set and the Jewish Sabbath had begun. 11/11 was a day she chose years ago to celebrate as Noodle Day, whimsically designating long, thin noodles as the appropriate ritual food to represent the movement from straight and stiff to soft and supple, a life process she aspired to and beautifully exemplified.  A great lover of books, Noodle Day also represented for Judy the Day of Letters—straight and wavy lines constituting the basic elements of all written languages. She had planned an especially big celebration in 2011 when more 11s lined up. Recently, she had begun to ask family and friends to celebrate that day as her special day after she died. 11/11/11 turned out to be a different sort of day from the one she imagined. Or maybe not.

Photo by Teresa Kenney
That morning, her grandson cooked a large pot of noodles which all of Judy’s family and friends ate together at exactly 11:11 am., while gathered around her hospital bed. One daughter gently placed a few strands of the buttered, salted noodles on her chest as she lay in the coma she had slipped into three days earlier. Judy loved food—for its beauty, tastiness and the deep lessons it conveyed. She was a strong, intuitive woman, filled with joy and wonder at the beauty, mystery and complexity of the natural world. There is not a single one of her family and friends who does not believe that she chose this day to die. Around sunset, her three children, a grandchild, her partner and many friends gathered around her bed to sing and read to her. As her son read from one of her favorite books of Jewish humor, she clearly smiled several times. Then, we noticed her breathing begin to slow. We drew closer, stunned into complete silence, frozen with wonder as we watched her draw her last breath. We were left in a state of deep grief, but a grief softened by gratitude. She had made it to her day! We had all been with her! She died peacefully and with a smile! What greater gift could she have finally bestowed on us?

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The moth first appeared on the sixth day of sitting shiva in Judy’s home, just after the last guest had left and the lights were being turned off. The moth fluttered in and out among 50 spherical, paper-framed photos that hung from a fishnet draped from the ceiling. Creating this three-dimensional collage had absorbed Judy during the last three months of her life, a final life review that started by sorting through hundreds of  photos to select the ones she felt were the most iconic of her long and rich life. She had gotten far enough in the art project to have three spheres hung when she was suddenly taken to the hospital on November 1. Her family and friends promised her in the hospital that if she were to die, they would finish the collage for her. Indeed, 15 people gathered two days after her death to hang the remaining photographic spheres, one last ritual Judy seemed to have planned for us. Filled with grief as we were, we couldn’t help being caught up in the excitement of hanging treasured photos of her life from the fishnet, like decorating a Christmas tree with lights. The photos twirled dynamically in the ceiling fan’s breeze. It looked wonderful. How satisfying that her family and closest friends were joining together to complete her last project and fulfill her last wish.

And how mysterious, then, to have a moth fluttering in and out, back and forth, among the photos, as if she were exploring each one. We had never seen a moth in the apartment before. How long had it been here? It was hard not to imagine that it was Judy herself, returning to enjoy and explore the creation she had generated but not completed. Had she come to savor once more the richly diverse scenes from her 73 years of life? Did she want to revisit the Statue of Liberty and the mushroom cloud, powerful  symbols for Judy of  hope and despair? To look once more at the book cover of Wasteland, a book that had been seminal in Judy’s youth? To see once again the photos of family and friends? To review images of the work she wholeheartedly embraced–against nuclear weapons; for Brazil’s poor; environmental work for a sustainable future; and the work in her later life as family therapist and social worker, supporting immigrants from Mexico? Each carefully chosen photo represented a different aspect of the life she lived with the inquisitiveness and joy of a child. The moth flew in and out among the photos for at least five minutes, flew briefly to the flower bouquet that had been with Judy in the hospital, then disappeared.

The next day, on the seventh and last day of shiva, Judy’s Buddhist teacher visited in the evening. He had heard the story of the moth. Suddenly he said, “I think your friend is back.” The moth rested on the desktop right next to him, as motionless then as it had been active the night before, perhaps calmed by the presence of a seasoned meditator. It stayed on the desktop until he left. Then it flew to the edge of the sliding glass door leading to the patio, pressing itself against the metal frame as if poised to leave. There it stayed, motionless. At about 6:30, after most guests had left, three of us gathered as close around the slight figure as we could, singing songs (including one of Judy’s favorites, “The Great Storm is Over”) and reading stories (Winnie the Pooh and Dunt Esk) until 9:38, that moment a week before when Judy had drawn her last breath.

During the night, the moth left the doorway to fly to the window side of the white curtain covering the apartment’s glass doors. During the day, as the sun shone through the curtain, we saw her shadowy form clearly outlined through the cloth, a tender, mystical and comforting presence, as we began the extraordinarily painful task of dismantling Judy’s apartment. Several times we gingerly pulled back the curtain to study the moth more carefully. It was a subtle pink coral, almost exactly the color of the pink shawl Judy draped across her chest nearly every day and night during the last years when she was confined to bed. That shawl accompanied her to her cremation. As we studied the moth, we saw lines on the back of the wings that looked exactly like a Japanese painting of mountains. Judy had asked that half her ashes be taken to the high Sierras. She loved Japanese landscape art. The subtlety of color and design would have gratified her sense of the Japanese aesthetic of shibui. Was it not perfect, we asked ourselves, that the many heavy burdens of her life should be transformed into the weightlessness of a moth and soft lines depicting mountains? Were we seeing meaning where there was no meaning? The remarkable events surrounding her death made it harder and harder to take a skeptical view of things.


When the feeling of unreality and disorientation of clearing her apartment got to be too difficult, many of us turned to the moth to remind us of the wise woman whose living spirit had so recently filled the now-empty room. Letting go of this place where we had experienced so much joy and so many wonderful memories were lodged was painful. But the moth’s tiny presence made its spirit felt throughout the hard days. She stayed hidden within the curtain folds all of Saturday, Sunday and Monday, utterly motionless in the daytime, though changing positions slightly each night, wisely moving farther out of the way of the busy traffic of the many people who came to help.

On Sunday night, the family members were invited to dinner at the home of a friend, where one of Judy’s daughters regaled people for almost three hours with sad, funny and heroic stories of her beloved mother. Then in Judy’s honor, the group played one game of Boggle, which Judy loved to play. In the Boggle letters, players found the words “moth” and “mother.”
On Monday morning, the moth moved back to the metal edge of the sliding glass door, at the topmost point. Again, it seemed poised to leave, but was completely motionless. There it remained all day as we completed the dismantling of the apartment. Now only Judy’s collage was left. Judy’s two daughters, Judy’s partner, and two of Judy’s closest friends gathered after dusk for one last ritual. We covered her box of ashes with a diaphanous lavender cloth, lit a rainbow candle, placed hearts and rocks and flowers on an altar constructed from the shards of the moving process, and sat around it, not knowing how to bring this stage to an end. Suddenly, one of the daughters’ dogs began to moan with a sound that her daughter had never heard from him. One by one, we joined the dog, our hesitant moans gradually swelling into heartfelt sobs, a true keening which continued for a long time. Then one of us uttered a prayer from the depths of our pain, we stood up, gathered around the moth at the window, and sang to her for a long time, one song reassuring her that she would be well, that we all would be well. We felt better. We had tea and cookies. Then it was time to take down the Life Collage, the last object in the room which might hold our friend to this place, and the final step before we said good-bye to Judy’s home, each other, and this unforgettable time together. We took the collage to a car. This stage of all of our lives was over.

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We said good-night to each other and to the moth. Then all but one of us left the apartment for good, that person staying to keep vigil with the moth. She said a long good-night to the winged creature, then turned off the light about 9:30. Sleepless, she arose at 10:30 to look for the moth. The moth was gone and never reappeared.

For a moment in time, a window opened into a far more mysterious universe than most of us encounter in our daily lives, a universe that Judy sensed keenly while alive. It is comforting to imagine her spirit flying free among the moth family, a large, diverse and astonishingly beautiful family of creatures that roam the world at night while most of us sleep and dream. We will celebrate her every day of our lives, and especially on November 11, her Noodle Day, now our Noodle Day.

Copyright, Barbara Riverwoman, all rights reserved. 

Barbara Riverwoman  recently filmed and edited  a DVD on conflict resolution with young children, titled "You Both Want the Elephant."  She loves dancing, birding and opera. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.  

Watercolor by Amber Alexander. Visit her shop on Etsy. Amber says of her art: "Watercolors are my medium of choice. I love the way the flow of ideas from my head and heart flow directly onto the paper."  

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