You Are My Sunshine

empty wheelchair


I arrived at the nursing home too late.

My position with hospice was in Loss & Bereavement; that is, to help terminally ill patients prepare for their death and to be available to the families before, during and after the loss of their loved one.

When anyone would ask what type of work I did, and I would answer “hospice,” the reaction was almost always the same – “Oh – I don’t know how you do it – I would never be able to…” With that, they would look down, words trailing off, sometimes physically stepping away from me. I understood.

But for me, being with someone approaching death is sacred ground. No filter, no mask, no falseness. Just that person stripped of everything the world deems important, yet at that moment, more genuine. More authentic. Unpretentious. Beautiful.

When I met Walt, he was a resident in a nursing home.  Patti, his aid, brought me to his private room to introduce me. He was in his mid-70s, thin gray hair in wisps around his almost bald head, eyes rimmed with dark circles, face sunken and pale. His wheelchair, placed close to a window, bathed him in sunshine. The photograph on his bureau showed a strikingly handsome man, tall and thin, with blonde hair, casually holding a golf club, looking off to the horizon, smiling. 

Now, his body was bent and misshapen, knees drawn up, fingers curled into fists held tight against his chest. His head was angled toward his right shoulder, his whole body ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis.  He showed no awareness when Patti introduced me and his eyes – a clear, bright blue that belied his age – never left a picture on the far wall.

“That’s his wife. She died a long time ago. They never had children.”

She was quite pretty, dressed in a uniform that a flight attendant might wear in the early years of commercial flying – perhaps Pan Am or TWA. The only other item on the wall was a handwritten 8×10 sheet with words to the song “You Are My Sunshine” written on it.

“That was their favorite song. They used to sing it to each other,” Patti explained.  “He can’t speak because of his stroke, but if he gets agitated, we sing it to him; it seems to calm him down.”

So began my relationship with Walt.  I would visit him twice a week – him in his red cardigan sweater, slumped in his wheelchair parked in the sunshine, me seated next to him.  I would read to him, talk to him, sometimes just sit with him, while he would look at his wife’s picture.  Once, when I hummed “You Are My Sunshine” and gently held his hand, I thought I saw the briefest of smiles, but then it vanished.  It was probably just wishful thinking on my part.  There never seemed to be any change in Walt’s disposition.

One week, our hospice team was particularly busy with new patient admissions and I was unable to make my Tuesday visit with Walt.  On Thursday afternoon, I stopped at the nurse’s station to sign in.  As I rounded the corner and headed to Walt’s room, I saw Patti coming toward me, her face drawn and tired.

“Walt took a turn for the worse this morning,” she said softly.  “He died, not more than five minutes ago.”  She stepped aside so I could enter the room.

I stopped.  Walt’s wheelchair was by the window, empty.  I’d never seen him anywhere but in his wheelchair.  I looked around, searching for something – anything – familiar. My eyes finally found Walt, lying on his twin bed, facing the wall.

I stood at the foot of his bed and said a prayer, but it didn’t feel like enough.  I moved the foot of the bed away from the wall and knelt where I could see Walt’s face.  His eyes were closed, his wrinkles smoothed out; he looked like he was peacefully at sleep.  I reached out and clasped his hand, my fingers gently intertwined in his.

My eyes were drawn to the photo of Walt on the golf course and the one of his lovely wife when she was a flight attendant.  I closed my eyes.  As if watching a movie, I saw Walt – young, handsome, smiling – get up easily from the bed and walk towards a beautiful young woman dressed in blue.  They stood facing each other, holding hands. Staring at each other.  Smiling at each other.  Loving each other.

With carefree laughter and beaming smiles, they turned and walked away, hand in hand, bathed in golden light.  They were together again, as one.

As I looked down at our hands and smiled through my tears, I began to sing.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

Good-bye, Walt. Thank you for the privilege of spending time with you. Go, now – happy, whole, healthy – and rest in peace.



~ Thich Nhat Hanh ~

The moment I die,
I will try to come back to you
as quickly as possible.
Isn’t it true
I am already with you,
as I die each moment?
I come back to you
in every moment.
Just look,
feel my presence.
If you want to cry,
please cry.
 And know
that I will cry with you.
The tears you shed
will heal us both.
Your tears are mine.
The earth I tread this morning
transcends history.
Spring and winter are both present in the moment.
The young leaf and the dead leaf are really one.
 My feet touch deathlessness,
and my feet are yours.
Walk with me now.
 Let us enter the dimension of oneness
and see the cherry tree blossom in winter.
Why should we talk about death?
I don’t need to die
 to be back with you.

Battle of Gettysburg – The Aftermath

Gettysburg – The Aftermath

At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the small town numbered 2,400 inhabitants. The armies that initially descended on the village numbered nearly 165,000 men at arms and brought with them hundreds of wagons, cannons, limbers, caissons, ambulances, and tens of thousands of horses and mules. In less than 5 days, the bulk of these forces disappeared. Dead men totaled over 7,000, more than 5,000 animals had been killed, and nearly 26,000 soldiers were wounded, 21,000 of which remained in and around Gettysburg. The Confederates managed to transport several thousand of their wounded back to Virginia in a 17-mile-long wagon train. (Gregory Coco, “A Vast Sea of Misery)

Gen. Meade lost about 25% of his army at Gettysburg, while Gen. Lee lost nearly 40% of his. The war would drag on until April 1865, but after Gettysburg, the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy,” the end was inevitable.

Every available barn, stable, shed, schoolhouse, church and home were impressed into service as field hospitals, both in the town as well as several miles away. Disorganization and chaos reigned initially in primitive conditions. Scores of injured troops in every conceivable state of injury were scattered over the countryside, out in the open, without even a blanket for covering. Rock Creek and White Run overflowed following July 4th’s heavy rains. Soldiers weakened by blood loss, dehydrated and lacking nourishment waited days before being seen by medical staff. Their conditions were aggravated by the cries of those mentally anguished and by natural scavengers in the form of blowflies, maggots, beetles, spiders, and wandering hogs.

A wounded New Hampshire soldier named Drake “had the unpleasant sensation of watching as a hog tore the flesh from the bones of his recently amputated leg. It was eaten up before his eyes. Drake recalled that he could even feel a sharp pain very clearly as it happened.” (Gregory Coco, “A Strange and Blighted Land)

More than 3,000 horses were killed outright in the 25 square mile battlefield. Injured horses and mules were being mercifully shot several weeks into July. The livestock of the civilians – carcasses of cows, pigs, oxen, sheep, and fowl – were burned along with horses and mules. On July 4th, one soldier described: “The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable… The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.”


Sophronia Bucklin, Volunteer Nurse:

“I visited the battle ground on several occasions – the first time soon after the conflict, when the evidence of the horrid carnage…lay on every hand in fearful sights… I had grown familiar with death in every shape. Yet, when right above my head, at one place, so close that it touched me, hung a sleeve of faded army blue – a dead hand protruding from the worn and blackened cuff – I could not but feel a momentary shudder.

Boots, with a foot and leg putrifying within, lay beside the pathway, and ghastly heads, too – over the exposed skulls of which insects crawled – while great worms bored through the rotting eyeballs. Astride a tree sat a bloody horror, with head and limbs severed by shells, the birds having banqueted on it, while the tattered uniform, stained with gore, fluttered dismally in the summer air.

Whole bodies were flattened against the rocks, smashed into a shapeless mass, as though thrown there by a giant hand, an awful sight in their battered and decaying condition. The freshly turned earth on every hand denoted the pits, from many of which legs were thrust above the scant covering, and arms and hands were lifted up as though pleading to be assigned enough earth to keep them from the glare of day.”


Abraham Lincoln 2 weeks before Gettysburg Address (Alexander Gardner)

Abraham Lincoln
2 weeks before Gettysburg Address
(Alexander Gardner)


Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

Abraham Lincoln


Lincoln at Dedication Gettysburg, Nov. 19, 1863 Matthew Brady Collection

Lincoln at Dedication
Gettysburg, Nov. 19, 1863
Matthew Brady Collection


Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg Address


On April 9th, 1865, Gen. Robt. E. Lee, Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Army of the Potomac, at Appomatox Courthouse, Virginia. The terms of surrender were generous, allowing the men to return to their homes with their horses and mules, to be used in spring planting.

Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln fell to an assassin’s bullet while attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. He died in the early morning hours of the following day, April 15, 1865.

The American Civil War – the War Between the States – cost nearly 1,100,000 in casualties and claimed almost 625,000 lives.


Before the war, the country was referred to as the “united states are;”
 after the war, the country was referred to as the “United States is.”
~ Shelby Foote, Historian


150 Years Ago: July 3, 1863 – Gettysburg



Part III, Day 3 at the Battle of Gettysburg: July 3, 1863

“That last and fatal day opened furiously for many, even before the hazy sun broke…around Gettysburg. Hours of mortal combat over Culp’s and Bliss’ and Spangler’s farms led out that day, then finally crested and dissolved upon the cultivated and rocky fields of farmers Frey and Small and Rummel and Lott. 17,000 fell in that long, ghastly 24 hours, and then the mighty armies turned away, leaving their death and destruction behind.” (Gregory Coco, “Killed in Action,” p. 85)


Of the 5 women known to have fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, 2 of the Confederate women soldiers were casualties of Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd. One was severely wounded and unable to move herself from the wide expanse of fields. That evening, a Union Private on guard detail called her screams of agony that lasted the night “the most awful sound he had ever heard.” It isn’t known whether she survived.

In reporting on the burial of Gettysburg dead, Brigadier General William Hays reported a “female private in rebel uniform” among his count. She was found on the west side of the stone wall of the angle at Cemetery Ridge. She would have been one of 12,000 Confederate soldiers who marched across a mile of open ground through the withering fire. Two Confederate magazines told about the “Hero of Pickett’s Old Brigade” in which a husband and wife, thought to be a father and son by their fellow soldiers, participated in the final charge. A “fair, sweet-faced” Confederate flag bearer was shot while bearing the flag forward. The flag bearer – the wife – fell at the side of her husband and were buried together on the battlefield.


This widely published incident about a Union soldier’s contact with Gen. Robt. E. Lee, Army of Northern Virginia, on July 3rd was related by Confederate Brig. Gen. A.L. Long and Union Brig. Gen. M.J. Wright:

“I was at the Battle of Gettysburg myself, and an incident occurred there which widely changed my views of the Southern people. I had been a most bitter anti-South man, and fought and cursed the Confederacy desperately. I could see nothing good in any of them.

The last day of the fight I was badly wounded. A ball shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as General Lee ordered his retreat he and his officers rode near me.

As they came along I recognized him, and though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face and shouted as loud as I could, ‘Hurrah for the Union!’ The general heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I confess that I at first thought he meant to kill me.

But as he came up he looked down at me with such a sad expression upon his face that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes, said, ‘My son, I hope you will soon be well.’

If I live a thousand years I shall never forget the expression on General Lee’s face. There he was, defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by! As soon as the General had left me I cried myself to sleep upon the bloody ground.”



2nd Corps Hospital:

“A young soldier, a mere boy, was brought in on a stretcher while a soldier walked alongside and held his hand on a wound in the thigh of the boy’s body. He said he was entirely free from pain. A surgeon examined the wound and said, ‘Nothing can be done for you; you must die; if you have any word or message to send home, attend to it at once; you will die within a few moments after your comrade takes his hand from your wound, and that must be soon.’

The soldier asked for paper and pen which were quickly furnished. He wrote a letter to his mother, stated his condition and that a friend was holding the wound while he wrote to her, saying as soon as he finished the letter, his comrade would let go and he would bleed to death in a few minutes.

The letter was finished, he let himself fall back, hesitated a moment, then said, ‘Now you may let go,’ and Levi Smith of Company A, 148th Pennsylvania Infantry, who held the wound, withdrew. In a few minutes, life had gone out.”


Volunteer nurse John Foster:

“Nothing struck us more forcibly than the entire absence of animosity and ill-will between the soldiers of the 2 armies; the moment the battle was done, the men came together naturally… An example: A Federal soldier was wounded during the terrible engagement on Friday – struck down by a ball on a part of the field over which hostile lines swayed to and fro with varying success. As he fell and his forces were gradually falling back, the enemy pushed forward and occupied the ground where he lay.

Discovering him, several soldiers set to work immediately providing him a shelter, erecting about him as he lay a barricade of stones several feet in height, and 2 or 3 feet in thickness. Presently, under a menace from the Union, the enemy withdrew from that part of the field, leaving the soldier and his hastily constructed castle about mid-way between the opposing lines.

A steady fire of musketry followed for an hour or more, but, notwithstanding his exposed position, the occupant of the half-way house escaped without a scratch. ‘The balls,’ he told us, ‘came with an incessant pat, pat, pat against the stones, or whistled with a sharp cry almost continuously over my head. I felt every minute that the next would end my career; but, after all, not a single bullet reached me, and I crept out, when the fight was over, with no other injury than I had sustained before the rebels put me under the shelter.’

Outside of the barricade thus constructed hundreds of flattened bullets were afterward picked up, fully confirming the truth of the soldier’s singular story.”


At 1 o’clock on July 3rd, the Confederate artillery – some 200 guns – opened fire in the Union line. The bombardment lasted almost 2 hours, and it was conceded that, “never in any battle in the world was the fire of light artillery so heavy as that at Gettysburg.” (Major Thomas Osborne, 11th Corps Artillery).

“Man seldom ever sees or hears the like of this but once in a lifetime; those that saw and heard this infernal crash and witnessed the havoc made by the shrieking, howling missiles of death as they plowed the earth and tore the trees will never forget it. It seemed that death was in every foot of space…” (Lt. John Lewis, 9th Virginia)

“…Down upon our faces we lay, and immediately beheld forth the roar of more than 100 guns from the Confederate batteries… The very atmosphere seemed broken by the rush and crash of projectiles, solid shot, shrieking, bursting shells. The sun, but a moment before so brilliant, was now almost darkened by smoke and mist and shadowing the earth, and through which came the hissing and shrieking, fiery fuses and messengers of death, sweeping, plunging, cutting, ploughing through our ranks, carrying mutilation, destruction, pain, suffering and death in every direction… There was to be seen at almost every moment of time, guns, swords, haversacks, human flesh and bone, flying and dangling in the air, or bouncing above the earth, which now trembled beneath us as if shaken by an earthquake… Men prayed on that field that never prayed before… So rapid was the firing and so great the number of guns engaged that the fire from one could not be distinguished from another; there was one continuous roar…” (Sgt. David Johnston, 7th Virginia, Kemper’s Brigade)


“Dead faces! How they haunt us! Lying all about the fields and beside every tree in the woods.
Who are they? Whose father or brother or husband? Here is a body all broken and mangled.
Who praised the symmetry of that farm when last it stood in its native Northern village?
Here is a face all black and swollen. Who was it that a few months ago called it beautiful?”
~ Russell H. Conwell



And the earth, soaked with the blood of its children, wept.

150 Years Ago: July 2, 1863 – Gettysburg

Part II, Day 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

On July 2nd, the battlelines were drawn in 2 sweeping arcs, the armies nearly a mile apart on parallel ridges. By night’s end, vicious fighting seared the names of Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield,, the Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge into the souls of those who fought there.

“The warm, humid weather of the second day of the battle of Gettysburg caused many to fall prostrate, overcome with heat and thirst. But so very many more came crashing down, split open and torn, pierced and pelted by the thousands of pounds of iron and lead missiles thrown by Southern and Northern weaponry. Fighting commenced around noon, just west of the old Emmitsburg Road and continued into the darkness of the night, as a poor sickly moon tried valiantly to penetrate the sulphurous air over Culp’s and Cemetery Hills. Names and faces became famous that day for the foul scenes surrounding them: The Trostle and Weikert and Rose farms; Plum Run and Codori’s thicket; peach and apple orchards, streams and woods and wheatfields – all had seared and thundered and crashed; until finally the blood enriched soil was open to accept the fresh bodies, the torn, innocent flesh of a gored and bleeding Union.” (Gregory Coco, “Killed in Action,” p. 32)

These are some of their stories…


On July 2nd, 1863, Col. M.J. Bulger of the 47th Alabama Infantry was wounded while attempting to “take and hold a crossroad in front of Little Round Top.”

“…a minie ball struck me just over the left nipple, passed through my body, and lodged under the right shoulder-blade… I nerved myself up to keep from falling, and eased myself down against a tree that grew out of a crevice of the rocks in such a way as to afford me a convenient and comfortable seat. When the men came to where I was they rallied and had a desperate fight, but were finally driven back.

While this was going on I was suffering intensely, and thought I should strangle with blood. I saw a Federal soldier coming in a direction that would bring him close to me, and determined to ask him for water when he came near enough. I said to him, ‘My good fellow, will you give me a drink of water? I am wounded and choking to death with blood.’

Without halting he threw his hand to the back of his neck, caught the strap of his canteen and laid it down in my lap, saying, ‘I have no water but there is whisky, a great deal better for you; drink it.’ He passed on a few steps, got down behind a rock, and commenced shooting my retiring men.”


Twenty year old Private John F. Chase, 5th Maine Battery, was atop a knoll between Cemetery and Culp’s Hills in the evening of July 2nd when North Carolina and Louisiana troops assaulted Cemetery Hill.

“My battery was enfilading the charging column as it dashed up the hill. Our shot, shrapnel, and canister was doing such terrible execution that the Confederates opened 3 or 4 batteries on us. One of their shrapnel shells exploded near me and 48 pieces of it entered my body. My right arm was shattered and my left eye was put out. I was carried a short distance to the rear as dead, and knew nothing more until 2 days after.

When I regained consciousness, I was in a wagon with a lot of dead comrades being carted to the trenches to be buried. I moaned and called the attention of the driver, who pulled me up among the dead and gave me water. he said my first words were, ‘Did we win the battle?’

I was taken to the First Army Corps Hospital on the Isaac Lightner farm, 3 miles from Gettysburg on the Baltimore Turnpike. They laid me down beside the barn, where I waited 3 more days until my wounds were dressed. The surgeon let me lie there ‘to finish dying,’ as they said, while they attended to the rest of the wounded. I lay on the barn floor then, several days, and then was taken into the house, where I stopped for a week. From there I was moved to the Lutheran Theological Seminary Hospital.

After about 3 weeks, I was carried out of the hospital to die again, and was told by the head surgeon that I could not live 6 hours, but I did not do him the favor. Three months later, I was sent to West Philadelphia Hospital until I was able to return to my home in Augusta, Maine.”


Miss Elizabeth S. “Sallie” Myers was a young teacher living on West High Street in 1863. On July 2nd, she was asked to assist the wounded in the Catholic Church east of her home.

“Among the first men I saw lying on the floor, to the right of the entrance, were 3 Southern soldiers. One of them particularly attracted my attention. He was a large man, his complexion was dark, and he had the blackest eyes and hair I ever saw, lying there helpless with an appealing look in his great black eyes.”

Several weeks later, Sallie was at Camp Letterman, the large general hospital east of town, when she entered the “dead tent” to visit several Confederates who were laid out waiting for burial.

“There lay the man who had attracted my attention in the Catholic Church, but the great black eyes were forever closed. On his breast was pinned his name – Hardy Graves, Company C, 6th Alabama Infantry, age 25 – and below it was his wife’s name and address – Julia Graves, Brundidge, Pike Country, Alabama. I cut a lock of his hair, and sometime after, I wrote to her, sent her the lock and told her what I knew of her husband. She replied and asked me if I could find his grave. He had been buried in a plot of ground along with many others near Camp Letterman. I gathered some wildflowers growing near and enclosed them in a letter, telling her how her husband’s grave was situated. I never knew whether Mr. Graves’ body was removed to Richmond or taken home to Alabama.”


From the historian of the 188th Pennsylvania Infantry – “Rabbit Fire:”

“While the regiment lay crouching for protection in its first position near the George Rose House, before it had become engaged, a rabbit, startled from its cover by the advance of McLaws’ assaulting Georgians, rushed in frightened, headlong leaps towards the Union lines. Innocent of purpose to harm, he plunged in one of his aimless jumps right into the ranks and planted his cold, sharp claws firmly into the neck of a soldier who lay flat near the right of the regiment.

It was too much for the poor fellow. He gave it up, and jumping to his feet, with pitiful expression, in woe-begone tones, wringing his hands in agony, announced himself a dead man; that he had been shot in the neck; that the ball had passed entirely through, and there was no hope for him.

He recovered his equanimity, however, when those in the neighborhood who had observed the cause of his trouble, received his dire announcement with the merriment it necessarily created. When informed that a poor little rabbit had innocently been the cause of his discomfiture, the soldier sheepishly resumed his place.”


Women played a significant role in the American Civil War, and, indeed, at the Battle of Gettysburg. Angels of mercy, spies, nurses, farmers, cooks, seamstresses, and as soldiers – women warriors – patriots in disguise. Over 240 women in uniform during the Civil War have been documented. Their reasons for fighting mirrored those of men – patriotism, honor, heritage, excitement – along with desire for freedom from their traditional roles and a desire to remain with their husbands or brothers. Dressed as men, some women eluded detection by their comrades for years, even gaining promotions. Often, their deception was not discovered until the “young boy” in their company was wounded, killed, or gave birth (Blanton & Cook, “They Fought Like Demons”).

Five women are known to have fought at Gettysburg: 2 Union and 3 Confederate. While the Union women survived, 2 of the Confederate women died on July 3rd in Pickett’s Charge (more details tomorrow) while the third was shot in the leg and captured. At the U.S. Military Hospital in Chester, PA, her leg was amputated in order to save her life. In a letter to his parents, a Union soldier recovering in the same hospital described her:

“I must tel you we have got a female secesh here. she was wounded at Gettysburg but our doctors soon found her out. I have not seen her but the(y) say she is very good looking [.] the poor girl [h]as lost a leg. it [is] a great pity she did not stay at home with her mother but she get good care and kind treatment. it [is] rather romantic to have a female soldier in the hospital and her only to have one leg and far a way from home but I hope she will soon get better and get home to her friends.” (Thomas Reed, 5th Michigan Infantry)

A Union drummer boy wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg was not the “lad of 15” he appeared to be, but a girl of 18 who refused to divulge her name or any personal information. “She wore a neat suit of soldier-clothes and made a pretty boy.” It was her second Army enlistment.

“It was here and like this that the women endured,
Here alone that they grappled with death
In a form more horrid than the soldiers encountered
While facing the cannon’s lurid breath.
They were watchful by day and wakeful by night,
And like Ruth they most faithfully cleaved,
And many a lady and lassie died
Of wounds that the soldiers received.
~ Confederate Veteran, Vol. 39:235.


Late that night, the guns were at last silenced, but the moans and cries of the wounded and dying continued. The stench of burning horseflesh and dead bodies, the unwashed in sweat-drenched wool and the debris of battle, lay over the small town, adding to the July humidity.

Civilians wondered what tomorrow would bring while they sweltered in their basements. Commanders looked at maps and modified plans for when they met once again in battle. Soldiers wrote letters to their loved ones, knowing that their words might be final. Surgeons continued their amputations, the only answer to the terrible mutilation and destruction of the minie ball on human flesh.

“And I turned away and cried…”

Gettysburg Devil's Den

Devil’s Den (National Archives)

Wheatfield (National Archives)

Wheatfield (National Archives)

Little Round Top )Library of Congress)

Little Round Top (Library of Congress)

“If we don’t end war, war will end us.” ~ H.G. Wells

150 Years Ago: July 1, 1863 – Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg and The American Civil War
[The Gettysburg Foundation &
National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior]

The epic Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863) changed the course of U.S. history.  

The first steps toward the Battle of Gettysburg started in June 1863. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s soldiers crossed the Potomac River in Virginia and began to march toward the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, with thoughts that a victory in the North would erode the Union’s will to continue the fight.

The Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, 1863, when Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia met Gen. George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac. During the three-day battle, about 165,000 soldiers clashed in and around the small town of Gettysburg (battle-era population: 2,400).

When the Battle of Gettysburg was over on July 3, 1863, 51,000 soldiers were casualties (killed, wounded, captured or missing) in what remains the largest battle ever fought in North America.

The two armies met by chance on June 30, 1863. The first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg was fired early in the morning of July 1, 1863, when fighting broke out north and west of town, with Confederates attacking Union troops on McPherson Ridge. Though outnumbered, the Federal forces held their position until afternoon, when they were finally driven back to Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill south of town. That night, the Union troops labored over their defenses while the rest of the Army of the Potomac arrived and took up positions for the next day’s meeting of the armies.

Author Gregory Coco tells the story of the hospitals at Gettysburg – public buildings, private homes, orchards and groves, outbuildings and meadows – that were transformed into a “vast sea of misery” that sheltered and housed tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers wounded in the three days of battle. In truth, the battle would continue for four more months, but this time in the hospitals filled with the suffering and dying.

“In every direction lay men of all classes, the rich man and the poor man, the commander and the private. At one place, near a fence, lay privates, corporals, lieutenants, majors and colonels, from New York, North Carolina, Indiana, Mississippi, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Alabama, Maine and Delaware side by side, on the bare ground, or on a little wet straw; no distinction.” (p. vii, “A Vast Sea of Misery”)

The Trinity German Reformed Church was one of many buildings that served as one of Gettysburg’s hospitals. By 11 am on the morning of July 1st, Dr. Abraham Stout, assistant surgeon of the 153rd Pennsylvania Infantry, had taken possession of the church after being ordered to by a Colonel in the Louisiana Infantry and opened it as a hospital.

Witnesses described the scene inside:

“The wounded were carried into the lecture room of the church and there was so much amputating done there that the seats were covered with blood and they had to bore holes in the floor to let the blood run away…” (Eva Danner, 16 years old)

“Men were lying on boards on tops of the pews, the walls splattered with blood…”

“I found the church full… I should call it a slaughter-house. There must have been 10 or 12 amputation tables in one room…they were all busy… The doctors had their sleeves rolled up to their shoulders and were covered with blood.” (Reuben Ruch, 153rd PA Infantry, Company F)

The Gettysburg hospitals don’t tell a Union story or a Confederate story, but a human story. Acts of kindness by volunteer nurses and civilians, performed out of charity and with love, often with steadfast courage, have been passed down, in marked contrast to the utter brutality of the battle itself. Ordinary, common people showing extraordinary, uncommon valor as caregivers to soldiers regardless of the color of their uniform or the manner of their speech.

Sarah Broadhead, a volunteer nurse, described her first reaction to the hospitals of Gettysburg: “I turned away and cried.”

One hundred fifty years later, when looking at the photographs of the aftermath of the battle and reading first-hand accounts, we may still feel the need to “turn away and cry.”

Instead, I send up a prayer for the souls of all those lost in all wars since the beginning of time. In remembering them, we honor their sacrifices.

Instead, I turn toward their memory and cry.


Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner

“It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” ~ Gen. Robt. E. Lee

The Shoulders of Giants (Once Again…)

On this, the first anniversary of  Dad’s death, I chose to repost something from almost 3 months ago. My feelings stand.


I’ve said it before – at times, my naiveté astounds me.

  • Licensed Professional Counselor – check.
  • Loss & Bereavement Specialty – check.
  • Survived Mom’s death 25 years ago, when she was only 59 years old – check.
  • Working through the grief process (and it is a process) for Dad, who died not quite a year ago at the age of almost 87 years old – check.
  • Prepared for the grief involved in no longer having a parent alive – not even close.

Everyone grieves differently. It depends on your relationship with that person; if you’ve lost someone before; whether their death was far too quick, with no time to say good-by or agonizingly slow, with unbearable suffering; expected or unexpected; natural or by suicide; your age; and, whether you’re male (like to take action) or female (want someone to listen). The list goes on… There’s no set “process,” per se – no time frame or stages that must be followed in the correct order. Some people act like nothing has happened, while others are prostrate with grief. Shock, denial, bargaining, depression, anger with lots of people (including God), until hopefully – finally – some measure of acceptance.

My patients often ask when they will have “closure,” and I answer honestly there is no such thing as closure, only survival. They will survive.

My head knows this. My heart struggles to keep pace.

Mom’s death was 6 months after her breast cancer diagnosis, after having suffered through a modified radical mastectomy, chemotherapy, surgery, and a 29-day hospital stay. The fact that she was only 59 years old and my close friend made her torment agonizing to watch; so much so, that I actually asked her physician if I could end her suffering (and mine) by just letting her drift away with extra morphine. He shot that option down quickly.

Dad’s death at almost 87 years old was sudden. Two weeks before he died, on Father’s Day, we noticed he was slurring his words. We took him to the doctor, got him a bright red 3-wheel walker and made plans to either move him downstairs in his home (one floor, no steps) or to have him move in with my sister. That was all underway when I got the call that Dad passed away. He was walking down his driveway to get his newspaper, a morning ritual, when he collapsed. The neighbor called 911 when she saw him lying there, but he died “instantly.” (Do doctors tell that to everyone to ease their suffering? Just wondering…)

The shock of Mom’s death shook me to my core. Admittedly, after 25 years, I still light a candle every day in her memory. I don’t know how long Dad’s death will sit so fresh and raw; it’s been less than a year.

But this I do know – I was totally unprepared for the separate grief that comes with no longer having a “parental unit.” It’s unique – it’s different – it’s terrible – it’s lonely – it’s frightening.

I feel abandoned, lost, adrift, disoriented, incomplete. There’s no one to watch my back or to be my cheering section or to give me a safe place to fall.

Where is my anchor? Who will advise me, guide me, forgive me, support me, challenge me, love me unconditionally? Who will comfort the little girl in me, the lost child, as only my parents could?

I once told Dad when he was really missing Mom (which was for the entire 25 years) that he and Mom had given me everything I needed to be a success, that I had “stood on the shoulders of giants.” They were my giants.

“If I have seen further…it is by
standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

~ Sir Isaac Newton

He liked the thought of that and remembered with gratitude all those who helped him along the way.

I shared with him something I felt while at the Baccalaureate service the night before my grad school Commencement. While I sat immersed in the joyous music that filled the cathedral, I could almost sense two lines of ancestors standing behind me. They were in pairs, from my shoulders, back and up, until I lost sight of them. Without turning around, I could visualize them. Somehow I knew that one line included Mom, my maternal grandparents and the rest of her family, while the other line was my paternal grandparents…on and on and on. They were all shapes and sizes and colors, all dressed in different clothing that gave a clue to their work, some younger than others, some faces lined while others were smooth. They were all smiling. Generation after generation after generation.

I have been schooled well.

The best psychotherapists are those who have been through pain. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author (1932 – 1996), reminds us that “in our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”

Who better to sit with you in the darkness than a wounded healer?

I have sat with people who have lost their child (the worst loss), spouse, parent, sibling, friend, grandparent, married lover, colleague – but never someone who was grieving the loss of both parents as a “unit.” How is that possible?

But now, as is always the case, I will be able to sit with someone who no longer has parents – as one person said to me, “Welcome to the Orphan’s Club” – and empathize with their longing for wholeness.

But a broken heart empties us of all that we might hang on to, often too long, so that it might be filled up with something greater and more wondrous that we could ever imagine or think ourselves deserving of. When I am tired enough of struggling, I will once again accept Your glorious grace. I will once again accept the plans You have for me. I know You understand.

Help me to be Your Counselor, Defender, Teacher, Listener, Instrument, Vessel, Comforter, Starfish Thrower (thank you, Diana), Harvester, Secret Keeper (bless you, T), Heartsong, Wellspring.

“Much is expected from those to whom much has been given.”
~ Luke 12:49

Dad’s favorite saying, as well as the way he always signed off on a letter or in a card – “Keep the Faith.” I’m doing my best, Dad, but I still miss both of you more than I ever thought possible.

Like I said, I have stood on the shoulders of giants – Mom and Dad the biggest and most important of all. They lifted me up so I could soar.

Your Circles of Grace – those Circles of Compassion – widen.

My thanks.

The Last Horizon

The Last Horizon
by John O’Donohue

As we climbed up the mountain
and came to where I thought the horizon would be,

it had disappeared – another horizon was waiting further on.
 I was disappointed, but also excited in an unfamiliar way.
Each new level had revealed a new world.
 Against this perspective, death can be understood
 as the final horizon.
Beyond there, the deepest well of your identity awaits you.
In that well, you will behold the beauty and light of your eternal face.

A Gift of Life and Death

A Gift of Life and Death
by Macrina Wiederkehr

I want my death to be a gift, a birth.
 When in that final breath
I breathe myself back into God
 I want to be drawn into you also,
into the world of stars and earth,
plants and birds and animals,
into the roaring sea.
 I want to be an intimate part
of all the universe.
 And so, as I am breathed back
into the heart of this world,
into the hopes and dreams
and joys of the people,
into the yearnings
and the tears and sorrows of this world,
my death will be a birth, a gift.

I want my death to be a gift
and the only way my death
 can be a gift, is
if my living is a gift
 right now, today
in this frantic, confusing, lovely
messy moment in history.

Oh, just to be here visible, and unhidden,
alive with a hope that has no boundaries,
ever aware of the immense goodness,
at my fingertips, within my reach,
receiving and sharing that goodness
 midwiving it into being,
tasting the incredible truth, that
every day is a good day for living
and every day is a good day for dying.

I want my life to be a gift
 so that my death can be a gift.

My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech

Zach Sobiech died on Monday, May 20th, 2013. He was 18 years old.

When he was 14 years old, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer found in children. Zach endured months of chemotherapy and had several surgeries. In May, 2012, more cancer was found in his lungs and pelvis. Rather than have surgery to remove his leg and part of his pelvis, Zach and his parents decided to enjoy the 6 – 12 months he had left.

So, Zach decided to write songs. His song “Clouds,” which you can see below on YouTube, has had more than 4 million views.

“My closure is being able to get my feelings into these songs so they (family & friends) can have something to remember me by or lean on when I’m gone.”


“You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living…” ~ Zach Sobiech

Zach got to drive his dream car for a week, courtesy of his parents. His girlfriend Amy (“I love her to death; I will love her to my death.”) stayed by his side, as did his close-knit family and school friends.

He inspired so many people that Rainn Wilson of YouTube’s SoulPancake channel made a 22-minute documentary called “My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech,” which you can watch below in its entirety.

Have a box of tissues close at hand.

But don’t have them because of Zach’s death this week; rather, have them handy because of Zach’s life. His wisdom is more than most 50-year olds, and his heart is bigger than most, too.

After I watched the documentary, I felt stronger and blessed for having met him, my tears more happy than sad. And I wasn’t able to stop my smile in the midst of my tears, just for having met such an amazing human being.

Zach – My life is richer for having listened to “Clouds” and having watched 22 minutes about your 18 year life.

Eternal rest, Zach Sobiech, and may perpetual light shine upon you.

Your soul dazzles and shines with your light.

You are beautiful. You will be remembered.

My thanks…

Wounded Hearts

The young father walked down the hall, each of his daughters holding one of his hands. He looked to be in his thirties and his daughters, perhaps 3 and 5 years old. They were dressed like little princesses – dresses with skirts that puffed out, patent leather shoes and white socks with embroidered flowers and ruffles. Their mood matched their father’s – quiet, determined, serious. It was almost as if his energy flowed into theirs and they became one. You could barely hear their footfalls in the long hallway, the lowered lighting bathing them in softness from behind.

Late at night, a special visitation, they were on the Trauma-Neuro floor of the hospital where I worked. They were on their way to see their wife and mother.

In her thirties, she was in her prime – physically fit from the bicycling that was her passion. Each year, she bicycled several times a year for different charities that were close to her heart. Today’s was for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where they provide care and find cures for sick children at no cost.

Late at night, a special visitation, her husband and two daughters were on their way for a visit.

Earlier that day, as everyone was packing up and leaving the successful Bike-a-Thon fund-raising event, the young mother was struck by a small panel truck that barreled through an intersection without brakes. Med Evac flew her to our trauma center. But it was too late… In spite of all that modern medicine had to offer, massive head injuries left this young wife and mother brain dead. Her family was here to say good-bye before she was removed from life support.

When gathering her things together before her family arrived, I looked at her driver’s license, seeing her smiling eyes and the words “Organ Donor” stamped on its front. She would still be giving of herself after death, and several of her organs were already designated to people across the country.

Late at night, a special visitation, her husband and two daughters were on their way to say good-bye.

As I watched the small family enter her room, I couldn’t help but think of all that she would miss of her daughters’ lives – kindergarten and grammar school, getting their driver’s license and experiencing their first kiss, senior prom, graduation, college and another graduation, their weddings, the births of their own children – gone forever in an instant. A tragedy unfolding in the privacy of her hospital room…

Trauma-Neuro was always quiet at night; those with severe head trauma were often kept in a medically-induced coma while their brain swelling was monitored. I walked toward the only other person near-by – a young resident who had been looking at the wall of monitors behind the nurse’s station. He stood still, staring off into nothingness. Tears welled in his eyes.

I placed my hand over his clenched fist that rested on the counter.

“I shouldn’t be like this,” he ground out without even looking at me, wiping a stray tear from his cheek with his free hand.

“How can you not be?” I offered quietly. “You’re exactly the kind of doctor this family needs right now.” I hesitated. “You’re exactly the kind of doctor medicine needs.”

As he dropped his chin to his chest, I felt his fist relax, as we stood together, both hearts weeping.

I heard a muffled “thank you” and looked up to see the young family standing just past the nurse’s station. The man’s eyes filled with tears, he slowly turned and walked away, his back stiff as he held his girls’ hands. As they walked down the hallway, passing through the shadows, a soft light bathed them in a familiar shape – wings??? – before they exited through the door.

Sacred ground.

Time stopped. A mother who bicycled for charity, breathing with life support until her family said good-bye and her organs were harvested; two little girls in ruffles and bows, their lips quivering with an unnamed fear; a young husband and father walking toward an unthinkable future in agonized disbelief; and, a physician who now understood that not all stories have a happy ending and that sometimes the simple one word question – “Why?” – is so terribly vast and complex that any acceptable answer defies human comprehension.

At that moment, I heard the soft strains of Brahms’ Lullaby echoing from the hospital’s public address system to announce the birth of a new child in the maternity wing.

As one life ends, another begins in the eternal cycle. An ending to be mourned and a beginning to be celebrated. Second chances made possible by the gift of life from a selfless woman.

I celebrate all of you for coming into my life – the mother and father, their daughters, the doctor…and yes, even the new baby. I keep you in my heart awash with blessings.

Interconnected. Circles of Compassion. Circles of Grace.