A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother

A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother

August 4, 2021

Dear Elena:

You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this. On the other hand, it could be helpful to read what your best and most centered self already knows. Daily life on our convulsing, nervous planet shouts down the best messages we can give ourselves. So I’m here to whisper back.

For the record, then, I’m glad you called. In 45 minutes, I’ll sit in your van with the boys in Dr. Weber’s parking lot. You’re right, getting your bones cracked while Cole, Killian and Gavin whirl like maelstroms around the waiting room is a disaster in the making. And like I told you, the doctor’s office is five minutes away—nothing. 

But I have more to tell you this morning. What I’ll now say has been fermenting for weeks, but correspondence that isn’t urgent doesn’t always make it to paper. Though we don’t have an emergency, you and others who will read over your shoulder might find what follows medicinal, if slightly bitter. 

In case you’re not aware, you and Matt are raising children under duress. This is no exaggeration. No, bombs aren’t reducing your house to splinters and dust, as in some cursed lands. No, your comings and goings aren’t under Big Brother’s surveillance. You can speak as you wish without fear of ending up in the Gulag. 

Still, as comfortable and affluent as our material circumstances are at present, you face challenges that ought not be dismissed with a snort and “suck it up.”

When you and your brother were young, Mom and I had much less to fret over than you do. No pandemic was looming, with one wave crashing on the shore before another rolls back. We had few educational decisions to make. You and Micah went to public schools. Homeschooling and remote learning weren’t as common as they are now. And, by the way, the social and political climate in America is infinitely more venomous and vengeful than it was in the 1990s. 

You and Matt brought these into the world. You’ve got them. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Begin again: I’m back from Dr. Weber’s parking lot. When Pop feeds Gavin bits of hash browns and gets used by Cole and Killian as a bongo drum in an air conditioned mini van for 20 minutes, I call that a blessing.

I can still recognize blessings, Elena. Out my hut window, your mother’s sunflowers sway in the breeze as if to a hymn, descants over scores of blossoms near the ground—flowers I can’t name. Simple joy is what I now behold.

But hardly anything is simple anymore. Children’s carseats now have expiration dates. Tiny screens are here to stay, but they anesthetize little brains? How long is too long? And, panning the camera for a global look, our climate is, like parents right now, under duress. 

Ah, but millions of Americans believe that scientific findings are jokes being played on the gullible, which points to what may be the most disorienting fog you have to walk through. As a society, we no longer have a firm ground of accepted factual knowledge and agreed upon standards of personal conduct to stand upon.

Just now, a yellow finch flew across the backyard to a sunflower. You know, Mom pointed out to me yesterday that those bright birds have a flight path like a wave. It’s true. 

The trouble is, as civilization stands, a neighbor could claim that the two finches at this moment making waves and pecking at seeds are not finches, but vultures. The hyperbole is only slight.

The finches’ seeds of choice, grown by your mother.

So, my wondrous daughter—of whom I’m more proud than you can imagine—this is what you and Matt are up against. The words humans use to communicate flop about like fish on the sand because they no longer mean anything. Folks decide definitions by agenda or whim, dictionaries be damned. And statements that in your childhood would have been self-evident are now ridiculed with impunity.

I did warn you that this medicine was bitter, but there are other truths I have to share that are sweet.

Hear this: Since you were a child, your heart has flown in graceful waves like the yellow finch. At the same time, your soul is earnest, built on a stony foundation of wisdom, sincerity, bravery and compassion. You must understand that what I describe as if in a poem is the real you, the you who is raising our boys.

Lately you and Matt—he is a pretty good sort in his own right—have been struggling to decide on Cole’s schooling arrangements for the fall. You want to get it right, don’t you?

Rest easy, Elena. What matters most in however many years we’re granted is that we try. As a mother you try so hard that some days you ache inside, don’t you? Everybody who loves you sees this.

Take it from your old man, even the flowers and winged waves I watch between sentences aren’t as lovely as you brushing the hair from my grandsons’ foreheads or pulling one of them aside to whisper rather than shout, to tend them day by day as they grow into the men you dream they might be.

Yes, you are a mother whose light yields to no worldly darkness. Believe me.

Love,

Dad

Letter to My Grandson, for the Future

Letter to My Grandson, for the Future

July 7, 2021

Dear Killian:

My five-year-old pal, you are having one rough time. In 10 years or more, you might find some value in your Pop’s thoughts about what your heart, mind and body are going through these days. I’m asking your mom and dad to hold onto this letter until you’re confused, stuck, maybe miserable, trying to figure yourself out—why you feel like you feel and tick like you tick.

Your family, Killian.

I’m almost 60 now, and for the whole stretch I’ve over-thought and over-felt nearly everything. I’m a genius at crippling myself with worry and concocting troubles that don’t exist. Just before your mother was born, I started to have panic attacks that raided my sense of self for a good five years. “Anxiety disorder,” that’s the box my therapist checked on my bill after each session.

Now at this point, listen closely. I’m not saying that someday you’ll go through what I went through. No, no, no. It’s just that the struggles you’re enduring tell me that you have a sensitive soul, like your Pop’s. If this is true, you’re in for a ride. Joy will take your breath away hour by hour. On the other hand, the wrongs you witness will bring on tears or—as my mother used to say—“make you so mad you could spit.”

The older you get, the less you’ll remember the preschool-aged Killian. I’m a reliable source, though, and you could do far worse than consider whether the boy you’ll now read about has turned out like his grandfather.

First, a caveat. Keep in mind that the last two years have been bat crazy. The Coronavirus, which has claimed over 600,000 lives in the United States alone, still has us frightened and confused. The social and political climate—to say nothing of our changing planetary climate—is brutish and wicked. In short, to be an American of any age in 2021 is to be hemmed in by exhausting absurdities.

Be assured, your mom and dad and both sets of grandparents are tender and mindful, doing everything possible to give you a safe, lively and fulfilling childhood. You and your brothers are lucky beyond measure. But I wonder if, despite much wise protection, you still manage to absorb how nasty and bonkers the world around you is without having the cognitive development to process it all.

Although your life with family and friends is charmed, you take deep breaths constantly. You’ve got a fiery, nameless burden in your chest that returns even as you blow it out through puffed lips.

You on the futon in Pop’s writing hut with Sherlock, having tablet time after a little learning. Your cheeks have food in them.

For months now you’ve had a cranky stomach. You chew food, then chipmunk it in your cheeks, afraid to send it down for digestion.

Sometimes in the middle of the night you wake up with cramps in your foot. For a while your eyes were always itchy, and I thought you might rub them right off your fair face. Oh, and for another while you got sharp headaches while riding in the car. All of these concerns are improved, thanks to your mom and dad’s persistent efforts to find causes and treatments.

You’re now reading about your younger self and maybe saying, “Man, I was a mess.” Well, to tell the truth, kind of, yes. I would call you delicate. Your mom said, “Some kids are dandelions, some are orchids.”

So far, your older brother appears to be a dandelion, while it’s too early to predict what flower your younger brother will be. But you, sir, are a delicate orchid. Accept no blame on that account. Feel no shame. This is a comrade addressing you. If honorary doctorates were awarded for fragility, your Pop would have a wall full.

My list of your ailments isn’t offered to depress you, but to open you up to self-awareness and ultimately a growing sense of ease with the person you are. This moment’s cleansing breaths and bellyaches may well be outward signs of turmoil trapped inside you. Nobody knows for sure.

But since your folks have handed you this letter, what you went through so long ago is possibly paying you a return visit—in a new form, spurred by new circumstances, wearing a new mask. Then again, maybe nothing is wrong. Mysteriously you’re rubbing your eyes again for no good reason. Riding in the backseat hurts your head.

Mystery is the perfect word. Microscopes and test tubes teach us what truths they can divine, but human beings pretend to know more than we really do. In many ways, the person you are and the person I am are mysteries. We are tiny mysteries caught up in a loving, but ferocious, embrace of the Great Mystery.

Why is Killian Thompson the way he is? No matter how you answer that question, in dark valleys you might long to turn into a different person altogether—somebody stronger, braver than you are, some carefree guy whose troubles lift from his mind like morning mist.

You can grow up, Killian, but try not to change this kid too much.

If you are ever granted such a wish, you will find what’s left of me inconsolable in my writing hut. You will little remember how many times I sidled up to the troubled five-year-old you, pulled you toward me and kissed the sandy shock of hair behind your right ear. Nor will your hurting feet recall the heat your grandmother applied to them at 5:00 a.m. And how could you know that your mom and dad breathed in your every sigh to be sure you never worried alone?

I ask you now, Killian, to trust that your parents and grandparents have always had but one fervent intention: To help you give birth to yourself and to love you so fiercely and unconditionally that you will dare to love yourself—exactly as you are and much the same as you were in 2021, when you gave your Pop more gladness than you’ll ever know just by sitting in his lap.

With abiding love,

Pop

Oniontown Pastoral: Supporting Cast at Grandma’s House

Oniontown Pastoral: Supporting Cast at Grandma’s House

When Cole and Killian arrived at Grandma Daffy’s house Saturday evening at 5:00, it was pouring down rain. Thunder and lightening were also in on the action, so the boys’ coveted dip in the splash pool seemed unlikely. 

Our seven-year-old redhead and five-year-old sandy-brown were sulking. Fortunately, bad moods are no match for my wife. In no time she had them shrieking in the basement play zone, having sold them on some alternative amusement. I was whipping up a pot of Pop’s Famous Mac and Cheese and a batch of curly dogs, a trick I stole from Jacques Pepin, who slices wieners so they turn into circles when fried.

In other words, the spell that Grandma Daffy casts on our grandsons was working its magic. As an aside, my beloved obviously does not share her given name with a cartoon duck.

Everybody knows that grandchildren claim the divine right to name their elders. Killian couldn’t manage Kathy, but Daffy worked. And she was the lucky one. Her counterpart should have been Grandma Janine, but the best Killian could do was “Dramamine.” How would you like to be known as a motion sickness prophylactic? And due to an unfathomable utterance by Cole, our son Micah goes by “Gak,” which is the phonetic spelling of “upchuck.” Poor Uncle Gak. 

Killian, Cole and Gavin, who will be joining Grandma Daffy’s Magic Queendom someday soon. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But back to Grandma Daffy’s house. Nobody mentions that 402 Parkway Drive also belongs to Pop. No, when the subject of weeknight visits or sleepovers comes up, the venue is “Grandma Daffy’s.”

And it’s the truth. I’m the supporting cast for the queendom Kathy hath made, all aglow with virtuosity and improvisation. In the aforementioned basement, Kathy has a miniature, fully-appointed kitchen, where the wee chefs prepare gourmet meals. They also built a neighborhood out of cardboard appliance cartons and now hatch plots in their own row houses with secret entrances. A bit closer to heaven, our attic ceiling is lined with twinkly lights, so the boys can embark on make-believe adventures under the stars. 

My own cooking has to be four-star to compete with such attractions. Mac and cheese is a favorite. It’s salty, savory and rich enough that when adults partake, I insist that they schedule angioplasty before serving them dessert.

Cole was finishing his third helping of my heart-stopping starch on that rainy Saturday when Kathy pointed out the window and said, “Hey, guys, look!” 

The veil of clouds was rent in twain. The sun was out. Bellies full, the boys naturally ran out to trouble the chilly water. 

My favorite pool picture from 2020: Kathy made suds, Cole blasted himself in the face with the hose, while Killian looked on.

The moment Cole’s lower lip turned blue and quivered, intrepid Gram filled two plastic tubs with steamy tap water and dumped them into the pool. The placebo effect was in full force. I could have warmed the waves as much with a dirty look, but who cared? Cole was giddy, belly flopping and slipping down a stubby plastic sliding board.

Before long my character in this play was called on stage. I was made for the part. Killian stepped out of the pool and into a breeze, which got his teeth clattering. He fetched a towel from the deck railing, and I spun him into a cocoon, set him in my lap and surrounded him with big Pop arms.

For somebody who never was all on fire to have children, let alone grandchildren, I’m stunned time and again to discover that the highlight of this man’s sixth decade is when Grandma Daffy and I have the boys over for an evening or all night long. 

What the woman I now call “Daff” likes best is action—play in all of its gyrations and fascinations. What the man she calls “Pop” likes is when the boys lean into me as I read and tell stories. Best of all, I offer them a sustaining memory for when laps can no longer cradle them and assurances whispered into their ears won’t drive troubles away: Being embraced by a grandfather whose love alone could shelter them from a cold wind, but who doesn’t hesitate to use a beach towel warmed in the sun as well as a few kisses on top of their wet heads.

As if receiving a sacrament, I watch Daff give Cole and Killian a childhood that will leave her fingerprint on their souls. And with joy I await my cue and play my part, which is that of an extra. I look at their tender faces and think, “If for this moment alone I was born, I count this life a wonder. My portion of days runneth over.”    

A vase of flowers from Daff’s garden. She wrought the wonders, and the author arranged them.

One More for the Road, Raymond

One More for the Road, Raymond

Note: My friend Ray died suddenly on January 16, 2021. As you may remember, Ray showed up here at A Napper’s Companion from time to time. Odds are, this will be his last appearance.

Dear Ray:

I never did ask why your phone messages always started with, “Hi, Pastor, this is Raymond.” I couldn’t have mistaken you for anyone else. Over the last 10 years, I talked to you or listened to voicemail or chose not to answer more times than I yawned and sneezed put together. No doubt about it.

A confession, old friend: I’ve come close to tears about your passing only once. I mentioned in a sermon that you couldn’t believe in a gracious God. Then, “But I think Ray knows about grace now.” After the hell you lived, the idea that you might finally be at peace moves me. No more damnation, condemnation and temptation. No more depression, anxiety and paranoia.

Today you will be with me in paradise. May it be so, Raymond. (Credit: Christ on the Cross Between the Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens on Wikimedia Commons)

Now your burden is lifted, but I’ve got a problem. You died without warning, and I’m left with thoughts that you ought to hear. On the off chance you’re listening, let’s close out the account of our earthly friendship like this. 

There’s hardly an errand in Erie that doesn’t remind me of you. Each Smoker Friendly or Dollar General I pass says, “Oh, yeah, Ray,” as do the Holiness Church on Liberty and Safe Harbor on West 26th. Lately your Longhorn wintergreen snuff has been on sale at Country Fair—you’d be stocking up. On the bookcase here in my writing hut, the bargain cigar you passed along keeps me company. The family cat gnawed little holes in the pure leaf wrapper, but flawed keepsakes are treasures just the same. 

That’s true of people, too, I guess. More than anybody I’ve ever known, you were up front about your mental illness. My own battles were nothing compared to yours, but you taught me a lot about candor. “It’s hell being nuts,” you once said. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” And, “Remember, Pastor, I’m not playing with a full deck.” Thanks for giving me permission to share your story. “If it can help somebody, tell them everything,” you also said. Well, you’ve helped. Take my word for it.

Of course, no obituary would begin, “Raymond was nuts, but gave of himself generously.” When I heard that you died, I was afraid nobody would take notice. Fortunately, a relative of yours put a little write up in the newspaper. “Ray was an avid antique hunter,” it said, “and very knowledgeable about cigars, tobacco products and humidors, but above all, Ray was a very godly man.”

That last part says a lot, but a couple of paragraphs can’t cover everything. You didn’t get a funeral. The COVID pandemic saw to that. My eulogy would have dressed you in the tuxedo you deserve. I would have told folks how you made me proud. Sober for over 20 years. Beat gambling and some other addictions. Found ways to keep living, though every hour for days on end might bring fresh misery. Within your storm of turmoil and psychotropic medication, you managed to think of others. I would have said all this and more.

I would have skipped what you normally said as you slid into my passenger seat. “Oh, shit, Pastor, “I’m so tired.”

“I know, old buddy,” was my only reply in the moment.

But now I have more to say. Look, you were an inspiration. In the middle of a case of the blues, I’d picture you in that busted recliner of yours, either pooped out or afraid a thug would break into your house or terrified of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God. “If Ray can keep plugging away,” I’d think. “I can, too.” Honest, you were a hero.

Bottom line, Ray: I love you. Our friendship wasn’t very emotive. Still, when I said, “You old codger, you,” or “You’re a real piece of work, you are,” love was what I was trying to get across. But you probably knew that.

I miss our salty laughter.

OK, amigo, you can get back to your bliss now. Please put in a good word for me. All of us on this side of glory are at least a little afraid.

Your friend and partner in neurosis,

Pastor

P. S. I suppose God calls you Raymond.

Welcome back home, Raymond. (Credit: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni on Wikipedia)

Intercessory Prayer in an Age of Malice

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Wearing Another’s Skin

Wearing Another’s Skin

I’ve seen him before: a hulking man probably younger than he looks, dressed in stained layers, even in the summer. He paces outside a convenience store, stops and turns as if a shadow has called his name. His countenance is rage, barely mastered.

I always figure he is going to roar at me or ask for spare change. His base is in one of Erie’s rough areas, so being panhandled or hassled wouldn’t be unexpected. His bench is at the intersection 30 yards away. He sleeps on his side.

My mother raised me to avoid such neighborhoods. In fact, there’s one street in Erie that she refused to travel, and that’s where I was this morning, buying my newspaper and iced tea.

Getting back in my car, I glanced his way and thought, “Just like me.” Not the homelessness, thankfully. Not the dirty clothes, not what I take to be the fury on simmer. I’ve lost some weight recently, but remain hulking.

Still, I’m a lot like this guy. I want to be loved and understood. I want to be comfortable, sheltered, clothed and fed. I want a mind that functions, friends to laugh with and a decent portion of gladness.

The American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron deserves credit for “just like me.” She told Oprah Winfrey about it, and I overheard. Admittedly, you probably don’t need to engage in this contemplative practice with folks you love, though it can’t hurt. No, realistically, Chodron’s phrase has to do with those you find objectionable, often strangers.

But even the first woman ordained a Buddhist monk in the United States didn’t come up with “just like me.” In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, novelist Harper Lee famously put an echo of the notion into Atticus Finch’s mouth. His daughter has had a rough first day of elementary school and disapproves of her teacher. “Well, maybe she was just nervous,” Gregory Peck explains in the film adaptation. “After all, it’s her first day, too, teaching school and being new here.” Then comes Lee’s gem: “Just learn a single trick, Scout, and you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

In the novel’s last chapter, Scout recalls the lesson: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

Delivered in Peck’s legendary baritone, empathy comes across as warm and folksy, but American poet Walt Whitman knew better. Of his experience nursing Civil War soldiers, he writes in Leaves of Grass, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

All of this imagery points toward pain. Saying “just like me” demands that I set aside the fine appointments of my days and recognize that but for bad luck, an unfortunate decision or the curse of mental illness, I might have no roof to call my own. Climbing into another person’s skin implies that I first peel off my own. To become the wounded soldier—or the person I’m inclined to hate—means that I receive another’s gut shot, that I dare to trade places with a broken soul, that I claim a sister or brother’s graceless desert as my own.

Empathy is easy on occasion, but most often it’s exasperating, like a riddle that’s beyond my patience or capacity. Anyway, stewing in ill will is easier than reflection and over time gets to be addictive. And prior to my self-explication, the person who has triggered my brain stem is nothing like me, damn it.  

Northern Mockingbird (Credit: Wikipedia)

Walking for a time in someone’s stilettos or loafers doesn’t mean that I condone a single chapter of her or his story. On the other hand, until I put into practice the raw, chafing wisdom of Chodron, Lee and Whitman, I’ve no business peddling criticism. In fact, if I review other people’s lives while still abiding in my own skin, I’m apt to kill a mockingbird.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” Atticus Finch says. “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that most people just want to be mockingbirds, in a fashion: To do no harm and sing their hearts out. Of course, if my supposition is true only of folks I love, then it isn’t true at all.

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