Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

In Memory of Warren Redfoot

Three of us sat around the hospital bed in Warren’s living room: his wife Nancy, daughter Barb, and me. Under the covers was Warren, all 90 pounds of him. Sticking out were his head, shoulders and left arm, which rose and fell throughout our conversation, as if carried on a breeze.

Miracles were coming out of the man’s mouth. Not that all his words made sense, but never mind sense. Warren was speaking in poetry, which takes inscrutable turns and isn’t obliged to be linear.

“I wish I could make myself understood,” he said somewhere in the midst of the quirky grace he was bestowing on us. We assured him that he was doing fine.

What got Warren rolling was this. Barb said, “Dad, do you want to tell Pastor John about Old Floyd and New Floyd?”

He was game. The story, which had been birthed in his imagination the night before, evades transcription, but the gist is simple. The Floyds are either tractors or men, depending on Warren’s memory at the moment. Old Floyd is doing farm work, but eventually breaks down. Then New Floyd shows up and takes over.

As in the mysterious possibilities of dreams, however, the Old Floyd is, in fact, the New Floyd. “Not the same body,” Warren explained, “but the same.”

He was talking—for the love of God!—about resurrection.

Closing his parable with a flourish, Warren pushed aside imaginary clouds and said, “Then the sun came out.”

Then the sun came out.

“Boy,” I managed through a tight throat, “you could add another chapter to that story if you wanted.”

“Another chapter?” he replied, almost incredulous. “Another paragraph. Another sentence!”

I caught his meaning. This fragile man was schooling his pastor about life, death and everlasting hope. Sooner or later, life boils down to finding a good word, taking a single breath, or touching the cheek of your beloved, as Warren did to Nancy. All that this husband knew of tenderness shone forth as he reached for his wife, to ease her sorrow.

Old Floyd—Warren’s father’s name, incidentally—can see New Floyd coming. Time grows short. One more sentence means everything. One more hour. Another kiss.

These thoughts swept me away. My left hand held Warren’s while the right clamped over my mouth. Barb touched my shoulder. For the first time I was nearly undone at a bedside and thought I might have to excuse myself.

Can you understand? If God leads us to each other to give or receive what we need most, then God, indeed, sent me to Warren and Nancy’s house to receive the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Once I regained myself, we shared Holy Communion. Warren’s eyes locked on mine as I held up the bread and cup. No bashful glancing away for either of us, not with eternity so near.

Afterwards Warren asked for a decent swallow of wine to supplement the sliver of bread I had dipped in the chalice and rested on his tongue.

Even though his throat was constricted, I poured him a tiny portion. Never have I seen a believer drink more eagerly. He held the thimble-sized glass above his mouth, the last drop falling on his tongue.

Then Warren said, “I have an urge.”

“An urge?” Barb asked. “An urge for what, Dad?”

“For another Communion,” he said. “Not this one. Another Communion. The next one.”

And then he went on and on about how delicious that wine was. I couldn’t argue.

When Warren seemed to be flagging, I said my goodbyes, but as I reached the door, he called my name. Not “Pastor John” or “Pastor,” only “John,” the name I pray one day to hear God whisper into my ear.

I turned around to face Warren reaching skyward, like Atlas holding up the planet.

I did the same. We kept the silence together.

“Peace?” I finally asked.

He nodded, mighty under the weight of the world: “Peace.”

Driving home, I sighed to hold off tears. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” I remembered, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Old and new.

Warren was every bit the Spirit to me. Maybe for a moment, like those Floyds, they were the same. I don’t know. But what I can say for sure is this: When my skinny old friend gave me a foretaste of the feast to come, the beauty almost made me go to pieces.

A Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom,

I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap half an hour ago and now sit in the dining room a few feet away from your Christmas cactus. It’s been jostled and broken a few times in the fifteen years you’ve been gone, but Kathy has always used the remnants as starters, which she gives away once they take hold. Guests marvel and ask how old the plant is. I wish you were here to tell me.

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Beautiful, even as its flowers wilt.

I miss you, Mom. Driving around at night this time of year, I listen to the empty space you left behind. People are getting lights up on their houses, and I’d love to pick you up, go slowly through the neighborhoods, check out the colors shining in the darkness, and hear you mmm and ooo. I’d love to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with you after dinner, neither of us saying much. And I wish you’d have been with me during the last couple of days.

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I’d stop so you could have a long look, Mom. (Credit: Carson Ganci)

Yesterday, November 30, 2013, your fourth great-grandchild, Cole Martin Thompson, was born at 7:15 a.m. Elena did the hard part, and her husband Matt and Kathy were there to help. I know, women give birth every day, but Cole’s arrival is almost beyond belief for Kathy and me, so joyful that it seems surreal.

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Cole Martin Thompson holding his Uncle Micah’s finger

Elena and Micah have been through a lot since you died. Elena remembers you walking with her to get ice cream before your arthritis got bad. They both remember the dollar toys and candy bars you had waiting for them when we came to visit—Hot-Wheel cars, little rubber ladybugs, and 3 Musketeers. Kathy and I will never forget you peeling grapes for Elena when she spent the night at your place. Their memory of you is dim around the edges, but they still talk about you with great love. You were gentle and understanding with them, long before their troubles began.

Their teenage years were tough. Elena got into wearing all black and scratching and slicing her wrists bloody. She and friends gave each other tattoos and piercings. Worst of all, in high school she swallowed a handful of pills and wound up in the hospital. And Micah was hooked on heroin and smashed up his room in our basement during a few years of madness I still don’t understand. He’s a convicted felon, which will follow him the rest of his life. He and a friend cooked down fentanyl patches and injected the narcotic into her arm. She overdosed and nearly died, and Micah took the blame. The one good thing about your death is you didn’t have to walk the floor, as you used to say, worrying about your grandchildren.

While much of this madness was going on, Kathy was in nursing school. I can’t imagine how she was able to get mostly A’s, graduate, and start work as an oncology nurse while our kids were in various stages of meltdown. But she did, which shows what a strong spirit she has.

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Your amazing daughter-in-law with a swaddled Cole. In your absence, science has discovered that the best way to quiet infants is to wrap them close to the point of suffocation and make loud shhhhh sounds in their ears. Who knew?

I was a mess. Being a pastor was still new to me, so as I tried to take care of parishioners, I barely functioned myself. I can’t tell you how many times when Elena was missing in the middle of the night or when Micah was roaring and screaming, I wanted to show up at your apartment and lie down with my head in your lap. That’s some picture, huh—a forty-something man with his mommy rubbing his balding head. I had to settle for two-hour naps of escape by myself. I swear, Mom, there were times I wasn’t sure I’d survive. You gave birth to a man whose fragility didn’t make for a particularly disciplined, wise parent. I could have done a better job.

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What hair I’ve got left is going gray, Mom.

But this is why after fifteen years I want to write you. There’s a place in me that longs to tell you that after all Elena and Micah have been through, we—your son, his wife and kids and son-in-law—found ourselves together in a hospital room looking at a greater blessing than I’d considered possible.

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If you were here, I’m sure Elena would peel grapes for you.

It wasn’t just the birth of my first grandchild that moved me. It was that Elena has grown into a mighty—no pain medication during labor!—wise and lovely woman with a husband who’s in every way more than I have a right to expect.

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Your grand-daughter married a good man.

It was that Micah has been clean for over a year and has a full-time job as a painter. You know, he cried when he first saw his nephew and said that Saturday, November 30, 2013, was the best day of his life.

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Micah’s got a funny haircut, but he’s also got all your gentleness.

I let Micah hold Cole before I did. “Would my son live to see adulthood?” I wondered years ago, listening to furniture being demolished in the basement. Yesterday, I watched your grandson hold your great-grandson. I breathed in and out, Mom, and thought for the first time in my life that if I suddenly died in that moment, all would be well, that I would have known as much joy as any man deserved.

Life offers no guarantees, other than one day we’ll all join you. You’re ash underground. My ashes will be scattered somewhere. Cole, whose head is still bruised from pressing against Elena’s pelvis, will eventually follow us. I don’t know what eternity looks like, but my prayer is that somehow we can share the holiness of these days—you, your parents and grandparents, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

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We figured you’d want something simple, like this.

And yes, Mom, I know it’s possible that I’ve written this letter only for myself—a hopeful, neurotic middle-aged man—and that you may be nothing more than the bone and cinder your children buried in June of 1998. But I can’t help believing that existence is as abiding as your Christmas cactus and as fair as your great-grandson Cole.

For as long as I have left, I’ll hold on to this belief and pray to see you again. Lifetimes from now, may we all embrace, tell stories, and watch colors shine in the darkness.

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What do you say, Mom? Let’s all go get ice cream.

Love,

John

Light and Life Versus the Execution of a Shadow

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Santa Claus on Black Friday (Credit: Jason Stang)

Crying sits in my chest and leans on my throat. Zoloft be damned, I’ll be wiping away tears before this Black Friday of 2013 is over—tears and snot.

(Blogger’s Note: I apologize in advance for some of what follows. This post should be an outburst of  joy, but if you’ve been sticking with me any length of time, you know I try hard to be emotionally honest. So I’m going to tell the truth.)

I’d planned on being a curmudgeon today about Black Friday’s syphilitic insanity infecting Thanksgiving. I have lots to say about that but will hold off for a while. Instead, I’ll share the e-mail and Erie Times-News story that are making this 8:50 a.m. at Starbucks complicated. Bad news first.

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Alois Alzheimer, official sponsor of Alzheimer’s disease (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Headline on page 2-A of the Erie Times-News on November 29, 2013, right under a lovely piece by Kevin Cuneo about the luscious scents of Thanksgiving cooking overcoming his dog’s skunking of the family home: “Man fatally shoots roving Alzheimer’s patient.” Here’s the story (skipping paragraph breaks):

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. – Authorities in northwest Georgia said a man shot and killed a 72-year-old he thought might be an intruder but turned out to be a wandering Alzheimer’s patient. Walker County police told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Ronald Westbrook had walked about 3 miles in the sub-freezing temperatures before knocking on Joe Hendrix’s door just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. Hendrix’s fiancée didn’t answer, instead calling the police. Sheriff Steve Wilson said before deputies arrived, Hendrix went into the backyard with his handgun, where he saw Westbrook in silhouette. Wilson said the 34-year-old Hendrix recalled giving Westbrook several verbal commands, but the advanced Alzheimer’s patient didn’t respond. Hendrix then fired four shots. Wilson said charges could be filed but that Hendrix didn’t violate any laws by walking out into his own yard.

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Robber! Rapist! Murderer! Oops, sorry. Just an old guy. (Credit: Jesse Reardon / Twila Reardon)

I don’t think walking out into his yard was the objectionable part! Some months ago I shared a post entitled Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani in which I described my father’s dementia. I’m the proud owner of a I Survived My Parent Going Bat Crap t-shirt. For me, it wasn’t Ronald Westbrook knocking at Joe Hendrix’s door. The man’s name was Denny Coleman, he was eighty-five, and he was so far gone that while staying at my house, he wandered into the wrong room in the middle of the night and pissed in my clothes basket. It was my confused, tormented dad who, lost and freezing, knocked on a door. When nobody answered, Dad walked into the backyard and stood in the corner, in the dark. Some guy started screaming at him, but since he couldn’t even remember whether his son was his son or uncle or brother or father, he stood there silently. Then Hendrix shot my dad’s silhouette four times. Then Dad wasn’t flummoxed or agonized anymore.

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That should about cover it.

That’s how I processed the article. Conveniently, as I sat breathing, “White Christmas” played in the background, with Bing Crosby whistling like my dad used to. Of course, I also immediately thought of the woman in suburban Detroit who knocked on a door in the middle of the night because her car broke down and ate lead for the effrontery. God didn’t make enough tears and the devil didn’t make enough expletives to communicate my sadness and rage. If Hendrix had actually shot my dad, the upset would rise to another terrible height, but I’m just saying that 133-word story out of Chickamauga has sucker punched a once-in-a-lifetime morning. No worries. I’ll work the ache out of my jaw, pop four ibuprofen, and move on to today’s best news story, which showed up via e-mail:

Hi John Coleman,

Did Elena call you? She is in early labor, dilated three, probably gonna have the little guy today. If you feel the love, would you bring me a Starbucks after you leave? How am I gonna concentrate today?????????????????????????????????

Love you, soon to be grandpa

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Yes, soon-to-be grandma, I’m feeling the love.

(Yes, my wife calls me John Coleman.) If question marks are any indication, Kathy is giggling and jitterbugging at work, The Regional Cancer Center. As soon as I read her note, that cry I mentioned rose in my chest. It will come out in its own time.

Like Dr. John Watson, I’m guilty of telling this story wrong-end foremost. As it happened, I read Kathy’s sweetness-and-light message, imagined holding my grandson and kissing him on the head, then opened the newspaper, where a befuddled old man’s killing had me staring at my father, scared in the darkness.

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Elena on Thanksgiving. I think my turkey gravy induced labor.

So what wins? The execution of a shadow? Or light and life? It seems like the former is always throwing a haymaker at the latter, meaning to knock it out of the ring.

My money’s on light and life. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That’s what the Gospel of John claims, and even if I weren’t a Christian, I’d still believe it. Sorry for being a fool, but the alternative is too much to bear.

With luck, light will shine this Black Friday. My grandson may enter a bright land he couldn’t have imagined and be embraced immediately by dazzling love. Let that also be so for Ronald Westbrook, Denny Coleman, and one day, you and me.