On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

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Dolores Coleman, younger than my daughter and son are now

March 11, 2016: My mother would have turned ninety today. She died on June 8, 1998, of sepsis, the result of a reattached ileostomy. Our goodbye still feels like a door left ajar. She was unconscious by the time I reached her hospital room, so the best I could do was whisper and pat her bloated, purple hand.

She was gentle and loving. I thanked her for that. And I said she gave motherhood everything. She lost sleep and sweated small stuff. I didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist.

The only sign that she could hear me was her fat hand lifted a little, then fell. Maybe she didn’t catch every detail, but I hoped that she sensed my attempt to surround her with kindness and affirmation.

The trouble was, Mom’s end was not certain at that point. I held out hope for a turnaround, so my deathbed blessing was a precaution.

But it would have to do. She passed within a couple of days, while I was at seminary in Columbus. By the time I got back to Erie, she was bone and ash in a beige plastic urn. No tender moment with Mom in repose, no soliloquy.

And no private crying. Those came at her funeral service, called forth by a hymn, probably my favorite: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” I was loud and sloppy. It couldn’t be helped.

But this was almost eighteen years ago—my Lord! Grief has aged along with me, tears giving way to a longing that visits now and then. I don’t just miss Mom, but also myself as her kid, when life wasn’t perfect, but mostly good and glad.

Much as a hymn cracked me open when I was a younger man, music now makes me feel an emptiness in my chest that can only be filled by the past. Give me communion with those who would now be a hundred or more. Let me break bread with the living scattered by the centrifugal force of passing time.

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Lawrence with ah Bobby and ah Cissy, 1969 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week Lawrence Welk—of all musicians!—had me pining. At the family gatherings of my youth, elders wanted big band and bubbles on the television. Enduring Bobby and Cissy and token black tap dancer Arthur Duncan was a tariff imposed on us before we pre-pubescents could watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler and, of course, The Wonderful World of Disney.

My cousins and I regarded the burden as onerous, but now when “It’s The Lawrence Welk Show” belts out from the television and the accordion starts up, my mind and body want to be at Aunt Mart and Uncle Kenny’s house, in the always amiable commotion of generations.

The desire for this slice of the past is physical. I swear, when Welk goes “Ah one and ah two and ah,” my heart stirs. Even Joe Feeney’s nasally tenor makes my eyes smile.

Mom was in that joyful air, in the rise and fall of voices I can’t remember all that well anymore. I miss her. I miss bumping into those decent old souls and getting overheated running around with cousins.

The whole champagne rerun (Public Broadcasting Service) played out as I washed dishes and cooked and let a lovely ache move through me.

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Karen and Richard Carpenter with President Nixon (Credit: Robert L. Knudsen on Wikimedia Commons)

Not too many days later Karen and Richard Carpenter played the same trick on me—a PBS fundraiser retrospective. Admitting you like the Carpenters is for some people right up there with digging Barry Manilow. Confession: part of me loves them. Karen Carpenter’s voice puts me in another corner of my past’s attic. Family friends stayed late, played cards, gorged on long-gone Armand’s thin pizzas, and laughed until dizzy. I had just hit double digits, and the scene was so loosey-goosey that I scored a fair amount of beer out of the deal. All the grownups loved and played Carpenter’s albums and 8-track tapes.

Mom, who was built a little like Karen before the anorexia took over, was at the center of my memory’s comforting song. I can still see “We’ve Only Just Begun” in calligraphy at the bottom of our friends’ wedding photograph, their giddy features pinched against the flying rice. Who says “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” aren’t happy songs? Those years weren’t too shabby, nestled in between my parents’ divorce and the ravages of Mom’s arthritis.

Part of my longing is to go back, before I knew how fragile and bruised elderly skin could be, how worry and disappointment can hunch your back, how some dreams end as wisps of smoke.

But that’s not all. I want to dunk my Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies again, sit on the floor of a room packed with relatives as Tinkerbell blesses the Magic Kingdom with pixie dust and Fowler saves Perkins from a boa constrictor, and watch Mom tease her hair, then set it in curls with Dippity Do and bobby pins.

I wish for Karen Carpenter to sing again. I want to rewind Lawrence Welk’s sign-off and listen back when I couldn’t wait for it to finish.

Good night, good night, until we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn till then.

And though it’s always sweet sorrow to part,

You know you’ll always remain in my heart.

Good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you.

Here’s a wish and a prayer that ev’ry dream comes true.

And now till we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn.

Good night!

I’m not wiping away tears. My hand is drawn to my chest, though, and I’m sighing. Sadness and gratitude sit together. This is the best happy birthday I can say to Mom right now.

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What I Hope My Grandson Will Remember

A Napper’s Companion love, love, love alert. If you’re tired of me going on about grandson Cole, you are hereby issued a pass. My next post, already in progress, will be the customary blend of joyful and brooding. For now, if you can’t get enough of bald babies, come on in.

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Cole’s friendly monster first birthday party . . . by Elena Thompson and Cole’s groupies

Following my last silly post, Naming Monsters on Black Friday, dear blogging friend NapTimeThoughts and I had a little exchange that basically ended this way:

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Fifteen little monsters up for adoption

I wrote: “Wouldn’t it be great to sit with our grandmas again? Mine would have Vernors ginger ale and big brown tins of pretzels. Heaven.”

NapTimeThoughts wrote: “Mine would have coffee ice cream and graham crackers with butter on them, and we’d be playing Chinese checkers in the den. Someday Cole is going to have this conversation with someone, you know. What do you want him to remember?”

Not only does NapTimeThoughts have a belly-laughing, thoughtful blog, but she comments generously and genuinely on mine and others. Her question here has lingered with me in the days since she asked it. “What do you want [Cole] to remember?” My answer will change over time. Since Cole just celebrated his first birthday, he would be beyond genius if he remembered anything about me, should I cash in my chips in the near future.

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Whatever you remember about your gramps, kiddo, be sure to include color!

But a grandfather can hope. My Vernors and pretzels and NapTimeThoughts’ coffee ice cream, graham crackers with butter, and Chinese checkers are details—as my friend well knows—that help resurrect our grandmothers. A soda pop bottle, a cool marble, that’s all it takes. Suddenly, a personal, particular love lives again.

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Thanks, NapTime, for a question worth a couple days’ reflection. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old NapTime enjoys a bit of back and forth, thank God. Her query was a gift that led me to an answer. “What do I want Cole to remember?” Assuming at this point he won’t recall my feeding him broccoli cheddar soup or his kissing my cheek with a peck and a mmmwah, I do pray that this one piece of Gramps takes hold.

Here’s What Happened

This morning daughter Elena and Cole showed up at the house. As usual, wife Kathy and Elena had a plot to hatch, so Little Lord Cole and I had to find a way to amuse ourselves. Grandma’s ginger snaps and a walk around the dining room was the ticket. Already eager to embrace multi-tasking, Cole gummed bits of cookie and reached for my mother’s old teapot on top of the china cabinet. In response, I channeled Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh—gently, without being heavy: “Cole, just enjoy the cookie. You don’t need to do anything else.”

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This is life, Cole: taste the cookie.

“Yeah, right, Gramps,” he probably thought. But Cole is a deep soul. Once he had a fresh piece of ginger snap on his tongue, I stopped roaming and looked at him. We were perfectly alone.  “Listen, Cole,” I said. “This is very important.”

He actually got still. Amazing. His only movement was the cookie lolling around in his mouth.

“You have to remember,” I said, “I love you. It doesn’t matter if things are really great or really bad, your gramps loves you. Nothing can change that.”

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Schmutz face or pristine face. National Honor Society or way out of line. A life-time promise, sir. I’ll never give up on you, and when you stumble, I’ll remind you of the good I see in you. Take that!

After Cole and Elena left, I walked around the house for a while, looking at the commonplace–the wilted blossoms of Cole’s great-grandmother’s Christmas cactus–through a watery blur of blessing.

Here’s What I Hope:

Cole will remember neither the cookie nor my words. And on glad days, he won’t need a rearview mirror to make do. But, my dear NapTimeThoughts, my answer to your question on my grandson’s first birthday is this: when he is old enough to shave and has done himself stupid harm, let spirit-memory bring back what I gave him this morning. Let him know that he is worthy of love. Let his shoulders recall these old arms drawing him close and let his cheek still feel the kiss of unconditional grace.

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You won’t always be this cute, birthday bucko. No worries. When you get pimples and smell like sweaty socks, you’ll still be okay with me.

P. S. Thanks, NapTime. And Elena, could you put this one in Cole’s memory book, please?

 

 

Naming Monsters on Black Friday

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Birthday-boy Cole and his sister Layla catching a nap

Friday, November 28, 2014: While millions of Americans fed this day’s gaping maw of capitalism, I engaged in my own form of madness. For seven hours I sipped decaf redeye after decaf redeye at a Starbucks miles away from the shopping traffic and named monsters. Daughter Elena sewed and stuffed fifteen of the little weirdos, and my charge was to come up with biographical snippets for each of them. My motivation was compelling: each monster would be given to a young guest at grandson Cole’s first birthday party this coming Sunday. Parents would read the bio; kids would squeeze, lick, and gnaw on Elena’s handiwork. In the midst of much online research, I informed my erudite table mates of incidentals (e.g. kangaroos do not, in fact, burp) and learned, stifling laughter, what “upper decking” means. When at last I looked up from the screen to see the patrons spinning–no lie!–I knew it was time to go home for a nap. When I awoke, I had a Philly cheesesteak with handsome Cole and family, then sent the following to Elena in preparation for Sunday. Enjoy . . . if you dare.

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Battersby “Juano” de Vamp

Battersby “Juano” de Vamp: Battersby’s love for the night life and chatting with the ladies led to the first part of his nickname, Juan—this being Don Juan, a fictional character who enjoys hanging out with women. The “o” part of his nickname came from his buddies, who discovered that “Juano” rhymes with “guano,” which is bat poo. But don’t worry about Battersby. He gets his pals back by sneaking bites of their cheesecake—when they go out for dinner—and leaving his distinctive single tooth mark in their dessert. Juano’s favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I don’t trust any [monster] who doesn’t laugh.”

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Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp

Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp: Babbatte’s nickname, which she would gladly lose, comes from her childhood inability to say “fang.” “Listen, young lady,” her mother would say, “get back into that bathroom and brush and floss your fang.” Babbatte would insist that she already “bussed her hang,” the “f” sound being painful for little de Vamps, until they build up a callous on their lower lip. Hang wears ribbons on her ear and bats her eyelashes to make a point: “There’s a lot more to me than this pearly white fang!” Babbatte’s favorite Katherine Hepburn quote: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

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Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier

Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier: Everyone thinks “Ken’s” nickname is short for “Kenneth.” Not so. Ken grew up playing with his older sister Babs’ Ken dolls. When his friends played “snow wars” with G. I. Joes, Ken brought a Ken doll to the battle, insisting his Ken’s ski outfit would keep him warmer than the soldiers’ thin layer of olive and black camo. From childhood on, Ken always made it a point to follow his own instincts. Kenneth’s favorite Chinese proverb: “A wise [monster] makes his own decisions, an ignorant [monster] follows the public opinion.”

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Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier

Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier: The unusual spelling of Barbra’s first name can be blamed on singer Barbra Streisand, after whom she was named. From the time she could hold something and babble at it, she clutched a Barbie doll. For a short time, Barbra’s parents called her Barbie. At her first birthday party, however, Dad put on a bootleg Streisand’s Greatest Hits CD. When “[Monsters, monsters] who need [monsters], are the luckiest [monsters] in the world,” tears ran down Barbra’s cheeks. She wasn’t sad or hungry or poopy. She was verklempt. “Oh,” Mom said, remembering the singer’s nickname, “our little Babs is crying. My word, how sensitive she is!” During her rebellious teenage years, Babs was crazy for Madonna, but now considers her namesake the best female artist now living. Barbra’s favorite Barbra Streisand quote: “There is nothing more important in life than love.”

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Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower

Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower: How many monsters have nicknames because other monsters mess up their regular names? Rosalyn—born an identical twin—got stuck with “Ozzie” because her sister Jocelyn couldn’t say “Rozie.” Ozzie doesn’t hold a grudge, though, since she has other challenges to overcome. Even with all the odd appearances in the monster world, Ozzie, with eyes perched on arm-towers and baby in a pouch, gets teased by other monsters. She wears a smile because she refuses to be bummed out by smart remarks. And you’ll never hear a mean word come out of her mouth. Her baby’s name: Jillian. Her favorite Chinese proverb: “A bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives flowers.”

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Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower (and Jack)

Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower: Jocelyn, born an identical twin, gave sister Rosalyn her nickname, but “Ozzie” returned the favor. Jocelyn’s parents chose her name because it rhymes with Rosalyn—sort of—and planned to call her “Josey,” but “Joey” was the best her sister could do. At first it was “Doughy,” so Jocelyn was at least grateful she escaped being thought of as a dinner roll. Joey is a brave marsupial in a sometimes unkind world, giving lippy monsters a little what-for when they talk smack, especially against Ozzie. She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but she doesn’t hide from it, either. Her baby’s name: Jack. Her favorite proverb: “One can easily judge the character of a [monster] by the way they treat [monsters] who can do nothing for them.”

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Boris “Chops” Pillosevic

Boris “Chops” Pillosevic: Of Serbian descent, Boris got his nickname not from his razor-sharp bottom canines, but from his cheerful, steady nerves in the face of danger and his favorite dish: lamb with a mint, yellow tomato, and sweet corn salsa. In high school, Chops won “The Guy You Want Most in Your Foxhole” Award. Today, he is an interior decorator. His favorite Charles Atlas quote: “Nobody picks on a strong [monster].”

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Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic

Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic: Sunny and cheerful by nature, Nevena’s nickname comes from her given name, which is Serbian for “marigold.” Lovely Nevena is easily surprised, which led to school classmates always jumping out from hiding places to scare her. “Ohhh,” she would squeal, then have a giggling fit. No longer in school, Marigold still can’t help watching out of the corners of her eyes for the next prank. Poor girl. Watchfulness is tiring, so she loves to nap, though she spends the rest of the afternoon yawning. Nevena’s favorite Chinese proverb: “You cannot prevent the [monsters] of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”

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Retina “Lovey” Glover

Retina “Lovey” Glover: Retina’s nickname comes from many years ago. Her first love, Leonard Palmer, called her “Lovey” because her lips always seemed to be puckered for a kiss, and he couldn’t stop looking into her eyes, all three of them. The name fit then and still does today. If you ever need a monster to talk to, Lovey is the one. No matter your age, she’ll bounce you on one of her knees, kiss your cheek, wink three times, and give you a little hope. Lovey’s favorite Chinese proverb: “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.”

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Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer

Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer: Leonard’s nickname comes from many years ago. His first love, Retina Glover, called him “Lensie Poo” in a moment of awkwardness. He was so gushy with her, calling her “Lovey” and staring into her eyes, that she said the first cute thing that came into her mind: “Lensie Poo.” Once their circle of friends passed around this juicy gossip, Leonard—a bright, bookish kid—was forever after “Lensie Poo.” He was a little disappointed when, at a monster class reunion, Lovey confessed that nothing in particular was behind his nickname. But Lensie Poo worked with what he had been given, using his warm-and-fuzzy nickname was an ice breaker with strangers. Leonard’s favorite Spanish proverb: “Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.”

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Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson

Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson: Cyrus, Cyrus, Cyrus! It’s not easy for any monster to grow up perfectly round, but Cyrus’ early life was awkward, indeed, before he learned to roll. Until the age of four, Cyrus moved about the world by flipping himself forward like a pancake. Each time his big, wet eyeball hit sidewalks or hardwood floors, it sounded like a horse stepping in a mud puddle. “Clop. Clop. Clop” So, the other monsters declared, “Clopsy” it was. “Cy,” as his sister is kind enough to call him, doesn’t show his emotions easily. He is the strong, silent type. The only way you know that Cyrus is sad is when he leaves tear drops on his way from point A to point B. Cyrus’ favorite Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single [roll].”

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Sydney “Cookie” Henson

Sydney “Cookie” Henson: Not many youthful dreams come to pass. So it was with Sydney, who long ago aspired to be an actress. Roles for round, blue characters being rare, she was over-the moon about reading for the role of Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. “The part is mine,” she said, rolling home. Ah, Sydney. Years passed before she stopped complaining about that amiable oaf’s fame. “He is bulky, blue, and hairy,” she would say to anybody who would listen. “So spray paint him white and cast him as the Abominable Snowman!” Her family loved her a lot and told her, “You know, you’ll always be our ‘Cookie.’” The older she got, the more she understood that being her family’s Cookie is better than being a television star. Sydney’s favorite Chinese proverb: “Not until just before dawn do [monsters] sleep best; not until [monsters] get old do they become wise.”

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Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski

Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski: There’s absolutely nothing interesting about Rudolph’s nickname. Monsters with his name get called “Rudy,” and he’s fine with that. As any of his buds will tell you Rudy is a real meat-and-potatoes guy, very grounded, no-nonsense. His philosophy is simple: smile, laugh a lot, keep an eye out for your fellow monster, and don’t hog all the gravy in life. Rudolph’s favorite Charles Schultz quote: “Good grief, Charlie Brown!”

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Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski

Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski: Some monsters dislike their given names. Growing up, Eartha complained to her parents: “Eartha! Eartha! Where in the world did you get that name? It makes me sound like a clump of dirt.” In truth, Eartha was a great kid. Her parents were loving and gentle. And she did her chores, minded her manners, got good grades, and was about as happy and playful as the next monster. Still she couldn’t stop griping about her cloddish name. Patient as her parents were, her brother Rudy reached his breaking point. “Good grief,” he hollered one day, “will you quit your yammering.” Thereafter, in his youthful insensitivity, he called her “Yammer,” and in tender moments, “Yammy.” “Well,” Eartha thought, “at least Yammy sounds cheerful, kind of sweet.” When she introduces herself, monsters figure she is saying, “Tammy,” and, blessed with the wisdom of years, she doesn’t generally correct them. Eartha’s favorite Beatles song: “Let It Be”.

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The first-ever, formal portrait of Loxi “Picabo” Nessor

Loxi “Picabo” Nessor: In spite of Loxi’s endearing smile and welcoming blue eye, she is extremely shy. Her nickname has nothing to do with the old baby “I see you” game. She loves to water ski, but prefers snow, since for mysterious reasons she ends up under the waves rather than on top of them when water is the venue. Loxi watched so many hours of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary that friends started calling her “Picabo” after the winner of the Super G, Picabo Street. The cute handle embarrasses her, so she closes her eye and dips down her head when she hears it. Loxi’s favorite Rosanne Barr quote: “I’m mostly introspective and don’t talk to [other monsters]. I get into a real quiet, meditative place.”

It’s 11:10 as I sign off. Black Friday of 2014 is almost over. My nap has worn off, and the monsters and Cole are tucked in, the latter until tomorrow morning, the former until Sunday afternoon, when monsters and humans will sing, eat cake, and wish a happy baby many more.

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln: Appreciations on Their Birthday

February 12, 2014: If Darwin and Lincoln were among the quick, they’d celebrate their 205th birthday today. I have a special love for both men and share these appreciations. This post is long, so you might need to consume it in two sittings. Hope it’s worth your time.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, My Brother in Complaints and Conflict!

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Charles Darwin’s grave: a little less grand than I would have thought (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

David Quammen’s excellent biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, notes that when the father of natural selection died, “the world . . . swooped in and claimed his body for history and posterity and the glory of British culture.” And the world “decreed that Charles Darwin be buried in Westminster Abbey,” which was ironic, since he was an atheist.

Biblical literalists would like to exhume Darwin and hose down his bones with holy water, but I consider him a planetary brother. Quammen describes the parallel development of Darwin’s transmutation of species and the onset of his health issues:

Darwin’s work on the transmutation notebooks coincided with his early complaints about what became chronic bad health. The symptoms were mysterious—jumpy heart, nausea, vomiting, headaches, nervous excitement, inordinate flatulence—but real enough to make him miserable and to slow his work. Was he a hypochondriac? A neurasthenic? Had he been bitten and infected by some nasty disease-bearing bug during a Beagle [the ship Darwin sailed on from 1831-36] stopover in Argentina? Many guesses have been made but nobody knows, to this day, what ailed him.

Inordinate flatulence–bummer. Fabienne Smith immediately and dryly states her theory about Darwin’s deal in her article “Charles Darwin’s Health Problems: the Allergy Hypothesis”: “The purpose of this paper is to buttress the evidence given in ‘Charles Darwin’s Ill Health’ [a previous article by the same author] for the theory that Darwin suffered from multiple allergy arising from a dysfunctioning immune system.” Sounds plausible, but I’m not about the read the whole thing. History.com presents its own list of guesses along with a few attempted remedies:

During Darwin’s lifetime, England’s most prominent physicians failed to decode the ailing naturalist’s jumble of symptoms. Their diagnoses ran the gamut from gout to appendicitis to hepatitis to mental exhaustion to schizophrenia, while the remedies they prescribed—lemons, Indian ale, hydrotherapy, arsenic, strychnine and codeine, among countless others—provided little relief.

An admirably researched Wikipedia article, “Charles Darwin’s Health,” lists “many hypotheses” for the man’s agony, including Crohn’s disease, panic disorder, Chagas’ disease, Meniere’s disease, lactose intolerance, lupus erythematosus, arsenic poisoning, hypochondria, migraine, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. That Darwin might have been cursed with even a couple of these conditions is frightening to imagine.

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Editorial cartoon of Darwin, 1871 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The winner of my Scary Darwin Scholarship Award goes to Jerry Bergman, Ph.D., for his article “Was Charles Darwin Psychotic? A Study of His Mental Health,” which appears on the Institute for Creation Research website (icr.org). Bergman’s thesis is that mental health issues not only ruined the scientist’s body, but also led him to develop wacky theories. The article is part legitimate catalog of Darwin’s complaints and part smear job ala Lee Atwater and Karl Rowe. “Some speculate,” the author writes, “that part of Darwin’s mental problems were due to his nagging, gnawing fear that he had devoted his ‘life to a fantasy’—and a ‘dangerous one’ at that (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 477). This fear was that his theory was false and there was, in fact, a divine Creator.” (No, I’m not going to read the cited work, Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, but I did check the Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review excerpts on Amazon.com, and both sing that biography’s praises. I might be wrong, but I bet Desmond and Moore wouldn’t appreciate the use Bergman makes of their words.)

Bergman also hits below the belt when he implies that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he passionately loved shooting birds as a kid, which points to a “sadistic streak” that “may have, in part, motivated his ruthless ‘survival of the fittest’ tooth and claw theory of natural selection”; because he referred to committing suicide when writing to fellow scientist Robert Hooker about his upset over the writing quality of one of his books; because author Clifford Picover wrote that Darwin treated his wife and adult daughters like children; because “Darwin exhibited the obsessional’s trait of having everything ‘just so’; he kept meticulous records of his health and symptoms like many obsessional hypochondriacs. Everything had to be in its place; he even had a special drawer for the sponge which he used in bathing.”

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Darwin’s wife wrote him a letter in 1839 expressing her fear that they wouldn’t spend eternity together. After his death, the following addition was found at the bottom of her letter–a loving atheist’s attempt at comfort? “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C. D.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The article’s final sentence nails down what the author has been getting at all along: “To understand Darwin as a person and his motivations, one must consider his mental condition and how it affected his work and conclusions.” Bergman’s claim that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he had mental and physical issues is like saying that a singer has an unappealing voice because he sleeps around: non sequitur. What singers do with their junk has nothing to do with their vocal cords and breath control; and the fact that a scientist needs therapy and meds doesn’t mean he’ll do biased research. If anything, in Darwin’s case I’m betting Bergman has the situation backwards. Darwin’s troubled constitution and psyche didn’t skew his scholarly work; rather, his health went into the chamber pot in part because his thinking was so contrary to the assumptions of his day, not to mention deeply troubling to his wife, a devout Christian; Quammen’s speculations, in fact, head in this direction without coming across like a conspiracy theory.    

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Charles Darwin at 45 years old. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, as Quammen writes, “nobody knows . . . what ailed him.” I’m looking at a photograph of Darwin at around age forty-five, seven years my junior, and feeling a connection. If only he could have picked up Atenolol, Prilosec, Zoloft, Xanax, Beano, and other modern medications at the apothecary, his suffering might have been manageable.

And if only Darwin could have enjoyed a daily siesta rather than taking to his bed for months at a time. Illness leeched years of work off of what was already an amazingly productive life. What’s worse, more profound discomfort still resided in a place microscopes can’t get at. Employing quotations from Darwin’s letters, Quammen playfully describes the scientist’s fragility—and mine:

[Darwin’s] doctors had advised him to quit work and get a country vacation, he added, and he was taking their advice. ‘I feel I must have a little rest, else I shall break down.’  After a few weeks home in Shrewsbury, with his father and sisters [in the fall of 1837], he reported again . . . that ‘anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a bad palpitation of the heart.’ Social gatherings flurried him. Intense conversations flurried him. Conflict, or the very idea of it, was highly flurrisome.

The last part makes Darwin my kin: the slightest prospect of conflict is nearly incapacitating, flurrisome—spot-on for both of us. Flurrisome Charles had the brains. Flurisome John has the meds and the afternoon nap.

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The Darwin we all know and love. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The part of Darwin’s story I love best takes place when he was near death. As he suffered through the final stages of heart disease, he continued to work as his body permitted. Quammen explained that a colleague who knew of Darwin’s interest in the migration of plants and animals discovered a clam attached to a beetle and wondered if this oddity might indicate that a sea creature could migrate by attaching itself to a bird. The colleague mailed the beetle/clam to Darwin so that he could look for himself. By the time he received the box, the clam and beetle had separated, and the former was dead, the latter languishing. As Darwin wrote the sender, he placed the dying beetle in a jar with torn up laurel leaves, which exuded a chemical that would help the poor thing relax and die in peace. Darwin himself followed the beetle into eternity about two weeks later. So even as one of the most brilliant minds in history was dying, he took time to ease the suffering of a beetle. Darwin considered himself an atheist. So be it. I call him “brother.”

Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln, My Weary, Burdened Brother!

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Abraham Lincoln about two months before his assassination–such tired eyes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A couple years ago on this day’s A Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor told me a couple facts I didn’t know about Abraham Lincoln—facts that make me doubly grateful for his stay in the White House.

The first has to do with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language. Since it’s short—only 272 words—I’ll include it here:

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.

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Abraham Lincoln’s “life mask” from 1860–better than a death mask. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Lincoln at Gettysburg just after delivering his address. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I already knew that Lincoln wrote this address on an envelope during his train ride to Gettysburg. What I didn’t realize was that the dedication of the cemetery, situated on the ground where hundreds of soldiers were buried quickly in shallow graves after the battle, was a grand, carefully planned affair with fifteen thousand people attending. Edward Everett, who was famous for his speeches about battlefields, went on for over two hours cataloging the battle’s endless instances of bravery and valor. When he finished, Lincoln read his slender 272 words. By the time the event’s photographer got set, his subject had already sat back down; he managed one blurry shot.

So restrained was the audience’s applause that Lincoln assumed his speech was a failure. Little did he know a century later school kids would be required to memorize his address, and English and history teachers would regard Lincoln, a politician, as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Everett, however, knew a great speech when he heard one. The next day he told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Of course, maybe Everett was mainly stroking the President’s ego.

The second Abraham Lincoln story Garrison Keillor told had to do with a letter the President is thought to have written to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War:

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 word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering 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,

A. Lincoln

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Retouched post-mortem photograph. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Oddly, Mrs. Bixby didn’t lose five sons. She lost two in battle; one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and another either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. Don’t misunderstand! This poor mother deserved every condolence she received, but the facts differ from those that inspired the President—if he wrote the letter at all. Some historians now believe that Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby was actually written by one of his White House secretaries, John Hay. Whatever: if Lincoln had such a gifted writer on his staff, I’m willing to call that moving letter co-authored.

Do any of these historical facts matter? They do to me. And I bet Lincoln would have cared on November 19, 1863, as he sat down after giving his 272-word address, to know that his speech was much better than he first thought and that history would judge him a courageous President, a wise man, and an elegant writer. But how could he have known, that man in the grainy photograph with the weight of millions of Americans on his tired shoulders?

I pray today that in repose he hears me call him brother.