Nobody would call house sparrows conspicuous. They wear shades of dormancy, sandy brown and gray like the leafless hedges and trees in my view, charcoal like the sunflowers wife Kathy left in repose by the garage. Continue reading
Category Archives: Eternity
Message for a New Grandson
Message for a New Grandson
Friend Jan assures me that those in extremis can hear and understand. Son Micah told me once that when death is close, euphoric chemicals show up with kind words, beloved faces, and bright lights.
I’m all for our glands throwing us a going-away party, but what Jan says feels right. Besides, she is wise and knows about deathbeds.
But I have my own reasons for hoping that words of love and care somehow get through. During parishioner Annie’s last minutes, I leaned in close and whispered Psalm 23. Thou art with me. Goodness and mercy. Forever. A single tear ran down her crow’s foot to the pillow. I saw it.
And I saw my mother’s hand lift and fall as I said goodbye to her eighteen years ago. Mom’s purposeful movement said, “I’d answer if I could, John.”
Since then, I’ve spoken freely to the almost-gone. In fact, I’ll speak to everybody and nobody. Words are good, so I say what should be said in hopes that if nothing else, the universe might hear.
Years ago wife Kathy raised monarch butterflies on our front porch. Occasionally, one would be hopelessly deformed, and before resting it underneath a stargazer lily and giving it a quick end, I said, “I’m sorry this life didn’t work out, but it will be over soon. Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”
When geese fly over, in a pair or by the dozens, I say, “Thank you.” Am I addressing the birds or God? Both, I guess.
My most recent monologue came out on—appropriately enough—April Fools’ Day. Killian Davis Thompson, grandson number two, arrived at 2:01 p.m., and within a few hours I got to see him.
Kathy helped with the birth, so she had already held him. I let Micah go first. After Kathy had seconds, it was my turn.
Time passes dreamlike when you’re looking at a baby you’ve been imagining month after month. I heard giddy voices—daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, Kathy and Micah—but, I swear, no words.
Killian and I were in a bubble. Even now, I remember only a couple of details, which I report without exaggeration: I disappeared into his face; before I knew what was happening, I found myself whispering to him; and, on one lucid front, I hoped my breath wasn’t nasty. (The little nugget was defenseless, after all.)
I can’t bring back exactly what I said, but what I meant is still fresh. As much as I wanted Mom to hear my goodbye, I longed for some quiet room in Killian’s soul to hold in safe keeping his foolish Pop’s welcome. I meant . . .
You were so safe and warm. Now here you are. It’s so cold and bright. Don’t wake up. You must be exhausted. Being born is hard, isn’t it?
But, listen, don’t be afraid. You’re so lucky! We’ve all been waiting for you, wanting to meet you, wanting to see your face.
Don’t be afraid. You have a whole bunch of people who will take care of you. Your mom and dad are beautiful. You have a nice little home. It’s warm and dry. And you have a big brother.
I named everybody in the family and told him about his tribe. Then Elena’s voice penetrated the bubble: “Are you talking to him?” “Yeah.”
This world is pretty good, but it might not be as great as where you came from. I don’t know. But I’m here, don’t forget. Whatever you need, I’m here. I’ll try to stay close.
Yes, I know, newborns don’t remember anything. And a dying woman doesn’t take green pastures and still waters with her into forever.
But maybe. I’m allowed to hope. All I know is, loving words are good, and if only the universe hears, I’ll keep trying to say them.
The God I Love: A Letter to My Friends
A little after 9:00 this morning I called Denise at church and told her I’d be laying low today. Low happens to be my usual perch at Starbucks with an iced decaf coffee deepened by a shot of espresso and lifted by cream and Splenda. Bittersweet.
This Easter Monday, which we pastors often take off, looks and feels like spring—bright, but with enough chill in the air that you’d never mistake it for July. After a confounding winter, the trees might actually get around to budding, provided we can string some gentle days together.
April 21, 2014, is the kind of day you’d walk out your front door, take in a breath that makes your lungs unfurl, and believe for a second that joy might carry you away.
My watch says 10:23; its hands ask in their dying language, “What’s wrong with you? A sweet sky is being wasted.” I close my eyes, keep company with the mud in my chest and the catch in my throat. Then the Eternal Voice whispers, “Don’t worry, John. I’ll keep you.” (Some of you think I’m listening to nothing but my own desperate hope. And I’m fine with that. Honest. You might be right.)
To all of you taking five minutes to read this letter, please consider this an offering. I believe in God because of mornings like this, when nothing more could be asked of weather and circumstance, but when sorrow still throbs like a toothache in the soul.
Sorrow. Okay, sorrow about what? That’s the rub. Who knows? I’m convinced the sadness I’ve experienced over the years regards itself as family that is obligated to visit when my calendar clears and my emotional doors are ajar. So which blue relative is reclining in my spirit, looking at me with watery eyes?
June of 1998? Mom’s hand was purple, swollen three times normal. I held it, cold and taut. “If you want to go, Mom,” I said, “I understand. But I want you to know I love how gentle you are, how you’ve loved Elena and Micah, how you always tried to help me. And if there’s anything you feel bad about, I love you and believe you always tried as hard as you could to do what was right. And if you can get better and live, that would be really great.” I should have stayed until she died two days later, but I went back to seminary in Columbus. What was I thinking? “I’m sorry, Mom.”
January of 2012? Pleasant Ridge. Nothing against the place, but what an insulting name! Two physical therapists tried to get loopy Dad out of his wheelchair for a walk. They held him up by his waistband, but his knees wobbled and a diaper sagged from his boney ass. Why? What for? “I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell them to let you be, Dad. I’m sorry.” A couple days later, he lay in bed, howling and grabbing at the air. For what? More time? Another chance? “I left after an hour because my loving voice made you thrash like a drowning man, so I’m not sorry, Dad. Just haunted.”
A thousand other losses, failures, injuries? Who knows? They refuse to identify themselves, and I’m terrible with their faces and names. Still, they are relatives. More than that, I have the feeling God is holding their hand when they show up.
Sure, I believe in God because of this day’s wonder and my current nave full of blessings, especially grandson Cole. But sorrow—inconvenient kin—is my faith’s mast, at least on these present existential breakers. Without sorrow, my sails have nothing to hang from.
Here’s my confession: a God who can blossom as healthy babies, Grand Canyons, and love-making deserves worship. But a God who cradles misery and refuses to let it slip away into denial or insignificance deserves love. This is the God I believe in.
I often sit with people who are being sucked under by worry and turmoil. As I join them in ashes, a quiet joy rises up in the sacred conversation. Just as nothing tangible in creation is wasted, so I think God takes hold of everything. Everything! No waste.
When Cole was born, Micah looked at him and cried. What a great belief moment. How could God waste the grace of those tears? If the fluid and chemicals I haul around as whiskers and cellulite will change form for eternity but never disappear, why shouldn’t I also assume that the fullness of human experience is in its own way cosmically material, never to be lost?
And I mean all experience, an idea that demands a dark, holy logic. When I was in fifth grade, Mom met me at the door after school. “John, you knew your father and I would split up someday,” she said. “He is down at the courthouse now filing the papers.” I think I cried for a minute as she held me. I’m not sure. Then I ran to Eddie’s house. “Holy hell,” he kept saying. “Holy hell.” We climbed our usual tree in his backyard and sat in silence. “No, Mom, I didn’t know.” And, my friends, this memory still has me longing for a hug I don’t expect to enjoy this side of glory. (Don’t feel sad for me. We all have our pockets stuffed with scraps of life we figured were in the waste basket or attic. Right?)
Is this my visitor now, as morning bleeds into afternoon? A day when I was a lost boy? Maybe so. In an hour, odds are decent I’ll walk outside and be light enough for the warm wind to shock me with new life. Whatever happens, I believe in the God who remembers a kid sitting shaken and afraid forty years ago up a tree. A God who remembers how I couldn’t stop crying at Mom’s funeral when we sang, “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.”
“God,” I pray right now, “remember your creation’s joy, but especially how spring shines on our grieving hearts. You do remember, right? That day in 1990 when Kathy and I buried mutt Bandit’s ashes at Wintergreen Gorge? Just a dog, but we were hurting. Amazing how we still miss him. I trust that you recall Bandit’s hundreds of seizures and step out of time with me and watch the way Kathy holds his head and wipes away drool. I love how you remember. Amen.”
Breathe in. Breathe out. I hear silence in my chest, which is a good answer. Until we find out the Great Mystery, stay with me: join in all of my comforting embraces; sit with me in a tree when I am a stunned boy; hold my hand as my father howls.
Why Babies Fill Us with Longing
Grandson Cole showed up at 4:30 Monday, just after my siesta—an hour of what Winston Churchill called “blessed oblivion.” With the exception of a kink in my neck, I seemed to be living within a cleansing breath. Rested. Peaceful.
Cole, on the other hand, was fresh off a visit to the doctor for vaccinations. The poor little poop took hits in both thighs. Daughter Elena said infants generally have two reactions to injections. They either conscientiously object by sleeping through the process or scream as though they had been knifed. Cole opted for the latter in a display that his mom imagined would for an adult have constituted finger pointing and expletives.
The result: Cole napped off the effrontery in his car seat, which was perched on the dining room table. While wife Kathy, Elena, and son-in-law Matt huddled in the kitchen to discuss how they might rip away at cabinetry to make room for a new refrigerator, I hovered over my grandson. His profile reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe because of the exertion, his cheeks were puffy, and the tip of his tongue stuck out—micro-raspberries blown at the man and his pricky needles.
I beheld for a minute, then did what I always do: rested my lips and nose like a feather on the top of his head and breathed in. My lungs were at once filled with . . . well, here’s the problem. There are no words for what takes up fleeting residence in me.
People marvel about how great babies smell, but their sacrament reaches way past our noses. A grandmother I know once gave the perfect response to looking at, holding, and smelling a baby. She scrunched up her round face, put fists beside her cheeks, trembled, and squealed, “Ooh, I just want to eat them up!”
Of course, not really eat them, as Jonathan Swift clowned in A Modest Proposal. More like receiving eucharistic baby-ness. Infant cup. Child bread of life. I’m not speaking figuratively. I mean this: When I run my finger across Cole’s cheek, look into his blue eyes, trace the delicate shape of his crying mouth, and rest my lips and nose against his sleeping head, I want to take the fundamental cole-ness of Cole into myself, to unite with his his-ness.
My grandson evokes in me a soul response. If I were the only parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or whatever adult to feel this bottomless longing toward an infant, I’d keep quiet, but my experience is close to universal. What is it about little ones that draws us close and takes hold of our eyes and won’t let go? If you put the Coleman family at the Taj Mahal, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the regular Gardens of Versailles, or, say, the Garden of Eden, we’d all look in amazement for a minute or two, then turn back toward Cole: “Aw, how’s the Cole-slaw, the Cole-meister, the Cole-o-rama, the Cole-mobile? How’s the widdle boody boody boo?”
Correct me if I’m wrong. What in heaven’s name is it about babies? On Monday as I stared at, kissed, and inhaled my grandson, an answer gave itself to me. Infants are new arrivals from eternity. They come from where we numb adults came from, and I believe they also come from where we are going. They were in the indescribably strong, gentle bosom of Forever, receiving milk and love songs from our cosmic Parent of Grace.
That’s it! That’s what I feel on my lips and breathe in as if my spirit were suffocating: Cole still has on his head the kisses of our Creator and on his cheeks whispered promises of mercy. The perfume hasn’t worn off yet. That’s it!
And I wonder: Did Cole hear my college friend Ken Sonnenberg–gone a year after graduation in a six-week gale of lymphoma–reading poems that may visit Pennsylvania as soothing breezes? Did he hear Fred Rogers say, “You’re going to be the only person in the world just like you, and people can like you just the way you are”? Sweet Lord! Did the cole-ness of Cole brush up against my mother in the vast lap of God?
Okay, this is a theological mess and a potential heresy, but I’m going with it. What better explanation? In that slight kiss on Cole’s head—and when you kiss your baby’s head?—I view worldly wonders, embrace every person I’ve loved, and dwell in the soft thunder of God’s heartbeat. I disappear into blessed oblivion with my recent immigrant from Mystery.
Finally Cole woke up, dull and dazed. Is it still a shock when he opens his eyes to our faces? He stared at me. He does that a lot. The kid knows a jester when he sees one. So I sang Marvin Gaye’s hymn “Got to Give It Up”—yes, in unapologetic falsetto:
I used to go out to parties
And stand around
‘Cause I was too nervous
To really get down
And my body yearned to be free
So I got up on the floor and found
Someone to choose me
No more standin’ along side the walls
Now I got myself together, baby,
And I’m havin’ a ball
Cole tracked me as I danced, probably confused about his new residence and all of our cackle and fuss. Not one smile for Gramps. No matter. Grandma Kathy bent close and said, “How’s my best buddy?” That got us a half-smile from his Buddha face. Plenty. More than enough. Eternity sighed in my chest.
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