Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Dear Cole:

Your wild red hair before waking on Sunday morning and heading to St. John’s in Oniontown

You’re only four and a half years old now, but I’m writing to preserve the thoughts under your wild red hair until the day comes for you to retrieve them. Of course, nobody really knows what another person thinks. Let’s call this letter a gift of love, then, flawed like everything else in the world.

A few months ago you said something curious to your Grandma Kathy: “I don’t want to grow up. I’ll miss my beautiful voice.” She and I tell our friends about your words, which we find funny, but also haunting and sad. Kids like you say things so fresh and insightful that adults laugh through their tears.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, where you are loved

Your voice is beautiful, Cole. In fact, everything about you is so beautiful that, truth be told, your parents, grandparents, relatives and dozens of other folks, like your church family at St. John’s in Oniontown, wish time would stop here and now. How could you ever be more beautiful than you are today?

Clocks break, though, and watches stop, but the present hour leads to the next, and no prayer can change this fact. It’s incredible to us—the grown ups who love you—that you have reckoned so young the relentless passing of life. Good Lord, pal, I wish you wouldn’t rush that pretty head of yours into eternal mysteries.

But here you are, telling your mom and dad that you don’t want to grow up because if you grow up you’re going to die. You’re asking if dinner is healthy because food that’s good for you will make you grow up. You want junk food instead, which won’t make your body big and strong. Your parents have explained that eating crap will only make you a sickly adult, but this logic hasn’t helped.

“What happens when I die?” you’ve been asking. We ache with longing to ease your mind. Your mom said, “We believe you go to be with Jesus,” and she was speaking our truth.

The trouble is, Cole, we say “believe” for good reasons. We also say “faith” and “hope” a lot, too. The word we shouldn’t say is “know,” and even though I’m a Lutheran pastor, you should ignore anybody who presumes to understand the mind of God and the terms and conditions of eternity.

The last time we had family dinner, your fear and suffering was overwhelming. You had already cried a couple of times that day and picked at your food, though we had a couple of unhealthy options for you. After clearing the table, we sat in the living room.

A cute little cry before you grew hair, Cole.

I’ll never forget what happened next. You stood in front of your father, your hands on his knees, and suddenly sobbed. These weren’t normal little boy tears, like the ones that fall when you don’t get your way or you smash your toe. These were “save me” tears, “I can’t breathe” tears. I recognized the terror washing over you. It happened to your Pop when he was about twice your age.

This fear has a couple of fancy names, “ontological shock” and “mortal dread” among them. They all mean the same thing: You understand the possibility that long ago you didn’t exist and someday you might not exist anymore. Notice I used another flimsy word, “possibility.” I’m sorry. We just don’t know.

You probably won’t remember that on a Sunday evening years ago when you were terrified, your mom and dad comforted you. Nobody denied the abyss you were staring into or dismissed your fear or told you to hush.

“Cole,” I said, “I believe that when we die we’ll all be together and safe.” That’s my sustaining truth, but much as I would like to plant certainty into your soul, you’ve started the spiritual work of a lifetime early. Nobody can do this job for you or say anything to make it easy.

I’m still doing my work and remember well waking up in the dark in a panic about what must happen to you, me and everyone else. We all die, and I no longer wish to be an exception to this rule. I’m less afraid than I used to be.

When you read this letter, please think back. If your Pop ever saw you crying “save me” tears, I hope you remember me saying, “I’m scared, too, Cole. We all are. Let’s hold each other and imagine this is what it feels like to rest in God’s arms. ”

Love,

Pop

Advertisements

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day*

For Birdy

Have you ever spent hours on roller skates, then put on your shoes and felt as though your feet belonged to somebody else?

Have you ever gone to a matinee and walked from the darkened theater out into a shock of summer day?

If so, you can imagine my reaction to a message I received last Thursday: “Jack just passed.”

He was thirty-five, and a ravenous cancer was the thief. He had little kids. Jack and my friend Birdy had been married a few short months—I never even had the chance to meet the man.

What knocked the wind out of me was this: Birdy’s father, Fran, succumbed to cancer on Monday. So the father of the bride and her groom passed away three days apart on the same hospice hallway.

I learned of Jack’s death after a lunch of beef noodle soup at Cathy and Ed’s house. I savored buttered croissants dipped in broth, cheesecake for dessert, and stories with twists and turns. The visit refreshed and blessed me.

An impossibly blue sky in Oniontown

Then came the matinee moment. As I walked outside, a stunning afternoon was waiting. The chilly morning air had warmed. The sky was cloudless and impossibly blue, a color created for welcoming souls.

I paused in the driveway, looked up and took in a draught of fine air. If Cathy and Ed were watching, they probably wondered what in the heck their pastor was doing.

Pastor John was thinking, “My God, what a perfect day” and at the same time, “Oh, Birdy.” Heading over Methodist and Mercer Roads to the church, I couldn’t get the beauty around me to harmonize with what my friend must have been feeling.

Under normal circumstances Birdy’s smile ought to be shipped in bubble wrap to sad folks everywhere. Her laugh is medicinal, but recent years have delivered more than her share of trouble. Thinking of her shining spirit, I’ve often said to myself, “All right, Life! Birdy has endured enough, okay?”

Last week wasn’t my first time traveling through light while contemplating darkness. Back in seminary I spent one summer as a hospital chaplain. Most days, the trip from the revolving doors to the parking lot after work was five weary minutes of humidity and dissonance.

As citizens zoomed around Columbus on their errands, scores with IVs in their veins either got well enough to go home or prepared for the move everyone is required to make eventually. The sidewalk outside belonged to a different universe from the one with tile floors and elevators.

Author’s confession: I was a mama’s boy.

On day one as a chaplain, I should add, my mother died of sepsis in Erie, Pennsylvania. That thirty-six-year-old future pastor who prayed with the ailing and comforted the fearful was grieving hard, falling apart himself.

In worse shape than me was Lou, whose best and only friend Sally—my chaplaincy patient—had fallen backward while carrying groceries up slippery steps. He had no family.

“Come on, Sal,” Lou said over and over, patting her clammy forearm. “Wake up. Don’t leave me all alone.”

“Did you see that?” he would say. “She moved! Did you see?” Each incidental twitch held the hope of Sally getting well so they could pass evenings watching Jeopardy and playing Gin Rummy.

Lou came up to my nose and wore a confused expression, eyes squinting, lips forming the tail end of “why.” The world was an inside joke he didn’t get.

A couple of weeks into Sally’s coma, the end was inevitable. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, we came to “thy will be done,” and Lou sagged in surrender. With his forehead resting on the bedrail, his shoulders rose and fell with hoarse sobs.

(For the record, I don’t believe Sally hit her head on concrete because God willed it, but we’ll save that distinction for sometime later.)

Nothing sadder than round bales on a summer day.

Lou told Sally goodbye in 1998. That July, with my mother’s passing still fresh and patients’ worries following me home, I understood why E. B. White once wrote, “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.”

“When you roll down the window,” you might say, “why not just enjoy the air rushing across your arm? Why not put Lou on God’s bus and rather than having him ride with you?”

Because I still care about Lou. And I love Birdy.

“Dude,” she said as we hugged at her father’s wake. That one word was plenty to say, “I’m in pieces” or “What am I supposed to do now?”

A blue worthy of singing

I’m not about to forget friends so my spirit can sing along with blue skies. Besides, I would rather trudge through sleet with them than lounge at sunset and lift a champagne toast without them.

There’s no such thing as a perfect day, I suppose. Give me a truthful day instead, with joy and sorrow rubbing elbows. Best of all, give me a glorious afternoon with Fran, Jack and Sally sitting in the back seat and Birdy and Lou up front with me. Let my car be a convertible with enough room for my mother to come along, too.

The wind will blow on our faces and dry our tears.

*Lou and Sally are not real names.

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

I wonder how many good onions rot in landfills because of flaws on their outermost layer. Fumbled by a customer or split open by a box cutter, they join the forlorn cast of undesirables, like Charlie-in-the-Box on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Of course, Charlie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the caboose with square wheels and Dolly the rag doll, whose only flaw is sadness, don’t belong in exile. All they need is a loving child with imagination.

fullsizeoutput_13e8

From Burpee’s Farm Annual (1882). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And everybody knows that all an imperfect onion needs is touch-up work. Just peel down to a good layer. From there on it’s fit to join its soulmate, garlic, as the two aromatics chefs can’t live without.

The onion, I can’t help noting, really is a wonder. It’s made out of rings for the sake of convenient battering and deep-frying. And have you ever noticed that onions participate in their own chopping? After a few knife strokes, they very considerately fall apart, thanks to those layers.

Yes, onions can make you cry, but I’ve never met a cook who counts that against them. Why? Because the onion is a poet among vegetables. We foodies understand this.

Okay, I think a lot about onions, but maybe you can forgive me. I not only work in the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, but also practically live in the kitchen. And if that weren’t enough, I’m a writer, a vocation that thrives on the inclination to think in layers.

“O Onion! My Onion!” The commonplace observation that it consists of layers has been therapeutic lately for my uneasy soul. The skin of our 2017 world—the societal, national and international epidermis—is a torn, mushy mess. The old saying “going to hell in a hand basket” comes to mind.

But the onion is my oracle. Its counsel shone upon me this past week when I dropped in on parishioners who have a decorative plate on their car:

fullsizeoutput_13e7

Seeing the village name, its proud letters larger than the others, felt like a grandfather’s encouraging pat on the back.

Bill answered the door and led me to the bedroom, where Connie lay on her side with a blanket drawn up to her eyes. Her ponytail reached the middle of the neighboring pillow. Ailment upon ailment has rained upon her in recent years, and now two misbehaving vertebral discs have added thunder.

Oh, dear! The onion is companion to garlic as back pain rivals the toothache for the most dreaded, non-life-threatening complaint. Connie was okay, provided she didn’t move. We talked for a few minutes, long enough for me to make her laugh. Nice going, Pastor. I said a prayer, soft but urgent. Relief can’t come soon enough. Options are running out.

Pausing on our way to the backdoor, Bill leaned against a kitchen chair. His posture matched his hushed words: “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” We shook hands goodbye.

“Onions.” Glancing back at that decorative plate, I held the word in my mouth. The blue marble speeding at 18.5 miles per second around the sun may not be watching, but in a warm house on Mercer Road, a man fusses over his wife, who endures with dignity. And people in warm houses in villages and cities everywhere quietly love and tend to each other.

IMG_4286The onion—cliché that it may be—teaches me never to neglect the many layers below the surface, where anonymous multitudes dwell, overjoyed or getting by or out of rope. Down here, bane is always neck-and-neck with blessing.

But hope lives down here, too, with Bill, Connie, Charlie-in-the-Box and all the rest of us who never make the evening news. There are even families waiting to cradle Dolly the rag doll and dry her tears.

Only down here can you believe the onion’s greatest truth. Even in sorry shape, its theme is still promise. What appears, after all, when the onion’s weepy skin is pealed away? New life, bright, smooth, vulnerable with possibility.

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

img_4529

Cole fixing our toilet tank

Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.

My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.

Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”

“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”

But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.

When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.

Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”

1013623_996824303721091_2776786311086019748_n

Pop and Cole just before his second birthday: the air alone makes his face shine. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”

Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.

Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.

img_4107

Watching (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.

“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”

I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.

Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.

And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:

Listen, you nations of the world,

listen to my grandson

and make his loving gaze your own.

Children of God must never be uprooted,

offspring of the Creator never left without pine.

Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.

Arms must never be separated from their bodies,

lest infants who find no room in the inn

be denied the manger of human hearts.

Sing, all people to your God,

sing a song of mercy.

Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,

where refugees find welcoming borders

and bread enough for multitudes.

Look, you nations, at children.

Your Lord sees you with their eyes.

 

We We We Could Hold Hands

We We We Could Hold Hands

I’ve been sad off and on for a month now, but let’s not dwell for long on why. Let’s just say that the land I love is different now. Values, principles and manners that ground life and give it sweetness have been flogged, and I’m confused. What rules will we live by from here on? And will these rules call forth our best, not our worst?

If you can’t imagine what’s got me down these days, reading further will be a waste of time. But if you sense where I’m coming from, please accept one premise: You don’t need to agree with the reasons for my grief to accept it as valid.

img_5468

The master teaches the disciple. Lesson: Lick the frosting off first if that’s what you like.

If you can appreciate the distinction I’m making, you might also be interested in a chilly, rainy walk I took with my grandson Cole a couple weeks ago.

My mission was to occupy the three-year-old with sparks flying from under his sneakers so that Grandma Kathy and son-in-law Matt could do home repair and daughter Elena could mind grandson #2, Killian.

Cole and I were supposed to go to the corner and back, but when we got there, he pointed to the next corner and said, “I I I want to go to there.” (Cole’s speech can’t keep pace with his brain, so he repeats the subject until the rest of the sentence reaches his tongue.)

Sure, why not? When we reached the next corner, he pointed across the street and repeated his previous request. I could see his point. West 4th Street beyond Beverly Drive is missing some sidewalk, giving the passage a winding charm.

“But, Cole,” I said, “that’s across the street. We can’t go there.”

He thought for a few seconds, then looked at me: “But we we we could hold hands.”

“Ah ha,” I thought, “school is in session.” That’s how being a grandfather is for me. I’ve learned to recognize instantly when Cole has something to teach his lazy Pop, and his instruction is always edifying.

So off we went, looking both ways, his cold little hand in mine. He had tree climbing on his mind, but the neighborhood maples are matriarchs that haven’t had branches or footholds within reach for decades.

I explained and explained, the mist puffing from my mouth. “They’re too big, Cole. There’s nothing for you to hold on to.”

Finally, good sense caught up to me. “Okay, pal, give this one a try.”

He ran to the rooty base of a smooth-barked giant shiny from the weather. As he hugged the trunk, he was as confident in his ability to succeed as I am when approaching a cashier to pay for a loaf of bread. No sweat.

He rubbed around to check for some advantage and marched as if the wood might reach out to him as a staircase.

img_5345

If there were nothing else in the world to behold, this face would teach me more than I need to know.

To Cole’s credit, no fussing he made. A concrete telephone pole fifty of his rapid mini-strides away provided another option. “I I I could climb that.”

“You think so?” I lilted.

“Yeah!” he said. I must say, my grandson makes that word into a one-syllable hoedown. His yee dances in the clouds, and his ahhhh takes its sweet time landing.

Alas, same result, followed by the same okey-dokey shrug.

Our next stop was a pile of pumpkins Cole insisted was a fire hydrant. I didn’t argue. What he proposed was fine with me.

Even validictorians get pooped out, though, so I tempted Cole to head back home with the prospect of spotting turkeys on South Shore drive, where hens and gobblers mill about the yards of Erie’s rich folk.

Not quite there yet, he spotted an old guy bundled within an inch of his life and riding a zero-turn mower. “I I I want to see.”

Well, certainly. We stood on the boulevard, Cole in awe over the machinery, me wondering about the enterprise of getting rained on, running over wet leaves and turning pirouettes. But maybe a man in layers of well-worn gray and earmuffs also had something to teach me.

He parked, hopped to the ground and walked our way, arms swinging akimbo.

Cole froze at the sight. I held his hand again.

“You can cut through my yard,” the man said, “and take my steps down to the lake.”

That was the last thing I expected to hear, as owners on South Shore have the reputation of being grouchy toward trespassers. I guess you just don’t know the truth about people until you know them.

We said thanks anyway and waved goodbye, off to find birds.

I used to understand that no journey from A to B with a little boy could ever be direct, but I had forgotten. Cole reminded me by insisting on bending through the undergrowth and shrubbery rather than sticking to the sidewalk.

He was having fun trespassing, and I didn’t really care if we got hollered at. (It’s taken me five decades to adopt such a criminal attitude.)

Of course, we didn’t get chased off. We didn’t see any turkeys, either, but Cole jumped off of low stonework a few times. His wide eyes told me he knew the miracle of flight.

I’m not going to lie, I was glad for class dismissal when we got back home. My cheap black sneakers with elastic at the instep were soaked.

img_5351

Whenever you’re ready to teach me, Killian, I’ll be ready.

I want to be honest about something else, too. Years ago, as a young man, I wouldn’t have figured a walk with a red-headed boy could lead me to a better place. I would have considered the notion mushy.

Still, being a Pop will have everything to do with how I pass through this season’s mournful valley and grow as a man committed to kindness and compassion. Call this truth what you will.

My grandsons have the wisdom I need. I can feel it. Until their next lesson, I’ll use what Cole taught me on our walk in the rain.

I’ll I’ll I’ll remember that we can hold hands, climb even when the effort makes scant sense, and look for teachers who spin like fools.

Most of all, I I I won’t give up on love.

Hope and Joy in a Roaring Wave

Hope and Joy in a Roaring Wave

Every year Erie, Pennsylvania, hosts Roar on the Shore, a gathering of approximately 165,000 motorcycle enthusiasts that makes my hometown rumble for a few days. According to the Roar’s website, its mission is “to raise money for a worthwhile charity while encouraging motorcycle riding, safety and fellowship.”

I’ll state directly that motorcycles aren’t my thing. Harley-Davidsons and their many cousins are like rollercoasters, lime Jell-o with chopped celery and carrots, romance novels and turtleneck sweaters. You can like them. I’m not against them, just parked in the eh category.

But hope and joy are my things, and generally they find me by surprise.

IMG_4776

Hi, kind of blurry Santa and Mrs. Claus

I was minding my own business, standing along Glenwood Park Avenue with wife Kathy and grandson Cole. The Roar’s parade of motorcycles was going by, the riders vroom vrooming—such delight in engine flexing.

Cole needed to get used to the volume, so he sat in the car, peering out the open window. My body fat, from arm bingo to wine gut to muffin tops to saddlebags, trembled in the racket. The bikes were interesting, a smorgasbord of shiny eccentricity and plain weirdness. The air was a brew of exhaust and grilled hot dogs from nearby picnic shelters.

Such sensory overload would normally have me looking for an escape route, but this loud, funky scene was rendered gorgeous—every smell, sound, and sight, I swear—by human faces.

IMG_4788

Happy dudes in a happy brood: one of these guys let out a vroom that sent Cole diving for cover.

Watching them rev by, I felt like crying. I should have cried. (Yes, I’m way too in touch with my tear ducts. Guilty as charged.) Face after face saw my face, and we waved at each other, human beings exchanging something pretty modest, if you stop and think about it.

What does a wave between strangers mean, after all? “You’re a person. Hey, I’m a person, too. And I see you.” That’s it.

But it wasn’t the waves alone that moved my old soul. The bikers’ dear faces were blissed out. And what an assortment: grizzly, metrosexual, young and fair, toothless, weathered, cherubic and gaunt; skin colors, check; genders, check; ages, check; orientations, check.

In other words, motorcycles marching to their guttural tunes presented me with a nice collection of humanity that, as near as I could tell, found a few miles of heaven rolling along together as a tribe.

“Why are you so choked up?” I asked myself.

“They’re so happy,” I said, out loud a couple times, almost in disbelief. “For as long as this ride lasts, they get to be happy.”

IMG_4792

Cole, the recipient of scores of smiles and waves

On the way home, Cole said, in as clear a sentence as his toddler tongue has yet uttered, “That was so much fun”—a perfect little word for what I’ve decided is a saving truth.

Why did 5000 bikers wave to over 20,000 spectators? Why did the eyes of those in motion shine like the sun? Why were those standing still so often laughing? Because when human beings see each other, smile and wave, some of the gladness each of us keeps inside comes out of hiding.

Lest you accuse me floating off into rosy clouds, I’ll acknowledge that a few beers and a conversation about politics and religion might ugly up lots of those silly parade grins. But then, Old Milwaukee and opinions can furrow brows in my very own family. Rancor and ridicule are always as close as our elbows.

But the joy of a smile and a wave lies in the truth that we are all more than our passions, righteous though they may be. My personhood begins with roots: I love; with luck, I am loved back; a woman gave birth to me; I can never put down my life, a heavy satchel of stories that could make you dance and cry; I’m afraid; I suffer; I have dreams.

IMG_4811

Tell me your dreams and stories.

I chatted this morning with Stacey, a Starbucks friend who rode and roared. She was moved, she said, by the flags and folks sometimes a dozen deep lining the route. Words couldn’t quite get at the power she felt in thousands waving.

I actually spotted Stacey and her wife in the procession and recognized their awe, which may be the best word to describe the simple, elusive hope I found in Roar on the Shore.

If only we could see each other! Not what we believe or whom we love or how genetics sculpt our bodies and color our skin.

Imagine the fragile world if our smiles and waves meant, “Hey, there, fellow person. I won’t hurt you. Let me hear all about your mother. Tell me a story to make me dance.”

Okay, I am in the clouds. But I believe in awe. Would you help me bring some clouds to earth, to where we’re standing?

Or maybe we can just look each other in the eyes. That’s not too much to ask. Good Lord, we can do that much, right?

A Dog Story, Nice Ending

A Dog Story, Nice Ending

Layla is a lunk—there’s no other way to put it. She is eighty akimbo pounds of yellow Lab who bounds onto your lap and noses her way past your face and into your soul. My grand-dog is frantic with affection.

Since April Fools’ Day, when our second grandson Killian was born, wife Kathy and I have been dog-sitting. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt are rightly afraid that Layla might lick the skin off our newborn’s hide, accidentally trample grandson one, toddler Cole, or bowl over Matt, who recently broke his leg. So with the exception of a couple of trips home for good behavior, Layla has lodged at the Coleman house.

1488069_770029026400621_5346441143956460071_n

Layla and Cole when the latter was one year old

Last night she flopped beside me in front of the television, spent after a day of urgent missions only she understood. I ran my hand over her closed eyes and soft ears and said, “You’re Pop’s good pup, aren’t you? You’re a good girl.”

She was at ease, but nobody can bliss her out like Matt. And if any dog needs some bliss, it’s Layla. All it takes to reduce her to hours of trembling is a balloon. A couple weeks ago Kathy and Cole were in the basement popping leftover birthday balloons, probably a dozen of them. Later I found Layla in our mudroom, quivering and cowering.

Lots of dogs get panicky on July 4th, but why would loud pops unhinge a pup for a whole day? That’s how long it sometimes takes for Layla to stop shaking.

We’re pretty sure of the answer. On August 19, 2013, her owner, Dean Haggerty, was shot to death in his Summit Township mobile home. Dean’s daughter and son were there, as was Layla. Dean’s fiancé Kristina had pulled the trigger.

As one of Dean’s childhood friends, Matt gathered with the Haggerty family. The dust hadn’t even begun to settle. What exactly happened? Good Lord, the kids! And, oh yeah, what about the dog?

One room can contain only so much shock and uncertainty. Numb silence. Could anyone take in Layla? More silence.

Matt hadn’t seen much of Dean in the months before the shooting and had never laid eyes on Layla. But when he realized that his dead buddy’s dog might be homeless, Matt’s yes came out by its own volition. He hadn’t consulted Elena, who was seven months pregnant with Cole, or thought things through. In that moment, his love was like Layla’s, reckless and snout-first.

How old was Layla? Nobody knew, but she was clearly in the mad dash of puppyhood. That first night with Matt and Elena, she paced and whimpered. In the small hours of the morning, she finally fell asleep on the couch at Matt’s feet.

Over the last couple of years, Layla has become family. Early on, she ducked when I reached out to pet her. Was she fearful by nature or treated harshly? Again, nobody knew.

Today, Layla doesn’t look over her shoulder much. Family and friends have nosed into her vulnerable spirit and earned her trust. If the world would quit popping, her peace would be complete.

Layla must be at least four, but she hasn’t received the memo that she’s not a puppy anymore. The relentless K-9 energy sparking in Matt and Elena’s house can be overwhelming. When visitors get welcomed within an inch of their lives, Elena makes fists, squeezes her eyes shut, growls “Layla,” and then laughs and shakes her head. Charged with minding a toddler, an infant, a temporarily gimping husband, and a joyfully insane Lab, Elena deserves sainthood.

And Layla deserves her home and most of all Matt, a patient, insightful man. When she pins him down with kisses and army-crawls into his soul, he welcomes her in.

I never realized how much Layla loves Matt until recently. Pop will do in a pinch, but only one lap is home. Before family dinner one evening, Matt sat in my recliner, his cast resting on a pillow. Layla climbed aboard and settled in.

She hadn’t seen her master in two weeks and was finally home. No gunshots. Just a goofy dog and a man who said yes.

IMG_4545

Man and dog: home

I couldn’t help taking pictures. Such good feels. Honest stories have flawed endings. Friends die. Balloons explode. But once in a while a last page sings out the possibilities of reckless love. It convinced Layla that she’s a good girl, and maybe, one dog and human at a time, it can also heal the world.

Well It’s All Right: An Open Letter

Dear Everyone,

I woke up singing this morning, a losing-weight-but-still-fluffy guy sliding into jeans and the Baja hoodie Kathy lovingly de-hooded for me years ago. Gimpy Watson had to pee, so out we went, the song coming along:

Somewhere beyond the sea

Somewhere waiting for me . . .

IMG_3911

Out back, where Watson kills the grass with his pee, where I hum Bobby Darin.

The trouble with this swaggery Bobby Darin thing, which I both love and hate, is I don’t know all the words. Back inside, I finished putting myself together and noodled around with the signature lines:

I know beyond a doubt (HA!)

My heart will lead me there soon

HA! is the best part—so dated, so got-the-world-by-the-stones, so satisfying. Darin could walk on stage, say, “HA!” and I would cheer. Forget the lover on golden sands and birds flying on high. HA! and a smirk are plenty.

I crooned these juicy lines a few times, each HA! rattling the windows.

“Somebody’s peppy this morning,” Kathy called from the bathroom.

“That’s right,” I said, praying another song would break into my head. Yelping out HA! eventually triggers the gag reflex and makes you light-headed.

If your home has its standard measure of weirdness, a family member turning twelve lyrical words into a mantra might not be noteworthy, but in the midst of my heart dragging my smarm around the house, I noticed: I was singing. This hasn’t happened much recently, and certainly not upon waking, which generally amounts to a twenty-minute game of drag-ass.

About this singing, I’ll observe only that it’s not because I’m leaving one pastoral call and moving to another. Nothing is ever simple, is it? It’s possible to be both excited about a destination and bone-sad over a departure. My heart doesn’t know how to beat right now.

Which is why I appreciate the present singing. Before morning coffee, “Beyond the Sea” was relieved of duty by “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys. Ah, Roy Orbison’s sweet warble, Tom Petty’s blessed assurance kissing me in my plump Chevy HHR:

Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive

I’m happy to be here, happy to be alive

“This is most certainly true,” my Lutheran-Zen brain answered. Ashamed of the car I drive? Ha! I have better shames than transportation. Happy to be alive? Why, yes, don’t mind if I am. Happy to be here and receive all kinds of music.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve realized a beauty that has always been offering itself to me. When I walk from the house to the car, at least one bird is in the sky or on a wire or atop a tree. Friend Mary could tell me all their names, just as Kathy can identify nearly every flower. My memory is Teflon with such details, but I can witness and give thanks.

220px-Cardinalis_cardinalis_-Columbus,_Ohio,_USA-male-8_(1)

A bird that friend Mary can certainly identify (Credit: Wikipedia)

I make that forty-foot trip from house to car and back again multiple times a day, and only once has a bird not accompanied me. Sometimes it’s a tiny, lone eye-song flying on high. Why have these companions been invisible for so long? A hardened heart and blinded eyes, maybe, projects of my own doing?

But gladness improves vision. As peace increases, the commonplace comes alive. Right before Kathy and I headed out the door a few hours ago, the kitchen windowsill said hosanna.

IMG_3910

Tomatoes from Kathy’s garden ripen, only after I had given up and decided to make cream of green tomato soup out of them.

IMG_3909

Rosemary from friend Denise, basil in water experiment, a ripening peach–each one a “hosanna.”

And yesterday Elena, Cole, and I had homemade vegetable soup and bread for lunch. As my wonder-of-a daughter poached eggs, my savior-grandson walked toward his bedroom and said, “Pop, come. Pop, come.” The message was of burning-bush proportions. I followed.

Cole is into hammering these days, so we went at rubber balls and his miniature electronic drum set, which said “Let’s jam again soon” each of the hundred times he turned it off. After lunch Elena got out his new piggy bank, and we all counted as he slipped in coins.

IMG_3908

Each time Cole says “Pop,” I stand on holy ground.

When I said, “Pop has to leave now,” Cole said, “Cole leave.” Referring to yourself in the third person is not only charming when you’re almost two, but also infectious.

“Oh, you want to go with Pop?” Elena said. “No, Cole has to stay here.”

My little buddy sagged at the screen door, his face widening into a pitiful toddler cry as I waved goodbye. By the time I reached the Chevy, I could see he was on to the next attraction, tears already drying.

“Pop, come.” Cole is calling me. Birds and songs are, too, as is the Lover of Souls: “Wake up, child,” Love whispers to me, “greet your sky-neighbors and sing. Two lines are enough. Even a HA! of joy will do.”

Love,

John

My Problem as a Parent

A couple of weeks ago daughter Elena and I lunched on Reubens while grandson Cole chipmunked curly fries.

“Cole,” she said, “swallow your food before you take another bite.”

10922551_801819956554861_553225707324982969_n

Sorry, buddy, but the answer is still “no.”

“My biggest problem as a parent,” I said, “was that I couldn’t watch you suffer.” I had complimented Elena a moment earlier on her heart of flint when Cole pitches fits over major and minor upsets. A distinctive strength is needed to stand clear and let a child, or any loved one for that matter, endure inevitable pain. Elena has got the moxie and nodded in agreement that I don’t.

I never have. There are good reasons, family dysfunction, blah blah blah. But as I stare down the barrel of fifty-four—one highlight of my birthday will be the delivery of new blades for my Panasonic wet/dry electric razor—rummaging through the dynamics of home over two score years ago isn’t on my agenda.

Still, I’ve been doing naval gazing in excess lately, mainly because I’m pulling up vocational roots, leaving the church family I’ve served for fourteen years, and assuming a part-time call starting November 1st. You name the emotion, I’ve got it going. My late father’s favorite song, “Feelings” by Morris Albert, plays in my head. “Feelings, whoa whoa whoa feelings.” Rats!

10177936_10154735974090384_8409962631402609596_n-1

Oh, Abiding Hope, I’ll miss you.

Sadness has the upper hand at the moment. During prayer this morning, a sob seemed to be building. When that baby cuts loose, all the handkerchiefs in my drawer won’t handle the tears and snot. Fatigue also has me by the collar. Having a projectile crying jag stuck in your throat is draining.

The point is, I’m raw, looking inward, giving thanks for peeks of goodness, lamenting valleys of deficit—which brings me back to watching loved ones suffer. My favorite quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha touches my feelings:

Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared [the path of suffering]? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

Same goes for daughters, wives, friends, et. al. While swimming in the river of ambiguity is comfortable, agony plunges me under. I haven’t given up hope of knowing peace in currents of distress, but each passing birthday ups the odds against me.

IMG_3869

Joy visits in the form of lipstick flowers at the house wife Kathy and I are getting ready to sell.

In case you think I’m beating myself up, don’t worry. I just want to be truthful and authentic. No posturing, no rationalization. If I’m full of crap about myself, it won’t be intentional.

And in case you think John’s October days are nothing but whoa whoa whoa, don’t worry. Joy visits frequently, reminding me that my gifts keep pace with shortcomings.

Case study: It’s 7:54 p.m. in the Coleman house, and son Micah (23) and I have been talking about, well, feelings. The conversation consumed forty-five minutes, half of which consisted of his account of anger behind the wheel.

My boy was following a fogey from Wyoming, probably a poor soul for whom Erie may as well have been the D.C. beltway. Micah was pissed. Trying to get from one worksite to another, he could see only his nemesis’ gray hair.

“Breathe in anger,” Micah said. “Breathe out compassion.”

I was quiet. Where the hell did he get this?

He went on: “I was thinking that when you’re old, you’re probably not in a hurry. Maybe you’re alone and don’t really want to get home.”

I closed my eyes.

“You know, like, if I’ve been home all day and I think of getting a Gatorade, I’ll just say, ‘I’m going to go get a Gatorade.’ So I go, and I don’t give a shit about getting back.”

“Yes,” I thought, “this is what I’ve been trying to teaching you.” But I kept my mouth shut.

Turns out my son has been taking in some Thich Nhat Hanh talks on YouTube. Days ago he mentioned the name to one of his doctors, who replied, “How long have you been seeing him?”

Micah joked that the famous Buddhist monk isn’t covered by our insurance and is out of his price range anyway. He was trying to sit with his emotions, he explained, not run away from them, not deny them.

IMG_3324

You’ve learned. Micah. Now teach your father.

All these years! All the rages during which I despaired at my son’s future. Addiction. Arrest. Felony. Moving on. And somewhere in the crevasse, at the bottom of the bottomless ice that froze away twilight after twilight of my peace, he heard a word or two. Now he is looking down his fragile old man’s path. Maybe sanity will be there, maybe truth.

I’ll take every lump my weaknesses have earned, but a gentle soul is also due its compensation. Micah got the Zen business from me. My foolish enabling put Kathy, Elena, and Micah through hell, but my refusal to close compassion’s door made this evening possible.

The jerks who get in my boy’s way have their own stories, just like he does. He swears at them one day and expects that the next day somebody else will curse him. But before his sputters swell into rants, he breathes in and out. Compassion floats in his messy car along with the coconut vapor from his electronic cigarette. Maybe the driver in front of him is choking on grief or so lonely that any errand beats an apartment’s dim silence. At last he understands.

Birthday presents this year will be incidental blessings. I’ve already received extravagant gifts. My daughter is a stronger, wiser parent than her father. My son is falling in love with the world.

Clouds Over Peach Street Starbucks

Erie, Pennsylvania, 9:05 a.m. This June 8, 2015, is gray, drizzly, close, still. If I accomplish anything worthy, it will come from without–a descending muse, a cloudburst of grace.

unnamed-2

Clouds over Peach Street Starbucks

When I looked at my watch just now to check the date, I remembered: my mom died seventeen years ago today. Another layer of humidity touches my skin. (I miss you as much as ever, Mom, but these waking hours are unfolding, and you would want me to do more than cradle the sadness pushing inside my chest.) Crying is therapeutic, but it reaches a point of diminishing returns.

I want to let wife Kathy’s words be my weather. Early this morning she borrowed a line from Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.” He was talking about a species of dinosaurs reproducing, even though they were all engineered to be females. Kathy had in mind a neglected amaryllis bulb. During the flurry of our recent move, it slept in a pot by our dining room window without soil or water.

unnamed

“You won’t plant me, so I’ll show you,” Kathy heard the flowers say.

Life finds a way. So does hope. At about the time I was recalling Mom’s face, a woman bought a tired, weathered guy coffee and a bagel. They were strangers. No fanfare. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome, sir.” Quiet hope, almost invisible. Not all flowers are stunning. Some just sigh.

unnamed-4

Parked by my truck, these say, “Shh. I’m only slightly lovely.”

All hope asks of me is that I watch for it–amazing how often I can’t even do that. But maybe I should honor Mom’s memory by opening my eyes.

unnamed-1

I come home regularly now to find that old gimp Watson has willed himself up on the bed. Here he joins cat Baby Crash for a siesta. For me, hope requires a climb.

unnamed-6

A couple blocks from our new house: this mutt clawed a window air conditioner out of the way and kept watch on the porch roof. On bad days, I also have to push some shit out of the way to get into open air, where hope resides.

unnamed-5

Then again, sometimes gorgeous life is hiding in what I consider inconvenience. A downpour delays my leaving Starbucks, but the splash invites me to look.

unnamed-7

Yeah, yeah, yeah, rainbows are cliches. So what. This one, outside of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church, had Kathy and me standing in the rain. Sing us a song, Kermit the Frog.

I can leave my Starbucks perch now without getting drenched, so off I go. Thanks for the good words, Kathy. And stay with me, Mom. Help me to find life and hope and to remember you with joy.

P.S. A note to friends: Please forgive me for falling behind on blog reading, commenting, and posting. In a few days I’ll be taking A Napper’s Companion on the road for a presentation at a regional church gathering. Combined with usual duties and moving the Coleman household, preparing for this talk has had me busy up to my nose. Hang in there with me and send some loving energy my way. I’ll see you again soon. Peace, John