Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

This past Tuesday was one for the books. The morning was fine. I worked in the church office until 12:30, then headed to the Stone Arch to pick up a lemon meringue pie I had ordered for an Erie neighbor who kept our sidewalk clear all winter while our own snow blower was laid up.

Since I was on that errand, it seemed foolish not to slide into a booth for a Reuben with extra thousand island and fries. On the way back to St. John’s Lutheran, wife Kathy’s 2006 Chevy HHR that goes by Bubba gradually lost steam and finally clattered to a halt right across Mercer Road from Frank Crash Auto Wrecking—one day after a new inspection.

The 89 degree humidity made sure I didn’t grin at the great gobs of irony. Friend Jodi was kind enough to fetch me back to church, where I chucked the pie in the refrigerator, waited for wife Kathy to return my call and sulked about every vehicle in my life betraying me. I had driven Bubba to Oniontown, after all, because my own 2006 Hyundai has the croup thanks to a failing fuel pump.

Long story short: Kathy’s work as a radiation therapy nurse and a sundry or two kept her in Erie until 7:00 p.m., which means she picked me up after dark, which also means she and I slouched in a borrowed mini-van with our lights shining on poor, comatose Bubba and beleaguered spirits waiting on word from AAA.

Actually I was managing okay. Kathy’s already challenging workday went an hour over, after which she had to scrounge a trustworthy vehicle and slog seventy miles south to schlep her husband home. My afternoon consisted of tasks handled at a stately pace in an air conditioned pastor’s study, a siesta and thirty minutes of silent prayer.

By the time Kathy picked me up and we reached Bubba, the quiet had reminded me that broken cars and endangered meringue are mosquitos hovering over a lifetime’s standing water. Most inconveniences are reduced to laughing matters, somewhere ages and ages hence.

Still, something about waiting on a berm, headlights glowing and darkness beyond, opens up your heart, if nothing else out of reverence for the hush of night accompanied only by gravel crunching under foot.

My heart received a blessing. I won’t lie, it wasn’t at the roadside, but as Kathy and I were at last rolling on Mercer Road toward Greenville.

The hand I kiss also raises up flowers

The words came out without my having to decide on them first. Glancing over at my wife, who hadn’t eaten since breakfast, whose eyes were glazed with the enough-ness of the day, I said, “You know, I’d rather be with you right now than with any other wife on the best evening ever.” Then I took her hand—which comforts those staring down their mortality—and kissed it, as I always do.

Was I speaking the truth or just trying to be romantic? At 3:27 this morning, I lay awake on purpose, listened to Kathy breathe, and knew that my Mercer Road love story was honest to goodness.

When days are burdened by soul-testing challenges and generic bother, sleep is oasis and balm. Kathy’s slow, deep breaths, even the odd snuffle or two, gave me joy.

Kathy, with unapologetic gray hair, and our daughter Elena

As always the morning would bring us fresh gladness and upset, but in the familiar darkness of home, I touched my wife’s hair, now unapologetically gray, kept glad vigil and reckoned blessings that turn a cracked engine block and a brand-spanking new car payment into trifles.

This evening we’ll start in on that lemon meringue pie that we couldn’t give to our neighbor, who, it turns out, is away on vacation.

As long as Kathy and I are together, that pie will taste great.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

If You Were My Daughter

By the time you took your first sip of coffee, a cop had already shown up, taken information from barista Tony, and loaded two pet carriers and bag of cat food into his cruiser. I didn’t see the woman pacing in the parking lot, trying to stay calm through a frantic phone call. I didn’t see her throw her arms up in the air, hop into her car, and speed off. Somebody else did, though, and got her license plate number. Now she is in trouble. You don’t leave a cat, dog, and Meow Mix in Starbucks’ parking lot and hope for the best.

If you were my daughter, I would have told you the whole story as soon as you sat down, ending with how sorry I felt not only for the pets, but also the woman. As if thinking out loud, I would ask what crisis led her to that moment and say as an aside, “Ah, hell, I guess we all do things we can’t take back.”

If you were my daughter, you would already know that I always want love and understanding to have the last word, which often makes my heart like a mutt the neighbors let bark outside hour after hour, the temperature sinking on a December night.

But you’re not my daughter. You spoke on your phone so quietly I could tell only that the language wasn’t English. The likelihood of my offspring randomly sitting down next to me and having a conversation in, say, French, is remote. And, of course, I wouldn’t have been stopped short at first by your beauty. I would know your birthday, where you are in your twenties.

You didn’t stay long, ten minutes and out the door. I watched and wondered. What car is yours? Where are you off to? But you walked so aimlessly, taking pictures of God-knows-what, I figured maybe you weren’t headed anywhere. Not to the bulky old Buick or maroon minivan, not to the Fox and Hound English Pub and Grille or Shoe Carnival or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.

I stood to see you off. Your leather knapsack—almost empty?—was finally a black dot against your jean jacket. Then you were gone, and I couldn’t decide whether to be happy or worry. Going no place in particular can feel like grace if you know how to be alone and you’re not shouldering much weight.

If you were my daughter, I would be glad we didn’t talk about what you missed: the woman now rushing from suffering to punishment; the long-haired cat with eyes wide and still, waiting to slip from a carrier to the warm, bright sleeping spot on the back of the couch; the cop transporting animals, both trying not to be thrown by sharp turns, both able to remember and love.

If you were my daughter, you would probably say, “Damn, Daddy, lighten up.”

“Yeah,” I would say, “you’re right.”

But I might not be clueless about your next stop. Hopeful? Desolate? Either way, we could meet for lunch, and I would say, as if thinking out loud, “When a father loves his daughter, she always has at least one good place to be.”

Burying Aunt Sue

I buried Aunt Sue yesterday morning. That’s what some pastors call funerals. We bury the dead, speaking the word with reverence.

It was ashes a dozen or so family and friends commended to the earth. Since Aunt Sue died in February, all had grieved for a couple of months, maybe spent their quota of tears.

I loved my aunt, but her passing hasn’t crushed me—the sad result of extended families drifting apart. I saw her once or twice a year. She was cheerful, loved china painting, made elegant sea-foam, and traveled a lot in her later years. A few loved ones shared such memories, and I tossed in a couple of my own: her twittering laugh and her faithful attention to my dad during his decline, punished by dementia. She never quite understood that a person whose brain has gone to pieces can’t read a book or assemble puzzles or in any other way snap out of it. But she was present to her brother in the best way she knew how, which is all any of us can do.

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When I buried Dad a few years ago, Aunt Sue stayed in the car. She couldn’t bear his passing.

An hour before the graveside service, images of poor, confused Dad went through my head, and I remembered something he said a few months before his death in January of 2012. His words were confused, but poetic.

At that time Dad and his wife Mary were in different care facilities, both having lost not only each other, but themselves. I arranged to take Dad from Independence Court (great facility, absurdly named) to Mary at Pleasant Ridge (well, that’s half right), hoping that seeing each other might bring them joy. When I wheeled him into her room, they were joyful, indeed: a kiss, a hug; then he took her hand as if he had found a fragile treasure and held it to his lips. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” he said, the old Dad surfacing for an instant, eyes narrowing into his old enough-of-this-bullshit expression.

“Oh, Dad,” I thought. Mary was mostly bedridden, her legs dead weight. But, of course, who doesn’t want to close his length of days at home, with his beloved? Does the longing for the warmth of familiar skin ever die?

During one visit to Dad, he thought I was his brother—he didn’t have a brother. He confided that he planned to ask Mary to be his wife, but was worried she wouldn’t say yes. He couldn’t remember her name.

“Mary,” I said.

“Yes, Mary.” He wiped away tears. “She’s my favorite.” They had been married for over thirty-five years.

When dementia or Alzheimer’s had stolen everything else, it granted Dad the slight mercy of leaving Mary’s face. When he said “let’s get out of here,” I imagine he just wanted to be close to his favorite.

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A view of Lake Erie that Dad and, eventually, Mary will share–sad they won’t see it.

Mary was silent, lucid enough in the moment to know that they had no place to go, no muscles or wit to get them anywhere.

“Well, then, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad paused, searching his atrophied vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.

“If only we could step out onto a cloud,” Mary said, still holding Dad’s hand. “But that can’t be.”

Dad’s enough-bullshit face returned. “Why not?”

I don’t remember anything else about the visit, but Dad’s suggestion has played again and again in my memory: “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”

So an hour before giving Aunt Sue a good send off, Dad gave me the right words. When the time came to speak them, the nightmare of his last days stopped me. I barely managed Dad’s longing, his wish: “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”

Sometimes tears make the most honest eulogy. I remember my Grandma Miller, her body stooped and gnarled with arthritis; my sedated mother on her death-bed with her left hand, scarlet and impossibly swollen, reaching for my hand as I thanked her for being a good mother; my father, howling and clawing through his final hours.

Oh, for the hope of another post—where minds are restored, where pain rises like fog at dawn and burns off, where wounds are healed, injuries forgiven.

Then I hear Mary: “But that can’t be.”

My lips purse, eyes narrow: “Why not?”

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The closed children’s portion of Lakeside Cemetery, where Dad and his sisters, mother, and father are buried: soaked Teddy Bears and plastic flowers.

This morning I ached for the other post and knew that nothing but sitting still and silent with God would help, so I drove to Presque Isle and watched waves catch the sun. Honest-to-goodness shafts of heavenly light split iron-gray clouds and warmed Erie, Pennsylvania, across the bay. I had planned on burying my aunt yesterday. I hadn’t expected to bury my father again.

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Aunt Sally’s (Saradell) resting place, a footnote on her parents’ gravestone. Her twin, Aunt Sue, will be somewhere nearby.

The weight of tears pressed from behind my eyes, but none came. Who knows why?

Eternal Love, prepare for us the other post. Gather us all there, our hurtful bullshit left behind. Our brains and bones wear out, so we return them to the earth. Give us what we need–only what we need–to know you at last.

I am crying now.

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Presque Isle Bay doesn’t shimmer like a Monet, but the waves are dear to my eyes. (Claude Monet, Grand Canal Venice, 1908. Credit: Wikipedia)

P. S. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these (the first one is joyful, the other two not so much):

“A Letter to My Late Mother”:

https://anapperscompanion.com/2013/12/02/a-letter-to-my-late-mother/

“A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire”:

https://anapperscompanion.com/2014/02/04/a-prayer-for-philip-seymour-hoffman-justin-bieber-and-a-child-in-a-fire/

“Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani”:

https://anapperscompanion.com/?s=Viewing+Dad%27s&submit=Search

 

 

Miracle Milk, Miracle Mothers

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Cole before his cold at a Mexican restaurant–looks like he is enjoying a mother’s milk buzz, sampling a tortilla chip, and watching out for the senoritas.

What’s more pathetic than sick toddlers? Living in the here and now, they know only that the present moment is plugged up or achy or poopy or yacky, as the case may be.

Grandson Cole is nearly over a head cold, which he has shared with mommy Elena, daddy Matt, and grandma Kathy. Adults get a pat on the back and a “hang in there,” but Cole had us all verklempt. Kiss him, walk him, monkeyshine him. His head was so packed with snot that it established its own gravitational field. Pantry moths, hummingbirds, and an occasional turkey buzzard got pulled into Cole’s orbit and circled a few times before flapping wildly to regain their freedom.

The worst part was my buddy couldn’t nurse. He got a tug or two in, tried to breathe, and had to veer off. Then came the tears, and not just for him. For a prolific producer like my daughter, the pain was threefold: lefty, righty, and the heart. Pumping took the edge off.

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Miracle Milk Strollers (Credit: Penny Shaut)

Both Elena and son Micah nursed, so I’m comfortable at the nursing rodeo as well as a big fan. The more I learn about breastfeeding, the more I want to speak up as its champion. This past Saturday the whole family joined scores of others at our local Miracle Milk Stroll, an event to raise awareness about the benefits of breast milk as well as a few bucks for the cause.

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The author, hereby applying to be the Official Clown for Miracle Milk

And it is a worthy cause, though it struggles against a headwind of sophomoric nonsense disguised as decorum. I’m amazed afresh each time a humble breast—servant of life, means of comfort—is greeted with harrumph or ew. An infant is hungry, say in a restaurant, and Mom provides. “Eh,” someone at the next table whispers, “I don’t want to have to look at that while I’m eating”—that being one standard-issue, boilerplate breast, either whole or in part.

I say, “It’s time for the squeamish to take a please-grow-up-already pill.” Why? Because breast milk is liquid gold, and nursing—for those women able and inclined to practice it—is a picture of earthly goodness. I won’t go into the many marvels of human milk here. Authoritative sources have done the heavy informational lifting far more effectively than I ever could. Please check out these sources if you’re curious.

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My son shouldering my sick grandson on the stroll

So plenty of good research trumpets the physical benefits of nursing. After the Miracle Milk Stroll, lactation consultant Cass even suggested that Elena put drops of breast milk into Cole’s ears and nose. Overhearing this, I said, “I have a wart on the bottom of my foot. Maybe I ought to put some breast milk on it.” Cass and Elena said together, “Well, it is an antiseptic.”

I would rub some on my sole. Why not? I would also try human milk as a treatment for pink eye, as one mother successfully did for her preschooler. Cheese made from breast milk wouldn’t scare me, either. A New York chef made some out of his wife’s surplus, but the Health Department frowned, as did one food critic. Oh well.

Compared to probably 95% of the population, I’m a weirdo. Sorry, but the science is convincing. Research isn’t conclusive yet, but there’s even evidence that a mother’s milk has analgesic properties. In the future will we mix liquid gold with other ingredients and use it like nasal spray to calm a headache? Go ahead and laugh. As Elena used to say, “I don’t give a care!”

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Two of the most wonderful breastfeeding veterans, Kathy and Elena–with son-in-law Matt providing an innocent photo bomb

Let’s say human milk was no more nourishing than tap water. Would I still stick up for nursing? Amen and Amen. Go to a Miracle Milk Stroll as I have for the past two years and hang around with a bunch of women committed to the cause. Watch your children and grandson nurse. You’ll witness something more compelling than science.

When Elena says, “You want some milk, Baby?” Cole’s answer is joy and light. He gives the usual yeah and nods, but I wish you could see his expression. It’s as if he is thinking, “Oh, that’s the best thing! The world is perfect when I’m nursing.” Imagine a face showing gladness mixed with relief.

We used to joke about Cole being boob drunk once his tank was full. Take away any negative connotation, and you’ve got it right: the relaxing buzz, the drooping eyelids, the silly grin. We should all be so intoxicated.

Am I getting carried away to think that a nursing baby is about as close to the Loving Mystery as a person can get? And Mom—her skin, breast, warmth, and agape—is the vessel in this trinity: Eternity, Life Bearer, and Life.

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“La Compassion de Christ” by the late, self-taught Milton Sontheimer (1982). A Mothering Christ? This hangs in my study at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church.

Granted, breastfeeding is not entirely sacred cuddles. Kids chomp down, women grow weary, ducts get plugged. But for a chronic worrier like myself, a mother feeding her baby is a gift of peace in a nerved-up world. Together they remind me that I believe in a gracious forever and assure me that once this life of wonder and woe has passed, my hope of being so comforted in the arms of a Mothering God isn’t foolish after all.

At the Miracle Milk Stroll, we walked less than a mile, slowly like the name says. Without much thought, mothers nursed their children, talked with friends, and kept walking. Would that we all could travel this way, leaving judgment at the side of the road, quietly celebrating love made visible.

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Human milk saves lives!

 

Home Is When I Come to Rest

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The wall of my Shenley Drive study

A couple evenings ago, while walking our beloved gimp Watson to the end of Shenley Drive, wife Kathy and I counted the number of times I’ve moved since my sophomore year of college, when I rented my first apartment. I narrated, and she revised here and there.

In twenty-three years, I’ve moved twenty times, with Kathy along for most of them. We married young (I was twenty-one, she was twenty) and amazingly we’re still together. Three bouts with graduate school, daunting challenges with our now-adult daughter Elena and son Micah, my nervous breakdown and struggle to be a good household helpmate: such realities beat up a marriage. We’ll celebrate our thirty-second anniversary this July because Kathy is forgiving. I’m a nice guy and patient to a fault, but we’re embarking on yet another move as husband and wife because the latter gives the former endless second chances.

My twenty-first move, Kathy’s twentieth. This one is from Erie, Pennsylvania’s west to east side, fifteen minutes, five or six miles. 2200 square feet to 1000. Two stories to one. Upper middleclass to middleclass. Shenley Drive to Parkway Drive. 16505 to 16511.

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Micah cut his hair at the dirty bathroom sink and unintentionally gave the faucet a generous mustache. 322 Shenley is crowded with such incidental joy.

Of course, there’s the emotional part of the move. Kathy is beyond ready, having spent countless hours painting, plastering, and planning the new place. Micah has fourteen years of testosterone, fury, and healing invested in his home; he sulks and sighs. I don’t get attached to dwellings much, but leaving Shenley Drive has me negotiating with a funk. Having gone through several episodes of hell there, I find the hardwood floors and views out the windows have taken on sweetness in these better times. And I came to rest at 322 Shenley. Lying in bed with Kathy and looking out at the boulevard’s old maples in all seasons, I thought many times, “I don’t need to be anyplace else. When my hour comes, I could die here, this woman beside me, my eyes on the trees.”

It’s easy to move when you’re ready, another when your heart won’t quite let you say goodbye: to a yard crowded with flowers and herbs, to neighbors as close as family, to walls you’ve leaned against and cried.

Dear as Shenley is to the Colemans, I know from the scars of leave-taking that bulbs and seeds grow in other gardens, friends appear on every avenue, and new walls can become trusted shoulders.

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A new route to the bathroom

Anyway, Shenley isn’t my home, nor will Parkway be. I remembered this the first night Kathy and I spent in our new bedroom. Flummoxed Watson clicked on the hardwood from my side of the bed to Kathy’s, back and forth, ad infinitum. The route to the bathroom was odd, short and direct. But I wasn’t sad. For me, home is saying “Kiss goodnight?” to Kathy and resting my hand on her warm belly as we fall asleep. Home is her saying “I love you, John Coleman” after the alarm goes off. (Yes, Kathy calls me by my first and last name.)

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Home is kibitzing with my son. The functional kitchen is a bonus.

Home is also standing with Micah as he tells me about a wrinkle in his day or about the mantis scrimp, which punches its prey. Before he goes to off to watch television, I say, “Spare a hug for the old man?” He does and means it. That’s home.

Home is Elena calling me Daddy and rescuing my bland refried beans and son-in-law Matt explaining that a truck’s clutch requires oil and toddler grandson Cole nodding and saying “yeah” when I ask if he wants to chew my watch.

Home is singing with my church family on a Sunday morning:

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,

no sudden rending of the veil of clay,

no angel visitant, no opening skies;

but take the dimness of my soul away.

Home is when I close my eyes, sit still, and sense—no evidence other than longing—the presence of the Loving Mystery.

Home is when I come to rest, held close by infinite variations of mercy.

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As long as my grandson is nearby, I’m home. The Loving Mystery looks at me with Cole’s eyes. His smile is mercy.

 

A Man of Second Chances

The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton included the following confession in one of his famous prayers:

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself . . . .

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Optimism

Me, neither, especially the last part. If you want to know the truth about me, best ask somebody else. But one thing I have learned over the years is that I’m an optimist, occasionally to the point of foolishness. How I know this doesn’t matter. I just know.

At 6:20 this morning I woke up ahead of the alarm. This was a good waking, not the wretched sort when you would pay a $100 or sell one of your nostrils for just one more hour of sleep before heading off to work or chores. I was fresh, mulling over the fine possibilities on the horizon.

Before my twenty minutes of prayer, I listened to The Writer’s Almanac podcast, which concluded with a poem by Rita Dove entitled “Dawn Revisited.” The first lines had me:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance

Heck, yeah! I believe in second chances, endless chances. (I would like to share the entire poem, but copyright blah blah blah.) The following made my soul’s lungs fill with new air:

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page. Come on,

shake a leg!

Preach it, Rita! Every once in a miraculous while, my spirit’s stirring converges with a friend’s innocent remark or an adagio or a poem. As soon as I finished pray-meditating, I actually wanted to “shake a leg,” and here a voice visited with encouragement: “Come on!”

The poet spoke about three hours ago, and I’m still rolling. Afternoon can be a slog because old wounds and griefs sometimes visit; breathing gets leaden. My past has strong hands, which it uses to grab my throat and back me up against a cinderblock wall. “Listen, little bitch,” the past says, “you’re not going anywhere.” It squeezes harder: “Just try to heal up and move on, punk!”

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Cold, bright day. A new blue page ready for words.

Sometimes, but not today. Sadly, I’m not a fighter, so I won’t be telling the old hurts to “go pound salt.” A story is told about Mahatma Gandhi being confronted by an angry man threatening violence against him. Gandhi embraced the man, who collapsed in tears. I’m no Gandhi, but this is my way. Today, if the past intrudes, I’ll kiss its lumpy head and say, “Not today. I’ll take care of you, but you’re not going to choke me.” In other words, I’ll breathe and keep shaking a leg.

Such mindfulness and discipline take a lot of energy. Still, the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and I have hope. Wednesday, February 25th is a second chance. Actually, I’ve lost count of what chance this day is. Above my desk at the church I have a drawing of a bald man sitting in meditation (in Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura). The caption in calligraphy goes,

Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior

that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

What luck! This morning must be my millionth chance, since I often start over a couple times during my waking hours. The present can be better than the past.

So, goodbye for now. I need to go write on the sky.

Joy Whispers to a Cracked Rib

Think the movie Home Alone. Think Joe Pesci’s character slipping on icy concrete, going airborne, and slamming down on his back.

That was me two Sundays ago, on my way to church, where I had to breathe and make sense. The difference was, Pesci’s stuntman actually took his fall. As a middle-class, middle-aged man, I personally came down on a step and cracked a rib. Before the echo of my shout died, I thought, “Wow, that was loud. Neighbors will come running.”

A couple of them did hear, I learned later, but thought nothing of it. I lay there, unaware that old #12, that southern most of ribs connected to the spine but not the cage, was compromised. “Did you puncture a lung, Mr. Wingtips?” I wondered. After thirty seconds, I said, “Well, I guess we’ll find out.” I rolled to my feet, staggered to my truck, and drove to clergy work, which included crouching to look toddlers in the eye and telling them that Jesus loves them just the way they are. Doesn’t matter if they’re autistic, hyper, or angelic. Whatever. Jesus loves them. (Don’t ask me how I know this. I just know!)

In the nearly two weeks since my slapstick, my cracked rib has led to a couple of insights.

1.) Yes, the stabbing pain is inconvenient, but I’ll take it over bronchitis, the flu, or even the common cold. Sitting still works wonders for rib pain but does nothing to stop coughing and sniffling.

2.) Cleansing breaths are a blessing. At no point did taking great lungs full of air hurt, so I figure I got off easy. Coughs, sneezes, laughs, yawns, and—of all things—burps were followed by yelps or arghs.

3.) Slow down and wise up! The icy step that got the better of me was clearly slippery. I could see as much and thought, “I’m going to text [wife] Kathy when I get to church and ask her to salt the steps.” I was in a hurry; even so, I put my left foot down with slow-motion, geriatric caution, like I was testing pool water with my toe. No matter: away I went. Starting with that moment I looked up at the leaden sky and wondered about the damage, I’ve been trying to pay attention. “Curl your fingers back when you chop celery, John.” “Take your time walking across that freshly mopped floor.” And even, “Slow down and taste your food.” If only I were half as much a gourmet as a gourmand!

4.) Losing a little weight would go a long way. I’m not sure whether my back fat cushioned my landing, but I know belly blubber makes me lumbering—not to mention I can hear carbon dioxide hissing from my lips when I tie my shoes.

Important as all these lessons are, I’m most grateful that my cracked rib continues to reinforce an observation I wrote about recently, one that has made me feel light and hopeful at least as often as bummed and brooding: Disaster and injury shout. Joy whispers. Crap shines a klieg light in your face. Blessing relies on stick matches.

On that Sunday of the fall, with my roar still sounding over Erie’s bayfront, the family (that would be Kathy, son Micah, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole) had dinner at Cole’s house. When Kathy and I walked in the door, we found the little man asleep on the couch.

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This face wouldn’t be cherubic much longer.

Since it was around 5:30, Cole needed to get up so he would have some tired left for bedtime. Elena woke him up, which led to a case of the grumps and snivels. Grandma Kathy took a bullet for the unit and distracted Cole with her iPad—poor Kathy!

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I have no idea why Cole is naked. When I saw this, I thought, “So what if he goes.” That’s love, I guess.

When food time arrived, Micah took over, feeding Cole toddler friendly bits from his antipasto. They sat together for what seemed a long time to me, spaced out on the recliner as ibuprofen conversed with sassy #12. I remember thinking that at twenty-three, sharing my salad with a wee squirm-ster would have held zero interest. Micah gleefully babysits his nephew and plays with him until Cole squeals and Unka Mike is sagging.

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Cole, wearing the bathrobe Grandma Kathy made for him, poaching Uncle Micah’s salad.

Two days later, just as the ancillary sites I’d offended were registering their complaints, I received a short via text message from Julie, who recently moved with her husband and three daughters from Erie to Lexington, Kentucky. I had posted my antics on Facebook, and the girls had something to tell me.

It can be hard to hear the well wishes of children and a grandson who can now say please, baaaa, uh oh, bye, hi, and I you (I love you). Rage and rancor are such bigmouths. Blessing won’t bluster. I have to be mindful, listen, and refuse to let the world’s volume trick me. Peace and gladness thrive only if I take the trouble to look.

One more piece of evidence: late the other night as I was driving home after church work, the gravitational pull of 322 Shenley Drive made me want to lean on the gas pedal. I didn’t speed, but I wanted to. Why? My urgency was about going to bed. Kathy and I would get under the covers, maybe watch a little TV and talk for a while. Then we would sleep. Our skin would touch along our bodies. I would kiss her shoulder.

Now don’t start hearing “Brick House” in your head. No singing—and I quote—“Chicka bow chicka bow bow.” Think overweight, pasty man with cracked rib. Seriously, cut it out!

The tug I felt on I-79 was love. How quiet and blessed is this? I wanted to get home to be with my wife, fall asleep next to her, and draw her close. Creation’s groans never let up, but, I knew, grace would whisper us to sleep. I intended to listen.

The Wisdom of Fetch

The Coleman family’s black Lab-terrier mix Watson is getting to be more of a jalopy every day. It’s hard to believe he showed up at our house twelve years ago in the arms of a neighbor and slept peacefully and without piddles between wife Kathy and me his first night with us. Now he has fatty tumors everywhere (one the size of a Florida orange morphing into Nebraska on his flank), a gnarly-pink-jelly-beanish growth on his gums, arthritic shoulders and hips, two blown ACLs, and a metal rod in one leg.

He may also have hearing loss. He has never been tested, but he talks as though we can’t hear him. A noise outside or anybody’s arrival warrants hoops and hollers ascending in pitch and volume. His request for Senior Milk Bones is a single, soul-piercing bark. Most of the colorful language in the house is in response to Watson’s loud barking.

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Watson is convinced that every sound in and out of the house is one of this guy’s cousins. (Credit: John Coleman, taken at L. L. Bean’s big store in Maine)

I ought to be more disciplined about giving the old boy treats, for three reasons: 1.) More treats lead only to more barking. 2.) He is gaining weight. And 3.) Senior Milk Bones give him gas, which he most often shares during our afternoon nap.

We have a ritual. Watson hobbles after me to the bedroom, his nails dragging across the wooden part of the steps. I set my alarm for one hour in the future, put my head on the pillow, and he plops on the floor. After five or ten minutes, he walks around to the other side of the bed and stands there as if to say, “This is going to hurt.”

I say, “Come on up, Watty. Get your spot.” Kathy and I love him so much we removed the bed frame to make it easier for him to get up. “Come on,” I usually have to nudge. “You can do it.”

He hops up, presses his nose against mine, and looks me in the eye—no kidding.

I scratch his jowls, receive a lick on my snout, and tell him, “Okay, buddy, it’s nap time. Lie down.”

He spins twice or thrice and lands in a heap, usually with his bum inches from my face. Twice a week, I’d say, the fun begins right here. I’m not sure what it was about yesterday’s treat allotment, but that mutt stung my nostrils.

For fifteen minutes afterwards, Watson’s flatus molecules clung to my cilia. His oblivion spoke like film’s Rain Man to his brother in the phone booth: “I don’t mind it.”

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An old dog thing: a two-inch tuft of gray hair sprouting from Watson’s chest–a sequoia among saplings.

 

This coming Saturday morning, Kathy and I are taking our pal to Union City, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes from Erie. We hear a veterinarian there has unorthodox methods that restore broken-down pups. All Watty’s barks, infirmities, and air bagels aside, his death will knock the wind out of us. He is unconditional love in a loud, lumpy, smelly package.

A couple months ago Kathy and I closed on a house less than half the size of our current place. We want to hose the material excess and crud from our lives, but a benefit to having everything on one floor is that our gimp won’t have to climb stairs. We’ll move soon, but I looked at Watson the other day and thought, “Oh, buddy, I hope you get to spend some good time with us there.” You never know when.

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A small house will be home with beautiful Kathy, son Micah, the cats, and monarchs. Please let Watson enjoy it, too.

I’ve always said that Watson is as dumb as a turnip, but as I make my way toward needing senior biscuits, I’m learning that intelligence isn’t all about brain cells. In fact, I would argue that wisdom generally has to overcome gray matter. My dog taught me this a couple days ago. Here’s the chronology:

  • I got home from work, put down my satchel, slung my coat over a dining room chair, held a couple of Senior Milk Bones out to Watson, and put little kitty treats on the counter for Shadow Cat and Baby Crash, who were trying to hypnotize me with their stare.
  • I made a quick visit to the bathroom. As is his custom, Watson heard the flush and remembered where the coldest, most refreshing water bowl in the house was. Ugh.
  • I sat down in the living room for twenty minutes of prayer-meditation. My Zen bell had just sounded when I heard Watson labor upstairs. A few seconds later he thumped back down. My eyes were closed, but I could feel his doggy presence beside me.
  • He had retrieved his biscuit ball, a heavy rubber toy with holes on each end that you stuff broken bits of Milk Bones into to occupy your dog. For once he didn’t care about treats. He wanted to play fetch.

I’m not a fetch kind of guy. I enjoy a good laugh; beyond this I’m not much fun. Occasionally I’ve explained this to Watson: “Now look, you know I don’t play. I cuddle. Your mother plays, right?”

Two brown eyes can teach a lot, even if there’s not much between them. “Hey, Dad,” my dog said, “what’s your life worth if you can’t spare enough time to throw a ball ten times? You know that’s as much as I can handle these days.” Seriously, that moment with Watson, his eyes pup-clear and that purple toy sticking out of his dopey mouth, goes into my spirit’s photo album. My brain cells are always crowding out wisdom. My old friend clarified a lot for me.

Pray or play? A whisper came from inside: “Why not both, busy, neurotic, fragile man?”

“Okay,” I said and sat at the end of the dining room table. I threw the ball all the way to the kitchen counter, fifteen feet, if that—field enough for a twelve-year-old. He rumbled to fetch it and limped back. On maybe the fourth toss, he turned the wrong way and walloped his head against the refrigerator. After recalibrating, he got the ball and sat down beside me as if to say, “What the hey? What just happened?” Thankfully, his head is mostly bone.

But he was right. After a few more trips, he was done.

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Watson after fetch, catching his breath and getting his bearings

Replaying fetch in my head right now, I think, “Watson, who will remind to play when you’re gone? Who will look at me in love and help me say to myself, ‘John, stop living in compartments. Always pray. Always play’”? Maybe he’ll stick around long enough to teach me a few more times.

This morning Kathy got up before I did, so Watson took her place. For once getting out of bed wasn’t a chore, but I stayed a couple of minutes. I rested my face on his side and talked to him: “You know I love you, right? You know you’re a good boy? You know I love you?”

He stretched his head back, put his cheek against mine, and snorted—just the answer I was hoping for.

Rawhide, Love, and Happy Trails!

Dearly Beloved:

As the pastor of a small parish, I’m accustomed to what lots of ministers would consider a light wedding schedule. Well, in 2014 either “Trumpet Voluntary” is in the water or word is leaking out that my wedding homilies are pithy and I’ll give you your vows in nibbles so you don’t fumble them and the Lutheran service for marriage includes minimal fluff. If you’re not lighting candles or pouring colored sand or passing out roses or “there is love[ing],” I can get you hitched in fifteen minutes.

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Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt: I officiated their nuptials in around twenty minutes ago on October 2, 2010. No fuss, no muss.

Whatever the reason, this coming Saturday will mark my eighth wedding of the season, with four out of town and this last one twenty miles from my doorstep. The “Rawhide” song is rollin’ through my head, not the Frankie Laine version, but the Blues Brothers’ rendition with John Belushi deadpanning “head ‘em up, move ‘em on, head ‘em up,” and grabbing a barely plausible whip hanging by the stage for a couple of rousing cracks and “haws!”

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep them vows a rollin’, rawhide . . . to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. Rain and wind and weather . . . to Shippenville, Pennsylvania. Hell bent for [tether] . . . to Findley Lake, New York. Wishin’ my gal was by my side . . . to Columbiana, Ohio.

With some personal struggles making my horse gimpy in recent months, my trail time has often been taken up with wound licking and obsessing. The weddings themselves have all been joyful, even gleeful. No bridezillas, no fussy parents, no bizarre requests. Good stuff. But, sheesh, the back and forth, with miles of staring at concrete, provided the perfect venue for what Brother Lawrence called useless thoughts. Ugh! (I’m like a doggie that remedies an itch on its flank by chewing open a crater. It is possible to ruminate yourself raw.)

But last Saturday as I was driving through Ohio, minding my own business, the dying leaves got through to me. Trees lining the highway sang out every lovely cliché of autumn. It was as if creation cleared scales from my eyes, and I saw colors. Pandora’s “Zen Garden” station—serenity now!—had my ears calmed down. And as the miles unraveled, I traveled into thanksgiving. Turns out the space behind my chest that shelters laughter and tears also rents out a secret loft to a tenant who has become unkempt and dusty lately: gratitude.

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You get the idea–fall leaves along the road. (Credit: Albert Herring on Wikimedia Commons)

All the way to Columbiana I was whelmed in thanks. (Not overwhelmed, just pleasantly, peacefully whelmed.)

Thanks for Don and Janine Thompson, grandson Cole’s other grandparents. The little man spends a lot of time at their place, in part because they live a few doors up on the same street as Elena and Matt. Janine is always chasing the Cole-meister while full-time-mom Elena runs errands or takes an exit for some rest. I’ve seen with my eyes and felt in my bones their bottomless, gentle love for our boy. Knowing that he toddles around at Don and Janine’s house invites in me a cleansing breath. He is safe, spoken to with tenderness, and regarded with patience and generosity.

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Grandma Janine at Cole’s baptism

As a bonus, Cole is picking up a couple of fantastic lessons for life from his other grandparents.

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A big bonus at Grandma and Grandpa Thompson’s is cousin Shaylee, who loves Cole like crazy and comes to play.

1.) The Thompson house is trippy. Every time I drive by I chuckle a loving, admiring chuckle. It’s a typical ranch house, very well kept and attractive, but it has an addition on the roof that makes the place look like a thick letter “L” lying on its back. But here’s the thing: Don pretty much built the whole place himself. When the family needed more room, he added where he could. I dig that and am glad Cole is doing part of his growing up there because he can learn that what matters most isn’t the way a home is shaped on the outside, but the grace and care that fills the inside.

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Grandpa Don at Cole’s baptism

2.) Along these same lines, Matt told me that his dad painted his car or truck with, well, a paint brush. You can hardly tell. Every summer the Thompsons have a bodywork day when all the cars in the family get what they need. I love this! Don once told Matt never to buy a new car when you can fix an old one. He’s right. I want my little Cole-mobile to grow up believing that a car’s primary job is to roll him somewhere.

3.) Rounding a bend here: During Elena and Matt’s engagement, there was a brief point of tension between Elena and Janine. I don’t even know what it was about, but I know how it ended. They talked it out and learned from each other. So a mother-in-law genuinely listened to her perky whippersnapper future daughter-in-law, took a look within, and was vulnerable and open. Now, this is a woman I want in my grandson’s life! A healthy, wise presence.

4.) When you put together everything in the Thompson’s cool-beans household, you also get another piece of first-rate craftsmanship.

Thanks for Matt Thompson! Son-in-law Matt is like his old man: intelligent, thoughtful, conversant on an amazing number of topics, but at the same time doesn’t take up a lot of space. When he comes into a room, his countenance doesn’t shout, “Here I am!” It smiles, “There you are!” All of my neighbors once agreed—the men, too—that we want to marry Matt. This Renaissance Man could build aircraft carrier out of gravel, twigs, hair, and boogers, and, in fact, he and Elena bought what was essentially a 800-square-foot dog kennel, gutted the yuck out of it, and made it their home. Matt knows everything about inventor Nicola Tesla, including I believe the circumference of his nostrils, and quotes Carl Sagan all the time. He refurbished the 1980 electric Commuticar wife Kathy drives to work and once explained how the batteries charge and alternate their responsibilities. I listened politely as Charlie Brown’s teacher’s wha, wha, wha, ah, ah, wha, wha came out of his mouth.

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Matt and Cole: lucky man, lucky boy!

However, the fact that Matt Alan Thompson could perform brain surgery in the dark with balsa wood instruments is beside the point. He is a good man with a conscience and a large soul. Best of all, when he holds my grandson, he knows that he is in possession of a fragile blessing. I can tell. Matt’s thick hands loosen rusty bolts, but their grip on that baby is soft and kind. And he talks to Cole the same way he carries him.

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The 1980 Electric Commuticar, which the Coleman family dubbed the Goudalet because one person observed that it looks like a wedge of gouda cheese rolling down the street. It lay dormant for over twenty years, but Matt willed it back to life.

Well, enough about my son-in-law. He chose to marry my daughter, so my neighbors and I have to accept that we don’t stand a chance with him.

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Matt and baby Cole watching an old episode of “Cosmos”–no kidding!

With another forty minutes to go on Route 6, I seemed to herd other reasons for thanks ahead of me like doggies. Don’t try to understand ‘em, just rope and throw and brand ‘em. Right, then, just enjoy the yips of gratitude.

Thanks for Kathy, Elena, and Micah. I’ve fussed over them in other posts. I remain grateful.

Thanks for my church kids. Most Sundays they’re a mosh pit of rosy-cheeked silliness. We love each other.

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Austin sees Pastor John sit down with the kids to listen to music. Austin puts his Halloween costume in reverse and sits down on Pastor John’s lap. Pastor John looks like he is frowning, but he is not. His eyes are closed because he is sitting in God’s lap.

Thanks for my blogging friends. Beyond their sincere care for me and each other, I appreciate my fellow bloggers’ patience. We seem to understand and accept when one or another of us drops off the grid for a while because good vittles, love, [or] kissin’ has somehow gone a-missin’. They are unseen guests in my days—great company.

And thanks for the leaves. Gorgeous, yet in extremis. Their reality gives me hope. On the doorstep of dust, they sing their loudest. Do they see something we don’t? Maybe as they fall to earth, they know they’ll go on living high and wide.

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Wishing you glad trails, height and breadth and depth. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rawhide, love, and happy trails!

John