April Fools’ Day, 2016: A Stimulation Junkie Waits for a Second Grandson

April Fools’ Day, 2016: A Stimulation Junkie Waits for a Second Grandson

The impulse to check my iPhone has been wicked lately. Of course, today I have good cause.

This very instant (10:42 a.m.) a text message from wife Kathy landed: “Contractions are picking up.” Daughter Elena is the contractor, and grandson Killian Davis Thompson is the contractee. I suppose that would be the arrangement.

The previous update rolled in at 9:22: “They just broke her water. All is well.”

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First grandson Cole listens for his little brother, Killian

Present circumstances are compelling, but I’m checking my iPhone now only a little more often than usual, which is idiotically, pathetically, embarrassingly often. It’s as if the 4.7-inch screen—yes, I looked up the dimensions on the devise itself—will give me what I’m after, which is . . . what?

I could say that I want to calm spiritual restlessness or escape mortal ennui, but the truth is mundane and unflattering and, I believe, pandemic. I’m so confident of the affliction that I won’t bother confirming the commonality of what follows with even a whiff of evidence.

I’m a stimulation junkie. And I don’t like it one bit. Seriously, I’ve got some work to do. How can a middle-aged man who has practiced prayer-meditation for over twenty-five years be so easily and frequently uncentered?

For the last few days, Kathy and I have dog-sat Layla, Elena and son-in-law Matt’s yellow Lab, who is affectionate, but as tranquil as a panicked doe. On our afternoon walks, Layla zigzags as though she is fleeing gunfire. The point: sometimes my soul looks like my grand-dog, aquiver with indecision about where to sprinkle her next droplets of pee. I’m looking wildly about for nothing in particular, or so it feels.

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Layla attempting the old K-9 mind trick: “Pop, you don’t want the rest of your sandwich.”

11:39, and I just checked for updates, even though my iPhone plays a come-hither, noir saxophone wah waaaah when Kathy sends a text. But, hey, I might not have heard.

In fairness, updates are always tapping me on the shoulder or landing like mosquitoes on my ankles. Heaven forbid I should miss something.

I have 568 Facebook friends, which means at any moment a photograph of food porn or an unsexy kissy-lips selfie might show up. Fortunately I have enough self-control to shut off the bee boop alert for each new post.

I don’t do Twitter because the whole hashtag lingo is lost on me. Thank God for small blessings.

But, really, these early years of the 21st century conspire to distract, rush and over-stimulate all of us who let technology and the media govern our habits. Consider:

  • Not only is patience often unnecessary, it’s downright discouraged. Used to be you had to endure a week of suspense and torment between episodes of your favorite television show. Now with enough Doritos and moxie, you can cram a whole season’s twists and turns into one calendar day.
  • I admit it, I’m a Pandora fan. Sadly, my tolerance for a song that gets off to an unappealing start is low. If it’s bland, I hit the skip button. During my teenage years, we Erie kids had WJET 1400 am or K104 fm. If both were playing clunkers, we had to wait it out, commercials, news, and all.
  • Credit cards: the black holes of impatience and impulse. Why plan and save?
  • Back to my iPhone: last night at the Coleman house we wondered if Steve Buscemi was, indeed, the voice of Templeton the rat in a film version of Charlotte’s Web. Shazam. We knew in seconds.
  • My MacBook Air, at my spoiled fingertips right now, dumps most of the information I need in my lap, without a drive to the library and an interrogation of the card catalog.

And so on. It’s hard to imagine what harm there might be in getting what I want when I want it, but I think the pace is injecting my disposition full of adrenaline. When nothing is going, when my head is left hanging with “shave and a hair cut . . . ,” I bob my leg.

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Leg bobbing in coffee shop

This is not good—not for me, not for us. Get ready to roll your eyes, but I suspect that our collective stimulation addiction has fueled the rise of at least one presidential contender, Donald Trump. I keep asking myself why his frightening behavior isn’t blasting him out of contention for the highest office in the land.

Why? Because every day he stimulates us out of our wits. What will the twit Tweet next? Stay tuned. As long as he accumulates delegates, there’s no way we can get bored.

But enough of this sad digression. It’s 12:32, and I’m jonesing for Kathy’s alluring sax and a second grandson.

My Killian is about to arrive! Now that’s a great reason to stare at an iPhone screen. But a goof gnawing on a ghost pepper? Or television news bloopers from 2014? Or worse? Why do I cram my head full of such diversional potato chips?

Later on, when I kiss my grandson’s head and smell the perfume all newborns wear, maybe he’ll birth a new grandfather—a man who enjoys deep breaths and looks at the sky.

Come on, kiddo. You’ll still have the wise before-world on your skin when I hold you. Share a little with your Pop.

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Pop receives before-world wisdom

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Killian suits her. I can’t remember when I’ve seen Kathy quite this beautiful.

 

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A Letter to Noah, Gone on to Glory

Dear Noah:

On December 6, 2007, you passed from your mother to the womb of glory, forgoing planetary existence entirely. On April 2, 2008, which would have been your birthday, your mom, dad, and I prayed, reminded the universe that you were, and stood in a cemetery. We needed to let grief have its way with us—your mom, Liz, especially—out in the open air, before heaven and earth.

Only this morning did her sadness settle upon me, the breadth and depth of it. She and I talked for a few minutes last night after a meeting, and what she said woke me up at 5:30 this morning. Right away I felt the need to thank you. Because your life kissed Liz’s en route to mercy, I’ve been granted a truth. This isn’t a maxim, like “a penny saved is a penny earned,” but a truth that’s part of eternity’s cosmic dance.

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Your truth is as big as the Milky Way, Noah. (Credit: Rick Risinger. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So . . . the truth your mother spoke, not with words but with her eyes: we are loved into the world. Why did it take me fifty-two years to realize this? Even a dullard can detect pregnancy: swelly belly; the third-trimester waddle; puffy feet; pink cheeks. And women generally know not to smoke, drink, and do drugs while carrying a baby. During labor, breathing through contractions is common knowledge, so much so that it’s become a joke: Whew! Whew! Whew! Whew! Whew!

But what you and your mother have taught me, Noah, isn’t a lesson of body, but spirit. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and aunts and uncles don’t just get excited about a new arrival; they fall in love. While your digits were still forming, you were loved. Hundreds of times while you were kicking and shadow boxing in your mother’s womb, she held you in her soul, rested her lips against your sweet face, breathed in your newborn scent, still carrying whispers from God. And her love—so you and she have shown me—collaborated with biology to nurse you toward life.

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Your earthly home looked something like this, Noah, and though you were hidden, many people loved you ahead of time. (Credit: Turbo / Corbis)

Now you would be six years old. This morning as I lay awake before dawn, I dreamed you. You would have the full face of your brothers Mitch and Gabriel and fine, blonde hair. Pretty soon, I would pull a chair up to the altar, and you would help me set the Communion table. You would raise your hands with the other Abiding Hope kids to bless the people. Your father, Shawn, would chase you around the church, maybe telling you to slow down. In this dream, love for you catches in my throat.

But my dream can’t compare to your mother’s. She dreams you all the time, and while I imagine clowning around and making you laugh, she dreams you with her body. Biology failed you, but your mom still feels the space in her arms where you should now find comfort. I’ll also bet the love that willed you toward birth still dwells in her womb. “Push,” it pleads, “push!” The longing is so profound it doesn’t stop, even though you are gone.

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Would you have been a “thinker” or a “stinker”? Probably some of both. It would have been a joy to find out. (Credit: Franks Valli. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Oh, Noah! Do you understand from the lap of glory how you are loved? Still, I have to tell you, your beauty comes at a price. When you died, your mom, dad, and others who counted on your arrival could hardly bear it. “God,” they cried, “why would you take Noah from us?” Sometimes they shook their fists and swore at God, which I believe is the best possible prayer when that’s all you’ve got. Maybe you could check on this for me: God loves us beyond our doubts and rage, right? You could also ask if I’m right that God didn’t take you as part of a divine plan and doesn’t constantly make folks climb through barbed wire to test them.

But I shouldn’t be greedy. You and your mother have already blessed me with one answer: We are loved into life. Gracias, little senor! I’m also grateful that you have opened me up to other lessons about love that grow from the soil of your teaching. That’s how my mind works: I dig for truth and find species of it gathered in one small garden.

 —

We live on love. Friends of mine are serving as foster parents to a toddler they plan to adopt. Also parents to an infant son, they are Mommy and Daddy, enfolding both boys with the blessings of home and family. By chance, the biological father learned that he had a son and hopes to be awarded custody. For now, he has visitation rights. The boy returns from each visit shaken and upset and cries in the night: “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

Just as Liz and Shawn loved you toward life, Noah, my friends’ love for their sons—no distinction in their hearts between biological and adopted—has left fingerprints on their souls. The four of them belong to each other, and they survive not only on food and water, but on the wholeness they find in each other’s arms. Even the possibility of being separated is shattering. The parents imagine the boy who is now part of them afraid and confused, calling out for them from a strange bed in a strange house. They pray, “Why would your plan demand a toddler’s despair?”

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My friend Diana gave me this rubbing a long time ago. Looking at it makes me wonder about the face of God. Please ask God to smile upon us and be merciful.

Some lessons are necessary, but damned difficult. You’ve taught me that I would rather have my loved ones safe beside me and suffer all other scarcity than know material abundance and empty arms. Love is as necessary as clothing and shelter. Intercede for all of us, Noah. Hold God’s hand as we—our boy’s parents and all who love him—throw haymakers at heaven and demand answers.

Love longs to be spent. I think lots of us are formed and fired to be vessels for love. If enough of it builds up without finding a good recipient, we show cracks. In recent years I’ve spoken with a couple of women who wanted to bear children. One told me after drinking an iced-bourbon truth serum that she regrets not having children. “I think I could have been a good mother,” she said through tears. And she would have been—nervous, worried, but as attentive and understanding as any mother in circulation. In her sixties now, she looks across the expanse of years and holds open hands that would have always touched daughters and sons with gentleness. Another friend tried for years to get pregnant, without success. She heard stories of unwanted babies cruelly discarded and thought, “I’m right here! I’ll love your baby. Just bring him here and leave. Nobody has to know.” For both these women dear to me, adoption wasn’t an option.

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Did the Potter of Eternity shape us to carry love, to pour it out generously? That’s what I believe. (Credit: Richard Gross / Corbis)

Noah, you’ve never known the weary joy of comforting a crying baby, but your passing through my life has helped me to recognize that many of us feel starved for the love that completely and recklessly embraces another life, a fragile life that can’t survive without us. A baby falls asleep because you have surrounded her with your tender presence. The unfulfilled longing for such a connection chants a mantra: “Push!”

 —

Love lands where it pleases. An old friend of mine is selling his house and moving into a senior apartment complex that doesn’t allow pets. He gave his dog to a kind friend, and on the first night in her new home she dug a hole under the fence and escaped. Sleepless hours passed until the next morning, when my friend stopped by my office with good news. The dog returned and was sleeping in the laundry room of her new home at daybreak.

“Last night I did something I haven’t done in a long time,” he reported. “I got on my knees and prayed.” The thought of his beloved dog confused and afraid in woods and fields was torture. I bet for a while my friend will go to pet his dog and feel grief when he remembers she lives with someone else now.

We love what we love, I guess: dogs, meadows, goldfish, blue heron, homes, clematis vines, neighborhoods. Noah, you might ask me, “How can you love me, John? You never even met me.” Because that’s how love works, buddy. It writes its own rules, in its own time and at its own pleasure. And it’s under no obligation to make sense.

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Can you love a blue heron, Noah? That’s for love to decide. (Credit: Dori. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 —

“I got on my knees and prayed.” That’s it! Love brings us to our knees. That’s what you and your mother taught me, along with leaving me a question. I wonder if great minds over the centuries have uncovered only the scientific truth about the origin of universe. Maybe there’s a second truth. What do you think, Noah? Were the suns and planets and beating hearts of each galaxy loved into space? And is that love still sending us out for billions of years until it calls all that exists together again to be embraced—blood, bones, fire, and stardust?

You’ve got me wondering, kid, wondering and believing. Who could have imagined that a boy who never held his parents’ hands and walked barefoot on wet grass or woke up in the middle of the night afraid would be wise enough to grant a grateful man truths to live on.

Thanks, Noah. Give God a kiss for us.

Love,

John

A Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom,

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

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Beautiful, even as its flowers wilt.

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

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

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

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Cole Martin Thompson holding his Uncle Micah’s finger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Your grand-daughter married a good man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

John