I’ll Find You, Art, in the Sunset Dance

Art and I had a routine. He poked his head into my office doorway, checking to see if the coast was clear—a few times a week since Doris passed nine years ago.

“Thought I’d come in and bug you for a few minutes,” he said, then had a seat.

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Friend Art

Half-hour by half-hour we picked through his life and pulled out stories as if from attic boxes: Korea, close enough to the action to hear the shells whistle; a garage-building crew in the old neighborhood and the keg they were bound to finish and the world spinning; Doris dying alone in the afternoon while he ran errands—he never quite forgave himself.

“Well,” Art said, standing up, “I’ll let you get back to work.”

“But, Art,” I always answered, “I have been working.”

He had to stop on the way home for something, maybe boloney. Samwiches every day for lunch get boring. After a while you forget to eat.

Art got to church first on Sunday mornings, unlocked the doors and set the bulletins out. But arthritis clamped down on his shoulders so badly that he gave in and got a crew cut. Combs and spoons weren’t his friends anymore. If I had a nickel for every time I fixed his collar or untwisted his suspenders . . . . Getting to worship became a project, weary and burdensome.

This past winter Erie, Pennsylvania, was cruel. Art’s car and many others at Niagara Village were snowbound, but the wind chills would have kept him inside anyway. He had time to dwell on the indignities of age: obstinate hearts, lungs, and bowels. And loneliness. He looked at Doris’ picture on the wall and told her, “Send me my ticket. I’m ready.” He lay in bed before dawn, anxious and hazy, and wondered if what he was feeling was death.

Kidney failure pushed him over the edge. I was there when a kind doctor leaned in close and with his manner as much as his words let Art know that forgoing dialysis was just fine. We prayed.

Oh, his poor arms, torn and purple.

Loved ones and nurses took in what was happening. Muffled tears. Compression devices off of his calves, the Velcro cackling. A tube or two removed. I don’t remember, exactly.

Art’s faithful son Mark went to make calls. Suddenly, Art and I were alone.

“What do you think Doris will say when you get there?” I said.

“Probably ‘What took you so long?’”

“Can I tell the [church] people what’s going on with you?”

“Yep, tell them I’m going home.”

I held his hand as he looked far off. Death wouldn’t arrive for a week or so, but he seemed to be peeking into another doorway, one where the coast is always clear—so I believe.

“Are you okay with this, Art?” I said. “Are you at peace?”

He was already on his way: “Yep, just help me through the door.”

Still holding his hand, I cried without him seeing.

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Church was home for Art. He always kept a prayer candle lit for Doris.

The sanctuary filled up for Art. We gave him a good send off—big choir, his boys sharp in uniform, loving words and a salute from his eldest, “How Great Thou Art” sung by one of his beloved church-grandchildren. We ended with our beautiful old prayer poem: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Art. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

The next morning I gathered with family at the cemetery. We said more words—“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—and slid Art’s urn in next to Doris’. Some hugs later, I drove away through the deep, winding green of summer. I can’t recall what I did the rest of that day.

I sit now with coffee, keeping company with a few more tears that are still floating in my reservoir.

And I sit with an understanding: nothing can rush sadness through the door after a friend dies, especially one you’ve said to many times, “Here, let me fix your suspenders.” It was my privilege.

IMG_3583Last evening, knowing the best I can do is keep my own door open wide enough for grief to go in and out freely, I drove with wife Kathy to Presque Isle, to beaches that feel like home.

The Lake Erie sunset was on. Yes, a sunset, stunning cliché of the western sky, light everybody sails into eventually. Wind kept the landscape in motion, waves and light playing in the last few minutes of day.

Kathy and I stood at the water’s edge and held each other. The air moved over us—I want to say blew through us. As I breathed in and out, we seemed to be welcomed in by the sinking sun, the clouds mysteriously still, restless Lake Erie, and all the quick and the dead. We embraced each other, and creation embraced us.

It would be satisfying to say that I sensed Art’s presence, but that would be a slanted truth. Rather, resting my cheek against Kathy’s hair, receiving her cheek against my chest, my soul knew the hope of a gathering, a cosmic dance of sun, water, wind, sand, grass, and hearts. The song is of mercy.

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A pale vault opening

Just after the sun set, a pale vault opened in its place, glowing in the memory of the great light. I felt as though I was looking into the dance, moving with it as much as anyone can without joining it entirely.

What does death feel like? Art wondered, and so do I. Now he knows. I pray that it’s like losing yourself in a dance, completely embraced, yet free, too amazed by color, light, and love to straighten your collar or imagine that anybody has ever died alone.

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The General Dance

When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds of autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own heart; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

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Credit: Gyro Photography

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. 

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. (Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation)

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Credit: Bill Byrne

My wife Kathy is not a napper. I’ve sung her praises in at least one previous blog post, but she and I differ on the matter of midday oblivion. It occurs to me that she and I also approach shamatha differently. My calm abiding tends to be self-referential (i.e. naval gazing), while Kathy mostly looks outward at the world and others to find meaning. This is not to say that she lacks self-awareness and I am captive to my own reflection; rather, we have different spiritual styles.

It helps to acknowledge this. For a couple weeks my karma’s been cramped and bitter, and it may be because I’m stuck in my own awful solemnity, analyzing the phenomenon of my life into strange finalities. In other words, I need to get out of my naval and out into the general dance, which has been going on around me all these days of my funkification.

In fact, the cosmic or general dance—whatever you want to call it—has been getting a bit out of hand, especially in Kathy’s land of shamatha, the Coleman backyard. Check out this short gallery I took a couple weeks ago of God and Kathy dancing.

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Evidence of this being the Coleman’s driveway? A garage at the end; that’s about it.

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A clematis vine taking over the hedge and gardening tool shelf.

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Behind the foliage is a grill. When I cook, I look like Arte Johnson on “Laugh In.”

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Getting in the backdoor requires dancing with greenery.

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The dance isn’t restricted to the backyard. It plays inside, too, on the kitchen windowsill. You have to move plants to open the window.

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An orange tree took over the breakfast table until friend Claudia adopted it last week.

As plant life took over our property inside and out, pineapple-sized grandson-to-be has been shaking his groove thing under the firmament of daughter Elena’s belly.

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Elena with dancing future grandson.

No matter how much I try to turn the joy beating in my very blood to hot dog water, frogs keep inviting me to splash into ponds with them. Mint leaves wait for me to pick them and lift them to my nose. The clematis overtaking the hedge hopes I’ll stand still and receive its gladness. My future grandson is generally dancing and wants his gramps to join him. Kathy says, “You need to go outside and look!”

Forget yourself, Coleman. Go outside. Breathe. Know shamatha. Cast yourself dancing to the winds.