Vacation with My Father

Vacation with My Father

Everybody else on Victory Chimes is on deck savoring tame waves and the sun, calling out to seals who peek up, then disappear under the surface.

Victory Chimes

A bushy-bearded crew member just sent me below, not by command but by speculating that an island in the distance might be “Hell’s Half Acre,” which was one of my father’s favorite expressions. I sit outside the galley and stare at his life: a yellowing 8½” by 11” sheet of lined paper; Dad’s printing in pencil, his unmistakable all-capitals hand strangely shifting to lowercase for each h, d, and g.

Children. Grandchildren. Births and weights. Marriages and divorce. Graduations. Navy service. Jobs, first to last. Residence after residence.

Dad’s slender memoir is a stowaway in my leather man purse. Wife Kathy and I are sailing on Maine’s last surviving three-masted schooner from the great windjammer generation of the early 1900s. While she scans sea and sky for osprey and porpoises, I perch at the end of a long table in the salon and wonder why I decided to bring Denny Coleman along with me on vacation.

Dad has been gone for over five years, and his comings and goings, his beers and stories come to me through lines like “AMERICAN METER 3 SEPT. 46 – 15 NOV. 82.” He sat on the couch and cried for two days after new owners hauled him in and said he could run a drill press or retire. No, he couldn’t bump back to his job in the tool room, as he had been promised. Forget the years and handshakes.

How many times can one man’s length of days withstand being folded and unfolded? Dad’s record has diamond gaps down the middle, like the Shroud of Turin. It’s so vulnerable that somebody, maybe the author himself, put it in a plastic sleeve.

On what date did Dad sit down at the kitchen table, prop open his memory and make a list with no title, only an incomplete first line, “GRAd 28th MAY 1944”? He would never forget, I suppose, that he was a Wesleyville Bulldog.

I imagine him pulling the paper from his wallet and printing one last entry, my son’s birth in a disciplined strand of caps: MICAH WALTER COLEMAN – 1/18/92 – 8# 6OZ.

What am I supposed to do with my father’s fading table of contents? It doesn’t belong in the trash. Until I figure out why he kept such a determined record and why the names and dates put a lump in my throat, I’ll hold it gently, like an artifact that even loving care can’t keep from someday going to pieces.

Early this morning Kathy told me that we were anchored by Hell’s Half Acre and might be able to ride the yawl boat Enoch over for a visit.

Alas, we made for Stonington instead. It would have been nice to tell my siblings that I visited the locale Dad so often referenced, generally in annoyance. “Don’t take I-90 to Buffalo,” he might have said. “They’ve got road work all over Hell’s Half Acre.”

One of the things I loved most about my father was his use of language. Your nose was a snot locker, your hands meat hooks, your hind end a fan-danny. When he wanted you to calm down, he said, “Take it ease, disease.” Another father might have said “kiddo” or “pal,” but my dad preferred what I always heard as “Bubba Louie.” My older brother Ed tells me that Dad was saying, “Babalu Aye,” from a rambunctious Ricky Ricardo song?

When Dad wanted to let you know you were really on the wrong track, he puckered up and practically sang, “Oooh, nooo nooo hell nooo.”

Dad’s lingo, the way he leaned into his phrases, captured the man at his best: clowning around, amiable, a good sort. On board this schooner, he would be on deck cracking cans of Schlitz and “batting the breeze” with new friends. Closing my eyes, I call to mind his forearm tattoo, a fading heart with a gaudy MOTHER banner unfurled across it. I pass my hand over his wavy gray hair, as I did standing over the coffin.

Picturing my father is still easy. His voice, its rising and falling, is familiar, too, but exact words come back to me only unbidden, as if they have a will of their own.

I should have made a list like Dad did, but he hated forgetfulness more than I do. He kept everything—tools, utility bills, scrapbooks—in good order. “Coly,” as his work friends called him, didn’t misplace things.

Three years before his passing, Dad stood in the hallway of his Florida condominium, staring at framed photographs of his children and saying our names.

“I do this every day,” he confessed, aware his mind was giving out. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“Idiot light.” That was something else my father said. This gem came to me after Kathy and I left Victory Chimes and were making our way south through Maine. Only an idiot would need a dashboard light to tell him to check the oil.

That’s how on the ball Denny Coleman was, but dementia turned remembering anything into a shell game. He even forgot being a Bulldog. One bright afternoon I took him for a drive down Willow Street. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “that’s where you went to high school.”

He barely glanced up. “If you say so,” he mumbled, looking back down at his Velcro sneakers.

In his last year my father faught to retrieve himself. Each time he saw me coming his way at the nursing home, he reached out to me as if he were about to drown.

Only back home again can I name what was caught in my chest on Victory Chimes. Dad believed I could take him by the hand and lead him out of Hell’s Half Acre. The best I could do was remind him that his mother was long dead and his wife’s name was Mary.

“Yes, Mary,” he once said. “She’s my favorite.”

Now at my desk, I slide a biography free from its plastic sleeve and hold it close. One crease gives way. Another will, too, at the lightest touch.

No matter. Whether we like it or not, time will fold and unfold our pages of births, loves and labors until they go to pieces.

This truth ought to smother me, but it doesn’t. I feel a sure and certain hope: Eternal Love cradles all that we have ever been.

Nothing is lost, no happy home, no wandering, no fleeting peace, no devastation. I’m going to frame Dad’s shroud to help me remember.

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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

 

 

The Song of a Frozen Thrush

I was getting cherry tomatoes from the basement freezer to make marinara sauce when I remembered a karmic coincidence. It happened a few years ago and was so unlikely and sacred that I took the bizarre step of freezing the evidence—a dead Swainson’s (or olive-backed) thrush.

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Swainson’s thrush (Credit: Wikipedia)

I first wrote about this handful-of-a bird a couple years ago while on a train to Florida to visit my dad and step-mother, both of whom were in an Edvard-Munch-spiral of dementia:

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Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” 1893. Can a serious painting be a cliche for despair? Maybe, but it fits. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“The lights have gone off and engine and ventilation moans have stopped. As the Silver Meteor sleeps for what we’re told will be fifteen minutes, I remember Swainson’s thrush. Named after 19th century ornithologist William Swainson, the thrush takes numerous micro-naps during the day, each of just a few seconds, according to hras.org—like naps on the train. Passengers nod off for a minute, until the car jerks or somebody walks by and brushes against them or a grizzly old guy hacks cave breath from one seat back to their nose—my present situation. Then they strain their eyes open a slice, shift position, and nap again. 

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

Please! Nobody, woman or man, looked this together on the train from Pittsburgh to Orlando. We were all visual renderings of halitosis. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“Sometimes I myself check things out with one eye because the annoyance isn’t worth the effort of pulling both open. In this I imitate Swainson’s thrush. Saul Scheinbach describes the nifty mental trick this bird and others use to sleep and prevent getting eaten at the same time:

“’Scientists found that when the birds were in a migratory state, they reversed their activity cycle, resting during the day and becoming active at night. As a result daytime ‘drowsiness’ (eyes partially closed) increased, but total sleep time dropped by 67% as compared to birds in the non-migratory state. To partially compensate for this sleep loss migratory birds took daytime micro-naps with one or both eyes closed. These episodes occurred during periods of drowsiness and lasted about eight seconds each. The team suspected that unilateral eye closure (UEC) during the micro-naps allowed one brain hemisphere to sleep while the other stayed awake to avoid predation.’

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Little thrush, you are getting sleepy, very sleepy. (Credit: Herbert Spichtinger)

“Scheinbach goes on to report that the research team referred to here went on to prove their suspicions true and adds tongue-in-cheek speculation: ‘UEC has also been observed in ducks, whales and dolphins, indicating it may be more widespread across the animal kingdom. Perhaps humans exhibit some form of UEC too. I recommend testing college students during exam time and security guards at night.’” Har har.

The mission to Florida, via Amtrak for fear of flying, failed. My father and step-mother refused to move into assisted living. To their neighbors’ dismay, they hunkered down in their Bastille of anguish and confusion for several more months. The trip’s only grace was long stretches of writing on the train and dozens of naps taken like a migratory animal.

Back in Erie, bummed about such a dreary use of vacation time, I showed up at the church and found what looked like a Swainson’s thrush lying dead on the sidewalk. I imagined it flew into the glass door and fell into my path. It was perfect, as if it had taken a macro-nap until I arrived. What were the odds? A sage bird I read and wrote about but never met lay before me in repose. I’m not much for signs, but I know a wonder—albeit a dark one—when I see it.

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I think you’re a Swainson’s thrush–anyway, sing. I’m listening.

So I picked the thrush up, wrapped it in napkins until I got home, and froze it in two sandwich bags. True, keeping a tiny cadaver in your freezer is morbid, gross, weird, whatever, but I wanted to hang onto Swainson’s thrush. We had a conversation pending, but after watching my dad flail about in dementia’s white caps and refusing rescue, I had no shamatha left to imagine what a dead bird might say to me.

My shamatha may not be functioning any better than when I stepped off the Silver Meteor all those months ago, but lately gifts have landed in my path, both quick and dead, and I suspect they’re in formation with Swainson’s thrush. Just now I reached into the basement freezer and returned to the dining room table. Again I laid napkins down and took hold of the body, this time expecting freezer burn. But no. Its wings have darkened, but otherwise it looks the same as the morning I found it.

Had the thrush offered itself to me? Ah, a trite thought, spiritual kitsch. But regardless of her intent, she’s been teaching me. If you can’t nap for an hour, take thirty minutes. Too busy for twenty minutes of prayer? Do ten? Savor three bites rather than swallow ten whole. A truckload isn’t preferable to a teaspoon.

In fact, as one who takes in everything from memoirs to avocados to Starbucks coffee way too fast and in embarrassing quantities, I believe Swainson’s thrush may be trying to lengthen my days. Receive staples, luxuries, and blessings in small portions, you middle-aged glutton!

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Micro-blessing Cole sleeps on macro-blessed John.

I’m breathing, listening for this frozen bird’s song. (Lord, help me.) Micro-graces have been appearing, and fortunately I’ve had one eye opened to notice them. They’re all singing to me mercy within mercy within mercy.

Neighbor Patrick, Shenley Drive’s Down’s-syndrome sage, just turned twelve, but his boy-wisdom isn’t getting all mature, fussy, and sophisticated. He lives in a relentless now; I wonder if what the world regards as a deficiency is really an absence of intellectual clutter and absurdity. He does his best to teach the neighborhood. Sometimes we pay attention.

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Patrick: Let’s play! I’ll be Superman.

Friend Mary posted the following on her Facebook page: Foster & Help Needed! “Noel–The Christmas Kitten”: This little kitty was found tonight after she crawled up through a heating vent into a house in Millcreek. We assume she went in to try to keep warm. She is very sweet, and just wants to be held and cuddled. As you can see, she is emaciated and obviously has been on her own for some time. Orphan Angels Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center will be overseeing her care, and a vet appointment has been made for her first thing in the morning. She needs a good foster home until she can get strong enough to be ready for adoption. Orphan Angels could also use donations for this little one. This case was unexpected, but they want to make sure she gets the help and care she needs. Anyone interested in fostering, please call Eileen at 814-504-3246 to be screened. Donations can be made via paypal on the OA website: http://orphanangels.weebly.com/.

Mary and husband Mike agreed to take Noel in, knowing she’d need a couple months of care before a permanent adoption would be possible. Noel didn’t survive, though. Mary writes, “I am at least grateful she had warmth, food and love in her last days.” And I’m grateful for friends’ yes to one of my frozen thrush’s forgotten sisters. Mary and Mike quietly hugged the world.

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Noel, Swainson’s thrush’s little sister. Her eyes teach me.

This Christmas week my brother Ed asked if I had our Grandma Miller’s molasses cookie recipe. He made some on his own and said they were hockey pucks. We looked in a family cookbook without luck. In passing he also mentioned that Gram made a batch of those cookies once a week because Earl (Gramp) loved them. This hardly seems worth sharing, but the idea has stayed with me, especially since Gram’s body was gnarled with arthritis. Her cherubic face was always pursed with pain. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams wrote. Correct. A red wheelbarrow and a molasses cookie.

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Dora Miller’s molasses cookies weren’t so puffy. I never knew I’d want a picture of Earl’s favorite someday. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Also this week, parishioner Bob and his grandson Gabe stopped by the church to do some cleaning. When they came into my office, I crouched down and said to Gabe, “Hey, you got a hug for Pastor John?” He smiled and let me have it. For him it must have been like hugging a sequoia. For me it was one regulation clergy hug—until I tried to pull away. Gabe hadn’t gotten the memo that this was to be a micro-embrace. A Swainson’s thrush-preschooler passed his goofball minister a universe of grace without realizing it.

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A standard hug micro-heals me for days. (Credit: corbisimages)

When an olive-backed bird is your mentor, even a fart can be a blessing. Yes, you heard me: a fart. (Roll the r. It’s more fun that way.) Friend Abby recently shared this laugh on Facebook:

Conversations with my 4 year old. Take two.

Keenan: FLURRRP!

Me: Hah! That was quite a toot!

Keenan: (Very serious) that wasn’t a toot momma.

Me: It wasn’t? Sure sounded like one to me! What was it then? A fluff? A fart? Did you shoot a bunny?

Keenan: No momma. None of those. My butt blew you a kiss.

I accept Abby’s word (If I’m lyin, I’m dyin!) that Keenan came up with his own version of the scene in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale in which Nicholaus “anon let flee a fart.” In the heart a four-year-old boy, such a kiss is precious, not to be wasted. The point: I need Swainson’s thrush’s strangest song to make me laugh and drag me out of the terrible squirrel cage of self .

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

Sniff. Oh, that was supposed to be a kiss. Why, thank you. (Credit: Lars-Olof Johansson)

Because my olive-drab bodhisattva hasn’t finished saving me yet, I’ve returned her to the morgue. Such power! Even frozen she sings to me: “Creation screams and groans, but shh. Do you hear the descants of grace and mercy?” 

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A bodhisattva with many wings. (Credit: Nat Krause)

Light and Life Versus the Execution of a Shadow

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Santa Claus on Black Friday (Credit: Jason Stang)

Crying sits in my chest and leans on my throat. Zoloft be damned, I’ll be wiping away tears before this Black Friday of 2013 is over—tears and snot.

(Blogger’s Note: I apologize in advance for some of what follows. This post should be an outburst of  joy, but if you’ve been sticking with me any length of time, you know I try hard to be emotionally honest. So I’m going to tell the truth.)

I’d planned on being a curmudgeon today about Black Friday’s syphilitic insanity infecting Thanksgiving. I have lots to say about that but will hold off for a while. Instead, I’ll share the e-mail and Erie Times-News story that are making this 8:50 a.m. at Starbucks complicated. Bad news first.

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Alois Alzheimer, official sponsor of Alzheimer’s disease (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Headline on page 2-A of the Erie Times-News on November 29, 2013, right under a lovely piece by Kevin Cuneo about the luscious scents of Thanksgiving cooking overcoming his dog’s skunking of the family home: “Man fatally shoots roving Alzheimer’s patient.” Here’s the story (skipping paragraph breaks):

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. – Authorities in northwest Georgia said a man shot and killed a 72-year-old he thought might be an intruder but turned out to be a wandering Alzheimer’s patient. Walker County police told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Ronald Westbrook had walked about 3 miles in the sub-freezing temperatures before knocking on Joe Hendrix’s door just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. Hendrix’s fiancée didn’t answer, instead calling the police. Sheriff Steve Wilson said before deputies arrived, Hendrix went into the backyard with his handgun, where he saw Westbrook in silhouette. Wilson said the 34-year-old Hendrix recalled giving Westbrook several verbal commands, but the advanced Alzheimer’s patient didn’t respond. Hendrix then fired four shots. Wilson said charges could be filed but that Hendrix didn’t violate any laws by walking out into his own yard.

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Robber! Rapist! Murderer! Oops, sorry. Just an old guy. (Credit: Jesse Reardon / Twila Reardon)

I don’t think walking out into his yard was the objectionable part! Some months ago I shared a post entitled Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani in which I described my father’s dementia. I’m the proud owner of a I Survived My Parent Going Bat Crap t-shirt. For me, it wasn’t Ronald Westbrook knocking at Joe Hendrix’s door. The man’s name was Denny Coleman, he was eighty-five, and he was so far gone that while staying at my house, he wandered into the wrong room in the middle of the night and pissed in my clothes basket. It was my confused, tormented dad who, lost and freezing, knocked on a door. When nobody answered, Dad walked into the backyard and stood in the corner, in the dark. Some guy started screaming at him, but since he couldn’t even remember whether his son was his son or uncle or brother or father, he stood there silently. Then Hendrix shot my dad’s silhouette four times. Then Dad wasn’t flummoxed or agonized anymore.

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That should about cover it.

That’s how I processed the article. Conveniently, as I sat breathing, “White Christmas” played in the background, with Bing Crosby whistling like my dad used to. Of course, I also immediately thought of the woman in suburban Detroit who knocked on a door in the middle of the night because her car broke down and ate lead for the effrontery. God didn’t make enough tears and the devil didn’t make enough expletives to communicate my sadness and rage. If Hendrix had actually shot my dad, the upset would rise to another terrible height, but I’m just saying that 133-word story out of Chickamauga has sucker punched a once-in-a-lifetime morning. No worries. I’ll work the ache out of my jaw, pop four ibuprofen, and move on to today’s best news story, which showed up via e-mail:

Hi John Coleman,

Did Elena call you? She is in early labor, dilated three, probably gonna have the little guy today. If you feel the love, would you bring me a Starbucks after you leave? How am I gonna concentrate today?????????????????????????????????

Love you, soon to be grandpa

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Yes, soon-to-be grandma, I’m feeling the love.

(Yes, my wife calls me John Coleman.) If question marks are any indication, Kathy is giggling and jitterbugging at work, The Regional Cancer Center. As soon as I read her note, that cry I mentioned rose in my chest. It will come out in its own time.

Like Dr. John Watson, I’m guilty of telling this story wrong-end foremost. As it happened, I read Kathy’s sweetness-and-light message, imagined holding my grandson and kissing him on the head, then opened the newspaper, where a befuddled old man’s killing had me staring at my father, scared in the darkness.

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Elena on Thanksgiving. I think my turkey gravy induced labor.

So what wins? The execution of a shadow? Or light and life? It seems like the former is always throwing a haymaker at the latter, meaning to knock it out of the ring.

My money’s on light and life. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That’s what the Gospel of John claims, and even if I weren’t a Christian, I’d still believe it. Sorry for being a fool, but the alternative is too much to bear.

With luck, light will shine this Black Friday. My grandson may enter a bright land he couldn’t have imagined and be embraced immediately by dazzling love. Let that also be so for Ronald Westbrook, Denny Coleman, and one day, you and me.

Third Report from the Ark: The Grace of a Child’s Fine Hair

Day Five

Friday, June 20, 2013, 6:34 p.m., at the dining room table in the Ark. In my head Dandy Don Meredith is singing “Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over” from Monday Night Football back in the old days. When the game was decided—generally before the clock ran out—Howard Cosell would clam up long enough for Meredith to serenade the outcome.

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Pastor Jeff, reading in the shade before Friday worship.

The party’s almost over at Camp Lutherlyn. The teaching’s finished, and in two hours we’ll have the final worship service of the week. Pastor Jeff will lead, and I’ll preach. May God preserve us! Tomorrow morning parents will pick up their kids, load trunks with sleeping bags and suitcases jammed with smelly, dusty shorts and t-shirts, and drive away. Some of our middle schoolers didn’t want to come in the first place. Most end up sad to leave. I know the scene already. They’ll exchange cell phone numbers, hug, and hassle parents for a gift shop hoodie or baseball cap. A few will cry. And a couple may even dread going home, where honor thy father and thy mother is a complicated commandment.

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What awaits pastors at the end of the day’s rainbow? A beaujolais nouveau courtesy of Bill.

But before the teary goodbyes, before we really do turn out the lights, the counselors will take the kids straight from worship to campfire, and we pastors will have our last daily postmortem. Georges Duboeuf will provide beaujolais nouveau, which Pastor Bill tells me is a touch sweeter than pinot noir. If I’m not mistaken, a Riesling is also hiding in the refrigerator. Sweetness will be the theme tonight, as Pastor Kim picked up a pack of Oreos as well as vanilla ice cream, Hershey syrup, and hot fudge; meanwhile, Pastor Bill grabbed peanut butter and mint Oreos. After this week, our pancreases and livers should be due for a breather. The only sugar missing this week is those big, orange, marshmallow peanuts, which Pastor Brian constantly tossed into his mouth in years past.

Every year at Lutherlyn has a different feel for me. Despite the nerves or adrenal fatigue or hypochondria going on or not really going on inside me, the week has actually been peaceful. No serious fights among the kids, no drama-trauma that I could detect. Yesterday I had to drive to Erie for a pastoral emergency and, ironically, had the most beautiful experience of these Camp Lutherlyn days. I stopped by the church to take care of a few things as long as I was in town, and parishioner Julie showed up with daughter Lena. Julie shared with me the story of her ninety-year-old grandmother wandering away from her nursing home. With a walker and determination, she shuffled ¾ of a mile before the staff caught up with her. The poor woman has dementia and delirium, the latter possibly from a stroke.

After a couple tense days between hospital and nursing home, Grandma got situated once again. I headed off for that emergency, thinking of the hell people with dementia and Alzheimer’s stumble around in. Of course, I thought of my dad and his few years of misery, knowing his brain had betrayed him. Julie and Lena went to check on Grandma. The beauty of camp week came to me hours later in the form of a text message and photograph from Julie. The words: “Snuggling up to watch Curious George may be the best medicine.” The photograph:

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Cora, Lena, and Great-Grandma, watching Curious George. Older sister Zoe and father Steve let the young ones handle cuddling duty. (Credit: Julie)

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Credit: Wikipedia

I wonder how many tormented minds could be brought to peace if only they could sit propped up in bed with a couple kids and watch a cartoon about the adventures of a mischievous monkey. The world’s agony and absurdity can’t overcome the grace of a child’s fine hair against your cheek. Look at Lena, Cora, and Zoe’s great-grandma smile. In that moment she seemed to have the delirious world figured out. Maybe she had. I’m going to keep that picture handy for when despair hits.

Signing off now from the Ark. Tomorrow I’ll bring back home in my spirit the silly hearts of the teenagers I taught, the evenings laughing with fellow pastors, that emergency one lovely family will be mired in for years to come, and the smile of an elderly woman whose confusion cleared for a minute when great-grandchildren leaned into her, saying nothing, just watching a monkey get into trouble.

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Until next summer, Ark.

Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani

There’s an irony about the word retreat. By abandoning routine cares and responsibilities for a few days or a week, I can take long siestas, write, read, pray a lot, and finally re-enter the world refreshed. Of course, the daily slog serves a mental health purpose, though not necessarily a healthy one. Keeping busy helps me stay distracted, mostly unaware of the emotional sediment swirling around my soul.

So far this Gethsemani retreat has been joyful, restful, and undisciplined: no agenda, other than what I want to do in the present moment—within the confines of a monastery, of course. Fortunately, I’m a tame enough person that what suits me is being quiet and thoughtful. Call me a cheap date.

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By Gethsemani Balcony Before Sunrise

This morning was tough, though. As I prayed out on the balcony, a memory I’d hoped to retreat from stopped for a visit. Surrounded by cool air and bird song, I remembered the last time I saw my father. He died in January of 2012 in a nursing home, oddly enough while I was on retreat in a hermitage at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. The call from my brother Ed came around 1:00 a.m. when I was in bed, not sleeping.

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View from Hermitage Porch, Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania

He’d called me in the early afternoon the day before to say the end was near. I left the hermitage intending to stay with Dad until he passed, playing-by-ear what I’d to with the rest of my retreat. When I arrived, he was unconscious, but restless.

“I’m here, Dad.”

He responded by reaching up in the air as if he were trying to pull pillows to his chest and howling—that’s the only word for it. He sat up part way and let out a roar mixed up with a sob.

Not the comfort I was hoping to provide.

I took Dad’s hands, but he wouldn’t be consoled. He squeezed so hard I thought, “This man’s got way too much vinegar in him to die anytime soon.”

For the hour I was with him, he sat up part way at least a dozen times and howled. Not a single howl, but a few strung together. His hands crushed mine and reached for invisible pillows. Over and over. He was having a nightmare that he knew was a nightmare, but he couldn’t will himself awake. That’s what I imagine, anyway.

Sixty minutes of this was enough. I said goodbye as best I could and drove back to the hermitage. What did I do that evening in the quiet woods? No idea. I only remember thinking that I had to let my father die alone because if I weren’t there he might calm down.

Dad had the most tortured death of anybody I know. I’m not just talking about his deathbed, but his final months. Every time I visited him, he reached for me and cried, tortured by his dementia. The only thing he knew was that he’d lost his mind, and he couldn’t stop trying to get it back. He could never let go into oblivion. “If I had a gun,” he often said, putting two fingers to his temple in the universal suicide gesture.

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Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1970, the year of his suicide (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

When I touched Dad’s forehead at the funeral home, it felt like cold, hard rubber. In eighty-five years he never lost one of his wavy gray hairs, but nothing was left underneath them.

So this memory compilation of my father ran in a loop during morning prayer. I guess it was my morning prayer. Restful as retreats can be, a visitor like this can be tiring. My siesta this afternoon will be sweet, delicious.

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A Gethsemani Siesta

In this moment I’m not sad. I accept that Dad’s death loop has to run every once in a while until I’m finished grieving, which may be never. So be it.

For some reason I feel light, as if some emotional sediment floated downstream. It’s strange to think that part of the reason I retreated eight hours to Kentucky may be that I needed to see Dad die again as birds sang around me in the morning air.

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Morning Mist over Monks’ Graves