Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Dear Cole:

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

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

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

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, where you are loved

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cute little cry before you grew hair, Cole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Pop

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Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Driving with wife Kathy and grandsons Cole and Killian toward what we call “Grandma Kathy’s house,” I was both amused and horrified by the young man operating a battered economy four-door in the next lane. He was multi-tasking, and the other cars on the road were the least of his worries.

Now, who among us hasn’t seen a fellow driver texting while doing one of the following: lighting a cigarette, applying lipstick and making kissy faces in the rearview mirror, inhaling shoestring French fries, or pretending the steering wheel is a bongo drum?

Put a cup of guac in this guy’s left hand and you get the idea. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed somebody manipulating a smartphone with one hand, holding a little plastic cup in the other, and going at the guacamole therein like a dog lapping up ice cream. The guy’s texting hand also had driving duty, as the cup in the other hand had to be within range of his tongue. It was not pretty.

Of course, texting and eating Mexican is all fun and games until pedestrians get run over, which is almost what happened. A multi-generational family neglected physical wellbeing and migrated across four lanes of traffic right in front of Pastor Coleman’s and Prince Avocado’s cars. The whole lot wore dull expressions, as if they had just decimated an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can’t exaggerate the oblivion with which these eight bipeds flowed like molasses through traffic and the wonder of their survival.

Later that same evening, after the grandsons got picked up from their playtime with Grandma Kathy and Pop, the former sat on the couch and shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that family,” she said. “They could have been killed.” Such an outcome would also have gutted the future of one twenty-something multi-tasker.

Reasonable citizens would agree that everybody should quit messing around while driving. As for myself, I mean to push the point further and adopt one-thing-at-a-time as a standard practice.

My commute from home in Erie to work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown has recently reminded me that managing several tasks simultaneously threatens life in more ways than one. A few weeks ago on I-79 South a woodchuck waddled across my path and, sad to say, he is burrowing into fields no more. Since that day, on various byways leading to Oniontown, a procession of turkeys, a family of geese with goslings and a graceful fox have played Hyundai roulette with me.

If I had been combing the few hairs I have left or fussing with the radio dial, there might well have been additional casualties. Thank goodness. I’m a guest on the animals’ land. They are not pests on mine. But my motivation for finishing one task before taking on another is about more than an aversion to squashing wildlife. I’m equally concerned about squandering blessings. The older I get, the more I realize that locations from Erie to Oniontown to Everest are waiting for me to accept their generosity.

Dick Proenneke, the Guardian of Twin Lakes (Credit: Wikipedia)

One of my heroes, Dick Proenneke, gained notoriety through his determination to notice what planet Earth seemed eager to give him. In the summer of 1967 he chopped down trees in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and let the stripped logs age. In 1968 he moved there for good to build a cabin with hand tools. Fifty-one at the time, Proenneke was extraordinarily energetic, strong, and resourceful. In ten days he had the walls of his 11’ x 14’ cabin ready for a roof, which he completed in short order. Come September, he added a fireplace and chimney made out of rocks he had gathered on his many hikes.

He wanted to be “alone in the wilderness,” as a documentary about him is entitled, after nearly losing his vision in an accident while employed as a truck mechanic. Proenneke decided that he would treat his eyes to as much beauty as they could handle, and Alaska was the place to do it. His journals, photographs and 16 mm films of thirty-five plus years spent in a lovely, though unforgiving, environment are instructive and inspiring.

No surprise to anyone who knows me, lighting out for the lonely territory is not on my bucket list. Some afternoons mowing the lawn feels like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Besides, surrounded as I am by loving family and friends, a little solitude goes a long way.

Killian, Grandma Kathy and Cole. Pay attention, Pastor Coleman. This is life.

Fortunately, following Dick Proenneke’s example doesn’t demand residing anywhere other than 402 Parkway Drive or serving a church in a village more remote than Oniontown. What I need to do is pay attention—to the turkeys and geese, to the fox so light on its feet, to Grandma Kathy, to Cole and Killian.

If I don’t behold blessings one at a time, I appreciate none of them. Everyone and everything gets a turn. This is life.

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Micah, around the time he figured out his old man

When son Micah was a boy, he sized me up better than the therapists of my troubled twenties and forties ever did.

“Oh, Dad,” he said with a loving lilt, “you’re such a relationship.” I can’t remember the context or his exact age, but could never forget such a quirky turn of phrase.

I’ve kept his insight in my “Kids Say the Darndest Things” file until a recent development in my daily routine—more on that later—proved Micah prophetic.

Of course, I go by “John,” “Dad,” “Pop” and “Pastor.” You can call me a “writer” if you’re brave enough. On my best days I’ve been accused of being a decent “cook.” I used to consider myself a “runner,” though “jogger” is more accurate.

But as a man who has spent extravagant hours navel-gazing, I admit that “relationship” is closest to the truth. (Please imagine Barbra Streisand singing, “People, people who need people.”)

This pastor’s life is one great tome with many chapters of relationships. My daily planner is thicker with names than tasks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This Friday morning writer friends Mary and Jennie and I will get together for our monthly coffee, commiseration and guffaw session. When we get laughing other patrons turn toward us and stare.

About an hour ago I took friend Ray for a haircut and beard trim. I started out as his pastor, then became his chauffeur and finally decided to be his friend. He is on heavy psychotropic meds and goes in-patient every now and then to deal with paranoia. His flat affect makes our witty repartee all the more hilarious. I love the guy.

And I love people. The best part of serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, is when parishioners come to the church on an errand and stop for a chat.

Church secretary Jodi recently recounted to me her family’s efforts to rehabilitate an aptly named chicken. Somehow or other, Chicky Chick acquired a bum leg. The stakes were high, as a gimpy chicken stands a good chance of being pecked into pate by the other birds. That’s how they roll, Jodi explained, adding the tidbit that egg-laying hens are poor candidates for dinner, so the chopping block wasn’t the best answer.

More than anything else, she had a soft spot for the old thing, so St. John’s church secretary went into crisis mode and pieced together an isolation pen.

Once a day, Chicky Chick received therapy, which consisted of Jodi pulling and pushing on the compromised limb and her husband or son hanging onto the flummoxed patient. Thanks to the ministrations, the hen has moved back in with her peeps.

Can you imagine my good fortune of having a paying job that includes listening to amiable people tell stories that you just can’t make up?

In addition to great stories and fun nicknames, I have this view out my office window. Not a bad deal.

And the nicknames! Maybe it takes a relationship like me to adore the handles mentioned with a straight face in my Pastor’s Study. My three favorites are “Cucumber,” “Squeak” and “Fuzzy.” I’ve also picked up on an understated Oniontown way of communicating love for somebody without actually speaking the three words. Just attach an “e” sound to the end of the person’s name. Adjustments are often necessary. You’d never say “William-ee,” for example, but “Billy” gushes with affection.

Outside my office door, a weaving by wife Kathy. People can come in for peace (pax) and a couple of laughs. And I always try to take the peace of Oniontown home with me.

On days I’m not at St. Johnny’s, Pop tends to connections at home in Erie. Most mornings I sit silently with God, whom I pray to behold and hold according to a schedule beyond calendars. I trust that at the end of days, this mysterious relationship will take all others unto itself.

Most Sundays the Colemans have family dinner, a practice daughter Elena insisted on back when Micah was recovering from drug addiction. Our house is noisy and joyful with people who need each other and aren’t ashamed to admit it.

And now my wife and I have stumbled into the routine that has quickly become blessed. After both of us finish work, we face each other on an aptly named piece of furniture, a “loveseat,” and talk. No music or television.

We refer to this new habit as “our time.” Who but a hopeless relationship could savor two such commonplace words? Micah was wiser than his years.

My wife’s proper name, incidentally, is “Kathleen,” but “Kathy” works better. I also say “I love you” an awful lot to be sure she never forgets.

After “our time,” Kathy and I sometimes go for a walk in the neighborhood and check out beauty hiding in plain sight.

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

“Where’s that shaky guy?” grandson Cole asked.

The setting was the fellowship hall at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, the guy in question was Bob and the shaking referred to takes place during our “greeting of peace.” Bob and Cole’s handshake is spirited and playful—“shaky,” as the latter puts it.

Our four-year-old ginger finally tracked down Bob and said, “You want to come sit with me?”

How could that shaky guy with grandchildren of his own turn down such an offer? So Cole led him to the far end of the hall, where Grandma Kathy joined them for cookies, orange drink and a visit.

“Can I tell you something?” Cole said.

“You can tell me anything, Cole,” Bob answered.

If only I had heard the exchange. As it happened, the account came to me secondhand.

Our four-year-old ginger with his little brother Killian playing in the wings

I close my eyes and picture a boy and two grown ups putting their paper plates on a long table and having a seat. My grandson asks his grownup question, and Bob gives a loving answer.

I don’t know anything more about their conversation, but that doesn’t matter. It is as if my heart is gladdened by wine and strengthened by bread.

Sundays positively shine whenever Cole spends Saturday night at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house and saddles up for the hour-long drive from Erie to Oniontown for church. His presence is a joyful tithe that doesn’t clink in the offering plate or show up in the weekly tally.

I wish every sister and brother in the St. John’s family could share my grandson’s start to the day. He and Grandma Kathy sleep on a sofa bed in “Cole’s Room,” and my job is to sneak in and cuddle with him as she wakes up and gets dressed.

If you’ve never held a child in footed jammies as he yawns and opens his eyes, I can attest to the moment’s medicinal properties. My favorite hymn includes this line: “Take the dimness of my soul away.” As my buddy stretches, transforming his lean frame into a two-by-four, the prayer of one lucky grandfather is more than answered. The shadows casting gloom over my spirit lift—trite, perhaps, but true.

The way to Oniontown isn’t too shabby, either. Pop serves as chauffeur while Grandma Kathy sits in the back with Cole. Toasted bagels, cream cheese and hot chocolate make for a lordly forty-five minutes as Pennsylvania’s I-79 takes us past Edinboro, Saegertown and Meadville.

Route 19 South leads to a borough that gives us a laugh. We count one-two-three at the “Sheakleyville” road sign, wiggle our bodies and turn three syllables into six: “Shay-ay-ay-ake-lee-ville.”

A few miles past Wagler’s Camp Perry, we watch for a dirty blonde horse in his yard. I let up on the gas as we wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.” (He is such an affectionate part of my commute that I had to give him a name.)

On District Road we speed over the railroad tracks near Kremis and sing “ahh” with a hammy vibrato. It’s an operatic couple of seconds.

The St. John’s sanctuary

Finally, we walk through St. John’s doors. Lutherans are not the most demonstrative sheep in the Christian fold, but a quiet joy reigns in the house. And when kids come to worship, this pastor for one senses an angel visitant and opening skies.

Cole isn’t the only child to put a shine on the hearts of the faithful. Plenty of us sport crow’s feet, but you should see our eyes widen with gladness when any little one brings a flower down the aisle at the beginning of worship or helps carry the processional cross to the back of the sanctuary at the end. Brave kids are even welcome to join in shouting, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Cole and his tribe do me the great service of enlivening boring sermons. There’s nothing like a game of peek-a-boo with pew mates to keep my long-suffering listeners pleasantly diverted.

Kids probably don’t understand the blessings they bestow upon St. John’s, but in years to come I hope they’ll remember the love shown them—the love of shaky handshakes, cookies and orange drink, and best of all, friends who mean it when they say, “You can tell me anything.”

It Is a Wonderful Life

It Is a Wonderful Life

Clarance and George (Credit: Wikipedia)

Jimmy Stewart made his annual visit to the Coleman house this past week. “I’m maxed out on Christmas music,” wife Kathy said. “Let’s put on It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Funny thing, she intended to sew at the dining room table and wouldn’t actually be watching. No matter. Like millions of Americans, she has the movie memorized.

As my official evening hour of loafing had arrived, I hit the play button, planning to watch for a while then move on to another diversion.

Alas, the sewing machine added its voice to George Bailey’s dreams of adventure and achievement, and I fell under a joyful spell. Some might call the fullness in my chest “the Christmas spirit.”

Although George and Clarence’s story always brings tears, the sewing machine’s song, with its long hums and short rests, was mostly responsible for my heart finding its Advent sweet spot.

Kathy owns a twenty-year-old Necchi, which she refuses to part with because it’s made out of metal and, unlike the newer plastic models, doesn’t slide all over the dining room table when running. My late mother used a Singer that emerged from a wooden table with wings. My wife steps on a floor peddle, while Mom sent the needle into motion by leaning her knee against a bar that swung down.

What I wouldn’t give to have that old cherry-stained warhorse close by. (I refer to the Singer, of course, not Mom.)

How many nights have I fallen asleep to the low vibrato of Kathy making a baby blanket or Mom churning out one of her scooter skirts? Why do I find such comfort in the music of a sewing machine?

Kathy’s handiwork

Probably for the same reason that breathing in the scent of pizzelles polishes smooth a day’s rough edges. The same reason a square of Mom’s homemade cinnamon candy forty years ago could make me forget how awkward I was with girls. Or running my fingers over the Christmas pillows Kathy made for a coworker just last night reminded me that light shines in the darkness.

I still can’t hold a sheet of red or green construction paper without seeing “MERRY CHRISTMAS” cutout letters taped to the balusters at 2225 Wagner Avenue. Nor can I look at a decorated mantle without finding myself sitting beside sister Cindy on one of our beds in the small hours of Christmas morning and pulling balled-up socks and Tootsie Rolls out of our knit stockings.

The sound of a sewing machine on a December evening—the Frazier fir’s scent a blessing—retrieves from memory’s attic a box of scratched and smudged albums: Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Oh, and Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.

Christmases past and the timeless sewing machine, together with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the whole cast singing “Auld Lang Syne,” even brought a generous snow on Christmas Eve from the sky of my imagination.

I won’t lie, Bedford Falls showering George Bailey with affection and cash got me choked up—never fails.

“It is a wonderful life,” I thought, winking toward heaven with George to congratulate Clarence on his wings.

Plenty of light for a living room in the evening

From my chair in the living room, lit only by tree lights and movie credits, I watched my beautiful wife making presents out of fabric and thread and could honestly say that life is wonderful.

Still, 2017 marks my fifty-seventh winter, and I’ve heard over the decades a dark carol that I ought to sing right now. Wonderful doesn’t mean perfect. Wonderful has no choice but to harmonize with sorrowful.

I miss my folks more each year. My family is far flung. In my work, some loved one is always $8000 short or far worse. And much of what I hold most dear about humanity is up against a legion of Mr. Potters.

It is a wonderful life–not easy, though. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But if you ask me, any Christmas Spirit worth listening for has a bass line heavy with hurt. Saying “it’s a wonderful life” without longing in your heart sounds thin and contrived.

This is why every “Merry Christmas” I say is both a greeting and a prayer. Merriment is scarce for some folks—maybe even for you this year.

If the season is a burden or your grief is raw, this “Merry Christmas” is for you: “God, please lay the Christ Child in a manger under my troubled friend’s tree.”

Oniontown Pastoral: A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland

The site was comical. On my way to St. John’s Lutheran Church recently, I drove past a neighbor who was poking leaves with a litter stick and sliding them into a big white bucket. The odd part was, there weren’t enough leaves to rake, maybe a hundred scattered over his yard.

“Why bother?” I thought. On the other hand, what a senior citizen does on a windy morning is none of my business.

We exchanged glances, me offering a smile, he raising his eyebrows and chomping on the last inch of a stogie.

I knew instantly that the man was trying to advise me. But about what? Cigar smoking wouldn’t suit my temperamental lungs, and gnawing on a cheroot would result in wife Kathy hesitating to kiss me.

No, the counsel had to do with leaves. A few days went by before I understood that my neighbor wanted to help me figure out Ireland.

The author with two new friends at the Cliffs of Moher. No, I don’t normally wear a scarf with a cardigan. There was a chilly mist coming off the ocean.

Since Kathy and I returned from the Emerald Isle a couple weeks ago, my spirit has been overflowing. Kind brother Ed and his wife Debby drove us all over southern Ireland to sites both popular and inconspicuous. I gave the Blarney stone a peck, communed with two cows at the Cliffs of Moher, knelt in prayer at St. Colman’s Cathedral, and at St. Michan’s Church let my hands hover over the keyboard Handel used to compose his “Messiah.”

Then there was the countryside, where cattle and sheep grazed within stone walls, and church and castle ruins gave the land gray benedictions, as they have for centuries.

The inexorable passing of time

You can’t roam Ireland without feeling the inexorable passing of time. I’m home at the moment on an afternoon with intermittent drizzle—very Irish weather—but even now time’s gentle, but calloused, hands hold my face.

Part of me is in Erie, but part remains at Kilmainham Gaol, where architects of the 1916 Easter Rising awaited the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in the prison chapel hours before his execution, was not yet thirty. After the ceremony in his cell, the bride and groom were permitted to spend ten awkward minutes together in the presence of guards. According to the tour guide, they sat quietly.

Another part of me reverences miles of stone walls. The only way to farm the island’s fields was to pry the limestone rocks out and pile them into long lines. During the Potato Famine (1845-1849), starving men were fed in exchange for clearing land and building walls that led nowhere. “Famine walls,” they were called. If grassy pastures were poetry, Ireland would be sonnets, beautiful but melancholy.

My great-great grandfather, Timothy Coleman, most likely sailed from County Cork to America before the historic blight that turned the country’s main food source to smelly mush. A million to starved to death and about as many emigrated elsewhere. Ireland’s population has never recovered the loss.

Stones, everywhere stones. Church ruins next door to apartments. Stone shape the landscape.

A dozen times each day, as I brushed ancient cathedrals with fingertips and tried to read eroded gravestones, Timothy’s absence haunted me. He was a farm laborer. I dreamt his face and imagined his voice.

Debby, who has dug into the Coleman family history, records the following about Timothy’s son, Edward: “[He] moved his family 31 times. . . .The family lived on mashed potatoes, gravy and hamburg.”

Part of me grieves for these ancestors I’ve never met and wonders with unfeigned love about their days and decades, their toils and joys.

Ireland rests in my spirit like the fallen leaves I’m studying, just a scattering this fall in Erie, Pennsylvania. I can only gather them one at a time, like my Oniontown neighbor did.

Timothy is but one leaf. Another is his wife Helen Salsman, who bore seven children. Someday Kathy and I will drive to Norwich, New York, and pay respects at her grave (1836-1918). We don’t know where Timothy is buried, which pains me a little.

A gleeful Kathy peeking out of the Witch’s Kitchen on the grounds of the Blarney Castle.

Leaf by stunning leaf I’ll sort through Ireland, maybe figure out why I was so moved by the walls and ruins, cows and sheep, friendly folks and all those starving spirits who built walls that now look like random adornment, innocent alleluias stretching toward the horizon.

If you see me these days with my eyes closed, I’ll be imagining Timothy Coleman and remembering the island he left behind. And if you catch me chewing on a stogie, pray that Kathy will kiss me anyway.

Bonus Photographs

One of the best parts of Ireland was hanging out with Ed and Debby in interesting places, like this pub originally built in the thirteen century.

A crow perched on a stone wall in Blarney Castle’s Poison Garden. Stay tuned for a future post on the crows of Ireland.

Mummies in a crypt at St. Michan’s Church. Again, stay tuned.

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.

 

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

“How’s it going?” If ever a question begged for a bland answer, this is it.

Occasionally a brave soul will come back, “Do you really want to know?” But we mostly say, “Oh, pretty good” or “not too bad,” then wander into other conversational pastures.

Years ago, maybe fifteen, I picked up a habit that persists to this day. When folks ask, “How are you today?” I pause. “Well,” my inner voices says, “how are you doing, John?”

After a couple seconds of taking stock, I usually give this honest reply: “I’m vertical. Nobody is busting my chops today, so I’m actually doing great.”

Elena and Micah as teenagers. Don’t they look sweet? Um, they about did me in.

Like most people, I’ve had stretches of years when life was decidedly not okay. Shortly before my daughter Elena was born, I developed panic disorder, an exquisitely shattering affliction. Both Elena and son Micah were high-spirited as teenagers, by which I mean, “Holy cow, those two just about killed me.” Along the way, a few professional challenges taught me that I can be embarrassingly fragile sometimes—not an easy confession for any man.

And, again, like most people, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s temperate seasons, especially following the brutal weather of loss, illness, disappointment, name your own stress or sorrow.

After getting knocked flat by a frigid gust of crisis, being able to say, “I’m vertical” seems miraculous.

And it is. “Count your many blessings,” an old hymn advises, “name them one by one.” Standing on my own two feet and walking to the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea is an honest-to-goodness blessing, and you can call me trite for saying so.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a treatment for clinical depression or a remedy for terrible circumstances. (Take it from me, a panic attack licks its chops and guffaws at church hymns.)

All things being equal, though, I maintain that “okay” is really “amazing” speaking in a whisper.

Friends often remark that driving from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown and back again must be a combination of bore and chore. Not so. A couple of times each week as I speed past the fields and their inhabitants, I find myself caught up in the splendor of nothing much being wrong.

Just as a frosty Coca-Cola pairs perfectly with Brooklyn style pizza or household chores can be joyful if tenor arias are playing in the background, listing what all is not wrong these days—in other words, what is just fine—takes on added sweetness when I’m looking out my car window at summer forests and fields.

“I have a decent place to live,” comes to mind first. Then “food on the table and clothes to wear.” (In fact, I have three wardrobes, not extensive, but adequate for different weight classes. Sadly, I’m in my top tier of trousers at the moment and will be forced into suspenders if I don’t start pushing away from the dinner table soon.)

“Bills are paid, cars are running.” Much “okayness” crosses my mind as I nod to cows and horses, dozens of them, grazing calmly as if they’ve never had a single worry about their mortality. Sun, rain or snow, they stand, blink and flip their tails. “I feel vertical lately,” I say, taking in a generous breath. “And nobody is ambushing me with drama.”

As I add up all the okays, a gentle descant sounds: “Amazing.”

Amazing Kathy on the patio/deck she made from the long ramp she removed from our backdoor.

When trees nearly form a cathedral over the road, I think of the best part: “I’m happy with my wife Kathy, my children and grandsons, too. And everyone is ambulatory and taking nourishment.”

In addition to my embarrassment of okayness, I can’t walk far in any direction without running into love—and that includes my faith in Mysterious Love, who holds this crazy world together and abides my frustrating soul.

Of course, unexpected complications constantly raise their voices, pretending to be tragedies. This afternoon I have to figure out what’s wrong with my car’s fickle battery, which warrants nothing more than, “Oh, bother.”

When I get a case of the blues, I try to remember that if my life were even a smidgen more okay, I’d be twins.

Oniontown Pastoral: My Favorite Color

Oniontown Pastoral: My Favorite Color

“Life is what happens to you,” John Lennon famously sang to his son Sean, “while you are busy making other plans.”

Wife Kathy and I are engaged in planning these days. We intend to sail along the coast of Maine in August and visit Ireland in October, meaning that we’ll celebrate our thirty-fourth anniversary on the water and my fifty-sixth birthday on the Coleman family’s native soil.

I’m giddy about these journeys, but embrace the late Beetle’s wisdom. Who knows what the future holds? How often do “thoughts for the morrow” obscure the blessings of today?

Iman, a Muslim classmate of mine from nearly thirty years ago, constantly acknowledged the future’s fragility by saying “God willing” when talking about her plans. “Insha’Allah,” she would have said back home in Egypt.

A fictional sage put it this way to his impatient disciple: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

Since I’m reluctant to speculate about God’s intentions, I generally say, “Who knows?” If you had x-ray vision, you could witness my brain shrugging dozens of times each day, and not only about the months ahead. Facts I base my actions on also have a funny way of taking U-turns.

Yesterday, for example, St. John’s church secretary Jodi brought me two-dozen farm-fresh eggs, each one its own pastel shade of brown or green. Not only are they rich and savory, but they offer a lesson. If I catch myself worshipping at the altar of conventional wisdom, I contemplate the egg. When I first joined the high-cholesterol fraternity, eggs were out and statins were in. Now, a stroll through the Internet informs me that moderate egg consumption is fine. Ironically, statins can pummel your muscles and liver.

So I dip my toast in free-range yolks without concern and depend on my doctor to be sure my liver doesn’t get strangled by Lipitor—which, by coincidence, I pick up at a pharmacy across the street from the former site of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Erie, Pennsylvania. I served as pastor there for fourteen years. Just before I left for St. John’s in Oniontown, the property was sold. Once the congregation relocated, the new owner leveled the church building, which was not yet a decade old.

When picking up my pills, I pause in the pharmacy lot to smile and shrug. How I sweated the endless decisions and debates involved in constructing a new sanctuary. How my guts churned over the leaky roof. How worrying about mortgage payments creased my forehead.

Lonely puddle where a church once stood

Matters of plaster seemed almost as urgent as the care of souls. And now, what’s left? Clumps of earth and lonely puddles. Far from depressing me, though, the abandoned corner of 54th and Peach Streets is as sacred as ever. A truth that feels like worship passes through my aging spirit as I recall watching the wrecking ball swing:

I don’t know about tomorrow

or much of anything.

More often than not, my certainties in life are either neutral or leaden, whereas mysteries and wonder are joyful and light.

Example: Grandson Cole often stays with Kathy and me on Saturday evenings and goes to church with us on Sunday. In what is becoming a morning routine, I lie down beside Cole on the sofa bed as Kathy gets dressed. He sleeps on, and I have nothing to do but look at him and pass strands of his bright hair between my fingers. The gladness is consuming.

My gladness

During those twenty minutes, knowledge doesn’t count for much. Only essentials deserve a place with Pop and Cole: A loving God is mindful of us; my calling in this world is compassion; and the color I love most is red.

The last of these I never knew until last Saturday. Before Cole and Grandma Kathy went to bed, he asked, “Pop, what’s your favorite color?”

“Gosh, buddy, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess the color of your hair, reddish orange.”

“But, Pop, my hair’s not resh orange.” He was almost stern. “My hair’s red.”

“Well then, Cole, I’ve decided. My favorite color is red.”

In truth, the choice was made for me. I could almost hear God whisper my answer.

When grandson #2 Killian gets more hair, I may have two favorite colors. But hard to see, the future is.

Reckoning a New Name

Reckoning a New Name

In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.

Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.

Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.

Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.

My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.

A new friend?

Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.

Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.

But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.

As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).

Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.

Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”

With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.

“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.