Oniontown Pastoral: When Kathy Walks Away Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come. (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116) Out of an abundance of caution, that was the reason, I suppose. The Colemans of … Continue reading
What Time Feels Like in Its Passing
Nothing has changed. Not much anyway. So why did a recent email from my brother throw me off stride?
“We finally decided to sell our condo,” Ed writes. “Now that Delta [Airlines] has pulled out of Erie, the convenience is outweighed by the cost. We have to fly into Buffalo anyways, and that just happens to be where Andrea and the boys are.”
Ed and wife Debby have retired to Las Vegas. No use paying taxes and condominium fees for a perch in our hometown when Buffalo, 90 minutes away, is where they want to be.
But Ed’s real estate transaction means that I’m the last Coleman left in Erie. My sisters both live in North Carolina. Mom died in 1998, Dad in 2012. Wife Kathy and I have two adult children and three grandsons in Erie, so our calendars overfloweth with blessings. Still, now that nobody from my birth family lives within an easy drive, one ventricle of my heart is pumping sighs.
This season’s emotional valley has been a long time coming. The Coleman family’s migration into glory and geographical retreat from Pennsylvania is of a piece with my past slipping away.
In the old neighborhood, Twin Kiss is a vacant lot. Joe Ettwein no longer survives to repair my cars. Gary’s Variety is a parking lot. I learned to make change there from the best boss ever. Russ’ Diner recently died of COVID-19, as did my beloved Jack Frost Donuts. Armand’s Pizzeria was actually the first to go, leveled for a convenience store. “OK, bout 10-12 minutes,” the muscular, mustachioed proprietor said in staccato when I ordered a large with cheese and pepperoni. The crust was thin, the sauce sweet.
Passing the dusty ghost of my alma mater, Erie East High, I can see German teacher Miss McMahon’s high ceiling and hardwood floor protected by layers of lacquer against the soles of spirited, randy teenagers. What apartments those classrooms would have made.
OK, uncle, the razing of East and Armand’s and the rest must be tolerated, but I’ll let myself wallow over Wagner Avenue, where I was raised.
The closer I get to 60—11 days away now, but who’s counting—the more often I turn right at the intersection I crossed for a 25-cent chocolate and vanilla “twin kiss” cone. Three blocks to the south stands home, surrounded by Farnsworths, Clarks, Newcamps and Snells.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews lived next door. The wiry mister, a foundry worker, came home filthy, his cheeks whiskery, his lip bulging with Copenhagen. The missus’ frizzy hair gave her the countenance of a startled cartoon woman. But their house and garden were just so.
On my last Wagner run I was floored to see that fire had blown through the Andrews’ windows. The edifice remains. The picture I pulled over to take doesn’t capture my sensation in the moment that Mickey and Marcella went up in smoke with their home. In fact, they died two days apart in 2005 and shared an obituary.
My home was untouched, but with the two shade maples out on the tree lawn chopped down, the place was damaged in the eyes of the boy who came and went with a slam of the screen door.
I couldn’t help myself. Starting at our driveway, I paced off the yards to the corner. Almost 50 years ago, a handsome kid used the hollow of his mother’s hairspray cap as a tee. He sent the football over the telephone wire, jogged after it and kicked again. Again. And another as dusk turned to night.
But just how long was his furthest kick? I faced the wire, guessed 20-25 yards, and breathed. My treeless house looked like a man who had shaved off a beard he’d worn forever.
Presiding over the avenue of my personal best, this grandfather realized he could never match that 14-year-old who was so painfully awkward with the girls. I cracked open. Wind swirled in the hollow of my chest. I’ll never taste another Armand’s pizza. My brother has a buyer. One Coleman is left standing in Erie.
I’m as happy now as ever, honest, but what I wouldn’t give to kick that football one more time, to fetch it for another try. Let a chilly rain sting my face. Let the ball disappear into the darkness. I don’t need light to know that it’s good.
The kid inches toward the horizon. Being called “Pop” is perfect, but I miss Johnny. So I wave to him. He really puts his leg into one, watches it soar, then turns toward me. What a sweet boy. If only I could put my arm around his shoulder and pull him in close, as if father to son.
This is what time feels like in its passing.
Thanksgiving for Eight Kisses In her journal The House by the Sea, May Sarton describes walking with her friend Judy and dog Tamas to the Maine shore in early December: “How glorious it was! Fifty-mile gusts of wind driving the waves … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd
In Memory of Warren Redfoot
Three of us sat around the hospital bed in Warren’s living room: his wife Nancy, daughter Barb, and me. Under the covers was Warren, all 90 pounds of him. Sticking out were his head, shoulders and left arm, which rose and fell throughout our conversation, as if carried on a breeze.
Miracles were coming out of the man’s mouth. Not that all his words made sense, but never mind sense. Warren was speaking in poetry, which takes inscrutable turns and isn’t obliged to be linear.
“I wish I could make myself understood,” he said somewhere in the midst of the quirky grace he was bestowing on us. We assured him that he was doing fine.
What got Warren rolling was this. Barb said, “Dad, do you want to tell Pastor John about Old Floyd and New Floyd?”
He was game. The story, which had been birthed in his imagination the night before, evades transcription, but the gist is simple. The Floyds are either tractors or men, depending on Warren’s memory at the moment. Old Floyd is doing farm work, but eventually breaks down. Then New Floyd shows up and takes over.
As in the mysterious possibilities of dreams, however, the Old Floyd is, in fact, the New Floyd. “Not the same body,” Warren explained, “but the same.”
He was talking—for the love of God!—about resurrection.
Closing his parable with a flourish, Warren pushed aside imaginary clouds and said, “Then the sun came out.”
“Boy,” I managed through a tight throat, “you could add another chapter to that story if you wanted.”
“Another chapter?” he replied, almost incredulous. “Another paragraph. Another sentence!”
I caught his meaning. This fragile man was schooling his pastor about life, death and everlasting hope. Sooner or later, life boils down to finding a good word, taking a single breath, or touching the cheek of your beloved, as Warren did to Nancy. All that this husband knew of tenderness shone forth as he reached for his wife, to ease her sorrow.
Old Floyd—Warren’s father’s name, incidentally—can see New Floyd coming. Time grows short. One more sentence means everything. One more hour. Another kiss.
These thoughts swept me away. My left hand held Warren’s while the right clamped over my mouth. Barb touched my shoulder. For the first time I was nearly undone at a bedside and thought I might have to excuse myself.
Can you understand? If God leads us to each other to give or receive what we need most, then God, indeed, sent me to Warren and Nancy’s house to receive the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Once I regained myself, we shared Holy Communion. Warren’s eyes locked on mine as I held up the bread and cup. No bashful glancing away for either of us, not with eternity so near.
Afterwards Warren asked for a decent swallow of wine to supplement the sliver of bread I had dipped in the chalice and rested on his tongue.
Even though his throat was constricted, I poured him a tiny portion. Never have I seen a believer drink more eagerly. He held the thimble-sized glass above his mouth, the last drop falling on his tongue.
Then Warren said, “I have an urge.”
“An urge?” Barb asked. “An urge for what, Dad?”
“For another Communion,” he said. “Not this one. Another Communion. The next one.”
And then he went on and on about how delicious that wine was. I couldn’t argue.
When Warren seemed to be flagging, I said my goodbyes, but as I reached the door, he called my name. Not “Pastor John” or “Pastor,” only “John,” the name I pray one day to hear God whisper into my ear.
I turned around to face Warren reaching skyward, like Atlas holding up the planet.
I did the same. We kept the silence together.
“Peace?” I finally asked.
He nodded, mighty under the weight of the world: “Peace.”
Driving home, I sighed to hold off tears. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” I remembered, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Warren was every bit the Spirit to me. Maybe for a moment, like those Floyds, they were the same. I don’t know. But what I can say for sure is this: When my skinny old friend gave me a foretaste of the feast to come, the beauty almost made me go to pieces.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands
It’s been 21 years, and I miss you more than ever. Can you look over my shoulder and read my words from your place in glory? May it be so.
The urge to write you has been strong lately, and I know why. This is a season for holding hands. My St. John’s family has been saying goodbyes, glancing toward heaven and longing for miracles. When we’re not actually crying, tears still try to push out from behind our eyes.
My job, of course, is to show up at hospitals or nursing homes or, best of all, home-sweet-homes with a satchel full of hope. You know, Mom, the promises we foolish Christians bet our lives on, the prayers we remember even when our minds have left us stranded, psalms about “goodness and mercy,” the hills “from whence cometh our help” and the night that “shineth as the day.” And Holy Communion, for sure.
One zipper pouch is a crumbled mess of humor, like the loose Kleenex you stuffed into your purse. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd because time grows short. Anyway, laughter generally refuses to let weeping wander off alone. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How clear everything must be to you now.
What makes me think of you most is handholding. Again, I know why. As death draws near, prayers and Scripture want a special amen: one hand cradling another. No seminary education is required to do this part of my job. You taught me all I need to know, and for going on 20 years, I’ve been sharing your motherly touch with folks in my care. Gentle, light, quietly abiding, that’s how it is and has been.
Art. July of 2015. He decided to forgo dialysis and surrender. Settling back in the hospital bed, he said, “Now, help me through the door.” I held his hand, rough, smaller than mine, and cried without him noticing. He already had his eyes fixed on the Promise.
Quen. This October. Such big-boned hands, powerful in his prime. How many times did I hold them and say, “You’re a good man, Quen. You’ve been a good husband and father”?
“Well,” he said, his voice more faint and raspy by the month, “I sure have tried.”
He passed after his family and I joined hands around his bed and talked to God. Quen’s daughter drew on his forehead a cross with the perfumed oil of anointing, which marked him still when he breathed his last.
And Shirley. Last week. Her hands reminded me of you, Mom. Same soft, fragile skin, warm and giving as yours were. Shirley’s rested as if already in repose. I sheltered them under my own, leaned in close, whispered Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer and told her it was OK for her to go. About four hours later she did just that.
Your hand was pale purple, chilly and bloated the last time I held it. I spoke words of love and gratitude that will remain between us. A couple times you moved that clumsy, heavy hand, poked raw by needles and punished by arthritis. Were you trying to say that you could hear me?
When I left town, things could have gone either way. Maybe the sepsis would take you, but maybe not. I had to get back to seminary, back to Columbus. “What good can I do here?” I thought—a rationalization and a question.
Now I know. Honest to God, a couple days ago I almost had to pull off the road when the answer grabbed me by the throat: “Here’s what good you could have done, John. You could have held your mother’s hand until she died.”
Oh, Mom, you were so sick and senseless, fogged in by troubling dreams. Maybe you were out of touch, but that doesn’t matter. I should have stayed. I should have kept holding your hand.
You wouldn’t want me to punish myself over this. But please understand, every time I hold a hand, I also reach out to where you are. And when I drive to Oniontown homes to comfort pilgrims on their last journey, part of me is a much younger man turning his car around and heading north, back to your bedside to help you through the door of a house with many mansions.
Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes
Why do people welcome dogs into their homes? As you might imagine, I already have my answer to this question, but it’s worth asking out loud anyway.
In fact, I knew well in advance why the Coleman family adopted Sherlock Holmes, a three-year-old foxhound, on December 17, 2018. Not for an instant have wife Kathy and I regretted our decision, but as the honeymoon period of sharing 900 square feet with this hooping, nose-to-earth sleuth wanes, the consequences of rescuing a stray snap into focus.
Today’s tame reckoning takes me back to 1988, the year daughter Elena was born. “Everything is an ordeal,” I groaned. “We can’t even run to the store without holding a strategy session.” Pros and cons had to be listed. The toil of wrestling a surprisingly strong, howling infant into a car seat had to be weighed against other exertions scheduled for the day.
Daily life, though joyful, was also a snarling pack of unintended consequences. There was no end to what needed to be reconsidered in the light of parenting a fresh baby.
Three decades later, adapting to Sherlock Holmes is child’s play by comparison. His food-in to food-out ratio is owner-friendly, thank goodness. I’ve lived with German shepherd Dutch and black-lab mix Watson before, so I know what it’s like to wander about with a shovel and hold my gag reflex at bay.
The bigger aesthetic issue is mud, which Mr. Holmes generates with a Midas touch. The chap is all leg and paw. At a sprint on level terrain, he appears to be careening down a steep hill. Bone, lean muscle and fur swing in all directions. Yard slurry flies like in a macho truck commercial.
No worries, though, as a rag by the backdoor and grass seed come spring will put matters right. Even Sherlock’s scavenging for treats can be managed with a toddler’s gate across the kitchen doorway, which has so far fooled him into doubting his steeplechase skills. Good thing, for no corner of the countertops is out of his reach. The other night Kathy spent three hours baking healthy treats for “Holmes”—her preferred handle—but left two cookie sheets of them unguarded. He consumed 2/3 of the batch, which means he’ll be lively and regular for days to come.
Mr. Holmes’ need for stimulation and activity has certainly been an adjustment, but since this benefits our sedentary family, we can only thank him for three-mile walks and bracing excursions to the dog park.
In fact, our gratitude for this overgrown beagle has more to do with spiritual than physical wellbeing. I figured this would be the case.
No newsflash here. Dog owners share an understanding that living with animals taps into a deep reservoir of human emotion. If you own a computer, check out “puppy surprise” videos on YouTube. Just have Kleenex nearby. Thousands like me watch as a golden retriever or pug or dachshund gets handed to an unsuspecting person of any age or gender. First there’s a gasp, then a squeal, scream or “aw,” and, of course, tears.
Kisses on the snout follow, along with blissed out petting and hugging. Some folks go to pieces, rocking from side to side with their foreheads resting on the floor.
I myself have never cried over adopting a dog, but I’ve been undone by saying goodbye and know exactly why this Oniontown pastor bothered to take in a frightened, confused stray.
When I get home later, I’ll sit on the couch and pull his face toward mine, breathe in the earthy smell of dog and run my face over his head for as long as he’ll stay still.
If you’ve ever done something like this with your dog—or cat or whatever—you know that time stops as you take in draughts of blessing.
You’ll never hear me put “just” before “a dog.” The sweet nothings we whisper in our foundling’s ear can never compensate him enough for what he gives.
And what he gives is an invitation to love, especially when nothing else can draw us outside of our personal cages or stop us from chewing the cud of sad memories.
You and I were born to love. Every word or action suggesting otherwise is a bad translation of what we were created to be.
Dogs like Sherlock Holmes return us to our fundamental truth. His eyes tell me, “If you forget how to love, don’t worry. I’ll be here to remind you.”
Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim
I’m pleased to report that my Christmas spirit arrived ahead of schedule this past Wednesday evening. Lutheran purists discourage Yuletide carols during Advent, but as a neurotic of long standing, I’m used to competing crescendos in my soul. There’s always room for joyful melodies in this pastor’s inn.
Good old Uncle Bim deserves credit for my cheerful disposition. Over lunch at Greenville’s Stone Arch recently, he gave me some great guidance. That Bim was really something! He died years ago and wasn’t actually a relative, but he reached across bloodlines and granted a stranger quiet joy, which I’ll explain momentarily.
But first, that aforementioned Wednesday evening: I was lounging when Kathy issued a terse statement: “John, I want you to decorate the tree.”
Oh, bother! Hanging ornaments on a plant that’s more porcupine than tree doesn’t make me festive. “Nothing warms me up like blowing steam off a mug of cocoa while selecting another lovely bulb,” I’ve never ever said, “then rummaging through wads of tissue paper for a loose hook.”
In truth, I bear holiday scars. My mother made me string popcorn and cranberries, and for every inch of artistry, I earned one sewing needle prick in the finger. Before that I was assigned to tinsel, which Mom insisted be applied strand by staticky strand. My method of flinging clumps from three paces back wasn’t tolerated.
For love of Kathy I feigned merriment at my assignment. The only thing worse than battling inertia would have been bursting her buoyant Christmas spirit.
As I surveyed the ornaments, Uncle Bim patted my shoulder. Was the fellow whose pinched features I’ve seen only in photographs advising me? “John, look at those faded construction paper ones your kids made. Pick those.”
So I did, and as kindergarten led to third grade and graduations led to grandsons, other handmade treasures revealed themselves. Suddenly it was my turn to be the boss: “Kathleen, I’m putting up mostly the ones people made for us.”
Wooden circles became snowmen. Cotton balls grew into Santa’s beard. Starch and thread formed lacy snowflakes. I imagined loved ones, especially kids, working at kitchen tables. Felt coats dressed Popsicle sticks. Elbow macaroni took the shape of angels.
Our plastic tree came alive. Elmer’s Glue showing around an elf’s cheeks and cracks in the gingerbread house were dear, like a child’s milk mustache or crow’s feet when Grandma laughs.
Lifting up beauty after ragtag beauty, I thought of Bim hunched over his own kitchen table. St. John’s friend Bill told me all about his Uncle Bim at the Stone Arch. “Bim used to make crosses out of nut shells and matches,” he said. “He gave two matchstick ones, plus a basket made of old Christmas cards.”
So that’s where the walnut-shell cross in the church office at St. John’s came from! I later found the attribution—Wayne Miller, 1980—scratched in pencil on the back. Bill can’t say where his uncle’s nickname came from, but that basket still abides on his dresser and holds car keys and odds and ends. The old crosses also hang in Bill’s basement, where he retreats from the summer heat.
Sad to say, when my own children’s masterpieces graced the family refrigerator, I would have considered Bim’s work “kitsch”—unaccomplished, sentimental. Back then I was neurotic—some things never change—and a snob.
Not anymore. At this time of year in particular, I’m drawn to what is worn thin by human touch or crooked because a halo got bumped while the glue was wet. Thank God, beauty has been patient with this Oniontown beholder.
In blessed memory I kiss hands that held the scissors. From the next room I hear the laughter of a grown son who once thought, “I’m making this for my dad.”
The work of loving hands refuses to be silent. That’s what Uncle Bim helped me to understand. His basket made of season’s greetings and red yarn still says to his nephew, “Hey, Bill, don’t forget about me.”
My late mother’s snowflakes, nothing but starch and thread, whisper, “Remember how I loved you, John.” Other voices from here and beyond join hers.
Tonight I’ll recognize them all while praying in the light of our tree. “I love you, too, Mom,” I’ll think. “I love all of you. I wish we could be together again right now.”
But I’ll be quiet, look at the ornaments up close and receive the Christmas spirit—which is to say, wipe away tears.
Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows
Though not much of a collector myself, I admire those who are. Parishioner Bill has been a Cub Cadet enthusiast for years, at one point owning over a dozen of them. My barber hoards sneakers but plays coy about revealing numbers. Retired Limerick plumber Michael Kelly’s ever-expanding model aircraft collection finally had to find a home at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland.
I used to collect baseball cards and comic books, but these were passing endeavors. Boxes jammed with Sudden Sam MacDowell and Johnny Bench cards and Jonah Hex and Iron Man comics have journeyed from attic to crawl space to closet, their whereabouts now known only to wife Kathy, the household storage maven.
Only recently have I tripped over a collection that has been quietly amassing not in cardboard boxes or curio cabinets, but between my ears. Turns out I’ve been accumulating windows.
When wife Kathy and I lived in South Haven, Michigan, only treetops were visible as we lay in bed and looked out our window. Why were we soothed by gusts making branches bend and sway? Was it that the leaves, waving and trembling, had no choice but to surrender to the weather? Our yearlong stay in that small town on Lake Michigan was blessed, but also challenging and unpredictable. Our heads on the pillows and hands clasped, we enjoyed the solace of treetops, straining like us not to snap when tempest tossed.
In 2001, following seminary studies, Kathy and I moved home to Erie, where Shenley Drive gave us a boulevard of maples. Once again, for over a decade, waking up in the morning and napping involved trees. As Robert Frost famously wrote, “Way leads on to way.” My forties led on to fifties. Seasons used high branches as an excuse to sing, and I could no longer pretend to be young. The trees helped me to whisper to myself: “If I die on this bed, hopefully ages and ages hence, that will be fine.” The message was freeing. Forever, it seemed, I longed to be in a place more cultured, more interesting and exciting. But truth had its say: “Move as much as you like, John, you’ll always have to accept four walls and the certainty of your own end.” At 322 Shenley I was finally home.
I had also developed the habit of finding joy buried under adversity and mortality. The first time I saw an oriole up close, parishioner Tom and I were standing at his kitchen window. His daughter Nadeana, only forty-seven, had died that very morning of cancer, which afflicted Tom as well. Shoulder to shoulder with a devastated father, I wondered what nerve lovely wings had visiting on such a wretched day. There they were though, reminding us both that even on Golgotha, life has the last word.
Another of my windows is beside Fred and Marilyn’s backdoor. When I visit, we chat and keep track of birds that share seeds and nuts with the squirrels. Last week while saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I noticed the yard was deserted. Then, when I said, “Shed for you,” a red-bellied woodpecker, titmice, and squirrels had returned, as if to attend our meal. Fred’s condition makes holding a cup difficult, but as he persevered, a conviction alighted on me: While we birds, beasts and siblings struggle wing-to-hoof-to-elbow, God is mindful of us all.
The pastor’s study window at St. John’s holds an honored place in my collection. Just as the Shenley Drive maples calmed a restless middle-aged man, a line of pines, a field in which corn and soybeans take turns, and one grand red barn compose a landscape that means: “You love St. John’s. They put up with you. You’re fortunate, you small church pastor, you.”
And now, to my delight, Grandson Cole shows signs of inheriting his Pop’s unusual tastes. Some weeks ago on the way to Oniontown, Cole gazed out his car window and said to Grandma Kathy, “Do you know what kind of woods those are?”
“No, best buddy,” she said, “what kind are they?”
“They’re ‘Ice Cream Woods,’” he said.
“Ice Cream Woods? Why?”
“Because you could go in there and eat ice cream.”
“Oh,” Kathy played along, “so could you sit under a tree and eat ice cream?”
“No, Grandma, ants would get on you,” he explained. “You’d have to stand.”
Okay, I’m not sure what Pop has passed down to Cole, an interest in windows or a fanciful way of seeing the world. Either way, I’m glad to have his company.
Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die
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.
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.
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. ”
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?
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.
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.
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.