A Witness for Richard

I’m used to burying strangers. Plenty of deceased and their families believe in God, but the church not so much. That’s when pastors get a call from a funeral director. Not much explanation is necessary: “Are you available to do a service on such and such a date and time?”

If nothing is going, I’m in. Details are provided, name, next of kin, a phone number. From there I watch for an obituary and make the visitation if possible, talk to loved ones, gather some sense of the departed.

But my latest burial was a first: no name, no contacts, just when and where. I did reconnaissance in Section B of the paper and found one possibility, a man with a brother and a couple of nieces. Maybe the brother wanted a prayer and “ashes to ashes” at the grave. No fuss, just a man of the cloth and a few words. At the appointed hour I fishtailed to my commitment, confident I would find a seventy-something man in the casket.

Instead I found Richard, a fifty-something resident of a group home, where he lived with other adults in need of supervision and care. Some of them were sitting with their caregivers, waiting for an unfamiliar face to bring comfort and hope.

The funeral director pointed me toward Richard’s primary caregiver, who didn’t quite know what to tell me. Richard didn’t speak. He loved to look at artwork. “He loved to eat,” she said, raising her eyebrows and drawing out loved, making the vowel sound delicious. He expressed disapproval by screaming.

Others told me that he insisted on being called Richard and looked forward to his morning routine of chocolate milk.

Twenty minutes before the service, I stood with Richard: African-American guy about my age; chin drawn in; fingers showing some atrophy, I believe; passable suit jacket and tie; favorite afghan across his legs.

In certain situations I take it as my responsibility to witness, to pay attention and make a silent announcement to creation. Or maybe my job is to confess a belief consisting of equal parts tears, hope, and wonder. I don’t know.

But staring at an embalmed man whose life was nearly invisible, I put words in God’s mouth. Doing this has always felt dangerous. I don’t know the mind of God. I can’t even put together a sound argument that God exists. Anyway, words were in my mouth. I didn’t invite them. I heard them in my head as true beyond debate. It was as if I were not their author:

You’re as important as anybody in the world, Richard. Nobody is more loved than you are.

I imagined that Richard’s face, the lip puffed out over teeth that never got braces and his fingers bent at the last knuckle, were dear to God—as when a parent watches an infant sleep, each feature counted as a miracle. And to God’s ear, were Richard’s screams music?

I did my best with the service. Some lives make for scant eulogies, but that’s only if you forget that one person’s chocolate milk in the morning deserves mention as much as another’s Fulbright. “Richard was a charming, and funny man,” his obituary read. “He had a loving, caring soul and his smile would light up a room.” His friends, a dozen or so, cried for him. They wiped away tears, too, at the suggestion that God beheld Richard loving food and in him was well pleased.

A soul’s resume lists sacred trivia: knowing how to taste chocolate milk, getting lost in a painting, demanding to be called by name, caring for others with a smile or a scream. Richard’s accomplishments don’t shine up very well, but those who loved him in the world appreciated them and loved him to the end—from the group home to the funeral home to the cutting cold of the cemetery.

In under ten minutes, we had spoken the final amen and were back into our warm vehicles. Not many days later now, I sip routine coffee. Richard reminds me to taste it. His face, as clear in my eyes as when I stood by his body, doesn’t belong to a stranger. His features are fine the way they are. May God and all the quick and the dead remember to call him Richard.

Advertisements

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

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

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

Image-20079_20150727

Friend Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, his poor arms, torn and purple.

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

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

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

“Probably ‘What took you so long?’”

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

“Yep, tell them I’m going home.”

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

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

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

Still holding his hand, I cried without him seeing.

IMG_0718

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3602

A pale vault opening

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

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

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.

IMG_3292

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.

IMG_3293

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?”

IMG_3309

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.

IMG_3295

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.

800px-Claude_Monet,_Le_Grand_Canal

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