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: 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.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Wondering Where All the Places Are

Report from Oniontown: Wondering Where All the Places Are

In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes of joy and sorrow: “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

Gibran’s words visit me every time I’m wandering the valley between gladness and grief—which is to say, much of the time. I should probably give the late Lebanese poet his own loft in my soul.

Anybody who knows me can name my joys these days: wife Kathy and children and family and an embarrassment of friends; the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, and my sisters and brothers at St. John’s Lutheran Church; the silence of contemplative prayer; improvisation in the kitchen; and the cultivation of good words.

Killian and Cole (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Most of all, grandsons Cole and Killian bless me so often that I’ve become a bore. A pop who drones on about his boys “ad nauseam” has everybody in his sphere searching for escape routes. I get it.

But stay with me a moment. The eventide of kindness and cooperation everywhere is fast falling. When apocalyptic weather isn’t laying waste to the human enterprise, people compensate by wreaking havoc on each other. Sweetness and light are close to extinction, while civility is an endangered species.

Cole knows nothing of such gloom. The evening news hasn’t yet tripped up his giddy groove, and he comes out with thoughts that lift my fog of pessimism. It happened just the other day.

I wasn’t present for this gem. My daughter Elena found Cole in his room, lying on his bed with fingers laced behind his head and staring up at the world map tacked to his ceiling.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m just looking at all these places,” he said, “and wondering where they are.”

Elena couldn’t remember how she answered, but she’ll never forget the next line: “Where is the playground with the sand?”

Cole wanted his mother to point out, on a world map, the location of the jungle gym and swing set where his Grandma Kathy takes him to play.

Why does this little slip of dialogue leave me stunned with pleasure? After all, his statement is nonsensical, his question naïve.

I’ve spent hours rubbing my temples and concluded that there’s no logic in my response, only emotion. Cole’s thoughts about our big planet make me want to scoop up the little master and hang on tight.

Just imagining the embrace pierces me with joy, but sorrow, ever dutiful, also waits on my board and peers at me over its reading glasses: “Ahem. You realize, of course, that the future might scourge thoughtful souls. Even now, dreamers are having nightmares.”

Point taken. How will tomorrow greet gentle folks who ask where all the places are? And what will become of the pure in heart who need directions to the playground with sand?

Dear World, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you please take it easy on this dreamer. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Even as I rejoice that one innocent child rests on his bed, looks toward the sky and speaks the language of wonder, I grieve that kindred spirits of his generation may one day hold their tongues, bullied exiles in their own land.

The arms I wrap around my grandsons long to protect as much as love. Unless humanity has a change of heart, the world they inherit will be selfish, ignorant and brutish.

“Will be?” some would say. “Aren’t we already there?”

Not so fast. As far as I know, Khalil Gibran didn’t account for hope. Joy is light enough to ride the mildest breeze. Sorrow surges and gusts. Hope, on the other hand, comes without watches or warnings. Its news comes from redheaded boys.

Most of all, hope is announced by children who have been tossed into the air, caught safely and drawn in close.

As long as my muscles hold out, I’ll pick up Cole and Killian and ask, “What are you doing? What’s on your mind, kid?” If my heart is without guile, their answers will heal and sustain me. I promise to keep you posted.

Joy and sorrow, meanwhile, will live as neighbors on a floodplain, the former assuring the latter that love always has the last word.

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.

Another Portion of Jesus Bread

Another Portion of Jesus Bread*

With thanks to a dear friend and baker

If grandson Cole were a bird, which he often pretends to be, daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt would soon nudge him out of the nest, crying, “Soar, kid, soar.” Not to say his flight would be permanent, but getting an occasional break from little Red-Crest is needful these days.

When Grandma Kathy suggests we pick up Cole for a sleepover, Elena answers in a tremolo: “Really?” Underneath her whispered question is Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Matt’s eyes widen and cheeks flush.

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Cole napping under a pew during one of Pop’s sermons

Never mind that my wife and I take Cole overnight a few times monthly, mostly on Saturday evening. After the three of us go to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown for Sunday worship, we stop for French fries on the way back to Erie, then drop him off at home. Kathy and I adore this routine that has blossomed in our lives. We’re cute enough, with our giggles and scrunched up joy-faces, to trigger friends’ gag reflexes. The whole situation is sickeningly over-the-top.

And our bliss is weak sauce compared to Elena and Matt’s. They still have eleven-month-old Killian to contend with, but—and any parent who disagrees with this has potpourri water for blood—whenever you can send your three-year-old into somebody else’s safe, loving arms for around sixteen hours, the urge to play some Marvin Gaye, dance suggestively and make guttural sounds is overwhelming. And I will add, based on dim memories of parenting young children, that such licentiousness, should it actually occur, leads to some really red-hot napping, and that’s about it.

I’ve not inquired directly about the libido-stomping powers of my grandson, but at the moment he is a gaggle of frustrating challenges and breathtaking highs. His parents’ faces all of a sudden go slack with fatigue.

A couple weeks ago, for example, Cole kept saying “diarrhea” while we were enjoying lunch.

“Honey,” Elena said, “we don’t talk about that at the table.”

Like plenty of kids his age, Cole understood his mother’s correction to mean, “Game on.”

“Diarrhea. Diarrhea. Diarrhea.”

“Cole, do you want to go to your room?”

I heard nothing, but puffs of smoke came from Elena’s nostrils.

When she returned from caging the passive aggressor, I said, “Geez, what the hell did he do?”

“Oh, he looked at me and mouthed ‘diarrhea.’”

Such moxie for one so young. Impressive—to me, that is. For my daughter, it was yet another instance of Cole testing boundaries: befouling the nest with a vindictive pee here, hugging baby chick Killian nearly unconscious there. (Kathy reminds me of the justice of the former offense. When Elena was around Cole’s age, she demanded to be let outside to pee like the dogs do. Being refused this, she squatted on the carpet by the bathroom door. I’d forgotten, probably because I didn’t clean up the mess.)

And, of course, every human parent is familiar with dinner table wars of attrition. We could learn from our feathered friends, who simply hock up worm chunks into their children’s grateful beaks. At our last family dinner, Cole took an inexplicable dislike to anything associated with chickens. Stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and thigh meat crowned by a jiggling gem of cranberry sauce were suddenly non grata.

“But, Cole,” Elena said, “You want to have ice cream cake, don’t you?”

The stakes were unusually high. We were celebrating the first anniversary of Matt slipping on the ice and breaking his fibula. A Dairy Queen treat was required. (I’m patriarch of a clan that keeps steady by observing dark milestones and taking meds.)

How many times did everyone at the table, including perhaps Killian, say, “Just one bite and you can have dessert”?

But our hearts were flint! Cole, a sniveling conscientious objector stripped to his superhero jockey shorts, huddled on my recliner, just feet from the dining room.

We proceeded with the cake.

“Pop,” Cole called out. “I want Pop.”

Elena gave me the nod.

I took one step toward Cole when he made a second request: “Pop, bring your cake.”

No dice, of course, but somebody tell me this kid ain’t going places in life.

The party ended amicably, with Elena persuading Cole to surrender to American cheese. He ate the mouthful agreed upon and chased his cake down with three more slices, so nutrition and gladness were both served reasonably well.

Endings in this family have been happy lately, but I take nothing for granted. Anybody who pays attention knows that joy’s flame can be snuffed at any moment. And believers with a mature faith don’t blame God for the darkness.

So if the day unfolds without a spitty pointer and thumb pinching my wick, I’m ducky. For seasons at a time—often through nobody’s fault but my own—I’ve heard pssst, watched swirls of smoke ascend and stared at cold candles.

Maybe I wouldn’t hold my present blessings up to the light and look at them over and over again were it not for some rough landings. Now, grace won’t leave me alone.

IMG_4286Here’s the most recent visitation. On Sunday, some old friends showed up at St. John’s for worship and brought with them little loaves of homemade Communion bread for Cole and my son Micah. At my previous pastorate, we called it “Jesus Bread.”

It wasn’t consecrated, but everybody young and old who loves Jesus Bread tastes something sacred in the late Milton Sontheimer’s recipe, and every batch, for that matter. I don’t know. Maybe the baker’s prayers and intentions add their own blessing to the Sacrament.

Kathy and I sent some home with Cole and brought a bag for atheist Micah, too.

The next morning Cole was acting sneaky as Elena got him ready for preschool. Imagine, a three-year-old with puzzling motives. He wanted to bring the suitcase he uses for overnighters at Grandma Kathy’s and Pop’s to school. Why? Little Red-Crest’s beak was clamped shut.

After prodding and prying, Elena got the truth out of him. “But, Mom,” he said, “I have to take it. My Jesus bread is in there, and I need to share it with all my friends.”

Okay, that right there is grace. And wisdom, too. A loaf of bread, the Jesus variety and all others, isn’t really bread until friends and strangers everywhere get their fill.

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Growing up is hard trouble–tiring, bruising work.

As it happens, Cole will be sleeping over tonight with Grandma Kathy and Pop. What grace does he have in store for us? Who knows?

But I’ll have some grace waiting for him. Elena called to tell me that Cole intends to draw when he grows up. I’ll be rooting for him. He also said, “Mom, I’m having hard trouble growing up.”

Before bed, I’ll tell him, “Pop is having hard trouble growing up, too, buddy. We all are. But eating Jesus bread helps. And sharing it helps even more.”

*A few months ago I had an essay entitled “Jesus Bread” in Living Lutheran. Click here if you would like to read it.

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

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Cole fixing our toilet tank

Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.

My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.

Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”

“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”

But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.

When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.

Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”

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Pop and Cole just before his second birthday: the air alone makes his face shine. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”

Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.

Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.

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Watching (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.

“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”

I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.

Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.

And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:

Listen, you nations of the world,

listen to my grandson

and make his loving gaze your own.

Children of God must never be uprooted,

offspring of the Creator never left without pine.

Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.

Arms must never be separated from their bodies,

lest infants who find no room in the inn

be denied the manger of human hearts.

Sing, all people to your God,

sing a song of mercy.

Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,

where refugees find welcoming borders

and bread enough for multitudes.

Look, you nations, at children.

Your Lord sees you with their eyes.

 

We We We Could Hold Hands

We We We Could Hold Hands

I’ve been sad off and on for a month now, but let’s not dwell for long on why. Let’s just say that the land I love is different now. Values, principles and manners that ground life and give it sweetness have been flogged, and I’m confused. What rules will we live by from here on? And will these rules call forth our best, not our worst?

If you can’t imagine what’s got me down these days, reading further will be a waste of time. But if you sense where I’m coming from, please accept one premise: You don’t need to agree with the reasons for my grief to accept it as valid.

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The master teaches the disciple. Lesson: Lick the frosting off first if that’s what you like.

If you can appreciate the distinction I’m making, you might also be interested in a chilly, rainy walk I took with my grandson Cole a couple weeks ago.

My mission was to occupy the three-year-old with sparks flying from under his sneakers so that Grandma Kathy and son-in-law Matt could do home repair and daughter Elena could mind grandson #2, Killian.

Cole and I were supposed to go to the corner and back, but when we got there, he pointed to the next corner and said, “I I I want to go to there.” (Cole’s speech can’t keep pace with his brain, so he repeats the subject until the rest of the sentence reaches his tongue.)

Sure, why not? When we reached the next corner, he pointed across the street and repeated his previous request. I could see his point. West 4th Street beyond Beverly Drive is missing some sidewalk, giving the passage a winding charm.

“But, Cole,” I said, “that’s across the street. We can’t go there.”

He thought for a few seconds, then looked at me: “But we we we could hold hands.”

“Ah ha,” I thought, “school is in session.” That’s how being a grandfather is for me. I’ve learned to recognize instantly when Cole has something to teach his lazy Pop, and his instruction is always edifying.

So off we went, looking both ways, his cold little hand in mine. He had tree climbing on his mind, but the neighborhood maples are matriarchs that haven’t had branches or footholds within reach for decades.

I explained and explained, the mist puffing from my mouth. “They’re too big, Cole. There’s nothing for you to hold on to.”

Finally, good sense caught up to me. “Okay, pal, give this one a try.”

He ran to the rooty base of a smooth-barked giant shiny from the weather. As he hugged the trunk, he was as confident in his ability to succeed as I am when approaching a cashier to pay for a loaf of bread. No sweat.

He rubbed around to check for some advantage and marched as if the wood might reach out to him as a staircase.

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If there were nothing else in the world to behold, this face would teach me more than I need to know.

To Cole’s credit, no fussing he made. A concrete telephone pole fifty of his rapid mini-strides away provided another option. “I I I could climb that.”

“You think so?” I lilted.

“Yeah!” he said. I must say, my grandson makes that word into a one-syllable hoedown. His yee dances in the clouds, and his ahhhh takes its sweet time landing.

Alas, same result, followed by the same okey-dokey shrug.

Our next stop was a pile of pumpkins Cole insisted was a fire hydrant. I didn’t argue. What he proposed was fine with me.

Even validictorians get pooped out, though, so I tempted Cole to head back home with the prospect of spotting turkeys on South Shore drive, where hens and gobblers mill about the yards of Erie’s rich folk.

Not quite there yet, he spotted an old guy bundled within an inch of his life and riding a zero-turn mower. “I I I want to see.”

Well, certainly. We stood on the boulevard, Cole in awe over the machinery, me wondering about the enterprise of getting rained on, running over wet leaves and turning pirouettes. But maybe a man in layers of well-worn gray and earmuffs also had something to teach me.

He parked, hopped to the ground and walked our way, arms swinging akimbo.

Cole froze at the sight. I held his hand again.

“You can cut through my yard,” the man said, “and take my steps down to the lake.”

That was the last thing I expected to hear, as owners on South Shore have the reputation of being grouchy toward trespassers. I guess you just don’t know the truth about people until you know them.

We said thanks anyway and waved goodbye, off to find birds.

I used to understand that no journey from A to B with a little boy could ever be direct, but I had forgotten. Cole reminded me by insisting on bending through the undergrowth and shrubbery rather than sticking to the sidewalk.

He was having fun trespassing, and I didn’t really care if we got hollered at. (It’s taken me five decades to adopt such a criminal attitude.)

Of course, we didn’t get chased off. We didn’t see any turkeys, either, but Cole jumped off of low stonework a few times. His wide eyes told me he knew the miracle of flight.

I’m not going to lie, I was glad for class dismissal when we got back home. My cheap black sneakers with elastic at the instep were soaked.

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Whenever you’re ready to teach me, Killian, I’ll be ready.

I want to be honest about something else, too. Years ago, as a young man, I wouldn’t have figured a walk with a red-headed boy could lead me to a better place. I would have considered the notion mushy.

Still, being a Pop will have everything to do with how I pass through this season’s mournful valley and grow as a man committed to kindness and compassion. Call this truth what you will.

My grandsons have the wisdom I need. I can feel it. Until their next lesson, I’ll use what Cole taught me on our walk in the rain.

I’ll I’ll I’ll remember that we can hold hands, climb even when the effort makes scant sense, and look for teachers who spin like fools.

Most of all, I I I won’t give up on love.

Grandma Kathy Home

Grandma Kathy Home

So the Cleveland Indians hold a 3-2 edge over the Chicago Cubs as the World Series moves back to Cleveland for at least another game. One particularly sweet spot here is my sentiment that if the Tribe loses, I can be glad for the Cubbies. Both teams are long overdue for a championship.

Alas, the Fall Classic holds diminished interest for me this year. I’m in a space that is best described by a phrase my childhood friend Vince used a lot: tons of bummage.

Joy isn’t in short supply these days; in fact, I have a surplus, more than anybody deserves. The problem is my reaction to our present American season of bummage.

“Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever,” Saint Francis de Sales said, “even if your whole world seems upset.”

Sorry, Francis, but my peace comes and goes. It goes when I assume my fears about the future are predestined. It comes when I forget myself long enough to be touched by grace.

“I want to go home,” grandson Cole said.

“But, Cole,” my daughter Elena answered, “you are home.”

“No, I want to go to Grandma Kathy home.”

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At Grandma Kathy Home. Cole checks Pop. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Grandma Kathy and Pop have bored our friends slack-jawed with Cole’s words, but it’s hard to keep quiet. Sometimes a moment kisses your soul and brings hope within reach again.

Cole thinks of Grandma Kathy’s house as home. Do I care that he doesn’t include Pop on the deed? Actually, I like his name better. Kathy drops everything for Cole. They play in her garden and go to the basement and make repairs at her workbench. If she cooks dinner, he stands on a chair at the sink and does a few dishes with a whole bottle of soap.

He calls our den “my room,” and he and Grandma Kathy bunk there when he stays the night, as he did last Saturday. On church mornings, she sits beside him in the backseat for the hour drive to Oniontown.

Yesterday my sluggish sermon knocked the kid out, so he crawled under the pew and nodded off at her feet. After worship she let him sleep on, and friends stopped by to chat.

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Got insomnia? Come listen to one of my sermons. Bring a pillow, join Cole. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Cole was safe. Grandma Kathy was there.

He didn’t say, “Grandma Kathy’s home.” He said, “Grandma Kathy home.” My wife is home to him. The dwelling and garden are incidental.

Kathy helps Cole sew. He leans against her, watches a movie and eats pretzels and dip. She hustles him off to use the potty like a big boy.

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Hope

Watching them together, I’m positive of at least one thing that’s right with the world.

Fifteen years ago I copied a Bible verse on strips of paper and during a sermon suggested that parishioners put them on their refrigerators.

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)

The light is love. I bet my life that it will win in the end. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my Indians will whip the Cubs. And it especially doesn’t mean that my candidate will prevail.

I don’t for a moment believe that God gives us clean sheets when we’ve messed the bed.

What I do believe is this: love is the only way out of human bummage.

In 1968, during another ugly season, Thomas Merton asked, “Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one ‘love’ in an impossible situation?”

When I watch a woman and a boy not yet three together, peace fills my lungs. The only way I know to abide in impossible situations is to love.

It seems like hour-by-hour I get hopeless and angry, then hear Saint Francis speaking and try to find my way back to love again. All signs are that I’m delusional.

I want to go to Grandma Kathy home, too, Cole. Let’s live there together.

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Dear Cole and Killian:

img_4987Last week your Grandma Kathy came in all sweated up from picking vegetables and said, “Oh, John, there’s one of those tomato hornworms in the garden with eggs on its back, probably wasp eggs.” Her bottom lip wasn’t quivering, but tears weren’t far off. Poor bug.

I don’t want to see any creature suffer, but I’ve never been a fan of hornworms. First, they’re gross; they look like a bald, glossy-green, plump, juicy caterpillar. Second, they never finish their meals. I would be glad to share if they didn’t go from tomato to tomato, munching a portion and ruining the rest. And third, they leave pellet droppings called frass. Most of it falls into the soil unseen, but a little plastic table Grandma Kathy situated near a tomato plant got covered with it. The guilty insect frassed so much I couldn’t help thinking it chuckled to itself, pellet by pellet.

Your grandmother, who is on strangely good terms with the wastrels, wanted to send me on a rescue mission, but not by plucking the larvae off the hornworm or ending its suffering.

“You write about these things,” she said. “Maybe you could write about it.”

Grandma Kathy was right, boys. For whatever reason, your pop thinks a lot about sadness, and some likeminded folks like to read what I come up with. She was right, too, that in hopeless cases, one sympathetic witness can be a saving grace.

The trouble is, I don’t have much to say about future wasps dining on a hornworm, other than to note, “That’s life for you.” One being’s grilled chicken is another’s raw caterpillar. The main difference is presentation.

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Listen to your grandma, boys.

On the other hand, I do have something to say about Grandma Kathy. You won’t read this letter for another ten years, but as you grow I’ll be steering you toward this advice: “Grandma Kathy has a big soul. She knows how to live. Listen to her.”

I’m only trying to save you time and trouble. If my math skills are still operational, your grandmother and I have spent 2/3 of our lives together. Only in the last three years have I figured out that most of the time she knows best. Since 1980, then, I’ve been letting her steer 1/10 of the time, which is silly.

And I’ll tell you why. Grandma Kathy was right about that hornworm from the beginning. It’s as much a resident of the earth as I am and worthy of consideration.

“Don’t you think we ought to kill it?” I asked. “The last thing we need is a wasp infestation.”

“No, we’re too quick to kill things,” she answered. “Besides, I think wasps might be beneficial.”

I swallowed my response, which would have been, “Hey, I’m not too quick to kill things.”

But she was half right. I checked an almanac and learned that you shouldn’t squash the hornworm and its passengers. Wasps are—and I quote—“beneficial” for a garden.

img_5008Only in the last few weeks have I decided that Grandma Kathy also knows best where the garden hose is concerned. All our marriage long she has left it snaking around the yard rather than coiling it up. I bring the matter up once every decade, though not anymore. When I walk out the back door, my glance goes immediately to the hose and my mind says, “Unkempt.” Your grandmother looks first to the sunflowers, and her mind says, “Ah, beautiful.”

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The better part

She has chosen the better part, and I won’t take it from her.

When Grandma Kathy plays with you, Cole, she lets you decide what to do and where to go. That’s because you know how to play better than anybody else. By watching her, I’m learning to be a good pop.

And Killian, you’re just a few months old, but it already seems that you’re going to be quieter and more reserved than your big brother. You watch, kiddo, Grandma Kathy will look into your brown eyes and see how to help you love yourself and feel so happy you’ll want to fly.

Someday you’ll be able to understand that big souls make big sacrifices. When you’re ready, I’ll explain that Pop owes his life to Grandma Kathy.

IMG_4286But I’ll wait for later to tell you just how. It’s enough for now to say that when I was weary and lost unto despair, your grandmother left a few of her dreams behind as if they were frass to help me find myself again.

Grandma Kathy knows how best to love you and me and the rest of creation. Please, save yourself trouble and spend more than a sliver of your years following her lead and trusting her example.

Care for the tomato hornworm. Look first to the sunflower. Give yourself away for the sake of love.

We’ll talk before you know it,

Pop