For starters, I expect snickers, snorts and eye rolls, and I’m prepared to be corrected, though I won’t concede without some back and forth. That said, I’ll present my case directly: The two most powerful agents in the world are … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately
It was tomatoes cooking, the kindly surprise of their smell, that brought me around, helped my spirit to its feet and pointed me in a good direction.
If you look forward to my column in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Record Argus, or my posts at A Napper’s Companion, you may have noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. When world and native land are convulsing in myriad ways, of what account are tomato-perfumed wisps rising in a middle-class kitchen? When the television news serves up images of relentless rage and pandemic, mentioning the cleansing joy of wife Kathy’s sunflowers bending in the breeze feels intrusive. When we human beings are enduring the labor pains of birthing a new society—and meanwhile throwing tantrums over trivialities and wetting our pants—who wants to think about a couple dozen corn stalks rising from a raised bed, the soil a mix of household compost and manure from a dear friend’s cows?
Maybe you do. I now believe my silence in recent weeks has been misguided. “Don’t go all poetic on me, John,” I imagined you saying, “about standing at a stove or pulling blessings from a garden, about how basil makes a sauce sing, about how walking by a bush of spearmint touches a place inside you didn’t know was aching. No rhapsodizing at a time like this, when so many of us are at each others’ throats and hardly an hour passes without yielding fresh anxiety and confusion.”
Of course, you weren’t saying anything like this. The fact is, I had convinced myself that what normally moves me to make paragraphs wasn’t relevant anymore. We all have bigger fish to fry, as the cliché goes.
But then those tomatoes reminded me of last summer, before the complication and misery of 2020. Kathy’s crop necessitated daily decisions. Would I make spaghetti or chili for supper? Or would I core and simmer down yesterday’s basketful, let it cool and pour it into freezer bags? More often than not, when Kathy got home from a day of nursing cancer patients, she would pause just inside the backdoor, close her eyes and breathe in.
“Oh,” her mantra went, “I do love the smell of my tomatoes cooking.” And then we’d kiss.
Yes, Norman Rockwell might have painted me wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon straight up while Kathy looks on with rosy cheeks and a slight smile, but not one detail of the scene is embellished, honest. This was the start of our evening together. This was home and family and marriage. This was life and love.
All of these thoughts came to me wordlessly when, the other day, the pageantry of preserving my wife’s bounty started up again with the lovely scent I’ve described. She has already pulled garlic and onions, which I regularly help to fulfill their aromatic vocation, and canned some dilly beans. Cherry tomatoes are piling up, and, yes, I cook them along with the Better Boys and Romas and freeze them flat. That glad task will wait until tomorrow.
At the moment Kathy is drizzling dish liquid into a slowly filling blowup pool. Grandsons Cole and Killian are staying over this Friday night. I’m watching them from my writing hut—more on this new outbuilding on the Coleman farmette soon. Killian is running the length of the yard and jumping into the shallow foot of water, emerging suds covered and delirious. The way Cole is waving the hose around to make water snakes in the air, the pool may never reach capacity. No matter.
Planet Earth may be going to Hades in a hand basket, but even the gates of hell shall not prevail against my grandsons’ wonders in this hour. Nor can powers and principalities stop Kathy’s sunflowers, soaring six feet above the corn, from waving at me.
Silence is a skillful teacher, but its students are lost unless they listen with the ear of their heart. That was my problem. I paid attention to the faculty members who scream and shout that their subjects, crucial though they may be—war, oppression and illness—are the only ones worth studying.
So I write to insist otherwise and resume interrupting our shared daily travail with promises. Tomatoes still ripen in August and will remind you of grace if you put them on to cook. And sunflowers will bow to you when the wind is right. Remember to breathe deeply and bow in return.
Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.
This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.
The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.
My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.
Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.
If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.
So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”
That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.
Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.
50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.
It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.
The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours
“Elevander and Milkus,” grandson Cole said through tears from the foot of my bed. It must have been around 1:00 a.m.
Cole and his little brother Killian had landed at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house at 6:00 p.m. for a sleepover, followed by our Sunday drive to Oniontown for church.
Half an hour later, Kathy and Cole were cuddling when she said he felt warm. I kissed our ginger’s forehead, the temperature-taking method my late mother used. The patient was not quite burning up.
Kathy encouraged grape ibuprofen, but was rebuffed. No surprise there. Our own daughter and son regarded any remedy for a fevered brow as outrageous, possibly unconstitutional.
By 7:30, Cole was ready for bed. A scant half of our enclosed front porch serves as a prayer corner for Pop, and the rest is “Cole’s Room,” dubbed by the lad himself with the same swagger Columbus displayed in claiming the West Indies for Ferdinand and Isabella. On sleepover nights, the sofa bed there gets pulled out, and Grandma and “those babies,” as she calls them, prop themselves up on an embarrassment of pillows, lean into each other and watch cartoons.
Kathy, it must be noted, is no grandson’s fool. She goes for a soft sell. “Hey, best buddies,” she says, “it’s time to get ready for bed.” Not time to sleep, mind you. These things must be done delicately. First, get pajamas on, then slide under Grandma’s feather comforter with nightcap in hand—juice box, tortilla chips, rack of lamb, whatever it takes. Eventually, glad bellies and slapstick animation lower the boys’ defenses and slumber descends.
The routine is glorious, every crumb and dribble of it. On the night in question, Killian was clinging to wakefulness when I retired to Pop’s Room. Cole was long gone.
Having a queen-sized bed to myself ought to be glorious, but I’d just as soon keep our quartet together the whole night through. With Grandma Kathy between them, though, Cole and Killian’s last waking moments on that lumpy sofa bed seem an adventure, as if she is keeping watch as they sail over dark waves toward dreamland.
Whenever the boys stay over, my sleep is light, ears keen, especially to a child’s cries. Kathy can normally rock and coo her shipmates back to sleep, but occasionally Pop is called upon to sing a shanty of sorts.
That’s what brought Cole to the foot of my bed. He needed a story—not from a book but one of his very own. The protagonists of choice are Elevander and Milkus, stuffed brother and sister rabbits whose names Cole inexplicably blurted out to his mother one day.
The plots of late are as unlikely as the characters’ names. A year ago a micro-tornado hit my daughter’s house, flinging the boys’ swing set over telephone wires a full block away.
In my yarns, Cole found Elevander and Milkus hiding behind the garage after the twister. He brought them into the house and cared for them until a climbing wall replaced the swings. Then he made them a home in its shelter. Hay from Grandma Kathy’s garden provided a sweet bed, and Cole asked Killian to get lettuce and carrots from Mama for his friends.
Telling Cole a new chapter, I knew Kathy and I wouldn’t be bringing those babies along to Oniontown in the morning. They would go home instead. Still, I was determined to remain at my post and finish my duty.
After surrendering to sips of grape medicine, my boy lay nose to nose with me as I recounted the arrival of two squirrels whose tree had blown down. They had heard rumors about the boy nearby who took in a couple of frightened rabbits.
Elevander and Milkus happily shared quarters with their bushy-tailed neighbors, and Killian ran to get them peanuts from the cupboard.
The next day, of all things, a lost pony showed up. Cole figured the rabbits and squirrels could spare some hay for their new guest until Grandma brought more. Everyone had plenty to eat, a place to sleep and love enough to believe that tornados are no match for kindness.
Part way through my tale, Cole made a bathroom run. Pausing at the foot of the bed, he put up his finger and said, “I’ll be right back, Pop.” As if I would go on without him!
Cole doesn’t realize yet that he is the hero of every Elevander and Milkus story. I want him to fall asleep knowing that real heroes are most of all kind.
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. ”
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma
Dear Cole and Killian:
Last 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.
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.
Only 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.”
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.
But 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,
Message for a New Grandson
Friend Jan assures me that those in extremis can hear and understand. Son Micah told me once that when death is close, euphoric chemicals show up with kind words, beloved faces, and bright lights.
I’m all for our glands throwing us a going-away party, but what Jan says feels right. Besides, she is wise and knows about deathbeds.
But I have my own reasons for hoping that words of love and care somehow get through. During parishioner Annie’s last minutes, I leaned in close and whispered Psalm 23. Thou art with me. Goodness and mercy. Forever. A single tear ran down her crow’s foot to the pillow. I saw it.
And I saw my mother’s hand lift and fall as I said goodbye to her eighteen years ago. Mom’s purposeful movement said, “I’d answer if I could, John.”
Since then, I’ve spoken freely to the almost-gone. In fact, I’ll speak to everybody and nobody. Words are good, so I say what should be said in hopes that if nothing else, the universe might hear.
Years ago wife Kathy raised monarch butterflies on our front porch. Occasionally, one would be hopelessly deformed, and before resting it underneath a stargazer lily and giving it a quick end, I said, “I’m sorry this life didn’t work out, but it will be over soon. Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”
When geese fly over, in a pair or by the dozens, I say, “Thank you.” Am I addressing the birds or God? Both, I guess.
My most recent monologue came out on—appropriately enough—April Fools’ Day. Killian Davis Thompson, grandson number two, arrived at 2:01 p.m., and within a few hours I got to see him.
Kathy helped with the birth, so she had already held him. I let Micah go first. After Kathy had seconds, it was my turn.
Time passes dreamlike when you’re looking at a baby you’ve been imagining month after month. I heard giddy voices—daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, Kathy and Micah—but, I swear, no words.
Killian and I were in a bubble. Even now, I remember only a couple of details, which I report without exaggeration: I disappeared into his face; before I knew what was happening, I found myself whispering to him; and, on one lucid front, I hoped my breath wasn’t nasty. (The little nugget was defenseless, after all.)
I can’t bring back exactly what I said, but what I meant is still fresh. As much as I wanted Mom to hear my goodbye, I longed for some quiet room in Killian’s soul to hold in safe keeping his foolish Pop’s welcome. I meant . . .
You were so safe and warm. Now here you are. It’s so cold and bright. Don’t wake up. You must be exhausted. Being born is hard, isn’t it?
But, listen, don’t be afraid. You’re so lucky! We’ve all been waiting for you, wanting to meet you, wanting to see your face.
Don’t be afraid. You have a whole bunch of people who will take care of you. Your mom and dad are beautiful. You have a nice little home. It’s warm and dry. And you have a big brother.
I named everybody in the family and told him about his tribe. Then Elena’s voice penetrated the bubble: “Are you talking to him?” “Yeah.”
This world is pretty good, but it might not be as great as where you came from. I don’t know. But I’m here, don’t forget. Whatever you need, I’m here. I’ll try to stay close.
Yes, I know, newborns don’t remember anything. And a dying woman doesn’t take green pastures and still waters with her into forever.
But maybe. I’m allowed to hope. All I know is, loving words are good, and if only the universe hears, I’ll keep trying to say them.
The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. (From Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh)
Just now I closed my eyes and paid attention to my non-toothache. My mouth looks like a demolition derby in there, so I can vouch for the venerable Buddhist monk’s counsel. And sometimes I think my soul looks like my teeth—cracked, patched up, cavernous, important pieces missing.
Just now, with open eyes, I took in a full breath and enjoyed the air flowing back out past my throat and through my nose. My body, relaxed and light, isn’t cramped with any of the absurdities my mind habitually puts it through by narrating potholes into sinkholes and possibilities into finalities.
Happiness is fantastic, but okay will do. Hold the drama-trauma, blue cheese, and skydiving, and I’ll likely be fine. My job is to pray-meditate, walk mindfully, and swaddle Overthinking, kiss its spongy head, and shush it to sleep.
Even inclement days are sweet when my chops aren’t being busted and when I refuse to itch old scars open. Last Friday was one of those days. Weather has never bothered me, but Friday, November 13, 2015, was stern. Each chilly, gust-whipped raindrop was a slap on the cheek.
Poor daughter Elena couldn’t take Cole, now a Ninja of motion, to the playground, which is why I received a call at 10:11 a.m. Toddlers can turn homes into Thunderdomes.
“Hi, Daddy.” Was that a quiver of desperation in her soft greeting? “I was just wondering what your schedule was like today, if maybe you wanted to do lunch or something.”
Here’s a summary of our negotiations:
1.) Elena: Could we please not have lunch at my house? [X]
2.) Elena: There’s a play place at the [Millcreek] Mall. Maybe we could get a Starbucks and let Cole play there for a while. [X]
3.) Daddy: Then we could find somewhere to have lunch. [X]
4.) Elena: There is a God. [X]
We met at noon-ish, fed quarters to a fire truck and convertible, picked up coffee, and settled in at the official play place—and by settled in I mean kept Cole from making a break for the concourse, which he did four times, and from dispensing hand sanitizer until his fingers were raw.
After ten minutes of crawling through tunnels and nearly colliding with a dozen or so children of other desperate parents, he announced “Cole done” and copped a few sips of Pop’s decaf latte. Next he gnawed an eggroll and noodles while Elena and I had bourbon chicken.
Then it was time to go. An hour with a toddler doesn’t allow for segues: ride the choo choo train, slip and almost fall on the padded turtle, get hurt feelings because the thick-boned boy hopped on the tug boat ahead of you, sample coffee, squeeze duck sauce on your egg roll, and refuse to hold Pop’s hand when it’s time to go home.
So we ran together, my little buddy’s jelly bones all akimbo. Before we reached the door, Elena insisted: “Do you want to ride in the stroller or let Pop carry you?”
Bullets of rain got us right away. Cole’s face pinched in, and two steps later I felt his head settle on my shoulder.
“Aw, are you getting tired, buddy?” I said.
“No,” Elena said. “That’s what he does when it’s too windy.”
I must say, mindfulness is getting to be a habit for me, and it’s not for nothing. My bald spot and glasses were getting pelted, but so-the-hell what? A grandparent is made for the moment when the grandchild leans in. Love, fatigue, or safety could be the reason, but who cares? I still haven’t figured out exactly what a parent is made for, mainly because I was a trembling neurotic in that role. But Pop, I’m meant to be a shoulder for my grandson. The rest of me—I sometimes believe—is vestment.
“You okay, pal?” I said.
“Yeah.” One lilting syllable, almost a chirp.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that mindfulness can turn neutral into joyful. A non-toothache is hardly noteworthy. Neither is being able to breathe through your nose. Standard operations, that’s all. A two-year-old using his grandfather’s shoulder to hide from cold rain is about the same—thirty unremarkable seconds across the parking lot to the car.
Commonplace but for one truth: while my embrace kept Cole dry and warm, I found my own shelter from the elements.