Farewell and Godspeed, Ray If I know what something means to me, if I have already come to the end of it as an experience, I can’t write it because it seems a twice-told tale. (Arthur Miller) You may already know … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands
It’s been 21 years, and I miss you more than ever. Can you look over my shoulder and read my words from your place in glory? May it be so.
The urge to write you has been strong lately, and I know why. This is a season for holding hands. My St. John’s family has been saying goodbyes, glancing toward heaven and longing for miracles. When we’re not actually crying, tears still try to push out from behind our eyes.
My job, of course, is to show up at hospitals or nursing homes or, best of all, home-sweet-homes with a satchel full of hope. You know, Mom, the promises we foolish Christians bet our lives on, the prayers we remember even when our minds have left us stranded, psalms about “goodness and mercy,” the hills “from whence cometh our help” and the night that “shineth as the day.” And Holy Communion, for sure.
One zipper pouch is a crumbled mess of humor, like the loose Kleenex you stuffed into your purse. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd because time grows short. Anyway, laughter generally refuses to let weeping wander off alone. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How clear everything must be to you now.
What makes me think of you most is handholding. Again, I know why. As death draws near, prayers and Scripture want a special amen: one hand cradling another. No seminary education is required to do this part of my job. You taught me all I need to know, and for going on 20 years, I’ve been sharing your motherly touch with folks in my care. Gentle, light, quietly abiding, that’s how it is and has been.
Art. July of 2015. He decided to forgo dialysis and surrender. Settling back in the hospital bed, he said, “Now, help me through the door.” I held his hand, rough, smaller than mine, and cried without him noticing. He already had his eyes fixed on the Promise.
Quen. This October. Such big-boned hands, powerful in his prime. How many times did I hold them and say, “You’re a good man, Quen. You’ve been a good husband and father”?
“Well,” he said, his voice more faint and raspy by the month, “I sure have tried.”
He passed after his family and I joined hands around his bed and talked to God. Quen’s daughter drew on his forehead a cross with the perfumed oil of anointing, which marked him still when he breathed his last.
And Shirley. Last week. Her hands reminded me of you, Mom. Same soft, fragile skin, warm and giving as yours were. Shirley’s rested as if already in repose. I sheltered them under my own, leaned in close, whispered Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer and told her it was OK for her to go. About four hours later she did just that.
Your hand was pale purple, chilly and bloated the last time I held it. I spoke words of love and gratitude that will remain between us. A couple times you moved that clumsy, heavy hand, poked raw by needles and punished by arthritis. Were you trying to say that you could hear me?
When I left town, things could have gone either way. Maybe the sepsis would take you, but maybe not. I had to get back to seminary, back to Columbus. “What good can I do here?” I thought—a rationalization and a question.
Now I know. Honest to God, a couple days ago I almost had to pull off the road when the answer grabbed me by the throat: “Here’s what good you could have done, John. You could have held your mother’s hand until she died.”
Oh, Mom, you were so sick and senseless, fogged in by troubling dreams. Maybe you were out of touch, but that doesn’t matter. I should have stayed. I should have kept holding your hand.
You wouldn’t want me to punish myself over this. But please understand, every time I hold a hand, I also reach out to where you are. And when I drive to Oniontown homes to comfort pilgrims on their last journey, part of me is a much younger man turning his car around and heading north, back to your bedside to help you through the door of a house with many mansions.
Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While
Of everyone on my Christmas gift list, my father was the toughest. If he wanted something, he went out and bought it—not that he spent much. He wore Velcro sneakers, Navy-issue boxer shorts, and store brand polo shirts. What treasure do you wrap up for a consumer who rarely ventured beyond Kmart and whose favorite song was Morris Albert’s “Feelings”?
In the early 1990s, I proposed that a couple times each month we go out for lunch. “That’s a perfect gift!” he said. Ironically, Dad picked up the tab, but food was incidental. What we both needed was time.
During my current season of life I’m taking many backward glances and discovering not only that time was the best gift I ever gave Dad, but it always has been the one possession most worthy of sharing with anybody.
Actually, “time” is the wrong word. Where relationships are concerned, minutes and hours are the accepted way we measure our presence to each other, numerical values we assign to shooting the breeze or holding hands. What counts, though, is offering my very self to you and you responding in kind.
We’ve developed strategies to make being together appear less schmaltzy. We “do lunch” or “have coffee.” We go to painting and wine parties. Decades ago my mother would announce, “I’m having ‘club’ here tonight.” Pinochle, that is. The ladies kibitzed hours after the cards were put away.
I’m a fan of every conceivable excuse to be where two or three are gathered, but I’m also partial to truth telling, at least where conversations of one are concerned. By the time I’m finally ready to lay my burdens down, the life that passes before my eyes ought to be an edifying story with themes that never die.
And so when my 5th grade teacher Mr. Grignol took me golfing one Saturday morning in 1973, the hours were sacred. He gave me two sleeves of balls because the three in my bag might not be enough. I asked if his Chevy Impala, a drab-green behemoth with four-on-the-floor, had power steering. “Yeah,” he grunted, “man power!”
I now think to myself, “He didn’t have to spend a morning with a student going through a rough patch of childhood.” Right now, I’m standing beside Mr. Grignol again, watching to see if the drive he has just crushed will clear a pond. “If that one doesn’t make it,” he says, the ball soaring away, “I can’t do it.” Few of the wonders I’ve witnessed top waiting shoulder to shoulder with my teacher for a splash or a safe landing, his presence alone a grace he could not have reckoned.
My professors at Behrend College in the early 1980s gave of themselves richly and definitely without material reward. Their tenure and promotion didn’t ride on having winding discussions with undergraduates at the beach or in a bar, but I profited as much from those classrooms as the ones on campus.
Is it too much to claim that most human activities are window dressing for the sacrament of rubbing elbows and wagging chins? The Saturday Star Trek nights my old neighbors and I used to observe were a front for socializing. Often an hour or more passed before we got around to picking an episode to watch.
Or take church meetings. I no longer wonder why they tend to go on longer than necessary. “We could go walking through a windy park,” England Dan and John Ford Coley used to sing, “or take a drive along the beach or stay home and watch TV, you see it really doesn’t matter much to me.”
Day by day, the world over, the best reason for celebration and often the only prescription for heartache is an invitation: “We could get together for a while.”
Example: Jessica showed up at St. John’s last week and sat down across the desk from me with a stunned expression. Hours before she had held the family cat Riley, who had to be put down unexpectedly. What was there to do other than let disbelief hang in the air between us and lighten the sadness by each of us taking half?
Words aren’t much good when your young cat winds up with a tumor in the belly or your golf ball plunks into the drink, as Mr. Grignol’s did. More often than not, I keep my mouth shut about tears and bogeys. Best to hush as you and I stare at the horizon together, never knowing what will happen next.
Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day*
Have you ever gone to a matinee and walked from the darkened theater out into a shock of summer day?
If so, you can imagine my reaction to a message I received last Thursday: “Jack just passed.”
He was thirty-five, and a ravenous cancer was the thief. He had little kids. Jack and my friend Birdy had been married a few short months—I never even had the chance to meet the man.
What knocked the wind out of me was this: Birdy’s father, Fran, succumbed to cancer on Monday. So the father of the bride and her groom passed away three days apart on the same hospice hallway.
I learned of Jack’s death after a lunch of beef noodle soup at Cathy and Ed’s house. I savored buttered croissants dipped in broth, cheesecake for dessert, and stories with twists and turns. The visit refreshed and blessed me.
Then came the matinee moment. As I walked outside, a stunning afternoon was waiting. The chilly morning air had warmed. The sky was cloudless and impossibly blue, a color created for welcoming souls.
I paused in the driveway, looked up and took in a draught of fine air. If Cathy and Ed were watching, they probably wondered what in the heck their pastor was doing.
Pastor John was thinking, “My God, what a perfect day” and at the same time, “Oh, Birdy.” Heading over Methodist and Mercer Roads to the church, I couldn’t get the beauty around me to harmonize with what my friend must have been feeling.
Under normal circumstances Birdy’s smile ought to be shipped in bubble wrap to sad folks everywhere. Her laugh is medicinal, but recent years have delivered more than her share of trouble. Thinking of her shining spirit, I’ve often said to myself, “All right, Life! Birdy has endured enough, okay?”
Last week wasn’t my first time traveling through light while contemplating darkness. Back in seminary I spent one summer as a hospital chaplain. Most days, the trip from the revolving doors to the parking lot after work was five weary minutes of humidity and dissonance.
As citizens zoomed around Columbus on their errands, scores with IVs in their veins either got well enough to go home or prepared for the move everyone is required to make eventually. The sidewalk outside belonged to a different universe from the one with tile floors and elevators.
On day one as a chaplain, I should add, my mother died of sepsis in Erie, Pennsylvania. That thirty-six-year-old future pastor who prayed with the ailing and comforted the fearful was grieving hard, falling apart himself.
In worse shape than me was Lou, whose best and only friend Sally—my chaplaincy patient—had fallen backward while carrying groceries up slippery steps. He had no family.
“Come on, Sal,” Lou said over and over, patting her clammy forearm. “Wake up. Don’t leave me all alone.”
“Did you see that?” he would say. “She moved! Did you see?” Each incidental twitch held the hope of Sally getting well so they could pass evenings watching Jeopardy and playing Gin Rummy.
Lou came up to my nose and wore a confused expression, eyes squinting, lips forming the tail end of “why.” The world was an inside joke he didn’t get.
A couple of weeks into Sally’s coma, the end was inevitable. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, we came to “thy will be done,” and Lou sagged in surrender. With his forehead resting on the bedrail, his shoulders rose and fell with hoarse sobs.
(For the record, I don’t believe Sally hit her head on concrete because God willed it, but we’ll save that distinction for sometime later.)
Lou told Sally goodbye in 1998. That July, with my mother’s passing still fresh and patients’ worries following me home, I understood why E. B. White once wrote, “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.”
“When you roll down the window,” you might say, “why not just enjoy the air rushing across your arm? Why not put Lou on God’s bus and rather than having him ride with you?”
Because I still care about Lou. And I love Birdy.
“Dude,” she said as we hugged at her father’s wake. That one word was plenty to say, “I’m in pieces” or “What am I supposed to do now?”
I’m not about to forget friends so my spirit can sing along with blue skies. Besides, I would rather trudge through sleet with them than lounge at sunset and lift a champagne toast without them.
There’s no such thing as a perfect day, I suppose. Give me a truthful day instead, with joy and sorrow rubbing elbows. Best of all, give me a glorious afternoon with Fran, Jack and Sally sitting in the back seat and Birdy and Lou up front with me. Let my car be a convertible with enough room for my mother to come along, too.
The wind will blow on our faces and dry our tears.
*Lou and Sally are not real names.
Vacation with My Father
Everybody else on Victory Chimes is on deck savoring tame waves and the sun, calling out to seals who peek up, then disappear under the surface.
A bushy-bearded crew member just sent me below, not by command but by speculating that an island in the distance might be “Hell’s Half Acre,” which was one of my father’s favorite expressions. I sit outside the galley and stare at his life: a yellowing 8½” by 11” sheet of lined paper; Dad’s printing in pencil, his unmistakable all-capitals hand strangely shifting to lowercase for each h, d, and g.
Children. Grandchildren. Births and weights. Marriages and divorce. Graduations. Navy service. Jobs, first to last. Residence after residence.
Dad’s slender memoir is a stowaway in my leather man purse. Wife Kathy and I are sailing on Maine’s last surviving three-masted schooner from the great windjammer generation of the early 1900s. While she scans sea and sky for osprey and porpoises, I perch at the end of a long table in the salon and wonder why I decided to bring Denny Coleman along with me on vacation.
Dad has been gone for over five years, and his comings and goings, his beers and stories come to me through lines like “AMERICAN METER 3 SEPT. 46 – 15 NOV. 82.” He sat on the couch and cried for two days after new owners hauled him in and said he could run a drill press or retire. No, he couldn’t bump back to his job in the tool room, as he had been promised. Forget the years and handshakes.
How many times can one man’s length of days withstand being folded and unfolded? Dad’s record has diamond gaps down the middle, like the Shroud of Turin. It’s so vulnerable that somebody, maybe the author himself, put it in a plastic sleeve.
On what date did Dad sit down at the kitchen table, prop open his memory and make a list with no title, only an incomplete first line, “GRAd 28th MAY 1944”? He would never forget, I suppose, that he was a Wesleyville Bulldog.
I imagine him pulling the paper from his wallet and printing one last entry, my son’s birth in a disciplined strand of caps: MICAH WALTER COLEMAN – 1/18/92 – 8# 6OZ.
What am I supposed to do with my father’s fading table of contents? It doesn’t belong in the trash. Until I figure out why he kept such a determined record and why the names and dates put a lump in my throat, I’ll hold it gently, like an artifact that even loving care can’t keep from someday going to pieces.
Early this morning Kathy told me that we were anchored by Hell’s Half Acre and might be able to ride the yawl boat Enoch over for a visit.
Alas, we made for Stonington instead. It would have been nice to tell my siblings that I visited the locale Dad so often referenced, generally in annoyance. “Don’t take I-90 to Buffalo,” he might have said. “They’ve got road work all over Hell’s Half Acre.”
One of the things I loved most about my father was his use of language. Your nose was a snot locker, your hands meat hooks, your hind end a fan-danny. When he wanted you to calm down, he said, “Take it ease, disease.” Another father might have said “kiddo” or “pal,” but my dad preferred what I always heard as “Bubba Louie.” My older brother Ed tells me that Dad was saying, “Babalu Aye,” from a rambunctious Ricky Ricardo song?
When Dad wanted to let you know you were really on the wrong track, he puckered up and practically sang, “Oooh, nooo nooo hell nooo.”
Dad’s lingo, the way he leaned into his phrases, captured the man at his best: clowning around, amiable, a good sort. On board this schooner, he would be on deck cracking cans of Schlitz and “batting the breeze” with new friends. Closing my eyes, I call to mind his forearm tattoo, a fading heart with a gaudy MOTHER banner unfurled across it. I pass my hand over his wavy gray hair, as I did standing over the coffin.
I should have made a list like Dad did, but he hated forgetfulness more than I do. He kept everything—tools, utility bills, scrapbooks—in good order. “Coly,” as his work friends called him, didn’t misplace things.
Three years before his passing, Dad stood in the hallway of his Florida condominium, staring at framed photographs of his children and saying our names.
“I do this every day,” he confessed, aware his mind was giving out. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“Idiot light.” That was something else my father said. This gem came to me after Kathy and I left Victory Chimes and were making our way south through Maine. Only an idiot would need a dashboard light to tell him to check the oil.
That’s how on the ball Denny Coleman was, but dementia turned remembering anything into a shell game. He even forgot being a Bulldog. One bright afternoon I took him for a drive down Willow Street. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “that’s where you went to high school.”
He barely glanced up. “If you say so,” he mumbled, looking back down at his Velcro sneakers.
In his last year my father faught to retrieve himself. Each time he saw me coming his way at the nursing home, he reached out to me as if he were about to drown.
Only back home again can I name what was caught in my chest on Victory Chimes. Dad believed I could take him by the hand and lead him out of Hell’s Half Acre. The best I could do was remind him that his mother was long dead and his wife’s name was Mary.
“Yes, Mary,” he once said. “She’s my favorite.”
Now at my desk, I slide a biography free from its plastic sleeve and hold it close. One crease gives way. Another will, too, at the lightest touch.
This truth ought to smother me, but it doesn’t. I feel a sure and certain hope: Eternal Love cradles all that we have ever been.
Nothing is lost, no happy home, no wandering, no fleeting peace, no devastation. I’m going to frame Dad’s shroud to help me remember.
Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk
Given the number of hours I spend at the stove, it’s inevitable that my best conversations with son Micah take place in the kitchen. Dad smashes garlic or micromanages an Alfredo sauce, and son shows up with revelations and mysteries.
He and I once rehearsed the Chinese words for you’re welcome so that he could answer an elderly immigrant’s thank you at work the next day.
One evening he sputtered a profanity-laced account of a cruelty he had witnessed in a grocery store parking lot. I realized at once that his words were intended as a lament, rough-hewn, but holy.
Micah’s latest beauty parked itself in the kitchen doorway, blocking my way: “Hey, Dad, have you ever felt like you needed a reason to cry?”
“No,” I almost said, “I keep plenty of reasons to cry on hand,” but decided to give my twenty-something some space.
His explanation turned toward the haunting Celtic music from a war film, Black Hawk Down. The Breton lyrics, which sound to English speakers like groans put to notes, choke him up. Is he drawn to listen because, who knows why, tears need to be released?
Since the one activity I spend more time on than cooking is navel-gazing, long, mind-numbing speculations about sadness are always in stock.
I kept my theorizing brief with Micah, and I’ll extend the same courtesy here.
We human beings never really get over anything. That’s the pith. Every death, breakup, failure and injury sleeps folded up in our cedar chest of memory. The teacher who said you would never amount to anything? The words are preserved as if on stationary and fade with the years, but no matter, you know them by heart. And the day you received the devastating phone call? That instant is a photograph waiting for the lid to open.
We live in layers. Today’s scorching goodbye invites every other parting to come along with it. And the current betrayal may sing a solo, but it’s backed up by a choir.
Every joy also has its lineage, but most of us are content to receive a moment’s gladness without interrogation. Who asks, “Why am I having such a great day?”
No. The question left standing belongs to my son. “Do you ever need a reason to cry?” Another way of posing it might be, “Why does each hurt in the chest beg to be aired now and then?”
I don’t know, but my days of stifling the truth are past, as is the impulse to name every lump in my throat.
A mandolin plays or an oboe or a gravelly voice. The land offers its countenance. I might stop at Camp Perry for some farmer’s cheese and let its salt and cream grace the drive.
Always the weight in my sternum and fullness behind my eyes arrive of their own accord—and not terribly often. A sniffle, a damp cheek. The road blurs a little.
Who am I missing? What passing wants attention? What shadow of rejection has returned to make me small? I don’t ask anymore.
“Come in, whoever you are,” I think, maybe at a crescendo. “Find the air you need.”
By the time I get home, a cleansing has usually occurred. I’m happy to start supper, ready for more kitchen talk with Micah. My lungs are filled sails.
If each soul does have a chest—cedar or hope—mine has no lock. The contents come out and go back in, awakened by music they must recognize. After fifty-four years, I suppose they’re family.
Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird
The animals were out of sorts yesterday. I trust them to keep me company on Route 19 and District Road, the last third of my commute from Erie to Oniontown, but the cows and horses were standoffish—or maybe they didn’t want to be out and about.
The farmers may not have let them out of the barns. I don’t know. Having lived in cities all of my life, I’m still figuring out how things work in the country. The next time one of my farming parishioners is around, I’ll ask why no cows were eating breakfast at around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016—none. And why did I see only a few horses, and those a football field or more from District Road, which they normally hug?
I don’t know these animals personally, but they seem like neighbors. “Hey, there,” I sometimes say while speeding by. “Morning!”
With the windows rolled down and warm air rushing in, I couldn’t help wondering if my beloved companions weren’t shy, but bereaved. Did they somehow sense that my destination was the home of a woman who died much too young? Did they know that loved ones wheeled her to the porch the night before she died for ten last minutes of bird song? And did they see through some cosmic collective lens when her daughter held sweet lilacs up to her nose?
No, of course not. Such magical thinking is a little too flighty, even for me. Still, the congruence was irresistible. On a sad morning, the landscape itself seemed depressed.
And cows and horses weren’t the only ones behaving strangely. Other critters kept running across the road in front of my bulbous, orange Chevy. A brief inventory: a squirrel, rabbit, chipmunk, mole, scrawny white cat and a turtle as big around as a softball.
This last pilgrim was the only one I nearly hit. “No!” I hollered, realizing that turtles can’t hustle. Fortunately, a glance in the rearview mirror showed no turtle, squashed or sound—nothing but pavement.
Never have so many road kill candidates presented themselves to me in so short a span. My thought: “Has a portion of the small animal population gone bonkers?”
A metaphor shouted back at me: “Boy, if this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. Some ugly car is always barreling toward some man, woman or beast.” The roads around Oniontown prove that the vehicle often wins.”
Only one species on that choked up Thursday morning reached out to me: the red-winged blackbird, which is my favorite. Red can be sassy, a Joan Rivers in the family of colors, but this blackbird always makes me believe that the Great Mystery is singing hope.
This solace is only in my head, but I’m fine with that. A message doesn’t have to be factual to be true.
Ten minutes before I reached my destination, four red-winged blackbirds passed just above my Chevy. I close my eyes now and see them again. Their red sashes at the shoulder are peace and gladness, maybe because their canvas is impossibly black. The yellow fringe is a smile and a wink.
How many of us gathered around the deathbed? Fifteen? And what exactly did we pray? I don’t remember. Words can do only so much when parents have to bury their child, short of fifty, and when a truck like cancer can be slowed down, but not stopped.
What do you say from a pitch-black heart-scape? The only prayer that makes sense is a promise. In the end, God will welcome us home.
This promise is a burst of color in the darkness, but that’s all it is, a promise. Why do we fold our hands for prayer? Because, let’s face it, what we have to hold onto sometimes feels slight—a hope that’s as humble as a kiss of red on a black bird. We weave our fingers together and hang on until our knuckles go white.
Or sometimes we join hands when we pray, borrowing bravery from each other.
On Thursday morning we neither folded nor clasped hands. Instead, we rested them on the body, touched the place every one of us has to go. The old promise was so vivid we cried.
Hope, thank God, doesn’t survive on facts. Seeing one red sash of it on a black wing brings on tears, an unlikely share of them joyful.
On My Mother’s 90th Birthday
March 11, 2016: My mother would have turned ninety today. She died on June 8, 1998, of sepsis, the result of a reattached ileostomy. Our goodbye still feels like a door left ajar. She was unconscious by the time I reached her hospital room, so the best I could do was whisper and pat her bloated, purple hand.
She was gentle and loving. I thanked her for that. And I said she gave motherhood everything. She lost sleep and sweated small stuff. I didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist.
The only sign that she could hear me was her fat hand lifted a little, then fell. Maybe she didn’t catch every detail, but I hoped that she sensed my attempt to surround her with kindness and affirmation.
The trouble was, Mom’s end was not certain at that point. I held out hope for a turnaround, so my deathbed blessing was a precaution.
But it would have to do. She passed within a couple of days, while I was at seminary in Columbus. By the time I got back to Erie, she was bone and ash in a beige plastic urn. No tender moment with Mom in repose, no soliloquy.
And no private crying. Those came at her funeral service, called forth by a hymn, probably my favorite: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” I was loud and sloppy. It couldn’t be helped.
But this was almost eighteen years ago—my Lord! Grief has aged along with me, tears giving way to a longing that visits now and then. I don’t just miss Mom, but also myself as her kid, when life wasn’t perfect, but mostly good and glad.
Much as a hymn cracked me open when I was a younger man, music now makes me feel an emptiness in my chest that can only be filled by the past. Give me communion with those who would now be a hundred or more. Let me break bread with the living scattered by the centrifugal force of passing time.
Last week Lawrence Welk—of all musicians!—had me pining. At the family gatherings of my youth, elders wanted big band and bubbles on the television. Enduring Bobby and Cissy and token black tap dancer Arthur Duncan was a tariff imposed on us before we pre-pubescents could watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler and, of course, The Wonderful World of Disney.
My cousins and I regarded the burden as onerous, but now when “It’s The Lawrence Welk Show” belts out from the television and the accordion starts up, my mind and body want to be at Aunt Mart and Uncle Kenny’s house, in the always amiable commotion of generations.
The desire for this slice of the past is physical. I swear, when Welk goes “Ah one and ah two and ah,” my heart stirs. Even Joe Feeney’s nasally tenor makes my eyes smile.
Mom was in that joyful air, in the rise and fall of voices I can’t remember all that well anymore. I miss her. I miss bumping into those decent old souls and getting overheated running around with cousins.
The whole champagne rerun (Public Broadcasting Service) played out as I washed dishes and cooked and let a lovely ache move through me.
Not too many days later Karen and Richard Carpenter played the same trick on me—a PBS fundraiser retrospective. Admitting you like the Carpenters is for some people right up there with digging Barry Manilow. Confession: part of me loves them. Karen Carpenter’s voice puts me in another corner of my past’s attic. Family friends stayed late, played cards, gorged on long-gone Armand’s thin pizzas, and laughed until dizzy. I had just hit double digits, and the scene was so loosey-goosey that I scored a fair amount of beer out of the deal. All the grownups loved and played Carpenter’s albums and 8-track tapes.
Mom, who was built a little like Karen before the anorexia took over, was at the center of my memory’s comforting song. I can still see “We’ve Only Just Begun” in calligraphy at the bottom of our friends’ wedding photograph, their giddy features pinched against the flying rice. Who says “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” aren’t happy songs? Those years weren’t too shabby, nestled in between my parents’ divorce and the ravages of Mom’s arthritis.
Part of my longing is to go back, before I knew how fragile and bruised elderly skin could be, how worry and disappointment can hunch your back, how some dreams end as wisps of smoke.
But that’s not all. I want to dunk my Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies again, sit on the floor of a room packed with relatives as Tinkerbell blesses the Magic Kingdom with pixie dust and Fowler saves Perkins from a boa constrictor, and watch Mom tease her hair, then set it in curls with Dippity Do and bobby pins.
I wish for Karen Carpenter to sing again. I want to rewind Lawrence Welk’s sign-off and listen back when I couldn’t wait for it to finish.
Good night, good night, until we meet again,
Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn till then.
And though it’s always sweet sorrow to part,
You know you’ll always remain in my heart.
Good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you.
Here’s a wish and a prayer that ev’ry dream comes true.
And now till we meet again,
Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn.
I’m not wiping away tears. My hand is drawn to my chest, though, and I’m sighing. Sadness and gratitude sit together. This is the best happy birthday I can say to Mom right now.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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”:
“A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire”:
“Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani”:
7:39 a.m. at the downtown Starbucks. 7° with a wind chill factor of misery. A burly guy I’ll call Constance lumbered in ten minutes ago carrying his taut duffle bag. It looks like he’s lugging around a four-foot section of big telephone pole. Who knows what’s in there? The pockets of his fisherman’s vest are tumors of valuables.
After a trip to the restroom, Constance resumes his animated discussion with State Street, jabbing the table with his pointer finger and staring down the swirls of snow. His negotiations are urgent, relentless.
I see Constance a couple times a month. My daughter said years ago that he goes by a woman’s name and sometimes dresses in drag. I’ve only seen him dressed for weather, even in summer, but his name is none of my business. Only death will end his wandering and lonely arguments.
What locks await the cluster of keys hanging around his neck and resting on his gut? Mirage homes? And now, he is pissed: “No! No! You will not!” Silence, then, “I . . . didn’t . . . know! Why are we talking about this?”
I pray for Constance. I also pray for the guy who picks up garbage and shovels snow outside my primary Starbucks haunt near the Millcreek Mall. Yesterday was nearly as severe as today. He was bundled beyond recognition when I drove by him on my way to work. I could make out a slit of flesh from his eyebrows to the bridge of his nose. That was it.
“God,” I said. More and more I’m finding that is prayer enough.
I pray all the time, and I mean all the time. This statement is frankly uncomfortable, not because I’m ashamed of prayer. As Constance just said, “No, no, no, no, no!” My squirming comes because I suspect folks would find my practice of prayer weird and pointless.
In The New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton describes my context for prayer:
For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the wind and join in the general dance.
As a spiritual master, Merton dares speak of mysteries with certainty. I avoid that. Who am I? But Father Louis, as he was known at the Abbey of Gethsemani, comes up with words that work for me—as much as language can take hold of the Ultimate, anyway.
If “the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness,” then prayer is my daring to join in. I’ve spent years “analyzing the phenomena of life out into strange finalities and complex purposes of [my] own” and have had enough of that absurdity. The best prayer I can offer, then, is impoverished and goes like this: “I don’t know anything. But please fill me. I’m here.”
Intercessions are important, of course, but I hold an unconventional view of them. My prayer for the garbage-snow removal guy was monosyllabic because of what I believe about God. Of course the Creator wants everybody to be sane, healthy, warm, fed, clothed, and loved. So saying anything more than the Sacred Name isn’t essential—like asking snow to make its way to the ground. It’s what snow wants to do!
If God wants the whole world taken care of, then why the hell doesn’t God do it? We’re heading for the good old theodicy conundrum: If God is infinitely good, where does evil come from and why does it exist? My answer is the spiritual foundation of my prayer life: “I don’t know anything.”
Some believers might tap me on the shoulder with familiar answers: “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is ‘no.’” Or “God knows what’s best for you, even when what’s happening is terrible.” Or “God is testing you.” Or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Or, the one I find most irksome: “God never gives you more than you can bear.”
Tell that to the man I hugged whose father died a few months ago and whose mother was going into surgery—anesthesia when you’re sneaking up on ninety is sketchy. Imagine losing both your parents four months apart. Serving up a platitude might get you a well-deserved knuckle sandwich.
After a few thousand hugs like this, I refuse to reduce prayer to a crapshoot. “Dear Lord, please bring So and So through this surgery and grant a speedy recovery.” I might actually say something like this, but I would never do so with a what-the-heck-it-can’t-hurt attitude. And I would never think to myself, “Well, gosh, I’ve prayed like this over and over. Maybe God will hear me this time.” And I won’t try to explain the ways of the Eternal Mystery. The presumption!
But as I wait for my cell phone to ring, I pray for the woman in surgery and her son, not because I expect to influence the outcome. I say “help,” sigh, and look beyond these walls, windows, and patrons because my present reality is this: I wish for a dear old soul’s return to health, if nothing else so her son can catch his breath before adding another layer to his mourning. My prayer is, “Please, Lord, please.” At the moment, I am this prayer.
If I’m to join in the general dance, I can only do so as myself—a duffle bag fat with frailty and fear, longing and gladness.
Not surprisingly, most of my prayers are silent. Abide in what is, John. Swim in grace. Dance in peace. Every now and then, I’m aware that I’m praying for everybody who has ever lived, every creature. And though my hands rest in my lap, my spirit arms are open wide, lifting up all of our laughter and lament—yours, too—as if God doesn’t already see!
I’m quiet. My wordlessness says, “Here we are, God, right here in my arms. Beat in our blood. Fill us. We are yours.”