One More for the Road, Raymond

One More for the Road, Raymond

Note: My friend Ray died suddenly on January 16, 2021. As you may remember, Ray showed up here at A Napper’s Companion from time to time. Odds are, this will be his last appearance.

Dear Ray:

I never did ask why your phone messages always started with, “Hi, Pastor, this is Raymond.” I couldn’t have mistaken you for anyone else. Over the last 10 years, I talked to you or listened to voicemail or chose not to answer more times than I yawned and sneezed put together. No doubt about it.

A confession, old friend: I’ve come close to tears about your passing only once. I mentioned in a sermon that you couldn’t believe in a gracious God. Then, “But I think Ray knows about grace now.” After the hell you lived, the idea that you might finally be at peace moves me. No more damnation, condemnation and temptation. No more depression, anxiety and paranoia.

Today you will be with me in paradise. May it be so, Raymond. (Credit: Christ on the Cross Between the Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens on Wikimedia Commons)

Now your burden is lifted, but I’ve got a problem. You died without warning, and I’m left with thoughts that you ought to hear. On the off chance you’re listening, let’s close out the account of our earthly friendship like this. 

There’s hardly an errand in Erie that doesn’t remind me of you. Each Smoker Friendly or Dollar General I pass says, “Oh, yeah, Ray,” as do the Holiness Church on Liberty and Safe Harbor on West 26th. Lately your Longhorn wintergreen snuff has been on sale at Country Fair—you’d be stocking up. On the bookcase here in my writing hut, the bargain cigar you passed along keeps me company. The family cat gnawed little holes in the pure leaf wrapper, but flawed keepsakes are treasures just the same. 

That’s true of people, too, I guess. More than anybody I’ve ever known, you were up front about your mental illness. My own battles were nothing compared to yours, but you taught me a lot about candor. “It’s hell being nuts,” you once said. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” And, “Remember, Pastor, I’m not playing with a full deck.” Thanks for giving me permission to share your story. “If it can help somebody, tell them everything,” you also said. Well, you’ve helped. Take my word for it.

Of course, no obituary would begin, “Raymond was nuts, but gave of himself generously.” When I heard that you died, I was afraid nobody would take notice. Fortunately, a relative of yours put a little write up in the newspaper. “Ray was an avid antique hunter,” it said, “and very knowledgeable about cigars, tobacco products and humidors, but above all, Ray was a very godly man.”

That last part says a lot, but a couple of paragraphs can’t cover everything. You didn’t get a funeral. The COVID pandemic saw to that. My eulogy would have dressed you in the tuxedo you deserve. I would have told folks how you made me proud. Sober for over 20 years. Beat gambling and some other addictions. Found ways to keep living, though every hour for days on end might bring fresh misery. Within your storm of turmoil and psychotropic medication, you managed to think of others. I would have said all this and more.

I would have skipped what you normally said as you slid into my passenger seat. “Oh, shit, Pastor, “I’m so tired.”

“I know, old buddy,” was my only reply in the moment.

But now I have more to say. Look, you were an inspiration. In the middle of a case of the blues, I’d picture you in that busted recliner of yours, either pooped out or afraid a thug would break into your house or terrified of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God. “If Ray can keep plugging away,” I’d think. “I can, too.” Honest, you were a hero.

Bottom line, Ray: I love you. Our friendship wasn’t very emotive. Still, when I said, “You old codger, you,” or “You’re a real piece of work, you are,” love was what I was trying to get across. But you probably knew that.

I miss our salty laughter.

OK, amigo, you can get back to your bliss now. Please put in a good word for me. All of us on this side of glory are at least a little afraid.

Your friend and partner in neurosis,

Pastor

P. S. I suppose God calls you Raymond.

Welcome back home, Raymond. (Credit: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni on Wikipedia)

Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

My phone will ring. It will ring now in the middle of a sentence or during my siesta or when wife Kathy is telling me about her day. The name Ray will roll across my screen, and my chest will tighten with annoyance. I’m ashamed to say so. The deal is, if I’m occupied—and what I’ve just mentioned counts—then I don’t answer. Otherwise, I pick up.

My phone messages

Used to be Ray would ask for a ride to get tobacco or to borrow money. He always paid me back, but the loans messed with my cashflow. Other than an occasional fiver, the Pastor John Bank is closed.

I still take him here and there. He gives me a few bucks for gas and thanks me over and over. Occasionally he can’t help himself and calls me an hour after I drop him back off at home: “Pastor, I just wanted tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”

Ray’s mental illness is chronic. If there’s a psychiatric condition, it has paid him a visit. I don’t know all his medications, but the man sags, drags and droops—same with his jeans, suspenders not withstanding. But he still gets sick. That’s what he calls his collective turmoil, whether it’s fretting about somebody breaking in and stealing his debit card or being scared that God is punishing him for smoking or some other trifle.

“Hey, Raymond, how the heck are you?” is my usual salutation.

“I’m really sick today, Pastor,” he’ll say first thing. “Please pray for me.” We talk for a minute, maybe two.

Sometimes he responds, “You know, I’m doing pretty good today, buddy,” and I get another feeling in my chest, a lightness. We chat, enjoying the nonchalant fact that he’s OK.

And so Ray goes. Tolerable days string together, then the old anvil falls. He checks himself into the hospital, where a doctor tweaks his meds. After a week he gets released, does OK for a while, then, here we go again.

Ray doesn’t have many interests to leaven his lonely hours folded up in a broken recliner. He once collected beer steins, record albums and even cigar humidors, but every diversion has a way of turning into an obsession that crushes all good sense.

To his credit, Ray has gotten better at holding binge behavior at bay, except with Starlight peppermints that constantly clack against his dentures. When the smoking habit reigns, his fingertips go rusty blonde.

As long as he’s feeling alright, my buddy is content. He reads chapters of the Bible over the phone with friends and is satisfied with a diet of plain boloney sandwiches and Cornflakes.

At 62, though, Ray is never free of legitimate worry about his future.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” he said the other day from my passenger seat. “I’ll probably end up in Warren.”

Warren State Hospital, that is. When I was a kid in northwest Pennsylvania, “North Warren” meant “loony bin.” Sad, but that’s how it was.

But what I heard Ray saying was, “I expect to be forsaken.”

And I heard, “I’m going to completely lose my mind, and nobody will care one way or the other.”

A couple years ago, Ray almost made me lose my mind. His illness was particularly severe, and he would call me eight to ten times a day. When I brought the number to his attention, he had no idea.

“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he apologized. “I’m not playing with a full deck.”

“I know, Ray. I understand,” I assured him, swallowing frustration.

Lord, please grant Ray a full deck. (Credit: Wikipedia)

He is infinitely better now. So why is it that when Ray runs across my screen these days, I react inside like he had whacked my thumb with a hammer? Not every time, but often enough.

Other than a ride or a cup of Starbucks coffee, all Ray wants is a moment. He wants a friend to give him hope that once he runs out of cards entirely, his name will still mean something to somebody.

When Ray said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” it was as if God leaned in close and asked, “So, what will it be, John? Will my son be forsaken?”

If you ask me what faith is, I say it’s believing that when Ray falls asleep every night, God is nowhere more present than in his room. It’s dreaming that God looks at my friend’s face in the dark and sighs.

Faith is answering my phone.

Warren State Hospital, 1886. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!'”

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!”

I

Tree of Life Synagogue (Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Pools of blood. Let us be graphic. Scatterings of brain, pieces of brain. Let us press a fist into our breastbones as we speak. Shrapnel made of skull. Let us behold hatred made visible. The mantle soaked dark red, the scroll stained? Let us run toward the wretched truth as recklessly as police did the synagogue door. The day for decorum has passed. Platitudes be damned.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yes, well, spare them. If I’m right that God is love, then the eleven who were executed in Tree of Life Synagogue don’t need a single intercession from any of us. As for loved ones, I daresay what they need far more than petitions are witnesses willing to name the evil at work and claim their share of responsibility for bringing it under submission.

Our most efficacious prayer, then, would be to stand over the still bodies, to look closely and mindfully and not to turn away. If we can’t do so in the physical Squirrel Hill sanctuary turned slaughterhouse, then we can imagine. That’s what we owe the dead. In fact, that’s what we owe ourselves. That’s what we owe our country. To stare down carnage, to rend our hearts, to reject euphemisms and the lazy comfort of denial.

Do I sound gory? Maybe so, but thoughts and prayers as numerous as the stars in the sky, well intended though they may be, make clear that what we really want is for Yahweh to swoop down and clean up our mess for us—a request that would make wise parents shake their heads and say, “This is quite a mess you’ve made. Best be about cleaning it up.”

Unfortunately, I can’t clean up what’s not real. Like Thomas, I have to put my Christian hand into all the wounds. I have to touch the mantle. kiss my fingertips, and see the Tree of Life Torah for myself.

II

I’m as culpable as any other American, “in bondage to sin and unable to free [myself],” as my Lutheran confession reads. Every Sunday I stand in worship and join brothers and sisters in owning up: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our confession rises at St. John’s Lutheran church.

So I begin with love of neighbor, with eleven faces and the brutality of their death. Without succumbing to paralysis, I take what happened to them personally. How would it feel to be the son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who emerged from his hiding place too early? In this moment I imagine that my own mother was one of those shot in the back of the head—as some were—and a flush of despair fills my chest.

You may accuse me of wallowing, but I consider such self-interrogation to be prayer, a way to honor the fellow human beings who have gone on to glory—or so I believe. Keeping a safe distance from Tree of Life amounts to giving wordless consent to the next massacre and all that makes it possible.

Being imaginatively present to my Jewish brothers and sisters would be beyond redemption but for the Gracious Mystery who accompanies me as I receive bottomless wounds, crevasses in beloved flesh. I’m accompanied throughout the task at hand: to announce, to myself if no one else, yet another holocaust among the quick and the dead.

III

Imagination is prayer, granting solace without neglecting reality. Imagination is prayer, a dream of healing and resurrection while confessing, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!” Fist, again, three times to the breast.

I imagine Cecil Rosenthal. His face is the most real to me. He lived with his brother David for all of their adult lives. “Two mentally-handicapped men,” writes Paul Berman in Tablet. Cecil, 59. David, 54. The latter quiet, the former huge, gregarious, the life of the party.

My brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Their lovely faces are without guile. God touches their cheeks, damp with tears of homecoming.

Cecil was Tree of Life’s official Torah bearer. He carried the scroll up and down the aisles so worshippers could touch the mantle with their tzizits (ritual fringes) or siddurs (prayer books) or hands, then kiss what has touched the mantle. Reverence and joy!

Outside of the synagogue community, observers may suppose that Cecil and David needed Tree of Life, but I bet my last dollar that every last congregant would say Tree of Life needed Cecil and David. Within the sacred, eyes see truths mystifying to the profane.

Now Cecil bears the Torah, walking slowly, pausing to receive my touch and witness my kiss. In this prayer, I realize that Cecil doesn’t need me so much as I need him. The word doesn’t need me. I need the word. I need Cecil to bring me the word. I’m broken.

I want to know how he and his brother died and where. I want to know if they were frightened, if they suffered, if their sweet smiles shone at the last. They were my brothers. I wonder.

IV

 I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m sorry, David. Oh, Lord, tell my brothers that I have something to say to them.

Mea culpa,” David Rosenthal. “I say to you, ‘Arise!'”

“Mea maxima culpa, Cecil Rosenthal. I say to you, ‘Arise! For love’s sake, hold before me the Torah. I have to do my part to clean up this mess, but I don’t even know where to begin. You know better than I. Bring me the Sacred Words, then return to your repose. You and David rest where you’ll be safe, once and for all.”

Tree of Life’s Richard Gottfried bearing the Torah. May Yahweh rest him. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)