A Letter for My Grandson’s Memory Book

Dear Cole:

Three times today, tears have caught in my throat. They came in bed this morning while your grandmother was still asleep. A cry sat in my chest—the ghost of old grief? I remembered Kahlil Gibran’s words: “Joy and sorrow are inseparable . . . together they come and when one sits alone with you . . . remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

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Some days are just this way, Cole, but they pass.

Tears came again in the truck as I listened to Paul Simon‘s “Father and Daughter.” When your mom and dad got married, your mom and I danced to this song. Before that day, October 2, 2010, I worried that the father/daughter wedding reception dance would be awkward, but those were three of the happiest minutes of my life. Everybody else in the hall disappeared; it was just me and Elena. We talked, I don’t remember about what. I rested my lips on her head. At the bridge, we sasheyed. We worked our big old hips, kiddo. Anyway, as I drove along, Simon sang and strummed, and I remembered and blinked back water.

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A picture of flowers? Actually, my soul while dancing with your mother.

And a few minutes ago tears accompanied my Starbucks coffee. I was listening to another Paul Simon tune, “You’re the One” and thought of you:

May twelve angels guard you

While you sleep.

Maybe that’s a waste of angels, I don’t know

I’d do anything to keep you safe

From the danger that surrounds us

There’s no particular danger surrounding either of us, but your face came to mind, and that’s generally enough to get me verklempt.

You cry a lot these days, Master Trouble Trunks. People who love you are always trying to figure out why. Hungry? Tired? Where’s Mommy? Irritated bum? A stubborn little rectum rocket? Sometimes I bet you just miss being inside your mom, where the gentle universe was shaped like your body.

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When the gentle universe was shaped like your body.

But I don’t know. Something’s going on inside me; past tears I neglected could be offering me another chance to honor them. You’ll have days like this, too, when you’re either over the moon or in the lonesome valley (or both!) and haven’t a clue why. Maybe there are human equivalents to earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Anyway, since I can’t understand myself, don’t plan on me ever explaining the wonderful, goofy person you’re sure to become. I say that in love.

You can bet your life on this, though: for as long as I can, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing right now: loving you with a love that roars silently, that looks into your eyes and sees what blessings are swirling around in your presently gaseous self, that hopes you’ll see in my baggy eyes your birthright: every soul deserves to be held in a grandfather’s agape. Not every soul is so fortunate, and if I’m right about your other grandfather, boy-oh-boy, are you ever in for it.

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Look at your mother’s and uncle’s dreamy faces. That’s because of you, you know.

Someday you’ll wonder what your first months of life were like. On one of those crappy-for-no-good-reason days of adulthood, you’ll think, “What the hell’s up with me? Did someone do me wrong? Did one of my relatives keep pinching me? Did a mystery person holding me whisper, “Everybody fusses over you, how cute you are, but listen here: you’re a hideous little dope”? No, no, and no. You’ve had more love directed at you in three months than lots of people get in a lifetime. No kidding!

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I actually took this one when you, your mom, and I had lunch one day. You were a happy little man.

Every single day, your mother sits you somewhere comfy, says something like, “Who’s Mommy’s lil bootie bootie boo? Is he going to smile for Mommy today?” then snaps five or six hundred pictures. At mid-morning, a few of the best ones hit the inboxes of people who love you. When your dad gets home, he makes you laugh and squeal. Both of your parents are beyond thoughtful and patient. And pretty much wherever you go, people crowd around you and get remarkably weird. Example: yesterday after lunch your mother and I sang “I Been Working on the Railroad” to you, even harmonizing on “strumming on the old banjo.” The last stanza’s a bummer, so we skipped it.

When you read this for yourself, hear a message from before your memory got started: Your grandpa prays on March 1, 2014, that the crazy, silly love surrounding you now will reside in you after your hair has come and gone, and that it will rise on those days when you are a stranger to yourself and remind you of my eyes, always finding the sacred Cole.

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Someday you’ll want to hide your goodness from me. Go ahead and try. I’ll see it anyway.

Love,

Grandpa John

A Study in Complicated Joy

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Paul Simon (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m fussing with a tension lately proposed by Paul Simon. In the liner notes for his 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What?” Simon writes, “The trick is, as I know it, is to care like hell 
and not give a damn at the same time.”
 He puts the challenge in harsher terms than I do. I would say, “How can I offer the world mindful appreciation, love and compassion and remain joyful?” As I try to be a responsible, engaged planetary citizen, Rhymin Simon’s question and mine are far more concrete than they first appear.

I’ll let today, Friday, July 19, 2013—my day off–be a case study. Other than skanky hot weather and a mild crick in my neck, I’m great. I indulged in a wee bit more Apostic Red than was prudent last night, but have escaped a hangover. I gave wife Kathy a kiss goodbye as she headed off to chemo nursing work this morning, and her loving smile was medicinal. Then I dropped son Micah off at work. He and I had the following exchange a couple days ago when I picked him up after eight sweaty hours of painting:

Me: You know, Micah, I’m really proud of how hard you’re working.

Micah: Yeah, I’m actually kind of proud of myself. It’s a nice change from hating myself.

A lot of gorgeous living is possible when you kick heroin. My son’s been clean over a year now, a reality that feels like an anvil has been lifted from my spirit.

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Anvil: what landed on Wile E. Coyote’s head. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Daughter Elena is scheduled to provide Kathy and me with a grandson in November. We viewed his in-progress pictures this week, which is at once teary and bizarre. In some shots you can make out a sweet-faced baby and in others his head resembles lumpy clay. He’s apparently healthy and, if present proportions hold until adulthood, his self-esteem in at least one department is going to be positive, indeed.

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Cute future grandson–still a little lumpy.

As usual, I’ve got my self-indulgent carcass parked at Starbucks, where I’m sipping my fourth iced decaf refill and breathing in and out the present moment’s causes for celebration. Can circumstances take a lousy turn and grind a Nazi heel into today’s happy face? Sure. But for right now, as Simon says, “So beautiful.”

I’ve no desire to stay in any way detached from my fragile joy. No “so what” for me. The tension to be kept productive has to do with silent partners on this Friday walk. How do I care like hell about them without losing my joy? If I’m not mindful of those who’ve been trampled, then my glad day off is selfish and anemic. But if I sacrifice my heart on the altar of everybody else’s suffering, where’s life’s savor?

Two fliers are pinned to the bulletin board behind me.

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“16 year old missing from local Residential Treatment Facility since July 14th at 9:30 p.m.”

I’m guessing people who love Bob Fuller and the unnamed teenage girl aren’t whistling and skipping right now. If Elena were missing, I’d be frantic and paralyzed at the same time.

A couple of folks in my congregation are getting schmutzed over by cancer, and one of them is about to enter hospice care. How many are looking mortality in its black maw as I try to decide whether to get yet another refill?

Yesterday I drove about an hour to visit a friend in prison, only to be told that the place was on lockdown. Sorry, no visit. I think of what it must be like to always talk to loved ones separated by thick plexiglass over a telephone—and to look forward to half-an-hour with a friend, only to have it postponed for a week or two.

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“The warm rush.” Heroin addict shooting up (Credit: Barry Lewis / In Pictures / Corbis)

I read this morning in The New York Times of increasing heroin overdoses in New England these days. Cheap opiate + unpredictable purity + desperate addicts selling themselves for the next fix = auf wiedersehen. “Theresa Dumond, 23,” the article states, “who lives on the streets of Portland, said she sells her body three times a day to support her heroin habit. She lost custody of her two young children about a year ago (‘I can’t keep track’), and their father died.” Shooting up, she says, “It’s the best feeling ever. It’s the warm rush.”

Okay, so there’s a world of hurt—heroin in Maine, cancer in Pennsylvania, vulnerable teenagers missing, God knows where. “So what?” On the whole I bet Paul Simon and I are on the same page, but my trick—to use the songwriter’s term—isn’t detachment, but embrace. It’s making room within my joy for suffering. It’s inviting the junkie and the hospice patient and the lost girl into the day’s mindfulness, the morning and evening prayer, the afternoon siesta.

This way of dealing with the joy-despair tension isn’t pious. Trust me, I’m as screwed up as the next pilgrim, but I refuse to feast on gladness and pretend that others aren’t retching in the dust. So in my spirit I set out napping mats for Bob, Theresa, and all the others and keep them close by as we rest. And in prayer I welcome them to breathe with me.

I like the way this kind of joy works. When I watch hummingbirds drink from the trumpet vine, the wind always carries a hint of manure. Even on dazzling, cloudless days, there’s thunder in the distance. Yes. This gladness seems right.

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(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)