Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Dear Cole:

Your wild red hair before waking on Sunday morning and heading to St. John’s in Oniontown

You’re only four and a half years old now, but I’m writing to preserve the thoughts under your wild red hair until the day comes for you to retrieve them. Of course, nobody really knows what another person thinks. Let’s call this letter a gift of love, then, flawed like everything else in the world.

A few months ago you said something curious to your Grandma Kathy: “I don’t want to grow up. I’ll miss my beautiful voice.” She and I tell our friends about your words, which we find funny, but also haunting and sad. Kids like you say things so fresh and insightful that adults laugh through their tears.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, where you are loved

Your voice is beautiful, Cole. In fact, everything about you is so beautiful that, truth be told, your parents, grandparents, relatives and dozens of other folks, like your church family at St. John’s in Oniontown, wish time would stop here and now. How could you ever be more beautiful than you are today?

Clocks break, though, and watches stop, but the present hour leads to the next, and no prayer can change this fact. It’s incredible to us—the grown ups who love you—that you have reckoned so young the relentless passing of life. Good Lord, pal, I wish you wouldn’t rush that pretty head of yours into eternal mysteries.

But here you are, telling your mom and dad that you don’t want to grow up because if you grow up you’re going to die. You’re asking if dinner is healthy because food that’s good for you will make you grow up. You want junk food instead, which won’t make your body big and strong. Your parents have explained that eating crap will only make you a sickly adult, but this logic hasn’t helped.

“What happens when I die?” you’ve been asking. We ache with longing to ease your mind. Your mom said, “We believe you go to be with Jesus,” and she was speaking our truth.

The trouble is, Cole, we say “believe” for good reasons. We also say “faith” and “hope” a lot, too. The word we shouldn’t say is “know,” and even though I’m a Lutheran pastor, you should ignore anybody who presumes to understand the mind of God and the terms and conditions of eternity.

The last time we had family dinner, your fear and suffering was overwhelming. You had already cried a couple of times that day and picked at your food, though we had a couple of unhealthy options for you. After clearing the table, we sat in the living room.

A cute little cry before you grew hair, Cole.

I’ll never forget what happened next. You stood in front of your father, your hands on his knees, and suddenly sobbed. These weren’t normal little boy tears, like the ones that fall when you don’t get your way or you smash your toe. These were “save me” tears, “I can’t breathe” tears. I recognized the terror washing over you. It happened to your Pop when he was about twice your age.

This fear has a couple of fancy names, “ontological shock” and “mortal dread” among them. They all mean the same thing: You understand the possibility that long ago you didn’t exist and someday you might not exist anymore. Notice I used another flimsy word, “possibility.” I’m sorry. We just don’t know.

You probably won’t remember that on a Sunday evening years ago when you were terrified, your mom and dad comforted you. Nobody denied the abyss you were staring into or dismissed your fear or told you to hush.

“Cole,” I said, “I believe that when we die we’ll all be together and safe.” That’s my sustaining truth, but much as I would like to plant certainty into your soul, you’ve started the spiritual work of a lifetime early. Nobody can do this job for you or say anything to make it easy.

I’m still doing my work and remember well waking up in the dark in a panic about what must happen to you, me and everyone else. We all die, and I no longer wish to be an exception to this rule. I’m less afraid than I used to be.

When you read this letter, please think back. If your Pop ever saw you crying “save me” tears, I hope you remember me saying, “I’m scared, too, Cole. We all are. Let’s hold each other and imagine this is what it feels like to rest in God’s arms. ”

Love,

Pop

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Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Driving with wife Kathy and grandsons Cole and Killian toward what we call “Grandma Kathy’s house,” I was both amused and horrified by the young man operating a battered economy four-door in the next lane. He was multi-tasking, and the other cars on the road were the least of his worries.

Now, who among us hasn’t seen a fellow driver texting while doing one of the following: lighting a cigarette, applying lipstick and making kissy faces in the rearview mirror, inhaling shoestring French fries, or pretending the steering wheel is a bongo drum?

Put a cup of guac in this guy’s left hand and you get the idea. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed somebody manipulating a smartphone with one hand, holding a little plastic cup in the other, and going at the guacamole therein like a dog lapping up ice cream. The guy’s texting hand also had driving duty, as the cup in the other hand had to be within range of his tongue. It was not pretty.

Of course, texting and eating Mexican is all fun and games until pedestrians get run over, which is almost what happened. A multi-generational family neglected physical wellbeing and migrated across four lanes of traffic right in front of Pastor Coleman’s and Prince Avocado’s cars. The whole lot wore dull expressions, as if they had just decimated an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can’t exaggerate the oblivion with which these eight bipeds flowed like molasses through traffic and the wonder of their survival.

Later that same evening, after the grandsons got picked up from their playtime with Grandma Kathy and Pop, the former sat on the couch and shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that family,” she said. “They could have been killed.” Such an outcome would also have gutted the future of one twenty-something multi-tasker.

Reasonable citizens would agree that everybody should quit messing around while driving. As for myself, I mean to push the point further and adopt one-thing-at-a-time as a standard practice.

My commute from home in Erie to work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown has recently reminded me that managing several tasks simultaneously threatens life in more ways than one. A few weeks ago on I-79 South a woodchuck waddled across my path and, sad to say, he is burrowing into fields no more. Since that day, on various byways leading to Oniontown, a procession of turkeys, a family of geese with goslings and a graceful fox have played Hyundai roulette with me.

If I had been combing the few hairs I have left or fussing with the radio dial, there might well have been additional casualties. Thank goodness. I’m a guest on the animals’ land. They are not pests on mine. But my motivation for finishing one task before taking on another is about more than an aversion to squashing wildlife. I’m equally concerned about squandering blessings. The older I get, the more I realize that locations from Erie to Oniontown to Everest are waiting for me to accept their generosity.

Dick Proenneke, the Guardian of Twin Lakes (Credit: Wikipedia)

One of my heroes, Dick Proenneke, gained notoriety through his determination to notice what planet Earth seemed eager to give him. In the summer of 1967 he chopped down trees in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and let the stripped logs age. In 1968 he moved there for good to build a cabin with hand tools. Fifty-one at the time, Proenneke was extraordinarily energetic, strong, and resourceful. In ten days he had the walls of his 11’ x 14’ cabin ready for a roof, which he completed in short order. Come September, he added a fireplace and chimney made out of rocks he had gathered on his many hikes.

He wanted to be “alone in the wilderness,” as a documentary about him is entitled, after nearly losing his vision in an accident while employed as a truck mechanic. Proenneke decided that he would treat his eyes to as much beauty as they could handle, and Alaska was the place to do it. His journals, photographs and 16 mm films of thirty-five plus years spent in a lovely, though unforgiving, environment are instructive and inspiring.

No surprise to anyone who knows me, lighting out for the lonely territory is not on my bucket list. Some afternoons mowing the lawn feels like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Besides, surrounded as I am by loving family and friends, a little solitude goes a long way.

Killian, Grandma Kathy and Cole. Pay attention, Pastor Coleman. This is life.

Fortunately, following Dick Proenneke’s example doesn’t demand residing anywhere other than 402 Parkway Drive or serving a church in a village more remote than Oniontown. What I need to do is pay attention—to the turkeys and geese, to the fox so light on its feet, to Grandma Kathy, to Cole and Killian.

If I don’t behold blessings one at a time, I appreciate none of them. Everyone and everything gets a turn. This is life.

My Favorite Color Revisited

My Favorite Color Revisited

Blogger’s Note: Here’s another post with an excess of marital and family love. Please take a pass if you’ve had your fill of my gush. Peace, John

Wife Kathy’s paisley pop ottoman

Just so you’ll give me a little leeway in the matter of color preferences, please bear in mind that my father was a Navy man with simple tastes.

“What’s your favorite color, Dad?” I asked him going on fifty years ago.

“Oh, battleship gray, I guess.”

Not merely gray, which I like, but a shade that can lead over time to melancholy. Get up close to a battleship some time and stare at it. “Why am I so sad?” you’ll wonder eventually. That’s battleship gray for you.

In fairness, Dad may have been telling me that he didn’t have a favorite color. Some people don’t care, can’t decide or refuse to commit. I once told inquiring grandson Cole that his red hair was my pick. Of course, I wouldn’t paint my house or buy a suit that color, which suggests that ginger’s appeal has everything to do with it curling around on my buddy’s head.

Cole, Pop and Killian. When the youngest asks about my favorite color, I’ll add sandy brown to the list.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t normally fritter away a morning musing about why Dad decided my childhood home should be battleship gray. No, on this overcast, drizzly day in Erie, Pennsylvania, I’m contemplating marriage, especially ones that have lasted a while.

Here’s the situation. Other than Cole-orange, my favorite color is negotiable within the palate of muted earth tones. I want to look upon whatever gives my heart peace. None of you, I’ll wager, has ever worn a fluorescent beige jacket. Why? Because God decided—on what day of creation I don’t know—that some colors shouldn’t make human beings squint. Soothing, that’s what I like, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Wife Kathy, on the other hand, goes in the direction my late mother would have called “loud.” Here’s an example. In 2015 Kathy and I moved out of a big house with a “loud” kitchen: fluorescent orange, lime green and a sassy yellow with mustard tendencies. It was not possible to cook in that room without the awareness of radioactive levels of brightness.

Micah smoking an e-cig in our old house’s lime green breakfast nook.

But seriously, the paint job was an expression of Kathy’s exuberant spirit, which made the blinding ambiance endearing to me. She wanted a fun space and didn’t ask me to pick up a brush or roller. The deal was more than fair.

The kitchen of our current small home is characterized by Pastor John’s restraint: light gray walls, cherry-stained cupboards and floor tiles blessed with an abstract smudging of earth tones. It is well with my soul.

So imagine my alarm last week when Kathy said we should paint the boring wooden bench in the mudroom, not eight feet away from the stove. “The space needs a little pop.”

I said nothing at first, but thought, “And so it begins.” The only Pop I want at 402 Parkway is yours truly.

“OK, what were you thinking?” I finally managed.

“Well, how about purple?” she said with a few blinks and a come-hither smile.

What I said in my head: “Oh dear.” What I said with my mouth, already surrendering with the talks barely underway: “Could we go with a pale purple, kind of flat, sort of like mauve?” My goal, in case you can’t tell, was to drag this purple as close to gray as I could get it.

My beloved is taken with spray-paint these days, so we looked at rows of cans and she granted me an honest vote. Now, what has turned out to be a lavender bench sits by the back door. It’s a tad pastel for me, but I can live with it. Before long, I’ll probably like it.

The same thing happened when the barn behind the cornfield bordering St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown was covered with fire engine red siding. At first I missed gazing out my office window at the weathered white and gray, but over time the change has found favor in my eyes. When you look through love’s glasses, even battleship gray can grow on you.

A little pop in Oniontown

The other day I watched through the screen door as Kathy sat on the back steps and sipped tea. The wind lifted her gray hair and set it back down again. At my feet was the bench that makes her happy.

This July will mark thirty-five years for us. Luck keeps us afloat, as does an understanding our marriage would die without. Kathy’s fluorescent soul pops as her creator intended, and my pale palate is right and salutary just the way it is.

I’m pointing toward love, of course. The Greek word for it is not “eros” or “philos,” but “agape.” You pick the paint, if it matters to you,” such unconditional love says. “Maybe next time I’ll choose.”

After “I do,” precious little really matters. In the end (and I’m not making this up), I have three favorite colors: Cole-orange, the gray of Kathy’s hair and the auburn of her eyes.

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Micah, around the time he figured out his old man

When son Micah was a boy, he sized me up better than the therapists of my troubled twenties and forties ever did.

“Oh, Dad,” he said with a loving lilt, “you’re such a relationship.” I can’t remember the context or his exact age, but could never forget such a quirky turn of phrase.

I’ve kept his insight in my “Kids Say the Darndest Things” file until a recent development in my daily routine—more on that later—proved Micah prophetic.

Of course, I go by “John,” “Dad,” “Pop” and “Pastor.” You can call me a “writer” if you’re brave enough. On my best days I’ve been accused of being a decent “cook.” I used to consider myself a “runner,” though “jogger” is more accurate.

But as a man who has spent extravagant hours navel-gazing, I admit that “relationship” is closest to the truth. (Please imagine Barbra Streisand singing, “People, people who need people.”)

This pastor’s life is one great tome with many chapters of relationships. My daily planner is thicker with names than tasks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This Friday morning writer friends Mary and Jennie and I will get together for our monthly coffee, commiseration and guffaw session. When we get laughing other patrons turn toward us and stare.

About an hour ago I took friend Ray for a haircut and beard trim. I started out as his pastor, then became his chauffeur and finally decided to be his friend. He is on heavy psychotropic meds and goes in-patient every now and then to deal with paranoia. His flat affect makes our witty repartee all the more hilarious. I love the guy.

And I love people. The best part of serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, is when parishioners come to the church on an errand and stop for a chat.

Church secretary Jodi recently recounted to me her family’s efforts to rehabilitate an aptly named chicken. Somehow or other, Chicky Chick acquired a bum leg. The stakes were high, as a gimpy chicken stands a good chance of being pecked into pate by the other birds. That’s how they roll, Jodi explained, adding the tidbit that egg-laying hens are poor candidates for dinner, so the chopping block wasn’t the best answer.

More than anything else, she had a soft spot for the old thing, so St. John’s church secretary went into crisis mode and pieced together an isolation pen.

Once a day, Chicky Chick received therapy, which consisted of Jodi pulling and pushing on the compromised limb and her husband or son hanging onto the flummoxed patient. Thanks to the ministrations, the hen has moved back in with her peeps.

Can you imagine my good fortune of having a paying job that includes listening to amiable people tell stories that you just can’t make up?

In addition to great stories and fun nicknames, I have this view out my office window. Not a bad deal.

And the nicknames! Maybe it takes a relationship like me to adore the handles mentioned with a straight face in my Pastor’s Study. My three favorites are “Cucumber,” “Squeak” and “Fuzzy.” I’ve also picked up on an understated Oniontown way of communicating love for somebody without actually speaking the three words. Just attach an “e” sound to the end of the person’s name. Adjustments are often necessary. You’d never say “William-ee,” for example, but “Billy” gushes with affection.

Outside my office door, a weaving by wife Kathy. People can come in for peace (pax) and a couple of laughs. And I always try to take the peace of Oniontown home with me.

On days I’m not at St. Johnny’s, Pop tends to connections at home in Erie. Most mornings I sit silently with God, whom I pray to behold and hold according to a schedule beyond calendars. I trust that at the end of days, this mysterious relationship will take all others unto itself.

Most Sundays the Colemans have family dinner, a practice daughter Elena insisted on back when Micah was recovering from drug addiction. Our house is noisy and joyful with people who need each other and aren’t ashamed to admit it.

And now my wife and I have stumbled into the routine that has quickly become blessed. After both of us finish work, we face each other on an aptly named piece of furniture, a “loveseat,” and talk. No music or television.

We refer to this new habit as “our time.” Who but a hopeless relationship could savor two such commonplace words? Micah was wiser than his years.

My wife’s proper name, incidentally, is “Kathleen,” but “Kathy” works better. I also say “I love you” an awful lot to be sure she never forgets.

After “our time,” Kathy and I sometimes go for a walk in the neighborhood and check out beauty hiding in plain sight.

Oniontown Pastoral: Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

Oniontown Pastoral:

Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

March 31, 2018

I’ve never worn a compulsory smile, so I thanked a Starbucks barista a few minutes ago for the perky expression she is no doubt required to sport. “I know looking happy must be tiring,” I said, “but it really matters. I appreciate it.”

You should have seen the young lady’s wide eyes and pearly whites. No kidding, she parted the clouds on this drizzly day before Easter.

I now have in front of me another dear face, one that I have not seen for fifty years and figured never to see again. I often wear a leather bracelet bearing his name:

SP4 MARC E. SNELL

USA 03 SEP 68 SVN

This soldier, who was killed in Vietnam soon after his nineteenth birthday and a month before I turned seven, accompanies my comings and goings—not as a dark cloud, but as a ray of truth.

Marc E. Snell

The Snells lived two doors down from the Colemans for decades, and the memory of standing on our front porch when word came of Marc’s death still has ahold of me. Even at my young age, I felt all the houses across the street tilt to one side. The fair weather turned surreal, as if warmth and normalcy had no business on Wagner Avenue that day.

I ordered Marc’s bracelet a couple years back and wear him to remind me that a person can be doing nothing much, like consuming C Rations, when an explosion changes everything—fade to black.

That was the story I heard. Marc was eating lunch. I’ve always imagined him still sitting alone, leaning against a tree. His Casualty Data Report doesn’t help much:

Start Tour: Tuesday, 07/23/1968

Cas Date: Tuesday, 09/03/1968

Age at Loss: 19

Remains: Body Recovered

Location: Long An, South Vietnam

Type: Hostile, Died

Reason: Artillery, Rocket, Mortar – Ground Casualty

Strange, I can’t bring into focus a single image of the living Marc Snell. What I do recall is paying respects at Duscas Funeral Home with my family.

“Johnny,” Mr. Snell said. “Come up and see my boy.” He took my hand.

I was terrified. Marc died of a head wound—or so I believed. Would I have to look at something ghastly?

Of course, the casket was closed, and Marc’s military portrait—the very one I tracked down on the Internet—sat on top of it.

“Come up and see my boy.” Decades have passed, yet I never again expect to hear an invitation spoken so proudly. His voice was hoarse from unfiltered Pall Malls and devastation. Nineteen year olds have no business dying.

Only now, with Marc’s portrait in front of me, can I tell how much the son took after the father. In the many Septembers since the Snell’s heartbreak, I’ve held a morbid, though loving, question: “Did Mr. and Mrs. Snell have to look at their boy’s body?” The answer, either way, is too much to bear.

I shot hoops as a teenager in the Snell’s driveway and can name each member of the family: Fred (father), Lillian (mother), Marc, Alan, Mary, Earl and Jane.

Earl and I palled around some. We bought gold Stingray bikes with banana seats on the same day from Kmart. The shimmering memory of riding around the neighborhood together bumps into the wretchedness of a boy’s violent end after only forty-eight days in action. Did Marc have enough time to be afraid?

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, when “alleluias” will ring out from Christian churches everywhere, including St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown. You can bet I’ll be wearing Marc’s bracelet. No celebration of mine will leave Marc out in the cold. Inspired by his father’s WWII service, Marc voluntarily enlisted.

Alleluias at St. John’s Lutheran Church

Understand, I’m not gloomy. If you hear a person laughing like a buffoon in public, even-money it’s me, and I make friendly eye contact with strangers, at the risk of being called “creepy.”

The thing is, my joy doesn’t ignore artillery. In the here and now, tombs are overflowing. Marc Snell is in the ground. So, by the way, are his parents and mine.

If I forget Gethsemane and Golgotha, Easter’s “alleluia” is nothing but smoke.

So what have I got to smile about? I believe in wide eyes and pearly whites. I believe that every kid killed in Long An and every other province of Vietnam has been recovered, indeed, once and for all.

I believe that the clouds will part tomorrow morning.

Sunny in Oniontown

 

 

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

“Where’s that shaky guy?” grandson Cole asked.

The setting was the fellowship hall at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, the guy in question was Bob and the shaking referred to takes place during our “greeting of peace.” Bob and Cole’s handshake is spirited and playful—“shaky,” as the latter puts it.

Our four-year-old ginger finally tracked down Bob and said, “You want to come sit with me?”

How could that shaky guy with grandchildren of his own turn down such an offer? So Cole led him to the far end of the hall, where Grandma Kathy joined them for cookies, orange drink and a visit.

“Can I tell you something?” Cole said.

“You can tell me anything, Cole,” Bob answered.

If only I had heard the exchange. As it happened, the account came to me secondhand.

Our four-year-old ginger with his little brother Killian playing in the wings

I close my eyes and picture a boy and two grown ups putting their paper plates on a long table and having a seat. My grandson asks his grownup question, and Bob gives a loving answer.

I don’t know anything more about their conversation, but that doesn’t matter. It is as if my heart is gladdened by wine and strengthened by bread.

Sundays positively shine whenever Cole spends Saturday night at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house and saddles up for the hour-long drive from Erie to Oniontown for church. His presence is a joyful tithe that doesn’t clink in the offering plate or show up in the weekly tally.

I wish every sister and brother in the St. John’s family could share my grandson’s start to the day. He and Grandma Kathy sleep on a sofa bed in “Cole’s Room,” and my job is to sneak in and cuddle with him as she wakes up and gets dressed.

If you’ve never held a child in footed jammies as he yawns and opens his eyes, I can attest to the moment’s medicinal properties. My favorite hymn includes this line: “Take the dimness of my soul away.” As my buddy stretches, transforming his lean frame into a two-by-four, the prayer of one lucky grandfather is more than answered. The shadows casting gloom over my spirit lift—trite, perhaps, but true.

The way to Oniontown isn’t too shabby, either. Pop serves as chauffeur while Grandma Kathy sits in the back with Cole. Toasted bagels, cream cheese and hot chocolate make for a lordly forty-five minutes as Pennsylvania’s I-79 takes us past Edinboro, Saegertown and Meadville.

Route 19 South leads to a borough that gives us a laugh. We count one-two-three at the “Sheakleyville” road sign, wiggle our bodies and turn three syllables into six: “Shay-ay-ay-ake-lee-ville.”

A few miles past Wagler’s Camp Perry, we watch for a dirty blonde horse in his yard. I let up on the gas as we wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.” (He is such an affectionate part of my commute that I had to give him a name.)

On District Road we speed over the railroad tracks near Kremis and sing “ahh” with a hammy vibrato. It’s an operatic couple of seconds.

The St. John’s sanctuary

Finally, we walk through St. John’s doors. Lutherans are not the most demonstrative sheep in the Christian fold, but a quiet joy reigns in the house. And when kids come to worship, this pastor for one senses an angel visitant and opening skies.

Cole isn’t the only child to put a shine on the hearts of the faithful. Plenty of us sport crow’s feet, but you should see our eyes widen with gladness when any little one brings a flower down the aisle at the beginning of worship or helps carry the processional cross to the back of the sanctuary at the end. Brave kids are even welcome to join in shouting, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Cole and his tribe do me the great service of enlivening boring sermons. There’s nothing like a game of peek-a-boo with pew mates to keep my long-suffering listeners pleasantly diverted.

Kids probably don’t understand the blessings they bestow upon St. John’s, but in years to come I hope they’ll remember the love shown them—the love of shaky handshakes, cookies and orange drink, and best of all, friends who mean it when they say, “You can tell me anything.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw

Oniontown Pastoral:

Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw

The last thing I expected to enjoy two years ago when I started serving as St. John’s Lutheran Church’s part-time pastor was my seventy-mile commute from Erie to Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

I was smitten immediately. The scenery calms me down, and the livestock munching their breakfast as I speed by now seem like distant relatives. One blonde horse on Route 19 is on my mind so often that I may request a meeting. I call him Onslow. What would the farmer say when I knock and ask, “Do you mind if I make your horse’s acquaintance”? Hopefully he suffers fools well.

I’m not altogether surprised to discover that my time behind the wheel is joyful. Experience has proven that gladness finds me and not the other way around. Beauty, wisdom and bliss don’t yield to force or expectation. They obey their own fancies.

I received such lessons anew in October when Kathy and I traveled to Ireland, a country aptly called the “Emerald Isle.” Everywhere you look, intoxicating greens and ancient grays cast a reverent spell.

Reverence

Leave it to me, though, to be delighted most by chance human encounters. One beer into my first pub visit, a lean, leathery-faced old stranger took a look at my gut, leaned in close and asked, “When’s the last time you saw your own feet, mate?” Tipsy Irishmen say the darndest things.

Gladness also showed up in the commonplace, especially along the island’s narrow, harrowing roads. My brother Ed drove, his wife Debby navigated, and Kathy and I sat in the back seat and let our eyes wander.

I never tired of watching livestock grazing in fields framed by stone walls. It was as if a painter arranged the cows for the greatest artistic affect.

“Why,” I later asked St. John’s friend and cow-whisperer Dave, “do Irish cows stand together and strike the same gracious pose while ours are scattered hither and yon?”

“That’s because,” Dave shot back, “American cows are free spirits.” Well played!

Two acquaintances in the mist at the Cliffs of Moher

Almost as numerous as cows, the sheep had an attitude, and with good reason. I would smirk, too, if somebody had branded my wool with fluorescent spray paint. One looked me right in the eyes. “Well,” his expression said, “are we going to stare at each other or go lift a Guinness?”

Must say, I’d be a little put out, too. (Credit: Dave Fergusson on Wikimedia Commons. A Scottish sheep.)

My keenest, most unlikely pleasure was granted by a crow, or so I assumed. Birder friend Mary saw a photograph I had posted on ANappersCompanion.com weeks later and informed me that my bird was a Jackdaw.

So it was “Jack”—or “Jackie,” I don’t know—who met me outside a pub in Blarney. As I sipped Cabernet Sauvignon, this corvid had me under surveillance. Townsfolk and tourists were seated all around, but Jack was most enamored of me.

The feeling was mutual. He landed one table over and hopped about. What was he up to?

Since my glass was empty, I got a refill for me and a scone for Jack. After kissing Blarney’s famous stone and wandering the castle’s gardens, I wasn’t hungry myself, but content to rest, gladden my heart and treat a fellow planetary citizen to lunch.

A fellow planetary citizen

I set a few chunks of scone on Jack’s table and waited for him to return. He took my offerings one by one, flew away, then came back for more.

Hoping he would join me, I put pieces on my table. He came and went, several times staking me out from the roof of Blarney Woolen Mills. Alas, the closest he got was the chair opposite me.

Jack considers my invitation.

When I returned from getting a last refill, Jack and his friends had cleaned up the portions I’d left behind. Before long I ripped up the sad remnants and headed back to the hotel for a siesta.

Walking along, I wondered why I had spent the better part of an afternoon in the company of an understandably skittish bird. (Lord knows why such conundrums interest me.)

My only intention was to call Jack “brother,” but how could he (or she) have known? Two creatures crossing paths, that’s what we were. Yes, I know Jack was all about the scone, but I’m eccentric enough to believe we connected in a mysterious, elemental way.

The possibility alone makes me glad. When humans, corvids, cows and sheep of good will trust each other, a silent language is spoken. Its name is Hope.

Jackdaw about to take flight at the Blarney Castle’s Poison Garden

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day*

For Birdy

Have you ever spent hours on roller skates, then put on your shoes and felt as though your feet belonged to somebody else?

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.

An impossibly blue sky in Oniontown

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.

Author’s confession: I was a mama’s boy.

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.)

Nothing sadder than round bales on a summer day.

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?”

A blue worthy of singing

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.

Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

My buddy Ray called last night. “Hey, Pastor, could you drop off my tobacco on your way to church tomorrow? Would it be out of your way?”

Actually, the detour cost me fifteen minutes, but no worries. We have an arrangement: Ray is constantly trying to quit smoking, but he always goes back. To keep temptation at bay, he tosses a bag full of loose tobacco and rolling papers in my trunk, where it keeps my lawn chair and fleece blanket company.

For a couple years I silently stewed about babysitting Ray’s tobacco. Our little routine is exquisitely stupid, but not as bonkers as throwing away thousands of dollars worth of tar and nicotine, only to show up sagging and defeated at Smoker Friendly to buy some more. And that’s exactly what Ray did for years.

So I hang onto what I’m sure is the crummiest of crummy tobacco, $11 a bag. The label says, “Pipe tobacco,” but Ray insists it’s for cigarettes.

“Brother,” I tease him, “you’re smoking shaved, dried out cabbage.”

Whether it ought to be tamped into a pipe or stirred into coleslaw, I’ve driven tobacco to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown and back home to Erie, to hospitals in Greenville, Farrell and Sharon, to McCartney’s to pick up birdseed and along Route 19 to the check on a horse I’ve named Onslow. I bet Ray’s smokes have traveled more than he has.

Within a week or two, my friend “yields”—that’s what he calls it—and I swing by his house. This morning I left the goods on his pack porch. He called later and thanked me for the delivery.

Ray is nothing if not grateful, which is one reason I’m not frustrated over my babysitting duties anymore. Of course, I could tell him this foolishness has gone on long enough, and I should never have signed on for such a lost cause in the first place.

Anyway, ire on my part is far less important than this truth: Ray’s smoking cause is probably lost, but my buddy is not. The trouble is, the man’s soul and his addiction are tangled together.

For most smokers, quitting is about trying to stay alive. Ray, whose health has been distressing for years, says, “I love tobacco. I don’t care if I get cancer. I have to die of something.” Snuff, long-cut chew, pipe, cigars, cigarettes, he does them all by turns. These days, he and his old Laredo cigarette roller are fast friends.

Be this happy, Ray. (Credit: Hedwig Ohring on Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not fan of tobacco, but I wish Ray could indulge his addiction in peace. Unfortunately, the vice he adores also torments him. He was raised to believe in a wrathful God who keeps a long list of damnable offenses. Now in his sixties, he can’t stop believing that smoking in this life guarantees burning in the next.

Ray’s many medications leave his body depleted, but what really saps his strength is the withering sense of condemnation he carries around.

My Lord, how we’ve talked. If addictions earn people eternal punishment, then the line into hell is going to reach almost to heaven.

“If you want to improve your health,” I say, “quit tobacco. But if you’re trying to earn God’s love, my advice would be to roll yourself another.” I also tell Ray, “But what do I know?”

Lost cause on my way to Oniontown: an old thresher.

I don’t know the mind of God or claim any particular wisdom. In many ways I’m a lost cause myself. At least I have a nice collection of them. And I spend increasing amounts of time holding hands with folks whose lost causes bring them to their knees or knock them flat.

Does this sound hopeless? Not to me. Sitting cheek to jowl with the unsolvable, inescapable and terminal isn’t about hoping for miracles, but making sure that when a cause is lost, its owner is safe and sound.

So I tell Ray that I’m pretty sure God loves him just the way he is, right down to his smoke-stained fingertips. If he and you and I can believe this, then plenty of causes don’t matter much as long as we remember that our souls can never be lost.

An old, stained, torn message from the Coleman family refrigerator. Only believe, Ray.

Author’s Notes: This post originally appeared in slightly different form in Greenville’s newspaper, the Record Argus. And Ray says I can write about him any time I want.

Vacation with My Father

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.

Victory Chimes

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.

Picturing my father is still easy. His voice, its rising and falling, is familiar, too, but exact words come back to me only unbidden, as if they have a will of their own.

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.

No matter. Whether we like it or not, time will fold and unfold our pages of births, loves and labors until they go to pieces.

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.