Thanksgiving for Eight Kisses In her journal The House by the Sea, May Sarton describes walking with her friend Judy and dog Tamas to the Maine shore in early December: “How glorious it was! Fifty-mile gusts of wind driving the waves … Continue reading
November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?
You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”
Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.
But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.
Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”
Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.
I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.
I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.
So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.
As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”
I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap half an hour ago and now sit in the dining room a few feet away from your Christmas cactus. It’s been jostled and broken a few times in the fifteen years you’ve been gone, but Kathy has always used the remnants as starters, which she gives away once they take hold. Guests marvel and ask how old the plant is. I wish you were here to tell me.
I miss you, Mom. Driving around at night this time of year, I listen to the empty space you left behind. People are getting lights up on their houses, and I’d love to pick you up, go slowly through the neighborhoods, check out the colors shining in the darkness, and hear you mmm and ooo. I’d love to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with you after dinner, neither of us saying much. And I wish you’d have been with me during the last couple of days.
Yesterday, November 30, 2013, your fourth great-grandchild, Cole Martin Thompson, was born at 7:15 a.m. Elena did the hard part, and her husband Matt and Kathy were there to help. I know, women give birth every day, but Cole’s arrival is almost beyond belief for Kathy and me, so joyful that it seems surreal.
Elena and Micah have been through a lot since you died. Elena remembers you walking with her to get ice cream before your arthritis got bad. They both remember the dollar toys and candy bars you had waiting for them when we came to visit—Hot-Wheel cars, little rubber ladybugs, and 3 Musketeers. Kathy and I will never forget you peeling grapes for Elena when she spent the night at your place. Their memory of you is dim around the edges, but they still talk about you with great love. You were gentle and understanding with them, long before their troubles began.
Their teenage years were tough. Elena got into wearing all black and scratching and slicing her wrists bloody. She and friends gave each other tattoos and piercings. Worst of all, in high school she swallowed a handful of pills and wound up in the hospital. And Micah was hooked on heroin and smashed up his room in our basement during a few years of madness I still don’t understand. He’s a convicted felon, which will follow him the rest of his life. He and a friend cooked down fentanyl patches and injected the narcotic into her arm. She overdosed and nearly died, and Micah took the blame. The one good thing about your death is you didn’t have to walk the floor, as you used to say, worrying about your grandchildren.
While much of this madness was going on, Kathy was in nursing school. I can’t imagine how she was able to get mostly A’s, graduate, and start work as an oncology nurse while our kids were in various stages of meltdown. But she did, which shows what a strong spirit she has.
I was a mess. Being a pastor was still new to me, so as I tried to take care of parishioners, I barely functioned myself. I can’t tell you how many times when Elena was missing in the middle of the night or when Micah was roaring and screaming, I wanted to show up at your apartment and lie down with my head in your lap. That’s some picture, huh—a forty-something man with his mommy rubbing his balding head. I had to settle for two-hour naps of escape by myself. I swear, Mom, there were times I wasn’t sure I’d survive. You gave birth to a man whose fragility didn’t make for a particularly disciplined, wise parent. I could have done a better job.
But this is why after fifteen years I want to write you. There’s a place in me that longs to tell you that after all Elena and Micah have been through, we—your son, his wife and kids and son-in-law—found ourselves together in a hospital room looking at a greater blessing than I’d considered possible.
It wasn’t just the birth of my first grandchild that moved me. It was that Elena has grown into a mighty—no pain medication during labor!—wise and lovely woman with a husband who’s in every way more than I have a right to expect.
It was that Micah has been clean for over a year and has a full-time job as a painter. You know, he cried when he first saw his nephew and said that Saturday, November 30, 2013, was the best day of his life.
I let Micah hold Cole before I did. “Would my son live to see adulthood?” I wondered years ago, listening to furniture being demolished in the basement. Yesterday, I watched your grandson hold your great-grandson. I breathed in and out, Mom, and thought for the first time in my life that if I suddenly died in that moment, all would be well, that I would have known as much joy as any man deserved.
Life offers no guarantees, other than one day we’ll all join you. You’re ash underground. My ashes will be scattered somewhere. Cole, whose head is still bruised from pressing against Elena’s pelvis, will eventually follow us. I don’t know what eternity looks like, but my prayer is that somehow we can share the holiness of these days—you, your parents and grandparents, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
And yes, Mom, I know it’s possible that I’ve written this letter only for myself—a hopeful, neurotic middle-aged man—and that you may be nothing more than the bone and cinder your children buried in June of 1998. But I can’t help believing that existence is as abiding as your Christmas cactus and as fair as your great-grandson Cole.
For as long as I have left, I’ll hold on to this belief and pray to see you again. Lifetimes from now, may we all embrace, tell stories, and watch colors shine in the darkness.
Crying sits in my chest and leans on my throat. Zoloft be damned, I’ll be wiping away tears before this Black Friday of 2013 is over—tears and snot.
(Blogger’s Note: I apologize in advance for some of what follows. This post should be an outburst of joy, but if you’ve been sticking with me any length of time, you know I try hard to be emotionally honest. So I’m going to tell the truth.)
I’d planned on being a curmudgeon today about Black Friday’s syphilitic insanity infecting Thanksgiving. I have lots to say about that but will hold off for a while. Instead, I’ll share the e-mail and Erie Times-News story that are making this 8:50 a.m. at Starbucks complicated. Bad news first.
Headline on page 2-A of the Erie Times-News on November 29, 2013, right under a lovely piece by Kevin Cuneo about the luscious scents of Thanksgiving cooking overcoming his dog’s skunking of the family home: “Man fatally shoots roving Alzheimer’s patient.” Here’s the story (skipping paragraph breaks):
CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. – Authorities in northwest Georgia said a man shot and killed a 72-year-old he thought might be an intruder but turned out to be a wandering Alzheimer’s patient. Walker County police told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Ronald Westbrook had walked about 3 miles in the sub-freezing temperatures before knocking on Joe Hendrix’s door just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. Hendrix’s fiancée didn’t answer, instead calling the police. Sheriff Steve Wilson said before deputies arrived, Hendrix went into the backyard with his handgun, where he saw Westbrook in silhouette. Wilson said the 34-year-old Hendrix recalled giving Westbrook several verbal commands, but the advanced Alzheimer’s patient didn’t respond. Hendrix then fired four shots. Wilson said charges could be filed but that Hendrix didn’t violate any laws by walking out into his own yard.
I don’t think walking out into his yard was the objectionable part! Some months ago I shared a post entitled Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani in which I described my father’s dementia. I’m the proud owner of a I Survived My Parent Going Bat Crap t-shirt. For me, it wasn’t Ronald Westbrook knocking at Joe Hendrix’s door. The man’s name was Denny Coleman, he was eighty-five, and he was so far gone that while staying at my house, he wandered into the wrong room in the middle of the night and pissed in my clothes basket. It was my confused, tormented dad who, lost and freezing, knocked on a door. When nobody answered, Dad walked into the backyard and stood in the corner, in the dark. Some guy started screaming at him, but since he couldn’t even remember whether his son was his son or uncle or brother or father, he stood there silently. Then Hendrix shot my dad’s silhouette four times. Then Dad wasn’t flummoxed or agonized anymore.
That’s how I processed the article. Conveniently, as I sat breathing, “White Christmas” played in the background, with Bing Crosby whistling like my dad used to. Of course, I also immediately thought of the woman in suburban Detroit who knocked on a door in the middle of the night because her car broke down and ate lead for the effrontery. God didn’t make enough tears and the devil didn’t make enough expletives to communicate my sadness and rage. If Hendrix had actually shot my dad, the upset would rise to another terrible height, but I’m just saying that 133-word story out of Chickamauga has sucker punched a once-in-a-lifetime morning. No worries. I’ll work the ache out of my jaw, pop four ibuprofen, and move on to today’s best news story, which showed up via e-mail:
Hi John Coleman,
Did Elena call you? She is in early labor, dilated three, probably gonna have the little guy today. If you feel the love, would you bring me a Starbucks after you leave? How am I gonna concentrate today?????????????????????????????????
Love you, soon to be grandpa
(Yes, my wife calls me John Coleman.) If question marks are any indication, Kathy is giggling and jitterbugging at work, The Regional Cancer Center. As soon as I read her note, that cry I mentioned rose in my chest. It will come out in its own time.
Like Dr. John Watson, I’m guilty of telling this story wrong-end foremost. As it happened, I read Kathy’s sweetness-and-light message, imagined holding my grandson and kissing him on the head, then opened the newspaper, where a befuddled old man’s killing had me staring at my father, scared in the darkness.
So what wins? The execution of a shadow? Or light and life? It seems like the former is always throwing a haymaker at the latter, meaning to knock it out of the ring.
My money’s on light and life. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That’s what the Gospel of John claims, and even if I weren’t a Christian, I’d still believe it. Sorry for being a fool, but the alternative is too much to bear.
With luck, light will shine this Black Friday. My grandson may enter a bright land he couldn’t have imagined and be embraced immediately by dazzling love. Let that also be so for Ronald Westbrook, Denny Coleman, and one day, you and me.