Friday, March 20, 2020
"I might make you crazy."
"You're probably going to have to tell me to stop talking."
"I won't let you boss me around. I have to be in charge. Remember, I'm taking care of you, not the other way around."
And all of this coming from one of the gentlest people I know, and the one who volunteered to care for me at home post-open heart surgery, the one who stepped up without ever being asked so that I wouldn't have to go from the hospital to a nursing home to recover. And now she was giving me second thoughts. Well, I'd been warned. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
As it turned out, though, we'd both underestimated pretty much everything. We could never have guessed how sick I'd be, how long it would last, or how much help I'd need but more than anything else, how beautiful it would all be.
Carol had already moved in by the time I got home from the hospital. Her pillows sat puffed and waiting, her bedtime fan sat on a table, the oversized cosmetic bag she took everywhere had found a place to land in the bathroom, and her clothes hung in the guest room closet as though they'd always been there. Cupboard and refrigerator already held her own food supplies. She'd brought in her blue fleece blanket and her coffee pot. Almost everything but her cat. She hadn't brought her cat.
I didn't care. I didn't even notice most of it for days. I was thinking about something else. After all, I'd been filleted like a fish, then sewed, glued, and wired back together, and sent home with pages of instructions specific to what I couldn't do for the next twelve weeks. And what I was forbidden fell entirely to Carol. She had to do them all.
I took awhile to digest. Like so many other changes, these new patterns emerged gradually and by accumulation in one venue at a time. I needed her in far more ways than I ever anticipated. I needed her in the shower--to guide me into the chair, soaping what I could not, leaning me into the flow of the water she'd already tested and proved just hot enough, rubbing so carefully with only soft finger pads into a grateful scalp, maneuvering the towel over and around, ignoring self-consciousness. I needed her to help me dress--to guide feet that couldn't find the leg of pajama bottoms and arms unable to reach the appropriate holes of a shirt. I needed her to prepare every meal, to run every errand, to entertain every well-wisher, to track and compile every medication, to absorb every phone call, to monitor every nurse's visit, to hover nearby when I tried to walk, just in case.
But those were just things--just things people do in situations like that. Like any healthcare worker. Like any well meaning friend. Days went by before I knew that what Carol was doing was different--not like a nurse, not even like a friend. It started with the singing, I think.
She didn't have to sing, but she did. Every morning, I heard her before I saw her, unfailingly cheerful, greeting not only me but a world she was happy to meet. Nothing seemed to ruffle her--not groans or confusion, not weakness or surly impatience, not even my stubborn insistence that I could do something she knew I couldn't. No, I could not have Bible study here yet. No, I could not go to line dancing. No I could not yet go safely to church. She mother-henned, but didn't insist on any of it, giving just enough space for me to discover the wisdom to agree.
Even after these, though, it was the smallest things she did that, when I think of them now, still astonish. The blanket she relocated from place to place as I moved through the house because it was softer and warmer than any other. The day she made tater tots for meal after meal because it was all I had a taste for. The towels she warmed in the dryer before showers. The milkshakes she made when absolutely nothing else tasted good. The day she made a special trip to the grocery for fragrance free laundry detergent and rewashed clothes and bedding because the smell of my old detergent made me sick. The bird feeders she hung on the back deck to bring in Spring's first robins. The beds she made up all over the house every single night because she knew I could rarely sleep in the same place two nights in a row. The daily laundry, trash, and dishes she dealt with so that the house would always be clean and smelling fresh. The hugs and encouraging words, and laughter that never seemed to stop. The true delight she brought into my own awkward pain and failed patience.
And she never made me crazy. Not once. Instead, she astonished me. Not only for what she did, but that she did it so easily. After all, both she and I have already lived most of our days. We don't have all that many left, so the giving away of these dwindling days has become a huge gift. Well, Carol gave me a whole month of hers, and I grabbed them up with eager, greedy hands like a lifeline. I had no idea I would need them, or her, so much, and she never once made me feel selfish for it.
If the measure of our life's witness is the degree to which we can turn ordinary days into holy moments, and through them, become living beacons of faith, well, this experience showed me what that looks like. If true faith means behaving like Christ when we think no one is looking, I got to see that great faith in action. Thanks is not enough. Learning how to do the same for someone else, though, might be a good start.
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.--Maya Angelou
Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. --Mother Teresa
Whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me.--Matt 25:40
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Growing up is a creeping thing. It doesn’t happen all at once—it comes instead in small, hesitant steps urged on by inexperience, grabbed up greedily, desired and hoarded until it crams itself into every available empty corner, filling places with responsibility where dreams once wandered.
Age easily takes up sovereignty once it’s admitted. Experience, confidence, knowledge, accomplishment, systematic management of hours and years—they take over, stable and ascendant. Age builds a fortress, a throne room, from which life is managed, data sorted, plans made and executed. We yield this ground more than willingly, expecting it to open a way for achievement, for explosion from bud to blossom.
But this ordering, this considered management also exacts a price. It imposes the tyranny of the useful. From these heights, play becomes wasted time, spontaneity is assigned to fools, and dreaming disintegrates and floats away, shouldered out by schedules and appointments.
This is when childhood becomes clearer and I, with both hands up, cling to the bars of my handcrafted prison. I peer out between them, whose names I now know to be Misunderstood Serving and Unnecessary Sacrifice, into an almost untouched world of effortless surprise.
The pendulum has swung too far, and I have pushed it into motion with my own two hands. But I can push it back again. Childlike joy, after all, has not vanished. It’s only hiding and to find it requires no effort at all.
Life is not a job, living not an assignment that will be graded according to its results. Even as I am given work to do, gifts to use, a talent to invest, so does God give me Time—long, open expanses of clear air and the freedom to fill them or to simply walk into them, feeling the brush of tall reeds through my fingers or the sun on my hair.
I’ve lost too much time already, I think. The towering, perfectly round maple in my west field has made and lost twenty undocumented crowns of leaves. I don’t know which birds nest in the old henhouse. My children have gotten old enough to produce their own new humans. The sun has risen and set too often unremarked.
There is a point where planning becomes superfluous. Opening eyes and unclenching fists is the easiest thing in the world to do. Perhaps it would have been better to have seen this earlier, but this bit of horizon is now, at least, coming into better focus. Now, like an infant, all I need to do is look out and reach.
Thursday, October 24, 2019
They lay there in wait all this time, the first one showing itself when I reached in yesterday to begin a new shopping list. And they came out of that box one right after the other, unashamed of the terror that came out with them, scalding my hands. I tried to catch them as they dropped, scrambling to pick them out without having to touch them. Foreign objects. Not familiar enough to be memories. Not strange enough to ignore.
I can't decipher most of them--electronic gibberish that undoubtedly meant something in the context of a design, calculations he made and wanted to remember but have no meaning now that he's gone. Secrets--the complex meanderings of an often indecipherable mind.
They don't belong here. Not without him. But they are here and I can't throw them away. He touched them and his touch hasn't graced this place for a long time. I want to sleep with them. I want to smell them. I want to tuck them into my clothes like sachets, hoping they leach that well-remembered warmth. Instead, I cry, holding them in outstretched hands so the writing doesn't smear.
Every time I think that maybe he doesn't live here anymore, he shows up again. A scrap, a color, a tool, an ash. A glimpse that vanishes around the corner just as I look in that direction. It hurts, but it is a hurt that also consoles. No, I don't see him anymore, but it's nice to know he will sometimes still show up. They are welcome hauntings. They make him real again.
Sunday, September 22, 2019
Grow old with me.
The best is yet to be.
An old saying and a lovely one. It comes with a picture of a couple joining hands at the beginning of a long road and walking it together, gathering experiences and wisdom along the way, enjoying the satisfaction and perspective of what they’ve learned. Once they’ve arrived, their shared memories gather daily around them like chicks that nestle reliably into their palms—warm, pale yellow, and chirping. They take them up together, exchange knowing glances, and smile.
Grow old with me.
The best is yet to be.
Growing old together, done well, is a privilege. Common reflection brings joy. Even shared distress deepens and strengthens life’s fabric when looked at in the perspective of its survival. The promise of growing old together is so compelling that it can sometimes be the lifeline that makes youth survivable, but noble plans don’t always bloom into reality.
Sometimes people stop growing old.
Today is my birthday. Happy birthday to me. I have not stopped growing old.
But you have.
I’m 68 today and this is the first day that I’ve been older than you. You never got to be 68. You died at 67. You let go of my hand and stopped growing old with me.
The walk looks different now, and the country I walk through not cushioned any longer by companionship. Separation doesn’t steal accomplishment or memory, but it does bring a harshness, as though stepping off a soft, yielding garden path onto one of unreliable stone. Every step rings with reminders of what was and lost opportunities of what might have been.
Grow old with me.
The best is yet to be.
That won’t happen now. Not ever. There will be no side by side rockers on the front porch, no pair of deck chairs in the sun, no great grandchildren scattered at common feet.
But something does remain. The promise, I believe, is not broken. It will simply be fulfilled in a way we didn’t ask for or expect. We may not grow old together hand in hand, but as I grow older alone, I bring something of you with me.
More than memory, less than flesh, the mystery that made your heart beat, your courage endure, and imagination soar still surrounds me. That remains. No hand reaches out to take mine any more, but I hold you nevertheless.
A happy end still waits. The second part of the promise stands.
After my own days are fulfilled, I will walk into that same open country you now wander, a place of perfect intimacy, of unending companionship.
Remind me, please. On lonely days, or on hollow ones, when my arms feel hard the emptiness.
Tell me again.
The best is yet to be.
Monday, August 12, 2019
These are the days of the Perseids meteor shower, when the earth moves through a regular band of small interstellar rocks that rush past and, in the process of entering and burning up in our atmosphere, light up and look like falling stars. It's a magical time, when a casual ten or twenty minutes of watching can yield enough sightings to light up a soul.
But this year, we can't see it.
It turns out that this year's Perseids coincides with the full moon and the light of the moon obscures whatever 'falling stars' we might otherwise see. They're still there, of course, the meteors, but lost in the light of the moon.
The sun does the same. The Perseid rocks are falling into our atmosphere during the day, too, but we can't seen them then either. It has to be dark. So dark that their less immediate, less insistent, light can shine through.
At 2:30 this morning, when I was looking for the shooting stars I knew were out there, I was, of course, disappointed. The sky was clear enough, and my vantage point just right, and I could see a few constellations, but only one or two flashes of what I knew was a much more beautiful display. The moon---the moon was in the way.
That was when I saw another light, so to speak.
I realized that I have a moon, too.
And the light of my moon is bright, more now, I think, than ever before. So bright that I'm ignoring the fleeting, the spectacular, even the cosmic. My moon, my Dave, outshines anything else in view.
It may be that this is a natural, normal thing for a widow, but there is a danger here, and the danger is that Dave's light shines so bright that it outshines Christ.
Christ, who lights up every place into which He is admitted. Christ, who surrounds but does not insist. Christ, whose light can go out so easily in us through error or neglect.
I get it. I really do.
Last night, after realizing there would be no Perseids display, I shrugged my shoulders and went back to bed, knowing there would be another opportunity next August 12.
The other issue, not so much. Christ wants me. I need Him. But I keep grabbing for Dave, not knowing, not wanting to know, what will happen if I let go.
There's danger in this place. Christ does not share His preeminence with anyone. I have to yield, and willingly. If I do not, I assign a back seat where none is permitted. I do not get to have both at the same time--the shooting star and the full moon.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
I am confident of this: I will see the glory of God in the land of the living.--Psalm 27:13
It has to be here somewhere and, well, this is where I found it today.
Of course, not everyone sees it in the same place, but when Jesus tried to explain God's glory, He didn't tell His listeners to look up into the sky or to imagine somewhere far away. He told us to look at whatever is in front of us--a field, a pearl, a fish, a loaf of bread.
It's kind of like those puzzles that seem to be one thing and then, when you shift your gaze in just the right way, become something else. Like this one, called the Healing Grid--only the section you stare at for 30 seconds or so seems straight and regular, but shift your gaze to one of the irregular parts, and that one then becomes straight in turn. The thing itself doesn't change, but your concentrated view of it reveals something you weren't able to see before.
So, how do we know when we're looking at God?.Well, let's see--
When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant. --Exodus 34:29
Moses looked at God uncovered and God left His mark on the man. He face shown with glory so brightly that the it scared the crowd and Moses had to cover it.
It's the glory. Right here. Every day.
If we aren't astonished, we haven't found it.
It's the rhinestone among the diamonds, the silver among the stainless. Easy to miss unless we're looking. Looking and not stopping at the beauty of the thing itself (ie: golden calf), but seeing beyond it.
Let the smell, or the sound, or the feel of the God-infested thing sink in far enough and every step through this world will evoke a step into heaven.
This is the Catholic feast day of St. Ignatius, a warrior before he was a man of God--a warrior that one day laid his sword on the altar and eventually developed the Ignatian discipline by which even today monks and many who live even a modicum of the contemplative life are trained. And it's called a discipline for a reason. That's what it takes.
To look for God everywhere. To bend every action to His service.
To do this is to make our own face shine with His glory.
You will not see this looking in the mirror, but turn your God-focused face to the world and He will shine.
Thursday, July 18, 2019
There’s the one of us at our wedding, the one of you and Bryan when he was three years old, and the one of you and I at Beth’s wedding only six or seven years before you—well—before.
Most pictures recall single moments, like the ones the girlfriends constantly take of our trips to wineries or the ones of grandchildren—Emma’s graduation, me and Maia at Fenway, or Ella in the pumpkin patch. They are documents that freeze incidents for later recall lest I forget what happened then or how these dear people looked on that day.
But not the pictures of you. They are not frozen. They live. Not like a movie, not in two dimensional speech and motion, but in all four dimensions and all five senses. When I look at you whispering to me, intent in your gray suit, wearing that ridiculously fragrant and fragile gardenia in your buttonhole, leaning over, careful not to disturb Aunt Agnes’ old satin wedding gown that I finally got to wear after so many years of dreaming of it, I don’t see the picture. I hear the hush of assembled friends waiting in seats for me to walk down the aisle. I know the knot of nervousness, smell the roses and heather. I remember—no, I walk—again in that place. It all happens over and over again every time I look at the picture and pause for even a moment.
Only your pictures are like that. Opening an album you populate is not a step back in time. It is time blurring completely. Days and years shuffling seamlessly into an incomprehensible, random deck of moments, gathered into a heap without regard for chronology. But, even in their disarray, they are polite. They don’t crowd; they wait their turns. Some are longer than others, after all. They fluff and preen with pride in their power over the present. They force today to step obediently aside in deference to the attention I admit to have willingly given them.
It’s my fault, after all. I don’t want to let them go, any of them. They bring warmth and light into today’s confusing quiet. They provide framework for this future left to me, a future without you, who have so long provided something firm to lean on. I look at them and think, Yes, This was Something Good. This is Someone I love and Who loved me back.
They are my Brunelleschi.
When builders in the Middle Ages wanted to build a great dome, they began by constructing supports and scaffolding from trees the same height as the dome they’d conceived. From that place of support, brick by brick, the dome would rise. When they were done, and the scaffolding no longer needed, they dismantled and discarded it.
But, in 1296, Florence began to construct a cathedral too big for a dome built that way. No trees grew tall enough to reach the dome they’d conceived. They could build no scaffolding to it and thus, did not even know how to begin. But, unwilling to mitigate their grand design, they began to build anyway, and later completed a dome-less sacristy that remained open, with a vacant hole where the dome ought to have been, for almost 200 years.
Then, in the early 15th century, one man, Filippo Brunelleschi, understood what needed to be done. Rather than erect supports from the floor as had always been done before, he built the dome, not of a single shell, but of a double one, each supporting the other as they went up together, connected by a winding staircase between them from which the masons worked.
The first shell is an integral part of the second, not visible from the outside, but absolutely essential to the stability of the whole.
Now, I think my life is that dome, the crown, the finish of what we’d begun together. After all this time waiting, I can begin to imagine building in the only way that remains to me, like building my own inconceivable, impossible dome, with our years together its indispensable support.
I do have to build something, after all, whether I am willing or not. I have to continue to live whatever life’s been given me. But, without you, I could at first find no accessible way to do it. In the end, I find I was right. I can’t. And I don't have to.
You have to be part of whatever shape my life takes from here to its end. I have to keep you close to do that, close enough so that I don’t plunge into the gaping hole below left by your visible absence. Even while I stare at an undeniable void, I have to lean on what I know is strong and stable, made of both the old and new, visible and hidden.
That’s what Brunelleschi did, and I can do it, too. I can do it because you’re still here. I can do it because you are not a photo or a memory.