Things That Strengthen Us, pt 1 of 2

From Christman Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss, undoubtedly written first to the close loves of his life (pg. 161):

My loves, I will be with you, even if I am not with you.  Every day I feel a little more the impress of eternity, learn a little more “the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of the spirit,” as T. S. Eliot said, writing of the seventeenth-century poet and priest George Herbert (read him!), who died when he was thirty-nine and had only recently found true happiness with his new wife and new commitment to God.  My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own.  I will be with you.  I will comfort you in your despair and I will share in your joy.  They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives.  If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us.

My Fear of Losing You

Beneath our enduring friendship

the unspoken, latent fear

I never mentioned to you,

that I would lose you

to work, to poor health,

to a faraway move

or something unforeseen.

And then one day I did lose you.

Death sliced you from me

with a condor’s swiftness,

ripped you out of

my fearful grasp without

a moment’s hesitation.

Always death wins

in who gets to keep.

You are gone now

and so is my old fear,

leaving plenty of room

for loneliness and sorrow

but also sufficient space

for the savoring of love,

the one thing Death

could not take from me.

From Joyce Rupp’s My Soul Feels Lean

I Didn’t Realize He Was Leaving

On Wednesday evening, December 26, I was sitting next to Dawn and in front of Bryce in the B concourse of Midway airport.  We had successfully pressed through the security checkpoint, rearranged our clothes and shoes, and walked to our gate to wait for an hour before boarding a plane.  Bryce was eyeing some passenger’s ice cream, whispering to me about wanting some.  I told him to wait, to let me get settled.  I told him I had just sat down.  I told him to stop looking at the woman’s ice cream like that because he was scaring me and probably scaring her.

We were heading to Charlotte, North Carolina ultimately to complete our annual time with Grammie Joseph.  It would be a week where we would see the Gant museum, walk through the botanical gardens in Belmont, eat at Captain Steve’s, talk a lot, catch up, do nothing.  My aunt, Lynnie, called me while we were waiting to board.  I have a rule when certain people call my phone: I always answer.  I do not observe this rule for most people.  I’m a pastor so I cannot.  I meet with people and they say things to me, and when they say these things, it makes a lot of sense for me to stop the rest of the world as those people present their worlds to me.  So I’m “present” with them as they talk.  I ignore the phone.  I don’t hear rings in those moments.  But I make exceptions.  When my aunt calls, because my father has been in the nursing home in her city, I take her call, even if I need to ask if I can call right back.

As she always does, she asked me how I was.  There was static in the line.  Perhaps it wasn’t static.  Do cell towers allow for static?  It was choppy.  Whatever the interference, I couldn’t quite hear her clearly.  Some voice was droning about a passenger whose flight was leaving or some gate change.  There was Bryce switching to his mother and asking her for ice cream.  He’s been doing that more and more: shifting to her when I don’t answer the way he thinks I should.

Aunt Lynnie asked if I had gotten her message.  I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at it as if to ask it if it had rung without my hearing it.  Perhaps it sang while we were in the cab with the preacher cab driver who I talked theology with on the way to the airport.  “No,” I told her, “I didn’t.”  Then I thought—as she let out a long “Well,”—perhaps she called the house.  I heard her “Welling” and I had a flash of some indication of what was to come.  It was something spiritual, like and unlike the Welling in the black church, when people sometimes rock while they hear the preacher.  They say “Well” as they listen, and something about the “Well” makes what they hear stick.  My aunt’s well was different; she was stalling just for a moment, and auntie, in my experience, didn’t stall.  She breathed and she said it, quickly and clearly, without interference from cell towers or airport clutter.  My dad had passed an hour or so before that moment.

They were just arriving to the nursing home; the snow had prevented them from getting there sooner.  I knew Little Rock didn’t get snow.  I imagined my three Little Rock aunts, wrapped in coats, looking as lovely as always, dressed in care and concern and love and something familiar.  They were there, three of my father’s sisters, a group of faithful friends to him, and he was dead.  I asked her to repeat herself.  Actually, I said, “What?” I had heard her, but something in me got very cliche in that moment.  Or something in me needed to hear again.  Dawn heard me and she knew.  She had been down a path like this one when her father was snatched over six months after his stroke two years ago.  I felt Dawn turn to me.  I saw her take Bryce by the hand.  I was really surprised at that simple sentence from my aunt.  I wanted to turn to Dawn; I wanted to turn away.

I had just seen him.  This was my first thought: I had just seen him.  One week ago at the hospital in Searcy.  He hugged me twice.  I held him, walked with him.  I showed him pictures, something, I realize now, I did often on my trips to see him.  My second thought was: I just talked to him.  It was on Christmas Eve, two days before.  His voice was bright, brighter than usual even.  he talked to Bryce, asked about Dawn.  I thought he was getting better.  I didn’t realize he was leaving.

Dear Dementia

I didn’t believe it was you when I first saw the signs.  The missed memories were small, so slight they were unnoticed.  I forget.  I get agitated.  I make mistakes, lose things, get mixed.  I was like everyone else who loved: I wanted more.

I began what is still the dismal existence of a loved one struggling with you and your fingers wrapping and stealing things from my father.  I started to look at all those yesterdays, fading in my own memory, and I grabbed for them.  I called them back the way a grandparent calls for their only child’s offspring when, because of intuition, they know that was the last visit.  The rides in my dad’s white van and then the brown van.  There was a  black van too, I think.  I sniffed for the smell of worms and dirt when we went fishing, when I was so small I felt nothing but incompetence because I couldn’t do what my father found so easy.  I listened to the sound of his laughter, not just his laughter, but the way it sang like a Delta blues man.  I looked at the crinkle that was his smile.  I wanted that grin to be mine.

You pulled me from my memories.  Reminded me that you hadn’t won yet.  That yours was a most sinister work because no one knew, and no one knows, when your job would be done with my dad’s brain and body.  You shouted in the tone that was once was my dad’s.  It was his voice, and it wasn’t.  And the reality of my life—the lives of my brothers, the lives of our aunts and our extended loved ones—is that you and dad are dancing.  And his feet are clipping and stumbling under what was once his best song.

You gave him pain and depression at what he can no longer command.  You made him mad at everybody and nobody.  You snatched his ability to attend to the mundane affairs of bills and greetings and polite conversations.  You made him unpredictable so that he couldn’t travel, so that he couldn’t go home and live on his own and be alone.

I hate you.  You’ve taken so much and you’re not even finished.  You have hardly done to me, to us, what I know you’ve done to others.  But know that I’m not alone in seeing your memory-soaked hand clenching and withdrawing from the collective worlds which have been ours.  I hear the prayers of my friends in my ears.

Roland and the way his hand pressed into my shoulder just yesterday, the words he prayed, the faith he had for me, even though today’s conversation with dad tried hard to erase my faith and my friend’s.  Libby and her careful way of saying just enough to express a deep understanding, a selective and prophetic care, and how she brings a prayerfulness whenever she approaches.  Lisa’s powerful prayers that the ground I’m on is sure and steady and the way she keeps praying, the mirror she is to people I see and don’t see.  Lauren’s steady gaze when she asks me respectfully and compassionately how I’m really doing and dealing with the junk you’ve thrown at us.  Byron and his admonition to take care of myself, to do what I need, to care for me so that I’m not surprised by my own breaks and broken places.  Lucy and the regular ways she brings me before the Presence, keeps me there, helps me see me and see truth and prepare to live from more than pain but love.  Winston, his faithfulness and his ability, through history, presentness, and vision for what’s to come, and how he keeps at the work of partnering with God to help make me good through the terror of unknown trials related to you.

Your hand is hard.  But I do not envy you.  Because you, partner of all that is sinful, will have a lot of giving to do.  Diseases like you must hold the things you take and you must return them.  So, my faith, sometimes thin as cracking leaves at autumn’s end, feels tiny.  And even if it disappears to an invisible quality, it will not leave.  It will not depart.  You cannot take it from me.  You cannot steal it the way you have my father’s best qualities.  You cannot leave in faith’s place depression and sadness the way my father struggles now, even without the words to give to his interiority.  I’m looking at the collective faith of an increasing cloud of witnesses, and while your reach is long, it cannot capture all my friend’s strengths.  There are some things you cannot do.

“…recollections at soft distance…”

Some would say memory brings life after death.  Perhaps there’s truth in that, but only if we’re content to enjoy our recollections at soft distance, as passing flickers or occasional sparks.  If we’re grasping and desperate, if we want it all too much, if we reach out and try to touch it, what happens then?  It fades so fast from view that we’re left wondering if it was ever there at all.  Perhaps the trick is to find a gentle use for memory.  Learn to cup the small and glorious moments in our hands and treasure them, finding some solace this way.  Otherwise, all they do is remind us that we are too late.  That what is lost is lost forever.

From Emylia Hall’s The Book of Summers (pg. 323)

Images of Fragility

I was at my aunt’s table last week, looking over my father’s discharge papers from the hospital.  He had suffered a stroke a few days prior, while we were all at his family’s reunion.  He didn’t come, of course, because he was in the hospital.  I had a sense that he wasn’t going to come to the reunion, an apprehension that I couldn’t quite explain.  I didn’t know it was going to be a stroke.

It took a few days for me and my brother Mark to get by my aunt’s.  I had to return home with Dawn and Bryce and after being away for a week, be at the office for at least a day, long enough to begin feeling overwhelmed by all that I was leaving undone.

We sat at the table, looking at him, inspecting him.  We talked and listened.  I had read the physician’s notes to a chaplain mentor friend over the phone the night before.  I think we were in the mode of getting things done by the time my aunt brought another stack of papers.  In that stack was a folder, brightly colored with faces of elderly people.  It was a resource packet on dementia.  She told us a few weeks before that he had been diagnosed earlier this year.  I flipped the pages, scanning the headers, not really reading at all.

I looked at the people on the cover of the folder and thought back to my father’s face.  I looked over to him.  He was sitting in a large chair, seeing what I wondered.  His vision, memory, and cognition were impacted in a dozen ways from the stroke.  His face had that strange openness that I had seen before on him, back when it was simply my dad’s way of settling.  He isn’t a hurried man.  He is cool, collected, almost distant.  So watching him, after the stroke, I wasn’t surprised that he was somewhere else, detached from the moment with its anxiety, even while the anxiety stemmed from concern for him, his body’s constitution, and the next doctor’s appointment.

My dad was somewhere else.  Perhaps he was taking refuge in his own thoughts.  Perhaps he was between gratitude that we cared and irritation that we intended to be so convincing.

And I looked down at the pictures of those smiling old folks.  Their faces didn’t look like my dad’s.  There were individuals and couples.  A family sat together, if memory serves me.  They all wore smiles.  I didn’t see hints of broken brains and torn memories in their eyes.  I didn’t see the early signs which were discussed on the back side of all those happy people. There were no true images of fragility there.  I had to glance up to see them.  I had to look at my father for that.

A Prayer

In a way September 11 has become a day when people in the United States are being reminded of death and loss and grief.  Many families were impacted by the multiple and horrific deaths ten years ago.  And I’m sure people are saying a lot of prayers.  I want to add one of mine, praying for people touched and held by that tragedy and by other deaths as well.

Dear God,

I pray for fathers who have lost their children.  Be gracious to them, and help them live under the weight of their pain.  Help them find people they trust to share that pain with, and please use all kinds of people to strengthen and comfort and hold them together.  I pray that you would speak to them about how you’ve suffered over time and that your suffering would provide windows and doors and openings for them to feel that life is possible.  Enable them to live with splendid memories of their children in their minds.  I pray that you would befriend them.  I ask that you would help them live each day, no matter how long that day is.  Let them find solace in you and in your things.  May they experience your love in surprising ways.  And I pray that they would grow into more loving men, that they would resist the temptations to close and narrow and shorten themselves because of their large hardships in having lost their children.

I pray for children who have lost their fathers.  I ask that you would gift them with space to remember well the men that they loved, that they had good or bad relationships with, and that they called father.  Help them laugh.  Collect their tears when they cry.  Grant them people and loved ones who will encourage them as they visit the hard and grueling memories which come during their losses.  Make sense of the world when they can’t.  Listen to them when they talk to their fathers, when they scream their names in hopes that death didn’t really keep them.  Carry their hopes into your heart, and turn their best prayers into opportunities for your will to be done.  Console them.  Convince them that they are loved by you.  Love them as best you can.

I pray for families, spouses, friends, and loved ones who have lost people that we love.  Will you show us how to react to ourselves and our fears and our questions?  Will you aide us as we run away from truth?  Will you give us courage when we fall into fear and stumble through illusions?  Tell us who you are.  Give us perspective when we need it most.  Open us to light when the world around us goes dark.  Death is difficult, so be with us as we respond in our own ways to the difficulty that doesn’t go away.  Teach us that life and death are known and handled well in your hands.  Be for us what nothing else can be.  Continue to connect us daily to the truth of your power over death, of your ability to right the wrongs of injustice which lead to death, and of your greatness in the face of something that feels so big as grief.

I pray these in and through Jesus Christ,

Amen