Birthday post

Today is my birthday.

5 years ago on this day I was at Laity Lodge, enjoying the warm Texas sun, the beautiful Frio River, and one of my favorite places in the world, an art installation called Threshold. Since Laity Lodge has no cell reception and very limited wi-fi, I used a little landline telephone room to call home and speak with my family.

Threshold at Laity Lodge

My husband and children all wished me a happy birthday. Then Bud said, “Your brother Stewart called to wish you a happy birthday. I told him that you would call him when you got home.”

Ten days later — long after I had gotten home and had plenty of time to return that call — on Ash Wednesday, I received a call from my sister telling me that Stewart had had a heart attack and died.

Stewart – Thanksgiving 2013

I think about that every year on my birthday.

I never returned his call.

I never heard his voice again.

My kids have been asking what I want for my birthday, and, honestly, I couldn’t think of a thing. My father used to tell me that I was the richest person he knew. Then he would laugh and add, “And maybe some day you’ll have money.”

I am rich.

January 1, 2019

But this morning I was thinking about what I want most for my birthday.  I know what it is now.

I want you to make that call you’ve been meaning to make.

Stop in to visit that person you’ve been meaning to see.

Drop a line to an old friend.

Or relative.

Or neighbor.

Mend a fence.

Build a bridge.

Reach out.

Life is so short.

This morning, as I sat at the table with a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun (my birthday treat for myself), I opened my computer to begin writing this post —

–when I heard a terrible crash from my father’s room.

I ran in and found him on the floor.

“Dad, Dad,” I called, as I patted his cheeks and tried to get a response, but his eyes were open and fixed, and he was unresponsive.

My husband and son carried him back to bed. When he came around and was semi-conversant, he wanted to go eat breakfast, but he barely made it to the door before he had a repeat episode.

And then a third one a little later.

I write this from the Emergency Room.

He has been awake, but he doesn’t remember anything that happened this morning.

They’re running tests.

And I’m spending my birthday with my father. I have no regrets.

 

Pieces of Stewart

IMG_3634[1]The following is the text of what I said at my brother’s memorial service.

My siblings and I carry little pieces of Stewart in our hearts and in the way we live our lives. Each of us reflects Stewart in little ways. Today I want to mention some of the ways I see Stewart in my brothers and sister.

First, I want to say something to my mother and father. Dad, Mom, as I went through the papers from Stewart’s apartment, I saw something about you that I didn’t want to go unnoticed or unmentioned. Mixed in with all the other papers were notes from you – words of encouragement, spanning years and years of his life. Every step of the way, you were there for Stewart. In his times of accomplishment – when he graduated from Hamilton, Yale, and Syracuse – and Dad, I know you were especially proud that he passed the New York State bar on the first attempt – and when Stewart encountered difficulties, both of you were faithful and supportive. I don’t say it often enough, but thank you for all you have done and still do.

Donabeth – you and Stewart shared the secret language of Presbyterians. And it is a secret language. You Presbyterians say the word “Session” with a capital “S”. I can hear it when you say it. You and Stewart used words like synod and polity and stated clerk, and you knew what they all meant. The Book of Order, a Presbyterian thing for sure – you know, Stewart had at least 20 of them. And all that General Assembly stuff, you knew about it. I was clueless. Donabeth, the other thing you share with Stewart are the most memories. Being the two oldest, you had the most time together. Things like Stewart doing that dance before he pulled up the stump are memories I have only because of the movie Dad took – you probably remember that moment. Lucky you.

Peter – When Stewart passed away, the mantle of the oldest son passed to you, and you took it on admirably. You handled the phone calls and the arrangements and speaking at the Memorial Service in Pittsburgh so well. Thank you. When I think of the similarities between you and Stewart, I think of his sense of humor. It’s a sharp wit, an educated wit, that makes mathematical jokes or periodic table jokes. I also think of the way your minds both can see numbers as playthings. The tessellation art that you gave each of us for Christmas one year reminds me of that fractal thing Stewart had running on his computer in Jamesville. That was back in the days before everyone had computers. Stewart had a home computer and wrote computer code things back in the ’80s. Stewart also could take the complex and make it seem simple – something a teacher does, something you do, Peter, as you teach and tutor. It’s a gift – and a similarity to Stewart.

Jim – You and Stewart are the bookends. I have always appreciated the symmetry of our family – boy-girl-boy-girl-boy. Stewart was the oldest, and you were the youngest. When we were cleaning out Stewart’s apartment, I found a pile of neatly cut wood blocks in the closet, and they made me think of you. You’ve made some beautiful things out wood: shelves, frames, planters. Stewart was obviously planning his own wood project. It’s that ability to create something tangible, something beautiful, the ability to craft something – you shared that with Stewart. I’m only sorry that the wooden walking stick that Stewart made didn’t make its way back here to you, but all things are transient. We have to hold everything with open hands, even the memories, as Mom reminds us. But we can tell the stories and relive our times with Stewart. You’ve mentioned to me several times about your time spent with Stewart when he moved to Tarentum. What a gift for you to have had that one-on-one time with him! Precious memories of two bookends together.

Me? – Stewart and I shared a love of books. Mary has been going through the boxes of books at our house. “I just love the smell of books,” she said to me one day, because there is something special about that dry papery smell and the feel of old hard-bound books; a Kindle can’t replicate that. Stewart and I also shared a love of new notebooks. When I was a kid, one of my favorite places in all Cooperstown was the back room of Augur’s Bookstore, where the office supplies were hidden away. I loved to go look at the brand new notebooks, clean and unspoiled. There’s something about a new notebook that holds so much promise. As we cleaned out Stewart’s apartment after his death, we found, I daresay, over a hundred legal pads, composition books, steno pads and other notebooks, nearly all with only the first few pages written on. He was always looking for that fresh start – and I can relate to that.

In closing, I found Stewart’s little black notebook that he used for funerals. On one page was written the poem “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye. I rewrote it for Stewart.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I’m a ride to the doctor, a helping hand.
I’m the good listener. I understand.

I’m the synod, the session, the stated clerk.
I’m the thing that is funny, the little quirk.
I am wit and pun, fractal, tessellation.
I am homemade chili on family vacation.

When you see and feel the beauty of wood,
Think of me then, and do something good.
I’m a partly used notebook, the words of a hymn.
I’m in Donabeth, Peter, Sally, and Jim.

So do not mourn that I’ve gone afar.
Once again I have passed the bar.

A New Notepad

It became a theme. A legal pad with only a few pages written upon.

When I found the first few of these on his kitchen table, I laughed and commented to his friend, “I can’t believe he only uses a few pages on each pad.”

“Welcome to my world,” she said with a smile.

As we dug deeper and deeper into the apartment — my brothers, my sister, my father all helping — it became abundantly clear that we had had a minimal understanding of Stewart’s struggles. Layered in with the notepads was a paper trail that told such a sad, sad story.

I daresay that each of us wept, though not collectively. Individually. Privately. Alone. As my family is wont to do. Hearts breaking, not just with the loss of a family member, but with the pain that we uncovered.

While over the years I was busy looking down my nose and saying things like, “I don’t understand why Stewart doesn’t just (fill in the blank),” Stewart was hitting yet another pothole on the bumpy road of his life. And I had no clue. I truly didn’t understand.

“I found a notepad if anyone needs one,” one of my brothers would call out occasionally.

DSC00693

the tip of the iceberg

We would laugh. There was no dearth of notebooks. He had legal pads – yellow and white, composition books, loose leaf paper and three ring binders, ring bound notebooks, blank journals, and paper, just plain white paper.

As I put together a timeline for Stewart’s life — the hidden part that I didn’t know — I began to see a theme. An attempt to put old things behind and start new, followed by a problem, followed by yet another attempt to start new.

This plethora of notepads was a metaphor for his life. A clean notebook. A fresh start. Followed by something I couldn’t always see that made him want to start again.

At the beginning of the weekend, I had driven to the Pittsburgh airport to pick up my sister. On my way, I had passed a man standing along a busy road where there was stop-and-go traffic. He held a battered cardboard sign that read something like, “HOMELESS. VETERAN. PLEASE HELP.” I had watched through my rearview mirror as someone handed him money out the window of their car. My cold hard heart felt nothing for him.

At the end of the weekend, after driving my sister back to the airport, I saw him again. I had no loose change to give him, but I wanted to ask him, “Do you have a sister? Does she live in a little town in a two-story house with her family? Does she know about your gritty exhaust-filled life here by the road?”

Stewart had never reached that point of standing by the road. But I never knew all the struggles he did have.

I wanted to roll down my window and hand that homeless guy a notepad.

The Receiving Line

One by one they took my hand.

“I’m Sally, Stewart’s sister,” I would say.  Then they would tell me their name and how they knew Stewart.

From the food bank. “I volunteered with Stewart at the food bank. We could always count on him.”

From Habitat for Humanity. “Stewart took the minutes for our meetings. They were always precise and thorough.”

From the church in Tarentum. “Stewart had been our pastor.”

From the Presbytery. “Stewart served on a committee with me.”

From his apartment complex. “Stewart sat in the gazebo with us every night and we talked.”

From a coffee shop that had become his family. “We didn’t even know he was a pastor for the longest time.”

A young couple said, “Stewart performed our wedding.”Stewart 017

One man told me, “Stewart changed my life.”

A man named Buster stood in front of me, humble, awkward. He was as tongue-tied as I felt all day, his eyes watery as they looked at mine. “Stewart was a good man,” he finally said.

“Thank you,” I said, over and over and over.

I wished I had more words.

No, I wished they had more words. I loved hearing about the lives he had touched.

“Stewart drove me to the doctor.”

“Stewart drove me to the store.”

“Stewart loved that skate park.”

“Stewart listened.”

“Stewart helped.”

The two hour receiving line became almost unbearable. All these people. All these names. All these words — good words — but I couldn’t hear any more..

After the service, while people were still milling around and chatting, I sat by myself a short distance away. Maybe I seemed uncaring. I only knew that I was exhausted. Mary came to sit beside me and I hugged her.

This may sound crazy, but instead of a two hour receiving line, I wished for a two month one, where I could sit, one day at a time, with the people, share a cup of coffee with them, and really hear their story.

I have so many questions for them.

Did Stewart laugh a lot? I always liked his laugh.

Did Stewart cook for you? He was a pretty good cook.

Tell me everything you can about Stewart and his life here. Please.

I’m so hungry for more.

Ash Wednesday

It was an ominous way to begin Lent.

An early morning phone call let me know that my oldest brother, Stewart, had passed away from a heart attack.

And I stood in the kitchen, and I stared at the wall
And I prayed for some wisdom, so I could make a little sense of it all.
And I thought about the seasons, and how quickly they pass
Now there’s little to do but hope that the good ones will last…

Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”

I stood in the kitchen this morning, but I didn’t stare at the wall. I left the lights off and stood at the window, waiting for the sunrise.

Some sunrises are so spectacular with bursts of color lighting my horizon. I could have written, then, about how God spoke to me in the richness of the dawn, in the vast of array of pinks and golds and purples and oranges.

But He gave me an unassuming dawn, black to deep blue to gray. Gray. Non-descript.

I felt dull, like the sunrise.

My eyes filled with tears and I can’t even tell you why.

Stewart called me for my birthday, but I wasn’t home. He said he would call back, but he never did.

I had thought about it. I should call him, I thought, but I never picked up the phone.

And it’s easy enough to say, “He’s better off,
Chalk it up to the luck of the draw,
Life is tough, it was his time to go,
That’s all.”
Well, I don’t know about that…

Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”

Life is so short.  Just yesterday, I had been looking at Isaiah 40 —

The grass withers,
the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows on it.
Surely the people are grass.

I had thought about the Tenebrae services a woman at Laity Lodge had described to me, with candles being extinguished one by one until the church was in total darkness. I had been thinking about the breath of the Lord, withering the grass, blowing out the candles, one by one.

Our world is dark and sad.

I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, in the darkness and sadness of a broken world. Surely the people are grass. Surely Stewart is grass. Surely I am grass.

The grass withers,
the flower fades,
but the word of our Lord will stand forever.

I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, too.

Beyond this grassy withered world, there is eternity. And it is filled with hope.

005