When my father passed away at home, I didn’t know what would happen next — so I went for a walk.
That Sunday spent watching him decline, decline, decline — sitting by his bed — pacing — calling hospice and family and hospice again — trying to make the best decisions based on what he had said he wanted — it all made for an incredibly long day.
Yet, at the same time, the day was too short.
Suddenly he was gone.
I cut across the yard when I left the house, walking past the red maples he had planted 40 years before. Their burgundy leaves were half on, half off — trees caught mid-way through their fall undressing.
The oak tree I passed was barer. Its brown leaves and acorns littered the ground. Many of the acorns were cracked and broken. I wondered if the damage had been done by squirrels or the fat woodchuck I often saw in that corner of the yard or the heavy equipment that had driven through there earlier in the week to replace our septic system.
The acorns held no promise of a mighty oaks, just broken pieces with jagged edges.
The walk refreshed me, but, back at the house, we moved in a thick fog.
While I had been walking others had left, or come and gone, or stayed, waiting to say good-bye to me.
My two grandsons had been in the house when my father passed. When I heard them playing in the other room, I thought about an article I once read about Irish wakes and how healthy they are for children — to be around death and see that it is a part of life.
In the midst of life we are in death.
Book of Common Prayer
I said good-bye to the grandsons and to my oldest son who looked so weary and so grown-up. I wished he was the size of his boys and this hurt was a boo-boo a bandaid could cover.
A knock on the door surprised me. The man identified himself as a hospice nurse. “I’m here to clean the body,” he said.
I showed him to the room where my father lay. My father’s face looked ashen and waxy.
“Do you have some clothes I could dress him in?” the nurse asked.
My father was still wearing his old red Fenway shirt. He liked to wear Red Sox apparel when he watched their games, and the last game of the season had been on when he passed away.
I chose a favorite flannel shirt and a pair of corduroy pants that went with it.
Leaving the room, I re-entered the family fog. Pea-soup fog, my mother would have called it, so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face. People may, or may not, have talked with me. I may, or may not, have responded.
The nurse finished. He ushered us back in the room with my father.
My father’s hands were folded on his abdomen. It was a pose I had never seen him in before. He looked so dead.
I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
It has now been 3 1/2 weeks since my father passed. When I close my eyes, I see that dead body. I see my sister coming out of his room, closing the door behind her, at 2 AM. She had just arrived and wanted to see him. I see the funeral director arriving at 8 AM and using the front door to remove the body.
I close my eyes and see death.
Ah, but the Nicene Creed. “I look for the resurrection…”
When I look for resurrection and life, it’s there.
The new grass pushing through the straw where the lawn was dug up for the septic. The two stubborn Shasta daisies that refuse to give way to fall. The geese flying south, calling my attention to them with their noisy honking.
It’s a beautiful sound.
At the memorial service, my son Owen read Wendell Berry’s poem, Wild Geese.
… Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. …
I am surrounded by life in all its beautiful and terrible stages.
Many trees in the yard are already bare, but I’ve lived long enough to know that, in the spring, new leaves will appear.
I know the geese will return, too.
On my walks I see woolly bears hurrying across the road. Sometimes I help them along — picking them up and watching them curl into a ball in my palm, then gently placing them on the other side of the road. I figure it’s one less death for the day.
And I sort through a few of my father’s things.
Life goes on.
I turned the monitor off Sunday morning not knowing it would be the last time.
For three and a half years I have slept with one ear open, listening to the monitor, learning the sounds of the different creaks of the hospital bed in the room below me.
One creak meant he was getting up. It was followed by the shuffle-thud of him walking with his walker into the bathrooom.
A different creak meant he was getting back into bed. I could hear the soft rustle of the bedding as he rolled onto his side and pulled the blankets up above his shoulders.
If I didn’t hear the back-to-bed creaks but heard the click of the light switch, I knew I needed to go down and redirect. He would be heading to his closet to choose clothes for church — no matter what day of the week it was. Sometimes that happened at 11:30 PM and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes it was every hour throughout night.
The monitor sat on my bedside table where its yellow light showed me it was on and its faint buzz served as a secondary reminder.
Now I hear the deep breathing of my husband sleeping beside me.
Just the other day I had been telling someone that I hadn’t heard the coyotes all summer. With the monitor off and the insomnia on, I could hear them, their long lonesome howls coming from somewhere farther away than previous years, but still there.
I hear a bird I can’t identify.
I hear gentle rain hitting the wide leaves of the hydrangea.
I hear the obnoxious sounds of vehicles driving on wet road. I can identify the milk truck, the speeding pick-ups, the cars. I can tell it’s foggy because everyone drives so much slower.
It’s so quiet, though, without the monitor.
I want to hear the bed creak and the shuffle-thud.
My father passed away Sunday night.
He had dressed himself Saturday morning and eaten a bowl of cereal. Mid-afternoon he vomited brown-black — a sign of a GI bleed. He went to bed before dinner, and never got out of it again. The next day he was gone.
Thomas Merton said, “Prayer and Love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.” (Seeds of Contemplation)
Prayer and love are learned in the quiet of a monitor that been turned off.
Merton also said, “The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best.” (Contemplative Prayer)
I’m facing the quiet.
I’m looking for the blessing.
Blessed are the Painters of pictures for their work brings joy to others.
Blessed are the Painters of chicken coops for they beautify the world, or at least a tiny piece of it.
Blessed are the Preservers of the Past; blessed are those who Push for Progress;
And blessed is the balance between the two.
I recently went to Boston with my daughter, Mary. We walked the Freedom Trail from Faneuil Hall to the Massachusetts State House. Along the way, we saw the large medallion pictured above, telling us to “Look up and see the North Church Tower.”
“One if by land and two if by sea…” My mother could recite Paul Revere’s Ride well into her dementia. Earlier that day, I had attended worship at the old North Church, where the usher let me into my own private box. I read the sign on wall there that told of Charles Wesley preaching there. I was in awe.
But I could barely see the North Church from the site of medallion. Oh, it’s there. It’s spire rises above whatever that blue-green thing is.
Boston is a city that works hard to preserve the past.
It’s a balancing act, though.
For instance, the Old Corner Bookstore, built in 1716, is now a Chipotle restaurant. Mary bemoaned its fate. On the other hand, I pointed out to her that the building was going to be demolished in 1960 and turned into a parking lot, but investors purchased it and revitalized it. It’s still standing.
Preservation versus progress.
Both are necessary.
Blessed are the Perseverators.
I can’t remember exactly what my father was doing at the time, but I remember Helen telling me that he was perseverating. It was a new word for me,
but certainly not a new concept.
The repetition that goes with dementia, or autism, or brain injury may be all too familiar to some of us.
Lately my father has been perseverating over church. Our conversations go like this:
Dad: So are you going to take me to church?
Me: No, Dad. Today is (fill in the weekday). You go to church on Sunday.
Me: Because that’s when they have worship services. If we went there right now, nobody would be there. You go on Sunday.
Dad: Ok. (short pause) Are you going to take me to church now?
Me: No, Dad. Today is (fill in the weekday). You go to church on Sunday.
And so on.
He wants to go to church, and I remind myself what a blessing that is. He perseverates over a positive.
Blessed are those who Persevere.
I admit that I get frustrated with the perseverating.
It happens all day.
It happens all night.
I’m getting tired.
Yesterday I had to re-certify my lifeguarding. For the first time, the pre-test — a 300 yard swim followed by a timed brick retrieval — was daunting.
I knew I could do it, but my body wasn’t so sure.
Had I thought of it, I could have sung the Dorie song — “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”
Instead, I did the Little Engine That Could — “I think I can, I think I can,” and slowly, slowly I completed the swim. (Okay, well, not too slowly. I swam it well within the allotted time.)
Perseverance sometimes requires a series of inner pep talks.
Each time I had to climb out of the pool at the wall, I had to remind myself that I could do it.
Each time I start feeling frustrated with the perseverating, I also have to remind myself that I can do this.
I love this man and I can answer the same question 257 times.
In one day.
Blessed are those who persevere, who run the race with endurance, who finish the swim test, who live with perseverators, for they shall hear, “Well done.”
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with my hands clenched and guarding my heart. I’m sure it’s stress, but it doesn’t change the little exercise I go through — opening my hands wide and spreading my fingers, willing them to stay open while I fall back asleep.
Open hands feel vulnerable. I have to be very intentional about it.
My son Sam went to British Columbia for school and adventure. Adventures like climbing sheer rock faces.
But not ones like this:
Once he called me and said, “Mom! The coolest thing happened this weekend while I was climbing!”
“What?” I asked, thinking it would be a wildlife sighting or a beautiful vista.
“”I fell!!” he said.
My heart stopped. I felt my stomach squeeze.
“It was so cool!” he continued. “The rope caught me!”
“Don’t tell me stories like that,” I said.
Really. I can’t handle them.
But while Sam was out there, I learned to pray with open hands. I could do nothing to change what would happen — just pray.
And let go.
It felt very vulnerable.
I emptied a drawer in my mother’s dresser a month or so ago.
It was still filled with her things and the smell of my mother overwhelmed me when I pulled the drawer open. I don’t know that I can accurately describe what that smell is. Powder? Tussy deodorant? Sachets? Tissue?
I pressed my lips into a grim line and dumped the contents of the drawer into a large tote.
Then I did the same with another drawer.
Nearly four years after my mother died, I finally emptied her dresser.
When my sister came to visit, I pulled the tote downstairs for her to sort through.
Letting go of my mother’s things felt vulnerable. But right.
I’m worrier by nature.
And a breath-holder in stressful situations.
I don’t like change.
My tendency is to hold on.
Blessed are those with open hands, for they shall know peace.
Early in the year I began researching the Alfred Corning Clark Gymnasium, a building in Cooperstown where I spent many happy hours as a youth. In 1986, the new Clark Sports Center, located on the outskirts of town, opened and replaced my beloved gym. The old building was converted to offices for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I went in once for a meeting with a Hall of Fame person. He saw me looking around, trying to orient myself to where I was in the old building.
“I think we’re sitting in the girls’ locker room,” he said.
I think he was right.
But I digress.
Research, I have discovered, is like wandering through an extensive cave system with people waiting at various junctures throughout. Each person has a story. If I listen, and follow their story, I may not end up where I was originally headed, but I always end up somewhere interesting.
I started researching Alfred Corning Clark. It seemed the logical first step.
Research today is a far cry from research when I was in college. While I still miss the old card catalog at the library, where my fingers walked through names and topics, now I often sit in the comfort of my living room, while my father is reading out loud or doing a word-find, and type search terms in various sites. It’s pretty amazing how much is available.
Well, Alfred Corning Clark led me to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark. In the old newspapers, that’s how they refer to her. Even as a widow. When she remarried, her new name was Mrs. Henry Codman Potter.
Somewhere along the line, though, in the vast web of local history, I ran across a man named Strong Comstock. I confess, I liked his name. I could picture a young mother giving birth to a sickly child and naming him Strong, willing him to live up to that name. Or a woman giving birth to such a robust baby that the name was obvious — Strong. However, neither of those theories was correct. Strong Comstock’s first name was a family name. It had been passed down through generations, mostly as a middle name. “Strong” became a family name when Nathan Comstock married Bethiah Strong in the early 18th century.
I jotted down his name, just like I’ve jotted down other names that I find interesting.
Once I encountered a young woman named Orchestra Stevens, born in 1800, died in 1822. I really want to know why her parents, Josiah and Mary, named her Orchestra. Did they love music? Did they dream of hearing an orchestra? She was the fifth of nine children, the rest of whom have more mundane names — Lucy, Betsey, Catharine, Josiah, etc. Some day I’ll pursue her story.
She died in Cooperstown in 1894. Two weeks later Strong Comstock moved from Cooperstown to Danbury, Connecticut.
I didn’t learn Mrs. Strong Comstock’s name until I searched her husband on Ancestry. She was Mary Jane Atwood.
Ah, the opaque cloak of a husband’s name.
Which brings me back to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark.
As I researched, I found places where she had signed her name — Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark. I read any number of accounts of good, generous things she had done — all credited to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark.
It wasn’t really a question of knowing her name. I already knew it. I’ve walked past this plaque a thousand times:
She did indeed build the building for the people of Cooperstown.
Her son, Robert, gave it to the village in a purge of all things Cooperstown. I don’t think that negates the generosity of the gift, though. It certainly doesn’t explain the plaque.
Nicholas Fox Weber, author of The Clarks of Cooperstown, made Robert Sterling Clark seem almost spiteful in the wording of the plaque, “Sterling saw to it that the … library would be named for their mother, while making it clear which of her sons had funded it.”
I prefer to think better of him, and of the plaque. I think he gave the village a building — a generous act — and he gave his mother her name. The greater gift was to her.
Thomas Merton wrote an essay called “Ishi: A Meditation” about the Yahi tribe in California, a tribe that was totally wiped out by white people. The last surviving member of the tribe, a member referred to as Ishi, died without ever revealing his true name.
In the end, no one ever found a single name of the vanished community. Not even Ishi’s. For Ishi simply means MAN.
Blessed are the Nameless
for they shall receive names
and they shall be known.
Hutchmooters to be exact.
(For those who don’t know, Hutchmoot is a conference-gathering-feast-reunion-thing in the Nashville area for people who love music-art-story-food and who are happy-sad-hurting-joyful-empty-full-introvert-extrovert-questioning-seeking-weary-hungry.)
Two lies linger in my mind before every Hutchmoot.
The first time I attended, I knew that I shouldn’t be there. I had said as much. Things were in crisis mode at home. Everything felt out of control.
“I need to cancel my tickets for this thing I’m supposed to attend,” I told the counselor. I couldn’t even bring myself to say “Hutchmoot” because then I would have to try to explain it and I couldn’t.
He looked straight at me. “You have to go,” he said firmly.
And so I went, knowing I shouldn’t.
Ben Shive gave a session that year about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He talked about how Brian walked around with his hand over his heart because he was afraid it would fall it.
I walked around all weekend with my hand on my heart, too. It was falling out.
You shouldn’t be here. The words ran through my mind and my heart over and over.
A young man introduced himself to me as I sat alone waiting for Hutchmoot to begin. I looked at him — his baby face, curly hair, funky glasses — and thought, I could be his mother.
I looked around at the other people trickling in and suddenly felt very old.
More than once I was asked what I did. Many of them were authors, singers, songwriters, artists. A bunch more were professionals of one sort or another.
“I’m a mom,” I said.
Each time I said it, I heard the ugly whisper in my heart — You don’t belong.
Who was I to think that I could possibly fit in with all these talented, accomplished, young, vibrant people? I’m just a mom — and a very tired one, at that.
Yet, that year, and in subsequent years, those talented, accomplished, young, vibrant people welcomed me into their midst. They waved me over to sit at their table. They saved seats for me in the sanctuary. They stood beside me at the book table and made awkward, forgiving small talk.
They shared themselves with me.
And gave me opportunity to share myself with them.
During that first Hutchmoot, my heart finally did fall out.
In the kitchen.
On Saturday night.
I wept on the shoulder of the man who was young enough to be my son.
He didn’t tell me that I shouldn’t be there. He didn’t say that I didn’t belong.
“I’m glad you came,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
I was — and am — too.
Blessed are the Mooters for they are allowed a taste of heaven.
One of my summer projects involves research at one of the research libraries in town.
The other day, I told Bud I was going to make a quick stop at the research library. Two hours later, when I realized how much time had passed, I hurriedly got up to leave. Joe the librarian asked me if I had found what I was looking for.
“There’s always so much more,” I said.
True about research.
True about life.
Nothing about research feels like work to me. But this research IS work-related.
Helen calls me about once a week to tell me that she loves her job. She’s a nurse and works as a care coordinator. Mind you — I don’t think she ever called to tell me that she loved her job when she worked as a floor nurse in a hospital. But she’s found her niche and it’s very fulfilling.
My father loved his work. He used to leave the house about 7 AM and get home after 6 PM. And then be on call. Or get calls when he wasn’t on call. And make house-calls. Or calls at the nursing home. Plus reserve duty one weekend each month.
He worked hard.
Honestly, I don’t remember ever hearing him complain about it.
I do, however, remember how special it was if he took time off from his workday to see me win an award at school — that one time I won an award. In fourth grade. For spelling.
But I knew my father loved his work AND his family. I never questioned it. His job was meaningful to him and impacted others.
I married a man who loved to work. Until last October Bud worked as a dosimetrist, creating treatment plans for people who needed radiation therapy. Often he would stay late or go back to the hospital after dinner to finish up plans for patients who needed to start treatment soon. When he left that job to help me take care of my father, he tackled all the outside work around my parents’ house, much of it having been neglected for years. The property has never looked so good.
He takes great pride in the work he has done here. People notice it often and compliment him.
Blessed are those who have found work that is fulfilling.
If you have a job you hate, I can relate. My three worst jobs:
1.) In college I signed on with a temporary agency and once worked for a week at a local factory. I stood at the end of a conveyor belt, caught syringes, and packed them in a box. My heart went out to the people on either side of me who caught syringes as a full-time job. The factory was loud. The work was thankless.
2.) I sold Tupperware for a time. Actually, I gave away Tupperware for a time. I felt so guilty at the exorbitant prices I couldn’t do it. I’m pretty sure I lost money on this venture, but ended up with a whole bunch of Tupperware.
3.) I took a secretarial job at a lumberyard in Cheyenne. The work may not have been bad, but the workplace was awful. At lunch on my second day, I drove to the hospital where Bud worked.
“I don’t want to go back,” I said, bursting into tears.
“Then don’t, ” he replied.
So I didn’t.
It turns out that 12 hours of crass and suggestive language in the office was my limit.
Blessed are those who work at unfulfilling jobs.
Your story isn’t over yet.
Do your work heartily.*
Keep your eyes and ears open for other opportunities.
Let that hope keep you going.
Blessed are the kitschy
whose art is low-brow
whose writing is cheesy
who can stare at a lava lamp for hours
and whose kitchen clock is a cat with a wagging tail
and eyes that flit back-and-forth, back-and-forth
Blessed are the kitschy
for they are the salt of the earth —
life would be bland
The field where the cows have grazed the past few summers is planted in corn this year.
Nobody plowed the field or did anything to prepare it. In the spring and early summer, I kept watching for the cows, hoping they would bring them, not knowing the field had been sown with corn until it started to grow.
I said something to a friend whose husband had been a dairy farmer. “I didn’t know they could do that. I thought they had to get the field ready before they planted on it.”
She shook her head and frowned. “It drives my husband crazy to see those fields.”
There must be something fundamentally wrong with doing things that way, but I don’t know what that something is.
All summer, though, I’ve watched the corn grow and grow and grow. It seems to be doing okay.
When I started thinking about a “K” post, the first thing that came to mind was Kindness in a reap-what-you-sow beatitude.
Blessed are the kind, for those who sow kindness shall reap kindness.
The song from The Fantasticks — “Plant a Radish” — started running through my head.
Plant a radish, get a radish
Never any doubt
That’s why I like vegetables
You know what you’re about
Except, as usual, I started playing with the words —
Plant a kindness, get a kindness
Maybe you’ll get two
That’s why being neighborly
Is always good for you
I reread my words and thought, So cheesy. Ix-nay that.
Yes, I have my moments of thinking in pig-latin.
One of those most freeing things I heard at a Hutchmoot was when author N. D. Wilson said, “It’s okay to be cheesy if you’re on your way to being good.”
I don’t know if I’m on my way to being good, but I yam what I yam.
And if someone doesn’t like the way I write, they certainly don’t have to read it.
But, then, if you happen to have a Billy Bass hanging on your wall singing “Take Me to the River” or a garden gnome in front of your house. Or if you like reading Amish-vampire-romance novels, I’m not going to judge you.
And you may like when someone bursts out into a song from an old musical.
Kitschy and kindness may even go together.
Like corn seed on an unprepared field.
You never know.
True (and somewhat dull) story about a vegetable peeler:
Once day my vegetable peeler fell apart. I was peeling potatoes and it fell apart in my hands mid-peel.
The next time I went to the store, I bought a new peeler — a fancier one with a swivel blade and a soft-grip handle.
I was in for a shock when I first used it. Not only was the handle more comfortable, but peeling itself was a dream. I had no idea that the old peeler was as dull as it was until I used the newer sharper one.
Sometimes life is like that. We’re plugging away, plugging away, plugging away all the while growing duller and duller and duller.
And then we fall apart. Or reach that brink.
I realize I’m being very trite by comparing life to a vegetable peeler — but it’s my life that I’m talking about so I think that’s okay.
I didn’t realize how heavy my burden had been of late — until I found that I had lost my smile. I was snapping at people. I was unmotivated to do much of anything. I was becoming jaded to this privilege of caring for others.
As I binge-watched a British crime show and ordered Chinese take-out for dinner, I started thinking about that peeler.
“Lord, make me an OXO peeler,” seems a strange prayer — but God understands.
And lest you all start worrying about me, please know that I’m doing fine. Really.
Life jades us. God unjades.
Blessed are the jaded —
the worn out
the ones who have lost the joy
of cooking a meal
who add unopened mail
to the pile
in the back room
who cringe at watching
“Wheel of Fortune”
who have given everything they have
– fruit, branches, trunk –
and have nothing left
but an old stump
Blessed are the jaded
who have lost their smile
and want only to sleep
or watch crime shows on Netflix
or unscrew another Oreo
To them Jesus said,
Come unto me,
all ye who labor
and are heavy-laden
I will give you rest
Blessed are the individuals
who have a sense of their own uniqueness
the set of gifts and talents peculiar to them
and who use those gifts
for the good of others
for they shall hear the words,
“Well done, good and faithful servant.
Enter into the joy of your master.”
When I was thrown into the role of high school swim coach in 2002, I had no idea what I was doing.
I’m sure I was a most unconventional coach. We had Wildcard Wednesday, where practice could be almost anything, and Thinking Thursday, where practice usually went homeschool-educational. (For example, one week when a hurricane was in the news, we “learned” about hurricanes. The eye of a hurricane can be 2 miles to 200 miles in diameter — so we did a 2 x 200 and they swam it fast because the winds around the eye are the strongest.)
But, honestly, I loved those girls. I loved talking to them and getting to know them — and the more I did of that, the more I realized that high school swim team isn’t about swimming. It’s about life.
I started working to impart life attitudes to them that would take them farther than their 10 week season with me.
Like all school sports, we have a rival. The rival was often spoken of in terms of evil, or like they were our enemy. I wanted to change that.
Over and over, I told my girls that after a race it was important to reach over the lane line and congratulate the girl in the next lane, no matter who won.
“That swimmer in the next lane is helping you to swim your fastest,” I told them.
We were at our rival’s pool for the championship meet. The second-to-last event in a high school meet is the 100 yard breaststroke. The meet was very close between Cooperstown and the rival team. My breaststroker, Becky, had little chance of winning. She was good, but the swimmer from the rival school was the top seed by many seconds.
Right from the start, the two swimmers were side by side. Every time rival swimmer pulled ahead, Becky pulled a little harder and brought herself even. During the last 25 yards, the screams from the stands were deafening. Those two girls were so close — and when they touched the wall, rival girl won.
Exhausted and smiling Becky reached across the lane line and congratulated the winner.
When Becky came to me after the race, she was beaming. “She helped me swim my best time” were the first words out of her mouth. Not a word about losing.
I felt like we had both won — and probably Becky was the greater winner because of what she had recognized.
By being our best, we help others to become their best.
Community and individuality walk hand-in-hand. We can’t ignore one for the other.