The Knowing

We thought we were the perfect family—
loyal, stable, a brick wall you couldn’t topple
with a wrecking ball. Parents dependable
as the frozen Minute Maid juice
we squeezed from cardboard cans and drank
mornings, reconstituted.

We’d come to this place just to be together.
October in Ogunquit, record heat,
no need for the sweaters we’d packed.
Dad had died but Mom, in her 80s, sat
pouring green tea, our wicker chairs
on the small porch, six sets
of knees touching.

She didn’t mean to mention
Dad’s first wife.

To our collective what?
she sputtered lasted a year, before the war,
her name: Phyllis.
Remember that chest in the basement?
It was hers.

Some moments passed, then mutely
we agreed to let it go.
Radium glowed green in our brains
but didn’t burn. The knowing, a relief:
We didn’t have to be perfect.

The August-warm wind felt pleasant
and odd. We sat on that porch,
orange leaves pinwheeling down the street.
~Karen Paul Holmes “Rental Cottage, Maine” from No Such Thing as Distance

Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom, the best parents ever, have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the white line separating us.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I can’t bear to look any longer.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears.  The phone rings and remains unanswered.

I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray —
for a sleep
without dreams,
without secrets,
without lies,
without the burden of knowing the truth
I alone now knew
and wished I didn’t.

Don’t Look Back

A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—
I’ve heard the Hunter tell—
‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death—
And then the Brake is still!
~Emily Dickinson from “165″

The deer in that beautiful place lay down their
bones: I must wear mine.
~Robinson Jeffers from “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones”

As the house of a person
in age sometimes grows cluttered
with what is
too loved or too heavy to part with,
the heart may grow cluttered.
And still the house will be emptied,
and still the heart.

Empty and filled,
like the curling half-light of morning,
in which everything is still possible and so why not.

Filled and empty,
like the curling half-light of evening,
in which everything now is finished and so why not.

Beloved, what can be, what was,
will be taken from us.
I have disappointed.
I am sorry. I knew no better.

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Standing Deer”

My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.

Enthralled with so much color,
motion, music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed,  from eating
a clump of grass
growing in the snow.

My heart leaps
with worry.
She tells him
to run
for the thicket,
to seek safety where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.

She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.

The gun shot
hits my belly too.

My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for him.

I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
knowing Bambi
is cold and alone
with no mother
at all.

She took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie for years.
His cries
still echo
in my ears.

Now, my children are grown
and have children of their own to protect.
My mother is gone from this earth,
my thicket emptying,
my heart full,
my stomach stronger,
I even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.

I now can look back
and weep inconsolably
once more.

Flung and Strewn

Open your hands, lift them.—William Stafford, “Today”

The parking space beside the store when you
were late. The man who showed up just in time
to hold the door when you were juggling five
big packages. The spider plant that grew—
though you forgot to water it. The new
nest in the tree outside your window. Chime
of distant church bells when you’re lonely. Rhyme
of friendship. Apples. Sky a trove of blue.

And who’s to say these miracles are less
significant than burning bushes, loaves
and fishes, steps on water. We are blessed
by marvels wearing ordinary clothes—
how easily we’re fooled by simple dress—
Oranges. Water. Leaves. Bread. Crows.
~Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “But You Thought You Knew What a Sign Looked Like” from  Naked for Tea

It was a dark and stormy night. Leaves were strewn everywhere this morning, but more cling tightly to branches, waiting for another night, another storm to come, knowing it will be sooner rather than later.

I feel a bit strewn myself, bits and pieces of me flung here and there, while the rest of me remains clinging, hanging on for dear life, wondering what comes next.

Can I weather the weather of life, tossed and drenched?

Truly, marvels and miracles abound wherever I look, sometimes dressed so plainly I miss them first time around. In fact, they are so glorious, I am blinded by them. To see these signs, to know their significance, I must simply open my hands, lift up my eyes, quiet my troubled heart and be content.

When the time comes to let go, I’ll be ready.

We Are Forever Changed

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart
~Kitty Donohoe “There are no words”
written on 9/1/11

As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our unified silence and our stillness.

Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne after that tragic day 18 years ago – such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for the “milk of human goodness.” Instead it seems we have become more divisive, pulling ourselves apart.

We must return, as people of faith, to that stillness to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be still; we must be silent. We must let the bells toll and the names be read out. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace.   A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light,  forged in freedom, born in liberty.

We must stop allowing our chain links from being pulled apart.

Something Finished

Gold of a ripe oat straw, gold of a southwest moon,
What is there for you in the birds, the birds, the birds, crying
down on the north wind in September, acres of birds spotting
the air going south?

Is there something finished? And some new beginning on the
way?

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
~Carl Sandburg from “Fall Time” and “Autumn Movement”

My summer of “no doctoring” finishes today. I return to part-time clinical work tomorrow; a new beginning is on the way.

I am readying myself.

I consider how it will feel to put the stethoscope back on and return to spending most of my daylight hours in window-less rooms. Several months of freedom to wander and wonder will be tough to give up.

However, when I meet my first patient of the day, I’m “all in.” Someone is needing my help more than I need time off. The wind has shifted, it is time to migrate back to the work I was called to do over forty years ago.

Still I will look for beautiful things where I can find them, knowing that even though they don’t last, they will always be well worth the weeping.

Our Chance to Choose

We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God.
The world is crowded with Him.
He walks everywhere incognito.
And the incognito is not always easy to penetrate.
The real labor is to remember to attend.

In fact to come awake.
Still more to remain awake.
~C.S. Lewis from “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer”

God is going to invade, all right:
but what is the good of saying you are on his side then,
when you see the whole natural universe
melting away like a dream and something else –
something it never entered your head to conceive –
comes crashing in;
something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others
that none of us will have any choice left?

For this time it will be God without disguise;
something so overwhelming that it will strike
either irresistible love
or irresistible horror
into every creature.
It will be too late then to choose your side.

There is no use saying you choose to lie down
when it has become impossible to stand up.
That will not be the time for choosing:
it will be the time when we discover
which side we really have chosen,
whether we realized it before or not.
Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side.
~C.S. Lewis from
Mere Christianity

The older I get, the more I recognize the need to be alert and awake to the presence of God in the crowded world around me. It doesn’t come naturally. We humans have an attention deficit, choosing to focus inwardly on self and ignoring the rest. If it isn’t for me, or like me, or about me, it somehow is not worthy of my consideration.

We wear blinders, asleep, unaware we must choose an incognito God;
we think His invisible immensity must be obvious, like a lightning flash.

And so – He has come and walked among us in plain sight.
No longer incognito.
The time to choose has come.

photo of lightning over Anacortes, Washington from Komonews.com

A Feeble Reed

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.
~Blaise Pascal

I’m not sure which is getting flabbier faster–my biceps or my brain. As I advance in age I tend to just get by with only occasional heavy lifting: a hay bale here, a challenging abstract philosophical commentary there. Hard work, whether physical or mental, is getting harder. As a naturally lazy person, I have to be forced into manual and central nervous system labor out of necessity. Necessity happens less and less often unless I go looking for it.

Given the choice between a physical task and a thinking task, I’ll opt for thinking over lifting any day. Even so, I find my mental strengths are ebbing. My brain is less flexible, I can tend to be stiff headed when trying something new and it starts to feel strained if I push it too fast. There are times when it feels like it just goes into spasm and I need to sit down and rub it for awhile. Feeble suddenly doesn’t sound like it just belongs to the aged and infirm.

The only remedy is to use it or lose it, whether muscles or gray matter. So I dig a little deeper each day, even when it hurts to do so. I purposely stretch beyond the point of comfort, just so I know it can still be done. I lift a little higher, heft a little heavier, push a little harder. Being the most feeble thing in nature may mean being easily broken by the smallest effort, but at least I’ll have thought through my reedy limitations thoroughly, chewed on it until there was nothing left and digested what I could.

Eventually I’ll come to accept that my greatest strength is to know what I don’t know.