When the Lines Went Flat

I was still a kid
interning at State
he reminisces late in the meal—
It was a young red-headed woman
looked like my sister
when the lines went flat
I fell apart
shook
like a car with a broken axle
Went to the head surgeon
a fatherly man
Boy, he said, you got to fill a graveyard
before you know this business
and you just did row one, plot one.
~Alicia Suskin Ostriker, “The Surgeon” from The Book of Seventy

As a physician-in-training in the late 1970’s, I rotated among a variety of inner city public hospitals, learning clinical skills on patients who were grateful to have someone, anyone, care enough to take care of them. There were plenty of homeless street people who needed to be deloused before the “real” doctors would touch them, and there were the alcoholic diabetics whose gangrenous toes would self-amputate as I removed stinking socks. There were people with gun shot wounds and stabbings who had police officers posted at their doors and rape victims who were beaten and poisoned into submission and silence. Someone needed to touch them with compassion when their need was greatest.

As a 25 year old idealistic and naive student, I truly believed I could make a difference in the 6 weeks I spent in any particular hospital rotation. That proved far too grandiose and unrealistic, yet there were times I did make a difference, sometimes not so positive, in the few minutes I spent with a patient. As part of the training process, mistakes were inevitable. Lungs collapsed when putting in central lines, medications administered caused anaphylactic shock, pain and bleeding caused by spinal taps–each error creates a memory that never will allow such a mistake to occur again. It is the price of training a new doctor and the patient always–always– pays the price.

I was finishing my last on-call night on my obstetrical rotation at a large military hospital that served an army base. The hospital, built during WWII was a series of far flung one story bunker buildings connected by miles of hallways–if one part were bombed, the rest of the hospital could still function. The wing that contained the delivery rooms was factory medicine at its finest: a large ward of 20 beds for laboring and 5 delivery rooms which were often busy all at once, at all hours.  Some laboring mothers were married girls in their mid-teens whose husbands were stationed in the northwest, transplanting their young wives thousands of miles from their families and support systems. Their bittersweet labors haunted me: children delivering babies they had no idea how to begin to parent.

I had delivered 99 babies during my 6 week rotation. My supervising residents and the nurses on shift had kept me busy on that last day trying to get me to the *100th* delivery as a point of pride and bragging rights; I had already followed and delivered 4 women that night and had fallen exhausted into bed in the on call-room at 3 AM with no women currently in labor, hoping for two hours of sleep before getting up for morning rounds. Whether I reached the elusive *100* was immaterial to me at that moment.

I was shaken awake at 4:30 AM by a nurse saying I was needed right away. An 18 year old woman had arrived in labor only 30 minutes before and though it was her first baby, she was already pushing and ready to deliver. My 100th had arrived. The delivery room lights were blinding; I was barely coherent when I greeted this almost-mother and father as she pushed, with the baby’s head crowning. The nurses were bustling about doing all the preparation for the delivery:  setting up the heat lamps over the bassinet, getting the specimen pan for the placenta, readying suture materials for the episiotomy.

I noticed there were no actual doctors in the room so asked where the resident on call was.

What? Still in bed? Time to get him up! Delivery was imminent.

I knew the drill. Gown up, gloves on, sit between her propped up legs, stretch the vulva around the crowning head, thinning and stretching it with massaging fingers to try to avoid tears. I injected anesthetic into the perineum and with scissors cut the episiotomy to allow more room, a truly unnecessary but, at the time, standard procedure in all too many deliveries. Amniotic fluid and blood dribbled out then splashed on my shoes and the sweet salty smell permeated everything. I was concentrating so hard on doing every step correctly, I didn’t think to notice whether the baby’s heart beat had been monitored with the doppler, or whether a resident had come into the room yet or not. The head crowned, and as I sucked out the baby’s mouth, I thought its face color looked dusky, so checked quickly for a cord around the neck, thinking it may be tight and compromising. No cord found, so the next push brought the baby out into my lap. Bluish purple, floppy, and not responding. I quickly clamped and cut the cord and rubbed the baby vigorously with a towel.

Nothing, no response, no movement, no breath. Nothing.  I rubbed harder.

A nurse swept in and grabbed the baby and ran over to the pediatric heat lamp and bed and started resuscitation.

Chaos ensued. The mother and father began to panic and cry, the pediatric and obstetrical residents came running, hair askew, eyes still sleepy, but suddenly shocked awake with the sight of a blue floppy baby.

I sat stunned, immobilized by what had just happened in the previous five minutes. I tried to review in my foggy mind what had gone wrong and realized at no time had I heard this baby’s heart beat from the time I entered the room. The nurses started answering questions fired at me by the residents, and no one could remember listening to the baby after the first check when they had arrived in active pushing labor some 30 minutes earlier. The heart beat was fine then, and because things happened so quickly, it had not been checked again. It was not an excuse, and it was not acceptable. It was a terrible terrible error. This baby had died sometime in the previous half hour. It was not apparent why until the placenta delivered in a rush of blood and it was obvious it had partially abrupted–prematurely separated from the uterine wall so the circulation to the baby had been compromised. Potentially, with continuous fetal monitoring, this would have been detected and the baby delivered in an emergency C section in time. Or perhaps not. The pediatric resident worked for another 20 minutes on the little lifeless baby.

The parents held each other, sobbing, while I sewed up the episiotomy. I had no idea what to say,  mortified and helpless as a witness and perpetrator of such agony. I tried saying I was so sorry, so sad they lost their baby, felt so badly we had not known sooner. There was nothing that could possibly comfort them or relieve their horrible loss or the freshness of their raw grief.

And of course, there were no words of comfort for my own anguish.

Later, in another room, my supervising resident made me practice intubating the limp little body so I’d know how to do it on something other than a mannequin. I couldn’t see the vocal cords through my tears but did what I was told, as I always did.

I cried in the bathroom, a sad exhausted selfish weeping. Instead of achieving that “perfect” 100, I learned something far more important: without constant vigilance, and even with it,  tragedy intervenes in life unexpectedly without regard to age or status or wishes or desires. I went on as a family physician to deliver a few hundred babies during my career,  never forgetting the baby that might have had a chance, if only born at a hospital with adequately trained well rested staff without a med student trying to reach a meaningless goal.

This baby would now be in his 40’s, likely with children of his own, his parents now proud and loving grandparents.

I wonder if I’ll meet him again — this little soul only a few minutes away from a full life — if I’m ever forgiven enough to share a piece of heaven with humanity’s millions of unborn babies who, through intention or negligence, never had opportunity to draw a breath.

Then, just maybe then, forgiveness will feel real and grace will flood the terrible void where, not for the first time nor the last, my guilt overwhelmed what innocence I had left.

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Driving at Night

I want to be a passenger
in your car again
and shut my eyes
while you sit at the wheel,


awake and assured
in your own private world,
seeing all the lines
on the road ahead,


down a long stretch
of empty highway
without any other
faces in sight.

I want to be a passenger
in your car again
and put my life back
in your hands.
~Michael Miller “December”

Up north, the dashboard lights of the family car
gleam in memory, the radio
plays to itself as I drive
my father plied the highways
while my mother talked, she tried to hide
that low lilt, that Finnish brogue,
in the back seat, my sisters and I
our eyes always tied to the Big Dipper
I watch it still
on summer evenings, as the fireflies stream
above the ditches and moths smack
into the windshield and the wildlife’s
red eyes bore out from the dark forests
we flew by, then scattered like the last bit of star
light years before.
It’s like a different country, the past
we made wishes on unnamed falling stars
that I’ve forgotten, that maybe were granted
because I wished for love.

~Sheila Packa “Driving At Night” from The Mother Tongue

The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light

faint stars and the silver leaves
of milkweed beside the road,
gleaming before my car.

Yet I like driving at night
the brown road through the mist

of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet
, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw

the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.

~Hayden Carruth from “The Cows at Night”

Some of my most comfortable childhood memories come from the long ride home in the car at night from holiday gatherings. My father always drove, my mother humming “I See the Moon” in the front passenger seat, and we three kids sat in the back seat, drowsy and full of feasting. The night world hypnotically passed by outside the car window. I wondered whether the rest of the world was as safe and content as I felt at that moment.

On clear nights, the moon followed us down the highway, shining a light on the road.

Now as a driver at night, transporting grandchildren from a family gathering, I want them to feel the same peaceful contentment that I did as a child. As an older driver, I don’t enjoy driving at night, especially dark rural roads in pouring rain. I understand the enormous responsibility I bear, transporting those whom I dearly love and want to keep safe.

In truth, I long to be a passenger again, with no worries or pressures – just along for the ride, watching the moon and the world drift by, knowing I’m well-cared for.

Despite my fretting about the immense burden I feel to make things right in a troubled world, I do realize:
I am a passenger on a planet that has a driver Who feels great responsibility and care for all He transports through the black night of the universe. He loves me and I can rest content in the knowledge that I am safe in His vigilant hands. I am not the driver – He knows how to safely bring me` home.

I see the moon, it’s shining from far away, Beckoning with ev‘ry beam.
And though all the start above cast down their light, Still the moon is all that I see
And it’s calling out, “Come run a way!
And we’ll sail with the clouds for our sea,
And we’ll travel on through the black of the night, ‘til we float back home on a dream!”
The moon approaches my window pane, stretching itself to the ground.
The moon sings softly and laughs and smiles, and yet never makes a sound!
I see the moon! I see the moon!
Part A
And it’s calling out, “Come run a way!
And we’ll sail with the clouds for our sea,
And we’ll travel on through the black of the night, ‘til we float back home on a dream!”
Part B
I see the moon, it’s shining from far away, Beckoning with ev‘ry beam.
And though all the stars above cast down their light, Still the moon is all that I see
~Douglas Beam

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To Recover the Lost

The songs of small birds fade away
into the bushes after sundown,
the air dry, sweet with goldenrod.
Beside the path, suddenly, bright asters
flare in the dusk. The aged voices
of a few crickets thread the silence.
It is a quiet I love, though my life
too often drives me through it deaf.
Busy with costs and losses, I waste
the time I have to be here—a time
blessed beyond my deserts, as I know,
if only I would keep aware. The leaves
rest in the air, perfectly still.
I would like them to rest in my mind
as still, as simply spaced. As I approach,
the sorrel filly looks up from her grazing,
poised there, light on the slope
as a young apple tree. A week ago
I took her away to sell, and failed
to get my price, and brought her home
again. Now in the quiet I stand
and look at her a long time, glad
to have recovered what is lost
in the exchange of something for money.
~Wendell Berry “The Sorrel Filly”

I am reminded at the end of a week
of dark and wet and cold
with chores not done yet,
and horses waiting to be fed,
of the value of decades of moments spent
with long-lashed eyes, wind-swept manes, and velvet muzzles.

True, it appears to others to be time and money wasted.
But for a farmer like me, sometimes deaf and blind
to what is in front of me every day,
not all valuables are preserved in a lock box.

Golden treasure can have
four hooves, a tail, with a rumbling greeting
asking if I’d somehow gotten lost
since I’m a little later than usual
and they were a bit concerned I’d forgotten them.

Only then I remember where my home is
and how easy it is to wander from the path
that somehow always leads me back here.

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Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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Walking Over the Threshold

I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

John O’Donohue gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life — thresholds was the word he loved—
where the fullness of reality becomes more stark and more clear.

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative.

And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

A decade ago, someone I respected told me that my writing reflects a “sacramental” life —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains me as God’s eternal grace and gift.

I allow that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to write here.

It is all too tempting to emphasize the sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I share here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, through forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

I feel so unworthy — in fact, threshed to pieces most days, incapable of thinking of anything but how I feel reduced to fragments. Perhaps those fragments can be like the droplets coming from a farm sprinkler at sunset, sparkling and golden despite waning light, bringing something essential to anyone feeling dry, parched and dusty.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free
.

Only then we can walk each other home.

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Softening to an Evening Gray

Now that summer’s ripen’d bloom
Frolics where the winter frow n’d,
Stretch’d upon these banks of broom,
We command the landscape round.

Nature in the prospect yields
Humble dales and mountains bold,
Meadows, woodlands, heaths-and fields
Yellow’d o’er with waving gold.

On the uplands ev’ry glade
Brightens in the blaze of day;
O’er the vales the sober shade
Softens to an ev’ning gray.
~John Cunningham from “The Landscape”

Betty with children Carol, Barbara and Joe
the renovated farm house
the “egg” house where produce was kept cool
On the porch in Spring Valley in the Palouse – me at age two with Nancy holding my baby brother Steve along with the Schmitz cousins – Joe, Barbara and Carol

My Aunt Betty Buchholz Schmitz lived for most of her 102 years in landscapes that could be summer-rich with golden crops yet in winter, harsh, bleak and empty. She weathered it all with hard work, grace and an innate sweetness born of her faith.

She was carried away last week to her true home to join my mother’s brother, Albert, and so many family and friends who had gone before her, including my mother who always felt blessed to call Betty her sister through marriage.

I remember Aunt Betty from my earliest days as we would make an annual summer visit to our cousins in Spring Valley, a tiny place with train tracks and a grain elevator in the middle of the rolling hills of the Palouse country of eastern Washington. I felt such a surge of excitement as we entered the long poplar-lined driveway that we could see from the road from far away.

My Palouse family lived in the farm house where my mother and uncle were born – a magical place of two stories with an enclosed staircase and many rooms, a huge basement, a sleeping porch for summer, a working windmill, as well as numerous outbuildings that contained everything Palouse wheat and lentil farmers needed to survive. The house was nestled in a small vale between the surrounding hills, to protect it from chill winter winds and stay cool in the shadows on blazing hot summer days.

Betty was a woman who was soft-spoken, always humble and eager to lend herself wherever needed. She cooked and baked huge meals, and used a wringer-washer and clothesline for never-ending loads of farm laundry. Her home was warm and welcoming with true heart-felt hospitality, even decades later after she moved to a house “in town” – a metropolis with just a few hundred neighbors.

Although a pioneer in the sense of living remotely with minimal conveniences, Betty and her brother Kenneth became pioneers in the 1960’s living donor kidney transplant program, as one of the first successful transplants. This must have required immense courage and stamina from a farm mother of three children, yet she was able to give her brother years of life that he otherwise would not have had.

Over the years, Betty sent cards and letters of encouragement to me in between our occasional visits to see her. She was the kind of aunt that modeled how I wanted to be and I have too often fallen short of her example.

I hoped to see Betty this summer, having missed visits over the last two years of COVID restrictions in her assisted living facility. Instead I will look for her smiling face and listen for her warm voice amid a lengthening list of beloved family and friends when I am called home some day myself.

I’ll see you again, Betty, in the glades of those rolling hills and the shadowed softened vales of the valleys. You will hold out your hand and make sure I feel at home there, just as you did for me during your century here.

Palouse fields
Poplar-lined driveway to the Schmitz farm

The Wonders Beyond Us

Watching the night sky for the Pleiades meteor shower
from the back porch, nothing above but clouds and airplanes,

bug bites at our ankles, a sudden track of headlights
against the house, pet eyes peering out a window.

“Not a meteor in sight,” I say aloud to my daughters
and the nothingness above us, both of them standing

on the picnic table leaning back into me
like two armfuls of warm laundry, asking me about the night,

wondering what do stars look like up close?
where does the sky begin? how long does it take to get there?

while I hold them next to me in a patch of backyard
in America, my wristwatch illuminating

the hour, my thoughts lost in the gap of time
between this night and forever, the wonders beyond,

the heavens so near, questions so simple,
and the answers so far beyond my knowing.

~Hank Hudepohl, “The Heavens” from Riverbank.

photo by Josh Scholten

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which 
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
-Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

photo by Joel DeWaard
The Webb telescope’s image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 includes thousands of galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in infrared. The light from SMACS 0723 in this image is 4.6 billion years old. Photo Credit…NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

‘Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The solemn hour of midnight
Breathes sweet thoughts everywhere,


But most where trees are sending
Their breezy boughs on high,
Or stooping low are lending
A shelter from the sky.


And there in those wild bowers
A lovely form is laid;
Green grass and dew-steeped flowers
Wave gently round her head.
~Emily Bronte “Moonlight, Summer Moonlight”

I try not to miss a light show above me. I both adore and abhor the feeling of entanglement and dismay by what I can not comprehend.

Standing outside on a clear summer night, I am overwhelmed by the heavens –  the moon and stars are beacons of light at once so close and so far away. The dome over me feels infinitely divine and divinely infinite with no end within my capacity to witness. Now, with the most far away images by NASA from the Webb telescope, we see infinitely more with no end in sight. Surely Something or Someone will emerge momentarily with trumpets and fanfare to explain it all.

No trumpets. Not yet anyway.
Just the sounds of the owls hoo-hooing in the woods and the coyotes yipping in the fields. Only the ordinary below with the extraordinary always spinning above.

The heavens are made with Love and so are we.

I do wonder what might become of us all, we who are specks of intentionally created cosmic dust.

photo of supermoon by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Joel DeWaard
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Here and Now Ceases to Matter

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 2: 1-4

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother tongue is Love in every nation.

~Malcolm Guite “Pentecost” from Sounding the Seasons

Love flows from God into man,
Like a bird
Who rivers the air
Without moving her wings.
Thus we move in His world,
One in body and soul,
Though outwardly separate in form.
As the Source strikes the note,
Humanity sings–
The Holy Spirit is our harpist,
And all strings
Which are touched in Love
Must sound.
~Mechtild of Magdeburg 1207-1297 “Effortlessly”
trans. Jane Hirshfield

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”

When we feel we are without hope,
when faith feels frail,
when love seems distant,
if we feel abandoned…
we wait, stilled,
for the moment we are lit afire~

when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known,
forever burning in our hearts
in this moment
and for a lifetime.

As we are consumed,
carried as His breath and words
into multicolor clouds
to the ends of the earth,
here and now ceases to matter.

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To Keep From Being Forgotten

I like to stroll the graveyard in the middle of town
With my friend Anne, though we seldom agree
On what an epitaph we happen to read implies.
I’m inclined to find the one-line gravestone,
Dr. Noah Vedder, M.D., as sadly comic.
If we can’t take our money into the dark,
I read it as saying, at least we can take our titles.
But Anne, whose sympathies are aroused
More quickly than mine, reads it more darkly
As confessional. Here is the man’s admission
That he saw himself as a better doctor
Than he was a friend, or father, or husband,
A better listener in his office than at home.

If his kin were responsible for the inscription,
Its terseness, I say, may suggest they were moved
More by duty than they were by love.
But for her, its terseness seems to imply
Their painful acknowledgment that no praise
Inscribed on the stone would keep their friend
From being forgotten soon after they would be.
And behind this truth she hears a protest:
If the world were fair, he wouldn’t be sentenced
To endless retirement but allowed to practice,
In a life beyond this one, the profession he loved.

What use would a doctor be, I ask, in a realm
Where bodies are laid aside? But for her the point is
That those who knew him were certain that if
Such a realm existed and a doctor were called for there,
He’d volunteer, glad to hold office hours
And glad after hours to visit patients
Too sick to leave home,
However modest the streets they lived on,
However winding and poorly lit.

~Carl Dennis “At the Graveyard with Anne”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

We physicians can be an arrogant lot in our devotion to our profession above all else in our lives – I’ve known a few who wear their M.D. title full-time like a banner and shield to prove their expertise.

The only time the label M.D. is relevant is on a name tag in a clinical setting and often it doesn’t even make a difference there. We do what we can with what knowledge we possess from our training, as limited as it is. There is so much that we don’t know and don’t understand.

Even so, there are many altruistic physicians who give of themselves 24 hours a day for their lifetime. Some would gladly continue their healing efforts long after they have become dust, yet those skills are no longer needed. In heaven, all are already healed.

Our healing comes from beyond our expertise, from a balm that can never be prescribed. We have a Great Physician who never forgets us, even when we are crushed and mourning, when all seems hopeless with our wounds so incredibly deep.

We are not forgotten.

Every face is in you, every voice,
Every sorrow in you.
Every pity, every love,
Every memory, woven into fire.
Every breath is in you, every cry,
Every longing in you.

Every singing, every hope,
Every healing, woven into fire.
Every heart is in you,
Every tongue, every trembling in you,
Every blessing, every soul,
Every shining, woven into fire.
~Michael Dennis Browne

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Acknowledging the Abyss

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory

I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.

~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand – photo by Andrea Nipges

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley
Great-Grandma Elna and Noah

And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…

Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”

The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.

I too often mistake this world, this existence,  as the only light there is,  a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness.  If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.

Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.

The newborn and the dying know this.  They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands.  An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds,  grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered.  The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.

We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark.  We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.

In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives.  Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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