I appear at the kitchen door, spiritual equivalent of a wet dog from a storm, tail tucked, trembling. You open your lives, this life, provide prayerful provision, a vigorous toweling down, a large bowl of kibbles. I curl up and sleep safe on the rug by your heart, the chapel that warms His, and so, restored, return to the weary world rejoicing, perhaps to provide a bracing swig from the fiery word, perhaps to lead a lost one home. ~Bonnie Thurston “Strays” from O Taste and See
How many times have I shown up muddy, cold, hungry and you invited me in, dried me off, offered me your supper, let me sleep warmed and safe?
How many times did I go back out into the world with every good intention of doing the same for other strays and yet get lost again myself?
You call me back, whistle me in, open the door to let me know no matter how much of a mess I’m in your hearth, your heart await my return.
Needing them still, I come when I can, this time to the sea where we share a room: their double bed, my single. Morning fog paints the pale scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing, the chenille spread folded back, my father’s feet white sails furled at the edge of blue pajamas. Every child’s dream, a parent in each hand, though this child is fifty. Their bodies fit easily, with room to spare. When did they grow so small? Grow so small— as if it were possible to swell backwards into an earlier self.
One more year, I ask the silence. Last night to launch myself into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal rise and fall I now put my ear to, the coiled shell of their lives. ~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.
My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.
I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.
After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.
Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.
It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.
Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.
As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.
Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue. ~Eugene O’Neill
We are born hollering, already aware of our brokenness – our emptiness evident from the first breath, each tiny air sac bursting with the air of a fallen world that is never quite enough to satisfy.
The rest of our days are spent filling up our empty spaces: whether alveoli or stomach or synapse hungry for knowledge; still hollering and heart broken.
So we mend and are mended through healing another, sewn up by knitting together the scraggly fragments of lives, becoming the crucial glue boiled from His gifted Grace, all empty holes made holy when filled to brimming so wholly.
Cut grass lies frail: Brief is the breath Mown stalks exhale. Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours Of young-leafed June With chestnut flowers, With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed, Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace, And that high-builded cloud Moving at summer’s pace.~ ~Philip Larkin “Cut Grass” from The Complete Poems
Light and wind are running over the headed grass as though the hill had melted and now flowed. ~Wendell Berry “June Wind”
The uncut field grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut; the undulations of summer breezes urge it back upright. It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand unsupported. We must work fast to save it and more rain is on the way.
Light and wind work magic on a field of melting tall grass. The blades of the mower will come to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes. It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.
It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn, no longer bending but bent, no longer flowing but flown, no longer growing but grown
We move at summer’s pace to ensure the grasses become fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors. It will melt in their mouths, as it was meant to be.
My father would lift me to the ceiling in his big hands and ask, How’s the weather up there? And it was good, the weather of being in his hands, his breath of scotch and cigarettes, his face smiling from the world below. O daddy, was the lullaby I sang back down to him as he stood on earth, my great, white-shirted father, home from work, his gold wristwatch and wedding band gleaming as he held me above him for as long as he could, before his strength failed down there in the world I find myself standing in tonight, my little boy looking down from his flight below the ceiling, cradled in my hands, his eyes wide and already staring into the distance beyond the man asking him again and again, How’s the weather up there? ~George Bilgere “Weather”.
It was hard work, dying, harder than anything he’d ever done.
Whatever brutal, bruising, back- breaking chore he’d forced himself
to endure—it was nothing compared to this. And it took
so long. When would the job be over? Who would call him
home for supper? And it was hard for us (his children)—
all of our lives we’d heard my mother telling us to go out,
help your father, but this was work we could not do.
He was way out beyond us, in a field we could not reach. ~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”
Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.
My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.
It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.
His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.
So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.
This man: who had grown up dirt poor, fought hard with his alcoholic father left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family – then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.
This man: who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher, then a supervisor, then a desk worker.
This man: who left our family to marry another woman but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.
This man: who died in a house he had built completely himself, without assistance, from the ground up.
He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.
No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.
Wait, for now. Distrust everything, if you have to. But trust the hours. Haven’t they carried you everywhere, up to now? Personal events will become interesting again. Hair will become interesting. Pain will become interesting. Buds that open out of season will become lovely again. Second-hand gloves will become lovely again, their memories are what give them the need for other hands. And the desolation of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness carved out of such tiny beings as we are asks to be filled; the need for the new love is faithfulness to the old.
Wait. Don’t go too early. You’re tired. But everyone’s tired. But no one is tired enough. Only wait a while and listen. Music of hair, Music of pain, music of looms weaving all our loves again. Be there to hear it, it will be the only time, most of all to hear, the flute of your whole existence, rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion. ~Galway Kinnell “Wait”from A New Selected Poems
If everyone abandons you and even drives you away by force, then when you are left alone fall on the earth and kiss it, water it with your tears, and it will bring forth fruit even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude. Believe to the end, even if all people went astray and you were left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov
Suicide rates of teenagers in the United States have increased well over 30% since 2009. It is a national epidemic and tragedy.
Based on the anguish of the patients I see every day, one after another and another, over and over again I hear a too-easy contemplation of suicide, from “It would be easier if I were dead” or “no one cares if I live or die”, or “the world would be better off without me”, or “I’m not worthy to be here” to “that is my plan, it is my right and no one can stop me”.
Without us all pledging an oath to live life no matter what, willing to lay ourselves down for one another, to bridge the sorrow and lead the troubled to the light, there will be no slowing of this trend.
…when there is no loyalty to life, as stressful and messy as it can be, …when there is no honoring of the holiness of each created being as weak and frail and prone to helpless hopelessness as we are, …when there is no resistance to the buffeting winds of life~
please just wait a little longer, only a little longer: don’t go too early
Buttercup’s heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high.
Buttercup: We’ll never survive. Westley: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.
Westley: Hear this now. I will always come for you. Buttercup: But how can you be sure? Westley: This is true love. You think this happens every day?
That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying “As you wish”, what he meant was, “I love you.” And even more amazing was the day she realized she truly loved him back. ~William Golding, quotes from The Princess Bride
How was I ever blessed to find just such a farm boy? A farm boy who says “I love you” in many ways every day, so the walls of my secret garden heart come tumbling down…