The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

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.

So Pressed for Time

Now a decade after her death, I’m still slowly sorting through my mother’s packed up possessions stored in one of our farm outbuildings. Some boxes I am not ready to open, such as the 30 months of letters written by my newlywed father and mother while he fought in several bloody island battles as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. Other boxes contain items from too distant an era to be practical in my kitchen, such as the ones labeled “decorative teacups” or “assorted tupperware bowls without lids”.

But I do open the boxes of books. My mother was a high school speech teacher during those war years, and she had a good sense of a classic book, so there are always treasures in those boxes.

Recently I found the 1956 Webster’s New Dictionary of the Twentieth Century that I grew up with. This book was massive, easily weighing 10 pounds, and served as a booster seat for haircuts, a step stool for trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen cupboard, and of course, for looking up any obscure word that ever existed in all of history. Or so it seemed.

It was an amazing tome. And as I flipped through the pages, I found some old familiar friends that were neither black nor white nor read all over.

Wildflowers had been carefully pressed between the pages–over two dozen specimens paper thin themselves, their existence squeezed into two dimensions–still showing faint pink or blue, or purple color, almost exuding a long ago fragrance from a summer over fifty years ago. As a child I regularly wandered out to our fields and woods to gather crimson clover blossoms, buttercup, dandelions, daisies, wild violets, wild ginger, calypso lady slippers for bouquets for my mother, and she would select the most perfect to slide between the pages of the dictionary. Occasionally she would pull out one to gently paste on a hand written card she sent to a friend.

Here were my perfect flowers, preserved and pressed for time, just waiting for the fifty-five-years-older me to rediscover them lying between wonderful words that I love to roll in my mouth and type on a page. They are too fragile to paste to a greeting card, or even to handle due to their brittleness. They need to stay right where they are, for another generation or two or three to discover.

I am so pressed for time, becoming more fragile, perhaps more brittle than I care to admit. My mother and father have blown away like the puff ball seeds of the dandelion, on to other horizons, but the sturdy old dictionary is going nowhere. It will be passed down, its delicate passengers preserved inside, a long ago far away summer afternoon of flower gathering to be shared as a great grandchild opens the book to look up a favorite word sometime in the not so far off future.

The Path of Life

moodypath

 

pathwaylight2

 

Our last five minutes on earth are running out.

We can spend those minutes in meanness, exclusivity,
and self-righteous disparagement of those who are different from us,
or we can spend them consciously embracing every glowing soul
who wanders within our reach – those who, without our caring,
would find the vibrant, exhilarating path of life just another sad and forsaken road.
~Alice Walker from Anything We Love Can Be Saved

 

darkhedges2antique

 

During these summer weeks of orientation of new college students and their parents, I speak to several thousand people, all looking nervous in unfamiliar territory among strangers.

They are about to embark on a road that rises to meet them and leads them to parts unknown.

I try to say, as I shake each hand, and give out my card with my personal phone number:
this too will be okay.  This too will bless you.  Even when there are potholes, uneven surfaces and times when you want to turn back to more familiar territory, you will find the road to your next destination fulfilling and welcoming.

Embrace the journey…and each other.

And I embrace you.

(Thanks Ann Voskamp for sharing your message to your college-bound son here)

 

 

centralroadoct

 

roadeast921171

 

darkhedgesboost

When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

sunrise21218

 

(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

sunset210181

 

Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

cloverdrops

 

drizzlesnowdrop

Finding a Peace Together

bakerchristmaseve17

wedding

Seventy five years ago, my parents were married on Christmas Eve. It was not a conventional wedding day but a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.

When I look at my parents’ young faces in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other at college for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.

My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher in rural Colville in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do so … it must have been love.

They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father was shipped out. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was composed of letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.

As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death I kept their war-time letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together in a box that I walk past every day. I have not yet opened them but will when I’m ready. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them during and after the war but who both depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological.  It did not seem possible that beyond those harsh and horrible realities, things could go sour after reuniting.

The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver.  After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality.  When my father returned (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died.

Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently.

As I peer at my father’s and mother’s faces in their wedding photo, I remember those eyes, then so trusting and unaware of what was to come.  I find peace in knowing they now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.

 

samhill

 

A Full Circle Remembrance Day

weddingMy parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945

 

Sometimes, as a child,  when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic.  It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.

All the usual attic-type things were put up there:  Christmas ornaments and lights,  baby cribs and high chairs,  lamps and toys no longer used.  Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too.  It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family.  The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.

My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again.  It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering.  The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents.  His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap.  There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.

Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle.  Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire.  Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain.  It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living.  I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember.  I know better now.  He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.

These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き).  Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for.  A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers.  My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.

Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time.  There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them.   My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw.  He never could be at ease or turn his back.  As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.

When he was twenty two years old,  pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children.  My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent.   Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific.  I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.

More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed.  Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought.  Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.

In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary,  redeems my father, the warrior.

It is, on this Remembrance Day,  as it was meant to be.

 

natetomomi2014

 

natetomomiemma2017

 

 

In Search Of…

homermaple

 

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
~Kathleen Norris

 

treehouse1

 

I remember well the feeling of restlessness, having an itch that couldn’t be reached, feeling too rooted and uneasy staying in one place for long, especially if that place was my hometown.  I knew I must be destined for greater things, grander plans and extraordinary destinations.  There exists in most human beings an inborn compulsion to wander far beyond one’s own threshold, venturing out into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings simply because one can.   It is the prerogative of the young to explore, loosen anchor and pull up stakes and simply go.  Most cannot articulate why but simply feel something akin to a siren call.

And so at twenty I heard and I went, considerably aging my parents in the process and not much caring that I did.  To their credit, they never told me no, never questioned my judgement, and never inflicted guilt when I returned home after the adventure went sour.

I had gone on a personal quest to the other side of the world and had come home empty.  But home itself was not empty nor had it ever been and has not been since.

There is a Dorothy-esque feeling in returning home from a land of wonders and horrors, to realize there is no place like home.    There was no way to know until I went away,  searching, then coming home empty-handed, to understand home was right inside my heart the whole time.  There was no leaving after all, not really.

So I’m here to stay–there is no greater, grander or more extraordinary than right here.  Even when I board a plane for a far off place, I know I’ll be back as this is where the search ends and the lost found.

My head now rests easy on the pillow.

 

briarcroftponies

 

backsidebriarcroft

 

Support for the Barnstorming Blog

Your financial support keeps this blog a daily offering and ad-free. A one-time contribution helps greatly.

$10.00