Lines of remembering

Fatherhood

I would write this as a letter but there is no point
as you would not receive it, would not read it, would not respond,
so I write it as verse instead because I want to talk to you

and because poetry, like love, transcends.

It’s dark and gloomy today, steady rain
tossing itself against the windows, not at all
the crisp, bright day it was, that fall
eighteen years ago.


The weather’s playing havoc with my Internet connection
but then, so few things are connecting anymore
as they should, in these dark and gloomy times

you can’t imagine, even though you lived your own.

One of my favorite stories about you: Little boy,
running hard as you could down the old dirt road,
bursting into the house, “Mother! Mother! I just heard on
Grandma’s radio—President Roosevelt is dead!”

She couldn’t believe it, could she, but soon enough,
everyone was wondering: What will happen to
our country now? Who will lead us out of war?
Is it ever going to end?
Is there life beyond?

If you were here, would you recognize our country now?
Eighteen years have come and gone (I think you’d love a GPS
and texting, so much better than e-mail you’d just learned to use)
in the interim of our lifetimes, this last one, an accordion of implosion.

Did I ever tell you I once had a dream
that you and I were standing on a ridge looking out
over a barren land, as if an apocalypse had occurred,
leaving us as the only living things
?

You tried to explain but I couldn’t make out the words,
couldn’t understand, but I knew that you knew why and I wasn’t

afraid, mostly just surprised and curious, looking over that desert wasteland
—I ponder now: Is now what I was seeing then?

Although you aren’t here anymore to say, to lead by example
of unfailing duty, to give insight and wisdom, and perhaps courage

I do wonder if you ever thought of yourself as courageous, despite
your saying that a smart man would have gotten further in life.

No one is smart all the time and how I long to hear
what you have to say, now more than ever, never mind that
I am grown and my children are grown, for I find myself yearning,
returning, to the arrow of the compass that you were.


If I could write the letter, I’d say I miss you, you’ve missed so much,
the boys are well, you’d be so proud. I’d say I took
a corner of your protective cloak and wrapped it
over them for as long as I could, the way you did for me.


If I was granted a wish for changing one thing
in the past, it would be for more carefree times
like the day you raced me on the beach when I was little
and I knew you let me win.


We only did it that once, you running between me and the tide,
your shadow hopping over shells and disintegrating sand castles,
dipping in small hollows, until you swept me up into your young arms,
laughing there with blue eyes, blue sea, in the sunlight.


Yes, that’s what I’d wish, the freedom, the light, the salt, the joy,
the time to play, for it was rare and I doubt if you’d even recall
these moments that stay with me like an old photograph,
fading, becoming fragile, curling up at the edges.

But I still hold on, gently, feeling the pulse of memory
while seeking silences where I can sort
the images and collate them in some semblance of order

when I need it most, and when you seem most near.

These lines won’t bring you back and I don’t wish it, I just trust that
my words, beating like memory, like the waves on the shore,
will ripple on into infinity to the place where our circles coincide,
where you still guide, running between me and the tide.

*******

Just a draft, on the anniversary of Daddy’s passing, September 25th.
Shared for Poetry Friday with thanks to Jone Rush MacCulloch for the invitation to “bring poetry goodness to the world today.”

Photo: Fatherhood. Giuseppe MiloCC-BY

Spiritual Journey Thursday: On golf and good-bye

An elegy.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

-Ecclesiastes 9:11

He was born nearly seventy years ago.

With cerebral palsy.

He would never be able to go up a flight of stairs, for both halves of his body wouldn’t work together.

He would partake of the Lord’s Supper at church with a special goblet reserved for him; the tiny communion cups required too much finesse.

His ever-present smile, however, set his entire face alight with a magnificent inner glow that never dimmed, his piercing blue eyes as bright as the unclouded summer sky.

Perhaps it began with his father, who chose to believe.

Who loved the game of golf and decided his son would, too.

And so he taught his boy.

As if there were no handicap.

Always make a total effort, even when the odds are against you.

-Arnold Palmer

It’s a game of precision, skill, and amazing grace.

The boy loved it.

He excelled at it.

He entered tournaments, won trophies.

A whole case full of them.

I have to believe in myself. I know what I can do, what I can achieve.

-Sergio Garcia

He liked people even though many could not understand his labored speech and, in their discomfiture, avoided him.

He could drive a car and on occasion came to visit the parsonage where my husband and I lived, when our children were small.

I learned he had a mischievous sense of humor, that his brain was, in fact, brilliant.

I wonder how many people understood this.

When I told him that I had to complete a required PE credit on my path to becoming a teacher, and that the only thing currently available was golf, and that I was already in danger of failing it due to my abysmal performance, he coached me.

Brought me pages of yellow legal paper covered with handwritten notes far clearer, finer, and consistent than my own, organized under this heading: The Fundamentals of Golf. Another heading: Form. Accompanied by his sketches of how to stand, how to hold the club, body position, dotted lines for movement…

I contemplated these golden pages with absolute awe.

He brought me newspaper clippings and magazine articles on women golfers. Hoping, perhaps, I’d love the sport. His sport. That I’d maybe rise, somehow, to the glimmering, glorious heights of it…

I never did. Never learned to love golf, not even a little.

The university instructor declared, in utter exasperation, that I looked like I was chopping wood.

But I got an A in the course.

Thanks to my coach.

Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots—but you have to play it where it lies.

-Bobby Jones

He taught me much.

He wanted to be married, to have a family.

It didn’t happen.

“People don’t understand God,” he told me during one of his last parsonage visits. “But I understand God.”

I looked at his face, bright and earnest as ever, uncharacteristically serious, eyes fierce, blazing.

And I believed him.

As you walk down the fairway of life, you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.

-Ben Hogan

He lived with his mother, who cared for him until her illness and death, after which he went to an assisted living facility.

Parents gone, driving gone, golf gone. Seasons come and gone with slow decline, languish, only memories left of moments in the sun, walking the fairway, making your best shot.

With the arrival of COVID-19, even visitors were gone.

And now so is he.

He could be considered a victim. Of the cerebral palsy that marked an existence of suffering from birth to his death by a pathogen that, in electron-microscope images, looks like a golf ball with extruding dimples.

Some might say his life wasn’t fair… what if his father thought this?

I say he was a conqueror.

More than a conqueror, never separated from the love of God.

He understood.

Only a few will be allowed at the memorial today.

Just know that I remember, old Friend. Farewell. You were, you remain, always, a gift from our Father.

Photo: Chris Urbanowicz. CC BY

*******

Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday today at Beyond Literacy Link.

A passing prayer

Heard today that a friend and former colleague passed away.

We worked together for a few short years as paraprofessionals, until I switched schools to complete student teaching, the final step in my university degree. It was an unexpected door that opened later in life for me.

My colleague encouraged me. She was an interesting, eclectic person who celebrated individuality and embraced life even as she absorbed some of its severest blows. I remember one sunny conversation we had about the word “eviscerated” — the gleam in her steely blue eyes never dimmed, whether burning with impassioned convictions or shining with compassionate discernment. She loved to laugh, to comfort, to speak of spiritual things.

One day she surprised me with a handmade card bearing a mysterious drawing on the front: “This is my prayer for you,” she said with a smile and those unwavering, bright eyes.

I kept it all these years, long after we lost touch. Long after I heard that her compromised, declining health rendered her unable to work.

I found the card again this week during my incessant pandemic purge. With the TV in the background broadcasting the rise of coronavirus deaths at a local nursing home, I reread the card, marveled anew at its artistry and sentiment, thought of her, wondered what became of her.

Today I learned she’s numbered among those dead.

—How many messages do we miss in life, because we aren’t “still” enough to receive them. How many moments do we miss because we don’t make time. How many gifts go unacknowledged because we can’t see them while looking through the lens of unfairness.

My friend didn’t miss. She understood. Far better than most.

She reminded me once, long ago.

She reminds me, still.

It’s a choice.

Just now, seize the day
Offer your own gifts in return
You’ll find joy for the taking

Seize Heaven now, joyful old friend.

Rest in sweet peace.

Where the sunbeam ends

In late February, we had our only snow this winter.

I woke in the morning to find the sun shining through the crape myrtle I planted when we first moved here. Ice crystals glittered on the tree limbs like a thousand prisms—tiny, brilliant rainbow lights. I took a picture. When I looked at the image, the word that came to mind was holy.

Maybe it was the brightness of the sun. The reaching ray of light. The purity of snow. The hush, the stillness. Just a sense of divine glory, of peace.

And then I noticed where that sunbeam ended.

Oh, how I recalled, in that instant, first reading Where the Red Fern Grows when I was around ten years old. It tore my heart out. I wept for weeks. A dog story, of course. And hardship, love, and sacrifice. Wilson Rawls wrote:

I had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.

That’s when the boy, Billy, finds a red fern growing between the graves of his two dogs.

Look where my sunbeam ends.

Directly over the grave of my family’s little dachshund, Nik, who was with us for sixteen years. That’s his memorial statue rising up from the snow.

No red fern, of course.

But sacred, just the same.

Dear Boy

A good dog is one of life’s greatest gifts. Today’s post is dedicated to Rin, my husband’s childhood pet.

Dear Boy,

It is late. I am thinking about you sleeping upstairs. I wish I could get up there like I used to; I feel I should be near you tonight.

But I content myself with knowing that you are here and safe.

I think about the first time I saw you.

There you came with your mom and dad, looking at all my brothers and sisters at the place where we were born. As soon as I saw you, I knew: That is my Boy. That is my Boy. I ran straight to you, your arms went around me, and that was the moment we began. How excited you were to give me my name. Rin Tin Tin, you said. He was famous and you look just like him!

I was just happy because you were happy.

Do you remember taking me to classes? I do. How proud I was to learn what you wanted, to make you so pleased with me.

I’d do anything for you, my Boy. I hope you know.

I remember that bad time when I was still a very young dog and you were so sad. When your dad left for work and never came back. I knew you were hurting and afraid; that’s why I stayed so close. I gave you all the comfort I knew how, the warmth of my body, the occasional lick for reassurance. I watched you while you slept in case you woke and needed me.

You’re my everything, Boy. You always were.

Remember how you’d throw a stick for me to fetch, over and over and over, because I never got tired of it? How I miss that! I will still fetch for you, Boy, if you would only let me. That’s why I keep finding sticks and bringing them to you even though I understand you don’t want me to run. I know I am slow and yes, it hurts my old hip—but it is what we do. It is what we always did. So much fun, so much joy. If I could have fit your basketball in my mouth all those hours and days and weeks and years you were out on the backyard court, I’d have played that with you, too. But it was enough for me just to run beside you.

Perhaps tonight I will dream of those days, when we ran and ran and you got tired but I never did. I am tired now. I want you to know that whatever comes, Boy, I would do it all again. Every bit of it.

You’re my life, Boy. I love you so.

Now I lay me down to sleep. I’ll wait for you in the morning.

Goodnight, Boy.

Rin

*******

On the morning after the Boy and I got married, his mother found Rin unresponsive. He’d had a stroke. He died later that day at the vet’s office.

He was thirteen.

I’ve always believed you knew that you finished your job, Rin. You saw the Boy safely off to his adult life on the last day of your own. Thank you, Rin Tin Tin, good and faithful servant, for giving him your all.

The Boy loves you still.

‘You were my favorite memory’

BoJangles

New BoJangles at night. Mr. Blue MauMauCC BY

Spring arrives amid a flurry of wings, bird voices rising with the morning sun, daylight hours stretching perceptibly longer, the first warm breath of promise to come.

On such a day, two years ago, my youngest son’s lifelong friend died in an accident.

She was eighteen.

She was one of the prettiest children I’ve ever seen. Big, brown, doe-like eyes in a round cherub face. Musical, like my son. They grew up in children’s choirs at church, were in band together throughout high school. She played the flute. My son occasionally accompanied her and their other childhood friend on the piano during worship services. All three of them sang:

I’ve had many tears and sorrows

I’ve had questions for tomorrow

There’ve been times I didn’t know right from wrong

But in every situation

God gave blessed consolation

That my trials come to only make me strong.

Through it all,

Through it all . . . 

Their voices blended beautifully. Hers was high, clear, pure, almost ethereal.

I wrote to her, told her so. Said that she needed to sing more often.

Perhaps that note was in her things, still, when her mother began going through them after her death. I do not know.

But an essay she’d written in high school was there.

Its title: My Favorite Childhood Memory.

Her mother copied it, sent it to my son and their other friend—for she wrote of them.

I wondered, when I first learned of this essay, what the memory was. Maybe a birthday celebration, as they were all born in August of three successive years. Maybe working Vacation Bible School or Bible Sports Camp together as youth. Maybe it was the time they went shopping and bought two betta fish that my son named after gospel bass singers, or one of the summer beach trips they took, growing up. The three of them even went to the prom together, once.

My son let me read her essay.

She wrote of Sunday nights when the three of them would go with her family to BoJangles for supper, how they told hysterically funny stories, how she laughed and laughed. She said these were the best times of her childhood, that she would always remember them . . . .

She is gone. Her words, her love for her friends, remain:

You were my favorite childhood memory.

It seems almost like a thank-you letter, now.

My son says once in a while, when he’s out walking laps around the church, exercising his body, easing his mind and his soul—he can hear her singing.

It’s two years today, a Sunday. Tonight her family and friends will gather at BoJangles in her memory.

The lantern

Pa-Pa’s lantern

In the lamplight, the withered leaves collect at my feet 

and the wind begins to moan. 

—”Memory,” Andrew Lloyd Webber & Trevor Nunn

It is all I have of him.

I don’t recall ever seeing it until I returned home after my Grannie’s death, years ago. My father picked the dusty old lantern up from a box of her belongings: “This was Pa-Pa’s,” he said. “You don’t remember him.”

I bristled a little. “Yes I do, Daddy.”

He smiled, shook his head dismissively. He placed the lantern on the bookshelf by the front door.

“He had white hair,” I said. “And glasses.”

Daddy’s brow furrowed just a bit.

“And he wore a gray . . .  jumpsuit or something,” I continued. “And he was tall . . .”

Daddy chuckled. “No, he wasn’t! He was a short man, although he did wear a gray work suit. He was a mechanic.”

“Well, I was little. He looked tall to me.”

He looked at me strangely, then.

And told me I could have the lantern.

Pa-Pa was my step-grandfather. There are very few images of him in my mind. He and Grannie, my maternal grandmother, lived in the big house with the long stairs outside. My mother and father and I lived in the small white house right next door. One day Pa-Pa came over, sat in the floor with me, and taught me how to spin a rubber ball. Round and round it went, white and pink, blurring, round and round; I didn’t want it to stop. I must have amused him because he laughed a lot . . . when I recalled this to my mother, she said Yes, he thought a lot of you. He didn’t get along with his own family. 

When I first saw a model of the Earth rotating, it brought to mind Pa-Pa and that ball on the floor.

My memories of those days are fragmented, strange. In Grannie and Pa-Pa’s living room I saw a pair of bedroom slippers that still had feet in them. I screamed in terror and couldn’t make anyone understand me. Another time I was standing between the kitchen and the living room when something behind me exploded. I saw the flash, the fire, reflected in the picture window behind the sofa where the grown-ups were sitting. They came running —it turned out to be a pan of grease left on the stove, igniting. No one was hurt but, again, I was terrified.

Pa-Pa let me ride in his wheelbarrow, out past the blue snowball bushes (hydrangeas) in his yard.

—That’s about all.

I have no recollection of his vanishing.

I know now that his grown sons told my parents we couldn’t stay in the little house anymore; we had to find another place to live.

Much later I learned that Pa-Pa bought the little house after World War II, when a nearby Army camp was decommissioned and its buildings were sold for a song. He had it moved to its place beside his big house. When I was born and my parents weren’t happy with their apartment, Pa-Pa offered it to them.

That little house, the first home I remember, had been the Army hospital morgue.

Ghosts, ghosts, everywhere . . .

I wonder why he comes to mind this night, why I suddenly think about his lantern.

Perhaps because he died in March.

I didn’t know this, either, until I found his grave a few years ago.

I stood reading his headstone, shivering in the dusk, brown leaves swirling, rattling softly at my feet. The month, the year—I could hardly believe it, myself.

He died in March.

I would turn three in May.

But I remember you, Pa-Pa. I remember.

—Your old lantern still lights.

The garden

“It’s finished,” said Cadillac Man, as we laid the headstone commemorating his little companion of sixteen years.

He’d chosen this spot months ago as he watched his beloved dog wasting away, day by day. And so we laid Nik to rest here in the shade of the crape myrtle our family planted when we first moved to our home. Nik was a year old then. Cadillac Man was five, soon to finish kindergarten; he’s entering his last year of college now.

The tree in its fullness marks the passing of time. It was young when my boy with black curls and his little red dachshund were young. I think of myrtle being an ancient funeral flower, how it represents love and faithfulness . . . never mind that a crape myrtle isn’t a true myrtle. The name association is enough; the symbolism perfect. As the pink blossoms collect here by Nik’s likeness, I recollect the bright spot of happiness he was throughout my son’s childhood, throughout the life of my family.

The statue is my doing. Cadillac Man drove me on a four-hour round trip to get it. “It’s just like him!” he exclaimed when he saw it.

Yes. For the garden is not here for remembering that Nik’s no longer with us after so many years, whenever we see it through the kitchen windows or as we pass by on our daily comings and goings. It is not for mourning, or to assuage our pain.

It’s here to celebrate the gift of his life—a garden of gratitude.

It is complete.

*******

And so, it would seem, the Nik stories are complete.

The Nik collection:

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Cadillac Man shares his writing!

Dogged determination

Of calluses and rings

My older son showed me his hands this morning: “Look, Mom.”

He has tiny calluses across both palms from working out.

It causes me to reflect on why we labor hard enough at something for the friction to wear such places on our skin. To my son, the weight training is worth the effort for his physical well-being; he is dedicated to his regimen. His hands pay this small price for the health of the rest of his body.

In the photo above, a man’s ring has worn a callus on his palm when he forgot to remove it before a mountain bike race. It draws me because I have a similar, very faint callus on my own left palm from my wedding band. As I hardly race mountain bikes or use my hands in intensive manual labor on a daily basis—and I don’t even wear my rings while at home due to contact with soaps, cleansers, and detergents—it’s a bit mysterious as to why this hard little spot exists on my hand. I’ve decided that it’s occurred over time, over many, many years of marriage.

Therein lies the rub, so to speak. The ring, over time, has worn the callus. Might it be symbolic of marriage friction? For, let’s face it, no two people can live under the same roof for long without some earnest element of friction. But in a strong marriage—in any strong relationship—the labor of love is worth it; you keep at it. As long as your hearts don’t become callused (and your attitude callous) toward one another, the relationship protects itself against the friction. That’s what a callus is, a protection-against-the-friction place.

Last Saturday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, showed me the huge callus on his own palm. It’s from the shovel he used to dig the grave for Nik, our sixteen-year-old dachshund. This little dog was his daily companion since he was four and saw him almost through college.

If you’ve ever raised a dachshund, you know about friction . . . .

But the callus on Cadillac Man’s hand is a labor of love.

And worth it, for while his heart (and mine) are presently more sore than his hand, we expect more calluses yet, for we’re going to make a memorial garden where Nik is buried. A beautiful callus on the earth, if you will. A protection-against-the-friction of having to let him go, a working toward healing by building up a place of strength. The pains of creating our little memorial will be insignificant compared to the expected result.

It happens to be Memorial Day weekend. I think of men and women wearing wedding rings given by spouses who’ve died in service of the United States. Of families and friends marking the losses of those they loved. They’ll bear the scars of it on their hearts always. I think of those who fell, in this generation and all those before, believing that, if they must pay the price of their lives for the well-being of others, the outcome would be worth it.

Labors of love, protection-against-the-friction.

The story of sacrifice, sometimes complete, often beautiful, lies in the hard places left behind.

 

Released

There were two North Carolina sons who died on the same day.

One lived to be ninety-nine. 

The other lived nineteen days.

One is known the world over; his body will lie in the Capitol of the United States. 

The other is known only by a small community; his body weighed less than three pounds.

One accomplished great and mighty things; he is remembered, will be remembered, by generation after generation.

The other fought a great and mighty fight to stay alive, to grow; he was the start of a new generation. The first child, the first grandchild. 

There will be several commemorations for the one.

There was a small gathering of family and friends, clutching balloons, for the other.

A man old and full of days, as the Bible says, ravaged by time, and a new baby ravaged by arriving too early, they breathed their last around the same hour and left the world behind. 

Released. 

 I stood at the little gathering for the baby, holding onto the ribbon of a light blue balloon someone handed me.  

The North Carolina sun shone bright and uncharacteristically warm for February. It felt like spring. A breeze rattled the balloons; the sound of their bumping each other reminded me of boats bumping against their moorings at a dock. 

A lonely sound.

In one motion, together, our gathering released the balloons. Swept quickly upward, they made an array of shimmering colors against the azure sky. Breathtakingly beautiful. Within seconds they attained stunning heights. The brilliant colors changed, before our eyes, into distant glittering dots, bright, silvery stars twinkling in the daytime. 

I thought then of all who are loved and lost. The young and the old. By sickness, tragedy, time . . . it matters only that they lived. They were here and we loved them. We do not stop loving them. We rail against our constraints, but they are not tied anymore. Their moorings are loosed. Their spirits are free, glittering, ever-bright in the distance, going on and on.

Released.