Singing of the Birds

Grandpa would call my name in a booming voice, “Scott, come over here,” and with a strong grip, place a handful of coins in my palm. A nickel looked bigger than Grandma’s blue china dinner plate and had enough spending power to buy a full size candy bar, so a handful of change meant major league cash.

In a Columbia City Five and Dime store, a top shelf displayed a box with a cellophane window that housed two holstered, silver six-shooters with a cowboy bandana and canteen. Grandpa must have seen my fixed gaze. He pulled the twin irons off the shelf, and asked if I wanted them. I could not speak or move, but only stare in unparalleled wonder as Grandpa placed the treasured hardware in my hands.

Grandma made a matching cowboy outfit, and I felt like the two boys in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath staring in the candy case, “—not with craving or with hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.” Life for a six-year old cowpoke reached a glorious high noon. Instead of cattle, this cowboy herded turtles. Grandma wove nylon net around a coat hanger, and Grandpa tied it to a long piece of wood siding from the garage, and I had a terrapin catcher and spent the summer herding snapper, painted, and pancake turtles.

Grandma and Grandpa also had a full fridge with Neapolitan ice cream (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry in a single carton) and stacks of bottled cola in their single car garage, which confirmed what I already knew—they were rich.

Grandma and Grandpa with their grandchildren. Taken in 1970, the last summer Grandpa was with us and 50 years after his high school basketball picture. This picture is now almost 50 years old and causes me to consider Wordsworth's hope in the poem "We are Seven" .

Grandpa and Grandma with their grandchildren at Tri-Lakes. Taken 1970, Grandpa’s last summer with us.

The cowboy life on Tri-Lakes did not last long. Grandpa had a stroke soon after my self-appointed election as Big Cedar Lake Sheriff. He never recovered. I got to visit him only once in the hospital and heard the strange words, “Grandpa is sick,” and felt the confusion as he no longer talked or acted like Grandpa. Two years later, he passed from this life. For his funeral, I served as an altar boy with my cousins, Pat and Danny. I could not hold back the tears (still have that problem) and my oldest cousin, Pat, put his arm around me and said we would get through the mass together. We did.

How soon such hallowed memories fade with the artificial invincibility and self-absorbed wanderings of the teen years. Dad gave me Grandpa’s golf club woods (Driver, Brassie, and Spoon), and without contemplating the meaning, I slung them into my golf bag and occasionally pulled one out with friends to tee up for the novelty: “Guys, check out this old duffer club.” Two decades later, with the maturity of age to see the sacred in common things, I took the clubs to Bobick’s Golf Inc., whose owner was a middle/high school classmate, and he restored them back to their original glory. As a gift, I gave them back to my dad.

A few summers ago at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, Grandpa’s clubs reappeared at the family cottage in a special golf rack my dad built to display them. Seeing the clubs made me smile as big as a 1960s kid receiving a handful of change.

Next to the clubs, my dad placed a thick portfolio filled with congratulatory letters to Grandpa from his co-workers for his retirement in 1967, along with pictures and other mementos. I meant to browse through this album, but at the cottage when extended family get together, which doesn’t happen often enough, the time fills up with lake activities, and I’ve never gotten around to exploring Grandpa’s tribute collection.

This past summer, after my brother and his family left the cottage (vacations together end too soon), I stayed behind to sand and stain the decks and found myself alone for the first time at the lake. One evening I pulled down Grandpa’s album and read every letter, studied his job training certificates, and examined pictures I had never seen before.

One photo looked straight out the of the “Carpe Diem” high school hallway scene in the movie, Dead Poet Society: “Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Grandpa graduated from Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne in 1922, and at 6’ 6”, a huge height for that era, he played center for their championship basketball team. I could not stop flipping back to this picture. Six strong, proud youth staring into the flash with their “1922 CHAMPS” basketball in front of them and a lifetime before them.

Reading over forty letters from friends and co-workers and absorbing the relatively few, but poignant pictures, I became aware of how little I knew my grandpa. He financed my early cowboy career, but as a child, I only saw him old, and not the self-assured young man in this 1922 basketball picture. What was he like as a teenager? What was he like as the father to my dad? How did the confident young man in that basketball picture become Grandpa? I worked through the archival collection and wrote down three pages of questions to ask Dad. I didn’t put the album down until well after midnight.

I spent the next three days having cell phone conversations with my father.

I left Grandpa's senior year basketball picture at the cottage, but found this picture of his Sophomore year at the Genealogy Department at the Allen County Public Library.

I left Grandpa’s senior year basketball picture at the lake cottage, but found this treasure from his sophomore year at CCHS in the Genealogy Department at the Allen County Public Library.

“Dad, I looked through the album you put together for Grandpa. He played basketball? I have a lot of questions…” I never considered Grandpa athletic (what child does?), but he must have been. If he had aspirations for sports, the reality of the era ended those dreams. Few went to college. The majority looked for work. Grandpa was no different. In 1923, the year after high school graduation, the center for the Central Catholic basketball team took a job at Fort Wayne General Electric on Broadway Street where he worked until his retirement 44 years later.

I asked my dad, “Did Grandpa work anywhere else?”

“No. In those days, if you got a job with a good company, you stayed there for life. Good jobs were scarce.”

In 1929, Grandpa married Grandma and the same year he buried his father who could not cope with losing everything in the Stock Market Crash that ushered in the Great Depression. I knew some of these stories, but now I wanted to know more. What happened to the Central Catholic High School senior in the center of that basketball picture?

“Did Grandpa ever get laid off in the Depression years?”

“He worked loading steel. G.E. cut hours, but not jobs, and I don’t believe your grandpa was ever out of work.”

Ironically, the build up to the war finally ended the Great Depression.

“During the war years, your grandpa never had a day off.”

“What? Not any weekends?”

“No.”

“Not the holidays?”

“No.”

This stunned me. Grandpa worked at G.E. every day, seven days a week throughout the war.

“Everyone worked. On Christmas Day, G.E. worked a half-day.”

“You didn’t get to spend much time with him as a kid?”

“No. He was always working. He had to. The sacrifice was made by every family.” My father spoke with no hint of regret. Those years were not lost or wasted, but spent serving in a conflict that bonded families and American communities together by duty and allegiance.

My dad called it the war effort.

I knew the term, but now it became real.

“Everything was scarce. Oil, tires, gas…sugar, lard, butter. Everything was rationed. No one kept lights on at night.”

Grandma had a Victory Garden in the backyard of 3506 South Harrison Street. Most of the neighborhood had them, all part of the war effort. Grandma would never frost a cake with more than paper thin icing. Living through the depression and the war kept her from such wild extravagance.

I could not wrap my head around Grandpa never having a day off, and like my frequent flipping back to the basketball picture, I kept circling back to this in my conversations with Dad.

“Scott… good jobs were hard to come by…opportunities were limited…as a supervisor, Grandpa had to be there…always working…”

Dad also mentioned the repercussions for those who stayed behind and the ill feelings felt by some families who lost sons. Grandpa was in his late 30s during the war, and men like him ran these production plants, “but some men came back with injuries, missing limbs, and resentments toward those who stayed behind…”

The scorch of war burns far beyond the battlefield into unexpected places and can sear long after the last fire ceases.

“Everyone made sacrifices and it didn’t end after the war as shortages caused demands, and soon after came the Korean War where your Uncle Jim fought, and in time, Vietnam…”

“Did you ever have a family vacation?”

“One.”

Dad was in 5th or 6th grade, and they rented a cottage on Sylvan Lake in Rome City. Dad laughed as he shared Grandpa getting sunburned when they spent an afternoon in a rowboat.

I didn’t know this. One week together? Only one? Yet, I knew Dad and Grandpa were close, and my dad reiterated this in our phone conversations. Grandpa couldn’t spend much time with his son, but he expressed love in other ways. I suppose my dad was like his father.   He raised me with military authority, and yet, he threw his arm around me often for a bear crunch and never hesitated to say he loved me. As a teen, I shrugged off such gestures, but they registered within. In our three days of phone conversations while I stayed at the lake, Dad mentioned that Grandpa was a hugger. My father learned it from his father and passed it on to me. Our family hugs.

My dad had placed his first set of golf woods next to Grandpa’s on the rack at the lake cottage. I asked if they golfed together. “Maybe a half dozen times.” By the time Grandpa could afford such a luxury, my dad was raising his own family and trying to establish a career. Dad followed in his father’s footsteps. He spoke of Grandpa with clear respect and candid affection. He understood Grandpa had to work. The times he lived in called for it.

Each generation has its own battles, but some live through and stand up to extraordinary adversity. My childhood visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s became fond memories, but I was clueless of the costs. As an adult, I never considered being the future generation of their patriotic toil, the benefactor of their protective care. I reaped the benefits of their unseen labor.

My grandparents’ small bungalow home on Big Cedar Lake is gone. Their huge willow trees have fallen and disappeared. Central Catholic High School is torn down. My grandparents are no longer with us, and yet, Henry Ward Beecher, an eloquent orator of two centuries ago, preached, “When the sun goes below the horizon, he is not set; the heavens glow for a full hour after his departure. And when a great and good man sets, the sky of this world is luminous long after he is out of sight. Such a man cannot die out of this world. When he goes he leaves behind him much of himself. Being dead, he speaks.”

The young man in the 1922 Central Catholic basketball picture with his life before him still speaks. I appreciate him more now than the kid sitting on the dock in the cowboy outfit catching turtles. Marred by family tragedy in his 20s, plunged into the Great Depression in his early 30s only to enter World War in his late 30s, and a few years after V Day, to have his eldest son march as a combat soldier in the Korean War, my Grandpa fought the good fight. He retired in the height of Vietnam. I’ve heard that the only truly great men are those who have children that grow up and call them such. My grandpa serves as a great example for a grandson who has never had to make such sacrifices. The letters in his portfolio describe a good man. I hope to follow in his steps.

In those 1960s summers, I loved sleeping on my grandparents’ porch and waking up to the singing of the birds. I connect with the Bible verse in Song of Solomon, the time of the singing of the birds has come, which reminds me of those mornings, and at times, I can still hear and smell the breeze rustling through the willows in their yard. Now I can add to those memories of Grandma and Grandpa. I can add the conversations I have about them with their son.

In our last phone conversation, Dad and I decided the next time he visits Fort Wayne, we will stop at General Electric on Broadway Street, and explore what’s left of it. We may attempt to walk through Building 4-6, where Grandpa worked—a place that housed a thriving community of men and women who have disappeared, but whose unseen sacrifice allowed my generation to enjoy what we have and gave us the opportunity to spend time with those we love.

 

General Electric

Old houses were scaffolding once

                           and work men whistling.

— T. E. Hulme

 

“There has never yet been a man in our history who led a life of ease whose name is worth remembering.” –Teddy Roosevelt quote on Allen County Public Library main hallway wall

 

 

 

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Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, and Beyond

To win at Monopoly one must become a slumlord. Whatever it takes—sweeten the deal with Twizzlers, negotiate making a BLT for Marvin Gardens, offer to jump fully clothed into the pool for Boardwalk—do whatever necessary to buy properties, build hotels, and win. A Monopoly board flying across the room means someone had a good game.

At five or six-years old, Cora received Junior Monopoly for Christmas. One evening, she asked me to play, but I had no interest in learning minor league Monopoly, until I opened the box and saw the familiar framework set to a carnival theme. Let the games begin. Monopoly Junior (1)When Cora landed on the Ferris Wheel, a one dollar purchase price, I offered to give her two dollars for the ride.

“Yes! Thanks, Dad.”

I swallowed up the carnival rides and paid top dollar giving her double their value. She enjoyed receiving so much money.

“Cora, it’s not about me. I’m here to help.”

I soon owned all the commercial property and everything on the board, but rather than declare victory, I set a new, higher goal to acquire all the game money and build a financial empire. I allowed the daughter to borrow from the bank to pay her debts. At one point, she gave me a quizzical look and asked, “Dad, can I win?”

“Cora, all things are possible to those who believe. Roll the dice.”

Halfway through achieving my monetary objectives, Deb came home and looked pleased. She observed the yellow and green hotels on the properties and assumed (wrongly) in an even distribution of wealth among the players.

“Who’s winning?”

“Dad owns all the hotels.”

“What? But I see two colors.”

“Dad ran out of green hotels and had to use the yellow ones too.”

“But, Cora, you have so much money?”

“Dad let me borrow from the bank.”

My wife’s warm countenance turned to flame as her eyes flicked fire.

“Scott Mills!”

My six-year old daughter, who intuitively knew something ran amuck, turned on me as well, and she scolded, “Scott Mills!”

Mom pulled her daughter away from the negotiation table and they made their way into the kitchen disparaging my good name. “Can you believe your father!”

To celebrate my business savvy and parenting skills, I burst forth into song, a sweet ditty of victory, while putting away the game pieces.

John Ortberg wrote a book, It All Goes Back in the Box, in which he too played Monopoly and realized, in the end, everything we win, achieve, or accomplish all goes back in the box. Properties, titles, bank accounts—we don’t get to keep anything. Applying this fact to life should make us consider priorities. Stephen Covey said as much in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, with his 2nd Habit called Begin with the End in Mind.

In February 2013, I visited a friend in the hospital whose priorities I want to emulate. We were camp counselors together decades earlier. I had not seen him in some time and did not realize the extent of his sickness. Before leaving, I asked if I could pray for him.  He sat up, turned toward me, and said I could pray for his children. He said if his kids were well, he was well.  I walked out struck by his words and determined to follow in his steps. A week later he moved beyond this place.

Last month, Deb and I spent a week at the University of Oregon to visit Cora and Brian for The Kid’s graduation, a Master’s degree in the fine art of writing. What struck me more than the impressive facilities and academic rigor of this neon green university was the community of friends Brian and Cora had made in the MFA program. The Kid let me tag along to parties, which I was more than happy to do. All writers, all gifted. In one get-together, I listened to a graduate explain her poetry in the context of Emerson and Kant.

“Uh, yeah,” said Cora’s dad, “You’re really smart.”

A week or two before our visit, Cora and her crew entered a local Battle of the Bands competition, which Mom and I viewed via YouTube. My wife watched in hopeful anticipation that our daughter had the pipes of Gladys Knight, and I got chided by the Mother Ship for saying, “Nicely done, buddy, but stick to writing.” Still, does anything compare to singing “Hey Jude” on stage with your peeps, in a band, in a bar, with supportive friends in the audience, doing the raised arm sway? The wonder comes not from the chorus of their dulcimer voices, but from their striking out together in a unified, grand adventure. G. K. Chesterton said anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I would add anything worth doing is worth doing together. In adolescence, friends are life. In adulthood, this priority tends to get brushed to the side. John Lennon sings we get “busy making other plans.”

At Beanie Bear’s commencement ceremony, one of the exceptional speakers adjured the graduates to sacrifice everything for their creative work. She shared that some authors were intolerable to be around, yet their books lined her shelves. I understood the context, but hoped she used overstatement to drive home the discipline needed in the profession. Good writing does not equal bad relationships. Prioritize both and sacrifice neither.

Life shared moves beyond bearable to worthwhile.

As a senior citizen, I started a surprise, new career teaching severe disabilities, which was motivated by the encouragement of a group of paraprofessionals and teachers. If not for their collaborative approach and we-are-a-team mentality, I could not have done it. I love these ladies, because they first loved me. I love the work, because I love the community of people with whom I work. Without them, I would not have made it. “No Man is an Island.”

I suppose writers take up the pen for personal enjoyment, but also so that others might read. David Foster Wallace said writers have fantasies about creating something that makes everybody drop to one knee. Emily Dickinson asked her sister to burn her correspondence, but she did not request this of her poetry, discovered in neat notebooks in her cloistered bedroom. I suspect she hoped some day her poems would find an audience. We write to add value to this world, to make a contribution. Friendship does the same. The influence is not as wide, but I contend much deeper.

JoeMy favorite contemporary poet is Joseph Mills, distinguished professor at University of North Carolina, Winston-Salem, who has published six volumes, won writing awards, and happens to be my brother. Given an opportunity, I will sound off and brag him up. I’m a fan. But his poetry and academic accolades would hold no value and little interest to me, if in our half century of family dynamics together, he was a turd.

He is an exceptional writer, but I’m biased to think he’s an even better brother. That makes all the difference. Writing lives beyond us, but so does the influence of our life and character by those who know us.

In Cocoa Bean’s growing up, every new phase of her life from elementary school to college, to graduate school, one common denominator stood out to Mom and Dad. We loved her friends. She always had great buddies, for which we gave thanks. How did this happen? How did she get so lucky with friendships?

Oscar Wilde said no good deed goes unpunished, but apparently he did not do enough good deeds or wait long enough to witness his words as untrue. We get what we give; we reap what we sow. Like yesteryear’s Grand Theft Auto Superbowl Coke commercial jingle, “You give a little love and it all comes back to you.” The nuances of meaningful relationships are multiple, but stated simply, to have good friends, be one. To be in good relationships, be good.

To learn the art of bad relationships, play Settlers of Catan. Ironically, almost every night during our Oregon visit, Cora and Brian’s friends came over for dinner and Settlers. Like Monopoly, the game requires quick calculations and good negotiation skills, but it also has Setters of Catana brilliant tactic that leaves the Monopoly icon-top-hat-gentleman in the corner sucking his thumb. Open deception, sure betrayals, clear lies are all legal and acceptable behavior. Alliances form, “He’s about to win, stop him,” and carnage ensues, “Cut off her roads, don’t let her build.” On the last night of our visit, with six students and one dad in the field of battle, my daughter doomed her empire by getting landlocked with no place to build roads, yet she held onto power by threatening like a medieval Eminence Grise to distribute her resources to whomever she fancied. She would determine the winner.

A cry went up from the field, “No. You can’t do that.”

“I can and I will,” as she slapped down her cards of Brick, Ore, Wheat, and Sheep for all to see and said, “Don’t mess with me.”

The humor in such imperialistic fervor and inappropriateness comes from the realization that these behaviors applied to real life may allow us to conquer material prizes, but will leave us dearly loathed and utterly abandoned to our valueless riches. In the banter of our Catan conversations, we recognized the Dark Side, so maybe this makes Settlers a good game. “Only try this at home.” In a game, it’s a comedy; in a life, it’s a tragedy.

I found it fitting that before the opening salvos of our last battle of Catan, we had too many militants (the pros around the table said no more than six combatants for a quality game), and so two delightful, young ladies deferred and teamed up together as one player. They kept quiet, comparatively, as the rest of us pillaged and plundered one another into oblivion. The two won as one. Seemed apropos. I love our daughter’s friends.

Last Friday evening, I attended my 8th Grade Reunion. The social media phenomenon has allowed a couple dozen of us to reconnect. We mixed and mingled over the past 42 years. A bit surreal to see our middle school pictures as senior citizens. What did we talk about? Bank accounts, properties, acquisitions, degrees, titles? No. We shared about our families. We talked about classmates we loved who left us too soon. We laughed about good times together in youth. The stuff of life. The power of relationships.  Community.

Someday, the game will end, everything will go back in the box, and we will ask what Raymond Carver wrote in his poem “Late Fragment”

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

The Little One has grown up with wonderful friends, especially with her closest one named Brian, which will make for a wonderful life. And, if The Kid is well, all is well.

I did, too, Raymond.

 

Journal entry: May 17, 2000

Monday I picked up Cora at school. It was not a good day for me. Too many irons in the fire. I took her to the carwash to vacuum out my car. And as usual, she locked me out of the car—a couple three times. We fought with the vacuum a couple times. We had a great time, in the midst of a rotten day for me. She asked if we could play Putt-Putt. No way. I didn’t have time for that.

I looked at my daughter. Ten years old. Where did the decade go? In a couple years, she will not be interested in playing Putt-Putt with me. In eight years come this time, she will be getting ready for college and will be gone.

I called Debbie. We met together at 5:15 p.m. to play Putt-Putt.

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The Princess Bride

Last Spring break, I boarded a plane to visit our daughter and her newlywed husband. Brian spent more than a few college breaks at our home, since his parents lived in Africa, and for the first time, I found myself heading West to be his guest.

moving walkwayI hadn’t flown in over a decade and kept my nose pressed against the window. In Seattle, the hike to my connecting gate stretched for miles, but I enjoyed scooting along the automatic walkways. I sprinted off the end of one to see what would happen to my legs and almost nosedived into the floor, but kept my equilibrium and remained upright. Good as running up the down elevator at J. C. Penney’s as a kid.

Anyone who wants snapshots of happiness should hang out at a major airport and watch people hug, smile, squeal (kids), and tear-up as they greet loved ones arriving off the planes. I should fly more often.

Bear hugs for Cora and Brian while quoting Lloyd at the airport in Dumb and Dumber, “Hey, how ‘bout a hug?” As we left the terminal, Cora jumped up into the driver seat of Brian’s monster pick-up truck, “The Boss”.

“You driving?” asked Dad.

“Yeah, what?”

The strangeness of sitting in the passenger seat as the little one rumbled down the road in their beast “Le Jefe” pick-up struck me. Everything changes.

Before heading to their home in Eugene, Oregon, The Kid and Brian took me urban hiking in Portland, the land of yoga, yogurt and a Voodoo Donuts line that stretched around the block and down the street like a Cedar Point rollercoaster ride. I discovered the parade of outlandish outfits were normal attire, but felt good with my one pair of blue jeans and one pair of shorts for the week—didn’t want to pay the extra $25.00 for a suitcase.

Every night, Brian and Cora served me a diet of Netflix’s Portlandia, and I fell for Carrie Brownstein, whom Rolling Stone magazine listed as the only woman in their Top 25 Most Underrated Guitarists of All-Time.

Every day became one that I wouldn’t trade. One evening we hiked together and sat on the top of Spencer’s Butte that overlooked the University of Oregon. Another day, Cora gave me a tour of the university, and showed me the office she shared with the other “second years.” One afternoon, we hiked to the Voodoo Donuts in Eugene and split a mutant donut the size memphismafiaof a major league baseball stadium where one needed a fork to eat it.

“Can I get a fork please? said Dad.

“We don’t do forks,” smiled the cashier dude in the Skeletor T-shirt, “We’re saving the earth one plastic fork at a time.”

We also ate at a never-to-be-forgotten greasy spoon “fish n chips.” Brian spoke truth; “open 24/7, seven days a week” and “a menu the size of a phonebook” may not be a good thing. The dive could have doubled as an auto repair and oil-change jiffy lube. We had to walk into the kitchen to use the restroom, and one could stir the clam chowder with one hand, and open the bathroom door with the other, or shoo away the flies buzzing above the encrusted chowder pot. I couldn’t stop laughing in the parking lot, until I wretched. Glad Brian cooked for us the rest of the week.

On Palm Sunday, after church we took our first trip to the Pacific Ocean. Once again, Cora grabbed the steering wheel because she said Brian drove through the mountains like a Formula 1 driver. Her driving reminded me of the Millennial Force at Cedar Point, and I held onto the handles above the passenger door and prayed.

As we curved through the mountain pass, I shared my one historic visit to the Oregon Coast. My family took an epic three-week camping trip across the nation when I was ten. I had a Sea Lions Cave banner on my bedroom wall for years afterwards. We also spent a day at a beach that had tide pools with sea creatures, all kinds of rock formations, and two monolithic rocks that rose out of ocean just off the beach. I met a kid my age and we spent the day climbing rocks, poking crabs and squishing sea sponges that shot spray back at us. I enjoyed recounting this visit to the captive audience in the beast pick-up not realizing I was in for a surprise.

Cora and Brian smiled as they pulled into Sea Lions Cave.   What? No way. How cool was this? We took pictures at the entrance. The moment seemed strangely remarkable to be back four decades later with a grown-up, married child. Reality hit though when the cost to walk down to see the seals rang up at $14.00 per person, so we loitered around gift store, asked for the free ice cream samples, and left for less expensive adventure.

My daughter and new son-in-law wanted to explore a new beach that a couple from their church suggested we visit. Sounded good to me. We circled around a steep curve and passed under a bridge into a parking lot located a fair distance from the beach. As we got out of the car I said, “Yeah, the beach my family went to looked something like this. Those rock formations out there look like the rocks on that beach.” We walk over the sand to the rocks, and as we got closer, I stepped into the Land of Oz, “Wait a minute. Hey, wait a minute. This is it! This is the place! This is the beach we went to 45 years ago!”

The strange convergence of yesteryear with the present made me feel like I walked into an animated Disney fairy-tale. This never-expected-return to a childhood Xanadu struck me as too twilight zone, yet here we stood. I texted a picture of Cora and Brian to my dad, and he remembered the name, “Heceta Beach.” I sent my brother a message to see if he remembered this place, but he was only five. He threatened to punch me if I ever wrote skip or frolic again. I may have gotten carried away in my description, expressing my wonder to him.

After the initial shock and jubilation, the annoyance of reality set in. Brian, unafraid of heights, leaped from rock to rock and vaulted from ledge to ledge. I tried to stay silent and not shout, “Be careful!” but as Brian bounced right to the edge of some high precipices, my parental mode took over, “Don’t give me another life memory from this place because of tragedy.”

I plodded below along the rock formations calculating each step before moving forward, and when the two of them peered over a ledge high above me, I yelled, “I’m not enjoying this,” which they graciously scaled back their exploring and helped me navigate down to level ground. I felt much better walking along the beach with them. Now I have two never-to-be-forgotten life memories from this mythical place, and I could not have had a better week with this wonderful couple.

I wrote a few years ago some thoughts about Cora’s second grade field trip called Mid-Life. This week reminded me of that experience. We want to hold on to our youth and not grow old; we want to hold on to our children and not see them grow-up; we want to hold on to life, but reality keeps changing on us. We wish the good moments could last forever or stay frozen in time, but they don’t. Everything changes. But I realized again that if I had my way and remained young forever, then Cora would not be in the picture. Staying young would have cost me the greatest treasure. And as a dad, my wanting to keep Cora locked in the castle was just a bad idea; I would have missed Brian. I would have missed this entire week with them, one that I would never trade.

Last month, I read a newsletter sent out by Brian’s parents, who serve as missionaries, and they mentioned their children, “Mark, Brian and…Cora.”

What?

But it is true, isn’t it? She was never ours to keep. Whatever we try to cling to, hold onto, we lose. But we won’t lose when we grow older, if we give away what we have. We won’t lose when we grow older, if we invest in others. Sooo, if Cora is their child now, then Brian is our child now too, right?

Cool.

Today, June 1, is the day of our daughter’s birth. With school out, she and Brian struck out for the coast. The memory of these two rocketing through the mountains like an Apollo Space Capsule gave me pause for prayer.  They will have a great beach day.  “Drive safe.”

A few years ago, as her 20th birthday approached, on a cruise to Garrett for a Blue Moon burger, Cora shared in a melancholic moment that she had not yet done anything significant with her life. With great wisdom, I puffed something to the effect, “You are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are…you must take your place in the Circle of Life.”   I’m not sure if that helped out or not. But today, on this day of my daughter’s birth, I can say with indubitable confidence that she has achieved something of great and everlasting significance.

She married Brian.

And they have let me share in a few of their adventures—with new chapters to be written.

“This is true love. You think this happens every day?”

 

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Senior Citizens

In a moment of teenage insanity, I called my mom and sister “goons,” when they couldn’t find my baseball mitt. Later that same day, after dinner, Dad announced he wanted to take a walk with me. Great. “What’s up?” said the son as they strolled down Indiana Avenue. My father’s eyes flashed and his voice thundered, “So, you’re mom’s a goon?” He kicked me in the seat of the pants so hard I could see Ohio, and at the apex of my ascent, I briefly viewed the waves hitting the surf on the East Coast. Like the teenage son in Little Miss Sunshine, I had a few maturity issues that needed attention and caused no little turbulence between us. Those days have long passed, for which we both give thanks. The roiling rapids of adolescence smoothed out into an easy flowing adulthood that we both enjoy.

The tension between Dad and me rose in part because he never acknowledged or realized my vast and superior wisdom of all the world. He had no clue. My sixteen year-old brain had more knowledge than he could possibly fathom. I understood all of life; he did not. Age obliterated my mythical teenage omniscience. Thank God. Looking back, I feel like Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2, when he wrestles another version of himself for the cool, new utility belt:

Buzz Lightyear #2: “Buzz Lightyear to Star Command. I have an AWOL Space Ranger.”
Buzz Lightyear: “Tell me I wasn’t this deluded.”

Time has a way of stripping away our grandiose self-delusions. The older I get, the less I know. Time allows us to see the flaws in our pathetic self-reliance. No man (or woman) is an island, but some of us need to age to understand this.

For a time, after my sister, brother and I grew up, my father’s work took him overseas to Edinburgh, Scotland. With a new baby, Deb and I decided not visit the British Isles, and I saw Dad maybe twice in three years. In time, he opted to finish his career back in the states. Upon his return, the little Beanie, Deb and I travelled to Maryland for a week to celebrate his August birthday.

Dad and I hit the golf course for the first time in years. As a kid, he bought my first set of “Patty Berg” clubs that I proudly carted into my teen years. In those days, Dad could drive a tee shot 300 yards with a striking fusion of grace and violence. But as we golfed on his birthday week, the familiar velocity and whip in his swing had disappeared.

Orval Lund writes a poem, Wrist-wrestling Father, in which he reflects upon a number of his achievements from dining with a Noble Prize poet, to catching a 19-inch trout, to raising two fine sons, but he ends the poem with these lines:

Camping trip out west. Yellowstone.  Didn't get any better.

Camping in Yellowstone. Didn’t get any better.

But I’ve never been more amazed
than when I snapped my father’s arm down to the table.

With my lifetime average fluctuating between a triple and quadruple bogey per hole, I did not beat Dad on the golf course, but for the first time, I experienced something new with him. I never saw it before. My dad, a bastion of strength and power, looked old. For the first time, my invincible father, showed the vulnerability that growing older extracts.

Time has no favorites and gives no exemptions. We don’t last. We all know celebrities who have sculpted their faces in an effort to stay young only to look like caricatures of their former selves. Attempts to hold back aging are like trying to stack water. Although I want to die young—as old as possible—no one can stop Time’s handiwork. Ironically, my epiphany with Dad on the golf course happened when he was only one year older than I am now. I don’t know which question strikes me deeper: how did Dad get there so quickly, or how did I?

Last fall, I became an official senior citizen and have followed in my father’s footsteps, “This includes the 10% senior citizen’s discount, right?” Like him, I intend to frequent restaurants, movie theaters, and elder-friendly establishments to take full advantage of my advancing years. I have confidence that my mid-life crisis of twenty years ago will not recycle, and like the measles, will not appear again. But where did the years go? Time’s subtle swiftness surprises all.

Dad and I still have a few golf games left in us, but I have to wear elbow braces on both arms to keep the tendonitis in check and gulp Ibuprofen between holes. As much as we try, we can’t stop the body from wearing out. The longing to fight against the reality of time appears to be a universal desire. Evolutionary adaptation doesn’t work here. We humans may acquiesce to time, but we never acclimate to it. To quote a former agnostic:

Not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, even to get used to it. We are always amazed at it – how fast it goes, how slowly it goes, how much of it is gone? We aren’t adapted to it, nor at home in it. If that is so, it may appear as proof, or at least a powerful suggestion, that eternity exists and is our home.  –Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy

People may argue with Vanauken’s conclusion, but not too many honest souls will disagree with his premise that we don’t get used to time. If we could dip into Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, who would not take the plunge?

The writer of Ecclesiastes offers a similar consideration in an oft-quoted passage, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The next seven verses give fourteen contrasting inevitable experiences in a lifetime. The sixties band, The Byrds, recorded these verses verbatim in their song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which became a Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit with the pop chart’s oldest lyrics, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Most people, including The Byrds, stop at verse 8, but reading further reveals a significant insight. “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Perhaps, we cannot adapt to time because we are made for eternity. Time has limitation; we have a limitless bent. God has “set” eternity in our hearts. Time has a purpose. Ravi Zacharias says, “Time is the brush of God as he paints his masterpiece on the canvas of the human heart.” Time works as a servant for eternity, a tool to get us ready for the reality above, or what St. Paul calls, “the life that is truly life.” Age has a way of sanding off the rough edges, the delusional, if not caustic, arrogance of youth. Time gives us the opportunity to mature, to grow in grace, to learn character, and serves a greater purpose— to appreciate eternity. The moment will arrive when I exchange this newfound senior citizenship for another residence beyond this place. I’m in no hurry, but I anticipate seeing Dad’s youthful vigor return. Mine too. For now, in the meantime, I appreciate Ecclesiastes 3:11, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.” Does this mean the latter season of our lives can have beauty? I believe so.

For my last birthday, as a brand new senior, I received a card from Dad with a picture of a man cradling a newborn on his chest. The front caption reads: “Gone are the days when I carried you in my arms… (open the card) But I will always, always carry you in my heart. Love you, Son.” My father sent this with the help of Hallmark, but I have no doubt he meant the sentiment. How fast the years have gone. As a child, I still remember him holding me in his lap and singing two words, “My buddy, my buddy.” Yet, these last few years have been as memorable as the growing up ones. Probably better. I foresee our senior years together, without knowing how many are left, to be the best. I intend to embrace them and see what this autumn season with all its beauty, and all the discounts, have to offer. I hope the journey into senior citizenship lasts a couple more decades for my daughter’s sake. For Dad and me, time may soon sweep us apart, until we meet again as young men on the other side. For now, three words sum up my life with him: love you, too.

 

My Father’s Voice

I scuttle up the trunk
and straddle a branch. He
reaches. Hugging my frame
back to earth. I swing up
higher to witness his
steel arms once more, but the
game ends. I watch from on
high as the Titan strides
across the earth, casting
aside snow, and the ducks
who shared our lunch. He treks
to the distant speck, our
station wagon cruiser.

I clamp down to stay for
ever. He will not leave.
He will see the danger
of my frozen frown, my
cold strength, my icy stare,
my steel will, my power.
I will not be moved. No,
not until the world ends,
not until time ends, not
until a thunder rolls
above the firmament
across Franke Park pond
to one on a tree limb.

Scott! Get down. Let’s go. Now!

 

 

 

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The Day of My Daughter’s Wedding Part 3 (The Dance)

Pixar’s second film, A Bug’s Life, came out to rave reviews, but we waited until the movie hit the dollar theater before buying tickets. A strange occurrence happened at Glenbrook Cinema; my wife, daughter and I walked into an empty theater. Literally, not one other person entered throughout the entire film. No one. We had the whole theater to ourselves. With this scenario, I struck out into bold new territory and offered commentary and shouted warnings at the screen. “The grasshoppers are coming! The grasshoppers are coming! Run little ants! Run for your lives or you may be swept away!” I don’t remember all my impromptus, but the more the wife smacked me and the more my daughter laughed,    t­he more inspired and animated I became.

When the ending credits began, in spontaneous unity, Deb and I got up and tangoed down the aisle and danced at the front of the movie screen. Our nine year-old daughter joined us, and we three cut the rug and boogied as the credits rolled. We stopped for the bloopers, which appeared in the middle of the credits and are well worth watching the movie to see. When the outtakes finished, we danced up and down the aisles until the music stopped, then collected ourselves and walked out the doors into the normal universe. We enjoyed a moment that could never be replicated.

So I thought.

A decade and a half later, the little Beanie, now engaged, called from school to say, “Dad, we’re doing a Father-Daughter dance at the wedding reception.”

“What?”

I’ve learned to live in a house with women who give instructions, but I informed the child that my lack-of-practice, bust-a-move skillage may cause a problem. Although the wife and I have taken three sets of dance lessons, we spaced them all a decade apart, so the boogie moves have not stuck. Also, Deb would tell me to lead, then proceed to throw me around the dance floor, and my disco free-style self-expression did not receive due appreciation, so my Happy Feet took up biking. The Kid brushed aside such revelations and without a pause ordered me to look up Best Father/Daughter dances on Youtube and get to work.

I did.

The videos hooked me. Who could not enjoy these father/daughter efforts to make a memory? I jumped in with both feet.

With limited time at graduate school, from afar The Kid assigned me to Research and Development.

Youtube amazes me. With a click, I could view Best Father/Daughter dances and all kinds of “Top 50 Best Dance Moves” to see the possibilities and limitations. I started compiling a potpourri of potential songs for our wedding medley as well as practice gettin’ jiggy by prancing around the house.

Cotton Eye Joe got nixed after I attempted the Youtube “Evolution of Dance” high step, and accidently flung my leg across the living room.

James Brown’s Get Up Offa That Thing got the ax after I tried to emulate his lightning footwork and inadvertently ripped my groin.

MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This had possibilities. His crazy puff pants never trended, but I loved his scurry-across-the-floor-sideways move. I tried his quick-step shuffle and saw my knee cap roll around the kitchen, hit the fridge and spin to a stop. This could be trouble, and with one year away from my senior citizen’s discount, I had to be careful.

We concentrated on songs where I would not pull a hammie, hence, a favorite dance scene from the movie, Hitch, “The cue tip…cue tip…cue tip…throw it away.”

When the Cocoa Bean arrived home from school, the brainstorming sessions got serious. In the child’s formative years, during our summer cruises across Northeast Indiana, she learned a critical, universal rule: the radio channel must never be changed when a Beatle tune hits the airwaves. All true music connoisseurs know this. So I appreciated when she wanted to open our “slowdance” with Blackbird, and I suggested we do a Beatle bookend with Abbey Road’s The End. But beyond the music, an apprehension began to mount in my mind for this Father/Daughter Wedding Dance.

The concern was not so much breaking a leg or whether or not we pulled off the dance. As I said to Cora, we would never have a more supportive audience. My concern was that The Peanut, whom I wrestled with like a son until she grew too old, would morph into a grown-up princess and tear me up. In high school, she dressed with the no make-up indie style, but for Christmas dances and proms, she and Mom would shop for gowns, and the C-Dog would metamorphose into Cinderella. At this Father/Daughter Dance, everything would change, I would not see the middle school Beaner, who wore neon green Converse High Tops, plaid overshirts, wolf T-Shirts, and who could DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) with the best of them. I would no longer see the 4th grade June Bug that 4th Grade Father/Daughter DanceI discoed around the gym with at her elementary school Father/Daughter Dance, but I would be holding young woman, a bride. I would be dancing with a married woman. First, I felt strange, “Wait, what? This is weird. I’m supposed to hold you? We’re supposed to slow dance? Yikes. Can we practice that too? I’m feeling kinda awkward here, buddy.” And my uneasiness grew worse. As a middle schooler, she loved Stephen Curtis Chapman (I did too), and her senior year in high school, he came out with a song called Cinderella about his daughter one day getting married. The chorus goes:

So I will dance with Cinderella
While she is here in my arms
‘Cause I know something the prince never knew
Oh, I will dance with Cinderella,
I don’t want to miss even one song
‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight
and she’ll be gone

I wish I had my father and brother’s temperament; they do not cry. I feared at this wedding, and for this Father/Daughter dance, I might not stumble on the dance floor, but I may fall into a heap of tears. I found out later that three former high school students who helped at the rehearsal cookout, wedding, and reception all had bets on when I would “lose it.”

For this reason, I appreciate the creativity of modern weddings. No longer does everyone have to wait to see the bride until she enters the church aisle. Before the ceremony, the photographer did a “First Look” with Dad. He had me stand at the entrance of the church foyer with my back turned, and I waited until she tapped me on the shoulder, then I turned around for my First Look at the bride-to-be.

Whoa.

Who was this beautiful woman? What happened to the Beanie Bear? Until this moment, I had never seen her wedding dress, and the photographer got what he wanted as the tears rolled, but not like a waterfalls, which gave me confidence that I could hold in the geyser. But alas, a lost cause at the wedding ceremony.

My brother and I grew up sharing bunk beds, and from the back of the church, I watched his children walk in the processional as the Flower Girl and Ring Bearer and stand in the Bridal Party. Per the Miracle Baby’s request, both Mom and Dad walked our greatest gift down the aisle. Once at the altar, I saw my family in the front rows, supporting us in this moment where “everything changes.” I saw Brian’s family and friends, who came from around the nation to celebrate with them. I resolved to stop looking at everyone, especially the bride and groom, so the dam would not burst in my eyes, but real men cry, right? During the sermon, I determined with steel fortitude not to step on an emotional landmine and “lose it” with my daughter, but ironically, I got blown-up by another family member. I told a story about my dad…and lost it.

Ah well.

Cora and Brian’s wedding will be one of the great moments and memories of my life.

At the reception, they played Happy by Pharrell Williams for the Wedding Party’s grand entrance, “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.” That’s the way I felt on this day of my daughter’s wedding, an explosive joy “like a room without a roof.”

When the moment came for the for the Father/Daughter Dance, the rain clouds never accumulated, and surprisingly, or maybe not, I concentrated on my first step “cue tip” moves. Cora had instructed me that I needed to focus and get the first grooves down and the rest would follow. As usual, she coached me well. I danced with the Little One who will always be The Cocoa Bean to her mother and father; I held a young lady with inward beauty who made “good choices” and married the one whom her mom and dad wondered about and prayed for through the years. There could not have been a more thankful dad on the planet that day.

And how did the dance go?

The viewers will have to decide for themselves.

For me, that dance will remain a treasure as unforgettable as the spontaneous joy of a nine year-old little one twirling with her mom and dad to A Bug’s Life credits in an empty movie theater so long ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8cNCHI2uUg&feature=youtu.be

In the future, I suppose our wedding dance will receive 10 million views on Youtube, but realistically, a more conservative estimation should be around the 100 million mark. I anticipate Ellen will give us a call, but schedules are too tight in the school year to appear on her show, although I expect not to have to work anymore after the royalties from advertisements start rolling in—but it doesn’t matter. We got to do the dance of twenty-five years together with the Miracle Baby before she started a new life. Will the fourteen-year Cedar Point streak continue? Will the summer evening cruises through the country backroads with the tunes cranked up keep rolling? I don’t know. Whatever happens, I’m glad we had one last project together before The Cocoa Bean got married; and after “everything changed,” before she rode over the mountains and away to the sea, we danced.

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The Day of My Daughter’s Wedding Part 2

Ten days before our daughter’s wedding, I received a call from Roxie, a former student, who along with her sister stood out as one of those unforgettable teenagers we remember with a smile. She and her sister could not have been closer: peas and carrots, bread and United Methodist church2butter. I called them Lennon and McCartney. Roxie told me her sister did not have long to live. This struck me like a punch to the stomach. Tanasa—the vivacious teenager who ran through the pouring rain at church camp to be first for mud volleyball—dying? She graduated before the days of social media, and we lost contact, but five years ago while tutoring at a Title One elementary school, I heard a voice in the parking lot, “Scott!” I turned around, “Tanasa!” We spent time catching up. She was the president of the PTA, which didn’t surprise me. She talked about her beautiful children, I talked about the Cocoa Bean, and we had a reunion. Now, Roxie said her sister battled the last stage of terminal cancer, and asked if I would please visit. I finished up my wedding preparation assignment and drove to the hospice.

A few days later, Roxie called in the evening to ask if I could come over immediately because they didn’t think her sister would survive the night. Always a fighter, Tanasa made it, but outside a miracle, she did not have much longer.

On Tuesday of the “Wedding Week” as Cora and I drove home from the print shop with her reception Table Seating Chart, I received another call. Tanasa had died. Roxie wanted to know if I would officiate the funeral on Thursday. I said this would be an honor, but with the whirlwind of the wedding swirling, could she ask someone else. I didn’t want to drop the ball for my daughter who had assigned me a few “final stretch” wedding responsibilities, although I told Roxie if she could not find someone, she could count on me. As soon as I hung up, Cora said that I should do the funeral, which was all I needed to hear. Talking to my wife, she too insisted without hesitation that I should be there for Tanasa’s sister and their mom. Within five minutes, I called Roxie back.

Later, I talked with Tanasa’s mother about the funeral. I wanted to support them any way possible, and if she needed someone to sing, I could fly solo with Amazing Grace, if that’s what she wanted. She choked up: “Please do not sing that song.” I do not pretend to understand this kind of grief, but I understood what she meant. Sometimes God’s grace doesn’t seem that amazing.

Juxtapose the grief of the cemetery committal with jumping in the car and whipping over to the church to help my wife and daughter decorate for the wedding. The emotional demarcation seemed extraordinary, and one I could not easily brush away. In the same morning, I witnessed two mothers arranging flowers in circumstances that could not have been more dissimilar. As much as I wanted to “be in the moment” with the preparations for my daughter’s big day, I could not disengage from Tanasa’s mother and Roxie’s grief. I have read that we compartmentalize life to survive emotions, but this seemed inappropriate, if not impossible, for me to shake off the events of this day.

During the wedding week, Tanasa and her family stayed in my thoughts and kept me aware of the trials of others. The ring bearer, my handsome nephew, called the bridesmaids, in their bright aqua dresses, the Blue Women. These wonderful friends of our daughter beamed throughout the wedding. Yet, six months earlier one of these blue women experienced a family tragedy that left her “unmoored.” Such anguish has a way of shaking foundations.

At the reception, the best youth leaders in my world gathered to celebrate with us. Yet, one of these extraordinary couples, Bruce and Terri Johnson, had their daughter taken in a car accident six years ago. They rejoiced with our daughter, and yet knew a grief that I cannot and do not want to imagine.

The philosopher Anthony Flew, in an argument against God, asserts that just as it is impossible for a bird to fly out of existence, so it is impossible for the finite to connect with the infinite. Flew’s supposition is correct; his conclusion is wrong. The good news of the Bible does not contend that the finite can initiate with the infinite, but that the infinite God has invaded our space and connected with us.

If God has concern for us, then a deeper question arises. Often invited to speak at Snider High School for Denny Patterson’s (long retired, legendary teacher) Good and Evil class, I heard more than one student ask an age-old tension: if God cares, why does he allow such suffering?

Cora had Jeremiah 29:11 read at her wedding ceremony. “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and a future.’” This verse comes to the Israelites as they experience their own “Trail of Tears” after being defeated by the Babylonians and led away into exile. What made the devastation worse was that the tragedy came as a result of their carelessness. Yet, in the midst of this, the Lord said that he still had a plan for them. He had not left them. He would make a way for them to get through this.

Perhaps a more powerful passage appears in Isaiah 49:13-16, where those who experience heartbreak through no fault of their own cry out, “Has the Lord forgotten me?” In the passage, the Lord answers rhetorically for emphasis, “Can a mother forget her own child?” He cannot forget us. We are more than tattooed on his arm; our names are carved in the palm of his hand.

Yet, the question remains, why would God let Tanasa, a wonderful mother with three beautiful children, die of cancer?

At her funeral, I shared that even Jesus had prayers left unanswered. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked that the cup of suffering would pass from him, yet the heavens kept silent. He prayed three times with no answer. In the midst of the violence of the cross, he cried out the same question we do, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

St. Paul said we see through a glass darkly. We don’t have a clear view or clean answers, but a day will come when we will see him face to face, and we will know, even as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

As families arrived for the wedding, and before Brian became my brand new son-in-law, he gave me the heads up about his aunt, whom he described as a distinguished academic at an Ivy League school. I believed him. Anyone with a PhD, who instructs in a big-time university, impresses me. I met her at the wedding reception and lost my mind. I did all the talking. She asked a few questions, and I took off into verbal wanderings. At the end of our one-sided conversation, I said I would look her up on Google.

The next morning, tidying up from the wedding prep bomb that blew up in our home, I did a Google search for Brian’s aunt. The first surprise hit when I saw she had her own website. More surprises piled up as I scrolled down to see the prestigious academic awards for her books. She had a lecture on Youtube, so I clicked to watch while cleaning. The surprises kept rolling as the president of the university introduced her, and then the university Provost got up and shared her accolades that stretched five miles long. As he talked, I slumped into the chair and stared at the screen, ready to slap myself for the frivolous comments made at the reception. “Yes, I’m certified to teach U.S. History at the high school level…I’ve never done so, but I kept my license up to date. I’m a substitute.” As I listened to her lecture, the articulation and mastery of the English language caused me to stop and give full attention to a groundbreaking scholar in her field.

I wanted a do-over.

She deceived me by her approachability. She sounded in conversation like an ordinary person. She asked questions about me and seemed truly interested in what I had to say. She fooled me by an outrageous humility.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the greatest academic scholars of these eras hammered out the doctrine of Christology (Who is Jesus?) and his hypostatic union (true God of true God, begotten not made). Their massive effort did not so much define Jesus as serve as a perimeter (step beyond this boundary and enter heresy). Anthony Flew would nod with approval—the finite attempt to dissect the infinite in test tube comprehension is not possible.

The Bible says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God and by him all things were created, visible and invisible. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form (Colossians 1:15-16; 2:9). “Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8-9).

Like my conversation with Brian’s aunt at the wedding reception, when we talk about Jesus, we have no real clue of his credentials or the true identity of whom we speak.

Yet, when I walk in my favorite places and invite him to join me, “Lord, I really need to talk with you,” he says with an outrageous humility, “Sure. I would like that,” and the invisible God, who once strapped on a pair of sandals, walks beside me and we talk as friends.

Sound crazy?

If I alone had such a delusional experience, I might be tempted to agree. But untold multitudes from every nation in every era of history have known of what I speak, because they too have walked with him as savior and friend. The Everlasting God, the Ancient of Days, the infinite one who penetrated the world of the finite, and who knocks at the door of every human heart and waits.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes “He stoops to conquer.”

Yet, if I worked for Human Resources in Heaven, and had the courage, I would speak up, “Lord, I don’t want to tell you how to run the universe, but seems to me in rubbing shoulders with potential customers that suffering is not good for sales.”  I anticipate he would remind me that I myself didn’t buy-in until after suffering hit. True, but I would give some push back that my struggles did not compare in the nth degree to what some have suffered. I don’t know where he would take the conversation, but I foresee his trump card to be the promise that someday all suffering and evil will cease (Revelation 21:4). The slightest act of evil that causes the smallest pang of suffering, he will sweep away, and no one in eternity future will question his love or mercy when they see his hands and feet.

Yet for now, he knocks at our door offering to sit at our table and share dinner together (Revelation 3:20). A comforting image, but again, if this is true, where is he in our grief and suffering?

Years ago, I had a high school student serve as an intern. Third in her class of over 400, she had a decision to make: battle for academic honors or lay this goal aside to work as an intern at our church. She chose the latter and spent her afternoons working in student ministry. She graduated fourth in her class. This artistic, deep-thinking youth struggled with depression. Alone one night, I walked onto a local high school track and started railing at God. Why would he not help her? Why so elusive? If only he would come down and meet with her; if only he would talk with her, she would get better. But no, he would not do so, the invisible God playing a pathetic game of hide-n-seek. I was yelling. After I raged myself into exhaustion, I felt the still, small voice within say, “That’s why I call people to serve them.” I remembered the Audio Adrenaline song, “Hands and Feet” which sums up what someone has said, “We may be the only Jesus people see.”

He resides in those who call him savior and reaches out through us.

Who can comfort best those who grieve?  Is it not those who themselves have suffered? Is there not a nobility in those who have grieved, yet have not broken? Is there not something admirable in those who have not allowed bitterness to overtake them? It does not surprise me that Terri Johnson speaks in local high schools about the devastation that alcohol can cause young people. For Terri and Bruce, who continue this side of heaven to work through the sorrow of losing their only daughter, there is an honor to such people wounded by unimaginable grief, yet not crushed. They have an ability to comfort others more so than those who have not experienced such tragedy. “Praise be to …the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Does this answer the questions of suffering?

No.

I wonder for those who grieve, if knowing the answers would ease the pain. I doubt it.

At Tanasa’s funeral, I did not offer answers, but attempted to offer hope. Hope that Tanasa, who knew Jesus, is in the better place, and she has been healed and made whole. Hope that to be “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Hope that “to die is gain” for we are with Christ, which is “far better.” Hope that in spite of what we see and experience, the infinite God sees from a bigger picture, and he can be trusted. Hope that death is not the end for those who know the one who rose from the grave on Easter morning and is alive forevermore. Hope that Death, the personified enemy, will one day be swallowed up: “Death, thou shalt die.” Hope that one day our grief will turn into inexpressible and glorious joy. Hope that God will keep his promise to one day wipe away every tear and all suffering. Hope in the theological paradox of God’s promises that are already, but not yet.

At Brian and Cora’s wedding, what would I hope as they begin their new life together?

May they never know suffering, but only blessing after blessing; may they never know sorrow, but only joy after sounding joy, repeated. My finite understanding as an earthly parent desires such a life for them. Yet, this neither squares with reality, nor represents the biblical message. The Bible never promises a life without grief. Job said, “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

My prayer for Brian and Cora asks that they stay anchored in Jesus’ words as he closes his Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25)

Jesus does not say if the storms strikes, but when the storms strikes. My prayer for Brian and Cora is that they build upon and stay anchored to the rock. Despite what they may see; despite what life storms batter them, they remember the Lord sees from a perspective above the gathering clouds, and he can be trusted. Or, if I could say to Roxie and her mother, and those who have suffered great loss: Do not lose faith; hold on to hope.

Last year, as our daughter wrangled through her first trimester of graduate school and struggled in the press, she called home more than once in tears that would tear up any father. I wrote her a letter and will end with the last words of that letter, adapted from a favorite movie:

Dear Miracle Baby,

If you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. I’ll keep an eye out for you and the chessboard ready. Remember, Cora, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.

Padre

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The Day of My Daughter’s Wedding Part I

The Lamaze instructor told our group not to worry. “If you are patient and caring, you will breeze through this.” I leaned over to Deb and said, “We’re in trouble.”

On Thursday at 6:45 a.m., I woke to find my wife kneeling in the hallway floor. I hopped around her like a Mexican Jumping Bean, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said the contractions gave her more pain than expected. We took off for the hospital. As the nurse asked how I was doing, I tripped over a cable hooked up to the bed and faceplanted into the floor. From the tile, I said, “I’m fine.”

Cora was born at 10:58 p.m. on June 1st, after 16 hours of labor. The day of our daughter’s birth became the fastest of my life and much easier than anticipated. For Deb, not so much. After witnessing the birth process, I can say with confidence, “I’m glad I’m not a woman,” and have chosen not to describe my wife’s ordeal. Cora measured 23 inches and weighed nine pounds seven ounces, before the days of epidural shots, which says enough.

Cora slept in our room in the wooden bassinet that Deb had as a baby. Rarely did our little one cry even when teething, but she grew to become a master strategist for techniques to prolong bedtime. A Drink. A Question. A concern. A comment. One night, after being put to bed, she came back into the living room and sat down in front of the TV without saying a word.

“May we help you?”

“No.”

We marched her right back into bed, but applauded the creativity.

Elementary school did not change her bedtime machinations. The following journal entry is from July, 1998, when she was nine years old:

Lounging on the couch and watching TV, without warning, I was attacked. It was well past Cora’s bedtime, so this was a strategic assault. But right as she assailed me, Mom called, “Cora, have you brushed your teeth? Do you have your pajamas on?” She sneered and pushed me away saying, “This isn’t over.” As she walked around the couch she said, “You better watch your back.”

In high school, all these bedtime shenanigans disappeared as she stayed up late into the night to work on school projects and papers. Her senior year, she prepared for a AP Euro-History test and stood in the living room discussing her strategies to answer possible essay questions. Mom and I sat on the couch as she processed through her analytical methods. As she talked about techniques, she morphed from student to teacher. I started to get misty-eyed.

“Dad? What?”

“I used to lean over your crib and tell you that someday you would talk, and we would have long conversations, and I could not wait for the day we could share together. Back then I would say, ‘Cora, how does a cow go?’ And you would look up at me from your crib and say, ‘mooo.'”

When I said this last sentence, her mother burst into tears.

The Kid threw up her hands: “Hey. Hold it. I need to study here, people.”

We told her she would have to give us time to recover. She continued, but I would interject in the middle of her speaking.

“Cora, how does a cow go?”

And Mom would say “Mooooo.”

And Cora would look at the two of us and say, “Really? Really? So this is how it’s gonna be?”

Her mom and I promised to behave ourselves.

It all doesn’t seem that long ago.

The second semester of her junior year in college, The Kid spent four months in Orvieto, Italy. Before she left, I wrote a letter for every week of her grand adventure and hid them in her suitcase. In two letters, I copied the lyrics to two songs that share the same title. Bob Dylan wrote the first. Rod Stewart, influenced by Dylan, wrote and recorded the second. He shared his royalties with Dylan. Both are excellent and called “Forever Young.” Five days from this posting, my daughter will walk down the aisle. What will I hope for on the day of my daughter’s wedding?

To quote Dylan’s song:

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young

To follow up with Stewart’s song, whose tune I like better:

Be courageous and be brave
And in my heart you’ll always stay
Forever young

And when you finally fly away
I’ll be hoping that I served you well
For all the wisdom of a lifetime
No one can ever tell
But whatever road you choose
I’m right behind you, win or lose

The day for our daughter to “fly away” has arrived.

Twenty-six years ago, after seven years of hope and prayers, when Deb told me she was pregnant, we drove to a little park close to our trailer court, and raised our plastic, disposable champagne glasses, and rejoiced with thankful hearts. In five days, we will do the same.

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