We Bear the Chains

“A Christmas Carol” proposes that greed, selfishness and cold calculation become overwhelming sinful burdens. Jacob Marley’s ghost shakes the locks and chains encumbering him as he moans to Ebenezer Scrooge, “We forge the chains we wear in life.”

Repeating patterns of thoughts, actions and consequences form. As we live on, movement accelerates along set paths. We take on additional karmic mass, build momentum. Changing the speed and direction of our lives becomes increasingly difficult as we age.

A friend of ours worked in social services and in hospice. She sometimes counseled the terminally ill and their families. She once told my wife that people usually die the way they lived. If they sowed peace and love amongst family and friends, their passing became a soft farewell. If they dealt in anger, manipulation, and ruthlessness, strife accompanied them to their graves.

Stalin, the ultimate paranoid, died slowly in agony after suffering a stroke. Treatment was delayed because his guards, though concerned about his failure to emerge from his rooms one morning, feared entering his apartments without express permission. Once they tentatively ventured into Stalin’s inner sanctum, they had difficulty summoning help. Doctors, Stalin’s personal physicians who knew his condition and could have given him appropriate treatment, had recently been imprisoned by the ailing dictator.

Stalin forged the chains that bore him down to his grave…

Is there a more positive way to look at this? When trapped by dark imagery, turn to a nature metaphors.

I could think about my life as a plant grown from a seed buried in soil not of its choosing. (I didn’t get to pick the circumstances of birth and childhood.) As long as I live, I endure the good and bad sent by my environment. Thoughts and actions produce flowers and fruits. My life produces seeds spreading the influence of who I am and was.

Oldsters: I Join the Club

The check-out line at Publix: 70-ish couple (wiry, white-haired man with well-padded, gray-haired wife) unloads groceries onto the belt. Young bagger assumes they’re half-deaf, calls out: “IS PLASTIC OKAY?” Old guy grins at the wife and says, “Steel-reinforced plastic, please.” Bagger doesn’t get the joke, gives them a blank look.

A church lady sits back on an upholstered chair in a fluorescent-lit box of a meeting room. Her face and body sag as if gravity has mounted a personal attack. She leans toward me and says, “I’m having one of those days. I keep making stupid mistakes and forgetting things. Nothing seems to go right. My husband actually noticed and said, ‘What’s the matter with you?'” I nod in sympathy. I’d spent so much mental energy remembering to buy unusual items at the grocery store that I forgot to get a sandwich for Judy. I had to go back on the fly to get it before the church gathering started.

Ex-Coast Guard sailor tells me that he ran missions up Vietnamese rivers during the war. “I bet you didn’t know the Coast Guard did that.” I didn’t. He also served on an ice-breaker stationed off Greenland. “We ran into ice fields all the time–you never knew when. Sometimes we’d wake up in our bunks below deck to the sound of ice scraping along the side.” I say, “I bet you thought about the Titanic and cold seawater rushing in.” He replies, “Oh, we thought about all kinds of things all at once!” He goes on: “One time we got stuck in the ice and had to dynamite our way out.” I say, “So, you stood at the bow and tossed sticks over the side?” “Pretty close,” he says. “We had to drill holes in the ice, drop the dynamite down, and detonate.”

I tell a college class that I’m giving them a break from homework in honor of my granddaughter’s birth. A few smile. Some study me carefully. They’d thought that I was old, but now they know for sure. A student in her late forties asks me how many grandchildren I have. “Just one,” I answer. “I’ve got five,” she answers. “Now you’re just showing off,” I say.

Could’ve Skipped That

Dropped off the Honda at the local mechanic, an honest guy with a friendly smile. Walked a mile home on a hot morning. Felt a little vertigo (tight shoulders and neck, slight veering to the left), and the hips creaked with each step. Approached a middle school bus stop and saw two punks staring at me. One smirked to the other. They laughed up their sleeves as I came closer. Glared at them, but the bigger kid smirked again, whispered to his buddy and drew a laugh. Leaned in and barked, “Something must be real funny.” Silence.

Could have skipped that. Who cares what 13-year-olds think?

Ate breakfast, worked on the screened-in-porch door. Made lunch for Judy and me. Assembled the door. Glued and stapled the sections together.

Called the mechanic and walked back to the garage. Felt woozy as I got near. Had to cross Aloma ( a busy four-lane road). Vertigo came back as I stood on the median. Spread my feet wide apart to brace myself as traffic wooshed by in front and behind me. Considered sitting down. Could have skipped that.

Made it to the mechanic’s, and he offered me a cold drink. Must have looked wrung out from the heat.

The man had time to talk. We discussed fly-by-night service companies in Orlando. Agreed that we’d avoid any company sporting a Christian symbol on their ads. They’re usually the worst. Said, “Hey, Hitler was a Catholic, just not a good one.”

The mechanic said, “Speaking of Hitler, what about Trump?”

“You don’t like Trump?” I asked.

“Oh, I do,” the mechanic answered.

The conversation turned into a political debate. The mechanic’s assistant spouted conspiracy theories. Blamed Obama for Russian election interference. The mechanic floated the idea that Trump was a better choice than a career politician for defending social security. Business men manage money better. Trump is a business man.

Made a few counterpoints. The assistant identified me as a liberal moron, sneered, fell back on smug indignation. The mechanic enjoyed the debate, laughed frequently. (He must enjoy starting political fights when things get slow.)

Could’ve skipped that.

Step Aside

After a bottle, 1988.

My grandfather long remained active in a church he began attending in his boyhood. He sang in the choir and served on the parish council till nearly the age of ninety. A new priest’s rudeness helped convince him to step aside.

Grandpa had arthritic knees and walked slowly with a cane. The impatient cleric said, “Get out of my way!” and pushed past him as the two men exited a meeting one day. Grandpa took that as a sign that his efforts were no longer required.

I never heard whether he felt any relief in laying down two burdens or anger at his abrupt dismissal by a callow, petulant man. At that point in his life, he had lost his parents, a wife, two younger brothers and most of his friends. Maybe the priest’s disrespect didn’t strike him as too heavy of a blow.

My daughter is eight months pregnant. My memories of her as a baby and young child come to the fore as I anticipate the arrival of a first grandchild. I’ve begun to review my experiences as a father and recall all the times I had to learn to step aside. As my children grew up, I gradually became less necessary. They developed their own abilities to take care of themselves and make decisions. Proper parenting is a self-eliminating job.

I felt relief when I no longer had to be so watchful and concerned about my children’s day-to-day life. But a tinge of sadness sometimes followed in the wake of a new stage in their burgeoning independence. I had grown accustomed to performing certain jobs and missed doing them once they outgrew the need. I realized, too late, that I took pleasure in being useful to my children.

Some of our friends have assured us the grandparenting provides ultimate joys. One can savor the sweetness of a young child while letting the weight of responsibility rest on someone else’s shoulders. The trick to good grandparenting, I’ve heard, is in knowing whether to offer advice or to butt out as the grandchild grows up and encounters problems. Smart grandparents don’t try to relive the past and know when to step aside.

Annie and I posing for a photo: we both appear a bit taken aback.

I may have to work on that.

The Clear-Out Dream

I recently turned sixty. A number artists of my generation are moving away or quitting. Some are giving up for health reasons. Others are discarding paintings and equipment to downsize for moves to homes nearer to children and grandchildren. Or other interests have capture what’s left of their time and energy, and they feel like they’ve made enough art to last a life time. One friend had a spiritual awakening that superseded slow gains made working at the easel.

I’ve recently received clearing-out canvases from a few retiring/moving artists. They’re piled up in my studio next to a rack of 200 paintings I made over the course of 38 years. I’ve got more work stashed on another rack and inside my house. I’ve begun to think that I’ll never buy a fresh canvas again, but will just paint over old canvases that no longer make the grade. I can’t see the point of adding numbers to my “oeuvre”. I may be self-digesting the record of my career but have found that very few are interested in said career.

My wife and I are joining folks our age in considering one final move, one more fresh start. We’re paring down our book collection and trying to lose our turntable, stereo equipment and records. The house seems cluttered and cumbersome, and the thought of boxing up possessions for movers daunts us. We want to nibble away at the pile to gradually diminish our load.

I occasionally get flashbacks to a time when painting was new and every finished piece gave exciting revelations. I long to be 25 once again, to have fresh adventures in a world of wide open possibilities.

Last night I had a dream. I noticed that someone had bashed in the door to my studio. Robbers had taken tools as expected. Then my lumber and work table disappeared. The painting racks yawned empty.

I felt oddly freed. I could start over and begin my career anew. Possibilities might come from across a clear horizon no longer blocked by a hodge-podge assemblage of painting debris.

Then I noticed that my easels, paints, brushes and palettes had been taken too. All that they had left were a few bare tables and cover sheets. I bent down in anguish and cried out, “They took my easels!”

The dream told me that I might want a fresh start, but I’m not ready to quit just yet.

Slog 2016

I drove from Orlando up I75 through Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and southwest Ohio.  I pulled into my parents’ driveway the afternoon of the second day, stepped inside and placed my bag on the worn, stained carpet near the TV.  Mom rose to greet me.  Dad stayed in his recliner.  His arthritis had chair-bound him more in recent years.  Getting to his feet required painful rocking back and forth to gain momentum to push upward.

On the second day of the visit, I decided to clean.  Grime clung in stubborn layers to the kitchen linoleum.  Yellow, brown and dull orange streaks stained the cabinets.  Counters near the stove grew a fuzzy skin of greasy dust.  I figured that a decade must have elapsed since the last thorough scrub.  The scum might have been left to accumulate due to bad knees and weak vision:  Mom and Dad couldn’t have seen the gunk much less bent down to sponge it away.  But Dad shuffled up to me as I shined the last tile and said, “Not much use mopping when all it’s going to do is get dirty again.”

Mom fussed at me for working while on a visit.  She said, “I thought you could come here for a break.”  I said, “I don’t look at it that way.”

We went out to eat supper at an old-fashioned diner in a down sliding neighborhood in east Dayton.  I took hold of Dad’s forearm to help him exit the driver’s seat and felt frail tendons and muscles shift under the paper-thin skin.  I remembered when he used to sledgehammer slabs of concrete gripping the handle one-handed.  Mom and Dad shuffled inside.  We sat at a booth with a chrome-edged table, stained menus and torn vinyl seats.  The limp vegetables swam in margarine, the gravy tasted like it had come from a can, and the meatloaf settled in my stomach in a sodden lump.

Dad asked me to trim his toenails the next afternoon.  The yellowish gray nails on his big toes had grown thick and long and acquired the tensile strength of braided steel wire.  His shoes no longer fit as the stubborn nails added unwanted length.  I tried a nail clipper but feared it would break under strain.  I used trimming scissors instead and gradually shaved a half inch off each toenail.

Dad mentioned that they had trouble seeing when they backed their sedan down the driveway.  Bushes on either side had grown high and wide.  I found an electric trimmer on a cluttered work bench in the garage and set to work.  I took pains to shape them into evenly rounded forms.  Dad stood at the front door to critique my labors and said, “I would’ve cut them shorter.”

Mom fussed again:  I should be resting on a visit instead of working.  She didn’t know that I had one more job planned.  The fir tree in the side yard had ragged brown lower branches and grown close to the driveway and over the line into the neighbor’s yard.  Dad pondered the need to clear the dead wood and cut the fir to a more manageable size.  I started hacking with an electric chainsaw.  The tree smelled of mold and rot.

I filled one large can after an hour’s work and still had another two hours of labor to finish the job.  I took a break and sat with Dad on the front porch.  He offered to get me a beer.  I said, “Not till I’m done.  I want to keep all my fingers attached.” 

I went back to work and cut toward the trunk near the bottom.  I looked up through a tangle of branches and saw Dad standing a few feet away.  He watched intently but didn’t offer advice or yell.  He hadn’t come to point out my shortcomings as a worker.  The look on his face told me instead that he’d give anything to be in my shoes.  He wanted to do something useful again.

I filled all his trash cans with branches but only reached the halfway point.  Someone else would have to trim the rest.  Dad got me a beer.  Mom yelled at Dad for “making Denny do all that work”.  She said, “You come here for a visit and a rest.  You shouldn’t have to do chores.  We can take care of that!”  I didn’t argue the obvious point that the disheveled house and yard presented contrary evidence.

Mom and Dad snored in their bedrooms as I tiptoed out the door the next morning.  Drivers tried to kill me a few times as I passed through Columbus, and I had the odd notion as I braked and swerved that I’d been suddenly transported to Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando.  There weren’t any palm trees lining the road in Columbus, but the motorists were just as crazy.

Victoria’s nephew, Jake, opened the door to a rental in Cleveland.  “Vicki’s out with Tony.  They’ll be back soon.”  I trundled my suitcase into a small living room where I’d be sleeping on the sofa for one night.  My brother and his wife returned a few minutes later but didn’t linger over greetings.  Victoria served as the captain of Team Ohio at the Transplant Games and had things to do.

We spent most of the day in an airless convention center room handing out t-shirts to the athletes and helping them register.  That evening we drove a few blocks to an auditorium for the opening ceremony.  Guys on BMX bikes careened and leapt up and down ramps and over obstacles.  Music blared.  A large screen flashed inspirational photos and slogans.  I slipped out to a food stand in a side hall and bought beers for myself and Jake. 

The show had changed gears during my absence.  After I returned, the screen no longer flashed, the riders had exited, and the emcee no longer sounded like a cheerleader at a pep rally.  He called a man out onto stage and handed him the mike.  The man spoke about receiving a heart transplant a few weeks (perhaps days) before he would have died.  He recalled feeling excited, overjoyed and guilty after the doctor told him an organ had become available.  He’d been given a chance to live, but someone had died to give him that chance.

A man and a woman were called to the stage.  The man introduced himself as a kidney recipient.  The woman said nothing, but the emcee revealed that she had donated her son’s organs.  A kidney had saved the man standing before her.  The recipient quietly thanked the woman as she wiped tears out of her eyes.  They hugged a long time and murmured a few words.  I drained my beer.

I sat down the following morning with Victoria at a dining table at the rental.  I could hear the hum of the refrigerator and songbirds chirruping.  I drank coffee, ate a doughnut, and told her about my parents.  She talked about her hectic schedule, her plans to visit a friend in Wisconsin, the politics and logistical nightmares of managing Team Ohio, and friends who had died after their transplants failed.  We were leading up to a topic we’d avoided yesterday.

She’d met my brother five years before at a bowling tournament for transplant recipients.  They’d both suffered long term kidney disease as children and received organs from their brothers.  Their first marriages had ended badly.  They had a lot in common.

Victoria asked, “So, how are you doing?”

I told her that Tony’s numbers worried me.  She nodded and said, “We’ve got this.”  A few friends had already lined up to donate a kidney if his transplant continued its slow decline.  Nephew Jake considered Tony his surrogate father and had volunteered.  Preliminary paper work had been filed at two medical centers, one in Cincinnati, one in Cleveland.  Tony’s condition didn’t merit putting his name on the donation list yet, but his urologist predicted failure within a year or two.  Victoria added, “I suspect that his last stent is the real problem.  I think that he’ll improve once they change it out.”

I felt some relief and thought that our session had ended.  But she looked intently at me and asked again, “So, how are you doing?”

“I feel a lot better now that I know what’s going on,” I answered.


“And kind of twisted up.  I feel like I’ve failed him somehow.  We’ve been lucky for so long I thought that the kidney would last forever.  I stopped worrying about him years ago, and now it’s all coming back.  I’m not sure that I can stand watching him go through it again…I can’t do anything for him this time.”

Victoria said, “I’ve seen other donors go through this, and your reactions are perfectly normal.  But you don’t have to worry about Tony.  We’ve got this.”

I left Cleveland late that morning and got lost after missing a crucial exit on the outskirts of Akron.  I bushwhacked through farm country in southeast Ohio on back roads, found Interstate 83, and reached Charlotte, North Carolina around 9 p.m.  The bypass loop confused me, and I did a half circuit around the city twice before figuring out how to take the correct exit to a road leading southwest to Athens, Georgia.

I pulled over outside a village north of Athens at twelve.  I had no idea how to reach my son’s place from there and considered parking for the night.  I called Alan, explained my dilemma, and said, “I’m so damn tired.”  He figured out my location, and his fiancée guided me to their condo on Barnett Shoals.  They set a plate of chicken, green beans and rice in front of me and kindly let me eat and collapse.

Alan sat down with me the next morning as I ate breakfast.  He waited until I’d finished my coffee before pushing his laptop in front of me.  I saw a news item about a mass shooting in Orlando: The Pulse Night Club massacre.  The gunman had started his killing spree about the same time I’d been driving through north Georgia.  Alan and Amy spared me the night before but knew that I’d find out as soon as I turned on a television or booted my laptop.  None of the victims would have been within my circle of friends and acquaintances, but my son knew that I’d be upset that another such incident had happened and had happened ten miles away from my home in Winter Park.

They took me out for dinner that night, and I bought them ice cream from a shop in downtown Athens.  We strolled the grounds of the University of Georgia and saw an impromptu memorial for the shooting victims near an arched gate.

I drove back roads through south central Georgia the following day and passed through Milledgeville, Flannery O’Connor’s home town.  I cruised by a museum dedicated to her memory and considered a visit.  She had once been the inspiration for my narrative paintings, and I still considered her a giant among American writers.

One of Flannery’s best-known stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, told the tale of a family driving on a country road.  The mother tortured her son, his wife, and her grandkids with her nonstop chatter and whining.  A band of outlaws waylaid them and shot them one by one.  The mother received a spiritual revelation and cried out in compassion for her assassin just before her execution.  The killer stood over her body and said that she “would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”.

I decided against stopping to visit Flannery’s shrine. At the climaxes of her stories, self-deluded characters suffer sudden moments of painful revelation that irrevocably change their lives.

I didn’t want any of that business. I just wanted to see my wife and daughter as soon as possible. 

A Social Visit

“You were saying…” the strange woman prompted. 

Maggie sighed and shifted.  The woman had sat too close to her on the sofa.

“Come on, tell me what’s bothering you,” coaxed the unwanted guest.

Maggie had hidden from Another One the day before, but this lady had pounded the front door with her knock-knock-knocking. Maybe she’d go away if Maggie answered a few questions.

“My children don’t care about me,” said Maggie.

“That can’t be…completely true,” said the visitor.

“What’s your name again?  Why are you here?” Maggie demanded. “Are you with social services?”

“I’m Mary.  I sang with you in the choir.  Don’t you remember?”

“Oh yes, Mary.  Your boy ran off to New York,” said Maggie.

“That’s right.  He went to New York, but now he’s in New Orleans.  Do you remember the rest?” said Mary.

“He changed his name and danced on stage as a woman,” Maggie stated.  “He called himself Lulu.  Or was it Lola?”

“Lulu,” said Mary.

“And didn’t he go to jail?” asked Maggie.

“Lulu did a few bad things, but she’s turned everything around now,” said Mary.

“Lulu.  You actually call him that?  He’s always been Robert to me and he always will,” Maggie insisted.

“I do call her Lulu.  She prefers that.  I got used to the new name, and it suits her,” said Mary.

“I’m sure it does,” sneered Maggie.

Mary let the rudeness hang in the air for a minute.  She changed the subject:  “Did your husband leave you before or after your boys graduated from high school?”

“After,” muttered Maggie.

“Why did he leave?” Mary persisted.

“That’s none of your business,” Maggie rasped.

“I understand.  Sorry to intrude.  How are your two sons?”

“Fine.  They’re fine, but they never come to visit,” Maggie complained.

“Why is that?” asked Mary.

“I don’t know,” said Maggie.

Mary snorted a short burst and covered her mouth.

“You think that’s funny?” Maggie snarled.  “Wait till it’s your turn.  You’ll get old too.”

“But I am old,” Mary said.  “I’m older than you.  Don’t you remember?”

“Which Mary are you?  There were three Marys in the choir when I started.”

“Mary Schumacher.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“Oh, I thought you died.  We sang for your funeral.  The church was half empty, and I thought, ‘Doesn’t that lady have any family?’”

“That must have been some other Mary,” Mary said with a smile.

“No, I’m sure it was you.  You had that queer son and a trampy daughter with five kids by three men.  She only married the last one after she got sick.  Did she die from leukemia?”

“Why yes, she did.  And Tom raised all the kids after she was gone,” Mary said.

“I wondered about that.  Only one of them was his,” said Maggie.

“Two, actually,” said Mary.

“Are you all sure about that?” Maggie smirked.

“What does it matter now?” asked Mary.

“Matters to some more than others,” said Maggie.

“Two are Tom’s:  the cute little girls, Katie and Laura,” said Mary.

“Well, some think that Katie’s pretty, but Laura has a flat nose and mousy brown hair,” said Maggie.

Mary said, “That’s right.  But we all love Laura for her sweet personality.  Her kindness makes her beautiful.”

“And she’s fat,” Maggie contradicted.  “Fat girls have to be nice or no one pays attention to them.”

“And skinny girls can say anything they want?” Mary ventured.

“Only if they’ve got big boobs,” declared Maggie.

“I see.  And did you have big boobs?”  Mary inquired.

“Course, I did.  Still got ‘em.”  She placed her hands under her breasts and pushed them up.

“That must be wonderful for you,” said Mary.

“Would be if I weren’t 87.  Now I’m just dried up and old,” said Maggie.  She let her breasts drop and wobble on her stomach.

“You won’t be old…forever,” said Mary.

“ I’m not as old as you and I’ve kept my looks better than you have, but I’m old,” said Maggie.  “I’m so old I feel every year in my bones.  I tell Kevin that I’m ready to go, but I keep living on and on, miserable and more miserable.”

“Well, I feel better every day,” said Mary.

“But aren’t you dead?” said Maggie.  “I sang for your funeral, and the church was half empty.”

“So, your boys don’t visit.  Why is that?” Mary redirected.

“One says he’s busy.  He calls me every so often but gets off the phone as fast as he can.  And he cuts me off in midsentence whenever I say mention his ex-wife,” said Maggie.

“The one who cheated on him?” Mary inquired delicately.

“Yeah, that one.  He doesn’t want to know anything about her and acts as if his first marriage never happened.  She still lives in the neighborhood and I see her at Publix.  She tells me what she’s been up to, and I pass it along to Kevin,” said Maggie.  “You’d think he’d take an interest.”

“Didn’t Kevin remarry?” Mary asked.

“He did,” Maggie said.

“Is he happy now?”

“I guess.  But her family lives up in Jacksonville, and Kevin moved there.  Ursula’s Mom and Ursula’s Dad and her two brothers and her nieces and nephews are important,” Maggie growled.  “I’m not that important.  I only see him twice a month if that woman lets him out of her clutches.  And then he stays for an hour, keeps glancing at the clock like he’s got more important places to be, jumps into his car and races straight back to her.”

“I’ve heard that he comes every week and brings groceries,” Mary said.

“Where’d you hear that?” Maggie demanded.

“And doesn’t he mow your lawn and gas up your car?”  Mary asserted.

“Only when he feels like it,” Maggie groused.

Mary put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder, and the old woman shrank away.

“My God, your hand’s so cold!” Maggie cried.

“Really?” Mary replied.  “Your house is so warm I’d think my hand would feel toasty.”

“Your girl died of leukemia,” said Maggie.

“Why, yes she did.  You like to talk about that, don’t you?  I remember that you brought that up a lot after choir practice,” said Mary.

“Did I?  I don’t remember,” muttered Maggie.

“Oh yes, you did,” Mary said.  A pleasant smile played across her lips.  “You had a theory that you often shared about her illness.  Do you remember your idea?”

“No.  Theory?  No.” Maggie stammered.

“Oh yes, you do,” Mary insisted.  “You wondered whether her pill addiction caused the leukemia.  You passed me an article about drug abuse and hepatitis.”


“—titis.  You never seemed to be able to distinguish between hepatitis and leukemia, but you were very sure that Chrissy caught cancer from dirty needles,” said Mary.  “And you wouldn’t believe me when I told you that Chrissy never shot up.

“Needles…I don’t want to talk about that,” Maggie snapped.

“You seem sensitive about needles. Are you afraid of them?,” asked Mary.

“Kevin’s sensitive…I’m not sensitive about anything,” said Maggie.

“What’s your other boy up to these days?” Mary asked sweetly.

“Not much,” Maggie whispered.

“Brett’s been away for a long time, hasn’t he?” Mary nudged.

“Not so long.  It seems like he left yesterday,” replied Maggie.  “I sang—”

“I heard a rumor that the police found him in Miami.”

“Miami?  Brett’s in Miami?” asked Maggie.  Her eyes teared up.

“They found him in a dumpster in Little Haiti.”

“What was he doing in a dumpster?” asked Maggie.  A drop rolled down her cheek.

“Still had a tourniquet wrapped around his arm,” Mary continued. 

“Shut up!” barked Maggie.

“The needle was gone, but there was a fresh puncture wound.”

“Bitch!” Maggie screamed.

Mary patted Maggie’s shoulder and said, “There, there.  Did I say something to offend you?  I’m sorry.  Folks get so upset these days about the least little things.”  Mary smiled sweetly as if she truly felt apologetic.

Maggie tried to pull away, but Mary clenched a bony forearm and held tight.  Maggie began to shiver.

Maggie said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Mary Schumacher from the choir.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“But why are you here?”

“Just for a social visit.  You seem lonely,” Mary said gently as she tightened her grip. 

Maggie didn’t pull away.  Her arm felt numb, and the ice flowing through her veins had become soothing.  She nodded her head and began to slump.

“That’s right,” Mary soothed.  “You’ll feel better soon.”

“Didn’t you die?” slurred Mary.

“Not so much,” Mary offered.

Maggie straightened and swatted at Mary’s hand.  She couldn’t dislodge it from her arm.  She sank again and groaned.

“Leave me alone,” Maggie pleaded.

 Mary said nothing.

“Why did you come for me?” Maggie gasped.

Her voice faded on the last syllable.  Her eyes closed.

Mary held Maggie in her arms and rocked her until she stopped shivering.  A rattling sound briefly disturbed the settled quiet.  Mary stroked the white hair on Maggie’s scalp, put her blue lips close to Maggie’s ear and whispered, “Because no one else would.”

Turning 60

I’m turning 60 this month and am glad to have made it this far. I’ve escaped a few rough scrapes and avoided near accidents that could have ended life much closer to its start. A few school mates and relatives in my generation weren’t graced with as much dumb luck and made abrupt, untimely departures at early ages.

I used to have a friend named Ingrid who survived the siege of Berlin in WWII. (She hid in cellars to avoid artillery rounds, and her mother protected her from Russian soldiers intent on raping young frauleins.) Ingrid noted that older Americans often bemoaned birthdays and said that Germans had a different take on aging. They felt gratitude for the gift of years and celebrated birthdays as accomplishments.

Ingrid did more with her life than just mark time: she immigrated from post-war Germany to the United States, learned computer coding and found meaningful work, married and beat cancer. She relished the opportunities afforded by each new day.

My life has been much less adventurous, but I’ve taken enough risks to keep things interesting. Many changes and surprises arrived with little warning, and I’ve learned to avoid wishing for something different to shake things up. Now I pray that things stay the same just a little while longer.

My wife and I attend Winter Park Presbyterian, and our new friends and acquaintances are mostly older. We’re considered vibrant and energetic by comparison, and my physical issues (sore back and knees, lower stamina) come across more like growing pains than serious complaints. Frequent funerals mark the thinning of elderly worshippers, and their compatriots take the next round of bad news with quiet resignation. A sudden death or the announcement of an upcoming tragedy no longer seems to startle them. They already miss and mourn a lot of people, but still respond to a sufferer with warmth and compassion. They’re not numb to pain, just practiced in functioning while enduring it.

I guess I’m still too inexperienced to have acquired these skills. I’m just a young whippersnapper learning my way.

So Damn Tired

I got home from work yesterday and felt so damn tired that I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I usually zombie in front of the TV watching sports until some semblance of animation returns, but the only televised event I could find was the Masters.  Watching golf is one of my warning signs for oncoming depression, and I turned away as soon as I could.  But not before I heard an announcer tell me that golfers are fragile, that a missed shot can send them into a tailspin.  Just after that, a man flubbed a five foot putt.  He looked at the camera briefly, and I could tell that he hated his life at that moment.  I didn’t blame him.  I hated him too.

I felt too tired to do anything, read anything, but too alert to collapse on my bed and nap.  My fatigue drifted into irritability.  I soon decided that a retreat to my bedroom was the safest course of action, but my sense of purposelessness only grew as I watched random videos on YouTube.

I knew that there were better things to do with my time, that I could exercise to burn off tension, meditate to smooth the rough spots in my mind, but found myself staring at the computer screen instead.

And I began to wonder if old age can be like this.  What a perfect hell to be aware but unable or unwilling to do.

I went out and washed the dishes.  I watched a movie with my wife.  We sat together on the sofa and held hands.  I finally began to feel better.

I woke up this morning to the realization that I’ve got work to do.  My spiritual life needs an upgrade if I’m going avoid turning into a bitter asshole as I grow older. A few of my relatives have gone that route, and I don’t want to join them.

But I’ve also seen some folks grow in joy even as their energy and physical abilities diminish.  I want to get on that track before it’s too late.



August 24-25

I wanted to run the 440, but my ninth grade track coach rightly judged that I was too slow for a race that was essentially a one lap sprint.  I didn’t have a fast twitch muscle in my body, and my flat feet produced a lot of drag.  He pegged me for the 880, two laps around the track.  In my early races I gave in to adrenaline bursts during the first three hundred yards, and started out way too fast. By the time I hit the halfway mark in the second lap I usually had nothing left in the tank.  I eventually figured out that placing in a race was a matter of accepting my limitations and level of endurance, of initially holding down my pace so that I could finish with a kick.

Tonight I sat in my driveway, smoked a cigar and drank about an inch of bourbon from a mug.  It’s wise to take an easy pace when smoking a stogie and drinking booze, and I stretched my performance to an hour and fifteen minutes.  While I sat and puffed and sipped, I realized that any success in my professional life came down to endurance.

When I paint a painting I take my time as I know that I’m not a sprinter when it comes to making art.  I have to contemplate, redirect, and rethink my way through the creative process.  When I teach I have to get to know my students and adjust my approach accordingly.  Some students resist instruction and require dogged persistence (I repeat, come at them again from another angle, persuade and encourage until something good starts to happen.).  Some need to left alone until they’re ready to hear what I have to say.  My attitude, which I have to maintain through four months, has to be one of persistently renewed good will.

The rewarding things in my personal life also benefitted from accepting the requirements of endurance.  I am not a naturally kind and patient man, and I married a sweet woman who, for some unknown reason, believed in me.  We’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today because she persisted in her faith in me, and because I’ve attempted to live up to her expectations.  I still fail often, but realize that continual effort to return her kindness is the only true gift I can give her.

Parenting is nothing but an exercise in persistence.  Each child comes with unique personality traits that must be shunted into positive forms.  “Shunting” means patiently redirecting behavior until they become functional human beings.  (The real trick is to do this without squashing a child’s innate qualities.)  It takes endurance to be a shepherd, to be a patient guide for 18 or 20 years.

Now that I’m approaching sixty, I’m starting to see that the end years require even more patience.  As my joints creak and my energy wanes, it takes more effort to get through a week of cares and duties.  I may have another twenty years on this planet, and each one will most likely bring new challenges that I will face with diminishing capabilities.  I hope I have the endurance to run my race to the end with a semblance of dignity and decency.  I don’t want to face my last hours and minutes recounting all the times I could have done things better if I’d only had another ounce of kindness, if I’d only persisted in trying just a bit longer.