John’s Last Hurrah

The boy sat next to his mother on a charter bus headed to a Cincinnati Reds game. The open windows blew sticky air past his nose, but he could still smell beer. The grownups passed around cans and guzzled. Voices grew louder and ran over the top of each other. The boy wanted to cover his ears but didn’t. He’d heard an aunt tell his mother that he was way too sensitive.

A balding man stood up near the rear of the bus. His gut bulged over white polyester pants. Sweat stains circled under his armpits. He clenched the soggy butt end of a cigar between two sausage fingers. He shouted, “Pull the bus over! I gotta pee!”

Someone cried, “Hang it out the window, John!” John bellowed with laughter. He pulled the nearest window down as far as it would go and pretended to do just that.

A few weeks passed. The boy couldn’t remember much about the baseball game. Maybe Johnny Bench had hit a home run. The grownups drank at the stadium till their speech slurred. One aunt fell into another man’s lap when she stood and waved to get a hot dog vendor’s attention. John shouted, “Ya dumb cocksucker!” at an umpire after he called a runner out at second base.

His mother talked to Aunt Martha on the phone one evening after supper. Mom said, “So we’ll meet at your house and then head to the hospital. How’s John doing? Uh huh. All right.”

The boy’s mother hung up, turned to him and said, “I’m going to a prayer meeting at the hospital. There are snacks in the bread box. Keep an eye on your brother.”

Mom came back two hours later. Her eyes had a peaceful glow. She told the boy, “Well, we prayed over him. I could feel God’s love flowing from me to John.”

“Is he getting better?” the boy asked.

“He does for a while after we lay hands on him, then the cancer comes back and gets worse. We’re going to come more often,” she said.

Mom went the next week on the same night. The boy and his brother drank milk and ate Oreos, wrestled on the carpet, and watched “Gunsmoke”. Mom trudged in an hour late. Lines etched her brows. She took her time shrugging off her coat and hanging it in the closet. The boy waited. He could tell something had happened.

She addressed the closet door when she said, “John’s dying. He knows it and he’s scared. I guess it’s God’s will.”

“How do you know he’s–“

Mom cut him off: “It isn’t hard to tell.”

The boy babysat his brother while his mother attended the funeral. She checked her lipstick twice in her pocket mirror before walking out the door. Her rosary tangled with the keys as she pulled them out of her purse. When she came home, her face was smooth and untroubled. But she said, “I just don’t know what Jocelyn’s going to do without John.”

The boy grew up and became a sixty-year-old man who called his mother every Friday.  They talked about the weather, books, politics. One day she said without preamble, “You know Jocelyn, John’s wife? She passed away last week. I didn’t know anything about it till your Aunt Martha called and told me. She lived alone all those years, never remarried.

“She must have really loved John,” he ventured.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Martha told me that she’d been getting along fine, but she woke up one morning with a pain in her belly. It got so bad she drove herself to emergency. She never left the hospital.  She hung in there all those years without John…and then went just like that.”

The man said a prayer that night.  He felt God’s love flowing toward Jocelyn and John.  He hoped it would do them some good this time.

Is It Okay to Argue with God?

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, Jack Levine

Some believers talk about a personal relationship with God. Their thoughts reach out to the Supreme, and God answers back. But all relationships eventually lead to conflicts. Is it okay to argue with God?

I attended a series of talks in which representatives from different faiths explained core beliefs and unique features of their religions. A Jewish woman proudly declared that the descendants of Israel had a right to argue with God. Jacob wrestled with an angel, God’s representative, and won a blessing. Job pointed out to God that his fate did not match his state of piety. Hadn’t he done all the right things? And for this he loses family, property and good health? God chose not to smite Job for impudence, but answered at length and restored good fortune to His faithful servant.

St. Theresa of Avila once chided God. She fell into a ditch during a rainstorm. She sat in the mud for a minute, stood up and shook her fist at the sky. She said, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”

I was raised a Roman Catholic, and the priests never based a sermon on St. Theresa’s soggy moment. God might be our Father, but no one thought it was a good idea to question the Ultimate. Privates don’t sass the general.

But wouldn’t it be a relief if we could vent once in a while? Would the world end, would our souls get fried to crispy bits if we gave an honest reaction to God about the latest unexpected misfortune plaguing our lives?

I’ve heard some theologians promote the idea of unquestioning gratitude. They suggest that the response to every vicissitude should be, “Thank you, God.” The argument goes, “If we’re grateful for the pleasant things that come from God, then we should be grateful for the painful things too. It all comes from the same source; it’s all part of the same plan.” That position might be fine for fully realized spiritual beings, but what about the rest of us?

I don’t thank God at funerals. Don’t feel gratitude when unfortunate phone calls announce upcoming tragedies. (My prayer during these times is for endurance. I don’t want to become a bitter jerk in the face of harshness.)

Sometimes I let Him in on the misery I’m feeling. I pray, “Here I am, Lord. By the way, this sucks!” I don’t blame God after registering my complaint, but I do ask, “What’s the point of this? Was this the only way this could go?” Those are the only genuine questions I can ask.

Never Compare

I tell worried students to never compare themselves to others. Our starting lines are different in the race to improve work and hone talent. It does no good to either feel superior (you’re not that near the finish line, so keep running) or inferior (you’re no worse than 90% of beginners). What helps most is to steal. If Sarah turns a line in an attractive way around a shape, rip it off as best you can. If Tom develops exquisite transitions in his tonal changes, take a close look and figure out how he did it. We all have innate abilities, but those who make the most progress remain humble enough to pick-pocket their betters…

I recently heard a passage from a book on Christianity that admonished seekers to jump all in. The writer declared that faithful Christians must trust God completely. Anxiety and fear are signs of weakness, a failure to acknowledge that God walks beside us as we make our journey from this life to the next. True Christians avoid doubts.

Perhaps the writer intended to motivate and inspire readers like a cheerleader demanding loud support from a crowd. But I found the strident words annoying. Some of us struggle for our faith. Who was he to judge?

I sometimes envy folks who have a steady belief in the promises of their faiths. They look forward with greater sureness and joy. My steady companions, however, are doubt and dread. They dog my steps like familiar, persistent enemies.

Perhaps there’s still room for hope. I’ve met people at church who are kind, steady and full of hope. They pray for each other and try to lighten the loads of those in need. Instead of just wishing that my spiritual light would shine as brightly as theirs, I could study them carefully like a robber scanning the floor plans of a bank.

Pastor Bob knows that life is tough and full of suffering, but focuses on the goodness he finds in others. I could try that. Irene feels the supporting influence of prayer carrying her through uncertain times. I could pray for guidance and send hope and assurance to others. Ruth is driven to step in and provide help where needed. I could turn away from my troubles and look for ways to be useful. Arthur focuses on finding God’s presence in the Living Moment. Sounds good to me.

In the end, leading a vibrant spiritual life might be a matter of ripping off the right people.

Echo Through Time

Driving north on Eastbrook. Pick-up rides my tail as I negotiate speed bumps. Driver turns onto a side street giving me a chance to relax. Oaks and pines slide by in procession; soft golden light filters through rusty and mustard yellow leaves. The sky leans more to mellow ultramarine than to sharp Pthalocyanine blue.

Pack away the groceries and collapse in the drab tan living room recliner. Neck and shoulders tighten in rigid bands, and the back of my head throbs a warning: headache en route. Judy clicks off a PBS nature show (Yellow Snow, Sticky Boulders: the Himalayan Orangutan). Her face softens with affection. Filaments of fine wrinkles branch at the edge of her eyes and glints of silver hair shine on top of her backlit brown. I sink into her eyes, and the misarranged vertebra in my midback lowers the volume of its complaints.

Close my eyes, pray-meditate, and The Comforter eventually comes to offer reassurance and tells me to skip painting that day (my shoulders are too tight). Come out of the ether and push up and out of the chair. Stumble into the kitchen to start supper–heavy arms and legs, groggy head, wish I could lie down and take a nap.

Habit takes over as I chop vegetables on auto-pilot. Garlic, rosemary, oregano hit my nose as corn oil heats in the frying pan. The sound of knife hitting the cutting board thunks firm and familiar. Twilight slants through the window over the sink full of dishes. Wash plates and cups, stir the veg. Add broth and chopped chicken breast; start the burner under the pasta pot.

Dinner table: cream orange place mats, orchids in a basket, flower pattern plates, Italian chicken stew in a brown bowl, pasta in a white. Fill the water pitcher and finally sit down. Dim light filters through gauzy curtains–turn on floor lamp so that we can see squash yellow, carrot orange, bell pepper red.

Judy takes a bite and smiles her thanks. We eat and talk, and I get the feeling that we’ve been doing this forever. This meal, this conversation, this easy moment will echo through time.

Not a profound insight, just the sense that these moments are the ground state.

First Vacation (Camp Marydale)

When my brother Tony turned three my parents decided that it was time for our first family vacation. I was six and had just finished kindergarten, and my sister Carla was nine. We crowded into our Plymouth Valiant and drove south on I75 past Cincinnati and into Kentucky. We arrived at Camp Marydale, a spiritual retreat center for Catholic families. We must have left after my Dad got off work because it was dark when we pulled up in a gravel parking lot. We stowed our bags in a log cabin we would share with another family and walked along a dirt path to the community lodge. The tables in the cafeteria were filled with our fellow campers and they had already started to eat. We went through the food line, and I got chili served in a robin’s egg blue bowl. I remember staring at the contrasting red, brown and blue colors and found them disturbing in some odd way. To my surprise the chili tasted good.

When we went back to the cabin my Mom told me that we were going to a communal restroom to get ready for bed. We carried our toothbrushes, toothpaste, wash rags and hand towels along a dark path. Shadowy figures from other cabins joined us en route, and my mother carried a flash light to light our way. It felt awkward to stand at a sink and wash up with lots of strange men and boys around me, but my Dad was there beside me and acted like everything was all right. I was safe.

We got up early the next morning and got a good look at the grounds. There were clusters of log cabins scattered across an open area between a long hillside and a wood. Paths led in all directions: some to the main lodge; some down into the wood to a pond; some to a grotto in the face of a cliff where Mass was held each morning.

My brother played with his collection of plastic cars on the porch of our cabin before we went to breakfast. He ran them over the wooden planks and said “vrrrrrooomm” as he pushed them back and forth. He still looked fragile to me after coming out of two years spent in the hospital. He had trouble with his kidneys from nearly the day of his birth and had barely survived a painful series of surgeries and infections. My sister Carla and I had been told, when he finally came home at Christmas a few months after his second birthday, that our doctor predicted he wouldn’t live past the age of ten.

My Mom disappeared every morning after breakfast. I once saw her kneeling and praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary when my Dad took us for a walk through the campground. She had an expression of deep devotion on her face, and I knew that she was either thanking God that my brother had been spared, at least for now, or was pleading her case for Tony’s continued survival.

My Dad left us in the afternoon and fished, played golf or shot skeet. I remember walking across a wide pasture with my mother to meet him one day while he was shooting. There were enormous piles of horse dung scattered all along our path. I could see traces of undigested hay in the droppings, and the smell made me want to gag. I was afraid of stepping in a stray turd. My Dad seemed pleased to see us when we arrived, and he looked very strong and powerful as he held his shotgun across his thick forearms with the muzzle pointed toward the ground.

Toward the end of the trip my Dad took me and Carla down to a big lake with a beach. I couldn’t swim, but played in the water near the shore. I had a little, toy motor boat that ran on batteries, and I enjoyed watching it putter along in the shallows. Dad relaxed and didn’t keep a close eye on me, and didn’t notice when I fell in the water. I lay on my back with the water over my head and watched bubbles rise to the surface. The sun shining through the water turned the underwater world a light green. I could hear the muffled commotion of the bathers around me. I wasn’t afraid and didn’t feel a need to struggle back to the surface. It was very peaceful and I felt like I could lie there forever.

I was surprised when desperate hands pulled me up abruptly and set me back on my feet. I don’t think that I coughed or gasped or sputtered, but I grew frightened when I saw the look of concern on the faces of the strangers around me. I looked around for my Dad, and he was still sitting on the shore and had just noticed all the commotion. He looked embarrassed when he came up to me and heard that I had been pulled out of the water. Someone spoke to him with a serious tone of voice and used the word, “drowned”.

I don’t think that he told my mother about the incident when we got back to the cabin. There would have been a sharp argument if he had. I sensed that it would be better for me, in the long run, to keep my mouth shut about it.  My instincts for survival were much more keenly developed on land.

I was both sad and relieved when we got into our car and left the next day. My parents had been happier and more relaxed while we were at Camp Marydale, and some of the heavy concern that seemed to dog them at home had lifted. But I was ready to get back to my toys and the bedroom that I shared with Tony, back to familiar things that brought me comfort, back to some privacy when I used the bathroom.

We three kids sat in the back seat and didn’t wear seat belts on the trip back. (No one bothered in the sixties, and many cars didn’t have them.) I stared out the window at the trees and houses rushing past, and Carla read a book. Tony took a plastic fire truck out of his grocery bag full of toys and ran it across the seat beside him. He said, “vrroom, vrrrrooooom.”