A True Account

How to tell the story? Born an only child of parents who did not want children, he was leashed to a clothesline to keep him from falling in the creek when he played outside. From a very early age he was shipped off to his grandparent’s farm where he would spend his summers working, returning home for the school year.

Left largely to his own devices, he became an avid outdoorsman, skier, fly fisherman, and trumpet player. He lettered in baseball and football. He worked as a logger, an active job that kept his Type I diabetes unnoticed until he went to college.

He met and married my mother days before his twentieth birthday. Neither set of parents was thrilled.

He studied math and computers, and engineering. He was good enough to be hired on to program large military radar systems without completing his degree. He was brilliant, but never believed it.

He became a Christian and changed the course of all our lives. He gave up playing in dance bands and afterwards devoted his extraordinarily fine playing to God.

He attended Western Conservative Bible Seminary in Portland, OR, where his fourth and final child was born. Unable to support his family and finish, he returned to his previous line of work, maintaining friendships with professors which lasted throughout his life.

He became an itinerant preacher, finally realizing his dream of a full pastorate in a small country church. His brief tenure there was difficult and costly for the family, but also reaped rewards for some who sat under his teaching in their formative years.

He was a difficult man, frustrated by his work, where he was berated by a superior who would, nonetheless, present Dad’s work as his own. His longing for a full-time pastorate, together with his health problems, and the difficulties relating to others added to his frustration. Friends and family speculated that he may have had some high- functioning form of autism or adult detachment disorder, but no formal evaluation was ever made.

He could be abrupt with people who disagreed with him, made jokes in such a dry, dead-pan way that even those who knew him best would not realize he was joking.

But, for all the difficulties, I adored him. I think that’s why I could get so angry with him. When he didn’t act like the person he could be, it hurt me deeply. It wounded me when he was sharply critical of me or of others. I knew he could be better than that. He would pick up strangers on the road. He took in strangers, feeding them, giving them a place to sleep, and assisting with practical needs. He brought food to those in need, and sometimes paid tuition for other students in our private school.

After we were sent to bed, Dad, accompanied by Mom on the piano, would play his trumpet. He never attempted to play quietly, as far as I can recall. My lullabies were trumpet solos. Not just any trumpet, but Dad was one of the finest trumpet players I’ve ever heard. It was painful when his health no longer permitted him to play.

Likewise, he was an artist with a fishing pole. I loved to scramble along the riverbank following him. Words fail me. The music of the river, the wind stirring the cottonwoods, the rustle of the shrubs all faded when hearing the singing of the line, whipping in a serpentine arc before snapping forward and lightly slapping on top of the river. It was physical poetry.

Who will tell the campfire stories now? Who will tell the fate of Nate? Who will sing the silly songs? Who will blaze the trails?

Ah, Dad. This is just a small part of your story. Love you forever.

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Stop That!

I told her how angry I was with some family members in the wake of Dad’s death. I didn’t recognize this anger, hostility, and desire to lash out.

“Stop that!” She said it firmly and sternly. “You need to say the Jesus Prayer 200 times a day.”

Moments later she apologized for being so abrupt with me, but she had no need. She said what I needed to hear in the way I needed to hear it.

Understand, she was not telling me not to grieve, but instructing me how to do it without damaging my soul and my relationships.

I have been surprised to have a few people provide me with a game plan for my Dad’s passing and for afterward. These things are helpful at a time when you are floundering and your thoughts are scattered.

Read the Psaltry aloud. Hold his hand. Tell him you love him. Read the prayers for the dying. Keep talking to him and praying, reading the Psalms, after his heart stops, as the person may live on for 8-9 minutes afterward.

These instructions guided me. Otherwise, my guidebook would have been a mush-mash of tv and movie scripts.

I’ve heard some say that Orthodoxy is a bunch of empty rituals. We may have rituals, but empty? I’ve found them rich, meaningful, and full of life.

Surprised by Grief

“Are you surprised by how hard you are taking this?” She asks the question as I sit at her kitchen table. I think I’m doing well, considering that Dad has been gone less than a week.

What surprises me isn’t that I am grieving, but that grief makes me feel tired, slow, sore, and forgetful. My body feels like I have a low-grade flu. My brain isn’t processing quickly.

Having no funeral feels wrong. It is an occasion without commemorating. It’s Easter without Church, Thanksgiving with no meal, 9-11 without a moment of silence, moving without a goodbye meal, an inauguration held in the kitchen, not on the steps of the Capital. Certain events, both happy and sad, cry out for ceremony.

I feel like I’m waiting for the event.

But I don’t think I’m taking this too hard. My Dad died. I would be surprised if it was easy.

A back itch has me in tears. The last time I was at Mom and Dad’s (now it’s just Mom’s) Dad was rubbing his back on a corner to deal with persistent itching. I asked which uncle used to do that. “Ward,” he answered.

I found myself at Salvation Army this afternoon looking for the clothes we donated. Where are his suspenders? His shoes? I didn’t see one familiar thing and couldn’t decide if that was good or bad.

I feel substantially older.

What do people expect of me? I went to work today. One week after Dad died. I went to work. Yes, I cried. But I was there. I made two mistakes and fixed them. I was relieved when the day was over.

My hair has been clean almost every day. This is a good sign. I can’t seem to remember to take my meds and vitamins, but that will come.

How easy was this supposed to be?

In His Shoes

At some point in the 70’s, my dad bought a pair of shoes. “How much were they?” To Moms horror and disbelief, they cost $400. According to Bureau of Labor, that means these shark-skin shoes would cost about $1,200 in today’s dollars.

He walked a lot of miles in these shoes. They are beautiful shoes, even today. They carried him for nearly 50 years. They have been re-soles once. Yesterday they found a new wearer–my son. They will see many more miles on this earth.

It feels good to know these shoes will carry a new generation and Dad’s investment will carry on. Go handsomely and stylishly into the world, carrying a piece of your grandfather (and my heart) with you.

Joseph’s Bones

“It’s just a vessel,” she shrugs off the purchase of an urn. Most of the family shrugs off the need for a last viewing.

They brought Joseph’s bones out of Egypt.

My internal scream began with the decision to cremate my father. When they discussed sending home his ashes in a cardboard box, the scream grew so loud I had to force myself to sit still and quiet.

They brought Joseph’s bones out of Egypt.

The only time the screams have quieted is in church and in prayer. The crescendo wakes me from sleep.

They brought Joseph’s bones out of Egypt.

There are times when burning the body is a sad necessity; in times of virulent plague or when a family cannot afford a burial (though that seems an indictment on us that as a community we don’t help.) I understand that, for many, there is an almost cold detachment from the physical remains of their loved one.

But if God formed man from the dust and breathed His very breath into him, He set man apart. His Word spoke the universe into existence, and His Word and His breath formed man.

His incarnation, in the person of Jesus Christ, means that God took on flesh. He took on flesh and bone, sinew and nerve. His flesh walked the earth, touched and healed. Indeed, even a touch of His garment was enough to heal. The physical body was tortured, treated tenderly and buried. They did not throw Him on a funeral pyre, but came back to properly treat–His physical body. He rose in bodily form.

We may not understand it, but the body matters. We bury our dead. We want our soldiers bodies returned to us, and we want our murdered sons and daughters returned to us.

The body may be a vessel, but it is a sacred vessel, made in the image and likeness of God.

I’m not condemning anyone for choosing cremation, I’m trying, instead, to work out my thoughts on this matter, especially since they’ve changed so much over the past decade or so.

If my kids ever need to understand why their Viking funeral mother now insists on a Christian burial, let them just ponder on this: they brought Joseph’s bones out of Egypt.

Sacred Space

It is here in this car that I am trying to create sacred space. The radio was off because I can’t bear to listen to Pink singing about beautiful trauma when there something so much more profound going on. This is a time for prayer, for contemplation, for silence, for the gentle spoken word, for affirmations of love, for scripture, for a favored hymn.

I want to create a sacred space, something new. A created oasis of holy ground, as if I could create the sacred.

What I really needed was to stop profaning an already sacred space, to acknowledge the presence of God in the place He is already, and to turn off the distractions and be in His presence. Nothing I do makes it sacred, though I can desecrate it with active or passive profanity.

The Beginning

…of the end. That’s what she says when I call her. I’m trying to be calm about my dad’s latest medical adventure, an ER visit for a bowel obstruction, a GI Procedure with the best and worst expectations calling for surgery.

I can hear the tears in her voice when she says to be kind to him. “I know he’s difficult. My dad was too.’

She tells me what I kind of suspected. “This is the beginning of the end.” She is not being unkind. The words give me strength, an acknowledgment of reality, one that is so often hidden.

These words, and the words which pour from her as she tells me what is in store somehow ease my intense anxiety, calm my fear.

Returning to the hospital, I’m in the parking lot when the text says he’s being moved to ICU. I assume the breathing issues I called the nurse for have gotten worse. One step in front of the other.

By the time someone can tell me anything, things are radically different than they were just hours before.

The staff is helping him breathe, helping his blood levels, he’s been sedated, and we’re just waiting for a surgeon to decide if he thinks it’s worth operating. If not, the tubes will be removed and “we’ll let nature take its course.” Medical opinion is that he won’t last more than a couple of hours without the breathing tube.

The surgeon won’t operate. The staff waits for the anesthesia to wear off a bit before removing his tube.

He sucks air. It’s brutal. Within moments his stats are falling. O2 is 65, 63, 62, and going down. It falls through the 50’s. He asks for his bi- pap machine. 49. 48, 47,45, 43.

He quits struggling, and I hear the gurgling in his throat that can only be the death rattle I’ve read about.

“It’s okay to go,” my mother says to him. It’s the right thing to say, I suppose, but it feels like what she thinks she’s supposed to say, nothing real. Are we playing the part of the grieving family? Am I doing this right? I want to scream when they say it’s okay to go.

Someone has turned on old recordings of Dad playing hymns on his trumpet. This, at least, feels right. I want to read scripture to him, but my throat is constricted.

Eventually I’m able to sing some of those hymns. Dad used to play and I would sing. This, ah, this. My throat hurts so badly, but singing loosens the muscles.

The tech comes with the bi-pap and soon his stats start to rise. Then he’s at 60, 70, 80, and higher.

He’s rallied! The cry goes forth. They are nuts. His chest is still sucking, his diaphragm is working so hard, and this is working because air is being forced into his lungs.

Then the grands from away are there. Visiting seems to rally him more. He blows kisses to the great-granddaughter through his mask. It’s baffling. But this feels like the eye of the hurricane. Can this brutal storm have passed? Truly?