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?

Steady On

I am of Northern European descent. I don’t speak for the entirety of my people, but we are a reserved, quiet lot. The flamboyance brought out by the Mediterranean sun has been swaddled deep inside, wrapped in thick layers of wool in the long, dark winters of the North.

Long months spent huddled in snug homes as the winds of Winter howl around and snows block the few hours of sunlight have forced a politeness that has become innate. Quietly bearing our own thoughts is key when spending much time in close quarters. It helps us deal with the melancholy thoughts caused by sunless days.

Exuberance is not a valued trait amongst us, though I find myself drawn to exuberant people. Their emotional waves are strong, shooting upward, then crashing back down, up and down. Mine scarcely varies. My highs are a fraction above my average, my low a fraction below that. I’m the calm sea with dark depths below.

My friends are often the waves crashing on the beach in a wild frenzy. It is glorious, joyful, fun, and, eventually exhausting. I can’t join in the exuberance myself, but am an appreciative observer.

I’m the audience to a brilliant drama, watching actors who cannot be acting, so “in the moment” are they. I can’t do that. I can’t be solely in one moment. I’m always in many, many moments at the same time. I look longingly, wondering what it would be to live with such abandon, but I’ve spent far too much time restraining my inner ugly, that I can’t let it out. I don’t have the control.

It’s like my golf game. (Yes, a sports analogy.) I can drive that ball 150 feet right down the fairway, but my short game is crap. I can only do the power play. I can’t restrain or control the ball on the putting green. If I emote, I can do the one power drive, in the right circumstances, putting my words right were I want them to go, but when it comes to the short game, expressing my thoughts to family, especially addressing difficult issues, I can’t seem to control my voice. I say things the wrong way, too harshly, and without finesse. I don’t have experience for the short game. The emitters are all over the place in the long game. They say what they think and feel so often that their words go left, right, and sideways. But get ’em up on the putting green and they have the experience to pull it off.

Reflections on an Evening

The dark oak refectory table was set for three, with a heavy crystal vase holding a bouquet of dried wheat. A homemade game of “marbles”, a close cousin to Parcheesi, made by the host’s father, held the center. Three friends sat eating warm blueberry pie and gourmet vanilla ice cream. The music was a recording of old cowboy songs, Patsy Cline covers, and Everly Brothers.

The house is decorated in a mix of carefully selected new furnishings, treasures from upscale consignment shops, family heirlooms, and pieces reflecting more than twenty years lived abroad. It is tastefully understated.

The eyes that meet across the table share memories of halcyon days of youth, the game, while the contest is serious, remains a pretext for the conversation.

It was an aging hipster evening, needing only cigars, and home brews to get the scene right. The host is what hipsters wish they could be, erudite, urbane, quirky, with an unabashed delight in having a piece of historical memorabilia which few would appreciate. The cynic would have ruined the evening.

I, who gave up any possibility of a cool card decades ago, can sit in wonder, realizing that the key to cool isn’t doing all the right things, all the “in things” and being recognized for it, but in good friends, genuine interests, and truly not caring about cool.

When you are young, cool is listening to the “right” music, dressing in peer-approved ways, and knowing all the right language. The appeal of that approval is profound. I imagine that receiving the that approval makes one seek that approval more and more, and serves a societal purpose of conformity.

This would put a damper on genuine interests in things others don’t find appealing, and may change the trajectory of a life. I could not, for example, pursue a genuine interest in Russian literature, or enjoy pursuit of the perfect bread recipe if the cool thing of the moment is the latest NYT bestseller and being gluten-free. Or, if I want to work overseas, but my peer-group disapproves, I might talk myself out of it.

The genuinely “cool” is willing to be uncomfortable with others in order to be comfortable in your own skin. It is living by a set of principles that is respectful of others, yet doesn’t either pretend interest in music, books, entertainment, or activities to receive acclaim, nor pretend disinterest to avoid disdain.

This is all in retrospect, mind you, as I laugh that a thirty year old having that evening would be a hipster. Three fifty-something friends are…what? We aren’t cool, aren’t hipster. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stinky Cheese

As I prepared to have friends over for dinner, it occurred to me that I hadn’t planned the meal properly. I looked through my options and found a large bag of cheese in the freezer–French Raclette (pronounced it rack- let’)I vaguely recalled the clerk telling me it was a special cheese served melted.

I pulled the cheese from the freezer and heated the oven to melt it, before calling my friend, Bruce, a gourmet chef, to find out what to do with it. He told a charming story about a time in Switzerland when he first had Raclette. He helped me select a wine to go with it and determine the best way to cook and serve it in the limited time.

Did I mention the smell?

I don’t know if the smell of this cheese is common to Raclette everywhere, or if the specific batch I purchased was peculiar in this regard, but a mildly off-putting aroma when pulled from the freezer (through two freezer bags) grew to mammoth proportions when heated.

By this I mean that the house smelled “like infection.” The most vile foot odor from the sweatiest teenage boy would be dwarfed by this smell. But I had vegetables roasting in the oven, bratwurst to go on the grill, pasta salad, freshly made, with kalamata olives from the olive bar, fancy crackers, and a nice Riesling.

Over these scrumptious delights, the aroma–nay smell, nay stench–threatened to gag my guests. My husband and my daughter were convinced that someone had gotten violently ill. This most certainly did not smell like food.

My confidence in this dish was shaky at best, but I trust Bruce, so despite the general complaints I soldiered on.

As the cheese heated up the smell increased, thickened, and morphed into something truly awful. Bruce, was right, though. Once served with fresh cracked pepper ground atop the pan, to be eaten with whole grain crackers, a pile of roasted vegetables, and Riesling, somehow the same food that overwhelmed the nose, was quite pleasing on the palate.

I have no grand conclusion, just surprise. Apparently, this cheese has meals and even restaurants named for it–meals that have a long tradition and a reputation for much fellowship and gastronomic delight. There are potatoes names for this cheese. And diners will engage in serious debate over the proper way to eat Raclette, just melted and gooey, or browned on top.

I’ve had these discussions over the proper way to cook and serve bacon. (BTW, cooked slowly until crisp but not completely dried out is correct.)

For my part, I am content that the dish tasted good, despite the odor; glad I trusted my friend glad I used the excuse to call him and hear his memories, and glad that friends and family gathered around my table in conviviality.

That smell has entered that meal into historic family lore. I have laughed until I could laugh no more, wiping tears from my eyes and reaching for my inhaler.

And now I have my own Raclette story to tell.

Shards of beauty

Shards of beauty lie silenced on the floor.

A precious gift of friendship shattered.

My heart pierced a hundred time–no, more!

Silent screams fill my head as anger flares, molten, as the fires from which this gift was born.

How oft my fingers stroked those graceful lines, tracing the delicate arc of beauty. How oft I raised it and with a dainty shake released silver notes against my ear. Each touch, each timbre, stroked kindred sinews of my heart, those of friendship’s sounds and memories.

My anger is the back-side of the intense loss I feel, as if I lost the friendship, not the bell. I must remind myself that this thing, precious as it was, is still a thing. It was a blessed token of friendship, not the friendship itself.

The precious friendship is not damaged, though my heart hurts at the loss of such beauty. I would feel loss if I had purchased this for myself, as the loss of such delicate grace, of the delightful work of the glass blower would always have been a sorrow, but all the more this is imbued with knowing that this friend especially wanted me to have something of hers. It bears her eyes, her smiles, her laughter. It was precious to her, and is doubly precious to me as a result.

But I must resist the urge to place this object above my relationship with the child who broke it. It was an accident, pure and simple. I did not foresee it.

And as I examine how intensely I feel, I have to examine my tendency to be overly attached to things.

I am ashamed that I did not think that this was vulnerable. I feel unworthy of the trust my friend had when she placed this item in my keeping. It is as if I did not treat our friendship with the care it deserved.

I don’t know what to think about that.