Letting Go

My uncle lies down because he must.  It is a torment to him, worse than the pain in his shattered hip.  At 88 he is, of course, more frail and bent than he appears in so many of my memories but, in more important ways, he is unchanged.  “C’mon, Kel”, he says with the boyish charm that never left him, “let’s go”.  But Kelly, his granddaughter and closest friend, reminds him, for the hundredth time, that the doctor needs him to lie still. 
He is a father to me, a kind and honorable man who through the course of a hard life seemed never to run out of strength or humor.  Even now, he astounds me.  He is constantly moving his arms and legs, trying to escape the stabbing pain of the broken hip.  Recoiling from an especially sharp thrust, he flinches and moves his hand to his forehead, accidentally whacking me in the process.  He opens his eyes, instantly brushes aside his agony and gasps “I’m sorry, Jeff!”.
That was Tuesday; a miserable day spent in contradictions, imprisoning a man we wished to be free.  I grasped his strong hand and held it still as the nurse pushed a needle here and there beneath his skin, hunting for the vein.  He looked at me, asked me to let me go.  “Please!”, he said, with a tone of disbelief that I would betray him so.
On Wednesday, the surgery behind him, his eyes are closed and he does not speak.  His legs lie still but his hands express his troubled thoughts, grasping the sheets, his clothes, the bed rails, always searching, grasping, pulling…  Tears rush down Kelly’s face.  She meets every thrust of his restless hands with a tender word and soothing caress.  She spends herself extravagantly from moment to moment and I wonder how she has anything left to spend.  I feel numb.  I have been here before, with my mother and then with my dad.  Days of confused dreaming, reaching because that is what a soul trapped inside a body does; reaches for comfort, for work, for freedom.
And it occurs to me that this terrible process of dying is, in some ways, like birth.  As the desperate cries of a woman in labor, feeling as though she is being torn asunder, so this labor is urgent and troubled and sometimes excruciating, this process by which a worn-out body prepares to deliver its soul into eternity, birthing itself unto death.
But against this and above this is a clue; that we already have lived through a series of journeys which felt like destinations but were not.  We were content in the womb but needed to be born.  We were content as children but were destined to grow up.  We are (possibly) content as adults, but will inevitably be born into…something beyond.  Each of these births is awkward and painful yet, even so, good in ways that we could not then understand. 
Childbirth would be a terrible tragedy if the story ended at the mother’s last exhausted shriek, a moment before the new voice was heard, but that is our situation each day in hospitals and nursing homes; everywhere that death invades.  We see the pain and separation but not the joy which so far overshadows the pain.
I long for my uncle’s presence; I have been leaning on him for as long as I can remember and I know that he will soon be leaving me.   That his departure will be more painful than I dare contemplate is a fact.  That his love for God and (infinitely more important) God’s love for him will translate that separation into a new life is also a fact, one that even now transforms my grief.

Goodbye, Jim

For as long as I can remember, there has been a place in this world that contained great mystery, a place that combined two seemingly contradictory characteristics.  On Uncle Jim’s farm everything was large and, especially as a little kid, I was amazed and fascinated by this – by cows that towered over me, by tractors that roared and machines that clanked, by the old barn which held an immense treasure of fragrant hay, by the broad horizon that stood so much further off than it did in town, where I lived.  There was something wild and free and dangerous about this place.

On the other hand, this wild kingdom was ruled by a strong but peaceful man who always seemed glad to see me (though I must have been a terrible pest).  When dad would bring us to visit, the work of the farm went on and Jim would allow me to tag along, to the barn, to the fields, even to ride with him on the fender of his tractors as we bumped along over the crops or sailed down old gravel roads with the wind in our face, to the music of the engine’s roar and the whine of its wheels.

When we would visit in the winter I was always struck by this contrast…we would walk across the yard, shoulders hunched against the bitter cold, and stumble into the soft light of the barn, full of the strange (and mostly sweet) smell of the cows, the sound of their chewing, the warmth of their breathing.  I would find Uncle Jim somewhere in the process of milking and – however busy or weary or distracted he might have been – he would look up and smile and say “Good morning, Sunshine!”, with a twinkle in his eye, as if it were a private joke between us.

As I grew older he took me on to live and work on the farm for several summers.  I watched him work and rest and eat and all of the normal things that people do.  I watched him wrestle with the hard realities of business.  Over those years, I learned to operate the equipment on the farm and even grew taller than Jim, but the impression that was formed when I was a little kid never changed.  Jim was a giant.  He solved every problem (including quite a few that I created), he endured every hardship.  He was faithful and peaceful and he did not complain.  Every morning, I would stumble late into the barn.  Every morning, he would look up and smile and say, “Good morning, Sunshine!”.

Many years have gone by since I worked on the farm, though in some ways I never left.  We had lost many, and now we have lost every one of the remarkable people in this generation of the Ostrander family.  It seems impossible to me, but even Jim grew old and frail.

The last few weeks have reminded me of a story in the Bible, where the young Elisha is told that his mentor will soon be leaving him.  “I know”, he replied, “but do not speak of it”.  I feel the same way.  I was not ready for this.  Even now, that every member of my father’s generation has passed from our sight, I am still not ready.  I wish we did not have to speak of these things.

Before his master left, Elisha asked him for an inheritance.  “Let me have a double portion of your spirit”, he said.  That is the inheritance that I want from Jim.  I want to be like him.  He never told me how to live but he spent years showing me how to live.  Time will tell if I learned from him.
He showed me how to respect children, to welcome them and spend time with them and teach them what is important.

He showed me how to be faithful in love, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health; a lesson also demonstrated in the way that, for many years, my aunt Freda cared for her disabled husband Willard, in the way that, for many years, my aunt Caroline cared for her disabled husband Pat, in the way that my dad Charley cared for his disabled wife Julie.  I think we have learned that lesson, as our family, and especially Sheila, cared so well for my aunt Flora and has now, especially Kelly, cared beautifully for Jim.

Last week we buried not only a great man, but the last survivor of a great generation: Jim and Flora, Virginia and Newton, Freda and Willard, Caroline and Pat, Chuck and Julie…these tough, faithful, quiet people who showed us how to work and showed us how to love.

Flight with a Princess

It is the nature of my work to meet important people and take them to exotic locations.  I recognized this client right away because she was wearing a tiara, a princess who had come to survey her kingdom.  The security of her reign was evident; the two people who accompanied her (grandparents, as I learned) clearly adored her, felt that her tenth birthday was cause even for such an extravagant celebration as this airplane ride.  As is often the case with little princesses in our day, there were two castles to visit, separated by many miles, reflecting an unhealed fracture of the royal family.  She delighted over each of them, though they seemed quite modest to me.  Her grandfather delighted in her delight and when we landed he shook my hand and gave me more money than I asked for though I sensed that, for him, it was a princely sum.
My friend Chris and I recently picked up another little princess, to carry her home from a hospital town to a far corner of Upper Michigan.  Her pretty red curls and glittering eyes made the diagnosis seem unlikely; how could a child so beautiful and loved be losing a liver?
It is the contrast that strikes me, the infinite distance between good and evil that, even so, sometimes coexist within arm’s reach.  I am dazzled by the beauty of this world; dazzled, too, by the tragedy that stands alongside.  It is safer, perhaps, to not be dazzled; to regard both great beauty and great evil out of the corner of your eye, to stare into the middle ground.
When my uncle lay dying I tried to evade thoughts about his goodness or his death.  I talked to family members, smoothed the sheets, stared into space.  I took solace in bewilderment.  This seemed necessary at the time because the facts were too large to process:  To look into the eye of either the goodness or the evil that stood before me would have collapsed the fragile and shuddering dam that was trying, ever so hard, to contain the howl that kept welling up in my brain.
Funny, that word.  Howl.  So inarticulate and unreasonable.  The creature, overwhelmed, howls.  Or laughs, when its reason is overwhelmed by surprise.  Or weeps, when its reason is overcome by the presence or absence of love.  I think reason a very good thing, but my own reason, at least, is too small a sieve through which to sift this wonderful, terrible world.
It frightens me to be overwhelmed and so I am careful what I look at.  I don’t want to see the photo in the magazine, the one with a crying baby who has a terribly misshapen lip.  I frightened myself the other night by staring into the cloudless sky, confronted by hundreds – maybe thousands – of brilliant galaxies and wondering how their master could possibly want to see or hear me.  
I don’t like to be overwhelmed, but lately I don’t know where to look.  Maybe it’s a product of getting older, but everything seems to shout at me of overwhelming beauty or dreadful bleakness.  How is it possible that little Natalie, whose smile fills up the room, should be fighting for her life?   But then, how is it possible that such a beautiful creature  as Natalie – or any child – ever came to life at all?  Even the familiar things – the trees, the sky, the eyes and ears through which I perceive them – are not less astounding; just less noticed, less considered.
We are surrounded by clues, by echoes of Eden.   It strikes me that there has never been a sillier or more desperate fairy tale on earth than the one currently in force, that this intricate world and the intricate creatures who inhabit it are but a happy accident.  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t build a government web site but, poof!, the planet they are standing on, the solar system it hurtles through, well, it just kind of happened. 
We don’t want to be overwhelmed and overpowered, to be confronted with facts too large for our reason alone to process.  We don’t want to see the carefully crafted narrative of our existence punctured by outrageous demonstrations of good or evil, bursting into the atmosphere like an alien invasion.  We cannot escape the transcendent so we consider it, if at all, through the corner of our eye, try to calculate an average between the highs and lows, as if we could calculate an average between Christ and Satan.
I said that I meet important people and take them to exotic places but then, every place on this planet is exotic,  if only I have eyes to see it.  Stranger still, for each person I meet, the heavens wage war and the King himself is offered as ransom.

Our moment in the sun

We are sitting at Denny’s, Joy and I, taking her grandfather out for breakfast a couple of days after Christmas.  An odd thing happens when I pick up the menu.  This faintly sullen room in a largely forlorn city falls away and I am drawn into a different place.  On the cover of the menu there is a picture of a young couple dining in a booth very similar to our own, but also very different.  Perhaps it is only the photography and lighting, but rays of warmth seem to shoot out of the scene.  The woman in the picture, in particular, is radiant.  Her golden hair emits light, her eyes sparkle and her mouth is open, breathing in the world, breathing out warm sweetness.  There is no trace of pride in her smile, nor reservation.  Her face is a gentle spring sun and there is not a cloud in the sky.

Hank sits across from me.  As I lower the menu, ruminating, his face is the next thing I see.  He settles his teeth, sighs faintly, wears an expression of grim resignation.  Hank is a veteran of WWII, a man of great strength and honor, yet there are many clouds in his sky.  Time has done to him what the Great Depression and the Japanese army and years in the steel mills of Buffalo could not.  He shuffles across the room, gripping the cursed walker without which he can no longer stand; shuffles past faded pictures of his once-young wife, past stacks of CD’s and LP’s of once-popular musicians, past all manner of things which, at times, can raise a memory of the good that is gone.

He is a quiet man.  Probably, there were years or days or even a moment in his walk through this hard world in which the skies cleared, in which he smiled and his eyes sparkled and his hair gleamed in the sunlight, but they are an old memory now that he keeps to himself.  He settles his teeth, blinks in grim resignation, grips the walker and shuffles to his chair.  When it is time to go I touch his arm, say goodbye.  He looks at me and drops, for a moment, his faraway look, and says, “So long”.  Yes, I think; it sure is.

My youngest daughter was sifting through old photos the other day and pulled one out.  I am in it, sitting on the Borisch’s porch some twenty years ago, hair still dark, arms around (what were then) my two little girls.  Emily appeases the photographer with her normal composed and slightly ironic smile.  Annie, impossibly skinny and a world younger in spirit, is not so much smiling as baring her teeth in selfless, defiant abandon.  I love this old picture for the same reason that she does not; it is a moment saved from the wreck of time, a moment before the need for vanity or dignity had occurred to her, a moment in which joy seemed solid and permanent, not the fragile and teetering thing we have found it to be.

It is for this reason that a Christmas tree stands in my living room, even now as we approach the middle of January.  Early every morning, I stumble across the dark room and plug it in, then sit for a while, watching.   What is it that I watch?  Not a memory of something good that is gone, but the defiant gleam of a small light in a dark world.

I hope you don’t mind my saying that this world is dark.  Its every beauty is, at some level, heartbreaking because we  know that it will not endure; every wedding is the preface to two funerals.  Though God has set eternity in our hearts, our other parts will soon enough return to dust.  This is not a dark way of looking at the world; this is the world, however we choose to look at it.

And so, Christmas;  not just the holiday but the holy fact that Christ did come and will come; that every real joy we meet here is a gift from him, that every evil done here will receive his eternal veto.   If I were a braver or wiser man, I think that I would smile as Annie smiled that day, in selfless, defiant abandon, for it is darkness that shall pass, or that is what the Christmas lights seem to whisper to me.