The Provo Canyon Review wrote me the other day and said:
The Provo Canyon Review wrote me the other day and said:
I was thinking about your death the other day. About how you had been reluctant to let me know you had lung cancer, and then pretended you were getting better just before you died. I was disappointed that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth, or was it that you just couldn’t tell yourself the truth? I guess I’ll never know. It seemed more than coincidental that you died on the day that your propane tank ran out. But then again, you always were a practical sort.
We arrived two days later in the dead of winter in north eastern Missouri and met your sons at your home. They had missed your death by a few hours because they had gotten stoned on the way to the Houston airport and missed their flight. Your daughter-in-law who stayed at home swore she saw you walking in her back yard at the exact time that you passed away. I wondered about that since you had made it clear to me that she wasn’t high on your list of favorite people, and as a new ghost couldn’t you have chosen instead that old Chevy van your boys were driving ever so slowly? They would have been happy to see you.
I think you would have been pleased with the turnout of the Amish who came to pay their respects. They clearly appreciated the time you had spent driving them to and fro to town or to weddings or funerals in your van. They came that cold night in dark blues and blacks, the women in their bonnets and shawls, the men in their waist coats and dress pants, the children little miniatures of their parents. They stood in a circle round your dining room table where you lay in state in one of their homemade pine coffins. They remained there in silence for several minutes before the women turned and started serving the pies and cakes they had brought and filling big mugs with steaming coffee that we had brewed up for the occasion. The Amish were in no hurry to leave. They stood in small groups and chatted among themselves, leaving us “English” to do the same. After an hour or so, they headed out into the cold to their horses and buggies and quietly climbed inside. The sky was cold and clear with no city lights obscuring the view of the Milky Way or Orion. The air was clean as it had followed the same path you had when you’d tried to outrun your past, first in Canada and then in the US.
Back inside, I sat with your family and friends around the kitchen table and we told stories of you and your exploits. How you’d pulled drowned rats out of the cistern of that very house when you’d moved in and only boiled the water for a day or two before deciding that was good enough. How your dog had kept you warm when you’d fallen two nights prior, before a friend had discovered you prone on your kitchen floor, in the coma from which you would not emerge. How when my husband and your younger son were moving your body from the undertaker’s van into the house, your son broke down in tears and left my husband holding all 5’ 8” and 150 pounds of you in his arms, dead-weight. “She had the last laugh, for sure,” he said, knowing too well what a love/hate relationship you two had had.
I couldn’t believe you were dead so soon, only 64, when you had survived so much: World War II in Germany, the dual suicides of your parents when the Russians invaded, the “scales falling from your eyes” when the camps were liberated and a Jewish woman knocked on your door to ask if you had a comb, the years post-War as a German woman in England with a sadistic new husband who hated your German sons. How could something as small as the endless cigarettes you smoked finally succeed in bringing you down?
You knew I was angry that you had harshly disciplined my oldest daughter when she had “misbehaved.” You narrowed your eyes when I said, “If you ever touch her or any of my children again in anger, I will throw you out of my house without a word.” Perhaps that’s why you didn’t want to tell me about your illness. Maybe you thought my reaction was overly dramatic. After all, your second husband had thrust your oldest son in a water barrel and held him there by his heels. You said you picked up a brick to hit him, but he brought the child up out of the water just in time. Perhaps you thought that spanking with a board or a light slap to the face were nothing in comparison. You surely could tell that I didn’t give a good god damn what you thought when it came to the welfare of my children.
The day of your funeral was cold and gray and filled with the sound of horses and buggies as the Amish formed a procession to their cemetery. They had already dug your grave in that cold ground before we came and then used ropes to lower your casket into the earth while we watched. Each person walked by and tossed a handful of dirt on top of your casket and then all the men grabbed shovels and quickly filled in the hole. I knew you’d be pleased that you were on top of a hill looking out on pasture land; that the Amish made an exception and allowed you, an English driver, to be buried among them; that your closest family and friends were there to see you properly planted.
I do miss you. I miss your passion and vigor; your gypsy nature and sense of adventure. Your big laugh, gold-sprinkled front tooth, your deep-blue eyes.
You were the first woman I’d ever met who lived life like a man, never limiting your vision or considering a task too big. I loved that you travelled cross-country without a thought; kept a German shepherd as a guard dog so you could walk at night whenever and wherever you pleased. I admired how free you were of all the fears that women share. Of strangers, dark alleys, and breakdowns on a lonely road.
Too bad your temper got the best of you when it came to my kids. That breach was not an easy one to mend no matter how deep our affection. After all, it required looking a situation straight in the face and naming what was going on.
Trusting in the truth.
I hope you wander across that pasture land and enjoy the open country and the bright shimmering stars. You deserve some freedom and peace after that life of yours. You deserve some peace indeed.
A train is a means of conveyance that moves on a track from one place to another. Passengers wait on a platform before departing for their destinations. I remember sitting with my mother in her hospital room as she was dying. This was December, 1999. I sat in the darkened room while she slept. I didn’t want to leave her. I didn’t want her to leave me. I had come to Texas from California for our last Christmas together and here we were in this quiet impersonal hospital room, her rhythmic breathing the only sound. Her condition was worsening after she’d elected to stop all chemotherapy for the oat cell carcinoma that was spreading in her lungs. I didn’t blame her for that decision; quality of life seemed a reasonable wish. I was due to return to California after the holidays with my three children and husband. It would be another month before I could come back. I doubted she had another month in her, at least in this life.
The song, “People Get Ready, Cause the Train is Comin’,” started playing in a loop in my brain, and I understood in that moment that it didn’t matter if I stood on the train tracks with my arms stretched wide, that train was going to move right through me and keep on going. This train wasn’t for me, but for her and it wasn’t stopping for anybody, including a grieving daughter who didn’t know how she’d make it without her mama. Still, that image and that song brought me peace. This was bigger than I was, bigger than my grief. That train had departed from the station long before I was born and had a destination and timetable independent of my existence. I felt my shoulders relax as I sat there, knowing that my role was a minor one at this point. My mother knew how much I loved her; she also knew that I would be okay without her.
The next time I saw Mom was three weeks later, as she lay in a coma. I stood at her bedside along with others who loved her, each of us midwives to the next world. We all laid our hands upon her and muttered whatever words came to mind. After a short while, I leaned close and whispered in her ear, “Go to Jesus, Mama. He’s waiting.” She turned, took her last breath, and stared straight into my eyes. I could almost hear a distant whistle and the clickety-clack of that train as it headed on down the track.
I have officially entered “Old Ladyhood.”
A few days back when I pulled into a 76 gas station with a Del Taco inside, I said to Ray, “You start pumping the gas and then go inside to order. I’ll finish up right after I wrap up this text I’m writing.”
Ray nodded, and headed over to start the gas.
I worked on my text and finally finished and sent it.
Then – this is where the Old Lady part comes in – I noted through the open window that the gas pump didn’t sound as if it was still running. With this bit of information, I concluded Ray had finished up the job while I was texting. “I better move out of the pump area,” I muttered to myself as I put the car in gear and headed over to a nearby parking space.
That’s when I heard the noise. A metallic scraping sound and then a bump. “Hmmm,” I said to Cordelia and Frankie who were lying on the back seat, “did I just run over something?” I jumped out to see.
I noted all the people at the other pumps were staring at me.
I looked around and then saw it: the gas nozzle still in my gas tank and the hose completely detached from the pump and lying about ten feet away.
A man scooped up the hose and put it over near the pump.
A woman in a red tee-shirt with 76 emblazoned on the front, rushed out the door of the station and headed in my direction.
My first words, “I can’t believe I just did that.”
Her response, “You’d be surprised at how often it happens.”
I had to go find Ray inside and admit I’d driven away with the gas nozzle still attached. I also had to tell him I now owed the 76 station $250.
He was remarkably calm. “I guess you better pay that,” was all he said as he picked up his order of two chicken soft tacos and a bean burrito.
“I guess so,” I said.
He did give me a lecture once we were heading on to LA about multi-tasking. “If you hadn’t been texting while waiting for the gas to fill up, you wouldn’t have forgotten what was going on.”
I admit that I didn’t note how long he stood by the pump before going into Del Taco. That’s where the distraction came in.
I felt dumb. What an old lady thing to do.
A man inside came up and tried to make me feel better. “I’ve almost done that at least a dozen times.”
Yes, well, I didn’t almost do it….
I promised Ray to hold off from answering texts immediately when I receive them.
“People can wait,” he said.
I can see how that might be true.
Besides, reducing my distractions might also save me from doing some real damage to my pocketbook, $250 dollars at a time.
I told this story to some of the volunteers at the St. Thomas the Apostle Breakfast Club where we were feeding the homeless yesterday morning. Someone was saying she fell in love with a teenage boy when she was three. I had to tell her about Tommy Wizzims.
Here is that story written a while back, but it’s just as meaningful to me today as the day I wrote it back in 2012.
Today I was cleaning out a closet and I found a big envelope of clippings and pictures from my mother’s house, which I received after she died. I unfolded a newspaper and saw that I was looking at the obituary page. At first, I wondered why Mom had saved this paper, then my eyes focused on the face of a man who looked familiar. I looked at the name and it read, Tom Williams.
Tom Williams! Oh, goodness.
When I was a little girl, no older than three, Tom Williams lived two blocks away from our house on 13th Street. I thought he was the handsomest boy I had ever seen – and I added an imaginary friend to my life (along with another named Heidi). That friend’s name was Tommy Wizzims.
Tom Williams was my older brother’s friend so he was around our house a lot. He must have been nice to me because even now thinking about him I feel a warm feeling in my heart. He must have also known that I had an imaginary friend with his very own name, pronounced only in the way a three-year-old can. I can’t help but think that must have brought a smile to his face.
I read in his obituary that he died in a car accident when he was 58. He had been married, had four kids, and at the time of his death had a woman in his life, who had been his “companion” for several years. He ran a nursing home, and the obituary said that the residents’ faces would “light up” when Tom came into the room.
My eyes filled with tears. That’s just how I felt when I saw him when I was a little girl. Happy. Pure and simple.
I didn’t know that Tom Williams had died. I felt sad that his life was prematurely cut short. I thought about my little imaginary playmates, Tommy and Heidi, and how my mother indulged me by setting places for them at the table. Mom told me once that I would pull on her sleeve and say, “But they’re hungry!”
The kindness of one person can have a wide impact. It sounds as if that was the case with my Tommy Wizzims.
What a strange item to find today in my clean-up efforts. But it reminded me of one teenage boy who took the time to be kind to a little girl. What a lovely person he must have been.
Clearly, he meant something to Mom as well. Enough for her to save that obituary.
This is a post that I wrote back in July of 2012. Somehow it speaks to me today. I hope it will speak to you as well.
One of the toughest moments I have ever witnessed in my life is when many years ago a beloved priest of mine unexpectedly lost his daughter, Ruthie, in a tragic event. She had gone to a party and had drunk too much, then came home and passed out in the back seat of the car. Her sister, who had been the designated driver, left her there thinking that she’d sleep it off and either wake up in the middle of the night and stumble into the house, or else come inside in the morning. Ruthie did neither. Instead, she aspirated while lying in the car and died. She was nineteen and had never been a big drinker. This was one of those horrible moments when a combination of one bad choice and an unexpected bodily response resulted in the unimaginable.
This all happened on a Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, we all gathered for church, unaware of what had happened. There was Father Forrest, the young girl’s father, there in his vestments, ready to celebrate mass.
He, of course, told everyone before the service what had happened and we all sat there aghast, not just at the injustice of such an untimely death, but also because here he was – this girl’s father – at church rather than at home grieving privately. He looked at all of us and said, “The mass brings me comfort. I need to be here this morning.”
I remember hearing him begin the service with “The Lord be with you,” and in that moment I realized that all of us needed the Holy Spirit more than usual that morning just to help us put that sad and senseless death into some kind of perspective. Father Forrest celebrated the whole Eucharist with a strong voice that day and I sat in awe of this man who could be dealt such a major blow and still find his way to church a few hours later.
I asked him in the ensuing days how he had coped that day when he’d discovered Ruthie in the car. He told me, “I just kept saying the Jesus prayer over and over.”
I said, “The Jesus prayer? What is that?”
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“And what made you say that?” I asked.
“Because that’s the prayer I say over and over as part of my daily devotional. It is considered by many to be the perfect Christian prayer because it declares the faith in a spirit of humility. It saved me that morning when I found Ruthie.”
I went home and immediately put the Jesus prayer into practice, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. If this had served Father Forrest so well, then I felt certain it could only help me.
That was almost twenty-five years ago and I have repeated the Jesus prayer over and over for most of that time. I now know how this seemingly simple phrase “saved” Father Forrest that fateful day. Saying those words over and over becomes a mantra, sweeping the mind clear of all disquieting thoughts and images and leaving space for hope and healing.
My beloved friend, who is now a retired priest, by this point has outlived two daughters and his wife, and I suspect that he still makes use of the Jesus prayer in his daily spiritual practice. I imagine he might be uttering it in the last moments of his life.
As for me, I hope to follow in his good example and continue to make this one of my devotionals. His steadfast strength is a gift that he has given to me and to all those who have known him, and the comfort he received from the mass and from prayer serves as a guide to us all.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen
Fourteen years ago, my brother George passed away. He was 54 years old.
George called on the evening of May 2nd, 2004 and told me that death was coming soon. My response: “Can you hold on until tomorrow? I’ll get there as fast as I can.” His response was, “I’ll try.”
Thanks to my husband Ray, who called the airlines and reserved a rent car for me while I rushed upstairs to pack a bag, I was at LAX in a little over an hour and soon on an overnight flight to Dallas. I arrived right at dawn on May 3rd and drove the back roads to little Leonard, Texas where my brother lived with his wife Sandra and their daughters, Leslie, Katie and Mahlon. On the drive, I watched the sun come up and prayed that George was still alive. It was too early to call and besides, whatever the situation, I was heading straight for my brother’s house, no matter what.
I was listening to Alan Jackson, George Strait and Gretchen Holmes on a country radio station while I drove on the two-lane roads that wound through the country from Dallas to that little North Texas town. The fields were green, the bluebonnets in full bloom and the sky streaked with orange and pink as the sun rose. I’m not sure the day could have been more beautiful. The line between vibrant life and peaceful death seemed to hover right there in the air.
George had esophageal cancer that had metastasized to his lungs and he had been given 16 months to live. He was now on month 18 and we all knew that every day was tough on him. He had spent all those 18 months being home with his wife and kids, going to basketball games, school programs and family related functions. He had also stayed in close contact with his daughter from his first marriage, Casey. He’d sought out second and third opinions on his medical condition and every doctor had said the same thing: terminal cancer with no treatment available.
The day he told me that diagnosis, I was upstairs in my bedroom talking with him on the phone. “Sixteen months,” he said. “That’s all they’ll say.” After that conversation, I curled up in the fetal position on my bed. This was my closest sibling in age and my oldest friend. I had already lost my older two brothers to AIDS and my mother had died four years before. All I could think as I lay there was, “Not George. How will I make it without George?”
So, there I was on that beautiful spring day heading to my brother’s house either to say goodbye or to find him already dead. This was a very sad spot to find myself.
When I drove up to the house, everything looked exactly like it always did: the trampoline in the backyard, the cars in the driveway, the dogs running up and barking at the car. I tried the front door and it was locked, then went around back and turned the knob on that door. It opened. It was about seven o’clock in the morning and the house was quiet. I walked up the stairs to George and Sandra’s room, dreading what I might find. I tiptoed down the hall and peeked in the open door; there they sat on the edge of the bed, Sandra with her arm around George’s thin shoulders. George looked over, saw me and said in a weak voice. “Here’s Len!”
I could see that George was happy that I had made it. My brother Sam had arrived the day before, my sister Leslie was on her way. George hugged me and lay back down in bed. He soon lapsed into a deep coma. The hospice nurse came and checked on him. She said that it was unlikely that he would awaken, that from here he would simply drift away.
By late afternoon, my sister Leslie arrived. We explained the situation. George had been in a coma now for at least six hours. We all went into the bedroom so Leslie would see him. She leaned over and kissed him, talking to him softly. Within a few seconds, he began to move his legs and slowly he roused himself from that deep sleep. He didn’t talk, but he clearly wanted to get out of bed. He pushed himself up and tottered on the side of the bed. He walked stiff-legged to the door and pointed that he wanted to go downstairs. We all protested that he needed to get back in bed, but he walked to the stairs and then sat down, as if he was going to scoot himself downstairs if we didn’t help him. My brother Sam helped him navigate the stairs and then Sandra, Leslie and I followed.
George had recently had a new carpet and new tile floor installed in his living room and kitchen. He clearly wanted us all to see how nice they looked.
We sat on couches and chairs while he tottered over and leaned against the kitchen cabinet. He was straining to breathe.
While I think George wanted us to admire the new carpet and tile, I soon realized there might be more to his motivation. We were all so terribly sad about his dying; none of us wanted to say goodbye.
In those ten minutes of listening to him gulp for air and wheeze, everyone in that room understood that his body was no longer capable of sustaining any quality of life. It was as if we all came to the same awareness simultaneously: it was time for George to die.
Sam picked him up and carried him upstairs. George made Sam put him down in the hall and then he pointed to the doors of his girls’ rooms. Sandra called for them to come out. George went from one to the other and hugged them, then he turned to all of us and hugged us one at a time. We helped him back into bed, where he immediately lapsed into a coma. He died a few hours later.
I have been at the deathbeds of several people over the years, but I have never seen anyone die with as much awareness as George. He not only announced that the time was near, but he waited until everyone was there and personally said good-bye.
I sometimes think George didn’t so much die as transcend. It was as though he accepted that life was over for him and he needed to move on to whatever was waiting on the other side. I know he grieved about leaving Sandra and the girls, but by that 4th day of May, 2004, he’d moved into acceptance about his condition. He was at peace.
As for me, I’ve learned that my brother is never far away. The love we shared is still very much alive and well. I have also come to see that I can indeed make it without him, though I still would much prefer he were here. I do miss him, though, and hope there will be a day when I see him again. My faith teaches that this is the case; I am a believer, but I suppose I still think, “Well, we will see.”
As Leonard Cohen so aptly wrote,
My love goes with you as your love stays with me. It’s just a way of changing like the shoreline and the sea. But let’s not talk of love or change or things that we can’t untie. Your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey, that’s no way to say good-bye.
Ah, so very true.
George and Len at Brother Jim’s Wedding