Overcoming

Truth is, I was scared.

Not of anything external.

But rather, of myself.

Or, at least, my likely response to something external — that being the whole wide world around me, and the continuing political and social lunacy incited and inflamed by He Who Shall Not Be Named.

No need to rehash the last four months, much less the last four years. He will do that himself, either in person, online, or from prison, repeating the same lie ad nauseum, until it no longer fattens his wallet.

The point is, like a rotting, stinking, zombie, every time we reasonably think that thing is dead, it pops back up.

Here we are, more than four months after one of the most divisive national elections ever, followed by weeks of discord, 60-plus failed court cases, and finally a terrifying, treasonous attack on the Capitol by insurrectionist trolls, and it still won’t die.

Each passing day of non-passage brought more worms of frustration and fear and concern for the lasting evil this one man wrought.

They burrowed so deep into my tired writer’s brain that I haven’t been able to write much of anything. Every attempt, no matter how innocent or unrelated the topic, veered off onto some trash-covered back road of angry abstraction.

So, rather than expose the dark spots on my soul, I just stopped writing.

And for that, I say, shame on me.

Now I don’t want to suggest I came to this point of self-correction purely due to my own intellect or intuition. Far from it.

This time, as with so many others, I saw the truth only through a friend’s eyes.

Just recently, I was kvetching to a dear and respected friend and fellow writer about my self-imposed writer’s block (I won’t name him here, to protect the innocent.) Turns out, he’d been suffering the same blockage.

Interestingly, we share many connections, but our politics differ. Yet, he too hasn’t been able to sort or sift, much less dispose of, his own anxiety over the impact of the recent presidential election.

He admitted he too, had “opted out” of the writing game rather than lose the intended message or open himself to potentially cruel criticism.

I’ve said it a million times if I’ve said it once: there is more that binds us than divides us.

This revelation – that it wasn’t just me – was just what I needed to clear my mental clog.

Knowing that someone else shares your struggle is often ennobling and emboldening. It brings strength like braiding cords into a rope. It brings courage like linking arms against an opponent.

Yet, knowing someone agrees with you isn’t enough.

One must also choose to act – and more importantly, accept responsibility for choosing.

I believe to the core of my burdened bones in the grace of giving. “Charity” is a soul function that both defines and measures our humanity.

But Giving and Getting are equal parts of the equation. Frankly, too many people ignore the “getting” part because they fear, or are too lazy to deal with, the responsibility that comes with accepting someone else’s reflection, nudging, guidance, or even criticism.

And for that I say, shame on them.

Look, it’s simple: if a gift horse appears and nips you on the nose while you dither around checking its teeth, don’t blame the horse.

So, with gratitude for my friend’s camaraderie, I hereby reclaim my God-given voice and promise to use it to say whatever I feel like saying, however I want to say it.

If you agree with me, fine. If not, fine. But you-know-who created problems that, we now know, won’t go away anytime soon – maybe by accident, maybe on purpose.

Either way, there’s so much to do to fix what is so clearly and awfully wrong right now, and the first step is to speak the words.

About the state of the world, or the state of my spirit.

About things that lift up or things that pull down.

About the flowers of spring or the flowers of death.

About everything terribly important and nothing terribly consequential.

Whatever the subject, I have a voice and I will use it.

I must overcome any obstacles.

Even those self-imposed.

And I will.

Because I am a part of We.

And we must overcome.

And we will.

Finding Joy

Finding Joy

What brought you joy today?

A new friend regularly posts this question/challenge on her Facebook page. Already something of a community activist and good-hearted person, she’d been doing it for a while when, in July, she had to have emergency brain surgery.

As you’d expect, she was temporarily down but not for long. A few weeks later, she resumed her near-daily inquiry as she started her journey toward recovery.

What brought you joy today?

Amazing, if you ask me, that she continued asking, picking up the pieces of her life after such an ordeal.

That she even asks it at all is even more inspiring considering the nightmare that 2020, and, frankly, the last four years, has been for many.

Truthfully, the first couple of paragraphs of this blog sat on my computer desktop for several weeks.

I couldn’t bring myself to talk about “joy” as Donald Trump worked overtime in plain view to dismantle and destroy our entire American democratic system, while millions of fellow citizens encouraged his lunatic ravings.

I couldn’t see “joy” beyond the hundreds of thousands of deaths tied to a worldwide pandemic — not to mention the ancillary crush of collapsing economic, social, and governmental systems.

I couldn’t hear “joy” over the clanging of cynical, politically motivated indifference, and deliberate attempts to mislead, misinform, and ignore.

What brought you joy today?

A deceptively small and simple question with big and complex answers. Perhaps too big, I thought, as I kept trying without success to get past the start of this essay.

Then, this week, as I started to take a much-needed break, it dawned on me. Joy flickers softly at first, then soon burns so brightly that you cannot see past it. Still, like most important things, one must be open to it. Must want to see it. And in so wanting, must almost will it to life.

What better time then, to talk about joy, than Christmas week when a baby turned out to be the light of the world?

So, on Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve, here are some of the many small (yet big) things that bring me joy:

  • The shining eyes, silly laughs, and unfiltered love of a child – not that one, but our two-year-old granddaughter. Her natural exuberance and adventuresome spirit are a magical tonic to my tired soul.
  • The raft of memories of my dad, who passed away in January 1997 at the sad, young age of 51. They seem to pop up these days when I least expect — or perhaps, when I most need them – bringing a smile, a quiet laugh, or even a tear. He wasn’t a perfect human, but he was a great father. I miss him.
  • The courage of those fighting this pandemic. Yes, of course, I refer to all the essential medical workers, police, fire, etc. But I am thinking specifically of the four nurses in my family. They probably had some idea that something like this could happen. They likely had some training. But reality always overpowers anticipation and speculation.
  • The commitment of the teachers working through remote learning. In my other life, I have heard, seen, and shared dozens of stories of teachers leaving their contractually limited duties in the dirt and finding ways to connect with children who desperately need it, at a time of extreme disconnection.
  • Not to mention the thousands of families and students who likewise have made tremendous sacrifices to fit the very square peg of daily schooling into the very round hole of “regular” life in 2020.
  • The friends, spouses, significant others, etc. who stand by, ready to bolster our spirit, boost our energy, and sometimes even give us a much-needed kick in our spiritual backsides. “Support” and “encouragement” come in many shapes and sizes.
  • Adult children whose every success proves the value of love, discipline, respect, and faith, and erases my many parental failings.
  • The easy serenity, awareness, and acceptance that comes with long-term relationships.
  • The coworkers big-hearted enough to tolerate the occasional (but always unintended) outburst, as layers upon layers of calcified frazzlement explode.
  • The 81 million people who said, clearly, firmly, and beyond question, enough is enough.
  • Those willing to tolerate and forgive our external nonsense because they know our internal truth.
  • The peace brought by a quiet evening (or afternoon, or morning) spent reading.
  • The awe and humility that comes with admiring someone else’s talent and artistry.
  • The grace of holding another hand, hearing another voice, healing another heart.

And most especially, those who seek and find and celebrate joy itself, wherever, whenever, however they can.

They shine a light on, and into a world too easily and too often consumed by darkness. They remind me every day of my opportunity and obligation to do the same.

So, what brought you joy today?

Musical Therapy

Truth be told, I’ve been a wreck for months.

My anxiety is sky-high, my creativity ocean-floor low. All thanks to an invisible virus and the all-too-visible havoc it has wreaked on our world, our country, our state, our community, our families, our spirits.

This damn virus has killed more than 283,000 Americans and counting. It has crippled the economy and created a world of confusion, politically charged misinformation, and paranoia. (Hey, what do you know? It’s not fake, not a hoax, and didn’t disappear on November 4th …)

Many days, like many people feeling the same way, the stress caused by this emotional/spiritual dragnet has also pulled me down physically. I sleep. Eat right. Exercise when I can. Yet I often go through the day feeling like I’ve been through three rounds with Mike Tyson in his prime.

But I am never completely sunk. Because when all else fails, I always have my secret weapon: music.

Reading is relaxing. Writing is rewarding. But music is magical.

It soothes me, sapping away the angst, or filling my mental tank. Speaking to the crisis du jour or the eternal human condition (both usually having something to do with love and relationships of one kind or another) I listen to a wide and eclectic range of music.

My collection numbers tens of thousands of songs spanning everything from jazz to country to folk to rock to blues to R&B, soul, funk, classical, marching band, opera. You name it, I’ve probably got it somewhere, or had it at one time or another.

I am, literally, that guy who had hundreds of LP records (including some 78s from my grandmother) and 45 singles, replaced them all with cassettes, replaced those with CDs, only to replace them with thousands of digital songs on my iPod and now my phone.

(A few years ago, as CDs replaced vinyl, I carted hundreds of albums to one of those shops that buys used records and sold them for a couple hundred bucks. Now, vinyl is considered “vintage” and I no longer have a record player. Just my luck…)

So, with 2020 nearing its very welcome demise, Thanksgiving just behind us and Christmas just down the road, this is a good time to thank some of those who gave me my love of music.

Starting with my mother, who introduced me to jazz-influenced crooners like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett, romantic singers like Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, and of course, Elvis. For her, nothing and no one surpassed Elvis. The day he died, it was like the earth had stopped turning.

Then there’s my junior high band director John Knudson, for the gift of Big Band jazz (Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Glenn Miller); and my two high school band directors Mike Fiske (funkier, more mature jazz like Spyro Gyra and Maynard Ferguson); and the iconic Ted Lega, who turned me on to classical music (“Carmina Burana”) and taught his students life-long life lessons about perseverance in the face of difficulty.

My high school buddy Anthony “Gook” Gray turned my whole life around when he lent me his cassette tape of this short, skinny African American musician who dressed weird and sang dirty lyrics. His name was Prince, and the album was “Controversy.”

Prince took (and continues to take) me in every possible direction down every musical street there is including funk (James Brown) and soul (Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin) and rock (Jimi Hendrix.)

Another high school buddy, John Quirk and I explored every piece of jazz and blues we could lay our hands on, especially when we worked together at Musicland in the Jefferson Square Mall, neither of which exist now.

John Coltrane, Miles Davis (who singlehandedly changed popular music three distinct times), Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and the late, great, Walkin’, Talkin’ Stevie Ray Vaughn (and Prince too. John was as big a fan as me.) Our “erudite” conversations filled countless high school, college and post-college days and nights.

Early in our marriage, my wife, Kellie started listening to “modern country” – Shania Twain, Sarah Evans, and especially Kenny Chesney. I liked some of it, and soon gravitated more toward the more “traditional” sounding country artists like Alan Jackson, the Dixie Chicks, George Straight and Reba McEntire – you know, anything with a twang.

But of course, if you’re going to listen to country music, you need to listen to COUNTRY music: – Merle, Willie, Kris, Loretta, Dolly, Hank (Senior and Junior), Waylon, and the biggest big dog of them all, the Man in Black, Johnny Cash.

My best college buddy, Chuck Pelkie, opened the universe to me when he introduced me to Dylan and Springsteen. I will always remember the first time I heard “The River” by Bruce. I sobbed – I am not kidding, tears ran down my face — at the story of a young man who got his girlfriend pregnant,  was forced into a life-sucking job, “and man that was all she wrote.”

And Dylan? Well, there aren’t words to describe Dylan. He is as significant as the Beatles in terms of his impact on popular music. A case can easily be made that he’s even more significant than the Beatles since they were trying to emulate him when they wrote “Sgt. Peppers.”

Chuck has kind of soured on both Bruce and Bob in recent years, and not without some justification. However, he’s continued to expand my musical horizons, introducing me to John Prine, Jason Isbell, The Avett Brothers.

I could go on and on – John Lennon’s solo work, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. Each made a huge impact on me, opening my mind to new thoughts. New ideas. Experiences unique to one person or group, and experiences shared by all people and groups. What separates and unites us.

I turn 55 in January.

Still, whenever I stumble across a new artist – the Mavericks, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of Real, Lake Street Dive – I feel like a kid again. I want to share that joy and energy that comes only with discovery even as I revel in it.

I have shared my musical passions with both my daughters over the years. We may not always like the same things (Exhibit A, Your Honor: Jesse McCartney and The Backstreet Boys) but I am proud to say our girls have  very well-rounded musical tastes.

These days, you’ll find me explaining the unique Lennon/McCartney dynamic or dissecting the differences and similarities between the Stones and Beatles or singing an Aretha song or dancing to “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire with my granddaughter.

You may think that’s a lot to lay on a two-year-old. You may be right; I may be crazy (Billy Joel.)

But in a world of talent-less garbage and profit-driven mimicry, I want her to understand the good stuff and where it comes from. I want her to know the magic of music, and to feel and trust in and rely on its essential life-altering, life-giving power, especially in dark times.

Just as I have. Just as I do, even now.

Forgive Us Our Sins

Please forgive us our sins

For only a heart of light such as yours

Can cleanse souls so black,

Our Father in heaven

Whose holiness demands we

Bend our knees and

Bow our heads and

Still our spirit

In supplication and deference

We pray, hope, plead, beg for the day

When our world will someday look like your kingdom

But until that morning breaks, we ask you to forgive us

For failing so completely

In our obligations to each other

Breaking bones and the spirit they protect

For the glory of a blood-spattered crown

Stealing everything our covetous eyes

Can see just to raise the ante 

Prostrating before false gods who promise

Endless riches but deliver less than a single piece of silver

Carving “What’s yours is mine” with the tip of a cracking whip

Into flesh daring to seek only its daily bread

Boundless arrogance

Limitless hubris

Shameless shame

Miserable with petty envy

Consumed by lustful greed

Pathetic creatures groveling

At the feet of monsters of our own making

Willing to wade through mountains of trash

For the chance of finding a kernel of approval

But worst of all, destroying the slivering light

Daring to shine faithfully from the hope for  

A better day

A bigger world

A brighter sun

Because it might reveal the dark truth

Of our human nature –

That we are made in the image of our Creator

And so what are we to make  of this cracked mirror

That we desperately avoid, but whose broken image beckons

Is it that you are like us?

Or us like you?

Which is worse?

A creation that revels in its own chaos

For the puerile thrill of crushing those deemed 

More Than, Different Than, Better Than

Eons of false warnings assuring its demise will never come

Or a Creator who gifts the majesty and awe of the universe

But abandons its creation to the demons sleeping at its side

Cynically absolving itself, wiping its hands with Free Will

A child who mimics, mocks, or ignores its parent

Or a parent who indulges and allows such behavior

Hoping its child will learn for itself the heat of the flame

Trapped by the rising tides of narcissism

Vainly peering through webs of complicity and conspiracy

We wonder –

Where to look

What to do

Who to blame –

Until we know, then we must ask again

And again

And again

Please forgive us our sins

And we will forgive you yours

BAD MEDICINE

“Happy birthday, dear Dad/Grandpa/Uncle Joe, happy birthday, to youuuuuuu!”

            The group of well-wishers hung on to the last word for what seemed like eons in Joe’s ears. The notes mixed with the antiseptic smell in the air that crept into his room at the assisted living facility where his family had parked him ten years ago. They’d expected him to die much sooner. And why wouldn’t they? After all he was 107 when they brought him here. Any reasonable person with any kind of respect for normal life would have died by now. Given up his spot in the daily bread line. Turned over his table in the Restaurant of Life.

But not Joe.

Here he sat. Still able to walk the halls. He didn’t even need the hand under the elbow from family or visitors that most of the residents, all much younger than him, needed if they could walk at all. Not that he saw much of his family. Except for “official” visits like today or a holiday when relatives were invited to have lunch with their resident (on his tab, mind you) he rarely saw, much less walked around the halls with many of them.

Still able (and very happy) to chat up and wink at the women, young and old, although he’d never done anything beyond flirting the few times when circumstances had led in that direction. Not for lack of ability or interest. Joe still had both. He might have been a little slower on the draw, but he was certain the old “love gun,” as that silly band KISS had sung a million years ago, could still fire a round or two. Rather, no woman, no matter her age, even looked at him, much less saw him as an interesting, capable, viable partner of any kind, much less physical.

And still sharp as a new tack fresh out of the box. That expansive family? He still called every one of his seventy-two kids, grandkids and great grandkids by their proper name, no hesitation at all. And don’t get Joe started on current affairs or politics or sports or culture or – most especially – music and movies. He could back just about anyone into an inescapable conversational corner, tongue-tied and feet tangled in their knotted, and often only half-tied rhetorical rope. Nothing worse than an ill-prepared or lazy adversary, Joe often chastised after winning another argument.

Still, most days, Joe Barker was not happy. Especially on his birthday.

“Hey there, Dad,” his son, Matty, said. “How are you feeling today? Doctor says you are doing great, for a man your age. Heck, you’re doing great for a man of any age!” Matty dropped the zinger loud enough for the room of relatives to hear. As planned, it drew the fawning, cooing, polite but insincere laughter he intended. It almost seemed like he was waiting for a drummer to add a rim shot. Ba-doom-doom. Csssss! Matty was the youngest of the four kids he had with his wife, Claire.  He was far too old to still be called by the diminutive nickname, but it stuck, glued to him by eighty years of life. It was both ironic and sad, Joe thought, since the older kids – Joseph Junior, Monica, and Jean – had all died long ago. Matty, the “baby,” was now the adult. Had been for many years. Except when visiting Joe, Matty was usually the oldest person in the room.  Heck, Joe’s youngest great grandchild was twenty-nine, and carped incessantly about turning thirty, like that was something worth complaining about. Joe appreciated Matty’s high spirit and good nature. He loved his son’s sincere, well-intentioned effort to inject some levity to counterbalance the wailing sobs from the old woman across the hall that hung in the air like smog. But Joe couldn’t look past the very old elephant in the room.

“Matty, you know how I am. I am here. I am awake. I am healthy. I am breathing. I am hearing, talking, eating, reading, listening to the radio when I can get Alexa to answer me, watching television when I can find something that interests me. But I don’t want to be.”

“Dad come on now,” Matty interjected. What was coming was inappropriate for the day and the room of guests who’d gathered, no matter how many times they’d all heard it before. “We have talked about this.”

“Yes, son, we have. So, you should know by now how I feel,” Joe said. Eyes turned toward his rising voice, still as clarion and crisp as that of a man half his son’s age. “I want to be dead. Like everyone else of my generation. I should be in the ground or in an urn on top of your fireplace. Instead, I am here.”

“But Uncle Joe, we all love you,” said one of his nieces, Catherine. “We don’t want to lose you any time soon.”

“Catherine, sweetheart, I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. And I love you for saying it,” Joe said, smiling at the beautiful middle-age woman. “I know you all mean well for me. But I want to be dead. I’m not sad, or depressed, or suicidal, I promise. It’s just the natural order of things. A man my age should be dead. And I would have been if not for that stupid COVID-19 vaccine.”

Few in the room had lived through that god-awful pandemic. Fifty years ago, an unknown virus gobbled up and shat out most of the world’s human and financial resources for nearly three years. They had not lived through the plague, yet not knowing its reality didn’t make its truth any less real.

“I did what I – what we were all – supposed to do,” Joe said, evenly, with the practiced flatness of tone of someone who’d told the story many times. “I wore my mask, I social-distanced, I stayed away from everyone I loved for months at a time. And then, the first vaccine came out, a month before election day that first year, just like you-know-who said.”

A glancing smile broke quickly across Matty’s face. To this day, his dad refused to speak the former president’s name as if in ongoing protest.

Joe looked around the room, filled with everyone with even a scintilla of concern or affection for him.

“To this day, I don’t know what was worse – him winning re-election, or the millions of people who died after taking that first vaccine. And not just died. But died horrible, painful, terrible deaths because they had been willing to believe anything anyone said, just to get it over with faster. So they could stop wearing masks and go out to dinner,” he said.

“I cannot even begin to put into words how angry and betrayed and guilty I felt, because I’d been ‘smart enough’ to not take that first vaccine.” Joe’s bony, knobby index fingers waved in front of his face, making air quotes. “I knew it wasn’t safe. How could it possibly be? They rushed it into production as soon as the government waved all the safety regulations. Any fool would have known it wasn’t safe.” Joe took a deep breath. “Except those that didn’t. Including your mother. She believed everything that man said. Boy, we fought so much that first term…” Joe’s voice trailed off, drowned under a wash of memories. “Look what her faith got her.”

A tear crept into the corner of Joe’s 117-year-old eye. He quickly turned in his chair toward the wall and wiped it away.

“Dad, I think it’s time for us to go,” Matty said softly. He and his father had had this conversation so many times over the last half-decade that it’d taken on a life of its own, breathing its own sorrow into the air around Joe. The loss of his mother was the real source of his dad’s bitterness, at least as much as the politics of a plague that killed many millions of people, including two younger cousins, Matty knew. “You need your rest.”

Joe’s head swiveled back like he’d been slapped. “Rest? Rest? Rest for what? To play another round of Old People Who Should Be Dead Bingo?” he yelled. “Matty, you cannot possibly understand what it means to be so old that the oldest people around me are considered youngsters by comparison, and yet I can’t die! I have absolutely nothing in common with anyone. I am utterly and literally alone on an island. It’s not that I have lost touch with the world, Matty. The world has lost touch with me”

“But Dad, you could have taken your chances with the next four vaccines. You chose not to,” Matty said smoothly, trying to calm his father.

“And it’s a good thing, too, seeing as how they all failed. It’s like the virus kept getting smarter every time and laughed at us with each new vaccine. Ah, but then they came out with a sixth one. And every scientist and doctor worth their lab coats said this was the one. This one would cure COVID forever — and not just the current strains. It would even prevent new strains that hadn’t even formed yet. Well sir, that sounded too good to be true, but I figured, what is there to lose? The sixth time must be the charm, right?”

Matty dropped his head. He’d heard the inevitable answer to this rhetorical question a thousand times before.

“It worked, all right,” Joe said. “Only too well! Now I am trapped by my own bad luck and some sick, twisted cosmic irony! Here I am, a living, breathing testament to the power of modern medicine!” Joe shouted. His vitriolic cynicism was as clear as the spittle now on his lips. His anger drew surprised glances from a few people floating around the edges of his room.

“Dad come on. You know there’s nothing to that. There is no proof that the vaccine caused you to live longer, or stop your natural aging, or whatever it is you think happened. It could have been a fluke. It could be that you’ve got incredibly good genes. Maybe God has a reason for keeping you alive so long. Who knows? Yes, there were problems with the first six vaccines, but the next one worked the way it was supposed to. Maybe not for everyone, but at least for a few people. The others who lived all had happy lives and eventually died just like we’re all going to do” Matty said. “Including you.” His voice carried just the faintest wisp of exhausted exasperation.

Joe shifted in chair. Several relatives had quietly slipped out of the room, lingering now outside the open door or down the hall near the dining room. Those remaining watched the ballgame on the television. “Bears are losing again,” Joe noted to no one in particular. “Some things never change.”

Matty lifted and gently held his father’s right hand. He spoke respectfully, but firmly, as if reprimanding a child whose countless good deeds far outweighed this one bad one. “Dad, all we know, all any of us care about – “ Matty waved his right hand over his shoulder toward the thinning herd as it now issued a collective groan at yet another Bears fumble – “is that you are still with us. For whatever reason. It doesn’t matter. Your life is a blessing. And we cherish it.”

Joe quieted for a few seconds, reflecting on the journey he’d taken, but would have never wished on anyone. A wistful chuckle escaped through a melancholic smile. “A blessing? Hmmm…fifty years of memories that no one else understands, of a colossal human disaster that we brought on ourselves.” He stared at his and his son’s hands, intertwined. “Somehow, this blessing feels more like a curse.” He raised his eyes to his Matty’s face. “Son, you are a caring and conscientious man. I have always been most proud of  your heart. So, I know you understand when I say this: I love you, but I don’t want to see you ever again.”

A loud cheer erupted behind them – thankfully, loud enough to hide Matty’s gasp. The Bears had scored a rare touchdown.

“Now Matty, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. I just want to be left alone until I die. Lord knows when that will ever be, or how it will happen. I don’t want to bother you with all that.” Joe smiled and winked at his son. “Plus, at your age, you shouldn’t be driving anymore.” The attempted joke fell flat. Matty stared at his father, unsmiling.

“Matty, all I do anymore is sit around here and review my life. My freakishly long life. You know I’m not particularly  religious. Never have put much stock in all that ‘Invisible Man’ stuff, but sometimes I think that if there is a God, He was using that virus to teach us a lesson in humility. You know, they called it a ‘novel’ virus because it was new. But really, there was nothing new about the situation. As usual, we humans saw something small and thought we could just crush it under our giant feet.” Joe said.

“Six times, we rushed. Sacrificing safety for speed and profit,” Joe said. “Six times, our arrogance told us our size and strength would win out. That our superior firepower would win the war because it always had. But none of that mattered to the virus.”

Matty had long been in awe of his father’s wit and intellect. But he was astounded by the words Joe now spoke.

“Dad,” he nearly whispered, “to be fair, the scientists and doctors finally got it right with the seventh vaccine.”

“Great!” Joe said, looking away. “Lucky Number Seven, I guess.”

Joe took a deep breath. For the first time in many years, he called his son by his adult name. Decades of kind, mature patience with his father had earned him this small token of his father’s respect.

“Matthew, here is what I have learned these last fifty years when I should have been dead and spending eternity with your mother,” Joe said, wryly.

I won, I suppose, but we failed,” he said.

“Our leaders failed us, our doctors and scientists failed us, the media failed us. Heck, even that God of yours failed us. But mostly, we failed each other. As individuals, as a community, as a species. And why? Because doing the right thing took too long and was inconvenient.”

Now Joe stood, walked to the door, and stared down the hall. A man who looked older than Joe toddled down the corridor, clinging shakily to a sparkling, aluminum walker. He turned and reached back to his son, hugging him with all his might.

“I don’t believe in much these days, Matthew, but I have come to believe that God of yours gave us that virus to remind us that we’re supposed to find our strength by working together,” Joe said.

“But we didn’t. We never do. Instead, we died from something too big to kill. Our hubris and greed.” Joe exhaled deeply. He slumped into his chair like a deflated balloon.

A groan rose from the remaining visitors. The Bears had lost again.

“I guess God just gave us a taste of our own medicine.”

The Love of We

weI have not written a single non-work-related word for nearly two months.

Not for lack of interest or inspiration, mind you.

In fact, I have fought the urge to write a poem that has been swimming lazy laps around my brain for a couple of weeks. It is highly critical of God and the current Oval Office Occupant, and I didn’t want to offend those friends who believe in either or both, all whom I otherwise admire and respect.

I have struggled to stay above the strife (or at least not add to it) as the entire world deals with the fallout – physical, emotional, spiritual, financial – of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, it’s been a difficult time, concrete-hard, for me as for many.

I felt like the undersized, but quick-cutting football team running back who has finally broken through the line, zigging this way, zagging that way, hips twisting, knees high, legs pumping, evading linebackers twice my size.

The goal line was in sight. The winning touchdown and all the attendant glory only yards away, nothing ahead of me but screaming fans.

Then, wham!

I was blindsided and tackled by an unseen cornerback. No touchdown. No winning score. No glory. Only pain, turf and stars.

As I lay on the ground, the officials kept their yellow flags in their pockets as every defensive player on the field and, it seemed, a few from the sidelines piled on.

I struggled with sleep-stealing financial concerns for my two daughters and their families; not seeing our granddaughter for more than six weeks; my own blues from lack of socialization with friends and family; the murky, bottomless depths of uncertainty about and concern for the future.

Then it got worse.

Every jaw-droppingly stupid utterance from Donald Trump, a man with a narcissistic need to be in the spotlight. Blammo!

Every one of his gob-smacking, forehead-slapping denials of a comment despite video proof of their utterance. Pow!

Every ridiculous bit of his “cheerleading” to try to ignore and deflect and minimize the seriousness of the situation. Smash to the kisser!

Each of his childish fights picked with other leaders who dare to cross his constantly shifting, arbitrary political line in the sand. Gut punch!

Each of his attempts to blame everyone else, anyone else, for seventy days of misdirection, lies, obfuscation and political gamesmanship, while thousands died from a mystery virus. Another shot to the ribs.

(By the way, how many shades of cynical or paranoid does one have to be to suggest, much less think, that this pandemic is a political scheme or hoax?)

And worst of all, his calls to “Liberate” states, prompting people to take part in armed protests of his own administration’s health directives intended to keep people from dying. Proving yet again that he was most concerned with how he looked to his rabid cult — and even then, only when the stock market started to tumble. Because those are his only real priorities: money, and image. Especially his money, and his image.

Each one felt like another cleated foot on my throat. Another body jumping on my back, pinning me to the ground.

I was so anxious, so overwhelmed, so conflicted, that I literally could not catch my breath under the crushing weight of fear, confusion, frustration, anger and lack of human decency.

Then, I read a recent issue of Time magazine.

The special subject, “Finding Hope,” featured article after story after essay from writers, doctors, elected officials, religious leaders and social and cultural icons, each promoting a simple, essential premise:

We cannot recover from this pandemic alone.

We must work together as individuals, families, communities, professions, governments, faith systems, public and private sectors.

We must believe that we will return to “normal” – whatever that will look like – only when we share responsibility for each other, rather than thinking only about our singular interest.

Yes, it will be hard.

Yes, it will be painful

Yes, many will suffer financially, emotionally, psychically, spiritually.

And yes, many will die. Maybe, with any luck, not as many as various models and experts have predicted. But more than any rational person would dare call acceptable if any one of the suffering or dead belonged to them.

Interestingly, not one writer took or demanded credit for any idea, development, or policy (much less petulantly whined about not getting enough praise.) Not. One.

For the record, I do not hold Trump responsible for the pandemic. That’s silly. However, I do hold him responsible for his own actions, the same as I’d do with any adult or child.

His self-centered, “I! I! I! Me! Me! Me!” behavior is stultifying. It is such a shallow, pathetic, transparent cry for legitimacy in a world in which even he knows he doesn’t belong, that one might pity him under normal circumstances.

But nothing is normal these days, and his behavior affects the rest of us.

Trump’s callous, callow, even cruel example followed only too gladly by his minions has made a tremendously difficult situation exponentially worse.

Simply put, Trump has pitted the One against the Many.

Listen, I don’t pretend to be above self-interest. I want what’s best for me and mine the same as anyone else.

But the Time magazine issue reminded me there’s more than just “Me” to consider.

If “I” is my only focus, my only concern, my only priority, then others suffer.

“I” fuels fear. Anger. Greed. Hatred.

The power of “I” is its ability to divide. And in the darkness of that division to build walls between “Me” and “Them,”  defined in any way that helps me keep whatever I think is mine. Race, religion, gender, wealth. Even health.

“We,” on the other hand, calls us to give. Love. Sacrifice. Even suffer.

The power of “We” is the life-sustaining energy that comes from combining whatever little bit I have with someone else’s, so that what we create together is not only more, but also better and stronger.

“We” in its purest essence cares most about Unity. “We” knows that Unity can be hard, but that hardness smooths the rough edges of division. That hardness is often its own best reward.

Of course, it goes without saying that everyone can follow who they want to follow and believe what they want to believe. As Americans, that is our right – even if we are wrong.

What does need to be said though, is that we as humans must be about more than our rights. We must be about our responsibilities, too. Rights are individualistic. Responsibilities are communal.

I am as scared, angry, frustrated, nervous, confused and concerned as anyone else with a functioning head and heart.

Still, right now, in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide crisis, I choose to believe in “We.” I must. It is the only way I will see clearer, sleep better, breathe easier.

The strength of “We.”

The dream of “We.”

The love of “We.”

Hmm…I guess I didn’t need to write that poem after all.

 

The Four Greatest Words, Ever

Tom booksigning 022820

We love our son-in-law, Jake. Really, we do.

He’s a wonderful young man. Hard working, diligent, level-headed, thoughtful, bright, caring. A terrific father to our granddaughter, and great husband to our daughter, Emma.

But Jake doesn’t talk much. At least not to us.

To be fair, when he does talk, he has a sharp, bright, cutting wit that often leaves us laughing hysterically into our mashed potatoes around the dinner table, surprised to hear him utter such comments.

So, it was nothing less than an electric shock when my cellphone rang around 6 p.m. on March 23, 2018.

“Hello?” I answered.

“It’s me. We’re here,” Jake said plainly.

“What? Where?”

“At the hospital. Emma’s having the baby.”

“When?”

“Now.”

Background: Our oldest daughter had called earlier that day to report on the status of her routine doctor’s visit and pregnancy. She was alright at first, but her normally strong demeanor quickly dissolved into puddles of sobs.

It seemed the baby, if carried to term (about another ten days or so) would likely top the scales at ten pounds. Jake is about six feet tall. Emma is barely four feet, nine inches. The immensity of it all – especially the prospect of birthing a basketball – simply overwhelmed our girl.

After sharing the same news and crying again to her mom (my wife), she went home for the afternoon.

Then, her water broke while Jake and she watched television. As many parents learn, babies have an irritating tendency to come when they darned well feel like it.

They rushed to the hospital and his phone call, paradoxically both small and huge, soon followed.

Jake urged us to stay home and come to the hospital the next day. Emma probably wouldn’t have the baby before 8 p.m. when visiting hours ended, he warned. We followed his sage guidance.

For about three minutes.

We dove into the car and rushed to the hospital, elated to just sit there and wait. We chatted with other families, situated as close physically, spiritually and emotionally to the birth as hospital rules and locked doors would allow.

Then, Jake emerged from the maternity ward.

Dressed in blue scrubs, looking understandably frazzled and exhausted, he changed our lives for the second time in three years.

Riley Jean Williams had arrived, all eight pounds, ten ounces healthy and raring to join the world. Oh, and Emma was fine too (although the birth had been rough on her.)

We hugged and congratulated our son-in-law. We were as proud of him and grateful for his calm demeanor as the day he married Emma. He proffered a few precious details then disappeared behind the electronic doors to be with his wife.

We met and held our grandbaby the next morning, as soon as security and respect for a new mom’s need for rest and privacy allowed. The earth…well, if it didn’t exactly turn backwards, it certainly wobbled a bit for my wife and me.

We, who ourselves had started our life together only twenty-seven short years ago, a young couple desperately in love, trying to figure out the world together, scared but a little more confident holding each other’s hands, suddenly were grandparents!

And we couldn’t have been happier, prouder or more excited for a future we were already planning only hours into Riley’s new life.

Did you know babies are magicians? It’s true.

They can change sorrow into laughter. Frowns into smiles. Blustery days into kite-filled skies.

They turn lifelong, slightly paranoid grumps into giggling optimists overflowing with sparkling faith for a suddenly brighter world.

They can twist time into priceless pretzels of amazement as minutes turn to hours turn to days turn to years faster than seems possible.

One second, Riley was laying in our arms able only to eat and sleep. The next, she was chasing and yelling at me to fly her around the house, or presenting the television remote to Nana, demanding to watch “Trolls” for the fourth time that day.

Most of all, they can fill a room heavy with gray, tired routine with the glittering air of adventure.

Unconcerned about what comes next, every turn, step, sight, sound and smell is a new journey, a quest, an escapade.

An innocent ignorance of anything that might impede, endanger or limit makes it a smidge easier to look past the uncertainties and qualms darkening the Real World’s corners.

Most astonishingly, their joy becomes our joy. Every discovery through their eyes re-opens our own to the grace and mystery around us. Truly amazing.

All children – but especially grandchildren – are revelations of humanity and holiness at their purest intersection.

A book I am reading about the Gospel of John described Jesus’ impact on those who met Him this way: “Life calls to life. Love calls to love.”

I’d respectfully say that, when it comes to grandchildren, “New life calls to new life. New love calls to new love.”

Speaking of Life, the real thing recently broke in.

I am writing this over the first weekend of the governor’s two-week (so far) “stay at home” order to help fight the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic.

And I hate it.

To be clear, I am sincerely concerned for everyone’s physical and financial health as people (including our daughters and their families) try to figure out how to survive.

As I’ve said many times over the last three years, the economy is indeed better. But it’s not better for everyone, and not better in the same way for everyone. So, two (or four, or who knows how many) weeks without a paycheck will devastate a lot of people who aren’t part of the one percent.

However, we haven’t seen Riley in two weeks.

We missed one weekend of “Nana and Papa” duty because I had a slight touch of the flu. Then, our daughter decided to not let us see Riley until the pandemic clears. She also postponed Riley’s second birthday party, scheduled for early April.

Of course, she is right. And, like her mom, wise beyond her years.

Riley won’t know or care about missing a party now, and she will be safer for not being around a bunch of people who’d undoubtedly spend an afternoon smothering her with kisses.

Still, it breaks our hearts to give up our time with her.

Yet, thanks to our little spitfire who loves “Trolls” and “Sing”, Mike the Mouse and Poppy and Elmo and Daniel Tiger, cooking and napping with Nana and reading and playing with Papa, and petting any dog within arm’s reach, I cannot be entirely sad.

Riley Jean Williams may miss out on a few birthday gifts this year – if only temporarily. But those who love her still got the best gift of all.

And she turns two on March 23, 2020.

The Holy Rolling Barnstorming Tour of 2020

church

I’ve been going to church recently.

Not just to any church, but rather to every church.

This isn’t as radical as it might sound. After all, I was raised in (and remain a big fan of) the Catholic church. I attended Lewis University, a private Catholic school run by nuns, priests and De La Sallian Christian brothers.

And I (and my young family) converted to Lutheranism in 1997 when a still-wet-behind-the-ears, second-career pastor came knocking on our door as part of his and his wife’s plan to start a mission church in Plainfield, which was then experiencing its “Oh, My God!” growth period.

(I kid you not: the pastor came to our house three times before we attended our first service at the new church — insert your own Biblical symbolism here. Being a good Catholic, I initially pushed back, hard, against him and Lutheranism. But we soon became lifelong, close friends.)

Plus, studying how a first century movement around an itinerant Hebrew preacher became a worldwide religious/political/social/governmental system has long been a hobby of mine.

But truth be told, my wife Kellie had a personal falling out when that little mission church started the inevitable shrinkage and was eventually gobbled up by a larger church. (The bigger church “loved our energetic worship style” but loved the land we owned even more.)

No surprise. Kellie, after all was not raised in any church. Her connection to church of any kind was tenuous at best, based more on social and family rather than spiritual considerations. And in the interests of a strong marriage, I stopped going when she stopped going.

However, I have long maintained my churchly inclinations.

So, when Kellie’s work schedule changed early this winter to include Sundays, I decided to return to church. I figured, what else was I doing besides waiting at home alone for the mediocrity that was the Bears this season?

But if I was going to return to church, I didn’t want to just return to what I already knew. What fun would that be? If this church door was open again, I wanted to really see everything on the other side.

Since starting my personal church barnstorming tour I’ve visited churches of nearly every Christian denomination, size and worship style: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran (both Missouri Synod and ELCA), Congregationalist, Unitarian, a couple of non-denominational, and both predominantly white and predominantly African American.

I haven’t worshipped at a mosque yet as part of this adventure, though I did twice a few years ago. Nor have I gone to a Jewish synagogue. But who knows? It’s only March.

To be clear: As I’ve explained to numerous sincere-but-somewhat-overly-enthusiastic-greeters and pastors, I am very firm and comfortable in my Christian faith and my Lutheran religion.

I am not looking for anything but the experience of trying on some new shoes – or sandals, as the case may be.

Observing first-hand what I (and sadly, so many) have only heard about from a distance.

Dipping my theological toes into a different pool.

Running some new spiritual chords over my rusty vocal cords. I’ve mostly been able to muscle through the unfamiliar rhythms and lyrics. However, I sincerely apologize to anyone sitting close by those several times when I failed. (If she’d been there, my wife would’ve told you singing is not my strong suit.)

So, that begs the obvious, good and fair question:

If I’m not interested in changing teams, so to speak, then why go to the trouble of visiting different camps?

Not to mention going to any church at all given the myriad criticisms dogging organized religion of all stripes, most especially the many serious crimes committed by religious authorities and leaders against the weakest, most vulnerable among us.

The simplest (yet,paradoxically, the most complex) answer is, I believe in a higher power that somehow creates and organizes (if not directly choreographs) our lives.

You can call that power God.

I don’t really much care what you call it, or by what name.

Nor do I care what path you take to find it, what book you find it in, or how you understand its power in your life.

Frankly, I agree with the theologians who criticize us puny humans who try to slap any kind of a label on God, or speak for Him/Her/It, or mangle His/Her/Its spiritual role for political power and wealth in our all-too-mortal world. How dare we?

The point isn’t where or how we talk to God. The point is where and how God talks to us. That’s the beauty and mystery and grace of spiritual faith of every kind.

One of the pastors said, “You can talk to (God) anywhere.”

That is true. However, I believe you can talk to God best, gathered together with others who are also trying to talk to God.

It’s like the difference between singing alone in the shower and singing as part of a 200-person choir. Both may produce a beautiful sound, but the former only brings down a little more water. The latter brings down the roof.

Honestly, I don’t know what God is any more than the next person. I don’t know what God looks like. I don’t know what name God goes by, what language God speaks, or even – God forbid — what athletic teams God prefers.

But sussing out those mysteries has been a lifelong passion. (Except for the athletic team part. That’s just silliness of the worst sort.)

How better to do that than to explore all the options with others who are likewise looking? Who knows what I’ll find or learn? The fun is in the search.

So, the Holy Rolling Barnstorming Tour of 2020 continues. Look for me at a church near you.

I’ll be the guy near the front, singing (and probably tripping over a word or two) loudly and joyfully – if slightly off key.

 

 

 

 

A Really Bad Morning

The writers’ group to which I belong recently took another swing at what I call “flash fiction.” We get a surprise prompt and 15 minutes to create something in any format. This time, the prompt was “Today I woke up in hell.” Here’s mine, with a little extra polish:

hell

Today I woke up in hell

In a room of doubt

A house of pain

A world of tears

How did this happen, when

Only last night I fell asleep

In a room of love

A house of joy

A world of peace?

The answer, like so many is

Painfully

Palpably

Shamefully

Clear

Nothing changed overnight

Nothing ever does

Just as the day becomes night

One ray of light

One drop of rain

One crease of dusk

At a time,

No one charting

The moments for themselves,

Until they form the mass of another moon

The world changes

Second by second

minute by minute

Hour by hour

Quietly becoming something we

Did not seek

Did not want

Do not like

Until its changing cannot be ignored

Or excused for our lack of noticing

Or failure to act

If I Die Before I Wake

heaven

I opened my eyes.

Darkness. Had it happened?

No, the fire in my gut and pounding behind my eyes from another restless night confirmed I was still alive. Then, “Good morning, Dad. Time to wake up.” My daughter’s voice was always a welcome treat, and today, even more so.

She threw open the shades. Late-winter sunshine poured through the window, so sharp the dust magically materialized in the air like specks on an X-ray. I squeezed my eyelids tighter to block the light. No luck.

“How’d you sleep?” she chirped.

“Honey, I haven’t slept in days.” The lack of rest clouded my sight. I instinctively rubbed my eyes, hoping they’d clear.

“Oh, come on.” She cheerfully tugged at the blankets tucked around my chin. “I have your breakfast going downstairs. Eat a little something and you’ll feel better.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“Because today’s the day.”

“What’s so special about today?” Jenny flowed around the room like a spring breeze, my twenty-eight-year-old angel picking my clothes from the floor, straightening the blankets at my feet, fluffing the pillows behind my head. Maybe – probably? – for the last time.

“You know very well.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m going to die today.”

Jenny slammed to a halt. Her head snapped around. Her eyes, mirroring her smiling demeanor only a few seconds ago now lasered her anger. “Stop saying that, Dad, that’s not true and you know it.”

“But it is true. That’s what that idiot doctor told me. He said, ‘A year, maybe more.’”

“Right,” Jenny said. “A year, maybe more.”

“I’m sorry honey, I appreciate your optimism, but I’m pretty sure what he said was, ‘A year, maybe more.’ Today is one year since he pronounced my death sentence, so…”

Jenny sat at the end of the bed. “OK, fine, if you insist on being like this, then please let me know when you’re going to expire so I can plan the rest of my day. I have other things to do than to sit around here waiting to hear your death rattle.”

Her flat stare was deadpanned proof of her wit, dry as a dinosaur bone in the desert. Jenny’s sense of humor was a welcome gift from her mother, and a reminder of the only other woman I ever loved. Still, it stung sometimes. “Ouch! That hurts. Your mother, rest her soul, would have never talked to a dying man that way.”

Jenny’s head drooped under the weight of a smile. “Oh yes she would’ve. If she’d lived, she would have threatened to kill you herself for talking like this.”

She laughed, and I smiled too, then took her left hand. My thumb gently caressed her beautiful ring signifying her marriage to a wonderful young man who loved her very much. Not as much as me, but enough to understand when she started spending a night, then two, now three or four a week babysitting me as this goddamned disease stole my life one minute at a time. Which is to say, enough to earn a father’s respect and appreciation. It had been bad enough losing my darling wife to her own illness just as I was diagnosed.

“You sure are one special kid,” I said, choking on the whispered words, struggling against a wave of tears.

“I’m not a kid, Daddy. I’m a big girl.” She smiled easily. Our secret code for the inside joke she’d been making to me since she was six. Memories of her childhood brightly colored by her independent spirit and piss-and-vinegar attitude filled the corners of my mind. “I know honey. I know. I know.” Suddenly, I felt tired. “Do you mind if I rest a bit now?”

Jenny stood and headed toward the bedroom door. “Only if you promise not to die before I come back.”

“I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Ugh! Daddy…”

I don’t know how long I dozed. It felt like a few hours, but it couldn’t have been more than the few minutes Jenny needed to whip up a light breakfast. She set the tray on the dresser and approached the head of the bed.

She gently lifted me under my arms to position me higher on the stack of pillows behind my head. “I brought some green tea, some scrambled eggs and a piece of plain toast. Nothing too heavy. Don’t want to go against your medicine and upset your stomach.”

She turned back to the dresser to get the tray. l waved her off. “Thank you honey, but really, I’m not hungry.”

“Why not? Are you sick?”

“Well, I’m going to be dead soon, if that’s what you mean.”

“Daddy, stop that, please,” Jenny said. “It really upsets me when you talk that way. And no, that’s not what I mean.”

“Alright, I’m sorry. My stomach is fine.” I tapped on my forehead. “I have a lot on my mind is all, with it being my last…” I caught myself and sheepishly avoided Jenny’s glare.

She circled the bed and laid next to me, propped on her elbow so I didn’t have to turn too much. Always thoughtful, this one, even down to the end.

“OK,” Jenny said, “for the sake of argument, let’s say that today is your very last day on this earth. What is so heavy on your mind that you won’t eat the gourmet breakfast I made?”

How does one answer such an immense, intimate question? Especially to a person – the only person — one holds above all others? Carefully, I decided. Delicately, but honestly.

“My sins. My many, many sins.”

Jenny rolled her eyes.

“All right, I’ll bite. What enormous sins have you committed?” she teased.

“Jennifer Ann, I’m serious.” I paused. “I have done some terrible things in my life. Things I am embarrassed about. Ashamed of. Things I feel terrible for doing to you, your mother, lots of people.”

“Wow. Except for when I got in trouble as a kid, the only time you’ve ever used my full name is when you told me Mom had died.” She sat up and turned again now to face me head-on, her arms wrapped around her raised knees. “Sins like what? You didn’t kill anyone, did you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Steal anything?”

“Nothing big.”

“Cheat on Mom?”

I took a breath, exhaled, then took another. “Let’s just say, once or twice some innocent flirting went a few steps past ‘innocent.’ But your mother knew about all of it — and held me accountable.”

Jenny gazed at me, then dropped her eyes. She traced one of the flowers on the bedspread with her finger for a few seconds. “Well, I guess there’s not much to say about that now that Mom is gone. In the big picture, I suppose that’s not such a terrible thing…”

I quickly cut her off. “But that’s not the worst of it. That’s not what’s bothering me.” Now it was my turn to look away from her. My beautiful, smart, intuitive girl. Her sharp, blue eyes could soothe one second and cut to the bone the next contracted with exasperation.

“Alright, I give up! What’s the big sin, Dad?”

“You know, I’m not the religious type…”

“I know, my wedding was one of the only times I’ve ever seen you in church.”

“…Right. So, I don’t say this lightly, but I think I’ve cut my ties with God…or Mother Nature…or the universe…or heaven…whatever you call it.”

“Darn it, Dad, spit it out!”

“I don’t know…” The ideas that had overtaken my mind the last few weeks now struggled to take shape. “This is just hard for me to put into words. I guess, for lack of  any better explanation, I’ve come to realize just how disconnected I am from other people.”

Jenny expelled a loud sigh of relief. “Is that all? I thought you had done something really bad.”

“But it is bad, honey. I’ve spent years pushing people away, creating some stupid myth of mystery. I wasted my entire life building walls when I could’ve – should’ve – been building bridges with all the people in my life. And for what? To protect my privacy.”

Jenny’s eyes crinkled and she laughed. “I’m confused. Your job put you in the public eye a lot. I remember people interrupting you all the time, wanting autographs or pictures, at dinner, the movies, ball games,” she said. “I’m just your daughter, so what do I know? But it seems to me like you had good reason to want a little space.”

I’m sure it was the medicine confusing my memory, but for a moment I swore her mother stared back at me. So trusting. So kind. So forgiving.

“Of course, I had a reason. But it’s the worst possible one: I just didn’t want to be bothered. True, I don’t like many people. Most everyone I ever met was thoughtless, self-centered, mean, stupid. But honestly, it was just my own arrogance. My ego was so big, there was no room for anyone else. I created a mountain of bullshit of the highest order. Turns out I was the stupid, petty, small one.”

My hands trembled weakly as I took hers again. “I never wanted anyone near me. I didn’t want to be responsible for another life. Now that I want someone, need someone, there’s no one. I feel so stupid, so…” I dropped my eyes, ashamed of my horrible truth, then raised them again. “I don’t mind being alone, Jenny. But being lonely is a terrible thing.”

A tear wet Jenny’s cheek. “Daddy, I’m so sorry! If I had known I would have come over more, done more!”

“No, no, my love bug! You haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t mean it that way. Goodness, you’re the only person I have left. I am so grateful you listen to me at all. No, it’s all my own fault.”

My voice caught in my throat as pain knifed through my gut and sucked the air from my lungs. My grip on Jenny’s hands tightened, then released as the ache in my belly ebbed.  I breathed a few times to regain my strength, but the new words seemed heavier than usual, draining what little energy I had only a second ago.

“I finally understand what everyone means when they talk about heaven being the shared space between people,” I croaked weakly. “That’s the good news. The bad news is, I realize now that I’ve thrown away the greatest gift God ever gave — the love and friendship of others. And now that it’s too late for me to do anything about it, I’m terrified God will punish me.”

“Punish you how?” Jenny’s soft voice matched her gentle, but firm grip.

“By forcing me to maintain the distance I created. By keeping me away from all the people who cared about me.” I paused, trying to stave off the army of tears I’d been fighting for days.

“By not letting me near the one person who I ever let get close to me. The one person who understood me. Accepted me. Forgave me.” I took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled.

“I am terrified God will never let me see your mother again.”

At long last the tears came. I couldn’t help it. These thoughts had consumed nearly every waking moment the last few days. To hear them out loud from my own mouth somehow made them even more horrible. I felt like Frankenstein that awful moment his monster rose from the table charged with the life he’d given it.

“Oh, Daddy, don’t be silly. God isn’t cruel.”

“Oh Jenny, now who’s being silly? Have you actually read the Bible? How about today’s newspaper? Look around us, Jenny. If God’s not cruel, He’s at least got a wicked sense of humor.”

She took a deep breath, eased her legs over the edge of the bed and slowly, wordlessly stood.  She lifted me, fluffed the pillows and lowered me back, then gently kissed my forehead. Like I’d done to her a million times when she was a child. I was grateful for her silence. My swollen throat wouldn’t have allowed a word to pass if she’d said anything.

A minute passed, maybe two. Then, “Dad, for your sake, for all our sakes, I hope and pray and trust and believe with every part of my being that you are wrong,” she said, offering the gentlest, subtlest reprimand I think I’ve ever gotten.

She tucked the blankets around me and opened the window. A soft afternoon  breeze, warm enough to suggest spring was just around the corner, danced lightly into the room.

“I believe God forgives our sins, even – especially – if we don’t forgive them ourselves. And that includes the sin of refusing His gifts.”

Jenny lifted the food tray from the dresser and turned to go, but then set it back down. She returned to the bedside, gently nudged me over, took my left hand, and sat.

“Most of all, I believe God even forgives us for forsaking Him. Or Mother Nature. Or the universe. Whatever you call it.”

She smiled and winked at me. One more joke for the road, I guess.

“Otherwise, how would we possibly survive the unthinkable evil that we create? The walls we build between and around each other? The hatred that ignores and belittles God’s love? All the god-forsaken things we do to God’s own creation in God’s name?” Jenny said. “For me, a loving, forgiving God is the only thing that makes any sense in a world that makes no sense at all.”

Suddenly, the air seemed to shimmer with the glittering grace of her conviction. My chest swelled with equal parts sorrow and pride.

“My beautiful child, how did you get to be so wise?” My voice stumbled, heavy with sincere awe for this soul, at once child-like and mature beyond measure, who was the last and final bridge to whatever this world is, and the next world might be.

“I listened to the people around me. Friends. Family. You. Mom,” she said. “Then I listened to my heart.”

Her words were so beautiful and encouraging. Yet, reality gave me little hope, and even less comfort. “That’s all wonderful, and I am glad for you, but I don’t have time now to fix all my mistakes.”

“Sure, you do. There’s always tomorrow.” Jenny bent and kissed my cheek

“But what if there’s no tomorr–”

“There’s always tomorrow, Daddy.” She frowned, giving no ground.

We volleyed for a while longer about the nature of Nature, spirituality, what might come next — whether “next” would be in this room, or somewhere else — and what that might look like wherever or whatever or whenever it came.

We discussed philosophy, religion, politics.  We eventually turned to less contentious subjects: memories of her childhood and comparisons of her own young marriage to her mother’s and my early years as a couple. I dozed between debate points, waking to my snores only to find her waiting patiently for me to answer. My admiration for my daughter–and regret for my imminent passing–grew with each bright, intuitive, thoughtful, sharp, funny idea and statement that she spoke.

Finally, the emotional burden of the day weighed heavy on my heart and tugged at my eyelids. The breakfast tray remained untouched on the dresser, as the afternoon sun faded.

“Honey, I’d talk to you forever, if I could. But I’m tired. I think I might really sleep more than a few minutes this time.” My thin laugh sounded more like a whisper than a chuckle. “Do you mind if I take a nap?”

“Of course not! Now close your eyes,” she ordered. “Don’t think too much. Just rest. You’ve had a hard day. I’ll wake you when it’s time for dinner.” She clicked the light switch and pulled the door behind her, leaving it open enough so I could see the light in the hallway.

I lay still, staring into the semi-darkness, afraid I’d once again find myself in the crossfire between the rest I so desperately sought, and the flashing explosions of anxiety that had kept sleep at bay for days.

Jenny’s words rolled through my brain. I thought about her faith in ultimate goodness. Her understanding of the mysteries of love. Her forgiveness of human failing.

My body pointlessly protested the pain building inside with every shallow breath, one relentless brick after another. Yet I felt a new calm. A strange, but welcome sense of peace. I turned toward the glow outside the bedroom door.

Then I closed my eyes.