March of the boxes

Dad's handsWhere do you stand when they wheel your shrouded father from his nursing home room? It’s awkward. The next time you see him he will be wearing his best suit, hands folded across his chest, toes up, wearing his glasses even though he’s “sleeping,” never having looked more like his own father.

Tight lipped, my sister, her husband, my wife and I nodded at the mortician and his assistant, and followed them with our eyes on their familiar path down the carpeted hallway to the door where their hearse waited. They’ve made this trip before, harvesting one by one the carcasses of giants who once roamed the earth. But family never is ready.

Then we slid back into the room where dad spent his last week and packed his paltry possessions accumulated during the travails of his final days shuttling on “the system’s” money mopping monorail between hospital, nursing home, hospital, nursing home and hospice.

My sister Denise and I were with dad when he breathed his last. She sat on the bed, hand on his leg; I sat next to him, hand on his arm.

We chatted with our unconscious father’s labored breathing a constant, disquieting rumble in the background. Her own life has been very difficult the past two years, with cancer in both her and her husband. Living a thousand miles apart, such moments of sharing are precious and rare.

Suddenly, silence boomed through the room. Denise stopped in mid-sentence and we turned toward dad. He was gone and we were immediately grateful and sad. We lingered for nearly a half hour before we called the nurse.

After hospice workers and the coroner verified the obvious, and the mortician wheeled dad’s body out the door, we carried our packed boxes down the hallway like ants following a trail of ketchup.

That trail led past the dining room where a couple dozen residents prepared for dinner. Their eyes lifted to our quiet convoy and immediate, unspoken recognition passed over their faces. We walked the hallway down which someday soon they will be wheeled.

Our small boxes and sad faces reminded them starkly that one day their own children would shoulder the remnants of their lives and move quietly down hallways real and figurative to fill the holes they leave behind.

Through all the sad events of my dad’s final days, the flash of recognition on those faces stands apart. Life recognizing death. Antelopes sharing a watering hole with a lion.

One day they’ll be too tired to run. Or the lion will be too hungry to give up. But today, they’ll live in uneasy proximity.

Our march of the boxes reminded the residents that one day the watering hole will dry up and they will lose the race. But not today.

One eye tuned to us until we turned the corner, their heads dipped again as they returned to their meal.

 

When Someday Comes

“Someday” arrived on a drizzling cold Saturday afternoon as I idled in the back of a long line of slow moving cars, each with blinkers on, heading for the same destination at the top of the hill where my dad always said he would be laid to rest someday.

The call we all dread but expect someday came four weeks earlier. Dad had fallen. He was unconscious before he hit the ground and his head smacked the cement unimpeded, prompting bleeding in the brain. At the trauma center surgeons told my siblings on site, and me on the phone a thousand miles away, that we had five minutes to decide whether or not to operate.

Odds were slim that dad would survive an operation, given other health issues. And we knew dad would rather be eaten by piranhas than to endure a lengthy term of physical impairment. We knew his end of life directives, so we elected no surgery. We would let this injury run its course, whatever channels it might carve.

Dad made a remarkable recovery in just a couple of days. My wife, daughter and I transferred him to a rehab center in our own car, and we returned to North Carolina. Dad improved steadily before I noticed on my daily phone call that he was very confused. He quickly deteriorated. I returned to Wisconsin and two weeks later dad died.

I was at his beside, listening to his labored breathing, urging the hospice nurse to administer morphine every hour as allowed, praying for grace and dignity and asking God to make dad’s final hours as few as possible.

His last breath was no different from any of the previous 100. But his body decided that last one was enough, and then it quit, signaling the end with a profound silence that rang through the room like a gong. My sister and I looked at each other and knew it was over.

It’s not easy to die in our system. Too many economic incentives are in play to let an old man pass in peace. A well insured patient at the end of life becomes a virtual money bladder into which every medical discipline sticks a straw to suck out their own sustenance.

I’ll write more on this later, but it seems less “health care” than it is “wealth share.” Or, in the case of the surviving spouse, or heirs or debtors, “wealth pare.”

Dad fell a second time when he was at rehab. Although we had determined the previous week we would not allow surgery or heroic measures just to keep dad breathing, attendants rushed him to the local emergency room, then back to the trauma center in the capital city. There doctors examined and tested him again, and a bevy of very kind, soft spoken palliative care doctors and interns explained options, and convinced dad’s children to admit him to palliative care at their hospital. When their straw was sated, they said he had to go back to the nursing center, under what would become hospice care.

There he spent his final week on this side of the veil as his body slowly shut down. It was a privilege to be there. It was a privilege to deliver the eulogy. It was a privilege to be known for 50 years as “Marv’s helper” and for all of my life, past and future, to be known as “Marv’s son.”

I have some trophies on my shelf, some papers in frames. But my proudest moments came from dad recognizing my hard work, whether it was splitting wood for the furnace that heated our Wisconsin farmhouse, or bringing home a good report card, or giving him a grandson. My worst moments were enduring his disapproval.

Dad was 86. His kidneys were bad, his heart weak. We always knew that someday we would lose him. But no matter how long you anticipate the final event, when someday arrives, it’s always a surprise, and you’re never ready.

 

 

Eulogy for Dad

Marv mug

Today we gather as friends and family to mourn the death, honor the memory, and celebrate the life of Marvin Jameson, our dad, our grandpa, our great grandpa, brother, husband, uncle, step father, community leader, friend – and true friend. You’ve come from across the street, and as far away as North Carolina, and Texas – and Sicily. Your presence is a blessing to the family. It affirms what we’ve always believed – that relationships matter and that dad developed a web of relationships that supported him throughout his life.

His dearest friends are from relationships he maintained for more than 60 years. After we moved to Rio in 1958, we loaded into the car on many Sunday afternoons for a drive to Stoughton, Verona or Oregon to drop in on families that he and mom knew from their earliest days. We grew up with those kids. And today some of those children – now middle aged men like me – will usher Dad to his final resting place as his pallbearers.

Dad loved to travel. His desk drawer is stuffed with maps and when we talked about our schedule since we always lived far away, dad would pull out a map to visualize where we would be. He always talked about memories of his travels – and the friends with whom he traveled. The mortar of shared memories builds relationships that endure.

To maintain those connections, Dad was the organizing principal behind what he affectionately called “the old timers” that meets for lunch every other month. As committed as dad was to maintaining long-term friendships, he had an infinite capacity to broaden that circle. During visitation last night I met many people who knew Marvin only from the last 20 years, or last decade. He openly embraced new friendships.

An outpouring of condolences through social media, calls and notes from people much younger than Marvin remember him as “the kindest man in town,” as “generous” and – maybe the highest compliment given to any man – “a good man.” One young man less than half dad’s age visited the house Thursday and was inconsolable.

How many of you received cards and calls from dad? It was all to maintain relationships, to stay in touch, stay in contact, to keep the vital cord of relationship connected from one human to another. He held strong opinions, but he wasn’t apt to argue for his view because he knew he probably wasn’t going to change your mind and relationship was a whole lot more important than winning an argument.

Dad loved to drive. The hardest part of his ordeal the past month was hearing that he would not be able to drive anymore. His children remember that whenever we went someplace we would take the scenic route. Dad knew who lived in just about every house and farm. And he knew who lived there before the current occupant. Once, a trip home from Columbus with Denise was taking an abnormally long time. Finally, Denise piped up from the back seat, “Are we still in Wisconsin?” Even with dad’s sense of humor, he was not amused.

Except for brief stints in Brooklyn and Portage Dad lived in this community since he was 14 years old. He pedaled his bike from Lodi to live with his aunts Vicki and Lillian so he could go to school in Rio, where Lillian taught. By 10th grade he figured he’d taught the teachers in Rio all he could, and he quit school to start driving a gravel truck for Columbia County.

He worked at least one job from then until he fully retired at age 77. He worked at a tire store, at Bancroft Dairy, in the processing plant and on a delivery route. He drove gas truck for the Farmer’s Union Co-op, and then managed the store, until he bought into a local insurance agency, and served on the board of Arlington Mutual Insurance. Through these kinds of jobs Dad knew, it seems, everyone in four counties. And, I’ve learned his reputation for integrity and consistency and wisdom is untarnished.

Dad was a worker. Retirement was starting to wear thin for him. In fact, last fall he applied for and was hired to deliver newspapers for the Portage Daily Register. Fortunately, he thought ahead to the slippery roads of winter and ultimately declined to start the new job.

Dad was never one to turn down a friend in need OR a good card game. He loved Euchre and Casino. Those of you who know the game will understand when I say, dad never turned down the right bower. Even if was his only trump and it meant getting euchred.

Dad had a laugh out loud sense of humor. He loved jokes about the hapless Norwegians Ole and Lena. I’d tell him a joke and if he could remember it, he’d share it with Denise and she would always say SHE’s the one who GAVE me the joke in the first place. Often, she was right. In the past year or so, I didn’t have to have new jokes for dad. I could tell him the same one every week.

Dad had an amazing memory for numbers and dates. He could and did recite his great grandchildren’s middle names and birth dates. After our weekly calls he would say give Caleb Archer, Harper Grace, Juliette Elizabeth, Corbin Wayne, Grayson Robert, Larkin Elizabeth and Colton Jameson a big hug and kiss from me, will you? Kids, that’s why I hug and kiss you so much. Your great Grandpa tells me to. He could do the same for his great grandchildren in Texas, although there were some he never had a chance to meet.

Dad loved that he had granddaughters and great granddaughters whose middle name was Elizabeth, like mom’s. He loved that he had a grandson and great grandson with middle name Wayne, like his. There was always some debate about whether dad’s middle name actually was Wayne, or maybe it was DEwayne. He couldn’t remember. I’m Wayne, my first son is Wayne, my wife’s dad is Wayne, my son lived in Wayne, Pa. so we went with Wayne. The parents of Corbin Wayne, who is nine months old, tell me, that if Grandpa’s middle name had been Dewayne, Corbin probably wouldn’t have carried on the tradition. Then, lo and behold, I find dad’s class ring yesterday and the initials inside are M.D. J.

He was so proud of his grandchildren. Those who lived close – Tyler and Stacy – he adored you. And the adoration you returned warmed not only our dad, but also your aunt and uncles who so appreciated the attention you gave. During difficult days years ago, grandpa went out of his way to include Stacy, Tyler and Jeffrey in his travel and visits to affirm to you that families may struggle, but family love always wins. Grandchildren who lived far had earlier memories that probably grew to legend in your minds, but they are still true and sweet. Coming down County B past the farm still plucks the heartstrings of all of them – and of us.

In 1996 when Barbara died, Dad’s children thought he would die of loneliness. He cried often, and walked and walked and walked. Then he remembered an earlier relationship, and a girl with whom he shared confirmation classes at Dekorra Lutheran Church in 1944. Margaret and dad were married in 1997 and Margaret, it’s not an exaggeration to say you may well have saved dad’s life. Thank you for the companionship you shared these nearly 20 years. Thank you too, to your children who cared for dad.

The outpouring of condolences and sentiment from generations of friends and family that know my dad affirm to me time and again what an honor it has been to be known as “Marvin’s son.” It’s a title I’ll carry forever, as will Linda, Denise and Jim. In the years to come, the ability to say, “Marvin Jameson was my dad” will open virtually any door in Columbia County.

Dad was a good man who prayed like everything depended on God, and worked like everything depended on him. We miss him already. You will miss his calls, his card games, his ready willingness to help at church and in the community. Ushering, being a taxi to help others get to doctor’s appointments, helping with communion at Wyocena and Covenant House.

God, on the other hand, is looking for a fourth to join Him, Marvin and Barbara at the card table. Oh wait, there’s Merlin now. And Jerry, Dale, Orly and Lennis are waiting to take on the winners.

When you squeeze people they leak out the glue that holds communities like Rio together. People like Marvin Wayne Jameson. Institutions are vital too, institutions like the Church. And schools. And in Rio, institutions like HomeTown Café. Nancy, who runs the joint, has a great tradition of personalizing a coffee mug for her regulars. Another tradition of hers is to “retire” the mugs to a glass display when that regular customer – no longer needs it.

Dad no longer needs his, because he’s drinking his coffee now from the Holy Grail. Bottoms up dad. Bottoms up.

(Delivered at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Rio, Wisconsin on March 25, 2017)

It’s the presence

Sue Ellen agreed over the telephone to marry me.

She lived in Colorado. I was a poor college junior in Oklahoma. Two years earlier, we grew to know each other as volunteers at a Spanish Baptist mission in New Mexico, fell in love, then went our separate ways.

She brought me to my senses a year later, when she came to visit her sister at the same college I attended. We ended up spending a lot of time together, talking about the things that mattered to us. Hours after she left, I woke her dad in Colorado to ask if I could marry his daughter. He asked, “Which one?”

When I told him, “Sue Ellen,” he asked only, “Do you love her?” My “yes, sir,” satisfied him and he went back to sleep. So I called Sue Ellen as she was getting ready for work, 600 miles away, to ask her to share the rest of her life with me.

Of course, I didn’t have a ring to give her, no symbol of my adoration and commitment. She had no diamond for friends to notice, no rock to wave so they could exclaim, “Oh, Sue Ellen,you’re engaged!”

Her mother to this day says she never was engaged. Wearing no symbol, she had only my word…and sure knowledge of our mutual love.

A month later, at Thanksgiving, I saw her for the only time during our engagement. We picked out our plain gold wedding bands in a discount store and dreamed of our future.

In another month, we married at the mission in Española, N.M. Lack of an engagement symbol could not negate the reality of our marriage and of our waking in each other’s presence each morning.

Nor, does the world’s largest diamond guarantee the man who gave it will love you in the morning. Ask Marla Maples or Jennifer Anniston, or any number of women in lawyer’s offices filing for divorce.

After the Israelites had their tails kicked at Ebenezer (I Samuel 4) they sent men back to Shiloh to bring the Ark of the Covenant to camp. “When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.” (I Sam. 4:5)

Chin up everyone, God has arrived.

When the Philistines learned the Israelites had the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, they trembled, remembering the power the Jewish God displayed against Egypt.

But the Philistines reasoned if they quit the fight they would be subject to the Jews, as the Jews had been to them, so they joined the battle. That day, Philistines killed 30,000 more Israelites, and captured the Ark.

Turned out, the Ark guaranteed neither God’s presence, nor His favor.

A few years later, Philistines have another Israelite army pinned down, hiding in their tents from a giant named Goliath. A young shepherd comes to bring some bread and cheese to his brothers in the army, and is embarrassed for them and their comrades because they cower before one man.

When David volunteers to fight the giant, King Saul puts his own armor on the boy, a symbol of authority and strength. Instead, the symbol is heavy and useless for the real battle and he sheds it.

David picks up five smooth stones from a creek bed as he trades trash talk with Goliath, telling him he will cut off his head “and the whole world will know there is a God in Israel.” He runs toward Goliath and drills the first stone into the giant’s forehead and drops him like pulpwood.

David dropped the symbols before he dropped Goliath and enjoyed the presence of God.

Israelite soldiers of the previous generation mistakenly thought the symbol was the Presence.

Sue Ellen never had a diamond, but we’ve enjoyed each other’s presence for 41 years.

In relationships, it’s not the token, it’s the trust.

In worship, it’s not the symbol, it’s the Presence.

Have you ‘settled?’

Because Abraham figures prominently in the origins of the world’s three major religions most of the world knows the story of how he responded without protest to God telling him to “leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1, NIV)

His unquestioning action – while he was yet named Abram – is held up as an example of how we should respond to God’s calling: immediately, unquestioningly, without reservation. Much is made of the implication that he did not know his destination when he started his journey. “Go to the land I will show you,” says the verse.

We know from further reading that the target land was Canaan.

As God is laying out the challenge, God promises to make childless Abram, age 75, “into a great nation,” and to make him a blessing for “all peoples on earth.” Chapter 12, verse 4 says, “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him.”

One reason Christians argue so much about points made in the Bible is that such points and quotations are read out of context. Reading Abram’s story a little further back, into chapter 11, we see that as a younger man, he had set out for Canaan with his father, Terah, but when the clan got to Haran, the Bible says in Gen. 11:31, “they settled there.” (NIV)

Haran is coincidently a region with the same name as Abram’s deceased brother.

How often have you started on a journey, toward a goal, but you got part way down the road, found good grass and water, and you “settled,” far short of your goal? Maybe you looked back to what you were leaving and halfway was so much better that you were content to plop right there.

Are you living a “settled” life?

If Abram had stayed in Haran, only part way to Canaan, we wouldn’t even know his name today. It’s easy to lose sight of the dream destination. Haran was close enough, good enough, until God said, “Go.”

Going meant leaving behind familiarity, comfort and security. Going meant forging ahead to the unknown. It also indicated belief in God’s ridiculous promise that a childless 75-year-old man would become father to a great nation, and be a blessing to all nations.

Haran was good. “Go” was far better than he ever could have guessed. Haran was three square meals and a warm bed every night. “Go,” was nomadic and uncertain.

Haran was settled. “Go,” was claiming a ridiculous promise, the outcome of which was unknown. Haran was safe. “Go” was fraught with danger, hardship, moral dilemmas and previous occupants in the land Abram was promised.

I don’t know why Abram’s father Terah settled in Haran, without continuing on to Canaan. I suspect he found good grass and water. But a settled life – when God has bigger plans for you – will never bring you deep satisfaction.

Possess the New Year

How are things going for you so far in this new year?

Lots of bad things are going on in the world. No need to enumerate them. You have your own definition and awareness of those things that makes you feel threatened.

And yet: the economy is showing slow, steady growth, unemployment is at its lowest rate in many years, the stock market is near record highs, building cranes mark the skylines of many cities, the U.S. is making a peaceful transition of leadership and optimism seems on the increase.

So if things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem, why do they seem so bad?

Uncertainty and insecurity are the biggest wet towels draped over our plans for 2017. It is tough to act in the face of uncertainty.

My sister was a nurse in a major veterans hospital and she says when most cancer patients in remission suffer a reoccurrence of their disease they are not frightened, but are almost “relieved” because they expected it to come back eventually. They dreaded it of course, worried about, feared it…but now they don’t have to worry about it showing up any more. It’s here, and they can deal with it.

Doing a story in Houston once, I met a former New York actress who fled an abusive relationship. She huddled each night in the closet with her baby, listening to her boyfriend’s footsteps up the stairs, knowing that if he doesn’t beat her tonight, he will eventually. Still, she told me that the certain knowledge of a beating was better than running out the door with her baby in her arms into an uncertain future.

In the second year after the ancient Hebrews fled centuries of slavery in Egypt they arrived at the land God promised them. The barrier, of course, is that the land wasn’t gift wrapped. Other tribes occupied it, and the Hebrews would have to deal with those tribes before they could possess the land.

Moses wanted to know what his people were up against, so he assigned 12 men to scout the land, including Caleb and Joshua.

For 40 days the 12 explored, skulking around the desert, checking out crops, cities and people. They found a land flowing with milk and honey, rich in fruit and cropland. The grape cluster they brought back as evidence of the land’s bounty had to be carried on a pole between two men!

But they also saw those people who occupied the land, and it was scary. To the scouts, according to the story in the book of Numbers, chapter 13, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Yikes. How often is your self-image determined by comparison to others? As someone said long ago, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

The scouts saw the occupants as giants compared to themselves. Their fear was not misplaced. Those guys were big. Taking that land would be tough sledding. Ten scouts thought it would be too tall of a task and they recommended slinking away.

This is what happens when we compare our situation to someone else’s without taking into account the promises of God.

Human nature dreads an uncertain future. We dread it even more than we hate a horrible past. We’d rather live in a paralyzed present.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, considered the promise and said, “Let us certainly go up – and we have possessed it; for we are thoroughly able for it.” (From Young’s Literal Translation) As far as they were concerned, the job was as good as accomplished.

It is only when we see ourselves as God sees us that we are empowered, encouraged, and enabled.

Three things to remember from this story as you race toward December:

  1. To gain a more accurate view of yourself and of your possibilities, raise your eyes. Don’t compare yourself to your friends or colleagues or neighbors. Don’t hold your successes up to theirs and find yours to be less. See in yourself the giant God sees.
  2. The past you cling to wasn’t all that great.

The 10 fearful scouts tried to persuade the people to go back to Egypt, where a king “who knew not Joseph” had enslaved the Hebrews, cut their food rations, increased their quota for brick making and ordered midwives to kill any male child at birth.

  1. Don’t paralyze your present by preferring the past.

In Caleb’s mind the land was already theirs. It sat like a great, unopened present under the Christmas tree.

The new year stretches before you. I know it’s just a quirk of a calendar page, but Januarys give us a chance to reset our emotional clock; to clear our desk, empty our inbox and embrace possibilities.

What has God promised you? “What?” God told Moses, “Are my arms too short to do what I promised?”

Can we say with Caleb at the start of this year, “Let us go up and possess the land?”

Massacre still permeates Newtown

The December 14 anniversary passed unnoticed for most of the world. Yet, just four years ago, Adam Lanza rocked the world when in an act of unspeakable evil, he killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

At memorial services for the victims it is common to toll a bell 26 times – once for each of the children and teachers who died that horrible morning.

When the faith community tolls a memorial bell, it rings 28 times, to include Lanza and his mother, Nancy, who he killed before wrecking his havoc at the school.

“They were members of our community,” said Kristen Switzer, associate pastor of youth and mission at Newtown Congregational Church. “We choose love over hate. We choose forgiveness over hate. We choose community over brokenness.”

I interviewed Kristen at the God and Guns conference in New York City in October. The incident hovers over Newtown like a fog. People function. They eat and drink, marry and give in marriage. The city moves, the elementary school has been razed and a new school built.

But everywhere the misty wet, seeping blanket of memory permeates the town and its residents like a morning fog that rolled in off the ocean and settled.

When you are in the “depth of despair” from that mass killing “there is literally nothing left to do but love,” said Switzer, explaining why the faith community includes Lanza and his mother in their memorials and prayers.

Switzer grew up in Newtown and attended Sandy Hook school.

“When I get together with friends we know we will end up talking about it,” she said. “The memory is relentless.”

And yet, she and Newtown friends feel they live in an alternate reality. Their past and future is heavily linked to that day and every step, corner, sign, shrine and memorial in town reminds them #WeAreNewtown or #NewtownStrong, they know the rest of the world has moved on.

“We’re always thinking about that day,” Switzer said. “And no one else is.”

Switzer was not living in Newtown on that fateful day, but she came quickly to volunteer, sorting donated goods and sifting through email messages from around the globe, passing on those that required attention.

“One day I looked up and people from the Amish community where five girls had been killed at school (in 2006) were there. They had driven to see us. That’s when I realized the depth of our situation.”

That’s when she knew Newtown would be dealing with the aftermath for many years.

Today Switzer is a youth and mission pastor in her hometown, which itself has a mission: to end gun violence once and for all.

“We are all responsible for the state of our nation, good and bad,” she said. “We don’t have the privilege of being silent anymore. You must get active before it happens in your community…because it will.”