Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.

 

 

 

To catch a hero

glove

It’s just a glove, but when you’re having a catch with a child, it’s a dreamcatcher.

I spotted my first baseball glove in the old Gambles store in downtown Rio, WI (population 788) when I was a kid. You could get anything in that store, from baseball gloves to washing machines to a nut and bolt to hold the wing onto the airplane you were building to fly off the barn roof.

If they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it.

The glove listed for $4.75 and in my imagination it promised to make me field the ball like Willie Mays, hit like Harmon Killebrew or pitch like Sandy Koufax. That’s the promise I saw in that copper colored, slotted slab of leather.

I actually dreamed about that glove between the time I saw it and when I finally got it. I dreamed about flagging down impossibly distant fly balls; of tossing the glove into the air to knock down a potential home run ball before it cleared the fence; of stretching at first base to snag an errant throw and save the inning.

That glove was going to make me a hero.

When I had saved enough I grabbed the bills and all the coins off my dresser and went to town with mom. I marched into Gambles to claim my dream – I mean, my glove.

I carefully laid it onto the counter and when the proprietor rang up $4.88, my heart sank. I hadn’t accounted for the tax man in my saving. My stomach tense, heart pounding, I dug deep and when I put every single penny I had on the counter, it totaled $4.88.

Dreams come true.

I slid that glove onto my hand with the excited reverence of a woman pushing her finger into an engagement ring for the first time. Its exotic leather aroma conjured up dugouts, strikeouts, shutouts and the hero headlines sure to come my way. I couldn’t wait to find someone with whom to have a catch.

Of course, that glove and a successor found a way to get lost in the ensuing years. But I’ve got grandsons now – and a granddaughter – who always want to have a catch. On Memorial Day weekend Grayson wanted to show me how hard he could throw. No problem, I thought. He’s only 8. I don’t have a glove, but I’ll wear my leather yard gloves and catch a few.

I’m writing this with a severely bruised hand. I also own a new glove.

After the last “ouch” I could tolerate, I hauled Grayson to the sporting goods store. One minute into the store I thought I would not be getting a glove that day. The least expensive glove on the wall was $350. They went up from there.

Then Grayson found the rack for mortals and I scanned the price tags to the bottom where they stopped at $50. Ahh, I thought. “That’s the glove for me.” Its other attributes were irrelevant.

Grayson and I headed back home and had a catch. He didn’t have to hold back for fear of hurting my hands and the snap, pop and sizzle of the ball smacking the pocket was an ear worm of joy.

Fifty dollars is still a lot to pay for a baseball glove. And I’m going to take care of this glove for the precious tool it is. Because I have 17 years of having a catch with grandchildren before the current youngest is out of high school.

And I want to be their hero.

Norman and glove

My cousin Sandy saw this post and found my glove on video! Given the event, I was about in fourth grade. That’s Sandy, trying to wrest it from me…

Smoke, Flame and Memories

relatives

Relatives in one of the many photo albums stored in dad’s office.

Dad’s sudden death in March left a home office crammed to the brim with files of records, boxes of old photo albums, crates of special event greeting cards and birthday wishes he’s received over decades.

My siblings and I sorted through cassettes of his favorite polka bands, remembering polka tunes like “Fortunes of War” by Ray Budzilek, “Red Wing” by Marv Herzog or “She’s Too Fat” by Frank Yankovic. Video cassettes of movies, and promotional pieces I’d done for clients through the years filled boxes but would never be seen again because no one has a video cassette player.

We found thick newspaper files of cousins’ high school graduation notices, boys going off to war and anniversary announcements. He saved confirmation programs and programs from funerals. Dad was executor for the estates of several relatives who died decades earlier and all their paperwork was still there in the cabinets.

Over every dusty file we shook our heads and asked dad why in the world he saved all this stuff. I never knew he was such a collector of this memorabilia.

We went through everything because we dared not miss clues we needed to settle eventually his affairs. Of course, we saved not one percent of the items, which included old National Geographics and lovely calendars from the last century.

Because my sister who is estate executor didn’t want anything taken to the dump that had on it people’s names or personal information, she insisted we burn them. After an aborted attempt to incinerate the goods in the cornfield on the old home place – an attempt that quickly attracted an audience that for some reason arrived on fire trucks – we scaled down the conflagration to a pleasant, hand warming experience in the backyard barbecue pit of my cousin Bobby, who coincidentally is the local fire chief.

As I’m feeding the pit with decades of detritus I voice my frustration with dad’s having saved all this stuff – a practice over decades that now requires my attention to dispose it.

“Our parents save this stuff because they think it will mean something to us someday,” Bobby said. We acknowledged the simple reality – with a healthy dose of reverential head nodding – that it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t register meaning to us at the level our parents probably thought it would.

I later expressed that thought to my wise and insightful niece Stacy who said we were doing exactly what dad expected us to do. He knew we wouldn’t save all of those items, but he knew we wouldn’t just haul a truck up to the door and start pitching drawers and files into it, either.

Stacy reminded me that we went through every file and photo page by page, each page a memory. Some we flipped through, some made us pause and share and talk about it, laughing or crying as we recalled that moment, friend, or relative.

We were kids again, each sharing incidents the others didn’t recall, expanding our memory banks with new deposits. When finally we made our way through the last of them, determining which to save, and with which to feed the fire, we were able to close a chapter, like the slap of a leather cover against the last page of the last album that we saved.

Thanks for the memories dad, and thanks mom, for putting all those photo books together years ago.

Our children will enjoy going through them.

Thanksgiving Phrases

You may expect an article about “Thanksgiving phrases” to be filled with words of thanksgiving, praise and gratitude – syrupy slogans poured over a Norman Rockwell painting.

But four days in Nana and Papa’s house with up to 10 children at a time – all under age 10 – becomes an exercise in instruction, training, and preserving sanity, especially when Nana is under the weather.

Grandchildren, their parents, their parents’ friends visiting with their own children filling a house not constructed under military grade specifications created a colorful chaos in which ever diligent parents tried to find teachable moments. Following is a random litany of phrases that boiled to the surface that will give you an idea of the scene.

“How old are you?” “Seven and a half. It’s a hard age.”

“Can I have a cookie?”

“Who wants to play me in ping pong?”

“I’ve got winner.”

“I demand a rematch.”

“Is that special egg nog? Or is it just egg nog?”

“Turn that down!”

“Where is this supposed to go?”

“Do you need to go potty?”

“Who didn’t flush?”

“Can we take the bikes to the greenway?”

“Can we go back to the park?”

“I wanna play.”

“No one will play with me.”

“How’s Nana feeling?”

“Are you feeling better Jules?”

“I’m all betta.”

“I’ve got your number, daddy.” (Says 2 ½ year old)

“Probably not.”

“I’m hungry.”

“As you wish.” (Quoting Princess Bride, which practically ran on looped replay)

“Can I have a cookie?”

“You just ate.”

“But I’m hungry.”

“Have you picked up all the toys?”

“Go outside and play.”

“Shhhh. Nana’s trying to sleep.”

“Why can’t we have dessert?
“What were you playing outside?” “Ghost in the graveyard.”

“Larkin hurt her knee.”

“Go back out. You’re fine.”

“Colton hit me with a towel as hard as he could.”

“Colton hit Harper in the eye with a bat.”

“Is this a clean cup?”

“Are these clean dishes in the dishwasher?”

“Can I get some help here?”

“No running in and out.”

“Shut the door!”

“Carry your dishes to the sink.”

“Are we out of milk?”

“I thought we were going to have popcorn and a movie.”

“I want some cantelopee.”

“Who’s going to the grocery store?”

“I’m hungry.”

Thank goodness for the ping pong table, warm weather, forewarned emergency services and accommodating neighbors.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

I remember that

lucy-mcbathLucy McBath finds joy in her calling to make her son’s death have meaning. But the scars of her sorrow still show every time she speaks. 

 

News headlines flash at you and disappear, like an oncoming driver flicking his bright lights. Then sometime later the story beneath that headline is resurrected. You meet someone who brings it back to life and you think, “I remember that.”

Only now, it’s real because you’re talking to the person involved. It’s not ink on a page. It’s a voice in the ear, a person in your eye.

I met Lucy McBath in New York City this week. She’s the mother of Jordan Davis, the young man who pulled into a gas station Nov. 23, 2012 in Jacksonville, FL playing his music too loud for the pleasure of Michael Dunn.

Dunn asked/told Davis and his companions to turn down the volume. Davis, as a 17-year-old kid would do, got his back up and they had words. Dunn got a gun from his car and shot it 10 times into Davis’ car, striking him three times and killing him.

Davis was black. Dunn is white. But they both bleed red. The difference is that Dunn’s blood is still in his body in prison somewhere. Davis’ was spilled out onto the parking lot and his car seat.

It’s dangerous to be black in America.

Of course, I’ve just returned from the conference God and Guns 2016 at Riverside Church in New York City. So my nerves are raw. I’ve been illumined to the underlying causes of much of the gun violence in this country. (I’ll soon post stories at BaptistNews.com. There I covered them straight. Here I’m talking more from the heart.)

In New York I met Lucy McBath, Jordan’s mother. As soon as she started telling her story, I thought, “I remember that.”

But now, instead of a flashing headline, her story is meat and bone. She has dedicated her life to ending gun violence in America so that Jordan’s life and death will not have been in vain.

Addressing conference participants, McBath said change will not come if we wait for someone else or some other time. She quoted President Obama, who said, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

McBath is the Faith and Community outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, a fairly new organization with chapters in all 50 states that sprung up after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown. Their goal is “common sense reforms to reduce gun violence.”

“Ninety-one people each day will continue to die if people of faith are not engaged in saving lives,” McBath said. “It must be our task to usher in a nationwide moral movement against gun violence.”

She reeled off the statistics that any advocate will have at the tip of her tongue:

An American is 25 times more likely than in any other developed country to die by gun violence:

52 percent of women killed by guns are killed by their intimate partner or family member;

Easy access to firearms plays a major role in childhood death;

More than 21,000 people each year kill themselves with a gun;

The presence of a gun in the house greatly increases the chance that a domestic argument or a period of depression will turn lethal.

“After Jordan died I questioned the absence of the faith community,” said McBath, a devout Christian. “Their silence troubled my spirit. Where were the pastors, the ministers, the reverends and priests abiding by the Word of God to challenge the ethical and moral violation of the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder?’”

McBath is dedicating her life to reducing gun violence so other boys like her son, and the sons of Sandra Rougier and Natasha Christopher and the students of Newtown teacher Mary Ann Jacob who all testified at the conference can live in a time and place without fear of being gunned down in the street.

I remember that.

Soon

(From 1987 to 1999 I wrote a monthly column in the publication of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where I was director of communications, called In a Word. This piece is reprinted from a 1997 column, written while my oldest son was getting ready to leave for college)

Shuffling down the hallway in the early morning, the glistening blue of Nathan’s freshly polished truck in the driveway arrested my sight through the window.

The little truck represents a promise I made to the kids that if they ever earned a full college scholarship, I would get them a vehicle to drive to school. Nathan did his part, and will be playing basketball for UNC Greensboro this fall.

I stood with my arms across my chest, watching the rising sun lay dappled ribbons of light across the pickup, and I pondered sadly the thin week that stood between that moment and Nathan’s departure to write a new chapter in our family’s life.

That evening my wife and I visited a young couple who were still doey-eyed and dopey over their eight-day-old baby. We toured their new house, admired the baby’s room, and talked of the tremendous emotional highs and lows that lay ahead of them through their daughter’s growing years.

It’s a brief journey, I said, from the hospital to college. Nathan’s leaving has taught me the shortest measurable unit of time is the moment between the delivery room cry, and the dorm room good-bye.

Why didn’t someone warn me about that when Nathan constantly wanted me to throw a ball, ride bike, shoot baskets, play with Legos, and read, read, read to him? Or when he fussed with his siblings on long drives? Or when he consumed the month’s grocery allowance in a week?

I confess to lunacy, actually having hoped some trying moments would pass quickly. I thought “how long?” when I cringed with him in the bathroom, trying to peel a gauze pad from the back of his 7-year-old thigh. He’d hit a bump, got tossed from his seat and his knobby bike tire rubbed off a 4-inch diameter of skin, two layers deep.

Like a fool, I put gauze over the open, oozing circle. Two days later we had to soak him in the shower to peel off the pad. I still hear his screams.

“When will you have it, dad?”

“Soon,” I said.

When he entered the Optimist oratorical contest I promised to help him edit his speech. Caught up in other work, he pestered me about when I could help him.

“Soon,” I said.

As he grew, and the family grew and my job grew, but the hours of my day stayed forever stuck on 24, “soon” seemed a reasonable answer to his requests. When could I help him memorize his play lines? When could I show him how to change the oil in the car? When could I take him practice driving? When could I talk to his teacher about math? When could I teach him a hook shot? When could I help him paint a 3-point line around his basket in the driveway?

Soon.

I don’t worry as much as their mom when the kids are out with friends. But now, watching the blue hue lighten with the rising sun, I remember once waiting through the interminable minutes for the clock to lift its heavy arms to curfew hour. With a shudder I feel the terror that grips a parent when the appointed hour arrives, but the child does not. Tingling ears measure the speed of every passing car, listening for one to slow, hoping the next one is his.

Yawning and stretching, my wife came out of our room, looked at the clock, and asked when I expected Nathan to be home from his early workout.

Soon.

Today she looks at his empty place at the table, walks past his room devoid of trophies, pictures and inspirational posters, marvels as the pantry shelves stay full like the widow’s oil lamp after Elijah’s promise, and pats the washing machine at rest. She cries, and asks when I think Nathan might come home for a visit.

I put my arm around her, look out the window where his truck used to sit, and say, “Soon.”

 

Rainy walk proves journey is key

Rainy weather washed out our plans to ride bikes on the greenway. So my 7-year-old grandson Grayson and I rolled pennies, of all things.

Sue Ellen and I had months of loose coins that we’d started rolling the day before, but we weren’t going to do the pennies. We were going to just run them through the bank’s counter and pay the confiscatory fee by which they charged us to count money we were going to put into an account in their bank.

We’d sacrifice the 8-10 percentage tariff for the pennies, which weren’t worth the effort, but not for the big coins.

But, with us scrambling for entertainment on a rainy day we decided to roll pennies. Anything you can do with a little boy that gives him a sense of accomplishment is a good thing. So efficient were we, that we ran out of coin wrappers.

That necessitated a trip to the Dollar Tree a mile and a half away to get some more. I hated to drive the car that short distance, and the roads were too wet to safely ride our bikes. But the misty rainfall was not too furious to keep us from walking.

After assuring me that he could do the round trip, Grayson and I took off for an adventure, him in an old cap of mine, and a raincoat that dwarfed him.

We observed three power company trucks driving through the neighborhood as we walked, and remembered how the lights had flickered at our house, but hadn’t gone out. Odd.

We chatted as we walked, noting the quiet swimming pool on a rainy day, revisiting my recent bike wreck when he had gone for help, talked safety rules about walking on the road, teased about “chasing girls” in a few years that made him turn red.

I realized he didn’t think he’d have to wait that long. On the return trip, I made sure to inform him girls have cooties.

We talked about how a hill looks much higher and steeper from the top of a previous hill, but seems to level out as you walk it. So don’t be discouraged, keep moving forward.

He sounded the “how much further” refrain after the first mile, but by then we were in the shopping district and I could point out the traffic light we needed to reach. Alas, when we got there, the store was dark.

Employees sitting in front said they had no power and could not let us in the store. I moaned. A long walk for “nothing.”

Disappointed that we couldn’t accomplish our goal, and knowing how fragile a 7- year-old’s countenance can be, we started the long walk back home empty handed. We noticed, however, that on the other side of the street lights still blazed – including at a donut shop.

I suggested a detour and took the opportunity for more teaching about power lines, grids and transformers and how one side of the street can have electricity, while the other side remains in the dark.

I also shouldered my grandfatherly responsibility to illustrate the distinct taste advantages of an apple fritter over a chocolate covered cake donut.

Just when it looked like our adventure was a strike out, a hot and tired grandson with a chocolate smear on his face said, “We’ve got to do this again, papa.”

Grayson reminded me that time is our most precious currency and when you invest it on the journey your destination is irrelevant.

 

 

Learning terror on the highways

Self-driving cars are racing into our future. They supposedly will cut fuel consumption, extend our suburbs yet decrease commute times, cut the number of cars on the road by more than half, ultimately make our roads safer and cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Scientists theorize that a car with a dozen or more computerized “eyes” that are constantly alert and instantly responsive will be safer than a car with a human driver with just two eyes whose response times vary because of distractions like sleep deprivation, cell phones, music, mirror checking and messy sandwiches.

In the meantime, we humans are going to have to continue to navigate our crowded, crumbling roads and teach our offspring to drive safely upon them as well. It’s an important, and potentially terrifying lesson.

In fact, I remember just how terrifying it can be.

The 1979 movie “Alien” was the most terrifying cinema I’ve ever watched. I was sure the monster was in the cat and I urged Sigourney Weaver to leave it behind as she abandoned her space ship, but she went back for it!

I didn’t know until the final credits rolled that the movie was over. I relaxed for the first time in two hours and my stomach was sore three days from the tension.

But I didn’t know terror.

I’ve been trapped in a July hailstorm above timberline on Pikes Peak with the trail disappearing beneath ice and darkness approaching. We couldn’t have survived a night on the mountain me and three buddies braved the storm, climbing, exhausted, to the top.

But I didn’t know terror.

When I was sideswiped on a rain slick interstate by an 18-wheeler on a cold dark night, I still didn’t know terror.

I’ve taken the subway from New Jersey into Manhattan at midnight, heeding a native’s warning to sit as far front and as near the conductor as possible. I perched on the scarred plastic bench holding my country mice eyes unseeing, straight ahead. I pled silently for a cloak of invisibility to drape over me and to cover the neon sign I knew flashed above my head saying “Easy Mark.”

But terror remained only a textbook definition, a movie subject, an Edgar Allen Poe concoction. I only thought I knew terror, like a boy thinks he knows love.

Then, I took my 15-year-old daughter driving for the first time. And I discovered terror.

I grew up on a farm, driving tractors and trucks in the field from age 11. I learned the levers and pedals that made things go in slow-moving vehicles, in wide open spaces.

I had no idea until that first driving lesson how narrow are the roads or how close to the roads are mail boxes, or how sharp are the curves and how abruptly the pavement drops at the shoulder, or how wide are oncoming vehicles.

In the very first moments, after Erin adjusted the seat, mirrors, seatbelt, radio, sunglasses and hair, and figured out which pedal was go and which was stop, she almost took out one of those mailboxes. Fortunately, the ditch we rolled into on the other side kept the box safe.

It’s a helpless feeling, to be sitting on the rider’s side, with no brake and no steering wheel when all manner of disaster careens at you. I pushed a size 10 footprint into the floorboard when Erin didn’t seem to turn the wheel enough to accommodate the slow rolling curves. Unlike a 3-D movie simulation, these terrors really can jump off the screen like a Velociraptor to bite off your head.

I told Erin to ignore the cars on her bumper, and not to fear the ones coming toward her seeming to take up the whole road. When they get closer, you’ll see the road really is wide enough for both of us, I assured her. And the bridges only seem too narrow. And 30 miles per hour is fast enough!

You cannot imagine how dizzyingly fast 40 mph seems to a dad when his first time driver is behind the wheel.

To her credit, Erin finished the one-hour session with a new appreciation of how difficult and mind bending it is to drive well – a task that looks so easy when observing an experienced driver. She made a lot of progress and our next session was much easier. (I won’t go into the part about trying to teach her how to drive a stick shift.)

And importantly, I was reminded that the best way to overcome the terrors that lurk “out there” – under the bed, around the corner, in the operating room, on the next calendar page, when the phone rings, when your wife says “we need to talk” – is to face them. Get in the car with them and stare them in the eye while racing down the open highway.

Of course, it’s better to have a brake pedal on your side when you do.

 

Healing power of the right word

I suffered a pretty awful accident May 14 while following my grandson on a mountain bike down an open, sloping field on his parents’ property.

We’d been tooling around for an hour, just enjoying a simple ride on a perfect spring day. Who needs a helmet for that? Well, Grayson wore his because he told me, “Safety first.” I should have listened.

He led me to the top of the hill, launching from his uncle’s driveway down through the field. I took a moment to soak in the sight and relish the feeling. His joy was palpable.

He was out riding with his papa, atop the freedom of his wheels and the thrill of a downhill slope. Giving myself just a moment to appreciate the scene, I took off after him, cutting a new path to the left of his line.

A lip at the edge of the field dropped several feet. I intended just to ride it down, hanging on tightly to reach the broader, softer slope. I didn’t see the hole at the bottom until it was too late. In an instant of clarity my brain registered, “This is not going to be good.”

My front wheel hit the hole and the bike stopped dead. I kept flying toward the ground like a spear and landed on my head

Grayson ran back up the hill to see if I was all right. “No, Grayson, I’m not all right. Go get Nana.” I felt like someone had hit me in the head with a 2 x 4 and that I’d lost six inches of height from having my spine compressed.

Within moments Nana pulled the Subaru into the field beside me. She sent Grayson to his uncle Bubba’s house at the top of the hill for a towel to stop the bleeding and for an additional hand to get me into the car. By this time I’d surveyed my extremities, all of which functioned, so I knew long term I would be fine. But, oh, I hurt.

Later tests would reveal fractured skull, cracked vertebrae, bruised spleen, lots of abrasions and cuts that required 10 staples to close. But for now there was just lots of activity with the other grandkids and Bubba and his wife, Sonya while we debated calling an ambulance.

In the midst of that hubbub I heard the sweet voice of 7-year-old Grayson saying, “It’s my fault. I should have told Papa about that hole.” I reached for Grayson’s leg and told him never to think that. He bears no blame.

But during the next 15 hours in two emergency rooms and calls back and forth among family, I kept hearing that Grayson was feeling responsible. That is a heavy burden for a bright, sensitive seven-year-old. It saddened me that he felt that way.

I was released early the next morning and went home with a neck brace to rest and heal. Grayson’s mom and dad, who had been out of town celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary during all the excitement, brought the kids by the house to see that Papa was OK. I knew I needed to find the right words to relieve Grayson of his self-imposed burden of blame.

His face was painfully tentative when he saw my brace, staples and stitches and he was wondering how I would react now that I was upright. In an instant I smiled big, held out my arms and loudly said, “Grayson, my rescuer! You’re the one who rescued me when you went for help! Thank you, buddy.”

In that instant his face transformed from hesitant to happy, from reluctant to rejoicing, from tentative to triumphant. He went from self-blaming to knowing he contributed to my being OK after a bad spill.

Choose your words carefully. A well-chosen word has the power to heal. A quick, harsh word has the power to destroy, to tear a hole in the cloth of confidence.

I know people who still labor under the self-image an angry parent imposed upon them 50 years ago, rather than with the reality of the bright and beautiful people they are today.   Grayson is young and aggravating sometimes because he is so intelligent and curious and he insists there is nothing he cannot do.

But from this day forth, no matter how many times I huff and puff and say, “No, Grayson, you cannot use the chainsaw,” he will know that on May 14, he rescued his papa.

Hold the Ladder

Hold the ladder

 When I came back from a trip to Bihar, India, I thought I knew that in those dusty villages with dung-daubed mud brick walls lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I went to Haiti after the earthquake.

I was convinced then that in those barren tent cities with no apparent water source, no services and acrid smoke permeating the humid, tropical air lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I heard K Brown’s stories and saw his pictures from Ukraine.

Once more, I knew that in those frigid and muddy streets twisting without rhyme or reason between leaky shelters cobbled together with nails, wire and plastic lived the poorest people in the world.

I think I’m right this time.

After his first trip to Ukraine, Brown, a masterful video story teller, brought home haunting images of the murky, fetid streets and shacks of the Roma village in Mukacheve. Their Ukrainian neighbors consider the Roma, or gypsies, untouchable. But Brown and his team found them so winsome, transparent and hungry that he has become a regular visitor, planning and bringing medical teams and vacation Bible school workers back every year.

So often our mission trips become a four-act play of we go, we minister, we cry, we take pictures to prove we care. We leave behind everything we brought to be distributed among the people because we feel suddenly selfish having extra when they have nothing.

Dana Brown left behind more than her extra jeans. Dana, who assists her husband K on most of his documentary journeys, is the victim of a genetic defect — cardiomushextremis. Basically, she suffers from an extremely soft heart, susceptible to the emotive vibes of the poorest among us, those who feebly cling to life’s fragile fringe.

Dana finds relief for her condition only in ever higher doses of gypsy children, administered through hugs and smiles that communicate more love without words than a common language ever could.

She paints fingernails, holding each little hand in her larger hand, skin on skin, dirt on clean, hope on heart. More than polish the kids want their hands in hers and they run behind a building and scratch off the color so they can jump back in line to have Dana paint their nails — and hold their hand.

Dana encouraged an older woman waiting on the edge to join them. She at first declined but Dana’s disease is communicable and the woman softened. When Dana reached for her, the woman clutched Dana’s hand and touched it to her lips, and cried as if she’d never seen love before.

In discussing the incident K said it is not unusual for a gypsy’s only experience with touch to be harsh, from the scourge of anger or the hard discipline of a parent or spouse frustrated at the impotence imposed by poverty.

“Maybe it’s been a long time since the older woman felt the simple touch of kindness,” K says. “Maybe she has no one who snuggles up and says ‘I’m here simply because I love you.’ The tears mean something. I just wish I knew the whole story.”

K says all the noise and chaos of village life fell silent behind the tableau being painted between two strangers, with a brush of love on a canvass of common humanity. The only sound, he said, was the drop of tears into Dana’s lap.

K is inspired by the faith of gypsy Christians who see the hand of God caring for them in the worst of circumstances. A Hungarian translator keeps going back to the village “because I feel like I’m climbing a ladder to heaven every time I’m around them.”

K and Dana keep going back. They’re looking for others to help them hold the ladder.

(This story printed in the November-December 2014 issue of Herald, a publication of Baptist News Global)