Lonely at the Lake

A dip in Hyco Lake saved the day.

Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue. – John Eldredge

Of all the great memories from my cross-state bike adventure with my friend Mark,  the most lasting image came from a moment off the bike. 

It was our second day, and hottest. The bank sign said 96 degrees when we rode past. It seemed we climbed all morning and early afternoon as we left the NC mountains and navigated around bodies of water, racing down to them, then slogging back up to level ground. Now, we were crossing Hyco Lake on a short, flat bridge when we looked longingly at the dark, calm water. 

“Every time we cross a lake on a hot day, I want to jump in,” Mark said. I shared the sentiment and when I saw a cabin with a “For Sale” sign on it at the far end of the bridge, I rode into the short driveway, intending to walk unnoticed to the end of its dock and jump in. But, as we rode into the cabin site, the owner came out to attend to something on his deck. 

Unthwarted, I rode up and asked if we could take a dip into the lake from his dock. Skeptical at first, he said, “Go ahead.” 

Mark, hoping tryouts are still open for Olympic underwater dancing team.

Mark stripped to his bike shorts and jumped in. I didn’t want to ride the rest of the day in wet shorts, so I got nakie and jumped. Oh my goodness. Given the day, the ride, the heat, the perfect water temp, the freedom, it was heavenly. 

After we’d gotten refreshed, we air dried a bit. I wiped myself down with my sweaty jersey, put on my dry shorts and walked back up to the cabin. Mark squished his way up to where the owner was back out on the deck. We chatted long enough to learn that he was from Massachusetts and had bought the cabin three years ago to be near his son and grandchildren, who lived about an hour from there. 

“That must have been great,” I said. “Lake house, grandkids, lots of fun.” 

“They only came twice in three years,” he said. “And my relatives from Massachusetts never came.” So, he’s selling the place and moving in with his sister back home. 

I can’t get the image out of my mind. He’s not a rich man, he said. The lake home wasn’t a vacation spot. He planted his life there so he could be near his son and grandchildren – an hour away. They came only twice in three years. 

No one visited from Massachusetts. Not once. It costs 80 bucks to get the yard mowed, and his boat looked like something you’d put your supervisor in, hoping to create a sudden job opening. He couldn’t stay. No reason to.

He was a lonely man, lonely enough to leave his grandchildren and move in with his sister back home. We thanked him, wished him well, and took off – up the hill away from the lake and on to Roxboro. 

I don’t know the family dynamics. Maybe he was hard to get along with, maybe he mistreated his son’s mother. But to uproot your life in your retirement years, move 700 miles to be close to your grandchildren, and then be ignored – that just struck me as too, too sad.

There are lots of lonely people out there. For lots of reasons. Don’t let some of them be your grandparents. And, don’t be afraid to say hello to strangers.

The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.

Mother’s Day 2019

HS graduation

Mom, left, at my high school graduation. Sisters Denise, and Linda, and Dad.

I know special remembrance holidays are fabrications woven to sell cards, flowers and candy. But this Mother’s Day is Sunday and something today about the beautiful weather and lunch with the mother of my children made me pause and remember my own mother, Barbara, who died at age 64 in 1996.

She was a lovely woman and a wonderful hostess, always ready for company no matter how late or how unexpected. I realize now we didn’t talk a lot, but she was always ready if I wanted to open up, not that she ever did. I never knew how ill she was until 19 days before she died.

Our night time ritual was for me to give her a kiss when I headed upstairs to bed. She was usually reading on the sofa and had a toothpick between her lips. She’d somehow make it disappear into her mouth while we exchanged a quick peck on the lips and then it would reappear.

I can still remember the night – and the look on her face – when I decided I was too old for that ritual. I had thought about it for a while and I agonized all day. Somehow, I knew what it meant. When I headed toward her, I saw her pop the toothpick into her mouth.

But, then I turned to go upstairs. Surprised, she said, “No kiss?”

“Ummm, no,” I said. She never mentioned it again but I think dad caught her eye and nodded, acknowledging silently that I’d climbed another rung on the ladder toward adulthood.

Mom was very prudish, embarrassed if anyone talked about body parts and she certainly didn’t tolerate her kids walking around in any state of dress that would not be considered “fully clothed.” On the day of my wedding she took me aside and confessed she probably ought to tell me about the birds and bees, “but you probably know more about it than I do, anyway.”

That, in its entirety, was her version of, “the talk.”

So, it was quite surprising when eight months later I brought my new bride home from Oklahoma to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. On the first night in my childhood home as a married man I found an apple on the bedside table. I picked it up, looked it over, shrugged, and put it back.

The next morning, I asked mom why she’d put an apple by the bed.

“It’s a contraceptive,” she said.

I laughed. “Was I supposed to eat it before…or after?”

“You were supposed to eat it instead,” she said.

I told that story in her eulogy. At the Lutheran Church in Rio, WI where we all grew up, population 788. My dad told me the population stayed at 788 because “every time a young lady has a baby, an older man leaves town.”

I delivered dad’s eulogy in the same room, 21 years later. It was the room where I preached the youth sermon – from the wrong pulpit, I learned later. In our divided chancel, only an ordained minister got to preach from the big, ornate pulpit that was high and lifted up. I could use that one legitimately now, if I ever get invited to preach there.

It’s the same room where I acted in Christmas plays – vying to be a speaking star, or an announcing angel and not just a silent, costumed figure filling out the scriptural cast. It was the room where I wore the costumes mom made, and later the coat and tie she picked out.

It was the room where she sat as the bride’s mom when my sister married, and as a grieving daughter-in-law when my grandparents were buried.

When I was a high school junior, I came home from a dance after the football game and woke my parents up to tell them, “I’ve committed the ultimate sin.”

They shot straight up out of bed and took a second to compose themselves before mom – who gave birth to my sister before age 18 – asked me tentatively, “Um, and what was that?”

“I asked a freshman to the homecoming dance,” I said, not understanding until later their audible expulsion of relief.

I know special holidays like Mother’s Day are made up. But, at least it’s a reminder to do or say something special to your mom at least once a year. Take advantage of it.

By the way, kids, Father’s Day is June 16.

Caught from behind

Basketball shot

We trailed the Fall River Pirates by 14 points with just six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a high school basketball game. Everybody beats this team, and we had too, earlier in the season.

Yet, we were getting creamed. Their fans were rocking. Ours were bewildered. My team finally put together a little rally to unveil a glimmer of hope. I was a starter, but not a star. I could shoot the ball, but as my coach told me, “You may not be tall, but you’re slow.”

The ball bounced off the opponent’s rim and I had a clear path to the rebound. I took it on the run and dribbled as hard and fast as I could the length of the floor toward our basket. Somehow a defender was there, between me and the basket. I should have slowed, faked left and gone right to the rim for a layup.

But, I didn’t dare slow down to make a move, because I was terrified of being caught from behind.

Our senior point guard could catch people from behind and knock the ball out of their hands and I always thought the guy who lost the ball must have been totally humiliated. Caught from behind. How awful. How embarrassing.

Instead, I dribbled right at the defender, and elevated to the apex of my 4-inch vertical, and shot the ball in his face. As any athlete can tell you, certain moments burn themselves into memory like a hot poker writing script on your belly, and you can recall them as if they happened after breakfast this morning.

I remember that shot because when I went up, the only thing I saw was a floating rim: no backboard, no bleachers, no lights, no ceiling, no defender. Just a big rim floating independently above me. I released the ball and fell down. I didn’t even know if I’d made the shot.

That moment returned to me last weekend during a mandatory quiet period at a four-day men’s retreat. The overall theme of the retreat – a “basic” event through Ransomed Heart ministries – was recovering a man’s masculine heart.

Speakers assumed every man carries with him at some level a wound inflicted by his father, a wound we must identify and forgive before we can be whole. After another thoughtful presentation, we were sent out to find a quiet spot at our expansive, wooded conference center to contemplate several questions relating to both our earthly and heavenly fathers, and our own willingness to grow into sons.

We were to consider the questions, “Where do you feel unfathered?” and “Where and how is your Father inviting you to become a son?”

“Since we are the sons of God, we must become the sons of God,” according to George McDonald.

I don’t know how those questions prompted the spirit of God to impress upon me the 48 year-old-memory of that rebound, race and shot moment, but the ultimate revelation for me is that I’ve lived my life afraid of being caught from behind.

It’s why I worked so hard, so long, at so many tasks, in so many places. It’s why I bit my tongue and choked down insights, information or contradictions I should have offered, rather than risking the opprobrium of my bosses, or peers.

It’s why I actually told W.C. Fields, my first and best boss in denominational life, that I was too busy to accept his invitation to ride with him in his glide plane on a beautiful spring afternoon. Dumb. One of my few regrets.

I had not learned to live into my position as a son of God, bold and free with a warrior spirit.

John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart and the amazing Beautiful Outlaw, says a man’s greatest need is validation. I was too afraid someone was going to catch me from behind and expose me as insufficient, not enough, inadequate. If so, from where would come my validation?

Of course, the point is that all the validation a man or woman needs is to recognize we are children of God. No one can catch me from behind when the Father is reaching for my hand to pull me over the finish line.

I made that shot by the way. And we went on to win in double overtime.

Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.

My not good, very bad, horrible day

Last week I had a not good, very bad, horrible day.

Driving on my way to see a donor, from whom I was expecting a significant commitment, I phoned a pastor friend to catch up. We exchanged the usual professional and family information that makes men feel they are staying in rhythm with the heartbeat of their buddies. And I learned that his wife had left him. I’ve not been so shocked in a long time. They seemed to be thriving.

Fortunately, he handled the situation immediately and professionally with his church, and they demonstrated the love and commitment that he has earned there. The leadership unanimously wants him to stay.

Later, while waiting in the lobby of my donor friend, I received a phone call from the son-in-law of my high school buddy from Wisconsin who for the past several years has lived within 80 miles of me. I knew Don’s cancer was back, and he likely wouldn’t make it through the summer.

In fact, I had just checked the map to learn where his house was in relation to my meeting to see if I could run over there that day. I was still wavering between going that day, or waiting until next week when the son-in-law called. Next week would be too late, Chris said. In fact, that afternoon might be too late, as Don was leaving us today, he said in a broken voice. Could I come?

I promised him I would come as soon as I finished my meeting.

Over lunch with my donor prospect I learned his business was off by 35 percent and he would not be able to do for the foundation for which I work what he had hoped and planned to do. He’s a fine man, supportive, and encouraged me to stay in touch.

Pulling away, I called Chris from my car and said I’d be there to see Don in an hour. “Don has passed,” Chris said through his tears. I went anyway to be with the family. We shared hugs, tears, coffee and cookies and some laughs and memories.

The body that once held Don remained in the recliner, dogs in his lap. It would remain there until his son in California and daughter from Seattle arrived and said their farewells.

No matter how much time you have to prepare for a loved one’s passing, you’re never ready when that final breath rattles through the pipes and then falls silent. Don’s illness was terminal and this moment was inevitable. Just, as always, too soon.

That night my friend Steve in Omaha texted that he’d lost control when his bike hit a bump, and he’d broken six ribs and partially deflated a lung.

It was overwhelming really, this day of bad news, and I felt like a patch of dry grass in the path of the lava flowing down from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

I was overwhelmed and yet strangely detached. Is it because these tragedies happened to someone else and I remained untouched? Or is it because I’m basically a stoic and consider these events – as painful as they were to those to dear to me – as merely ebbs and flows of the human experience?

Stuff happens. Nobody promised us a rose garden, yadda yadda.

I’d hate to think that absorbing the stings and arrows of those who sought my undoing in past days hardened my heart to such an extent that I had no soft spot left from which to squeeze a tear.

Or is it because the faith in God’s providence to which I cling truly is sufficient? I’ve often said during difficult periods, “These are not the times that try our faith. These are the times that prove our faith.”

Unfortunately, the opportunity for proving presents itself in trial.

Fortunately, faith is sufficient and trials prove it.

Written with Indelible Ink

I ruined my favorite shirt by failing to secure the cap on a pen I stuck in the pocket, and the ink stain was indelible. It wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t soap it, bleach it, scrub it, cut it or cover it.

Memories are like that. And the funny thing is, often it’s not the significant, dramatic, big events that wedge their way into the dendrites and axon terminals of your neurons, but little things that might have come and gone without comment or impact at the time.

My friend Tim Fields talks about that in his memoir “Indelible Ink: Adventures of a Baby Boomer.” You would like it. If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll like it a lot. He shares 16 events written in indelible ink in his memory, each of which shaped his life.

What makes a memory stick?

“Sometimes a simple comment from a parent to a child or from a teacher to a pupil can have a profound effect on someone’s life,” he writes in the foreword. “Even a smile, a frown, a wink or a raised eyebrow can dispense indelible ink. A congratulatory pat on the back or a punitive slap on the cheek can remain in a person’s psyche for life.”

I want to reemphasize the power of the right word. Little comments, angry words, insults, incautious words spoken at the wrong moment or secrets spilled worm into our memories in ways and with permanence we cannot explain or anticipate. Heartfelt, sincere positive words can just as actively attach themselves to our memories and have a much more beneficial effect.

I can point to a dozen memories, good and bad, that stick in my psyche half a century after they occurred, which at the moment seemed of no consequence. Some were throwaway comments by adults, directed toward me, or toward another adult that I overheard.

As a high school basketball player, I wasn’t tall, but I was slow. Because I could shoot the ball, I was on the starting five as a senior, but sixth man Sid was making a strong play for my spot. In the era before a shot clock, our strategy for the upcoming game against the league’s top team was to slow it down, just keep dribbling and passing out front, trying to keep the score close so a break at the end might fall in our favor.

Coach told me Sid was going to start in my place for that game because we needed his ball handling. That’s all he said. My interpretation of what he said was, “Norman, you’re a lousy ball handler.”

Consequently, when I did play in the game I was terrified of getting the ball and played poorly. Until then, as the team’s best shooter, I was all about having it in my hands.

I remember hearing my dad brag about my hard work when I split all the firewood piled in the backyard that would heat our house that winter. And my mom telling a friend that she didn’t really expect me to stick with the dreadful job of cleaning out cow stalls in the heat of summer after they had been unused and neglected for years. But I did.

I also remember Dad admonishing me for not wiping down the shower door in our one bathroom after he’d asked me to do it. When I told him I HAD done it, he pointed out a wet streak. I pointed out the rest of the shower, all dry, and said, “I wiped it down. I just missed a spot.”

When peach fuzz appeared on my cheeks, I used dad’s razor to scrape it off. After several months, he asked me if I was using his razor, because he’d noticed it not staying sharp as long. When I said, “Yes,” he asked, “Why? You don’t need to shave.”

“How would you know?” I asked him in one of the very few times I ever talked back to Dad. “I broke my glasses and held them together with white medical tape and it was two weeks before you noticed they were broken.” I saw hurt flit across his face.

I shot at some birds sitting on a telephone wire, not understanding the possible consequences of buckshot meeting wire. My grandpa Julius worked for the telephone company and it fell to him to come fix the line because the phones up and down the road weren’t working.

When he finished hours later, he came up to me and said it looked like someone shooting at birds had hit the wire. He paused, my heart hit my boots. Then he half-smiled, nodded, and went into the house to get a drink.

Of course, zillions of memories lurk in the crevices and canyons of my mind. Some can be called up instantly, others require the sharp impact like a boot to the brain when my ears snare some comment zipping randomly through time.

Whether we recall them clearly or not, the cumulative impact of comments positive and negative has a great deal of significance in shaping who we are. Remember that the next time your first reaction to a child’s silliness or clumsiness is to yell or say something hurtful.

It’s just words, but like an arrow they pierce. And like feathers from a busted pillow, you can never call them back.