Sometimes you hit a wall

beach tideWhen the ocean is warm, I like to wade toward the waves from the shallow edge of the beach, my feet scratching a hold into the sandy bottom, feeling the water slide around my ankles, then shins, then knees. About the point when it gets really sensitive, I have to decide whether to keep walking toward London, or jump in headfirst and get soaked all at once.

If I dive in, I come up sputtering and shaking the water from my eyes. If I decide to keep walking, I lift my shoulders as if I can tiptoe past the sensitive and somehow get soaked without getting wet.

When I’ve reached water about waist depth, I can pause and enjoy, feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean, rolling to the beach to fill the little sand castle moats built by kids with red plastic shovels, and then drag them flat. When I turn to do a little body surfing, or at least to challenge the waves a little further out, I fight the water’s resistance, plodding resolutely forward where the surf breaks.

That is where the short walls of water curl up, spitting little white caps, and burst over me, whacking me backward and I have to retrace a couple steps just to get back to where I was.

In a windy spring season like this one, cycling sometimes feels like those days in the waves. Invisible walls of wind roll out from the horizon and buffet me. Side winds are most dangerous as they can make me wobble and lean the wrong direction at a most inopportune time.

Leaning over the handlebars, trying to carve a lane through the curtain of steady wind, a sudden burst hits me with every bit the force of a wave of water. It doesn’t knock me backward, but it feels like my wheels suddenly rolled into a vat of mush and I have to grind on the pedals to regain momentum.

Sometimes my daily news feed hits me like that.

Learning this week about the suicides of two young people who had survived the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018 hit me like that blast of wind. In the same day, I learned the father of a child who had been slaughtered at Newtown had taken his own life after six years of dealing with his awful pain. Combine that with news of a dear friend whose life is suddenly upside down and my typically stoic countenance flipped onto its back, as well.

How much can we feel? How wide an opening should we tear in our hearts to absorb the world’s pain, in the vain belief that by doing so, we can somehow soothe it?

Much, if not most, of the information that hurts, enrages, mystifies, baffles and saddens would have passed unknown to us a half generation ago. But now, we know. With how much of what we know, can we engage? I don’t have the capacity to empathize with all the sadness of which I’m aware.

Yet, I want to share the pain of those I love because sharing is a salve that hurries the healing of open wounds. I want my ears to absorb their sorrows and my shoulders to offer pillows of comfort.

But, a hurting world is too much. Its pain is a flood. If I allow each swell of sorrow to whack me like a wave of wind or water, I’ll never move forward.

Each of us has capacity to care. None of us can carry the burdens of the world. Nor should we feel we must.

Because social media and news outlets pour into our senses a steady stream of pain, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, says too many pastors –those called to care –are “a quivering mass of availability.”

What to do? I’ll not cloak myself in a curtain of despair because I know that God loves His creation – so much so that He took on the form of man to help us understand the depth of that love.

Rather than be paralyzed by any tide of tears, I will try to let myself be moved only by those things about which I can do something.

And then, I will do something.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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!

 

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.