The Garden, Chapter XIII

Two weeks after moving in with Billy, Charlie was beginning to feel like he had the beginnings of a handle on life.  The dismal apartment where for two years he had existed but not lived was now a memory.  The kitchen  remodel job at Carolyn’s house was progressing ahead of schedule, even though she had been far too busy of late to help him very much.  Instead, her nephew Luke had shown an interest in the construction arts and pitched in whenever he could.  Even though Luke knew nothing about Charlie’s craft, he was a smart and observant kid who could take instruction and turn it quickly into performance.

Charlie liked the young man and genuinely enjoyed sharing the work with him,  and he began to imagine what it would be like if it was Jack instead of Luke that he was working with.  Of course, Jack didn’t have the natural talent or interest that Luke seemed to possess, but then Charlie had never lavished the patient attention on Jack that he was currently bestowing on Luke.  Over the course of the past two weeks Charlie had become convinced that he should pay Luke something for his labor, and also that he must reach out to his own son and try to rebuild a relationship with him.

Carolyn would inspect Charlie’s work every chance that she could, and she learned from him in much the same manner as Luke did.  The design flaws in her bathroom which she nearly allowed when Charlie first began to work for her would never happen to her now, as she began to learn to look two and even three steps ahead.

“I’m sorry that I can’t spend more time here on the job with you,” she had once told him.  “I’m convinced that your end of this deal is where all of the fun is.”

When she said that Charlie looked down at the black thumbnail that was the result of an errant stroke of his framing axe. He also felt the ache in the bottom of his foot where he had stepped on an old ring-shanked drywall nail, and the throb in his shoulder where he had received his tetanus shot as a result of that nail.  “Yeah,” he replied as he inspected the blackened thumbnail.  “With a few obvious exceptions, this really is where the fun is.”

The outside wall of Carolyn’s house was now pushed four feet out and sealed on the outside.  This resulted in the house once again being secured from the outside world, and Charlie felt like at last he could breathe easier.  He had hated the thought of there being only one layer of polyvinyl sheeting between Carolyn and the world that he had come to know so well at the apartments.

Even though Luke was staying with her during this period, he was, after all, just a kid.  A big kid, yes, and a strong one, but just a kid all the same.  The determined evil that prowled through the darkened streets of Vancouver, even the streets far from the downtown apartment that he had so recently inhabited, was truly a match and even more than a match for one good-hearted teenage boy.  Charlie tried hard to make sure that Carolyn didn’t know about the nights when he had slept in the cab of his truck a few houses up the street from hers.

Today he was going to meet with D’Andra, and intended to share with her his plan to make an attempt to connect with Maureen.  He had given the idea a great deal of thought and had shared it with the guys at the Key and Lock.  Even Walt, who continued to hold to the opinion that this was a fool’s errand, agreed that with the help of a small miracle – “not that I believe in that crap,” he had added – there was a possibility that it might work.

But first he was going to have a good breakfast.  Billy liked to cook, and Charlie was beginning to put on a few pounds.  Today, however, he wanted to have his morning meal at Leroy’s, mostly in order to see how LuAnn was doing.  As he pulled up to a stop in a parking space near the restaurant, he noticed that he now felt like a visitor to the Vancouver downtown rather than a denizen of its streets.  He liked the change.

The place was busy when he entered and once again he saw Jason seated at his usual table by the kitchen door.  There were open stools at the counter, but Charlie went to see if he could share a table with the young man.

“Got room for another stray dog?” he asked.  Jason smiled and waved a hand at the chair opposite his own.  Charlie sat down, picked up a menu and asked “What’s good today?”

“Pretty much same old same old.” Jason replied.  “They don’t change the menu much around here, and if Tank’s cookin’, well, it’s Tank’s cookin’.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Charlie said.  At that moment Peggy burst through the door pushing an old aluminum cart loaded with condiments.  She looked harried, but came dutifully over to the table when she saw Charlie seated there.  She asked if he’d had time to look at the menu.

“I have,” Charlie replied.  “I’ll take the hamburger steak with hash browns and gravy.  Oh, and I am paying for my meal today.”

Charlie expected to get a rise out of Peggy with his snide comment, but he was disappointed.  Peggy gave a weak smile and went to stick his order onto the wheel in the kitchen window.

“Huh,” Charlie said to Jason.  “I thought that I’d get a little bit of a push-back from her with that one.  Do I look like I have money or something?”

“She’s probably still getting over the fact that I have money,” Jason replied.

Charlie looked at Jason with surprise and said “You do?”

“Yeah,” Jason laughed.  “I got a part-time job in housekeeping at Clark General Hospital,  It’s a float position with no benefits and no guaranteed hours, but somebody’s always sick or wants a day off, so I’m working about twenty five or thirty hours per week so far.”

“Wow, that’s great news,” Charlie said.  “How do you feel, being in the loop like that?”

“You mean, can I hack it?  Will the loser finally get it together?”

Charlie regretted his question instantly.  “No, I don’t mean that at all.  I’m just getting my own act back together, and I live with a guy who’s taking his own first steps too.  I just wondered how it’s working for you.  I didn’t mean any insult.”

“That’s OK, man.  It’s cool.  I was must monkeying with your head.  No offense taken.  And the answer is that it feels good.  I have to keep my mind focused on doing the job, and not getting sucked into all of the silly bullshit that people who’ve never really had it rough like to wallow in, but it’s worth it.  Peggy brings me refills now that I can pay for them, so that makes it all worth it.”

Indeed, Peggy was at that moment bringing Charlie an empty mug and a pot full of coffee.  She placed the mug in front of him and filled it, then refilled Jason’s half-empty mug.  Charlie had to suppress a laugh as Peggy spoke with them like regular customers and Jason acted like he was a captain of industry.

They continued to chat about each other’s work situations and the quality of grease that tended to pool in their plates here at Leroy’s until Peggy brought Charlie his food.  For the next few minutes after that, silence reigned at the table.

At last Charlie scraped up the last bit of gravy with a crust of toast and pushed away the plate.  He drained his coffee and barely suppressed a low belch.  Jason was sipping his coffee and resting in his chair, letting his meal begin to digest.  He looked completely at ease with the world, and that is how Charlie felt too.  At length Charlie began the conversation again.

“So, where is LuAnn?  Is she out today taking care of Duane?  He’s had his operation, hasn’t he?”

Jason’s face clouded over and he sat a little straighter in his chair.  “Haven’t you heard, man?”

“Heard what?” Charlie asked.  “Did she retire or something?”

“No, man.  Duane died.  He died on the operating table.”

Charlie sat speechless in his chair.  His mind quickly drew up images of a worried LuAnn, telling him about her fears but certain that things would be all right.

 

“Shit, man,” he said.  “That’s awful!  What happened?  LuAnn thought they would be OK.”

“Yeah, she did” Jason replied.  “That’s usually when life rears up and bites you in the ass, isn’t it?  The surgery went fine, as far as anyone knows, but an artery or something just blew up in his brain.  BAM!  Alive to room temperature in sixty seconds.  She’s a good egg, too.  This really sucks.”

Charlie was speechless for a minute, and then asked “Well, how is she doing?  Does anybody know?”  He tried to get his mind to grapple with the bad news.  When Stevie had died, he remembered, friends and business acquaintances had brought over meals and done chores and errands for them.  That was the only healthy response that Charlie could now think of offering, not that his cooking would be a good thing for anybody.  Finally he asked “Is anybody doing anything to help her?”

“I don’t really know,” Jason replied.  “There’s a tip jar by the door, and regular customers are putting money into it to help her out.  You could ask Peggy though.  she was closer to LuAnn that I ever was.”

Charlie sat silently in his chair, thinking about LuAnn’s good-natured attitude and the warmth that she had extended to him when he began to visit many weeks before.  She always had a quick laugh and a wise opinion whenever he would talk to her about his troubles.  Now it was her turn to be in the fire.  What could he do or say to her?  He couldn’t even comfort his own wife, so what could he say to this casual friend?   Charlie was wrestling with these thoughts when Peggy came to refill his cup.

“Peggy,” he said.  “I just heard about LuAnn’s husband.  Can you tell me how she’s doing, or if she needs anything?”

Peggy seemed to be surprised at Charlie speaking to her in such a familiar and ernest fashion.  Her look of surprise quickly faded though and she responded to his question with what looked to Charlie like genuine compassion.

“LuAnn’s a strong woman.  She’s doing fine; or at least as fine as you could expect.  She and Duane have family, and they are helping a lot.”

“I would like to help if there’s any way that I can,” Charlie said, while wondering what on earth he could possibly do.

“Well,” Peggy began.  “She and Duane went to the Peter and Paul Luthern Church.  You know, the one about two blocks on the other side of the courthouse from here.”

Charlie nodded as if he knew where that was.

“They’re holding a memorial service there this Saturday.  Duane was a deacon or an elder or whatever they call it there, and so they would probably be able to tell you if they need anything.  Or you could just go to the service.  I think LuAnn would like to see you there.  She was pretty fond of you,”  Peggy then turned her eyes towards Jason and added “and you too.”

She then turned away to resume her service to the hungry patrons of Leroy’s, and left Charlie staring mutely at Jason.  At length, Jason broke the silence.

“I was going to go to the service already.  Tank told me about it yesterday.  I don’t spend much time in churches.  Like, never.  LuAnn is real, though.  You know, she’s never looked at me like I was a worm, or had some damned disease.  I think of her like she’s family or something.”

Charlie knew that he had to leave soon in order to be on time for his appointment with D’Andra.  He suddenly wanted to know more about Jason; what he knew about LuAnn, what he had going on in his life.  At last Charlie shared a completely random thought that had only that moment entered into his head.

“You ever do any construction?”  It only took Jason a moment to reply.

“Nope.  Never picked up a hammer.”

“Good,” Charlie replied.  “That means you don’t have any bad habits to unlearn.  Would you have any interest in trying out the construction trade?”

“Shit, I don’t know.  Is it anything like work?”

“Hell yes it’s work.”  Charlie then showed Jason his damaged thumb.  “Construction will treat you bad sometimes, but it’ll love you if you love it.”

Jason was not sure how to respond to that.  “So, what?  Are you offering me a job?”

“Well, no.  Not exactly,” Charlie replied.  “I just want to know if you would be interested if I did.  The person I’m working for now is already taking a chance on damaged goods by using me, and I wouldn’t expect her to take another.  I’ll be done with the project that I’m on in a few weeks though, and I could use an extra hand going forward.  Nobody else out there is as good as I am though, so training a new helper from scratch makes all of the sense in the world to me.  What do you think?”

Jason mulled that thought for a few moments and then asked “Are you going to bust my balls if I go for this?”

“You bet your ass,” Charlie replied.  “I can’t have some cull dogging it and trashing my work.  But I understand that you don’t have any experience at this kind of work and I’m OK with that.  I’ll demand that you do things right, but I’ll show you how to do those things, and for the most part I’ll consider it my own failure if you don’t get it right the first time.  Or the second time too, for that matter.  This stuff doesn’t just come to you by magic.  I guess I’m saying; or really I’m asking, would you like to give construction a shot under another guy who’s had the shit kicked out of him by life and knows how that can feel?”

It didn’t take Jason more than a minute to consider Charlie’s proposal, and he said “Your offer is intriguing.  Let me make a counter offer.  I’ll keep my job at the hospital, but I’ll mostly take the off-hour shifts.  You know, the night shift and weekends and so forth.  If I find that construction suits me, I’ll back away from the hospital, but if construction isn’t my cup of tea I’ll still have my hospital gig.”

“That makes sense to me,” Charlie replied.  “Do you have a phone, or some way that we can stay in touch?”

Jason answered in the affirmative and they exchanged phone numbers.  Peggy quickly noticed that the wo men were ready to leave and brought the checks to their table.

“There’s no way that you’re going to let me pay for this, is there?” Charlie asked.

“Not on your life,” Jason answered.  “But I wish that you would let me pay for yours.”

Charlie thought about Jason’s offer, and then about all of the time that he had recently spent disconnected from the world, just as Jason had been.  He had descended into a dark pit where he would not allow anyone to intrude, nor from which he would make any effort to escape.  He looked at Jason and saw a dim shadow of himself.

Charlie liked this young man who, like himself, was only beginning to rebuild a life.  He had hated himself for two years, and was disgusted with his failure to attend to the things that really mattered.  But this young man; this dim shadow, this metaphor for himself, was also emerging from his own dark place and was a very likable person.  He was worth taking a chance on.  he had something to offer to the world that the world would be the loser to ignore.  Could it be that this description fit Charlie the same as it did Jason?

And now this wounded, broken fellow traveller had just asked if he could do Charlie a favor.  He had asked Charlie if he could “bless” him, to borrow LuAnn’s terminology.  In some dim, disorganized way, Charlie understood that something important was happening here.  The course of the rest of his life, and perhaps Jason’s too, could turn on the answer, and the answer was clear to him.

“Yeah.  Sure,” he replied. “There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but nobody’s said anything about there not being a free breakfast.  How ‘bout I cover the tip?”

The two men agreed to that arrangement and put their money on the table.  In keeping with his promise to LuAnn, Charlie left a generous tip for Peggy.  They got up from the table together and Charlie headed for the door while Jason walked into the kitchen.  “Probably still needs to work for a few meals” Charlie thought.  “That’s good.  Shows responsibility.  Yeah, I think Jason could work out.  If he wants to, that is.”

By now Charlie was coming very close to being late fort his appointment with D’Andra.  He climbed into his truck and made the short trip to her cottage in less than five minutes.  He parked the truck and picked up a sack of vegetables that he had picked from the garden.  “There’s no way that I can compete with what comes out of her oven,” Charlie thought, “but I can at least try.”

He knocked on the door and it was quickly opened by D’Andra.  “Hello, Charlie,” she said with her warm and pleasing smile.  “Please, come in.”

Charlie was prepared to hand D’Andra the bag of cucumbers and squash and green beans, with a couple of onions thrown in, and hoped that he would receive a little praise for his gardening expertise.  And indeed that did come.  Eventually.  But before he could hand over the sack his nose was assaulted, in the best sense of the word, by a smell that he remembered from his childhood.

“Oh. My. Goodness!” he said.  “You’ve been baking bread!”

“I certainly have,” she replied.  “It’s a family tradition to bake our own bread and it’s our family recipe.  I’d tell you what’s in it – – -.”  D’andre paused at that point, and Charlie picked up the thread seamlessly.

“But you’d have to kill me?”

“Something like that,” she said, the smile not changing really, but somehow seeming even warmer than before.  At last her eyes fell on the sack that Charlie cradled in his arms.  “What have you got there?” she asked.

Charlie remembered his gift and extended the sack to D’Andra.  “Here.  This is for you.  I grew this in the garden that I’ve been telling you about.”

As she looked into the sack her eyes lit up and her smile erupted even larger than it already was.  “Oh, Charlie.  That is the nicest gift that I could ever imagine.  We had a truck patch behind our house when I was growing up and I loved the foods that my mother and older sister, and sometimes my aunt Clarissa would make out of what we would grow.  Believe me, Charlie.  I will enjoy this produce every bit as much as I enjoy the things that come out of my oven.  And they’ll be better for me, too” she said with a laugh.  “Now come on in and sit down.  We’re having home baked white bread, toasted or not as you prefer, with jam and butter and coffee.  Does that sound OK?”

“That sounds like heaven,” Charlie replied as D’Andra carried the sackful of produce into the kitchen.  Instead of sitting down, Charlie followed D’Andra.

“When I was a boy, we used to go up to College Avenue, to a bakery that was about two blocks from our house.  Mr. and Mrs. Metzler owned that bakery, and they lived in a house on the opposite side of the alley, behind our place.  The Metzlers were Seventh Day Adventist, I think, because the bakery was closed on Saturdays but open for business on Sunday.

At 10:00 in the morning they would bring the day’s bread out of the ovens and place it on the racks to cool.  My brother and sometimes the other kids in the neighborhood and I would show up at 10:15 and buy loaves of it while they were still warm.  We sat down on the curb right outside of the bakery and pulled off handfuls of warm bread and washed it down with sodas.  Those are some of my best memories.”

“Well, I hope this bread gives you some warm memories too.  Here, put some butter and jam on this toast, and pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Charlie did as he was told and then sat down in his usual spot on the love seat.  Salome the cat was nowhere to be seen, so he placed his small plate with buttered and jammed toast on the table next to it and found a coaster for his coffee.  D’andra joined him shortly with two pieces of toast of her own, but hers was spread much more thinly than was Charlie’s.

“Oh,” he said.  “It looks like I made a pig of myself here.”

“No, it looks more like you made yourself at home, which is what I would like for you to do.”

“Well,” he responded.  “Then don’t be surprised if I make another trip to your kitchen.”

“Pleased would be more like it” she replied.

Charlie still had a stomach full of the best grease that Tank could cook, and knew that seconds on D’Andra’s bread was unlikely.  “There’s no harm in setting the stage, just in case” he told himself.  At length, D’Andra put her plate of toast on the table and sat back in her chair.

“Well, Charlie.  What are we going to talk about today?  Have you made a decision about trying to contact Maureen?”

“Yes, I actually have.  But there’s something new that I would like to discuss first.”

“You’re in charge,” she said.  “What is it?”

I got some pretty sad news today.  Pretty sad.  You know my friend LuAnn, whom I have spoken of?”  Charlie went on to explain the details of Duane’s death, as best he knew them.

“So, how did it make you feel when you heard about it?”

“You know, my first impulse was to eat my breakfast as quickly as I could and leave; just get away from that scene as fast as I could.”

“Sort of like when your mother would be depressed when you were a child?”

“Yeah, sorta like that.  I was really sad for LuAnn.  I remembered how fondly she spoke of him, and how she once told me “I don’t know what I would do if something ever happened to him,” or something like that.  I just knew the sadness that she was feeling, and I wanted to run from that sadness.  I didn’t know what to do with it.”

“And did you run?”

“No, I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  LuAnn was a friend and a kind voice when I was really at the bottom.  I can’t express how much her kindness meant to me; still does mean to me.  Well, I couldn’t just throw her under the bus.

Trouble is, I don’t know what to do.  How do I help her?  I think she’ll be OK financially, and she has family and friends, so what in the world could I ever do?”

D’Andra took a small bite from her toast and chewed it slowly, and then took a sip of coffee.  At last she said “Maybe she could tell you what you can do.”

“Huh?” Charlie asked.

“Maybe she could communicate to you, one way or another, how it is that you can help her.  Sometimes people want to talk about their loved one, and all you have to do is listen.  Other times people don’t want to talk at all, but they dread being alone.  In those cases just being a friend and sharing someone’s space with them is what they want.

Some people want a shoulder to cry on.  I know how uneasy that would make you, Charlie, but maybe that is what you would need to do to help your friend.  The problem is that you can’t know unless you make contact with her.  Is there any way that you can do that?”

“Yes, there is,” Charlie replied.  “There will be a memorial service this Saturday at a little church not too far from here.  Peter and Paul Lutheran, I think Peggy said.”

“Oh, yes.  I know where that is.  Corner of 13th and Knox.”

“Well, I’m thinking of going, but I don’t have a lot of experience at being in churches.  I’ve asked Rachael if I can go to hers sometime, but I haven’t really gotten around to it yet.  I just don’t know how I’m supposed to act in a church.”

“I think the key is to not act at all, Charlie.  Just bring who you are and don’t give two thoughts about any sort of show that you’re supposed to put on.  Your friend sounds like she will let you know if there’s anything that she needs.  Other than that, you just being there will probably be the best thing that you can do for her, right now at lease.  Besides, you’ll know her at least, so you won’t exactly be there alone in the church.”

“No, I wouldn’t be alone,” he agreed.  “Jason, a recently homeless guy who I’ve eaten with at Leroy’s said that he’ll be there.  And I’ll bet Tank, the cook, will be there too.  I don’t know him really, but I’d know his hash browns and gravy anywhere.”

“Good.  That settles it.  You know, Charlie, I believe that I can see something important here.  This feeling of wanting to be present for your friend, and actually stepping up to do it, is what you were not able to do for your wife and son.  And really, couldn’t do for your mother either.  How do you feel about that?  Does it feel like something’s changed, or maybe shifted there?”

Charlie thought about that for a while.  In his concern for LuAnn he had nearly forgotten about the trauma of his daughter’s death and the effect that it had on his family; the events that were the reason for his meeting with D’Andra in the first place.  Now he thought about Maureen and Jack, suffering in silence while he dealt with his own grief – or didn’t deal with it – in his own cocoon.  The same way that he had dealt with his own father’s desertion and his mother’s loneliness.

“You know, something has changed.  I can’t just turn my back and walk away.  ‘I don’t know what to say or do’ just isn’t a good enough answer, even if it’s the damned truth.  Uh, pardon my language.”

“I’ve heard it before, Charlie.”

“So, this is where I got stuck with my family; I couldn’t help them because I couldn’t help myself.  Just like I couldn’t help my mother.  But, why couldn’t I help my mom?  It’s not like I really cared one way or the other if my father stayed or left.”

“Really, Charlie?  Is that true?  Can you remember your relationship with your father before he left?”

Charlie thought hard about that, and at length he answered “No, I can’t say that I do.  It’s like I said; he didn’t do much with me, so I didn’t have any real connection with him.”

“Well, I know that this will sound a little wierd, but try to go along with me.  Do you remember not-doing things with your father?  I mean, did you ask him to play catch with you, and he said “No”?  Or do you remember waiting for him to come home when you got A’s on your report card?  Or F’s?  Do you remember a birthday party where he didn’t show up?  Or when he did?  What, exactly, do you remember about your father?”

“Oh, I remember a lot,” Charlie began.  “I remember him being at the dinner table – – – .”  Charlie’s mind wandered at this point, as he tried to dredge up a memory of his dad.  After a few moments of silence D’Andra spoke again.

“Do you remember him being there on specific occasions, or do you remember that he was sort of generally there around that time?”

“Well, I remember—-. I remember the night that, – – -.  Uh, I remember spilling my milk once.  He grabbed me by the collar and made me go to my room.”

“That’s it?  You remember once that you spilled your milk at the table and your father got upset?”

Charlie thought hard about his relationship with his father, certain that a flood of specific memories would soon erupt out of his clogged brain, and that he would then share them with D’Andra, but the flood never came.  After a few minutes of this Charlie just looked a D’Andra with a puzzled expression on his face and finally said “You know what?  You’re right.  I don’t remember diddle about my dad.  I don’t even remember what he looked like.  I’ve always had an image of him in my mind, on the few occasions when I would think of him at all, but that could just as well have been a mannikin at the Sears store down at the mall.”

Charlie fell silent again, and D’Andra was silent too.  He picked up his piece of toast, which was quite cold by now, and munched on it absently as he let the idea sink in that he had no true picture of his father in his mind, and hadn’t had any such picture for a very long time.  D’andre was obviously giving him space to ponder this revelation, and Charlie was using this time to begin to try to sort things out.

It was at this moment that Salome decided to make her entrance.  She jumped towards the back of the love seat from behind and overshot the landing, which caused her to slide over the back and tumble, a ball of fur and claws, onto the cushion right next to Charlie.

“Ah!” Charlie cried, and jumped up out of the seat.  D’andre jumped as well when Charlie reacted to the unstable flying feline.  Salome, the center of the commotion, decided that two startled humans watching such an undignified performance was no place for a cat to loiter and took off running towards an open doorway into a back room.

Charlie looked down and saw that his half-eaten toast with butter and jam lay face down on the hardwood floor, right next to what he suspected was a very expensive area rug.

“Oh, good grief!  Excuse me!  Here, let me clean this up.”

As he reached down to pick up the toast D’Andra began to giggle, and soon it swelled into a belly laugh that was infectious.  Charlie soon was laughing too.  D’andre brought some paper towels and a squirt bottle out of the kitchen and quickly cleaned up the mess while both of them still laughed.

“I guess I should write a textbook and advise students to never let a cranky old cat without front claws have free rein in a house when you are in a session,” she told Charlie.

“On the other hand, I don’t know of anything that can loosen you up more quickly,” he replied.

At last they sat down and returned to business.  “I think this is important Charlie, but I want to move on now.  I would like for you to think about your father though.  Think of anything you can remember about him, and most of all think of anything you can remember about how you felt when he left.  Will you do that?”

“I’ll certainly give it my best shot,” Charlie said.

“Good.  Now, what about Maureen and Jack?”

Charlie shared with D’Andra the advice that he had received from Rachael and LuAnn and the guys at the Key and Lock, and especially from Billy.  “I was especially impressed with Billy’s thoughts,”  he said.  “I think it’s possible that there’s still a job that it’s my duty to perform.  No, not a job really.  More like, well, I don’t know.  Like a responsibility.  No, it’s not that either.”

Charlie told D’Andra about the fingers in the arteries, while she listened intently.  When he finished she softly said “Yes.  Exactly!  You tell that young man that I couldn’t say it any better than he did.  On second thought, I don’t even know if I could say it that good.  It’s neither a job nor a responsibility.  It’s more like a will to act on behalf of someone who is in some way a part of your soul.  A part of your soul that is incomplete; it’s wounded and bleeding, so to speak, and by acting to stop the bleeding from somebody else’s wound, somebody who you love, or even once loved, you are stopping the bleeding in your own wound”

D’Andra was beginning to get excited, or as close to excited as Charlie had ever seen her.  “And by addressing Maureen’s wound you help with your own healing, and in the process you offer Maureen the opportunity to help in her own healing by helping you.  Yes.  Excellent.  Charlie, I have worked very hard to learn ways to help people, but your Billy sounds like a natural.  So what do you intend to do?”

“I don’t exactly know,” Charlie replied.  “In less than two months billy will begin attending classes at the college.  I’m taking him hunting before that, and I’ll be on my job for another couple of weeks or so.  I think that between ending my job and taking Billy hunting I’ll have a couple of idle weeks.  Of course, I’ll have to be looking for work, but I think I’ll take a weekend, or maybe three or four days, and fly to San Diego.  I’ll visit my mother – I know that she isn’t expecting that – and I’ll call my former in-laws from her house.  I hope they will allow me to speak to them.  Maybe they will give a message to Maureen.”

“Mmmm.  That sounds like a workable plan” D’Andra said, and then sat silently.  After a moment or two she continued speaking.  “I think that is a very good plan, and I would say ‘get to it.’  I wish that I could call them for you and tell them how hard you are working at getting your experiences into a proper perspective and making things right, but I guess that would run counter to just about every accepted practice in my field.

Well, Charlie.  It looks like the time has flown past us again.  Just to recap though, I think your willingness to step out of your comfort zone and be with a hurting friend is wonderful.  This LuAnn must be a remarkable woman.  Certainly, she is a lucky one to enjoy your friendship.  Also, I would like for you to spend some time remembering all that you can about your father.  There are some locked doors there, I think, that would benefit from being opened to let a little air in.

Lastly, I’m already excited about your trip to San Diego.  Perhaps you can learn some things about your father from your mother, if she will talk about him.  But most important is the chance to complete some business with your wife and son.  Even if Maureen is not interested in your help or being in contact with you, you will be reaching out; doing your part.  I think that will be very important as you go forward.

Now, let me wrap up the bread.  No! Don’t even try to argue.  If you don’t want it, take it to that excellent young man that you’re living with.  No ten loaves of bread could make us even for those beautiful vegetables that you brought me.  Shelby loves them too, but he grew up in the city and doesn’t know the first thing about growing vegetables.  I hope that we can get around to putting in a garden some day.”

Charlie dutifully took his bread and bid D’Andra good bye.  As she closed the door behind him he walked in a haze to his truck.  The shock of hearing about Duane’s death was jarring enough by itself, but the possibility that his own father had more of an impact on his life, both by his presence and later by his absence, was a thought that truly shook his mind.

But he would have to think about that later.  Carolyn would be waiting for him to come as soon as possible to begin putting her new kitchen back together.  The external walls were once again secured, and although Luke was now free to return to his normal activities he chose to stay on and help every day that Charlie was working.  Charlie enjoyed the company of both Carolyn and Luke, and must now clear his mind of distractions so that he could devote all of his attention to his work and to these two new and unexpected friends.

Reflection

Ah, the vicissitudes of this mortal frame!  For sixty five years I considered myself to have lived a somewhat charmed life.  “Never had a major disease or even a broken bone” I would crow when sitting on a chair in the break room at work, or on one in a friend’s living room, or a stool at some local watering hole.  I have to confess that I found my relatively clean health record odd, all things considered (which we will do shortly),  but I was very pleased with the state of my health as I charged into my energetic sixties.  And then reality dropped it’s hammer onto my head.

“Glenn, you’ve had a heart attack.”  I had worked with this Emergency Room doctor for decades, and I could see that it wasn’t easy for him to bring me this news.  The news didn’t come as a surprise though.  Two years of symptoms had eluded test after test, and when the chest pain and the blood work were put together, the truth was right in front of my eyes.  An angiogram the next day confirmed that three of my cardiac arteries needed to be bypassed, using vessels from my leg and chest.  I said “Get to it then,” and they did.

Over the last two and a half years I have been more or less OK.  With diet and exercise, massage, acupuncture and a very good naturopath I have gotten along pretty well.  Until the last two months, that is.

Since then I have found it hard to eat anything solid without running the risk of very severe abdominal pain and sometimes throwing up.  By staying on a diet of smoothies with small amounts of solid food thrown in I’m able to usually avoid the problem, but after sixty eight years of chewing my food, one finds oneself used to the exercise.

Two weeks from today I will have the pleasure of an endoscopy procedure.  A doctor called a gastroenterologist (they give themselves Latin and Green names which sound SO important so that they can charge more) will advance a scope down my esophagus, into my stomach, through the pyloric valve and into the duodenum, in hopes that he can find a cause for this problem.  I hope that he is successful.

 

I find myself reflecting on all of this on a gray Vancouver winter day when I have already planted three new blueberry plants and have nothing better to do.  I could, on the one hand, ask “Why me?”  I eat better than most Americans (and I can provide a grocery bill to support that assertion!), I exercise, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol on only social occasions (which don’t happen every night, if that’s what you’re thinking).

On the other hand, I might answer “Why not me?”  I began to smoke cigarettes when I was eight years old and did so, off and on, until I  was twenty.  I spent two years in Vietnam where a lot worse than GERD was flying around me, and I walked through pools of Agent Orange while I was there.

And in the years that I was overseas and in most of the next ten years I smoked or ingested God-knows-what on a daily basis, trying to self-medicate pain that I really had no good excuse to be experiencing.  During those years I should have died or experienced serious life-changing circumstances well more than a half-dozen times.  So there’s no point in whining about that now.  At sixty eight something might be catching up with me.  Wouldn’t be surprised.

The point of writing this is not that I think I’ll drop dead tomorrow.  I might do just that, but I don’t expect it.  I’m not going down the drain, nor even circling it.  But at long last I can SEE the drain.  I’m not going to live forever.  Until now, that has been an abstract notion.  Now it’s a poke in the ribs.  I finally understand that, sooner or later, it will become a kick in the butt.

Death is just a part of the drill.  Odds are, we’re all going to get our shot at it.  That leads me to ponder not “How can I avoid thinking about death?” but rather, “How can I make the best use of my time in the one hour or thirty years that I have left?”  What can I do to make this place better, even if on a scale so microscopic that it doesn’t register on most graphs and scales?”

“How do I redeem the time that God gives me?”  That seems like a better question than “Why me?’

The Picnic, First Revision

  Phil lay in the dust by the side of a trail which ran up to Lookout Mountain.  The day was warm, but a soft breeze kept Phil cool as he lay in the shade cast by a canopy of chaparral.  To his left the mountain sloped downward, toward the east.  Phil could see the Laguna Mountains rising to 6,000 feet in that direction, but he couldn’t see them well.  His vision was blurry, as was his state of consciousness.  “Where am I”  he asked himself.  “Oh, yeah.  I’m on a hike.  Why am I laying here?”  Phil struggled to get his thoughts together and at last, with some effort, he recalled how the day began.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning when Phil and Sandy rolled to a stop at the Arroyo Seco picnic area seventy miles east of San Diego.  The parking lot was already filling up with cars as city dwellers fled the heat and humidity, spawned by a tropical storm somewhere off to the southwest.  The lowlands of southern California was trapped in that storm’s hot and sticky embrace, but the picnic area lay at 4,000 feet.  The air tended to cool as it rose up the sides of the mountains, bringing the blessing of that coolness to any who would make the tortuous drive on the serpentine two lane road that led there from the city.  Phil was apprehensive as he stopped the car, set the handbrake, and turned off the engine.

“Here we are.  The hike to where I planned our picnic is about two hours away, so we had better get started.”

Phil tried to sound cheerful, but he was almost certain that his falseness was showing through like a searchlight on a clear night.  He and Sandy had only been together for seven months after meeting in their eleventh grade science class at Grant High School.  Phil was painfully shy and nervous as hell when he asked Sandy to accompany him to a dance, and was surprised and relieved when she agreed to go with him.

“One thing I should tell you”  Phil told her.  “I don’t know how to dance.”

Sandy’s laugh was soft and musical, and projected reassurance rather than condemnation.  “Don’t worry about that.  I don’t know how to dance either.”

Over the next few months the relationship grew from two kids struggling to learn a few dance steps to a more-or-less committed thing.  Sandy didn’t go out with any other boy and Phil prayed that it would stay that way.  Phil was a complete novice at this boy friend/girl friend thing, and his lack of self confidence when it came to girls made him feel ill-suited to compete with other boys if any such competition should arise.

The couple were able to get together at school every day, and at least one and sometimes both weekend nights for dinner at a drive-in burger joint, followed by talking and necking on a dark and uninhabited road wherever such a road could be found.  Sometimes they would pay to park in a drive-in theater, where kissing in the back seat was more likely to take up the bulk of their time than paying attention to whatever Burt Lancaster or Tab Hunter was doing on the screen.

After five months of this routine Sandy became a little less eager to participate, and a remoteness crept into her response to Phil.  He thought he noticed it first at a party where Sandy talked more to his best friend, Matt, than she did with him.  Soon after the party Phil spoke with Matt about this.

“Hey Matt.  I gotta ask you something.  Are you interested in Sandy?  I’m not jumping on you or anything like that, but it just seemed like something went on at that party at Pat’s house.  I won’t get mad.  Really.  And if you two are interested in each other I’ll be okay.  I just gotta know.”

“No” Matt responded, and the surprised look on his face made Phil believe that his denial was sincere.  “I’m not interested in Sandy at all.  I mean, she’s pretty and all of that, but I’m busy with school working out for football practice that’s gonna start in two weeks, and I think that Darlene and I might start going out together soon.  I’ll tell you something though.  If you’re worried about Sandy looking at other guys, maybe you should think about whether you want to continue this or not.”

Phil was anything but a veteran at this sort of thing, but he instinctively knew that Matt was right about that.  Still, Sandy was his first girl friend.  Phil found that he really liked being in a relationship with a girl, especially this girl, and he was prepared to venture into some unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory if there was any way that this relationship could be saved.  That is, if there really was anything amiss with the relationship.  Maybe Phil was imagining all of this; with his inexperience, how would he know?  Without asking, that is.  That is what today’s picnic was going to be all about.

Phil’s daydreaming slowly faded and he once again became aware that he was lying in the dirt on the side of the trail.  Above him small, grayish brown birds twittered and flitted from branch to branch in the chaparral that rose up over him.  He was thirsty but his right arm didn’t seem to want to move so that he could grasp the canteen of water by his side.  His left arm seemed to be working, but he didn’t care enough to expend the energy that would be required to reach across his body.  Hmm.  Sandy started this day with him.  Where was she now?  Oh, yes.  She walked – – -, no, she ran down the path back towards the parking lot.  Why?  What did we forget”  Phil’s confused brain tried to sort this all out, and the process took him back to the parking lot at the picnic area.

Phil and Sandy exited the 1962 Mercury sedan and Phil lifted the trunk lid.  Inside were two packs of unequal size.  The larger one carried a sheet, food, two quart bottles of water and a fancy Swedish gas stove no bigger than the palm of your hand.  With the stove Phil planned to heat some water to make coffee.  Neither Sandy nor Phil drank coffee much but Phil was just beginning to like doing so more with his older brother.  He reasoned somehow that it would make him look more like an adult, and perhaps make a good impression.  The smaller pack contained more sandwiches, the coffee, sun protection and other such gear.  Swinging their packs onto their shoulders, the two began their walk to where, a couple of hours later, they were to have their lunch and a long conversation.

The two young people were not far along the trail when Sandy asked “Where exactly are we going to eat this lunch.  Have you really ever been up here?”

Phil chuckled, a little nervously he thought, and replied “We’ll go an hour or so up this trail.  When we get to a valley up there we’ll cross the valley and then climb part way up another mountainside.  There’s no trail up the side of that mountain but it is pretty clear of undergrowth and isn’t too difficult of a climb.  There’s a level place among some boulders.  I found this place hiking with my Dad a couple of years ago.  It’s one of my favorite places in these hills.”

“How hard is the climb?”  Sandy asked.

“It’s not all that hard” Phil replied.  “The hike we took coming up the east side of the mountains from the desert was a lot harder.  It’s not much of a challenge for either of us.  Let me know if you get tired though.”

“I’m tired now” Sandy laughed, but she was a very athletic young woman and Phil suspected that she could keep up with him wherever they went.

They reached the top of the first climb in an hour, as predicted.  The trail had been bounded on one side by chaparral, a mix of twisted, thorny, drought-resistant plants that had grown tall and in some place had arched all the way over their heads because of a series of rainy years.  It now opened up as they reached and passed along the western edge of a mountain valley.

“We’ll climb part-way up there” Phil said, pointing to a peak which rose from the east side of the valley and poked a little higher into the cloud-dotted blue sky that did its neighbors.  “If you look about a third of the way up the hill, just above that tree that was split by a lightening strike, you can see where we’re going to eat.”

“I don’t see where you’re talking about” Sandy complained.

“In that cluster of rocks” Phil answered, pointing the rocks out.  He stood close to Sandy, putting one hand on her waist and pointing at the rocks so that she could sight along his arm and extended second finger.  Sandy’s nearness; the smell of her hair and the ease with which he could be near her were exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  “This is what I want” he thought one moment, and “this is what I may be losing” was the thought that quickly followed.

Phil regrouped.  “Like I said, there’s not a trail from here, but the terrain is pretty easy.  There’s not much chaparral on the side of that hill but the valley can be pretty marshy because the Cuyapaipe River begins up here.  We’ll stay in the upper part of the valley where it is the driest, and then cut back so that we can reach the rocks.

“You’re the leader” Sandy said.  Was there a strain in her voice?  Did she intend to let Phil lead anything for long?  The questions sat like something bitter in the pit of his stomach.  “Lead on.”

They stepped off of the trail and onto the grassy floor of the valley near the north end, and indeed it was fairly dry there.  The warm sun and dry air, the valley floor strewn with wildflowers, and the beauty of the mountain should have been a thing to make one’s heart glad.  Instead, Phil was not feeling good at all.  He knew that a very difficult conversation needed to take place and he struggled over when and how to begin it.  He had planned to broach the topic at some time during their lunch but he simply couldn’t carry the weight of this thing any longer.

“There’s something that I’ve been wanting to talk about.” Phil began.  He could see Sandy’s body tense out of the side of his eye as he stepped carefully over clumps of grass, avoiding scattered marshy patches.  Phil was trying to collect his thoughts but they stubbornly refused to stay collected, so he pressed on.

“I’ve begun to get the feeling that you don’t like me as much now as you did a couple of months ago.  Is that how it is?”  Sandy seemed to be surprised by the directness of the question, and in fact Phil was too.

I don’t know” Sandy replied.  “I don’t think that I do, but I still like you a lot.”

Phil kept a poker face while that arrow tore through his heart.  He had been right, and now it was in the open and there could be no going back.

“Is it because you’re attracted to Matt?” Phil asked.

“No, not at all” Sandy said, but Phil did not see the same surprise that he had seen in Matt’s face when he asked his friend the same question.  Phil still had his doubts after her answer to that last question but he pressed on.

“Maybe it’s your Dad.  I know that he doesn’t approve of me, or at least not very much.”  Phil remember how he had been given the third degree like a petty hoodlum when he showed up at Sandy’s house on their first date.

“So, young man.  You want to take my daughter to a dance.  Will there be adults at this dance or will it just be kids at a house somewhere?” the father had asked.

     “It’s at a recreation center, sir.”  Phil replied.  “There will be Parks and Recreation leaders there the whole time.”

     “Hmm.  All right.  So what about you, son.  What are your plans?  College?  Career?”

     “Uhh, I’m not sure sir” Phil stammered.  “I’ve always wanted to fly, and my brother told me that my grades are good enough to get into helicopter training in the Army.  I might do that.”

     “I don’t see how that will happen” Sandy’s father said.  “You have to be an officer to be a pilot and your have to have a college degree to be an officer.  

     “Well sir, my brother told me – – oh, I’m sorry.  My brother just got out of the Army last month.  Anyway, he told me that helicopter pilots can be  warrant officers, which is something like less than an officer but more than a sergeant or whatever those guys are called.  Anyway, with my grades I could qualify and go to Alabama for nine months and come out flying.”

     “Helicopter pilots are in a pretty dangerous position, aren’t they?  The Viet Cong like to shot them down as quickly as they can.”  Sandy’s father seemed to like that idea.

     At that point Sandy swept into the room looking like an angel from heaven and rescued Phil from the hot seat.  Sandy kissed her father on the cheek and said “Good night Dad.  We’ll be back by 10:00.”

     “See that you do” he growled, looking directly at Phil.  

Back on the valley floor Sandy shook her head, more convincingly this time than the last, and said “No, it has nothing to do with my father.  He’s usually either at work in his office at the shipbuilding company or in his office at home.  He’s all worried when I stray from the house but otherwise hardly knows that I’m there at all.  He told me that warrant officer was good enough for him and I haven’t heard anything more about it.

Phil processed that answer as they walked along.  Warrant officer was good enough for Sandy’s father, but was it good enough for Sandy?  The two walked in silence for a short distance as each tried to organize their thoughts.  At last, Phil could not wait any longer.

“So what is going on?  I want to know if something’s wrong that I am able to change or fix.”

Sandy remained silent for several more steps and then began to speak in slow, measured words.  “There’s nobody else that I’m really interested in.  Really.  And I don’t care if my dad likes you or not.  I honestly do still like you, but I’m just not sure about where we are or where we’re going.  And I don’t really know how you feel about me either.”

Sandy returned to silence as they walked, and now neither of them were nearly so careful about avoiding the marshy spots on the valley floor.  Phil stepped into one and growled ‘Shit!” at which Sandy laughed a little.  Phil felt his face flushing and knew that he was turning red.  He had never sworn in front of Sandy before but he was feeling the strain and losing his control just a little.

“You see, that’s what I’m getting at” Sandy continued.  “You are always the same person.  There’s never a change.  You pick me up.  We eat at the drive-in. We make out somewhere.  We go home.  Always the same.  Always controlled.  I like all of that stuff but I want something else.  I know that there’s more to you than just that stuff but you don’t share it with me.  At least I think that there’s more to you, but how would I know?  At last, you finally stepped into some water and said ‘shit’.  Guess what.  If I stepped into water I would probably say ‘shit’ too!  Or maybe more than that.  I have said it before, you know.  I’ll bet that you have too.  I’ve lived for 16 years where everything is proper and runs according to a schedule and rules and guidelines, and I don’t want to do that with you.”

They returned to walking in silence again.  Phil was more careful about where he stepped now and Sandy was wondering if she had just stepped into something a great deal different than water.  Phil was glad that he was not competing with Matt or anybody else and Sandy was glad that this conversation had at last begun.  They were approaching the eastern edge of the valley when Phil picked up the thread again.

“Well, I do like to make out with you.  You’re a beautiful girl, and sometimes I can hardly believe that it’s me kissing you.  It just becomes the only thing that I want to do.  Maybe I have a lack of imagination about what to do with you because I’m so happy just to be with you at all.”

Sandy stopped in mid stride.  She turned to Phil, put her hands on her hips and said “Why is it that this is the first time that I’ve heard that?  I’ve wanted to hear you say something like that to me for the last half year.  Was it so hard to say that?”

Phil knew that Sandy was right, but how could he know that he should say such things?  Phil’s father and mother lived a sort of cold war, sharing a house but inhabiting separate worlds; separate bedrooms, separate budgets, separate vacations, and separateness in every other aspect of their lives.  They went dancing and to dinner with friends, but that façade came off as soon as they got home.  If Sandy would have known Phil’s parents better she would have had a much more clear view of his confusion in the matter of expressing affection.

Sandy began to walk again, a little faster than before as her own confusion and anger was beginning to creep toward the light.  Phil caught up quickly but Sandy began to speak again before Phil could get out a word.

“And then there’s another thing.  When we were eating lunch at school that guy, Paul What’s-His-Name, was fresh with me and you didn’t seem to mind.  It looked to me like you were afraid and he could just say anything to me that he wanted to.  I’m sorry, but that bothered me.  I don’t want to pick your fights for you, but I felt insulted and alone when that happened.  I would like to know that you would defend me.”

Phil felt the pain of that accusation tear through his heart and mind.  Paul Duggar was a big oafish kid and a bully, and he had made advances towards Sandy right in Phil’s face.  Phil had laughed a little and then walked away with Sandy towards where some other kids that he knew were standing, and the number of those friends persuaded Paul to leave after another grating remark or two.

The memory of that day stung, but the worse part was that Phil had not the least fear of Paul Duggar.  Phil had been bullied in the sixth grade and had persuaded his father to pay for karate lessons.  By good fortune Phil had ended up with an instructor who trained him well.  His teacher also advised Phil to keep his training a secret from his friends.  “When the upstart defeats the old gunfighter, the new gunfighters all want to pick a fight with him to earn their reputation.  Train hard.  Stay quiet.  Use what you know only when you have to, or you’ll have to be using it all the time.

Phil had lived by that teaching, but now he knew that a page had to be turned and a new strategy was called for.  He thought back on that day and knew that he could have laid Paul out with three or maybe four blows.  Perhaps it was time to share this side of himself with Sandy.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t more assertive that day” Phil said lamely.  “I wasn’t afraid of Paul; I just didn’t want to get into a fight then and there.  If I thought that you were in any danger I would have done whatever was necessary to protect you.  I will never let anything hurt you.  Never.”

They walked along in silence again for a while.  Phil was making a list of things that he wanted to tell Sandy, and what Sandy was thinking Phil couldn’t tell.  Her jaw seemed tight, as if the Paul episode still was eating at her, but Phil wasn’t sure.  They arrived at the eastern edge of the valley and began their climb towards the boulders.  They were picking their way through the rocks and chaparral that was scattered about when Phil spoke again.

“So I haven’t told you how I feel about you.  Okay.  You’re right.  I’m new at all of this and honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing or should be doing most of the time.  So, let me tell you now.  I look forward to every minute that I can be with you, and I feel sick when I think that I’m losing you.  If you don’t want me to kiss you so much, then I won’t.  If you want me to stand on my head instead, I will.  Just being near you will be enough for me as long as I know that you are happy being near me.  But if that won’t work, then we should break up now so that I won’t bother you or look like a fool, which is how I’ve been feeling.  That is not what I want to do, but if it is what you want, we should do it.”

There.  Phil had said it.  He couldn’t believe that he had got it out without his voice cracking, and he hoped that Sandy wouldn’t take him up on it, but there it was, right out on the table.  They would have to deal with it now, for better or for worse.  Sandy looked like she was glad to have the issue laid bare too.  The tightness around her jaws softened and Phil even thought he saw a little moisture fill the eye closest to him.

“This is what I’ve been missing” said Sandy.  “We’ve been acting so much like my parents.  Pick me up.  Eat.  Make out.  Go home.  It’s like a broken record.  I don’t want you to be my knight in shining armor but I would like to feel safe when I’m with you, and I don’t want to just follow the same old script.  Surprise me sometimes.  Take me out to a nice restaurant, or just grill me some hot dogs in your back yard and tell me that I’m special to you while we sit on that big bench swing that your dad built and eat them.  And the next time that we’re making out while some stupid movie is playing, try to get into my pants or something.  “I’m not looking for ‘out of control’, but I’m tired of everything being so tame and predictable.”

Sandy was a little out of breath after such a long speech, and was more than a little surprised at what had just come out of her mouth.  Phil had stopped dead in his tracks with his mouth hanging open, frozen by both his elation and the shock that he felt from what he had just heard.

“You would let me get into your pants?”  he asked in amazement.

“No.  Of course not.  Don’t be silly.  But I wouldn’t hate you for trying, as long as you weren’t being a jerk about it.  At least I’d know that you want to get in them.  We can then talk about anything more than that later.”

Phil put out his hand, acting as if he was reaching for Sandy’s belt.  She laughed as she slapped his hand away.  “I said later.  A whole lot later.”

Phil laughed too, just beginning to believe that this was going to end a lot better than he had dared to hope that it would.  They had reached the place where the picnic was to be had and Sandy’s laughter was singing a love song in Phil’s ears as they climbed up over the first layer of rocks.  That was when Phil saw the rattlesnake that was warming itself in the sun.  Sandy was unaware of the snake and her head was not two feet away from it when it coiled in preparation to strike.  There was nothing that Phil could do other than thrust his arm between Sandy’s neck and the snake, and he did that without thinking.

The serpent struck in less than the blink of an eye and buried its fangs deep into Phil’s bicep.  He shook his arm furiously until the snake let go and wriggled swiftly into the small stand of chaparral that was nearby, leaving a shaken Sandy and a bitten Phil in its wake.

“Oh God!  Oh God!  You’re bitten” Sandy kept repeating.  Phil stared numbly at the twin punctures on his arm that were oozing blood, frozen with fear.  Sandy’s cries became louder and more hysterical, and the sound brought phil back to something like his senses.

Phil’s father had grown up in Oklahoma and knew a lot about rattlesnakes, including how to hike in the mountains without getting crosswise with one.  One lesson his dad had omitted from Phil’s education was how to remain watchful for snakes while negotiating with a beautiful girl about getting into her pants, even if only in jest.  Phil had forgotten to tap the rock with the head of the steel hatchet that he wore in its canvas cover on his belt.  The sound would alert any snake in the rocks that Phil was coming, and the snake would return the favor.  “The snake will let you know that he’s there if you will let him know first” his father had said.  “And that will work out best for the both of you.”

Sandy was losing it pretty badly, and Phil went to her, wrapped his arms around her and held her close.  “It’s okay.  It’s okay Baby” Phil kept repeating, although he could not for the life of him figure out how it could possibly be okay.  “Calm down now.  We’re going to be all right.  We have to think about this now.”  Sandy’s sobbing diminished, and soon she looked up at the snakebitten boy who was comforting her, and began to control her fear.

“You really were bitten, weren’t you?” she asked.  Phil stared at the damaged arm that was just then beginning to throb.  “Yes” he replied with a calmness born of shock.  “I believe that I was.”

Sandy’s tears began to flow again but Phil just held her close to keep her from falling apart.  Her jaw worked, but few words came out.  “Are you going to die?” she finally croaked in barely a whisper.

Phil didn’t answer right away because he didn’t know the answer.  His father had told him that tourniquets and sucking out the poison were mostly Hollywood horseshit.  “The best thing to do is get to a doctor fast” he had told him.  Phil knew that such a plan was not going to happen, and the first shiver of panic crawled down his spine.  Bile crept up into his throat and he almost threw up from the fear.  The look on Sandy’s face however, and seeing the concern and compassion that she felt for him, settled him down.  He remembered more of his father’s teaching and one possibility rose to the top.

“My father told me that sometimes rattlers will give you a dry bite, where they don’t inject venom.  All we can do now is start back to the parking lot and hope that this snake was in a good mood today.”

  Oh, yeah.  the snake.  Phil looked down at his right arm as he lay in the shaded dirt of the trail.  The arm was already puffy, bruised, and numb.  And it also hurt like hell.  “How can an arm be numb and hurt at the same time?” Phil asked himself.  He moved the arm an inch or two and dug his fingers into the dirt.  Sure enough, he couldn’t feel the ground underneath arm or fingers, but he could certainly feel the fiery pain that enveloped the entire appendage.

     Phil’s head was resting on a pillow.  “Odd” he thought.  “A pillow out here.”  Then he remembered that Sandy had taken off her pack and used it to cushion his head.  Phil smiled at the thought of using a pack full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some socks and a scarf as a pillow.  His vision had been blurry for a long time and now his breath was getting a little harder to come by.  Phil looked down the trail where Sandy had disappeared – – – how long ago?  Phil hadn’t the least idea.  Maybe she’d be back in five minutes with help, or maybe she only left five minutes ago.  There wasn’t one damned thing that Phil could do about it one way or the other, so he lay his head back down on his makeshift pillow and drifted off into memory again.

Sandy began to cry again and Phil was not doing so well himself.  He hugged her once again, being careful not to bleed on her clothes.  Sandy controlled her own fear and stepped back from Phil’s embrace.  “Come on.  We have to get you to a doctor.  You leave your pack here.  I’ll take mine and let’s get going.  I don’t think that we’re going to have a picnic here today after all.”

They set off down the hillside, towards the valley.  By the time they got to the margin of the valley a purple blotch had grown around the bites on Phil’s arm, and the pain was becoming fierce.  “It looks like the snake was not in a good mood” Phil told Sandy.  “I don’t know how long I’m going to stay standing.  We’ll go straight across the valley.  I want to get you to the trail and I’m not going to worry much about getting my shoes wet doing it.

They walked quickly side by side across the grassy valley floor.  Phil wondered how far he would get before the effects of the venom would lead to weakness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and possibly death.  He wanted desperately to make it to the trail on the west side of the valley.  Once there, Sandy could follow it straight to the parking lot and safety.

Phil thought about dying and once again panic began to rise in his throat.  Half-way across the valley he bent forward and threw up the remains of his breakfast.  “Was that fear?” he wondered, “or the effects of the venom.”  Phil had not thought about death and dying any more than any other seventeen year old kid had, but now it was a distinct possibility.  In some odd way the fear did not immobilize him.  The bite was a fact; Phil couldn’t change that.  He had to get Sandy to the trail, and anything else would be extra credit.  Life, death, heaven and hell were not in his hands, so all he could do was put one foot in front of the other for as long as that was possible.  The rest would have to take care of itself.

Sandy tried at first to keep up idle chatter as they walked, whether to distract Phil from their desperate situation or distract herself wasn’t clear to Phil.  Eventually however, when Phil began to stumble more as they passed through the soggy clumps of marsh grass and shallow pools of clear water, Sandy focused all of her attention on supporting Phil.

“Come on.  We can do this” she told Phil as the trail finally came into view.  “We’re almost there.  Let’s just keep this going.  And by the way, I want you to know that I believe that you weren’t afraid of Paul.  If you weren’t afraid of a goddam snake I guess you can handle Paul.  I apologize for that.”  Phil smiled weakly, but didn’t speak.  It was becoming clear to him that he was not going to make it down the side of the mountain.  They stumbled onto the trail and Sandy gave a little whoop, but Phil simply plodded forward.

Phil didn’t know how far they had walked on that trail before it finally became clear that he had gone as far as he could.  “I can’t go on any more” he said.  Sandy tried to urge him on but he held up his left hand.  “No Babe.  I’m sorry.  I can’t do it.  This is it.  This is as far as I can go.  I’m going to have to lay down right here and let you go on the rest of the way.  Here.  Help me to lay down.”

“No” Sandy quavered.  “Don’t give up.  You can do this.”

“I’m sorry Babe.  I can’t.  And I’m not giving up on you or anything else.  You can travel faster without me.  You run the rest of the way and get help.  Ill stay here, resting, and wait for you to come back.  This is the only plan that I can see that has a ghost of a chance.  Now help me to lay down and go.  Quickly!”

Sandy looked like she wanted to argue, but it was obvious that this really was the best plan.  “Okay.  You can use my pack for a pillow and lay here in the shade.”  Sandy helped Phil to stretch out in the dirt.  She lifted his head and put her pack under it, and then leaned over and kissed Phil twice and said “I love you, Phillip Coltrane.  You wait for me because I’m coming back, and I’ll be really pissed off at you if you don’t.”

Sandy then rose up and shot down the trail at a full sprint.  She quickly disappeared around a curve, and Phil wondered if he would ever see her again.

  “It must have been a while since Sandy left” Phil thought.  “The shadow from the chaparral is nearly half way across the path now.  How long does it take for the sun to move that far in the sky?  Hell, I don’t know.  It’s still midday though, and that’s good.  In the evening the tarantulas come out to hunt.  I know.  I’ve seen then on this trail in the evening.  God, I hate spiders.  Especially big, hairy ones.  Ah, no sweat.  I won’t be alive this evening.  The ants will already be cleaning up my mess.  Spiders are worse than snakes.  Screw snakes anyway.  Maybe a big, fat spider will eat that bastard who bit me.  Maybe – – – huh!  I’ll be damned.  That looks like two men in some kind of uniforms standing over me.  Sandy.

 

 

Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

A Murder Disease in America

The world has learned that one more crazy white guy has gone off of his rails and murdered multiple innocent people, this time in Santa Barbara, California.  Even more chilling than the body count of random people shot and stabbed or sliced to death is the lengthy manifesto that the killer left behind.  It seems that the most attractive women in his community were not interested in having sex with him (it is uncertain at this time if he ever asked) and for this he was going to seek his revenge and punish the world.  The manner in which he fantasized getting his revenge makes Voldemort look like a crossing guard. It is known that the murderer had Asperger syndrome and perhaps other mental and emotional issues and yet was still at large and able to purchase or in some other way acquire an impressive array of firearms.  This is meat enough for a book, but I will only scratch the surface of it all in one short post.

To begin with, what has happened to American society that has made these outbreaks of violence by disaffected white males so common?  Fifty years ago this sort of thing was unheard of.  I know because I was alive then and had never heard of it.  Then, forty eight years ago on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed into a bell tower on the campus of the University of Texas and methodically cut down anyone he could see with a rifle and a very good aim.  Since that time the pattern has been repeated over and over again, with ever more outrageous groups being targeted; high school kids, Amish school girls, elementary school kids, moviegoers and now attractive girls and their boyfriends and anyone else who got in the way.  Something has changed in America since before August 1 of 1966.  Our country was far from perfect then, and more citizens had a right to explode with anger at injustice then than now.  And yet such explosions did not occur.  Why?  And why now?

Mental illness plays a role in many of these tragic events.  The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary, the one in Aurora Colorado, and now at Santa Barbara were clearly mentally ill.  I suspect that most if not all of the other shooters were clinically mentally ill too, but what of it?  There were plenty of mentally ill people before August 1 1966 and they didn’t pick up a weapon and start taking people out.  There are also multiple thousands of people suffering from mental illness today who have not the slightest intention of harming anyone, other than perhaps themselves.  Why are the mentally ill shooters walking up to and over the cliff now when before they did not?  I wonder if anyone is working on that?

The Santa Barbara shooter was particularly aggrieved because attractive women were ruining his life by not having sex with him. I hardly know where to start with that!  Clearly the shooter believed that he was entitled to have sex with attractive women, and this was not happening because attractive women are wicked and denied him sex with the especial intent to ruin his life.  I remember being in public school in the 1950’s and 60’s.  We had attractive girls back then too, although I look at pictures of the piled-up hair and other accessories now and cringe a little bit.  I and just about all of my friends were not athletes or ruggedly handsome or supremely self-confident, so we never had as much as a kiss or even a conversation with those attractive girls.  Nevertheless, none of us ever even spoke of any feelings of anger towards those girls or the popular boys to whom they were drawn.  It just didn’t even enter our minds.

So where did this sense of entitlement come from?  Why did our Santa Barbara shooter feel that he was being cheated because attractive women (and probably unattractive women as well) preferred to not allow him to masturbate into their bodies?  And if just one young woman would have agreed to enter into a physical relationship with him would he have been cured?  I don’t think so.  His sickness would certainly have driven her away from him and then caused him to kill her for running.  Our shooter appeared to have worshipped sex but really I think he worshipped himself, and sex was only a decoration on his short life of madness and death.

So what do we do about this?  What can we do?  I don’t know.  Maybe we should build more mental hospitals and get the more severely ill out of society.  Maybe we should ban handguns, but then men like our Santa Barbara killer would use knives and explosives.  Maybe we should encourage women to purchase and train in the use of handguns.  A murderer who does not know if a woman is armed or not is less likely to act if the odds are high that she is.  Maybe we are over saturated with sex and violence in all forms of entertainment.  Maybe some form of censorship is necessary to tone down our testosterone-drenched society, but then maybe that wouldn’t do any good at all and leave us with boring and insipid entertainment, although I believe that that proposition sells short the creative abilities of good writers.

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I don’t even know if I have asked the right questions.  But I do know that our society is badly broken and we need to either ask hard questions and take chances, or shut up and let the carnage continue unabated while we wring our hands do nothing.  That seems a poor choice to me.

Goodbye, Mr. Phelps

I read in the news today that Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is close to death.  Westboro Baptist, if you have not heard of them, is extremely opposed to homosexual people and anyone else who varies from the heterosexual norm.  I looked at their website and discovered not only that “God Hates Fags” but also “God Hates Islam”, “God Hates The Media”, “Jews Killed Jesus”, etc., etc.  Reading their homepage I was reminded of a quote, I believe it was by Anne Lamotte, that goes “It’s a sure sign that you have created God in your own image when he hates the same people that you do”.  If Anne didn’t actually say that, it sounds like something that she would have.  I believe that Wesboro Baptist is as clear an example of that quote as can possibly be found.  My intention in writing this article is not to bash Westboro however.  As much as it pains me to see the word ‘church’ llnked with the positions and actions of that group of people I will have to let a complete rejection and denunciation of same await another day.  Westboro founder Fred Phelps is near death, and I am writing to grieve that fact.

What was that?  How can I mourn the passing of such a perversion of the Christian faith?  Don’t I know that Fred Phelps and his followers picket at funerals for fallen American servicemen, condemning their service to a “fag loving nation” and celebrating the fact that they were killed?  Yes, I know all of that.  I have been told that they are a very small congregation and make the majority of their income by provoking outraged mourners into punching them out and then suing them.  It is very unlikely that I will be relocating to Topeka any time soon and applying for membership at Westboro Baptist Church.  I’m certain that I don’t know the half of their positions and activities and that I would be in danger of losing my breakfast if I did.  Nevertheless, I still read of the predicted demise of Mr. Phelps in the near future and I mourn.

Death, you see, is not natural.  Death is much more of a perversion of nature than is anything or anyone targeted by the Westboro bunch.  Death was not created at the same time that life was.  Life and the universe and everything in the universe was created and it was declared to be good; very good in fact.  It was not until sin corrupted humankind that death entered into the universe; that death became the reality that has now attained a level of certainty that is equal to that of taxation.  Death is the foundation of a universe which is still awaiting restoration by it’s Creator, and I cannot bring myself to rejoice over any evidence that rebellion still rules and restoration and reconciliation are not yet accomplished.

Mr. Phelps is a person created in the imago Dei, the image of God.  God had a plan for Mr. Phelps that would have blessed him greatly, and that through him the world would have been blessed greatly too.  Mr. Phelps did not follow that plan and the world has suffered for it, but the fact remains that within the core being of Mr. Phelps there is a man made to love God and love his neighbor; a man who loves peace, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness and humility among other godly virtues.  For reasons I don’t know Mr. Phelps was bent and twisted into a person filled instead nearly to the top with hate and unforgiveness, strife and pride.

But before I pick up and throw the first stone I must examine myself.  Do I hate?  Yes, I do.  Do I lust and have I, as Jimmy Carter once famously put it, “committed adultery in my heart”?  Again, the answer is yes.  Have I lied?  Cheated?  Gossiped?  Slandered?  Uh-huh, all of the above.  That being the case, how can I measure up to the qualification that “He who is without sin cast the first stone”?  I can oppose everything that Mr. Phelps seems to have stood for, but I cannot with a clear conscience celebrate his or anyone else’s death.

Mr. Phelps is very certain that a small number of people, mostly just like him, are going to ‘get in’ to heaven.  Fags and ‘Fag Enablers’ are just a few of the vast bulk of humanity who will not ‘get in’ because God hates them.  The news that will come as a shock to Mr. Phelps is that God is not hate, and God does not hate.  1 John 4:8 says “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love”.  Love and hate can no more coexist than can light and dark, matter and antimatter, the Seahawks and the 49rs.  God very much loves Fags, Muslims, people described by The N Word, and even white trash like me.  Of course, that’s a blade that cuts both ways.  God loves Mr. Phelps too.  It seems that nobody is destined to be happy here.

So Mr. Phelps now lies on his deathbed, afflicted with some unknown disease and preparing to meet his God.  All of this was not supposed to happen.  Mr. Phelps was never supposed to die.  Mr Phelps was not supposed to hate and lead others into hatred.  Mr Phelps was not supposed to cause anguish and grief among the objects of his hatred.  In short, Mr Phelps was a beautiful creature made in the image of God and loved by God who was twisted into a monstrosity by sin and will soon die an unnatural (they all are) death.  And for that I grieve.

When Death comes For a Friend

I received some really crummy news today.  A friend of mine has A.L.S.  ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a very nasty and untreatable disease.  In a nutshell, ALS causes degeneration of the nerves which conduct signals to the muscles.  As those nerves fail and finally die the muscles lose their ability to contract.  Things like walking, talking, swallowing, and finally breathing become progressively more difficult and finally impossible.  What my friend has received, in essence, is a death sentence.

A couple of things come to mind as I try to come to grips with this news, and the first of those is the definition of the word ‘friend’.  This person and I do not attend each other’s birthday parties and in fact I don’t even know when his birthday is.  We have never visited each others’ homes, nor lifted an ale at the pub.  In fact, at work is the only time that we see each other at all.  So how can I call this person my friend?

I call him friend because I like him and he feels like one.  We have worked together for many years and we have spent many hours talking together.  We both love gardening and football, although I watch college ball and he prefers the pro game.  We both love eating and cooking and classical rock and old movies but most of all we love to talk, and we like to talk with each other.  It has never occurred to us to get together away from work.  We would probably enjoy a friendship that extends beyond the confines of our workplace but the subject has just never come up.  I have a very full social life away from work as does he, so it just seems to work best for us to pursue our relationship at the workplace only.  Does that make our relationship any less a friendship?  I don’t think so.  I have several friends with whom I spend a great deal of time when I am not at work and I take great pleasure from their company, so I know what it feels like to be a friend and it feels very much that way with My Friend.

And that is why my eyes filled with tears several times today when my mind turned to my friend and his diagnosis.  My friend is younger than me and has a wife and young child.  His wife also works where we do and I speak with her from time to time on the phone in the line of duty.  We like each other too, but our relationship is much more that of ‘acquaintance’.  I have not spoken with her since I heard the news, and I know that it will be hard to talk about.  I will want to say something sympathetic but what will that be?  “I know what you’re going through?”  No, I don’t.  “Is there anything I can do for you?”  No, there isn’t.  “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you both?”  Big friggin’ deal; he’s going to die.  Change that!  Perhaps I’ll just say “I have no idea what to say.  I’m as helpless as you are in this matter.  If you think of anything you need that I can do; anything, just say it.”  Maybe that will help, but probably it won’t.

The hardest thing for me is that my sense of fairness has been outraged.  Why does this decent, hard working family man and his loved ones have to go through this ordeal?  My friend does not deserve this.  Charles Manson, a name synonymous with ‘monster’ for my age group, rests comfortably in his cell in a California prison, living to a ripe old age and content in the tortured jungle that is his diseased mine.  Idi Amin, a dictator as likely to eat his victims as merely to kill them, dies after a long life of comfort in exile in Saudi Arabia.  Even Ariel Castro, the man who recently imprisoned and brutalized three women for more than a decade, met his end quickly at his own hand; no slow, wasting disease for him.  So why do these criminals get a pass and my friend must die slowly before his family’s eyes?

Mark Twain took a stab at that problem in his short book entitled “The Mysterious Stranger”.  In that story a young man runs into an extraordinary individual who turns out to be an angel.  At first delighted, the young man is soon horrified to learn that his new angelic friend’s name is Lucifer.  When the angel detects this reaction he says “Oh, you are thinking about my uncle, but what difference is that to you?  Who are you, a human, to judge us angels?”  Twain’s theology is tortured and Augustine answers that question clearly in “City of God”, but the story goes on to make a good point.

The young man learns that a friend of his is going to die soon.  He begs of the angel to spare the friend’s life if he can do it, and the angel replies “yes that is possible, but are you sure that you want that?”  The young man assures Lucifer Lite that he wants just that very much and so Lucifer says “It is done”.  Lucifer then shows the young man that his friend will now live a long life filled with disease, heartbreak and despair until the day when he finally, mercifully dies.

Now I’m OK with the proposition that an early death may be preferable to a lingering, tragic life, as long as that death is not self-inflicted.  In my view, willingly seeking death in order to avoid what is assumed, but not known, will be a long and painful life is caving in to Despair, who eats the souls of men and particularly enjoys dining on the souls of those who serve themselves up by their own hand on his infernal platter.  I am not talking about the position that suicides go to hell which would be a topic for a later conversation, and I assure you that you will not correctly presuppose my position.  I am only saying that Despair loves and feeds on our own personal despair, and I have no great desire to gratify his appetite.  But I can’t see how this can apply in my friend’s case.  There is no unexpected happy end to be found in his diagnosis.  ALS ends, after a very disagreeable time, in death.

But maybe I can still find some solace in Twain’s words after all.  Lucifer the nephew asked the young man “who are you to judge angels?”  The answer to that particular question is that angels can and will be judged just as humans will be judged and humans have (or will have) the rational powers to judge just as well as angels, but my comfort is not to be found in that quarter.  Instead, Twain’s greater (and probably unintended) observation that the imperfect perceptions of humans make it very hard for them to discern the course and ends of heaven-ordained events, or even events chance-ordained but guided by heaven for ultimately desirable ends, gives me some hope that a prognosis even as grim as my friend’s may, in the end, be shown to be in some way a mercy.  We are somewhere at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the creation parade.  We cannot see the whole stretch of time and do not know how all of the pieces will ultimately fit together.  It is therefore our lot to bet on a loving God who sees the clowns, the lions, the ringmaster, the Tattooed Lady and the guys sweeping up the elephant droppings all at the same time.  We do not have that perspective and can only hope in the One who does.  The alternative to that view is that we are all alone and utterly screwed and that would point towards Despair, and you know where that leads.

So will any of this make it easier for my friend if I share it with him?  I don’t know; probably not.  But maybe so.  Maybe the existence of a ‘maybe’ will be enough to kindle a hope that it will all work together for good in the end when the whole parade has passed by.  And in the end, isn’t Hope a much better thing than Despair?