Keeping Watch with Love

Text: BrevityJust because there are designated days (All Saints, Memorial Day, Defence Day, Anzac Day, Volkstrauertag, Poppy Day) for recalling those we’ve lost doesn’t mean in any way that we restrict our respectful, loving and admiring remembrances to those days. Those whom we hold in our hearts remain there, living or not, forever. That’s our path to peace.Digital illustration from a drawing + text: May We All Rest in Peace

The guarantee that we will die, and that all of those we hold dear will die too, means we will do best by finding ways to embrace and recall, most of all, the good and the uplifting things from their lives and ours, and expand on such things for the sake of our finest predecessors’ honor, if not our own.

Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.

Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.

Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.

Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.

I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.

He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.

When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.

I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.

It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.

This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.Digital illustration: Stained Glass Flower

As It Fades from View

We are not alone in our finitude. All of nature conspires to whisper this solemn truth in our ears if we will only listen. Everything we know will one day die and dissipate like a summer morning’s mist. Why should we grieve our own mortality?digital artwork from a photoIf we love life, it’s only natural that we would regret to leave it, and yet…digital artwork from photos…how much loveliness is in the fluttering-down exhalation of decay! Without that poignant and exquisite sigh, what would feed the roses of next year? I’m in no rush to die; I hope there’s plenty of time ahead for me to have a lively, fruitful life. But I think, too, that my last task is to renew, to bring my modest tenure here to a far more fruitful end, and to leave space and time and love and life to all the generations of our heirs. I’ve no children of my own, but my niece and my nephews, my students’ children, my friends’–and all of the people yet to come–shall, if I have my way, have their summers of long life, and have their roses, too.

Not So Deadly Serious After All

photoTerms of Interment

I’d like to twine my limbs among

great roots beneath an oak,

eternally embracing there

but not before I croak.

I want my grave within a grove

of alders, at the least,

so plant me deeply in the trees

but wait ‘til I’m deceased.photo

Cheer up; it could Happen to You

The shrinking shrubbery betrays the end-of-season, last of days,

that comes—enfin!—to suck and drub the lushness out from every shrub,

to make it sere and small and sharp, and leafless, stringy as a harp;

to drag the desiccation on until all fruitful life is gone,

and while it’s shrinking, to remind me salad days are left behind me;

so I, too, will shrink and shrivel: I’ll dry up, as all who live’ll.photo

Roland Stone Gathers Moss

Roland was a rascal

Roland was a scamp

Roland gave his children

A trip to summer camp

The neighbors thought it generous

But never did they guess

He moved away and left the kids

No forwarding address

The kids were smarter than he thought

And found him anyhow;

They gave him a nice funeral, though:

The joke’s on Roland now.