Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I spent Thanksgiving at my mom's in a Big Southwestern State. Everybody there was there. Meaning all my siblings and their spouses and a certain number of their kids and one of their kid's kids and one of my step-dad's kids and his wife and his kid.

Of course, we got to talking about Uncle Elliot*, who died a week before on the 15th. Turns out, the idea of no funeral, no burial, no obit in the paper, no nuthin' except ashes to be scattered on Lake Erie next summer was his idea, not his wife's, my aunt Natalie.* Natalie would have preferred to observe the usual rites. But unlike some relatives, who figure the post-death observances are for the sake of the survivors and go ahead and do what they want (the dead person being dead, and past having an opinion on the matter), she respected her husband's wishes and has done and will do as he asked.

Talking amongst ourselves last Thursday, we wished it had been different. We wished we could have gathered in Massachusetts with all the family to mourn our uncle's passing. We made do with the stories we told each other the other day, but it wasn't the same as it would have been if we could have been there with Elliot's children our cousins and Natalie and her brothers and other friends and relations. When somebody dies, the loss is mitigated somewhat by the stories you share among yourselves. The survivors are drawn closer even as the deceased family member departs. We were sorry to miss that.

Nevertheless, Uncle Elliot's wishes were Uncle Elliot's wishes, and we have to respect them.

But this evening, it hit me that I do not respect his wishes for no wake, no funeral, no obit, no nuthin'. I may have to accept the fact of them-- it wasn't up to me to carry them out. But I don't have to like them.

It's the "no notice in the paper" thing that galls me the most. What was he trying to say? That his life didn't matter? Was he somehow glorying in the idea that "all we are is dust in the wind"? Was life worth so little to him that he wanted it so quickly forgotten, that he didn't even want to let old friends and work colleagues know he was gone? It seems to minimize not only his life, but this transient but marvellous gift of human life in general.

And it makes me angry. D--- him!

(I'd better not say that. It might be true.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007


About a half hour ago, I was on Magnatunes.com listening to J. S. Bach's cantata BMV 156, Ich Steh mit Einem Fuss im Grabe ("I stand with one foot in the grave"). At the same time, I was trying to get a fountain pen to write, and amid the whorls and loops, just for fun, I was doodling the names of my maternal grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather.

Then the phone rang. It was my mother. She said, "I have something I have to tell you," and I immediately knew it wouldn't be good.

"I'm flying up to Boston tomorrow."

"It's Uncle Elliot*, isn't it?"


Uncle Elliot, my mother's younger brother. The only son of my late grandfather whose name I'd just been idly scribbling. Uncle Elliot, who last year was diagnosed with lung cancer, and who refused surgery or other treatment because he felt fine at the time and didn't want to compromise his quality of life, not even for five or six more years on this earth. My mother is flying up to Boston tomorrow, because my aunt called to tell her that he is literally standing-- or lying-- with one foot in the grave.

"He's going downhill fast. I'll be there till Saturday, and help Natalie* with whatever she needs."

And so it looks as if I will never see my Uncle Elliot alive again. I may well not see him again at all.

For he and my aunt Natalie, his third wife, are in retirement extremely private people, even towards family. My mother told me that Natalie hasn't informed even Uncle Elliot's children from his first and second marriages. It clearly was a relief to my mom that she at least had let her, Elliot's only sister, know. I told my mother that if the funeral plans Elliot and Natalie had made included family, to let me know and I'd make arrangements and come.

But the way things are, I expect no such call.

I saw my uncle and aunt last about eleven years ago, and it did not go well. Uncle Elliot was amiable enough, but Aunt Natalie made it clear that my being there was trouble and interference and a disruption in general. I'd always thought there'd be plenty of time for us to get past that and try again.

But time went by, and duty and pleasure and busyness got in the way, and after all, would it actually go better another time around? So I did nothing positive about it.

You'd think I'd be sitting here now in great sadness and grief, both because my only maternal uncle is dying and because I hadn't managed to see him since Thanksgiving of 1996. The irony is, I'm not. And I can't.

I can't, because even if I had made overtures towards my aunt, it wouldn't have made any difference. Even if I'd gone to Massachusetts and attempted another visit, it wouldn't have drawn us any closer. Because that's the way my family works. We don't feud, we aren't enemies, we do keep in touch from time to time-- we just aren't close.

No, the grief and sadness that lies in wait for me runs deeper and began farther back, before I was born, when currents were set in motion that I can't fathom or explain even now. The grief and sadness are there because I can only imagine the family spirit and togetherness that others seem to enjoy. Their vibrant affection is like a foreign country to me. Most of the time, I let the happy inhabitants of that land enjoy their patrimony, and I do well enough in mine.

But at times like this, I begin to wonder why that heartfelt closeness has been infrequent at best with my kith and kin. At times like this, I wonder if somehow I've been robbed of something it would have been very good to have, something that ought to have been mine.

But robbed by whom?

By the human beings-- including myself-- that conceived and aggravated this state of affairs? Yes, of course.

But above it all, hasn't God in His permissive providence allowed it to be so? Shall I, a guilty sinner, rail at God? Shall I not rather accept my own fault in not at least trying to make things better, and be faithful and still? And know that somehow, God can and has and will take the wrongness of it and make it right?

Even if I can't do anything directly for my Uncle Elliot at his home near Boston, under hospice care, dying?

But one thing I can do: I can pray, by God's sovereign providence, that by whatever means he would reach out for the Lord and Savior he hasn't had time for all his life, and enter the next life in salvation and peace.

That would be a sublime-- and divine-- irony. Soli Deo gloria.

Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe,
Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt,
Bald fällt der kranke Leib hinein,
Hilf mir in meinen Leiden,
Komm, lieber Gott, wenn dirs gefällt,
Was ich dich bitt, versag mir nicht.

Ich habe schon mein Haus bestellt,
Wenn sich mein Seel soll scheiden,
So nimm sie, Herr, in deine Händ.
Nur lass mein Ende selig sein!
Ist alles gut, wenn gut das End.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"It's So Easy to Slip, It's So Easy to Fall . . . "

Back in my misspent but fun college days, our favorite local country rock band would do a cover of Little Feat's "Easy to Slip." Hadn't thought about that song for years. Not till day before yesterday when, thanks to the helpful people at Earthlink, I was put on to a website that gives the back stories and lyrics to all sorts of popular songs. I only came across that title by accident; I was really looking to find out more about Little Feat's "Dixie Chicken."

But I've been thinking about "Easy to Slip" since late last night. Oh my, have I! Late last night, or rather, early this morning, I was calling it quits on my AutoCAD homework and packing up my papers and so on. I leaned over in my office chair to put my thumbdrive in my purse-- and I--and the chair-- kept right on going. Had to catch myself, but how? My dog Llewellyn was asleep on the floor just where I was about to land!

Just in time I grabbed the edge of my computer table, managing to avert total disaster, and replaced the caster that had come out of the base of my chair and left that one leg of it hovering in midair. No harm, no foul.

But heading downstairs a few minutes later to take the dog out, I got to wondering, "Hm, what did I do to my left ankle? Did I knock it on something and bruise it?"

Nothing more likely, klutz that I am. But by the time I'd got Llewellyn out to the alley to do his business and come back upstairs to get ready for bed, my ankle was hurting like yip. Had I--? No, I couldn't have! Pulled off my shoes and socks and yep, it was swelling demonstrably. Yes, it is easy to slip, and it's also easy to sprain your ankle when you don't even realize it.

No, I did not put ice on it. Yes, I should have. But it was late and I needed to get to bed to get up for my early class. So I just took some ibuprophen and didn't feel or remember a thing about it till I tried to put weight on it first thing this morning.

Damn! Not going to class was not an option. First submissions of the final project were due today, and I had some questions I simply had to ask the instructor before I could finish them.

So I dug out my grandmother's old but still effective ankle brace, put on a good tight pair of socks, donned some sensible shoes (okay, the same ones I sprained the ankle in, but oh, well!) and drove in. Thank God most of my route is on the freeway and I don't have to work the clutch much. I was able to get around the campus all right thinking of my right leg as a kind of punt pole to pull the rest of me along. I leaned on railings where available. When nobody was looking, I hopped a few steps. Hey, it's all right. It's not like I'm reduced to pegging around on crutches that are too tall for me, like the unfortunate blogging architect out in Denver who not only sprained her ankle recently, but broke it as well. I'm getting along.

No, I haven't been to the doctor about it. What is he going to tell me that I don't know already? And no, I haven't put my leg up at all all day-- I was in the school's computer lab till after 4:00 PM finishing the finals submissions and completing some other work I could do only there. And since I got home there've been animals to care for and mail to sort and supper to cook and eat.

But maybe ignoring my sprained ankle isn't the smartest thing I can do. Maybe I'd better put my little feet up. Or my little foot. And put ice on it.

And face up to unwrapping it and examining it.

Which I really don't want to do. Which, after "Easy to Slip," makes me a kind of north-of-the-Mason-Dixie chicken.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

You Never Know . . .

A week ago yesterday, I picked up a message from my answering machine after returning home from choir. The caller said he was an elder at a church in the Presbytery Over the Border, and he wanted to talk to me about supplying their pulpit in the near future. He left his number and the directive to call back after 4:00 PM.

Oh, excellent. I haven't preached since mid-September!

Next evening, I called back several times, even though I had an AutoCAD test to study for. No answer. No answering machine, either. I let the phone ring and ring, as if the sound could create a hearing ear was no man was, but it was but vain repetition, a sounding gong and a clanging cymbal.

Next evening, Halloween, I called back earlier, closer to 4:00. Ring-ring-ring-ring-ring! Still no answer. This was frustrating. I really do want to preach wherever I can get the opportunity. But why put someone who's never home and who has no answering machine in charge of arranging pulpit supply at your church?

Still, I tried again later, after the trick-or-treaters were all safely home, the depleted bowls of candy brought inside, and the porch lights (if not the jack o' lanterns) extinguished. Ring-ring-ring-ri--!

Oh! Did someone finally pick up the phone?

Darned if I could tell for sure. For instead of, "Hello, this is So-and-so," I heard sounds of electronic confusion (a TV on loud in the background?) and a man's rough voice shouting something incoherent ending with "fifteen minutes!"

Then the line went dead.

Was that some strange sort of answering machine, that hadn't been turned on before?

So fifteen minutes later I called again. Line opens, again the background noise. And again, the loud and angry man's voice, this time ripping out " . . . won't put up with this bu!!sh1t!!!"

And again the line went dead.

I checked the number I'd been calling on my cellphone against the number on my caller ID. I replayed the message and verified the number the church elder gave. It was all the same.

Huh? Is this elder an ecclesiastical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Does he have an alcoholic grown son living with him? "Inexplicable" didn't half describe it!

But I want to preach wherever I can. So I looked up the number of the church and left a message on their machine, to have this elder call me.

Which he did, this past Sunday. Everything is lovely: I'm scheduled to preach for them one of the Sundays in Advent.

The elder referred to the call I'd left at the church. "Sorry," he said, "for not picking up when you called. I get so many phone solicitors, that if I don't recognize the number, I don't answer the phone!"

Tentatively I said, "Somebody picked up on Halloween night. It sounded like--" [I determined to put the best construction on it]--"there was a party going on."

"Oh, no," the elder replied. "No parties here! It's just me and my grown daughter, and we never do anything like that!"

"Well," said I, "maybe it was the television I heard." And I left it at that. But I don't believe it for one moment. Not about the rough voice. Not about the irruptions of vulgarity.

"I'm sick of you sales people calling me every fifteen minutes!!! . . . I won't put up with this bu!!sh1t!!!"

I wonder, does this elder even now realize that the person he was swearing at the other evening was not an interruptive phone solicitor, but an ordained clergywoman of the Presbyterian Church (USA), under whom he was proposing to sit to hear the Word of God?

And even if it had been a phone solicitor, does this elder not realize that Christian courtesy should extend even to modern-day publicans/tax gatherers such as they? That his ordination vows constrain him in particular to act in Christian love and courage towards all people he encounters, regardless of who or what they might be? Even if that Christian love and courage mean simply saying, "No thanks, I'm not interested," and hanging up?

And yes, do I realize that I represent Jesus Christ to everyone I come in contact with, whether they know I'm ordained or not? It's scary to think how many times I must've thoughtlessly said unChristlike things to people I encounter, even if they weren't as spectacular as the ejaculations of the pulpit supply arranging elder for the little church in the Presbytery Over the Border.

Really scary.

Lord help us. I mean that literally. Because, you just never know.