Affiancing. Lovely. Sarah.

•06/20/2013 • 9 Comments

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I didn’t know you had it in you!  The neighbor’s daughter sprinted over to my father’s outdoor deck in her running clothes, a two year old perched on her hip, after hearing cooing and commotion coming from under the maple trees.  She was laughing with my nephew, Andrew, with whom she played as a child on his occasional visit to his grandparents.

Andrew – caregiver to my father, romancer of ladies of all ages who flock to his charms –  is getting married.   And I understand why.  He has found the most luminous soul to orbit his sky.  He has found Sarah, and finally stopped to look no more.

This is not Sarah’s wedding dress I’m publishing, heaven forbid.  I was lucky enough to be a part of her dress shopping day, along with her mother and sister and friends.  But she stole my heart with her blushing bridal beauty, out-glaming herself with each new dress she slipped on.

Since my father will not have the strength to make it to their North Carolina wedding in September, Andrew and Sarah brought the festivities to my father.  On Sunday, both families gathered on my father’s deck to celebrate their engagement and commitment.  Andrew’s first lady, blond dog Stella, sprawled out lazily in the thick of things, babies squirmed, Sarah’s grandfather led a charge, my father wheeled out and drank in the moment with a grin.  I adore her, he says of Sarah, forming the words emphatically with his recalcitrant tongue.  She brings music to his house, tenderness to his day, grace to his grandson.

I take my father’s hand and slowly reach it toward Stella’s fur, or place it gently on little  Liam’s leg, his 8 month old great-grand.  He cannot get there on his own, that long stretch of a few inches.  He cannot wrap his arms around Sarah and welcome her into the family.  But his heart is clear – that muscle moves toward her with joy.

For better or for worse.  In sickness and in health.  The words we daily live upon like the ground beneath us rise up in these moments with a crackling force.  I think of what my father knows of these timeless words, knows them sixty years in the bones.  He knows now both the better and the worse.  Both the richer and the poorer.  Both the sickness and the years of health.  Marriage, his presence announces, loves and cherishes the all of it.  And now these two young ones are ready to walk into those words.

Sarah bends to kiss my father’s face, where sadness also dwells.  Love is there, just there, in his face, in her gesture, in the long path of a few inches.  In the long road backward and forward sixty years each way.  Love, even with a recalcitrant tongue, says Yes, Yes.  To all of it.  And would again, and will yet, over and over again.

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advancing. like. (a) soldier.

•05/27/2013 • 4 Comments

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Decoration Day they called it here in the South, and did so in Appalachia even before the Civil War – a time for families to gather at cemeteries and honor the dead; later, it evolved into a Memorial Day for those who died in service.  Yet, here I am on my porch on a breezy beauty of a Memorial Day, thinking of one who has not died; one whose service in the battle continues.  My father’s birthday is tomorrow, and that seems somehow also heroic, a day worthy of decoration.

Doctors looked at my father plainly, five years ago, and said you have three to five years to live.  Yet onward he marches past their predictions, not on legs, but on the mental stamina of a soldier.  Through the fields of lost limbs, the trenches of what must sometimes be despair, through the long dark, tented nights, he marches on with an even temper, a disciplined and grateful heart, a humor that dismisses decorations, laughing as he can.  His tour of duty is not yet done.

This past week, his well-loved first cousin, Robert Hull, fell ill and died.  Younger by a few years and a loyal friend, Robert and Doris drove me to the airport when I came to visit, brought love and meals, tended my parents with a kindness perhaps known only to those also crippled by pain, as was Robert.  A surprise, still, for my father to wheel into his friend’s Memorial Service, and struggle, as he does now, to hold his head aloft, while another of his anchors unmoors and drifts from shore.

Today, wreathes are added to graves.  Bunting is draped from windows.  The dead are joined and remembered.

And tomorrow, my father will march on through another birthday; decorated, as always, with a faithful heart for all whom he has loved, an unstoppable hope for the world he cannot save, and a love that, through all battles, mightily endures.

at. (the) lake. skiing.

•04/07/2013 • 8 Comments

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Duke and Marguerite took us water-skiing on Kentucky’s Cumberland Lake, where, as a child, I watched my father rise from the wake and rule the waters, my shivering hand waving through the spray from my plump orange vest.   After dinner at Duke and Marguerite’s house, I played Kick the Can with their older, crush-inducing sons, and caught fireflies in the dark.  When Mother went in the hospital, my brother and I were invited for dinner in their palatial home.  I dressed in a best frilly dress, David in a coat and clip tie, and we held hands to knock at their tall imposing doors.

Duke was my father’s boss, mentor, colleague, and finally, always, friend.  He died this week at the age of 98.

Separated for years after their teamwork as President and Provost of a seminary, they still found their way toward each other in yearly meetings, voluminous correspondence, intellectual pursuits.  After my father’s diagnosis five years ago, Duke was too old to travel, and my father no longer enjoyed the freedom of the road; they simply couldn’t see each other for a final gathering up of their shared life.  So, Duke took to calling once a week.  Even after my father’s voice gave out, Duke called to talk to Mother, and let his voice reach over the phone and grab my father by the shoulder in an embrace.

I wonder how my father takes this loss into himself.   So many of his lifelong friends have now gone on, leaving him here to witness their lives as a whole.  The ones to whom he might have whispered doubts or fears, or conjured the past, or sighed about what is gone.  Grady, John, Tom, Duke, not to mention his dear wife of sixty years.   Others he loves are far away, and no longer able to travel, and the phone is a weak link for one who cannot speak.

I think that we all long for a witness to our lives.  Marriage does that, offers a lens which makes it possible, as Rilke put it, for each to see the other whole against the sky.  Friendship that endures does that. Gives the gift of seeing your life whole, flawed and unfinished, but somehow complete.  It is a gift, indeed:  to be not alone in knowing ourselves, but to be seen, beginning and end, and in that seeing, loved.

So, I wonder what it is like to lose your witnesses.  Difficult, I am wagering.  And so I write to my father, in hearing of Duke’s death: I will be your witness.  Younger, yes, and not carrying the whole of you, and yet, I can witness you witnessing your friends – the arc of their lives, rising from the wake and ruling the waters, and then sinking back into their depths.  I can do that.  And remember with you.  The fireflies caught.  The dinners blessed.  The night skies.

Abraham. Lincoln. (and) Sybil.

•03/03/2013 • 6 Comments

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Sally Field crumples down into her own hoop skirt, melting into an inconsolable circle on her bedroom floor.  She rides in the presidential carriage, Mrs.Lincoln does, carrying her love and depression in colors that sting; she attends her husband’s fateful death in her home, shattered into fragile pieces.  My father sits next to me in the cinema, his wheelchair nestled into the handicap niche.  I remember, as a child, Carl Sandburg’s huge biographical tome on Abraham Lincoln by my father’s chair; how he followed this fellow Kentuckian’s life and political strategy for its honor, efficacy, leadership.  Now, watching the end of his hero’s life, my father can hardly breathe, he is almost choking on tears.  I wonder if I should be concerned, but he is not.  So, I lean back and move into the story with him – the long marriage, the accomplishments and failures of this man who came from nothing and made something large of it, this heart-wrenching death.  Long after others leave the theater, we remain.  The story holds us there.

Since my father’s words have gone, rather completely now, we must find other ways to weave the day-to-day connection between us.  Conversation is difficult, to say the least, and rather one-sided, with me the loser there.  So, we watch movies together.  We enter a larger story, feel our way down to the nub of it; we steep in its brew.

On my last visit, my father broke his bedtime schedule for the first time I can remember in order to watch the next installment of Downton Abbey with me.  I put him onto the show a year ago; he consumed all the past episodes on his ipad with fancy headphones that make the music swell, the world go away.  Now that he is caught up, we jump into the stream together with Carson and Mrs. Patmore, Mary and Bates and Robert all struggling to face the changes set upon them.  And then, right there in my father’s family room, dear Sybil gives birth to a new little life and, in doing so, gives up her own. I am there for the blame, the oceanic grief, a father’s helplessness.

Conversation with my father was often a heady affair.  So, it surprises us both, I think,  to let story take over.  Story takes us behind another theater curtain, one where we don’t have to understand but simply feel life happening between and among us.  A new and unpredictable conversation of the heart.

On my last phone call, my father asked if I had seen the final episode of Downton Abbey.  Our cable connection had inconveniently gone out that night and we missed the conclusion to the season, I had to report.  Ahhh… he said.  And then, in slow carefully enunciated slurs, It will break your heart.  

This is how it is these days.  We live with a larger world, with an imagination embracing a vivid past and yet hopeful future, seamlessly braiding life and death, the tragic and the fair.  Not many words are needed. Our hearts are broken, and held.

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Abel Tasman’s. Leafy. Specimen.

•01/10/2013 • 3 Comments

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I’ve heard a lot about Rata and Rimu lately, hiking along the coast of New Zealand with an avid botanist who personally introduces us to each specimen on the trail. The Rimu, (which we notice could just as well be Rumi if you scatter the letters and rearrange them), is a tall, elegant poem of a tree with long-leafed fingers reaching into the blue sky. High onto its branches, spores of the Northern Rata lodge and begin to sprout, growing roots down – 25, 35, 50 feet down – until they touch soil. The Rata roots, growing downward oh, so slowly, encircle their host and embrace it, until at last they form a solid casing around it. The Rimu, enfolded, dies a natural death of old age; while the Rata lives on, rooted in the same soil, for hundreds of years to come. At the center, forming the core, is always the lingering poem.

At our Christmas gathering last, my father sat quietly, beyond speech, as his family encircled him. We chattered away about our lives, children and grandchildren with little greatgrand now all at last rooted in soil, and growing around him, thickly, forming a tree of our own. The golden-tongued poet was silent at the center of us all. After our exchange of gifts, he spoke as he could to our straining ears.”The thing of which I am most proud”, said my father, “of all that I have done in this life, is this, my family.” We circled around him, our strong roots joined, now holding up his faltering trunk.

He will go, of course, from us. The family will live on for years beyond. But at the center of who we are is the tree who hosted us when we were simply spores of ideas. The one whose wide branches held us as we grew down into ourselves, into our place on earth.

At the core of our lives – all of our lives, I want to believe – is an elegant poem not of our making. It lingers in us, beyond speech, distilled into love.

 

announcing. Liam’s. song.

•12/26/2012 • 6 Comments

Within the circle of our lives,
we dance the circles of the years,
the circles of the seasons
within the circles of the years,

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the cycles of the moon
within the circles of the seasons,
the circles of our reasons
within the cycles of the moon.

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Again, again, we come and go,
changed, changing.  Hands
join, unjoin in love and fear,
grief and joy.  The circles turn,
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Only music keeps us here,
each by all the others held.

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In the hold of hands and eyes
we turn in pairs, that joining
joining each to all again.

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And then we turn aside, alone,
out of the sunlight gone

into the darker circles of return.

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by Wendell Berry

a. letter. (for the) season.

•11/19/2012 • 11 Comments

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Psalm 23

my dear father,

I want to roast you a turkey with oyster dressing (no sage) as you always wanted it at Thanksgiving.  But you can no longer eat.

I want to sit with you and hear about the progress of your latest writing project – how your book unfolds, surprises you, wakes you in the night.   But you can not longer speak so that I can hear.

I’ve been pondering how we shall celebrate Thanksgiving without the banquet spread, without the lilt of conversation, or a walk to stretch our legs.  Will the warm fragrance of fowl baking, the clatter of gravy being conjured bring you happiness that family is near, or an ache for what you cannot taste, or both?  When I ask, you laugh and shake your head and utter that happy mound of words I’ve come to recognize by their cadence:  “I’m OK.  Don’t Worry About Me!”

I’ve been learning, as you ask, not to worry about you, but to see, instead, what is true.  Which is a generous and lavish hospitality rising in you to set a banquet for me, for all of us.  Not a groaning board of sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, but a banquet that feeds and delights me, nonetheless.

In the utter poverty of your physical resources, yet you set forth a surprising abundance.  Your humor in all things, your wide breaking-open smile, your sparkling eyes, your wry un-self-pitying comebacks.  When I suggest a date for my next visit, remembering how we used to labor through your complicated speaking schedule to find a narrow window of time, you shrug and laugh and say:  I’ll be here!  When we both go face to face straining hard – you to speak a distinguishable word and me to understand it – and when I fail over and over as I sometimes do – then there is simply a puddle of laughter into which we both go falling.  What else is there to do?  Your humor seasons and tenderizes potential bitterness on an daily basis.  I give thanks for it.

But your work – and your herculean dedication to it – is the meat you offer at this banquet.  How you still chew on ideas, cook up words, feast on the gift of creative endeavor.  You recently called the caregiver at 5:30 in the morning to get up, I hear, because you simply couldn’t wait until 6:00:  sentences had baked in the night, chapter headings were cooked.  It sets before me the sheer aliveness, the purpose, and the consuming sustenance of our creative lives.

I hear that you insisted on voting in person on November 6, with a little help from Andrew to push the buttons.  News of that fed me – how you wanted to exercise your citizenship, weigh in,  still be a part of the count.  How you read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Birmingham News every evening, barely able to hold them in your hands, but ever curious about the world chuffing on beyond the doors you seldom leave.  For that, I’m thankful – your engagement, unflagging, with the whole, and knowing yourself a part of it.

You set a table, my dear father, which I am overjoyed to join this Thanksgiving.  Your humility, your self-respect, your respect for others, your visible love, and your ever-renewing spirit are also there.  Your quiet grief in the absence of your loving wife.  All this seasons our week together.  All of it brings me to thanks.

In and above and around and below:  my deep gratitude for the privilege of being your daughter.

always at your table,

Susan