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Midwest Stoicism, and other exorcisms June 16, 2014

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Sometimes the good Lord reminds me people do read this blog. The latest reminder came at a funeral just this past Saturday.

The funeral was for someone well-loved who passed from the effects of leukemia. The time between its discovery and his passing was barely over a month. He leaves behind a wife and very young daughter both brave beyond their years. He was 47. Way too young. Always, way too young.

Just after the service I caught up with a friend who I used to work with. “I’ve been reading your blog,” he said almost instantly. “Been working on any books lately?”

I had to tell him no, because it’s been hard to write anything period. For one thing, as I pointed out a few entries ago, this death thing has been a rather persistent presence lately and that’s to be expected when you break 50. It’s just the law of averages. The older one gets, the more people he knows, the more people one knows, the more likely before he passes himself, others will pass. Sometimes it happens to people way too soon, like the mutual friend and co-worker we were both mourning, but in most cases It’s just nature. It’s just life. It’s reality.

All that said, I wish reality would knock it off awhile.

This year is not quite six months in and already two co-workers and friends, a cousin’s wife, a high school friend’s mother, and the last surviving grandparent of my boss, have all “transitioned,” as someone I currently work with would put it. Only one was no surprise. Maybe two. The rest, uh, no.

Sounds like I’m complaining about it, doesn’t it? What if I am? More importantly, what about the survivors of those people? Don’t they most of all have the right to do a little fist-shaking at the sky?

This past weekend’s service, like most, had a time for those who wanted to speak about the bereaved. I didn’t keep track of how many went up.  I can tell you with confidence it was more than any other funeral service or celebration of life I’ve attended.  My God, this man was loved. And why not? This man was so loving. He had the gift.

Then a minister said one of the most honest things I’ve ever heard a preacher say, not exactly these words but close enough: “This isn’t right. We shouldn’t have to say these things right now for someone as young as this.”

He’s right, you know.  Yet more often than we care to admit, we do.

I need to take you another direction, one that will make the title of this entry make more sense.

Six days earlier we had an absolutely glorious Sunday morning, perfect for walking, so I did, to church and back. My Vivofit claims that’s a ten-mile round trip. I don’t think so; an old digital pedometer I once wore said it was merely six. Either way, it’s healthy, and you do build a thirst. A new convenience store on Santa Fe in Olathe sells Yoo-Hoo, one of my worst vices since childhood.  I stopped in and got a bottle. There was a line three-deep before me.

“How ya doin’?” the friendly lady of a certain age behind the cash register said to a tall man in either business or church clothes, I wasn’t sure which. Either way he looked liked a young professional. Does anyone still call them “yuppies?” Like that.

“I’m dying,” he said casually. Like he had a cold, maybe.

“Oh, come on,” cash register lady said, still smiling, “it’s not all that hot today.”

“No,” he said matter-of-fact, “My doctor told me a few days ago I have cancer.” He grabbed his stuff. “Have a great day,” he said, just like anyone else would have said it.

It got quiet, and stayed that way.

I told my wife about it later. She was disgusted.

“I get the shock,” she said. “Five stages of grieving and all that; he’s in Denial. I get that. But God!  No one has the right to casually drop bombs like that on people they don’t know!”

She’s got a point–she always does, that’s why I love her–but I didn’t see it that way, then or now.

Posting a summary of it on Facebook, I asked if anyone else could face being told ‘you’re dying’ as calmly as he seemingly was, admitting I couldn’t. (Don’t let my ‘fraidy bump‘ entry fool you.)

“Midwest stoicism can be an asset at times,” one friend posted.

That one nailed it.

“Denial?” Maybe–yeah, probably.

But also the realization “hey, this happens to us all, now it may be my turn, and at least I got a little warning.”

Would we all get such grace.

Back to the funeral. A slide show was part of the visitation. Along with the usual pictures of happy times with friends and family at wonderful places, there were also pictures taken during his last month, during treatment–including one where his face was completely covered with what I believe was an oxygen mask. He was hugging his little girl, also wearing a face-covering oxygen mask.

It looked like aliens having a PDA.

That makes it sound funny. It wasn’t, at least not to me. It was more shocking than anything, at first.

Then I thought no, wait a minute. This is some more of that  Midwest Stoicism my Facebook buddy was talking about.

This picture, when taken, was acceptance of the reality that at least for a little while, life would require a full-faced oxygen mask.

Not only was the good man we were mourning good with it, you could tell in that picture he was finding a way to love his little girl right through it. She wasn’t scared at all. It was still Daddy, and she was still Daddy’s girl. Her own mask proved it.

How better to exorcise the demons of loss than to stare right into their faces and say “I don’t fear you?”

Grief is its own exorcism. Not of the beloved’s memory, we forfeit that at our souls’ peril. But, ultimately, of the shock and ache of loss.

We know the exorcism is complete when we’re able to think of that person and think “I was blessed to have known him, I will never forget him, and now I must move on,” and the next voice we hear isn’t the word “No.”

It’s not bottling your emotions. Rather, it’s facing them head on and telling them “I don’t fear you.” Even if early, that’s a lie. Given time and repetition it becomes the truth.

A lot of people are in shock right now over this man’s passing, but we will move on and we won’t fear life without him. Nor should we. He’d probably laugh and say so.

And now we’ll move on.

 

“We need the moisture” May 12, 2014

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Good morning. It’s 4:30 CDT as I type, but I’ve been up since this blog’s title because that’s when the storms rolled in. They’ve been forecast for the past five days, and this morning, after a long and busy weekend celebrating a multi-generational Mother’s Day, they finally hit. No complaint. They’re not like the weather to the north and east for sure, and we need the moisture. A Midwestern U.S. saying if ever was one, “We need the moisture.”

So where the heck have I been since Palm Sunday weekend? Busy, people. The older you get, the more you have a life and that means doing the stuff of life. We can’t always sit on our butts being profound and brilliant, you know, even we so-called bloggers. There are yards to be maintained, houses to be kept, cats to be fed and shot up with yearly drugs, garages to be cleaned out, grandchildren to see and goof with. Much of that, and my wife’s been working overtime and will be indefinitely, so I’m picking up a lot of her home chores on top of my own. Not complaining, it’s good for me to do that and as long as it doesn’t kill her we can always use the money. And have. Babyproofing a house so a grandchild can come play and his family not worry is not cheap.

All that and yes, I have been writing. Thank God. I need to. When I don’t, bad things happen upstairs. Nothing too psychologically horrid, mind you, just a sense of the skull not being swept as it should be. I’m on revision two of my rewrite of The Rain Song, or Burke’s Siren. I can tell you right now it will be called neither of those things when I’m done. By the grace of our Lord, it is becoming a very different book, the one I should have written in the first place. For the 20 or so of you who bought the original, I will make it very worth your while to read this one too. For the 6,000,000,0080 of you who did not, I will make it very worth your while to read it the first time. I won’t claim it’s Fitzgerald or Hemingway or even a minor Vonnegut, but it’s going to be good. All I ask is your patience while I get it completely right.

Assuming the good Lord gives me time to do that. Fair warning: you may have noticed I’ve been writing a lot about death lately. Can’t help it. As noted in the last entry after Palm Sunday, people I know have been experiencing a lot of it. It’s normal, it’s natural, and the older you are, the more of it you will see, especially once you crest 50.  My manager at work is the latest on the string. She lost her grandmother a couple weeks ago, a good Catholic woman strong as a bull into her late 80’s, only recently did she need a nursing home. Tempus fugit, memento mori. 

And I may as well come out and say it: I got thrown a scare last week when I found a huge painless bump, ten-cent gumball-sized, on the left side of my chest right above the sternum, where Web MD says one of my lymph nodes should be.

Don’t panic. It’s nothing. At least I’m sure it’s nothing, because–gross part ahead–by the middle of the week I could pop it, and now it’s much, much smaller than it was. Probably just some clogged pores. You can’t pop a tumor like a zit, right? But I’m due a checkup soon, and I will point it out to the doctor just to see what he says.

Still, at my age stuff like that makes you think. Apparently right now I’m supposed to. I keep an adoration hour at St. Paul’s here in Olathe. Some gracious soul left behind in the chapel a copy of On Death and Dying by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross the same weekend my bump was its biggest. I’m not quite eighty pages through it. It’s a book for medical professionals on how they should approach their patients who are terminal or enduring malignancies that may be terminal. It is a deeply sensitive book written by a deeply sensitive soul. It’s also a secular book, not given to flights of metaphysics or spiritual loftiness. I frankly found it odd it would be left in an adoration chapel among books about adoring Christ and the suffering of the saints. But there it was, and no one’s taken it out, and I’m glad it’s there because it’s a strengthening thing. Anyone can read it, it can get a little dense in spots, but it’s not jargony or technical.

I want to finish it before writing much more, if anything, about it, but it’s point seems clear to me: A medical professional must meet death at the same level his or her patient is ready to meet it. This is difficult, for sure; but worthwhile in that it establishes the credibility to face death together and honestly, for the entire family as well as just the doctor and patient.

And it makes the point, several times over, that our culture runs from death when it should not. Death is inevitable. It is good to think about it–how we will deal with it with others, how we will prepare for it when our time comes. Let’s repeat that–it is good to think on death.

It is. My little fraidy-bump forced me to consider, if only theoretically, that maybe fifty years is all I get. What about that? If it’s true, am I okay with it? Can I deal with it? If I knew it was coming, how would I approach it with the others in my life?

I won’t hit you with the heaviness of my own answers to those questions. I would encourage you instead to ask them of yourself and see what your answers are. I will say if I did get, say, a diagnosis of something nasty enough to snuff me out, I would thank the Lord for the chance to get things in order before it did. Not everyone gets that chance.

Every morning is a miracle. Thank God for the moisture of another. We need it.

 

A few thoughts on the Big Inevitability April 12, 2014

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OK. Good news first: my oldest brother Brad and his wife Cindy just found out from eldest daughter Erin and son-in-law Joel that sometime in October, they too will become grandparents. They are thrilled, as they should be and is most appropriate. It means one day, someday, they’ll have a little critter to come visit who may look something like this:

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And who can resist something who looks like that? Not you, certainly not me; that’s my grandson right there and let me tell you he is a blast. I worked with someone who became a grandmother in her mid-30’s, had four of them by the time I worked with her in her early forties, who said there was nothing better on this earth than being a grandparent. She was right. Quite right.

So I’m happy for them, and looking forward to adding “great-uncle” to my multiple hats, and look forward to meeting the star of future Butterfield Fishing Shows. As there is nothing better than being a grandparent, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing the future right before your eyes. It is the reward of age. The good Lord’s way of saying, “You’re not done yet. All those mistakes you made with your own? Here’s another chance. Good luck.”

It’s good to think of birth right now. Lately, I’ve been thinking an awful lot of death. My oldest cousin lost his wife unexpectedly a few weeks back. A high school friend lost his mother unexpectedly just a few days ago. While I’m not worried about either of them because both of them have the most fantastic support network of family and friends people can ask for, I’m still praying for them because both of them are in shock. They don’t have to say it. I know it. Neither of them are that old. My cousin’s wife wasn’t that old. My friend’s mother wasn’t that old. This wasn’t supposed to happen this soon. Yet it did. Tempus fugit, memento mori, but not yet, not now!

No. Sorry. It’s yet. It’s now. There is no way of knowing how much that hurts until you experience it. I’m not about to claim I know how they feel.

But here’s the reality I do have to face: This is going to happen more and more often to people I know, because that is the lesson of age. The great inevitability of life is on our way to death, people we love will die first and the older we get, the more this will happen until it finally happens to us. It’s no one’s fault. It’s not part of a divine plan. It’s just pure cold logic, frankly. Mathematics. The branch of such called probability. The older we get, the more people we know, that simple. The realization doesn’t really hit you until your late 40’s to early 50’s, though, because that’s when it starts happening more often. It’s no longer this rare event that occasionally disrupts your life. There’s a reason your grandparents read the obituaries in the morning paper every day.

So what can you do about it? Not much. Be supportive. Show in some way how much the lost soul was loved and the survivor still is. Give your heart and your shoulder. Pray. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This weekend is Palm Sunday. If you’re Christian, let this weekend and next remind you as well that death isn’t the end and this life is not all that we live for.

And hug those children and grandbabies while you can. 🙂