October 15, 2011

Some kind of circle or cycle, I suppose

The big themes have kept my mind racing in recent weeks, tearing at my heart with a particular brutality, and swelling it, warming it, with a previously unknown kind of love. Sometimes, it was by turn; others, in a maddening confluence.
Through it, I’ve practiced my own spirituality, which doesn’t so much offer peace as acceptance. I was raised in a Presbyterian Church, complete with Sunday school and vacation Bible school.
We had a fire-and-brimstone preacher who had been in the pulpit since my mother was a child, and whose half-mad beetle-browed eyes burned into your soul, or so it seemed. His was an angry God. We even shared communion, though it was a sometime thing, conducted as symbolic, not transubstantial, and consisting of half-jiggers of grape juice and cubes of white bread on trays that were passed down the pews.
I was old enough in my mid-teens to be a candidate for formal membership in the congregation, which required a personal pledge to abide by this strict and somewhat peculiar Protestant outpost’s code of comportment. It forbade drinking and smoking, dancing, this, that, and other fleshly pastimes, all of which was read to me by a church elder after I’d completed catechism. This included predestination, which I viewed as a loophole.
The elder was a middle-aged family man well known even among my young cohorts as one of the busiest cooze hounds in the general vicinity. I told him I couldn’t make the promises my church required. He asked why. I told him I had already done some of the proscribed activities and was looking forward to many of the others. He hesitated, apparently not sure exactly how to give spiritual counsel in this – I gathered – uncommon circumstance. Then he sputtered, “You have to!” I asked why. “Because we’ve already printed your certificate.”
It was the last time I attended that or any other church with enthusiasm or regularity. The ensuing years have honed my personal theology to the point where I can contain it in one short sentence: “I do know You’re there, but what are you up to?” Sometimes I’m shown, though it might be years later. The guiding principle of my spiritual belief system was spoken to me by my grandmother when I was old enough to begin questioning. “There’s a reason for everything,” she said. My prayers are in plain language.
My mother died on my youngest son’s birthday. Two years ago, my father did the same on my oldest son’s birthday. One was painfully sudden, the other painfully protracted. Shortly before my dad’s death, Vicki’s mom suffered her own horrible death. We are at that age, though such loss makes you feel like a child.
These past weeks have held their own terrors. Vicki’s daughter, who I playfully call my wicked stepdaughter, has progressed through a diabetic’s difficult pregnancy. I love this lively, sweet young woman like she is in fact my daughter, and she has rather insistently taken me on as RicDad, her genuine – if not biological – father. She was projected to give birth to our first grandchild early next month, but late last Monday, after he showed signs of “distress” during an exam, we received the terse text message, “in hospital, emergency c section.”
In minutes we were on the road in the dark, headed for Michigan. Soon, we got word that all went well, mother and baby were fine, 6 pounds 1 ounce, all the words we needed to hear. We arrived at the hospital about nine hours later and met our grandson.
Months ago, when I told a dear friend that I was to be a grandfather and the baby’s name would be Jack, she laughed with delight and said, “That’s perfect. The all-American name.” I agreed, though I’m at a loss to say what America means anymore. We have no common cause. Expressed beliefs too often come with venom. We are a pathetically riven people, a grotesque and often moronic parody of our earlier selves, without the clarity or necessary leadership to put us back together.
Jack changes none of that, but he could. He is promise and purity, gorgeous to behold. He has microscopic fingernails and incipient eyelashes. His head is tiny and round and sweet smelling, and covered with a shiny crop of fine brown hair. He has his father’s Native coloring, befitting a boy with an all-American name. Jack fits in the crook of your arm with ease, and is courteous enough to ensure that this is as comfortable as anything in your experience. He strains to see, especially when his mother serenades him with boy-band songs from her teens.
Granny (!) meets Jack
I returned home Thursday, leaving behind my grandson, his dad, my daughter, and my wife, who is staying on to do what good grandmothers have always done to reassure and comfort and ease the early days of parenthood.
We have animals that need to be fed and watered and given assurance that this change in their worlds was only temporary. They were very happy to see me, and I them.
Tuesday I will attend and be representing Vicki at a memorial church service for our friend, Dennis Kimbro. We were born three weeks apart, shared common backgrounds in and around Detroit, and had twice met very briefly many years ago because he was a lifelong friend of two of my closest friends. It was what seemed to be a highly unlikely coincidence that he lived in the tiny town in Middle Tennessee that we chose two years ago as our home.
Dennis, his wife Ann, Vicki and I were instant friends from the time we first got together, at their home for a July 4th party with family. Dennis had recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and was cagey about the fact that it had aggressively metastasized. He was a gifted storyteller, a student of theology and the Bible, loved classic rock, Steve Martin, and the Muppets. He was a naturalist and animal lover, played guitar and painted houses.
I stole as much time away from our little farm as I could to spend it with him, telling stories, lies, near lies, and sometimes even truth. We were very far apart in our politics, but paid it no mind. Our talks ranged widely. Ann told me that whenever I called to ask if he was up to a visit, even when his pain and stolen sense of balance and tormenting hiccups and rapidly withering musculature left him barely able to raise his head from where he rested it on the dining room table, Dennis said, “Tell him to get his ass over here,” and I got my ass over there. We had developed a deep bond, and one I treasured all the more because he was my only friend in Tennessee.
There will be a military honor guard on Tuesday and taps will be played because Dennis was a Green Beret who signed on in the belief that the experience would pave the way for a job with the forest service, or a New Jersey wildlife camp where he’d once worked as a counselor.
All of us who gather there will mark his death in our own ways, and tackle the loss the best we know how. Then life will go on. It does that whether or not we’re here.
Pappy and Jack
Today I gathered three perfect brown eggs from our chicken house. I decided to go for a ride on my tractor, and switched on the mower while I did it because it’s satisfying to clear up neglect. I puzzled again over the big themes, spit dust from my mouth on the dry patches, longed for the warmth and beauty of Vicki, and looked forward to seeing Jack in the cradle I built for him. I believe it’s sturdy enough to last several generations. That’s something to think about.