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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA--   http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA–
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

In “LA” it rains. Indeed, it rains hard in Lower Alabama, as they call it, as if there were something lower or more common about the ‘Bama swamps where I began my journey among you. Rain is in the nature of the place.

There, I grew up to be a connoisseur of precipitation. A daily cloud burst rolls in from Mobile Bay when a white cloud that began like the backdrop of a Constable landscape, philanders with the sea, grows steely gray, and gets pregnant. She delivers the bastard with a shout. All speech is suspended during the long, sustained, hissing rant. Then silence!

I see a summer squall quarrel with his wife: punching pewter arms straight down between the trees and pounding the marsh with silver hammers, making her shake as if she were terrified at the sky’s sudden petulance, who is plainly abusing her. When he stomps off, the swamp lies stunned, not breathing, beaten. At last, she opens her sun-eye, and the sky kisses her once more as if to offer an apology, and the black earth, smelling like pipe tobacco, gives back its surfeit of water in a ghostly upward pirouetting sprite. All is forgiven.

At times, the rain kneels down, so fine, little more than a cloud, to kiss your hand. Yet in winter the same mist will bite with a thousand tiny rasp-teeth.

And rain comes like tears.

Mother said, “It always rains when something important happens.” It rained when Ma died. And when my friends’ baby was still born; when all those boys went off to a monsoon-drenched Viet Nam. It rained each time heartache visited a house in my neighborhood.

Irony took no holiday when it rained there. How could it when even my high school was called “Rain?” It has rained tears on my classmates these fifty years; one in six is gone. Put it off to actuarial statistics or not; it is so. It is only a matter of time: ultimately we all will be gone. The rain will surely fall on my house at last, too, I know.

I had to come west before I learned of virga, rain that repents and returns to the cloud, evaporating before it hits the ground. In Lower Alabama, the clouds are more honest than that, even if they seem ever unsympathetic. It rains hard in Alabama, but, then, it rains on everybody.

Virga is rain that evaporaates before it reaches the ground. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

Virga is rain that evaporates before it reaches the earth or sea. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

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In Dothan three radio towers stood together as a beacon of our arrival.  Originla photo source : www.old-picture.com/american-legacy/010/pictures/Towers-Radio.jpg

In Dothan three radio towers stood together as a beacon of our arrival. Original photo source : http://www.old-picture.com/american-legacy/010/pictures/Towers-Radio.jpg

Dothan always seemed the closest thing to heaven that I could imagine. It is, as I remember it, a magical place trussed up like broom straw in the red-hill-and-wire-grass corner of the state, as nearly Florida as you can be and still claim to belong to ‘Bama. They tell me Dothan, at least the original Dothan of the Bible, means “two wells,” the place where Joseph found his hateful half-brothers plotting a swift end to a dreamer. Lucky for Joe Jacobson that one of the wells was dry and that’s the one they chose to drop him in. Seems I remember, too, a Sunday-School story of Elisha pursued by an army near there. Shaking in his sandals, Elisha’s servant cried out “We’re doomed, there are too many of them.” But old Elisha saw with different eyes the valley filled with angels. And I, too—though not a prophet or the son of a prophet—see Dothan with different eyes.

Ma and Pa Moates Lived There

Dothan was home to my maternal grandparents, Ma Bertie and Pa, the place where they homesteaded in ’04 or so. Because my Father’s widowed Father was exiled “up north” in Ohio, I rarely saw him. But Ma and Pa Moates filled the role of grand people most ably and most happily. Grandparenthood is a special state to which only those are entitled who have endured the trials of infancy, childhood, adolescence and the declaration of independence of at least one offspring. My grandparents epitomized unconditional love to me, and I loved them in return, although they were already “three score and ten” before I first knew them. Despite the distance between their generations (or perhaps because of it) children and their grandparents are natural allies in a gentle rebellion against the intervening generation of parents.

Ma taught me to love the earth. The dirt there, the color of iron or old blood, is ancient, elemental and alive. When the rains fall, iron nodules stand exposed on toe-high pedestals, with all the dirt around washed clear, an earthen lithography. Beneath a broom straw a tiny siege ramp leaned against the orange brick foundation of the house, after a rain. I liked to lean on Ma Bertie sometimes, just like the cow did when she milked it. But she did not slap my side as she did Bessie’s broad brown raw hide or shout “Stand up, Lazy!” in her high reedy soprano voice.

Pa taught me to love wood: the smell of it and its touch and the way it tells the story of its life in the grain and burl and knot. Mornings I would rise when the dew-chill was still on the field and hear the “chug-chug” of the sawmill, down the red dirt road, its refrain punctuated by the trill of a meadowlark. I would smell the pinesap spilling as the saw ripped the flesh of the tree and made boards for people to use. Today when I run my hand over an oak tabletop and feel the ripples of the grain, I know that each is a year, lean, fat, dry, wet, like the lines the years have drawn in my face or that of Pa. I know, too, that the tree has come down to make a table, or a chair or a house, or a pencil.

Across the road in Dothan a wood lot stood; pines growing up for harvest someday. Twenty, thirty years maybe, then clear cut and begun again. I wondered if people were like that too. We would only be useful after we were cut down. I still wonder.

The Road Trip Was Long

We went often, as often as we could to Dothan. The trip from Mobile along highway 90 and the Florida coast took us across many rivers, the seven rivers at the head of the Bay, the Escambia, the Styx, and others. A wag in the highway department had hung a sign on the bridge, “Styx River, Charon retired.”   Years later I learned that Charon was the boatman of Greek mythology that demanded the coins from dead men’s eyes as the fare to cross the Styx River to Hades. But we paid no visible toll on our way.

The trip to Dothan was also eternal. Einstein was right; time is relative. To children, five minutes seems a long time; an hour is agony; and four hours a never-ending purgatory. My parents had heard the universal questions, “Are we there yet? How much farther?” so often that they told us, “Watch for the red lights of the three radio towers. That’s how you will know we are close to Dothan. Look for the lights of Dothan.”

There are many towers that stud the night outside of every town in the panhandle of Florida I learned, but none but Dothan had three together. My Mother would turn her head so that her hair was illuminated in a kind of holy light from the headlamps of the on-coming cars and whisper in my ear. “Why don’t you sleep now, Sammy? The night will seem shorter. I will wake you when we get there.” And often I did, and she was right, it was shorter. But I always missed the lights when I slipped into sleep, and then I awoke, disappointed.

My Grandmother’s death was my first loss.   I was in college at the time but I could have been a child. Now, I think I was a child. I did not think so then. We are always children when death comes to those we love. They say in Alabama that death comes in threes. I don’t think that it is really so, but I think we could not bear an unbroken string of loss. When the third has fallen, we can exhale and wipe our eyes until the next sad triad. But often a single death is overwhelming and two is devastating. As I sat to write these words, a friend was burying her mother, her son lying dead and undiscovered in another city. Then my friend and former boss died. Three. I can breathe again. But death does not come in threes for us; it comes singly for each of us. We must face it alone and in the dark. But I hear rumors of another life and I hope. As I approach my Dothan, though, I look hard into the dark night. I am looking for the lights before I sleep, the lights of Dothan.

Robertia and Noah Moates, Sammy's Maternal Grandparents. Source: Family heirloom photograph.

Robertia and Noah Moates, Sammy’s Maternal Grandparents. Source: Family heirloom photograph.

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Wei Yang

Wei Yang--"Not yet finished"

Wei Yang–“Not yet finished”

I arrived too late, too late for Dad to say a final “good-bye.” When I raced up the corridor of the hospital to my stroke-stricken octogenarian father’s bedside after an eighteen-hour drive, I realized that I was too late. The light had gone out in his eyes; he could not acknowledge my presence even if he were aware of me; the shades of his eye lids were drawn half-way down, and I sensed that he was no longer home behind his body’s gray-green stare. The man I had known for my sixty-plus years had unceremoniously departed a few hours before, felled by a stroke, although his breath still came paroxysmally in shallow and rapid gasps. It was small—and I must say bitter—comfort that millions of other “Boomers” faced the same scenario each year. Indeed, thousands I realized, were probably sharing the same experience at that very moment. I was glad that I had visited on a whim a few weeks before, but that, too, was little comfort now.

A “Good” Death

The next week was unforgettable, even if excruciating. The transfer to the hospice facility, the execution of his “directive,” the vigil, the final breath, all shouted “mortality!” In those hours watching Dad’s body incrementally shutting down, I saw not him but me lying abed there, slowly sinking down with each breath, each feeble cardiac palpitation, until in the early morning hours of Good Friday, March 21, 2008, the vernal equinox, a day for turning to the light, although it could have just as well been the longest and darkest night of the year, at last we arrived—at stillness. Even as ugly as is death, I could not look away. I had ignored it until then, until it was impossible to deny, but then I was forced to look at it full face: I am inevitably my father’s son, son of Adam. Indeed, it is difficult to escape your genetics, and it is impossible to cheat death in the end. It comes on, welcome or not.

In the year after his departure (“death” seems too harsh a word to utter even if it is all too real), I felt my own mortality acutely. I pondered the meaning and significance of Life, my life, in particular. I reflected on the rumors of a future hope, and wondered. I slipped into a perpetual sadness over the possible futility of human existence. I did not smile as often as before life and death had orphaned me. My typical bravado was shaken just as when, as I child, I bravely scaled the high dive ladder until the kid before me had taken his turn, disappearing over the edge of the platform, and I stood staring down into the depths below, a lump in my throat. I had suddenly realized when my children and grandchildren were assembled at a table per stirpes for thirteen that somewhere along the line I had imperceptibly grown into a patriarch, the elder son, a scion of a complete branch of our family tree. The realization was unnerving.

Wei Yang

I was helped somewhat by sympathetic friends and family, but the grief work was mine to do alone, since the only answers that are relevant to our deepest questions are the ones we discover for ourselves. Christmas came, the first Christmas without Dad. My eldest child Carrie and her family gave me a high-tech walking stick to use on our hikes in Colorado. She also included two books on theology, in recognition of one of my hobbies. Over the next few months these items came to mean more than I understood at first. Indeed, they bespoke that my life was not over; there are trails and other journeys that I have not explored. On impulse, I decided to give my walking stick a name and looked up the Mandarin characters on-line for “not yet finished.” Thus, I stumbled upon the phrase “Wei Yang,” a classic literary phrase, little used today, as I learned from my Mandarin-speaking friends. The elegant connotations of the ideograms suggest that life holds more possibilities in its unfinished-ness than we can foresee. I prepared a wooden plaque with the characters in calligraphic form to remind me of this truth and to provide a daily encouragement, when quite by accident (or God’s providence) a Chinese student noted the sign and amended an insight.

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

“Have you been to Wei Yang?” He asked. “. . . in China?”

“Been?   No.” I replied.

He explained, “Wei Yang was the largest palace ever built. Its name means: ‘Never ending. . . .” How do you say? . . . ‘eternal’ palace.”

In an inexplicable way it is comforting to my spirit that part of the eternity of life is its unfinished, never done character. Indeed, when my days among you have expired I suspect that I will be on my way somewhere and must leave much unfinished. Until then, I will not sit and wait for the end. It must and will catch up with me on the way, as it did my father.

In Memoriam

Lewis Edward Matteson
(August 13, 1919 – March 21, 2008)

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Kindergarten Thanatopsis

“Everybody dies,” Erin pronounced solemnly. I looked into her face, searching for a sign of concern; her eyes betrayed no alarm; her voice was steady. “Charlie is old. She will die soon.”

“Poor Charlie, her hip hurts so much,” I replied glancing down at the “Westie” at my feet. “I guess she will die someday soon.”

“But little kids don’t die very often, unless they get very sick or have an accident,” my five-year-old kindergarten granddaughter commented as if to reassure me and herself.   I could hear in her observation the echoes of the voices her RN mother and her ER physician father. I envisioned the conversation they might have had, since I knew Erin had attended the funeral of her great grandfather within the last year, and I knew, too, that she is an inquisitive child.   Yet I was astounded at what she had said. Nevertheless, I was about to write it off as a random, innocent parroting of adult homilies when she continued.

She leaned her petite head forward and whispered in my ear as if sharing a great secret with me: “You will die sometime, too.”

“Not soon, I hope!” was my surprised reply.

“Charlie will die first, I think,” she concluded.

“Probably.”

Then she jumped down from my lap and ran to dress or undress one of her dolls. I dimly recalled that the Bible said something as I watched her disappear around the corner, “Out of the mouths of babes you ordain perfect praise.” Indeed, I concluded, the most profound sermons are uttered incidentally. God often speaks loudest in the smallest voices. Little angels visit from time to time to give us little intimations of God. I remembered then words that formed themselves into a prayer in my mind, “Lord, help me to number my days aright that I might apply my heart to wisdom. Amen.” I resolved again at that moment to rejoice in the presence of my beloved children and grandchildren as much as I had opportunity.

But Wait! There’s more

But the sermon had not concluded. A few minutes later, Erin came again to sit upon my lap. Charlie, not wanting to be left out, hobbled back into the bedroom and hid beside the rocking chair, her nose peeking out from under the bed skirt. I thought distractedly how pets are often an object lesson in life both to children and their parents. Then I thought to change the subject.

“I hope to retire someday and then I could spend more time with you. What do you think of that?”

Erin nodded, “Yeah! That would be great! And then you can hold my babies, too . . . and someday I’ll be a grandmother and have granddaughters like me that I will hold on my lap like you do, Papa . . . . But you probably wouldn’t be here then. You will be dead.”

I tried to hide my astonishment at her matter-of-fact apprehension of one of the great truths of life and of the human condition.

“That will okay. It will be your turn,” I said as I wondered at what other profundities lay behind her dancing eyes, but I was afraid, perhaps more than a little, to ask her what else she was thinking for fear of provoking hard questions from her and unsettling ones for me, questions for which I have no certain or ready answer. So I changed the subject again.

“What do you think? Do dogs retire? What do dogs do when they quit the dog’s life?”

She leaned over the arm of the chair to consider Charlie whose greatest joy as a pup had been to chase a rubber ball, but now only lay about the house or wandered the yard in a daze when let out.

“When dogs retire, they die,” was her considered response.

“Well, I hope that is not what happens to people,” I said. I meant it too. I think Erin thought that was a good idea as well.

Sad Good-byes

Later as we said “good-bye” and departed for Texas at the end of our weekend visit, I reflected on how very much our leaving was a picture of a “passing.” As Jesus told his disciples, “I am going to a far country where you may not follow.” His friends were not happy to hear this news. Nor are we glad to see a loved one leave us, even for a little while.

The pain of separation is very real but really only for us who must stay behind. Those who go on ahead either pay us no mind because we are already with them there in the future, if the promises are to be believed, or they pay us no mind because death is a forever sleep. In any case, it is we who are left behind to remember that know the pain. Yet it is in remembering that we find comfort and touch again the heart of those we have loved.

My mother’s funeral coincided sixteen years ago—now going on seventeen years—with the very day that I first learned of Erin’s elder brother’s existence. Audrey would have adorned Erin (as she would have treasured all of her great grandchildren) if she had had the chance to know them. But in this kindergartener especially she would surely have delighted, for my mother would have seen herself manifested, and she would have been right.

When I looked at Erin I saw all of us plainly on display in innocence and sprightliness. I recalled the assertion, “Grandchildren are God’s proposition that the human race should continue.” I meditated only a moment and hoped it not presumptuous to second His motion, my “Amen” almost audible.

When my time on earth is spent and I must depart, I pray that it will be a gracious exit, and that those who remain will remember me with loving thoughts and appreciation. If so, then I will live again in them and in their memory. And it is our hope and His promise that we will soon see each other again, very soon. For all people die sometime. I know this. Erin told me so.

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