Today is World Water Day 2006.
I woke this morning to the news that my friend’s father died last night about eleven. I’ve spent the morning making arrangements to get to the funeral to be with my friend, which means leaning into friends and co-workers who are allowing me to inconvenience their lives so I can keep my promises.
My grandmother lives in a nursing home in Waxahachie, outside of Dallas, where the funeral is going to be. She is nearly a hundred years old and is worn out. She is my father’s stepmom, since his mother died about a month after he was born. His dad remarried with my dad was eleven. She is “Grandma” to me. Since my grandfather died before I was born, and my father is an only child, she was the family on that side.
She is also the first person I saw live through a profound depression. I was a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas when she spent a month on the psychiatric unit there, trying to climb up from the bottom. She was in her seventies then. When she began to get a little of herself back, she began writing letters to old friends, one of whom was a widower and an old friend. They began to correspond and then to date and, when my grandmother was eighty, they got married.
They were married seventeen years before he died. Ginger and I will be married sixteen years next month.
Though the story of her life is one of adventure in many ways, the last years have erased much of the joy. She has become reclusive and lonely, even though my parents are still around her. In recent days, her health has begun to fail more quickly. My trip tomorrow will give me a chance to say goodbye I didn’t think I was going to get.
My friend’s email said simply, “Dad died about 11 pm with much love around him.”
Though the circumstances of his death are tragic, he died surrounded by love – a good ending. It matters how we get to say goodbye.
In my years as a hospital chaplain, I spent many hours standing at the bedside with families as they said goodbye to those they loved. There was no right way to do it. People felt what they felt, coped as best they could, and looked for comfort and hope anywhere they could find it. I had no words to lessen the grief or to ease the pain; all I could do was stay with them. My supervisor used to quote Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”
In those same years, my father and I were very distant from each other. I was an angry young man who didn’t really know how to get angry. I felt like I was not turning out the way my parents wanted and I took it personally. Though what I felt was not necessarily what they were saying, we were at a crossroads where we did not know what to do except keep banging heads with each other. I can remember driving home from the hospital on more than one occasion after I had dealt with a family around the death of a parent and praying, “God, please don’t let Dad die before we figure out how to talk to each other. I don’t want to live with that kind of regret.”
When Ginger and I married some years later, things had not progressed much. She and I packed up for New England and began to deal with how distance affects relationships of any sort. One of the decisions we made was to call my parents every Saturday morning. The purpose of the conversation was to ask what they had been up to, give a rundown of what we did during the week, and tell them we loved them. I had to trust the past would somehow figure itself out; I wanted to act myself into a new way of feeling in the present tense. After fifteen years of Saturdays, I’m not wishing for either of my parents to shuffle off this mortal coil. I know, however, when they do, that the air is clear between us.
As I prepare to say goodbye to my friend’s father, my in-laws are downstairs, back from Birmingham for another visit. My parents are in London on the trip they planned to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The veil that hangs between the two dimensions we call life and death is gossamer-thin. Though it is probably time to just stand here, I keep looking for words of strength and meaning. I keep hearing echoes of T. S. Eliot:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
I’ve always imagined the narrator of the poem stomping emphatically – even desperately – when he said, “But set down/ this set down/ This.” He was fighting, craving, straining to articulate the change in himself: how what he had seen had transformed him and left him unable to tolerate the indifference that seemed to be the tone of most people’s lives. He had seen too much. He had stared Love in the face and come away still trying to figure out what had been born and what had died inside, all in the same moment.
One of the things Ginger and I talk about a lot is doing our damndest to not miss the moments that matter most, the events and experiences that call us to build altars in the field so we can remember who we are and how we are connected, the times that come when we must “set down this.”
Going to be with my friend is one of those moments. I will spend the morning asking people at church to change their schedules so they can meet the truck delivering the pizza and cookie dough from our fundraiser tomorrow; I will ask one of my youth sponsors to understand why I will not be able to co-officiate at her wedding; I will ask the folks at the restaurant to work shorthanded for our two busiest weekend shifts; I will miss the last two days of my in-laws’ visit; and I will lean into Ginger for love and support and being willing to spend money we don’t have to get me to Texas.
One day, I will call him and he will do the same for me. We are friends.