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Monday, August 29, 2011

When We Go Home

A little over a week ago one of my sons was diagnosed with bone cancer. They say that ten to twelve weeks of intense chemo and “limb salvage” surgery can cure him. They say that though, he won’t be running any marathons, he can lead a reasonably normal life.

I have ridden a roller coaster of emotions these past days. It’s all so surreal. They have pumped untold gallons of fluid (much of it toxic) into him. That was done in the hospital over a three-day period.

He’s back home until the next round. He’s struggling to eat or drink anything. We encourage and minister to him yet in the end only he can fight the battle that is waging inside his youthful body.

I have been frantic, angry, anguished and yes … even peaceful at times. I have never felt closer to God. I have never felt closer to my sons. One of the worst parts is that at times it’s as if he’s not there. All he can do is hang on.

I know that this boy is a warrior. I have always known. He reads tomes of fantasy steeped in heroes and honor, odyssey and courage, truth and dignity. His wall is adorned with replicas of swords from various cultures and places in history. He wants to be a CIA field agent. That was the first thing that troubled him after the prognosis.

He likes to wear hats. The upturned fedora that is popular in younger circles today is his hat of choice. He just got a new one. A young friend from church brought him another to the hospital and I will forever see her when I look at that hat.

He has had a “girlfriend” for a while now in the way of early teens. They have been friends since kindergarten. She is absolutely charming in appearance and character. She has been by his side as much as she could from the beginning of the ordeal. They do not speak to one another much in our presence. They tend to look across the room with furtive glances, much like my wife and I, yet she framed a picture of them and bordered it with child-like drawings. She wrote, “be strong” and “I love you” and my heart is breaking as I think of it.

Her family has been right beside her. They are my family now … no matter what happens, no matter where any of us go I will forever cherish them all.

Folks from the church began immediately to bring food. We were exhaustedly consuming casseroles and deserts at the end of the day before the denial even wore off. Steadily they came through the hospital door. They sat with us as we waited. They held our hands and they prayed with us. They helped us to laugh.They came to my work bringing solace in a gray fog … bringing salve to an open wound. They gave us hope and they gave us a place to lay our fear if only for brief spells of time.

I have cried out in anguish to God but know that this is not His doing. Only the love is His. The rest is the whim of existence … the ebb and flow of life from the miniscule bouncing of cells to the everlasting love in our hearts.

So now it is time. It is time to join the battle that has been waged by humanity over the millenniums as the children suffered. There is no “why”. There is only the strength of our God as we strive to join him both here and now and until eternity washes away the pain of this place of flesh and bone … until eternity embraces what remains after suffering … until Father let’s us go home.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

On Violence

I have typically recognized myself oh these many years as what some might call a “redneck”. No not the racial kind or the kind that drives a “bubba truck” and loves to hunt and fish. I’m talking about the north Charlotte redneck that thinks fist fighting is a viable solution to some problems.

I mean that’s what I was taught as a child. Folks used to chuckle and say “Well … he comes by his temper honestly … then there’s the red hair and all.” Then they’d rub you on the head and tell you what a “little man” you were.

The thing is I loved reading books and other than the Marvel Comics the general gist was to avoid a fight if you could. There was also that nagging, “Jesus thing”. I was pretty sure he wasn’t too keen on “getting in the first lick” and such.

Well I grew up and went in the Navy, hitched across country, tended bar and things like that for a while. The whole time I’m reading philosophy, eastern thought, political science and a lot of psychosocial stuff while living life “leading with my chin”. In the meantime my intellectual, emotional life is screaming at me from a far away, dim and dark place.

I couldn’t help but look at it all and when in my right mind see the most courage in people like Ghandi, and Dr. King, Ralph Bunche (damn near saved the world in the 60’s), Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a long list of peace loving activists that gave their lives and dreams promoting non-violence.

Today I know the truth but it took so long to admit it. Generations have told the boys of the world to “suck it up” and “kick ass” so that’s what they did. If you’re gentle they’ll often ridicule or find a way to run all over you. A lot of that fist fighting was about protecting some poor soul who ran up on one of those people that had been indoctrinated into the pattern of violence that rules our world.

I don’t think that in the end it rules our heart though. When you put Jesus up against fist fighting its no contest. Thing is you just have to keep your eye on Jesus.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"God Speaks"

Back in the Seventies I went into the Navy leaving my little brother  behind. Overseas I would get letters. He was learning to play the banjo from a man named Skeet down at “Beaver Creek”. Stevie had taken to music from the “git-go”, even playing the awful organ our father had bought.

As I plied the South China Seas I had a constant memory of him sitting there with his flaming red hair and porcelain skin with freckles, patiently puzzling out the music as he went along. He was about eleven years old.

Upon separation from the Navy I eventually returned home. I was “troubled”. Having always been hypersensitive, if you will, I had accumulated some baggage and was angry about it. I spent the core of my existence trying to escape from my own skin. In the process I ignored my family … especially my little brother.

My stepfather called me one day to tell me that Stevie would be playing the banjo on stage in my mother’s hometown down south. The venue was an old marquee movie theatre from straight out of the fifties.

With shoulder length hair I imagined myself a tortured poet along the lines of Jim Morrison. I had the act “down pat”, you might say. In spite of my selfish battle with existence I could not rid myself of the need to assuage some guilt by showing up at the blue grass shindig where Stevie would be playing.

Somehow that night I stumbled into the darkened movie theatre in a bit of a blur. Slumping down in the musty seat I brooded stormily waiting for a glimpse of my “kid brother.’

It wasn’t long until the spotlight moved and bathed a small straight backed youth with a spangled red vest playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with a speed and dexterity that belied his tender age and raised goose bumps on every square inch of my body. Seconds passed and we were all on our feet howling and clapping as he grinned devilishly at the havoc he was wringing from the hearts of these simple country folks … and me.

Tears streaming down my face I departed hastily when he was finished playing. I don’t remember much after that but I will always remember him standing there on that stage; fingers rolling as that primal sound spread outward like summer rain onto those who would be his fellows.

He stayed with it all these years. He has branched out but remained true to the roots from which he came. Not long past he left the phone company and began to teach and devote his life to his music. He has suffered trying to live in the material world but when he picks up a guitar or banjo or harmonica he suffers no more.

He wrote a song once called “God Speaks”. I made the mistake of listening to it for the first time in a room full of people. “God Speaks”… yes he does … through the voice and experiences of a little red headed kid trying to find his way.

He’s a father now and is trying to create his first professional “cd”. He’s raising the money the only way he knows how; by touching the lives of all the people he meets with his heart.

Listen … and you will hear him. Listen and you will hear “God Speak” through my brother’s music.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Lest We Forget

Last week I ran across an assignment to a writing class about “the things we should never forget.” A moment ago I was talking to a “friend” from the past and misted up. It brought to mind the fact that I should each day make sure to remember where I came from.

I was raised by what we call “God fearing” people in a medium sized southern town with growing pains. My grade school feet were firmly planted in the Fifties … crew cuts and deck pants, late Fifties cars with fins, bobby socks and pony tails, Elvis and people still being baptized in the river back where my parents came from.

Then came the Sixties. We thought we could change things. Bring down “the man” and create a society that could wage peace rather than war. We thought we could “love” each other (we were a bit confused about what love was) We wanted change.

Many considered drugs to be a bridge to this utopian ideal. Carlos Castaneda wrote about peyote-induced visions. Some revisited Native American practices with the intent of expanding their minds. They ended up “using to live and living to use.”

We “bridged” into the Seventies of disco and  urban rodeo until popping out the other side we began to realize that the utopia had become a hell of sorts and we were wallowing in it. Some started families so their children had “hippie parents” or worse suburban recreational “users” with a morally diversified value system. Funny though, a lot of the children in that generation did just as each generation does and went in the other direction.

Turns out we weren’t that important after all … mostly just spoiled rotten little brats doing whatever “felt good.” We had ridden Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet” and “rolled” like Dylan’s stone. What we found was that there was “a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Crawling out of that slippery hole was too much for some and they gave their lives on the “altar of change and love”. Some eventually saw light and a hand up and realized that there was a “time for every season under heaven” and were reborn.

Funny … when we were having race riots in high school people were bringing chains and knives to school. Hate, fear and anger filled the air so thick it was nauseating. In the end the “Jesus Freaks” walked up the steps and reached out a hand to a black girl. She took it and they walked out onto the grass together. He lifted her onto his shoulders with the help of his buddies. Before it was over we were all crying and hugging and shaking hands. Everybody began to sing folk songs. Even the angriest were neutralized by this exhibition of peace and love.

So today sometimes we remember. Our "TM mantras" are gone and in their place are the eyes of our children. We began with hope and it turns out that was the real bridge. Hope for a brighter future … hope for a world that wages peace not war … hope that we can “find the cost of freedom … buried in the ground. Mother Earth will swallow you. Lay your body down." , so that on the other side of that bridge of hope we can rise up to a new beginning ... unless we forget.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Carpenter's Hammer

You have to give it to this guy. I don’t know how he does it. I mean there are plenty of carpenters that work to support a family. It’s not that. It’s his calm acceptance … an assurance that every thing is as it should be. He’s good at his work but it’s his ethic that impresses me.

How many people could find out their wife to be was pregnant knowing it can’t be theirs and hold fast to their commitment? What force, what strength of character can instill the kindness and diligence to carry this woman, burdened with child, to Bethlehem for the census? Born in a manger because there was no room at the inn.

Yet he smiles and perseveres. Sometimes when he’s weary, he’ll smash his finger or cut himself but he doesn’t complain. I can feel the sweat mingle with blood and I listen for the cry that never comes.

He’s worried now. The boy has been gone all day and it’s not like him to stay too long. He wants to go looking for him. He has raised this child with love and tolerance so he knows in his heart that the boy is ok wherever he might be. He has known all along that he’s only a steward. This boy is truly God’s child.

Everyone has doted on Mary; as well they should, yet he has stood quietly with his calloused hands guiding her … holding her up. He has provided and taught, always setting an example of quiet fortitude and undying faith for this son.

Sometimes I wonder if they even see him here as he labors in the unbearable heat and biting cold. Do they hear the prayers he whispers to the Father in solitude? Do they ever consider the doubt he must have felt?

This child is a miracle, destined for greatness of a different kind. I wish they could see his father here, in the dirt, more clearly as he strives to live up to his commission. I would only be a lowly hammer, yet in the hands of this man I am more. I am a living instrument of his labor. I am his tool for the building of the future.

I am Joseph’s hammer and for that I am grateful. I can only wish him all the peace of a father’s love. One thing I know for certain. He has earned it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An Elf's Ear

 I wrote this a little while back. It's never had a home so I'm going to send it out into the ether. Peewee has died since it was written. Tucker just made his high school soccer team. I guess the combination of those two events and a long hot work day brought it all to mind.

  I'm extra proud of Tucker today ... not so much just because he made the team. He decided about a year ago that he wanted to play soccer. He has sacrificed and worked. He has gone to bed early and exercised above and beyond the call of duty. He has practiced and practiced. In other words he has shown his mettle once again.

  They say sports can help build character. This young man was born with character. Sports just continues to "sharpen the knife".

  I didn't ask him if I could do this. My guess is he might say no. This is one of those times when it'll be better to apologise later than to explain now. So here goes ...


“I’m concerned we’re putting him through more pain and bother unnecessarily, but I guess we’ve got to try. They want to do everything we possibly can to save his ear.”

“Maybe since he’s so young and the ear’s still growing it will take hold.”

“ I have my doubts but we’ll try.”

Earlier that day, prior to overhearing this conversation, I had received a frantic call from my wife. I was busy at work, multi-tasking as usual. Immediately I detected the alarm in her voice. Our sons were just toddlers at the time.

“Minerva has bitten Tucker’s ear off. I heard Corson (Tucker's fraternal twin) shout and when I looked, there lay part of an ear on the kitchen floor. I’ve put it on ice in a plastic bag. There’s blood everywhere. What do I do?”

“Load Tucker up and take him to Presbyterian on 51. I’m coming to kill that dog. I’ll meet you there afterward. I TOLD you to get rid of it.”

Minerva was our 100 pound black lab that I’m sure was bi-polar. She was nothing but trouble from day one. I grabbed my pistol, jumped in a car and squalled out of my car lot headed for the house. I was planning to run the light at highway 51 but suddenly there was Kimberly directly in front of me. You couldn’t miss that big black Hummer. She turned left at the light and I had to follow. We raced down the road to the emergency room.

When we arrived we found out there was no plastic surgeon so we all took off in the Hummer for Presbyterian downtown. It was the one of the craziest rides of my life. I bounded over the median, ran red lights and laid on the horn the whole way with flashers going. It had to be an insane sight in folk’s rear view mirror.

The whole way Tucker is telling Kimberly “It’s ok Mom. It doesn’t hurt. It’s just the gooey that bothers me.” Once there I jogged into the emergency room carrying Tucker and the wide-eyed nurses waved us on back. They laid him on a gurney where a nurse looked at him briefly She had to call a plastic surgeon.

It took him two hours to get there. I’ll never forget my beautiful, flawless child lying in the harsh emergency room light .The bloody pulp of his ear contrasted violently with the stark white pillowcase. My job was to talk calmly while looking him in the eye like everything was just rosy. He was flushed yet smiling. The thing he was most concerned with was that dog. He was scared I was going to kill it. He made me promise not to.

When the young surgeon finally showed up he was professional and obviously good with kids. “Tuck”, as usual was a real trooper. The doctor mumbled,

“Excuse me a minute please”,

and signaled for the nurse to follow him out. I was pacing when I heard them speaking quietly around the corner of a hallway wall. I must have looked a little crazed because everybody behind the nurse’s station was cutting eyes at me kind of nervous like. So I turned on my heels and strode back into the room. The doctor and nurse were close behind.

The next few months were tough. It was daily bandaging with lots of pain. My wife would often cry afterward. He had to wear a big old cup on his ear and it really cramped his style. The ear turned black as coal. At one point he developed a nervous facial tick, which really scared us. We thought he was developing something akin to Tourette’s syndrome.

The stupid dog had been spirited off to the cousin’s farm. I’ve never laid eyes on it again except in pictures. To this day my heart jumps and I grit my teeth every time I see one of the pictures. The wife and kids go visit her every now and then.

So today Tucker’s got what we call and “elf ear”. When he’s watching television he’ll rub on it sometimes. He grew his hair long to slow down all the questions. Recently he had the hair cut shorter for soccer though. It doesn’t seem to bother him.

It turns out the dog was eating the cat’s food for the nine millionth time and Tuck went to stop it. He stumbled and fell, landing on the dog’s back. The dog had a hurt leg so nipped at the source of pain. One of the dog’s canines caught the soft tissue of Tucker’s ear and when he pulled back it just snatched it right off.

I hate to say it but it slowed Tuck down a little. He had always been a “no fear”, wide-open kind of little guy. This sort of stuck though. Maybe it’s a good thing in a way. Our Dalmatian Peewee, that we rescued, lies on the den floor with him most nights cuddled up like a girlfriend. I don’t think she’d bite him if he tried to extract one of her teeth with a dull spoon.

After all this settled down and his pain was gone I began to look back on it with some regularity. Never has vanity seemed to be a single drop of an issue with Tucker. Deep down it was always one of my main worries. Each concern he had during it all was for someone else.

Even today when I ask him does he want to get it fixed he says “Naw … not really Dad. It’ll keep me from being able to do stuff for a while if I have the surgery. It doesn’t really bother me. It just itches sometimes, so I rub it.”

He loves Minerva and doesn’t blame her a bit even though she’d always been “nippy”. He’s still crazy about animals and they like him as much as he likes them. For a while after ... my heart was broken. I was afraid that the accident had taken something away from my son. As it turns out the whole mess probably gave him much more than it took away.

It’s funny how we think we know so much and insist that our children pay attention to us. The next thing you know, the going gets tough and they’re the ones teaching you.