The power of the spoken word

A few weeks ago Red asked me to read to her and talk to her when the time came that she could no longer talk back. That time came late Monday morning as she began transitioning, as one of the hospice nurses said.

Reading to her has been a regular thing since shortly after she left the hospital and moved into the hospice, when she began to regain strength after the ordeal of chemotherapy and other aspects of aggressive anti-lymphoma treatment. You may recall I put out a first installment of the Jeep Thompson saga after I read her the first half of the unfinished novel and she gave it a thumbs up.

From Jeep we went to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and a collection of (of course) Ray Bradbury stories. For the last hours she had specifically asked me for my own writing, so Monday night and early Tuesday morning I added A Bridge at Crossroads to the mix. I just hope, when we meet again, she doesn’t tell me, “No! I wanted to hear Myke Phoenix and The Imaginary Bomb, not your prose poems!”

I’ve already mentioned that over the last couple of hours I read from the Gospels and Psalms. Of course, I was steadying my laptop with my right hand and giving her a ponytail with my left. It was my last opportunity. 

Familiarizing myself again with the Sermon on the Mount was enlightening; there’s a lot of meat in there about living in a spirit of love. The Beatitudes are amazing. I left out some of the “if you lust after a woman, gauge out your eyes” stuff, focusing instead on the passages about turning the other cheek and not worrying about everyday troubles, for example. 

It was interesting to me that as she faced her mortality, Red went back to her Catholic Church roots. It was not uncommon to find her watching EWTN when I came to visit. And going through Jesus’ teachings in those final hours, I can see where she might have found some comfort there. I certainly did.

One thing I learned with all of this reading aloud: You hear the words better when you hear the words. I have always adored Bradbury’s turns of phrase, but speaking them gave me even a greater appreciation. I realized, if I may say so myself, that some of my writing sings. And Jesus was a pretty tremendous guy.

I’m starting to think about what to do with the second half of this year that has been, for the first six month, the most horrible of my life. Red has been telling me for a long time to start making audiobooks. It’s long past time I listened to her advice.

Carol Jean “Cj” Townsend

Carol Jean “Cj” Townsend, 71, of rural Luxemburg, passed away after an illness of several months on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, at the Jack and Engrid Meng Hospice Residence, as her husband, Warren, read Matthew 22:34-40 to her. She was born March 9, 1952, in Appleton to Loren and Ruth (Mullenbach) Luedeke of Hilbert. She was “Little Red” to her father’s Big Red, and in later years she was just Red in Warren’s newspaper columns and blogs.

Cj was a devoted mother, grandmother and gardener. In retirement she delighted in her grandsons, digging in the soil, cooking and baking and canning, refinishing furniture, and remaking the living room every few months. She fervently defended the sanctity of life. After one of the longest engagements on record (starting Christmas 1998), Cj married Warren Bluhm in Fish Creek on Jan. 28, 2017.

A graduate of Hilbert High School and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a degree in chemistry and art, she worked in several labs over a distinguished career, including for Robert E. Lee and Associates and the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, and most passionately in quality control for Terry Lemerond’s Enzymatic Therapy and its successor incarnations, where she spent the last quarter-century of her professional career.

In addition to her husband, Warren, Cj is survived by her son, Lee (Sarah), and grandsons Luke and Robert, Abrams; Lee’s father, Rick Townsend, Little Suamico; sisters-in-law Carole (Keith Berchem) Luedeke, Hilbert, and Connie Bluhm, Cinnaminson, New Jersey; brother-in-law, Bruce Bluhm, Chester, New Jersey; nephew, Chris (Kelly) Luedeke and their son, Owen, Kaukauna; nieces Elizabeth and Joanna Bluhm, Cinnaminson, New Jersey; and furry children Dejah, Summer and Blackberry.

She was preceded in death by her parents; parents-in-law Richard and Hilda (Elwell) Bluhm; brother, Gary Luedeke; and brother-in-law Charlie Bluhm.

In accordance with her wishes, there will be no formal service. A gathering and celebration of Cj’s life will be held 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, July 7, at Pfotenhauer Funeral Home, 1145 Cardinal Lane, Howard, emceed by the Rev. Cory Dahl.

The family sincerely thanks the staff at Unity Hospice, especially Phillip, Ann, Brittany, and Ingrid, for the dedication and compassion that brought joy and peace to Carol Jean’s final weeks.

She made the world more beautiful

Because she had been reconnecting with her faith as lymphoma began to take her life, and because long before the end she had asked me to read to her when the time came, I started reading parts of the Bible to Red around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday. I started with the Nativity story from Luke 2, detoured to Genesis 1, went through much of the Sermon on the Mount, and shared more Psalms than I remember. I made sure to include Proverbs 31 in the mix and was not surprised to realize that I was sitting next to the woman described in that passage.

When she passed away at about 7:20 a.m., I believe the last thing she heard on this mortal coil was Matthew 22:34-40:

And when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they themselves gathered together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested Him with a question: “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?”

Jesus declared, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

What wonderful words to share anytime, but especially at that particular moment!

People like to blame God for some of the most atrocious behavior humanity can produce, but scratch even slightly below the surface and you discover that the atrocities were committed not by God but by foolish humans who thoroughly misinterpreted the God whose two most important laws begin with the word “Love.” It’s not God’s fault that we can’t read or listen.

At a time like this, you realize how petty are our squabbles with our neighbors. Why waste time doing anything except loving when we have only a finite time on this planet?

I had the privilege of spending nearly 26 years with the most beautiful woman I have ever known, and of course I’m wrecked. But I’m mostly grateful that she entered my life when she did and stayed as long as that. I feel like the most blessed of men to have been part of the life of such a special person.

Red was a Master Gardener, and I came home Tuesday afternoon to find the first echinacea bloom of the season, always my favorite among the perennials she planted. God’s timing is impeccable.

While you can

So much to say, so much to do …

We all have the same number of minutes per day, but we don’t have the same number of days. We know how many minutes per day we have; we don’t know how many days.

Fret not over the reality that your days are finite; what can you say or do that is infinite, that lasts, that will still be making its impact when you are gone?

Say it. Do it.

Say what you can, do what you can, while you can.

And fret not that you could have done more: You did this.

(From the archive: July 29, 2013)

The gentle power of the ponytail

Ponytail © Makovskyi Artem |

When I visit Red at the hospice, I usually get behind her and pull on her hair, running my fingers through it over and over and massaging her head and shoulders. It’s a little ritual she calls “giving her a ponytail,” and we have been performing this calming, intimate act together for many years. 

Three times during her first few weeks here, three different women came up and told us how beautiful it was to see me stroking her hair like that. I wasn’t sure what to say except, “Thank you,” but it got me thinking about this relationship between men and women. 

My first thought was to let my fellow males know that passionate kisses and wild love-making may reach their woman’s heart, but she’s more likely to melt in your arms if you brush her hair for awhile. I know she inspires you to urgent passions, but you may get a deeper response with a gentler intimacy.

Red’s response to the women’s compliments has been a warm acknowledgement and kind of a pride in the fact that this guy belongs to her, and it warms my own soul to hear that pride in her voice. When all is said and done, all a man really wants is to make his lady happy, and so, it appears, mission accomplished.

Let that be a lesson to you, young man.

Remembering dear Klara

I decided I would spend a few minutes looking at the Amazon best-seller list, to study the covers of the most popular science fiction and fantasy books. I was pleased to see Hugh Howey and Andy Weir well represented, as they are heroes of the independent author movement.

I was interested in my internal reaction when I reached #24, which on this particular day was Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. On seeing the image, I first got a surge of pleasure that this magnificent 2021 novel is still on the chart. Then I flashed back to the climax of the book, and my eyes welled with the memory.

 That’s the power of a good book. The experience lingers with me, and any reminder of the book’s existence sparks a similar emotional reaction to the original. I saw Klara’s journey all over again in an instant.

When I first read it (listened to the audiobook, to be precise), I immediately put Klara and the Sun on my list of favorite books. Feeling this echo of the original thrill made me realize that Ishiguro’s book is in a very special place among my favorites. I do love Klara so.

Listening: 76 years since Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

The stereo and mono versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

If, in 1967, it had been 20 years ago that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, it has now been 76 years. This spring marked the 56th anniversary of the release of arguably the Beatles’ finest hour.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the first Beatles album that was released in the United States with the same track list as the United Kingdom. The suits at Capitol Records did not trust the customers to accept the U.K. versions; also, if you only put 11-12 tracks on an album, you can release more albums and hence make more money than if you put 13-14 songs on the album. 

When the Beatles renegotiated their recording contract prior to Sgt. Pepper, they stipulated that Capitol had to stop doing things like removing three songs from Revolver or starting Rubber Soul with one of the songs they had withheld from Help! instead of “Drive My Car.” And so North Americans finally got a full blast of the Beatles as the Beatles intended — and what a blast it was.

In recent years some folks have downplayed Sgt. Pepper and argued that Rubber Soul and Revolver were even more groundbreaking, and now that a generation of U.S. fans have been exposed to those two albums as originally envisioned, I can see where such a case can be made. But in the context of the times, when Rubber Soul and Revolver were cannibalized to make extra albums like Beatles VI or Yesterday and Today, it really wasn’t until Pepper that we experienced the full impact of a Beatles album over on this side of the pond.

And so here’s a toast to the album that changed, if not everything, at least a significant percentage of how we looked at, and listened to, popular music in the 1960s. There was music before the Beatles and after the Beatles, and there was music before Sgt. Pepper and after Sgt. Pepper. From the opening sounds of the crowd chatting as the orchestra tunes up, through the smashingly mind-boggling 37-second chord that concludes “A Day in the Life,” this album is a master class in how to reinvent pop music.

It’s a great album, and after all these years, I have to admit it’s getting better — getting so much better all the time.