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.

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.

A Bridge at Crossroads

When you are sad – for there will come a time when you are sad – remember a time you were so happy you wished this moment would last forever – because it does last forever as long as you remember.

When you are afraid – for there will come a time when you are afraid – remember a time when you felt so safe and comfortable you knew nothing could shake your world.

When you are lost – for there will come a time when you are lost – remember a time when you found a place that you never thought you’d reach and surprised yourself that you had it in you.

The lasting markers in our lives are the moments of clarity, not confusion; joy, not despair; learning, not loss.

– – – – –

(From the archives, and the opening reflection of the book of the same name.

Pelican beauty

On Sunday my day job took me to three communities where thousands of people gathered for fun, and according to my smart phone I took more than 10,000 steps in a day for the first time in memory.

As I pulled into the driveway I thought to myself, “I’m so tired, I just want to go to bed early tonight, but I still need to write a blog entry.”

I stepped out of the car and looked up. More than 50 pelicans were flying overhead in a V formation.

I love watching pelicans fly in groups. They are so elegant and graceful and seemingly relaxed as they drift on the air.

So: Write a quick apology for having nothing to write about to fill the blog space? Or remind you to stop and smell the roses, or even better look up and see the pelicans?

Done. I just wish my smart phone could have done justice to this beautiful sight.

Preserve your memories

Somewhere in this house is a cassette tape of a radio show I recorded in 1975 called “Voices of Old Waupaca.” Every week I was responsible to do a 20-30 minute interview show with a local person and/or newsmaker. That week I featured the local historical society that was compiling an oral history project, recording conversations with elderly residents about what the town had been like in their younger days. I had trouble editing the wonderful nuggets of memory, and I think the show ran an hour or more that Sunday noon.

Somewhere around here is also a videotape my brother made in the early 1990s. When we were kids in the late 1950s and 1960s, our parents would take us for a week or two at Cold Spring Camp near Milton, Vermont, a collection of wooden cabins over Lake Champlain at the end of a long, long winding dirt road that wove through fields and forest for several miles. The trip down that road was part of the experience of getting away from civilization.

When my brother took his own family to Cold Spring Camp, the road was still very much as it had been in our memories — including the hairpin curve that required the driver to slow to a crawl — and so he made a tape of the entire drive, from the entrance between two cow pastures all the way to parking outside the rented cabin. It was 10 minutes or so of wonderful memories.

I probably named my Waupaca show after “Voice of Old People,” the Simon and Garfunkel track on Bookends that features elderly people reminiscing. It’s the lead-in to the song “Old Friends” and eventually the title track, which concludes with the advice, “Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”

The first track is an old guy talking about an old picture, and he laments, ““I got little in this world; I’d give honestly without regret one hundred dollars for that picture.”

Every so often I would pass by my cassette of that old show, or the video my brother made, but they have eluded me of late, now that I’m actually looking for them. They contain glimpses of a time past but not lost forever because someone had the sense to preserve the memories. I sure hope I can find them again.

A medicine for melancholy

I have a clear memory of a Fantastic Four comic book that ends with the F.F. flying away into the clouds with patriarch Reed Richards saying, “Where there is life, there is hope.” I have searched high and low but haven’t been able to find that story again.

These are melancholy days as my beloved Red stays in a local hospice. We are cheered by her recovery from the chemotherapy; I confess that when she chose to end that aggressive treatment I thought we had only a few days left, so sick and so weak was she. A month later, she is close to her old self again, still in need of 24/7 care but — as far as anyone can tell — not really on the brink anymore. Lymphoma is an awful enemy, so we are grateful for these bonus days together, even as we wait for what the doctors insist is inevitable.

This was also the 17th anniversary of the morning my 82-year-old mother woke up and said her last words: “I have a terrible headache.” She was considered brain-dead when the family gathered the next night, and she died a few minutes after they turned off her machine.

I thought about the old comic book because the melancholy left me feeling hopeless, and I realized I needed to rally and lift myself up on the rising tide of hope.

Once again I couldn’t find where Reed Richards said, “Where there is life, there is hope.” But I did find where the apostle Paul said:

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”

It’s in Chapter 4 of the letter to the Philippians, right after he urged the early Christians to rejoice in the Lord always: “Let your gentleness be evident to all, and do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God — and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

My memory flashed to a long-ago personal crisis, when a marriage was crumbling and we went to a church service where that last encouraging phrase was the benediction.

As we stood to leave, I thought, “I wonder what that ‘peace that transcends all understanding’ feels like; I could use some of that about now.”

Suddenly I was filled with such an overwhelming peace that I almost fainted from the shock of that comforting feeling, literally. It only lasted a few seconds, because it jarred me so thoroughly, but the moment gave me a sure knowledge of what the apostle was talking about in his letter.

It’s a knowledge that allows me to chase whimsy in the face of the melancholy, and the memory helped me start to lift myself back up. And I plan to start thinking about the true, the honorable, and the rest of it the next time I’m faced with the silly nasties who inhabit antisocial media these days.

A cardinal on Whimsy Street

I have been reading a couple of books by Bob Goff, a whimsical fellow who holds office hours on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland, and I am aware that whimsy and I have become strangers of late.

It’s not unrelated to my beloved, Red, moving into hospice care a month ago; it’s hard to be in touch with whimsy at a time like this. Red has recovered somewhat from medicine’s aggressive assault on her lymphoma, she is very much her old self and we have nice visits together, but the disease lurks in the background waiting to re-assert itself. For now, the respite is a blessing.

I have made friends with whimsy from time to time. Myke Phoenix’s friends include a half-man-half-duck and a sentient green vase. Adam Comfort’s private investigator partner is a pookha who takes the form of a 6 1/2 foot tall skunk woman named Joy. Jeep Thompson visits a swamp full of snoggles and departs with a new friend named Snooger. 

Whimsy and I are almost pals, but I keep losing sight of him or her or them or whatever. So how do I find my way back down Whimsy Street? Will I find it frozen in mid-swing in the forest with a can of oil nearby? Is there a rabbit hole where whimsy may be discovered underfoot, late for a very important date? Is it drunk and in charge of a bicycle? Or is it simply a frog smiling up from a lily pad in Central Park or a pond in the back woods? Yo, Whimsy! Where are you hiding today?

Could it be as simple as the glint in a puppy’s eye as she discovers a dust bunny or a bit of fur shed by an aging cat? And what of the cat — Are her yowls in the night an incantation of dark magic that may envelop the house if the innocent puppy can’t save it in time? She is an aging black cat after all, and what is more darkly magical than a black cat? Or do we turn the cliche and discover that the crotchety old black cat is in fact the grand good wizard, the Gandalf of feline energy standing dark and rickety against the even darker menace beyond?

Long ago I woke up and cried, “Whimsy! I shall pursue whimsy in all things!” But she just smiled and turned away, like the girl who sang the blues in “American Pie,” and I pursued others rather than chase her that much harder. Whimsy and I, we made a good team, or at least I thought so, but in the end she only wanted to be my friend. Still, being friends with whimsy, couldn’t we make that work? A cat clock with roving eyes and pendulum tail — a moose in a fedora on my top shelf — a woody woodpecker laughing in the back yard — a snow globe in the desert — it’s all there at a whim, so what am I waiting for?

The cardinal has hopped to the patio door again a time or two in recent days. I doubt he wants to come in, but I’m glad to see him visit. Perhaps he’s bringing whimsy home on his own.

I need a supply of whimsy to bring Jeep Thompson home, and Adam Comfort, and several other characters and critters buzzing around in my brain. If I were just to finish what I’ve started, I may not be a noted novelist, but at least I’d have novels.

Oh, don’t ask me what’s stopping me from finishing their stories. I am stopping me. Don’t ask me why — if I knew that answer I would stop stopping myself.

And look, there is my cardinal; he arrived just after I wrote about him. He’s perched on the deck chair a foot from the window, and now he’s fluttered to the deck railing, and then over to a tree.

It’s good to see you, Red, I call to him — oh! “Red …”

And now I know my world will always have cardinals.