Shall We Gather At the River

Yesterday morning, when Dad came out for breakfast, he told me that he had composed a song while he was sleeping.

“Really?” I said. “Are you going to sing it for me?”

“Yes, I will,” he replied. “Just give me a minute to remember it.”

He sat there thinking, while I took his blood pressure and got his morning meds for him.

My father has compared his singing with Lee Marvin’s in Paint Your Wagon. In fact, I can remember times when my father would burst into “Wand’rin’ Star,” singing the first few lines. Lee Marvin’s gravelly baritone-bass was just enough off-key that I felt a kinship to him, and just enough on-key that I enjoyed the song — but my father was just off-key. I always smiled, though, when I heard him singing.

My mother was a soprano. Yesterday we sang “Shall We Gather at the River?” at church. I got a little lump in my throat because I could hear her singing this good Baptist hymn. It reminded me of my mother’s Baptist upbringing. I remember her singing it.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Refrain:
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

My father was bobbing his head a little, trying to find the rhythm for this song he wanted to sing for me.

“The words are kind of crazy,” he said. “I don’t think I can remember them all.”

“Just sing what you can,” I said, getting more curious by the moment.

He closed his eyes and sang, “Humpty-backed camels and chimpanzees…” He swayed to some internal music, then finished with, “but there ain’t no uni-corn,” and opened his eyes to see what I thought.

“I hate to break it to you, Dad,” I said, “but that song has already been written.”

He laughed, “Well, isn’t that the darnedest thing.”

I sang The Unicorn Song for him, (not nearly as well as The Irish Rovers)

There was green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born
The loveliest of all was the unicorn*

He mouthed the words with me and nodded, remembering them better as he heard them.

“That’s right!” he said.

“You were listening to it last night,” I said. “It probably got stuck in your head and played in your dreams.”

He shook his head, “The brain is an amazing thing, isn’t it?”

The funny thing about the Wand’rin’ Star song is that my father was born under the farthest thing from a wandering star. He was born under a stay-put star. Fifty-some years ago, when he left the Army, he bought a house and settled in.

He put closets in the house.

The house had only one closet when he bought it — not nearly enough for a family of seven.

He planted trees, putting down roots.

My brother standing by the newly planted orchard – 1968

Those humpty-backed camels — I suppose they were a part of his life, too — but only a small part.

My father and I riding a camel

The last verse of Shall We Gather says —

Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Perhaps it’s there that we’ll find those missing unicorns.

 

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Sweet

Our trip to France was sweet.

I’m not talking about the food, which, of course, was amazing.

My food pictures leave something to be desired — not the food, my pictures.

Like this dessert — I don’t remember what it was, but it was delicious.

Or these crepes — which looked so wonderful that I started to eat them and then remembered to take a picture.

I took a picture of these meringues on Day 1 because I had never seen such large meringues. The patisserie was closed but I wanted to remember to buy some later. Unfortunately I forgot.

This pastry with apricots was really good but I can’t remember the name.

The sweetest thing about that pastry, though, was that my siblings and I sat outside on a bench to enjoy our selections from the patisserie together. We talked and enjoyed the morning sun before heading back to our hotel.

For years, I had heard my father say that he really wanted to see the beaches of Normandy — so we made it happen.

He probably doesn’t remember the trip today — at least not without the aid of the photo book we put together.

But we remember.

For one week last May, we fulfilled one of my father’s dreams — and had a good time doing it.

That’s the sweetest part.

 

A Privilege

Yesterday I ran into someone at the pool that I hadn’t seen in years — Bridget‘s father.

Bridget was on the first team that I coached and I still think back on her fondly. In fact, I had just been telling Laurel about Bridget the other day.

Bridget held all her team records with open hands. When Helen was quite young, Bridget told her to go break all those records. It was such a gift, so encouraging. Helen went on to break quite a few of them.

Anyway, Bridget’s father, Mike, asked about my father. I told him that I was staying with my father to take care of him.

“It’s such a privilege, don’t you think?” he asked.

I nodded in agreement.

Those were words I needed to hear.

Sometimes caregiving doesn’t feel like a privilege. It feels more like a chore. When I was home with small children, there were days when I would  look out the window and long for the freedom to go do something, anything besides laundry and cooking and changing diapers and wiping noses.

I used to bring my kids to the gym for a playtime we called “Kiddie-gym.”  The pre-schoolers would climb around on the mats and throw balls and scoot on scooters. The moms would sit and talk.

One day one of the moms talked about trying to find childcare for her twin two-year-olds so she could go back to college for a graduate degree. The mom next to me leaned close and whispered, “After all she went through to have those children, she’s abdicating her responsibility.”

It’s true that the woman with the twins had used in vitro fertilization. It’s true her husband had a good job so she didn’t need to work. But abdication? It seemed like a strong term to describe a mother furthering her education. Abdication was what a king did when he gave up his throne.

My take-away from that conversation, though, was that motherhood was on par with royalty. It was an honor and a privilege to be a mom. On my looking-out-the-window days, longing for something else, I would remind myself of that. I would lean in and embrace the wearisome work because not everyone has that privilege.

This morning a woman complained to me about the child-care hours at the gym.

“They don’t open until like 8:15 AM and they aren’t even open every day,” she said. “What if someone wants to work out before they go to work?”

“Maybe their spouse or significant other can watch the children,” I suggested.

“That discriminates against single moms,” she replied.

“Being a parent involves a lot of sacrifice,” I said, but I could see that she didn’t appreciate my answer.

I was glad for my conversation the previous day about care-giving being a privilege. It reminded me to stop thinking about the things I can’t do, but to appreciate the things that I can.

I can find the Jumble in the newspaper.

I can change the channel to Jeopardy.

I can fix over-easy eggs.

I can help with crossword puzzle clues.

I can drive him to the doctor or to get a haircut.

I can rescue photographs from the garbage.

I can remind him of people’s names.

I can tell him at 3 AM that it’s time to go back to sleep.

I can keep him in the home where he has lived for over 50 years.

Yes, it’s a privilege.

 

Lent 2018

My sister messaged me yesterday, “…about Tuga… has he returned to your pocket, or was he so last year?”

Tuga, the little brown bunny who stayed in my pocket for Lent 2017 as a reminder of the sorrow in the world, is not so last year. He’s so in Bosnia.

I have other Tugas. Three sets, as a matter of fact, of Tuga and Aleluja, sitting on my shelf. One set is promised to someone. The other two are at-the-ready, for when I meet someone who needs a mindfulness token of sorrow and joy.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, has had new meaning for me since 2014. That year, early in the morning of Ash Wednesday, my sister called with the news that my oldest brother had unexpectedly passed away after a heart attack.

Yesterday I read through some of the posts I had written in the subsequent days. Most are private now — as in, you can’t read them; I took them down because they were too personal — but the Ash Wednesday one is public.

When I’m telling someone about Stewart, I almost always refer to him as brilliant. Hamilton College undergrad — their first Russian Studies major. Yale Divinity School for his M. Div. and then Syracuse Law for his J.D. He had a home computer before that was a thing — like in 1983. He had set it up to run tessellations — which, of course, has nothing to do with Russian or Divinity or Law.

In the last few years of Stewart’s life I had been frustrated with him.  He had been nearly job-less, doing pulpit supply and seemingly little else. Every month my father sent him money to pay his rent.

In the meantime, I was running myself ragged, driving back and forth between Greene and Cooperstown, trying to help my father take care of my mother.

“Why can’t Stewart move in with Mom and Dad?” I griped to my sister. “He could be of real help to them and Dad wouldn’t have to keep sending him money.”

It irked me.

It seemed unfair.

But when Stewart died, and I met the many people whose lives had been touched by Stewart’s, I realized that I only knew part of the story. Stewart lived in a low-income area. He drove neighbors to doctor’s appointments and listened to their lives. His congregation gathered every evening in the apartment complex’s gazebo.

“That’s where Stewart sat,” one lady told us, pointing to a bench at one of the picnic tables. “He was always here for us.”

He had a church, unrecognized by anyone, because it was so informal, yet so personal. It didn’t pay the bills. It paid in intangibles.

I couldn’t see it — I don’t think anyone could — until he was gone, and we slowly unknotted the knot that was his life.

In his book, Great Lent, my Lenten reading for this year, Alexander Schmemann said,

If God loves every man it is because He alone knows the priceless and absolutely unique treasure, the “soul” or “person” He gave every man. There is no “impersonal” love because love is the wonderful discovery of the “person” in “man,” of the personal and unique in the common and general. It is the discovery of the unique in each man of that which is “lovable” in him, of that which is from God.

I looked around my room this morning for something to carry in my pocket for Lent. Tuga had been a good companion last year, but I wanted something to remind me of the hidden person, the God in each person I meet.

I settled on a Monkey’s Fist that had been sitting on my dresser. It probably belongs to one of my children — but it’s mine for this season. A knot, the heart of which is hidden from me.

Wikipedia says, “Monkey’s fists are commonly used as a convenient and unobtrusive method of storing and transporting precious gemstones.” What can be more precious than God?

God wears a costume of human flesh. He’s in the guy at the gas station, and the friend that encourages me.

But He’s also hiding somewhere in the woman who irritates me, and the man sitting on the couch in the other room, rifling through papers again and again.

I’m going to be on the lookout for Him.

When Boys Become Men

The other day I worked a few hours in the mid-day so that the full-time staff could attend a meeting together. Karl was heading into the gym anyway to work out so I grabbed a ride with him. I made arrangements with “Fred” to pick me up, which turned out to be a good thing since I had forgotten my phone.

When I finished work I headed to the front door to wait for my ride. A number of welcoming couches sit in the lobby with a good view of the circle where cars pick up and drop off people. I thought about sitting — I tend to stand and pace when I lifeguard — but a man was sitting on one of the couches and I didn’t feel like making small talk so I stood at the door.

I stood.

And waited.

And watched.

Fred must have forgotten me, I figured. Fifteen minutes had passed and there was no sign of him. Sometimes he gets involved in his reading and loses track of the time. Really, don’t we all do that when we’re in the midst of a good book?

I walked back to the pool and called the landline at the house. No one answered, so I left a message, and walked back out to wait some more.

My feet were tired. I wanted to sit, but that darn man was still sitting in the lobby, his back to me, engrossed in a book. I sighed and decided to chance the small talk.

When I rounded the couch, I realized that the man was Fred!

How can a mother not recognize her own son?

One minute a little boy’s eyes are twinkling with mischief. His hair is tousled or buzzed right off. His t-shirts reveal what he had for lunch that day — or dinner the night before. His knees are covered with Buzz Lightyear bandaids. His feet are bare.

And the next minute, he’s six foot something, with hair cut by a stylist and clothes carefully coordinated for the activities of the day.

My whole family was together this past weekend. The kids all went into the sports center to play squash and swim. One of the ladies at the front desk stopped me on Monday.

“I saw some of your boys at the gym this weekend,” she said.

“They were all at the gym,” I told her.

“Even Sam?” she asked. She knows he lives thousands of miles away.

“Yes, even Sam,” I replied.

I pulled out my phone to show her a picture I had taken while everyone was together.

“Oh, my,” she said as I identified each of my children. “They’re all so grown up!”

Back row: Philip, Amanda, Sam, Donna, me, Bud
Middle row: Helen, Laurel, Owen, Emily
Middle row .5: Henry
Front row: Mary, Karl, “Fred”

Yes, they are.

Boys become men.

Girls become women.

Family remains family — and grows.

I am so blessed.

 

 

Old Photographs

One of my kids told me, “I pulled some pictures out of the garbage by Grampa’s chair yesterday.”

“What?!” I said.

I knew my father had been going through old photographs. It’s something he enjoys. He’ll sit there for hours sifting through and resifting.

“Hey! Have I ever shown you this one?” he’ll ask as I walk past.

I’ll pause and squint to see the glossy black-and-white snapshot in his hand. “This is the house I used to live in,” he’ll explain, and sometimes launch into a story of how his cousin lived right next door and that there was a path worn through the trees, or how he and his father hid time capsules under the floorboards or in the walls.

“This is my father,” he’ll say. “He was a pretty handsome fellow, don’t you think?”

“Here’s one of my old girlfriends,” he’ll say, and my stomach gets a little squeezy because I don’t want him thinking about old girlfriends even though I know that’s silly.

As my son was telling me about the photographs that had been in wastebasket, he looked in. “Here they are again,” he said, and he pulled several out.

I was upset and a little bewildered. Why was my father discarding these old photographs?

“I think it was just an accident,” my son said, reading the unhappy look on my face.

No, the first time could have been an accident, but twice in two days seems pretty intentional.

I’ve heard my father say, in very general terms, “I don’t know who’s going to want all this stuff.”

“What are you wondering about?” I’ll ask.

“That Johnny Damon statue,” is a common reply. He went through a period convinced that we needed to take Johnny Damon to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Surely they would want it. 

I’m not so sure.

Maybe he was thinking that no one would want these old photographs.

I looked at the most recent batch pulled from the garbage. They were all taken in Seligman, Arizona, in 1924.

The story goes that my grandfather and some friends had driven a car across the country in 1924, stopping in towns along the way to sell advertising on the side of the car and work for a short stint to earn money for the next leg of the journey.

Here’s my grandfather.  He is a handsome fellow.

This is the Harvey House where I think they stayed. I know that because my grandfather was very good about writing words on the backs of photographs to identify the picture.
Except he didn’t identify this one but I think it’s him and his friend and the car and a roadside picnic.

I’ll have to ask my uncle or my aunt.

My father’s memory is dwindling.

And his thinking is muddy.

Otherwise, I doubt he would have thrown out the pictures.

In any event, they’re safe now.

It’s like I never made a sound

I was scribbling times and notes to myself on my meet program when I heard two boys talking behind me. Despite the loudness of the pool area — the splash of water, coaches yelling, parents cheering — their conversation caught my attention.

“You know, the water isn’t wet until you touch it,” said one.

“What are you talking about?” asked the other.

“The water isn’t wet until you touch it,” the first boy repeated.

“It’s always wet,” said the second boy.

“Nope, not until you touch it,” said the young metaphysicist.

I quickly wrote the quote into my program so I would remember it.

That conversation reminded me of a Dear Evan Hansen song which then ran through my head for the rest of the day. The song, Waving Through a Window, had nothing to do with water or wetness, but had everything to do with metaphysics of perception, but on a deeper level.

Evan Hansen had taken the classic question — if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? — and morphed into a question of something more.  The original question really is: can something exist without being perceived? That’s exactly what my young swimmers were discussing. Is water wet if no one touches it?

The question Evan Hansen asked was: when you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around, do you ever really crash or even make a sound?

The whole song is sad, about being on the outside looking in and never really feeling like you belong.

It’s about the pain and insecurity of being vulnerable, and so choosing not to participate in society.

It’s about isolation.

Sometimes I think about the hidden-ness of what I do. Nobody sees the dishes, the laundry, the putting away of books and papers that will be gotten out again tomorrow by a man who doesn’t remember. Nobody sees the toilet cleaning or the sheet washing or the cleaning of unmentionables in unmentionable places.

People see me at the store. They ask how my father is doing, and I hesitate in my answer. He mixes up the Jumbles and puts wrong answers in the crossword. He makes comments that make me blush, or make me upset, but ultimately remind me that he grew up in a different era. He needs help finding things — his wallet, his hearing aids, his pens — and I help him.

But when someone asks how he’s doing, all those things run through my mind and I say none of them.

Yesterday a woman placed her hand on my arm while I hesitated. “I know,” she said. “I know.”

And I knew that she knew.

If you are a caregiver and never tell people all the things you do, it doesn’t mean you don’t do them.

Like the tree crashing in the forest, people who have heard that sound know that it exists. Other caregivers know what goes on in the home.

I believe that water is wet even before I touch it, and that trees make a sound when they fall, and that when people struggle, even if nobody sees them, the struggle is still real.

That thought is a comfort to me.

And reminds me to be kind.


Taking a page from Osyth‘s playbook — I used  a line from the song for my post title.