Daring to Hope Boldly, Defiantly, & Against All Seen Reality or: Sounds Like a Personal Problem.
My neighbor, Kay, is transferred to a nursing home after her hospital stay, a surprisingly spacious room but one with a roommate who has dementia and cries at night, Kay has told us before. She lifts a hand weakly when we enter and seems to wave to us as we pass by to see Kay on the other side of the curtain, but in the back of my mind I wonder if the wave was really a reaching-out, a plea. Kay is sitting up, taking intermittent sips of tepid chicken soup out of a styrofoam cup. Her nightgown with its laced collar and sleeves is bunched up around her body, a body freckled and crippled and tired. Sown perishable, raised imperishable.
I sit down on her walker and we talk and she tells me of the rocky ride to the pulmonologist’s office, where he said she still had something lingering in her lungs and he would need to see her again and do a CAT scan. The appointment date is scrawled on a post-it note affixed to her closet door: Tuesday, April 9th. She says spring makes her wish she were home so she could have the Bible Detectives club over again for a pizza party on her porch. I remember how the older girls eagerly asked her questions about Japan, their eyes bright with fascination at the presence of a foreigner with an accent in our tiny town.
Suddenly she frowns, looks beyond me: “Where your husband?” she asks. I turn around, surprised that he left without saying anything. But then I see him, just, a few inches of his back, crouched down behind the curtain. I excuse myself from Kay and walk around the opaque white sheet that divides the room. He’s there, on his knees, and Kay’s roommate has his hands clasped in hers and she’s staring intently into his eyes like he’s an oracle, like he is the still point of the spinning world.
Her thin hair is combed back from her face which is a map of hollows and caverns over which almost translucently pale blue-veined skin stretches. Her dentures are out, if she has them, and in her I can see no trace of beauty as the world tells it or even beauty as it perhaps once was in her youth and yet I am suddenly so overwhelmed with a sense of her beauty and the holiness of this moment that tears sting and pearl in my eyes. And she stares and stares and stares at Steven and he stares back. Her fingers are capped by totally incongruous fake acrylic nails painted neon orange and they hold onto his for dear life, his whose fine lines are blackened and stained by the grease that lubricates the wind turbines he climbs every day.
When she speaks it is a high-pitched wail, a melancholy keening like a banshee in lament. I strain to understand her but Steven is practiced now and he tells me she says her name is Carol and that she was a pastor’s wife. An unbearably tender sadness sweeps over me and a memory announces itself, one that’s always haunted me: I was in the third grade and one afternoon Jamie, a handicapped boy who attended our class for two hours or so a day, suddenly and jarringly broke the silence of a roomful of us bent over row upon row of multiplication problems by yelling “I’m sick and tired of myself!” The teacher and the paraprofessional bustled over to calm him as he rocked back and forth and the rest of us bandied between incredulous stares and snickering.
I wonder: was he merely parroting something he’d heard, perhaps from an exasperated parent? Or was he truly sick and tired of himself?
And the memory has always invoked the same tender sadness, I think once because I thought it irredeemably tragic that someone should be thus impaired and the impairment made them somehow less than fully human, but now He gives me eyes to see the truth: the kingdom belongs to such as these, the poor in spirit, the poor in words and friends and beauty and all the riches of the world.
The kingdom is here, in this room that smells of disinfectant, in this communion which the world may see as bizarre, a communion which Steven does not shy away from. I’ve never been more proud of him: he stares, and stares. He never breaks her gaze.
And he listens, listens to the terrible song of that heartbreaking wail as she tries to reach him with words, even though it is hard to be there, in that small partitioned room, listening to her pain and her loneliness.
I see two photos of smiling children standing up on her bedstand in the otherwise sparse room and when I bring them over to her she sings “granddaughter” and “grandson” in turn. And I’m glad she doesn’t see the tears stream down my face because she’s gazing so intently at Steven. Oh, the miracle of fresh wonder in God’s upside down kingdom.
Steven stays with her until the orderly comes in to wheel her out for what we later discover is her social gathering as we pass by them in the hall on the way out, a group of five women in wheelchairs pushed together in a loose circle in the foyer where Steven bends to bid her goodbye and gently takes her hand and kisses it.
But now I go back to Kay, who’s wondering at the activity over there, at her mysterious roommate who cries at night. And then she starts to talk about her daughter, about how she has such difficulty with social niceties and asks bizarre and inappropriate questions.
“She asked Barbara for her Social Security number,” she says as she recounts how Barbara, her housekeeper and good friend, called Sayo to inform her that Kay had been transferred to the nursing home.
“She know how she is, she know she is different.” Kay says, her Japanese accent stumbling over the “f”s. “She knows.” I nod, sadly, unsure of how to respond. Is it a burden or a mercy, the knowing? I can’t guess.
“You know, she say – you wouldn’t have adopted me if you knew I was like this,’” she says, frowning, coloring Sayo’s words with accusation as she recounts them. She shakes her head vigorously, as vigorously as she’s able.
“I tell her no – NO,” she says firmly. She looks down, breathes heavily, struggles to grasp the words because they are in her second language but also because they are hard and heavy and true. “Once you adopt them, you can’t just – “ with great effort she raises a hand and flicks her wrist as though dismissing something or someone. “You can’t just… they are yours. She is my daughter. She belongs to me.”
And suddenly tears are stinging my eyes again. I gulp and swallow and smile and nod even as my brow furrows with the onrush of emotion. Yes, I think. They belong to you, and you to them. It can’t be undone and moreover I would never want it to be.
Lia belongs to us, and we belong to her, ineradicably, our My Little Pony plays and tromps in the woods behind our house and laughter and curses and hard words stamped indelibly on one another, threaded through one another. It is part of us, this imperfect sisterhood, and it can be healed and redeemed and worked for our good, grafted into the tapestry of unfathomable beauty that he is weaving, where even shadows sparkle with light and pain yields its power to the white-hot blaze of His love.
And I marvel at this strange and wondrous currency of adoption, where love is thicker than blood and stronger than death and streams of forgiveness flow even in dark swamps marbled with guilt and regret and betrayal and punches thrown and ugly epithets and especially my own failure to love her well. And the belonging, the deep belonging, is why her secret addiction feels like betrayal at all: she didn’t belong to just herself. We belonged to each other, and even though the belonging was colored with pain it was irradiated with love and love is never wasted and is indeed the most excellent way, the only way that matters in the end.
And I believe it, then. I believe Lia is with Him, that even though she couldn’t easily yield to intimacy in life that she now knows fully and is fully known by Jesus, that there was never a reason to hide or to fear. She belongs.
And the great irony of it all or rather the great stroke of divine genius is that she is adopted by Him: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about our adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15-16) The source of her great pain is the source of her great healing.
But I am back in the here and now, the nursing home room where the blinds let in a pittance of light and the sun-starved orchid I brought Kay is shedding its petals, only one morose-looking bloom hanging on. I help her drink some water and set it close to her on the tray whose arm reaches over her bed. When she gets better and goes home, she says, she wants to have the children over for a pizza party again. I just smile and nod and say “of course” and we say goodbye.
I get the call that she’s died on a Monday night, the night before her pulmonogist appointment, the night before the date that was dashed in red ink on the yellow post-it note.
Friday when I’d visited her again the bruises were back on her arms, blood blooms on wearied flesh, and the oxygen cannula was back in her nostrils, skewed to the right as it always was. I helped her straighten it and her words were labored when she thanked me. She seemed so very tired, her speech weakened and her body more slack than ever against the white of the starched sheets. But she waved me away when I asked if she needed anything before I left.
“They take good care of me here,” she said, with a heaving effort, her Japanese accent still coloring her vowels even after decades in Kansas. I said goodbye and the canned laughter from the episode of Gilligan’s Island playing on her TV followed me out of the room. And then she was gone and yet again death encroached on life, yet again death was no longer an abstract reality but one immediate and vivid and sobering. I sat numbly in the living room after the call with Steven and fumbled for words, all I could venture was “It’s like, I knew people died before Lia did. I knew that.”
“Yeah, but now we know the people who are dying,” he said.
The day after her death I helped sort her things with hesitant hands, feeling like I’m violating her somehow, even though her drawers yield no dark secrets, only fragile feminine exotic things like paper fans laced with gold and flowered origami paper, receipts in Japanese, letters in Japanese. Boxes in the top shelf of her closet yield nothing but a thick shower of dust and old purses.
She still has her husband’s underwear neatly folded and stacked, even though he had died four years ago. The delicate kimonoed Japanese dolls behind glass watch silently over this gentle ransacking, this slow sorting: thrift store, estate sale, keepsakes for her daughter and grandson. And it hits me, the sadness of this cumulative perishable cast of a life, like papier-mache, giving clues and dimensions to this life now gone.
Two days later we leave for Utah to meet my brother and his family. We’re going to scatter my dad’s ashes, or at least the portion he has, the portion not buried next to my sister in the cemetery in Missouri.
Sean and I deliberate about exactly where to shake out the ashes, and how much, each of us trying to pawn off the responsibility of decision-making on the other as we walk down to the river behind our hotel, the crooked path lined with yucca and sagebrush and all manner of prickly cacti eking out an existence from rocky red loam.
We reach the river and stand for a few seconds listening to the hush of the cliffs that rise on either side of us and the timeless easy flow of the river and decide yes, we should shake some into here and let dad flow southward toward the Grand Canyon and save the rest for some yet-to-be-determined spot on the open plains between the mesas.
When I remove the bag of ashes from the small drawstring satchel I’m startled and more than a little dismayed to see it’s an actual Ziplock baggie, the kind with the green and yellow striped seal, and my tears erupt at seeing this remnant of his earthly body, reduced to ash mingled with some tiny white pebbles that I can only assume are bone fragments, but the laughter starts too. And my tears and my laughter are all interwoven and they heighten into something resembling delirium as we fumble with the bag and decide just how much we’re going to offer to the river and just how much we’re going to hold back for another location, and I imagine dad cracking jokes, imagine his great amusement at our shuffling indecision and attempts to be reverent with this sandwich baggie.
He is laughing because, well, it’s funny, but also because he now knows Jesus Christ fully even as he is fully known by Him, no longer bound by the body sown perishable nor the corroded lungs nor the devastation of a lost daughter, because she too is there, she too sees face to face at last.
The ashes alight on the water’s surface and swirl in a frothing eddy before rapidly being subsumed by the current.
“Oh, he definitely would be cracking jokes right now,” Sean says, smiling, as we walk back up the path.
We remember Dad’s favorites from his rich arsenal of expressions, my favorite being “sounds like a personal problem,” which served as a blanket response to a wide array of queries and comments, many of which were not remotely personal in nature:
“I wonder if it’s going to rain today.” Sounds like a personal problem.
“I can’t find my shoes.” Sounds like a personal problem.
“Dad, I need money for gas.” Sounds like a personal problem.
And then, of course, there was his faux-affronted response to you declaring your distaste for any person or even inanimate object:
“Ugh, I hate (random kid from school) / olives / The Mr. Ed Show / Algebra II!” He would draw back in feigned offense and say, “Well, (random kid from school) / olives / the Mr. Ed Show / Algebra II just says the nicest things about you!”
We set out for the Valley of the Gods in a little caravan and as the landscape folds out around us, all wondrous otherworldly eons-striated red and white rock, strange and marvelous formations hewn by the miraculous processes and materials He created and which find their very quiddity, their very isness in Christ, who “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:17) It’s like another planet, an altogether foreign world, and I see at last what Dad saw in it, why he loved it so.
I realize we need a soundtrack, one that he would’ve had, and all I can think to look up in the wide world of Western soundtracks is “Quigley Down Under” and I find the main theme and put it on.
The clarinet has barely begun its moseying tune when fresh sobbing floods me anew. The trombone kicks in with the staccato bass line and then the trumpets sound boldly and the cymbals crash and the strings soar and I’m full-body weeping like it’s the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard and in a way it truly is but when I collect myself a measure I turn to Steven and sob, with a purely affectionate use of the customarily pejorative noun, “He loved this crap.” Steven’s sympathetic mien cracks in laughter and he nods in agreement. “He sure did, honey. He sure did.”
We settle, somewhat arbitrarily, on a site near Monument Valley for the rest of his ashes. But suddenly the scattered clusters of other tourists leave and we’re alone as we walk around a boulder and tip the Ziplock baggie with as much dignity and sanctity as possible.
White ash meets red loam in the hushed shadow of a mammoth mesa, a wonder of God’s patience, and my sister-in-law cries softly and the children leap from rock to rock with their cousin and I wonder: do I dare hope? Do I dare hope for more beyond ashes to ashes, dust to dust, an end of white ash and brittle receipts and needle marks and death the final word?
Yes, I do dare, my heart says defiantly and with gritted teeth (oh, you didn’t know hearts had teeth which could grit and thought I was just clumsily mixing metaphors?). I do dare, even amidst all these endings, I dare when all seen reality screams death and lives end in apparent ruin.
I dare where white ash meets red earth, I dare where last breaths are expelled in a feeble puff of vapor in a nursing home room echoing with M*A*S*H* laugh tracks, I dare where opioids slow lungs to stillness and cigarettes blacken them to waste. I dare even where babies die alone and forsaken, I dare where wombs are bare and eggs rot beneath a broody hen, where death enshrouds hope and we give birth to only wind.
I dare because I know: He has promised good and He is good. Capital-G Good, all-caps GOOD, because His son not only bore all our darkness, bore all our sin, but triumphed over them forever.
And even when this seems impossible to believe, I dare because of the story, the one we tell and retell, because it is the only one that ever feels big enough, the only one both cosmic enough to yield hope among all this darkness and death, all these seemingly finite endings, yet also the only one deeply personal enough to pierce the soul and cause a catch of awe in the breath and sting the eyes with tears.
The mystery stirs anew: what kind of man is this, this Jesus? God himself among us, Immanuel, fully God and fully us, crucified in weakness, risen in irrepressible power and love. He himself is our peace, the Apostle Paul tells us, and I feel it, His presence, the one that pervades my soul with the truth that all is well because however lost I can make myself, however far I choose to wade into the mire of doubt, He is never lost and nothing can separate us. I am His.
I look out ahead of me with the white ash at my feet, past the plain tufted with yucca, toward the fragile-looking formations in the distance that rise heavenward like the rugged spires of some nature-hewn cathedral and think, like Mary Magdalene on Easter, panting and doubled over from her exultant sprint from the empty tomb, the wondrous and impossible words on her tongue: I have seen the Lord.
Do I dare to hope, to keep believing, that nothing is beyond His redemption? Do I dare? Yes, I do. And I dare to say that you should, too.