Saturday, October 21, 2017

More Things in Heaven and Earth

My husband Rick has been gone for almost four years now, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw him walk out of the men’s room on the sixth floor of the James Tower one afternoon a few weeks ago. That’s the cardiology floor at the Cherry Hill campus of Swedish Hospital.
You know how it is. Someone you love dies, and you’re out in public somewhere, and you see someone, and for a gasp of a moment you think you’re seeing the departed person. Then you realize, no.
The resemblance was extraordinary – this man was dressed in the uniform that Rick often wore: jeans, long sleeved shirt with a vest, baseball cap, glasses. He had a mustache. He was kind of a wiry guy, about Rick’s height. It was as if Central Casting had sent over a Rick Tuel type.
It turned out that he and I were the only ones waiting for the down elevator, and I looked at him maybe a nanosecond longer than you’re supposed to look at a stranger. Just making sure he didn’t really look like Rick, despite the glasses and the mustache, though the similarities were a little eerie.
The elevator came and we got in and as we faced forward he said, “I see my cardiologist every six months, need it or not.” He went on to say he’d had two stents put in eighteen years ago, and they were working fine.
People got on at different floors. He kept talking, about this and that.
The elevator got to the lobby, and as we walked out he said, “My wife died in August.”
It took a few seconds for me to click that he meant this August, about five weeks before this encounter. Now I knew why we were talking. I told him my husband died about four years ago.
We stopped in the lobby and he kept talking. He told me that he and his wife had gone on a wonderful trip to Greece this summer. They got home a couple of weeks before she died.
“I’ll always have those beautiful memories,” he said.
 He mentioned the name of his church, and I realized that he was an Episcopalian, as am I. I asked him if he knew a priest there whom I know, and he said, yes, that was the priest at his wife’s committal, which means burial for you non-Episcopal types.
At some point I wondered what his name was, and “Brian” floated into my mind. “Hush, silly brain,” I thought.
He told me about the homeless dinner where he volunteers once a month, and how he’d learned that not all homeless people are drunks or addicts, and many people didn’t want to volunteer there because they didn’t realize that.
He talked about all the many, many plans he had. He has learned five languages, and he’s going to volunteer to help people in several countries because he knows the languages. He signed up for a night class on Mondays. He has five degrees. He was in the Navy for forty years. He and his wife were married for forty-one years.
“She had an aneurysm,” he said.
He pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his wife. She was smiling. She had dark hair and was wearing a red tunic and dark pants. He showed me pictures from their trip to Greece. He told me her name. He told me his name was Brian.
I flinched a little, but tried not to show it.
When we felt it was time to move on, as you do, we walked toward the door.
He said, “I was blindsided.”
I said, “Yes, you were, but no one is ever ready.”
Outside we waved good-bye and went our separate ways.
When your spouse dies you’re simply screwed and there’s nothing you can do about it, and you never get over it and it changes you forever. I didn’t tell him that. He’ll figure it out. I was grateful to be there to listen to someone in the early throes of a grief I know all too well. I remember with gratitude how kind people were to me right after Rick died, and ever since, for that matter.
God (or whatever you call it – I did not come here to argue) used an extremely effective way to get my attention: Oh, look. There’s my dead husband. That part felt a little bit woo-woo.
But having the man’s name float into my head from nowhere? That was beyond woo-woo.
Occasionally, I get a reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth than we know or understand, and I would be wise to have a little humility about that.
Roger that, Lord.

Hope Takes a Break

This has been a rough week in America. It started last Sunday night with a man using semi-automatic weapons to mow down over five hundred people at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Fifty-eight people died. Fifty-nine, counting the shooter, who took himself out before he could be caught.
It is difficult to recover from a shock like that, even if you weren’t in the crowd, or related to or acquainted with any of the people who were there or who were shot.
There is no reason to it. The guy snapped a long time ago, and stayed snapped while he meticulously planned and prepared to do what he did.
How do we live through such an event, which makes no sense, and hurts so many?
I’ve been doing it by paying attention to the ordinary.
My morning routine is almost always the same: Get up, make coffee, have breakfast. Say prayers, write in my journal.
 If it’s a pool day, I go there.
Yesterday was a pleasant day, not too hot, so I took the dog along.
As I drove I noted that Mt. Rainier was wearing a slender lenticular cloud at a jaunty angle on its northeastern slope.
Because it was sunny, I parked in the shade at the Athletic Club so Marley wouldn’t get hot in the car. I opened the windows as wide as I dared, so she wouldn’t be tempted to jump out. I opened the sunroof as well. I put a sunshield up in front of my windshield to block any sun that hit the car. I put a bowl of water on the back seat in case she needed a drink, told her she was a good dog, and went to my class, confident my precautions would keep her cool.
When I came back from my water walking class a little over an hour later, Marley was lying in the back seat shivering. Poor puppy. I took too many precautions. Summer really is over.
I draped my jacket over her to warm her up, and took her up to Sunrise Ridge so the two of us could walk around. I could see Mt. Rainier from up there. By that time the lenticular cloud had circled the entire peak.
I picked up dog poop. That is one of the most ordinary things a person can do. By the way, whoever is putting poop bags in the poop bag holder at Sunrise Ridge, THANK YOU. YOU ROCK.
The dog browsed and cavorted around to her heart’s content, and then asked to get back in the car, and we came home, her to have some treats and nap a little and bark at noises which only she hears; me to have lunch and work on writing this essay.
That was my ordinary morning.
I did not spend it obsessively thinking about the Las Vegas shooter and his victims; or the destruction of entire islands and cities by hurricanes; or our so-called president who seems incapable of making sense. I sometimes watch him to see what cognitively dissonant thing he’s up to now, but not often, because it hurts. I know in general what to expect but am amazed at his capacity for creating heretofore undreamed-of witlessness.
This afternoon I went to the library to get some books, and while I was there I read a newspaper article about the Las Vegas shooting. Still no motive, say the investigators, “But we’ll find it.”
The story has moved from the front page to page 3. No one ever went broke underestimating the American attention span.
It is easy to lose hope for a better world in times like these. It is easy to feel like faith is letting you down. I look for things to connect me with reality: the unexpected red rose blooming this late in the year; the lenticular cloud on the mountain; the way my dog communicates with me with her puppy eyes, or the nudge of a nose, or the touch of a paw.
How many human beings down through the millennia have been in situations that felt hopeless?
Think how the Apostles felt the night Jesus was crucified. They must have felt well and truly lost.
We are living in a Good Friday time. We don’t know yet when or what Easter is coming, but we live in the faith of Christ resurrected, and we keep putting one foot in front of the other.
For those of you offended or put off by Christian metaphors: things suck right now, but even if you do nothing but wait, things will change, maybe worse, maybe better. We don’t know. But it is worthwhile sticking around and working for better.

Living with Vietnam

I’ve been watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part film about Vietnam on PBS. It is unsatisfying, and not only because the experience as we lived it fifty years ago was a nightmare.
Perhaps it is because so many things in our country, including this documentary, are paid for by people like the Koch brothers and the Bank of America, and that has influenced the telling of the story.
What is the old saying? The winners write history?
Perhaps because it tells a story that is not my story, or your story. It tells the stories of a few people, and I think Burns and Novick mean to illustrate the whole war in the stories of these few, but I don’t think they succeed.
Do not watch it if you don’t like pictures of dead bodies. The documentary shows piles of dead Vietnamese and Americans, on the ground, on tanks, on armored personnel carriers, carried in bags and in tarps, carried on stretchers or without stretchers or on soldiers’ backs; scattered in fields and in puddles, lying alongside paths in the jungle. I have never seen so many corpses in my life. Broken bloody dolls, formerly human beings and pieces of human beings. The pictures bring home the brutality of that war.
Of all wars.
And those are the guys whose bodies weren’t blown into a pink mist. Of whom there was something left to send home.
Oh, yeah. Home.
I started college in 1965 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the most conservative of the California state schools. How conservative was it? In 1968-9, when San Francisco State was shut down for five months by the strike of the Black Students and the Third World Liberation Front, Cal Poly was considered the safest place for then Governor Ronald Reagan and the UC Board of Regents to meet. The first I knew of it was when I saw a policeman wearing a baby blue helmet and carrying one of those yard-long truncheons.
He looked bizarrely out of place to me. Such force was overkill at Cal Poly – sure, there was a small crowd of protesters, twenty or thirty maybe, but there was another group of students that presented Governor Reagan and the Regents with a welcome letter. They expressed their thanks and appreciation for the fine job the Governor and the Regents were doing. There was a nice article about it in the school newspaper afterward.
In those years the draft and the draft lottery were on everybody’s mind. You cannot exaggerate how large it loomed in  our lives. A young man never knew when he might be drafted and sent off to die, so many young men lived in fear until they got a low lottery number, or a deferment, or failed their physical, or joined some other branch of the service where they thought they’d have more control of their destiny than they would in the Army infantry.
A couple of the draftees I knew came back from Vietnam broken, angry, and bitter, unable to make eye contact. To them I suppose I was this airhead girl who had no idea, and looking at those piles of corpses I suppose they were exactly right.
Some vets drank. Some came home addicted to heroin. Some smoked dope, which they’d started smoking in Vietnam. Grass was easy to get in Vietnam. Rick said it came aboard his ship with the mail. The postmaster was a popular guy.
My husband Rick was a blue water Navy veteran of Vietnam. He was on Yankee Station, North SARS (Search and Rescue) in the Tonkin Gulf, on the USS King. Their job was to pick up pilots who came out of North Vietnam and ditched in the Gulf.
Rick always had a soft spot for John McCain because McCain was shot down and taken prisoner while the King was on station. McCain never had a chance of getting out to the Tonkin Gulf, but his plane’s distress signal was heard, so they knew on the King that he’d gone down.
I feel like I’ve lived with the Vietnam war all my adult life. I didn’t go to war, but I’ve lived with and around guys who did, and their whole lives and in many cases their deaths were deeply affected by the war.
People are still dying because they were in Vietnam.
I guess I’ll keep watching the Vietnam documentary, to see where it goes, but if it is meant to provide healing to our sad old country, I am not feeling it. I confess that I did have hopes. Oh well. Not that many quick fixes in this life, are there?
Blessings on you.