Sunday, August 31, 2014

MICHAEL PALMER HEAVEN BOUND

There is a picture that is tucked away in my mind, and diffuses all the way down to my heart.  I write these words to keep it there. Yesterday, after we had gathered in the narrow room marked “Palmer Family” on the 4th floor ICU at the U of U Hospital, after we had embraced and reminisced and told Michael stories, laced with laughter and tears and more laughter; after the doctor had come in to explain the unsurvivable damage to his brain; after we had two by two made our way through the large loud doors into the ICU, down to the room where Michael lay uncharacteristically still, surrounded my machinery; after his faithful dog Buddy had been smuggled in, had leapt onto Michael’s bed and laid calmly and comfortably atop the little man’s body; after innumerable hugs were given, to him, to each other…after all this Kelli and Cristy and Jamie asked if I would sing a song before I left.  My guitar was there in the corner of the family waiting room and of course I agreed.  We wept together as the music came, holding hands and clutching hearts.  Cindy, down the hall with Michael, asked if I would come down and sing for them in his room. 


I walked into that sacred space, the love so thick you could almost hold it in your hand like a soft snowball. Cindy lifted her head from Michael’s chest, and said,
‘”Do you know you are my hero?” I paused for a minute, surprised at her words.  “Well, that’s kind of ironic cuz right now I’m thinking you are my hero.” I said.
And then there was a slight pause.
“No, she said, Do you know the song you are my hero?”
We had a good laugh, and then I tried to find the place in my brain where the song Wind Beneath My Wings might have been stored a number of years ago.
I suspect some musical angel whispered the chords and words to me, because really, I don’t know how to play that song.  But I did play it.  And I was glad it came somewhat freely because this is where the indelible picture is emblazoned in my head. 

It’s a scene of a boy,  really a man in a boy’s body, and the women who adore him.  They surrounded him like ministering angels.  Cristy, and Jamie, and Kelli, his aunts…and of course his mother…his champion…his confidant and first love.  My fingers stroked the strings of my guitar as I watched. Kisses upon kisses fell all over his tiny head, down his arms, kisses and more kisses, sparkling against his soft warm skin under the sheen of their tears. I saw in that snapshot of a moment 27 years of adoration, of strength, of patience and tolerance and selflessness all gathering into that one place where true love circled and circled like electrons around an atom, and central to it all was Michael.  Dear, sweet, funny, mischievous, nose pinching Michael - encircled and enfolded by the women in his life.

It took massive amounts love to make him remain here, those twenty-seven years ago… love and determination and perseverance, intelligence and drive. He spent the first four years of his life in an ICU. When a family has used those traits for so long it is a hard thing to change course and let go.  And yet, call it the grace of God, I witnessed in reverence the tender beauty of these magnificent women whispering their love to him, sending him off with dignity and passion, so there would be no doubt of their love, their trust, and their devotion.

A similar scene had played out earlier that afternoon, with Randy and Michael’s brothers-in-love huddled around his bed.  Such devotion and unity is palpable.


We know the days ahead will have their heaviness.  There will be moments of silence where his voice would have swirled in the conversation.  There will be pangs in the heart when you drive by a Lost Dog poster nailed to some telephone pole.  But there will also be an undeniable shift in the air, now and then, as if a breeze came out of nowhere.  You will straighten up your ears and your shoulders will rise, and it might not be till later that night when you whisper your thoughts to God that you realize the slight lightness of being was not a result of nature; you’ll know it was something more familiar.  It will have been your boy, laughing in his heaven place, blowing you kisses, telling you to lift your arms so he can be the wind beneath your wings.

Monday, July 21, 2014

HURON CALLING

Although the day is overcast, and when I look to the sky I could not tell you right-off exactly where the sun is situated, I know it is there because its light is glistening on the ripples pulsing against the shores of Lake Huron outside our cottage window.  And, further evidence, I can see it shimmering through the underbellies of the leaves of these tall old maple trees that shade the cottage, emerald and chartreuse and deep forest greens clapping against each other.  There is a slight Michigan breeze whispering through the flora, discussing the matters of nature with the lapping of the waves, a language familiar to my history.  Their discussion makes me feel like an outlier, gratefully ignored by these ancient waters, these dependable winds and eternally shifting sands. 

Dave and I returned to our Michigan cottage yesterday, having driven from Utah by way of a Utah Bar convention in Snowmass CO.  We arrived just after midnight, our car slowing as we passed the cottages to the south of us, keeping watch for the streetlight hanging over the singing bridge, the marker that our cottage was eminent. The large evergreen in the front of the cottage has been cut down, giving the front a nice sense of balance, and more space for our car to park.  Our car doors opened to the sound of Huron calling, her rhythmic hum like a heartbeat, throbbing out there in the darkness.  Coming to the cottage is a sensory renewal, like we are called back to a dream where rest is rejuvenating and not just a break from being awake; the thunk of our footsteps against the boardwalk, the slapping of the screen door, the scent, undefinable but absolutely exact, of the cottage when you first enter.  A rush of memory, a tug and pang of recollection of Dave’s mother and  father who brought us here and whose spirits whisper to us to keep returning. 
My mother-in-law's d├ęcor, over twenty years old now, is timelessly fresh and cozy and oh so inviting. Red gingham love seats and soft enfolding easy chairs, rocking like mothers in church on a lazy Sunday morning.  Warm, golden hardwood floors, reflecting the patterns of light that stream through stacks of windows.  Crisp white cupboards in the kitchen, accommodating ceiling fans twirling overhead, as if they were children on the merry-go-round in the park, moving the soft July air over our skin.  
A lovely bank of glass doors and windows, six of them, line the back of the cottage, framing the lake and the trees and the sparkling spanse of beach where next week our grandchildren will disturb the sand and lift their voices against the music of the waves and the wind.  They will play until their bellies are churning with hunger, then they will follow the scent of Michigan baked beans trailing through the screen doors.  They will politely refuse the beans, begging instead for macaroni and cheese and a large weeping glass of cold milk.  Anna Bella will remind us that tonight we will have fresh corn on the cob, with Amish butter, and I will ask her how in the world she is going to eat that corn with her two front teeth missing.  She will smile her toothless smile and giggle, pulling her lip with her finger and declaring that she will use her back teeth.  Joe will scream because his Auntie Kate is bringing him up from the beach, whining and wiggling until he sees the noodles and the milk, then he will crawl into his high chair and chow down, wondering how someone knew he was hungry when even he didn’t know. Timothy will eat quietly, wishing his cousins were here, thinking about making little snips of movies with them down there in the sand, forcing himself to not think so much about it because the missing them hurts.  He will think instead about borrowing the Doyle’s kayaks and taking a row with his mom or dad or auntie Kate, or his Gumpa will remind him that they will go golfing tomorrow morning.  Then he will listen to the music that is always running through his head and he will gobble his mac and cheese contentedly.
But that is all to come.  Today I am here with the man I love, in this place I love.  He is downstairs, preparing for a conference call with a couple attorneys.  I am tucked into this easy chair my mother-in-law sat in over twenty years ago, rocking to the rhythm of the waves, my fingers clicking away at this keyboard, trying to hold on to a moment in time. There are chocolate drop cookies on the counter,  There is a bluebird on the railing of the deck in front of me, and a squirrel paused halfway up a tree just past the bird.  His tail waves, creating a repetition of question marks, as if to say…”Are you coming?  Are you coming?” 
“I’m already here.” I whisper.  I’m already here.




Sunday, April 20, 2014

46. TRIUMPH

Here, at the end of this Lenten Season, on the eve of Easter, I am drawn to the memory of people whose lives have crossed mine in meaningful ways.  So many of them, so that the crossings have created a tightly woven fabric that wraps itself like a warm blanket around my spirit.  There are no accidental crossings. I truly believe this.  

This last chunk of time has been filled with profound comings and goings.  We have fresh new spirits among us: grandbabies Joe, and Beth and fresh-from-Heaven Walter, and a new little angel prepares for the journey in our niece, Katie. Woven into these fresh new fibers are old ones, where the threads wear thin and disappear. The upper layer of my earthly existence is gone now.  My parents and my husband's parents are dead.  And there are those who are contemporaries, and some even younger, who have skipped up to heaven, some of them taking two or three steps at a time so that they arrived way too early.  
I am reminded of my friend Cindy Gardner, who left us weeks ago.  The other day I was going through a drawer in my bedroom and I came upon this sign, tucked into a plastic bag.  I had made this banner a few years back, after Cindy had lost her breast, and lost her hair, and yet found her health after walking through the deep valley of the shadow of death.  She took that distressing path and rose up triumphant! My sister Libby took Cindy to every single chemo appointment, both three years ago when cancer first reared its ugly head, and this past 18 months, when it plunged its deadly sword too deep for the body to survive. But that first go round, when Cindy's oncologist told her she was cancer free, we had great cause to celebrate.  I strung this banner across Cindy's garage door.


CINDY  TRIUMPHS!


Because I am a keeper of things, especially sentimental ones, I kept the sign.  I had hoped to string it across her garage door once again, hoping against all odds that there would be a miracle drug that would save her, or that the Lord would touch her with his divine finger and heal her.  We both knew He could have done that.  But she knew, somehow, that He would not.

I remember hearing Cindy's daughter, Meg, at her high school graduation, the day they declared that Cindy's cancer was back and would be terminal…I remember Meg saying "It isn't fair!"

And I remember Cindy agreeing with her.  And with a face as calm as a summer morn she explained:  It is not supposed to be fair.  If life were fair it would be a shame, because then we would none of us get to wear the custom made suits the Lord designed for us.  Do you think God would give his most precious creations a one-size-fits-all experience?  No, life is not fair, and hooray for that!

Then with dignity and grace, with trust that overshadowed fear, Cindy took that walk through the gate, leaving her cherished ones behind.  What a courageous thing.

So now I lay this banner on her grave, true as it was the day we strung it across her garage door. She fought the good fight, and though she…like all of us…was not without blemish, she gets to go Home.  Home…where no one can enter with blemish.  There lies the magnificent gift this Easter season celebrates.  He cleanses us.  Only He can do it, because only He is without blemish.  
Because He triumphed…
So can we.

A blessed Easter to all.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

45. ACRONYM

When we were kids our mom used to say, when it got a little hectic at her house with seven kids running around: "Unnecessary noise is rude!"  One day when we  drying dishes in the kitchen on Old Clairton Road George was making some sort of racket, so I said UNIVR! Short for Unnecessary Noise Is Very Rude.  It stuck, and to this day you will hear any one of us calling out the family acronym, UNIVR, whenever someone is making annoying sounds. We have a number of family acronyms, some worth sharing and others…well, not.

I'm reminded of a couple acronyms that mean something to me.  One comes from my friend, Bob Pegritz, and the other from my daughter, Annie.

IPOY
"Fred used to end his show with 'I like you just the way you are.'  It took me about 50 years to be able to say it and mean it.  Fred never said that with any exceptions, he lived it. " My friend Bob spoke with that reverential tone in his voice, the one he uses when he talks about his musical heroes, and Jesus.

Fred… of course… was Fred Rogers.  The gentle soul of many a child's safe place. Creator of Mr Roger's Neighborhood, wearer of comfy cardigans and tie up tennis shoes.  Friend to Daniel Tiger and Mr. McFeely and so many others who graced the screens of generations of televisions.  And a friend of my friend, Bob.

Bob Pegritz is a gifted whistle player, among other things.  But before I knew him he was a surgical nurse. After a few years of military service during the Vietnam War, Bob attended Physicians Assistant School.  He was hired, after graduation, to work as a surgical assistant at the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA.  One day, as Bob was attending to a young patient, the boy queried, "I heard that tomorrow you’re going to open my chest with a big saw to fix the hole in my heart. Is that right?” The question was so frank that it stunned Bob, and he didn’t now how to respond. Instead of answering, he told the young boy that he had to go deal with an emergency and he would be right back. In his white lab coat and scrubs he crossed the street to the building which housed the television  Broadcast Station WQED channel 13.  Out of breath, he told the receptionist in the lobby  "I need to talk to Fred Rogers."

She quickly opened a door and returned with a panicked gentleman, long and lean, wearing a soft wool sweater.  "What's wrong?"  He asked, his eyes focused on Bob.
"I’d like to talk to you about this child." Bob responded.
Fred said, “One of my kids?”
"No. One of my patients over at the Children's Hospital. He has a question and I don't now how I should answer him. "
Fred put his hands on Bob’s shoulders and said “Do you realize the picture you are presenting by standing in a lab coat and scrubs, what worries that creates for me?"  Fred had worried that something had happened to one of his children. "Oh, no! I'm sure your kids are just fine." Bob apologized.

True to form, instead of turning his back on Bob, Mr. Rogers asked: "Now that you’re here, and you have my attention, what can I do for you."

"What do I say to a boy who asked me if we were going to saw open his chest?"

Fred answered, in no hurry.  With his gentle words he told Bob, "You cannot lie to this child.  By doing that you will have lost your trustworthiness and integrity.  He needs to trust doctors.  Reply yes, but you will be asleep, and you will be sore when you wake up, but in the end you will be fine.  And tell him you got that from me.  And one more thing, take him up to the operating room and show him where he will be going.  Do it tonight, so in the morning it will be familiar.  De-mistify the operating room."
At the end of the conversation Fred asked Bob if there was anything else he could do for him.  Bob, daring as it may have been, asked if there was any way he could hold King Friday.  So back on the set, Fred tucked noble old King Friday over his hand and held him up near the castle:
"Hello, Bob Pegritz.  How are you today?"

The next day Bob helped sew up the hole in that boy's heart, and he filled that pumping heart with trust.
Bob was 23. On Fred Roger's advice he began taking young patients to the operating room the night before surgeries.  The nursing staff at Children’s Hospital, to this day, takes children to the operating rooms the night before surgery.
Thus began a lifelong conversation between Bob Pegritz and Fred Rogers. There were many comings and goings across that street in Pittsburgh, PA. Bob was medical advisor for Fred Rogers special Mr. Rogers Talks to Children with Cancer.  Through the years Bob and Mr. Rogers wrote letters back and forth. Bob has 39 letters from Fred Rogers, each one hand written.  Fred signed each letter with a four letter acronym, followed by his name:
 IPOY,  Fred.

I asked Bob what IPOY meant.

I’m Proud of You.

ILYMTYCEI

Words being repeated so often that they become acronyms are endearing. Mr. Rogers' IPOY reminds me of our own ILYMTYCEI, which began years ago with our youngest daughter, Annie.

My Annie, of the tender heart, has a tendency to worry a bit.  Always has.  Bless her tender heart. She worried at the simplest things, her imagination fooling with her.  If Dave and I were going out on a date, she would stand at the garage door and watch us as we pulled out.

"Be careful!  Don't get in a wreck!  I Love You More Than You Could Ever Imagine!"  She stood there with her hand thrust in the air, her fingers forming the American Sign Language symbol for I Love You! Dave put the car in reverse and we both held the same hand signal as we pulled away.
Annie had, and still has, a deep need to express her love.  Her fears of loss make her a bit too anxious.  I have other children with the same anxieties.  It makes them especially loving, but it also makes them hurt more than they should.  I would wish the fears away, but then it would take away their sweetness too, so I pray for them to find peace despite fear.

Annie's continual use of the phrase "I Love You More Than You Could Ever Imagine" became a standard salutation in our house.  Eventually I began signing all my letters ILYMTYCEI, followed often by a simple "m." for Mom.

I have been blessed, or cursed (Blursed) with a powerful imagination.  Four of our children inherited that blurse.  They are gifted artists and musicians and thinkers and writers and creators.  I can imagine deep, deep love.  I can feel it, too.  Annie's suggestion that she could possibly love me more than I can imagine is quite…well, unlikely.  And yet, I suppose it is true.  Because what we think we know of love is encapsulated in our human experience.  And yet we are more than human.  Like the old adage, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience." Love is deeper than my conscious mind can fathom, and what I know of it is strangely more than what my experience and my imagination combined can conjure.  Love is ancient.  I suspect it is the most familiar of all emotions to our spirits. ILYMTYCEI is likely true, for all of us.

It is very late here, as I write this night, this Good Friday.  Dave and I are in Spokane helping Annie and her family move into their new house.  Kate has flown in from Houston to help as well.  We've been laboring all day, and we are exhausted. The household is sleeping.  I can hear love breathe.  In my tiredness I think of Peter, James and John falling asleep at the gate of the Garden, despite Jesus specifically asking them to keep watch.  I ache for Peter, James and John.  I don't think their weariness was an indicator of their love.  I hope not.  It was a reminder for them, and for all of us, that we are human and by nature must fight to recall our divinity. I imagine their regret.  

I imagine the events unfolding, their Friday night ending with a scene on the cross; the profound sorrow, the immense physical pain, the spiritual intensity,  the juxtaposition of full knowledge and ignorance, the ironies and the agonies. Inscribed on the cross, above the head of the Savior of the World, were letters meant to mock him.  And yet they were the truth. A simple acronym:


INRI . "Jesus the Nazarene.  King of the Jews".

He is king over all, whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not.  Doesn't matter. King over all. But somehow, each of us takes Him individually for our own.  On a most personal level, He is mine alone, and in my imagination I see these letters, hammered into the cross:

ILYMTYCEI
I Love You More Than You Could Ever Imagine.

One day, when this is all my past and all that is left of me are words, I imagine with my grandest imagining that He will give me a hug, a real warm one like I think He would, and while He holds me close He whispers in my ear, " IPOY."





Thursday, April 17, 2014

44. ERASER

Remember when we were little and it was, like, the coolest thing to be selected to clean the erasers in school?  It happened to me more than once.  I loved it!  You got to go into that deep closet down the hall where they stored the linoleum floor polisher.  There were boxes of garbage bags there, and stacks of those little toilet papers that fold into each other, and a shelf full of cleanser next to the mops.  Back behind the garbage can on wheels was the electric eraser cleaner.  You got to flick the switch on the back and the thing started to vibrate, the bag attached to it filling up like a big blue balloon.  The long velvety erasers that were carried down in a bin went gliding into the trough, chalk dust jiggling down and being sucked into the blue bag as your hand guided each one through. You knew your teacher trusted you if she allowed you to go into that dark closet and turn on that metal monster vibrating machine.

Being chosen to clean the erasers was a step down from the ultimate fifth grade teacher assignment, the Big Kahuna of positions: Safety Patrol.
Safety Patrol kids got to wear belts that strapped across the chest and waist.  Neon orange with strips of silver reflector, and a heavy metal badge that looked like a bonafide police badge.  It wasn't until late spring of my last year in Elementary school that I was finally chosen for the Safety Patrol.  I could hardly contain my excitement, though of course no one would ever know that, because by fifth grade it is required that all enthusiasm be squelched beneath the facade of "no big deal." Secretly, though, I felt my heart pumping when Mrs. Jackson handed me my badge and the orange strap.  I nodded my head as she reviewed my responsibilities. I was to aid the crossing guard, and make sure the little kindergarteners and first graders didn't run out into the street when school was out.  I had to stay until the second bell rang, and was to be at the school early in the morning all week, before the kids with rich parents started dropping them off at school. The poor kids all walked.  And we came early to play on the playground before the bell rang.
That whole week I could not play.  I had to maintain the dignity of my position, keeping an eye on the monkey bars, walking the perimeter of the building making sure there were no robbers or other criminals sneaking around. When the first bell rang  knew I had five minutes.  Five eternal minutes before I got to do it… the thing that commanded the attention of all souls on the Pleasant Hills Elementary School playground.  Finally…four minutes and 59 seconds later…Riiiing. Finally  I got to blow my whistle! The emotional release was stunning! I laid into the cold metal in my mouth with all the air an eleven year old's lungs could contain. Can you believe they gave us whistles!?  And can you believe we actually only used them when we were told?  Maybe this is why I was only on the Safety Patrol once.  I don't recall.  I only know it was amazing, and I felt amazing.

I'm trying to figure out how they made it so cool for kids to do chores like clean erasers.  Seriously.  If I could package the trick I would be famous!  (And my house would shine!)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

43. PENNY

Dave slid the slender edge of his credit card along the slot  at the check out counter, signed his name in one continuous line, and pushed the shopping cart out the doors of the grocery store and across the parking lot. He paused while I kept walking, bending over to pick up a penny.  As we approached the car he tucked the coin in his pocket and smiled.
"Pennies on the street always make me think of Fred," he said, loading the bags into the back seat.
"Really?" I responded, "How come?"

Fredrick Volcansek receives the Bronze Star from his father.
Fred is an old friend, a true friend, one with whom we can settle down into a heart to heart discussion even if we haven't seen each other for years.  He and his wife Gailyn lived next door to us at the old house.  Fred is a hard working patriot, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, whose professional history includes positions in Presidential cabinets and other interesting, emotionally and financially  taxing experiences.  Fred and Gailyn live in Clifton, Texas now, where Fred serves as the city's mayor. David, as an attorney, represented Fred through a variety of situations, some sweet and successful and others not so much.

One day Dave was walking down the sidewalk in downtown Salt lake City with Fred.  Fred bent down and picked up a stray penny. Holding it out in front of them, he told Dave that he makes himself always respect the penny.  It was his way of reminding himself that tiny little things matter, that we all begin and return to small singular things.  As they walked on, Fred said something else that has always stuck with Dave.
"You know," he said, "even when I didn't have a penny to my name, I always felt it was important to keep my shoes polished."

Whether or not it was a habit developed in the Marines, it made a statement about our friend. It spoke of self respect, of dignity, of hard work and appreciation.

My mom always used to say:
"Soap is cheap."
By that she meant, while you may not have the means to purchase fancy new clothing, or coif your hair at a salon, or have your fingernails manicured, you can still be clean, and wear clean clothes, and trim your nails.

Mom and Fred were cut from the same clean cloth.

I better understand now why David, at least once a week, carries his father's old wooden shoe shine kit out to the kitchen table.  He rubs wax on and polishes it off his church and office shoes and his work shoes. The aroma of shoe wax permeates the house for a couple hours.  I could not understand why he would go to such effort for his work shoes, the ones he wears to work in the garage and to chop down trees in the back yard. That was before he told me about Fred, and the penny, and Fred's shiny shoes.

I can see now why David's shoes last so long.  He's not just polishing them for appearances, though there is that.  He is respecting the leather that protects his feet.

And he's remembering Fred.