Twenty-five

October 14th, 2019

Stefan came to the house yesterday. I had gone shopping, and when I came home, I saw his red pick up truck sitting in the garage. The front was up on jacks, and Stefan was struggling to swap out an oil filter. I asked him how he was doing. He replied gruffly,

“Well, I’m try to get this piece of shit off, without getting oil all over the fucking floor, and it’s not going so well. I’m having a hard time here, so if you don’t mind…”

“I’m walking away.”

Stefan grunted as he turned a wrench, and mumbled, “Thank you.”

I went into the house, and I let the dogs out. I found Stefan’s mail (he has most of his snail mail delivered to our house). I put his mail aside, and then I pulled a large plastic container out of the refrigerator. It was full of food for Stefan. He’s been working ten hours a day, six days a week, and he generally hasn’t had time to cook.

I went back out to the garage. Stefan was adjusting the hood latch on his truck with a large, blunt object.

“Uh, so, what are you doing?”

Without looking up. Stefan replied, “I’m hitting something with a hammer. I’m good at this.”

As an Iron Worker, I bet he is good at that.

I mentioned, “Hey, there’s beer, if you want some.”

Stefan shook his head, “No thanks. I did some drinking last night, and I really don’t to have any beer. I opened the refrigerator this morning, saw a six pack, and shuddered.”

He finished fine tuning his latch, and he slammed the hood shut on the truck. He came into the house.

Shocky immediately jumped up on him, her tail wagging in a circle like an airplane propeller. The border collie/lab loves Stefan. He rubbed her neck and got her even more excited.

He gazed at her and said, “She looks good with a bit of a trim. Even with her hair combed out, she is still kind of fluffy.”

I pointed to the kitchen counter. “There is your mail and the stuff I cooked yesterday. The sauce isn’t as thick as I wanted it.”

Stefan picked up the container. “I’m sure it’s okay. I know you make good jambalaya. You always have the right ingredients.”

Stefan looked at me, and said, “Well, yesterday was fucking cold and windy. I spent the day 150 feet above the ground on the lift, measuring to see if the beams were straight. I had on four hoodies, and I was still cold.”

Stefan looked tired and windburned. He has been working on the Foxconn project, a monstrous factory being built on some land about twenty miles from where we live. Stefan is working way up high every day; sometimes bolting beams together, sometimes welding, sometimes doing other things. He is always working outside, except when it’s raining. It takes a lot out of him, and it’s only October. Just wait until winter arrives.

Stefan went on, “It’s almost time to pull out the bibs (overalls).”

Then he frowned and said, “But I don’t want to be the first guy wearing them.”

I nodded, “You don’t want to be the wimp.”

“Nope. Don’t need to catch shit for that.”

Stefan told me, “There is a new guy on the job. I mean I’m still a new guy, but this guy is really new. He’s been with us maybe for two weeks. I’ve been trying to give him some tips, like he should be wearing his tool belt all the time. Things like that.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s okay so far, but he hasn’t dealt much with the assholes. I mean, at the Foxconn site, they’re picky about who works there. Nobody with felony raps. That sort of thing. So, we don’t have any of the real assholes there.  Wait till this newbie meets some of the guys on a rebar team.”

“They’re a little harsh.”

Stefan laughed. “I learned to give as good as I get. If somebody ripped on me, I turned it right around and threw it back at the guy. You got be quick with your responses.”

“No doubt.”

Stefan said, “Sometimes, we play the ‘rain game’. Do you know what that is?”

“No. Tell me.”

“It’s when the forecast calls for rain the next day, so you all go out drinking. You’re betting that the job gets rained out, and that you can sleep in. I’ve lost at that a few times.”

“That sucks.”

“Oh yeah, it does. I won last week. We went to the bar. I woke up in morning at five, thinking: ‘God, I don’t want to go to work’, and then the phone rang. They called us off. Yes!”

“What’s up for the rest of the day?”

“Beth is at my place. I think we’ll warm up the jambalaya.”

“It’s good with rice. Do you have any rice at home?”

“Yeah, I got rice. That will be good. I also got a couple rib eye steaks that have been in the freezer for too long. I think those will get grilled later today.”

“Sounds good. Get some rest.”

Stefan grabbed the food and the mail. “I’ll stop by to do some laundry later. Maybe not today, even though the basket is overflowing with clothes. If I can find even one piece of clean underwear, I’ll wait until tomorrow. See you!”

Stefan pulled out of the garage, and drove away.

Stefan is twenty-five. After he left, I thought back to when I was twenty-five. Back then, I was a helicopter pilot in Germany. I did much of my work way up high. I was dating Karin at the time. I was in the Army, hanging around other crude, testosterone-driven young men. I was doing dangerous work, and generally loving it. I drank a lot. I did many things that were, in retrospect, unwise.

I thought about Stefan. His life today is not all that different than mine was.

I smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sleep

October 12th, 2019

“Ah, how do you sleep?

Ah, how do you sleep at night?”

chorus from “How Do You Sleep” from John Lennon

I don’t sleep well. I haven’t been able to sleep properly for decades. I know that I have had trouble sleeping since I was in the Army, and I left the military way back in 1986. When I was in the Army, it seemed like we were always on call, always on alert. It’s hard to relax if you don’t know if you will be deployed at a moment’s notice. After I got out, I worked for two trucking companies. Twenty-some years of working third shift didn’t help me much either.

Now I’m retired. I still don’t sleep. It is 3:00 AM and I am typing this essay. Our daughter’s dog, Shocky, is lying on the couch, keeping me company. The dog doesn’t sleep well either. I could walk her, but it’s windy and cold outside, and I am not up for it. Maybe later.

People sometimes give me well-meaning, but useless, suggestions about how get a good night’s sleep. They suggest using melatonin or some other medication. Or they tell me to exercise more, or change my diet. None of that seems to work for me. I still wrestle with bad dreams and night terrors. Sometimes, I wake up in the dark with my heart pounding and my Adrenalin pumping. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. At night the dragons and demons come out to play.

Our son, Hans, called me again yesterday. There was an accident at his work site. It scared Hans. It scared him bad. One of the laborers got knocked down by some concrete spraying from the pump. Hans got sprayed with it too. Hans turned away when the concrete was flying toward him. He decided it was better to get hit in the back than in the face. When Hans turned back to look at the laborer, the guy was sprawled out on the ground.

Hans thought he was dead.

The guy wasn’t dead, but he had some minor injuries. Hans was (is) shook up about it all. Hans saw a lot of dead men when he was deployed in Iraq back in 2011. He remembers, and his memories haunt him.

Hans’ employer worked him for almost twenty-four hours again, and and Hans called me after his shift(s), and after the accident on the job. Hans wasn’t at fault for the accident, but he was still there when it happened. That bothers him. That bothers him a lot. It also bothers him that he can’t sleep. He gets called in to work at all hours, and it wears on him.

Hans sleeps fitfully, if at all. He can’t sleep for long because his back is messed up from his time in Iraq. He can’t sleep for long because he has nightmares from the war, and he wakes up not knowing where he is or where his weapon is. Sometimes, Hans has to sleep with his AR-15, as if it was a cold, steel teddy bear. His monsters come to visit whenever he tries to rest.

Hans usually calls me when he is exhausted. A tired young man calls a tired old man. We understand each other, but we can’t do much to help each other. We can only listen.

“How do you sleep at night (brother)?” – John Lennon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Downward Spiral

October 5th, 2019

Hans called today.

I answered the phone and asked him, “Hey, Hans, what’s up?”

He sounded rough, really rough. I could barely understand him. He finally told me,

“I worked twenty-three hours on Friday; I mean yesterday. Then dispatch called me, and told me to come right back in for another job.”

I heard the click of Hans’ cigarette lighter over the phone. He was lighting up yet another Pall Mall. He took a drag, and then he exhaled. He finally said,

“I told them ‘no’. I wasn’t coming in again.”

It got quiet.

I asked Hans, “And then what happened?”

I could hear Hans gulp down some of his Lime-A-Rita (God only knows how many he had already slammed before he decided to call me). Hans sighed and said,

“Well, they told me that I had to come in.”

“And you said…”

“I told them ‘NO’. I was working a job pouring concrete for walls. The frames were made out of Styrofoam. You can’t pour the mud fast, or it will bust the frames. It was only 200 yards of concrete, but I had to pump it slow and easy. Two hundred yards usually takes only a couple hours. I was pumping for thirteen hours. I started at 2:00 AM on Friday and I clocked out after midnight.”

“Okay.”

Hans continued, “They told me that were going to call my boss. I called him first.”

“How did that go?”

“Well, Albert wanted to know what the fuck was going on, and I told him.”

“And then…”

Hans took another drag off his cigarette. He drawled,

“Well, Albert called dispatch. They said that they assigned new work off the start times of the operators. I had started before everyone else at the yard, but I got done after they all were done. Dispatch said that I was first man up because I had started so early. My boss told them, ‘You know how the people at our yard always seems to have a bad attitude. That’s because you fuck them all the time’. He told them that.”

I sighed. “So, what happened?”

Hans spoke slowly. He’s a Texan now, so he doesn’t say anything fast.

“Well, they found some other guy to start the job at 1:00 AM. I went there at 5:00. I didn’t get as much sleep as I wanted, but I got some sleep. I worked until noon. ”

Hans said, “I told these people in dispatch that I wasn’t going to run a big pump truck without any sleep. They said that I had to do it, or I’d get fired. I told them that I would find myself a lawyer. They didn’t want to hear that shit. I know that this company has some loophole so they don’t have to follow DOT regulations, but there has to be some kind of law against working somebody over twenty-four hours.”

I replied, “Yeah, there probably is.”

There was the click of of his lighter. Hans lit up another Pall Mall. A couple years ago, Hans bought me a lighter for Fathers Day. I don’t smoke. He bought me a lighter anyway. Maybe he figured that, if his lighter ran out of fluid, then he could use mine. Hans is thoughtful that way.

Hans’ story made me remember things. Years ago, before I retired, I worked as the supervisor on the loading dock of a trucking company. My job was to get the job done, and that often required me to force the forklift drivers to work overtime. We live in the north country, where the winters are long and harsh. That was when we always needed people to stay on the job, after we were already chilled to the bone. I used to put up a sign that said “The gouge light is on!”, which meant “gouge the time clock, earn some overtime”. The guys who worked for me hated for that. They didn’t want the overtime. They just wanted to go home, eat something, take a shower, slam some beers, and sleep the sleep of the just. I couldn’t let them do it. I was the bad guy. They knew it, and I knew it.

One of the men working for me was a black guy, named Mike, who was from Alabama. He was a devout Baptist, a good man, and he and I would talk about religion quite often. I remember in the dark depths of winter, after he had worked almost twelve hours on the dock, he yelled at me,

“Hey, Pharaoh! Yeah, you! Hey, Pharaoh, set your people free!”

I did.

I got in trouble for that shit.

Going back to Hans…

I asked Hans, “Have you slept yet?”

He replied, “No. I had a bunch of Red Bulls. When they wear off, I’ll sleep.”

“Okay.”

Hans told me, “Dad, I stood up for myself. I told them what I would do, and what I won’t do.”

I said, “Okay, good.”

Hans went on, “I did what you told me to do. I stuck up for myself.”

My throat constricted a bit. “Good.”

Hans said, “I’m not going to let them use me. I’m doing what you said.”

“That’s good, Hans.”

Hans paused. Then he said,

“Hey, I’m sorry for venting like this. I just wanted to tell you what’s going on.”

“It’s okay, Hans. I’m glad that you called. Call whenever you need to.”

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“Don’t be sorry. It’s okay.”

“I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too.”

Hans hung up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

שנה טובה

September 30th, 2019

Jane greeted me when I came into the synagogue. She smiled and said,

“Shanah tovah!”, which is Hebrew for “Happy New Year!”. It took me a second to process that. I mean, I already knew it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration, but somehow that didn’t sink in until Jane spoke to me.

I went upstairs for the service. It had just started. There weren’t many people there yet. They were just getting into praying the psalms. I grabbed a prayer book, and I asked Andrew which page we were on. The prayer book (siddur) was a special one for the high holidays. As I opened it, it had Hebrew prayers on the page to the right, and an English translation of the prayers on the left. After ten years, I have learned just enough Hebrew to follow along with the prayers. I hear key Hebrew words spoken, and then I can read along in the English version. It helps that the gabbai emphasizes the beginning and the end of each psalm. The people in the shul read the psalms for about an hour. Some they sing. Some they rush through.

Karin and I attend morning prayer at our church before daily Mass starts. The morning  prayer mainly consists of reading the psalms. However, our reading of the psalms and the Jewish reading of the psalms are strikingly different. Even though I can’t understand all of the psalms in Hebrew, I can appreciate the rhythm and the cadence of the prayers. There is something powerful in hearing a prayer in its original language. I can’t explain why that is, but it is.

When I arrived, the pews in the synagogue weren’t full yet. The community is small, and it is not often that a lot of people come for the services. If there is any day that everyone shows up, it is on Rosh Hashanah. However, as Ken, one of my friends from the shul, jokingly told me, they operate on “Jewish time”. It’s not like with Catholics, where a service starts at a certain time and people need to be there at that time. In the synagogue, the worshipers get there when they get there. The only goal is to have ten Jewish males there in time to read from the Torah. The show can’t go on unless you have ten guys show up, and they have to be Jewish. They are happy when I come, but I don’t count for the minyan.

The Lake Park Synagogue calls itself a “Modern Orthodox synagogue”. That seems paradoxical. It’s like they are saying that the shul is “New Old”. Orthodox Judaism holds on tight to the traditions of the past. I kind of like that. In their services, they do almost everything in Hebrew. I have been berated at times by my friends at the synagogue because the Catholic Church did away (for the most part) with the Latin Mass. I don’t think that any of them really care that much about the Church. Some of them do care that the Catholic Church let go of part of its tradition.

During the first hour of prayer, there were short breaks. During one of those, Ellis came up to me. Ellis shook my hand and looked me straight in the eye. He told me,

“I hope that you and your family are blessed during this new year.”

I was touched by that. I knew that he meant it with all his heart. Ellis and I come from very different backgrounds, but we have had similar struggles with our children. We understand each other. Ellis wasn’t just spouting a platitude. He was being honest and compassionate with me, and I felt that.

I should try to make more of an effort to fit it at the shul, or maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know. I wear my yarmulke (kippah) whenever I go to the synagogue. Karin knitted it for me years ago, so it is precious to me. I don’t dress well when I go to pray. I don’t have many good clothes. When I prayed there today, I was wearing jeans and sandals. I wore a black sweatshirt (hoodie) that I had bought at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It has a Benedictine emblem on the front and a Latin prayer on the back. Nobody cared. They just seemed glad that I was even there.

The rabbi gave a short derasha (sermon). He explained that Rosh Hashanah was “Judgment Day”, a day where we all ask for a job review from God. The scripture readings are about Sarah and Hannah, and they ask God to remember them. It is a dangerous thing to ask God to remember you. There is the chance that God will give you more responsibility. It is easier to fly under the radar.

Rabbi Dinin told us all that we ask God for our review at the blowing of the shofar. That is our wake up call to God. It is true that God never forgets us, but the blowing of the shofar is our way of reminded the Almighty that we are still here.

The synagogue is in a part of town with rather ruthless parking restrictions. I stayed in the shul during the first Torah reading, and then I left. I missed the blowing of the shofar. I had already been there for two hours, and I didn’t want to get a parking ticket.

And, to be honest, I wasn’t ready for my review.

 

 

 

A Toothbrush

September 26th, 2019

We have a loved one in prison. She has been in Ellsworth for several months now. The girl that we love called Karin yesterday to ask that we buy her a new toothbrush. Apparently, this girl cannot get a decent toothbrush through the prison commissary system (no surprise there). I went online this morning to check with the authorized prison vendors, and found that I could not buy a toothbrush for this young woman. The vendors do not sell toothbrushes. Why not? I have no idea. Even if I knew the reason, it would make no difference. I would still be unable to get this girl a toothbrush.

It’s madness. All of it. Every step of the way.

I was listening to the girl in the car this morning. She wasn’t physically with me, but I could hear her.

Almost ten years ago, this young woman made me a CD of the songs that she loved. I listened to that CD in the car today. The last song on the recording is from the group Shinedown. The song is called “Her Name is Alice”, and I believe that it was used in the movie, “Alice in Wonderland”, the one with Johnny Depp.

This song is strange and trippy. It is also this woman’s song. It was her song ten years ago. It is her song now. You just have to listen between the lines.

The song is only three minutes long, but it is intense. It starts off quietly with a simple piano theme. Then a girl speaks these words:

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.

Nothing will be what it is, because everything will be what it isn’t.”

At that point, the song kicks into gear. A bell tolls. The drums roll, and there is a dark and sinister bass part. The singer has a raw voice that only gets more rougher as the song goes on. He says:

“I invite you to a world where there is no such thing as time,

And every creature lends themselves to change your state of mind.

And the girl that chased the rabbit, drank the wine, and took the pill,

Has locked herself in limbo to see how it really feels,

To stand outside your virtue,

No one can ever hurt you,

Or so they say…”

Then the screaming starts.

“HER NAME IS ALICE!

SHE CRAWLS THROUGH THE WINDOW

SHAPED IN SHADOW.

ALICE!”

Then more quietly,

“And even though she is dreaming, she knows.”

The song continues:

“Sometimes the curiosity can kill the soul but leave the pain,

And every ounce of innocence is left inside her brain.

And through the looking glass we see she’s thankfully returned,

But now ‘off with her head’ I fear is everyone’s concern.

You see there’s no real ending,

It’s only just beginning,

Come out and play…”

Then the screaming returns:

“HER NAME IS ALICE!

SHE CRAWLS THROUGH THE WINDOW

SHAPED IN SHADOW.

ALICE!”

Then the last verse…

“And even though she is dreaming

She’s a locked for meaning for you

This kingdom, good riddance

Her good freedom and innocence

Has brought this whole thing down!!!”

One last scream:

“HER NAME IS ALICE!

SHE CRAWLS THROUGH THE WINDOW

SHAPED IN SHADOW.

ALICE!”

Then the noise stops, and finally there is only the piano and the girl’s voice:

“In contrary wise, what it is it wouldn’t be,

And what it wouldn’t be, it would be.

You see?”

After almost a decade of emergency rooms, rehab clinics, mental institutions, jails, and prisons, I think I get it.

Yes, I see.

The song has a link.

YouTubelalder959595

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Hundred Years of Waldorf

September 21st, 2019

Pulaski Park is tucked away in a corner of the lower east side of Milwaukee. It is a tiny city park, barely big enough to hold a baseball field and a tennis court. There are chain link fences that are nearly three stories high near the baseball diamond. The fences are there to keep home runs from smashing into the windows of the neighboring houses. The park has a number of large, mature trees that provide welcome shade.

Oh, and Tamarack Waldorf School has a garden there too.

The Tamarack Waldorf School is only a couple blocks away from the park. Karin and I know it well. Tamarack is housed in the old St. Hedwig school building on the corner of Humboldt and Brady, on the Milwaukee’s lower east side. That neighborhood has a history. St. Hedwig’s is a still an active Catholic church. It was founded by Polish immigrants. There were Italians in that area too. Peter Sciortino’s bakery is across the street from the school. The bakery is a good place to buy cannoli.

Brady Street was an immigrant neighborhood for many years. The demographics changed in the 1970’s, and the area became a haven for hippies. Property values declined. Then things changed again. Now this little enclave is very diverse, in a variety of ways. Brady Street is a home for the blatantly hip and trendy. The street reeks of money and youth. I don’t know if that is good or bad. It just is.

Karin and I went to Pulaski Park on Thursday afternoon. Tamarack participated in the worldwide commemoration of the very first Waldorf school. That school was founded in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919. So, we all met in park to celebrate one hundred years of Waldorf education.

What is Waldorf education? I don’t have the time or inclination to explain it all. Even if I tried to explain what Waldorf is all about, you wouldn’t really get it. Waldorf is a peculiar pedagogic culture. Unless you’ve spent time inside of the community, you just can’t understand it. You have to first step into the magic circle, emphasis on the word “magic”. Waldorf is a way of educating children that is holistic, spiritual, beautiful, inspiring, and pretty weird. Feel free to look up Waldorf online for further information.

Karin and I have a long and twisted relationship with the world of Waldorf. Hans went to a Waldorf school for a few years, until that school imploded. Then we home schooled our kids. I was involved in the genesis of the Tamarack School, and I prefer to block any memories of that time period. After a few years, Karin and I decided to send our daughter, and our youngest son, Stefan, to Tamarack. Karin eventually became a handwork assistant at the school, which meant that she helped the students to learn how to knit and sew and crochet. She did that for several years until she was told that her services were no longer required. That kind of sucked. We left the community for a while.

Was our experience with Waldorf negative? Not really. The activities at the school often touched the souls of our children. Waldorf is in many ways counter-cultural. The education is not about fitting into the economic system. It’s not about making money and getting ahead. It’s about being human. That means there is an emphasis on music, art, and just being decent to other people. Nothing bad about any of that.

Back in the spring of 2008, I helped chaperon our youngest son’s class trip to New Orleans. This was only three years after Katrina devastated the city. Waldorf schools always have an eighth grade class trip. Part of the trip always involves community service. We did plenty of that in Crescent City. I have no idea how that journey affected Stefan or his classmates. I do know that it deeply affected me.

Karin and I stood in the park at the celebration. The students from the school were all sitting in the grass, restless in their boredom. Karin hooked up with Marcia, her old boss/compatriot from the handwork class. They hugged. They talked. That was a good thing.

People gave speeches. That’s what people do at events like this. I listened, kinda sorta. One speaker talked about the diversity of the school. Yeah, there is diversity with regards to race, religion, and ethnicity. That’s good. However, don’t ever disagree with the underlying spiritual and political assumptions of Waldorf. Diversity only goes so far. I figured that out years ago.

A member of the staff unveiled the new, improved logo for the school. Apparently, the creation of this new symbol required the help of a large number of people, both in the school and outside of it. The whole ceremony reminded me of corporate America. The answer to any problem is to find a new look. Coca Cola and Waldorf have something in common.

There were heroic speeches about the beginnings of the school. Those made me squirm, because I was there for some of that. The folks at Tamarack have found their own mythology, and they are running with it. More power to them. If the school has a story that works, go with it. At this point, the early struggles don’t matter, not even a little bit.

I looked at the children sitting on the grass, and I felt like crying. Our kids were in that place once, and time has been cruel to them. Sitting in front of me was a mass of pure innocence. These kids have no idea what lies before them, and it’s a blessing that they don’t know. Yes, some of them will go on to lead happy, meaningful lives. However, I know, from bitter experience, that some of them will suffer immensely. It’s not their fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. It just is.

The ceremony ended with the children from all of the classes singing a song. It was a round. Waldorf loves a round. They sang about peace in many languages. I could make out the words “padme om”, “shanti”, “shalom”, and “frieden”. It was a good song. I can think of none better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Happens After

September 20th, 2019

Jack is dead.

You probably don’t know Jack. At least, I don’t think you do. He left this world a few days ago, at 93 years of age. He lasted longer than most of us will. However, it should be noted that his last couple years kind of sucked.

Karin and I went to his funeral today. We have been friends with Jack and his wife for the last two or three years. We only really knew them through our church, because we all attended daily Mass together. Jack and Audrey were an inseparable couple, and they had just recently celebrated sixty-five years of marriage. Sixty-five years. I’m not sure that I will even live that long.

Jack hardly ever spoke to me, and I don’t think he spoke much to anybody else, at least not toward the end of his life. Jack had Alzheimer’s disease, and I could see it slowly tearing him down. I noticed, when we first met, that he couldn’t follow along during the morning prayers. Then he started forgetting things in church, like his cap or his walker. He was adamant about turning off the lights in the church after Mass ended, even when the pastor told him to leave the lights on. Jack was clearly frustrated at times. He wanted desperately to understand what was going around him, and he just couldn’t.

Jack’s wife tried to shepherd him as best she could. Sometimes he was cooperative, sometimes not. Toward the end of his life, he struggled to do things his own way, and it never quite worked out for him. It didn’t work out well for his wife either. Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects a large number of people beyond the person who is sick. Jack was hurting, but the effects of the ailment touched his wife and kids, and anybody else who cared about him.

My time with Jack was not my first experience with Alzheimer’s. My mom had it. It’s a slow, hard way to end a life. My mother suffered with the disease for years before I even knew she had it. My dad kept it quiet, and he tried to care for her on his own for far too long. Eventually, it overwhelmed even him. My father, grudgingly, finally put my mom into a nursing home (a good place where people actually care about the residents), and my mom cried for days after he left her there. She knew that she was never going back home. She knew that. It’s not like my dad abandoned her. To his credit, he visited her every single day until she died. He did that for six years. He did that even when he didn’t know if she knew he was there with her. He was loyal to the end.

During that time, I didn’t visit my mom very often. I am not sure why. There was some geographical distance involved with any visit (a three hour drive). Now, after time has passed, I think the emotional distance was even greater. When I did visit my mom, she was usually sleeping fitfully. She was there physically. I could hear her breathing, and I could see her chest rise and fall. But she was not available. I would say, “Hi Mom”, and there was no response, no reaction. I occasionally held her hand, and there was no pressure from her hand against mine. Nothing. Did she know that I was there with her? I have no idea. I could not feel her presence. I was with her, and I was also all alone.  It was hard to make the trip to see her, because all I ever did was see her.

A funeral should provide some kind of closure. Sometimes a funeral cannot do that. My mom’s funeral in 2015 was anti-climactic. She has been absent for so long already. Our family had been saying goodbye to her for years prior to her death. My father’s funeral, last year, was somehow inconclusive. There were many things left unsaid, and many feelings left unexpressed. Death doesn’t necessarily end anything.

I initially sat by myself at Jack’s funeral. I did that on purpose. I have trouble with funerals, in that my emotions are activated in ways that have nothing to do with the situation at hand. Funerals make me remember things, and I need space in order to deal with those memories.

Karin convinced me to sit with her, and with her friends from the church choir. I felt that was a bad idea. I excused myself from the pew early during the Mass, and I sat outside in the narthex, the gathering space. One of the undertakers sat next to me. He remarked,

“We got the good seats, huh?”

I made some kind of neutral comment.

The man talked with his partner after that.

He said, “We counted 117 people in the church.”

His co-worker replied, “That’s pretty good.”

I never realized that these people kept score.

Prior to the funeral Mass, there was a line of well-meaning people, all of them waiting to give their condolences to Jack’s widow. I didn’t join the line.  I didn’t want to go there. What for? What was there to say? What words could I find to make anything better? Maybe if I had known Jack better, I could have said something that might have helped. I had no words.

People often feel pressured to say something at a funeral. Then they sometimes say something lame. I have heard people say things like, “He’s with the Lord now.” So, what does that actually mean? Does it mean anything?

There was a Gospel reading at the funeral Mass. It was about the raising of Lazarus. More specifically, it was about Martha’s comments to the Lord just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. I have always felt ambivalent about the raising of Lazarus. Did Christ really do his friend any favors? I mean, Lazarus eventually had to die again. I would think that once was enough.  

I listened to the priest’s sermon. It was about eternal life, and believing in Jesus. His words were not unexpected. But, seriously, what was he talking about? What actually happens after death? Does anybody know? We believe certain things, but we don’t know anything. I believe in an afterlife, but I have no conception of what that might be like. I will find out when it’s my turn up to bat.

If we don’t know what we are talking about, then it might be best to remain silent. Death is a mystery, perhaps the ultimate mystery. Let’s leave it that way.