Such a Small Thing

May 24th, 2023

I parked the RAV4 in front of the synagogue. My little grandson, Asher, was already strapped into his car seat in the back. The elderly couple walked over to the car. The woman slowly and carefully climbed in the backseat next to Asher. Her husband climbed in the front seat next to me. Once they were both buckled up, we started our journey to the cemetery.

The old couple are friends of mine. They buried their son a month ago. Their son was only a year younger than I am, and I’m retired and on Medicare already. The family is originally from Ukraine. They came to America after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The son had been an officer in the Soviet Army. He was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 1983. For the last forty years he struggled with PTSD and alcohol abuse. He finally lost the battle.

As far as I know, the mother and father of the soldier had not been to the cemetery since they laid him to rest. I had been with them at the funeral. They don’t own a car and they don’t have licenses anymore. They asked me to drive them to the memorial park. I agreed to do so. It was the least that I could do for them. It was a half hour ride from the synagogue to the cemetery. I drove and the old folks talked to me.

I had brought Asher along with me because the elderly couple love the boy. Usually, they can make him laugh and smile. Not this time. Asher would have none of that. The father tried to make funny faces at Asher, and Asher recoiled from him. Toddlers have their moods, and Asher’s not very friendly. However, as we drove, the mother said to me in her thick Slavic accent,

“The little boy, Asher, he lets me hold his hand. I like sweet little boys who do that.”

The mother started to tell me a story about her deceased son. It was a bit hard to follow at times. She did not have all the right English words to explain what she meant. At times, her husband would clarify things for me. It was a sad story, and it struck home to me. Her son had often refused help and advice from others. He insisted on handling his problems alone, even when it was obvious to everyone else that he couldn’t.

The father told me,

“It is hard for a successful person to admit that they need help. Doctors, lawyers, engineers (my son was an engineer), they don’t want help. They think they don’t need it.”

That’s true. I never wanted help. I didn’t accept any help until there was no longer any choice in the matter. The old man’s son had been a decorated military officer in the Soviet Union, and when he lived in America, he was a highly paid radio engineer. The guy had been very successful, and the father is still proud of his son. The son could do damn near anything, except deal with his PTSD and his addiction.

I think it’s just human nature to want to be independent. Asher is just starting to ride a bike, and he wants no assistance whatsoever. His mantra is: “I got it! I got it!” The goal of being self-reliant is strongly reinforced by our culture. As Asher grows up, he will be encouraged to do things on his own.

Did the son refuse help because of hubris? Maybe. I don’t know. I never met the man. From what his parents have told me, their son experienced a great deal of hardship and trauma in his life. He often had to fend for himself. He learned to use his many abilities, but he never recognized his limitations. On the surface, it was the alcohol that ended his life. On a deeper level, it was his inability to accept help that killed him.

Before we arrived at the cemetery, the mother asked,

“Is there place I could buy flowers?”

The father talked to her in Ukrainian, and she did not reply to what he said.

The old man turned to me and explained,

“We do not put flowers on graves. Christians, they put flowers on graves. The Jewish tradition is to put stones on the graves. Flowers? What good are they? They wilt after one, maybe two days. Stones, they last. We have seven stones on our son’s grave: two for me and my wife, two for our daughter and her husband, and three for the grandchildren.”

As we entered the cemetery, the old man pointed to where his son was buried. He said, “That is a part set aside for Russian Jews.”

I parked and the parents got out of the car. I got Asher out. We were a few yards from the plot. There was rectangle of fresh sod on top of it. The grass there was a darker color than the rest of the lawn. The ground had not settled enough for there to be a headstone, so there was a small placard with the son’s name written on it. The little sign was on a stick stuck into the ground.

The old couple stood next to the grave. I took Asher away, so that they would have time alone. It was a gorgeous spring day with all the trees showing off their fresh green leaves. As I walked with Asher, I noticed all the headstones with small smooth stones on top of them. Some of the headstones had writing with Cyrillic letters. They all had words written in Hebrew.

I glanced back at the parents. The old man stood straight and immobile. His deeply lined face betrayed no emotion. The mother hid her face in a handkerchief as she silently cried. She wept for her sweet little boy, the one who had held her hand. She cried for the son who was now buried several feet below her.

That broke my heart.

I walked a bit more with Asher. Then the father beckoned for us to come. We hadn’t been at the grave site for more than a few minutes. The parents were ready to leave. Asher was too. We all got back into my car.

It was a thirty-minute drive from the cemetery to their apartment downtown. There was dead silence in the car, except for when the mother sniffled in the back seat. The father sat next to me and wore wrap-around sunglasses. I couldn’t see his eyes, and his face held no expression.

As we got close to their home, the mother said to me,

“The little boy was tired. He is asleep now.”

I pulled up to the entrance of their building. I told them that I was staying in the car so that Asher would not wake up. The old man said,

“Thank you, my friend.”

From the back seat the mother said, “We are indebted to you.”

I replied quickly, “No. You’re not. Don’t worry about it.”

They said goodbye, and I pulled away from the curb. It bothered me that they felt like they owed me something. I was glad to help.

It was such a small thing to so.


May 18th, 2023

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” – Samuel Johnson

“I believe in America.” – first words from the movie, The Godfather

In a recent survey funded by the Wall Street Journal, 38% in 2023 said “patriotism” is very important. This is in comparison with 70% in 1998 and 61% in 2019. On the surface this decline would seem to be alarming, but is it?

One definition of “patriotism” is: the quality of being patriotic; devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country.

The first part of that definition explains nothing. The second part is meaningful, but only to a certain extent. It quickly raises some questions. For instance, what is “devotion” to one’s country? How does a citizen “vigorously support” his or her country? There can be a variety of answers to these questions, some of them conflicting. I would argue that there are as many answers as there are Americans.

Patriotism has to be more than just a feeling, and it needs to be more than just empty words. How does a person demonstrate that they are a patriot? How would another individual recognize that a person is patriotic? What is the litmus test in the real world?

I expect that, generally speaking, most Americans would describe members of the U.S. military as being patriotic. After all, military personnel are putting their livers on the line to defend the United States. It would seem that soldiers are by definition “vigorously supporting” their country.

Not everyone agrees with that. I know pacifists who would argue that soldiers are in fact vigorously supporting the imperialist policies of the U.S. government, and not doing their country any real good. Some of the peace activists I know would not consider service members to be patriots at all. They see them as misguided people who are pawns of the military-industrial complex. The pacifist viewpoint is clearly a minority opinion, but it exists. I only mention it because, as far as I can see, there is no consensus in the United States regarding who is a patriot, or even what the word means.

Let me present another scenario. Before COVID struck, I used to teach a citizenship class to immigrants holding green cards. When I would tell people that I was instructing a class of soon-to-be Americans, they would sometimes remark that I was being very patriotic. During the same time period, I was also driving undocumented migrants to their court appearances. I was escorting people who were not in the United States legally to court houses to lessen the chance that I.C.E. would snatch them up. When I told people about doing that, they often didn’t view me as being patriotic at all. In both cases, I was volunteering to help immigrants in our country. However, my two sets of actions elicited very different reactions from my fellow citizens.

The word “patriotism” has been used and abused, especially since 9/11. Often patriotism has been equated to jingoism and xenophobia. As America has become more politically polarized, the concept of patriotism has been twisted to justify extreme policies and actions. Were the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers patriots on January 6th? Were the members of BLM who rioted in various cities patriots? Who are the real patriots now?

Maybe only 38% of the population believes that patriotism is very important because we don’t even know what it means anymore.

I Thought We Were Done

May 13th, 2023

Two weeks ago, Karin and I took our grandson, Asher, to the ER. It was late in the evening, and Asher had been sobbing uncontrollably. He’s two and a half years old, and he can express himself fairly well. However, something was hurting him that night, and all he could do was cry and cry and cry. He had thrown up the night before, so we figured he had some kind of stomach problem. We couldn’t find a way to calm him down or console him. There was something wrong and we didn’t know what to do about it. Finally, we gave up, and decided to take Asher to the hospital.

It’s been nearly 25 years since we last took a toddler to the ER. The experience doesn’t improve with time. Driving to the hospital at night with an upset little boy is never a good deal. I felt exhausted and anxious all the way to the ER. I thought to myself,

“I thought we were done with this shit.”

Apparently not.

The registration at the ER was mercifully brief. Asher’s pediatrician is associated with at hospital, so they already had Asher’s medical history and insurance information on file. The young woman who checked us in asked us,

“How are you related to Asher?”

Asher was howling continuously during this time, so we had to have the woman repeat her question.

Then Karin said, “We are his grandparents.”

The young woman paused for a moment. That wasn’t exactly the answer she needed to hear.

I added, “And we are his legal guardians.”

Bingo. The woman had the authorization she needed to admit Asher.

They took us to a little room to wait for the nurse. She came and tried to get Asher’s vital signs. He was less than cooperative. After a brief struggle, she finally got his temperature. He had no fever. She gave him some medicine for nausea. That seemed to make him feel a bit better.

Upon further examination, the nurse found a wood tick on Asher’s abdomen. He must have got it while playing outside. The nurse called in two other people to hold the boy down while she used a tweezer to pry loose the tick. Asher was not happy about this operation. Eventually, she had the thing removed. Asher didn’t have symptoms of Lyme disease, so the nurse did not think the tick had anything to do with his illness.

Shortly after that, Asher had a diarrhea explosion in his diaper. It was like a grenade went off. We used a lot of wipes to clean him up. He had been wearing a onesie, and that was also nasty. We threw it away with the diaper.

The rest of the stay was anticlimactic. We got a prescription for an antibiotic and nausea medicine. It was too late to find an open pharmacy, so we drove back home. It was midnight. We all crashed in bed after that.

Asher was better in a couple days, but Karin and I were sick with whatever he had. We like to do things as a family.

A Lack of Empathy

May 9th, 2023

Definition of empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

My son, Hans, is going to ride his Harley with some friends on Saturday. They are going to Kurten, Texas, for a blessing of the bikes. Hans told me that there will a “priest or pastor or whatever” to say a blessing over the motorcycles. It’s not a far ride from where he lives, so he will probably hook up with some guys to go further. Riding the Harley helps Hans to relax and deal with his PTSD from Iraq. It’s healthy for him to go for long trips on the Harley.

Hans told me about another ride that is going to happen on Saturday. A different group of guys are doing a sort of memorial ride for a 17-year-old biker who died after getting t-boned by a car at an intersection. Hans decided not to go to that one, partly because he’s not very good at expressing emotions. He’s always been kind of impassive and distant that way. Going to Iraq with the Army didn’t help in that with regard. Hans described himself as “callous, kind of an asshole”. I think that Hans would have been okay at that event, but he knows himself best. The ride might have conjured up some memories and feelings that he really doesn’t want to have.

Hans and I talked about it on the phone. He told me,

“It’s hard for me to get all worked up about some problems that other people have. Like with homeless people, I was homeless once, and not many people helped me.”

I replied, “Yeah, but some people did help you.”

He said, “I know, but you know what I mean. I went to hell and came back again. It was hard, but I pulled myself together.”

I told him, “You did, but some people can’t. Mental illness or whatever. Some people just can’t.”

He sighed and said, “Yeah.”

Hans and I talked some more, mostly about work. Neither of us have much tolerance for people who we perceive to be lazy and/or stupid. We have (or in my case, had) no empathy for people who couldn’t get the job done. We are very mission oriented. Hans told me about a former coworker who couldn’t do his job, and Hans told him point blank,

“You are a lazy motherfucker.”

That outburst was no doubt satisfying in a cathartic way, but probably counterproductive. Most people don’t see well-intentioned comments like that as being constructive criticism.

Ironically, many years ago, I used those same words with one of my coworkers.

Why is Hans the way he is? Partly, it’s his upbringing. Hans told me once that, after growing up with me as a father, basic training was kind of a letdown.

I also think being veterans plays a role here. The military promotes many noble virtues: loyalty, honor, courage. However, empathy does not usually make the list. Well, I guess empathy is encouraged in a highly selective way. Soldiers are expected to care for their comrades and to protect civilians. However, in a profession that is all about killing people, empathy for our enemies is not helpful.

Vets are also all about the mission. Quit your whining and get it done. We really don’t like people who can’t seem to function. We tend to hardasses that way.

I think that veterans are often callous after the leave the service, especially combat vets like my son. In the military a person experiences things that are brutal and perhaps life-threatening. It’s hard to look at problems of the civilian population without concluding that a lot of it is petty. Becoming emotionally hardened is protective device that allows a soldier to do things that are traumatic. This is not necessarily a healthy way to be once a person has returned to the outside world.

It takes a long time for a person’s emotions to soften up, if they ever do. It took me decades to be open to the feelings of others, and to my own feelings. I am different now than I was forty years ago. I had to do things like meditation to change inside. Relearning empathy is work.

Empathy comes with a cost. I have a friend from the synagogue who is a very old man. His son died recently from alcohol abuse related to his PTSD from the Soviet war in Afghanistan. I called my friend yesterday. He told me the story of his son’s life, again. Every time we meet or call each other, my friend tells me all about his son. I listen, just listen. I understand his feelings very, very well. I share his grief, and I share his suffering. When he finishes his story, and we leave each other, I cry. Every time. Listening to him hurts me intensely, but it is the only thing I can do to ease his pain.

I hope that Hans has a good ride.

Postscript: Hans changed his mind about riding as an escort to that 17-year-old biker’s funeral. He’s going with the mourners to accompany the casket to the cemetery. I’m proud of him. 

First Impressions

May 5th, 2023

“I’m shocked – shocked! – to find that gambling is going on in here.” – Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca

Hans called a few days ago. Hans is my oldest son. He lives down in Texas, and pumps concrete for a living. He was in the Army a decade ago. He was stationed at Fort Hood, and then his unit got deployed to Iraq. His time in Iraq was more interesting than it needed to be. He came back from there a very different person.

Hans bought himself a Harley. It’s an old school sort of bike. He got a 2007 Electra Glide that weighs damn near 800 pounds. He’s careful to keep that thing upright. He likes to ride the Harley whenever he can. It relaxes him, and that helps with his PTSD.

Hans insists on wearing a replica German WWII helmet when he rides. He painted it silver, but it is still obviously a Wehrmacht style of headgear. Hans told me that he stopped to get fuel at a gas station, and some other customer called him a white supremacist. Hans indicated to me that he was shocked -shocked! – by that comment.


I find it hard to believe that his helmet would not attract attention and perhaps some negative remarks. I find it even harder to believe that this would be a surprise to my son. He takes enormous pleasure in messing with other people’s minds, and he’s good at it. I’m pretty sure that he would be deeply disappointed if nobody noticed the helmet.

Is Hans a white supremacist? I don’t think so. He has very conservative opinions, but I don’t think he’s racist. I admit that, since he fought in Iraq, his ability to relate to people who look Middle Eastern is not the best. Because of his wartime experience, he often judges some people by their appearance. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but I understand why he does that.

The guy at the gas station judged Hans by his appearance. Hans did not make a good first impression with this other customer. The man who accused Hans of being a white supremacist knew nothing about Hans except that he wore an offensive type of helmet. The man did not know that Hans is a combat vet. He didn’t know that Hans works hard at his job. He didn’t know that Hans has a wife and three small children.

Every individual is complex. I have found that it often takes years to understand another person. I have known Hans all his life, and he still surprises me. I try not to judge someone by their appearance, but sometimes I make a snap decision based on that first impression.

That almost never ends well.

Go Back

May 4th, 2023

I was reading an article on the Al Jazeera news site yesterday. Al Jazeera gives daily updates on the war in Ukraine. The article that I read showed on a map how many Ukrainian refugees have fled from their homeland and where they are now. As of the end of 2022, eight million Ukrainians crossed the border into Poland. The number of refugees permitted to enter Poland is astounding, and millions more fled from Ukraine last year and went to Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary. In contrast, the United States, during fiscal year 2022, allowed just over 25 thousand refugees into our country. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

I wonder how many Ukrainians will return to their native land once the war with Russia is over. Based on what I have learned over the years, not many will choose to go back to Ukraine. There was another article in Al Jazeera which indicated that 2/3 of the Ukrainian refugees planned on remaining in their adopted country. That sounds about right.

Refugees, and immigrants in general, may hope to go back home someday, but it seldom happens. People leave their homelands for a good reason. They don’t often abandon friends, family, and familiar surroundings on a whim. People usually emigrate because they have to do so. In some cases, they literally have a gun to their heads when they depart.

I have an Afghan friend. He and his family fled from Kabul when the city fell. He made it quite clear to me that if he had stayed in Afghanistan, the Taliban would have killed him. I know a Syrian refugee family. They abandoned their farm in Syria when the civil war in that country became too dangerous for them. I know a Ukrainian Jew who fled with his family after the fall of the Soviet Union, because members of an ultranationalist militia told him it was unhealthy for them to remain in Ukraine. Many years ago, when I was stationed with the Army in West Germany, I went to a restaurant in Frankfurt that was run by Croatian refugees. They had been strongly encouraged by Tito’s partisans to find a new home. These stories are not uncommon. This sort of thing happens all the time, all over the world.

The fact is that none of the people I have mentioned have ever gone home. Some have died among strangers in a strange land. Those who are alive can’t go back. I’m sure that some of them are nostalgic for the Old Country, but it is unsafe to return.

My wife’s family on her father’s side were refugees after the end of WWII. They had been living in Silesia, which until 1945 was a German province. They fled westward with the Red Army’s artillery following closely after them. The houses they left behind were quickly occupied by Poles, who were likewise being pushed west by the Soviet forces. When the war ended, Silesia was part of Poland, and my wife’s relatives had lost their homes forever.

Refugees, and other immigrants, might think that there will be a sudden change in their fortunes, and that they will be able go back. However, time is not on their side. They have to immediately forge a new life in their new country. They have to find food, housing, and work. To survive they need to become part of a new community and new culture. They can’t just sit and wait.

My wife is an immigrant to the United States. She is still a German citizen, although she has been in this country for almost forty years. Her ties to Germany diminish with each passing year. She doesn’t feel like an American, but she is becoming a stranger to the home of her youth. Much of what she remembers no longer exists. She has changed, and so has Germany.

If the war in Ukraine suddenly ended today, millions of Ukrainian refugees would not go back. Go back to what? Go back to wanton destruction? Go back to cities and villages that are now alien to them? Go back to relationships that have been shattered? The Ukraine they love and remember is gone. It’s already too late.

Silks and Stardust

April 26th, 2023

On Friday, my wife, Karin, and I took Asher to a pre-school play group. The playgroup was organized by the Tamarack Waldorf School in Milwaukee. Although it was a cold, blustery morning, the group gathered outside near the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park. Once the little children and their parents (or our case, their grandparents) had arrived, the woman leading the group told a fairy tale with puppets about the coming of spring. Then the group walked together to the woods nearby. The group leader encouraged the children to sing a few simple songs with her about springtime. After hearing a song only once, Asher remembered the words to it. The kids moved their bodies along to the singing. Then they went around the circle, singing “Ring Around the Rosie”. Following that, there was a craft project. The children (actually, the adults) found sticks and tied ribbons to them to make magic wands. The kids tapped their wands on the ground to wake up the spring flowers. Asher had a good time, and I think the other kids did too.

Waldorf education is excellent for little kids. It’s holistic and very much concerned with allowing children to just be children. There is a lot of emphasis on imaginative play and socialization skills. Respect for others is a priority. There is a sense of wonder and reverence for life. It’s a good way to start.

Karin and I have three grown children, and they all went to a Waldorf School, at least for a while. None of them have forgiven us for making them go there. Well, our youngest son, Stefan, who is currently a journeyman in the Ironworkers Union, has grudgingly admitted that there were some benefits to his experience at the school. He told me a few days ago that his time at the school taught him to look at things from a very different perspective than other people.

Exactly. That was the whole point.

Stefan learned quickly that schools in the United States are generally based on an industrial model, designed to produce workers, not thinkers. Waldorf education forms youngsters in such a way as to develop independent thinkers, people who do not follow the crowd. Not all Waldorf students grow up to be like Stefan, but they usually become adults who can solve problems in innovative ways. That’s a win.

Stefan also told me that he met a very diverse population of kids while at the school. The students came from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds. Stefan often hung out with the working-class kids, basically because that’s what he was. Stefan’s best friend at the Waldorf School was a Black youth who lived with his mom in a home in Milwaukee’s inner city. That was in stark contrast to our house which, as Stefan has noted, is part of a suburban area in sight of farm fields. Stefan went to visit his buddy now and then. He told me,

“Man, we used to ride our bikes in that neighborhood at night.

Ah, the joys of youthful innocence.

The Waldorf School prided itself on a policy of Gandhi-like nonviolence. There is nothing wrong with that, but sometimes the outside world penetrates the silks and stardust. Bad things can still happen.

When Stefan was a sixth grader, he liked to talk to his classmates about his maternal grandfather. Karin’s dad had been a soldier in World War II. He had been on the German side. Stefan was proud of his German heritage, and he was the only student in the Waldorf School whose grandpa (“opa” in German) had been in the Luftwaffe. Most of the kids probably didn’t even know what the Luftwaffe was. Anyway, he bragged about his grandpa to any who would listen to him. Some people did, and they did not like what he said.

Stefan had a classmate who was Jewish. That was not uncommon. There were several Jewish students enrolled at the school. Stefan did not get along with the boy in his class, but not any particular reason. They just did not like each other. Stefan had a quick temper, and the boy knew how to push his buttons.

There was an eighth-grade student at the school who had lost family members during World War II. He was deeply concerned about the Holocaust. At the time, my wife was helping to teach handwork to the students at the school, and she had a conversation with the eighth grader. The boy questioned Karin about her father. He asked her,

“Was your father a Nazi?”

Karin patiently explained to the eighth grader that her father had been drafted into the German military, and that he had no choice about fighting in the war. He looked at her and asked,

“So, are you a Nazi?”

The discussion didn’t end well.

Later, fate took a hand in matters, and one day three boys were in the school restroom simultaneously: Stefan, his classmate, and the eighth grader. Stefan’s classmate started taunting him, and Stefan got tired of it. He finally gave the kid a heartfelt, “Fuck you!”

Unfortunately, the eighth grader thought that he had heard Stefan say, “Stupid Jew!”

Chaos ensued.

A male teacher rushed into the rest room to break up the fight. Things were immediately smoothed over and hushed up. That sort of thing does not make good publicity for the school.

After hearing about the brawl, my first reaction was,

“They were fighting about this? Doesn’t this shit ever end?”

Apparently not. Ancient feuds resurface, and they are fought again by the descendants of people who are long dead.

I don’t know if Asher will eventually go to the same school. It might not make Asher a better person, or the world a better place, but it may be worth a try.

Beyond Words

April 24th, 2023

“Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know.” – Tao Te Ching

I care for our toddler grandson in the early morning hours. Generally, the boy wakes up in a relatively good mood, and we get along well. For a two-year-old, Asher is quite strong verbally. He has difficulty pronouncing some words (he has trouble saying the letter “L”), but he can usually make himself understood. He asks good questions, and he speaks using whole sentences. He has a rather large vocabulary for someone his age. He knows a few words that he probably shouldn’t, but that’s my fault.

Yesterday he did not communicate well. He was feeling under the weather with a head cold, and he was justifiably irritable. It was hard for me to know what he wanted. I asked him,

“Do you want some milk? (I usually have a warm bottle ready for him when he gets up in the morning).

Asher frowned and shook his head.

We went to the refrigerator. Asher opened it and gazed inside. I asked him,

“How about some blackberries?”

He scowled and said, “No.”

“You want an orange?”


“You like grapes. You want some grapes?”


“An apple?”

“NO! NO! NO!”

“Well, what do you want?”

At that moment, he had a total melt down. Normally, I would have told him, “Use your words.”, but we were well beyond that point. Tears were rolling down his face, and he was crying uncontrollably. Eventually, I just put a small bunch of grapes on a plate for him and left them on a chair where he could reach them. When he calmed down, he found the grapes and started munching on them.

Somebody could say that he is just a little boy, and as he gets older, he will be able to express himself clearly. Maybe. I know a lot of adults who can’t always use their words effectively. I am one of them.

As a writer, I am accustomed to using words all the time. Some people think that I use them well. Maybe I do. I am acutely aware of the power of words, and also of their limitations. Words are often clumsy and inadequate. Sometimes, when I want to say something that is very important to me, the words come out as gibberish. Even if I say exactly what I intended, the listener or reader might not understand. Some things simply cannot be expressed verbally.

Monday I was at a funeral. An old man was burying his only son. As the father watched his son’s coffin being slowly lowered into the ground, he convulsively sobbed. His wordless expression of grief was only momentary, but it was eloquent. The man had no need to tell any of the other mourners that he loved his boy. We all could feel and hear the intense emotion in his voice.

Words are not only insufficient during bad times. Words are also a bit lame at joyous moments. When my oldest son, Hans, came home from his deployment in Iraq, I hugged him. What could I have said that would have more meaningful? What words would have been more welcoming?

There are numerous ways to for people to reveal their feelings. Music is one of them. Who is not stirred by the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony? One of my favorite albums is called “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar”, all instrumental pieces from Frank Zappa. At Zen practice we chant prayers and sutras in Korean. I don’t know any Korean. I don’t need to know the words. Somehow, I still get the message. It’s the same when I listen to the kirtan chanting at the Sikh Temple. The meaning is in the music.

There are other ways to communicate: painting, sculpture, weaving, and dance. Mystics from various religious traditions have used these techniques to express their visions and ecstasies. They simply can’t explain their experiences in words.

Asher can communicate with me most of the time. If he can’t, it’s not his fault.

Words are not enough.

A Brief Moment of Joy Amid All the Pain

April 20th, 2023

As I grow older, I go to more funerals. That’s just how things work out. Each funeral is a reminder that I have a place in the batting order, and eventually it will be my turn. Someday, somebody will probably attend my wake. Or maybe they won’t. I’m not sure it matters.

I have noticed that every funeral is a bit different from all the others. Some of it has to do with the religious tradition of the participants. Some of it has to do with culture and race. Some of it has to do with the relationships that existed between the deceased individual and the survivors. Some differences are due to hidden things, personal histories that are obscure and perhaps unknowable. This means that comparing funerals is much like comparing apples and oranges. It cannot be done objectively.

I am still going to try to do that.

I have been to funerals that were deeply moving and heartfelt. During those services people were often sad, but also emotionally authentic. The mourners were grieving, but they still wanted to be there. They really wanted or needed to say that final farewell. I have also been to funeral services which were perfunctory, just efforts to grudgingly perform an unpleasant duty. For whatever reason, the attendees were there reluctantly, as if they were fulfilling a requirement, and wanted to fulfil it as quickly as possible. I hated those funerals.

On Monday my wife and I attended a funeral for the son of my friend from the synagogue. A Jewish funeral is also called a “levaya”, which in Hebrew means to “accompany” or “escort”. At a Jewish funeral the mourners are there to escort the deceased on his or her journey to the next life. Once the coffin has been placed in the ground, the mourners are then supposed to escort the surviving family members through their journey of grief.

At the cemetery there is a tradition where each mourner, starting with the family members, is offered the opportunity to shovel three scoops of earth on top of the casket once it has been lowered into the ground. The first scoop of earth is placed on the back side of the shovel, symbolizing the fact that the mourner performs this duty (mitzvah) with great reluctance. The next two shovelfuls are scooped up in the normal way. This custom is strikingly visceral. In American culture, we tend to sanitize and sugarcoat death. Not at this funeral. The finality of death becomes profound when the mourner sees and hears the dirt hitting the top of the pine box. It is suddenly real.

My friend is old, very old. His son was only a year younger than I am. My friend and his family are all refugees from the old Soviet Union. His son was an officer in the Soviet Army and was deployed to Afghanistan, back when the Russians thought it was a good idea to invade that country. The son was badly wounded in Afghanistan and came back to his family with PTSD and a severe problem with alcohol. After forty years, the booze finally killed him. My friend and his wife never gave up on their son. Through four decades, they tried help him in any way they could. My friend always talked about his boy whenever we met. His son was in the old man’s mind and heart every waking moment.

During the funeral, the old man maintained his composure as best he could. Both he and his wife were remarkably stoic as the rabbi and their daughter talked about the son that they had lost. When the son’s coffin was lowered into the earth, the father broke down and wept. His love for his lost child was written on his face for all to see. Later, my friend joined the rabbi in reciting the mourner’s kaddish. That had to be a struggle for him, but he needed to do it for his son.

The funeral at the Jewish cemetery was intense. The grief of the parents was palpable. My wife and I had brought our little grandson, Asher, along with us. At the very end of the service, my friend smiled and played a bit with Asher. He loves the boy. He tried to get Asher to give him a high five, which Asher did. That was a brief moment of joy amid all the pain. Despite the sadness of the burial, there was love, real love.

The funeral on Monday reminded me of a funeral from long ago. I had a younger brother who died of alcohol related problems. My brother had not been in a war, but he had suffered his fair share of trauma. Like my friend’s son, my brother’s last years were a long, slow, downward spiral. It was excruciating to watch my brother die bit by bit. Eventually, I kept away from him, because I was scared and didn’t know what to do anymore.

My brother’s funeral was difficult. My father handled the arrangements, just like my friend took care the funeral for his son. My friend buried his son with love and affection. As far as I could tell, my dad buried my brother with utter indifference. He was emotionally cold and distant. He did what was needed to be done and no more.

The priest who presided over the funeral service knew next to nothing about my brother. He asked the assembled mourners if they wanted to say something. Only my wife and I spoke up. Everyone else was silent. I believe there was a variety of emotions swirling around at the funeral: sorrow, anger, guilt, apathy. People were impatient for it to end. I didn’t sense much love. Maybe love was there, but deeply buried by other feelings.

I remember that, sometime after my brother’s funeral, my father handed me a tiny urn with some of my brother’s ashes in it. As he gave it to me, he shrugged and said,

“Well, that’s over with.” Then he immediately started talking about some yard work he needed to do at home.

My father and my brother did not get along, to put it mildly. When my brother got really sick, my dad wrote him off. As far as my father was concerned, this son of his no longer existed. We never even talked about him at family gatherings. Maybe the only way my father could deal with my brother’s physical and mental collapse was to ignore him, and when his son was dead, he could completely forget him. I don’t know. I will never know.

Some funerals provide closure and a feeling of hope.

Some don’t.

Saving Souls

April 17th, 2023

Taking Asher to church with us is always interesting. He’s a toddler, almost 29 months old. Asher is smart, curious, and unpredictable. Karin and I try to prepare for any eventuality when we take our grandson to Mass, but it is impossible to foresee everything. Sometimes, Asher quiet and cuddly, but that doesn’t happen very often. Usually, he is vocal and extremely mobile during the liturgy. He certainly was yesterday.

We always pack a diaper bag when we go to church with Asher. We bring diapers, wipes, and extra set of clothes, toys, books, and food. Asher tends to get hungry during Mass. We generally have a warm bottle of oat milk, a plastic container of blueberries, a couple Cerebelly bars (energy bars for little people), and a package of Cheerios for him to snack on. Asher often devours everything that we have packed for him. It can get messy. Blueberries roll under the pew, and Cheerios fall on to the floor and scatter. It is all worth the effort because Asher keeps happy, and so do we.

Asher is slowly getting the hang of church. When we walk into the sanctuary, he goes up to the baptismal font to dip his little hand into the holy water. He knows how to bless himself with the water by making the sign of the cross, sorta. By the time he is done with that initial ritual, his face and head are soaking wet. Fortunately, he dries out quickly.

Asher likes the people in the choir, and they adore him. Actually, most everyone in the church likes Asher. He is the de facto mascot of the parish. He is often the star of the show. He was yesterday.

Asher was relatively quiet until the Gospel reading. That’s when he decided that he wanted to move about. There was a time when Karin and I tried to keep him in the pew. That was counterproductive. If we tried to keep him immobile, he would squirm and cry and raise all sorts of hell. We gave up on that. He is now a free-range parishioner, wandering the church during the Mass, exploring the little alcoves and shrines. Nobody seems to be bothered by this. They either ignore him (hard to do), or they smile at the lad. He smiles back and waves to them.

To most people in church, Asher is just a little boy fooling around. To me, he is a prophet busy saving souls.

Yesterday, after the priest finished his homily (sermon), Asher tried to go up to the altar. The altar is on a slightly raised dais. There are two steps leading up to the platform, and Asher started climbing them. I went to gather up the boy, but Father Michael beckoned Asher to come up to him. Asher climbed the steps and walked swiftly over to the priest. Father Michael was sitting in his chair. Asher checked out the bucket of holy water next to the seat. Nothing spilled.

Father Michael stood up and held Asher in his arms. Everyone else stood up to recite the Creed. We all did that in unison, Asher staring at the assembled worshipers. Father Michael kept holding Asher as the lector read the petitions. Then he set him down.

Asher was all over the platform during the rest of the Mass. Father Michael and the acolytes did their work and managed to avoid running over the kid. I stood nearby in case I needed to swoop in and grab the boy. There was no need for me to do that. Everybody was okay.

Near the end of Mass, Father Michael took Asher into his arms again. He laughed and said,

“Asher, I might have opened Pandora’s box here. It’s okay. Uncles do that. I’m the uncle.”

Then the priest and his young padawan gave the blessing.

After Mass, Jessica, the choir director, asked Asher, “Are you going to be a priest when you grow up?”

Asher said, “Yeah.” Then he climbed the steps of the dais and ran over to Father Michael’s chair. Asher sat in it and smiled.