When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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Peak and Valley

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One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak.
— G. K. Chesterton

 

 

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It is all a matter of perspective
and what we perceive from where we stand:
it takes great strength and determination to climb the peak,
and look down upon the valley left far below
where even mountains seem diminished.

Yet what gives life meaning,
what encourages our faith,
and instills hope
is how we thrive while dwelling
deep in the darkest of valleys while
gazing up at the dream-like peaks.

 

 

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photo by Josh Scholten — view of Mt Shuksan from the top of Mt. Baker

 

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photo by Josh Scholten – dawn from the top of Mt. Baker, seeing its shadow to the west

 

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The Tree That Stands Alone

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For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves.

And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk:
in the rings of its years,
its scars,
all the struggle,
all the suffering,
all the sickness,
all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written,
the narrow years and the luxurious years,
the attacks withstood,
the storms endured.

And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

That is home. That is happiness.
~ Hermann HesseBäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte

 

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Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.
~Winston Churchill

 

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A wind has blown the rain away
and blown the sky away
and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand.
I think, I too, have known autumn too long.

~e.e. cummings

 

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Trees are Earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.
~Rabindranath Tagore

 

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Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
~Walt Whitman

 

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I don’t know why, of all the trees that peppered this hill over a century ago, this one was spared.  Perhaps she was the tallest at the time, or the straightest, or just didn’t yield to the ax as the others did.

She has become the sentinel on our farm, a focal point:
the marker by which all else is measured.

She is unchanging as the backdrop of clouds and seasons, color and light shift and swirl.

Visitors climb the hill to her first before seeing anything else on the farm, to see the expanse that she surveys.  Her branches oversee gatherings of early Easter morning worship, summer evening church services, winter sledding parties, and Fourth of July celebrations.

This one special tree stands alone, apart from the others, but is never lonely – not really.  She shares her top with the eagles and hawks, her shadow with humans and other critters in her century-long vigil with people all around the globe in these photos.

Never lonely — no, never.

This is her home.  This is happiness.

 

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Let Us Go In

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Let us go in; the fog is rising…
~Emily Dickinson, her last words

 

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I have watched the dying
in their last hours:
often they see what I cannot,
listen to what is beyond my hearing,
stretch their arms overhead
as fingers touch what is beyond my reach.

I watch and wonder what it will be like
to reverse the steps that brought me here
from the fog of amnion.

The mist of living lifts
as we enter a place
unsurpassed in brilliance and clarity;
the mystery of what lies beyond is solved
simply by going in.

 

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Ensanguining the Skies

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How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”
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to the northwest

 

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to the north
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
  Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
  I never kept before.Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”
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to the northeast
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to the east
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to the southeast
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~ R.S. Thomas “The Moor”
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to the south

 

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to the southwest

 

Last night, as you can see,  was a surrounding sunset experience – 360 degrees of evolving color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It was all in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet communion took place with the air breaking and feeding me like manna from heaven.

May I squander life no more and treasure each day.
May I keep my vows to God, church, family, friends, and patients.
May I be warmed on a chill winter day by the witness of such bleeding of last light of day.

 

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to the west

 

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to the west

 

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to the west

 

God Was Here: A Sight to See

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the Eye of God nebula

 

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than 
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world; 
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.
To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam 
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team 
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away–
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end–the star
was looking into the cave.
And that was the Father’s stare.

~Joseph Brodsky from Nativity Poems

 

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We are not forgotten:
and this is the point.
A marvelous sight to see, a wonderful sound to hear
as we too are revealed in His Glory.

 

 

 

Deep in the cold of winter,
Darkness and silence were eve’rywhere;
Softly and clearly, there came through the stillness a wonderful sound,
A wonderful sound to hear.

All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Sounding in majesty the news that they bring;
All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Welcoming our Saviour, born on earth, a heavenly King.
All bells in paradise, I heard them ring,
‘Glory to God on high’ the angel voices sing.

Lost in awe and wonder,
Doubting I asked what this sign may be;
Christ, our Messiah, revealed in a stable,
A marvelous sight, a marvelous sight to see.

Chorus

He comes down in peace,
A child in humility,
The keys to his kingdom belong to the poor;
Before him shall kneel the kings with their treasures,
Gold, incense, and myrrh.

Chorus
~John Rutter “All Bells in Paradise”

 

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Just to Be is a Blessing

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Before the adults we call our children arrive with their children in tow
  for Thanksgiving,

we take our morning walk down the lane of oaks and hemlocks, mist
  a smell of rain by nightfall—underfoot,

the crunch of leathery leaves released by yesterday’s big wind.

You’re ahead of me, striding into the arch of oaks that opens onto the fields
  and stone walls of the road—

as a V of geese honk a path overhead, and you stop—

in an instant, without thought, raising your arms toward sky, your hands
  flapping from the wrists,

and I can read in the echo your body makes of these wild geese going
  where they must,

such joy, such wordless unity and delight, you are once again the child
  who knows by instinct, by birthright,

just to be is a blessing. In a fictional present, I write the moment down.
  You embodied it. 
~Margaret Gibson “Moment” 

 

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I easily forget to be the child who still resides deep within me, who still thrives within an aging slowing body.

The child who knew each new moment brought something perplexing and wonder-filled.

The child who eagerly woke early on Thanksgiving morning because it was a day of rich smells and tastes amid a feast of family.

The child who still remembers the joy and delight in every moment
and the blessing it is to simply be.

Thank you to my Father in heaven,
who I yearn to touch as I raise up my arms to the sky and fly.

 

 

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