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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drizzlesnowdrop

A World of Wet and Weeping

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My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

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January 1979
Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular January day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the lanes.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock. As he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I can’t bear to look any longer.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears.  The phone is ringing and ringing, and won’t be answered.

I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray for a sleep without dreams.

 

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The Long Road of Weariness and Want

snowyrose

 

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
     with children.
~Kobayashi Issa (translated by Robert Haas)

 

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A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

 

hi-dali
Rachel weeping – Salvador Dali

 

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people|
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,|
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word

 

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And the slaughter of innocents and weary road for refugees continues unabated-
In observance of The Feast Day of the Holy Innocents:

 

There is no consolation for the families of those lost:
Their arms ache with emptiness tonight,
beds and pillows lie cold and unused,
blankets and cuddlies await all night hugs
that never come again.

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in manger dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could displace masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
so often washed away from life
as unwanted.

His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept
as this happened.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

 

freezedriedrose

 

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

 

 

God was Here: To Ease the Breaking Soul

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In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

 He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound.

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door,
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.
~Luci Shaw “Kenosis”

 

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To think the original Breath stirred the dust of man to become New on earth.

This mystery of God becoming Man, growing within woman, fed from her breast, wounded and bleeding to save her who delivered Him, emptied Himself completely to then deliver all of us as newborns, sliding slippery into our new life.

And we gasp for breath, our nostrils no longer breathing dust, but filled by the fragrance of forgiveness and grace.

We break through His wounds, bursting into bloom.

 

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Who comes this night, this wintry night
As to the lowly manger?
The shepherds and the Kings did come
To welcome in the stranger

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking

Brother Joseph bring the light
Fast, the night is fading
And who will come this wintry night
To where the stranger’s waiting?

Who comes this night, with humble heart
To give the fullest measure
A gift of purest love to bring
What good and worthy treasure

Brother Joseph bring the lamp
For they are asking for him
The children come this starry night
To lay their hearts before him

For those who would the stranger greet
Must lay their hearts before him
And raise their song in voices sweet
To worship and adore him

Brother Joseph bring the light
Fast, the night is fading
And who will come this wintry night
To where the stranger’s waiting

Brother Joseph bring the lamp
For they are asking for him
The children come this starry night
To lay their hearts before him
Pure of heart this starry night
To lay their hearts before him
~James Taylor

 

Among the Hunted

ahmama

 

wwudeer2

 

My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.

Enthralled with so much color,
motion,  music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed,  from eating
a new clump of spring grass
growing in the snow.

My heart leaps
with worry.
She tells him
to run
for the thicket,
the safest place where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.

She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.

Then the gun shot
hits my belly too.

My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for his sake.

I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
knowing Bambi
is cold and alone
with no mother
at all.

My mama took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie 
for years.

Those cries
still echo
in my ears
every time someone hunts and shoots
to kill the innocent.

Now, my own children are grown,
my mom is gone from this earth,
I can even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.

I return Sunday after Sunday
to the killing fields of the church pew
knowing mothers and fathers
sons and daughters
grandmothers and grandfathers
sisters and brothers
and babies were hunted down
inside the supposed safety
of the sanctuary,
taken from the warmth of the human thicket
where we hold each other close.

Their cries echo in my ears
where there is no longer innocence.

 

wwudeer1

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The Cathedral to Memory

 

transparents

 

appledylan

 

I planted an apple tree in memory
of my mother, who is not gone,
 
but whose memory has become
so transparent that she remembers
 
slicing apples with her grandmother
(yellow apples; blue bowl) better than
 
the fruit that I hand her today. Still,
she polishes the surface with her thumb,
 
holds it to the light and says with no
hesitation, Oh, Yellow Transparent . . .

they’re so fragile, you can almost see
to the core. She no longer remembers how
 
to roll the crust, sweeten the sauce, but
her desire is clear—it is pie that she wants.
 
And so, I slice as close as I dare to the core—
to that little cathedral to memory—where
 
the seeds remember everything they need
to know to become yellow and transparent.
~Catherine Essinger “Summer Apples”  from What I Know About Innocence

 

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A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible. 
~Welsh Proverb

 

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It is at late summer and harvest time when I most clearly remember my mother – she is standing for hours at the kitchen sink peeling yellow transparent apples, readying them for sauce, and always a pie.

The apples were only part of her daily work:  she canned quarts and quarts of green beans, peeled the peaches and pears for canning, sauced the plums, pickled the cucumbers, jammed the strawberries and raspberries, syruped the blackberries, froze the blueberries, cut the kernels off the corn cobs, baked up the zucchini into breads and cakes, dried the filberts, dug and stored the potatoes,  dehydrated the tomatoes.

Over the years I’ve stood by the sink and the stove and have done what my mother used to do, usually not as well but with the same mission of preserving what I can for another day.  We have been fed from our summer labors.

I know well these trees and vines from which the fruit grows.  I plant the seeds which somehow know to produce when tended and nurtured.  I stand and peel and wash and boil and stir as this is what generations of my family’s women did before me.

May it ever be.

 

applesauce

 

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Removing the Splinter

 

 

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose

 

 

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I crossed the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own child learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter.
I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction.
Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish,
we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away,
we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.