Looking Back at My Reflection

Henry Polis 1968

In acknowledgment of Father’s Day, I pulled out a particular photo album that chronicles my father’s 1968 backyard project.   This was no ordinary project, but like every other project he took on, it was accomplished during the daylight hours after he got home from his desk job and then consumed most of his weekend waking hours.  He had been dreaming it up for a number of years, and then one day, grabbed a shovel and simply got started and didn’t quit until it was finished.

Grouting the tile perimeter

He was determined to build a full size swimming pool, by himself, with his own two hands.  He did use our little Farmall Cub tractor to blade away the first layer of topsoil, but the rest of the digging was by the shovel-full.   He wanted a kidney shaped pool rather than a rectangular one, so he soaked the wooden forms in water to form the graceful curves. The cement was poured by a cement truck, but the sidewalks were all self-mixed in our own little cement mixer that ran off a small engine.  The tile that lined the top of the pool was all hand grouted and placed, square by square.  The pumphouse/changing room was built alongside.

In the very bottom, installing a drain

Pouring the sidewalk by hand

I was 14 that summer, not truly understanding how extraordinary an effort this was, but simply accepting it as another “dad” project like any other he finished through sheer will, stubbornness and a desire to go on to the next challenge.   Now, over forty years later,  as an adult who is plum tired at the end of an office/clinic work day, I marvel at his energy putting in another four or five hours of physical labor when he came home at night.  No wonder he never suffered from insomnia.

I was in a hurry for it to be done...

Once the pool was declared finished, a hose ran water for several days, and it took 2 more days to heat it up to a temperature that was survivable.  Then my dad took the first dive in.

The best dive ever...

Once he had taken that first dive, he was happy.  He swam every once in awhile, but was soon onto another project (reconstructing a steel walled gas station that arrived on our farm in piles of panels on the back of a flat bed truck, so that he could have a full size “shop” to work on indoor projects during the winter).  It was sufficient for him to just to be able to say he had done it himself.

So as I study the look on my father’s face in these photos, I am startled to see my self looking back at me, like a reflection in the water.  I now realize determination and utter stubbornness can manifest in different ways.  I have no mechanical skills whatsoever,  but like my father,  I always have a dream I’m pursuing, and I keep at it until it is accomplished.

Thanks to my dad for showing me how to dive right into life.  The water’s fine.

One January Afternoon

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 as looking 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, and she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

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.

When I walk into my apartment, the phone is ringing, futilely.  I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray for sleep without dreams.

Where’s the Party?

gnomeparty

Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson

Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson

I  remember childhood summers as 3 months of full-out celebration– long lazy days stretching into nights that didn’t seem to really darken until 11 PM and bright birdsong mornings starting out at 4:30 AM.  Not only were there the brief family vacations at the beach or to visit cousins, but there was the Fourth of July, Daily Vacation Bible School, the county fair, family reunions, and of course and most importantly, my July birthday.  Yes, there were mundane chores to be done, a garden to tend, a barn to clean, berries to pick,  a lawn to mow and all that stuff, but my memories of summer are mostly about fluff and frolic.

So where are the summer parties now?  Who is out there celebrating without me?  Nothing seems to be spontaneous as it was when I was a child. Instead there is still the routine of going to work most days in the summer.

I’m finding myself in the midst of my 55th summer and I have to create celebrations if they are going to happen in my life.  Without that perspective, the bird song at 4:30 AM can feel more irritant than blessing and the long days often mean I fall asleep nodding over a book at 9 PM.  I want to treasure every, every minute of this precious time yet they flow through my fingers like so much water, faster and faster.

I realize there will be few “family” summers left as I watch my children grow into adults and spread their wings.  They may be on to their next adventure in future summers.  So each family ritual and experience together takes on special meaning and needs to be appreciated and remembered.

So….for this summer my family has crammed as much in as we can in celebration of the season:

We just spent some time in the hayfields bringing in the bales with friends–our little crew of seven–sweating and itchy and exhausted, but the sight and smell of several hundred hay bales, grown on our own land, harvested without being rained on and piled in the barn is sweet indeed.   Weekly we are out on the softball field in church league,  yelling encouragement and high-fiving each other, hooting at the good hits and the bad, the great catches and the near misses, and getting dirty and sprained, and as happy to lose as to win.  We had a wonderful July 4 barbeque with good friends culminating in the fireworks show on our farm’s hill overlooking miles of valley around us, appreciating everyone else’s backyard displays as well as our own.  We are now able to sing hymns in church in four part harmony, and last night our children helped lead the singing last night in an evening “campfire church” for over fifty fellow worshipers on our hill.  In a couple weeks, we’ll take to the beach for three days of playing in the sand, roasting hot dogs. reading good books, and playing board games.  We’ll try to make the trek down to Seattle by train to spend the day watching the Mariners play (and likely lose). One change this year is we won’t be returning back to the Lynden fair with our horses–due to “off the farm” work and school schedules, we couldn’t muster the necessary round-the-clock crew after seventeen years of being there to display our little part of small town agricultural pursuits.

Yet the real party happens right here every day in small ways without any special planning.  It doesn’t require money or special food or traveling beyond our own soil.  It is the smiles and good laughs we share together, and the hugs for kids taller than I am. It’s adult conversations with the new adults in our family–no longer adolescents.  It’s finding delight in fresh cherries from our own trees, currants and berries from our own bushes, greens from the garden, flowers for the table from the yard.  It is the Haflingers in the field that come right up to us to enjoy rubs and scratches and follow us like puppies. It is babysitting for toddlers who remind us of the old days of having small children, and who give us a glimpse of future grandparenthood.  It is good friends coming from far away to ride our horses and learn farm skills. It is an early morning walk in the woods or a late evening stroll over the hills. It is daily contact with aging parents who no longer hear well or feel well but nevertheless share of themselves in the ways they are able.  It is the awesome power of an evening sunset filled with hope and the calming promise of a new day somewhere else in this world of ours.

Some days may not look or feel like there’s a party happening, but that is only because I haven’t searched hard enough.  The party is here, sparklers and all, even if only in my own mind.

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Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak

Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak

sunsett

And Grace Will Lead Him Home

amazing-grace

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 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 come in after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered his room 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 was okay to let go. It was 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 a powerful pathogen. 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 can lead us home.

Dismiss Your Servants in Peace

wedding

Sixty-six years ago today, my parents were married. Christmas Eve certainly wasn’t an ordinary wedding anniversary, but it did make it easy to remember during their years together. It was a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.

Now that they are both gone, when I look at their young faces in their wedding portrait, I imagine a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other for over a year, had talked pretty seriously about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.

My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he went to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career in a rural town in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my ordinarily cautious mother to do.

They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father left. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was all in letter correspondence, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.

As my mother’s things are being moved following her death, their letters are now in a box in my living room, stacked neatly and tied together. I have not yet been ready to open them but will soon. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them after the war but depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the injuries–both physical and psychological.  It did not seem possible that things could go sour after they reunited following so many months of hardship to start their “real” lives. The expectations of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and naturally, reality did not always deliver.

And so were the expectations in the barn on the first Christmas Eve. It must have been frightening for the parents of this special Baby, knowing in their minds but not completely understanding in their hearts what responsibility lay in their arms. They had to find faith and trust, not just in God who had determined what their future held, but in each other, to support one another when things became very difficult. It didn’t take long for that to happen: there was to be no room for them to stay in Bethlehem, she was a teenage girl enduring her first labor and delivery in a stable with no assistance from anyone, and later they became aware of a threat to the survival of their son requiring they leave the country.

When Mary and Joseph go to the temple for the circumcision and consecration of their son the following week, they allow a “righteous and devout man”, Simeon,  to hold their baby as, moved by the Holy Spirit, he tells them the role this child is to play in the world.  He prays over Jesus, saying to the Lord, “As you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.  For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

It must have been like looking into a crystal ball to hear Simeon speak, as we’re told “the child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” But Simeon didn’t whitewash what was to come. It would have been easy to do so–just mention salvation, the light and the glory that will come to the people due to this little baby, but leave out the part about how His existence would cause division in Israel as well as personal rejection and anguish that He would experience. Not only that, but anguish will be His mother’s to bear as well. I’m sure that statement must have ended the sense of “marvel” they were feeling, and replaced it instead with great sorrow and trepidation.

Christmas is a time of joy, celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently. A baby in a manger is a lovely story to “treasure up” in our hearts but once He became a bleeding Redeemer on a cross, it pierces those same living beating hearts, just as Simeon foretold.

My parents, such young idealistic adults 66 years ago, are His servants dismissed from this life in peace, as was Simeon, having beheld and known their Savior. As I look at their serene faces in their wedding photo, I know those same eyes now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~today in heaven.