Archive for the 'Life and death' Category

Chem House: Or, another post that manages to be about death

In the best of times, one of the streets we use to get out of our neighborhood by car is practically impassable. It’s a narrow street with cars parked on both sides all the time, creating an inconvenient wait for whomever doesn’t get into the street before another car enters from the other end.

But these are not even the best of times, especially for the two nonagenarian residents of a particular house about mid-block. They have been relocated by the federal government of these United States while an assortment of vans and large trucks emblazoned with the Enivonmental Protection Agency legend and logo sit parked outside their home all day on both sides of the street and men and women in masks and reflective vests move large metal drums back and forth with handtrucks and pallets of Optisorb oil absorbent with pallet jacks.

EPA canyon.

EPA canyon.

In the last few days I kept forgetting that these outsized vehicles were there and kept turning into this street on the way to and from my house, then had to try not to click mirrors with them, or rather click my mirrors on their tires. Out of my peripheral vision I saw lots of yellow tape and black oil drums.

Yesterday as I motored slowly through the canyon of emergency response and spill control vehicles I rolled my window down and — watch how I do this — apologized to the young Security officer who stands in the street for barging through his area of responsibility again and saying that I’ll have to remember to take a different street next time. A woman in jeans and a vest behind him on the sidewalk came forward to my car immediately with a smile and told me that they were really sorry for the inconvenience and that they would be finishing and clearing out as soon as ever they could.

I asked if everyone was alright, thinking I’d have to inquire carefully to prevent her from clamming up, but without further prompting she started telling me what she and her team were doing and why, and how long they expected it to take. She handed me a flyer through the window, indicating the URL for a website where I could get more information.

I saw the phrase “Green Lk Chem House” on the paper.

“You mean you have a website for just this incident in particular?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Well,” she squinted. “There hasn’t really been an incident, it’s just that there’s a lot of improperly stored hazardous material in the house.” She said that the residents — I immediately pictured an old guy of my dad’s generation, his hair in a comb-over and his overalls marbled with paint from odd jobs decades ago — had been collecting chemicals in the house for a long time and not storing them properly. The fire department had somehow been alerted and they had called in her team to have a look.

Look they did and found they did, and came back with their trucks and masks they did. I asked where the residents were, and she said “they’re in a hotel.”

“Studying up on proper storage of hazmats,” I offered.

“One would hope,” she said.

Her name was Kay. Mine was Matt. We shook. Kay said that as community involvement coordinator she was there to answer any questions, and it seemed so. She was not inside the house ordering people around or saying “careful with that, Steve, you’ll blow us all to hell if that barrel falls off your handtruck.” She was just standing across the street, smiling at anyone who came down the sidewalk or rolled down their car window.

Signs of danger.

Signs of danger.

I was surprised by this openness in a federal agency operation. I would have thought they would be pushing people away while they do their work, dissembling and saying very little and reiterating their inability to comment further. Probably I’ve seen too many movies. No, they have a website for the Green Lake Chem House with dozens of enlargeable photos showing basement shelves loaded with jugs of bromides and sulfates and ammonias and goodness knows what-all (“acid, oxidizers, solvents, and other chemicals typically found in laboratories or commercial use”, says the sheet), plus benches brimming with unlabeled mixtures that have long ago separated into scary sludgy solids and murky solutions, and funnels and tubes suspended over more jugs, and empty and not-empty drums stacked in piles out in the back yard.

I went back over there this evening to take some photos. This time not Kay but a similarly friendly, similarly safety-vested, similarly casually dressed man named Jeffrey was there to answer questions. He was talking with a young man who had been walking past carrying a backpack and who seemed very worried about what might have been going on inside the house.

“It was a man and his sister,” Jeffrey told the young passerby. “He’s 93 and she’s 91, and he told us he was doing some experiments, but a lot of the stuff has been sitting there for years.” He said that since he’s federal, he doesn’t know exactly how the discovery was made, but he said that neighbors are claiming that they’ve been complaining about the house for years. Apparently the man called the fire department because he needed help getting his sister downstairs, and the fire department alerted the EPA.

“He was unwilling to dispose of the chemicals voluntarily,” said Jeffrey, who turns out to be the EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “‘All of this stuff has value’, he said. So that’s what initiated our work here.”

It's when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

It’s when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

I’m unsure how obvious it is that I would be absolutely fascinated by a person like this homeowner, even slightly obsessed. I’m not a hoarder, b…wait…let me rephrase that. I’m not a very successful hoarder, but I have hoarding in me. I understand the impulse and if I hadn’t moved so many times and also had to make room in my physical, geospatial life for a woman and two children and two cats, and all their toys and kibble, I would probably never have been able to get rid of many of the things that I have set out on the grass verge next to the street with signs on them that say things like “FREE BAR STOOL — ELVIS SAT HERE”.

I get how it happens, at least with me. Time is escaping our lives at an alarming rate, jetting off like steam from a leaky valve, and yet we often imagine ourselves in a static sort of way, so that it’s possible for us to rethink old thoughts. “One of these days I’m going to fix that thing…finish painting that canvas…get some oars for that canoe…make a workbench where I can mount that drill press…replant those trees in bigger pots…use those old pieces of PVC pipe as hoops for…” The number of things I still think of myself as “intending to do” as soon as I get the time is astounding. But that number of things is not being reduced at the same rate that old age — yes, let’s just say it, my Death — approaches. I don’t know what that latter rate is, but it’s fast, probably a lot faster than I realize (even with all the realizing I’ve been doing about this in recent months), and at some dread hour in the future near or far the arrival of that fell visitor will overtake my to-do list with a sudden finality, and it won’t care about what’s in my basement.

And so I can see how this old guy suddenly finds himself nearly a century old and he hasn’t yet done all the mixing he needs to do. Doesn’t realize that the thought is old, impossibly old, beyond his ability now to carry out. What I want to ask him is, what does he believe he is trying to do? He’s obviously not some mad bomber. Is he, was he a professional chemist? Was there some elixir that eluded him, some El Dorado of cleaning agents the discovery of which would make him famous or rich and after which he still seeks? Has he been operating under the impulse of some old thought of himself as someone doing important work that our valiant military might deploy toward peace and democracy on far shores? What will happen when he finally understands, really understands, that his quest has been cut short, that it’s over? This is the moment I would want to be looking into his face, to encounter in its raw and yet thwarted state that strange Promethean force that makes people behave in ways that are inconsistent with — even orthogonal to — the reality in which they exist. But not to judge or to jeer. Just to gawk. Because I’m in awe. The madness of being alive and having plans, great plans…it’s pathetic and terrifying and lovable.

The game's up.

Whatever the idea was, its time is up.

Unfortunately, at a certain point it’s also a potential “airborne toxic event”*, and therefore a hazard to the neighbors. So, let’s quit the morbid speculation and have another bag of Optisorb over here.

*See Don Delillo’s White Noise.

The Pick-Up Sword

I could be on the topic of my sister’s death for a while. I’m ready to talk about it. So you may want to come back in a year or two if you’re in an up phase and don’t want to be brought low.

I was doing the dishes one day recently and became aware that Millie, who is three and was sitting at her place at the kitchen table having a snack or drawing or something, had begun saying something interesting about her imaginary friend.

“My friend knows how to get people out of heaven. She has a pick-up sword,” she said in that off-hand way that kids have of saying things when they are also peeling crayons or grapes.

“What is a pick-up sword?” I asked, suddenly alert.

“It’s a sword that you use to pick people up and throw them over into the life,” she replied. “To where life is.”

Maybe something like this? Image found on www.kaia.ca and used without permission.

Setting out for heaven? Painting by Kaia (www.kaia.ca) used by kind permission.

I didn’t say anything for a long minute, during which Millie’s discourse wandered off into the realm of sports…or gardening — I wasn’t quite sure. “My friend was telling me  — he was calling the little red thing that was red and round, he called it a baseball tomato.”

I said, “I wish I could use the pick-up sword to bring my sister back to life.”

“It has to be special,” Millie said. “To pick up people. Pick-up swords are super special that you can’t even touch them. Well, you can try to touch them but you have to be super special.”

I wish I were super special.

Nowhere I can reach her

Sweet life’s a sparrow lost at sea,
In dark of night with far to go

– Tom Rush

I died, and behold I am alive forevermore…

– The Book of Revelation

My sister Jeni died in April. She died of complications from her third battle with a cancer that came upon her when she was in her early thirties. Needless to say… Well. There are so many things that are needless to say. Most everything I can think of to say is needless to say, which is why I’ve had trouble imagining how to write about this.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni died suddenly, we felt, for we were not prepared for the precipitous downturn in her health and the failure of her liver, pretty much in a single day, after what seemed like a pesky imbalance in her body chemistry that simply needed correction and monitoring. We her family were caught off guard, though some friends were able to see that the battle had become very fierce in recent months and were very worried. She herself expected to come home from the hospital after a few days, and although she was uncomfortable and in some pain at times she did little complaining, focusing her energy instead on her work, which was as a piano accompanist for voice students at Seattle Pacific University in Tacoma. The thing that galled her the most was the occasions when she could not play piano because her fingers became bloated and painful and her fingernails turned black, or the drugs took away her energy. She wanted more than anything to continue to support her students.

My sister and I were not as close as many siblings are, but she mattered to me. It was important to me that she was there, that she was here, here in life with me and my brother and my parents, that she remain a living piece of the nuclear unit I was hatched into. And I also genuinely enjoyed her as a person — her sense of humor especially, and her generosity and her courage, and her willingness in later years to see things from other people’s points of view. We had very different experiences in our faith journeys and it was, all our adult lives, difficult and even uncomfortable for us to converse about those journeys. I am a person of doubt, she of certitude. My faith is an unquiet searching — a thrashing one might even say — in the face of enormous fears. The voice of God in my life is hard for me to discern because my ego, my lower power, makes so much racket. My sister Jeni’s faith was a serene confidence that the Wonderful Story that had been handed down to us was true, literally and absolutely, and though the cancer bared its teeth and gnashed at her for twenty years, which was surely terrifying for her, she spoke most often of God’s provision and God’s care and God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s love, and of her certainty that she was in the palm of his hand no matter what happened. She gave the disease nothing but her body, which in her view was the least of her.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy blissing in her presence.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy adoring her.

The feeling was -- and remained -- mutual.

Some years go by. The feeling was — and remained — mutual.

Jeni asked God when the cancer first came if she could be allowed to see her children grow. The oldest of four was only eight or nine years old then. I was turning a spadeful of earth in my parents’ backyard when my mother came running out of the house through the sliding glass door that gave onto the brick patio under the old crabapple tree. She was gasping and sobbing, having just gotten the phone call from Jeni. At that time I could not imagine the fear that engulfed my mother because I was not yet a dad. But that was Jeni’s request, the prayer she prayed. And she did see them grow. She saw the three girls wed and her son affianced.

I wish to do honor to my sister and her world-view, to a faith that in large part I share with her, but the words I would use to describe what has befallen her and my family, and myself, are different words than she would use. She left behind an online journal that has become a permanent testimony to her courage and to what she would describe as God’s faithfulness. Many, many people, some fellow cancer patients and others not, have expressed what a blessing her candor and faith have been to them. But I am having a different experience of it all, and my faith is sore afflicted these days.

I, my sister Jeni, and my brother Ben.

With Jeni and my brother Ben.

 

Jeni's family in our parents' back yard.

Jeni’s family in our parents’ back yard.

The facts on this side of the veil are simple enough: she got breast cancer, she survived it, it went away for almost a decade, it came back again and she survived it again, even though it took an enormous toll on her physically, and then it came back a third time, and while doctors were trying to figure out the origin of a big bellyful of fluid that my sister in her wonderful phlegmatic way named Henrietta (her journal abounds with references to Henrietta’s waxing and waning and how uncomfortable life with Henrietta was), her liver just conked out.

It happened on the 3rd April. She had been in the hospital over Easter weekend because she had passed out at home. The doctors had found that her sodium levels were alarmingly low and her potassium high and couldn’t figure out why. My brother Ben talked to her Easter weekend and she said she was low on energy but was hoping to go home before Monday. He, a fireman, became alarmed when she was still in the hospital on Tuesday, and wondered whether the doctors weren’t saying how much trouble she might be in. I, swamped and mentally exhausted at my new job, did not even realize she had not gone home. Wednesday Angela called me in tears and said “Jeni is dying. She has a day or two.”

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

It seemed unreal. I wondered what to do. I went back to my desk to see how I could tidy up things so I could take a day off the next day and go to the hospital, but Angela called a while later and told me I needed to get on a bus to the hospital right away. It would not be days but hours. My new job is in Renton, which is a half-hour drive south of Seattle in good traffic, and I had no car because I ride in a carpool. My sister was in Bellevue at the hospital I was born in. I caught several buses and got to Overlake Hospital in time to join a growing circle of friends and family. Jeni’s husband was there and had been there since morning. My mother was there. Angela arrived with the girls shortly after I got there. Jeni’s son and youngest daughter were there. Her oldest daughter was flying with her husband from Minnesota, and her second oldest daughter, who had just landed with her husband in Japan for a visit with his family of origin, had turned right around and was trying to get a flight back home. Jeni was not lucid when I got there. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes that had such wit and humor in them, a readiness to be delighted, were open slightly as she labored to breathe, but she was unable to respond. We took turns holding her hand and stroking her arm and talking to her, and her husband Randy, a theologian, acknowledged that what he was hoping for now was an outright miraculous healing. But there was no reprieve this time. There came a point when the many church-friends that had gathered to support us moved out into the hall so that Randy and the kids and Angela and I and our girls and our mother could have a quiet moment. We did not want to acknowledge what we knew. My nephew Scott raised a piano concerto on his phone, something by Brahms that my sister loved, and it filled the room while we were quiet. I went out to text my cousin in California and some relatives on the East Coast, and when I opened the door to go back in she had slipped away and Randy was sobbing and holding onto her and saying her name over and over, and my family was bent inward around him like the petals of a flower closing at dusk.

Playing for family at my uncle's mansion on Cascadia Avenue, late '70s or early '80s.

Playing at my uncle’s mansion on Cascadia Avenue. For me, the sound of Jeni playing piano is the sound of family.

It all happened so fast. Not just her death, I mean, but her life. She was fifty-two, just sixteen months older than I. It will not be long at all before I reach an age that my older sister — she who came first and was always — never reached. A half-century and change. No time at all, really.

I think we are all still a little stunned. It was different with my father’s passing a year and a half ago. We had seen that coming, and he seemed like he wasn’t really looking forward to anything in particular anymore. He felt bad leaving my mom, he told me near the end, but they both knew he’d have been absolutely sunk if she’d gone first. So his breathing got more difficult and his energy waned and one day he went into a kind of dream state, where he was alternating between sleep and a fitful busy-ness with his arms, as though he were picking books off a shelf or dabbing at a painting or gathering pieces of yarn from a loom. He didn’t know he was doing it. Then he would suddenly see one of us and his face would light up in recognition, but only for a moment. He would say something incoherent and fall to dreaming again. Then he went into a coma, and it seemed strange but it wasn’t unexpected. He only lingered for two days. I was relieved. Although I’ve missed him a lot since, at the time it seemed like a mercy.

On our way to somewhere where dressy clothes are required.

On our way to somewhere with a dress code.

Up against the wood paneling for a picture.

It’s Easter. Up against the door, you two!

But my sister was so young. My poor mother must bear the unbearable anguish of burying a child — a weight I can’t even imagine bearing up under. Months later she cries every morning.

My sister died two months ago and she’s not here anymore. She’s not anywhere where I can reach her. That gone-ness is the part that keeps feeling so alien, and it scares me because it threatens to pull my feeble little faith into the rip in the cosmos that her death leaves, this gaping hole in the world that we’re all standing around. That dark hole she disappeared into forces me to ask myself what I believe about the Hereafter. It may be just a phase, but I don’t like the answers I’m coming up with.

Because our lives were both so busy in separate circles, I don’t miss her all through the day the way her children and husband do. It hits me out of the blue in moments when I have an impulse to share an idea with her, to call her up. Then I realize that I can’t do that. I’ll never be able to do that again. It is a sudden and permanent change in the configuration of the world I know. Or when I’m doing the dishes, sometimes it hits me that my sister’s life is a historical finality now, unlike mine. She was less than two years older, and yet while my life continues to have uncertainty, and choices, and joys and sorrows I have not yet foreseen — continues to “unfold” before me in time as I inhabit time — my sister’s life is a known span, a completed thing. Her life was a whirlwind of activity and learning and loving and growing and struggling and rejoicing and making music, but a whirlwind that people will speak of now in the past tense even as we struggle to hold her in the present. For a while there will be many of us who knew her and we will speak to each other about things she would have enjoyed or what she would have thought about something or things she used to say. Or we won’t speak but we will remember, each in our own eye, the look of her when she laughed, or hear in our ears the sound of her voice or her piano playing. Then there will be conversations with people who are very young now, like my daughters, and we’ll say “You remember Aunt Jeni. We used to go to her house at Thanksgiving.” And then we will say to friends we make in coming years, “Jeni was our sister, you never knew her,” and to those who have not yet been born we will someday say, “she died before you were born.” And when my children are grown they’ll say “Jeni was my dad’s sister. She played the piano.”  And when all of us have followed her into the Beyond there will be only photographs and stories handed down, maybe a recipe for a favorite family dish. Someday long decades or centuries from now she will be a name in a family tree, attended by two cold dates — 14 November 1960 and 3 April 2013 — whose life people may wonder about, and if they do they will imagine her incorrectly. But in some ways, my own life is exactly like that. All of our lives are like that. Already complete and finished and spinning away through the macrocosm like comets loosed from their orbits.

Whatever she figured out, I never quite got it.

!,?

I shrink from that thought, that we are nothing but cold stones in a vacuum, and what defeats the finality of that metaphor — at least for me, at least right now — is the same thing that defeats the finitude of death, whether we believe in a resurrection or not. It’s the bond between one life and another. The fact that we’re standing here stricken and knowing how stricken we are, knowing the fullness of our loss, the fact that we stop what we’re doing and come together celebrating the life and grieving the loss… that’s what tells us we are not just historic entries in a ledger, rocks tumbling through space. Yes, we will all eventually fade from the memory of earth and its inhabitants, but at the moment that we die we drag the hearts of our loved-ones to the edge of the abyss, stretching the bonds of a love loth to yield, and when the cord finally snaps we leave them there staring into the dark. The echo of the break whips into those left behind and ricochets through their souls. The wound proves the love and the love proves the life.

If each of our lives really is like that, I guess that’s okay. I mean it has to be, doesn’t it? And we won’t know until we don’t care. But maybe — I hope despite my extended moments of disbelief — maybe each flaming star of a life is also a sweet dream in the eye of a benevolent God, whom in my heresy or ignorance or willfulness I imagine to be grieving for us and with us…

The two who are gone.

Dad and Jeni. The two who are gone.

…and with us — in light of the beauty of each of the unnumbered lives it has created — capable of being startled by their brevity.

A hundred is better

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep”

– Robert Frost

There’s an old abandoned railroad grade called the Iron Horse Trail, the old railbed of the Milwaukee Road, that winds up to Snoqualmie Pass from North Bend along the northern flanks of Mount Washington, Change Peak, McClellan Butte and Silver Peak before running into what was in its day the longest tunnel on the Milwaukee Road system, then to emerge at the west end of Lake Keechelus at the top of the pass. This blog post is not really about that trail.

“A Taste of Old Monroe”.

Pictures of the Iron Horse Trail online now show repaired trestles that have no rails across them but instead smooth, walkable, bikeable, joggable paths, but when my friend Rich and I hiked along the railway there long ago, it was still physically a railroad, with rails and ties, and there was one trestle that we walked out on whose middle had collapsed many years before. We always saw it from the highway going up into the pass. It looked like a disaster waiting to happen, but it was the crumbling infrastructure of a world long gone.

The day we hiked along the rails we heard gunshots, someone shooting a rifle, but didn’t worry about it until we emerged from a wooded section of the railbed and saw a man standing next to a pickup that was parked next to the rails and looking sheepish. When he realized we were not authorities of any kind he told us he’d been target practicing along the tracks, hadn’t expected anyone to be walking up here, and was surprised when he saw my tee-shirt in the cross-hairs of his scope. My tee-shirt was blue and had a big rooster on it. Both the marksman and I were lucky that day, to say nothing of the rooster.

Trillium.

I had hoped my hiking buddy Scott and I might hike part of the Iron Horse Trail this past Saturday. But a sick man allegedly shot his wife and his daughter in their North Bend home the previous Sunday, then burned down the house by setting a can of gasoline in a skillet on a lit stove and headed for his bunker in the woods, where he had stockpiled food and ammunition for a last stand. Scott, who lives in North Bend, didn’t want to hike anywhere in the Snoqualmie Valley while the manhunt was going on. I agreed. The night before our hike, news reports were quoting forest experts who said that the man, a well-equipped survivalist, might be able to remain hidden in the mountains for months or years, which left us with the future prospect of hiking where we ran the risk of running into this desperado, or forsaking the Snoqualmie Valley completely and using up precious hike time on the highway to places further away.

As it turned out we needn’t have worried; the police work on this case was executed very swiftly. Images on the man’s computer, which survived the fire, practically put an X on the map for those in pursuit, and by the time I was driving to meet Scott the next morning I heard that special police teams were watching the man’s bunker, and before our day of hiking was done they would find him dead inside it, leaving us all to realize over and over again that even if they’d taken him alive there would have been no use asking what he was thinking.

Salmonberry. The lower woods were spangled with them.

Bridal Veil Falls.

Our wives had only given us shore leave until one o’clock, but we started early and drove up to Highway 2 to hike the Lake Serene trail, figuring if we didn’t have time to get all the way to the lake we could go as far as the Bridal Veil Falls Lookout.

We stopped for breakfast at the Hitching Post Cafe in Monroe, old Monroe, Main Street Monroe, which most people driving through Monroe don’t even know exists because it’s across the tracks from the main highway. I love Monroe’s Main Street because you can drive down the street and when you see a cafe you want to eat at advertising “A Taste of Old Monroe” you can just tug the steering wheel a little to the right and angle into a wide space, which is what we did.

I’m not sure if this is “stream violet” or “evergreen violet”, but it’s a violet okay.

“A few good years left in us.”

A day like this would not be complete, would not start well, without a good hungry man breakfast. I had the French Toast combo — I always do — and Scott got a similar arrangement with griddle cakes. The old men of the town were already there, having finished breakfast and now chatting over coffee. We sat in a booth painted with a little mural of a steam engine, “Pat McCoy’s 4-4-0″. There were other, larger murals covering all the surrounding walls, one depicting the street in the 1950s. Wood models of Conestoga wagons lined the shelves, and there were several old pistols, a guitar and a long logger’s crosscut saw hanging on the walls. The food was delicious and plentiful.

The trail was adorned with trilliums, yellow violets and salmonberry (I took pictures, naturally) and as far as the fork between the falls lookout and the lake it was fairly easy going, which fooled us into thinking we could make the lake in another hour. If this were an official report, I would note that there was a fair amount of downed material lying athwart the trail and that the trail was pretty much a streambed after the turn-off to the falls. Had the trail not been chiefly composed of crumbled granite rocks it would have been muddy going. And it was very steep. In many places there were wooden stairs that might as well have been submarine ladders.

The trail would have been muddy if it weren’t so rocky.

This is what the back of Mt. Index looks like.

During a water break near the top I called Angela on my cell phone. I don’t normally do this. I like to leave technology behind me when I’m in the woods. She had walked with the girls to a restaurant near the house and they were eating brunch, which made me glad. I knew that at a certain place on their walk home they’d be able to see Mt. Index, and I asked her to point and tell the girls that that’s where I was, and have them wave, which she did. She told them that even though I would not be able to see them waving I would feel it in my heart.

A snowfield lay over the last quarter mile of the trail, and Lake Serene was covered in snow and ice. We were way behind schedule now so we only stayed at the lake’s edge long enough to snap some photos, watch a few avalanches high up on the rock walls that rose from the lake’s far shore — the northern face of Index — and eat our lunches. Then we bolted back down the trail. The only wildlife I saw was a single chipmunk because the trail was so difficult, each step so full of potential for a twisted ankle, that I could never lift my eyes from the trail ahead of me.

A hazy stripe of sun lies across frozen Lake Serene.

Scott and I are attempting to plan and execute a hike — a no-kids, just-us-fellas hike — every other month this year, the even months minus December, so just five hikes. After we met a man on the trail who seemed in his seventies at least, Scott said to me cheerfully that we still had a few good hiking years in us. I got to thinking. That’s just twenty years for me now — Scott is a little younger. If we hadn’t committed to these five or six hikes every year (and we missed February because of bad colds and scheduling mishaps) then realistically I might only do one hike every year, if that. Twenty more hikes only? In the whole rest of my life? It reminded me of the lines by Paul Bowles in his novel The Sheltering Sky:

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Twenty hikes. The thought made me very sad and I said so.

Scott’s happy retort, “but a hundred is better!”, went ahead of us like the call of a trumpet, seemed to be picked up and amplified by the forest.

Scott and parties unrelated picking their way across the snowfield. By the time we headed down the footholds were getting slushy.

Faithful Scott. Yes. I’ll take a hundred, please. A hundred more hikes in these rolling fir hills that hatched me. And I’ll be grateful for them. I don’t like it that we get old. That death comes for us all. I hope someday to find a grace and a rhythm and a dignity in it, but right now it just bums me out, as it bums me out that a man can go round the twist without his neighbors knowing it, without them knowing that he’s spent six years building and stocking an underground munitions bunker in the woods, and that he will be willing to kill his family when he has decided the end of the world is at hand.

We have so far to go and it feels to me like there’s so little time.

Some help I was

We laid to rest the father of my best friend Kip last Thursday. For me, this is the third such crossing over since the beginning of summer — older men I cherished in different ways. My own father went in early August, and shortly after that my church lost its elder statesmen, actually its elder elder. Now this man Ben, who met my appearance on his doorstep, my appetite at his dinner table, my hand on his refrigerator door as I helped myself to a beer, with the most unreserved welcome. I was Kip’s friend, and in his dad’s mind that might as well have made me a son. He called me “Choo”, was in fact present on some outing of his family’s when Kip first gave me that nickname, they all having turned to see me lagging behind them in some spazzy reverie and Kip having said, “Comin’, Choo?”

Unlike my own dad or Jeff’s dad, Ben was a cut-up, a jokester who lived for the double entendre and reveled in the timely pun. He laughed at everything he could laugh at and cooked a brilliant steak. I was not to knock at the front door of Ben’s house, even though the doors were perfect for knocking. There were large metal rings on both tall wooden halves. Kip’s family expected me to walk in. I usually knocked and then walked in, but I did not wait for them to open. They would have given me an earful for making them get up to answer the door when it was just me.

In the eternity of my memory of the house I knock, walk in, and must immediately wrestle the dog out of my crotch. Then Kip’s mom, who is sitting at her card table next to the fireplace putting the fun bits of a jigsaw puzzle together — the boats, the barn, the mill — glances up through the top of her bifocals and says, “Matthew, get your ass over here and put some of the sky in for me.” Ben is in the kitchen, preparing a meal of red meat and potatoes. “Hey Choo!” he yells upon stepping out from the kitchen to see who has arrived. The household is chaotic, noisy, unjudging, safe. Not all my friends’ houses felt that way. Some were quiet, nearly unpeopled galleries of distant lives. Kip’s family seemed to live in all the rooms at once and fill them all with witty expressions and laughter, sometimes complaint and yelling, too. Life was lived at full volume, and my own noise and witty banter were welcome. After paying the toll of a few pieces of puzzle sky successfully placed, my only other duty was to partake of some meat or drink. It sometimes took twenty minutes before I was free to ascend the narrow attic stair to Kip’s room so we could get down to the serious business of listening to records and playing cribbage.

The old craftsman house in Bellevue was the first of our houses — Kip’s parents’, Jeff’s, mine — to be knocked down and replaced with a sterile New Eastside mansion. After Kip and his siblings flew the nest, Ben and Betsy moved back across the lake to Seattle, whence they’d come. Ben died a few yards from site of the house he’d grown up in, though I believe that house is long gone, too.

Thursday came and I caught a bus from work over to the church in Bellevue, one that Kip and Jeff and I had passed countless times on our way from my house or Jeff’s to Kip’s, or from Kip’s house to my house or Jeff’s. I had only ever been inside it once before, back in the early ’90s, for the funeral of one of our high school friends who was gunned down on the streets of Seattle after intervening to stop a fistfight. I was looking forward to representing the small pack of Kip’s oldest friends who were, excepting myself, unable to attend the memorial service. My own family having just gone through this, I was eager to be a support.

But I had already forgotten how this goes. I was sad to hear of Ben’s passing, of course, and shared the real and immediate grief of my friend as it affected him and his family, but not having seen old Ben in almost a decade I could hardly say I would miss him terribly. For me he was pretty much a happy memory already. So I was expecting to sail through the event without much activity in the lacrimal glands. I would stand there like bedrock for the shaken family I loved, a smiling, composed symbol of Ben’s favor among all who knew him.

But as I say, I had forgotten how it goes. The family were still “in it”, as I and my family had been “in it” in August. They were holding up fine, still pushing themselves through the motions of “the next thing, and the next thing”, as one must do after the passing of a loved one. It all comes so quickly…the arrangements to be made, the people to notify, the attorneys and caterers to instruct, the paperwork to fill out, the photographs to assemble and the eulogies to write. The family had probably not yet had a moment to catch their breath.

I, on the other hand, was removed from all that, and as I settled into the pew of the beautiful old Episcopal church where Ben had brought his young family when they moved to Bellevue, I did not realize what an empty, raw vessel I was, recently scoured out and ready now to be hit with the full force of the loss of a father, even though I would be experiencing it obliquely, from a few feet away, a few pews back. The loveliness of humanity in its grieving process took me utterly by surprise. I had trooped through my own father’s funeral service, even spoken publicly, kept my composure and comforted those who could not, like my dear aunt who cried and cried, and considered it a success because everything got done and got done in the right order, and my father was honored and sung to rest in a way that gave those who knew and loved him closure.

But I had not had a chance to look fully into the abyss, to see ourselves all standing there at the edge singing a man’s favorite hymns, as though to comfort him and not us. I hadn’t yet been able to consider what it means when we gather after a death. It’s a shocking and wonderful thing, this thing we do. An unthinkable crack, horrible and permanent, opens up in our lives, and our loved one is on the other side of it, invisible to us, forever as long as we live. That chasm will never close in our lifetime, but we stand there together and sing into the hole, that inevitable gaping darkness, and we ask God to remember us remembering our flesh and bone. We stand there in our most vulnerable estate, dust living the windblown life of dust, and yet we lift our voices up in gratitude for having shared what now appear to have been just fleeting moments together. We read scripture aloud, words that sometimes confused us and sometimes caused us to argue with each other over their meaning, but that now form a shield between us and the unacceptable fact of death. We sing the raw edge off of our pain.

“Eternal father, strong to save”, we sang. It is a song I love and it was the first song in the liturgy we sang that day. Episcopal liturgy is foreign to me, but the hymns were some I knew and the organist was literally pulling out all the stops, weaving a tapestry of hallowed tones that carried our frail voices — clinging to each other in disarray — into sublime harmony. Mine failed me almost right away. I tried to sing but the breath went out of me as though sucked out by a nearby explosion, the way Christopher Plummer’s voice faltered as he sang ‘Edelweiss’ in The Sound of Music. All I could do was whisper the words. It happened on every song. The hall was filled mostly with elderly folks, including the only two people who shared my pew. I didn’t know any of them and I was grateful to be there by myself, all broken down as I suddenly was. I was grateful that the family was too far in front of me to see my lower lip wiggling, the water at the edges of my eyes.

It was a long moment that went through me like a spear. It was the moment that had been on its way to me since my father, unconscious in his living room three months earlier, surrounded by us his family, gently released his grip and stopped breathing and left us here in this bewildering and beautiful place, a place that suddenly seems more lonely and strange than any conception of death I can believe in.

The quiet thought trickled out of me, “he’s really never coming back.”

I felt it all then, the loneliness of all the people who remain — the whole of breathing humanity — for all their friends departed; the weight of the whole world’s longing.


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