Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | September 24, 2008

Getting On

The difference between “Getting on” and adding the word “it” is a matter of substance. Maybe. More than likely, it’s a matter of years. After hearing more this morning about what gravity does to us all than anyone really wants to know… I think I understand.

Scanning the Irish Sports pages this morning, I noticed a face that looked familiar. Someone I think I’d met back in my Anglican days at one of the local diocese meetings. Probably not… but she looked familiar anyway: Standard issue fiftyish (in the photo), attractive, middle-height looking woman with dark hair. I read she’d had Parkinson’s and died from a fall. No, this wasn’t one of those that choked me up… you know the kind… the “memoriam” bits where the pain is still “really there” – even years and years later. She’d had two divorces, and moved away in the all-too-familiar tragedy sort of way.

No. This was simpler. There’s the question of Parkinson’s in my family. He thinks it’s a matter of time as he looks at his symptoms. And I suspect he’s right. Surely something will be the ender, but there is a change of view when the theoretical and far off becomes more real and certain… especially if the details of how the finale plays out seems less like a game we want to play… where we can somehow fool ourselves into thinking the next hand will see a turn in the cards. Here, there may in fact be a next hand, but that’s less like a turn the trend, than a shortening of the game. I mean, it’s like, this is my Dad, my partner, the guy I worked with every day, all day for twenty years… even sometimes there at the beginning… seven days a week. There’s a part in there where you cross over, or feel you do, from son to partner and confidante, someone you know even better … but not at all better… than even my mom. At least you wonder… and yet you know that’s not possible.

His outlook remains good. He’s a fighter pilot in all that it means.. both in terms of being a fighter, of facing reality, and having courage. He’s a good sailor and navigator, too. He knows where he is, and where home lies. It’s closer now… that ultimate port where we all go. And he knows one of his old salts, Charlie, who had MS in law school and never flinched but fought out a good life saying to him when he asked, “Y’know… I just never figured there was any point in wondering why I got MS… it wouldn’t go anywhere positive if I did… you just gotta do the best you have with what you the Lord gives you.” Charlie was year-after-year one of the most consistent champion sailors the Chesapeake ever knew… not because he could do it himself, but because he couldn’t, knew he couldn’t, and he became an excellent teacher. He was patient, giving and constantly learning himself.

My grandmother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at seventy-four. She had been a Summa Cum Laude from Radcliffe… with both brains, beauty and grace. Her decline was hard on her, but she managed it well… something I wonder that we value, but we do. Yes, I’m proud of her… as if it meant something. Her dad, a college professor, had pushed her reading hard, and she was an avid reader by two. I think I didn’t get there until well into double digits. Yet if there were two things she would have had that she could never learn they were: 1) how to play, and 2) how to find a church home. Small as they are, they were large to her. So she did what she could and wandered Latin American helping schools. Not bad.

She used to read the Bible to my sister and I… and I still think of her whenever I hear the Old Testament  read aloud. Strangely she never read us the New Testament and I never thought later to ask her why. She wasn’t much of a cook or a driver either… and as I wrote once, many a flambe’ erupted whenever she passed through a kitchen… and many a lamp post or random car found a way to imprint itself on the rear of my mom’s car whenever she was left in charge. Yes, I did my own imprint – twice I think… but flambe wasn’t my style.

A practical lady she was not… unless you liked parsley juice and friendly chats with the police sent to  discuss the finer points of “the essence of being”, whether she was in fact aware the role a loud noise like a burglar alarm bell might play in it, and did she know how to turn it off. But somewhere in there as I grew up, the two of us began sharing seats at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s productions followed by dinners to talk theology, and all the rest. When she moved into a group house, took up the vegetarian life,  and stopped eating salt… I knew things were getting serious. It amuses me even to this day when she later  revealed she didn’t even like vegetables… cooked. She was always on the edge of the wave, and would undoubtedly have been a great surfer if she’d ever figured out that thing about how to play.

But of course in those days, I was rather headstrong and couldn’t teach her… ’cause like everyone else, I was intimidated by her and had to “look smart” or act wise or just be a wise guy or whatever when I was around her… and so I was probably hard to live with without even addressing the fact that I was much more traditional in these matters than she usually tolerated. And to top it off, I’d actually had a course or two in philosophy and religion and could of course try to trot out what I could remember from those afternoon lectures, or bludgeon her with some logical fallacy or other. Sometimes even Plato and Ari-somebody showed up. But she humored me with a smile.. the smile that knows when she was certain she was right and you weren’t, and you knew she was right, too, and didn’t like it, but there you are. And she was too kind to let that be that, but would suggest more than maybe the cat had her tongue. She had class… back when it meant more than school. And I did manage to gather up her apologetic books when she passed on… she had quite a collection… so I did learn just how much she must have smiled at my pretense.

And it’s to her great credit that I learned to play… mostly in my imagination, but equally on the sports fields where small size was okay and speed and agility helped out. Her insistence on play made her far less intimidating. And my mom, bless her, readily agreed with the suggestion of the Outdoor Nursery School over the others, and running ’round the bamboo stand and painting with your hands was a joy I was later grateful to share with my kids as well. Yes, we love a mess whenever we can manage it… even when we make it with words.

Now as the years advance and my kids are mostly, but not completely nor permanently, out of the house, I realize how much everyone had done and still does for me… and in spite of me… and without much or as much thanks or even awareness as I should have offered. We – meaning me – are all such babies in so many ways even if we don’t think we are, huh? But I do write the thank you letters my Mom used to beat on me to do… and even leave out the form-letter-like two-sentence fragments of “thank you for the blank” every youngster clues into… to say something if I can… which is probably not appreciated. I mean, “Just get to the point, huh? Did the sweater fit?”

But I appreciate that the years are moving quickly. My parents will not be with us much longer. A simple fall may be the end… and I think of all the steps in between. And the mind leaps to the possibility that a good rambler might buy a little time. And yes… I’m rambling again, but only for a little while… and I said we needed “a good rambler”.. but this is the best we can do.

So it was seeing this aging before our eyes, and seeing the holes in the road behind me that led me to call out the road crews… to find a way to live better, or at least to try to live closer, in love with and under the mercy of the Lord, to end the head games, to end the adolescent “I know betters” and just move on to learn what it takes to really love one another. And for as much as my love of my wife taught me that I had not even begun to love God in an authentic, full-bodied way… I have also learned in this painstaking journey to the Orthodox Church, that my learning to love of God has in turn illumined that maybe I haven’t even begun to love my wife…. let alone say what you will of my love for my family and others as well.

You can’t possibly do all you want… live all you want… and love all you’d like. Love is larger, and we are still so small in so many ways.. and  sadly proceed all too often to make it even smaller in so many ways… but through God I think we may have a way to reverse that. Anyway… the likely sacrifices in the coming years offer an opportunity to test that hypothesis, to live and love better. No more imaginary friends or imaginary “visits” … but real love of real people.. and a chance to get it right if only for a little while… that short period where God grants us breath. And it’s not a question of whether God is willing, though it may be in part, but more precisely whether I am in truth what I profess. And that would be a horse worth getting on.


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