Funeral for A Friend

smooth stones

The Irish call it a wake.  People in Alabama call it visitation.

It is a ceremony for the living, held in the presence of the dead.  A family stands like deer in the headlights as others shuffle by, hands extended, hugs offered.  A surreal numbness.  Asleep and awake.  Time pauses, hesitates, hovers like a feather on an imperceptible breeze.

It is early and the line is long.  I expected that.  He was well-known and well-liked.  I take my place behind a friend, a friend of this friend.  We swap stories between starts and stops.  Stories are the life, after all.  Tales true and untrue, embellished or plumbed on the mark.  They keep the memory for as long as they are told.  Longer if someone takes the time to write them down.  A life is brief.  Words are the substance of eternity.

I turn over the words in my mind as we approach.  Lift them like smooth stones from the creek bottom.  Feel their heft.  Discard some.  Put a few good ones in my pocket.  Keep one or two of the very best in my hand.

First, the wife.  A natural Southern beauty who has lost a partner she has loved since high school.  Built a business.  Raised a family.  Maintained a quiet gracefulness throughout all these last months-weeks-days-hours-minutes-seconds.  She thanks me for coming.  Her eyes radiate weariness in waves like heat from Alabama asphalt in August.

“I’m very sorry,” I say.

The son is a big strapping guy, broad-shouldered and handsome.  Strong handshake,  pretty wife.  Recently passed the Bar.  The future will be much brighter than the present.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” I say.

Then momma.  I have met her on a few occasions, but I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with her.

I am not prepared for momma.

“Ma’am I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m –”

She stops me cold.  “Of course I remember you.”

And then a remarkable thing.  This sweet little lady I hardly know puts her arms around me and lays her head on my shoulder.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I told him, ‘you can’t go before me.’  It’s not right.  It’s not supposed to be this way.”

What does a man say to such as this?

Should I quote some cherry-picked Bible verse suitable for the occasion?  “Let not your heart be troubled…”

Perhaps a platitude.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God must still have something important for you to do.”

Maybe something just downright stupid, like “I know how you feel.”

I am at a loss.  A man who places such value in words is without a good one.  Hands empty, pockets turned-out.

“Yessum,” I say.

It’s the best I can do in the moment.  It’s the best I can do now.

The Mendoza Line

baseball

You like baseball?

I didn’t think so.

This is the age of short attention span.  People don’t think they have enough time for something that lasts more than a few minutes,* and they certainly won’t devote a couple of hours to anything that is not fast-paced.

I’ve heard the arguments.  Boring.  Not enough action.  Too slow.  Who has that kind of time?

That’s a shame, really.  Because baseball is anything but boring if you know what you are watching.  It is an intellectual game.  Baseball is chess.  All other sports are checkers.

More importantly, baseball is a metaphor for life, and if you stop by here often (and read between the lines), you may have noticed that I love metaphors.

The game is hard on the ego.  No place to hide.  All eyes are on you.  You can’t “take a play off” or you may be publicly exposed.

Those who love the game have a measure for success.  We call it the Mendoza Line.

Mario Mendoza was a professional baseball player from Mexico with a career batting average that consistently hovered around .200.  That’s two hits for every ten at-bats.  It is recognized as the minimum batting average for a starting player, no matter how good his glove.  Any player with a batting average below .225 is said to be “approaching the Mendoza Line.”

Consider that for a second.  Twenty percent success.  Eighty percent failure.

But also recognize that three hits per ten at-bats over a career places you in serious contention for the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Four per ten and you will be immortalized by a statue outside the stadium.

Baseball is a game of failure.  Which brings me to the “what if?”

What if Mendoza could have just managed to hit something to take that two-out-of-ten to three-out-of-ten?  A slow-roller down the third base line.  A dying quail.  Ground ball right up the middle.  Just one more hit here or there and his name would not be the benchmark for failure in a game of failures.

Sometimes I think about old Mario when I believe I’m knocking everything in life out of the park.  Other times, perhaps more often, I get out of bed hoping for that bloop single that will allow me to play another day.

Either way I just keep swinging.

I think Mario would like that.

 

*Metrics show that you will not likely read this if it is over 500 words.  This one came in at 409.

Nocturnus

waltz of death

Somewhere in the darkness.  I know not the hour, for there is no bedside analog, nor the ticking and tolling of the hour and half-hour that marked the passage of night from the mantle of my youth.  I may be awake or asleep, or in some space between where the conscious and subconscious dance the Valse triste, a bony hand lightly placed in the small of his fleshy partner’s back.  A light film of dust arises from the shuffle of sinew and bone across this ancient ballroom floor.

Everyone will waltz if they have seen enough sunsets.  The very young may be spared.  Not enough memories.  Balance sheet heavy on happiness, the burden of sadness and regret entered in pencil in the margin of their thin ledger.

Thirty-seven years gone by.  Few dreams of him until lately.

He is as I remember him, the age at which he passed.  I suppose it is cognitively impossible to remember someone older than they were, even more impossible to see yourself older than they.  I am younger in these dreams, even though the timeline is skewed or bent beyond the linear.

She is there too.  Young.  Aloof.  Oblivious.  Too pretty and unfettered to notice my presence in the shadows.  Or perhaps I know that she does, and this is the wound that will not heal.

These dreams are always a slant-wise remembrance, youthful sorrow.  More often the learning of sorrow, for such must be learned by the young.  The loss of an innocence, a summation or accumulation of singular events that make a young heart old before its time.

Always a moment, just when my heart begins to break, that I notice that he is at my side.  Never a word.  No expression.  No comfort or advice.  Just present.

I sometimes awake in a cold sweat, bearings lost for the moment, a solitary traveler seeking a trail-sign — a broken branch, a boot-print.  Passage through the dripping fog and darkness of an ancient forest.  My breath heavy.  Heart pierced.

In the light of day I am told that there is no point in looking back.  Best not go there.  Give no lodging to regrets.  The past cannot be altered and my time is thin.  She tells me I am beyond the mid-point, that I should focus on the days I have left.  No sense sifting through the ashes, looking for relics either happy or sad.  Eyes forward.  Make memories for those you will leave behind.

This is cheerful advice, meant-well and well-paid.  But the truth is our days past are all we do have.  A summation.  The one true mystery of the quotient.  Because a word spoken cannot be brought back across the lips onto a sharp tongue.  A sight will not be unseen, nor a sound unheard.  Acts forgiven, yes, but never forgotten.

A man cannot un-think a thought.

And so I am left with him in the night, unsettled and wondering at the meaning of his presence in this time and place, after so many years of absence.  Is he here to witness the sum of my sorrows, or simply to remind that I will be joining him soon?

 

 

 

Toughness

summer heat

I spent some time today in the seat of my John Deere, mowing pasture that has been mowed twice and will likely be mowed again before the end of August.  It is hot, dusty work, but I like seat-time because it is think time.  Not worrisome thoughts, just mental meandering through the uncut meadows of my mind.

Today I did some thinking about the heat.  Specifically summer in Alabama.  Not for the faint of heart.

The weather apps I have on my phone and the television weather people advise that it will be 92 degrees at two o’clock but it will actually feel like 105 degrees.

Well thanks for that.  Blesses my heart to know that I should be feeling hotter than I already do.

My thoughts turned to the last few weeks.  I spent my days teaching some young folk a little about forestry and logging.  They are “millennial” or “Gen Xers” or “Gen whatevers.”  I can’t keep up with all the classifications.  I could Google it, but it doesn’t interest me enough to bother with a few key-strokes to even do that.

I thought they were a bit whiny.  Actually, a lot whiny.

“It’s too hot out here.”

“You walk too fast.”

“Can we stop at the store?”

I rather liked that.  I am tough.  They are weak.  Can’t keep pace with the old man.

My generation’s view of the next.  Spoiled.  Can’t take it.  The “I got a trophy for showing  up” generation.  Comes out quickly in the Alabama sun.

The tractor and my mind turn down a new trail.  It’s old ground, but sometimes my thoughts need to cover old ground to be put right.

My daddy worked outside most of his life.  The cars and pick-up trucks he drove never had air conditioning.  So far as I know, he bought the first air conditioner he owned when I was about five, a “window unit” that we ran until bedtime.  Electricity cost money, and we didn’t have an abundance of that.

His daddy was a carpenter who worked outside all of his life.  Had a house with high ceilings and a floor fan with blades roughly the size of a Cessna propeller.

His daddy had no electricity because it hadn’t made it to the country.  High ceilings, shade trees and rain the only respite.

His daddy had nothing.  I have a list of his net worth when he applied for his Confederate pension at age 69.  It included 40 acres, one log cabin, four hogs, a clock, household furniture, and a few farming tools.  Total value $130.  Maybe some shade in the yard.  Hopefully a cool water creek on that 40 or at least not too far away.

Toughness is relative, by summertime heat or any other gauge by which we use to measure.

Supposed to be hot again tomorrow, but I don’t feel so tough tonight.

On Depression and Suicide

depression

I’ll make this short and not so sweet.

There has been a lot of media attention lately on depression and suicide.   Mainly because those people were “celebrities.”  People who seemingly had everything.

The public is shocked.  How could such a thing happen?

It is really quite simple.

They were suffering from depression.  Clinical depression.  A disease.  Just like heart disease.  Diabetes.  Cancer.

Sadness that is beyond control.  Even to “normal” people who are not celebrities.  People who have families.  Good lives.  Good jobs.  Everything to live for.

But they can’t.  They don’t.

So if you are one of those people, the ones who spout clichés like “they just need to man-up” or “life is tough, get over it,” or “they just need more Jesus and less Prozac,”  please be advised.

You are ignorant.  Stupid.  A total, complete, uninformed, unmitigated jack-ass.

Take a little advice from an Alabama hillbilly.  Shut your trap, and be grateful to God Almighty that you never have seen depression or suicide up-close.  In a friend.  A loved-one.  A spouse.  Your child.  Or maybe even yourself.

Consider yourself blessed.

Consider yourself warned.

Skinny Girls and High Culture

ballerina

A forester and high culture are two things that don’t seem to jibe.

I imagine when I say I am a forester you assume my culture would be NASCAR, country music, and killin’ animals for sport.  That might be true in some cases.

Not this forester.  I aspire to explore higher levels of culture.

I thought I would give the opera a try.  I heard this Pavarotti fellow had a set of fine tenor pipes, so I thought I would give him a listen.  I downloaded “The Best of Pavarotti,” not knowing that this collection would total about 90 songs.  After three or four, I decided that the opera was not for me.  The man can sing, no doubt, but what is he singing about?  Does he know English?

Do you know how long it takes to delete 90 songs?  I do.

Then I tried ballet.  Now to be completely truthful (which I rarely am in my writing — that’s the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”), I attended a ballet at the request of a cousin, who I love very much.  She has a preteen daughter who is an aspiring ballerina.  I love her too.

My first ballet was “Zelda,” which was loosely based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald.

Very loosely.  I know a good bit about Zelda Fitzgerald.  I’ve read most of her husband’s novels, and she was from Montgomery, Alabama where I work every day.

I was puzzled.  I found it very hard to relate what I saw to what I knew.

The next performance was “The Nutcracker.”  It had something to do with Christmas.

This past Sunday I attended “Frida!”  This one was about a Mexican communist with a unibrow.  I had to “Google” it to learn that much.

It took three puzzling performances to figure it out.  This kind of ballet is not about story.  It’s about teaching young girls the technique necessary to become ballerinas.

I can relate to that.  I have taught quite a few boys how to swing a baseball bat.  Perhaps one day I’ll teach one who will develop a swing as sweet as Ken Griffey Jr.  It’s a one in a million shot, but it’s worth the effort.

A girl has to start somewhere, and even if you don’t ever make Swan Lake, at the very least it should be worth something to know you had someone who loved you enough to drive a couple of hours to see you try.

I rather like the ballet.

 

Psalms

psalms tree

My sacred ground is a little clearing in the bottomland along a creek with no name.  I come here almost every day.  Sometimes I linger a bit.  Others I simply turn back toward a home on the hill.

The tree I call “Psalms.”  A water oak that has clung to the bank of No-Name for at least a hundred years.  Just a sapling when this bottomland was all corn.  Feed for the horses and mules.  A few barrels of meal and some roasting ears.  Maybe some traded to a family of famous bootleggers who still live over the ridge, the last now too old to do anything but piddle around the yard, tending fruit trees and flower beds.

Psalms will lose the battle with gravity one day when a hundred-year flood undercuts the bank.  I hope that I am not alive to see it.

Because this is sacred ground.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

Two graves here, each covered with field stone.  One for a companion, a dog that I loved more than most people.  The second a sweet little lady who never was anything but.  I had her put down sixth-months ago, before the suffering of ruined hips became more than she or I could bear.

I have cried four times that I can recall in the last 40 years.  The first when I lost my dad.  The second when I found that some certainties are not.  The third and fourth over these two small graves.  Biblical crying.  Great sobs and blubbering.  Sorrowful moans worthy of sackcloth and ashes.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

He brought her here six years ago, because he is like me and this spot is sacred to him too.  Got down on a knee and asked her to be his wife.  A happy day, the kind that sticks with you forever.  Love that clings tenaciously to the bank of the river of your heart.

I came here today, as I am accustomed to do on a Sunday afternoon.  Two little ones riding along behind me in a pull-cart.  They look at trees and butterflies.  Ask a lot of questions.  Throw rocks and sticks into the creek.  My stony heart smiles.

It is written that an ancient Hebrew put up a stone on his sacred ground, a place where he met with God.

I have no stone, but I have Psalms.