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.

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.

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.

Weeds

butterfly

The softness of twilight covers a multitude of sin.

A sunset ride through the open fields and along the woods trails.  Early spring growth hiding the depredations of winter.  A downed tree here.  Broken branches there.  Saplings leaned over.  Grass already knee-high, dappled with scatterlings of milkweed and thistle and flowers I cannot name.

My mount does not balk, but I must stop often to clear the path.  Unlike her namesake, she is reckless and her footing unsure.  Her name is Kawasaki.

These paths were clear last fall.  The grass was short.  My heart sighs.

Mother despises what we call neatness.  She will not tolerate it.  Tenderness is not in her vocabulary.

Establish.  Nurture.  Destroy with violence.

The Redhead despises what we call chaos.  She will tolerate, but not quietly.

Maintain neatness with equal violence.  Bush hog and drip-torch.

I will clear trails, fully aware that I will do so again and again and again, ’til death do us part.  Whether she or Mother, it matters not.

I will mow the fields even though I know what hides the rattlesnake also feeds the butterfly.

Because a thousand disappointed butterflies are better than one disappointed Redhead.

A Good Cup of Coffee

A Good Cup of Coffee

I made a semi-annual visit to my cardiologist a few days ago.  Semi-annual because my family tree has heart-rot, and this fellow has made it his personal challenge that I not die on his watch, at least of any cardio-related illnesses.  I sometimes think if I got hit by a truck it would take some of the pressure off him.

The worst part of these exams is the prerequisite blood work.  They are “fasting labs,” meaning that I am not supposed to let anything other than water cross my lips after midnight.  Doable except for one small detail:  they always schedule the blood-letting mid-morning.

I have mentioned here before that I am an early riser.  I can skip breakfast, but I absolutely require one thing.  Coffee.  Hot, black, strong, and now.

I always survive until the appointed time, but let’s just say I am not good company.

Blood-suckers satisfied, I always treat myself.  I head for the nearest Waffle House.

I was working on my second cup, waiting for a fried egg sandwich (take that cardiologist), when I glanced at the parking lot.  A lady was hobbling toward the door, struggling to manage the trip on crutches.  Her knee-high cast looked brand new.

I got up and opened the door for her.

“Oh, thank you so much.  I’m really scuffling to get used to these things.”

I told her it was no problem at all.  Glad to help.

I know a little about navigating with crutches.  Surgeries on both feet and a knee.  My first go-round was interrupted when I fell down some stairs.  Broke my right wrist and my left elbow.  The surgeon said, “you are not supposed to go down stairs on crutches.”

Thanks Doc., I kind of figured that out.

I helped the lady get seated at a booth and went back to my coffee.

When I finished my third cup and sandwich, I went to the front to settle-up.

“It’s been taken care of, sir.”

It didn’t register.  I just stood there.  I think I even offered the money again.

“No, your bill has already been paid.”

Dumbfounded, I was nearly outside before it registered.

“You didn’t need to do that ma’am.”

“My pleasure.  Now you have a blessed day.”

I did have a blessed day, mostly from a renewed faith that there are still some very nice folks hobbling along in an increasingly self-centered, broken society.

They say that coffee isn’t good for you.

I think they are wrong.  It was good for me.

The Narrow Gate

The Narrow Gate

I have driven past the church hundreds of times.  Perched on top of a little open spot in the woods, it hardly merits a glance, unless of course you like to look at old wood-framed country churches.

I do.

Today is a Saturday, and I’m in no hurry to get back to a never-ending series of projects at the homestead.  The roof is leaking again.  A rotting facia board needs to be replaced.  Bare ground where holly and yaupon have been ripped out of the front flower bed, awaiting azaleas and camellias that haven’t even left the nursery.  Seems like a fine time to stop and give this church a more thoughtful consideration.

It is well-kept.  Not a blemish to be found.  Not even any peeling paint.  I have stopped to look at a lot of these old structures in my travels across Alabama, and this one may be the best-maintained I have ever seen.

A sign out front tells a story.  Back in 1905, a group of nine Presbyterian pilgrims left a brush arbor to build a sturdier place of worship and a cemetery on this site.

I have driven by here on Sunday before.  Nine members look about right.  Maybe three cars and a couple of old pickup trucks in the parking lot.  If Preacher Calvin was correct, it would seem the Good Lord hasn’t done a whole lot of “choosing” in this spot over the last 113 years or so.

I walk around back to the cemetery.  Like the building, it is neat as a pin.

I am captivated by the two columns at the entrance, which the sign indicates were added in 1930.  Tallapoosa field-stone, probably gathered from a congregant’s field not too far down the road.  Angels carved from Sylacauga marble, the quarry a day’s wagon trip if the mules had a pleasant disposition and momma didn’t dawdle among the sundries at the dry goods store.

I step for a closer examination.  I am transfixed.

angel

The finger is pointed at me, left hand beckoning through the gate to the markers beyond.

“Come on in traveler.  There’s a quiet spot right over there.  Enter and join the community of the dead, those who lie in wait of ‘The Shout and the voice of the archangel.'”*

I consider the proposition for a moment, then I’m back in my truck, boot heavy on the accelerator.

All of a sudden those chores at the homestead aren’t looking too bad.

 

*From The Holy Bible, 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

The Time in Between

sunrise 2

Sunrise at the homestead.  The best time of day.

I walk out on the back porch, as I do every day.  I am a daybreak riser.  My two bulldogs are not.  I get no acknowledgment.  Nary a lifted head.

I reckon some are just not morning people — or morning dogs, as it were.

I like to pause for a minute, even if it is just a minute.  A lot of years went by since I could appreciate this.  No man-made noise.  A turkey gobbles on the next ridge.  On a really good day, I can hear two more respond to his challenge.

I can’t stay long.  Miles to travel.  Things to get done.  Bills to be paid.

sunset

Sunset at the homestead.  The best time of day.

I walk to the back porch.  The bulldogs show their better nature.  The oldest moans like a broken-hearted man.  The other just smiles.  They know intuitively that they are going to get a jaunt down to the creek or get fed.  It is a win-win, either way.

This has been a long time coming.  Dark soon.  No man-made noise.  A coyote howls on the next ridge.  On a really good night, I can hear two more respond to the challenge.

As I write this, it occurs to me that it is the space in between these two times that kill a man.  They call it “stress” today.  In the olden times they just called it “livin’.”

A friend recently asked me if I had a “bucket list.”  I said I didn’t.  She looked at me as if I had shot her horse right out from under her.

Well why not for goodness sake?

Just don’t.  Never given it that much thought.

I think, though, that I may change my mind.

I think I would like to see the best time of day as many times as I can.