Letting Go

I was not only my father’s son, I was also my father’s priest. Shortly after I accepted a call to a parish church in suburban Philadelphia in 1984, both my parents joined the congregation. It had benefits: first, it insured that we saw them weekly, keeping us connected to them as well as providing regular engagement between Mom, Dad, and my children – something all parties involved had missed when I was serving parishes in other states. It also bestowed some near-instantaneous prestige on my arrival as Rector (“My goodness, he’s only been here for two weeks and already the parish is growing!”). Many of the benefits emerged over time. About a year after our mutual arrival, my mother offered to knit a sweater for every child that I baptized. In the 20 years I served that church, she knitted almost a thousand sweaters for infants and children brought to the Font. But there were a few downsides as well. My role with my parents changed almost immediately. Instead of just being a son (with all the tolerance and acceptance and impatience and irritation that comes with that), I was also now their pastor, their gatekeeper to sacramental life, an authority in a community of people they had embraced. At the outset, it was strange and somewhat uncomfortable, like wearing a pair of new shoes that haven’t been broken in, but we adjusted. I learned to hear their concerns about parish life without becoming reactive, they learned which interpersonal lines could be crossed safely, and which needed to be respected. In actual fact, we managed the transition remarkably well for a good ten years. Then my father’s health began to spiral downward. Over a period of time, we noticed that he became desperately fatigued following the slightest exertion, that he was devoid of stamina, that his appetite, sleep, mood, and affect changed. A near collapse precipitated his admission to the Emergency Room of a nearby hospital, and he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurism that ran from his heart to the iliac. Following surgery to replace the aorta with a synthetic vessel, he never really regained his former strength or appetite for life. His resultant decline, if not quick, was steady. Less than a year later he was once again hospitalized and diagnosed with congestive heart failure and renal failure – a near systemic collapse. He died, as so often happens, in the low and lonely pre-dawn hours of an ordinary day, having spent the evening before with my mother, my sisters and myself. The calls began: the hospital to Mom (“Mrs. Scott, I’m sorry…”), Mom to me and my sisters (“He’s gone.”), me to my secretary (“I won’t be in…”). I dressed and drove to my mother’s home and as I walked in the door, I was overwhelmed with the realization that I was more than a grieving son. I was the Pastor, the Priest, the Arranger, the Planner, the Set-Things-in-Motion guy. We hugged, we prayed, we sat down with coffee. Then I heard myself say “Okay, here’s what we need to do.” I had done it innumerable times for others. Death is always accompanied by Busy, slamming into the numbness and shock of those left behind. We started. First on the list was the Funeral Home. We made arrangements to go later in the afternoon. Then there were more calls to be made, the will to be found, insurance companies and the Veterans Administration to be contacted, a date for the funeral, the organist, the florist, a caterer to provide refreshment for those traveling from a distance. We arrived at the funeral home at the appointed hour, were seated at a conference table and settled in for something we knew was going to hurt. I knew what was coming. The funeral director said, “Someone will have to identify the body.” “I’ll do that,” I said, before anyone else had a chance to even consider. We went to a lower and more sterile room, a lumped sheet laying on a metal and canvas gurney just inside the door. The funeral director lifted the sheet away from my father’s face, cold, gray, inanimate. I reached into a coat pocket, withdrew an oil stock, unscrewed the lid, moistened my thumb and traced the sign of the Cross on my father’s forehead. “Robert, I absolve you of all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world. In the Name of God the Father who created you, God the Son who redeemed you, God the Holy Spirit who sanctified you....

How I Learned to Live in the Dark

For thirteen years, my family had the privilege of living in an antebellum carriage house on the 10 acre campus of a large suburban Philadelphia parish. The carriage house sat adjacent to a spacious old fieldstone home that the parish purchased in the late 1940’s to serve as a parish house. The house itself was begun in the late 1600’s and grew through the decades to be mansion-sized. As far as we could determine, the carriage house was added to the property just before the outbreak of the Civil War and remained unchanged until the church decided to refit the building as a residence and use it as a Rectory. The building’s original use as stable, carriage storage, and utility building (with a small apartment on the second floor for servants’ quarters) determined the layout of the interior, and while no self-respecting architect would have designed the lower floor for human habitation in the way it was laid out, it nonetheless provided a fascinating labyrinth of spaces. The largest of those spaces was an “L” shaped space originally designed to hold at least four carriages/buckboards/sleighs that we used as a combination living room and dining room. The living room portion was 40 feet by 60 feet with the adjacent dining space an additional 20 feet by 20 feet. The first difficulty we encountered upon moving in was how to furnish so large a space without the necessity of having to shout over vast distances to the person sitting nearest you. In the thirteen years we lived in that house the room never looked fully furnished despite the presence of an entire furniture store’s worth of chairs, sofas, end and coffee tables. The second problem was light. Since barns don’t require a great deal of illumination, the original stone walls had only a handful of very small window spaces, none of which benefited from a southern exposure. The answer that the folks who refit the building came up with was the installation of a dozen “high hat” recessed lighting fixtures in the ceiling. When we first moved into the house, we found that they provided sufficient light to ward off the darkness. However, within three months of moving in, one of the floodlights in a ceiling light blew out, and I headed to the local hardware store for a replacement. Better buy two or three, I thought, since it’s bound to happen again. I took the old bulb with me since it was a size and sported a bayonet mount I hadn’t seen before and wanted to be able to match it. The pleasant hardware-store-guy asked if he could help me find something as soon as I walked in the door. I showed him the bulb. “Right this way,” he said and led me through all the electrical stuff to a shelf that should have been marked “Breathtakingly Expensive Light Bulbs,” placed a bulb in a corrugated paper sleeve in my hand and said, “$18.95.” $18.95? Seriously? For a light bulb? “Don’t see many of these around,” he said, no doubt feeling some pride that their inventory was so comprehensive that it even included Bulbs Designed for Royal Estates. I decided one bulb was plenty, paid for it at the register (“6% sales tax? Really? Aren’t light bulbs considered a non-taxable necessity?”), and carried the item home as gently as if it contained nitroglycerin. The sting of the expense faded with the passage of time, but months later, when another bulb blew out, I was thrown into internal conflict. On average, I rarely had more than three or four dollars in my pocket (my wife and I decided to have children rather than money). The acquisition of another Bulb of the Rich and Famous would consume two to three weeks of discretionary spending money. Necessity being the mother of invention, I chanced upon another, far more economical, solution: simply unscrew the bulb in the recessed light in the furthest corner of the room (the one nearest the standing lamp beside the westernmost sofa) and use it to replace the bulb in the center of the room that had just blown. Voila! A minimal loss of light barely noticeable and it didn’t cost a dime! Two months later another bulb blew and, ever resourceful, I simply switched the bulb out with another from an opposite corner. Not much light lost, money in my pocket. By the time the third and fourth lights went out, I had a significant problem: not only was it getting darker in the house (the onset of winter didn’t help), but now it was financially impossible to replace the burned out bulbs....

Old Rules

I was married in the summer of 1977, long before the age of instantaneous communication offered by email, text, and cell phone. As my wife was born and raised in England, her transition to the eastern seaboard of the United States wasn’t an easy one. Everything seemed unfamiliar in the early days of our marriage – television, newspapers, shopping, food – each of these things provides some kind of touchpoint for familiarity and all were foreign. She was literally a stranger in a strange land. Shortly after our arrival, most things seemed exciting and there was a sense of adventure in discovering the new and unfamiliar. But after the novelty of her new surroundings wore slightly, a grinding reality set in – this wasn’t a vacation or a hiatus in her day to day life. This new and unfamiliar place with its strange sounding accents and foreign appearance, this place with no established friends or family contacts was now home. Lonely took on a new meaning. I didn’t help matters much. As a parish priest serving a congregation on the outskirts of New York City, my work week was characterized by ten to twelve hour days and every-weekend commitments. What little time I had off (I tried to take one day a week) was frequently stolen by funerals, emergency hospitalizations of parishioners, and mandatory Diocesan and Deanery meetings. So I wasn’t home much of the time. To compound matters, we could only afford one automobile and I disappeared with it 50-60 hours per week. Public transportation was sporadic and complex, so my wife spent most of her days in the house and the area in immediate walking distance of our front door. Could it have been any worse? Well, yes. We lived in a church Rectory – a house owned by the parish that sat immediately adjacent to the Church. There are a couple of things that are true about church housing. First, you reside in it, you don’t own it, so you have no sense of its being yours. If you want to make changes, perform renovations, or do major decorating, you need to get permission from a committee of folks who are invested in maintaining their sense of ownership of the property. But even worse, since you live in their house next to their church, most parishioners feel they have 24/7 access to your door as well as the absolute right to observe how you are treating their property. Knocks at the door come at all hours of the day and night with “I was just in the area”s and “Can you give him a message for me?”s. Since churches are aid stations for the poor and needy, people who are looking for financial or emotional assistance often feel free to go directly to the Rectory if there’s no one in the Church Office, and all sorts of folks show up at the door with a hand out. All too often, in the world of ordained ministry, a house is not a home, it’s a bus station. When I did show up at the end of a long day, my wife was understandably frantic for some connection with someone she knew and trusted.  She intuitively knew that I needed some down time as soon as I returned home to recharge the batteries that had been depleted in the course of my day. But, she also expected some attention, and quite rightly so. On occasion, I would disappear into the basement to get a screwdriver or tinker with a project. When I would emerge from the workshop, she would find me and ask, “Where did you go?” and I knew that she was feeling a little abandoned. So I tried to allay her distress before it began. I’d frequently say to her, “Honey, I’m just going to be in the bathroom for five minutes.” It seemed to work. My willingness to provide a verbal locator indicated to here not only my position in the house, but my emotional commitment to addressing her need for connection. My wife and I have been married for 36 years (as of this writing). Our life, our location, and our housing situation has changed completely from those first days in parish ministry. About five years ago, I said to her “Honey, I’m just going to be in the bathroom for five minutes,” as I had done for the past three decades. She looked at me and, laughing, said, “You know, you don’t have to tell me that anymore. Frankly, I don’t care where you are!” The rules had changed, but I was still working under old rules. I’ve...

Forgiveness and The Boy

In 1981 I was hit by a drunk driver. A few weeks before the accident, my wife told me that she felt unsafe in our automobile, one of the first “X cars” produced by General Motors. The car had been a disaster from the beginning when we picked it up new from the dealer and couldn’t get it started. Workers on the lot pushed it into a service bay and two hours later emerged to say that the fuel line had never been connected to the motor at the factory – a sure sign that we had acquired a lemon. The car performed up to my expectations, which weren’t very high. Two years later my wife had had enough, and said that she felt that as our family was growing, we needed a safer automobile. That meant Volvo. I took delivery of our new burgundy 240 on a Saturday morning and spent the next seven hours trying to install a radio, a task made difficult by my complete lack of electrical ability and Volvo’s proprietary mounting and electrical system. Saturday evening, when the radio was finally working, Jane told me that we were at the end of our supply of diapers, there was no cash in the house, and that as a result, she would plan to spend Sunday morning at home close to the bathroom for our not-yet-toilet-trained daughter (it’s hard to believe there was a time before ATM machines!). Sunday morning I took off for church at my customary hour of 5:30 am, and spent the morning trying to focus on the service while I was secretly itching to get back in my new car. When the last hand was shaken and the doors and lights secured, I got in the car and headed for home. The drive home took me down Route 25 on the north shore of Long Island, a speedy four lane road with contours up, down, and around. I passed John Smith’s famous bull, a familiar landmark for those who have traveled along the north shore. But just as I was passing Raneri’s Restaurant, home of my favorite spinach salad, a large Buick appeared over the top of a rise swerving at high speed in my lane. A quick glance to my right just seconds before showed a car transporting a young family – father at the wheel, children in the back, and a mother in the passenger side of the front with an infant in her lap. Can’t swerve, slam on the brakes, brace, impact. When I returned (and I have never really been able to describe where I went), there was a man pressing rhythmically on my chest. He was shouting something, but only a few words registered, “Navy medic,”  “breathe!” I wondered how this man had come to be in the passenger side of my car and then I realized I wasn’t in a car – just a twisted frame of metal. Blood in my eyes, glass in my mouth. The air was painted in pain – searing, down to the core of my being pain. The noise was deafening – people shouting, a coursing rhythmic pounding in my head, my new friend yelling at me to stay with him. I was trapped in the car for two hours. When fire and police and ambulance arrived, they were yelling somewhere outside a small world I had entered; a world marked by little more than a desire to crawl to the side of the road and seek quiet. Someone threw something heavy and scratchy over me as a metal wrenching, tearing noise began to trump all other sound. The Jaws of Life, they later told me. It didn’t work – there was too much metal to move. My Navy medic (if you ever read this, bless you for your kindness and attention – you left before I had a chance to thank you or get your name) told me they would have to wait for an acetylene torch so they could cut the car apart. He stayed with me underneath the asbestos blanket, talking continually in what I assumed were reassuring tones. “Nice car,” he said. “There’s only 16 miles on the odometer. Just get it?” I nodded, I think. At one point I managed to croak, “There’s glass in my mouth – can I spit it out?” “Hey,” he said, “it’s your car!” Eventually, they cut off the roof of the car and the door frame, placed a neck brace on me and eased me out, strapping me to a body board. Ambulance, sirens, fast corners, waiting gurney at the ER. A nurse started cutting...

Piwacket

When my children were young, we owned a series of travel trailers that allowed us to take vacations across North America. Most of our down times during winter months were spent planning trips we could take in the summer to destinations that we believed would give our daughters a sense of the grandeur of this extraordinary continent. Over the years, we managed to drag them to a remarkable number of places – from Canada’s beautiful Maritime Provinces to the Great American West to the central flatland of Florida and all points in between. We tried to select locations that would have a little of everything – sightseeing, historic venues, recreational activities like fishing, boating, and swimming. Some were more memorable than others. One summer we selected a campground on the shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio. We thought that it might provide a break from Philadelphia’s sultry summer heat and humidity, and that access to one of the Great Lakes would give the girls a chance for expanding their horizons as well as ample opportunity for water activity. We got more than we bargained for. I came back to the campsite early one afternoon after an unsuccessful morning plying rod and reel. As I walked toward the trailer, I saw my middle daughter sitting outside with a cat in her lap. “Where did the cat come from?” I asked. My daughter looked at me with a smile beaming with the pride of ownership and said, “She’s lost, Dad! But she likes us! I gave her some tuna fish.” Every parent who has heard the dreaded words “Can we keep him?” knows the feeling. We had just acquired a cat. On the long drive home, we debated the merits of various names for our new family member. We finally settled on Piwacket, the name Kim Novak gave to her familiar in the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle. After all, any cat who could seduce a family to embrace her (fleas and all) and transport her to a life of comfort 350 miles away must have magical traits. Her other traits were typically feline – she was diffident, aloof, opportunistic, and continually displayed her motivating belief that we were privileged to provide for her. For some reason, Piwacket chose me as her lap of choice. For the next 15 years, whenever I moved from the vertical to the horizontal, Piwacket would jump on me, press her head into my open hand and demand scratching. Early on in this one-sided relationship, I made an important discovery as I ran my hand from the top of her head down her shoulders, along her back and toward her tail. Like cats everywhere, she would tuck her head down and arch her back to gain the maximum amount of pressure on her spine. But as soon as my caressing palm reached her hindquarters, she turned her head faster than I had ever seen protoplasm move and sunk her teeth into my hand. It was immediately apparent that in her former life, Piwacket had been abused. Piwacket lived with us for fifteen years. For fifteen years, I fed her, emptied her littler box, scratched behind her ears, brushed her coat, transported her to and from the vet, and dutifully stroked her gently for a minimum of an hour a day. If any cat had demonstrable data indicating that she was loved and that her human had nothing but kindness and care to offer, it was Piwacket. But until the day she died, if my hand ever accidently strayed toward her butt in some loving caress, she would turn and bite me. More than anything else, Piwacket taught me that love and care in and of themselves can’t eliminate the deeply physical memory of abuse. In my working life, I engage many people who bear similar scars, old and deep. They are a constant reminder that young things, fragile things, are easily and permanently marked and that care must be taken. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Pop

Like many people, I had two living grandfathers during my early childhood. My mother’s father (Pa) accepted me as one of a growing brood of blood related children for whom he was obligated to buy Christmas presents. Tall, stern and tremendously serious, I can’t ever remember him hugging me as a child or wanting to spend time with me. In the past, I heard my mother and her surviving siblings speak of his sense of humor, but I never saw evidence of it. More than anything else, I remember him eyeing me with curious scrutiny. My father’s father (Pop) adored me. There were many times when he and my grandmother asked my parents to share me for a day or two, and I would spend a Saturday walking with Pop up and down 69th Street in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania frequenting shops that sold magic tricks and toys, of which a few would always return home with me at the end of the weekend. Far less financially successful than my mother’s father, he always managed to tuck a five dollar bill in my pocket when we were together. My Dad told me stories of his misadventures and schemes, of which there were quite a few, and in contrast to my maternal grandfather whose bearing and manner seemed a solid and impenetrable silver gray in character, my Pop was a man whose life was lived in living color. Pop smoked 16 Phillies blunts a day, was known to take a beer on occasion, and held conversations laced with blistering epithets. Pa disapproved of most of the things that made Pop a character and to my knowledge, they never engaged with one another after my parents’ wedding day, which was probably just fine with both of them. While Pa’s life was consistent and stable, proceeding on an uninterrupted trajectory of dependability to his death, Pop’s life was marked by physical and emotional volatility. An unending battle with hypertension resulted in his enduring a slow decline hastened by a series of strokes that left him aphasic and halting in gait for the last 10 years of his life. That decade encompassed the bulk of my living memory of him. Still, his physical diminishment in no way impaired his ability to delight in my presence or his desire to mark each of our encounters with some monetary or material memento. For the last months of his life, he was an inpatient at a county nursing home, not being able to afford higher-end care, and after his admission, I had only one opportunity to see him again. Five decades ago, medical facilities had a ubiquitous rule that children under 16 years of age were never permitted as visitors, and I was consigned to news that my father might provide about his decline, with one dramatic exception. The nursing home permitted children under 16 to visit on major holidays, and as Thanksgiving approached, I pestered my Dad to take me with him on his daily visit. Shortly after Pop’s admission, Dad had begun going to the nursing home every day to perform some daily personal care that wasn’t being accomplished by the staff. He cleaned and trimmed Pop’s nails, shaved him, combed his hair, brushed his teeth. This was all accomplished in the mornings before my father went to work. As Thanksgiving approached, I begged my father to take me along on the one day I was permitted to visit. For some reason my father seemed reluctant, but finally caved in to my constant pleading. My excitement on that day had nothing to do with the anticipation of a large turkey dinner or the gathering of other family members: it was all focused on being with my grandfather who, I was certain, would place his arm around me and smile at me with a satisfaction I never truly understood until I had grandchildren of my own. When we arrived at the nursing home, I was taken aback at its Spartan appearance and oppressive odor; cinder block walls and metal frame beds swathed in the aromas of industrial strength disinfectant created an atmosphere of indifferent efficiency rather than personal care. Seeing Pop was shocking. He was small in the bed, his face gaunt, and his eyes rheumy. This man who towered over me just a few months before was reduced, diminished. Worse, as we entered the room that he shared with five other residents, the expression on his face was not one of delight, but rather one of emotional indifference. This wasn’t my Pop, this was someone else. A gentle nudge between my shoulder blades from my father pushed me forward, and...