Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone. Or to know if what you’re doing is helping, and you should do more … or should you do less? Maybe a little bit quieter … or louder. Maybe do it from way over here. Or not at all. Then again, maybe just shut up and get to it.
My brother’s wife died in January. She was mid sixties, a vivacious woman who finally collapsed into the Parkinsons that took over her body, and her mind. Bob was at work when the call came from Kathy, Lyn’s caretaker:
“You need to get home. Now.” He hung up the phone and rushed to the house.
I don’t know the particulars; I do know the doctor was there. And that it was, sadly, time. Lyn could not have weighed a hundred pounds. She deserved to finally be at peace. So, that January day, she let go.
My brother texted me: “Lyn’s gone.” When I saw the text, I called. He was his typical stoic self, but I thought I could hear past Bob’s weary “take care of business” voice. He was drifting, and putting together what needed to be done now, and next, and next, and then … it was a sort of roadmap that kept him tethered to the ground, kept him from collapsing in an exhausted, heartbroken heap.
I’m his big sister. He’s my little brother. We grew up in the family foxhole together. We dodged many of the same alcohol-fueled, rage-filled bullets. We are the only two of the six of us kids who share that childhood. Our parents changed as parents do, with successive children. But we were the first: Thing one and Thing two.
So I felt a sort of desperate need to help hold his pieces together. I went to him in Memphis.
Through the past six years, when Lyn was dealing with, then coping with, then had no clue about, what was happening to her, Bob had enlisted my help a few times. I was glad to give it. We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.
When I got to Memphis after Lyn’s death, I walked into the house. I was a bit startled; by the looks of things. The house itself was heartbroken.
Lyn didn’t want a funeral, and she’d asked to be cremated. Bob honored her wishes, and instead threw a party in April, on her Birthday. By now we’d chosen paint colors and freshened up all the public areas of the house. The party was a great success, and a weight was lifted from my bother’s shoulders.
Now, he’s learning how to live a life where he can go, and do, whatever he wants. It’s both a blessing and a curse; full of stops, starts, and those moments when the ache of missing her takes his breath. But he’s got this. And I’m here for him, always, ready to help in whatever way he needs.
In high school I was told to choose. And each of the tellers told me to chose the thing that was theirs:
Sister Mary Judith said to choose writing
Sister Mary Thomas said to choose music
Sister Mary Dominica said to choose fine art
Sister Josephine said to choose fashion design
You MUST choose this one, each said. This is your gift, each said.
I said no. Was it the best answer? I guess I’ll never know, but I knew in my gut it’s the only answer I could give.
I saw each as one of my children. How do I choose one, and leave the others, orphaned?
How do I nurture one, and leave the others fallow? It was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. But I was just a kid, what did I know? These were brides of Christ telling me to do this. But I couldn’t.
First of all, as I now know, what the creative well is filled with is beyond my control. It is a central space whose energy flows through me. I cannot dictate to the well how it is to express itself. I can only say “yes” to whatever shows up.
I am not the boss of it. I am the steward; the guardian. It is up to me to facilitate, not to dictate.
In my adult life, there are creative threads that have expanded; writing grew to — not only prose or poetry, but a career in songwriting. Design grew to — not just fashion design — but a career in interior design. Music grew to a career as a vocalist. I guess you could say my ‘children’ had ‘children’ of their own.
I sometimes wonder if this is just me, not wanting to “settle down” with something that could organize my life in a way that some would call “adult.” But when that thought comes to mind, the counter argument is always there to ask me, which of your creative ‘children’ would you have abandoned in favor of others?
The answer is, I cannot choose. I have not chosen. They choose me. Even now, in my dotage, I do not regret saying “YES” to all of them.
This picture was taken when we lived on South Madison. In it Mama is her beautiful, comical, musical self. Back then she would strike a pose, then collapse in laughter. She had flair, a free spirit, she was my personal movie star, even before I knew what movie stars were.
I’ve gone back and looked through as many events as I can remember, trying to piece things together.
I’m searching for the turning point. To find when things changed. When the sun stopped shining, and the world went from bright colors to shades of grey.
I remember we had moved to the little house on North Marion. The one with the crayon blue linoleum floor. I remember a pivotal darkness, but nothing will speak to me from there. I try to go inside that space, but it’s always …. like the memories in it are right on the tip of my brain. I can almost see them. But not enough to grab hold, and to understand.
The things I know are that they had friends back then. At night they would get dressed up and go out together, and leave me with Ma Welp. But what else was happening?
I remember kitchen cabinets, with the doors open. Mama’s friend was rearranging. I remember Mama crying, and putting things back in the right places after the friend left. It was during that time that she stopped laughing.
I remember the priest coming. I remember feeling confused, and then it fades to black.
After whatever happened, that friend who was changing Mama’s kitchen never came over anymore.
Years later, when she was into her cups and in the mood to offer sage advice, she would say that you should never let anyone into your life because they’ll just walk in like they own the place and take over everything. Never get too close to anyone, she said. That’s the only way you can be safe, she said.
I’ve always wondered if that was the philosophy she used through the years to stay so far away from me. We’re closer now than ever before because, at 92, she has no clue who I am. It is a brokenhearted comfort that she always says she’d “love to get to know you.” I’d like to get to know you too, Mama. Or at least to understand what happened that kept us separate. But whatever it was, I loved you so; I choose to know that you loved me.I’m reminded of Birdie’s mother saying,
“All mothers love their daughters, even if they show it poorly.”
We’re living in very difficult times. We have every modern convenience, every means of communication, yet we live lives of anguish and isolation. Our ability to communicate, and to assess the subtle nuances of truth-versus-lie is tied directly to our face to face human interaction. You’d think we’d have more of that than any generations before us. But we don’t.
Ironically, psychologists tell us that our children will have less ability than any generation in history to interact with others in healthy and meaningful ways. The reason is because they spend far more time looking at a tablet screen than they do looking into the eyes of another human being.
And I totally get that. I can’t hear someone’s vocal inflection in a text. I can’t sense their energy or see their facial expressions in an email. In my head and without realizing it I write the story, I infuse the tone, I define the intent. That is what determines how I “hear” them. How often am I correct? How often have I gotten it wrong? I can’t know, because the moment in which it happens is gone in an instant. I’ve reacted based on “my assessment” before I even think about it.
And this, I contend, is how we have gotten so far away from each other.
Then there is the media. Do we really know what’s happening in this world? Or why? Are we given all the facts of a situation, and trusted to draw our own informed conclusions? No. There are extensive, complicated algorithms and processes that media uses to decide what we should be told, when, and how. The goal is to “drive” our opinions and conclusions; to create outrage, cause us to take sides, and define others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on what we “know.” And the result is that we end up unable to debate or agree-to-disagree.
But … what is it that we really know?
I can’t say definitively. I’m honestly still searching, and I feel more confused than ever before.
But here are a few basic conclusions I’ve reached:
- I know that things are happening at high levels over which I have no control.
- I know that every story or event reported on is colored by the reporter’s bias – be it strong or subtle – so that I will believe I “know” something that may not be the whole truth or the whole picture.
- I know that it takes deliberate and brutally honest energy to dig into the volume of information … to find those missing pieces of the puzzle that make the picture whole, and true.
- I know that if I claim to be a seeker of truth, I have an obligation to the whole truth, regardless of what I might think about it.
- I know that people need each other. The separation we feel is an illusion. We are connected to each other.
- I know that we are more alike than we are different. Like flowers in a garden that thrive in the same dirt, drink the same water, and bloom under the same sun, we are a world of beautiful humanity, all created by the same God.
- I know that hearts are broken every day in a variety of ways. But generally speaking, it’s always about loved ones lost, either through death or separation.
- I know that when any person, anywhere, feels overcome with that loss, that it feels the same everywhere.
- I know that all broken hearts are red.
I got the news back today, and it was good. Bloodwork was off so they needed more tests. The liver. I’ve had issues in the past with my liver. Not of an alcoholic nature; I’m not a drinker. But other things that can plague such an organ, they were plaguing mine. So, bloodwork.
And the result is that — while things need watching — all is well.
I shared the good report with a dear friend and said “That’s a load off.” She said she was relieved because she knew I was concerned. But the funny thing is, I never was really concerned. It just weighed heavy. It occurs to me that not many people have that experience. And even fewer people are aware of the difference.
The weight of things can bear down on the joyfilled. And I am one of those.
Through the years there were life experiences that had my spirit bent nearly double. Moments when I found it difficult to breathe; moments when my joyful self wanted to forget how. When I ached to be done with it; climb out the window of this life and in the window of the next. To be honest, there’ve been times when, due to health or surgery, I faced a decision: stay, or go; I chose, each time, to stay.
The redemption that lives in the small moments is what saved me, restored me, brought me back. That is always what keeps me here.
So the blood test, in the grand scheme of things, is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less. A little window into one aspect of what’s going on with me. The rest finds its place somewhere in the personal, panoramic pages of my own ‘Lonesome Dove’ story.
I’ll live my life, in all its chaotic splendor, across my own prairie … until I don’t. But life, its own self, will go on. And that’s a weight I’m glad to carry.
“God knows I gave my best in baseball at all times, and no man on earth can truthfully judge me otherwise.” – Shoeless Joe Jackson
I got up this morning, flipped on the TV, and discovered−happily−that Field of Dreams had just started.
Field of Dreams has to be one of my all time favorite movies. It’s about listening to that voice inside, following your gut, and discovering that the dreams you dream are often found in places and forms you least expect.
The movie centers on a family who lives on a farm in Iowa. The man−Ray−plows under a huge portion of his land and turns it into a baseball field. He goes all the way, with flood lights and bleachers. His extended family and the town community are skeptical, they say he’s lost his mind. But his wife, Annie, and his daughter, Karin, stand by him.
Ball players who’ve passed away show up on Ray’s field. But the only people who can see them are Ray, his wife Annie, and daughter Karin. The ball players are invisible to the cynics. Which only reinforces their contempt for the whole set up.
One of the ball players who shows up on Ray’s field is Shoeless Joe Jackson. That jogged my memory, and I started thinking; I knew there’d been a scandal that forced Shoeless Joe out of baseball, but what was it? What did Joe do?
So I read up on what’s called, “the Black Sox Scandal.” Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and seven teammates on the Chicago White Sox were accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
But here’s where it gets interesting: Joe claimed that his teammates gave his name to the gamblers even though he never agreed to participate. And the teammates admitted that Joe never attended the meetings where the fix was discussed and arranged.
There’s no debate that, during the games in question, Shoeless Joe played his ass off−throwing nothing, and hitting everything.
Joe and his teammates were acquitted following a jury trial in 1921, but newly appointed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis barred them all from professional baseball, for life.
Jackson always claimed his innocence. He contended that teammates got him to sign a document of confession he didn’t fully understand.
That is very likely; Shoeless Joe could not read or write.
Ever since the 1921 ruling, folks have continued to fight to restore Shoeless Joe’s name.
People who knew Joe were clear: he couldn’t be guilty. Joe was the kind of guy everybody wanted as a friend. He was an honest man with a huge heart, and his love of kids was even bigger.
Today I was told that an appeal sits on the Commissioner’s desk right now, to clear Shoeless Joe Jackson from the lifetime ban. This would allow Jackson to take his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Many fans are waiting for word on the decision, eager to see the ban removed, and to gather in Cooperstown to at long last celebrate Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Shoeless Joe died on December 5, 1951. So he will not be present for any induction. But he lived his life, and died, knowing the truth about himself. I trust that gave him some comfort in the dark moments.
So I’m watching this amazing movie, wiping my eyes when Ray meets his departed dad, John, and thinking of my own situation.
I feel passionately for Shoeless Joe Jackson, in part because I know what it’s like to be falsely and publicly accused. And I know how, even after being declared innocent, the stain of accusation remains.
Many people you once knew as close friends look at you through that distant lens of “guilty even though proven innocent.” It is a buckling burden; a yoke I’m still getting used to.
I remind myself that the wheel turns slowly, but it does turn. Sometimes it seems like it doesn’t. But it really does.
In the movie I hear Ray’s dad, John, ask Ray,
“Is this heaven?” Ray says,
“It’s Iowa. Is there a heaven?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s where dreams come true.” Ray responds,
“Maybe this is heaven.”
I muffle a sob, and remind myself that it all evens out in the end.
And if Shoeless Joe could bear up under all that till he finally reached his own Field of Dreams − I will, too.