Saturday, July 17, 2010

Another Passing

Life, as we all know, is a constant flow of acquisitions and losses.  I am not speaking here of property.  I am speaking, rather, of friends.

At various points in life, we gain friends.  They may become very close and foster the feeling that this relationship will, indeed, last throughout the rest of our life.  This is a rare occasion, however, since life moves forward, taking us often to places and events that we could never have predicted.  Still, while those friendships may burn for a while, most fade with the passage of time.  We express our regrets over this but also understand that this is the way of life.

While it is true that most friendships do fade into the background, nearly forgotten, there are those rare friendships that do last a lifetime even if contact with that friend has not taken place in years.  And when we hear of the passing of just such a friend, our hearts are saddened and our spirits a little emptier because this person meant something to us even if it was years ago since we last saw them.

This is just the case with a one time friend of mine from years ago.  Recently, on July 9, Bill Finn, one of the finest people I have had the honor to know, passed from this world after a battle with lung cancer.  Bill became my friend many, many years ago when both of us worked for Eagle Foods in Pekin, Illinois.  He was the store's assistant manager and I was just one of the crew. 

One day, completely out of the blue, Bill asked me to join him at his house for a beer and an evening of conversation and fun.  I gladly accepted and that evening proved to be the start of a long-lasting friendship.  Our families shared so many things with each other.  Birthdays were celebrated together.  Anniversaries were observed.  Holidays were gleefully and joyfully entered in upon.  The birth of my children were ushered in, often with the help of Bill and his wife Judy.

We shared deep sadness as well as was illustrated when Bill's only son Billy succumbed to an illness when Billy was only eighteen years old.  There was nothing that I could say.  I only could be present for them, lending my support for them as best I could.

Now, after a long and fulfilling life my friend Bill is gone.  I have not seen him in years, still, when I learned of his death, my heart sank and my thoughts immediately turned to his wife and three daughters.  Bill reveled in family life.  The passing of his son those many years ago was the hardest thing, I think, that he ever had to endure.  His girls were like three sparkling gems in his crown and as they grew, Bill became more and more proud.

But then the course of our lives took us in different directions and, in spite of our desires, we lost track of one another.  Bill remained enmeshed in his family while I wandered the countryside in search of some allusively false life that I imagined must be out there.

When the news of his passing reached me, I was immediately taken back in my memory to the night before my twins were born.  Since learning that we were having twins, we had busied ourselves in gathering together two of everything.  The only thing we had yet to do was to assemble the second baby bed.

Now, as anyone who has had a baby knows, putting together a baby bed is similar to trying to understand the theory of relativity without knowing how to read.  The instructions seem to have been written in some form of ancient Greek and the illustrations accompanying said instructions apparently were samples of the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt.

Bill was far handier at such things than I and because he and Judy had helped us frequently throughout the ordeal known as pregnancy, I asked him to help me put together this one last piece of furniture necessary for a new born.

It was mid-August and the heat and humidity were at typical Midwestern levels.  Before we began, we enjoyed a beer in an attempt to relax knowing the great struggle that lay ahead.  Once the beer had been consumed, we launched ourselves into the construction of the bed.  A quick glance at the directions and we knew that we must have another beer.  Those directions could only be understood with the aid of alcohol!  To make a long story short, we finished the crib late in the evening, by that time well under the influence.  How that crib was ever assembled without killing its precious cargo is beyond for me.  All I know is that it lasted for years.

All through the construction phase, Bill was his typical self.  Wherever Bill Finn was, laughter accompanied.  He had an easy way about him and making people laugh at his ridiculous statements or jokes was a true gift of his.  That night, the night before the birth of my firstborn sons, Bill made me relax about what was soon to happen.  I do not remember anything that he said that evening but in my mind's eye I can still picture him puffing away at his ever-present cigarette and bottle of Miller High Life.

What this proved about Bill is that he was never afraid of giving of himself.  He was a generous man beyond any one's wildest imaginations.  Generous with his time.  Generous with his talent.  And generous with the love he had of people.

Bill will be sorely missed by Judy and his three girls who are all now adults.  He will also be deeply missed by the seemingly innumerable number of people who called him friend.  It is hard to understand why he had to go so early, but we are satisfied that he lived life to the fullest.  He never did anything half way.  His courage was great and his values were firmly embedded in the foundation of Midwestern culture.

Bill's departure has touched me deeply.  I was blessed to have such a friend and I will carry him in my heart for the rest of my life.   

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Face of Christ

I have an interesting job.  I am able to visit with people and help them keep their home safe and protected.  It also affords the opportunity to see how others live.  Because of it, I have been privy to great wealth and have also been exposed to grinding poverty.  I have visited the middle class who lives in a similar manner as do I and I have seen how "the other half lives."

Within the last week I have had the opportunity to visit a mansion that measured 10,000 square feet.  I was greeted at the door by the woman of the house, casually dressed and obviously comfortable with her surroundings.  She was warm and friendly and very conversational.  It was a palace when compared to my lifestyle.  Its floor consisted of highly polished marble and the main staircase was a work of art, hand carved and massive.  There were more rooms than I could count and there were two garages both of which were air conditioned.  The occupants of this magnificent home were just as kind and welcoming as anyone could be.  There was no sense that they felt themselves members of the privileged class.

Only a few days later, I was called to an inner city home on a very hot and humid July morning.  The contrast between the two homes could not have been greater.  Greeting me at the front door was an elderly woman of 92.  She looked ragged and worn.  She welcomed me to her home, a once magnificent home that was well over 100 years old.  In its day, this home must have been every bit as much a showcase as was the aforementioned palace.  But the years had not been kind to this building.  Years of poverty had taken its toll.  It was run down, worn out, very much as its occupant appeared.  I'm not sure if this home had ever had the chance to be cooled and comforted by air conditioning.  The temperature inside this structure on this oppressively warm morning was well into the 80's.

The owner of the worn out building shuffled from room to room, describing as she went what kind of help she needed.  I could not help but allow my imagination roam to days gone by when this house enjoyed all its grandeur.  Now, there was nothing but clutter and dirt.  There was an unpleasant odor of rancid cooking grease everywhere.  The sunlight streamed through windows that had there last washing apparently years ago.  My heart went out to the elderly woman who, despite her surroundings, managed, somehow, to keep her dignity.

Part of me wanted to run from the run-down home because it was an unpleasant experience.  In contrast, I would have found it very easy to take up residence in one of the palace's air conditioned garages!  The sad thing is that the physical distance between these two old homes is no more than three or four miles.  However, the lifestyles that the residents of each domicile exist in are light years apart.

God has given me this opportunity to realize that we can find the face of Christ in both places.  It is very easy to see and experience it in the palace.  There is a level of comfort there that is undeniable and very attractive.  On the other hand, just across town, in the dreary home in which the elderly woman survived, comfort was the least of concerns.  Survival was the most important thing.  But here, too, is the face of the Savior.  It was easy to spot in the lap of luxury.  But it was very difficult to find in the squalor of the run-down home. 

Admittedly, I was at first repulsed by what I found at the elderly woman's home.  I wanted to make quick work of my visit and be out of there as fast as possible.  It was hard to look into those aging eyes, realizing only partially, what it must be like to be her.  What must it be like to struggle so desperately from day to day just to survive?  And on these extraordinarily hot summer days, how, I wondered, did she ever make it through one day?

As time went on during my visit to the ninety year old's home, I began to look past the abject poverty that now enveloped me.  And to my surprise, I found the face of Christ amidst the filth and desperation that were a part of the home as much as the highly polished marble floor was of the palace.  I realized that through both these experiences God had led me to experience His Son in very different settings.  I saw the dignity of Christ in the palace, His glory and strength symbolized by this home's stature and polish.  In the old, nearly falling down home, I experienced the face of Christ in the poverty of the moment.  Here was a representative of Mother Theresa's poor of Calcutta.  Here was the face of Christ on the Cross, impoverished, totally without possession, waiting for me to embrace Him.

It would have been easy to embrace the dignified Christ and very important that I do so.  Just because someone is wealthy does not mean that they deserve my scorn or suspicion either out of jealousy or envy.  It was not easy, however, to embrace the face of Christ in the home where poverty resided. 

These incidents have allowed me to examine my faith more deeply.  I talk a good game, but where is my faith at this point in reality.  Is my faith one of action or just hollow words?  Do I practice Jesus' reminder to us that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to Him?  And if I do practice that, to what degree? 

We must all walk our own path and cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the development and growth of our faith.  I feel very privileged to have had these experiences because they are signs of God's love for me as unworthy as I am of it.

Think of times in your life when you had concrete reality present itself in such a way as to prompt an inner search for just how faithful you are and how committed you are to embracing Christ through all of humanity.  It is a courageous act, indeed, not entered in upon lightly.  I do not know where these experiences will lead me and the faith I have been given as a gift by our Father, but I do know that, once again, He has shown me the depth of His love.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer In My Mind

Those of you who know me know that one of the things I am least fond of is the season of summer.  The high levels of humidity added to the endless heat spells make me wish for Fall and beyond with an even greater longing every year.  But I must admit there are a few things about summer that I really do enjoy.

Summer brings back fond memories for me as a kid because I remember waiting on the front steps of the home I grew up in on Summer Street in Pekin for my mom to come home.  Even on those front steps I could smell the aroma of grandma's home cooked supper.  There was always a meat and potato dish usually accompanied by fresh sweet corn, green beans, or any other freshly made dish from the easily acquired fresh produce from the farms in the area. 

Mom worked for a local insurance company and for years got off at 4:30 Monday through Friday.  Her arrival at home between 4:40 and 4:45 was very predictable.  Occasionally, she would have an errand to run after work and that would push back her arrival time somewhat, but normally, she arrived on time.  Why was I so anxious to have her home? 

Every evening during the summer months, with the arrival of my mother, my grandmother, grandfather, mom and I would sit down to grandma's carefully prepared supper.  That time of the day holds some of the fondest memories that I have of my childhood.  Grandpa would always inquire after my mom's day.  Grandma spent her time bouncing from the supper table to the counter serving everyone in the room.  The meal started with the usual grace before meals and then we dug in.  I think I was almost always the first one done because of what was ahead for the evening.

Weather permitting, every summer weekday evening, once supper was finished, the dishes washed and enough time had passed, my mother and I would don our swim suits, grab a towel, and head for the local pool.  For about two and a half hours each evening I swam like a fish.  I dove off the boards that were in the pool, a fixture banned from most public pools these days because of the potential dangers they represented.  I loved swimming the width of the pool  while under water.  I vividly remember the setting sun and the changing colors of the summer evening sky as day lazily rolled into night.  It was an idyllic time.

Then there are the sounds of summer that had a melody all their own.  Crickets chirping wildly as evening came on accompanied our nights on the front porch.  We had a screened in porch and so could sit in the cool of the evening (relatively cool!) bug free.  Grandpa sat in "his" chair at one end of the porch, cigar in hand puffing away while talking about the "old days" on the farm when he was a kid.  Grandma would soon join us and just sit and relax, enjoying what must have been her first break of the day.  Mom would also be there, sitting on the porch swing, slowly seining to and fro listening to my grandpa spin his yarns.  Night came softly in those days as lightning bugs danced across the lawn.  An occasional car would travel up the brick paved street making such a racket that I am sure these days would be banned by the EPA due to excessive noise.

But that was a sound in those days that brought comfort and security to a little boy's life.  I often return to those days in my memory to touch base with the simpler times of my life.  It was a time of family and, once in a while a neighbor would drop by to add to the flavor of the evening.  Neighbors were neighbors back then, not just someone who lived near you, but someone who was like a part of your family.  They watched out for you and you watched out for them.

The evening skies from that front porch dazzled my imagination.  Stars seemed to shine a little more brightly back then.  These were the days when all the world looked to the evening sky with increasing wonder because the Soviet Union and United States had just begun what was being called the space race.  Shortly after the launch of Sputnik in the fall of 1957, the neighborhood would gather on the darkened street corner, heads firmly aimed at the sky, in an attempt to see that little point of light the Russians had only recently launched soar over our little Midwestern town.  It only took a few short minutes to cross from one horizon to another, but it filled everyone with sheer excitement and, in many cases fear.  After all, it was the Russians who had first reached space successfully.

Those summer evenings long ago passed into my personal history.  But they are the fond part of the season that I find mainly objectionable.  We didn't go camping.  We didn't swim in rivers and lakes.  Our simple pleasures came in the local pool, and warm summer nights spent as a family in the familiar and comforting aroma of my grandpa's cigar.  Laughter and memories punctuated those evenings with the sweetness of life that a child should experience.  They were marvelous times now receding into the past with ever increasing speed, but they shall always live for me in my memory.  And while we had no air conditioning and most of those warm summer nights were spent trying to find the coolest part of the sheet so you could sleep reasonably well, that, somehow, seems unimportant.

What is important that those summers on Summer Street gave me the life of a family and its memories to comfort me and bolster me as I journey along in life.  I'll never forget the sweet scent of grandpa's old cigar which today I might actually find offensive!  I'll never forget the ride to the pool with my mother and, often, a neighbor kid or two along for the fun.  And I will certainly never forget my grandmother and her home cooked suppers and the gentleness and tenderness that went into their preparation.  When I remember summer in this context, the season isn't so bad after all!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Bad Call

One of the worst calls you can get when you have an eighty-three year old parent is that they have fallen and broken a hip.  The hip is so important and bears so much weight that any break in it at any age is dangerous.  But for someone who is elderly, it is even morso.

I received this kind of call this week.  My mother had gotten up in the middle of the night (as she often does) and went into her living room to sit in her recliner.  She reached for the familiar chair and, still groggy from sleep, went to sit down.  Unfortunately, she missed the chair altogether and hit the floor squarely with her left hip.  Immediately she knew that she had broken it.  The pain was immense as she lay helplessly on the floor, struggling to move toward the phone.

Unable to do so, she began shouting for help in hopes that someone would be passing in the hallway and come to her aid.  About thirty minutes passed when one of the aids making her usual rounds walked past my mother's apartment and heard her calls for help.  She entered the home and found my mother on the floor in the most intense pain she had every experienced.

She was rushed to the hospital where x-rays confirmed that her hip had, indeed, been broken.  She was admitted to the hospital where her condition was stabilized and plans for surgery began forming.  However, there is one complication.  Because of a massive heart attack she suffered four years ago, my mother is on a daily regimen of the drug coumadin, a potent blood thinner designed to prevent blood clots from blocking her cardiac arteries.  If surgery were to be performed too early she would bleed uncontrollably and could very likely die.  The task at hand for the medical personnel, then, is to gradually and safely reduce the levels of coumadin to an acceptable threshold while maintain the thinning properties that guard her heart.

Doctors tells us that the levels will reach acceptable norms for surgery on Friday at which time the surgeon will repair her hip.  But that is just the start of things.  She will face a long and difficult recovery through physical therapy.

My mother is a strong woman both physically and psychologically.  She has been through much in her long and wonderful life.  She has faced enormous personal challenges and medical emergencies with a sense of courage, dignity, and determination.  This, however, is the most difficult mountain she has had to climb.

My mother is staunchly independent and it took a lot for her to move into an assisted care facility because of the loss of a great deal of that independence.  Now, because of the injury to her hip, she faces losing what is left of her independence.  Nothing is certain and I am certainly not saying that she will be permanently disabled as a result of this unfortunate accident.  We have seen her come through other difficult moments in life that have both surprised and amazed us.  But this is different.  She is much older and weaker now.  However, she has always be iron willed.

The difficult days ahead will be filled with worry, anxiety, and concern.  They will be long days.  And, yet, my mother once again stands before us as a teacher.  I am certain that, regardless of the outcome of surgery and resulting prognosis, she will teach us what it is like to face life's trials with dignity and courage.  May we remember this above all else as she enters this time of her life.