Thursday, January 19, 2006

Monday with Esta

The other day I went to see Esta in the hospital. She told me I could tell you.

She fell last Saturday and broke her hip. She had surgery on Sunday afternoon and as I write this she is scheduled to leave the hospital on tomorrow to begin her rehab. But I wanted to tell you about this visit.

The other times I went, there were family and friends and not much time for conversation (not to mention the sedatives and pain medication). But on Monday, after the nurse who checked her blood pressure left, it was just she and I. The first words out of her mouth when she saw me come through the door were not “Hello, preacher” or “Hi, Tom,” but —and I am not making this up—“You don’t know how much I miss coming to church! I miss it! I miss it so much!” When I took my leave a little while later, she didn’t say “Bye, Tom” or “Thanks for coming,” but “I miss it, oh, I miss it so.”

In between we talked a little about her situation, her fall and surgery. She frowned to tell me that she was in “right much” pain. When the physical therapist interrupted us to tell her he was coming back in a little while to get her up again and make her walk some more, she frowned more deeply still. When he left she laid her head back on the pillow, looked straight at the ceiling and, after a moment, into the past. “I used to teach Sunday School,” she said. “I taught so many lessons.” A wide grin closed her eyes. “It made such a difference in those little ones’ lives,” she smiled.

“And in yours, too,” I replied. She did not look at me but nodded. She said something about Easter Egg hunts and mumbled a word or two about her own Sunday School class. A tear fell from my eye as she said, once more but still smiling, “I miss it so much.”

“I know you do,” I said; “I would too. Church is the only thing I know anything about,” I said truthfully. She looked back at me and nodded. I said, “But what a great thing that you and I have so many good memories of church. Isn’t it wonderful to love and enjoy something so much that it hurts to be away from it?” She nodded again. A few minutes later I got up to leave and she said… well, you know what she said. Nor will I forget it.

My prayer that day and every day since is this: if I outlive my body, when what has held me up has given way and I am prone, I hope I can look up and remember as much as Esta does. I hope that memories of faith, hope and love—memories of Jesus and the church—will bring a smile back to my frowning face, and keep on doing so, till there are frowns and tears and pain no more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Pass the Bamboo

Since last we talked I have turned 51. I mention this fact not to solicit cards or felicitations, but only to share with you a pretty funny line sent me by my friend Mike, a pastor buddy from college and seminary days. A bit of background: Mike fell off the same chronological precipice as I back in September and the other day we were commiserating a bit by email, eventually confessing one to the other—and surprisingly, we each of us acknowledged—how this birthday had hit us a harder lick than last.

We are not vain, for the most part. Not fatalists or despairing. We were just stewing a bit, I guess you’d say, in a watery broth of cyber-melancholy with a pinch of age-related funk.

And yes, I know: birthdays are just dates; years are just numbers; you are only as old as you feel. And no, 51 is not all that old—not old at all they way some people see it. All I can say is that Mike and I were feeling pretty old the day we were talking about it. “I have lost 30 yards off my drive,” Mike lamented but, really, he didn’t have that much to lose (as I reminded him, one good friend to another). “I can’t remember the half of what I read,” I countered, “you know, like I could when we were in seminary.” He replied, “You didn’t read half of what you were supposed to, and still don’t, from the sound of it” (Mike rereads Tolkien every year; also, he is also a stickler about grammar). “It’s these new bifocals,” I protested. “I can’t see.” He wrote back, “I know what you mean.” Both of us have new glasses and are, therefore, blind as bats.

As a matter of course, we compared our various aches and pains, and not all of them orthopedic, either. Some of the pains we spoke of were a little closer to the heart: regrets, missteps, lost opportunities, unraveled friendships—that kind of thing. It was not serious therapy, by any means, or even deep wallowing; more the kind of discussion old friends have now and then when their paths have diverged radically and the years have passed all too quickly.

And then Mike said something to save the day. He recalled how the night before he was in his favorite chair, disheveled, feet up, diet coke in hand, chin on chest and more or less asleep as he “watched the game.” He started snoring, which woke him in time to hear one of his kids crack on the old man’s posture and general appearance. Mike roused up to inform the upstart that he, Mike, had “achieved the status of a head gorilla, which means I get sit around in the shade, eat what I want, develop a paunch, sleep a great deal, and act a little surly from time to time, all without undue guilt.” King Kong, in other words, just more domesticated.

That to say, if age has its ravages it also has its privileges. (Note to Staff-Parish Committee: if ever you get a complaint about me beating my chest and baring my teeth, bellowing and tossing books here and there, you will know what happened.)