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I have lived a lifetime in just the last week. I’ve stood by my elderly mother‘s deathbed, keeping vigil as she drew her last breath. My siblings and I have mourned Mom’s passing, celebrated her life, and sorted through her most special treasures. After weeks away, I have finally returned to my own home, to my own life, to try and figure out how to incorporate some of Mom’s treasures into my own!
As we dug ever more deeply into Mom’s life, we discovered things about her and our Dad that we never knew. By the time any of us was old enough to remember, Mom had run into enough limits that she carried a resentment that would hurt her, diminishing her throughout the rest of her life. I often hid during Mom’s tirades, as did several of my siblings (amazing what one learns during a death vigil!). We each knew to challenge Mom with great caution…the price for implying that she might have made a mistake was always unpleasant, even caustic…often not worth the battle!
But these things we already knew. The real surprises were revealed in old photographs, notes, and letters that none of us realized even existed! There were pictures of young adult George and Louise. They loved being together! They loved each other! (None of us ever saw that side of their relationship. Instead, we all have hard memories of bitter words …)
I have long been aware that my love of books and writing was inherited from my Dad. He was an incurable bookworm. Our weekly trek to the public library is one of my favorite childhood memories. The surprise was finding the beautiful notes he wrote to the love of his life, and realizing Mom kept them!! Who knew that Dad was such a romantic? Or that Mom was so sentimental? Mother, following the example of her mother, left notes on many of her treasures. We had errantly assumed that many of her “doodads” would be easy to toss. They were Mom’s memories, after all, not ours. But those small hand-written notes, taped to backs and bottoms, or stuffed inside some orifice…those notes tied us to generations past with old, long-forgotten family stories. Those notes are largely to blame for the many extra boxes of stuff that have found new homes with my siblings and me after the funeral!
So, here I am, at the time of life when I need to be getting rid of things, adding more to my domain and existence instead! As I began to unwrap my “new” treasures, I pulled out a large empty box and began filling it with stuff we no longer use or need. And, I realized that I am falling down on the job! There are a myriad of items in my home that hold wonderful family stories. I need to add my own note to some treasures, telling the stories that go with the memories. My notes are an important of the family narrative too!
The evening of the day Mom died, my siblings and I met together in a nearly empty apartment where Mother had lived happily for more than 7 years. For days and days, we had each picked through Mom’s treasures, sorting, donating, and then, choosing our favorite items…and our ability to make further decisions was exhausted. A few precious heirlooms were relegated to an “Everybody Want This” corner. Numbers were put into Keith’s favorite hat, and we pulled numbers for each item we wanted…until all was parceled out, each sibling with a few very special treasures. There were no arguments…just laughter and tears, stories and agreements about who should really have certain items.
In the last days before Mom died, it seemed as if the soul had gone out of that place: Mom’s bright eyes and always warm (sometimes teary) greeting and embrace were gone, the shell of her body wasting away in an adjacent room. The light and life we knew as “Mom” was gone as the previous generation ended and I became the eldest female in our immediate family. It is an odd place for me to be to be – a supposed matriarch for this family! I am quite certain I am not ready for nor do I really want this “auspicious” role. But I know most of the family stories…and I know it is the stories that help us make family. Sharing the memories that tie us together helps keep us together as family!
Three of Mom’s grandchildren sat around the perimeter of her nearly vacant apartment on that evening only a few hours after Mom’ death. They didn’t gather there in order to get something. Rather, they came to hear the stories we told about the treasures. These special young ones got it right! The Essence of Family! It’s not the stuff, the tangible things, but rather the relationships that are reinforced every time we share a meal, make a memory or tell a story reliving family legend. The soul that Mom brought to that special place is very much alive in each of her children and grandchildren. So, we will continue to tell the stories, aware of our foibles and follies, as well as the unique strengths that are part and parcel of the “Rodgers Clan”. We are making family as surely as did our parents and grandparents and all the ancestors before who brought us to this place and this time.
What a strange week this has been at the Spencer home. We knew for several months that this was coming, and put it off as long as we humanely could. Last Tuesday evening, we said goodbye to our dearly beloved pet, Kelsey. She was a German Shepard mix whom we found at a pet adoption agency in Greensboro in late 2003. She came to live with us on January 5, 2004. Kelsey was so smart, so sensitive to her new “Owners” needs that she immediately adopted us, blending into the household and family as if she had always been there.
Kelsey grabbed hold of my heart from the first picture I saw on the Internet. She waited for me patiently each day as I went off to teach school. She greeted me with joyful abandon when I returned. We played together (she knew all the “tricks” and eagerly learned more), walked and camped together. She slept on the floor by my side as I worked on lesson plans or colored or crafted teddy bears.
She knew her job as my protector, resting with her back toward the door of whatever room I worked in, on alert for any threats. She alerted incessantly to doorbells on the TV, strangers on the street, imagined sounds in the dark outside at night. She let me cry into her soft fur on those days when Parkinson’s seemed to be winning. Kelsey was such rich company for me! She even blew out her knees and had surgery on each of them– both of her surgeries happened immediately after I had my own major surgeries! Even at the very end of her long life, as the vet pumped blessed relief into her veins, she stretched up to lick the tears from my face. But perhaps her greatest accomplishment was winning Ed’s heart! “I’m not a dog person,” he avows, “but Kelsey made me a Kelsey person!”
So, my house is a good bit emptier than it was. For more than 15 years, we were graced with the presence of this Gift we called “Kelsey.” I am humbled by her commitment to each of us, by her awareness of our needs, by her patience and understanding when we were not at our best. I can only hope to be as good a friend.
Thanks, Kelsey. Godspeed.
Dr. Mueller was my organ performance professor for 4 years in the early 90’s. He taught me to make Bach’s music dance, to soar with the elegant beauty of Mendelssohn’s melodies, to engineer the compositions of Cesar Franc so that my small hands could perform the music of this giant of a musician who also had very large hands! I learned so much from him, but perhaps the most important came in the green room just before my final one hour recital: “You have done the work. You know the music well. Now, go out there and have fun! Don’t try to play every note perfectly. Love your audience!”
To play the organ well takes incredible amounts of practice time, extensive training, and muscle memory that won’t quit! Thanks to John Mueller, I learned to play with abandon, to live the music, to love the audience. The organ bench became my sacred place, where I could bare my soul before God, praying without words, expressing feelings far deeper than words could say. I am ever so grateful for the 18+ years I was able to play after Dr. mueller’s teaching. I am grateful for the voice of the pipes in so many churches. Perhaps the instrument seems outmoded today, but I believe it still is the King of Instruments, and those who are blessed enough to play it well are Gifts to all who hear. Thanks, Dr. John Mueller.
This weekend we must say a final goodbye to David Adkins. I’ve been working on this goodbye for years, dreading it, avoiding it, running from it, trying to make sense of it. I have thought many times about composing a greeting card for him and his family, but words have failed me over and over and over. What does one say to a mere man who brought the voice of God so vividly, so consistently to an entire community? What is there to say about a dearly beloved pastor who lived richly in God’s Presence, who lavished that Presence on his congregants, and who, according to our human logic, should now be enjoying his retirement years, traveling, writing, being Papa to his grandchildren, hiking, painting, singing, resting from years of nurturing a church and the community around it? David could have served well as a pastor anywhere. With his credentials and expertise, one would think he would have landed in a large city, a huge church, or occupied a position that brought with it great prestige and renown. Instead, he chose to spend nearly his entire adulthood – more than 37 years of his career – pastoring a small church in a small, obscure city in the piedmont of southern Virginia. I believe he literally changed the face of this microcosm as he showed us what living the Kingdom of God is all about.
Since we served together on the same church staff for more than 18 of those years, I have a multitude of “David stories.” Many of them make me smile and laugh almost as much as when they first occurred. All of them are examples of who he was and Who God is in our midst.
Once, when the much of our church family went tent camping together (we took over most of the campsites at Fairystone Park), David offered to take the children on a hike to search for mushrooms. (He was passionate about mushrooms, and was an expert in finding non-toxic ones … and also was quite a chef when cooking them in the kitchen!) When the group returned with their earthy prizes, David challenged them to taste some of their specimens. He took one mushroom, broke it open (like he often did with the communion elements at church), ate a bit of it himself, and then offered it to the unsuspecting children…Too late, they realized that they had been had! That mushroom’s liquid was really bitter and tasted terrible!! Fortunately, I caught the mischief in David’s eyes, avoided this particular communion with nature, and gained a vivid memory of a pastor who lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way…who understood that the most basic rule of leading any group of people is to love them first, without any reservation. To see in each person the very image of God. To know that God has a wonderful sense of humor and it was okay to laugh with his parishioners like family.
Besides being “Pastor,” David was also an Artist. (I remember asking him once, in the security of the office building, how he dealt with some of the downsides of ministry. He smiled and said, “I have my ways.” I would learn much later that, among other pursuits, he was a very gifted painter…) In the early days of our ministry together, I was asked to play the organ for the wedding of a young couple at the church. After the festivities, I had to return to the church to retrieve a forgotten item. As I re-entered the building, I could hear the organ … someone was playing a Choral Prelude by J.S. Bach! “Who on earth knows how to play such a piece….on the organ, no less….?” I wondered. I peeked in at the organ console, and there sat David! Pastor David!! Without saying a word, I backed out of the sanctuary, knowing instinctively that anyone with enough training to play Bach on a pipe organ would inherently know that I still had much to learn to play that instrument well!
The artistic David brought the Arts into our worship space. He challenged other artists in the church to create banners for all aspects of the church year. Working with other ministers in the church, he often brought graphic, visual arts into our worship space to help us focus on specific aspects of God. David’s creative approach to worship and to life itself tapped into the creative spirit of the congregation, growing us ever deeper into God’s Presence.
From David, I learned that “Ministry” may also be called “Bold Love.” Long before I was called to be a part of this ministry team, I wondered how on earth the church was so very stable. When I took my resume to apply for the organist position, I asked specifically about that stability. The answer to my query was strikingly simple: “David is very bold….” He was so cognizant of his church members that he would go directly to speak with those he understood would be upset by changes the church was considering. There is power in such love…
My most cherished memories of David are couched in those moments when we would stop to chat on the office steps. I struggled often with the demise of the SBC and was often angry with the treatment of professors and anyone else who stood their ground against the heresy inherent in the controversy. Lamenting the slowness of my own family to see the SBC controversy for what it was, I railed one day at being the “black sheep” in my family. In one of the strongest affirmations I ever received, David assured me that I was not off base and that once someone has seen through the façade of religious cultural “rules,” there is no going back. One cannot “unsee” the face nor the touch of God!
As David neared the end of his formal ministry at our church, he pushed for the church to ordain me to the ministry. While the formal recognition felt good, David had always included me as one of his ministry peers. His understanding, wise counsel, and mentoring stood me in good stead throughout most of my own adulthood. He called out the best in all of us!
My earliest memory of both David and his long-term associate, Gerry Robinson, is from a trip we all made together as part of an associational committee. I was new to the area and was serving as Minister to Youth and Children at a sister church at the time. It had rained much of the week before we left, so the shoulders of the roads were soft and muddy. We left town in Starling Avenue’s church van and after a few miles, we all realized that something was the matter with the right rear tire. These two ministers, dressed in their “Go to Meetin’” suits, ended up on hands and knees trying to jack up a van in the mud. I glimpsed that day, long before I was on the same staff as they, the specialness of Starling Avenue Ministers. They were not afraid of the most mundane of chores, determined to take care of those around them, all with a sense of humility and mirth. And therein lies the “secret” with which David Adkins lived his life among us. His love of life, his artistic bent, his humble determination to be at his best all made him stand head and shoulders above the rest. I can almost hear the voice of God saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Welcome home!”
Godspeed, David. You were made of dust and to dust you return. But your spirit is alive and well. Your soul, besides being finally with God, is imbedded in the lives of a church family that loved you dearly.
I have just finished reading a new book by author and Duke professor, Kate Bowler. Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Enjoyed, is an honest accounting of her recent and on-going struggle with colon cancer. She spoke of the “gospel of prosperity” which seems to have infected much of our religious practice and belief in this country…and I am hard pressed to find my own way beyond that mind set.
Lately, I’ve been plagued with questions about life changing (life threatening) events like incurable diseases that literally steal one’s life away, car wrecks caused by things like irresponsible drivers with cell phones or violent weather that catches drivers en route … “unfair” events that happen seemingly at random, catching their “victims” unawares, unprepared for devastating changes to the lives both of the victim and to those who love them.
Not long after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a well-meaning friend offered to pray for healing for me. I shied away from the offer, not sure such “Healing” was or could be real. What was the matter with me?! Didn’t I believe God is powerful enough to do such a miracle? Was I afraid of what might happen, or how I would feel if, after such a prayer, healing did not happen…?
In the ten years since that event, I have often wondered about that reaction, wondered if I blew my one chance to actually be rid of this insidious degenerative disease. Was I thinking that I could boldly soldier on, making the best of it, banking on God’s goodness to keep the disease from causing too much damage to my existence? Was I naively waltzing into the future, believing that because God is love, He would keep me from suffering? Did I honestly think that the power of positive thinking would keep the illness at bay?
Ten years. In that time, I have watched a wonderful friend, a gifted pastor for 37+ years who has been struck with a virulent form of Parkinson’s that responds to none of the current treatments. It’s like Parkinson’s on steroids. He should still be painting, writing, hiking, teaching, and mentoring! Instead, he has become a prisoner in a body that doesn’t work, bedridden except for the vigilant care giving of an amazing wife. Yet, they keep living, facing daily challenges, and, word has it, they are even working on a book using technology that lets him type on the computer with his eyes! I find myself wondering at my friend’s demeanor…why is he not railing at God, shaking his fist angrily at what he has lost. What is God thinking of, allowing him and his family and community to suffer such devastating loss?!?!!
I have another friend of similar age and malady who has very few “people resources”. No church family. Essentially no natal family. Few resources. No hope. And I find myself at a loss as to how to help her. She was a teacher for more than 30 years. She worked as a dog trainer and treated my own dear Kelsey as her own when I left my pet at the kennel. Yet, now this friend is but a shell of her former self, an aging, angry, defiant elderly child locked inside a body that defies her every demand. She exists in direct contrast to my aforementioned pastor friend.
My ”list” of unfairness grows longer each month. There is the 5-year-old son of a young woman to whom I taught piano – beautiful family. And the son has cancer. As grateful as I am for places like St. Jude’s Hospital, no one should ever have to take one’s child there! And there are several dear ladies in my church who are facing down recurring cancers that would seem to steal their lives away long before their loved ones are ready to let them go. And on and on and ON….
So, what is the secret to coping with such devastation? I’ve been, it seems, one of the lucky ones in the coping department. I’ve lost much of what I used to do, of who I was before. I don’t want to review those losses here. I just want to find some answers. I want to know the secret to surviving the devastation with the rest of my soul intact!
With each loss, I have allowed myself to grieve, sometimes for months. At times, I have revisited some of those favorite lost places…the organ bench, my school and dearly beloved classroom. I have railed against the injustice. Raged at the unfairness of it all. I have wiped away many tears that rise, unbidden, at the words to hymns or anthems or poems or scriptures that have touched nerves still raw from the most recent loss. I have hidden, often, behind a barrage of busyness, seeking to replace favorite activities with other things to occupy my mind and emotions.
(Don’t get me wrong: learning to make teddy bears from old coats has been fun. Making memory bears to help
others with their own grief has largely filled some of my own yearning to make life better for someone else.
Photography has pulled me outside into a world, giving a new understanding of the World Maker’s creativity. I have connected with friends over impromptu luncheons; worked on our home, making it more handicap accessible; built an outdoor hardscape complete with fire pit, stacked stone walls, graveled seating area, and flagstone walkway. I have especially enjoyed friends and family around campfire cook outs and s’mores. I have enjoyed the freedom to be with grandkids and help my kids as they have moved more deeply into their adulthood….
But still the question remains: Why do bad things happen to good people? How do some folks seem to cope so well, rising above the devastation even as life ekes away?
If I take an honest look at my pastor friend, I realize he and his wife are “simply” living one day at a time, enjoying the good that comes their way, piecing together an existence different from what they had planned or expected, but they are continuing to live each day, not skipping anything. Even as bleak as the future might seem, there is still a goodness in life that is worth savoring, cherishing, relishing. And perhaps, therein lies the secret, the answer to my original question. Keep living, day in and day out, searching for what is interesting, refusing to allow Parkinson’s to invade one’s soul. Don’t skip anything! I have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s does not have me!
In Kate Bowler’s book, there is a moment in her story that cut through the devastation, offering a truth that I too have experienced, along with many others who have experienced a brush with death. In the midst of the chaos and devastation came a sense of being Loved, a sense of Peace … Dare I say it? … A sense of God’s peace. Even after that feeling faded, very often the one who had the experience was left with an indelible imprint, as if they were somehow “marked by the presence of an unbidden God.”
Personally, I cling to the memory of those experiences. I have no scientific proof that they happened, but I do know that experience, that Presence changed me. So, I accept the challenge of living in the present, not skipping any thing, savoring the good, determined to live on the happy side of existence, while also trying to keep my feet on the ground, based in the reality that the “gospel of prosperity” is a lie, but the Kingdom of God is real.