My son was five when, unbeknownst to me, he retrieved used Tampax applicators from the bathroom trash, put four or five together like a long, white telescope, and went on a back yard adventure. A giant yard of big, old trees, sand box with trucks and buckets, a two-story playhouse, and a swing set, but all he could see through his invention were a few oak leaves, the wheel of a Tonka in the sand, the yellow seat of a glider. Yet he was intent on his narrow scope of exploration.
I kept watching him out the back door—focused, looking for treasure, a mind full of pretend. I kept asking myself, “What in the world is he looking through?”
I think he was smart to invent an instrument for viewing his surrounds, but I don’t think those white cardboard applicators joined together gave him a complete view of the world around him. Looking through that long narrow tube, my little boy could only see what that little round hole at the end of the applicators showed. He had tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision is extreme narrowness of viewpoint resulting from concentration on a single idea or opinion, to the exclusion of others.
I can’t help but notice that there are many adults in this world now walking around looking through Tampax applicators. They see one idea or one object at the end of the tube and pick on it, scratch it raw, and then beat on it until it bleeds. They have no peripheral vision, none whatsoever, and concentrate to a fault on one grain of sand out of all the world’s beaches—one tiny inanimate object over all of humanity. I keep shaking my head and saying, “What is wrong with them, and why can’t they see more?”
We live in a time of tunnel vision and tangibles. People like tangibles—real things, palpable, things you can see, touch, even hear, pick up and hold or easily wrap your mind around. Simple and familiar tangibles attached to one meaning and experience include: a football, a tuba, trumpet, drum, cymbal, banner or flag.
People just can’t see beyond the viewfinder of the Tampax applicators; they can’t see intangibles or abstract things. They attach to the material item single-mindedly and focus on its color, sound, texture, and what they personally think about it. They build anger and hostility as they look to hammer and hurt everyone else who doesn’t see the item like they do. There’s no understanding or empathy outside that one object, even though there’s an infinite world of possibilities. I keep shaking my head. “Why can’t they see the big picture?”
I remember the movie Patch Adams. My other son (the one who was given a real Fisher-Price Adventure Tool Set after it was discovered what his brother used for exploration) was in that movie. I think of the scene in which Arthur Mendelson, an elderly, eccentric, intellectual patient ran up wildly to Patch and held up four fingers. “How many do you see?” The staff thought the old man was crazy, but Patch pursued his question. Mendelson told Patch to look beyond the fingers, to look at him, and by gazing through, Patch saw the fingers double. By looking at the four fingers, Mendelson said, “You are focusing on the problem. If you focus on the problem, you can’t see the solution.” This was a charge to see more, to look at the whole, to see what no one else sees, to see an answer. “See what everyone chooses not to see … out of fear, conformity, or laziness.”
My friend, writer Chance Chambers says, “I will not hold flags and ceremony (tangible items) in higher regard than human lives. A song doesn’t mean more to me than freedom and the right to live without fear.”
I don’t have a lot of hope that a lot of people can embrace this. Most are very content with their Tampax applicators, and we’ve just got to let them play, pretend, and cry in their own little, narrow worlds.
AUGUST 1944 – 73 YEARS AGO – ANNE FRANK WAS FOUND BY NAZIS IN SECRET HIDING PLACE IN AMSTERDAM, SENT TO A DEATH CAMP
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” ~ Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it every year as a teen. I was a post-war child, born of a father who fought against the atrocities of Adolph Hitler in Europe, ended up at the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and spent a year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two hours from Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps.
I was fascinated by the genre, by the first-person voice of a girl my age recording real-life experiences. As a college student, I went to Amsterdam and took a tour of Anne Frank’s house with its secret annex and hidden staircase. I remember the swinging bookcase and the stairs up to the secret room—narrow, steep, and dark. I remember walking around in the large room that hid Anne and her family. It was filled with windows letting in sunlight when I was there. It was hard to picture that once, the windows were blacked out for secrecy and protection. I stood at one window and looked out at the city teeming with people and life. The most meaningful image was that of a church steeple.
If Anne could’ve looked out that window, she would’ve seen hope and help.
The steeple image has stuck in my mind for almost five decades. I’m now trying to make meaning of it.
It’s the Westerkerk, the West Church. Rembrandt was buried there in 1669. It’s old. It’s a church with a steeple that towers above the city, marking its location so people can find it, pointing upward, and portraying its purpose as a place of God, of believers, of love, of hope and help.
The steeple serves as a visual testimony to all who walk in its shadow.
What happened in the shadow of the steeple seven decades ago when Anne Frank was a twelve-year-old?
There were surely good and God-loving people in the church. As they sat under their steeple, surely, they sang, prayed, took of the Body and the Blood. And then what? When they walked out the front doors, on the sidewalks by the canals, to their homes in the shadow of the steeple, did they live out the church’s mission, their mission?
When I read Anne’s diary as a young girl, my underlying thought was of the people, the good people, who let this happen to her. I mean, how could they? Why didn’t they do something? I realize some did help—provided protection and a path to fleeing the insanity that was. But many did nothing.
Were they unaware? Were they afraid? Of taking a stand? Of carrying out the church’s mission? Did they hide in the shadows?
Ultimately, young strong men—soldiers, like my dad—from other countries were called in to save them from the madness they’d allowed.
Life experience has taught me that good people are mostly silent. It’s easy, better that way, more acceptable to stay quiet in the darkness, to align with similar others, to hold inward vigils, and to excise those who stand out of the shadows.
Anne’s is a tragic story, because hope and help never came.
Tell my grandchildren. Tell them about that late summer day of blue morning skies and a brisk hint of fall, when all of a sudden, out of pristine cerulean, there came crashes, infernos, and collapses, and thousands died.
The twins are seven, in second grade, innocent of bad people and horrific events in world history. On September 11, 2001, they weren’t a hope or a dream; they weren’t even thought of. They were born seven and a half years after 9/11, the attack on America. They don’t know.
It’s like me being born the same stretch of time after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I have no first-hand understanding or compassion of it, except what I learned in a few paragraphs in a history book—and the stories my mother told me. That day she sat with her parents, brothers, and sisters in front of the radio and listened to the news and the president’s declaration of war. She was twenty. She told that story over and over during my growing up years.
So tell my grandchildren. They will only read a half page about it in history class one day.
Tell them that 9/11 is short for September 11, 2001. On that day, 19 men hijacked four commercial airplanes. They flew three of the planes into buildings. Two planes hit the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. The crashes caused the 110-story Twin Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world, to collapse.
The third plane hit the Pentagon in Washington DC, our nation’s capital. The Pentagon is the headquarters for the armed forces of the United States. The fourth plane, likely headed for the US Capitol building, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania because its passengers and crew fought back and kept it from reaching its target. Nearly 3,000 people died that day—people from 90 different countries. A terrorist group called al-Qaeda did this. The terrorists thought that by attacking famous and important buildings in our country and killing and harming many people, they would frighten Americans and force us into changing our policies and point of view about the Middle East.
Tell them that on the first anniversary of 9/11, their grandmama and Poppy drove to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home in Brentwood, where nearly 3,000 little wooden crosses had been erected, one for each person who died in the attacks. Tell them the red crosses represented firefighters, the blue crosses represented policemen, the gold crosses represented children, and the white crosses stood for all the others.
Tell my grandchildren what they can bear.
And tell them my story of that day, like my mother told me hers. Because stories help us to feel the moment and picture it and experience it like we were there. Because remembering and telling will help us all to stay alert and vigilant and to take care of America.
My 9/11 Story
I quote from my journal of 9/11/01: This day began like any other day. I woke up at 5:30, let the dog out, and got a cup of coffee. It was cool, in the 50s, and a beautiful morning.
A crew of painters arrived that morning to paint the trim on our house. We decided that Charlie would stay home, give instructions, and get them started, while I went to the office to take care of important details before returning home to exchange places with him.
Driving east on Mack Hatcher Bypass, approaching its intersection with Franklin Road, I heard the news on 92.9 that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought a small plane, an accident. So did the deejays, but they also suggested the possibility of a terrorist act. One said, “Oh, gosh, why would anyone do that?” Stopped for the red light, I grabbed my cell phone, punched in the 5-digit code to unlock it, and called Charlie. He would be at his workbench in the garage with a TV just above him.
“You better turn on CNN immediately,” I said. “Something’s going on.”
He had Channel 13’s Breaking News on before I finished my sentence. Then he started a roll . . .
“Oh my God. Oh my God. OH MY GOD.” Accents on different words each time. Short and staccato. Soft and slow. Loud and distinct. Long and drawn out. “OH-H-H MY-Y-Y GOD.”
“What? What? WHA-A-AT?” I pleaded. “What is happening?” He’s an engineer—logical, exact, serious, factual, precise—never emotional or panicky like me.
“Apparently, one plane hit, and now a second.” His voice shook. “I just saw it hit the tower. Oh my God.”
The crew of Mexican painters had gathered behind him, he told me, uttering words in Spanish, shaking their heads in disbelief. He continued, “Get the essentials done quickly at the office, and come home!” And then he uttered the words that still send a chill down my spine: “LIFE AS WE KNOW IT HAS ENDED.”
I was still reeling, my head spinning, trying to achieve a balance with my thoughts, trying to make sense out of all this, not understanding the full implications, the utter horror, the short-term or long-term significance of what had just happened. How could he grasp this concept? How did he know?
Heart thumping hard, I jerked open the office door, bell clanging a B flat above my head, and cried out to our technician, seated at his desk, “What is going on in this world?” He was a part-time employee of the Tennessee Air National Guard. Puzzled at my frenzy, he never took his eyes off me as he switched on the radio. We listened to unfolding, breaking news.
Two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A plane hit the Pentagon. The White House was evacuated. Another plane crashed near Pittsburgh. Why Pittsburgh? We learned later that it was headed for the White House or the Capitol.
Hands shaking, I sat down at my computer and typed a quick email to my son. I knew he’d be at his desk, working.
Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 08:39:25 –0500
turn on tv–2 planes crashed into world trade center…
No capital letters. I was in a hurry. In a panic. I always use capital letters when appropriate. I’m always careful about my grammar. I’m an English major for godssakes.
I felt scattered. Things were happening that shouldn’t be happening. Gravity did not exist anymore. Everything had gone awry. The whole world had exploded into confusion. Like confetti scattered to the wind. How do you collect it all? I wanted to sweep it all up, to put my world back together. How would we ever restore order again? Where would it end? What other tragedies were lurking, waiting to happen. What else? WHAT ELSE?
Charlie called, “Go do your banking and come home now! I’m going to the store. Going to get some necessities—flour, sugar, bottled water, canned goods. We don’t know what’s going to happen.” I wasn’t sure why we needed flour and sugar, but if that’s what he needed to feel safe and prepared, so be it.
All planes in the United States of America were grounded. All planes were ordered to proceed to the nearest airport and land.
On my way home, I drove across South Berry’s Chapel Road, as I do every day. Over the high hill and down into the beautiful valley, gated community with million dollar homes, green pasture on the hillside, horses grazing, swishing their tails, trees flirting with September yellow, Canada geese on a pond, skies so blue, so beautiful. A plane, an orange Southwest, flew over low, headed to the airport for an unscheduled landing. I slowed and watched it overhead through my sunroof. It would be the last jet I’d see for a long while in normally busy skies. The skies were empty, eerie. And so quiet . . . so damn quiet.
Again, I quote from my journal of 9/11/01: For the first time in my life, I was afraid. I kept looking at the skies—looking for the dreaded long white contrails of nuclear missiles approaching.
I was glued to the TV news the remainder of the day. Watching over and over the plane hitting the second tower. Over and over the towers crashing down, killing thousands of innocent people. Watching gray survivors fleeing, coated with ash. Ashes of victims incinerated. Ashes of powdered concrete. I just stared. I couldn’t comprehend it. I couldn’t process the horror.
I could not react. It was so far away. It was in my living room. It was in my country. America. We live above violence of this nature. Things like this don’t happen here. This is America, for godssakes! We are safe here. We are not safe here. We will never be safe here again. Tears wouldn’t come.
From my journal of 9/11/01: I watched continuous coverage on CNN. CNN’s banner was “ATTACK ON AMERICA.” During the afternoon, I retrieved messages from the office. One message was from the Air National Guard, trying to reach our technician, a navigator. It said, “We are considering this an Act of War.” The guard was on Threatcon Charlie, the second highest alert, with two units on Threatcon bravo. Chilling.
Day in Infamy
Azure skies await.
Three thousand souls march upward.
It was a white night last night.
For some reason, I thought of ice cold milk and couldn’t get the picture of it out of my mind. It was really a day for water, and lots of it, with a heat index of 103 and humidity so high I could barely breathe. It was too hot to go to the Blackberry Jam music festival and sit outside by the Harpeth all day. It was too hot to stand outside and talk to a neighbor; it was too hot to walk the dog very far. And I thought of ice cold milk. I had to have some.
When I was a little girl and spent a week each summer on my grandparents’ farm in Kemper County, Mississippi, I drank their milk straight from a cow. My grandfather was the first one up every morning to go milk the cows, and he always brought a pail back to the house. It was not homogenized, it was not pasteurized, it was not like city milk from a carton. My grandmother put ice in a glass and poured the milk over it. We never did that at home.
I remember the look of it. The milk seemed a little thin and yellow against the white ice, blocky parts of which floated above the surface, coated with cream.
So last night I stuck my glass under the ice dispenser, filled it, then poured milk over it. I shook it and let the ice hit the glass and make noise. I grabbed a few M&Ms and went outside on the front porch to sit under a cobalt sky headed to darkness. Clouds darker than cobalt were furiously building and boiling upward from the day’s heat, and lightning was flashing behind their tops and among them.
I chewed my chocolate and drank my ice cold rattly milk and watched the storm move closer, the sky flashing white all around me and sending bolts downward. It was coming at me from all directions, white everywhere. It was all show for an hour—no rain, no wind—just white lightning, a natural fireworks display. When it was on me, the heavens and the air all around me flashed white. And I sat there and rattled the cubes in my glass and drank my ice cold milk and remembered storm traditions of my little girl days.
At my grandparents’ house, when a storm would roll in, my grandfather would go get the car and drive it right up on the grass by the front porch. He’d make the five grandchildren sit in the car with him. The rubber tires would ground us and protect us from getting struck by the lightning. I don’t remember my grandmother ever being in the car with us. I think she took her chances and got a little peace and quiet inside the house. When I was playing at my friend Mary Sue’s and a storm came up, her mother brought us each a foam rubber pillow to sit on as we played paper dolls or drew and colored pictures because it would ground us and keep us safe. We didn’t do any of this at home. The storms came, the lightning came, the thunder came, and we kept right on doing what we were doing.
And so I sat on the front porch and drank my ice cold milk and watched the lightning.
This is my eleventh year without a father on Father’s Day. I remember all the life in Wallace Ray Hardy, my father, all the sacrifices, the dedication to family, work, and church, the happy and fun times, the laughter, and it’s so hard to get used to the idea that someone so alive and strong can be gone. It was the same for his father, my grandfather, Thomas Tyre Hardy. He was here, he was a big figure in my life, and then he was gone. It’s like the pillars of life crumble and fall when the old men go.
Now, there is no Hardy patriarch, no one to hold up the family and see to it that we’re all okay. My family has no wise old-man leadership, and we need it sometimes. Now, I talk in tears to thin air when I try to talk to my dad and ask for guidance, or I may see dragonflies or butterflies that come back to tell me things. You may think I’m crazy, but it has happened, and I have now learned that if a dragonfly or butterfly comes and lingers a little too long, in the following day or two, all hell is going to break loose and I better prepare myself to stand firm. Sometimes, that’s all you get. A warning from a bug. And Father’s Day is just another day, and I will mow my yard, and I will look at the red roses against the fence because I used to wear one every Father’s Day to Sunday School when I had a father, and I will cry and go on, and then it will be Monday, and everything will be normal again.
The men in my father and grandfather’s generations did not show emotion very often. They didn’t hug much, they didn’t express love openly, they just worked and did what they were supposed to do to take care of their family. We knew they loved us because they were always there, at the dinner table, in bed by eight or nine, and they were stable, they could be counted on, they did right by God. But I remember one time when my grandfather shot all this to bits and intensely and openly expressed emotion. It was on a summer Sunday when I was about fourteen.
Every summer I spent a week with grandparents on the farm in Kemper County, Mississippi, that had been in Hardy hands for three generations at the time, since 1850. My sister would go, too, and our three cousins from Meridian were always there. We were all over those hills and streams and gullies and ponds and woods—no boundaries, no restrictions. We’d watch our grandmother make biscuits and work the garden, and we’d watch our grandfather poison the cotton and bring the cows in, and at night we’d play Rook on the porch. In the bedroom where I slept there was a verse hanging on the wall: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.”
When Sunday rolled around, my grandpa asked who wanted to go to church with him. Like the others in his line, he was a deacon at West Kemper Baptist. His Hardy great-great grandmother and great grandfather were founding members of this church in 1850, and his Abercrombie ancestors were also charter members. They, and all the family, were buried in the cemetery beside the church.
Nobody wanted to go to church, but me. My church at home was a big part of my life, and so I’d packed my Sunday dress and high heels. I went to church with my grandfather. He introduced me to everyone: “This is my grand-young’un, Wallace Ray’s daughter, from over in the Delta.” We sat on a pew together, shared a hymnal, listened to the sermon, then drove home over the dirt road in his old Studebaker.
He wore a white shirt, tan slacks, and a straw hat to church. He was a tall man and filled up the front seat to the top of the car. With an earnest look on his farm-tanned face, the words came strongly and sincerely: “I have never in my life been so proud than to have one of my grand-young’uns want to go to church with me and to show her around and have her sit there with me. It means a lot to me, and I have never been so proud.” He kept repeating himself to the point that I was somewhat uncomfortable because men didn’t show emotion and he was.
But years upon years later, I remember that moment and those words, and it means a lot to me, too. And I am thankful for a good and faithful grandfather and father and glad to have a day set aside amidst all the other days of the year to remember these special men who stand under me.
In April of 1967, my biggest worry was the wrinkle in my stockings in my Senior Favorite picture for the Delta Daze, the school yearbook. I was sitting beside A. B. Cox in a glider in someone’s flower garden for the photo session. He had his arm behind me on the back of the swing and appeared cool, casual, and sexy. I was poised — back straight, chin up, hands folded in my lap, wearing a flower print dress with a white Peter Pan collar and white patent shoes with a double strap. I must’ve twisted my stocking when I put it on that morning, because in the final shot, there was that wrinkle running diagonally down the side of my left calf to my ankle, where it would remain forever, stuck to the page of time.
That day, I drove my green 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 to the photo shoot, and Anna Margaret rode with me. In the Superlatives, I’d won Class Favorite, and she was Miss CHS, Sophisticated Senior, and a Beauty. I rolled my window down an inch and let hot wind blow in, as we drove out Highway 8 East, chatting and listening to WHBQ on the radio. It was one of those steamy mornings that could melt the make-up right off your face. Instead of worrying about my Cover Girl, I should’ve paid more attention to my Hanes.
“We should’ve caught that,” the editor of the annual later said, “and stopped it.”
“Maybe no one will see it,” I said, hoping people would pay heed to my cute shoes, the arch of my eyebrows, or the pearl and diamond ring my parents had just given me for graduation.
But people always notice wrinkles.
Other than that wrinkle, and maybe trying to dog paddle out of senior math — a friendly term for trigonometry — with my head above water, it was a jubilant time. It was the season for senior parties, Cotillion, senior prom, Class Day, and graduation gifts. It was a time for bonding with friends before closing the high school chapter of my life and moving on to college and all the world had to offer.
Yet there was one more wrinkle in the elation of the season. Halfway around the world, half a million boys just a year or two out of high school were fighting a bloody war, getting shot, getting maimed, getting blown up. They waded through flooded rice paddies full of leeches that stuck to them and had to be burned off with cigarettes, or they trudged through jungles, encountering mines, mortar shells rigged to tripwires, booby traps, pits with poison-tipped bamboo stakes, spears lashed to bent saplings, and the enemy darting from hidden tunnels in ambush, raging to kill.
The debacle of war in Vietnam had been going on since I was a baby, when President Truman sent military aid and soldier-advisers. The Soviet leader Kruschev told us, “We will bury you.” Communism was an evil menace that had swept over Vietnam, and if that tiny country fell, it was likely the whole world would go. President Eisenhower said, “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty that it will go over very quickly.”
In April of 1967 the biggest military offensive of the war was taking place — a surge of troops sent to Operation Junction City, an 82-day search and destroy operation, that turned out to be successful, but when the troops left, the enemy covered it up again.
The war took place in my living room. The evening news played it — clips of soldiers running with big guns, orange smoke and the fire of bomb blasts, flag-draped coffins coming home instead of live boys, and those infernal helicopters playing the sound of war. Medevacs dropping in to unload fresh soldiers and load up the wounded made deep haunting blade sounds, a whir mixed with rapid beats moving faster than a knife cutting celery on a chopping block. The sound of the blades echoed through my living room, into the kitchen where Mama was cooking supper, into the bedroom where my sister and I were doing homework and listening to records — “The Beat Goes On” and “There’s a Kind of a Hush-sh-sh.”
Thousands of boys were dying in a fury and firestorm, while I slept in my own bed at night beside a picture of my boyfriend in his basketball uniform, ate Mama’s roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy and two-layer chocolate cake, and worried about wrinkles in my stocking.
It all came home to rest one Saturday afternoon my second year of college when I saw a black car without whitewalls on its tires drive up in front of the house across the street. The boy who lived there was my age, had dropped out of high school, joined up, went to Vietnam. I watched as two soldiers in dress uniforms, pressed to perfection, got out of the car, stopped at the end of the sidewalk, straightened their jackets, straightened their shoulders, then took the first step together and walked in cadence to the front door. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but I later realized, after word got out and Mama took food over. Terry Tharp was killed in war.
A wrinkle, in the name of freedom, in the name of peace, in the name of democracy….
I grew up a little bit that day.
“ . . . Gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime . . . ” [General John Logan, 1868]
The day lilies come back to stay. Honeysuckle and morning glories climb fences and trellises. Impatiens and begonias border sidewalks. Cannas are on the rise. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the yard.
It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial kick-off of summer. It’s a long weekend, a day off work.
Schools are out, pools are open, and it’s time to clean the patio. It’s time for the first watermelon cutting, time to crank out the first bucket of homemade ice cream. It’s time for cookouts. Time to roll out the grill and slap on some burgers. It’s time for my husband to try out that new steak injector he got for Christmas.
By Memorial Day, my yard is usually in tip-top shape—beds neatly mulched, annuals planted, and pots of geraniums placed on the porch and patio.
Not so this year. Weeds cover the beds like heavy blankets.
Weeds also fill my mind, getting in the way of things I want to do. I can only think about one thing. Dad. He’s ill. In the hospital. Gone from us. I sleep, I cry some, I don’t care about the weeds.
I hate thistle. It spreads everywhere—along roadways, in pastures. It’s a tall and gangly weed, crooked and awkward. It’s repulsive. It reminds me of a fibroid growing unwanted somewhere.
A thistle is growing in the gravel parking lot behind my office building in Cool Springs. I cut a stalk and lay it on my desk because I feel like looking at something ugly.
It is spiny and coarse with thorns all up and down it. It has jagged prickly leaves, and on top of rows of prickly bracts, sits a purple flower.
The plant is hard to handle; thorns stick in my flesh and hurt. But the flower is what surprises me. It’s purple, soft, delicate. And it doesn’t belong on that awful stalk.
Shades of purple filaments stick up, ordered in a circle around a center of tiny white seeds in a swirl pattern. The seeds seem protected by the outer hairs that curl gently around them.
I touch the flower to my face. It feels like the big round make-up brush I apply powdered blush with. It leaves inky marks on my cheek.
The flower is quite lovely, its fragrance sweeter than I ever imagined.
More than four million Americans, ten percent of the population over age sixty-five, have dementia, an ugly disease causing a severe loss of thinking and reasoning abilities. The families of those four million people face anguish, frustration, and grief, watching a loved one slowly slip away, even while continuing to live.
Live, meaning to breathe in, breathe out, walk or pace or shuffle, and talk even if it’s only to someone who doesn’t exist. Live, without a shred of quality or an ounce of dignity. Live in the same old body with an altered personality and a new behavior. Live, eventually, some place other than their own home.
Delusions and hallucinations are common, such as believing money has been stolen, a spouse has been unfaithful, or unwelcome guests are living in the house. Those with dementia see and hear people who aren’t really there, and the fantasies are realities that slowly take over their lives.
Having a loved one with dementia is like having a death in the family with no funeral.
Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.
I have two fourth great-grandfathers and a third great-grandfather who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, placed in a mulched bed in front of a Burning Bush. Maybe I’ll put a flower on it.
Dad served in World War II. He rode with the Great Third Army and General George Patton. Dad was a sergeant, a frontline medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor.
“War is hell,” Dad said.
“He has terrible memories he will never forget,” Mama said. “When he came home from the war, I listened to him talk day after day until he could sleep and stop shaking.”
“War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!” Patton said to his troops.
No soldier is ever one hundred percent sane after the initial indoctrination of war. No soldier is ever free from emotional scars related to perpetual exposure to imminent danger.
Dad’s dementia has somehow pulled out the war experiences he spent sixty years trying to forget, and they are tormenting him.
War is hell. Soldiers die. Soldiers come home from the battlefront to live among innocents who stick SUPPORT OUR TROOPS ribbons on their cars, and they try to resume normal lives after what they’ve seen and where they’ve been and what they’ve done.
My goal every year is to have the grass manicured, the flowers in the yard beds and pots on the deck blooming, the little garden in and growing, and the weeds OUT by Memorial Day so I can sit outside and admire it all. It hasn’t happened in the last ten or twelve years, but this year it will be a reality. And it’s going to happen even though I hurt myself and am on full-time Ibuprofen. (I tripped over a puppy gate. I lifted my foot, but the Chaco didn’t lift or clear, and caught the top bar and I went splattering down the hall, slung my glass of water, which broke and cut me, and possibly broke something inside the very top of my leg.)
Yesterday, to finish off my garden, I planted five heirloom tomato plants a neighbor gave me. She was raised on a farm in McNairy County of West Tennessee, lived in Ohio for her professional career, and moved back to Tennessee to be near her grandchildren. She knows how to harvest seeds and plant them the next year. I want to learn. I told her this will be very helpful when the coming financial crisis happens or when our country declares financial martial law, as Ron Paul speaks of with surety. I thought of buying the book he promotes on this subject, but it costs $75, and I’m not paying that much for any book unless it’s about the Mississippi Delta. (I bought David Cohn’s book for $120.)
I’m writing about the Mississippi Delta — a little fictional town near Cleveland, on the river, with five women who are main characters. It will explore race, religion, family, and land — all good Southern topics for novels. I am taking my time on this book. Trying to say what I want to say and get it right.
And now, of all things, Cleveland, my hometown, and Cleveland High School, my alma mater, are in the news. The Cleveland school district has been given a federal court order to desegregate. People all over the country are making disparaging remarks because they are picturing an all-white school. No. CHS began integration in 1965. My class of ’67 might have been the last all-white graduating class. The one student who joined my class during our junior year in 1965-66 did not come back the following year to graduate. But others came, and the ratio grew over the years to almost equal in that one particular school. Here are the cheerleaders for the mighty CHS Wildcats this year! Yay, Black and Gold — conquer and prevail! Cleveland High, all hail!
I’m not sure what the world is coming to, or if in future months we will falter into financial martial law or if we will make a return to the 1960s, or just how much the federal government is going to stick its neck into our lives, but all I want to do is sit in my own back yard and look at all the handiwork and grow muscadines, blackberries, and heirloom tomatoes.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” ~ Emily Dickinson
Tell it slant. Find a way to tell the story in an effective, interesting way. Reach into the mass of it and pull out the nugget and go with it.
A few weeks ago when I came across the legend of the pelican, it pierced my heart, soul, and mind, and I knew I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say or how to say it. I held off, days went by, and I kept feeling that the story was far more beautiful than waiting to find a slant or waiting to glean all the truths from it. Or any truth at all.
Here’s the story: Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
Truth is, I cannot write a story or essay without seeing some particle in it that becomes my focus or truth, something different, something that really speaks to me, something I can manipulate and mold into something meaningful. It gives me my approach. I don’t need to tell the same old story that everybody else does or see the truth that is evident to all or brush along the edges, wading in the shallow end, and not go deep. I need to see it in my own way.
Here’s the truth I came to as I wrote to discovery: “It’s an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us. Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.”
Afterward, I was talking to my friend, fellow writer, and English professor, Neil, about it. I told him I couldn’t write the story at first. I didn’t know how to approach it. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I could learn from it and what deeper meaning it had. And then it came as I voiced the situation out loud.
I started my February 7 blog post with: “I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles. I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.”
And so could it be that we are so busy with the itinerary of our lives—going to work, going to church, going to committee meetings, going to speaking engagements, taking care of family, begging God to show us how we’re needed—that we miss the one little thing that’s there in plain view? The one grain of sand on the beach where we could have made a difference. The one little need. The one.
I play bubbles with my four-month-old puppy. I blow and fill the back yard with soap bubbles, and she chases them. Inevitably, one bubble strays off, and she goes after it, leaving ninety-nine other floating bubbles moving in the sky above. “Look at all these!” I say, trying to call her back to see the possibilities in the group as a whole. She keeps up after the one.
In that majestic marvel of a cathedral, Notre Dame, there’s one pelican that looks down on the city and its population and its tourists. Yet how many don’t see it? How many miss the story? How many are so focused on the cathedral as a whole, and how many are focused on the architectural details and notes of historical truth pointed out by tour guides? How many miss the truth, evident, yet way above their heads?
In your quest to go and do and tell to the thousands, did you miss the one who had a real need that day? Are you more about fulfilling obligation than touching a heart? I think sometimes we are so much about chasing the ninety-nine that we miss entirely the one.
I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles.
I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.
I came across the legend of the life-rendering pelican earlier this week, and it has continued to scroll through my mind.
Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
The Life-rendering Pelican
One of the oldest symbols in the Christian tradition is that of the pelican feeding her young. She is not as well known in Christianity today, but she still exists in places. Many cathedrals use this imagery in statues, stained windows, and at the altar. The pelican’s pose is almost always the same: she stands upright with her wings outstretched and her beak pointed down into her chest, her children flocking around her, looking up at her expectantly.
The legend actually precedes Christianity. Fossil evidence of pelicans dates back at least thirty million years to the remains of a beak similar to that of the modern species, found in France.
The legend of the pelican had a few variations. It was adopted into Christianity by the 2nd century, when it appeared in the Physiologus, a Christian adaptation of popular animal legends and symbols.
“The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revived and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Isaiah 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life.”
The legend became popular in Christian art and was taken up by many later writers, including Shakespeare, referred to by Laertes in Hamlet: “To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms; and like the kind life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.” (Act IV, Scene 5, Line 46)
I pulled out my college Shakespeare book—I took two semesters of Shakespeare. The passage was highlighted with a green magic marker, but there were no notes in the margin, meaning my professor did not expound on the meaning and implications of the life-rendering pelican. Surprising, because Dr. Mariah Butler took every opportunity to relate literature to the Bible or Christianity.
The legend has stayed with me all week. It is an allegorical depiction of Christ taking his own blood and securing eternal redemption. It shows sacrificial love.
It’s also an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us.
Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.