I descend from immigrants.
My fourth great grandfather came here from Ireland. My third great grandfather fought in the resistance and revolution to separate this land from Britain and establish a new country of immigrants. At the end of the war he fought on the frontier, tracking and killing native people, the originals who owned this land.
Two hundred forty years ago today, John Mahaffey signed up to fight for America’s independence.
Here’s what happened to some of America’s first heroes, now rock-stone and dusty bone stiff and piled up in a quiet graveyard of Revolutionary soldiers in Ohio.
Here is the original stone for my Revolutionary era ancestor.
Granted, John Mahaffey did get a new tombstone.
John Mahaffey was born August 31, 1759, in Sussex County, New Jersey, one of seven sons of Scotch-Irish immigrants, Moses and Jennet McIntyre Mahaffey. In the fall of 1774, at the age of 15, John moved with his parents to Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, where they resided two years. In the spring of 1776, near the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in nearby Philadelphia, in his seventeenth year, John accompanied his parents to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
The War of Independence began in 1775. John Mahaffey served four voluntary terms, totaling twenty-five months, during the War of the Revolution.
John was almost nineteen years of age when, on July 3, 1778, he originally enlisted for four months. He volunteered for two seven-month periods in April, 1779, and in April, 1780, serving as a “spy or ranger, watching the Indians and giving the earliest information on the approach of the Indians.” During the year 1779, in the frontier settlements of Pennsylvania, British Loyalists and Indians attacked American settlers. The Loyalists soon were defeated, and Americans destroyed many Indian villages whose residents were fighting on the side of the British. The British surrendered October 19, 1781. America was officially independent.
John Mahaffey’s blood now runs through my veins. I take after him. I stand up for this country. I will resist anything that makes her less and harms her, that which keeps us from worshiping in the religion of our choice, that which makes us less equal and takes us toward authoritarianism.
Last week I went to the eye doctor. As expected, I had to fill out a standard medical form—you know, the one where they ask your name and age, medical history, insurance information, and social history. The form that’s not really important because nobody ever looks at it. So I did on this form the same thing I have done on all forms for ten years. I left the Social History blank. I refused to check a box.
Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.
Nope. None of their business. It’s odd how I picked this one little thing to have an attitude on. If they added a box that said All the Above, I might’ve checked it. But I refuse to check the appropriate little white square sitting beside the “W” word. If they really care, they’ll ask, and then they’ll get a piece of my mind.
Once a nurse did ask. “My husband is deceased,” I answered. I got shot a look that said, There’s a box for that, to which I replied, “I refuse to be labeled that word.” My look back said, Don’t mess with this.
Ten years ago today, after thirty-six hours of surgeries on my husband, I became that…that word I abhor. After all the heroic efforts by surgeons, the not being able to pink him up, the flatline, he went, and I was left with a social status I didn’t understand and didn’t want. That was the visual summary of the chaos I was thrown into, like a rag doll in a wind strong enough to blow the seams apart, a wind strong enough to blow the accumulated dust out of it, a wind strong enough to blow the red stitched smile right off its face.
Picking out one insignificant thing to take a position on, while holding on to the only self I knew, was within my rights, I figured. It was one simple way I could keep some control of my life, which was in splinters up in the air in a tornadic swirl of dust and debris and cloud and earth particles.
That is one of the important things I learned after my husband died. State what you need and want. If something bothers you, let it be known. (Be reasonable, be firm, and don’t be unkind in your positioning.) If it doesn’t hurt anybody, hold to it. Take some control where you can. Because you’re going to be tossed, bruised, banged around on many fronts. Getting the steam of grief out where you can is important to healing.
My husband always told me that if anything ever happened to him, I’d get married again, fast. I always came back with, No, I’ll get a yellow lab. Well, something happened to him. Ten years ago today he had an aortic dissection, throat to groin. He had surgery at Williamson Medical and then was life-flighted to Vanderbilt for two more surgeries. He died during the third.
I dated someone for about five years…and he died.
I did not get a yellow lab. I got a yellow cocker spaniel.
Life can come at us fast. Loss wrings us out. Losing someone who lives in your house every day, someone you depend on for the life you’re accustomed to living, someone you’ve built a history with, someone you’re joined to physically, emotionally, and mentally, is about the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I say “about” because I’m thinking losing a child is in that “hardest” category, too.
One of the key figures in my grief journey was my friend, Nancy Fletcher-Blume, whom we buried Monday. About two weeks after Charlie died, the shock started wearing off. I could feel my skin peeling up at the edges and exposing the raw bloody tissue under it…and a pain greater than any I’ve ever felt, a pain far greater than I could bear. I still remember the exact moment I thought, “I don’t have to feel this pain.” I’m not sure where that came from, but I instantly knew it was a thought of suicide and I didn’t need to be having it. This is a normal thought, but we have to get control of it quickly.
I called Nancy. She’d lost a husband and two sons, one just a few years earlier. I knew she’d had counseling, and I asked her who she went to. I told her I needed help. She took the ball and ran with it. She called her church and set me up with the family counselor. She told me when and where to go. I did. And that was the beginning of taking back some control in this new wild and mean and chaotic world I was living in. And for months and even years after, Nancy told me, Take care of you. And in many ways, without even knowing it, she showed me how.
After five years on my grief journey, I published a book about my loss, about my experience with grief, about my path from “our” to “my.”
And now, ten years. And it’s my house, my car, my decisions, my job, my dog, my choices. There have been some happy and satisfying moments, and there are some lonely moments. There are still the familiar “four walls” and then there’s the example of Nancy telling me to take care of me by getting out of the closed-in, isolated-from-people space. Sometimes I’m happy being there. That’s a good thing for my writing and editing. Sometimes I’m not. Do you know what it’s like to not talk to another human being for five days running?
That’s why I’ve got to be proactive, to take steps to make sure I am out and among people.
Maybe it’s time to explore ten years of changes and discoveries and growth along that road after loss. I have an opportunity to watch others as they negotiate this path. Nancy was one of them. I share this status with four others I’m with regularly. How do we live alone for the rest of our lives?
How do we live alone meaningfully?
My son worries about me and tells me not to write gloom and doom on Facebook all the time. Well, hell, that’s what life has given. I’m in it whether I write about it or not. Writing about it lets me process it and live this life more effectively, and if by chance I can speak to someone else along the way, then that’s good. That is fulfilling my life’s calling.
Stop. Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Take your fingernail and scrape around the edges of YOU until you find it—the thin silver sheet that represents your soul. Scratch at it, peel it away, remove it, hopefully in one piece, fold it carefully, put it away. And wait. Wait for better times. This is one way to make it through trying times like these. For without a soul, you won’t know. You won’t care. You won’t feel. Truth, lies, right, wrong, good, bad, hurt, pain, compassion, discernment…nothing will matter. You will just trail along, unaware.
A few years ago, an old-man preacher asked me, “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?” The words slammed against me cold and hard. I started to stammer out an answer. “I mean,” he interrupted, “because you’ve written a book.” I was floored, and that wasn’t a good thing because I was driving at the time.
He’d bought my book after a loss of his own, we’d talked by phone a few times, and he asked me to have dinner with him as he was traveling through my town. So I’d picked him up at his hotel, and we were driving down Murfreesboro Road at the time, the blue lights from my Subaru’s dash filling the front seat.
How do you answer a question like that?
I was just living my life and my calling and passion to put words down on paper, to write things as I see them and feel them, hopefully helping someone sometimes, living in all my own doubts and flaws and imperfections and questions and trying to do it all right for myself. Not for anyone else. I’d had a husband who respected that, supported me, got into deep conversations with me about books, words, and writing before he died. At the time of this incident, I was dating someone, a professor and lover of English, who also respected me for what I did, supported me, read and picked apart essays with me, and shared a critique group with me.
And then, that question. “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?”
It’s not something I would have ever considered. I didn’t even know it was a possibility. I wish I had lived my whole life without hearing that question.
I’ve always thought of myself as . . . an equal.
The implications of that question still haunt me, and it’s unsettling. If I intimidate men because I write, then . . . what am I supposed to be doing? Sitting in my leather recliner all day with a Bible in my lap? Praying for other people, like men, to be achieving things? Cooking a meat and three? Lord help me, if I’m supposed to be cleaning the house.
At my age and in this time, should I even be wrestling with the issue of gender equality?
I don’t know how to answer the question or what to think about one who would ask it.
I guess . . . that’s a Baptist for you.
I could go buy a little metal heart, engrave the word CHRISTIAN on it, and clip it to my cocker spaniel’s collar. She could run around and proclaim to the world she’s a Christian. But to my knowledge, she has never made a personal choice for her spiritual destiny.
It’s when you turn that noun into an adjective that it begins to mean something.
As little Baptists we were brainwashed with that adjective. We were loved with it, and we were beaten over the head with it.
“Out of James 1:22, comes a call for Juniors true, who will live for Christ the risen Lord. Listen to this trumpet call, ringing out to one and all, be ye doers of the Word. Be ye doers of the Word, be ye doers of the Word, be ye doers of the Word. And not hearers, not hearers only, be ye doers of the Word.
I sang that song at least 156 times in the Junior Department of my Sunday School class on the second floor at the First Baptist Church.
“Be ye doers of the Word.” It’s repeated in the chorus four times. That means I sang that command at least 624 times during my formative years between ages nine and eleven.
At that young age, did I know what it meant? You bet I did. It meant behavior. We weren’t just supposed to read Bible verses and listen to the Bible taught in a Sunday lesson or preached in a sermon.
We were supposed to walk out of those church doors on Sunday and live the principles of the Bible every day of the week. It was our guide, our code of behavior. It taught us how to act and how to treat others. It also made clear how not to act and not to treat others. We failed on occasion, and quite often. After all, nobody’s perfect. We got in trouble, got spanked, had to stay in at recess at school, got grounded, got detention, but by damn, we knew right from wrong.
What the hell has happened to those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s because, now, collectively, we don’t know. We don’t know right from wrong. We have no moral code. We as a Christian people forgot about hearing and DOING. Or at least, that’s how we act.
In 2016 we lost our moral compass.
Nowadays, the end justifies the means. Situation ethics—without the love for fellow man—is the way we roll: each isolated situation gets its own moral decision based on what feels right in that moment. I mean, if the economy of our nation is good, we can support, defend, and adore immoral and unethical behavior. Where did this come from?
I think about us as little Baptists with our white gloves, white patent shoes, Tonette permanent curls, flowered hats, and white leather Bibles with a picture of Jesus inside.
What has happened to us in our religion?
Why was it so easy to throw away the doing of the Word, the believing of the behavior set forth in the Word? Why can we not discern right from wrong? Why are we floating in the wind and following any new wrong fork in the road?
We keep on wearing that little metal tag with CHRISTIAN on it, and maybe we are the noun. But what happened to the adjective?
Think about it. It bears some study and pondering. Are we in some type of new religious movement, and does it have a name? This is something that has bothered me for a long time, but in the last two years, it has become a great stumbling block. I’ve thought about it, read about it, prayed about it, talked with others about it, sought answers in deep conversations, poured my heart out, and looked in the right places for answers, but for the life of me, I cannot mesh the little Baptists we were with the old grownup Baptists we are today . . . or any denomination, for that matter. What has happened to make us turn to hearing and following a man rather than hearing and doing and following God?
I know, and get your panties out of a wad, I’m not talking about every single Christian. I know there are some with vision and mission and followship. But the whole, the collective Christian community, the Church, has given not only their votes, but their lives in support and defense and adoration of a behavior that is far, far against the Word we sang about as little Baptist Juniors.
I don’t want to be saying all this stuff. I’d rather be liked by old friends and even family. I’d rather be popular and not the target of Christian-labeled hate arrows. I’m too old to be hated and mocked. I could choose to pretend things are good and happy and right. But they’re not. And so I’m not going to sit on the fence, and I’m not going to sit silent. And at this point in my journey, I’m impervious to the arrows. I see, and I need to say. My goal is to try and be nice about it. I’m sure I will fail at times, and forgive me, as I’m desperately searching and trying to reach a greater understanding of exactly what being a Christian means today. It doesn’t mean what it did when I was a young Baptist.
I don’t think we’re quibbling about politics. I think we’re quibbling about religion.
I so hope we as a collective Christian community can find a way to turn those (NOUN) cold, flimsy, metal heart tags into (ADJECTIVE) Christ-likeness and looking to the behavior in his Word as our guide for belief and action and followship.