For the past couple of years, when Park Elementary School is in session, i read with a little boy named Demarcus on Thursday mornings. Sometimes we go to the library, sometimes to the teachers’ lounge, sometimes to a random place on the hallway floor. Demarcus, a second grader, is a good reader. To hear him patiently and methodically sound out an unfamiliar word is to behold nothing less than a miracle, the same miracle that grown-ups manifest whenever they read words.
i usually let Demarcus choose whatever book he would like to read. Recently, he selected one about a squirrel. It had very few pages, and the pages had very few words. The story, start to finish, was probably less than 20 sentences. Demarcus blew through it pretty easily. Too easily.
“Demarcus, that was great. You are getting so good at reading. And i really like how how you sound out the words, like ‘car-di-nal;’ that was excellent. But you know what? i have an idea. i think we should read the book again. Only let’s do something different this time. Let’s read it … backwards. Let’s start on the last page, with the last word, and read it all the way to the first page and the first word.
Same words. Same story.
But this time, we laughed. The phrases were surprising and whimsical. Demarcus loved it.
“tree the up ran squirrel The.”
You should try it sometime. …
Another year already? 2017? Really?
I can report that, in 2016, while i was a very poor blogger, i managed to write a journal entry everyday of the year. 365 entries. It might actually be more diary than journal, in that i wasn’t very reflective in my writing. Whatever it was, the platform forced me, at the end of each day, to recall who i’d seen, where i’d been, what i’d done, and what i had experienced. It made me realize how much can be squeezed into a single day. And how forgetful i am.
This past week, i’ve been reading backwards, randomly revisiting the 2016 from 3 volumes of memory — reliving days rich in conversation, days wearisome with travel, days exhausting with good labor, days in court and studio and forest, days’ colorful with season, days quiet with thoughtfulness and books. Good chance you were somewhere in those pages.
It has lead to gratitude.
It sends me into the year ahead hopeful and resolute.
“Rightly things right the love and year this better do will i.”
Forgive my long absence from the blog. Don’t know why i find it so hard to sit down and write something from time to time. Will try to be more diligent. … Happy New Year to you.
Earlier this afternoon — day before Thanksgiving – i held for the first time a copy of The Last Sweet Mile, a book about my brother Gary. When i started writing it 18 months ago, i was not setting out to write a book. Rather, i simply wanted to compose a letter to my family in hopes of having some permanent record of one who had been son, brother, uncle, cousin, and mentor to our tribe of 37 souls. My hope was to remind us of the blessing it had been to know Gary.
i did most of my writing at a neighbor’s quaint cabin in the woods just west of where i live. The letter got longer and longer (and really should be longer still) until, in terms of sheer volume, it began to feel bookish. The few who read it early on, including author Leigh McLeroy and my Dad, encouraged me to make it available to more than just family. So we’ve ordered some extras, and have them in hand, prayerful that they will end up where they might do some good to those who eventually read them.
I had the extreme good fortune of working with Pete Peterson on the project. Pete – himself an author, editor, bibliophile, Hutchmoot organizer, and ‘curator’ of an on-line community called The Rabbit Room (www.rabbitroom.com) — took my very barely-organized draft of the book and guided me through re-writes, additions and layout. “The patience of Job” is a phrase that comes to mind when i think of his collaboration. “The kindness of a true saint” is another.
It is no small source of pride that he would allow the book to be published with The Rabbit Room imprimatur on it. I am deeply in Pete’s debt, and grateful for my new friendship with him.
There was a measure of satisfaction in holding the book this afternoon and in inscribing copies for the family this evening. But i am under no delusion. My writing does not remotely do justice to the subject matter. As literature, it fails every minimal standard. As memoir, it very likely violates every rule of engagement. But maybe as an honest attempt by an amateur to recall a life, to capture a season, and to express love for a departed friend, it works in a way that will provoke thought, invite gratitude, and offer hope.
So … with gratefulness in mind, might i say once more how much i appreciate you who bless me with your visits, affirm me with your encouragement, and make the miles of my journey so pleasant? All the best for your Thanksgiving.
Recently, i received a letter from a good friend who expressed concern for my state of heart and mind, a “haven’t-heard-from-you-in-a-long-time” letter. With her permission, i’m posting my response in case others might wonder if i’ve fallen off of the earth. Thank you for caring.
August 11, 2013
Dear Dr. Pat,
Thank you for your kind letter. Even though it was addressed to me, i read it — as i have all your letters over the years, hundreds of them by now — with a sense that i am simply their guardian until some future day when i turn them over to the children. What a treasure these pages will be for them, a rich window into the good heart that God has given and shaped in you. Abbey, Matt and Jon — and perhaps their children and their’s after them — will be enriched to know that God placed you and them all together in one brightly colorful family. This simply to say that all you’ve written is in safekeeping and that none of your words are ever lost or wasted.
Your inquiry into my long silence is appreciated and i hope that ones like yourself, who have continued to write and reach out to me during the past year, wil forgive what must seem like severe unneighborliness. Your range of possible explanations for my absence — illness, sadness, transition, fatigue — are the same ones that i would have imagined had our places been reversed;. But none of those are quite accurate, and truth is, i really don’t know why i have found it so difficult to write anything, especially about myself, since Gary’s passing.
Over the past few months, Beth has repeatedly asked me to let friends know that all is well with me. And i have approached my desk a number of times with that intention in mind, only to come away empty-handed. When she told me bluntly a few days ago that i was behaving unkindly, especially in light of the support and affection that so many have shown me over the years, i was, as i well should have been, properly and soundly rebuked. Sadly, what kindness could not apparently compel me to do, shame has. …
And so, dear Pat, i write to ask your forgiveness and to thank you for the thoughtfulness that you’ve shown me during this silent season. i have no doubt that forgiveness will be granted and i can only hope that you’ll know my thanks to be sincere. Receipt of missives from Gladstone is always an occasion of gladness for me. … If you can imagine me sitting in my truck, in one of the two parking spaces outside the Hamilton post office, opening mail, propping my arms up on the streering wheel, and reading about the latest happenings from N. Grand, you’ll get some idea of the small journey that your letters make possible. Thank you for the always welcome words.
You wonder how i am doing now, a year removed from Gary’s passing. Is grief still heavy on me? Am i under any weight of doubt or anger or confusion? Truth is, i am doing very well. i miss everything that i feared i might miss about him, and even some things that never occurred to me, but my days are full of pleasant tasks and i am moving ahead with life as i think Gary, and God, would want me to — praying to grow in my love for Christ, endeavoring to serve and involve myself with folks close to home, rooting myself in the life of the community, and being watchful for things that are beautiful and good.
As far as musical work goes, i am very much in a season of transition. Both a need and a desire to be home means that my travels will be very minimal going forward, at least for the foreseeable future. The family land requires time and attention; my parents, at a healthy 84 and 85, are the company i most want to keep these days; and local commitments are increasingly meaningful to me. i still write songs and, at present, am working, at the request of a farmer in Indiana, on a project that is aimed at sharing the Gospel with people who work in agriculture. i’ll send you a copy of it when it’s completed.
My intention, in the short term, is to continue writing and to use the internet more to share what i come up with. i don’t think for a minute that “virtual” communication can ever replace the incarnational reality of people in a room listening to stories and songs, but the digital highway does at least provide a stage for sharing thoughts and creative ideas.
For the last few weeks, i’ve been using some of my time, usually early mornings, to write a book of sorts — vignettes and reflections about Gary — for the family. Recent celebrations of his birthday and the anniversary of his passing have made me realize that i’m forgetting details of his life that i very much want to keep alive somehow. i continue to be disappointed with the inability of words, or, better said, my clumsy use of them, to express and describe the things i want to say about so grand a soul but writing keeps his presence somehow familiar and close at hand. …
At some point, i’ll read old sermon notes, letters, and miscellaneous writings that Gary left behind, and will gradually get to the studio to work on some hymns that he recorded during his illness. i’m not sure what i’ll have when i finish — some music, some photos, some scribbles from Gary and some prose of my own– but, when all is said and done, the audience for the work will be small, 20 or so family members. If you’d like, i’ll gladly send you a copy of what i end up with. … i so wish that you and other far away friends could have met him before he left us.
This summer has been much like previous ones in that i split the daytime hours between studio work in the mornings and outdoor work in the afternoons and evenings. Regular and abundant rains have kept the farm atypically green and have made mowing — yards, pastures, roadsides — an almost daily requirement. But the work is not hard and allows for lots of time to think and pray. Being outdoors late in the day means that i have seen some glorious, truly, sunsets and cloud banks.
“Here i stand, another day behind me,
Sunset, pasture, woods,
This old land, a thousand ways reminds me,
That You, my God, are good … “
And so it does. And so He is.
i regret that i have not been to Liberty in so long now. Our annual day of conversation was one of the highlights of my travel calendar for years and i miss the insight and perspective that you brought to so much of my thinking. Your letters, of course, fill that gap admirably but i hope that someday, when the kids might happen to be home, i will get to see all of you in person.
i hope you’ll not mind me saying again just how fortunate WJ is to have you on its faculty. God alone knows the good work you’ve done and the fruitful seeds that you’ve sown in hearts there over the years. …
And do keep me posted of Aslan’s movements as His intentions become clear.
My best to the three. i hope all of you are doing well.
The kindness of friends allows me to sit seaside on the east coast of Florida this morning. i have been here for a few days alone, with a front porch 50 paces from the Atlantic, and have made use of this most ideal setting for reading, praying, thinking, and napping, all of which i have done in good measure.
Since Gary’s passing (i still have a difficult time using the word “death”), my days have been full, perhaps too much so, with things that needed to be done at home but i’ve had a gnawing sense that i needed to be alone for awhile, and undistracted, with Gary’s memory, not out of any dark need to grieve but simply to reflect on and, if possible, find my way into a deeper grattude for the past year.
i brought a large stack of handwritten papers — Gary’s old sermon notes — that i recently discovered in a file cabinet at his house. i had no idea that he kept them. They are largely illegible, and thoroughly invaluable.
i brought a book that he wrote for me as a birthday gift last year — a collection of devotional thoughts called Brother to Brother. There is one print copy of it, mine, in all the world.
i brought my computer with pictures of some of the trips that Gary and i took in recent years.
i brought a journal that i kept over the past 12 months. It was not a daily record, and it lacks in detail, but, if i’m not mistaken, it contains entries regarding significant moments and impressions from July 23, 2011 to July 22, 2012.
i miss my brother terribly. i still find it hard to take a deep breath and there are moments when realization of his absence doubles me over with a hurt i have no name for. The finality of death and the weight of the word “never” (as in, never walk together again, never hear his laughter, never see him across the field, a thousand “nevers”) force their inflexibility on me a bit more and more everyday.
But, at the same time, there are hope and faith and promises that hold. And something about sky and ocean on a morning like this one give me an abiding sense that all is well.
But don’t i wish, oh God how i wish, that i could walk today with Gary, and hear his voice, and add one more living sentence to the story of our friendship. i miss him so, so much.
For the past year, most, maybe all, of my entries on this site have been about Gary and the cancer season that we’ve walked through together. While i know that the season is not yet over for me, and never will be, i think it might be wise, and neighborly, to curtail my writing on the subject at this time. You have been so gracious to take interest in our journey, even to the point of asking me to keep you posted. When i’ve been inclined to do it, writing has helped me make sense of what we were living day to day. But i think it’s time to move on, to let other thoughts have a voice.
In closing this chapter, i’d like to share two journal entries, one from June of this year, one from July. They are in tribute to a handful of brethren, friends of Gary and mine and our family, who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us at every step of the past year. In a sense, they are a tribute to all of you who have stood with us and blessed us.
First, an entry from June 16, 2012:
This morning, a pleasant, almost cool, Saturday morning, a group of 25 men or so, the same ones that come together weekly to ‘provoke one another to love and good deeds,’ gathered beside the small white chapel on the farm, shovels in hand, to cut a hole in the dense, but, thankfully, rain soaked Georgia clay. We worked in pairs. Each twosome would dig enough soil to fill a wheelbarrow, then make way for the next team — assembly line grave-diggers if you will. There was laughter and conversation. There was perspiration and deep breath. There was gladness and a sense of purpose to the morning’s labor.
Before the actual digging began, we assembled inside the old church building to pray and to discuss the day’s task. The point was made that our labor would be an act of kindness, an act of community, an act of affection, and an act of defiance.
It would be an act of kindness, a visible, practical gift to Gary’s family, as if to say, “someone, at some point in the near future, is going to have to do this difficult thing. We’d like to do it because we can do it with a love and with a purpose that no hired hand could possibly bring to the task. We have so been wanting to prove ourselves useful to you over the past months. Let our hands be the ones that break this ground.” Kindness.
It would be an act of community. Anyone knows that there are easier, quicker, more efficient ways than shoveling to dig a hole in the hard Georgia clay. There are diesel powered machines that do the work well, for instance. One person, impersonal and detached, can get the job done in very little time and with little or no sweat. But these brethren, during their decade of gatherings, have come to believe there is something holy about working side by side. And, particularly for an undertaking like this one, their participation is an affirmation that the passing of a friend is not just a private loss but a communal one. Our band of brothers will be diminished, considerably so, when Gary is gone. … i can say with confidence that no one there this morning will ever forget the experience. It was brotherhood. It was friendship. It was work. It was worship.
It would be an act of affection. All of those present this morning know and love Gary. Most have known him for years; all have benefited from his influence in their lives. Some are his ‘children in the faith’. Upon receiving news of his illness a year ago, these same men wept unahamedly and prayed unceasingly and talked unreservedly about their indebtedness to Gary. And today, while believing in the miraculous but resigned to the probable, they dirtied their hands and feet to prepare a place for his body. And a mighty fine place it was when all was said and done, precise and orderly and clean, 40 inches wide, 48 inches deep, 96 inches long.
It would be an act of defiance. We read this scripture to start the day:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, (Jesus) too shared in their humanity that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” — Hebrews 2:14,15.
Some might think ours’ a morbid task, one best left to the morticians and their crew. For us though, the doing of it allowed us to quietly declare that we will not live as slaves to our fear of dying. Any death, particularly this one, is in a sense unwelcome and unnatural. It still makes us uneasy and afraid. But, our work today was a ‘taunt‘ to the one who would have us live in abject terror of our mortality. “Death, we are not afraid of you. Where is your victory? Where is your sting? Have you not heard of Jesus? Have you forgotten His cross? Have you forgotten His empty tomb? Do you think that WE have forgotten it? Poor death. You poor pitiful thing.”
Kindness, community, affection, defiance — those ingredients make for a good day. And a good day it was.
When Gary was first diagnosed with a brain tumor, and after he agreed to seek medical care, we had to choose, as a family, what kind of treatment he should receive and where. Our choices were many. Early on, with Gary’s emphatic agreement, the decision was made to keep him close to home, in the belief that the best medicine – or most preferable death — was that which allowed for the constant nearness of people who loved him.
Gary is still with us, but weakening noticeably. i pray that we will love him well to the end. That has been our privileged work of the past year, to love him such that the last thing he feels, hears, or senses in this world will be the tenderness, reverence, affection and adoration of those to whom he means most; in short, so he will leave this place feeling the same things, but to a lesser degree, that he will feel when he takes his first breath on the other side. … Might today’s work have somehow served that purpose. Make it so, dear Lord.
This evening, i sent this message to the brethren:
Saturday evening, June 16, 2012, 9:35 p.m.
Words fail me but i didn’t want the day to end without at least trying to express my thanks to you for your work this morning. How blessed we are, and how heartily can we say with the Psalmist, “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” …
i went back to the burial plot this evening by myself. It looked and felt totally different than it did when we were all together there earlier today. This morning there was activity, conversation, and camaraderie. This evening, it was stillness, quiet, and solitude. Standing there alone made me thankful that my memories of the place will always include the sight of friends working side by side, the sounds of laughter and lightheartedness, and a sense of community that is bigger somehow than any one of us. Knowing that your footprints are in and around the spot where Gary will be laid to rest is a comforting thought and i’m sure that he’d be happy to know that you and i had a hand in preparing it.
It is such a gift to follow Christ and do life with ones like you. Thank you for sharing your time with me, not just today but weekly. i am honored, and
i am your debtor.
Then, a note from July 26, 2012
Our family burial service on Tuesday (the 24th) was concluded with one task unfinished. Gary’s casket and vault were put in place but left uncovered. This morning, instead of meeting at my house on the porch as we usually do, the brethren gathered by the chapel, shovels in hand, to ‘close’ Gary’s grave. It was a beautiful morning.
We sang a song.
We read John 21, spoke of resurrection, and said a prayer.