It is finished.
For previous posts on this day, see:
Our Good Friday God, April 6, 2012
Good Friday: It is Finished. Let Life Begin, March 29, 2013
Thoughts on Good Friday, March 25, 2016
On Ash Wednesday, Christians are encouraged to look into the darkness and face the grimness of what could have been. With each passing year, the weight of that darkness becomes more palpable to me. This year especially, as I think of my father’s death, as I consider the yawning void of his absence that greets my mother every morning in the house they shared for forty-nine years, the ashes of Ash Wednesday seem very real indeed.
Fortunately, thanks to God’s saving grace, we are not left in the ashes. We are invited out of the gloom and into the light.
Nearly every year I write about Ash Wednesday. At this point, I’ve said about all I can without redundancy. Last year’s post, Saved from the Ashes, covers the ground.
I can only add this bit of advice: confront the darkness of the day. Maybe, for the first time, attend a church service and get that smudge on your forehead. If you prefer, you may not even need to get out of your car; many churches are providing drive-by ashes these days. But think about what the smudge means. Only by looking into the ashes can we fully appreciate the opportunity to be lifted from the dust into new life.
And look around you. Chances are, the promise of spring is already at hand.
May God’s light shine brightly in the darkness of the world this Christmas Eve.
May you enjoy the company of angels, good shepherds, and friendly beasts alike. You might find these at a local live nativity. Or elsewhere, perhaps where you least expect them.
Infant Holy, infant lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging angels singing, noels ringing, tidings bringing,
Christ the babe is Lord of all.
–Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
Polish carol, trans. and arranged by Edith Reed, 1926
Kiko vouches for the friendliness of this little beast.
Of course, no camels or kings attended the birth of the holy baby; they arrived much later to pay their respects. But there’s nothing like a camel to stop traffic. And to remind passers-by that this is no ordinary night.
Jesus, our brother, strong and good,
was humbly born in a stable rude,
and the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, strong and good.
All the beasts, by some good spell,
in the stable dark were glad to tell
of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
the gifts they gave Emmanuel.
–The Friendly Beasts
12th Cent. French carol
It’s early December. Advent is upon us. The preoccupation with surface glitter, with the trappings of the season, threatens to overwhelm, as always. I suspect that this year, I might not find time for new Christmas posts on Wild Trumpet Vine. In case that happens, here are some of my favorites from years past.
Deck the Tree Stump (December 13, 2013)
Deck the Dog (December 15, 2013)
Christmas Spirit, or Holiday Excess? (December 21, 2014)
Oh. . .Eww. . .Christmas Tree! (December 18, 2013)
The Candles of Christmas Eve (December 24, 2011)
On today’s sunny afternoon walk, the colors were dazzling. Seemed like we could feel it in the air: fall’s final, fleeting burst of intensity. I thought of a light bulb that glows suddenly brighter before it sputters out. It won’t be long before icy winds whip these last flamboyantly hued leaves from the trees. As November yields to December, nature’s grays and browns are mustering forces.
We’ll counter by filling our homes with twinkling lights and sparkly stuff, with evergreens and berries. The Holiday Season will be upon us, ready or not.
Five years have passed since I began writing Wild Trumpet Vine. In the space of that half decade, there have been many changes, naturally. We passed some major milestones, we faced some challenges, and of course we grew older. Looking back on the last five years, it gives me comfort to see that our family coped. Maybe we even grew a little wiser. I hope so. We’ll need wisdom. More daunting challenges lie ahead.
In the fall of 2011, our daughter was starting middle school. Seven years of elementary school were behind her, and soon she would be a teenager. Since then, she made the leap into high school. She became a licensed driver. Now, our daughter is a senior, and on the verge of an even bigger leap. We’ve done our family college visits. The ongoing process is in her hands now. Our daughter’s future stretches before her.
As for H and me, we’re all too conscious of seeming more elderly with every successive stage in our daughter’s life. We could consider ourselves young when she was small and looked like a child. Now that she will soon be out of high school, now that she looks like a young woman, our own youth, we realize, is largely an illusion.
But we needn’t act old. About a year ago, H began playing ice hockey once or twice a week, something he’s been wanting to do since he captained a rag-tag grad school intramural team at Princeton. When windsurfing was his only hobby, his free time was spent mostly feeling sad because there was no wind. Few opportunities for windsurfing arise in northern Virginia; it’s a sport that requires long stretches of time in an appropriately windy locale, such as Cape Cod or Aruba. Hockey rinks are more conveniently located. He’s a happier guy these days.
And I’m happier, too. I see good friends on a more regular basis now, and that can’t help but brighten the days. Five years ago, Kiko and I usually began our early morning walks alone. We typically chatted with many acquaintances along the way; sometimes we met neighbors and walked a while together. About two years ago we began walking most weekdays with another neighbor and her dog. Before long, another friend had joined us with her dog. We were having fun, and evidently it showed. A third friend soon joined in. Now there are at least five of us plus our dogs. Because we often run into other neighbors, the dog parade may swell to eight or so. It’s become our morning social hour, one we all hate to miss.
Five years ago, Kiko was four, probably in his prime. Although no doubt it was already far too late, our family continued to argue about training approaches. Overcoming his headstrong nature was still put forth as a real possibility by my husband and daughter. His stubbornness was an ongoing source of family friction. (See An Evening of Discontent and The Joys and Travails of Walking our Strange Little Dog).
In the language of dog food commercials, Kiko is now a senior dog. He’s as determined as always in his absolute, driving need to go this way or that. He has no idea that he’s by far the smallest member of our dog walking pack (which includes a Rhodesian Ridgeback, a Doberman, a Labradoodle and a Golden Doodle). But Kiko is the unquestioned leader; he chooses the path according to the smells that beckon most keenly. Yielding to his iron will is more pleasant that battling it. He’s still fast, although his bursts of speed are shorter-lived. He continues to enjoy wowing the lady dogs with his fleetness of foot and incredible turning radius. But now he’s very likely to plop down immediately afterwards, preferably for a lengthy rest, in the middle of the street, if possible. He’s trim and svelte. His appearance has changed very little. Except for one detail: on top of his head, above the center patch of dark sesame coloring, he has a blurred triangle of lighter fur, as though someone had smudged him with bleach.
Five years ago, my parents were still frequently driving back and forth from Atlanta to our home in Virginia. They were here watching D and her friends head out trick-or-treating, and to open gifts with us on Christmas morning, to celebrate Easter. In attitude, demeanor and appearance, they seemed far younger than their actual age.
Time started to catch up with my father about two years ago. He had two major surgeries in as many years. He’d always been fit and active. He woke up feeling good; he rarely had an ache or pain. But his last surgery left him weakened, almost frail. He was becoming more and more sedentary. When he stood up, he was dangerously wobbly. And it was becoming clear that he was suffering from some form of dementia. We tried to see it as no big deal. It was his short-term memory that was primarily affected. Did it really matter that he complimented me on my sweater every five minutes? Or offered to get me a glass of orange juice even more repeatedly than usual? The disease compounded Daddy’s graciousness. He’d always made kind, sweet comments. We simply heard the same ones more often. But in recent months, the changes were increasingly profound. During one visit he remarked that he couldn’t remember my birthday. Another time he asked if I had any sisters. And was I dating anyone interesting? I told H it was time he got to Atlanta, before Daddy started actively matchmaking. He had never been an overly protective father; he’d always wanted me to go out and have fun. Throughout it all, he kept his sense of humor.
For most of his life, my father had taken care of my mother, and the shift was very difficult for her. He had done the driving, the grocery shopping, the bill paying, the handling of most paperwork, all the car stuff. He had been there with his reassuring presence. Suddenly Daddy depended on Mama to take care of him. But he forgot that he needed her help, and that made it even more difficult. It continually slipped his mind that there were many things he could no longer do. Understandably, he didn’t want to remember. He’d been used to doing so much. Mama worried that he’d go outside without her knowing, that he’d fall on the steps or the steep front bank. When she told him he couldn’t go outside on his own, he pleaded earnestly and poignantly, like a little boy: Why? Why can’t I go outside? The thought of that exchange still brings tears to her eyes. During our final visit in July, H, D and I were doing yard work. Daddy appeared, as if from nowhere; he could still move surprisingly fast when no one was looking. He was poised to climb the ladder, an old, rickety thing propped against the house. We got to him just in time.
It took Mama a while to adjust to shouldering the burden of being in charge. I think she was only just coming to terms with it when Daddy died. My parents would have been married sixty-one years this month. For her, his absence is a deep and yawning void.
So, what will the next five years bring? I don’t like to speculate on the future. Even when I was young, I hated that question: Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten? But looking back on the last five gives me strength to know that we’ll continue to deal with life’s changes as they come. Like the wild trumpet vine inching along the fencerows, we’ll persevere, through grief, through joy. My hope is that we will find the assurance that my father experienced. We’ll see his smile and hear him say: Hey, no need to worry. It’s all going to be OK.
Over the last six weeks, I’ve given a lot of thought to what made my father so special. Unique. Speaking with friends and family who knew him well, I think I’m getting closer to defining it.
It’s something like this: he was self-assured in a way that made those around him feel better. He had a quiet confidence that was the furthest thing from arrogance. Daddy never bragged. He tended not to speak at length about anything, least of all himself, and he had little patience with those who do. One friend expressed it this way: he said my father had a sort of grace. And that’s it. Daddy had an unassuming, infectious charisma. An easygoing demeanor that told you, maybe even without a word: Hey, everything’s cool. No need to worry. His assurance reassured you, built you up and improved your outlook. Even during that final week, after his stroke, while he was leaving this life little by little, Daddy’s presence was uplifting and reassuring.
My father looked on the sunny side, and when you were with him, you basked in the sun, as well. That, plus his incredible good looks, must have been what drew Mama toward him over sixty years ago. My mother tends to see the shadows. She’s a worrier. She’s acquainted with melancholy. Daddy was, in so many ways, her sunshine.
One of my more vivid childhood memories is being at the Garden Hills pool with Daddy when I was little. We’d go swimming sometimes on summer Saturdays, just he and I. I hated getting into cold water. Still do. My daughter makes fun of me every year at Cape Cod as I stand wincing, dipping one toe into the bay. As a little girl, I’d wrap myself around Daddy like a monkey, and he’d get in at the shallow end and gradually wade deeper and deeper. At first I’d be shivering like crazy. But his warmth and sense of calm would soon spread to me. I’d take a deep breath and relax. The shivers would disappear. Daddy’s sunny grace would shine on me, and I could play in the water all day.
I never had any doubt that with Daddy, the cold water would turn into something wonderful and fun. And I’ve never had any doubt about Daddy’s love for me. His most significant gift has been, and will always be, the absolute, unwavering certainty of his love. No matter what, he was my champion, my loyal defender. He was partial, of course. But he was also generous with his love, not just to me but to all his family and friends. If he loved you, he was in your corner. Resolutely. Enthusiastically. And you knew it. Never questioned it.
What a gift. It’s a gift I’ll carry my whole life long, and, I expect, into eternity. Thank you, Daddy.
My wonderful father left this life in the early hours of July 22. It was a peaceful transition, with Mama and me by his side. He lingered a while, for nearly nine days, as if to break it to us gently.
Those final days were oddly beautiful. Daddy was kind, sweet and gracious to the end.
While we will miss him everyday, we’re confident that his loving spirit has found its true and joyful eternal home. And we will carry his love for us always in our hearts.
Dear Daddy, I will be forever blessed to be your girl!
Our pale pink trellis roses will be flowering in gorgeous abundance in about six weeks. They grow up from massive vines. In stark contrast to the delicate, graceful flowers, the vines are rough-skinned, tough, craggy, crude, and studded all over with the sharpest of thorns. Barbaric, like an implement of torture. Barbaric, like the crown of thorns. Barbaric, like the cross.
The cross casts its long shadow on Good Friday, this darkest day of the Christian year. Worshippers the world over pause on this day to mourn the death of a loving and sinless brother, the one who took our ugliness upon himself and carried it with him to the cross.
Good Friday ends with the death of the Son of God. But as this church sign in Providence, Rhode Island proclaims, death isn’t the end of the story.
No. Not by far. Easter’s coming.