Friday, December 27, 2013
The Third Noel: Lovely Things Lost and Found
Things happen, that's for sure. Disruptions of the everyday, dissension in the troops, eruptions and divisions and incisions of all kinds.
Noel, like the Saint John of tradition, the Saint remembered on December 27 by the church universal, was a lovely boy. And a smart boy. And, I might add, he fancied himself quite a fisherman, though on the Gulf Coast of Texas not the Sea of Galilee.
The handsomest young lad you could imagine. I always thought he had more of our father's looks than any of us. I favored our mother. Gordon, I thought, favored our grandfather. Missy--I could ever only see her fingernails coming toward my face. But Noel was a ridiculously cute baby who grew up into quite a lovely boy.
And did I mention smart? And talented? And athletic? Although we were all competitive swimmers, he was the only one of us to ever win the all-around title at an AAU swimming meet (meaning that he probably won several events and won a medal in a few others).
We called him the little professor because . . . he knew everything. And if you didn't believe him, he'd willingly volunteer the information. He could have should have been a professor. Or a lawyer. Or a minister. Or anything else that combined the gift of the gab with brains and an ability to make people like you.
As I say. Things happen. Life changes. Difficulties arise, if you want to get all passive about it. Family problems. Father problems. Mother problems. Drinking problems. Job problems. Financial problems. All of our lives were disrupted, mine the least because I was away at a boarding school. But Noel's life, as with Gordon's and Missy's, was shifted off kilter before he was a teenager when our father and family basically lost everything in our little Texas hometown and had to start all over (and, in fact, never recovered). We moved to Denver, notorious city of sin and vice. Then things happened.
I might talk about some of those things, but it's not my point or my purpose. I wanted to say, Saint John moved from being probably a mediocre fisherman to being the self-proclaimed disciple whom Jesus loved. And from that, in rather short order, to the disciple whom Jesus left (and left his mother with). Great love was the theme of his writing; one assumes of his life as well. With that came great loss and great grief. Grief is the price we pay for loving (I didn't make that up; but then again, neither did Rachel Held Evans so she can't come after me).
Noel died on November 23rd, surrounded by his family and knowing their love. You might say he ended as he began, being loved on by his big brothers and sister. His tender baby skin, now in a giant's body, was poked and prodded and bruised and bloated and scaled.
We rubbed lotion on him every day. My son, Nathan, gave me the idea when I came to visit Noel back in October, when he was "just" getting over hip replacement surgery. Everything hurts, everything goes to pot when you're lying around in a hospital bed day after day. Anyway, Nathan just said I should rub some lotion on his face because he was getting all dried out. That was a great idea.
I'm not resigned to this death. I'm not happy about it. I'm not OK with it. But it is a great gift, I think, to be surrounded with love when you die. And to be able to surround the dying one with love. Noel was a great brother, a lovely boy. But to say he "deserved" such treatment isn't fair, I think, to the majority who do not have such an ending. It's a grace, a gift, a special mercy not merited. To be lovely, to be loved, to be missed so much--these are special gifts in a universe in which all things move towards rot.
Doctor Olson, liver specialist, stood by his bed with tears in her eyes. "It wasn't supposed to be like this. He was supposed to get a transplant. He was going to get better." Obviously, we were all crying then. She looked at all of us in the room with him. "But this is a gift. For you. For him. People don't have this. People don't get this. Hardly ever." We thanked her. May she live to be a hundred and have not too many mornings like that one.
Nigella, J's dog died last night. J is a dear friend. Nigella was a Sharpei whom J rescued several years ago. She rescued her, gave her a home, loved her, fed her, cared for her, managed her sensitive health, saved her. And now has lost her. Nigella was J's family, along with the other dog she lost last year and Tilda, the crazy dog who survives. She couldn't talk today. Or move hardly. I took her some noodles.
Kristin's cats died a couple of weeks ago. I don't know if there are laws in the old German Democratic Republic as to how many cats one person can own, but if it were the good old totalitarian days, I don't think she could make her home a veritable cat hospice. But she does. And, right now, she's feeling the price of loving and caring so much.
The same is true of my brother Gordon, one of the most sensitive dog-lovers I've ever known. His beloved Giant Schnauzer, Sonia, died of cancer three weeks ago, almost right after we got back from New York.
Things change in this world. Christmas or not. Cute vibrant talented little boys grow up, get sick, and leave us. Lovers leave or die or both. Rabbis get crucified. And then, if we can believe the stories, rise again only to leave again. We are animals and we are hurt, disoriented, lost, whimpering at loss. We also can think about and reflect on and tell stories about and remember and, maybe, sacralize our losses and our lost loves. Animal losses are different, I'll admit. As long you admit, dear reader, that they are the same. We'll call it even.
My mother always picked me up from violin lessons. One Saturday morning, my father did. "We had to put Sally down, Mott. We had her in to the vet and they had to put her down." Put her down? I was eight. I had NO idea what he was talking about. You have a pet. You have a loved one. You feed them or they feed you. They make you laugh or you make them laugh. They sleep with you or you sleep with them.
What do you mean?
"We had to put her to sleep. The vet put her to sleep."
Oh, OK. When will she wake up?
"She's dead, Mott. I mean she's dead. She won't wake up. . . . I'm sorry, son."
I'm crying writing this. I swear I'm not making it up, either. No wonder my dad never really explained the facts of life to me. I didn't make things easy for him.
Some old people (more and more that means about my age) are sitting at a table next to be in this Thai joint. They are headed for Georgia for the winter because they are "snowbirds" as we call them up here. They have been talking about me for some time. Perhaps because I am writing. Or maybe it's my fashionable, rather girly scarf. One of them called me Da Vinci. Maybe they thought he was a writer. One of them was saying something about the fact that I was writing through a meal. Sounded as if she thought me somewhat pretentious. If she only knew, I hear Tania Runyan muttering. I fantasize a response. Glance over.
One of them whispers (loudly)--"he can hear everything you're saying."
I do, and I remember stuff. As do you, dear readers. No lovely boy or girl or puppy or kitten has ever been less than lovely. No matter what happens. I freak out, like everyone, about the passing of time, but read my chapped lips: the. past. is. all. we. ever. have. except. for. the. split. atom. of. immediacy. And that's already over now.
That fact doesn't reconcile me to anything. Certainly not the absurdity of death and dying. It's just a fact I'm throwing out there. And in fact, if you are not in bed with me at exactly this moment (and that's not even true of the dog because she is sleeping with Jenny), then all I have of you and all you have of me are memories (and fantasies rooted in those).
I remember a lot of things about Noel. J remembers Nigella. Kristin remembers her cats. Gordon his dog. My mother remembered my father until she became our memory of her (I speak in earthly terms). Good things. Wonderful things. Difficult things. But memories of living. Also known as what we do in time.
The BEST kind of memory is one we helped make. I don't mean so much by being there or by "planning a memory" (that's not possible by the way), but by so loving in the moment that the memories we carry of the past are already tinted rather than tainted.
I know there is such a thing as regret, and I don't trust anyone who doesn't have any. But I can think of people, some of whom I've mentioned here, who so loved (another bit of John's language) that people, dogs, cats, hamsters, chickens, even trees had not just the gift of breath but gifts of grace, the over and above, without which the veterinarians might just as well put us all to sleep already. "Reason not the need," King Lear said about giving. Love is so damn inefficient.
So be it. It's the third day of Christmas. OK, it's now already early morning on the fourth, but let's pretend it's still the third day. I'm just saying, give your gifts now (books, hugs, caramels, cups of tea, soy-free dog food, room on the sofa, poetry and songs, a warm spot with a blanket) so that your memories, Christmas or otherwise, will swerve towards grace.