Chapter 1: Introductions

Not long ago, into a world of warmth and love, two puppies were born. Theirs was a world of discovery and of peace. A place of wild, simple exuberance, and of long, cozy naps. Nestled into the blankets, with their brothers and their sisters all around, they slept, and they dreamt of things unknown to us.

 

Half-brothers, born four days apart, they shared all the hallmarks of their breed: little button noses, soft wavy hair, large wide-set eyes so dark and deep and sparkling, fluffy tails that curved upwards and over their backs when they walked, and proud little chests containing gentle, loving hearts within.

 

Fritz was the younger, with russet brown hair, hazel eyes, and had a love for comfortable pillows. Rocco, though older by just a little, was smaller than his brother. He was black and white, with dark brown eyes, and had a love of writing pens.

 

They began their lives, and happily passed the days, sleeping amongst the pile of warm hair and fluff that was their family and their tribe. Their siblings provided heat and security, while their parents were always nearby, ready to calm a fight, with a kick or a swipe of the paw, or ready with a warm, wet lick to soothe the hurt of a fall.

 

My wife and I first met them on a cold winter day in February. The leaves had long since fallen from the trees and the sky was a cloudy grayish-white. As we entered their home, the rooms were filled with the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking, and of coffee brewing. Of course the dogs weren’t responsible for either of these, they were still only puppies after all, and their minds were filled with other things.

 

Rocco had found a new black pen that someone had dropped on the floor, under the desk in the kitchen the night before, and this was occupying his attention. Not that any of his siblings were interested in his treasure, but nevertheless he protected it with determination and enthusiasm.

 

Barely larger than the pen himself, at a mere eight ounces, he could easily fit entirely into the palm of your hand. But what he lacked in size he made up for with ambition; and he fancied himself to be a ferocious tiger.

 

Fritz was dreaming, and by all appearances he seemed to be in a hurry to get someplace or to find someone. For as he slept, his little body twitched, and his little paws danced as they tapped the pillow, or stretched into the air as he rolled over onto his back. A big huge yawn revealed a little mouth beginning to fill with baby teeth, and a tiny pink tongue which curled up and out and touched his nose.

 

 

 

We came to bring them to a new home, a place of equal warmth and affection to the one they had grown accustomed to, a place that also smelled of chocolate chip cookies (which they would soon learn to desire, but couldn’t have) and of coffee (which they had no use for at all).

 

They left their parents and siblings behind, but this is the nature of things in the world of dogs, and they didn’t miss them, well, perhaps a little, but they had many new things to distract and occupy their attention and they usually forgot from where they had come. Neither did they know where they were going but this also was of no concern. They were comfortably consumed with the moment they were living, the treats they were eating, the squirrels they were chasing, or the adventures they were creating.

~FS

 

 

 

 

Come Back, Please

Healing…Elusive…what will become of me? I’m no better now than I was on March 28 when she died. In fact, I may be worse off now. I’ve been told it is depression, by several people. How could that be? Nothing happened to me. Death happened to somebody else.

 

But something did happen to me and I can’t reverse it. It seems like it should just be hyperbole, or the stuff of a good poem, or something that tugs at the heart and then we move on.

 

But I don’t move on, and it doesn’t go away either. She died and somehow that is making all the difference in the world. The world is different now. My world has changed so substantially, emotionally and in my thoughts, that it isn’t recognizable to me. I’ve written about this before so I’m not sure why I find it so surprising. In fact as I write this I find it tedious and rather boring. Same old, same old…

 

However, the part of me that takes an interest in observing myself, is shocked and more than a little scared by all of this. It isn’t an experiment, or a clinical trial, as I’m so in the habit of treating my life’s events. This is bigger than me and seems to have swept me away, or is sweeping me, or will sweep, or could sweep…I’m not sure which.

 

I have a wonderful wife. I have fantastic friends. A very good job, with kind and loving co-workers. My dogs bring me great joy and I get lots of exercise. In many ways things are better now than ever. My life has a depth and beauty that I’ve long sought and I’m very grateful for this. It’s a wonderful life…

 

and yet, without her, I feel such emptiness within. I reiterate, I have a wonderful wife, and a wonderful life, and at the same time I am empty…

 

God.

 

Of course, this is the answer that comes to mind and heart. For me, I know this is the answer but I’m not feeling it, or experiencing it, or however you’d like to say it, and right now, this isn’t the answer. It should be the answer? It could be the answer? But it isn’t.

 

My prayers actually are quite good and I have a regular habit of prayer each morning and evening and at certain intervals throughout the day, along with my attempts at praying without ceasing throughout the day which is admittedly spotty but also somewhat consistent. Generally I feel God’s presence and I know His love, except at times of fatigue and weariness in life’s battles.

 

Even with all of this, I still feel empty and alone within my being. And I want to return to how it was before she died. It is a vast emptiness and an acute longing. The only solution that is any good is the only one that can never happen. I’d like her to come back please.

~FS

The Wretched

The Wretched

St Paul says that we are the most to be pitied among all men if our hope in Christ is only for this life, and if there is no victory over death, and no resurrection.

We don’t need Christ in order to enjoy the beauty of this world, nor do we need him in order to explain creation. We don’t even need Christ to enjoy this life, or find purpose and meaning in our lives.

In fact, morality, virtue and ethics are not exclusive to followers of Christ, and this fact is evident to everyone. Good living is not dependent on Christ.

The only thing that can come to us in no other way is a good eternal life; with Jesus alone we are promised victory over death, and an eternal life to anticipate with joy and thankfulness.

But where is our salvation? How can I know this promise is true, that I’m not being duped. We’ve heard the story, the eyewitness accounts to His resurrection, the hundreds of people who staked their reputations and their lives upon this account, even on what they witnessed first-hand with their own eyes.

But that was two thousand years ago. It starts to sound a little like a fairy tale. Is Jesus my imaginary friend? Even if the accounts are true, and it happened just like that, somehow the waiting is demoralizing and frustrating.

We wait upon God’s perfect timing and we trust in Him. We live by faith, and are justified by this. Perfect endurance will have its perfect reward and those who endure to the end will wear the crown—the crown of eternal life.

Meanwhile here I am, waiting in this valley of tears, under the shadow of death. I sit in my room trying to communicate with God, but without the apparatus to do so. I’m a radioman without a radio, an internet surfer without a computer (or smartphone). My prayers, like sonar, bounce off the walls and echo back inside my head.

Why is it so hard?

Well, I’m not ready to see him anyway, most likely. I’m filthy and shameful and need more time. But what do I really do with all this time? I watch television. I earn money and spend it. I eat far more than I need. And I struggle.

Oh wretched man that I am. One moment talking to an empty room inside my soul, the next running in circles trying to get somewhere; anywhere, just not here. What a way to spend the day.

I know I’m not alone

The Stranger

I feel that I must explain something to you, although you may not pay any attention; nevertheless, this is something that I feel must be told—for my own sake, and maybe for the sake of another.

 

Most days, not long after I wake up each morning, I no longer recognize myself. I used to see myself in the smile of another, after I’ve said something mildly humorous to them; and I recognized myself in the lighthearted replies of those I met throughout the day.  But I no longer see that, nor do I fully trust it when I do–

 

because my smile used to be genuine, born out of a joy of life and a trust in the wholesomeness and godliness of everything I encountered. I didn’t question this even though there was obviously plenty of empirical information to the contrary (just watch the news for a few minutes).

 

I feel I must apologize to the optimists, and those who still enjoy this beautiful world. I feel as if I’ve left your team, although I can’t say that I’ve left by choice; somehow I feel I was taken, or traded off the team through some cosmic deal.

 

Now my smile is generated by a visitor within me, at the direction of my heart, to save others from seeing the sorrow that exists behind my eyes. And I wonder now, if the smiles of those I meet, are also made by these same visitors, for the same purpose of saving others the pain of seeing the sorrow we each hold inside.

 

God sometimes puts us in a coma, when the pain is too painful to bear, to allow us to heal unconsciously over time. Perhaps I’m in an emotional coma, walking anaesthetized, so as not to explode, or implode along the way.

 

I’ve become a stranger to my life. It is the same world, I’m certain — it hasn’t changed — but I’ve changed, and somehow I don’t fit in my own life anymore. Isn’t that strange?

 

I said earlier that it takes some time after I wake up each day, to lose track of myself — so for a while I am still intact. And this is true, thank God; sleep resets my personhood each night, and I rise in the morning restored. Beautiful sleep, that time and place without anxiety, or the fear of loss. I know this is a blessing, as not everyone can say this; for some the anxiety and fear follows them into their dreams.

 

There is one other place and time where the strangeness of my life falls away, and I recognize myself again—in prayer. Isn’t that beautiful? That time when I seek God and call upon Him — is the same time when I find myself again.

 

I think we should all pray a lot more than we do: for the peace of mind, the joy of heart, and for the love of God.  When we do, we are no longer strangers to ourselves.

~FS

Exquisite Intimacy

None of us knew what we had, until it was gone; or if we did know in part, we didn’t fully understand, until it all became just a memory.

In his prime, my step-father had a regal bearing; he was tall, and stood even taller in my thoughts and feelings towards him. He wore turtlenecks which to me as a child, added to his stature and somehow gave his face and frame a look of royalty.

I also admired my father; more for his mind and helpful advice than for his appearance or actions. Also, he was kind, and aside from a certain disquiet in his soul, which led to a recurring dalliance in his life choices, he was otherwise trustworthy and a man of integrity.

My mother was all things to me and though we had our disagreements, we also had each other’s backs and we faced the world’s assaults together.

My brother was eleven years older than me and so we didn’t know each other very well. We were amicable but generally distant; this in part due to the difference in age, but more due to his reclusive nature. Over the years I came to accept this distance and that he preferred to live as a bit of a hermit, at least towards his family, and that we probably would never really be very close.

So I was surprised when he invited me one day to have lunch with him and spend the afternoon in the redwoods. He even went to the trouble of making cheese sandwiches for us and packing them, along with sodas, into brown lunch bags for our outing. After thirty-eight years we finally had lunch together. And we became friends.  This led to semi-regular phone calls to each other and discussions about sports cars, foreign and domestic, and other important life matters.

We enjoyed one more lunch together, about two years later. This time he treated my wife and I to a meal at his favorite Japanese restaurant; the kind where they cook the meal there at your table. There was an exquisite intimacy in that meal: the gift of his time, the quietness and the laughter shared between the three of us, the warmth and the affection, the glasses of red wine.

I will always remember the red wine, so pretty in the glass. My brother loved red wine. Sometimes he loved it too much. A month after this meal, on his way home from a dinner with a friend, he was pulled over and arrested for driving while intoxicated. Because of this he lost his license, and then his job as a bus driver, and a few weeks later he shot himself.

Our last phone conversation, a few days earlier had focused on God, death and the afterlife. I suppose he was mulling his options, though I only understood that, too late.

Several months later my step-father fell and broke his hip. He went to a rehab center but his health slowly began to decline. We hoped for a recovery however, week by week he lost strength. One day while my mom and I were visiting him he asked me to give his face a shave. He had an electric razor on the nightstand beside his bed.

Here it was again, that exquisite intimacy: the gift of his time, the quietness, the warmth and affection, just as it had been during that last meal with my brother. Here I was shaving the face of that man I always admired, that royal face. I did the best with my moment and the honor I was given in caring for him in this way; I’m sure it wasn’t the best shave he’d ever had but that wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.

There is something else to say about my step-father because it is so beautiful and so endearing. He loved life with a childlike enthusiasm. There are many numerous examples from his life of this fact but what remains with me now is from our final minutes together, the last ones I would spend with him alive. On this last visit, just before I left, he asked me to push him in his wheelchair around the corridors of the rehab center.

The main hallway outside his room made one large circuit, and lining the walls were paintings and large photographs. As I pushed him around this circuit he asked me to stop at most of these, and we admired them together. They were of trees, or landscapes mostly, while some were of sunsets or sunrises. Of each he had multiple comments as to their beauty and how much they meant to him, or how they reminded him of his childhood or some other time in his life. Each painting or photo was greeted with appreciation; and he approached each one, in the same way he lived each day, it seems, with gratefulness and benevolence. Just as one would expect of a royal and noble man such as he.

As my mom explained it to me over the phone, she was with him several weeks later, holding his hand as he was sleeping. While he peacefully slept, he graciously stepped into the next world, breathing one moment, and not the next.

Years later my mom would explain that he was the true love of her life. In the manner and tone with which she explained this however she also conveyed the truth that she never really understood this fact at the time, or expressed it to him fully while they were together, and she wished she had.

I hadn’t seen or spoken with my dad for several years. I had joined a spiritual community in my early twenties and had been living a nomadic life; traveling, living and working in various states, which precluded much contact with friends and family. To earn money I did landscaping work and sold this service door to door. One day I was out walking the streets, knocking on doors as I typically would do in the afternoon, when I felt certain I was about to see my dad.

It was one of those rare times in which I sensed that what was about to happen would be an important and seminal moment in my life.  A car came into view, approaching up the street and I knew it would be him so I stepped off the curb and flagged him down. In my childhood, he and I had been affectionate, he was not afraid to give me a hug, but I can’t remember a time that we ever held each other’s hands. I got into his car and we began to talk and to catch up on each other’s lives. And as we spoke we took each other’s hands. It was such an unnatural thing for us to do and yet it felt extremely natural. Our time was short as he was late for an appointment and had to get going. I felt the urgency to tell him how much I loved him and how much he meant to me, and my gratitude for his role in my life. He expressed similar feelings of love and affection, and all the while we kept holding hands. I will always remember how unusual, how strange, and also how wonderful that was.

Later that year I called my mom and she had the difficult task of telling me that my father had died several months earlier. They had tried to find me, to tell me, so I could go to the funeral but they had no way to contact me, and didn’t know where I was, or how to reach me. She was so sorry that I didn’t know about his death but I explained to her that I did know. I knew back then in his car, as we were holding hands, that I would never see him again, and that this would be the last time to hold him, and to express my true feelings for him.

Not long ago my mother also stepped into the next world, having taken her last breath for the journey, and leaving my sisters and I with a house full of memories. Our final months together were filled with tenderness and intimacy. She could hardly say a word and she spent most of her days and nights with her eyes shut and seemingly asleep, but she knew when we were near.

As she lay in her bed, we held wordless conversations, communicating love through the simplicity of touch. She had beautiful silver hair, and while it had thinned considerably, she still enjoyed occasionally having it combed, and it was a joy to have the opportunity to do that for her.

My heart is filled by the memory of her thinning hair, her sunken cheeks and deep eye sockets, her bruised papery skin and bony hands; all things which sound ugly and disturbing, and yet to me, as I see them on her, are symbols and representations of perfect beauty; because she could be nothing less than supremely beautiful in whatever appearance she presented.

Of course I have surrounded myself with photos of her in earlier times: smiling photos, full of life, joy and health. These also are beautiful, but the memories that now fill me most with love and gratitude are from these final months together, while death began to pull us apart, dwelling within that exquisite intimacy.