Gold Star

gold star flag           Soon after my brother’s death, I start working as a hospice chaplain, and meet Don, an old-fashioned gentleman with a deep Catholic faith. He’s hard of hearing, grouchy, forgetful at times, and sharp when he wants to be. It’s hard to tell what he’s taking in, and not. He’s so modest that he asks our home health aide to give him a shower with his underwear on.

I visit him at his senior residence, arriving as he finishes lunch so I won’t interrupt the afternoon nap that follows lunch. Asking his permission, I pull up a chair and sit at the table, keeping him company as he finishes eating the meat, potatoes and gray vegetable. “What did you have for lunch?” I ask him one day.

“L.O.K,” he tells me.

“L.O.K – what’s that?”

“Lord Only Knows.” I laugh out loud, which makes him smile. He always offers me dessert, which I decline, and coffee, which I drink to be sociable.

Don’s daughter Rose has award winning patience, and the same warm smile I see in pictures of her mother. The approaching loss of her father brings up other losses. “I was sitting on my couch in front of the fireplace, sipping a glass of wine, last Christmas Eve,” she tells me, “and there was a knock on my door.”

The newspaper stories about the war and roadside bombs come to brutal life as I listen to her tell about her son’s death in the war. The Christmas Eve knock on the door comes from two men in uniform, the sight every military family dreads. Her son Mike had been killed on Christmas Eve in Iraq. The family stumbles through a funeral mass here, and then a memorial service held by his unit, out of state. “I feel like we buried that child so many times,” she says. “At the end I was so tired.”

Her story of his sudden, violent death recalls my brother’s death, and I feel a silent connection with her story. My dad asks me one night, “Isn’t it hard to visit other people when David’s death is on your mind?” No. Yes. It’s all I know how to do, I tell him.   Once your heart cracks open, you have an unwanted kinship with every other broken-hearted person. Once grief makes you gasp for breath, you recognize the other air-starved people around you. It’s strangely relaxing to be with other broken people.

As the chaplain, it’s my job to hear their stories, not their job to listen to me. I’m careful not to share my own loss, not to chime in, not to shout excitedly “I know exactly what you mean.”   But we belong to the same club.

Don stays with us for two years, declining slowly and bouncing back, and then slipping again. Finally, the last descent begins. One day at lunch, he tells me that he has to get to the shop to finish some things. “Let’s go,” he says, urgently. “Can you take me?” he asks, and I know that the end is coming. Talk about finishing something, or traveling somewhere, signals the soul’s final work.

I come every afternoon to see him. When I walk up the driveway and see the car with the “Gold Star Family” license plate, the distinction given to families who lose someone in combat, I know that Rose is here, too. The afternoons become a sabbath, as we sit by his bed and talk about her dad. In the dim peace of the room, she tells me about his political career, his stubborn personality, his passion for coffee, which he drank day and night. The first household task she ever learned was making coffee.

And, again, she tells me again about her son. Sitting in the peace of the room, the story comes with different details this time. Mike was married briefly, and it didn’t work out. Because of the timing of the divorce, when Mike dies, the Army calls the young ex-wife first. Her dad, drunk, makes a rambling, expletive-filled call to Rose and her husband. Her husband picks up the phone and can’t understand anything except that Mike is dead. Rose runs upstairs to the computer and frantically, crazily hits the buttons, searching for the emergency number the Army gave them. She finds it and is screaming her questions into the phone when she looks out the window. A white sedan turns the corner onto their street and moves slowly up the block, as if looking for a house number. She watches the car driving through the snow until it stops in front of her house, and two men get out and come toward the porch.

Pausing in the story, she looks at me in the dark room and asks “Are you crying?”

“I am,” I admit.

“You’re sweet to cry at my story,” she tells me.

Oddly, I feel jealous. Her son’s death in the war seems more meaningful than my brother’s random death. And yet, grief is grief. Her story is my story, although I don’t tell her that. The death of her dad will eventually be the death of mine. The terrible absence of her son is also the aching absence of my brother.

I realize that the only meaning in someone’s death is the meaning we give it. How we live after the death, making a path forward. We mark the way with dates and ceremonies so no one is forgotten, when remembering is the only gift left to give.







Pauline Saves

Pauline comes down the stairs from her bedroom each morning, wraps her robe around her thin frame, and starts making coffee. At the tippy kitchen table, she reads a worn Bible until it’s ready. Always, the plastic counters gleam in her kitchen. Fortified by the coffee and the Bible, she goes down another flight of steps to the basement, where her son lives.

The basement is Damian’s kingdom, with a huge flat screen tv, always on. The dark wood paneling and big, squashy sofa and chairs seem like a different world from the light, spotless kitchen upstairs. More removed from the world, more manly. Damian is in his twenties, and he seems both younger and older. Younger because he lives at home, where his mother cooks his meals, and watches over his day. Compared to other men his age, with jobs and kids, his life is easy. But the awareness of his illness makes him seem older.

After a lifetime of coddling, Damian is dying now, but Pauline won’t talk about it. Not to me, her hospice chaplain, not to her family, not to our nurse. He has lived a long time with an inherited disease, and she is sure he can keep going. Her life is about caring for him, and Pauline insists that he’ll be fine.

Grief guru Alan Wolfeldt says he doesn’t like the term “denial.” He likes to think of it as “resting.” We’re resting from what’s too hard, too awful, too painful to think about. That feels right. Pauline is resting from the knowledge that she’s about to lose her third son.

Her oldest son carried the family stresses until they became too much for him, and he turned to drugs. He died of an overdose a few years ago. Her second son was killed in a shooting. She doesn’t say much more about it, and I don’t ask, but I know that a mother’s grief is no less or more even when a child makes poor choices.

Her third son seemed safe from all of that, with the illness that kept him at home.

Now she is resting fiercely from the knowledge that Damian is dying.

She sorts it out in her own way. “We don’t need to know why,” she says. “We don’t ask God why things happen. We just trust.”

Her daughter Francie, a mother herself, pulls up in her van between trips to drive her kids home from school and on to football practice. Francie knows how tired her mother is, and she begs her to take a break, but she seems to know it’s impossible. Her mother won’t let go of Damian.

I wonder if Pauline keeps moving to keep her grief away. If she sits down, it all comes back.

I understand because I do the same thing. I can’t seem to sit still, except when I’m at work, hearing someone’s story. I can’t read anymore – it doesn’t hold my attention. No one else’s drama on the page can compare to the drama in my head. I think I must be hard to be around, but no one is brave enough to complain.

My work as a chaplain for this hospice started ten days after my brother took his life.

I wouldn’t recommend this, except that it saved me.

It was already planned, and I was too tired with grief to call and quit. Oddly, going to work with dying people seemed easier than calling a normal person to tell my story.

I had been to orientation, given an employee badge, and shown to my new desk, covered with a big pile of folders, full of people who needed visits. Then I left for an already planned vacation. It didn’t turn out quite the way I’d planned.

I came home from the funeral, and went to work.

Out in the suburbs, I would have gotten lost in my own story. Self-pity would have taken me over. Driving around Detroit, it was hard to feel sorry myself when so many stories were just like mine, or worse.

The mothers of Detroit become my teachers. The woman whose son went out with friends one night, and was beaten up, left with a head injury so severe he can’t work. The mother and sisters who visit the woman in a nursing home bed, unresponsive for six years, after an attack one night. The mothers of men paralyzed in shootings. They feel fortunate, compared to the sorority of women who’ve been to funerals and trials and only have framed pictures of their brothers and sons.

“We don’t need to know why,” they all tell me, in one way or another.

“But I want to know why,” I wail silently in response, but never say out loud. I want to know why. All I want is to know why.

Slowly, the truth of what they’re saying sinks in. Why doesn’t help. There’s no solace there. The truth is still the truth. Grief is still grief.

I never tell them my story, but I wonder if they see it in my eyes. Slowly, my teachers save me, and, in the silence, I hope they hear the power in their stories, too.

Better Bathrooms

broken-beer-bottle-0424209-lgI came to love Detroit, in spite of the bathrooms.

When you work in hospice or home care, driving around to visit people, you have to find your own.

When I saw people as their hospice chaplain, I wasn’t a guest.  I hated to impose the worry of a clean bathroom on already burdened people.  So, fast food places, and libraries became familiar stopping places.

I used to cover both the city of Detroit and the suburbs as a hospice chaplain, until we had too many patients.  My boss told me I had to choose – Detroit, or the suburbs.

The suburbs meant lots of places to eat lunch, and plenty of nice, clean bathrooms in libraries and gas stations, plus coffee shops.  People like me, white, suburban, familiar.  Choosing Detroit meant really learning the city, not just going in for a concert or the museum.

In the end, I got Detroit.  And Detroit got to me.

For the first five years I lived here, I served a church in the suburbs.  I missed city life, missed the culture and the diversity and the food, but I didn’t think I could find any of that in Detroit.  Detroit was burned out buildings, hungry people, unemployment, long-closed factories and despair.

After I moved from the church to the hospice, the first few months were all about geography.  I struggled to plan my visits so I wasn’t driving all the way across the city and then back.  People always told me that Detroit is large, geographically.  I didn’t understand until I started driving it every day.  It’s huge, and often empty.  One day I drove down a four lane street, and block after block was empty.  Then, around a corner, one board bungalow in the tall grass.  Children in their underwear played outside, making me feel like I had somehow traveled back to rural America.  One Sunday I visited a neighborhood church.  A member had to come and unlock the door, covered with metal bars, for me.  She waited until all the stray dogs ran away before she opened it.

Driving around, I came to love the energy of this city, too.  The art in unexpected places.  The creativity of the people who pop a beer garden in a vacant lot for a month, or a store open on the weekends.  The grit of the math teacher who warns off the gangs when they come to recruit at the middle school.  The guy who reluctantly agrees to coach kids, and ends up teaching not just basketball, but about being a man in a perilous place.  The girl who changes schools every year, but keeps up her A’s.

Nursing homes in the suburbs are quiet.  In the city, the staff plays dance music for the residents.  People sing, and talk more.  Listening to the staff is an education.  As the fall grows chilly, the talk turns to heat.  “You run up the electric bill in the winter, and then you need the summer to pay it off,” one of the health aides says, as the others nod their heads.   “I’m not ready,” she adds.  “I didn’t get it all paid off yet.”  Other times they talk about the dads of their kids, and the struggles to get them to show up, and to pay up.

My patients taught me the history of Detroit in the story of their lives.  Many of them came here from the South for work in the auto plants.  The Great Migration of history books is alive in them.  Now they’re moving toward the end lives of hard work and discrimination.  Story after story reveals the backbone of this city.  It was these people in the factories, making cars, that made Detroit famous.  Now the backbone of the city is the nurses and aides, women mostly, who care for the now old and sick, and keep the city running with their own hard work.

One day I got out of the car to make a visit, and the sidewalk was covered with broken glass.  Ironically, from a bottle of Barefoot wine.  Anyone who was barefoot here would need a trip to the emergency room.  This is a street where kids walk home from school, the younger ones in the care of the bigger ones, no adults in sight.  I opened my trunk, got out a plastic bag, and started picking up the pieces of the bottle.

Crouching on the sidewalk, searching for more glass, I knew that I had come to love Detroit.