Monday, August 31, 2015

August 31: Linda Gregg, "Finding the Way," "Ives" Dip Monday, Adventures of Stickman

Linda Gregg is the Poet of the Week.  I thought I had already featured her, but, looking back through old posts, I did not find her name.

The first poem I'd like to feature combines two of my favorite things:  spirituality and humor.  Yes, it's a little irreverent.  Yes, some people might think it's slightly sacrilegious.  That's OK.  I'm irreverent and sacrilegious, too, at times:

Finding the Way

by:  Linda Gregg

Today I went to the village church
where bells rang steadily
for a special ceremony.
Outside were baskets full of bread
as the body of Christ.  I discovered
the Greeks believe God's body has
the flavor of sesame and cumin.

There's something about this poem that makes me really happy.  I don't know why.  I think it has something to do with the very human observation in the closing line.  God tastes like sesame and cumin.  I wish I had written this poem.

I dropped my daughter off at the high school tonight for band camp.  Next week, she starts her first week as a freshman.  She's been complaining and crying and whining about this camp for almost a full week.  In short, she's been driving us crazy.  Now I understand why.

When I pulled up in front of the school and put the car in park, I looked over at her.  She didn't move, and I realized that she was terrified.  She didn't want to get out, and she didn't know what to do.  I tried to say something encouraging.  I think it was about seeing old friends and making new ones.  It didn't help.  She looked like she was ready to throw up.

I offered to walk her to the band room.  She didn't want me to.  So, she got out of the car and slowly walked across the parking lot.  I watched as she literally hid behind a truck.  Then she started walking again.  I watched her until she disappeared inside the school.

As I was driving home, I said a little prayer for her.  I want her to be happy and confident.  I want her to find people who like her.  I want her to know what I know:  that she's amazing.

It is Ives dip Monday.  I have a lot on my mind tonight.  But foremost in my thoughts is my daughter.  So, my question this evening is:

Is my daughter having a good time at band camp?

And the answer:

My finger keeps landing on the blank pages in between sections of the novel.

I guess that means that it's all going to be new.  New people.  New experiences.  Hopefully new friends and new happiness.

At least, that's what Saint Marty hopes for his beautiful daughter.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Sunday, August 30, 2015

August 30: Sister's Funeral, Eulogy, New Poem, "Strawberry Picking"

My sister's funeral was this afternoon.  It was not without its share of family drama.  In the end, no blood was shed, and everybody was well-fed and happy at the end.  You will forgive me if I am not witty or profound this afternoon.  I was up until about 2 a.m. finishing my eulogy and poem.  It is now after 7 p.m., and I am practically comatose.  The only blessing is that I don't have to work tomorrow.  Or the next day.  Or the next.  For the next five days, all I have to do is create lesson plans and teach.  Basically, I'll be living the life of a tenured full-timer.  No jumping jobs in the middle of the day.  No late nights at the medical office.  Basically, I will have a normal existence for the next week.

The funeral was beautiful.  My sister's best friend, Lydia, gave a moving eulogy with a Nightingale tribute.  My sister was a nurse for 32 years. And then I gave my eulogy and recited my poem.  My friends sang the "Pie Jesu" by Andrew Lloyd Webber and "I Have a Dream" by ABBA.  At the end of the Mass, I turned to Lydia and said, "I think Sal would have been happy."  Lydia hugged me and said, "Sal is happy."

So, I am exhausted.  When I got to the church, I cried.  When Lydia showed up, I cried.  When I gave my eulogy, I cried.  When my friends sang, I cried.  When I ate my stuffed shells, I cried (they were really hot).  When I got home and saw the rum my wife's cousin dropped off for me, I cried.

Saint Marty misses his sister a lot.  Or he's pregnant.

Strawberry Picking

for Sally

You took me strawberry picking
once, drove out to a farm
where we paid to squat in green
beds laced with tongues of red.
I could feel my ears and neck
tighten under the punishing
sun as we filled Morning Glory
ice cream buckets with our
harvest, each berry looking to me
like some vital body part,
an organ or muscle necessary
for life.  You sat on your haunches,
fingers staining red, as if you
were some battlefield surgeon
patching up the fallen with only
your hands.  Every now and then,
you would lift a berry to your lips,
eat it in a hummingbird moment,
smiling the smile of the freshly
healed at Lourdes, where miracles
are common as empty wheelchairs
or dandelions in a July field.

The days since you've been gone,
I see strawberries everywhere,
in a welt of blood on my lip
after shaving, a stop sign,
a friend's dyed hair,
my son's sunburned shoulders,
oxygen in the gills of a perch.
Last night, I stood outside, under
ribbons of borealis, watched
them glide between the stars
like garter snakes in a midnight
Eden.  The Bible says that, in the cool
of the day, Adam and Eve heard
God taking a stroll through
the garden.  There were probably
peacocks nesting in the pines,
a stream talking with moss and stone,
the scurry of mole and spider
in the ferns.

That's what I believe you heard
in your last moments of breath.
You heard peafowl screams,
brook trout leaps.  Grasshopper wing
and corn silk.  And you heard
His divine toes in the grass, walking
along.  When He came to you,
He couldn't resist.  He reached down,
plucked you from the stem.  You were
ripe.  Sweet.  Ready.  He put you
in His Morning Glory bucket, continued
on into the dew and sunlight.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

August 29: The Wake, Family Drama, Wendell Berry, "A Warning to My Readers," Confessions of Saint Marty

The wake lasted only a day and was held at an Amsterdam Avenue parlor, Kennedy's, not far from the church.  Everyone from the neighborhood was there,  The MacGuires came in from Long Island, Annie's three policeman brothers in their dress blues, with their shoulder cords and medals, sat in the back.  Her father and mother and various cousins came and went throughout the day, but her brothers stayed, and going outside to smoke cigarettes, marched up and down the street in front of the parlor, Ives by their side, regarding all passersby, street drunks and junkies as well as decent citizens minding their own business, with contempt.  A lot of strangers came with flowers, and so many prayer cards, rosaries, and crucifixes were left in Robert's coffin that every few hours a lady who worked for the parlor would come up to remove them.  Young seminarians and many priests came by.  A lot of neighborhood fellows came in around two in the afternoon, half-drunk, paid their respects, and stood about the parlor entrance in thin-soled shoes shivering.  Flowers arrived from New Jersey, where his friend Mr. Messmer lived.  And he got a telephone call from Mr. Mannis in London; he had called during intermission of the theater where they were presenting Stop the World I Want to Get Off, with Anthony Newley.  A number of Annie's teaching colleagues showed up or sent flowers, and about twenty-five people from the agency came, among them Mr. Freeman, who traveled on that soggy day with his wife and one of his sons from Chappaqua; Morty Silverman, Alvarez, Martinez, Dinnerstein, and Fuentes from the Spanish division of the company; many people from accounting; and secretaries from the sales department, some of whom came in from the Bronx and Queens.

Everybody comes to Robert's wake.  He was young and spiritual, sang in the church choir.  In a few months, he was going to enter the seminary.  Everybody loved him.  When a young person dies, there's always an extra layer of tragedy.  Robert was gunned down on a sidewalk in front of a church at Christmas time.  He's almost a martyr.

Tonight is my sister's visitation at the funeral home.  For two hours, we will gather, hug, probably cry, share stories, and say a rosary.  All day long is going to be a prelude to that event.  My daughter has a dance lesson.  I have to play for a Mass at church.  Then, the wake.  Afterward, I will go home, make a brownie trifle for the funeral lunch, and finish my poem and eulogy.

The drama has already begun with my family.  I will not go into detail.  Suffice to say, there is always "fun" in "dysfunction."  There will be a lot of both tonight.  My goal for this evening will be to make it through the 120 minutes with a minimum of slamming car doors and squealing tires.  (You laugh, but both of those things are distinct possibilities.)  I have no energy for my family's particular brand of mental illness tonight.

I may come off as gentle and full of compassion.  An understanding soul, if you will.  My well of grace is running a little dry at the moment.

Saint Marty needs a big, stiff drink . . . of grace, of course.

A Warning to My Readers

by:  Wendell Berry

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

Confessions of Saint Marty

August 28: Twisted and Contorted, Cost of Love, Wendell Berry, "A Meeting in a Part," Adventures of Stickman

"I don't know what happens when you die, but, I can tell you, whatever goes on is painful, because her face was all twisted and contorted:  it was as if she had to pay dearly to come to me, even for a few moments, as if it were a tremendous burden; as if she was violating something or breaking a law."  And then his [Ramirez's] voice changed and frightened Ives.  "Can you imagine what it was for Christ to come back for so long a period of time when He rose from the dead and went to visit His apostles?"

Ives' best friend, Ramirez, is not a religious man.  He doesn't go to church like Ives.  Doesn't pray and talk about forgiveness and God's love.  Ramirez is a hard man.  A bully to his son.  An adulterer to his wife.  Yet, near the end of the book, after his beloved wife dies, Ramirez is visited by her ghost, and it is a terrifying vision of suffering and torment.  She stands by his bed in anguish to simply tell him Te amo, marido--"I love you, husband."

It's not a very comforting passage.  The ghosts of loved ones aren't supposed to suffer in order to bring comfort to the living.  I think that's why I find this little passage so compelling.  Even in the afterlife, the cost of love is huge.  Painful.

My wife read me a little quote last night about how anger fits into the grieving process.  Basically, it said that anger is natural.  The grieving should welcome it.  Feel it.  Work through it.  So, basically, I'm allowed to be mad.  Pissed off.  Furious.  The quote also said that the stronger the anger is, the stronger the love for the person who's gone.

That makes sense to me.  Love is painful, as demonstrated by Ramirez's story.  In death and life, love can break your soul.  Yet, I wouldn't want to live my life without love.  I know that I'm sounding a little Oprah-ish.  However, I really do believe that love is what brings meaning into my life.  My wife.  Kids.  Sisters.  Brothers.  In-laws.  Friends.

My nephew had a dream about my sister shortly after she passed away.  In the dream, my sister and nephew played video games together.  She told him, "I have to go soon."  All the kids joined them, and they laughed and gamed together, like old times.  Finally, it was time for my sister to leave.  She told my nephew, "I love you all."  Then, she disappeared in a golden light.  My nephews says the dream brought him a great deal of peace.

Tomorrow, we will have the visitation at the funeral home.  On Sunday, the funeral Mass and lunch.  There will be tension and weirdness.  Tears and laughter.  Anger and hugs.  Pain and maybe a little peace.  When family gets together, that's what happens.

In some way, this whole summer has been one long goodbye.

Saint Marty is still waiting for his dream.

(Sorry, no fairy tale tonight.  We'll return to our normal programming next week.)

A Meeting in a Part

by:  Wendell Berry

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: "How you been?"
He grins and looks at me.
"I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees."

Adventures of STICKMAN

Thursday, August 27, 2015

August 27: Sweet Drowsiness, Options, Wendell Berry, "Testament," Adventures of Stickman

With some difficulty, he waited for the services to begin.  He did not know if it was the candles or the crowd or the heating, or the heavy perfumes in the air, or his age--he was nearly seventy-five--but that morning he found himself frequently yawning.  Lately, Ives had been dozing off during Mass, his eyes heavier with each visit.  A kind of sweet drowsiness came over him, and the sensation that someone was about to whisper, ever so gently, "Come along now."

Ives at the end of his life.  He has overcome his grief and anger.  Finally, for the first time in decades, he is at peace with his life.  Yes, he still misses his son, Robert.  But Ives is no longer paralyzed by sorrow.  He can enjoy his wife and family.  Church once again brings him comfort and happiness.  Ives has reached the final stage of grief.  Peaceful acceptance.

Well, I made it through the first week of teaching without killing anyone or getting fired.  Yes, I still am pretty angry.  However, I have decided to approach my situation at the literary magazine in a very healthy way:  I'm going to exist in a state of denial.  At least until next week.  (I really don't have a choice, mind you.  The decision has been made, and I am no longer going to be the poetry editor of the magazine.  So, what I need to work on is peaceful acceptance, which may take a few decades, like Ives.)

Much in my life has changed over the summer.  Two years ago, I was the youngest of nine siblings.  Now, I am the youngest of seven siblings.  A year ago, I was scheduling my first meeting as poetry editor.  Now, I am a poetry editor in search of a job.  A month ago, I was planning my vacation.  This weekend, I am going to the funeral of my sister.

I can't change any of the facts in the preceding paragraph.  They are beyond my control, as most things are in life.  There are two options available to me.  First, I could calmly accept my situation and try to find some peace.  Second, I could remain in a constant state of pissed-off.

Guess which option Saint Marty is choosing tonight?  Hint:  it involves alcohol and not a small amount of cursing.


by:  Wendell Berry

And now to the Abyss I pass
Of that Unfathomable Grass...

Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don't call it death --
A word to enrich the undertaker and inspire
His surly art of imitating life; conspire
Against him. Say that my body cannot now
Be improved upon; it has no fault to show
To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh
Has a perfect compliance with the grass
Truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
That has been my care and faithful charge from birth,
And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
And all my hopes. Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you don't know.

But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit's whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure

Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all's despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle

Hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
Need not be too rich to please
One who was happy in Port Royal.

I may be already heading back,
A new and better man, toward
That town. The thought's unreasonable,
But so is life, thank the Lord!

So treat me, even dead,
As a man who has a place
To go, and something to do.
Don't muck up my face
With wax and powder and rouge
As one would prettify
An unalterable fact
To give bitterness the lie.

Admit the native earth
My body is and will be,
Admit its freedom and
Its changeability.

Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day's round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.

Beneath this stone a Berry is planted
In his home land, as he wanted.
He has come to the gathering of his kin,
Among whom some were worthy men,

Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
But one was a cobbler from Ireland,

Another played the eternal fool
By riding on a circus mule

To be remembered in grateful laughter
Longer than the rest. After

Doing that they had to do
They are at ease here. Let all of you

Who yet for pain find force and voice
Look on their peace, and rejoice.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

August 26: Resentments, Incredible Hulk, Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things," Adventures of Stickman

There was something else.  As the years passed, little things about life in the city that never used to bother him had him pacing the floor at night:  loud Latin music, frying-food smells, voices chatting into the early-morning hours, the social life that he had previously found so quaint and familial--the men out on the sidewalks watching television in front of the stores, or playing cards or dominoes, or just talking.  Even long after people had begun to forget, when his son's name was rarely mentioned at Christmas Mass, he still felt certain resentments toward his Spanish-speaking neighbors, his amor for the culture and language had cooled along with his heart.  It was a side of himself that he did not like.  He was still very close to Ramirez and his family, but in meeting or coming across someone new who spoke Spanish, he made a mental inventory of qualities over which he passed judgement, and he kept away.

Yes, the kind, gentle-hearted Ives harbors deep resentments because of his son's death.  Those resentments find a focus in his Hispanic neighbors.  Don't get me wrong.  Ives is no Donald Trump.  Ives doesn't want to deport every person of color living in the United States.  Because his son was killed by a Hispanic youth, Ives starts distrusting any Spanish-speaking stranger.  He stays away from them and lets his anger rule his life.

Ives stays angry for a very long time.  I get that.  It's been three days, and I'm still pissed.  It isn't getting better.  To throw gasoline on the fire, I found out today that a new person is taking over as poetry editor of the university's poetry magazine.  That's the job I took over last year.  The new editor was recently hired by the English Department as a full-time, tenure-track professor.

Now, had this happened at any other time, I would have been severely disappointed and angry.  Right now, I'm like Bill Bixby turning into the Incredible Hulk.  I want to destroy something.  Unfortunately, if I say anything to the powers that be, the only thing I will destroy is my professional career.

I'm not enjoying this stage of grief at all.  Anger--especially anger this strong--is foreign to me.  I don't know what to do with it.  Nothing that I want to do is appropriate or legal.  So, I will go to the college tomorrow, I will teach, and I will keep my friggin' mouth shut.

Saint Marty is in survival mode right now.

The Peace of Wild Things

by:  Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

August 25: Slamming the Door, Really Angry, Wendell Berry, "The Silence," Adventures of Stickman

He [Ives] thought about the last time she [Annie, his wife] had come home with one of her pep talks in mind, clutching a New York Times page.  A sleek jetliner was pictured flying over the skyline of London, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace prominent, the advertisement declaring:  "It's Never Been Easier.  Or Cheaper!"  And he looked it over and handed it back to her.

"Well, what about it?" he'd asked.

"Don't you think it would be nice for us to go?"

"Yes, yes . . ."

Then, slapping a book down on the table, a chronic weariness of mind and body hit him.

"Yes, we'll go.  I'll pay for it, and then you tell me who'll pay the bills a year from now if something should happen to me."

"But Ed, we're not badly off."

"That's not the point.  You don't understand, do you?" and he went down the hall into the bathroom, slamming the door.  Then he stood before the mirror, pouring cold water over his face, already regretting his outburst.  Later, when he came out, he found a note.  She had gone off to the movies with a friend.

Ives rarely gets pissed off in the book.  As a matter of fact, as I looked for a passage that showed him angry, I found just this one in over two hundred pages of writing.  Ives simply doesn't get mad.  He's gentle and sad and despairing.  It isn't until a couple of decades after his son's death that he expresses anger, and it's not even directed at Danny Gomez, his son's killer.  It's directed at his loving wife.

I have to admit that I have been really angry for most of the day.  It's not a focused anger.  I'm just irritated by everything and everybody.  I'm angry that I have to create a lesson plan for tomorrow.  I was angry that I had to eat dinner tonight.  That it feels like late October outside.  That my wife is defending my daughter's decision to wear a tee shirt for lymphoma awareness to my sister's funeral.  That I had to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. today because of my teaching schedule.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Even typing this post is an act of anger.  I'm literally stabbing the keyboard with my fingers just to feel the pleasure of striking something hard.  Nothing particular has provoked this rage.  It has simply festered all day long, getting darker and hotter.

For the past two days, I have had to get up at 4 a.m. for work and school.  I'm pretty damn tired.  That certainly doesn't help my mood.  I have to put together a couple photo books for my sister's funeral.  I have to write a poem and a eulogy.  I want to really honor my sister's life, not to turn it into an event for lymphoma awareness.  My sister was so much more than the illness that killed her.  She deserves better than that.

So, there you have it.  I'm pissed.  Angry.  Furious.  Outraged.  Seeing red.  One step away from slamming some doors or throwing my laptop across the room.

Maybe Saint Marty needs to take an Ativan.  It may help him write the poem.

The Silence

by:  Wendell Berry

Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

'It is golden,' while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men's silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Monday, August 24, 2015

August 24: A Good Friend, Poet of the Week, Wendell Berry, "Only His Hands, Quiet on the Sheet," "Ives" Dip, Adventures of Stickman

A couple of days ago, a good friend sent me a Wendell Berry poem after he heard of my sister's death.  My friend thought it would comfort me.  He was right.  It did.

When my siblings decided to bring my sister back to my parents' house under hospice care, I was opposed to the idea.  Strongly opposed.  I wanted her to go to a nursing home under hospice care.  I didn't think my sister with Down Syndrome could handle it, and my mother is very confused.  I also wasn't sure I wanted my kids watching my sister die.  All I could picture were days of suffering and tears.

In retrospect, I know now that I was wrong.  The last days of my sister's life were peaceful and happy.  She was able to speak a little.  Smile.  In her last days, I think she was really happy.

That's what Wendell Berry's poem brought home to me, and that's why Wendell Berry is the Poet of the Week.  Here is the poem my friend sent to me . . .

Only His Hands, Quiet of the Sheet

by  Wendell Berry

Three Elegaic Poems

Let him escape hospital and doctor,
the manners and odors of strange places,
the dispassionate skills of experts.

Let him go free of tubes and needles,
public corridors, the surgical white
of life dwindled to poor pain.

Foreseeing the possibility of life without
possibility of joy, let him give it up.

Let him die in one of the old rooms
of his living, no stranger near him.

Let him go in peace out of the bodies
of his life –
flesh and marriage and household.

From the wide vision of his own windows
let him go out of sight; and the final

time and light of his life’s place be
last seen before his eyes’ slow
opening in the earth.

Let him go like one familiar with the way
into the wooded and tracked and
furrowed hill, his body.


I stand at the cistern in front of the old barn
in the darkness, in the dead of winter,
the night strangely warm, the wind blowing,
rattling an unlatched door.
I draw the cold water up out of the ground, and drink.

At the house the light is still waiting.
An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying
in his bed there. He is going
slowly down from himself.
In final obedience to his life, he follows
his body out of our knowing.
Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep
a painful resemblance to what they no longer are.


He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
clear in the sweetness of his liberty.

The earth recovers from his dying,
the hallow of his life remaining
in all his death leaves.

Radiances know him. Grown lighter
than breath, he is set free
in our remembering. Grown brighter

than vision, he goes dark
into the life of the hill
that holds his peace.

He’s hidden among all that is,
and cannot be lost.

I miss my sister.  A lot.  I regret that I didn't visit her more this past year.  To be honest, I always thought that she was going to get better.  Up until a month ago, I still held on to that hope.  Her dying simply wasn't an alternative.  I couldn't and wouldn't accept it.

And now, I feel like I'm stuck in tar, and everybody else is moving on to higher ground.  It sort of pisses me off.  I'm walking hand-in-hand with grief.  My sister--the one I worked day-in and day-out with for 17 years--is dead.  I'm not ready for the world to keep spinning.  At least not for a few more days.

I started teaching again today.  Usually, I'm happy to get back in the classroom after a long summer.  This afternoon, however, I was performing.  Playing the part of the happy, wise-cracking professor.  The students bought it all.  Inside, all that kept going through my head was:  "None of this is important."  At the end of life, God's not going to care if you know the difference between a comma splice and a gene splice.

My question this Ives dip Monday:

Was my sister happy at the end of her life?

And the answer:

The phonograph music would fill the living room, and she would find her head turning and digging deep into the easy-chair headrest in rhythm to the beat, as if she were a 1940s bobby-soxer, and she would daydream about the time when Robert had used their living room as a rehearsal studio for a kind of jazz group he put together with kids from the neighborhood.  Some knew what they were doing, others didn't, and the neighbors knew it too.  During those sessions he played a snare drum with brushes and foot-tapped a high hat and felt so honored, so formal about jazz, despite his ecclesiastical training, that he used to shine his penny loafter and put on a tie before playing.

That's Annie Ives thinking about a happy moment in her son's life.  A time when Robert really was joyful, playing in a jazz band with his friends.

Saint Marty will take that answer as a "yes."  His sister was happy at the end of her life.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Sunday, August 23, 2015

August 23: Grief and Loss, Completely Insane, Classic Saint Marty, Confessions of Saint Marty


I can only assume that people are getting tired of reading about grief and loss.  I'm sort of getting tired of being sad all day.  And angry.  Annoyed.  Tired.  Distracted.  Disturbed.  Pretty much, if it is a negative emotion, I have been feeling it.

I'm not sure that I'm ready to start teaching tomorrow afternoon.  I just finished my syllabi this afternoon.  Now, I have to sort of get my head in the game,  Figure out how I'm going to make it through the next seven days without going completely insane. 

I have much to accomplish before my sister's visitation on Saturday.  I have a poem and eulogy to write.  I have to assemble a couple of photo memory books at Walgreens.  Tonight, I'm meeting with Father Larry to discuss the funeral Mass.  Pick out the readings and responses.  I think the music is pretty much taken care of.  Then there's the food.  And the holy cards.  And the name plate for the cremation stone at the cemetery. 

As I said, seven days to slowly lose my grip on reality.

Two years ago, I was dealing with a different kind of crisis.

August 24, 2013:  Pneumonia and Die, an Apology, an Appendix

Finally I sat down on this bench, where it wasn't so goddam dark.  Boy, I was still shivering like a bastard, and the back of my hair, even though I had my hunting hat on, was sort of full of little hunks of ice.  That worried me.  I thought probably I'd get pneumonia and die...

Yes, Holden comes close to dying in Catcher.  By the end of the book, he's really sick, mentally and physically.  But he's a survivor.  You never doubt that.  He's going to pick up the pieces of his life and live it on his own terms, no matter what.  I think that's why Holden is such an iconic figure in American literature.  He speaks the truth, and he calls out people who are false in any way.

Well, I owe all of my disciples an apology for pulling a disappearing act these last couple of days.  I swear I haven't been in hiding or on some desert pilgrimage.  I have done a lot of praying, though.  A lot.  But it wasn't deep and theological.  It was more like, "Please, help me, God.  Help me.  Help.  Help."

I ended up in the ER last night after experiencing stomach pain all day.  I got there at 7 p.m., and I was in the operating room by a little after midnight.  I thought it was some kind of gallbladder attack, that I was going to get some pain medication and be sent home.  Instead, the ER doc came in after my CT scan and said, "Well, you have appendicitis."  Pretty soon, a surgeon was standing next to my bed, and within the hour, I was talking to an anesthesiologist.

Yes, I gave birth to a bouncing, pink, inflamed appendix.  I think I'm going to name her Pia, because she's given me quite a pain in the ass.  Hospitals don't keep patients very long anymore.  I was discharged around 11 a.m. today.

I'm sore.  Tired.  Hungry.  And in need of another pain pill pretty soon.  I'm going to try to get back in the saddle pretty soon, but, tonight, this little apology/explanation is all I can manage.  I'll try to be a little more creative tomorrow.

Right now, Saint Marty needs to get his little Pia to bed.

I think she has my eyes

Confessions of Saint Marty

Saturday, August 22, 2015

August 22: Sunglasses, Magge Nelson, Insivible Horse, Confessions of Saint Marty

Walking down the street, Ives could not look into anyone's eyes very long without his inward pain bringing tears to his eyes.  He found himself wearing sunglasses all the time, night and day, and oddly, despite the darkness of his spirit, he wore a large crucifix given him by Carmen Ramirez and let it hang on his chest, visible to all.  He remembered sitting for hours inconsolably in his son's room the night after he had died.  He'd sat there examining a Revell model of a man that his son had kept on a shelf, the outer plastic shell transparent, the organs inside visible.  He remembered when his boy, then twelve and wondering if he might one day become a doctor, had asked him to buy that model kit for Christmas.  And when that Christmas had passed, Ives would find his son lying on his stomach in the living room, with a biology textbook open before him, dipping a brush into one or another small jar of airplane-model paint, trying to capture accurately the colors of the organs.  He saw the miniature liver, kidneys, stomach, intestines, and all the rest set into place, and thought about his son.

Ives finds it difficult being around people immediately following his son's death.  Even the smallest gestures or looks from friends or acquaintances or complete strangers bring him to tears.  He tries to build a wall around his heart, but it doesn't take much for that wall to crumble.  His son is with him always, in people, sounds, objects, toys.

I find myself in a similar situation when I go out in public.  If a friend or colleague gives me a hug or says "I'm so sorry," I can feel my walls breaking down.  It's a strange phenomenon.  I can be walking along, confident and strong, and, in the next moment, I'm an open wound.

I'm sure most of you are tired of me writing about this subject.  But I'm trying to understand grief on many levels.  I'm fascinated how I can switch from incredible sorrow to happiness to anger and back to happiness in the space of a few minutes.  It's as if the wires of my brain have been stripped of their rubber sheaths, and now those wires are pulsing and flashing with energy.

I'm sitting at McDonald's right now, a place my sister came to every Saturday morning before she got sick.  Most of the managers knew my sister.  One manager in particular, whose daughter is in the same grade as my son, came out to give all of us hugs.  And the wires snapped and popped and sparked in my head.  I could feel a flood of emotion rising.

Given time, I know these moments will happen less frequently.  I don't think it will ever disappear completely.  As long as I'm working at the medical center, going to places frequented by my sister, I will find her, in the surroundings and people.  I can't avoid it.  My sister is still a part of my life and always will be.  (When I'm working in the medical office, I still hear her voice in my head, telling me how to do things.)

I don't want people to ignore my loss,  There are a few people at work who have done this, and it feels even more alien to me, like watching the Titanic sinking and saying to a friend, "Isn't it a beautiful night?"  I prefer an acknowledgement, however small or uncomfortable.  Somehow, I find some comfort in those tiny exchanges, as if I'm not alone in my loss for a few seconds.  It's how my sister would have wanted it.

And that's Saint Marty's lesson in the anatomy of grief for today.

100 from Bluets

by:  Maggie Nelson

It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise.  But really this is like hoisting a harness onto an invisible horse.  "There is simply no way that a year from now you're going to feel the way you feel today," a different therapist said to me last year at this time.  But though I have learned to act as if I feel differently, the truth is that my feelings haven't really changed.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, August 21, 2015

August 21: Rise Up, Resurrection, Faith Without Works, Maggie Nelson, Adventures of Stickman

Glorious life ending.  There must have been a moment when his son had gasped for air, the last time, as Jesus must have.  But as Jesus had risen, he wanted his son to rise up, organs and spirit and mind intact, and everything to be as it had been not so long ago.

I understand this paragraph on a much deeper level now.  Ives is grieving.  He wants to rewind his life, go back a few days when everything was bright and promising.  His son heading off to seminary.  The Christmas holidays fast approaching.  Parties with families and friends.  Ives wants a resurrection.

It's a selfish thing to think that life was better, easier, with my sister still alive in a hospital bed in my parents' living room.  In the immediate moments following her death, I was consumed with guilt.  In the past year, I wasn't the best brother I could have been.  I didn't visit her in the nursing home enough.  I avoided going to the hospital when she got sicker.  I put my own comfort ahead of my compassion and love.

Regrets.  I have a lot of them.  Like, if I had maybe been more of an advocate for my sister, perhaps her lymphoma could have been detected sooner, when treatment could have been more effective.  Like, if I had seen her more in the nursing home, she may not have called me on the phone, threatening to kill herself.  Like, if I had just held her hand more, told her how much she meant to me, I could have somehow made all of her suffering vanish.

There are very few resurrections in life.  My writing these thoughts in this blog post will not change anything.  My sister will still be gone tomorrow.  I will still be planning her funeral.  My words are powerless.  The apostle James writes, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

My words are useless.  They will not bring my sister back.  I write a great deal in this blog about being a Christian, but, like James says, faith without works is dead.  I failed this past year many times, as a brother and a Christian.  I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to forgive myself for that, and I will fail.

There will be no fairy tale tonight.  Maybe next Friday.

Saint Marty's words aren't worth a whole lot recently.

183 from Bluets

by:  Maggie Nelson

Goethe also worries over the destructive effects of writing.  In particular, he worries over how to "keep the essential quality [of the thing] still living before us, and not to kill it with the word."  I must admit, I no longer worry much about such things.  For better or worse, I do not think that writing changes things very much, if at all.  For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is.  What does poetry do?--I guess it gives a kind of blue rinse to the language (John Ashberry).

Adventures of STICKMAN

August 20: Supernatural Event, Why, Maggie Nelson, Adventures of Stickman

What did it feel like?  He felt the way that young girl whom he and Annie had once seen falling through the air had felt.  Expression tormented, he spent a long time before the mirror, reading into his own face great foolishness.  He did not like to look back and recall the last days of that other Ives.  He wanted to be drunk.  He had nothing to say.  Getting two weeks' sympathy leave from the agency, he spent much of the time pacing up and down the hall and standing by the windows.  It meant despairing about the supernatural and yet waiting every night for a supernatural event.

That is Ives' way of grieving.  He's angry, confused, and heartbroken.  A devout Catholic all his life, Ives, for the first time in his life, questions God's wisdom and goodness.  I think, in his pacing and staring out windows, Ives is waiting for some sign, anything at all, to provide some sense to a seemingly senseless situation.  He's dealing with the big question that plagues anyone who loses a loved one, especially someone very young.  That question is simply "Why?"

I have been asking myself that question a lot today.  I returned to work this morning.  It was difficult walking into the medical center.  Everywhere I looked, I saw my sister.  Walking through the parking lot.  On the stairs.  In the hallways.  Once, as I was looking out a window on the third floor, I swear I saw her in the rain, in her blue scrubs, carrying her ever-present mug of ice water.

I don't understand why my sister had to suffer so much the final year of her life.  Or why she had to die.  She was a good person.  Selfless, for the most part.  On more than one occasion, when I was strapped for cash to get my car fixed or buy Christmas presents for my kids, money would suddenly appear in my checking account.  Sure, she could be stubborn to the point of exasperation.  In the end, however, if I asked, she gave, no questions asked.

I don't see any divine plan in this big pile of cow shit.  I just see shit.  During the course of the day, I would get hit by a tsunami of grief.  I would sit in my chair or stop dead in my tracks, choked with great liquid sobs.  It felt like I was drowning.  Literally.  Then I would float to the surface again and be able to move.

I know I will never understand the "why" of my sister's death.  It will never make sense to me, and I will have to learn to accept that.  I know God doesn't make mistakes, but, in this case, I think He had better options.  For example, there's a certain billionaire running for President of the United States right now who would have been an excellent alternative, stupid hair and all.

Not that Saint Marty is telling God how to run the universe.

90 from Bluets

by:  Maggie Nelson

Last night I wept in a way I haven't wept for some time.  I wept until I aged myself.  I watched it happen in the mirror.  I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill.  The tears not only aged my face, they also changed its texture, turned the skin of my cheeks into putty.  I recognized this as a rite of decadence, but I did not know how to stop it.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

August 19: Bewildered Expression, 6:27 a.m., Maggie Nelson, Unbearably Vivid Colors

And then Ives blinked and found himself standing on the sidewalk beside his wife, across the street from the Church of the Ascension.  On the pavement, just by his feet, was a large piece of canvas, and under it a body, stretched out.   Then the officer lifted off the canvas and shined a flashlight onto the face to reveal the shocked and bewildered expression of his son.

My sister died this morning at 6:27 a.m.

When I saw her last night, she was breathing hard, each intake hitting her chest like a hammer.  I leaned over, said her name and then, "It's me.  Marty."  Her eyelid lifted, and she focused on me.  I told her about my long day of work.  I told her about classes starting next week.  Just before I left, I leaned over and whispered, "You don't have to be afraid, Sal.  You don't."

When I got to my parents' house at around 5 a.m., my sister was surrounded by the people who loved her.  My mother and father, siblings, nieces, nephews, and best friends.  We all stood around her, touched her hands and feet, told her how much we loved her.

Her breaths got slower, the spaces in between longer, and then she was simply gone.

I thought I was prepared for it.  I thought I was going to hold myself together.  I thought a lot of things.  But, in those moments following my sister's death, I felt an incredible emptiness enter me, as if I had been scooped out like a pumpkin at Halloween.  I wasn't prepared.

It has been about twelve hours since that moment.  I am still not prepared for a world without my sister.  For 17 years, I worked with her.  Eight- and nine- and ten-hour days.  I spent more time with her than any of my other siblings, and we knew each other deeply.  Trusted each other deeply.  Loved each other deeply, without having to say it.

There will be no cartoon tonight.  No laughter.

My sister once said to me, "You know, I wish I was as strong as you."

Saint Marty isn't strong tonight.  He's heartbroken.

98 from Bluets

by:  Maggie Nelson

Vincent van Gogh, whose depression, some say, was likely related to temporal epilepsy, famously saw and painted the world in almost unbearably vivid colors.  After his nearly unsuccessful attempt to take his life by shooting himself in the gut, when asked why he should not be saved, he famously replied, "The sadness will last forever."  I imagine he was right.

I miss your smile

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

August 18: Terrible Darkness, Maggie Nelson, Divine Darkness, Adventures of Stickman

As they happily walked to the subway, they were looking forward to spending a lot of time together at home during the holiday, in the company of family and friends.  Ives and Annie had stopped to peer into a window display of French linen when, just like that, a terrible darkness entered them, and they could not move and stood looking at one another stupidly, on the crowded and busy sidewalk.

Yes, I have used this passage just recently.  It describes the moments before Annie and Ives learn that their son has been murdered.  The implication is that, at the instant that the "terrible darkness" enters them, Robert has passed into eternal life.  It hints at the enormity of the tragedy about to overtake their lives.  Annie and Ives have no idea what the darkness means, but it is powerfully sad, draining away their Christmas joy.

Darkness has always been used to describe moments of profound grief and loss and ignorance.  There's a reason why the Dark Ages was followed by the Age of Enlightenment.  The first period calls to mind a world full of suppression and rigidity, blind faith and blinder reason.  The second period, on the other hand, is the time of Bach and Mozart, Descartes and Voltaire.  Free thought and freer spirit.  Darkness= bad.  Enlightenment=good.

In the Biblical accounts, the birth of Christ is heralded by a immense star in the heavens.  Blinding angel choirs singing "Glory to God!"  Jesus is the bringer of light into a world of sin and darkness.  Again, darkness gets a metaphorical bad rap.

I'm not so sure that darkness is all that bad.  When the sun slips below the horizon, I am more at ease.  My day is over, and I'm able to relax, kick back, watch some mindless television.  For me, I am more myself in darkness.  Able to do what I want.  Read.  Write.  Nap.  Fart.  Whatever.  Darkness is a gift.

Maggie Nelson talks about Divine Darkness in Bluets.  Her description of darkness is comforting.  It's a state beyond sun and seeing, beyond knowledge and wisdom.  It's a place where trust exists.  And faith.  There is something in Divine Darkness that transcends comprehension.  I think that you can either fight it--and go through a "dark night of the soul"--or throw yourself into it--take that leap into God's open palm.

I know that's way too deep for a Tuesday night.  But that's what I'm thinking about.  Comforting darkness.

Saint Marty is going to go see his sister now.  Pray for her.  Let her know that she doesn't need to be afraid of the dark.

159 from Bluets

by:  Maggie Nelson

A good many have figured God as light, but a good many have also figured him as darkness.  Dionysius the Areopagite, a Syrian monk whose work and identity are themselves shrouded in obscurity, would seem to be one of the first serious Christian advocates of the idea of a "Divine Darkness."  The idea is a complicated one, as the burden falls to us to differentiate this Divine Darkness from other kinds of darknesses--that of a "dark night of the soul," the darkness of sin, and so on.  "We pray that we may come unto this Darkness which is beyond light, and, without seeing and without knowing, to see and to know that which is above vision and knowledge through the realization that by not-seeing and unknowing we attain to true vision and knowledge," Dionysius wrote, as if clarifying the matter.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Monday, August 17, 2015

August 17: Dr. Larry, Poet of the Week, Maggie Nelson, "Bluets," "Ives" Dip, Adventures of Stickman

Dr. Larry, the physician who oversees the hospice care, stopped by my parents' house this afternoon.  I worked with Dr. Larry's wife for close to ten years, so his visit wasn't just a professional call.  Dr. Larry sat with my family and answered all their questions.

My mother's biggest worry is that my sister isn't eating or drinking.  Dr. Larry explained that, when a person is very ill, the body produces a hormone that suppresses hunger and thirst.  He told my mother that it was sort of the body's way of dealing with the physical stress.  Yesterday, the hospice nurse noticed mottling on my sister's legs, which can be an indication that blood is pooling and death is imminent.  Dr. Larry examined my sister's legs and said that the discoloration was due to broken blood vessels, not pooling blood.  He isn't concerned about it.  All my father could do was sit in his chair and cry, and Dr. Larry tried to comfort him.

When I stopped by my parents' house tonight, my nephew was sitting by my sister's bed, holding her hand and talking to her.  Her eye was open, and it looked as though she was actually listening to him.  Her jaw was slack, like she didn't have the energy to hold her mouth closed.  After my nephew was done talking to her, I stepped over, took her hand, and told her that I had to give my son a bath.  We had just come from a birthday party, and my son was covered in a layer of sweat and dirt and exhaustion.  "He's a little grease ball," I told her and squeezed her palm.

In her book-length poem (or lyric essay) Bluets, Maggie Nelson, the Poet of the Week, writes about visiting a friend who has been in a serious car accident:

Some things do change, however.  A membrane can simply rip off your life, like a skin of congealed paint torn off the top of a can.  I remember that day very clearly:  I had received a phone call.  A friend had been in an accident.  Perhaps she would not live.  She had very little face, and her spine was broken in two places.  She had not yet moved; the doctor described her as "a pebble in water."  I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming.  In the baby-shit yellow showers at my gym, where snow sometimes fluttered in through the cracked gated windows, I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling in spots, and a decent, industrial blue was trying to creep in.  At the bottom of the swimming pool, I watched the white winter light spangle the cloudy blue and I knew together they made God.  When I walked into my friend's hospital room, her eyes were a piercing, pale blue and the only part of her body that could move.  I was scared.  So was she.  The blue was beating.

I thought of this passage tonight as I stood by my sister, holding her hand, looking into her one blue eye that was open.  I'm not sure if she was really seeing me.  I'd like to believe she was.  I know my sister doesn't want to leave our family.  When she got home last week, as they were bringing her into the house, she said, "I couldn't be happier."  My friend, who used to be a hospice nurse, heard her.  My sister is surrounded by love.  In her eye, I saw profound love.  And profound sadness.  Maybe it was simply a reflection of what I was feeling.  But, like Maggie Nelson says, the blue of her eye was beating.

So, my question tonight for Ives is this:

Does my sister know that she is loved?

And the answer:

...He often awoke with a gasp in the middle of the night, his heartbeat accelerated, his breathing shallow, his heart filled with sadness, his head with memory.

I have to believe that my sister, in her very weakened state, has moments like this.  Moments when she is able to think a little clearly, hear the voices of my nephew or son or mother, and feel both sadness and love.

At least, that's Saint Marty's hope.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Sunday, August 16, 2015

August 16: Small Changes, Wilbur's Heart, Classic Saint Marty, Confessions of Saint Marty

It is strange how much my life has changed in a year.  Today's episode of Classic Saint Marty focuses on small changes--the shortening days, changing leaf colors, resuming school schedules.  The slow slide into autumn and winter.

Last year, I was lamenting the fact that I was still part-time at the university and full-time at the medical office.  I was disappointed with my life.  Dreamed of something bigger, better.  I felt like I'd earned a few breaks from the universe after over 20 years of hard work.

Now, I'm sitting at the dining room table in my parents' house, gazing over at my sister in her hospital bed.  My mother is sitting on a chair beside her, staring at her sleeping face.  Later today, our parish priest, Father Larry, will come to pray the rosary with my family.  All of my complaints and worries from last year seem silly.

I didn't get it last year, but the passage from Charlotte's Web that starts out the post below is really about Wilbur still dealing with his best friend's death.  The bright colors of the maples and birches.  The carpet of fallen apples under the wild apple trees.  The frost in the night.  All those details mirror the winter in Wilbur's heart.

I get that now.  So, I will not bitch about work or teaching this year.  I am healthy.  My wife and children are healthy.  For that, I am very grateful.  While I am still short on cash and long on debt, I am able to work and earn a paycheck.  I have a home with a new roof.  In the grand cosmic scheme of things, I have a wonderful life, and I don't need Clarence the angel to prove it for me.

August 16, 2014:  Changes on the Way, Oliver de la Paz, "A Cupboard Full of Halos"

The autumn days grew shorter, Lurvy brought the squashes and pumpkins in from the garden and piled them on the barn floor, where they wouldn't get nipped on frosty nights.  The maples and birches turned bright colors and the wind shook them and they dropped their leaves one by one to the ground.  Under the wild apple trees in the pasture, the red little apples lay thick on the ground, and the sheep gnawed them and the geese gnawed them and foxes came in the night and sniffed them...

Small changes pile up in that paragraph.  The days slipping away sooner.  Frost under the stars.  Green giving way to red and orange and yellow in the trees.  The harvest of pumpkin and squash and wild apple.  August into September.  Summer into autumn.

Yes, changes are on the way in the next couple of weeks.  In one week, I start teaching at the university.  The week after that, my kids go back to school.  My work hours are going to change.  My kids are going to be going to dance lessons and God knows what else.

At the beginning of the summer, I actually had hopes of having a full-time teaching job at the university.  I dreamed of teaching undergraduate- and graduate-level poetry courses.  I would have been able to set my own schedule for the most part.  Volunteer in my son's class.  Drive my kids to school every once in a while.  It was a lovely vision.

However, none of that came to pass.  I'm pretty much stuck working in a medical office and part-timing my teaching.  If I sound disappointed, I am.  However, I'm grateful that I'm still able to be in a classroom.  It's one of my favorite things in the world.

So, as the nights come earlier and frost starts forming on the pumpkins, I accept the coming changes.  Perhaps something wonderful is just around the corner.

The last Oliver de la Paz poem I've chosen is one of my favorites.  It's about miracles in everyday wrapping.  Opening a kitchen cupboard and finding an angel.  That sort of thing.  Maybe I'm doing things wrong.  Maybe I just need to look for my miracles in different places. 

Saint Marty is cleaning his bathroom tonight.  Who knows what he'll find under the sink?

 A Cupboard Full of Halos

by:  Oliver de la Paz

After he fills the junk drawer in the kitchen with wreaths made from scraps of paper, cloth, and sticks, Fidelito stores new ones in a cupboard above the stove.

He drags a stool from the garage and sets it to reach the place where Maria Elena keeps cookbooks.  In the multi-hued halos go, forced.  Some of them tumble out like hula-hoops onto linoleum.  Others become bracelets and slide down his arms as he reaches up to stop them.

When he closes the door, Fidelito forgets until his mother, ready to cook, opens the cupboard.  They spill to her from the dark, a noise of coins from another world.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Saturday, August 15, 2015

August 15: Fifteen Albums, Midst of Life, Michael David Madonick, "Stork," Confessions of Saint Marty

One of the kids would say that Robert had showed up in generally good spirits around a quarter after four, a little late, and that they joked about the prospect of getting hired to record the theme song to a cartoon show about outer-space hounds from Japan in the new year, work that Ives had gotten them through a connection; that he walked in with a Sam Goody's shopping bag as well as another bag filled with different items, mainly paperback books.  Dressed too lightly for the cool day, he had worn a long black-hooded raincoat and a cap that he didn't like because it messed up his fine dark hair, brown penny loafers and galoshes, a Cardinal Spellman High School senior ring.  During the break he sat around with a couple of his friends in the choir room, showing them the 33rpm records he had bought as Christmas presents that afternoon, about fifteen albums in all.

Those are the details of Robert Ives' final afternoon of life.  Christmas is approaching.  He's a senior in high school.  Loaded down with presents, Robert has plans.  Practicing with the church choir.  Entering the seminary.  Recording a theme song for a TV show.  Robert is surrounded by the promise of the future, as most 17-year-old high school seniors are.  In an hour or so, he will be dead.

I think we're all a little like Robert.  When I get up in the morning, I think about breakfast and work and school.  As I go through the day, I read poems, write a blog post, sometimes clean a bathroom.  In the evening, I'm already thinking about the following day.  The future is always on my mind, and that future does not include death.

Yet, as the Book of Common Prayer says, "in the midst of life, we are in death."  A year ago, I'm sure, my sister was not thinking of death.  She was thinking about dinner and watching The Big Bang Theory.  Sure, she had a broken wrist and back pain, but she still was thinking of a future.  A long future.

My sister is doing well at home.  For the most part, she's peaceful, without pain.  For the first time in a while, she's munching on ice chips.  Opening her eyes every once in a while.  Around her, life is going on as normal.  My dad is sleeping through reruns of Gunsmoke.  My nephews and nieces are playing video games.  My son is having tantrums over bathing.  There's laughter and arguments.  Life.

Today is hot.  It's supposed to reach over 90 degrees.  My brother is taking my son on a fishing trip.  I'm planning on going for a run this afternoon.  A short one.  I'm also playing the pipe organ for the afternoon Mass.  And then we will order pizza like we always do on Saturday nights.  And my sister will be in the midst of all of this.

I'm still not convinced that bringing my sister to my parents' house was the best decision in the world.  However, at the moment, the prospect of my sister going gentle into that good night is not imminent.  She is surrounded by family and friends.  People who love her.  That is a good thing.

Saint Marty is not raging against the dying of the light.  Yet.

          for my father, Carl, who died October 5th, 1998
          and for his great-granddaughter, Anna, born October 5th, 1998

by:  Michael David Madonick

What bird brings grief?  The crow, the raven, some multitude of starlings
rapturing their madness in an oak?  Or is it that simple bird, a sing sparrow

chilled and pouting up against the dawn?  I wonder, when they passed

through the darkness, toward their different light, how my father might
have talked with her, holding her hand, a hand already formed at some

perfect age, at ten or twelve, and his, at thirty or thereabout.  In our time,

it wasn't long, five hours, maybe six.  But time enough, I think, for a walk
along the boardwalk near Rockaway, for something to eat, time for my

father to tell his great-granddaughter how he never liked walking

on sand, particularly on hot days, such as this, but that she should try it,
not keep back from the waves where they both could see some ghostly

sooty gulls trace their wings across the phosphorescence of breaking

sea.  And Anna, with her perfect mouth, might thank my father
for the chocolate milkshake she had no idea she loved.  He would

have spoiled her like that, in that short time, but not without warning,

not without the undertow, the jellyfish, the lost hooks that even there
good fishermen lose to things beyond their dreams.  He'd have warned her

until he left, disappeared from Ft. Lauderdale, in the chimney smoke

of the crematorium's Monday afternoon, where like a painting, a painting
assembling itself against the unframed canvas of sky, a large bird would

form, tall and strong, no flimsy phoenix, he wouldn't have that, not even

in dream, he'd make a more useful bird, something of his smoke, that
could carry the practical, the precious, across the confusing distance

of the in-between.  It could carry six pounds, almost seven, and when

it landed nearly breathless in Vermont, against my daughter's breast,
she'd be happy, scared and warned.  Such is that early crying, that distance

from the beach.  Such is that bird that did my father's work.  It is made

of grief.  In a year or maybe twelve, I'll bring her chocolate by some
beach, she'll look at me, and me at her, as if at something both of us


Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, August 14, 2015

August 14: Complete Sadness, Sulky Daughter, Michael David Madonick, "The Asp," Spoiled Fairy Tale, Adventures of Stickman

They had gotten there about a quarter to five, and she had to be home at seven.  But when she checked the time again it was twenty to the hour.  That's when Kirk brought out a paper bag and filled it with the contents of a thirty-cent tube of DuPont model glue.  Burying his nose in the opening, he suddenly flew back as if someone had smacked him in the head with a two-by-four, laughing wildly.  Then he gave her [Ives' daughter, Caroline] a whiff and she found herself circling overhead, her thoughts whipping along, propelled by the chemicals, the feeling of strangeness multiplying when he clicked off the light and lit a candle, and then brought her out of that dark blue and black atmosphere into reality.  She opened her eyes and realized that he had his hand up her skirt and that the crawling sensations inside her were caused by the clumsy groping of several of his fingers, and while one part of her seemed interested and flattered and excited, another part of her disliked every last bit of what was happening.  And she would remember how, at about seven fifteen or so, as she had stood up and pulled down her skirt and looked for the light, a sensation of utter and complete sadness abruptly rushed into her, lingering there and then suddenly vanishing.

As the father of a teenage daughter, I find that passage about Ives' daughter, Caroline, difficult to read.  Caroline is testing the waters of freedom.  Without her mother or father's permission, she goes to the apartment of a couple of boys she barely knows.  The boys are older, carry an air of sophistication and danger.  Of course, they're simply teenage males, guided by hormones and stupidity.  Caroline huffs glue, blacks out, gets groped.  And then, at the exact moment her brother dies on a city sidewalk, Caroline is consumed by an inexplicable darkness.  Basically, in a single paragraph, Oscar Hijuelos describes the biggest nightmares of all fathers of teenage girls.  Drugs.  Strange, horny boys.  Sex.

My daughter reads my blog to see what I write about her.  She thinks that I depict her as a sulky, fourteen-year-old girl.  Quicksilver in moods.  Embarrassed by the fact that I breathe next to her.  Stubborn and angry at any suggestion that she clean her room or spend more time with her six-year-old brother.  Tortured by anything that she deems childish or unworthy of her matured sensibilities.

I think her assessment of my descriptions of her is a little unfair.  Sure, I have applied the adjective "sulky" to her on occasion.  Overall, however, I focus on her kindness, intelligence, beauty, and grace.  She has been my pal since the first night she came home from the hospital and peed in my mouth in the middle of the night as I was changing her diaper.  I like to think we share a special bond.  When my wife and I were separated for a year, I volunteered in her kindergarten classroom, braided her hair into long ropes, took her to dance class, and held her at night when she cried in bed for her mother.  She was my girl, my companion in the war zone of my life.

Of course, I know my daughter has to figure out who she is.  She has secrets now, does things that would probably give me nightmares if I knew about them.  She resents having to be an altar server at church.  Every Saturday, around 4 p.m. when it's time to leave for Mass, she flies into a rage.  (I don't think she's possessed, but I haven't ruled out contacting an exorcist.)  Even getting her to go to a private dance lesson, which she used to love, is a Shakespearean tragedy.

I love my daughter.  I miss the closeness we used to share.  That's what I want to say tonight.  She's still beautiful, intelligent, graceful, and kind.  However, right now, I feel like I'm just the owner of the laptop she wants to use.

Once upon a time, a kind king named Oliver had a daughter named Gretel who was his pride and joy.  King Oliver gave Princess Gretel everything she wanted.  He never said "no" to her.  Gretel wanted a diamond bed, Oliver gave her a diamond bed.  Gretel wanted a sailboat made out of chocolate, Oliver gave her a sailboat made out of chocolate.

King Oliver and Princess Gretel were very happy for a very long time.  Then, Gretel turned fourteen.  Suddenly, Oliver could do nothing right.  Gretel wanted a pony, and Oliver gave her a pony.  "But I wanted a brown pony, not a stupid white pony!" Gretel cried.  Gretel wanted to go on a vacation, Oliver arranged a vacation.  "But I wanted to travel by horse carriage, not by a stupid boat!" Gretel whined.  She wanted to have a party for her friends, Oliver threw a party for her friends.  "But I wanted everything to be draped in pink, not stupid green!" Gretel wailed.

One day, Princess Gretel said to her father, "Daddy, could you please build me a new castle?"

King Oliver had had enough.  "No, my dear, I will not, because I will build the wrong kind of castle.  It will be the wrong color or be made of the wrong bricks or be surrounded by the wrong kind of moat.  I cannot satisfy you.  Ever.  You are a spoiled, thankless child."

Princess Gretel started to weep, and King Oliver built her a new castle made out of onyx.  When she saw the castle, Gretel fumed, "I wanted a castle made out of jade, not stupid onyx!"

Moral of the story:  King Oliver was a friggin' moron.

And Saint Marty lived happily ever after.

The Asp
          for Maria

by:  Michael David Madonick

My daughter is fixing her face again, the Saturday
night ritual that takes a thousand pencils
to draw arcs above her eyes, all part of her generation's
markings, along with the new tattoo,
the one I've barely seen, that scrolls along the lower
region of her back, seen when she's
deigned to pet the dog, a fleur-de-lis, toward
provinces I'd rather not think about,
or the flippant gestures of tinted hair, the over-done
dime store glitter, the precarious
mole.  She has not yet succumbed to the piercing
of body parts, the eye-brow, the
tongue, the spike through the cheek, at least I have
not seen them, but I am not so naive
as not to suspect more sensitive areas may already
be skewered.  What can I say?
I'm only her stepfather.  She walks over me like
Cleopatra over one of her bolted
rowers.  But I see something, even through the planks,
through the varied masks of her
labored deceptions.  The odd alignment of her eyes,
the bright wonder that since
she was four could light a room or two, a small city
perhaps, stars.  Beauty.
I'm never sure about that.  But here, in the den, shackled
to the remote, I'll shift stations idly
and look at the way the odd glow maneuvers about
the room, catching in the scalloped
fish-net curtains, or on a silver frame in which a tarpon
nearly comes to life again, or
that fluted celadon porcelain bowl, the whole time
waiting for her to come down
the stairs, to yell at her, the inevitable, at the too-
short skirt, the four-dollar
three-inch heels, the halter top, all the silly accoutrements
that make a man distracted
from the issue.  Simply, and she will not hear it,
some people are compasses
and others row.  She'll storm from the house, and
her mother, who guides some
larger ship, will side with patience, the wind, while I,
gripping the gunwales
of my chair, will sit and later drift the better part of night,
till then, when I hear her
footsteps on the deck, her hand on the door, and I'll snap
at her again for breaking
curfew, for slamming the door, for stomping up
the stairs, for everything
and anything that at that moment comes to mind and
heart.  But never, never do I yell
at her for all that rowing, that damned rowing I do, circles
in a straw basket when she's gone.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Thursday, August 13, 2015

August 13: Michael David Madonick, "Iris," King Kong, Terrible Darkness, Adventures of Stickman


by:  Michael David Madonick

About the lip
there is an edge.  More
to the point, an edginess,
not so nervous as to be
construed as shy, but an
inclination, nevertheless,
toward the ascetic.  The clam
belly's undulant scallop, or
Jessica Lange that instant before
Kong came raging
through the wood.  Tied up
in beauty and in rope, it never
wants to give what it seems
to show.  And he, however
soft his hairy hand, is bound
by her music, to fall
asleep, then

Yes, I'm changing things up a little bit.  I wanted to start with Mike Madonick's poem, simply because it sort of captures the kind of day I've had.  The poem is about being on the edge.  The trees of the jungle trembling, hiding the giant ape about to burst through.  The lip of the flower hiding something pink and beautiful.  Or deadly.

Tonight, I went to the funeral home to make some preliminary arrangements for my sister's funeral.  It wasn't half as difficult as I anticipated.  The two sisters who accompanied me actually stuck to the plan we decided upon last night.  There wasn't bickering, raised voices, or name calling.  It took about 45 minutes.

Back at my parents' house, our parish priest came.  Father Larry brought a stole used by Frederic Baraga, first bishop of Marquette, who died in 1868.  Bishop Baraga is on the road to sainthood.  Currently, he has been given the title "Venerable," which is the first step toward canonization.

Father Larry wrapped Bishop Baraga's stole around my sister's head and chest.  We prayed over her.  Every person in the room (12 in all) laid hands on her.  Then Father Larry anointed her with chrism.  Finally, we recited a rosary. When I looked over at my dad, he was weeping.  It broke my heart to see him.

It was strange to go from planning my sister's funeral to praying for her recovery.  Like in Mike Madonick's poem, I feel like something's approaching.  Something huge.  But I can't see it in the trees.  It might be a miracle--my sister sitting up in her bed and saying that she's hungry.  Or it might be death--a phone ringing in the middle of the night in a dark room.

Ives and Annie experience something similar the night that their son dies:

As they happily walked to the subway, they were looking forward to spending a lot of time together at home during the holiday, in the company of family and friends.  Ives and Annie had stopped to peer into a window display of French linen when, just like that, a terrible darkness entered them, and they could not move and stood looking at one another stupidly, on the crowded and busy sidewalk.

Ives and Annie have no idea what the darkness means.  One minute, they're doing a little Christmas window shopping.  The next, they're filled with inexplicable dread.  Something big is approaching, and the trees are shaking.

Saint Marty is praying for a miracle, but he's preparing for something darker.  Heavier. 
King Kong-sized.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

August 12 Photograph, Memory, Michael David Madonick, "Because the Deer Have Come to Rest," Adventures of Stickman

Nothing monumental transpired.  Niceties were exchanged.  Polite conversation.  What could be said?  Gomez's continuing struggles were evident in the expression and manner, in the very setting.  He did show Ives the shelf filled with the books that Ives had sent him years ago and spoke appreciatively of what he had done.  He was proud of his education and hard work, but what with times being difficult, money was hard to come by.  He sometimes looked down at the floor.  As for Ives, he left a parting gift for Daniel Gomez to open later, a photograph of his son, Robert, at seventeen.

Danny Gomez is the man who, as a teenager, murdered Ives' son, Robert.  Over the years, while Gomez was in prison, Ives sent him letters and books and presents.  At the end of the novel, Ives agrees to meet Gomez, as a gesture of healing.  Forgiveness.  At the end of the meeting, Ives gives Gomez that picture of Robert, young and full of promise.  I don't think Ives is trying to be cruel.  Quite the opposite.  Ives is entrusting to Danny his most precious possession:  the memory of his beloved son.

Tonight, I sat down with my siblings to discuss the details of my sister's funeral.  It wasn't an easy meeting.  Each person had very specific ideas of how our sister's life should be celebrated.  One sister, adamant:  "She does NOT want to be buried."  Another sister, just as adamant:  "I want a TRADITIONAL Catholic prayer on the back of her Mass card."  A third sister, triply adamant:  "I DON'T want that song at the Mass."  It was like arranging a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine.  Several times, the talks broke down, but, in the end, we hammered out a deal.  And tomorrow evening, I will go to the funeral home to make the arrangements.

I understand why emotions were running so high.  We all want our particular memories to be honored.  I have memories of my sister singing in the church choir.  That's why I'm being so stubborn about picking out the hymns and music.  That was something I shared with my sister.  Something that sort of binds us together in my mind.

Memory is a tricky thing.  Mike Madonick captures its slippery nature in the poem below.  Memory, he writes, "will not hold."  It morphs over time.  Mellows.  Becomes fuzzy around the edges.  In a few years, maybe my recollection of the meeting I had tonight with my sisters will change.  Perhaps, thinking back, I'll remember it with laughter.  One of my sisters mentioned a company that turns a loved one's cremains into a sculpture.  My response:  "That's a little creepy.  Well, I'm just gonna dust off Sally now."

Tonight, however, Saint Marty feels like he's been through a hostage negotiation, with everybody trying to save their particular memories.

Because the Deer Have Come to Rest

by:  Michael David Madonick

The big snow stayed on the ground and rabbits,
for two weeks, tore at the trees, a high watermark,

that years from now we'll point at, say to someone
who cannot help but listen, a grandchild maybe, a

new neighbor, See here, that was the storm of '99,
the snow stayed for almost a month and the rabbits

ate the bark.  I'll forget the wind and maybe the three
starlings that fell asleep on the edge of the chimney

and came down the furnace like pubescent dreamers
into the heat.  I'll probably forget the fact the house

got so cold the windows and the door frames arched
with ice and that the dog, though not old enough to

fairly complain, balked at her morning walks.  I'll
forget the deadly fear of watching my son, when

the snow started to melt, stand straight under a three-
foot icicle that formed from the roof drain and he took

like some drunk sword-swallower the drops of water
that looked completely benign.  I'll forget a lot about

the snow because that is what the snow does, it's
a damper, a tarp, the cheesecloth over the headstone.

But when it all started to melt, when the weird weather
came, in its fog and thunder, and lightning behind it, when

the dog went pulling on her chain from the door because
a rabbit stood stunned on our green front lawn:  I'll remember

my wife, who has seen everything, who knows the names
of wildflowers and the odd colors of light that disperse

like magic or pain through sleepless stained glass--I'll
remember my wife standing at our kitchen window looking out

into the field whose white-caps of snow were giving
to green.  I'll remember her, her mouth wide open, like

some child at a circus seeing more than she could take in,
I'll remember asking her what she saw and that she said,

The deer are lying down, I've never seen that before.  I'll
remember that and that the worst of the snow, and the

starlings, and the dog, and my son under the icicle came
on the day my father was born and it was three months

since he died.  I'll remember that there are things that
happen dead in the woods and that only in strange

weather will be given to sight.

It will all go bad.  I know that.  My memory will not hold, the rabbits
will get slow, my dog will be carried away, and my son will only
remember the ice that falls, the dangers that have come upon him.
But I will know, deeply as the wounded trees--marks are made on a
life, and mine, in '99, because the deer had come to rest.

Adventures of STICKMAN