Tonight was the Cluster's annual service of "Remembrance and Support". It is designed to be an outlet for people who, in this season and rush and forced gaiety, have suffered loss that makes it difficult for them to live into the 'holiday season'. In fact, the hurried time of buying and selling and giving and receiving of this time of year--the carols in the mall, the lights everywhere--make them feel even more alone and full of grief.
It's a lovely service. There are readings from scripture (Comfort, Comfort my people from Isaiah among them. And prayers about loneliness and loss and sadness and then, after a chant from the folks at Tazai, people write down names of those they have lost to death or conflict and other things they've lost and bring them up to light a candle while someone reads the names and concerns.
Quite lovely. This year, the planners asked me to do a homily. I did it without notes but I'll try to capture it's essence here.
Memory is one of God's greatest gifts to us. Memory anchors us to the world and to who we are and whose we are. Memory ties us to the past and to the present and to reality itself. I know, for myself, and I suspect for many of you, that I would rather lose my life than lose my memory.
Tonight I want to tell you about my father's death. He died almost half my life ago. My mother died even earlier--I was only 25 when she died. My parents were in their 40's when I was born. They had given up on having and child and then...there I was! In southern West Virginia in those days, my parents were the age of my friends' grandparents. They were older.
My father was a 'farm boy' until he became a 'coal miner' and then fought in WW II. He was in a unit that built bridges across rivers so Patten could drive his tanks apart and then my father helped blow up the bridges. A strange kind of 'engineering' job for sure.
One night in February of 1983, I think it was, my father called me at 2 in the morning. He told me, "your friends are here and they're going through my things. If they don't stop, I'm going to get my gun!"
I asked him to find one of my 'friends' and let me talk to them. He was gone for a long time and came back to say, "I can't find them now...."
Something had snapped in my father's mind. Something frightening. I told him I'd be there the next day. So I flew from Hartford to Pittsburgh to Charleston, West Virginia in a snow storm. The WV State Policeman at the entry to the West Virginia Turnpike from Charleston to Princeton, listened to my story and let me drive on. "But the turnpike is officially closed," he said, "so if something goes wrong don't expect to be rescued anytime soon."
When I got to Princeton, I found a pay phone. Remember pay phones? And called my father. I told him to take his pistol and put all the bullets on the table with the pistol open so I could see it through the kitchen window. I went to his house and he'd done just what I asked.
He was a mess, psychologically and physically, so after a few days of doing business: getting me on his check signing list, putting his house on the market, stuff like that, the two of us went back to Connecticut.
Bern and I hoped he could live with us in the Rectory at St. Paul's, New Haven. He loved to walk so I took him around the block and told him he could walk that as much as he wanted but he could never, ever cross a street. And that worked for a while. But one day Bern called me at the church and said, "you're dad's been gone for over an hour".
So I circled and circled the block, looking in all the stores and didn't find him. Then, several hours after he'd left for his 'walk' I got a call from a bus driver who had completed his route all the way across the city at the Yale Bowl. My dad had given him my phone number. He's been riding that bus for hours, without paying, but the bus driver had decided he was harmless and let him ride.
So, within the week, he was in a nursing home in Hamden, a town next to New Haven. He was there for several years. His dementia progressed rapidly to the point that he seldom recognized me. He thought I was his cousin, Ralph, or one of his brothers. Which was fascinating since he'd talk to his cousin or brother about me! That was the most positive thing about his dementia...I finally got to know what he thought of me....
He was an 'escape artist'. They finally had to tie him in a wheelchair at the nursing home so he just wouldn't walk out. But he'd stay by the door and when someone came in he'd ask them to hold the door and off he'd go, pumping his wheel chair as hard as he could.
Once he somehow got himself stuck in the elevator. The nursing home called me and told me they didn't know how he'd be when the elevator guy got him out and asked me to come. I was standing in front of the elevator doors when they opened. My father looked at me and said, "why did you put me in there?" I had to laugh.
Then he had a medical problem and had to go to St. Raphael's in New Haven. I went to see him and we had the most cogent conversation we'd had in years. It was wonderful. He seemed so much 'the way he used to be'. After a long while I said, "Dad, I'm going home", and he responded, "Oh, I'm going home soon too." If he had been a parishioner I would have sat right down in the chair again and waited because I would have known it wasn't a 'dementia statement' but a hint of what was going to happen next. But he was my father. You can't be a doctor to your family and you can't be a priest either.
I drove home in about 10 minutes and when I walked in the phone was ringing. My father had died while I was driving. He'd gone home.
My daughter Mimi, who was 8 or so, hugged me and said, "Daddy, you're an orphan". And I was.
There are lots of stupid things people say when someone dies. "He/she is in a better place" is one of them--"what better place? They aren't with me!"
But one thing I've heard people say when someone dies is this: "they'll live on within you". That's where memory comes in and why it is such a precious gift from God.
I want to tell you about an image I stole, from, of all people, Garrison Kellier. Garrison once talked about All Saints' Day by referring to the altar rail in an Episcopal Church. Just imagine that when you knell at this rail and look to the left, you see, out to infinity, all those who came before you and when you look to the right you see all those, yet unborn, who will be One with you in the future.
That is truly, the 'communion of saints': we are all one at that railing. The Eucharistic Prayer I'm using at Emmanuel this Advent has a phrase that goes something like this: "and those we love who are separated from us now are present to us in this mystery...."
Memory allows that to happen. Loss and pain and suffering are all part of memory. But I've been dreaming of my father lately--and it's been good to be with him. He lives on within me.
The pain never quite leaves, when people die. But the memory of the good times is healing.
God wants to comfort us and soothe us and heal us.
We and those we love but see no longer live together in the heart of God.
We do. Remember. And be comforted and soothed and healed this night by the God who loves us best of all and hold us in the very heart of who God is.....Amen.
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