Sunday, May 19, 2024

Trinity Sunday sermon



          For most of my career, I’ve been able to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday.

          At St. James in Charleston, West Virginia, I had a retired priest helper and a deacon, so they got Trinity Sundays.

          At St. Paul’s in New Haven, I had lots of seminarians to assign the day to.

          At St. John’s in Waterbury, there were clergy aplenty—active and retired, seminarians and a lay assistant to give Trinity Sunday to.

          At my time in the Middlesex Cluster all I could do was call in sick or mumble a non-sense sermon on this day.

          At Trinity, Milton, there is a lay-reader that covers for me one Sunday a month. Guess whether I let him have Trinity Sunday.

          It’s time I faced up to the Truth—the Trinity baffles me and I don’t know what to say on this day.

          Two stories that give proof to my point.

          Eldridge Cleaver, in his autobiography Soul on Ice, tells how, when he was in prison, he saw the opportunity to be in a Roman Catholic confirmation class. He knew it would get him out of his cell for a couple of hours a week, so he signed up.

          At some point the priest who was leading the course asked if anyone could explain the ‘mystery of the Trinity.”

          Eldridge was about to raise his hand after a time of silence and say something about ‘three-in-one oil’ when the priest proclaimed, “of course you can’t, it’s a ‘mystery’!”

          Cleaver dropped the class.

          A second story.

          St. Augustine was on a beach pondering the way to figure out the Trinity, when he saw a small boy, with a bottle on the shore.

          The boy was actually an angel!

          Augustine went over to him and said, “what are you trying to do?”

          The boy/angel answered “I’m trying to get the ocean into my bottle.”

          Augustine laughed and said, “You can’t get the ocean into that bottle!”

          And the angel boy replied, “then how can you seek to comprehend the Trinity?”

          And, along with his bottle, disappeared.

          Three in one and one in three makes very little sense to me.

          One plus one plus one is three—not ‘one’. Yet in the doctrine of the Trinity, all three are One….

          But ponder this: one times one times one is One!

          The Trinity defies our logical mathematics.

          Paul writes to the church in Rome: “and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

          All I can pray for is that hope and that love and that the Holy Spirit will pour into our hearts.

          In my blessing at the end of each service, I don’t say ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’—I say instead, ‘God, our creator, Jesus our Savior and the Holy Spirit, our companion.’

          That’s the best I can do about the Trinity.

          I just hope it is enough….



Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Rhododendron is blooming

 We have Rhododendron by our back deck, our front porch and in our front yard.

It is blooming and is glorious.

It is also the state flower of where Bern and I are from--West Virginia.

Or as natives there say it: 'West by God Virginia'.

Both our children were born in Charleston, WV, while I was priest at St. James Church--an all Black Church. Not enough Black priests in the Episcopal Church....

Neither Josh or Mimi grew up with any racial discrimination in them.

Josh even married an Asian woman.

So, I'm glad that was where they were born and how they turned out.

And the trees are blooming and glorious.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Eliza like a light



          “If the sun ever fails, hold fireflies in your hand for warmth.”

          Eliza cupped the greeting card in her hand as she might hold an antique, demi-tasse cup, a pink and cream piece of coral, a fledging chickadee, rescued from a cat.

          “If the sun ever fails,” she said, unaware of the woman beside her looking at baptismal cards, “hold fireflies in your hand for warmth.”

          “That’s lovely,” the woman said—her singular face half-holding a smile.

          Eliza flinched and turned.

          “I’m sorry,” the woman said, “I didn’t mean to…I…the words are lovely.”

          Composing herself, glancing back at the card, Eliza said, “It is isn’t it? Lovely, I mean.”

          Smiling crookedly, the woman nodded. Her thick red hair was pulled back. Eliza no longer envied hair, but she noticed the earrings—tiny gold crosses. Perhaps she should know the woman, Eliza thought, experiencing what Dr. Spitzer called “the illusion of familiarity.”

          “Your disease is so present to you,” Eliza heard his nasal, New York accent, “that you feel everyone else is thinking about it too. So total strangers will look familiar, like an old friend.”

          Before going to the counter, the woman said, “Well, God bless you,” as if Eliza had sneezed.

          Eliza thought how odd it was to be in a Logos bookstore. She was a church goer, a devout Episcopalian—but she never frequented religious bookstores. She remembered walking down Chapel Street through the unexpected warmth of the October afternoon. She remembered, with amusement, inserting plastic in the Yankee 24 machine in exchange for $60. And she remembered visiting the florist to send Edward Adams flowers for tomorrow night’s dinner party. But, for the life of her, she couldn’t remember entering the bookstore.

          It must have been the card. Eliza had grown to expect reasonableness from serendipity. “For anyone walking around with a time bomb inside,” Dr. Spitzer’s voice echoed in her mind, “things that ‘just happen’ no longer seem random.”

          Obviously, the card had called her into this shop. That much was clear. Everything else would make sense eventually.

          HOLD FIREFLIES IN YOU HAND FOR WARMTH, Eliza repeated to herself. The card was enclosed in a plastic bag to protect the fine paper from finger spots. Eliza imagined slipping off the covering to hold the card against her face. The bag reminded her of flash-frozen vegetables, boiling in the bag; herbs from Derosas’, done up and sealed; packages of Special Bull Dog Blend she bought for Walter at the Yale Pipe Shop; the tuna sandwiches she once fixed for Bobbi’s lunch, always despairing of getting the zip lock closed; bags of cat-eye marbles her brothers carried around as children. But most of all Eliza was reminded of Bobby Delgato’s body bag.

          Three months before, in late July, Charles and Eliza came back from Cape Cod for a Treatment. Barbara—young, attractive, well-known to Eliza—had been her nurse that day. Barbara was especially cheerful. Eliza debated whether that meant that Barbara’s on-again, off-again affair with the resident from Kentucky was going well or whether she read the lab reports and the cheerfulness was obligatory. It was not a mean-spirited wondering—Eliza was well past all that. She was flying on automatic pilot, remembering Dr. Spitzer’s wisdom that those around the terminally ill are ‘always dealing with their own psychic tension.’

          Back in her clothes, exhausted from dressing, Eliza reflected Barbara’s mood. “Another day, another dollar,” she said. Barbara’s laugh was giddy, almost too silly for a nurse. (It must be love,) Eliza told herself.

          “Oh, Mrs. Cummings,” the young woman said, “you’re always my brightest patient.”

          “Radiology’s super-star,” Eliza answered. “The darling of the cat-scan crowd.”

          Barbara disappeared behind the curtain, laughing softly. Not the first time that’s worked, Eliza told herself, and added, without anger, but perhaps the last.

          While Eliza was at the hospital, Charles had run by his office to ‘check up on things’. When he returned, he would be wearing his best picking-up smile. Invariably as afternoon, he’d say, “we beat them again, didn’t we Cookie?” His eyes would be beagle said.

          Late at night, roused by nausea, Eliza often sipped Perrier in bed, watching Charles. She eventually decided the sadness was as much in her looking as in his eyes. Dear Charles, sleeping so soundly, with what dreams? What dreams?

          That day the routine had moved quickly and Eliza had a half-an-hour before Charles returned. Keyed up, she wandered the familiar basement of Yale-New Haven Hospital, walking off nervous energy, wondering when the nausea would come. Eliza no more resented the side effects of her illness than the sadness in Charles’ eyes. Nausea anticipated was simply less inconvenient.

          Opening a door she thought would lead, underground, to the Memorial Unit, Eliza found herself with a naked young man, encased in a plastic bag, lying on a table. She resisted the instinct to flee and stared instead. His face—pale, all the way to yellow—had a two days growth of beard. Hair and nails, Eliza remembered, had life of their own. And he was still. There was no movement at all. None.

          Robert Delgatto, 22, was dead and bagged, like so many egg shells, milk cartons, bean cans, wet paper towels, coffee grounds, orange peels, wine bottles….Eliza read his name and age from a small tag double-bound to his ankle with a gum band and an almost transparent length of suture.

          Fully aware of the extravagance of her invasion, Eliza circled Robert, looking for wounds. She did not see the neatly closed incision under his hairline where the pathologist had found an inexplicably ruptured artery in the young man’s brain. Robert’s brain was now room temperature—62 degrees Fahrenheit. Eliza shivered from the cold, blaming the chill on her audacity.

          She touched Robert’s left arm through his body bag. He was reptilian, enclosed in a plastic skin not unlike that of a lizard—but not porous. Not porous.

          All that flooded back to Eliza as the woman with red hair left Logos, clutching her baptismal card, thinking of new life, a baby. Eliza held the IF THE SUN EVER FAILS card as she would hold Sunday morning’s only egg. She wondered about composing a letter requesting that she never be in a body bag. Dying did not horrify her any more. “Dying is like a dinner party, just a part of life,” she had said in her group a year-and-a-half before and recently read the quote in Dr. Spitzer’s latest book. Death held no terror: what happened to her body did.

          Charles never wanted to hear Eliza’s concerns about embalming, body bags, someone worrying about which wig looked most natural. In the first few months after her diagnosis, Eliza often dreamed about her blood being drained after her death. In those dreams she watched her blood—flame red, monotonous—being pumped away.

          “What will they do with my blood?” she once asked Charles, after a graceful private dinner and a lot of Chablis.

          “Oh, Cookie,” he said, his voice laced with pain and sadness, “oh, Cookie….”

          Eliza never asked again. But often, long before dawn—vision swimming, stomach churning, head pounding—she wondered.

          At inappropriate times, Charles would ask, “we’re winning aren’t we Cookie?” In those moments Eliza would see him as something inexplicable—a monolith on Easter Island, a ‘tertium quid’, some unnecessary genetic experiment—but invariably, she would smile and nod.

          “Today, tomorrow, always,” she would say.

          Eliza took five of the cards. That was just enough, though she didn’t know it then. She carried them to the counter and paid in cash--$1.33 each and 7% for the governor. That’s what Bobbi always said when they shopped together. “Seven percent for the governor.” Eliza wondered how many times she had heard her daughter say that? Where had Bobbi heard it? Whether she would always say it.

          “Lovely cards,” the clerk said as Eliza looked through her purse. “Lovely.”

          On the cards a couple ice skated, properly old fashioned. The man, dark and tall, was not unlike Robert Delgatto. The woman, lithe and fair, could have been her daughter, Bobbi. He wore a mourning coat and she had a long, petticoated skirt, with a hat like ever one’s grandmother wore in her youth. Both skated on their right foot, left legs lifted, having just pushed off. The man’s left arm held the young woman, and both stared, transfixed, at something glowing in her cupped, gloved hands.

          The skaters reminded Eliza of the skaters on her mother’s sturdy kitchen salt and pepper shakers. The man had been pepper and the girl salt. Eliza, as a child wondered if men were ‘peppery’ and women like salt—like the earth, like Lot’s wife, like the Truth? Or could it had been reversed by changing the shakers’ tops?

          On the front of the card, above the skaters, it said, in simple calligraphy: IF THE SUN EVER FAILS.

          Inside, the same script said: HOLD FIREFLIES IN YOUR HAND FOR WARMTH.

          Eliza pushed her money—a five-dollar bill, two ones, two dimes and four pennies, warm from the bottom of her purse—across the counter.

          The young clerk after ringing up the sale. He was close-shaven, short-haired, and as earnest as the Book of Proverbs. “Well, God bless you,” he said, looking at Eliza’s money, “correct change and 7% for the governor.”

          After arriving home an hour beyond her energy, Eliza rested, dropping in and out of sleep.

          Dreams, for over a year, had come fitfully, in images of doors of rude wood; frogs and flying squirrels; blood red flowers; strange, athletic, girlish men and wizened old crones. She walked wooded paths with a crippled dwarf carrying a basket of fresh pears. She found herself submerged to the lips in pale, yellow fluid full of shrimp like creatures who nibbled painlessly at her body. She stood on dizzying heights, looking down at incredible vistas full of pomegranate and pine, bristling with life, a golden monkey on every branch, waiting for her to jump out and be welcomed by those dream trees. She sat alone in a dark room, knowing that several feet in front of her, humming with life, was a mythical tree trunk—circles of age after age spinning in the darkness like a child’s top. Those memories lasted only until she was fully awake. Her dream life was encased in plastic, sealed and set aside.  But she would dream and remember, once more before becoming a dream herself.

          At 6:12 p.m., between fits and starts of sleeping, the ferrets gnawing away at her innards propelled Eliza to bolt upright in bed. Sudden tears rolled down her cheeks. Through the haze she saw her room and tried to gather it all in, holding mementos like much loved things to be left behind for a voyage.

          She focused on a photograph above her chest of drawers. Charles and Bobbi, sitting in a dingy, smiling up at the camera, about to embark. She could not remember the context—where they were rowing to or why—but she could remember feeling the dock beneath her bare feet as she moved, the sun on her back, to take the picture. A long-forgotten splinter returned to her right big toe. A gull rose with the wind, falling to skim the surface of the sea. It was sunset. Bobbi was eight and had been asking her questions about periods and having babies when Charles arrived to announce the improbable boat ride to God remembers where.

          Just as on the dock, Charles came again.

          “You’re crying, Cookie,” he said.

          “Yes, crying…” she answered,  beyond lying.

          “Does it hurt, Cookie?” he asked, sitting on the edge of the bed, rocking her like the sea beneath a rowboat. “Where does it hurt?”

          “Nowhere,” she said, meaning it, then adding: “everywhere…and especially here.” She touched her chest.

          “Are you up for the party tomorrow night?” Charles asked.

          Eliza tried to remember which party he meant. In her mind a moth was working it’s way out of a cocoon, breaking through, seeking air and space and life itself.

          “I’ll call Edward and tell him we can’t come,” Charles was saying, just as the moth’s wings, still wet and fragile, were spreading in her mind. The memory of Edward’s face intruded into her fantasy. Edward Adam’s rough, handsome New England face was creased with sun and pain lines from a chronic back problem. But his face was always open and inviting to Eliza, framed in a doorway, welcoming her into his home. Eliza had for years called him “Edward, the Host.”

          “No,” she said, “don’t call. I’ll be fine. Just some sleep, some Spitzer wisdom about never missing a party, some rest. I’ll be fine. We need to celebrate.”

          How easily Charles would lunge at hope. Before he left, he only smiled, kissing her forehead, but his eyes spoke the words: “We’ve beat them again, Cookie.”

          {Rondo relaxed. If her disease had a name, Rondo was it, but names were not a part of her kind. She gathered up the moth, just about to take wing, and the cocoon, now as flat and useless as a forgotten question, and removed them from Eliza’s mind.

          From near the rowboat picture above the chest of drawers, Rondo had watched Charles kiss Eliza’s forehead. It was easy now not to be inside Eliza, not to be working, not to be ‘connected’. Rondo knew, in the way her kind ‘knew’ things, that soon there would be endless space and the swimming torrents of oblivion. Rondo relaxed. It had been a long time since Charles had kissed Eliza on the lips. Rondo, in the way of such beings, did not ‘wonder’ why and could not have known, that unaware, Charles feared the Darkness of Rondo could pass through the lips, the mouth, the tongue.

          Rondo had been there when the kisses had been different. (It was years before Rondo was discovered by the cancer doctors.) Rondo remembered—if memory could even obliquely describe what Rondo did.

          After Charles left, Rondo moved inside to do her work so Eliza remembered the Logos bag.}

          The first card was for Edward, the Host.

          “Goodbye, my friend,” she wrote. “You have been hospitable to me—welcomed me and made me feel at home. I am glad that the last of my nights in this life was spent at your party. Grieve not. Rejoice and be glad.”

          She signed it: “Eliza, like a light.”

          Eliza stared unbelieving at the words she had just wrote. She had not meant to write them and considered throwing the card in the waste can. Then she remembered more of Mordechi Spitzer’s  wisdom—“trust the moment when few are left.” She addressed the envelope and took up another card.

          “Dear Peter,” she wrote. Smiling, her eyes closed in unacknowledged pain, Eliza pictured him as he would stand beside her coffin. He was a short, gnome-like man, prone to mis-dress, whispy hair never quite combed, smelling of the breath mints he always feared he needed. His surplice would have wine stains and his white stole slightly uncentered. Long after the funeral people would be so moved remembering how he rested his hand on her casket as he spoke of Eliza’s life and the promise of God that they would forget how halting, inconclusive, almost  inconsequential his words had been. He was not a speaker or a typical Episcopal priest—something too blue-collar in him, too public school, too unpracticed. But as Eliza imagined him there, beside her body, she was glad it would be him.

          Trying to dampen her dry lips with a dry tongue, she continued writing.

          “You have the information about the service. This is something else. This is about you and me and how much I appreciate—how very much I appreciate—your ministry. Does that sound too formal? I know you’ll understand and realize I mean your love, your care, your cure.

          “You know more about my disease than anyone without a medical degree. You always listened, as so few would. I often would feel guilty about burdening you with the gristly details. But what’s a priest for after all?

          “This, for what it’s worth is to, is to say thank you and goodbye.”

          She paused, wondering briefly if Fr. Farmer was used to getting cards from the dead—if he would tell Marta, his wife, about it. Would he keep the card and find it, years from now, when packing to move to a new church? She smiled once more, amused at how the mind kept on pushing forward, toward the future, like an art moves always straight ahead, driven by instinct, climbing over rather than going around, as if waiting to be found.

          “Eliza,” she signed it, “like a light.”

          She delayed writing the last three cards, shuffling through the papers on her desk. A bill from Macy’s. Form letter from Taft School where Bobbi was a senior. A flier from the New Haven Symphony describing upcoming performances and urging season’s tickets. Eliza laughed out loud at that. She found a recipe from Mary Harkness for veal with scallions.

          “Why ever did Mary give me a recipe?” Eliza said to herself. Eliza hadn’t cooked in three years, yet people kept giving her recipes, as if time for Eliza stretched out over an endless repetition of veal and scallion dinners and late nights around her table with friends.

          Mary Harkness and Eliza had known each other for 20 or was it 22 years. They had raised children together, spent weekends in Vermont together, played tennis endlessly at the Lawn Club. Mary had been a friend B.C., ‘before cancer’—according to Dr. Spitzer’s life line dating—who had never crossed over to A.D.—after death notice. The only thing that Mary had ever said to her that revealed she had seen Eliza’s hair falling out, her eyes sinking, her finger nails turning snow white, was this: “Eliza, if I may ask, do you vomit a lot?”

          Memory and amusement flooded back. They were in Mary’s pantry—a year before or so—searching madly for bitters in the liquor cabinet so a visiting British academic could have the drink he ordered. Mary was a Vassar graduate, wife of the Dear of Arts and Sciences at Yale, an equestrian of no small note, a patron of the opera. Friends with the Bushes, Mary knew a nickname for the Vice President that would have made him faint if called out at a State Dinner. She bought all her clothes at Talbot’s, knew the ‘absolutely appropriate’ wine for any dish, had teeth so straight and white they looked sculptured from Italian marble, and acted—as Bobbi once remarked—“as if all bad taste was a personal affront.”

          There was Mary, on her knees shifting Grand Marnier and Bombay Gin bottles, looking for bitters that “I just know are here somewhere,” stopping to look up at Eliza and ask, in her best Poughkeepsie, Kennebunkport, New Haven accent: “Eliza, if I may ask, do you vomit a lot?”

          At the time, Eliza had been so shocked, and, in a disarmingly genuine way, so gratified that her disease had been acknowledged, that she answered, truthfully. “Hardly ever,” she said, “though it might be better if I did.”

          They never found the bitters. The Englishman settled for Port. And Mary never mentioned Eliza’s disease again. Not once.

          Eliza, had there been time, would have considered what she might have said to keep Mary on that other side with her, rather than have her drift, as some of her friends did, bourn by familiar waves, back to the blank stares and denials of Before Cancer.

          Eliza and Charles had agreed, early in her illness, not to return invitations. But driving home from Mary’s dinner party, warmed himself by Port, Charles had suggested the possibility of something small—two other couples for a light meal. Eliza stuck to her guns. “How would it look,” she asked him, knowing it would end the conversation, “if you had to call from the emergency room and say, ‘I’m afraid there’s a problem about tonight…you see, Cookie is dead.’” She had so completely captured the inflection and cadence of his voice that Charles laughed, in spite of himself.

          Eliza chuckled at the memory, rocking in her chair.

          Bobbi stuck her head in the door. “What’s so funny?” she asked, delighted to find her mother laughing. She stepped into the room—tall, slim, perfectly tanned. Eliza never understood how Bobbi invariably maintained a mid-summer glow.

          As Bobbi moved toward her, Eliza saw her daughter, as if in mirrors, reflecting backwards. Bobbi was in diapers, in tears on her first day of school, at her first violin recital, in the dingy at the Cape, breathless and smelling of life after her first date, at the spontaneous picnic Edward Adams had arranged on a deadly August Sunday five years before because ‘nobody’s left in town.’ That day, with Bobbi almost 13, Eliza had not yet felt the cold-chill, deep-down pain that took her to the doctors…that day, Bobbi had worn her first two-piece bathing suit. Edward Adams, looking up from the Sunday New York Times at Bobbi playing in the light surf off Long Island Sound, said, “you know, Eliza, that child makes me long for heterosexuality.”

          Until then, Eliza had not noticed Bobbi’s fierce femininity. She was still all elbows and knees and angles, but she was powerfully sensual—tan, leggy, her thighs two inches apart at their apex, newly forming breasts high and firm, like a runner’s. Form that moment, Bobbi was a woman to Eliza, a peer, another female to comfort Eliza with softness against the night.

          Eliza turned and started to rise. An unanticipated rush of pain forced her back into the chair. Bobbi saw it and her face went blank. Her eyes never took on the Charles’ dog-like sadness. Bobbi’s eyes were always calm, emotionless, and in their emptiness—compassionate. She crossed the room in four effortless strides and enfolded Eliza in her arms.

          Downstairs, Charles was on the phone with Edward, assuring him Eliza would Eliza would be well enough to come to dinner. He never knew how Bobbi and Eliza embraced and laughed through tears of terrible loss. Such tenderness, perhaps, is best left to women alone.

          OH, ALL OF IT…Eliza said, holding Bobbi near, ALL OF IT IS SO FUNNY.

          They were both crying, both laughing. Eliza held her woman-child, hoping that someday it would occur to Bobbi to tell a daughter of her own about that moment.

          Eliza was happy. And tired. The exhaustion came suddenly. Bobbi helped her into bed.

          While Bobbi and Charles ate omelets with bacon and mushrooms and Charles drank half-a-bottle of white wine downstairs, Eliza slept and had her last dream.

          A moth sat, wet-winged on the branch of a myrtle tree. Eliza did not know it was a myrtle tree, but it was, to the last detail. {Rondo knew well the myrtle, and it was Rondo who built this dream knowing who Eliza was and from something else besides.}

          The moth had never flown. It had just emerged from the cocoon and was trembling in the breeze. Eliza reached out for it and felt the tiny sticky feet on her hands. She held the moth up to the dream-sun and saw, through wings of brown and amber, an indescribable light. With the memory of that light clutched greedily to her soul, she slept in darkness, sweet and utter.

          “How about some breakfast, Cookie?” Charles asked her when she awoke. The sun was so high that the room was in mid-day shadows. Eliza was hopeless when it came to directions. But once, when she was in the hospital full of pain and resentment, Father Farmer had visited her and said, “this is an east facing room. Must be hard to sleep late here.

          “Hard to sleep at all when you hurt this bad,” Eliza had replied, bitterness burning from the inside out.

          Peter coughed, sniffed, shifted in his chair. “Well,” he said, slowly, uncertainly, bravely, “I guess there is that too.”

          Trying to calculate the time that day, Eliza considered Peter’s words. ‘Strange’, she thought to herself, ‘but comfort uninvited runs like a tide.’

          To Charles she said, “what time is it?”

          “Almost noon,” he said, “time to be up and at ‘em.”

          Eliza started to say, ‘I’m not hungry’, but seeing the look on his face, she said “toast and tea would be nice. The herb kind.”

          Charles touched her face—an absent-minded reflex, but one that filled her up with love for him. She noticed that his hand was clammy and rough and thought about his days ahead, not waiting on her.

          “You aren’t at work,” she said, “where’s Rosa?”

          He seemed to laugh. “Saturday, Cookie,” is all he said leaving to brew her tea.

          Slowly she roused herself. Nothing wanted to move. {Rondo gathered darkness away like a blanket from a bed.} Eliza felt the way extremely drunk people felt—as if her body was not quiet a part of her, an alien thing. When she moved her tongue against her teeth, it stuck. LIKE A HANGOVER, she thought, though she had had very few hangovers in her life. The thought was intuitive. She had cards to write. And a party to go to at Edward’s house.

          The third card was finished when Charles returned with tea. It was for Richard Lucas, as associate professor of English, who Eliza knew from St. Stephen’s. She had assumed he was a southerner until he told her, almost angrily, “I’m an Appalachian, Eliza. That’s not the same. Believe me, not the same.”

          Eliza considered sending the card to Dr. Spitzer instead. She hardly knew Richard Lucas, doubted if anyone knew him well. He was shrouded in impenetrable mountain mists. Eliza had spoken to him at church two dozen times, mostly at social events. Even if the conversation were but a sentence or two, he always made her feel refreshed. She knew he would be at Edward’s dinner party—Richard and Johanna, his dark, serene wife. A former nun someone had told her. Perfect, she had thought, a mountain monk and an ex-nun, delighting herself with the observation.

          A year and a half before, at some parish pot-luck, she had found herself at one of the round tables near the edge of the room with Richard and Johanna. While Richard was at the dessert table, their two-year-old daughter started complaining to Johanna. Without missing a word of conversation, Johanna lifted her sturdy daughter, undid her blouse and nursed her. Eliza floated free in the moment, as if suspended in body temperature water, her soul hovering, anticipating something more.

          Later that same super, she and Richard were alone at the table. Everyone else gathered around a piano, singing favorite hymns. Richard looked at her and said, in a voice like a mountain stream, “You’ve got cancer, haven’t you?”

          Shocked to silence, she nodded.

          “My father died last month,” Richard said, moving scraps around his plate, no longer looking at Eliza. “I kissed his mouth as he died. He was in a coma and his mouth was hanging open. When I kissed him, I tasted his last breath.”

          Eliza started. She did not hurt, but she was afraid. Her soul floated free and listened.

          “It tasted sweet,” he said, again looking at her again. His eyes were wide, hazel and amazed. “I do swear it,” he said, and she knew he said it for her—“it tasted sweet.”

          “Dear Richard,” Eliza had written. “I am kissing that mouth now. And it does, I swear it, taste sweet. Eliza.”

          She sealed the envelope and addressed it. Then slowly, with much care, she parted the damp flat and took out the card. After her signature she wrote— “like a light.”

          Before clearing her writing desk and putting her life in order, Eliza wrote the last two cards. One for Charles and one for Bobbi.

          Eliza winced when she touched the fine paper of the cards. It was important, she knew, to do it right. She nibbled a piece of Pepperidge Farm thin-white toast, sipped cooling tea, knowing all the while about first things being first.

          “Dear Charles,” she wrote, “we did beat them, you know. And I love you. Enough said. Cookie.”

          After more consideration, she only signed Bobbi’s card—“Love, Mother.”

          IF THE SUN EVER FAILS…HOLD FIREFLIES IN YOU HAND FOR WARMTH. That would be, Eliza knew, enough for Bobbi.

          {From then, except for a laughing moment in a doorway the next night, Rondo slept…though ‘sleeping’ is a poor metaphor for what Rondo did. When what may to called ‘Eliza’s light’ went out, Rondo would be fully present. A journey to begin.}

          Eliza paid the Macy’s bill; wrote a check for $25 to the YWCA, asking to be taken off the mailing list; sent three month’s of pledge to St. Stephen’s and carefully balanced her checkbook. She cancelled the New Yorker since Charles never read it, and informed the Lawn Club that she would not attend the November membership luncheon. She threw away all the circulars and junk mail of three-week accumulation. The notice from Yale-New Haven radiology about her next appointment was folded carefully and placed between page 460 and 461 of the Book of Common Prayer. Those pages contained prayers for doctors and nurses and prayers for a sick person that Eliza knew by heart and would use no more. It pleased her to think of such a nicety all by herself.

          Eliza had never felt so alone. It was new rather than oppressive. She was isolated within her mortality. No one else knew, but she was counting hours now—not years, months, or days but hours. With that knowledge, she gathered dirty clothes from various chairs and hooks and placed them in the laundry hamper just inside the bathroom door. Her mind was clear, clean. Her thoughts crystal, precious.

          Would Rosa wash the clothes next Wednesday, like always and take the woolen things to Jet Cleaners? Would Rosa make routine into ritual?

          Eliza remembered the women who had shaped her life done her work since Diagnosis Day—three years, two months, a week and four days before. Eliza hadn’t believed the doctor—not for a moment. “three months” he had said, patting her hand and showing his teeth to Charles in a determined gesture. “Six months if you’re lucky.” That was unacceptable. Eliza would outdo that, if for no other reason than it was too presumptuous. Riding home with Charles, Dr. Spitzer’s number clutched in her hand, she realized that doing the dishes and washes and cooking and cleaning the silver and polishing the furniture would have to go. So the first words she spoke after hearing her death sentence were to a cleaning service she found in the Yellow Pages.

          Four ‘girls’ came and went within six weeks. They were either too slovenly or too uncommunicative for Charles, who seldom talked with Blacks or Hispanics without Ph.D.’s. He grew increasingly impatient, but one night—somewhere between girl three and girl four—Eliza told him, “I need this, Charles, this is part of the agenda, a way of fighting back. Trust me.” And, not surprisingly, he had.

          Tiffany stayed two years, moving in, becoming part of the family. Tall, ebony, and beautiful, Tiffany was a refugee from Lynchburg, Virginia. Eliza had imagined Lynchburg to be near Atlanta until she looked in a Rand McNally Atlas one morning after Tiffany challenged her geography. They became friends. Tiffany went with them to the Cape and learned to swim in the chill north Atlantic. They introduced her to lobster and taught her how to cook. Charles never fully surrendered the kitchen to her, but, in the end, she could cook almost as well as him.

          Once, in a bad time, when the disease was ravaging Eliza faster than the physicians’ skills and her determination could burn it away, Eliza had a cloudy dream about Charles and Tiffany. She found them in a room at the end of a long dream hallway, passionately entwined on the couch from Charles’ study. For several months Eliza pondered that dream, thinking how wondrously inexplicable it would be if, after her death, Tiffany stayed on, sharing the life she had come to love and frequenting Charles’ bed. Had there seemed time to do it, Eliza would have written it all down and hidden it away, to eventually be discovered. Melancholy was her constant companion in those months.

          But Tiffany met a graduate student from Nigeria—a gentle, kind man who Eliza eventually forgave the African appreciation of body odor. Tiffany conceived his child and he took her back with him to his home in a dark, dusty land.

          The day before they left for Africa, overcoming her shyness, Tiffany partially undressed and laid on Charles’ couch—the couch of Eliza’s dream—so Eliza could lay a trembling white hand on that black swelling belly. The taunt, young skin gave Eliza life. She drew strength from the slumbering child, from it’s potential, it’s strange future.

          Then Rosa came—fifty and fat, half-speaking English, newly from San Juan. Her husband had died suddenly and she came to New Haven to live with nieces and nephews and a younger sister. Rosa became the mother of Eliza’s will to live. She was never the apt student Tiffany had been. The coffee was always too strong, the fish overcooked, the desserts disastrous. But what she lacked in cooking, Rosa made up in caring. Stranger in a strange land, acquainted with grief, sisters of loneliness—Rosa and Eliza grew close. They seldom talked—the language barrier seemed to become stronger with time, but they exchanged glances. Rosa would shake her head and sigh when she noticed the look of an unanticipated pain in Eliza’s face or recognized Eliza’s sudden anxieties. Rosa would cross herself and say “Mother of God” in Spanish. Through anguish, Eliza always laughed.

          Rosa would stay, Eliza knew. She would unpack Bobbi’s clothes from Taft and repack them for Smith in September. One day she would bounce Eliza’s grandchildren on her knee. And, to mourn Elilza’s parting, angry with the impertinence of death, Rosa would take the woolens to the dry cleaners. Undressing for her last shower, Eliza knew Rosa would wash those dirty clothes, fold them reverently, and put them neatly away, baptized by tears, in drawers that would be long unopened.

          As Eliza pinned back what was left of her hair, she unexpectantly thought of Robert Delgatto. Once she had found his family in the phone book, remembering his father’s name from the obituary the day of her visit with Robert. At the time, she considered sending them a note—I MET YOUR SON ONCE, HE WAS A WONDERFUL BOY. I KNOW YOU MUST MISS HIM. Luckily, she thought better of it.

          Like an explorer stepping onto an unnamed continent, Eliza stepped into the shower. Soothed and calmed by the hot water and familiar smells, she thought to herself: ‘Eliza, like a light.’


          Edward’s party gave Eliza a reservoir of strength. She ate well, without nausea, buoyed by three glasses of Edward’s finest sherry—one before dinner and two after. Enthroned on a comfortable couch, Eliza spoke with other guests, as if granting them an audience. Mary Harkness was there, asking Eliza if they would meet at the Lawn Club luncheon, chattering about a new sailboat they were considering seriously. Eliza touched Mary’s hand as she was about to go for another drink. “I was looking at your veal recipe,” Eliza said. “I wish I had time to try it.”

          Mary laughed, nodding at someone across the room. “You will, dear,” she said, “I just know it.”

          Edward spent time with her, sardonically and woeful and quoting T.S. Eliot since it was his 50th birthday party. Marta and Peter Farmer visited for half-an-hour, one on either side, giggling like children because Marta thought she might be pregnant and it was still a secret. Richard Lucas, between outrageous tales about his mountain relatives, told Eliza that he was working on a new writing that might turn out to be a novel and she was in it. Edward’s latest friend was charming, confessing to Eliza his undying affection for things Italian. A man who designed costumes for Long Warf Theater and a woman who counseled AIDS patients talked to her about their lives and became new friends. With the innocence of children and smiling warmly, they left her with a cherry, “see you soon.”

          Her evening ended, as Eliza imagined it would, beside Johanna Lucas. Portuguese, Eliza decided, judging from her skin tone and the darkness of her eyes. Portuguese, Eliza decided.

          “I have something to ask of you,” Eliza said, reaching for her purse, “something I need you to do for me.”

          Johanna sat absolutely still, waiting. Eliza found the cards and handed them to her as if passing something at the table. “Would you mail these, one is to your husband and the others, well, to other people.” Eliza grew suddenly nervous, unsure, confused. Johanna took the cards and held them with both hands near her heart.

          “When should I mail them?” she asked.

          “After I die,” Eliza said and took a deep breath.

          Johanna did not blink. “Certainly,” she said.

          Tears filled Eliza’s eyes. Like so much of life, Johanna’s answer was unexpected. She could not name the feeling. Since ‘thank you’ would have come out awkwardly, she said, “I seem to have forgotten the stamps.”

          Johanna smiled and touched Eliza’s hand. Eliza looked into those dark Iberian eyes. “I’ve had other things on my mind.”

          “A dollar twenty-five,” Johanna said. “You can owe me.”

          Later, when everyone was by the door, a swirl of people, leaving—Johanna embraced Eliza and asked,  in a whisper, “Is this goodbye?”

          Johanna smelled faintly of garlic. Eliza realized that many people she had loved in her life smelled, faintly, of garlic.

          Then Edward was there, hugging her. Eliza turned back to Johanna, speaking over Edward’s shoulder. “Yes,” she said, “yes.” And because of the noise, she repeated it, laughing.

          {When Eliza laughed, Rondo stirred, shifted, rested again.}

          Somewhere in the doorway, full of people departing, Charles called out, “Ready to go, Cookie?”

          “Yes,” Eliza said. “Yes.”



















Blog Archive

About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.