SOME PEOPLE (i)
There was a wonderful newspaper cartoon called “Kudzu” by Doug Marlette (also an award-winning political cartoonist) that featured, as one of the main characters, a rotund preacher who always dressed in black, with a string tie and a huge hat reminiscent of Mexican padres. He was a cynical, self-serving minister who developed what he called “a ministry to the fabulously wealthy” and pandered himself to a rich Southern bigot. Of course this cartoon took place in the south where such characters as The Rev. Will B. Dunn are in large supply. Rev. Dunn and the strip’s title character, an angst ridden teenager named Kudzu Dubose, often had philosophical and psychological discussions while walking down a dusty country road. Kudzu would sometimes tell the pastor deep secrets, looking for guidance. Once Will B. Dunn responded by saying, “Son, don’t ever tell that to another living soul!” In spite of his unorthodox counseling advice, Rev. Dunn often said, “Human Relations is my field….”
In a way, Human Relations is the only ‘specialty’ of the last generalists we call “parish priests.” Once, when a friend, surprised to know I worked more than one day a week, asked me what I did on days other than Sunday, I told him, “I walk around and talk a lot.”
In fact, I walk around and ‘listen’ a lot too. Language and presence are the only real tools of parish ministry, so far as I can see. And it is the involvement in people’s lives that defines the role of a priest. A cynical way of putting it that I’ve heard too many times is this: “Hatch ‘em, match ‘em and dispatch ‘em.” Baptism, marriage and funerals are the statistics I can count for what I do, but it possibly just ‘being there’ that matters most, if it matters much. When I’m not being skeptical, I imagine ‘being there’ in people’s lives matters a great deal. The rest of the time I wonder….
HOWARD AND LEE-ANN
Howard and Lee-Ann showed up one day for the Eucharist. I knew Howard because he frequented the Soup Kitchen from time to time and though he didn’t see like the typical guest, he was on a margin somewhere. From time to time he’s help out the Sexton or work in the parking-lot for big services, telling the overflow cars where they might go. He’s a big man who’s partial to wearing faintly western clothes—cowboy boots and hat, a fringed leather jacket, little boa-ties with a skeleton steer’s head as the clasp to hold the string together. He was an affable and humorous man without a steady job: one of the wanderers on the earth that pass through St. John’s. But I couldn’t, for the longest time, figure out why he wandered.
I found out from someone that he had once worked in construction, high up stuff on bridges and buildings that paid a handsome salary. I asked him about it and he told me that no one would hire him any more.
“How come?” I asked.
He smiled, “I tend to fall too much….”
It seems that he had fallen several stories twice, a couple of years apart, and ended up unconscious for a few days the first time and a few weeks the second time.
“I guess they thought the medical costs were too big a risk,” he told me. “Bosses don’t like paying for intensive care.”
Some time later, I asked him about his comas, which is what they were, after the falls. He was a bit vague about it all, but told me something remarkable. “I guess I wasn’t through with the work after the first time,” he said, growing uncharacteristically somber, “so they needed me to fall again so I could finish it.”
Question him as I might, he couldn’t tell me who “they” were or what the details of the “work” of being unconscious was all about. However, he was adamant that a coma is a place where things go on in a different sphere, a different level of existence that being awake and walking around. And it wasn’t like dreams—after his falls his dreams became more and more vivid, but ‘the work’ wasn’t dreamlike, it was ‘real’ in a way as real as being conscious is. I’ve tried to imagine all that in a dozen ways. Sometimes I’d come up with a new metaphor and check it with him.
“Was it ‘work’ like physical work?” I asked once. “Did you have to ‘do’ things? Who told you what to do?”
He grinned a crooked grin that by then I realized was most likely the result of brain trauma, and shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said, closing his eyes and trying to picture it in his mind. “Something like that, but not exactly. And they never told me who they were….”
I imagined them as angels who met him on some plain between existences and encouraged him to finish something he needed to do in his mind or his heart. That made Howard laugh until he had to wipe his eyes. “It sure wasn’t heaven,” he finally told me, “or very holy at all.”
So, I went away to think about it some more. At least I had a reason why Howard didn’t seem inclined to hold jobs and sought out the soup kitchen from time to time. Falling 40 feet or so and landing on your head once, much less twice, must have jumbled things up pretty well. He would never discuss the medical procedures he underwent. Either he was embarrassed about how much his brain had been tampered with by surgeons or he honestly had no idea what they had done to him while he was doing his coma work. Once I knew the story, I did notice suspicious scars and indentations on his head and places where hair hadn’t grown back. And I began to suspect that his craggy, just out of line face hadn’t always looked that way but was the best the doctors could do with what the falls had given them to work with.
I never thought of Howard as an ‘unfortunate’. He seemed to have a sunny and optimistic disposition and genuinely enjoyed his life, such as it was. I’d occasionally see him in the back of the church on Sundays and I could tell when he reached out for the bread that his hands were the hands of someone who had done a great deal of physical labor. He almost always had tears in his eyes when he received the sacrament and would grip my hand with both his when I laid the wafer on his palm. His hands were huge and powerful. I didn’t feel sorry for Howard at all. Then Lee-Ann showed up and I came to almost envy him.
Lee-Ann was from a whole different world than Howard. She was a teacher, obviously smart, very well-spoken and dressed like a middle-class woman of 40 something. When they came to communion that first day she was in church with Howard, his eyes were brimming over and he was smiling like a crazy man, beaming, radiant. “The look of love” was all over him, breaking out from deep within and almost illuminating him. Howard was in his 40’s as well and had never married or, to my knowledge, ever been serious with women. But that day, kneeling beside her, glancing at me and then at her, he was like a child who had discovered something wondrous beyond compare, like a man who found a treasure in a field or a pearl of great worth. Everything about him spoke loudly. “Look what I found!” he was saying, without speaking a word.
Interestingly enough, that first Sunday I saw them together, there was an interment of ashes in the Close. When St. John’s congregation approved the idea of burying ashes in our court yard, after a loud and unexpected debate, a committee laid out a parcel of ground where the ashes would go. It is discretely marked off with four stone markers that create a rectangle 6 feet by 15 feet or so. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d never find that burial plot—that was one of the stipulations of the committee. Since St. John’s is in the middle of a city and the Close is a place of heavy traffic, the committee didn’t want people to be able to find the burial spots lest they do something untowardly or disrespectful to them. So, the rule was: “all ashes interred will be interred in the designated area.”
That Sunday I was breaking the rule, much to the chagrin of some folks, and interring some ashes next to the church, under a Tiffany stained glass window that depicted an angel choir. I’ll get to ‘why’ I broke that rule somewhere else—suffice it to say that Howard and Lee-Ann witnessed the interment in a place it wasn’t supposed to happen.
When Howard introduced me to Lee-Ann, after the cremains were poured and the prayers uttered, she was wiping away tears and told me how moving she thought the interment had been. We talked for a while and then they went off, hand in hand like two teenagers, down the sidewalk to Lee-Ann’s car. They became regulars at church after that and got involved in things Howard had never considered doing before Lee-Ann. They were fixtures after only a month or so. I can see them at the coffee hour in my mind’s eye, leaning against each other, talking to people. Howard bloomed in the wonder of his great good luck and in a few months they came to me wanting to be married.
All during their pre-marriage sessions, I couldn’t keep a smile off my face as I asked the questions I ask and encouraged them to talk about their lives and their relationship. I don’t think I’ve been, before or since, in the presence of a couple whose devotion was so palpable. It wasn’t just Howard who had found a treasure in an unexpected field and was willing to give everything he had to that treasure. Lee-Ann was no less smitten. During the months I knew her she seemed to grow 10 years younger—her middle aged good looks transforming into an ageless beauty. And I had no doubt that it was love that did the wonders for both of them.
Usually, when I ask a couple at the first session, why they want to get married, I tell them there is only one ‘wrong answer’. And when they say, “we’re in love” I tell them that is the one wrong answer because love will go away. I don’t do that in a crass or cruel way, but it is important to me that people realize that like any ‘emotion’, love comes and goes. My skeptical assertion is only to lay the foundation for suggesting that marriage requires “commitment” more than love—so that when those bad times come, times romantic love can’t manage alone, there is something else to rely on. “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” is, after all, what the vows say. And I just want to be sure that the couple understands that romanticism and infatuation and sexual attraction might not be enough to manage that without something nearer the bone, something like ‘a choice’ you make rather than what you ‘feel’.
I’ve had lots of couples balk at my suggestion that love might not be enough to forge bonds to withstand the realities of life. And, at least I don’t go as far as my friend, John, a psychologist who tells people in pre-marriage counseling that the moment will come when they realize it “would all be better if the other one would die right now.” I suspect that moment occasionally shows up in the course of a life-long relationship, but I soft-peddle it by telling couples that love comes and love goes and love comes again and that it is in those times when love seems to be on vacation that they must reach down and let the choice of being committed take over.
Howard and Lee-Ann smiled broadly at my assertion about ‘love’ not being the right answer. They looked at each other and glowed. “Don’t worry,” Lee Ann said, “we’ve got it handled.” And I must admit that I believed them completely.
Lee-Ann’s teenage daughter from a previous, unfortunate marriage started coming with them to church. It was obvious that she was as taken with Howard and her mother was. The three of them struck me as a remarkable “fit’—perfectly at ease with each other, gently teasing and totally committed. Lee-Ann, I decided, was absolutely correct: the three of them had it handled.
The celebrations of a marriage tend to run together over time, but I remember clearly the exchange of vows between Howard and Lee-Ann because they were both crying and laughing at the same time as they tried to repeat what I told them. And everyone in the church that day was crying and laughing as well. I don’t remember anything quite like it.
So, you obviously realize by now that something as astonishing as the way these two star struck lovers had found each other (when neither of them had any intention of stumbling across such joy) must end in profound tragedy and loss. We are all skeptical enough to imagine the falling of ‘the other shoe’ and cynical enough not to believe in Fairy Tales with “happily ever after” conclusions. And so it did.
On their honeymoon, Howard and Lee-Ann were white water canoeing when their canoe capsized. It took Howard a few minutes to find his feet since the water was rushing and the rocks were slippery beneath him. But he came up, sputtering and laughing, realizing he was in less than three feet of water. He told me much later that he looked down stream first, thinking he probably regained his footing before Lee-Ann, knowing in so little water he could see her orange life-jacket and her golden hair. He waited for a few moments and then began to call to her, and look at the banks of the river—only 12 feet wide or so at that point—expecting to see her bruised but laughing, soaking wet, waving from on the shore. When he didn’t find her there and realized the other canoes in their group had negotiated the spot they had capsized in and were almost out of sight downstream, a terror--made worse by its unexpectedness--suddenly gripped his heart and he started running upstream, as best he could, slipping and falling and swallowing considerable quantities of the roiling stream because he kept yelling, “O God! O God! O God!” over and over again, reverting to that most simple and primal of prayer forms that disaster drives us to pray.
When the others realized Howard and Lee-Ann were no longer with them, they pulled into the bank of the river and rushed through the woods back up stream. I was told, not by Howard but by someone who claimed to have heard the story from another of the white-water group, that it took three men to drag him off her, on the side of the river where he had dragged her limp body and tried everything to revive her. Howard broke one of the men’s jaw and did damage to them all until he collapsed in a shattered heap that the EMT’s carried out on a stretcher and delivered the two of them—one dead, one praying for death—to the nearest hospital.
Two legends persist: Either Lee-Ann struck her head and was knocked unconscious, face down, or somehow her life jacket tangled on the rocks and held her under until she drowned. I can only pray it was the former and she did not have to experience the unrelenting terror of being underwater and aware. Which ever really happened, she died in water not much deeper than a bathtub and much of Howard died with her.
I do more funerals than weddings, so they blur in my memory even more than the joyful celebrations. And I don’t remember much about Lee-Ann’s memorial service, not because it was just one of hundreds, but because it was one of those truly rare funerals when I was so grieved that I hardly remember being there, much less presiding. I believe that a priest develops a sixth-sense about joy and sorrow so that he/she can begin to evaluate the mood of the moment. And that day, the day of Lee-Ann’s service, was off the Richter Scale of mourning. It was like walking into the looking glass—the joy of the wedding was cruelly reflected in the stone-cold mourning and suffering of the funeral. And so close together as to make your head swim with incongruity, like being caught in the death grip of a rushing stream.
There was no interment of Lee-Ann’s ashes that day. Howard carried them with him and put them in the front seat of his car. When he got home he put the box in his bed. He took her cremains wherever he went for several months. He stopped shaving and mostly stopped bathing and nearly stopped eating. He grew gaunt with grief and disheveled by disaster. His smile disappeared and so did he for a long time, after finally bringing me the ashes to inter.
I had promised solemnly to God and the Close Committee to never venture outside the designated burial grounds after interring Sonja beneath the Angel Choir window. But when Howard finally brought Lee-Ann’s ashes to me he reminded me that their first Sunday together at St. John’s had been the time of Sonja’s burial.
“Lee-Ann told me over and over,” he said, between shuttering sobs, “that she wanted to be buried under a window too. She said it so much I told her to ‘shut up’ about dying.” He paused for a long time before continuing. “It was the only time I was ever angry with her. I just couldn’t stand hearing her talk about dying….I couldn’t stand it.”
So, for the second time I broke the rule. Lee-Ann’s remains are under the window next to the one where Sonja’s ashes abide. For several Christmas’ someone always put a poinsettia there and a lily at Easter. I wasn’t sure if it was Howard or Lee-Ann’s family. Her family took Lee-Ann’s death almost as hard as Howard did. Like him, they disappeared, until one November day, near Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, Lee-Ann’s mother called to ask if I had seen Howard, knew how he was, where he was….My answer was ‘no’, three times ‘no’. She was disappointed and concerned. “I worry about him now,” she told me. “For the first couple of years I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to be reminded of the sorrow…or the joy. But now I’m ready. If you see him make him call me….”
One of the things we tell ourselves when people die is that at least we have the happy memories. But sometimes remembered happiness is as sharp a pain as remembered loss—especially when the joy was so complete and so short-lived. Mourning is a complicated enterprise—much like doing work unconscious, not quite understanding the task or how to complete it, not knowing who or what is making you work, knowing it is as necessary as it is difficult.
I have seen Howard several times in the past year or so. Suddenly he’ll show up in the back of the church and bring himself, weeping, to the altar rail. Lee-Ann’s family found him first. On rare occasions they will track him down and come to church with him—her mother, her sister, even her daughter once. It is excruciating to see them, but better to see them together, still broken in remarkable ways, but standing up and moving on, trying to smile, full of memories that ache with the heights of joy and depths of despair.
The last time they were there, I snuck out of coffee hour into the Close to smoke one of the cigarettes that drive most of the parish crazy. Those I serve and am served by have become “the tobacco police” for me, trying shame and fear to make me stop. I should, maybe I will. But that cigarette took me out where I saw Howard and Lee-Ann’s mother and sister draped around each other looking down at the little piece of earth beneath the Presentation in the Temple where Lee-Ann rests. There was nothing to say but I stood with them for a while, embraced each one and slipped silently away as they presented their tears and longing and, by this time in the process of loss, their thanksgiving for Lee-Ann’s life at the Temple of our achingly sad and beautiful humanity.
When the idea of interring ashes in the Close first arose from a group of parishioners who wanted to find their final rest on the grounds of St. John’s, I thought it was a slam-dunk, an idea whose time had not only come but who no one could possibly object to. After all, weren’t church burial ground a fixture in many places and didn’t the cathedrals of Europe serve as crypts as naturally as they served as places of worship? A no-brainer of an idea that was brought to the Annual Meeting of the parish as an afait comple—right? Oh, no, beloved, not so fast.
Dr. Sweeny, a retired physcian, one of the sweetest men I ever met, got up and started asking questions I could not only not answer, I could not exactly understand. He wanted to know about health codes and what if the church closed some day and a court house was built where the Close was now and about other laws we hadn’t considered or looked into. By reputation alone, he threw the meeting into chaos. Others were coming to the floor micraphone to display their insights into a subject they had never considered before the previous five minutes. Motions were made and amended and voted down. Other motions were made, amended and tabled. Finally a motion for a full report on all the issues be prepared and a special Parish Meeting called to make the decision.
The whole experience reminded me that there’s no such thing as an ‘obvious answer’ to a bunch of Episcopalians with a micraphone. It also convinced me of the existence of my guardian angel, who blocked, during the debate and vote, the thought I had as soon as it was over, saving me from my poor impulse control. After the motion passed and someone got up to give a report, I turned to the Senior Warden and whispered, “That an awfully long discussion over a few ash holes!” She laughed and whispered back, “Thank God you didn’t say that out loud!” And thank God I did…and my better angel.
At any rate, what was proposed and passed unanimously a few weeks later, was, I must admit, a lot more ‘put together’ than the original proposal. Lots of details—like how to keep track of whose ashes are where and some simple paperwork to be files and the rule about only interring in the designated spot came out of the extra time for thought. It was that last thing—the rule about not just burying ashes hither and yon but in a marked off spot—was the rule I violated when I buried Sonja underneath the Angel Choir window.
When I first met Sonja, already a member of the parish for over 85 years, she was in her early 90’s and spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings serving lunch to elders in St. John’s auditorium. It was an outreach ministry done with the Commission on Aging. Sonja was, in many cases, 25 or 30 years older than the people whose plates she carried to their tables. She called them, “the old folks” and sometimes, “the old farts” because Sonja had a mouth on her that would make a sailor, or most anyone, blush. She once told me that when “you’re as damn old as I am, you can say anything you please.” Then she winked through and over the coke-bottle-bottom glasses she wore and pinched me. When you were as damn old as Sonja, you could also pinch and poke and kiss anyone you damn-well pleased too.
She had come to this country from Sweden when she was three with her two-year old brother, whom she adored, and her parents. She claimed to remember the voyage and coming through Ellis Island. And she certainly remembered having broken her leg when she was 8 or so and sitting on a wall in front of her house with her leg in a cast. Along came, John Lewis, the venerable Rector of St. John’s from 1900-1940, in the first years of that long incumbency, out doing house calls, and he told her she was a pretty girl and asked if she went to church. She told him no and he went right in her house and signed the family up for St. John’s. He baptized her and welcomed her family and sat with them when the news came that her brother, who was a soldier in WW I, had been killed in action. She always carried a picture of her brother with her and her eyes would well up behind her thick glasses whenever she showed it to you. He was a handsome man in a uniform. It always struck me as remarkable that I knew someone whose younger brother had died in WW I. To hear Sonja tell it, he signed up the day he was old enough. She was just out of high school and working. And his death broke her heart.
She worked for one of the clock makers in Waterbury for 50 or more years. During much of that time, because she was small and agile, with supple fingers, she was one of the women who painted the luminescent radium-filled paint on the hands and numbers of the clocks so they would glow in the dark. She worked with tiny, delicate brushes that she kept pointed by placing them between her teeth and pulling them out, ingesting, over the years, more radioactive material than is good for you. Yale University did a long study of all the women who had painted the clocks. Many of them died young of bizarre diseases—mouth cancer and such. Sonja was the last member of the study group, living to be 103 and was hardly sick a day in her life. “I shine in the dark,” she told me, more than once. As Vonnegut was accurate in saying, “So it goes….”
(If anyone ever asks me what I think is the secret of longevity I will tell them, “be skinny and never marry.” Sonja was not the only long-lived spinster lady I’ve encountered along the way. Just recently I visited Gladys in the hospital the night before massive surgery for colon cancer. She’s 93 and weighed 85 pounds before the surgery. She, like Sonja, could be considered eccentric and a tad crotchety. For example, he nephew told me Gladys and one of her brothers didn’t speak to each other for over 40 years due to some oversight neither of them could remember. But, also like Sonja, Gladys has a quick and acrid wit. When a nurse came in and said, “Miss Lancaster, your chart isn’t complete. We don’t have a list of the medications you take.”
Gladys gave him a withering look. She’d already made it clear she didn’t think male nurses should care for “aging women.” She said, her voice dripping with insult, “there’s a reason for that, young man, I don’t take any.”
He looked at her for a moment, slapped her chart shut and replied, “I guess that’s the way to do it.”
Three days after the surgery she was in a nursing home, eating solid food, fully dressed and ready to go home. “I’ve gained five pounds in three days,” she told me.
“Better be careful,” I told her, “your weight might catch up with you age….” I love these tough old women.)
Sonja would talk about the indignities the researchers from Yale put her through over the years. “But,” she always added, “they give me a check for each check up. I’m going to outlive them all.”
As irascible and opinionated as Sonja could be (and she had an opinion about every thing and everyone) she was fun to be around, partly because of her cantankerousness and sardonic opinions. She had a little fan club among the faithful at St. John’s who always made sure she had somewhere to go for Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas. One Thanksgiving, a few years before she died, still a hale and hearty 100, everyone in her ad hoc support group was going to be out of town. One of them called me, frantic, and told me Sonja didn’t have an invitation for Thanksgiving dinner. I told them I’d be honored to have her and after some arguing about her not wanting ‘to be a bother’, she accepted graciously. My children, who were in their teens, were horrified by the news that someone 100 years old was coming to dinner. They already thought the collection of friends we generally have over on Thanksgiving were hopelessly senile and embarrassing—like me and their mother. But once Sonja got there, seated by the fireplace in the kitchen while dinner was being cooked, she somehow charmed them (or pinched and poked them, I’m not sure which) into sitting “for a minute”, she said, “to talk to an old woman.”
Sonja became the center of attention for the day (a role she relished in her own quirky way) and she regaled our children and our guests with stories galore and risqué comments and remarkable puns about what others said. She ate everything on her plate and after I’d taken her home with a plate for the next day and come back, my son—a hard sell at any age, but especially back then—told me, his face and voice full of astonishment, “Do you realize she’s lived the whole 20th century and more?” I did, of course, realize that, not nearly so brain-dead as a teen imagines their father to be. He shook his head and went on, “Imagine what changes she’s seen,” he said, almost dreamily. Then after a moments reflection, he concluded with a smile of admiration: “That is one classy old broad….”
And she was—profanity and pinching and poking aside: Sonja was a classy old broad. And as full of salt and vinegar as most people half her age. She had outlived most of her friends and all of her family since just her parents and brother left Sweden. St. John’s had become her family—the only one she had except for the people who lived around her in the elderly high rise just across the Green from the church. Most of them she considered ‘old farts’ or worse. It was the bosom of the church that nurtured her in her aloneness (I’m not sure she was ever ‘lonely’) and her stubbornness. Some of the Guardians of Sonja at the parish would become enraged at her unwillingness to accept the level of help and assistance they wanted to give. She would steadfastly refuse rides to church in almost any weather. “It’s just across the Green,” she’d say, “a person needs some exercise.”
She was a musician and played the piano at 90 and 100 as well as most folks who say they play the piano. Her voice had abandoned her so she resigned from the choir at St. John’s in her late 90’s. But she loved music, loved it profoundly. Her radio was always tuned to the classical station and, in her last few years, so loud that I’m surprised the old farts in her building didn’t complain—but then, their hearing was probably much worse than hers. That’s where the offense I committed about the burial of her ashes came in. One day she came to see me about her funeral. She was probably 99 or so, but she wanted to make the arrangements, “just in case”. She picked the hymns for her service and said, “I’ll leave the readings to you, I just care about the music.” Then she gave me that patented wink.
“One last thing,” she told me, “I want you to bury my ashes under that window with the Angels making music. There’s one playing a piano—I imagine that is me.”
I told her the rule about where ashes could be interred and even walked her out to show her where the spot was, right in front of a marble bench beside the walkway on the outside of the Close. She stood with me, letting me hold her elbow for support, and shook her head. “Some street person will piss on me if I’m there. I want to be over under my window.”
Maybe it was the audacity of taking personal possession of a priceless and irreplaceable Tiffany window that impressed me. “MY window,” she said, just like that. Or maybe it was wanting to fulfill the longings of a woman who had lived almost a century by then. Or, most likely, it was because I was afraid to cross Sonja on anything, much less something so final as that. At any rate, I told her I would bury her ashes where she wanted.
“Promise?” she asked.
“I promise,” I told her.
“Cross your heart and hope to die?” she said.
I crossed my heart, then she winked and pinched me and refused a ride home and set off down the sidewalk around the south side of the Green. I watched her all the way to the door. She stopped several times to talk to people and almost smacked someone who tried to help her at the cross walk. One classy old broad…with an edge to her.
I remember ferrying Sonja to the doctor one day and then back home. It wasn’t a long trip, but as we were driving, she kept pointing out ‘landmarks’ that weren’t there anymore. She was able to remember where businesses out of business for 50 years had been, where homes of her friends and members of the church—long since replaced by different buildings—had sat, she pointed out restaurants and schools and factories, long gone, but not forgotten by Sonja. I asked her to ride around with me for a while and she demurred, never minding spending time with a younger man, which included almost all the men on the planet. She had macular degeneration, but I knew from experiencing my father with the same condition, that periphery vision improved as it became harder to look ‘right at’ something. For an hour or more I traveled the main streets of Waterbury and more than a few of the almost forgotten streets—but Sonja remembered and told me the history of the city for the past century in one short ride. Her mind never dimmed—God bless her—and she went into that mysterious darkness (finally!) with her brain still working. Sometimes she attributed her memory to sucking on radium for all those years or to her Swedish genes or to just paying attention for so long.
Sonja liked a glass of wine and she liked music and she always wore a wig, sort of a Mamie Eisenhower looking haircut, mostly gray as befitted her age. I never knew it was a wig, being genetically impaired in noticing such things, until I saw her in the hospital during the last days of her life. I walked into her room and saw this woman with snow white hair, thin and reaching nearly to her waist, lying in the bed. Her hair was so white it almost disappeared into the sheets and pillow. I was reminded of the shock I had visiting my grandmother Jones in the nursing home and seeing her hair down. She wore it always in a tight little bun on the back of her head since Pilgrim Holiness people thought a woman’s hair was too erotic to display to the world. Orthodox Jews believe the same thing and their women wear wigs as dowdy as Sonja’s once they are married. Muslim women wear the head scarf. Hair IS erotic and as shocking as it was to me, seeing Sonja with her hair down, spread out around her in the hospital bed made me want to weep with wonder. It was beautiful—that century old hair—fine as stands of silk and white as the hair of Scandinavian fashion models. “My God, Sonja,” I said, not practicing impulse control very well, “you’re a toe-head!”
She winked and I saw it clearly because the hospital had taken her glasses as well as her wig and said, “pretty snazzy, huh?” Sonja, I suddenly realized, had been alive when ‘snazzy’ became a noun. She had lived through and outlasted over a century of language shifts. It was an odd thing to reflect on, but my mind was throwing up thoughts from the sub-conscious level to distract me from the certain fact that when you’re 103 and in the hospital, all is most likely not well. I sat with her for a long time, not saying much and she, for a change, wasn’t chatty. I just held her hand, astonished by how strong it still was—the better to pinch and poke with—and wondered what she was thinking.
A few days later, I visited her in another room. She had a roommate who seemed to be comatose and was hooked up to all sorts of medical gadgets that sighed and whimpered and ticked. The woman looked terribly familiar to me, but then, I told myself, old people all look alike.
Sonja was sitting up in a chair, covered with sheets and gadget free. She smiled at me when she saw me out of the corner of her eye, which was, after all, the only way she could see me, or much of anything. “How are you doing, Sonja?” I asked kissing her cheek having her almost crush my hand as she took it.
“I’m in a damn hospital,” she said, “how well can I be doing?” Then she winked.
It turned out that she was ready to leave the hospital, according to the doctors. She told me a social worker was imminently coming to talk with her. “They want to send me to a nursing home,” she whispered, almost conspiratorially, “but I’m not going.”
I tried to be rational and honest and explained to her that she couldn’t imagine she was well enough to go back to her apartment. She listened with impatience and then said, “I’m not going to a nursing home, mark my word….”
So we spoke of other things and I gave her communion and kissed her before leaving. She grabbed my neck with her strong right arm and squeezed until I thought I would cry. “Did you see, my friend next door?” she asked, finally releasing me. I thought she meant next door at her apartment house and was trying to explain I didn’t even know who lived next door to her when she interrupted, rolling her cloudy eyes at my stupidity and said, “no, I mean in the bed ‘next door’.” It turns out that it was another member of St. John’s, a woman in her 90’s—another skinny, unmarried woman in her 90’s—who had been in a nursing home for as long as I’d been at St. John’s. That’s why she looked so familiar to me, but my ageist prejudice had kept me from recognizing her myself. When she died, a few days later, it was discovered that she had left her estate to St. John’s, nearly a million dollars she and her unmarried brother. who had died two years before, had saved up over the years they lived together in skinny, unmarried bliss. Nobody imagined such a bequest from her. But when I turned back toward Sonja, surprise on my face, she told me, “I knew her and her brother well. They both worked for the phone company. She’s got money, you know….”
I anointed that parishioner, but not Sonja, because I knew Sonja would relent and go to a nursing home and alternatively drive the staff crazy and seduce them into loving her. Frieda, beside her in the next bed, was not long for this world, I could tell, so I gave her the last rites of the church and prayed for a speedy release for her from earthly bonds. And I was struck later by what odds were against two women of such ages who had known each other half-a-century before and gone to the same church would end up in the same room in a hospital. Just my sub-conscious mind working full time again, I believe. As I was finally leaving the room I met the social worker coming in to talk with Sonja. “You’ve got your work cut out for you,” I told her, “Sonja’s not going to a nursing home….”
I said it light-heartedly, figuring that Sonja would relent finally, after an extended bout of stubbornness. I also thought I’d better come back tomorrow to see Frieda, if she lived that long. But, like she always did, Sonja surprised me and Frieda outlived her. After her contentious conversation with the social worker and assurance that she would never go to a nursing home, Sonja asked to be put back in bed where—either out of an act of will or ultimate stubbornness—she died within the hour.
Her funeral was one of those rare occasions where all the tears—and there were plenty of them—were out of relief that Sonja hadn’t had to suffer greatly and out of joy and thanksgiving for having had the pleasure of her company on this odd journey from cradle to grave that we are all on.
(After that service, an elegantly dressed man with a Spanish accent came up to me and hugged me. His cologne was both expensive—at least to my smell—and perfectly applied. He was like a gentleman just arrived from the Pampas or from old Spain. He told me how much he had loved Sonja—he and his ‘friend’—and that he was so moved by her funeral that he wanted to join the church. I thanked him, asked his name and decided I probably wouldn’t see him again. Lots of people tell me after weddings and funerals that they want to join the church—I chalk it up to emotions that will soon fade. But they don’t always and he’s been there ever since. He’s aging poorly but is still elegant and a lovely man who always hugs me and whose cologne is never overdone or something you can buy in a drug store. He was one more gift, out of the multitude, that Sonja gave to St. John’s.)
Sonja had, of course, made arrangements for her funeral with a mortician. She came to church in a casket and then was cremated. That’s why her interment beneath ‘her window’ was on a Sunday. We kept her in the vault for a few days. There are often some cremains in St. John’s vault awaiting disposition. Sometimes they are there for quite a while, until the family can get everyone assembled from across the country. It may seem a little macabre, but I actually feel good about having folks around, living in the vault (well, not “living” living) but resting there for a time. Like Frieda, Sonja had no family and so St. John’s inherited all her worldly possessions. There wasn’t a lot of them and most of them—pots and pans, furniture, clothes, towels and such—we gave away to various agencies who could pass them on to someone. We kept her upright piano and it still resides in the Guild Hall on the third floor of the parish house. It’s probably terribly out of tune—but the new Church School Coordinator wants more music so I’ll get the piano tuner to go check it out next time he’s around. And someone should tell the children the story of that piano—not special in and of itself—but special in who owned it and who gave it to the church. History, after all, is a much neglected conversation these days.
Two of Sonja’s church family and I were the ones who cleaned out her apartment. Among some very fetching photos of Sonja’s life we found a lot of her with another woman. As we passed them around, one of the people with her said, “this must be the woman she always called ‘my friend’, don’t you think?” I had heard her say it only a few times, but I remembered her talking about “my friend and I used to…” (fill in the blank) and “when my friend died.” Then I remembered the words of the elegant Hispanic at her funeral: “My friend and I loved Sonja….”
I am almost devoid of any trace of ‘gaydar’. I know people for years before I find out, in some off handed way, that they are gay or lesbian. We all sat there and looked at photos of Sonja and her friend through the years. No one said it out loud, but we all knew we’d tripped over the obvious. Those two women in dozens of poses…joyful, solemn, teasing, smirking, laughing…all the while growing older. I don’t know about the other two people, but I had a rush of happiness. Sonja hadn’t spent her life ‘alone’. She had ‘a friend’. She just happened to outlive her by 40 years.
The other thing we found was a lot of literature from the group called the Rosicrucian Order. That group, an esoteric cult from the 17th century, mostly Germany, claimed connections to the first century CE. The whole mess is too complicated to explain simply, so let it go at this: Rosicrucian (“The Rose Cross”) philosophy posits a ‘college of Invisibles’ from inner worlds, composed an individuals who were ‘Adepts’ who were to aid in the spiritual development of humanity. Rosicrucian literature is a mish-mash of hermetic philosophy, alchemy, connections with the Sufi sect of Islam and an influence on Free Masonry. People like Francis Bacon are suspected of being members of the orders and Adepts. It is Christian occult raised to the highest level. Where was The Da Vinci Code when we needed it? Lordy, lordy, Sonja was an Adept! Who knew? Who could know? It is a secret society, after all.
Surprises emerge when people sift through what you leave behind after entering that mysterious door to whatever comes next. Be careful what you leave behind, unless your purpose is to leave behind a few choice bits for people to chew over. Which wouldn’t surprise me at all where Sonja (God bless her soul) was concerned.
So we interred her ashes one fine Sunday morning after the 10 a.m. Eucharist, on the very day that Lee-Ann decided to come to church with Howard. The rest you already know.
Before Sonja died and Lee-Ann died, Jonah died.
Jonah isn’t his real name, of course. I haven’t been using anyone’s real name though those who knew them will recognize them no matter how I change the names to protect the innocent. But I call him Jonah since the Biblical Jonah was swallowed by a fish and the Jonah I knew was swallowed up whole by life.
Funny thing about my life at St. John’s, I was there before I was ‘there’. I was the part time supply priest for four months until they called a full-time interim priest to be there until they called a Rector a year or so later, which was me again. One of the first Sundays as supply priest, I was in the middle of my sermon this man came down the side aisle, dressed in tattered clothes with a sock hat on his head that had ear flaps, carrying a broom and shouting what appeared to be a mixture of light profanity and quotes from the Bible. This happened at the 8 a.m. service with only 20 or so people there. I was in the pulpit, four feet or so off the floor of the nave, and Jonah (as I learned he was called) stopped right before me and looked up at me, respectfully removing his hat. He addressed me as “preacher” and launched into a series of questions about ‘webs’ and ‘the fucking Virgin Mary’ and ‘why won’t the Lord leave me alone?’ as prominent parts of his tirade. Since he never paused to offer me a chance to answer, I waited until he stopped for a breath and said, “Tell me, sir, what is your name?”
“Jonah,” he said, seeming suddenly quiet and almost sane.
“Jonah,” I said sincerely, hoping to hell it worked, “I want to thank you for all you’ve said and told me. I want to thank you, Jonah.”
He looked at me for a long moment. Then he put his hat back on and said, “You’re welcomed, preacher”, then left with his broom.
After the service, the congregation was almost giddy and surrounded me, smiling broadly, all of them.
“That was just right, Fr. Bradley,” they said.
“The last Rector didn’t know how to deal with Jonah,” they told me.
“Wanted to have him thrown out when he came in,” someone interjected.
“But you did the right thing,” another added.
“He’s harmless, you see,” one more suggested.
“And we don’t mind him at all,” was the penultimate statement.
“Not at all. We rather like him,” somebody said, and they all were silent, smiling.
I had passed the Jonah test—a pop quiz I’d never expected.
Here’s the story in short-hand that it took me several years to learn: Jonah had come from a good family in Woodbury, a upscale suburb of the city. He had inherited and improved his father’s general contracting business. Jonah built houses and office buildings and strip malls all over central Connecticut and had a beautiful house and a lovely family—two daughters who were 9 and 11 when he lost them. He was a pillar of the community and obsessed with making money to add to the money he already had, obviously to his own peril. One day he came home from work, late of course, after dinner and just before the girl’s bedtime to find a darkened house and a note from his family that they were gone…gone….
His wife had—at least the story goes that I pieced together over the years—cleaned out their bank accounts and most of their investments and simply disappeared with the two girls that were the love of his over-worked, money grubbing, there is never enough security life. Such as it was. And when they disappeared, I mean they disappeared. None of the private detectives he hired or the relatives of his wife he contacted could find her. Not for years. By the time I knew him he had somehow found her and carried a phone number with a Florida exchange on a slip of paper in his shirt pocket at all times. A couple of times I called her—and his brothers—for him, but they never wanted to talk to Jonah—by then the bridges had burned and collapsed into a river that washed them to the sea.
He walked out on his business—leaving houses and strip malls half-built and involving him in law suits that became frivolous when he came back from wherever he went…Nineveh or Denver or someplace…because when he came back he was a consummately broken man—financially, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. Six months after his family disappeared (and I’m making this up from gossip and conjecture) Jonah disappeared as well. And he was gone for a long time. The fish of life swallowed him up and spit him out on some foreign and punishing shore. I tried to decipher the stories he told me when I talked with him, and I talked with him a lot. But part of it was gibberish and part was mental illness and all of it was in a code that only Jonah possessed the key for, and he wasn’t telling.
Colorado figured prominently in his ramblings, and trains, and a ‘she devil’ somewhere, and the webs the Virgin Mary spun to ensnare him and the not so beatific vision of a Lord who wouldn’t leave him alone or release him from his punishment. So, to appease the Lord who bedeviled him, he swept the streets of Waterbury and fed the pigeons on the Green. I often watched him feed the pigeons. He would somehow come up with loaves and loaves of day-old bread—the kind just perfect for French toast—and he would sit on one of the benches on the Green and begin scattering the bread for the birds. After a while, because there were so many pigeons and so much bread, Jonah would disappear, swallowed up in the soft, feathery belly of a whale sized flock of pigeons. I often worried about him, surrounded like that by a hundred birds or more—but then I’m of the generation that grew up having nightmares over Alfred Hitchcock’s movie. Jonah was older than that and, if I’m not projecting too much, was most likely comforted by the blanket of birds that eventually covered him, by the sweet down feel of their bodies, their weight against him, the cooing noise they make. The worse he ever experienced were some peck marks on his hands and claw wounds on his shoulders. He didn’t seem to mind.
He was always there. He did the circuit every day from Immaculate Conception church, where he left flowers or a box of Russell Stover’s candy before the statue of the Virgin; to St. John’s where we would talk; to the grocery stores that would give him a loaf of bread until he had enough; to the pigeons on the Green and to his primary job of sweeping the streets. I would give him money on occasion and at the first of the month he would bring it back two-fold, saying, “I need to give you something for trusting me, preacher.” Once on Good Friday, during the interminable three hour service we Episcopalians have, he came up to me during one of the extended silences. I was sitting in my black cassock in the chancel and he came right up and said, “Preacher, can I have $10?” I could reach my pocket through the convenient slit in the garment and gave him the money.
Twenty minutes later, Jonah was back with a $10 box of candy. He came up to the cancel and gave it to Mary Ann Logue, the Curate of St. John’s at the time, a woman in her 60’s who Jonah always called, “the white haired woman preacher with nice breasts.” Mary Ann had learned “Jonah Control” by that time, so she thanked him and asked him to please leave. After the service I told her, “The next time I see him I’m going to give you $10 and cut out the middle-man.” But that would have ruined the fun and my continuing adventure in trying to figure out “Jonah World.”
For a couple of years I kept notes on what Jonah told me each day, but after a time I realized I was collecting code and gibberish on paper so I gave it up. I visited him once in the boarding house where he lived for years. His room was surprisingly orderly and spotless. He gave me a warm Coke in the can and a cookie he found in a drawer. He continued the tale he always told and I left both astonished by the contrast of his room’s neatness and his appearance and more confused than ever.
(My older cousin, Marlin Pugh, once took me into his room that he had painted black and gave me two packs of Dentine gum when Dentine was smaller and more potent that today. He insisted I chew them all while he told me this strange and wondrous story:
“One dark and stormy night, three tramps sat around a fire. One said, ‘Antonio, tell us a tale’, so Antonio began….’One DARK and stormy night, three tramps sat around a fire, one said Antonio, tell us a tale,’ so Antonio began, One dark and stormy NIGHT, three tramps sat around a fire. One said, ‘Antonio, tell us a tale.’ So Antonio began: ONE DARK AND STORMY NIGHT…….”)
I realized as I was writing it that there is no way, even for an old English major, to figure out how to punctuate the story of Antonio and his two fellow tramps. There aren’t enough ways to distinguish between quote marks, for one thing, and, for another, the whole story, which Marlin carried on for 10 minutes or so, is utter nonsense raised to the level of the sublime. And that was Jonah’s story as well. No way to punctuate it or understand it or decipher the code. All that lay deep in the profoundly damaged mind of Jonah, who showed up back in Waterbury after three years of disappearance during which he experience God knows what, wandering the country in search of his daughters…and when he reappeared he wasn’t the successful, canny business man he had been. He was a crazy man with a broom.
Early in January of 1992, after I’d know Jonah for two and a half years (nearly four if you count the time I knew him when I was the supply priest), he came to my office as discouraged and frustrated as I’d ever seen him. Discouragement and frustration increased his powers of profanity, so excuse this memory of what he said.
“God-damn the Lord, preacher,” he began, “I’ve been sweeping the streets for years now to set those fucking people free and I set them free and the damn Lord and the fucking Virgin Mary still won’t let me stop sweeping. I’m supposed to go and fucking sweep the God-damned snow today on this mother-fucking cold day. Why won’t they let me be…?”
Jonah literally collapsed into a chair in my office and his worn, wet broom fell to the floor. While he rested I had a remarkable realization. During the end of December 1991, the Soviet Union had imploded in on itself and the former satellite nations had declared independence. In some convoluted way, Jonah believed he had swept the Soviet Union away by sweeping the streets of Waterbury. Or else, that’s what ‘the Lord’ told him: “Sweep these streets until the Soviet Union is free and you will be free as well.” Or what the Virgin Mary told him: “I must keep you in my webs until you bring me enough candy and flowers and set those people free to worship me.” Hell if I know, but I know he believed it and I know he believed he had accomplished his Herculean task and deserved to be set free of his madness, his compulsions, his jabbering and his pain.
I felt like I had found the lost chord or the missing link…and yet, I was no closer to Jonah without his madness than ever, I simply understood a tiny part of what was surely a harmless kind of psychosis. He was as crazy and tormented as ever…perhaps even more so since the voices he heard always—the Virgin and the Lord—had lied to him, misled him, used him horribly for what purpose? What purpose indeed?
Some fire-fighter who deserves to be knighted if not made a saint, took Jonah in for the last year or so of his life. I visited them in the fire-fighters neat little ranch style house. Jonah was suffering from heart disease, little wonder, and never got over the betrayal of the Lord and the Virgin Mary and never escaped the Lord’s command to sweep and feed the pigeons or the Virgin’s webs that kept him from being free.
He died, I’m told, on the Green, feeding the pigeons. I was on vacation when it happed. That tale, though, is as much hearsay as all of Jonah’s biography I’ve tried to piece together. But when I came back and heard he was dead, his body whisked away by his sane and successful brothers for some private burial, I was sadden greatly that we never said goodbye. It’s only a tale I heard around a fire about his death, but I’d finally like to imagine he didn’t so much die as he was ultimately swallowed up by the whale that haunted him all the latter years of his life, turned him upside down and inside out with grief and loss, left him in a small boat on a large and angry sea that gave him no rest.
I wonder about his daughters—they are grown by now, perhaps with children of their own. What stories do they tell of their father? And how could they know what a tattered and broom carrying prophet he became: a prophet of the way life can be so tragic and messy and unfathomable and crazy that it will finally swallow you whole.
I wonder if the pigeons on the Green ever missed him—which makes me wonder about the life-span of a pigeon and whether memory can be passed on through the DNA of their species.
It all comes down to this, after all—for Jonah and Sonja and Lee-Ann and me and ultimately you: it all comes down to living and dying and being astonished by the cast of characters we meet along the way. The final choice is simple: despair or hope. Human relations boils down to that in the end, and little more.
I miss Jonah and I live with the hope that somehow in this life or the next or somewhere in between we all get repaired, renewed, filled up with life.
Who knows? Who could know?