I was out on the deck last night, trying to convince my hard-headed Puli dog to go to the bathroom in the huge back yard rather than make me take him for a walk. Bern, the woman I’m married to, came out and started pointing to a corner of our back deck. I thought she was losing her mind and would be the first of us to go to ‘the home’—we have an active competition about that as we grow older—when I finally saw what she was motioning toward. There was a nearly full grown possum sitting on the railing eating cat food that we put up there for our half-senile outdoor cat, Millie, so the Puli won’t eat it.
I took a couple of steps toward the creature and he/she froze in place—they really do “play possum” you know—thinking that made her/him invisible. The possum stayed that way for as long as we were outside and the Puli (great guard dog he is!) didn’t even realize a feral creature was only a few feet from him. I could smell the damn thing, for God’s sake, why didn’t he! I guess Hungarian sheep dogs are genetically wired to smell wolves and bears but not possums.
But it took me back a bunch of years to a very hot summer when Mimi—my baby child—was 13 or so and decided to sleep downstairs on a couch to try to overcome the heat. The next morning I asked her how sleeping there had gone and she said, “it was fine until the cats started chasing the possum around the room.”
I smiled, making her French Toast and thinking we really needed air conditioning so she wouldn’t have such weird dreams.
Then, either that day or the day after, Bern walked by Josh’s room and saw, out of the corner of her eye, a possum eating potato chips. She kept walking, thinking the heat had addled her brain. When she suddenly stopped and went back, the creature her heat-impaired vision had seen was no where to be found.
Then, that night or the night after, during a storm that promised some relief from the heat, I was working on the computer when something jumped up on the back of my chair. One of the cats, I told myself, thinking I was living with at least two mentally impaired humans. But it didn’t smell like a cat—it smelled a bit like slightly rotted meat and musk and something undeniably wild. When I turned around, it was the possum that, by this time, had been living in our house for several days. I screamed and the creature bared his sharp little teeth. We both jumped from the chair and she ran out the door and down the hall.
Armored in gardening gloves and wielding a two-iron, I started searching for the creature and, flipping on the light in the guest bathroom, saw a thick, naked tail sticking out from under the sink. I made noise and stomped the floor—for no reason I can now think of—and the tail didn’t move. I knelt down and peered under the cabinet and there, rolled up like a gray and white pirogi, was our house guest…playing possum….
I shut the door to keep him cornered and ran to the basement to find one of our old guinea pig cages (the guinea pigs are for another telling…). I entered the bathroom with trepidation to find the possum unmoved, still pretending to be dead and invisible. I put the cage on its end and opened the door, then steeling up the courage I knew was somewhere hidden in my DNA from the wilds of the British Isles when my distant ancestors painted themselves blue and murdered each other without guilt, I grabbed the possum’s tail, pulled him out and dropped him in the cage, slamming the door behind him. My feeling at that moment was a mixture of savage exultation and the dizziness and nausea that accompanies my standing at a great height. I had bested the invader, conquered the enemy, saved the tribe—but I also felt a little sick from fear.
I carried the caged opossum to the front porch then went to find something for him to eat and to bring him water. He had been our guest, after all and I didn’t wish him harm in spite of my Braveheart blood. I gave him lettuce and carrots and risked my life by sliding a bowl of water into the cage (though he was still feinting invisibility). Then I went to have several glasses of wine and to fall into a deep sleep full of dreams of repelling the Norsemen from my village and driving the Saxons out of Scotland.
God, for me, is like the possums I keep running into. God always shows up in unexpected places at times I never imagined. And, like the possums, there is a wildness to God—with a feral smell—that at once fascinates and also repels me. The God I finally believe in, at least around the edges, is a wild and untamed God. One of my favorite hymns is titled “There’s a Wildness in God’s Mercy”. I must have sung that hymn a hundred times before the person sitting beside me on the hundredth singing told me later, “You know, the word is ‘wideness’….”
I must have stared at him like a man staring at a possum because he hastened to add: “You were singing ‘wildness’. You were singing, ‘there’s a wildness to God’s mercy’….It’s ‘wideness’….The word is ‘wideness’.”
In spite of the black letters on white paper, I’d always seen them as ‘wildness’. And, just me talkin’, I think that is more accurate for me. The mercy of God isn’t merely ‘wide’—it is ‘wild’ as well.
Bob is finally dying
I found out tonight, via email
(when did we stop getting bad news by phone?
I don’t remember.)
that Bob is finally dying.
Twenty six years ago, almost to the day,
he picked me up at an airport in Connecticut
and took me to his home to spend the night
with his wife and young daughter
and their Boxer—a breed of dog I’ve never liked.
They fed me pancakes the next morning
before Bob drove me to New Haven
for my interview.
It was snowing when we left Bethany
(the irony of going from ‘Bethany’
for an interview to be a priest at a church
has never left me….)
By the time we got to New Haven
the snow had turned to chilling rain
and Bob had told me about his heart attacks
and how life was a ‘gift’ to him,
each day, each moment, each second.
He’s lived that way—grateful and surprised
for another 26 years—quite a wondrous ‘gift’, I’d say.
And now he is dying, at last, the machines turned off,
just waiting for the veil to part so he can move on.
I am bereft (a word I seldom use) of joy.
Bob—the most hospitable man I’ve ever known—
a man who invited me into his home and life,
a man beside me in a curling, fading photo—
me with dark hair instead of white, him looking as he always did,
me smoking a pipe with a funny hat on my head,
one of his succession of Boxers nosing between us,
at a picnic in his back yard—
Bob is finally dying.
The cost of the gift, I suppose, always come due.
And I am heart-broken.
Bob is finally dying.
Birds will fly into windows on chill mornings.
Bears and Lions will eat young children in the streets.
The moon will be blood red for a night.
All that is worthy and well will be false and wrong for a time.
God isn’t paying attention and Bob will slip away.
Good for him; bad for me.
I have unfinished business.
And Bob is finally dying.
Bob didn’t die. He lived four more years. Somehow the wildness and wideness of God’s mercy came through in the last moment like the sound of the bugle and the sudden appearance of the 7th Cavalry in all the western movies I watched as a kid. Doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital are probably still scratching their collective heads and wondering what went wrong. (It’s astonishing to me how most—just “most”, not “all”, God bless them—medical people ping-pong back and forth between “why couldn’t we keep this one from dying?” to “why did this one live?” Something went ‘wrong’ either way.) So Bob ‘went wrong’ and lived, in spite of dire emails and whispered phone conversations and the general opinion of the highly paid medical community. How wild is that?
A year or more ago I went to New Haven to have lunch with a friend. She took me to a little sandwich shop in Westville and when we walked in there was Bob and his wife Susan, waiting for their meal. He was frail, it seemed to me, and I’d not known how to approach him since I had brought him such exquisite pain in my leaving his parish through my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault. But there they were. We stopped to hug them and chat briefly and then we went to a table and ordered lunch and talked.
As I was beginning my tuna melt, Bob came over to our table. He stood beside us and gave me what were, in their very essence, words of forgiveness for pain inflicted two decades before. I was unready to hear those words and in my heart, unworthy of them. And yet they came. This man who should have been dead several times was standing before me, granting me relief from my own pain, inviting me to be free, acknowledging love I did not, in my mind, deserve.
I should have leaped from my chair and embraced him, taken him to every other table and told them he was the embodiment, the very incarnation of the ‘wildness’ of God’s mercy. But I didn’t. I was too stunned, too blessed, too shriven. I thanked him profoundly, choking back tears I thought were long dried up, long dead, long left behind. My ‘business’ was finished through Bob’s words and God’s mercy. I long ago embraced God’s forgiveness…I never expected Bob’s.
Don’t talk to me about “mercy” not being “wild as hell”, feral, unexpected, un-dreamed of, remarkable, soothing, whole and wondrous. God’s mercy gets chased around the room by cats. God’s mercy eats potato chips at will. God’s mercy leaps on the back of your chair when you least expect it and can hardly ever recognize it. God’s mercy plays possum until you drag it out from under the sink and cage it and, with the advice of the animal control officials, take it to the canal and let it loose again, running wild, unpredictable, outrageous, undeserved, wide as the sea….
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea,
There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven,
There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.
There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed.
There is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind,
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word,
And our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
(Frederick William Faber—1814-1863)
“Unfinished Business” is part and parcel of a great deal of baggage that we all lug around with us, weighing us down. The ‘wildness’ of God’s mercy granted me a moment of sweet and indescribable completion with Bob in a sandwich shop in New Haven. And, in addition, I have been learning that ‘unfinished business’ can be finished without such a discernable and grace-filled moment. It can come slowly, over time, without much effort, because God wills us to be ‘whole’ and ‘complete’ and a little ‘wild’ ourselves.