The bond I had with Yeshi was, I felt, even more deep that one of blood. A blood father is chosen by God to be the parent of a child. As my wife said to me so often, I was chosen for Yeshi by God. The Lord gave me such a powerful attachment to this son of mine I was wild with terror at the angels’ news. I sat up, jumped to my feet, immediately on full alert. My wife was asleep next to him. I tried to wake her gently. I watched as her face hardened when she understood. Quickly she strapped the protesting baby to her back and helped me load the donkey. We had become a good team and she was nearly as strong as a man. In only a few minutes we were on the road.
We were frightened about passing the watchman. But we were both ready for anything, ready to give our lives if we had to. As we drew near I tried to walk calmly and confidently,though I was so taught with fear I ached to break into a run. I knew Mary was frightened too. I heard her trying to slow her breathing. I was conscious of the knife at my belt, praying to God I would not have to use it.
I needn’t have worried. The guy only greeted us and remarked on the fact that we were leaving in the wee hours. I managed to laugh and say that with a newborn we couldn’t sleep anyway so we thought we may as well be our way. We passed without incident.
Fortunately I had been curious about the beautiful maps the wise men had poured over before they left. For some reason I remembered a side rout to Egypt. We needed to avoid the Northern Way most people took. There had been a lot of talk about the Child around Bethlehem, certainly about our fantastical visitors on camels who had followed a star to our son, saying he was a long expected king. We knew if they got a lead Herod’s soldiers could pursue us into Egypt, also part of the Roman Empire.
I walked as fast as I could, leading the donkey with Mary and the baby on its back. We kept our voices low. I tried to squeeze Mary’s foot now and then to reassure her. She was grave and resolute whenever I looked at her. If anything she seemed angry rather than afraid most of the time.
We traveled in this way until we were sure we were well away. Hours after sunrise we hid as best we could behind a large rock and took turns sleeping and keeping watch.
Again we left in the night.
The way was treacherous. I tripped several times on rocks and brush. Finally one trip sent me flying. The pain in my ankles was bad enough I could not walk at all no matter how I tried.
Mary got down from the donkey, running to me. We still had plenty of frankincense and she spread the fragrant oil over my fast swelling ankles. My wounded leg she cleaned with water and then healing myrrh. The oil and ointment helped but not enough for me to walk, even with her help. What to do?
“We have to get you on the donkey and let me walk,” she said. I was opposed.
“Joey,” she insisted, “there is no other way!
After several painful tries, together we pushed, pulled and lifted me onto the little donkey. I felt ashamed that she had to do this. Also, “I’m a big hairy man on a donkey!” I complained. “I look ridiculous!”
She laughed. “You DO look ridiculous.”
“I’m worried about you,” I said. I was. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.
“Take this,” I said, handing her the knife which she solemnly took. “Remember how to use it if you have to, the way I showed you before?” I asked her. She nodded.
“OK now make yourself useful,” she said, handing me the baby. I could see his eyes shining in the dark. I pressed him to me.
We went ahead bravely.
She insisted on stopping now and then to put more oil and ointment on my injuries. She tried to joke with me to make me feel better. I told her she was my warrior queen.
We were scared but we trusted God. There was nothing else to do. We tried to encourage one another. We had a saying together: “God is it.” Our lives were for God. “Everything will be OK,” we said to one another, “and even if it’s not OK, it will be OK.”
We belonged to God.
We had to stop to nurse and change the baby every few hours. Soon we would need supplies. We had gold from the wise men. We knew that a poor young couple trying to buy food with foreign gold was going to cause a stir but it couldn’t be helped.
We continued to travel by night, exhausted and afraid. Our minds started to fill with every possible thought. We talked about King Herod. How could any grown man, a king no less, be so insecure about his power, so angry, hateful and afraid, he would seek to harm a child? Why would anyone obey such a man?
The wise men had told us they were warned in a dream that Herod had become hostile about their mission, and that they must leave by another way themselves. How could anyone fear the signs of God and fight God himself instead of being joyful that God was coming to his people? What kind of person dares to fight God?
“Satan, “ Mary whispered with certainty. “He is possessed by Satan.”
At one point we were trudging along on a seemingly endless night and I began to worry about my sanity.
“Mary?” I whispered tentatively. “I see them too,” she said.
All around us we saw fellow travelers, people of all colors in various costume as if they were from far away or from another age. They carried children, belongings, what food and water they could. They too were fleeing something, trying to protect their children; frightened, determined, doing their best to trust in God. Some of them died or fell to robbers along the way. Others pressed on because they had no choice.
“Mary,” I said after an awed silence between us, “I think God is trying to tell us something.”
She nodded in understanding.
Even after the vision ended we talked about it for a long time.
We concluded that God was showing us peoples of the ages who would be refugees like ourselves.
We resolved together that in time to come, we would always be with these people in whatever way God allowed us to be. We would walk with them, ease their suffering, protect them, pray for them, be their advocates before the throne of God. We would see their children as our own.
There would always be mad kings, we knew, until the age of the Lord would come fully.
Eventually my ankles were in good enough shape I was able to relieve Mary, and take that knife back.
The night we were sure we were in Egypt their was a beautiful full moon. Mary was happy. She jumped off the donkey and danced, holding Yeshi high, singing,
“Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in war.
Lift up your heads, O gates;
rise up, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory!”
This Advent, I have asked the Friars, Priests and Sisters what they do for Christmas in their communities. I called a cloistered Carmelite convent and asked what the nuns do for Christmas. I read accounts in articles and on web sites of Christmas at monasteries.
I was surprised by some of the responses I got to my question, especially by the fact that there is sometimes loneliness or emotional distance in religious communities at Christmas.
I heard about Christmas nights with everyone exhausted from ministry work.
Some Christmas Days are spent, anti-climactically, with each member in his own room after all the masses are over.
Some Christmases are difficult or disappointing, just as some of ours are.
I don’t know what I expected to hear. Of course they have problems, too.
Some described happy Christmases among brothers as the norm.
Other accounts had a gentle simplicity and sense of the sacred we could work harder to imitate or be more in touch with if we wanted to.
Advent can be a quiet but intense time. The days are getting shorter and darker. It is a period in which nature and the liturgy can harmonize in a way that naturally draws a monk or nun more into a reflective and prayerful mood. When the great day of the Lord’s birth arrives, it is as if a great light had burst on the scene. The dramatic turning point is Midnight Mass, something Trappists do in a very distinctive way. The liturgy is simple but majestic. We are often joined by dozens or as many as a hundred of our friends and neighbors with their children.
On Christmas day, we are allowed to sleep in a little longer. Breakfast will often feature delicious pastries made by a Trappist brother or sister or one of our neighbors. We do not exchange gifts, but we receive many cards and goodies from people far and wide who appreciate our silent witness as contemplatives. We are permitted to call our families and catch up on news from home. All of these are means for really enjoying and celebrating Christmas. But, perhaps, what a Trappist monk or nun most cherishes about Christmas day are the free periods given us to spend time in the chapel or walk in nature and enter into the mystery of Christmas in silence and solitude.
This response from my friend, Sister Lynn, was particularly joyful:
“ We have a special Vespers service on Christmas Eve where we sing the portions of Isaiah that speak of the Emmanuel. We usually sing Christmas carols in Chapel before Mass as people are arriving. Since we are located in a very rural area we don’t usually have a lot of guests at Mass; perhaps a dozen or so on Sundays. But Christmas Eve is the one Mass where we get a huge turnout of people – usually around 100. After Mass we visit with our guests a bit as they leave.
Christmas morning we have Morning Prayer. We have Christmas Day Mass with our elder sisters in the infirmary. Then the sister cooks get to work preparing our Christmas dinner. Easter and Christmas we splurge … this year we are having steak! Different sisters sign up to do parts of the meal – I am on for vegetarian main dish (we’re having specially seasoned Boca burgers and cauliflower steaks) and also salad.
In the afternoon we have some rest time. The evening is my favorite part of the day – we have our community Christmas party. We have fun finger foods, open gifts that have been given to the community – usually there is a small gift for each sister (something like an Amazon gift card or gift of an extra retreat day). It’s only community – no guests, we put on our jammies and just have fun being together.
~ Sr. Lynn, O.S.B.
My friend, Fr. John, S.J., said most of the other Jesuits go home to their families of origin for the holidays during the break at the University where he teaches, though those that remain behind have a special mass and dinner. He thought I should write about something else. My life sounds more entertaining to him.
The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.
On Christmas Eve morning we pray Lauds and then chant (Gregorian) the hour of Prime, in which the Martyrology is also formally chanted by one of the Sisters. On Christmas Eve we are announcing and proclaiming the Birth of our Savior, so the chant is very solemn and beautiful. We have copied it here below for you to read what is sung in Latin. When the Sister pronounces the words that speak of God becoming Incarnate for us, we all kneel and then prostrate with our faces to the floor in adoration. It is a moving and inspiring moment…
In the 1599th year from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth. The 2957th year after the flood. The 2015th year from the birth of Abraham. The 1510th year from Moses and the going forth from Egypt of the people of Israel. In the 1032nd year from the anointing of King David. The 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the 194th Olympiad. The 752nd year from the foundation of the City of Rome. In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavius Augustus, all the world being at peace, Jesus Christ the Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, nine months after his conception was born in Bethlehem of Judah made man of the Virgin Mary. – Sisters of Carmel
My friend, Fr. Gregory, OCD, said his community is very busy at Christmas with the parish and the staff. Though they spend a lot of time in prayer, it sounded to me that their obligations are almost as heavy as those of lay people at that time of year. They did have a lovely Christmas together this year, though, even with the stress of their current building project.
“In this house all must be friends, all must be loved,
all must be held dear,
all must be helped.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila
It sounded as if religious communities are just a different type of family, with similar joys and difficulties. Sometimes Christmas makes things that are going wrong stand out more to us, and the longing for a better unity is drawn out in every heart as we ache for Jesus to come among us, to be born in our midst again. Our families feel that deeply at times, and so do theirs. I wonder if our lay families can find more ways to support those in consecrated life, especially since they give so very much to us?
After hearing some of the difficulties they had, a friend of mine paid for a dinner so a small community of Friars could have a special meal together Christmas Eve. I sent a book of poetry by Hafiz to another religious priest I care about. Who can be lonely with great poetry?
Let’s remember and bless these human beings who have given themselves to God for the good of the Church and the world. We can pray for them, thank them, be grateful for them, but we could also learn more about them, deepen our appreciation of their contributions, get to know some of them, let them inspire our own family lives, and find out how we can support them as they support us.
Special thanks to the priests and religious who let me hear about their family Christmases.
Here are some links of interest to learn more about our friends in Consecrated Life
We met with Border Patrol this morning. People in my group asked good questions that the four Border Patrol officers seemed to appreciate.
What a bizarre situation everyone along the border is in. In a way it is an imaginary line and all involved are playing a game. The problem is this game causes incredible suffering and death, at least the way it plays out. The line is imaginary but if you think about it that wall is violent in so many ways. Toward the end of the conversation, which was good, personal and amicable, Sister Anne Catherine had been watching a group of birds who circled several times over the wall, sometimes fluttering to the ground on either side, as if they were showing us something. She nudged me and I watched too. “If only I had the wings of a bird I could fly away to safety,” as the Psalmist says. I can’t help but wonder what this wall looks like to God or if he sees it at all. However he sees it does he agree with so many of us that this wall is more important than human life and dignity? It’s always a sad, surreal feeling to see the border wall and know it’s consequences to human beings and to our own humanity. Such a cost. Such a strange and haunting place.
They talked about the infrared cameras, the anti climb, the sensors under the ground. We asked about human trafficking: they had only seen one case of that. Apparently drugs come in through the ports of entry almost entirely. They talked about how they sometimes had to save lives since people often die in the desert. Someone asked how often they saved lives they said not that often in this area but that it does happen and that helps them feel good about what they do.
There is a heavy emotional toll of doing this work and it’s hard for them to let it go when they get home. Asked what the hardest part of their job was, all four of them said it was seeing the kids. In the van again someone mentioned the suicide rate among Border Patrol being high. But I don’t remember. I was feeling depressed.
Again I had been praying at a fence. For love to win in the end.
It was hot outside and the sunlight was golden and slanting in beams when we got out of the van at the Wal-Mart Memorial.
I was not prepared.
The memorial stretched into probably about three city blocks. There was an army of religious candles going on and on and on. There were stuffed animals, pictures of the dead, messages to the dead, poems, letters, prayers. There were flags from other countries, a big poster of a fused Mexican and American flag that said, “Together against all odds.” There was a letter to the president pleading for understanding and change. It was in Spanish so I asked Maria to translate for me.
I big red poster near the middle that said,
“PAIN…. but I will not let it turn to hate.”
There was a large picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, statues and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, banners with Bible verses, a message of solidarity from the city of San Antonio, more messages, more prayers, toys of the little child who was killed. A massive number of flowers and rosaries. A child’s toy train.
A young white supremacist drove 11 hours from Dallas to El Paso to “kill Mexicans.” I can only guess he chose El Paso because of the spirit of friendship and community between the sister cities. Maybe he hated what El Paso represents. Maybe he wanted to do this at the border where people from both sides shop together. I don’t know. His manifesto had talked about “an invasion” referring to migrants and refugees and Hispanics in general I suppose. I had not read it. No need. I had been seeing its’ results.
Actually I wasn’t thinking about any of these things at the time. I was overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the place. We all were. It was riveting. It was devastating.
Eventually I sat down by a bank of flowers and religious statues to pray.
A woman I thought seemed like a family member thanked us for coming. I recognized the deep pain in her eyes and that aura of grief around her shoulders like a heavy black shawl that weighed her down.
When we got back into the van some people were crying. Nobody wanted to talk.
Chris said he knew we were feeling upset but we were running a little late for our last meeting of the day at Hope Border Institute so we just had a few minutes while we drove to get ourselves regathered. So we tried.
I think seeing this place would have hurt deeply no matter what. But after what we had been learning and the migrants we had met, it hit particularly hard. As we pulled away I thought, “This is the logical outcome of such madness.”
Next we went to a meeting with Hope Border Institute. The people who filled us in on their work and research taught us more about the history of the border and its militarization and the criminalization of migration.
They gave us a flowchart on how the asylum system works. It appears to be designed so that no one can do it.
They told us more about how NAFTA affected their region on both sides of the border, the closure of factories which relocated on the other side and the failure of the government to keep its promises of retraining workers, of family and communal lands being lost to farmers who suddenly were displaced and unable to feed their children, the way the consumption of drugs in the U.S. has corrupted institutions in countries in Central America, how migrants made to remain in Mexico, especially the Central Americans, are targeted by gangs to be kidnapped and how the corrupt police in Juarez sometimes help with the kidnapping.
One of them talked about a reason people are refugees is also climate change, particularly from Guatemala where climate change is happening in real time. Coffee farmers in Guatemala are having to move up 1000 feet every year as the sea rises.
They gave us some literature to go over about the work they do applying Catholic Social teaching to these issues.
One man on staff named Dylan gave us an extemporaneous discourse on what Our Lady of Guadalupe means to migrants. I remember him saying that she is neither Spanish nor totally Indigenous. She appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Catholic convert. She said she came to comfort her children and hear their cries. Her knee is out to show she is dancing. She is pregnant. She is praying.
After this meeting we went outside for a much needed decompression to look at the other Diocesan buildings and statuary and little gardens to walk around and to talk.
My heart hurt. I think we could all say that.
At home(Casa Vides) we got word that the woman who asked us to pray for her son was beside herself because she had been notified that her son was in solitary confinement. “Why don’t they take me instead?” she had cried. She had fled her country because another son had disappeared. When she had finally been allowed to look at his body she saw three gun shots. Then she saw he had been tortured.
She had then fled with her two other sons. On the way she had tripped on a rock and been injured so badly her toe nail had gone up int her toe. They had to keep going but by the time they made it to the border she had such a bad infection all through her body she now had a port in her arm for antibiotics. We were all so sorry she was having to go through this. I thought of our prayers and messages on the fence outside his detention center. I prayed with Our Lady of Sorrows for her son, that she could hold him again and that the Holy Spirit would strengthen him and give him hope.
Before reflection Brinkly wanted to talk to us. She was very careful about what she said but something had been bothering her. The group had gone back into Juarez earlier that day. (I had stayed home.) They went to a lunch meeting with a Mexican official. She had been shocked about how much he sugar coated the situation in Juarez. She just wanted everyone to know that. The people around me laughed. Don’t worry, they said. It had been obvious to them after their day in Juarez anyway, that the guy was full of prunes.
He had said there were planty of jobs and that migrants could easily make a life there. This is untrue. Also Juarez has ten shootings per day. They have a problem with poverty that is obvious. Nobody had thought he was telling the truth.
Our reflection that night was much needed. Fr. Jose gently led us in an unraveling of what we had seen and heard that day. Then he played us a song about the God of silence and of night. It was soothing and reminded us that we could hide our faces in Jesus’ chest and sleep in love and prayer.
I didn’t know how I was going to sleep after all that. But I did. I was exhausted.
In my dream I am swimming in dark water. As I descend into depths unknown, I can tell there are other people watching from farther away, as if they line the walls of an underground cistern with different rooms and levels, filled with water completely, water unfathomable.
I dive into an area further down than the others. It seems like a dark aquarium but without light on either side of the glass. However I can still somehow see a box on the bottom. I open it. It is full of pictures, letters, keepsakes. In the dream I know what these things mean and I am filled with intense sorrow. My brother is at my shoulder now. A more terrible emotional pain than I have ever known fills me. I try to show my brother the things in the box and explain the significance and the pain but he can’t answer me. He only looks on. I am not sure he understands me.
I am distressed. “Why did you bring him?”
The Lord is silent, his expression inscrutable. I look at my brother who is standing at his elbow; “I can’t deal with talking to you!”
Mark’s hand had been coming out to me and he had started to say my name.
“OK OK! So I can’t fix everything at once!” he says.
He turns as if to leave but I have to ask, “Wait! … Have you seen Mom?”
“No,” he says to my surprise. “But I can feel Mom.”
I think about that. “Are you with God?”
“I’m …learning about God.” Another surprise.
“Well… where are you?”
“I don’t know. It’s just quiet here.”
I think of of the land of the Samaritans, of Jacob’s well, and the mountain in the distance where the people worshiped God whom they did not really know (see John 4:4–26.)
“Do you see anybody?”
Just Bob.* He isn’t always here but he comes to see me sometimes and we talk.
I am circling over the top of the hotel where my brother shot himself and fell from a balcony on the ninth floor.
Then I realize I am standing on the balcony next to my brother. Intense grief wells up in me.
“Didn’t you remember us? Didn’t you understand how much we loved you?”
He doesn’t look at me or speak but I feel that I am him and in my mind’s eye I see our family and all of our friends. But they are so far away as if they are across an infinite chasm.
“I saw every one of your faces.” I feel his longing and love for each one dear to him. I understood that the longing was more like a longing for the past though. To him there was no way back. I feel his overwhelming sorrow.
I understand that while to me there was a way back, to him there wasn’t.
I can’t feel the impact of the shot. I don’t hear it.
But then I experience him falling. It’s slow, very slow. He knows right away after the shot that this was all wrong, a terrible, horrible mistake.
As he falls he senses these beings all around him, present in different places all of the way down; some close, some witnessing from farther away. He realizes they are sad, so sad. He knows they are sorry for him and that they mourn over this terrible act he has just committed. They are gentle though, not angry. Just terribly terribly sad.
He wonders what they are. He thinks his sister would probably call them angels, but he isn’t sure.
What happens now?
The fall continues in slow motion.
Suddenly he’s caught. It all stops. Big strong arms squeeze him tight.
“It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. It’s all over. You’re safe. I’m here. Come on with me a while.”
Breaking the fall.
*Bob was my brother’s best friend, colleague, mentor and soul brother for 24 years. He was also his brother-in-law. Bob died in my and my brother’s arms in April of 2012.
As Suicide awareness month comes to an end my intention was to write about what happened, especially about that time leading up to my brothers suicide.
As it turns out, it is still hard to talk about. The reasons are traumatic and complicated.
Everyone says to be available, reach out, check on people, talk to them, try to get them to get help. Sometimes I feel angry when I hear that stuff. None of that worked with my brother. People “reaching out” or checking on him would have annoyed him.
I and other family members tried to get him to go to counseling, and as things got worse, to consider checking himself in somewhere because we knew he was seriously depressed, that he was in an emotionally and financially abusive relationship with his girlfriend of that time, and that he wasn’t acting like himself. We knew things were difficult at work. He seemed paranoid, angry, agitated and unbearably anxious every day. Some of his ideas about how to fix his situation at work sounded grandiose and like more than a long shot. I asked what people at work thought about these ideas. He said, “They don’t believe me.” I worried about all of this every day. We all did.
One family member was over one day when my brother started yelling at me about something no reasonable person would have even thought was something to get mad about. The family member then took me out on the porch and said, “He sounds like a lunatic!” I was exasperated. “I KNOW!”
He never used to yell at me before all this. Never.
He seemed not to know my character anymore at times- the one person who had always understood me. He called me judgmental, insensitive. I didn’t even fight back which is not normal for me. I think I was too stunned to do so. I am not sure. I stopped telling my friends what was going on, or at least the extent of it. They have known me forever so they knew anyway.
I may have thought I was being loyal or honorable or keeping things quiet but we must have seemed more crazy to the outside world than we thought. One family member who didn’t live there said it was a house of cards. Another quipped that the house must have been built on an old Indian burial ground and was cursed.
One morning I awoke to my brothers’ alarm endlessly going off. I was scared he would be late for work so I ran up the stairs as fast as I could to wake him up. I turned off the alarm and shook the lump under the comforter. A large,strange man turned over. I had no idea who he was. My daughter was sleeping downstairs. Where was my brother? The stranger shook himself awake and said he was my brother’s girl friends’ cousin.
My brother was asleep in his “man cave.” I was very upset. How could he leave us in the house with some strange man he hardly knew? He thought I was over reacting. I thought, “Am I? Am I being crazy?”
Things would be normal between us for a while as if we were in the eye of a hurricane. He hugged me one day and said he was so sorry about how he had acted in hurting my feelings the day before. “I can’t stand to hurt your little feelings.” He said, “When I hurt you I hurt me.” Or he would send me an e-mail from work saying he was sorry we hadn’t spent more time together lately and why didn’t we go on a four wheeler ride this evening when we got home.
We did go on the four wheeler ride, laughing all the time. He kept flipping off deer. I said, “Why do you keep doing that?” He said, “Because it’s so inherently WRONG! Here are these beautiful. graceful, innocent creatures who look up at you…. and you flip them off! ha ha ha ha.” I laughed too. He was so weird and I loved it.
Then a few nights later he would be yelling saying he had asked for family support and we had said no. Which was not true. I was doing everything I could think of to be supportive. I had stopped asking questions. Ever. It seemed to upset him. Even, “Where’s the cat food.” I tried to listen and be available before and after work, to hang out with him in the evenings, to listen and be supportive.
Other family members were also trying very hard. One of them was meeting my brother for lunch every day and spending time with him each evening trying to help him get through his hard time.
My youngest daughter and I lived with him for ten months after I sold my house. He had plans for building me a new one on his land with the proceeds. I would live with him until it was ready. We were so excited. I was excited to be with my brother. I tried to be excited about the house too because he was always getting me to look at plans. He even drew a picture of my cat, Godith in the house so I would be more interested. (Clever!) He dreamed of building me a little tower to meditate in, with windows all around. He drew a place for me to sit with my friends, a special window that would look into my chicken coop.
Something went wrong after about three months. I don’t know what had changed. Nothing happened with the house and his attitude got darker and bleaker.
Sometimes he talked to me about problems at work. Some of it started to sound strange. I wondered what was really going on. I asked hesitant questions. That never went well. No questions did at that time.
Guns started showing up all over the house. I don’t know much about guns but I could tell they were big, automatic weapons. They looked like space telescopes. We were stepping over them. They were in the closet and under the bed.
I tried to ask about the guns but he wouldn’t talk to me about it. Or anything,really.
I asked a family member to come get the guns away, someone I thought he would let do it. He said he was working on it. Apparently it was a touchy subject for my brother with the rest of the family too.
We were not allowed to act worried. We were not supposed to notice how crazy things seemed.
It was very strange about the guns. I don’t know why he was doing that. He had always been obsessed with something. Making home made rockets. Chess. Building beautiful speakers. He would do that thing all the time and get everyone else into it. Then he would drop it and move on to the next thing. I thought maybe moving out into the country had gotten him interested in guns. Maybe it was a neighbor that got him into it. I hate guns. I didn’t like it at all. But it was his house, as he was quick to point out those days.
He became hyper critical of me and my daughters. He had never been that way.
He was mean to my daughter and seemed to pick on her all the time. He rebuffed my attempts to stop his griping at her. She said I was just making it worse. She and I talked about it in our room at night. We would just leave the scene, we decided, when he got like that.
At some point he stopped answering my texts and e-mails. I just sent them anyway. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t just let him go without a peep.
He liked Buddha quotes so I started e-mailing him Buddha quotes every day. He said he appreciated them one time and that he often passed them on.
I prayed for him every day in an agonized way, walking with my rosary. I wondered how I could be a good sister in this situation.
Sometimes I got so worried about him I had panic attacks.
I was severely depressed myself at the time, and so was my daughter. We had lost my second husband to brain cancer three years before. Bob had also been my brother’s best friend and co-worker for 24 years. And we lost my mom six months later. She was only 63. Nobody had really recovered from that. And my brother seemed to be going under.
I used to ask him, “How was work?” when he got home, or “How was your day?” One day he said, “Don’t ask me that anymore.” So I started meeting him at the door with a glass of iced tea. “Here.” “Thanks.” “Hey look at you! You made it through the day!”
On Holy Thursday at my own house, the girls and I always washed each others’ feet. My eldest had moved to Oregon and my youngest was out that evening. I knew he wouldn’t want to do anything like that so I just stopped him in the kitchen and told him how much we all loved and appreciated him. I had a bowl of soapy water and I bent and washed his feet. “What are you doing?!”
“That made me feel really good. That was cool.” He mentioned somebody at work who was fighting cancer and that I should go and do that for her.
He started disappearing for days at a time, usually the weekends, and refusing to answer his phone. It was frightening. Sometimes I was so scared I searched his room for clues about where he might be. (Did he take his suit case? Was his toothbrush there?) I was getting a little crazy myself. Sometimes my daughter and I,along with other family members, were super angry when he got back. We asked what the hell was going on. We had been worried and so was everyone else. He was offended. He felt intruded on. He thought he should not have to answer to us and we were over reacting.
I was scared he was drinking.(He had been in recovery.) I was scared that his girlfriend would kill him one day. He moved her into the house with us and I could hear her angry screaming at him at night and what sounded like furniture being thrown around. He never said anything back.
I wanted to beat her up like I had beat up his bullies when we were kids or at least confront her but someone pointed out she had scary friends and that might not be a good idea for our family for me to do anything stupid or confront her. (One of her cousins had threatened someone working on the house, saying he was calling his gang members right then and that he would kill the man.)
I thought I should get my daughter out of there. I thought, “I should have done that months ago.” She ran away twice while we were there. It was scary and painful but I tell her now that I don’t blame her for it. The emotional climate of that house was not safe for her. I should never have stayed so long.
By this time we were locked out of the main part of the house all the time. I was able to cook for us but I had to wash dishes outside with the hose. My brother hardly ever spoke to me. He seemed brooding and angry, agitated, and not like himself.
He yelled at me because he could tell I was upset about his girlfriend though I was always polite to her. I was incredulous.
It seemed like I couldn’t do anything right.
Then some mornings he would gently wake me up, having gone and gotten me a special coffee, and invited me to come have coffee with him like when things had been normal. He would smoke and we drank our coffee like things were OK. I hugged him goodbye and after he went to work, I did too. Life seemed almost OK.
One evening I went to check on him upstairs in the loft. I told him he was looking a little better. He said that someone else had told him that that day too. He said he was trying to do some self care stuff and get into a routine again. He had gotten some movies to watch. He said maybe he was feeling a little better. He just didn’t have a sense of well being yet. He was going to up his medication he said. I was worried. “Does your doctor know you are doing that?” He didn’t answer me. Oh yeah, no questions.
He told me he was scared about what might be wrong with him. I remember the frightened look he gave me when he said that maybe he was mentally ill. This is when I dropped a very important ball he had thrown me but I didn’t know it. I did what I always did, I tried to reassure him, saying, “You’re not mentally ill! you’ve just been really really depressed and upset about a lot of things. But you’re not crazy. You’re going to be OK.”
He said, “I hope so, Shawn.” I said that I believed he was digging out of it little by little.
I am not sure if anything would be different if I had asked him more about why he thought he might be mentally ill, and what he was scared of about that. I don’t know. That was the last one on one conversation we ever had. I will never know if I should have handled it differently.
I often think, “He would have never let this happen to me.” Had our roles been switched he would have been intrusive and controlling. He would have insisted. He wouldn’t have worried what the rules were or what anybody else thought. He would have tied me to a chair if he had to.
I suppose in my defense I could say I didn’t understand. I was following my own role of being nurturing, being his defender, the person who believed in him. I had utter faith that whatever bizarre thing was going on with our relationship, it would never stand. He would come around. Things would straighten out like they always did, no matter what. I knew how necessary I was to him, and he was to me. I had complete faith in him. It was the wrong thing to do. But I didn’t know that then. If I had it to do over, I would have been mean and pushy instead. I would have hidden his car keys, taken the guns to the city dump, refused to cooperate with anything until he got the help I knew he needed. I respected him too much. More than he actually needed me to. Never do that if you know someone is in trouble. Then again, if someone is in this much trouble you may have slid down into the pit right along with them. I think this was the case. Looking back on it I don’t understand why I put up with any of what was going on at all. But that’s how it is. Everyone falls into their roles. And things get worse and worse before you realize.
He was almost never home. My seventeen year old was staying away as much as possible, always with friends. I didn’t blame her.
I had just started dating a kind, interesting (and cute!) man from Austin. We talked on the phone about every day and he was a nice break in all the chaos I was going through. Somehow we managed to fall in love in the middle of all this.
He was worried about me in this situation and he didn’t even know the half of it.
At confession, rather late in the game, I talked to a priest about the situation. I didn’t tell him much, only a few things. He asked if I had the money to support myself and my daughter on my own. I said I did and he said he would have told me to get my kid and myself out of there right away even if I hadn’t had the money. I promised him I would.
I felt guilty about leaving. I don’t know why because my brother didn’t seem to like having us around very much in those days. But I knew it made more sense for us to leave temporarily.
I started looking around for a place to live at least until my house was ready. I had lived there at my brother’s for ten months. My youngest was seventeen. This was an important year for her and me.Maybe this last year we knew we would be together we should get our own place in our old neighborhood near her friends again.
I found a place to go and quietly started making arrangements, not knowing what I would say to him about it with him seeming to be so fragile. I heard he had found out about it so I sent him an e-mail about what I was trying to do, that I would only be 15 minutes away, and maybe everyone would get along better like this until my house was ready. Maybe he could stop by on his way home from work like he always used to do.
But when I went to get money out of the bank, the account where the proceeds of my house was, in order to get deposits and other moving expenses taken care of, I discovered my account was nearly empty. To this day I don’t know what happened to it.
I don’t know if his girl friend or one of her scary friends or my brother did it. I had him on my account so he could get building materials and so on.
My eldest daughter had entrusted my brother with some money from a settlement she had from the death of her father when she was little. I called her and got her to check her account too. She only had $1000 left. We decided to close both accounts right away. We could not get much information about what had happened. There were extra accounts started in our names that we had not known about. Money had been moved between them over and over. It didn’t make any sense.
I didn’t even want to bring it up to my brother because I knew he was in such bad shape. So I didn’t. I was scared so I called a family member. This was so wildly out of character for my brother to do this or to have allowed someone else to. Doing anything that would harm me this much was so not him I was scared for him.
I was in shock. I went to stay with a friend until I could get a grip.
The family member I had told about the money tried to talk with my brother, but couldn’t get much out of him about the what had happened. I was surprised they talked about it. My instinct was to protect him for now until he was better. I wrote him an e-mail that I was OK and what I cared about was him getting better. We would work it out like we always worked out everything when the time was right. I told him I was just freaked out and would be staying with my friend for a few days. He didn’t answer but at that point he never did anymore.
A family member set up a meeting so we could talk about the whole thing, but texted me at the last minute to say he thought maybe it was not a good idea just yet.
The last time I saw my brother, I and my boyfriend were stopping by my dad’s house to drop something off. I don’t remember what it was.
I was surprised to see my brother there. They had been having dinner and he looked up, surprised to see me too. I knew he knew that I knew about the money so I was relieved when I saw him smile. I went over to him and hugged him, pressing his fuzzy little head to my shoulder, mussing his hair. He hugged me back.
He got up and shook my boyfriends’ hand in a kind purposeful way. When we left I said he had looked ill, but that he had looked better to me. My boyfriend remarked that he had looked very young, like a little boy having dinner with his parents.
Everyone was worried about him so he was staying with a family member while he tried to get better. One day he told that family member that he was going to take a little vacation time and just go somewhere, and that he would be back Friday.
He told one person he was going to Austin. He told another person he was going to Houston. Then he disappeared. We weren’t all that worried because he had been doing that from time to time, a few days here, a few days there. I reassured my family member. “He’s been doing this for a while. He’ll be back.”
I had said that I hoped he didn’t lose his job. The family member said, “I just hope he’s still alive.” I thought that was crazy. Why wouldn’t he be alive?
I was well trained not to question his actions anymore, not to express alarm, and to think everything might be a little crazy, but that it wasn’t THAT crazy.
But things were seriously wrong, and they had been getting more and more and more wrong.
The worried family member talked to my brother who said he was fine and would be home late Friday.
My thoughts were that he was at his bottom and would come up from here. When I got a message from somebody at his work asking if he was safe, if he was with me, I had replied that he had been OK the day before and we expected him home Friday. Then I got another message like that from another of his colleagues.
Then I got a message from a family member who was on a trip to Florida that Mark had sounded really weird the night before, sending texts that sounded like goodbye. Time to worry.
He wouldn’t answer his phone, would not answer texts. I called another family member. We decided to call the police.
I texted and called over and over, even sending the number of a suicide hotline in case he would rather not talk to us. I hoped it was all overkill that he would gripe at us about later. It did not seem real.
Later I got a text from a family member: “Just received Mark’s suicide e-mail.”
I rushed to be with family. When I got there I started to read the suicide e-mail. It was addressed to two other family members and said they were the only people in the world who loved him. I remarked, “There must be another one for me,” and asked if I could check my own e-mail. There was nothing. So I scanned the only letter, which began, “By the time you read this I will be dead.”
I was in shock, as you can imagine. We all were. He only mentioned me twice in the letter, and my children not at all. What he did say about me was that he didn’t know what to say about me and that I would “make up [my] own s*** anyway.” And he said I would be “OK… in every way.”
Then he gushed about the two family members to whom his letter was addressed, asked that they one of them take care of the other one, asked that they be kind to his girl friend, and gave unrealistic financial advice about selling his house and car in order to take care of the one of them who was financially challenged.
He said he knew people who were suicidal always say this but he didn’t see any other way out.
He said he couldn’t believe he was doing this but he was doing it.
As the police were doing whatever they were doing, we were desperately texting him. I begged him not to do this. I reminded him the kids had already lost two fathers. I said I didn’t care about the money and that we always had each other no matter what, that it may seem hopeless but there was a way through.
The others were doing the same. One of us said, “it says the message was delivered. Maybe he’s still alive!” We didn’t know where he was. I had no idea I had been in the building next door to where he was when I got the text about the suicide letter.
At some point I felt unwanted for some reason. One family member did tell me this was not my fault, and that the letter had been cruel. I will always be grateful for her kind words and her hug.
I went to my friends’ house where I had been staying. My other friends began to show up to wait with me.
I sent one of my daughter’s friends to pick her up from her boyfriends’ house but to my surprise she refused to get in the car. She seemed to think I was going to give her a talk or something and she wouldn’t come home. I had to let her be.
At about 9pm I got a call from a family member that said the police had just been there to notify them that they had found my brother. He had been at a hotel in town and he had shot himself. He was dead.
My friends drove me to go tell my daughter before she saw it on the news or something. She was sitting on the porch when we got there. Someone had already told her. She said, “Mom, it’s not your fault.”
When I called my eldest daughter she was hysterical at the news. Her husband cried too. She had just gotten home a day or so before from visiting us but she got in her car and headed back to Texas pretty much right away. She called several times along the way crying.
Not me. I didn’t cry. I don’t remember crying.
Everyone seemed relieved when my boyfriend got there from Austin. I remember putting my head on his chest in my friend’s kitchen.
Another friend had been cooking mushroom curry. I had love and support.
Friends continued to arrive. Some even came from far away to sit with me, old friends. People from work came by.
My closest friends and my youngest daughter came one night to pray the rosary for my brother. I remember my friends in a circle on the living room floor, candles burning, rosaries in hand. We prayed and cried and hugged each other sometimes. We talked. We remembered.
A dear friend who is a deacon came over too. He even talked to my other daughter over the phone. The girls wanted to know what happened to his soul. Our Deacon said that the Church commends such souls to God’s holy mercy.
One family member came over and cried in my arms asking how I could over forgive them. I didn’t know why. Why that question? Forgive what?
They said if that was them in that letter, if our places were reversed, “I would want to die.”
“Well I do,” I said. “But that’s not your fault.”
They said they would do whatever they had to to get my money back for me. Which seemed a strange far away concern to me.
People tell me I often acted like I was OK, that I laughed and joked around some. Other times I seemed so far away my friends thought, “Our friend is just gone.”
Time passed. I don’t remember much about those dark days that stretched into months and years.
I was like someone who had just come back from war. I was shell shocked a lot of the time. I had nightmares if I slept at all. I yelled at people over nothing. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Everything triggered me. I wondered if this was how my brother felt. People were there caring about me but I didn’t feel their love. I felt unwanted. In some cases this was true, to my dismay. But most of the time it wasn’t.
My friends had been through so much with me, other tragedies included.
This one, I reflected, was the one that broke me.
My boyfriend would drive me to Austin because he had to work and he was afraid for me to be alone. I used to sit in the lobby at his work staring at the covers of magazines.
He drove me back. I only remember that it was dark.
I got an apartment. I sat there alone with my books and my daughter’s little dog, Flower.
I didn’t understand anything.
I couldn’t get the information I thought would make this make sense. Nobody would talk to me about it who might know. I was scared anyway that I would find something out that would hurt me more.
I couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t stand any more pain.
People seemed so far away and the world didn’t seem real to me.
Maybe that’s how my brother felt.
Maybe that’s what he thought about on that hotel balcony.
A few years later I finally thought of talking to the hotel manager. He told me my brother had been there a week. He had seemed fine. He had spoken to him. He had sat by the pool with his coffee and cigarettes working on his lap top.
Then on the Friday, August 21st at about 3 O’clock or so he had parked his car beside an obscure emergency exit, taken a gun out of his trunk, climbed nine flights to a tiny balcony overlooking the pool and patio, sat on the rail, and publicly shot himself. Someone at the pool had called 911. The police had told the hotel manager that he had probably done it this way to ensure that if the gun shot didn’t kill him the fall would.
I never saw his body. The police report is sealed (I don’t know why.) The police said they would talk to me and then wouldn’t. I cannot see the autopsy report. I don’t know what kind of gun it was. I don’t know what was on his phone besides our desperate messages. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why he seemed to be angry with me when he died.
All of my reading of public documents and trying to talk to people helped me feel less helpless for a little while.
I went to the hotel. I walked the way he had taken. I went up the stairs. I sat on the balcony for an hour. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t know what I was feeling. I didn’t cry until I left.
Twenty-one years ago, my youngest daughter, Roise, (pronounced “Rose,”) was born at home, at sunrise. My dear friend, a nurse and midwife, Andrea, put her on my stomach. My baby looked up at me with frightened eyes, and said “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
As her dad, who was in our bed holding me, sobbed with joy, I said to my child, “It’s OK! I’m your Mama!” I nursed her for the first time, and my husband, Blaze, gave her her first bath in our kitchen sink, after my sister in law, Shawna, had cut her umbilical cord. All the women in the family were in the bedroom with us when Roise was born; my step mom, my daughter, Maire, who had run in at the right moment, and my mom, holding Maire in her arms.
After everything was all cleaned up and Roise Mariah was pronounced robustly healthy, everyone left with a happy glow. Maire and Blaze climbed into bed with Roise and me and we had a long family nap. It was beautiful.
I’m having coffee with my friend, Andrea, mid-wife and Hospice nurse. She’s talking about work and spirituality. People often ask her how she can do what she does, especially the Hospice work. But she says that, aside from being tired sometimes, and worried about her own problems when she’s on her way to work, there’s nothing negative about what she does. She forgets everything else in the presence of a laboring woman or a dying person. “It’s like a window to Heaven!”
More often than not, dying people she comes into contact with are in a state of peace as they near the end of their earthly lives, and they commonly seem to be seeing and talking to people in the room that nobody else can see, most often, people they love who have died.
My mother looked up in wonder, not having really spoken for months at the end of her illness. “What are you all doing here? Are you going to take me with you?”
The deaths Andrea has been able to be present for were powerful spiritual experiences for her. The houses of the dying are filled with God’s presence, and she prays deeply when she is working with a patient and his or her family.
She is more grounded and profoundly present than at any other time in her life, she reflects, when she is working.
Sometimes, as she goes about her own daily business, she thinks, “Wow, I really did that.”
The morning my second husband, Bob, had died, Andrea had the beautiful idea of inviting our close women friends to come and wash and anoint his body. She thought of it because in the Bible, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial with bathing, oils and spices.
Our friend, Amy, had a set of Biblical essential oils, such as frankinsence, myrrh, myrtle, spikenard, etc.
Andrea, with solemn tenderness, guided us through an improvised ritual; with Bob’s body modestly draped, we washed him reverently, and anointed him with fragrant oils.
We cried and we prayed.
She guided family and friends in prayer and asked each of us if we had anything we wanted to say as we waited for the funeral home, and for our friend, Deacon Ron Fernandes, who led us in prayer and blessing, and even singing.
“When a family is spiritual, it’s really nice for me- especially if they are Catholic. I am always glad to see icons or a crucifix or picture of Mother Mary in a house. Then I know I can openly pray the rosary. The rosary is definitely the prayer I pray the most during my work.”
“During labor or grief, my imagery/prayer is, ‘Please, Mother Mary wrap this mother, this couple, this family, me, in your mantle of grace and mercy.’ I call that image to my mind.”
Andrea says she often senses the presence of Mary at births, especially.
“I think I identify with her because she labored to birth Jesus, she was human, and she suffered the grief of His death. This comforts and gives me strength.”
I have always thought it was perfect that Andrea was born on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12. The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is the patroness of the unborn, and in that image, she is pregnant.
“People are always so grateful. And I think, I didn’t DO anything, I was just there!”
I know why people are grateful. They are grateful because she was there. Andrea brings a sense of solid, motherly, and professional competence into a frightening situation, she gives the intimate and ultimate mysteries of birth and death back into the hands of the family. Then these events become far more personal, home and family-centered experiences because of her courage and love, her willingness to come to the family, and serve them where they are, in order to allow them to give birth, or to die, at home. This is a gift of peace.
She recognizes, nurtures and draws out the best in people when it is most needed. She makes them feel empowered in trusting the process.
Precious to me is the memory of Andrea holding my hand as I labored in the bath tub. I laughed and said I could not imagine our family doctor doing this, as good as he is.
“There is just so much love that is there,” she says, tearing up.
She is certainly adept at finding the beauty inherent in these events, and transmitting it just where it is needed.
As we talked about her work, she cried now and then. Don’t worry, she cries easily. She also believes so much in what she is doing, she is very passionate about it. She gets frustrated trying to describe her thoughts and experiences. She thinks she is in-eloquent. But she’s not.
Andrea is very earthy, and as I thought about what she was saying, and what I learned, having watched her work, I see that her spirituality involves being very in tune with the Sacred Humanity of Christ, of the physicality of birth, suffering, and death, of what Veronica’s veil would have really looked like, smeared with the dirt, blood, sweat, snot, and tears of the very real Face of Our Lord.
The blood and water from the side of Christ make sense to Andrea. She has these all over her all the time. She understands the physical as deeply spiritual. Hers is an Incarnational spirituality, true to the One who came to share our sufferings and give us life; actual life, not just an idea, Life we can touch and hold. That’s how real the Resurrection was. Jesus wasn’t just a spirit. He was and is real. His wounds were touched by His disciples. He ate with his traumatized friends. He comforted them.
Andrea experiences this truth of the Incarnation as an every day reality, and to her, it just is.
Well, not really, because she cries when you try to get her to talk about it.
The trip to Corpus Christi where my parents both were from was usually taken in the evening. At that time (the early 1970’s) traveling the 250 miles from College Station where my parents attended Texas A & M, to Corpus in our VW Bug (we had a couple of VW vans over the years too) took about six hours.
We made this journey often. This was where both sets of grandparents and lots of extended family lived. We went for holidays, sometimes for the weekend, sometimes because my mom was homesick, or because we were out of money and needed help.
At those times, one or both grandmothers offered to pay our gas, feed us for a couple of days and send us home with groceries.
Sometimes my parents needed more time for school and work and sanity so they had us stay there for extended time in summer. They were quite young and they needed a lot of support back then.
A night drive was preferable in part because our car didn’t have air conditioning and it is almost always hot in Texas.
Often there was little radio reception so my family made requests for me to sing. I had our Linda Ronstadt albums memorized in particular and I was a good singer.
Like a lot of siblings on trips we tended to fight in the back seat. I am sure this is another reason for the evening departures. We would sleep more and bug them less.
I liked listening to mom and dad talking after my brother fell asleep. I liked looking at the moon and wondering why we never passed it up. I liked looking at the patches of earth we drove by in an instant but that were the whole world to the bugs that lived in the grass there, or to the person who woke up and saw that patch of earth every day. My brother and I talked about these things when he was awake. He liked to think about that stuff too, gazing at our feet on the car window, considering the scattered stars beyond, the shapes of buttery clouds, wondering what other people thought about.
Or maybe he would fall asleep on me and not get off and I would have to push him into the floorboard and then various forms of chaos would ensue. You know how it is.
Whether we slapped each other or not, we regarded this trip as a sacred journey. The excitement was intense. A lot of the happiness was about seeing my maternal grandmother, “Granny,” whose house was our unquestioned home base in Corpus Christi. We loved her passionately. We loved Grandaddy and all the assorted animals that lived in or around the little house on Dewitt Street.
We loved rolling cigarettes for them with their cigarette roller (and being paid a nickel apiece!) We loved playing Dominoes and “Go Fish” with Grandaddy and hearing his stories. Granny was colorful and funny and a little bit crazy and she loved us like we were her everything.
We could recite the names of the towns along the way from College Station to Corpus Christi and that is how we understood how far along we were on the way.
It was our sacred duty to wake one another as we approached certain markers of the journey’s progress.
The Shamrock station in La Grange was one of these places. It had a covered vending machine area and everyone was allowed to get something. This was a very big deal because my mom did not let us have soda or junk food as a rule.
My brother loved the hilly winding road outside La Grange with the stone walls on either side. I had to wake him up for that so he wouldn’t miss it.
Here is Giddings where our van engine blew up that year and Sally had to come pick us up.
The halfway point outside of Victoria had to be noted and celebrated by all.
The turn off near Refugio.
Portland… The first sight of the water.
We were always so excited at the sight of the Harbor Bridge (usually just called “The High Bridge”) that crossed to Corpus Christi I am surprised we didn’t throw up.
Both of us could hardly contain shrieks of joy as we began the ascent. For a while, all you can see is steep climbing road ahead lit by headlights, and the vast expanses of dark water to either side. Then at the highest point of the bridge suddenly the sparkling city opens out before the traveler like a fairy kingdom. It was a moment of awe I was to duplicate for my own children.
Neither of us would ever let the other sleep through that.
We would always try to pick out which one of those lights might be Granny’s house.
The excitement at this point was almost too much for us.
Her house was out in Flour Bluff so it took some extra time to get there. We always went down Shoreline and Ocean Drive along the bay with its sea wall, palm trees and tall houses, past the hospital where I was born, past that ugly church with all the bells that my mom said was an eye sore. I always watched for that great big pink mansion with the back yard sloping into the sea, wondering what it would be like to walk out your back door and be standing at the edge of the sea like that. There was the house that looked like a castle, too.
We were sure we could smell the salt air, that we could feel the ocean’s greeting.
By the time we turned from South Padre Island Drive onto Talmadge and then to Dewitt Street, pulling into the little driveway with its over arching Oleander trees, we were usually screaming with happiness.
The screen door would fly open and slam against the house. Granny would be standing on the threshold, her arms open wide, yelling, “MY BABIES!” as we shot out of the car like rockets to be scooped up and squeezed tight. Cats ran every which way, dogs barked, people laughed and exclaimed and hugged. My grandfather would hang back shyly, pointlessly telling the dogs to quiet down, until we jumped all over him like maniacs too.
There was always coffee on and a pot of beans on the stove.
Eventually we fell asleep on pallets on the floor near the big air conditioner in the living room window as the grown-ups talked and smoked late into the night.
My brother and I were standing on the loading dock at the Eagle Newspaper where we both worked, looking out at the woods across the street, the sky, the parking lot. People were working around us unloading trucks, driving the forklift, walking in and out of “the roll room” where the giant rolls of newsprint were stacked waiting to be loaded onto the press as needed. Sometimes he lifted his chin curtly at someone going by. He was the Production Director so there was hardly any such thing as a break for him. There were texts, phone calls and people stopping by to ask questions.
“Yes… that ad, yes. I called already, yes. You. Pain is the ass. Yes.”
The Eagle had a family atmosphere and Mark was like everyone’s Uncle and to most people he was also their friend.
I was trying to talk to him about his smoking, hopeless though I knew it was. “I read that non smokers live an average of ten years longer than smokers,” I was telling him as he listened patiently, drawing on his cigarette as I spoke. “So what?” he asked charactaristcally. I said, “Since I am a vegetarian and we live eight years longer than meat eaters, that means I will have to live eighteen years without you! I don’t want to live all those years without you!!!!”
He looked at me then, holding his latest lungful.
“Better start smokin’!” he said in chokey voice.
That is one of my funny Mark stories. There are so many.
He was funny, quick, tough, talented, cocky and competent, sometimes arrogant and “full of piss, wind and vinegar,” as my granny used to say.
He was short so he had to learn to be like that. It worked for him, and I am so proud of all that he accomplished. I was his sister. I knew he could do anything and he pretty much could.
He wrote in an e-mail to me once, “You are among my chief comforts.” Did I say eloquent? Because he was eloquent, too. Intelligent. Thoughtful. Reflective.
He was a person of depth. He was a master of banter but he disliked meaningless conversations.
He always knew the right thing to say to me.
When I was pregnant with my first daughter and freaked out about the overwhelming prospect of motherhood, he had said, “Shawn think of it this way, there will be a new sweet little baby in the world! And that baby will grow up to be a gentle human being. We need gentle human beings. I know that’s what I value most about myself.”
Some people would be surprised that he valued his gentleness most. They wouldn’t know he had that quality. He could definitely play the games of the world- something I have never been able to do. He really did see the corporate world, the business world, the get things done world as a game. It was fun to him though I saw that he regretted it deeply when someone was personally hurt by him winning. He was a good guy even though he enjoyed being a little deviant at times. I mean coloring outside the lines in ways he thought benefited the people who worked for him over whom he felt very protective. (When people around him were mad at him they thought he was patronizing. He could be patronizing.)
Some of the things he did were big heroic risks that saved people’s jobs at the risk of his career had he lost his bet with luck. Other times I thought he was just showing off a little bit or seeing what he could get away with. “Ha haaaaa! Gotcha!”
I think he felt justified if the people he fooled were mean or threatening to his “people.”
Also almost anything was justified if it was funny. That is an unspoken rule in my family. You better be smart and if you mess up it had better be funny. Or at least being funny or making the whole thing hilarious will get you points. Always.
My brother had the gift of presence. The people closest to him knew that sitting with Mark in silence or telling him something important was different than being with or talking to anyone else. He was all there with you, with all of himself. Somehow he understood everything, or seemed to, the way the person in front of him was feeling it. As our friends since childhood, Mike and Kenny said about him, “Listening to music with Mark was different than listening to music with anyone else.” Part of this may have been that the four of us were in a band together for 16 years. But I think it has more to do with the quality of Mark’s presence and friendship than that.
He was loyal, and he invoked that loyalty in others. People who loved him would do anything for him and did.
There were little everyday things he did that showed his mind was on the people around him. He always kept a cache of nickels (his favorite coin since childhood) in his desk drawer at work in case anybody needed change for the vending machines.
His co-workers did little things for him too.
Cindy, his right hand person, parked in his parking spot just to make sure it stayed open for him one time. He laughed. He appreciated that kind of thing.
The people around him had faith in his abilities. When I worried about him, his friends at work would say, “He didn’t get where he is by being stupid. He’ll be fine.”
He liked to bring people together to enjoy each other. He loved watching people he loved talk and have fun together.
That is one of the reason he had a pool put in at the old house we grew up in. He loved having people over to the pool and waiting on them hand and foot.
When my first husband lay in his coffin after the Vigil (wake) my brother put his hand on his chest and promised him he would take care of me and the kids.
He kept that promise almost until the end of his life. He was part of my kids’ daily lives. He was over almost every day. When I was at my wit’s end he would come pick up the girls and take them to The Kettle (a diner kind like Denny’s in our town where we used to hang out.)
They would clamor all over him until he said, “Shut it, Rat!”
He loved them like they were his own children. He fretted about them, picked them up from school, lectured them, talked about them to his friends, came with me to teacher meetings if he could. I can’t imagine a better Uncle.
He could also be ridiculous like when he would try to reason with a wildly weeping teen-aged girl in a restaurant parking lot with me saying, “Mark! You are just making it worse!”
He liked to take me to lunch. He liked to talk to me about his problems over coffee and cigarettes and listen to mine.
If we hadn’t seen one another or had time to hang out for a while he would sometimes say, “Hey, we both do better when we make time to be together enough.” It was true.
His spiritual beliefs could be described as fairly minimal, although he believed in Something. He just thought that Something was unknowable. His argument was that God is so big you can’t know him like you know a person. “We’re all just fleas. What do we know?” I knew he respected my spirituality so I said, “What about me?” He said, “You’re just a really smart flea.” I loved it.
It’s funny how he claimed basic agnosticism or only the vaguest spiritual beliefs but he understood my most intimate of secrets in my experiences with God as someone very serious about the life of prayer would. He got it. “I just translate it into my own language,” he used to say. I was fine with that. I always felt understood by him and he felt understood by me.
One time he found a little baby bird and he looked up how to care for it. He took care of it for several days and was heart broken when it died. “Yesterday he wasn’t feeling very good,” he said with the sadness you would normally see in someone talking about about a sick relative. When the little bird died he could hardly talk about it.
He worried he had fed it the wrong thing. He kept trying to figure out what made the little bird sick like that.
Sitting with him on the porch was like total inner peace to me. Even when he wanted to take me on a wild ride on his motorcycle or his latest car I was never scared. I laughed or I closed my eyes happily but I was never scared. He was a skilled driver and I simply trusted him completely.
He felt taken aback that none of that scared me. Not going over a hundred miles and hour on his bike, not a jump in a go-cart. He thought my fearlessness was a little creepy. I think I was fearless because of trust.
We had a few fights and disagreements. We had terrible crises we weathered together. But that trust in our essential unity gave me total confidence that we would get back on track every time.
We had observed that since we were kids we felt like he and I were the family. We had these parents and they did this and that but we were what we called “the core.” We reminded one another of that in the many losses and tragedies in our lives. No matter what we always had each other.
We told each other everything. We even shared gum. (Mostly to gross out other people at work but if I said, “Hey you have gum where is MY gum? He would half his piece and give it to me even if he was already chewing it.)
I think of blue eyes and cigarette smoke, a cup of coffee and the setting sun, a new song he wanted me to hear. Laughter.
I can’t really tell you all about my brother. Like you, he was an entire universe. Like all deep relationships, ours was also a living thing, a world we comfortably inhabited together and sometimes let other people hang out in, too.
How can you share a universe with someone who never traveled there? I don’t know. But I know there are people you love very much; maybe as much as I loved my brother, maybe as much as he loved me (which my dad said was more than anyone on the planet loved anyone but I think he was exaggerating.)
This month is suicide awareness month. I have decided to follow Leticia Adams’ lead and write about my experience with suicide. This is what I wrote today, I will write more.
It’s been four years. It was four years in August. The pain changes but it hasn’t stopped. There are tears in my eyes as I write this.
It hurts like hell.
P.S. He wouldn’t have liked this song. Just so you know. However, right now it is on target with how I feel. So he can just deal with that.
It’s been a stressful day. But we are here together at Hensel Park. I played here when I was little. My daughters played here growing up. Now Arelani does, too. She considers it “her” park. I brought her even though it is the hottest part of the day in the hottest part of a Texas summer.
I am anxious and worried about many things. So it takes a special effort to make consistent eye contact with her, to respond to what she says, to play with her attentively, given the stresses of the day.
I have learned from the practice of inner prayer how to bring myself back again and again gently each time I am distracted by a wayward thought about this or that.
After a while this practice with Lani becomes easy. I realize I feel peaceful in a similar way I do when I am grounded in prayer.
Time seems to flow back into itself like the tide drawing away, leaving its treasures on the beach.
The cicadas chant in the trees around us. A hot wind lifts her curly black hair, a curtain pulled away from her face – a face unbelievably pretty- sweeter than any Disney princess. The conversation is simple (she’s three,) and tender, her black eyes wide, soft and steady. We smile at each other in a timeless moment. She reaches over and clears my tousled hair from my face. Peering at me closely,she seems lovingly amused.
She crosses a little bridge, turning to beckon to me, “Come on, Granny, this way.”
It strikes me that she is the Christ Child or maybe the little Child Mary leading the way for me; to love, to hope, to the Kingdom where the littlest are the brightest of all.
The idea we can love Jesus in others, or learn to love others by seeing Christ in them may sound impersonal at first. But Arelani never seemed more herself to me than when I saw her as having the Little One inside her. I was seeing the truth of her, her “Arelani-ness” itself. Are we not each part of the Body of Christ? When someone sees the Lord in us, is that not only the simple truth? It does not make us less personally loved, but more so when the Lord of Love who is truly within us is experienced by another person.
We slide down the slide, we swing. We sing in the pavilion that echoes, run in circles for fun, watch ants. I take a picture of her running through a field of yellow flowers; a little kid in overalls and tee shirt, wild hair flying. She’s excited and she looks back to yell, “I yuv you, Granny!”
“I love you too, Pooh,” I say as I clump along behind her.
Later she picks a few flowers for her mama. She gets lost in the lovely details of one of these, touching each petal in awe. She sits down with it. Nothing else exists to her.
Time is a gift we can open and make holy by attentiveness. This is the “sacrament of the present moment.” * This is God with us. This is the first commandment and the second also.
Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)