The Surrogate Voice

Some moments last a lifetime.

Chicago Seven - Dale Hartwig in red shirt

My friend Dale has Parkinson’s. He has boarded a train in Michigan (he’s now in a long-term care center there) to be with “The Chicago Seven” – the seven former classmates who gather annually at McCormick Theological Seminary. This year, Dale’s speech is hard to comprehend. He is reduced to listening. Death and dying are sitting at the table.At the morning reflection and round-table sharing, Dale is sitting to my right. When his turn comes, we look at Dale. There is an awkward silence. He hands me something. He wants me to read aloud what he’s written. I read his words aloud.

Gordon C. Stewart  – written in thanksgiving for the Chicago Gathering, 2004:


The surrogate voice reads on,

the author sits and sobs

wrenching tears from primal depth:

from some abyss of joy or nothingness…or both.

The author’s sighs and piercing sobs

arrest routine,

invoke a hush,

dumb-found the wordy room.

He cannot speak,

his Parkinsons’ tongue tied,

his voice is mute, in solitude confined,

all but sobs too deep for words.

Another now becomes his  voice

offering aloud in a dummy’s voice

the muted contribution

in poetic verse the ventriloquist’s voice has penned.

The abyss of muted isolation ope’d,

his words, re-voiced aloud,

hush the seven to sacred silence,  all…

except from him, their author.

Whence comes this primal cry:

From depths of deep despair and death,

from loneliness, or depths of joy

We do not know.

The surrogate voice reads on

through author’s signs and sobs,

through his uncertain gasps for air

and our uncertain care.

The iron prison gates – the guards

of his despair – unlock and open out

to turn his tears from prison’s hole

to tears of comrade joy.

His word is spoken, his voice is heard,

a word expressed

in depth and Primal Blessing,

pardoned from the voiceless hell.

The stone rolls back,

rolls back, rolls back,

from the brother’s prison’s tomb,

the chains of sadness snap and break!

At one, at one, we Seven stand,

in Primal Silence before the open tomb,

as tears of loss, of gain, of tongues released

re-Voice unbroken chords of brotherhood.

 All moments are sacred. Some last a lifetime.

21 thoughts on “The Surrogate Voice

  1. WOW! What a powerful, moving, and touching piece about Dale and the Gathering 2004!
    Harry (the Horse) here, Gordon! PROUD to be a member of the Gathering (aka: the CHICAGO SEVEN). Clearly, you’ve touched many others (awesome responses/replies) with your vulnerability,
    insight, creativity, and depth! I hope there’s a way you can share this story with Gene +
    Dale & Gene’s daughters, Amy & Jennifer. Remember how dumbstruck we were when we realized
    the Biblical insights Dale was sharing (through you) were from the New Testament he was reading IN GREEK??!!
    What more can I add? In 2004, Dale was just as much of an inspiration to ME as he was to YOU! Though you and I have been dear friends (and in one another’s weddings) since in 1964, we’ve not discussed/debated our “theology of angels” much – but, to me, Dale was/is a “Messenger of God .” Perhaps you recall – no offense, but I do not – the substance of Dale’s translation and commentary from from Greek New Testament (though I’m positive it was from a letter from Paul). What I CAN AFFIRM is my recollection of the PASSION, the CONFIDENCE, and the WISDOM in Dale’s words. Perhaps, most of all – Dale’s TEARS were a prayer of gratitude to God, because a brother & friend named Gordon could “let me LIVE again – let me SPEAK again – let me SHARE what is in the depth of my heart and soul, when I’ve been unable to communicate WHAT REALLY MATTERS TO ME for, oh, so long!”
    Dale is not the ONLY ANGEL in my life, Friend – thanks for BEING YOU! Thanks for saying, “Yes, God. Yes, Dale. It would be an honor to be “YOUR Surrogate Voice.”


  2. Over the last ten years, I’ve had a lot of close contact with people experiencing illness in all forms. I don’t know how this happened, or why this happened, but it changed the way I perceived… everything, to be quite honest.

    So, when I read this beautiful piece yesterday, I needed a little time to consider what you conveyed here. (Once again, you’ve said so much in such a short space, I found myself having a “WOW” moment.)

    I think… the best thing you can offer someone in your life who is living with illness is to look that person right in the eye and be fully present to his/her experience. The seven of you collectively were there, for each other, in exactly this way. And, as a few people have pointed out, sometimes this one thing— being there, really there— is hard to do.

    I’m so, so glad you wrote about this visit with your friends from seminary. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read this piece more than once and ponder its widths and depths. Thank you.


    • Hi Bluebird, I added a photo of the Seven this afternoon. That was the last year all seven of us were together. The friend that mailed me the photo last night, Harry STrong, reminded me that what Dale was shasring was a reflection based on his reading of the Greek New Testament. I’ve asked Harry to come to the site to share his comment. You can look for it here tomorrow or the next day.

      Thank you, again, for your observations. It’s those serenditious, raw, moments in which we are MOST alive, whether it be a moment of shared grief and sorrow, or one of great elation, as between two lovers. We’re not actors with walk through lines. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we’re our best when we’re real.


      • Gordon—

        Even when you’re writing off-the-cuff you say these really potent things. I am amazed by your ability to be so clear, concise, and honest.

        Without the moments you mentioned— the raw ones— life turns into a series of grocery lists and episodic popcorn epiphanies. I’m doing my best (as I think many people are) to embrace the real The Velveteen Rabbit in myself and in others.

        I can’t wait to read your friend/colleague’s commentary tomorrow.


  3. Gordon, I now know what your pastoral duty was that kept you from Bible study on Monday. I am so sorry to hear about your close friends illness but am so glad that you have had the opportunity to spend the time with him. I am sure that you are a great comfort to him.


    • Some things hit you right between the eyes. There were actually two situations that called for immediate attention Monday. The way ahead for the one is not treacherous. The other is. Thanks for the support. I knew you all would get along just as well without the pastor. I hear it was a fruitful discussion of the Beatitude and what follows in The Sermon on the Mount. No need for an alpha dog to lead that discussion. None of us gets it yet!


  4. Gordon, I want to say that your writing touches an open and vulnerable place in me that I generally guard quite sternly. There is a part of me that is willing to be open and to hear another in their nakedness, and be moved by it; even changed by it.

    I am grateful that you are willing to be that open, and that my soul is able to respond within me. It is so beautifully human. I think these kinds of shared experiences with you and the other commenters here, is exactly what God creates human beings for.

    Thank you all.


    • Couldn’t agree more that being real is all we’re created to be. We’re all just the children of God – and young children are delighfully unmasked and wonderfully real. They also sometimes forget that others aren’t aware of what’s going on inside until they speak. Son John at age two was having a terrible day. “John, what’s gotten into you?” asked his mom. “You know,” he said. “No. I don’t know,” she said. “You KNOW,” he insisted. “My tummy aches!”.


  5. My preaching prof at sem developed Parkinson’s a few years after I graduated. He was a good teacher, and an excellent preacher. He drew pictures with his words.

    A few years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, I was back at sem for a conference. I saw him in a pew with his comrades during chapel. He looked fine, and I decided that I would make a point to greet him and thank him for all he had given me.

    The service was over and people were milling about when I went to where he was still seated. I greeted him and he turned to me. His head was cocked at an awkward angle, his mouth drawn up into a crooked rictus, his arm struggling to reach up to mine so we could shake. I’m sure my surprise and shock showed on my face.

    I have regretted my reaction ever since.

    I did not see him again while I was there, and he has passed away since. I trust that he has heard my prayed apology and understood my love for him. I believe he has forgiven my rudeness.

    Oh, his name was Rev. Dr. Sheldon Tostengaard, professor of Homeletics, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.


    • Touching story, HMB. My father had Parkinson’s, and I’ve ministered to a number of wonderful people with Parkinson’s, like Jan in Cincinnati who sang in the Knox Choir (SUPERB CHOIR) until she could no longer sing. Like many others with Parkinson’s Jan had a great sense of humor. She refused to get rid of Rufus, her out-of-control Boxer puppy, although he was a constant menace to her walking. I think she saw her freer self in Rufus. I’d bet dollars to donuts that your dear professor Tostengaard fully understood your dilemmma. Sadness, of course, is in order because you would like to have been more controlled. But control is not always possible, and it’s often not real either. I’m sure your reaponse did not surprise him. He, too, like my father, and like Jan, would have been as surprised as you were to find him in his debilitated state. We all think we’re Rufus, no matter what).


    • I think rudenss is when you intend to assault someone. You may be embarassed by your reaction which I am sure most people would display but your reaction was not rude.


  6. What a beautiful and amazing picture of that moment you all shared. Communicating and listening to each other, sometimes feeling success, sometimes wondering, is so huge a part of all our lives.

    I like what you said about moments. Maybe that’s why writers are so drawn to watch and try to preserve as many as they can.


  7. Speechless – this is so beautifully written! I grew up with a man that had Parkinson’s Disease. I remember his struggles in the end. He was so eloquent before it took over his body. Thank you for posting this – it made me remember.


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