The Widower and the Wife

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THE WIDOWER

Ninety-year old “John” still drives to church. He comes alone now, one month after his wife died.

He parks his car on the street, as he has for forty years.

“Good morning, John! Good to see you. Am I remembering correctly that you lost your wife recently?”

“Yes,” he says. It would have been 62 years next month.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss. These days must be very lonely.”

“Yes. Very,” he says, his gentle eyes seemingly thankful for the momentary recognition of his plight, followed by a pause. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says.  “I’m ready to go. I’m not saying I want to go, but I’m ready.”

“Old age ain’t for the faint of heart, is it, John?” “It sure isn’t,” he says.

THE WIFE

During his wife’s long illness, she, too, had spoken about being “ready to go.”

“I want to die,” she’d said, “before you have to put me in memory care.”

The thought of transfer from independent living to the lock-down memory care unit seemed worse than death. She’d made too many visits there. Seen too many old friends get lost in there, taking food that no longer nourishes, spoonfuls of institutional food administered for the purpose of keeping inmates alive for no reason but to prolong bodies that can’t remember their own names.

“I wish I could just walk off into the woods,” she’d said, “the way other animals do. This is unreal. I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid of becoming a burden.”

“DEATH IN THE WOODS”- Thomas MacDonagh

When I am gone and you alone are living here still,
You’ll think of me when splendid the storm is on the hill,
Trampling and militant here — what of their village street?–
For the baying of winds in the woods to me was music sweet.

Oh, for the storms again, and youth in my heart again!
My spirit to glory strained, wild in this wild wood then,
That now shall never strain — though I think if the tempest should roll
I could rise and strive with death, and smite him back from my soul.

But no wind stirs a leaf, and no cloud hurries the moon;
I know that our lake to-night with stars and shadows is strewn–
A night for a villager’s death, who will shudder in his grave
To hear — alas, how long! — the winds above him rave.

How long! Ah, Death, what art thou, a thing of calm or of storms?
Or twain — their peace to them, to me thy valiant alarms?
Gladly I’d leave them this corpse in their churchyard to lay at rest,
If my wind-swept spirit could fare on the hurricane’s kingly quest.

And sure ’tis the fools of knowledge who feign that the winds of the world
Are but troubles of little calms by the greater Calm enfurled:
I know then for symbols of glory, and echoes of one Voice dread,
Sounding where spacious tempests house the great-hearted Dead.

And what but a fool was I, crying defiance to Death,
Who shall lead my soul from this calm to mingle with God’s very breath!–
Who shall lead me hither and perhaps while you are waiting here still,
Sighing for thought of me when the winds are out on the hill.

  • Thomas MacDonagh (1 February 1878 – 3 May 1916 / Cloughjordan / Ireland), executed by firing squad 3 May 1916 at the age of 39 for participation in the Irish rebellion called “Easter Rising”.

John now visits his wife among the ashes he’s scattered in the wooded glen behind their home, in the greater Calm under the old oak tree, among the animals, “sighing for thought of [her] when the winds are out on the hill.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 12, 2017.

 

The larks still bravely sing

The unexpected news of my cousin Dennis’ death came as a surprise but it was not a shock.

Late last spring Dennis “went dark”, disappearing except for occasional appearances at the grocery story in the his childhood hometown to which he had returned in hopes of going home again, forgetting Thomas Wolfe’s wisdom.

May 29 – days before his bipolar disorder led him to lock out the world – he wrote on FaceBook. “Today the choir at South Paris Congregational Church will sing an arrangement of the poem ‘In Flanders Field’. It is a very moving arrangement of this well known poem. So proud to be a member of this talented choir.”

Here’s the text of the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

  • John McCrae, Canadian physician and poet.

It was at the South Paris Congregational Church that Dennis’ father, my Uncle Bob, had dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage while moderating an annual congregational meeting. Dennis and I were in our 30s when it happened; we flew back to South Paris for the funeral. First in his class at Harvard College and Harvard Law and a direct descendent of John Smith of the Mayflower, Bob Smith was also the Choirmaster-Organist at the church when we wasn’t on the bench or discretely institutionalized out of public view for what we now call bipolar disorder.

Dennis had more than his share of tragedy in his life. Dennis’s older brother Alan, locked inside the body by cerebral palsy, was entirely dependent on the family for the most basic needs, although we knew from his eyes and his moans how attuned he was to those he loved. After Dennis and Sandy began their own family, their one-year old son Christopher was found dead in his crib. Many years later their son Sean died in a car accident after Sean’s sophomore year at Colorado College. Death, grief, and sorrow were woven into the warp and woof of the Smith family’s life. But so were faith and hope – the larks, still bravely singing, flying overhead, scarce heard amid the guns below.

Rest in Peace, Dennis.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, six-month younger first cousin, kindred flesh and spirit of Dennis Smith of South Paris, Maine, in Memoriam, Feb.13, 2017. Prayers for my all the Smith family – Gwen, Kelly, Stacy, and Sandy, among others – and the dear people of the South Paris Congregational Church and Choir.

Old Friends on FaceBook

Ted Bonsall and I became lifelong friends back in Kindergarten in Broomall, Pennsylvania. We played ball in each other’s yards every day for years. I have pictures to prove it!

All these years later, FaceBook invited me to wish Ted (“Russell”) Happy Birthday!”

FaceBook wasn’t around way back in 1947 in Broomall. It didn’t know Ted then and doesn’t seem to know him now. Although Ted died of cancer several years ago, his Facebook page is still up. Like memory itself, his page can never be erased by time.

Miss you, good buddy!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, December 22, 2016

 

 

 

Steve Shoemaker and his hearse

Searching through the archives following Steve’s death last Monday, his verse “Kissing in a Hearse”- originally posted July 1, 2016 – cried out for republication. Knowing of his eventual demise with pancreatic cancer, his humor was always bigger than a hearse, a continuing gift to his family, friends, and readers.

Verse – Kissing in a Hearse

1947 Pontiac hearse

Steve’s Hearse

Only college seniors were allowed
cars on campus in those ancient days.
Four guys, Juniors, searched car lots and found
just the thing, a ’47 hearse,
Pontiac, straight 8, just fifty bucks
each. A Senior said he’d claim the beast
legally was his. Quadruple dates
were the thing: one couple in the seat,
driving, six would lounge on pillows where
caskets usually rode. Of course, at times
two young people would kiss, death be damned.

Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, July 1, 2016

  • Reposted October 13, 2016 in thanksgiving for Steven Robert Shoemaker (December 19, 1942 – October 10, 2016).

Steve Shoemaker at Peace

With deep sadness but with great thanksgiving for his life and friendship, we share Steve’s CaringBridge post for readers of Views from the Edge:

Daddy died last night on October 10th, the anniversary of his own father’s death.

He is survived by his wonderful wife of 51 years, Nadja, two marvelous children, Daniel and Marla (as well as their spouses, Rachael and Craig), and two fabulous grandchildren, Carter and Grace.

Born and raised in Urbana, he played trombone and basketball at Urbana High School, while also wooing his future wife, Nadja. He then attended Wheaton college, where he participated in pranks, such as padlocking the chapel doors before a service. After becoming more serious about his studies (and receiving an ultimatum from his wife), he received a Master of Divinity Degree and Master of Sacred Theology Degree in 1969 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. In a further pursuit of education, he then earned a PhD in Religion from Duke University in 1979.

Steve Shoemaker served as pastor at Pittsboro and Mount Vernon Springs Presbyterian churches in Pittsboro, NC, as well as campus pastor at North Carolina State University and McKinley Presbyterian Church in Champaign. He finished his career as Director of the University YMCA at the University of Illinois. For many years, Steve also taught one course a semester in Religious Studies at either Parkland College or The University of Illinois.

Devoted to his community, Steve served as Chair of the Committee for the Homeless, Co-Chair of the Men’s Emergency Shelter Steering Committee, member of the Dr. Martin Luther King Committee, member of the Muslim Committee, and served on the Champaign County Board, the United Way Board, and the local ACLU Board. He was also an active Urbana Rotary Club member since 1982 and acted as president in 2013.

With a passion for writing, particularly poetry, Steve was nominated for Illinois Poet Laureate in 2003 and has been published in a plethora of journals ranging from Christian Ministry to Judaism. After his cancer diagnosis, he published his first book titled “A Sin A Week.” He has also received thousands of Likes for poems posted through social media. In addition to the printed word, Steve reached out to the community through his weekly radio program, Keepin’ The Faith on WILL AM 580, which provided interviews and discussions highlighting relevant social topics.

Steve donated his rich bass voice to various choirs and was a member of the Real Fire band. He also donated his time to be an integral part in the lives of others as he joined couples in marriage, performed funerals, and provided counseling and support (while never accepting payment).

However, to this writer, Steven Robert Shoemaker’s greatest accomplishment was his role within his family. In over 50 years of blissful marriage, he modeled how to sincerely love and respect another. He gave corsages, coached soccer, and cooked Cheese Surprise. He took his children out of school to see baseball games and go to museums. And although his children did not always recognize it in the moment (as they were dragged to organ concerts or tours of Frank Lloyd Wright houses), Steve Shoemaker demonstrated how to embrace life (Fly kites! Eat dessert first!) and how to make the world a better place.

Despite a host of shortcomings, including but not limited to leaving used toothpicks around the house and eating other people’s chocolate bars, Steve was an accomplished author, compassionate pastor, devoted leader, and loving husband and father. He is greatly missed.

Memorial gifts may be made to the University YMCA, 1001 S. Wright Street, Champaign, IL 61801.

Services will be arranged and announced as soon as possible.

There is a deep stillness in the Stewart household this morning. Even when I know death is coming, it still stops me in my tracks. The world is a smaller today.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 11, 2016

Time is what we have

“What is time?” asked the 11 year-old son of his father.  Finally, the father, who was supposed to know about such things, offered the briefest of answers. “Time is what we have.”

The answer  begged for more explanation, but it spoke out loud the frailty and wonder of the human condition. What is time? It’s what we have but, like everything else mortals have, or think we have, time runs out. Time is like the sand in the hour-glass. It sifts slowly through the funnel from top to bottom until there is nothing left. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The relation of time to eternity is the relation between mortality and immortality. Our hour-glass contains eternity but it does not define it or confine it. We experience eternity in the now of time as we look at the heavens on a starry night, feel a gentle breeze or the rush of a mighty wind, or watch the shorelines of human construction eroding, pushing back the illusion of ownership and control of nature and of time.

My poet friend and Views from the Edge colleague Steve Shoemaker is coming to the end of his time. After many decisions that prolonged his life far beyond the original prognosis, he opted last Saturday to give way to time. Steve chose to spend whatever days are left at home at Prairie Haven on the plains of Illinois.

The news came less than a week after five old friends who call ourselves the Dogs traveled from Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota to gather one last time with Steve at Steve’s room in the care center. We barked and growled watching the first presidential debate. We laughed. We sang some hymns. We prayed with and for Steve, Nadja, and their children, Daniel and Marla. We prayed for ourselves. The time was right.

When news arrived only days later that Steve had opted to end further medical treatment to go home, the conversation with my 11 year-old son years ago and Steve’s verse “When to Stop Praying” (April 2, 2016) came quickly to mind. The prayer now is for an end of striving. An end of pain. “Pray for my peace, not my life.” The end of time.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 5, 2016.

 

 

 

 

A gentle pastor faces death

Next Monday five old friends will visit Steve Shoemaker at the rehab center in Champaign-Urbana. Steve’s humor remains in top form despite the cancer that has limited his mobility and chunk the weight of his 6’8″ frame from 240 to 187 pounds.

Thinking about Monday’s visit, originally planned around the first presidential debate, I recalled a story about Steve jumping into a swimming pool dressed in a tuxedo after a wedding. It was locked in the Views from the Edge “draft” folder because we couldn’t convert the original piece from tpyepad to this platform. Today, in honor of Steve, we “converted it” for posting. The words belong to Bill Tammaeus, former columnist at the Kansas City Star.

The first time I boarded an airplane after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was to fly to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., at the invitation of the Rev. Steve Shoemaker to speak to a YMCA gathering at the University of Illinois.

I knew I needed not to avoid planes after experiencing the death of my nephew Karleton, a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, and Steve’s invitation to speak made it necessary to get back on one.

I’ve been thinking about Steve a lot recently after learning that he has developed pancreatic cancer, which is expected to kill him within a few months. I follow his almost daily thoughts about that now on the CaringBridge.org website. Which is where I learned that the newspaper for Champaign-Urbana, The News-Gazette, just published this terrific story about Steve. [Aside: VFTE republished the News-Gazette story]

You can get a good sense of the kind of sweet, thoughtful man he is, a man whose Christian faith issues in much concern for life’s downtrodden people.

Steve first got connected to my family through my North Carolina sister, Barbara, and her husband, Jim, who are my late nephew’s parents. They became friends with Steve and his wife Nadja when they were neighbors in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Later Steve performed the wedding ceremony for some of Barb and Jim’s children, including Karleton.

I still laugh at the memory of Steve and Jim — fully dressed in tuxedos — diving into a swimming pool in joy at the wedding reception when Barb’s and Jim’s daughter Tiffany was married. It helps to know that Steve stands about 6-foot-8 and made quite a splash.

From that News-Gazette story, here’s a taste of Steve’s theology: “God has his eyes on the sparrow and not the eagle, on the people who are hurting. That’s the God that makes sense to me.”

God’s eye is on the sparrow.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 9, 2016

Obituary – read to the END!

Rev. John Richard Vogel Jr. Obituary
VOGEL, JR. Rev. John Richard Vogel, Jr. died suddenly and unexpectedly of natural causes on Saturday, May 28, 2016. He was 75. Services will be on Tuesday, June 7 at 11 a.m. at St. James United Methodist Church, 5540 Wayne Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri 64110, with a visitation at the church immediately thereafter. Dick was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June 1940 to John Richard Vogel and Anna Watson Vogel. In 1948, the family moved to Normandy in the St. Louis, Missouri area, where he spent the remainder of his childhood. Dick graduated from Normandy High School as valedictorian in 1958, and attended the University of Michigan, initially intending to pursue a career in engineering. After a short time, he changed his course of study to philosophy and religion, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1962, and remaining eternally loyal to the Wolverines. He also obtained a master’s degree from Depauw University and a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 1966. Dick relocated to Kansas City that year to become the minister at Troost Avenue United Methodist Church and an integral part of the United Methodist Church’s Inner City Parish. He served at several churches during his career, including Central United Methodist Church, Kairos United Methodist Church, and later St. James United Methodist Church. As a minister, he was well regarded for performing countless numbers of weddings for couples throughout the area. Dick also worked for many years as the Executive Director of the Kansas City Mental Health Association. In the early 1980s, he transitioned into the financial services industry, and went on to a very successful career focused on life insurance sales, primarily with Northwestern Mutual Life. For many years, he could be found on the tennis courts or the restaurant at the Rockhill Tennis Club, of which he was an active member. At the time of his death, he was somewhat officially retired, although would likely admit he had a difficult time removing himself completely from the business of churches and insurance. He is survived by his wife, Mary Tracy Smith; a sister, Virginia Simmons; a son, David Vogel, and his wife, Maureen Mannion Vogel; a daughter, Emily Vogel, and her wife, Carly Evans; and four grandchildren, Mia Vogel, Connor Vogel, Kate Evans, and Sam Evans. He was preceded in death by his parents and a son, Mark Vogel. Dick was a wonderful father, brother, friend, colleague, and pastor, who worked very hard and dedicated significant portions of his life to helping those less fortunate. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to Della Lamb Community Center, Grand Avenue Temple United Methodist Church, or any other organization that helps those in need, as well as to the Yale Divinity School Class of 1966 50th Anniversary Scholarship Endowment Fund.

His family also believes that he would want those who respect his memory to agree they will never vote for the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Published in Kansas City Star from June 2 to June 5, 2016

Which song for today?

Steve Shoemaker is hospitalized in Illinois.  CaringBridge and FaceBook, which have kept us up-to-date on his journey with terminal cancer, have been silent since Thursday. Steve’s last post on FB read “another set-back, fall-back, back-slide,” posted with a photo of his book “A Sin for Each Kind of Day.”

Waiting for news, Steve’s verse “A Song for Each Kind of Day” (posted on Views from the Edge on On April 12, 2012) came to memory.

One Hebrew word for “god” was “jah.”

(It was a time of many words

for god–and many gods.) To say

“hallel” was for all to sing praise,

so HALLELUJAH meant “Praise God!”

(or “Thanks to you, oh God!”– for some

words could be truly translated

more than one way.

And so, a Psalm, or Song, that offered thanks or praise

might well be paired with a lament:

a cry of pain from one who prays

for help, relief, from gods who sent

disaster. (But, of course, some Psalms

wisely acknowledged that some wrongs

were caused by those who sang the songs!)

There is a Psalm for each one of our days…

[Steve Shoemaker, April 12, 2012]

Today Kay and I are far away in Minnesota, but our hearts are in Illinois. Your prayers are invited. Just close your eyes. Sit quietly. Speak the name “Steve”. . . .[be still]. . . . Then “Nadja” . . . .[be still] . . . . Then “Shoemaker family”. . .  [be still] . . . .Then “Jah”. . . and leave the rest there.

There is a psalm for each kind of day. Today, it’s Psalm 46.

— Gordon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming up for air

Hello there!

It’s been forever since we posted something of our own here. For very different reasons.

Steve is still with us but only writing on CaringBridge and FaceBook to keep friends up-to-date about his daily life with pancreatic cancer. A group of seminary friends will swoop in on the Shoemakers’ from Texas, Colorado, northern Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota to groan and moan together at the September 26 presidential debate.

Gordon is still with us, too, but has been under water preparing Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness for publication by Wipf and Stock Publishers (Eugene, OR). Steve’s poetry is featured in the book as well as Gordon’s essays on religion, culture, and the  news. He hit the “send” button Sunday evening for final submission.

At this moment, Steve is in the hospital, which is both a concern and a hope. He was admitted because he needed immediate medical attention the required surgery. But Steve has joined Jimmy Carter as a beneficiary of the cancer protocol credited with saving Jimmy’s life. Last night he wrote on Caring Bridge:

Family, friends, neighbors, church, Synagogue, mosque,
Club members–what would sick folks do without you?
New friends from nurses, Doctors, aides, who move in with skills, caring, short-term help help, help!
How to say thanks?  $ helps a little.  But who are the poorest of helpers?  Some of the poorest cannot even receive tips, gifts, or gratuities…
Mutual kindness…charity…love…

Hours before Steve’s latest CaringBridge post, the “statement of faith” by Lisa Larges arrived in Gordon’s in-box.

Why mention Lisa, a complete stranger to most Views readers?

The Presbyterian Church (USA), Steve and my church, denied ordination to Lisa Larges many years ago because of sexual orientation. Some changes take a very long time. Lisa’s statement on love itself illustrates love’s forbearance. It speaks of love, as does Steve’s CaringBridge post, and it’s all the more telling because of who said it.

Love wins.

Not indifference. Not fear.

Love wins.

Lisa’s statement will be posted next on Views from the Edge.