Amid the Flood

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Days before reading and re-publishing Linn Ullman’s lines about memory and the loss of it (“You just can’t think too deeply about it”), one of the four remaining classmates of what we’ve called The Chicago Seven, The Gathering, and now The Old Dogs, sent the rest of us an article on Alzheimer’s our latest deceased brother, Wayne, had published years ago.

Chicago Seven Gathering L to R: Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Gordon, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young@ McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2004.

As Wayne had imagined his ship going over the far horizon, his worst thought was not death. It was that he would live on, like his father had, without remembering how to tie his shoelaces and without recognizing Vicki, the love of his life, his sons Matt and Chris, daughters-in-law Liz and Libby, and the grandchildren who brought him such joy.

That nightmare didn’t happen. He went out with his mind in tact, as much as a hospice patient’s mind is ever fully there. Aside from his last few days, Wayne’s mind was clear and his heart was full. The article Harry sent the three other surviving Dogs is a reflection on Psalm 90:10, 12 (RSV):

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away. teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

When he died in 1989, the sum of Dad’s years came closer to fourscore than to threescore and ten. With the psalmist, I attribute this number to his strength, but I would not wish the manner of his death on anyone. He died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.

It was my first experience with the death of an immediate family member, so I was no veteran. I found myself up against a more complicated reality than I had anticipated. I remember thinking at the time that some portion of this is just plain death: nasty, sad, the way death always is. But it is not natural death. It is something else. In the words of Martin Luther’s signature hymn, the disease threw every member of Dad’s little nuclear family—his wife, daughter-in-law, and myself—into a “flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Amid the Flood,” Wayne G. Boulton, Reformed Review, Western Theological Seminary, December 1, 2000.

Wayne died the way he lived and lived the way he died. Faithful son, husband, grandfather, and friend. Wise. Compassionate. Pastoral. Realistic. Hopeful. Consoler. Prayerful. Private. Counselor. Social critic. Political wonk. Brilliant Christian theologian-ethicist. Follower of truth wherever it led him. All of that and so much more. But, if I had the pen to engrave his epitaph on the simple grave stone in the cemetery of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, if might read,

A sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming, humble servant his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amid the flood of mortal ills.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 5, 2019.

Old Friends

Dale Hartwig (red shirt) and the Chicago Seven Gathering, McCormick Theological Seminary, 2004.

Dale Hartwig (red shirt) and the Chicago Seven Gathering, McCormick Theological Seminary, 2004.

This morning news arrived of the passing of an old friend. Dale is a classmate, one of seven who call ourselves The Chicago Seven. The Seven met annually until 2004 when the gathering was reduced to Six because of Dale’s advancing Parkinson’s. The gatherings have continued to be powerful bonds of friendship, but never again so meaningful as when there were Seven.

MEMORIAL TRIBUTE to be shared at the Celebration of Life & Victory over Death for DALE HARTWIG

Dale was such a joy for all of the Chicago Seven (now Six). His quiet spirituality brought a stillness to the room, or tears, and so much reality and the tenderness of a poet. The last time all seven of us McCormick alums gathered in Chicago, we sat around a long table sharing our thoughts and work. Dale and I were sitting next to each other, as we often did, at one end of the table. When it came his turn, Dale moved some papers in front of me and asked that his words be read. His contribution, as I recall it, was a Greek exegesis from a New Testament text that reminded us of his love for biblical exegesis, he being the only one of us who left seminary to become more proficient in NT Greek than when we left. His sharing also included a poem he had written. As I read it aloud on his behalf – his surrogate voice – he began to weep because his words had been heard! Here’s the poem in memory of that sacred Hartwig moment – one of many – that the rest of us will forever cherish.

“THE SURROGATE VOICE” – GORDON C. STEWART (WRITTEN IN THANKSGIVING FOR THE CHICAGO GATHERING ’04)

As the surrogate voice reads on,
the author sits and sobs
his 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 Parkinson’s tongue tied,
his voice is mute, in solitude confined,
all but sobs too deep for words.
Another now has become
his voice, offering aloud with dummy 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 sobs and sighs,
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.