The Missing Shoes

Gordon C. Stewart – copyright – a memoir

Five years before my father’s death in July of 1999, the first of many false alarms had called me home to Pennsylvania.  I had brought some reading material for the flight from Minneapolis to Harrisburg – James Carse’s Breakfast at the Victory, an autobiographical reflection on the mysticism of ordinary experience.

I sat down for the flight, strapped myself in for take-off, opened to the Preface, and soon found my eyes flooded with tears.  Dad had developed Parkinson’s and had been hospitalized following a fall and several transient ischemic attacks, i.e., small strokes that had left my mother in a constant state of worry.  I could see him wasting away, yet his spirit was strong and he continued to insist that my brother Bob sneak him over to the golf course for nine holes.  “Dad, I’d love to, but you can barely stand up without a walker.  How you gonna play golf?”  “I can do it!  I can still swing a golf club.  Come on, just drive me over.”  “I think Mom might have some thoughts about that!”  “Come on.  Just you and me – Mom doesn’t ever have to know.”

So there I sat, strapped in, reading the Preface, the story of James Carse’s visit to this friend Charles who was dying of cancer.  Carse had gone to visit Charles before walking an old pilgrimage route in Spain that leads from the French border to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.

“Maybe you’ll find my boots in Spain,” said Charles.  “They just gave out.  So I put them on a stone wall by the road and limped on my bare feet.”

As Carse made his solitary pilgrimage across Spain, slogging through the mud and cow dung produced by heavy rain and snow, he came upon “the outline of a familiar object crushed in the mire.”  He tugged at the old boot until it came loose from its moorings in the mud to find the sole gone but its essential structure in tact.  Could it be Charles’s boot?  He took a picture which he presented to Charles when he next visited him.

My face was flooded with tears.  I choked back the sobs.

Charles’s boots had been the essential equipment of a pilgrim, yet in the end they had not served him well.  He had had to make the journey in his bare feet.  So would Dad.  My father’s boots were the role of ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament.  One is ordained for life, he would remind me, not just for a particular job.  Yet I always wanted him to take off his boots, expose his naked self, experience the squish between his toes in the primordial muck that is more real than social roles and expectations, the more ordinary sacred ground that required Moses to take off his shoes.

Thirty-thousand feet in the air, I took out a pen and scribbled in the margin of Breakfast at the Victory:

“Dad and his boots – his soles worn out, only his bare feet for the rest of the journey.  At some point your boots wear out and it’s just you and your bare feet and the mud – the self shorn of the ego.”

I sobbed for Dad.  I sobbed for myself, fearing that he and I would both die with our boots on.  I cried for losing him.  I cried for him to be free.  I cried for barefoot authenticity.

Five years later – it was July – I again flew to Harrisburg.  Expecting my father’s death, I had worn a suit and my black Johnston & Murphy shoes, highly polished by the best shine man in the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, as a tribute to Dad – his shoes were always polished – but also because I have inherited Dad’s appreciation of good grooming, especially a pair of good shoes, shined to the max as a sign of dignity and self-respect.

When I arrived at my folks’ apartment at the retirement complex, I took off my shoes and placed them carefully next to the grandfather clock in the living room.  My mother had continued to live in the independent living apartment they had shared until seven months earlier  when Dad’s deteriorating health had required moving him to the dreaded “Care Center.”  The Parkinson’s had left my father weak and wobbly to the point where my mother could no longer manage his needs, and, with great distress, the move had been made that separated them after 62 years of marriage.

My trip to Cornwall Manor, however, had been planned three months before.  I had promised to drive my mother to a Titus family reunion in South Paris, Maine, our version of “A Trip to Bountiful,” a return to my mother’s roots.  When we had laid those plans in April, the doctor had told us that my father had two weeks at most to live.  Believing the end was near and knowing that my mother’s health had declined under the stress of watching Dad slowly fade away, I had made the plane and car reservations in the expectation that the July Titus family reunion would be several months after Dad’s death.

To everyone’s surprise, when it came time for the Maine reunion, my father continued to survive against all odds.  He had broken the doctor’s crystal ball.  Although he appeared to be near the end – his ability to swallow was all but gone – it had been so for some time, and both Dad’s doctor and my parents’  pastor urged us to make the trip for the sake of my mother’s health.  I explained to Dad that I was taking Mom home to South Paris for a few days for the family reunion.  He smiled and nodded his consent, giving approval to meeting her need, knowing, perhaps, that it was the best thing for them both that he slip away without her having to watch and knowing that both he and she would be surrounded by family when he went.

The call came three days later at two-thirty in the morning.  “Mr. Stewart, I’m sorry to tell you….”  “My father’s dead,” I said, less perhaps to make her job easier than to get a grip on death myself.  “We’re so sorry,” she said.  “The girls went to turn him at one-thirty.  He seemed fine.  He was comfortable.  When we went back in at two o’clock, he was gone.  Although we’ve been expecting it for a long time, we were surprised.  I’m very sorry.”

I was two years old again. My mother and I were back on the train following my father’s departure for the South Pacific in World War II.  Only this time he wasn’t coming back.  We wept.  We talked.  We engaged the guilt of having left him alone at the end.  Yet I also believed that it was as it was supposed to be.  My father had gone quietly into the night, knowing that he could go without taking care of my mother or my mother having to take care of him.  It was for her that he had stayed alive; he had received permission to go.  He knew she would not be alone when he went.

While my mother and I prepared to return to Harrisburg, it fell to my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice, who lived nearby, to gather the belongings from the room at the Care Center and deliver to the funeral director the clothes my mother had carefully laid out on the bed for Dad’s burial – his favorite blue suit, a silk tie, and my father’s favorite blue shirt.

The morning of the funeral, I showered and pulled from the closet the white shirt and tie I had worn on the plane for just this occasion.  All was well.  With the sole exception of Bob and Janice who were to meet us at the funeral home, the family had gathered in the living room and was ready to go.  We were running on schedule when I returned to the grandfather clock to put on my shoes.  No shoes!  My shoes were missing.  I scoured the apartment without success, rifling through the closets of stuff Bob and Janice had brought home from the Care Center..  I was grumping about, cursing my brother for packing up my only good shoes, and in a terrible state of mind when I found the black cap-toed Johnston & Murphy’s.  I breathed a sigh of relief and put them on.  My feet were swimming in them – then it dawned on me: “These are Dad’s!  My shoes are on Dad!!!”

Johnston and Murphy shoes

Johnston and Murphy shoes

Dad was wearing my shoes.  I was wearing his.  Laughter shook the rafters of that living room, relieving the tension of whatever dread was there.  My cousin Gina and her husband Norman from Massachusetts; my brother Don and sister-in-law Bonnie from Kentucky; my son Douglas, who had come in from New York City; Kay, and my mother – all were convulsed with laugher and a lightness of being.  “They’re on Dad.  Dad’s wearing my shoes!”A jovial, somewhat irreverent debate such as only families can have followed.  “I love it,” I said.  “Dad always loved shined shoes and he’s wearing the very best.  He’d like this.”  “No, why don’t you call the funeral director,” Mom said, “You should have your own shoes.  Those shoes may feel okay now, but they’re going to kill your feet by the end of the day.  You need your own shoes.  Besides, I don’t think they bury them with their shoes on.”

“Well, I wonder,” I said.  “How in the world would they be able to get those on him – they’re two sizes too small.  His feet must be killing him!”

At the funeral home we made the switch, giving the director Dad’s shoes, just in case those who major in illusions are right and shoes are part of the pilgrimage to the other side.  Which, of course, they aren’t.  We all go out with bare feet.

Over the five years between the first summons to Harrisburg and my father’s final breath, Dad and I had each discovered his bare feet.  Each of us had begun to learn not to try to fill shoes that aren’t ours.  For Dad it was the shoes of Harold, his older brother and a family icon.  For me, it meant exchanging my father’s and my uncle’s imagos for their humanity.  Physical weakness has a way of compelling onlookers to see reality.  Any illusions about enduring greatness are dashed by the ticking of time in the human body.

Yet if I had made some progress toward releasing myself from the icon of my father’s goodness, I have also learned that the recovery is never quite complete.  Expectations lurk in the night, waiting to cast their shadows.

Sometimes a shadow crosses over us and we don’t even know it.  One crossed over me during the funeral service, although I did not recognize it until two weeks later, when the presiding pastor, Richard Cassel, a wonderful friend to my parents who had urged the trip to Maine, started his homily with the question “Should I eulogize Ken, or preach the gospel?”

He went on to say that everyone there would want him to say something personal about what a gift from God Ken Stewart’s life was for us all.  He extolled his selfless, joyful giving of himself for others.  He did not say, nor perhaps did he know, that it was hard to tell how much of my father’s generosity and “selflessness” arose from his need to win others’ approval, how much of it arose from the stolen self-esteem that lived in Harold’s lengthy shadow, how much of it arose from the unconscious suppression of his own needs, and how much arose from the call to follow his Lord.

Yet for all of that, the pastor’s words rang true: “He had all the dignity of his calling without one bit of the pomposity that sometimes afflicts lesser clergy-folk; all the confidence in the truth of the gospel without one  wit of judgment or condemnation for those who believe differently.  Ken was a proud man – proud of his family first of all – his beloved wife, Muriel, who was his devoted, loving, caring partner in all the ups and downs of life – proud of his three sons, all of them giving their lives to helping, healing, encouraging others, and of their families – proud of his Scottish ancestry (even his golf game!) – of his profession – proud, but without one molecule of arrogance.  He was a compassionate pastor and friend whose life was given away to be sure you were certain that you mattered – to him, to God, and that he would do whatever he could to make your life better, happier, more whole.”

All of that was true.  Memory took me back to age 13 when I had brought home a seventh grade report card filled with Fs.  My mother had wept and responded the only way she knew how: “Wait ‘til your father comes home!”  I went upstairs to my room to await his arrival.  The wood stairs in that 125-year old manse creaked with every ascending footstep, but the steps were slow and soft, not fast and hard.  What Dad saw when he entered the room was an ashamed first-born son sitting on the edge of the bed with his head down.  Without a word, he sat down next to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Hi Skip.  It must be pretty bad.  Tell me how it is.”  Compassion was his middle name.  It all rang true.

The preacher returned to his original question, “Should I eulogize Ken or preach the gospel?” and proceeded to bring my father’s answer into that chapel loud and clear.  “Richard, a funeral is an occasion for the praise of God, not the deceased – and I certainly want God, not me, to be praised at my memorial service.  So…preach the gospel, Richard.”

At those words, my body convulsed.  My hand involuntarily squeezed Kay’s and my Mom’s, a vein of grief tapped deep in my soul.  It was as though my father were saying to me, “Gordon, preach the gospel” – the same charge he had delivered to me at my ordination 32 years before, a charge which I had failed.

Again, the preacher’s voice: “I can hear Ken say that to me.  But then it occurred to me,” he said, “that I must not choose between eulogizing and preaching the gospel.  Ken’s life among us was the gospel.”

I wanted to scream:“No! My father’s life was not the gospel.  It bore witness to the gospel, but his life was not the gospel.   My father was not Jesus Christ.  He was just another child of God who struggled to get it.  He was a child of God and of John Thomas and Sophia Campbell Stewart of Prince Edward Island and east Boston, brother of Mary, Harold and Olive, husband of Muriel, father of Gordon, Donald and Robert, who, for a time, bore the privilege of ordained pastoral ministry, his humanity as broken and scarred, as imperfect and flawed and complicated and messy as the worst rogue that ever occupied a pew.”  The preacher had elevated my father to sainthood, to an icon, an image that bears little resemblance to the human reality.

In his best moments my father understood that the gospel is not about our achievements.  In his worst moments of living in the shadow of Harold’s image, he believed it was.  His whole life was a fight against that perversion, that belittlement.  He preached because he needed to be convinced again day by day that there was a greater light than Harold’s shadow.  He preached it, as in an anthem he had written, sung by the Choir of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church at his funeral, “from mountaintops filled with promise” but also “from valleys of deep despair”.  He was a stranger to neither.

Two weeks after the funeral service grief had overtaken me.  I couldn’t sleep.  After several days of waking at three in the morning, I went to a friend to talk it out.  When I told him about the funeral, I became momentarily speechless when I recalled the preacher’s line, “Preach the gospel, Richard.”

I was back in the pew convulsing with unspeakable guilt and sorrow. I could never make it right.

Then I remembered the shoes and recalled my father’s unconditional support during the most traumatic time of my life that had led me to ministry outside the church at the Legal Rights Center. It was right that I have a pair of shoes that fit my own feet.

Dad no longer needed to fill Harold’s shoes.  I no longer needed to fill my father’s shoes.  When the end comes, it is altogether clear.  Our boots wear out.  Bare feet are all we have – just us, our bare feet, and mud, the self shorn of all ego.

“Sojourners” republishes piece today

Thanks to Sojourners for republishing a piece that first appeared here. Click I wish we were all that Crazy” to read the piece on Jim Wallis’ blog, “God’s Politics.”

If you missed it, it was a reflection on the late Bishop James Pike and the late William Stringfellow, the lawyer and lay theologian who defended the Bishop at the Episcopal Church’s heresy trial.

“Good” Friday?

It’s Good Friday. Why would anyone call it “GOOD”? Today the Roman Empire executed Jesus. Beat him, stripped him, mocked him, jeered at him, hoisted him intot he air on cross, threw dice for the purple royal robe in which they had clothed him, pierced his side with a soldier’s spear, heard him cry from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani!” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” Why would anyone in their right mind call this horror “GOOD”?

The raising of the cross - James Tissot

Sebastian Moore, O.B, speaks to this in The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger (Seabury Press, 1977).

The meaning of the Christ-event is that in it the wrestle of man with his God-intended self is dramatized and led through the phases of rejection, hatred, crucifixion, destruction, surrender, new life. Oscar Wilde said, “each man kills the thing he loves.” Those who stop short of evil in themselves will never know what love is about. They will never receive the crucified. – p. 37

The human race thinks it can go on with all its Narcissistic human normalities, of war, of politics, of religion, and that somehow the vast other side of the picture will look after itself. So in opting for “himself as conscious”, man is opting for an ultimate solitude.

And ultimate solitude is death. It is to be cut off from the tree of life, and to wither. – pp. 69-70

For your further reflection, this poem received today from Steve Shoemaker.

Good Friday?

What makes this Friday Good is not what Rome

did to Jesus: torture, false witnesses,

and finally capital punishment.

In all regimes these standard practices

preserve the powerful, but then foment

disgust, infamy,  abroad– shame at home.

The dying one, the empty tomb was good

only if we are justified by trust,

mysteriously by God’s grace made whole.

The goodness cannot stay with us, it must

be passed on to the world–this is our role.

The Good is recalled in the feast:  soul food.

In a few moments I will host the Good Friday meditation – readings from the Gospels, long silences, the movements of Garbriel Faure’s Requiem…silence…reading… until it all soaks in.

I can’t get to Easter by by-passing the cross. Click  to hear the music.

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.

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains, an appropriate time to re-post the effect of Katie’s illness along the way. This is a re-posting of a piece written along the way of Katie’s illness.

I wrote this piece when we learned that my stepdaughter Katherine’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart   Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that.  I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one.  It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy.  When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping.  ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked.  “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand.  Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body.  A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes.  In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems.  My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary.  Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this.  I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:


My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.


The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a  doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time.  It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”

Sorrow Floats: the Healthy Deregulated Capitalism Myth Just Keeps Re-surfacing

Gordon C. Stewart | Thursday, Sept. 10,

“Sorrow floats.” Perhaps the line from a John Irving novel — in which “Sorrow,” the stuffed family dog preserved by a taxidermist, floats to the surface of the lake after a plane crash — helps explain what is happening in America.

Something dear to the American family died one year ago last September-October. Prior to the series of chilling events of that period, most of us had lived with the illusion of relative economic and financial health. Then Sorrow was rushed to the emergency room for government resuscitation.

Since then our memories of that pre-September 2008 world have taken a turn that families often take at funerals when the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical reconstruction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in Irving’s “The Hotel New Hampshire,” the stuffed family pet bobs to the surface of the lake, floating among the wreckage. Sorrow floats. So does the thing we lost last fall.

What died? A ruling assumption

What died last year was the ruling assumption that an unregulated free-market system was the best way to organize an economy and that laissez-faire capitalism is democracy’s natural ally. The market almost crashed. It didn’t crash only because the federal government intervened to prevent a repeat of the crash of 1929. Sometime between mid-September and Oct. 7, when Congress passed its bill to stabilize the financial markets, the myth of the virtue of deregulated capitalism died. It was stuffed by the taxidermy of government intervention, but it still floats.

When a conviction or a myth dies, it doesn’t go away. It continues to bob to the surface. Sometimes, as in the case of the Berry family, the old dog is much easier to love after it is dead. Sorrow — obese, lethargic, and persistently flatulent in its old age — no longer waddles through the dining room to foul the air and ruin everyone’s dinner. In the public psyche, the unpleasant memories of the real life Sorrow give way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on … even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Over and over, we forget

Sorrow and its old illusions float every time the reconstructed memory, forgetting the real Sorrow, barks about “socialism.” Sorrow floats every time we shout each other down in town-hall meetings. Sorrow floats every time nostalgia forgets that it was only by government intervention that Sorrow is still around. Sorrow floats every time we forget the voracious appetite, unscrupulous predatory practices, insatiable greed, and the obesity that led to the deaths of Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, not to mention insurance giant AIG and all the banks that had taken the plunge into a market of deregulated derivatives and mortgages that led to the epidemic of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, pension-fund collapses and job losses. Sorrow, the old dog that failed us, still floats and still barks a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgically remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

Old ideas and convictions die hard. The powerful economic forces that grew fat during the years when government was viewed as the people’s enemy will stoke the fires of public anxiety and anger, taking advantage of the floating Sorrow that reminds us of something that we love more in retrospect than we did the day it died of its own obesity.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He is the moderator of Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues and former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of anyone else.

Dust to Dust, Muscles to Mush

Ash Wednesday: Muscles to Mush

Gordon C. Stewart. MPR commentary. Feb. 17, 2010. (The family had vacationed in theKatie in Costa Rica jungle of Costa Rica at step-daughter Katherine’s request after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.)

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  It’s an Ash Wednesday kind of week. It puts me in mind of another Ash Wednesday, two years ago:

“You want to go down to the waterfall?  Come on – I’ll show you a shortcut!”  The invitation comes from Ryan somebody-or-other, who lives next to Las Aguas, our home deep in the jungle ofCosta Rica.  We’re having fun now.  We’re on vacation!  At 65, shortcuts sound good.

Ryan leads the way to a steep and narrow jungle trail.  “Hang onto the rope with your left hand. The railing on your right is only there in case you lose your balance.”  The blue rope is thin and slack.  The railing is two inch round bamboo.  Ryan – in his mid-30s and fit as a fiddle – leads the way down the steep ravine, followed by Chris, Kay and Katherine.  I bring up the rear. I tell myself that I’m last because this way I get to protect Katherine in case she falls or needs me.  Everyone else knows that I’m last in line because I’m like an old tortoise trying to climb down stairs.

The “shortcut” — this great adventure we’re all enjoying — is steep, 60 degrees or so.  My legs, whose only regular exercise is climbing the stairs in our house or the one step up into the chancel on Sunday mornings, are turning to jelly.  By the time we climb down 75 jungle steps,  Katherine, whose fingers are either numb or painful these days because of her chemo, declares something uncharacteristic of her: “I don’t think I can do this.”  I don’t think I can either.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, muscles to mush.

I’m thinking that we’re going to have to go back up this trail.  I’m thinking that we should turn around now while we can.  I’m thinking about Katherine’s hands, her cancer, her exhaustion, and how badly she wants to do everything that has brought us here, to this trail.   “It’s not far,” Ryan assures us.  But like George Bush, Ryan is from Texas.  “Sure!” I mutter to myself.  “Sure it’s just a little farther.  Even if it was a mistake, we have to stay the course.”  There’s no turning back now.  I wonder if everyone fromTexas stretches the truth.

Sure enough, it turns out we are only halfway there. But we trust Ryan and keep climbing down to the falls, Katherine ahead of me, the helper tortoise, sliding and slipping downward and sideways, leaving several cracked bamboo railings as a reminder that I’d been there.

At the falls Ryan and Chris, both as agile as the Costa Rican howler monkeys that swing in the trees, scale the falls to perch on a ledge with the waterfall cascading over their bodies.  “Just one little slip of the foot from death” is what I’m thinking, trying to remember when my body was well-toned.  Kay takes her camera and has a field day.  Katherine and I hang out, breathe, and agree that it’s beautiful — and that it would be a lot more beautiful if someone sent a helicopter or just beamed us up.

The way back to Las Aguas is easier, perhaps because it isn’t a shortcut.  This other trail takes no more time than the shortcut, and it’s much easier on the thighs, the hands and the brain.

I conclude that shortcuts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – like stimulating the economy by depleting the national bank account. Like giving ourselves quick fix tax rebates so we can spend the receipts and leave the long-term debt for our grandchildren.

By the time we get home, our legs have turned to mush.  It reminds me of Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is made on one’s forehead with ashes.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  Muscle to mush. For us Christians, there is no shortcut through this season, no Easter without Lent.

In the hours following our return to Las Aguas, Kay assures me that some soreness is a good thing.  I’m tired, woefully out of shape, sore, and a likely candidate for a heart attack, which, as Kay reminds me, means … I’m not dead.  While the dust and ashes that I am still have some muscle left, the soreness reminds me that I’m alive.

Someday everything that I now claim to be my self will turn to mush.  The pain will go away.  On the jungle floor below the falls, the waterfall will wash over us and carry what’s left downriver to wherever the river goes. Then there’ll be no shortcuts and no illusions of time.  Just the long river into eternity.