A Walk Down the Hall

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There are for most of us those rare moments that give definition to one’s life. Such singular moments cast a wider light on all the other moments on calendars and clocks.

These are moments of the heart that touch us deeply — like Sunday’s return to Cincinnati to preach the sermon for the ordination of David Annett who was a boy when I served as his pastor at Knox Church 25 years ago, and the Monday and Tuesday times with my best friend Wayne as he nears the end of life in Indianapolis. Jean-Paul Sartre’s words from Nausea were never far away:

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,
and already what one is going to become.
One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.”

The friendship with Wayne began at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago where the housing director had assigned us to room together in Room 311 of Alumni Hall. No friendship has been longer or deeper since that day in 1964. We have lived our deaths together over the years, and now one of us is in hospice care dying his life. The visits last Monday and Tuesday were what they have always been: moments described by the old hymn “Blest be the ties that bind Our hearts in Christian love.”

Front row: Don. Back row: Harry, Wayne, Bob, and Gordon at Wrigley Field

Sometimes a singular moment of time reveals one’s continuing character. I cannot yet find the moment that would open the window into who Wayne is or what our friendship has meant over the years since we met in Room 311. Memory will open it when the time is right, as it did when David invited me to preach his ordination sermon.

Our life stories rise out of the meeting points when our separate journeys converge as a dramatic moment that feels like fiction. As I spiraled back to the 11 years with David here at Knox, a singular moment in time seemed to put a frame around who you have ceased to be but still are, David, and who you will become after we have prayed over you with the laying on of hands.

The day I’m remembering happened years ago. You were eight years-old the day I’m remembering. Your grandmother was dying, You asked me to take you to see you grandmother one last time. We drove to Mercy Hospital and talked about what it’s like to visit a hospital, what he was likely to see in preparation for David’s visit with his Grandma.

At the hospital, David punched the elevator button for Grandma’s floor. When the doors opened, we exited the elevator, and walked side=by-side down the long hall toward her room. As I recall, I had to slow you down! You marched down that hall like a soldier, brave and true, a soldier of love for you grandma. You went directly to your grandmother’s hospital bed and stood there, refusing to submit our culture’s denial of death. You didn’t run. You put your hand on her arm and stayed awhile in the silence. And, when you’d taken in the sober reality of it, you spoke the words you had come to say, “I love you, Grandma.” We offered a brief prayer by her bedside and walked back down the hall in the kind of silence that comes over you when you’ve said good-bye to a loved one.

I was so proud of you that day! That moment will stay etched in my memory so long as my memory lasts. I feel that same pride now as you become the pastor who takes a walk down the hall with the other Davids of this world — the children here at Knox and at Cranston Memorial, and their parents; and the Syrian, Yemeni, and Guatemalan children and parents who have been left to fend for themselves. That brave, compassionate walk down the hall that is behind you is the ministry before you. As your train makes the curve around the bend to ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, the connections slowly emerge, and the way you’ve come is the way ahead. Long before today, David, you were already what you would become.

Excerpt from Ordination sermon, Knox Church, Cincinnati, OH 1/13/19


The Monday following David’s ordination, I drove two hours to Indianapolis, knowing it likely would be the last time with Wayne. But funny things happen on a walk down the hall to the room that soon will be empty. To my surprise, the one dying his life was more cheerful than the one who expects to continue living his death. Sometimes, the one who’s dying becomes the pastor to the boy.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2019.

Elijah’s first time at the park

Elijah, a usually confident, bold,11 month old, animated, happy-go-luck jokester of the last few months, was dramatically transformed as soon as we arrived. Instantly he turned into a watchful, tentative, cautious and slightly intimidated new little guy.

This persona was rare for him and a sight to behold. He was almost—if I could say one so young could be instantly so sophisticated—humble. He began computing this new playground environment right away. When lowered to the ground outside the car (no stroller for baby today), equipped with his brand new sandals, (and brand new hat!) it was as if he forgot how to walk. He was tentative, almost clumsy. I get it how new sandals could freak anyone out—but this was more than coordination— Elijah was processing information and it was taking all the “hard drive” his little brain had on board. All brain cylinders were required. You could almost see the wheels turning, experiencing every morsel of new information inside his gaze, one newly captured gaze after the other. The kids. The equipment. The mommys. The daddys. The wind. The sun. The grass. The sidewalk’s cement. 

He required carrying, the “walking thing” just wasn’t working. Mommy was up higher in a more controlled setup, providing more time to figure this whole thing out. The look on his face was precious beyond measure. He was just plain serious. His confident persona was nowhere to be found. 

We first chose to sit by a gray “teeter-totter” contraption. It looked like metal, but was made of some polymer material that would not absorb the heat of the hot sun, would not sting the skin on little grasping fingers. Elijah needed to sit on mommy who sat on the teeter-totter. He was all eyes. It became clear that moving slowly would be required in this new world of park. Intuitively we chose not to look him in the eye. He was grounding himself, it was not a time for him to be distracted. I took some pictures of course—this precious face could not escape record. He sat on Kristin’s lap, his left arm held snug to Kristin under her protective right arm. This way of facing outward would be less exposed. I must say he wasn’t scared in the classic sense of being afraid. There was no sense he was ready to cry. Definitely okay with him to be right where he was. He was definitely in his own body—but his body was attached to his Mom, his safety net of record. 

IMG_6678The whole time in the park his mouth never cracked a smile, it never even opened. It stayed solemn, determined, right in the center of his gaze. The only animation of this whole experience was when he decided the leather molded baby-swing he had been lowered into, which he accepted initially, was really not that much fun after all—way too far away from mommy. Right after that, though he was ok to be seated in the big molded chair hung onto an overhead glider-thing (new high tech park!), because he could see mommy right in front of him.  She taught him to hang onto the chains right beside him—indeed, like a big boy.  

 

Elijah never cracked a smile the whole park experience until walking towards the car to go home. Still being held by his mom, he finally gave out a little tiny smile as Grandma made a funny face like her routine baby-joke. It broke the serious persona and he began to return to his old self again.

Elijah joy IMG_9566

Elijah’s smile

The whole park experience was classic Elijah—he is fundamentally a full-time observer. I thought to myself “I bet he is going to sleep well tonight—an exuberant but exhausting first trip to the park!”

  • Grandma Kay (Kay Stewart), Chaska, MN, May 6, 2018.

Elijah in the Mirror

Yesterday Elijah discovered himself in the mirror. He recognized the image as himself. He couldn’t be more delighted.

 

He shows no sense of shame. Or guilt. Or grief. He’s getting a kick out of himself. Meanwhile, Grandma is on the other side of the room recording the moment for posterity. When Elijah reaches a stage when shame, guilt, and grief threaten to sink his spirit, we’ll pull out the video to remind him of his lovable, adorable self.

Between now and that day which will surely come, we enjoy Grandma’s video, and pray the rest of us find our way to similar joy looking back at us from the mirror.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 22, 2018

Greetings from Elijah

Video

Elijah is with Grandma this morning. On the verge of crawling, but not quite getting the hang of it, he’s sending greetings and a smile to Grandpa. Grandpa shares it here with other news-weary gluttons of punishment on Views from the Edge. Families are always a little whacked! Sometimes, to preserve the bonds of affection, we’d all be better off if we couldn’t talk. 🙂

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 8, 2017.

Elijah and Pumphouse Creamery

Elijah’s Mom, and Grandma just learned of  Pumphouse Creamery.  They’re getting excited. They want Grandpa to drive them to the Pumphouse for ice cream.ElijahIMG_5621

Elijah’s never had ice cream.

In a pinch, he’s had pumped milk, but he’s never been to the Pumphouse.  Listening to Grandma talk about all the flavors and the Sundaes, Elijah’s starting to get excited.

Elijah, they have special flavors at the Pumphouse.

Like what?

Like Madagascar Vanilla, Fresh Rhubarb, and Belgian Chocolate.

Are they organic? I can only do organic.

Yes, Elijah, they’re mostly organic. It’s handcrafted ice cream that starts with natural, organic and locally-sourced ingredients. It says so right on the Pumphouse website.

Grandma, do I have to go in that car seat?

Yes. We’ll take you in your car seat.

I’m going to tell Grandpa! I hate my car seat! Sometimes Mom pumps right here in our own little pump house!

  •  Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 26, 2017

 

 

Grandma’s Miraculous Mood Change

In her old age – I know we don’t use that term anymore but she was old no matter whether you called her a “senior citizen” or the more current “older adult” – my 88 year-old Grandmother came to live with us. “Us” was my father, mother, two brothers and I, the five (5) of us and Grandma in a small three (3) bedroom home in Broomall, Pennsylvania.

Grandma also shuffled back and forth between two other places – my rich Uncle Harold’s palatial home on Long Island Sound in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Harold’s summer cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts, where Grandma and Pop (Grandpa’s children called him “Pop”) spent their summers.

Letitia Sophia Campbell Stewart (“Sophie”) felt welcome in our little home and would settle in during her stays with us. Everything  would be fine for a month or two. She sort of seemed to like my mother, although no woman would be quite good enough for her Kenneth or her Harold, and both daughters-in-law knew it.

My mother was more than gracious, much more attentive to her needs than Rene, and they got along just fine. But there were times when something like a boulder would come crashing through the picture window into our living room, hit Grandma in the head, and turn her into a whining old goat. She became self-absorbed, self-pitying, annoying and quite unlovely.

Grandma was attached at the hip to Harold, 15 years older than my father. She hated the separation. Harold was the family hero, the nationally recognized Washington insider, the wealthy provider. Aloof and cold as ice but kind…if that makes any sense. Which meant he didn’t pay attention to his mother when she was at our house. Out of sight, out of mind.

Grandma became morose. “Was there a letter from Harold?” “No, Mom. I’m sorry. No mail today.”

“Harold never writes. He hasn’t called. Harold doesn’t love me. I’m just a burden. Why doesn’t God just take me. I’m of no use to anybody anymore.”

One day my mother couldn’t take it anymore. “Ken,” she said, “we have to do something or she has to go to Harold’s.”

Dad suggested taking Grandma to the doctor. She liked the doctor in Broomall.

“Sophie, what’s going on?” asked the doctor, who’d already been briefed on the boulder. Grandma repeated the script. She was a burden to everyone. Pop was gone. She was alone. “I don’t know why God doesn’t just take me!”

“Well, that’s not a problem. WE can take care of that,” said the doctor. “Really?” asked Grandma. “You bet. We can take care of that right now. I have gun out back. We can just go out back and end your misery right now.”

“O, doctor, you wouldn’t do that!!!” said Grandma.

Grandma came home as though the boulder had never hit her. The whole world had been lifted from her shoulders. She flashed her beautiful smile again and told us how much she loved us. But she continued to leave her leave her mark in the living wherever she sat, leaving my mother to ask why God hadn’t taken either Grandma or her, and I asking when I could get my bedroom back.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 5, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Visit to Grandma’s

When I was 13 my parents put me on a flight from Philadelphia to Boston. My paternal grandmother, recovering from a near fatal heart attack, needed a live-in caregiver at the summer cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts. My grandfather had died three years earlier.

When we learned of her need, there was an extended family discussion. The doctor said she needed someone with her for the next month.

Who would stay with Grandma? Who could go stay for a month?

Motif #1, Rockport Harbor

Motif #1, Rockport Harbor

Grandma insisted on going to Rockport when released from the hospital, and she did, all by herself, though she remained bed-ridden on doctor’s orders except for necessary short trips to the facility and the kitchen.

Shall we say Grandma was…just a tad stubborn, and her stubborn independence was a worry for the whole family. She wasn’t safe and shouldn’t be alone.

My cousin Gina would have been the most likely candidate, but Gina had married a MacDonald. Grandma – of the Campbell clan, the mortal enemy of the MacDonalds – had refused to bless Gina’s marriage to Norman, and would have nothing to do with either of them. Did I mention she was stubborn?

Partly by process of elimination and partly by reason of her grandson seizing the chance to live up the road from Old Garden Beach and the Headlands in my favorite place in the world, I boarded the plane and stayed the month in Rockport.

I took the train from Logan Airport to Rockport, suitcase in hand, walked the mile from the train station up Atlantic Avenue beside Rockport Harbor and turned left onto Harraden Avenue. It didn’t occur to me that it was odd for a 13 year-old to be on his own on his way to an onerous responsibility. Old Garden Beach, the Headlands, and nightly trips to Bearskin Neck and Tuck’s for ice cream were on my mind more than Grandma.

Grandma Stewart was in bed when I opened the picket fence gate and walked in the cottage’s unlocked door. We greeted each other with outspread arms, Grandma’s eyes big as saucers, flowing with tears.

“We’ll be safe,” she says. “I have a gun.” She points under the bed.

I pull out a revolutionary war rifle weighing about 10 pounds. There’s no ammunition. Just an old revolutionary war musket, like the ones the authors of the 2nd Amendment had in mind.

Revolutionary War rifle - requires only 13 steps to fire.

Revolutionary War rifle – requires only 13 steps to fire.

“Grandma,” I say, “I don’t see any bullets. Is it loaded?”

“I don’t think so,” she says. “It’s heavy. We’ll just hit ‘em with it!”

The rifle stayed under the bed long after my month playing long-distance nursemaid and body guard to Grandma from down at the beach during the day and from candy and ice cream shops on Bearskin Neck at night. I was the family hero.

Poor Grandma! Poor America! Wouldn’t the founding fathers be proud!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 5, 2015

Verse – Grandma’s Garden

To make grape jelly, she began
three years before by planting vines
along the back fence in her yard.

And now she lets her young grandson
pick purple clumps with his small hands.
With grandma he is never bored,

he helps her cook, and even clean.
She marks the doorway when he stands
to check his growth, just like the plants.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, May 3, 2015.