Isabell’s Smile

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” 

Albert Einstein

Isabell’s Wonder and her Grandfather’s Wondering

Christmas felt different this year. Until four-month-old granddaughter Isabell smiled, gurgled, and giggled back from the blanket on the floor. Before that I had been stuck in the soul-wrecking kind of wonder, not the wondrous kind of wonder Einstein described. No sugar plums danced in my head.

Photograph of Isabell Smiling
Four-month-old Isabell, Christmas day, 2021

Events of the past year were tumbling over each other. I hear the sound of a paper shredder and wonder whether any copies of the Constitution will survive the shredders. I see the Mother of Exiles, her lamp still held high, but dimming, while the torches of hate grow bright to erase Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming “the poor, huddled masses, and tempest-tost, yearning to be free.” I hear the torch-bearers chanting in Charlottesville “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” and hear the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in my language. I see the party of Lincoln riding the wave of the Big Lie and wonder when patriotism became treasonous and “open carry” the closest synonym of freedom. I see the gallows outside the Capitol, hear the shouts “Hang Mike Pence” and “Execute Nancy,” and wonder how individual freedom was severed from responsibility, and who decided only whites neighbor. I wonder what happened to the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan. I wonder whether the demons of national exceptionalism and white supremacy can be exorcized, and if and when the 100-year fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods will knock sense into climate change-deniers before the murder-suicide pact leaves no one to be replaced. I wonder what will become of us. I have to wonder.

Bethlehem and an Empty Chair for Elijah

We are no closer to Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom than the day Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew prophets’ “Day of the Lord” or its New Testament equivalent, “the Kingdom of God” is harder to imagine when Herod seems closer than the wisdom of the Wise. Elijah’s empty chair at the annual Seder meal is kept empty as a sign of hope against hope that the Messianic kingdom of Isaiah’s vision and Jesus’ preaching are more than pipe dreams.

Isabell knows nothing about any of this. She does not wonder the way I do. Shel smiles back at her grumpy grandfather, wiggling, gurgling, and giggling with joy. Isabell is no stranger to Einstein’s “beautiful thing” — the ‘thing’ that is not a ‘thing’.

The Experience of the Sacred

Fred and Jo never met Isabell. They were in their mid-90s and mid-80s when she first opened her eyes. She never saw Jo and Fred walking hand-in-hand around the retirement center. If it weren’t for the gray hair and hint of a limp, on onlooker might mistake them for teenagers. Their love was as fresh as the morning dew. The luster of love’s delight had not dimmed or faded until Jo’s daily greeting —“Good morning, Dear. How are you today?”— stopped. Two years later, her heart stopped also.

When the funeral home attendants arrived at the Memory Care Center, Fred had settled himself in the chair at the foot of the bed. Respecting his grief and wanting to protect him from viewing their work, the attendants invited him to leave the room until they were finished. Fred declined their invitation. He stayed in the room to watch each step of the process of preparing the deceased’s body, and followed the attendants and the body down the elevator and out to the hearse.

When asked later what his experience had been watching the whole process while deep in grief, Fred looked at me and paused. . . for a long time. The look on his face was quizzical. “I’m looking for the right words,” he said. “I can’t explain it. “‘Wondrous’ is the only word that comes to mind.” “I can’t explain it.” “It was ‘wondrous’!”

In that moment 90-year-old Fred and four-month-old Isabell were on the same page, alive and pausing in wonder at the beauty of it all.

“There are in life a few moments so beautiful that even words are a sort of profanity.” (Diana Palmer)

Diana Palmer

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (217 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 29, 2021.

The Puppy in the Memory Care Center

Barclay, the 6 month old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, walks on his leash in the pastor’s hand down the long first floor hall of the memory care center. People stop and smile. Barclay paws at their legs, scaring a few, but mostly arousing greater desire to touch his soft, fluffy fur.

This is Barclay’s first experience in the memory care center. It’s also his first ride on an elevator. We take the elevator to the second floor.

I knock on the door. We walk in the room to see a parishioner who loves dogs. She’s always had a dog before she lost her independence. Barclay goes to the bed, puts his paws on the side of the bed, and begs to be lifted to say hello to Susan. Susan’s eyes open wide. “Oh, my!” she says. Her face is beaming. I lift Barclay to meet Susan. She reaches out to touch and is delighted by his softness. He licks her face, kisses her mouth, brings her to the rapture only a puppy can at this point in her dying life. There is no time. Time disappears. There is no then. No there. No anywhere but here, no time but now in puppy time on the second floor of the memory care center where Susan doesn’t know she is.

There is NOTHING in this world like a puppy. He just loves everyone the same whether or not we know our own names. Is it a coincidence that ‘dog’ spelled backwards Is ‘god’?

Barclay is watching from the floor. His “owner” is doing something with Susan. “Dad” tales Susan’s hand. They’re holding hands. They close their eyes. Dad is talking in a peaceful tone of voice Barclay hasn’t heard before. It’s very quiet in the room. Susan’s face relaxes and is at peace. Long after Dad has stopped talking, Susan’s eyes stay closed. They hold hands for a long time in the silence. She is at peace. Maybe Susan has gone to be with dog.

The Elevator in the Memory Care Center

She rides the elevator in the memory care center every evening after dinner, hoping to get to the 3rd floor. There’s a button for the 3rd floor but, no matter how many times she pushes the button, the highest she gets is the second floor. (The third floor is locked off in the memory care center.)

She gets off on the second floor, greets the two men sitting in the chairs in the alcove, and shuffles down the long hallway. At the end of the hall, she does an about face and returns to the elevator, greeting us again as though she’s never seen us before. She mumbles something about the third floor. She pushes the elevator button. Elevator opens. She gets on. Elevator door opens. She gets off, greets us, mumbling something about the third floor, and repeats the pattern. Over and over again.

The two men in the alcove are consulting about their loved one in a room on the second floor who’s suffered a stroke, a TIA, or a heart attack. We don’t know which. All we know is that she has taken a turn for the worse during lunch. Our loved one is resting quietly after her pastor’s visit. She she had taken his face in her hands with clarity of mind enough for a smile and bantering humor. The prayer has taken her deep into some place no one can touch, come place of comfort the world cannot take away, some place maybe on the third floor.