Twenty years to go

Some thoughts on (almost) turning sixty (on March 1).

If you say to your friend when you’re 29, “I’m screwed-up because my parents were screwed-up,” your friend will look at you and say, “Well, I hope you’re able to get yourself together.” But if you say the same thing to your friend when you’re 59, your friend will just say, “You’re fucking pathetic. I don’t know why I hang out with you.” You can only ride that horse so far.

A life is like a history book in that, all else being equal, the more time it covers, the more stories it has to tell, and the better it can pull seemingly disparate themes into a congruent whole.

I in no way envy the young their youth (being so ignorant in so many ways wasn’t that great the first time around). I do envy them their health, their energy, their options, and the many years that they have left to live.

I have been a fundamentalist, and an atheist, and a lot of things in-between. I have also been a conservative, a liberal, and a moderate. As for a career, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Because I have been all over the map in so many areas of life, a part of me envies people who set out upon a road early on and never depart from it; but a bigger part suspects that they are more rigid than resolute.

The embarrassing part about getting old is that so many people my age are so foolish. I want respect for my experience, yet I don’t respect them for theirs. They might have learned a good bit in regard to practical matters (don’t touch a hot stove or drive fast on an icy road), but they remain appallingly deficient in depth and wisdom. Come to think of it, so do I. It’s just that they’re worse.

One might reasonably have hope for improvement in the young, but it’s harder to hope for the aged. Yet, I haven’t given up on myself. In fact, I’ve concluded that the day I turn sixty will be the day I am finally mature. I will still have odds and ends to work out, but the main themes of my life will be in order in just nine weeks. I can hardly wait.

I haven’t been carded in decades. No one has even looked like they were thinking about carding me in decades. In a way, I miss that, yet when I think back to when I was carded, I didn’t like it then, so maybe I wouldn’t like it now either. Maybe I would just think that there were entirely too many near-sighted store clerks.

I used to think that I was a very interesting person who had had a very interesting life. I still think this, but not too many people seem to agree. Maybe this is because they don’t know of anything I have excelled at.

I’m vague about what it means to excel. If you win an Olympic Gold Medal or a Nobel prize, I guess it means that you have excelled. But it would also mean that most people either haven’t excelled or else they have excelled somewhat obscurely. Does anyone regard himself as having hit that most excellent pinnacle above which nothing else lies? I wouldn’t know, but I have observed that, as a social species, it’s pretty hard for us to feel that we’ve done really well unless other people are out there applauding our efforts. Did Vincent Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson know that they had excelled?

Sitting here writing, I feel as though I should be doing something more important. Time is running out, so I must make the most of it. But what would be more important than this? I don’t know, but this doesn’t feel like enough. Maybe if I felt that I was expressing myself better. Maybe if I felt that more people cared about what I think. I so rarely feel that what I am doing is exactly the thing that I should be doing or that I am doing it in exactly the way it should be done.

I am always reaching for a feeling of rightness that I only rarely touch and never fully grasp, and even when I do grasp it, I might not recognize the fact until a lot later. Right now, I am thinking about a day Peggy and I spent in the Coast Range two years ago. Now, I see that that day was perfect, and I would be happy to relive it forever, but when that day was actually happening, I didn’t imagine that I would be sitting here now loving it completely. To love anything that much, I must have already lost it because, when it’s actually happening, I can always think of one or more teensy-tiny ways that it could be better. Later on, I don’t remember what those ways were.

No matter what your position, I can probably offer a reasonable argument in its favor even if I don’t believe it, simply because I used to believe it.

I used to expect some kind of unspecified quantum leap with every birthday, but it never came. This is what I got instead: I’m ten (double digits now!); I’m thirteen (a teenager!); I’m eighteen (old enough for the army to think I’m a man, but am I?); I’m twenty-one (old enough to vote, but why don’t I feel like a man yet?); I’m thirty (I guess I’m a man—if not now then when?); I’m forty (halfway to being dead—DEAD); I’m fifty (if I were a toaster, I would be halfway to being a genuine antique); I’m sixty (I’ll probably be dead in twenty years).

When I was young, I felt that my life had an ordained purpose that would be revealed to me someday. I wondered and wondered about this as the years went by without anything being revealed. I finally concluded that I was almost certainly wrong. After all, I had been wrong about a lot of other things that I used to think I knew for certain. For example, when I was six, I thought that nothing existed unless I was there to witness it—that people and places came into existence when I was present, and faded into nothingness when I went away. I also thought that I would be a boy forever because time was clearly passing far too slowly for me to ever grow up much less grow old.

If I don’t have a given purpose, then no one else is likely to either. This means that we do whatever we do while we’re alive, and then we’re dead, and that’s the end of the universe as far as we’re concerned. Kaput. Finé. Like a puff of smoke. Like a circle in the water where a child has thrown a rock. Later on, the universe too will die. Kaput. Finé. Like a puff of smoke…

Sometimes, something will happen that seems so timely, so apropos, that I think that, well, maybe there is some higher purpose going on here after all. But then I will say to myself that I’m grasping at straws, and I’ll be mad at myself for being unable to simply get on with living with what appears to be the case rather than forever longing for that which doesn’t appear to be the case.

I think of life as like a book or a movie that isn’t terribly good, but you stay with it because you expect it to come to a climax (otherwise, why would anyone have gone to the trouble of creating it?), and you want to see what that climax looks like. You wait, and you wait, and then the book (or the movie) ends with no climax ever being reached, and you feel cheated and even angry. You wish you had gone out and done something constructive instead of wasting your time. Only with life, there isn’t anything else you can go out and do.

Again, life is like boarding an airplane that moves away from the terminal but isn’t allowed to take off. Hours pass, and everyone says, “Screw this. We want out of here.” Only they won’t let you off. You don’t like it where you are, but you can’t go anyplace else, so you make the best of the situation. Some of us have the ability to do this better than others.

We are not equal. Some of us might try really hard to do well yet not accomplish much, while others of us might not try that hard yet accomplish a great deal. This makes it impossible to judge people because how can you judge them accurately if you can’t accurately identify and quantify what they had to struggle against? You can judge what they do, but you can’t judge who they are. They can’t even judge who they are. No one owns a calculator that can tally the inherent worth of anyone. Worth is always situational. We have all both failed and succeeded.

When he was really old, my father got religion. He was forever telling me about his latest conversations with God. Oftentimes, God would tell him that he had won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I thought that, okay, when he doesn’t get the money, he’ll give up all this nonsense about God. Wrong. Dad interpreted the fact that Ed Mahon hadn’t called him to appear on The Tonight Show as a test of his faith, and believed he would get the money later. Other times, God would tell him that the people at whatever church Dad was going to at the time were “hypocrites who didn’t know God,” and that Dad was to give them hell about it. So, Dad would stand up during the service and give them hell about it. Whenever Dad stopped going to a particular church, it was a sure thing that no one was going to call and ask what had become of him.

Dad’s weirdness about religion didn’t come as much of a surprise, because I had never known him when he was sane. But, sometimes, I worry that I too might become crazy when I am really old. I try to console myself with the thought that, since I never was as crazy as he was, I probably won’t become as crazy as he became. The problem with this is that I don’t regard myself as an exemplar of sanity either. In some ways, my father was tougher than I, and in other ways he was weaker; so where does this leave me? And who will take care of me the way I took care of him?

The time will come when either I die and leave Peggy alone, or she dies and leaves me alone. Odds are that I will leave her. Either way, it’s a piss-poor way to go.

Life goes on

8:30 a.m. I could tell that Peggy hated to go to work much worse than usual this morning, because she complained about it much less. Christmas is special to her, and she so recently lost her mother.

I cleaned house yesterday so little needs doing today. Peggy asked for a light supper, and I have no social plans. I worried that someone would invite me to dinner, but few people know I’m alone.

Christmas would ordinarily be an easy day in Labor and Delivery because of the lack of elective C-sections. Yet, there were nine births during Peggy’s shift yesterday, and she took it as a bad omen.

Peggy’s distaste for her job might be easier for me if I didn’t have it so good myself. Of course, good is a relative term. What I mean is that I have no big remodeling projects left, so my chores consist entirely of housework, yardwork, shopping, and other repetitious activities. Since there are only two of us, I worry that I’m not doing my share. Peggy works thirty hours a week and spends another two hours commuting; how many do I work? I really don’t know. It’s hard to count work that is done a little here and a little there.

I would guess that, however tired of her job Peggy is, I’m equally tired of mine. The best part of housework is that I don’t have to travel to do it, and I don’t have to get along with other people. The bad part is that it’s mind numbing. I would even say spirit killing. We own so much more than we need. This is not an opinion shared by Peggy.

The bad part of Peggy’s work is the unremitting stress, and the fact that everything has to be charted umpteen times on computerized forms that are never designed by the people who actually use them. She thrives to an extent on the adrenalin, but the forms (and what they represent) have turned her against nursing, which has become an ounce of patient care and a pound of covering everyone’s legal ass.

Peggy’s father didn’t decorate for Christmas. I would guess that a lot of widowers don’t, but that most widows do. Peggy said that most men probably wouldn’t decorate while their wives were alive if it was up to them. Probably, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy it.

On December 19h, we celebrated our 37th anniversary. The Episcopal priest who performed the ceremony warned us that every wedding he ever performed during Advent ended in divorce. That doesn’t seem likely in our case, but nothing should be taken for granted. After all, there was the woman who divorced her husband after sixty years. When a reporter asked why she did it, she replied, “Enough is enough.”

Behold my powerful deeds

As I arrived at the physical therapist’s, a man my age was leaving. As I left, another man my age was arriving. The three of us are in one of life’s predictable passageways. For most of my adult life, I regarded age-related disability as a personal failing, and thought I could avoid it if I ate right and exercised. Now I see that the body wears out no matter what. Even so, I remain an exemplary man, an inspiration to all who know me. To wit:

I drink my liquor straight.

I use six times the coffee grounds of an ordinary mortal.

I eat habaneros with every meal (habaneros being 44 times hotter than jalapenos).

I pee into the wind, and the wind flees before my mighty torrent.

Regarding these things, I say to my wife: “Behold, wife, your man’s powerful deeds and confess that he walks the earth a man among men, the terror of babies and the savior of tyrants.

My wife says back to me: “Forsooth, husband, I do behold my man’s powerful deeds, and I do confess that his few surviving taste buds packed their little suitcases and moved far away; furthermore, his shoes smell like urine.”

So much for the intellectual equality of women.

Trying to communicate about the sacred when beliefs are in conflict

To my surprise, Lynn answered my letter of November 28, regarding her “If You Don’t Believe in God, then Sit Down and Shut-up” forward. Here is her response, followed by my answer.


I received your post some days ago but didn't want to send just some flippant response since you obviously spent some time composing your message.

Of course your points are very valid that along the way in history many people in the minority had to speak up in order to be heard and to direct change. In all the instances you list, the minority was suffering great injustices--personal and physical harm, not to mention fear. No one would dispute that.

At least for me, the point of the original post was that the voice of the American majority is being silenced because a few in the minority are offended. I read the article to point to the cases where law suits have been filed against school prayer (which may or may not be valid--I don't think it should be shoved down anyone's throat but if you want to pray, man, you're going to find a way to do it so why can't we all join in? If you don't want to you do what my nephew does when he attends Catholic church and doesn't kneel, sit in the pew and let others pray on their knees. It's called respect.) Other suits have been filed against public display of the ten commandments, which are the cornerstone of our laws. Why can't we put them on the courthouse wall? I personally don't think the founding fathers meant that religion and government should be totally separate. What I think they meant was that the government couldn't force you to attend a particular church or church at all if you didn't want to. However, I don't think they meant that you could say “Because I don't like this then the MAJORITY has to stop.” I don't believe in celebrating Jewish or Muslim holidays but I think they have a right to celebrate them.

Here’s the deal. I teach in a public school, and I can't teach the true meaning of Christmas without it being in the context of Christmas around the world! Should one of Christianity’s most sacred holidays be reduced to Santa Claus and sugar cookies? And don’t even think about Easter and its true meaning. Stick to bunnies and eggs and everything’s ok.

We spend time learning about Kwanza and Hanukkah and Ramadan and Eid, which is valuable to our culture exchange. This, too, is called respect. It helps us know where others are coming from. Why not the same treatment toward Christian holidays and literature? If we're all going to “just get along” then we should all take part in learning about each other.

I’m not sure why it is that lately the “minority” is offended by Christian doctrine that has been a part of this country since its inception. If it has worked this long (“in God we trust” on our money; “one nation under God” in our pledge; the Ten Commandments in public) why is it all of a sudden politically correct to stand against those things? Who does this hurt? We aren’t talking slavery or Nazism or genocide here. We are talking about retaining a core value system that used to mean something in America.

So, perhaps telling them to sit down and shut up is harsh. Yet, that is exactly what Christians are being told to do. Are you saying that it is our turn? Are you saying that, by demanding that our Christian heritage keep its place in our society we are somehow creating an injustice for those who don't believe?


Dear Lynn,

I am honored by the time you put into presenting your thoughts. I had much rather hear from someone who respectfully challenges me to think than from someone who merely echoes my opinions. I will take the liberty of responding somewhat. I don't know if you are interested in hearing more of my thoughts on the subject, so no reply is anticipated, although one would be welcomed.

“…the ten commandments, which are the cornerstone of our laws.”

The first four of the Ten Commandments concern our relationship with God, yet God was not mentioned in the Constitution (despite tremendous pressure to do so) because the goal was a secular government. Of the other six commandments—the ones that relate to our relationships with one another—the Israelites didn’t need to be told that murder, theft, lying, greed, adultery, and contempt for one’s parents, harmed the social order because people everywhere already knew this.

“I don’t think they [the founding fathers] meant that you could say, “Because I don’t like this then the MAJORITY has to stop.’”

Are you saying that you would accept without protest the removal of every mention of God from money, public buildings, legislative prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance, and so forth if that was what the majority wanted? While I agree with you that attempts to accomplish such an end often seem frivolous and unnecessarily divisive, I feel the same way about attempts to make such references more widespread.

“I teach in a public school, and I can’t teach the true meaning of Christmas without it being in the context of Christmas around the world!’”

Almost every culture has created holidays that coincide with the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and our present push toward political correctness and multiculturalism has made such subjects very difficult for teachers. I too get tired of the turmoil. Fire stations here in Eugene can no longer have Christmas trees because a Wiccan complained that they are Christian symbols that remind her of witch burnings.

“I’m not sure why it is that lately the ‘minority’ is offended by Christian doctrine that has been a part of this country since its inception. If it has worked this long (‘in God we trust’ on our money; ‘one nation under God’ in our pledge; the Ten Commandments in public) why is it all of a sudden politically correct to stand against those things?”

“In God We Trust” first appeared on coins in 1864 and on paper money in 1957. It didn’t appear on the flags of Georgia and Florida or on the license plates of Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio until THIS century. “One nation under God” was also a latecomer, not appearing in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.

Both believers and nonbelievers have always protested these slogans (Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “[It is] my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins…does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege... it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.” –What would he say about putting God on a muddy old car tag?!) Yet, even if no one had protested religious references 100 years ago, why would that preclude a person’s right to protest them today?

“…perhaps telling them to sit down and shut up is harsh. Yet, that is exactly what Christians are being told to do. Are you saying that it is our turn?”

No. I was instead reacting to the implied demand that anyone be denied freedom of speech. I don’t feel strongly about the issue itself one way or the other since I see it as symbolic rather than substantive. You obviously see it as substantive, as do those who bring suit against such references.

Now for a bit of a footnote. I belong to the Masons and the IOOF. Both lodges require a belief in God, but they don’t define what God is. I define God as the awe that I feel toward numerous things including nature, art, and music. I furthermore define God as existing in the intimacy I share with other people (and even animals) and in such virtues as compassion and courage. To many of my fellow lodge members, I would be an atheist, yet I do not regard myself as an atheist because my “spirituality” is of supreme importance to me. Yours is of supreme importance to you, and I envy you the comfort that your belief in a benevolent God and in an eternal heaven must bring. You believe that, in the end, all things will go according to a divine plan, and I do not.

My lodges don’t, so far as I know, say why a belief in God is essential. I’m sure one reason is that the word God is often mentioned in our rituals. I have no problem with this. In fact, I very much enjoy religious observances and, for several years served as chaplain in one of my lodges. Do I believe then that some powerful being heard the prayers I led? No, but I do believe that lodge prayers are a way of affirming our values and bonding us together. If we had a member who said, “Hell no, I’m not going to take part in praying and, in fact, I’m going to try to put an end to it,” that unity would be disrupted. For my part, I would wonder why he joined in the first place and why he was making such a big deal out of such a small thing since he would have the same freedom we all have to define God. But lodges are private institutions that belong only to their members; the government belongs to us all.

I suspect that my lodges also require a belief in God for another reason, and to that one I would object strenuously. I suspect that our founders felt that a belief in a supernatural lawgiver was essential to morality, and that it never occurred to them that people such as myself who have no such belief would join. I would say to them that we don’t need God to tell us that it is wrong to rape, steal, or murder, and I would even suggest that, if a divine voice should thunder from the heavens telling us that these things were okay after all, that voice would be wrong.

I see no positive connection between a belief in a supernatural lawgiver and morality, although—as with the Ten Commandments—moral precepts are often put into the mouth of a deity in an attempt to give them more weight. It is my observation that this is more likely to lead to evil than to good. Moslems are notable today for doing dreadful things in the name of their deity, but for hundreds of years both Christians and Israelis behaved just as badly. If the evil of one exceeded that of the other, it was not because the one was more vicious but because it found more people to oppress.

It is commonly said that these religions were not to blame for the evil done in their name. I deny this totally for I have read the Bible, and I know very well what vile words it puts into the mouth of God. It was one such passage that, at age twelve, set me on a road that led away from Christianity. Moses, at God’s command, has sent the Israelites to annihilate one of the many tribes that already occupied the land that God “gave” the Jews. Utter destruction, even down to the animals, was the rule during such attacks, but here God made an exception:

"Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." (Numbers 31: 17-18)

And with this cheery verse, I will leave you for now. Again, I thank you for your reply. Even though we disagree in many ways, I am honored to hear your thoughts.

Still dead, I should think

Today, I took the dogs biking; visited a sick neighbor in the hospital; got another neighbor to take me to pick up my computer (Peggy had the van); and went to appointments with two doctors and a physical therapist. Tonight, one of my three lodges holds its biweekly meeting. I had rather stay home and rest, but I feel duty bound to go, it being a small lodge and me being an officer.

I haven’t written about my health issues lately. When I last wrote, I said that my fifth cervical vertebra is not malignant. That’s the good news; the bad news is that it’s dead (osteonecrotic in doctor jargon). No one knows why it is dead, but I’m supposed to have another MRI in February to see how it is doing (still dead, I should think). Now, I am having appreciable pain in another vertebra halfway down my back, and the first doctor I saw today (my internist) speculated that it too might be dead. I didn’t ask if he anticipates another biopsy based upon the results of the MRI he ordered because the answer seemed obvious. Besides, he looked so bummed on my behalf that I didn’t want to make things harder for him than they already are. As silly as this sounds, there is some truth to it.

I told the internist that my shoulders are doing well enough that I would like to give physical therapy a new try with a new therapist. He wrote out an order, and I saw Chris four hours later on a cancellation. He spent a solid hour testing my strength, sensation, and range of motion, and predicted significant disability if things continue as they are. This came as no surprise. He wants to work on my posture and on improving strength and flexibility in my upper neck and shoulders. This came as no surprise either; I have been tackling these problems on my own.

Later, I had my second visit with an orthopedist who only performs non-surgical treatments. Since every other orthopedist I’ve ever seen loves to cut people open, I don’t know if his is a heartfelt position or if he is simply a klutz with a scalpel. I wouldn’t have even seen him following my appointment with the physical therapist if he hadn’t been expecting me. He sent me home with literature about something called prolotherapy. I don’t know much about it, but I wasn’t impressed with what he told me or with his snap diagnosis of superior-cava-something-or-other.

He was the third orthopedist I have seen about my shoulder problems, and all three gave me different diagnoses. I have also seen two neurologists, and each of them gave me a different diagnosis as well. You always hear about the importance of getting a second opinion. I’ve had five. Some were reached—and treatments accordingly prescribed—so fast that I hardly had time to sit down. My last neurologist (the one who did my neck biopsy) literally recommended a second surgery only to run from her office while I was at the scheduling desk to tell me she had changed her mind. I give her credit for having the guts to make herself look bad.

So, you might wonder, why have I seen five doctors about one problem? Do I just really like doctors and want to support them financially as best I can; or am I hoping for ever more prescriptions for ever stronger dope; or am I just entirely too hard to please? Well, I’ve been referred around some, and that accounts for the two neurologists. As for the orthopedists, I left one because she thought my shoulder problem was arthritis, and I didn’t believe her because my shoulders started hurting at the same time and practically overnight. I then went to second orthopedist, and he recommended surgery; so I went to the third orthopedist in hope of finding a non-surgical solution. During all this running in and out of doctor’s offices, I discovered that my backbone is falling apart.

Hence, I am here, now, today, hurting in my back, neck, and shoulders, and feeling quite drained by it all, and really not wanting to take my bike out into the cold night air to go to lodge… I wish I could believe there is going to be a happy end to it all, but I don’t. At least not at the moment, although I keep plugging away as best I can, there being nothing else I can do.

If you don't believe in God, then "Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!"

Peggy’s cousin, Lynn, is a practicing Catholics and the mother of a serviceman who recently returned from Afghanistan. She often forwards ultra-conservative e-mails to me. I don’t like getting these emails because they argue from authority or pander to emotion, yet I don’t want to offend Lynn by asking her to not send them. Instead, I try to dialogue with her. Perhaps, my belief that I am her intellectual superior shows and discourages her from responding, or maybe she is like most people and simply wants to have her beliefs affirmed rather than challenged. In any event, my attempts at communication don’t appear useful.

I will only share the conclusion of Lynn’s last email. Preceding the conclusion was a list of public buildings on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, quotations by three of the Founding Fathers in support of religion, a mention of religious references on money and in the Pledge of Allegiance, and a reference to the fact that Congress pays someone to open each session with prayer. Following Lynn’s conclusion is my response. Before I wrote it, I asked her if she would be willing to dialogue, and she implied that she would. A month has passed, and I haven’t heard from her.

…“It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, it is very hard to understand why there is such a mess about having the Ten Commandments on display or ‘In God We Trust’ on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!”

Dear Lynn,

The conclusion of the argument you offer is that, on this issue at least, people who hold a minority opinion should “Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!” in deference to the majority. To begin with, did all those Americans who died for freedom of speech only die so that the majority could speak freely? Would not such a belief abolish any concept of equality before the law? And how about those Christians who were in the minority in their own eras and areas, do you believe they too should have kept silent in deference to the majority? If they had, how would you have Christianity?

Indeed, how could society advance if no one dared oppose the majority? The majority of Americans once supported slavery and the theft of Indian lands. More recently, the majority of Americans opposed equality for women and black people. By the free exchange of ideas, people can grow; without such freedom, society stagnates. Such was the situation in the Dark Ages, and such is it today in many Moslem lands.

You can pull out many quotes to support religion, but quotes can be pulled out to support pretty much any view. For instance, Jefferson also wrote, “In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.” What matters is not what any given individual said, but what the founding documents say. Even so, I would be astounded if you can point to any quotes by any of these men to support your belief that the minority should “Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!” Most of our forbearers opposed the American Revolution, and this can only mean that the war that won our independence was conducted by the minority.

Last, but certainly not least, what do you propose to do with those in the minority who insist on speaking after they’ve been told to “Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!”? It is only by the visible presence of dissent that we know our democracy is working.

Assassinations and memories of the homeland

John Kennedy was killed 45 years ago today. I was 14 and skipping school in Brookhaven, Mississippi, when it happened. My mother was watching “As the World Turns” in the den, and I was in the bathroom on the pot because, after all, everybody has got to be someplace. The cabinet next to me was full of Dad’s colognes that he never wore but that I gave him every Christmas anyway. I was removing these colognes one at a time and smelling them when I heard, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The president of the United States has been shot…”

I didn’t think Kennedy would die because he was rich, and I believed money could fix anything. I also knew that Dallas was near the desert, and I thought the desert had magical powers that could save his life if they would only take him there. I had never been in a desert, but I had seen a lot of them on cowboy movies and TV shows. People would die on these shows only to appear later on other shows. Maybe that’s why I thought the desert had special powers. I’m just guessing.

At school the next day, people were happy about the killing. A girl at a school in nearby McComb asked to be excused to mourn, but the principal wouldn’t excuse her so she stayed home anyway and got zeros in all her classes. Her family was eventually run out of town for their liberal ideas. They moved to Jackson, but were run out of there too. Their last name was Heffner, and someone wrote a book about them.

I was asleep when Robert Kennedy was killed. I don’t remember what I was doing the next day when I heard about it.

I was practicing for a college play when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Whitworth was a small Methodist school (also in Mississippi), and a lot of the students were preparing for the ministry or missionary work. When someone came into the auditorium and told us that King had been shot, most people cheered. The teacher, who was from Ohio, just smiled. Then we went on with our rehearsal. I was shocked by the cheering (mostly because it was done by ministerial students), but I didn’t think much about it after it happened.

To give more context…during the 1960s, white people in Mississippi believed themselves and their way of life to be under siege by “outside agitators” (which was true) and despised and reviled by the rest of the world (which was mostly true), a world that couldn’t begin to understand the necessity of enforcing racial separatism in order to avoid a mongrelized race that would incur the wrath of God and bring an end to civilization. This point of view made a lot of Southerners rigid if not dangerous. I’m glad I grew up in that place and time and saw all the things I did. Of course, if I had been as rich as the Kennedys and educated at Harvard, that would have been okay too.

Negroes, as they were called, had separate schools, motels, and restaurants. They also had separate restrooms and water fountains in some places, but in most places, they had to do without. Some white cafes served black patrons through a side window, but most didn’t serve them at all. Blacks and whites didn’t socialize in one another’s houses, and a black person was expected to knock at the back door if he needed to talk to a white person at home. Young and middle aged black people were called by their first names; elderly blacks were called Uncle or Aunt. Blacks were expected to take their hats off when talking to whites, and to move aside when passing a white on the sidewalk. The “separate but equal” schools of which white Southerners boasted didn’t exist, and public libraries and swimming pools were for whites only. The black part of Brookhaven, which was called Little Egypt, had narrow streets and no sidewalks. Some of the streets weren’t paved. Blacks couldn’t even be buried alongside whites.

Separatist customs were taken so seriously that no deviation was tolerated. Imagine the outrage of bystanders today if two people took off their clothes and started having sex on the sidewalk in broad daylight, and you will understand how white Southerners would have felt had they seen a black person knocking on a white person’s front door or drinking from a whites only water fountain. A teenage boy was beaten, shot, and thrown in a river with a mill wheel tied to his neck for whistling at a white woman, and my father watched two black men being fatally drug behind cars for being drunk and disorderly in the white part of town.

Even though I lived in Mississippi for all of my first 36 years, I was often asked where I was from. My Southern accent was obvious to people from other places, but there was something about my manner of speaking that set me apart in my native state. This and my ambivalence about Southern values made me feel like an outsider from my early teens. When I finally left the South, I imagined that living among “Northern” liberals in Oregon would feel like coming home, but I discovered that a great many people here stereotyped me as being straight out of “Deliverance.” I found it quite impossible to convince people that I wasn’t stupid and bigoted, especially when they were acting that way themselves based upon nothing more substantial than my accent.

When I was a boy, I lived among people who were proud of their prejudice (Hell, yeah, I hate niggers!”), but when I came to Oregon, I found myself among people who falsely boasted that they had no prejudices. The few black people I have met in Oregon echo my observation, but instead of being scorned by white liberals, they are solicited to be their token black friends. I don’t doubt but what such weirdness is partly why there is an exodus of black people back to the South. Instead of being the most segregated part of America, the South has become the most integrated, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Mississippi where blacks are in the majority. Most weeks, I don’t even see a black person here in Oregon.

Fun at the Chevy dealership

Peggy and I took the van to the Chevy dealership yesterday for an oil change and a grease job. Afterwards, we went to eat. Before I went into the restaurant, I crawled under the van to be sure everything had been done properly. It had not. I could tell this because the grease fittings were still covered with road scum.

After our meal, we took the van back to the shop. The service rep, the mechanic, the shop foreman, Peggy, the dogs, and I, all gathered beneath it (this would be after it was lifted into the air). There was no denying that the work hadn’t been done. “Why wasn’t it greased?” Peggy asked. I hadn’t planned to inquire because I knew there was no good reason, and I didn’t want to cause more embarrassment than necessary. There followed an awkward moment during which everyone pretended they hadn’t heard anything. Peggy persisted. “Did you guys not hear me? I asked why the van wasn’t greased.”

After another awkward silence, the mechanic said he had been distracted by his difficulty in removing the air filter. Well, this didn’t make much sense because the air filter is under the hood, and the grease fittings are under the van, so if you’re working on one, you’re nowhere near the other, but Peggy isn’t up on her automotive topography, and I wasn’t going to tell her. I had noticed that the shop foreman was having to show the “mechanic” where the grease fittings were located, so I had pretty much settled on the theory that the “mechanic” was a new hire who didn’t know his job any too well. After all, a lot of new cars don’t even have grease fittings.

When the job was done, I waited to see what the service rep was going to offer us to make up for our time and trouble. When all he extended was his “sincerest apology,” I asked for a free lube and oil change next time. The dealership manager was consulted, and he agreed to this, but he took his own sweet time in signing a form authorizing the work. Meanwhile the service rep and I talked. He told me about his history in the automotive business (he started in his father’s radiator shop at age eleven, and became a service rep ten years ago following a back injury that made him unable to be a mechanic); and I told him that I’ve had two cancer scares this year, so I’m determined to teach Peggy as much as I can about things she would need to know if she were alone—things like checking up on other people’s work, especially the kinds of work that those people wouldn’t expect her to check up on. This is no easy task, because Peggy doesn’t want to think about being alone.

Bonnie and Clyde

Recent reading. Lots of books. Always lots of books. One about an elderly couple who were the first to walk across the Gobi Desert. Another by a shrink about his childhood. A third by a woman with breast cancer. A fourth by a druggie about his misadventures. Several about alternative medicine. Most notably, a scholarly work about Bonnie and Clyde. Scholarly…Bonnie and Clyde? Sounds oxymoronic, but the author made them and their era his life’s work.

My father was born in 1909, the year before Clyde Barrow. He said he saw Clyde in a bar once, and maybe he did since they covered the same territory and both did their share of bar hopping. Dad also said that the 1930s was his favorite decade. Only when I became old enough to envision the Great Depression did I catch the irony. But he was a young man then. He worked as a carpenter, painter, and merchant seaman. He rode freights, ran bootleg, lived with a lot of women, and got into a lot of fights. He used to show me where the honky tonks stood, and tell me about the people he fought in them. He seemed nostalgic. “Dad, did you like fighting?” “Yeah, I always enjoyed it.” He got into his last fight when he was 75 (he attacked two highway patrolmen with his walking stick), although he did get mad at me one day when he was 84, and go skulking about the house for a while with a butcher knife.

I used to watch The Untouchables on TV. It was mostly set in the ‘20s but some of it in the ‘30s, and it didn’t take much to envision my father back then. I had pictures of him in cocky poses wearing the same kind of clothes and standing by the same kind of cars. When the movie about Bonnie and Clyde came out in 1967, I took Dad to see it. It was one of only two movies that we watched together. Dad thought Bonnie and Clyde got a raw deal. A lot of people did, which was probably why 20,000 people attended Bonnie’s funeral. Everyone hated banks during the Depression, so there was a lot of sympathy for people who robbed them. When Dillinger was killed on a Chicago street, bystanders thronged to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood.

The real life Bonnie and Clyde were even more violent than the movie versions and died even younger. Bonnie was 23; Clyde was 24. Last night, I read about their Joplin, Missouri, shootout. Two cops were killed and three outlaws wounded. The account got to me, especially the part about the dog Snowball that ran away while the machine guns rattled. It wouldn’t have hit me so hard if what had happened in the weeks before the shootout hadn’t been so ordinary and even light-hearted. The movie was that way too. It wasn’t just the graphic violence that gave the censors fits, it was the interweaving of violence with humor and tenderness. But that’s how Bonnie and Clyde lived; to some extent, it’s how we all live, only instead of being dropped by gunfire, we die from cancer and car crashes.

Peggy objects to any attempt to humanize criminals. She doesn’t want to know that Clyde liked hot chocolate with marshmallows, or that Blanche enjoyed putting together puzzles, or that Bonnie wrote poetry, or that Buck taught Snowball to stand up in the back seat of the car and put her paws on his shoulders, or that W.D. joined the gang because he was a kid in need of a family. I’m mostly that way too, but it’s easier, somehow, to humanize the outlaws of old than the ones who just knocked over the local Dairy Mart.

Is it better to be like Peggy and not even try to see the good in bad people? I guess that depends upon what you want to do with them. If you want to hang them from the nearest tree, it’s probably better to dismiss them as monsters. But if you want to think of them as people who might, in different circumstances, have done a lot of good with their lives, it probably isn’t. I don’t know which way is right. Are we too soft on criminals or too severe? I mostly think we are too soft, but I also think that the biggest difference between good people and bad people is how they were brought up. Without Peggy’s softening influence, I would have been capable of some bad things, but that wouldn’t mean there was no good in me. Even Hitler was kind to his dogs. What I see in such behavior is something akin to a seed that might have blossomed into a beautiful flower under different circumstances. We are all born with the capacity for good.

I awakened despondent at 3:00 a.m. last night, so overcome was I by the tragedy of Bonnie and Clyde, and their victims. It’s as if all that suffering and waste had formed into a dense black ball and lay heavy on my chest. I mostly thought about their many months on the run, and I reflected upon what it must be like to never eat in peace or lie down without wondering if you will be awakened by someone shooting at you. The following is from the report of the posse that killed them. It’s one of the reasons why my father hated cops so terrifically that he said any day a cop was killed was a happy day for him.

“Each of us six officers had a shotgun and an automatic rifle and pistols. We opened fire with the automatic rifles. They were emptied before the car got even with us. Then we used shotguns ... There was smoke coming from the car, and it looked like it was on fire. After shooting the shotguns, we emptied the pistols at the car, which had passed us and ran into a ditch about 50 yards on down the road. It almost turned over. We kept shooting at the car even after it stopped. We weren’t taking any chances.”

Computer woes, First Christian

My computer has been in the shop for a week. Twice, I complained about the slow service and was told by different techs that I could go to the front of the line for $100. When I finally picked my computer up yesterday, I raised hell about this to the manager, telling her that she has taken the sort of unscrupulous act that rogue employees have always been guilty of and elevated it to company policy. She admitted that it’s a shameful practice, but then contradicted herself by saying it’s only for businesses that can’t do without a computer. I told her that of the two employees who enthusiastically offered to bump me to the front of the line, neither asked if I owned a business. Eager to get me off her back, and not knowing that I had just gotten my computer, she offered to service it immediately at no extra charge. A hundred dollars is a hundred dollars, I suppose, and hers is the only Mac store in town. She’s well known for her role in the Catholic Church, but I refrained from asking if her lack of integrity conflicts with her religiosity.

I attended First Christian this week and enjoyed it very much. The building is old, large, and corridorous, so I didn’t find the Sunday School class I was looking for, but wandered instead into a group of twenty that offered hot coffee and a discussion about the four versions of God found in the Pentateuch. No conservative church would sponsor such a class.

I debated leaving before the service, but was glad I stayed. The sermon was about inclusiveness, and just as the minister was saying that the church is obligated to welcome everyone, no matter how they are dressed, two women walked in, one in an open vest with no blouse and the other in chaps with no pants. They sat down quietly, but the remainder of the homily was pretty much lost on the congregation. The preacher later said that, despite rumors to the contrary, he doesn’t pay people to illustrate his sermons.

I took communion, stayed for coffee and dessert, and was even invited out to eat by a group that dines together every Sunday. If I had not been feeling overly socialized and overly full of cake, I would have gone. For all of my life prior to Zoloft, even the social expenditure that I had already made would have been a strain, yet I haven’t taken Zoloft in years. Perhaps, I stayed on it long enough that the me on Zoloft simply became the me off Zoloft.

Biopsy results

It might have made for more interesting writing if I had cancer, but I don’t. The doctors don’t know what I have. They suggested that I have a follow-up CAT scan in three months to learn if C-5 has done anything else weird. Peggy thinks it is a space alien; it does look other-worldly.

My surgery was at the huge new hospital, and the operating room was also right out of science fiction. For one thing, I counted five large screen, flat panel televisions from where I lay with my throat exposed and my head in a plastic doughnut. On each of those screens was an inside view of my neck, and everything in my neck was in some shade of gray; everything that is except for C-5, which was a brilliant white. It was weird, I tell you, to lie there with these enormous C-5s staring down at me from every angle, and me knowing that a team of strangers in masks was about to stand in the glare of two huge round spotlights; press a razor-sharp knife to my throat; and cause my blood to flow up my neck, down either side, and even into my ears and hair (Peggy did wash blood from my hair).

Yesterday, the surgeon went ahead and sent me to the scheduling clerk to set a date for my next operation, one to unpinch the nerve that makes my right arm tingle. She said she doesn’t think I need shoulder surgery, that this neck surgery will eliminate my shoulder pain. My last neurologist and my orthopedist think differently, but it’s hard to argue with a woman who just cut from the front of my throat all the way to my backbone and made it almost as painless as opening a bag of tortilla chips.

Her assistant walked to the desk with me, and I happened to say something on the way about the pain in my left shoulder. He disappeared and a moment later reappeared with the surgeon. “You have pain in both shoulders?” “Yes, the pain is in both shoulders, but the tingling is only on the right.” I didn’t remind her that she already knew this. “Then that’s a whole other and more drastic surgery, so I want to try a series of steroid shots first. They give some people relief for years.” Okay. Cancel second surgery. Schedule first steroid shot. This is the kind of weirdness that I run into all the time with doctors. They spend almost no time with you, don’t listen to half of what you say, and then send you off for risky tests and procedures.

I back the van out of the garage for Peggy when she goes to work. I do this because it is almost wider than the garage door and scary for her to back out. Today (Friday) was her first day back at work. The van’s CD player took up where it left off on Monday when she brought me home from the hospital. I was puking IV fluids at the time, so the relaxing New Age music struck a different chord this morning.

Peggy and I felt pretty good when we left the doctor’s office on our bikes. Then she remembered a paper she had meant to bring (a form she needed the doctor to sign regarding the days she took off from work). I could tell she was really mad at herself for forgetting it. “Peggy, we just found out that I don’t have cancer. Why are you so bummed about a damn form?” A short while later, my own exhilaration wore off, and all I felt was enormously tired and even a little empty. Once we got home, we had all these phone calls to make to people who were awaiting my biopsy results, and I simply wasn’t going to make them, because I knew everyone would be happy and relieved, and that they would expect me to be happy and relieved too. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel these things; it was just that I was drained of all energy. Within minutes, I had gone from planning a celebratory meal out to wondering if I could stay awake long enough to eat a salmon burger at home.

I can best explain my feelings this way. Imagine that you’re crossing the street a little distracted—listening to your iPod maybe—when all of a sudden an 18-wheeler comes barreling down on you with its air horn blowing, its brakes screaming, and misses you by six inches, the turbulence alone almost knocking you to the ground. Would you feel like going out to celebrate the fact that you were almost, but not quite, killed?

I was surprised by my ennui because I had been relaxed at the surgeon’s office. I had two really distressing events this week, both of which I had known about and dreaded for days. The first was having my throat cut, and the second was getting my biopsy results. Yet, I went to both of these events relaxed. I’ll try to explain. A stressful event is made such by the nature of the event itself, but also by our emotional resistance to the event. In the case of my two events; I knew that they were going to happen, that there was no rational way I could stop them from happening, and that I might as well surrender myself to them, thereby giving them permission to happen. I transformed myself into clay, into water, into a complete pacifist; and this enabled me to approach these formerly dreaded experiences with disinterested curiosity.

So why then, when I had felt relaxed at the surgeon’s, did I feel so tired afterwards? Had I not really been relaxed after all, but had only fooled myself into thinking I was relaxed? These were unsettling questions, and I simply didn’t have the emotional energy to entertain them. Instead, I reminded myself that I had survived a very hard week that had come on the heels of many very hard months; that I had behaved bravely; and that I have earned the right to forgive myself for not being a perfect human being. Being human is a devastating proposition because it also means being flawed. My doctors are flawed; my nurses at Sacred Heart were flawed; I too am flawed; and I forgive us all. May God help us all, and may God save us all because we most certainly cannot save ourselves.

Awaiting a possible death sentence

Twenty-three hours and ten minutes from now, I will be told whether I have metastatic cancer. That moment will either be the beginning of a new life (a life that will include an early death) or it will be, more or less, a continuation of my old life.

Once is how many times I have seen the surgeon who will carry the news (the second time I was unconscious). How might I prepare for hearing my death sentence from the lips of a stranger, a woman stranger? Getting through that moment seems, in this moment, like the hardest thing I will ever have to endure. Mostly, I don’t want to cry. Silly at this might seem, I am, after all, a man, and I possess a man’s vanity.

Along with terror, I feel a strange exhilaration, as if I had bet my life savings on the roll of a roulette wheel. Sure, I could lose big, but I could also win big, and what bigger prize to win than my life?

Post surgical adventures

I don’t have biopsy results. The surgeon said she would replace the bone while I was on the table if the lab could tell right away that it was malignant, but the lab couldn’ tell right away. No news is good news, I suppose—or at least it’s not bad news (I’m too tired and drugged to know which). I am to learn if I have cancer at 3:00 Thursday.

I feel much better than expected, but that could be because of the Percocet. I observed after past surgeries that I would feel good enough that I would think I didn’t need painkillers, only to have the pain return with a vengeance when I stopped them. It’s definitely harder to beat pain back down than it is to keep it down in the first place. Still, I will replace my next Percocet with a Vicodin and see what happens.

I was in excruciating and ever worsening pain yesterday after being intubated, and I got no relief even after being given the highest dosages allowed of at least a half dozen painkillers. One of the funny things about painkillers is that they can knock-you-on-your-ass if your pain level is within their ability to handle, but if it’s beyond what they can handle, you can’t even tell you’ve taken anything.

The nurses were at a loss to understand my pain since it was well beyond what most people experience. They just knew that my oxygen level was below ninety, and that I was reporting intolerable pain even after having taken everything they had to give. They wouldn’t discharge me, yet they couldn’t help me, and they wouldn’t let me use the one device with which I thought I could help myself—my CPAP. They didn’t appear to know much about the machine, but their main objection was that they would have to call the hospital electrician to inspect it, and that this was too much of a bother for something they had no confidence in anyway. When I degenerated to the point of no longer being able to speak (due to the pain and lack of oxygen), they called the electrician.

He arrived in five minutes; picked up the unplugged CPAP; examined it for five seconds; said, “Looks okay to me;” and put an orange sticker on it. Ah, the security that comes from a professional safety inspection. With my first breath, I felt significant relief, and my oxygen saturation soon jumped from eighty-eight to ninety-nine. My theory is that a swollen trachea caused the pain. By opening my trachea with positive air pressure, the CPAP both relieved the pain and allowed the passage of air. Since a CPAP’s normal use is for sleep apnea, I can understand why the nurses didn’t believe it would help a patient who was awake, yet they could have spared me hours of misery if only they had called the electrician sooner.

The morning of surgery

The time is 4:20 a.m. I have to be at the hospital at 5:45. I am calm. What will be, will be, and I am prepared to face it with dignity.

People with their throats cut generally look dead; my first death

I never saw anyone with their throat cut but what they looked the worse for wear; in fact, they looked dead and they didn’t die smiling either. Judy (that would be Doctor Judy) says not to worry, that she cuts two and three throats a week sometimes. What I want to know is how she finds that many people who (a) need their throats cut and (b) are willing to let someone do it.

I had my first serious surgery about eight years ago. It was such a new and unusual procedure that I had to drive 110 miles to the Oregon Health Sciences University to see the one doctor in Oregon who knew how to do it. Dr. Hwang was so young, and little, and smart, and cute—not to mention caring—that I would have adopted him in a heartbeat. He suggested that I have the surgery in two parts to minimize the risk, but I wanted it ASAP, and I had no qualms about trusting him to do it up right. The morning he was to operate, the anesthesiologist came in first (as they always do), and offered to give me a little something for anxiety. I told him I wasn’t the least bit anxious—I was just enthusiastic. He thought I was putting him on, and we got into an argument about whether I was anxious. When he saw that he couldn’t win that one, he left. I thought he might hold it against me, but he and Hwang both did bang up jobs in surgery and, what with being awake but stoned out of my gourd, I enthused all over the place about what great doctors they were.

God, but I miss those days when trust was a given and surrender came easily. By now I know the routine well—the pre-dawn drive to the hospital, the forms to sign, the wrist-bracelet, the humiliating gown, the hasty “vitals,” the endless questions from the endless procession of nurses about why I am there and when I last ate, Peggy’s attempt at casualness, the anesthesiologist’s visit, the trip to the bathroom with a nurse carrying my IV, the stretcher ride to the holding area with the lights passing overhead and the curious strangers looking down at me, the inevitable crashes at corners, and finally into surgery. There, the many people in masks and gowns, the perfunctory courtesy, the move from the stretcher to the operating table, my diseased fingers turning white from the cold, my arms being stretched to either side like the crucified Jesus, the additional warm blankets that are never enough, feeling helpless and exposed, waiting eagerly for an injection of happy juice. Then recovery. I will have stayed awake for surgery if possible, so I pass the time listening to other patients moan and puke, and trying to recollect everything that happened. If the surgeon gives a shit, he comes by to tell me how it went.

Is recovery where I’ll be told if I have cancer? Probably not. I’ll be put to sleep this time, so I’ll be among the moaners and pukers. Probably Peggy will know first, and probably Peggy will be alone. Then again, maybe no one will know. The surgeon said that calcification might make an early diagnosis impossible. If this is so, and if I have cancer, it will mean a second surgery to replace the bone. Or not. I’m not going balls-to-the-wall unless I have a decent chance of survival.

I used to wonder how a doctor tells a patient he has cancer. I thought they would have learned some special words in medical school. I’ve had four doctors this year (three in October and one in January when I had hernia surgery) throw out the possibility, and I was struck by their casualness. The neurologist who brought it up in October told me over the phone. Phone calls from a doctor usually mean bad news, but I wasn’t expecting anything like what I heard. “It might be cancer, and if it is, it would have spread from someplace else—possibly the prostate. You need to see your internist about what to do next. Good bye and good luck.”

If someone who didn’t know English had tried to judge the nature of the call from the tone of the caller, he might have thought that Blockbuster was telling me I had a movie overdue. I imagined that this doctor never gave me or my problem another thought after he hung up. And why should he?

I first watched a man die when I was a fourteen-year-old ambulance attendant. The call came at 7:30 on a Sunday night, right in the middle of Mission Impossible. We found the man alone and unconscious on his partially mopped kitchen floor, and he died as we lifted him into the white Ford station wagon that passed as a Mississippi ambulance. CPR hadn’t been invented, and when I started to apply an oxygen mask, the boss laughed and told me not to waste his money.

As we drove back through town, the streetlights were still burning, the man at the filling station was still pumping gas, and people were still leaving church. I had expected the world to stop, and it hadn’t even slowed down. That was forty-five years ago. My belief that my kind was the center of the universe and the pinnacle of God’s creation also died that day.

If only I have enough time to finish editing my journals, I will be grateful. If I don’t have cancer at all, maybe my other problems won’t seem quite as bad.

What good is God?

It takes about four hours to do the yard up right, and I don’t remember a time in my adult life—except once when I had the flu and twice when I had strep—that the job would have tired me out, yet I only lasted 45 minutes today before I had to slow down. After ninety minutes, I felt the need to take an extended break. This is how I am spending my break.

My fatigue made me remember my neighbor, John. Five years ago, he drove 120 miles over the Cascades, climbed a 10,358 foot peak, and drove home, all on the same day. Few people could do as much at any age, but John did it at 55. Instead of being pleased, he was upset that it drained all his energy. He went to the doctor the next week, and died of prostate cancer the next year. While I was working in the yard, I seriously entertained the thought that I really might be facing death.

It was this melancholy realization that made me think of Eugene Sledge, a World War II soldier who wrote about the battles on Pelieu and Guadalcanal. Sledge said that new soldiers typically think they’re too smart to get killed. When they observe that more experienced soldiers than themselves get killed all the time, they conclude that they could die, but that they probably won’t because they’re special to God, and God will protect them. Then they see their friends die—sometimes horribly—and they are forced to ask themselves what makes them more special than those people. When they can’t think of anything, they conclude that, not only might they die, they are almost certainly going to die.

Then I remembered Dana Reeve, the wife of Christopher Reeve, who died of lung cancer less than a year after his death. I saw her on a DVD about health care recently. She was well dressed and appropriately made-up, but her eyes were tired, and her pauses for air came too often and lasted too long. I admired the hell out of that woman because she radiated such incredible courage by trying to help other people live longer when she was so near death herself. I had the thought that a good death would go a long way toward making up for a life that, if not failed, is nothing to brag about either.

When I listen to Pachebel’s Canon in D, I often reflect that, if Johann Pachebel didn’t do another thing but to write that one piece of music, a piece that comes nearer to embodying the divine than anything else I’ve ever seen or heard, it would have justified his entire 53 years. What, then, have I done to justify my years?

The one thing that I just cannot see my way to bear is my knowledge that I will be leaving Peggy alone. If only I could have her hypnotized so that she would come home from the funeral wondering how she ever put up with me to begin with and glad that I was dead, I would prefer that a million times better than to think that she will experience a grief that is beyond anything I can imagine. I picture her here, in this house, crying alone in the wee hours. I picture her coming home at night without me to greet her and without her supper on the table. I picture her taking her bike out for a ride while my bike remains behind. I picture her sitting in this chair, at this computer, getting things all fouled up, and not knowing how to straighten them out, and not having me to call.

If I could imagine now everything she will feel then, she might feel less alone for knowing that I traveled the same road ahead of her, but I know I cannot. Writers from Job to Eugene Sledge were right; God’s favors are not bestowed according to merit. What then, is the good of God?

Fun with having my throat slit

I finally had my appointment with the neurosurgeon. She will be my first woman surgeon (no, my second, come to think of it—I must be having too many surgeries). She is probably in her thirties; probably a lesbian; wore corduroy jeans, cartoon socks, and funky tennis shoes; didn’t blanch when I called her by her first name; and seemed utterly confident of her skills but without any trace of arrogance. She gave me a prescription for ninety Percocets (Percocet being the best thing short of morphine), and I added them to my narcotic’s stash.

“Are you saving up to kill yourself?” Peggy asked. “No. I just remember what it’s like to be in the worse pain of my life, and have no way to control it.” Actually, I had about sixty Vicodins and Percocets on hand (from my last two surgeries) when I was hurting my worst, but I was afraid to take them for fear I might need them even more later. Now that I have six weeks worth of narcotics and a couple of doctors who actually give a rip when I’m in pain, I feel secure.

The CT scan showed a line of grayish vertebra in the midst of which was one glaringly white vertebra. A five year old could have pointed to the problem. I am scheduled for a “Biopsy C5 Vertebral Body—Possible C5 Corpectomy w/Interbody Graft C4-C6 w/Anterior Plate C4-C6” next Monday. What the big words mean is that I am a terribly smart patient for whom small words aren’t adequate. Besides that, they mean that the doctor is going to slit the front of my throat to examine the fifth vertebra at the back of my neck. If my fifth vertebra is malignant, she will cut it out, replace it with part of a dead man’s lower leg bone (either the tibia or the fibula—I didn’t ask), and attach a metal plate to the fourth and sixth vertebras to hold my neck together until the dead man’s bone has a chance to grow. Have you ever heard of anything more fun?! Don’t you wish you were me?! Peggy doesn’t. When I told her that I had rather it be me than her, she agreed.

I thought her answer lacked a certain romantic element, but what we both meant was that I can better deal with being a patient. What I also meant was that I had rather die than to see her die. If she too prefers that I be the one to go, I’m just glad that that’s the way things might play out. She will no doubt spend a lot of lonely nights wondering if hers was the easier path after all, but I think it likely she will at least survive (and eventually flourish), whereas I’m not confident I would.

I questioned that the surgery is a good idea since my fifth cervical vertebra is one of the few body parts that isn’t bothering me, but Peggy and the surgeon considered the operation a no-brainer. Their argument was that I need to know what’s going on in case it needs treatment. That made sense, but it seemed to me that there are also risks in having my throat slit and part of my backbone taken out, and that maybe the information gained won’t be worth those risks. They disagreed, and the surgeon added that she also disagreed with my last neurologist about the tingling in my right arm being unrelated to my spine (although she’ll need a second surgery to fix the problem). I signed on the dotted line—all ten of them—my thought being that Peggy is too freaked out to let things be, and that the orthopedist won’t operate on my shoulders until my back problem is out of the way. This means I’m facing at least four operations, which will bring my lifetime total to fifteen.

I asked the surgeon why, when I can put my hand behind my neck and feel my vertebra, she needed to approach it from the front. She (I’ll call her by a made-up name since I’m going to paraphrase her rather loosely, i.e. lie like a dog about some of the nonmedical stuff) said she can’t take a bone sample from the back because the vertebra is too thin there. “Well, uh, won’t all that stuff in my throat—trachea, esophagus, major arteries, and such—be a problem if you go in from the front?” “Nope, I use spreaders. Put those suckers in there and crank them to the sides, and everything just gets right out of lil’ ole Doc Judy’s way.”

I asked if there was any way she would let me stay awake during all this since I’ve stayed awake during lots of surgeries by now, and REALLY prefer it that way and REALLY do good that way, and REALLY, REALLY hate being knocked out.” “Nope, you’d be gagging like you’ve never gagged before. Altogether too stimulating,”

“Too stimulating? Is that a euphemism for ‘patient jumped from table and ran out door’?”

“Hell yeah, gagging all the way!”

While we spoke, the The Ballbusters and other fem groups were belting out their music in the background. The only song I recognized was a Castraette’s hit that was set to an old Beatles’ tune, “I wanna debone my maaaaaan…. I wanna debone my man.” I noticed a poster on the wall that depicted a big woman on a big Harley. She was heavily tattooed and dressed in black leather. Her bike was parked atop a bookish looking little man in thick spectacles who appeared to be pleading for his life as she snuffed out a cigarette on his throat. The caption read, “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” I looked back at my doctor and saw that she and Peggy were rubbing legs under the table. I pretended not to notice.

“Are there any serious risks to this surgery?” I asked.

“Hell, son, all of life is a risk. The only question is whether you’re man enough to face it.” Then the doctor laughed. Then Peggy laughed. Then they both pointed at me and kept on laughing. “Yes,” I said in a quiet voice that would have been reminiscent of Clint Eastwood if my pitch hadn’t kept changing. “I am man enough, darn it. I really am.”

“Oooooh,” they cooed, and laughed some more.

Peggy and I went from the doctor’s office to the anesthesiologist’s office to get my pre-op out of the way. I picked up a New Yorker magazine and looked at the cartoons. In one cartoon, two women were sitting on a couch talking. One of the women was holding a photo of her late husband. “No, he didn’t suffer,” she said. “And that is my only regret.” Peggy, predictably, didn’t get it.

This is a good time for having a morbid sense of humor. I just hope I can laugh all the way to the hospital at 5:15 Monday morning. Peggy doesn’t find humor in sickness and death, so things are harder for her. I’ve wondered if she might actually hold up better if I were falling apart. I tell her that I’m fine and that nothing she says will scare me, and this gives her permission to tell me some things she might not otherwise say. Whether sharing terror dissolves it or makes it grow, I can’t say.

I’ll try to get the house cleaned and the yard work done. I’ll also make out a will and a medical power of attorney. I don’t know that I need a will since everything is in both our names anyway; and the surgeon said I don’t need a medical power of attorney. But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture myself lying brain dead in a Catholic hospital, and Peggy having to go to court to get my feeding tube disconnected. I keep asking myself whether it’s still true that I don’t fear death. Yes, it is still true. I fear suffering, and I grieve in advance to think about Peggy being alone, but death holds no terrors for me.

Still no appointment

I still have not seen the neurosurgeon. First, her staff lost my referral, then she cancelled three appointments at the last minute due to emergencies. These cancellations are understandable but frustrating since Peggy took off from work to go with me, and I even left a funeral early to get to one of them. Also, the doctor’s nurse told me to stop taking my anti-inflammatory a week ago in preparation for an early biopsy, and this has caused my pain to grow exponentially, yet she will not schedule an operating room until I see the doctor.

On the good side (maybe) I’m told that my next appointment (tomorrow at 8:00 a.m.) is a”100% sure thing.” Right. Sort of like when I call a doctor’s office and the receptionist says, “I’m going to put you on hold for just a moment.” Now, I would define “just a moment” as longer than a second but shorter than a minute. People who work in doctors’ offices have a different definition. They define “just a moment” as an indefinite quantity of future time that would normally transpire before the caller dies—assuming that the caller is not too sick or old, and his call is not disconnected. This means that a “100% sure thing” could mean, as I define it, a 0.4% sure thing, or a 50% sure thing, or anything else.

I took the following summary to the neurosurgeon's office today along with some other forms:

A Summation of Why I Have Come

I have impingement problems in both shoulders. When the pain got so bad that I could not carry on a normal life, I went to Shapiro for surgery. Shapiro said that a tingling/burning sensation in my right arm was not connected to the impingement problem, and that I would need to see a neurologist before he operated. I waited six weeks for an appointment with Balm who said Shapiro was probably wrong, but that he would test me anyway. He did an EMG and a nerve conduction study, and ordered an MRI and a CT scan. These tests proved Balm right, but they also showed a “shiny fifth cervical vertebra.” Balm suggested that I see my internist, Jacobsen, to determine whether I have metastatic cancer that, he speculated, might have originated in my prostate.

I told Balm that the pain in my shoulders (and to a lesser extent in my back) often leaves me just short of tears, but that despite my fervent and repeated requests for adequate pain relief, Shapiro had not seen fit to prescribe anything stronger than 25mg Elavil (of which he said I could take a whole tablet if I needed it—the first night I took two tablets and still got little if any relief). Balm gave me a prescription for hydrocodone, but it makes me itch so bad that I rarely take it. I partially control the pain by: taking Piroxicam each morning and Elavil, Ambien, and Requip at bedtime; sleeping with a heating pad under my back and a pillow under each shoulder; and not doing any physical activity that involves my arms if I can avoid it (I even keep my hands in my pockets when I walk, and I ride my bike with only my left hand on the handlebars as much as possible).

I also went to an acupuncturist for eight visits. I wasn’t sure he helped (or if it was my constant experimentation with other measures that accounted for the pain reduction), but I observed that he stuck me in the same places each time, so I ordered some needles and have been doing almost daily acupuncture on myself. I’m not sure what combination of measures I can attribute it to, but I have reduced the pain sufficiently that I am no longer obsessed with suicide as a means to escape it.

Jacobsen suggested that I see you. Bridget lost my referral, and three appointments on three consecutive days were cancelled by your office at the last minute, so it has taken me three weeks to get in. Last week, Debbie suggested that I go off the Piroxicam in order to obtain a speedier biopsy. I did this, and the shoulder pain and the pain from an arthritic left knee is getting worse.

Lorna, in Jacobsen’s office, told me that two other doctors said a biopsy was too dangerous, but that you are willing to do one. I don’t know why they thought as they did or why you think as you do. No one who I have spoken with knows any more than I do.

My poor opinion of Christianity

I came across the blog of a young man who is studying Catholic theology and challenged his assertion that suffering is invariably a lesson from God. He replied with a polite but paternal note in which he did nothing more than reiterate the point I had challenged. I wrote a second time asking him to explain what he thought God’s lesson was for starving infants and abandoned dogs. He then accused me of showing contempt for God (or at least his version of God) and for himself (I had no intention of being disrespectful), and suggested that I not visit his blog again. I apologized for having caused offense, not because my challenge was unreasonable but because I expressed it bluntly.

I respect the right of the blogger to hold any opinion about anything as long as that opinion doesn’t cause him to infringe upon the rights of others. But what is his rationale in demanding that I show respect for the opinions themselves, and did he believe that he was doing as much for me? I daresay he would argue that my opinion was sacrilegious, and that reciprocity was therefore impossible.

I was not taken aback so much by his unwillingness to address my questions as by the vehemence of his response. His blog was about love and peace, and I assumed from this that he was loving and peaceful. This tendency to take people at face value is a failing in someone of my age and experience.

…I have a great many objections to Christianity, regardless of the version offered. I have made several attempts to be a Christian, it is true, but this was not because I assented to Christianity intellectually, but because I wanted the comfort it promised; and it was this attempt to squash my intellect that eventually defeated me. I might as well have tried to squash a coiled spring or a slab of foam rubber, objects that have infinitely more patience and tenacity than I.

Even so, I might have overcome my intellectual reservations if only I had seen Christianity delivering what it promised. Namely, if Christians have the guidance of the Holy Spirit, why isn’t this evident? I have known people who were strong and people who were weak; people who were honest and people who were crooks; but I have never observed that Christians were stronger or had more integrity than non-Christians. If anything, I’ve wondered if they were as good; my speculation being that Christianity might appear most attractive to those who are weakest of character.

The “defense” of Christians about why the guidance of the Holy Spirit doesn’t enable them to stand out as moral examples runs along the lines of, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” but this doesn’t address the argument; it ignores it. In regard to the really bad things that Christians have done (inquisitions, religious wars, frightening children, burning heretics, etc.) I have heard Christians offer that atheists are just as bad (Communists being the example given). That Christians would attempt to mitigate the behavior of their fellow Christians by pointing out that it is no worse than that of the very people who they consider the lowest of the fallen strikes me as extraordinary. It also misses the point. Atheists don’t claim the benefit of divine guidance, and there is a vast difference in Christians persecuting people in the name of God versus atheists doing it in the name of Communism. I have yet to hear of a single atheist killing anyone in the name of atheism.

I don’t believe that the failures of Christians to live up to their own teachings is entirely their fault, and this leads me to another serious flaw of Christianity, namely that it is not grounded in reality. I’ll give an example. Jesus commanded those who are robbed of the jackets to offer the robbers their coats also. Does anyone live this way? Should anyone live this way? I see signs in church parking lots that read, “Unauthorized Vehicles Will Be Towed At Owner’s Expense.” What if, instead of towing cars, churches followed the spirit of Jesus and gave two parking spaces to everyone who took one parking space? What if, instead of calling the police when their houses were being burglarized, Christians helped the burglars carry heavy objects and gave them more than they had intended to steal?

There is practically no end to my objections to Christianity, and I don’t recall that even one of them has been answered in a manner that made the least bit of sense to me, this despite my very great desire to embrace the Christian faith. Yet, I have known many people who, though not Christians, expressed a great admiration for Jesus. Have they actually read all of the things he supposedly said? The part about abandoning your family and following him, or selling everything you own to buy a sword, or hiding the truth from those whom God doesn’t want to save?

There is the Jesus of the Bible and there is the Jesus of popular culture, and the Jesus of popular culture is kindly, patient, tolerant, peaceful, and forgiving. The Jesus of the Bible might have taught some of these virtues on occasion, but he was inconsistent in his teachings. He was also bad-tempered, humorless, prone to sweeping generalizations, intolerant of sects other than his own, disrespectful of his mother, had an adolescent zeal for offending his elders unnecessarily, insisted on teaching in parables even though his own disciples couldn’t figure out what he meant, and often acted contrary to what he professed to believe. Of course, most Christians seem to hold that Jesus meant for very little of what he said to be taken at face value. Well, okay then—I’ll leave it to them to interpret the words of their verbally challenged deity. Unfortunately, they can’t agree among themselves as to what he intended.

Out of mind, out of body; out of body, out of mind

I see my new neurosurgeon tomorrow to hear her thoughts about a spinal biopsy. Peggy is sick with worry and can’t understand why I am not. I tell her that my biggest fear is pain; my second fear is disability; and my last fear is death. I still have hope that I can stop the pain. The other two fears may or may not be realized, but pain is the only one I don’t think I can handle, yet it is the only one I am having to handle.

Permanent and unalterable pain would, in all likelihood, lead me to suicide. I should imagine that Peggy could better survive my demise if it wasn’t voluntary, and that is one reason I fear a fatal illness less than I fear pain. In the face of unalterable pain, a fatal illness would be a godsend. In the absence of a fatal illness, I might feel it necessary to continue my life on Peggy’s account alone.

I just hope I have time to finish editing my writing. When everything has been added to my blog, I will create a synopsis. Whether I am gifted at recording my life on paper, I cannot say, but there it is, the exemplary and the shameful, the trivial and the profound, the sane and the crazy, the boring and the entertaining; a quarter of a century worth. Very little will be left out; it will just be cleaned up for the sake of readability. I entertain little hope that anyone will be interested in it, and I can’t even think of a compelling reason why they should be, but such considerations are of no great importance; only the work is important.

If I had the wherewithal, I would seek publication, but that would mean taking topically oriented portions of what I have written out of journal form and putting them into chapter form. Next would come working with others to make my work saleable. I do not say that this is a low end, it is just not an end that I can see my way to accomplishing.

I’m tripping today, and I haven’t even taken any mind-altering medications since last night. I don’t altogether like the feeling because it’s too near the outer edge of control. I’ve been here before, and I know that all I have to do is ride it out as if I were a surfer…. I feel tired, cold; every thought and every fact seems equally and unbearably profound; every object looks equally distant. It is a very old feeling; it puts me in touch with my childhood, as if what I feel now, I felt then, and what I felt then, I feel now; as if time hasn’t moved, as if my whole life is happening at once, and I’m observing my life through eyes that aren’t entirely my own.

I think my present state comes from being too inwardly focused. I’m not taking on projects, not seeing people, not exercising, and not leaving home except to run errands; my mind is feeding on itself. I am tempted to stop surfing, to lie back and see what will happen, how bad it will get, and then to see what lies beyond how bad it will get. When we come to an intersection, are we really free to choose which way we go?

Do-It-Yourself acupuncture, fun with pain, fun with drugs for pain

I went to the acupuncturist eight times. Seven of those times, I saw no improvement. After the eighth, my shoulders felt better for a few days, and I could only think of two possible explanations. One was the acupuncture; the other was that the pain had gotten so bad that I had stopped doing almost everything. To test the first theory, I went to the acupuncturist one last time and asked him to do whatever he had done on the previous visit. This treatment didn’t work the same magic, but I took careful note of where he stuck me, ordered a box of needles, and have been doing acupuncture on myself. There seems to be a slight improvement, but since I am experimenting with other self-help approaches, I can’t pin it down (ha) to the acupuncture.

One of the humorous aspects of pain itself and the narcotics that relieve it is that you become a complete idiot. Yesterday, I got out the dogs’ collars, leashes, and poop bags; put on my windbreaker and bicycle helmet; and went for a walk. Pretend you are taking an IQ test, and you are asked to identify something that doesn’t belong in the above sentence. Right! But I didn’t find the correct word or words until I was halfway down the street, at which point I sheepishly returned home and put on my cap. Also yesterday, I was frustrated by not being able to find my keys. After a few minutes of furious looking, I discovered them……in my hand.

An updated account of how things have played out

When I last updated, the diagnostic neurologist had referred me back to the internist for cancer screening. The internist ordered a vertebral biopsy, said it could take a week to get it done, and told me to expect a phone call from whomever he referred me to. Unknown to me, he faxed referrals to three specialists (he apparently had doubts about which one was appropriate). When I received no call, I called the internist’s office repeatedly—or rather the internist’s office answer machine—to ask what was happening. I finally learned that two of the specialists had declared the procedure too risky (I have no idea why despite my best efforts to find out) and that the third specialist was insisting upon an open incision instead of a needle biopsy. I got the name of the third specialist and called her office. I was told that no referral had been received, so I commenced more calls to internist’s office. His referral clerk finally called back, and insisted that the referral was faxed a week ago. And so it goes, and so I wait… A procedure that was supposed to take one week won’t be done in two.

My dealings with doctors and their employees have led me to be more surprised when things go well than when they get fouled up, so I am far from childlike naiveté. Even so, having to struggle continually just to get people to do what they said would do, what they were hired to do, is awfully wearying. Clearly, if I had not badgered the internist’s office, I would not have heard from anyone. I have no doubt but what sick people die because they get lost in the shuffle and lack the strength to fight their way to the top. My problem is that the longer I have to put up with all this bullshit, the more obnoxious I am tempted to become. I can imagine calling twelve times a day to rub myself in their faces for being such fuckups. I don’t do this only because I know it would hurt rather than help.

My father had a spinal tumor removed in 1955. The surgeon told him that there was a greater chance of death than of recovery, but Dad said he didn’t really care as long as he escaped the pain. For months he had only been able to sleep standing in a corner propped on crutches. I always thought of my father as emotionally weak. Now I am in awe that he was able to keep from blowing his head off. Doctors then were even more reluctant to provide adequate pain relief than doctors today.

I took three different pills last night to knock myself out, yet I awakened five hours later in pain. I took a Vicodin when I got up, and wish I had something stronger, although I hate taking any narcotic because of the side effects and because the more I anesthetize myself now, the harder it will be to anesthetize myself after I start having surgeries. I had to get the Vicodin from the diagnostic neurologist—my surgical orthopedist just told me to go home and apply ice. I wish for him that he will someday feel the pain that I am experiencing.

It is hard for me to accept that I am but one patient among scores to my many doctors, and that most of them really and truly don’t give a rip. If they see me at all, it is only as whatever body part they specialize in. I can call their offices all I please, but I rarely get a real person, and when I do finally hear back, the caller is often someone who knows less than I did before I called. Then when I go in for an appointment, the typical doctor is in a hurry to get rid of me. I don’t take this personally. That’s the problem; the system is impersonal. No one means to behave badly; they’re just not rewarded for behaving well. The more patients, the more money and the more praise from their employers. The average doctor visit lasts six minutes.

Even so, I can’t say that all this has been a totally negative experience because it has given me a greater appreciation of my strength. Even with Lexapro, there are days when I am obsessed with suicide, and find a strange comfort in fantasizing how I would accomplish it (my latest plan is to make a paste of my medications and wash it down with cognac). Yet I know I won’t harm myself, at least not until I’m pronounced hopeless, and maybe not then. My reasoning used to be that it would hurt Peggy too much. That is still true, but I have also learned that good can—and already has—come from my suffering, and that it would be a mistake to block that good.

I used to be too willing to blame other people for their pain, to think that all they needed to do was to exercise, or think positively, or clean up their diet, or stop taking so many prescription drugs. Now, I see that it’s not the Army Rangers who are the toughest of the tough but the people whose lives might appear to be a complete mess. City buses invariably contain old people with walkers and bent up people in wheelchairs. With all my pain and disability, I look at them, and I don’t know how they do it. Their bodies are shriveled, yet their spirits keep moving. I can still walk, and see, and hear, and use my arms for something other than pushing a knob on a motorized wheelchair. No one has to shave me or change my underwear or cook my food. What I can no longer do is a loss, but what I can do is a miracle. There are times when several minutes pass during which I don’t think about how much I hurt, and I am more grateful for those minutes than I used to be for my entire life. There truly can be redemption in suffering, not that I would wish for another moment of it if I had the power to choose.

Buford Stewart and the unpardonable sin

I cursed God when I was twelve. I was delivering newspapers on my bicycle, and I remember the exact spot where it happened. By this time in my life, I was having serious misgivings about Christianity, and my recollection is that I let loose on God out of frustration. As I saw it, God had given Gideon not one sign but two really impressive ones, so I figured he could give me a sign too. Even a mediocre sign would do, I said, but the heavens remained silent, and my anger waxed hot. The curse was hardly out of my mouth before I remembered the Bible verse about the unpardonable sin, and there came into my heart an UH-OH feeling that would torment me for years.

“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation” (Mark 3:28-30)

Now, you would think that God would have gone to great pains to spell out just what constituted the unpardonable sin so that nobody would stumble into it accidentally, but he did not. Some think the sin is apostasy because, as they argue, an apostate wouldn’t ask forgiveness, and that would be the reason the sin was unpardonable. Others think it’s cursing the Holy Ghost, but why would God forgive a person for cursing two-thirds of his august being but not the final third? And why hold this one sin above all the others anyway? If God can’t forgive it, then he is not all-powerful; but if he won’t forgive it, he isn’t all-loving—or so it seemed to me.

In any event, I spent the next several years in mortal terror. Not everyday to be sure, but a lot of days. I would go through periods when my own certain damnation was all I could think about, but just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the fear would lessen. I couldn’t see living that way indefinitely, but I couldn’t see telling anyone what I had done either. When I was sixteen, I screwed up enough courage to drive out in the country to Buford Stewart’s house, Brother Stewart being a preacher whom I regarded highly. I posed my problem in what I hoped would pass for intellectual terms, something on the order of, “Brother Stewart, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the unpardonable sin, and I just sort of thought I would drive out to your house at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night in the hope that you might be able to tell me exactly what a person would have to do to commit it.” I don’t recall what he said, and I have no idea if he ever figured out where I was really coming from.

Brother Stewart died several years ago, and I miss him—or at least I miss knowing that he still walks upon the earth, for I hadn’t seen him since I was eighteen. He took me along on a revival to Kentucky once, to the area below Bowling Green. The families in whose homes we stayed were poor, and he and I were often obliged to sleep in the same bed. One night, he rolled over and put his arm around me. I knew he was sound asleep and thought himself home with his wife, so I lay real still—so as not to embarrass him—and he finally turned the other way. A poor man himself, he still turned down a pay raise so that the money could be used to “advance the gospel,” and I was mightily impressed by that since I knew there was no way I would have turned down more money, whether for the sake of Jesus or anyone else.

But what stands out in my mind most about him was how kindly and uncondescending he was to kids like myself—and how much he loved cornbread and buttermilk. As a boy, I could no more understand why a man would get all worked up about something so plain and omnipresent as I could understand why pigs loved slop. Now I too love cornbread and buttermilk, more than almost anything else, even more than things like lemon meringue pie and banana pudding made with vanilla wafers, and I often think of Brother Stewart when I eat them. Alas, like Father Abraham, I have moved to a heathen land where the people know not how to make cornbread the way God meant it to be made, neither do they know how to eat it, and I must therefore make my own. Selah.

May the Good Lord bless you, Buford Stewart, wherever you are, and may he be a far better God than your Church of Christ theology allowed you to imagine.