This week closes on the same icy, snowy note it sang for the past several days. Right now, small flakes are floating down like flour from my grandmother’s hand-cranked sifter, and the roads have gotten worse with the black ice, and the woods are as still and silent as sentries. The redbirds (cardinals to you Yankees) are displaying their peculiar arrogance today. The males seem to know instinctively that their plumage is most dramatic and beautiful against the backdrop of snow, and they are at the feeders in astonishing numbers. A few minutes ago I looked out the front window and almost gasped at an image of otherworldly beauty: five male redbirds were sitting on the bare branches of the weeping willow tree, arranged in a perfect symmetrical square, with one bird in the dead center of the square. Living ornaments, I thought. Of course they all flew when I turned to get the camera.
Mrs. MacP wanted to go visit an ailing widow this morning, so I drove her to the tumbledown house and returned home, awaiting her call to come and wife-fetch. On the way there and back, I counted more police officers – state, county, and local – than I can remember. They were literally everywhere, sitting on roadsides, hiding in parking lots, watching from access roads. I couldn’t help but wonder about the increased badge presence, especially here, out in the mountainous last outpost.
When my beloved finally called, I drove back to the widow’s house, went inside and paid my respects, and then helped Mrs. MacP over the treacherous stone path and into the truck. On the return trip, we detoured down off the mountain and bought a few things in town. Besides the cops, I noticed, perhaps for the first time, how many churches are crammed into a few square blocks of the town.
I will begin taking organized churchianity seriously again when I see pastors leaving their McMansions and their fitness clubs and moving into the abandoned, decrepit houses in the hills and hollers and living poor among the poor, working with their own hands and giving themselves completely to the rednecks and crackers and hillbillies and stump-jumpers. But perhaps its easier for them to just send money to Haiti.
Early this afternoon, I sat and visited with one of my neighbors, an ancient, lame, sharp-eyed moonshiner who looks the part. His home is a small, fortified compound, accessible only by a nerve-wracking footbrige. The house itself is little more than a comfortable shack, surrounded by outbuildings, some of which contain wood and kindling. A faded scrap of a Confederate battle flag dances in the gusts of winter wind atop the working smokehouse, and two friendly mules nicker in the front yard, greeting those who risk the footbridge.
My neighbor’s front room is dominated by an old potbellied wood stove which sits in a three-foot-square sandbox. When I arrived, the warmth and peace of the room was a better welcome than any florid words spoken in any carpeted foyer. I sat in the most comfortable recliner I’ve ever encountered (the old man tells me his grandson bought it for him at the Bass Pro Shop in a tourist town). It’s also the first RealTree camoflage recliner I’ve ever encountered. My host sat bolt upright in a bent willow chair he made himself “over thirty yar ago.” His wife, ample of bosom and smiles, busied herself in the tiny kitchen.
The old man poured me a coffee cup half-full of his product. He rubbed his arthritic knees as we talked, and I asked him if the weather was making his aches worse. He shook his head.
“Nawsir. I ache all the time. All. The. Blamed. Time.” He jabbed his finger at me as he spoke. “But it ain’t nothing like the gout. You ever have the gout, Wheeler?”
I said no, and he smiled. “You don’t ever want it, let me tell you. You see my bad foot?” He indicated his right foot, which is unnaturally small and encased in an odd, blocky shoe. “The gout got in that big toe some years back. Doctors wouldn’t do a damned thing for me. Wanted to give me pain pills, but nothing that would cure it. I took some stuff for the acid what causes it, but they wouldn’t give me a stronger dose nor try nothin’ else. I sat up many a night on the side of the bed, cryin’ like a baby because of the pain. About worried my wife to death. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t do nothin’ when that gout was in that toe. One evenin’, I’d had enough. I took my shotgun, put ‘er right there, and blew that damned toe right across the front porch.”
I gaped for a long moment. The old man laughed. “The ‘mergency room folks cleaned it up and sewed it up, and it’s never bothered me since. If I ever git the gout in somethin’ else, I know how to treat it. I know folks think I’m ignernt, but I know what works.”
Ignernt. Just this morning, I was listening to a radio program, and the guest opined that people today are terrified of using the words, “I don’t know” in reponse to any question, no matter how unlikely the chances that the questionee knows anything at all about the subject being questioned. I think he’s right. In fact, I’ve noticed a phrase that has all but disappeared from conversation these days. I believe I am the only person I know who routinely uses the expression, “I’ll have to think about it.” People won’t think about anything. They’ll interrupt supper and run to Google to answer a question from their six year-old. They’ll improvise an answer about a matter with which they have only the scantiest acquaintence. They’ll ramble for ten minutes to make sure they sound wise and learned and informed. They have an uncontrollable impulse to give an immediate answer, even if it’s 100% bullshit. But they will never simply say, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” Such is the pride of the present-day lemming.
The snow was coming harder, so I left my friend’s house and headed home. On the way, I thought of something that had been submerged in me for several years. Once upon a time, I worked in a large hospital. On my shift was an abrasive, difficult mulatto who had no heart for human beings. She merely received (not “earned”) a paycheck. She was tall and loud and had those hazel eyes so many mixed-race people have, those eyes that make them appear to be an exotic breed of dog.
On a particular day, the nursing supervisor asked me me to give a bed-bath to an elderly man in a certain room. “Thelma [the mulatto] was supposed to do it, but I guess she’s off having a smoke somewhere.” The supervisor patted my arm and added, “It’ll likely be his last bath. He’s dying and he’s on comfort measures, so he won’t last long.” I nodded and went to gather my supplies, cursing inside at the lazy nigger who’d stuck me with this unpleasant menial task.
When I got to the room and opened the door, I was surprised to see the old man in the bed with no one in attendance. The supervisor was just down the hall, and I called to her. She came over and I asked her, “Doesn’t he have any family?”
She shrugged. “Nope. Came here from a nursing home. I don’t think he has anyone.”
I entered the room and spoke to the old man, who gave no sign that he heard me. I prepared warm water and began bathing him with as much gentleness as I could. I also shaved him, warming the tiny can of shaving cream in a cup of water I’d heated in the microwave at the nurse’s station. As I worked, I noticed that his knees and thighs had the mottled look that people get when death is approaching. When I had finished bathing and drying him, I dressed the old man in a clean gown and stood looking down at him. His breathing began to hitch and falter, and the space between breaths grew longer.
I bent down and put my face next to his, and put one hand on his forehead and held one of his hands with my other one. I stayed like that for a moment, and then I began to speak to him.
“Sir, can you hear me? If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.” Several seconds went by, and then he squeezed my hand. Just the faintest pressure, but it was a squeeze.
“Sir, you know that eternity is coming. Are you ready for this?”
No squeeze. I felt urgency in the room, and a new presence as well.
“God created you, and He is watching you now. Would you like to pray to Him?”
A deliberate squeeze.
“Okay, I’m going to pray with you. You just listen to me and ask God to hear the parts you agree with. You ignore anything you don’t agree with. Father, I have no hope except you. I know I have sinned against you. Please be merciful to me in this hour. Please forgive me for ever wrong thing I’ve ever done, and for the things I should have done but didn’t. Please accept the Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on behalf of the debt I owe you. Please help me trust You, and to truly believe in You at this very moment. Please forgive me, and claim me as Your son, and take me to be with You when I leave this world. In Christ’s name, amen.”
One more faint squeeze. Then a series of what sounded like attempts to cough. Then the old man stiffened all over, as if stretching. He sighed. He never took another breath.
I put my head on his chest, and inside it was as silent as the trees outside my house are at this moment.
In the past, when I have been dejected and expressed to my wife the fear that I’ve never really done anything worthwhile in my life, she has reminded me of this incident. She has said, “You loved an old man and helped him depart this life in peace. And it all happened because that woman was shirking her duties. God used her laziness to bring you into the picture and let you serve Him by being kind to the old man.”
Sometimes the ache of the world, of this life, overwhelms me. My moonshiner neighbor told me today of a house in the next valley, a house that had been vacated recently. The former owners left a dog and her five puppies locked up in the house. A week after the family left, a real estate agent entered the house and discovered the six dead animals, starved and dehydrated and all alone in the silent, frigid kitchen floor.
What is God’s capacity for sadness? My Calvinist friends don’t like to talk or even think about God having a sad moment. “He’s sovereign over all!” they exclaim. As though sovereignty necessitates bloodlessness. Yet I do not believe my Father is any clinical, bloodless sovereign.
Have you ever observed a person who was impressed with himself, but who in actuality was awkward or silly-looking in what he was doing? Perhaps a man escorting his new girlfriend, wearing his new toupee. Perhaps a teenage girl wearing makeup with all the subtlety of a mime. Perhaps an eager seminary student debating everyone who comes into range, whether they want to debate or not. When we see such people, a tiny part of us is annoyed or disgusted with them. But another part of us pities them. We pity them because they know not what they are doing. Worse, they know not how others see them, nor how foolish they appear to watching eyes.
Perhaps my Father sees me in this life and feels sad for me, or embarrassed for me as He watches my attempts to walk His paths and think His thoughts after Him. Perhaps He winces as He sees me try to divine the times by paying too much attention to shadows, like some upright, articulate groundhog in boots and jeans.
Perhaps He sends me flocks of redbirds in order to remind me that He still paints and sculpts, and that the sadness I feel is a by-product of wandering though this lonely gallery enroute to His great studio, where I will at last see the truth behind all His brushes and chisels.
Rest well, dear friends.