I took off a half-day today, hoping to catch up on a mountain of backlogged chores and errands. The last few weeks have been a grinding treadmill of things gone wrong. Last weekend, for example, saw me enjoying the unseasonably warm weather by tearing out two exterior walls of the room in which I sit typing these words. The room used to be a garage, and was enclosed and finished by the previous owner. It’s always seemed to be a solid room, and the pre-purchase inspection disclosed nothing of concern. That all changed last Friday.
I set about installing a new set of patio doors for the room. When I removed the old doors, I noticed a frightful wobble in the walls on either side. Some poking and pulling and prodding revealed major water damage to the studs…which were sitting directly on the freaking concrete and weren’t even pressure-treated wood. It was like some post-crime scene newscast: “What began as a day of enjoyable labor turned into a home-repair tragedy as Wheeler MacPherson, local kook, ended up rebuilding a portion of his house. Preliminary reports indicate that the air over his smallholding is turning a nice cobalt blue, and that Mr. MacPherson’s profanities can be heard by local farmers while operating their tractors…”
Anyway, I got everything done by the following evening, and the new doors look spiffy, and the walls are in much better shape, and I even got the vinyl siding back in its original configuration. There’s always that feeling of accomplishment when one sets out to spend X amount on a project and ends up coughing up XXXX amount by the time it’s completed. And that little episode was just the tip of mid-to-late February’s iceberg.
But I’m making progress on the backlog, so I feel better.
On the drive home this afternoon, I was watching some of the cows in a neighbor’s pasture, and it occurred to me to thank Christ for cattle that are out on the snowy hillsides, cattle that are not imprisoned in stinking feedlots and fed a diet of unnatural corn and trash. I came home and looked at my chickens and thought of all the countless birds living short, brutish lives and suffering offhand deaths at the hands of boorish Mexican day-laborers. I don’t want to save the whales and I don’t want to hug any trees, but I do feel the duty to husband the creatures and the bit of land entrusted to me for this fleeting season, and to husband them well. Pity that the Empire and her Kenyan stooge don’t share this sense of duty on a national scale.
I think I’ve recovered somewhat from the maudlin mood I was in when I last posted here, but I’ll probably never be completely free of that ever-present hiraeth. ‘Course, I don’t help matters by doing things like watching part of a DVD like “Lassie Come Home,” the 1943 movie starring Roddy McDowall and the great Donald Crisp. Sat there and bawled like Vince Gill doing an interview with a nigger reporter. If Mrs. MacP didn’t laugh inwardly at my sappiness, she missed a good chance.
Speaking of niggers, I need to tell y’all about the coon our barncat tangled with. One evening last week, I went out just after dark to close up the coops and check on things. When I opened the back door, the red dog pushed past me and streaked over to the chicken run, barking her “alarm” bark. I grabbed the .22 and started running. As I neared the coops, I could hear the hens cutting up something awful. And there was a cacophany of noise on top of their din. Just as I yanked open the gate, a large black and yellow ball came tumbling down the ramp of the newer coop. It was Harlan, fangs and claws a-flyin’, and he was tangled up with a young coon. They were fighting to beat sixty, and I realized that the coon would tear Harlan’s head off if I didn’t get them apart. I grabbed the red dog with my left arm and aimed the rifle with my right, and squeezed off a round into the dirt a couple of feet from where coon and cat were battling it out. The coon tore himself away from Harlan, scrambled to the fence, cleared it, and lit out for the territories.
I released the red dog from my grip and we stood together, in awe, watching Harlan caper and hop and leap along the top of the fence, hissing and yowling and absolutely insane with impotent rage. In a few more seconds, he was running to the woods to give chase. Ordering a barn cat to stop his pursuit would have been as logical as asking the coon not to bother the hens.
Oh, and the hens. They were in a state of good, gossipy hysteria. I counted heads and locked them in and told them to quieten down, but I think they stayed up for a while, re-telling the tale of how their pal Harlan (who trails along with them during the day, and often dozes on the henhouse ramp and even sleeps with them in the coop some nights) saved their drumsticks with his act of crazy-brave showmanship.
I saw him on the back deck a few hours later, and I took him out a can of sardines. He ate every one of them and licked the paper plate clean with a haughty dignity that fairly reeked of I Earned It.
My radio show is in limbo right now. The person who will host the show is, I think, growing impatient with me and my inability to get caught up with other, more pressing things. If the deal falls through, I’ll be disappointed. But it’ll be all right. I’ll keep you updated.
One of the other things I did last weekend was split a bunch of logs that I’d cut back in the summer (we’ve used more wood than I anticipated this winter). The day was warm and I worked up quite a sweat. When I came in the house, I saw my reflection in the glass on the storm door, and I found myself wondering why my beloved wife had put up a print of Nick Nolte’s mugshot photo. Some things can never be explained.
I was re-reading parts of Douglas Southall Freeman’s magnificent four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, and especially the closing section which describes Lee’s final illness and death. The words got me to thinking. Here’s the excerpt, and I’ll make a comment at the end of it:
He finished and sealed this letter, completed his morning’s work, and was just stepping out from his office when he met Percy Davidson, a sophomore from Lexington, who had with him a small picture of Lee, which a girl had asked him to get the General to autograph. Davidson explained this and added that as Lee was leaving, he would come some other time. “No,” said Lee, “I will go right back and do it now.” He returned and signed his name for the last time.
Then he went out again and shut the door behind him, to open it no more in life. From the office he walked slowly home, ate his dinner, and slept for a short time in his arm-chair.
It was chilly after dinner and rain began to fall steadily. Lee should have stayed home to protect himself against a cold, but he did not feel he should miss the vestry meeting, which was to consider the perennial question of a new church building and was also to decide what could be done to increase the scanty salary of General Pendleton. Lee insisted on going, and took no precaution against the weather other than to put on his old military cape. He walked through the rain and went directly to the church auditorium. There was no heat in the building and no smaller room into which the vestrymen could conveniently retire. They had to sit in the pews, cold and damp.
Chatting a few minutes with his associates, the General gave an historical turn to his conversation and related several anecdotes of Chief Justice Marshall and of his old friend Bishop Meade. Then, at 4 o’clock, he called the meeting to order. The discussion was close and tedious. Sitting with his cape about him, Lee presided, but, as usual, did not attempt to influence the deliberations. When all who would do so had expressed their views, Lee “gave his own opinion, as was his wont, briefly and without argument.”
After they had decided what should be done about the church building, the vestrymen began to subscribe a fund to raise Doctor Pendleton’s salary. Lee was tired by this time, and despite the chill of the place, his face was flushed, but he waited in patience. All the vestrymen contributed; the clerk cast the total and announced how much was still needed to reach the desired sum. It was $55, considerably more than the part of one who already had contributed generously, but Lee said quietly, “I will give that sum.”
Seven o’clock had struck, the hour at which, in so many of his battles, darkness had put an end to the fighting. The end had come now — not on a field of blood, but in the half-gloom of a bare little church, where the talk was of a larger house of prayer, and the only reminders of the days of strife were the cape and the weary, lined face of the old leader, and the military titles by which some of the vestrymen addressed one another. High command, great fame, heart-anguish, galling burdens had ended in this last service — to plan a little church in a mountain town, and to give of his substance to raise the pay of a parson who had been his loyal lieutenant in arms.
Bidding his associates good night, Lee walked home alone through the darkness and the rain, such a rain as had fallen that night when the army had crossed the Potomac on the retreat from Gettysburg. He climbed the steps. He entered the lighted house and turned into his chamber, as was his custom, to take off his damp covering and hat. Then he went to the dining room, where Mrs. Lee was waiting for him. She saw something unusual in his face and told him he looked chilly. “Thank you,” he said in his normal voice, “I am warmly clothed.”
It was rare that he, the promptest of men, should delay a meal half an hour, and as he often teased wife and daughters about their tardiness, Mrs. Lee from her rolling-chair smilingly challenged him: “You have kept us waiting a long time, where have you been?”
He made no reply. Taking his usual position in front of his chair, he opened his lips to say grace. But the familiar words would not come. Another instant and he sank back to his seat.
“Let me pour you out a cup of tea,” said Mrs. Lee, “you look so tired.”
He tried to answer but could make no intelligible sound. On the instant he must have realized that his summons had come, for a look of resignation lighted his eyes. Then he carefully and deliberately straightened up in his chair. If it was the “last enemy” he had to meet now, he would face him mindfully and erect, as if he were going into battle astride Traveller of the tossing neck.
Seeing that he was seriously ill, the family sent immediately for his physicians, Doctor H. T. Barton and Doctor R. L. Madison. Both of them had been at the vestry meeting with the General and as they lived farther from the church than Lee did, neither had reached home when the messenger arrived, but in a short time they hurried into the room. The General was placed on the couch that had been over by the windows. His outer garments were removed. “You hurt my arm,” he said, and pointed to the shoulder that had long been paining him.
The physicians’ examination showed no paralysis. He was very weak, had a tendency to doze, and was slightly impaired in consciousness. The doctors decided that he had what they termed “venous congestion,” an impairment of the circulation that now would probably be termed a thrombosis. A bed was at once brought down from the second floor and was set up for him. Placed upon it, he turned over and went into a long and tranquil sleep, from which his physicians hoped he would awake much improved.
Their hopes were not altogether in vain. He was better the next day, though still very drowsy, but manifestly required careful nursing and close watching. As the rain continued to pour down and the house became damp, a fire was lighted on the hearth. The dining room table was removed and the room was turned into a sick-chamber. Friends and members of the faculty began a regular round of waiting at his side. He lay quietly, now awake, now asleep, always on the border-line of the unconscious. Ere long, he responded to the treatment the doctors prescribed, and physically he seemed to improve. Taking his medicine regularly and eating with some appetite, he soon was able to turn over in bed and could sit up to swallow. The attendants’ questions he understood and would answer. His replies were monosyllables, but his family explained that he always was silent in sickness.
Word spread, of course, that he was ill. The trustees had been called for September 29, the day after the General was stricken, and with their usual consideration for him they named a committee to express the board’s regret at his absence and to consider the advisability of urging him to take a six-months’ rest. Newspapers were quick to make inquiries and were able on September 30 to report him much improved. Despite this, reports persisted that he was paralyzed and speechless. In England, Disraeli’s Standard was so certain his malady was fatal that a review of his career was made ready for publication.
In Lexington apprehension battled with hope. The doctors remained confident, and Mrs. Lee talked of the time “when Robert gets well,” but in her heart she was haunted by the look that had come into his eyes when he had tried vainly to answer her at the supper table and then had sat upright. “I saw he had taken leave of earth,” she afterwards wrote.The superstitious whispered that his end was at hand because his picture had fallen down from the wall of his house; and when a flashing aurora lighted the sky for several nights some saw in it a beckoning hand. One Lexington woman took down a copy of The Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers and pointed significantly to this quatrain:
“All night long the northern streamers
Shot across the trembling sky:
Fearful lights, that never beckon
Save when kings or heroes die.”
A week passed, and General Lee’s improvement, though slight, was apparent and seemed to be progressive. On October 8 a Richmond paper quoted the physicians as saying he would soon be out again. He still talked very little, and once, when Agnes started to give him his medicine, he said: “It is no use.” But she prevailed on him to take it. Conscious of nearly all that went on around him, he was manifestly glad to have the members of the family come in to see him. He did not smile during his whole illness, but he always met greetings of his wife and children with the pressure of his hand.
On the morning of October 10, Doctor Madison thought his patient was mending. “How do you feel today, General?” he inquired.
“I . . . feel . . . better,” said Lee, slowly but distinctly.
“You must make haste and get well; Traveller has been standing so long in the stable that he needs exercise.”
The General shook his head deliberately and closed his eyes again. It had been much the same when Custis Lee had spoken of his recovery. Lee had then moved his head from side to side and had pointed upward.
That afternoon, without warning, his pulse began to flutter. His breathing became hurried. Exhaustion was apparent. The evening brought no improvement. At midnight he had a chill, and his condition was so serious that Doctor Barton had to warn the family.
One of his professors, son of his old comrade, Sidney Johnston, sat by him that night, fully appreciative of the life that was ending. “Never,” he recorded, “was more beautifully displayed how a long and severe education of mind and character enables the soul to pass with equal step through this supreme ordeal; never did the habits and qualities of a lifetime, solemnly gathered into a few last sad hours, more grandly maintain themselves amid the gloom and shadow of approaching death. The reticence, the self-contained composure, the obedience to proper authority, the magnanimity and Christian meekness that marked all his actions, preserved their sway, in spite of the inroads of disease, and the creeping lethargy that weighed down his faculties. As the old hero lay in the darkened room, or with the lamp and hearth fire casting shadows upon his calm, noble front, all the massive grandeur of his form, and face, and brow remained; and death seemed to lose its terrors, and to borrow a grace and dignity in sublime keeping with the life that was ebbing away. The great mind sank to its last repose, almost with the equal poise of health.”
Lee refused medicine and nourishment the next day, even from his daughters, but despite the confusion of his mind, self-discipline still ruled, and when either of his doctors put physic to his mouth he would swallow it. During the morning he lapsed into a half-delirium of dreams and memories. His mind wandered to those dreadful battlefields.” He muttered unintelligible words — prayers, perhaps, or orders to his men. Sometimes his voice was distinct. “Tell Hill he must come up,” he said, so plainly and emphatically that all who sat in the death-chamber understood him.
His symptoms now were aggravated. Mrs. Lee, in her rolling-chair, took her place by his bed for the last vigil and held his moist hand. His pulse continued weak and feeble; his breathing was worse. By the end of the day the physicians admitted that the fight was lost: the General was dying. They could only wait, not daring to hope, as he lay there motionless, save for the rapid rise and fall of his chest. His eyes were closed. When he talked in his delirium he did not thresh about. The words, though now mingled past unraveling, were quietly spoken.
At last, on October 12, daylight came. The watchers stirred and stretched themselves and made ready to give place to those who had obtained a little sleep. Out of the windows, across the campus, the students began to move about, and after a while they struggled down to the chapel to pray for him. Now it was 9 o’clock, and a quarter past. His old opponent, Grant, was sitting down comfortably to breakfast in the White House. With axe or saw or plough or pen, the veterans of Lee’s army were in the swing of another day’s work. For him it was ended, the life of discipline, of sorrow, and of service. The clock was striking his last half-hour. In some corner of his mind, not wracked by his malady, he must have heard his marching order. Was the enemy ahead? Had that bayoneted host of his been called up once again to march through Thoroughfare Gap or around Hooker’s flank or over the Potomac into Maryland . . . moving . . . moving forward? Or was it that the war was over and that peace had come?
“Strike the tent,” he said, and spoke no more.
How remarkable the manner in which General Lee met death, and how different from what we observe these days. Today, in this bleak, graceless age, death-loving men expend every ounce of energy and wealth to extend their lives, even if they must lie in beds with tubes and machinery doing their bodies’ work. For R.E. Lee and individuals like him (you’ve known some in your own family, haven’t you, friends?), the soul was so attuned to God and life’s rhythms, there was no urge nor need to run from the last enemy. What a man was Lee. What mewling infants are before us in this generation.
“The habits and qualities of a lifetime” indeed.
My quiet retreat from organized churchianity continues. I’ve had some very interesting conversations and email exchanges this week with folks who are determined to show me the error of my hellbound ways. The viciousness with which they convey their ideas is remarkable. All my life, I’ve heard the old saying, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Well, dealing with Organized Churchianity has driven home a slightly modified point: In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man had better keep his mouth shut.
But as I walk my own path, I am comforted by these words, written by Captain Scott in his journal as he was freezing to death in the Antarctic: “I do not regret the journey. We took risks; we knew we took them. Things have come out against us. Therefore we have no cause for complaint.”
I’ll be posting something in a couple of days, an excerpt from a letter a young man sent me. It’s one of the best letters I can remember receiving, and I asked him if I could share part of it with my readers. Stand by to have your thoughts provoked.
The snow has started up again, so I’d better close this and go tend to business outdoors. Today is St. David’s day. Whether you have Welsh blood in your veins, or know any fine Welshmen (they’re all fine), or just appreciate the history of this Arthurian race, have a taffie and a cup of tea today. Or sink a few pints this evening when the work is done. Watch or read “Henry V” or “How Green Was My Valley” or some other Welsh-wrought wonder. And rejoice. Our King reigns.
Rest well, beloved friends.