Sunday, July 15, 2012

Keeping Watch


Lately, I've been thinking about how the godly face crisis. It's a big subject, one I'm not sure I can explain. Perhaps the answer lies in the wisdom and experience of the one who struggles. Or, perhaps there are as many ways to struggle through pain and sorrow as there are people who do so. It is our common human experience, isn't it? Pain is the darkness that makes bright our pleasure.


My daughter Amy recently faced the loss of her father-in-law Joel Kortus. At the time of his passing, she wrote this account of her experience. I appreciated the honesty of her writing, and wondered if her words might challenge you as well. Let us know what you think?

We are on day three of keeping watch with Joel. He is shutting down bit by bit.  He lays, dying, in the middle of the living room while the everyday events of life go on around him: Thomas grinds the coffee; I change the baby. Nancy prepares dinner and Rachelle does dishes. Taft takes a conference call and we check email, text, have wine with dinner. It is at once the most normal thing in the world and the most incongruent. Joel, the father of all these children, the one who gave life to these children, who brought order and laughter, comfort and approval, lying like a child unable to wake up.


Audrey, as she was tucked in last night, asked if we could pray just for Papa. "For peace," she said.  Then, crying, said it wasn’t going to be the same at the beach without Papa, and why did he have to die--she has so many memories with Papa... when I said we would see Papa again in Heaven, she said yes, but that’s not for a long time and I am going to miss him...


I don’t understand death--how can I expect her to understand?  And how can I explain something I do not understand? Papa is here; Papa is gone.  He did not go on a trip.  He is not at work or at the gym or hunting. He cannot call or email or send a text. He cannot even send a letter. He goes, and we aren’t totally sure how, or what it looks like where he goes... and we have to stay behind. It is the one harsh and irrevocable truth about living: we will all die.  Each one of us will, in our turn, make this journey.  I have a lot of ground to cover before I feel peace about this reality.  


And as the living, we continue on, but we do not forget. Nor do we go unchanged. Each of the siblings will now carry a piece of dad with them, holding him in some ways even closer than before. When Joel was living, his clothes were something common and insubstantial; now they have the value of a relic, a piece of someone we all wanted to stay but couldn’t.  And I say when living; he is still alive, but not living and active.  He is in that strange twilight between life and death; he cannot get up and join us in living, but he is still breathing.  And remembering?  And going over memories?  How could we know?


These things I know: There is a big fat robin perched on the deck rail looking for his breakfast in the grass. There is a mist over Penn Cove today; the sky feels heavy with sorrow and mournful. The cove across the way is covered in pine trees, the kind distinctive to Washington and looking almost too green for my North Carolina trained sensibilities. Too green and too thin and short-pined. There is a sense of rest and resignation to this day, to this island. What will be will be, even as the sea plane, having just unloaded its customers on the far side of the cove, circles back to Seattle momentarily disrupting the quiet.


How do I think about what comes next? Can I believe in the Heaven described in extra-canonical detail in the latest books? This Heaven, shrouded in so much mystery in the Biblical text--is it a place? When do folks arrive? How do we get there? And how does the breath of life survive apart from the body?


It seems like a dark comedy, the brevity of our stay here. We are born and, just as we learn what it means to live, we experience pain and sorrow; we experience death--and then realize that too soon, possibly way too soon, it will be our turn to die also. It is impossible to gather up all the minutes in one short life and try to form meaning. What will I leave behind?


Here is what I know: In the midst of this dying, there is so much living still. There is the rhubarb I harvested yesterday, while talking on the phone with my mom. The stalks two feet long, the leaves at least three feet across. I have never seen anything like this rhubarb, so determined not only to flourish but to take over the garden. I almost needed two hands just to bear the weight of one stalk. After leaving the stalks for a day so the kids could see them (so big!) we tossed the leaves in to the water, to turn back in to soil or compost or energy again, however that happens. Another miracle of death to life to death again.  And then I will take the stalks this afternoon, while the baby is napping, and wash and chop them and make a crisp to feed the twenty or so of us that are gathered here, fourteen of the crew under twelve years old. So much life, so much unlived life, gathered under one roof to keep vigil for death.


I want to understand how to let go of someone you cannot keep. It feels like sand slipping through my fingers, holding on to this man we all love. We can keep his treasures (beach glass, pocketwatch, old photos), his creations (driftwood clocks, lamps, furniture, mobiles). We can keep our memories, but we cannot keep his. We do not even know what they are, or how over the past few days he has sifted through and released them. Does death come on like childbirth? Is it hard and fast and animal-like, something you crouch under and submit to--something wholly other, physical and instinctual and out of your control--or do you let yourself down, piece by piece, like a rock climber coming down the sheer face of a cliff, letting go of the rope bit by bit as you near the ground?  Has Joel in the last few days sifted through memories, one by one, letting go of each of us in turn? Has he turned over pictures of us in his mind, Thomas as a toddler with his eye patch, Tiff in pigtales, Taft working on the old Ford, coaching basketball, camping, doing the paper route, driving the bus.  Each grandchild... Lindy.  Did he go through each person, one by one, and say goodbye?  Did he get to make his peace with this parting?


If so, I wish he could tell us the secret to letting go.


Amy Kortus ( Thomas' wife)


Saturday June 16 2012
Little bird beach house, 9:30 AM

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