The Write Idea


When Death Comes*

Filed under: family — ljcollins @ 7:32 pm
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Tomorrow is the 3rd anniversary of my father’s death. Here is what I wrote on my previous blog about that event:

My father died at 1 p.m. on Monday, January 12. My mother and I were with him, one on each side, as he quietly, peacefully took his last breaths. I almost missed it. I had gone for lunch. This would have been a great irony. I am, as my Gentleman Friend (GF) likes to say, a good eater. So was my dad. We could always eat. Any time of day. Even if we had just finished a large meal. We appreciate food in our family. Eating was the last of Dad’s pleasures to go.

So, I had gone to the hospital cafeteria where I had salmon in creamy dill sauce, wild rice and roasted italian vegetables. I bought my mom a sandwich (her request — I didn’t mean to have a nicer meal than she did) and was heading back up to the room where dad had been moved from emergency only an hour before. As I turned onto his floor a gaggle of nurses and CNAs saw me and exclaimed, “There she is now.” They were paging me to come because my dad’s death was imminent. I ran into the room. A friend of the family had arrived in my absence. He left the room as I entered and I took dad’s side. I can’t remember what Mom and I said at that moment. Nothing to each other, but maybe to Dad. We had been singing hymns to him that morning — Holy, Holy, Holy and For All the Saints, that sort of thing — and quoting his two favorite psalms — the 121st and the 23rd. We both know all of these by heart and have for most of our lives and yet we stumbled over words and phrases again and again. We didn’t know that Dad was going to die when he came in by ambulance that morning or else we might have packed a bible and a hymnbook for the moment. We weren’t prepared for death.

What happened was this: four days before Christmas Dad took two bad falls. He was falling more and more, so this was not especially significant, except that Mom was unable to get him up and had to call in help both times. That was a Sunday. On Tuesday morning he had another bad spill, knocking the back of his head against the corner of a metal table on the way down. This time Mom managed to get him up and to the shower where she was busy trying to clean up all the blood when she realized it was a pretty bad cut. So she finished his shower, bandaged his head, changed his clothes, got him in her car and drove to the nearest urgent care clinic. They put 10 stitches in his head and sent him home, asking Mom to note if he seemed confused. Dad had beginning stages dementia, was mostly blind, mostly deaf and took too many painkillers for the various physical disabilities that kept him in chronic, crippled pain. Knowing whether he seemed more confused than usual was not a simple task.

But rather than complain about his head or his osteo-arthritis or degenerative disk disease pain, all day Dad complained about a sore place on his foot. Mom had taken him to the podiatrist a hundred times in the preceding months for this sore spot, but it clearly had become much worse — the hole widening and deepening, the area around it turning odd, dark shades not usually associated with Caucasian skin. By the next morning, Christmas Eve, his foot was red and swollen and hot and the sore spot was black. Mom managed, once again (I’m not sure how), to get him into the car and off to a podiatrist. A different one this time, as she was fed up with the lack of help the previous one had been. This one examined Dad’s foot, looked up at Mom and said, “I’ll do what I can to save his foot.” What???

So he cleaned and tended the wound, ordered an oral antibiotic, drew a line in red magic marker across Dad’s upper foot and told Mom that if the redness and swelling got higher than the mark to go immediately to the emergency room. My son and I came to her house later that day. My ex was going to a 5 pm service at his church and then coming over to sit with Dad, so Mom, son and I could attend the 7 pm Christmas Eve service at her church. We got home from the service, looked at Dad’s foot and knew we had to go to the hospital. Because my ex was there, the three of us managed to get him into a car (how had Mom done this on her own earlier that same day?) and Mom and I went off to the hospital, leaving the ex to put the son to bed and fill the stockings.

Around 2 a.m. they had run every test imaginable and admitted Dad to the hospital. He had cellulitis in the foot, as well as wicked bed sores on his rear end and signs of a small, recent heart attack. He was a mess from head to toe, quite literally. Dad stayed in the hospital for a week, one problem leading to another, but finally getting the infection under control. From there he went to a skilled nursing facility for rehab. With his fever gone and his medications more controlled than at home, Dad was actually quite lucid and in pretty good spirits for a few days. But when the first week in rehab turned to the second, he began insisting that Mom get him out of there and take him home. A week in the hospital, not moving out of bed, had greatly weakened him and he was having trouble even sitting up and holding a cup. There was no possible way he could go home. In spite of his generally good mental capacity, he could not comprehend this. Of course Mom could take care of him. She’d been doing it for years!

On Friday, January 9, Mom and I went to the financial planner’s office. I am now the executor of the estate should anything happen to Mom, but this was my first time getting a real lay of the financial landscape. We needed to figure out the situation should Dad be spending months or years in nursing care, which is what we all believed we were facing at this point. The good news was, in spite of huge losses in 2008, Mom and Dad had been so frugal and wise with their money over the years that the planner assured Mom she could keep Dad in nursing care for 12 years before they’d run out of money. We all knew he wouldn’t last that long, so this greatly put her mind at ease.

I spent that afternoon with Dad, so Mom could be home alone for a while. He was fairly lucid, but certainly more confused than he had been a few days before. I read him Christmas cards. He kept calling on the nurses to help him get up to pee. He could barely make it from the bed to the wheelchair even with two skilled helpers. As the afternoon wore on he got more agitated and kept saying what a mess things were. I couldn’t get him to say what the mess was. Finally, I knew he needed to sleep, so I kissed him, told him I loved him and left.

I had plans to go out of town that weekend which I kept. There was no reason I shouldn’t, as far as we could tell. We were gearing up for the long-haul. Months of a man miserable about being in a nursing home. He had said to Mom for years, “Don’t ever put me in a nursing home! I’ll die if I have to go to a nursing home!” I stayed in touch with Mom and she said that he developed an intestinal infection on Saturday. She was still able to feed him (a good eater, to the end) and get him to respond to commands (“Open your mouth a little wider”), but he stopped communicating verbally and rarely opened his eyes that weekend.

Then Monday morning came and the call that he was being sent to the hospital. Even then, Mom figured he’d gotten dehydrated from the infection or in need of IV antibiotics. As they took his vital signs, his fever was 106. His breathing was labored and his blood pressure was dropping rapidly. Just before I arrived the doctor asked Mom if she wanted extreme measures taken or just comfort care. She asked for comfort care. “Then I give him 24 to 48 hours to live.” Death. We didn’t know. When I arrived I spoke with the social worker and asked a hospice representative to come meet with us. I thought perhaps we could move him into a hospice facility and out of the emergency room for his last days. I knew from my time as a volunteer hospice chaplain that people could inexplicably hang on longer than expected and I wanted to be ready for the possibility of several days of bedside vigil. Hospice came, but the doctor arranged with the nursing home for us to take him back there, as he didn’t think a hospice bed would open in time and knew we could get palliative care at the home. Discharge papers were in place when the doctor came in and told us that he had changed his mind. Dad wouldn’t survive the transfer, he thought. They promised to find a bed in the hospital and admit him as quickly as possible, which they did, with great kindness and efficiency. Around noon, Dad was finally settled into his new room — a quiet one with a beautiful view of the mountains. It was a gorgeous, bright winter day.

Mom and I sat with Dad for a few minutes and then we both realized we were hungry. Even at this point, we figured we had hours ahead of us. Mom asked me to go eat and bring her something. So I did. And almost missed the last moment. But not quite. I’m glad I was there.

I have no regrets, nor does Mom, but one can’t help but think about some “what ifs” in those final moments. Mom would have spent the night with Dad, had she any idea of the severity of this infection. I would have gone to see him when I got home on Sunday. And more than that, I would have been kinder to him on Friday.

When I last saw him, he seemed so like he had for months. Demanding, irritable, but pretty lucid and generally OK. I was frustrated with him for not trying harder to sit up, to feed himself. He seemed perfectly happy to have it all done for him, but then angry that he couldn’t go home even though he was making no efforts at rehabilitation. He complained about how tired he was. When he asked for water, I tried to insist that he hold the cup himself and get the straw to his mouth. I put it directly in both hands and shaped the one hand around the cup and the other around the handle. He dropped it. I caught it before it spilled and tried again. I snipped at him for not holding on, for not listening to what I was asking him to do. After a third attempt, I held it for him and put the straw in his mouth. But not compassionately. I did it with a huff.

I am not haunted by this interaction. I know that I am forgiven by God and by Dad, if that is a post-life possibility. I can forgive myself. But forgive does not mean forget and I believe that I will remember this moment for a long time. I hope I do. Because it is easy for me to think that <span style=”font-style:italic;”>had I known</span> this would be the last time I saw my dad with any real life in him, I would have been so much more kind and gentle and patient. I would have compassionately given him the water as he asked and not scolded him. I would have gently rubbed his bald head while he drank. Had I known death was coming in a matter of days rather than months, I’m sure I would have been kind. I was kind on Monday, when it hardly mattered any more.

It’s so utterly predictable to learn this lesson now. We never know which interactions will be our last ones. And so every single moment we are called to compassionate presence. There is not a one of us that doesn’t know this. But how easy it is to live out of the grudges, the impatience, the frustration. How very human.

Dad is gone. We had a wonderful and difficult relationship for many years. We loved each other fiercely and wounded each other deeply. We fought and we made up. We criticized and we praised. We prayed together and we yelled at each other. We both clamored for Mom’s attention and affection in our own ways and often in competition with each other. We could stay angry at each other for too long, but we were never estranged. We both knew we were the apple of the other’s eye.

People have been saying this week, “Now he can see again and hear again and walk again!” I really don’t know about that. I believe in resurrection, but I have no earthly idea what it means. What it looks like. Does Dad really have a healthy body now? We have joked about him being reunited with some of his obnoxious friends, about them all giving God hell together. Maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is this: he lived 81 years. He touched more lives than I will ever know with his own compassion and faith and preaching of the gospel, in both word and deed. He loved Mom passionately, even though he demanded far too much of her for far too long. He did much good in his life — serving every community he lived in with civic zeal, every church he pastored with vigor and enthusiasm. He loved life. He loved people. He loved God. He loved me.

And now he is gone. Blessed are those who die in the Lord.

*With apologies to Mary Oliver



Dear Mary Karr

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 11:45 am
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Dear Mary Karr,

I take it all back. Well, maybe not all. I did say you create beautiful sentences and so forth. I stayed up much of last night to finish Lit. I sobbed and laughed and stopped again and again, breathless as I read and re-read some of those amazing sentences you can spin. I even fell to my knees in prayer at one point. (When in the world was the last time I actually prayed on my knees?) You have written a fantastically gorgeous story of addiction and recovery–which is to say of brokenness and healing, of insanity and sanity, of sin and redemption. Thank you.

Thank you for your honesty about how ugly life can really be. Thank you for the humility you wrestled so long to avoid. Thank you for the commitment to your craft that makes your story not only true, but also beautiful. Thank you for daring to get sober and get help and then for daring to tell us how shitty it really felt.

I don’t know if I would have appreciated this story as fully had I not read The Liars’ Club, so I don’t know if I should tell folks to read that book first, though it lacks the simplicity and clarity of this one, or whether I should tell them to skip on ahead to the best stuff. Either way, I’ll be sure to tell them to read Lit.

I’m sorry you had to live through it all, from the crazy childhood through the mental ward, but given that you did, I’m glad you turned it into something not simply entertaining, but saving.

Yes, saving. I’ve heard plenty of sermons in my 48 years, but it’s a rare one that sends me straight to my knees. So, thank you.

Your friend,



A Writer’s Life and Faith

Filed under: Quotes — ljcollins @ 4:08 pm
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The following is from Parker Palmer’s essay, “Taking Pen in Hand” in the Christian Century magazine, Sept. 7, 2010:

… So here’s my own Zen koan: we can do things we don’t think we can do if we don’t think about doing them.  I also learned that if you can’t write a book, write a lot of essays. If you can’t write an essay, write a lot of paragraphs. If you can’t write a paragraph, write a line or a word. And if you can’t do that on the page, write your truth with your life, which is far more important than any book.

Here, too, of course, is a parallel with the life of faith. The faith journey is less about making a big leap of faith than it is about putting one faithless foot in front of the other, and doing it again and again. What happens as you walk that way is sometimes transformed by grace. …

As a young person growing up in the church, a verse from 2 Corinthians commanded my attention, and it has ever since: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” What that verse meant and still means to me is simple and yet demanding. Every container we create to hold the sacred treasure is earthen, finite, limited and flawed – and it is never to be confused with the treasure itself lest we confuse God’s power with our own. …

The constant challenge of both faith and writing is to hold this great paradox of the treasure and the earthen vessel in a respectful way. The vessels deserve our respect because they enable us to preserve the treasure over time and pass it back and forth among us. But if we become attached to the vessel in ways that obscure the treasure, we must discard the vessel and create one that reveals more than it conceals. …

“Why write,” said Jose Ortega y Gasset, “if this too easy activity of pushing a pen across paper is not given a certain bullfighting risk and we do not approach dangerous, agile and two-horned topics?”

And why believe in God if the God we believe in is so small as to be contained and controlled within our finite words and forms? The aim of our writing about faith, and of our living in faith, is to let God be God: original, wild and free, a creative impulse that drives our living and our writing but can never be contained within the limits of who we are or what we think and say and do.


Living Rituals

Filed under: living rituals — ljcollins @ 1:53 pm
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On a note of more personal news, my absence here this past month can be explained in part (I know, excuses, excuses) by another venture I’ve been in the process of launching.  Feel free to take a gander.


Peace Like a River

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 5:03 pm
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When was the last time I read the final sentence of a novel and burst into tears? I did cry some toward the end of Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, which I read earlier this year, and maybe for some of the same reasons that stirred me today. Characters I had grown to love facing deep sadness and me feeling it like it was my own; the hard conclusion to a story when I was somehow wishing for a fairy tale; the powers and limits of spiritual healing embodied in a lovable character; the resilient possibility of redeeming love radiating off the pages. But there was something more when I finished Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River. It was (dare I admit it?) a religious experience. Reading other reviewers’ lines on the book cover I see words like magic and miracle, phrases naming the novel’s “power to convince” and to  “transcend any limitations of belief”. That’s almost calling it a religious experience, don’t you think?  So let me be bold and declare: Leif Enger has done in this novel what every preacher hopes to do once in a lifetime: not just make you believe in the power of miracles, the beauty of God, the deeply satisfying mystery at the heart of even the saddest of lives, but to want to change your life because of it.

Enger writes the novel in the voice of an asthmatic 11 year old boy in a family beset with troubles, but from the perspective of the boy grown up and remembering. This memoir-like point of view (“here’s what it seemed like at 11, but I now understand …”) imbues the writing with a reality not due the story itself.  The story, I will say, is not especially credible. That Enger makes you believe nonetheless is testament to his entrancing storytelling skills. The point-of-view fascinated me throughout. From what distance is he recalling these events?  You do not know until the last pages, but there is hope in knowing that a future exists.

Time and again Enger’s prose caused my breath to catch.  Exquisite descriptions of the most ordinary of scenes joined with plain-spoken depictions of the most extraordinary events.  Sometimes I would read a paragraph and stop, despairing at my own incapacity to ever capture a scene in words like his.  But more often, I paused at the sheer pleasure of the language.

These pauses remained brief, though, as I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I wanted to know more about the family members I loved almost from the first chapter. Without giving away too much (because you really must read it yourself) the story revolves around a murder and the older brother, Davy, becoming a fugitive from the law. Will the prodigious imagination of the younger sister help or hinder the family? Is the father generous and sagacious or simply bumbling and naive? Will they search for Davy together or separately?  How would their journeys end?

Perhaps the central character in the novel is God.  Now this, I will tell you, is a trick.  How do you make God a presence in a novel without coming off as pious or preachy or a little bit loony?  Enger makes the prayers and beliefs of his characters seem as natural as the clothes they wear and the breakfasts they eat.

My first thought on finishing the last sentence of this novel was that I wanted to go back and immediately start again at the beginning. Given the stack of other books calling my name, I won’t be doing that today. But I know I will return to this book before long.  It’s simply too good to read only once.


Take This Bread by Sara Miles

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 5:28 pm
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A growing stack of partly-read books wobbles uncomfortably on my bedside table.  I start each new one enthusiastically, only to be easily seduced by the next lovely title. Some are intentionally unfinished:  books of essays I enjoy reading slowing over time or devotional books with a page to be savored and pondered before moving to the next. Others are novels I just don’t feel like finishing (I know, they should get moved to a different pile) or nonfiction books that I begin and think, “This is so rich, I’m going to wait until I can talk it over with someone.”  A lousy reading strategy, by the way.

Then every so often I pick up a book and every other book on the table just has to wait until this one is devoured, page by delicious page. Devoured is the just the word for Sara Miles’ Take This Bread, a memoir of feeding and being fed.  Miles was a mid-life, left-wing, lesbian atheist journalist when she accidently converted to Christianity.  This book tells her unlikely story.

Take This Bread begins with the moment Sara discovers Jesus, or eats him as she puts it, in an Episcopal eucharist in San Francisco. That moment, more surprising to her than to anyone else (though pretty astounding to her adamantly atheist mother and her highly skeptical friends) sets in motion a new, previously unimaginable course for her life.  She starts a small food pantry in her new church and soon finds herself feeding hundreds of San Francisco’s poor every week, her faith growing along with her work.  She weaves her understanding of hunger, spiritual and physical, into this beautifully written story.

Writing with humor and self-awareness, Sara tells of her 20s spent in NYC working in the restaurant industry, then her 30s as a journalist covering the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Central America she falls in love, gets pregnant and chooses to return to the United States to raise her daughter. It is a few years later when she happens to walk into a church.

Sara brings her journalistic inquisitiveness and her skeptical spirit to this new enterprise of faith. In seeking to understand her own beliefs, as well as those of the church contemporary and historical, she articulates a gospel based on bread. The bread we share with each other, the bread Christ shares with us, the politics of bread, the joys and struggles of feeding and being fed.

As a life-long seeker of faith and a 21 year veteran of the professional ministry who for several years has found myself outside the institution I once so devotedly served, I read Sara’s story of making her way into Christianity with a hunger of my own. Over all those years of reading theology and sermons (and writing a few hundred of my own), I don’t know if I’ve ever read a simpler, clearer articulation of the gospel than this one. There have certainly been other books that spoke to me as forcefully, books that have made me laugh and cry and shout out in joy. But for a pure, honest understanding of the most basic message of Jesus, this one can’t be beat.

Plus, it’s a good story. A story of change and upheaval and new beginnings and old wounds, told with wit and poignancy.

Mainline pastors love people like Sara Miles. Like Nora Gallagher and Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris, we (I can still say we) find our life’s work justified when these highly intelligent, previously atheist or agnostic women walk into a local Episcopal (Gallagher and Miles) or Presbyterian (Lamott and Norris) church and find their lives turned upside down in beautiful and magical ways.

But let’s be frank. They don’t walk into the typical church — the safe, somewhat sterile ones that most of us, if we’re truthful, serve. They walk into the churches on the edge, the risk-taking churches, the ones that have sided with a marginalized group of people (in Lamott’s case) or have burst the boundaries of their own liturgical traditions (as with Miles). I see these stories as cautionary tales for most traditional, liberal Christians.  Nobody gets converted by a committee.

That said, pastors and church members will love this book. I imagine anyone hungry for community and meaning might love it, as well. Though I wonder, even when told with such passion and clarity, how well the Jesus tale translates to those who don’t already get it. Because, as Miles so wonderfully writes, faith is not a question to be resolved or a position to be defended, but bread to be shared. That’s the only way to really get it, ever.  In the flesh.


For Winter Days

Filed under: Poetry — ljcollins @ 9:21 pm
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On many an idle day have I grieved over lost time.  But it is never lost, my lord. Thou hast taken every moment of my life in thine own hands.
Hidden in the heart of things, thou art nourishing seeds into sprouts, buds into blossoms, and ripening flowers into fruitfulness.
I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed and imagined all work had ceased. In the morning I woke up and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.
~~Rabindranath Tagore

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