Gargoyles to Grace

Many people are trying to process the untimely death – the suicide – of Robin Williams. He is a legendary comedian and actor who I first knew as “Mork from Ork.” California law required a detailed release of how he died. Depression. Hanging. An as of then publicly undisclosed diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Husband. Father. Friend. Loved. I’m not sure it gets any easier with time or that questions are ever answered. I find I’m still in some stage of grieving the suicide of a childhood friend who took his own life just over three years ago.

Steve, Steven, or Stevie. Few were allowed to call him Stevie. I did. Our moms were best friends before we were born. I’m a few months older. His father was absent and therefore was raised only by his mom. Today I would say he was co-parented by my mom and dad. There were always behavioral issues. As children, mom kept a watch over me for his flying toys – hurled without warning. I recall hurling my own plastic bowling pins at him for something. We laughed about it years later.  He was diagnosed as ADHD and was on Ritalin for most of his school years. He could be off the wall and very funny. Hyper-creative at times. His own Mork from Ork impersonations guaranteed a “nanu nanu” and a “shazbot” now and again.

On and off, he and his mom attended the same church with my family. He participated in Youth Group at church. Sometimes there were emotional outbursts with other kids and adult leaders. In the church parking lot, my parents thought once he tried to run me down with his car. On occasion he would drive circles around the block around my house. In later years, he always offered his opinion on anyone me or my sister dated – or married. He worked for some time in the Renaissance Festival circuit. But, he was mostly unemployed and on disability. Issues with authority figures. You never new what to expect. Confrontational at home throughout his life. Occasional threats to end his life.

He threw himself into working for the local historical society. One of my last memories is of helping him with an exhibit. The historical society came into possession of a few Gone With the Wind items of historical significance. Stevie called to ask if I would mind loaning some of my collection to fill out the exhibit for a weekend. Realizing I’d become detached from owning this collection, I quickly agreed to help him. I packed up some items and left them with him for a couple weeks. I attended the exhibit. It was very nice.

Mom called me at work one afternoon – “We have a problem. Stevie’s gone. He’s dead.” – she whispered the last two words. He had gone to the historical society alone with a researched plan. Plastic wrap and nitrous oxide. He didn’t come home when expected and another historical society member found him – seated on a sofa – gone. He had recently turned 45 years old. I remember scouring Facebook for his last posts and trying to remember our last interactions. I was thankful for the GWTW exhibit collaboration. His mother wanted my sister and I to speak at the grave side service. I remember looking out at people – relatives – many of whom had their own troublesome history with him. I wasn’t always kind to him. I was even hateful at times. I said I would miss him and I cried. I looked at his mom and I meant it – the words and the tears.

The last Christmas present I remember getting from him is “The Dedo” – a small replica of a sweet faced gargoyle from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Legend has it that it was carved by the nun “Marie Therese” from Provence. She didn’t like the evil faced gargoyles and carved this one instead. She slipped into the Cathedral and placed on the highest point “closest to God.” The Little Way of love. Shortly after Stevie’s death, my parents, sister and I went to visit with his mom. It was my job to look around the house and the computer to see if there was anything left behind – perhaps a note. I slowly walked through the house. All the places he spent most of his time. The attic where he retreated to smoke. The computer desk. His room in disarray. Relics of the troubled spirit. As I looked around the house and the shelves, there among his collections was another Dedo – exactly like the one he’d given me. I picked it up and held it for a few moments. I left it there.

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Sometimes I go through my shelves looking for chotskies I can give away. I pick up my little Dedo gargoyle and think of Stevie. I wonder why he didn’t call me or reach out in any way. I just wonder “why?”

Shazbot.

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Death Block

I read the Diary of Anne Frank in a high school honors English class.  The instructor expected more from our “honors” class and required us to act out a scene from the book.  Myself and another classmate took the nightmare scene. Anne screams out in the night and her father rushes to her side.  It was more to quiet her than for comfort. “We’ll be discovered hiding…”  My classmates commented that I seemed to take the little classroom skit “seriously.” Perhaps the conviction in my scream and words.  I was never sure if I was mocked, or genuinely praised. We went to see the stage production. Her last diary entry was written 70 years ago on August 1, 1944 from the attic hiding place.

I prepared a term paper on WWII concentration camps for a high school World History class. I can still see the desktop where I worked at my grandparents home. My papa was fighting a losing battle with cancer in another room. I was discovering the gas chamber horrors in the Encyclopedia books. Death was immanent on those pages and my Papa.

Eventually, I made my way to visit Israel on a Holy Land pilgrimage. I visited Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Museum. Halfway through I was smothering in raw images. The relics of so many lives lost.

This Summer I came full circle during a week of sightseeing in Poland.  The last full day – Auschwitz-Birkenau. The image below is of the Death Block. Some 75 years ago that image would have shown people in their moments before death. We passed through and came out. We walked in the ‘showers’, passed the furnaces, and came out. If I thought Yad Vashem housed many human relics, this death camp far surpassed anything I’d ever seen or read. I bought a book there titled “Hope is the Last to Die” by Halina Birenbaum. She was 10 in 1939 and survived. This is her recollection of months hiding in attics in the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. The eventual capture of her family and years endured in torture are recounted up to the liberation in 1945. There are no chapter separations in the journal. This literary fact added to the endless misery as even I read along asking, “When will this end? Where are the Allied Forces? How did this ever happen in the world?” I cried and had some disturbed nights trying to sleep. I had finally left Anne Frank’s attic and walked the rest of the story – beyond her last page.

Death Block

Death Block

On the flight home, I watched the movie “The Book Thief” and cried some more. I just finished reading the book as well. A story of Liesel Meminger, a 9 year old girl whose German parents are “taken away” for being Communists. She gets new German foster parents – a foster father she calls Papa who doesn’t want to join “The Party.” Papa owes a great personal debt to a Jewish comrade from WWI. They hide his son in their basement. If you have seen the movie, by all means read the book. The book makes it clear that Death is the narrator. There are many victims in war.

My grandfather, who I call Papa, kept a journal. The first time I turned it page by page, I found it contained his official “Air Raid Warden” procedures. There were first aid procedures for poisonous gasses and fallout. Administering first aid to the injured.  Instructions for shades to be drawn at night to block the light. I can now truly appreciate those pages.

I thought of the many who no longer cast a shadow at Auschwitz, but only in memory.

I thought of the many who no longer cast a shadow at Auschwitz but only in memory.

I thought of the many who no longer cast a shadow at Auschwitz but only in memory.

Remembering Papa

Thirty years ago today, my grandfather — Papa, passed away.   I think about him especially between Christmas and January 19th because I remember the last December.  He was at Emory Hospital in December 1980.  I remember the drive; I-75 to I-20 — Exit Memorial Drive — North to Briarcliff and a right on the By Way.  We wound our way the back roads of Emory Village.  The beautiful homes were elegantly decorated for Christmas.  Many homes had no curtains and you could see the fanciness inside.  I carried my school homework and a Seventeen magazine.  I was sixteen.  I dreamed about living in the homes we passed.

It had been a difficult year.  My grandfather had lung cancer and he was on oxygen at home.  I remember sitting next to his bed listening to him sleep.  He had trouble with fluid on his lungs and he was afraid of not waking up.  That’s really why I was sitting there — instructed to wake him up if I thought his breathing was getting bad.  Looking back now, I remember that as precious time spent.

He was hospitalized in December and the last time in January.  Papa was fully aware on that day thirty years ago.   He asked for the family to gather — he waited until everyone arrived.   We gathered around in prayer and maybe sang a hymn.  My sister held his hand — my grandmother on the other side and the nurse.  A few moments after we had prayed, the nurse simply said, “He’s gone.”  It was quiet and peaceful — a falling asleep.

I left the room and walked away — around a hall to find a place alone.  I stared out a window and cried.  I had hoped so much for Papa to receive a miracle of healing.  I was in disbelief for awhile.

Today, I’m not sad or even melancholy.  I’m only aware that I wished I knew him longer — long enough to realize how much alike we are.  He still finds ways to let me know he’s still there.

Peppermint Prayers and My Papa

My Papa and the Year for Priests

Snow Days

I am enjoying day #2 of “Ice Jam 2011” in Atlanta.  They have made references to “Snow Jam 1982.”  Really, it is only here in the South that our Winter storms are worthy of naming — their rarity granting them this special privilege.  I recall the Snow Jam ’82 — I was a Senior in high school and this was the last gift of ‘snow days’ off from school before graduation.

I don’t remember if that was the only Winter event that year but I did write a poem about one of the events.  I remember the thaw and how it sounded.   I was sitting at my writing desk and looking out the window into my back yard.  The snow had been coated with ice and the tree limbs were heavy laden with their icy burden.  I was transfixed for a long time as the sun began to melt the ice. The sound of the ice falling down through the trees sounded like applause and I was taken by the gracefulness of the tree limbs.  Already having experienced Atlanta Ballet performances and already a fan of Mikhail Baryshnikov;  I saw the ballet in the trees and melting ice.  Below is a sample of my early poetry — I was 16.

The Crystal Shop Ballet

Boughs bend with humble splendor,
Bearing gifts that only the season can bring.
Nature in its most graceful poise,
The Lady of Winter performs a ballet.

Evergreens curtsy in elegant form,
The envy of every prima ballerina.
Beautiful to see, but fragile to touch,
The Lady of Winter brings gifts of crystal.

The sun shines in earth’s open window,
Setting to glisten The Crystal Shop Ballet.
Trees dance to the wind’s whispering orchestra,
The Lady of Winter composes a masterpiece.

The sun rises higher as the dance crescendos,
Limbs slowly raise their arms to the sky.
The eyes of nature look upward as melting applause praises the performance,
The Lady of Winter completes The Crystal Shop Ballet.

Encore!

February 27, 1982

Dental Loss

I checked my email on Friday morning, before heading out the door   — my dad had forwarded sad news — a link to an obituary.  My beloved childhood dentist passed on Thursday, April 15th — before sunset — he was 70.  We called him “Dr. Bob” — short for Robert.   I expected to check my email and quickly be on my way, but, not now.  I must give pause.  Tears welled up and I cried.

My parents met Dr. Bob near the time of his graduation — he interned in a local dental practice.  After he completed his internship, he set up his own practice on the other side of town.  My parents made the drive every year for our regular check ups.  He would check the ‘teeth’ on my doll before there was a need for my own check up.  He was especially good at putting children at ease and even calming the fears of skittish adults.  You would never see the Novocaine needle — never know it had been used.  The vacuum appliance that keeps your mouth dry was named, “Mr. Thirsty.”  A treasure chest always awaited children while their parents completed the check out and scheduling the next visits.  There was an aquarium in the waiting room and lots of reading material.

Really, the waiting area was nothing special, but, it was part of the experience.  It is because Dr. Bob liked to sing.  He piped in a local Atlanta pop radio station — not the bland stuff of Musak.  At any random moment, his voice would belt out in loud song along with whatever song was on the radio.  People in the waiting room would look at each other and smile — laugh a little — especially if there was a new patient waiting.  He was a devoted family man and loved to ski.  He was tall with the permed and curled hair of the 70’s.  He wore polyester leisure pants and usually some satiny kind of shirt, partly unbuttoned, and a thick gold chain.  The likeness of  Tom Jones and Saturday Night Fever disco.  He was very kind and thoughtful.  He would read your dental insurance provisions and, well, did his best to work within those guidelines.

I grew into a teen — then, a young adult — my first job — my own dental insurance.  I made the drive across town every year for my check ups.  He was always careful to protect my one baby tooth.  I was born with one tooth that didn’t have a permanent to take its place.  Oddly, my sister had an extra tooth.  That was quite the dental humor of our family visits to Dr. Bob.  “Your sister got your tooth!,” — he would joke.  I began making my own appointments and visited on my own without my parents. But, I tagged along on their visits as well, just to visit.  Maybe once or twice to take my sister.

Dr. Bob eventually let us know that he was having problems with arthritis in his hands.  He didn’t know how long he could keep up his practice.  He brought in an additional dentist to split the clients.  He was thinking of investing in some entrepreneurial venture.  The day came that our family got “The Letter” — a letter of regret saying that he was finally giving it up and turning his patient list over to the other dentist.  My family cried.  My mother is quite sure they still owed money, but, the office said they had asked and he said, “No.  Nothing owed.”  I tried the other dentist.  It wasn’t the same.  Dr. Bob’s name was gone from the door.  I cried.  I don’t know if he was ever able to practice again.  I have to this day never found any dentist that comes near to the kindness and care of Dr. Bob.

I read the obituary and it said to leave condolences at the funeral home web site — a Jewish funeral home.  I’d never thought about it, but, I guess he was Jewish.  I entered my condolences to the family.  The Jewish funeral home listed some information — I saw they noted that he passed away “before sunset.”  I saw in other places that you indicate if the passing was before or after sunset.  Perhaps the next day begins after sunset.   I started clicking around information on Jewish funeral customs.  I found the following information regarding the ritual washing of the deceased person —

Most well organized communities offer the services a sacred burial society (Chevra Kaddisha), which will prepare the body for burial. Men prepare men and women prepare women. They wash the body with warm water from head to foot and, although they may turn the body as necessary to clean it entirely, including all orifices, they never place it face down. The body is dressed in white burial shrouds (tachrichim), which are purposely kept simple to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Men are buried with their prayer shawls (tallits), which are rendered ineffective by cutting off one of the fringes. If, however, a person suffered an injury and blood soaked into his or her clothing, ritual washing is not completed. “…the blood of a person is considered as holy as his life and deserves proper burial,” Greenberg writes. From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after burial. This practice, called guarding/watching (shemira), is also based on the principle of honoring the dead. A family member, a Chevra Kaddisha member, or someone arranged by the funeral parlor passes the time by reciting psalms (Tehillim) as this person watches over the deceased.

http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=937

In our Catholic Church, we are still celebrating Easter.  Just two weeks ago, we celebrated the Triduum — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday.  I read the passage above and can imagine the Jewish customs around the death and burial of Jesus.  Christian roots are found in the Jewish culture.  The Shroud of Turin has been in the news again as it is brought out on display.  The words above give very specific instructions regarding the blood of the deceased person.  The blood is “as holy as his life and deserves proper burial.” The reasons behind our Catholic purification rituals are deeply rooted in customs of the earliest Christian Jews.  The Precious Blood.

I don’t know how Dr. Bob practiced his Jewish faith.  I do know that I went to Israel — the Holy Land — for the first time in February 2000.  Less than two days upon my return to work, I was eating lunch at a cafe’ with a coworker.  To my horror, as I bit down into the tuna salad croissant, something didn’t feel right.  I reached in my mouth and pulled out my baby tooth.  I was mortified–I had protected it for all of 35 years.  I had no choice but to find some dentist to fix this. Groan.  Sigh.

So… I am contemplating another trip to Israel later this year.  Hopefully not followed by another trip a to a dentist who pales in comparison to my beloved Dr. Bob.

I prayed for you at Mass today.  Shalom.

Dr. Bob

Dr. Bob

Mourner’s Kaddish

May His illustrious name become increasingly great and holy
In the world that He created according to His will,
and may He establish His kingdom
In your lifetime and in your days
and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel
Speedily and soon. And let us say amen.

May His illustrious name be blessed always and forever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled
Honoured, raised up and acclaimed
be the name of the Holy one blessed be He
beyond every blessing hymn, praise and consolation
that is uttered in the world. And let us say amen

May abundant peace from heaven, and life
Be upon us and upon all Israel. And let us say amen.

May He who makes peace in His high places
Make peace upon us and upon all Israel,
And let us say amen