A Balm in Gilead, parts 1-11

A few people would like a way to link all eleven posts I wrote about my dad and the novel Gilead into one easily shareable entry. Here it is: 

A Balm in Gilead, part 11

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

A Balm in Gilead, part 8

A Balm in Gilead, part 9

A Balm in Gilead, part 10

This will be the last post concerning my dad and the novel Gilead.

I’ve scoured the book trying to find even the faintest hint of a mark Dad left. I’ve looked and re-looked for any sign of underlining, brackets, dog ears, annotation in the margins, or even stray marks. The following excerpt is the last one.

It’s probably not surprising that this is sad for me. I’ve really enjoyed the time I spent pouring through Gilead, thinking about what the author wrote and how my dad interpreted it. This experience–that is, reading and pondering the text and notes–has been more powerful for me than writing. I’m not eloquent enough to fully explain my thoughts about the book or my dad. The ideas and feelings are a mess within me–it’s difficult to type them out. For all you writers, I’m sure you can empathize.

So it’s with a heavy heart I transcribe this last paragraph my dad marked with a bracket on page 142.

I say this because I really feel as though I’m failing, and not primarily in the medical sense. And I feel as if I am being left out, as though I’m some straggler and people can’t quite remember to stay back for me. I had a dream like that last night. I was Boughton [the narrator’s best friend] in the dream, for all purposes. Poor old Boughton.

There are still about 105 pages left in the book after this passage, but that’s the last thing he marked. If this blog post were a movie, the last quote would be about living life to the fullest or something like that. Instead, the narrator feels as if he is being left out and the world is moving on.

This may make my dad sound feeble. Although he was definitely weakened by his 2008 injury, he was by no means a weak man.

As we get older and watch the world zoom on without pausing, I can imagine it’s a  disorientating experience. My dad wanted nothing of cell phones, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other new fangled creation. In addition to the j-curve of new technology and proliferation of information, my dad was troubled by all the bad things he saw or read in the news. I heard him say he was truly sorry his generation couldn’t have handed me and my children a better world. He talked about this often, as a matter of fact, and I’m certain he truly meant it.

So, that’s why I think he marked this excerpt. In many ways the world is becoming a more and more remarkable place. In other ways, however, the events we must bear witness to are almost too much.

I can’t end this post without talking more about Tom Johnson. When I sat in his seat at his dinner table after his passing, it seemed to me he was just at the supermarket, picking up a last minute item for dinner. At times, I thought he’d walk through his door any minute. I told this to my wife, and she admitted she felt the same way.

I’m such a lucky person to have been raised by my dad. Although no upbringing is perfect, I can honestly say I didn’t deserve all the love and support he gave me throughout my life. He was a blessing from God. I could have been any other man’s son, and I was lucky enough to be given Tom as my dad.

He was full of integrity and extremely humble. I knew what integrity was–even if I didn’t show it–at a young age because of his direction. This is also a blessing. I’m reminded of Proverbs 1:8, 9: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.” I’m one of the fortunate ones who can read this verse and identify with its truth.

I guess I’m writing all this to say four simple words.

I miss my dad.

In spite of this, I feel a tremendous outpouring of grace on my life at the moment–I have ever since my dad went to heaven. I remember his life, almost seventy years, and I fully realize how short and precious our days on this earth are. We don’t have time to hold grudges. We’re wasting our minutes if we gossip or lie or covet or busy ourselves with any other actions that are unequivocally selfish. Our days have a number, and as each one closes, we are one step closer to seeing our Creator.

We need to love one another. We need to show love to all those around us. We need to love the people who are easy to love and the ones who are difficult. We need to love the orphans and widows as well as the prisoners. Jesus did this. He is our ultimate role model–the most important figure in all of history.

I’m giving myself over to sentimentality, and I try not to do this when I write, but I can’t help it now. I hope this can be excused. All I know is that the moment before I die, whenever that is, if I have time to look back upon my life I hope I showed a lot more love than hatred. I hope I was kind and not sarcastic, giving and not stingy, caring and not apathetic. Life is too short to be selfish. I need to be a better person, starting right now.

It’s on my heart right to share one last excerpt. It’s from my favorite book, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I can picture the last page of the novel right now. The protagonist, Alyosha Karamazov, is leaving the burial of a young boy named Ilusha. Alyosha is talking with many of Ilusha’s young friends and asks them to remember the departed boy right now in the present moment. They respond:

“Yes, yes, eternally, for ever and ever,” shouted all the boys, their voices ringing and their faces radiant.

“We shall remember his face, his clothes, even his little boots, and his little coffin…”

“We’ll remember, we will!” shouted the boys again. “He was brave, he was good.”

“Oh, how I love him!” exclaimed Kolya.

(Alyosha speaking) “Ah, my children, my dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something noble and true!”

“Yes, Yes” repeated the boys ecstatically.

“Karamazov, we all love you,” erupted one voice, apparently that of Kartashov.

“We love you, we do” they all joined in. Many of them had tears glistening in their eyes.

“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Called Kolya, carried away.

“And eternal remembrance for the dead boy!” said Alyosha emotionally.

“Eternal remembrance!” the boys joined in again.

“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “is it true what religion teaches, that we shall all rise from the dead, that we shall live again and see one another again…?”

“Certainly, we shall be resurrected, certainly, we shall see one another again and we shall tell one another happily, joyfully, everything that has happened,” replied Alyosha, half laughing and half overcome with emotion.

“How marvelous that’ll be,” burst out Kolya.

“Well now let’s have done with talking and go to his wake…” laughed Alyosha… “Now we’ll all walk hand in hand.”

“And always, all our lives, we’ll walk hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya shouted again ecstatically, and once more, all the boys echoed his cry.

May we all have loved ones at our funeral who act like this. May we all be brave and good. May we not be afraid of life. Today, may we all do something noble and true. May we love all those we see and all those who have come before us. May that love be generous and kind.

God, thanks for my dad. Thanks for all your blessings. May I treat everyone as you would have me treat them. 

Amen. 

Father to son

Son to father

Fly the huntsman

Carry the fire

All rolls on

The world will yearn

The Circle widens

The pages turn

The Interring

A Balm in Gilead, part 10

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

A Balm in Gilead, part 8

A Balm in Gilead, part 9

This next passage is difficult to tackle. I’m going to have to transcribe almost a whole page of Gilead in order for what my dad wrote to make sense. This is asking a lot of you, dear reader, to venture through a large excerpt of a novel you’ve probably never opened. But, heck, if you’ve read all the way to this post–part 10!–then I guess you’re game.

Sometime I almost forget my purpose in writing this, which is to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you. There are the Ten Commandments, of course, and I know you will have been particulary aware of the Fifth Commandment, Honor your father and mother. I draw attention to it because Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine are enforced by the criminal and civil laws and by social custom. The Tenth Commandment is unenforceable, even by oneself, even with the best will in the world, and it is violated constantly. I have been candid with you about my suffering a good deal at the spectacle of all the marriages, all the households overflowing with children… not because I wanted them, but because I wanted my own. I believe the sin of covetise is the pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have. From the point of view of loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), there is nothing that makes a person’s fallenness more undeniable than covetise–you feel it right in your heart, in your bones. In that way it is instructive. I have never really succeeded in obeying that Commandment, Thou shalt not covet. I avoided the experience of disobeying by keeping to myself a good deal, as I have said. I am sure I would have labored in my vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the thorn in my side, so to speak. “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” I have found that difficult too often. I was much better at weeping with those who weep. I don’t mean that as a joke, but it is kind of funny, when I think about it.

Here’s what my dad wrote in the lefthand margin near the end of this paragraph:

“Easier to be sad with people than happy with people.”

Here’s what I love about my dad: He was very, very honest.

I’m picturing him during his last ten years in Henderson, NV, sitting in his backyard, overlooking Las Vegas Boulevard with a glass of port in his hand. His legs are crossed. He’s slouching in his chair. The hand that holds the glass is tucked up by his face as he bends his elbow in a way I’ve never seen anyone else find as comfortable as he did.

During these times, my dad would admit stuff like what he wrote next to the above paragraph. I love him for this because it’s so true. We find ourselves very easily grieving with those who are grieving. We can do this for days on end. But are we rejoicing with those who are rejoicing for days on end? It’s an interesting question to ponder.

Someone could easily write 5,000 words regarding the whole above excerpt. Someone could write volumes and volumes about the Ten Commandments–particularly the Fifth One. And covetise? If every incident of covetise were written in books, those books would probably fill a large portion of the Milky Way.

I like what the narrator says, “I am sure I would have labored in my vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the thorn in my side, so to speak.” It’s a very humble statement. It’s like what the Pope said about himself recently: “I am a sinner whom the Lord as looked upon.” What else can be said? This gives way to grace. It’s the only way to true peace, even in the midst of the covetise.

It’s something I’d like to talk with my dad about in his backyard.

A Balm in Gilead, part 9

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

A Balm in Gilead, part 8

My dad put a bracket around this paragraph on page 98:

Well, I’ll confess I did feel a certain embarrassment about [my grandfather]. It may even have been shame. And it was not the first time I had felt it, either. But I was a child at the time, and it seems to me he might have made some allowance. These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.

I’d wager it’s safe to say most young people are embarrassed by a parent or grandparent at least once in their lives. I’m a junior high teacher, and I was once a young person, so I have the credentials to make this statement.

I cringe when I read the first few sentences from the above passage, knowing it’s a possibility my dad was thinking of me when he marked the paragraph. Someday my son and daughter will want me to leave them alone because of embarrassment. Like many things, it’s a cycle. We are embarrassed by those who love us most dearly and then are only able to fully appreciate them with the help of time and a large measure of experience.

The end of this paragraph is incredibly incisive. At times we try really hard to be better. For example, when we attempt to have every word we say full of integrity, then our speech is on our mind all day. When someone knows us well and what we’re capable of saying, we may feel cheated since we’re trying so hard to be better.

This is life. However futile it may be at times, we must always try to be better. We can’t wake up and think, I’m just going to be me today–no matter how horrid that might be. No, we remain patient at every red light, nod understandingly to the stressed coworker, and return home to a family that deserves and needs our unmitigated love.

When someone calls us out on being who we truly are, even when we are making a valiant effort to be better, it’s important to throw our hands in the air and laugh. Yes, you know me. I wish you knew me as someone better. Please give me a little credit for trying.

And even if you don’t, I’ll keep trying.

A Balm in Gilead, part 8

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

Anger is an emotion that can utterly destroy years–if not a lifetime–of work. Work spent building a family, a business, and anything else worth one’s precious time. The frightening reality is that a person can practice a lifetime of goodwill and then destroy it with one careless and heated moment. It’s like building a beautifully crafted home only to burn it down with one measly match.

An action done in anger sticks. It doesn’t matter how much we apologize afterward or how we think we’ve “fixed” the situation. The truth is that once the anger has subsided, there are repercussions to be dealt with.

I cherish a story my mom once shared with me:

There was a father and his son who carried a hammer and bucket of nails. After some time of walking, they stopped at a fence. The father turned to his son and said, “I want you to use the hammer and slam a few nails into the boards of the fence.”

The boy gave the man a quizzical look. “Why? There’s nothing wrong with the fence.”

“I just want you to do it.”

The boy shrugged and reached into the bucket, pulling out some nails. He then approached the fence, and using the hammer, knocked five nails into the bone white wood. Afterward, he returned to the side of his father.

The man admired the work with a nod of his head and gestured to the fence.

“Now,” he said, “I want you to pull out each of the nails.”

“But you just told me to hammer them in.”

“I know,” the man replied. “Now, please, take them out.”

The boy trudged back to the fence. It took some time, but with the help of the hammer he eventually held all five crooked nails in the palm of his hand. He walked back to his father and dropped the nails in the bucket.

“I want you to look at the spot on the fence where you hammered in the nails,” the man said. “What do you see?”

The boy stared at the fence, readying himself for having to state the obvious.

“I see the marks left by the nails.”

The father’s eyes left the fence and fell intensely upon his son. “Those marks are just like the wounds a person leaves by careless words of anger. You might be able to ask for forgiveness and make amends, but the truth is, all the things you do in anger will leave marks just like the hammer and nails–and there’s nothing you can do to erase them.”

I thought about this as I read the next sentence my dad underlined in Gilead on page 86.

I think that fierce anger against [his father] was one of the things my father felt he truly had to repent of.

The narrator is writing of how his father held a lot of anger against his own father. I’m pretty sure my dad felt the same way toward his dad. It may sound a little strange, but this fact has shaped me into the man I now am, for good and bad.

I can’t speak for their relationship. All of that would be conjecture or hearsay; although I can say I wish I had the opportunity to talk about my grandpa with my dad. There are things I’d like to know, or at least hear from my dad’s own mouth.

I guess all that really matters at this point is my relationship with others, specifically my own children. I want them to view their relationship with me as nothing but love. When I’m dead and gone, I don’t want any memories of anger lingering in their hearts. I can help give them the gift of peace by tempering my own anger. I can be an example of replying to anger with kindness.

“Gentleness,” a word rarely used in our culture to describe men, could quite possibly be one of the manliest virtues there is. It’s the antithesis of anger. It expresses itself through action and words. It’s what I strive to exemplify through the good and bad times.

Thinking of my father and reading Gilead help cultivate this longing.

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

Here’s a portion of the paragraph my dad put a bracket around on page 73. The boldfaced words are what he marked.

I have worried some about [my] last hours. This is another thing you know and I don’t–how this ends. That is to say, how my life will seem to you to have ended. That’s a matter of great concern to your mother, as it is to me, of course. But I have trouble remembering that I can’t trust my body not to fail me suddenly. I don’t feel bad most of the time. The pains are infrequent enough that I forget now and then. 

How the end comes is of great concern to the narrator. More specifically, how his life will have seemed to the child (his son) to have ended. A young parent rarely worries about this. Of course, term life insurance is something young people purchase, but I think it’s more of a covering-your-bases-doing-the-right-thing action. Worrying how your end will seem to your children comes later in life, possibly when death is crouching on the stoop.

The narrator then says he has trouble remembering he can’t trust his body not to fail him suddenly. As we get older, the Lord takes certain abilities away from us. It’s humbling and inevitable. I tore my ACL in 2005 and haven’t played a game of pick-up basketball since. I can only imagine what it’s like to have the head injury my dad suffered in 2008, which left him slower and somewhat older. He knew it, and I know he was humble enough to accept the decline in many aspects of his active life. What may have been difficult to handle was the pain.

The narrator writes, “The pains are infrequent enough that I forget now and then.” Hopefully my dad marked this because his pains were infrequent, too. A lot of times we give the elderly a hard time because of a lack of positivity in their dispositions. Then I wake up with a crick in my neck and I’m miserable all day. I’d be a horrible old person, which is obviously a shame.

The first lesson this passage teaches me is to enjoy this pain free time in my life. To cherish walks with my family, riding a bike, swimming, running, and–yes–even the gym. I read a saying the other day that went something like: “Run while you can.” It’s good advice.

The second lesson is that the way I live will affect how my children view my end. A full life that’s well lived and full of love makes the end endurable for loved ones. It’s difficult to choose how one will depart this earth. Living your life is what you have control over.

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

There are about four or five more posts in this series I’m likely to write, and one thing I’ve come to realize is that I’m not going to be able to do Gilead much justice at all by explaining it. The book is an experience more so than a traditional beginning-middle-end plot, and removing parts of the book and laying them down to study out of context is like performing an autopsy to find out about the wonders of life. Not very effective.

Also, I realize there’s no way to know what my dad was possibly thinking as he read the novel. These thoughts are from my own faulty and biased imagination. I’m very well writing these posts more out of a need to process what’s happened in my life than a willingness to share about interesting passages my dad pointed out. If that’s the case, I’m going to believe it’s still worth doing.

On page 66, he underlined two different sections of one very long paragraph. In it the narrator writes about his departed daughter. Here is the whole paragraph with the parts my dad marked in boldface:

I don’t think it was resentment I felt then. It was some sort of loyalty to my own life, as if I wanted to say, I have a wife, too, I have a child, too. It was as if the price of having them was losing them, and I couldn’t bear the implication that even that price could be too high. They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realized there is nothing more astonishing than a human face… You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.

It occurs to me that my dad could very well have been thinking of his grandchildren when he marked this passage. They were the babies he held most recently. It’s safe to assume he believed their faces were claims on him.

Perhaps he thought of the special bond he had with his grandchildren, even when they were babies. Some of the happiest pictures I saw of my dad while my wife and I were putting together the slideshow for his “celebration of life” was when he held his grandchildren. This would have been a much different experience for him than when he held his own children. He was already retired when the first grandchild was born. The blood had begun to cool from his days of being a police officer, so to speak.

Picture a baby opening her eyes and staring at your face. If this has ever happened to you, you know that there are really no other moments during your life when you are living as fiercely in the moment. When the infant is looking at you, everything else evaporates. As the narrator says, there is nothing more astonishing. You hold the baby and know for a fact that there is nothing you wouldn’t do in that moment for the child. It is mystical. I’d add also that it’s mythical. Love and wonder and the innocence of a child harken back to the great mythology God has imprinted on all our hearts, which is a mystery and that we see now through a glass darkly. Is there any other way to describe it? Children fill us with happiness like no adult can. There is something ineffable there.