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.

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

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

Page 53:

You read the dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man, and I live in a light better than any dream of mine–not waiting for you, though, because I want your dear perishable self to live long and to love this poor perishable world, which I somehow cannot imagine not missing bitterly, even while I do long to see what it will mean to have wife and child restored to me, I mean Louisa and Rebecca. I have wondered about that for many years. Well, this old seed is about to drop into the ground. Then I’ll know.

How many times do we long for heaven but feel the urge to remain here on earth? I don’t mean looking back at civilization as Lot’s wife turning her head and becoming a pillar of salt. The narrator loves this world because of the people he loves. After reading the whole book, I think it would be safe to infer he also loves the beauty in all aspects of God’s creation.

But why did my dad mark this passage? I wish I could ask him. What I wouldn’t give to ask him. Did he feel “fuddled”?  Old age is not something I look forward to. My dad was almost 70 when he passed–that doesn’t seem incredibly old to me. At one time, yes, that would have been ancient. But not now.

It’s safe to assume he wanted his children to live long. Did he want us to love this poor perishable world? I’m racking my brain over how he’d answer that question. I think he’d tell me to be happy–but I can’t imagine him telling be to love the world. He was a cop and D.A. investigator for over thirty years. He knew the bad parts of the world too well to tell me to love it. I guess I’m a little surprised he marked this passage. It’s possible he didn’t agree with that part.

Three pages later he underlined the Scripture reference of Matthew 18:10, which reads:

Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.

On the pages this verse is found the narrator does a beautiful job describing what it’s like to hold a baby. The narrator says, “Many, Many people have found comfort in that verse.” Apparently, my dad did as well.

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

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

The next passage my dad underlined in Gilead is on page 53. I’m going to include most of the paragraph to give you some context. The words he underlined are in boldface.

I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. 

Another beautiful excerpt. The thing I like about these words is the love the character/narrator has for his son. His son is not “pretty” and a little “slight,” but these things don’t matter. They’re just adjectives. They don’t stand up against the wondrous fact that the boy is alive. Physical beauty and whatever the opposite of “slight” is (significant? important? large?) blow away like ash left by the fire of existence.

The film that has captured this beauty best is The Tree of Life. There are a couple of the movie’s posters that show the father looking at the beauty of his son’s feet. I don’t think he’s looking at the feet and thinking, “Those are some pretty feet.” In my opinion, he’s cradling the feet lightly in his hands and wondering at the beauty of life… of the fact that he’s now a father, of the fact that he’s now in charge of this precious son. If you have a son or daughter of your own, I don’t have to tell you.

When I read the passage my dad underlined, I first thought of my own son. Yes, just the fact that he is alive is enough for me to love him with something I cannot describe. The love for both my children makes me value life so much. Fatherly love does make existence out to be “the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

It’s probably not too far of a stretch to assume my father was thinking of his children when he underlined this, and that’s a comforting thought.