If All Else Fails …

As I sped past the billboard, the words lingered in my mind, and even began to bother me.  “If all else fails, try Jesus.”  The well intended slogan had it all wrong, much like the “God is my co-pilot” bumper sticker.

Seriously?  What kind of friend would you consider me if I only called you when “All else fails?”  Wouldn’t that make me the “vending machine god” where we only go when we want something, or worse yet, when we want something, and all else has failed?

It also dips into the “prosperity gospel,” where the believer, one with “enough faith,” gets good fortune, and answered prayers., but when we don’t see that answer, it’s because of our weak faith.  Or –  “Hey God, I’ a pretty good person, I do good stuff, I don’t cheat on my wife, I don’t tell (big) lies, I gave to the homeless dude this morning.  I even go to church sometimes.  I’ve done my part!  What the hell do you want?  Tit for tat.  Quid pro quo.  I’ve done my part, now give me mine.”

Our parents saw it during the Cuban missile crisis.  Churches were packed, and lines to the confessional wrapped around the block.  We see it during times of crisis.  After 9-11, many returned to religion, or at least begging God, or whatever to come to our aid.  How many of us have gotten on our knees (at least metaphorically) and prayed over the past week for the safe return of two 14 year old boys that are complete strangers?

boys

Me too.  And I prayed for so many reasons.  I’m a father and I know the pain of losing a young son, and another child lost at sea for a week.  I know the agony of a family pulled apart, and a heart broken, and hemorrhaging still.  And I’ve seen so many lose their faith.  I’ve shared stories and tears with other parents, some of whom completely lost their faith after their own darkest day:  “How could a loving God allow …”

I’ve seen the faith of a child lost as the cancer took her aunt despite her pleas to her friend, Jesus.

Millions have reached up and asked for a favor.  Bring these two kids home to their families.

I informed God that this was the time for a contemporary miracle.  Show us a little sign.  How  ’bout a little trick? Jump through my hoop.  “Think of the increase in faith!  Think of those who will come home to you!  It will be all for your greater glory, Jesus!”

miracle

And, because I’m human, and it would all seem pretty logical, I still think all that is true.  But then reality crashes down.  You see, miracles DO happen every day.  But most go unnoticed, or written off as co-incidence, or nature, or lucky enough to have … “a good doctor, or whatever.”  Seldom does anything work for “God’s greater glory,” or increase anyone’s faith.

No, in fact, “faith” is an odd thing.  It has nothing to do with prosperity, or intellect, or merit, or even desire.  Lots of people smarter than me are atheists.  And lots of people smarter than me have strong faith.  (Although I have noticed the majority of physicians and other health professionals have unshakable faiths, probably they see the complexity of life, down at the cellular level, and realize the notion of a random construction of life is absurd.)

Prayer does unite us.  We realize that, although we’re walking this Camino by ourselves, we get much strength and consolation from our brothers and sisters.

Humbling ourselves in genuine prayer also reminds us how powerless we are to control our destiny, and that of our children.

Christians know that Jesus never promised us that we wouldn’t suffer, only that he’d be with us, and from my own experience, even carry us while we do.

Popular singer Matt Maher frames it beautifully, when he writes,

“Lost, everything is lost, and everything I’ve loved before is gone… Where were you when all that I hoped for,  Where were you when all that I’ve dreamed, came crashing down in shambles around me?  …  You were on the cross…”

Not as an excuse as to why He couldn’t help us, but as an image we can contemplate on:

He was in fact, fully human, and knows the fear and agony we feel.

And so we continue to pray for miracles.  And for comfort and consolation of a loving relationship, where we can enjoy life together, sharing our deepest joys and fears, and, sometimes, sit together in grief and loss.

Much of our journey here is a mystery.  Most of it.  But just because we’re not able to understand something fully is no reason to deny the only explanation for the journey in the first place.

We do continue to pray for the impossible.  Every father I know would cry in thanksgiving upon the return of these two boys lost at sea.  And we continue to pray for the consolation of such a faith that allows their families to continue to breathe and get out of bed each morning.  Because that’s going to be difficult for them  Trust me on this.

looking forward

This is the very essence of our Judeo-Christian mindset.  Compassion and encouragement.  As “Church,” we love and support complete strangers.  Because they’re not strangers.  Even on the other side of the world, we are connected, so we send our support and offer our prayers.  No, they’re not strangers at all, and we are our brother’s keeper.  We are often the only Jesus someone will ever meet.

We can’t explain these things to someone who doesn’t get it, but our lack of an explanation doesn’t make that connection any less real.

Much love.

kneeling_head_down

Cecil

And predictably, there’s now some push-back from some hunting and even some conservation groups to (mildly) support Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minnesota who killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.  They wonder if the “outrage” of America’s now most hated man (big sigh this week from Bill Cosby) is really warranted.

The dentist who reportedly killed Cecil the lion is getting absolutely destroyed on Yelp

Well here’s the deal.  The outrage is that the current evidence shows pretty clearly that he was aware that the animal was baited off the protected reserve. In my book, this ranks right up there with feeding corn to deer during entire off season to pick them off the first day of the season. I’m not a hunter-hater; I’ve spent countless hours in a dear blind, a duck boat, and walking the cornfields for quail, pheasant, and dove. I’ve even mounted some pheasant and fish, not because of the testosterone involved, but rather, as an animal lover, as a reminder of the beauty of creation. Please know also, I’ve only taken fish or game that I could eat, or released them.

It’s been a decade since I’ve pulled the trigger, and after having been in the healing arts for three decades, I have no desire to do so again. I also realize that hunter’s organisations like Ducks Unlimited, and hunting licenses pumps millions each year into wildlife management, conservation efforts and pays salaries of those that enforce the laws. To some degree I would even hold my nose and support legal safari hunts for the same reason. These are not gentle giants, nor are they sweet and cuddly, regardless of the stuffed animals on our beds, and the Disney movies we watch with our children. But again, this clearly crosses many lines.

This photo shows Walter Palmer with a leopard he killed in Zimbabwe with a bow and arrow. Photo: Blogspot.

This dude has evidently crossed some lines in his hunting past. Justified or not, the forces of hell have been unleashed upon him, and he faces the wrath of a public that doesn’t support any form of hunting. He’s screwed. At some point when we make decisions to do things that are “legal,” we must look closely and see if they are ethical and conscionable. This was probably not.

The saddest commentary is that this kind of outrage wasn’t voiced against Kermit Gosnell.

Shouting at an Empty Chair, Father’s day 2015

Tyrone presented the family’s new puppy in for his first exam yesterday, and brought along his son, “To meet me.”  I was taken back by this comment, and quickly replied that I was so glad that he had, and then I said something about how I was sure he was glad school was out for the summer.  I asked if they had plans for the summer, and Andrew, reaching his hand out for me to shake it, said, “Yes sir, I’m working as a camp counselor at Wadeview Park.”

“Really?” I said, “That’s fantastic.  What a great summer job!  What kind of a counselor? Will you be teaching, like arts and crafts, or more like a coach, supervising athletics?”

Andrew, who looked to be about 15, respectfully looked me directly in the eye, and said he’d be willing to do whatever they needed, working with the underprivileged kids there. I looked over at his dad, and I said, “Good job, what a great person you’ve raised.”

Tyrone agreed, “He is a really good kid,” but shook his head, claiming none of the credit.  But I knew better.  If nothing else, he had been present for the boy, and done his best to be a really good man.

What makes some fathers step up and be “Dad,” and others walk away or stay around, but not really be “present,” is such an important question.  What, in fact, is a “good father?”

bodrahn

Do you have to be perfect, never letting your shield down to reveal your human-ness?  Should you lay down the law, and be the disciplinarian (because you used to be so wild and get into so much trouble).  Or should you strive to be their best friend, letting them drink beer and smoke weed, high five-ing over last night’s “conquest,” and providing the latest and greatest toys?

I’ve seen both extremes.  I’ve been both extremes.  OK, not really so much the last one, although at some level, I really wish I could have been “closer” as a friend to all five of my kids.  But we don’t get any do-overs.  A priest at Whitehouse retreat in St. Louis once told me:

We are (and more specifically, that I am) much too hard on ourselves.  “The world only has one Messiah, and you (thankfully and most assuredly) are not Him.  You are not perfect.  You are the way God made you – imperfect, but with the heartfelt longing to be as good as you can.  And that’s good. But you can’t go back and do things differently, with all your new-found wisdom.  Didn’t you always act out of love?  Didn’t you always do what you thought was the best at that time?”

“Yeah, but…”

Yeah but nothing.  By continuing to add that qualifier, Yeah, but…, you deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer, the one who makes all things new again.  We must strive to accept Him as our redeemer, and allow ourselves to be human.  You are how you are, and its so much better to accept that.  We are called to always strive to be better, even perfect, and we must try, day after day.  But we’ll never be perfect.  Not on this Earth.

You are made of blood and bones, breath and vapor.  You are the product of the genetics He orchestrated, and that imperfect nurturing from your parents, or lack of them.  Let Jesus carry the cross, you have plenty of other things to do.  As the song goes, “He is God, and you are not.”

A lifetime ago, I was doing everything I could possibly do to save my first marriage.  So in our first session with the marriage counselor, I proudly puffed out my chest and said I’d do anything to save the marriage, that divorce absolutely, positively was not an option.  Less than two months later, he was just as positive that it was the only option.  But we should continue on, to counsel with him, so we could be “better,” and so that we’d not keep “making the same mistakes” (presumably in our next attempts at a relationship).

And so, right out of his Gestalt theory textbook, the family therapist (sic) had me pacing around the psychologist’s office, shouting at my father, “seated” in the empty chair “What I really felt! What I needed so badly to tell him!”  When I couldn’t come up with enough garbage to dump on him, I was goaded and prodded, “Tell him about all those little league games, band concerts, award presentations, and wrestling matches! Tell him he should have been there!”  I continued to pace in silence.  “But shouldn’t I be shouting at his father?”

He looked at me like a deer in the headlights, “You’re enabling him, you’re giving him excuses, he wasn’t present!”

“Can’t I just forgive him?”

Fritz and Laura Perls' Gestalt Theory

Fritz and Laura Perls’ Gestalt Theory

“This will help you do that, you’ve got to put the blame on him!”

“But it’s not his fault.  I think he did the best he could do.”

I don’t think I went back to Dr. Tony after that session.

And so this father’s day I had much to reflect on.  And even more to let go of.  If I can let the old man off the hook, shouldn’t I do the same for myself?  It was a chair I’d sit in too soon myself.

Cullen's Empty Chair

Florida State University graduation, 2012

There are consequences to sins, and since we are social creatures, such consequences often impact others, including within the family and subsequent generations.  I think this is called Generational Sin.  The concept, I’d suppose originated with the “original Adam,” whose act of rebellion and disobedience resulted in our sinful nature, not coincidentally coined “original sin.”

Regardless of whether or not you buy into the whole Christian creation story, it’s a striking allegory.  Clearly, something happened along the lines of (I’d maintain, “designed”) human evolution and development where we as a species developed a sinful nature.  As a reasonably intelligent science based professional, I know of no other “creation” with the the willingness, or even the ability to choose to do evil.  And somewhere, somehow, we made the first act of defiance; Our greatest gift became our greatest curse.  Free will spawned original sin.

But God does not hold children, or present generations, morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. This is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture when the Israelites were blaming their troubles on the sins of their forefathers (see Jer 23:5-6, and Ez, 18:1-4).

Indeed, we need to look into our own hearts and repent so that we can find (and give) our own forgiveness and healing. God is surely not so unjust as to force children to “pay” in justice for the sins of others.

On the other hand, it is also true to say that the sins of our ancestors — right back to those “first parents,” do affect our lives today and leave us inheriting some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. With each passing day and event, I’m more convinced that we are connected by that “red thread,” or what ever you would call Providence, so that we can and do suffer both spiritually and bodily from the sins of others. We may think this unfair, but remember that the interdependence of the human race is also the source of most of our highest blessings, for example, the solidarity and intimacy of family life and the communion of love with all of us as brothers and sisters.

To make such supreme blessings possible to creatures with free will like us, our creator also had to permit us to misuse that freedom and interdependence, with all its tragic results.

This “interdependence” of the human race also means that the sins of ancestors and parents can affect us in other, more subtle ways. For example, some destructive conditions (such as alcoholism, depression, and hair-trigger tempers) can be passed down to us by genetic inheritance.

Moreover, the problems of our immediate parents and grandparents can be passed down to us in other ways, too.  If they set a bad moral examples for us as, sadly, people tend to do from generation to generation, or if they abused us or failed to give us the love we needed when we are growing up. In such instances, we can become “saddled” with emotional and developmental scars.

For instance, if we weren’t given the love we needed as children, we may spend our lives struggling to learn how to love others and ourselves. This does not make them fully “responsible” for our sins and all our problems today, of course, and we have the responsibility to take action to find healing for these generational wounds ourselves.

Furthermore, in a concept known as transference, we tend to see God the father much as we have had that model of fatherhood displayed by our own father.  If our’s was not forgiving, compassionate, and capable of unconditional love, it is extremely difficult to understand that our heavenly Father could behave in ways like this.  And how could we believe selflessness and unconditional love even exist, if we reject that Jesus came to show us that very thing?  St. Paul says Jesus brought this undeserved grace to the world as the “second Adam.” (Romans 5:12-21).

We did nothing prior to our conception to warrant or deserve original sin.  Likewise, Christians believe we do nothing to “deserve” this Grace that Jesus brings.  But we must accept it, we must open the door He’s been pounding on.  We must forgive, and accept His forgiveness, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus the Christ came and suffered to show us how to love, what unconditional, undeserved love is.  When people fail to fully receive that gift from Him, through repentance and faith — i.e., if their contrition for sin and love for God was “half-hearted” in this life — then they remain in partial debt to God (still owing for, in theological jargon, “the temporal aspect of sin”).

Jersus at door 3

In His parable of the prodigal son, Jesus used the image of a family to teach us God’s love.  The “younger son” could not wait – and in demanding his inheritance, he effectively wished for a dead father, or at a minimum, felt that he was “dead to him.”  The only way for the father to allow his son to really learn to love was to allow him that free choice.  We all know how it ends, with the father’s unconditional love allowing the prodigal to return, but we often miss two points.

Is the father angry only grudgingly allowing this man to return?  No! In fact, from what Jesus describes, this father daily peers into the horizon, hoping to get a glimpse of his returning son! After all, he still loves his son!  In tears, he runs to welcome him home!

Although we play both of these character roles during our respective lives, it’s a harder concept for us to accept that more often than not we’re the other son, the good child.  Too many times, I shout up at Him, “You’re not being fair! I do what you ask of me.  I go to church.  I believe in you. I play by the rules!  And yet you allow this to happen to me? Yet I look around at other “prodigals” (from outward appearances) who have so much success and happiness.  Ouch.  The mirror is seldom a pain-free zone.

I was blessed to have a wonderful father. He was not perfect. He had his many faults. He didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did, I was sad and sometimes afraid and, now looking back, very disappointed, because I wanted our home to be “perfect.” Of course, it couldn’t be. But I knew absolutely, without a doubt, that my father loved me, and that he loved my children, and we were all blessed that he could show my oldest three just how much he loved them.

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

What is your story? Many of you have the vocation of fatherhood. Do unresolved issues with your own father or mother hinder your acceptance of God’s unconditional love? Do they cause you to have a negative relationship with your children? Do not let these keep you from experiencing the Father’s ever-faithful love.

Perhaps some among us desire to reconcile with our earthly father. We will need God’s grace either to ask our father to forgive us or to tell him that he is forgiven. If our fathers are already deceased, we can still do this, with or without the empty chair.

The prodigal son believes that his father will take him back, even if just as a lowly hired hand. Jesus paints a brighter picture: The father loves so much that he puts a ring on the son’s finger and kills the fatted calf.

We must believe that Our Father in heaven will do the same for us if only we go back to Our Loving Father. Pope Francis keeps reminding us: “God never tires of forgiving; we are the ones who tire of seeking His mercy” (cf. “Joy of the Gospel,” No.3).

The elder brother stands in the shadows with resentment and judgment, perpetuating his own cycle. But Michelangelo paints it so very clearly: We see how the cycle is broken: The prodigal son is on his knees, asking for forgiveness. We break the cycle on our knees.

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michaelangelo

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michelangelo

After all, we cannot help our sons become the men they need to be until we allow ourselves to return to the Father. We cannot help our daughters become the women they need to be until we enter into the kind of relationship which Jesus invites us to experience. Husbands here today cannot be the husbands they need to be if they are not coming before the Father like the prodigal son.

kneeling_head_down

Missing Our Parents, Helping the Hurting

Fifty years prior, his WWII daily K-Rations had included just enough unfiltered Camel cigarettes to start a life-ending habit that would eventually rob us of our newly sober father.

None of his children were with my father when he died.  Earlier that same day, Mom had assured me that, although he was in an oxygen tent and probably wouldn’t come home from the hospital, death wasn’t imminent.  .  I should start looking at plane tickets and adjust my schedule accordingly for probably the next week.

I was in surgery just a few hours later when the call came; my back slid along the wall and I wilted to the floor as the news was relayed to me.

I vowed to drop what I was doing if I ever received such foreboding news about Mom.  And I was with her, but only because I took seriously the news that she had stomach pains and was in the hospital for observation.

I tried not to let her see my gasp of horror when I entered the room and saw her in that hospital bed.  Who was this old person, with her hair flattened and unkempt, looking so feeble and weak?  This face glowed and smiled as she looked up to see who was clenching her hand and leaning down to kiss her.

Only then did it really hit me, and I was absolutely terrified.  My beautiful mother was, for the first time, very mortal.  Until that moment, when I thought of her, she was 48.  I have no idea why that age, but I remember her being that age, and regardless of how many decades passed; that was the image I conjured up in my mind when I thought of her, spoke with her on the phone, or saw her handwriting.

Maureen Blanton Klein

At about age 48, this is the way Mom will forever live in my memory. Maureen Blanton Klein

That day is mainly a blur.  A surreal experience where nothing made sense.  A Chagall or Dali painting where something, or everything, was out of place.  I had spoken to my mother the day before.  She was 83, but the picture of health: vivacious, bubbly, energetic, the quintessential do-gooder volunteer.

She was supposed to live for another 20 years; in fact had I built an extra ground-floor bedroom with a walk-in shower for her to finally retire to, when she decided to join us in Florida!

Mom had hosted a dinner party that night in her home, cooking and serving to 10 of her close friends.  When everyone was leaving, she remarked that she had a bit of a stomach ache and so didn’t want anyone to stay to help clean up, she’d just do it in the morning, because she felt like she wanted to go to bed.  She had not been sick a day before this.

Who was this person in this hospital bed, writhing in abdominal pain?  As the sole medical professional in the family, I would take upon myself responsibility for her proper treatment, “Where is her medical record? What have you found, and what tests have you performed?”  The staff smiled at me sympathetically, and condescendingly assured me that everything possible was being done.  I would certainly be allowed to look at the medical chart, if the doctor approved it.

The problem was that there was no doctor.  Her primary care physician sent her here in the middle of the night.  The admitting doctor then turned over her care to the “hospitalist,” what-ever the hell kind of doctor that is.  I certainly wasn’t impressed with him, or the system at St Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, where Mom had been taken.  I’d now been there for over 6 hours and no doctor had even walked in the room to examine her.  I was “assured” that he had been by once and “saw” her, and was well aware of what was going on, because he had been on the phone with the nursing staff several times over the course of the day.  Finally, after my constant harassment, the nurse winked and told me he had consented to my looking at the chart, and that she’d be glad to “explain things to me.”

As we walked to the head nurse’s station she asked me a question that will forever haunt me, “You must take comfort that your mother is at least resting comfortably now, has this been an extended illness?”  When I told her, “NO! She hosted a dinner party just 9 hours ago, and hasn’t been sick at all,” she turned quickly towards me, and almost shouted, “REALLY?”

The medical record was astonishing.  The complete and total lack of any semblance of a medical workup was puzzling.  I remarked outloud, “She presented for stomach cramps and nausea, where are the blood profile results?  Why have a CT, or even a simple radiograph (X-Ray) not been taken?  The incredulous look from the nurse also haunts me. “Because, Mr. Klein,” the nurse now speaking matter-of-factly, she has a DNR request on her chart and on her wrist band.”

“Nurse, actually, I’m Doctor Klein, and I demand that you call the physician immediately.  DNR means (or so I naively thought) ‘Do Not Resuscitate,’ NOTDO NOT TRY!

“How can you possibly make a decision regarding whether or not to treat something, if you don’t even make a minimal attempt to diagnose?” I pleaded on the phone with “the hospitalist” (again, whatever the hell that is).  His condescending words also continue to haunt me, “Well what would you like me to do, doctor?”

I’ll leave this alone for now.  DNR is a blog posting all by itself.

Although Mom didn’t hang on for all of her children to kiss her goodbye, she did get to hear their voices on the phone.  She was fading in and out of our presence, and so we called two others, who were rushing to be with her.  Tears dripped from our eyes and off of our cheeks as this seemingly unconscious vessel opened her eyes and smiled when she heard their voices.  Her limp hand clenched mine firmly as my siblings told her how much they love her, and – goodbye.

I never got the time to grieve into closure.  I had lots of “moments,” holding my wife and children, as we wept together.  But mainly there was rage at this poor excuse for a hospital, and my own guilt.  Lots of guilt (probably more of that Catholic thing that seems to be a theme in my life), because I was the only one there with the medical knowledge to understand what was happening, and what was not happening.  And yet I did not stomp my feet, make a scene, and scream at the top of my lungs until a real doctor showed up.  (Clearly I realize a hospitalist is a licensed physician, my point being the system in this hospital, perhaps the entire state, is dysfunctional and absurd).

And then the unthinkable happened.  Much like a woman who later gets cancer in a second breast, a man who survives chemo only to die in an accident, or an amputee to later discover metastases.

The Christian band Casting Crowns seemed to feel our pain in Praise You in this Storm,

I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining

and Natalie Grant also knows a continued hurt with Our Hope Endures

You would think only so much can go wrong
Calamity only strikes once
And you assume this one has suffered her share
Life will be kinder from here
Oh, but sometimes the sun stays hidden for years
Sometimes the sky rains night after night
When will it clear?

Just a few months later, in the middle of the night, we received the second call. Our beautiful, wonderful Cullen had been in an accident.

Clearly, there are some things we just aren’t supposed to understand.  I don’t understand.

As unfair as it seems at the time, life does go on, and others are allowed to continue on “as if nothing happened.”  We live our own lives, we walk our own Camino, even when we travel with others.

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom and Cullen

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom with Cullen

William Cullen Klein and Sharon Tidd Klein

Cullen and Sharon

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Lewis Klein

Our beautiful mother in 2007, on my wedding day

I wrote this post last year, but could never bring myself to hit the “publish” button.  It just didn’t feel right yet.  Things were too raw.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings, or the unthinkable loss of a child know all too well these emotions.

Recently, I participated in training seminars focusing on end of life, grief and bereavement, and some concepts regarding how best to support those “left behind.”  The only thing that seems to consistently help is our “being present” when others are suffering from loss.  There are no correct words that always apply; in fact most of the cliche’s that are said are absurd and (however well-meaning) actually deepen the hurt.  But at least these people tried.  So many people pull back from those they care about, because they don’t have something profound or healing to say.  And so they say nothing.  They disappear.  They do nothing.  And that is the most hurtful of all.

Some of who I considered my closest friends haven’t spoken to me since my son’s accident.  And yet two acquaintances, whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades, reached out to me after Cullen’s accident, because they too had lost a child.  Their kindness will never be forgotten.

Being present means you know they are hurting.  Since they are loved and special to us, we hurt with them.  Just sitting together, hugging, and crying.  You are let in not because of who you are, but because who you are is formed by your history with the hurting, and your personal knowledge of loss.  Empathy.  It’s not something you read about, or something you do.  It’s who you are.

Its the age old question.  Its that which shakes our faith to its very core.  Why must we hurt?  Why does tragedy happen to good people?  Hurt is the price we pay for our love.  We truly wouldn’t know light without darkness for comparison.  Warmth without the chill of loneliness.  Compassion without our own hurt.

Rather, embrace your pain.  For this pain exists precisely because you feel.  You have not loved and lost, you have gained so much because you have loved, and have been loved.  To feel is a chance to live, and a chance to love.

Reach out to those whom you love, especially when they are hurting. And not just when they’re hurting, and not just to those you love.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one.”

Camino to Morocco, Chapter 1

Having only packed two pair of trousers for my two week trip to Morocco, I was less than thrilled, but the Irish stewardess clearly was, as she doubled over in laughter.  This was contagious and instantly about six rows were all in stitches as I stood to reveal my purple crotch, drenched with Virgin Airline’s finest vintage, and now running down both legs.  “Laugh it up, Ginger!” I encouraged her, who was still giggling uncontrollably, “I know, I know, it’s all good craic!”  Katie informed us all that she would promptly wet her pants if she didn’t stop laughing, and the other attendant agreed, as if this was very normal and typical.

This is just a teaser.  If you (for some reason) want to follow this year’s “Camino to Morocco,” please go to my other blog: click here, and don’t forget to click the “follow” button, over there, as well as “like,” and leave your comments and suggestions!

If you want to scroll down, you’ll see, in reverse chronological order, last years Camino to the shrine at Lourdes, and, several pages down, 2013’s infamous Camino de Santiago.

Camino to Morocco, Chapter 27

May 17th, My Darkest Day

Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, blaming the heat and loud Arabic chatting from the adjacent room. But the real reason was clear. My plan to go to Chefchaouen tomorrow was absurd, and only an excuse. So many people had told me how beautiful and quaint this little village was, almost like in Switzerland, and I just “had to go there.”  But this wasn’t why I was here. I wasn’t a tourist, on holiday. I was, like Dr. Tom in “The Way,” here, on “family business.” I hope to someday return for those reasons, but it will be with my wife, and certainly not on May 17th.

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What I needed to do was to back to ALIF (the Arabic Language Institute in Fes) again to talk to Cullen’s Professor. We had met, earlier in the week, but not really talked.

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I needed to sit in Cullen’s chair in room 100 again and see “his” classroom.

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I needed to sit in the courtyard and drink coffee and eat almond cake. I needed to wander around the university library and gaze in amazement.

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I needed to eat a camel-burger and drink a chocolate shake at the Clock Cafe. I needed to drink mint tea at the corner table in the cafe with pool tables. I came here to see the world through Cullen’s eyes. One last time, for him, with him.

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But I didn’t want to. It would mean saying goodbye, it would mean that I was checking these things off, and throwing my clump of dirt onto the casket. I didn’t want to, but I needed to.

I jumped out of bed, and swung open the door to again tell Allal that there had again been a change in itinerary. We are NOT going to Chefchaouen tomorrow.

And so we did all those things, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

On the last stop of the day, Allal had run across the street to digitally capture the moment. I sat at the cafe sipping mint tea, and he shouted to make the peace sign, because he knew our Cullen always did this in pictures.
And now, the end of the day, for some reason, and it was always unpredictable, I melted.

Allal pleaded with me not to cry. Today was the first time this year’s journey had immersed me here. I’d been in Morocco over a week, but this was the first time I would visit that place inside where I had such little control. After almost three years, I was, for the most part, in a really good place. But sometimes, and it was hard to predict the catalyst, the emotions would let loose. I had spent the day vicariously as my son, seeing these things with the same blue eyes we had gotten from my father. We tasted the same mint in every cup of tea, and overwhelming cumin and other spices in the food that was so different from what we had both eaten at the same table. We were drenched with same sweat, and burned with the same sand. We were feeling the same cultural amazement, and now had heard the same professor in the same room.

“Please, Mr. William, please don’t be so sad. Please don’t be always crying and sad!” This actually caught me a little off guard, because I wasn’t “always” crying, and certainly didn’t think I had been acting sadly. These moments were now few and far between. And even now, I wasn’t blubbering and wailing like I used to do. It was just a few tears running down my cheek, and probably wouldn’t even have been noticed under my sunglasses if I hadn’t started wiping them away.

“Cullen is with Allah, and it’s a beautiful thing, a wonderful place!” I’d had quite a few conversations about religion in the El Harrami household, and it was touching that he now felt comfortable saying such things in an attempt to console me.  “He is at salam, (peace).”

One of those conversations with Allal included his sister-in-law Nisrine, who knew well the observance of Islamic law. And not just the ritual observance, this family seemed to have dug pretty deeply, and knew in their heart that their’s was the true religion. So, I’m not so sure they were thrilled with the place I was willing to exit our hour’s-long conversation. If I was such a truth seeker, why would I be content with my “false religion?”

I suppose “turnabout is fair play.” Being reasonably well versed in Catholic apologetics, I was used to responding to concerns from Protestants dispelling misconceptions about the RC tradition. At the end of the day, we Christians really do agree on much more than we disagree on, and certainly the most important tenants.

In fact, my then evangelical wife Sharon and I had had this very conversation on our first date. She was incredulous that I thought my faith tradition was right and others’ were wrong. Not that it’s a perfect church, precisely because I (and other humans like me) are part of it; rather I hold that She’s been guided by the Holy Spirit through apostolic succession for 2000 years. If I didn’t believe my faith was the “true” one, I’d most certainly be somewhere else.

Anyway, so here I am, a guest in a home who thinks any reasonable person who takes the time to learn about the prophet and his writings, couldn’t possibly come to any other conclusion. In their minds, they were as “right” as I am. The fact that I have all sorts of rebuttals for Christianity, and “gotcha” questions for my Muslim family was irrelevant. Perhaps we were both, in our hearts, as good, as faithful, and as loving, as we were called to be. Perhaps our very same God had revealed Himself differently to different cultures, in a way most appropriate to them, and their customs, and traditions.

I sat silently there with Allal for a few moments, for a few reasons.

I did need to recompose, but I also rather enjoyed hearing my new friend, who had never even met my son, be so confident that he was in paradise with Allah.  The phrase Muslims almost always use to greet includes, “Salam,” which means “Peace,” or “God’s Peace.”  This struck me a bit, since Cullen often lifted his hand with the peace sign in photos.

Allal looked directly into my eyes as I lifted my sunglasses to wipe them again, “I know this, my brother, because he is your son. He must be so much like you. You are so loving and such a good person, my brother.” This was a bit much for me also, so I lowered my glasses again, took a final sip of mint tea, and said, “OK, let’s go.”

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And so I had done what I had intended to do. Cullen had had quite a “reversion,” a return to his baptized faith tradition when he had been here in Morocco. He had returned with a faith I was am in awe of.

And now I felt it too. He’d told me that every movement of every day he had felt proselytized, even assaulted in faith by so many here. I certainly hadn’t felt that way, but it was easy to see how a 18 year old could feel this way. And you had to be awe-struck, and even admire, their faith. Five times each day we would hear the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. For some reason (I’ll address later), I wasn’t allowed to (visibly) be present to view worship in a mosque, but I found this most interesting, even compelling.

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It’s been called the most beautiful sound in the world, when the muezzin calls to prayer. I would differ in my preference, but I kind of get it. To be so focused on God, and doing what you feel is your reason for being here is a beautiful thing. it’s not all about me, it’s about why I’m here.

I saw so many things during “this year’s Camino.” This has been a culture shock x 10. On any of several occasions I saw things that would have made my son return from this place so changed, so deep, so much better than me.

I am thankful for so many things, and so many people – and you all know who you are. This has been quite a ride, and I am definitely better for it. Much love.

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I realize this is kind of a sad post, and i apologize for that. Lots of good, happy, and funny posts still to come. May 17 will likely always be like this. Sorry.

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“As-salamu alaykum”

Everybody Remembers a Mike

I think Dewey and Vaudean Gimlin used to see me for what I was back then – Eddie Haskell, Wally Cleaver’s best friend on Leave it to Beaver.  And although this was pretty correct, their son Mike and I used to feed off of each other.  This is why we were best friends for about a fourth of my life.

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Every time Mike got into trouble, Dewey pretty much blamed me.  My long hair was probably why Dewey saw to it that Mike’s was never more than about a half inch – he was too curly to allow a military “flat top,” but this was the general idea.

Although I went to St Francis Xavier and he went to public elementary school, weekends and all summer long found us together.  He was classmates with Paul Ensor and the three of us would always be together in some combination, typically together, and inseparable.

These were the days a mom could drop her 10 year old at the pool, and not see him again until dinner-time, and she’d still be a “good mom.”  Back when we’d get up before daybreak on Saturday and fly off on our stingray bikes with fishing poles and spend the entire day at the ditch (crick for some of you), and come back with a “mess-o’-catfish” or empty handed, and burnt and exhausted, and fulfilled with what growing up in Sikeston, Missourah meant.

I remember one Saturday morning, knocking on the aluminum storm door.  Normally it would be unlocked, and I’d peck on the front door, if it was even closed, and I’d hear the official welcome, “Come on in Billy!”  But today, Mr. Dewey opened the front door, and spoke to me through the glass.  His voice was stern, but that’s just how he was sometimes, especially if he was scolding Mike for participating in some of our shenanigans.

“Bill, Mike’s pretty sick, and won’t be able to ‘come out to play,’ today.”  I assumed it must be contagious, because they normally asked me in.

“Oh, yes sir, uhm, ok, well.. Mr. Gimlin, please tell him to get better quick, my sister’s having a party this afternoon, and we’re gonna spy on them!” (Eddie Haskell indeed)  “Sure, Bill, I’ll tell him.”

No big deal, we’d catch up later.  Off I zipped a few blocks away to my classmate and other best friend Bob Leible’s house. We probably watched Johnny Quest and ate Alpha Bits and then played catch or whatever.  Mr. Dewey or Miss Vaudean must have called Mom to let her know what was going on, because that evening, when I finally got home, she sat me down and told me that Mike was pretty sick, and not to go back over there until they called back to say it was OK.   “But Mike’s going to be OK.”  She was emphatic.  I remember the emphasis, but I knew that already.  “Of course Mike was going to be OK.”

Pretty sick to me meant the flu, or strep throat, or ‘chicken pops,’ or even a really bad sunburn.  I had little concept of “pretty sick,” and certainly no concept of what pretty sick might lead to.  My Grandpa and Grandma, and Papu and Mamu were all still alive.  Mamu represented what really sick meant.  She lived upstairs in her house in a steel bed, and whenever I was brought along to visit, she’d mumble my name repeatedly and nonsensically the entire time I was there.

I take that back.  I did have a concept of death, but only from a far distance.  When I was probably only 12 or 13, one of the kids on my street just disappeared.  She just stopped playing with other kids and me.  I remember her house, and that she was really sweet and nice, and very cute, and in band with all of us.  Before anyone really knew she was gone, we were told that our little friend Kim Inman had died from something called Reye’s Syndrome.  None of us went to her funeral; I guess you’re just supposed to shelter kids from depressing stuff like that.

Anyway, Mike had been gone about a month before I was told that he was in the hospital in Memphis at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital with a thing called Hodgkin’s Disease.  “Whew! At least he didn’t have Reye’s Syndrome!”

As it turns out, Hodgkin’s disease is a form of Leukemia. And today, it’s a form that can generally be put into remission.  Back then, the odds weren’t quite so good, so they basically threw the chemotherapy kitchen sink at them.  Afterwards he had radiation, which meant that even after he got home, it was weeks before I could see my best bud again.

Flash forward 40 years.  Now we had buried all four of our grandparents, I’d said goodbye to Dad in 1998, and then held Mom’s hand as she passed just a few months ago.  Death and mortality were often on my mind, and I was grappling with existential issues.  One of my remaining close Sikeston connections, Dr. Sam, called me to let me know that my dear old friend Mike was in the hospital, and probably would not come home.  He thought I should know.

And so I went home one last time.  Not counting Mom’s funeral, it had been over ten years since I’d been here.  Would Sikeston always be home?  And it had been 30 years since I had seen Mike, except a few minutes at the one reunion.  Why would I drop what I was doing, cancel my full appointment book to see someone I didn’t really even know anymore?  Why would I care?

We all have “Mike’s” in our histories.  And when we peel back layer after layer of the onion, we discover that person impacting our lives in ways, over the years, that we’d never really considered.

A cruel word by a classmate, an ass-kicking by a bully, or judgement from a parent or the pulpit seems to linger in our subconscious for decades, We remind ourselves how ridiculous this is looking back, but the effect is profound regardless. That’s why shrinks have patients shout at empty chairs, and say things previously left unsaid, but apparently helpful to finally get out.

Likewise, good experiences and loving words affect us as well.  I don’t think this gets nearly enough attention.  Mike was a good friend, and a wonderful person.  We went different directions at college time, and we fell into vastly different crowds. Years later, Mike shared some tears and heartfelt regret over some of the things that happened during those years.  I would grovel for not including him as a groomsman when I got married.  I hadn’t seen him in years, and I honestly forgot about him.  When we open up and share honestly, it seems to encourage others to come clean also.  He had lots of regrets.

I have plenty too.

But, “back in the day,” Mike and I had so much fun, and so many good times.  We told each other everything.  My first steady girlfriend was his girlfriend’s best friend.  (I later tried to date his wife’s sister Dolly, but he thought it was a terrible idea, because she was a “good girl,” and I was a dog).  We played tennis and worked out together.  We were in band together (with Paul and Kim and many of my friends).  We partied together, SEMO style, and navigated together to all the “farm parties,” in some random barn, or “back 40.”  I vividly remember listening to Willie Nelson, The Marshall Tucker Band, Bob Seger, and Rush, as we drove down the blacktop country roads in my Cutlass T-Top.  One time we got lost, and stopped in the middle of the road, with 10 foot corn on both sides, when a giant irrigation rig rolled out and dumped about a hundred gallons of water into the open car, completely drenching us, and filling my floorboards.

And then there was the time I was riding shotgun in Mike’s beloved, yellow Mustang Fastback as he drove us one Summer afternoon to the movie theater.  We were laughing so hard that he wasn’t paying attention, and ran that stop-sign.  I saw the sign, and the oncoming car from the side street.  Screaming “Mike!” I loosened my seat-belt and jumped into his lap. The impact destroyed the entire passenger side, and it’s door rested against the center console.  Although I look back and chuckle about it, Mike never could.  He had put his best friend in danger.  And he loved that car.  No really, he loved that car.

I suppose this is all part of the “human condition.’  So much of who we are, what we become is from our histories with those in our life at the time.  I am thankful that I knew Mike, and that he was my friend.

Why do we find ourselves “close” with certain people anyway?  How do we, just instinctively become brothers with a few of them, but just acquaintances with others?  Is it God’s providence, or just the way things just turned out?  I don’t know.

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Today is Mike Gimlin’s birthday, and I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately.

What I do know is that I’m so glad I got that call before Mike died.  We held hands and laughed until we cried about the old times. So many things I can’t share here, but suffice it to say, we lived lots of our young lives together.  I apologized again for not asking him to be in my wedding.  I felt guilty that all of my old friends had embraced him, but I wasn’t around.  Paul, Andy, Chuck, everyone but me.  I was so happy that at least they had been there.  As he dosed off, I looked at the medical record sitting on the counter.  The chemotherapy and radiation from decades ago had damaged his kidneys, and everything else was now also shutting down.  He opened his eyes again and just started talking again, as if we hadn’t paused the conversation for 10 minutes.  Mike turned his head and asked what I had brought in, probably hoping it was brownies or something.  “It’s my bible, Mike.  Would you like me to read to you?”

“Yes,” he whispered, “Yes, I would.”

I turned to what I had previously selected, the story of David slaying the giant Goliath.  And that “All things are possible through Christ, who strengthens me.”  And there I was, holding my friend’s hand, reading scripture to him, when Mike’s wife Denise, and her “good” sister Dolly walked in.  Not really sure why I think that’s funny, but I do.

I hugged Mike, as he lay there, knowing this was his deathbed.  As I turned back to wave from the doorway, I turned to see tears streaming down his cheeks.  I went back for a final embrace.  “Thanks for such good memories.  I will see you again, good friend.”

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Look back over time.  How many “Mike’s” have changed you?  They were there to laugh with for many good times, and to lean on through some bad ones.  We’re quick to blame our rotten-ness on rotten people who we’ve chosen to let darken us.  Perhaps its time to remember the good people in our formation.  Thank them for being such a good person when you needed one.  They’re the standard we compare the others to.  Call someone today that you haven’t thought about for years, and thank them for good memories.  If they’re gone, thank them when you pray.  I’ll bet they appreciate it, either way.  Much Love.