by Norman Allen, guest contributor
For my father’s memorial service, my sister suggested that I stand before the congregation and say, “We’d like to share with you exactly what it was like to live with our father. So let’s have a moment of silence.”
It’s not that Dad didn’t speak, it’s that he didn’t speak about the personal. He could rant against George McGovern and lift Richard Nixon up as a god, but remain entirely silent about my sister’s adolescent breakdown. A few years later, he declared my hero Jimmy Carter the “greatest embarrassment the White House has ever seen,” but didn’t say a word about my recent emergence from the closet.
Dad built his life on the foundations of a suburban existence: retirement plans, company loyalty, and a close-knit family that gathered to wave him down the street each morning and waited each night for his return. True to his class and time, he made himself a Manhattan before dinner and smoked incessantly. No one was going to change that.
But behind this rigid façade lay a man tragically eager to please. As kids we could always talk him into a double-scoop cone, if we could just get him away from Mom. As an adult, I learned that this tendency went much deeper.
Dad went to medical school because his parents told him to. Failing that, he accepted their second choice and became a mechanical engineer. In a rare moment of intimacy, on a father-son camping trip to the High Sierra, he confessed that his dream was to be a park ranger. I wonder what his life would have been if he’d had the courage to follow that ambition. Perhaps he would have found his voice leading nature hikes and campfire programs.
Dad never broke the habit of trying to please his parents, but he made sure that we didn’t suffer the same fate. He applauded my high school theatricals and provided financial support for a creative college major. On my weekly calls home, he always made sure that I was writing, though he never inquired about the specifics.
True to his nature, he remained silent and stoic through my mother’s seven-year battle with cancer, and continued so when he was diagnosed himself two years after her death. During Dad’s final months, I bathed him, mopped up his bodily fluids, and listened for changes in his breathing. The only concern he voiced was for the future of his dog, an oversized Sheltie who watches as I write.
It was Dad’s Lutheran pastor who put his silence into context. Older congregants, he said, had expressed a need for guidance as they considered death’s approach. My father provided the model they were seeking. Church members who visited in his final weeks all returned with the same tale: Dad was quiet, uncomplaining, unafraid.
In the end, we didn’t ask for a moment of silence at Dad’s memorial service. Instead I shared a story about Saint Francis sending his brothers out to spread the Gospel and telling them, “If necessary, use words.” When one of Dad’s elderly neighbors caught my eye and smiled her appreciation, I knew we’d made the right choice.
Dad was a quiet man, but he renounced his parents’ prejudices, encouraged his children’s ambitions, overcame his own homophobia to welcome new family members, and remained a steady presence through his wife’s long illness. If St. Francis is right, and our actions speak louder than our words, you might say the man never shut up.
Norman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
I’m not unhappy about becoming old. I’m not unhappy about what must be. It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me and life is emptied. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again. And it’s like a dream life. But, you know, there’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging that I am in love with the world.
And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, they’re beautiful. And you see I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are. It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music.
You know, I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. I really don’t. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it. “Bumble-ardy” was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own and it took a long time. It took a very long time, but it’s genuine. Unless I’m crazy. I could be crazy and you could be talking to a crazy person.
What shall we do about the elderly dying with dementia, losing who they are — how do we help them “die well”?
My mom is at the end stage. She is losing her abilities to speak, to eat. How do I help her? Is it okay to talk about dying with her? I do read to her, I tell her I love her, I see her as often as I can at her long-term care home. But as she declines, I am not sure how to help her “die well.”
I have had a great sense of healing in my time with her in this stage of life, but as I see her becoming less and less connected I am not sure what to do. How can I help her at this stage? Perhaps just being there, holding her hand, reading, I am not sure. How do we address her dying? Is it okay to talk about it? I don’t want her to die without being at peace about it.
by Krista Tippett, host
Recently I spoke to a class of college students — by way of Skype — in southern Minnesota. We talked about how religion is portrayed through news media. As often in my experience, this was a critical discussion about the narrow and often inflammatory way religion comes up, and usually in the context of politics.
I asked them if they felt at all represented in media portrayals, or how they might. One young man in the back of the classroom said, “I don’t think there is any real expression of what it means to be religious now. It’s different.”
He’s right. I think about this all the time. There has been a dramatic break with ways of being spiritual and religious that held, in the West, for many generations.
Before I created this radio show, I spent two years interviewing people across the Christian Church — from Armenian Orthodox to Nazarene Holiness — who had in some way been involved in the ecumenical movement that surged after World War II and through the 1960s. Sitting with them, probing their memories, I relived the absolute shock and thrill of first encounters between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. This felt unprecedented, impossible, and utterly liberating. It’s not just that faith looked new; the whole world looked full of possibility and kinship that had not been there before.
Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being identified not merely by the same denomination but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed in a handful of generations.
Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more choices than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown (as intellectuals since the Enlightenment have predicted they would). They are rediscovering and reinventing it.
I did not realize, before I spoke with Christian Wiman, how provocatively and profoundly he has become a poetic witness and voice for this change. He grew up in a West Texas world soaked in a particular charismatic Christianity. When he left that world behind, its religious core ceased to make sense.
For many people who were never religious or who leave the religion of their childhoods behind, it’s the experience of having children of their own that brings an urgency to the question of what they believe. For Christian Wiman, it was the experience of love — of falling deeply in love with the woman who would become his wife. Because he is a poet, perhaps, he became wonderfully articulate about the power of love to make life more vivid, to make us reach for the best in ourselves, to feel we have touched transcendence and to want to rise to that experience. And then, hard on the heels of that, he was diagnosed with a mysterious blood cancer that could kill him in 30 days or 30 years.
Christian Wiman believes that a whole new religious language is being created. It will include traditional religious insights and language, but will also reach beyond them — or better approximate the animating essence of them. He even imagines “that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.”
From outside faith and within it, Christian Wiman has pondered this question: “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?” You don’t need to be diagnosed with cancer these days to share in that question.
This conversation, "Remembering God," about what he has learned about faith, and how he is living his questions, is rich with humility, challenge, and an infectious courage.Comments