The Optimal Angle

I’m sitting across from my husband in our living room – it’s 9:28 as I begin this – and he has just finished making minute adjustments to his position in his recliner for the PERFECT “Time Magazine” reading angle. His relatively calm body tells me that he’s finally found it. That’s kind of how I feel at the moment. I spent a good portion of this day in that recliner watching “Supernatural” on his computer while I did some work on my own. Yes, it was a geeky and very technological day. But I did succeed in getting my semblance of a portfolio up on flickr and I feel really proud of myself.

I got the bug to put this together this weekend in the midst of a lot of internal and external chaos. I know you are thinking that it doesn’t take much for me to call it chaos and you are right. I have a low threshold. But I think some of it is bona fide: my grandfather is dying, is one thing. Sometimes my family feels like a complete mess, is another. And I am still blundering my way through my role in it all, is the biggest. After having cleaned my parents’ house and several phone calls and personal conversations about paint colors and choices with my dad I ended up not stepping one foot inside the old house to paint this weekend. He called on Thursday night to tell me that Grandpa’s heart was beating only 47 times per minute and functioning at only 30%. I can attest that Grandpa has little motor function and little will to carry on conversation. His shoulders are bony and if it weren’t for his rosacea and protruding abdomen  he would look the way he’s never looked in all the time I’ve known him: frail. The four of us “kids” stayed to spend more time with him and I found myself thinking, “I can’t remember ever being alone with him.” It was weird. He had no one to talk for him, which Grandma does almost exclusively now. We did get him to tell us his favorite book of the Bible though he detests being asked questions. It’s Luke. And I was severely uncomfortable. I didn’t know where to look. Every sight in that tiny hospital room was depressing. I didn’t know who to talk to: him (which neither of us really wanted) or my siblings (who surely felt just as awkward as me). I just never knew death would be so awkward. I wasn’t there when my Grandpa Zigler died – or toward the end when he had to be carried – so I missed that part. Gone was the warm fuzzy feeling I’d had when I’d visited the week before and he’d called me back from the door to tell me to behave myself and take care of my husband. It just felt bleak and sad. But he did look us each full in the face and tell us he loved us and really, what more can I ask? I am at peace with my last living grandfather and this time I know I’m going to see him again. When I leaned in to give him a hug I aborted the kiss on the cheek I almost gave him and my lips brushed the loose folds of his neck instead. I realized after this visit that that’s probably the best it’s going to get on this earth. The best hope I have to know Robert Ray Swank lies beyond what either of us has ever experienced.

I’ve always wondered about those first few moments after death – as the dead person I mean. It’s the only thing no one really knows about. I remember Peter Pan’s brave avowal that “to die…would be a very great adventure” and that when my friend Angie’s sister Jennie died back when she was 11 and we were only 14, her parents’ last fear was that she had to go on alone without them for her guide. I think about what it will be like when I die. What my first conscious thoughts will be upon waking somewhere else. Will I be surrounded from the beginning or will I be alone? I recently listened to Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” while I was cleaning houses which I used to do but do no more, Thank God in Heaven. She depicts those moments as a blind flight from the pain and anguish of death which, afterward, only becomes clear in the memory. And I wondered if it would be like that. We do fear that most, do we not? The pain of death? It’s something most of us won’t escape and can’t prepare for. I wonder if it is there, in that final slog through terminal pain, where we experience our final sifting. Will we submit to it; press on toward what lies beyond having been refined enough to desire to set out on the joyous, painful path of becoming real (like in The Great Divorce) or will we let it decide us there must not be a God who cares.

Ahhhh, but onward and upward my friends. It doesn’t end there. I had told my dad I would stay this week in LaPorte for Grandma’s benefit because he decided to go on the senior trip my mom is chaperoning after all, having made his peace with his father. But after a day full of the stresses of family dynamics, I made the hard choice of coming home. I’m glad I did it. It was the wrong decision to have told him I could stay and I’m beginning to realize that everyone will be okay even if I’m not there to rely on. But it was not a decision made without a tearful (dare I say hysterical?) phone call to Henry. After a whole day with Josh and two more sitting in my apartment and working quietly, I am finally in a saner place. This evening I made Thai pork kabobs and onion cakes and brownies and we had a brainstorming session about our future and then we prayed and (forgive me for the run-on sentence) I do LOVE my life. Again. Again and again and again I do. Each time I come back to it it gets sweeter. I love my marriage and my business and my church and my building and my down comforter and our silly birds. And maybe I can’t get Josh to seek counseling or figure out how to make him happy or even get him to call me, but I can hope.


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring —

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush

The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush

With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.


What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden.–Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,

Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,

Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

Moving On

I have to admit that I woke up feeling very crabby. I wanted to sleep more because I spent the day yesterday cleaning my parents’ house in Indiana so they can sell it. You know how on HGTV they tell all the sellers to de-personalize and de-clutter their spaces so other people can come in and picture themselves in that house? Well, when I had dinner with them I was telling my mom this, complaining that their realtor hadn’t told them to finish cleaning it before she showed it to 15 different people, none of whom gave an offer (surprise, surprise). Some glaring and easily fixed problems were apparent to me right away when I walked in, like the books left on the living room shelves.

My mom: “Well, we didn’t have any place to put them when we moved and we figured…they look fine where they are.”

Me: (in my head) You’re right! Two half sets of the Encyclopedia from 1992, The Case For Christ (and various other Evangelical tomes) and the Book of Farts casually tossed in the middle of one shelf does LOOK FINE.

                It looked downright messy. As did the drawers full of half empty hotel toiletry bottles in ziplock bags stuffed into both bathrooms. And nothing had been cleaned. Some of those nooks were sporting goo accumulated for 10 years or more. I definitely earned my $12/hr. But that’s not really my point. Neither is how much I dislike natural wood trim and cabinets in the whole house – including PANELLING in the basement but I just had to say it. If I “had my druthers on” as Sarah likes to say, I’d rip out the half wall separating the kitchen from the dining room, put a window in the wall between that and the back living room and just tear out all those gnarly cupboards and counters. I’ve been planning it out in my head rather obsessively this morning. Part of me hopes they don’t sell so that they are forced to do a little re-modeling and I GET TO BE IN CHARGE OF IT!!!

                My point is…you wouldn’t think my soul would be so uplifted after cleaning all day but I made some discoveries. One is that my father is changing. There is a conversation I’ve been thinking about having with him, fearing to have with him actually, about some things that happened in my childhood. It’s a conversation that I couldn’t even imagine living through before yesterday. One of those things is that he traveled all the time for a solid 8-10 years when I needed him most: when my mom was sick and depressed and trying to home-school us. I was incredibly lonely. I don’t even really blame him for that. He had to provide for our family and he did it admirably. He is and was an exemplary father. But I want him to know that I missed him, among other things.

Folks: he brought it up himself. And I was able to say to him: “yeah, it was hard.” And then we talked about how he and my mom are GOING TO COUNSELING, and how HE REALIZES HE NEEDS IT.

                I’m not going to be able to express why this is so amazing, except if you have a 50-something, conservative, Evangelical parent of your own or any combination thereof you’ll probably get it. This is how God works. He takes childhood abuse (which both my parents’ suffered), chronic illness and depression of a spouse for 10 years, an adult child with emotional problems, a dying father who abused you, one estranged brother and one who is in jail, two houses to sell and a new job you can’t get to because you have to sell said houses and redeems every single one of them, making your stone heart soft into the bargain. I can’t believe the beauty I saw in him yesterday. I have this vision of him right now as a tree: strong and deeply rooted but pliable. Also plucking my little contented child chords was the fact that he told me it was a huge blessing and weight off his shoulders to have me willing to come and help and that I should look into real estate because I’d already been more helpful than their realtor. There’s nothing quite like the approval of a father, right? I used to sit by him while he was fixing something just so I could be there to hand him the tool he needed. Bonus points if I figured out what he needed and gave it to him without him having to ask. The thing is that it hasn’t ever changed. I still get that little glow inside if I manage to do something like that. It’s like a drug – him being proud of me; me being of use to him. It’s quite natural but you can see why there might be a lot through which to sift when it comes to father issues.

                So they are moving to Milwaukee at some point in the near future whenever they can sell at least one of their houses. And Grandpa Swank is dying. I visited them briefly last night – putting my contact with them at 3 times in the last 4 days. It is more than I have talked with or seen them combined in the last two years, probably. Things have not been simple where my father’s parents are concerned and I’m not going to go into it now except to say that I have realized something else: I love my grandparents AND I enjoy them. Grandpa’s heart is about done which is why he is dying (that and he twisted his pacemaker 180 degrees in his sleep, ripping it completely and irrevocably out of one side of his heart). His father died of a heart attack in that same house, come to think of it, and we are all praying that God will take Grandpa quickly when He does. To see him struggle just to sit up or walk from one room to the next is painful – his vitality and youth have always been un-rivaled– except maybe by Henry’s almost 100 year old Gpa. I hugged him last night and could feel his shoulder bones poking quite plainly through skin and shirt. I’m grateful for his sweetness now, even if for years he didn’t know how to be sweet like normal people. For the brief time he could sit up when we were there on Saturday, he and Grandma sat side by side linking their pinky fingers together. There’s a whole world in that gesture I can’t begin to talk about but its simple tenderness reminded me why God is good. Even though it comes at the end, it’s like a cold drink of water after a long and thirsty walk  to be cherished by this man. I puts me in mind of all of the family meals where my place at the table was at his left hand so he could tease me and I loved it. I don’t remember the age I was when I started to take it all personally and stopped sitting there. It makes me sad to think of that rift only now closing after 15 years. But thanks be to God: it is. In large part because of my husband I am able to – as he puts it – “take them seriously enough to laugh at them” and to realize that might be all they’ve ever wanted.

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