[a letter to a friend]
When I was just a young teenager, I watched the strongest man I’d ever met in my life, wither away to a fractional shadow of himself. Were men trees, Michael Edward was an oak. Axe scarred and saw scabs everywhere, but an oak, still standing. I remember fighting against him in my adolescent angst, our first and only fight. How he’d locked my arms in his with all the restraint I know he’d needed to muster – now looking back – and allow the surge of rebellious testosterone pass through my body out through my sweat and tears.
Michael and Marilyn were not so different from you and your wife. Dad came to the faith party after Marilyn’s arrival at the alter. He hung back at the walls, so to speak – watching mostly from the outside in but always taking it all in and moving along his appointed path and journey at a pace that was suitable to him.
When Michael’s body broke, it was a betrayal of immeasurable orders of magnitude. He never discussed how it related to his faith…how and if he connected the physical betrayal with a spiritual one. I know for a time however that he retreated to the numbing comfort of six packs, stored hidden in the attached garage after inconspicuous trips to the deli 3 miles down the road. How his eyes glazed over when he left us, wherever it was that he went.
That time in our lives was a hurricane of debris and doctors and emotions and always moving never resting up and down and throughout everyone’s lives associated with him. I remember the smells of anesthetic, and old people in rooms long forgotten in the hallways we walked past. The flimsiness of the plastic pitchers left in the rooms on the carts next to the beds of the patients filled with ice water. Sitting in that visiting chair, or on the windowsill looking out and trying to think of witty things to say in the vacuum of an obviously forced and strained conversation. That moment when you all leave the room and wonder if the bed will be empty when you return.
I think what Michael thru Michael to you Michael would say is simple. He’d tell me to tell you that this thing cannot define you. That though the things you do now you do slower, you still do them. Are doing them. He’d remind that you that the thing that slows a man down so slow that there’s only time to contemplate his faith and measure the magnitude of his legacy, is and can only be, a blessing. A pause button of sorts where he sees his worth in the worry on the faces of those closest to him. Those people making deals with God back in their bedrooms for one more day, one more month or year of Dad on the small blue ball.
Michael to you Michael would remind you that your name quite literally means, “Who is like God?”. I’d tell you that for years, I didn’t know it was a question. I thought it was a declarative statement. But oh how punctuation can make a difference. Formerly, assuming that one must be strong and defend the family name. The latter inferring that the battle was never mine. That according to Dad, in weakness I am made strong. In my needs are his rewards and riches all the more glorious. Anything that invites my head to bow in prayer, my eyes to rise towards the heavens – in anger or supplication – is a gift.
Who is like God?
I believe Job asked this question at the end of himself. I know that Michael through Michael to Michael did. Before he left us all, he was attending 2 worship services at the local service – without Marilyn. He said that he couldn’t bring himself to leave…that he loved the Worship Music so much, he couldn’t leave until he’d experienced it a second round.
Nothing in this life that stops us long enough to take measure of the breath in our bodies, is a curse, he would say. Those who would keep their life, we’re told, must lose it. Those whose breaths have passed through ventilators know the value of an unassisted breath.
We are the only faith on Earth that embraces suffering. The Buddhists see it as something to avoid through following the Path. The Hindus and the Muslims see it as God’s divine punishment…a means of retribution for sins and rebellion. “What kind of joy is this“, says Steven Curtis Chapman though, “that counts it a blessing to suffer?” What kind of faith causes a man to lose his entire family on a journey across the sea, and then pen, “It is well, with my soul”? This is an alien religion. But we know because of its most foreign nature there is truth….that it is true. It is the lives of these men, those who rise above the breathing tubes and past the mortuaries and say eyes raised up, “it is well, with my soul” that speak to its veracity and truth.
Who is like God? This was-is his yours my name. Burned deeper and buried farther into us than any tattoo or scar or DNA. Marked for moments such as these when strength arrives at the least convenient and inopportune times. When the words, “why”, and “please not again” move silently across our lips. Always below these things our name…’Who is like God?'(?)
Michael through Michael to Michael would say to take your hands off the ship’s steering wheel, and breathe, and love those around you who love you. He would laugh and make fart noises and tell inappropriate jokes, walking if he could but usually sitting in a chair where he could breathe easier. He would tell you that his faith was strongest, not weakest, on his final approach – his joy most complete with his fingers farthest from the ropes of his control. He’d tell to you to breathe in, and breathe out….repeat as necessary. That all of us have belly buttons. That 99% of the time it doesn’t ever make sense…
It wasn’t the stiff strength in Michael’s arms I remember most the day we fought long after the day of his passing. It was the awkwardness of the first time he’d hugged me as an adult, on my wedding day, years after his crippling heart attack…bending in weird and weakened places to get his tuxedo laden arms around my shoulders. Wonderfully weird and teary eyed.
Nearly 15 years after the fight in the living room in Long Island.
4 years before I’d never see him breathing again.
Michael through Michael to Michael would probably want me to stop here and let you think about that.