For some reason, the memory washes over me in mountain dialect. It comes back all these years later – not because of my own recollection but because I have been reminded of it over the years. Maybe that's why I didn't hear the memory in my own voice today. I was riding along pondering the thing that has usurped chocolate as most beloved in my heart (your visits to my blog). Suddenly the writer in me took over. I kept my mind on the driving, but my essence was far away. That inner voice beckoned me to long ago and far away.
I was transported to a valley between the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The air was so juicy that if I had held a Sham Wow aloft for 2 minutes, I could have wrung out a gallon of water. Maybe it was that meteorological echo from the past that evoked the memory. The past and present welded together in my mind. It wouldn't be long long till crackles of electricity would begin to pop and puncture the water balloon holding in all that atmospheric moisture. Maybe again today, the rain would come. Back then, the water would daily gush from the heavens and fall in torrents until the valley was awash in rainbows. Whatever it was that unlocked the memory, it was there. The mountain born voice began to fill me up with words and sensations. I wanted to pull over and get it all down before the voice slipped away.
“As I a-heerd it telled all these years later, I come a-runnin' home from the school bus stop all breathless with my hair a-clingin' in sweaty tendrils around my baby 1st grade face. I slammed thru the door and 'sploded with the 'tensity of a white tornado. 'Mamma! I got me a boyfriend. I don't like him. He got down on the playground today and kissed my feet. EWWWWW! YUCK!' “
His name was Weems, and he was mountain-born just like the voice in my head. His name was really William. The mountain folk had shortened it to that unlikely moniker. I had decided I didn't like him because of his nickname. Still in all, there was something pretty powerful in the aura of young love.
The news had first arrived via what we use to call 'tablet paper'. You probably had your own pad of it. Dotted pink lines separated rows of long blue lines. Together they formed the road map that guided every child from the infant nursery to the wide open world of literacy. Little rows of faces, some with tongue tips parked resolutely in the corners of mouths, intently mastered the ups and downs and arounds of their A, B, C's and 1, 2, 3's. Before long, individual letters became short words. Grubby little hands sooner or later thrust a sweaty or spit streaked paper full of erasures under the noses of ecstatic moms. The notes were intensely sincere and signed by the beaming child who would now understand the power of the written words: I love you. It was an uncommon mom that did not swoon upon that 1st heady presentation. It was an uncommon kid who did not suddenly understand the power of the words.
Didn't take too long for those powerful words to be aimed farther abroad in the world. Such had been my lot in life. The note arrived after some fanfare over a few days. My suitor was smitten. He made it plain in all his 6-year-old sincerity every time he passed my desk. I look back at my baby pictures from 1st grade and can kinda see why he was so smitten. Who wouldn't get lost in those pools of navy blue?
I guess it was inevitable. The wadded up paper landed on my desk. I unwrapped it and spread out the wrinkles to uncover the mysterious message. There it was demanding my reply:
“I love you. Do you love me? Check the box yes no.”
It wasn't too long ago, only this time last year, that she chuckled about that memory. The respirator would rob her of her voice in only a few days. But, that day, she looked over from the hospital bed and asked with a raspy chuckle, “Do you remember Weems?” She had never smoked in all her 80 years, and yet her lungs betrayed her. The medical team all reacted with shock when we told each new shift, “No, she never smoked. Never. Mamma never smoked and never drank. Daddy was a preacher. “ They'd nod with sudden understanding, look perplexed, finish the momentary obligation, and move on quietly to leave us alone again.
Her lungs were taking her away. Before they carried her away, they would rob us of her voice. So, words were precious. I didn't really know how precious. Ignorance is not always bliss, but sometimes it helps. We laughed together again they way we had over the years. All these decades later, the memory of my righteous indignation, worn like a crown as my curly hair shook with emotion, struck both of us as hilarious. I wondered what had become of my scorned suitor. I wondered if I had let him down gently or scarred him for life.
Sleep overcame her, and she drifted away a bit. Every time she would awaken during those 11 long weeks, I was aware that she was a little farther from us and a little closer to Heaven with every nap. I would pull my chair up and watch her sleep. I kept waiting for something to happen. You don't live in a preacher's house most of your life without hearing lots of stories about the way people die. Some die bathed in an aura of peace and tranquility. Others die cursing and foaming at the mouth – as angry in death as they have been in life.
No matter how many or how few times a soul darkens the door of a church in life, when dying time comes, most everybody wants the preacher. In some cases, it's almost like he is a magic talisman that will erase the record of inattention given to the hereafter and grease the way on through the door into eternity. So, I grew up hearing the stories of death and dying long before Elizabeth Kubler Ross told us how its done.
The quiet was deafening even once the machines were hooked up to give her failing lungs a rest. The hope was that a couple days rest would give her back the strength she needed to hold on to life. Medicine is as much an art as a science. Neither would work in her favor in the end. I sat alone in the quiet waiting. I asked God, “Tell me that you're here. Tell me that you are here in the middle of this mean season. It's been so long since I was sure you saw me. I'm the one that used to be your biggest cheerleader. I need to know where you are in all this quiet. Let me see the veil between Heaven and Earth part. Let me be here when you pull back the curtain to let her get a glimpse of where she is going.”
As odd as the juxtaposition may be, the only thing I heard was Charlie Daniels singing over and over again, "Fire on the mountain run, boy, run..." and other odd snippets of his old classic, "The Devil Went Down to Georiga." As best I know, that was as close to God as I ever got during those 11 weeks.
I had so often heard of saintly individuals who, while hovering on the cusp of eternity, would look around in amazement and ask, “Do you hear it?” or “Do you see it?” and then describe the sound of angels singing or the presence of Heavenly visitors. Soon after, the soul no longer lingered as the curtain to Heaven opened wide and whisked the suffering to the relief awaiting them. The surviving family remained behind, left to ponder the tenuous dividing line between mortality and Heaven.
My mamma was the kind of follower who showed up in God's house to play the piano the same day she tore her bicep muscle. She never met a stranger she didn't ask in the first 5 minutes, “Where do you go to church? Do you love the Lord?” I figured if anybody deserved the preview of coming attractions, it would be her. And, I was desperate to know he was present in that mean season because I had already had so many mean seasons in the last 12 years.
I knew I was coming to the end of me. I was on autopilot. I had pushed the 'move through your days like a zombie' button after I spent the night hovering over her bed. She writhed and moaned and fought back the forces of 3 bacterial infections at once. I told her to forgive me for letting them hook her up to that cursed machine. It only seemed to prolong her misery. The morning after that hellish night, her eyes cleared as the fever broke. Her smile returned. She sat up in bed and pleasantly engaged the nurses with gestures and notes. She had no memory of the hell that had consumed her the night before. I staggered down to the elevator to go home for a few hours. A nurse asked how I was. “This is not a good place to be,” the words spilled out in a hoarse, dead monotone.
She looked back at me, and her expression crumbled. Her mouth opened and closed as if she wanted to say something but knew nothing would suffice. Finally, she stuttered out, “There's a chapel...if you want...there's a chapel....?” Her voice trailed out into thin air.
We were raised to respect anyone in uniform. In that moment I forgot my raisin's. I laughed a bitter, dead snort. Words froze in my throat. All I could do was stare unblinkingly as the snort faded to silence. I realized my head was shaking back and forth negatively ever so slightly. I wasn't sure who her God was, but I knew it was probably the same one I used to know. The same one my mamma knew 6 floors above us. He was the God that I would eventually find myself writing my way back to. But that day, he was as absent from me as he had ever been in my life.
In the pages of this blog, my question weaves in and out and up and down. The scrawled message appears on the dirty, sweaty, wadded up, winkled tablet paper of my heart:
I love you. Do you love me? Check yes no.
I wish I could begin at the beginning and write till it's all done. Maybe you do too. I think you know as well as I do that the process just isn't all that simple. You are a brave soul if you stumbled upon these pages and came back for more. I love you more than chocolate – which my children would tell you is most certainly a near medical miracle. I hope you'll come back tomorrow and bring a friend. Tell the all the fraidy cats you know. Tell them that if they've been looking for a place to come home to, this hideaway in cyberspace just might be it.