It definitely wasn’t on my Christmas list! But the holidays this year brought an unexpected and life-changing gift: to witness courage in its many and diverse forms.
My primary reason for travelling to California for Christmas was to spend time with son Galen and his new fiancée Jessica. My second hope was to visit Mary, a dear friend, much-celebrated counselor, spiritual director, and wise woman extraordinaire. Mary and her husband Jonathan were in a terrible car accident over a year ago that left her seriously paralyzed and confined to a care facility in Oakland, where she will live out her last years. My third goal was to visit various clergy friends and members of the church I served before coming to NY. But with only five days, I expected Christmas to be more stressful than celebratory. Little did I know that I would receive a gift to treasure for years to come.
Some key background info: about a year ago an unexpected insight came to me, namely that Love (love of self, love of others, love of life) sits atop the three-legged stool of Courage, Humility, and Gratitude. One can’t experience true love without its being supported by the other three. I understood that intellectually but last week brought it to heart.
I arrived late on Wednesday 12/20 and stayed with Galen and Jessica. The next morning, after leaving a message for Jonathan asking about visiting times for Mary, I called Linda, a clergy friend in Vacaville, who told me that her husband William had died the night before after a week in the ICU. Although I knew he hadn’t been well for several months, this came as a total surprise. With Galen’s approval, I opted to stay with Linda for a night. While there, we attended an ecumenical service to honor all the homeless men and women who had died in 2017.
Several people spoke, including the brother of a Vietnam vet who lived on the streets for over twenty years. A woman talked about a homeless friend who was the most generous person she had ever met. At the end of the service, a rather scruffy 60-something man pulled out a set of bagpipes and gave a superb rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Everyone was greatly moved, with some wiping away tears. In chatting with him after the service, I learned that he was a Korean War vet who had played the pipes since junior high school. He now alternates between staying in the country with a friend and living on the streets in Vacaville. He offered several anecdotes about how his love for the bagpipes had sustained him through war and other traumas, waxed eloquent about homeless friends who had died, but never complained about his ongoing challenges. Such love, such courage.
Spending time with Linda that evening, I learned that she would lead worship at the two services (Christmas Eve morning and evening) of her own church, and had also agreed to fill in for another priest on Christmas Day so that he could be with his young family. Humbling…
Then on Friday, when visiting Mary in the nursing home, I saw a beauty far greater than anything I could have imagined. Although confined to her bed and wheelchair and sleeping more than half the day, her face shone with spirit. It reminded me of wisdom of a therapist from years past: “Sh*t happens. Sometimes it’s a little bit of sh*t and sometimes it’s an earthquake. Some people go through a hell that they don’t deserve, while others reap benefits they didn’t earn. Life isn’t fair. The issue is not why bad things happen but whether you can live with the challenges thrust upon you in a way that you can feel good about your life choices. Can you live in such a way that you make the best of what you have and don’t make a bad situation worse? Can you be a hero in your own story? If so, you’re a winner.” Mary is as stellar example of being a hero in her own story. Such love, such courage.
That evening, I reconnected with Galen and met Jessica’s family including their 11-year old yellow lab “Bosco” with an obscene growth (the size of a fully inflated balloon) on its hip. The abscess has been growing steadily for over a year, but Bosco’s heart isn’t strong enough to survive the requisite surgery. So the family is enjoying his presence for Christmas, knowing that he will be going to the vet in a few days to end his life on this earth. As we sit in a circle in the living room, there is always a family member sitting on the floor next to his mat, calmly stroking his neck and back. It takes two people to support Bosco as he struggles to go outside to attend to his needs. As an outsider witnessing this mutual love and support for the first time, I am in awe of the bond, as both canine and human family members honor and support each other. Such love, such courage.
A semi-homeless bagpiper, Linda, Mary, Bosco. If I hadn’t gotten the Christmas connection between courage and love, a final witness came to make the point: Jonathan. After attending my old church for the Sunday morning service on Christmas Eve, I drove to Mary’s nursing facility to visit her for the last time before returning to New York. Jonathan was also there, and I was not prepared for what I saw.
Jonathan was a much-celebrated off-Broadway producer who won many awards and hobnobbed with numerous celebrities. In five years of knowing him and Mary as close friends and pastor, he was always the center of attention. Enchanting and engaging, he was also egocentric, leaving her to manage the day-to-day needs of the household. When I left the Bay Area in 2010, he also suffered from various mobility impairments and psychological challenges, including post-traumatic stress syndrome resulting from his being one of the first American soldiers to liberate the emaciated Jews from Dachau. Being Jewish himself, he never quite recovered from the horror. During their fifty-plus year marriage, Mary attended to his every need.
But no more. Gone were the sometimes crutches and occasional walker. Gone were the forty extra pounds. Gone was any expectation that he was the center of Mary’s (or anyone else’s) attention. In its stead, here was Jonathan with flowers, with favorite foods, and with tenderness. Here was the husband doting on the wife with adoration much as the shepherds and wise men attended the Christ child two millennia earlier. Here was Saint Jonathan paying homage to Saint Mary. Now in the final days of packing before moving into a small apartment in another part of the rehab facility, Jonathan is saying adieu to a gorgeous home filled with unique artwork, thousands of books, and enormous and beautiful gardens. He is letting all that glamour and glory go, so that he can be closer and thus more attentive to Mary. Such courage, such love.
I returned to the East Coast humbled and grateful for these, the true gifts of Christmas.