Sunday, May 30, 2010

We Remember the Fallen

"God on high, hear my prayer
In my need, You have always been there,
He is young, he's afraid
Let him rest; heaven blessed.
Bring him home, bring him home
Bring him home...

...bring him peace, bring him joy
He is young; he's only a boy
You can take, You can give
Let him be: let him live.
If I die, let me die
Let him live; bring him home.
Bring him home, bring him home."
                --from Les Miserables

(You might want to listen and view this podcast using the song from Les Miserables and moving photos of our service people in Afghanistan. )

Read the following names of those men and women who have given their lives the last few weeks. Remember their families and the people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sgt. Joshua D. Desforges / age 23 / Ludlow, MASS / Died after a roadside bomb detonated while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 12, 2010.

Sgt. Donald J. Lamar II / age 23 / Fredericksburg, VA / Died of wounds sustained in a small arms attack while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 12, 2010.

Cpl. Jeffrey W. Johnson / age 21 / Tomball, TX / One of two Marines killed in a roadside bomb attack in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 11, 2010.

Sgt. Kenneth B. May / age 26 / Kilgore, TX / The second Marine killed in that roadside bomb attack while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 11, 2010.

Cpl. Kurt S. Shea / age 21 / Frederick, MD / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 10, 2010.

Spc. Jeremy L. Brown / age 20 / McMinnville, TN / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms fire in Outpost Zerok, Afghanistan / May 9, 2010.

Capt. Kyle A. Comfort / age 27 / Jacksonville, AL / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using a roadside bomb in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 8, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Davis / age 19 / Perry, Iowa / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 7, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Richard R. Penny / age 21 / Fayetteville, ARK / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 6, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Christopher Rangel / age 22 / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 6, 2010.

Spc. Wade a Slack / age 21 / Waterville, Maine / Died of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit using indirect fire in Jaghatu, Afghanistan / May 6, 2010.

1st Lt. Brandon A. Barrett / age 27 / Marion, IND / Died while supporting combat operations in Helman province, Afghanistan / May 5, 2010.

(The Huffington Post featured a story and photographs by Alan Chin who has photographed the return of soldiers lost in battle to Dover Air Force Base (Deleware) Many family members are there to receive their loved ones. This is a moving article with pictures--and helps us remember the fallen. / )

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Paso Por Aqui

In the state of New Mexico there is a place called Inscription Rock. It is part of a great rock formation. In the springtime, great torrents of water eat away at the base of this huge rock wall. Great piles of gravel and sand are deposited at its base. The gravel and sand formed a pass which became the old route from East to West. It led to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the Great Plains of the Northwest.

History books say that by the sixteenth century the Spaniards were already using this route. When some trapper or prospector passed Inscription Rock, he would do a strange thing. He would stop, take a knife and cut his name and the date and always the same phrase: “Paso por aqui” (passed through here) into the rock. Those words furnished a last change of address for men who would never return. Inscription Rock was a special place because it bore witness to a journey that a man had made. Juan Hernandez, in person, had “passed through here” in 1587.

On this Memorial Sunday we are given the gift of a weekend to pause before our own Inscription Rock. We are challenged to think of all the brave soldiers who have left a mark on the wall of our lives. This holiday originated in the South shortly after the Civil War. Memorial Day became a time for honoring those who had fallen in all the wars. Through the years the day has evolved into an occasion for decorating with flowers the graves of all our honored dead. The practice remains in many places in Alabama and other states. One Sunday a year people drive back to a place where someone they loved is buried. They clean off the old graves, they lovingly place flowers. They remember and then they make their way back home.

Whose name is carved on your Inscription Rock? My Mother’s name is written on my rock for many reasons. She entered me in the ”Pretty Baby” Contest and was furious because I did not even place in the event. Such blind love one does not forget. On my wall are two old maid sisters who taught school was I was a little boy. For some reason they took a shine to me and kept on their dresser the picture of a little boy with curly hair named Roger. I was told that old photograph was there until the day they died. One does not forget such affection. There was our maid, Nancy who was my first counselor. She was hardly able to read or write but she listened and cared and helped enormously. How could I ever forget her? There was a Journalism teacher in High School who listened to my teen-age problems. She asked me if I had ever thought about writing. She was the first person who challenged me to go to college. On the wall of my heart there is the name of Miss Byrdie. Her eyes were hopelessly scarred because of a fire she fell into when she was eighteen months old. She saved nickels and dimes and dollars from working in a knitting mill and gave me tuition money to go to Howard College. Who could forget such a sacrifice? Later there was a counselor who held my hand until I really did cross the choppy waters to safety. These, and a great many more, are all inscribed on the walls of my heart.

Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist, one day said, “I could not do what I have done unless I had stood on the shoulders of giants.” There are no self-made men and women. Whatever success we have known is because of all the people who have carved their names on the walls of our lives. They diapered us and taught us to read and sing and dance and play ball and drive a car and find our way. We would never have made it through the winding path of our lives without all those who affirmed and believed in us.

Memorial Day reminds me of a scene in Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel, In Country. It is the story of Dwayne who married a girl in his hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky and then went off to the Viet Nam war. He never came back—but he left his wife pregnant. After he died a daughter was born. Her mother named her Sam. The novel is about Sam’s and her family’s grief in trying to deal with the loss of a father and the loss of a son to her Grandmother.

Sam and that Grandmother and a friend leave the little Kentucky town where they live to visit the Vietnam Memorial for the first time. The Grandmother had hardly been out of the county. Finally they got to Washington, found the Memorial and just looked at that black mountain of marble that seemed to grow from out of the ground. They stood there, that daughter and Mother and just looked and looked at the 58 thousand names of all the men and women who had died in that war. Each name was inscribed on that monument. They went to the directory and found the name they were looking for: Dwayne E. Hughes. And then they found the section where his name was etched into the marble. The old mother couldn’t see it very well and she wanted to touch the name before she left. So one of the workers brought a ladder and with the help of her granddaughter and a friend this little old lady climbed, ever so slowly up the ladder until she found the name of her boy. She reached out and ran her fingers over the name. She stood there for a long time—and then, wiping away the tears, she said: “Help me down.”

This is the day of touching some name and remembering some face. We all have some Inscription Rock. And we pause to remember all those, who in passing, have made our lives forever different.

(I first read the Paso Por Aqui story in Carlyle Marney's book, The Recovery of the Person, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963, pp.116f)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Gay Pride Weekend--I wrote an Anniversary Benediction

(On this Gay Pride week-end (2011) I remembered back to a tribute I wrote to my son and his partner on their 20 Anniversary.)

It was a Wednesday evening. I came in late from a long church meeting. My wife met meat the door. She said, “Matthew sent us a letter. It is the most beautiful letter I have ever read.” “He’s gay isn’t he?” I asked. My wife nodded.

So I read his letter. Written, I am sure with fear and foreboding. Telling us something of his struggle through the years. He had never talked about this and neither had we. But he opened up his heart and told us he had met someone and they were going to make a commitment to one another. He wanted us to understand and to love and support him.

We cried and hugged one another. We talked to one another about our fears. Aids, especially. What if he has Aids? Wondering who this man was he was committing his life to. Sad that he would not know the love and the joy of children. How different our lives would have been without our daughter and son. We ached when we realized for years he had struggled with his own sexual identity and had to work it out alone—and how very hard that must have been. If only we could have helped. We talked about what a hard road gay people have—especially twenty years ago. There was so much cruelty out there—especially in the church of all places. So many people were quick to judge and not understand. Nobody wants their children to suffer because the road they take is hard and misunderstood.

That was twenty years ago. Matthew called this last week and said he and Mark were celebrating their twentieth anniversary. Mark has become part of our family. I do not know a couple that are as attentive to one another or more in love. There is a tie there that is healthy and whole.

Both of them love their families fiercely. For my seventieth birthday they gave my wife and I a trip to Italy and they went with us. It was a ten days that none of us will ever forget. They have been on more than one cruise with Mark’s mother and family and they have been accepted by them as well.

After we read his letter twenty years ago we called him and reassured him that everything was fine. We loved him. We trusted his judgment in a partner. He came home days later. He was not HIV positive but was the same lovable, delightful son he had always been. But even if he had been sick we would have loved and accepted him—maybe even more. This was our son. This news of his identity changed nothing.

We’ve learned a lot from them through the years. We’ve learned that being gay is not what one does but what one is as a person. We bristle when anyone says: alternative lifestyle—as if homosexuality was a choice. Ever heard anyone talk about the heterosexual lifestyle? Through this experience, we’ve learned a lot about injustice. Gay couples want the same legal rights and privileges and married folk. They want to serve in the military just like everyone else. To deny people who love one another full legal rights is just wrong. We have learned that to be different is no crime or sin.

We have come to know that all people are basically the same—with the same hopes and dreams. The tragedy is that when those that are gay are forced into a closet this becomes a crippling way to live. This silly idea that gay couples threaten or weaken the institution of marriage is strange. Can we blame gays when 50% of our marriages do not make it?

We have come to believe that Jesus really does all the little children of the world. We believe that the prism through which we read the Scriptures must be filtered first through the spirit and attitude of Jesus. Jesus stretched out his arms and said: “Come ye…” and there were no exceptions. Those few passages in the Old Testament that deal with homosexuality came out of a very different cultural context—a time of cruelty to women, to children and to people’s enemies. We feel that the New Testament passages were also cultural and were as applicable today as women keeping silent in churches and accepting slavery.

But this we know. There is a couple in Philadelphia that have in their relationship what married people everywhere long for. Commitment, trust, caring for one another—in sickness and in health—a loving relationship.

Matthew and Mark, like a multitude of others, have faced incredible odds when they courageously struck out together twenty years ago. But their ties have lasted and grown stronger. I am proud of our son and his partner and wish them many, many more anniversaries. They are role models for us all.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Thinking of Pentecost

One of my favorite writers is a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittister. She tells the story about  an elder that told a business person, “As the fish perishes on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water and you must return to the Spirit.” She said the business person was aghast and said, “Are you telling me that I must give up my business and go into a monastery?” The elder said, “Definitely not.—I am telling you to hold on to your business and go into your heart.”

Pentecost reminds us that there would be no life without the heart. The coming of the Spirit did something to those weak, scared and grieving disciples. How could they possibly go on without the Lord Jesus? Later they would remember what he said, “I will not leave you orphans—I will send a comforter to be with you forever.”

Isaiah wrote: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people…speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Underneath the anger and rage and fear of this strange time we live in—people are starved for something they cannot buy or work out for themselves. They have felt betrayed by clergy sometimes, church often, government continually and all the old stack poles like job and school and economics and ethics and genuine kindness seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

We all need some spiritus in our lives. Comfort. Grace. Peace. The feeling that we really are not alone in this mess we are in. Churches need it. Pastors need it. And all those who come on Sunday desperately seeking something to hang on to—should not go away empty. It really is a matter of the heart.

At the end of the day when the TV is off and the I Pod is being charged and you have finally turned off the Computer and the house is dark and you are alone—what matters? If we know that underneath are the everlasting arms—we might just make it. Every year the church, in one form or another celebrates the birthday of its beginning. Birthday? That day when poor, beleaguered disciples were energized with a force that cannot be explained. But their hearts burned within them and they went out to change the world.

And on our better days—when we are less concerned with worship wars and red-states-blue-states and all the other categories that divide us—we, too will return to the heart.

So Pentecost comes year after year like Christmas and Easter. We are reminded that we really are not alone. We are being comforted—and in a world reeling with many crazy things that spirit that comes promises us peace. Everybody I know needs a bucketful.

(One Pentecost we gave everyone in church a balloon. We talked about our dreams for church, our families and our world. At the end  of the service we took our balloons outside, said a prayer and sent the balloons on their way. We didn't talk about what our dreams were or what we have prayed--but one by one as the balloons ascended--we wiped away tears from our eyes.)

Oh, the Places You will Go

In speaking of old age, David Brinkley wrote of Senator Wayne Morse after his death: "If you want to know the truth, ask an old man because his mortgage is paid up, his children are educated, his income is secure, or it doesn't matter anymore. So he has nothing to fear."  Well, I am not to sure that any of this applies to me--but I do want to say a word about all those who don caps and gowns and march down some aisle to "Pomp and Circumstance." I guess you could call this "Advice to a Graduate."

It’s that time of the year. Almost every day another invitation comes from someone graduating from high school or college. Nieces, neighbors, and friends are letting us know that they have finally made it across the finish line. I wish I had time to sit down and write every one who has sent me an invitation but I can’t do that. But there are some things I still would like to say to the graduates.

Get a life. I don’t particularly like that expression—because you already have a life. As you graduate a door closes but another very heavy door opens. And when that door opens you will find a vast array of choices. Remember the old story of the two boys that went to see the old man everyone said was very wise. They knocked on his door and he answered. They said, “Old man, we have a bird in our hands—is it alive or dead.” They had him either way. If he said it was alive—they would squeeze it to death. If he said it was dead, they would open their hands and let the bird fly away. They old man said, “It’s whatever you want it to be.” The future really is in your hands. What do you want it to be?

Every battle is not Armageddon. Armageddon in the Bible was a big whoop. The battle of all battles. You don’t haul out your big artillery for every fight. You must choose your battles. Some are worth fighting—sometimes you just need to walk away. Don’t overreact. Take the long view—day after tomorrow that crisis back there may not look quite as important as it did yesterday.

What happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas. That’s about as dumb an idea as we have floating around today. The ripples you make in the stream go on and on. Everything is connected. There is no place to hide. If you break it—you own it.

God don’t make no junk. There is so much around us that tells us we don’t matter--that we’re not important. Forget it. Every person has infinite worth. That’s why I love the song: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” We really can do that. Light your candle—it will make a difference. Yo-Yo Mah once told a young man just learning to play the cello, “Nobody else can make the sound you make.” It was a compliment. Everyone is unique.

 Say thank-you. I know your Mama used to say this a hundred times a week. But it’s true. To be grateful is a wonderful trait. Nobody likes an ingrate. Did you know that the root word thank and think come from the same source? If you stop and think you will walk through your life a grateful person—and you will bless those around you.

 Put screens on your windows. Don’t believe everything you hear. The average American watches 24 hours of TV a week. That’s four hours a day. Get up out of your chair. Change the channel. Or even better turn off the set and pick up a book—or anything that will give you another point of view. Without screens the woolliest things fly through your windows.

Don’t be afraid to fail. It goes with the territory. The only people who do not fail are the people who do nothing. You are going to fail--I guarantee you. But what happens when you get up and dust yourself off is the telling point. I think I have learned more from my failings than I ever did from my successes. Winston Churchill was asked once after World War II what was the most important thing he told the British people as the bombs fell. He said, “Never, never, never give up.” What happens after failure is the acid test.

People who need people really are the luckiest people. The relational side of life is the most important part of any of our lives. Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood used to say, “Anyone who has ever been able to sustain good work has had at least one person who believed in him or her.” We really do rely on one another to make it down the road.

Color outside the lines. Take risks. Be bold. Allow yourself room for what you cannot see or hear or touch or control. The great artists know this. You will be surprised at what you learn or do.

The greatest of these is hope. Frederick Buechner, the writer has said if Paul were writing today he would say: “The great of these is hope—not love.” Why? Because without hope we’re not going to make it to the finish line. Keep working on hope and it will pay off great rewards.

Dr. Seuss wrote this great book that is as hopeful as anything I know. He calls it, Oh, the Places You Will Go. It’s a wonderful idea about life as a journey with ups and downs and scary places and wonderful times. And that is my wish for you as a graduate. That you will open that new door and stand back and look in wonder and proceed with all you’ve got.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When a Book becomes an Ax

Kafka said that a book should serve as an ax for the frozen sea within us. In a time of rampant negativism, when so much seems wrong or crazy we all need some help that can put our lives and our world into some kind of meaningful perspective. I have felt that power in two books that I have read recently.

Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, is the story of Deo from the country of Burundi. I was not aware of Burundi but it is a country near Rwanda. His country experienced the same violence and destruction that Rwanda faced. Deo somehow survived civil war and genocide and barely escaped with his life. Most of his family was murdered by wild gangs hell-bent on destruction. Remarkably he found his way to the United States with $200.00 and not knowing the language. He eked out a living delivering groceries, living in Central Park, learning English by reading dictionaries in bookstores. He began to meet strangers—first an ex-nun and then a whole cadre of people who cheered him on and helped him along the way. Eventually he made it to Columbia University and Medical school and devotes his life to healing others.

Tracy Kidder is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of many books. He tells Deo’s story in an unforgettable way. In a time when we struggle with immigrants and search for hope—the book will lift your spirits.

Another very different book is Greg Mortensen's, Stones into Schools. I first became acquainted with Mortenson through his best seller, Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson barely survived a mountain climbing expedition when others of his party were killed. When he finally collapsed in a little village in Pakistan the villagers nursed him back to life. Without their help he probably would have died. As he grew stronger he learned many things about the people of that village and their country. They had no school—most were illiterate and knew little of the outside world. So Mortenson in gratitude for saving his life promised them he would build a school. Three Cups of Tea is the story of the struggles and near-impossible hurdles he had to overcome in order to build that school. He especially was interested in schools for girls since education f or girls was almost nonexistent. He began to feel strongly that schools and not bombs might just help change these people.

Since that beginning sixteen years ago Greg has promoted peace through the establishment of 130 schools in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of these are for girls. His idea in fighting terrorism was to give girls a chance to learn. Many of them, in turn would become mothers and influence their children in healthy ways. These educated girls have began to discover the possibilities of their own personal gifts. Many have become teachers and physicians and filled other important jobs in their countries.

This second book. Stones into Schools continues Mortenson’s journey since 2003. He turned his attention to war-torn Afghanistan. Despite a devastating earthquake, bombs falling in other parts of that country—Mortenson with the help of many natives built schools in places that seemed impossible. In 2007 he began to work in the heart of Taliban country. In heroic and amazing ways Mortenson rallied renegade men and many others to use talents they never knew they had to build schools, help their people and change their lives and their world.

His work has been recognized by the Government. His Three Cups of Tea is required reading at West Point and for many in the military. Both Generals Praetaus and McChrystal have met with Mortenson and listened to his amazing philosophy. This is the story of what one remarkable man has done to leap across the most difficult of cultural barriers to make a profound difference in the lives of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As the war rages on and so many of our men and women still come home broken or in coffins—Mortenson points to a different way. I recommend both books highly.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

We Remember the Fallen

"In every war women like Alice House waited and worried, never knowing when to expect a visit from a military chaplain or a telegram beginning with that pulse-stopping first line: 'The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that...' And if that notification did come, their lives were instantly shattered. 'There are no words to describe how I felt. I was so empty,' Theresa O. Davis wrote thirty years after her son, Richard was killed in Vietnam. 'I pretended to be brave. But inside, the empty space just grew bigger.'"
   --Andrew Carroll,  in War Letters

The surge may be working--many of our troops are trying to extend a hand to the Iraqis and people in Afghanistan. Slowly we are beginning to learn that you do not change hearts and minds with bombs and guns. And still our young men and women die month after month. Remember the fallen and their families.

Sgt. Ralph Mena / age 27 / Hutchinson, KS / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Tikrit, Iraq / May 4, 2010.

Airman 1st Class Austin H. Gates-Benson / age 19 / Hellertown, PA / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident near Khyber, Afghanistan,/ May 3, 2010.

1st Lt. Salvatore S. Corma / age 24 / Wenonah, NJ / Died of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit using roadside bombs at Forward Operating Base Bullard in Zabul province, Afghanistan. / April 29, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Thomas E. Rivers, Jr. / age 22 / Birmingham, AL / Died while suppporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / April 28, 2010.

Sgt. Nathan P. Kennedy / age 24 / Claysville, PA / Died of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit using small arms fire near Quarando Village, Afghanistan / April 27, 2010.

Sgt. Keith A. Coe / age 30 / Auburndale, FL / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with an explosive devoce in Khalis, Iraq / April 27, 2010.

Sgt. Grant A. Wichmann / age 27 / Golden, COL / Died at Walter Reed Army Hospital, DC of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit at Out Post Bari Alai, Afghanistan, March 12 / April 24, 2010.

Sgt. Anthony O. Magee / age 29 / Hattiesburg, MS / Died at Landstuhl Medical Center, Germany of wounds sustained April 24 when enemy forces attacked his unit with indirect fire in Babil province, Iraq  / April 24, 2010.

Sgt. Ronald Alam Kubik / age 22 / Brielle, NJ / One of two soldiers that died of wounds sustained during a firefight with enemy forces in Logar province, Afghanistan / April 23, 2010.

Sgt. Jason Anthony Santora / age 25 /Massapequa Park, NY / The second soldier killed in that firefight in Logar province, Afghanistan / April 23, 2010.

Command Sgt. Maj. John K. Laborde / age 53 / Waterloo, IOWA / Died of injuries sustained from  a non-combat related incident at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan / April 22, 2010.

Sgt. Robert J.  Barrett / age 21 / Fall River, MASS / Died from injuries sustained when a suicide bomber attacked his unit in Kabul, Afghanistan / April 19, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Christopher D. Worrell / age 35 / Virginia Beach, VA / Died of injuries sustained during a non-combat related incident in Baghdad, Iraq / April 22, 2010.

Pfc. Charlie C. Antonio / age 28 / Kahului, HAWAII / Died of injuries sustained in a  non-combat related incident in Annassar, Iraq / April 18, 2010.

Staff Sgt. James R. Patton / age 23 / Fort Benning, GA / Died of injuries sustained when his Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a Iraqi-US raid in Tikrit, Iraq / April 18, 2010.

Sgt. Randolph  A. Sigley / age 28 / Richmond, KY / Sigley was found dead at Bagram Air Base in Baghram, Afghanistan / April 18, 2010.

Sgt. Michael K. Ingram, Jr. / age 23 / Monroe, MICH / Died of wounds suffered when a roadside bomb detonated in Kandahar, Afghanistan / April 17, 2010.

Sgt. Sean M. Durkin / age 24 / Aurora, COL / Wounded April 9, when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, Afghanistan / died at Walter Reed Hospital, DC / April 9, 2010.

Cpl. Michael D. Jankiewicz / age 23 / Romsey, NJ / Killed along with two US Airmen and a government contractor when their CV-22 Osprey crashed in Zabul province, Afghanistan / April 9, 2010.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Night Artur Rubenstein came to town

We all have our Mama stories. One of my favorites must have happened when I was in the seventh or eighth grade. My mother never had many advantages in many ways. Married at sixteen, worked in a cotton mill until her retirement, her world was small. Family, mill, church were the parameters of her life.

But she was determined her boys would have more chances than she had. Early she introduced me my brother and me to books and encouraged us to read. Our little four-room house was filled with books. Discovering I had an interest in music she pieced together enough money to buy a good used piano. I never thought about the sacrifices that purchase must have cost until years later. That purchase was followed by weekly piano lessons and encouragement to practice, practice, practice.

One day the piano teacher told my mother she thought it would be a good thing for me to go to a concert and to hear a great pianist play. My mother knew no classical music and knew the names of no concert pianists. So she bought the tickets and waited for the night to come.

One afternoon after work she told me this was the day. After supper she put on her Sunday clothes, made sure I was presentable and we walked to the corner and waited for the bus. We rode three miles downtown and then transferred to another bus that would take us to the High School five miles away where the concert would be held.

We got off the bus and entered the crowded room. A woman pointed upstairs to where our seats would be. We found our places in the balcony and sat down. I looked around at a sea of faces. On the stage there was a beautiful grand piano. The lights dimmed. A small distinguished man dressed in a tuxedo came from behind the curtain and the audience began to applaud. My mother whispered, “That’s Artur Rubenstein! They say he’s one of the greatest pianists there is.” The room was quiet as the great man began to play.

I had never heard music like that before. I was mesmerized by the man at the piano and the music that washed over me. Once in a while my Mother would look at me, squeeze my hand and smile. It was her first concert, too.

When the concert ended we walked out the door and waited for the bus. Finally the bus came and we rode to town, got on a second bus to take us home. We must have gotten home about eleven o’clock which was late for someone who had to be at work the next morning at seven.

That night was the opening of a door. Maybe my mother knew there would be a great many events that would follow that night. There would be high school and college and trips that would take me north and west and friends from all over. There would be books to read and other nights sitting in other balconies waiting for the music to begin. There would be a bride in Kentucky and two children my mother dearly loved. There would be churches and vacations and a world so much larger than she, or I had never envisioned. She never complained about the sacrifices she had made or the constrictions of her hard life. What she did do was what all good mothers do—she opened a door.

After the sudden death of his little daughter Mark Twain wrote that grief is like the burning down of one’s house. It will take years and years to reckon with the loss. I still reckon with the loss of my mother. But I have also learned another lesson. It has taken me years and years to look back down that long road and reckon with the blessings my Mother brought my way.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes

"I have woven a parachute out of everything broken."
          --William Stafford

What would you say if the Doctor said you had the most aggressive kind of brain tumor and there was no cure? Bill Cash sat in the Doctor’s office two years ago and was told after an operation his chances of survival was less than 50% the first year and only 25% the second year. The Oncologist told him his cancer was Stage 4.

In June 2008 they removed the tumor and they told Bill he would be lucky to be around in 14 months. So he began a hard regiment of radiation and chemo which lasted a year. He finished his last treatment four days before his daughter’s wedding in Charleston. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it—but we went and I danced at that wedding reception.”

Bill Cash is a stubborn man. He refused to give in to this cancer in his head. He had always exercised and five days after surgery he began to work out again. Slowly he began to swim and lift weights. Three months after surgery he had already run in two 5K races with the encouragement of his son. One year after surgery Bill finished a Triathlon.

Bill was CEO of a Pharmaceutical Management Company he had founded. He decided to sell his business in 2009 and devote his energy to other opportunities.

He went back to his doctor in September 2009 and the MRI showed no traces of cancer. Bill celebrates his two-year anniversary this June. Oncologists at UAB (University of Alabama in Birmingham) encouraged him to tell his story and help others who struggle with brain tumors.

Sitting in the sunlight, drinking coffee one morning, Bill had a smile on his face. “They cut a hole in my skull took out a plug, dug out the cancer and stapled the plug back into my head. It’s been two years and I’m still here.”

I asked him what helped. He said his wife and family helped greatly. He and Kathy have been married for 40 years. Over and over she would encourage him and remind him how important it was just to keep fighting. His son and daughter and their families helped—they gave him a reason to live.

Doctors helped too, he said. He followed their orders, had round after round of chemo which lasted a year and used their expertise to help him get back on his feet.

And then he added something I found most significant. “You can’t just rely on doctors or anyone else—but you have to do some things for yourself.” He discovered that that a healthy diet was essential for his well-being. Bill said that a large variety of fruits and vegetables helped reduce inflammation in the cancer. “I have given up sugar, white bread and unfortunately things like pizza are a thing of the past.” He said this new way of approaching food has helped produce powerful antioxidants which support the healing process.

Solitude became very important to Bill. He confessed that his Type A personality had not given him much time just to sit and be still. “There was something about the quiet that brought me great peace,” he said. Nights when he could not sleep he would sit on his porch in the dark and padding behind him would be his 120 pound German shepherd, Samson. “He would sit there as close as he could get and just look up at me. From time to time he would put his paws on my lap and lick me in the face. My dog has helped save my life.”

Bill has always been a person of faith. But he said church took on a whole new meaning after his surgery. He found himself surrounded by church members and Sunday school class members that kept in touch and took him out to coffee every week. He told me that his favorite Scripture verse is: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. “That’s my mantra,” he said, “When I woke up from surgery the first words out of my mouth were those two verses from Philippians. Faith kept me going—still does.”

Work helped, too. But he has turned his attention to other people. He doesn’t have much time to worry about himself.  After consulting with neurologists and Doctors at UAB he established a foundation. Gaining Life Initiative Foundation helps people who have gone through what he has experienced. After the first several months his foundation presented UAB with a $100,000 research grant. He hopes to raise five million dollars in the next four years. That money will be used to help the UAB Neuro-oncology program with research which he hopes will extend the life expectancy of those with this dreaded cancer.

He told me, “This scary experience changes you. You appreciate every day. I’ve got hope I never even thought about. At Church the hymns just get me—maybe it’s the music but I just feel myself welling up at the wonder of being alive. I get up every morning thankful just to be here.”

Bill Cash, who is not supposed to be alive, is finding his way. He doesn’t do it alone. He has discovered that family helps. His physicians and specialists certainly help. Taking control of the parts of life he can change has been a great benefit. Healthy eating and consistent exercise keep him going. He is finding strength in solitude and in his faith. And he rolls up his sleeves and reaches out to help others who walk this same scary path he has walked.

The poet, William Stafford confessed that “I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” Bill Cash would understand those words. He has taken his own broken things and the parachute he continues to weave is something to behold.

(If you are interested in learning more about the Gaining Life Foundation try their Web site: