Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Parting Glimpses of Lives Well Lived: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday liturgy, Book of Common Prayer

On this day Christians reflect on the finitude of every living being including ourselves. Ash Wednesday begins the six weeks period of Lent, a time for reflection and introspection. Sister Death is very near to me these days having lost a sister-in-law, our beloved beagle and most recently my father in the last year. I begin this Lenten period of reflection on my own mortality and the quality of the life I have lived with this brief meditation.   

I spent the day in Bushnell last Friday. It’s the small town in which my Dad was born, spent most of his life and recently died. Eleven years of my own life were spent there as well from the middle of first grade through high school. In some ways, it’s still the same small town I remember. In others, it has changed beyond recognition.

The small downtown that once housed the only businesses in town is largely empty with antique stores and beauty parlors replacing drug stores and barber shops, local restaurants now closed and a number of those old structures now torn down completely. The IGA grocery store, whose Boy's Contest I won as a middle schooler sending me to Los Angeles for a week, has been replaced by a new CVS pharmacy. A Dollar Store stands in the place the A&P once sold 8 O’Clock Coffee, fresh ground on site. I could swear a little of that wonderful aroma still lingered in the air as I sat in its parking lot Friday remembering the day the packing house fire across the street was so intense it broke out the store’s windows.  

The dirt road that ran from the rental house in which we first lived to the downtown is now being four-laned. It is the main access to the exit on nearby I-75, the de facto business district today with its sprawling Walmart, hotels and chain restaurants.  The downtown that once had a single blinking light where US 301 made a 90 degree turn before heading to points south now sports a handful of full traffic lights and an increasing number of traffic backups.

The idea of traffic jams in Bushnell, whose population hovered around 800 the decade I lived there, was an ongoing joke during my childhood. But today Bushnell is becoming an exurb, the last "undeveloped" (sic) area perched on the outer rings of urban sprawl one hour north of Tampa and one hour west of Orlando, the stepchild of the Stepfordesque Villages which have consumed the northern end of the county.  

With the handling of my father’s estate and the eventual sale of our family home, my remaining ties to that once little town are slowly slipping away.

Little Heartaches that Blindside Us

The morning was taken up meeting with my Dad’s financial advisor to see what investments I now need to distribute as the personal representative (executor) of his estate. After all those numbers, I needed a little ride around town to clear my head. Wave after wave of childhood memories flooded my mind as I rode down tree lined streets where family friends long gone once lived. I would spend the afternoon continuing the process of cleaning out our family home.

There is no small amount of heartache in dismantling a family home. My Dad and brother and I cleared our 11 acres on which my best friend’s father built our house. We moved there in 1964 and for most of my life, this has been the place I called home. Letting go of this house, its wooded acres through which the setting sun glints and glitters each afternoon, its hundreds of azaleas, camellias and a small grove of citrus trees evidencing the success of hard won protection from killing frosts, will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

It is a rather classic illustration of my frequently voiced belief that “Life is a series of lessons on letting go. The last thing we have to let go is our Self.”

There are so many unexpected concerns with varying degrees of urgency that emerge without warning in dealing with an estate. Have the property taxes been paid? What about the insurance? How long are the power and telephone paid? How much are the housekeeper and grounds keeper owed? What bills might be outstanding that need payment immediately?

But it is the little heartaches that blindside the survivors of deceased parents now dealing with the loss of their family home that often prove most difficult.

One of those moments of unanticipated grief came from submitting the change of address form at the USPS website that will forward all of Daddy’s mail to my Orlando address. I’ve needed to get into that mail box to see what bills and notices might be there since he died a month ago. But his key ring was thrown away along with his clothing the night he went into the hospital. Among the keys that vanished that night was the key to the mailbox.

Something as simple as closing a mailbox is rarely the stuff of grieving. But P.O. Box 243 had been my ultimate home address since we first moved to Bushnell in 1959. All of my applications to colleges and most of my jobs bore that home address. I even remembered the combination needed to open the box door right up until it was replaced by the key a few years ago.

There was a finality about closing that box that caused me to hesitate ever so slightly before hitting the submit button at the online USPS site. A very subtle but foundational thread of my life story died at that moment and I have to confess that I wept when I got the confirmation email that the box was now closed.

A much more poignant moment came when I cleared the voice mail from my Dad’s telephone. He had accrued 36 messages during his three weeks in the hospital before the message service overflowed and would not allow any more to be left. Most of them were doctor appointment reminders and calls from the local CVS to remind him that his medication was ready.

But there were several personal messages from my Dad’s friends, one of whom he had known for virtually all of his 90 years of life. The messages bore the evidence of his friends’ increasing anxiousness about his welfare as the reality began to dawn upon them that they were losing him.

One set of messages was particularly hard to hear. They came from a buddy from his teaching days who visited him regularly often bringing him homemade soup. The plaintiff voice repeatedly asked, “Sam, where are you? I’ve been trying to find you and no one seems to know where you have gone. Please call me when you can.”

Truth be told, it’s hard for me to even write those words. Hearing them was absolutely agonizing. Indeed, as I sat at his computer listening to those messages, pen in hand to take down any vital information, it occurred to me how well they expressed exactly what I was feeling:

Daddy, where are you? I want to talk to you. God, I miss you.

Glimpses of Lives Well Lived

My family didn’t have a lot of valuable things, at least not in monetary terms. That wasn’t who either of my parents were and the three of their children have largely inherited their priorities. With the exception of a couple of family heirlooms, their furnishings were pretty ordinary and those which none of us will take into our own already crowded homes will likely end up at the Goodwill. Even so, it is hard to see rooms emptying of ordinary objects that once made possible a very rich life in that home.

Neither of my parents were prone to throw away anything. I have smiled repeatedly as I’ve gone through my mother’s things, still sitting on the same closet shelves where she left them 10 years ago, in boxes of orderly filed documents. The office manager for a USDA agency for 25 years, she knew how to file and erred on the side of keeping a paper trail of everything. Among those files were statements from the Tropical State Bank in Sebring from 1956, newspaper clippings of Jimmy Carter’s election and every Christmas and birthday card she’d received for the last several decades of her life.

My Dad simply didn’t have the heart to throw all those things out. Perhaps it was the last piece of her he still had and he held onto it as long as he could.

I began working in what used to be the bedroom my brother and I shared until I graduated from high school and moved away from Bushnell the next day. It had become my Dad’s sorting room the last couple of years. He would always say to me that he needed to get in there and get some things sorted through but just hadn’t gotten around to it.

I decided to begin the cleaning out process there. And I quickly saw why he never got around to that project.

Drawers that used to hold cut off teenaged boys’ shorts and tee-shirts now contained bushels of cards, letters and photographs. Mother had kept every card from their 50th wedding anniversary in 2000 and even some of the bows from their gifts. I found myself smiling as I remembered what a wonderful day that had been. Many members of my parents’ families of birth had travelled miles to be present and much of the little town where they had spent the majority of their years together turned out to celebrate as well.

On the bed was another pile of cards and photos. As I began to look closely at them, I realized they were all the sympathy cards my Dad had received when my Mother died 10 years ago. And there in the middle of them were the last photos taken of my Mother, her emaciated face staring into the camera, that spark of life that had always glistened in her eyes already gone. And she would be, too, within four days of the photos being taken.

Seeing her image in those final moments of suffering ripped open wounds that I thought had long ago healed. Even 10 years later, seeing her like that was agonizing. The intense conflict I had felt – absolutely not wanting to let go of her but absolutely praying she’d die to end her suffering – all came crashing back.

I could see why my Dad never got around to going through those things. It was, no doubt, too painful for him. Indeed, I almost felt like a traitor as I stuffed armfuls of cards and letters with words of congratulations and sympathy into garbage bags to be recycled. There is something quite odd about watching years of life events and stories going into black plastic bags headed for a recycling bin. I found myself asking the question Peggy Lee’s classic 1960s hit so pointedly posed: “So, is that all there is?”

But perhaps this sorting process is what is necessary to begin healing, to work through the dull thudding pain of loss held at bay most of the time by urgent matters of the estate needing my attention, pain that threatens to erupt without warning into immediate, unbearable agony with the next photograph or handwritten note, its author, too, now long dead. I suspect that the only way to get past that pain is to go through it. Indeed, between moments of hysterical laughter and deep, uncontrollable sobbing, I can feel my soul slowly relinquishing its grasp on these lives I have so cherished for so long.

Truth be told, I don’t want to let go. But it is clearly time to do so. And even as I somberly carry these bags bulging with the last tangible reminders of lives well lived but now over out to my car, now destined for recycling plants, I am aware of an immense gratitude for the privilege of having shared those lives and the life lessons I bring away with me.

Leaving the Woods Behind

We are a long way from having the family home ready for sale. That we will need to sell it is clear. Neither of my siblings are interested in moving back to Bushnell and while I love being in what is left of those woods, I know I cannot live in that small town again. There is a reason I moved away the day after graduating from high school.

Between now and then, the three of us will need to finish cleaning out the remaining items on shelves and moving out the remaining furniture. I will no doubt scavenge the beautiful yard my Dad and I spent so many years creating seeking any plants I can dig up to replant in my jungle yard here in the city. 

More than once as I have taken breaks from the sorting process to walk our beautiful wooded property I have found myself smiling as I realize that, like my home in the heart of Orlando, you can’t see our house in Bushnell from the highway, either. Apparently, this nut didn’t fall far from the tree.   

I will have much to ponder this Lenten season. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


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