Friday, December 11, 2009

The Christmas List

I felt unusually good as I turned off the busy roadway toward home—maybe I would be ready for Christmas after all.
I had a tree in the trunk of my car—not just a tree, a beautiful tree. I had my eye on it from the moment I entered the tree farm; but the price was higher than I planned on spending. As I turned to leave a gentlemen selling trees stopped me.
"You know they're all half price!"
"Great—then I'll take that one right over there!"
As he bound the tree and prepared to put it in the trunk I went inside to pay the cashier.
"Check that off my list," I thought as I backed out of the lot. There was still so much to do. I turned up the Christmas music and headed home.

It had been less than two months since the night of my husband's dreadful hit and run motorcycle accident—the night he had been left for dead in the middle of a dark busy road only a mile from our home; weeks filled with surgeries and doctor's visits—not much time to plan and shop.

But I made a list and checked "things to do" off daily. I could not believe that I was almost at the end of my list.
—Bake cookies.
—Few last minute gifts.
—Meal for Henry...

Henry came into our life a few years earlier and we watched as he struggled to keep a roof over his head. Mental illness and other disabilities caused him to fall further and further behind until he was finally evicted from his home. He spent a Christmas Eve with us that year which turned into a number of weeks. He was so grateful that we allowed him to stay, that he kept us in firewood that winter—supplying us with wood from some of his clearing jobs. He could singlehandedly down a tree faster than anyone I had ever seen.

Now Henry was completely homeless. I heard he was living off the side of the road; first in his truck, until someone allowed him to stay in a small work trailer on the property. It had been an unusually cold November followed by a chilling early December.

Perhaps it was exposure—Henry ended up in the hospital the second week into December with symptoms of pneumonia. He was released but still not well. One day he asked my son if he could stop by and clean up for a doctor's appointment. When I spoke to him that day I was once again taken back by his personable manner. I asked him how he was feeling—we talked for a while.
"It's nice talking to you again Mary."

It was then that I added Henry to my list.
—Make a meal for Henry and take it to him—perhaps Christmas Eve.
It was sad to see him in this condition. My hands were full—but I could certainly make him a meal.

As I neared the curve before my road snow began falling lightly on the windshield. Beautiful tree in the trunk—snow falling—maybe it will be a white Christmas after all!
Suddenly without any visible warning a deer ran down a hill hidden from sight and crashed headlong into the side of my car. The jolt brought the car to a sudden stop and I sat stunned, realizing I had hit something big. I had never hit anything before in my life.

I got out of my car and walked back to the deer—something drivers are warned never to do—but I did. He was lying still, alive—eyes open; but he appeared to be dying.
I began to cry,"I'm so sorry—I'm so sorry!"

For the first time since my husband's accident, the reality of someone leaving a human being in the middle of a dark road, knowing they could be hit by other cars and trucks, hit me. The memory of the state police coming to my door in the middle of the night, holding Ed's helmet and tattered shirt, shocked me. My husband was truly left for dead. Whoever left him there was brought to an abrupt stop, just as I was. Yet that person drove off and left him there to die.

I got back into my car and headed home, figuring I would call the police and report the deer's location.
The excitement of finding a tree had diminished.

Later that evening my son received a call. It was the police. At first I thought it might have to do with the deer, but soon realized this was even more serious. He stopped answering questions long enough to tell me that Henry was found dead in the trailer. Henry was not an old man—this was so unexpected.
He had apparently died in his sleep, possibly from his illness. The police realized he was homeless and were calling contacts found on his cell phone trying to get information.
I felt so saddened—the very last item on my list. I would not be making a meal for Henry.

The more I thought about him the more I wondered, had he also been left for dead off the side of the road? Was I guilty as well?

As I check off the items on my list this year I am reminded of Henry and realize that we all leave others for dead to a greater of lesser degree. We all have Henrys in our lives. They may not be homeless—but they are those who have not been able to keep up with the world, for one reason or another.
The last item on my list may very well be the most important thing I have "to do."

But Henry did have a special Christmas dinner the night he died we later found out. Another homeless man prepared a special meal for him over a camp fire earlier that night; fillet mignon —and they enjoyed it together. I am very thankful for that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Lessons from the Annex

  1. Writer’s Retreat: Four rooms, shared with eight individuals of various ages and temperaments. Share bedroom with one moody middle aged gentleman. Small child’s metal desk in corner provided. All curtains drawn during daylight, windows blackened in the evening. Music not permitted. No walking or activity between the hours of 8am and 5pm. Sunlight and fresh air limited; can be taken in occasionally from attic skylight. Must stay for two years. Only serious inquiries, please.

…..Any takers?

Yet, from this “retreat” came
The Diary of Anne Frank—and eventually more than 18 million copies printed in 52 languages. After the Bible, it is believed to be the most widely read book in the world. Why has this diary so impacted the world? That question has been addressed by many writers far more qualified than I, so I will narrow the question down considerably. Why has this book so impacted me?

I read the diary in junior high school, when I was the age of Anne Frank, but reread it several years ago with greater interest. Journaling had become very important in my life over the past few decades. The contents of my first book, “
One Family’s Journey through Alzheimer’s,” published by Tyndale House in November of 2000, came directly from the contents of eight years of journaling.
After reading the book the second time I was deeply moved. But the greater impact was to be felt one month later.

The following is from my journal,
October 11, 2001.

"It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to realize them!"
Yours, Anne M. Frank

This is, in my estimation the most powerful quote in Ann Franke's diary.
Today is the one month anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, the Pentagon, and the downing of a passenger plane in PA. We are being warned by the FBI that there is cause to believe there could be another attack within the next few days.
I marvel at how our world has been transformed since I read this in
The Dairy of Anne Frank a little over a month ago. At the time, I tried to put myself in her place; living in dread of being discovered, hearing the bombing raids night and day. I closed the book, savoring the great freedom I have enjoyed all of my life. Now suddenly we have, in a very real way, lost some of that freedom. No, we are not enclosed in a four room hiding place, but hemmed in by fear of the unknown—possible imminent evil plans of these terrorists.
In a very real way "
I feel the suffering of".. thousands; people whose bodies will never be recovered, their families grieving, reeling from the utter shock of their loss.
I honestly do not fear for myself. The Lord is my shepherd and it is under the shadow of His wings that I reside.

The tendency I have felt, as others have is to put life on hold. Everything seems so insignificant in the light of all these tragic events. But reading Anne's journal has encouraged me to press on in striving for those goals I had previously set—continue writing. I was amazed at the reading and studying that took place within those four walls in those two years. Ann's father provided an uninterrupted stream of materials for her and her sister to study. Their response could have been to despond and stop living, but instead they continued to live as best they could, with as much structure as possible, under such adverse conditions.
No, there was not a happy ending, quite the contrary; but that does not render her journal less instructive. It is the very fact that her journal came to an abrupt close that speaks volumes to our world—the profound reality of the evil mankind is capable of.
There is so much to be learned through it.

Now, years later, I find myself thinking about the diary once again. I believe there are several important lessons, especially for writers, to be gleaned from Anne’s words and example.

A cabin in the woods, bungalow on a tropical beach—although either one sounds mighty inviting to me—is not essential to peace of mind and creativity. In “annex” settings, writing becomes the sandy beach—the very necessary diversion for survival.
Although most will never endure such a horrendous ordeal, we all go through our own inescapable “annex” experiences. Situations where we feel like victims—we did not ask for it, we did not cause it, but here we are. When serious illness strikes a loved one, divorce tears a precious family apart, or any number of serious life crises takes over our life and attention, we are enclosed in our own “annex,” unsure how we will survive— if we will survive.

Courage, as clearly demonstrated by the Frankes is moving on despite despair. Certainly Anne and her family displayed remarkable courage. The example of Otto Franke, Anne’s father, providing his daughters with books and a continuous supply of learning materials was admirable. It was courageous in view of their uncertain future.

Writing, at times becomes a courageous act. It is not easy—but it becomes essential to survival. And survival writing, often escapes the confines, travels freely into the future and finds its place in the hearts and minds of others in need of what you have learned while residing within that annex experience.
Anne Franke did not know that her diary would be freed from the annex. But she hoped, and steadfastly recorded her thoughts and dreams, until the evil they feared overcame them and led them to their dreadful end.
—But that was not the end after all, was it?
Her words could not be captured, abused or exterminated but traveled freely into the future, and have impacted the lives of millions of readers.

Dreaming of that cabin in the woods? Dream about it, yes—but it may never become a reality. Sit yourself down at that little metal desk in the corner and dare to write. No music allowed? Play it loudly within your heart and soul. Music, just as the written word is a medium that transcends circumstance. Prayer, music and the written word; three powerful mediums, that cannot be contained, each with power to impact and change lives. Perhaps that is why the great hymns, a combination of all three, have come through the ages and still lift the spirit above circumstance. They transcended the bondage of the cotton fields, freeing the spirits of the slaves.
Curtains drawn and everything appears dreary? Writing will let some needed sunlight in. It will take courage, but you will be the victor in the long run.

—And time will only tell how many others may benefit.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Father before me

From my earliest remembrance—there was the typewriter.