You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
Guideposts Books (April 1, 2013)
***Special thanks to Rick Roberson for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rick Hamlin's books include his memoir Finding God on the A Train and several novels. He is the Executive Editor of Guideposts Magazine and has been a contributor to Daily Guideposts since 1985 and blogs about prayer at Guideposts.org. He and his wife Carol live in New York City.
Visit the author's website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Real-life encouragement for a very personal relationship with God.
In 10 Prayers You Can't Live Without, Guideposts executive editor Rick Hamlin shares ten real-life ways of praying to our loving God. It includes the practical insight Hamlin has gained about prayer from the everyday men and women in the pages of Guideposts magazine and from his own lifelong journey in prayer.
Readers will be encouraged that prayer is an ongoing conversation, that God wants them to talk about anything. They'll read about the power of prayers around the dinner table, how to give themselves a time and place for prayer every day, praying in a crisis; asking for forgiveness, praying the Psalms, and how to listen to the spiritual nudges God gives us.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Guideposts Books (April 1, 2013)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Pray at Mealtime
“Bless this food to our use, us to your service, and bless the hands that prepared it.”
It all started with a nightly blessing.
My father’s rambling graces were famous in the neighborhood. Whenever one of us invited a friend over for dinner we usually warned, “Dad always starts dinner with a prayer. Just bow your head. Don’t eat anything until Dad says amen.
“And it might take him a while to get there.”
I was one of four kids, each of us two years apart. We lived in an LA suburb that looked like any suburb we saw on TV. Our street was lined with palm trees that wrapped themselves around my kites. We had rosebushes in front, an orange tree and a flowering pear that dropped white petals in January like snow. The flagstone walk was lined with yellow pansies leading to a red front door.
We ate dinner in a room Mom insisted on calling the lanai. It had once been a back porch and had been converted with the help of plate glass, sliding glass doors, screens and a corrugated fiberglass roof that made a tremendous racket when the rain hit it. But this was Southern California so it wasn’t often.
Dad came in from his commute on the freeway, kissed Mom, hung up his jacket, poured himself a drink, checked out the news on TV. One of us kids set the table. Mom took the casserole out of the oven with big orange pot holders and set it on the counter. “Ta-da!” she exclaimed. She tossed the salad in a monkey pod bowl they had picked up on a trip to Hawaii. “Dinner!” she called in her high-pitched, musical voice. “Dinner’s ready.”
We converged on the lanai from different parts of the house, my sisters from their rooms upstairs or the sewing room where my older sister, Gioia, was always re-hemming a skirt in the constant battle of fashion vs. school rules. I seem to remember a three-by-five card being slid between the floor and the bottom of her skirts when she was kneeling. The hem had to touch the card or the girls’ vice principal would send her home. My older brother and I slept in a converted garage, which was convenient for whatever motor vehicle he was working on. Howard could roll the minibike or go-cart right into the room from the driveway. No steps to climb. I slept with the familiar smell of gasoline, and my brother had to put up with the old upright piano next to my bed.
We were as different as two boys could be. He never held a tool he didn’t know how to use. I never heard a Broadway show that I didn’t want to learn the lyrics to. He was physical, mechanical. He could fix anything. He was outdoors racing the minibike up and down the driveway with his neighborhood fan base cheering him on. I was inside, listening to a new LP, learning a song inside my head. I was overly sensitive. He pretended to be thick-skinned.
It’s a wonder we didn’t pummel each other, although as the older brother by twenty-two months, he pummeled me enough. I didn’t circulate in his orbit. Not even close. Howard would wake me up early in the morning to go work on one of his forts and I would find an excuse to return to the house to work on a watercolor. Sometimes we had great talks as we were falling asleep. Most of the time, though, we did our own thing, Howard soaking an engine part in a Folgers coffee can of motor oil, me studying the liner notes for a record album.
Then came the blessing.
Dad’s graces were a call to worship, an effort to pull these disparate family members together, to get us all on the same page. We gathered at the big teak table and the dog was sent outside to bark. We squirmed, we giggled, we kicked each other under the table, we rolled our eyes, but we were forced to see that we were all one and we had to be silent for a minute or two. We scraped our chairs against the linoleum floor (eventually it was covered with a lime- green indoor-outdoor carpet). We left homework, the kite caught in the tree, the news on TV, the seat for the minibike, the Simplicity pattern laid out on the floor, the rolls in the oven. We rushed in from school meetings and play practice and afterschool jobs. My younger sister, Diane, put her hamster Hamdie back in his cage and we could hear the squeak of the animal running to nowhere on his wheel.
“Let us reflect on the day,” Dad began. We closed our eyes.
Then he paused.
There was a whole world in that pause. Silence. Nothing to do but think. I have been in Quaker meetings where we sat in silence waiting for the Spirit to move and it was just like that pause. I have worshipped in churches where the minister was wise enough to be quiet for a moment as soon as we bowed our heads. Every Monday in our office we gather in a conference room at 9:45 and read prayer requests that have come in to us over the past week; then we close our eyes, pausing in silence before we remember those requests.
At first all you hear is ambient noise. The drone of an air conditioner, the hum of a computer, a car passing by, my sister’s hamster squeaking in his cage, your stomach rumbling. You think, “That hamster wheel needs some WD-40. . . . That car needs a new muffler. . . . Boy, I’m hungry.” Then you listen to what’s going on in your head.
Back then my head was spinning with a million thoughts. I was replaying what my best friend and I had talked about under the walnut tree at school or what Miss McGrath had said about my paper in class or what I wished I could say to the cute girl who sat behind me. What I wished she thought about me. Reflect on the day? There was too much noise going on inside. What did that have to do with prayer?
All we had to do was listen to Dad. Like a great preacher warming up, he cleared his throat and began, usually with something he heard on the radio or saw on TV.
“God, I ask you to be with us in the coming election,” he prayed. “May the voters make the right choices in the primary.”
“Remember our president as he makes his State of the Union address.
“Be with our astronauts in tomorrow’s flight. “Remember the Dodgers in tonight’s playoffs.
“We are sorry about those who suffered from the recent tornadoes. “We mourn the death of your servant Dr. Martin Luther King.” “It’s like the six o’clock news,” one of my brother’s friends said. “You
don’t need the radio or the TV. You can get all the headlines from your dad’s grace at dinnertime.” Prayer can be a way of conveying information. It can be the means of processing history, even recent history. Think of all those passages in the Psalms that rehash the Israelites wandering in the desert:
“Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” (Psalm 95:10, kjv).
A modern-day psalmist in a button-down shirt and a bowtie, Dad prayed us through the 1960s and 1970s, the Watts riots, the flower power of Haight-Ashbury, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the stock market’s rise and fall, inflation, Kent State, Cambodia, Watergate, Nixon, Agnew, Ford, Carter. Dad dumped everything in his prayers, all the noise in his head, all the stuff he worried about. They were throw-everything-in-but-the-kitchen-sink prayers.
Let me extol the benefit of such prayers. First of all, this is a great way of dealing with the news.
I have friends who get so riled up about what they’ve seen on TV or read on the Internet or in the paper that they can’t sleep at night.
The first moment you see them you have to let them unload, let them chill. “I can’t believe what a terrible trap our president has got us into,” they’ll exclaim, or “Congress is ruining our nation” or “I just read a terrible story about corruption in government.” They’re so anxious that you can’t have a normal conversation until they’ve let go of their worries.
Of course, the news can be devastating. The headline splashed across the front of a newspaper in bold type sends a chill through me. The nightmarish scenario on the TV news has me double-locking the doors and tossing and turning at night. But most of those news stories were crafted to make us scared. Fear sells newspapers and magazines. The cover line about the ten most dangerous toys that can hurt your children makes you want to pick up that parenting magazine at the supermarket checkout. Fear about how your house might have a poisonous noxious gas seeping into it keeps you glued to the TV. Scary Internet headlines are designed to make you click through. You’re supposed to get upset.
I do. All the time. If I read too much bad news it puts me in a foul mood. Talk about controlling my thoughts. I once stared at a provocative headline in a tabloid at a newsstand and screamed right back at it. My nerves were jangled. Something about the wording set me off there at Madison and 34th Street, right around the corner from the office. I was so shocked I slunk away hoping no one had heard me. Who was that jerk making all that noise? What got into me? The tabloid could have winked and smiled back at me: Gotcha!
Bad news can become a dangerous loop in my head. It’s usually about stuff I have no control over: the national debt, the unemployment rate, the decline of the dollar, war, the weather, the poverty level, the stock market, the trade imbalance, the decline of the West, the decline of civility, growing pollution, the polar ice cap melting. It’s essential to be well informed. I’m a junkie for all kinds of news. Good thing all those reporters and columnists keep me up-to-date. But there’s no reason for the bad news to consume me.
If the news pulls you down it can rob you of the creativity you need to get your best work done. A study has shown that getting your blood pressure up by reading a depressing story in the news- paper or watching a disturbing report on television prevents your mind from doing the intuitive wandering it needs to make creative connections. That sounds like the work of prayer to me (and no, the article didn’t put it that way). Save the news for times when your mind doesn’t have to be at its best. Or take it in early and then toss it away.
Dad put the news back into God’s hands. He asked God to intervene in places God was not necessarily considered. What did God know about the Dow and runaway inflation? What would God think about Nixon and Watergate? The point was, if we were thinking about it, the good Lord deserved to hear it. The good Lord would care.
As Dad’s graces continued, he moved on to matters closer to home. “We look forward to seeing our daughter Gioia march in the drill team at the football game tonight, bless her,” he prayed. “Bless Rick at the piano recital on Sunday.”
“We’re grateful for the new minibike Howard bought. We pray that he uses it safely and ask him to receive your blessing.”
“We’re thankful for Diane’s good tennis match today.”
“We look forward to Back to School Night and meeting our children’s teachers. We know you know what good work they do. Bless them.”
What a valuable lesson in prayer and parenting. Dad prayed for us. He noticed what was going on in our lives. Not the secrets that lurked inside, like my crush on the girl who sat behind me in fifth grade, but the events that were on his radar. The football game, the homecoming parade, the senior class musical, a tennis tournament, finals, dance class, the prom. He paid attention. At Back to School Night he graded our teachers and came back home to tell us how they measured up, which was to say how we measured up. He wrote it all down on a piece of paper with letter grades. When he gave my fourth-grade teacher, Miss McCallum, an A, I felt like the luckiest kid on earth. You can never underestimate a child’s need for love and attention from his parents.
Francis McNutt, the great advocate for healing prayer, would often ask when he spoke to groups how many people remembered their parents praying for them. How many had heard their mother or father pray for them when they were sick, for instance? How many remembered a time when a parent had prayed out loud for them? Maybe twenty percent could recall a moment when their moms had prayed for them, but their dads? Only three percent of them.
I read that figure in astonishment, wondering how my father man- aged it, especially for a man of his generation, a buttoned-up World War II submarine veteran, the suffer-in-silence type. How did he ever learn to open up like this to us? How did he get over the natural embarrassment that comes from praying out loud in front of your loved ones? I’m far more the wear-it-on-my-sleeve sort, and even I fumble when I have to pray extemporaneously with my family. For Dad it came as naturally as breathing. There must have been something healing in it for him, blessing us and dinner every night.
I thought of Dad’s graces recently when we ran a story about a dad, Kevin Williamson, who, with his two teenagers, was celebrating his first Thanksgiving after his wife, Bev, had died of cancer.
Kevin didn’t want to get out of bed that morning, let alone celebrate. Long before his children were up, he trudged into the kitchen and got a cup of tea. The only sound was the rumble of the refrigerator. The quiet time reminded him of Bev and the mornings they had spent planning their days and their future, a future that had turned out different from what he’d ever imagined. The phone rang. It was their neighbor who was having them over to dinner. “Can I bring anything?” he asked.
“Just yourselves,” she said. “And bread . . . we could use some bread.” “Sure.” He figured he’d go out and buy some at whatever super- market was open. Then his eye landed on his wife’s recipe box still sitting on the counter. He thought of Bev’s yeast rolls, the same recipe that had been handed down in his own family for generations. His mother had taught Bev to make them. He could remember
the scent of them wafting from the wood-burning stove at his great- grandmother’s home. Kevin found the recipe card, written in his own mother’s handwriting. He put on an apron, got out a mixing bowl and lined up the ingredients on the counter.
“What are you making?” his daughter asked, wandering into the kitchen sleepy-eyed.
“Mom’s yeast rolls.” He stirred the yeast into warm water, beat an egg, added the flour, kneaded the dough and let it rise. He separated the dough in balls and put them on a baking sheet. Perfect for dinner. But there was still some left over.
Bev had always made an early batch just for the family. Maybe he could do the same. With the leftover dough he made a few more rolls and put them in the oven. Soon the kitchen smelled like all those Thanksgivings of the past. He thought of Bev, how she made her family laugh, how she taught them to love and to live. The timer buzzed. He took the pan out of the oven, then called his kids into the kitchen.
“Let’s all have one,” he said, putting the rolls on a plate.
They sat at the kitchen table and joined hands, and he bowed his head to say grace. “God, it’s been a tough year for us. We miss Bev so much. We thank you for the time we had with her. We’re grateful for the little reminders, each day, of her presence in our lives still. And we’re blessed that we have one another.”
The story was from Kevin’s point of view, not the kids’, but I don’t doubt they were suffering the loss of their mom just as acutely and were comforted by their dad’s grace. They knew they had been loved and still were.
My dad’s prayers were filled with his love for us and for Mom. He prayed for President Nixon, the astronauts, Sandy Koufax and us. We were on equal footing with the famous people who dominated the news. We were stars. What he couldn’t always articulate in a conversation he could say in a prayer. He bowed his head and his heart opened up. He told us the good things he thought of us.
Dad was a far more complicated person than my straightforward, sunny-tempered mother. He worried more, hurt more, suffered more and internalized most of it. He smoked, he drank—the clink of ice cubes in a glass was an enduring part of the soundtrack of my child- hood. He could be self-involved. He got angry and didn’t know how to express the anger. He could burst out in a frightening tirade, most often directed against himself. The sound of Dad throwing his tennis racket against the fence and chastising himself—“Thornt!!”—was a familiar feature of Sunday’s mixed doubles with Mom. You could tell which rackets were his in the hall closet because they were usually bent or patched up with tape. But in his prayers he loved and was lovable.
From Dad’s graces I picked up a tool I use almost every day when I pray. It’s one of the most valuable things I know and it was a long time before I recognized how helpful it was. When you close your eyes to pray and start listening to your heart, you’re going to face a slew of distractions. You’ll hear a kid bouncing a basketball down the sidewalk, a radiator will rattle, a bus’s brakes will squeak. You’ll start thinking of all the stuff you need to get accomplished that day, and soon you’ll exclaim, “Geez, what am I doing? I haven’t prayed at all.”
Dad’s graces were frequently interrupted. Our dog Andy barked. The next-door neighbor’s dog barked. The phone rang. A passing car honked. Mom’s kitchen timer went off. We started to giggle.
Dad put the interruptions right into the prayer: “God, be with our dog Andy. Help him protect us.”
“Thank you for our daughter’s popularity. We know that whoever is calling for her will call back.” In case Gioia hadn’t dashed to the phone already.
“Bless Mom’s rolls in the oven. We look forward to eating them.” In case Mom hadn’t gone to get them.
“Bless our children’s high spirits. You know their energy is a good thing.”
If you fight an interruption in a prayer, it becomes much bigger. If you fold it into the prayer loop, it becomes part of the weave of your thoughts, the cord that becomes your lifeline. Even monks who devoted hours to meditation, star athletes in the spiritual life, get distracted in prayer.
Thomas Merton, the brilliant writer and Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, wrote one of the greatest modern prayers of spiritual yearning: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. . . .”
Reading his journals, you see evidence of how even someone as spiritually focused as Merton could be distracted. In one passage he mentions staring at the pattern of lariats and cowboys on a visitor’s shirt during worship, his mind wandering. If Merton could get distracted like that, so could I. Just because you’re trying to be other- worldly doesn’t mean that the worldly won’t slip right into your head. Don’t fight it. Listen to it. Pray your way through it.
“Praise the Lord from the earth,” goes the psalm, “fire, and hail, snow, and vapors, stormy wind fulfilling his word, mountains, and all hills, fruitful trees, and all cedars, beasts, and all cattle, creeping things, and flying fowl” (Psalm 148:7–10, kjv). You praise God for everything you see and hear, everything on your wavelength. Andy barking, horns honking, the timer buzzing, the phone ringing, the hamster on his squeaking wheel, the kids giggling, praise the Lord.
The end of grace came with the single line that Dad repeated night after night: “Bless this food to our use, us to your service, and bless the hands that prepared it.” There was the blessing.
“Amen,” Dad finally said. “Amen,” we responded. Mom went off to rescue her browning rolls, the mac-and-cheese made the rounds from the cork trivet, we asked Dad about what he heard on the news. Soon dinner would dissolve into a three-ring circus. We got up from the table to demonstrate some exercise we’d learned in phys ed. Diane did a somersault on the lime-green indoor-outdoor carpeting. Howard did a handstand and then showed us how many push-ups he could do. “Not on a full stomach,” Mom exclaimed.
If we failed to appreciate the tomatoes in the salad, Mom would remind us, “These tomatoes cost nineteen cents a pound,” as though that would add to our pleasure. If we wondered why we were getting an unfamiliar brand of cookies or brown-and-serve rolls, she would say sheepishly, “They were on sale,” a holy refrain in a family with four growing children.
Our manners deteriorated. We made a boarding-house reach across the table, grabbing the butter. “No, no, no,” Mom said, tapping the back of a hand with the back of her knife. Dad would go into a lecture on etiquette. “When I was in submarine corps during the war,” he began, “some of the fellows told me I should give up on ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘please pass the rolls.’ Well, I told them I wasn’t planning on spending my life on a submarine. I would say please . . .” We hardly listened. We were in a rush. If there was any light left after dinner we would go back outside for a game of kick the can or freeze tag. There would be baths to take, books to read, bedtime. Still we’d had this quiet moment together when Dad asked God to bless our food and to bless us.
The idea of blessing anything is not that common today. It means stopping and slowing down. We usually like to jump in and do some- thing. We want the car to start right away, we want the computer to be ready to go, we hate delays when we get on the Internet. We want dinner now. But blessing is as ancient as faith and central to it. What did Jesus do before he fed the five thousand? He blessed the bread and broke it. What did he do when all the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room for the Last Supper? “Jesus took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took the cup and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.”
This was the opposite of fast food. A nutritionist I know makes the point that saying grace is good for the digestion. It gives us a chance to slow down before we eat. We smell the casserole cooling or the steak waiting to be cut, the gastric juices get going but we don’t start shoveling in immediately. “Bless this food to our use” could be a prescription on the back of the bag of groceries. Thankfulness at the dinner table is good for the body and soul. You certainly enjoy your food more when you season it with gratitude. You’ve thanked God and the cook.
Getting dinner on the table is a nightly miracle and in families it’s so easy to forget the miracle makers or even to acknowledge them, especially if they do their duties well and effortlessly. Efficiency can make the work dangerously invisible. I was a newlywed when I worked on a story from a writer who was listing the reasons for her fifty years of happy marriage. “Tommy has never once forgotten to thank me for a dinner I’ve cooked,” she wrote.
Note to self: thank your wife for dinner. Be like Dad blessing Mom. We are not wholly responsible for the food on our table. Not only are there the “hands that prepared it,” but also the farmers who toiled, the rains that watered, the soil that nurtured, the sunshine that blessed and all that help we got to earn the money we spent at the supermarket. The self-made man is a fiction, the luck we credit for our good for- tune an illusion. Thankfulness reminds us of that. Even the most rudimentary grace has the essential ingredient of gratitude, whether it’s the standard “God is great, God is good. Let us be thankful for our food” or the summer camp classic, “Rub-a-dub-dub. Thanks for the grub. Yeah, God!”
Asking for a blessing means acknowledging that someone has power over you or can give you something you want. Now it’s just a courtesy to ask your future in-laws for their blessing on your marriage, but there was a time when it was a make-or-break conversation. When a minister or priest blesses the congregation it’s a reminder that God is the great source of our well-being: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance to you and grant you peace.” In the Bible, Esau, the firstborn, came in from the fields so hungry that he sold his birthright to his younger twin brother, Jacob, for a bowl of lentil stew. (My wife, Carol, likes to remind me of this every time she serves up her lentil stew.) When Esau was away, Jacob fooled his blind father Isaac by pretending to be Esau. At his mother’s urging, he dressed in his brother’s rough clothes so that he would smell like Esau and put goat hair on his arms so he would be hairy like Esau. (As a kid in Sunday school I thought that Isaac must have been pretty dense to mistake a furry hide for a hairy forearm.) The ruse worked and Jacob won his father’s blessing: “May God give you showers from the sky, olive oil from the earth, plenty of grain and new wine. May the nations serve you, may peoples bow down to you . . . Those who curse you will be cursed, and those who bless you will be blessed” (Genesis 27:28–29, ceb).
Enigmatic and deceptive as it is, the blessing holds. Jacob becomes the patriarch of a new nation after wrestling with the angel who changes his name to Israel. I think the longing for a parent’s blessing is just as deep and hard-wired in us today, even if we might not use that word. To hear your father bless you night after night is bound to have its effect. Sometimes I wonder why I was never tarred with the brush that turns religion into a dark thing and God into the big scary Father in heaven ready to condemn us for our least faults. If I knew that God loved me, it wasn’t just because I was told so—and I was, countless times—but also because I experienced the love of God through Dad’s prayers.
Monasteries observe the offices of the day, praying at specific times. “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws,” says the psalmist in Psalm 119:164 (niv). Making grace a habit keeps prayer on the agenda.
As brave as I am in writing about prayer, it’s taken me years to be brave about saying grace in public. In a New York restaurant where there are waiters hovering, ready to sprinkle some parmesan cheese on your pasta or grind some fresh pepper, I won’t ask my friends or colleagues to bow their heads before we dig in. When I’m with some holy person in a clerical collar I’ve learned to pause before lifting my fork. “Is he going to say grace?” I wonder. Will we be like that grand- mother and kid in the Norman Rockwell painting who are praying to the rest of the diners’ bemusement? I’m self-conscious. Are all eyes on us, the only two people praying in this restaurant?
I’ve decided it really doesn’t matter. First of all, it’s magnificently self-centered to think that anybody else is looking at me in a restaurant filled with people who all have their own concerns. Second, self-consciousness is often a prelude to prayer. “Who am I to pray this? Why would God be interested?” you wonder and then you jump in. Faith often requires an attitude of “I can’t believe I’m doing this but I’m going to do it anyway.” Be bold. Mighty forces will come to your aid.
At home when we have friends for dinner, I have fewer qualms. I used to wonder, “Should I say grace if they’re not believers?” Will they find it awkward? Will they be bored? I’ve given up that too. Let them see this as my little eccentricity, like people who collect paper- weights or make their dogs do tricks at the table. I say grace at dinner. Who am I to guess what they believe or don’t believe? They won’t mind. I might go a little faster when guests are here or give them a signal so they don’t eat half their salad before I’ve bowed my head, but grace is what we do. It’s the habit of the house.
Carol and I started saying grace at home when our two boys were young, the apple falling not far from the tree. I couldn’t then and I still can’t extemporize a grace as sweet as the ones I heard in my childhood. As the boys grew older, I asked them to participate. We went around the table, each of us in charge for a night, Carol, Tim, Will, me, then back to Carol. If you want to know what’s on your children’s minds, ask them to say grace. Like my father, I could see all those reasons for gratitude.
I remember pausing outside our apartment and looking in one winter night when the boys were young. Carol was boiling water for spaghetti, the steam already fogging up the windows. William was sitting at the kitchen table, writing in a school workbook, his hand curled around his pencil, his mouth forming a word. Timothy was dashing in from the living room, the tuft of his milkweed hair moving across the bottom of the windows like a duck in a shooting gallery. The light was on above the piano and Carol was reaching in the cabinet for the box of pasta. She wouldn’t pour it in until she saw the whites of my eyes.
At once I could see my life from the outside, how fortunate I was, how blessed. Soon I’d be on the inside. A kiss to Carol, put away the briefcase, hug the boys, settle any fraternal disputes. It was always a race. Could we get it all done? Set the table, eat dinner, wash the dishes, read to both boys before bed, hear their prayers, get them to sleep, talk to Carol, pay the bills, get to sleep ourselves. There was hardly a moment. But this. I could see my life from a different view, as others might have seen it, maybe as God saw it. I was the luckiest guy on earth.
It made me understand why Dad would sometimes pause during grace, overwhelmed by emotion. If only we could see how beautiful our lives are. If only we could just reflect on the day. Dad was the weeper in the family. He had what my wife would call “the gift of tears,” a trait that has been passed along to my older son, Will.
Let me not gloss over Dad’s outbursts of anger, but when they occurred at the dinner table we usually found something funny in it. When he threw his fork down after a bite of Mom’s chicken broccoli casserole with a risky teaspoon of curry in it, he barked, “Who put that India stuff in here?” Mom said meekly, “I wanted to try something different.” We giggled, then laughed till tears rolled down our cheeks. Even Dad laughed.
I once provoked Howard into throwing a fork at me—the argument was about Bill Cosby, if you must know. I cried. Then some- one pointed out how funny it was, and we laughed. Even Dad got his chances back. He could come up with a one-liner that put us in stitches. In old age, he moved mighty slow, his joints aching from arthritis, his back bent over from spinal stenosis, his feet in their clunky lace-less white sneakers. He followed several steps behind our energetic tennis-playing mom.
“I just pray and pray for patience,” Mom said.
“That’s one prayer God hasn’t answered yet,” Dad muttered from his walker.
We laughed then and we laughed again when Howard retold that story at Dad’s memorial service. Everybody in the packed church laughed. Mom laughed from the front pew. Laughter is as healing as gratitude, maybe even more so.
When I hear Paul’s extraordinary statement in Romans 8:38–39— “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”—I think of my family. It’s the feeling of safety and security that I grew up with. It’s the satisfying love I find at my own dinner table when I say grace with my wife and my children. Here is love. Nothing can separate me from it.
Dad’s graces continued through his mid-eighties. Wracked with pain, he got to a point where the only place he was comfortable was lying in bed. The neuropathy in his feet made walking downstairs for breakfast a trial. Still, whenever the family got together for dinner or even if it was just him and Mom in the breakfast room, he said grace. The words came haltingly, the thoughts were briefer. There was little of the six o’clock news but more of us, our spouses, his nine grand- children. He always ended by saying, “Bless this food to our use, us to your service, and bless the hands that prepared it.”
Mom and her much-blessed hands took magnificent care of him until the day he simply couldn’t get out of bed. He spent the last five months of his life in a nursing facility on the lush grounds of a home for retired Presbyterian ministers that took in local residents when they had an empty bed. He flirted with his nurses and befriended his roommate. We pushed him in his wheelchair through the gardens of oaks, palms, roses, citrus trees, birds of paradise. He was confused sometimes and he slept for hours, but he wasn’t unhappy.
I flew out to visit every month. Once, our younger son, Timothy, and I drove straight from the airport to his bedside. “We just flew in, Dad,” I said.
“From Puerto Rico?” he asked.
“No, Dad, from New York,” I said.
“Close enough,” he responded, as though it was a nice joke. Why should he have to bother with such geographic details when he was on a larger cosmic journey?
I remember thinking we should have some big profound conversation about the end of things. Perhaps he would want to pass on some advice or share some memory of his childhood. He didn’t. We would sit in the sun by his old convertible that I drove on my visits and he would point to a passing truck or admire the statue of Jesus in one corner of the garden. The last time I saw him still conscious, I kissed him good-bye on his forehead, the same place he kissed me as a boy after my bedtime prayers. “I love you, Dad,” I said.
“Tell your wife,” he said, the cylinders in his brain moving slowing, searching for the right words. “Tell your wife,” he said, “that I am loved.”
He was loved. That much we knew.
Less than a month later my sister Gioia had the last conversation anybody had with him. He was in hospice care and too weak now to go on wheelchair jaunts. He didn’t move from his bed. “Dad,” she said, teary-eyed, “I’m going to miss you so much.”
He looked up at her and asked, “Am I moving?” Yes, sort of. He slipped into a coma or some state of minimal awareness and I flew out to see him for the last time.
We sat by his bed for five days while he slowly left us, his vitals winding down, his hands getting colder, his feet getting bluer. He could squeeze hands, but then his hand became weaker. He had no water, no food, no nourishment. Every day we thought would be his last, but he rallied when we appeared, his four children, our spouses, his grandchildren, their spouses, talking around him and above him like we did at dinner. He waited until four in the morning, when none of us were present, to die. Never the first to leave a party, he wouldn’t go when we were still there.
We all spoke at the funeral, each of us wearing one of his bow ties (the girls wore them on their wrists). Gioia talked about following in Dad’s footsteps in her career, becoming a professional fundraiser and non-profit executive like him. Diane described his generosity of character and his tireless volunteer work. Her husband, Mike, spoke of his submarine service, three war patrols in the Pacific during World War II. Our son Will confessed that when he was eleven and his fifth-grade teacher asked the class what their goals were, Will said that he wanted to have four children and nine grandchildren, just like his grandfather. I sang a song that Dad loved and then reminded the packed church how he had prayed for all of them. “I’ll hold a good thought for you” was how he put it.
But Howard got it just right, Howard who had sat holding his hand at his bedside, hardly letting go.
“When I was sitting with Dad these last few days,” he said, “I tried to think if there were any things that I needed to talk about. Were there any things I still needed to say?
“All I could come up with was thanks. You see, Dad let me be me. That’s what he gave all of us. He let us be ourselves. He encouraged us to do just what we wanted.”
I don’t know what comes to people’s minds when they say, “We were blessed.” But what comes to my mind is a childhood when Dad prayed for us night after night at the dinner table. Such prayers must be called grace because they offer a heaping serving of God’s grace. We were blessed by them, richly blessed.