Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stories All Stacked Up

I used to date a preacher's kid. I hadn't done that before and I haven't done it since. No reflection on the kid or the preacher. It's a life event that bears noting, though. We were together several years. We came to love each other's families.

The first time I met the family was a Sunday. We went to church and Tom, the preacher, was giving the sermon. I thought we'd sit up front and people would watch our every move but that's not the way his wife, Yvonne, rolls. She sits in back so no one can stare at her. Sometimes she balances her checkbook before the offering but she always listens and writes down the theme of the sermon in her program once she's heard it even though she probably spent the week before editing it.

After the service we got a tour of the building because it was state of the art with a brand new lighting and sound system that, as theatre people, J and I would appreciate. Then on to brunch at a local place where I had my first taste of grits. I didn't want a taste of grits but when your boyfriend's father, who has a direct pipeline to God apparently, holds a perfectly buttered and salted forkful of grits in front of your mouth you eat them. They were ok.

At that point on a Sunday the family lets their hair down. We headed back to the manse and sat down in the living room. In short order Tom asked me something about the Presbyterian church and I let fly my ignorance leaving him a wide open door. He stepped into the space where my knowledge should have been with delight. I learned of the beginnings of the church, the split, the sort of reunification, how you could tell one side of the split from the other when you looked at a church's sign....I learned a lot. Well, I heard a lot at least.

We joked when I was part of the family that my first meeting included an 8 hour seminar on the history of the Presbyterian Church in America. Yvonne left the room only a few sentences in. I assumed she was using the bathroom or getting a drink or changing her clothes. She never came back. J left the room not too long afterward. He must have come back at some point because I'm not still in that living room today but it was a long time.  Later up in J's room he asked why I was so interested in all that. I explained that, while it was interesting (really, it was), I wasn't exactly interested but his dad started to talk and I was brought up to be polite and then you and your mother abandoned me there! "Oh, well, you should have left."

How in Presbyterian hell was I supposed to do that?

It wasn't funny then but it's really funny now because now I know that that's just the way that Tom tells stories. He takes you on a long and winding road and there's a lot to learn but some of it you maybe already know and some of it you never needed to know and some of it is fascinating but if you ever want off the ride you just step off. He won't mind.

Here's another thing he said a lot, "I told you that story to tell you this one."

Tom died a couple of weeks ago. He'd been sick for a couple of years. He was expected to die a month or so ago but rallied and spent a little more time with his family. I haven't seen or spoken to him in over a decade. I still quote him and have fond memories of him and ask after him on Thanksgiving, the one day of the year that J and I still see each other. If you'd asked I certainly would have told you that I missed Tom but not in a pressing way. News of his decline obviously didn't spur me to action.

I don't remember when or where it was but I have an absolutely clear memory of Tom telling us about a visit to a hospitalized congregant. Her family was gathered around and they were, of course, heartbroken at the prospect of losing her. Each person in the room held her hand and reminded her of the past and begged her not to go. Tom prayed with them and blessed her and told her that if she had to go she should. He explained that she needed to hear that and she needed to hear it from someone she respected so that was his job for anyone but especially for someone whose family couldn't manage it.

I feel as though I've always known that the right thing to do with a dying person (or, frankly, pet) is to tell them that it's ok to go if they need to. Yet that is the only time I can think of where someone said out loud to me, "This is what needs to be done." I've had some opportunities to use that lesson since and it's present in my mind whenever I'm visiting with or even thinking of someone who won't be around much longer. I thought of it when I thought of Tom before he died.

I hope that if I'd been standing next to his bed I'd have whispered, "Thank you. I really don't want you to go but if you have to please do." On the other hand maybe I'd have asked him to wait until I'd finished telling just one more story.