Have you not opened your dark door for us who
never found doors to enter, and given us a room
who, roomless, doorless, unassauged, were driven
on forever through the streets of life?
It was probably about as ordinary a day as I could have imagined, right at three weeks ago. Nothing particular going on. I was busy at work, my mind drifting a bit now and then about the finishing touches to the blog that I planned to post the following night. The Maggie blog. The phone rang, off and on. And then it rang again. I heard Rosita answer. “Yes, he’s here. Who may I say is calling?” When that happens, there’s about a fifty percent chance or so that the call will be for me. There was a pause. And then my phone beeped. Yes? And she spoke the caller’s name. I didn’t recognize and can’t remember it. But the guy asked for me. And then she transferred the call. This is Ira, I said. Can I help you?
“Yes. Ira?” The voice was as unfamiliar as the name had been. And the guy launched right in. “You don’t know me. I live in North Carolina, and I’m a fan of your blog. (He didn’t have much of a Carolina drawl, I have to say.) And your blog’s been down all day. I’m just calling to make sure you’re OK.”
Well. Whatever else I was expecting, it sure wasn’t that. What do you do with such a thing, coming right at you out of nowhere? Wow, I said. Hey, I really appreciate that you called. I didn’t know my blog was down, I wasn’t on it today, yet. Let me see if I can get on it now. And I tried, there on my computer, and couldn’t. The little wheel spun and spun, and just sat there and spun some more. I can’t get on it, either, I said. It must be down for maintenance. Seems strange, though, that it’s been down most of the day. I hadn’t noticed. I’ll contact my webmaster, to see if he can get it back up soon. I know they take it down for maintenance sometimes, but they usually do that during off-hours. Thanks for letting me know.
And then we just chatted for a moment, the man from North Carolina and me. I thanked him again. Thanks for reading my blog, I said. I appreciate that very much, and I appreciate that you called. (I thought about it later. How in the world did the man get the number to my office? And it came to me. From my writings. I’m always writing about Graber Supply, and the things that come down there. He probably just googled the number.)
He chuckled. “Not a problem,” he said. And he went on. “When I was reading your book, I kept saying, ‘Lord, please let this man find Jesus.’ And I was so happy at the end, when you did.”
And what can you say to such a thing? Wow. Thanks, again. I said. And thanks again, for reading my blog. I just write from where I am, and sometimes that’s from a real dark place.
I don’t’ remember his exact words, but I heard something like this. “That’s what I like about your writing,” he said. “You say it like it is, and it don’t matter what anyone else thinks. You write honest.” He paused. And I remember verbatim the next thing he said. “I pray for you often.”
For the third time in about as many minutes, I thanked him. And then that was it. We said good-bye and hung up. And I sat there, floored, and absorbed what had just happened. Absorbed the closing words the man had spoken, words I had never heard before from any total stranger. I pray for you often.
It was a wild thing, any way you look at it. All of it. A stranger, calling me out of the blue, from way down south. Concerned for me, because my blog was down. Who would ever have thunk such a thing could happen? And I thought about it, too. A phone call like that just makes it all worth it, the hours and hours of blood and sweat and toil that go into the writing of each blog.
But still, it was what he said there at the end that made me reflect, that struck me deepest. “I pray for you often.” I mean, who says that to a total stranger? I don’t doubt the guy. I know he was telling me the truth. And to him, I guess, I’m not a stranger. He feels like he knows me, from my voice on this blog. And I certainly have written from pretty much where I’ve been, including some real dark places. I have done that, never even thinking much about the people I might reach, the people who hear my voice.
I pray for you often. I could not shake it, the wonder of those words. I mean, I barely remember to pray for myself, every day, let alone pray for others. Don’t get me wrong. I commune with God a lot, in my heart. It’s a continuous thing, for me. And I tell Him, what I’m feeling. I tell him when I’m grateful. A place I try to stay in, as much as I can. And I tell Him when I’m sad, or brooding, or just plain angry. I talk to God from those places, all the time. Not so much in words, most of the time. But always from my heart. From the heart, you can talk to God without speaking a word. It’s pretty simple. And it’s the best way I’ve ever found, to talk to Him.
But when it comes to talking to Him about others, well, there I have to say I’m lacking pretty sadly, I’m afraid. Sure, I pray for specific situations, specific people. Like my sister, Maggie, and her pain on this earth. And Dad, too, as he approaches the setting sun in his life. I talk to God about all that. But I don’t know that I have ever been in the place that caller was, when he spoke to me, a stranger wandering the earth. I can’t remember that I’ve ever prayed for any stranger, at least not often.
I am grateful, though, that the man who called me that day prays often for me, a stranger. And I thought about it, later. Thought about it a lot. How many other people out there are doing something similar to that? I guess you reach people sometimes with your writing, when you never had any idea you were reaching them. That’s where this stranger came from. How many others are out there, like him, praying for me often? I have no idea. The Lord knows, I suppose, because He hears their prayers for me.
It makes me feel pretty small and humble, the thought of any number of readers out there, praying for me, however sporadically. And I can’t help but think about this, too. It was a dark time, a lot of the last year was, culminating in March. A real dark time, mostly because I chose to walk into the darkness, chose to invite it in. Chose to welcome it into my heart. I wonder how much worse it would have been, how much deeper the darkness that enveloped me would have been, had this guy and others like him not been out there, lifting a total stranger up to the Lord in prayer.
I don’t know how much darker it would have gotten, that little time frame in my life. I have a pretty good idea, though. There were times when I stood on the edge of the abyss and peered down way deeper pits of ever more infinite darkness. But somehow, I stepped back from the edges of those pits, somehow I struggled my way back to the light with strength I could never have found on my own. I have no doubt that such strength, weak as it was, was prayed in on me by people I do not know. People like the stranger who told me. “I pray for you often.”
And today, I am grateful to God, for traveling mercies such as that.
This has been one strange week. I hadn’t figured to write about any of it, but it insists on coming out, so here goes. What we saw this week, with the huge uproar about the Confederate flag, was nothing less than the vilest lynching I have ever seen. Or at least it’s the vilest lynching since poor Joe Paterno was murdered at Penn State by the bloodthirsty mob a few years ago. It was just awful, this past week. The whole thing just made me ill, right down to the bottom of who I am. It was all just pure madness, and it still is.
And no, I’m not defending the Confederate flag. I’m not defending any flag. I don’t even like flags. I’m an anarchist. I will never salute any flag of any state. Or any country.
But I won’t join the madness of the roaring mobs, either. I will not do it. I won’t fall over myself to vilify a person or an object just to prove how pure and holy I am. I will not do it.
I don’t pretend to know all the fine details of what the Southern Cross means or doesn’t mean to various groups in the south. I wasn’t born there, and I figure the people who were have the right to mind their own business, when it comes to flying or not flying that flag. And make no mistake about the attack that was unleashed this week. It was birthed and coordinated by the rabid, radical Left. Don’t ever let any political opportunity slip by, from any tragedy. That’s their motto. And boy, did they ever swoop in and crush any dissenting views.
You think about it, and it’s just flat out insane, the notion that the flag caused a young lunatic to enter a black church and murder nine innocent people. There is one factor that connects all the lunatic shooters these past many years. They were all, without exception, on psychotic drugs. Every one of them. But that fact is studiously ignored as the press lapdogs bray and bray about the evil of guns. And now, it’s a flag that is evil. A flag, that must be purged from the annals of this country’s history. A flag.
The insanity is not stopping with the flag, and every reference to it. Next will come the purging of monuments, and the renaming of schools and towns, as all memories of the evil Confederacy are wiped from the historical record. The Leftists on the forefront of this assault simply seethe with rage and venom. Nothing will stop them. They are no better than the Taliban, blowing up ancient Buddhist statues carved in stone on a mountainside in Afghanistan. We have now entered the subjective world of make-believe, where nothing is real or concrete. Old culture must be torn down, destroyed. It has no value. Today this is truth, tomorrow that will be, and this will be false. Just because. We are in an Alice in Wonderland world. We are not getting there. We are there. And these are dangerous, dangerous times.
And I keep hearing it said. You don’t know what it’s like, to come from slave roots. A statement designed to shut you up, right there. Well, no. It’s true enough. I don’t know what it’s like to come from slave roots. And people from slave roots have no idea what it’s like to come from Anabaptist roots, either. Their ancestral memories revolve around slavery, and the evil that it was. My ancestral memories are a whole lot different. My people were hunted down like animals, not enslaved. And they were killed when they were caught. Drowned. Burned at the stake. Beheaded. Those are my deep ancestral memories.
And yes, I despise the state to this day, because of all that. I will never, never trust any government on this earth. I know a lot of you are tired of hearing me keep saying that. I’ll say it again, anyway. The ancestral memory that is the evil of the state is burned deep into my psyche. I will never, never quit speaking that, I will never stop calling evil what it is, when it comes to what the state is.
But I will never call for any state icons of those days to be destroyed, either, because of all the wrong that was done. I’ll make a pilgrimage, instead, and I’ll write my name on the castle walls, where my ancestors were imprisoned and killed. I won’t call for the castle to be torn down. I don’t want it to be torn down. I want it standing there, right where it is, as a silent witness to all the innocent blood my ancestors shed for holding on to what they believed.
Most of us come from hard places, somewhere way back there in our ancestral memories. And banning a symbol of that hard place ain’t gonna make a lick of difference about anything. All it does is make you a whole lot less free. That’s how I see it. And that’s how I’ll say it.
Moving on, then, briefly, to what I was going to talk about. Last weekend, I traveled on down to South Carolina again. It was an important trip. My sister Rhoda’s oldest son, Justin, got married, down there in Fair Play. To a beautiful young lady named Jessica Miller. And it was a little hard for me, to justify going down that far twice in three weeks. I mean, I work for a living. I’ve got a job to go to. But in the end, I told Rhoda and Marvin. This is your first wedding, in your family. I will come, because that’s an important thing. And I went.
The wedding was on Saturday afternoon, at five. I got down there early, and stopped by Ray and Maggie’s house, to hang for a few hours. Janice was there, and we connected, for the first time in a while. And I just sat there and hung out. Maggie is looking pretty good. Still way too thin, of course. But she’s supposed to be in all kinds of pain, and she’s not. Her blood counts are supposed to be tanking; they are not. They are improving. “I’m still here, I’m still alive,” she told me as we hugged. And indeed she was, and indeed she is. What all this means, no one knows. It could be the calm before the storm, or it could be something more. We expect nothing, as family. We simply rejoice and celebrate, for every day she remains with us on this earth.
And then it was on over to Fair Play, for the wedding. Maggie couldn’t make it, so we hugged good-bye for the second time in the last three weeks. And my nephew, John Wagler, and his wife, Dort, took me. It was an outdoor affair. Simple. Beautiful. And touching. I don’t know my nephew Justin that well. I don’t know many of my nieces and nephews that well. But he looked all strong, and his bride looked all beautiful. I wish them all the best. And I told Rhoda and Marvin. You sure have a real nice family. Beautiful daughters and real strong, manly sons. They beamed and beamed.
And it’s only a few days away, now, my big trip over the pond. Late next Wednesday afternoon, I’ll be boarding a big old plane to Germany, and points beyond. I’ve been in contact with Sabrina, and she claims they are all looking forward to hosting me. I sure am looking forward to getting over there. Looking forward to leaving my drab everyday life behind, for a few days. Looking forward to hanging out with my friends at Leuphana University. And maybe not looking forward all that much, to my keynote speech on Friday night. I think I’ll be good, though. I usually talk for half an hour or so, then open up for questions. It’s always real interesting, the questions that come. You talk about what people want to talk about, not what you want to drone on about on your own.
I’ve talked to the tenant and told him where I ‘m going and why. He looked all wise. I have no idea if he ever got my book read; I’ve never asked him. He’ll keep an eagle eye on the place, when I’m gone. And my Amish neighbors, next door, too. They keep an eagle eye on the place all the time, anyway. They’ll do that all the more, now that I invited them to, while I’m gone. They are happy to be of service, and I’m sure they’ll be peering over at my house, nonstop.
It’s all pretty crazy, all of it. The fact that I’m heading to Germany, because of my book. Again. The second time. I have to pinch myself sometimes, to make sure it’s all real. And no, I won’t be posting again on this blog, not until I get back, and I get a mind to. It’ll be three or four weeks or so.
I am beyond grateful, for all the blessings the book has brought, almost more than I can count. And I am trusting the Lord for traveling mercies on this journey.
Come to us, Father, in the watches of the night. Come to us as you
always came, bringing to us the invincible sustenance of your strength,
the limitless treasure of your bounty, the tremendous structure of your
life that will shape all lost and broken things on earth again into a golden
pattern of exultancy and joy.
I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just that kind of season, for my family. But so far this year, seems like, no sooner does one crisis recede than the next one comes sidling right along. It’s like they’re loafing about outside the door, like specters. And when the door is clear, a new crisis steps up to enter. Sometimes, a couple of them bump shoulders, and there’s a little argument about which one gets to step through the door first. And you gotta deal with both of them. That’s how it’s been. And there’s nothing, really, that you can do about any of it. You face whatever comes in the moment.
And the news came sliding up from the south, a few weeks back. From my sister Magdalena’s family. She’s my second-oldest sister, married to Ray Marner. Briefly mentioned in the book, in the early chapters. Dorothy’s mom. Abby’s grandma. Janice’s mom. Every summer, the family stays at a beach house off the coast, somewhere in South Carolina. For a week, they hang out, the extended family. The married children and all the grandchildren. Last year was little Abby’s last year, at the beach. And this year, they arrived on a Friday, and settled in for the week.
Maggie had not been well lately. Not eating right or feeling right. And on Saturday, I’m not sure what time of day it was, she suddenly collapsed. From sheer exhaustion, and from something else. She did not improve, so eventually they took her to the local ER. The place wasn’t busy at all right then, so the doctor had all the time she needed to diagnose Maggie’s ailment. She did tests. A complete CAT scan. And by late that night, or maybe it was the next day, here came the pronouncement. The dreaded C word. Cancer. It was in her colon, in her liver, and her lungs. And maybe a few other places. Stage four. And there were blood clots in her body.
I remember how calm it all was, when the news reached us. We communicated, some of us, on a private page on Facebook. Dorothy and Janice were very calm. Their mother had not been well for some time. So they knew there was something wrong. And we were calm, too, the family. Not stoic, don’t get me wrong. We talked. It’s a dark and evil thing, cancer is. And you don’t sugar-coat the suffering of anyone who’s afflicted. We grappled with the brutal truth of it. Maggie. Our sister. Cancer. But you can face evil things, you can walk through darkness, you can do that with a calm heart. And our hearts were calm. At least I know that mine was.
Dorothy and Janice kept us updated, as events moved along. The week was cut short, of course, at the beach. On the last full day there, Maggie stood on the shore with her son, Steven, and fished for a shark. She hooked one, and he helped her pull it in. It was on her bucket list, to catch a shark, she said. And then they all headed back to Ray and Maggie’s home, in the Donalds, SC, area. There they settled in, to decide what to do. Fixed on a plan of action. She would not take any kind of chemo, for the cancer. Any treatment would be all natural. Dorothy stayed to take care of her Mom, with her children. Her husband, Lowell, headed on home to Kalona, and back to his job. And the first few days after she was home, it seemed like it was nip and tuck for my sister. She was already thin before. And now, she lost even more weight, from the stress, the cancer, and from not eating. I fretted a bit, about all that. And I asked, on the Facebook page. Should I come to see her sooner rather than later? And the answer came from her family. Yes. Sooner. And that’s why I headed on down to South Carolina last weekend to see my sister.
It would be a quick trip, I figured. Drive down Friday, be there that evening, the next day and evening, and head on back home on Sunday morning. Around mid-week, I called the nice Enterprise people. Oh, yes, they said. They’d have a car ready. I stopped by after work on Thursday to pick it up. Of course, I asked my usual question. Do you have a Charger on the lot? The young man shook his head. “I have one car left, because I saved it for you. It’s been a real busy day. It’s a VW Jetta.” Wow, I said. I’ve never driven a VW before. After filling out the paperwork, he gave me the keys, and we walked out to inspect the car. It looked sleek enough.
I was disappointed, though, when I got in to drive it home. The car seemed sluggish. I had to stomp down, hard, on the accelerator to even get it to move. And it had an astonishing 25,000 miles on it. That’s real ancient, for a rental car. Oh, well, I thought. I’ll make do with what I got. I’ll get used to its quirks, on the long drive tomorrow.
Well. The next morning, I packed my bags, and a few copies of my book. I always take some books along on every trip, for PR purposes. And I stopped at Sheetz to gas up. Got me some coffee and a bottle of water. All right. I’m ready for the long drive ahead. Let’s get the GPS set up. I stamped it on the windshield. And plugged it in. It stayed dead. I pulled the cord and plugged it in again. Still obstinate and dead. There was no connection. That’s what happens, when you get a rental car with 25,000 miles on it. I was frustrated and outraged. Now what?
There really was only one choice. The Enterprise lot was about a mile east, and they had just opened. I pulled out onto the street and drove over. Walked in. The young man looked at me quizzically. You gave me a junk car, I said. The plug-in doesn’t work, for my GPS. Right then, his boss, a guy I’ve dealt with many times in the past, wandered over to see what was wrong. I told him the same thing. You gave me a junk car. They both looked alarmed and dismayed. The boss man stirred and punched at his computer. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got a brand new Jeep Cherokee out there. Let me go pull that up for you.” That’s beautiful, I said. I knew you’d take care of me. He went out and returned with a sleek gray spaceship of a vehicle. The young man took care of the paperwork while I transferred my luggage. And that’s how I got to drive a brand new SUV to South Carolina to see my sister, for the price of a clunker Jetta.
And I cruised into the long day. And I thought back in my mind, to my old memories of Maggie, memories from way back when I was a child. She was the first sister I have clear memories of. Rosemary is the oldest. And she got married when I was so young I have only vague memories of her wedding. Maggie didn’t get married, though, not for a good many years after that. And whatever else she was or wasn’t, she was her father’s daughter. Like me, it turned out she was a lot like him in a whole lot of ways. Brimming with fire and passion. Stubborn. And determined. Oh, yes, you have to be pretty determined to be the first one in your family to leave the Amish. Which she was. And she was a girl, yet. It’s a lot, lot harder for a girl to leave, than it is for the guys. Maggie did it. I don’t know if she plotted and planned it all out from the start, or just kind of walked through the doors that opened when they did. But she left, and she left for good. It was all a huge blow to Dad. And he took it pretty hard.
She was a strong force in my childhood. She was a strong force in the lives of all us children, from probably Titus on down. Nervous and intense, she always knew where we were and what we were playing. Nathan, the baby, got particular care. When he was old enough to run around and play, Maggie assigned Titus to keep an eye on Nathan at all times. And woe betide Titus if he didn’t know exactly where Nathan was and what he was doing at any given moment. I felt sorry for my brother, that he got burdened with such a chore as that. At the end of each summer, though, Maggie always gave Titus some real nice toy, as a reward, as a gift, for watching over Nathan.
And I’m not sure exactly when this happened. Probably about the time she knew she’d be leaving us soon. But she gathered us together, from Titus on down. Four of us. Titus and me and Rhoda and Nathan. And she taught us half a dozen little children’s songs. Ich bin Klein. This little Light of Mine. And the classic. Müde bin ich, geh zur Ruh. And a few others that now escape my memory. And she sang with us, and taught us those songs. “Every night, I want you to sing these,” she instructed us. And we did it, too, after she left. Got together after supper, and sang and sang in our childish voices. It got to be too much, after some time, though. Titus, the oldest, muttered one night that he was tired of singing. And so it all eventually faded away, and we didn’t sing anymore.
Moving on, then, or this blog is going to be way too long. My clearest memories of interacting with my sister after I grew up, and left. In 1991, I moved down to Greenville, SC, to attend Bob Jones University. Good old BJU. Maggie and her family lived less than an hour away. And I went out there, often, on a Sunday. I worked as a waiter, serving tables on Saturday nights, so I mostly headed out on Sunday mornings. At Maggie’s home, I was always, always welcome. I attended church with the family, and shared the noon meal. And that was the time I took my little nieces, Dorothy and Janice, under my wing. Not that they were that willing to listen to me bossing them around. We still hash out some of the things that happened, when I got all stern and firm with their boyfriends. Well. I was their uncle. I had the full right to interfere, I still claim. Anyway, it’s all good now, and we can all laugh about it. Back then, not so much, sometimes. It all just was what it was, I guess.
And I especially remember this. Every time I came around, Maggie always had a bunch of leftover food stored up for me. She saved leftovers from a lot of meals, and stored them in little Styrofoam containers. And froze them. And every time I came around, there were a dozen meals or more, all ready and waiting. I took them back to my trailer house, and stuck them in the freezer. And thawed one out, each day, for lunch. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. Vegetables. Ham. Beef. She served up a huge variety of food for her destitute student brother. Of course, I always thanked her. But it was only years later that I realized the effort she made, right there, just to keep me provided with some decent home-cooked food.
The Cherokee pulsed right along, down 81 South, then on to 77 South. Through North Carolina, then on into South Carolina. It had been a lot of years since I was down there. Last time was in 2006, I later figured out, when Ellen and I attended the wedding of my niece, Becky, Jesse’s oldest daughter. Somehow, I had never made it back since. Most of my travels go west, not south. And it all was so familiar, when I got off the interstate in Greenville, and drove on east and south through small towns.
It always amazes me, how many churches there are in the south. The First Baptist Church of (take your pick of names). I mean, even the smallest town seems to have half a dozen churches. I don’t know how they can pull it off, the cost of running and maintaining all those buildings, some of which are quite old and beautiful. Not to mention the capital it took to ever get them built in the first place. Down 291 out of Greenville, then on to 25 I drove. Closer and closer. And right at a few minutes after six, I pulled into the drive. The home where Ray and Maggie have lived for the last fifteen years or so.
I pulled up to the house. Carefully. Little children ran about, underfoot everywhere, seemed like. I edged up and parked and got out. Janice wouldn’t be here, I knew. She was back home in Phoenix. Dorothy met me. We hugged. I love you, I told her. “I love you, too,” she said. “Mom has been looking forward so much, to you coming. She’s been talking about it all day.” I pulled off to the side, then, on the grass, and followed my niece into the house. Through the kitchen, and around to the right into the living room. My sister Rachel sat there on a chair. She had flown in the day before. And there she sat, on an easy chair, her right foot propped up on a footstool. Maggie. She smiled in welcome. I bent down and hugged her tight.
She looked so frail and thin. Dangerously emaciated. But her hug was strong. “Welcome, brother,” she said, and her voice was firm. “I’m so honored that you drove all the way down, just to see me.” Ah, stop it, I said. Of course I drove down to see you. After greeting Rachel with a hug, I sat there beside Maggie, on the end of the couch there by her chair, and held her hand. And we just talked. She was feeling pretty good, she said. There was a big blood clot in her right leg, inside, just above the knee. They soaked the spot with a hot water bottle every hour. Overall, she claimed to be resting well.
And we just sat there and chatted, Maggie and Rachel and me. Dorothy bustled about, making supper. The poor girl was always moving, always busy, always smiling, always serving. And soon, they trickled in. Family. Jesse came by. Ray arrived home from work. And the married children from both families stopped by, too. I hugged people and shook hands and smiled and talked. After the meal, we sat around, sharing boisterous stories from past and present. Maggie requested that we sing a few songs, then. Rachel and I stood beside and behind her chair and held her hands. Dorothy strummed up her guitar and led us in a few old-time hymns, including one I hadn’t heard in a few years. How Beautiful Heaven Must Be.
People made noises to leave, then. I was pretty tired, and ready for some rest. It had been a long day. Jesse told me, as he was leaving. Tomorrow morning he wanted to come and pick me up and show me around a bit. Over the years, my brother has accumulated a little real estate empire of sorts. He buys up an old house here, an old house there, then fixes them up and rents them out. I think he had a dozen or twenty houses or so. And recently, he made one of the oddest real estate acquisitions a person could make. Through a sealed bid, he bought the old jailhouse in Abbeville. A jailhouse. Not many people can claim they have a brother who owns a jail. I can claim that. Anyway, he definitely wanted show me the jail, too. Absolutely, I said. I’ll look for you around nine or so.
Maggie was up and sitting in her chair the next morning when I walked up from my basement bedroom. She smiled and greeted me. I hugged her, got me some coffee, and sat beside her, holding her hand. I’m going out with Jesse for a while, I told her. “Oh, yes, go.” She said. “I’m sure he wants to show you around.” And Jesse came wandering in right then, with a newspaper. “The only privately owned newspaper in the state,” he boasted. I shrugged. I don’t read newspapers anymore, I said. Those things are for old people. I get my news off the internet. I did check out the sports page, though, real quick. Sadly, my Rangers got knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs the night before, in game seven. They lost to Tampa Bay. What’s a hockey team doing in Florida, anyway? I grumbled. Oh, well. At least they got as far as they did, the Rangers.
Jesse was all excited to get going. I sipped my coffee, then hugged my sister. We’ll be back, I said. And off we went, in Jesse’s old pickup, into the beautiful sunny day. He wanted to show me where his children lived. And his son, Ronald, had a garden I needed to see. Ronald has quite the green thumb, from what I heard. We puttered down the road. Everything is so laid back in the south. Northerners could learn a thing or two about what it is to live relaxed.
Jesse chattered and chattered as we drove along. He has many wild tenant tales. First stop, Ronald’s house. He greeted us at the door, and led us through the house, out back to his garden. Lots of exotic vegetables growing there. He waters the garden every day. And in an old water tank off to the side, he showed me a big old (yes, it was both big and old) snapping turtle he had caught a few days ago. He planned to butcher the turtle sometime soon, he said. It’s got a good seven to eight pounds of meat. I’ve never had turtle meat, I told him. I’d sure like to try some. I wish I could be here, for that, when it happens.
Ronald joined us then, and off we went, on a great rambling tour of Jesse’s world. A rental house here, a rental house there, and here was the trailer park he manages for someone else. It was a lower end trailer park, I must say. Still, it was all quite interesting. And then he pulled up to a large two-story brick structure. “This here’s the jail,” he said as he parked. The jail? I hollered. It sure don’t look like any jail I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve been around jails that much.
The place just looked like pure evil. It’s haunted, I’m sure, I told Jesse. By all the ghosts of all the poor souls who were tortured there, and died there. We walked to the entrance, and Jesse unlocked the door. Before stepping in, I crossed myself. Can’t hurt, I figured, to have a little extra protection. We walked through the halls lined with cages. Jesse’s got the ground floor pretty much filled with flea market stuff, anything imaginable. Upstairs, though, the cages stood, still and empty. We walked back into the “hole,” the solitary confinement pen. “They put them in there, and carried a lot of them out, feet first,” Jesse said. It was a grim and evil room. And there was another large holding cell around the corner. Where they kept the pregnant women, many of whom suffered miscarriages over the years. Jesse showed me the doors of that cell, chained open. “They kept shutting on their own,” he told me. “I was afraid they would shut and lock on me sometime when I’m in here.” I shivered. “And at night, from downstairs, you can sometimes hear babies crying, from this cell,” he went on. I gaped. You mean you’ve heard that? I asked. “Yes, I’ve heard that,” he said. I shivered again. And I was ready soon to shake the dust from that dark and evil building.
We got back to Maggie’s around noon. I ate a bit of lunch, and then sat with my sister. This afternoon was hers. And we just talked, she and I, and Rachel, too. I spoke of my memories of who she was in my childhood. And she remembered most of what I talked about. She remembered teaching us those songs. Like me, Maggie has an intense and vivid memory of so much that happened so long ago. The good things. And the bad. And, like me, she’s got some serious “father” wounds. And, like me, she tends to go down the dark holes of the bad things now and then, too. But that day, she didn’t, much. And I asked her a bit, of how it was to break away when she did, from the Amish and from Aylmer. She spoke freely of the people and events in her world at that time.
And I asked her, because I never really knew. Tell me about how you and Ray got together. And she chuckled. Ray’s family lived in Aylmer, way back, too, so the two of them knew each other from childhood. Ray is a few years younger, and Maggie never figured she’d date a younger man. They were just friends, she said. Then some mutual friends from Ohio asked Ray to bring Maggie around for a weekend. And so they went, just as friends. They weren’t dating or anything. I guess on the way home, the heater core began leaking in Ray’s car. And the floor on Maggie’s side got all soaked with water. So she had to move over to the middle of the seat, closer to Ray. And by the time they got home, they had agreed to start dating. I howled at that story. I’ll bet you did agree to start dating, after sitting real close to each other all the way home like that, I said. Maggie laughed, too. And Rachel. We laughed so hard that Dorothy inquired from downstairs. What’s so funny?
The afternoon drifted on, and I sat with my sister. We were just silent a lot, too, and I held her hand a lot. As evening approached, Dorothy bustled about, preparing a haystack supper. And all the children and married children arrived to eat. It was like the night before, just good food and good company and good conversation. It was family.
And later that evening, Dorothy offered to give me a “foot treatment,” something I haven’t experienced in years. Like her mother, Dorothy is a skilled Reflexologist. And that night I relaxed and just let the stress flow from me. Dorothy chatted as she worked. She does reflexology from her home, up in Kalona. She has regular clients. And she told me. Some kind of false preacher swept through the area some time ago, and now a good many people around Kalona think she’s a witch, because she does reflexology. I was pretty horrified. They better not call you that when I’m around, I said. I’ll go after anyone who calls you that, both personally and on my blog. I’ll call them out, you bet I will. People like that are spiritual bullies. The worst kind. I do not suffer such fools gladly. Especially not when they go after my kin like that.
And I’m guarding the gate, right here. If you got something against what reflexology is, you come through me before you go calling anyone like my niece a witch. I have some choice words for you. Like false, freakin’ false prophet. Shame on you, for all the innocent souls you have tortured. You probably think cancer can only come from some kind of unconfessed sin in your life, too. Everything is all about demons and witchcraft. If so, you are not only a false teacher, you are the worst kind of false teacher.
And everyone drifted out then, before it got too late. Rachel went to stay at Jesse’s house for the night. Early the next morning he was taking her to the airport for her flight back home. And I chatted with Maggie and Ray a bit. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be heading out. I figure to be out of here by seven. And then it was downstairs to my bedroom, and fitful slumber there.
A little before seven the next morning, I lugged my bags up the stairs. Maggie was already on her chair. I don’t know if she had slept well the night before, but she smiled at me. I set the bags in the kitchen, got a cup of coffee, and went to sit beside her one last time. I reached out, and she placed her hand in mine. And we just talked about the little things.
After fifteen minutes or so, the coffee cup was empty. I have to go now, I said. I got up, and placed the cup on the table. And then I turned back to her. Bent down. And we hugged. I love you very much, I said. Her arms were strong, around me. “I love you, too. Thank you again, for driving all the way down to see me,” she said. “And drive careful. That’s a long way, up there.” I will, I promised. And then I turned to Ray, and we hugged. I wish you all the strength that God can give you, I told him.
And then I turned and picked up my bags and walked out. The Cherokee had me home by early evening.
A few notes, here at the end. The family has been closing in, around Maggie. As it is in every cancer case, we don’t know. She could be with us for a long time, yet. Or she could leave us today or tomorrow. Of course, that’s true of all of us, whatever our health. There simply is no promise of tomorrow, ever, for anyone.
As I said, the family closed in. Joseph and Iva were the first to get there, to visit, the weekend before I got there. And then me and Rachel went. And then, this week, well, there was more company coming.
My father heard about Maggie’s condition, from where he’s living up in Aylmer. And from the first day, he got all fretting and demanding. He wanted to go see her. And you think about that. He’s 93 years old. It’s about a thousand miles, from Aylmer to Donalds, South Carolina. The logistics are not good, to get an old man like that to travel that far.
But he kept insisting. It’s all he could talk about. He wanted to go to see Maggie. And when a 93-year-old man gets that persistent, you do what he tells you to do. Which they did, up there. Rosemary and Simon Wagler (Dad’s nephew, the preacher) and Mary Luthy took him down. Simon came along to take care of Dad. He and Maggie grew up together, and were very close childhood friends. Mary had an aunt in the area, and she too was Maggie’s old friend from childhood.
And they came, earlier this week. To see Maggie. And Naomi flew in, too, from her home in Arkansas. I was a little envious. I sure would have loved to be there, too.
And Maggie got a lot of one on one time with her sister Rosemary. The two oldest children, they share unique memories that no one else on earth knows. It’s a special bond. And Dad got some of her time, too. He parked his wheelchair right beside her easy chair. He was here to see his daughter. To “visit,” as the Amish say.
And it all went down real well, that first day and evening. We hovered on the Facebook page, looking for updates. Dad sat beside his daughter, all evening. And now Dad was going to Jesse’s house for the night. This was new territory, news like that. Dad would never stay with his non-Amish children before. Not that I recall. He stopped to visit them, here and there, like once in their lifetimes. But he would not stay the night in their houses. Until tonight. It was a milestone, in the family lore.
And yesterday morning, they all gathered at Maggie’s house for breakfast, before the people from Aylmer needed to depart. Rosemary cooked up biscuits and gravy, as only she and Mom ever could. And I would guess they all feasted with joy, that morning. Because of all the delicious food, of course. But also because something else was going on, that no one had ever seen before.
Dad parked beside Maggie’s chair. And he just sat there and held her hand in his.