January 10, 2020

My Father’s Passing; One Year Out…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:32 pm


We are the sons of our father, and we shall follow the print of his foot forever.

—Thomas Wolfe

It came sliding in kind of sideways, I thought. I wasn’t particularly looking for it when December came. And it came rolling in like a flood, the memories and the loss. I was surprised by the intensity. Then again, there is no road map for such things. You absorb it all as it comes. Or try to. The trigger that set off the charge in my head: A little over one year ago, we put my father in the ground.

It was good, the first year without my Dad. And I don’t want to hang on in an unhealthy way. I mean, the man was ninety-seven when he passed. He lived a full life. What he did, he did with all his might. And he sent a few tremors through the foundations of his world, too. He was such a man as that. But, in the first anniversary of his passing, the memories came roaring in pretty strong. One year out, I think, it’s OK to remember a bit. After that, more randomly. But there’s something about a year. Stop. Look back. Reflect. Write.

The memories were powerful and intense, when they came knocking on the door. It’s hit me, since Dad left. I get a little better grasp of how human he was. He was flawed, sure, and he made a splash with those flaws as he made a splash with just about everything around him in his life. Whatever he did, it made noise. That’s the kind of man he was. So his flaws are a given, right up front. Yep, there are plenty of bad things that can be recalled and relived. If that’s what you want. But still. Like I’ve said before, and like I wrote in the book. He was so much more than the sum of his flaws.

He had a real gruff exterior, but he was kind. I’m sure it was all a bit overwhelming at times, to be the father of eleven children. That’s a brood. A crowd. All flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. There wasn’t a lot of individual attention in him for any of us, but he made sure we all got our turns when they came. When it was my turn to go along with him to town, when it was my turn to do this or that, he generally made sure some semblance of order was followed. And I’ve never really thought about it much. It’s not a question he would even have considered. But did he enjoy his children? Were we special to him, any of us? Or all of us? He came from a place where such things were hardly considered, let alone asked right out in the open. I think the question is fair, though. It’s fair for any child to ask of his father. Do/Did you enjoy your children? If so, how? If not, why not?

I don’t know if Dad did. And now, I can’t ask him. I can only speak of how he treated us. And when I look at that, I got no call to complain. I’m talking for the younger children. Maybe the older ones had it harder, as they often do. The first journeys are tougher. I remember hearing this and hearing that, from the older children. Hard things, a lot of it. Their stories are legitimate, and their stories are their own.

For us younger ones, though, he often heard us when we begged for things. Our family wasn’t rich, by any standard. Compared to a third world existence, we were wealthy, of course. But not by any other. Cash flow was tight, usually. Dad nipped and tucked around and bought ripe, blackening bananas by the bushel to feed his ravenous clan. Mom always had a large, and I mean large, garden. Some of my very earliest memories, when I was probably three, come from being in the garden with Mom. “Helping” her, more of a bother than I was worth, I’m sure. She would never let on, though. That’s how we were taught to work. Starting right there in the garden, getting underfoot, but lovingly taught. We were never, never hungry, except in the ordinary course of things. After a hard day’s work, before a meal. But we were never without food. Never. We never felt that we were poor, either.

I think of it now. Dad often got us things, simply because we asked. When I was twelve, I wanted a new rifle. We were never afraid to make suggestions to Dad. So I’m sure I told him more than a few times. I’d like a rifle. He never made much noise, but one Tuesday evening he came home from the sale barn and town with an oblong cardboard box. We peered at it curiously. “It’s for Ira,” Dad said. I pried it open eagerly. A brand-new Mossberg single shot .22 rifle, that’s what was in that box. I think I hugged it close to me all that first night. I can still see and smell the varnished wooden stock, the shiny black barrel and the oiled bolt. You pulled the bolt back and inserted one shell. Long rifle, usually. That gun and I went on many a great adventure, lurking in the pasture fields and meadows, stalking groundhogs and crows. And shooting sparrows, too. It wasn’t really my gun, but I had more of a claim to it than any of my brothers. Dad didn’t have to buy that thing. But he did. I don’t know where it ever got to. I’d give something to hold that old gun one more time.

It’s all random anecdotes, the memories that I have of Dad’s interactions with his young children. His relationship to us was distant, I guess because he was old school. He provided for us. What more could there be? When I was probably ten or so, he bought us a pony. A dark brown round little tub we named Cricket. I remember he bought the pony at the public auction of Ale and Mandy Hostetler, when they sold their stuff and moved out of Aylmer. Ale (Eli) and Mandy had moved in from Ohio somewhere, Millersburg, I think, some years before. Mom and Mandy were best friends. We children often played together when we were little. Anyway, the Hostetlers sold their farm and had a sale and moved out at about the time the mini exodus of other families was leaving, too. In the early 1970s.

I’ve wondered, since then, now and then. What were the tremors that swept through Aylmer, when so many people left over such a short period of time? How did events shift like they did, and how did they settle like they did? I guess it was just a lot of individual people making a lot of individual choices. I don’t know. I was too small to take much notice of such things, then, except I was sad when my friends moved away. I saw that a few times before I was twelve. I did notice, though, when Dad brought home a pony. It was a completely unexpected thing. All the children were delighted.

Cricket was the perfect pony for young children. Fat, slow, lazy, completely, and I mean completely safe, and quite smart. My sister Rhoda, of course, connected with Cricket like she connected with all animals. She soon had Cricket performing all manner of tricks, and she stood on the pony’s back, barefoot, as it went galloping along the farm fields and lanes. When Mom got wind that Rhoda was standing on the pony’s back like that, she immediately enlisted Dad to sternly forbid such a thing. I think Rhoda stopped, mostly, except for the occasional infraction when no one was looking. She was a natural. You can’t quench a natural from doing what she’s going to do.

Cricket was wickedly smart. There were several close shaves when the pony broke his way into a feed bin and almost foundered. He also finagled the pasture gate open now and then, and got out. Early one morning, Cricket nosed the gate open, meandered down the road a ways, then bolted out of the darkness, right in front of an oncoming car. Our beloved pony was instantly killed. I remember waking up at 3 AM to flashing police lights outside. The next morning, it seemed like a bad dream. It wasn’t. The children were very sad. And it wasn’t a sorrow that faded lightly. We got over it in time, as children do. There never was another pony like Cricket. But we always had a few riding horses around, there in Aylmer and later in Bloomfield.

And what about today? What would Dad say today? At first, I thought and wrote mostly about how it was when we were little. And then it hit, after I thought I was done, pretty much, with this little story. What about when we were adults, all around? I think Dad enjoyed all his children at the end, when we came to see him. I know he always asked. What’s going on in your life? He asked my brothers, businessmen all, about how their sales were going. And he talked to me, not about business, I never owned any business. He talked to me about writing.

Before the book even came along, he read my blogs. He talked about what he had read, asked how it went for me. The process, what it means to write. It was super special, all of it was, when it came to me and him chatting about something we both loved. I knew I was talking to a master. I wanted to do what he did, and do it better. The thing was, he was genuinely interested, when he asked. He talked from his heart, when he talked about writing. And for an old man who came from where Dad came from, well, it’s usually pretty tough to talk from the heart about anything.

The day slipped up on me, one year out. Christmas. Last year, things were heavy in the air. Last year, I was packing up to head up to where Dad was lying in a coma. This year, not much was going on. Christmas Day came and went. And then the next day dawned. And the emotions came rolling in strong. I thought about it all day as the minutes passed, then the hours. Now I’m heading out and up to Aylmer. Now I’m reaching the border. Now I’m approaching Aylmer, the place where Dad was dying. Now I’m crossing myself. Now I’m there.

I always marvel when I look back. At how it went, at how Dad settled down and quietly passed away a mere few hours after I got there. I’ve always thought. I think he was waiting for one of his sons to get there to tell him it’s OK to leave. I just happened to be the son that came. It could have been any of the others, I feel. And one year out, I thought about these things from the perspective of that time. A year. When you’ve had a little time to absorb, to feel, and to grieve. To let go of all the pain and loss of so many barren and desolate years, and to hang on to the good things that came toward the end.

And I think of a thing I didn’t know, driving up there. This past summer, after the first draft of my book got done, I chatted with my editor, Virginia. She wanted me to get some copies to all my siblings, so they could check out my story for accuracy. Just to make sure there were no glaring errors or omissions. There were no hard copies at that time, so that Sunday after church I took a draft over to Staples and told the nice lady I needed ten copies. That evening, I stopped and picked them up, all nicely spiral bound. The first hard version of my book, that right there was. It was something, to feel and hold. The next day, I mass-mailed copies to my brothers and sisters. There is a chapter in the book about Mom, how she sank and how she died. How we buried her. After he read the book, my brother Jesse gave me his feedback and reflections. He told me a story of what had happened as Mom’s last hour was fast approaching. It was a detail I had not heard before.

They knew the end was imminent, that night. As the hours slowly passed, they stood around her bedside. No one dies alone in the Amish culture, not if it can be helped. As dawn approached, they sang to her, as we later sang to Dad in his last moments. Jesse told me how it went, as the morning hour came. At some point in there, Dad came stumping in to speak to Mom. He could not walk that well. They gave him room. He went right up to the head of the bed. I imagine that he reached down and gently stroked her tired and wasted face. And Jesse told me. “He spoke tenderly to her.” I don’t know if they gave him space, so they couldn’t hear his words. Or if they stood around close as Dad spoke. But something about that detail, that frozen instant in time, something about it hit me hard. Just seeing that scene in my mind. It hit me hard.

Death brings out what’s real in us, I think. And here stood a 93-year-old man, speaking tenderly to his 90-year-old wife as she was fast approaching that great dark river. She was crossing over. She was leaving him after they had been together for seventy-three years. There would be no return. He had to let her go. And he spoke tenderly to her, the man who could find few tender words to speak in life to anyone. In that moment, though, he could walk that broken road. And he did.

It is a powerful and moving thing to me. To know that.

December 13, 2019

Incident on Romans Road…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:40 pm


He roared like a lion and cooed like a dove.
Hellfire and brimstone. Come to Jesus.

–Ira Wagler: Broken Roads

It was a nippy December day, last week. Outside, the cold winds whipped and swirled. Winter. It’s here, at the door. At work, we were a little short-handed. Deer season does that. Customers trickled in and out. Builders. A young couple looking for metal roofing. And then the bell rang again, as the front door opened. I got up from my desk to meet the man who walked in. A small-time contractor. English guy. I greeted him. It’s been a while. He walked up to the counter where I stood.

He needed some metal roofing delivered to his job site the next day, he told me as we talked. That’s doable, I said. How much and what color? And we got down to figuring out what he needed. That’s what I do. I knew the guy fairly well. He’d bought from me off and on for a few years. We chatted as I wrote up his order, until he mentioned, almost offhand like. He had been diagnosed recently with cancer. The bad kind. It was riddled all through his body. And he told me. He had less than six months to live.

Well, what do you do with that, when someone tells you such a thing? The man always was a salty talker, and he was talking salty that day. Every other word was a curse. Or it sure seemed like it. I flinched a little, not accustomed to or comfortable with such words. Still. I looked at him. No one is promised any kind of tomorrow. And it flashed through my mind. Here was a dead man walking, basically. The sword was hanging, suspended right over his head by the thinnest of threads. I mean, it’s hanging over us all. But he had a time frame. Six months or less. It was hard to grasp, at that moment. What do you say, what can you say?

He kept talking and swearing, telling me the story of how he had found out about the cancer. Only around a month ago, it was. And it came to my mind as I listened to him talk. What’s he gonna do, when death comes calling? Is he ready? I mean, no one is ready, as in eager to leave. But ready, spiritually, when it’s time to go. I try not to judge such things. I thought. Should I say something? Should I tell him about Jesus? It’s not like he never had the chance to hear about the gospel. It’s all around you, here in this area. At every corner, there is a church. That’s not far from the truth. Here, in Lancaster County, you can’t help but get exposed to the message in your daily walk through life. But what if he hadn’t been? What then?

I come from the Amish. The quiet in the land. They don’t verbalize their faith much, but hold it in their hearts with few words. I never got over that shyness when I left. Never went on the mission field, never went knocking door to door. Never handed out religious tracts on any street corner anywhere. I’ve never proclaimed the message of the gospel, other than maybe in my writings and in my life. Live your faith, is where I come from. Anyone can claim anything. It takes the real thing to live it. That’s where it really counts.

It’s not like that, in a lot of places. Some plain groups, like the Beachy Amish and certain Plain Mennonites, take the whole “witnessing” thing pretty seriously. I remember very well the Plain Mennonite man who stopped by at work one Saturday, years ago. I wrote a blog about him, he made such an impression on me. Not a positive impression, either, I will say. That man was mired in a bog of legalism, and he had no idea. One of the most important requirements of his church was that you had to clean up before you could join. He fancied himself a “watchman at the gate.” Watchmen like that, at least the ones of old, operated under a rather severe rule. If they failed to warn, the blood of those they failed was on their hands. It’s an awful burden of guilt and works, that whole thing is. You think about the freedom of the gospel, what it really is, and how pointless it is to get tangled up in all that drama. It makes me about half crazy to see people bogged down so hopelessly in bondage like that.

And yes, they are in bondage. The bondage of the law. Only the true gospel will ever make those people free.

Moving along, from that. Then there are the Bob Jones types, too. I saw them up close and personal in the two years I attended that school. The Preacher Boys. Near as I could tell, they believe that every person is called to be talking about Jesus, pretty much all the time, every day. It was part of their curriculum, for the Preacher Boys to get so many hours logged in every week, going door to door, confronting total strangers and force-feeding them the beautiful gospel of Jesus. I mean, they went looking for it, the chance to talk about salvation to the lost. And I’m sure they did some good, here and there, now and then. I’m sure some people were led to the Lord through such annoyances as the Preacher Boys going knocking on doors and confronting people with all kinds of scary talk of hell. They used fear, the Preacher Boys did, as a regular tool of persuasion. I looked at it going on around me and wasn’t impressed. And I never participated or emulated. Never.

They had their formulas, to get to where they wanted to go. I heard their talk, laughed at their humor, and generally accepted the Preacher Boys I got to know. Nice enough guys, they had their little inside jokes, spoke a language all their own. And one of their formulas, I heard the name different times, spoken always in hushed tones of respect. Romans Road. I never asked much, but I just figured Romans Road must be a map of the letter Paul wrote to the Romans. A map with step by step instructions on how to get sinners saved. That’s what I figured Romans Road was.

The Preacher Boys would sure have jumped at the chance to ask this man all about whether he knows for sure where he’s going after he dies. Heaven? Or the awful long eternal flaming torment of hell? Where teeth will chatter because of the heat. They would have told me and told me hard. Now. Here’s your chance to tell a lost soul about Jesus. He’ll listen. He’s dying. He’ll be vulnerable. Go for it. Tell him, tell him. Tell him, now.

I heard their voices in my head. And I didn’t discount what they said, necessarily. Because there was another whisper of a voice, out there on the edge of things, persistent in its strength. A voice I have heard consistently for ten years, now. And that was Pastor Mark Potter, preaching the gospel at Chestnut Church. A man with a message on a mission, Pastor Mark was, when he became the leader of the little flock there at Chestnut. I remember that he started in slow with his Reformed teachings. Gave a little taste, way at first. Led us along like a shepherd leads his sheep. After our appetites had been properly whetted, the man swung the hammer hard. He’s been swinging hard ever since.

All of Pastor Mark’s preaching points to Jesus. And Jesus is Love. So all the pastor talks about, pretty much, is love. Love others as Christ has loved you. It all gets a lot clearer, when you hear someone talking about it like he does. You hear that stuff week in and week out, and you listen and learn. Or you don’t. You grow, or you don’t. I don’t know. I think the stuff just permeates in you, when you’re not even quite aware what’s going on. That’s how it went for me, anyway.

Eventually, the realization sank in. It was true, as Pastor Mark claimed. The Great God of the universe wants to have a relationship with me. I mean, you always hear that said. But hearing it and actually realizing it are two different things. And when it gets told like Pastor Mark speaks it, you respond in awe and gratitude and reverence. Or I did. Seemed like the right thing and still does.

And I looked at the man standing before me, across the counter. Looked at him as he swore and used the Lord’s name in vain in a jagged string of profanities. I looked at him, a common man in shabby work clothes, a man who had just told me he didn’t have long to live. Or love. He didn’t have long to do that, either. And I could hear Pastor Mark asking. “How can you best love such a person as that? You owe him nothing. Except love. You owe him that, because of how you have been loved.” That’s what I heard in my head, standing right there on that spot. “You owe him love.”

But what does that look like? What is love? I wasn’t sure. I can’t save anyone. It’s not my job to. It’s God’s. Salvation belongs to Him alone, to do with as He sees fit. But still. It is my job to love. This is the kind of thing that jumbled in my head. Not necessarily that logical or in that order. I knew from having heard Pastor Mark proclaim a certain truth a hundred times through the years. The church is a hospital, not a country club. Care for the wounded, the sick, the broken. That’s what we’re called to do. That’s what Jesus did.

I looked at the man, talking to me, waving his hands as he spoke. And I asked him gently, when the question could be worked in. Then another. How does it feel? Are you afraid?

He swore again. His face looked haggard and tired. “I’m in bleeping pain, here,” he said. “Of course, I’m scared.” I nodded. I hear that, I said. We went back to filling out his order. And still, I could not shake it. I asked him. Are you at peace with God? Do you have anyone you can talk to?

He spoke a string of salty words and nodded. “Yeah, I got my priest,” he said. “I trust him. He’s a good man.” That’s good, I said. You gotta have someone you can talk to.

And we finished his order, then. I didn’t know quite what to say. I offered him my hand as he turned to leave. He shook it. I wish you the best, I said. Now, and later. He nodded. “I may see you again,” he said. “And I may not.”

He walked out. I watched him go and felt for him. Sometimes life is hard, like that.

Well, that came whooshing in. The end of one more year, a year like no other. I guess every year is unique in its own way, in some way. And now, 2019 stumbles to a close. There were things that went on, and there were things that went on. Some were remarkable, and some were not.

Amish wedding season came rolling along, like it always does after Big Church in the fall. Usually it gets here in the last part of October, goes full swing during the whole month of November, then trickles to a stop sometime in December. This year the Roasht harvest was particularly bountiful. I always pester a handful of Amish builders there at work. And a few other social Amish friends. It’s an annual quest I take seriously and pursue with great vigor. Bring me some Roasht. Almost every year, I get a good feast or two. This year, I think I got more than half a dozen servings. I will concede, like I have before. When it comes to delicious home-cooked food, the Lancaster County blue bloods got the rest of the Amish world beat. Roasht takes the prize, as it will every time.

As Thanksgiving approached a few weeks ago, the memory came knocking like it always does. Seems like I don’t always quite remember the exact date. And as the years slide by, the whole incident recedes ever more distant into the fog of the past. Four years ago, back in 2015, in the week leading up to that holiday, I was flat on my back in intensive care at Lancaster General. From complications from A-fib that degenerated into congestive heart failure. It was as close as I ever came to leaving. I looked over to the other side. Can’t say I saw much, but I looked over.

Each year, as that time rolls around, I stop and reflect on the fact that life is a beautiful thing. Every day, every moment, is simply a gift. I’m trying more to live it like that.

The most notable thing that happened this year, in a year of many notable things, was the book. It got finished. A miracle, really. I can’t tell you how stuck I was. And how discouraged. My wheels were sunk in the mud all the way down to the axle. It was not a good place to be. And then Dad got sick, about this time a year ago. Before Christmas. I went up the day after, arriving a few hours before the man took his leave. We buried him in solemn ceremony. The writing came roaring out after I got back home.

This was the first year without Dad. We were ready for it, we thought. Still. When your parents are both gone, what does that make you? I remember years ago, what my friend Alan Stanley told me. One of my closest friends, he passed away after complications from a nonmalignant brain tumor. I met Alan in the early 90s, when he was known as Ralph. We hung out a lot together. Alan came from a poor area in rural Ohio. His father had passed away years before. I met his Mom a few times when she came around to visit.

At some point, then, the mother got sick out there in Ohio. Alan kept me updated as she slowly sank, then died. The next time I saw him, I told him. Sorry about your loss. I guess it wasn’t unexpected. Alan looked at me. Then he spoke half dramatically, as only he could. “You know what I am, Ira? I’m an orphan.” His statement startled me a little bit, but I thought about it. It was true. We all get to be orphans after our parents pass on. So that’s what I am, since Dad left. An orphan. Lost and alone and cold and hungry and tired and destitute on the streets. That’s how we think of orphans. It’s not like that for me, as it isn’t for most of us. I’m comfortable being parentless.

So, anyway, looking out ahead. I’m sure the new year will bring surprises. They always do. I am quietly optimistic and excited. The journey beckons over broken roads. I am ready to move forward, to walk the path that will rise up. The Lord knows what’s coming. I don’t. I’m good with that, though.

It’s a different journey, from the first book. Different terrain, different people. I don’t guess it could be any other way. Nor would I wish it to be. I raise my hand and lift my glass (of water, not whiskey) in salute.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers.