March 18, 2016

Of Rage and Love…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


Have no lips trembled in the wilderness?
No eyes sought seaward from the rock’s
sharp edge for men returning home? Has no
pulse beat more hot with love or hate upon
the river’s edge?….No love?

—Thomas Wolfe

He walked in that Saturday morning at the office. And I looked at him as he approached to where I was standing behind the counter. An old man, with a lean hard face. Kind of shabbily dressed, like old people are sometimes, and they don’t realize it. He had seen better days. He looks a little hungry, I thought to myself. And he had a grumpy air about him, as if he knew this day would be like all the rest have been, lately. It would not bring him many good things. Tired, is how he looked. Tired and old and grumpy. Still. He was a customer, or at least he might be one. And I smiled and greeted him, just like I try to smile and greet anyone who walks through that front door on a Saturday morning, or any other morning. Can I help you? I asked.

He nodded. I could, yes. And he told me. He had this little bitty storage shed back home, down south over the Maryland line a ways. It needed a new roof. He had a lot of questions. And he took his time, asking. And I took my time, answering. There wasn’t much else going on at the office right then, anyway. Might as well pay some attention to the old man. Don’t matter, how small his project is. Just take care of him, like you would if he was asking about a big building he needed. That’s what I thought to myself. And me and the old man just talked along. My first impression was right. He was in a grumpy mood. He kind of snapped out his questions. Maybe he’s just tired, from all he’s seen, I thought. Maybe it’s just not a good day for him. And we kept talking.

The phone rang, then, and I glanced back at my desk. Just let it go to voicemail. I’m busy here. But the old man wouldn’t have that. “Answer the phone,” he told me. “I’m in no hurry. I’ll wait. I just have a few more questions.” So I answered and chatted with a builder for a few minutes. Sorry, I said as I hung up. We only got one person in the office, on a Saturday. And today, that’s me. The old man waved it off. “Don’t think a thing of it,” he said. And he went right back to asking questions about metal for his little roof. I showed him color samples of what we have. Metal. Trim. Screws. He absorbed it all. He’d have to go back home and get some measurements. And then he’d get back to me. We were winding down. He took my card. And I thanked him for stopping by. We’ll have your stuff, when you’re ready for it, I told him. Call me, and we’ll have it ready for you when you get back.

And he turned away to walk back out. And just that close, he did. But just as he was turning, his eye caught the little poster taped to the back of my computer screen, facing him. My book. He stopped, and looked at the poster closely. Then he looked at me. Then back to the poster again. And he got all curious. His whole face changed. And he asked me. “Did you write that book? Were you born Amish?” Yes, I said. I did and I was.

And he looked at me. “Were you ever shunned?” he asked. Yes, I said. I was. For years and years. But as Dad got along in years, he let it go, dropped the shunning. I am very thankful that I get to sit at the table with him now. He’s old, in his nineties. But better late than never. Way better. Let me tell you that.

And the old man leaned in toward the counter, totally focused on what he had to say. It was like a light went on inside him. “I know all about what it is, to be shunned,” he said. The grumpiness was gone, replaced by a quiet, well, I don’t know what. A quiet knowledge, I guess. He went on. “I was a Jehovah’s Witness, years ago. I left them, back in the eighties. And they’re a lot like the Amish are, if you leave them. They’ll shun you. Oh, yes, they will. They still won’t have anything to do with me, the ones I knew back then. Still not today.”

The light died in him, then. And it drained out of him, his eagerness to tell me what he knew and thought. He was just a tired old man again. He settled in, settled back, seemed to shrink into himself. “It sure is a strange thing,” he muttered. “It sure is strange, how they treat you. And all because they claim to love you.”

Yeah, it sure is strange, indeed, I said. And I know how it affects you, to be rejected like that. I know all about how that is. I’ve been there. And we stood there and talked about what it was to be shunned. How you deal with it. How you adapt, in your head and in your heart. He had definitely seen some hard places. I could tell. He had been down some hard tough roads.

“I could still go back,” he said, suddenly. I was startled. No one had mentioned anything about going back. But he wanted to. “I mean, if I wanted to, I could,” he said. “Not that I do. But they would take me back. If I went, I would have to get to the service on a Sunday after it starts. I’d have to sit by myself all the way in the back, and then I’d have to get up and leave just before it ended. Eventually they would take me back, as a member, then.”

Wow, I said. I could go back to the Amish, too, if I had a mind to. Which I don’t. I’m just saying. I could. They wouldn’t make me sit in the back, though. Actually, you’d sit pretty close to up front, where they can keep an eye on you. And they would make me walk a pretty strict line for about six months or so. But they would accept me, and genuinely so, during the process. I guess different groups do things different.

There was a silence, then. We just stood there, in the company of each other, the old man and me. It was soon time for him to go. But still he lingered, as if there was something more he wanted to say.

And I told him what I thought about the whole shunning business. My take on it. Yeah, I said. It hurts, to be shunned. And yeah, it’s no fun. But I have always stood for people to have the right to believe what they want. Don’t have to make sense to me. I’ll defend the Amish all day, and the JWs, too. They have the right to be who they are. They have the right to believe what they want.

The old man looked at me. I think it had been a few years since he’d thought much about the shunning. It had been a while since he’d talked to anyone about it. Especially someone who halfway understood where he had been and what he had seen. And he seemed to be considering his next words carefully.

“Yes,” he said. “We all have the right to be who we are, and to believe what we believe. That’s a given. But that don’t make it any easier to be shunned.”

It was time to go. He turned to the door. But then he turned back. He had one more thing to tell me. One more thing to say. He didn’t shake his finger at me, or anything. But what he said came from somewhere buried deep inside. There was nothing grumpy, nothing tired about the old man now. And then he spoke.

“They claim they’re doing it out of love, the people who shun you,” he said. “But it’s not love, to reject a person just because that person leaves your group. Maybe it’s hate. For sure, it’s rage. It’s not natural, for a parent to reject a child, to cut off all contact with a child. It’s not natural. It’s not Christian, either. You can claim it’s anything you want to. But it’s not love.”

No, it’s not love. I agreed. It’s not love, to shun someone. Real love is what those people need, the ones who shun. What they’re missing. And real love will never allow a parent to reject a child. Never. That don’t mean you have to approve of what the child is doing. But you won’t reject him. It’s impossible, with love the way Jesus taught and lived it.

“No, it’s not real love,” he answered. “And yes, real love is what those people need, what we all need.” Yes, I said. It sounds trite, but it really boils down to love. We all need love. Those who shun and those who are shunned. We need to love and be loved.

It was time, then, to leave. He offered me his hand, and I shook it. “I’ll give you a call when I got those measurements for my metal,” he said. “And thanks for your time.”

You do that, I told him as he turned and left. We’ll be here.
Almost, this blog didn’t get written. And one might think. It’s March. The bad month for Ira. Last year, it got real dark, and he freaked out and never posted a word. It’s March. So of course that’s why he got stuck, writing.

But it’s not. It was way less complicated than that. I got March, this year. It will never freak me out again, not like it did. Not saying I’ll never skip a blog in March. But it won’t be because I’m freaked out. The thing is, I got a nice, new PC, a desktop computer. And a friend came over and set it up. The nice, new computer didn’t work. Kept freezing up on me, and losing the writing I had just labored on. There wasn’t a lot of peace of mind involved. I got a little fretful, I will concede. And for a while there, this week, it looked like this post wasn’t gonna get done.

My old computer was pretty ancient, in computer age. I bought it back on 2008 or 2009. Way back when I was blogging every week, and finding my writing voice. It’s an old-style desktop with an old-fashioned flat monitor. And it has more than served me well. I cranked out a lot of writing on that computer. I’ve worked my way through a few keyboards, and I’m on my second office chair. And the book. Every word was punched out, or at least edited, on that old computer.

And a few weeks ago, I got to thinking. I better get something new, before this old thing crashes and I lose all my stuff. So one day last week I emailed my ex-brother-in-law and good friend, Paul Yutzy. I’m thinking about picking up a new computer. Could you come over and set it up sometime, if I do? Paul is a computer geek, works in the field, and has always been my go-to guy. He answered right back. Sure. Get what you want. Brand doesn’t matter much these days. I can stop by one evening and set it up for you.

So on Saturday after work, I headed on over to Best Buy to pick up a cheap PC. That right there was my first mistake. But I didn’t know. So I went in and lurked around the computer section. Surely someone would see I needed help, I figured. I mean, in a big box store like this, you always have to fend off the sales people. They won’t leave you alone.

And almost right away, here comes this beautiful girl, all smiling and friendly. She had a name tag, so I figured, here we go. Great service, this. She smiled very prettily and gushed at me. “Oh, I just LOVE your hat (I was wearing my Aussie.). You wear it SO well.” Why, thank you, I said, genuinely pleased. It’s real nice of you to notice. She smiled again, and then started asking questions for some survey she was doing. She didn’t even work at Best Buy. So that little compliment went out the window, whoosh, just like that. I felt deflated.

After shaking her off, I kept loafing around, looking at computers. No one came. It all figures, I grumbled to myself. When you’re looking to buy, no one pays any attention to you. When you’re just window shopping, you get assaulted by some pesky sales person every time you turn around. I finally approached the sales desk, where four guys were standing around, cracking jokes and laughing. I got some questions about a computer, I said, and one of them rushed to help me. He knew his stuff and I was on my way in twenty minutes with my new PC. A Lenovo, an all-in-one model, where everything is in the screen. Pretty wild stuff, those computers are. I unloaded at home, and set the big box in a corner.

The next afternoon, Sunday, Paul and his friend Malinda came over. I shuffled around, trying to stay out of the way, while Paul set up my new model and transferred the data from old to new. All my docs, and all my pics, and all my other stuff. By late afternoon, he was done, and we sat down to the fine meal Malinda had whipped up. And then they left. I felt good. A brand new computer. Latest model. I was all set, I figured.

Almost right away, things did not go well. I surfed around a bit on the internet, and then left the desk for a few minutes. When I sat back down and moved the mouse, nothing happened on the screen. The thing was frozen stiff. No movement, no nothing. I finagled around and hit various combo keys. Control, Alt, Delete. Restart. Nothing. Finally, I reached down and unplugged the computer. It went dark instantly. I fired it back up. Maybe that was a fluke, I thought.

It wasn’t. The computer froze up and locked up randomly, maddeningly, at the most inopportune times. I had an outline started for this blog, and pulled it up. I punched around, writing, for fifteen minutes. And then, boom, the screen froze up again. No. No. NO. I screamed inside. I can’t lose all that stuff I just wrote. And again, the only way to get rebooted was to unplug the computer and start over. I’ll never get a blog written this way, I thought. Oh, well. Just skip this week, I guess. But still, I wanted to. And I kept working away, off and on. And the computer kept freezing up, mostly when I was online, and mostly after I turned my back for a few moments. It was all real frustrating.

Came this Wednesday evening, early, then. I sat here, working on my blog. And I saved the words, now and again. And then there was a long stretch, probably half an hour. I should save, I should save, I thought. But I kept writing. And all of a sudden, the mouse wouldn’t move. Frozen again. No. No. NO. But it was. I yanked the plug-in from the wall, and then fired up again. Word would not, could not retrieve the words I had not saved. It was still early. I got pretty livid. I shut down my new computer unplugged everything, threw the keyboard and mouse into my messenger bag and loaded my truck. Back to Best Buy. That’s where this piece of junk was going.

I walked in and up to the Service counter. And our conversation remained polite throughout, I gotta say. But they were rigid, unhelpful, and totally lacking in service. They wanted to charge me $100 to move my data from the defective computer onto a new one, and it would take five days. Frustrated, I excused myself and stepped aside and called Paul. I told him what was going on, and he got all indignant. “It takes five minutes to transfer that data,” he told me. “Get your money back, go home and plug your old computer back in. I’ll find something that’ll work for you in a day or two.”

So that’s what I did. Asked for my money back. At least they didn’t make a fuss about the refund. As I was walking out, I almost bumped into the pretty young survey girl who had swooned about my Aussie hat last Saturday. Still out there, still as pretty as ever, still accosting people for her survey. She recognized me, her eyes widened, and I tipped my hat. Ma’am, I said. And then I got out of that place. I will not shop at Best Buy again.

And then I went back home and reconnected my trusty old computer. My old friend. I thought we had parted for good, but now we were together again. The computer fired right up, and everything worked, just like it always has. And that’s why this blog got posted this week.

March 4, 2016

Vagabond Traveler: Wilderness and Sky…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


Mama, put my guns in the ground,
I can’t shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin’ down,
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door,
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door…

—Bob Dylan, lyrics

I don’t know quite how to speak this week, about how things went. I guess, just start back where it started, with the telling of it. I felt the pensiveness and tension in me, back even before my last post. And no, it wasn’t fear. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. It’s not fear. Whatever it was was there, just kind of stirring around inside me. It was like I was standing there, looking at a great mountain in the distance. The ablation. Out there a good ways still, but creeping in a little closer every day. And each day, with the rising and setting of the sun, there was nothing to do but walk right toward it. And I knew. There was no way around it. The mountain had to be faced, and it had to be faced alone. This road had to be walked, and it had to be walked alone.

It’s not that I didn’t want the procedure done, the ablation. I did want it done. And who am I kidding? A “procedure” is just a clean word for that way more frightening term. Operation. That’s what I was facing. An operation. Sure, nowadays, they can slip up through a vein in your groin with a laser knife, slide right into your heart, and just sear the misbehaving muscles. The thing is, fifteen years ago, it would have been major open heart surgery, what they were doing to me. They would have sawed me open with a hack saw. And they would have peeled back my ribs and poked and cut around my heart with a knife. By hand. And I would have been cooped up in pain for weeks and weeks. That’s assuming I survived, of course. I would have played the odds, though. Not much choice there. I would have had to. But it’s not anything like that, now. Now it’s very close to an outpatient thing. You walk in one day, walk out the next. That’s what the doctor told me, anyway.

And from the start, ever since my long hospital stay last November, I wanted it done. It had to get done so I could get off some of those toxic drugs they had me on. It had to get done, for my life to ever be close to normal again.

And it all closed in, it all became so clear to me as the mountain crept in a little closer each day. I thought about it a lot. How rare and beautiful life is. How much there is I haven’t done. I’m fifty-four. Not that young anymore. But not that old, either. And I thought to myself. You really need to get a grip on things. Figure out what’s important. You’ve been depressed these past two years or so. You’ve been drinking yourself into a stupor. You’ve been full of rage. For what? What good does that do anyone? What does it do, except prove that you can drink yourself into any state of mind you want to? Stop it. You can’t drink away pain. Stop choosing to feel all dark and depressed and angry. Get up. Clean up. And get out there, and live. And yeah, all that said, I sure would like me a drink. I sure would like one.

It took a while, to get my bearings after I got home from that long hospital stay in November. Took a few weeks for it all to sink in, how close it had come. How nearly I had left this earth. It changes you, a thing like that does. Nothing is quite the same as it was before, not ever again. Not once you really grasp it, that you faced the Grim Reaper right up close and walked away. There’s a couple of things that can happen, after that happens. You can curl up in fear, retreat even further into the darkness. You can drink even harder and swear at the bitter skies. Or you can step up and realize that Death took a shot at you and missed. And you got nothing to fear, not ever again. That’s what I grasped after a few weeks at home, after things had settled down a bit. I had faced Death, and I will never be afraid again. Not like I was before. I will walk free, I will live free.

And it trickled out and around, then, this new knowledge I had latched on to. How beautiful life is, and how intensely I wanted to be alive. The people around me at work were the first to see that new part of me, I think. I spend more time in the office than at any other place. And once I had grasped this new perspective, I could not keep it inside me. The joy bubbled and rolled from me. My coworkers looked on in astonishment as I walked about, whistling to myself. And even breaking into song, sometimes. Who was this strange new guy? They wondered. It sure doesn’t sound like the Ira we know. Is the man off his rocker? It can’t be him, singing like that. But it was.

And it didn’t take long for the first wild strange thing to get here. I don’t quite remember how it came up. But I got to thinking. And it seemed like a real good idea at the time. Then I got to talking. And I told them, at the office. This spring, after my ablation, I’m getting my motorcycle license. There was a brief, stunned silence. Not that anyone had any problem with what I had said. It’s just that, I mean, me riding a motorcycle is even crazier than me cooking and having a beard and wearing an Aussie hat.

I’ve taken a few very rare rides as a passenger, in my life. I’ve never, never driven a bike. Never. You couldn’t have paid me to. Death machines, that’s what I called them. People get killed on those things all the time. And not because they’re driving recklessly, either. Most times, a motorcycle accident happens because other drivers don’t see the bike. They pull out in front of you, and it’s over. That’s a death machine, I said sternly to a lot of friends who ride. You’ll get killed, riding that thing. That’s what I’ve said, many times. And I have never, never even remotely considered getting my license, or learning to ride. It was way too big a risk for the old me to take.

Now it isn’t. And now I am not only considering it, I’m planning to do it. Just because I want to. If I die riding, I die riding. That’s better than rotting away in some desolate nursing home thirty years from now.

I remember when I told them, there in the office. I’m getting my motorcycle license, I announced brightly one day. The guys seemed to accept the news cheerfully enough. One of them came back at me. “Oh, so are you going to be riding with the Pagans?” And I shot back. Maybe. If they’ll have me. I got no problem riding with the Pagans. Or the Hell’s Angels, either. Heck, I’ll be their chaplain. They’re just people. They need the gospel, just like anyone else. I’ll ride with anyone. I’ll walk with anyone, too. Don’t matter to me at all, who it is, or what they look like.

And that was that. And that’s how it is. Sometime this month, I’m planning to go get my beginner’s permit. And this spring, I’ll spend three Saturdays taking a training course. I could not know less about riding a bike than I do. So I figure to learn from the ground up. And I figure if I don’t like it, well, at least I’ll have my license. If I do like it, I’m getting me a Harley, something long and gleaming and wicked. I already got my canvas backpack and my duster and my boots. I’m growing a ponytail to go with my beard, and I’ve got a big old Bowie pig sticker in a leather sheath to strap to my hip. And, oh, I’m thinking about getting a dog, too, to ride along. (Which is real odd, because I haven’t allowed my heart to become attached to any animal since the Stud died, way back.) Let’s just say, if all that happens, there’s gonna be a whole lot of new border crossings coming up real soon.

A month or so out. The mountain lurked, creeping ever closer every day. The ablation loomed. I’m not sure how to describe how it felt. It was a mixture, I guess. Kind of a strange restlessness, way down deep. But I held on to what I learned, back in November. I will walk forward and I will walk without fear. And I didn’t feel at all that the Lord must keep me alive because there’s some special work for me, down the road. No such thoughts bogged me down. If anything, there was an even stronger sense that I was entirely expendable. I’ve said it before. You are expendable. Everyone is. The Lord doesn’t need you for anything, not for any reason. And about the time you get to thinking you got some special thing going on for Him, that’s when something will come along and whack you right upside the head. And it doesn’t matter, anyway, in the end. The Lord’s work is gonna get done, one way or the other. That’s just how it is.

I stayed pretty loose emotionally. At my last appointment, the doctor had told me. An ablation was not something to fear. It was being done to make me better. That’s about as basic as you can make it, I guess, coming from a doctor to a patient. But I never lost sight of how serious it was, how serious it had to be. When you go under, and when a foreign object gets slid up to cut and sear your heart, that’s a serious thing. Ain’t no other way of looking at it.

A few weeks out. I wasn’t looking for a sign, or anything. And I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for, rummaging around in one of my desk drawers one evening. Stuck way in the back, there was a little paper bag. Rolled up and crumpled up in a corner. Curious, I got it out. There had to be some reason a paper bag was stuck back in the drawer. I unrolled the bag. Opened it.

And there was a little necklace stuck in there. A little oblong piece of flat clay, baked to look like a stone. A little more than an inch across. A thin black lanyard was looped through a hole in the stone, big enough to slip over my head. And in the center of the stone was the stamp of a cross. I turned the thing in my hands and examined it. And it calmed my spirit, I gotta say. I couldn’t remember where I had picked up the necklace, probably at some flea market somewhere. Strange, I thought, that it now emerges, at a time like this, at this very moment. And I bent my head and looped the black lanyard over. The flat stone nestled into my chest. The stamp of the cross. I was about to go on a journey, a vagabond traveler in a strange land. And I would carry the cross with me. That’s what I decided right there on that spot that night. I told no one of what I had found, or of my decision. It was a simple thing between me and God. Kind of like a covenant, maybe.

A week out. The final countdown rolled down in my head. And I looked out, ten days or so, and made plans. The things I would do, the places I would go, when it was all over. You look to the other side, in times like that. At least I do. Because when you get there, that means the mountain is behind you. Mostly, though, I focused on the actual date. Wednesday, February 24th. That’s when it would all come down. And they had told me at work. The day before, we’re sitting you on a chair, here in the back office. And we’re going to stand around you with our hands on you. And we are going to pray to the Lord for your protection. I’m OK with that, I told them. And the last weekend approached, then came and went.

Tuesday, February 23rd. The day before. It all seems a little surreal in my mind, that day. It seemed to flash by, and it seemed to crawl along agonizingly slow. I worked. Told my customers and my builders, the ones I talked to face to face or on the phone. Tomorrow I will be out of the office, and the next day. I’m getting a medical procedure done. I’m thinking maybe I’ll be back Friday, at least part of the day. And the day wore on. Afternoon came. And Rodney came to tell me. Come to my office. We’re ready to pray for you. And I got up and walked with him.

They had set up a chair in the middle of the room. I sat in it. And they gathered around me, my coworkers and my friends. They placed their hands on my shoulders. And they spoke to the Lord on my behalf. Be with Ira as he walks into this journey, this unknown, tomorrow. I bowed my head and sat there. And when they had finished, my eyes were a little wet. I thanked them, all of them. My good friends. Right there for me, right there with me. Tomorrow, though, they could not come to where I was. Tomorrow, I would walk alone.

And that evening, we had our regular Bible Study upstairs, our little core group of die- hards. Six of us were there. Regulars, mostly. And we listened to a Keller sermon. And again, it was all a little surreal for me, sitting there, absorbing this time together with my friends. It all seemed so rare and precious, a moment like that. And afterward, we sat around, talking. Keller had mentioned in his sermon. Trust your friends. Be bold, and be vulnerable. And as we were winding down, someone asked. Does anyone have anything out of the ordinary to share? Or request?

I spoke up. Yes. I do. Tomorrow, I said, I’m going in for my ablation. It’s a pretty big deal to me. I would like all of you to gather around and pray for me. I know we’ve never done anything like that before, not here as a group. But tonight, I’m asking. They didn’t hesitate, my friends. They stood in a semi-circle behind my chair. Placed their hands on me. And each of them prayed a simple prayer, talked to God. And they weren’t asking the Lord to make sure I made it back. They were asking that I would be calm and resolute, whatever comes. And that His will would be done. And as they wound down, then, I thanked them all. I was a little choked up. It was a special moment for all of us, I think. We stood around talking for a few more minutes. My friend Allen and I finalized our plans. He had offered to come and take me in to Lancaster General early the next morning. I was scheduled to check in at six o’clock. And then we all separated and headed for our homes. That was the last evening, winding down.

The vagabond traveler paused and pulled the brim of his hat down low against the cold and shifting winds. He huddled in his long coat and wrapped it tighter around him. He shivered ever so slightly and looked to the west. The road before him led into the shadows, slowly fading into darkness. The smell of death was out there. Shadows from the mountain loomed large above him. It will come in the morning, he thought. The good or evil that will be sufficient unto its day. The journey will continue, the road will lead on. In one dimension or the other. He shivered again, and then settled down to rest. But he knew sleep would be a far and fleeting thing that night.

There was no late meeting with my friends at Vinola’s that night. That’s what usually happens. I go down after Bible Study, and we sit there and talk for half an hour or so. And that usually winds up my Tuesday evening. But not tonight. Tonight it was time to do some thinking and it was time to go to bed and get some sleep. I felt fairly calm. But I wasn’t all that sure if sleep would come.

It didn’t, and it did. I slept fitfully, jolting awake now and again. And again. And soon, the alarm clattered. The last morning. This was it. Allen would be here at 5:15. I got up. Showered. Dressed in T-shirt and sweats. Slipped on the stamped cross necklace. Packed a light duffle bag. Last time I went to the hospital, I stayed for ten days. So this time, I packed a change of clothes, and a few books and other items. And my iPad. Just in case it goes longer before I get home, like it did last time. I glanced at the clock. My phone dinged. A text from Allen. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” I looked outside. A light rain drizzled down.

And I stood there in the kitchen, like I always do just before leaving on a journey. Whether it’s a ten-day road trip or a one-day excursion to the hospital. And I remembered the last time I left like this. How I had crossed myself and talked to God, just before walking out. I thought about that. How I had asked God to allow me a safe return later that day to the home I loved. Well, He allowed a safe return, alright. Ten days later, after almost calling me to His home, instead. But still, I remember getting home after all that time and walking into my house. I stood there, right where I had stood when I left, right where I was standing now. And I crossed myself again. And thanked Him.

Outside, lights flickered in my drive. Allen. He was here. I picked up my bag. And then I stopped. And then I crossed myself again. I felt very calm inside, talking to the Lord. The conversation was short. My words were very simple. God, I said. You know the future. I don’t. I’d really like to return to my home tomorrow, like the doctor told me I could. But I’m OK with whenever it is You get me back, or if I don’t come back at all. I’m OK with that.

Outside, Allen waited. It was time to go. I switched off the lights and shouldered my bag and walked out into the darkness and the rain. I greeted Allen as I settled in, and we chatted right along. Mostly about the little things, the ordinary details of our lives. The roads were completely deserted at that hour. In twenty minutes or so, Allen turned onto James Street and pulled up and parked outside the hospital entrance. There wasn’t a whole lot to say at this moment. We shook hands. Thank you, I said. My friend. Thanks so much. “You are very welcome,” he answered. “I hope everything goes well for you.” Then he stopped. “Well, I know it will go well for you, whatever happens,” he said. Yes, I said. I know, too. It will go well, whatever happens. I turned to the entrance as Allen edged out and drove into the predawn darkness.

I walked in and up to the second floor. Same place where I checked in last time for my “outpatient” day. I shivered a little. This place sure holds some tough memories. I walked up to the nice check-in lady, and ten minutes later, I was being directed to a bed in the corner of the outpatient room. They curtained me off, and the older, motherly nurse came with all her stuff. Blood pressure. Oxygen level. Temperature. That’s what she needed. She chatted right along and I chatted back at her. We got along real well. I’m here to get my heart fixed, I told her. She clucked in acknowledgement and sympathy.

I changed to a gown, then, and just lay there. She came around now and again. Talking right along all along. During one conversation, I told her. I’m wearing my stamped-cross necklace. I pulled it out and showed it to her. “Oh, my, Hon,” she said. “You can’t have that on you. You can’t have anything on you.” But it’s important to me, I protested. She was sympathetic but firm. “No necklaces on the operating table. That’s the rule. They don’t want anything that’s going to get all tangled up.” I looked sad. But I heard her. And I didn’t apologize to God, or anything. Just slid the lanyard up and over my head and slipped the necklace into my duffle bag. “When you get back to your room, you can put it on as soon as you like,” the nurse assured me soothingly.

They wanted me in the operating room soon after eight. That’s what I was told. The nurse flitted about, taking care of other curtained-off patients. I heard her chatting right along with them as well. And I glanced at my iPad. Eight o’clock. Things had better be happening soon, here, I thought. About then, a male nurse came in. He introduced himself and told me. He was here to prep me for the procedure. He did his thing for a few minutes. The curtain slipped open and the doctor came walking in. Dr. B. The man. He was all smiles. “Ira,” he beamed, waving his cup of coffee. “It’s a go. We’re going to get you fixed up.” I smiled back at him and shook his proffered hand with my left hand, which was the only one free at the moment. Thanks, I said. I’m good to go.

And the whole thing just came at me, pretty much like they said it would. My prep nurse disappeared, and within minutes a very lovely female nurse walked in and spoke to me. “I’m (I forget her name, but she was real lovely.),” she said. “I’m here to take you to the operating room.” Great, I said. She rolled out my bed, an orderly took the front while she pushed along. And we swept out into the halls and out and around all kinds of corridors. And then they were pushing me through a large set of swinging doors. The room. It was cold, real cold, just like I remembered it from a few years back, when my flutter heart got worked on. They rolled me up and then slid me over onto the table. A whole team was assembled. The lovely nurse kept chatting right along. I told her. I won’t see you guys again, because when I wake up, it’ll be in another room. I want to tell you. Thank you so much for all you are doing for me. She smiled in welcome. And then the anesthesiologist walked in and up to the head of my bed. The time was real close. I’m not quite sure I grasped just how close. But I know now, looking back.

And I had thought about it, how it would be at that moment. I can tell you how it felt. I was a traveler, standing at the edge of a wilderness. I’m talking wilderness as described in the Bible. I remembered how Pastor Mark had told in a sermon what a real wilderness was. It’s not a nice “wild” place where you can drive or walk in, camp out for a night, and then leave. Modern civilization has greatly romanticized the concept of true wilderness. A wilderness is a place of real danger, where you might actually die. Pastor Mark compared it to the Ebola virus, which at that time was ravaging several African countries. And he said. “Wilderness, the Biblical wilderness, is where you travel into one of those countries to care for the stricken. Where you care for the sick, people with Ebola. That’s what a wilderness is.” I never forgot.

And now, here I was, ready to walk off into another kind of wilderness. A dangerous, dangerous place, where there was no guarantee of return. I was ready to take off for a nice long hike into the wilderness. I had a map I trusted. And there was a guy back there on the border, directing me. The doctor. I trusted him, too. Completely. And on this little hike, well, they pretty much got the wilds tamed down, these days. Almost all the people who walk in make it back out. That’s the thing. I was wandering in, fully expecting to return. But the bottom line was this. I was fully planning to return. But once in a while, someone doesn’t make it back.

The operating team chatted right along. The anesthesiologist hovered at my head with her equipment. And she reached over and connected a little hose to the IV needle they had stabbed into my wrist. I looked down at my wrist, curious. I wonder how long this will take, for me to go under. The anesthesiologist was talking right along, too. And she told me, as she opened up the flow. “Pick your dreams.” That’s a funny thing to say, I remember thinking. Pick your dreams. And I told her, all conversationally. Hey, I can feel something flowing into my veins…. And that was it. That’s the last thing I said or thought. I was out like a light. Gone, down under into a strange land of strange dimensions and bright loud skies.

The vagabond traveler stood at a high point, looking down into the valley below. So that was it. The wilderness. It was a desolate place, but he felt no fear. A strange place, yet somehow so familiar. Above him glinted a vast expanse of hard bright yellow skies. Not soft or white, like light from the sun. But hard yellow, like paint. As hard as it gets. He didn’t think it strange, though. There were voices around him, too. They spoke to him, and he spoke back. He felt no euphoria. And he felt no darkness inside, either. He just was. Everything just was. He stood, looking out into the distance. It was time. He shouldered his pack, and glanced at his map again. Way, way out there, the desolate landscape shimmered as one with the hard bright yellow skies. And the traveler turned his face to the wilderness and walked.

ira duster bw

I slid back into the white light of this reality and jolted awake. And I instantly realized where I was. In the hospital, in the recovery room. It was over. My “procedure” was done. And I walked out of the remnants of the world with the hard, bright yellow sky. A nurse noticed I was awake and welcomed me. I can’t remember what she said. But I remember my first words, in a question. Did it work? She smiled. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Everything went very well.” I asked what time it was. 12:30. Wow. I had been “under” for three-plus hours.

I relaxed and slowly emerged from the fog of that other world. At first, there were clear memories of how it looked and the conversation I was having back there. It was not a place of fear. It was just a place. Slowly, then, the cobwebs brushed free from my mind. As my thinking cleared and I woke up, the details of the other world receded, receded, and slipped away. I tried to grasp, to hold onto them, but I simply could not do it. And then only a vivid memory of the hard yellow skies remained. And that’s all I have with me today. The hard yellow skies, and the fact that the world with such skies was not a fearful place. Nothing else remains in me from my journey into that wilderness on that particular day.

They rolled me on out to my own room real shorty after I woke up. I felt woozy, but not dizzy or anything. There was a weight on my chest, and I checked it out. A heavy battery pack stuck into the front pocket of my gown. A dozen wires protruded from the battery and snaked out all over my chest. And there were a dozen little sensors glued onto me, on my chest and upper arms. To keep track of how my heart was beating. Wow, I thought. No wonder the motherly nurse made me remove my stamped-cross necklace. That thing sure would have gotten in the way of all this. I won’t even be able to wear my cross until I get checked out of here, when they tear these things off.

And another real motherly nurse took care of me in that room. She fussed around. Told me I was on bed rest until 3:30. And in the meantime, did I want any food? She had a cold turkey sandwich she could bring me. I fussed right back at her. I’m not very fond of the food in here, but sure, I’ll take a sandwich, and thanks. She kept checking my vital signs, too. Blood pressure, and such. I was at optimal levels every time. After my bed rest was over, I grumbled about my gown. I’m not hooked up to anything, on my IV ports on my wrists. Can’t I wear my own clothes? “No,” she scolded. But then she went off and fetched me a set of scrubs. Blue, a shirt and pants. I gratefully changed into those much freer clothes. And then I grumbled at my nurse some more. I’m up and walking around. I’m not hooked up to any drugs. I feel fine. Why can’t I just go home? She chuckled, and scolded right back. “We have to keep an eye on you overnight. You have puncture holes in both groins. We have to make sure you don’t bleed out.” I settled in then, not content, but at least understanding.

There’s not a whole lot to say about any stay at any hospital, I don’t reckon. I settled into the evening, and in for a long night. Early that evening, they wheeled in the guy who would be my roommate. I got along real well with him. It’s just that when there are two patients in one room, the nurse traffic doubles. And this guy was in worse shape than I ever hope to be. He was born with half a heart and half a kidney. All his life, he had dealt with those issues. And he was in now, to get his pacemaker replaced. His old one got infected. Like I said, we got along real well. I sure thought about it, that I will never have all that much to complain about, not when I think of him. The night crawled by, pretty much a sleepless thing.

I wanted to get out ASAP the next morning. And Noah, my nurse, told me. The doctors will make their rounds around midmorning. And I was chomping at the bit when the Nurse Practitioner finally walked in around ten. She was quite friendly and cheerful. Yes, I was being released. Yes, everything had gone just about as well as one could possibly hope for. I asked her, then. How about my heart strength? Did Dr. B check that out, when he was down in there? “No,” she said. “We’ll check out your heart strength in a month when you come for your follow-up. I was a little deflated. OK, I said. She left, then.

I called Rodney at work. He was coming in to pick me up and take me home. I’m released, I told him. I’ll be processed out by noon. And right then, the Nurse Practitioner came racing back into the room. She interrupted. “Excuse me.” Excuse me, I said to Rodney, and turned to the Nurse. And she told me. “I just checked your report, and Dr. B did check out your heart strength yesterday. I said nothing, just looked at her. She went on. “Your heart is back to the equivalent of 100% strength.”

I gaped at her, then whooped. A hundred percent. She smiled. “Yes.” Wow, I said. The heart failure people told me I will always, always have a very weak heart. I guess this’ll show them. Wow. There is no better news than that. I held my hand out and up. High five, I said. And that Nurse Practitioner lifted her own hand and slapped mine really hard. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I’m back to 100% strength, I mean, my heart is, I burbled to Rodney, who was patiently holding on the phone. He congratulated me, and told all the others in the office. “Ira’s heart is back to 100% strength.”

Noah came around soon, then, brandishing a clipboard with papers for me to sign. And then a nurse’s aide popped in. She was here to extract the IV needles from both my wrists. I held out my hands and looked away as she yanked them out and taped a big band aid on each wrist. How about these sticky thingies on my chest? I asked. “I’m not taking them off,” she informed me. “Pull them off yourself. First, though, let me get the wires loose.” She fumbled around and extracted all the wires and took the battery from my chest pocket. “OK, you’re good to go,” she said. “You can change into your street clothes.”

I wasted no time disappearing into the bathroom with my duffle bag. Off came the abominable blue scrubs. Then I searched my bag and found it. The clay stamped-cross necklace. I lowered my head and slipped it on. The stone felt firm and cool and comforting, snugged against my chest. Then I dressed in my T-shirt and sweats and my camo jacket. I laced up my sneakers. I was ready to go.

Shortly after noon, Rodney came strolling in. And a few minutes later, we were walking out to the parking garage where he had left his car. Half an hour later, he pulled into my drive. Everything looked the same, as it should have. I had been gone for just over thirty hours, a little more than a day. I stepped out, grabbed my bag, thanked Rodney, and turned to my house.

And then I walked into my home. Stood there, in the kitchen. I set down my bag and lifted my eyes to the heavens. I felt it washing through me, a huge wave of thankfulness and relief. And I crossed myself one more time as I spoke to the Lord.