Thursday, February 28, 2008

The West Bank

I've been in Tel Aviv for the last week and a half, and tomorrow I'm heading into the West Bank for the first time. This is, I think, my sixth or seventh visit to Israel, and I've toured most of the holy sites tourists normally visit: Jerusalem, of course, but also Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Yardenit, Jaffa, and many others. But I've been hesitant to head into the West Bank – for obvious reasons. I've decided to try it this time, though. If you haven't been to Israel, it's hard to make people believe that it doesn't feel like CNN makes it look. Here in Tel Aviv, the only sign of any tension is the security guards outside every restaurant, and the sign in Rabin Square (the plaza next door to our apartment) that reads, "תושבי תל-אביבת לתושבי שדרות: אנחנו עתכם" ("Citizens of Tel Aviv, to the citizens of Sderot: We are with you.") On the whole, Tel Aviv feels like any Mediterranean city: sunny, lots of cafes, great restaurants, a surprising excess of baby strollers. I feel safer in Tel Aviv, walking the half-mile from the office to the apartment at midnight, by myself, than I would feel in Seattle. You see single women walking alone after dark all the time: the city just feels safe.

But it's a different matter in the West Bank. I'm meeting Samuel Akleh, a Palestinian Christian, in Bethlehem at 8:30 tomorrow. Three weeks ago, his family's home was taken over by Israeli soldiers for seven hours, for use as a base of fire on the house next door – Samuel's brother tells the story here, here and here. When I tell my Israeli friends that I'm heading into Bethlehem, the typical response is something like, "You're kidding", or, "Please don't go there." For some years now, Israeli citizens haven't been allowed into most of the Western Bank, as it's generally too dangerous and provocative. It's somewhat different for US citizens, I believe, as they represent an important source of tourist dollars, but I suspect that the US is only slightly less popular than Israel.

Still, I'm looking forward to the visit. Bethlehem is arguably second in importance to Christians only after Jerusalem. I've been rereading the nativity stories (in Greek) to prepare myself. I'll try to write more from the hotel tomorrow night, but in the meantime, I have to get to bed, as I'll be getting up early.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


This is the eulogy that I read at my grandmother's funeral yesterday.


In the days since my grandmother died, I've been meditating on a poem by C. S. Lewis, written after the death of his wife, and now carved on her gravestone in Oxford, England. C. S. Lewis writes,

Here the whole world (stars, water, air
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast-off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may,
Resume them on her easter day.

Early in the morning of February 4th, Ruby Helen Lucille Smith left behind, like cast-off clothes, the mortal body she had carried with grace since 1917. The husband with whom she had shared a bed and a life for 72 years was with her, and held her hand, and felt the Holy Spirit fill the room even as her own spirit departed. Several hours later, as our family gathered around her deathbed to say one last good-bye, my mind was flooded with the memories of how that mortal body had served her over those years, and how she had used that body to serve others. So many meals: so many wounds bandaged, tears dried, cookies baked, diapers changed, grandchildren hugged, emails sent and demanded. How one quiet woman could represent so much activity and goodness is one of the mysteries of love.

We are gathered here today to celebrate the life, mourn the death, and rejoice in the homecoming of an extraordinary woman. Whether we knew her as friend, aunt, grandmother, mother or loving wife, I can think of no better way to honor her than to take a few moments to look through her eyes, to see the whole world as it was reflected in the single mind of Ruby Smith.

Her Friends

Deep and lasting friendships formed a constant background to my grandmother's world. Ruby Smith did not establish temporary relationships, or make friends out of convenience. The friends she made when she worked at Harry and David's in the 1940's, or when she attended Ashland Christian Center in the 1950's, or when she worked at the orthopedic clinic in the 60's and 70's, remained her friends for life. The number of these friendships necessarily diminished over the years, as she and Elmer remained healthy and vigorous, while more and more of their friends passed on. But as anyone who was a recipient of her emails can testify, her days, and Elmer's, were passed in frequent communication with old friends, visiting those who had grown sick, and helping those no longer able to fend for themselves. I do not believe that any friend of Ruby's could ever have complained of neglect or inattention; and a great many people in Ruby's world had cause to be thankful for her consistent hospitality and quiet kindness.

Her Twins

My grandmother's world revolved around her family. When my grandfather rushed her to the hospital on a warm July day in 1940, the two of them had little idea what was in store. The labor drugs knocked her out, and when she awoke, the nurse asked, "Did you know that you had twins?" Still groggy, Ruby responded, "I didn't know I had any."

Ruby assumed her new role as the mother of twin boys with gusto. For the next 18 years, she cooked, cleaned, mended, kissed, coddled, scolded, and chased her boys into adulthood. In 1957, my famously frugal grandparents splurged on a brand-new '57 Chevy for their two sons, and this was typical: they rarely bought anything for themselves, but nothing was too good for their boys.

Her Family

When Larry and Lloyd left home, married and had families of their own, Ruby found her world expanding once again. As the decades passed, through marriages, births, adoptions and virtual adoptions, she found herself the matriarch of a substantial and growing tribe. And again, although they rarely bought anything for themselves, they helped their grandchildren in any way that they could. Numerous house down payments, new cars, new computers, or college tuition payments had their origin in the bank account of a retired couple who never made more than $8 / hour.

Her Email

As the years passed, keeping the scattered and sundry members of her family connected became a substantial challenge. But many decades ago, she had instituted a tradition of regular letters to all and sundry, a tradition which she maintained until her 91st birthday. They started as hand-written letters, copied at the local post office, and sent out manually. About 15 years ago, we bought her an electric typewriter; her letters were perhaps longer after that, and of course typewritten, but otherwise unchanged.

It was probably 10 years ago that we pitched in and bought her first computer. She was horrified at the thought, and even called Larry in a panic: "They've bought me a computer, and they're bringing it over, and I need you to make them stop!" Nevertheless, we set it up for her, and walked her through turning it on. We showed her how to point and click with a mouse, showed her how to use a word processor, and how to access the Internet with a browser. She remained unimpressed.

Then we showed her email.

We had no idea we were about to create a monster. We should have known by the way her breath quickened when she saw us adding email addresses to the "To:" line. She watched us change fonts, and then email backgrounds, her eyes narrowing. She sat down. We showed her how easy it was to reply to her emails, and how easily she could reply to ours. The look on her face grew sharp, and hungry. She wanted this.

The monster was born.

Ten years, three computers, two printers, and many thousands of emails later, we learned that the monster must be fed. If Grandma didn't get twenty or thirty emails a day, she felt neglected. She forwarded emails like a fiend. She kept track of who had sent her emails recently and who hadn't. Woe betide the grandson who neglected to email his grandmother, for his neglect should be broadcast to the entire family, and then some.

As to the letters: they were just the daily life of a woman who had seen 90 summers in her lifetime, and 90 winters; who had watched three generations grow up in her house; who had cooked more meals than I know how to count and fed more hungry descendants than I care to; who watched the husband she loved dearly for 75 years grow old alongside her. It was just life; but it was life.

Her Husband

Ruby's world held nothing of greater worth than a skinny red-haired refugee from the Depression, fresh off the Salmon River, with an empty wallet and few prospects for filling it. Since their first walk home, and their first kiss under a Montana sky, Ruby had eyes for little else in this world. Most of you know that two weeks after she graduated from high school, Ruby and Elmer eloped – and that when they returned to Kalispell, they kept their marriage a secret for six months. It is the stuff of family legend that Ruby's father began to suspect something amiss only when Elmer began coming down from Ruby's bedroom for breakfast.

Ruby and her husband were inseparable. One story of many will suffice. Until this week, I believe that the last time my grandparents spent a night apart was twelve years ago, in 1996. I was moving up to Oregon from Southern California, and it seemed entirely natural to me to ask my blind 83-year old grandfather to come down and help me pack. We left Los Angeles late, after many delays, and my grandfather kept me company as I drove the moving van through the night. We arrived in Phoenix early the next morning, and were both exhausted as we drove up to their house, parked and climbed out. As the eldest grandchild, I had grown used to my grandmother rushing out of the house to hug me whenever I came to visit, so I wasn't surprised to see the door fly open and Ruby run down the driveway. But this time she ran right past me and practically leaped into her husband's waiting arms. Only after some minutes of fussing over him did she manage a quick hug for me; and then immediately returned to Elmer's arm, hardly to be shook off. An eldest grandchild was a poor substitute for the husband she had missed so badly.

These stories are typical of their relationship: they loved each other passionately, unreasonably, completely. The Great Depression, wars and rumors of wars, social revolutions and real ones, passed by in the outside world, leaving their love untouched. Children were born, then grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; even age itself began to take its toll, but the strength of their love was renewed like the eagle's.

Her Death

For the Christian, death will always have two faces. It is true – it is blessedly true – that we rejoice, because Ruby is now with her Lord; and so long as the Lord tarries, the beatific vision which Ruby is now experiencing can be achieved in no other way than by walking the lonely valley of death. But make no mistake: death is an enemy, and we fool ourselves if we think otherwise, or belittle its importance. If death is not important, neither is birth. Death rips us apart from the world which God made good, and in which God placed us.

And Ruby's death was in this respect no exception. My grandmother did not want to die. "I never expected this," I heard her say repeatedly during her final weeks. "This is so sudden." Until three weeks ago, she had not seen a doctor for six years, and had never so much as taken an antibiotic. Her perpetual good health made the sudden weakness that took her all the more alarming. She worried about her dumpy, her house, the sudden flood of guests. Ruby's world was full of friends, family, and a husband whom she loved dearly, and it was not a world that she wished to leave behind.

Even so, even as her weakness grew and her own death grew more imminent, my grandmother revealed a grace that we had always suspected, and a sense of humor that we had not. She kept us laughing through our tears as she retold old stories, and a few new ones. She harangued her eldest great-grandchild into getting his hair cut. She refused to put to rest the rumor that she had actually proposed to Elmer. She revealed the existence of a stash of coffee she had long kept secret from my grandfather.

When her husband was being stubborn about something, she turned to him, wagged her finger, and said, "In a few days, you'll be the boss, but for right now, it's still me!"

At one point, as her illness dragged on, and her family refused to budge from her bedside, she said, "I can just imagine the headline on my obituary: 'FINALLY'."

My grandmother's death came three weeks after her diagnosis, and it was a blessing; but after 91 years, it was too soon. She died as she lived: much loved, surrounded by family, and fussing just a little.

Her New World

The whole world, as reflected in the single mind of Ruby Helen Lucille Smith, was as clear as daybreak, as simple as a stream, profound as the stars. If you had looked through her eyes, you would have seen a world as broad as a lifetime of friendship, as narrow and focused as her family, and as plain as the ten acres of earth on which she and her husband built a lifetime together. This is the world that Ruby Smith has cast off; but she cast it off in hope, with the faith that one day, when the world is made new, she will clothe herself with it anew: when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality.

In that reborn world, we know that God will wipe every tear from our eyes. But that world is not this world, and in this world, our tears are appropriate. So let us grieve for our loss; but Lord, do not let us grieve as those who have no hope. "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first; and then, we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words."

Monday, February 4, 2008

To Be Absent from the Body

My grandmother breathed her last at 5:00 am this morning. Until yesterday she had stayed very sharp, and relatively free from pain. Yesterday morning the pain got very strong, and as my cousin Amber worked to stay ahead of it with substantial doses of morphine, my grandmother slipped into unconsciousness. By late last night, she was breathing very slowly, down to five or six breaths a minute. My grandfather was in the room with her, and heard her stop breathing. He called Amber, then laid down beside her on the bed, with Grandma's hand in one of his, and Amber's in the other. He had been cold all night, he said, but he immediately felt warm, with the presence of God filling the room. When I showed up several hours later, he had a smile on his face, and was clearly at peace. "She's gone, and our prayers are answered. She's in the presence of Jesus, and her pain is over."

All through this slow, painful process of watching my grandmother die, I've been reminded of G. M. Hopkins' amazing poem "Felix Randall the Farrier":

FELIX RANDAL the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended, Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended? Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended! This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears. My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears, Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal; How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years, When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers, Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Still Sharp

Galena, Caedmon and I are down in Southern Oregon again, with my grandparents, and assorted other relatives. My Grandma is still hanging on: weak, but in a better mood than you could expect, and still witty – at least, as witty as you can expect from a 91-year old great grandmother dying of cancer.

When we first arrived, she was bragging about my Grandpa, her spouse of 72 years. She turned to me and said, "You know, he's the best husband I ever had."

She had a hard time last night, and when I arrived this morning, she said, "Every time it hurt, it made me think of you."

"I'm still the boss," she told my Grandfather today, shaking her finger. "In a couple of days you'll be the boss, but for right now, it's still me."

"I can imagine the headline on my obituary," she said. "FINALLY."

Sometimes the conversation has revealed things we hadn't previously been aware of. "You know, the Smiths didn't have a very good reputation in Kalispell," she said yesterday. "They were really poor, and they didn't always marry the right people. When I told my Dad that I planned to marry Grandpa, he said, 'Are you sure he'll treat you well?'" Grandpa was listening, holding her hand. "When you see him," he said carefully, "tell him that I did."

After a hard night, she's been sleeping most of the day. Her breath is a bit ragged, and her pulse sometimes speeds up and sometimes slows down. And she doesn't wake up when people gather in her room and talk, or when someone takes her pulse. We could be reaching the end, but she's surprised us before.

A few minutes ago, I was standing by her bed with my grandfather, watching her chest rise and fall with her breathing. I said, "It sounds like she's breathing more slowly, but that could just be temporary." He responded, "I just wish this whole nightmare was temporary. I don't understand how I can go on from here. This is an awful kick."