“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” August Wilson
The first person who ever uttered the phrase, “no good deed goes unpunished,” must have been quite an interesting character and someone you would have liked to have sat down with over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time of day and how many nerves you have left at any given juncture. The meaning of this all-too-familiar phrase is fortunately or unfortunately played out in all our lives, one way or another.
So consider for a moment the harrowing days of Junior High, or, more readily accessed today as Middle School, which, according to some, cannot compare to anything harder in life. Although that may or may not be debatable, we might all agree that it is an amazing, truly extraordinary time. Friendship, and how to master it for the rest of one’s life is probably one of the hardest lessons during this remarkable time. Maybe it should be a separate subject?
Two almost-men, struggling with all the changes inside and out, trying to make sense of their feelings and place in the world, still embarking on a journey of life and pre-teenage, are good friends and have been as long as they could remember. The older boy, by about two months, always considered his friend as the little brother he never had, and the other, well, by extension, saw in his friend not only the brother he never had but also the only real semblance of family that he knew, another statistic of a broken, dysfunctional, and literally lost family, some of whom he didn’t even know their whereabouts. What his big brother knew was that this year he was going to have the best birthday ever, at least up to that point in time.
This spectacular (his word of the week) birthday was all that was on his mind, dominating his thoughts and imaginations, during class, PE, even to the point of keeping a little red notebook with special ideas, invitation list, and party favors. He would, however, have to raise at least half the funds, his father had said, in order to make this a real sacrifice on his part, a condition he gladly accepted although it would take him years to fully comprehend. Some say that pleasure is not found in doing something but rather in planning it and certainly this was true for our young party planner. Soon the day would be upon them all, friends and food alike, and so he waited with the anticipation often described by Dr. Seuss: “Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.”
The party day could not have been more beautiful. The boys’ friends had all arrived early, some bearing gifts, although that was not required, and some even bringing parents to help watch over the festivities. The games were flawless, laughter abounded every other minute, and all their favorite foods were plenty in abundance. Then came time for the cake and ice cream and the familiar traditional birthday song and maybe a few tears. This is about the time that things took a strange but very significant turn, one that has played over and over again in a certain man’s mind.
Perhaps it was just the thought that anyone considered the birthday boy even deserving of a party and food was just a little too overwhelming. Maybe it was the excitement of feeling wanted and loved. Maybe it was all the sugar. As the gifts were brought out, the big brother sat in awe and a little self-satisfaction watching everyone having a great time at the hands of his planning and intent. Although he was never really looking for appreciation, or even thanks for that matter, when the guest of honor came to a certain gift given by a more-than-average, well-to-do schoolmate, something did take a turn. He got tennis shoes! And not just any tennis shoes for it was a pair of some famous, collector-brand that everyone was talking about and fewer who would ever clap their eyes on, let alone even wear. All the attention went to the gift and then quickly to the expression of that recipient. His face was glowing brighter than the candles on the cake and the oohs and aahs out-rivaled the birthday song.
That was good because no one seemed to notice the effect this had on the birthday organizer. It was as if all the anticipation of this moment was swallowed up by this one, harmless, unintentional act of thunder-robbery. No one, that is, except his father. It may have been at that very point that this humble, loving and lovable dad in his mid-forties, came to understand, at least in part, a little of the ingrained and slowly growing resentment that festers between some, but not all, thankfully, parents and their adult children. The zenith of this revelation arrived when he witnessed first hand the hard sacrifice of one who wanted nothing but great things for the birthday celebrant. But all the expense of time and money were no match for a silly, unnecessary gift presented to him by one who is foolish not only with his money but with life itself. It was a sad, disconcerting moment to watch all his sacrifice be tossed away into a fire of meaningless empty talk of what really matters and what status we can achieve. He was, of course, projecting so many layers of past guilt and memory almost bringing him to an unusually quiet and stone-still stance holding multicolored balloons before they flew away. But there was so much happiness in that backyard that the strange tunnel of unrequited generosity bordering on animosity was completely lost on everyone, at least for now.
Days would pass and meanwhile, the party of the century was the talk of the school, and just as described by the three words that can and do describe what most people learn after walking this planet for more than fifty years or so, life went on. And so it did until one late Friday evening.
Our budding maître d’ was outside in the dusk hours of the close of one of those mystical October evenings putzing around with his bike or something when his dad spotted him from the garage, a man who also tended to spend time aimlessly. “What’s going on, Son?,” he asked gently.
“You know, Dad. I saw you looking at me at the party. Did I do something wrong?,” came the sweet but slightly tormented retort.
It was at this point that the relationship between this father and son would never be the same. It was the moment they both realized they shared more than DNA. It was a tender but brave world view. Of course his dad had been in Middle School too, and had his share of memories which he was about to impart.
Apparently, thirty years ago, somewhere, there was this tradition at the after school assemblies called the “block dance.” It was the practice of the coaches to teach young men how to be polite and ask girls to dance which, although was a simple enough task to achieve, was quite humiliating in many ways, perspectives we will not even venture to explore at this juncture. Small blocks of wood, such as the kindergarten toys of old, were placed in a row and girls were asked to stand behind them while the boys would select their dancing partner and politely, and very courteously ask them to dance. His father would remark how sad it was for some of the not-so-popular students who were left to the end, some never ever having a chance at the floor. It was this one particular afternoon that one of the coaches had forever changed his thinking about relationships and respect when he said to him, “You are going to ask Emily to dance.”
Emily was clearly not the most attractive of all the middle school girls. She was frumpy, a little shy, perhaps even lonely. She walked with a limp, he thought.
“I can still see that day,” his father continued as his son’s eyes kept glued to each falling word.
He remembered the anger at the coach when he was first ordered to ask Emily out on the dance floor and he knew that “no” was not going to be accepted. His own dad and the coach were best friends. All that melted away when he approached the girl who didn’t seem to realize what was happening at first. Slowly, he moved toward her and, stopping like the young gentleman he was, he quietly uttered the phrase embedded in the gathering cloud of treasured memories, “Emily, will you please dance with me?”
Never before has such an unmerited attitude been so richly rewarded.
Emily acted as if she had been waiting forever for this invitation. She rose gingerly to her feet, smiled with a tint of embarrassment, took his hand and followed him out in front of the eyes of many who had as many different interpretations of the moment as there were students. She looked as if there was not going to be any more pain or ridicule. She literally floated on air with her gingham blue dress swaying as briskly as it could given the amount of starch it contained. The song ended, there was light applause, and Emily and her four-minute dance partner returned to the seats for a Styrofoam cup of punch or whatever they were serving. “I don’t know where Emily is now, Son,” his father continued, “and I don’t know if she even remembers that dance. I know I do.”
He went on to explain that you don’t do good things because you want reward or praise or even because you feel sorry about someone and act out of guilt. You look for kind, selfless, wonderful ways to make memories and build up treasures in Heaven because “your heart will always be where your riches are.” (Matthew 6:21)
For the one who lives by the belief that no good deed goes unpunished, and that it is better to go through life only taking care of yourself and guarding your heart from pain and sorrow, don’t ever say you weren’t warned. It’s not going to happen. As Vivien Greene brilliantly wrote, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.“Leave a comment (30 comments)
“But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.” Wisdom 3:1
The loneliness was so intense it was simultaneously choking her very ability to breathe while removing all the colors from the world she once loved to greet every time she stepped into her universe. Her young husband’s funeral was nice if such a word could be used to describe that kind of experience, and everyone seemed so helpful and supportive, but it was just overwhelming to face the awful truth that he was gone. In painful hindsight at the very raw and present moment, perhaps they should have adopted children, since they were unable to have their own, but just their ongoing discussions about that possibility seemed to bring them closer and closer together even up to that fateful afternoon in the doctor’s office when they heard that vicious and mind-drilling word together. Cancer.
It was more than aggressive and the only optimistic vantage point they could muster was that he was not going to last very long with all the obvious and expected treatments out of the question. And they were right, the specialists that is, with their kind but seemingly detached manner. “It’ll be important to keep him comfortable,” she kept playing over and over in her mind like a distant, wistful echo that sounded like a lost dog never to be recovered by its owners.
People were very good to her, mostly at the beginning. She loved their visits and the soothing tones of consolation in their voices but everyone has lives to live and after a handful of weeks, they slowly got back to those routines leaving her to deal with this burden the best she knew how. Her doctors wanted to prescribe anti-depression medication and while she may or may not have been entirely averse to the idea, she was getting very tired of the looks of pity and endless droopy eyes that seemed to be softly saying, “poor girl.” She had lived a full and great life, by all acceptable standards all the way around and perhaps that was part of the problem, that it had been without major issues or crises. Everything always seemed to fall into place except this new season of lost meaning.
Then, after the longest month she could remember, the anger began to set a hold on her heart and nothing was going to relieve this new darkness that previously escaped her personality and approach to life. Why wasn’t anyone else upset? Don’t they know how horrible this is? She just wanted to scream, and, on some occasions, she would, as long as she could into the dusty pillow that still retained faint aromas of his cologne.
“On this mountain, the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” Isaiah 25:6
She never fancied herself as the kind of person who would go to the cemetery thinking that it was reserved for a much older, perhaps even wiser generation that must have known something that she did not. At first, she was going every morning, “such a long and empty trip,” she used to think and then they became less and less with even more anger and resentment building in her because according to her, no one cared that her entire life had been torn asunder and she was the only one who remembered. “What a miserable existence!,” she would think while catching herself agreeing with that nihilistic delusional teacher she once knew way back who believed that everyone loved life and hated death because, in his words, “life was a beautiful lie and death a painful truth.”
She would laugh to herself when she remembered her favorite comedian Robin Williams, who once said on The Johnny Carson Show that death was nature’s way of saying that “your table is ready.” Then there were twilight moments when after a nice cup of cinnamon tea, she would stare out into space with a blank look and a hint of a smile as she remembered their last vacation in London together. With tears still in her eyes, she would reflectively pause, thinking about an incident after dinner one night after they ran across a quote painted on a wall near Trafalgar Square which said something like “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
She had just crossed that bridge when depression turns to anger, then to denial and then back to depression again, with intermittent stops at self-pity and harsh, biting comments along the way. She was alone, she was always going to be alone, and no one, not even her closest friends who heard her cries for attention and meaning and comfort, seemingly did not even give it a second thought. Didn’t they love him? Don’t they care? How could they even laugh out loud, even at a good joke!?
Time began to slow at a death march pace and she was becoming sick and tired of being sick and tired. Her mind would drift in and out of happy memories coupled with the recollections of those last hours in hospice. “It must be true,” she thought. “We are born alone, we live alone, we die alone.” “At least, that’s how it feels,” she would mumble while wondering if she was going crazy talking to herself.
“Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.” Romans 5:1
Then completely without warning came that night, which may have been the last time she would ever lose a total sleep cycle under the moonlight wide awake as if she was in a theater with the anguish of emptiness sitting upon her chest like an elephant. She would push herself to shower, get dressed, and make the first few minutes of the dawn her stage for a dutiful sad cemetery visit. She would make his favorite french toast sandwich, wrapping it in a soft blue napkin that had been left over from a birthday party or something with the childlike hope that maybe a rabbit or squirrel would have it for lunch rather than be the meal and just leave it there. Her plan was brilliant and actually made her feel useful for a change as she turned down the flame from the stovetop and began to slowly wrap her breakfast creation. “Wow, this smells pretty good. I bet he’d like this,” she thought as she caught herself tearing up but then making haste to get to the car and drive those increasingly familiar miles to his grave.
The new day could not have been more than thirty minutes old and by the time she arrived, there was a fine, moist dew that spread across the beautifully manicured areas. “How silent, how picturesque, and yet how so horribly sad,” she thought. She was sure she was alone although there was a feeling as if someone else was there but she quickly dismissed the idea lest she begin to think the worst about the silent occupants of the graveyard. She retrieved her breakfast delight whose aroma had already filled her small sedan and heroically prepared herself for this visit while she could sense a blanket of peace and real acceptance finally and gently folding over her soul. The soft subtle colors of pre-dawn made everything so kind to her as if to warmly welcome her to a new life. It was then that she noticed a distinct other set of footprints in the dew-covered grass actually leading to and from the area where her husband was buried. Before unleashing her imagination, she spotted his temporary marker of a tombstone with something dangling from it. It was a sign with a flower attached. She read it deliberately but very gently and smiled.
“I miss him, too.”
“Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us and conspires only to give the best to those who dream and work.” Abdul Kalam
True loneliness cannot exist as long as there is just one person left who can sift through the dark tears of emptiness and unveil the world for what it truly is, a place of hope and adventure, an ongoing novel with beginnings and endings in perpetual motion. It is like a colorful, vintage carousel that keeps revolving and turning, revealing with each rotational pass different creatures, colors, and music until, at the very end of a full and wonderful orbit of life, all the characters, and riders, and songs leave the trappings of time and make their way into the starlit sky of eternity like Elijah’s chariot of fire or the quintessential Christmas sleigh led by eight (or nine) lovely reindeer.
We don’t need to fear death because we don’t have to live forever. We just have to live.
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Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” John 14:1-4