Friday, May 26, 2006

HONOR HIM

This is not a happy post. If you’re looking for the posts where I’m amused, bewitched and bewildered at things religious, scroll on down to some of the other entries. It’s also a really long post, with lame pictures, I just need to get this one out there now.

There’s some unwritten rule that says if there’s bad news to share about someone via email, the subject line simply reads that person’s name. My Mom can’t even do that much, she writes “Today is (that date)” and then you have to open the email to find out that they had to put the dogs down because they were too old, in too much pain, and simply too inbred to be cocker spaniels anymore.

When this morning’s email subject line was my friend’s name, I knew what was coming. It wasn’t completely unexpected, he’d been in ICU for the past week. We’d even done an all church day of fasting and prayer on Wednesday, which was what I was originally going to blog about, since I had never tried to fast before, and found the experience interesting.

But he’s gone. In Christian terms, He’s “joined the Lord.”

I’m way too old to go through the usual questions of “Why did this have to happen.” We all know why. It was an eight-month battle with esophageal cancer. “He was a good person! Why do bad things happen to good people?!” Go read C.S. Lewis’s The Problem Of Pain. He’s way smarter than me.

So as I’m silently trying to muffle the tears, and I’m running through the questions I already know the answers to, all I can think of is “What now? What do I do? What do I do?”

And the phrase Honor him comes up. I can’t rightly say if it was outside of myself. It could very well be half outside, and half my conscious brain searching for the appropriate Christian answer. Who cares where it came from. It’s what I got, so it’s what I’ll do. I’ll attempt to honor him with the best tools any writer has, which are words.

First thing I’ll do is say his real name. No Assumed Name Rule this time. His name is Dalton Harding, he and his wife Tricia have been huge influences on me, though they never knew the extent of it. Tricia has been keeping her own blog at www.nosleeptricia.blogspot.com , you can read about their struggle there.

I first met Dalton and Tricia when I took an Alpha course at the Other Church we all used to attend (big long boring story, no need to go into detail here.) I attended the class because, honestly, I was tired of feeling guilty for not going. Alpha is a series of classes designed for Christians to bring their Non-Christian-But-Wondering-What-Christianity-Is-All-About Friends. I suspected that the non-Christians would quickly run away rather than commit to a six to eight week course, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I should go, I should go, yes I’m a Christian, but the drawback of being born and raised in the church is that you can never accurately explain why you believe what you do, and so I should go, I should go.

Dalton ran the Alpha program, which means he gave the talks after the dinner. (rule #1 of a church meeting outside of church: Thou Shalt Have A Meal.) And as he romped through the weeks on subjects like “Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?” or “How Can I Be Sure Of My Faith” I quickly realized that this man was blessedly blessedly normal. Which, in Amyland means you’re sarcastic as hell. Completely genuine in talking about Christianity, but also sarcastic, not at the non-Christians, but just in general.

It was the first time, I think, that I realized sarcastic people not only went to church, but that they were actually ALLOWED TO RUN THINGS at church. I think my perception of church-goers, up until that time, was that there were the Goody Two Shoes people, and then me, who had to stuff my inner quirk away so that the Goody Two Shoes wouldn’t be offended should I say something off.

The end of the Alpha course was a weekend retreat, which I really didn’t wanna go to, because church retreats are a special kind of claustrophobic hell for me. Even though you drive there of your own free will, you feel like YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE UNLESS YOU JOIN IN THE GROUP PRAYER AND FEEL THE PRESENCE OF GOD FALL AFRESH ON YOOOOOOOOU!!!!! But I felt like I had to try.

It was at the retreat that I got to know Tricia, Dalton’s wife. I deliberately tried to get to the retreat as late as possible, so I could score some S’mores (rule #2 of a meeting outside of church: It’s Awesome If You Can Have A Campfire And S’mores), yawn, and trip off to bed without having to talk to people. My plans were foiled by the rest of my small group, who left L.A. even later than I did, so that when I arrived at the retreat, I didn’t know anyone except for Dalton and Tricia. So I sat next to Tricia and joined in the next round of Scrabble. (rule #3 of a church meeting outside of church: Thou Shalt Play Games, If It’s A Retreat, Thou Shalt Play Board Games.)

While we quickly determined that I may be a writer, but I SUCK at Scrabble, Tricia told me her story of how she became a Christian, how she and Dalton met, fell in love, split up, got back together, got married, and how they found this church. It’s not my place to tell that story here, although I will say that there was plate throwing involved. But from my journal entry. 6/11/04 – “it’s the kind of dramatic story that you want the leaders of a group like this to have – it makes them flawed, real, and blessedly human.”

I took an instant liking to Tricia. She reminds me very much of my sister Agatha, the same sunny disposition with a tinge of “you’re gonna do WHAT!? Okay, I’ll sit over here and laugh WITH you, not AT you.” I felt like I could be myself with her, and with Dalton, sitting on the other side of the table, mocking my attempts to form a word with R-X-C-and K.

The rest of the weekend was a bit of a watershed moment, as it was the first time I acknowledged to myself that I had never felt the presence of God (the whole reason I started this blog.) I cried big huge honking cries about it, people prayed for me and with me about it, nothing happened through the prayers, I returned back to Los Angeles and found Counselor Gladys. Whether that’s what Dalton anticipated would happen when he did the talk that Sunday about Letting The Holy Spirit Come Into Our Lives, who knows. It’s how it happened for me.

It was this Alpha course, and my interactions with Dalton, Tricia, Petunia, (she of the Happy Chipper Christian But You Can’t Hate Her Even Though She Passes Out Oswald Chambers Devotional Books Sect), her husband Percy, another couple, Corrine and Crawford, and some other truly nice folk, that led me to become more involved with a church than I ever had before. But it was Dalton that spearheaded everything.

Fast forward to September of 2004. September was Stewardship Month, otherwise known as the Thankless Task Where You Have To Persuade People To Give To The Church. Dalton was head of the Stewardship Committee at the Other Church, and I made the mistake of trying to buck up his stewardship spirits one day after church by saying I was a 10 percenter (that would be tithing, as in giving 10 percent of your income to the church. Yes I do it. No, I don’t suffer. No, I don’t think I’m dumb for doing it. No, I’m not judging you if you don’t do it.)

Dalton, sneaky, sly, and desperate for help, immediately pounced, sending me an email “Would you do us[me] the honor of Calling For the Offering on Sunday? As a result of our conversations I believe that you would be an excellent choice to spread the message of stewardship in this manner.” Aw hell, how can I turn him down? It’d be like, turning GOD down. I’d be smited or something.

I got sixty seconds on a service that fell on Labor Day Weekend, and I had to follow a guest pastor who worked as a missionary in Africa, and was using his sermon as a potential recruiting tool. The last thing folks wanted to hear after his sermon of Give Up Your Yearly Vacation And Come To Africa was my speech of Tithing Doesn’t Hurt! No, Really! It Doesn’t Hurt!

I talked about how God Is My Agent, So He Gets Ten Percent. I talked about how giving is a physical action I can point to and say that I trust God to take care of me. I talked about how God doesn’t want anything if it’s given grudgingly. I talked about how if you’re scared the hottie sitting next to you is gonna think you're a bad person because you let the bucket go by without putting anything in it, you're giving for the wrong reasons.

And I never would’ve told anybody any of that if Dalton hadn’t asked me to.

Fast forward through last year. The split with the Other Church, the formation of the current 11:00 Church. My following the leadership team because Dalton, Tricia, Petunia, Percy, Bernice, and Bernard (who wound up being the new pastor) were on the ship that was setting sail for new waters, and I wanted to be on that ship with them, because they were all normal like me, they were all sarcastic like me (well, except Petunia, but she tries REALLY hard), and where ever that ship was sailing, I wanted to be on it.

It’s important to note, if I haven’t already banged it into your head with a 200 pound anvil, that it all started with Dalton. If I hadn’t met him, if I hadn’t met Tricia, I don’t think I would’ve drawn closer to this church, and thus, I probably wouldn’t have ever thought about trying to draw closer to God.

Dalton got sick. What else can you say from then to now? He prayed, Tricia prayed, we all prayed. It did or didn’t work, depending on your definition of success. He’s not in pain now, and that by itself is cause for jubilation, because he was really hurting towards the end. This post is already going on far too long, and I’m sure Mom checked out right after the mention of C.S. Lewis, so I’ll try to boil it down to three last things.

Tricia threw Dalton a birthday party months ago, and I specifically remember a moment during the evening where I looked over, and she was behind him, hugging him around his waist, resting her cheek on his shoulder. He was laughing, she was smiling. It’s an affection pose that people do when they’re so familiar with each other that they know each other’s every move. In that moment, where the camera in my brain went off, crystallizing this one moment that I may be ascribing far too much meaning to (but I’m a writer and them’s the breaks) it seems like that was the very nature of love itself. In one second, I saw them fully aware that the future may not bring good tidings of gladness and joy, but damn it, they’re here, they’ve got each other, and they are going to see each other through. Because they love each other. They love each other SO FUCKING MUCH. The kind of fierce love that transcends anything. You don’t see it often. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it before. But I knew it when I saw it displayed in them.

I cried today for Tricia. Because she’s been through hell in the past year and yes, she will wake up tomorrow, and life will go on. But she has to go on without Dalton, and…I can’t add to that.

Tricia and Dalton have baby Iain, who just turned one year old. At a congregational meeting last fall, she asked me to watch baby Iain while she moderated the meeting. My feelings about babies is They’re Great Until They Get Annoying. But I wanted to help Tricia, so I take Iain, who wants to be a Wiggleworm for an hour and a half, please please take me to the lobby so I can watch the cars go by, and don’t you think about putting me down or I’m gonna CRY. Finally, Iain decides to bonk his noggin twice on my shoulder and he’s finally asleep. I’ve never held a sleeping baby before, certainly not one that’s sleeping with fistfuls of my sweater in his little chubby hands. Leon, another member of the leadership council, walks by the back row where I’m holding sleeping Iain, and says, “Now that’s love.” In all my Writerchick years, and the various men that have traveled through them, I’ve never been in love. But now I know what it feels like.

I cried today for baby Iain. Yes, there is his very own village ready to raise him, he will never be short of family, friends, or surrogate father figures. But his father will never hold him again and…I can’t add to that.

The last time I saw Dalton, I didn’t recognize him. It was baby Iain’s birthday party. I walked into the backyard, and waved hello to everyone already there, including a gaunt figure with a baseball cap who later on turned out to be Dalton. He had lost a good forty pounds. I hugged him hello, gently, he looked very frail. But he was still Dalton. It’s because of him that I’m officially addicted to Grey’s Anatomy, because of a blog post he did on it. I figured if it was good enough for Dalton to watch, I should watch it too. And now I’m hooked on McDreamy, dammit, and I told Dalton it was all his fault. He grinned, and it led to a rousing conversation where I laid out in complete detail why Meredith Is A Whiny Duckface. It was good to see him smile.

I cried today for Dalton. I never told him the impact he had on me. I didn’t want to, it felt too much like an acknowledgement that he wouldn’t be here soon. I have to believe that he knows now. Tricia knows now the impact she had. Hell, everyone knows now the impact they both had.

Isn’t it strange, the impact people can have and never know it. Isn’t it strange, the impact people can have on people who never realize it.

For Dalton and Tricia and Iain. As Joseph Arthur says, “May God’s love be with you. Always.”

3 comments:

Midlife Virgin said...

You have honored your friend in a truly lovely way. My sympathy and prayers are with you. Take this thought from storypeople.com -

It is still so new & all we see is the empty space, but that is not how it is in the landscape of the heart. There, there is no empty space & he still laughs & grapples with ideas & plans & nods wisely with each of us in turn. We are proud to have known him. We are proud to have called him friend.

Josephine said...

I am sorry for the loss of your friend. It is beautiful what you have written about him, and I truly hope he knew somehow how much he meant to you.

R Tatum said...

Deepest sympathies, sweetie. My boss spent two years investing in every experimental drug on earth, keeping up the spirits of both herself and her dying husband of 30+ years. I watched in the last year as it all went south and she held on with steely conviction, while simultaneously letting go a bit every day. The week he decided to give it up and stop with all treatments, they threw a party with their closest friends--a membership which includes several legendary comics. She said neither of them had had such a good laugh in all their lives. A party to be reconned with. He died about a few days later.

The most powerful weapons we have against this kind of bottomless loss are love and a sense of humor. So I'd say you were well-armored. And I can't add to that.