Saturday, October 20, 2012

Last Ride to Dalhart

We waited for the call, knowing it would come soon.  Thursday, Marty’s brother Jerry, called and said their mother, Jean, had passed away early that morning in her sleep.  Jean had been sick for a long time; Jean had a long trip home.

I waited for a while and told Marty about her Mom as we ate lunch. She knew it was coming, we had talked about what was going on, still the news clearly startled her.  The reality and the overall sadness of the loss of her mother came over her all at once.  We talked for a while, slowly and quietly.   Marty said she recognized it was time but it was really, really sad, her mother was gone.

For a lot of reasons we decided to have the funeral quickly, on Saturday.  We immediately started getting things in gear for the trek to the wilds of west Texas one last time.  It normally takes me a few days to get everything and everyone ready for the odyssey.  There’s a lot of stuff to pack and get together and we needed to arrange for one of her caregivers to go with us.

We have really great people helping Marty, we are lucky.  After rearranging her life, Nikkie, the mother of four and keeper of Marty, said she would go, said she wanted to go, said she wanted to be with Marty as we buried Marty’s mother, her last parent.  

By 10 a.m. the next day, Friday, Marty was cocooned in her pillows and we were driving from the dark dirt and oak trees of central Texas to the red dirt and flat expansive plains of the panhandle of Texas, 500 miles.

Jean’s passing represents our last family tie to this remote Texas community that has been such a large part of our life.  It’s sad to think about but I suspect this is the last trip Marty will make to her hometown.  I can hear doors closing.

As we drove north through Decatur, Bowie, Wichita Falls, Okalaunion, Chillocothe, Vernon, Quanah, Childress, Memphis, Clarendon, Claude, Amarillo, Dumas Marty and I talked about how each of these towns provoked a memory of past journeys (at least when Marty was awake).  

We have driven this road countless times, at all times of the day or night, through all kinds of weather.  We have looked for alternate routes, we have gone other ways, but there is just one really good way and that’s the way we drove this time, Hwy 287 across northern Texas.

We drive through Wichita Falls that actually has a real water fall, man made of course.  This has always been our first stop on our way up from Waco, assuming everyone had been asleep for the first three hours of the trip.  We stop for gas, a bathroom, and a sandwich.  

We then turn west and pass the electric generating station at Oklaunion and move into the town with the best name on our trip, Chillocothe.  We have stopped there more than once either going or coming at the Dairy Queen.  There are a bunch of Dairy Queens in Texas and I personally like Dairy Queen, they have good tacos.   Marty and the kids didn’t think too highly of DQ.  They allowed me one Dairy Queen stop per trip.

After Chillocothe you blow through Vernon where there is a dead Gibson’s department store.  Gibson’s was the precursor to Wal-Mart but it died, probably because of Wal-Mart.  You make a big right hand turn (there aren’t that many turns) in Vernon past the golf course over a dry river bed.

Quanah comes next.  Quanah is named after Chief Quanah Parker, a legend in Texas.  They have a huge arrow stuck in the ground at their football field.  We spent the night one time in Quanah at the one motel they had at the time.  It looks pretty run down now.  For those of you that are members of the mile-high club you have nothing and Marty and me, we are members of the Quanah club, I bet there aren’t that many of us.

After Quanah comes the biggest city between Wichita Falls and Amarillo, Childress, it‘s like 5/8 of the way to Dalhart from Waco.  We have spent several nights in Childress and often stopped there for gas and a bathroom.  Childress is also where the elevation apparently changes because on each trip when Erin, our daughter, was younger, would start to get car sick and need to puke.  She had something screwy with her Eustachian tubes and almost always got sick at least once on the trip, Childress was the starting point.

After Childress you have to drive through Estelline on your way to Memphis.  Watch your speed in Estelline; it’s kind of a speed trap.  We stopped there once at a picnic area with the youth from our church on our way to New Mexico.  

You then drive through Memphis which also was a favorite Dairy Queen stop.  It was in Memphis that you began to feel like you were going to make it because you were less than 200 miles from Dalhart.  

You then proceed through a little community called Lelia Lake.  I once told Erin when she was really impressionable a story about how a young lady, Lelia, drove her horse drawn buggy into a nearby playa lake and drowned.  I said she was running away from her father, Judge Clarendon, because he hated her lover.  After she died they named the lake, Lelia Lake.  I also told Erin kidney beans were chicken kidneys, she believed that too for a long time.

Clarendon, probably not named for the fictitious Judge Clarendon, is full of memories.  Marty and got stuck there in an ice storm the Christmas after her first stroke; it was our first trip after the first one and before the second one.  We spent the entire day in little Clarendon and drove all of the streets.  It too has a great Dairy Queen where Marty slipped and fell and there is a Pizza Hut where we discovered that David, the 17 year old son of family friends, had his tongue pierced.  You could see the stud glinting in the sun when he opened his mouth to eat the pizza.  His Mom was a bit perturbed.

Down the road is Claude and just past Claude I always started to drive a little faster because the destination was drawing closer.  In the daytime you can tell you are getting close to Amarillo because you can look across the flatter than flat plains and see the trucks driving down I-40 heading east and west.

I have always loved Amarillo.  It’s a nice size and is the home of the Big Tex Steak House, a huge helium reserve and the Jesus Christ is Lord truck stop.

Years ago we tried to spend the night there on a late night trip but had trouble finding a motel because of a Jehovah’s Witness convention (true story).  After trying several spots one man finally referred us to the Amarillo Seven Inn in downtown Amarillo.  Marty cautioned against it, but I was tired and ready to sleep.  We pulled up and paid the guy standing behind the bullet proof glass as our son Matt said, “We are definitely going to lose our hood ornament.”

I think the room was like $35 and when we got it unlocked and shoved the sticky door open it was a dark, dingy, skanky room.  I said, trying to be optimistic “Not too bad.”  Marty and Erin took one look at the plastic lawn furniture they used for chairs and in unison said, “I’m not staying here”, and went back and sat in our car to protect our hood ornament.  We left and drove into the early morning hours.

You turn north in Amarillo on one of two paths, one takes you through Dumas, an easy but slower drive.   Dumas has a Braum’s Ice Cream where Marty’s Dad always had to stop for a restroom break, yeah right, it was an ice cream break.

You could drive faster on the other path and it took you through Boy’s Ranch and through shallow canyons where you could see Saddle Mountain and the floating mesa a local wealthy eccentric, Stanley Marsh, had created by erecting a light blue fence just under the flat top of the mesa.

For year’s Matt, our son, called mesas, a “mesa yonder”, because that’s what he heard his Papa say, “See that mesa over yonder.”

This time we drove through Dumas and past the Braum’s without stopping.  We pulled into Dalhart about 7 p.m. on Friday.  Marty’s brother Jerry, his wife LuAnn and their daughter Kelly greeted us as we checked into the Holiday Inn Express, the best over night spot in Dalhart.  We ate at the Bar H, I fretted over Marty and how tired she must have been, our kids came in from Dallas and I suspect we will talk about times past.   

I know I have too often focused too much of my attention on the destination.  When you look back at the journeys they were really pretty cool.  

I’m not sure when we will pass this way again.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Squeezing the Faith

Faith is fragile, like fine china or the delicate bones of a tiny bird.  Faith needs to be nurtured, held closely and gently.  Hold faith too tight, squeeze faith too hard and it breaks, it dies.  Mistreated, abused, and neglected faith will wither and bring bitterness. 

We have a new minister for the first time in a bunch of years at First Presbyterian of Waco.  Over the last months I have tried to move from attending rarely to attending irregularly, like every other week or something like that.  On one of my more recent irregular visits the wise Leslie said something that caught my attention, she talked about having “our faith squeezed.”  

I’m not sure I retained the deeper theological meaning of the phrase but the comment struck a nerve with me.  It describes exactly how I feel about faith, faith in God, faith in myself, faith in others. 
The phrase rings so true because the last years of life my faith in all things has been more than tested; my faith has been squeezed so tightly it can’t find a breath and comes close to being crushed under the grip of life.

Growing up I was lucky, things worked for me, most of the time.  It’s easy to have faith, faith in yourself, faith in others, faith in God, when life comes easy.  But, even as a somewhat charmed young fellow, I started hearing people talk about faith, God and religion in such a narrow way you could feel the very subtle squeeze, a pressure that felt like God was being squeezed out of my faith.

Then time, life experiences, real life adventures and foibles started to put the squeeze on my life.  As you get older, as you become an adult and you miss out on that job, that partner, that love, your faith in all important things starts to get squeezed more and more.  As you gain knowledge and understand things heretofore ignored or not understood, faith gets squeezed a little more.  Then life really hits you and someone gets really sick and the vagaries of human life start to strangle your faith in everything.

In the days after Marty’s first stroke I could feel my entire life being squeezed.  Doubts about what I wanted and doubts about what I believed were being pressed so hard against the wall of reality faith in God, faith in life itself, was squeezed so hard faith began to vanish.  I couldn’t understand how I could be standing over this woman with the tubes running into her and this massive wound in her head.  How could this happen to us, we had faith, we had confidence in ourselves and in our God?  How could God reward our faith by ripping from Marty those things that were most important to her?

Over the ensuing days, weeks, months, through more surgery, through countless illnesses it didn’t get better.  I did begin to get used to this new baseline, this new baseline where faith in all things important teeters on the edge of questioning and unbelief.  Faith, believing was no longer easy, not something to be taken for granted.  

Nothing magical has happened.  I still struggle with faith, with faith in God, with faith in others, with confidence and faith in my own capabilities.  Life has squeezed my faith really hard. 
And then I see Marty.

She doesn’t necessarily restore my faith in God or push me to a new optimism.  She restores my faith in living, simply living within one’s self, living with the difficulty of life, living with the faith and belief that we can and will continue. 

She has faith, faith in me, faith in her caregivers, faith in her doctors, faith in a God.  If she can have faith, and she was a doubter, if she can live her faith with life squeezing her so hard, with everything in life pushing her to doubt, to not believe, maybe I need to find some faith, some courage, on my own.

Every time one of us puts our arms under hers and pulls and lifts her to standing, she lives her faith.  Every time we go to the doctor and she sits and listens to us talk about what we need to do, she lives her faith.  Every time she takes another deep breath or her heart beats one more time she lives her faith and her faith grows.

Life squeezes us and makes us doubt.  Sanctimony, intolerance and hate squeeze us, makes us doubt and drives us away from those things we cherish.  Part of faith, part of life is overcoming, overcoming reality, overcoming the haters, overcoming ourselves.  

Life squeezes, it can squeeze our faith until it’s hard to find, hard to hold on to it sometimes.  I am amazed by Marty, she believes, I struggle.