You Won’t Find This On a Billboard, But It’s True

Although three years younger, on the day of the phone call, my little brother, Mike, switched roles with me.

Mike:  You by yourself, Tom?

Tom:  Ya.  Why? (spoken with a slight touch of worry)

Mike:  You might want to sit down. (care mixed with the kind of firm authority that commands obedience)

Tom:  What’s wrong?  Everything okay? (anxiety rising)

Mike:  (merciful, no-nonsense objectivity) Dad died today.

Silence on my end as I attempted to locate the repository of my thoughts and feelings back over there in the body that I had just exited a mille-second earlier.

Mike:  Tom, you all right?

Tom:  Ya.  Mike, go ahead.

Mike:  There’s one more thing.  It looks like he might have taken his own life.

No silence this time, just a visceral reaction, not so much a cry of anguish, just the kind of protest a Math teacher utters when a student’s problem isn’t adding up.

“No!” …That can’t be right!… “Not dad!”

For the seven siblings in my family, my dad was always the Most, as in:   The Most Squeamish, The Most Afraid of Heights, The Most Hypochondriacal, The Most Entrepreneurial, The Most Narcissistic, and The Most extroverted man any of us had ever met.  Dad was a force of nature driven to promote his own brand, not to erase it!

A five-minute confirmatory phone call revealed that, indeed, dad had discharged his weapon leaving behind a blood soaked sleeping bag in the back of his flat-bed van.  That was eight years ago.

Back in the current time zone, two weeks ago, something happened that transported me back to that gruesome van.  A different little brother and I watched an Academy Award-Worthy film entitled, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.  If you haven’t seen that film, consider this your spoiler alert to stop right here if necessary.

The quirky characters that populated the film represented a Southern fried version of Fargo, where good people do bad things, and bad people did some very good things, and lots of effort was expended in an attempt to make bad people who did bad things come to a righteous bad end.  On the whole, I loved the movie.  In the words of my fellow movie-going friend Ray, “Almost everybody was shown to be capable of redemption.”

Missouri residents may have to get past a few details in order to suspend their disbelief.  Anyone who has traveled Missoura’s (sic) blue highways, will have a hard time recognizing the town or landscape as having anything to do with the Show-Me State.  As near as I could tell, there was not a single boarded up store-front on the main street of the film’s un-Missoura-ish (sic) small town.   Unfortunately, no small town between Saint Louis and Kansas City, or Saint Joseph and Branson enjoys a desegregated mixture of Black and White folk living, recreating, and working together as this mythical Missouri town of “Ebbing.”

Once past these problems, there was a larger matter that troubled me in this movie (warning, here comes the spoiler alert).  The audience learns early on that the wise, good looking, funny, insightful sheriff/father/husband/friend has terminal pancreatic cancer.  Without a doubt, this was the most beloved character in town:  a cross between Atticus Finch and Will Rogers.  The dramatic tension comes when the main character, Mildred (played by Francis McDormand of Fargo fame) attempted to prod Sherriff Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) to dedicate more resources in solving her daughter’s murder.  Her method involved, of all things, some bill boards, a little shame, and the good sheriff’s name. To make a long story short, Harrelson’s character almost literally kills two birds with one stone.  His solution took away cancer, and one-upped Mildred in the process.  He spends the last day of his life frolicking with his two cute little daughters, and romping with his drop-dead gorgeous wife.  As she drifts off in a post-coital stupor, Sherriff Willoughby attends to some letter writing, and some envelope sealing, then goes to the barn, places a sack over his head, and dispatches himself.

For the rest of the film, the spirit of the friendly old sheriff speaks the contents of several sealed letters from the grave.  In a jaunty voice he explained his actions to the survivors.  He encouraged them, and cajoled them too.  In the letter opened by his wife, he explained that he didn’t want his family remembering a diminished, cancer-riddled father/husband.  He wanted their last memory of him to be one of frolicking and romping.

This scene took me back.  My dad left a similar letter for my six siblings and me.  In it, he pointed out that he had just experienced one of a series of mini-strokes.  This, he explained, added to a list of a half-dozen or more physical complaints insulting his senescent body.  Rather than risking the potential of being remembered as a burden to his family, and perhaps losing his capacity to end his own life, he elected to exit the earth in a more convenient, if somewhat messy way, just like Sherriff Willoughby.

This past October, I was privileged to sit vigil with a family bidding farewell to their mother and wife in hospice.  Parkinson’s Disease had taken her capacity to smile, walk, and to speak clearly.  Nonetheless, every day, without fail, her trembling hands created new water-color paintings until a massive stroke placed her in Hospice.  Unlike the Sherriff in Three Billboards, and my dad, Sue did not stage-manage what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called, “The Last Stage of Life.”  Consequently, her six children, some grandchildren, and her husband of over fifty years were gathered around her bed for over a week.  Stories were told.  Tears were shed.  Prayers were lifted.  Songs were sung.  Toasts were made (with real contraband wine smuggled past the nurse’s station), and spontaneous laughter filled the room and the hospital hallways.

By way of contrast, there was my dad.  Unlike Sherriff Willoughby, my dad was no Atticus Finch.  He was way more good than bad, but like the rest of the human race, he was a mixture of both.  As such, there were some loose ends and frayed ends that could have used some tying up.  I often wonder, what it would have been like, if he could have found the courage to exert less control, like my friend Sue did with her own death.  Her husband said that the last ten years of their marriage (as he cared for her in her disability) were their best years together.  What would it have been like if my dad could have let Brother Death (Saint Francis’ view of The Grim Reaper) take his time?  What would have been possible?  What kinds of long, slow conversations could have taken place while he received care from first one adult child, and then another?  Would there have been long-awaited reconciliations?  With palliative care experts managing his pain, what kinds of interactions between siblings would have unfolded?  What sorts of healing could have been possible?  What relationships cemented?

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities for cognitively challenged women and men has described the gift that those with needs provide a family and a community.  They exercise a kind of centripetal force, pulling a family together around the care of that person.  In their need, those who are dying, or receiving care, have the power to draw us toward and reveal the God whose name is Love.  In allowing us to wash their feet, they ennoble us and bind us together, making us more cohesive as individuals and as a community.

This week’s first reading (Job 7:1-7) pointed to a central truth:  human life has brutality knit into it.  For most of our lives, we cling to positive illusions that distract us from taking full measure of that brutality.  Whether it is a diagnosis, some kind of diminishment, the shift in the fickle winds of economic circumstances, violence, or death itself, the brutality that is part and parcel of our existence won’t stay hidden forever.

What I learned, once again, at Sue’s bedside was that it is human community that softens that brutality.  The faces, hands and voices that show up to accompany us in our suffering bring transformative creativity, warmth, and humor.  Divine love, that is the ground and horizon of all real human loving has a way of reaching in and healing things, even making things stronger in the broken places.

With Lent just over the horizon, thoughts turn to the contemplation of resolutions and spiritual exercises.  Could this be the time to attend to the bonds in a relationship with more contact, and deeper sharing?  Perhaps this Lent, you could resist that fundamental temptation to stage-manage your life and exert control.  Rather than viewing your weakness and vulnerability as a thing to keep hidden, you could heed the examples of Jean Vanier, and my friend Sue.  Perhaps you could courageously decide to allow those who love you to see you in your vulnerability and to care for you.  By allowing them to wash your feet, you will provide them (and yourself) with an immeasurable gift.  In those most mysterious words of Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 12), “It is when we are weak that we are strong.”

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