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By JAMES W. SWANSON
Abbott PressCopyright © 2014 James W. Swanson
All rights reserved.
1995: Hospital in Seattle: Jason
THAT CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT, as Emily Dickinson called it, slashed its gold across the shadow of the hospital walls that February Wednesday morning in Seattle.
Jason walked from the light to the shadow, from the warmth into the chill, then to artificial warmth along the hospital corridors. They smelled the same way they did forty years ago when he had his appendix out: the acrid, fecal, antiseptic smell that is unavoidable in hospitals. One knows upon entry that more shade than light, more loss than victory resides there in spite of the nurses' cheery faces and the sterilized white sheets and professional gowns that one can distinguish from the green wraparounds of the patients.
He turned right, down a dimmer corridor, then left along a bright one to the elevator. He waited, pushed four, then emerged a few feet from the nurses station on the critical ward.
"Jonah Cannard's room, please."
"He's in 421. You'll have to wait a bit. The nurse is changing his bedding; should only be a few minutes."
"What's the progress report? I'm his cousin from Minnesota."
"Are you Jason?"
"He's been expecting you."
"I know. I'm glad I could come. How is he?"
"Surprisingly a little stronger. I think he believes he will leave here. He'll be glad to see you."
Jason waited, flipping through magazines: the aftermath of Desert Storm, the decisive, victorious action; Schwarzkopf, the new hero; a new study on walking; an interview with Julia Roberts. Nothing caught his attention. He gazed out the window as if to see beyond the blue sky, to see where souls go, perhaps to sense what it would be like to lose an estranged friend, a childhood blood brother.
He had lost others recently, his aunt Wilma, for example, his mother's sister who was eighty-seven, an expected death. One expects someone eighty-seven to die. One hopes it will go well without much suffering, and for her it did. His mother, however, suffered the loss of her last sibling and best friend, and though she did everything she could in those last moments, she felt she might have saved her. Or maybe she hoped against hope that she could save her, that she could prevent the emptiness of such a devastating loss.
For the last ten years especially, Wilma and Jason's mother, Anna, had been inseparable. They lived side by side in separate town homes in Sun City to "keep their space" as they put it. "You know, Wilma likes things her own way," Jason's mother said, a projection that said as much about her as about Wilma. No matter, they spent most of each day in each other's place, preparing meals, taking turns making dessert, always remarking about how the other makes better desserts and should make them all, and the other would say, "No, you do," and they laughed and agreed that they both made good desserts. Then they shuffled next door for a nap after which they alternated places for afternoon coffee. At night they watched TV together until the one got up silently and went home.
Their real home, however, was heaven, a place they longed for. But for the time being they had work to do. Every Sunday they attended Desert Lutheran where gray-haired women and baldheaded men gathered to sing "Faith of Our Fathers" or "All Hail the Power of Jesus Name" and hear the traditional sermon about the salvation Jesus brought to all believers. After the service they delivered altar flowers to the bedridden and visited with them all afternoon. On Wednesday afternoons they walked to Bible class together and often came away with different interpretations of what the minister said about the passage. Wilma would say, "I've never heard a minister say that about that before." And Anna would retort, "Haven't you? I certainly have."
"Have you? When?
Well, I don't remember exactly, but I think Pastor Thorsen said it that way during our confirmation class seventy-five years ago." So the two of them chattered. Neither had any doubt about their final destination, and both wanted to die before the other.
When one day Wilma swooned as they stood side by side washing dishes, Anna held her in her arms upon the kitchen floor as she screamed for help. Their friend, Esther, across the walk, called the ambulance. For some time Wilma lay unconscious until she awoke some time later in a hospital bed. Then she opened her eyes and with the most beatific smile looked up into Anna's face and said, "I'm going to see Jesus." Anna held her hand as if it belonged to her. She rubbed Wilma's forehead that already seemed too cool. She tried to pull her back as if from a powerful magnet. Wilma slept. The nurses encouraged Anna to go home, since Wilma could last for days. They'd call if things changed. So Anna was at home when Wilma died. They called but too late. They had already delivered Wilma to the funeral home.
Jason and his sister Marie arrived the next day from Minneapolis for the funeral to comfort their mother, who mourned that she had left Wilma alone to die. Anna hadn't suffered a loss so great since her husband died forty-four years ago and left her the bride of loneliness. Loneliness is a terrible suffering, perhaps more than physical pain. She took loneliness with her wherever she went like a wifely duty. Yet while the memories lingered, her suffering subsided. She had Wilma then, and her friends. But now Wilma was gone, too. Her only relief from pain was the assurance that God willed that Wilma should be with him and that she should stay a while longer. God must have things yet for her to do.
So Anna moved back to Minneapolis to be with two of her children. She lived alone in an apartment where she met people and continued to sketch and paint with watercolors, a hobby she had begun just a few years earlier. Soon she painted birds and landscapes on birthday cards and made quilt tops for the homeless with women from the church she joined. Every morning she read scripture and conversed with her savior, assured that soon she would see Him face to face. For the time being, however, she was very busy, too busy to die, as they say.
For Jason her longevity was as strange and unexplainable as his father's early death at fifty-one. Oh, one can say that he smoked and exhausted himself at a desk six days a week, but many smokers lived years longer than he. Jason, in his early twenties when Adam died, had spent summer days between college years talking to him, pulling out his wisdom, listening to his story, hearing his longings-longings to be more useful than he was, to experience more of life than work at a job he never intended to be a career, to travel, to write. Jason thought of him in his garden early in the morning tending to his varieties of roses, then drinking a cup of coffee with his cigarette before he left for work. Jason remembered how his father playfully teased him about the kind of rubbish he was learning in college. When Jason pointed out that if one were to halve the distance between points A and B with each step, he would in theory never get to his destination. "No point in going to work today, then," his father said with feigned resignation.
"It's a theory, Dad. It's mathematics. You know, numbers."
"No need to pay the bills either, because I can't pay the whole bill at once, so if I pay half the bill this month and half next month, I'll still have to pay half the following month. Ah, now I see. That's how the banks explain interest." He had that gleam in his eye.
"So that makes this an interest-ing discussion," Jason jibed.
"I didn't hear that. That's probably why I can't get rid of that pesky rabbit that lives on my sweet alyssum," Adam continued.
"OK, you win."
His death angered Jason. He thought it unfair for him to be jerked out of his life when he needed him most. Jason hadn't realized how much he depended on him for advice. He wanted to talk about marriage and family, introduce him to his wife whom he had yet to find. He wanted his children to have the grandfather he never had and so much more. He, like his mother, felt the pain of his father's absence, that haunting loneliness.
But Jason's father's death was no less understandable than the recent death of Jerry Weldor, one of Jason's close friends. He plunged over a cliff in Mexico in a motor home on which the brakes had given out, while his wife and friends watched from the roadside. He was a young fifty-three, a man of sparkling wit, penetrating insight, and daring adventure; one who captured the interest of everyone he met; one who would walk through hot coals on a dare, or swim across a lake just to do it-- of course, with the safety of a boat along side. He knew people and languages; he was at home with saints and sinners, so to speak. Then he crashed downward 400 feet into a river scattering metal and understanding upon the rocks. Senseless. Jason was older and still alive.
A few weeks ago a twenty-three-year-old college graduate with an engineering career ahead of him was attacked by someone who beat him to death with a blunt instrument for no apparent reason, no robbery, just assault. There were no clues. Mostly there are no clues. Someone was in the wrong place at the right time or the right place at the wrong time. Some genetic deficiency triggers a heart attack. Someone steps off the curb without looking. A drunk swerves into the oncoming lane suddenly. A brilliant man who has just retired discovers he has a brain tumor and fights valiantly for two years against all odds until he is left nearly blind, dysfunctional, and confused, then closes his eyes for the last time. These facts of life and death troubled Jason, not because he was naive to the vicissitudes of life, but because he was fortunate to have never broken a bone.
Something in Jason drove him toward whatever was next and for the moment it was Jonah, caught in the whale's belly and Jason his longest and estranged best friend waiting in the visitor's room for the nurse to finish her business with him.
How Jason arrived in Seattle at the deathbed of his cousin Jonah had much to do with Jason's boyhood friend, Wes Jonnamass, who lived next door to the Wessmans during the boys' formative years. He helped Jason understand that he would never forgive himself if he didn't reunite with Jonah, the one who like a mirror reflected himself in advance of who he was to become, so that he had the foresight that would guide his choices--Wes, the psychotherapist and lifetime friend, the stabilizer, the one who, although in the middle of their lives, could stand outside and look in from a perspective untainted by blood.
The crucial meeting with Wes took place at Jim's Bakery the previous Saturday morning. Jason and Wes had a habit of Saturday morning breakfast, during which they, and sometimes their wives Sharon and Jill, would chat about the happenings in their lives, particularly their common politics and social justice activities. This past Saturday morning Wes listened to Jason's dilemma while peering over his coffee cup and taking occasional sips.
"You have to go to Seattle," Wes broke in. "You have to see Jonah."
Jason pondered a few moments.
"You must ... for your sake as well as his. Imagine your loneliness if you don't. Imagine his. Jonah was like a brother to you. For years he was your guide."
"Not like you."
"What do you mean, not like me. You worshiped him. He taught you things you've only dared to tell me."
"Yes, but he changed. He made choices. He took advantage of my love for him. He walked out on his whole family."
"Yes, and me."
"But did he really? Or did you decide he did because he didn't make the choices you wanted him to?"
Jason thought about that. Wes let his remark sink in.
"I think you are angry with him for not being who you want him to be ... like the anger you felt when your father died and left you to explore the future on your own. You think Jonah has wasted his life. He doesn't think so. Go to him. Noah called you to come because Jonah needs you now more than ever, and Noah needs you, too."
"All right, I'll go, for Noah." He spoke with trepidation as if he were about to see the face of God.
Jason looked across the table at his friend whom he had never lost and whom he prayed he never would.
The other significant player, then, in this life's drama was Noah, Jason's younger brother by seven years. He, without the benefit of childhood affiliation, became deeply involved as an adult in Jonah's life and because of blood suffered the magnitude and pathos of Jonah's choices. He had to learn in a a few years what had taken Jason a lifetime to process.
To Jason and Wes in their youth, Jonah, two years older, became the paragon of boyhood to which they aspired. He, they thought, had some kind of design on life, an adventurous spirit that promised excitement. This story is about him, but it is equally about Jason and Wes whose lives were profoundly affected by his. In later years Jonah, the artist passionately alive to the light and color of every form, transposed himself in paint on canvas. Always he was a conundrum, almost a magical figure that simultaneously excited and horrified them. He possessed an indiscriminate appetite that offered a perpetual erection to the world.
Now Jason sat in the waiting room of this Seattle hospital piecing together the puzzle of their lives, hardly aware of what cathartic experiences were about to happen in the next three days.
1940's: Jason and Jonah
TWO HIGHWAYS CROSSED AT THE edge of Lakewood, a town of 6,000 inhabitants nestled in a valley surrounded by rolling hills that seemed like mountains to small boys. The elms, oaks, and basswoods that darkened the hillsides in the summer and cast a yellow-orange glow in autumn crept down into the square blocks of the town, circled the two lakes joined by a canal, and opened into parks where families came with their children for picnics and swimming-- except when the waters were restricted with polio warnings. On Main Street stood two national banks, a Gambles, a Montgomery Wards, a Rexall Drug, and the office of the weekly newspaper, The Lakewood Gazette. The Porter Theatre, between the Guaranty Bank and the drugstore, showed the latest films on weekends. Across the street a locally owned variety store competed with Wards in the next block. A couple of pool halls hid out on the side streets sandwiching a music store. Elementary schools on the north and south ends of town, with a junior high in the middle, and the high school on the east side provided excellent education for the youth. The canning company, the main industry after farming, employed most of the townspeople--more women than men during the war but soon afterward mostly men. The women went back to being mothers.
A few grocery stores scattered throughout town offered employment to after- school teens who drove panel delivery trucks with a week's supply of groceries to the residents. People knew each other. Parents kept track of their children and their neighbors' children. They attended all school events that included football and basketball games, band concerts and art fairs.
The division of the populace came in the form of religion. The Evangelical Lutherans had little to do with the Missouri Synod Lutherans. Neither had much to do with the Catholics, who had their own school through the ninth grade. A small Congregational Church sponsored a Job's Daughters Chapter that the Lutherans and Catholics alike shunned as pagan.
If the kids noticed differences among them, their parents were responsible. When the Catholic kids entered the public high school, adjustments had to be made. It took most of the four high school years for each class to integrate. At the sock hops and the Friday night youth events at the high school gym, the socializing across religious difference remained minimal. Even years after graduation at the tenth and twentieth year reunions, alumni would gather at tables by religious affiliation, because they were closest to each other in their growing years and felt that closeness now. Belief systems led to traditions that governed behavior long after the beliefs had faded or evolved. People tended to do things the way they had always done them, hardly thinking whether the practices were useful or discriminatory, hardly thinking until one of the most observant pointed them out. When they realized their old habits, they chuckled and broke tradition. Lutherans, Catholics and Congregationalists mingled as they would have years earlier with a little encouragement. Reunions sometimes become moments of clarity.
In their early years Jason and Jonah were like brothers. Jonah lived three blocks away on Elm Street, one block from the railroad tracks. They played together everyday, ate at each other's homes for lunch or dinner, and covered the neighborhood in between. It was due to their filial bond and the awareness that every moment of their lives together seemed significant, that every moment was a partial explanation for who they would become. Together with Wes, Jonah and Jason played cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. They ran a mile to the lake, swam all day, and sometimes walked dripping wet through the marble rotunda of the courthouse to visit Jason's father in the accounting department of the county treasurer's office. In the winter they glided downhill on those strap-on skis that darted every which way on descent. Sometimes they played war with metal soldiers.
Excerpted from TOWARD BYZANTIUM by JAMES W. SWANSON. Copyright © 2014 James W. Swanson. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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