Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When Push Gets to Shove

It was Keats who said it:

"but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end."

He did not mean those lines to apply to death. He was not talking about his own end, but the finish of his poem, Endymion. Yet the first time I read those lines in such a mood that they had any memorable meaning for me, I instantly applied them to the end of an individual life. Shawn's mother had just died and not long after we arrived for the funeral and other matters at her house in North Delta, after traveling all night on the bus from Nelson, I had looked through her little stack of books on the table in her room, taken up the volume of Keats and later leafed into that particular poem and somehow noticed the lines. We were late in the month of October, and there was all sorts of sober gold that year, both in the Kootenays and at the Coast.
As my wife said to the me the other day, I love the fall, not simply because of the natural elements Keats catalogues so well in much of his poetry, but because as a theologian and a mystic with my brains so completely re-tooled by the deeper poetry of John of the Cross, I see in the time that follows summer the symbol of the ultimate harvest, that which God calls home to heaven, no matter what time of year. The thought of death is also the thought of God's love and mercy, for those whose work is prayer and contemplation, and no season of the year is more remindful of these relationships, as God took the trouble to start teaching me when I was still quite young, even then in His omniscient way preparing me generally for my life work, but also with a very specific task in mind, this one, a commentary on the death of my middle brother, Robert Wayne, gone this past week at sixty-nine, largely due to severely alcoholic habits. He was basically a strong-bodied man, from generations on both sides of long-livers. But he insisted on doing in his own liver. He was physically tough enough, his doctor told him a few years ago, that if he gave up the hard stuff, and simply get swizzled all day on beer, his organs might make it through. His son pleaded with him to go that route, but to no avail, even after he lost the ordinary use of his legs and could barely make it under his own steam from his chair to the bathroom.
Addictions, the abuse of substances created to be useful in appropriate circumstances, are always mysterious. How can an intelligent, adult, literate, physically capable human being keep on swallowing or injecting or sniffing something that he knows will do him harm in the long run, and perhaps kill him? Why does he go on, year after year, and why is no one who knows him able to change his way of thinking and acting. Or, more to the point, not acting.
He was not always an addict, of course. Once upon a time he was a small boy, lively and cheerful, with a mop of curly red hair, blue eyes and a ready grin, and not a bitter bone in his body, four years and five months younger than myself. And smart. I taught him to read in a matter of weeks as he was turning six, a few months before he started grade one, and this meant they had to skip him a year ahead just as he was streaking through grade two. The reading thing might not have happened if we had been living at the time in an ordinary large community, with a lot of friends each within our respective age groups, but by the time of his sixth birthday we had been two or three months settled into the little paradise of Lasqueti Island, one of the northern components of the Gulf Islands, living in a house quite isolated from handy neighbours and children our own age, barring a fairly extensive effort. Wayne and I were thus made to be our own best friends for eighteen months, with only occasional, although meaningful, changes to this routine.
His inquiry into reading began, I think, with the backs of the cereal boxes - Kellogg's was doing a thing on wild animals from far away places - and continued through simple story books we found in the small library of the house we were renting. I had never heard that phonics were not the "correct" approach - idiocy is always intruding itself into educational methods somewhere, but not into Vancouver in the early 40s, when I was taught to read - and he caught on swiftly. We both had a good time, and I was quite unaware that I was doing anything significant, but we did our work in the kitchen, in the breakfast nook, so our mother heard us. In particular she heard me, and it was probably then that she realized I was a teacher, a useful grasp on my behalf when my basically less educated father became ambitious for me to become a lawyer. She told me later that she marveled at my patience, something she felt she would not have had for the task, and no doubt she also understood, in a way she could not express, that I was also thoroughly enjoying myself, as if I were playing a game. Because of my brother's eagerness to learn to read even before he went to school, she was given a glimpse into the future and the keeping within the family a sense of the fitness of things, not the least of which is that each child should be free to utilize the talents God gave him or her, and not be expected to fulfill a parental fantasy. This was all very critical when the rows came upon us, over my choice of vocations and religion, for my mother's attitude toward vocation generally came down on the side of doing what made you happy.
For some years forward, Wayne was content to follow my wake. As I was a habitual reader, so became he. He also joined the same scout troop, the same cadet corps. As the city was building new schools after the war, he attended a different high school, but he came on to UBC and also spent time with the campus paper. He was another of the incentives for my deciding against Toronto. As the new family home was then twenty-five miles from the campus, my car was handy for the ferrying.
And that car, a little 1950 Vauxhal I'd been able to buy from my afternoon shifts at the Port Moody pipe mill, in the early months of my first year in law school, figured in the signage from Heaven that indicates that in spite of Wayne's moral failures, those events and habits that legitimately bother family members, godfathers, and theologians, he's not in Hell. He is in Purgatory, a working member of the Church Suffering. Not too long into his university career he also followed me into the Church, becoming baptized and therefore eligible for eternal bliss, albeit delayed according to God's good pleasure.
How can I be so confident of a fact, and not merely caught up in theological speculations? Certainly any Calvinist faithful to his own convictions within the errors of those horrid doctrines would have to assume eternal damnation, from a variety of directions. And even a Catholic full of mercy and the lesson of the Pharisee and the Publican would have to ponder the Divine view of a divorce from a Catholic marriage and subsequent liasons, including a second marriage.And then there was the puzzling contempt my brother fashioned, within a mind that so often preferred to root itself in the mentality of sophomores, for our mother, blaming her for his own defects, of which he was well aware but not interested in correcting, as far as anyone else could see, and apparently refusing to see how many family attitudes lay in the regularly ridiculous positions of our father. In fact Wayne was first taught the practice of dumping on his mother by our sire, who from time to time vehemently attacked our grandmother's reputation. As ye sow, so ye shall reap.
It sounds like a Greek tragedy, does it not? Or even a Christian tragedy, for as I happened to see last night as I bedside read the Gospel of Saint Mark, family members do rise one against another. (I had also watched the concluding episode of the BBC's most excellent production of Anthony Trollope's Palliser series. Interesting timing, and I thought of the bullheadedness of our father, and the softening influences of our mother. Susan Hampshire was such a wonderful actress, as she and Trollope and the scriptwriter thundered on behalf of the heart.)
And yet, through all this contradiction to what good Catholics find in the orderly unfolding of a universe according to Grace, the avoidance of eternal damnation.
To be continued, although not without some testing of the reader's abilities to deal with spiritual


Anonymous said...

Ken...I am sorry for your loss. I extend my condolences. Your writing and reflections on your brother were so poignant. Peace. Irene

Anonymous said...

This site would not accept my password so I apparently changed it to anonymous. Irene

Clare said...

lovely scene you and Wayne at the breakfast table...and your mom too hovering near by..I can see the two of you hangin out...reminiscent of James and Chris. love you Dad